Slovakia and Hungary
September 2008

 
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Before I talk about Slovakia and then Hungary, I want to say again that the kindness of local people on this trip was really outstanding. People just walked up from nowhere to help us, or to just practice their German and find out where we were from, or to oggle the bike and congratulate us on the trip. On the rare occasions we encountered someone who didn't speak German (geesh but that language is more widespread than I ever dreamed), the person still tried as hard as he or she could to understand and help us. It was just really a beautiful thing that made the trip even more wonderful.

So with that said, I was shocked to talk to two different travelers in two different countries, from two different countries, who had nothing but negative things to say about these unfriendly, unhelpful "foreigners" in Eastern Europe. They had stories of people refusing to help, of no one speaking German or English, and being indignant that the travelers didn't speak the local language. They assured us that this was the norm, not the exception, based on their experiences.

There are not-so-great people all over the world, it's true. But I find it hard to believe that our experiences are so different from these other travelers. Sure, we've encountered assholes, but they've always been the exception, not the rule. Even in France, people were absolutely lovely - warm and helpful and even very funny at times. Maybe it's how we approach people?

I should also say something about what a typical day was like on the road: We tried to not sleep past 9 (but sometimes, you know, it being our vacation and all...). For breakfast, we usually had bread and cheese bought the night before; Stefan would have cold cuts too, and I ate out of a small jar of peanut butter as well when I was sick of cheese. Stefan made a board that fits over the panniers from Stefan's motorcycle, and that's our table. After breakfast, I change back into my bike clothes and pack up my things, and then stay out of the way while Stefan packs up the sleeping gear; everything has to be packed up in a particular way, and I will never be able to master it. We take down the tent together, and he finishes packing. We'd try to get on the road by 10:30 at the latest (but aren't always successful). We ride until lunch, stopping for anything that looks interesting on the way or somewhere we already had plans to see, or for Stefan to smoke. Lunch is at a local place, whatever we can find, that allows us to see the bike while we're eating. Then we ride some more, with stops here and there. Sometimes we're aiming for a particular city or camp site; other times, we're just trying to get as far as we can in the right direction. We prefer to camp, but sometimes there are no camp sites, and no where to safely camp wild, so we have to stay in a hotel -- preferably a two star -- or a rented room. We stop at a grocery store or a gas station with a convenience store and buy something for supper that night and breakfast the next morning. Finding canned spaghetti or ravioli or other canned dinners proved a big challenge in Eastern Europe, so sometimes we had to eat at a restaurant that night as well. If we camped, we put the tent up together, then I would unpack everything for the evening, blow up the air mattresses, etc. After we had found a place to stay, unpacked and had supper, we would go out to have local beer or wine, or just buy something to drink at the camp site. Locals were always surprised that we wanted local beer or wine, not whatever German or Dutch exports they had, which is what most foreign tourists want, I guess. But if you're traveling, why not try the local stuff? If it wasn't too late, we'd read, but usually, from both riding and sight-seeing, we were exhausted and sleeping by 11, sometimes even earlier.

A word about hotel star ratings: many people think stars on hotel denote a quality rating. But, actually, they relate only to price. And if there is one thing we've learned about hotels, stars don't have anything to do with how well you will be treated, how clean the bathroom will be, how comfortable the bed will be, the competence of staff, etc.

It was our fifth day of vacation, though only our third on the road, and we were entering Slovakia from Poland, amid the breath-taking mountain scenery of the Tatras. We stopped to take pictures of the lovely vistas, and then headed to the almost-deserted border complex. The only person there, other than other a few tourists, was a "Kantor" - a money changer. It was the second time -- and not the last -- we would come to a massive border compound that now, because of the EU, has been largely abandoned. I dutifully sent a text message to my brother, my sister-in-law and my friend Lis back in Bonn to say we were crossing another border. We continued on our way, saw a few other motorcycle travelers (most headed in the opposite direction), and just dug on the incredible scenery. We stopped at another grocery store and... still no canned meals! What are we supposed to cook every night?! The supplies we had were running low.

We had lunch at a lovely restaurant beneath a hotel, then later camped at Levocska Dolina Autocamp, just a few kilometers from the walled town of Levocska. The few other campers -- all in RVs -- were very quiet, and the bar was great and had antique climbing equipment on display, though the bar closed way too early. The showers could use an upgrade, but there was hot water, so I got to wash my hair. It had little sleeping cabins, like in Norway or Sweden, but we wanted to be in our tent. We cooked and were entertained by five French RV drivers trying to park. I was feeling great. We would have had a restful night, but for a series of strange events: just before midnight, we were awakened by howling dogs. It was really scary. They stopped, and we left the tent to go to the bathroom, which was a bit of a hike (we'd drank way too much beer). I saw a man standing down in the parking lot with a flashlight. He creeped me out, because it was late, and I couldn't see who he was -- just a dark outline in the night. Later, when we went back to bed, and I heard him pull away in a car. But then I heard a dog roaming around, sniffing and sometimes snarling. I was really scared. Stefan was snoring away, and I decided I was being silly. I finally fell asleep... and then got woken up again by growling. The dog again went away, I fell asleep again, but then at 4 a.m., I woke up again, this time to the dog growling and ripping something up right outside our tent. I just knew one of our Tevas was biting the dust. Later in the morning, I did find out it was a shoe, but not ours. By sunrise, Rabid Slovakian Hound of the Baskervilles was gone, and Stefan didn't believe I'd heard anything -- and yet, there I held the ripped up sandal for him to see...

We drove into the walled city of Levocska, and stopped for a few photos and ice cream. It would have been worth touring the church and what not, had we had more time, but we needed to push on. I recommend staying at the camp site, rabid dogs and all, and touring the area, should you have the time.

I was furious when, later, I checked Lonely Planet Eastern Europe and found that we'd missed two must-see sites in Slovakia: Spišská Kapitula and Spišského Hrad. I AM AN IDIOT. I beat myself up all the way through Hungary. If there was any point in the trip that I can say, "We really missed out", this was it. I started reading LP much more closely after this mistake, to ensure we didn't miss some other huge must-see thing. I know you can't see everything on a trip -- goodness knows we had to bypass a lot of things that were originally on our list. But, well, just go look at the photos of Spišská Kapitula and Spišského Hrad on Google images

It had been a wonderfully cold in the night, and I had loved being snug in my fantabulous 16-year-old sleeping bag, but the day was heating up fast. The heat was quickly getting worse and worse. I had been convinced things were going to cool off because of the night we'd had, but we were dropping altitude quickly. As we headed towards the border to Hungary, we came upon the end of a youth firefighter competition. We didn't realize it was ending until we had stopped and walked over to check it out. We had a coke -- the WORST coke I have ever had, so bad that I couldn't finish it -- and took a few photos.

We crossed into Hungary at a massive and abandoned border compound, drained from the scorching heat. The one employee there, a money changer, refused to tell me where the bathroom was, so I went and peed behind an old passport booth. So there! We stayed in the shade at the checkpoint for a while, I changed my shirt into something entirely sleeveless (it's soooo flattering to my figure... not), texted various folks that we were in Hungary (and Carol Cate later texted a joke about paprika -- I soon learned why) and we headed farther into Hungary.

I noticed that Slovakia and Northern Hungary have lots of simple, long houses similar to shot gun houses in the USA, however, the front is the long side, and it doesn't face the street -- it faces the house next to it. No, I didn't take photos... I'm always afraid to take photos of people's houses. I paid attention to regular people's homes in each country, and it was always interesting how much they differed.

We stopped in some really ugly Soviet-style city and ate in the detached wooden patio of the only restaurant we saw. Stefan had schnitzel, but I couldn't fathom anything warm, so I had a Greek salad (good) and potato salad (not good). I stared out into the main roundabout and thought, geesh, every time we are in a town like this, I think of Kabul. Throw in a lot more trash, potholes and women in burkas, and it would look the same.

We stopped again in some ugly town, I don't remember where, while Stefan looked for an ATM. We found ATMs everywhere, but few of them worked for international customers, unfortunately. While he was trying different machines, I tried communicating with two very, very old women selling wild flowers on the side walk. They had faces with more lines than our map. I would have loved to take a photo of them -- I'm not sure why I didn't. They were ancient. One kept saying something about "Montreal, Canada" -- I think she has a relative there. They seem befuddled by the motorcycle.

The heat was becoming unbearable. We drove into Eger, Hungary and found the Tulipan camp site relatively easily. The only good thing I can say about the site is that it's got a great location. Otherwise, DON'T stay in this camp site if you want to sleep!! There are no posted quiet hours (which I noticed right away) and no quiet hours are enforced. The camp sites are right on top of each other, and there are actually just a few sites. A group of Polish party guys (most with shaved heads) and a group of German party guys screamed - SCREAMED - cackled and partied until 4:30 a.m. They were wasted, and as I'm scared of drunk people, there was nothing I could do. You are much better off staying at the camp site well out of town and taking a taxi to and from the wine cellars of Szépasszony völgy ("Valley of the Beautiful Women") if you want to sleep after your evening of drinking. Oh, and the camp site requires you vacate by 10 a.m.!! How crazy is that?!?

That said, Szépasszony völgy did not disappoint. It was an easy walk from the camp site. The wine was varied and quite tasty. And it was grand to sit in a cool, damp wine cellar on such a hot night. We weren't thinking and forgot to bring an empty plastic coke bottle so we could get it filled with whatever turned out to be our favorite cheap wine, as everyone else did. I'm too old to really tie one on, though I tried; Stefan did really well and, subsequently, slept through the revelries at the camp site (how he did, I'll never know). Just before we headed to the cellars, I heard someone speaking English and introduced myself to a nice young couple from Australia, Claire and Yanni, who gave us the lowdown on getting to the cellars. The next morning, I also met an American guy, from Seattle, who was doing our trip with his wife, but over an entire year, and by bicycle (YIKES!).

Just as people were rising and stumbling out of their tents and RVs with handovers, and I was laying there in our tent, frustrated from not sleeping, I listened to this North American guy (not the bicyclist) get dumped by his girlfriend/whatever. I could hear him clearly, but only mumbles from her. I felt so embarrassed. There was no way to shut out the conversation. I really don't like overhearing stuff like that. When I finally got up and out of the tent, there he was, all alone, packing the tent into his backpack...

We packed up and headed out by 10 a.m., as required, and doing a little tour of Eger by motorbike. Stefan then drove through a lovely stretch of mountains and forest that kept us mostly cool in the growing heat. After a couple of hours, I was hungover and nauseous, so we stopped at a gas station in Miskolc for Coca Cola and ice cream (sugar) and pretzels (salt). While we were munching away outside the station and trying to figure out why there was a university-quality telescope on the roof of the run down building across from us, a guy came up and held up his cell phone. He didn't speak German or English, and we quickly realized he wanted to take photos of Stefan's Honda Africa Twin. We said yes, ofcourse, and he clicked away, obviously loving the bike and the maps on Stefan's panniers that show where all he has traveled. The guy was terrific at getting his message across despite the language barrier: it's his dream to do something similar by motorbike. He has a Honda street bike, which he proudly showed us on his mobile phone, but he dreams of a trip like this with a more appropriate motorcycle. He kept trying to call a friend of his, and after just a few minutes, up walked his friend, who also started having a fit over the bike and taking photos with his mobile phone. They were ADORABLE. Then they wanted to take photos of us with the bike. Then I took photos of them and Stefan with the bike. Then I kissed them both with the two-European-kissies. The first guy wanted so badly to thank Stefan in some way, so he ran over to his car and brought back a diver's flashlight, which we actually ended up using on our trip. This was one of my favorite days of the whole trip, because of the beautiful ride Stefan took us on, followed by these very friendly guys who wanted nothing more than to be nice. It was such a lovely moment.

We had trouble finding how to get out of Miskolc, so Stefan decided to ask the GPS for help for the first time and, sure enough, it got us right out of town. Hurrah, GPS! It was, indeed, helping a lot -- we were quick to know when we'd taken a wrong turn, and that saves a HUGE amount of time, to know that early on (rather than an hour down the road). True, sometimes the GPS showed NO roads, and so the graphic of where we were was a triangle on an empty screen, with a line for where we'd been. Even so, when we had GPS coordinates for a site (Stefan gathered what he could before we left on this trip), it still proved helpful. Eastern Europe, in short, is not a trip you want to do without a GPS.

Just before we turned off the road for Tokaj, Hungary, we stopped at a massive winery with nothing around it but its own vineyards. We had to stick to water, however, because Stefan was driving and because I really didn't want to drink and then ride in the heat. We drank a LOT of water. Stefan had a traditional Hungarian beef goulash that looked yummy and I had a crazy delicious baked fresh water fish in dill sauce. LECKER (German for "yummy"). We hadn't had much breakfast in the rush to leave that morning by the camp site deadline and before the heat got awful, plus we were a bit hungover, so lunch was particularly delicious. No paprika, however (almost every dish you have in Hungary comes with paprika, and there is always a dispenser of paprika on the table). Tokaj is beautiful, and the many wineries there have lots of signs welcoming visitors (unlike in the Ahr valley). But we were way behind, and couldn't stop. There's just no way to stop and see everything that's worth seeing on a trip like this unless you take a year off.

We were BAKING, but somehow kept our spirits up. We both loathe heat, but had resigned ourselves to it. But in the city of Debrecen, while trying to find a grocery, I started to lose it. I was melting. I couldn't think clearly. We found an Aldi opened on Sunday (something you will never find in Germany), and I stood in the middle of an aisle and couldn't get my mind on what I was there for. Then I remembered -- canned spaghetti dinner. And, ofcourse, there was NO CANNED DINNERS. ARGH!

We headed to the massive, seemingly endless Hortobágyi Neuzeti Park, a sea of grasslands -- a grassy desert. There are massive, old-fashioned water wells dotting the vast landscape. We easily found the entrance for the Puszta camp site, and hoped there would be a lake to swim in. There wasn't. As we pulled into the drive way for the Puszta camp site, I could hear a folk band getting started in the restaurant on the road -- I would have loved to stop, but we had a tent to set up, and Stefan was suffering from the heat. The friendly camp host who, ofcourse, spoke German, proudly told us that there was a thermal spring right next to the grounds and a large tub where we could enjoy the naturally hot water. Stefan just stared at him blankly. HOT water?!? Are you mad?!?!? We set up the tent and each took ice cold showers. We then balked at the people taking a dip in the thermal bath. I dined on half a can of cold tuna, both because we'd been unable to find anything for dinner out of a can and because the idea of cooking seemed insane in the heat. I befriended a very skinny, very pregnant black cat, then fed the rest of the tuna to her and three black feral kittens nearby. Mommy cat adored me, and was happy to let me pet her. She stayed in our camp a lot of the time, just laying her big-but-skinny pregnant self there next to me, wagging her tail. Other times, she was hiding under various RVs from the Demon Leipzig child -- about six years old, who liked to scream, "Komm hier! while swinging her father's keys on a long rope. She complained to her Dad when the cat came to me but wouldn't come to her. Ah, precious little snowflakes... she reminded me a lot of the mean little girl near the end of Finding Nemo, actually.

What a surprise (not) that all our fellow campers were German or Austrian! I wouldn't like this camp site when it was crowded, but with so few other people, it's quite nice -- very quiet, and nice tree cover. There is one cabin on the site, and there was a young woman staying in it, as well as a young Asian couple. I wanted to talk to everyone, ofcourse, but... geesh, it was too freakin' hot to talk.

Stefan was not only suffering from the heat; the bugs were going after him like nothing I've ever seen before. If you ever want to not have bugs bite you, stand next to Stefan; they eat him up instead of you. He had to cover himself in bug spray, put on a long sleeve shirt that is specially designed to be bug resistant, and sit in the closed tent. His bug bites swelled up and looked like he'd been hit with a baseball bat. He looked and felt miserable. And the next day was his birthday! How could he have a good birthday if it didn't cool off and the bugs wouldn't leave him alone?

The sky was oh-so-clear, so we decided not to put the rain fly on the tent; it was much, much cooler without it. Ofcourse, in the middle of the night, a storm blew up. I woke to Stefan saying forcefully, "Jayne, get up, we have to put the rain fly on." And the next thing I knew, I was suddenly outside putting on the rain fly -- I don't remember getting out of my sleeping bag nor the tent. A real downpour never came -- just a few drops -- but the wind blew for a long time after that. It was very exciting! Amazingly, I fell right back asleep.

I noticed, as we packed the next day, that RVers really like to watch us unpack and pack the bike. It is kind of fascinating -- everything has a specific place on the bike, and each activity has to be done in a specific order. It never looks like we are going to be able to get it all back on the motorcycle, but we do! Plus, we're really good at putting up the tent quickly.

It was threatening rain, but I really wanted to go to the Hortobágy Bird Clinic nearby, that the camp host had strongly recommended we visit. We were not disappointed. Although our visit was rushed, it was totally worth it. The clinic treats injured storks, hawks, eagles, buzzards, swallows, crows, and kestrels. The birds have been poisoned, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidently, or electrocuted. The clinic rehabilitates some birds to release in the wild; others, with debilitating injuries, are given a home at the sanctuary. It was wonderful. Visitors get to walk through the clinic itself; the lights are kept very low, and you walk down a hall that allows you to see into all of the holding rooms and examination rooms. We marveled at how many birds they had. Near the end of the hall, we came to a room and there was a little owl on the door handle, nose-to-nose with us except for the glass in the door. Any country that puts its resources to something like this scores huge points in my book (yes, I have a book). Hungary, I loved you already for your wine, but I adore you for how you treat animals. Italy, are you paying attention? One interesting note: the incredibly shy young woman staying at the camp site cabin turned out to be the receptionist at the clinic. I can think of worse summer jobs.

The plains of Hortobágyi Neuzeti Park are really lovely. Rain was coming, and the approaching storm clouds gave it all a lonely, open feel. We continued to take secondary roads, and I loved all the villages and farms we passed. As we neared the border, I felt like I still knew so little about Hungary. Just as with every place so far, I would love to return here and see more.

It started to rain, so on came the rain suits. I'm so glad I dumped my old one-piece rain suit for an oversized two-piece suit -- it's much easier to get on, and covers my fanny pack as well (where I keep my guide books). Before the border, we stopped at a restaurant behind a gas station, that I think serves a nearby camp site as well (Bulgaria has camp sites everywhere -- hurrah!). We had one of our best meals of the trip -- since I was seeing cattle being raised, I decided to eat beef. I had a pepper steak that was the greatest pepper steak EVA.

And we were getting closer and closer to Romania. We would be there in just a few minutes. I was so nervous; Romania was the country everyone warned us about, because of the crime and the awful road conditions. What would we really find?

Next

Pictures of the adventure.

Back to main page for Eastern Europe tour 2008

travelogue from my 2011 trip to Budapest.

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