After some time in the Czech Republic, a 10-hour train journey took me back to familiar territory near Žilina, Slovakia. I had been to Žilina a few weeks before and had explored some of the expansive Malá Fatra Fatra National Park, but this time I wanted to take on some of the bigger mountains on the opposite side.
The village of Terchová is close to the mountains and has enough lodging to keep up with the peak hiking and skiing seasons, making it the ideal jumping-off point. A page on the town’s website lists all of the available accommodation. Since it all looked pretty comparable and affordable, we picked one called Laurenčík at random and booked it for the weekend. Luck must have been on our side, because when I arrived, I found a lovely apartment with comfortable rooms and a kitchen complete with any appliance or tool I could ever need. As if that wasn’t enough, the owner, Jan, was easily one of the nicest, most genuine, and most interesting people I have ever met. Despite only knowing a few handfuls of English words (although he speaks Slovak, Russian and German, so shame on my for my mostly monolingualism), the older gentleman, who as it turned out to be a published philosopher, was able to converse with us in a Slovak/English combination about nearly anything with surprisingly little confusion.
After an early night on Friday (I don’t know which wore me out more, seven hours of lessons with 13-year-olds or 10 hours of solo train and bus travel), we rose early to take on the mountains on Saturday morning. After gathering some supplies at the grocery store, Jan graciously gave us a driving tour of the highlights of Malá Fatra National Park and dropped us off at our trailhead in Štefanová. We had found a basic route from here to Velký Rozsutec, the tallest mountain in the area, online. Our only real concern was the fog coming in,which can make the higher peaks unsafe in the spring, but we decided to head up with the hopes of an afternoon clearing.
After an easy walk out of Štefanová on the yellow trail, we were pleasantly surprised to find the first leg of the hike to be even more entertaining than expected. Instead of an anticipated slow incline up the blue trail to the saddle between Velký (big) and Malý (small) Rozsutec, we found a path through a gorge filled with fun technical aids such as ladders, chains and bridges. Of course, the scenery was pretty sweet when climbing above rushing waterfalls and using chains to scramble up rocky ledges, and the obstacles were so much fun that we didn’t realize how much work it really was until our thighs were burning at the end.
After our passage through the gorge, the trail flattened out for a bit. Unfortunately, the mist hadn’t gone too far since we’d begun a couple hours before, but it actually made a pretty cool effect as we neared the saddle between the two biggest peaks.
Luckily, as we got closer to the top, tiny patches of blue started to bleed through the fog that was so thick a few minutes before. By the time reached the spot where the trail split to go to Velký or Malý Rozsutec, one peak was fully visible. A brief consultation with a map and some other hikers led us to the conclusion that it was actually Malý Rozsutec that we were seeing, and Velký was still closed thanks to the late winter.
I would have possibly been disappointed by this news if the smaller of the two giants didn’t look so impressive from where we were standing. The rocky mound protruding from the hill in front of us looked like a fun challenge to climb and certainly promised a much better view than the other peak covered in cloud.
The scramble up the steep, rocky sides of Malý Rozsutec was certainly exciting enough. While the chains on the earlier section were nice to have, on this extremely vertical section they were absolutely necessary.
Even though we saw many hikers passing by on the trails below us, few cared to climb all the way up to the summit, leaving us with some solitary time on the highest piece of land we could see. The timing couldn’t have been better as the skies cleared as much as they would all day at this very moment.
Aside from a slightly frightening half-climb, half-repel down from our perch, the way back down from the mountains was fairly uneventful. Although we saw some hikers heading up the off-limits Velký Rozsutec, with the fog thickening once again, we weren’t even tempted. The blue path that wound around the other side of Velký Rozsutec was beautiful, but much less interesting than the obstacle-filled gorge on the way up. Chris and I agreed it would have been a pretty big disappointment if we would have unknowingly done the loop the other way walked up the hill and had to crawl down the gorge path.
After about just two hours, we had hiked out of a substantial amount of mist and back into Terchová, where the rain began to fall. We took Jan up on an earlier offer for a ride back to his apartments. On the way home he added on to his morning tour, taking us to his favorite viewing point in all of Malá Fatra and to his friend’s small cheese factory, where he insisted on buying us sheep cheese.
Jan had explained to us earlier that he had lots of hobbies including mountain biking, pottery and alcohol. He was very adamant that his hobby is making alcohol, not drinking it. He basically explained that for him alcohol is like a snake. Some people can charm a snake, but some people get bitten. He said that even though he doesn’t drink anymore, he loves to watch his guests sample from his stock.
Now, it’s a very common thing in Slovakia to dabble in making local spirits such as slivovice or borovička, and I’ve met many people who have a bottle or two laying around from a batch they made years ago. I assumed that Jan probably had a couple of bottles he had made as well and we arranged to meet in our apartment later in the evening to try a little taste.
When Jan arrived later while we were finishing up cooking dinner, it became clear he did not just dabble in his hobby; he was an enthusiast. As we all nibbled on our dinner, Chris and I tasted from bottle after bottle of different homemade spirits. (Very tiny tastes I might add. Full shots of all of the varieties wouldn’t have boded well for anyone.) Even after several different types and batches, I think we hadn’t even scratched the surface of Jan’s whole collection. While I am no means a liquor expert, (in fact, I normally don’t even like the stuff), after forcing down a shot or two of homemade slivovice before out of politeness, I can say Jan knew what he was doing. Even the traditionally strong taste went down smoothly and you could actually taste the fruits that they were made from. Jan harvests all of the ingredients for his huge stash himself, and when you consider the ratio of fruits or berries to liters of liquid, that is very impressive.
Jan remained modest despite our raves (Chris’ being much more informed than my own), but you could tell by his smile whenever we sampled something new that he truly loved sharing what he does and took a lot of pride in making something other people enjoy. Later when talk drifted to philosophy, another one of Jan’s passions, he explained to us in a very impressive manner for someone who speaks little English, that he thinks sharing is the most rewarding thing a person can do, and the problem with a fully capitalist society is it doesn’t support people supporting each other. Even so, unlike some Slovaks of his generation, Jan isn’t a supporter of communism either (he fled Slovakia to work in West Germany during the Communist Era), but simply believes that sharing what you have is much more valuable than money.
Now I’ve met a lot of people who have said similar things, but Jan really seems to live it. Despite the meager amount he charges for his apartment, he spent our entire stay seeing how he could help us or sharing things with us. He gave us some of the philosophy books he’s written, which I’m eager to translate parts of, and even drove us a half-hour to the train station, just to be nice. By the time we left, I am pretty sure he had spent more money on us than he had made, and yet he was all the happier for it.
Not to be cheesy, but I think that people like Jan are a real inspiration. I have rarely, if ever, met someone so genuinely giving and so happy, and I have good reason to believe these two things are not independent of each other. Even if I never meet Jan again, I hope I will remember to share his generosity whenever possible.