Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The party bus is coming: Eastern Europe Festive Party Trek - Part 4

Sunday, 28 December 2015
BUDAPEST - DONAVALY - ZAKOPANE

Begrudgingly, I hopped back on the bus to depart from darling Budapest. I wouldn’t have had such a heavy heart, however, if I had known what was to come. Before long, I realised we were again crossing three countries which I proclaimed loudly to all and anybody who would listen.

Time for a slash and dash and now we were in real snow country. We piled out of the bus (eyes straight ahead, directly to the bathroom, we’ll look at the snow later) and, regrouping outside the bus, marvelled at the whiteness around us. Some on our troupe had never seen snow before and while it had gently fallen elsewhere, here we had a thick fuzzy white blanket thrown over the countryside, the trees, the buildings.

The landscape getting whiter and whiter.

We were headed towards Donavaly, back in Slovakia. We climbed up and up with the landscape becoming more and more monochrome. The occasional brightly painted yellow house stood out from the black and white backdrop of dark trees dressed in white. Here, I made a beeline for the husky sled rides, which, while short, was enjoyable. The puppies were bouncing with energy and affection, and I took some time to have a pat and gaze into their amazing blue eyes.

Little puppies pulling my phat ass

Here, I think the trip caught up with me somewhat. I stood in front of the ATM, fingers poised to enter my PIN, when my brain churned to a standstill. PIN, gone. Vanished. Unrecoverable. I had quite a bit of cash still on me, thankfully, but this would prove to be somewhat inconvenient for the rest of the trip.

Our time in Donavaly drew to a close, and we piled from the freezing air back onto the warm bus. Up and up, ears popping as we ascended the hill, we were now driving our way towards the snow village of Zakopane, Poland.

Gorgeousness is what awaited us when we alighted the bus. Thick, pillowy blankets of snow, fluff falling steadily from the sky like glitter, glinting in the light of the street lamps as it settled in our hair and on our scarves and our noses, a rogue snowflake sometimes headed [directly] into an eyeball.

Our lodgings in Zakopane were a little different to the others. Our entire troupe was given a chalet of our own with many steps between the ground and my shared room. It was divided into bedrooms, unlike a hostel, and this was a nice little bit of semi-privacy. What this accommodation did lack, though, was reliable hot water. And by now we had landed in the coldest part of our journey. Brrrr.

After a lie down, it was time for dinner. We piled out into the snow and, after Chris the bus driver precariously got us out of the driveway, we drove our way across the town to Karczma Przy Mlynie.  And what a dinner it was. Pickles, lard and bread adorned the tables when we arrived and we hoed in, starving. We all went a little too hard on the bread, and also spread the lard a little too thick. Next, came some potato dumplings - here we were told that soup would be arriving next, and that the mains would follow. Excuse me, pardon? Mains..what? Haven’t we just… It dawned on us how much food we were about to be subjected to, and we pulled back, saving ourselves for the plethora of food to follow. Gently going forth on the dumplings and the soup (curse us, for going so hard on the lard!), we were then presented with meat.

Meat, meat and more meat. Did I mention meat? Two massive trays were placed on our table of 8 - enough meat to feed 15 people. We lamented our greedy ways and gingerly picked at the artery closing platter in front of us. Embarrassingly, we barely touched the sides and there was a large amount left over, but it was utterly delicious. Many different kinds of sausages and chicken and beef and every other kind in between, Polish dumplings and the rest. We ate until we could eat no more…and then dessert.

I feel I talk about food a lot. Food is one of my favourite things in this world - I feel there are only a couple of great, uninhibited, unabashed pleasures - with food being one of them.

We rolled down the stairs at the conclusion of our meal (I, for one, was grateful for the baggy woollen jumper I had opted to wear) and while we waited for Chris to arrive with the bus, listened to a rousing Polish troupe on 2 violins, piano accordion and double bass lift the roof in the front foyer. I particularly enjoyed how the lead violinist held his violin down on his chest to allow himself the ability to sing, and sing loudly, at the same time. Dressed in their traditional filigreed (and tight) white outfits, this was an enjoyable conclusion to the dinner!

Back out in the snow glitter, and never one to say no to trying a local drinking establishment, a few of us joined our guide at a little bar not far from our chalet. What to get? That was the question. We were in Poland. Vodka seems to be the right choice. Ahead of us, Simon jumped straight in a bought a honey infused vodka. Why not? I thought, and bought a round for myself and 3 of the other girls.

“32 zloty,” the rambunctious girl behind the bar said.
“32? What?” I was flabbergasted. Amy next to be did the maths (because I dropped maths at the first available opportunity).

4 vodka shots at 32 zloty, that’s 8 zloty each.
4 zloty = roughly €1 (1 euro).
That’s about €2 per shot. Now let’s put that back into pounds.
That’s £1.50 per shot. 

Polish vodka. It really is cheaper than water.

In hindsight, I should have bought more than 4! We stood with our vodka shot in hand, ready for the first sip. This was to be savoured, not thrown down the hatch. First sip was to the chorus of “Urgh”, and “Argh!” and accompanied by a shudder, followed by “Actually that tasted alright.” 

Second sip, much smoother. Tasty, in fact. The warmth could be felt seeping in through my belly and spreading through me. Beanie, off. Jacket, off. Woollen jumper, off. I was down to my singlet (and jeggings…I’m sorry for my crime against fashion) in snow country, sipping delicious, warming vodka.

Next up: herbata g√≥ralska (highlander tea). I thought it sounded a fraction Scottish but after some research, realised it is referring to the highlands of Poland (namely Zakopane). This is the perfect nightcap beverage, and certainly sent me into a cozy, warm, sleep, somewhat drunk state. But what is it? It’s tea (complete with tea bag, sugar and slice of lemon) - with a generous shot of Polish vodka. Piping hot, I stirred in my two sugars, squeezed my lemon until it could be squeezed no more, and settled back to let it cool down a little (after my first sip conveniently burnt my tongue).

It was a strange concoction - not something I would drink regularly but definitely a perfect night ender. The vodka infused its way through the taste of the tea, getting stronger you drained the mug. The heat from the boiling water sent my body temperature skyrocketing to maximum and I was quite looking forward to getting myself back out into the snow and the -10C.

Zakopane, you too are a pretty little thing. A reasonably early night ensued as tomorrow I was going to try my hand (or legs?) at skiing.



***
Monday, 29 December 2015
ZAKOPANE

I stood beside the shower, shivering, with my hand under the icy cold stream. I turned the tap one way, then the other. Freezing one side, frosty the other. Groaning, a quick APC later and I was down in the breakfast room, unable to open my eyes properly and stumbling around like I was horribly hungover. World, meet Morning Sasha. 

Today we were going skiing. I was both excited and terrified - for what I think is rather good reason. On the off chance you don’t know (which would be rare as I go on about it at length), I’ve had knee reconstructions on both my knees; the first was due to a skiing accident when I was 15. We were taught to snow plow, and then taken to the top of the mountain. I, like everyone, fell, but did so in such a way that I tore the crutiate ligament in my right knee in one go. Bam. Like that. My other knee I tore when I was 20, and it never quite healed correctly. Never-the-less, I was adamant I would ski and that I would be fine.

I donned my waterproof pants and stressed about how many layers I was going to need to wear. I took a couple of costume changes just in case and by the time we were on the bus, we realised how few of us were actually going to participate in any snow sports. 

Perfect little snowflakes

The snow fields were teeming with people, little ants up and down the mountain. ski and boot hire complete, I strutted outside (as there is no other way to walk when wearing ski boots) and we joined the enormous queue for the chairlift. All of us were panicking. Would we lose a ski? Drop a pole? Faceplant when getting off the other side? FALL OFF?

It was freezing up in the air. Literally freezing. I tucked my little face into my jacket and scarf and goggles and beanie and tried to take in the scenery (at the same time as breathing upwards to keep my nose warm). I curled my fingers up inside my gloves so the limited body warmth of my palm spread to my finger tips. What felt like an age later, we approached the end of the chairlift ride and I prepared for my dismount. I squealed as my skis touched the sloped ground and, scooped off the chair I careened gently to the start of the hill.

So far so good.

As soon as I started off down the hill I realised that I may not have what it takes to ski anymore. I told everyone to go ahead of me as I would have to make frequent stops. There were a few reasons for this:
  • the pain in my knees was quite noticeable (and would get worse as the day went on)
  • as a result of the surgeries, my knees (despite a lot of physiotherapy) turn inwards, which meant that I was constantly crossing my skis. I hadn’t thought of this until one of the girls mentioned it was why she didn’t ski and instead opted for snowboarding
  • my sheer fear of falling over and damaging myself again


At the time it wasn’t so hilarious, but afterwards I likened myself to Zoolander.



Except for me, I couldn’t turn to the right. My left leg, the most recent victim to surgery, was painfully weak and prevented me from putting the weight on it required to turn to the right. As a result, I had to wend my way down the mountain from the right hand barrier to the left, and then make my way horizontally across the slope to the right hand side again, before beginning the process all over again.

My first trip down was a bit of a process. I was thinking, “What have I gotten myself in for?”. I decided I’d try again, at least once, just to make sure (although I was a little scared of how much it would hurt). I again joined the long queue, got on the chairlift, froze, but this time I looked around and marvelled at the sheer beauty around me. White, as far as the eye could see. People little dotted ants rushing down the slope. 

I again disembarked the chairlift without hassle. This time, not feeling rushed, I took it easy down the mountain and found that I could move with much more easy now I had relaxed a little. I still had to stop often when my legs began to wobble - I wasn’t game to let myself fall - and thus I felt considerably more confident in my second descent. 

I waited at the bottom to see if I would spot anyone I knew. Before long, a cloud of snow to my left and I thought, I recognise that beanie. It was Liz, and she was there with Caitlin and George. All three were snowboarding, and zooming up and down all the slopes. I joined them with what was to be my last trek up the mountain.

And then the clouds parted and the sun made a cheeky appearance

We had a snack at the cafe at the top (a very welcome hot chocolate!) and found a few more from the tour - warming themselves with a few mulled wines. In hindsight, I might have relaxed a little had I had a mulled wine, but then again, the risk of injury would have been that much greater…who knows? It was rather cold, to say the least, and a little warmed by the hot chocolate I bid the table adieu and made my way down the mountain for the last time. This time I allowed myself time to stop and take some photos, and just enjoy the view.

Reflections

At the bottom, I discarded my skis and boots (obviously through the correct channels) and attempted to remember how to walk like a normal human being. I spent some time looking through all the little stalls and nomming on delicious treats. I marvelled at the perfect snowflakes that were falling here and pulled my scarf in tighter around my neck. I returned to the hire station and, meeting the rest of troupe, we eventually made our way back to the hostel. 

During the year, Zakopane has a population of roughly 30,000. But during the course of the year, the tiny town is visited by a staggering 2 million tourists. Partly due to the ridiculously inexpensive skiing coupled with the great slopes and snowfall. Therefore our way home to the hostel was very slow going. 

NB: Back at the hostel, I had the most ah-mazing hot shower. It’s almost a stand out in hot showers I’ve had in my existence. It was both hot and showery.

Tonight, we could find out own way to dinner. A group of us wanted to try the famous Meat Palace and after a short wait, was shown to our table. Cue a very similar night to the previous: a ridiculously enormous tray of meat (that was meant to only feed two but three of us could not even get close to finishing it). One thing I decided about Poland: it’s very shouty. In all of the restaurants, the waiters and waitresses yelled and stamped their feet and clanged at hanging bells. I wish I knew what they were doing but it made for a lively atmosphere.

Poland: a vegetarian's nightmare

We had originally considered going for a drink but we all ended up being too exhausted. On the way back to the hostel, the snow was beautifully deep and I realised I hadn’t made a snow angel yet. Throwing myself into the centre of the deep snow, I swished my arms and my legs and lay there, shivering, waiting for the photo. Only a gentle -10C and the middle of the night. Never was one for making good decisions. To be honest, The Marshmallow (my purple jacket) served me incredibly well throughout the trip: my upper half was rarely cold. So lying in the middle of the snow, my body and arms were quite happy but my two pairs of pants didn’t really cut it. By that point my legs were numb anyway.

That brought the gorgeous little town of Zakopane to a close. The glittery snowflakes, the blankets and pillow of white, the meat, the shouting, the vodka, the snowball fights and the wrestling in the snow. I may or may not have also eaten some snow (in hindsight I think it tasted minty because it came from a pine tree…). So long Zakopane, you’re another one I wouldn’t mind popping in to say hello to again one day.

xx

The snowiest of angels
(the zooming lines are snowflakes falling)