Exploring eastern Europe. Part One.

Saturday 1 October 2022

Two years ago my friend Steve and I were supposed to head to Vienna, then through Slovakia, Ukraine, Moldova and a few other countries in that area, then along came Covid and put paid to that idea. With what’s going on in Ukraine just now, one wonders what will happen over the next year or so. Hence its time to go take a look, although not at Ukraine. Sylvia and I headed to, Cassis a nice little town just east of Marseille. Arriving around midday, we headed to the rather picturesque harbour, full of small boats and surrounded by restaurants. We wandered around to the northeast side of the port and enjoyed a snack and a bit of rather relaxing people watching before heading up to the La Demeure Insoupconnee, a B&B place we had booked for a couple of nights. It turned out to be a really nice place with great views of the Sliabh Liag cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. After settling in we headed back down to the town and enjoyed a meal at one of the many wharf-side restaurants.

Sunday 2 October 2022

After watching the sun rise over the cliffs, and enjoying a nice french breakfast, we headed over to Sainte-Maxime, from there following the coast around as much as we could. In this part of France all the beaches are shingle with some having the luxury of imported sand, often held in place by sea walls to stop the sea washing it away.

Arriving at Bandol we strolled around the corner away from the main, rather busy harbour area, where we discovered a restaurant overlooking the beach. There we sat and chatted, enjoying some great food and the local wine. The service was, in good French style, a little slow and inaccurate but that was well and truly offset by the location.

After a long lunch we headed up to the cliff tops, enjoying the view from the windy road along the way. Lots of people are out and about enjoying the weather and the views, many on motorbikes. There are also some on push bikes and the odd classic car.

The day nearly gone, Sylvia headed back to Nimes to ready herself for a busy week of work. I stopped another night, ready for an early start for the 800km drive northeast to Liechtenstein in the morning.

Monday 3 October 2022

I was on the road at 6am. Having seen most of the country around here on previous trips, heading off in the dark was not a problem. The first hour of the journey along the coast went well until I hit the morning traffic which slowed to a crawl. Once past Nice things sped up again. Crossing into Italy, I was impressed with the roading as they have built the road not far back off the coast and it consists of continuous bridges over the valleys and tunnels through the ridges. Towns fill the gullies and are often built up into the hills. One area had many glasshouses scattered along the hillsides. They certainly are good at getting buildings to stick to rock. Little towns, all with a church steeple, are perched up in the hills.

At Genoa the road headed north, eventually by-passing Milano, and then up the east side of Como and then leading up a valley to the San Bernardino Tunnel, which is 6596 meters long. The road winds sharply on the way up with many bridges and avalanche shelters along the way. There are the remains of a castle along the way with churches and monuments stuck on hills, where one wouldn’t expect them. The traffic was very slow over the last 150kms of the journey stretching the trip out to 10.5 hours to cover around 800kms. The reward of the scenery in the Swiss hills was well worth it, with little huts and towns dotted high in the rather green hills.

Arriving in Liechtenstein I checked into the Kommond Hotel, where the service is great and the food tasty. Liechtenstein is the fourth smallest country in Europe with a population of around 38 thousand people. At 25km long and some 160 square km in area, there is not a whole lot of room left to run around, although one does not get that impression when driving through it.

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Last night, while planning todays route, initially google maps suggested I head to Graz in Austria via Munich and Salzburg, places I will be going later on in the week when I pick Sylvia up in Munich and head to Salzburg for the weekend. When I first joined the army at 16 we had two corporals as our barrack commanders – to us they were really old (probably 22). Both Bob and Wally had been to Vietnam and were great instructors, very willing and eager to pass on their knowledge and experience to us. One of the lessons I remember Bob giving us was on planning a route. He had us in hysterics, and without going into detail, one thing he enphasied was to break the route down into sections and look at the detail. Bob went on to become the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army and is now the patron of the Regular Force Cadet Association. I have a theory that Google is in bed with the oil companies and alway adds a bit to the route.

Up early, I headed off at first light, driving south back through part of Liechtenstein to get a feel for the place before turning north and heading across the boarder into Switzerland. It looks like a wealthy country with nice homes and well-kept streets. The barman last night was telling me how they sell off citizenships on a ballot basis, where some 20,000 people pay 10,000 euros to go into a draw for a dozen or so places. If you miss out hard luck – no money back. Apart from that 45% of their income is from manufacturing, 54% is from financial services, agriculture accounts for a small amount as do other bits and pieces. The average income is around $72k USD per annum.

Heading east down a valley, as the sun rose lots of little villages came into view with farm houses high in the hills all surrounded by green fields. Some of the paddocks are so steep the sheep dogs must wear spikes on their feet to muster the stock. The roads are really smooth and none of them wind there way up and down steep hills – they have avoided that by just digging a tunnel from one valley to the next. One tunnel I passed through was over 10kms long and many over 5. Most are two lanes in the same direction with a separate tunnel for the traffic going the other way. Large rocky faces were present in places along with churches and statues situated way up high in places they just don’t belong. There must have been some very fit and strong disciples back in the day. Nowadays all the priest has to do is recruit the local helo pilot.

As the autumn gold and copper colours are just starting to appear, the sun is shining and it’s still shorts and t-shirt weather. The other impressive thing I see here are the large number of manufacturing plants along the way. Often just one in a medium sized town, obviously providing employment and a good standard of living for the people in the town. There is also lots of farming including cropping and horticulture. At one point I was glad that I wasn’t going west as there were over a hundred trucks in a jam.

Heading through the town of Natz-schabs and continuing east I crossed into Austria at Oberpirkack, not that one would know as there is no sign of any border or check point anymore. The countryside and the buildings were very similar and towns still had their manufacturing plants although there seemed to be a bit more farming activity. Churches and monuments were still on the high ground. There is a large castle on the high ground above Lake Ossiach near the town of Landskron. At one stage I pulled over to at an SOS rest area to take some photos when a road patrol vehicle pulled in behind me to see if I was broken down. I checked into the Amedia Hotel, near the Graz Airport, (to be greeted by a very friendly guy on the reception and bar) a bit after 4pm and over 650km of really enjoyable driving and taking in the spectacular views along the way.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Once again I was on the road early, heading east into the sunrise and the wild skies criss-crossed with jet streams. The roads are good, all two or three lanes in each direction. As the dawn lightened up I got to appreciate the vast farmlands stretching as far as the eye could see were well tended fields with a variety of crops and some grasslands with patches of bush here and there. On most of the trip the traffic flowed freely making for an easy drive. I stopped at a couple of road side service stations for coffee and fuel. Most of the staff had enough command of english, assisted with a bit of point and pay, that there was never a problem when it came to buying fuel and coffee. They were all friendly and helpful.

Arriving in Budapest I headed to the Danubius Hotel Helia, up river from the city centre and opposite argit-Sziget, an island in the middle of the Danube River. At 1000hrs it was too early to check in so I asked the staff if I could leave the car in the carpark and go for a wander. They were friendly and ok with my request. Strolling up the river I crossed over to the island on the Arpad bridge. The island is big with a few buildings, sports grounds, statues and concrete paths running through the trees. One can hire pedal cars to get around on and there are a number of food stalls and coffee stands. At the bottom end, near where the Margaret bridge crosses the river and and adjoins the island, there is a large fountain. This bridge carries trams, cars and pedestrians. Large blocks of apartments line the sides of the river in places among the many old buildings. There are many boats tied up along the river bank. Some years ago Sylvia and her family took a boat from here to Amsterdam. Buda is on the east side of the river and Pest on the west hence the name Budapest.

Budapest is famous for its Statues and Parliament buildings which are situated on the Pest side of the river. I am sure I haven’t seen all the statues but I have lumped the ones I have seen together along with the parliament buildings.

Crossing to the Buda (west) side, I strolled along the riverbank until I found a Metro line. There I bought a day pass for the public transport and caught the red line up to Magyar Jakobinosok, the end of the line. Taking a tram a few stops, I ended up on the hill behind the Buda Castle. I strolled through some back streets, then through a tunnel ending up at the river below the castle. I found some steps and headed up, soon crossing a bridge across to the castle. Looking over the bridge I discovered a cable car that ran up to the castle, which I made a mental note to take back down as the knees don’t like steps too much these days. The castle is now an art gallery and museum. First built in 1265, but like most of these things rebuilt, and the site as it stands was built between 1749 and 1769. It was mostly demolished in WWII and rebuilt in a simplified Stalinist Baroque style during the Kadar era. Kadar was the first secretary of the Hungarian working peoples party during the USSR days. On the north side of the castle there is a large white building with an orange tiled roof. I could not establish what it is; the doors were closed and a couple of soldiers stood on duty outside. There are great views from up here across the river to the Pest side. There are also some nice houses set in the hills to the southeast.

Catching the red train under the river, I ended up in the nicest part of town with lots of bars, restaurants and little town squares. I wandered around looking at the sights, eventually settling in a chair outside Rick’s Restaurant, where I enjoyed a couple of wines and a cigar. A very friendly waitress called Krisztina had a great eye for detail as every time someone walked past and dropped a credit card receipt on the pavement she raced over and picked it up depositing it in the bin. With a Hungarian mother and a Russian father she was born in Budapest. She maintains to this day that the people were much better off under the old USSR system as she says that back then they all got looked after. At 40 years old she must have been about 10 when it all ended so I could not quite figure out where she was coming from. As the light was fading I headed down the road and caught the train on the yellow line a few stops then walked the last couple of kms back to the hotel. They still run trolley buses here and my pass allowed me to catch one but after a few days of sitting in the car I needed the walk. It was nearing 7pm when I walked past some workmen still hard at it, sorting out the local foot path.

Thursday 6 October 2022

Having had a good look at the city, I thought a train trip southeast to look at the countryside would be a good thing to do. I headed down to the gym on the ground floor, which lead me through a long passage full of rooms with people sitting in them – it all looked like doctor or medical stuff. They even have an indoor pool and the gym wasn’t too bad either. Exercise complete, I want down to the local train station to find that it was closed. There was a bus running in its place so headed into town and then found another train that took me to another bus and eventually took me to the Budapest Nyugati Railway Station. Finding a ticket machine that had an english button I set out to buy a ticket to Cegled, a town about 65k southeast of here. All went well until the screen went blank. Roger and technology! I moved to the next machine to find they had all gone blank. The station is quite big with 20-odd platforms. I typed into Google translate what I wanted and headed to the counter. A very nice lady said in perfect english with a big smile ”this is a government office, go around the corner to the ticket office”. I headed around the corner and queued up. Arriving at the counter I held up my phone with the translation; the woman, somewhat less friendly, waved her hands around and said something like I cant help you! Back to the ticket machine, which was working again, I managed to purchase a ticket and found they even have a reduced fair for antiques over 65. Tickets in hand I boarded the train, which was at the platform but not leaving for an hour. Eventually underway we traveled through the city suburbs then into the countryside. Trees and hedges along the rail corridor blocked a lot of the view but I got a good feel for the place with its very flat land, no fences and most of the ground cultivated, growing crops and various vegetables. The train stopped at every little platform along the way. The line was double tracked and lots of freight trains passed us heading into the city. The housing in the villages all looked tidy and in good repair. Each station had its own ticket machine. Even though the odd train looks pretty old, the one I was on was a double-decker and all the rail is electric. The place looks very prosperous.

Arriving at Cegled there were some 12 platforms and an old steam engine on display. A town of around 38,000, it’s quite tidy. I strolled down a nice tree-lined avenue, passing parks and the odd shop amongst the mainly one-storey dwellings with the odd multi-storey Soviet-styled apartment. A couple of kms later I arrived at the town centre with a nice park, a couple of churches and the odd statue. On the edge of the square is the Delibab Kavezo, a restaurant with a friendly chap standing at the door. He spoke really good english, which he said he had learned at school. There I enjoyed a coffee and a caesar salad before strolling back to the station. There are a number of buildings being restored in the town and a number of new apartment buildings under construction.

I managed to get a more direct train back to Budapest, which was a lot older and the window cleaner had not got around to cleaning the windows so I couldn’t take any photos on the way back. Arriving back in town I got the bus back into the city and headed to Rick’s cafe for a wine and some goulash soup and a rather tasty Hungarian steak. I had a chat to an old bloke from Norway that sat opposite me, who at 79 was here on holiday with his wife, who had gone shopping. Krisztina was there greeting all the customers. A young guy called Josh was also working there. Originally from Iran, he is trying to move to Germany as it is impossible to get citizenship in Hungary.

Dinner over, I wandered the busy streets bustling with bikes, scooters and even a kid in a toy car mingling amongst the pedestrians. I caught the bus back to the hotel, battery almost flat as I followed the route on the map but for some reason it didn’t stop at the stop near the hotel and carried on for a km or so, which made for a nice evening stroll. I have to give them full marks for the public transport here as it is easy to use and runs at convenient intervals.

Friday 7 October 2022

At 0700 hrs I departed the hotel for Munich. The traffic out of Budapest was light and the motorway heading to Austria well maintained and mostly three lanes in each direction. Continuous convoys of trucks headed south towards Budapest, almost in places looking like a a train of trucks. A smoggy like mist hung over the valleys, sometimes reducing visibility to a couple of hundred meters.

Arriving at the Austrian border the traffic slowed to a crawl as it proceeded through what once was border control. As I proceeded through the once checkpoint there were a couple of woman standing on the side of the road in high vis jackets. I waved to them and one of the woman put her hand out in what I interpreted to be a low wave. As I drove through their expressions changed to a rather aggressive look, oops maybe that wave was meant to be a stop signal. I drove past the deserted booth and pulled over as one of the woman ran after me ,hand on pistol. I lowered the window and smiled. She held her hand out in the wave position and said this means stop. “Passport!” I said its in the boot and got out and produced my passport, apologising for the misunderstanding. Checking the passport out, she said “you can go now” in a very serious manner. I got the message “don’t mess with us, we are the police”

Having travelled through the flat northern parts of Hungary, the Austrian countryside had a bit of form to it with rolling hills and lots of cropping, with each little town having a large manufacturing plant. At one point there was a huge monastery-type building on the edge of a village, which looked like it could accomodate hundreds of people. The road cut to the south of Vienna. I stopped every few hundred kms at a roadside service centre, where I found the people very friendly and tolerating of my point and pay with a smile. In a couple of places they spoke good english and enquired as to where I was from and were very chatty. For part of the journey the road, not a motorway, took me through some stunning farmland with large sheds alongside the houses to accomodate the stock in the harsh winters. There are many large rivers flowing through the lands and lots of harvesting of the many crops along the way.

At one point I passed a convoy of military amphibious armoured vehicles.

Sylvia had booked us into the Munich Airport Hilton for the night as she is flying in to join me. Arriving at the check in and showing the booking number to the rather serious guy at the check in, he said I had to wait until Sylvia arrived to check in as I need her consent to check in. Sylvia was at the Marseille airport waiting for her flight so I rang her and she spoke to Mr Serious and all was sorted. After having sorted that I headed out to find a carwash to clean my rather dirty car. Along the way I spotted an Aircraft museum with a Junkers Ju 88 on display. Unfortunately it closed before I had time to take a look. Next time! There is a rather unique coffee cart at the airport outside the terminal.

Saturday 8 October 2022

After a leisurely breakfast we headed up the Autobahn in the direction of Salzburg. In this part of the country there are speed limits on the road varying from 80km during roadworks to 130km in places, but they are not consistent and one has to concentrate as they change often. As we neared the border of Austria Sylvia said we had better check out the toll road rules. She discovered that one was supposed to display a toll sticker on the windscreen or one can collect a 120 euro fine. We pulled into a service station and got one. Crossing the boarder into Austria, we turned off the motorway not far down the road to be confronted by a roadblock where the guys were checking toll stickers. Well done Sylvia! Bit of luck that I had driven a lot of Austria over the past few days without one and not got caught. Along the way the scenery had been really nice with colourful houses and stock sheds amongst the green fields.

Not far up the road we crossed back into Germany, following a green, glacier-fed river for a while before heading up the hill to the bus station below the Eagle’s Nest. High on the hill above, one could make out the building that was built for Hitler in 1938. Three thousand eight hundred workers built the narrow, winding road up to the carpark below the building, built the 300m long tunnel, the 124m vertical elevator shaft and constructed the building on top over an 18-month period. A cable car system was put in place to bring the heavy materials up the side of the hill but many workers perished as they fell off the side of the mountain. At a cost of 30 million Reichsmark, this was funded by the royalties from the sale of Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. (It must be quite good to write a book and then make it a compulsory purchase for most of the population).

Boarding one of three buses, we headed in convoy up the road, passing through the five tunnels built by the workers back in the day. The road is pretty much one-way all the way and only these buses are allowed to transport people up to the carpark. Arriving at the carpark, we dismounted and walked through the 300m tunnel into the dome room and joined the queue waiting for the brass-lined elevator, which was much bigger than expected – but felt pretty small with about 30 people crammed into it – for the 124m journey to the building above. Around the area there used to be several other buildings including homes for Hitler, Goerring, Boerman and others, but these were all destroyed at the end of the war.

Hitler only visited the Eagle’s Nest 14 times – one drawback was that they didn’t put any heating into the building, despite the elevator shaft being heated. It was mainly used for entertaining dignitaries. We looked through the building before wandering up the hill behind it to enjoy the views, then enjoying a pleasant lunch at the restaurant inside the building before reversing the journey and catching the bus back down the hill.

This still remains the most visited tourism site in Germany.

Just after our traffic stop we had noticed a cable car running up a high feature. We headed there, bought a ticket and climbed aboard the Der Untersberg cable car for the 8.5 minute ~1330m climb to the top of the Untersberg range. We just had time to see the views at the top before the clouds rolled in. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and some apple strudel before heading back down again.

From there we drove the ~10km into Salzburg, where we had been instructed to park in the carpark and walk ten minutes to the Hotel Goldgasse. It turned out the carpark had been built inside the mountain, carved out of solid rock. A tunnel led us through into the old city, which is absolutely stunning. Originally settled in 796 the fortress above the city dates from the 11th century. We checked into the hotel and headed out to check out some more of the city, to be met with pouring rain. We headed to a nice Italian restaurant, where we enjoyed some great pizza. Hopefully we will get to check out the town properly tomorrow morning.

Sunday 9 October 2022

After an enjoyable breakfast at the Hotel Goldgasse, we strolled over to the funicular to take the ride up to the Salzburg Castle on the hill. Near the funicular there is a still functioning waterwheel, which runs a mill in the building adjoining it. Every direction one looks in this town there is a photograph. Unfortunately we did not have much time as Sylvia was catching the noon train to Munich to get her flight back to Nimes.

Mounting the funicular, we headed up to the castle grounds. The place is huge and I am sure, like in most such places, we would only get a glimpse of it. A ramp led into an internal tower, which used to hold the water to run the original funicular. More than a hundred years ago this operated by each vehicle having a large water tank attached to it. The tank was filled on the top car, the weight dragging the bottom car up as it descended; the water then emptied and the process repeated. I am not sure how they got the water up the hill to the tank. Nowadays, a lift has been installed to take us to the upper level. Next stop was the armoury which had mainly replicas of armour and an original on a revolving platform.

The grounds are huge, there are many restaurants and shops – most at the moment, being the tourist off season, are closed. It was nice as we almost had the place to ourselves. We wandered up the many steps into the main museum, which took one through the local history, with many weapons medals and other items on display.

At one point there was a great slide show giving the history of the castle that started off as a watchtower on the hill in 370 AD and evolved from there over the years.

From the museum we had noticed, through a window, some people on a tower, which we just had enough time left to check out. Exiting the museum part through a hall where a kid wound a handle activating some trumpets, we headed up the tower via a number of spiral stairs and passageways. The views from the top were well worth it.

As I write this Sylvia is now on the train to Munich. I will now hit the road for Vienna.

One day we will come back and spend a little more time here. Maybe even take the horse and cart tour.

5 thoughts on “Exploring eastern Europe. Part One.

  1. Rosie says:

    That’s a huge amount of driving on your own Roger. Don’t know how you do it. And the tunnels! What feats of engineering.
    Thank you for such a detailed account, and great photos once again. Would love to have the time and endurance to explore those parts of Europe as you have done.

  2. Roger James says:

    No just a little Audi A1 easy to park and easy on fuel!

  3. Phil Doole says:

    Thanks Roger, reminds us of our trip from Budapest on the Danube including a side trip to Salzburg three years ago.

  4. Jo-Anne Hitchcock says:

    God thats a lot of driving! Hopefully you have a comfy mafia car with a long wheel base

  5. judy james says:

    loved this trip! Good to see the maps…made more sense to us , to actually see the route taken

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