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Published: July 11th 2010
Motorhome News from Eastern Europe 42
28th June - 8th July 2010
Slovakia. The High Tatra Mountains - and the hills are alive with the sound of music in Austria once again as we wend our way westwards towards home.
Strbske Pleso, Tatranski Lomnica, Liptovsky Trnovec, Vlkolinec, Bojnice, Neusiedler See, Melk, Salzburg, The Rhine, Mosel and Bruges.
It has been muggy and uncommonly overcast since we left the coast but the sun put his hat on for our trek above the ski resort of Strbske Pleso in the High Tatra Mountains. We picked our way over the uneven rocky track with the morning sun glistening on the limestone slabs beneath our feet, the call of a nutcracker in the mature pinewoods and a crystal-clear blue sky with views towards the stunning mountain peaks as we climbed ever upwards.
Holiday-makers have made a sudden appearance this week with tented campers from Lithuania, a handful of caravans from Germany and Hungary and one other motorhome, from Finland, at our campsite adjacent to a hotel just out of Tatranski Lomnica. The gates of the once enormous Eurocamp site noted in our campsite book and the Lonely Planet were closed and
locked when we arrived, the buildings all dilapidated and fences broken and rusted. A major wind-storm back in 2004 devastated great swathes of mature pine forest and buildings across the High Tatras and Eurocamp here never recovered. Lady luck provided another site for us by the hotel a mile along the road, adequate for an overnight stop and our walk into the mountains the following morning.
German is Slovakia's second language, a consequence of historical migration, ever changing borders and continuing trading relationships across central Europe. Janice is missing having conversations in English (other than with me, you understand). I suspect it's the club-house chatter of Lady's Day at the Golf Club she's really missing. I'll join her in registering considerable frustration at not being able to understand a lot of the road-signs and poor directions on town signage. The ablutions on one of our first camps here were signed as 'Muzi' and 'Zeni' but who knows which of those is the ladies and which the gents? Once again our phrase book was unable to help - it's OK if you just want to find the public toilets, know where the police station is, or shout 'Help! Fire!'
Along the Magistrala Trail
....looking back towards the Plains from the High Tatras
brief, 'Hello', in passing on one of our hikes eventually brought the desired response. 'You're English!' the guy said, much to Janice's delight. He and his Slovakian wife live and work in Reading in the UK. Keen to gain local knowledge, we asked if they thought we should visit Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava, on our way west. 'It has a lovely square', his wife responded. Enough said. We'll give it a miss this time: cities can be hard work and this is supposed to be a holiday.
Having mentioned the World Cup in our previous blog, it pains me to record the news that reached us when we arrived in Tatranski Lomnica. We don't speak Slovakian, but we got the gist from the campsite manager as he waved his arms about - England lost to Germany 4-1 in the quarter finals. What do we pay those guys all that money for? My new found German friend at Hortobagy will be laughing his schlagen off.
There is no sea within hundreds of miles of Slovakia and those in the know head for the lakes, ski resorts and hills for their holidays. Our choice, and there's lots of it, is
Villa Betula Campsite
.... a great site at Liptovsky Sielnica - that's Bertie, our motorhome, on the right.
hiking - or 'tramping' as our dear friends in New Zealand would have it, and our boots have been earning their keep in recent days. Guidebooks it seems are written by thirty some-things at their peak of fitness. That uphill trek at Strbske Pleso was described as 'undemanding', but what might be described as undemanding in the book becomes rather more like 'strenuous' when you're seventy-four and fifteen sixteenths. But we rose to the challenge as ever! You're right, Janice. No pain - no gain.
As a reward for our effort we lunched back in town, watching anxiously as angry dark clouds gathered over the mountain we had just left. Back on the road a short while later lightning flashed and the angry clouds roared, torrential rain started to thrash the windscreen and within minutes the steep downhill road was awash like a river. Without warning the rain turned to marble-sized hailstones and cars pulled off the road as, hazard lights flashing, we eased our way gently downhill on what had now become a steam of white ice. When the hail eventually cleared, car owners were seen inspecting the paintwork on the roofs of their cars. We are aware of
Vlkolinec - Slovakia
...peace, perfect peace in the Mala Fatra Mountains
the rules of mountain hiking and tend to 'be prepared' but we were very concerned for those families, some with young children, still somewhere up there on the track when we were coming down. There were surely many saturated hikers heading across the mountains on the long cross-country Magistrala Long Distance Footpath with heavy camping packs on their backs. Despite all the sunshine hereabouts, mountain rain was to play its tricks on us again a few days later.
Heaven came fairly close at our campsite, Villa Betula, at Liptovsky Sielnica. There were plugs in the hand-basins, hard-standings for motorhomes (essential after rain - the front wheels spin on wet grass and dig in), carefully considered landscaping, free Wi-Fi (as in many other campsites on this trip) and facilities to match the best we have ever experienced.
We were in need of a day of rest from hiking and took to the delightful, tree-clad hills by motorhome next day, to the tiny village of Vlkolinec in the Mala Fatra Mountains. Until the 90's there was no vehicular access to Vlkolinec and the village has been preserved as a rural settlement with traditional painted log-houses lining the narrow streets nestled
....we eventually found it!
amongst the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. The local wood-carver was busy stripping bark from old oak logs when we arrived as the sun crept over the hill and a lady was busy with her washing in the communal trough at the foot of the village stream - a picture of peace, perfect peace. Who cares what day it is? This nostalgic experience is, quite rightly, a Unesco Heritage site.
There's a picture of castle with turrets and towers on the front cover of The Insight Guide we follow from time-to-time, but there is absolutely no reference to it inside the book. Janice took a stab at it and came up with a 'possible' down at Bojnice an hour south of the industrial town of Martin, where the once vibrant tank factories to the Warsaw Pact countries now rust and crumble, to the rolling pastoral slopes of the Vel'ka Fatra Mountains. (Our Philips Multiscale Europe 2010 map incorrectly showed the castle on a different road several miles to the north east of Bojnice!) Despite the confusion we found the castle, towering majestically over the town of Bojnice. 'Information' pointed us to the campsite, Autocamping Bojnice, a mile up the hill
where half the population of Slovakia was enjoying food and drinks at the bar and a DJ blasted his amplifier with pop music. As it was six o'clock in the evening there was little choice but to stay and we found a fairly level pitch with electricity amongst a few tents and caravans. That half of the population of Slovakia and their disco kept us awake until the early hours as they partied!
As is our now regular habit, we ventured to Bojnice castle at opening time and joined the compulsory guided tour (in Slovaakian) on the long and fascinating trek through the castle rooms, up and down sweeping stone stairways in quick marching order with anxious guards closing doors behind us as we went, rushing for an hour and a half, up to the tops of towers and down to the crypt and the underground caves. They delighted in telling us the castle was once owned by the Palffy family, but failed to mention Ján Batá once owned it (the one of shoe fame), and the castle was confiscated by the Czechoslovak Government in 1945 (that would be a bit down-market for romancing tourists, wouldn't it?).
is a strong police presence in Slovakia, mostly lurking behind bushes with speed cameras on the outskirts of villages. With most of their drivers defying all the other rules of the road it probably makes sense for them to get caught breaking the law at speed.
Motorhomes are as scarce as hen's teeth here. We have only seen half a dozen in the past week, mostly German or French and certainly no Brits. It would appear that the locals are slowly working up from tents to caravans and it will be a while before the word motorhome appears in the Slovak dictionary. It's hard to tell where this country is in economic terms. Generally the roads are good throughout Slovakia with sufficient traffic to suggest these 5.8 million people have the funds to live much of the western dream, but in reality we know little of the many who live amongst those cultural relics of Communism, the tower-blocks, in every town and many of the villages. There are new houses being built everywhere and the cars were getting bigger and more expensive as we travelled the motorway around Bratislava. I have to admit I had expected to see horse
Lange Lacke - superb birding
drawn ploughs, peasants working in the fields and many old ladies in headscarves somewhere along the line as we travelled through this part of Eastern Europe, but that is all in the past now and with the shackles of the Soviet stronghold long-gone there is a silver lining on the horizon. We are mystified by the Tannoy speakers atop lamp-posts in many of Slovakia's towns and villages by the way. Could it possibly be a throwback to Communist propaganda messages?
Our shopping experience in Slovakia showed similarities with Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, with prices for 'local' products very much below those in the UK: a cucumber for €0.29, lettuce €0.30- €0.44, peppers €0.99 per 500g and milk (1.5%) €0.49 - 0.65/lt. Around about now you'll all be enjoying your strawberries in front of the telly as you watch Wimbledon come to a close. They're only €0.76 for 250g here!
It was 30°C by the time we left Bojnice Castle and we took time-out for a coffee at a roadside restaurant to discuss our choices for the day. It was certainly too hot for a Bratislava city tour and we finally opted for the luxury route further to the
The Bridge at Andau
..we crossed the bridge from Austria into Hungary
west - into Austria and towards home. The motorway flew us back into eastern Austria within a couple of hours, into the flat area around Neusiedler See, a vast panorama of marshland, reedbeds, shallow lakes and birds, and a popular campsite by the lake, Campingplatz St.Andra am Zicksee.
The border-post from Slovakia is now abandoned and in a state of disrepair, but you know you're in Austria the minute you cross the line. There's a smell of money in the air: pristine joined-up painted houses with manicured gardens line the billiard table smooth roads, candy striped narrow fields of corn, vines, alf-alfa, hay, barley, and sunflowers - opening now to face a month or two of sunshine, criss-cross the wide table-top hedge-less fields - and landscaped roadside verges defy the casual visitor to walk on the grass. No more €9.50 lunches for two now, but there might just be a few tasty mid-morning cakes in the patisseries in Austria, something we have both missed these past four weeks.
Our research suggested some good birding around Neusiedler See, which is also a popular spot for Viennese week-enders to enjoy the ‘seaside’. Following directions given to us by a German
couple, there to photograph the local birds, we used Bertie as a hide and wound our way on narrow roads across the marshes hunting down Whinchat and Great bustards - the latter without success I hasten to add!
Whilst walking we came across a wooden bridge on the Hungarian border where some 70,000 Hungarians fled into Austria during the Hungarian Revolution. On November 1st 1956, Andau Bridge was finally blasted by the Russians. We crossed the new bridge into Hungary momentarily to view the memorial.
As the thermometer continued to climb once more, we turned our backs on the Austrian Steppes, heading off across seemingly endless fenland fields until the land took on a new dimension, of intensely farmed rolling fields and shallow tree-clad hills further to the west.
'Jane', as we call our new SatNav, has been a God-send to us on this trip, taking us through towns and cities, on and off motorways at most unexpected moments and up and down country lanes without ever complaining or shouting. We downloaded 'Eastern Europe' before we left home and apart from odd parts of northern Slovakia she seemed to understand most of what we were doing! It would be
.....and Jane came too!
Clockwise: Suzie, Todd, and Jane (the new Satnav).
true to say we could never have coped with some of the junctions we encountered without this, simple to use, piece of kit. Having instructed Jane to take us westwards through Austria without using motorways, she delighted in taking us through the centre of Vienna on a maze of streets and across hairy road-junctions with tramlines criss-crossing in all directions! I can see her now, grinning with delight behind her tiny screen, saying, 'There - serves you right.'
'Behave yourself, Jane, or I'll pull your plug out!'
Our plan for this trip didn't include a return visit to Vienna but we did want to go back to Melk - for some unfinished business. We were last in Vienna in August 2000 and vaguely recall (as one does when grey hair starts to fog the brain) we took a cruise upriver on the Danube from Krems to Melk where we visited the town and the unbelievably enormous Benedictine Abbey, though time restrictions did not allow us inside on that occasion. The magnetism of Melk Abbey is in its sheer scale and palatial dominance as it towers over the town and the Danube. Having now ventured inside we were gob-smacked by
the incredible gilded opulence of the Abbey Church, the marbled hall with its red marble pilasters, the fine detail of the two-storey library and some truly spectacular displays in the museum. Once again we were there early to avoid the crowds, but by the time we left there were queues crowding the entrance.
Whilst the coaches were all parked up in Melk, we followed the Danube along the beautiful Wachau, the Danube Valley, its northern slopes awash with vineyards, through narrow village streets with front doors opening onto the road, tiny hilltop churches and tumbling meadows and ski runs on high rolling hills - a foretaste of things to come as we edge nearer to the Tyrol. Climbing higher, ever higher, up to and beyond aptly named Wildalpen and into the Hochschwab, we came into serious ski country and the most amazing gorge imaginable, where only adventurous tourists to Austria tend to go. We had certainly never heard of the Hochschwab until Janice unearthed its secrets, but, as the winding road continued to climb the spectacle became increasingly amazing, with the giant grey peaks of the gorge standing like witches hats above and around us, and below, the rushing
torrent of the sapphire-blue river. This is summer terrain made for happy hikers, mighty mountain bikers claiming cols, mad motorcyclists defying death, and crazy kayakers and white water rafters spinning their way for mile after mile down the frothing Salza River, there in their hundreds on this sunny Sunday morning. Mid-afternoon, as we approached Bad Aussie (I only know good ones, don't you?) in the Salzkammergut area, a deluge of mountain rain struck again and the road leading down to Hallstatt, our campsite goal for the day, was closed, a barrier across the road, presumably because of flooding. The easy option in torrential rain was another campsite five minutes north of Bad Aussie.
It rained all night, a herd of mighty elephants dancing on the motorhome roof, the sky exploding with flashes of lightning and crashing thunder overhead. The rain followed us next morning, back through pretty Bad Aussie to the lakeside village of Hallstatt, approached through a one-way tunnel from where one takes a 'park and ride' bus. The rivers had turned brown and angry overnight, flooding roads and houses, and wherever we went the flashing blue lights of the Fire Brigade heralded yet another rescue. Hallstatt’s neighbour,
Salza River Gorge
This is summer terrain made for happy hikers, mighty mountain bikers claiming cols, mad motorcyclists defying death, and crazy kayakers and white water rafters, spinning their way for mile after mile down the frothing Salsa River
St Wolfgang, was humming with tourists along its pretty streets when we arrived, the narrow lanes of classy souvenir shops awash with umbrellas and soggy feet. It's a delightful village worthy of a visit even in the rain, but don't bring the motorhome - there’s a charge of €9 whether you stay for just fifty minutes (as we did) or stay overnight!
We popped into Salzburg to refresh our memories and gaze in the windows of boutique shops on the narrow Getreidegasse where Mozart was born and scrummed down with the Mozart-chocolate-clutching crowds hoping to catch a glimpse of Julie Andrews waving her arms in the air. Here the fast-flowing Salzach river dashes by under bridges, a choir sings for us in the formal gardens of Schloss Mirabell, carriages trot through Mozart Square clip-clopping past The Dom, St Peter's Church, the Baroque Franziskanerk and the heavenly swan-white Kollegien Kirch, - and, up there, high above, Salzburg Castle looks down on it all in hazy sunshine.
Before leaving town we filled Bertie to the brim with diesel at €1.00/litre! Diesel has been at least 20% cheaper than in the UK in every other country we have visited. We really must
...from Mirabell Gardens
enjoy being overtaxed.
A major problem with journeys of this nature is that sometime or another it's time to head home. With three days before our ferry we took the long and monotonous 275 mile drive across the border into Bavaria beyond the outskirts of Salzburg, via Munich, Nurnburg and Frankfurt, to the little German town of Bingen across from Rudesheim on the Rhine. Having only recently returned from cruising that other river flowing from south to north, the Nile, we planned to run the winding road alongside the south-bank of the rushing Rhine from Bingen up to Koblenz by motorhome, and then follow the Mosel, demure and sedate by comparison, breaking our journey from Salzburg around halfway - with the hope of reaching Bruges in Belgium, later in the day.
German flags were flying from cars and balconies as we followed the day across Germany and into Belgium with time to spare for an hour or two in Bruges, that delightful city of fond memories, delicate as lace and sweet as chocolate. Spanish stag-weekenders on Burg Square were rooting for their team and making the most of the opportunity to enjoy Bruges’ favourite sport - dodging the bicycles
Along The Rhine Valley
The Pfalzgrafenstein at Kaub.
flying in all directions. It’s to be an all European World Cup final this year with Germany vs Spain in the semis. We’ll be home in time to watch it.
This has been a fascinating journey, bringing together some of the few remaining pieces of our travel jigsaw. We have opened our minds to the future of a new and larger joined-up Europe as we could not have imagined less than twenty years ago and learned even more about its past. There are still many bridges to cross both culturally and economically to the east of Europe but old clouds are fast dispersing and the sun will surely rise over the horizon each day with more promises of continued peace.
David and Janice The grey haired nomads
.........and Jane came too
PS. Had you passed us on our way back home from Dover, you might have seen Janice plotting a route to Denmark.
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