Having spent a short time in Slovakia in the early 2000s, I have had a hankering to return. My memory was of a beautiful country, unspoilt by many of the trappings of Western Europe (Starbucks, McDonalds etc), with wide open spaces and castles.
We crossed the border into Slovakia near Zakopane, taking the road less travelled and therefore a twisting road through stunning scenery, old castles and wooden churches. After another walk and lots of gawping at the mountains, we noticed an obvious change in the terrain from the High to the Low Tatras, the road conditions deteriorated and we soon saw some pretty abject poverty in the more remote towns.
These towns house the minority Romas (Romany gypsies) and bear a stark resemblance to favella shanty towns in South America. Rivers and streams choked with rubbish, houses in atrocious disrepair. When we stopped to update the satnav we started to draw a crowd, not necessarily unfriendly, but they were right up against the bus, staring and it was somewhat uncomfortable, as we knew these people in all probability had very little, scraping a living from hard manual jobs and our little bus probably seemed somewhat frivolous to them. Work in these areas is mostly mining, quarrying and lumber yard work.
Romas make up around 10% of the population, mostly living in state provided settlements in remote areas. They have faced oppression for years, with Roma children being sent to schools for the mentally ill and Roma women being subject to non-consensual sterilisation as recently as 2013! Attempts to resettle and integrate them have had mixed results, with new state provided homes, being stripped of anything of worth and reduced to husks within months, causing non-Roma Slovaks to feel somewhat aggrieved – old habits die hard when you’re poor. The majority white Slovaks (Hungarian Magyars) live mainly in the South and the money is more evident in this area. Roads and infrastructure is better, mobile phone coverage is better, towns are bigger and better provisioned – even Tescos!
Northern Slovakia is very beautiful though. Huge snow covered plains, massive rolling hills with the mountains as a backdrop and twisty roads, little more than tracks carving across the landscape – few if any motorways. TomTom counts many as being unpaved! But, this presents an issue to the winter camper, especially the cheapskates looking to wild camp (us).
- Apps like Park4Nite (P4N), Search4Sites etc are an invaluable resource, but inevitably only show sites which are compatible with motorhomes, in the better times of year and frankly have out of date or inaccurate info. Most of the “open all year” sites are not open in the winter. Water pipes and drains get frozen and therefore are deactivated or locked up. Showers are drained down and put to bed until warmer times return, saving on cleaning and heating bills. There are no ACSII sites in Slovakia this year either – pretty much all camp sites are shut.
- Snowploughs are great and do amazing work, but in countries like Slovakia, they only clear the main routes, leaving access to 🌲or picnic spots / lay-bys behind a 4ft wall of snow and up knee deep undefined snow trails. Even in a Syncro that’s a challenge. This is not so bad in Poland, Germany and Scandinavia, where they usually clear out many side roads and parking areas.
- Central Europe does a lot of logging in winter and many of the nature sites are rutted and boggy, full of felled trees and huge ruts from JCBs and Tatra logging trucks – not a place to stay and feel safe, not to mention the mud and the real risk of getting stuck.
So, as a result we have decided to move towards Austria via Bratislava and head into Slovenia.
We crossed into Austria by chain ferry over the River Morava (a tributary of the mighty Danube), entering wine country and finding sunshine and warm days. Wild camping is strictly illegal and police will actively move you on and may even fine you up to €5000, so we have elected to camp as cheaply as possible, using farms, stables and vineyards where we can. The fine weather has allowed us several lengthy and scenic walks, including amazing lookout tower views, to enjoy this glorious February weather, but snow isn’t far away and is forecast to return next week.
The van continues to work like a charm, although we have picked up an occasional single “crack” sound that I can feel through the steering when cornering on mountainous hairpins bends. So a bit of research and we found an excellent garage in Graz (Friekos_Garage) who specialise in “old timers” as they call classic cars and vans here, who diagnosed worn steering bushes and a fair bit of play. As I don’t have spare bushes in my spares pack up and they aren’t obtainable in reasonable time (Friday morning is never a great time to get a fault), they have taken as much play out of the bushes as possible by tightening up and for now it’s done the trick. 🤞🏻
Graz is a beautiful city that I’d commend to you, plus it’s the home of Puch/Steyr the genius behind the Syncro gear train and the legends that are Pinzgauer and Haflinger, plus some two wheeled nonsense. I was surprised to see an Aston Martin exhibited amongst the predictable field of Puch (Fiat) 500, BMW, G Wagens and Audis. The Syncro is a beauty but in typical Syncro style, it has a puddle of oil underneath to reassure us it still has oil!
Van stuff you need to remember:
- Unless you can afford to stay in campsites every night, you are never going to be properly clean. Not really clean and certainly not for long. As soon as you step out of the shower, you step onto floors that have had others walking on in dirty shoes. You learn to accept that washing you hair is a luxury, clean hair becomes something you savour and relish.
- Your clothes want to be dirty – as soon as you change you will brush against the van and pick up mud, dog hair or oil. There’s always something needing you to put a knee on the ground or reach over a muddy “thing”. If it goes on the floor of the van, it’s instantly filthy! Therefore you wear the same clothing for much longer, just changing close contact intimate items daily – although even storing dirty washing takes space! Launderettes are surprisingly hard to come by and in winter washing and in particular drying is a major challenge. There are a very few self service laundrettes at service stations, similar to the common Revolution ones in U.K. – called Rest & Break in Poland and only one we found in Slovakia at a site called Empark.
- When planning your clothing choices, think about storage and laundry before packing – that big cosy hoody is a bitch to clean and even worse to dry then store! Technical fleeces and base layers are the way ahead! Vac bags and a hand pump are brilliant for reducing wasted space, but with the bonus of keeping stuff clean, dry and mould free.
- You will learn every knock and rattle and be constantly chasing that elusive rattle that wasn’t there yesterday. You won’t have the spare, but at least by having spares you remove the chance of those items failing!
- You will shop for food much more often than you’d expect as a 50L (or even 80L in our case) fridge just doesn’t hold that much food (or beer). We added some baskets to ours which sit on the shelf and are a brilliant addition, making all the fridge space useable, removing the risk of fallouts and making stuff easier to find. The same goes for cupboard space – its spare pants or that extra bottle of wine! This means multi-buy bargains aren’t for you, nor are the large saver bags of pasta, crisps etc. We shop every 3 to 4 days, usually for milk or bread (crisps) as the main drivers. Shopping also takes a lot longer due to language and currency translation required.
- Your toilet fills up way faster than you expect (No.1s only, no 💩 though it’s been touch and (not) go sometimes!) and you constantly search for waste dumping, which isn’t as easy as you’d imagine – the same goes for grey waste. We don’t condone the draining of grey waste while driving on autobahns or into public drains. Recycling is widely encouraged, but it’s actually hard to find recycling bins for everything, meaning you have to carry it around until you do (spare tyre trash bag is a godsend for this). Cans are hard to recycle in Austria as on street recycling bins don’t seem to have anything for them, instead glass, paper and plastics only. It was plastics in Slovakia. Remember, sometimes you need to pay to dump waste and fill up water.
- Fuel is surprisingly expensive. Poland has been cheapest at around €1.35/l but Belgium, Germany, Slovakia and Austria are all more at around €1.62/l to €1.83/l. Also many filling stations are automated, some change to English as you insert your card, but not all and some want you to say how many € or litres you want before you commence filling. It can be tricky.
- Google translate has been invaluable, especially the Google “Glass” function which allows you to hold your phone over any written text and through your camera it translates it. It also has a conversation mode which uses the microphone to allow spoken translations in real time – brilliant! You will need either to be online (3G or wifi) or to download the languages you need to use offline beforehand.
- ACSII has been bugger all use so far, so I wouldn’t bother with it unless you are travelling much closer to either side of the peak season – it has very few all year sites. P4N is often wrong with reviews well out of date, descriptions being woefully wrong (like open all year!) and prices much higher than advertised (a big issue now that covid has led to a surge in motor homing). We have subscribed to the premium version (€10) which allows us to contact sites and check they’re actually open with services – obviously nature sites are still there and less fuss, notwithstanding snow / mud.
- With all the above, it becomes exhausting just trying to find places to sleep, get clean, get rid of waste and rubbish, walk the dog etc. It’s easy to lose sight of why we do this – to relax and explore! On the up side, we’ve hardly seen anyone else stupid enough to be doing this, so we usually have sites to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, we are 5 weeks in and still loving it, but it’s harder than we expected.
Next we drop into Slovenia and head towards Croatia. We’ve avoided Hungary due to their political position regarding Ukraine (my choice) and are detouring Romania, mainly due to the stray dogs problem and our increasingly reactive dog (a former Romanian stray himself).
Until next time!
2 thoughts on “Continuing around the Bloc! Slovakia & on to Austria”
Wow, sounds like you have had such an amazing adventure over the years! I’m not quite yet retired but when the time comes i have definitely been inspired by you guys!!
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It’s been great and when we’ve done our 90 days we will be off again, probably to Scandinavia. The blog is a little behind, but I’ll get it updated soon. If you subscribe, you’ll get notified when I add the next instalments. Good luck and retire as soon as you can, it’s great!