Behind the Iron Curtain:

A drive round Eastern Europe before the wall came down,
Summer 1985

    Our route, 5,891 miles (9,425 km) from the UK back to the UK.

Sunday 4th August. 4:30am, 53,817 miles on the speedometer.

Drove to Dover, caught the ferry then drove to Frankfurt, stopping only for petrol and cream cakes at a motorway service area.

Mon 5th. Frankfurt, Hotel Splendid. 10:10am, 54,297 miles.

We went to the zoo and shopping in Frankfurt. Ate lots of sausages and drank beer.

Tues 6th. Frankfurt, 9:15am. 54,297 miles.

Drove to East Germany. Stopped in Eisenach for coffee and cake and a stroll round, and went up to Wartburg castle. Then on to Gera. East Germany is like a 'black and white' version of West Germany - looks similar but very drab.
Gera doorway  
 A doorway in Gera, East Germany.
Martin Luther's house  
 Martin Luther's house at Eisenach, East Germany.
Sanssouci palace Potsdam  
 In the grounds of Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, East Germany.

Weds 7th. Gera, Hotel Gera. 9:15am, 54,523m.

Had a little stroll round after breakfast then drove to Leipzig. We had a brief stop but there was not much to see and we couldn't find anywhere for a cup of coffee. Went on to Potsdam and found the Sanssouci palace very impressive. We tried to find West Berlin but couldn't find it because the East Germans don't signpost it. Drove right round Berlin and ended up going through Checkpoint Charlie.

Thurs 8th. West Berlin, Hotel Central. 10am, 54,729m.

Sightseeing and shopping in Berlin. We had to call out the AA breakdown service three times because the car kept conking out due to the East German petrol we had to put in it.  At one point we tried to leave, but the car broke down in 'no-mans-land' at Checkpoint Charlie.  The British troops manning the checkpoint came and pushed us back into the Western sector. 

Checkpoint Charlie
About to break down at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin.
West Berlin
West Berlin.

Fri 9th. West Berlin. 8:40am, 54,754m.

We had an extra day in Berlin sorting out the car and shopping. We had the car 'de-tuned' to cope with the awful petrol in the eastern bloc.

Sat 10th. West Berlin. 9:25am, 54,774m.

Had an excellent buffet breakfast of salami, ham, cheeses, etc, etc.

Went into the centre for a final dash round the shops, then drove to Poland. It took 1½ hours to cross from West Berlin into East Germany, then one hour to cross from East Germany into Poland, so we were a bit behind schedule. We decided to miss lunch, find somewhere to stay around Poznan and have a hearty dinner. Unfortunately all the hotels and rest-houses were full. We carried on until Kolo, by which time it was dark, we had very little petrol left and nowhere to stay. We asked a taxi driver what to do (in mime - he did not speak English) and he was very helpful - he took us to a 'private hotel' which was a private house down an unlit side street with permission to let rooms. It was very friendly and pleasant. Meanwhile the taxi driver took me to his house and sold me some petrol out of a can - he claimed it was 'super' grade but we shall see. There was also an Italian couple in a Land Rover at the 'hotel' - I wonder how they found it.

Sun 11th. Kolo, Poland, 8:15am. 55,094m.

We had to wake the householders up to pay the bill - obviously not early risers. The Italians had already gone - maybe they paid last night. Cost £7.50 for three of us.

We drove on towards Warsaw, and put some petrol in the car to try and dilute whatever was in the taxi driver's can. No sign of anywhere for breakfast, though.

Germany was very wooded with rolling hills - Poland is huge and flat and open, with scattered farming communities. There must have been a lot of rain because all the little streams are flooded and some of the fields look like rice paddies.

We arrived in Warsaw which was very pleasant, clean and tidy (Poznan seemed a bit grimy and closed-in). We had a sausage at a stall in a 'Sunday market' in the main square in front of the Palace of Culture, an enormous Empire-State-Building style edifice donated by the Russians. A lorry selling watermelons arrived and a huge queue formed.
Warsaw queues  
 A queue for tinned fish in the main square, Warsaw.

We found the accommodation bureau and arranged rooms at the flat of one of the ladies who worked there. Her husband spoke good English and was very friendly, he lent us a map, suggested places to visit and eat, etc. We visited Wilanov Palace, the Chopin Memorial and the old town. Had a nice meal in the vaults of the Crocodile restaurant, then strolled around the fortifications at dusk.
Wilanow palace  
 Wilanow Palace, outside Warsaw.
Warsaw market square  
 In the old market square, Warsaw.

Mon 12th. Warsaw, 9:15am. 55,220m.

We drove to Krakow. On the way, we read in a brochure that the trip to the salt mine leaves at 3pm on Mondays, then not till later in the week. We arrived in Krakow at 2pm and drove to the Orbis travel agent and booked the salt mine tour. It was very impressive, including an underground cathedral and underground tennis court!
Krakow salt mine  
 Sculptures inside the salt mines near Krakow.

We found accommodation in a not-quite-finished villa belonging to the daughter of a lady that an Australian on the salt mine tour was staying with. The daughter was studying in Vienna and probably not coming back. The villa had a finished bathroom, kitchen and living room, but the two upstairs floors weren't complete. There were grounds that could be nice but were very overgrown.

We went into town and had a nice meal at the restaurant in the Hotel Francuski, an old-fashioned hotel within the city walls.
Krakow cathedral  
 Krakow Cathedral.

Tues 13th. Krakow, 8:55am. 55,424m.

In the morning we had a walk round the old town - market square, castle hill, barbican, etc. In the afternoon we drove up into the mountains to Debnow wooden church and Niedzica castle, but we were too late for a boat ride down the rapids.

Weds 14th. Krakow, 8:25am. 55,603m.

We went to Auschwitz concentration camp which was pretty grim. We drove to Breslau/Wroclaw and on to Prague. We arrived late and had trouble finding a hotel because they were all full. One taxi driver said we would have to bribe the desk clerk to get a room, but eventually another one took us to a hotel with one room free. Too late to eat or drink, so to bed.

Thurs 15th. Prague, Czechoslovakia, Hotel Praha, 9:15am. 55,981m.

We gave the car a rest and got a tram into Prague and walked around the city. It was very hot and dusty but picturesque. We went to Wenceslas Square, shops, the Powder Tower, Old Market Square, Charles Bridge, Castle Hill, the Cathedral and Golden Street - whew!
Charles Bridge Prague  
 They went thataway.... Charles Bridge and Castle Hill, Prague.
Prague doorway  
 A doorway in Prague.

We went for an evening meal at the Praha restaurant at Expo 58. We watched dusk fall over the city and waited for the lights to come on but they didn't; Prague disappeared into darkness.

Fri 16th. Prague, 9:25am. 55,981m.

We spent the whole morning trying to get some engine oil. We had to queue for ages for coupons in a bank, then go to one of the only two shops in Prague that sell foreign motoring accessories, found that it was closed for lunch, queued until it opened, to find that they had almost sold out of oil, the only remaining ones were in the window and the assistant had to move a huge pile of tyres to get at them, and broke a glass window in the process.

Eventually we got going and went to Karlstein Castle. When we got there we were booked by the police for going up a road that was no-entry, unless you happen to live there or have some good reason for being there. Being a tourist wasn't a good enough reason.
Karlstein Castle  
 Karlstein Castle, up the unmarked one-way road.

We drove a long way round to Jihlava, found a nice hotel and had a super meal.

Sat 17th. Jihlava, Czechoslovakia, 9:30am. 56,140m.

We had a picturesque drive through little villages to Pernstein to see the castle. It was superb, just what a medieval castle should be like, with towering battlements, lots of corridors and stairs and odd-shaped rooms.
Pernstein Castle  
 Approaching Pernstein Castle......
Pernstein Castle  
 ... to see the stuffed birds and animals inside!

We drove on to Brno and stopped for lunch in a hotel by the cathedral. The whole city, the second largest in Czechoslovakia, seemed deserted. There was complete silence, no shops open, just a few people sitting quietly in the main square. This was a bustling Saturday afternoon in Brno! We had a Nescafé ice cream. We decided it would be a good idea to book the next hotel, because of all the problems finding somewhere to stay, so we booked one in Bratislava and drove there. We had a drive round the town then went to the Hotel Bratislava (which turned out to be miles outside town) and had a super meal and bottle of Slovak wine.

Sun 18th. Bratislava, 9:25. 56,340m.

We drove under the Iron Curtain and out into Austria - we're free! Drove to Vienna and found a hotel and a parking space and left the car for a couple of days. We wandered round Vienna in awe - the food! The cakes! The beer! The shops! There is such variety and such good quality, it's like coming up for a breath of air after the last two weeks. Vienna is also so clean, tidy and well-maintained after the Czech cities, but also very expensive.

We had lunch in Demel's, wandered around and had dinner at Greichenbeisel's, one of the oldest buildings in Vienna, which has been an inn since it was founded and survived sieges by the Turks, etc.

Mon 19th. Vienna, Austria, Hotel Post.

A day of shopping, eating and drinking as yesterday. Very pleasant and restful, but there are lots of American tourists.
Vienna street art  
 Street art in Vienna.

Tues 20th. Vienna, 8:20. 56,385m.

We drove to the Hungarian border and back under the Iron Curtain. Stopped briefly in Kôszeg, a very picturesque village, to change money, then on via Heviz to Lake Balaton, the largest and apparently most crowded thermal lake in Europe. We stopped at Revfûlôp on the lake and had a swim. We stayed at a 'zimmer' place that seemed to be someone's holiday home.

Weds 21st. Revfûlôp, Hungary, 9:30. 56,570m.

We drove further along Lake Balaton and found a very nice beach at Sajkod near Tihany. We sunbathed and swam for a while and bought bread, salami and marmalade for breakfast and ate it on the beach. Gradually the beach filled up until every square inch was occupied. There were lots of wind-surfers and little sailing boats out on the lake. We saw a watersnake. We had a look at Tihany which had a church on a hill and a nice view of the lake and small harbour, then drove to Budapest.

We had a bit of a sightseeing tour while trying to find the tourist information office. We booked private accommodation near the city centre, then had a couple of very potent black beers and a nice Chinese meal.

Thurs 22nd. Budapest, 10:15. 56,676m.

We spent the morning booking more accommodation because ours was fully booked tonight, and booking an evening meal at the Fisherman's Bastion. Had lunch at the Atrium Hyatt.

We went on a city tour and saw the main shopping street, the zoo, funfair, Heroes' Square with its very impressive monument with the seven chieftains of the Hungarian tribes, Vajdahunyad Castle, the other main shopping street, Elizabeth Bridge, the Citadel on Gellert Hill with superb views of the city but we didn't stop, then up to the castle district to see St Mattias Church and another walk along Fisherman's Bastion, then back over Margaret Bridge and past the parliament building.
Heroe's Square Budapest  
Parliament building Budapest  
Budapest - Heroes' Square (above) and Fisherman's Bastion (below).
Above and below - Two views of the Parliament Building, Budapest.
Fishermans Bastion Budapest  
Parliament Building Budapest  

We drove back to the Castle district yet again for a drink in a café and a super meal at the Fisherman's Bastion, while being serenaded by gypsies.
Fishermans Bastion Budapest  
 Being serenaded in the restaurant at Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest.

Fri 23rd. Budapest, 11:20. 56,693m.

We drove round the bend - the Danube Bend north of Budapest. We stopped at Szentendre, an old town, for a look around, then on along the road parallel with the Danube. Stopped for a very nice lunch at a csarda somewhere near Visegrad, and drove back via Esztergom.

In the evening we went on a goulash party tour, with nice food and impressive Hungarian music and dancing, but very touristy.

Sat 24th. Budapest, 8:30. 56,773m.

We drove through Eger to Szilvasverad, but couldn't find any Lippizana horses. Drove via a mountain road through Lillafured to Miskolc then Debrecen. We stayed at the Arany Bika (Golden Bull) Hotel, a 'grand hotel' style place in the centre of the town. We had a superb corner room overlooking the main square and main street. We lazed around, had a meal, baths, drank wine, etc.

Sun 25th. Debrecen, Hungary, 10:00. 56,982.

We drove to the Romanian border and into Romania. Suddenly we are in southern Europe; it's Ruritania, all romany type people, very rural and old-fashioned. We drove across a continuation of the Hungarian plain to Satu Mare and Baia Mare.

We went down a side road to Surdesti, where the church is the tallest wooden building in the world. It was lovely and peaceful, with occasional chickens wandering around. A lady with five kids and another on the way come and unlocked the church and let us look around. There were lovely carved woodwork and decorations inside. We drove on route 18 to Sigheta Maomatiei through a series of very pretty villages with carved wooden gates, pretty wooden houses and wells with long wooden cross-posts and plastic buckets. Because it was Sunday everyone was walking about in their Sunday best - the 'national costume', but for their own benefit not for the tourists. Everyone was very friendly and waved as we went past.
Surdesti Church  
 The wooden church at Surdesti, Romania.

We looked at both the hotels in Sigheta Maomatiei and found that standards are not quite what they have been in other places. We were given a whole separate restaurant to eat in because we couldn't stand the noise of the band. The only other restaurant in town was closed.

Mon 26th. Sigheta Maomatiei, Romania, 9:30. 57,205m

Outside the hotel was a street full of strange-looking people walking up and down, who all appeared to be gypsies and vagrants. We drove further up the road to see the Merry Cemetery, where every wooden gravestone has a scene from the person's life carved and painted on it, and many have photographs of the people buried there. We drove back, overlooking the valley that forms the border with Russia. There were several villages visible on the other side, but no roads leading that way!

We drove through villages, up and down mountains, through more villages to Moldovita, to see the painted monastery. The main church (18th century) is painted inside and out with biblical scenes, all very well preserved. It was beautifully quiet and peaceful and there was lovely cool clear water from the well. The only sound was from a strange ceremony when a nun made a circuit banging a sort of wobble-board with a hammer in quite an up-beat rhythm. We drove to Sucevita, a similar but larger monastery with quite a fortified outer wall and more tourists. Still very impressive. Drove to Suceava and investigated hotels.
Moldovita Monastery  
Sounding the Tawaca to scare the Vampires

In the painted monastery at Moldovita - 'Sounding the Tawaca' to scare away the vampires

The 'scale of virtues' on the wall of the painted monastery at Bucevita:
 Scale of Virtues Bucevita

Tues 27th. Suceava, Romania, 8:50. 57,417m.

We drove to Voronet to see another of the painted monasteries but this one was not still occupied and not so interesting, and also had scaffolding up as they were renovating the paintings. We drove over the Tihuta pass to Bistrita and had lunch at the Golden Crown Hotel, where the hero of the Dracula novel stayed. It was an excellent lunch and good value, the first really good meal we've had in Romania.
Farmhouse near Bistrita  
 A farmhouse in the Romanian countryside near Bistrita.
Road near Suceava  
Romanies on the road in Romania  
 Traffic on the road near Suceava....

Sunday in Transylvania  
 A busy Sunday in Transylvania.

We went on via Tirgu Mures to Sighisoira, a really superb place - very medieval, with cobbled streets smelling of cider and horse dung, with old overhanging buildings and the citadel overshadowing it all. We had another excellent meal with nice Romanian champagne, in the Dracula restaurant just beyond the arch of the citadel tower. Apparently Vlad Dracula lived in this house - is this a mixture of the Dracula legend and Vlad the Impaler, the most famous king of Transylvania?
 Four views of the wonderful medieval town of Sighisoira, Transylvania.

  Sighisoara Romania


Sighisoara clock tower  

Weds 28th. Sighisoira, Romania, 9:20. 57,634m.

We had another wander along the twisting cobbled streets and around the citadel, then drove on to Biertan, where there is a fortified church above the village. It has three lines of defence walls, which the Turks were not able to break down apparently, and several towers, etc, as well as the church itself. We saw the door to the church treasury which was built in 1515 and is fitted with the most amazing arrangement of complex locks, covering the whole inside of the door. This door was sent to various exhibitions around Europe in the early 1900s. We also went up the bell tower, a detached wooden building with superb views all around, but weren't allowed to ring the bells. We met an East German who was hitch-hiking around Romania and gave him a lift to Medias.

We drove on past the fortified churches of Ax and Arge to Sibiu and had a quick look around the squares on the top of the hill in the centre of town. Then we went on to Fagaras (another citadel) to Brasov and past a record petrol queue of over 2 kilometres. Because it is late in the month everyone has used up their petrol ration, and so they push their empty cars into the queue outside the filling station and leave them there until they get next month's coupons.
Romania queue for petrol  
An 'end of the month' petrol queue stretching into the distance near Medias.  The cars are abandoned by the filling station until the owners get next month's coupons.

We had a walk round the main square in Brasov, had some sort of sausages from a street stall, a beer at another stall with some tables under some arches, then a meal at a restaurant. For the first time in Romania we were shown a menu, but it was rather a shame that of the 40-odd dishes on the menu, including hors d'oeuvres, main courses, specialities and sweets, only two were currently available. This explains why nobody else has bothered to show us a menu! We had a very nice meal though, with Romanian champagne again, then a short walk round and an early night.

Thurs 29th. Brasov, Romania, 7:30. 57,801m.

We drove out to Harman and then to Prejmer, where there are fortified churches. Both were really impressive - huge outer defence walls, with the inside of the walls lined with little rooms where the whole village lived during times of siege, and presumably all their animals were crammed inside the fortifications too. In the middle was a picturesque church. In Harman the original wooden benches were still there, huge heavy carved pieces of wood neatly slotted together. We drove back through Brasov and towards Bran, passing another fortified church at Cristian.
Prejmer fortified church  
 In the fortified church at Prejmer, Transylvania.

Bran is the castle where they film the Dracula movies, although it seems the real Vlad Dracula did not stay there. Bran Castle guards the way from Wallachia to Transylvania and looks really impressive towering over the pass. The inside is impressive too, with lots of staircases, corridors and rooms with original-looking furniture, and balconies overlooking the well in the central courtyard. Beside the castle is a nice Village Museum (skansen) with cottages, a well, a fulling mill, etc.
Bran castle  
Bran castle  
 Bran Castle, a suitable setting for Dracula films... although Vad Dracula never lived here.  Inside Bran Castle. 

We drove towards Bucharest. On the way we stopped at a roadside well (these were every few hundred yards in every village) and let down the bucket to get some water to wash sticky sweets off Jamie's hands. Just as we reached the Bucharest city limit sign a downpour started - the first daytime rain since we left Frankfurt. We drove into the city centre and booked into the Lido Hotel. They have a swimming pool with a wave machine, but today the pool was empty for cleaning!

We went to try and find a restaurant. We tried the International but it was too 'internationalised'; tried the Hanul Manuc, which had superb surroundings and atmosphere, but too crowded and smoky. We trudged back getting soaked - there are no drains to take away the water and no street lights to show the puddles - and ate in the restaurant of our own hotel, where we had rubber steak and red champagne.

Fri 30th. Bucharest, 10am. 57,961m.

We went to the Hanul Manuc for a coffee before leaving Bucharest, and we liked it so much we decided to stay an extra day. It's like a caravanserai, with a rectangular building around a large central courtyard. In the courtyard are tables and chairs amongst the trees, as well as a well, chicken coop and 'covered wagon' shops, and all around the inside of the building are wooden balconies, staircases, etc. The top floor is hotel rooms and the ground and first floors are restaurants, bars, coffee bars, reception rooms, etc. We got a superb large corner room at the back overlooking the main vegetable market in Unirii Square, which was very bustling and oriental. We had a coffee on a balcony in the Hanul Manuc then went for a walk through the market. Afterwards we went for a ride on the metro then a walk back through the main streets of Bucharest. There's more in the shops here than in the provincial towns, but still nothing of quality.
Hanul Manuc Bucharest  
Hanul Manuc Bucharest  
 In the Hanul Manuc, Bucharest - having lunch on the balcony....

... and relaxing in room 113.

Bucharest Unirii market  
In the vegetable market in Unirii Square, Bucharest.
Bucharest market  
 Bucharest market

Back at the Hanul Manuc we had a beer, then a rest, then dinner on the balcony. During dinner we kept seeing people who were neither customers nor staff coming in and going into a door that led to the kitchens and nether regions, and coming out later with bars of chocolate. There was no chocolate to be had anywhere in Romania so we went to investigate. After going down long subterranean corridors past steamy kitchens we arrived at a queue of people at a small counter, behind which a woman had several large cartons of chocolate bars from China. People were buying them by the dozen and word was obviously spreading as more and more people were joining the queue. We bought one bar and it was very nice, so later when we had finished our meal we went back to buy another one, but in that short time they had completely sold out.

Sat 31st. Bucharest, 8:15. 57,962m.

Now seriously behind schedule (we were due home tomorrow), we were up early and away. We drove into Yugoslavia across a large dam across the Danube, and along a very picturesque road through gorges beside the Danube, except for one stretch where we were diverted along a really appalling road in the mountains. Arrived in Belgrade after dark.

Sun 1st Sept. Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 8:15. 58,341m.

We set off down the main road to Zagreb. It was full of Turkish guest-workers returning to Germany in their secondhand Mercedes, with the insides crammed with children and the roof-racks piled with sacks of chilies and peppers (the ones going back to Turkey were loaded up with stereos and electrical goods). One Ford Transit-type van even had a baby in a hammock suspended across the back. Lots of them were stopping on the hard shoulder of the motorway to spread out rugs and sit and have breakfast.

When the motorway turned into a narrow two-way road and all these interesting other vehicles turned into one huge crawling traffic jam, we decided to turn off and try to find a slightly longer but much prettier route. We finally rejoined all the other traffic near Maribor having had a much more pleasant and probably just as quick drive. We followed all the other traffic towards the Austrian border, but about five miles from the border the police had closed the road and were waving all traffic off a different way, presumably because the border post was jammed solid with cars. There was complete confusion with nobody sure which way to go, so we followed an Austrian who seemed to know what he was doing. He went off confidently down some tiny lanes and after a while we arrived at a little bridge across the river that divides Yugoslavia from Austria, and we were across into Austria within five minutes. We drove past Graz and stopped at a very nice guest house beyond Bruck.

Mon 2nd. Near Bruck, Austria, 8:10. 58,746m.

We drove to Munich and had a look round.

Tues 3rd. Munich, 8:50. 58,959m.

We drove to Frankfurt and had a sausage and a beer and another look round. In the evening we had a ricetable at an Indonesian restaurant.

Weds 4th. Frankfurt, 9:30. 59,202m.

We drove to Bonn and had lunch and a look round. Then we drove back to England, arriving at 11:30pm with 59,708 miles on the clock.

Total: four and a half weeks, eight countries, 5,891 miles (9,425 km).

If you would like to read about our other travels, click here: - earth