18. Hungary and Austria
Justine – We were very sad to leave lovely Romania, with its horse drawn hay-waynes, milkmen delivering churns and magnificent natural wonders. We would have liked to stay weeks longer, but the school clock was ticking and we still had most of Europe to cross. Once more in convoy with our friends the Veritys, we set off for the Hungarian border with Kabylie in front and Violet, the Verity VW van behind. This formation did not last a minute after we crossed the border. The motorway ahead of us was the best road we had been on since leaving Iran. On the bumpy roads of Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Romania, Kabylie held her own and was often faster than most when the roads got really bad. On the motorway however, Violet sped past and so did everything else, whilst we chugged along at between 60 and 70 kph. It gave time for the kids to catch up on a bit of school work as there could be no excuses about the road being too bumpy. Rain was sheeting down but we hoped after crossing the flat plain of Hungary we would find the sun once again.
We rejoined the Veritys in the marzipan museum of Eger,(check spelling) a famous Hungarian Spa town. The works of art made of sugar were incredible. An entire life-size drawing room had been entirely created of the sweet stuff and there was a multitude of other masterpieces. Eger has one of the three remaining minarets, still standing in Hungary as testament to its time under Turkish rule in the mid 1500’s. There must have been strict rules on what the muzeen (the boy who sings the call to prayer) could eat in those days as anyone a little overweight would have got tightly wedged in the very narrow staircase to the top.
Budapest beckoned so we set off excitedly for a three night splurge in an apartment. Cities are not great places to camp. There is certainly no wild camping and campsites tend to be miles from the centre so you waste much time travelling. By contrast our palatial apartment was in the centre of the old town on a very cool pedestrian street full of café’s and shops. As there was no parking near by, we arrived like tinkers carrying half the contents of our respective vehicles in plastic bags, pockets, laundry bags and the like.
Budapest – what a great city, fabulous baroque architecture everywhere, the mighty Danube cutting through the city and thermal baths. Heather, Petra and I quickly ‘bagsied’ a girls morning at the baths whilst the boys agreed to babysit. Tom had visited Budapest in 1991 and in those days the baths were much more Roman, segregated and strictly nude. After descending into the magnificent vaulted bath house appropriately undressed he had been alarmed to discover quite how Roman it was. He ended up being chased around the baths by drunken naked old men who were delighted and much invigorated by the by the newly arrived 20 year old. A comic sight it must have been, like a reverse Benny Hill show, with Tom chased from pool to pool and then rapidly to the exit. It was understandable why he had agreed to babysit so quickly. A lot (including I hope the water) has changed since then and the baths are now unisex, costumed and magnificent.
Before our watery morning, we took a tour on a Hop-on Hop-off Bus around the city, which was brilliant, such a good way to get your bearings and a basic understanding of a city’s history. We saw many sights, ate ice-creams in the shape of flowers and took the kids to an ice-bar where you put on a big cloak and mittens and go for a drink in a freezer where everything from the glasses to the chairs is made of ice.
Joy of joys, our apartment owner managed to arrange a babysitter for us, so for the first time on the trip the adults got ready for a night on the town and Petra got to watch the Olympics on TV, something she had been longing to do.
The next morning, bleary eyed and hungover, Heather and I took the spritely Petra to the baths across the river. What a wonderful cure for too much schnapps and cherry brandy, lying in warm water under a clear blue sky, with the scrolls and domes of wonderful rooftops around us. They were the same bath that Tom had escaped from 26 years ago, very old with beautiful mosaic around the downstairs pools and a deliciously airy rooftop with more pools and deckchairs. Alcohol infused Sunday mornings could not get better than this.
During a river-trip on the Danube a leaflet fluttered onto the table showing that we were midway through Budapest’s mighty SZIGET music festival. The Retro-road-trip members had never been to a music festival. Though I had sorely wanted to, Tom has always been rather reluctant. Knowing however that the Veritys were festival-old-timers I felt this might be my one and only chance to go. Still recovering from our night on the town, Tom decided it was imperative that he service Kabylie the following day. Thus Mr Verity and I stayed up well into the night planning, finding a near-by campsite and buying tickets until we were set for the next morning.
Actually, Kabylie was due for an oil change and had developed a braking problem which is never a good thing, so Tom was had some reason on his side. Apart from the loose connection in the alternator he has managed to identify and fix everything so far without the aid of garages but oil changes are a very messy business and can’t easily be done without a garage to catch the oil. It turned out that there is a garage in Budapest specialising in Series 2 Land Rovers so he jumped at the opportunity to go work with someone who knew what to expect.
The SZIGET festival gave us a brilliant day out and was incredibly well organised with none of the mountains of rubbish and vast queues for the loo and home-bound taxi’s that I had been expecting. It was more like an enormous village fete with the added bonus of some great entertainment and famous musicians turning up. They say that there is a festival for everyone, and Sziget, with its Germanic orderliness and it’s location in the lovely Budapest conveniently close to the thermal baths, is definitely mine.
It was time for the road-trips to part ways. Over a goodbye breakfast we decided on our next destinations, realising what a huge privilege it has been to be so free for the last few months. There are few times in one’s life when one can munch on a bowl of Cheerios and cry ‘shall we go to Slovakia today, or Slovenia, or may be Austria?’ Spontaneity and having the time to experience it, is a rare thing in our busy lives.
As the crow flies to Yorkshire, Violet and the Veritys needed to head north-west, whilst our crow was flapping in another direction, to Biarritz. We said our sad farewells at the campsite gate, with ideas of future road trips together a distinct possibility.
Kabylie purred along the motorway following her service and now stopped reassuringly when required. There were still a few empty spaces on the roof-rack for some more country flags so we made a last minute decision to dip into Slovenia. It also meant that we could visit Graz in Austria if we went that route. When Tom’s grandmother Mary died, we inherited a small box of ‘Happy Family’ playing cards. They were made in the 1950’ and each family consists of four key cities in different European countries. Graz was always one we fought over so we decided it really needed to be visited.
Before leaving Hungary, we stopped at the bottom of the huge Lake Balaton at a town called Heviz which is famed for its own smaller thermal lake covered in purple lotus flowers and surrounded by trees. We arrived too late to go into the lake and it also said no kids under 14, but luckily our campsite was situated on the drainage channel that led from the thermal lake into Lake Balaton and we joined a band of locals plunging into this thermal ditch–river, also lined with lily pads and lotus flowers. It was very very lovely, especially as we knew the thermal waters were doing us no end of good. On returning to the campsite, our neighbour told us how she and her husband go to the thermal lake every year as it is so good for bones and arthritis, though she insisted “children should never go in as it is radioactive”! Oooooops! Why had I not read the small print on the sign?? More deadly than Prince Charles’ gas shed in Romania it seemed.
Our radioactive neighbour was fascinating as she was a Saxon from Romania. She explained how ghastly life was under Ceausescu and his obsession of increasing the population. Women were monitored for signs of pregnancy every month whilst at work and had to give a very good explanation if they were not expecting. Most people did not want more children but were forced to even though they had nothing to feed them with. There was nowhere near enough baby equipment. She had to wait 6 months to buy a pram and had money stored with friends in three towns in case one of them saw a pram they could buy her. Others who had too many children and nothing to feed them on had to leave them on the street and that is why at the end of Ceausescu’s time there were so many street children and the orphanages were bursting. Any child that was disabled was taken and put in a truly terrible orphanage. Exposing my children to radiation pales into insignificance compared to this story.
We headed to Ptuj in Slovenia, the oldest town in the country. Between 1656 and 1802 the castle was strongly owned by the Scottish Leslie family. Slovenia was delightful and our first experience of ‘super manicuring’ of the landscape. Everything looked perfect – every garden, farm, field and road. I searched in vain for one piece of rubbish but there was none anywhere. Britain and France have a thing or two to learn! The rain was still with us, so after a tour of the town and a fruitless search for a Slovenian car sticker we camped by a thermal waterpark and fired down slides in inflatable tyres. We felt cleaner than we had for a long time.
Austria did not disappoint. The manicuring took on new extremes and I felt myself strongly drawn to the wooden cuckoo-clock houses and dirndls, the wonderful traditional dresses the women wear. A great many people still really do wear lederhosen and dirndls with aprons and cleavages that give them perfect dumpling bosoms. As we wandered the beautiful streets of Graz, I was trying very hard to argue why I needed a dirndl while Tom insisted I didn’t need one. These lederhosen/dirndl shops are not for the tourist, indeed, they are a serious part of Austrian culture and make a big dent in the wallet. I pictured myself walking our dog Zazou on the beach in Biarritz in a flouncy dress and apron, or around the supermarket, or just climbing out of the roof tent in my dirndl – it didn’t work. If they hadn’t been quite so expensive and a lot shorter, I might have got away with saying it was a racy outfit from Victoria’s secrets and worn it for Tom on his birthday. I am not sure Tom in lederhosen would have been quite so good, but who knows?
The Austrian countryside is stunning and so ordered that there are few places to wild camp. Until now formal campsites have not existed or been few and far between. Being suddenly confronted with campsites rammed full of August crowds has been a nasty surprise so we make a big effort to keep the magic alive and camp where we can outside formal campsites. After a day going around an open cast mine in a dumper truck with wheels so big we looked like lego people in comparison, we did at last find a place. With hindsight we were daft to choose it but it was hot and sunny and there was a clear blue sky.
Tyre tracks led down from the main road onto a wonderful, wide, shallow, dried-up river bed and not far up it we found an excellent roost for the night tucked round a corner with great views of the mountains. I voiced concerns about flash floods from the sheer mountains above but Tom though that as the river was completely dry with no sign of recent water it must be a spring melt-water river, so we set up camp. We agreed that IF it rained we would move but we were all soon asleep…………until, rain drops began to patter on our roof, small drops at first but then heavier and heavier. Though the river bed was still firm neither Tom or I could sleep, so we decided that for peaceful dreams we should move. This is not easy with the tent deployed on the roof but we had trailed it once before in a campsite so we knew it was possible. There was still not even the smallest trickle in the river but we got the feeling it was not a good place to be. As the rain drummed down with increasing fury we took the bottoms off the ladders and while the kids and I remained in the tent, Tom gingerly bumped back down the river bed to the dirt track that lead to the
main road. It was 1.30am. At about 2.30am we were awoken by a new noise. The rain drumming on the roof of the tent was loud but a roar now filled our ears which at first we thought was a freight train in the valley. We peeked out of the window and saw with horror that the whole riverbed was now a raging torrent with large rocks and trees flying past! The water was rising fast too and though we had moved to higher ground, our back wheels were soon touching the edge of the torrent, so we hurriedly moved again, this time up onto the level of the main road.
As you can imagine we did not sleep very well, deeply shaken at the speed of which we could have been in serious trouble. It is unlikely that we would have been in mortal danger but we would have almost certainly lost the car. I feel we should be avoiding rivers for the rest of the trip. The Georgian foal being washed away and now nearly Kabylie and indeed ourselves – third time could be unlucky!?!
The next morning it was still raining as we packed up the tent. The river, though less forceful, was still flowing strongly. Putting away a soggy tent and then sleeping in the damp interior is never fun, particularly when we had been up half the night worrying about being swept away!
We decided to calm our nerves by visiting an old water-hammer mill that used to make scythes. It was incredible. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. Amazingly it had worked like this up until the 1980’s when it looked as though the workers had just downed tools and left. A little stream powered everything with huge water-wheels, from the knife which cut ingots of steel, to the bellows which heated it to red hot, to the pounders that tempered and shaped it, to the grinders and polishers. Drive belts crisscrossed the ceiling and Tom and Hector were hopping about with excitement. All in all the production of a scythe had 35 stages, so it was pretty handy that water could help with the work-load.
Salzburg was gorgeous and although utterly crammed with tourists it is such a graceful city though that this did not seem to matter. We could not help wondering why Britain lacks the swathes of 16th to 18th century buildings that
make the hearts of so many European towns so glorious. What where we doing when our European neighbours were swelling their cities with civic pride? We can’t blame it all on the bombing of the 2WW. Maybe we spent all our coffers on ships that have rotted away and building an empire, while forgetting to build our own country.
Austria is fabulous and I think that in a former life maybe I lived here in a chocolate box house with flowers cascading over the balcony and needing no excuses to wear a dirndl and flounce about in the meadows, singing. The hills are indeed alive.
The boys complain that at any one time the nose –bag is at least half full of inedible local delicacies enthusiastically bought by the female half of the team. It is certainly true that Petra and I find great enjoyment in gather interesting and bizarre foods in the markets and roadside stalls, so as a result the nose-bag holds an eclectic mixture in varying degrees of bountifulness. There are always a few duff ‘stunt foods’ who stubbornly float to the top, before being hurriedly pushed to the bottom again.
In terms of normal eating we attempted three meals a day. From Turkey onwards, when cereal could not be found, porridge and a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea has been our daily breakfast. Occasionally if time has allowed, Petra has rustled up some pancakes or boiled eggs, with local varieties of bread. I tend to buy something random at the dairy counter in the hope it is yoghurt. In Armenia I struck lucky with both cream and chocolate butter, but at other times I have tipped cottage cheese or sour cream on my cereal.
Having no fridge and a temperamental petrol stove that is quite a faff to prime and light (and blackens the pots at altitude), cooking has not been a highlight. As our table is hard to access, the ground of mud, stone or wet grass has often been the work surface. Also if we have been short on water, the ability to wash up or cook pasta has had to be considered. If the country we have been in has been cheap enough, we have usually eaten out for at least one meal a day, either in a local restaurant or grabbed a traditional road-side snack.
The longer we have been on the road trip, the lazier we have become about cooking. A watermelon or peanut butter or marmite sandwiches, the latter courtesy of Evelyn Brealey and family who sent us a fabulous care package have constituted supper on several occasions. If we have camped late, the mosquitos have occasionally been so rapacious that we have been forced to grab the bread and marmite pot and scurry into the tent.
The most delicious meal we have cooked was definitely the trout we roasted on the fire in Romania with the Verity’s, and the Iranian tomato and aubergine BBQ cooked by our friends when we camped in the desert. Petra’s flap-jacks cooked on the shovel in the fire have been the best (and only) pudding.
Personal observations: – All the places we have travelled through are surprisingly good at making ice-cream, though the best industrial ice-cream has to be the new Mint Magnum, only found in Romania as far as I can tell. Romania also has surprisingly good chocolate bars. Greek food is delishous but a bit repetitive with the old feta and tatziki. Turkish food is plain yummy. Georgian food would be good if they did not always drop the entire salt celler into it and Iranian stews are totally delicious. Armenia has incredible fresh juice called compot full of stewed fruit. In Ukraine, Transdnistra and Moldova we found surprisingly good Sushi. Romanian smoked pig fat for breakfast when made by Prince Charles’s staff is delectable, but quite disgusting when smoked by a drunk shepherd. Milk (cow and sheep) fresh from the udder is 5 trillion times nicer than from the supermarket. Hungarian Goulash is obviously yummy, Austrian pancake soup is delicious and German Brautwurst yum yum yum. The Swiss make a very strange Hawaian Pizza with glacé cherries and kiwi’s amongst the pineapple and have a drink which is delicious, exported nowhere and is made out of milk whey, but tastes like a fizzy fruit drink. And lastly but definitely not leastly, no one comes close to the French when it comes to patisseries.