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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


Topfloortom said...

What did you think about the parapets and statuettes on the Charles Bridge in Prague? Seemed to me that they could use some sandblasting - they were jet black!!

As for Wencelas square, bit of a disappointment - the old town square is infinitely more impressive for my money.

I am thinking of purchasing a s/h Rapido - can you recommend a really efficient dealer who will be able to service and repair it at sensible prices? I'm sure you must have found such a firm!!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful blog, I have loved reading it. I came across it because of bying a Rapido (from Halls of Helston). Yes I am here in Cornwall too, at Goldsithney near Marazion and we a planning a trip down toward Barcelona for the whole of November. So your blog has been a joy to read.
We had a wonderful time in Alsace last September/ October and is on my web page
Keep on traveling and writing so well about it. Thanks to Sue and Yourself. Harry