Ljubljana - Budapest - Debrecen - Szolnok - Bucharest 984 miles
I forgot to mention in last week's report, the wonder of arriving in Slovenia - a country 12 times smaller than the UK, but with a population of under 2.2 million. All we could see from the train was wooded hills, green valleys, the occasional little town and village with its quaintly gabled houses and fairy tale churches. The season seemed to have changed in a day too; from the balmy late summer of Italy to early autumn.
On Monday morning we dragged our suitcases from our first night's accommodation in the rather dull outskirts to the appropriately named Galeria River, a guest apartment in a beautiful old building at the edge of the old town. After dropping our baggage and packing our standard picnic lunch (goat's cheese, salami and cucumber sandwiches, plus boiled eggs whenever possible) we set off to explore the pocket sized capital with its beautiful old buildings, cobbled streets, wandering back and forth over the Ljubljanica River - full of fish, the banks lush with a gorgeous variety of flourishing wild plants. We were very excited to see an unfamiliar brown mammal swimming along, nostrils just above the surface - a water vole! Later that day I heard from a local that they're actually an invasive species, escaped from fur farms.
We stumbled across two different random riverside entertainments that day. After our picnic lunch, a student fashion show - ridiculous outfits but extremely impressive hair; super smooth, shiny, perfectly cut and styled. Then on our way home in the evening, the street lights suddenly went out. At first we thought it was a power cut, but then as we approached the town circle, it was packed with people. Asking around, we found out it was an anniversary celebration for the city football team, the Green Dragons. At 9pm the whole city erupted! From every bridge and from the castle hill a barrage of fireworks, and fans on every side of us popping their green smoke bombs!
The next day we were lucky enough to have the use of Toby's car, which is in Hannah's custody whilst he's on tour. (If you haven't heard Hannah and Toby's music check out their gorgeous album Sleeping Spirals, which includes songs inspired by the beautiful landscape of Slovenia, as well as their various other solo and collaborative projects. They are both incredible musicians and we look forward to hosting them again next time they come our way.) Ar Hannah's suggestion we took the non motorway route, winding through the mountains past Lake Bled where most tourists stop and on to stunning Lake Bohinj, where I had one of the most bracing short dips of my life - I think it was colder than the Christmas Day sea in Brighton.
It was such a special joy to have another little cuddle with baby Agar before saying goodbye to Hannah and Julio - thanks you for our unforgettable welcome to Slovenia, we look forward to seeing you again in the UK, where I hope to be called upon for some on tour babysitting at some point!
Onwards on Wednesday to Budapest, one of the two cities we're visiting for the second time on this tour. The first hour or two of our journey was breathtaking, travelling alongside the beautiful River Sava, pale blue waters tumbling over the broad, pebbly bed. The elderly train had six seat compartments, similar to first class on British Rail trains in the eighties, with pull down windows, so we could breathe the river air and catch snatches of birdsong as we sped by. At one point I glimpsed a heron with a fish in its beak! A nice little snooze on the bench seats and by 6pm we arrived in Budapest.
A bit of a faff to find our tram outside the station and then google maps sadly directed us to the wrong stop for our room - yes technically the closest one, but also the one with several long flights of steep stepped alleys to lug our heavy bags up - we later found out we could have got off one stop earlier and wheeled them up the hill. The room itself was the cheapest and worst we've had so far - very poky indeed - so we got out as soon as as we could and enjoyed the glories of Budapest night time skyscape, viewed from the brightly lit Szechenyi Chain Bridge. After the homely, human scale of Ljubljana we were rather awestruck by the bulky grandeur all around us.
Next morning, we went out for our first and only breakfast out so far. I've been doing a lot of searches of 'gluten free near me' and to my surprise and delight Budapest seems to have loads of entirely gf cafes and restaurants. I was dreaming of a gf cinnamon whirl and my dream came true, Then missions, to the post office, and the optician - alas my new prescription sunglasses got nicked in Ljubljana due to my own carelessness. Vision so called Express said it would take TWO WEEKS to get new ones so I am now doing penance with some badly fitting clip-on flip-up ones, hopefully just until Istanbul. Back across the river again to Gelert Spa - bliss - and then a hike to the top of the hill - we should have done that the other way around really.
Glad to check out of our cramped little room, on Friday we caught the train to Debrecen, about three hours east of Budapest, to visit our nephew Jamez and meet his family for the first time - he and Priyanka married earlier this year and became proud parents to baby Jace in July. The journey there was flat all the way, vast fields of wheat, corn and sunflowers, mostly harvested now, and everywhere looked very dry. We were met at the station by Jamez and his Hungarian friend Bolash and driven past ugly soviet era low rise blocks to the older part of town where we finally got to meet our gorgeous little baby grand-nephew and his mum. Priyanka insisted on making us lunch, which turned out to be one of the most delicious meals we've eaten on our travels - richly spiced aubergine and jackfruit subji with freshly made roti, she even made a special batch of dough just for me. After eating I literally couldn't keep my eyes open and conked out on the sofa for a couple of hours whilst Jace and Priyanka napped and Jamez took Jefris out to the local park. I rarely fall asleep during the day and despite such a long late afternoon nap I also had my best night's sleep on our cosy mattress on the floor.
It was so lovely having a couple of days to bond with our new family members and being shown around town, including a 360 degree view from the bell tower of the 'temple' - actually a protestant church, and cycling around the north of the city through beautifully wooded university grounds. Thank you Jamez and Priyanka for making us so welcome, Priyanka especially for all the delicious food, for dressing me up and teaching me dance moves, and for our lovely keepsake artwork of the river by moonlight, and thank you Jace for all those adorable smiles. We were sad to say goodbye and look forward to seeing you again!
This was the last of our visits to friends and family - until we reach Sumatra in mid January, so it was a poignant moment heading off to catch our connection to the sleeper train to Bucharest. It had proved impossible to book a sleeping compartment either online or at the ticket office, so once aboard I went off in search of a guard in hopes of getting an upgrade. After some stilted communication, a lot of wandering up and down the train, and some clarification from Google translate - I wasn't sure if we were being offered to share the guard's cabin! - we handed over 40 euros in cash and were shown to the four berth couchette that was ours for the night - phew!
After trying out all four berths, Jefris - ever the gentleman - let me choose my favourite one and I settled down to the sound and rhythm of the wheels, waking up to glorious golden early morning sunshine flickering through the autumn leaves - and, to my amazement, a 'morning babe' from Jefris! Not that he never greets me in the morning, but every other day on this trip I've woken to the sound of his snoring!
We arrived in Bucharest at 11.30, almost exactly three weeks since we boarded the ferry at Newhaven.
Love to all our friends and family, we miss you! xxx