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Friday, 5 December 2008

WILD ABOUT IT - Why and how we wild camp

All to ourselves - perfect

This article was submitted to MMM magazine in January 2008, was accepted, but never published.....

The term “wild camping” has a habit of raising a smile, raising eyebrows, raising hackles or even raising eyes to heaven, depending on which motorcaravanning circles you are moving in. There are even those who consider that you are not a "proper" motorhomer if you don't wild camp.
Thus it’s almost guaranteed to polarise opinions (closely followed by the running of generators) - but what is it really all about?

Scotland. Sorry, but you don't get many campsites like this

We should declare our position first. Our first night outside of a campsite was in our old camper (the silver machine) on the banks of the Loire. We hardly slept a wink and sat bolt upright every time some late night lovers or fisherman drove past.
In the past five years in our new van we have spent nearly 800 nights on board – over 500 of those have been free camps. Wild, or free camping, is now an integral part of our motorhoming life – if we couldn’t wild camp we would probably sell the motorhome.

What is “wild camping”?
A simple, accurate and memorable definition can be the hardest thing…….. Free camping? Open camping? Off-site camping?....
“Wild camping” is the one that everybody recognises, but “free camping” is probably the more accurate because it encompasses not only the monetary aspect but also what we so love about it - the freedom from schedules, bookings and other irritations.

Sometimes you get unexpected guests!

The essence for us is that we find somewhere which feels right, suits us for that particular night and costs nothing or next to nothing. Put it another way, we stop when and more or less where we want, and are not paying for facilities or services that we do not need. Thus we avoid the hassle, crowding, irritation and regulation of campsites, not to mention the ever rising cost, which, when you are on a budget as most long term travellers are, eat into your allowance for more pleasurable things.
And when the campsites are closed or non-existent, of course, you have no choice. The good thing is that our money is nonetheless going into the local economy by way of the food, fuel, meals and drinks that we buy.

Dont forget France Passion, life in the vineyard, only the guidebook to pay for

Why do it?
Initially we stayed constantly on campsites because “wild camping” was something that other people did and seemed a bit too risky. Now we free camp most of the time, not only because it saves money that can then be spent on more enjoyable things than wardens and kiddies play areas, but because it suits our touring lifestyle and we simply enjoy it more. We have stayed in places where the surroundings simply take your breath away, and frequently alone too, to enjoy the splendour, the peace and the wildlife.

Portugal. Weekends it was packed, weekdays - deserted

But it is horses for courses, others head for the beach and are happy to herd up with dozens of like minded travellers in “satellite cities”
We like to head for the remotest spots because that’s what gives us a buzz.

France. At night we are alone, daytime the ski bus runs past every 30 minutes

So, choose between the solitude of a snow filled valley high in the Alps, or the cheek by jowl existence of 98 vans parked on the dirty sand at Torremolinos city limit - in our view, the sublime and the ridiculous, but it is all free camping.

Torremolinos city limits. Sun, Sea, dirt, rats....seems to suit many but not us

There is of course a middle ground, of mundane car parks, aires and remote laybys, and we frequent them often, with many others.

Portugal. P is for parking - it can be that simple

Is it safe?
The fairly obvious answer to this question is: “it depends where you choose to camp”. If you camp by a beach near a popular tourist resort in southern Spain (for example) you can be sure that you run the risk of being targeted by an organised group who are out to rob you. We have heard tales of damage, theft and one of vandalism - graphiti sprayed on the side of the van at night - but thankfully, none of physical attacks on the person.
If on the other hand you camp in a remote place, away and out of sight of main roads, you have cut down the odds that persons of ill intent are: a) aware that you are there, b) figure it is worth their while to go the distance to trouble you.

Spain. Note the added dustbin lid!

Why the anger? somebody dump their cassette perhaps?

The arguments about parking up in groups, parking up under lights, near police stations etc. (to my mind) can work both ways. A big group makes a more lucrative target, lights make you more obvious and easier to assess, and why has the police station been sited there in the first place?
In over 500 nights of free camping we have only been disturbed once – that was in eastern Spain when we parked in a layby off a busy main road, not something we normally do. Somebody hammered on the rear side window at 0130 and yelled loudly, seemingly abusively. To this day we cannot decide weather this was an abusive attack, a test to see if the van was occupied or a warning. We moved swiftly to a location on a minor road some miles away and had no further trouble.
(In Italy ths year we had an attempted break in, but our heosafe locks meant they went away empty handed)

What about security?
Common sense dictates that the more security you have the better – the greater is the deterrent effect, and the longer and more violent an attack would have to be in order to gain entry. At some point though, you have to decide whether your security measures are impacting too much on the enjoyment of your lifestyle.
In our view, the bare minimum is lockable deadlocks on all access doors and a “perimeter” alarm system which will sound if any doors or lockers are opened - we have a bike loop too.

Above all, we park in a position and a condition ready to drive away in a hurry, keeping a set of keys, a phone and a large torch to hand. All valuables that are really important to us go under the bed, in which case we would have to be physically moved to gain access to them. We never open the door to anyone unless positive of their identity, negotiating through a window if necessary.
Really, we have taken more security measures than most people take in their home, (despite the risk of attacks) and we are sleeping in our escape vehicle!

How do you find an overnight spot?

I think that just about covers it - where shall we go instead?

We are still honing our antennae as to where to find and what makes a good wild camping spot, but we are definitely discussing an art, not a science. With experience we get swifter at sniffing out suitable spots and quicker to satisfy ourselves of its suitability. Our preference is for out of the way and remote places, but it depends hugely on you, your attitude to risk, your tolerance to noise, the size of your van, etc.

A good starting point in any country is to ask at a tourist office. "Where can I park my campervan overnight" is slightly ambiguous, but is not hard to work out in any language, and will often get you a positive result, such as a circle on a map.
Study your map, with experience you can get a head start by matching your kind of location to common features on the map. Reservoirs, National or historic monuments, woodland, parkland, all can provide a rich vein of car parks accessible to the public, though with limitations in Great Britain.

Portuguese barragem (reservoir). Days like these can be tough!

If you have the right approach, farmers, publicans, restaurateurs and local inhabitants can also be a source of suitable locations.
Don’t forget word of mouth - websites exist of course - but the hottest and most valuable tips are the ones you get from fellow motorhomers on the road.

How do you know if it’s OK?
Listen to your instincts. We have a golden rule that if either one of us is uneasy about a location (for no particular reason), we move on, no arguments.
If there is a local inhabitant you can speak to, ask if they “think anyone will mind” if you park there overnight. Don’t park in view of peoples houses in remoter locations, or block access and/or deny parking space to locals.

Don’t overcrowd or create a “circus” - hard as it may be, look for another location. Check that you are not in an area used for traders markets, we have all done it, waking up surrounded by bustle and white vans!

Don’t ignore “No Overnight Parking” signs without some inside information. Go into the nearest tourist office/garage/shop/pub and ask. At the very least it will give you a clue as to the official/prevailing attitude.

Scotland. The locals we spoke to said - one or two vans, off season - ignore the sign

Don’t stay where you see abandoned vehicles, broken fences, ugly graffiti, etc.
Don't stay on motorway aires or service station car parks - the tales of theft and attempted break in are legion, the risk of being targeted high.
Don’t put out your awning and chairs in public car parks – this will immediately set all sorts of people's alarm bells ringing.
Above all, don’t take the mickey – ask yourself if you were a neutral observer, would you think “that motorhome" was being obstructive, inconsiderate, asking to be moved on, etc?

What about water and waste disposal?
What follows will seem old hat to some, patronising to others maybe, but for those who, like us, are still learning - here goes.

Rubbish. Obviously enough, the less you create the less you have to dispose of - and it’s not difficult to find ways of cutting down, from buying more loose fruit and veg, to repacking stuff into reusable containers you as you buy it. If we accumulate rubbish we store it and dump it in a public or council bin, not one belonging to a householder or café owner - that would make me angry.
It still stuns us to see supermarket bags, filled with waste and neatly tied up by the handles, dumped in the remotest beauty spots. Why bother to come if you are going to mess it up, and do you really think you’ll be welcomed back?

Now the constant thread through a wild camper’s life - water, waste water and toilet disposal. If you are in France of course, it is all so easy, an aire will likely be not far away, and many campsites will let you "pump & dump" for a few euros. Germany and Northern Italy make life easier as well, even Spain is setting up a network of aires

Note what constitutes camping in Andalucia - leave your chairs and awning stowed

Where do I empty the toilet?
Our primary venue is public toilets. We are opportunists and make a cassette disposal whenever it is worthwhile. If you're cringing at this stage, remember that with a few types of public toilet system excepted, we are disposing of nothing more than the system was designed to cope with. The only difference is that the quantity is rather more than usual, and a little environmentally friendly chemical has been added to help it break down. I take a large plastic coke bottle of water for flushing purposes and some kitchen towel for accidental spills. I obviously pick my time (to avoid standing in the queue!) but have never been challenged by anyone.

We have met Brits, of our own generation, never mind other nationalities, who are still, in that infamous phrase, "making clandestine nocturnal visits" with the toilet cassette. Don’t empty your toilet “over the hedge”, We cannot see how this practice can be justified if you have the long term interests of yourself and other motorcaravanners at heart.

If, as in Spain, the public facilities are often closed, try the garages, many have outside “truckers” toilets. Portugal has plentiful public toilets. Naturally, you will leave them as clean, if not cleaner than you found them.
If all else fails, and you are really out in the sticks, then a latrine or “camping” spade is a viable option (Scouts do it all the time!) but discretion is still needed, to my mind, to avoid raising concern.

Some motorhomers we have spoken to carry a selection of lifting handles for street sewage covers, but this is not a practice I have adopted, primarily because I don't need another hernia! Nevertheless, in Spain and Portugal it appears to be an option, though I would not fancy explaining why to the Guardia Civil!

We have even heard of campers using cling film in the pan and disposing of their collection in the receptacles set aside for our canine friends. Seems environmentally sound to me, why should dogs have exclusive use of facilities!

Where do I dump waste water?
When was the last time you were told by your local water authority to save your bath water and “recycle” it on the lawn or flowerbeds? I know people get exercised about this, but small quantities are soon absorbed, indeed, when asked, some campsite owners have told us to "water the plants" Out in the wilds we find some open ground, preferably with grass, where it will swiftly drain away.
In more urban areas, an alternative is a garage with a pressure washing bay. They are an ideal place to dump waste water and will often supply you with water as well.
Remember, it is illegal to dump any fluids on the public highway, and you can never be sure that the water is going into a sewer, rather than a watercourse.

Where do I get fresh water?
In the absence of aires, we find garages the most reliable source of fresh water. In general the small local garages are more amenable and we have rarely been refused. Always ask, and if they hesitate, offer to pay - many are now on meters and have to watch the pennies. Who knows, it might help stimulate a garage chain to actually offer more facilities for motorhomers.
If you're stopping for a drink or meal, publicans and restaurateurs will sometimes provide.

Spain. Asked the bar owner if it was ok, huge fire, simple food - what characters

Public toilets also come into the frame, a short piece of non-collapsing hose with a soft funnel and a couple of large mineral water containers will enable you to get water from virtually any tap. We also have compehensive collection of tap adaptors.
Don’t take fresh water from private taps without permission – we have seen it done and it leaves you wondering where these people think they are, just imagine their reaction if someone ran a hose up to their garden tap!

Scotland. If you wild camp like this you will not be popular

Are you ready?
Finally, to sum it all up really, Don’t take the p***, put yourselves in the local residents shoes, how would you react to what you are doing? Do spend your money in local shops and garages – it may cost a little more, but hey – you’ve just enjoyed a peaceful night in a beautiful location – its time to show your appreciation.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Prague to Home

7th July.
Bye bye Budapest, it was over 30ºC again by midday. Whilst I sweltered in the van, Sue used up our remaining Forints in the cool of a Lidl's supermarket.

Above Budapest the Danube curves westward towards Bratislava and we followed it as far as Esztergom. This is a sacred city to the Hungarians as Hungary's first king, St Istvan, was baptized and crowned there. The skyline is dominated by the three domes of its vast Basilica. The old town looked worth a longer look, including a museum on the use and management of the River Danube, but we decided to press on.

From behind the cathedral we crossed over the Danube via an impressive riveted steel bridge (with a 3.5 ton restriction) and passed through the dusty and disused customs post to Sturo.

Refueled and in possession of another tourist map (paying by credit card), we hit the 509, a long straight road through endless hay and sunflower fields. Now the weather began to change - sinister black skies, high winds, fantastic forked lightening and rain storms. The cracks of thunder were so fierce they actually seemed to rock the van. When we got to Nove Zamky some roads were flooded and littered with tree debris, we saw some large uprooted trees and power lines brought down. Lucky to miss the worst of that one!

Some serious wind and rain on its way!

Next stop was Sala, a small disjointed town dissected by railway lines, whose solitary focal point was a massive illuminated Tesco sign atop a steel tower. I drew £50 worth of Slovakian Koruna (SKK) from a smart new ATM.
Camping Termaline Kupalisko (GPS: 48.1334 N, 17.7857 E) was selected from our new map. It was several kilometres away through flat rural countryside and when we arrived the gates were barred and locked; there were signs of life however, and a grumpy looking middle aged man came to receive us. He had not a word of English.

Sue struggles to converse in Slovak

The Slovak language belongs to a Slavic sub group of Indo European languages, but uses the Roman rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. At this point some knowledge of German would have been very useful, but as we have none Sue had to struggle on with sign language, eventually ascertaining that a single night would cost 460 SKK (€15) – this apparently included a swim in the thermal baths!

The camping area was surrounded by a group of chalets, a tired looking holiday apartment block and a decrepit 60's built Night Club/Restaurant. There was also an unusual wooden building built in the form of a star, apparently a disco, but looking distinctly unused.

We parked next to one of the many tents in a small roped off patch currently being used as a football pitch. As the only modern motorhome present, we attracted some bewildered looks and felt briefly like unwelcome strangers at a private party. I went to inspect the pool but it was empty, a squad of cleaners spraying the slime off the walls. Oh well, nice to know they clean it occasionally!

8th July.
Braving the chilly (yes chilly!) morning breeze we sampled the pool in the early sunshine, it was now nearly full and at a beautiful temp: not too hot to enjoy a swim, but warm enough to just sit and relax amongst the steam. A great way to start the day. A handful of other bathers, with their backs to the water spigots, were dedicatedly soaking up all those minerals claimed to cure almost every ailment known to man, but curiously – according to our map guide – with a particular emphasis on nervous and motor system diseases.

This water can cure almost anything!

The next town was Galanta. Not having bothered with a vignette for the trunk roads, we drove through Sered and followed minor roads onto Trnava, passing through several small villages, typically distinguished by red-tile roofed cottages, strings of old fashioned phone lines and rather incongruously: megaphone PA speakers hanging from every other telegraph pole; more relics of communist control.

On the outskirts of Trnava there is a massive new Peugeot-Citroen car plant, which together with some huge DHL warehouses, must be bringing much needed employment into the area. Trnava itself is identified by the sparkling, newly restored copper domes on its central church.

The copper domed church in Trnava

Heading towards Senica on the 51, we drove over the Malé Karpaty range – nice to be in wooded hills again. The map indicated a surfeit of castles (ruined and otherwise) in the area.

Czech Republic
After using up the last of our Slovak Koruna on diesel, we crossed into the Czech Republic at Hodonin. No passport or customs controls again but we made sure to buy a vignette at the small office marked Smënárna shortly after the customs booths.

This is the place to get your vignettes

Asked if the van was over 3.5 tonne I told the girl 3850 kg, but she took a look out of the window at our van and sweetly issued one for 3.5t. The shortest period available was 1 week at €14. I was offered Euros or Czech Koruna (CZK) in change for my Euros.

Feeling that we had done enough driving for one day we consulted our Czech-published tourist map and saw a group of campsites west of us, by a lakeside at Pasohlávky. According to our Caravan Club guide, free camping in the Czech Republic is punishable with a heavy fine, so we weren't taking any chances just yet!

The towns of Breclav and the more interesting Mikulov passed by and we finally saw a camping sign. It turned out to be a huge and noisy conglomeration of sites; not our cup of tea at all, and the presence of visiting police confirmed the decision to look elsewhere.

Our map showed one more site further out and so we found Autocamp  Brod nad Dyji. It was a tiny but prettily maintained site with small chalets and tents, ornamental pool and communal BBQ area. The young proprietor did a double take when he saw our van but squeezed us in by the stream. (GPS 48.8804 N, 16.5369 E). 130 CZK (€5.5) a night.

Autocamp  Brod nad Dyji: pretty, but pretty small

9th July.
We extricated ourselves from Brod nad Dyji after a chat with some Dutch in a tent who had been visiting Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. They had enjoyed themselves and found the people friendly, but the visit was expensive, costs bloated by bureaucratic surcharges.

We headed North to pick up the E65 motorway to Praque at Brno. We soon had regrets as the road surface is appalling: made up of concrete slabs that have worn to a concave shape it produced some horrendous vibration in the 'van. Fearing that the bike rack would shake itself off the back we exited at Jihlava and took the 38 to Kolin, thereafter route 12 to Prague – a slower trip but far more pleasant through rolling countryside.

Torn between trying the Prague Yacht Club Caravan site on Cisarska island (with views of the city centre) and a bunch of sites 3 km North in the Troja area, we chose Autocamp Trojska, one of a row of sites that have been created in the back gardens of adjacent large houses. A very popular site, and crammed with vans and tents from as far afield as Norway, Spain and Iceland. (http://www.autocamp-trojska.cz/ ) (GPS: 50.1167 N, 14.4276 E). 420 CZK (€12) a night.

Autocamp Trojska - they know how to pack them in!

Seeing a van with British (Welsh) plates we said hello to Gloria and Jeff, originally from the North of England. Not having met or talked to any Brits for some time we were all glad of a good chinwag and after polishing off a few bottles we retired to an excellent Italian restaurant 100 yards away.

10th July.
We awoke to the pitter patter of rain on the roof – a strange and forgotten sound to our ears! Our resolve to see Prague soon evaporated as the rain settled in for the day. More vans and tents piled into the campsite; it was soon absolutely packed, cars using up every square foot of space. Nobody catch fire please!

11th July.
A No 14 tram from a nearby stop took us into the city centre. The outskirts of the city looked pretty run down: derelict buildings, graffiti, overgrown pavements. Once off the tram Sue soon spotted that boat trips were available and we signed up for one. The river Vltava is not free flowing here but regulated by locks, hence a round trip between lock gates takes about 40 minutes.

The famous Charles bridge, with Prague castle on the horizon

A variety of pleasure boats ply their trade, including a paddle steamer and a magnificent old vessel called simply “Prague” and manned by immaculately suited sailors. The commentary was recorded in five languages, which made it a bit long winded – and the French and Spanish pronunciations were excruciatingly wide of the mark. The President and Intercontinental Hotels were hailed as architectural gems (which seemed like unnecessary scraping of the barrel), but perhaps the most memorable sight was a giant red metronome on the hillside which had displaced Stalin off his pedestal.

The famous Charles bridge leads to the Old Town, which it has to be said, does fit your expectations. I enjoyed the lovingly restored classic Skoda cars available for hire. Lunch was by the waterside and for once we enjoyed a tasty and reasonably priced meal in a tourist area.

Next was a tram ride up to the castle. The Cathedral within its walls is magnificent, and free to enter; the rest of the complex, the Royal Place etc, was overpriced – the audioguide as much again as the entry ticket.

Fabulous stained glass in Prague Cathedral

Unable to get a tram ticket from the vandalized machine we walked back down to the town to see the famous astronomical clock with the 12 apostles who pop out and display themselves. Hot and sweaty, but still not using our wits, we sat  down to wait for the apostles and ordered ice creams and water.

The water came in tiny bottles, a small glassful, for which we were charged 90 CZK (4 €) each. The astronomical bill (the equivalent of £18.50) was inflated by the addition of not only a 10% service charge but 19% VAT on top! Our complaint that we were being ripped off was met with the Czech equivalent of the Gallic shrug - nothing to do with me Chief!

The apostles pop out to see the tourists

After wandering the streets some more we ducked down into the Metro for a tram ticket. Wenceslas Square more of a Boulevard really – was in the midst of some serious construction work and largely fenced off. Overall, the area looked pretty shabby to our eyes, and with a slightly menacing buzz in the air; the Police were out in force. As the rain came down we thankfully boarded the tram back to our Campsite haven.

12th July. Germany.
The motorway out of Prague has a good surface but then downgrades to single carriageway. As you approach the German border, construction was continuing and just before Teplice we missed the junction for the new E55 motorway. The old road was still marked E55 however and climbed steeply over the Krusné Hory range. When we got to the vast border post complex at Georgenfeld it was utterly deserted save one solitary police car, the new motorway obviously having made it redundant.

We stopped briefly at the tourist office in Altenburg, an out of the way ski resort, but now with the feel of a ghost town. More pleasant forest roads, an abandoned narrow gauge railway, tidy houses and clean streets. A quick stop at Lidls – nice to be back in Euroland!

Onto Dresden. We drove easily through the city on the 170 and found our way to Caravan Camping Dresden-Nord (GPS: 51.1130 N, 13.7248 E). Another small back garden site with vans packed side by side, but crucially, on the bus route into the city.

After six months of traveling, Sue and I were a pretty well oiled machine when it came to setting up camp – but this campsite owner manifestly knew how to do it better. After much arm waving and countermanding of instructions we ended up with the bikes stuffed into the hedge, at which point he began to wag his finger at Sue. I don't know what the German equivalent of the "entente cordiale" is but we nearly lost it. He even insisted on supervising the levelling of the van with his homemade wooden blocks.  I did ponder an alternative use for them!

Our new friends Gloria and Jeff were on site so we retired to their van for a mid-afternoon cuppa to left off steam, then somebody suggested opening a bottle. They have had a colourful life in a “rags to riches” kind of way and Jeff can tell a good story. Later, he decided it was time to cook the fresh fish they had bought that day; kitchens in both vans were put to work and we enjoyed a huge plate of salmon, squid, rice and vegetables. Around midnight it seemed as if we were getting a second wind, but thinking the sight-seeing might suffer we called a halt!

On the nights of the 13th and 14th of February 1945, the City of Dresden was carpet bombed by the English and Americans. The resultant fire storm destroyed many of its famous monuments and much of its housing – leaving the city looking like the aftermath of Hiroshima. 35,000 citizens lost their lives. Since then the slow and painstaking process of restoring is famous streets and buildings has falteringly gathered pace and now since reunification the final push is underway.
Ruined Dresden in 1945, the devastation is absolute

13th July.
When we awoke the rain had settled in. Clutching a town guide leaflet with a walking route in it we caught the 81 bus to the main Bhanhof.

From there we walked to the Albertplatz, a large cobbled plaza with two magnificent water fountains. Next, down the Haupt-strasse, a tree lined pedestrianize avenue, most of the buildings looking of 60's vintage but not badly proportioned.

As it was Sunday the central area was filled with illuminated market stalls, which reminded us of the Christmas markets we had enjoyed in Emden a few years ago. Some hot Roast Ham at the Grille Hütte looked too good to resist, so suddenly it was lunch time! The smiling vendor had a glint in his eye and cut slice after slice until the buns were stuffed so thick with succulent meat a glass of wine was required to wash it down!

We settled on a padded wooden bench, the rain dripping through the trees onto the canvas canopy above it. A middle aged German couple came to join us and seemed disappointed that we couldn't engage them in conversation, but we smiled a lot – touched by their friendliness.

Just across from where we sat is the Dreikönigskirche, one of Dresdens historic churches. After the devastating bombing only the tower and the altarpiece remained, but now a plain but elegant building contains the broken altarpiece, and the tower is restored. It was sobering to stand within this new, pristine ghost of the original building and imagine the ancient delicate stonework being blasted and scarred by bomb fragments. I know England's people and buildings suffered equal horrors, but it is somehow more sickening when your own country's heroes have wrought the havoc.

The scarred remains of the original altar of the Dreikönigskirche

At the end of the Haupt Strasse it opens up into another large modern plaza with a sparkling gold plated statue of Friedrich August the Strong. From the stone Augustus bridge which spans the River Elbe there is a classic vista of Dresden – the incredibly ornate Zwinger, the Cathedral, the Royal palace, the Bruhl Terrace and the Frauenkirche, provide a skyline like no other. Paddle steamers on the water complete the vision of another time.

Friedrich August the Strong

We looked at the Cathedral first, the rebuilt interior is mostly plain in colour, but the altarpiece and the chapels behind (closed to the public) have been restored in marble and gilt to their former glory. Everywhere else the columns and arches are painted light grey, the identical intricate capitals ungilded – another stark reminder of earlier carnage.

The rebuilt interior of the cathedral

The Opera house was also destroyed, but rebuilt in 1985. Its opulent interior can be visited at certain times of day. The Zwinger is an elaborate Baroque masterpiece with ornate gardens and fountains and has a lovely atmosphere.

The sumptuous Baroque of the Zwinger gardens

No takers, even in the rain!

We then walked through the archway of the Georgenbau into Schloss Strasse, and suddenly our eyes were assaulted by open bombsites and a bleak monument to communist reconstruction: the 1960’s eyesore of the Kulturpalast festival hall. Curiously enough it didn't appear in our guidebook!

The Communists contribution to the elegance of Dresden - Kulturpalast

Across the Wilsdruffer Strasse is the Altmarkt (old market), a huge square, newly relaid on top of an underground car park. On the left is the Kreuzenkirche, also destroyed in the bombing but lovingly rebuilt from 1946-55, though the interior is very plain: just the form of the original with surviving stonework pieces incorporated. The tower has a separate entrance and its 230 steps can be climbed for €2: a mere 0.87 cents a step – if you're counting! The view is good but not as high as from the City hall tower next door. The view here can be enjoyed for €3, including, thankfully, 2 lifts all the way to the top. The arresting picture above of ruined Dresden is in the gallery.

Back towards the Stadt Museum and the Neumarkt (New Market) redevelopment. There was an exhibition centre here with a huge cardboard model of pre-war Dresden and an interesting video. A large part of Neumarkt is still literally a bombsite, but it is slowly being rebuilt block by block with enormous expense and dedication. The Baroque style is being copied building by building exactly as it was, the only 21st Century addition is the Tardis like glass lift in the centre of the cobbled square - transport to the car park below.

 Newly erected "Baroque" buildings filling up the old bombsites

The centrepiece of Neumarkt is the Frauenkirche, a church built in 1726-43 at enormous cost (then) by an architect called George Bahr, who bankrupted his family and died before it was finally completed. Constrained by the available building space, the design is more akin to an opera house and the bell shaped dome has become iconic. Collapsing the morning after the bombing into a jumble of stones; it was saved from total disappearance by the simple ruse of planting climbing roses, thus turning it into a poignant memorial

The rebuilt Frauenkirche dominating the skyline once more

Reconstruction began in 1990 and was completed in 2004 at a cost of €250m. Data available from a fortuitous restoration just before the war, plus new computer technology, enabled 15% of the original stones to be reused, giving it a piebald effect which will no doubt darken in time.

The interior is stunning – not a word I use lightly here. It is galleried like an opera house but where the stage would be, the altarpiece rises to the roof – a magnificent work of art – ornate and gilded and skilfully lit. The background colour is a pastel shade of blue – closer to turquoise than sky – giving it a freshness unlike anything we have seen in our travels in Italy. The achievement is even more remarkable because it has been created in modern times.
 The breathtaking interior of the Frauenkirche

To add to the drama, the original cross from the top of the dome: blackened and twisted by fire – as it was when discovered and lifted from the ruins – is displayed on the right hand side. The resplendent replacement, an exact copy, was a gift from the people of Coventry in 2000.

And so to the Café Frauenkirche for refreshment. Dinner was roast pork stuffed with apple and prunes, applejack sauce and yeast dumplings (which turned out to be slices of doughy bread – excellent for soaking up the rich sauce). The old city has an uplifting atmosphere, day or night, and we stayed until the last bus home.

Dresden is a city still in the process of being reborn – if you are just a little interested in building and architecture it is an engrossing place to visit, though we didn't even touch on the 11 museums (their priceless collections of treasures were put into safe keeping during the war). Dresden affects the title: “Florence on the Elbe” – having “done” Florence I don’t think it’s a vain boast.
14th July.
A Sunny morning. We took the bus again to do some shopping and have a look at more of the "New Town", said to have the greatest proportion of original buildings and to give the best impression of what pre-war Dresden was like. The elegant residential buildings were there all right, most in good condition and some still being restored, but after the lovingly cared for appearance of the Old Town the levels of grafitti were a shock and a disappointment. Up to first floor level it was almost continuous, even active businesses having their windows and doors daubed - their inhabitants must despair.

Step forward to the video surveillance society. I've heard it said that grafitti is a sign of a healthy democracy but to us it is just vandalism, a blight, seemingly out of control in almost every country we visit. We noticed an electrical substation and a few walls on vacant lots where "street artists" had obviously been encouraged to paint, presumably in the hope they would leave somebody’s shop front alone. Some hopes.

We took one of the plentiful and modern trams back to the Albertplatz and found a pleasant mews bistro off the Hauptrasse for lunch. Then to a large bookshop in the Altmarkt to browse their vast collection of maps and guide books, coming away with a Bordaltlas guide to Stellplatz, the german equivalent of French aire de service.

15th July.
The campsite owner was on form again, micro managing our departure. Sue eventually shut him up with the equivalent of "whose van is this?!!"

Onto the E40 within minutes and we settled down for a cross country blast. This route is virtually all 3 lane motorway, what's left is under construction and due to be completed by 2010.

Then, tiring of the motorway, we turned off and using our new Stellplatz guide headed for the small village of Breidenstein where we found a secluded car/coach park by a flood defence reservoir. Pretty spot. (GPS: 50.9116N, 8.46213E)

16th July.
Our next destination was Köln or Cologne (where the "eau de" comes from). Straddling the Rhine, it shares a history with Dresden in that it was flattened by allied bombing. Koln is of course in Western Germany, Dresden was in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the differences in their regeneration have been shaped by that fact.

The Koln rail bridge over the Rhine

In our view Dresden has come out best from the circumstances; the minimal reconstruction carried out by the government of the GDR has given time for the job to be done properly – whereas Cologne has the appearance of being thrown back up, mostly in concrete and glass, with barely a nod to the few remaining original buildings. Even the twelve reconstructed churches have been done mostly in brick, pastiching the original stonework, but to my mind leaving them looking a bit Legoland.

Our overnight Stellplatz was on the banks of the mighty fast flowing Rhine, 30 minutes walk away from the city: €8 per night but including round the clock security and electric hook up.
We cycled in along the towpath until we reached the main line railway that sweeps over the river – and then so close to the Cathedral it almost cuts away its foundations! This seems like the natural focal point of the city, where a tourist might be tempted to cross the river, but being a rail bridge it doesn't happen.

The rebuilt "old" town, though pedestrianised, has disjointed and largely ugly architecture and is more or less charmless, somehow reminding me of 1970’s Yokohoma. Down by the water front you can see glimpses of what the medieval town must have been like, but then there is the enigma of the large Blue Pipes! I never got around to finding someone who could tell me what they were for, but the old town streets are lined and dissected by what I suspect are watermains, 12 inches or more in diameter and suspended on pillars, mounted on red and white concrete blocks – perhaps they are some form of street art!
The mysterious blue pipes than weave their way through the "old" town
Strangely enough, Dresden had a few similar pipes along the ring road, but here they really get in the way. One can only assume they are some temporary measure, otherwise it's town planning gone off the rails.

17th July.
We took the bus into town, but it was quite a stroll from the terminus to the Cathedral. The Cathedral was more impressive from the outside than inside  perhaps our eyes are now jaded by seeing so much.

The shrine of the Three Magi
The golden shrine of the Three Magi can only be inspected by official tour groups, but the separate Treasury contains the inner wooden part of the shrine and the usual collection of liturgical adornments and vestments, but also some remarkable carved ivory panels. The history attached to some of these objects can be as fascinating as the objects themselves. (€4 entrance).

Cologne is never going to rise phoenix-like from the ashes as Dresden is appearing to do: as much a result of poor town planning as hurried and ill considered rebuilding. It claims to have world class museums on a par with New York, but the city centre (if you can identify it) is a jumbled metropolis.

We had lunch at one of the many waterfront restaurants and ordered sausage, mash and sauerkraut and a large beer (€33). Although not the rip-off we have found these places to be in other countries, the food was sadly sparse and undistinctive. The service came with a sense of humour however.

Some of the few medieval buildings left, by the waterfront

We hit the road again (E40) and drove to Camping Memling, fifteen minutes cycle ride from Bruges: a smallish site, it was well packed with tents, caravans and motorhomes and must be a well known staging post as there was a mass exodus every morning. (http://www.campingmemling.be/ ) (GPS: 51.2063 N, 3.2620 E), €25 a night.

18th July.
We met some more charming Germans, Gabi and Chris, who were off across the channel to visit South England, Cornwall and Wales – all in 18 days! As we know Cornwall well we couldn't resist a chinwag over a map to make sure they didn't miss our favourite spots. We think we left them thoroughly bemused, but hopefully we'll hear how they got on.

19th July.
Cycling into Bruges in the intermittent and occasionally heavy rain wasn't the best, and made the crowded streets even more difficult to negotiate. Brugge (pronounced: Brugger) is surrounded and dissected by canals and is undeniably pretty, cute and remarkably well preserved.

The network of canals define Brugge

The horse 'n traps are everywhere, echoing around the narrow streets

Of course Bruges is chocolate nirvana for any chocoholics out there, and should you be a Tintin fan you can even buy a model rocket or the "Captain" from Sergey's cartoon adventures in a shop dedicated to nothing else. Wow, were the street restaurants expensive: €14 for fish soup, €26 for moules frites; we chickened out and got a take away from Pizza Hut – even a "medium" cost €14 and barely fed us.

Bruges also has a new and futuristic concert hall, and I had a fascinating few minutes of “important people" watching by the entrance whilst Sue was in the tourist office. Across the square is a modern bronze fountain where you can see a mermaid spouting water from her mouth and her left nipple – amongst other delights.

20th July.
We checked out the designated overnight motorhome parking on the Southern perimeter of Brugge: nicely laid out but with a lifting barrier, but  €22.50 a night, water and waste not included – yes, you have to pay to dump as well

Finally on our way to Calais, we later stopped in the large car park at the ferry terminal to await our turn in the early hours.

21st July.
A "Full English" breakfast on board – surrounded by excited school kids, and then:
Blighty! A beautiful clear sunny day as we hit the M20. Our plan was to check into the Baltic Wharf site in Bristol to revisit the Great Britain, then pop into John Lewis’s at Cribbs Causeway to return the laptop for repair. Lunch at the Cottage Inn pub on the water front and an English pint!

The Cottage Inn pub on Baltic wharf - Ah, an English pint!

The Great Britain is one of Brunel’s best known achievements. Recovered from the Falkland Islands as a wreck in the 70’s, it has now been almost totally restored to its most grand incarnation, including passenger accommodation and a complete replica of the main steam engine. One of the best presented historic ships we have seen, the engine room and passenger cabins really do manage to evoke some realistic flavour.
The totally recreated luxurious saloon

The newly recreated playroom for engineers - it moves as well!

22nd July.
After dropping off the laptop and some retail therapy, we headed for home.

Post Script: some statistics.
In 182 days away we covered 7440 miles in 11 countries.
We stayed 104 nights on campsites and the other 78 wild or free camping.
The campsites added up to £1393, an average cost of £13.40 per night. Over the whole trip (including the free nights) this averages down to £7.66 a night.

Fuel cost for the trip was £1462. This averages out at £8.03 per day, or 20 pence per mile.

Our food and drink bill (we like a glass or two) came to £2408, or £13.23 a day. In addition we spent £1746 on meals out, £8.11 a day.

Heating and cooking costs (buying only Autogas) came to £92, or 51 pence a day.

We spent a surprising £739 on other transport (trains, boat trips, buses, road tolls) though this includes £62 on the return cross channel trip and £222 for the ferry from Bari to Patras.

Other incidental costs included £544 (£2.99 a day) on entrance tickets to museums, etc, plus what we spent on ski lift tickets.
Which brings us to a grand total of £8182 or £45 a day - more than we spent last year, but then touring Italy's major cities was never going to be cheap, and we ate out quite a lot. Then again, how much would a six month "holiday" for two cost by any other means? You can't take it with you!

Friday, 29 August 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Thessaloniki to Budapest

25th June. Bulgaria.
Greece was too hot, we had to escape. We stopped for diesel at an isolated garage just before the border and they happily gave us fresh water for our tank and even allowed us to empty our toilet cassette in their outside loo. The last few miles of Greek road were superb new dual carriageway – I guess the government is trying to create a good first impression for traffic coming south.

The formalities at the border post were swift: the friendly female Bulgarian customs officer spoke to me in French; I was expecting German or fractured English. Just as well though, as the Bulgarian language uses their own version of the Cyrillic alphabet, itself derived from the Greek alphabet, which makes both speech and the written word pretty impenetrable to us!
We stopped briefly to pick up a vignette, buying the 7 day version (€5 for vehicles up to 3.5t, €7 for vehicles up to 12t).

The road was now back to single carriageway, the tarmac so deeply rutted in places by freight trucks it was like driving on rails. Happily we now had GPS mapping again – nice to see that little pink blob relate to something! One after the other we passed petrol stations advertising Autogas, curious that it has been so readily adopted here, when Greece has so little.

The countryside stretched away, rolling hills and fields of corn, the rural scene spoilt by huge steel roadside hoardings - some of the more “girly” adverts would raise a few eyebrows at home.

Not a poster you would see in the UK!

The E79 to the capital Sofia has been upgraded with European Union money, which now of course seems to us like money well spent!

Lots of police were out and about, apparently speed checking, though we had to chuckle at the sight of life size cardboard cutout police cars lurking behind road signs! You only get fooled once by these decoys, but I suppose it’s a reminder.
As a sober warning to drivers, some spectacularly wrecked cars were displayed mounted on pedestals at junctions or roundabouts, though perhaps with little concern for relatives who might have to drive daily past the wrecks which killed their loved ones.

Before Sofia is a superb new section of EU funded motorway, a few miles of relaxation before the city outskirts where the roads suddenly degenerate drastically. Most of our route through Sofia was cobbled and we crawled through at 15 mph, holding up the traffic but trying to stop the van shaking itself to bits. Ancient trams often packed with people ran alongside the streets and the traffic was pretty diabolical. Direction signs through the city were notable by their absence but the wonderful GPS got us through.

Driving through Sofia

We picked up Route 84 to Montana, a smooth rural road dotted with some serious suspension-wrecking potholes. Descending into a small village past some large derelict municipal buildings, we came into what you might call the main street. Outside almost every ramshackle dwelling, sitting on the verge, were elderly women with small tables piled high with jars of honey. There was a couple of dozen of these forlorn tableaux but we were the only vehicle in sight and probably the only one to pass by for an age. We debated whether to stop and buy but there was the problem of which desperately poor woman to give our largess to. We drove on, feeling mean and guilty.

A campsite is not something you expect to find in this kind of area and just before it got dark we found a disused quarry for the night. I fancied a stroll to stretch my legs but the air was thick with huge mosquitoes so we battened down.

26th June.
We were now well into rural Bulgaria, the horse and cart a very common sight, workers still cutting hay by hand and forking it onto carts or making bell shaped stacks. Very John Constable. Many of the farmers cheerfully returned our waves. So incongruous to see these "Hay Wain" style carts, stuffed to overflowing, being overtaken by 40 ton lorries and the odd gleaming 4x4 with blacked out windows.

Children gathering up the hay

Most of the villages we passed through seemed partially derelict, houses crumbling though still inhabited. Newer houses didn't seem much better, very few had any rendering, the terracotta bricks shoved haphazardly into the reinforced concrete skeleton, some even missing window frames.

Horse gives ride to goat!

Stopping off in Berkovitsa to get some fuel, I asked the guy at the Shell garage if we could have any water for the van; before I could say "water hose" he produced one and filled our water tank as well – that's what we call service! No problem using our credit card.

So through Montana and onto Vidin. Expecting a road bridge we discovered the ferry across the River Danube. The fare was €35 for the vehicle and €3 per person. Crossing takes about 20 minutes as it goes upstream to Calafat on the Romanian side.

Ferry across the Danube

Driving off the ferry ramp we were swiftly relieved of another €10 "Port tax" for the hundred metres to the Customs! After some laborious data entry on ancient computers in a little hut manned by three women, I paid €3 for a 7 day vignette.

The Romanian language is much more accessible than Bulgarian as it uses the Latin alphabet and reads like a mixture of Italian, French and English; which makes sense, as it is derived from the Latin spoken in the ancient Roman province of Dacia, which coincides roughly with modern Romania.

We found our way onto the 56A though Vanju Mare to Drobeta. First impressions were that the housing was prettier and better constructed than we saw in Bulgaria, some nice fountains and lavishly decorated churches gave a more developed feel. Again, it was strange to see nests of phone lines hanging from the telegraph poles, you forget that a similar sight once lined the streets in the UK.

Then we hit the E70 to Timisoara and the beginning of probably our harshest driving experience to date. Our Slovenian white-van-man acquaintance at the ferry terminal wasn't joking, it was in a hell of a state. As the outside temperature rose to 40C we suddenly had the impression we were back in Kenya. Broken tarmac with dirt tracks either side, dust, donkeys, blistering heat, primitive housing with water still being drawn from wells.

It is a 200km drive between Drobeta and Timisoara but the original road has, and is, being smashed to bits by countless 40 ton freight trucks; every bridge, every culvert, every embankment needs rebuilding, the whole length of the road is a work in progress. Small sections have sublimely smooth new tarmac, but at its worst it is driveable only at a walking pace if you value your van. When it is finished it will be a fantastic drive, with varied and beautiful scenery from wide riverside to mountain gorge. Finding a pitch for the night wasn’t easy and we ended up in a layby, still within earshot of huge lorries pounding the broken paving.

Typical stretch of the E70

27th June.
It rained during the night and it was mercifully much cooler in the morning. We saw our first campsite in Timosoara, a fairly lively looking place, but decided to press on to Hungary. Highway 6 from Timosoara to Sannicolau Mare was almost bereft of trucks and smoothly surfaced. For the first time in Eastern Europe we were quizzed at the border about cigarettes and booze, but they soon waved us through.

Hungary immediately felt more prosperous - trimmed grass verges, neat houses and tidy gardens. Our first stop was Szeged - straddling the River Tisza – it is the fourth largest city in the country and is an attractive place with a vast array of architectural styles, elegant squares, parks and gardens.

Camping Partfurdo (GPS 46.2533N, 20.1581E) offered us a vast pitch by the river and a view of the town. In the communist era this would have been a holiday resort for the privileged party members – there are three large open air pools filled with hot mineral water tapped from the earth right on the campsite, plus many apartments, elevated on concrete stilts to improve the view and protect from river flooding.

Riverside pitch at Camping Partfurdo

A flower bedecked steel bridge provides a short walk into the centre. Tescos, Spar and C&A have all landed here, but there are plenty of native shops and restaurants to sample.

Pedestrianised street in Szeged

As it was Friday night we wended our way to a large square to find a fashion show in progress. We settled ourselves at tables under a canopy near the fountain and had a beer. Looking at the plastic card menu there seemed to be some strange concoctions on offer: catfish and bananas, curry with blueberries – straight out of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares!

We should have known better but after the second beer and enjoying the buzz we ordered lobster salad (a snip at €6) followed by baked salmon with lemon grass sauce and "acorn-fed” pork ribs with spicy sauce. A pleasant green salad arrived with a few tiny griddled shrimps on the top – of lobster there was not a sign, however the shrimps were fresh and tasty so we put the absence of lobster down to their sense of humour! Our humour failed though when the mains arrived, cold and inedible and bearing not a passing resemblance to the overblown menu. We expressed our disappointment in a civil manner but were met with a shrug. Great atmosphere but a few wasted Hungarian Forints.

The setting for the open air fashion show

Another pitfall to look out for according to our Guide book is medical care; apparently as a hangover from the communists it is common practice to tip doctors and nurses – so make sure you’ve visited an ATM before you have your heart attack!

28th June.
The streets are well served by trams and trolley buses, and some lovingly maintained older trams are still rattling, screeching and creaking their way to the Szeged Plaza – an out of town shopping centre to which we escaped in the heat of the day. Clutching a new pair of sandals we returned in a swift, modern tram and enjoyed another swim and our view of the city across the river. Later there was music and fireworks, but the disco boat kept us awake till the early hours.

29th June.
We left our lovely pitch and drove the 20 km north to Ópusztazer, home to the Nemzeti Történiti Emllkpark, or Hungary’s National Historical Memorial Park. This site was chosen for the 1896 Millennium celebration memorial to Árpád, the legendary hero, who led the nomadic Magyars into the area over a thousand years ago and by conquest established the kingdom of Magyarország, or Hungary.

The Hungarian language is not part of the Indo European family (Russian and Hindi are closer to English than Magyar), but belongs to the Finno Ugric group, hence its closest cousins are Finnish and Estonian. It is apparently a very hard language to master.

The National park contains a days’ worth of attractions including the Feszty Panorama – a magnificent depiction of the Magyar migration onto the Great Plain; also a brilliant waxworks of Árpád and his fellow dukes, ancient kings and rulers.

Arpad and his warriors share each others blood

Don’t miss a very entertaining show by costumed warrior cowboys (and a cowgirl) who shoot their bows and wield their swords and spears with stunning accuracy from horseback. You are also invited to enter an archery practise and a tug of war on horse back – we declined (health and safety you know!)

I don't fancy trying to run from this guy!

Yes... the arrow went straight through the middle!

All these attractions cost an extra ticket over the entry price to the park. We paid 3500 HUF (€15) per head including the panorama and the horse show but inadvertently (really!) managed to slip into the waxworks for free.
The rest of the park includes a fascinating recreated village of 19th C buildings and windmills, various other monuments and some modern wooded Yurts containing anthropological and historical museums. Much of the display content is in English, so if you want to get a bit of history and feel for the Hungarian culture, this is a great place to visit.

Heading off late in the afternoon, several of the campsites shown on our map failed to appear or were found closed and we finally stopped at the Dutch owned Aucost Holiday Parc at Vajta (www.aucost.nl) (GPS: 46.7283 N, 18.6542 E).

30th June.
A chill-out day. Campsite very quiet.

1st July.
It was still very warm and sunny so we went for a swim at the popular nearby lido; the campsite will issue you a pass for a 2500 HUF deposit.

Basic, but refreshing

2nd July.
The pitch worked out at around 20€ a night. When we asked why the campsite was so expensive (and unsurprisingly empty) we were told that the Hungarian government levies a 50% tourist tax on campsite fees! By the owner’s unhappy demeanour, we guess he was struggling to make ends meet.

Off to Balaton lake, the largest lake in central Europe and apparently referred to as Budapest on Sea. We started with the northern, less developed side. In true communist fashion the railway line hugs the waters edge all the way around except for one loop up to Tapolca. The only access to the water is via the campsites or lidos. We found one such lido at Szigliget and parked up on the verge until the crowds dispersed as the sun went down. Then we decamped to the wooded lakeside car park and settled ourselves in for the night.

3rd July.
After a peaceful night we headed for Keszthely on the South Western tip of the lake. Now we were into a major lakeside resort. Everywhere there are German signs, Zimmer, Haus Frei, etc, fairly obvious who their target market is.
A Tesco’s hypermarket (there are 31 in Hungary apparently) came into view and we did a mega stock up.By the roadside we passed several traders selling the traditional rounded goulash cooking pot and tripod, a must have tourist buy.

4th July.
Still seriously hot and we checked into Camping Zala (GPS: 46.7462N, 17.2442E) for some cooling off in their pool – to be honest the lake water looked pretty mucky and smelly. Despite getting the third degree on the campsite rules when we signed in, the “no diving, ball games”, etc, rules were comprehensively ignored and you had to choose your time to avoid potential injury from divebombing “children”. Meanwhile, the gardeners cheerfully trimmed the hedges through the official “siesta time”. You gotta laugh!

We also fell out with the management over the Wi Fi signal. Despite assurances to the contrary and coughing up 14 Euros for three hours we could not pick it up reliably and had to move to an exposed pitch virtually underneath the single Wi Fi aerial. Trying to complain in English was not a fruitful exercise: “we speak Hungarian, Slovakian, German and Dutch – how many languages do you speak?!” Fair comment I suppose, but it wasn’t going to get us Brits (or French and Italians for that matter) rushing back. Considering it was now into peak season there were few campers on site - perhaps it’s not just the 50% tourist tax?

Just to complete the day, after logging off from our internet session our half dead laptop finally gave up the ghost, the screen going irretrievably black. No more blogging for the time being.

5th July.
The Southern lakeside has the best beaches and is still attractive, small resort towns with few tower blocks, fishing, windsurfing and camping available, plus the ever present railway line.

I think we'll give a miss!

Stopped for fuel and to buy our vignette for the Motorway to Budapest. (You also need a Vignette on main roads if you are over 3.5t). Our licence number was entered into an electronic terminal, no badge or paperwork other than your receipt is issued. Presumably video surveillance cameras use number plate recognition to check vehicles on the database at regular intervals.

Heading for a small campsite with access to the river boats, we had a reasonable transit through the centre of Budapest, the traffic seemed light for a Saturday.
Mini Camping (GPS: 47.6043N, 19.0701E) turned out to be not much more than the back garden to a restaurant but we were only the second camper. In the morning we would catch a boat down the Danube and into the heart of Budapest.

6th July.
After a 40 minute wait our 25 year old river steamer arrived. Just a skipper and mate/engineer/deckhand/bar steward on board but they were friendly and pleasant. On the upper deck we had a perfect view of the passing waterfront and could readily inhale the fumes from the engine crankcase breather.

Our elderly river steamer approaches

The Danube is wide and swift flowing and well used by pleasure and commercial craft from canoes to hydrofoils. There were dozens of ancient low freeboard river craft like ours moored two or three deep as we approached the city, but also some modern ones, vast luxury touring cruisers.

The Hungarian Parliament - communist red star now removed from the dome

The waterfront parliament building is a magnificent sight, well on a par with the London Houses of Parliament. On the other side the Liberation Monument high on Gellert Hill is equally awe inspiring.

The inspiring Liberation Monument

Disembarking on the East side of the river, we strolled along the embankment of Central Pest towards the pedestrianised Vaci Street. As ever, the scaffolders and road diggers knew we were coming, though this time they appeared to rebuilding the sewers, and on a hot day it was pretty ripe. Vaci Street was ok but seemed nothing special as tourist promenades go (are we getting jaded?).

Traditional dolls and clothes for sale in Vaci Street
We crossed the Elizabeth road bridge to the Gellert Hill and began the climb to the monument, the steps and railings are in disrepair and it’s a good hike to the top but the views are worth it, you can of course drive up if you have a vehicle. After re-hydrating ourselves we started the easier but longer trek to the old town and castle district.

Finally it was time for lunch and we settled ourselves at what seemed a popular restaurant. Though a characterful setting, the food was disappointing and we didn’t really need the “surprise” addition of a piece of green chilli in the salad garnish. The service charge certainly wanged up the bill and the waiter's reluctance to bring our change was irritating. I guess a basic rule is that if a restaurant appears in a guide book: give it a miss – as once in it they go for a killing.
There is in fact an English speaking “tourist police” in Budapest which tries to curb the excesses of entrepreneurial endeavour towards tourists – which should give you a clue about being on your guard.

If its culture, history and architecture you’re after then Budapest has it in spades, a week might do it justice.

View from Gellert Hill towards the Parliament building