Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cierny Balog, Slovakia- Summer 2002

I fell in love last summer. With a small village in the middle of Slovakia. OK, there was a girl as well, but that's another story.

Washing in the river, hill walking, a very 'international' game of football, equally international food, very cheap beer, the cheapest ever haircut, singing round the campfire, sleeping under the stars, cycling up a never-ending hill, and most of all, making some great friends - choosing to do a project in Slovakia was one of the best things I ever did.

My first feeling on reaching Cierny Balog was of relief, at having found the place. It had taken several trains, a couple of buses and a plane, but the hot morning sun and beautiful scenery - the village sits in a valley of wooded hills with a river running through it - made it worthwhile.

The project was two weeks long and split into two parts. The first week we lived and worked at the village football ground. As this was my first volunteer project I was unsure what to expect, but we seemed to have things pretty good, with hot showers, proper beds, and even food laid on. Admittedly the food was of the school dinners variety, but with a Slovak twist, and was definitely edible.

We worked in the mornings, painting fences and doing other repairs at the football ground. Afternoons were free, and were spent walking, playing football and frisbee or just relaxing. Evenings were spent in the bar, where we all acquired a taste for the Czech beer (30p a pint anyone?) and something called Borovicka which some people won't forget.

But although great fun, the first week was just a warm- up for what was to come. We had been promised a 'back to nature' experience and we weren't disappointed. Our home was a beautiful campsite, bordered by a river on one side and a forest on the other. The bathroom was a mountain stream, and the camp had even its own cat.

Every day, dinner was cooked by two volunteers from a different country, with the Spanish omelette and Italian pasta proving very popular. These were of course eaten around the campfire. Accommodation was in a wooden cottage or, for the more adventurous, alfresco under the stars.

Our work for the second week involved various maintenance works on an historic narrow gauge railway. This was more strenuous than at the football ground, but again we only worked mornings, and due to the torrential rain that hit Central Europe over the summer we got a couple of days off.

Our wonderful leaders always kept us busy, organising day trips, as well as afternoon activities, and always had a game ready to fill five minutes or provide a break from working.

One of my personal highlights of the camp was a football match between our camp and another in the village. A pulled muscle (honest!) meant I was forced to play in goal, where I surprised everyone (myself included) with a virtuoso performance to keep the opposition's Italian striker at bay. We still lost but I was the toast of the project at dinner that night.

The best thing about the project though was definitely the friendship and banter between everyone. After two weeks it felt like I had known people for years and I still miss everyone.

Diego (Spain) and myself decided that the hot weather merited a drastic haircut, especially when Toms (Latvia) discovered it only cost 50p in the village. One of the Frenchmen, with the very un-French name of Wilson Dos Santos got Sachiko - from Japan - to teach him some 'useful' Japanese phrases. These were along the lines of 'Can you tickle my belly'. I then taught her some useful French; repeat after me,"Voulez vous couchez avec moi". Lidija (from Croatia)

decided I must be Scottish (I'm not) because I was mean to her, stealing her cigarettes. She changed her mind when I went to stay with her later in the summer though, in fact there must have been something in the water as we weren't the only couple to get together.

Slovakia may not sound the most glamorous or exotic destination, but with beautiful countryside, cheap beer and hot weather, it is one of Europe's hidden gems and a volunteer project is the perfect way to discover it. I regularly get emails from people wishing they were back in Cierny Balog instead of at home studying - guess I'm not the only one that's smitten.

Ian Anstey, Cierny Balog

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