Retired in Rome Journal: Road to Slovakia lined with new West, old East and a skyline of majestic mountains

Penzion Atrium in the pleasant town of Poprad at the foot of the High Tatras mountains.
Penzion Atrium in the pleasant town of Poprad at the foot of the High Tatras mountains.

AUG. 17 — POPRAD, Slovakia

Headache. Twenty-three years living in Colorado and numerous hikes over 12,000 feet and I have a headache. I’m really hoping this is the dive-bar cheap 80-cent Slovak wine and 1.50 euro beer I had last night and not the altitude. I’m in Poprad, the gateway to the High Tatra Mountains. It’s a pleasant valley town listed at only 672 meters. That’s not even 2,000 feet. I think Las Vegas is at 2,000 feet. Then again, maybe it’s the clanging bells from the church across the street from this lovely Penzion Atrium I’m using as my base.

Anyway, this had better not be a bad omen for my four-day solo trek through the High Tatras. I don’t normally hike alone. I have the sense of direction of a runaway Buick. I’ve gotten lost in mall parking lots. I could get lost in an elevator. But most of my Roman friends’ idea of a hike is a passaggiata across Piazza Navona. Also, TravelSlovakia, the trekking company I worked through, wanted 450 euros for a guide. I’m not paying $600 for some bearded Bohemian to hold my hand for me. About 4 million people a year come to this area for hiking and skiing. I’m sure there will be plenty of Germans, Japanese, Czechs, etc. to point me in the right direction, not that I’ll need it. From what I gather, the trails are as well marked as a California freeway.

I wanted to trek in Slovakia for a few reasons. No. 1, I love the outdoors and my love for Rome hasn’t limited my love to outdoor statues and piazzas. Two, I have a huge wall in my bedroom that desperately screams for art. I want the best picture I can take of me in the High Tatras and have my local camera guy blow it up 5 x 7 feet, dwarfing the size of my Caravaggio print and matching what everyone will assume is the size of my ego. Three, I wanted to get away from Rome’s August heat. I haven’t been on the Internet in five days but this area of Central Europe has already revitalized me. Yesterday I wore my A.S. Roma sweatshirt on the pension patio to write in my journal. Temperatures in the mountains are about 55 degrees during the day and about 40 at night.

I don’t get cold easy. Living in Las Vegas 10 years boiled my blood. So I’m taking only three T-shirts, a long-sleeve Henley, my A.S. Roma sweatshirt, a lightweight jogging suit and weatherproof jacket and pants. I also brought my A.S. Roma stocking cap. If I get a camera-savvy Japanese hiker in a particularly gorgeous part of the mountains, maybe staring down at me in bed will be me in these gorgeous mountains looking like an A.S. Roma groupie. Abercrombie & Fitch I am not.

I had a consultation meeting with TravelSovakia’s rep last night and Danka didn’t make my four days sound very difficult. Today I’m hiking about four hours, tomorrow 3 ½-4, Tuesday five and Wednesday one. Only the start of tomorrow is really challenging, she said. However, much of the hiking will be at 10,000 feet and while I’m fit, I’m not hiking fit. Ninety-minute core workouts twice a week, supplemented by four days of weightlifting a week, may not translate to climbing inclines nearly two miles high. I doubt climbing the 90 steps to my Rome apartment two to four times a day constitutes high-altitude training.

But I hike for scenery and this mountain range appears spectacular. I saw glimpses of it on the train ride over from Prague and they’re absolutely majestic. Tall, craggy and dark. There’s no snow left but each one seems to have individually sprouted from the landscape. They look giant pyramids.

The train ride was lovely. I had a seat in one of those private compartments forcing six strangers to stare at each other for an entire trip. I got a little nervous when two children carrying giant baby seats and looking very much like the gypsy kids who fleece your wallets in Rome stepped in. But their sharp, respectable-looking father said they were in the wrong compartment and left. So I shared my compartment with a lovely young redhead going back to Slovakia to see her father, a teen-aged brunette who kept blowing kisses to her boyfriend on the train platform as the train was 30 minutes late, a young, balding studious man with his blonde wife and her friend. It was a good, quiet group and made for a lovely seven-hour train ride.

Some snapshots of Prague to Poprad:

* Pleasant, brightly painted homes on Prague’s outskirts.

* Foreboding factories with “CEMENT” painted in big block letters down a smokestack.

* Thick green forests with villages visible through tree breaks.

* Youth group of 8-10-year-old Czechs wearing ballcaps and eating chips standing in train aisle.

* A-frame homes making Czech villages look like Nederland, Colo.

* Overcast and occasional rain showers. (This place must be nasty in January.)

* Broken-down factory long gone to seed with shattered windows, rusted foundations, missing bricks.

* Clear cutting on hills but not enough to take away the beauty of this incredible forest land.

* Twisted metal of junkyard on outskirts of towns.

* Town names I can’t pronounce stare at me from train station stops: Pardubice, Olomouc, Hranice, Vsetin, Horni Lidec.

* Redhead is constantly smirking, like she wants to laugh at the threesome’s gossip in Slovak but is too polite.

* Towns chock-a-block with Soviet-era apartment buildings. Every building looks the same, like stacked boxes of motor oil in a mechanic’s garage. Czech Republic still has signs of communism if you look.

* Gray-green river.

* Beautiful wood-framed homes with covered parking near Slovak border.

* An old man dressed in dark green and carrying a walking stick strolls down a dirt path going under the train tracks.

* Puchov, a Slovak border town. Smoke coming out of chimneys. It’s August and people still building fires.

* Reservoir does not look refreshing as I huddle in my sweatshirt.

* A huge lake surrounded by trees but a rotted factory spoils view on other side.

* Soccer field with old small yellow grandstand may be for village’s Third Division football team.

* Hills getting higher. I can see mountain peaks between the forest breaks.

* Huge hydro park. Parking lot packed. Again, this is not your father’s Czechoslovakia.