25-30th August 2017
The sun was shining and we’re not yet ready to accept that autumn is near so we’re heading to warmer climes, travelling down through the valleys of the Lower Tatra’s. Truly lovely with their wooded hillsides and burbling streams and rivers, but outside the area of the Tara’s we were in Slovakia is clearly not set up for tourism at all – and may not want to be. No footpath signs, no cycle routes, no campsites or guest houses with the exception of the occasional Pensione. The scenery is lovely, the roads decent and the small villages vary from functional to quaint, featuring lots of veg plots and fruit trees. We liked Slovakia and would happily return when it is better set up for us, or we are happier wild-camping for long periods.
At the Hungarian border we stopped for the vignette we needed to use Hungarian roads The 10-day version cost us around £18 or 5,950 Hungarian Forint – not an easy conversion rate for 2 people allergic to maths. We were able to change some Euros there as well – at a hugely unfavourable rate – so we had some local currency.
Our knowledge of Hungary was, it has to be said, relatively limited. Bordered by 7 other countries it was under Soviet control from 1947-89. It’s around the size of Austria and has a population roughly the size of London’s (10M) so plenty of space. The River Danube – Europes 2nd longest river – flows North-South right through the middle and the whole country is in it’s drainage basin making it hugely important. A lot of the country is a plain and contains the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe, but it does have some hills and mountains in the north, west and south.
We headed south towards Budapest and then started to descend the side of a wide valley with the Danube below. It would have been a lovely view if not for the very large factory with huge chimneys which dominated the area – we have noticed that in Hungary NIMBY’s clearly have no say on where such things are situated – probably a Soviet era thing.
Once down on the plain we drove to Vac and the ferry on the banks of the Danube we needed to catch. We had a 45 minute wait but the weather was sunny and there was plenty to watch – including the ferry, a typical flat-bottomed river ferry somewhat older than we were used to and it’s lifeboat appeared to be an old wooden dinghy. Oh well.
A crew member directed us on and there was a horrible grinding noise – oh dear, a nasty scratch on the bottom of the bumper. (We didn’t really say oh dear). We reassured ourselves that it was only cosmetic and that’s what bumpers are there for and were grateful when there was no repeat on the other side.
We were on an island in the Danube on a summer evening – how great – and were happy to arrive at Pap Sziget (Camping Pap Island). There were plenty of pitches to choose from under the shade of the trees and we selected a quiet spot watched closely by the ‘mayor’ of the site – a long-term stayer with a big bushy white beard who took an very close interest in everything other campers did. The site was protected from the Danube by a high protective dyke and all the chalets, motel buildings and sanitary blocks are on stilts at least 7’ above the ground. They clearly take flooding very seriously.
There was a festival on in the nearby old town of Szentendre that weekend and we liked the feel of the place so decided to stay an extra night and visit the town then went for a beer at the bar before dinner – Hungarian of course.
The charming old town of Szentendre comes right down to the banks of the Danube with a really nice promenade and moorings for the boats. The ‘festival’ was set up next to the riverside promenade with food and drink stalls, a small children’s fair, and a music stage. We walked up from the river onto the cobbled streets of the warren of alleys that makes up the old town with it’s pretty old buildings, art galleries and museums. A bustling market in the middle of the main street had craft and food stalls, with old armchairs and sofas lining the street for people to sit at with their food.
We were tempted to buy at a lovely little knife shop that has been making knives for 200 years. The owner was the 6th generation of the family to be involved. Handles in local walnut or mammoth ivory and a wide range of blades – but airport customs and Danny’s habit of losing things made it a no-go.
The central square had a stage set up and the fun would be taking place in the evening so we decided to grab lunch by the river, go and enjoy the shade of the site and come back later. The place we wanted to eat was full so we went next door and it wasn’t till we saw the menu that we realised we were in a Greek – so it was chicken gyros for us and the only traditional ingredient was the cold Hungarian beer.
In the evening there were lots more people around but it retained it’s laid back holiday feel. Young children were enjoying the fair, the stalls were doing good trade and a young female singer was trying hard to stay in tune on the stage at the front. A stall selling local liquor lured us in and we had 2 – one apple and one black cherry. We drank it on the banks of the Danube watching all the young people sitting along the promenade with their drinks and food, relaxing in the warm evening air.
We wandered up through the cobbled streets adorned with brightly coloured umbrellas and super-sized lamp-shades hanging decoratively from wires strung across the alley-ways. A great atmosphere with music everywhere.
Although tempted by the street-food – especially the iron chicken – we settled for a restaurant near the main square with a view of the stage. Danny’s fried pork chop arrived and although it looked odd he tucked in to find it was chicken schnitzel or as he puts it KFC without the seasoning. But he liked it. The music started up and the Hungarian rock band were keeping the crowd happy – probably because most of them were around our age!
After dinner we wandered the back-streets, past the Bob Marley tribute act, to a cosy looking bar that turned out to be full of people smoking cannabis including the owner and staff. We stuck to rosé but enjoyed the people watching. Back down at the river we were surprised to find it was starting to shut down and it wasn’t even midnight. We tasted some of the local foodstuffs on offer – ending up buying some really strange stuff that seems to be a mix between a fudge and a pate – and finished the night with a glass of Hungarian wine.
Sunday morning came and went without a bacon sandwich. Much missed. The journey today took us south-east to Lake Balaton avoiding motorways, a long drive that started with us going through the outskirts of Budapest. We were grateful for our “only drive through cities on a Sunday” policy as the traffic wasn’t exactly light. We got a look down the Danube to the historic centre which looked interesting enough for a visit in cooler weather. Once clear we were quickly in the countryside again amongst the now familiar fields of sunflowers, maize, and harvested wheat.
Lake Balaton is the largest freshwater lake in central Europe – 48 miles long by almost 9 miles wide – Lake Windermere eat your heart out! The surface freezes in winter with people visiting for ice-fishing, skating and ice-sailing – difficult to appreciate in the 30℃ temperatures we experienced. The northern shore we drove along is a major wine region with low volcanic hills whilst the south is flat with lots of resort towns. The lake was also the site of the last major offensive of WWII and they are still pulling the occasional downed Russian aircraft out or the lake.
We drove along the almost the full length of the northern shore, over 40 miles, through villages and the occasional private “beach”. The Lake is fringed with reed-beds and in places a private owner who charges for access has removed the reeds to provide tree-shaded lawns for sunbathing and relaxing and access to the water. In some cases sand has been imported to create small beaches. On a sunny August Sunday they were packed.
Near the western end of the lake, at Gyenesdiaz (we never worked out the pronunciation) we turned down to Wellness Camping, a beautifully quiet site with a small but very nice pool.
Unbelievably after the 34℃ heat and clear blue skies, whilst we were cooking outside the wind picked up and suddenly it was time to batten down the hatches. We made it in time to retreat inside before the rain hit and we listened to the now familiar sound of thunder accompanied by rain battering on the roof and the awning creaking in the wind. Time to watch recordings.
After a rather lazy washing day loitering at the site, we roused ourselves to explore a bit. We walked into the nearest village for the post office, cunningly hidden down a residential lane and scouted out Gyenesdias lakeside. Looked good so we spent the afternoon down there – £2.50 each for all day access. We found an empty patch of green grass in the sun and settled down on our mats to soak up some rays, the first time either of us has sunbathed on grass or gone swimming in a lake. The bottom was disconcertingly smooth and silty underfoot and it was really odd to us to have mallard and swans gliding past us whilst in the water – not something you get in the Mediterranean!
Next day we had intended a leisurely tour on the bikes to a local vineyard but when then we were told the local ones were no good and it was nearly 30km to the nearest decent one – we had left it too late so settled for exploring Keszelthy instead.
We cycled in along the lakeside and found an excellent – and cheap – kitchen shop where we picked up some bits we didn’t know we needed. Then found the nice centre with it’s pedestrian area adorned with coloured umbrellas hung above the street. At a specialist wine shop where we tried local white and a regional red and bought a bottle of each to put in store for Xmas. Danny adored his lunch of roast goose leg and cleaned the bones, leaving etiquette and knives and forks behind and then cycled back to sunbathe and relax at the pool.
We didn’t really know what to expect of Hungary and we know we have only scratched the surface but we will definitely be back.