Austrian Salvation

Last week’s instalment described Grace and Husband’s predicament worsening as their expedition was interrupted by Husband’s faulty inner plumbing…

The Austrian town of Sankt Polten is undistinguished in any historic or geographical sphere although I imagine the residents enjoy a good standard of living. It is pleasant enough, surrounded by attractive landscapes and served by excellent facilities. But for us its overriding, stand-out feature was a large, modern teaching hospital situated slap-bang in the centre and crucially offering an Accident and Emergency department.

I felt a simultaneous wave of relief [that we’d brought up-to-date EHIC cards] and anxiety [that we wouldn’t be able to park the van]. The hospital sat among the streets and offered parking-but of the underground sort. The height barrier was 3 metres. We could do it.

We stepped out of the lift into something akin to the inside of a space ship with a reception desk. At Accident and Emergency I proffered Husband’s European Health Insurance card and passport and answered a few questions-posed in perfect, classy English. ‘You will be seen in 15 minutes; take a seat back there’ smiled the nurse. ‘Back there’ was a small portion of corridor with no more than 8 waiting patients. As people came and went I realised that of course, if waiting time is 15 minutes a vast aeroplane hangar full of chairs is unnecessary.

A trio of medics took us to a room and quizzed us further then we were taken to the urology unit across a courtyard. The accompanying nurse exclaimed, ‘you’re from Christchurch-it’s a lovely place!’

Upstairs in the urology department we waited for a short time before being taken into a consulting room where Husband was quizzed, taken samples from and examined by ultrasound so I am able to say, now [having watched the screen] that I know my husband inside and out…

One prescription for antibiotics and one doctor’s letter [for home] later we were on our way. The staff at this modern, state-of-the-art hospital had been charming, fast-acting and efficient and I silently thanked fate for our having entered Austria, for having been unable to access near-to-Vienna sites and finishing up at Sankt Polten.

It only remained for us to hand the prescription into the pharmacy-of which there were none in the hospital; the chemist’s lay in a pedestrian precinct. I left Husband in the van, parked in a small lane off the precinct and dashed in for the medication; again, while I was dismayed by the throngs waiting with prescriptions those in front melted away in moments. All the medication was stored in a wall of small drawers behind the counter-so no rummaging was required.

Twenty four hours later we were in Germany [Wurzburg] and Husband was feeling much, much better. What, we wondered would have been the outcome if we’d been in Bulgaria? And what would be the outcome if this potentially dangerous health problem occurred next year, when we are no longer ‘Europeans’ in the proper sense, when we have no European Health Insurance Cards? I imagined the nurses shrugging, showing us the exit. It was a sobering thought.

 

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Hungarian Calamity [Part 3]

 Last week’s episode saw Grace and Husband lodged [eventually] in the Budapest Ibis hotel, leaving their trusty home-on-wheels outside ‘Schiller Fiat’ at the mercy of the repair shop.

Szentendre is a small, arty town on the picturesque part of the Danube known as the Bend. We arrived there in our newly-repaired van late on Friday afternoon, ignorant of the fact that a big festival  of culture was scheduled for the weekend.

We’d been reprieved. After saying the repair would take one week Schiller Fiat pulled out their Hungarian finger and mended it next day. I couldn’t escape the feeling that some pressure had been applied by the insurer-after all they’d have needed to keep us in the Ibis for the week.

We happened upon the Szentendre site, spotting a sign on the roadside. But it was a welcome haven after the trials of Budapest; quiet, with only one, Dutch motorhome for neighbours.

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Husband sank down into a chair in the shade of a tree and went immediately to sleep. Two days of rising early and making his way on public transport to the garage and back [a one and a half hour journey using Metro/tram/walk] had taken a toll. Later, when dinner was ready he was still asleep. When roused he ate only a little and went back to sleep. He was hot and clammy. He was not well. We would not be attending the folksy events that the town offered.

I set about getting water and analgesics into him, judging that he’d become dehydrated. In addition to all this, his inner plumbing was working overtime. As I’ve suffered with cystitis enough times to know it needs addressing early, I set off next day to the nearest pharmacy to try and explain the problem to non-English speakers. When I returned a woman from the insurers phoned me, wanting to quiz me over a ‘customer satisfaction’ questionnaire I’d completed while in the Ibis; wanting to offer us £30. £30? At my reaction she doubled it to £60. I explained that Husband was my priority and I’d have to consider my response on our return to the UK-which, under the circumstances was, I felt a restrained response [for me].

Whilst the plumbing continued to mal-function his temperature and well-being had improved enough to travel onwards, which we did, with eyes on Vienna.

As we neared the site near Vienna it became clear that a huge, sporting event was underway and soon, as we tried to gain access to roads around the site we discovered it was a triathlon, which didn’t bode well for getting on to the camp site. ‘Had we reserved?’ asked the woman at Reception.

The next site, further away but still accessible to the city had one pitch in what looked like a garbage dump in a corner. The third, near the town of Sankt Poulten, from which a train ride to Vienna was still feasible had room.

We settled in, relaxed, cooked, ate. Later, Husband told me he’d prefer not to go into Vienna next day. He was still feeling under par. We would move on towards Germany and Vienna could wait for another occasion.

Unhooked, everything stowed, waste emptied, step in; we were ready to go. Husband emerged from our tiny bathroom cubicle looking grave. ‘Bad news’ he grimaced. ‘Things just got worse’. And they had. I got out my laptop, Googled, ‘hospital Sankt Poulten’. Like I said-you don’t mess with these things…

 

 

 

Hungarian Calamity [Part 2]

Last week’s post saw our intrepid travellers, Grace and Husband marooned in their camper van in supermarket ‘Auchan’s’ car park a few miles north of Budapest…

We lunched in the car park, keeping an eye on the access road for a pick-up truck and bickering a little [Husband wanting to reverse to be located more easily, me wanting to let things be].

My phone rang. ‘My neem ees Eleezabet’. We confirmed that I was me. We went over the vehicle’s vital statistics. ‘Pleeeese beee patient’ pleaded Elizabet, before ringing off. Time crawled on…

Husband went for a stroll around the shopping centre and returned. I went for a stroll into Auchan and returned. Time passed. Slowly. Elizabet called again. ‘Eees veery imbortant about your vehicle’ she reiterated, and I gave her the dimensions once more. ‘I ‘av to find a veehicle to peek you up’ she said.

We waited.

At half past four a rescue truck appeared, driven by a white-haired, boiler-suited, moustachioed Hungarian, looking apprehensive. He’d struck unlucky, summoned to collect a Ducato van and ignorant foreigners. It took time to attach the van to the truck then we clambered into his cab as he nodded and gesticulated.

Waiting is exhausting, so by now, as we swept back towards Budapest and an unknown garage we looked forward to a respite, an opportunity to set reparation in motion. We trundled along some minor roads in a small industrial estate before coming to a halt in front of ‘Schiller Fiat’. Boiler-suit got out, uncoupled us, said ‘Schlafen’, placing his hands by his head to mime sleep and left. It was 5 o’clock. The garage had closed at 4.30pm.

Having gnashed teeth and torn hair for a few moments we deliberated our options: bed down on the sloping forecourt at the roadside/lock up, pack essentials [into shopping bags as no suitcases] and stagger to the nearest hotel [found on Husband’s phone]/wait for something to happen/phone the insurers-again.

We opted for calling the insurer, bypassing Elizabet and going back to the source-Adam, [who’d gone off duty and been replaced by Ali]. I explained our predicament. We sat back to wait. Time passed. We made tea. Ate bread and cheese. Sniped a bit. Yawned.

In a compound next to the forecourt a security man was locking the gates up. ‘That’ I told Husband, ‘is where our van should be’. Once or twice a taxi came past, prompting a slight stir, which ebbed away as it went out of sight. We drank beers. Waited.

Elizabet called to tell us a taxi was on its way, prompting us to watch for it. The several taxis that passed were not ours. We rang back, got  someone else. ‘Eet is not appropriate for meee to speeak to you’ she said.

It was dark. At some time after 8.00pm a taxi appeared from the gloom and pulled up. On arrival to the IBIS hotel in central Budapest we approached the check-in desk with our shopping bags of essential items and were met by the first smiling competence of the entire, dismal day, then dispatched to a small room, basic but adequate. We showered and staggered across the alleyway to a comfortable café where I cast caution to the still night and had two large glasses of wine before retiring to the narrow bed in our stuffy little room.

To be continued. Check in next week for Hungarian Calamity Part 3…

 

Hungarian Calamity [Part 1]

Budapest. Full of Eastern promise; the streets lined with ornate statuary, outrageously opulent architecture from myriad eras and cultures. Onion-topped, gilded, tiled, carved, stuccoed and frescoed to within an inch of its life. Every corner housing a kebab shop yet room for a ‘Tesco Express’.

This is grandness on the top of the scale, except that the opulence falls short at the campsite gates, where a ‘refurbishment’ [something we’ve seen a lot of, this trip] meant porta-cabin showers and no functioning washing machine. The women’s showers, complete with flimsy curtains opened on to a car park, offering no privacy to those groping for a towel. Ho hum-

After some deliberating we navigated by Metro to the centre of the city, where ‘hop on hop off’ awaited, touristy but acceptable to anyone who has a great deal to see and not much time to see it.

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Budapest is made up from two cities-‘Buda’ on one side of the Danube and ‘Pest’ on the other. ‘Buda’ houses the opulent palace and the castle, ‘Pest’ accommodates the glitzy shopping streets, the cathedrals, the buzzing restaurants and cafes and the outrageous parliament building, like a fanciful wedding cake on speed.

After an afternoon of sightseeing, hopping on and off, we were left waiting for the last bus up at the area of Heroes’ Square, where there is a zoo and the old Thermal Baths-an amazing sight in themselves, both the outside and the interior.

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We’d only nibbled the edge of Budapest’s sights, nevertheless as we relaxed on the top deck of the bus [relieved to have caught it] we felt ready to move on. Palaces, castles, monuments and statues are delightful but there are only so many iconic structures anyone can cope with in one visit.

Since Budapest is choc-full of Turkish-style cafes and restaurants we opted for a self-service kebab house, where a plethora of delicious looking concoctions lay behind the counter and judging by the popularity of the place it was a good decision.

One leisurely beer later we made our way back.

Next day, with grocery shopping in mind we set off towards the ‘bend in the Danube’, stopping off at an ‘Auchan’ supermarket [of which Hungary has many] to stock up. Once we’d swung out of the car park and located the correct road an ominous ‘thump’ became audible, seeming to emanate from the passenger side wheel arch. Horrors!

‘It’s the road surface’ bluffed Husband [more confident than he felt, I assumed] and ‘No’ from me [not confident]. Having managed to secure a safe place to pull in we conducted a brief examination which revealed…nothing. The noise persisted, prompting us to find yet another safe place to stop-a car park at the next ‘Auchan’ supermarket [as I said, there are many].

I struck out to ascertain our whereabouts before phoning the roadside rescue arm of our insurance, then spoke at length with ‘Adam’ who dithered with a blithe lack of concern whilst scrutinising Google maps to search for us. I scrambled out of the van to provide him with a list of the stores surrounding us: H&M, Bauhaus, Auchan… ‘Is there a cinema complex?’ he interjected. I sighed. ‘There are no leisure facilities, Adam. It’s a shopping centre’. He deliberated some more while I cast around. ‘There’s a MacDonalds’ I told him. ‘Bingo!’ he said. ‘I’ve got it!’

To be continued…

 

 

Romantic Romania

The vast and beautiful Danube flows through ten countries-more countries than any other river in the world, also forming several borders including that between Bulgaria and Romania.

Crossing into Romania was a little like stepping into a fairy tale, or into a Constable painting, for while the roads, infrastructure and villages were better kept and looked a little more affluent than in Bulgaria the communities were also quaint and olde-worlde.

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I’ll admit to being surprised, having assumed Romania to be much poorer than its neighbour. Having said this, there were countless signs that Romania is stranded in a bygone age, such as hand-tilling in the fields, hay-making with horses and carts and horse-drawn transport.

The pretty, tree-lined streets of the villages are made up of tiny, single-story homes-many with tiled exteriors in intricate patterns. Outside many homes there are benches positioned to catch the evening sunshine, often occupied by a couple of women in headscarves having a gossip.

On the road we followed an open truck with a horse tethered in the back. The horse was blinkered and attached each side but even so the truck lurched around corners, swaying and jolting but causing no apparent distress to the equine passenger.

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We stopped for lunch alongside the Danube basin, where the waters again form a border, this time between Romania and Serbia, so that the wooded hills of Serbia are visible on the other side.

As in the previous country [see last week’s post] we’d scant information on camp sites but headed for ‘Hercules’, a tiny, five-pitch site behind a restaurant opposite a busy road and railway line. We drew into the driveway to be greeted by the owner and shown to a place, which was not a problem since we were the only van there. The sun beat down into the small, neat back yard, a chance to relax after the journey. Though small, the site boasted clean, efficient showers, a washing machine and every convenience.

This being one location where our mobile internet was unobtainable we took devices to the bar and used the site wifi while we had beers. Later an Austrian couple pulled in to be our neighbours for the night. We settled down to sleep. At around midnight we were woken by loud, staccato bangs from a building next door and looked out to see the sky alight with fireworks. Odd timing-but who are we to judge on another country’s customs?

Next day we were off north again towards Hungary, travelling through ravishing green countryside and rustic scenes that included thousands of beehives. I spotted them in industrial numbers along the verges and in the fields, often being tended by veiled beekeepers, the results laid out in modest roadside stalls. Then there were beehive trucks:

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These unusual vehicles were parked in lay bys or pieces of wasteland. It was uplifting to see such a large-scale industry from bees. At least someone is taking care of them!

Having passed mile upon mile of queued lorries we arrived at the border with Hungary. I felt bereft. We’d whisked through Romania in two days and a part of me clamoured to stay and explore, to wander along the village streets and photograph the countryside. But don’t worry, Romania, we will be back. Besides-a visit to Romania just has to include an exploration of Transylvania.

And then there was Hungary…

 

Bulgaria: Beauties and Beasts

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We left beautiful, spectacular Delphi, swishing around a series of hairpins into a mizzly mountain rain and on towards Thessaloniki and the seaside town of Nea Moudania for a last blast of sun before the long trek north. In the event, both Nea Moudania and the sunshine failed to excite and we cut short our last blast in favour of discovering the delights of Bulgaria.

Hitherto my one experience of Bulgaria was a solo skiing trip to Borovets, where the skiing, social life and scenery were all delightful, the hotel food atrocious and the staff gloomy and depressed.

Having negotiated the border we knew we’d have to buy a road tax ‘vignette’ and  obtain some currency. The road on Bulgarian side of customs is lined with stalls selling all manner of goods from liquor and cigarettes to bottled water, also currency [exchange-euros for ‘lev]’.

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We set off towards ‘Sapareva Banya’, using the co-ordinates from the German website we’d had to use to find sites. The rolling, green countryside was delightful; the towns were the ugliest I have ever seen-crumbling, grey blocks and abandoned factory sites. This is the legacy of the iron curtain. I wondered how it was possible to create such brutal ugliness and how will it ever be possible to eliminate?

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The co-ordinates took us down an increasingly rutted track and through some gates. It looked promising. Inside the gates the driveway rounded a large, stately building in wooded grounds but nothing resembling a camp site. I ran around to the front of the building and climbed once-grand steps into a huge, gloomy hallway containing booths housing white-coated people with clipboards and papers. My hesitant enquiry as to whether anyone spoke English yielded blank shrugs. I’d stumbled into some kind of sanatorium; clearly not a camp site.

Husband was all for turning back, although we’d had a long day’s travel already. I determined to find the site, striking out down a track I’d spotted where builders were constructing a bar by a pool. A kindly builder explained in good English how to navigate to the site, [next door].

Yes-there it was, down another rustic lane. We pulled in. When there was no response to my ringing a bell at ‘reception’ I thumped on the door which after some minutes was answered by a lugubrious young woman, bleary eyed and shoeless. I imagine I’d dragged her off the sofa and away from an afternoon of daytime Bulgarian soap operas. We could stay, she told me but they were very busy and had little room. This proved to be true, as a large tour group of Dutch caravans was occupying all of the field. We manoeuvred into a sloping slot behind some chalets, relieved to have somewhere to spend the night.

Sapareva Banya had given us no cause to linger and we drove off again in the morning to head north again and find a site called ‘Madona Inn’ from the German website.

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Bulgaria is poor. Horse-drawn carts are commonplace among the town traffic and most small village homes are in need of repair, resources being too scarce to squander on paint, render or window frames.

Madona Inn is easy to find, a guest-house and camp site with bar and restaurant along the road to Belogradchik, where a 1-3rd century AD fortress lies in an imposing position between the dramatic sandstone rocks of the area. With time to explore before checking in we drove up to Belogradchik, a town that has made no concession whatsoever to tourism in terms of beautification. We climbed up to the stunning fortress.

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Madona Inn was everything Sapareva Banya was not, with cartloads of rustic charm, although the Bulgarian cuisine on offer seemed eccentric to our uninitiated taste-an omelette topped with soggy toast topped with pork slices topped with mushroom sauce topped with…a boiled egg.

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It was a beautiful, quirky site and well worth the visit-but little did we know what impact the terrible road surfaces would have later…

 

Odyssey

Ah Greece! I used to say if I had only one country  to holiday in I’d choose it. So many beaches on so many islands, such friendly people, such reliable, warm sunshine and blue skies, such history, such dramatic scenery and delicious food!

At the point when I’d said it I’d still only been to Athens and to some islands. I’ve been to a few -Crete, Corfu, the little-known ‘Forni’ islands, Icharea [the Athenians’ favourite], Aegina, Rhodes, Naxos, Samos. The islands are lovely and each has its own special identity but this visit to Greece is for the mainland and in our van, which makes it quite special.

Arriving in dramatic, rugged northern Greece late in the day and after a long, hot drive from Albania we chose a couple of  beach chill-out stops for recovery [and for Husband to get rid of his head cold].

Then we turned south towards the Peloponnese. Husband, who is a sports devotee has harboured a long-term desire to see Olympia, which lies slightly inland on the westernmost ‘finger’ of the Peloponnese. The drive was long and temperatures were in the mid thirties. I wondered if I was hallucinating when I spotted a tortoise on the hard shoulder of the motorway, but there were further sightings in the ensuing days. Oddly there were no flattened versions upon the roads.

The landscape, as we travelled south from Patras became verdant, the hills dotted with cypress trees, vines trailing.

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We stayed high up on a hillside overlooking Olympia, waking next day to a view of soft mist and layered mountains.

We strolled around the ancient site in the cool of the morning and followed it by a tour of the excellent museum.

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As the tour buses began to arrive we made our exit and headed off south again, this time for a beach stopover at a small village.

The beach was unremarkable but was a good enough place to spend the night. Next morning we were off before we were subjected to any more ‘advice’ from our British, Spanish-living, huge motorhome owning, beach neighbours [not the first of their kind we’ve encountered this trip].

Nafplio is a beautiful seaport town on the Argolic Gulf, colourful houses painted up the hillside and boasting two large castles. We parked on the port side to wander the streets and scale the heights of one of the castles, peering down from the top at the sheer drop to the rocks below. In the town’s pastel terraces a riot of blazing Jacarandas in flaming orange, vermilion and pink cascades from every rooftop. The narrow streets are alive with gift shops, tavernas, guest houses and hotels.

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A few miles along the coast we settled into Lefke Beach, a steeply terraced site on a quiet bay.

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It was time to catch our breath and enjoy the tranquillity of this tiny piece of Heaven, although other than walking along a treacherous coastal road with no pavement or verge there was nothing besides the camp site so after two nights we were ready for more action. On, then to Delphi-