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Saturday, 15 June 2013

We always had a ball on Mars

Marburg has had a university for almost 500 years and clearly takes its responsibility of education seriously and has built a planetary learning path that followed our cycle route south out of this stunning town.  The planets are spaced apart at a scale where 1m on the ground represents one million kms in space; this means that the outer planets are spaced a long way from each other but as you get nearer to the sun they come thick and fast and we sped past Earth, Venus and Mercury in seconds.

The villages we cycled through all had narrow winding lanes and wooden framed houses in deep brown and white with impossibly tidy gardens and well swept farm yards.  The farmers were busy in the fields and we met a number of tractors, who share the lanes between the fields with the hordes of cyclists out on a fine Saturday.

Marburg itself rises steeply up the hill from the river Lahn and the story is there are 400 steps up to the castle right at the top of the town.  On the way you walk up cobbled streets surrounded by colourful wooden framed houses; the town is straight out of a Grimm's Fairy Tale an is that childhood version of Germany and this isn't surprising, as the Brothers spent three years studying here in the early 19th Century.  The town survived the war without bombing, as it was designated as a hospital town and has since had enlightened town planning that has protected the buildings and local environment.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Down up pedals, down up down

The first time you cycle the wrong way down a one-way street in Germany is slightly nerve-wracking but you soon get the hang of it and are soon cycling on pavements and expecting cars to give way to you, like any other German cyclist.

Jena is a lively and bustling town, with a large university and the Carl Zeiss factory; Carl Zeiss started making high quality lenses in the mid-nineteenth century in Jena.  Jena had cyclists of every persuasion; cyclists with bags of shopping over their handlebars, cyclists towing trailers containing dozing young children, cyclists on battered heavy bikes and even cyclists in lycra.  The cycle routes leave the town to the north, south, east and west and we had intended to follow the river Saale route north or south.  However, Jena was one of the towns affected by the recent floods and although it was now hot and sunny, the river cycle paths were still reported to be muddy and so we decided to cycle to Weimar and back, a round trip of 48km of up and down.

Weimar proved to be an excellent choice; it was such a pleasant and pretty town and we learnt about it's place in German culture and history and why a small town in central Germany was chosen as the base for the Weimar Republic after the first world war.  The cycle route was well signed and took us through pretty small villages, entering the Unesco World Heritage Site of Weimar through the wonderful Ilm Park and the popular attraction of Goethe's Garden House.  We never like to over-do the culture and concentrated on finding a good Eis Cafe in Weimar, as it was just the weather to enjoy icecream.

In our last post we mentioned Mini Camping in Karlovy Vary as being small and perfectly formed and this was closely followed by another gem of a camp site in Jena; again small but clearly designed by a camper and a peaceful haven with everything we needed.

She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy

Spa towns in continental Europe always have an atmosphere of indulgence and repose and none more so than Karlovy Vary in Bohemia in the Czech Republic.  Previously a German speaking town and called Carlsbad under the Austro-Hungarian rule, this small town packed so many fanciful and elaborate buildings in to one town, it took our breath away.

Walking through the spa, you pass 13 water fountains, each with a plaque giving the temperature of the ever flowing water, usually 50-600C.  At the souvenir stalls you can buy small pottery cups to fill, allowing you to take the waters from each of the mineral rich springs.  After drinking 13 cups of this warm, only slightly sulphurous water, the rich Germans and Russians can pay for massage, colonic irrigation, permanent makeup or any number of other therapies and treatments.  The new rejuvenated you can then buy some overpriced designer clothing and eat expensive salad in a fancy restaurant.

For the tourists, this is all lots of fun and provides ample opportunities for people watching; that man in the dark suit and mobile phone looks straight out of a Russian thriller, the woman sitting reading an ebook in the steamy room with the geyser looks like she has come to Karlovy Vary to forget an unhappy love affair and which country were the couple in the matching shell suits from?

The appropriately named Mini Camping in Karlovy Vary is a small and perfectly formed camp site, the like of which you rarely find.  We had a pitch next to the fish pond and were fittingly lulled to sleep by the sound of the adjacent fountain. 

Die Fahrbahn ist ein graues Band

We have already driven over 2,000 miles on this trip and will probably pass 3,000 before we get home to Greater Manchester.  In those miles we have travelled on roads in six different countries outside the UK.  These countries are all in Europe but the differences in their infrastructure has been very marked.

Both Germany and Austria appear to be building new roads and repairing old ones like there is no recession and of course it may be no coincidence that in these countries the economy has remained more stable.  In Slovakia too, although many of the village roads were in a poor state, new sparkling motorways were being built so that lorries can hurtle across the country to Ukraine and Russia.

Living in Greater Manchester in 2013, we thought we had got used to potholed roads, but Hungarian roads have given us a new perspective.  The motorways we used in Hungary were good and not heavily used but many of the roads in towns and the countryside were so potholed and broken up that the bouncing of the van forced our CD player to give up and it refused to play any more music until we were back on terra firma; we soon learnt that the only way to deal with some of these roads was to weave around the potholes, stick to the middle of the road, which would sometimes be less eroded or drive on the wrong side of the road, if that surface was better.

In the Czech Republic the town and country roads were either not too bad or we had now decided that pot holes were normal.  However, the motorways were built out of concrete slabs and we bumped our way rhythmically across the country back in to Germany ... where we could mention the cobbled streets in the old DDR.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Getting older, looking back, still the fact is nothing changed at all

I visited Levoca in Slovakia 21 years ago, with a very young Matthew and Mark and loved the faded grandeur of the town square.  On that visit we arrived by bus from the Tatras and met a waitress in a cafe who spoke English and was vegetarian and helped us find a suitable lunch.  Renovating Levoca after the years of neglect since the 17th Century was going to be a long process but I knew I would be back to see the progress.

This time we got to the town by walking along the valley from the campsite 2km away.  The campsite is terraced on a steep grassy hillside and as readers may have heard there has been heavy rainfall in central Europe that has caused floods along the Danube and so the field was muddy in places.  In adversity, campers help each other and on our last site in Hungary, we became comrades with couples from the Netherlands and France, as we sought pitches that were solid enough for a van on the otherwise empty camp site.

In Levoca, there were already two caravans from the Netherlands and a German camper in a VW and they all wanted to help us find the best pitch.  Together, we identified a suitable route through the site to a pleasant pitch only to find our 35m of electric cable would not reach a vacant connection.  After a considerable amount of discussion in various languages, I was dispatched to ask the Slovakian camp site owner, who spoke a little German, if he had a longer cable, although I didn’t know the word for cable in either Slovakian or German.

The beautifully decorated Renaissance houses in the square of Levoca are now mostly restored to their former glory, although there is still scaffolding on one of the churches in the centre and improvements to the road surface being made.  The town walls are still splendid, the cage of shame for local wrong doers is still there and there are more cafes than there were in 1992.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did

A couple of days after our eventful walk in the Matra hills, we set off again for a walk, a little east of the Matra, in the Bukk hills of Hungary, this time to see a sight known as the Beehive Stones.  These stones are chunks of tufa rock; this is easy rock to work and in many countries is associated with ancient sites, for example the Etruscan routes we saw in Sarnano last year.  In Hungary there are over 100 Beehive stones, most of which are in the Bukk hills; they have gained their name because some archaeologists think the niches carved in to the rocks were used for ancient beekeeping but other people have different hypotheses.

We parked in the small, lively village of Szomolya, strung out along one main street, as seemed to be so common in Hungary; elderly women in headscarves were buying bread, parents were waiting by the school gates for their children, around eight men were putting up a covered stage in front of the church for the weekend village festival and gardens were being tended.  The walk up to the stones was well signed from the war memorial and we set off up hill, passing wine cellars, also cut out of the local rock and vineyards until we were above the woodland and then dropped down to the hillside where there is a collection of at least half a dozen large stones, all with at least one oblong niche carved on the side.

Some visitors clearly supported the proposition that the niches were for ceremonial use and had left tea lights on the shelves, obviously to the God of Ikea.  We didn’t come up with our own theory for their original use but we did find it difficult to make sense of how they would have been used for beehives.

If there's something strange in your neighbourhood

At about 22.00 on our first night in Hungary, we were sitting quietly inside the van reading when there was a thump on the bonnet, a scrabbling noise and then silence.  Slightly startled we got up but couldn’t spot the cause of the noise and reasoned that we were on a camp site abounding with wildlife.  We had seen cats, both Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, a baby owl sat tight on the perimeter fence through the hours of daylight and the usual other birds.   In our eight years of motorhoming, this was the first time an animal had tried to jump on the van but there had to be a first time.

The next night we camped in Visegrad, the site had some trees, dark gloomy facilities and a five minute wait for hot water.  It was on the edge of the town surrounded by houses.  Creatures of habit, we were again sat quietly reading at around 22.00 and again there was the same thump and scrabbling on the bonnet of the van.  The next morning there were footprints; cat or squirrel we couldn’t tell.  Anthony suggested we had a stowaway.

Our third night in Hungary was at a newly refurbished camp site in the Matra hills.  The facilities were modern and clean and the pitches were newly laid out.  The site had some trees around the pitches but we hadn’t seen any cats or squirrels, only birds and yet we once again had a nocturnal visitor leaping on the front of the van.

The next day, Anthony got te torch out and searched in all the corners under the bonnet, to satisfy himself that no one was hitching a ride across Hungary and we’ve heard nothing since.

Take another shot of courage

The small bottle of bright red vodka looked appetising and exotic on the shelf of a Hungarian supermarket but back at the van it just tasted like slightly sweetened medicine and we couldn’t finish the 250mls.

After our night toasting the best of German football with schnapps, we vowed to be more adventurous with alcohol as we travelled but there were bound to be mistakes.  Egri Bikaver or Bulls Blood is one of Hungary’s well known wines; this comes from the area around the lovely town of Eger and it would have been remiss of us not to have a bottle of this robust red wine while we were in the area and chose a mid-price bottle that we did manage to finish.  To sustain us while sightseeing in Eger, we also sampled the coffee and fantastic cakes in one of the glamorous cafes that would not look out of place in a Viennese street. 

Back with the alcohol sampling, many tourist shops sell something called Unicum 1790 Zwack in dark coloured round bottles, something like a Marmite jar.  Unfortunately, it did not taste as nice as Marmite and was more like sour Veno's cough medicine, another failed experiment.

The best and most expensive Hungarian wine is said to come from the area around Tokaj in the north, near the Slovakian border.  This small town is surrounded by vine yards and hordes of wine producers.  In Tokaj every other shop sells wine and tasting the local sweet wines clearly attracts the tourists.  We are not very fond of sweet, dessert wines and so purchased a dry Tokaj wine, which went down very well on a sunny evening on our waterlogged pitch... have we mentioned the weather?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

I don't know where I'm going but I sure know where I've been

Whiteshake's lyrics sum up our day walking in the Matra Hills in northern Hungary and as we slogged back up the hill to our campsite, we sang the song to keep our spirits up, as by that time we had been up the hill, down the hill, up the hill again, a long way down the hill and were on our way back up again

Hungary has a great walking tradition and although we mostly had the wooded paths around Hungary's highest mountain, Kekesteto (1014m) to ourselves, otherwise we wouldn't have risked singing, we did notice that it seemed to be take-school-children-out-for-a-walk day, as we saw groups of young people everywhere.

Our planned walk had been going well, as we followed the well marked path through oak and beech woods to Matrahaza, which provided an opportunity for a rest and sweet Hungarian lemon tea.  We easily found the path that our guide book promised would take us around Kekesteto to the further ridge and a vista over the trees.  We were perhaps impatient but after one hour of walking through the forest were longing for a view; on spotting an old ski run we headed steeply uphill and breathless, found ourselves at the top of Kekesteto.  This is not the most attractive mountain top, with gift stalls, a communication tower, a car park and a colourful shrine to numerous dead Hungary motorcyclists but at least we knew where we were and we did find a well-signed path that took us down hill to the ridge and the promised view point.  After a late lunch, we climbed back to the top of the mountain and took the blue cross path back to Matrahaza. One of the problems with wall-to-wall woodland is that you have no sense of where you are in relation to other places; we followed the blue-cross path down and down, it was a well made path and eventually became a lovely walk through more open woodland but we had clearly missed a turn off for Matrahaza.  We tried an unmarked track for a kilometre or so, thinking that might lead in the right direction but without a map we weren't confident it would take us to anywhere familiar and so we returned to the blue-cross path.  We eventually emerged from the woodland 3km down hill from our campsite, hence our walk back up the hill accompanied by Whitesnake.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Campsites in Hungary

Matra Kemping Sasto
Romantik Camping, Buk
Although the facilities were somewhat brown and dark, the showers were hot and roomy and there was plenty of hot water available everywhere.  The site is next to a large spa resort.  The pitches are on grass and are not marked.

Kek Duna Camping, Hotel Honti Panzio, Visegrad
This is a small site behind a snack bar and next to a hotel.  The site is grassy with some trees.  You have to wait five minutes for hot water to reach the showers.  The showers were clean, the toilets were dark and the lighting did not work in the ladies.  The site is in the small, pleasant town of Visegrad on the banks of the Danube and with an imposing castle.

Matra Kemping Sasto, Matrafured
This newly refurbished site had marked pitches on grass and among trees.  The facilities looked brand new in 2013 and were good.  The site is by a small lake and there are plenty of walking trails from the site.  There is a shop with bread and other essentials and a snack bar.

Zsory Camping kft, Mezokovesd
The site had marked pitches on grass with hedges between the pitches.  The facilities were shabby bur the water was hot and the showers were excellent.  At reception English was spoken.  The site is next to a spa complex.

Camping Tengerszem, Sarospatak
The site has grassy pitches that are marked with hedges and some trees.  The facilities were shabby and not very clean and the water was only lukewarm.  The site is on the edge of a town in Eastern Hungary.

Campsites in Austria, Slovakia and Czech Republic

Karlovy Vary

Wolfgangsee Romantik Camping, St Gilgen, Austria
A gravel and grass site with marked pitches on the shores of the lake.  The site has a small shop with a good choice of bread and free wifi.  The sanitary facilities are plentiful and the showers are good and hot.  Cycle routes in both directions go from the site and there is plenty of walking too.

Campingplatz Paradise Garden, Kaumberg, Austria
A pleasant and quiet site in a rural position.  The site is grassy and has a cafe and bakery.  The sanitary facilities are newish and the showers are large and clean.  There is a 50c charge for hot water for washing up.  There is cycling and walking from the site.

Camping Levoca Dolina, Levoca, Slovak Republic
A terraced site on a steep hill which would be challenging, if not impossible, for large vans, although there are a couple of pitches that vans 6-7m could access.  Hook ups may be some distance away, even with our 35m of cable, we had to borrow extra from the site.  The facilities are clean but limited; the shower heads do not hook on to the wall and you have to hold them, the toilets had very little leg room, the showers had no doors, in the Slovak style and there is only one washing up sink in the kitchen area.  The site is the nearest to the lovely town of Levoca which is about 2km away; there is a footpath or cycle lane in to the town and there are other marked paths for walking and cycling from the site.  Very little English spoken by the owner and only a smattering of German.

Camping Hana, Veverska Bityska
A friendly and welcoming site with excellent English spoken.  The facilities are clean with hot water for 4 minute roomy showers with a token.  The ground is grassy but well drained.  The site is on the edge of a village and there are plenty of walking and cycling opportunities from the site and the owners will happily provide information.  Very popular with campers from the Netherlands.

Mini Camping, Karlovy Vary
An idyllic small, grassy site with 35 pitches and a pond.  The owner spoke German and Czech, but not English.  There are only two toilets per sex and one shower for everyone, which was excellent and had plenty of hot water, there are two washing up sinks, but no hot water at these.  The site is clean and homely.  A large shopping centre is nearby and there are buses in to the town or it is a 2km walk.

Campsites in Germany May and June 2013

Campingplatz Jena unter dem Jenzig
Campingpark Ohmbachsee, Schonenberg-Kubelberg
The site was muddy from lots of rain and only had limited hard-standing.  The facilities were dated but good standard.  Washing up was indoors and had hot water.  Bread was available to order.  There is a lake near the site.  Quiet.

Camping Hirtenteich, Lauterburg, near Essingen
A lovely and peaceful site with fantastic sanitary facilities which were clean and warm.  The pitches are grassy and mostly level.  The restaurant next to the site is good and relaxed and served marvellous kasespatzle for €6.50. Site was €16 a night on ACSI and hook up was 16 amps.

Kur Camping Fuchs, Egglfing, Bad Fussing
Hard standing pitches.  Facilities clean and with excellent showers.  The pitches are in rows and feels quite crowded.  The roads are tarmac and this is a well appointed site with free wifi.

Campingpark Greifensteine, Geyer
The touring field is a grassy, sloped field with no marked pitches and on a large site with many permanent vans.  Excellent selection of bread is available in the shop.  Showers are 50c.  The sanitary facilities by reception are acceptable but the new block further away were much better facilities.  Good walking and cycling routes from the site.

Campingplatz Jena unter dem Jenzig, Jena
A small site approximately 2km (marked cycle route there) from the central square in Jena.  The site is grassy and has some hard standing pitches.  The showers are excellent with plenty of room and include a sink.  The toilet cubicles are also room and have a sink.  Bread is available to order.  There is a small snack bar and the owner speaks excellent English.  A friendly site that is peaceful despite being on the edge of this lively and attractive city.  Plenty of cycling from the site and walking up the Jenzig.  €14 a night on ACSI made it excellent value.

Camping Lahnaue, Marburg
The site is strung along the river with the dual carriageway and the railway line the other side of the wall.  That said, the site has a pleasant enough feel and it is worth spending a couple of nights to see the marvel that is Marburg; the best pitches back on to the river and all are marked.  The facilities needed a key to access and were just OK, although clean.  Bread was available to order and wifi is free.  The site is 15 minutes walk from the town and 10 minutes from the south Marburg railway station.  Cycle routes go in all directions from the site and there is a large pool complex and mini golf next to the site.  At €20 a night it wasn't the best value for money.

Naturcamping Kyllburg, Kyllburg
This site is also strung a long a river but next to a small, pretty town set on the hillsides of the river.  The shower and washing facilities are good but the washing up facilities were dirty, too low and smelly, although they did have hot water.  The pitches are crowded and small and used mostly by caravans from the Netherlands.