Days 39 & 40 28th & 29th June Slovakia-Poland A Brush with the Law & the High Tatras

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June 29th 2011
Published: June 29th 2011
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Days 39 & 40 28th & 29th June Slovakia-Poland A Brush with the Law

Day 39 28th June

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." -- John Steinbeck

….and we thought we had our 48 hours in Slovakia under control. We were going to travel up through the little country to the High Tatras mountains which border with Poland. We were going to spend the night in a nice campsite and the next day (today) we were going to take a hike up into the mountains. Well, at least we thought we were…..

The short journey from Western Riding Ranch to the border gave us a glimpse of how poor and run down rural Hungary can be. The roads were diabolical and the site of large empty broken down communist factories depressing. These factories would have sustained whole communities and now they are devoid of work and reliant on the government, a government that has little money and whose economy is in disarray. There were absolutely NO tourists and hardly any vehicles. In the villages young Romany youths and older men were gathered just ‘hanging around’. Further down the road one would see the Romany women pushing prams full of wood they had scavenged from the forests. We crossed the border from Hungary through a deserted checkout.

The immediate impression was that Slovakia was somewhat better off than Northern Hungary – the valley opened out and there were large fields of crops either side of the road. Not only crops but several ‘fields’ of solar panels – it seemed that Slovakia was in the 21st Century. We knew that, although we were only going to be on a stretch of about 15 miles of motorway, we needed to purchase a windscreen sticker. This information was in one of our guidebooks but there was no signs stating this when crossing the border. We came up a small road from the border and joined a larger road which headed west; this was the road we were to be on for 15 odd miles. It didn’t look like any kind of motorway (see photo) and we were on it for about 6 miles when a police car overtook us. After another ½ mile the police car pulled us over.

Bear in mind that at this point we had been in the country for some 12 miles. We weren’t concerned; we had all our documentation in order, our lights were on (a requirement in many Eastern European countries) and we weren’t speeding. We got out of the cab, smiling and saying hello. We were greeted with 3 policemen, two of whom were armed (not unusual), and there were NO pleasantries. They asked for our documentation which we duly produced: lorry documents, passports and driving licences, insurance – you name it, we had it. They walked around Big Bess, I opened the doors so they could see it was a ‘camper’ and explained we were tourists. There then ensued a difficult (for they were not going to attempt any other language – not even German) conversation. After some time one of the policemen produced a booklet in a large number of languages – pointing at the English section we read that we had broken the law by not having our windscreen sticker (costing 49 euros). We were apologetic and tried to explain that we had seen nowhere to buy one and only been in the country for ½ an hour. He turned the pages of the booklet and we read that we now had to pay the 49 euros and a fine of 1,600 euros for breaking the law. We were not going to take this one lying down………..

They realised that they were getting nowhere and so called up an English speaking colleague who explained the situation to Il P on the phone. Il P, calm as a cucumber, explained that we were happy little tourists wanting to enjoy their countryside and had no intention of defrauding the Slovakian government of 49 euros. We would be happy to pay, as we had done in every other European country we had passed through, but had seen no petrol station. It seemed that there was a petrol station 1 km back – we assured him we had not seen it, perhaps Il P had been looking down at the road (being full of potholes as it was) and I had been looking at the map? We said that we had noticed the police car overtaking us at about that point; did the policemen not help people in their country? They had waited until we had passed the garage before stopping us and for 1 km they wanted 1,600 euros? Is this the way Slovakia greeted tourists? Sorry, but we were not happy to pay. We were instructed to follow the police to the garage where the telephone voice would meet us. We did. The above was repeated. Impasse.

In all my years of living and travelling abroad I have never had reason to call the British Embassy. We were stuck in Slovakia with 4 Slovakians, two of whom were armed, trying to make us pay a fine of 1,600 euros; if we refused to pay they were threatening to keep Il P’s license and the lorry documentation and put the fine up to 2,600 euros. If ever there was a time for payback of all the taxes I have paid to keep our Embassies running, this was it.

The British Embassy in Bratislava were everything one hoped a British Embassy would be; they spoke fluent English, they listened carefully, they put me through (promptly) to the right department and finally the man at the other end told me that this problem was not uncommon. On our behalf he put our case by telephone to the policeman. After some discussion the Embassy man told me that the policeman was very determined and that the law was the law and we had broken it. Although he couldn’t advise us he indicated that the best solution was to either pay or then complain against the procedure through the Embassy who would do their best to help us. Or….surely we did not have enough money to pay the fine?!?

Another hour passed with discussions taking place. I took to the lorry cab and pretended to cry……it was either that or lose my temper with their bloody mindedness. I found it hard to believe the situation but Il P had had previous Eastern European bureaucratic experiences so he was comfortable in calmly persisting with our innocence. He explained that although he could pay the 50 euros from a bankomat with his credit card he did not think that the bancomat would give him 1,600 euros. It seemed that the four policemen were arguing amongst themselves, from their demeanour I would say that two were on ‘our side’ and two were not. Finally, a proposal was made.
We were to pay the 49 euros. But of course, smiles Il P, we had no intention of not doing so. We would then fill in numerous forms stating the reason why we felt we should not pay the 1,600 euro fine; they would fill in their part of these forms stating why we should pay the fine. They would take photos of Big Bess inside and out and these forms would then be sent to their central police department who will send them to some official body in the UK, or possibly the Embassy, and then we would have to make our case and pay. RESULT!

We were accompanied to a bankomat in the nearest town. Il P paid the 49 euros. We were told we had 2 hours only to get off the ‘motorways’ we had paid for (I won’t bore you with this detail but it was to do with our weight…which actually they couldn’t work out correctly from the documents). Four hours from the time they pulled us over we parted company.

Welcome to Slovakia? I think not.

It was now late afternoon, it was raining and Slovakia held no charm whatsoever. The pleasure of being in charge of one’s destiny is one can change plans. We did. We drove straight through Slovakia and up over the High Tatras mountains into Poland.

Early evening found us on the Polish side of the High Tatras; it was still raining hard but luckily in a ski resort called Zakopane we found a campsite with hardstanding. I am happy to report that the lorry central heating works a treat…….we got a fug up, opened a very nice bottle of red wine from way back in the sunny days of Italy and Zamo wines and considered the day…..

Yes, it was probably the worst day of the trip and you are right, we wouldn’t recommend a holiday in Slovakia. But, there is a silver lining to every cloud, we had seen an interesting amount of logging going on in the Slovakian hills which are covered in pine forests – logs being brought down from the hillside by horses as well as modern technology, and we have ‘gained’ a day by driving straight through to Poland.

Day 40 29th June - Zacopane Poland

It rained hard all night long, the rain drumming down on the roof of the lorry. And although we sat all morning in the lorry with the rain POURING down outside (and, thankfully, not inside as the gaffer tape is holding!) and unable to see beyond the next campsite pitch, we planned our trip to Krakow which apparently is going to be the ‘new’ Prague as ‘the’ city destination. Forever the optimists we thought if we waited long enough the rain HAD to stop. We set off to down-town Zacopane for a Polish Carpathian meal and sure enough on emerging from the very traditional restaurant the rain stopped and the sun shone for a brief interlude allowing us to see the Tatras!

Zacopane was a revelation – a fashionable mountain resort and Poland’s winter-sports capital. It is a bustling vibrant place packed with walkers, hikers, kids on school expeditions, mountaineering shops, ski shops and so on. In fact it is the largest number of people we have seen in one place since the Italian cities!

Onwards now to Krakow as we put behind us Slovakia and the High Tatras Mountains………


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