Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Germany

To escape the heat in Budapest, we headed north, towards our ultimate goal of Sweden, and meandered through Slovakia, a corner of the Czech Republic, up through western Poland and then into Germany. Here’s our highlights… 

Wrocław, Poland

Can anyone outside Poland pronounce the name of this fantastic city properly? It’s not ‘rock-claw’. Something like ‘Vrosh-wav’. Anyway, we stayed in a car park right in the centre and had a fantastic time. Trundled around the islands, couldn’t do the Botanic Garden with the dogs, but we saw the cathedral, stopped for beer and pancakes, saw the main square, checked out some bars, and some gnomes. I went to see the Taylor Moore band at the Vertigo jazz club – great band, great venue! Next morning, Bev went round the Botanic Garden, then – our 24hrs up – we moved on. Loads more to see I’m sure, I’d happily return.  

Kamenná brána rock window, Bosanov, Czech Republic

The Broumovsko Protected Landscape Area is a reserve full of natural sandstone rock sculptures. A typically askew adventure – we went hiking with the dogs, and of course took Marra’s wheels for when he got tired. Passed a Dutch couple on the way who said, “Turn back, you won’t make it.” One thing about this trip – we really don’t like going back on ourselves. Only done it about 3 times in 4000 miles! And, of course, we have that stubborn, plucky, can-do attitude and a large dose of “I think I know what’s best for me”. So, 16.7km and various scrapes and increasingly bizarre challenges later, we made it back to the site with just 6 minutes before the site bar stopped serving. Ice cold beers and a dip in the natural swimming pond to celebrate. This route was not wheelchair friendly, but it is an amazing place!

Mecklenburg lake district, Germany

The land of a thousand lakes lived up to its name, unlike the land of a thousand storks in Slovenia! We wild camped, swam, paddleboarded and ate by the lakeside. The dogs loved roaming free, tramping down the grass to make a nest to doze in the sun. Idyllic. We will definitely be back. 

High Tatras, Slovakia

The mountains looked amazing, but we could only get so far with old Marra. There were a few wheelchair friendly walks – we did one to the mid station ski lift up the mountain of Lomnický štít, one of the highest peaks in Slovakia. We managed to avoid the wheeled toboggans careering downhill on the same path! We also did a gentler trundle around Štrbské Pleso, very picturesque with stunning views of the mountains beyond.

Travel notes…

We’d heard stories about rural Slovakia – along the lines of ‘they send kids out into the road and pretend you’ve run them over, then rob you when you stop’. There was nothing like that. Some scrappier towns in the borderlands maybe – Bev says Stephen King calls it ‘slippage’ – but that’s true of most places. 

Crap signal for data in Czech Republic and the German lakes, while Poland we had good 4G coverage. 

Big generalisation but we think Dutch-run campsites are cool – Stayed at a few (Brezno, Czech Republic and Uciechów, Poland), nice atmosphere, good facilities, etc.

We passed two convoys on mad driving challenges: The Barrel Challenge, a Dutch competition where teams pimp their cars and undertake challenges along the spectacular route to an unknown destination, somewhere between 2000 and 4000 km!

And, the Baltic Sea Circle – another Dutch race – 8500km in 18 days in a car over 20 years old, no GPS and no motorways…

Looks like fun!

75 days into our van life and European adventure – progress and costs

An update as we are 75 days in to our van life and approximately halfway around our first semi-planned route/adventure around Europe. Geek alert – contains data on costs and stats…

So, I finished work officially on April 6th and we set off on April 9th, leaving Britain and Brexit and renting out our house in Newcastle. I packed selected bits and bobs and guitars into a motorhome with my amazing wife Bev, and our whippets Marra and Boo. We had no specific destination or itinerary – the plan is, there is no plan – other than:

  • seeing some sights and enjoying our freedom to travel around Europe
  • living more simply and more healthily, being outdoors, eating well
  • spending more time together 
  • playing more music, writing new songs
  • ending up in Sweden at some point
  • heading back to the UK in mid August for band gigs in September

The map below shows us colouring in the map of Europe for countries we’ve passed through, and our approximate route.

Our journey so far, plotted with ‘R’ software and the ‘maps’ library

Facts and stats:

Days on the road: 75
Miles:3597
Countries:12UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg,
Italy, Monaco, Switzerland,
Slovenia, Croatia, Austria,
Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic
Fill-ups:10
Average Fuel Efficiency: 31.5 mpg
Average fuel price: £1.20/LtrCheapest: Luxembourg
Most expensive: UK and Italy
Average cost per night:£12.27Includes 21 out of 75 nights
wild camping (free)

Costs so far:

Monthly Costs AprilMayAverage
Food, Social, Shopping£654£752£703
Diesel£417£152£285
Eurotunnel, Tolls, Ferries£190£27£109
Site Fees£350£405£378
Gas£31*£0£16
Phone/Data£40£40£40
Total£1682£1376£1530
*Not including €55 deposit for Benegas bottle in Belgium.

Ignoring the cost of the motorhome (!), there were some up front and one-off costs:

Road Tax£260
Insurance£650
Tracker subscription (lifetime)£399
Motorhome stuff (purchases/repairs)£165

Which, at this stage, suggests a crude estimated annual spend of around £18,500 for a year. Probably more, as we’d use more gas for heating in winter months. So, we’re probably on track to spend around £20,000, like these guys at followourmotorhome. I’m sure we could do better – mowgli adventures did 6 week trip in Europe and spent nothing on accommodation or site fees! (Loads of good tips on both those sites.) But it’s going fine so far. We can wild camp where we can, somewhere scenic, then have a few days at a campsite – to fill up on fresh water, empty the waste and the loo, maybe put a wash-load on. 

Lots of lessons learned about living the ‘van life’ and much more to learn I’m sure. We’ve still not worked out how to park up the van facing the right way to get some shade! One lesson we’ve learned the hard way, after 3 days of the van smelling of rotten eggs – avoid cheap diesel! If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably full of sulphur.

It took a while but we’re getting to grips with the fact that this is not just a really long holiday but a new chapter in our lives. So, for example, when we visit a tourist hotspot, we don’t expect to do all the ticketed touristy things. We’ll see the town, the landmarks, soak up the atmosphere, but maybe give most of the museums, exhibitions and attractions a miss. We’ve got the dogs to think of too, especially the old boy, Marra, who can’t walk very far these days. Mostly cook for ourselves ‘at home’ i.e. in the van or al fresco, eating out at bars or restaurants once or twice a week.  

We’ve met some really lovely people – warm, generous, open-minded and inviting, positive and encouraging. So many, but I’ll call a few out: Adi, who gave me my first gig at his fantastic bar Caffe Galeria in Piran, Slovenia; Levi, digital nomad, film-maker and sharer of Hungarian biscuits; and Gabor, who followed his own dream 10 years ago and established the amazing Sabar vineyard in the Badascony region of Hungary. Cheers, guys 🙂

It’s been tough trying to book gigs on the move, especially as our plans are so fluid. Things seemed to have slowed up lately, perhaps as the season warms up and bars already know they’ll have a good crowd whatever. Staying positive, I keep making contacts and I’m sure I could do better next time, if I actually planned in advance! I’m enjoying all the extra spare time for practising the guitar, especially my fingerpicking, and writing songs. Look out for a new song coming soon – something special, with lyrics written by Bev! – it’s called ‘Baby Oh Did Ya?’

Hungary: Balaton and Budapest

We didn’t really have a plan for Hungary – no surprise there! We’d seen Lake Balaton on the map – it is huge, 78km long – and heard about it from a German chap we met at the camp site in Venice. When he was young, in East Germany, he liked to visit Balaton because it was like a ‘mini-West’ and you could get things like ‘Coca Cola’! We’d pass it on the way to Budapest.

Then, on the morning we set off from Slovenia, we got a reply from Gábor Ádám, the owner of a vineyard in the Badacsony wine region who holds regular wine-tasting events with music. How had googled ‘Balaton blues music’ and found Sabar wines and emailed on the off-chance as this seemed to fit with our ‘playing gigs in cool locations’ ambitions very well….with the added bonus of wine!! Gábor suggested we meet to discuss it.

Lake Balaton and Badacsony

We arrived at the most stunning location imaginable… gentle slopes covered in grape vines, warm sun and extinct volcano hillsides scattered all around. It’s this terrain that gives the predominantly white wines of the region a delicious mineral taste. Gábor introduced us to his range of wines, which were amazing. How certainly felt the effects, drinking in the hot sun! I was designated driver and with a zero tolerance blood alcohol limit in Hungary, I had to be very sensible.

Gábor already had a big event booked for the coming Saturday, which we were welcome to attend and perhaps join in, but he suggested the Friday evening for a small concert. This meant we had a week to explore the Badacsony region and the northern side of Lake Balaton. We found a nice campsite a few km away right on the lake – perfect for paddleboarding and taking it easy for a week. During that time, we also visited Tihany, famous for its lavender, and the ‘geological interpretive site’ of Hegyestű .

The Friday evening arrived and the weather was perfect for an outdoor event on the terrace, with the sun setting over the vineyards and volcanoes. Gábor and his wife Krisztina provided a delicious spread of meats, cheeses, breads (and Orsi’s pancakes for dessert!). Everyone enjoyed How’s music and we were both able to sample a good deal of Gábor’s wine, thanks to the fact that we were camping at the vineyard. We met some awesome people and were blown away by their hospitality… hopefully we will be back this way one day!

Budapest

During the week, How had heard back from the Yellow Zebra bar in Budapest with a booking for the Saturday night. Sadly, this meant we missed Gábor’s big event, which would have been great to attend, but we can’t pass up an offer to play the capital city… its a great opportunity.

We tried to make a quick dash across the country, only to be delayed when the road was closed for 3000 bikers coming the other way along Lake Balaton! It took them 35 minutes to roar past, with much honking, waving and glad-handing from my passenger seat. A pretty amazing sight! Most were dressed up, it looked like something from a Mad Max movie.

Eventually we arrived in Budapest and found a campsite about 3km out from the centre of the city, on the ‘Pest’ side. The Yellow Zebra was a 2500HUF (£6) taxi ride away. It’s a pretty cool little cellar bar. The gig went fairly well – with locals and tourists enjoying the original songs as much as the well known stuff.

We did a bit of research on what we wanted to see in Budapest. We want cheap, dog-friendly and photogenic! It was going to be very hot and public transport with the hounds looked tricky. We decided on a walking tour of:

  • Chain Bridge. First permanent bridge across the Danube in Hungary.
  • Shoes by the Danube. Sixty pairs of bronze shoes to commemorate the Jewish citizens shot by the river by Hungarian Nazis during WWII.
  • Fisherman’s Bastion. A fairy-tale like Neo-Romanesque building on the Buda side the river, which gives great views over to the Pest side.
  • Buda Tower. A 600 year-old bell tower that has somehow survived every siege, attack and war waged on Budapest during that time. The bells in the courtyard ring every hour.
  • Outdoor eating in Erzsebet Square. Pizza, burgers, beer… and water for the hounds. Perfect!
  • Film location spotting, including. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; Blade Runner 2049; A Good Day to Die Hard; 12 Monkeys; The Alienist and Citizen X.

We liked the city – the scale of the buildings, everywhere you look, is very impressive. We went back the next night to visit the ‘ruin bars’ and tried some Hungarian specialties – goulash and ‘chimney cake’. All good!

With the weather in Hungary set to stay so hot (34°C!) for a while, we thought we’d move on and set off north for Slovakia.

Slovenia Highlights

We loved Slovenia! Not a huge country, but a huge range of sights, sounds and tastes. Here’s our favourites from a 17 day tour:

Piran

On Slovenia’s short coastline between Italy and Croatia, the old town of Piran is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, archways, snickleways and nooks with hidden squares and churches, views of the blue, blue adriatic, old statues, fountains, and cafes, bars and restaurants. I loved the way the houses are piled on top of each other, and ancient buildings covered in air conditioning units and tangles of power lines and phone wires. We climbed up to the church on the hill, to look back down on Tartini square and had a fantastic calamari and chips in ‘May 1st’ square.

Rakov Škocjan

This wild karst valley is full of wonders – hidden, misty, forested glades reached through caves, natural bridges, springs, ruined churches and forest pools and more. Although it’s not a big valley (just 6km long), we stayed 3 nights and explored a little each day. The paths of the ‘educative trail’ are mostly even and laid with wood chippings, so it was easy going even for old Marra.

Špajza, Ljubljana

For our 20th wedding anniversary, we enjoyed a couple of days in Ljubljana, joined by Bev’s bridesmaid (and sister) Fran and my best man (and brother-in-law) Dav. A highlight was a fantastic meal of Slovenian specialties and fine wines at Špajza. Great service and a cool place with lots of little dining rooms.

Zgornje Jezersko

Further north, on the Austrian border, we loved the clean air and the awesome views of the mountains. One night we ate at Vila Planinka, where Fran and Dav stayed, and the next night Bev cooked a 3 course meal for all 4 of us in the van.

View of Lake Bled from Ojstrica

It’s probably the most famous sight in Slovenia, we had to go. And it was nice! A bit of a scrabble at the top, not wheelchair friendly.

Žalec Beer Fountain

Heading east, in the direction of Hungary, Bev said, “Let’s stop at Žalec – its got a beer fountain.” OK! We didn’t know what to expect but we liked what we found. Some guys were drinking and dreamt up the idea of a beer fountain, where you can just fill your glass with lovely beer. The idea grew, and lottery funding made it a reality. You buy a glass with a microchip in the base, loaded with 6 credits. Then you just choose what you want and put the glass in the base of the fountain… Beer! There were a range of local, seasonal and specialty beers. We loved them all. And now we have 2 cool beer glasses for the van.