the High Tatras and beyond
It is 1,200 miles and over a week since we left Prague, and this is the first chance we have had to update the blog.
From Prague we drove south then east, overnighting in a small site called Eurocamp Bojkovice in a village not far from the Slovak border. The journey there was not one I would like to repeat, with a 50 mile deviation because the road over the mountain was closed, followed by some very poor signposting in the nearest town, Uherske Hradiste, which meant two tricky u- turns. The site was interesting, but perhaps a bit more like the scout camps of my childhood than the modern facilities of today's super-sites. Nevertheless the owner was friendly and spoke excellent English, having spent time in Portsmouth and the Iceland of Wit, which we took to be the Isle of Wight.
From there we climbed the hills and descended to the Slovak border. This, like many European borders these days, was unmanned, but with exchange offices and cafes replacing the old bureaucratic passport stamping. Then we hit the Vah valley at Trencin. This is a scenic valley, when it can be seen that is. A haze of pollution hangs over the whole area for the first 50 miles or so. What we could see of the scenery was good. What we could see of the towns and industry not so good. A bit like Sheffield in the 50's, plenty of attractive areas hidden by a pall of smoke. A superb motorway runs north for most of the valley. Unfortunately they have not yet got round to building the motorway around the towns, so you would be cruising along with not too much traffic for 20 miles or so, then grind to a halt as you join a convoy of several thousand trucks crawling down some hapless town's main street, through several sets of traffic lights which are in no way synchronised. Bear in mind that this is the main route for traffic travelling from the Mediterranean to the Baltic!
Gradually the air cleared and the mountains appeared. As we lost the northbound traffic and headed east the full majesty of the Tatras appeared on either side of us. The Tatras are the highest peaks in the Northern Carpathians and they rise to 2,600 metres or more from the plain below. Being a "young" range they are pointed and rugged as true mountains should be.
We stopped for lunch at a service station on the banks of a lake, Liptovsky Mikulas,with the mountains beyond. The setting was superb, the staff friendly, the building a quaint wooden chalet which could have been in Switzerland. The food? Well, I opted for meat balls with boiled cabbage and onions. The meat balls were stodgy potato dumplings with a tiny smear of meat paste in the centre. The boiled cabbage and onions were of course their version of sauerkraut, delicious for the first two mouthfuls but then repeating themselves for the rest of the day and most of the night!
Our target was Autocamping Levocska Dolina,near the small, historic town of Levoca, just beyond the end of the range. Apparently the owner is trying to make into the best camp site in Slovakia. Either this does not say much for the other sites, or he has a long long way to go! Nevertheless it was an acceptable site, once we found a spot that was reasonably level - not an easy task. It had the facilities we needed (although the showers had no doors and a communal changing area) and was in a very pretty woodland situation. Most important it was handy for exploring the region.
Levoca itself is an attractive walled town with plenty of historic buildings, surrounded by the usual communist- inspired characterless blocks. Perched on a small hill, it commands views over the surrounding countryside. Nearby is Spissky Hrad, the largest castle in Slovakia, and the Spissky Chapter, a strange but attractive religious settlement.
Most important were the Tatras themselves. The base town, Poprad, is nothing to speak of, although if Tesco were ever to run a competition for the Tesco branch with the most attractive view from the car park, Poprad branch would win hands down. Ten miles of open countryside, then 2,300 metres of cliff face..........!
We took a trip to Tatranska Lomnica (850 metres) and joined the queue for cable car tickets. The ride is in two stages. First a modern "non stop" cable car ( the sort you clamber into while it is moving) up to Skalnate Pleso (1,754 metres) then the old fashioned single high strung cable car, which takes you up to Lomnicky Stit (2632 metres). Needless to say the tickets for the latter had sold out by the time we got to the head of the queue. There may have been a black market in them, as the guy in front of us bought fourteen. However the ride up to Skalnate Pleso was quite enough for me, given that standing on a chair makes me feel dizzy. When we got there and looked at the high ride I breathed such a sigh of relief that there were no tickets. If you look at the pictures and can enlarge them, you will see a tiny red dot which is the cable car.
The weather now was becoming hotter, with temperatures in the 20s, but at night it was dropping quite dramatically and there was a heavy dew most mornings. Tramping across wet grass to the toilet block for a shower can be a bind, particularly when negotiating some rather steep slopes. I have the bruises to show for it.
From Levoca we headed east then South to Hungary. The border here was almost abandoned, huge secure buildings and customs channels, all empty and becoming derelict. Crossing the plains of eastern Hungary the temperature rose and rose. By the time we got to our overnight stop at Debrecen it was 36. The campsite, Dorcas Christian Centre, was an attractive but almost deserted woodland site - besides us, there was just one other tent - but best of all there was a small pool, so the Speedos could come out again. We learnt that large parties of children, including some from Chernobyl, come here in summer for activity holidays. The toilet blocks were large but fairly basic - the showers were completely open,with no partitions or doors, and a communal changing area. We might have been a bit daunted if the site was busy but as we had the place almost to ourselves, privacy was not a problem!
Then we went west to Romania. This was the first border where there had been any official activity. Passports were shown, questions were asked; all travellers have to purchase a vignette to cover their share of road tax, which is done at the local gas station. To get this you have to produce car registration and insurance documents. A bit of a pain in the neck, but would that not be a great idea for our own channel ports, to tax these thousands of foreign lorries coming to the U.K. and not even paying fuel tax...
Although the scenery in the Czech republic and Slovakia was great, and in places superb, neither of us felt very at home there or in Hungary. Whether it was the completely unintelligible languages, which are equally incomprehensible whether written or spoken, or whether it was the extremes between rich and poor, or merely the huge cultural difference, we both had an uneasy feeling in all three countries. As for Romania, we will reserve judgement until we have been here a bit longer. The language is easier, being a Latin based one, but the culture is equally different and the Foreign Office advice warns of credit card cloning being rife, tap water riddled with hepatitis and rabies being endemic. However diesel is less than 1 euro per litre so it's not all bad!
We spent two nights at a small but pleasant site called Camping Eldorado, near Cluj Napoca. En route to Cluj we had been surprised by the primitive farming methods, with horse-drawn carts being common, and had seen many women wearing long colourful skirts, who we thought must be Roma. One town we passed through, Heudin, was full of Roma in colourful costumes and some of the houses were enormous and very ornate, with elaborate silver roofs like pagodas. In some of the villages we passed through the streets were lined with stalls selling baskets and embroidered cloths. But some villages were very run-down and the people looked poverty-stricken.
Cluj Napoca is a city founded by the Emperor Trajan and destroyed psychologically by a huge pyramid scheme in the 1990's which left many people destitute, having just found their freedom from Ceausescu's autocratic regime. The campsite was a pleasant surprise, as being Dutch-owned it had an excellent toilet block with fully-enclosed showers, a washing machine, and a restaurant where we had a good, reasonably-priced meal, although we were the only customers.
Then what should have been a straightforward 180 mile drive to Bran, near Brasov, in the heart of Transylvania at the edge of the Southern Carpathians, became a nightmare. At the first town we followed the signs for Brasov, to discover a short while afterwards that we were not on the chosen route. In effect we were travelling south then east, instead of east then south. However it seemed a good road, was well signposted and was called Route number 1 to Bucharest, so we carried on. The southbound leg was not bad, but when we turned east the trouble started. Imagine the A66, taking the same level of traffic as the A1, but without any bypasses or dual carriageway. Then picture driving along a valley at the edge of a high mountain range, with mountain streams ( no doubt torrents in spring) going under the road every mile or so. The decision has now been made to upgrade the road, so how do we go about it? Some bright spark decides that new bridges are required along the whole stretch and being used to the economies of scale decides to pull them all down at once. and then while we are at it, lets remove most of the road surface and put in a new surface 6 inches higher than the old one, but ensure that we only do a few hundred yards every mile or so, and keep the drivers guessing as to which side of the road will disappear next. Result, a 75 mile traffic jam. Single file traffic governed by traffic lights every couple of miles. Impatient Romanian madmen ignoring the lights and blocking the road for oncoming traffic, or using the stationary queue as a means to overtake all and duck into the front just after the lights. We had left the site at 9, with a view to getting to Bran shortly after lunch. We arrived at 5, having had two brief stops and having only done 212 miles, some 40 miles further than our planned route. I was a wee bit crabby and Lesley just about had a nervous breakdown. If you add to that the sight of a dead dog in the road every mile or so (stray dogs are more common than sparrows here) and the absolute chaos in each town we passed, we are not much impressed.
So far we have seen a few lovely villages and hundreds of depressed shabby ones. We had absolutely splendid views of the Southern Carpathians, when we could spare a millisecond to snatch our eyes away from bumps, potholes, traffic lights, mad truckers, even madder bus drivers and dead dogs. However for every mountain we saw we saw a dozen derelict factories, two dozen shanty towns and three dozen dead dogs. The air nearly everywhere smells, from traffic fumes, from industry, from waste tips, from sewage filled streams or from rotting dead dogs. Overall I would sum up Romania as being a few really wonderful spots linked by hundreds of miles of desolation. (Apologies to the many nice Romanians we have met.)
The campsite at Bran is rather off-puttingly called Vampire Camping, as Bran was the home of Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. This is another Dutch-owned campsite, with level, grassy pitches and views of mountains all around. The toilet facilities, while clean, were a bit old and basic, but were in the process of being upgraded. We walked to Dracula's castle, a wonderfully atmospheric edifice on the top of a crag, in nicely laid out gardens. Sadly, as one expects these days in any internationally renowned tourist attraction, the village around it is just a mass of tackiness, most of it vampire-themed. Hats, masks, wooden carvings, toy guns, anything that would make the villagers a quick buck. Yet the best bit of the village was almost completely ignored by the tourists. At the edge of the gardens was what was called the "village museum", a collection of real peasant homes collected from around the region and reconstructed, with a note explaining where each was from, the occupation (shepherd, woodsman etc) of the "owner" and how each room was used. This was a fascinating little oasis in a sea of tack.
We have one more day here before moving on to Bucharest, which is a slightly scary prospect - the only campsite there got a really bad write-up in the Alan Rogers guide!