Castles and gorges in Slovakia, a slight hiccup at the Romanian border and an impromptu overnight stay in Hungary

Due to the miserable weather in Zakopane, we carried on south through to the Slovakian side of Tatras Mountains where, predictably, it was still fairly miserable but the scenery that we could see was really dramatic and what would have been a damp and unpleasant hike was in fact a lovely drive.

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As we progressed south the weather lifted slightly while we were winding ourselves through tiny ski resorts and open green countryside.

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Our first stop of the day was lovely Spiš Castle, perched on the hill above Spišské Podhradie.

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Spiš has existed in some form or another since the beginning of the 12th Century, it was modified and expanded and changed hands repeatedly until a fire in 1780 destroyed large sections of the castle and everything inside. Since then it has stood as a ruin before being taken over by the state in 1945 and partly restored as a musuem. In 1993, Spiš was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.

We parked at the car park just below the castle and walked up the hill to the entrance, the views from all around Spiš are excellent so make sure to take a camera with you. At €8, the fee to get in is very reasonable and there is also free audio guide (€10 deposit required) which we would definitely recommend as it gives a lot more information than the signs; sometimes it’s a bit confusing  as to what specific thing it is talking about but you get a good gist and it’s free. The castle itself is one of the largest in Europe and you can spend a good hour listening to the guide, walking around the walls and, most importantly of all, climbing the tower to get the brilliant views over the countryside and surrounding villages.

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On the eastern side of the castle the buildings largely stand in ruins and you can’t venture far but they are still cool to look at.

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Within the main castle buildings there is the small chapel along with kitchens and bedrooms that the museum has restored. Most grimly fascinating of all is the extensive torture chamber complete with medieval instruments and a man in an executioner’s costume who looms out of a corner at you.

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The slopes and worn steps that we had tackled as we climbed up through the castle were far more treacherous on the way down and the reason for the metal chains along the walls became abundantly clear as we slithered our way back to the entrance and Delaney. The car park is free and when we were there it was staffed by the most cheerful chap in a bright orange jacket. We had our customary cheese sandwiches looking back at the castle and then set off towards Slovak Paradise National Park / Slovensky Raj, where we would be camping for the night.

The campsite was a little odd; there were a couple of old toilet blocks with trees growing out of them and all the campers were situated at the end of the camp as far away as possible from the entrance, but it was right at the start of the hike we planned to do in Suchá Belá gorge, one of Slovakia’s most famous walks. Meanwhile, our laundry situation needed some urgent attention and we resorted to handwashing in the bathrooms and hanging our clothes anywhere and everywhere to get them to dry. As it was pretty drizzly this largely meant hanging them all over Delaney, leading us to re-christen him Delaney The Rolling Shanty Town. The view out of the back window was interrupted somewhat and we found ourselves surrounded by damp clothes for the next few days as we struggled to get anything to dry.

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The following morning, we set off on the Suchá Belá walk which begins with an easy stroll through woodland until you branch off in to a river bed of gently running water (in June). Waterproof hiking boots are recommended because, even this early on, there isn’t so much a path as trying to walk in the shallowest bit of river.

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As you make your way upstream the volume of water increases, as does the difficulty level. The next hour or so is spent scrambling up ladders and across slippery wooden walkways and generally having an awesome time whilst taking in the beautiful forest. It is excellent fun and we would definitely recommend it.

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Even a short hailstorm in the middle of our walk didn’t dampen our spirits.

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Once you reach the top of the valley and climb out of the riverbed it is a fairly ordinary walk, mostly on dirt and gravel track, to get back to the bottom. There is one point where the view opens out beautifully.

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There was an option to rent bikes at the top. You cycle rather that walk to the bottom and then your returned bike is ferried back up to the top in a trailer. There weren’t any bikes when we were passing and, in the moment, we probably wouldn’t have rented them anyway however, as we walked down the track we realised that it would have been so much more fun to cycle down so would definitely advise doing this if you have the opportunity.

As we have been pretty useless at planning more than a couple of hours ahead, the first order of business when we returned to Delaney was to decide where we were going to sleep. It was raining again so we bundled in to the van to do some research… with the laundry of course.

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With Hungary next on the agenda we made for the border and camped just shy of it in Kosice where we joined in our motorway adjacent campsite by a large group of travellers (think transit vans and caravans, not long hair and elephant trousers). It was still raining pretty hard so James was sent out to make dinner which we enjoyed sat on the bed in Delaney… with the laundry.

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You may notice that we are pretty wrapped up in all of these pictures. That’s because our “summer” tour of Europe had been decidedly chilly and ever so slightly damp up until this point with more of the same to come. Fortunately, being English, we are well suited to damp summers and we do emerge in to glorious sunshine a couple of countries later!

We were supposed to be in Hungary for less than a day but our stay turned out to be slightly less brief than we had anticipated. We drove directly south and then essentially cut through the North-Eastern corner of Hungary to reach the border crossing to Romania in the hamlet of Nyírábrány, east of Debrecen. Despite only transiting through the country we felt like we did get a small insight in to rural Hungarian villages and there were three things that they all seemed to have in common. The first was that they were all surrounded by field after field after field of glorious sunflowers.

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It made for truly spectacular driving. The second was that in the villages there were flowers absolutely everywhere, any available space whether public or private was filled with bloom.

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This turned what were often poor, very functional villages with non-descript houses in to riots of colour. The final thing was that every village had at least one enormous storks’ nest on top of what looked like purpose-built platforms on the top of electricity pylons.

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We reached the Romanian border and approached with a twinge of apprehension. You see, we knew that we may have some difficulty getting in to Romania with a rental car but we had a copy of the ownership documents and were crossing our fingers that it would be enough. It was not. The problem, it turns out, is not getting in to Romania, they were more than happy to let us in. They just won’t let you drive out again in a rental vehicle without the original ownership documents, regardless of what country you rented it in, which was slightly problematic. The ladies working on the border were very friendly and understanding, presumably they see this quite a lot, and they asked us what we would like to do, as if there was a choice: “well I suppose we could abandon the van in Romania….” We turned around, parked up and came up with a new plan. We had been intending to shoot across Serbia in a day after finishing in Romania but we decided instead to spend a couple of days exploring and set the SatNav to Szeged, just north of the Serbian border.

Campsites were a bit few and far between and we ended up veering east to the town of Gyula and setting up there for the night in another bizarre campsite where you couldn’t tell where the camp stopped and the owner’s private residence started so could inadvertently find yourself in the middle of a family dinner. The bathrooms were also interestingly designed so that the showers were clearly visible through the windows, privacy is overrated. As we were there, we took some time in the morning to explore the town of Gyula. The primary attraction is the thermal bath which we went to have a look at, you have to pay to get in but we could see beyond the turnstiles that they were basically just warm swimming pools.

The remainder of the town is pretty enough with the other big drawcard, Gyula Castle, standing proud in the middle.

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Fortunately, we were up early as it seemed the sort of place that would swell with tourists during the summer, particularly with the supposed healing properties of the baths, and as we packed up to head off at 10am there were already a fair few people around. For an impromptu stop it was quite nice and we felt that the time had not been wasted as we left Gyula behind and made for Serbia.

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