Discovering Eastern Europe: The Last of Czech Republic and Evergreen Slovakia

Although it was lovely to be with Jamie’s parents, it was nice to find our own routine again. And after two weeks on campsites, we were lucky to find a lovely and slightly remote free camping spot on our first night alone.

Before leaving the Czech Republic, we decided to spend two more nights in the Beskydy nature area near the border with Slovakia. Our campsite, Autokemping Machůzky was outside the town of Velké Karlovice, nice and quiet, we were the only one on a huge plot of grassed land... But not for long. As we were setting off for our bike ride on our second day, a convoy of Polish caravans settled in in a semi-circle in the middle of the camp. About ten caravans, each carrying a family of four or five! It was fine though as we did spend most of the day out riding our bikes during the day and watching football (England v Italy world cup) at a local pub in the evening.

Cycling through deep forest and...

...Fields. These are haystacks one can find in Czech Republic... These definitely have phallic connotations!

Checking our route as we come to a "crosstrail".

I think Jamie's stood by Sance dam. I didn't check the name of the dam when we came back.

A quick cycle through Karolinka train station.

Further on, we stop to watch the local train go passed.

One of the oldest buildings in Velké Karlovice.

Autokemping Machůzky before the "storm".

Beer and wine whilst watching England v Italy World Cup match at a local pub very near the campsite.

Not long after crossing the border with Slovakia, we bought a vignette (windscreen sticker). Indeed, it is mandatory to display a vignette if using motorways and selected highways. Even though we weren't sure what exact roads we would drive on and how long we were going to stay, we thought it safer to get one for a month (14Euros) instead of the seven days one. We tried to buy it first at a booth on the side of the road, but they didn't accept card. We continued on only to stop not long after at the CD Petrol Station in Makov. 

Once sorted, we were able to appreciate Slovakia's natural landscape. Woods and forests a plenty. We hadn’t seen such beautiful landscapes since Norway and Finland. We enjoyed exploring some of the best preserved traditional wooden log cottages in the country in the village of Podbiel. And we couldn’t resist stopping en route to check out an abandoned building we could spot in the distance: an abandoned smelter (iron factory). Františkova Huta as it was called, was finished building in 1838. Due to the poor quality of the iron supplied from local mines, the ironworks was shut in 1863. Although shortlived, the operation played an important part in the region’s industrialisation. We wild camped that night tucked away from the road next to Slovakia’s biggest man-made lake, Liptovská Mara (click on the link to read our brief review of the free camping spot). It was secluded.

As we drove on the E77, we pass Orava and its dramatic castle. A shame we didn't stop, but we couldn't do everything.

After parking Izzy, the Motorhome at the edge of Podbiel, we take a stroll. We spot many detailed wooden sculptures such as this one.

There are many modern buildings and a few blocks like this one in Podbiel.

Modern architecture sits next to some of the finest traditional log houses in Slovakia.

A lot of the houses were lived in. They weren't part of a folk museum.

Locals use their skills for traditional signage.

The smelter factory, Františkova Huta spotted not far from Podbiel.

Up close.

Nice landscapes en route to Liptovská Mara.

Thick forests.

And finally a nice spot next to the reservoir.

Here's Liptovská Mara, beautiful!

Our next place of rest was remote too. A big campsite in the middle of dark tall pines at the foot of the Tatra National Park. Autocamp Račkova Dolina near Pribylina had a kind of 70s-80s holiday camp feel to it. I didn’t find it too bad. It just needs a little bit of elbow grease and clarification in what it wants to be; a campsite/bungalows or hotel/ski resort. It wasn’t until Jamie said that he found it a little weird that I started seeing the “cracks in the foundation”... In its worth light, its not-serving-food-restaurant, shabby apartments complex and craggy female/male shower/toilets block could have all been the cover up for a brothel. Or, the film set of a Stephen King’s novel adaptation.

I will stop joking as it is obviously unfounded! It is such a shame. In such a beautiful and prime location, Autocamp Račkova Dolina only needs a little more thoughts and organisation to better match its surroundings. We did do a nice hike in the Park, unfortunately cut short by rangers clearing the trail of fallen trees. Part of the footpath was shut after a series of heavy storms rendered the tracks inaccessible the previous month (May 2014). Two hikers in their twenties warned us as they were walking back down.

Autocamp Račkova Dolina. This is just the part where we were parked. It is far bigger than this.

A quick ride to Pribylina.

Only a few kilometres away, we were there in no time.

Next day, time for our hike cut short as the track was shut.

The track was shut further up due to fallen trees and landslides after the bad storms which affected the area in May 2014.

What a shame as there were many paths!

The hiking trail was shut a little further up.

Back down, we stop for a coffee at a hotel terrace tucked in the forest. A chamois visitor!

I think it's rather enjoying the stroking...

Although we enjoyed wild camping in Slovakia and didn’t get moved on by the police, we didn’t want to push our luck. Such as in Czech Republic, free/wild camping is not permitted in Slovakia (cf. Caravan Europe by the Caravan Club). We played by the rules and mostly stayed in campsites rather than off road. It wasn’t something we had planned in advance. As campsites were located where we wanted to stop, it seemed fairer and better for the local economy to stay in some of them too. Luckily, during the few more days we had left in the country, the couple of campsites we stayed in were the best we found.

First up: Autocamp Podlesok (click on the link to read our review) at the foot of the Slovensky Raj National Park. A spacious grassed campsite lined with typical Eastern European chalets, the site was a nice free mix of motorhomes and tents from all across Europe. There we saw our first Latvian- Czechoslovakian- and Polish-plated campervans as well as Estonian and Bulgarian campers. Thanks to the helpful and friendly campsite/hostel receptionist, we went the next day on the most fun, adventurous and challenging trail we have ever done on our trip, “Suchá Belá”.

Hopping on rocks and drift woods of the dry river gorge; walking on wooden bridges and paths; stepping on metallic bars and clinging on ladders looking down onto deep ravine are part of the journey. We both loved hiking Suchá Belá, but be warned that this is certainly not for the faint hearted. If you have bad vertigo, the trail may not be suitable. As a child I used to have a great fear of height. With age and experience, I have been able to manage it for the better. However, I found the steepest ladder on the Suchá Belá trail a real challenge. Fortunately, Jamie was there to support me and help me climb it to the top safely. Without him and on my own, I am certain I would have had to retreat back.

After our four-hour trek (door-to-door including water- and lunch stops), we treated ourselves to a meal out at Restaurace, the restaurant nearest to camping Podlesok. Showered and refreshed, we savoured our dishes; traditional broth of sheep cheese, garlic and croutons to start with followed with pork medallion for Jamie and chicken breast for me both served with potato wedges and grilled vegetables.

Autocamping Podlesok in Slovensky Raj National Park. The view shows the campsite Western side, the entrance is further down on the left.

Ready to tackle Suchá Belá.

My full-of-energy-husband.

Some of the wooden bridges through the crazy gorge.

Some of the storms that affected the Tatra National Park affected the Slovensky Raj NP too.

After the gorge, thick woodland.

We stop by the "crosstrail" for some packed lunch.

The view from the top.

A big snail!

Restaurace at the entrance of the campsite can be seen in the background.

Time for a cold drink!

And back to where we started. 

En route to the best second campsite we stayed in Slovakia, we first explored one of-, if not THE most famous castle in the country, Spišský Rhad and the picturesque Bardejov with its UNESCO World Heritage main square. The next day, we drove through the country’s “Valley of Death” and paid a visit to the Andy Warhol Museum. The Kapišovska valley aka “Death Valley” was given its fateful nickname after the fierce battles that happened here during World War II. In September and October 1944, Soviets and Czechoslovakian troops fought for days against the German forces desperately trying to stop them advancing in the area. Today, Soviet tankers still dot the valley, frozen remnants of the once bloody battles.

After reading a mention in our Lonely Planet guide book and online, I had pictured in my head many abandoned tanks, rows and rows of them “flowering” the fields. In reality there are about a dozen of them well separated from each other mainly laid on one of the slopes. Jamie and I were a little disappointed. But it was still worth the detour and an interesting historical fact about Slovakia.

View of Spišský Rhad from the road.

The castle has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1993.

Unfortunately or luckily we didn't encounter any "flying ants" visiting the castle!

The castle houses a history museum which displays include a torture chamber. It also has a chapel.

The castle was built in the 13th century.

The old houses lining the main square of Bardejov.

The Church of Sv. Aegidius was completed in 1464.

Some of the woodwork on display and for sale at some of the stalls on the square.

Our peaceful free camping spot.

Tanks displayed before the Valley of Death.

En route to find the abandoned Soviet tanks in the fields, we spot a World War II plane!

According to my former plane-nerd husband, this is a Dakota DC-3 aircraft!

Jamie looks quite small opposite the big wings.

A panoramic view.

Shelters of  staff of the Third Czechoslovak Brigade.

From 18-24 November 1944, it was the military headquarters of the Brigade's commander.

The countryside between Svidnik and the Dukla Pass is dotted with beautiful wooden churches such as this one.

We take a peak at the interior through one of the windows.

Many villages in Eastern Slovakia have these specially-built stork nest on top of electrical poles.

In 1681, the Roman Catholic Austro-Hungarian Emperor dictated that only Roman Catholic churches could use hard materials (stone, metal). 

Protestant and Ruthenian Greek Catholic churches could only be made of wood & were not allowed to use nails in their construction.

The churches had to be erected within one year, start to finish, and were not permitted in the center of town!

Most of the surviving wooden churches are Ruthenian/Rusyn Greek Catholic from the 18th and 19th centuries.

If you look carefully, the abandoned Soviet T-34 tanks used during the Carpathian-Dukla operation can be spotted in the background.

30,400 Soviet; 6,200 Germans and 600 Czechoslovak soldiers were killed during the operation.

By the time we got to Medzilaborce and the Andy Warhol Museum (around 3.30pm), Jamie was tired. He had a nap whilst I went to explore the gallery which fortunately was opened until 5pm. The museum was established in 1991 by Andy Warhol’s family in America. His working-class parents , Ondrej (Andrew) and Julia Warhola and eldest sibling, Pavol (Paul) were from- and lived in Miková, a village a few kilometres from Medzilaborce until they emigrated in 1914 (his dad) and 1921 (his mum). The gingerly laid out displays of the first room dedicated to the family’s history and Andy Warhol’s childhood made me wonder if I had made the right choice in stopping by. I soon realised that there was much more to it. A small room with some of Warhol’s original works opened up onto a balcony and a big room in the basement with more artworks displayed. For 3,50Euros, it was definitely worth a visit!

The Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Medzilaborce opposite the Andy Warhol Museum.

Side of the Andy Warhol Museum.

The Museum entrance.

Inside, colourful staircases and walls displaying artworks and photographs.

The first room on the first floor dedicated to the family of Andy Warhol.

The other side of the room.

Poster of the first Andy Warhol's exhibition in Medzilaborce.

American stamps commemorating Andy Warhol's work launched in August 2002 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg.

Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century. (S. Bernhardt, L. Brandeis, M. Buber, A. Einstein, S. Freud, G. Gershwin, F. Kafka, M. Brothers, G. Meir, G. Stein).

Saint Apollonia, 1983. Screenprint on paper. Signed and numbered.

Last Supper, circa 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreenprint. Not signed.

Here's an example of some of his most famous works on display.

Ladies and gentlemen, 1975. Screenprint on paper. Signed and numbered.

A close up on to one of them.
Reigning queens: Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland, 1984. Screenprint on paper.

Cowboys and Indians, 1986. Screenprint on paper.

One of the covers of Interview, an uncensored magazine by Andy Warhol.

Artworks by other artists on sale next to the gift shop.

It includes this framed print by Poppy entitled M.I.A (2014).

After two days of cultural exploration visits, we both needed a rest. Autocamping Stanovy Tabor (click on the link to read our review) near Snina it was. The grassed and shaded campsite had an immediate holiday- and family feel to it. Its outdoor kiosk/bar/terrace playing Slovakia’s radio 1 was popular with locals and friends from the surrounding area. The owner and his English-speaking son made us both very welcome. Although the owner couldn’t speak any English, we managed to communicate via gestures, smiles and Google translate.

Although the sometimes loud music could have bothered us, it didn’t. Our cheesy Summer tune became Prayer in C (Robin Schulz Remix) by Lilly Wood and The Prick. The family-run campsite had a relaxing feel. We both don’t know exactly why we loved it so much. It probably was a combination, but one of the main things was the difference the owner and his son made: without their infectious smiles, friendliness and help our experience wouldn’t have been the same.

We enjoyed its location too and explored the area cycling through woodlands, hills and villages. We even followed the track of an abandoned railway! The last sections of the Snina-Konske narrow gauge forest railway finished in 1928. Unfortunately its use was shortlived, the line was stopped in the 1950s.

Autocamping Stanovy Tabor - Snina.

Cycling Snina's track of the abandoned narrow gauge forest railway. We stopped to read the sign about it.

Site of a European-funded telescope project.

An outdoor paddling pool. The water wasn't really clean and cold. We still managed to cool our feet and legs.

Stopped en route for a drink at a pub opposite the main square in Stakčin.

An old abandoned building near the main square in Stakčin.

Stakčin local train station which was first opened in 1909.

Next day is crafts-day: making birthday cards for nephew and sister-in-law.

The main square in Snina.

The son of the campsite manager behind the kiosk/bar outdoor terrace with locals chatting at one of the tables.

We stayed out until 11.30pm for some cheeky drinks.

That's it for now. Next up: Hungary and Romania.