Friday, 24 November 2017

Eisenach - Budapest Trail: Conclusion

Together with my previous hikes through Germany and Hungary I have now also completed the "International Mountain Trail of Friendship Eisenach - Budapest" (EB). Although I myself have not done it as a thruhike but a section hike I would like to do a bit of advertising for it - because it is a great trail!

Eisenach - Budapest was founded in 1983 and was the only international long-distance trail in the East bloc. It traverses five countries: Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. This "mountain trail" stays mostly in secondary mountain ranges, although some section have a bit of alpine character. It is 2690 km long and connects the most popular hiking areas of the respective countries. Therefore infrastructure is great: The trail is well marked (although usually not as EB, but with its local name).

There is plenty of accommodation on the trail in form of mountain huts or close by in form of hotels. Wild camping is theoretically forbidden in all countries except Hungary, but practically never a problem as long as you stay out of National Parks. Therefore you can easily hike it with or without a tent - just as you like.
There is a German guidebook series that covers the entire trail. Although a bit outdated it is worth having them, but not essential.You can download the gpx track for this trail from the internet and that is basically all you need. You pass through villages with shops at least every other day so resupply is not a problem either.

Besides traversing some really scenic mountain ranges you also pass through a lot of pittoresque villages and towns with interesting history. All five countries have undergone a many historical changes and you will find remnants of the German and Austro-Hungarian empire - not to mention its influence on the culinary menu.
Prices in Eastern Europe are still a lot cheaper than in the West so eating out or staying in a hotel will not tear a big hole into your budget.

To sum it up: This trail is ideal for hikers who want to experience a real thruhike and are looking for an interesting alternative to the long American trails. It is ideal for beginners in long-distance hiking because it has a high margin for errors: You are never that far away from civilisation and its wonders are affordable. It is technically easy and has a wide time window. Strangely enough there are not many hikers who thruhike this trail. This year I know only of three parties including me who did it. I highly recommend it!

Aföldi Kektura: Conclusion

I am a big fan of hiking in Hungary out of various reasons that I have explained here. But even I have to admit that the Aföldi Kektura is not the greatest hiking trail on earth - especially when you are walking in summer! The lowlands are indeed low and incredibly flat. Most of the time you won't have any shade and walk along irrigation canals. There are some nice villages and interesting towns nearby but you can find that anywhere else in Hungary, too. So I would not specifically go to Hungary to hike the Aföldi Kektura - there is much better hiking on the Northern Kektura, which is one of my favourite hiking trails.

Plus you have the problem of following the Schengen border for quite a while - and Hungarian police and border patrol take their job very seriously! So expect to be checked several times. Still as part of my long-distance hike I enjoyed my time on the Aföldi. It was flat and easy hiking without any navigational problems. The Aföldi is impeccably marked like the rest of the Kektura. I could make long and easy miles which felt nice. And even in summer I enjoyed the many thermal baths and swimming pools ...

Hungary: Aföldi Kektura

My hike through Hungary started with a fabulous meeting: Anne and Ulli, two German EB-hikers had heard of my trip through FB. Although they were already far ahead of me in Hungary, they took a train back to Sarospatak to meet me. We booked ourselves in a nice holiday apartment and spent the afternoon in the open air thermal baths - a wonderful relaxing experience and one of the reasons why I like hiking in Hungary so much! We basically talked non-stop and exchanged ideas and plans. One plan has already become reality: We have already had our post-trip meeting in Erfurt together with Jana.

My entire time in Hungary it was hot - and I mean really freaking hot! Every day was above 30 Celsius and I was hiking with my umbrella for sun protection. I was following irrigation canals many times which resulted in humidity and even more sweating - plus horseflies ... One time I had to walk several kilometres along a canal and then the same distance back again on the other side just because there was no other bridge ... I was not too happy!

This time in Hungary I was walking on the Aföldi Kektura through the Pannonian Lowlands. I had already known in the planning stage that it is not a good idea to hike here in the middle of the summer. And all my expectations came true: It was flat - I mean really flat. In the beginning there was a lot of road walking and no shade. And it was hot. There were no lakes to swim in and the water in the irrigation canals was so disgusting that I could not even use it for washing up. But I went into every public swimming pool along the way!

But not all was bad: Water was no problem because in almost every Hungarian village there is a public water fountain. And wild camping was great because it is legal in Hungary! Plus I walked through these endless tree plantations that were ideal for setting up camp. Flat ground, and lots of shade in the morning! Some people would say these straight-line plantations are boring but I found them very pretty and felt like walking through one big park!

My only big town stop in Hungary was Debrecen where I stayed in a brand new air conditioned pension. I could even wash all my clothes there. Timing was perfect: I was in town when a big storm dropped rain in buckets and the temperatures! I made one last big shopping trip to Aldi. It made smile that in Debrecen Aldi is located right next to the Grand Casino! Aldi attracted by far more visitors - at least during the day ...

Hungarian villages are impeccably clean. Usually there is no paved sidewalk but local residents are raking the dirt! I almost felt bad walking there because I left foot prints! Most popular tree lining the village roads is the plum tree and as the plums where just getting ripe I was gorging on fruit. I was now getting closer to the Hungarian-Romanian border which is also the Schengen border. In a Hungarian village a hiker with a backpack sticks out like a sore thumb and therefore I was twice stopped by the police. They were very professional but checked my passport thoroughly. One policeman spoke excellent English and told me he had just recently hiked the Camino in Spain!

Another encounter was not that friendly ... Shortly before the border I was stopped by an old guy on an even older motorbike. I took him for a homeless person asking for a cigarette or money and briskly walked on. But he kept yelling at me in Hungarian and follow me along an irrigation canal. I was already considering to defend myself physically when he finally left. But ten minutes later a different but equally unkempt guy showed up on a mountain bike. At least now I understood one word: Kektura - which is the name of the trail I was hiking on. When I signalled that I was just a hiker the guy relaxed and disappeared.

Both men had worn high-visibility jackets with the inscription "Polgarörsek". When I googled that word I got scared: it meant "militia"! First I thought I had met some self-proclaimed sherriffs but later Hungarians told me that these "second-class policemen" are actually appointed by local counties. Their goal is to deter from petty crime and protect nature reserves. Apparantly they had taken me for an illegal immigrant ...The offical E3 trail crosses the border at Letavertes but that would have involved 60 km of roadwalking in Romania. Instead I continued on the Kektura and crossed at Artand - after walking through endless fields in the summer heat.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hiking in Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia: Conclusion

All three countries have a long hiking tradition and as a result the infrastructure for hikers is fantastic! Waymarking is excellent and often there are separate summer and winter trails which are signposted and blazed. Not to mention a lot of bike trails especially in Czech Republic. The trails are usually very well maintained mostly by use of hikers. Bushwhacking is really the exception, but logging activities can make trail finding difficult at times.
E3 uses existing trails here but is often mentioned on signposts (which is rarely the case in other countries!).
The terrain is usually easy or moderate - on the E3 I have not encountered any technically difficult trails. Sometimes ascents and descents can be quite steep and slippery in rain but nothing really serious.
In popular areas there are mountain huts which offer accommodation and restaurants. Expect big crowds in summer especially in touristy areas like the Giant Mountains or the Mala Fatra. You will encounter mostly day hikers. I have rarely seen any other long-distance hikers! 

Resupply was easy and I rarely carried food for more than three days. Most bigger villages have a little store and in bigger cities there are all kinds of Western food store chains and discounters like Billa, Kaufland or Lidl. I enjoyed local specialties like smoked cheese and tasty string sausages which both keep a long time even in hotter weather. In supermarkets you can get the typical dehydrated pasta meals, cereals and snacks. Decathlon is widespread in Eastern Europe which means you can easily get new outdoor clothes or equipment if needed.

Water was not a problem - there are plenty of springs and wells along the trail which are usually marked on the free OSM maps. Just keep in mind that many springs are not piped but kept in a roofed "spring hut". You need some sort of container to scoop water out of there.
Tap water is safe to drink and therefore I never treated water in these three countries becausee I got it either from a tap or spring!
Wild camping is technically illegal in all three countries but I have never had a problem. There is so much forest that you can usually hide somewhere out of sight. Just plan ahead because the E3 traverses several national parks which are monitored by rangers - and for conservation reasons I would not want to camp there anyways.
I encountered very few hunters (which might have been due to the season) but plenty of lumberjacks and berry pickers. Commercial berry pickers work in gangs - so try not to camp in blueberry areas. These people are already up at sunrise so can have an unexpected early morning start! I was discovered once but nobody seemed to bother.

Hotels and restaurants are still a lot cheaper than in Western European countries although they are definitely up to Western standards. I usually paid around 30 - 40 EUR for a single room including breakfast and Wlan and never had any bad experience. On the contrary: Private hotels and pensions have by far exceeded my expectations. The same goes for restaurants: Quality was very high and I enjoyed local specialties like the ubiquitous Piroggi - dumplings filled with various stuffings.

The landscape I saw on the E3 was generally nice and interesting, sometimes even spectacular. But if you are looking for breathtaking views there are better places to go. Still what I liked a lot was the mixture of all those different mountain ranges mixed with different cultural and historical aspects. Parts of these three countries once belonged to Germany and/or Austria so you will find plenty of remnants. I read tombstones in cemeteries, explored churches and castles or came across leftovers of the two World Wars.

Don't be deterred by the language problem. Younger people all speak English and restaurant menus are usually bi- or trilingual. Beside English German is widespread.
To sum it up: I personally enjoyed hiking here a lot and I would definitely recommend it to a friend. If you are looking for relatively easy but interesting trail with a little luxury like staying in a hotel or eating in a restaurant once in a while, this is ideal - especially when you are interested in history.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Slovakia Part 2

The E3 now makes a huge loop of almost 170 km along the Polish-Slovak border - that can be shortcutted by a trail of mere 2 km. And that is what I did because I wanted to have more time for the rest of my trip. But what I heard from other hikers this loop is definitely worth it if you have the time. Still I followed the borderline for quite a while but because Slovakia and Poland are both Schengen countries you only realise by these white markstone that there is an international border. I even camped right on the border line!

My next rest stop was Presov, a nice historical town from where I made a daytrip by bus to Bardejov, which is UNESCO world heritage. It was now end of July and freaking hot especially in my hotel room with no aircondition! But besides sightseeing I had another good reason to go to Bardejov: Anne and Ulli, two other German EB hikers had heard of my 50th birthday and had left me a little present in a pension in Bardejov. I was so excited when the hotel owner handed this little parcel over to me that Ulli had painted so nicely with a view of Bardejov town square. Inside was a bottle of Kofola, the Slovak version of Coke, chocolate, some candy bars and nuts. By that time I had not even met Anne and Ulli yet and still these total strangers had left me a present. I was so overwhelmed by gratitude!

In Presov I met up with Balazs, a Hungarian hiker whom I had met the previous year in Budapest. He had taken a day off work to hike with me for a couple of days and it was such a joy to have company again. We talked and talked - and hiked way too little! But it was so hot that hiking was very demanding and many water sources were dry or just a trickle. When we came across a well we each dumped a bucket of water over each others head to cool off a bit! Although the trail was not very difficult it was a constant up and down!

I took another rest day in historical Kosice where I was very happy about the air condition in my hotel! Kosice is a beautiful city and due to the summer heat the fountain in the main square was the biggest tourist attraction! The E3 now continues along the Slovak-Hungarian border on the Slovak side, but I crossed into Hungary as early as possible to continue on my beloved Kektura, a trail that circles around the entire country and which I had hiked the year before.

Poland Part 2

My first stop in Poland this time was Zakopane, a big tourist magnet in the area. The place was chock full with tourists and I felt like in a zoo! A real culture shock after walking alone for a month. Stalls in the streets were selling all kinds of tourists - and the local specialty: smoked cheese! How this cheese kept in the summer heat without any refrigeration is a bit of a mystery to me ... I was in shopping heaven when I discovered that a brand new Lidl market had just opened in town and this is of course where I did my resupply!

For my Zakopane was an important resupply shop. Because the town is so popular with hikers I had of huge choice of outdoor shops where I bought new shoes and socks. And I took a guided city tour and learnt about the local culture. Unfortunately Zakopane fame spreads wide into the country side and the next day I was almost completely walking on concrete passing countless ski lifts, parking lots and hordes of tourists.

And this being catholic Poland the Pope was everywhere! Big advantage for hikers: I could always seek shelter in a church when it started to rain - and it rained quite a lot at that time. In fact one day the forecast was so horrible that I decided to take a spontaneous rest day in Szczawnica. Luckily I could secure an affordable hotel room via and I could even check in at 10 am already instead of waiting outside in the rain! Szczawnica is another popular spa town but taking the waters here was rather expensive as was the entrance fee to the two tiny little town museums. But there was not much else to do in the rain ... I was relieved that next morning the rain had stopped and I could hike on as planned. Logging activities made hiking difficult though: A lot of trails were completely destroyed by heavy vehicles - and three times the E3 route was officially closed but no detour was signposted. I just walked through: Twice the warning signs were outdated and one time I surprised some wood cutters who were not too happy about my appeareance but let me pass through.

Generally there was a lot going on in these Polish forests which made wild camping not as peaceful as normal. When I had set up camp close to this wonderful view a big hiking group passed by. At night wild pigs were noisily roaming around the forest and next morning I was woken up by tractor noise. But no one discovered me .... Last town stop in Poland was Krynica Zdroj, another spa town. I must admit that I loved all that spas and taking the waters which again was rather expensive here but a good way to spend my last zloty before returning to Slovakia for a second time.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Slovakia Part 1

Slovakia offered some real landscape highlights! It started already in the tiny mountain range of Súľovské vrchy or Sulower Berge in German where one view point came after the other - unfortunately linked by some steep trail!

Descending some more very steep trail I arrived in Rajece Teplice, a posh and tacky spa town. The spa complex is called Aphrodite and seems to be a Slovak version of Las Vegas! I arrived just before the local supermarket closed and sat down at the town square watching tourists who seemed to come from all over the world - even including some Muslim women with head scarves - a rare sight in this part of the world. I would have liked to stay one night and relax in the thermal pools but now in high season everything was booked solid - and would have been expensive anyways.

In Strecno I wanted to go shopping again because I was completely out of food and nearly got a heart attack when a billboard sign said that the supermarket had already closed for the afternoon ... Luckily the billboard was outdated and the supermarket still open! Strecno even had a small visitor centre where I could hang out in the shade but had to pay for the toilet - which I also needed in order to get water. What followed was a long and very steep ascent out of the valley of the river Waag with spectacular views and a problematic search for a campsite. On top of the mountain ridge there were plenty of scenic spots but all were in plain view from the trail where even shortly before sunset several hikers were still on their way to the next hut! But I was lucky and found a flat spot on an otherwise steep slope.

Next day brought some of the most spectacular hiking of the entire trip: I was traversing the Mala Fatra, a National Park. The entire day I was walking on top of the crest, mostly even on knife-edge - although the trail was really easy due to the amount of tourists! In the evening I had to rush to get out of the National Park for wild camping but other hikers did not seem to bother: Even briefly before sunset a bunch of Slovak hikers entered the park and it was apparent they were about to free camp, too!

A couple of nights later I was in for a big surprise with wild camping. Again I was hiking along the broad crest but could not find a hidden campsite because the whole ground was overgrown with blueberry bushes. I settled for a place underneath a tree right next to the track and figured that late at night or early in the morning no one would come along. I was completely wrong. At five in the morning a jeep came rumbling along the crest and stopped only one hundred metres away from me. Several people jumped out - and I was suddenly scared by a loud explosion. People came running along the trail and soon I was discovered. And then another explosion!

It took me a while to realise what was going on. This was a gang of blueberry pickers (legal or illegal) and they had fired a rocket to scare away any wild animals! I quickly packed up and had a very early start this morning. I had just walked a couple of hundred metres when the next surprise was waiting for me: an adder was lying right in the middle of the trail sunning itself. I quickly passed. My quick pace was stopped pretty soon by this mud desaster on the trail. Farmers were cutting down trees and their vehicles had turned the trail into a mud bath. They had to work with horses to get the downed trees out of the forest because the ground was destroyed so much.

Right at the border with Poland Slovakia had a nice surprise for me: the thermal bath of Oravice right on trail. Although it was almost 30 Celsius in the sun I enjoyed the hot water - at least as long as the sun was hidden behind the clouds ... This was holiday time and the pool was chock full with people which I found quite entertaining - although I was quite jealous of those bathers with an umbrella. I had not had that much foresight!