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Baltic Republics & Eastern Europe 2015 PDF Printable Version E-mail


THE BALTIC REPUBLICS EASTERN EUROPE: AUTUMN 2015

Margaret and Barry Williamson
October 2015

Continued from: Summer in Norway and Finland 2015

Following our 72-day, 4,300-mile (6880 km) motorhome tour of Scandinavia in the summer of 2015, we sailed from Helsinki to Tallinn. This was the beginning of our journey to Greece, initially passing through the three Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We then drove south along Poland's eastern borders with Belarus and the Ukraine and so into Eastern Europe. After Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, Greece lay just beyond the Rhodope Mountains.

FERRY FROM FINLAND TO ESTONIA – SEPTEMBER 2015

Note that:

1.  Estonia is an EU member and the currency is the Euro (currently €1.36 = £1).

2.  Estonia is in the same time zone as Finland (so 2 hrs ahead of the UK).

3.  There are no motorway or road tolls.

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Tallink-Silja Line shuttle between Helsinki (West Harbour/Vastra Hamnen) and Tallinn takes 2 hours, crossing several times a day, on 2 large modern ferries: 'Star' and 'Superstar'.  www.tallinksilja.com

IN ESTONIA

Tallinn Ferry Port to Lahemaa Kohvikann Restaurant & Camperstop, Palmse, Lahemaa National Park, Estonia – 53 miles

Open all year.  www.kohvikann.ee  Overnight parking €12 inc elec, waste disposal, fresh water, WC & shower. Free WiFi inside excellent restaurant/café (open noon-9 pm, closed Mondays). N 59.50674  E 25.96204

On Sunday 13 September our 1.30 pm 'Superstar' ferry from Helsinki sailed for the port of Tallinn. By 4 pm we expected to be on our way to Tallinn City Camping (www.tallinn-city-camping.ee) for a day or two revisiting the Estonian capital. We had the co-ordinates (N 59.448611  E 24.808333) and a closing date of 15 September.

In the event we disembarked at Tallinn into a maelstrom of traffic and much confusion. The road we needed to take was barred, with no diversion signed, so we circled slowly in the gridlocked city. The centre was sealed off for a walking marathon, all the side roads were closed, the marshals and police were of no help whatsoever. Cries of 'Which way to City Camping?' were ignored or met with a shrug. Eventually giving up, we found our way with difficulty onto rd 1/20, the highway that runs due east to the Russian border.

We knew there would be a welcome at the Kohvikann (= Coffee Pot) Restaurant at th1_Palmse.JPGe entrance to the Lahemaa (= Land of Bays) National Park, a peaceful 50 miles away from the chaos in Tallinn! From the E20 exit at Viitna, it's just 4 miles north along rd 176 to the Kohvikann, built and run by the professional German chef, Dieter and his Russian wife, Julia. We all remembered our visit in 2009 - the year after they opened.

There is a small parking area for motorhomes (mainly Germans in summer), which we had to ourselves. The evening ended in the restaurant, with good conversation and excellent dishes of pork goulash.

At Lahemaa Kohvikann Restaurant & Camperstop, Palmse

Next morning we walked into Estonia's oldest National Park, founded in 1971 (the first in the Soviet2_Palmse.JPG Union, as it then was). Less than half a mile along from the Kohvikann lies Palmse Manor, a restored 18th century Baltic-German manor house and gardens, with an entry fee of €7 to view the period furniture and fittings (which we did not). The Palmse Estate was run by the same family from 1677 to 1923, when it was expropriated by 'The State'. Other estate buildings now operate as a hotel, summer café etc. A long building, once the steward's house where the serfs used to gather each morning to be allotted work and fed, is now a rustic tavern decked out with old wooden weaving looms, agricultural tools, rocking horsPalmse_4.JPGes and so on. When we looked in, a coach party of Germans were inside, tucking in at long tables. Dieter said they come on bus trips from the cruise boats docked at Tallinn – not the kind of customers he caters for!

A little further along, another fine estate building now houses the National Park Visitor Centre, open daily from 9 am (closed weekends Oct-April). www.lahemaa.ee. Entry is free, with interesting exhibitions on the flora, fauna and geology of the park, along with a 17-minute film 'Lahemaa – Nature and Man' shown for us with an English commentary. Postcards and souvenirs were on sale, as wel3_Palmse.JPGl as an essential map for cycling and hiking in the Park, well worth €1.90.

We talked at length with the very helpful assistant about her memories of the Soviet years when all the television and radio came from Russia, in the language she was forced to learn and speak at school. She spoke freely of how Estonians felt about being allocated a large number of 'refugees' from Syria and elsewhere, without any consultation in what was supposed to be a democratic country – a country with a population of just over one million, many of whom were already immigrants (from Rus5_Palmse.JPGsia.)

Back at the Kohvikann it was quiet, the restaurant closed on Mondays, but we were able to sit inside to use the Wifi. It was slow but worked well enough to check the news and weather forecast, and catch up on emails.

Next day we made good use of the map to cycle in the National Park, sheltered from a blustery east wind by the forest.

A Circular Ride in the Lahemaa National Park (29 km): After passing Palmse6_Palmse.JPG Manor we took a right turn NE through the Park, then left to the coastal town of Vosu. It has a small supermarket, open 10 am-8 pm, with a handy ATM inside. Buying bread, we observed the shoppers in the queue: a little girl, just tall enough to reach the Cola and Kinder-surprise chocolate off the counter while her mother picked up the rest, and an old man who bought the smallest bottle of vodka and some cigarettes. Treats for young and old! We cycled out to look at the beach: a forbidden border zone in the Soviet days, accessible to the privileged few. A photo showed the Neptune Bar here in the 1950s, complete with attractive barmaid.

West of Vosu we passed a seaside campsite at Lepispea, then circled back vi7_Palmse.JPGa Ilumae, where we paused at the church (1843). The interior was very bare, with a box for donations for its renovation. The stained glass panes and baronial arms date from a more prosperous age. Outside the cemetery stands a Memorial to the Victims of the Russians, with about 120 names (men and women) covering 1941-1956, as well as a war memorial for 1918-20. The latter has been reconstructed from pieces that the local people hid after the monument was blown up by the Communists in the 1920s. An information board told of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Medieval settlements around Ilumae. Across from the church there a weird private museum of has an eclectic collection of rusty implements, sledges, motorbikes, household bric-a-brac, WW2 memorabilia, etc etc. It was open but unattended, and we didn't linger.

Riding back to Palmse along a stately avenue of limes and oaks, we passed the 'Sacred Lime' – a venerable tree 19 metres high, with a girth of 3 metres – growing by a holy spring. Its branches were decked with ribbons and strips of cloth, connected with some local legend and custom.

Back at the Kohvikann we had another memorable meal cooked by Dieter: chicken curry and rice, with a refreshing glass of pear cider.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/palmse.html

Palmse to KureTurismitalu Guesthouse & Camperstop, Tartu – 108 miles

Open all year.  www.kuretalu.ee  Overnight parking €18 inc elec and WC. Shower €2. Free WiFi. N 58.40606  E 26.61278

Farewell to Dieter and Julia, then back on rd 176, across E20 highway, and south on minor rd 24 to Tapa at 19 miles, a small town in the Tapa Vald (forest). It has some nice new housing, as well as grim Soviet-era concrete blocks of flats. Here we joined rd 5 down to Paide, a good new tarmac road through woods, farmland and wheat fields. It was raining by the time we reached Paide (at 53 miles) and turned left onto rd 2, heading southeast to the university city of Tartu.

Diesel prices along the highway were fixed at €1.03 a litre, whether at Lukoil or Statoil garages. Finnish influence was noticeable, in the cycle paths round the town and also in the Estonian language, eg Jogi (river) is Joki in Finnish, and the words for church, town centre etc are similar. But an Estonian shop is a Pood, and stork nests on the lamp posts were never seen in Finland!

We parked for lunch at an old windmill/café at Adavere (71 miles), then continued on rd 2 in the rain towards Tartu. About 5 miles before Estonia's second city, we turned right along a short lane signed for a guesthouse/Camperstop. The English-speaking owner appeared at once, pointing us to 6 places in her pleasant garden.

The WiFi worked well for some forward planning, checking routes etc before dinner (pasta bake cooked by M). The guesthouse only offered pre-booked meals and there were no other guests.

INTO LATVIA

Note that:

1.  Latvia is an EU member and the currency is the Euro (currently €1.36 = £1).

2.  Latvia is in the same time zone as Finland/Estonia (so 2 hrs ahead of the UK).

3.  There are no motorway or road tolls for vehicles up to 3.5 tons. Since July 2014, drivers of vehicles over 3.5 tons and designed to carry goods by road need to buy an electronic vignette. This applies to commercial vehicles and not to motorhomes. www.lvvignette.eu/

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Diesel costs €1.00 or £0.73 per litre!

Tartu, Estonia to Baili Camping, Valmiera, Latvia – 98 miles (a canoe & ski centre at 191 ft or 58 m!)

Open all year.  www.baili.lv/en/  €15 inc elec (including €3 discount for any Camping Card). Free showers. Free WiFi.  No kitchen facilities.  N 57.53438  E 25.46933

Driving briefly south on rd 2, past a huge shopping mall (McDonalds and a Rimi supermarket), we bypassed the centre of Tartu by turning right at a roundabout onto rd 3. This was a fine new road until Elva (20 miles), where it was interrupted by road works and a short diversion. Back on smooth rd 3 we soon passed the Waide Motel & Camp at 25 miles, which was open (www.waide.ee/en/).

At 62 miles we reached the Estonian-Latvian frontier, which divides the town of Valga (or Valka in Latvian) due to a border dispute at the end of the First World War. Following the Transit Route into Latvia, we immediately experienced a more deprived country, with rough roads (and on the plus side, cheaper diesel).

From the border the A3 runs southwest to Riga, the Latvian capital. At 90 miles, at a roundabout before Valmiera, we parked at a leisure & services centre for lunch on a warm sunny afternoon. Then we turned off A3 at the next roundabout, to cross the broad Gauja River and follow signs through the centre of Valmiera to 'Baili' (look for the picture of a skier). In the town we saw a 'crocodile' of sweet mixed infants, all wearing bright yellow jackets, with a good ratio of grown-ups.

A wooded lane alongside the railway line led to the all-year Canoe & Ski Centre. campsite Alone on its small campsite (apart from a Receptionist who claimed to be on duty 24 hours), we had a walk round. A ski-tow runs up the hillside to the site, from the river below, but the tall wooden ski-jump towering above us is now in a sorry state of dilapidation and obviously no longer in use. There is an uninviting stone-built hostel, with a café that was closed. But the WiFi worked and the showers were at least hot. Use of a small antiquated washing machine was free but there was no drier and it was too late in the day to hang laundry out.

The radio news was all about the thousands of immigrants moving across Europe, perhaps 20% of them Syrian refugees, the rest economic migrants, their numbers being swelled in each Balkan country they pass through. They were changing route as countries closed their borders: Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia … how will this all end?

Valmiera to Camping Labirinti, Zorgi, nr Bauska – 100 miles

Open 1 April-31 Oct.  www.labirinti.lv/en  €15 inc elec and modern facilities. Free WiFi. Extensive playground, outdoor games, etc. N 56.56371  E 24.16788

After a brief thunderstorm it was rainy next day, so we decided to move on rather than stay to cycle in the Gauja Valley as we had on a previous visit. Leaving Valmiera, we drove south for 3 miles on the Cesis road, then turned right to join the A3 2 miles later, heading southwest for Riga.

The A3 was a 2-lane highway, very busy with trucks and buses running between the Latvian capital and the Estonian border. It ran down the Gauja Valley through mixed forest, the tall trees still green but shedding their leaves in the strong wind. Latvian driving standards were terrible, worse than Estonia and much worse than Finland, with blind overtaking and no courtesy, though they appear to observe speed limits, suggesting heavy fines. Now and again the forest had been cleared for farms and wheat fields around the villages.

At 45 miles we crossed the Gauja River and joined the E77/A2: a 4-lane dual carriageway to Riga with a bumpy surface, bicycles, bus stops, regular road works and contraflow. Hopefully the EU money is being spent on much needed improvements. After 15 miles of this, and not wishing to revisit Riga, we turned south onto A4, then west at 73 miles onto A6 to Salaspils.

Outside a derelict motel/restaurant (boarded up and For Sale), 2 miles along A6, we parked for lunch. This was very near the Salaspils memorial site of the Kurtenhof Concentration Camp, where from 1941-44 about 100,000 Jews and prisoners of war (nearly half of them from Riga) were murdered by the Germans. From a previous visit, we recalled the inscription 'Behind this gate the earth groans': a line by a Latvian poet who was imprisoned there.

Then we turned south, along the west wall of the dammed Daugava River reservoir, to join E76/A7 at 82 miles. This 2-lane road runs south for Bauska and the Lithuanian border. It was now dry and sunny, though very windy. The Brencis Motel/Camperstop, 12 miles later, appeared open but we drove 6 miles further to check out Camping Labirinti at Zorgi – a good choice.

On arrival the campsite was busy with a bus load of happy school children enjoying a day out but site owner Janis, an enthusiastic English-speaking potato farmer, assured us that they would all be gone at 5 pm – and so they were. We settled in for a peaceful night with just one motorhome neighbour.

At Camping Labirinti, Zorgi, nr Bauska

We had a very interesting rest day at Camp Labirinti, using the washing machine and WiFi. Janis, a trained Agronomist and a true entrepreneur, has created this campsite and farm over the past 20 years, his sons now working with him to grow potatoes and grain crops. He showed us round the potato sheds where the spuds are stored, sorted and bagged – a huge undertaking.

He has also developed an extensive leisure park at the site, complete with a maze (Labirinti), a small lake with rowboats, zip wires, pedal cars, all kinds of outdoor games and play equipment, picnic tables, barbecue, kitchen to make hot drinks, and a marquee. Youth groups and school outings come to enjoy the amazing range of activities and the park is also popular for parties and corporate events.

While we there Janis hosted two wedding receptions, at which he made a speech and 8_Labirinti_Zorgi.JPGorganised drinks, nibbles and games! The guests came for an hour or two, between their church service and a meal at a local restaurant. We watched a traditional Latvian game where the bride, groom, bridesmaid and best man each chose one of four upturned cups, to see what their future held. They revealed either a coin (wealth), a picture of a baby, a set of car keys, or a clove of garlic (health). A nice custom, acted out with much fun and laughter. For some reason the bride also had to throw her shoes as far as she could (an old pair supplied for the occasion)!

Zorgi, nr Bauska, Latvia, via Lithuania, to Osir-Eurocamping, Suwalki, NE Poland – 207 miles (530 ft or 160 m asl)

Open 21 April-1 Oct.  www.osir.suwalki.pl  and www.kemping.suwalki.pl  PLN 52 inc elec and brand new modern facilities. Free WiFi. N 54.09329  E 22.91592

Back on the E67/A7 (the Via Baltica) we drove south on a sunny morning with a back wind. The speed limit varied unpredictably through Latvia (maximum 90 kph/56 mph) and an oncoming car kindly flashed to warn of a speed trap ahead, another East European custom! At a Neste automatic filling station, the machine rejected our UK bank cards but did accept a €50 note.

At 11 miles we crossed the Memele River into Bauska, a pleasant town (population 10,000) with the ruins of a castle by the confluence with the River Musa. The Supernetto by the roundabout was a good place to shop for food at very low prices. Another 6 miles along A7 we passed a lovely restored wooden windmill, now the Rozmalas hotel/restaurant. There were regular cafes and fuel stations as we continued through a flat low area of ploughed fields, where the woods had been cleared for Soviet collective farms.

INTO LITHUANIA

Note that:

1.  Lithuania is an EU member and the currency is the Euro (currently €1.36 = £1).

2.  Lithuania is in the same time zone as Finland/Estonia/Latvia (so 2 hrs ahead of the UK).

3.  There are no motorway or road tolls for vehicles up to 3.5 tons. The vignette for vehicles over 3.5 tons applies only to buses, coaches and trucks.

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Diesel costs €1.04 or £0.76 per litre!

Driving straight through the Latvian-Lithuanian border, 12 miles south of Bauska, we saw just one police car parked on each side – very different from the first time we crossed here with a 2-hour delay and much stamping of papers. The A7 became the A10 (still called E67, Via Baltica) and was an immediate improvement, smoother and better signed than in Latvia. Many trucks were parked at a motel/lorry park on the Lithuanian side, this being Sunday.

C9_Labirinti_Zorgi.JPGontinuing south on A10 the villages looked tidy, with cycle paths, rosy apple trees, stork nests, well kept churches with flower-decked cemeteries, and wooden roadside calvaries (unseen in Estonia or Latvia). We bypassed the city of Panevezys on the A17, then took E67/A8 southwest. 67 miles after the border we lunched in a car park at Truskava, by a large church and graveyard busy with Sunday visitors. A war memorial bore the date 1944.

After another 32 miles we joined the 4-lane A1 motorway south for 7 miles to Kaunas, then the A5/E67 skirting its west side. Kaunas, Lithuania's second city (population 358,000), was the interwar capital during the years that Vilnius (60 miles or so to the east) was in Polish hands. Fishermen were standing in the broad Nemunas River, which flows west into the Baltic. Passing the exit for 'Fort IX' on the NW outskirts of the city, we remembered visiting the grim Ninth Fort on a previous journey. The 19th century fort became a WW2 death camp, where 80,000 (mainly the Jewish population of Kaunas) were murdered by the Germans. During the Soviet occupation, it was used as a prison and execution site. Now it is open as a museum covering the whole brutal history.

Beyond Kaunas, the A5/E67 became a 2-lane road, southwest past Marijampole and on to Poland. We stopped for diesel in Kalvarija, the last Lithuanian town 13 miles before the Polish border, after which we saw several more filling stations and TIR lorry parks.

INTO POLAND

Note that

1.  Poland is an EU member and the currency is the Zloty (PLN). Current exchange rate is approx 5.5 PLN=£1, or 4 PLN=€1. Some businesses accepted cash in Euros, some did not, but card payment was widely available. 

2.  Poland is in the Central European Time zone (so 1 hr ahead of the UK). Put clocks back an hour if arriving from Lithuania.

3.  Vehicles up to 3.5 tons pay tolls at toll booths along some major roads and motorways (in Euros, Zloty or by bank card). For vehicles over 3.5 tons, including motorhomes or car+caravan above this weight, there is an electronic ViaToll system (similar to Austria's 'Go Box'). See www.tolls.eu/poland

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Diesel costs the equivalent of €1, or £0.73!

Zorgi, nr Bauska, Latvia, via Lithuania, to Osir-Eurocamping, Suwalki, NE Poland – 207 miles (530 ft or 160 m asl)

Open 21 April-1 Oct.  www.osir.suwalki.pl  and http://kemping.suwalki.pl/ PLN 52 inc elec and brand new modern facilities. Free WiFi. N 54.09329  E 22.91592

After 23 miles in Latvia and 165 miles across Lithuania, we entered Poland on the E67 (Lithuanian A5, Polish rd 8). The line of lorries coming the other way was continuous. Currency exchange, and ViaToll vignettes for those over 3.5 tons, were available at the border.

After 14 Polish miles on the busy truck route we turned into the Swiss Bar restaurant/TIR park where we'd previously spent a night. Not this time – the overnight lorry parking area was absolutely full of trucks of all nations! We did manage to stop by the restaurant for an excellent meal of pork chops with cheese, mushrooms, onions and chips (trucker size portions at bargain prices!) Sadly, the hot apple pie was all gone. Euros or bank cards were OK for payment.

Driving on for 4 miles into the town of Suwalki in the rain, we followed signs to a brand new campsite next to the new EU-sponsored sports stadium by the Hotel Wigry – a great find! It's an excellent site with modern hot showers, a kitchen with electric hot plates, and a fully equipped laundry. The Receptionist could only take Zloty but she sent Margaret over to the associated Hotel Wigry to pay with a bank card.

Putting the clocks back an hour meant that it was dark by 7 pm. The WiFi worked well and the site was very peaceful (two other motorhomes, French and German), though perhaps not when a football match is being played at the huge adjoining stadium!

At Osir-Eurocamping, Suwalki

After the long 3-country journey, we enjoyed a day in Suwalki - a very pleasant town with new cycle paths, no litter, a fire station and an enormous police HQ. We walked about a mile across the river and through a park into the centre. There were several banks (with ATMs for currency) on the fine main street. Historic buildings bore plaques, eg an 18th century hotel where a Russian Tsar had stayed on the road from Warsaw to Vilnius. Other monuments marked the site of former synagogues. A service was taking place in a 19th century Orthodox (now Roman Catholic) church. The Biedronka supermarket was well stocked, supplying a roast chicken that we carefully carried back through the park.

After lunch a load of laundry was washed and dried in brand new machines for a total of PLN 9 (less than £2). We worked on-line while listening to Radio 4 and waving to a horse & cart passing by; we do like Poland!

Suwalki to Treblinka, then back to TIR Park/Fuel Station on rd 63 near Ceranow – 179 miles

Open all year. Overnight parking PLN 10. No facilities except WC. No electric or WiFi. N 52.65861  E 22.28389

South of Suwalki we followed the E67 as it swung west on a new 4-lane motorway (not on our atlas or SatNav), rejoining the old rd 8 in Augustow. Continuing south, rd 8/E67 was 2 lanes again but with a much improved surface. It was 14° C on a misty autumn morning and there were regular speed traps and police checks for trucks.

The large red-brick Catholic church in Suchowola was decked with coloured ribbons, as were the roadside crucifixes. At Korycin we passed a restored wooden windmill by a little lake, then drove on through forest to the busy city of Bialystok at 80 miles. Here we turned west with the E67/rd 8 (now a 4-lane motorway), past a hideous new modern Russian Orthodox church.

Lunch was at a large services/lorry park at 92 miles, glad that the mist had lifted (now 18° C at 2 pm). The new motorway ended abruptly at 109 miles, after which the 2-lane road was in the process of being widened, with miles of bulldozing work on both sides. One day it will be finished all the way to Warsaw.

We turned off E67/rd 8 at Zambrow to drive south on the narrower rd 63.  At Czyzew (141 miles) the large Catholic church had a poster advertising 'Radio Maria' alongside her statue, just before the John-Paul II roundabout. No doubt about the religion here! Rd 63, busy with tractors and trucks, took us on across the notorious River Bug to the village of Ceranow. Here we checked out the fuel station/Lorry Park, which had plenty of space. We would return for the night after visiting Treblinka, 7 miles away.

From Ceranow we took minor rd 695 southwest to the village of Kosow Lacki, fr12_Treblinka.JPGom where a new rd 627 (not yet signed!) heads northwest. The old rd 627 (in a terrible state of repair) joins the new one just before a forest turning on the left, signed 'Treblinka Museum'. In a clearing in the woods there is a large car park and ticket office, open daily 9 am-7 pm, entry PLN 10 per person (which included a leaflet in English) to the 'Museum of Fight and Martyrdom, A Branch of the Regional Museum in Siedlice': www.treblinka-muzeum.eu

In the still of the early evening, we walked in silence 13_Treblinka.JPGthrough the forest, along the line of the former railway track to the site of the extermination camp (Treblinka II) operating from July 1942. Here an estimated 800,000 men, women and children from all over occupied Europe (many of them Jews from the Warsaw ghetto) were murdered by the Germans, with the assistance of Austrian and Ukrainian guards. After being partly destroyed in a prisoner rebellion in August 1943, the camp ceased to exist in November 1943. The stark monument on the site of the gas chambers states 'Never Again' in several languages.

Walking on, we passed the gravel pit and the site of Treblinka I, the Penal Labour Ca10_Treblinka.JPGmp (for Polish and Jewish prisoners) established in 1941. Up to 2,000 inmates worked in the gravel pit, in the camp workshops (there was even a fox farm for fur), on the nearby railway or at the irrigation area along the Bug valley. Almost half of them died from hunger, inhuman punishment or torture before it closed in July 1944. Beyond the remains of the Labour Camp is the execution site, with graves and monuments. Retracing our steps through the forest, there was little to say. This was our second visit, no less chilling than the first. The return walk is 5 km and there is a small photo exhibition near the ticket office.

We drove back to Ceranow for a quiet night behind the fuel station.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/treblinka-extermination-camp.html

And: A View from the River Bug on this website.

Ceranow to Wodnik Hotel/Camping, Firlej – 95 miles

Open Easter-October (+ Xmas/New Year). www.wodnikfirlej.pl  PLN 50 inc elec and WC/shower inside hotel. No kitchen. Free WiFi. N 51.54852  E 22.51523

Next morning was sunny. Over breakfast, as trucks unloaded around us, we listened to 'Radio Marija' the only station available. It was a phone-in programme, apparently requesting blessings from the studio priest, with prayers and music.

Then it was rd 63 south through Ceranow village and on to the busy little town of Sokolow Podl. Regular fuel stations sold LPG. This is agricultural land with fields of corn, farms, sheds for pigs and cows (no sheep), small villages, tidy gardens and good roads. Ploughing and harvesting were underway, now mechanised with tractors replacing horses. The lamp posts wore stork nests like giant hats.

At 36 miles we took the transit route round Siedlice and continued 14 miles south to Lukow, a busy prosperous-looking town with many auto businesses. On to Radzyn Podlaski at 76 miles where we took rd 19 (signed Lublin), a fast new highway.

At 93 miles we turned off into the lakeside town of Firlej and parked next to a cemetery to eat lunch. Our peace was disturbed by a local idiot who turned up on a bike and banged on our window, so we made a hasty retreat to the main road. Continuing south, the next left turn was signed for Wodnik hotel/camping, of which we had memories good (camped there once) and bad (turned away once)!

This time we 14_Firlej.JPGwere welcomed by Martin, a nice young man speaking English, who directed us to park under the trees behind the hotel with a hook-up, though the actual campsite was closed. Red squirrels scampered around.

There is a new path round the lake (a 3-mile circuit), id15_Firlej.JPGeal for a walk. We shared it with anglers, in-line skaters and cyclists old and young. Round the shore lie a surf school, several cafes, and places to hire rowing boats or pedalos, but all were closed, the season over. Martin told us the hotel re-opens for Christmas and New Year, when guests come for sleigh rides in the forest or skating on the frozen lake when the winter is hard enough. It is also a good base for visiting Lublin, some 20 miles to the south.

Firlej via Lublin/Majdanek to Karczma u Jedrka Restaurant, Wlodawa - 110 miles

Open all year. www.napolesie.pl/karczma_jedrka.php   Free overnight parking for customers. No facilities except WC.  N 51.55582  E 23.52687

South down rd 19 into Lublin, the largest city in SE Poland, complete with Castle, Old16_Magdanek.JPG Town and University. It was too busy to explore; we were content just to avoid the trains, trams and traffic, finding our way to the State Museum at Majdanek Concentration Camp, about an hour (29 miles) from Firlej. Majdanek is 3 miles SE of Lublin city centre (follow road signs for Chelm and Zamosc) at N 51.21732 E 22.59782 - you can't miss the stark Gate-Monument at the entrance. www.majdanek.eu

Unlike most other German camps, Majdanek is not h17_Magdanek.JPGidden away in the forest but is in the suburbs of a major city, with trams rumbling past the gates. The view is of blocks of workers' flats and a large Catholic cemetery now borders one side of the site, separated by a stone wall. 

Entry is free, with a charge for parking (motorhome classed as a Bus at PLN 15). The site is open daily from 9 am-6 pm (4 pm in winter), though the Visitor Centre and permanent exhibitions are closed Mondays and public holidays. We spent 3 harrowing hours revisiting the whole complex, then ate lunch in the top car park (there are three), surrounded by coaches that brought disturbingly noisy school and college groups. Ravens, black as night, were the only other sign of wild life.

The State Museum at Majdanek was the first in Europe to commemorate the vict18_Magdanek.JPGims of the Holocaust, taking care of the vestiges of two German death camps on the River Bug (Belzec and Sobibor) in addition to the more substantial remains of Lublin's Concentration Camp. Majdanek operated from Oct 1941 to July 1944 and was one of the biggest in terms of the number of prisoners and victims. About 150,000 were sent to this camp, mainly Jews, Poles and Belorussians, of whom over half died due to famine, disease, shooting or murder in the gas chambers.

The dreadful history of these monstrous crime19_Magdanek.JPGs is described in permanent exhibitions inside the barracks, as well as on open-air information boards. The piles of victims' shoes, the gas chambers and the crematoria are all to be seen, while a monumental mausoleum covering a hill of crematorium ashes marks the top of the site. A new exhibition room commemorates the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation (July 2014), though it was too busy to create a suitable atmosphere in there. We do think that a rule of near-silence should be imposed on visitors, along with a ban on smart phones. The youth groups were too busy taking 'selfies' to show the respect due to those who suffered, died or survived here.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/majdanek-concentration-camp.html

And: A View from the River Bug on this website.

The afternoon was hot and sticky as we left Majdanek, driving east via Swidnik to join E372 (rds 12 & 17), a new dual carriageway for 15 miles SE to Piaski. Here we turned east on E373/rd 12, a road that leads to the Ukraine border and Kiev, though we turned off after 5 miles on the minor rd 838 northeast. At Cycow we joined rd 82 and continued NE along a reasonable 2-lane road linking villages, bordered by fields, stands of trees and cow pasture. Approaching Wlodawa we entered an area of forest with occasional car parks.

There is a large roundabout (and Lidl store) at the entrance to the town, where we turned south on rd 812 for 3 miles in search of a little campsite recommended by Paul and Sheila Barker on their website (www.langdale-associates.com): Agroturist Osrodek in lakeside Okuninka village. The GPS coordinates led us to a house and garden (no campsite) and enquiries of local residents led us round in circles. We eventually gave up - the site had obviously gone or moved we knew not where. We drove another mile down rd 812 to Camping Astur, which was decidedly closed and padlocked, whatever the ACSI site might say ('open till end October').

Defeated, we used the SatNav to find a cosy folksy bar/restaurant with a large car park a mile or so NW of Wlodawa on the left of rd 812. The skinny barmaid/waitress/washer-up spoke only Polish or Russian. Miming 'can we eat here and park overnight?' we recognised the emphatically repeated word for 'No'. By now it was dark and rainy outside, so M appealed to the customers (an all-male group) for help. A kind man summoned a large chef from the kitchen and acted as interpreter. Of course we were welcome, no problem! We wondered what the barmaid had thought we wanted!?

The evening ended well, with a huge set meal of tomato soup, pork schnitzel, potatoes and three colours of cabbage salad, for a total of PLN 56 (£10) , and no charge for peaceful overnight parking alongside one truck.

Wlodawa via Sobibor to Camping Duet, Zamosc - 80 miles (at 700 ft or 215 m)

Open all year. Camping Duet link.  PLN 74 inc elec and basic shower. Free WiFi. No kitchen.  N 50.71919  E 23.23908

We drove back to the roundabout, then turned into Wlodawa (a town close to the junction of 3 countries), where we parked with difficulty down by the narrow brown River Bug. On the forbidden opposite bank we could see Belarus, a few miles north of its border with Ukraine. The infamous Bug, along which lie three extermination camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka), rises in the western Ukraine and has formed part of the Polish frontier with Ukraine and Belarus since 1945. Some 40 miles to the north of Wlodawa, the Bug swings west through Poland past Treblinka to join the Narew River, which flows into the Vistula 23 miles below Warsaw.

It was a short walk into the town centre, to collect cash from an ATM and information from the little Tourist Office on the main square. Tragically, before WW2 this was a prosperous historic town, its population 70% Jewish. They were all rounded up into the Wlodawa ghetto and ultimately taken to Sobibor to be gassed. The Germans demolished the Jewish cemetery, using the headstones as road building material, and turned the fine Great Synagogue into military storage. No Jews are known to live in Wlodawa today and it looks shabby, neglected and poor compared with other Polish towns to the west, although the handsome Baroque Synagogue has been restored and is open as a memorial museum. It is well worth a visit, as we did in October 2010 (described, along with Sobibor and Belzec, at www.magbaztravels.com/content/view/1076/255/)

Leaving town, we shopped at Lidl then continued 4 miles south on rd 812. Just pa23_Sobibor.JPGst Okuninka, we took a left turn (signed Zlobek and 'Museum Sobibor') onto a terribly patched lane to the tiny village of Zlobek and on through a forest of oak and beech to the Sobibor Memorial Site, 5 miles along. The entrance is at N 51.44610 E 23.59640, opposite the railway ramp that was the end of the line for thousands of doomed families.

This was not a labour camp but a death camp, p20_Sobibor.JPGart of the 'Aktion Reinhardt' plan to exterminate the Jews of occupied Europe. Between May 1942 and October 1943 approximately 170,000 perished here, not only from around Wlodawa and Lublin but from the Netherlands (70,000), Czechoslovakia (24,000), Belarus, France and Germany. A revolt broke out in the camp in October 1943 in which about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were recaptured and killed, after which the Germans liquidated the camp, demolished all the buildings and blew up the gas chamber.

On arrival we found that the car park and the stone21_Sobibor.JPG entry wall with information plaques had disappeared since our last visit, and the dramatic statue of mother and child had been moved to the edge of a fenced-off field next to some contractors' huts. The Visitor Centre/bookshop had also gone, though the site was still open (9 am-5 pm, or 4pm in winter, closed Mondays and public holidays, admission free). We managed to park by the railway and went to investigate.

Walking in through the silent forest, past temporary information boards and permanent mo22_Sobibor.JPGnuments, we found a single member of staff: a woman with a wheelbarrow working by the memorial that stands on the site of the gas chambers. She explained that forensic-archaeological work is being carried out and that a new museum is to be constructed when the excavations are complete.  www.sobibor-memorial.eu Back at the railway ramp we walked along by the line to Sobibor Station, which still sees 3 trains a day to Wlodawa or Chelm.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/sobibor-extermination-camp.html

Click: A View from the River Bug

It was a muggy afternoon (19° C) as we drove 5 slow miles back to rd 812, then south past Chelm through damp forest. Roadside stalls sold fungi from the mixed woods, where the stands of silver birch were blackened and dead, denuded by a moth infestation. They provided an appropriate backdrop. At Krasnystaw we joined E372/rd 17, the highway from Lublin to Zamosc, through the village of Izbica – once a Jewish shtetl (small town) that was home to Thomas Toivi Blatt, one of the very few survivors of the uprising in Sobibor. We have his book 'From the Ashes of Sobibor' with the lines 'I was born in Izbica in 1927 and spent my childhood there . . . For me it was the centre of the world.'

At the city of Zamosc we turned west along rd 74 for 2 miles to the campsite and tennis club, next to a Chinese takeaway on the right, shortly before the zoo and a large Castorama (DIY superstore) on the left. The basic site has primitive facilities but the WiFi worked reasonably and it was quiet, with just one neighbouring Polish campervan.

At Camping Duet, Zamosc

It is a pleasant walk from the campsite over the river and through the park to Zamosc's Old Town, a World Heritage Site, with fine Renaissance buildings, cathedral and town hall round the Rynek I (central square) www.turystyka.zamosc.pl/en/.

However, as it poured down all next day and we've explored Zamosc before, we took the opportunity to stay in camp and do some writing. We only emerged to walk over to Castorama to buy a can of bumper shine.

Zamosc via Belzec to Camping Pastewnik, Przeworsk - 89 miles (at 610 ft or 185 m)

Open all year. www.pastewnik.pl/?lang=english  PLN 60 inc elec and basic facilities. Free WiFi. Excellent restaurant.  N 50.06138  E 22.48361

The following day was dry, much cooler after the rain. We drove 3 miles east on the transit road round the north of Zamosc, to join E372/rd 17 heading south. It was a new dual carriageway for a few miles, past Lidl and a large Carrefour with fuel, before becoming a good 2-lane road. Gentle hills rose to a maximum of 1,000 ft/300 m as we traversed woods with deer warning signs, and passed ploughed fields with tall hop poles.

In Tomaszow Lubelski, a pleasant town at 28 miles, a large congregation stood outside a church, along with statues of Mary and the late Polish Pope, reminding us that it was Sunday morning. Roadside stalls were selling red glass candle-lanterns for the graveyard, and a Stalinist-era war memorial was decked with wreathes and ribbons. All the shops were open, including Lidl (always closed on the Sabbath in its native Germany).

Five miles later in the village of Belzec we crossed the railway line and followed it to t24_Belzec.JPGhe station, beyond which there is a large car park on the left: the Museum and Memorial Site of the Belzec extermination camp. From here it is less than 10 miles along rd 17 to Hrebbene at the Ukrainian border. Entry to both the site and the new museum, funded by the American Jewish Foundation and the Polish Government, is free of charge. Open 9 am-5 pm (4 pm in winter), closed Mondays and public holidays. www.belzec.eu

Belzec was the first death camp that the Germans set up 27_Belzec.JPGwithin the genocidal operation 'Aktion Reinhardt'. Between March and December 1942 almost 500,000 people were exterminated in its gas chambers, the majority of them Polish Jews, but also victims from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria.  By June 1943, with all the bodies burnt and the buildings dismantled, nearly all traces of the camp were erased and the area was planted with trees.

After walking the circuit of the symbolic-graveyard that s25_Belzec.JPGurrounds the site of the gas chambers, we spent an hour inside the excellent museum. Opened in 2004, it houses permanent exhibitions documenting the history of the camp, photos, maps, some belongings of those murdered, and personal testaments of the few survivors. One particular recollection will remain with us - One of the very few Jewish men to survive Belzec by working round the camp overheard a child entering the gas chamber: 'Mommy, haven't I been good? It's dark in here.' At first, such cries broke his heart until he could feel no more.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/belzec-extermination-camp.html

Click: A View from the River Bug

Back in Belzec village, we took rd 865 southwest through woodland and tidy villages to Oleszyce, a smart little town with parks, shops and fuel at 60 miles. In Jaroslaw, 20 miles later, we turned west on the new smooth E40/rd 4 for 9 miles to Przeworsk. The wooden arched entrance to Pastewnik is on the right of the E40.

Pastewnik comprises a restaurant and motel, with guests accommodated in original wooden houses from the area, gathered here in Poland's only Skansen (open-air folk museum). There is also a camping area with primitive facilities (Reception in the restaurant) but a good WiFi signal. We settled in, alone on the site, before an excellent meal in the charming restaurant: pork (of course), mushrooms, chips and salad, followed by apple pie with cream and ice cream.

At Camping Pastewnik, Przeworsk

After Margaret complained about the disgusting toilets and cold showers on the campsite, we were invited to use the restaurant WC and the hot shower in the staff kitchen. Perhaps we should complain more often!

We spent our last full day in Poland at Pastewnik, using the internet and walking round the little Skansen. In the afternoon a wedding party came for a grand reception, complete with folk music outside and an indoor banquet.

The current news is about VW's fall from grace over cheating on emission tests. Barry circulated a brilliant cartoon from the English on-line version of the Greek newspaper Ekathimerini:

A_Ekathimerini.JPG

INTO SLOVAKIA

Note that:

1.  Slovakia is an EU member and the currency is the Euro (currently €1.36 = £1).

2.  Slovakia is in the Central European Time zone (so 1 hr ahead of the UK).

3.  Vehicles up to 3.5 tons need a vignette (windscreen sticker) only if driving on motorways (road numbers beginning D) and expressways (road numbers beginning R). Buy it at the border or nearby petrol stations - the minimum (10 days) cost €11 in 2014.  For vehicles over 3.5 tons, including motorhomes, there is an electronic toll collection system (as in Austria and Poland). Good luck with that! See www.tolls.eu/slovakia and www.highwaymaps.eu/slovakia

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Diesel costs €0.99 or £0.73.

Przeworsk, Poland to Aqua Maria Motel & Camping, Velaty, Slovakia - 157 miles

Open all year (camping seasonal). www.penzionaquamaria.sk  Luxury suite for two (with bathroom, fridge, TV, etc) €50 total including choice of breakfast. Free WiFi. Free parking with hook-up for motorhome. Good restaurant.  N 49.01409  E 21.71882

West on E40/rd 4, a highway busy with trucks. We stopped after 11 miles in Lancut to spend our remaining Zloty at Lidl on the right of the main road, stocking up with ham, honey, breads, fruit & veg, though still no cornflakes (strangely absent in a country that grows corn!) It was lovely and sunny: 18° C at noon.

The E40 soon became dual carriageway to the bustling city of Rzeszow at 20 miles, where we saw plenty of fuel stations, large shops (Auchan, Makro, Leclerc, McDonalds, Praktiker, Lidl, Biedronka) and a hideous new cathedral by a roundabout. We took the Ring Road round to the south for 3 miles, then joined E371/rd 9 south, signed Barwinek and Slovakia.

Leaving the city behind, the landscape was green, hilly and wooded. Every village has a church (always the biggest building) and we felt for the inhabitants, their peace shattered by endless trucks and buses in both directions. After Babica we paused to make lunch at a large fuel station/TIR Park/restaurant near Wyzine, at a height of 660 ft/200 m. We had once spent a night safely parked here between Russian trucks - at N 49.93071  E 21.87602.

The road rolled on, climbing to 1,255 ft/380 m, down to 1,090 ft/330 m in Dukla, and up to a maximum of 1,617 ft/490 m at Barwinek on the Slovak border at 80 miles. Camping Tylawa, on a farm to the left of the road shortly before Barwinek, was definitely closed.

Overtaking a long line of stationary trucks, we entered Slovakia at 3.15 pm and immediately encountered miles of road works, one-way traffic and frustrated lorry drivers. A couple with a small girl (Roma?) sat by the roadside just over the border trying to sell fungi. Continuing south on E371/rd 73 it was a slow stop-go journey towards Svidnik until we reached its new bypass, leading us onto rd 15 south through Stropkov, a busy town with an Orthodox church and modern monastery. Compared with Poland, the people looked poorer, more swarthy and shabbily dressed. There were new Russian Orthodox churches, as well as Roman Catholic churches and wayside crosses.

Continuing down rd 15 we passed a long lake, the stork nests empty and the fields of cabbages and sunflowers ready to harvest. After 48 Slovakian miles we entered the city of Vranov nad Toplou and made our way through the traffic jams, past concrete tower blocks of workers' flats and the 'Hotel Patriot', straight out of the Soviet era, contrasting with the colourful shop fronts of Tesco and Lidl.

Finding our way across the railway and onto rd 79, due south for Trebisov (and ultimately Hungary), we were at last free of the Presov-bound trucks that had been diverted our way since Svidnik. At 6 pm the amazingly low sun turned the cornfields gold and cast long shadows of trees across the road. It was a relief to bypass Trebisov on newly surfaced rd 553, then continue down rd 79 to the village of Velaty. The new Aqua Maria Motel (formerly Motorest Maria) is on the right a mile or so after the village, just 5 miles before the Hungarian border.

The small campsite behind the hotel was closed but the enterprising manager suggested that we take a room (in fact, a two-room suite) and park the motorhome (with a hook-up for the fridge) on the campsite. Done! The freshly refurbished hotel has a 'wellness centre', restaurant/bar, outdoor pool and tennis courts. We had a good dinner in the restaurant, good showers and a good sleep – luxury indeed.

At Aqua Maria Motel & Camping, Velaty

We enjoyed our night at the Motel (really a hotel) so much that we stayed for another day! Much of the time was spent on-line, planning the rest of our route to Greece and writing emails, as well as the piece 'A View from the River Bug' for the website.

The three young men running the Aqua Maria spoke little English but were extremely helpful, using their smartphone to look up the word for various items on the menu, eg 'Karfiol' the soup of the day was 'Cauliflower' – and very good too.

OCTOBER 2015

INTO HUNGARY

Note that:

1.  Hungary is an EU member and the currency is the Forint (HUF). Current exchange rate is approx 425 HUF=£1, or 310 HUF=€1. Some businesses accept cash in Euros, some do not, but card payment is widely available.  

2.  Hungary is in the Central European Time zone (so 1 hr ahead of the UK).

3.  All vehicles need a vignette (matricia) to drive on motorways and expressways. Buy it at petrol stations near the border; payment taken in cash (HUF or Euros) or by card. There is no windscreen sticker; the vehicle registration number and nationality are recorded onto a computer at point of sale. The minimum (10 days) cost 5,950 HUF (c €20) for vans and campers up to 3.5 tons. Vehicles weighing between 3.5 and 5 tons (classed as a Bus) cost more, and over 5 tons (Big Bus!) even more. See www.tolls.eu/hungary and www.highwaymaps.eu/hungary  

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Diesel costs the equivalent of €1.15 a litre or £0.85.

Velaty, Slovakia to Camping Tiszavirag (= Tisza Bug, the Mayfly), Tokaj, Hungary - 38 miles (at 300 ft or 91 m)

Open 1 April-30 Oct. www.tiszaviragcamping.hu/  €16 inc elec and very basic facilities. Free WiFi.  N 48.12394  E 21.41877

Just 5 miles down rd 79 to the Hungarian border at Slovenske Nove Mesto and across with little delay (what a contrast to the hours we once spent getting through here on bicycles in the Iron Curtain days!) Two miles later, outside a giant Tesco at Satoraljaujhely, we stopped at the fuel station to buy a 10-day vignette, a fill of diesel and a Hungarian road atlas (paying with a bank card). Our old atlas was way out of date and led us astray on our last visit.

Then southwest through the town on rd 37, past Sarospatak with its fine riverside cas01_Tokaj.JPGtle, and along the meandering River Bodrog. At 31 miles we turned left along rd 38, still following the river to the quaint wine-town of Tokaj. Rd 38 veers east here, across a wide bridge over the confluence of the rivers Bodrog and Tisza, then passes Tiszavirag Camping on the left. The facilities are primitive (to say the least) but it is beautifully situated along the river bank, less than a mile from the centre of Tokaj, with a little restaurant that is sometimes open! Working WiFi is a recent addition and there is an elderly washing machine.

Just catching the Receptionist before she disappeared until next morning, we settled in and had lunch with the campsite to ourselves. Then Barry washed the motorhome down while M did some laundry and hung it between the trees to dry in the breezy sunshine.

At Camping Tiszavirag, Tokaj     

Next day (Friday) was bright and sunny and other campers came for the start of the three-day Tokaj Harvest & Wine Festival. How could we miss that?!

A group of volunteer Water, Fire & Mountain Rescuers (male and female) arrived in 02_Tokaj.JPG4WD vehicles with trailers. They worked hard on training exercises, erecting a large marquee (though they slept in the campsite cabins), practising first aid and resuscitation, donning harnesses to climb trees and wet suits to dive in the river. Very impressive.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/camping-tokaj.html

We also talked to two men from Budapest, come for a weekend of canoeing and wine tasting. One told us that he had recently re-established contact with his brother in the USA, who had left Hungary in 1956! Soon to retire, he hoped to visit him in America and we wished him luck.

After lunch we strolled into Tokaj to experience the 'Harvest Fest'. The wine cell03_Tokaj.JPGars were doing good business and tickets were on sale that allowed for a given number of sample tastings at the little wooden booths round the town centre. We enjoyed the free entertainment: both people-watching and the events on-stage in the square. An hour-long Folk Dance and Folk Music Performance by the pupils of the Tokaj Art School was delightful, after which we walked back to camp, to the strains of the 5 pm Jazz Concert playing fortissimo in the background.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/tokaj-wine-festival.html

It was a less than peaceful evening, with the sounds of the 9 pm Pop Concert and 11 pm Street Party drifting over the river!

INTO ROMANIA

Note that:

1.  Romania is an EU member and the currency is the Romanian New Leu (RON). Current exchange rate is approx 6 RON=£1, or 4.4 RON=€1. Some businesses accept cash in Euros or payment by card, some do not.

2.  Romania is in the Eastern European Time zone, like Bulgaria and Greece (so 2 hrs ahead of the UK). Put clocks forward an hour if arriving from Hungary.

3.  All vehicles need a vignette (rovinieta) to drive in Romania on any roads. Buy it at petrol stations near the border; payment taken in cash (RON or Euros) or by card. There is no windscreen sticker; after producing your car's papers, the vehicle registration number and nationality are recorded onto a computer at point of sale. The minimum (7 days) cost RON 27 (or €6) for vans and campers up to 3.5 tons, while vehicles weighing 3.5 to 7 tons cost €20. See www.tolls.eu/romania and www.highwaymaps.eu/romania   

4.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

5.  Diesel costs the equivalent of €1.16 a litre or £0.85.

Tokaj, Hungary to Camping Poieni, Sapanta, Maramures, Romania - 142 miles (at 1,040 ft or 315 m)

Open all year. www.sapantamaramures.ro/pensiuni/camping-poieni-casa-ana/  RON 40 inc elec and good hot showers. Free WiFi.  Good restaurant.  N 47.94782  E 23.69852

Over breakfast on a bright but chilly morning, our little electric fan heater went up in a puff of smoke (a 2-year-old model bought at Do It All in the UK). Be warned, we never leave a heater running when the motorhome is empty.

From Tokaj we drove east on rd 38 to Rakamaz and turned southeast to the busy city of Nyiregyhaza (19 miles), past a massive permanent market with hundreds of parked cars and vans. Taking a ring road to the south of the city centre, we joined rd 41 eastbound. At 23 miles we stopped to shop, managing without any Hungarian currency as Aldi took bank cards and – like the campsite at Tokaj - Praktiker accepted Euros (for a new fan heater). Then we turned south at the next roundabout onto rd 403 leading to the newly opened M3: west for Budapest; east for Romania or Ukraine.

Driving east on the smooth empty 4-lane motorway was a delight (but stay on rd 41 east if without a Matricia – there are electronic checks!) The first service station was not yet open but the next one, at 48 miles, had toilets and parking. Two miles later we turned off on rd 49, to follow the lorry-grooves along 30 miles of narrow bumpy road via Mateszalka to the Romanian border at Petea.

Entering Romania with a quick passport check, the first services had an ATM to obtain currency but didn't sell the Rovinieta needed on all roads! We were directed to a MOL petrol station a couple of miles further along rd 19A, where we got one (vehicle papers needed). Clocks forward one hour and on we go: Drum Bun (= Road Good).

Finding our way round the unappealing town of Satu Mare (= Village Big), 13 miles from the border, we turned northeast on E81/rd 19. The road was smoother than in Hungary and the scenery quickly became rural. There were horse-drawn carts, including extra-long ones for carrying logs and tree trunks, roadside mushroom-sellers, empty stork nests and beautifully carved wooden wayside crosses.

After Livada, where the 1C main road turned off for Baia Mare (capital of the Maramures), our route was very quiet, through green sun-dappled woods, meadows dotted with conical haystacks and bucolic villages. Rd 19 twisted and climbed to a maximum of 1,800 ft/550 m as we crossed into the forested Maramures Region, then zigzagged down to the tiny village of Pietra, its name also signed in Cyrillic script. Here we turned east, alongside the River Tisa that forms the border05_Sapanta.JPG with the Ukraine, until we saw 'Welcome to Sapanta' (known for its Merry Cemetery): about 60 miles since we entered Romania (and less than 5 miles south of the Ukraine).

A right turn in the village led along a paved lane, past the famous cemetery and church, then on to Casa Ana: a guesthouse/restaurant/small campsite on the left by a trout stream (the River Sapanta). Irina Stan, the extremely friendly owner (no English, but she speaks Spanish if that helps), showed us to a place by the river and we were soon settled in, with one Dutch motorhome for company.

At Camping Poieni, Sapanta

The Dutch left and we enjoyed a peaceful Sunday morning straight out of a child's farmyard 06_Sapanta.JPGpicture book. Hens clucked all around, a line of cows went along the lane, and in the adjacent field a young lad lay in the grass watching a flock of fat woolly sheep grazing among the pointed haystacks - he could have been Little Boy Blue. The restaurant did good business for lunches, specialising in trout.

The WiFi worked surprising08_Sapanta.JPGly well and we checked out the regulations for driving through Moldova. No visa is now needed for a 3-month Tourist visit, though insurance would need to be purchased. In the event, we didn't take that route.

After lunch we cycled 3 km along the lane to the Merr09_Sapanta.JPGy Cemetery, busy with two bus-loads of visitors who almost outnumbered the residents! The Orthodox church of 1886 is currently undergoing major restoration, with a new multicoloured roof and spire. Stalls lined the street, selling souvenirs, woven cloths, basketwork etc, and there were plenty of rooms on offer - though we couldn't find an ice cream! We've previously visited the church, and the cemetery with its colourful and humorous wooden crosses, so didn't j07_Sapanta.JPGoin the crowds this time. However, we noticed that there is now an entrance fee (plus extra for a camera). We must take issue with the statement in our Lonely Planet guide that '… villagers seem utterly untouched by the fame that the crosses have created. Life carries on as normal … colourful rugs are hung out on clothes lines …' Agreed, but the rugs are for sale!

We cycled down a path alongside the cemetery, signed to the Dumitru Pop Museum – the house where Pop, the apprentice of the original carver (who died in 1977), still lives and works, carrying on the tradition. The Museum was not to be found (closed up?) so we didn't see the crosses for Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, carved in honour of their visit in 1974.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/sapanta--merry-cemetery.html

Cycling back (a gradual climb) we came to the end of the tarmac, 1 km past our campsite, so returned to base, ending a ride of 9 km on a very warm and sunny afternoon.

A farewell evening meal in the little restaurant was excellent. We began with beef & veg goulash soup with warm rolls, followed by trout for M and chicken kiev (stuffed with ham & cheese) for B, then bilberry pancakes. A real feast and very well cooked.

Sapanta to Hotel Vanatorul, Vatra Dornei, Moldavia – 120 miles (at 2,845 ft or 862 m)

Open all year. www.pensiunea-vanatorul.ro  Matrimonial room (!) with bathroom, fridge and TV: RON 160 total including choice of breakfast. Free WiFi. Free parking for motorhome. N 47.34923  E 25.34934  (Just past Vatra Dornei campsite, which was closed.)

From Sapanta it was 11 miles east along the smooth rd 19 to Sighetu Marmatiei on the River Tisa. Sighet, as it is known locally, is Romania's northernmost town, with a crossing point into Ukraine. The former maximum-security prison, where the post-war Communist regime imprisoned, tortured and starved Romania's academic, political and religious elite, is now the 'Museum of Arrested Thought' (open daily, small entry fee – or free to former political prisoners and journalists). We had previously made a sobering and informative visit to this museum.

Leaving through the very busy town centre, we drove east on rd 18 into the hills of the wonderful Maramures Natural Park, the road climbing and twisting through the forest up to 2,000 ft/580 m. A lovely Tawny Owl was perched on a road sign at a bend but the Storks had flown south. Rural life went on as ever, with little haystacks scattered on the hillsides, women working the fields, men driving the horse-carts. In the woods mushrooms were on sale at the roadside, in the villages it was apples and pumpkins, in the towns the stalls sold potatoes. Bunting in blue, red & yellow (the colours of the Romanian flag) were out for harvest festival. The roads were better signed and better surfaced than any in Hungary, (apart from the new M3 motorway) until we reached the logging town of Viseu de Sus at 50 miles.

Here we turned left at the railway sign, opposite Hotel Brad, onto a narrow road for a mile to the Forest Railway Station car park. Motorhomes can stay for RON 40 or €10 per night including hook-up: N 47.71503 E 24.44349. The friendly guard made no charge for short-term parking, while we made lunch and had a look round. A historic steam engine stood in the sidings with a few old wooden carriages and we saw two road-cars adapted to run on the rails. There is also a café/bar with photo exhibition and even a stationary (!) hotel-train.

From here a narrow gauge railway winds up the Vaser Valley, built in 1925 to take logging workers to the mountain camp near the Ukrainian border and to fetch the wood down. The railway still carries the lumberjacks and transports timber but the original steam engines are now supplemented by diesel locos, popular with tourists and backpackers in the summer months. A charming assistant in the ticket office/souvenir shop sold us a very good map of Romania, as well as providing a train timetable. Complimenting her on her English, she replied that she had learnt 'at school and from the movies', which explained her American accent.

Sadly, the tourist trains (daily in the peak season; none from 20 Sept to 1 April) were only running on Thursdays to Sundays at this time of year – and this was Tuesday, so nothing tomorrow. These trains depart at 9 am for a 2-hour ride to Paltin, where there is a historic station, snack bar and picnic tables, returning after 1.5 hours, to arrive back at about 3.30 pm. There are also various special trips in July and August, with reserved seats and a meal - for details and the 2016 timetable visit www.cffviseu.com.

Disappointed, we continued east from Viseu on the steadily deteriorating rd 18 through Moisei (scene of a massacre in Oct 1944, when retreating Hungarian forces killed 29 prisoners and burnt the village) to the copper, lead and silver mining town of Borsa. Then the poorly surfaced road began its climb to the Prislop Pass in the Rodnei Mountains National Park. About 6 miles after Borsa we passed a turn for a small ski resort (Complex Turistic Borsa) which claims to have the largest natural ski run in Europe, 2 km long.

The final stretch of road, above 2,640 ft/800 m, slowed us to a crawl. The remote Pri10_Romania.JPGslop Pass is the historic route from Maramures into Moldavia, the far northeast corner of Romania that borders the Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. After 30 miles of rough road from Viseu, we reached the summit and stopped to take in the view, up at 4,685 ft/1420 m. There was not a breath of wind to stir the low clouds grazing the mountain tops.                

A roadside memorial marks the site of the las11_Romania.JPGt Tartar invasion before they fled the region in 1717; a newer monument records the renovation of the road in 1981 (34 years ago and seemingly untouched since!) The Hanul Prislop (Prislop Inn) café/bar stands at the top, opposite a new Orthodox monastery still under construction, and ski chalets and hotels were also being built on the hillside. Strangely, several black or pink piglets were running around loose, as well as a stray dog and her pups, so we didn't linger!

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/on-the-road1.html

Descending the patched rd 18 into Moldavia at 20 mph, the sign promised Drum in Lucra (= Road Works), though work had stopped for the day. We followed the Bistrita River along a high valley at about 3,000 ft (above 900 m) to the junction with the better E58/rd 17 at 110 miles, 30 slow miles since the Pass. It was now 6 pm so, rather than turning northeast as intended (for the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina), we turned south for 10 miles to the town of Vatra Dornei, known for its mineral waters – and a campsite we'd used previously.

Camping Autoturist is on a forested hill north of the town, a few minutes' walk from the centre, at N 47.34814 E 25.34859. It had closed at the end of September! We drove on through the woods in search of an overnight spot and came to a big hotel, 300 m along at the end of the road. It looked closed, in which case the quiet well-lit street opposite would be fine.

When we checked, the hotel was open (albeit empty) and we were given the best room, with a balcony overlooking the parking area where we left the motorhome. The Receptionist even summoned the cook, to serve us chicken roulades and chips in the large empty restaurant. A comfortable end to a long slow day.

Vatra Dornei to Pensiunea & Camping Cristiana, Humor Monastery, Near Gura Humorului, Moldavia – 58 miles (at 1,830 ft or 554 m)

Open all year. Cristiana Camping  RON 45 inc elec and WC/hot shower. Free WiFi. N 47.60292  E 25.85231

Over a hotel breakfast of omelettes, toast and jam we talked to the impressively multilingual manager, Madelene. Aged only 5 when Ceausescu fell on Christmas Day 1995, she had fond memories of her early childhood but saw no hope in present-day Romania. Her husband works as a forester in Germany and her ambition is to live in the UK with him and their young son. We could only wish her (and Romania) the best of luck.

It was less than 2 miles back to E58/rd 17, then 8 miles north through Jacobeni to the junction with yesterday's rd 18. Turning northeast on the good rd17, it climbed a little to the Mestecanis Pass at 3,615 ft/1096 m, then descended more steeply to 2,100 ft/637 m in the town of Campulung Moldovenesc at 27 miles. In this remote corner of Romania, amid the Carpathian Mountains shrouded in mist, we shopped at Lidl!

Continuing on rd 17, we crossed the Moldova River and came to the town of Gura Humorului, at the confluence of the Moldova and Humor rivers, in Southern Bucovina – the area known for the 15th century Orthodox Painted Monasteries, built under the threat of Turkish invasion. Closed and neglected during the Communist years, they were restored and reopened (to nuns, monks and tourists) in the 1990s. We explored them on a more leisurely journey in the summer of 2004, but couldn't miss this opportunity to revisit two that lay close to our route.

Entering Gura Humorului at 46 miles we turned right at the sign: 3 km to Vo13_Voronets.JPGronets, known as the Blue Monastery. The first shock was that the road ended at a large car park charging us  RON 7 (over £1); the second surprise was that it was busy with two coaches of visitors; the third that we then had to run the gauntlet of souvenir sellers along the lane to the monastery. Eleven years ago parking was free and easy by the entrance and we were the only tourists! Visitor numbers have obviously grown. We lunched in the car park then walked in, past a couple of grannies engaged in embroidering genuine blouses, though most of the other stuff for sale looked mass-produced.

Tickets to enter the walled monastic enclosure cost RON 5 each, plus an optional RON 14_Voronets.JPG10 'camera fee', though photographs are forbidden inside the church (where a stern nun kept watch). On the outside walls, scenes of Genesis, Moses, St Paul, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment have largely survived centuries of weathering, while inside the colourful frescoes covering walls, ceiling and iconostasis are well preserved. The defensive walls include a square tower that we climbed.

The15_Voronets.JPG church contains the tomb of Daniel the Hermit, first abbot of Voronets, who advised Prince Stefan the Great (ruler of Moldavia from 1457 until his death in 1504)  not to give up against the Turks. In gratitude to God for his victories, Stefan built the monastery here (dedicated to St George) in 1488. Originally occupied by monks, it is now home to a small community of nuns.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/voronets-painted-monastery.html

Driving back to the much-developed town of Gura Humorului, we turned off at the roundabout (by a Best Western Hotel!) along a lane signed for Humor, the Red Monastery. Dozens of local houses advertise accommodation (Pensiunea) but the Pensiunea Cristiana, less than a mile past the Humor Monastery, also has a small camping area in the garden. Cristiana (who had emailed us) was not at home but her mother ushered us in to park on the drive and organised a hook-up from the garage. There is also a new WC/shower for campers and the WiFi worked well.

Once settled there, we walked back to Humor Monastery, built in 1530 and dedicated17_Humor.JPG to the Holy Virgin. The car park here is free, with just a couple of souvenir stalls; entry (and camera) fees were the same as at Voronets. Humor was a quieter and better experience, with just a handful of other visitors. The exterior frescoes have suffered from wind and rain16_Humor.JPG and it was difficult to discern the 1453 Siege of Constantinople, the Return of the Prodigal Son, St George, or the Last Judgment, but inside the church was very impressive. Two lay-women worked silently renovating the paintings of martyrs in the entry chamber, while two nuns were reading and chanting continuously in the amazing altar room, a masterpiece of Byzantine art.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/humor-painted-monastery.html

For more on all the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina, see the World Heritage website.

Alone in the Pensiune garden we had a very quiet evening; the only sound was a horse-cart or two clip-clopping by at dusk. 

Humor Monastery to Camping Casa Alba, Bucharest, Wallachia – 285 miles

Open all year. Casa Alba  RON 80 inc elec, etc. Free WiFi. N 44.51712  E 26.09271

A long day began with 4 miles returning along the lane past the Humor Monastery to Gura Humorului, then 3 miles east on rd 17 to the village of Paltinoasa, driving in a fine mountain rain. Here we took the minor rd 2E, narrower and rather bumpy, following the Moldova River southeast for 18 miles to the town of Falticeni. Houses in the long narrow villages had ornate tin-work roofs and well-covers, while along the verges, potatoes, cabbages, apples and fungi were on sale.  

At Falticeni we joined rd 2 southbound for Bucharest, leaving the charms of the mountains (and the rain) behind. The sky remained grey above dull fields where cows, geese, goats and horses gleaned the last of the harvest. There were regular police patrols and drivers flashed each other to warn of speed traps, the speed limit varying unpredictably. In the village of Gheriaiesti, almost every house was selling brushes, from short hand-brooms to long witches' broomsticks. A woman returning from the village store had a shopping bag over one arm and a live hen tucked under the other!

After a roundabout at 65 miles, the surface of rd 2/E85 improved considerably. 5 miles later we took the truck route to the west of the busy town of Roman and continued south to even busier Bacau, where again we bypassed the centre. Leaving Bacau on rd 2 we passed a shopping mall with Auchan, then Praktiker and Metro (which provided takeaway pizza slices for our lunch). It was 104 miles since breakfast and less than half way to Bucharest.

We hoped to find a place for the night before reaching the capital but this part of Romania is not a tourist area; the towns are large and industrial. The Latin-based Romanian language is reasonably accessible, compared with Hungarian and points north! For example, we saw Auto-Dismembrare at a vehicle scrap yard, while a derelict factory for sale was signed insolventi.ro. At 163 miles in Focsani we passed a huge shopping mall with Carrefour, C&A and others.

The next stretch of rd 2 was more rural, with vineyards on both sides. Villagers were selling wine, apples and juices, and horse-drawn carts laden with grapes held up the traffic. At 210 miles we took the busy ring road at Buzau. Strings of peppers, onions and garlic now replaced grapes on the stalls, with gourds and cucumbers ahead.

At 270 miles we finally reached the Bucharest Ring, the Centura. (Beware: Centura means 'belt' and Centrul means 'centre' - it's easy to go wrong here!) Not wishing to drive on to Romania in the dark, we reluctantly turned north (anticlockwise) on the Centura to the capital city's only campsite, which we remember as surprisingly small, overpriced and difficult to find. It still is!

After the Centura crosses a big bridge near Otopeni airport, turn left on rd DN1 which goes south towards the centre of Bucharest. After that we found the campsite, hidden in the woods, by using the SatNav. It's only 2 miles from the Ring but the route is complicated and there are no Camping signs until you've found it!

It was going dark and cold after our longest day's drive in the Carado. Not the best time to meet the world's rudest campsite guard, demanding passports and payment before he would open the barrier, grumbling at our late arrival (early evening). The facilities were prison-like with no privacy, but at least it was a safe place to rest and sleep. No wonder that there was only one other motorhome (German) staying.

INTO BULGARIA

Note that:

1.  Bulgaria is an EU member and the currency is the Bulgarian Lev (Lv). Current exchange rate is approx 2.6 Lv=£1 or 1.95 Lv=€1. Some businesses accept cash in Euros or payment by card, some do not. In particular, the small entry charge for places like museums, swimming pools, ancient sites etc will require local currency.

2.  Bulgaria is in the Eastern European Time zone, like Romania and Greece (so 2 hrs ahead of the UK).

3.  All vehicles need a vignette to drive in Bulgaria on any roads. Buy the simple windscreen sticker at petrol stations near the border; payment taken in cash (Lv or Euros) or by card. The fee is €5 for a week or €14 for a month, for vans and campers up to 3.5 tons, while vehicles weighing 3.5 to 12 tons cost €18 (week) or €49 (month). See www.tolls.eu/bulgaria and www.highwaymaps.eu/bulgaria

4.  There are two toll-bridges across the Danube linking Bulgaria with Romania: the new suspension bridge between Vidin and Calafat, or the old 'Friendship Bridge' from Ruse to Giurgiu. The toll (currently €6 for vehicles up to 3.5 tons) can be paid in Euros or a local currency. Be prepared for delays due to road works on the Friendship Bridge.

5.  Dipped headlights are compulsory at all times (even in summer).

6.  Diesel costs the equivalent of €1.02 a litre or £0.76.

7.  Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic script (as in Russia), though major road signs will also show place names in the Latin alphabet.

Bucharest, Romania to Camping Veliko Tarnovo, Dragizhevo, Bulgaria – 136 miles (at 760 ft or 230 m)

Open 1 April-31 Oct. www.campingvelikotarnovo.com   Low season €13 (high €18) inc elec and very good modern facilities. Excellent restaurant/bar (closes 30 Sept.) Free WiFi. N 43.066944  E 25.753056

With no wish to revisit Bucharest, we returned 2 miles to the CB (Centura Bucharest) Ring Road and drove clockwise round the circuit. The Centura was a dual carriageway for our first 8 miles, up to the point where we joined yesterday from rd 2, beyond which it turned into a narrower grooved 2-lane road, very busy with local traffic and international trucks in both directions causing hold-ups at roundabouts and side roads.

At 27 miles we took the exit for E85/rd 5, a better and wider road that runs south to Giurgiu and the Romanian border at the Friendship Bridge. After 6 miles on rd 5 it became a new 4-lane dual carriageway (not on our map or SatNav) and we made faster progress. At 40 miles, in the village of Calugareni on the edge of the Comana Natural Park, a new sign pointed right from the roundabout: 'Camping 1.5 km'. Worth checking if we pass this way again. In the border town of Giurgiu at 58 miles we filled up with diesel by the roundabout, then parked at the Kaufland supermarket opposite to spend our remaining cash and make lunch.

Three miles later we paid the bridge toll (in Euros) as we left Romania; the border guard checked both our passports and the receipt for the 7-day Rovinieta (vignette). The 3-km Soviet-era Friendship Bridge spans the Danube, carrying trains at a lower level beneath the vehicles. Approaching it we saw a familiar sign: 'Drum in Lucru' (road works). The bridge was indeed being repaired, with men welding the sides of the iron bridge built in 1952-54. Heavy trucks stood in a queue of disorganised one-way traffic. It was a relief to cross the border (running down the middle of the river) and make landfall in Bulgaria.

After Bulgarian passport control we parked to buy the required vignette sticker, then continued south on E85/rd 5 past the industrial Danubian port of Ruse. It was 3.15 pm and starting to rain. Road signs were now in Cyrillic script and the villages looked even poorer than in Romania – this is the EU's most deprived member. Out in the countryside there were vast open agricultural fields but at least the road was edged with trees, offering some shelter.

We drove downhill (from 875 ft/265 m to 130 ft/40 m) to cross the River Jantra in Bjala, with a view of the old bridge to the right of the modern one. Then the E83 turned off for Pleven and Sofia, taking most of the traffic with it, while we continued south on the quieter E85/rd 5 towards Veliko Tarnovo. We paused for a tea break in Petko Karavelov, parking by the railway station where a group of children played and watched us with interest but posed no threat. In fact we have always felt safe and comfortable in Eastern Europe, dating from cycle journeys through these countries in the Iron Curtain days.

Continuing south we passed the narrow lane that turns right for the Roman site of Nikopolis ad Istrum, once visited with our good friends Martin & Shirley (of Camping Sakar Hills). A little further down rd 5 we turned left in Polikraiste, after 62 Bulgarian miles, onto the minor rd 53 heading southeast. This route bypasses Bulgaria's former capital, the historic city of Veliko Tarnovo and its medieval citadel of Tsarevets: all very worth exploring, which we have done more than once in the past.

We followed rd 53 for 7 miles, through the town of Gorna Orjahovic and on to a right turn signed for the village of Dragizhevo. Unlikely as it may seem there is an excellent campsite, built and run by our enthusiastic English friends Nick and Nicky, about a mile after the village! We arrived to enjoy a warm welcome, hot showers and good conversation. Although it's the end of the season, there were 3 other motorhomes on site (Dutch and British), as well as workmen rebuilding the outdoor pool.

Dragizhevo, Nr Veliko Tarnovo to Camping Sakar Hills, Biser – 157 miles (at 350 ft or 106 m)

Open 1 April-30 Sept (and possibly later, by arrangement). www.sakar-hills.com  €14 inc elec and good modern facilities. Free WiFi throughout site. Own-label Merlot wine for sale! N 41.87074  E 25.99155

After a farewell coffee with Nick and Nicky, we drove back through Dragizhevo village, then left on rd 53 to meet E772/rd 4 (2 miles). Left again to Veliko Tarnovo at 8 miles, then left on E85/rd 5 heading south (signed Stara Zagora). After another 2 miles the E85 turns off on a route that avoids the Shipka Pass, which has a 12-ton weight limit, making E85 very busy with trucks.

We therefore stayed on the quieter and much more scenic rd 5, following the Yantra River southwest through Dryanovo and past Dryanovski Monastery and the Bacho Kiro Caves, all easily visited from the small campsite we know there: www.dryanovo.com/en/camping/.

On to Gabrovo at 45 miles, where the Yantra cuts through the long busy town. Three miles later a left uphill turn was signed: 2 km to Etar Ethnographical Village. We remembered exploring this museum-village before, up at 1,650 ft/499 m - a charming collection of workshops, smithy etc demonstrating traditional crafts, set along the banks of a wooded valley above a stream flowing into the Yantra. Today was Saturday and the small parking area was full. Anticipating lunch in the bakery/café, we parked further along the lane and walked back.

Unfortunately, we had not yet obtained Bulgarian currency and no amount of pleading (or Euros) would persuade the hatchet-faced ticket seller to let us in without paying the entry fee of 5 lev (Seniors 3 lev) in local money. So it was a sandwich in the motorhome and back down the hill to rd 5!

The road now began a 10-mile switchback ascent, snaking up through woodland from 1,585 ft/480 m to 3,910 ft/1185 m at the top of the dramatic Shipka Pass in the Balkan Mountains. Once we were above 3,300ft/1000 m it became misty and a cold rain fell, heralding the snow to come. We paused briefly on the summit outside the Shipka Hotel at 60 miles. We had once parked here for a day or two in summertime and recalled an even earlier visit, cycling over the pass on our way to Turkey. Today with zero visibility there was little point in getting out to admire the view, let alone climbing the 500 steps to the towering Freedom Monument that commemorates the Bulgarian/Russian victory over a much larger Turkish army in August 1877.

Descending, the serpentine road was still shrouded in mist until below 2,640 ft/800 m. At the bottom of the pass in Shipka village rise the golden onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Shipka Memorial Church, built in memory of the Russian and Bulgarian dead; it was consecrated in 1902. This too we have visited previously. Continuing on rd 5 into the Valley of Roses, we took a tea break at 76 miles outside the Rose Museum just before Kazanlak, capital of the rose-growing region and host to the annual Festival of Roses (first weekend in June: www.rosevalleyoils.com/bulgaria/). It was still raining, down on the plain at 1,290 ft/390 m. On through the traffic and trolley buses of Kazanlak, where roses planted along the central reservation did little to relieve the view of grim grey concrete flats.

Rd 5 continued south through an area of tobacco fields, then thankfully bypassed the city of Stara (= Old) Zagora. We crossed the new A1 motorway, which runs east to Burgas on the Black Sea coast or west (as yet incomplete) to Sofia, then followed rd 5 over the Maritsa River into Dimitrovgrad. Rising in the Rila Mountains, the Maritsa is the longest and deepest river to flow through Bulgaria.

To our delight, a couple of miles south of Dimitrovgrad we met a newly opened section of motorway A4 and turned east along it, signed Svilengrad, as far as the first of two exits for Harmanli. This was certainly much smoother, quieter and quicker than the old route on rd 8 from Haskovo to Harmanli. At 148 miles we entered the familiar town of Harmanli, parked with ease at Lidl and walked round to find a bank machine in the centre.

A final 8 miles southeast along rd 8 took us to the right turn for Sakar Hills Camping and Bi20_Sakar_Hills.JPGser village. (The next exit along the motorway is at Ljubimets, 5 miles beyond Biser.) As we turned into the well known little campsite, built and run by our friends Martin & Shirley Jeffes and their son Matt, it was like coming home. Indeed, Matt immediately appeared in his car with the words 'Have you eaten?'

Having passed us on the road, Matt had very kindly turned back to take us to join Martin & Shirley at the annual fair (the Panegyri) in Harmanli. The name comes from the Greek word19_Sakar_Hills.JPG for 'gathering' and every town and village has one. After looking round the huge number of stalls selling all kinds of confectionery, toys and clothing, as well as games like hook-a-duck, we joined the 'expat gang' (some of whom we already knew) at Harmanli Tennis Club. There were 16 of us! Over a meal of pork or chicken with chips and salad, we had a memorable evening, catching up with Derek & Barbara as well as the Jeffes family, and meeting Martin & Kate Weaver for the first time.

Visits to Sakar (= Sugar) Hills are always full of sweet surprises!

At Camping Sakar Hills, Biser

A pleasantly busy week followed, with time for reading, writing, internet, laundry, motorhome cleaning, relaxing and – above all - talking and socialising with friends old and new. Since leaving England in mid-June, 4 months ago, we hadn't met a single person from the UK until we reached Bulgaria. We needed the conversation practice!

Biser, a very short walk from the campsite, has a small shop for basic supplies by the 21_Sakar_Hills.JPGbridge over the Biserska River – a new bridge, since the old one was destroyed in the terrible flood of February 2012, when the Ivanovo Dam wall collapsed. See our article www.magbaztravels.com/content/view/1292/30/.

We strolled round the village on a sunny morning, to see repair work still22_Sakar_Hills.JPG going on and the streets dug up. Water pipelines are being laid, as well as a new mains drainage system (no more septic tanks) but we wondered who it was all for. There was no-one around in the central square and bar, as many of the evacuated residents did not return. Our friends Carol & John, who lived in Biser at the time, sold up and returned to Liverpool. Only a few of the promised new houses have been built; the school and post office have closed. 

Harmanli (the nearest small town, 8 miles west of Biser) was founded by the Turks in the 16th C, though little evidence remains from that time: a chunk of Ottoman wall in the centre and the humpbacked Gurvan Bridge (closed to traffic) over a dry riverbed. There is a Saturday market, as well as supermarkets, banks and a café or two. The Verona pizza restaurant in the centre is a good choice and here we caught up with some old friends over lunch: Irene & Gerard, David & Brian (named after their village as the 'Bryagovo Four'). It was a great reunion, sitting outside in the sunshine sharing pizzas, salad, garlic bread and coffee, all thanks to Irene.

Haskovo is a larger town, some 20 miles west of Harmanli, founded in 1395. Home to Bulgaria's largest cigarette factory, using tobacco grown on the surrounding plains, it also has a very fine centre with modern shops, a restored tower and the oldest working mosque in the Balkans. We had a memorable day in Haskovo when Martin & Shirley took us in for lunch at Martin's favourite restaurant, the Alafrangite, with superb French-style cuisine. See www.alafrangite.com for map and photos, though the text is in Bulgarian. Our thanks to the Jeffes family for this and so much else.

On the way back to Biser a second treat lay in store, as Martin made a detour to visit the Thracian Tomb Museum in the village of Aleksandrovo: www.alexandrovo.com/en/. The actual 4th C BC tomb is sealed to preserve its unique frescoes but the adjacent museum has exact replicas, partly funded by the Japanese Government (entry 3 Lev; Seniors 2 Lev). As the only visitors, we four Seniors were given a conducted tour by the very knowledgeable and friendly guide, Dan, who gave his undivided attention to our many questions.

Hljabovo, a village nearly 30 miles northeast of Harmanli, is home to another couple of f18_Sakar_Hills.JPGriends, Derek & Barbara. We drove out to see them one afternoon, pausing on the way to walk down to the Thracian Dolmen (a megalithic tomb) near Balgarska Poljana. Derek's ongoing restoration work on their house now includes a new inside staircase, renovation of a workshop outbuilding, and creation of a splendid outdoor kitchen and BBQ area. We talked for 3.5 hours non-stop, catching up with their news and that of other former Hljabovo residents we both knew, then promised to return for a barbecue on the approaching Sunday (see below) - how could we refuse?! We returned to Biser via Jerusalimovo and Ljubimets, arriving after dark to find a small tent had joined us on the campsite. It was fascinating next morning to meet the lone Dutch cyclist, riding from the Netherlands to Istanbul. A good ride in itself – but he had come via Morocco and Kosovo! Wishing him well on the next stage to Edirne, we warned against the warden (as in prison) at the city's Grand Omur campsite. He had already heard about her and booked into a Hostel in Edirne!

Poets & Strings (or Harmanli's Got Talent!) is an annual cultural event in the town. On the Saturday evening the great and good of Harmanli gather in the Snack Bar (a misnomer, as it's a venue with a very reasonable restaurant) to listen to music and poetry readings, whilst tucking in to an evening meal. We had booked a taxi into Harmanli, where Martin & Shirley and the 'expat gang' had booked a table for the occasion. A good time was had by all, over a meal of salads, meats and chips. Martin Jeffes played his guitar; a local Welshman played and sang louder; a bearded writer from Sofia smoked his pipe and read from his latest book in Bulgarian (copies on sale); a semi-professional woman sang. But for us the star turn was a virtuoso instrumental performance (his own composition) by Martin Weaver, once rock guitarist with heavy metal bands such as 'Wicked Lady' and 'Dark'. Listen to a Radio Interview with Martin and enjoy his current Playlist in Youtube.

A taxing experience. As events drew to a close near midnight, we went in search of a taxi – and so another adventure began! The taxi rank in the centre of Harmanli was dead, with no answer from any of the phone numbers. In the foyer of the hotel tower opposite, we asked the Receptionist (in fact, three Receptionists) if they could summon a taxi for us. A young man appeared from a back room, asked where we wanted to go, then said 'follow me'. Accompanied by his girlfriend, we got into his car (not identified as a taxi!) and directed him to the campsite, pausing on the way for just a few litres of petrol. Relieved that we hadn't been abducted, we willingly paid the sum asked (double the cost of our outward ride). All part of the rich experience of Bulgaria!

A visit to Kolarovo and a Barbecue in Hljabovo. The following day Matt drove us up to his parents' house in the winery village of Kolarovo. It was a beautiful afternoon, sitting in the sunshine with a pot of tea by the new pool which Martin had just finished winterising. Shirley took us for a walk round the village, which now boasts three wineries, a half-built hotel and a new café. Then we all piled into Martin's Land Rover to drive on to Hljabovo for Derek & Barbara's outdoor barbecue, where we met their son Paul and wife Lorraine, visiting from England, as well as a dozen or more other guests including Ivanion (the singing Welshman), Martin Weaver and their wives.

The food was outstanding, in both quality and amount: pork steaks, sausages, salads, jacket spuds, cheese & garlic bread, pizza, a South African mealy-mince dish, and three kinds of pudding, not to mention the drinks. Derek, Babs, Paul and Lorraine excelled themselves and have clearly done this sort of thing before! We thank them all. The musical entertainment was provided by Ivanion, Martin and Matt Jeffes (father and son both have fine voices) and once again our new acquaintance, Martin Weaver. We had more chance to talk to the Weavers on this occasion and were invited to visit them before leaving Bulgaria.

A visit to the Weavers. Martin & Kate Weaver live beyond a tiny village, way beyond Hljabovo. The last mile was a dirt road, thankfully dry, and we made it in time for morning coffee. The beautifully restored house, barn (now Martin's workshop) and gardens are all their own hard work. Kate is a skilled handicrafter, gardener and cook (Margaret begged her recipe for chocolate-bread-&-butter pudding, sampled at last night's barbecue).  

Martin has a wide collection of guitars and other instruments in the well equipped self-built recording studio, where he composes and plays. He is also a professional archaeologist with a PhD in Forensic Anthropology (specialising in facial reconstruction from a skull) – known to his former students as Doc Martin. It was a most interesting day!

INTO GREECE

Camping Sakar Hills, Biser, Bulgaria to Porto Lagos Harbour, Thrace, Greece – 175 miles (via the Rodopi Mountains)

Open all year. Large free well-lit parking area at port, opposite fish tavernas. Avoid Saturday night/Sunday morning, as there is a huge market every Sunday (all year round) until about 4 pm.  N 41.0600  E 25.12041

The easiest onward route from Biser is to take rd 8 through Ljubimets, cross the border into Greece near Svilengrad and follow E85 south via Orestiada to the coast at Alexandroupolis, where there is a convenient all-year municipal campsite, 117 miles from Biser. We have often travelled and described this journey, but now two new crossing points have opened in the Rodopi Mountains, which form a barrier between Bulgaria and Greece. One is on a minor road east from Ivailovgrad to Kyprinos (and on to Orestiada), the other on a good new road south from Momcilgrad to Makaza (and on to Komotini). We couldn't resist a drive through the Rodopis, partly retracing the route of a 4-day cycle tour we made in the summer of 2009 from Biser: see Ride 6 in www.magbaztravels.com/content/view/861/29/.

We drove 5 miles to Ljubimets and turned south through the town towards Lozen and Malko Gradiste. However, the level crossing was closed due to work on a new high-speed railway line to Turkey, so it was back to rd 8, continuing east to take the next right turn. This minor road took us through Siva Reka to Malko Gradiste, where we joined the road from Ljubimets south to Ivailovgrad.

On the eastern edge of the Rhodope Mountains, our quiet road rose and fell through tiny villages. We soon reached 1,650 ft/500 m, descended to 545 ft/165 m after Dabovec, climbed to 1,615 ft/490 m before Kamilski Dol, then dropped to 430 ft/130 m to cross the Arda river downstream of the Ivailovgrad dam. After the impressive bridge the road climbed again to 925 ft/280 m, went down to 660 ft/200 m, then made a final ascent to 1,120 ft/340 m at the roundabout before a 2.5 mile downhill into the town of Ivailovgrad at 50 miles.

We drove round the hillside town in search of a level parking place for a break but found nowhere, not even outside either of the two hotels, nor at the petrol station where we spent our last Bulgarian currency. We noticed a newly surfaced lane running east for 3 miles to the new border crossing at Slaveevo, from where it's a further 3 miles to Kyprinos in Greece (both are small villages).

Our route lay in the opposite direction, back to the roundabout for the empty rd 59 climbing west through the mountains. At 63 miles we parked at the roadside for lunch, height 1,950 ft/590 m. It was warm for late October. On through sunny woodlands, we reached a maximum of 2,670 ft/812 m near Popsko, then descended. Rd 59 deteriorated after crossing into the Krumovgrad district. This whole area of the Eastern Rhodopes (from Ivailovgrad to Momcilgrad) is the most Turkish region of Bulgaria, home to remote Pomak villages where you will see minarets and hear Turkish spoken. We passed a Roma settlement where the lads were riding horses bare-back in the fields, the crops being tobacco and a few vines.

Down to 760 ft/230 m in Krumovgrad at 85 miles, a town with cafes and a hotel (where we stayed on our cycle tour before turning off to the north). Continuing west on rd 59, we passed a mosque and a Moslem cemetery. Entering the Momcilgrad district, the road improved markedly (with an EU Funding sign). We climbed again to 1,965 ft/595 m shortly before Zvezdel and the turning for the hilltop Thracian site of Tatul, 10 miles north along a narrow minor road. We decided to save that for the next time we pass this way!

In the town of Momcilgrad at 105 miles (790 ft/240 m) we had a break, parked by the bus station (with services to Turkey - Istanbul and Izmir - as well as Kardzali and Haskovo to the north). DO NOT take rd 5 south from Momcilgrad, signed to Makaza. It's an old steep neglected road, now replaced by a smooth 2-lane highway that climbs more gently for 30 miles or so to the border crossing opened in Sept 2013 at the Makaza Pass. The new road is not yet signposted from our direction but we eventually found our way through town and across to the west side of the river to join it.

The road has a 3.5 ton weight limit. There was a single checkpoint at the international border at Makaza, up in the mist at 2,210 ft/669 m. The Pass had been closed since the end of WW2, when the Iron Curtain fell between Bulgaria and Greece.

Entering Greece, a brand new road descends through an impressive series of short tunnels, dropping eventually to the university town of Komotini, capital of the Greek Rhodope region and home to a sizeable Turkish minority. Here the wondrous new road ended, with a busy and convoluted link to the A2 motorway, the E90 or Egnatia Odos. We took the motorway westbound, exiting just one junction later onto rd 2 for Porto Lagos and a safe place for the night. We had reached very familiar territory at the start of the long drive across to the Peloponnese.

Continued at: The Ultimate Peloponnese Tour