Mixed blessings

147 nights : 5,716 miles travelled : Countries visited: 12

“In wine, there’s truth”     Pliny the Elder

SAM_7593We drove into autumn as we crossed the border into Hungary. Fields were full of pumpkins, sunflowers and crisp dried maize stalks. Miles of flat open countryside with pretty villages gave way to wooded hills and vineyards as we turned towards the Baroque city of Eger.

SAM_7594

Eger’s most celebrated times date to 1522 when Istvan Dobo halted the Turkish advance into Western Europe. The legend is that Dobo ‘strengthed’ his heavily outnumbered troops with red wine. When the Turks saw the red stained beards, they speculated that the Hungarians were drinking bull’s blood. This has given the name to the region’s most famous wine, Egri Bikaver (Eger Bull’s Blood). However the Turks returned 70 years later and took control of the hilltop castle until 1687.

We camped in the Valley of the Beautiful Women on the edge of the city….of course! The origins of the name are unknown but this is where dozens of wine cellars produce, store and sell wines from the local vines. It is like a cottage industry here, with some producers just selling from barrels into plastic bottles and others creating brands and selling from caves that have been stylishly kitted out as bars with food and music. We were lucky to be there when grapes were being brought in for pressing in a wide range of vehicles. The smell in the whole valley was divine!

We thought the cellars described in our 10 year old guide book had closed
We thought the cellars described in our 10 year old guide book had closed
They were open for business!
They were open for business!
Many vehicles bring the grapes in
Bringing the grapes in
Tempted to jump in
Tempted to jump in!
The process begins
The process begins
One of the bigger producers
One of the bigger producers
Two litres of the yummy young stuff and change from £3
Two litres of the yummy young stuff and change from £3
Our son Rob gets a taste of the snailing life
Our son Rob gets a taste of snailing

We were very excited about moving on to Budapest. We were going to their Oktoberfest, one of many beer festivals in the city, and we were going to have a very special guest during our stay.

Unfortunately Kipper experienced a really bad attack of hives on our first night. It was the fifth occasion in a fortnight that he did an impression of the incredible hulk and his body and head swelled up with grotesque bumps. Antihistamines get the symptoms under control but they, and the irritation made him too droopy to go into the city. Graham and Rob went in for Oktoberfest,  which judging by the condition they came back in was enjoyable!  I then went in with Rob the next day  and we sampled one of the many spas in the city.

Budapest’s scale and grandeur make it worthy of it’s status as a capital city. Separating Buda and Pest is the magnificent Danube…our favourite river.

From Pest looking towards Buda
From Pest looking towards Buda
Part of the moving memorial remembering those shot into the Danube during the Hungarian Holocaust
Part of the moving  memorial to those shot into the Danube during the Hungarian Holocaust
Heroes Square
Heroes Square
The impressive Parliament building
The impressive Parliament building
Our impressive son!
Our impressive son!
The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue
The Central Market Hall
The Central Market Hall
Selling Hungary's produce to locals and tourists alike
Selling Hungary’s produce to locals and tourists alike

We have been amazed at how easily we have settled into our new nomadic life. There are easy to follow routines but our days are never dull and there is always a new adventure awaiting us around the next corner. Not seeing family and friends is the only down side to our snail trail so far. It was a bittersweet weekend with Rob. He brought a CD of the choir I sing with. New songs for me to sing and Graham to wince to, but hearing those familiar voices made me feel a long way from home. It was wonderful to spend time and catch up with Rob, but we needed to hit the road again to move on from the sadness of saying goodbye.

SAM_7707

Pecs is in Southern Hungary and is the only town so far  that actually resembles the watercolour paintings that artists sell on the pavements.

SAM_7721

The former mosque dominates the town square
The former mosque dominates the town square
Saint Peter Basilica
Saint Peters Basilica
The old Basilica has beautiful modern gates
The old Basilica has beautiful modern gates

There is evidence of Roman settlement, the first Hungarian university was established here, Germans still know the city as Funfkirchen after the five significant churches, there is a beautiful synagogue and the Turks left a striking mosque after their 150 years of occupation. It is easy to see why it was chosen to be European capital of culture in 2010. This attracted funding to develop the Zsolnay factory to create museums and shops. The original purpose, to produce porcelain, still continues and can be viewed. I was in pottery heaven. Graham was very patient!

The Zsolnay house was right at the heart of the pottery complex
The Zsolnay house was right at the heart of the pottery complex
Examples of their beautiful work were everywhere
Examples of their beautiful work were everywhere
Parts of the old factory are restored as a museum
Parts of the old factory are restored as a museum
The existing factory is still producing pieces sold worldwide
The existing factory is still producing pieces sold worldwide
Please...no more
Please…no more pottery

SAM_7779

Hungary was the point at which we had to decide on a route for the winter. We were following the news about migrants and refugees encountering difficulties as they move north through Europe and unsure how that would affect our journey south. We decided to head through the Balkans and have not experienced any delays or problems so far. We did see the razor wire fence that the Hungarian government has put up along it’s border with Croatia and saw a small group of people forced into a nomadic life being attended to by UNHCR. Although we did not need it, there was a stark reminder of how many blessings we enjoy on the road.

M & G x

SAM_7739

Treat of the week: Nearly the goulash soup and local wine but surprisingly overtaken by the lamb burger with beetroot relish at a cool bar in Budapest. Both were scrummy!

SAM_7643SAM_7642

The Good, the Sad and the Ugly

135 nights : 4,899 miles travelled : Countries visited: 10

“The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.”   Eric Berne

Brian has a break in Slovakia with Poland in the background
Brian has a break in Slovakia with Poland in the background

 

It was as though Poland left the best till last as we drove through gorgeous rural land curtained by the High Tatras in the distance. The border between Poland and Slovakia in these parts is formed by the Dunajec River.

We entered Slovakia near Pieniny National Park which mirrors another in Poland. Pieniny means ‘foam’ in Slovak and for those who want to see the foam up close in the Dunajec Gorge, there are plenty of happy boatmen who will punt you 9km downstream between high cliffs on wooden rafts. Following an unfortunate incident on our honeymoon, I avoid the combination of foamy rivers, boats and Graham. But we did hike along the gorge, enjoying the changing views and marvelling at the temperature changes between shade and sunny spots as we walked. We also confused the telecom companies, as each corner we turned prompted alternate “welcome to Poland” and “welcome to Slovakia” messages on our mobile phone!

 

The Three Crowns but no foam
The ‘Three Crowns’ but no foam
Not even tempted
Not even tempted
Another day another river
Another day another river
Light and Shade
Light and shade

Our campsite was nearby, close to forest; among the noisiest places we have stayed. The campsite restaurant hosts ‘folk’ events and the live music coming from inside was the perfect soundtrack to our setting as we arrived. Across the river, men pulled up in horse drawn carts to chop down saplings along the water’s edge. The bizarre roars and grunts of stags in rut in the forest continued 24 hours a day. We loved it…for about an hour. Then the joy wore off!

It was not far to move back into the foothills of the High Tatras (Vysoke Tatry) again, but on the Slovakian side this time. We arrived in Tatranska Lomnica in dense fog so we mooched around the small town and had dinner at the Pension where we were camped. Graham enjoyed smoked roast chicken and pickles while I tried traditional garlic soup followed by spinach dumplings with smoked cheese sauce. I didn’t realise the garlic soup would also have a lump of cheese in it, in all a mountainous task to digest that took most of the night!

SAM_7349

 

 

 

Graham woke me next morning with a photographic incentive to get out of bed…the sky had cleared. We decided to ignore my phobia of cable cars and try and get as high as possible. Sometimes matter over mind works and we found ourselves heading up to Skalnate pleso at 1750 m high. Kipper realised that we were defying the laws of gravity and stayed very still and close to Graham.

 

G. trying to get me there before I changed my mind
Graham trying to get me there before I changed my mind
But we don't have feathers
But we don’t have feathers!

 

It was worth it. The view down was blurred by mist but the view around and up was clear and exhilarating. Kipper was not allowed on the chair lift further towards the top (we were so not disappointed) and we happily walked along a ridge to enjoy the views up towards the summit of Lomnicky stit (2634m).

SAM_7396      SAM_7372SAM_7368

 

Kipper and I managed to persuade Graham that walking back down was a great idea!

You know it makes sense!
You know it makes sense!
Cable cars look better from this angle
Cable cars look better from this angle

Our third national park in Slovakia was Slovensky Raj further South East. On the way we stopped off at Levoca. The old centre seems to have preserved a traditional version of life within its amazingly well preserved 13th century walls. Although there was a craft market and puppet show in the central square, the place as a whole was refreshingly untouristy and normal life carried on in and around the Renaissance buildings.

Levoca's town hall
Levoca’s town hall & 15th C Church of St James
The 'cage of shame' for public humiliation of 17th c miscreants
The ‘cage of shame’ for public humiliation of 17th c miscreants
Gorgeous Renaissance courtyard
Gorgeous Renaissance courtyard
Parking this badly warrants an hour in the cage of shame
Parking this bad warrants an hour in the cage of shame
Slovakia's largest pilgrimage takes place at Church of Marianska hora 2 km out of town
Slovakia’s largest pilgrimage takes place at Church of Marianska hora just out of town
Traditional entertainment
Traditional entertainment
Traditional....we don't know what. Any ideas?
Traditional….we don’t know what. Any ideas?

 

Slovensky Raj means Slovakian Paradise and if paradise means soaking rains and cold winds then paradise it is.  The main attraction to this park is the narrow gorge walks which are traversed with the assistance of precarious ladders and bridges allowing you to see otherwise inaccessible hidden waterfalls. We knew we would only be able to go so far along the Sucha Bela gorge with Kipper and once again we did not feel cheated (well a little bit) ….we sort of know our limits! Conditions were extra slippery and we returned to the more solid ground of the dense forest to enjoy a walk in the scent of the soaked spruce trees.

SAM_7447SAM_7448SAM_7444SAM_7456

SAM_7475

 

 

Spissky Hrad dominates the town of Spissky Podhradie and the countryside beyond. It is the largest travertine castle in the world (you could tile a LOT of bathrooms with it) and the views from it’s ruins are spectacular.

SAM_7490 SAM_7485     SAM_7507 SAM_7539

 

Slovakia is a beautiful country. Probably the most beautiful we have visited so far on this trip. Although we spent most nights within national park boundaries, we also drove from the north to the south of the country, through breathtaking forested hills and verdant valleys. However, we noticed that most villages had a dishevelled settlement on the outer edge and that the groups of impoverished people walking to and from them were of Roma origin. On our last full day in Slovakia, there seemed to be more pedestrians on the roads than other vehicles. Many were foraging, some were offering funghi for sale at road junctions. The housing was ramshackle and many children were poorly dressed, if at all….there was a lot of laundry hanging on hedges. The poverty was as severe as that we saw in India and Nepal but almost more shocking as it was such a contrast to the comfortable if not rich lives being lived a few dozen metres away. We read afterwards that despite being full members of the EU, this community in Slovakia are still treated as second class citizens, with few opportunities for education and employment. What we saw reminded us of what we had learned in Poland about how Jews and Roma were forced to live in ghettos during the last century and a feeling of heavy sadness accompanied our last day of driving in beautiful Slovakia.

SAM_7556
The centre of Spissky Podhradie
SAM_7560
The edge of Spissky Podhradie

We noticed that many towns, like Spisske Podhradie acknowledge investment and assistance from the European Union and hope that the benefits soon spread to all of Slovakia’s people.

 

 

 

 

 

We did not make time to see the attractive old centre of Kosice, Slovakia’s second city. We had an overnight stop on the outskirts, close to evidence of its steel manufacturing heart and the communist block concrete housing lining the hillsides. Our campsite had the air of Psycho’s Bates Motel and the high fencing and night long sirens confirmed that we were on the ugly side of town. We were now close to the border with Hungary but with enough memories of the beauty of Slovakia to make us want to go back.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: Hikers in the High Tatras can enjoy the hospitality of various chaty or mountain chalets. Our highest beer on the trip so far was almost as good as the view.

It doesn't get better...
It doesn’t get better…