We’re going on a bear hunt 

One of our must sees of Eastern Europe was bears. There was no way we were driving all the way to Romania and not seeing any of the 6000 European Brown Bears that live here. Unfortunately they aren’t the easiest of creatures to find, but there are a couple of options. The least likely of success would be driving around at night and hoping to see a bear crossing the road or even sitting near one of the bins in the valley near Buşteni. Aside from these there’s the option of going with a tour company or giving up and visiting a zoo. On recommendation from the tour guide we met in Viseu de Sus we got in touch with Simona from Absolute Carpathian who told us about the bear watching opportunites near Brasov. The company offer bear tracking trips in the mountains starting from 3 days in length or bear watching from a hide. We opted for the latter partly due to cost and time constraints. With our bear watching booked for that evening, we had a whole day to contain our excitement.

Raşnov castle from the main gate

Upon waking up in the middle of a thunderstorm on our campsite we got up slowly and made the most of the internet. We found out that Maia who we met in Morocco was also in Brasov and arranged a catch up at Rasnov castle. En route, we went for a little drive along the Raşnov gorge where we watched some rock climbers battling the elements.

Raşnov castle looks very impressive from the town below even with it’s corny hollywood style sign. Entrance fees are 12 Ron and give you full access to the semi reconstructed castle complete with tourist shops inside. The views from the highest point are fantastic especially once the rain stoped and we got the chance to admire Mount Omul from a distance. It wasn’t the most impressive castle but it was a good meeting point to catch up with a friend before going back into Braşov.

Pizza in a cone

After an afternoon of eating and drinking in cafes we were ready to see some bears. We met Dragos, our guide at a petrol station in Braşov and drove to a top secret location just 5km from the city. Here we switched into a rangers car and drove through the forest to a layby. We got out and waited until the ranger came back. Then we quitely walked up to the bear watching hide as a group. The group was quite large, 17 tourists and 2 guides but luckily we got front row seats. The hide was very similar to a bird watching hide except there was a large clearing in front of it and heaps of vegetables and scattered corn biscuits and peanuts. We settled down to wait for the bears to arrive.

Ted was exhpcited to see his first wild cousin

We didn’t have to wait very long before the first glimpse of movement in the trees was spotted about 8m in front of the hide. A young male bear calmly ambled out of the forest and started munching on the biscuits. He seemed totally unphased by the rustling, whispering and clicking shutter noises coming from the hide (maybethe windows were good enough so he didn’t hear anything) and stayed to polish off a big pile of food. It was fantastic to see a wild bear, even in controlled conditions. The bears are fed daily at the hides (there’s 5) but the food offered only makes up a small amount of their diet. 

A yummy peanut snack

After around 30 minutes of munching, the bears demeanour changed and he became very alert of his surroundings. Within minutes he had left the clearing to the left and we guessed he had smelt or heard some company.

And now for a massage

Within 15 minutes Zoë spotted Ted’s next relative, and even larger male bear, probably around 8-10 years old. Unlike the first bear he seemed wary and on edge, really sniffing the place out to see if it was safe. He slowly relaxed but kept to the edges of the forest quite a bit. Suddenly he sprinted back into the forest and we wondered what to expect. But to our surprise he walked back and we spotted a wild boar at the top of the clearing. He didn’t stay much longer after this fright and when he did disappear abruptly into the trees it was almost time for us to leave. We were sad to leave the hide but thrilled that we had seen two beautiful brown bears.

A bear foot print on the way out

Since two bears wasn’t nearly enough and just in case we didn’t see any bears from the hide, we had plans to visit a bear sanctuary the next day. Libearty bear sanctuary near Zarnesti is the only sanctuary in Romania for bears who have been abused and kept as pets or performing animals. They currently have 90 brown bears in large wooded enclosures and a few other animals. It was set up as recently as 2002 and does a lot of campaigning for laws against keeping or shooting bears. Most of the inhabitants have extremely sad stories or torture, abuse and neglect but now have as much freedom as can be provided. 

The home of a bear for 12 years

We were impressed by the quality enclosures but worried that the sanctuary is already at capacity. It definitely begs the question of what to do next, if these bears can’t be released, what will happen long term. 

Mother bear and one of her cubs

Sadly the Romanian government doesn’t value it’s bears as much as we would, but we hope that there are enough people that appreciate Romania’s wildlife to preserve it for future generations. We would love it if other people could feel the same thrill we felt at seeing bears in the wild. 

Bucegi

After a good night sleep and less than an hours drive we arrived in Braşov. It is the first big city north of Bucharest and the hub of a large area. Tourists come to see the citadel and historic center but mainly use it as a base camp for activities in the surrounding mountain ranges.

Braşov from castle hill

The black church of Braşov

We arrived on a Sunday which meant free parking for Trevor next to the central park where he could watch old men playing chess while we explored the rest of the city. The historic center has got two large streets, (one of them pedestrianised) running from either end of the already mentioned park with lots of smaller streets connecting them (all pedestrian zone). At the far end is the main square, with the black church at one corner. As we reached the square we found we had just made it to the last day of a folklore and culture festival. On this day the main attraction was a traditional dancing competition which groups from different countries and regions showcasing their local dances. Their costumes and dresses were beautiful and colourful and some dances very fast and difficult. We were truely impressed with the coordination and precision of some of the groups despite the fact some dancers were children of about 8 years old.

Mini folk people dancing

Those boys can dance

After a while we moved on to visit the black church around the corner but found it closed. There were signs about entrance fees but others declared it was under major restoration until 2019. Slightly disappointed we wandered on to see the rest of the pedestrian zone. Overall the city was buzzing and had a strong café culture with a strong preference for Italian cuisine. An hour later we had reached Trevor again but moved on to the other side and made our way up the castle hill to the citadel. It was great to find most of the walk in the shade because the sun was fiercely beating down upon us. This fact only added to the frustration we felt at the top. The fortress was rather small and unimpressive. It was made of red bricks and could definitely do with some restoration. On top of of that it was closed without any info as to when it would open again. The views from the hill must have been really good in the past until growing trees blocked more and more of it off. So without any further delay we went back to waiting Trevor and headed for Bucegi National Park.

This park consists of a horseshoe shaped mountain range surrounding a big high flat valley opening south. The best places to start exploring from are Buşteni  and Sinai, both located on the east side.On the way there we encountered our first major traffic jam. We couldn’t find the source of it but we got a over an hour more of watching the valley and villages. The map of the area which we had bought in Braşov showed two campsites in near Busteni (one of the two gateways to the national park. Like quite a few times before on our trip we found it turned out that neither of them existed (no idea where those map people get their information from). One of them was marked near a cabana (mountain hut) at the end of a valley. As soon as we left Buşteni and entered the valley we saw people spreading out everywhere either barbecuing, picnicking or camping. What started which small families at the bottom turned into two big caravan cities near the top. Caravans and motorhomes had been set up seemingly permanently with awning tents, separate shower tents and fenced in gardens; some even had electric fences. We were absolutely shocked to see this beautiful bit of countryside ruined and abused by Romanians escaping the cities for the summer. This reminded us of the conversation we had with an English tour guide about how little Romanians care about their nature.

Romanian wild camping central

Partially due to the lack of other alternatives we decided to spend the night near the cabana. This gave us not only easy access to their facilities but was also a good starting point for the walk we intended to go on the next day. In true MuZ style we decided not to faff about and went straight for the highest peak in the Bucegi mountain range: Omul with 2505 meters. We had considered sleeping in cabanas in the mountains but since Zoë didn’t have her sleeping bag and we couldn’t find much useful information about them our only choice were day trips up and down.

Walking up and down roughly 1600m promised to be a long day out,  so we were super keen to get up and leave as early as feasibly possible. We managed to start before 7am and slowly fought our way up a surprisingly steep path through mixed forest to the beginning of a higher valley which would lead us to the summit. Parts of the path went a long a temporary river but it was all dry without any signs of recent water flow. It was lovely walking in the shade of the forest and once we left the trees behind we found ourselves in the most beautiful alpine field we had seen in a long time.

Zoë giving Ted a lift up a beautiful valley

All flowers were in full flower and the air was filled with the humming and buzzing of bees and other insects. By this point we had kind of forgotten about the fact that the map showed a very steep and rocky final ascent to mount Omul but we were positively surprised to find nothing of the sort. It was relatively steep but a nice zig-zagging path to the top. In the end we reached the peak after four and a half hours; two hours less than the sign in the valley predicted. We would have been faster if we hadn’t followed some old markers and ended up scrambling up a peak two meters lower 150m away from the actual Omul. This was easy enough to rectify and soon we enjoyed lunch and a coffee outside the cabana on the actual peak.

A well deserved lunch break

Watching the clouds move in from both sides made us move on rather quickly and we chose the shortest path back to our cabana. The first part lead us along the top of a mountain ridge which was fairly wide at first but soon became narrower and rockier. Unlike our way up this time the rockface marked on the map actually existed and soon we found ourselves walking up to signposts with only clouds beyond it and only see the path upon reaching the post continuing more than 50m below us. 

Spot the path

After 6 or 7 such ‘steps’ we left the rocks and the botanics took over. Our relief and joy didn’t last long though. What originaly had been a path had been taken over by water and washed out to Zoë’s hip height with dense bushes and shrubs all around us. The only other hikers we met during this descent didn’t boost our sense of security by proclaiming ‘only bears go down here’.

Path to the edge of the mountain

Slowly but surely we made it down the muddy mountainside and sighed a big breath of relief when we reached the other path running along the mountain almost horizontally. Finally we could walk normally again and stretch our legs out properly. We still had quite some height to get down to our hut and the last hour of our walk got our legs and knees aching again by steep slopes. Tired and with very aching legs we reached Trevor 9 hours after we left him. We were even too tired to care about finding accommodation down in the town, so we went for convenience and bucket showers before collapsing into bed.


The next day our stiff legs forbid any thought of longer walking and an empty larder had us heading down to Buşteni for breakfast and shopping. Matthias also had his first travel haircut. After lunch we drove to Sinai to visit Peleş castle. The 500m uphill from the carpark to the castle turned out to exhaust the capabilities of Zoë’s legs. Thankfully the castle was worth it and beautifully perched on a hillside with fountain terrasses. 


Peleş castle

Tourists have the choice to visit only the ground floor or add on the private apartments on the first floor costing 30 RON each. On this day only the ground floor was open to visitors making our choice easy. It turned out to be more difficult to find the entrance so we ended up with an English speaking guided tour for free. The interior of Peleş is absolutely beautiful and features a lot of wooden carved design elements from staircases over pillars and statues to inlay pictures of castles of the family of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen who built Peleş. All the furniture was original and easily made this the best castle we’ve visited in terms of apperance and homely feel. We highly recommend to visit this and the other two palaces (Peleşoir and Fogesoir) that are located only a stonesthrow away. We would have visited them as well but got there to late (last entrance is at 4.15pm).

 

Beautiful wooden staircase

With the weather set to take a turn for the worse the next day we decided to leave the rest of Bucegi for another time and drive back towards Raşnov and Braşov for some bear watching.

Biertan

There are two more fortified churches near Mediaş that are recommended to visit: Richis and Biertan. We decided to visit both after leaving Bajel on our way onwards. Getting there provided us with a scenic drive through green rolling hills. We even found another rather nice church on the way. Richis was a bit of a disappointment and the church quite small without any fortifications. Maybe our info was incorrect or we expected a bit too much. Anyway we drove on without stopping to Biertan. The village greeted us with a loud pop music and a market on the main square. After paying the 12 RON entrance to the church we walk up a long staircase with a wooden roof. The hall-style church was very nice but as it was protestant, it was not overly decorated or painted. One noteworthy and stand out feature was the door to the sacristy and its impressive lock. Actioned by two keys, there are no less than 19! bolts and hooks denying access to any intruder. We wandered around the inner wall ring admiring the views up and down the valley. Over time, the church was protected by up to two and a half wall rings plus towers. The two full rings are still standing but only parts of the second one can be accessed. It was a bit sad that we could not climb up any of the towers for even better views.

Biertan fortified church and market

The mechanism of the super secure door with 19 bolts

Back on the square we spent some time talking to a wood carver and bought a lovely heart bowl made from willow. He told us that his son travels to christmas markets as far as Heidelberg to sell original Romanian craftsmanship. The market seems to be held every weekend during tourist season.

Willow carver

Two hours drive later we arrived in Sighişoara; a small town famous it’s medieval center and for being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. The center is surprisingly big and completely surrounded by walls. Entrance and exit still happens through two big gatehouses. The southern gate also has a big tower (approximately 20m tall) which houses a town history museum. Apart from the slight lack of English information except for some very basic descriptions it was worth it. It was also the first time we were able to watch a big clock work mechanism in operation. The gallery on the top offers grand views in all directions. Since the tower is only roughly one and a half storeys taller than the nearby houses view over the center is somewhat limited but still worthwhile. We gave the church next door a miss and climbed up the so called ‘school staircase’ up to the highest point of the historic town. The name stems from the fact that it that received a roof to protect pupils from the elements as they climbed up the 180 or so steps to school. Once at the top we immediately went for the first shade to escape the scorching hot sun. Apart from the school and some administrative buildings there was also a small church at the top. After sneaking a peek inside we decided to remain church free that day and walk back down. Another thing Sighişoara seems to be very popular for is weddings. While we were exploring we almost photobombed no less than two newlywed couples within 40 meters in the same street.

The clock tower of Sigişoara

The cuckoos in the clock


Both the owners of our last campsite and some of the guests had recommended to us a campsite adjacent to a spa in Sighişoara but we decided to spend the time on the road instead because it was a long drive to Braşov, our next destination. Matthias picked a place called Rupea as a potential camping spot due to the fact that it was roughly halfway and the only place with some small side roads. As we drove around the corner of the valley before the village we were very surprised to see a very nice looking castle on a hill dominating the valley. While driving up to it we thought it looked very much original, but soon found out that it had undergone major restoration works in the 20th century. Unlike some other castles we have seen, here they had used the same materials for their work as to what already existed which gave Rupea castle a very natural feel. Inside the castle were some signs but sadly they contained very little information. We also could not quite understand how somebody spent a lot of time and money repairing a lovely castle and then leave all the buildings completely empty. So far it was the first castle on our trip that was completely void of any exhibitions, furniture or other historic items other than the bare buildings. This made the whole experience very sterile. By far the best point were the views we got from the castle walls. Since the whole place was very quiet we decided to stay on the lower of the two car park levels from where we were lucky to watch the disappearing sun painting the whole castle red and pink. As it got darker we watched a little owl marking its territory on the outer wall before an impressive thunderstorm moved in and gave us a bit lightning show

Rupea castle

Our little owl

Gorgeous gorges and mediocre Mediaş

Weary of churches we headed south back through Baia Mare. Our first stop was a VW garage for a mechanic’s opinion on why Trevor’s temperature gauge was always at 0 degrees celsius. After a lot of discussion about waiting a week for testing and repairs we breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully we got the ok to drive on and keep a close eye on the coolant.

The first glimpse of the gorge

Back on the road for a couple of hours we found ourselves in Transylvania famed for Dracula and his vampire relatives. Our first thoughts were that the villages here were a little more run down than those in Maramures, and we were wondering where the Carpathian mountains had got to. We made it to a lovely little corner of Transylvania around the town of Turda. Turda has a few things to offer visitors including a salt mine with underground amusements, salt lakes and a limestone gorge. Unfortunately the town itself is nothing to write home about and before you realise you are in it you have driven through. We stopped to work out a plan with some cafe wifi especially for a look at the salt mine and weather forecast. To us the salt mine complete with boat ride on an underground lake and ferris wheel looked like an expensive activity for a rainy day but nowhere near as interesting as Wieliczka in Poland. Entrance was 30 RON but none of the amusements were included. Based on this and the dodgy weather forecast we favoured the gorge and drove straight there.

Turda gorge (Cheile Turda) is a limestone gorge with some walking trails and a camping area at either end. On arrival it was very impressive and also full of Hungarians (this part of Romania was once in Hungary). There are a few huts selling chimney cakes, langos and all sorts of tourist tat. After our long drive we fancied a walk so decided to walk towards the entrance of the gorge. The ticket office and maps were non existent on the route but we discovered later that the map is now located at the restaurant at the top of the gorge. From our research a walk along the gorge was supposed to be around one and a half hours, which we assumed was one way. When we discovered the gorge was only 1.2km in length we opted to make hay while the sun shone and walk it that afternoon.

Our little friend agaim


Turda gorge may be short but it is beautiful. The gorge path crisscrosses the river along the length of the gorge allowing walkers wonderful views of the rocky sides and tree lined river. There are lots of places for adventurous rock climbers to clamber to the top of the gorge. We enjoyed the easy walk and saw plenty of wildlife too. Our only disappointment was that the walk was over too soon. Back at our free campsite we met a fellow German camper and spent most of the evening chatting. Early the next morning we set off on a pre breakfast walk. We expected some rain that day but having woken up to blue skies we decided to make the most of it. One thing we really wanted to do was get a view of the gorge from above. There is a 6km long path that goes over the tops of both sides of the gorge but we didn’t think we would have time for this before the rain came. Instead we climbed upon side to get the best view and then back down again. The views from the top were awesome. We saw merlins and a golden eagle flying around the gorge as we looked across the two valleys. We definitely recommend getting above the gorge and doing the walk along the top as well as through the gorge.

More of turda


From Turda gorge we had a decent drive through Transylvania to the city of Medias. Our journey was pretty grey and rainy so we opted to stop at a campsite before Medias and relax a little. Our campsite in Blajel was run by a Dutch couple and was consequently full of Dutch people too. On arrival we found out about two important events. Firstly the pot luck dinner that was happening that evening, amd secondly a meal at a local farm including a farm tour. We eagerly signed up to both and then had to work out what on earth we were going to cook and if we could find the ingredients in the village shop. Our choice was lentils with sausages and Spätzle followed by a risky tiramisu. We only needed to find sausages and the ingredients for tiramisu. With a little alteration on the traditional recipes we managed to throw something together. Our main included some kabanosi instead of bockwurst amd the tiramisu contained only coffee and wine from the usual list of ingredients. We struggled to find cream or marscapone and instead used creme patisserie (whatever the Romanian version is) and pudding (a German style custard). Despite the alterations the meal was a huge success and we got plenty of compliments about our dishes; hopefully they really do get us around the world.

Mediaş fortified church


The next day we went on a day trip to Mediaş. Mediaş is a small compact city with some medieval remnants. The main attraction is a fortified church containing a German school and a collection of Ottoman rugs. We wandered around for about an hour before doing some shopping and then returning to our campsite for an afteroon of sunshine and swimming in the pool. That evening we walked across the road to a small farm for dinner. Interestingly, from the outside it just looked like a house and driveway, but inside there was a yard full of chickens and goats and a gateway to the rest of the farm. As soon as we sat down the Tuica (plum brandy) was poured and all of the family greeted us. Our three course meal was very yummy. We started with bean soup, followed by roast chicken with maize porridge and for dessert we had pancakes with cheese and dill and jam (one pancake with each; not cheese and jam together 😉 ). As we discovered on our tour, almost everything was grown or made on the farm including the wine and plum brandy. The granddaughter of the farmer showed us through the gate and among the thin strip of land to see the fruit and vegetables growing. To our surprise there were cows hidden in a pokey barn and a long orchard too. We really enjoyed getting to know a little more about rural life in Romania and meeting some of the people. Our lovely meal cost just 35 Ron per person and we even bought some of the tuica to take home with us. 

Our campsites scottish flag

Tiramisu in a pan

Our farmyard restuarant

A journey through the churches of Maramures

Having spent alot of time in Budapest city we were ready for something a little bit different. On our way East across Hungary we stopped off and slept in a motorway rest station before continuing to Romania early the next day. Our destination was the northwestern area of Maramures famed for its wooden churches, sleepy villages and locals dressed in traditional dress. We made a stop over at the gateway to Maramures, Baia Mare. Baia Mare is a city with some very large churches and a lot of clothes shops. We didn’t make it to the old town on our way through but we will probably take a look at it on our way back. The thing we enjoyed most about Baia Mare was an artisan coffee cafe which sources coffee from small farms and then roasts them in house. The coffee was fantastic and the staff very friendly. 

One on the fabulously carved gates of Maramures

EditContinuing our journey we drove over mountain pass and discovered a trout fishery and restaurant at the bottom. On a Sunday it was packed with cars parked in every possible space along the road. Given this it must be pretty good so we marked it on the map for our return trip, since we already had some food for dinner. We drove through pretty village after pretty village with locals sitting on their roadside benches dressed in traditional clothes. The women wear colourful knee length a line skirts with white or black blouses and a head scarf, a little like a babushka. The men are often in trousers and a shirt completed with a brimmed hat. These clothes seemed to serve all purposes from working on the land to relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. We frequently overtook wooden carriages being towed by well muscled draught horses and also lots of bicycles. 

A traditional horse and cart complete with red cuicure for luck 

Our search for a place to stay for the night was a little frustrating as all the campsites we had marked no longer existed. In the end we drove all the way to a village called Sapanta close to the border with Ukraine. Luckily it was a lovely little campsite with a restaurant, hot showers and only space for 7 or 8 campervans. We parked up next to a friendly German couple from Chemnitz. Sapanta is famous for its somewhat unusual cemetery, known as the Merry Cemetery. The next morning it was our first stop and thankfully we beat the tour buses. So we guess you are wondering what is so merry about a load of graves. Well each of the graves is marked with a beautiful crucifix carved from oak and painted in a huge array of colours. These grave markers were created by Stan Pâtras, an artist and wood carver who decided to use them to display the life of the person and write a short truthful witty epithet about the persons life. The people of Sapanta can request what they would like to be on their grave including any achievements or messages for loved ones. In the end the artist decides what will be depicted and written and creates a unique monument to each persons life. Not all of them are funny but most are quite earnest and a little tongue in cheek. Even without knowing any Romanian we enjoyed walking about and guessing from the pictures what each was about. They include stories about mother in laws, young children who have been run over and even a vet with his secret drinking life depicted on the other side. The church in the centre of the Cemetery is currently being renovated and now has a dazzlingly colourful tiled roof. The Cemetery is well worth a visit and costs only 5 Ron per person. There’s a book on sale that contains translations of the texts but it costs around £30. 

The stunning church and intriguing cemetary at Sapanta

A vet’s grave

From Sapanta we drove south East towards a region of Maramures famed for wooden churches and beautiful villages. The villages are slowly being modernised from the traditional wooden houses to concrete palaces. Initially, we wondered how such a rural area had the wealth to build such huge houses, but we later found out that the men of many of these villages had joined the merchant navies of the world and sent money home. Sadly this means many of them are slowly loosing their charm but conversely the villagers have a better standard of living. One thing that the villagers seem to stick to is building wooden churches as we saw quite a few under construction, so it seems they still have good craftsmen. The best example of wooden architecture we visited was the monastery complex at Barsana. The wooden church, altar and houses here are really impressive and all made with dovetails and wooden bolts. The gardens within the complex are full of beautiful flower beds and even a pond with a few frogs in. It’s free to visit but a photo ticket is 5 Ron. We also recommend trying one of the Romanian pancakes called Plâcinta that they sell from a cabin in the car park. The church has the tallest wooden church tower in Europe with a height of 57m.

Barsana monastery complex

A view of the tallest wooden church

Having driven around 50km through the region, we found we were close to another attraction. The forestry steam railway in Viseu de Sus is the last one of its kind in Europe. Although, today the steam trains are used purely for tourists. We booked our tickets for the train the following day and then went in search of a campsite. There seems to be a few guesthouses that offer camping in their grounds but no real campsites. We picked one and followed the signs, ending up driving 500m along a gravel track to a house in the woods. As it turned out we had a private campground until around 8pm when some tent campers turned up. Having not realised that Romania was an hour ahead of Hungary we got a little confused with the time and set our alarm earlier than we needed to. Getting to the train station early meant that we got onto the second train of the day. As the train rolled out of the station we got a taste of things to come with the jolting over the edges of the rails and the upright wooden benches. Comfort definitely wasn’t a priority when they converted the forestry cars to hold tourists, but the scenery more than made up for it. We traveled slowly through a wooded valley with steep sides and occasional villages. The train takes around 2 hours to make it to Paltin around 21.5km from Viseu de Sus. The tracks go 21km further but are used purely for forestry or aren’t in good condition. We stopped in Paltin for around 2 hours where there was a cafe and grill along with a small museum. The journey back to Viseu de Sus was even more jerky and jolting but thankfully a little shorter than on the way up. The 6 hour round trip cost 55 Ron per person or 90 Ron including a meal, hot drink, soft drink and pastry. We enjoyed the scenery and relaxing speed but the meal deal probably isn’t worth it unless you want a lot of food and to save just 3 Ron.

Ted and Matthias with ‘Bavaria’

The foresty company seems very fond of collecting old cars and using them for transportation of goods and people in addition to their diesel trains.

The work car of Romanian’s 007

That night we drove back along the valley to the trout restaurant which we had been looking forward to. Planning to camp in their car park for the night, we went straight in to eat their speciality trout. With the menu in Romanian and the waitress not having great English we accidentally ordered two fish each with fried potatoes and a salad. The fish was rolled in polenta and fried so had a lovely crispy skin and tasted pretty good. We watched the trout jumping in the pond while we ate our dinner and we’re too full for pudding by the end. Our huge meal cost just 98 Ron, around £20. Well worth a stopover!

Going around the bend

After Budapest we wanted to get out into smaller places and some nature. Therefore we decided to drive up the Danube bend. This area is not huge but nice and scenic. The first place we stopped at was Szentendre. It used to be a small artist village. Nowadays it is still small and a popular day trip from Budapest. It is a bit run down and not as pretty as it used to be but still nice. The center consists of a main square, two main streets running through it and a promenade along the Danube. Judging by the flood preparations they seem to get some severe flooding every now and then. Visitors can see a few art galleries, a Serbian orthodox church and enjoy a nice few from the top of the hill with another little church. We did not go into any of said places but enjoyed good quality ice coffee in a little street cafe. After around 2 hours we conitunued our journey.

Lovely cobbled streets in the centre of Szetendre

It was not long until we reached the town Visegrad. This small town lies just a short distance downstream of the Danube’s cut through the hills. The place is marked on our map with two stars meaning it is worth a journey but like a few places before we failed to see why. The most noteable sight was a castle ruin overlooking the river.

Considering we were running a little bit late and still wanted to see the basilica in Esztergom we drove on.


Ted on historic monuments

Esztergom is bigger than Visegrad and also marked with two stars on the map as it used to be a royal seat. Shortly after entering the town it was impossible to miss the reason for it and our last and best sight along the river bend: Hungary’s biggest basilica. It sits on top of the hill in the centre dominating the area. We went straight for it and were overwhelmed. The church is not as colourful or gold covered as the runner up (St Istvan basilica in Budapest) but it uses the size and huge open space inside to take visitor’s breaths away.  In order to make the most of our visit and the location we opted to pay the entrance fee to climb up the bell tower and the dome. On our way up we stopped in the gallery cafe to enjoy the views over the town and across the Danube into Slovakia. The views from the top gallery of the dome were even more impressive and totally worth walking up super tight spiral staircases. This time the rating of the town is justified.

The giant basilica dwarfing its neighbour the castle

Around the basilica was the royal palace of which only a few buildings remain. They have been re-built and now house a museum and event spaces. Ruins of other former buildings can still be seen all around the basilica. We would have visited the palace interior, but the most interesting sections i.e. the royal private rooms could only be visited as part of a tour. With only half an hour left before closing tours were not an option and we had only hardly enough time for the museum so we left. Walking around the town it turned out that there is hardly a center worth mentioning. We strongly recommend to make the effort walking up the outcrop of the hills opposite the palace to a small chapel. The main perk of this walk were the best views of the entire basilica and the palace on eye level.

So many stairs….

A view from the top of the Basilica

Now that our sight seeing mission was complete we had another desire: pizza. After buying an electrically heated pan in Budapest, almost solely to close this hole in our kitchen arsenal we had to put it to the test. Armed with two frozen pizzas we arrived at Dömos campsite halfway between Esztergom and Visegrad and set up camp. We were able to use power in the communal kitchen and produced two yummy pizzas. From now on, this favourite of ours will feature more often on the menu and we might even try to make them from scratch.


We also made a last minute change of plans and decided to visit Hungarys biggest open air museum called Skanzen on the edge of Szentendre. Here they have collected and reconstructed all types of buildings from all across Hungary. Some are as old as 200 years! There is also Europes longest normal gauge museum railway with 2.2km of tracks. Entry costs 2000 HUF per adult plus 900 for parking a car. The added bonus of visiting on a summer weekend is people bringing history to life in some of the buildings like the watermill, the blacksmiths or the boot makers. In addition some normal buildings are used to show traditional crafts like needle work or baking. The only issue we found with this was only the boot maker did his presentation in English. All the other actors and actresses either really struggled with another language apart from Hungarian or couldn’t speak any. Like in the past we felt that we missed out on a lot of stories and information.

A wine making village

Some of the many Hungarian houses


We turned up half an hour after opening and found the place almost empty. This it one of the advantages of the vast space. Buildings are arranged in eight villages based on their region of origin. A few bigger buildings in the museum are used for special exhibitions; both permanent and temporary. We liked that sort of arrangement but found the type and setup of the buildings leaving a bit to be improved. Halfway through we only went into every other house as the majority were rural dwelling houses with the interieur layout pretty much the same. All rural ones had a living room and one sleeping room with the kitchen inbetween and maybe pantry. Differences between regions were marginal and we found the most noticable variations between rich and poor as well as time period. Again the shops and boot maker stood out in terms of equipment and set up. We felt there were opportunities wasted if they described as house for example as a coopers house but then not presenting a workshop, tools or info about the profession at this time. This did not help the increasing monotony of looking at similar houses.

Our lesson in boot making

One of the best exhibits about making milk, bread and sausages

Don’t get me wrong: it is a great museum and we enjoyed this educational trip into Hungary’s past (we spent 6h there) but it could have been more exciting. Skanzen is well worth a visit and if you can you should visit it at a weekend just for these extra reenactments. Two things that made our day were the bakery cafe and the big farm with animals including the special hungarian grey cattle and two lovely dogs.

After a quick coffee in the restaurant accompanied by folk music we set of to make the most of the sunny Sunday afternoon and make some good way towards the next country.

Budapest

After our wine extravaganza, it was time to move on to some bigger sites so we headed to Budapest. We decided to save ourselves some stress and trouble and bought the vignette for the motorways. The 10 day version costs 2,975 HUF for cars (good job Trevor is small enough). We stayed at Arena camping on the eastern side of the city. The site is very nice with great and very clean facilities. No surprise it was very busy. The only downside was its location next to train tracks and under the flightpath of the airport. Upon arrival, we received a full introduction to the city including a map and tourist booklet. Transport in and out of the center was split into 5 minutes on the bus and about 20 min on the metro depending on the station. We purchased the 72 hour ticket which gave us unlimited use of the whole public transport including boats. It costs 4150 HUF and was totally worth it.

Best ceiling deco ever in a shopping center

The Hungarian capital is a huge place and the biggest city on our summer road trip. It is separated by the Danube into Buda on the western and Pest on the eastern shore. Buda is dominated by the castle hill with the vast palace and adjacent buildings. Towards the other end of the hill are the famous fisherman’s bastion and St. Matthias church. The second hill in Buda is crowned with a citadel (now museum) and the statue of liberty.

The Hungarian statue of liberty

Pest on the other hand has everything you expect to find in a city:shops, restaurants, entertainment and nightlife plus the parliament. This separation means both parts have very distinctive characters.

Since we arrived on the campsite in the early afternoon we went into the city on a reconnaissance mission to get an idea of the place and plan the following days. After wandering the high street we needed a break and found the cosy little Cafe called Molnar’s. Their speciality is super yummy kürtöskalács (tree cakes), a Hungarian delicacy. We tried them hot, filled with ice cream and they were absolutely delicious. This place is also about half the price compared to high street stalls. In the café we met a Polish and a German girl and had such a great time that they almost missed their river cruise. We also opted to jump on a boat to see the place from a different angle and highly recommend this to any tourist. Cruising in the evening meant great photography light on the Pest side namely the parliament which is modelled on the houses of parliament in London. On our way back to Trevor we decided to go shopping but got carried away and didn’t arrive there until 9.30pm. At this time our planned curry turned into pasta and sauce which left us rather sad after looking forward to curry all day.

On our first full day in the Hungarian capital, we went straight to Buda and up the castle hill. All the houses are grand but a lot of them now house hotels or restaurants. One notable building is the Hungarian national archive at the end furthest away from the palace. We didn’t catch a tour but even the outside was impressive. Wandering towards the palace we reached the fisherman’s bastion and the St Matthias church. The bastion is one of the highest lookout points in the city and provides visitors with amazing views over Pest; especially the parliament.


View from Fisherman’s bastion

St Matthias and his church

There are cafes and you can pay 800 HUF to go up to the top level of the bastion. In our opinion that is not worth it as that is only about 5m higher. It was built in the 18th century to provide exquisite views over city and river and not, as the name suggests, as fortification. It is however totally worth paying the 1500 HUF to see the inside of the church. It is impressively carved on the outside with the bightly coloured and patterned roof. Inside the church is painted top to bottom and also very impressive. After admiring all the painting we wandered through the little museum and learned more about the church and empress  ‘Sissi’ Elisabeth and her love for Hungary.

Next point on on the list of must-sees was the palace complex. It consists of a number of grand and huge buildings some of which seem to be still in administrative use. We walked around the different parts and enjoyed the great views from the terraces. Sadly there is no palace as such to visit. There is an art gallery and a four story palace museumm but partly due to the heat neither of us was in the mood to visit them. As there was not much else to do we crossed the river again for some ice cream. Zoë had discovered a highly recommended Italian ice cream parlour so we decided to try and find it. We can say the search was totally worth it. Pomo d’Oro is one of the best ice cream parlors we’ve been to in a long while!

The huge palace of Budapest


The last sightseeing point on the list of the day was the parliament. At the north end of this beautiful gothic building is the tourist center and a museum. We didn’t know that spaces are limited per day and as we arrived quite late, we didn’t get in. It was only possible to see one of the two chambers and a few selected rooms. After getting an idea of the inside from postcards in the shop, we decided not to bother and went into the museum for free. We got a free audio guide so we could wander around freely and still get all the information. The museum is small but very well set up, taking the visitor through about 600 years of Hungarian history. There were a lot of detailed information to listen to but sadly we made it less than half way through when a guard informed us that they closed in 8 minutes. After this we rushed through, only listening to the overview commentary for each section which is a shame since the Hungarian history is a lot more interesting than we thought.

After a super yummy traditional Hungarian dinner at Belvárosi Lucas Etterem behind St. Istvan basilica we met up with our new firends from the café the day before and another friend of theirs and threw ourselves into the local nightlife. Their new friend had been living in the city for a few years and took us to a couple of bars in the jewish quarter.

The next day we went to see Europes largest (second largest in the world) synagoge and its museum. We had done some research and it seemed to be well worth a visit. This feeling quickly changed once we arrived. The entrance fee is an extortionate 4000 HUF per person! Once we passed the airport like security check, Matthias was handed a paper kippa and hairpin to cover his head. The synagogue was nicely decorated and had some very unusual features like an organ and two pulpits as well as three naves. Seems like the architect got a few things wrong here… The entrance included a free tour. Quite cleverly, flags of different countries had been spread around the pews to show were each tour starts. Our guide gave us a well informed and interesting tour and explained differences between the mostly neolithic (or more assimilated) jewish communities in Budapest and Hungary. We found it a bit hipocritical to say that they worked on a sabbath if they had or wanted to, but invited a non-jewish person to play the organ during their service as jews are only allowed to play a trompet made from sheeps horn. Oddly, they also don’t see the organ as part of their synagoge since it is placed behind the cabinet with the torah scrolls. Supposedly only 5-10% of the community are conservative jews; the others are more liberal and are even happy to eat non-kosher meat every now and then. It also seemed strange that they used a small synagoge located in the garded due to they high heating costs of the bigger one. Surely they earn enough money from the rip off entrance fees to be able to afford some heating; especially as they seem to be getting a fair amount of donations, judging from various plaques on the walls. The museum was very disappointing. Located on the third floor of the adjacent building, there was an info desk but only 10 of the estimated 200 items on display had any information attached. There were no descriptions attached to the rest and no hint to were to get them from.


Inside the synagoge

 Sadly this experience ruined this otherwise awesome city for us as we were very wary paying entrance for something which might not be worth it. Without it, we also might have stayed an extra day to explore some gardens and parks. We still went to the St. Stephens (Stz. Istvan) basilica and were glad we did it. Entry is free but donations are suggested (viewing tower and treasury cost money). The basilica is grand and impressive yet not overloaded with gold and paintings. Hungary’s second biggest basilica impresses more with the huge open space inside than its decorations and should be on every tourist’s top 10 list.


Grand interieur of the St. Istvan basilica

Ted found his basilica too

One last note: You might have expected us going into at least one of the famous thermal baths (notably the art-nouveau Gelert baths). We might have done that in bad weather (which we didn’t get) but we also discovered that the big baths are expensive. A full day with locker starts from 4900 HUF per person per day which gives you only access to pools. They also seemed to be nice but a lot less exciting than the cave baths in Miskolc.

The day after we left Budapest with mixed feelings. It is a definite must-see and awesome city but not everything is worth going to just because somebody recommends it. 


Zoë presenting our ice cream flowers

Bathing and Bull’s blood

So much sweet white wine left us feeling a little worse for wear and in need of some fresh air and pampering. After meeting a lovely British couple on a campsite in the middle of nowhere in the centre of the Bükk national park we decided the baths we had missed in Miskolc were worth a look. But first, our experience of a Hungarian national park was a little disappointing. The palace of Lilafüred on the edge of the national park with its lake, waterfall and terraced garden were quite nice and there was a map of the walking paths. We drove to our campsite with plans to go for an afternoon walk to a nearby cave. We set off on our walk, hoping to walk through some of the beautiful forest we had driven through. Sadly, although the paths were marked, the signs were confusing and we spent the best part of an hour walking along a main road or within 15m of it. When we did manage to get off the road and follow some signs, the path quickly deteriorated into piles of sticks and fallen trees. The highlight of our walk was spotting a Ural owl in a clearing and seeing it fly across to a different perch. After that gem we turned back towards our campsite along the road.

Our best bird yet

The campsite was by Hungarian standards average with very old facilities and not much flat land to park on. Alright for one night but we didn’t really want to stay any longer. In any case we had a spa day to look forward to. Miskolc has special thermal baths carved into a cave system. To reach the baths, we followed the satnav religiously including round half of the housing estates in Miskolc and down a questionable gravel road/river, so when we finally found a car park and signs we were quite relieved. A four hour ticket costs just 2500 HUF per adult and gives you access to all the pools and outdoor areas although saunas and flotation pools cost extra. The baths ranged from 28-34 degrees Celsius and included massage fountains, a jacuzzi and a lazy river. The pool system is a bit of a maze but thankfully there’s plenty of signs in the cave corridors. We really enjoyed the lazy river, which was pretty fast and powerful but there were also lots of pools to relax in. The limestone is growing over the tiles and walkways in many places so looks really natural. We were so glad we made a detour to see them and relax a little.

The entrance to the cave maze

Refreshed, we set off to Eger the home of the famous red wine Egri Bikaver (Bulls blood); we obviously haven’t had enough wine yet. Rather naively, we took the scenic route and spent the next hour on winding roads skirting the national park. Our campsite in Eger was beautiful and full of fellow wine tasters, not forgetting the campsite cat who we named George. With one full day to enjoy both town and wineries, we got up early. First we wandered through the old town and visited the Basilica. Eger has lovely narrow streets of shops and cafes with a large open square in the centre. Later we walked up to the castle which is a great museum complete with English signs and an exhibition on the history of the castle. The castle was used as a Bishops seat for the Hungarian empire and each bishop improved the defences and increased the size of the castle chapel until it became a monumental cathedral. Unfortunately only ruins remain of the castle and cathedral, but most of the castle has be reconstructed. Eger is also famous in Hungary due to the novelist Gezer Gardonyi  who wrote about the love stories and struggles of Eger castle, a novel that was made into a film in the 1960’s. The film included 10,000 extras and the actresses and actors were selected by a vote of the Hungarian people. After his death, he was buried in the castle grounds and an exhibition about his life and novel was created.

Inside Eger castle

A view of Eger from the castle

Our last stop in Eger was the valley of the beautiful women. This valley contains 48 wine cellars and a few restaurants. The wines produced here are not quite as fascinating as Tokaj and its Aszu berries but they are still pretty tasty. We sampled Bulls blood, rosé, Menoir, and Merlot to name a few, but it seems they grow almost any grape here. The Bulls blood is a blended wine consisting of at least 50% Keckfrancos grapes and up to five others. It comes in regular and superior versions with the latter being aged in barrels for at least two years before being aged on bottles for another two. The name comes from a legend about the Turkish invaders not knowing what the local people were drinking. They saw the red colour and how bold and courageous it made people and thought it must be Bulls blood. Ever since then it has been known by this name. We enjoyed tasting wine and had a yummy dinner but discovered that wine is not kept in the cellars nowadays, they are purely a tourist attraction.  

A small part of the valley of beautiful women

Wine, goulash and paprika

There are three things Hungary is famous for: wine, goulash and paprika. Since we like at least two of them we had to go there. Because we entered the country in the northeast from Skovakia, our first stop was the famous white wine region Tokaj. Our choice for a place to stay fell onto the namesake village of Tokaj (pronounced Tok – eye).

There are two campsites in this village: Tiszapart camping is part of the outdoor baths at the river Tiaza and Hegyalia camping is on the other side of the main road. We stayed on the second site since it had proper showers, toilets and nice shady spots for campers. It cost 3000 Forint (roughly 310 Forint are 1€; 346HUF are 1£) for the three of us and Trevor. The other very handy aspect is that we only had to walk across the bridge to get into the middle of the village (very handy for winetasting!). On the downside some ice hockey team had gathered there for partying three evenings in a row. We did consider wild camping but since the weather was hot and showery and shady camping spots were on offer highly we decided to stay. Strategic parking and keeping the toilet block between the party and us ensured bearable noise levels.

After setting up camp we walked into the old part of the center with the majority of shops, restaurants and wine bars. We were lucky to get a map and some info from the nice lady in the tourist office even though it was already officially closed. For our first Hungarian meal we went to the restaurant Bacchus at the main square opposite the church. The food was good and very reasonably priced. We also had a first taste of the local wines.

The Himmesidvar wine celler

We had one day set aside for wine sampling so the next day we got right into it. One of the vineyards recommended to us was Himesudvar. It is a small family business located in an old converted royal hunting lodge up a small side street. The tasting offer consists of six wines (30ml each) covering the whole range from dry to sweet for 1500 Forint per person. The woman running it was very nice and gave us information leaflets about the types of wine, the production and the region and explained the speciality of the wines as we tasted them. We started off with a very dry Furmint (0g sugar per liter) and finished with a 2013 aszu at 161g/l. The aszu is what everybody knows as ‘the’ Tokaj wine. It is made only from ‘noble rotten’ grapes (grapes affected by a grey fungus called botritis cinerea). They are manually separated from the other grapes and production of this wine is different from normal wine.

Aszu and normal wine grapes (Copyright: winewittsandwisdomswe.com)

Since the fungus requires long warm autumns and rain at certain times, the volume achieved varies greatly between years. There is even an essence, where aszu grapes are pressed purely by their own weight over a long period of time. The resulting liquid can contain up to 600g of sugar per liter!

We enjoyed our tasting experience very much and highly recommend this vinyard! The only other tasting offer we saw was for 3x50ml of wine and 100g of homemade cheese for the same price. There was no aszu or other higher grade wines included though.

After our morning tasting we went to a street on the edge of the village which had lots of cellars. We found five places open and went to four of them, trying different wines. Even though Matthias is not normally a white wine drinker, he found some wines he really enjoyed. Ted got charmed by a lovely lady but didn’t get any wine.


Ted and his wine queen

The Tokaji region was declared a protected region in 1757 by royal decree and there are strict laws governing types of grapes and wine production in the 29 villages of the area. This has lead to a distinct wine character. The whole region is lovely and not overrun by tourists so the villages still have their charm. You can spend a long time going to different vinyards and sample delicious white wines but we think 2-3 days is enough. We recommend visiting the region if you like wine and are visiting Slovakia or Hungary anyway. 

Castles, caves and more camping

Our next day trip was to the town of Levoca nestled in the hills of eastern Slovakia. It is a Unesco world heritage sight thanks to its large town square, old buildings and huge basilica. To be honest we were a little disappointed as a walk around the old town and town walls took about 45 minutes. The only sight really worth seeing is the cathedral with the tall wooden altar, all handcrafted by master woodcarvers and then gilded. With its 18m height it is the tallest gothic altar in the world. Thankfully, the lack of things to do in Levoca meant we had plenty of time to visit Spiss castle. Spiss castle is ‘the castle that was never conquered’ and sits on top of a rocky hill overlooking a large valley. It began as a fortress but was slowly transformed into a grand palace complete with chapel and lookout tower, before being burnt down to a ruin. We took advantage of the free audio guide and really enjoyed listening to the legends associated with Spiss and the area whilst walking th yJ rough the castle and admiring the views. We even saw bambi and his mum from the castle walls. 

The basilica minor in Levoca

Ted and Matthias at Spiss castle

From Spiss our route took us back towards the South-West of the paradis national park. We set off quite early to make it to the Dominska ice cave ahead of the rush. Dominska is a special cave, notably one of very few European caves outside of the alps to have a temperature low enough to contain ice all year round. The tour costs €8 for a 30 minute guided walk from the cave mouth and through the ice itself. The walk ways are anchored into the ice and there were lots of lights along the path and on the ice. The best part was an icy tunnel through which we descended to a lower level. Our only niggle was the lighting was often so close to the ice that it was melting it, making us worry about its future a little. The cave was still great to see but 30 minutes looking at ice is certainly enough. We found it quite strange to resurface and be hit by a wall of hot steamy air. 

The underground ice of Dominska

Our second stop on our caving day was the Ochtinska aragonite cave. Aragonite is a form of calcite which forms only in the presence of certain minerals (strontium, manganese and iron) and very slow flowing water, which evaporates rather than dripping. The crystals which form start as glittery dust and over hundreds of thousands of years grow to kidney forms, semi helical spirals or needle like shapes. Ochtinska is a cave formed of blue and white marble with clay and limestone crevases which seems to be perfect for the aragonite to grow. The marble itself is beautiful with washed out holes and swirling patterns. The aragonite formations look like corals growing from the ceiling; from bright white to brown in colour. Everywhere you look there are amazing aragonites, some of which have been named after things such as mice, hearts and ghosts. The 30 minute tour was well worth the €6 and it felt as though the staff were really interested in protecting the aragonites and helping visitors enjoy them too. We really recommend seeing Ochtinska cave as it was much more impressive than the ice cave or indeed the photos we saw of the other caves in the area. The only exception we might make is the Domica cave with its underground river, but it’s currently closed due to a lack of water so we didn’t visit it; hopefully we can go on a different undergound boat ride soon. 

Coral-shaped aragonite structures

Slovakia on the whole appeared a little worse for wear. We kept coming across disused buildings or businesses that appeared to have gone under. After our experience wild camping we decided the next night we should stick to campsites. But when we turned up at our intended campsite we found the gates locked and no one there. Another car stopped by us and told us there were no other campsites, but that there was a lake just up the road about twenty minutes away. We decided to go in that direction knowing that there was at least one campsite beyond the lake. The only road to the lake quickly deteriorated and became a glorified farm track, that had been made into a patchwork of different tarmac. On a flat straight road this might have been ok, but up the 18% gradient and around hairpin bends it was a rough and slow ride. We made it to the lake at Uhorna but sadly there wasn’t much to be said for camping opportunities other than a shady car park. We continued on to the next campsite we had found online which thankfully was open!  We were welcomed by the owner Janna with a lovely cold beer and a wealth of information about the local area. The campsite was actually an orchard at the back of their home and bed and breakfast, complete with barbeque area, games area and a swimming pool. Taking in the beautiful setting we decided to stay for an extra day to make the most of a little rest and the swimming pool, even if it was swimming while watching a thunderstorm roll in. 

Refreshed from our day off we had one last place to visit in Slovakia. The second largest city of Kosice located in the east of the country. We only had a short drive from the campsite to the city but we did notice the slum like buildings along the road and the tower block which appeared to have been taken over by Roma. We definitely wondered how welcome they are in Slovakia as they often seemed to be hanging about towns, obviously unemployed and in varying degrees of poverty. That said there didn’t seem to be any problems between different groups of people. Kosice however, was a little different to the countryside. The buildings were grand and decorated and it felt lively with a good bar/cafe culture. We wandered around the centre and had a look at the largest Slovakian and most eastern gothic cathedral in Europe. It seemed a nice place to go for a weekend of relaxing in a city but there wasn’t really lots to see. That said we spent a couple of hours wandering and shopping with a quick cafe stop, before we set off to Hungary. 

Kosice cathedral