Monthly Archives: August 2015

Turning Back the Clock!

As expected, the driving standard began its inevitable decline as it does the further southeast that you travel in Europe – manic overtaking that I won’t even attempt to describe – you really have to experience the driving idiocy to believe it.  It’s always a good idea to have horse drawn carts and 1930’s style, 2 stroke carts sporting top speeds of maybe 30kph on skinny highways that almost seem as if they were designed with suspension repair specialists in mind. With more craters in some of these roads than on the surface of the moon and speed limits of 130kph at times, it’s difficult to understand why accidents happen!

Road Hazards

Road Hazards

Hmmm... Nice

Hmmm…

Quality Roads

Quality Roads

Making our way off the very poorly maintained and dilapidated blacktop and away from the local kamikaze drivers for a spell, we hit the dirt and by late afternoon we found our way up a lovely and heavily forested valley into a campsite right alongside a small creek where we spent 2 nights decompressing after the fairly consistent road travel of the last few weeks.

Our lovely Creek Camp

Our lovely Creek Camp

Romania laid it on for us over the coming days – beautiful mountains with lovely panoramic views and snaking dirt roads with a few, very overgrown tracks requiring 4×4 and some persistence in order to do a little exploring.

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Mountain Panorama from our camp

What you'll do for a level camp when the view is that good!!!

What you’ll do for a level camp when the view is that good!!!

Smiles and waves were again the order of the day and it reminded us of the friendliness shown to us by the people of the “Stan’s”. Well, other than the traffic police in Kazakhstan that is!  So reminiscent of Central Asia in so many ways… The people just seem to have such a friendly nature about them and will react quickly with a friendly greeting, a theme that was set to continue for some time.

Friendly Local, Burtic Gheorge, played some music

Friendly Local, Burtic Gheorge, played some music

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Finding campsites isn’t all that difficult, but even when you crawl along an overgrown track in low range that doesn’t look as if it’s been driven in ten years, your unlikely to be alone. Of the ten or so nights we spent camped in Romania, only 2 campsites were free of local visitation.

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Usually beginning with the faint sound of a cowbell, before culminating in a herd of cows or flock of sheep along with a lonely shepherd wandering up to our car for a chat and handshake.

Regular Visitors

Regular Visitors

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At our first nights camp in Romania, a horse drawn cart passed within meters of us at 1am on a moonless night.  You couldn’t even see your own nose it was so dark! But we could hear the singing reins-man along with the distinct noise of his steed’s shoes and cart’s timber wheels as he trundled by.  Had it not been for the small creek between his path and our camp, we’d have definitely found ourselves enjoying an encounter with a very confused local.

Another night, we wandered along a disused track and then deviated onto a feint set of wheel tracks into a nicely forested area but still managed to have a vehicle’s headlights and hand-held green spotlight sweep across our camp around midnight. After a while we no longer bothered trying to camp incognito, when we camped within view of a village on one occasion, no one came near us!  Maybe we need a rethink!

Happy Campers

Happy Campers

Feeling quite relaxed!

Feeling quite relaxed!

Continuing through the Apuseni National Park we managed to stumble across a tourist information building containing some really helpful Ranger folk! We were very excited, as finding tourist information on the run can be all but impossible.

Park Rangers

Really Helpful Park Rangers

Anyway we were keen to have a look at some of the caves in the area, as they are reportedly some of the best in Europe, although every country seems more than happy to portray itself as the region of greatest natural beauty and generally being blessed to such a degree that you’ve no real need to visit any other country anywhere else on Earth… but we will visit them anyway!

Anyway, we gleaned some info and finally a small tourist map and set off in the direction of the Ice Cave, which is apparently on the Romanian must do list.

I’ll not even going to attempt to describe the experience other than to point out that it was our only visit to an official site in the area.

Hopefully some of the photos will put you there with us.

A one man show! After waiting 35mins, Indiana Jones emerged from the cave to sell the waiting crowd tickets then accompany us all into the cave, waited while we looked then followed us out!

A one man show! After waiting 35mins, Indiana Jones emerged from the cave to sell the waiting crowd tickets then accompany us all into the cave, waited while we looked then followed us out!

Not really that spectacular but cooler than above ground!

Not really that spectacular but colder than above ground!

Infrastructure way past it's use by date!

Infrastructure way past it’s use by date!

A nearby hotel trying to attract Australian customers perhaps??

A nearby hotel trying to attract Australian customers perhaps??

The drive out however was stunning; it’s a loop road and travels out through a long narrow gorge!

Gorge Drive in Apuseni National park

Fantastic Gorge Drive in Apuseni National park

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We then made for Sighisoira, where, upon our arrival, we found parking to be all but impossible due to the annual medieval festival.  With a little tenacity from Jen who sweet-talked a parking attendant, we managed to park right in the centre in a fenced off area.

A standout town in Romania and birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the oldest part is perched along the side of a hill, which makes for lots of quite steep, cobbled stone steps. The whole setting provides interesting vistas across sections of the old and new city from varying levels.

Sighisoira

Sighisoira

Medieval Festival Talent

Medieval Festival Talent

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A stage had been erected in the main town square and whilst the band was in preparation mode, the background music they had playing was excellent so Jen set herself another task – find out what it was?  She located the sound-mixing guy and he told her it was his own iPod mix and if she had a thumb drive, he could copy it.  Ever efficient, Jen produced a thumb drive from her Aladdin’s cave bag to the stunned looks of the music guy and myself and ten minutes later and we departed with his complete collection of Romanian Folk music.

Very helpful sound engineer

Very helpful sound engineer

A few hours later and a few kilograms lighter due to the oppressive heat, we were back in the aircon and on the road.   It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks and that certainly applies to me! Finding a track on the map that looked as if it would get us further south we persisted well past the point of no return and ended up camped in a small pocket of forest amidst some small farms and logging communities. I only mention it as the following morning we were visited by one of the confused locals who wanted to point out that we weren’t allowed to camp in the area, as it is “Protected Area Naturale!” He was most friendly and more interested in the Patrol than pushing the point but I had to laugh as once again we find ourselves in an area being heavily logged and bombarded with livestock whilst sporting a nice selection of rubbish and yet to the locals its all about nature! Now I’m the confused one….

The following day saw us visit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) amongst other destinations. I guess you can’t really visit this country without paying homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think the castle may be pulling in a good portion of Romania’s GDP given the amount of tourists. It was nice, however, to see China getting it’s fair share in form of remuneration for all of the amazing plastic junk that you can produce and apparently sell to tourists. Too much for us though, so we quickly had the blood sucker’s home in our rear view mirror.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Tourist trap!

Tourist trap!

Demand for stuffed bears at Dracula's Castle was obviously peaking!!

Demand for stuffed bears at Dracula’s Castle was obviously peaking!! Or should that be Peking??

 

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Viscri Fortified Church – well worth the detour!

Not so sure about the Hollywood style signage - tourist tack!!

Not so sure about the Hollywood style signage at Rasnov Fortress – tourist tack!!

Peles Castle

Peles Castle

Like the security seal on the Door?

Interesting security seal on the Door…

Now finding ourselves caught in a massive traffic jam, I’d eventually had enough and cold beer and a campsite were calling.  We darted off the highway and up a valley that looked as if it had potential and were suddenly met with a toll-booth and an enthusiastic attendant. “Welcome – Area Naturale” spilled forth! Here we go again, but we’d had enough of driving, so a few dollars parted with and we began our run up the valley where apparently you can camp anywhere you like for the next 4 km! He forgot to mention that the next 4 km had a camping population density of 1 person per square metre. It was unbelievable and really had us laughing as we cruised past all manner of humpy structures through to caravans and tents coated in a nice layer of dust from the continuous stream of speeding cars.

Area Naturale!!!!

Area Naturale!!!!

Thank God for 4×4!  Up into the forest and we managed a reasonable camp perched high above the throng of locals.  It did the job and was an experience – wild/feral dogs included!

They kept promising Bears but none were delivered!!

They kept promising Bears but none were delivered!!

Onward through Bucharest, we headed for the Bulgarian border, where we paid a 6 Euro toll to cross a bridge over the Danube in order to enter Bulgaria – a bridge that I drove across in low range.  Should give you an idea of how bumpy it was and how slow the traffic was moving!

Tight fit for some!

Tight fit for some!

IMG_0994A consistent decline in the standard of infrastructure was now even more apparent as we made our way through open farmland and from small village to small village.  If Romania reminded us of the “Stan’s”, then Bulgaria was parts of Eastern Russia!  Even down to the return of Cyrillic characters and a 90% Russian language.  Soviet style apartment blocks in varying states of decay, farmers still using horses and carts and locals collecting water at the town well.

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I’m sure this looked good when it was built….

Serious Decay

Serious Decay

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Collecting water like the locals

Collecting water like the locals

A candidate for Grand Designs Bulgaria!

A candidate for Grand Designs Bulgaria!

Very hot temperatures had helped us choose a course and a swim in the Black Sea was extremely alluring.  The reality of Bulgaria doesn’t exist along this coast. With an airport at either end of the tourist strip and a sudden dramatic improvement in both road and general infrastructure, hotels and theme parks are the God’s here. Tourists enjoying a spot of relaxation and spending their days in the small towns that only exist to serve their every need and remove a little currency from them, of course.

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Restaurants…

Costa Bulgaria!!

Costa Bulgaria!!

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Historic Nesebar

Historic Nesebar

The average traveller in this area could be forgiven for having no real understanding of this country and is actually blinkered into a false experience by its very design. But if you’re after a few cheap days by the sea it certainly has that in store for you.

Coastal Camping Bulgarian Style

Coastal Camping Bulgarian Style outside the tourist zone

Somehow we managed to locate a great campsite right between 2 resorts, which allowed magnificent views along the coast and over the sea. With a little bit of mountain climbing we were able to enjoy our first salt water swim for some time and it was marvellous. Nothing quite like soaking in the sea to help bring down your core temperature.

View from our Camp

View from our Camp

Black Sea Sunset from another camp

Black Sea Sunset from another camp

Continuing south and not more than a few kms past the most southern airport exit along the resort strip, the nice black top again morphed into the style of dilapidated road that we are so accustomed to.  At one point during our journey toward the Turkish border I considered the fact that we may be on the wrong road even though I knew this not to be the case.  It was hard to believe that this overgrown strip of bumps and potholes could possibly lead to an international border crossing.

Cheers – Justin

Ps: every time we publish a post I find myself waiting with baited breath and tingling with excitement at the prospect of opening my email and finding I’ve been blessed with another witty retort from Rebecca! Truly Bec, I enjoy your mind-bending responses almost as much as I enjoy writing these posts! Keep ‘em coming.

Berlin and Beyond

Before I get into this update, I realised that “Tales from the Fjords” lacked one anecdote that we thought was worth a mention.

Whilst wild-camping in Norway is well accepted, it seems some locals felt that our presence with Erik and Mieke in the forest on one occasion, was damaging their calm!  It would seem that while we were sleeping, an industrious local took it upon himself to break out his tractor and drag a heavy log across our exit path.  Of course this provided us with much amusement and made good use of the recovery gear that we have been toting all over the world.  Erik left a nice note and we went on our way.

Recovery Gear getting some use!

Recovery Gear getting some use!

IMG_9545 2So now back to Denmark…….

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Another ferry and we were back in Denmark. With rapidly warming weather it seemed the Danish population, starved for a dose of UV, had descended on the coast like a swarm of midges.

Mind you the noticeable lack of clothing on some of the sun, sea and sand-seeking participants quickly dissolved any thoughts of annoying traffic and too many people.

Meandering south we made our way into Copenhagen.  The following day we were rewarded with a leisurely stroll around the lovely city whilst soaking in it’s atmosphere.  Certainly one of the highlights was Nyhaven – similar in character to the old waterfront of Bergen in Norway.

Nyhaven

Nyhaven

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Gotta Love the Selfish Stick!

Gotta Love the Selfish Stick!

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No prize for guessing what this is!

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Apparently they have priority seating for Astronauts on Copenhagen buses????

Gedser on the southeastern tip of Denmark was our next destination, where we would catch yet another car ferry back to Germany. We made a slight detour for lunch and were fortunate to meet a lovely German couple also partaking in a snack. As it turned out they’d spotted our Patrol earlier in the day and couldn’t resist saying hello now that we’d ended up in the same rest stop. Phillip and Bianca were also heading for the car ferry for the return journey to their home in Berlin. We ended up spending most of the 2 hour crossing in their company enjoying some great conversation.

Issued with an invitation to stay with them for a few days in Berlin we couldn’t believe our luck once again. With plans in motion to meet up the following day we both went our separate ways.

The ideology of staying off the motorways where possible was again reinforced on our run toward the capital. Small villages pepper the former East German countryside and the opportunity to soak up a little of the landscape provided us with a rewarding day of travel and a great campsite. It was here that we spotted an unusual animal, which, to us, looked a little like a mongoose and appeared to be about a meter long from tip to tail. As we found out later it’s known as a Pine Marten and they are relatively common.  Like possums, they apparently invade roof spaces but also have a taste for car brake lines!

Pine Marten

Pine Marten (Courtesy of the internet)

Camping in the German Forest

Camping in the German Forest

We also saw the three little wild pigs!

We also saw the three little wild pigs!

Many of the smaller German villages are well worth the detour; Plou am See was an outstanding example. Canal boats waiting their turn to navigate the lochs in order to continue their onward water born explorations and lovely little shops and restaurants nestled along cobbled streets amongst historic buildings.

Plou am See Canal

Plou am See Canal

Cobbled Streets

Cobbled Streets

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Some a little more run down

Some a little more run down…

IMG_0047It has to be said though, that all villages obviously don’t share the same level of loving care.  There is no shortage of villages with abandoned buildings and terribly run down relics from a time gone by.

After navigating the maze of traffic into Berlin, we arrived at our new friend’s address and were immediately rewarded with a cold glass of Champagne and a marvellous home cooked meal prepared by Bianca.  Phillip has a love of red wine and this proved to be fortunate as Jen and I were finally able to glean some insight into what labels to look for as we keep our camper cellar stocked. (Yes we have a small wine storage area – keeps us liking each other….)

interesting reaction when violet syrup is mixed with champagne - no more purple!

interesting reaction when violet syrup is mixed with champagne – no more purple!

Berlin, as with all cities, has it’s own character.  It’s very flat and quite vast – a mix of modern and contemporary buildings, attractive suburban green areas mixed with some drab, depressing urban landscapes.   To me it didn’t really feel as if it had a centre where you could connect with its pulse. It felt more like a city comprised of a composite of styles and ideas.

Reichstad

Reichstad Building

German Parliament

German Parliament

Train station

Train station in a wealthier area

Near Alexanderplatz

Near Alexanderplatz

Berlin Skyline

Berlin Skyline

But history is the obvious and overwhelming factor in a visit to this metropolis and on this front it definitely has a story to tell.

The famous East German Car for the people - the Trabant

The famous East German Car for the people – the Trabant

From the Brandenburg gate to Checkpoint Charlie along with everything in-between, we hit the pavement and the trains, ending the day feeling quite content with our explorations of Berlin.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Original Section of the Berlin Wall

Original Section of the Berlin Wall

East Berlin side of the WallEast Berlin side of the Wall

"The Lipstick" Church all but destroyed during the war and left as a silent monument

“The Lipstick” Church all but destroyed during the war and left as a silent monument

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We were very fortunate to meet such a lovely couple and departed their wonderful hospitality feeling rejuvenated and with a much deeper understanding of Germany, it’s people and it’s history.

Arriving in Dresden we were struck by the graceful architecture of the old city.  You’re constantly met by interesting views along streets and into open spaces and strangely, we seemed to have the roads almost to ourselves! We noticed lots of barriers along the roadside with people beginning to queue along the sidewalk. Something was obviously about to happen!

Somehow we managed pop star parking and exited the Patrol just as the roads were closed and the excitement began.  It turned out that an American Car Club was parading along those same streets that we’d just driven. Standing and watching with some locals we were expecting to see Barack Obama with the level of interest on display from the spectators. A long convoy of vehicles of all shapes and sizes began to drift past in the company of a police escort; some wonderfully restored American classics mixed with some very average streetcars! All in all, I wasn’t overly taken with the spectacle but nonetheless the vibe along the street was outstanding.

Where is Obama?

Where is Obama?

Apparently size matters!!

Apparently size matters!!

Dresden Architecture

Dresden Architecture

Interesting sights everywhere

Interesting sights everywhere

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Dresden had been fairly well razed to the ground during WW2 before being completely rebuilt and it’s interesting to note that many of the buildings were rebuilt using the original materials where possible. With the discolouration and damage to the old sections standing right alongside the replacement pieces it’s quite breathtaking realising the amount of work that has gone into recreating this city.

IMG_0163Of course, its also another somber insight into mans failings. The futility in destroying such beautiful creations only to rebuild them then let time pass by and forget why it happened at all. Once enough time passes and we forget completely we proceed in doing it all again….

Slovakia next for a rendezvous at Terry’s house where the previous year we’d spent a few days. The drive was surprisingly picturesque as we followed the course of the River Elbe across the Czech Republic and passed long stretches of exposed cliffs jutting skyward through the intense green of the forest. Detouring here and there away from the river whilst looking for a campsite you quickly realise that the river is the lifeblood of the area.

Travelling the river Elbe

Travelling the river Elbe

The moment you find yourself a few km’s from the rivers course, you’re met with small villages that really seem to be doing it tough.  Obviously constructed during the Socialist years, we’ve seen identical examples of these buildings all across Eastern Europe and right across Russia. Whenever you choose the road less travelled you’ll be in the company of such structures throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. Broken windows and failing structures that don’t appear to have seen any form of maintenance since the day they were erected, often appearing as if they are long past being condemned and yet for the most part they are still occupied. Potholed and damaged roads are the norm; pretty much completely dilapidated infrastructure.

Dilapidated but still lived in...

Dilapidated but still lived in…

Dilapidated but still worked in…

But the church is always magnificent!

But the church is always magnificent!

Arriving back in Slovakia it was to be a short but very relaxing 2 night stay at Terry’s as the ever mounting Schengen Visa pressure meant that I really needed to exit the zone fairly soon.

Clean linen and clothing on board (it’s the little things that get us excited), we headed toward Hungary.  Crossing over the Danube at Esztergom it was easy to see why the Danube cruise boats stop at this town. With its interesting old city and stunning Basilica overlooking the goings on below from its rocky perch, it was a nice introduction to this country.

Basilica in Esztergom

Basilica in Esztergom

Old town EsztergomOld town Esztergom

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The drive from the border was not one of the most attractive to date with long stretches of pale dusty landscape, the odd swathe of scrubby trees and large acreage under farm management.  It was rather easy to while away the km’s in the air-conditioned comfort listening to the stereo!

Arriving at Camping Haller in central Budapest, we hoped to find a space as I’d had enough of the city traffic. Fortunately they were able to fit us in; obviously we weren’t the only ones that they were just able to fit in as it was absolutely packed.

Camping Haller

Camping Haller

With close access to the city and very hot weather, we decided to spend the cool of the early evening taking in the sights. Very picturesque and easy pedestrian exploration made for an enjoyable visit.  The relaxed locals and lovely green open spaces give the whole place a relaxed and friendly feel.

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Hungarian Parliament Building by day

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Time passed easily as we enjoyed the city’s change in character as the sun slid below the horizon and it morphed from daytime to night and everything seemed to come alive.

Hungarian Parliament Buildings

Hungarian Parliament Buildings by night

Whilst at the campground, we met a couple that had shipped their Toyota Prado from South Africa. They’d been exploring Southern Europe and were now heading toward Nord Capp before turning around and making the long run south via the West Africa route back to their home near Durban. It was nice chatting to some like-minded travellers, as it had been quite a while since we’d met anyone on a similar journey as ourselves. Their website is cape2nordkapp.blogspot.com if you feel like checking out what they are up to. It’s in Dutch though, just to make it a challenge for us English speakers!!

IMG_0347 IMG_0345A late morning departure and with more hot weather soaking a flat and uninteresting landscape, it once again made it easy to get up a few km’s.  By 4pm we had driven into Oradea and out of the Schengen Zone and negotiated our first border crossing for a long time to find ourselves in Romania.

Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey coming soon.

Justin and Jen.