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Cowpats more dangerous than bears

US-born David McLean in mid-July set off on a 1,500 kilometre, 12-week hike across Slovakia. This is the third instalment of his bi-weekly diary contributed to The Slovak Spectator, and covers his journey from Štúrovo in the Hungarian south to Žilina in the north.
South Slovakia's Levice is a place of transition, not only for my journey but for the land as well. I arrive from the hot, flat south, knocking out the 60km from Štúrovo in two long, sweltering days. I leave to the north on a cool evening over gentle waves of hills leading to the Štiavnické Vrchy. It's the last Hungarian town on my journey, though Vojtech, my Hungarian host, points out that the majority of people in Levice are Slovak. "It's slowly assimilating," he added.
On that first walk out, I look to the south west just in time to see the silhouettes of two small roe deer (srniec) bounding over a stubblefield towards the nearby woods against the flat orange glow of sunset.

US-born David McLean in mid-July set off on a 1,500 kilometre, 12-week hike across Slovakia. This is the third instalment of his bi-weekly diary contributed to The Slovak Spectator, and covers his journey from Štúrovo in the Hungarian south to Žilina in the north.

South Slovakia's Levice is a place of transition, not only for my journey but for the land as well. I arrive from the hot, flat south, knocking out the 60km from Štúrovo in two long, sweltering days. I leave to the north on a cool evening over gentle waves of hills leading to the Štiavnické Vrchy. It's the last Hungarian town on my journey, though Vojtech, my Hungarian host, points out that the majority of people in Levice are Slovak. "It's slowly assimilating," he added.

On that first walk out, I look to the south west just in time to see the silhouettes of two small roe deer (srniec) bounding over a stubblefield towards the nearby woods against the flat orange glow of sunset.

Bibiana, a friend from Prešov in the east, joins me for a few days, and the following afternoon as we climb through the woods, I mention how I've been picking plums, strawberries, and raspberries along my trip. "And now it's blackberry season," she says. Sure enough, minutes later we find the first samples. For half an hour we stop every 10 metres or so to fill our hands until we come upon the mother lode of blackberry bushes. We go crazy, greedily filling sacks and containers. "Save some for the bears," I say when we've got a kilo or more. Later we eat them with fresh cream and a dash of sugar.

And then we reach Austria. At Počúvadlo Lake we stay at the Hotel Topky, which is owned by an Austrian and decorated in the style. It's like a small piece of Austria here on Slovak soil. A bus load of elderly Austrians arrive and we spend the night hearing only German, except for the red-faced, white-bearded man who plays the accordion and sings sentimental songs in Czech.

The first hints of autumn appear on the way to Banská Štiavnica. Just the lightest brushings of yellow and orange on the hillsides, and a thin but steady stream of falling yellow leaves.

Antol is a huge country mansion 5km from Banská Štiavnica. Its last owner and resident was the Czar of Bulgaria. It's an amazing testament to aristocratic life at the turn of the century. The sheer volume of stuff collected in rooms and hallways is amazing. On top of that, it has a forest of animal horns and heads shot in the 19th century as well as a terrific hunting museum on its lower floors. Hunting becomes a running theme for a few days. Two nights later we eat dinner at a Slovenská Koliba in Sklené Teplice. In the spirit of Hotel Topky and of Antol, I order pheasant soup and deer cooked in wine and berries. The Czar would have been proud.

Coincidence, not planning, brings us to Banská Bystrica on August 29, the holiday commemorating the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), which began in Bystrica 57 years ago to the day. I was hoping for some kind of ceremony, but it apparently took place the day before. We content ourselves with a long visit to the SNP museum. The eternal flame in the centre is surrounded by wreaths from a variety of nations, towns and political parties. The following day I visit Kremnička, a few kilometres south of Bystrica, and the mass grave from the SNP and the reprisals that followed.

I head for the Veľká Fatra mountains alone, climbing through the massive Sásová estate on my way. I need directions, and the woman who helps gives me these parting words: "Watch out for the bears." "A friend told me to sing as I walked through the mountains," I reply. "That will help," she nods with a wave.

I do sing a little, but there's no need. No sign of bears anywhere. There are amazing views, however, on my way to Špania Dolina and the following day to the Gaderská Valley, among the most beautiful in Slovakia. Danger arrives not in the form of a large mammal, but of a cow pudding. At the King's Well, 1,365m up in the mountains, I step in what North Americans call a Prairie Oyster and my legs go flying. English curses and oaths echo from the massive limestone outcroppings.

Gaderská is as gorgeous as advertised, a weird, alien landscape, like something from a fantasy video game. The clear, rushing river has cut caves and strange shapes out of limestone, and the road is lined with huge elephant ear plants. The valley is also long, and I'm exhausted as I reach a restaurant on the edge of Blatnica. Alex and his son Andrew, Bratislavans on holiday, overhear my question to the waitress about accommodation and come to my aid, taking me to the pension where they're staying. It's yet another of the small kindnesses that I've grown accustomed to on this trip.

In the morning I walk the 20km to Martin, a cinch after the previous day's long haul through the mountains. The road between Blatnica and Necpaly is as pretty as anything in the famous adjacent valley, and despite the light rain that falls for hours, I sing Beatles and Buddy Holly tunes out loud, for the cows and sheep this time, not for the bears.

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