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A Motorhome Journey into Eastern Europe PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

A Motorhome Journey through Eastern Europe

Rose and Alf Walshaw

September 2005

The following emails and diary extracts record Rose and Alf Walshaw's motorhome journey from the UK into Eastern Europe. Rose and Alf are both retired school teachers who have become inveterate travellers.

TheirAlf_and_Rose_jpeg[1][2].jpg motorhome is a Hymer and a scooter fits neatly on the back. This combination enables them to travel great distances and explore localities. They prefer the less touristed, less popular corners of Europe, so the countries that were behind the former Iron Curtain attract them.

We met them in our favourite corner of Greece – the south-west peninsula at the foot of the Peloponnese that contains the small fishing village of Finikunda and the delightful little family-owned campground of Thines (Sand Dunes). They were to return to the UK via Bulgaria, Romania and (somehow) Croatia.

The journey from England described here takes them out through Holland, Germany and the Czech Republic, heading for Slovakia, Hungary and back to Romania. Read on . . .

Rose writes:

7 September 2005

On our first day of rest and after 2,280 kilometres I thought I'd send an update on our travels- especially as I'm in the middle of doing the washing but no more water will come out of the taps and Alf has gone off to explore on the scooter.

We drove straight to Prague (1,000 km from Rotterdam) in 2 days. We'd like to see more of Germany one day but it's so big we don't know where to start. It was the Munich beer festival, we found out later, so that would have been a good place to start but never mind.

We stayed 3 nights in a garden in the suburbs of Prague, about 15 minutes by bus and metro from the centre. We went to a nice concert in a church and wandered the lovely back streets of Prague in warm sunshine. Then we moved 350 km south to a beautiful town called Cesky Krumlov, staying in a tent campsite (£3 a night) which was a nice walk along the river to the most gorgeous medieval town. We then drove about 350 km across Czech Republic but, finding the countryside rather monotonous, decided to slip down into Austria to go to Vienna for 3 nights.

It's somewhere I have always wanted to go and see the opera - which we did in fantastic style. We booked the last tickets for Guillaume Tell which weren't £100 plus 25% commission; they were back seats in a box at £7 each. However, when we actually got to the performance 2 of the others in our box didn't turn up so we actually sat in £100 seats. It was phenomenal! The music was fabulous, the production rather trendy and very anti-Nazi and the surroundings breathtaking.

We are now in Slovakia in the High Tatra Mountains, enjoying some peace and rural beauty after art galleries, culture and wonderful architecture. It's nice to be seeing western European practices slowly thinning out – the tractors here are mainly old Russian ones and there's a man next to me alternating between a strimmer and a scythe! We shall continue east until we run out of Slovakia then shoot across a corner of Hungary on to Romania again. We're looking forward to being back in Romania, and also it'll be nice to retrace some old footsteps rather than always feeling we're blazing a new trail.

Alf writes:

5th October 2005:  Into Romania from Hungary

We crossed into Romania from Hungary, at a small crossing on highway 49 (Hungarian side) onto road 19a to Satu Mare. On the Hungarian side, the border guards checked our passports and looked inside the van but the blonde lady just giggled when I offered to show her inside the toilet! The last time we had been in Romania, we left with about 7,000,000 lei in notes and were relieved to find that these are still legal tender, the Romanians being in the process of changing their currency, issuing new notes - 1 new lei now equals 10,000 old lei. Prices at the pump are in new lei; elsewhere both are quoted.

In Satu Mare the roads were a bit confusing and we got a bit lost but a very friendly taxi driver told us to follow him, then stopped the traffic at a junction and drew us a map of the way out.

As we were leaving on road 19, we spotted the signs for a campsite, stopped and looked around and found the gates. They were closed, not locked, but eventually a man from the house opposite said it was OK to stop there and the owner arrived. We parked inside the gates and plugged into the electricity – no other facilities. The owner said the site was closed - who would want to stay in Satu Mare in October? He charged us 15 new lei to stay the night (£3). While we were there the police opened the gate and came in. (There was a police house in the grounds of the campsite.) On the way out the younger policeman asked us if we were French and when we said “English” greeted us with “Good morning”, then said “No, I mean good afternoon – is everything OK?” We slept well.

6th October 2005:  To Sapanta

We journeyed from Satu Mare to Sapanta on road 19, via Botiz, Livadi, and Negreşti-Oaş. We were really grateful for having stayed the night in Satu Mare. The road we took was very poor and worn out. Although only 90 km long, it took us 3 hours driving slowly, sharing with slow lorries, wobbling cyclists and horse and carts.

Sapanta is the site of the Merry Cemetery. The wooden headstones are very colourfully painted, carved with portraits of the deceased or with scenes from their lives, showing what they were good at or their occupation, even sometimes how they died. The poor chap in one picture was killed skateboarding on the Paris Metro, as far as we could tell. The scenes are chosen by their relatives, often with witty limericks about their lives. The village is also a compulsory tourist stop, selling sometimes beautiful, occasionally garish, carpets and other tourist knick-knacks. There are also women weaving at the roadside.

The campsite, Camping Poeni, is 2.5 km after the cemetery, set by a river. It's very small, consisting of a handful of cabins, a few spaces for vans and a very good traditional restaurant with all food cooked over an open fire.

The pace of life is very slow here, cows coming along the road and waiting at the gate until the owner lets them in. The main transport is horse and cart, very busy now bringing the logs home for winter.

We stayed here for 2 more days, being charged 25 new lei (about £5) a day which included electricity, needed as the nights got very cold, down to about 0 °C, though the days were still hot and sunny.

8th October 2005:  Sapanta to Cluj Napoca

Leaving Sapanta east on road 18, along the Ukraine border, we went to Sighetu Marmatiei and then south to Baia Mare, stopping for coffee in a nice town square. Then along a very wiggly road 1c (E58) to Dej. From Dej we took the road to Gheria, E576, and on to Cluj Napoca. Although marked on the map as a main road, the road out of Dej was terrible at first but gradually got better.

The road through Cluj Napoca was well signposted and, after an incident with the police, we were stopped, lectured and told to take it easy - still don't really know why. We found the campsite we were looking for on the E60 to the west of the town, camping El Dorada, a very large campsite, extremely expensive at 45 new lei, £9 per night, including electricity. It was highly regimented with signs full of don'ts - you must leave by 9.30 am unless you want to pay for another day, no ball games, don't take too many showers, etc. Our impressions are that the site is very different from all the other Romanian sites we have encountered: extremely large, lots of road noise, expensive and unfriendly; we did not feel at home here. We do appreciate that some people may feel otherwise.

9th October 2005:  Cluj Napoca to Carta

We left this campsite early, drove to Turda along the E60, E81, on to Ocna Mures and Alba Iulia and to Sibiu. We stopped at a small place called Aiud, just outside Turda, a pleasant place with a small castle and two churches inside its walls. We found an internet café where we used the internet, had coffee and paid less than 1€!

We found that the roads we used today were excellent except around towns, where they could be dreadful.

In Sibiu I went to a Bankomat for some money. The machine asked me how much money I wanted in new lei and then gave it to me in old lei - the pace of change seems slow sometimes.

Then on to Camping De Oude Wilg, a fantastic Dutch campsite set in an orchard. We have been here before, in the village of Carta, a small village 45 km east of Sibiu, with easy access to the Balea Cascade waterfall, a trip in a cable car and a frozen lake at the top.

We have had yet another fantastic time in this campsite with very helpful owners.

10th October 2005:  Carta

Rose walked round the village and met a gypsy family who let themselves be photographed in their traditional clothes. This campsite is very different from others we have stayed on – it's in the middle of a village, quiet and we are surrounded by the Real Romania.

11th October 2005:  Carta

Another rest day, when the owner did our washing for us (€2). At the school we saw the children's class grades, in rank order, posted outside. A nice shop where we were able to buy the staples: bread, meat and some beer.

12th October 2005: Carta

Batteries recharged, we spent some of the day planning the route into the Danube Delta. Perhaps we will find some other tourists there?

13th October 2005:  Carta to Brasov

Disaster! As we were about to set off our nice Dutch host told us the Danube Delta was closed because of bird flu.

Setting off for Brasov on highway 1, we found a place to park in the centre and wandered about this tourist town . The internet café, when we found it, was good but slow, though 2 computers for about an hour each cost only €1.

We left Brasov on the road for Bucharest and found camping Dirste open, a large place with a hotel, cabins and spaces for campervans at 42 new lei per night with electricity. We had a mediocre meal in the restaurant, but it was open.

14th October 2005:  Brasov to Brailla

Back through Brasov to St. George on the E574 and then SE on road 10 to Buzau. Good road till 25 km from Buzau, when it became bumpy and slow. After Buzau the road became OK again. On the approach to Buzau we found a small place with Cabanas where we stopped, luckily as we were in the middle of a thunderstorm.

15th October 2005:  Danube Delta

Crossed the Danube on a rather dodgy ferry at Tulcea, though it was hard to find the port. We had difficulty getting off the ferry and broke a bit of the mirror. Next time we will use the lorry ferry, not the car ferry. On to Tulcea, where the information place was closed despite it being the tourism centre for the Danube Delta and this area being the site of the avain flu crisis! We pressed on to Murghiol, where the Camping Pelican was closed but we could stay there, complete with electricity and a guard. The toilets were open but not really useable.

16th October 2005:  Murghiol

Rainy and cold so we decided not to go on the boat trip booked yesterday. We looked at the birds and dogs on the campsite and played Scrabble

17th October 2005:  Murghiol

Still cold but not raining, so we went on our boat trip. Romeo, our guide and driver, took us for a four hour trip along the lakes and channels of this part of the Delta. We saw lots of birds, but no sign of any disease. It was a very cold trip on a small boat with an outboard motor.

18th October2005:  Constanta

We took the road DJ22C from Murghiol to Jurilovca, down Lake Razim, hoping to go all the way to Ceamulia de Jos on this road and then on to the DN22 to Constanta. After the village of Enisala the road became so bad that a policeman told us the only way was to follow the farm track by the side of the road. A nice tractor driver told us it was only bad for another 1 km and then got smooth. An awful drive, probably the worst road in Romania. DO NOT USE THIS ROAD.

Got to Jurilovca, only to be told that the next village was quarantined and we had to go back! Repeated the journey, feeling sure something was about to give, but we survived. We rejoined the DN22 at Badabag and on the way to Constanta were stopped by the police. “Have you got any birds?” we were asked and when we said “No” he looked in the van. We were asked if we were a television crew and then went though a disinfecting mat. Fairly easily found the Hanul Piralitor on the road into Constanta. This is a camping place with cabins and spaces for vans, by the Black Sea, where we were given the key to a fairly luxurious cabin for showers and toilets.

Rose writes:

18 October 2005

We got to the Danube Delta on the Black Sea in eastern Romania. We had a lovely time: went on a boat round the delta and stayed on a closed campsite for 3 days - with electricity.

We then set off aiming to drive a road that got worse and worse and worse until we had to stop and get out. A policeman who spoke no English arrived at that moment, and he managed to tell me to drive over a sort of track, round the fields by the road. Then a farmer on a tractor came and told me (we were in the middle of nowhere but these people do turn up!) that the road improved after another kilometre, so we carried on. 

About 19 km further on, the road had only slightly improved and we were told that three more villages on the road were closed, due to their having the Avian flu and they were quarantined for 3 weeks. So, guess what? We had to turn round and do the whole thing again! Anyway, we, the motorhome and the scooter all came out unscathed, if a bit bruised.

When we got onto the main road, we were stopped by the police again: “Did we have any birds on board?” “No, would you like to look?” “Yes”. So, he had a look and then asked if we were from the television!

We are now in Constanta on the Black Sea Coast. This is about the most depressing place I've ever been to and it's taken a lot of leg work just to find this internet cafe.

The bird flu seems to be dogging us: we hear it's in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece and these are all the places we're going to next.

Rose writes:

25 October 2005

We're now in Edirne, just over the border in Turkey. We have just spent a fantastic time in Bulgaria. We've worked it out now. You don't even look for a campsite in Bulgaria - just go to the pay car park wherever you want to visit and the charge of 5 lev (2.5euros) covers you for 24 hours and you get a guard for the night!

We also visited a Bulgarian family that we met here last time. She is an English teacher and we were treated to the most wonderful and amazing hospitality. We stayed 2 days with them in Shumen. They took us to the first and second ancient capital cities, caves, the ancient horse carving on a wonderful escarpment cliff, to restaurants for wonderful typical meals (but sadly wouldn't let us pay) etc, etc. The thing was that they were proud that we had bothered to go back to Bulgaria and to see them. Anyway, they were super.

Then, on our last day, we were looking for the track to the beach at Sinemorets - about as far down the Black Sea coast as you can go in Bulgaria - and a Dutch couple came along and picked us up. They have 2 bungalows that they rent out in summer, and live in another one. Well, they said we could stay in their garden, with toilet and shower. Then they invited us for a drink. This turned into one of those nights that you will never forget.

An 80-year-old Armenian man had been invited, who had lived in America since 1967. He was so interesting. Could have been a bishop, but he would have had to give up riding his motorbike - so he declined! That was just one gem. He talked about politics, having lived under so many different types of regime, and that was interesting! We drank lots and ate the most delicious home-prepared Black Sea Tuna fish, very much like the Bulgarian smoked salmon.

Wow, what a night. And that was after swimming in the Black sea for the first time ever.

Yesterday we crossed into Turkey, which took some time. There were so many different procedures, it was a joke but it only cost us £10 each for our 2 visas. They thought the green card for the campervan covered the scooter so that was a relief. So we arrived here in Edirne quite late last night. Now we are off to explore.

Rose writes:

10 November 2005

It's been a long time and a few countries since I wrote. We're now in Istanbul and were meant to be going up the Bosporus on a boat today for 6 hours, but it's drizzling and we've had such an exciting last 5 days here we felt it was time for a day's rest. So here's our news which I write as the lunch time muezzin is calling.

We crossed into Romania on 5th October having had a quick foray into Poland. It was cold and wet and we bought some super hand-spun and knitted jumpers and warm furry sheep-skin slipper boots.

We spent 3 weeks in Romania - all on the wrong time! We forgot that Romanian time is GMT + 2 hours. We visited different parts of Romania this time and found that, away from the beautiful places, the people seemed an awful lot poorer and more downtrodden. They were still incredibly friendly and we still loved the country.

We made it to the Danube Delta despite the avian flu and having been told that the Delta was closed as a result. The weather was very very cold while we were there but we still managed a boat trip round the Delta, arriving back feeling like we'd been sledging for 4 hours on a cold day in Northumberland. We did see pelicans but they looked cold too and as if they wished they had set off on their migration sooner.

We chose a beautiful route out of Romania, down the Delta and along the Black Sea coast. However, after a long drive on roads that were so bad that the locals had made tracks along the fields by the side of the road, we were stopped and told to turn back (along those self-same roads!) as the next village had Avian flu and was quarantined.

Next was Bulgaria and we had a fantastic visit. We've now learnt how to motorhome in Bulgaria. Every place has a secure car park. So, you just drive to wherever you want to visit, look for the P sign with a picture of a metre under it and follow the arrows. You pay 5 Lev (£1.75) to park but you can stay for as long as you wish! We stayed at Cape Kaliakra (beautiful), and then in two small ancient ports called Sozopol and Nessebar. These two places were absolutely gorgeous but surrounded by the most dreadful overdevelopment possible - we felt quite smug in the evenings sitting in lovely little harbours looking across the bay to awful enormous hotel complexes.

But really, the height of our visit was the hospitality we received from a lovely family whom we met on our last visit. Sylvia is an English teacher, Plamen makes jewellery, they have a little girl called Sianna, and we have kept in touch via email since meeting in May 2004. They took us to the first and second ancient capitals of Bulgaria, to see the Madara horse (an ancient carving), to the modern monument above their home town of Shumen, to restaurants for every meal (their house was in the middle of renovations) and were just so kind. We were received with such hospitality it was overwhelming. We had chosen to come back to Bulgaria and they were so happy to see us and proud of their country and heritage it was very moving.

Then on our last night in Bulgaria, in the very southern bit of the Black Sea coast (where I swam on 24th October) we were picked up off the street by a Dutch couple who invited us to stay in their garden, gave us showers, and a magical evening. We ate salted tuna fish, drank and were entertained by an 80-year-old Armenian-Bulgarian who has lived in America since 1967. He had once been asked to be a bishop but they told him he wouldn't be allowed to ride his motorbike any more so he declined! An amazing evening in wonderful company.

Then we crossed into Turkey - a long, involved border crossing. Since then, we have found the Turkish people very welcoming. They are amazed by the motor home. I've had old ladies looking round (in every single cupboard), an army officer, and then the other day, in a garage, everyone got in for a good look round! We spent 4 lovely warm sunny days scootering round the war graves on the Gallipoli peninsular, which is such a lovely area it makes the awfulness that happened there all the more appalling.

And now, Istanbul….a city that has to be seen to be believed….also a city that can't be rushed. I give you an example of yesterday. We put the washing in to soak in a bucket in the extremely hot showers here in Camping Londra. (camping Attakoy was so depressing we braved the Istanbul roads again to move sites) and caught the metro and tram into the centre. On the way, we saw a flea market under a bridge so hopped off the tram and had a look round. People were actually living under this bridge. We bought a new foot pump and a DVD of Clockwork Orange. Then back on the tram. Next, we visited an enormous Byzantine underground cistern with 386 columns and a wonderful vaulted roof. Next, a walk round the Hippodrome eating a kebab from a stall by the road.

Then a wander round tiny streets so full of people that you just get carried along, but don't feel in any danger, ending up drinking freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. We then ventured in to a tea garden with water pipes. We partook of 2 chais (tea) and a hubba bubba pipe to share. After this it was supper time in a restaurant. We sat on the floor, 2 ladies sat in the middle of the restaurant making bread, the food was swung down from the kitchens above on chains from a central round balcony, and musicians played, sang and some guests danced. THEN, off to the Turkish Cultural Dance Theatre. We watched a wonderful performance of 10 dances from different regions of Turkey with spectacular dances, amazing costumes, to varying types of music. After that it was back on the metro and tram to finish the washing… and found two vans had joined us returning from a trip from Iran to Calcutta…….and we think we're adventurous!

From Istanbul to the South-West Peloponnese (Finikounda)

17 December 2005

We're now in Greece. Unfortunately, we just couldn't get insurance for the motorhome in Turkey. We went to the bank (which is apparently the agent for all insurance in Turkey) and a very nice man was absolutely amazed that English insurance companies could differentiate between European Turkey and Asian Turkey as if they were 2 different countries. He also said: “You've seen the way we drive - you don't want to be without insurance here!” We saw five road accidents in one week in Istanbul so we tended to agree.

We turned tail and drove west to the Greek border. We had four checkpoints to get out of Turkey, but at least it was quicker and easier than getting in. We were sad not to be able to carry on with our planned journey through Turkey, but it will always be there to see at a later date.

We then spent 3 weeks meandering south and west, down Greece through the cotton harvest, always wild camping and feeling safe and welcome wherever we fetched up. We spent a week on the Pilion peninsular which, I'm sure lives up to its beautiful reputation when the weather's a bit warmer and the mountains aren't shrouded in mist.

One of the most memorable places we went to was Thermophiles, near Lamia. Driving along the main road we suddenly saw a steaming, hot, green river bubbling across a field. We stopped in a handy lay-by and went to investigate. We followed the river up until we came to a marvellous hot waterfall pouring out of the rocks into a deep pool below. Well, it looked so seductive and we hadn't had a bath in a while so we whipped off our clothes and went in for the most wonderful hot swim in BEAUTIFUL surroundings.

We visited the Monastery of Osiou Louka and  Delphi on 2 incredibly cold, but beautifully clear blue sky days in November. Both of these sites were so lovely and quiet - hardly any other tourists. Even the Japanese were thin on the ground!

After this, the weather deteriorated into pouring rain, floods, and snow up in the hills where we'd just been. We had one low point around this time when we'd woken at 7am to find ourselves in a rushing river, so moved to higher ground. We were just making breakfast when a horrid Englishman knocked on the door and asked if we'd escaped England because of all the immigrants, as he had. I smartly shut the door.

A more pleasant night was spent with the gypsies in Kiparissia. We had parked in a lovely place overlooking the harbour, and then were joined by a German motorhome. A little later one lorry arrived, put out their washing, then another, then 2 vans. At this point, the Germans hopped it. By 8pm we were totally surrounded by gypsy vehicles and their washing. When we asked them if they were going the next day they said “Yes, by 7am. Can we use your wing mirrors to tie our washing line to?” Of course we said yes and spent a happy, calm evening together.

Now we are back in Finikounda where we spent Christmas 2003. It's just as lovely: we've been swimming quite a lot, I've cooked an octopus - scary but delicious -, and we're beginning to see what you get for your money in the way of houses in this part of Greece. As Alf says - at least we've decided which country we might settle in, even if we've not quite decided where. At the moment we're leaning towards renovating a place but our ideas may change. Also we've got 18 months to explore more parts of Greece until we find our Shangri La.

Now it's the olive season, flute practice, and scrabble on the stormy days, swimming and walking on the sunny days. The one thing you rarely get here is a grey boring drizzly day - and we certainly don't miss them.

To be continued . . .