Riding for a lifeline

Adam Perry

You do not look like a person who has just biked over 100 kilometers,” Jan “Jano” Rohac of Greenways Travel Club told me, very matter-of-factly, in his thick Slovakian accent as I entered the Grand Hotel Matej in Banská tiavnica, Slovakia, after sunset.

Helmet still on, pushing my bike through the hotel’s front door, I was wearing a battered Pittsburgh Steelers poncho that was covered in rain and mud, much like my face and hair. But I was smiling, and Rohac was correct: My legs felt fresh, and I still had the energy and enthusiasm to do another 100 kilometers (62 miles) if it was somehow necessary.

That feeling, and the prospect of traveling alone by bicycle through three countries I’d never been to, staying in a new, hard-to-pronounce town each night, was what took me and my bike trailer to Eastern Europe this summer. But I ended up finding a lot more in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland than exercise and a chance to hone my navigation skills.

In April, after receiving my tax return, I decided on a whim that it was time to visit my ancestral home of Slovakia, where my mother’s family has deep roots. After one night of research, I discovered that my great-grandfather was born in Niedzica (pronounced “knee-jit-sah”), which is now Polish territory. So it made sense, as an avid cyclist living in Boulder, to book a flight from Denver to Budapest and a flight home, one week later, out of Krakow.

For a hefty number of euros, fully supported nine-day Budapest-to- Krakow (the 250-mile Amber Trail, which is at least as old as ancient Rome) adventure-cycling tours are available. They include hotels, an impressively equipped bicycle, a GPS device, luggage service and around-the-clock emergency support via a borrowed cell phone.

Having previously completed numerous bike tours in America and Europe, I decided to contact Greenways and tell them I wanted to do the Budapest-to-Krakow ride in four days, not nine, and would bring my own bike and haul my clothes, tools, etc., in panniers. I only needed the GPS, cell phone, hotels and directions. It cost a fraction of the normal price and, having biked the Swiss Alps last year, the cycling was downright easy.

The navigation was not. Even with the GPS device attached to my handlebars, and a list of directions, there were still turns I had trouble finding — such as onto a skinny, unmaintained country road between Tupa and Slatina in Slovakia. The GPS device would only tell me there was a turn somewhere near, and the directions from the travel company read simply, “Sharp left turn towards ball-shaped water tower.”

The hard-to-find dirt road — which looked even more iffy when torn apart by a day of constant heavy rain — took me almost an hour to settle on as I biked in circles. That confusion added somewhere between 10 and 20 miles onto the ride from Esztergom, Hungary, to Banská tiavnica, Rohac’s hometown, where I found a porcelain doll for my daughter.

Jano, whose idea of simply writing down the names of each village I’d pass through each day and crossing them off in order helped immeasurably, met me in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Matej around 8 p.m. on August 31 to give me some maps and chat about my day. The previous morning, after I’d arrived from a short bike ride from Budapest to Szentendre, Jano had met me in Hungary’s idyllic “City of Artists” (sort of an Eastern European Taos beside the Danube River), to hand me the GPS device and cell phone, as well as hotel vouchers. Jano even rode about 15 miles north with me between Szentendre and Estzergom, which is on the Slovakian border; we got to know each other a little, talking about our families and biking along the Danube, taking two necessary ferries before Jano went home.

When I told the affable, burly Slovakian — whose day job is in cycling advocacy for an Eastern European environmental activism association — about my Slovakian roots and my quest to visit Niedzica, he was unimpressed.

“That’s in Poland,” Jano said with a straight face. I could tell he wanted to roll his eyes, but instead chose to change the subject.

My grandparents, born in Pittsburgh like my parents and I, raised my mother and her siblings firmly Slovakian, speaking the language in their home when I was growing up and often serving rich Slovakian cuisine, especially around Christmas. But Jano was right — just a little research uncovered that the two-castle village of Niedzica (where my grandfather’s father, Adalbert “George” Lopata, was born in 1878) has been in Poland since the 1920s. And my grandmother’s family is from Dubne, which has roughly the same territorial history.

Despite all that, and Jano’s assertion that my family is not Slovakian, my time cycling south to north through the country from Budapest to Krakow truly felt like a homecoming. An ancestral voyage.

Budapest, where I bought the famed herbal liqueur Unicum Zwack to take home to my love, Irene, and had a few hours to dip my bones in the famous Szechenyi Baths and climb Gellert Hill at sunset for a stunning view of the world-class city, was startlingly beautiful and cosmopolitan. Plus, a dinner of tasty goulash, bread and good dark beer at a nice restaurant in downtown Budapest cost me about as much as a Happy Meal at an American McDonald’s.

And Krakow — which made me feel Polish when I realized every pierogi joint I walked into smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen — was a revelation. The Cracow Hostel, where I made friends with many students, mostly Belgians, is right on the historic Rynek Glowny Grand Square, and I spent the last few days of my trip visiting World War II sites such as Schindler’s factory and Auschwitz, while hanging out in youthful Kazimierz at night. But Slovakia, where almost no one spoke English, was the highlight of my trip.

I enjoyed drinking honey wine, and playing pool with locals at the aptly named Jumbo Pub, in Liptovsky Mikulas, and feasting on potato pancakes with sheep cheese and roast pork in Dolny Kubin, where I befriended Karol Szekely, father of Stanley Cup champion Martin Cibak, whose hockey card Szekely proudly gave me. And I’ll never forget accompanying Jano on a side trip to the intact traditional Slovakian mountain village of Vikolínec, which was attacked by the Germans during World War II. However, it was the many desolate, serene miles between main roads, of which there were few, in Slovakia that I treasured the most, hearing nothing but my muddy bike rolling along and animals — notably little deer the color of a ripe orange — scurrying away.

Deep in the forest after a six-mile climb above Liptovská Osada, I snapped a picture that, in hindsight, signifies the sense of home I found on my ride through Slovakia. Lush green all around; humble, poverty-stricken little villages full of welcoming strangers who rarely spoke a word of English but excitedly communicated with such wellknown gestures as handing me complimentary beers on rainy afternoons when I’d only stopped to use a bar’s bathroom; rolling hills far less imposing than the juxtaposition of astounding beauty and bona fide masochism I encountered while biking Switzerland last year; and mile after mile of mostly unmaintained wilderness, where I saw not one fellow cyclist on my entire ride.

Nor did I endure any mechanical problems, luckily, for my fourth straight bike tour. Although my bike slowed down some after three days of getting muddy — almost as muddy as my poncho — on the Slovakian trails, it sustained no flats between Budapest and Krakow, and steered well even on winding descents during downpours. At times I felt like legendary Steelers running back Jerome Bettis joyously tumbling through a defense on an exceedingly wet day, with the playing surface at Heinz Field shredded beyond recognition. It was a blast.

Biking virtually every day of the year in Boulder, at over a mile above sea level, I regularly climb Poor Man Road and Lefthand Canyon, and often ride from Boulder to Denver without stopping, so none of the cycling in Eastern Europe was physically challenging, unlike my Swiss tour. The real adventure was traveling alone through three countries with different currencies and different languages, none of which I speak.

That kind of seat-of-your-bikeshorts adventure was made less challenging by how ridiculously cheap it is in Eastern Europe. Five dollars (including tip) in Budapest and all through Slovakia — a few more in Krakow — will easily get you a hearty, filling meal and a large local beer. And, if you’re firm, even a five-hour cab ride from Krakow to Niedzica — three of those hours in the wrong direction — costs only $63.

You see, after arriving in Krakow, patronizing the pierogi joints that smelled exactly like my grandma’s kitchen and visiting Wawel Castle and every other tourist attraction I could possibly fit into two days, I made sure to bribe a cabbie to take me to my great-grandfather’s birthplace. Around 10 a.m. on Sept. 5, near St. Florian’s Gate, I counted my remaining zlotys and attempted to negotiate the price of a ride to Niedzica, which is inaccessible by bicycle from Krakow. The cabbie claimed to speak not a word of English, and quickly took me toward the highway, headed south.

After three hours — about an hour more than it takes to drive from Krakow to Niedzica — the cabbie suddenly spoke plenty of English, mostly obscenities. In a fit, he rolled down his window in obscure villages to ask everyone from construction workers to schoolchildren how to get to Niedzica. When we finally arrived there, passing iconic 700-yearold Dunajec Castle before stopping in front of St. Bartholemew’s Church — and its Pittsburgh-funded monument that includes a tribute to my late uncle Jozef — the cabbie said that, although the tab had reached approximately 600 zlotys (or $200), he would accept 450.

I gave him 200 zlotys — what it would have cost had he not lost his way — and exited the cab without argument, not even looking back to see it speed away.

After viewing the monument and the gorgeous little 14th-century church, I felt half satisfied and half stupid, realizing that since my great-grandfather died in Pittsburgh, this might be the gist of my visit to Niedzica. But a guy named Michael, who was picking up his 5-year-old son, Wojtek, at an adjacent preschool, was kind enough to not only take me to the home of a man who shares my mother’s family name (Lopata, which is so common in Niedzica that the man’s response was a shrug) but also introduce me to Father Jozef Bednarczyk, whose office is across from St. Bartholomew’s.

Though he spoke not a word of English save for “moment,” which he used to tell me he was getting up to do something and then return, Father Bednarczyk understood well who I was and why I had come all the way from Colorado. For a good 20 minutes he searched through the big, dusty log of Niedzica births and deaths while I sat and wondered whether there was a bus to Krakow close by.

After several rounds of saying “moment” before going to his bookshelf and back, Father Bednarczyk — who had previously seemed rather imposing, because of both his size and his silence — became animated.

I had scrawled my great-grandfather’s name and birthdate on a small piece of paper torn from my notebook and handed it to the priest when I entered his office. Now, Father Bednarczyk motioned for me to stand up and join him behind his desk to look in the town record. As I reveled in seeing my great-grandfather’s name and birthdate (April 9, 1878) in 136-year-old handwriting, the priest shook his head, said “moment,” and began writing another name, Catarine, on scratch paper in red pen along with the same birthdate as my great-grandfather.

“A twin?” I asked. He understood somehow and smiled, nodding approval.

“Moment,” Father Bednarczyk said, and flipped forward through the Niedzica village log.

Just a few pages later, my great aunt’s name was written again. And again the priest scribbled in red pen on the same scratch paper (which is now on my family’s fridge in Boulder) below Catarine’s birthdate.

“31.8.1878.” It turns out Catarine died at four months old, in August 1878. The news of her birth and death was astonishing, something it seems not even my grandparents knew.

Father Bednarczyk shook my hand, gave me his card, and walked me outside onto the steps of the church. Two local women were walking by, and he spoke to them in Polish. I understood not a word.

One of the women suddenly spoke to me in English.

“We will take you to the cemetery,” she said. “It is just down the road. We’re going there already, to visit my grandfather, who is buried there.”

To not only learn of my great aunt’s birth, and death, but visit her resting place felt like a miracle, especially to someone raised in a family as staunchly and historically Catholic as mine. The two friendly Niedzica women, one 43 and the other 18, an aunt and her niece, have both lived in Chicago — which reportedly has the largest Polish population of any city other than Warsaw.

We spent about an hour in the cemetery, with its timeless views of the village and the surrounding mountains, before I took the women out for pizza and they showed me where to catch a bus to Krakow as the sun sank. Catarine Lopata’s resting place is technically there in that small Niedzica cemetery — the town knows where the unmarked graves from the 1800s, when the cemetery was built, are — but there are no headstones from that time, only unmarked crosses in one small section and ominous mounds in another.

Thus, although my ancestral journey felt complete, standing there in the Niedzica cemetery feeling Polish, Slovakian and American all at once, there was still a sense of mystery, knowing only that my great-aunt’s resting place was very near.

From Boulder to Budapest by plane, from Budapest to Krakow by bicycle, and to Niedzica by confused cab, it was a solo voyage that made Slovakia feel like home, Poland feel like a newly discovered limb, and adventure cycling feel even more like a calling.

Arriving at the Boulder Transit Center after midnight on Sept. 7 following a 23-hour travel day with stops in Frankfurt and Calgary, there was no one to pick me up, let alone the huge box containing my bike, and no bus on which we’d fit. So there I was at the vacant bus station, unpacking my bike and carefully reassembling it before attaching panniers full of clothes, gear and gifts.

Putting on my helmet and climbing Broadway heading north in the moonlight — with a porcelain doll from Banská tiavnica lying face up, tied to my rear bike rack — it seemed another trip was beginning.

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