Life is good. My youngest daughter Malina has stopped sucking her fingers. Perhaps it’s because her nails were so wet she couldn’t pick her nose properly but more likely it’s her kindergarten. She’s a different kid since she started going there, more confident and outgoing with great classmates and in Pani Ania, she has a great teacher. Life is good. This is what I’m thinking as I drive south towards the Malá Fatra mountains in Slovakia, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and half-wondering if I’m fit enough to take on peaks that stretch up to the sky as far as 1,700 metres.
My drive from Gliwice takes me out of Poland, through the Moravian Gate to Cesky Tesin in the Czech Republic, on through to Zilina in Slovakia, past the road-side shrines dedicated to Catholicism and the road-side prostitutes dedicated to thirty-second handjobs. Visually, the three countries seamlessly blend into one another, with only subtle differences alerting me to my new location – variations on tidiness with the Czechs coming out on top, while the Slovaks shamelessly using any spare inch of space to advertise the full spectrum of mercantile bullshit, from auto repairs to a politician whose slogan says ‘my head is on the right, but my heart is on the left’. A catch-all political philosophy or an admission of anatomical irregularity? Looking at his photo it’s hard to tell.
Each country has variations on friendliness too, but I don’t take this too seriously; it’s Saturday morning and petrol-station workers have a right to be a little grouchy, irritable at having to answer stupid questions from an Irishman who once again is being outwitted by GoogleMaps.
The three hour drive to Malá Fatra is by my standards, quite uneventful. So I’m unprepared for what awaits me when I arrive at the base of the summit; a jutting Mesozoic rock formation rising out of the ground in startling, jagged perfection. Infinity’s sentries, looming over my Nissan Qashqai, filling me with a equal amounts of terror and awe. Welcome to Middle-earth.
There’s a cable-car system which would take me to the peak in jig-time. I scoff at this. I am de Búrca! The rugged Irish adventurer, full of piss and vinegar and residues of Belgian beer – I will tame this Malá Fatra! Thirty minutes into my ascent and I’m gasping like someone who has spent five minutes underwater trying to solve sudoku puzzles. Then I remember my father-in-law’s warnings that Malá Fatra’s forest-covered slopes are populated by bears and vipers. As an Irishman, I’m not used to this sort of danger. The closest we get to bears on our highest peaks (Carrauntoohil, 1,038m) is when you bump into Protestants from Northern Ireland, hiking in the south and secretly longing to eat any unsuspecting Catholics.
Three sweat-soaked t-shirts later I get to the top of Velká Lúka. At 1,400 metres high, the air is rare, the range below giving the appearance of a vast sea with occasional wave-like peaks splashing upwards. Then it starts to rain. I move on, across the Krivan ridge and the clouds move in on top of me. I look around and the mountains are gone. It’s just me and lots of white mist. Kind of like what those of us who grew up during the 1980’s imagined Heaven to be.
But it’s very discombobulating when the world disappears and you lose your visual compass. If I were a native of Central Europe, I’d have an inherent sense of preparedness to fall back on – maps, research, not to mention a rucksack full of utensils and supplies to ensure my survival. Being Irish, I was clinging to our national motto; ‘ah sure it’ll be grand’, wondering if the contents of my backback – three chupa-chups and a copy of Elle Decoration – would get me to safety. In the end, the essential Irish characteristic saved me; luck. The clouds lifted. I descended, avoiding the gathered mounds of blue bear-shit and making my way towards a new kind of heaven; fried sheep-cheese and a beer.