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Expat begins long trek across Slovakia

TRNAVA - David McLean first got the idea of walking across Slovakia in 1993, when he was an English teacher in the northern Slovak city of Poprad. After constant planning and preparation, he found himself eight years later ready to begin his journey at Devín Castle, the site where Slovakia meets Austria, where the Morava River flows into the Danube, where in 1836 Slovak poet Ľudovít Štúr led a group of students to the ruin atop the rock promontory to announce the Slovak struggle for self-determination.
"It had to be Devín," he announces, the perfect beginning for a trek which he says is designed to explore every corner of the country, from the Hungarian south to the mountainous north and from the symbolic Devín ruin to the site in north-east Slovakia where Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia converge.


US-born David McLean, shown here in Trnava six days into his 1,500 kilometre hike across Slovakia, expects the journey to last about 12 weeks. He first got the idea for the trip in 1993.
photo: Chris Togneri

TRNAVA - David McLean first got the idea of walking across Slovakia in 1993, when he was an English teacher in the northern Slovak city of Poprad. After constant planning and preparation, he found himself eight years later ready to begin his journey at Devín Castle, the site where Slovakia meets Austria, where the Morava River flows into the Danube, where in 1836 Slovak poet Ľudovít Štúr led a group of students to the ruin atop the rock promontory to announce the Slovak struggle for self-determination.

"It had to be Devín," he announces, the perfect beginning for a trek which he says is designed to explore every corner of the country, from the Hungarian south to the mountainous north and from the symbolic Devín ruin to the site in north-east Slovakia where Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia converge.

Only one hitch to the long-anticipated start: on July 17, the first day of his planned three-month tramp across the country, the skies opened over the greater Bratislava region and dumped the first rain in weeks on the previously scorched land.

"I think I've seen more rain in the first seven days of my trip than I have at any other time I've been in Slovakia," McLean said with a good-natured laugh after arriving in Trnava a week into his trip.

Undeterred by the inclement weather that first day, McLean and friend Jonathan Gresty (an English teacher in the eastern Slovak city of Prešov who agreed to join McLean for the first leg) each took a swig of potent slivovica (plum brandy) from a flask which McLean will carry with him on the trip ("You can't hike across Slovakia without slivovica," he said). With fire in their bellies, they braved the gusting winds and driving rain and headed into the Small Carpathian mountains.

David McLean is a 37-year-old American expat born in Granite City, Illinois. After receiving a masters degree in English from Boston University, he signed on as a contracted video-game script writer for Microsoft in Seattle. It was a well-paying job which saw him working alongside American baseball legends like Tim McCarver and Jack Buck.

But after a six-month stint in Slovakia in 1993, he couldn't stay away. "I was really taken by the country, I was really kind of infatuated by it," he says. "Not just the mountains, but the villages and countryside as well. Travelling by train made me want to be in the countryside instead of just looking at it from afar."

Walking across Slovakia seemed a reasonable endeavour to McLean for several reasons. First, "there are no fences, like in the US." Another obvious difference between the States and Slovakia is the size of each country. "America is too big to walk across," he says.

Although far smaller, Slovakia has so far proven more than a simple walk in the woods. Just six days into the trip, McLean already had a slew of adventures to tell.

After leaving Devín, the trail led to the Bratislava suburb of Dúbravka, then north back into the forest and eventually the small town of Marianka. Cold, wet and tired, McLean and Gresty were disappointed to learn that the town's lone hotel was closed for renovations. They pushed on a further five kilometres to Borinka where they had hoped to rent a cottage. But a sign on the door said that it, too, was closed.

"We were sitting in this pub, and we didn't know what we would do," he said. "A bartender who heard us talking told us that there was a man in the pub who could help. He turned out to be the cook from the cottage that was closed, but he opened it up for us and let us stay."

On day two, Gresty and McLean scaled a nearby hill to the Pajštún castle ruin where they unpacked their belongings and laid them on the rocks to dry in the sun. The hike continued later that day into the wine-making town of Modra, where the trail-weary hikers spent the next day drinking wine and visiting the Ľudovít Štúr museum.

After stops at the Červený Kameň castle and time off watching a friend compete in a local orienteering grand prix, Gresty took off for eastern Slovakia's Prešov, leaving McLean in the small town of Častá. After a night there, he enjoyed a long day of hiking through flatlands teeming with vegetation and wildlife.

"This is really the first day of how I envisioned my hike across the country," he says. "Walking through the farmland, I was amazed by the wildlife. It was a look at Slovakia I had never seen before. There were jackrabbits the size of a dog - maybe not German Shepherd size, but bigger than a Cocker Spaniel."

After encounters with countless field mice, doves, crows, storks, and grouse and a stop-off at the Budmerice writer's retreat, McLean pulled into Trnava, ready for a day off before shoving on to Piešťany, Trenčín, and then south to the Hungarian-dominated areas north of the Danube.

Along the way, he'll be taking notes - McLean has an agent in Seattle working on securing a deal for a book he'd like to write chronicling his voyage. He got the idea while reading A Walk Through Wales by Anthony Bailey.

"I don't see stopping the trip because of a lack of desire or boredom," he says with evident high spirits, and a slight limp. "Only injury could prevent me from finishing. I mean, I'm in pretty good shape, but I'm 37. Hopefully my body will just get accustomed to the walking. We'll see."

David McLean will be contributing a bi-weekly story updating readers on his Trek Across Slovakia. David invites readers with advice or comments to contact him via e-mail at . His next update from the field will appear in Vol. 7, No. 30.

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