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Barney & June in Hungary 2007 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

Barney and June in Hungary

Spring 2007

June Coode and Barney Barnett

Travelling in their Hymer motorhome (lovingly called 'Herman'), June and Barney keep their friends up to date with a regular series of emails which are reproduced here. Their route out takes them through Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.

Their first email is sent from a small lake between Lake Balaton and Budapest. Where their next email will originate neither we nor they know!

Email from June and Barney, 16 May 2007

From Hungary

After a day in Dunkirk at the Auchan supermarket, we headed into Belgium and towards Liege, then cross-country to Koblenz. We found places to park by rivers, swimming pools and dams and enjoyed the wooded hilly landscape of rural Germany, with dazzling fields of oil-seed rape all around. Our route took us past the Nurburgring car racing track, with a history going back to the 1930s. Although it was closed to Formula One after Niki Lauda's near fatal crash, races are still held there and it is possible to pay and take your own vehicle for a few laps. We decided it wasn't Herman's scene!

The road from Koblenz to Mainz takes you along one of the prettiest stretches of the Rhine, by the Lorelei rocks where sailors were lured to their fate. This time, Barney (after a lifetime in the Royal Navy) escaped unscathed. We spent that evening wine tasting at a vineyard where the bottles have a picture of the actual farmer on the labels. The barges were fascinating to watch as the Rhine wended its way through the gorges and hills. Then, as the autobahn took us past Frankfurt, Elvis was singing 'GI Blues' on our CD-player and someone in the van was singing along. Despite being so close to major towns, for much of the way we saw little but forests and woods with occasional signs of redundant US barracks, military bases and airfields.

We headed for a Hymer dealer north of Wurzburg, who must have been the most remote one in Germany. Our solar panel wasn't working properly and there were a couple of other problems to be fixed. The dealer's opinion of our van was that it was probably worth keeping,  since it was the last of the well-made models. After a peaceful night surrounded by cuckoos and meadows and birdsong, it was time to make for the Czech border at Cheb, fill up with cheap diesel and gobble up some more miles.

The motorway from Plezn towards Prague was good but we needed to cut across to pick up the one running down to Brno and further south. This turned out to be the road from hell. It was corrugated concrete the whole way, feeling like everything in the van was falling apart, and the motion was akin to seasickness. We'd bought a vignette for the pleasure of driving on Czech motorways so we felt doubly sick. It was clear we needed to find an alternative route and outside Brno turned south towards the Austrian border - and somewhere to spend the night. Because Austria has Stellplatze (designated parking places for campers) it makes travelling so much easier.

We partly plan our routes depending on where we are likely to find somewhere to park. The Czech Republic was particularly difficult but, once in Austria, the most wonderful spot by a lake in a tiny town made the diversion well worthwhile. The little museum happened to be open, jammed full of local history from the Bronze Age to World War 2 and the Soviet occupation, with a very enthusiastic curator included.

Next day brought us to one of the castles belonging to the Leichenstein family, one of 99 they owned throughout the region, the German word Schloss being more of a stately home than our notion of a castle. More wine tasting and a visit to the cellars, another quiet night, then down to the Danube and a phone call to Elisabeth from Vienna, whom we'd met in Thailand. By chance she was at home and drove out to meet us at Bad Deutsch Altenburg, an important Roman settlement right on the river banks. After a hearty lunch and a good chat, we watched the barges struggling to make headway against the powerful current, the hydrofoils carrying passengers up to Vienna and down to Bratislava and, in the evening, huge illuminated river hotels.

The following morning we managed three countries before lunch. In Slovakia we skirted the capital, Bratislava, at rush hour and drove through the flat Danube basin with fertile fields on either side. Scenically it was not very inspiring and, finding no campsites, we crossed the Danube at Komarno and into Komaron in Hungary - and a big Tesco store.

Tata was where we hoped to find a campsite but both proved expensive - over 12 pounds - and were empty with most of the facilites closed. It was rather disappointing as we'd driven 2,000 km and needed a break. We drove on and found ourselves on Lake Velence and, after a couple of false starts with sites, found one right at the head of the lake for a reasonable price. Velence is between Lake Balaton and Budapest, very shallow, reedy round the edges but a major playground with swimming, windsurfing, cycling and plenty more.

We have now been here 6 nights; yesterday we took the train to Budapest and tomorrow we're taking to the road.

Email from June and Barney, 10 July 2007

Budapest to Dunkirk, through Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, France

We took a graffiti-covered train to Budapest and bought a day ticket to enable us to get around. Our first destination on the tram was Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, with its huge circular fountain playing to classical music and the Palatinius Stand, a vast thermal pool complex. It was too hot for much walking but the tram allowed us to see the Parliament Building, the Chain Bridge - designed and built by British hands - and along the embankment.

On the Buda side, the city seemed quite compact with green hills in the background, whilst Pest stretched away to the east. Numerous decrepit apartment blocks gave many streets in the old part an air of sadness, especially after dusk. Certainly it was worth a visit but, for us, it didn't have the individuality of Lisbon or Venice or Berlin.

After 6 days at Velence we headed to Dunaujvaros - Danube New Town - created round a vast ironworks in Communist times. Its enormous portico was decorated with frescoes of joyous workers and numerous chimneys still belched smoke and steam on the skyline. Over the river we tracked down some excellent red wine in Kecel, also home to a military museum of vast proportions that kept Barney intrigued for hours. Field after field of Russian tanks, lorries, weapons and hardware of every kind, together with dozens of busts and statues from pre-1989 days.

Szeged, a university town in the south on the River Tisza, was our next stay. The campsite on the river bank was muddy and run down but it had its own thermal pool, which we used day and night. At the weekend festival, much of the town was closed for handicraft stalls, wine tasting, performers and musicians on stilts, plus fireworks and plenty of boom-boom to keep us awake. Szeged is twinned with Cambridge, which had its own promotional stall, manned by a very well spoken gent in a slightly crumpled, pale linen suit, who could have walked straight out of a Somerset Maugham book.

Being so near the Serbian border, we decided to cycle the 17 km to the crossing, only to find it was for Hungarians and Serbs only and the Serb border guard wouldn't let us in. The 17 km back seemed twice as long. From Szeged, it was back to the Danube and a ferry to Mohacs, then another attempt to cross into Serbia at Tompa, where we parked the van and rode across. The mystery of 'SGC' as their international vehicle sticker was explained: it used to be Serbia and Montenegro, now it is 'SRB'. Several people spoke English, wanted to know if we had cycled from England and generally bemoaned the demise of Yugoslavia. The road leading to the border was desolate and depressing, nothing but abandoned businesses and compounds of wrecked cars.

We passed through Villany and Siklo, two big wine-growing areas but rather touristy. Harkany was our next stop, yet another of the 80-plus towns in Hungary with a thermal pool, though not all open. Our map had bath symbols for them all, together with the temperature of the water.

A small motel campsite just outside the town of Harkany proved a real find: cheap and quiet. It was empty except for Gabor and Victoria from Budapest, who turned up on our last day in their 28-year-old Volvo towing their 28-year-old tiny Communist-era-built caravan. They had travelled widely in Europe when their children were young; now their dream was a motor caravan for when Gabor retired. Our van seemed the answer to their prayers - they photographed it, sat inside and marvelled at the drop-down bed.

The site owners gave us bags of cherries and brought along Mary, who had lived in Canada most of her life but had had to return to Harkany to sell her mother's house. She couldn't wait to leave and join her son in London and gave us her perspective on Hungary - many dissatisfied, disillusioned people, which probably accounted for so much of the surliness we saw. Siklos - the birth place of George Mikes - was a pleasant ride away, as was the Croatian border at the river Drava, now a major National Park but out of bounds in former times. Being near Croatia meant the bonus of subtitled TV - M.A.S.H. seemed to be the flavour of the month.

Pecs - deemed to be the finest Hungarian town after Budapest - was another stop-off. For us it was much more attractive than the capital, with Turkish mosques, Art Nouveau hotels, Roman ruins and numerous buildings with faded grandeur.

The van needed a service so we decided on Zalaegerszeg, west of Lake Balaton. Unfortunately we broke down en route and had to be towed the last 15 km. Dirty fuel and clogged filters were the problem, but the M-Benz dealer, next door to a 24-hour Tesco, couldn't have been more helpful. Next day saw us at the lake itself, famous as the largest fresh water lake in Europe (not counting Russia), and Hungary's premier summer destination. The drive along the northern shore was pretty, with vineyards and well kept villages and wooded hills, though largely unspectacular. The campsites were either non-existent, isolated or expensive.

Our aim was to find somewhere reasonable to stay for several days and we ended up near Sopron, by Lake Ferto, on the Austrian border. The camping at Hegyko was next to the town's thermal baths and full of extremely friendly Germans, for whom we seemed something of a novelty. Nearby was Esterhazy Castle, known as the Hungarian Versailles and the third most important building complex in the country. Miklos Esterhazy converted the former hunting castle, with glamorously decorated rooms and furniture, and installed Haydn as the resident composer. The place was actually in the throes of being transformed into Versailles for a major film, with plastic statues, false verandas and curved turf being laid on the gravel. The Esterhazy family was one of Hungary's richest and most influential from the 17th C for nearly 300 years, many holding high political and military offices.

A few kilometres away was Nagycenk, home to Count Istavan Szechenyi, known as the greatest Hungarian. During the 18th C this remarkable man devoted his life to improving his country with railways, bridges, steam boats and river transport, roads, flush toilets, gas lighting and a host of other industrial innovations. He spent much time in England and travelled widely throughout Europe, always looking for new inventions and ideas, and even had his own full size railway, which ran for several kilometres around his estate.

Another local attraction was a vast Roman limestone quarry, resembling an Egyptian rock temple. Inside was a cave theatre, where concerts and operas were regularly performed, which was used for TV and film shoots.

The area was extremely popular with cyclists. A route went round the whole of Lake Ferto, one third of which is in Hungary, the rest in Austria. Whole classes of children, groups of red-faced middle-aged ladies and serious riders with loaded panniers sailed along the cycle tracks each and every day. The area is also 'dentist land' for Austrians, with a Zahnarzt Praxis round every corner. After an enjoyable week, it was time to move on and leave Hungary.

Our memories of the country are mixed: Tesco carrier bags, women smoking everywhere, Communist 'sunrise' railings and gates on little homesteads, crowded thermal baths full of gossip and chatter, sunbathing at every opportunity in underwear, heavy built people of peasant stock, and a lot of unfriendliness, suspicion and maybe resentment, especially in rural areas.

Hungarian as a language is deemed to have roots in Finland, and we saw similarities with Turkish. German was often more widely spoken than English, though we learnt a few local words. Many of the roads were patched and bumpy, whilst Hungarian drivers are ignorant and dangerous. We had two very frightening experiences with overtaking vehicles almost forcing us off the road; driving was no real pleasure and it was with a sense of relief that we crossed into Austria and Western Europe once more.

Our route took us up into the Czech Republic at Znojmo to spend our Krona, then across the north of Austria. We drove through their oil region, with plenty of nodding donkeys amidst the barley and wheat, and up into the fir-covered Alpine hills, complete with bear enclosure and two rather shy honey-coloured bears. We crossed the River Inn into Passau (Germany), to sort out our German/Austrian gas bottle problem, then headed north-west.

We visited Ingolstadt, home of Audi cars and a large Turkish population; Neustadt on the Donau for 3 nights by the Danube and an evening street party, where vast quantities of beer were consumed; and Germersheim on the Rhine - another excellent Stellplatz at 3 Euros for 24 hours with a cheap electricity connection. As with many border towns, it was fortified and had a long military history. The Rhine was very close and we cycled up and down both banks, marvelling yet again at the variety and size of barges and river craft that ply the great waterway. Information boards told us of the ecological advantages of using such methods of transport and how much freight is carried by water rather than on roads. A man-made island nearby was, in fact, owned by Daimler Benz and one barge was loaded with M-Benz lorries and trucks.

Then it was across the border and back into the land of baguettes, though we were sad to leave behind the German carrot bread and sunflower rolls. For B, this north-eastern corner of France meant one thin: the Maginot Line. Since we visited one of the forts a few years ago, more have been opened, as the French realise what an excellent tourist attraction they possess. The small town of Hattan, south of Wissembourg, had one especially good museum covering topics such as the Malgré Nous - the local French who were drafted into the German army, some ending up in Russian camps and not returning home until the 1950's.

Schoenenbourg was next. This vast underground complex, started in 1932, was buried 350 steps under the French countryside, with tunnels stretching for nearly 2 km and a train connecting the barracks, the offices, the kitchen, the command centre, the stores, the guns and the machine rooms where more than 500 men would live at a time. The Line may not have stopped the German advance but the forts were an achievement of extraordinary vision. It has to be said that the French are extremely good at museums: the imagination that is used appeals to all ages, information is always in at least two languages and there is an astonishing amount of detail at every turn. The final week included Verdun once more, past British, American, French and German cemeteries and memorials at every turn.

Our 3 days in Metz showed us a French town with more than its fair share of social problems, such as beggars and people living in cars. We then followed canals and rivers up to Dunkirk, often in pouring rain and wild winds. There we met some good friends, swapped motorhome stories and caught up on news before the final trek home.

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