Crossing Europe

Thursday 2nd September 2010, Grein, Austria
Before we begin, we are very happy to announce the safe arrival of Indika, our second granddaughter. She finally put in an appearance nine days later than expected but she was well worth the wait. We visited her and her delighted family just before we left England; indeed, we travelled directly to the ferry from their home near Oxford.

Deyvika and Indika

Our ferry crossing had a little extra excitement this time. Half-way across we were informed that the maritime rescue service had requested the aid of our ship to help a shipwrecked yachtsman. His rocking vessel looked so very small as our huge ferry changed course to go to his aid. This makes the third time our family has been involved in such incidents while travelling with Brittany Ferries. It first started when our daughter Kate was on board the Quiberon on a school trip to Brittany when it caught fire. That traumatic drama eventually ended safely for the passengers but less so for some of the crew. Next we were on board returning to Plymouth from Santander when a passenger decided to jump overboard. For hours our ship searched the Bay of Biscay, aided by rescue helicopters from France and Spain before his body was recovered. This latest incident ended safely with a rescue boat being lowered and the yachtsman taken on board. On all three occasions we have been impressed with the way the ferry company handled the situations.

So now, once again we are off on our travels, this time taking you to Romania. For the past few days we have seen some of the less agreeable aspects of Europe with Modestine glued to one of its major arteries as we travel eastwards along the soulless motorways, wedged between container lorries heading homewards to Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Three days of travelling have taken us across the Chanel to Cherbourg and from there to Caen where we spent the night with our friend Geneviève before taking our first motorway across France. We've never really used European motorways before, preferring to travel in a more leisurely manner. This time though we were in a rush, having arranged to meet our Hungarian friends from Exeter in Debrecen, near the border between Hungary and Romania around 5th /6th September.

Never have we seen so little of the countries we have passed through and never have we been so totally bored and frustrated. In France, it is true that the motorways enabled us to travel at great speed as they are well nigh deserted. This is because the péage or toll, exceeds the cost of the fuel to use them. By evening we'd travelled 350 miles and turned off at Verdun to camp for the night, having spent 30 Euros in charges and seen nothing but the rear end of countless lorries.

On reaching the campsite Ian had selected we recognised it as one we'd used before when we visited the First World War battlefield back in 2007. As we stood outside of Modestine, gazing up at the stars shining in the darkness, the silence wrapped around us, making more acute our thoughts of the pounding guns and horrors that happened between the French and German troops, little more than walking distance away, back in 1916. (You can read our account of Verdun here. It remains one of our most impressive travel reports.)

Our immediate neighbours on the campsite were German, here to make their own pilgrimage to the ghost town of Douamont. Germans as well as French soldiers fell in their thousands and lie buried in the fields around Verdun. In places the white crosses stretch in serried ranks as far as the eye can see.

Next day, deciding we could no longer afford French motorways, we continued cross-country through Lorraine until we reached Germany where the motorways are free – and therefore very crowded. It is astonishing how much heavy freight makes its way across Europe this way. In Britain all we see are the vehicles destined for our own markets. Germany carried everything for the whole of Europe, east and west. Meanwhile, speed limits are generally higher in Germany and the outer lanes are crammed with speeding Audis and Mercs. Despite a couple of snooze stops we were both very weary after 300 miles of this and grateful to turn off to a very peaceful campsite near Nuremberg for the night.

Today has been easier. Lorries have thinned out as we gradually move away from Western Europe and the scenery has improved. The flat plains of arable crops across Northern Europe have been replaced with hills, woodland and viaducts. Once we reached Austria we decided we deserved a break and made our way across the country on the ordinary roads. Immediately we left the motorway the beauty of the countryside enfolded us. Green fields, cattle, orchards and vineyards. Smart chalets standing in their tidy gardens with troughs of bright flowers at the windows and winter wood piled up beneath the eves. The roads were steep and winding, passing through dense woodland and pretty, sunny villages until we dropped steeply down to the banks of the fast flowing Danube. Here we passed through clean, charming little towns with their baroque churches, maypoles, bright window boxes and tempting bakeries. Stopping beside the Danube to watch barges surging their way upstream against the current we fell into conversation with an Austrian biker. He told us he'd worked in twenty-two different countries before setting up his own business here in Austria. He is convinced it is the best country in Europe in which to live, being clean, comfortable, stunningly beautiful and with good health and social facilities. We are inclined to agree with him. Certainly we find it a very civilised and safe place in which to travel with high living standards for its citizens. Food prices too seem very reasonable. An average restaurant meal costs only two thirds that of France.

The Danube has been our constant companion today; we have crossed it nine times. Tonight we are camped on its banks. The ground is soggy and we have the impression that it has still not dried out after the rains that beset us here last June when so many of the towns along its banks were flooded. It does seem strange to find ourselves back in Austria, passing through some of the very same towns we visited in detail less than three months ago! There are so many lovely places here to visit we have to be very disciplined not to linger. Today we have driven a further 300 miles towards our destination. Our route took us right through the centre of Linz. From the map Ian thought we simply had to turn left at the bridge and leave the city behind. A proper satellite navigation system would probably have known about one way systems. We ended up totally lost in the centre of the city, at one point finding ourselves channelled on to the motorway to Vienna without an obligatory vignette – a major offence in this law-abiding country. It was strange though, passing through the city centre, to recognise the streets we'd walked as pedestrians back in June when we'd taken the train into Linz, to avoid driving Modestine there!

This evening we have taken a stroll into the charming little baroque town of Grein on the banks of the Danube. From here a ferry crosses the swirling brown river, carrying foot passengers and cyclists to the far bank from where walks can be made up into the wooded hills or for miles along beside the river. It is all very pleasant with a happy atmosphere to the town as late summer visitors sit in the dusk on the illuminated terraces of the bars surrounding the central square or lining the river bank.

Danube at Grein, Austria

Friday 3rd September 2010, Györ, Hungary
We have finally made it to our first port of call. Tomorrow we hope to meet up with Erzsébet and Gabor, Hungarian friends living in Gyömöre, not far from Györ where we are camping this evening. We last visited them in 2007 and have vivid memories of spending an afternoon at a barbeque with the village folk singers. (See 29th May 2007)

This morning we continued our journey along the banks of the Danube towards Vienna. Huge Russian barges, linked together, were struggling slowly upstream. They have presumably travelled from Rostov at the mouth of the Don in Russia, or Odessa in the Ukraine, around the coast of the Black Sea to enter the Danube at its estuary in Romania. In these days of high speed communication and crowded motorways, there is still a place for these slow, outdated monsters of river transport. It must take weeks to reach right up into Germany.

Barge on the Danube, Austria

We stopped at the baroque town of Krems, on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The modern part looks sprawling and industrial but the cobbled streets and squares of the old town beside the Danube were picturesque and charming.

Krems on the Danube, Austria

A massive cross-country detour through rural villages avoided us driving through the centre of Vienna. The countryside was not particularly inspiring - flat and growing arable crops with large numbers of wind turbines and electricity pylons. The villages of eastern Austria are rather similar to those of Hungary in that they are generally single-storey buildings, sometimes with decorative baroque façades, set well back from the road with pleasant front gardens and a wide green verge hiding drainage ditches. We found nowhere suitable to stop for lunch and by the time we reached Hainburg, the last place of any significant size before the border, we were both exhausted, hungry, thirsty and in dire need of the loo! The last and most urgent problem was solved by the library lady directing us to the facility in the town hall. (Aren't librarians wonderful!) Strolling around the town later we noticed a bust of the composer Joseph Haydn. We have previously encountered him, in Hungary, where he composed and performed for Count Esterházy. It seems he spent his formative years studying music in Hainburg.

Unfortunately named family in the cemetery at Hainburg with the castle above, Austria

Typical baroque church, Hainburg, Austria

Joseph Haydn, Hainburg, Austria

As we left the town we could already see the sprawling suburbs of Bratislava, high above the Danube, across the border in Slovakia. Our intended route took us through the centre of the city. However, we were relieved to discover a route that would take us directly into Hungary on more peaceful, if bumpy, roads. (If anyone fancies re-reading our account of Bratislava, our encounter with the resident president and the comforts of the Chatham Sofa they can find it here)

Hungary does not use the euro so once over the border we stopped at the first town we reached to raid an ATM for some forints. As happened last time, we had no idea of the exchange rate but, based on the price of diesel in a nearby garage, we guestimated around 300 forints to the euro. We erred on the side of caution however and withdrew 1,900 forints. It sounds so much but if we guessed correctly it will only be around £60.

We passed through the centre of Györ, vaguely recognising places as we passed, and easily found this rather dilapidated but friendly campsite in a pine forest a few kilometres beyond the city. After Austrian campsites it looks very run-down but we have water and electricity. Compared with what we are likely to experience in Romania we are grumbling for luck!

Saturday 4th September 2010, Györ, Hungary
We have now arrived at the home of Erzsebet and Gabor in Gyömöre, a typical Hungarian village outside Gyor. They had been expecting us a day earlier so were rather relieved when we arrived as they had been imagining disasters for us along the way! Time for us has become so disjointed with constant driving and European time differences that we had simply made a mistake as to when we would be arriving. Making up for lost time we have been spoilt by our hosts and have experienced something of the magic we encountered on our previous visit, arriving this time on the day of the village fete.

After a lunch of vegetarian soup and a dish of Hungarian mixed paprikas with rice we walked through the village in a mizzling rain to join other residents heading for the community house. Here the local fire brigade was showing kids around their fire engine and trying to start a fire in the field next to the community hall. It was proving more difficult to start one than it usually does to put one out! Half a dozen bales of straw were being tossed around in the rain while the villagers looked on and cheered (or jokingly jeered.)

Trying to start a blaze in the rain, Gyömöre, Hungary

Several hundred villagers of all ages were enjoying activities from face painting and basket weaving to archery and the Hungarian pastime of whip-cracking, whirling an extremely long and dangerous leather cord used out on the wide open Puszta to control roaming cattle.

Basket making, Gyömöre, Hungary

Archery, Gyömöre, Hungary

Cracking the whip, Gyömöre, Hungary

Several people seemed to remember us from last time and others were eager to practice their English. We were made wonderfully welcome, offered tastings of pálinka and invited to taste the different soups and stews being cooked in the rain in huge cauldrons over open wood fires. There was a competition for the best Hungarian goulash. Fortunately we were not the judges. Each was a glorious but very different mix of meats, peppers, vegetables and paprika, some with cream, others with mushrooms or tomatoes. Most of the vegetables came from the gardens of the villagers. Once the competition was over, the contents of the cauldrons were sold to eager visitors. Getting in training for Romania we chose the Transylvanian goulash with chicken, mushrooms, fresh cream, tarragon and mild paprikas. It came served with a thick slice of crusty white bread and we all squashed up together on long wooden benches in the huge tent while the rain poured down outside.

Competing for the cookery prize at the village fete, Gyömöre, Hungary

Jill tastes the goulash, Gyömöre, Hungary

Meanwhile the firemen had eventually got a smokey blaze going and, resplendent in their uniforms and helmets, were busy with their high pressure hoses showing how they could put it out again. Unfortunately most people had chosen to keep dry inside the tent rather than stand and watch, but several children with brightly painted faces were allowed to direct the hoses and were getting gloriously wet and smoky.

Firemen in action, Gyömöre, Hungary
We were joined by Zsuzsa, our friends' daughter, and their two year old grandson, Dani. Zsuzsa is an English teacher so was able to give her poor mum a rest from permanent translation. Dani was wonderfully captivated by the afternoon, watching everything in fascination, chatting away to us in Hungarian, playing with the other children and later attempting to join the Hungarian dancers on the stage inside the tent.

Zsuzsa, Danni and Gabor, Gyömöre, Hungary

Erzsébet was taking part in a needlework exhibition. Since retirement she has been learning how to make lace and embroider it into beautiful doilies. Other ladies were busy demonstrating how they make really fine lace, for which Hungary is famed, using a pillow and dozens of bobbins of fine thread. I found myself quite mesmerised trying to work out how it was done. (It's rather like the lace made in Devon – Honiton in particular.)

Hungarian lace on display at the village fete, Gyömöre, Hungary

Jill receives a lesson in lace making, Gyömöre, Hungary

Erzsebet has Jill helping with the lace-making, Gyömöre, Hungary
The village boys and girls dressed up in improvised cat costumes – tights and tee-shirts with a long tail and faces painted with whiskers and red noses – produced a dance routine that had all the parents smiling and saying "aahh". The Hungarians are so uninhibited.

Cats at the village fete, Gyömöre, Hungary

Then came the dancing. First the village ladies from the over 60s club dressed up in berets, jeans and check shirts to dance a lively routine that had us gasping with respect at their stamina and willingness to make everyone laugh and cheer. Then they donned sparkly gypsy clothes and high heels for a lively Hungarian/techno-music routine. Nuff respect!!

A boy and girl of around 13 dressed in traditional costume put on a very professional Hungarian folk dance, the girl in a whirl of lacy petticoats and the boy in a baggy shirt, high boots and black waistcoat, trousers and hat. The gypsy music was fast and furious and there was much leaping, stamping and boot slapping.

Young talent, Gyömöre, Hungary

Best though was a troop of male shepherd dancers, all dressed in traditional costume with baggy white trousers and high black boots, leaping and stamping around the stage with breathtaking agility. All this from a small Hungarian village! Outside of the big towns this country still has so much folk culture and there are efforts being made to conserve it by the teaching of traditional songs, music and dances in schools. The youngest member of the dancing shepherds was seven years old. Already he had a fantastic sense of rhythm and a total lack of inhibition, performing with pride and obvious pleasure.

Some of the impressive dancing shephers, Gyömöre, Hungary

Leaping and book slapping is thirsty work. Local wine helps! Gyömöre, Hungary

Back home. Erzsebet, Gabor, Danni and Zsuzsa, Gyömöre, Hungary

Sunday 5th September 2010, Györ, Hungary
This morning, despite the bright sunshine, we were late arriving in the kitchen for breakfast. We'd been offered a comfortable bed inside the pretty single storey cottage Erzsébet inherited from her aunt, rather than sleeping in the garden in Modestine as we usually do. Spoilt by the comfort of the fresh sheets and duvets we'd slept later than was really polite but our hosts were very forgiving.

Hungarian breakfasts consist of fruit juice and coffee, accompanied by slices of heavy bread with fresh green paprikas, goats' curd cheese blended with mild sweet paprika powder, spicy dried sausage and assorted cheeses as well as various home-made jams.

Later we drove into Györ and were given a walking tour of the historic centre by Erzsébet and Gábor. (We have described Györ on an earlier visit.)

For lunch we mingled with the mighty at the smartest restaurant in the city. Well, the mayor was dining there and our friends told us they only ever dined there on very special occasions. The food was excellent and extremely ample – pork Schnitzel with rice, salad and gherkins, mixed roasted vegetables and chicken in a pepper sauce. We sat outside where we were offered warm blankets against the chill breeze. Generally though it was bright and sunny, overlooking the large, newly refurbished central square in the town. Széchenyi tér is flanked on all sides by baroque houses and churches and our impression was that the square, along with its modern, dancing fountains soaking the flat flagstones, is out of keeping with the setting. We have seen countless similar squares in other European cities. They all look smart and clean but have been made somewhat characterless.

Széchenyi Tér, Györ, Hungary

Gabor, Jill and Erzsebet awaiting lunch, Györ Hungary

Worth the wait, Györ, Hungary

Ian's obsession with sticky cakes lead us into temptation, Györ, Hungary

Across the river we found the restored Jewish synagogue. Before the war there was a thriving Jewish community but this was destroyed and the synagogue left to decay until recently when it was very sympathetically renovated and is now a concert venue, gallery of modern art and part of the Györ music conservatoire. As we browsed the paintings and sculptures on each of the three floors we were accompanied by a musician from the music school playing Brahms on the piano. The acoustics were excellent. Outside a stone monument recalls the names and ages of all the Jewish children from Györ who died during the holocaust.

Monument to the Jewish children who died, Györ, Hungary

We were also taken to visit our hosts' elder daughter and her young family in their new home in a village neighbouring the city. It would seem that young people buy some land and have a basic house built for them before moving in immediately it is just about habitable and gradually carrying out the rest of the work as they can afford it. There are years of hard work ahead but the basic home is there and our hosts young grandchildren were happy to show us their bedrooms and permit us to crawl around the floor with them playing with their lego! We were also given an ocarina concert.

Late afternoon we returned home and walked across the fields to the summer house of Erzsébet's parents. In winter they have a flat in Györ but all summer long they live in their little summer cottage set in the centre of their plot of land where they grow vines, apples, plums, peaches, walnuts, raspberries, redcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, tomatoes. peppers, gherkins, pumpkins, carrots and herbs. They are amongst the world's most loveable people reminding us strongly of Adam and Eve in their garden of Eden. Already the late afternoon was getting chilly as they welcomed us into their cosy red gingham kitchen and single downstairs room heated by a large ceramic stove in the corner. We were offered the usual traditional glass of pálinka which at 58% proof certainly warmed us up instantly. We have become adept at drinking this Hungarian moonshine over the past couple of days. It can be made from peaches, plums, pears or cherries. We've tried them all now. It's not really moonshine as a new law now permits people to produce a certain amount each year for personal consumption.

After the pálinka and sweet biscuits we were offered a huge bowl of garden fruits – peaches, plums and bunches of white, black and red grapes on a bed of vine leaves. Then came the wine – also white, rosé or red – produced by Erzsébet's father. Later we strolled around the garden and he showed us his pump for raising water from 60 metres underground to water his fruits. There is no water laid on in the house and drinking water has to be transported in bottles from Erzsébet's home. Nevertheless, they have electricity and there is a computer in the corner of the main room and Erzsébet's father is an enthusiastic internet surfer using his plug-in mobile connection!

Ezsebet's mother with fruit from her garden, Gyömöre, Hungary

Erzsebet's father in retirement. Formerly a professor of music, Gyömöre, Hungary

Garden pump, Gyömöre, Hungary

In a country garden, Gyömöre, Hungary

Inspecting the vines, Gyömöre, Hungary

Almost ready for harvesting, Gyömöre, Hungary

In the cellar beneath the house, Gyömöre, Hungary

When we left to return across the fields it was with a bag containing a bottle of wine and another of cherry pálinka to keep us warm on chilly nights in Romania when the wolves and vampires are about! This elderly couple, now well into their 80s, really are most wonderfully warm and friendly. Both speak a little German so communication was not too difficult with Erzsébet able to translate Hungarian when we got lost in the jumble of languages. They complain they are getting too old to work in the huge garden and to make wine, pickle gherkins and bottle fruits each autumn. Gábor is just retiring from work and has mixed feelings about taking on all the responsibilities expected of him, though is willing enough to help with the heavy work.

Fond farewell, Gyömöre, Hungary

On our return home we passed a friendly but scruffy dog guarding a small troop of long-tailed sheep and several huge and hairy pigs up to their shoulders in muck. They weighed in, we were informed, at 200 kilos each! We worked that out at around the average weight of three humans! They were the largest, happiest and muckiest creatures we have seen for a long time. Both the dog and the pigs are Hungarian breeds, probably unknown outside of the country.

That's what they mean by "happy as a pig in muck"! Gyömöre, Hungary

Returning to the village, the church across the fields, Gyömöre, Hungary

We first visited Erzsebet's parents in their summer house in June 2006
Tuesday 7th September 2010, Debrecen, Hungary
We are now camped several kilometres south of Debrecen where we arrived last night. We have arranged to meet with Peter and Kati here this evening. They left Exeter a couple of weeks before us in their camping car Huba and have been staying in their flat in Budapest, visiting friends and relatives until our arrival. Our intention was to arrive a day ahead of them so that we could spend some time with Hungarian friends István and Ibolya who live in the city. We first met István when he spent a year working at the Medical School in Exeter and visited them here back in 2006 when they made us incredibly welcome, introducing us to both Debrecen and the surrounding Hortobágy region and its traditions.

István has been away in Austria until yesterday and when we finally made phone contact last night it was to discover that he is involved with a medical examination at the Debrecen medical school all morning so this visit will be no more than a brief meeting for coffee and a chat this afternoon. So far for so short a time!

Our departure from Erzsébet and Gábor was tinged with sadness. It's just too far from England to see them very often, but we have been amazed at how easily we have slipped back into the same relationship we had with them on our previous visit. Erzsébet says she has not used her English since then. She is extraordinary! Not only was she chatting solidly with us for two days, she also acted as general interpreter for Gábor and her parents – though they spoke a little German. Köszönöm szépen és viszontlátásra!

Our journey from Györ yesterday was uneventful. Hungarian motorways are fast, and except for the ring road around Budapest, uncrowded, with small but pleasant and clean facilities for travellers every few kilometres along the route. Of course we saw nothing of the countryside. Motorways generally are the worst possible way to travel but with 300 miles to cover and dire warnings about the broken state of the ordinary roads, we decided to sit tight on the motorway all the way to Debrecen, just a short distance from the Romanian border. Fortunately Gábor had helped us buy a motorway vignette giving unlimited access to Hungarian motorways for four days. Our vehicle registration number is fed into a national computer and our number plate photographed whenever we enter or leave the motorway network. This is then electronically checked against the database to ensure we have a valid vignette.

Today we are taking an admin day here until István and Ibolya arrive. This morning we explored the campsite, set deep in the woods with a lake nearby. It appears to be a Christian centre to judge from the postcards on sale in the office but, seeking out somewhere to do our laundry we discovered that the Christian campsite may possibly be just a front. Judging from the number of wheelchairs and birch brooms stored behind the toilet block, this is the secret training ground for the Hungarian paraplegic quidditch team!

There is a clatter of clogs around the site as several Dutch couples, travelling together, gather around the sinks for communal sock soaking. Several have just arrived at our door for a tour of inspection of Modestine. Surprisingly for the Dutch, none of them spoke English, but we managed pretty well in a mixture of German, Dutch and English. They are also on their way to Romania tomorrow. They go together every year as a group of volunteer grandparents , visiting Romanian orphanages which, sadly, are still in dire need of support. As they explained, they have so much and the Romanian children still have so little. They raise sponsorship in Holland and travel as a small group to see their sponsored "grandchildren" and help out in the orphanages. One reads of such things happening but this is for real! It's rather awesome and tragic to realise that over 30 years after the fall of the Ceauşescus, Romanian orphanages are still so dire!