Well after two good weeks, week 3 didn’t start so well…..
Overnight the weather turned and we temperature dropped further and snow started to come. This is fine within reason, but considering we’re on 30,000 mile old summer tyres we are rightly concerned about the weather conditions as apart from getting stuck we don’t want to have an accident! Leaving Sankt Gilgen we headed on some excellent roads towards Hallstatt which looked lovely in our guidebook next to a lake. But we fell foul of the bitter icy wind, a bit of snow, and the fact it was deserted and all the exciting things such as the salt mine were closed. The restaurants were all empty, streets dull and full of icy-tumbleweed so we decided to head off. We found Liezen which is probably the furthest you can sensibly go without a motorway vignette if heading towards Graz. Liezen sadly is a 1960s/70s featureless town with an area resembling any out-of-town retail park. There was some indoor rock climbing but nothing else worth mentioning.
This raised some concerns that if they continue may really show us the worst of Austria – as whist the mountain views are spectacular – we’ve seen enough deserted towns and closed attractions for the trip. Clearly the best time is the summer months or indeed the post-Christmas ski season. So at the moment we’re not doing Austria much justice. The big cities are all fine and open but typically we get our best experiences from the smaller random finds.
We therefore decided to speed up and head to Graz on the motorways and get into Hungary before the weather gets worst and enjoy what we can and not dwell on empty towns. We bought a motorway vignette from a petrol station – €7.50 for 10 days and set off. (En-route to Graz we had to pay another €7.50 tunnel toll)
About 20 minutes into our journey the weather improved and the sun was shining and the snow vanished! Phew! Though when we stopped we noticed we had no habitation power. Oh bugger. Can’t blame the builders for this as I changed the wiring when upgrading the batteries… It came down to a blown fuse which was on the main battery feed. It either blew because the batteries were needing charging more than normal or just fatigue… I hope the latter as it was a 30A fuse which ought to have been sufficient. Needless to say I carry a multi-meter and a load of spares so this was quickly fixed.
We managed to park in fairly central Graz for free. Disappointingly though the city is best described as average. Maybe we’re spoilt, but even so it is not a touch on Salzburg or Innsbruck let alone cities elsewhere. The east-side of the river didn’t even justify the walk – it was like the “poor end of town”, and the castle and cave system were, well, not overly inspiring. The west-side was nice to see – but…
Deciding we needed to sort ourselves out before entering Hungary (which incidentally is the first country on our entire tour Ryan hasn’t been to before – the joys of previous international jobs) we decided to head for a campsite. Wow! We thought it wise as our tanks were low and the batteries would benefit from a long charge, and thus we ended up in a little town called Bairisch Kölldorf. The campsite itself was rather surprisingly plush with a decent and busy bar and restaurant and also excellent facilities including a decent bath! All well and good till the lights tripped when we were in the bath reminding us we were camping!! We tasted the delights of the busy restaurant and Mels veggie dish was especially superb.
Checking TomTom we discovered our random route to a random place in Hungary actually went via Slovinia which was another surprise! The entire route was on back roads in various states of repair and the villages all looked traditional but were quiet. Between borders there was literally a single sign, deserted small shack, and the only way we really know we’ve crossed borders is all our mobile phones keep bleeping saying they are in a new country!
First heading towards Zalaegerszeg which wasn’t anything special, though it did have a big our of town shopping centre including a 24hr Tesco, and also a big water-park and spa (probably closed) we bought our motorway pass from a petrol station and knew we were safe. (Hungary use an electronic number-plate reader so you do need one if you venture onto a motorway – £10 for 10 days). We then carried on to the spa town of Hévíz which again was nice enough and we enjoyed some Christmas festivities including an authentic Hungarian band dressed as Santas playing “Oh when the saints go marching in….”. Hévíz has a large and “famous” spa lake (2nd biggest in world) and large thermal spas which gave the town an eerie mist in the evening. The spa was closed to we decided to stay the night and check it out in the morning.
To our surprise, the spa (which looked superb) was still closed in the morning! It appears that it is having some maintenance, so the best we could do is view it from the outside. After our views we went to Keszthely on the edge of Lake Balaton which was an okay place with a lovely palace. As we like lakes we thought we’d go on a tour of the southern shores of the lake (the biggest in Europe?) and follow the closest possible road to the lake with a view to find somewhere nice to stay. Unbelievably, almost the entire shoreline has been built on – so we saw the lake for only a minute or two on the entire coast! We did stop and get out at Siófok but out attempts to get to the shore were thwarted by hotels and other establishments (closed) preventing even a decent view! Such a shame – we suggest unless you are going to a southern coast town for a reason – head north. (In hindsight even our guide says the southern side is dead out of season and wall-to-wall buildings). Thus our attempts to find somewhere nice to wild-camp (no aires and all campsites closed) were met with failure – and for the first time on this trip we struggled. Eventually we stopped in Balatonkenese in a small area next to their church for the night planning to escape to Budapest in the morning.
The day started early, and badly, when a lorry seemed to park next to us and get stuck – so at some ungodly hour (7:30am!) he made a racket getting out. So we got up early and headed to an Aire listed in one of our books (Bordatlas 2009) which is fairly central to the centre of Budapest. However, after driving though the centre of Budapest on some naff roads we found it wasn’t there. We checked the GPS and we were right; but then checked the 2010 edition and realised they made a mistake! So instead we headed to the only campsite we knew was open according to ACSI2009. On going through the city again we got to the site and found it closed, or if it was open it was dire! Opting to go back to the 2010 GPS coordinates, through Budapest to the other side of the city (again) we found it and got in and paid. Then to be told that water and electric were “kaput” so in effect paying for nothing next to the noisy airport. Great – cue us both in a crap mood! It was close enough to a train station for a 20-min ride into the city so we managed to get a few hours sightseeing in before we got drenched through and frozen sending us back to our van to warm up. Not great – however the large central parts of Budapest looked great and reminded us of London with loads to see. Our initial viewings of both Buda and Pest were good though and encouraged us to come back the following day.
In the morning we left early and parked in a space we eyed up the previous day – one of the few places we saw without a maximum duration of 3 hours. It was safe enough next to the Danube with the Parliament building only 100m away (try doing that in London!). In the end we actually stayed there the night. Contrary to our guide book, we found central Budapest roads quite good and the traffic okay – it is the outer roads away from the centre that are more mental.
Unfortunately the statue garden was closed, and the spa wasn’t really appealing in this weather, but we must have walked 20 miles and know we didn’t see everything. We were very impressed. The Secret Police (Moving house of terror) museum was brilliant and worth a tour. Very moving and humbling showing what the Hungarian people had to put up with. You could spend 1/2 day there with ease. City park was great, again a days visit if it were summer! The entrance (Heros square) was breathtaking. The view from the Fishermans Bastion over the city was superb and countless other monuments are well worth a walk – thats something between you and your guide book. Near the liberty bridge there is the authentic city market which is unique, and on our way from the bridge we found a Christmas market – best in Hungary by far – where we had a supper of authentic food and mulled wine with some live classical music. Budapest seems to us to be a cross between Berlin and London with a touch or Rome, and contrary to our guidebook consider it very safe, clean, and quite brilliant and an absolutely must-see for anyone – even on a city-break.
Waking up to another dry day we left Budapest knowing some sights will be saved for a future visit. We headed north to follow the Danube river via the arty cobbled town of Szentendre and the town of Esztergom on the Slovak border. The Basilica in Esztergom is built in the grounds of an old castle rampart and dominates the skyline and really is impressive. The town itself is worth a visit and via the newly rebuilt bridge Slovakia is only a short walk away. With knackered legs we continued to Mosonmagyaróvár a spa town near the Austrian border with a view to settle down for the night an explore the spa at the start of week 4.
Our third week has been interesting with a couple of downs as well as some ups, and has shown us a lot of Hungary that has left us wanting to revisit more in-season when everything is actually open. I think the fact we only saw 2 other camper-vans in the entire of Hungary suggest others knew this already!