Sunday, 23 July 2023
Bamberg, Bavaria, Germany
Bridge over Regnitz River
(Bamberg, Bavaria, Germany)

We had decided to drive to Greece again. Whilst prompted by Anna's aversion to flying it nevertheless gave us an excellent opportunity to explore more of Europe and do some walking. We had compiled a short list of walking destinations. The Carpathians seemed like the best option as we had never been there before, they offered lots of exciting mountain walks and were only a slight detour off the route to Greece. Our friends Greg and Fiona were also keen and we had arranged to meet them in Romania.

We took the Eurotunnel to France early in the morning and then immediately exited to Belgium to avoid road tolls. From there we crossed the border into Germany and then followed a route roughly parallel to the Rhine to Frankfurt. Then it was a fast drive across Bavaria to the town of Bamberg , just north of Nuremberg. We had picked Bamberg more or less at random, it was rumoured to be pretty and was about as far as we could get in one day.

Once we had checked into our hotel we headed out for dinner. The sun was setting on Bamberg and the bridges over the river Regnitz glowed with golden light. We found a restaurant in the old part of town on Sandstrasse and grabbed an outside table to enjoy what was left of the sun. It was a very enjoyable dinner and we went to bed well fed.

Monday, 24 July 2023
Budapest, Central, Hungary
Weiss bier by the lake
(Badesee, Upper Austria, Austria)

Today was to be a dash across Germany, Austria and Hungary with very little time to stop and enjoy. We set off relatively early and then headed south past Nuremberg, Regensburg and Passau. All of these places deserved exploring but were little more than motorway signs.

By about 1200 we had crossed into Austria and started to get peckish so I started searching Google maps for somewhere to stop. I picked the most unlikely place, a cafe on the side of a lake before Linz. We swerved off the motorway and down a long country lane and eventually found the turning. Down a gravel path, through a wood we found Badesee and besides it a small wooden hut. The large bearded Austrian proprietor seemed mildly surprised to see two British tourists but happily served us some Kassekrainer and Weiss beer for lunch.

The early afternoon was a slog down the Danube valley to Vienna. We would have loved to stop at the huge baroque Melk Abbey , perched on a bend above the Danube but sadly time did not allow for more than a glimpse through the trees. We zoomed passed Vienna and then crossed the Hungarian border just before Gyor. We then carried along the Danube to Budapest. I had picked a hotel in the North of Budapest which seemed like a good idea for parking but it turned out to be a mistake traffic wise. We had to go through the centre of town, over the Erzebet bridge and immediately got stuck in rush hour traffic.

Once we had changed we set off into the centre of town and walked around the area of the opera house to visit the Liszt Music Academy where Anna had studied piano. As has become all too typical, the temperature that summer night was sweltering, in the mid forties. We walked slowly from the Academy to our restaurant. This turned out to be fairly disappointing, we had picked something highly recommended but as a result it turned out to be full of noisy British tourists.

Tuesday, 25 July 2023
Rimetea, Alba, Romania
Centre of town
(Rimetea, Alba, Romania)

Again we set off early and headed to Szeged in the South of Hungary. I had been advised that the motorways in the centre of Romania were a lot better so, rather than go cross country from Budapest to Cluj, it was faster to go south and then north to reach Rimetea. We were going to be staying in a log cabin in the middle of the mountains so needed supplies. I had picked Timisoara as a place on our route with reasonable supermarkets to stock up on food. The southern plains of Hungary turned out to be very dull, hot and relentless so it was almost a relief when we crossed the border into a slightly greener Romania.

Across the border we found a brand new motorway, not what we had been expecting at all, and headed towards Arad. Unfortunately Timisoara  proved to be a long way off the motorway and it was not until about 1400 that we got to the supermarket. This proved to be very well stocked and we got everything we needed, including some great steaks. We then got back on the motorway around 1530 thinking we would make it to our cabin in a couple of hours.

This proved to be wishful thinking, somewhere around Margina the motorway ran out. The traffic ground to a standstill and we were stuck in a tailback waiting to crawl up a hill pass. This set us back at least an hour and whilst we were queueing the weather started to turn stormy. In the Mures valley on the other side of the pass the weather was very dark and overcast. We could see a thunderstorm to our right and raced to try and escape it. Our phones flashed up an extreme weather warning and we managed to make the turning up north without getting engulfed. We then raced up another road towards Turda to try and meet our friends who were waiting at the cabin to eat.

View of Piatra Secuiului from Restaurant
(Coltesti, Alba, Romania)

Our friends had flown to Cluj and spent the last couple of days there so had only a short hop to get to the cabin mid afternoon. Unlike us they did not escape the storms and even experienced a power cut waiting for us! We got there around 1930, dropped our cases and immediately headed into the centre on Rimetea to try and find some dinner. This proved wishful thinking because, even though it was now a nice sunny evening, everything was closed. We were forced to go one more village down the valley to Coltesti where there were rumours of an open restaurant.

This proved very fortunate as it had an excellent menu and a great location looking over open fields to Piatra Secuiului, a moderate peak whose cliff faces were rendered golden by the last rays of the sun. For dinner I had Hortobaygi, Hungarian chicken pancakes, which were very hearty. It was a really welcome end to what had been a challenging day.

Wednesday, 26 July 2023
Rimetea, Alba, Romania
Start of trek
(Cheile Turzii, Alba, Romania)

To complete our four day walk we were employing the tactic we had used in Greece in 2021. Several weeks beforehand I had contacted Dan, a friend of the cabin owner, who was a fireman and more usefully a taxi driver. He gave me a great price for driving us to/from the start and finish of each section. So all we had to do on day one was stumble out of bed, get our boots on and he was there waiting for us. We drove to Cheile Turzii , the Turda Gorge where Dan dropped us.

Cheile Turzii monastery
(Cheile Turzii, Alba, Romania)

Round the back of a small hostel we climbed up a path to the lip of the gorge and then veered off into the hills. Initially it was very relaxing, walking in the dappled shade of the woods. However it soon started to get humid and mosquitoes started to appear. I had taken some repellent which I doled out to everyone, but they were quite persistent and still managed to get in a couple of bites through clothes. We lost the trail where someone had inserted a quarry but with a bit of determination and blind faith managed to find it on the other aide. After a couple of hours we stumbled out into a clearing on a saddle between peaks and there found a monastery.

There were some builders and a very involved priest renovating the monastery. A lot of money has been injected into Romania's monasteries in recent years and Cheile Turzii monastery was no exception. We decided it was a great place to stop and have lunch and sat at the edge of some covered wall paintings. It had been spotting with rain but as soon as we opened our sandwiches the heavens also opened and we had to go deeper into the building. Suddenly there was an explosive crack of lightning and the bolt hit the ground just outside the monastery walls. I opened up a lightning strike app and indeed confirmed that we were in the heart of the storm. We were not going anywhere.

Cheile Turzii monastery frescoes
(Rimetea, Alba, Romania)

After about half an hour the storm broke and we were able to shuffle back into the forest. There was some concern in the group about the lightning making a sudden return so we revised our plan to go over one of the summits and tried to find a path through the forest. We eventually found a clear path going downhill and worked our way back to the Turda to Rimetea road. Almost at the bottom we found a hostel Cabana Buru and there stopped for a drink.

End of walk celebration
(Cabana Buru, Alba, Romania)

We found the purveyor of the Cabana Buru, a hilarious Romanian, who poured us some beers and incredibly large measures of wine. The wine was 20 Lek a glass, about 3 GBP, so very good value. Whilst the route technically involved us walking another 8km back to our cabin, I think once we stopped we had no intention, nor any energy, to go on. We called Dan and he was more than happy to drive from Turda to pick us up. We managed a second round whilst we took turns to wash our feet and boots with a hose at the side of the Cabana. When Dan's car pulled into the Cabana our spirits were thoroughly revived and we were looking forwards to dinner.

Barbecue at our cabin in the woods
(Rimetea, Alba, Romania)

Back at the cabin we all showered then Anna and I started making the dinner. We prepared the steaks we bought in Timisoara and Greg and I fired up the barbecue. The cabin also had a wood fired hot tub, so we got that started in a fit of pyromania. The steaks grilled beautifully and we had a fantastic dinner around the cabin's fire pit. Towards the end of the evening a couple of us tried the hot tub. Despite keeping the fire going for a few hours the water was luke warm. It was to be the last time we used it.

Thursday, 27 July 2023
Rimetea, Alba, Romania
Walking up from Coltesti
(Rimetea, Alba, Romania)

Day two of our walk did not require Dan to pick us up as we were to start from Rimetea itself. From the village square we took a path to the west towards the hills which separated Rimetea from the Jos valley. The climb up was very pleasant, a path through fields the way marked by an abundance of cornflowers. Turning back we had great views of Rimetea and Piatra Secuiului.

Red Admirals
(Cheile Plaiului, Alba, Romania)

That day we walked 18km through forests and across grassy plateaus. At the start it was very enjoyable, one highlight was stopping for a break on a slope where the grass almost consumed us. As the day wore on however everyone started to tire. We were very unamused by a huge clearing which some shepherds had fenced off and planted sheep dogs, requiring us to do a huge detour to skirt the edge. When we finally staggered out on the outskirts of Salciua de Jos we were ready to drop. We did not even make it into the centre of the village, we collapsed as soon as we met the road and summoned Dan to come and pick us up!

Path through the woods
(Cheile Plaiului, Alba, Romania)

It was fairly late in the afternoon when we got back to the cabin so we just about had time to get clean and dressed up for dinner. As well as a regular shower, the cabin had an outdoor one. It was fantastically luxurious washing with a view of the mountains and through careful coordination embarassing incidents were pretty much avoided. I think Anna and I also found time to go and fill up our waters bottles from a local spring.

Mountains above Town
(Salciua de Jos, Alba, Romania)

We had arranged to go back to the restaurant in Coltesti. We did try to find other restaurants but the ones in Rimetea seemed to cater mostly to the daytime crowd so we never found them open to book. The restaurant was enormously popular with wedding parties and there were two that night. The first bride had a load of photos taken in a huge pom-pom of a wedding dress and then changed into a track suit for the reception afterwards. Again it was a fabulous dinner outside as the sun set lighting up the Pietra.

Friday, 28 July 2023
Rimetea, Alba, Romania
Traditional thatched village house
(Cheia, Alba, Romania)

There was a bit of negotiation the previous night about where we would be dropped. We were meant to start from Salucuia but people were very tired from the previous days marathon so in the end we agreed on Bradesti which would cut out a third of the time. Dan turned up at the appointed hour and was happy to drop us there. As always on the way we quizzed Dan on Romanian life and this day we talked about gypsies. His concern was that all other Europeans know of Romania is their gypsies who, after inclusion in the EU, found it much more profitable to beg in other European capitals. In actuality gypsies make up only 8% of the population.

Start of gorge
(Ramet Gorge, Alba, Romania)

When we got there, Bradesti turned out to be a very cute village, on a ridge between two valleys. We found the path down to a river which we would follow all the way to the Ramet Gorge. This section was definitely the highlight of our walk. After making our way along the river for about an hour the path ran out and we were required to jump in the river. We of course knew about this and had all purchased waterproof walking sandals for the event. The first obstacle was perhaps the most exciting, a slide down a boulder into the river. Anna was not keen so went on a slight detour to meet us 50m later. After this the trail spent about half the time in the river and the other along the bank. It was very much an obstacle course in fantastic scenery.

Walking in river
(Ramet Gorge, Alba, Romania)

A lot of the time we were in a deep rock cut gorge and at places the river was, or could be, chest deep. At these points people had hammered iron hoops into the rock face. You could work your way along the rock face stepping from hoop to hoop whilst holding onto higher iron handholds or chains. As it happened the river was not that high when we were there so apart from one section they proved unnecessary. However at a later section, just for fun, I used them whilst the others stayed in the river. This proved to be a bit of an error as half way along the rock face one of the hoops was broken and, being 3m above deep water, I had no choice but to swing on the chain to get to the next full hoop.

Iron hoop and chain walk
(Ramet Gorge, Alba, Romania)

The last wonder of the gorge was a magnificent natural rock arch through which the river had cut its path. We walked over the top of the arch. However on the other side I explored and found that there was a knee deep route following pebble banks all the way through. We took a photo of me in the middle of the arch and then set off down the valley. At this point it is worth saying a bit about other walkers. We had hardly encountered a soul on the previous two days, but Ramet Gorge proved to be very popular. Entire families would start at Ramet monastery and work their way up the gorge. We ran into quite a few but most of them turned back well before Bradesti. Nevertheless it had been reassuring to have a bit of company given the extremely mild danger of the gorge.

Natural rock arch
(Ramet Gorge, Alba, Romania)

The rest of the walk was a relatively uneventful walk along the road to Ramet which was populated by wooden holiday cabins. It appeared to be the ambition of every urban Romanian to own a cabin in the woods and Ramet gorge was particularly blessed with the most ornate of these. After a while we got to the village of Ramet, where we had arranged for Dan to pick us up. The shop at the entrance of the village doubled up as a bar, a rather grumpy proprietor sold us bottles of beers from the shop and we sat down to enjoy the wait. Except it was not that relaxed, someone fired up a strimmer and decided it was time to clean the verge just outside the shop.

More acrobatics
(Ramet Gorge, Alba, Romania)

Yet again we went to Coltesti for dinner. By now we were regulars and we had worked our way through the menu. But we had worked up an appetite, it was excellent food and we really enjoyed ourselves. Perhaps too much because one of our party sprained their ankle when we got back to the cabin!

Saturday, 29 July 2023
Rimetea, Alba, Romania
Mountains above town
(Ramet, Alba, Romania)

The ankle had not mended over night so it was to be just Anna and I on the fourth and final section. Dan drove us to Ramet and dropped us off at the shop/bar where we got ourselves ready. From there we ascended a sunny track up into the mountains. A bit further on, between two villages, we had an incident with some dogs. A small collection of them were blocking the road, and although Dan had leant us a taser (!) Anna did not feel confident enough to go through them. So instead we did a detour into a field, which was a big error because soon brambles were ripping my legs to shreds. We circumnavigated the dogs but it cost us valuable time.

Piatra Cetii
(Ramet, Alba, Romania)

This was to become a theme of the day, we would get lost and then find ourselves in nettles or brambles and then lose more time battling our way through. One amusing episode was when we encountered a farmer walking through the middle of some woods. We asked him was it the way to the Pietra? He looked at us and started talking in Romanian, we tried to explain that we did not understand however he just continued looking at us as if we were mad. I am fairly sure what he was saying was "if you cannot speak Romanian then what are you doing in the mountains?"

In the second to last valley we had a lovely moment walking through some fields and being greeted by some villagers. They were building haystacks using pitchforks, it was truly a valley that time had forgotten. We worked our way up a slope on the other side but by this point we were very tired and late. We took the decision to make directly for the road to Intergalde skipping a section over a plateau. Even this was very tiring, a very long descent through a very dusty forest on tired knees.

Forest road, Piatra Cetii
(Ramet, Alba, Romania)

We had very sensibly rang ahead to tell Dan where we were coming out, and were very, very glad to find him waiting by the road just where the path popped out. He very kindly took us on a quick tour up the Intergalde Gorge, which was spectacular but not a patch on Ramet. We stopped by the side of the river and washed our very dirty legs!

We got back to find Greg and Fiona fully rested after a day of driving around. We then cooked dinner and settled in to enjoy our last night with them in the very cosy log cabin, as they were due to fly back from Cluj the next day.

Sunday, 30 July 2023
Rimetea, Alba, Romania

Just a rest day. We had walked quite a distance over the previous four days so it was nice to just chill out at the cabin and enjoy the sun and being in nature.

Monday, 31 July 2023
Sofia, Sofia, Bulgaria
Bend of the Danube
(Orsova, Mehedinti, Romania)

A driving day. We had to get to Greece and had chosen to break our journey in Sofia. It was a 400 miles drive and we would need to cross the Danube. The morning was spent on a fairly slow road South to the border. A lot of roads in Romania are one lane in either direction, so if you get stuck behind trucks it can take you a long time to find an appropriate place to overtake. We worked our way South through dense woods and after four hours found ourselves at Orsova  on a magnificent bend in the Danube.

Romanian-Bulgarian border
(Vidin, Vidin, Bulgaria)

Just beyond here we stopped at a Serbian restaurant with a terrace overlooking a very windy Danube. The food was predictably heavy so I opted for a very hearty soup. We then got back in the car and headed for the border. We crossed a bridge over the Danube into Bulgaria at Vidin. From there the speed limit lowered and the roads worsened considerably, it took us another 4 hours to cover the final 150 miles to Sofia. One amusing observation was the sheer numbers of traffic police lining the road, it seemed like speeding fines were big business in Bulgaria!

That night we had dinner in a restaurant in a very urbane suburb of Sofia which had been recommended by friends of a work colleague. It was fantastic and we really appreciated being back in a town.

Tuesday, 1 August 2023
Milies, Magnesia, Greece
View of Gulf at Sunset
(Milies, Magnesia, Greece)

The last hop for the outbound part of out trip was a relatively easy one. We got up relatively early and drove South in the opposite way to the solid tailback of the rush hour traffic and up into the mountains. Whilst quite a lot of Bulgaria has decent motorways the road from Sofia to the border is still very much under construction as the gorge gets very narrow in places so it will require a lot of tunnels to be bored. As a result there are stretches of the road which are literally a single lane going through arches of trees. Its quite enjoyable but very slow.

The Greek border was simple enough and pretty soon we were cutting through the Rhodope mountains on our way South to Thessaloniki. Here we stopped for a break and to buy some presents for our niece. Then it was back in the car and two hours down the new motorway to Volos. We had booked a room with a friend of the family who lets out most of the floors of their old family home in Milies , where we stayed for a few nights.

Thursday, 17 August 2023
Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Anna was staying a couple of weeks in Greece, but I had to get back to work. So I met her on the way back, flying to Brinidisi to meet her off the ferry from Greece. Early the next morning we set off to travel the length of Italy. We had booked to spend a couple of days walking in the Vosges. We had to break the journey somewhere between Brindisi and France so picked Bologna. The Italian motorways were as chaotic as ever, we stopped off at a few motorway services and Anna was quite amazed at the standard of the coffee. We got to Bologna at 1500.

I had high expectations of Bologna having heard it was the foodie capital of Italy. However my research counted for very little because by the time we got there all the fantastic food markets and shops were closed for the afternoon. We walked around exploring the University, tried out a very amusing whispering gallery and bought some clothes. The University was especially atmospheric, it is rumoured to be the oldest continuously operating one in the world, having been founded in 1088. We then found a wine bar and proceeded to people watch for an hour or so before we were due at our restaurant.

I suspect August is just the wrong month to go to Bologna as a lot of things are closed for the holidays, and this included our restaurant. Instead of their usual venue they had decamped to a garden behind a grand house on the outskirts of the old town. The setting was wonderful, the food however was a bit underwhelming. We had a good time however sitting on our candle lit tables on the lawn with the evening sky above us.

Friday, 18 August 2023
Xonrupt-Longemer, Vosges, France
Going up to the pass
(St Gotthard Pass, Ticino, Switzerland)

We got up relatively early and headed for Milan. Our plan was to head up through the lakes and through the St Gotthard tunnel and then race across Switzerland. It was a plan honed over many years of travel through the continent and motivated a lot by the fact that the St Gotthard is one of the few mountain tunnels which is free. The Mont Blanc tunnel for example is 35 EUR, it takes roughly the same time and arguably the scenery is better going through Switzerland. All of this is quite true unless a car catches fire in the tunnel, which is why when we got there we found a massive tail back. So instead we took the more leisurely pass.

Car at top
(St Gotthard Pass, Ticino, Switzerland)

The St Gotthard Pass  is incredibly scenic, it is very evocative of James Bond driving the switchbacks of the neighbouring Furka pass in his silver Aston Martin in Goldfinger. On the other side we stopped at a roadside chalet to take in the view, enjoy the sun with a beer and some hearty Swiss fare. We were very reluctant to leave, but we had to get on. Switzerland was as always very beautiful, especially zooming along the shores of Lake Lucerne. The traffic was pretty bad in places so it was slow going from Lucerne to Basel, not what you expect in Switzerland, but late afternoon we reached the French border.

We had never been to the Vosges and it turned out to be a revelation. From Basel we slowly climbed into the hills then more steeply to Le Markestein , one of the climbs on the Tour de France. From there we then drove for miles along a ridge in the setting sun, it was a beautiful route to our hotel. We were staying in Xonrupt-Longemer, a sort of suburb of Geradamer, right in the centre of the Vosges. We had a fantastic hotel, nestling in the woods overlooking the valley. After settling in we had a really nice dinner and then sat out on their terrace in the trees having after diner drinks. That night there was a minor invasion of flying ants, but the hotel had it all under control with huge lamps which trapped the insects.

Saturday, 19 August 2023
Xonrupt-Longemer, Vosges, France
Lac de Longemer
(Xonrupt-Longemer, Vosges, France)

We had a very genteel breakfast on the terrace looking out over the pine clad mountain slopes. It appeared that we were the only non-French people in the hotel and that added to the feeling that we had made a real find. We then set off into the hills for a walk. We did not have any map books but we had an app on my phone which we used to find a route up the hill opposite our hotel to get a view of Lac de Longemer from a small outcrop. From there we traversed round the hill to a point above Gerardmer and then went up and over to get back to our start point. It was a great walk and we got back to the hotel early afternoon.

Forest path
(Xonrupt-Longemer, Vosges, France)

The afternoon task was to stock up on as much French produce as we could. We found an insanely good cheese shop called Fromagerie Gerard in Le Tholy where we stocked up on various delights including the local speciality which was a type of Munster. Then we returned to Gerardmer to find a Cave des Vins and again were not disappointed. This was all on top of many litres of olive oil from Greece, we were in for a gourmet autumn.

That night we had organised an extra special treat, dinner at a restaurant called "A la Chaume de mon Pere" in Gerardmer. It was very understated, with tables out on the kerbside and a very casual vibe. Although it did not even have a Bib Gormande the food was incredible, as was the wine. It was the perfect end to our trip. The next morning we jumped into the car and drove a few hours to get to the channel tunnel and home!