It occurred to me this morning, shortly after we made another early departure, that waking up early to beat the heat when the temperatures are this cold is completely insane. My long sleeve wool layer was far inadequate and as I chased Ben up the gentle incline, I was outright freezing.
I was also pretty hungry, since we ate through our food stores last night and hadn’t yet happened upon another shop. We ate a few shortbread cookies and a few bites of leftover ravioli for breakfast before we left but I was starving within minutes and of course, simultaneously grouchy.
Ben pulled our little pace line for forty five minutes until we reached town and could get some groceries and some breakfast. There, we made a slight scene in Lidl trying to get the lady to use our credit card correctly since we didn’t have cash. All these border crossings and changing of currency have been tough to keep up with. Thankfully the transaction eventually worked once they lady actually ran it as credit. Once we were fed and had found some cash, the morning was looking a tiny bit brighter.
Our route today steered us gently uphill through the foothills of the High Tatras before steering sharply up toward two major passes. The riding was honestly my favorite kind of terrain and it would have been a perfect cycling day, but unfortunately my residual chafing has been causing me some real grief. Cycling on any terrain is no fun when your shorts feel like sandpaper against your skin with every pedal stroke.
As we went, we kept seeing signs for castles along the way. At the first, we enthusiastically pulled over and took a short detour up the road. What we found however, was at best a mansion and definitely not a castle. Ben was a bit disappointed by the whole thing and scowled at it until I convinced him to take a picture and we set off again. The second “castle” we encountered was even less interesting than the first. Ben’s analysis was, “that looks basically like my parent’s house.” Admittedly, we’ve gotten a bit jaded as of late, but these were for sure not castles. (Ben’s note: Upon doing some research later in the day, Kaštieľ actually translates to manor house – not quite as cool as the medieval castles we have seen. Also, the second house doesn’t actually look anything like my parent’s house)
We continued our climb, the cool air stiff against my bare arms as we cranked up the first pass. I’d been dreading this climb for days, knowing that our heavy legs would make for some slow uphill. Once we got going though, the villages drifted away and the road was littered with trees and meadows and all was well. I sent Ben ahead so that I wouldn’t try to compete with his speed and got in my groove, cranking around every hairpin turn. I wasn’t going fast, but at least I was persistent. Before too long, I saw Ben coming back down the hill toward me, announcing that I was almost there. A minute later, we crested the summit together.
At the top, we took a brief break to enjoy the views and have a snack. A family was also there, picnicking on one of the tables, the lady looking at me strangely. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable with all the staring so I tried to focus on my food. Then, just before they packed up and drove away, she approached me, handed me an energy bar, said a few words I couldn’t understand, and then got in her car and drove away. After a few particularly tough days, a gesture so simple as a snack from a stranger thoroughly cheered me. Ben, who was sitting right next to me (and the three other cyclists who had also just summited) laughed, noting that I must have looked particularly wrecked to have been singled out so specifically.
Once we’d rested up a bit, we got back on the road following the deep wooded hills across the top of the mountain pass. We noted that the ice cave we wanted to visit was closed on Mondays, and then pressed on to the second pass. This one was much shorter but also far steeper and our energy was running particularly low. I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath, my heart pounding hard in my ears from exertion.
Unceremoniously, we hit the top and began the winding descent. The wind wrapped around me, tugging the heat from my body and slowly chilling me all the way through. Ben decided it would be entertaining to try to get all the way to our pension without pedaling, which made for some particularly slow rolling on the flatter sections. We glided into town and turned onto a side street, dashing Ben’s hopes of an effortless arrival and we cranked the last 500 meters into our sort of unfriendly home for the night.
Later, we set out for a nature walk into town dressed in our jackets for the first time this entire trip. I met up with a friendly black kitty who followed us through the village until I picked him up and carried him with us for a while. When he was ready to turn back, I set him free and we hiked up a meadowy trail that wound above town and into the forest.
The sun was setting behind the hills and the flowers sprawled all around us as we wandered up to an overlook and then into the trees. The chilly air carried the swirls of smoke from chimneys and the smell of pine and grass. The weariness from weeks on the road began to settle and for the first time in days I felt still.