We’re in Obyvačka, a relatively new addition to the Bratislava cafe scene, on a sunny early June day. I like the joint because the coffee’s good, the food’s decent but unpretentious and the tattoos of the chef never cease to amaze. And there’s plenty of free tables during the middle of the day to idle undisturbed; do a bit of writing; get a bite to eat. If I’m meeting anyone for work, as today, chances are I’ll meet them here.
The only other clients today are a couple of middle aged ladies; one immense, one minuscule, who seem to be discussing their husband’s respective shortcomings – I don’t catch all the words and that’s probably just as well.
And the question comes, not for the first time, probably not for the last: “why Slovakia?” And the answer is, of course, primarily, that I’m in love with a Slovak girl. But second to that there’s a number of reasons why, as this blog endeavours to showcase, I like living here.
But the question of the guy I’m meeting isn’t about why I’m here; it’s about what I specialise in, as a travel writer.
Because I’ve just been telling him about my other speciality: the Amazon. The rainforest, you know, not the website. And he doesn’t see the link, or rather, he thinks the link a bizarre one. If I’d paired the Amazon with Argentina as a specialisation, or Slovakia with, perhaps, the Ukraine, it might not seem like such a disparity of interests.
Of course I was already obsessed with this corner of Eastern Europe long before I moved here – and the Amazon, at least the Peruvian, Bolivian and Brazilian bits of it, had also been a long-standing obsession. Why? It’s obviously not the similarities in architecture or language. I love mountains, but the Amazon doesn’t have too many of those. I love adventurous day-long river trips, but that’s not really Slovakia’s forte. No. It’s forests.
Slovakia is among Europe’s most forested nations. Those recent storms that ripped through the pine forests in the Tatras didn’t help. But still, forest coverage here exceeds 40% – not bad compared to the UK, which clocks up a mere 11% of forests across its land mass. The thing about Slovakia’s forests, too, is that they kick off right outside the district of Bratislava where I live and continue pretty much all the way across the country to the Ukraine. You can get lost in the woods in Slovakia within five or six kilometres of the city centre. And I like that. I like that a lot. There’s something otherworldly, humbling, exciting about that. The idea that forests surround you is part of every experience you have in Slovakia. They’re always, well, there.
Forests provide a very particular kind of adventure. Mountains are great, but let’s face it, you are going there for the views. The desert? Good again, but what you’re looking for is that wide-open sandiness, right? With forests, you’re going there to get immersed. To feel the wet leaves on your skin, to see the animals hiding in the foliage, to discover that hidden path through some tunnel of trees.
I get that when I take a walk outside Bratislava and I get it in the Amazon too.