2017 – Eastern Europe

Although we tend to go on holiday by ourselves, the PEMC (which we’d joined a couple of years before) were doing a trip which included Poland and Hungary, both countries which we’d never visited. The trip also represented good value for money, so we signed up.

Friday 8th September 2017

The trip was actually starting in Mons, so we decided to make our way there by taking our usual overnight ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden.

We’d booked the ferry well in advance, and found that by doing so we could upgrade to cabins with a sea view for very little extra, so that’s what we did. Feeling less and less able to take full advantage of DFDS’s buffet dinners we opted this time to go a-la-carte in the restaurant. It was a nice enough meal, but not much choice (almost none for Pat). We may go back to the buffet next time.

The entertainment in the night club was a single female singer. Competent enough, but unable to hold our attention for very long.

Saturday 9th

The weather was nice and we had time to spare, so we decided to detour via Bruges. We had a nice stroll round the central square and a bit of lunch in one of the cafes there.

Late afternoon saw us in Mons with time for a stroll around another square before meeting our fellow travellers. They seemed a nice enough bunch! Dinner was very posh, and very prolonged. Our room was fascinating, with the original convent window.

Sunday 10th

Tonight we’d be staying in Aschaffenburg. The shortest route was on the motorway, passing Karlesruhe and Stuttgart, but we’d done these roads before and had had to filter through static traffic for miles and miles. So we plotted a cross-country route instead. We had to re-route once due to a road closure, but we had some nice country roads and eventually made it to our hotel.

The hotel was a contrast from the night before (a recurring theme of this holiday), reminiscent of a youth hostel, but the dinner amused Colin. There was a choice of seven main courses – all involving pork cooked in different ways! Pat did a little better.

Monday 11th

Off to Prague. We were joined by Steve and Karen on their Goldwing. They’d followed the two other Goldwings the previous day but thought our cross-country route sounded much more interesting. We paired up for most of the holiday, and Steve impressed Colin with how he threw the Goldwing around.

However, there was little alternative on this day to taking motorways, so apart from a detour to Wurzburg for a coffee (nice little town) that’s what we did. We were pleased to have the Zumo to find our hotel for us – the city is full of one-way roads and we had to go across most of it. Even then we had to do a circuit of the block to find the hotel’s underground car park.

Again, the hotel itself was nice enough – but it had no restaurant. They’d assured our organiser that they could supply us with an evening meal, but this proved to be three bought-in dishes – a thin soup, some sort of meat and mashed potato and sliced cake! So we transferred to the restaurant next door, which did us proud. We cancelled the following night’s meal, and got our money back for the first night so we weren’t too bothered.

Tuesday 12th

The order of the day was sightseeing in Prague. It is a lovely city. We walked to Wenceslas Square, and thence to the old town square.

It being 10 minutes to the hour we had a coffee in a cafe opposite the famous astronomical clock (9 euros for the two!), which gave us a ringside seat for when the clock struck. We then had a walk down to the Charles Bridge (for yet more photographs) and, making our way back, stopped in a small kebab cafe for lunch. It had a good veggie selection!

We’d planned to take the Metro back to near our hotel, but the station we wanted was closed so we just walked instead. Then again, there are worse cities through which to walk. In fact, Prague is chock-a-block with people walking, following little flags or umbrellas; we’ve never seen a town so full of tourists.

We had dinner in the same restaurant as the previous night, to the same standard.

Wednesday 13th

On the road again, this time to Krakow where we were to spend three nights. Again, the obvious choice of road was motorway, particularly as the scenery was strange to us and the traffic light. Our hotel was actually a few miles outside the centre of Krakow and pretty basic but decent enough by local standards, except for Pat’s bed with the springs poking through the mattress. The staff were friendly and helpful. The principal problem was shortage of booze. We drank them out of red wine the first night, so they ordered more in for the second night – only four bottles, which soon disappeared!

Thursday 14th

We planned to spend the day in old Krakow, so the hotel ordered a taxi for us which we shared with Steve and Karen. The taxi driver was very proud of his city and pointed out all the new industry that has sprung up since Poland joined the EU.

The old town was beautiful, and we happily spent a couple of hours wandering around, admiring another square.

This one was huge and lined with beautiful horse-drawn carriages, the horses having thick wooden shoes. We don’t know if this was to protect the horses’ legs or the paving. We noticed the horses knew their way round the tours, leaving the drivers free to catch up on their emails.

Our coffee and hot chocolate stop was just outside a gate in the old city wall, Colin’s hot choc looking more like an ice cream sundae. Eventually we made our way to, and round the outside of, the castle. By then the day had got quite hot, and we were hungry and thirsty, so when we came upon an inviting cool courtyard of a restaurant we accepted our fate and had a long, leisurely lunch. All too soon it was time to meet the others to share a taxi back to the hotel.

We were glad of our good lunch when dinner was delayed while they fed a huge school party that arrived in two coaches. The children were noisy but well-behaved and obviously tired out by whatever they’d been doing that day as there wasn’t a sound once they’d been sent off to bed.

Friday 15th

One of the recommended sights in the locality was the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a short ride away. A few of the party were going, so we tagged on. You could only enter the mine by joining a (cheap and English-speaking) guided tour, so that’s what we did. We climbed down a multitude of staircases, but not all at once, to reach the main level. It was simply stunning. Everything you see in this photo, apart from the light bulbs, is made of salt.

We had lunch in the restaurant at the mine (over 400 feet underground!), then took a rather nerve-racking lift back to the surface. Thank goodness we didn’t have to climb up the stairs! We called at a supermarket on the way back to the hotel to pick up a few essentials.

Saturday 16th

On the road to Budapest. For this journey we took the main road as far as Zakopane before heading for the Tatra mountains and more scenic roads.

The main road had long traffic queues in both directions, with the road too narrow to do much filtering. Pat was amused by an old farmer in the middle of it all, dressed in his traditional heavy wool trousers and hat and driving his horse and cart. Once through Zakopane the Zumo decided to take us a short detour on a very rustic route (presumably saving a few yards), and on rejoining the main road we again hit a long static queue disappearing into the distance, once more with little or no filtering space. The Zumo reckoned less than a mile to our turnoff, so we drove along the nearside on what was part pavement and part sewer, sloping precariously at times! Reaching our turn-off, we were soon in Slovakia and hit what the map had said was a white road, but to our delight all but the first mile of this was recently resurfaced. So we had great fun through the twisties, admiring the views,

detouring to Kvacany for coffee (Slovakian, full of grounds, a bit like weak Turkish coffee) and down a lake-side before joining the main road to Budapest.

Colin had carefully plotted our hotel on the satnav, and we duly arrived bang on the hotel’s garage entrance – not before, however, following the river for a mile or two and being gob-smacked by the beautiful Parliament building on the opposite bank.

The hotel was built into a steep bank, garage on the lowest level, rooms at the top and restaurant a short trip outside down the slope, or a short dash in the rain. The meal was fine and a few of our party met the challenge of the local equivalent of the yard of ale. The staff were very welcoming but wouldn’t, however, keep the other half of our bottle of wine for us, and when we turned up with it the following evening the waitress took a bit of persuading to bring us two empty wine glasses!

Sunday 17th

The weather forecast was grim, but we decided to risk it, and the morning turned out to be cloudy but almost dry. So we had a nice walk over the chain bridge to Pest, and along to the Parliament building. This was just as spectacular close-up as it was from a distance.

On the large open space in front of it, as well as the national flag guarded by a pair of soldiers, there was a reflecting pool with an inscription hailing the young revolutionaries of 1956. We also examined the bullet holes in the building opposite, made during the 1956 revolution and preserved with iron billets.

Making our way inland we came across Szabadsag Square, where we stopped for a coffee. At the far side of the square was a series of fountains, in the form of a square and timed to stop and start seemingly at random. The idea was to jump over the quiescent ones. Pat made it in safely, but mistimed jumping out and got soaked!

Walking on we saw a whole load of stalls up a side street leading to the square in front of the St Stephen Basilica. This turned out to be a festival of sweets.

We had a good look around, then stopped at a small cafe for a bite to eat. We took the precaution of choosing seats outside that were safely under the canopy. Just as well, as soon it was pouring down.

When the rain eased we made our way back to the hotel, then decided to see a little of Buda. The road behind the hotel took us up to Fisherman’s Bastion.

This was another amazing set of buildings, again with a nice view of the river. Then it was time to beat a threatening rain cloud back to the hotel for dinner.

Monday 18th

Only a short journey to Lake Badacsony, where we were to spend the next two nights in a spa hotel. Taking advantage of the fine morning, took the funicular up to Buda Castle,

walked around the outside (nice views of the river)

then went north along the ridge back to Fishermen’s Bastion.

Once on the bike we made the short detour to the Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest. This open-air museum contains monumental statues and sculpted plaques from Hungary’s Communist period, removed from the city centre. There are statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels, as well as several Hungarian Communist leaders. Oddly fascinating.

At the entrance, on top of a high pedestal, are Lenin’s boots, the remains of a statue hacked off when it couldn’t be pulled down and now a symbol of free Hungary.

We’re not sure whether it was by accident or design but the Zumo’s route to the hotel took us by ferry over the middle of Lake Badacsony, which made a nice change. The hotel itself was modern and comfortable, although our dinner was in what appeared to be a gymnasium hall and the bar shut at 9:00pm!

Tuesday 19th

In spite of the rainy morning, we had a short walk down to the lake, popped into the small tourist office, then walked up the road to one of the local caves for a brief wine-tasting.

Not to waste the experience of staying in a spa, in the afternoon Pat went for a massage. As the masseuse spoke very little English, it was a rather odd experience. She pointed at the massage table, held out some aromatherapy oil to be sniffed and approved, and set to work. After the allotted time she whipped off the sheet and said “is finished”. No slow coming round here then!

Wednesday 20th

Off to Kranjska Gora in Slovenia. We’d chosen a largely non-motorway route for ourselves, Karen and Steve, which took us along the Drava river and briefly into Austria, where we stopped in Bleiburg for lunch. The friendly man in the nearest bar/cafe offered us flammkuchen, with a topping of pears for Pat. Very nice it was too. Our friends had never heard of flammkuchen and were rather suspicious but they agreed to try it and found it delicious.

Then it was across the mountains back into Slovenia.

We called into Bled for tea, but it was absolutely packed out with tourists (more so than we remembered from our previous visit), so we simply turned round and headed for our hotel.

We were staying in the outskirts of Kranjska Gora, in an hotel with a casino (which we didn’t patronise) more accurately described as a casino with basic rooms. The dinner was an eat-all-you-can buffet, which delighted Pat as it had a good veggie selection.

Thursday 21st

A long day’s ride to Oberammergau, starting with a very pretty ride along the Sava river, dipping briefly into Italy and then taking in some of Austria and Germany’s best scenery. We’d planned to revisit the famous Grossglockner pass, but a large snowfall meant this was restricted to vehicles with snow tyres or chains. So we took the parallel road to the west, equally pretty, through the 5km-long Felbertauerntunnel. There was snow at the other end, although the road was clear and mostly dry.

We stopped off for lunch at one of our favourite spots, the Krimml Falls, then headed north for Germany. The road we’d then planned to take along the Sylvensteinsee was closed, which necessitated a long detour via Gemund and Bad Tölz. This in turn meant working our way along a tailback several miles long, picking up a few unsure bikers on the way.

We eventually reached our hotel, which was pleasant enough and offered a decent dinner. We took a short post-prandial stroll through the town, but the ice-cream parlour the hotel staff had recommended was closed.

Friday 22nd

We were staying Friday night in Pirmasens, near enough 300 miles away. There were no obvious minor roads for most of the way, so after a nice little ride past our favourite Plansee

we hit the motorway and got our heads down for Pirmasens.

The hotel was fine, albeit a bit of a warren. We spent a pleasant hour sitting outside with a beer, watching the local farmers haul load after load of chopped maize down the street to some distant silo. Unfortunately, the chef was ill, and so the hotel arranged for us to have dinner in a restaurant just down the road. This was very much a local place for local people, including a large group of sweaty farmers who turned up as it grew too dark for hauling. The owner dragged an English-speaking friend away from her dinner to take our orders and eventually rustled up an unexpectedly delicious meal – with the usual exception of the veggies who had to make do with a salad.

Apparently the clock in the local church tower struck every quarter right through the night. We slept through it!

Saturday 23rd

Not quite so far to go today, and a lovely, sunny day, so we decided to detour via Bouillon, our favourite destination in the Ardennes. We had a nice wander round the town, enjoying the sunshine, until it was lunchtime. Colin, inevitably, had a huge bowlful of moules frites. Pat had just the frites, but these were refilled as necessary so not exactly a small meal either!

Then it was a short hop to the motorway and that night’s destination, Moorsel. We were glad of the satnav, as our hotel wasn’t the easiest to find. It was very posh, though, a little too much so in the case of the food. It was supposed to be the highlight of the trip, but we’d have cheerfully swapped our tiny helpings of foam for a decent chair and a few drawers in our room.

Sunday 24th

We didn’t have far to go to catch our ferry, so we had a leisurely breakfast, bought a picnic on the way, then chilled out at a little park we’d discovered on an earlier trip, a few miles short of the port at Ijmuiden.

Our cabin in the ferry proved to be very rattly, so we were moved to another cabin with no hassle at all – and a much posher one at that.

Monday 25th

Not a bad morning to be landing at North Shields, although there was the usual long wait to get through the UK Border Police or whatever they call themselves nowadays.

A great holiday, with good memories of new places. We were very pleased with the new FJR. It carried us the 2,870 miles with ease, and was narrow enough to squeeze through some pretty tight gaps when filtering. The average mileage, though, was a little higher than we would have preferred. To balance this the discounts PEMC had achieved were welcome. Nevertheless we’ll probably revert to DIY next time.

You’ll find a gallery with more of the photos we took here. Right-click on an open image for full-size version.