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.

Venezia

Such an amazing city, I was really keen to find a way to visit again. Obviously, you can’t really drive there. There is a ‘area sosta camper’ on the island of Tronchetto, across the lagoon on the edge of the city – but we’d seen mixed reviews and opted for a site just on the mainland Camping Rialto, near a bus route that could get us there in 20 mins. The site was quite waterlogged so we tried to find a pitch where we were least likely to get stuck. Ever the optimists, we were confident the weather would brighten up – and it did! Up early-ish, and on to the bus which was really busy. The dogs did well to stay calm, and fellow passengers were mostly cheerful, accepting Marra leaning himself up against their legs and ignoring Boo’s uninvited sniffing. We’d decided not to take Marra’s wheels – the right choice. We took it easy over countless little bridges, and eventually I carried him when he got tired, but we wouldn’t have seen half the sights with the rover. It’s a city made for getting lost in – every corner is a picture postcard shot and there is no sense trying to follow paper or Google maps too closely. There was nothing particularly we wanted to do – other than bimble around and enjoy the sights, ignore other tourists and soak up the magical atmosphere.

We called at another bar I’d contacted about getting gigs – Osteria all’Alba. Close to the Rialto but tucked away down an alley, we had a few beers and nibbles. The lady loved the dogs and we had a chat about music. She books the gigs maybe 3 months in advance. I’ll plan ahead next time – it’s a tiny bar/venue, would be really cool to play there.

Another movie-geek moment: Bev spotted another James Bond location, Ponte de le Collone, which Vesper crosses on her way to meet the bad guys in Casino Royale.

One of the joys we remembered about Venice was Osteria hopping – their version of aperitivo hour, where workers wander home stopping at the small bars for an ombra of wine and nibbles like polpette (meatballs) and arancini (stuffed rice balls). We were there a bit early in the day for the full experience, but got a taste at a few bars around the city.

I don’t think I’d get tired of taking photos there – in different seasons, different light, etc. Here’s just a sample…

Next morning, about 100 Polish scouts started setting up on site, all around our pitch. We thought we’d move on, around the Venetian gulf towards Slovenia.

Italian lakes, sacred sites and dog-friendly Bond scenes

The votes are in after a busy 10 days visiting 6 of the Italian lakes, north of Milan and across to Verona. Probably not a long enough time to give a fair assessment, but anyway… in order of preference:

#1: Como

Como – Spectacular views, the chance to re-enact a bit of Bond, Clooney was a no-show and there was some tricky driving but it was worth it.

#2: Garda

Garda – Paddleboarding in the sun, with snow on the hills above us, and fond memories of a previous visit for us.

#3: Orta

Orta – Smaller and quieter, great views at the lovely town of Orta San Giulio, and a UNESCO world heritage site

#4: Megrozzo

Megrozzo – Even smaller, even quieter, very chilled, great bar.

#5: Maggiore

Maggiore – Still impressive, but a bit busier, and lots of cyclists on the narrow roads.

#6: Iseo

Iseo – a bit unfair perhaps as we were there for 2 very grey wet days, more to explore, maybe next time!


We’d moved north, away from the Ligurian coast on the toll road – about £17 from Albenga to Orta San Giulio, approx 250km. We started at Lake Orta after a recommendation by our friend Ucci. We passegiata’d around the lakeside path and through the medieval town.

I called in the Crossroads bar and had a chat about getting a gig. I remembered there being licensing/copyright and permit issues when I travelled in Italy in 2002 and it doesn’t look like things have changed. There was a possibility of a gig in a few days time, if they could get a permit sorted. We would carry on our travels and pop back if we got the go ahead, but no joy. Still, it was a nibble, I’ll keep fishing! It gave me a good reason to plug my new amp in and get some practice. Bev took the opportunity to take the paddleboard for its first outing this trip.

Just above the town, the 400 year old ‘Sacre Monte’ is a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a winding path up around the hill with 20 chapels telling the story of St Francis of Assissi. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I wanted to check it out. St Francis is one of the patron saints of Italy, and also of animals and the environment. In the early 1200s, he preached that all animals, including humans, should be treated as equals under God. The chapels combine paintings and sculptures to depict moments in the saints life. I imagined it being highly effective marketing/storytelling for a medieval audience.

Next was the tiny lake of Megrozzo, just above Maggiore. We stayed in a car park at the edge of the town, €10 with electricity. Great bar by the lake, with huge selection of beers and a view of the ancient Elm tree in the square.

On to Stresa on the shores of Maggiore. Another ‘camper stop’ at a car park, in walking distance of the main drag. More pricey at €25, but ideal for a trundle round. There are boat rides to the Borromean islands, which were recommended, but we’re fairly happily accepting that we can’t do everything, being on a budget and with 2 dogs to look after. We wandered back into town for aperitivi and were not disappointed at the El Gato Negro pub – Order 2 beers (a local IPA) and get a platter of meats and cheeses for free! A bit of ‘funny business’, as our mate Andy calls it.

On the next day, briefly cutting a corner through Switzerland, to Como, and some busy winding roads. We camped at a site next to Villa del Balbianello, which featured as the location for Bond’s recuperation in Casino Royale and also appears in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Dogs are allowed in the garden and we really enjoyed it – stunning gardens, and great views of the lake.

Our attempt to recreate a Bond scene was marred somewhat by preening Italian teens taking selfies…

Top marks again for freebies with drinks at Bar Il Golfo in Lenno/Tramezzino – possibly the biggest aperitivo snacks so far! I had a negroni sbalgiata – with prosecco instead of gin. Quite dry and bitter. Bev stuck with Aperol spritz.

Moving on, we took a short ferry ride across to Bellagio, to avoid retracing our steps down the side of the lake. It was easy and quick and there were no problems with the size of the van.

We had a good wander around Bergamo, after pushing/carrying the rover up a huge flight of steps to get to the hilltop city. Then on again to Lake Iseo and some serious weather. We stayed 2 days, but didn’t wander far. I’m sure there’s plenty to see and some good paddleboarding probably. Maybe next time!

With an eye on the weather forecast, we decided best chance of sun was at Lake Garda and set up at Camping Silvella on the south west corner of the lake. In 2002, we’d camped in a ‘bungalow’ nearby and I got my first gig of that trip at a tiny pirate’s bar. We tried to find it but it looks like its gone, lots of redevelopment here.

Some serious high winds through the night – 2 trees down on the site! – but the morning was lovely and we both did an hours paddleboarding in the sun, with the mountains and snow above us. On the way out, we stopped at Sirmione, sticking out on a spit of land into the lake. Parked up for 3 hours and wandered – another ancient town, windy cobbled streets and squares, etc. Then, on towards Venezia.

The Monte Carlo Affair…

…Which sounds a bit like a spy movie. Except they never show the bits where the secret agent has to take an elderly dependent with mobility issues around an iconic/cinematic location. Is Monaco wheelchair friendly? Is it worth a visit? Is it doable in a campervan? We found out.

First, a bit of Askew glossary: The ‘Franklin Index’ is a measure of ‘well-travelled-ness’ – the number of countries visited, divided by age in years. Inspired by the arctic explorer John Franklin and in part by his namesake Jon Franklin, who I worked with for a while and whose wife regularly used the same calculation to plan their holidays. A positive Franklin index, a score greater than 1, means you’ve visited more countries than your age in years. Whoo. We didn’t really travel a great deal until our late 20’s so a positive index would be a tough target but still, any opportunity to visit a new country is quite a draw.

So, the James Bond glamour and the chance to tick another country off made me want to try to visit Monaco seeing as we were passing so close as we moved from France to Italy. We googled ‘motorhome parking monaco’ and there was some older information about parking spaces without height restrictions at the stadium but nothing conclusive from more recent comments. The weather wasn’t great as we passed anyway, so we didn’t bother – I was already hatching a new scheme!

We were camping in Ventimiglia, a short hop into Italy. The train from Ventimiglia to Monaco takes 30 minutes, and the campsite was a 10 minute stroll from the station. That sounds a lot easier that struggling to find parking for the motorhome!

Rules on taking dogs – and taking an old dog in a fairly chunky stroller – on trains were a bit vague, it depends on the type of train, size of dog, etc. We can only try. We positioned Marra in his rover in clear view of the guy at the ticket office and asked for 2 adults, 2 dogs ‘andate e ritorno’ to Monaco. Puffing away on his e-cigarette, the guy obliged, with nothing to indicate any concerns. The dogs paid half the child fare, had their own ticket, which we stamped before boarding.

The train was at the platform so we legged it. No lift so a bit of a haul down the steps to the underpass and back up to the platform. On the train no problem as they had lots of space for bikes, but there were no cyclists on so we parked ourselves in there. Nothing but smiles and cooing from the (French) train guards.

I realised I didn’t know much about Monaco other than it has a Grand Prix, it’s small, expensive and glamorous and the casino was in a Bond film. I now know it is very steep – there are public elevators between levels; it has several districts, of which Monte Carlo is one; and, there are 3 main attractions: the Casino, the Aquarium and the Japanese Garden.

We hit a snag trying to leave the station – the rover wouldn’t fit through the doors to the lifts. We had to remove one wheel. I guess we are just a little bit wider than an average wheelchair! We found this to be the case all round the city, so we avoided all the lifts except one up out of the marina. Good exercise, pushing the rover! Apart from that, we had very little bother all day.

We took a circular route:

  • down the roads to a pedestrianised shopping area, where we stopped at Grubers for an excellent burger,
  • round to the marina, where they were setting up for the upcoming e-prix and where we ogled the yachts,
  • up to the Japanese garden, where we took turns to wander as dogs weren’t allowed,
  • round to the casino, again where we took turns to have a nosy inside,
  • through the posh shopping/hotel area, where we ogled the fancy cars,
  • then on back round to the station.

A grand day out! Wasn’t that sunny but we got a few pics.