Mountain ranges have long served as major separators of people and cultures. But I never quite ‘got’ that until skirting around the Tatras Friday from Poland to Slovakia. Our bus ride was less than two hours, taking us up to an overpass from Zakopane, Poland and back down into the valleys of Slovakia.We were stunned when we arrived at the bus station in Poprad, Slovakia, where we had to wait an hour to catch a more local bus to Levoča. People looked completely different! After two months in Russia, Poland, and the Baltic states, we were used to seeing an overwhelming majority of blond, fair people. Suddenly there was far more diversity, including a lot of very dark complected people, who are virtually non-existent in Baltic Europe. It truly felt like we had arrived someplace much more exotic, almost Middle Eastern. We had unknowingly crossed the threshold between Northern and Southern Europe. And the difference was not just in the faces. In the Northern countries — Russia, the Baltics, Poland — buses and trains were extremely punctual. We’ve already taken several bus and train journeys in Slovakia now, and not one has been on time. Once we arrived at Levoča, we checked into our nice little hotel and then headed to catch the third bus of the day to the town dominated by the massive ruins of Spiš Castle. Here we climbed the hill to visit this 12th century stronghold, once occupied by the kings of Hungary. The views were spectacular, and the castle had some interesting exhibits about the people who lived here and what it was like. As I was expressing my fascination with medieval times and what it would be like to see these castles in operation, Jim looked concerned and made me promise not to start going to Renaissance festivals. And yes, there really were flying ants, but only at the top of the tallest tower in the castle. This notice was posted as you entered the skinny little stone staircase to climb to the top. We got up there and started to enjoy the view, but within seconds these highly annoying bugs were landing all over us. They won the day, because we climbed down again fast.
After spending the night in the quiet but pretty town of Levoča, we grabbed another bus to a train station in the next town to catch a supposedly four-hour train to the capital of Bratislava. To emphasize the fact that we are no longer in the cool, efficient north, our train left several minutes late and lost time throughout the journey, arriving in Bratislava 35 minutes late. And the 99 degree heat in the non-air conditioned train certainly helped foster the exotic atmosphere. Yup, we’re back in a heat wave with highs predicted in the high 90s and low 100s for a full week throughout the region. Yikes. Those Mediterranean beaches in Croatia are beckoning.