Escape the City — Hiking from Krakow, London, Berlin
It struck me as I rounded the bend of the mountain trail.
I stopped, captive to a force momentarily beyond my comprehension.
Out of the Polish alpine air it came, a wave of pure emotion that left me with eyes watering.
While I knew my summer escape into the High Tatra ranges was much needed, the ferocity of the release nevertheless took me completely by surprise.
We Kiwis have a strong need for escapes into the great outdoors, which makes sense since we’re only 4.5 million people living in a beautiful and rugged country only a little smaller than Italy.
Since I live in the fantastically green and spacious city of Berlin, surrounded by the forests of Brandenburg, I thought I was doing fairly well in balancing city life with what the Germans call “Waldeinsamkeit” — a state of zen reached only by spending time alone among trees and nature.
But it seemed the nonstop flow of city and freelance life had done a number on me.
I’d just bussed south from the gorgeous city of Krakow, one of the few Polish cities left intact after WWII (as the Nazis were pretty fond of it and wanted to keep it intact for their own use).
However, my destination, Zakopane, was hardly peaceful.
The sprawling mountain resort attracts visitors from throughout the Baltics and beyond. And, joy of joys, I’d arrived in the peak of school holidays.
I boarded a minibus, swiftly leaving the angular wooden architecture, crowds and hand grenade-esque smoked cheeses behind, and alighted just inside the Tatra National Park.
A deer trotted across the road, unconcerned of my presence.
I climbed a narrow, wooded lane to the Goodbye Lenin lodge, where I was greeted amicably by the resident goat.
I managed to walk only 15 minutes up a nearby trail before that feeling hit. I was home.
The next day, I was ready for the hard stuff.
The Polish side of the High Tatra Mountains has an undisputed star: Morskie Oko.
The ubiquitous brochures in Zakopane depicted this alpine lake with dramatic clouds mirrored on its surface, surrounded by even more dramatic peaks.
However, my wise German advisor at the hostel warned that it would be instead surrounded by visitors lining up to take a selfie with ol’ Morskie.
Which is how I ended up on the bus to Morskie Oko.
Getting off one stop before the start of the track, at Lysa Polana, next to an overflow car park already stuffed with hundreds of cars.
And, crossing a small bridge on foot, I arrived in Slovakia.
Twenty metres away from the busy Polish thoroughfare, a gated forestry road plunged into the trees.
The traffic noise across the river gradually faded, replaced by the murmuring of water over stones as I trod a gravel road under fir trees.
In the first hour I encountered only a handful of forestry workers, strolled past a mountain residence watching over a grass meadow and become aware of an intimidating presence: Vertical rock faces rose out of the undulating woods, first distant, soon foreboding and then dominating my entire vision.
I’d truly arrived in the Bielovodska Valley.
The road dwindled to a stony path, creeping upwards through conifers and emerging under a huge, hanging rock slab.
Cresting the rock face was stepping into another world — a meadow of alpine flowers, with thick tussocks and stepping stones framing a stream tumbling through botanical splashes of violet and saffron.
My companions were mainly dainty bumblebees humming through the grasses but I soon caught up to a heavily-outfitted hiker, following in his huffing footsteps as the meadow transitioned to bare alpine rock.
Eventually, we reached a small mountain tarn and, leaving him to puff his way up and over the peaks into Slovakia proper, I seated myself by the reservoir, content to be humbled by the glacier-carved sculpture laid out below.
The presence of the peaks was the perspective I needed, perhaps assurance of man’s insignificance in the face of the inhumanity I’d felt in the shadows of Auschwitz a few days earlier.
Whatever it was, I couldn’t have seen more 30 people in my entire day of hiking. And couldn’t have been happier.
But I was more than happy to share my next hike.
Actually, it was more of a stroll. But who’s complaining when there are wild blackberries up for grabs?
Late last month I was in London to catch up with some of the Kiwi hordes who’ve made their home there.
After a week of catchups, coworking and riding the Tube, I was glad to board a train to the little town of Sevenoaks, at most 45 minutes away from London Waterloo Station.
The city melted away into pleasant British countryside in next to no time, and even nicer was being met at the station by my mother and step-father, who had flown over for a holiday.
Hugs were followed by several days full of cheeses, crumpets and ale, as well as tales of shenanigans from the old friend of my step-father we were staying with.
Country strolls to work off the comfort food were highly necessary.
Our longest took us through village streets lined with wood-frame houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Germany, out over the M26 motorway overpass (where we were treated to a flyover of WWII Spitfire fighters and jets approaching a nearby air show) and into the Kent countryside of rolling fields, woods and nettles.
Despite a looming large lunch we struggled to ignore the blackberries bursting out of hedges and thickets, nor could we contain our curiosity at the imposing country manor we passed, which was protected by a massive stone wall and more modern measures like security cameras on the church spire.
But the cherry on the cake? The fact that the cafe we stopped at for lunch apparently hosts ferret racing events.
But finding a hike close to home was still on my list
With one of my best friends leaving Berlin for a stint in Barcelona, we decided we first needed a hiking catch-up.
So early one morning (or early by Berlin standards) we jumped in his hatchback and headed for the green expanses of Brandenburg.
We ended up in a tiny spot named Krausnick, close to the famous Spreewald — a wood filled with little cottages accessed mainly by canals and boats, à la Venice.
But we decided on a different route to avoid the crowds, succeeding in this, but nevertheless being warmly greeted by swarms of mosquitoes.
Slap-dancing our way past sunflower fields and through deserted forest walkways led to a respite from our flying companions in the Köthenersee, where we found a cute little jetty with a park bench and a ladder for entering the bracingly cold lake waters.
Refreshed, our flying and footbound caravan carried on, hungrily peering in through the windows of a closed restaurant, then turning back towards civilisation, with only a ‘mountain’ still to surmount.
At 144.1m tall the Wehlaberg barely deserved its “Caution: Steep” track marker. But the spindly tower awaiting us at the top made up for any such deficiencies, leading us to dizzying heights where we could take in views of Brandenburg’s forests, wind farms and (looking like an enormous parked space-craft) Tropical Islands, a former Zeppelin hangar turned into an indoor beach water park.
Our stomachs eventually dragged us away, leading us back to a hearty meal, paired, of course, with the famous Spreewald pickles.
Delightfully pickled, we set our sights for Berlin, singing our way into the sunset.
So, after resetting with Slovakian, British and German hikes, it was all too clear that city life (at least for this Kiwi) and the complexity of being a freelancer is something only tenable with what the Germans call “Ausgleich” and “Ausflüge” — balance and escapes.
Thus I’ve made a vow to get out of cities, wherever I am, once in a month at the very least.
Thus, I’d love to hear about your favourite city escapes — where do you head to get away?