Leaving Čičmany, it dawned on me that I was now heading south for the first time on my trip. After two nights in Bojnice, I walked over the hills west towards Uhrovec, where Slovak heroes Ľudovít Štúr and Alexander Dubček were born in the same house.
I camped near Omastina, a small village north of Uhrovec. It was clear when I pitched the tent at dusk, but 90 minutes later the skies opened. It poured down throughout the night, making for a long, damp, sleepless vigil.
At the Štúr-Dubček house I got a tour of the exhibit from Maruška, the museum curator. She suggested I head to the SNP memorial in the hills above town and then drop in to Partizánske. I hadn't planned the route, but it sounded interesting, and it was. I'd been in SNP country for days, with memorials in a number of villages listing those who died in the uprising against German occupation during World War II. The massive SNP site above Uhrovec was spectacular, a dignified white stone tower and the graves of various partisans -Slovak, Czech and Russian.
Reaching Nitra seemed like a significant milestone for some reason; perhaps it was the dramatic nature of my arrival. After a long walk from Topoľčany, I climbed the last hill I'd see for at least a week and as I crested the grassy top, the city of Nitra, and all of south Slovakia, suddenly lay before me.
After two days in Nitra, I headed south into a Slovakia which felt like a different world entirely. It was hot and flat and I was greeted with the Hungarian tessek as often as the Slovak prosím. But the real difference lay in the people. The cheerful villagers of the previous week were suddenly unsmiling faces. People stared, and not in a curious way. They were long, rude stares that made me feel entirely alien and uncomfortable. It was as though the sun had baked a hard crust on all the locals. I didn't like it. But, I thought, feeling myself squint and grimace in the unrelenting sun, perhaps I appeared the same to them.
The unfriendliness disappeared once I reached the Danube River. I left Komárno and six kilometres to the east I stopped at Kelementia, an old Roman camp on the Slovak side of the Danube. It was a hot mid-afternoon and a woman was scraping at the ground on one of the sites.
"This was the original wooden fortress," she explained to me. "It's from the second century." Her name was Klára and she'd worked on the site for 20 years. "The Roman Empire ended across the Danube, so this site was actually in the territory of the Marcomanni and Quades, outside the empire."
"Sounds dangerous," I said.
"Yes, it would have been." She walked me around the site, pointing out the outer walls and the shape of the camp. She then gave me literature about the site and wished me well. As I walked along the levee, I looked back and saw her again scraping thin layers of dirt off the 1,800 year-old site.
The next morning I met Karol. I'd camped out near the river and woke to see a blood orange sun rising through the trees. I'd walked an hour when a wiry, bantam-like man in his 50s appeared from over the levee and fell in step beside me. He was tanned, in white shorts and a plain T-shirt. His black canvas sneakers had drips of green paint on the toes.
"Going swimming," he said. I asked if he swam every morning and he said yes. "Where are you going?" he asked. I told him. The news excited him. "On foot? The whole way? DO-breeee!" he said, just like that. "DO-breeee." Goo-ooood.
He asked if I was Hungarian and I said, "No, American."
"American? Really? Do-breeee."
He told me that he makes his living as a landscape painter and had had seven pints of beer the night before because his wife was away and it was a good time to drink when your wife is away. He invited me to coffee at his sister's house, just down the road.
She was a stout, pleasant woman and she made me coffee and breakfast and sent me off with a huge jar of peach jam, 10 tomatoes, a cucumber and five apples from her tree. I was grateful for the gifts, but leery of the extra kilos in my backpack.
I reached Štúrovo that afternoon, the hottest day of the trip by far, and already I was looking forward to turning north again, to the shady, cooler highlands.