We’re in Obyvačka, a pretty Bratislava cafe-restaurant, on a sunny summer’s day. I like the joint because the coffee’s good, the food’s decent but unpretentious and the tattoos of the chef never cease to amaze. And there’s plenty of free tables during the middle of the day to idle undisturbed; do a bit of writing; get a bite to eat. If I’m meeting anyone for business, as today, chances are I’ll meet them here.
The only other clients on this particular day are a couple of middle aged ladies; one immense, one minuscule, who seem to be discussing their husband’s respective shortcomings – I don’t catch all the words and that’s probably just as well.
And the question comes, not for the first time, probably not for the last: “why Slovakia?” And of course, as the about section of this site details, there are several answers to this. There was work, first of all. And then there was love. But there’s a number of reasons why, irrespective of other factors, I like hanging out in this little nation.
But the question of the guy I’m meeting isn’t about why I’m here; it’s about what I specialise in, as a travel writer.
Because I’ve just been telling him about my other speciality: the Amazon. The rainforest, you know, not the online shop. And he doesn’t see the link, or rather, he thinks the link a bizarre one. If I’d paired the Amazon with Argentina as a specialisation, or Slovakia with, perhaps, the Ukraine, it might not seem like such a disparity of interests.
Of course I was already obsessed with this corner of Eastern Europe long before I moved here – and the Amazon, at least the Peruvian, Bolivian and Brazilian bits of it, had also been a long-standing obsession. So much so it even became the subject of my first novel. Why? It’s obviously not the similarities in architecture or language. I love mountains, but the Amazon doesn’t possess too many of those. I love adventurous day-long river trips, but that’s not really Slovakia’s forte. No. It’s forests.
Slovakia is among Europe’s most forested nations. The tatranska bora – those storms that ripped through the pine forests in the Tatras not so long ago didn’t help. But still, forest coverage here exceeds 40% – not bad compared to the UK, which clocks up a mere 11% of forests across its land mass. The thing about Slovakia’s forests, too, is that they kick off right outside the district of Bratislava where I lived for three years and continue pretty much all the way across the country to the Ukraine. You can get lost in the woods in Slovakia within five or six kilometres of the Capital’s very centre. And I like that. I like that a lot. There’s something otherworldly, humbling, exciting about that. The idea that forests surround you is part of every experience you have in Slovakia. They’re always, well, there.
Forests provide a very particular kind of adventure. Mountains are great, but let’s face it, you are going there for the views. The desert? Good again, but what you’re looking for is that wide-open sandiness, right? With forests, you’re going there to get immersed. To feel the wet leaves brush your skin, for that all-encompassing earthy smell to hit your nostrils, to see the animals hiding-rustling-snuffling in the foliage, to discover that hidden path through some tunnel of trees.
I get that when I take a walk outside Bratislava and I get it in the Amazon too.