Since our last update we’ve travelled through Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. Hungary and Slovakia are definitely the poorer nations, signs of poverty everywhere. Nearly every house had a veggie patch, lines of runner bean stakes, rows of cabbages, potatoes and turnips to supplement their diet. We found the price of food cheap but with the average wage around 400 Euro ($700) per month and rental bills taking ¾ of that the locals are struggling. We also noticed ghettoes of Romany families at the edge of towns. They seem to live in horrible squalor.
Lake Balaton in Hungary is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe. This land locked country refers to the lake as ‘The Hungarian Sea’. We camped by its shores amongst the waving reed beds and were joined by two mute swans with their three very young and fluffy cygnets. We didn’t see the lake at its best as the weather was wet and miserable.
We found a camp not far from Budapest’s city centre complete with free wifi and free use of washing machines, no more smelly socks trying to escape the laundry bag and getting into bed with clean linen, oh heaven!
Buda is on the hilly west bank of the Danube and was founded by the brother of Attila the Hun, while Pest is on the flatter eastern side of the river. Buda and Pest were united into a single city in 1873. The No.2 tram that runs along the banks of the Danube is the most attractive city tram ride in the world, (according to the National Geographic) so we jumped aboard and rattled our way along the river bank passing the stunning white marble building of Fishermans Bastion, it sits high on castle hill with its seven turrets, each one representing one of the seven major tribes that settled in this area 2000 years ago. We could also see the gothic spires and the brightly coloured tiled roof of the14th century St Matthias church, a church that has seen the crowning of the kings of Hungary.
As the Parliament building came into view (so ornate it looks more like a cathedral than a legislative building) we jumped off the tram so we could walk past the Jewish Memorial of brass shoes along the river bank. It’s a remembrance to the 300 Jewish men, women and children who were shot then thrown into the River Danube to drown during the 1944/45 Holocaust. I was really moved and near to tears seeing this simple memorial.
As we drove through Slovakia campsites were hard to find and when we did it was like going back in time to the 1950’s. One night we wild camped next to a lake in the Slovakian mountains. There were fir tree covered slopes and green meadows around us, a village of timber houses and a sparkling lake, we could have been in Switzerland. It was a beautiful sunny evening so headed to the local hotel to sample the local brew and stayed for a meal. I gave a Slovakian speciality a try, cheese filled potato dumplings served with sour cream and bacon. I loved it. Two beers and two meals and the bill was a staggering 11 Euro (Aus $16).
Crossing into Poland we noticed straight away that the country is far more prosperous than its neighbours. We met up with several Brits in the camp site at Krakow, the first we had seen for an age, which gave us a good excuse for a good drinking and chatting session.
The Old Town of Krakow, the former capitol of Poland, is surrounded by a leafy park which originally was the city’s moat and defensive walls. It was welcome relief to walk through the dappled shade of the winding paths as it was a very hot day. Also Krakow is the best city for public loos, always easy to find and only 1zt (25p, 50 cents) for a wee!
Our next stop was the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. We took a guided tour of the two camps. It was very sombre and amazingly quiet considering the thousands of people all doing similar tours to ours. Auschwitz started life as a Polish army barracks but after the invasion of Poland by the Nazi’s it became a prison, where Birkenau was a small village before the Nazi’s removed all its inhabitants, demolished their homes and then used the bricks to build huts for a prison for the undesirables, mainly Jews.
We stood on the spot were the rail road cars halted, after passing through Death Gate, to unload their human cargo. An SS doctor would be waiting and he would decide if the prisoner was for the camp or to go straight to the gas chambers. Over 1,100,000 people, 90% Jewish, were murdered by the SS in these two camps, majority sent to the gas chambers.
There were displays of millions of shoes, thousands of spectacles, combs and cooking pots but the most poignant moment for me was seeing the tons of human hair that had been shaved from the prisoner’s heads. The hair was sent to factories and made into blankets. I could have wept. It was an emotional day but it was something that we felt we had to see.
On our way to Prague in the Czech Republic we stopped at the 14th century Sedlec Ossuary or bone church. In the 15th century the nearby cemetery was reduced in size and the bones from the abolished graves of nearly 40,000 people mainly plague victims, were brought to the church. The human bones have been made into decorations around the chapel, a coat of arms, decorated urns and a chandelier were some of the art work. It was all a little weird and macabre.
On reaching Prague we booked onto a walking tour around the city and who should our guide be but an Aussie. He had us walking around this beautiful city for over 3 hours telling us the history and stories of the city, its buildings and its inhabitants. During the 14th century the city of Prague prospered under King Charles. He wanted the city to become the Paris of Central Europe. He commissioned buildings and bridges across the city and was even known to strip to his shirt sleeves and assist with the work. In 1348 he founded the first university east of Paris and it now bears his name. Unfortunately his son Bad King Wenceslas I undid all his good work. This king is not to be confused with Good King Wenceslas of the famous carol. That Wenceslas was also born near Prague, in what was Bohemia, 300 years earlier. He was a Duke and during his lifetime he was as kind and good as the carol states. He was murdered on his brother’s order and not long after was martyred and became Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia. He only became King after the Holy Roman Emperor posthumously conferred the title on him, hence ‘Good King Wenceslas’ as the carol was written 800 years after his death.
That’s all our news for now and we have now started to make our way back to the UK.
Hope all is well.
Liz and Paul x