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In Slovakia 2009 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

In Slovakia 2009

The Travel Log of a 200-mile Motorhome Journey from Poland to Hungary in the Autumn of 2009

Barry and Margaret Williamson
November 2009

This illustrated travel log describes our motorhome journey from the North to the South of Slovakia in the autumn of 2009. We had spent the spring in the south-east corner of Bulgaria, based at the quiet Sakar Hills Camping in Biser. After driving back to England for essential repairs, service, MOT and family visits, we took a ferry from Harwich to Rotterdam. Driving through Holland and Germany, we boarded the ferry from Sassnitz to Trelleborg near the southern tip of Sweden. All this was the prelude to a fascinating 1,300-mile journey through Swedish forest and lakes, north along the western edge of the Gulf of Bothnia.

We entered Finland at the top of the Gulf, over the Tornio River in the neighbouring towns of Haparanda and Tornio. After crossing the Arctic Circle some 50 miles north of Rovaniemi - Santa's home town – we made our slow way south through the centre of Finland to Helsinki on this, our fifth visit to this amazing country of forest and lake.

Making the 2-hour crossing from Helsinki to Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, we made our third visit to the three Baltic Republics. Not least, our interest was to learn more of their progress since out first visit in 1999, now that they are members of the European Union.

Leaving Lithuania after a one-month, 920-mile (1,470-km) tour of the three Baltic Republics, we entered Poland at the border village of Budzisko. Nearly 800 miles of southerly travel took us to the Lake District and through rolling farmland and forest past the remanants of German occupation and rule in the early 1940's.

After visiting Krakow and Zakopane, in the Tatra Mountains, we climber high passes to enter the Republic of Slovakia. Here is our account of a motorhome journey south through a land of mountain and forests.

Click: A full account of the journey from England to Finland
Click: A full account of the journey south through Finland to Helsinki
Click: A full account of our journey through the three Baltic Republics
Click: A full account of our journey through Poland
Click:
A full account of our subsequent journey through Hungary
Click: Galleries and Slide Shows of images of the journey through the Baltics
Click: Galleries and Slide Shows of images of the journey through Poland
Click: Images and a description of our Fleetwood Flair motorhome
Click: Images and a description of our Paul Hewitt touring bicycles

29 October 2009   36 miles   Zakopane, Poland to Tatranska Lomnica, Slovakia   Slnecny Dom Guesthouse/Motorhome Parking   €10.00   Altitude 2,800 ft

Over a pass in the Tatra Mountains to Slovakia – and Euro currency!

Eastern Slovakia lies only a short distance from Zakopane, though separated by the High Tatras – the only truly alpine mountains in central Europe.

To cross the range, we drove north on rd 47 for 2 miles, then turned right on the 961 (7.5 ton limit). This road was lined with guest houses, small hotels and restaurants – too many, with still more being built. It was raining as we climbed gradually for 5 miles to 3,110 ft at Bukowina Tatrazanska. Here we turned right (south-east) on rd 960 for the Slovak border, still climbing. Stalls at the junction sold warm woollies and other souvenirs, with more at the top of the pass at 3,670 ft. There was snow along the verges but the road itself was good and clear.

Descending more steeply, we entered the Tatra National Park (which spans both countries) at 9 miles, hair-pinning down to the Slovak border 3 miles later, at 3,200 ft. We would not have attempted this route if the weather had been icy and it may even close in a severe winter. We'd enjoyed spending 2 weeks (and 780 miles) getting to know Poland better, but the next visit will be at a warmer time of year!

The border post was deserted and we paused to read a notice about Motorway Vignettes:

Up to 3.5 tons - €4.90 per week or €9.90 per month

3.5-12 tons (us) - €8.60 per day, €24 per week or €55 per month

As our proposed route didn't include any motorways, we hoped not to need one and continued east on rd 960/67 (still a 7.5 ton limit). There was more snow lying on this side of the Tatras, though the wet twisting road was clear and the mountain tops disappeared in a mist of rain.

At 20 miles in Zdiar – a small village, still at 3,200 ft, with a few guesthouses and a ski-pull on the hillside – we noted the change of country and language: the shop was now a 'Potraviny' rather than a 'Sklep'. The best news is that the currency in Slovakia is now the Euro (since 1.1.2009).

Six miles later, down at 2,560 ft, we turned right (south) on rd 537, climbing a little over the next 5 miles to Tatranska Lomnica. The mountain resort, now complete with Best Western Hotel, cable cars and bobsled run, is very popular in both summer and winter - but not apparently at the end of October. We were the only vehicle on the car park (declared a Bus and charged €3.40 for one hour!) and the Tourist Office was closed. At least the bank was open, to change our remaining Polish Zloty into more familiar Euros, and we found a good map covering the Czech and Slovak Republics at the souvenir shop.

We noticed a small guesthouse on the main road with a sign for a 'Stellplatz' (motorhome parking) but there was no-one home so we headed for the vast FICC Eurocamp we'd used before, 3 miles south-east of town along rd 540. At Hotel Tatranec, along the way on the right, the campsite was closed (whatever the guidebooks say) and – to our surprise – so was the Eurocamp! In fact it looked permanently abandoned, with a sign at the derelict reception door saying it had closed on 1.10.2009. We weren't too disappointed, as it's a grim place.

Returning to Tatranska Lomnica, we arrived at the guesthouse just as its keeper returned from shopping. She spoke a little German and welcomed us to the newly created 'Stellplatz' on the rear car park. It had room for about 4 motorhomes, with electric hook-ups and an (as yet unfinished) water and dump point.

After lunch we took the laptop into the adjacent Tatry Hotel, advertising a WiFi Bar. In fact the bar was closed but the very nice young waiter let us sit by a fire in the empty restaurant to work all afternoon, for the price of 2 coffees!

30 October 2009   41 miles   Tatranska Lomnica to Podlesok nr Hrabusice, Slovakia   Autocamp Podlesok   €10.20 (+ €1 National Park fee)   Altitude 1,850 ft

Via Poprad to visit Levoca, then camp in the Slovensky Raj National Park

A bright sunny morning at last – good for a walk in the lovely park behind the guest house, photographing the snowy peaks that defined our horizon. The Grand Hotel Praha, built in 1905 in the forest up by the cable car terminal, looked magnificently down on us. Other old hotels had fared less well and were slowly crumbling beneath their fallen roofs.

Our route began west on rd 537, alongside the electric tramway that continues to the Strbske Pleso. We've enjoyed cycling from FICC Eurocamp to this ski resort with its glacial lake (and back) more than once, at a warmer time of year. Today, after 4 miles (already at 3,365 ft) we turned south on rd 534 – a good fast road running downhill, leaving the Vysoke Tatry (High Tatra). In Poprad at 11 miles, down at 2,335 ft, we crossed the motorway and railway, following signs for rd 18 to Levoca/Presov.

The modern industrial city of Poprad was unrecognisable from the Soviet-era town we'd first visited in 1988, cycling from England. In those days, buying food meant waiting outside a 'Potraviny' until we were allowed in (no more than 6 customers at a time), closely watched by a girl standing on a stool in the middle of the shop – and certainly not self-service, as food was rationed. Changing money meant a long queue at a bank, where our Sterling or Deutschmark notes were compared with pictures in a book for verification. Today the country uses the Euro, freely available at any ATM, and stores including a 24-hour Tesco accept credit cards in payment for a loaded trolley. No complaints from us, as we stopped to fill our lockers at Lidl on the way through – though the prices may frighten the local shoppers. Progress does not come cheap and we noticed that fuel prices in Slovakia are more in line with Western Europe, with petrol around €1.15 per litre.

Road 18 took us south-east via Spissky Trvtok, at 21 miles, to the medieval town of Levoca 7 miles later. Turning left at a roundabout (marked by another Lidl), we drove uphill to the old walled centre. Delighted to see plenty of parking space right in front of St James church at €2 per day, we ate lunch before exploring on foot. The parking warden promised to watch our 'Bus' and was rewarded with a pack of cigs.

Levoca was the 13th century capital of the Spis Saxon province, on an important central European trade route. The Gothic and Renaissance churches and buildings of the royal free town are well-preserved and unspoilt by modern development, which grew up outside the walls. We walked round the compact central square, surveying the RC church of St James (containing the world's highest Gothic altar, a work of art by local Master Paul, whose nearby house is now a museum); the plainer Evangelical church, built for the Saxon Germans; and the 'Cage of Shame' for exhibiting (female) wrong-doers, next to the Town Hall between these churches. Of course, men did no wrong! The fine houses surrounding the square now serve as Information Centre, cinema, theatre, post office, hotel and various museums.

A short distance from the centre, at the Kosice Gate by the gloomy Baroque Church of the Minorites (a Franciscan order), we joined the town walls at their north-east corner. Walking along inside the north and west walls, there was a good view of the Basilica of the Virgin Mary (a hill-top pilgrimage church, 2 km to the north) and the blocks of flats of the less romantic modern town below us. Reaching the Polish Gate, by the Gothic Church and Monastery of the Minorites, we returned to the motorhome.

Having been warned (by both Don Madge and the Caravan Club) that the all-year Camping Levocska Dolina, 3 km north of Levoca, has a steep entrance with limited access for large vehicles, we'd found an alternative ACSI-listed campsite near Hrabusice in the Slovensky Raj (= Slovak Paradise) National Park, 10 miles or so south-west.

We returned towards Poprad along E50/rd 18 for 7 miles, then turned left at Spissky Trvtok onto a minor road for Hrabusice. Continuing through the village and across a small river, we came to tiny Podlesok and turned left to the National Park entrance. There was a confusing array of signs (no mention of Camping), an information centre (closed), some kiosks (ditto) and then the unmarked entrance to an enormous campsite! The 24-hour Reception was warm (in both senses), the staff spoke English and free WiFi was available inside.

The ablution blocks and buffet were locked, as the place was about to close after this last weekend of October. However, we had an enormous grassy field to ourselves, beyond the rows of A-frame huts, and the hook-ups at the far end were still live. The campsite is well fenced against the bears, wolves and lynx that live in the surrounding forest (!), along with nearly 2,000 species of less fearsome butterflies.

We settled in, glad of electric heating on a night when the outside temperature fell to zero, according to our latest purchase from Lidl – a radio-controlled weather station to replace one that is 'kaputt', as the monitor in Frankfurt would say.   

31 October 2009   At Podlesok nr Hrabusice, Slovakia   Autocamp Podlesok  

A walk in the Sucha Bela Gorge

After a morning's writing, we wrapped up for a walk in the forests and canyons of Slovensky Raj National Park, breaking in Barry's new boots. See www.slovenskyraj.org or www.slovenskyraj.eu for information on the many way-marked hikes among the gorges, caves and waterfalls of this Slovak Paradise, which become routes for ski-ing and ice climbing in winter. Detailed maps are available at the campsite.

Several trails start from Podlesok, the most popular going upstream along the Sucha Bela Gorge (so busy that it is one-way in peak periods), returning via Klastorisko, then descending along the Hornad River (a day's hike of 6 or 7 hours). We walked part way up Sucha Bela, negotiating the narrow path, across wooden bridges and horizontal ladders, turning back after an hour or so at the first of the vertical ladders. 

Since the clocks were put back one hour last weekend, the afternoons are short and it's bitterly cold after sun-down (if we need an excuse for not climbing slippery wooden ladders up cliff faces at our age!) Up at 2,000 ft, the still air and clear sky were sharp as scissors; the overnight low was minus 3ēC.

1 November 2009   164 miles   Podlesok nr Hrabusice, Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary   Romai Camping   (No charge)  

Over the hills into Hungary and across the Danube

Today is All Saints Day (and a Sunday): a bright frosty morning with a north wind. Returning towards Hrabusice, we turned left after the bridge at 4 miles, then left again (west) at Spisski Stiavnik. At one end of the village a large monastery – at the other, the hovels of the gipsy quarter. The village elders were coming out of church, all in their Sunday best carrying black prayer books or bibles. All the cemeteries we passed today were busy with visitors, the graves aglow with flowers and candle lanterns. Even wayside crosses and memorials to traffic victims had been decorated.

In Hranovnica at 7 miles we met the better though narrow rd 67 and turned south, climbing gently through the forested hillsides. 6 miles later, after Vernar village at 2,500 ft, a steep 2-mile climb (signed 12%) reached 3,445 ft. The road was still frosty where it lay in shadow, with snow at the edges above 3,000 ft. The summit was marked by a crucifix but there was nowhere to park, before zigzagging sharply down for a mile and entering the beautiful Nizke Tatry (Low Tatra) National Park.

Rd 67 forked left for Roznava but we kept south (now rd 66) through high pasture country, where hardy cattle were watched by even hardier cowherds. At 24 miles (still up at 2,640 ft) we took rd 531, turning left under a railway bridge (relieved at the headroom of 4.5 m). Climbing again to 3,100 ft, there was snow on the verges with marker posts planted ready for heavier falls. Rest areas with picnic tables and signs marked the trail heads in the forest, sadly too cramped for us to park under low trees.

Hairpinning down again, the mountain village of Muranska Huta at 27 miles (2,375 ft) preceded another climb. The russet shades of autumn were the best we'd ever seen (including England's Lake District or the American Rockies in the fall). The tall beeches were like burnished copper reflecting the morning sun, the forest floor a golden carpet beneath. Last night's hard frost was bringing the leaves down like showers of gold coins.

Down in Muran 3 miles later we kept right for Tisovec, picking up a local who asked for a lift. He turned out to be a lorry driver ('Camion Chauffeur') who had been to England but spoke only Slovak. Communication was hard work and it was a relief to ease him on his way in Tisovec, once he understood that we were not bound for Brezno!

From Tisovec (at 39 miles and 1,270 ft) the road ran due south and gradually downhill, along the sunny wooded Rimava River valley, beside a railway line. At 45 miles, now below 1,000 ft, Hnusta was a grim industrial town with Soviet-era factories along the tracks and blocks of workers' flats. A large Tesco (open daily 6 am-9 pm) stood opposite the football field, where the lads were having a match.

At Rimavska Sobota, 15 miles later, we parked at a Lidl store to shop and eat (surprised that supermarkets were open on this most holy Sunday). Then it was right (west) on E571, which began as a new dual carriageway but soon deteriorated into a narrow 2-lane road, with no shoulder, grooved by heavy trucks.

In the large town of Lucenec at 77 miles (down at 650 ft), we turned left to cross river and railway, then right onto rd 75. This crossed more hills, briefly reaching 1,000 ft again before descending to Velky Krtis at 99 miles – the last Slovak town before the Hungarian border. We were now looking out for a suitable night halt but had seen nothing – no fuel station, hotel or restaurant with parking space – and the next known campsites were in Budapest!

Turning left on rd 527 it was 12 miles to the abandoned checkpoint, where we entered Hungary at Balassa-gyarmat, at a mere 480 ft. We circled the large town, searching in vain for an overnight parking place. Supermarkets here were closed, observing Sunday (or All Saints Day) more closely than Slovakia, and again graves were decorated in the Catholic tradition. We shall miss Slovakia's mountain scenery - and its Euro currency, as we prepare to spend Forints (Ŗ1 = about 290 HUF).

As the sun went down (about 4 pm) we drove south-west on rd 22 for Vac. Approaching the Danube 27 miles later, we kept south on rd 2 rather than turning left onto a new motorway to Budapest that bypasses Vac, since we hadn't yet bought a motorway vignette. We also thought there might be somewhere near Vac to park by the river – we were wrong! Vac (at 143 miles) was extremely busy with moving and parked cars, it was dark and any side turnings looked impossibly narrow. All we could do was keep going towards the capital.

At a petrol station we asked how far to the brand new Megyeri Bridge over the Danube. 'Straight on, just 5 km' said the helpful assistant, omitting to mention that our road simply passed beneath 'Megyeri Hid' with no sign of access to it! It seems it is part of the MO motorway. We continued to the Arpad Hid (bridge) at 160 miles, crossing the Danube here with some relief, knowing that the next chance, Margit Hid, is currently closed.

Safely on the Buda side, we turned right (north) on rd 11 towards Szentendre, past the Roman remains at Aquincum to Romai Camping, 4 miles along on the right (nearer and easier to find than Zugligeti Niche). It's a large site in a leafy park, open year-round, opposite the Romaifurdo (Roman Baths) metro station and next to a modern pool complex. Sounds delightful. It wasn't!

The gates were closed, though not padlocked. The Reception was deserted, with no information. The ablutions block was locked up. A sole caravan (Finnish) was in residence, plugged into an electricity box that was all tied up with string. We cut the string and settled in for the night. We did get a WiFi signal on the laptop but it meant joining a Hot Spot network by credit card to use it, which we didn't

(continued In Hungary)