A weekday night in a typical Andean hostel; salsa filtering in from a bar across the way; the smell of engine oil and fried guinea pig and crisp wintry mountains wafting in. Incredibly this room has a desk and I’m feeling inspired to write (until my frustration with Windows 8 prompts me to slam this computer against the walls) or, at least, I’m not able to sleep just yet.
What do I write about, in terms of this blog, when I’m half the world away from Slovakia? Well, what I miss. What I get nostalgic about. Going out for a run in the vineyard-clad foothills and woods of the Small Carpathians behind my house.
Out round the back of the garages, doors all prettily painted in pastille hues, contrasted with the rather starker red of the local gang’s favoured slogan “Mio Bača”, over the stagnant stream where the setting sun nevertheless cuts a glorious figure as it illuminates the water and the floundering ducks within a summer evening orange, the vineyards open up (crowned thickly, impenetrably by distant forest). The high rises have faded away, the shudder of the distant trams echoes yet but is removed enough to hear the cicadas, as loud a chorus of them as I have ever heard, plus the rustle of the dozy trackside snakes a-sun-basking.
Nature encroaches little by little; the evening suburban strollers are slowly replaced by the serious hikers and bikers because from here of course begin hardcore wilderness adventures; pick your direction right and you can stay off-road on vineyard tracks, then meadow paths and finally forest trails for 100, 200km. It’s this promise of unadulterated countryside beckoning that drives you on.
You climb higher (the disadvantage, or perhaps, advantage of the run is that you have to climb because all paths lead UP into the woods from Bratislava). You bypass typical Slovak mountain houses, positioned just so on the cusp between cultivated land and wild land, their front doors in the vineyards, their back doors in the forest; it’s as if they want to lose themselves in the trees but something – just – is holding them in civilisation. The fields get more overgrown, more screened by foliage and then you’re in the woods, deer scuttle before you, there’s often wild pigs scuffling in the undergrowth nearby.
A little further on you cross a road – a forestry track known as pekna cesta (nice road) but that’s the last incursion of mankind you need see for some time except the well-marked trail signs, trails that wind away into the hills, to Pezinok, to Modra, beyond. That and the occasional barbecue spots and the odd hunting tower and the sporadic mountain cottage offering sustenance (beer, dumplings) and the smattering of ruined castles that hide here. Other than that, a refreshing absence of human influence (unless you count your own ragged breaths – you will have ascended several hundred metres and Bratislava, below you, gleams at its most enticing in the last of the day’s light, smoking factories, shimmering offices, flat great green Danubian floodplain fields).
And behind you – in those woods – it’s getting very dark, thrillingly dark, the dark that could hide not just wild pigs but, possibly, bears. All things weighed up, it’s possibly time to return home. But this run is one of the quickest, most poignant big city-to-remote countryside transitions you can do in Europe. A run like this gives you hope (especially if you are a city dweller). It reminds you that nature still wins – sometimes.