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An Autumnal Journey through Eastern Europe 2014 PDF Printable Version E-mail


An Autumnal Journey through Eastern Europe 2014


Nostalgia is What it Used to Be!

Barry and Margaret Williamson
November 2014

Map of the Autumn Motorhome Journey to Greece and Maps of the 1980's Cycle Ride


For the full Travel Log of the whole Journey, click:



Table of Distances
5,000 miles (8000 km) from Brownhills of Newark to Finikounda in the Greek Peloponnese


8Scotch Corner6267797
10Loch Lomond8386997
13Ferry to AmsterdamSea100109391
26Jelenia GoraPL72237095
27Polanica Zdrij69243994
30Liptovsky Sielnica40267592
34Baillie FelixRO53301691
35Simeria nr Deva119313592
36Baile Herculane112324793
37Vidin Fanti TIRBG106335393
38NovSofia TIR151350495
39Biser Sakar Hills168367297
41Porto Lagos SP73386297
42Orfani Beach SP97395997
43Thessaloniki SP83404296
44Vergina SP69411196
46Moucha SP109432696
47Domnista SP94442096
48Killini Harbour SP138455897
49Ionion Beach, Glyfa11456995
50DecPanapoulos SP53462294
51Dimitsana SP66468894
53Gythion SP32484093
54Areopoli SP26486692
55Gerolimenas SP29489591
56Neo Itilo SP20491589
57Ag Nikolaos SP17493288

Here, we compare this journey through Eastern Europe with parallel cycle routes in the days of the Iron Curtain.


For the full Travel Log of the whole Journey in the Autumn of 2014, click:



In our twentieth year on the road with what is now our fourth motorhome and second pair of touring bicycles, the challenge within Europe is to find new routes and new roads with new places and new faces. Too often, fond memories have been destroyed by contemporary realities. A once quiet place to park for the night has been replaced with fences and barriers to be opened with credit cards; roads we once cycled with impunity are now clogged with traffic; a remote Mediterranean beach has been 'discovered'; cycle routes we once pioneered now have guide books, signposts and throngs of people on so-called mountain bikes and electric shoppers; many old friends settled in the Bulgarian hills have moved or passed on; and borders that once had queues, searches, a no-man's-land and an atmosphere of uncertainty and abrupt change have simply disappeared!

However, this autumnal journey through Eastern Europe (shown in yellow on the map) did lead to further insights into the changes that have or have not occurred since the Iron Curtain was dismantled after 1990. Our route was interwoven with two long cycle rides we made behind that closed curtain in the late 1980's. Gorbachev had spoken and was acting, pressure was building outside the Berlin wall and change was in the air.

How it was then

During the summer holiday of 1988, we rode some 2,200 miles (3500 km) from Rotterdam to the far end of the former Czechoslovakia (shown black on the map), touching the border of what was then the USSR (now the Ukraine). Turning south and west, we joined the Danube in Budapest and followed it as far as Vienna for a flight home. Just as the new term began.

The next summer, shortly before the Berlin Wall came down, we cycled 2,500 miles (4000 km) to Istanbul (shown brown on the map). Our aim was to ride through every Iron Curtain country, except East Germany where independent travel by bicycle was forbidden. So the route took us from the Harwich-Hamburg ferry (sadly no longer running) via West Germany, Denmark and Sweden, then behind the Iron Curtain through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia (as was) and Bulgaria, emerging into Greece and so into Turkey. We still claim to be the only cyclists to ride from England to Turkey by first heading north into Sweden!

In those days, even behind the Iron Curtain, every border was double-protected with a 5-mile deep cordon sanitaire with check-points, watch-towers, Kalashnikov-wielding military, electric fences, searches, dogs and a no-man's-land; every exit and entry needed a visa (obtained in advance) and every country had its own closely-guarded currency. There were no signposts, maps were vague and hard to come by, but the roads were empty and the state-controlled hotels were both compulsory for foreigners and exceedingly inexpensive!

And now

Following an overnight voyage from Newcastle to Ijmuiden, near Amsterdam, this autumn's journey by motorhome (mixed initially with about a thousand kilometres of cycling in the Netherlands and Germany) took us through Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and so into Northern Greece. Now arrived at a favourite campsite in the Peloponnese, though not quite at our winter destination at the southern end of the Messinian Peninsula, we have driven 3,476 fascinating miles since Ijmuiden, staying in 34 different places.

In just over a quarter of a century, there have of course been many changes to the countries of Eastern Europe. But they are still clearly defined by the former Iron Curtain, the line along which the Americans held the advance of the Russians in those critical early months of 1945. It is still chilling to see how near the Russians came to the edge of the North Sea, and now they are on the march again.

Eastern Germany is still strongly differentiated from the Western version; Poland and the Czech Republic are making great progress in the transition to their idea of Western Globalised Capitalism. Eastern Slovakia still has many pockets untouched by development whereas Hungary, always the most forward-looking of these backward countries in the old days, is now reverting to a 1930's version of Fascism.

In places, Romania and Bulgaria are sadly still recovering from World War Two. Frozen by the dead hand of Soviet hegemony, they are embroiled in the shock of change and the news is mainly of corrupt bureaucracy and mafia-like political activity. Too much land remains untended, its former owners untraceable.

Yugoslavia, still not settled after splintering into 6 or 7 parts plus Albania, is only slowly opening up to visitors, let alone development. Slovenia and Croatia are now in the European Union, the former looking the part, the latter less so. But it is still an uphill struggle for Serbia, while the borders of Kosovo and the Serb-dominated half of Bosnia remain disputed.

The two highlights on our already well-lit journey were the continuing contrasts between then and now, followed by the traverse of the mountains of northern Greece. We thought we knew the country from many years of cycling, motorcycling and motorhoming the length and breadth of the land, but the precipitous journey from Kalampaka to Nafpaktos was entirely new to us.

Kalampaka (aka Kalambaka the 'mp' combination gives rise to much confusion in the transliteration of Greek to English, eg 'Olympia/Olymbia' can also be 'Olybia) is the location of the Meteora Monasteries on their thousand-foot high rocky pinnacles. Now on a major coach-tourist route and thronged with the peoples of the world (particularly East Asia), they were once a lonely outcrop of near-empty monasteries visited by intrepid cyclists!

Nafpaktos, 262 miles south of Kalampaka by our route, is a busy port on the northern edge of the Gulf of Corinth, east of the new bridge across to Patras. The journey took nearly three days, averaging between 12 and 15 mph with the motorhome mainly in second gear. If there was a gear change, it was mostly into first! Nothing wrong with the motorhome, it coped admirably, and nothing wrong with the road surface except for occasional land slipping down from above or sliding away below.

Travelling across the grain of the land, the straight line distance of 87 miles was tripled by roads regularly plummeting down serpentine bends and then hairpinning skywards again. We parked for two nights on the road, each at over 3,300 ft (the height of Snowden). A typical pass was at the height of Ben Nevis (4,300 ft) with the highest point at 5,000 ft. Our road was literally empty and the few mountain villages were built along straggling steep hillsides and narrow twisting roads. This is wonderful country, a different kind of Greece, its beauty enhanced by the colours of Autumn, the blue sky and the brilliant white clouds often seen from above. One could travel through such country for ever!

Click: Some Images of the Journey

A final tale to illustrate the contrast between the basic values of traditional semi-feudal societies, and those perverted by the temptations of capitalism and easy tourist money. In the remote village of Kedros in the mountains of Central Greece, the shopkeeper refused to sell Margaret a loaf. They were not fresh! A fellow shopper, also speaking no English, led Margaret through the village to the baker who was busy at his wood-fired oven, supplying warm bread and pies.

Well accustomed to tourists, the village of Vergina in Northern Greece is the site of the magnificent well-preserved Macedonian Tombs of Alexander the Great's father (Philip II) and other members of the royal dynasty. At the bakery there, Margaret was charged 1.20 for 6 (none too fresh) bread rolls, only later discovering a receipt in the bag for the correct price of 0.80. General opinion was that she was lucky to be given a receipt at all!

 An Autumnal Ride on the River Spree Cycle Path in East Germany

 Echoes of the Past in Biser, SE Bulgaria: Trabant against a Mud Brick Wall

Images of the Present in Biser, SE Bulgaria: Washday at Camping Sakar Hills

Margaret in the Mountains of Central Greece

On the Road at 3,230 ft in the Mountains of Central Greece

Morning Light at Camping Ionion Beach in the Greek Peloponnese

Sunset over the Island of Zakinthos, 10 miles away across the Ionian Sea