Five European Countries
My part of the journey across five European countries to Hungary started on 3 September, leaving from my cottage in Orpington. Mike is to fly into Budapest and, after showing him a bit of life in the country of my birth, we’ll start our long journey to Spain. I left Hungary aged 8, so some of the sights might be new to me too.
The Years BC (Before Covid)
For several years prior to Covid, I used to make the journey from the UK to Hungary to relax by a small lake and to visit family. I drove rather than taking a plane because I always took my dog(s) with me. They were used to travelling by car and my current dog, Bonnie, is also happy in the back of the spacious Toyota we bought.
When I was younger and had to get back at a specific time for my job, I used to do this journey of approximately 1 200 kilometres with just brief breaks for a coffee or lunch. This time, as there was no time pressure, I planned to take it easy. I wanted to make several stops to see friends in Germany. One of them was Chris Hammond, whose picture Mike shared with you in his article.
Entering Schengen – la France
I left by the last Eurotunnel train of the day, arriving in Calais around 1.30am. The border control in Folkestone was quick, once I had popped into the pet reception with my dog and was given a type of boarding pass with a paw on it to hang onto my windscreen. I had printed out and signed a French declaration (available in English) about my health. It asked me to promise, on my honour, that I had no Covid symptoms, and I showed the officer my NHS vaccination code.
They asked what my destination was. When I said ‘Hungary’, they simply wished me a safe journey and I was not stopped again at any of the borders I crossed.
Since I didn’t know the fuel consumption of the car Mike and I had bought for our “project”, I decided to fill up my tank again in Calais, paying by card as the filling stations are unmanned. There are no toilets. Since Eurotunnel trains closed all their toilets due to Covid hygiene considerations, this could cause a problem for late night travellers.
België / Belgique
About an hour later I crossed into Belgium. The wonderful Schengen zone means that a sign with a table of the Belgian speed limits is all that alerts travellers to a border.
The style of driving changed perceptibly. I remember when my family moved to Germany in the early 60s, that we were told to watch out when driving in Belgium. Apparently, they did not have to pass a driving test at the time and were inventing the rules as they went along. There were also a lot of large American cars, and the roads were wide and had numerous lanes.
There are several motorways leading through Antwerp, and it is confusing to see that they don’t all merge on the right or left but cars can join from both sides. It is vital to ensure one changes lanes at the appropriate junctions.
In Holland, the pace was a lot slower, since there is a general speed limit of 100 km/h and most Dutch seem to keep to it. Belgian and German drivers, however often whizzed past me at speeds that shook my car.
After France, Belgium and Holland, the longest part of the journey is on the German Autobahn. That that is not my favourite part of the trip, I must admit. I won’t bore you with what I thought were hair-raising moments when four or five cars driving with next to no distance between them overtook at incredible speeds. I also lost count of how many road works I encountered.
The German motorway is free to use but hundreds of thousands of lorries use it to get across Europe from North to South. That explains why the roads need constant maintenance work and I encountered many road works. Unfortunately, that made my trip take longer than anticipated, but I reminded myself that I had the unprecedented luxury of no time limits.
To Würzburg and A Well-Earned Rest Chez Chris
When I reached Würzburg, I visited Chris Hammond, the Chair of the East Kent European Movement. I was happy to know when I studied the map after a restful sleep in his flat that, from there, I only had around four hours’ drive to the Austrian border.
The small town near Vienna, where my brother lives, was only an eight hour drive. I decided to have a brief break at Passau, by one of the rivers crossing the town. After that, I planned to drive the four hours to my brother’s house.
I spent the night at his place and from there it was just around four motorway hours to Szelid, the lake I am relaxing at until Tuesday, when Mike arrives in Budapest. I have a rough plan worked out for Mike’s introduction to Hungary.
Apart from Budapest, I plan for us to visit the small towns Baja and Pécs in the far South of the country. The latter is where my mother was born and several monuments show the Turkish influence during the occupation of the country and the Hungarians’ desperate attempt to get the Ottomans to leave. More of that history when we visit Pécs.
Of course, I do want to show Mike the lake where I bought a little wooden holiday home. My mother’s family owned land in this area before the Communist occupiers confiscated everything.
I plan to take Mike on a boat tour of the small lake surrounded by a nature reserve.
When people hear me speak of a lake in Hungary, they always assume that I mean Lake Balaton. It is one of the largest lakes in Europe and Mike will enjoy the sailing clubs around it. There are many legends which we will tell you about when we visit there.
A mere 5 kilometres from the Balaton, there is Héviz, a large warm lake with natural spa water which is supposed to have healing properties. My first experience of swimming in it was on a cold, rainy day in October. Because the water is very warm and there are fumes one breathes in, people wear large inflated rubber rings the size of lorry tyres. After entering the lake, it started to rain heavily. I was amazed to see that several swimmers opened up huge, colourful umbrellas to keep the rain away. I wished I had a camera to capture the funny scene.
What Will Mike Think?
I am very excited to see what Mike will think of this beautiful, but complicated country. Since I only lived here as a child, I feel I can see the warts, and am often very disappointed with people’s behaviour, for example, the horrendous treatment of black footballers and the government’s policy towards migrants.
Time is flying fast and tomorrow is already Sunday. On Tuesday afternoon, I will set off to Budapest Airport to pick Mike up. Our exciting adventure will begin.