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Published: June 30th 2010
Parliament Building from the River Danube
Motorhome News from Europe 41
Hungary - Budapest, Eger, the Bukk Hills and Hortobagy & Slovakia - Slovenski Kras, Slovenski Raj and the High Tatra Mountains
22nd - 27th June 2010
It's a while since we visited Vienna and Prague, but we always promised ourselves a visit to that other city on the Danube, the other point on that enigmatic triangle of major cities, Budapest. Little brother Michael came here to have his smile fixed in recent times (they still talk about him I'm told). We sat on a bench by a bus stop and chanced to speak to a Swiss gentleman on the same mission - his teeth needed some serious work. In conversation he recommended a visit to a small town he called something like 'Santander', a name now familiar to most people in the UK, the new name in banking. A search through all of our travel books failed to turn up anything like 'Santander'.
Budapest is an unhurried city of two million people, (20% of Hungary's total population) straddling the Blue, sorry, Brown Danube. It's a city where that old English phrase, BOGOF, comes into its own, with Buda on the hill to the
west of the Danube and Pest across the river on the flat plains in the east. Two for the price of one so to speak.
A river trip was included in the 'Hop on, Hop off', bus tour. It's a great way to get orientated in cities we find, and we can then follow our own trail on foot. The short-but-sweet river cruise allowed us to see the city from another perspective; all riverside buildings face the river, surprising as that might seem!
We hiked the beautiful Budapest streets for hours, agog at the wide avenues and the overwhelming display of tall Baroque, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings. It is difficult to imagine this whole city as a building site during those periods of apparent wealth and phenomenal growth. Around one o'clock it started to rain and we were forced to take shelter in a classy restaurant for lunch - a good enough excuse for a treat. This was our first rain during the day since leaving home nearly three weeks ago and it cooled the air, just fine for walking city streets! There were few tourists about; restaurants even in the centre of town were, unlike our lives,
St Stephen's Basilica
The Budapest Metro seems to work well; even at 5.30 on a weekday evening the carriages were comfortable, with few straphangers and stations on the three easy to follow lines are spacious and up-to-date. The exciting bit is that over 65's go free (it's good to know I qualify for something), and in any case travel in the city by bus, tram or Metro is very cheap and extremely efficient. We paid around £1 for Janice to travel with me the four stops into the city centre from our campsite, 'Camp Haller': convenient, clean, all good services, free Wi-Fi and extremely helpful. And all for €15 per night with our ACSI card. As a city site this is great value.
There are many beggars on the streets in Budapest by day, a few homeless sleeping rough till late and graffiti on anything that stands still for more than a minute or two, but the streets are meticulously clean near the centre where it counts and we felt very safe. A happy hour was spent in the incredible indoor food and craft market where we discovered a huge array of vegetables at half of UK prices. Tesco’s,
Marks & Spencers, McDonalds, IKEA, Aldi and C&A all have a presence here but we didn't get a chance to check them all out.
It's a swinging City for the younger set we're told and the place to come for stag weekends, but all was quiet, extremely quiet, on Sunday and Monday whilst we were there. There are huge American style advertising hoardings and tall multicoloured blocks of flats alongside many major roads around the outskirts of the city. We noted on one that Elton John, Rod Stewart and A-ha will be playing the Budapest Sports Arena quite soon.
High-rise bank and insurance buildings are noticeable by their absence in Budapest and the town planners should be applauded for that. The City's magnificent skyline would be savagely destroyed. For all of its beauty, Budapest fails to match the historic majesty of cultural Vienna or the historic splendor of Prague, but its endless array of breath-taking buildings and a touch of faded grandeur make it a most memorable place.
We have all heard of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, but hands-up anyone who knows of Eger. Well, for a start, the 249 bus terminates at Tesco's in Eger, an hour
or so to the east of Budapest. With a population of some 60,000 at the last count it seems to me to be the perfect size for any town and it comes with many of the finest ingredients. It's a delightful mix of cobbled streets with a handful of touristy shops, dramatic paved squares, many extremely fine churches (including the Basilica, the second largest church in Hungary) and loaded to the gunwales with fine baroque architecture. But more importantly for some, it's Hungary's wine centre and the home of 'Bulls Blood', Egri Bikaver. We'll save a bottle or two for you to sample when you visit us back home!
There are fifty or more 'Caves' in the Valley of Beautiful Women just two hundred yards down the hill from our campsite, offering samples of local wines. They make it easy for the tourist in these parts, the wineries are all next door to each other just out of town where coaches can pull in to unload their expectant passengers and ladle them back in an hour later laden with bottles. We bought our 'Bulls Blood' in Szentendre. Yes, we found it earlier in the day. Santander is spelled “Szentendre”. Of
It rained bucketloads when we eventually foud it
course; silly me. Pleash excushe the squiggly writing.
And, yes, there is indeed a Tesco 'Hipermarket' on the outskirts of Eger. A 'Hipermarket' qualifies as being about half a mile long it seems and this one sells everything. If you know a Wal-Mart when you see one - this is Tesco on its way to taking over the world. With only bread and milk on the shopping list the trolley eventually ended up full to the brim with wine; some in a 1lt plastic bottle for under £1.00!
The Bukk Hills out to the east of Budapest came highly recommended in our birding guide book, but disappointed us somewhat. The dense hills of beech and oak gave us little by way of birds and few vistas to curdle the blood. In hindsight perhaps we should have hired a guide. The open hillside meadows were lively with butterflies; a pearl-bordered fritillary amongst them, and we found ourselves knee-deep in purple cranesbill.
And so we came to Hortobagy, high on the birding list of anyone who knows anything about our feathered friends, way out to the east across the Great Hungarian Plain, the 'Nagyalfold', a wild, flat expanse of
A 'csikos' riding full gallop five in hand.
reed and grassland covering 45,000 sq km towards the Romanian border; pure cowboy country by any other name. Away in the distance wandering shepherds tend their flocks of black straight-horned Racka sheep, white-winged black terns dance fairy-like across the reed beds (fond memories of our last visit to Poland), and skylarks sing their medley high in the blue, blue sky. It's a truly amazing place and the birding was superb to say the very least: bluethroat, bee-eater, ferruginous duck, little bittern, red-footed falcon, squacco heron, night heron, purple heron, whiskered tern, penduline tit, pygmy cormorant, moustached warbler, amongst many others.
Janice guided us to the Mata Stud Farm just out of the village for an early evening treat. They breed and train thoroughbred horses here and run trips by horse-drawn buggy around the farm to see rare-breed farm animals and a display out on the grassy plain of 16C costumed horsemanship, including a rider with five horses, 'five-in-hand' as they call it, standing balanced on the back of rear two, with three in front at full gallop! It was not quite rodeo stuff, but exciting to watch as you might imagine. The show is a major pull for this
The Great Hungarian Plain (Steppe)
little village turned tourist hotspot. We didn't come to Hortobagy for the horses as you might be aware - we came for the National Park and the birds, and they didn't disappoint us. Serious birders would have been here in large numbers several weeks ago, but we beggars can't be choosers. You can't be everywhere at the perfect time, but with Janice's dedication to research we are able to make the best of our time - and she must be applauded for that.
Campsites were still virtually empty. There were just two of us there in Hortobagy on the first night, ourselves and a friendly German couple. The gentleman told us England had qualified for the next round of the World Cup by beating Slovenia 1-0. He really seemed quite pleased to tell me that!
The following night we were joined by another German motorhome and the campsite was humming with people wandering around, seemingly with nowhere to go. These German monster motorhomes sleep 16 believe it or not and we have seen them as far away as Norway and the USA. There's a picture somewhere on this blog. They are getting more sophisticated by the day but
I can't imagine what drives anyone to want to travel for weeks in a sardine tin. Our pleasant German neighbour greeted us when we returned to the site that evening. He told us Germany had also won their match the previous evening and would play England in the next round. He patted me on the back as if to say, 'Good luck', but I'm not sure he really meant it.
Hungary's major roads are generally quite good, but as we wander the more interesting back lanes that familiar cry goes up, 'Aghhhhh!!!!'...and we swerve to avoid a massive pothole and then another, and another. There are more patches than original road surface off the beaten track. But people are more important than roads in this emerging country; their welfare, education, health and work take priority - and without them there is no taxable income to enhance the rest of the living experience.
A two-hour drive north took us full circle, back through Miskolc, Hungary's third largest city: an industrial metropolis of 200,000 people, multicoloured tower blocks like Lego models on the skyline on the eastern fringe of the Bukk Hills we left two days previously. We were heading
Hunting for wryneck
further north this time, for the Aggtelek Hills on the border with Slovakia. Here in Aggtelek we discovered the pretty side of Hungary with many well-to-do villages set amongst the tree-lined limestone hills on Hungary's northern rim. This is a lovely area of open fields and rolling wooded hillsides, but the spring rains have clearly taken their toll. White sandbags line the streets of some villages and along ditches and river banks in an endeavour to stem the rising flood.
A good evening hike high above the town of Aggtelek took us through open rocky woodland scrub but the rock buntings we were seeking were elsewhere, as the special birds we seek often are! Our bird-guide, 'Where to Watch Birds in Eastern Europe', is a little out of date and I guess the birds move on or the environment alters. But that's just excuses, isn't it? We do try hard, but we're far from experts as we discovered when we met Peter, a Dutch twitcher, cycling across Hungary with his binoculars and camping in a tent close by. Peter knows a thing or two about birds and he gave us a few tips over a glass of wine or three,
on where to find a few of the local specialities. Golden orioles, red-backed shrikes and nightingales are a ha'penny each around here by the way!
We are left with the impression that there is some renewed pride amongst the people of Hungary; a picture of a country still a little untidy around the edges with a somewhat grey outlook left over from an earlier era and still in a state of recovery. There appears to be no 'middle class' for want of another cliché, with little or no hint of enterprise or capitalism. Investment here seems somewhat misdirected with little regard for maintenance. Beamers and Mercs are an extremely rare sight, smart houses in the minority and villages are lined with long rows of square-box cottages with fenced front gardens along weed lined verges and pot-holed roads. Hungarians are seemingly content with their lot as it is. Campsites have generally been basic to an acceptable standard and extremely good value (around €12-14) but, with just a few exceptions, minor things are left unrepaired, like toilet door-locks, loo seats and cracked mirrors and there are few convenient facilities for disposal of motorhome waste.
Booze is cheap in Hungary and
I would be interested to know the social cost if binge drinking outside of stag do's exists here. I am not convinced that price is a deterrent as some in the UK seem to believe. It has been eerily quiet away from the towns and cities. There have been few tourists and campsites everywhere have been all-but empty. Perhaps the holiday season is extremely short here and of course, the children are not yet on holiday. We'll see.
Internet was difficult to find in recent days as our choice of campsites in the north of Hungary has been somewhat rural. It's not likely to get much better as we pass out of the north's seemingly well-heeled farming communities with smart new houses and enter Slovakia at Dvorniky, to the west of Kosice.
There were many empty and dilapidated factories as we headed through the Slovenski Kras, doubtless a sign of changing times or technology in these mountains rich in ore. Just to be on the safe-side we bought a seven-day Slovakian Vignette (€4.50) at the first garage we passed, unsure from information to hand where we might need it!
An hour down the road we were hiking
Zadielski Dolina Gorge walk
The road has washed away since our guide was published
the mighty limestone gorge at Zadielska Dolina in the Slovensky Kras with the promise of many rare birds. The road our book talked about has now gone, swept away by the rushing river and we parked at the bottom entrance (€1 entrance fee/parking) and climbed the densely wooded track on a three-hour trek - a great climb though a bit short on birds at that time of day - we did see yellow wagtail, grey wagtail, lesser spotted eagle, honey buzzard, turtle dove, cuckoo and chaffinch, but that's about it!
Many more great hikes took us further north, up in the riparian forests of the 'Slovenski Raj', The Slovak Paradise National Park. Our 'choice of the day' took us strenuously high up through open pine forest to a look-out on a limestone escarpment. Such walks are a relative doddle since my visit to Papworth last year for which we are both truly thankful. There were a couple of particular highlights on that hike: a pine marten searching the track ahead for food (neither of us had ever seen one in the wild before) - and a three-toed woodpecker we watched for half an hour as it attacked a dead
pine tree. Marvellous! Absolutely marvellous! The woodpecker probably has a head ache, like me - I banged my head on a shelf in the motorhome and now wear a rather large plaster on my forehead! That night we camped at Levoca in the Spis and looked out the Aspirin whilst watching a spotted flycatcher feeding its young, ten feet from our front window. It's ten years now since our very own flycatcher last came to nest in the wisteria at Gate Lodge.
I think we were both taken aback by the unexpected elegance of Eger back in Hungary a few days ago, a true pearl amongst the modest exterior of otherwise every-day Hungary. Levoca, here in Slovakia, proved to be yet another masterpiece in a country seemingly offering few surprises to date. The truly amazing Church of St James overflows with magnificent antiquities to the extent that entrance, by ticket only (€2 pp donation), is at specific times only and with a guide, who unlocks the prison-like entrance gates at the allotted time for a guided tour and locks the doors behind you. The church and the Town and County official buildings stand proudly in the centre of town,
surrounded by the most incredible Renaissance town houses, some still in the process of renovation post-Communism. Levoca is indeed a picture of Slovakia to blow your mind.
Slovaks appear to be a somewhat shy race, reluctant to look you in the eye as they pass in the street. There's no reluctance on the roads as we quickly discovered. Powerful cars screech by on winding bends and double white lines, on blind hills and - well, anywhere particularly dangerous! Maybe it's this impatience which drives the country towards success, as things look to be on the bright-side here in Slovakia.
From Levoka we headed north to Kezmarok. This lovely town of delightfully jaded town houses was pulsating with life: groups of school-children on a day's outing before the end of term and dozens of busy little shops of all descriptions enjoying a final swan-song before the out-of-town Tesco’s reopens after refurbishment. The end is surely nigh for all small shopkeepers across Europe and yet another beautiful town centre and its community will be lost forever.
Beyond Kezmarok pretty villages with traditional wooden houses dot wide vistas of undulating pastureland all the way to Cerveny Klastor on the Dunajec
Bored punters being happy!
River. This river marks the border between Slovakia and Poland, and bored punters in embroidered waistcoats and felt hats were taking equally bored groups of holidaying punters down the wide, fast-flowing river through the gorge. We watched, waving as each punt passed by, and enjoyed, not for the first time I might add, double scoops of home-made ice cream in a cone for €0.60! We could handle the cost of this sort of living here. Lunch of cabbage soup, sheep's cheese dumplings and two Fantas cost €9.50 for the two of us at the local riverside restaurant. That's lunch for one in an English pub (without the Fanta or an arm and a leg for a beer) if you're lucky these days.
We're leaving you this week in the ski resort of Tetranska Lomnica up in the High Tatra Mountains, hiking in the peaks tomorrow, so, if you're feeling fit, come and join us!
Dovidenia - Goodbye, from Slovakia
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
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