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.

Live at Nostalgija, Ljubljana

I spent one rainy day looking ahead at our possible route and googling for cool bars and venues to approach for gigs. I really liked the look of Nostalgija vintage cafe bar in Ljubljana. We only had the one possible free night – the 23rd May, a Thursday. They normally have live music on Fridays and Saturdays, but agreed to a ‘Thursday Night Special’.

Cheers to Nico for putting me on! It’s a cool 50s/60s themed bar, with vintage stuff all over – old sit-under hairdryers for bar stools, a wurlitzer, old vacuum cleaners, and groceries.  I played blues from the 20s, 40s, 60s and my own songs. Really relaxed, good banter 🙂

Apps for travel: Park4Night

Park4Night is an excellent user-input based app, which allows you to locate (and share information on) free camping spots all over the world. In addition, paying campsites, car parks, picnic areas and even farms are listed, making this an invaluable tool for travellers who, like us, don’t like to stick to a definite plan of where they want to be the next night.

There are literally thousands of spots and whilst some aren’t ideal for a larger vehicle like our 6m home, advice and reviews are given about this sort of thing, so it’s rare that you end up somewhere you can’t actually stay. Some of our favourites so far have been:

Staying on a snail farm! Guess what we had for dinner that night??!! Just €10 for the night, including electricity.

Relaxing by the Saône river. For free!  Our neighbours for the night were on a boat, called, er, ‘Le Boat’…

A peaceful fishing lake. Again, no cost! Beautiful weather, very pleasant.

On the ‘Route Napoleon’ just after Castellane. Great dog walk, great scenery,  no cost. Parfait.

Admittedly some countries don’t have as many free sites, for example, we struggled in Italy, but we still found farms and vineyards where you can stay for free, but you are expected to buy some wine, honey or other produce… which is no great hardship really!

So far, we’ve only used it in Western Europe – will update after we get to Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Scandinavia.