Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and more!

We complain when the border crossing into a new country is difficult (namely getting out of Ghana or into the Congo), but now there are no real border crossings at all! Not even a stamp in the British passport anymore! Turkey into Bulgaria was a little formal, a person in a booth who wanted to ensure that we and the car were legally allowed to drive in the country, but that was it. From then on there have been times when we've not even realised we are in a new country (Austria to Germany for example).

We didn't notice any really change in the scenery until we left Bulgaria, however seeing as Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary really were just flying visits, a couple of days in each, it's hard to comment really. We chose some sites that looked appealing and made a bee-line for them.

In Bulgaria we found free and £1 camping which was good, but other than walking through some nice stone villages such as Tryavna, we didn't see a lot. We did manage to try the beers and some bread, both of which were 'ok'.

Romania was wonderful and definitely somewhere we'd love to return to. Transylvania, ghostly rocky mountains, Dracula's Castle (obviously not Vlad's real pad), nice beer and Gothic towns.

We even camped at 'Vampire Camping', where it was suitably wet and cold.

Brasov turned out to be a Gothic city we did not want to leave, with touristy elements balanced nicely with the old town architecture. We spent only half a day there, exploring the small lanes that fanned out from the central square.

Funnily enough, the Romanian's celebrate the beginning of the Oktoberfest in Munich with their own beer traditions. We were lucky enough to witness a competition where bar maids tried to hold a full stein of beer out with one arm for the longest. We noticed an element of cheating going on, arms not quite as high as they should be...

Romania is a country we had not considered before we arrived, but once there we had to remind ourselves that there simply wasn't time to spend weeks wandering around.

Our last stop was Sighisoara, a medieval village with half-a-millennium-old townhouses of bright colours overlooking hilly cobbled streets. We only spent an evening here though. Hungary was our next stop.

Andrew had ridden around Hungary with some mates years ago, but it was all new to me.

We spent a night in a campground where we were the only people, and then headed to Budapest for a day and 2 nights.

We found the huge food market stocked with sausages, fruits and all kinds of local alcohol. The streets were sunny and bright, Autumn's flowers out.

We sampled the local beers, (and some food) and readied ourselves for the uneventful border crossing into Austria. At this time of year the popular road-side stalls are selling loads of onions and apples, bagged up neatly and looking very tempting indeed.

Austria is 'order and organisation'. Not a blade of grass out of place, every car parked exactly where it should be. No litter, no stray animals wandering around, and no one behaving badly (that we could see). We made our way towards Salzburg, an stopped for a day at Hallstatt, a gorgeous village set beside a placid lake.

We first visited the ice caves nearby in Obertraun, stayed the night at a very expensive but lovely camping ground, then enjoyed some late summer sun and a day out of the car in Hallstatt.

Andrew was very pleased to find the Beinhaus (Bonehouse) where generations of deceased have had their dug-up, cleaned and painted remains placed in full view of the public.

Painted skulls and bones stacked neatly, it really is interesting but a little creepy also. The last one was added in 1995, after 10 years of decomposition.

It was a days drive to Munich the next day, and we were excited to get there too as we were finally going to be able to catch up with some friends we'd met in Chennai at the very start of our trip in January. With the Oktoberfest in full swing we were sure there would be lots of Bavarian beer to taste, and tales of travel to share!

10 days in Turkey

Coming from Iran, Turkey does appear to be a more relaxed country. We really liked the Iranians, and their incredible hospitality is practically unheard of in the UK or Australia. However it seemed people were not comfortable to openly say anything negative about the government, and of course the fairly strict dress code for women is quite oppressive.

We ended up staying at the pleasent Dogubayazit (aka Doggybiscuit) camp-site for 2 nights then headed towards the Black Sea coast in the north. Up the hill from the camp-site is a lovely castle, Ishakpasa, which is undergoing renovations. A great view of the area but the castle was also full tourists on coach trips, mostly oldies.

I think we've become accustomed to being the only tourists at a site. Now we have to share! We jumped back in the car, and drove the 210kms to Kars, enjoying the different scenery.

45kms east of Kars is Ani, an ancient Armenian city. Winding its way between Turkey and Armenia is the river Arpacay. Sitting on the modern day Turkey side is the remains of the once magnificent walled city of Ani. The majority of the ruins are churches, mosques, a cathedral and the foundation stones for the village.

Completely deserted after the Mongol invasion of 1239, it seems amazing that even these ruins remain.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around, taking photos and enjoying the sunshine, then hopped back in the car for the drive towards Cildir Golu, a large lake surrounded by farms and small villages on the edge of a small mountain range.
Our GPS maps indicated a network of 'shortcuts' through the countryside, winding between small villages. Unfortunately not all the old roads were clear to us, some being no more than a dirt track alongside someone's paddock.

We were passed by many farmers who were cutting and carting hay, and were even invited back for tea. We had to decline the offer however as we had a long drive ahead of us. Flocks of happy geese wandered from small dams to fresh grass in fields, often tended by women who in groups made the 'geese walking' a social event.

By early evening we had reached Cildir Golu, and after driving anti-clockwise around it for 20kms or so, we found a suitable spot down by the water to park and put up the tent.

A relaxing beer, soup and vegies cooked while defending the gas flames from the rising winds, and we were tucked in bed by about 9pm.

Strong winds caused some concern an hour later. We had to move the car so that it faced the winds, and sat in the tent wondering if the gale that was blowing might actually damage the metal poles. Our shoes were blown away, (and found again) but otherwise all was in place in the morning.

We left the lake and drove via some bigger towns where people were getting ready for the long, cold winter ahead. The winds and rain were following us and as we reached the Black Sea, dark clouds loomed ominously.

Having made the decision to drive a fairly straight route back to the UK as quickly as possible from Turkey onwards, we detoured just 20kms off the coastal road and stayed at Sumela Camping. Most of the guest houses and hotels had their own fish farms, so we enjoyed fresh fish and slept in for a change. We visited Sumela Monastery, stuck on the side of a rocky mountain.

Beautiful old paintings on the ceilings, gorgeous forest surrounding.

On towards Istanbul. The coastal road itself was quite interesting with mosques alternating with apartment buildings...

Eventually we had to head inland for a quicker route towards Istanbul. We knew of a camp ground in amongst the forests, and used a GPS map to wind our way in via a 'short -cut'. Unfortunately (but fortunately as it worked out) we took a wrong turn somewhere, ending up on the farm of a lovely family who were both surprised and happy to see us. They invited us into their summer home in the mountains, a small 2 roomed cottage above young calves and their mothers. A hot pot-bellie stove roared in the centre of the multi-purpose lounge/bedroom/dining room. As soon as 7:30pm came, Ramazan over, we feasted on mushrooms, stew and bread.

We had a great night, with only their university-aged son speaking a little English, hand signals and a lot of laughter helped us communicate.

We stayed for a brilliant breakfast of fried home made cheese, glazed cherries
and fresh cream on bread, then off to Istanbul.

We had to get used to European prices again as we semi-bargained for a room in a central location in old Istanbul. Wifi? 'Of course'. Secure parking? 'Of course'. Well, we left with everything in tact, and met a really nice English couple just starting their journey eastwards...but I wouldn't recommend our hotel host to others. We drove towards the border after organising a new oil filter at one of the Istanbul Toyota garages. It's beginning to feel like the end of our trip already as the international borders are no big deal, the languages still change, but road rules stay the same, and we are able to find more and more of the familiar products we are used to in supermarkets. Only Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France to go. This sounds like a lot, but we will pass through them within 14 days. Andrew will start on the advertisement for our trusty Landcruiser, and we will begin to plan the return journey to Australia.