Bouncing Czech – lots of beer and lots of fish

After our visit to the Tatra Museum in Kopřivnice, we headed west to Olomouc, still in the Moravia region. A city of around 100,000 people, we had heard that it was less discovered than some of the popular South Bohemian destinations and worth a visit. It was on our way so we stopped in. It took a little while to navigate the sprawl and find the colourful centre. There were trams which is always a good sign, and we found somewhere to park near the main square.

The weather wasn’t promising as we wandered around but we admired the spired town hall, Baroque fountains, and its UNESCO listed column. The Holy Trinity column is purported to be the largest single Baroque sculpture in Central Europe, and built between 1716 and 1754 it certainly has a presence. Nearby there’s a much more recent addition – a funky turtle and dolphin fountain which dates from 2002. Said to have been founded by Julius Caesar, the city is a university town and also a religious centre, with grand buildings and churches, from the gothic cathedral to the baroque church of St Mary of the Snows. With its many tramlines and wide streets it has the feel of a much bigger city. One of the other major squares was unfortunately rather off limits – archaeologists were busy sifting through earth and brushing off what looked like remains of old walls down the middle of the road leading into it. We spent a few hours in Olomouc, including a gorgeous lunch at a pivovar – or beer hall, and a thorough walk around all the streets of interest we could find. There were very few tourists, which was part of its appeal – it is a real place, not a theme park and there’s plenty going on. It’s another very livable in place.

Reluctant to leave, but needing to press on, we headed south from here to Brno. Initially we were planning to transit the Czech Republic’s second city and head west to find somewhere to camp, but the roads kind of took us into the centre and as we descended the hill towards the city the sight of an array of spires and a castle invited us to stop for a quick look.

We found the tourist information for a map and set off to explore. Brno too has a Gothic Cathedral rising above its old quarter, as well as the citadel on another rise. We delved into the streets and squares, finding the Cabbage Market square and its rather bizarre Parnassus fountain dating from 1695, featuring a cave like structure with mythological figures most notably Hercules holding Cerberus, the watchdog of the underworld. The smart looking vegetable market was just about to pack up, and it was sweetcorn cobs that we bought, not cabbage. Brno is full of superb architecture and the trappings you expect of a major hub, and in spite of our having a map, we still managed to get lost – two streets with very similar looking names – apparently.

Leaving Brno was more difficult than finding our way in. We try to avoid motorways anyway, and we don’t have a motorway vignette (a permit to use them), but it turned out that our A road equivalent merged with the motorway so we didn’t have a choice. It isn’t always very clear which roads you can and can’t use under this system. Anyway we found our campsite at Ostrovačice and looked to be the very last customers of the season as he was due to close the next day.

Saturday dawned bright and fine after overnight rain, and we set off again westwards meandering via a diversion to Telč, autumn colours in full force. Telč is one of the Czech Republic’s gems and is also UNESCO listed. Strolling from the car park towards the middle of the village, we came to a large rather muddy pond. What was happening here then?
Crowds of people were leaning on the wooden fence looking down at the water where lots of burly chaps in waterproofs and waders were waist deep catching fish in nets. They were catching really loads of big fish. The pond was teeming with them. On the path below the fence lorries with huge tanks were parked and in front of this there were big round steel tanks and a sorting tray with more fish being emptied into it every few minutes, being selected and chucked into the right tank. They were fishing the entire pond out it seemed.

On the roadway into town, trestles and benches were already crowded and a stall selling grilled fish and beer was doing a roaring trade, even though it wasn’t yet quite lunchtime. A band was playing songs that everyone was singing along to, and it was obvious that beer had been consumed for several hours already. And the men below on the increasingly muddy water were working incredibly hard, beers in hand as they went.

We dragged ourselves away to go and see the village centre, entering the famous square through an archway.

To our right the church and castle, where a wedding seemed just about to kick-off, smart guests arriving, backless dresses in the chill air and a lovely decorated Citroën D Series parked up. To our left the expanse of the square, with its decorative colourful facades and arcades bathed in sunlight on one side, shade on the other. Every house different their appearance dates back to the 16th century when the town was rebuilt after a catastrophic fire. The houses have vaulted arches, creating an undercover walkway. It was idyllic and amazingly tourist free.

We asked the tourist office lady what was going on with the fish. Her English wasn’t up to describing it fully and our German (her second language) wasn’t up to it either. We established that this was an annual thing though, and found out later that the fish ponds and fishing out harvest tradition dates back to the 13th century. We’d arrived on the right day. We went to see if the queue at the fish stall had died down. It had, they only had a few left though, and we tucked into freshly grilled trout in a tasty crispy batter with our fingers at one of the trestles, washed down with beer (of course). It was as delicious as only fresh fish eaten outside can be.

Meanwhile the band played on and the men were still rounding up the few remaining fish. Several lorry loads of tanks had already left. It was increasingly muddy out there, and men were struggling not to get their waders stuck. Hard work wading in mud. As we finished our beer and fish, the stalls were already packing up, and the last few fish tanks were getting full.

As we watched the last knockings of this fish out, a stream of people from a tour bus arrived… they’d missed all the fun. And for once we’d arrived at just the right time.

Across the Czech countryside, out of Moravia and into South Bohemia, bound for České Budějovice. A couple more diversions due to road work took us around welcome villages and more fish ponds.

We were in luck at České Budějovice too. As we strolled into the large town square, we heard music. Not traditional folk singalongs this time, but a Czech answer to The Shadows were twanging their guitars surrounded by beer and food stalls and lots of crafts on display. Everyone was out and about and you could pick up some lovely things for bargain prices. Beer (not the famed local brew though, in spite of the Budvar umbrellas) and handcooked spiral crisps were eaten perched by the central fountain gazing at more colourful decorated buildings.

Our campsite was just south of town, closer than we had expected, and was hosting a dog show the next day, so the motel part of the grounds was full, lots of beribboned long-haired dogs socialising with each other and getting prepared for the Sunday.

We walked into town to look for some more local beer and something to wash down with it. A river flows most of the way around the centre and we crossed over one of the many bridges, and spied a cosy bar or two. Still no Budvar beer though. Into town we looked at a couple of the famous beer hall restaurants, all fully booked and rather corporate looking anyway. Off the square we found more cobbled back streets and scenic lighting shone on some striking facades. Eventually we found a small bar with food and although busy, we perched on stools in the smoky fug (no smoking ban here yet) and had a delicious meal of chicken cooked with bacon and herbs with roasted new potatoes. More beer of course, though still not Budvar. We felt a bit guilty not drinking the town’s namesake beer, but honestly you can get it anywhere, and you can’t find the lesser known local brews elsewhere.

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Czech Republic, Food stuff, Travel stuff | 2 Comments

A pilgrimage to nowhere

Ever since we first came across them, years ago, we’ve both had a serious hankering for a Tatra. One of the oldest car manufacturers in the world, having built their first car in the late 19th century, this Czech company mainly built trucks – big, beefy off-road trucks.

But, for us, it was definitely the cars. Whilst the 1920s saw some truly lovely little cars, especially the sporty roadster versions of the T57, it was the new science of aerodynamics which brought our favourites into being, from the T77 onwards – long and sleek, with a tapering rear. The engineering was also thoroughly off-beat, too – under the finned tail, louvres fed the air-cooled v8 engines. The chief engineer, Hans Ledwinka, was one of the unsung heroes of automotive history, too – a prototype small car caught the eye of a certain Ferdinand Porsche when Adolf came looking for a Wagen for the Volk.

So, when our route looked like it might take us through the very Eastern tip of the Czech Republic, a tiny little town leapt out from the map. Kopřivnice.

Home to Tatra, and home to a Technical Museum housing many of Tatra’s cars, trucks, aeroplanes; together with engines and chassis – and even a barking mad snowmobile.

As you drive into the centre of town, you can’t miss the museum. It’s the one with a large, beautiful, aerodynamic 1930s train parked outside. We parked up, and went to the door – time was getting on, and we weren’t even sure if it would be open. It was – but only for another half an hour. Nowhere near enough time. The tourist office couldn’t help with any open campsite anywhere in the vicinity, but they did give us a flyer of local hotels, with prices. So, for €15 for a double room, we decided to slum it. The “Hotel Tatra”, right next door to the museum, was considerably pricier – but looked very nice…

The town itself’s not got much else to tell. Apart from the museum, there’s a very nice old square – or, rather, it would be if it wasn’t a mess of roadworks. There’s, umm… A big factory. They still build the trucks here, and we were to see many of them in use through the country. We’d already encountered many of the older trucks in use in the Romanian logging industry – they’re built around a unique style of central backbone chassis, giving very large amounts of axle articulation – and, with all-wheel drive, they’re just what’s needed in the back end of nowhere. They’re also incredibly robust and simple, still using air-cooled engines. The problems of water-cooling are very much at the front of my mind at the moment, but that’s another story…

We weren’t quite queueing up when the doors opened in the morning, but we weren’t far off. Our wander through the museum took us through from a replica of that first car, the Präsident, right through to the end of car production in the 1990s, with the T700. The last of a series of updates to the T613 launched in 1974, it just couldn’t quite cut it in the face of competition from BMW and Mercedes once the Iron Curtain came down.

Personally, my lust has always been for the 1950s to 1970s T603 – perhaps the most compelling reason to be a senior Communist Party member in Czechoslovakia?

Ellie, on the other hand, has expensive tastes. She’d kill for a T87 – a 1930s jaw-dropper, so beautiful that they even displayed one in the Victoria & Albert museum’s big Art Deco exhibition a few years back.

Yes, it's a T77 not a T87 - the 87, next to it, was impossible to get a good photo of...

Having been through the museum, though, with the experiences of the last year and a half behind us, we both got severely tempted by some of the big trucks… Several of those on display had been on long and arduous expeditions, and Tatra has long done very well indeed with the truck categories of the gruelling Paris-Dakar rally.

Yes, I think we know what we’d take away with us… One of the T805s, please.

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Czech Republic, Personal stuff | 4 Comments

Red sandals

Once there was carefree laughter
red sandals worn on a summer day
your hopes and dreams for the future in your heart
Your daughter by your side

You carefully painted your names on your suitcases
and packed your best things
laughter lines over printed with fear and anguish
herded into the train for an endless journey of perpetual night
no sleep through the tormented groans, the stench, the thirst

Out onto a platform, exhausted crowds pushing and shoving to avoid the blows, the dogs

A selection – work or death

You hurry your daughter onwards.
A shower would be welcome after the endless journey
hang your clothes on the hook as directed, so you can find them again
afterwards

You choke, you suffocate
your hopes and dreams for the future turned to ashes
Your daughter in your arms.

Nearly seventy years later your red sandals still shine out
from the piles of shoes brown with age.

Ellie Garraway
10 October 2012

Posted in By Country - Poland, Personal stuff | 3 Comments

Beyond imagining

There is a town in south western Poland, about 70km from Kraków, called Oświęcim. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, they found a barracks complex there that would become very useful to them, with its good rail links from the rest of Europe. They used it first to imprison, overwork and execute Polish ‘political’ prisoners, and Russian POWs, and any Jews they came across. Later more Jews started arriving. Newcomers were given hope by the Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the gate. Perhaps work really would bring freedom.

When the Nazis started implementing their catastrophic final solution for Europe’s Jews, this camp just wasn’t big enough. They had experimented with gas chambers here, and had built one together with its accompanying crematorium. This was hardly going to cope with the job in hand. Using their prisoner-labourers, they had built another camp, displacing the village of Brzezinka,  on a much bigger scale. Rows of barracks for 300,000 people at any one time, originally intended for POWs. There were four gas chambers and crematoria. The railway took its cramped and exhausted human cargo right into its core.

The Nazis Germanised the Polish names, Oświęcim became Auschwitz, and Brzezinka became Birkenau. These camps are known as Konzentrationslager: KL Auschwitz I, and KL Auschwitz II – Birkenau, there were also several other sub-camps in the vicinity. The names send a chill to the heart, so synonymous are they with the destruction of human beings on an incomprehensible scale.

It was a sunny day when we visited Auschwitz, though a cold wind blew. We’d hoped for cloud. You visit the camps with a guide, who speaks softly into her microphone to everyone wearing headphones, sometimes the feedback screech is distracting. You are taken to Auschwitz I, beneath the infamous sign and past the brick barrack buildings. There is no museum of back up information before you enter, there are no film or sound or lighting effects as you pass through. (Although there is apparently a cinema in the reception centre we saw no sign of it beyond the crowds of visitors.)

At first, you simply enter bare rooms with a few information boards, stark images and texts, some figures. Your guide fills in the details, gives instructions on how to file through the rooms. Everyone is quiet, respectful.

Even though you spend more than three hours here, it still feels rushed, no time to linger, to take stock of what you are witnessing. You can’t afford to lose your group or find yourself in the wrong group, there are so many traipsing through.

You see gigantic glass cases of belongings: thousands of shoes, some elegant and stylish as well as those that are broken and soiled; pots and bowls, glasses, toothbrushes; the suitcases with names, often dates of birth too, painted on them; the prosthetics – crutches, limbs, braces – of those who would have been selected to proceed directly to the gas chambers. The room where you can’t take pictures – because there is human hair. A lot of human hair. The Nazis not only plundered the possessions, but also the corpses.

I found myself trying to picture the living breathing people that ended their lives here, the people that had worn those shoes, used those items. You can’t take in the numbers, so you try to see their faces in your mind.

You see a large scale model of the gas chamber and crematorium system – it was a system, a conveyor belt of death. You enter the basement where the first gas chamber experiment took place, you see punishment cells – standing cells where four people would be held standing for hours in complete airless darkness in a space that would be tight for one of them. You walk through the real gas chamber and see the crematorium here, the only one still standing, just a stone’s throw from the camp commandant’s house where his children used to play in the garden.

You see the Death Wall, now a special memorial space, where prisoners were executed. The Polish prisoners faced firing squads in a yard between two cell blocks, often their families died with them

Latrines – prisoners could only use these twice a day, and then only for ten seconds.

The group then walks quickly to the exit to crowd onto a bus for Auschwitz II – Birkenau. You can visit this site without a guide, but you learn much more with one.

It’s on a vast scale. Your mind really can’t take in the scale, the figures, the selection of arrivals, the descriptions of the horrendous conditions – the humiliation, degradation, dehumanisation. The fact that an estimated 1.1 million people died here.

You see the ruins of gas chambers blown up by the SS before they ran away, the Red Army when they arrived, and one by the Sonderkommandos when they tried to revolt in October 1944. This latter group were Jews put to work on processing the corpses from gas chamber to crematorium, among other things, and were themselves replenished and replaced at regular intervals, having  witnessed too much.

You see the memorials – plaques in 22 languages – of all the peoples who are remembered here.

You enter the brick barracks, roughly and hurriedly built, still with the wooden bunks that slept four or more to a bed, on straw.  Poorly heated. It can be as low as -25C in winter here.

At the end our guide asked if there were any questions? No questions. But so many burning to be asked. But there are really no answers.

It’s a place you are compelled to come. To remember, to bear witness, to pay tribute. To try to imagine the unimaginable. Like the many Israeli youth groups making a pilgrimage, bearing flags, bringing flowers.

George Santayana’s words greet you as you enter the first barrack at Auschwitz I:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Unfortunately, these words are too often unheeded.

For more information see the official site.

Posted in By Country - Poland, Personal stuff, Travel stuff | 4 Comments

Kraking on

Our only real time spent in Poland was to be in Kraków – easily the country’s major tourist destination, being the only main town to survive WW2 with no serious damage and the original architecture more-or-less intact. If any were going to, this was probably the right one…
The old town’s centred around the huge Market Square, with the long and elegant building of the Cloth Market slap bang in the middle, surrounded by various statuary (including one by our old friend Igor Mitoraj, whose work we’d met back in Sicily). All around the square, the tall town houses are now restaurants and cafés focusing on the tourists getting out of the numerous stately white horse-drawn carriages or somewhat less stately electric golf buggies cruising around for fares.

To one corner of the square, splitting it off from the sister Small Market Square (formerly a cemetery, but we preferred the beer festival that we tripped across), sits the immense Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady (or, as everybody calls it, the Mariacki), with the towers at either side of the frontage totally asymmetric – even different heights.

Just off to one side of the main square, all the trams through the old town disgorge, in the middle of a cluster of other major churches and just along the road from the Archbishop’s Palace, formerly the official residence of one of the city’s best-known sons; a chap who appears to be just about the patron saint of Poland – Pope John-Paul II. Everywhere you go, he’s smiling down at you, from a large picture placed in the window of the archbishop’s palace from which he used to hold “impromptu informal audiences”, through to large statues outside almost every church. The Dominican priory just over the road from the palace even has a plaque screwed to the back of one pew marking the spot he apparently preferred when he sneaked in for a little peace and quiet.

Many of the back streets of the old town hide umpteen small restaurants and bars – we seemed to repeatedly gravitate to one street, eating in three places almost next door to each other, including an immense Sunday brunch platter. Another back street hid the studenty, funky Koko bar/diner – for less than a couple of quid, a large and tasty portion of pierogi – stuffed dumplings not unlike larger stodgy tortellini – or for just a little more you could have had a big bowl of thick soup followed by a meat-and-two-veg plate. Bargain!

All around the old town, there’s the remains of the fortifications, mainly the former moat – long since filled in, now a ring of green parkland. Original walls sit around one section, with the near-circular Barbican gatehouse sat just outside, thoroughly deserving the nickname of “the saucepan”. To the opposite side, the huge Wawel castle sits proud, high above a bend in the river. Regarded as a symbol of the nation, the complex contains the cathedral and the former royal castle, whilst under the rocky base sits a cave reputed to have been home to a dragon. A statue of the dragon now sits just outside the entrance, breathing plumes of flame every few minutes, seemingly timed to catch anybody wanting a photo unawares…
Past Wawel, you enter the Kazimierz former Jewish quarter. At the outbreak of the war, around a quarter of Kraków’s inhabitants were of Jewish origin. Now, of course, there are far far fewer – and Kazimierz is more of a homage to their history than a quarter. Many of the large synagogues have been restored and are open to the public, whilst the main square of the area, ul Szeroka, is now full of vast Jewish-themed restaurants and cafés offering Klezmer music evenings and “genuine authentic” food. We looked around for something a little more individual, and wandered round a corner to find a sign-written 2cv parked outside the café it was advertising. Perfect! Top-notch fresh pasta with delicious and unusual combinations of ingredients (chicken and pear sauce) and fresh fruit juice (banana and blackcurrant, layered in the glass).

Kazimierz wasn’t the wartime ghetto, though – that was across the river, in the Podgórze area, with Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory on one edge. As ever, the Hollywood interpretation wasn’t quite the truth/whole-truth/nothing-but-the-truth version… Schindler’s initial aim was just to get as much work as possible out of the nice cheap labour that he had available, so he could continue to fund his lavish lifestyle. Whatever the motives, though, the reality was that those who worked in his factory might not have had enviable lifestyles, but they did a heck of a lot better than their peers elsewhere. After making radios during the Communist era, the factory is now two museums – modern art in the actual factory buildings, whilst the office buildings take you through the realities of life in the ghetto and wartime Kraków, with a varied, long and painstaking series of displays covering virtually every aspect.

The modern city around the old town doesn’t contain much of interest, but we did spend an afternoon hiding from the rain in the National Museum. The Decorative Arts collection contained a real mix of stuff, with the only linking factor being that everything was beautiful and intricate! From wrought-iron medieval door locks, through to Art Deco furniture, via embroidered cassocks… Of the temporary exhibitions also on, one was a real gem – taking urban living expectations at the start of the 20th century, and comparing them to the reality of early 21st-century living. A hundred years ago, Kraków was expanding rapidly, and trying to do so in a very civilised manner – the title of the exhibition was “From Garden Cities to Gated Cities” – the Garden City ideal had strong parallels in the UK, so it wasn’t a great surprise to see the name of Ebenezer Howard, the reformer who was behind Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, had been involved here.

We headed for a day out of the city to visit Auschwitz, which will be a separate post, returning to the campsite just before 2cv friends Max and Vic arrived. They’re travelling around as much of Europe as they can in a 2cv van, sleeping in a tent. At this time of year, living in a tent is not for the faint-hearted…

As they put their tent up, Ellie got stuck into making a massive chicken curry for everybody, which quickly got devoured before we all hid, chatting, in our van from the chill night air. It wasn’t just the four of us, either – we’ve been lacking on properly friendly camping cats for a while, but we made up in style here! A ginger and white kitten, almost a mini-me version of our friend Needy Noddy from Sicily, spent an evening with us all, before reluctantly being kicked out at bedtime. He had a good hunt for some replacement warmth, ending up peering down from between the inner and outer sheets of Max and Vic’s tent – unfortunately, Max isn’t much of a cat lover, and sent him packing. Bully…

We intended to spend the next day back in town, seeing inside the Wawel castle and a couple of other places – but that didn’t quite happen. The minor coolant incontinence that the van had demonstrated in Eger returned, but worse. A bit of digging found that a sensor, controlling the dash light warning of low coolant level, was badly cracked, letting water escape under pressure. It was almost broken in two, so we weren’t going anywhere until a replacement was sorted. A quick call to the VW dealer got a “Yes, but in five days…” response – not ideal. Time spent on the bike, internet and phone dragged frustratingly, until eventually somebody delivering bits to one garage suggested a nearby specialist parts shop – who said “Call us back later” instead of the “Oooh, no” that we’d got used to from everywhere else. When I did call back, the answer was encouraging – “Yes, I’ve got one here…” A quick 2cv trip to the shop resulted in the grand expenditure of two quid – and half an hour later, we were ready for the road again.

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Poland, Food stuff, Van stuff, Wildlife stuff | Leave a comment

Cross-country run

We’re finding writing this post slightly embarrassing. I’ll just come out and say it now – we spent less than 24hrs in a country. I know, shameful.

When we left Budapest, we headed north towards the wine region around Eger, home to the famous “Bull’s Blood” – and to a lesser known sister, “Black Demon”… We arrived, and found a campsite right on the very edge of the Szépasszony (Beautiful Woman) valley. It wasn’t quite deserted, but it was close. The reception hut had a sign pointing us to “the hotel reception”. No problem, there’s a hotel right next door, it must mean that. Nope, the receptionist there seemed to be slightly surprised at the mere existance of a campsite nearby – so we just shrugged, pitched anyway, rummaged in the engine bay of the van to find out why there was a small puddle of coolant underneath (this time, it seemed to be a small split in the main header tank, nothing we couldn’t work around), and headed into town to investigate properly. It’s a pleasant place, with a pedestrianised centre of mainly Baroque buildings spreading away from a disproportionately huge cathedral. The following morning, the reception hut was manned, so we stuck our heads around the door, and promptly got dragged into the owner’s 17th century wine cellar, founded by the local bishop for his personal stocks.

As we descended into the dingy depths, we were not only shown the grapes which’ll make the next vintage, but forced to get up close and personal with them. This particular cellar doesn’t crush the grapes to extract the juice, but simply throws them into a big tank and stirs them three times a day. As you can imagine, this is not easy. Which is why any excuse to get the tourists to do the work is taken. Of the several tanks, the five-day old grapes were almost impossible to stir. After a fortnight, they were much juicier and easier. The three-week tank was a doddle. All smelled superb, and a quick taste of last year’s confirmed that this was good, meaty stuff.

We pointed the van towards the valley itself, expecting a meander past vines. Nope, we found a small loop-shaped carpark surrounded by what appeared to be predominately vaguely vine-themed tat stalls. Disappointment was tempered with the reality that we really couldn’t have hung around tasting anyway.

A more-or-less non-descriptly scenic route, rich in autumn colours, took us over the border into and through Slovakia.

We skirted post-communist towns full of dead factories and concrete blocks of flats, and ignored around a dozen large red signs warning us that our intended mountain pass route was closed. They lied, all of them. We broke for the night near Liptovský Mikuláš, home to a hotel housed in a beautiful old manor house built into the ruins of a castle. Near, definitely not in – it looked expensive… Instead, we headed to the resort of Demänovská dolina, just where the land started to curve skywards into the foothills of the Tatra mountains, and managed to persuade the receptionist at a small hotel that the campsite behind the hotel was indeed open.

The rest of our Slovakian dash to the Polish border took us through the High Tatras – truly beautiful mountains, with a crisp tinge to the air that suggested the first snow of the season probably wasn’t far off. As we chased the local train across umpteen level crossings, with the road and the track taking turns to be on the uphill side, we headed through a couple of thoroughly mediocre and touristy towns, containing such delights as cable cars to the tops of mountains – with a “botanical garden” and ubiquitous cafe to greet the jaded on arrival. Every inch of roadside seemed to be parked solid with cars and coaches, people taking to the hills for probably the last sunny Saturday of the year.

The border itself was almost invisible – we’re not even quite sure which country the mess of chaotic carparks and “cheap alcohol” huts were on – but we quickly found ourselves in the Polish “capital of the Tatras”, Zakopane. Log-built B&Bs and hotels (almost invisible behind signs and adverts at least five to every post, and no opportunity for a post missed) lined the busy roads, and we didn’t linger, although we did pause to let a wedding convoy of horse-drawn carriages bimble past to the tune of a traditional band, almost everybody wearing national costume.

That wasn’t the only wedding we tripped across that afternoon – it appeared that just about the entire population of Southern Poland was either at a wedding (mostly their own, I suspect, because there can’t have been enough guests to go around) or having a driving lesson. The Dunajec gorge added trucks collecting metal rafts and returning them upstream, together with the associated coach tours, to that traffic mix; which was finally rounded off with a huge flock of sheep filling an entire main road, loosely herded by yet more people in national costume. As we sat stationary, surrounded by wool, one of the shepherds leaned into my open window for a chat – filling the van with an odour of lanolin & raw alcohol. Another wedding, p’raps?

Posted in By Country - Hungary, By Country - Poland, By Country - Slovakia, Travel stuff | 2 Comments

Up around the Bend

We needed to linger in the Budapest environs between Adrian’s dental appointments. We’d spent several days in the city, so it seemed time to head up river. The Danube Bend is, as the name suggests, a dramatic bend in the river as it wends from flowing eastwards to southwards forming part of the border with Slovakia. We’d heard that it was a scenic area with lots to see and do. So we set off to see and do it. Our first call was the town of Szentendre about 40km north of Budapest.

It was a centre of Serbian immigration during various periods of history when Serbia was being overrun by Turks. Pastel-coloured buildings line the streets and face the river, with several picturesque churches perched here and there. Since the 1920s though it has become home to many artists and has a lively café life, lots of craft shops along its narrow cobbled streets.

It was Monday though, and most of the churches and most of the galleries were closed. We headed on along the river, finding a nice looking campsite open when we thought it would be closed just outside the town. It was too early to stop and we continued to Visegrád, a small town sitting right on the curve of the bend, with a citadel high above it, and fortifications below reaching down to close to the river.

Visegrád means ‘high castle’ and it dates from the 13th century when it was built to withstand Mongol invasions. We found the lane up to it, thankfully we didn’t have to walk all the way.

It afforded fabulous views of the bend in the autumn afternoon sunlight, and had a few rooms with exhibits in, amongst the ruins. It was the once the royal residence, and housed the crown jewels until they were apparently stolen by a maid in the 16th century, and our old pal Vlad the Impaler was once imprisoned here for several years in the 15th century. There is also a Royal Palace far below in the middle of the town.

We pressed on to Esztergom. It was getting to be time for a campsite and we hoped there might be one open just south of the town. We saw a couple of motorhomes driving around looking rather lost, but eventually found the way to the site, but it was closed. A shame because it was a stone’s throw from the centre of the dramatic looking town.

We have been using a rather ancient Rough Guide to Hungary – the information is around 15 years old, but as it has the main things we have hung on to it. It mentioned the ruins of a bridge nearby but we hadn’t spotted this. As we took the road we thought was leading us back into town, we found ourselves on a bridge across the Danube, and totally unintentionally arrived in Slovakia. Not quite where we wanted to be, not yet anyway, but we still felt a bit rude just entering the country and doing a U-turn. We weren’t the only ones though – at least one other disappointed campervan had found themselves in Slovakia by mistake. Fortunately both are Schengen countries so there was no border control. Being the other side of the river though also meant a terrific view of the city. Its cathedral and castle walls create a dramatic imposing skyline for this centre of Catholicism in Hungary.

More reading up found that the ruin of the bridge mentioned in our guidebook had been rebuilt. Destroyed in the Second World War, and never rebuilt due to ambivalence between the two countries during the Communist era, harmony has obviously been restored and the new Mária Valéria bridge was opened in 2001. It was built with a grant from the EU, to help applicant countries with their joining preparations.

We pootled back to Visegrád again where we thought we’d spotted a campsite open. It would have been nice to camp wild by the river and there were good spots to be had, but there were stern no camping notices.

The campsite was open, but deserted. We were the only people there in fact, but it was lush and green and we parked amongst the trees. In the early hours we awoke to one of the most dramatic thunderstorms we’ve experienced, wildly flashing lightening and rolling of thunder fit to wake the dead and shake the van where it stood. Torrential rain followed, the remains of which lasted all the following day.

Downhearted by the change of weather, and the low cloud that obscured the hills, we drove back to visit Esztergom properly, relieved  that we had seen its best view in the sunlight the previous evening. We parked near the huge basilica and traipsed in the rain towards the ticket office.

It was on this site that King Stephen (or Istvan in Hungarian), later Saint Stephen, was crowned in 1000 AD and where Hungary was brought into Roman Catholicism. Subsequently the area fell under Ottoman rule and it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that the town recovered and the cathedral was rebuilt. It is as huge and impressive as you would expect such an important place to be.

There is also an important shrine in the crypt to a more recent figure, Cardinal Jósef Mindzenty, who bravely opposed Communist rule. He was arrested in 1948 and tortured for 39 days before being sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. Released during the 1956 uprising he sought refuge at the US Embassy where he lived for the next 15 years. Eventually exiled to Austria where he died, he was reburied at Esztergom in 1991, the year that also saw a visit from Pope John Paul II. We also paid to see the Treasury which we’d heard was something special. We spent ages there marvelling at the fabulous treasures, from clerical garments with three dimensional embroidered scenes on them, to the gold goblets from all periods of decorative arts history from medieval to art deco.

After lunch, still raining, and lacking the enthusiam for more museums after such a visual overload, we drove back towards Szentendre and the campsite we’d spotted there the day before. To cheer ourselves up, we stopped in the town to buy some cakes, rather apalled by the fact that council contractors appeared to be hacking down all the trees along the river front. They’d not pollarded them neatly, yet seemed to be leaving the trunks there. Too rainy to find out more about what was going on, we headed for the campsite for an evening cooped up in the van.

A bright morning greeted us and lifted our spirits as we set off to see Szentendre’s must-see Village Museum or Skanzen, the latter name often used for open air museums in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, named after Stockholm’s famous Skansen open-air museum of vernacular architecture and way of life.

After waiting for umpteen school groups to enter, we were in and it was a big enough site to disperse all the groups nicely. The school groups all had activities laid on, such as trying their hand at butter churning and jumping up and down in a hayloft. We had most of the old houses and cottages to ourselves as we spent several hours wandering around village settings from different parts of the country. Beautifully set up and furnished, it was a lovely place. Sadly, we don’t have time on this trip to really explore rural Hungary to the full, so this gave us an insight into what villages in different areas and from different points in time might be like.

The farm in the centre of the museum had Hungarian breeds such as the longhorned grey steppe cattle, a flock of whimsical twizzle-horned Racka sheep who we managed to coax out of their barn, and three curly haired Mangalica pigs languishing in their muddy pen who weren’t taking any notice of anybody.

Just a small fly in the ointment, we were charged for parking, which took us aback a bit as the entrance fee wasn’t cheap and it was way out of town, but then they couldn’t seem to get their act together enough to take the money for it so we could leave without hanging around for an extra few minutes. We had stayed a little longer than planned in the museum and had a pressing engagement with Adrian’s dentist back in the city so had to dash.

In spite of the mixed weather, we really enjoyed this interlude up around the scenic Danube Bend.

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