Tick three more countries off your list, kids
Can you fit Slovenia, Hungary, and Croatia into a short holiday? Yes, says Andy McSmith
Sunday 08 February 2009
My kids like to keep a tally of the number of countries they have visited. The idea is to notch up one for every year you have been alive, an ambition made more attainable by counting Britain as three, but still beyond their reach.
However, things started to look up as soon as we arrived in Ljubljana airport, and asked the man in the car hire office which countries were within driving distance. "Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia are OK," he said. "Bosnia – not so good."
Add Slovenia, where we picked up the car, and that's five – not bad, for one short holiday. Only, did we actually want to spend all 12 days driving from place to place when we have an attractive, but fixed, mobile home booked for 12 nights? We grown-ups didn't – so we scrubbed Italy and Austria. But Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary all in the space of a few days – that puts a bit of rarity value into any child's list of countries they have seen.
For Croatia, we just piled into the car, pointed it south and set off, thinking we would to find a beach somewhere on the east side of the Istrian peninsula, stopping off for lunch at the last café in Slovenia, where the sound of spoken English attracted curious looks from other customers.
Across the border, we took a wrong turning. I can't say why, but I am prepared to blame a white van driver who was speeding towards us on the wrong side of the road; but the result was that we found ourselves in Porec, on the west side of Istria. It was a great place for lying about in the sun followed by a cheap banquet at a pizza joint in the evening.
Hungary was different. We could have driven, but it would have meant hours of driving along featureless motorways, so we decided to risk a train journey through the mountains. The carriage turned out to be one of those old-fashioned ones with coaches divided into six-seat compartments joined by a corridor alongside. Since we happen to be a party of six, that was just perfect for us, until we reached a little town in Hungary where there was no track, because it was being upgraded.
We were bundled out of the train and on to a bus – at the cost of a good- quality coat accidentally left behind in the carriage, and never seen again. On the other hand, we had an interesting tour of small Hungarian villages before being made to leave the bus and board another train. This procedure was followed, in reverse, on the return journey.
One small inconvenience about this country hopping is exchanging currency. Cash is not a problem in Slovenia, which is the most prosperous of all the ex-communist states, and the first to join the euro. Hungary, by contrast, has one of the EU's weakest economies. Croatia hopes to join in 2011. There was one cashpoint at the Budapest station, and it was not working. If we had not found an exchange bureau that was open late, we would have had a big problem.
Oh, but Budapest! It was a crime to be there for only one full day. It is a city replete with history, and at least we made it a very full day. The oddest part of it was taking a bus out to the park where they have preserved choice examples of Stalinist architecture, including Stalin's massive bronze boots – the rest of Stalin having been ripped down and smashed during the 1956 revolution. The best of it, perhaps, was stumbling upon the labyrinth under Buda Castle, a series of natural caves below the city with curiosities such as a horse carved out of the stone and a fountain that spouts red wine.
But neither Hungary nor Croatia can match the natural beauty of Slovenia. We were based in a self-catering mobile home at the Keycamp site in Ljubljana where, if you are of a lazy disposition, you could spend a pleasant enough holiday without a car. You could take the bus to the supermarket and back to stock up, spend your day idling by the pool, work up an appetite by playing netball or table tennis, and use the bus again to go into town for the evening.
But without transport, you would deny yourself some dazzling sights, like the Postojna caves, which reputedly have drawn 31 million visitors since they were first opened as a tourist attraction in 1820. They are so vast that visitors are taken by train along the first three kilometres, into cathedral halls decorated by thousands of stalagmites and stalactites. Then there is Lake Bled, up in the mountains, one of the greatest beauty spots in Europe, where you can swim in water so clear that you see fish patrolling the bed.
There is an island in the lake which you reach by gondola, if you are lazy, or by hiring a rowing boat if you are half energetic, as we were. The seriously fit can swim to it.
On the island is the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption, where we were surprised to come upon a large, very smartly dressed wedding party, all speaking in scouse accents. Later, we shared an easyJet flight home with another wedding party. Twenty years ago, Bled was where Yugoslavia's communist elite took its summer break. Now, apparently, it the fashionable place for Catholics from the north of England to get hitched.
How to get there
Keycamp (0844 406 0319; keycamp.co.uk) offers a seven-night break for a family of two adults and up to four children, staying in a Villaclassic mobile home with decking at Keycamp's Ljubljana Resort, for a total of £423 accommodation only. This includes a 10 per cent early booking discount, which is available until 25 February. Transport can be arranged through Keycamp for a supplement.
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