The overloaded, dilapidated, speeding bus lurched across the road into the path of a transport truck as the driver fought to negotiate a tough curve. The passengers in the front, their faces mashed against the windscreen, moaned in dismay. The truck passed honking. The bus driver regained his lane cursing.
Minutes later, he was parked in the middle of the main road to Poland, chatting with a mate in a second bus. A Škoda car, blocked from passing, parped indignantly, drawing another volley of abuse from the driver. The passengers who understood his rich obscenities smiled indulgently.
According to several articles in the Slovak press recently, it is precisely this kind of experience which is preventing Slovakia from realising its tourism potential. Ever sensitive to what they think westerners want, Slovak journalists wring their hands at anything tourists meet in accomodation and service here that is less than 'world class'.
This seems all wrong. Tourists visiting Slovakia come here for several reasons - it's cheap, it's beautiful, and with its wild bus rides and colourful characters, it's exotic. Anyone who wants a 'world class' vacation can find it in overpriced Switzerland, where everything smells of antiseptic and nobody swears.
Take the village of Ždiar in the White Tatras, the eastern adjunct to the country's most popular tourist destination, the High Tatras. There aren't any hotels to speak of, nor can you find a restaurant serving a 'decent' bottle of wine with dinner; the town's one grocery store stocks little besides alcohol and candy.
But every villager seems to be advertising his residence as a 'penzion' or 'privat', and the going rate for a comfortable bed is four dollars a night. When you get up in the morning, you may find chickens scratching or cows grazing outside your door, and at one house, if you befriend the owner's scruffy dog, she'll be waiting for you on the front porch with her fat offspring, hopeful sentinels in the misty dawn.
There's not much to do in Ždiar besides walk about. If you want to catch a bus out you'll have to guess at the departure times, for like many places in the Tatras, the bus stops are not equipped with schedules. And even if a bus does come, it will likely be jammed with Polish backpackers riding down from Lysá Poľana, and will not even bother stopping to pick more passengers up.
But if you hike into the White Tatras, you'll find a stunning wilderness that until recently was closed to the public. Mountain goats watch you impassively as you puff by within metres of their perches; trails snake through valleys that lie in almost permanent shadow cast by the towering ridges that enclose them. There are no cottages, cable cars, refreshment stands or any other form of concession to the tourists who use the main trail.
In an environment like this, does anyone really want the trappings of a 'world class' holiday? When you come down from the hills with a stiff back and a head full of sights, do you want an air-conditioned room, a bottle of Dom Perignon and a throbbing night club? Or are you better off with a hot shower, several shots of homemade slivovica and a sticky restaurant menu advertising "hemendex" and "Gordon Blue"?
The Tatras, and Slovakia, are just fine as they are. Any misguided facelifts would destroy the one thing that so captivates visitors, and keeps them coming back: Slovakia's unpolished character, and the unvarnished truths you can find in her hills.
14. Aug 2000 at 0:00