Saturday, 22 August 2015

Fish, Chips and Slovakia. Part 3 ... The Descent.

Time for some reflection ...

We had hiked up the mountain for the best part of nine hours and it was time for a little rest and relaxation. 
 A lake, reflecting the lush green scenery, was the perfect setting. Lending itself well to the 'rest' lodge and cafe. They had a typical Slovakian menu, clearly boasting... soup and dumplings, sheep's milk cheese with dumplings, soup made from sauekraut and sausage, chicken in sauce with dumplings and jam pancakes. I opted for a 'plain' pancake.

When it arrived, sadly, I responded with, "Oh no!". My pancake had been covered in red jelly and fake, fluffy cream... plenteous amounts of it. Furthermore, the pancake was cold. I had asked for a fresh, plain pancake but it had been dressed with food bling. I was hungry and felt disappointed. "Shall I take it back and change it for a plain one?" Asked Maria. I uttered, "Yes please". The second pancake arrived, again, dressed to kill. "No!" I was really hungry now and feeling quite frustrated and tired. Twice, we had asked for a plain pancake. I went back to the kitchen once more and tried to politely explain, but it went down like a led balloon. I received despondent glares. So, to that end, I went back to the table with my tail between my legs. I didn't have a pancake. I munched on some crisps ... silently. 
"It's how they do the pancakes here", Said Maria. In a down-heartened tone, I replied, "I only wanted one without all the fluff, that's all. How difficult could that be?"
The pancake encounter was soon banished with the thought of our descent. This triggered yet another concern, which took precedence over my hunger. I had mentioned sudden changes in weather, previously (part 2), yet something far worse was imminent. Sundown. We still had some daylight left, however, so we began the final part of the hike down the mountain.

There were more glorious scenes to feast our eyes on. The scent of moss smelled damp, delicious and earthy. I was intoxicated by what lay ahead.

Folding landscape

Before the meadow

Green forest

Growing up

White flora

White butterfly

Mountain lake

We put our best feet forward and upped the pace. Daylight was drawing in. The mountain was quiet with only the stream running forth beside us. It was alluring and peaceful.

The path turned in to a rocky artery, moving under the feet and throwing the ankles in opposite directions. It was hard walking for some time. The quiescence was overwhelmingly effecting my senses. I was feeling as sharp as a pin but my curiousity began to wonder about the animals roaming at dusk. Was the noiselessness telling us more about what lurked ahead of us? The stillness had become eerie and I began to feel nervous or even, a little skittish. 

Maria continued, confidently, but was silent. Moreover, her body language said a lot more than she was letting on. I felt her tension. "We need to walk faster, it's getting dark soon!" She proclaimed. Then, right in front of us, just as the sun dropped some more, was the mouth of more forest. It appeared like the foreboding path of wilderness. "Are you sure we're safe?" I whispered. I turned back to see our options and the mountain seemingly echoed my looming fear.

Sepia mountain

The quiet

Eerie peaks

We asserted forwards and in to the woods. It was necessary to keep moving. This was truly an awakening of ancient adrenaline. It rushed through my body like the river of life itself. I grew two inches in height and pushed through the darkening air with real fright in my veins. The pace quickened and my ears were on high alert. Like a lynx, I was listening for danger. My breathing became shallow as fear embraced me with its over powering arms. I tried to stay calm and think positively. The forest was getting darker and more dense. 

Thick forest

We were right in the thick of it. Dare I even say... we could not see the wood for the trees. I was scared. The silence dispersed as every sound in the forest became morosely amplified. It spoke to us. Then, something brushed my head ... a bat. He was quite large and I trusted that he was sent to guide us through. I may have mentioned it to Maria, as a means to negating the volume of tension. 

Furthermore, just at the last hurdle, we both heard a deep, disgruntled, growl. Followed by a huffing noise and some snapping twigs. We were not alone. I believe, emphatically, a bear had been agitated.
It was only at that disquieting moment, when an opening showed dusky light filtering through, that the relief was practically tangible. We had survived the forest. 

The end of our descent was near. The nerves were exchanged for laughter and the power of nature had marked us both. I turned, once more, to gaze back at the wondrous mountain and unforgiving forest. Then, I came to understand. It was staring me in the face ... trust, courage and forgiveness. Thereupon I looked up and smiled.

To be continued ...

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Fish, Chips and Slovakia. Part Two... High Tatras

Grass meadow

The landscape of Slovakia is notorious for its mountain terrain as the Carpathians stretch across the most northern part of the country. This includes the high peaks of the Tatras range. Tatra stands higher than all the other peaks of the Carpathians. With 29 peaks at over 2,500 metres high and covering a range of around  232 sq miles, Tatra is separated in to several parts. High Tatras, close to the Polish border to the north, is a popular destination for hiking, largely due to its beauty and bio-diversity. Moreover, many lakes, rivers, forests and caves, attract wildlife such as bats, beavers, bears, wolves and ( close to my heart and a personal quest to see in the wild ) the Eurasian lynx.  

It is summer and the verdant scenery is swarming with wild flowers and butterflies. The sky is clear blue with a full blazing sun. The path becomes more rugged and the heat more intense. Every so often, some respite is found amongst a cluster of pine trees, oozing their cleansing aroma and ironically, in the height of the warm season, reminding me of Christmas. The hustling world below becomes more distant and the silence of the wilderness embraces with its commanding authority. How could the quietness be so powerful and absorbing?

 As we walked higher, the air changed and a slight shortness of breath was encountered ... this could have been related to recently quitting the evil weed otherwise known as tobacco. Then, perspiring, as the natural detox had taken a strong hold, I began to experience a wave of incredible well being.

Orange butterfly (Silver-washed Fritillary)

Red-spotted moth

The natural world was all around me. This was their territory. I was the intruder, the visitor, the stranger. Each step led me closer to the unknown and further away from the well-walked path of the ordinary. 

There is something about being close to the breath of a brown bear or snarl of a wolf which keeps you mildy circumspect. On the other hand, the lynx being within close proximity, infiltrated a gentle tug of emotion. I was fully aware that my chances of seeing a lynx were relatively slim in comparison, due to the fact that they are so elusive and stay very well hidden... especially from wolves and humans. I had this very same tug whislt on a lynx quest in southern Spain as well. My ardor only strengthens as life takes me moments closer to potentially fulfilling a precious goal of seeing one in its natural habitat.

European brown bears are the most feared animal in Slovakia. They can be extremely unpredictable and have been known to appear suddenly to the unsuspecting hiker.  

In the 1920's brown bears became almost extinct in the Carpathians because of over hunting. They were then protected between 1932 and the 1960's when hunting was banned. Bear populations were once again restored but the conflicts with humans was all too common and the ban on hunting lifted. By the 1980's, the bears had almost disappeared and with the EU legislation having to be imposed, they were listed endangered. Hunting, to date, is now restricted and numbers are steady with a population of just over 1,000 bears in the Slovakian mountains. The chances of meeting one were quite high and to that end made me somewhat nervous. Although a lover of wildlife, the only thing between me and a bear would be my camera.

The wolf has high populations in the northern and eastern terrains of the Carpathians and can be hunted between November and January with a quota set by the Ministry of Agriculture. There has not been any formal scientific monitoring of wolf numbers but hunting associations estimate circa 1,200 - 1,600, although it is thought by conservationists, numbers are considerably lower. The wolves in Poland are completely protected and sadly any packs roaming over the boarder to Slovakia in the hunting seasons, can be killed. The other threats to wolves are habitat loss, conflict with livestock owners and competition with hunters for ungulate prey. The wolf hones and benefits the landscape playing a vital roll in the continuance of a well balanced eco system. 

The Eurasian lynx is a keystone species and, like the wolf, is essential to the ecological system. They are very shy cats and spend the majority of their time high up, silently observing from the woods and out of sight. They prefer the forested, rugged country which provides many hide outs and stalking opportunities. They are occassionally spotted on rocks, seeking prey and on watch for other predators competing for a meal. Wolves have been known to kill lynx and, following their better instincts, lynx will avoid any confrontation. In defiance of the challenges in the wild, lynx are well distributed and thanks to their adaptability and secretive nature, they thrive in the Carpathians. Some of the highest populations of lynx are found within this region of Eastern Europe.

High tree, visible effects from the 2004 storm.

 Bear forest

Flower meadow

Peaks and forests

The surpassing beauty surrounding us was all consuming. Every step taken with gratitude. At times such as this, clarity prevails and all is possible. Around every corner as we spiralled upwards, another surprise was waiting and once again, the camera was shooting virtually by itself. The views were cinematic, wide and lit in such a way that I was almost choking on my excitement. Maria would say, "There's more to come...". "How could there be more? How could it get better than this?" I replied. So, I stopped, looked around and saw.

Twin peaks

Forest terrain

Dense forest



White butterfly

Wild flowers

Resting butterfly

The Tatra Mountains are supporting a diverse variety of flora. At every level the plant life has adapted to volatile landscapes and extreme weathers. The winters can be harsh and snow cover, on the summit can be as much as 410 cm or 161 inches. (1) Thunder storms can occur 36 days a year and avalanches are frequent. However, the forests are abundant, despite effects from storms and loggers. Local rangers preserve, protect and monitor and of course, the wildlife plays an important part in spreading the seeds. 

Work horse. Still used to pull the logs...

So, the forests provide resources for all and need to be sustained. Without them there would be no life. They consist of beech trees, spruce, mountain pines, mosses, fungi, herbs and berries. At high altitudes grasslands provide cover for lynx and from 2,300m where only rocks are present, lichens glisten and reflect nature's palette.

All I needed was to walk through this natural masterpiece to feel the benefits both physically and spiritually.

Wild flora

Black butterfly

Butterfly wing

Forest path

Clasping on the edge

Pines and peaks

In between hikes, we rested and fuelled up with snacks. At every stop the vision in front, beside and behind was breath-taking. We had the best seats in the house. The only thing missing was the soundtrack. At these high levels, the silence was almost deafening. From time to time a little bird would sing, but otherwise, nothing. Even the wind was still. We were lucky to have such a calm day for our adventure. With everything so quiet, it was hard to believe that this was real.

The mountain scenery just continued to give. It was a privilege to feel and be amongst this greatness. But the fear is never far away, for somewhere, hiding in wait, were eyes watching. Every so often, a twig would snap or a sudden swishing sound of branches would remind me that we were not entirely alone. Besides, mountains command respect by just standing at such prominent heights. The weather could change at a blink of the eye and take you in to a potentially fatal situation. With this knowledge, we remained mindful.

To be continued ...

ref ; (1) Wikipedia, Tatra Mountains. 16/08/15.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Fish, Chips and Slovakia... Part One. History and First Impression.

 Poprad airport runway... welcomed by a clear view of High Tatras.

All I knew about Slovakia was very little. A friend, who grew up there, invited me to stay with her family, so gratefully, I accepted the kind gesture. Of course, when you visit a new country you do some research, its only polite. I am passionate about photography and wildlife, also besides, it seemed fortuitous that Slovakia's mountainous terrain, High Tatras, has one of the healthiest populations of Eurasian lynx, European brown bears and wolves, in Central and Eastern Europe. Naturally, when I touched down at Poprad, and saw the magnificent view of High Tatras ( frequently under cloud cover ), the scene induced adrenalin, and my stomach was pumping with frenzied butterflies as I pondered over the possibilities which lay ahead. 

Staying with a Slovakian family showed a traditional way of life which felt good. The simple things such as cabbage and potatoes, plastic flowers, real flowers, green tea and boldly-coloured houses, resonating an echo of familiarity. Uncomplicated and honest. Reaffirming a good place to restore faith and wellbeing. 

Summer window

Good & honest. Revealing a simple, comforting, decor.

One of the first things I distinguished was the colours of buildings, and 'fairytale' churches against a back drop of meadows and mountains. Snuggly sitting within a wilderness terrain and projecting a vibrant smile in the wake of considerable historic events and a Communist regime. 

In 1918, Slovakia and the regions of Bohemia, Moravia, Czech Silesia and Carpathian Ruthenia formed a mutual state, Czechoslovakia. During prevailing madness after the breakup of  Austria and Hungary, Czechoslovakia was then formed with Germans and Hungarians within newly set borders. In the peace which followed the World war, Czechoslovakia emerged as a sovereign European state. The minorities had rights and what remained was the only democracy in this part of Europe, in between wars.

In 1925, The Locarno Treaties ( Eastern Europe seeking to secure the post-war territorial settlement and stabilise relations with defeated Germany ) left East European security open. Moreover, both Czechs and Slovaks were able to enjoy a period of ease. Thus, a movement of progress with the country's economy, culture and educational opportunities. The minority Germans accepted their role in the new country and relations with Austria were good. However, the Great Depression caused  a vivid economic derailing, and to that end, political turmoil and insecurity in Europe.

Then, Czechoslovakia became highly pressured under revisionist governments of Germany and Hungary and this lead to the Munich agreement of September 1938. This enabled Germany to partially seperate the country by taking up residence in the Sudetenland, a region with a majority of German speakers. The remaining so-called 'rump' was renamed Czecho-Slovakia. However, Southern and Eastern Slovakia was reclaimed by Hungary at the First Vienna Award (direct consequence of Munich Agreement, inevitably the partitioning of Czechoslovakia) of November 1938.

Furthermore, in 1939, Nazi Germany threatened to annex part of Slovakia (1) and have the remaining regions partitioned by Hungary or Poland unless independence was declared. To that end, Slovakia allied itself in March 1939. Their government was strongly influenced by Germany and they gradually became a duped regime.

Due to horrific alliances with Hitler, during the war, the President of the First Slovak Republic, Jozef Tiso, had most Jewish occupants deported and sent to German death camps. Thousands, however, remained in Slovak work camps. There is much debate around the numbers of Jews saved by Tiso, but the vast majority of Slovakia's Jewish population were murdered under Tiso's government. Tiso was actually paying Nazi authorities to remove his country's Jews.

So, by the same token, it became apparent that the Soviet Red Army was pushing the Nazis out of eastern and central Europe. Then, near the end of summer 1944, the Slovak National Uprising, launched an agressive armed resistence against established government. This was followed by a bloody German occupation and guerilla war. The territory of Slovakia was liberated by Soviet and Romanian forces by the end of April 1945. Czechoslovakia became reconstituted and Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for conspiring with the Nazis. Then, 80,000 Hungarians and 32,000 Germans were forced to leave Slovakia. By 1947, only some 20,000 Carpathian Germans remained in Slovakia.

Thereafter, a coup was formed in 1948 and Czechoslovakia became under the influence of the Soviet Union.

In 1989, there was a peaceful revolution, appropriately named 'Velvet', which marked the end of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Thus leading the country in to dissolution and in July 1992, Slovakia declared itself a sovereign state, allowing them to take presidence over a federal government. The Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic went their separate ways in January 1993 after the federal parliament officially dissolved Czechoslavakia. This historic event was known as the 'Velvet Divorce'.

Late afternoon meadow

I was staying in a town named Spisská Belá. A pretty, traditional town, where the local museum was once the home and studio of Joseph Petzval, a mathematician, inventor and physicist, best known for his work in optics. His pioneering inventions changed the way we see. A whole world of photography and cinema evolved because of his genius discoveries. This, indeed, was a happy coincidence, to know that one of my heartfelt interests, born from my love of cinematography and vintage black and whites, was partially down to this man, who lived in the early 1800's. So there I was, in his house, in a small town in Slovakia, Eastern Europe. This moment evoked extraordinary emotions and I truly felt inspired.

Blue window

Green window

Maria's home

Spišská Belá

Providence seemed to be pulling some strings and what must have seemed like a normal, everyday occurance to the locals, was a wonderful surprise to myself, for there above was a stork. Larger than your average heron and watching from a great height on the church spire, like an elegant, majestic, prehistoric raptor. Then, I noticed the nest which was occupied by two young storks. Their silence was soothing,  they have no syrinx and are mute, but communicate by bill-tapping at the nest. Perhaps the myth of the stork carrying the baby is related to its silence insofar as not to awaken or disturb the new-born. 

Watching over...

Spot the Stork

Still watching...

Stork Nest

Strolling through the town brought a sense of belonging, yet not without an intriguing edge. There was something about this place which was arousing a natural curiousity. I couldn't figure out what it was. I have a friend who believes in the unusual and may have suggested I had been there in a former life. That is the best way I can describe the sense of fascination, I was experiencing at that time. Observing all that was new to me, brought out a wide-eyed child within and I could not stop shooting pictures. Everything lit up with vivid colour and vivacity.

Colour blocks

 Cool tea

 Orange & Yellow

The Beatles billboard

Colours ...

Reference - (1) Wikipedia, 09/08/15.

To be continued ...