Vail resident inches towards Istanbul
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment of Matthew Cull’s summer-long series about his cycling journey through Iceland and eastern Europe. Cull has cycled through 50 countries on six continents. Visit his website at http://www.matthewjkcull.com or contact him at email@example.com.
My cycle journey through Eastern Europe continued south from the beautiful old town of Lviv, Ukraine. As any Polish person will tell you, Lviv was built by the Poles when the land was theirs. But for now Ukrainians wander its classic old world streets, and its lovely park promenade.
With my progress south the flatness that had been incessant since Estonia melted into the folds of the dark forested slopes of the Carpathian mountains. I cycled a plethora of rough paved roads, through small villages each with a pair of brand new imposing churches with gleaming domes in gold, silver, green or blue. I rose into the mountains then hiked up Mt. Hoverla (6,800 feet), Ukraine’s highest peak. In a country short on accessible information the peak’s challenge was finding it in the first place. Once at the base the hike was an easy enjoyable walk on a perfect day onto the crest of a long ridge above treeline.
I rolled down the south side of the range and within sight of Romania turned west. I had been cycling south for 2,300 kms but the lure of the mountains curtailed my progress towards Istanbul. I would get back to that later. Instead I followed the Carpathians west as far as Prague, actually gaining distance on Turkey.
I wound my way through a maze of bumpy paved roads passing folks gathering hay by hand, crossing into Slovakia, and returning to the 21st century. But with smooth roads came manic drivers would clearly rather die than wait two seconds for a safe time to pass. Alongside the modern and comfortably well off Slovakians are the Roma, the Gypsies, darker complexioned folks who fill the lowest rungs of Slovakian economic society and cop far more than their fair share of discrimination. On hilltop perches, castle ruins remembered the good old days. Mighty thunderstorms filled afternoon skies with intimidating power and cleared Eastern Europe of summer’s diabolical heat. I wound over hills of forest, through valleys of fields and came to Slovensky Raj National Park. I hiked up steep gorges using systems of fixed ladders and chains to cross deep pools and scale cliffs and waterfalls.
But the main attraction of Slovakia was in sight. The High Tatra rises along the Slovak/ Polish border like an abrupt apparition above the gentle hills of the Carpathians. Though only 40 miles long the range is astonishingly rugged, with angular spires of rock, massive cliffs and ragged ridge lines above valleys dotted with alpine tarns. On the lower flanks of the range a wind storm in 2004 had flattened 40 square kilometers of forest and now a worm was finishing off what is left of the trees. I climbed to lofty summits for inspirational views on beautiful clear days including Rysy, (8,250 feet), the highest peak in Poland. I cycled around the end of the range into Poland, to Zakopane, a Polish word meaning “more tourists than you could ever imagine.” By day I climbed to craggy tops and by night caught performances at Zakopane’s annual folk dance festival.
After six days on the trail I left the mountains and rode north into Krakow, once capital of Poland. Yet another magnificent old town with a huge central square. The new world had sorely made a mistake by omitting the central square from its urban planning. It gives a town a geographic heart, a place to meet, stroll, and enjoy the urban scene, inside or out. Krakow’s is the largest in Europe, dominated by the twin towers of its cathedral.
I continued west to Oswiecim, better known to the world for its trio of Auschwitz death camps that seem now more like tourist attractions than the world’s best attempt as mass murder.
Further west I converged with the Czech border and had some of the best, and wettest cycling in Eastern Europe. Under stormy skies I roamed quiet roads through steep forested hills and open rolling farmland, repeatedly crossing the border and finding cycling routes everywhere I went. I linked quiet villages and obscure border crossings and came to Teplice/Adrspach Rocks. I hiked through a maze of rock pinnacles, slot canyons and strange sandstone formations. Further west and in a break in the clouds I hiked to the summit of Sniezka (5,300 feet), the highest peak in Czech, to views the lowlands of both Czech and Poland. I rolled down, out of the hills under fresh clear skies and continued cycling all the way into Prague, the iconic city of Eastern Europe.
My 1,500 km dogleg west from Ukraine to Prague is now complete. From here I turn south and east, through as assortment of countries, through hills, across plains, along rivers and even up a mountain or two, every inch closer to my destination: Istanbul.