The Last Leg

After 7 months travelling in Scooby our final week was spent Travelling from Germany to Belgium with just an overnight stop in France before our Ferry back to the UK from Calais.  

Our Route: Luxembourg, La Roche-en-Ardenne, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges

Luxembourg: We had one day exploring Luxembourg city. It’s a much smaller city than we both thought and only took half a day to see all its sights. The centre is based around posh shopping, not really our cuppa. There’s a small nice old section with some great fortifications, a lovely river and a quiet old residential area to walk around. The highlight of the day was having an 80% hot chocolate with a chocolate, hazelnut and cranberry cake.  

La Roche-en-Adenne – A little nature oasis in a week of cities. And a small dry spell in what had been a week of rain. We had a lovely autumnal walk around the hills and cliffs surrounding the meandering …….. river.

Brussles – Take home message – they love chocolate, waffles, chocolate, a pissing boy and did I mention chocolate. As well as the chocolate, there are also some beautiful shopping arcades, a stunning main square, some great street art, and an interesting mix of architecture. We really enjoyed the city.

Ghent – What a beautiful place! It felt very Dutch – flat, with lots of canals and bikes. The architecture was the real winner! As it was our penultimate day we decided to treat ourselves with some mulled wine to warm up with while wandered around. Followed by a late lunch of savoury waffles, freak shake and sweet waffle. In the evening we also sampled several of the very tasty, but equally very pricey, Belgium beers.

Bruges – It really is just as beautiful as everyone says it is. As always, we parked out of the city and walked in, which means you get to see the less explored side. We started in Kruisvest park which has several windmills along the river and then walked slowly through a quiet residential area. I say slowly because I was stopping to take photos of houses every 5 meters; it was so quaint and picturesque. There are some real pinch points of tourism in the centre and there were a couple of streets that were just souvenir tat shops. But apart from that I have no complaints. It was a beautiful city, and though fairly small, you could spend days slowly wandering and taking millions of photos. It was such a great place to visit on our last day of the trip.

Now we have finished traveling (for a bit) our next blog (which I have been wanting to write for ages) will be all about the realities of vanlife and a summary blog of our trip around Europe.

A Very Wet Return to Germany

We spent a week travelling along Southern Germany. It was not the most direct route from Czech Republic to Belgium, but since leaving Austria we had been craving some mountains again so decided to go and see the Bavarian Alps. Unfortunately, the weather gods weren’t playing ball. It rained every day and during our 3 days in the Alps we didn’t see a single mountain. Sometimes you could barely see 30 meters in front of you, but still we got out and explored.

Our Route:

Regensburg – Munich – Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Neuschwanstein castle – Lindau on Lake Constance – Black Forest –  Heidelberg – Mainz – Bonn – Cologne

Nature

Partnach Gorge – We visited on a pretty miserable day. But there were plenty of other mad people out in the rain and cold trying to make the most of it. With the mountains in thick cloud, hiding in the gorge seemed like the best option. Unfortunately to walk alongside the river you have to pay, so we walked along just up above it and had a lovely view looking down for free.

Lake Constance – Its huge. 63 km long in fact, and borders Austria to the east and Switzerland to the south. Felt like being at the seaside, the lake was so clear and endless (maybe on a sunny day it would seem less endless).

Black Forest – Another wet and cloudy day, which meant we couldn’t get a feel for the scale of the forests from driving through it as we could hardly see the road in front of us. Thankfully our walk started off ok with just some drizzle, which meant we had nice views out over rolling forests. We weren’t enthralled by our day exploring. Most of the paths were wide and open and lacked a feeling of being in the wild. We didn’t spot or hear much wildlife and there was clear evidence of logging and plantations. 

Neuschwanstein castle

We went because it is listed as the castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – one of my all time favourite films. Maybe my expectations were too high. I was hoping for the tour to be very c.c.b.b. focused, but they didn’t mention it once! Turns out it’s just the castle they flew over. None of the film was actually shot there. Once I got over my initial disappointment I was able to enjoy the castle for what it was.

Built over several years from 1868 for Ludwig 2nd, who sounded like a right eccentric. Unfortunately, he only lived there for 172 days before he died in 1886 and six weeks after his death it was turned into a museum. This means the very impressive original interior is incredibly well preserved with detailed paintings and dark woodwork. The castle even has a small room on the top floor which is made to look like a cave (complete with stalactites and stalagmites)! Told you he was an eccentric.

No photos of the inside were allowed. So instead, here’s two cloudy photos of the castle and lack of view.

Towns

Germany know how to do a good historic town. We are always impressed by the beautiful old architecture; and by how busy and lively a lot of the towns are. The high street certainly doesn’t feel dead in Germany. So many independent shops that all seem to be alive and well; plus some great looking bakeries, cafes and always lively beer halls.

Regensburg – Lovely old town which apparently has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Germany. Great cathedral with stunning stained glass, old town hall, cute cobbled streets, very nice vibe, and on the edge of the Danube.

Munich – Not one of our favourite city’s we have visited. It lacked a main hub of old buildings to wander around for the budget traveller. Don’t get me wrong it is a nice city and worth a day trip. There are plenty of nice buildings but they are just dotted around. The main centre is very shopping focused and full of high street shops. The town hall is definitely the highlight.

Lindau – Its essentially a small island on Lake Constance. We walked all the way around and wandered the cobbled streets in the main town. Probably a nightmare in the height of summer but really lovely in autumn. Its old harbour is guarded by a giant lion dating from 1856 and a little lighthouse made it feel like it was beside the seaside.

Heidelberg – Essentially one long main shopping street with a couple of squares and some nice side streets. There’s also a castle with lovely views and a nice old bridge. Not a huge amount to see as a tourist but a nice town to wander around for half a day.

Mainz – Wasn’t really worth the effort. Emission zones, as wonderful as they are, do make visiting some places a bit trickier with a big van – with finding somewhere to park out of the city and finding transport in. The best thing about Mainz was the main square and the small collection of old timber houses.

Bonn – We were lucky enough to have a tour guide in Bonn as we met up with one ofGraham’s Uni friends, Rachael. Such a busy lively place, already gearing up for Christmas. Negatives were that most of the nice buildings; cathedral, uni buildings and palace all had scaffolding up. Positives were the food and drink. We drank Kolsch a local beer made 30 minutes away in Cologne; Rachael made us a veganised German pasta dish called Spatzle for dinner and she brought this amazing bottle of Roter Sauser (a popular autumn drink in Germany made from fermented freshly pressed grapes; it has a slight fizz to it and is essentially a very light wine. The one we drank had a max alcohol content of 9%.)

The following day we had a lovely cycle along the river Rhine, got the ferry across the river and walked up to Drachenburg castle.  

Cologne – The old town had a slight Plymouth feel to it. Mix of nice old buildings and some more functional, less aesthetically pleasing buildings. The cathedral is the main reason to go to cologne. Other than that, the next reason seems to be to shop! The city centre is essentially just focused on shopping.

Hopefully the next we visit Germany it will be a little drier.

Czech Republic

Unfortunately just a short seven days but we managed to cram in 3 towns, 2 castles and 3 days walking in nature on top of quite a bit of driving. 

Our Route: Brno – Olomouc – Bouzov – Krkonose National Park – Cesky raj – Bohemian Switzerland – Prague – Karlstejn castle – Pilsen

Nature

Krkonose – Translates to ‘Giant Mountains’. This (I would say hilly) national park borders Poland, so much so we walked into Poland without realising, as the border runs along the mountain ridge. We walked from Pecpod Snezkou up to Sniezka which is Czechs highest peak at 1603 meters. The day started with very low cloud and equally low energy levels but somehow we managed to lug ourselves up the hill. Just before the top we stopped for lunch in very thick cloud and strong wind, but over the course of eating our hummus wraps the wind blew the clouds away and revealed the peak. Once we climbed the last 100 meters to the top we were rewarded with a great view. On one side of the ridge we looked down through clear skies onto Poland. On the other side Czech Republic was hidden by a blanket of fluffy clouds. It was a totally awesome feeling to have walked above the clouds.

Casky Raj – A very fun place to go walking. We spent the day exploring the tall sandstone pillars which they call ‘rock cities’. The hiking path started by scrambling over rocks, we then squeezed in between large rock columns, and ducked underneath rock tunnels. The path travelled down steeply to the base of a small “canyon”. After walking at the base of the pillars we travelled back up the other side to look down onto the crazy rock city.

Bohemian Switzerland – ‘Bohemian’, because it is situated in an area called Bohemia. ‘Switzerland’, because back in the 18th century it reminded some Swiss artists of their homeland. There are two main attractions here, Kamenice Gorge and Pravcicka Archway. We did a nice big loop walk covering both. The gorge was really nice with a path running alongside for the most part, with one section where you have to get a boat (which only cost €3 and was really fun). The archway was disappointing. One of those things that looks so much more impressive in a photo from a drone.  As a geographer I should have been more inspired by this natural rock arch but really it wasn’t a patch on Durdle Door.

Towns

Brno, Olomouc & Pilsen – All three were nice towns with some interesting old buildings, town squares and churches. Brno & Olomouc are both university towns and had really nice vibes, lots of quirky shops and cafes. Pilsen is the home of Pilsner, and it smelt like brewing which isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea, but I like it as it reminds me of my home town. The vibe in Pilsner when we went, was mainly lots and lots of football fans and some riot police.

Prague – We had a great day in sunny Prague sampling the food, well mainly drink on offer. We started our day on the quieter west side of the river; fuelling the day ahead by seeking out a vegan chimney cake, which was delicious! We wandered around the cathedral, palace and monastery areas before stopping for our first beer in a craft beer place. We manged a whole 20 meters before stopping again to enjoy an incredible view of Prague while sipping a beer made at the monastery. We then hit the hoards of tourist on the chain bridge. Wow a lot of people visit Prague! We slowly made it to the very pretty town hall square and wandered around the old town. Once away from the tourist pinch points it wasn’t too busy and you can easily be distracted from the amount of people by the lovely architecture. Our legs needed a rest so we stopped for a Pilsner before wandering around the new town. We had a dinner of sides (Czech food isn’t very vegetable heavy) and sampled a beer tasting menu in a great beer hall that had 10 different themed rooms. Our final stop of the day was in a traditional beer hall. They served one type of dark beer and two short drinks (a mead and a herby shot). No bars and no menus; waiters wander around with trays of the 3 options and keep a running tab at the end of your table. It was a great place full of atmosphere, lots of people, live music and tasty booze.

Going to Prague in October might have been key to our enjoyment; the sun was out, it wasn’t as busy as it could be, and we only experienced 5 stag-dos.

Austria in Autumn

Austria is beautiful! Everywhere you look there are mountains or hills, dotted with picturesque towns, pastures, lakes and churches. In autumn the colours are incredible.  Starting with the dark blue lakes, and moving along to the bright green pastures, up the hill to the orange/yellow/red/dark green trees on the hillsides, up further past the bare rock to the fresh white snow on top, and we were lucky that above the hilltops everyday was clear blue skies and bright yellow sun.

We spent most of our time enjoying this beautiful scenery, walking every day in the hills, with a brief stop to experience some culture in Hallstatt and Salzburg. Our last three days were spent in Vienna as we had friends visiting from the UK, and visited some friends who now live in there.

The route: Villach – Gailtal Alps – Grossglockner High Alpine Pass – Zell am See – Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves – Filzmoos – Hallstatt – Salzburg –  Mondsee – Melk – Vienna

Mountains

Gailtal Apls – A wonderful first hike in Austria. Our walk was meant to start from Dolomitenhutte, a mountain hut up at the top of a toll road. After taking Scooby a little way up the very steep narrow ‘road’ at the base of the hill, I decided enough was enough and we parked him before the toll road began and hiked the rest. It meant we didn’t quite have time to reach our final destination before dark but starting in the mountain pastures was really nice. We worked our way up towards the shear rock tops where the bright yellow of the trees clashed amazingly with the bare grey cliffs.

Grossglockner High Apline Pass – This day was equal parts terrifying and stunning. RAC described the mountain road as ‘a magnificent test of man and machine’. Well Scooby and our nerves were certainly tested. Before we even got to the toll where the road officially starts, Scooby had climbed 700 meters and had almost over heated, so we had to take a rest by the side of the road for a while. We debated whether this was a ridiculous idea, but Scooby cooled down while we chilled out and we decided to press on. Graham drove it all, I found it hard enough being a passenger. But once we stopped at the many rest places it was always worth it. Incredible views of freshly snow covered mountains all around. We managed a few short walks but snow cover had already closed some areas. Scooby reached the top at 2504 meters above sea level!!! He then failed to start again….. Not sure why but he just kept stalling. There was a slight incline on the parking area, maybe he was knackered, maybe the altitude?! We decided to try and reduce the load so Graham stood at the side with various heavy water carriers and finally Scooby managed to start, and we were off again… once Graham joined us up the hill carrying our water supply. The way down also had many stops to rest the brakes. At one stop we could see 6 glaciers! Once at the bottom we immediately parked for the night and drank some beer to settle our nerves.

Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves – A very ‘cool’ experience. To get to the cave you have to drive up a narrow pass. We decided after Grossglockner to leave Scooby at the bottom and get the shuttle bus. There is then a walk, an incredibly speedy cable car and a further walk to the top, all offering great views. The cave at the top is the biggest ice cave in the world. They don’t use any artificial electric lighting, so we were given small gas lights to guide the way. We walked on small and extremely steep wooden stairs through walls of ice which in areas were 25 meters thick.

Filzmoos – This was my favourite day. We walked from 11am – 7pm, covered around 13 miles and around 700meters of elevation. The walk started in a town along a stream, then gently climbed through woods, up into green hill pastures, past a very lively mountain hut, round a small but beautiful lake, and up until we were alone, walking along the bottoms of the steep cliffs at the top. The views in the distance were insane, rows and rows of snow topped mountains.

Lakes

Here are some photos of the three lakes we went to. Zell am See a large lake at the base of a ski resort, nice scenery around but the lake didn’t have the wow factor I was expecting. Maybe because it was somewhere on the wish list for a while so my expectations were too high. Hallsatt See was beautiful, clear water and steep hills all around gave it a fjord-like feel. We had a lovely kayak in the sunshine and the following morning I braved the cold waters for a refreshing autumn swim. We had a brief stop at Mondsee on route to Vienna. A small town with a famous sound of music church which sits on one side of the lake and gentle hills around the rest.

Towns

Hallsatt – What a strange place! There is lots of hype around this little town. The town has 800 residents and gets around 1 million tourist a year! Its so popular with Chinese tourists that they have even built a replica in China. Yes, it is a pretty village and a very pretty lake. But if you travel around Austria you will see many houses of similar architecture and much nicer surrounding hills. We spent a peaceful day kayaking and decided to go to the town in the evening when we thought it might have quietened down. We were wrong, there were still coach loads of tourists. I wanted to enjoy the village but the main thing I took away from it was how incredibly self-obsessed people are. Unfortunately, we have seen this lots when travelling, but nowhere quite like Hallsatt. No one seems to be looking at the scenery everyone is just taking selfie after selfie, slightly rearranging their hair, slightly different pout, sunglasses on, sunglasses off and then repeat in a different area. If you don’t like crowds and you aren’t obsessed with Instagram I personally wouldn’t bother going.

Salzburg – beautiful city (more like large town) situated either side of the gorgeous blue Salzach river and surrounded by hills. The predominant architecture is baroque with large white and pastel coloured buildings giving the city a very clean and open feel. There are many impressive churches and wide open squares. If, like Graham, you’re a fan of Sound of Music then you can also have fun spotting the film backdrops.

Vienna – We had a lovely weekend in Vienna because two of my oldest friends Harriet and Georgi visited us. We spent our first morning in the natural history museum, a beautiful building with some very well-preserved exhibits but not quite enough interpretation or education. Lunch was at Naschmarkt, which seems predominantly owned by the same falafel chain. In the afternoon we covered all the sights in central Vienna (from the outside, unless free to go in) scession building, opera house, cathedral, the river, all the squares, Spanish riding school, the library, museum quarter and the town hall. Day two we met for a walk around Schonbrunner palace grounds, we also walked around Belvedere palace, went to see the funky Hundertwasserhaus, scootered around Jesuitenwiese park and over the other side of the river and strolled along new daunbe. We had some great suggestions from a friend on places to eat and drink so very much enjoyed that side of Vienna. The city reminded us of London but on a small scale (with a much cleaner and efficient transport system). In our opinion Vienna is missing the cute old town feel of a lot of other European capitals we visited. There’s no narrow cobbled streets to explore and get lost in and we didn’t find a quirky independent quarter to wander around. Most of its attractions are very expensive to go in, so the city doesn’t suit the budget traveller. We finished our trip with a visit to an old university friend and spent a lovely afternoon catching up with her, her husband, their dog and their very cute 6 month old baby girl. Thanks for the hospitality Fani! A lovely way to end our visit to Austria.

Clinging on to Summer

After Slovenia, we decided to head south to Croatia and Italy to try and cling on to summer before we begin our slow journey back up north. Time is starting to run out for our Europe trip and each country is getting less time than it deserves. We just dipped into Northern Croatia for 6 days and had 4 days exploring north eastern Italy om route to Austria.

Croatia Route: Risnjak National Park, Krk Island (Omišalj, Baška, Vrbnik), Opatija, Učka Nature Park, Pula, Premantura peninsula, Rovinj, Limski kanal

Italy Route: Trieste, Miramare castle, Sistiana, Parco Naturale Regionale delle Prealpi Giulie, Lago di Fusine, Julian Alps

Croatia

Wildlife: Our first day in Croatia was spent inland exploring Risnjak national park with its rolling hills, endless woodland and rocky outcrops. While stopping for lunch we heard a very exciting noise. A bear calling. My heart started beating so fast, it was such an incredible experience to be sat in the woods, no one else around, just listening to the bear. Thankfully it was a little distance away so we could eat our lunch without the bear trying to steal any!

Exploring: The rest of our time in Croatia was spent on the coast. Largely snorkelling, hiking, swimming and cycling. The water was incredibly clear, not much in terms of seaweed but plenty of fish. We also had a snorkel through a large bloom of comb jellies. Ucka nature park provided great views out across the many islands in Northern Croatia. And cycling from beach to beach in Premanture peninsula was great fun.

Towns: With the exception of Optija (which was touristy with nothing to see and no atmosphere) we really liked the small towns we visited in Croatia. Highlights were: Pula which had an Italian vibe with roman architecture, squares, lots of locals enjoying the cafes & bars, a lovely food market and some classic cars. Rovinji was also very cute with houses right up to the edge of the water, some lovely independent shops and galleries and tiny narrow streets.

Vanlife: Croatia is not an easy place to be in a campervan. Wild camping is illegal, campsites are very expensive and in the Autumn some are already closed for the year. We were very glad we went in Autumn though, the descriptions of campsites, towns and beaches we visited sounded overwhelmingly busy with tourists in the prime summer months.   

Italy

Wildlife: We thought hearing the bear call in Croatia was cool, but Italy totally topped it with one of the most amazing wildlife experiences I’ve had to date. We didn’t see any bears unfortunately, but yet again heard them calling; one while having lunch and then a few of them while we were sat in the van in the evening. They were calling really loud and close-by, and they didn’t stop all night! I hardly slept I was so excited. I tried looking for them but it was far too dark. From the sound I definitely think there was one in the carpark with us. To be alone, just us, scooby, the mountains and the sound of wild bears was insane! An evening I will never forget! An evening that makes you feel so lucky to be exploring Europe and to be doing it vanlife style in amazing natural spots.

I have no photos of the bears so here is a blurry chamois and snake instead.

Exploring: We had one day on the coast swimming and walking along the cliffs at Sistiana, and managed two days in the mountains. The weather was cloudy on our second day so the endless views were not so good, but the surrounding peaks incredible, autumn trees were beautiful and the cloudy atmosphere was peaceful. We also squeezed in a walk around Lago de Fusine and I braved a swim in the refreshing crystal clear lake.

Town: We visited Trieste, and within half an hour of arriving had found ourselves some coffee ice cream. A good way to cram in two of Italy’s top delicacies in a short space of time. Trieste is supposedly quite an un-Italian city, but we couldn’t tell. It has a huge marina, grand old buildings along the waterfront, big squares, nice churches and lots of people out enjoying the café culture.

Vanlife: Van life in Italy was much easier. Our first night was spent in the hills behind Trieste, our second night right by a marina. ThenItaly provided two of our favourite wild camping spots of the trip. Two nights of just scooby and the mountains, not one other van and hardly another sole.

We will definitely be back to explore Italy via van again.

Hannah’s Hungary

Hello and welcome to this special entry of Scooby Van Life! This time it is being bought to you by Hannah & Andrew, two 1st time Van-Lifers, for an adventure through Hungary.This all came about from a little suggestion from Rachael when we were planning a holiday of “hire a van and come and join us” and that is exactly what we did. And needless to say, it was as amazing as it looks in the blog!!

So, let’s get on with it. 

The Van
First things first: Meet Charlie! Not 100% sure how we got to the name, but it stuck and we became very fond of him and you’ll be glad to hear that he and Scooby became great friends on their week long adventure together. Our 1st time as van-lifers and (thanks to Rachael and Graham) we were able to get to grips with the ins and outs of it all by the end (mostly).

The Route:Pest – Buda – Visegrad – Esztergom – Lake Balaton – Tihany – Tapolca – Badacsonytomaj – Badacsony – Balatongyörök – Heviz – Balatonberény 

The City
Budapest is a city split into two halves, Pest to the west – the flatter side of the Danube and Buda the hilly side to the east. We spent the 1st couple of days of the trip within the city seeing the sights including Parliament Square, the labyrinth under the Castle Hill, a boat trip down the Danube (couldn’t not really) and Central Mark
The revolutionary discovery of the trip has to be Lime Scooters! Honestly, they are our new favourite thing! They are hireable, electric scooters and they are AMAZING. Most of our second day was spent transporting ourselves around at great speed on them.
We also happened to be in Budapest for their annual wine festival… more on that later!

The Countryside
Having spent a couple of days in the city it was time for some countryside we headed our way north to Duna-Ipoly National Park. We visited Visegrád Castle – not necessarily worth the entry but the views of the Danube and the Danube Bend were SPECTACULAR. The area seemed to be popular for re-enactments as on our walk we stumbled across both a Roman and Medieval re-enactment. That evening we found an incredible place to park (and by that I mean 100% Rachael and Grahams doing) on a bend of the Danube. 

The following morning, Rachael and Graham went for a swim and we went for a little paddle before heading off to the small city of Esztergom (technically not countryside but it fits better here). We visited the Basilica – a huge building that imposed itself over the city. It’s the largest and tallest building in Hungary and any reverberation made inside can last for 9 seconds!

A little later on in the trip we headed to Balatongyörök and the Batsányi Viewing Tower from here we got some great views of Hungarian countryside including lake, hills and vineyards.

The Water
Lake Balaton is an interesting place, it’s the largest lake in Central Europe and as such is a tourist destination that is fairly built up and during peak season you have to pay to access most areas of the lake. Fortunately for us, it was not peak season! We stopped to have a look before driving round to find somewhere a little more rural.

Just off Lake Balaton is a smaller lake called Belső-tó, next to the village of Tihany. We went for a wander around the lake and through the village and stumbled across a few things. Firstly, and most importantly, Graham found himself a great donkey friend. We also found fresh walnuts, lavender fields and then a gig in the middle of the village. Our night here was ended with the most spectacular lightning – the sky was lit up over and over, with some rather large bolts forking through the sky not too far away.

Our next adventure was to Tapolca and its super cool caves THAT YOU CAN ROW THROUGH!!! We would have gone round and round if we could! It was lovely!

From here we moved our way down the lake to Badacsonytomaj, a tactical location to be able to walk to and from wine! We also visited Heviz an area known for its hot natural baths, this was worth the experience but probably not what we all expected and we were glad we were only there for a short while. 

The Wine
It turns out Hungarian wine is A-MAZ-ING. We had our first taste at the Budapest Annual Wine Festival. We popped along mid-afternoon to a peaceful and calm event with 100 or so stalls from (mostly) Hungarian Wineries. We drank various wines and tried some local foods and just generally lapped it up. We popped back later in the evening and it was a little chaotic – but hey, the wine was still good.

We also visited Laposa vineyard in Badascony. Worth the walk to get up the hill. It had the most beautiful views of the lake, we watched a storm pass and the sunset, whilst trying out a range of (mostly) gorgeous wines.

 And to cap the week off, we had a stunning sunset for our final night at Balatonberény. 

Stunning Slovakia

Everyone should go its beautiful! All the mountains, nice people, loads of rolling green views dotted with blue water. We didn’t want to leave. Blog Post Done!

Ok I’ll go into some more detail….

Our route:

Western, Low and High Tatra Mountains – Slovak Paradise – Levoca & Spis Castle – Kosice – Slovak Karst – Po’lana – Banska Stavinka – Bratislava

Tatra Mountains

A beautiful mountain range with lots of great hiking – we could have stayed there forever. We had gorgeous sunshine every day, but you had to be off the mountain by early afternoon when the thunderstorms started on most days. There aren’t many things that make me get out of bed early – first ski lift when there’s fresh snow and now the Tatra mountains.

Getting into the centre of the mountain range is tricky, but many of the fringing peaks are accessible with well marked trails. We went to two ski towns where we cheated a bit and saved our legs on the ascent or descent by getting chair lifts and cable cars. This gave us more time and energy for walking around the top of the mountains.

We visited a couple of incredibly beautiful mountain tarns where unfortunately for humans, but fortunate for nature protection, swimming is forbidden.

The sheerness and density of the peaks in the Tatras was a sight we will never forget.

Other Nature

Slovak paradise is just south of the Tartra mountains, it is mainly made up of wooded valleys and steep gorges, and the hiking involves tiny ladders and skinny ledges on cliffs. Although I love mountains, I’m actually quite scared of heights; so we did a tame version of Slovak paradise with an easy walk to a view point, an ice cave and some paddle boarding and swimming in Lake Dedinky.

Our visit to Slovak Karst was a little unplanned, but it turned out that we camped on a great hiking route. We had a lovely loop up and down a hill to some waterfalls, a castle and back up and down a hill again – this kept up our average of 10 miles of walking a day while in Slovakia.

Our journey to Po’lana National Park was quite…. erm …… exciting?! We drove at night up a terrifyingly narrow road with lots of potholes to a camp spot we read about online. When we got to the top we checked how far up we were, to which Grahams said ‘What the f#*k is Scooby doing at 1250 meters above sea level!!’ Then we drank some beer to calm our nerves. The next day’s walk was pretty easy as it turned out we had basically accidentally driven to the top!

Our last nature-based activity was a relaxing walk around the rolling hills and picturesque village of Banska Stavinka.

Culture

So, it turns out the Slovakians love a drink, no matter what time, day of the week or location. Lots of people were already drinking pints as we started some of our walks at 9am. We had a rather funny experience on one of our walks, passing alongside a group who were doing shots at the top of the mountain and then running down 100 meters to stop and take a breather while doing another round of shots and then repeating this all the way down the mountain. But, the best drinking sight had to be a nun in full ‘costume’ with a pint!

As well as the drinking, Slovakians also seemed like very friendly people. There were lots of people spending time outside with their families, mostly walking or mushroom picking and giving us lots of friendly hellos  (or more specially Dobrydens / ahoys / caios ) as we passed.

All the towns we visited (Levoca, Kosice, Banksa Stavincka) were really nice with some lovely architecture and quite a slow pace of life.

Bratislava was my kind of capital – small for a city never mind a capital, the lovely blue Danube flowing through it, nice old town and great food and drink (incredible vegan donuts).

The only one tiny negative about Slovakia is its not next to the coast otherwise I would move there instantly.

Poland

We didn’t give Poland as much time as it probably deserves. Our sightseeing was concentrated to Eastern and central Poland on our way down to Slovakia. We will just have to go back and see the western side on another van trip.

Biebrzanski Marsh – Bialowieza Forset – Narew – Warsaw – Kozlowiecki Park – Lublin – Ojcowski National Park – Krakow – Zakopane  

Nature

Our introduction to Poland’s nature was quite immersive. We got harassed by swarms of horseflies while walking on a path that took us quite literally through the middle of Biebrzanski Marsh reed beds.  Day two saw us get completely soaked in non-stop rain while walking in Bialowieza Forset. Day three another exciting reed bed experience, this time kayaking in the very shallow and narrow Narew river, where we had to duck under reeds and face planted a few cobwebs.  Ojcowski National Park on the outskirts of Warsaw was a lot tamer in comparison, with some nice geological features. Our last stop was witnessing the immense power of thunderstorms in Zakopane, Tatra Mountains, where post storm we had a stunning walk in the valleys.   

Cities

Our favourite city stop in Poland was Warsaw. The old town had some beautiful architecture which was completely reconstructed after the world war. Just outside the old town is an area with lots of old churches and wide-open streets, and the new town had some great bars. The atmosphere along the river was lively with loads of people enjoying a drink by the water.  On top of this, it was Grahams birthday, so we celebrated by eating as much vegan food as possible. Traditional veganised polish lunch, ice cream in the afternoon, vegan sushi for dinner and the best bakery ever the following morning. Fully recommend Warsaw as a vegan destination.  

A much smaller city stop was lovely Lublin. With an old castle, narrow cobbled streets, art galleries, restaurants in squares, and nice churches – it has all the things you could desire as a tourist, just on a small scale.

Supposedly many people overlook Warsaw in favour of Krakow. In our onion we can’t understand why, but it clearly shows when you’re walking around as there are soooo many tourists. There is an interesting castle area, a very grand large square with some nice streets off it, a historic Jewish quarter with lots of places to eat and drink, some good sounding museums and a lively atmosphere all around. We did enjoy trying several types of vodka and ate a very tasty vegan kebab. But it was just incredibly touristy, lots of people, lots of generic restaurants and all the souvenir tat. We did however see a wild boar on our cycle back to our camp spot which was a great way to end the day!

Lithuania

Our route: Vilnius – Trakai – Neries Regional Park – Lithuania Folk Museum – Kaunas – Krekenva Regional Park – Hill of Crosses – Palanga – Klaipeda – Curonian spit – Birstonas – Zuvinto Nature Reserve

Vilnius

We had our second set of visitors (Graham’s dad and step mum) join us for the first half of Lithuania, which was lovely. And this meant we had a relaxing 2 days and 2 nights in Vilnius rather than our normal rush around a city in one day. Vilnius has everything – an old town with narrow cobbled streets, a new town that doesn’t look new and is filled with cafes and shops, so many incredibly elaborate churches, an independent arty district, lots of museums and history, a nice river and some lovely parks. I would have quite happily spent a third day there, which for me to say about a city means it must be good.

Apart from the usual wandering around taking far too many photos we visited the Dukes Palace which was incredibly good value for money; enough to keep you busy for a day for around £2. We also visited the very sobering Museum of Occupation. It’s hard to believe that Lithuania along with the other Baltic countries only had their independence back in 1991, that’s after I was born! In the Cathedral square there is a very small plaque which marks the spot where, in 1989, around 2 million people formed a human chain holding hands across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a peaceful demonstration showing huge support for independence.

Kaunas

It’s the second biggest city in Lithuania. The most well-known building in the city is the castle, which has all your standard castle fun; gallows, armour, good tower and people fencing. Across the city there’s plenty of churches and town squares, a very long pedestrianised shopping and café street, lots of great street art and a lovely lake with lots of beaches and water sports.  We also had the best bagel of our lives (all the humous) from Holy donut – it’s a chain around Lithuania – I highly recommend it (they do vegan donuts too).

We visited Christ Resurrection Church, which is an enormous modern church standing out on the skyline and has good views of the city.  The idea of the church was born after Lithuanian’s initial independence in 1918 to thank god for their freedom. The donations were largely made by the public. Unfortunately during occupation, the church was badly damaged. When Lithuania finally gained independence again in 1991 work began to restore the church and it eventually opened in 2010.

Hill of Crosses

Does what the name suggest, but more of a small mound. Although there have been numerous attempts to destroy the monument through the many historical occupations, pilgrims have been putting crosses here since the 1800s. There is now an estimated 100,000 plus crosses. This number grows everyday as tourist buy their wooden crosses from the souvenir stands and squeeze them in somehow. No one really knows why this trend started but it is now a place known as a symbol of endurance of the Catholic religion through its rather rocky Lithuanian history. Currently around 70% of the population are Catholics.

Palanga

The Magaluf of Lithuania. A lovely beach that’s sometimes too rough to swim in, backed by lots of hotels and strip of tackiness…. all the tackiness – arcades, 9D (how is that possible) cinemas, candy floss, trampolines in restaurants and entertainers “signing” in restaurants (basically doing karaoke but badly). However, everyone was having lots of fun! And unlike Magaluf there were less teenagers vomiting in the street.  

10 minutes up the road, however, and you’re on a lovely stretch of beach backed by pine forests and just a few walkers for company.

Curonian Spit

Huge spit, that I would say geographically speaking is more of a bar that has had some holes punched in for maintaining human access to the sea. Anywayyyy. A huge ‘spit’ that connects Lithuania to Kaliningrad and Poland. Its largely a very strict nature reserve consisting of sand dunes, beaches, pine forest and a couple of resort towns in between. It was very expensive to go!  €28 for a 500 meter return ferry crossing!! €30 access to the island (totally unaware we had to pay it, but it would have been pointless ferry journey if we had turned around without paying. And ‘technically’ you were only allowed to camp in the one official payed campsite. We decided to stay for 2 days to get our monies worth. On the first day we went to see ‘Witches Hill’ – a nice forest walk with loads of wooden sculptures mainly of witches and devils. Spent the rest of the day cycling, which is THE activity of choice on the spit; it is very well set up with lots of nice cycling paths. Second day, after another cycle, we spent relaxing on the beach. It was our last day by the sea for a couple of months (hopefully we won’t go insane without our salty friend).

Zuvinto Biosphere Reserve

Our Lithuania trip ended very peacefully at Zuvinto. A huge shallow lake amazing for bird watching, with a vast expanse of reeds surrounded by forests and fields. Summer is not the best bird watching season but there were still huge amounts of cranes, geese, ducks, egrets, swallows and starlings.  I would definitely recommend it. I was very impressed, and it made me miss Cley.  (I wish I could share videos here, as photos don’t do it justice, but I don’t have a fancy enough word press account to do that)

To keep up to date with all things Scooby Van Life follow us on Instagram @scoobyvanlife

Sun, Sea and Celebrations

I wanted to call this sun, sea, celebrations and castles. But castles starts with a c but doesn’t sound the same as the c in celebrations. And confusingly sun and sea start with an s but sound like a c. Man I hate English!

Our trip took us to:

Gauja valley – Cesis town – Sigulda caves and castle – Saulkrasti beach – Riga – Jurmala beach – Kemeri National Park – Kandava town – Sabile town – Slitere National Park – Sklandrusi festival – Ventspils city – Kuldiga town – Rundale palace – Bauska town – Raznas National Park – Daugavas Loki Nature Area

Sun

Apart from two days we pretty much had glorious sunshine between 25-28 degrees for our two weeks in Latvia. This, along with lots of other factors, has made it our second favourite country so far (Norway will take a serious amount of beating).

Our first few days in the Latvian sunshine were spent in the Gauja valley. A beautiful national park of forests and streams surrounding the winding wide Gauja river. We parked Scooby up for the night by the river and the next day we were woken by hordes of people bringing rafts, canoes, kayaks and ribs down to the river, non-stop all day. THE activity to do there is floating, the river flows fairly strong and people just float down river to numerous free national park run campsites.

Sea (and other watery bodies)

We very quickly realised that Latvians love wild swimming. Whatever the body of water (the sea, lakes, rivers, a pond) there will likely be a swimming platform, some changing cubicles and people enjoying the water. As per usually we were drawn to the coast – Latvia has some lovely sandy beaches, and around the gulf of a Riga, a very shallow and surprisingly warm sea which involved less swimming and more “bathing”.

 In fact, Latvians seem naturally outdoorsy people, you see families out every evening spending time together, teenagers playing volleyball, basketball or football, lots of people out foraging for mushrooms and berries, and it seemed so natural and normal. I found it funny that in Sweden they make a big deal about this kind of stuff, whereas in Latvia they just get on and do it without all the pretence.

We channelled our inner Latvians and went wild swimming most days (not that I ever need much persuading). It’s the perfect way to start the day refreshed and awake and the perfect way to cool off at the end of the day…..and it’s pretty nice in the middle of the day too.

Celebrations

Latvians love a party and seemingly any excuse for a summer festival; we saw posters for festivals everywhere and ended up going to three.

Cesis – Our first night in Latvia was spent at Cesis festival. Throughout the day there were hundreds of market stalls selling crafts, clothes, jewellery and lots of food and drink. There were skate and bmx competitions at the skate park, and by early evening the music started at two different stages – one for more classical music and one for more indie music. There was a great atmosphere and the music was really good and all free. They set the bar high.

Sabile Wine Festival – The festival happens over several days, but the highlight is on the Saturday when wine sellers across the country gather. Sabile claims the northern most vineyard and the festival started because historically in Latvia you weren’t allowed to sell wine. So the wine would be made at the vineyard and the community would gather to drink it. We went on Friday and timed our visit badly in between events. I wanted to buy some local wine to take home but couldn’t find it in the shops, so I rang the vineyard. A young guy who runs the family business said he was on his farm so just come over and we can buy it there. When we got there, he gave us a private tour and a private wine tasting of about 10 different wines!  He had so much time for us and showed great hospitability before his busiest selling day of the year. We experienced this kind of friendliness all over Latvia.

Carrot Tart – Yep that’s right they have a whole festival in honour of this famous tart. We missed the activities in the day getting waylaid in the sunshine at the beach. But we got there in time to try the potato and carrot tart and watch a rendition of the sound of music in the gardens of a castle. This was followed by live music. The Latvians know how to dance – in England people might be brave enough to get up and dance halfway through a bands set after several pints. In Latvia, first chord and loads of people up dancing together… and properly dancing (waltzing etc) not just bobbing along. They also know how to drink! Everyone came along with big carry bags full of spirits and mixer some preferring to skip the cup and mix in the mouth.

Castles

If you like castles Latvia is a must. There are loads of them in all sorts of forms – fully restored, partly restored, ruins and mounds. I think we saw a castle or some form of castle every day.

Cities and Scenery

I could write about Latvia all day and have really not done it justice, but don’t want to make the blog too long. Hopefully I have given you a little flavour of what Latvia has to offer. We really enjoyed the landscape, wildlife, scenery, towns and cities, the extremely friendly people, and learning about the history and culture. I thoroughly recommend a visit and I already want to go back. Here’s a selection of city related and scenery related photos for you.