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Cycling with the Ecotopia Biketour

Posted: 2006-08-16 02:02:12, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Ecology, Cycling, 623 words (permalink)

In the evening of August 3rd I joined a group of about 30 cyclists which formed the Ecotopia Biketour. The tour is one way of traveling to the yearly Ecotopia gathering but for many participants the biketour is more important than the actual gathering. Many join only for a part of the tour, but those who do the whole of it spend about 3 months together.

Arto bikes for freedom,
Arto bikes for joy,
Arto's got a special feeling,
so let's bike with him
and sing this song
all the biketour long,
as our wheels fly
to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia.

That's how new members were welcomed into the group around the evening campfire. It was a nice and warm welcome, accompanied with a guitar. Accommodation was usually camping, occasionally staying at schools or similar, so there was normally a campfire every night. The fire was also used for cooking meals for the group. And as you might already guess from the theme, it was vegetarian food.

Some biketour cyclists dressed according to the theme flying just before arriving to EcotopiaOne surprise for me was that almost half of the tour participants came from Moldova, Armenia and Russia. One reason was that Ecotopia had been held in Moldova last year, another was an EU grant which helped them to pay for the visas and other costs. Otherwise, the costs of the tour, mainly food, were covered by passing a "magic hat" around. There was a guideline of paying a certain number of Ecos — which were converted to real money in a factor relative to the average income in your country of origin — but eventually you paid what you felt was right.

The Ecotopia gathering 2006 was held in Zajezova, a small village tucked between hills in rural Slovakian countryside. The community in Zajezova tries to live sustainably, doing a lot with hands instead of machines, recycling as much as possible, experimenting with alternative building techniques using clay and straw, and generally causing a low impact to the environment. Therefore it was a perfect place for the Ecotopia camp too.

The camp program consisted of workshops which ranged from discussions in a circle to self-defence skills and acrobatics, helping local people, helping with tasks in the camp, a very interesting tour in Zajezova and just having fun. There was music and dancing by the campfires every night — it was really the drummers and other musicians which kept me there for several days. :) On Friday Aug 11 evening there was a bigger party where participants from each country were expected to sing something. There was also one Finnish girl at the camp so we were two to perform "Pienet sammakot" to the enthusiastic audience.

The Ecotopia biketour was a nice experience and I made some friends which I'll surely meet in the future too. The best parts were singing around the evening campfire, common meals and other small surprises which can only be done in a group. The worst part were long discussions whether to continue cycling on a day previously allocated as a rest day or not. Fortunately the group did not strictly stick together during the actual cycling: there was an agreed destination where to sleep at the end of the day and people made their way there in small groups taking their time. However, it was still a large number of people with the pros and cons of being a group.

For long term travel I prefer more flexibility and freedom so now I'm again on my own way, posting this in Budapest. Next I'll make a side trip by train to Bratislava and Vienna to meet my family who are also coming there. After a week or so I plan to return to Budapest, spend a few more days in the city and then resume my bike tour from here.

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Waterfalls in Slovakia

Posted: 2006-08-05 13:26:27, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Cycling, 370 words (permalink)

A waterfall in the Piecky valley, Slovensky Raj national parkOn the last day of July I crossed the border from Poland to Slovakia. The two first days I spent still in the region of high Tatras. On the Slovak side of them I didn't go up to high altitudes, partly because the weather had turned cloudy, occasionally rainy. Instead I did just a short hike to see some waterfalls near Stary Smokovec.

After the Tatras I continued a bit further south to another national park called Slovensky Raj, which translates to Slovak Paradise. There the main attractions weren't alpine style views from high peaks but gorges which go through the forested valleys of less high mountains. There were steps and ladders places in the steeper places so one actually climbed up right next to the waterfalls.

On Wednesday morning I climbed up the Piecky valley which had been suggested to me by a Hospitality Club member living nearby. It was a magically beautiful place. I walked slowly along the stream on the bottom of the gorge, looking around, listening to the flow of water and occasional raindrops touching the leaves of the trees. Cloudy and slightly rainy weather didn't matter there, it actually made the experience even more special.

I spent the whole Wednesday and Thursday morning walking around in the park and seeing many magnificent places, including the Klastorisko and Sucha Bela gorges. Sucha Bela was the most famous one and offered the most dramatic rock formations, but somehow it didn't reach the subtle beauty of some other spots. Maybe it was just that there were so many more people in Sucha Bela, I don't know, but Piecky clearly remained my favorite spot, with Klastorisko gorge scoring second.

On Thursday evening I joined the Ecotopia biketour and spent a nice relaxed Friday with them in a small village called Brdarka. I had already contacted them before leaving Zakopane so we didn't meet just by accident. I actually decided to continue with them at least for one more day, probably until the Ecotopia gathering to which we'll arrive in a few days. After a couple of days of the gathering I plan to leave on my own way again. I will then write more about the biketour and Ecotopia.

Hiking in the Tatra mountains

Posted: 2006-07-31 02:52:35, Categories: Travel, Poland, 137 words (permalink)

I arrived in Zakopane a few days ago and did a two-day hike on the Polish side of the Tatra mountains. The region has a lot of lakes between the peaks and offers some magnificent views. I was lucky with the weather especially on the first day. Rather than writing a long description I decided to compile a picture gallery of the hike.

The town itself is similar to other mountain resorts, so the nature was of course the main reason for me to come here. However, there are a couple of interesting things in the town as well, especially the Wladyslaw Hasior art gallery was worth visiting.

It has been a nice change after the mostly flat Polish countryside and bigger cities, and tomorrow I'll cross the border to Slovakia for more mountains and natural parks.

Warsaw and Krakow

Posted: 2006-07-25 11:45:25, Categories: Travel, Poland, 433 words (permalink)

Bird sitting on a statue in Lazienki parkI spent five and half days in Warsaw, leaving Monday July 17th, and arrived in Krakow on Friday. So I've seen both the capital, currently also Poland's biggest city, and taken a peek at the ancient capital.

The old town of Warsaw was mostly destroyed in the second world war but rebuilt after it to minute detail. The job was done so well that it was difficult to imagine that the whole area was almost flat still 60 years ago. The buildings were in nice shape but still genuinely looked old. Perhaps the best hint of the destruction was actually that the style was almost too perfect. Modifications done during the 19th century and first half of 20th century were not recreated during reconstruction so there were no modern looking structures between the old style buildings.

I liked Warsaw quite a lot. The old town was nice and while it was fairly small it wasn't too crowded. The area surrounging the university had a nice athmosphere, topped with a library covered by a garden on the roof. During the summer there were plenty of concerts, many of which were held outdoors free of charge. There were also a large number of good museums and pleasant parks scattered around the city. For example the museum of the Warsaw Uprising was exceptionally well done. I thought I'd be done with it in an hour or less, but eventually spent 2.5 hours looking at the exhibits.

Krakow had better luck in the war: it's the only big Polish city which survived with little damage. The historical city center of Krakow is therefore genuinely old and boasts almost an overload of historical architecture. In addition, many buildings have magnificent cellars which are filled with numerous cafes, bars and clubs.

The downside is that Krakow is also well known among tourists which come to the city in masses. There can be long queues at the ticket counters, marketing tries to squeeze everything out of old legends and souvenir shops fill open spaces. In that respect, despite all the reconstruction Warsaw felt somehow more original than the well preserved Krakow.

I don't mean that I'd be disappointed with Krakow. There are lots to see, there's good nightlife and the city is also surrounded by several interesting places. Ojcow national park and Wieliczka salt mine were beautiful and Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (especially the Birkenau part) was a must for a different reason. I'm planning to still spend one and a half days in Krakow to get a better grasp of it and then ride to the Tatra mountains to escape cities again.

Two different nights with the locals

Posted: 2006-07-25 11:20:10, Categories: Travel, Poland, Hospitality exchange, Cycling, 1019 words (permalink)

I like traveling without advance reservations. While on the road I often don't know in the morning where I'll spend the following night. Usually it's easy to find a hostel, a guesthouse or a nice place to camp. However, sometimes everything doesn't go exactly as planned and that can add some extra spice to the trip.

Scene 1: Hospitality of an alcoholist

Last Tuesday I was looking for a hotel or guesthouse in a small town called Jozefow. According to my map there should have been one, but a quick tour in the city center didn't reveal any. I stopped at the main square by the pharmacy and asked two men if they knew the way.

One of the men was willing to help. He first seemed to have an idea of where the hotel might be, but then muttered something which maybe meant that it's closed or that he didn't know after all. Then he asked me to follow saying that he has a sofa and I could sleep there. Well, why not, I thought, even a place to set up the tent would be enough. It was obvious that the man had had a couple of drinks but it didn't look too bad.

Ten minutes later I was in his flat. If I'd make a list of the worst flats I've seen, that would have probably scored the top. Yes, there was a room with the sofa, plus a table, a chair, a TV and even a tiny bathroom. Besides that, the furnishing consisted of a few dirty plates and cups, beer bottles and cigarette stubs which were all over the place. The short corridor between the bathroom and the room was flooded — it later turned out that flushing the toilet would spill part of the water on the floor. At that point I would have rather escaped, but it was too late. All my bags were in the flat, my bike locked in the cellar storage room and it was already dark outside.

My host's name was Krysztof and he was more drunk than he earlier appeared to be. He offered me a beer and was clearly happy when I had working matches (his own were wet) and could help to light his cigarette. I accepted the beer but successfully refused remains of some unidentifiable foodstuff from the bottom of a jar. Krysztof did not want my bananas or oranges. He clearly wanted to have a conversation with me, but due to the language barrier we didn't get much further than saying our names and where I come from.

I thought it would work out best if he had some sleep so quite early I indicated that I was tired. Krysztof produced a surprisingly clean camping mattress from behind his bed and insisted that I'd use that instead of my own. I took it but replaced the offered moist blanket with my own bedsheet. I placed the mattress strategically so that he had an unobstructed path to the bathroom, my handlebar bag with valuables and bicycle helmet were next to me under the table so that he couldn't fall on them and started thinking about scenarios which could occur next morning. Fortunately Krysztof also soon crashed on the sofa.

I even managed to get several hours of sleep before around six Krysztof woke up and decided he needed more beer. There wasn't any left in the flat. I suggested the shop and he came to the conclusion that it's best that I leave at the same time. I was more than happy with that solution, so quicker than ever I had all my stuff out, my bike out from the cellar and I was on the road again. Krysztof headed towards the shop and I gave him 10 zlotys (2.5 euros) beer money. After all, although I didn't particularly enjoy the night, he tried his best to be friendly and offer his hospitality. Maybe my visit was a highlight for him and made a good story later in the local pub, or maybe it was quickly forgotten — I'll never know.

Scene 2: Camping at a meat factory

The Barczyk meat factoryTwo days later I was in a bit larger town called Wolbrom in the same situation as in Jozefow. I had planned to go a youth hostel which was marked on my map but couldn't easily find it and it was getting late. This time I chose a group of young guys and girls to ask for help. They had no idea about the hostel but knew about a new hotel nearby. However, they said that the hotel would be expensive and offered a safe place for my tent. Sure, I thought I'd give it a go and opted for the camping.

The guy leading the discussion turned out to be the son of a meat factory owner. Incidentally, also his name was Krysztof, but I knew it was going to be a different experience this time. The place to camp was in a guarded area on the yard of the factory. There was a large lawn which was perfect for the tent and even a toilet and washroom I could use. I quickly set up the tent and went back to the city center with my new friends.

That was a fun night. First we went to a kebab joint to get the biggest kebab I've ever had — one of the girls worked at the place and decided to make a special one for the crazy Finnish cyclist. Then a few drinks in a local bar, interesting discussions (Krysztof spoke good English) followed by a visit at his brother's place.

Next morning I was led through the factory to take a shower and treated to a sumptuous breakfast in Krysztof's father's office. Other employees were certainly curious about who on earth had first put up the tent in the front yard and then was accompanied to the executive section of the offices. :) During the morning I also met Krysztof's father, mother and his second brother, and got a kilo of different sausages as the farewell present. We'll keep in touch via email.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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