Trip report - Hungary, Slovakia and south Poland plus Prague, Czech Republic

08th June 2017
Dates: 16th May to 7th June 2017

Destination: Hungary, Slovakia, south Poland and Prague, Czech Republic

Purpose of trip:

The purpose of my trip was to visit Hungary, Slovakia and southern Poland for wildlife watching, together with sightseeing in Budapest, Bratislava and Prague, the capital cities of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic respectively.

My one and only previous visit to Hungary was in the late 1970s .... when I was young! This first visit was part of a 3 week Interrail backpacking trip around Europe at a time when Hungary was a satellite state of the former Soviet Union and a member of the Warsaw Pact. This required a mandatory visa for entry and a very lengthy passport, visa and customs stop when the Vienna to Budapest train reached the border between Austria and Hungary. There was no such thing as Schengen Area freedom of movement in those days!


Map: Schengen Area

Much more recently, I undertook a wildlife watching trip to north east Poland in May 2013 but the extreme south of Poland was a new experience.

This trip also included my first visits to Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Hungary – background:



Hungary is a land-locked country situated in the Pannonian Basin or Carpathian Basin of central Europe. It covers and area of 35920 square miles and is bordered by 7 other countries: Slovakia to the north (the other part of my trip), Ukraine to the north east, Romania to the east, Serbia and Croatia to the south, Slovenia to the south east and Austria to the west. There are 19 administrative counties and Budapest is the capital and largest city.

Following centuries of successive habitation by Celts, Romans, West Slavs, Gepids and Avars, the foundation of Hungary was laid in the late 9th century by the Hungarian grand prince Árpád in the conquest of the Carpathian Basin. His great-grandson Stephen I ascended the throne in 1000 and converted the country to a Christian kingdom. By the 12th century, Hungary became a middle power within the Western world, reaching a golden age by the 15th century.

Following the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and about 150 years of partial Ottoman occupation (1541 to 1699), Hungary came under Habsburg rule and later formed the great power of the Austro–Hungarian Empire or Dual Monarchy together with Austria.

Hungary's current borders were established in 1920 by the Treaty of Trianon after World War I when the country lost 71% of its territory, 58% of its population and 32% of ethnic Hungarians.

Following the inter-war period, Hungary joined the Axis Powers in World War 2, suffering significant damage and casualties.

After World War 2, Hungary became a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union which contributed to the establishment of the Hungarian People's Republic spanning 4 decades from 1947 to 1989. The country gained widespread international attention with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet Union imposed policies. Though leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet Union control since its forces drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War 2.

The seminal opening of Hungary’s previously restricted border with Austria in 1989 was part of the Revolutions of 1989, a revolutionary wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in the end of communist rule in Hungary and in other central and eastern European countries.

On 23rd October 1989, Hungary again became a democratic parliamentary republic. It joined the European Union in May 2004 and has been part of the Schengen Area since December 2007. In addition, it is a member of the UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, the Council of Europe and the Visegrád Group of 4 central European states (including additionally the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia).

Hungary's geography has traditionally been defined by its two main waterways, the River Danube and the River Tisza. The common tripartite division of the country into 3 sections - Dunántúl ("beyond the Danube" .... Transdanubia), Tiszántúl ("beyond the Tisza") and Duna-Tisza köze ("between the Danube and Tisza") - is a reflection of this.

The Danube flows in a north to south direction through Budapest, the capital city, and the centre of present day Hungary and the entire country lies within its drainage basin.

Transdanubia, which stretches west from the centre of Hungary towards Austria, is a region of very varied landscapes. In the north west corner lies Hungary’s section of the large, shallow Lake Fertő which straddles the Hungary-Austria border and continues in to Austria as Lake Neusiedl. This is the largest endorheic lake in central Europe (an endorheic basin is a closed drainage basin that normally retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans but converges instead into lakes or swamps, permanent or seasonal, that equilibrate through evaporation). The wider landscape here is flat and dotted with grasslands, lakes and marshes known as the Little Hungarian Plain (Kisalföld) from its resemblance to the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) in the east. Lake Balaton and Lake Hévíz, the largest lake in central Europe and the largest thermal lake in the world respectively, are also situated in Transdanubia. The Transdanubian Mountains lie above Lake Balaton (Bakony) and to the north of Lake Velence (Vértes). In addition, the very eastern stretch of the Alps (Alpokalja) lies along the border with Austria and the highest point in Transdanubia, Írott-kő at 2894 feet, is situated here. South of Lake Balaton there are rolling hills set within wooded landscapes and in the west of Transdanubia there are flat areas of arable land, orchards and fishpond systems set in open landscapes. Vineyards are found throughout Transdanubia in both hilly and lowland areas.

The Duna-Tisza köze and Tiszántúl are characterised mainly by the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) which stretches across most of the eastern and south eastern areas of Hungary. This very flat region is the landscape for which Hungary is best known. Many parts of the Great Hungarian Plain are farmed in huge fields of maize, cereals and sunflowers but there are also many fishpond complexes with surrounding reedbeds. The River Tisza flows through the heart of the Great Hungarian Plain and in places this is lined with old floodplain woodlands. However, the dominant landscape of the Great Hungarian Plain is the puszta. This is a vast flat wilderness of lowland steppe grasslands and shrubs and sizeable expanses remain in the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks. Some areas of the puszta are flooded in spring and become large, temporary marshes.

The North Hungarian Mountains run from just north of Budapest eastwards towards the north east of Hungary. This is the northern and most mountainous part of Hungary and forms a geographical unity with the adjacent parts of Slovakia. It is a separate geomorphological area within the Western Carpathians. All of the ranges (Börzsöny, Cserhát, Aggtelek, Mátra, Bükk and Zemplén) are covered in forests, mainly deciduous but with some coniferous. The highest mountain is Kékes at 3,327 feet situated in the Mátra range.

Hungary has a long tradition of nature conservation and is a signatory to all the major international conservation agreements. There are 10 National Parks in Hungary, covering around 10% of the country’s area. These protect not only flora and fauna but also geological and cultural sites.


Map: National Parks of Hungary

In addition to the National Parks, Hungary has 35 Protected Landscape Areas and 145 Nature Reserves.

Hungary – primary target areas:



I undertook a route around Hungary from Budapest, the capital city and my arrival point in the country. My trip commenced with sites just to the south west of Budapest before moving south and then to the east and north, finally returning back to Budapest. The primary target areas for wildlife watching during my trip were:

Lake Velence:

Lake Velence is located around 30 miles south west of Budapest and it is the third largest lake in Hungary. It has a maximum length of 6.7 miles, a maximum width of 2.1 miles, a shore length of 17.7 miles, an area of 10 square miles and an average depth of 5 feet. Lake Velence is a popular holiday destination among Hungarians and activities include sailing and fishing. However, most of the south western end is covered in huge reedbeds and adjacent wet meadows and these areas provide the greatest wildlife interest.

Vértes Mountains and Csákvár marshes:

The Vértes Mountains are a mountain range located south west of Budapest. They are part of the Transdanubian Mountains situated between the Bakony Mountains and the Gerecse Mountains. The Vértes Mountains cover an area of around 120 square miles and the range is around 18.5 miles long and 7.5 miles wide. The average height is 1150 feet and the highest peaks are Nagy-Csákány (1598 feet), Körtvélyes (1575 feet) and Csóka-hegy (1572 feet). The Vértes Mountains are largely covered in deciduous woodland. The Csákvár marshes (Csákvári-rét) are a flat marshy wetland area situated to the east of the Vértes Mountains and just to the south of Csákvár.

Ócsa:

Ócsa is located 20 miles south of Budapest and it is designated as a Protected Landscape Area within the Danube-Ipoly National Park. It is a small reserve including marshland and wet woodland. It is the only natural habitat in an area of arable farming and other land use. Ócsa also includes a bird ringing station from which permits can be obtained to visit the reserve.

Kiskunság and Kiskunság National Park:



Kiskunság is a large flat plain situated to the south of Budapest and north of Szeged and located between the Danube and Tisza rivers. Several separate areas of land have been protected as the Kiskunság National Park (Kiskunsági Nemzeti Park) which was created in 1975 and has been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.

The Kiskunság National Park Management Centre is responsible for 444 square miles of protected area with 193 square miles of the total amount comprising the 7 separated areas of the National Park. Several landscape protection areas, nature conservation areas and other protected areas make up the remainder.

While most of the Kiskunság plain is now under intensive agriculture there remains good areas of deciduous woodland and excellent lakes, reedbeds, marshes and wet grassland as well as surviving area of puszta (grassland plains).

Visiting the Kiskunság National Park areas requires permission in advance from the visitor centre in Kecskemét. However, most of the birds of the area can be seen outside the protected areas and driving along the minor roads can be highly productive with suitable habitat worthy of investigation scattered over the farmland between the protected areas.

From a birding point of view one of the most interesting areas is located between the villages of Szabadszallas and Fulopszallas in the centre of the region.


Photo: Kiskunság National Park between Szabadszállás and Fülöpszállás

Lower River Tisza valley – Csaj-tó:

The Lower River Tisza valley is located to the north of Szeged. The area includes a number of fishpond complexes, including Csaj-tó to the south of the village of Csanytelek.

Hortobágy and Hortobágy National Park:



Hortobágy National Park (Hortobágy Nemzeti Park) is a national park in eastern Hungary. It is part of the vast Great Hungarian Plain which occupies southern and eastern Hungary, some parts of the eastern Slovakian lowlands, south west Ukraine, western Romania, northern Serbia and eastern Croatia.

Hortobágy National Park was designated as a national park in 1972 (the first in Hungary), and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It is Hungary's largest protected area. At the time of designation, the area of the National Park was 289 square miles but since then it has been extended to almost 315 square miles. Around 25% of its area has international protection under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The entire Hortobágy National Park is part of the Natura 2000 network of the European Union in which Special Protected Areas and Special Areas of Conservation have been designated in a way that they contain and encompass the area of the National Park including organically connected or separate grassland mosaic areas that are outside the National Park. The protection thus ensured by the Natura 2000 areas provides an appropriate basis for the establishment of a buffer zone.

A conservation management plan for the Hortobágy National Park was prepared in 1997.

Hortobágy National Park contains the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe and the second largest steppe area west of the Ural Mountains. It has outstanding natural features and maintains great biological diversity in respect of species and habitats. It is a unique example of the harmonious coexistence of people and nature based on the considerate use of the land.

A major part of the area of the Hortobágy National Park is formed by natural habitats, principally alkaline grasslands (puszta), meadows and the marshes lying between them. From the point of view of nature conservation, the artificial wetlands, which cover a much smaller area, are of considerable importance. These are the fish ponds created during the last century on the worst quality grazing lands and marshes.

The Hortobágy National Park is one of Europe’s greatest lowland birding areas containing nesting habitats and migration sites of European significance. The Hortobágyi-Halastó complex just to the west of Hortobágy village is arguably the best site to explore and contains waterbodies of various sizes from small fish ponds to huge lakes.

Over 340 bird species have been recorded in the Hortobágy National Park, of which over 150 species breed. For UK birders, it is particularly exciting since several “eastern” species can be found which are at the westernmost extent of their range. These are joined by a large number of temperate European and Mediterranean species. The symbol of the Hortobágy National Park is the Crane. One of the most spectacular sights is the autumn migration when tens of thousands of Cranes can be seen every October as they fly above the grasslands to their overnight roosting places.

For thousands of years the wild animals grazing on the grasslands of the Hortobágy National Park, the Aurochs and wild horses, were gradually replaced by domesticated animals. A large number of Long-haired Sheep and Hungarian Grey Cattle can now be found here. Less ancient species are the Mangalica Pig and the Nonius Horse.

In the Visitor Centre in Hortobágy village, visitors and tourists can get information and advice on what to see and what to do in the Hortobágy National Park and can also learn about its natural and cultural assets: its flora and fauna, the different natural phenomena, herdsmen’s traditions, craftsmen’s skills and local rare breeds. The Visitor Centre also sells the mandatory permits that are required to visit most of the protected areas.

The Hortobágy-halastavi Kisvasút is a narrow gauge railway which runs through Hortobágyi-Halastó. It was built and commissioned in 1915 for the purpose of transporting fish food from the silo in Hortobágyi-Halastó to the fish ponds and transporting freshly caught fish in the opposite direction. The track formerly had a length of 22 miles and was temporarily decommissioned in 1960. Since 2007, the railway has been used as a tourist train. The track now runs for just 3 miles and provides access to the northern end of Hortobágyi-Halastó. A one-way trip lasts 23 minutes.


Photo: Hortobágy National Park


Photo: Hortobágy National Park


Photo: Hortobágy National Park


Photo: Hortobágy National Park


Photo: Hortobágy National Park


Photo: Hortobágy National Park - Hortobágyi-Halastó narrow gauge railway


Photo: Hortobágy National Park - Hortobágyi-Halastó


Photo: Hortobágy National Park - Hortobágyi-Halastó

Lake Tisza:

Lake Tisza (Tisza-tó) is the largest artificial lake in Hungary. As part of the ongoing River Tisza flood control project, the Tisza Dam was built in 1973. Its filling was finished in the 1990s resulting in Lake Tisza which covers an area of 49 square miles. The lake is 17 miles in length and has a total shoreline of 50 miles. It has an average depth of 6 feet and a maximum depth of 56 feet and contains around 17 square miles of small islands. It sits at an elevation of 273 feet and drains a watershed that covers around 25000 square miles. Its main inflow and outflow is the River Tisza.

Following the reservoir's completion, Hungarians began to flock to the site for holidays since it compared favourably with the crowded and expensive Lake Balaton, the traditional holiday site. As a result, tourist infrastructure has been developed and it has been designated it an official tourism destination.

Lake Tisza can be divided into 3 parts. The best area for birding lies between Poroszló and Tiszafüred and north of Highway 33 and this is a bird reserve and part of the Hortobágy National Park. This protected area consists of floodplains, oxbows lakes, riverbeds, marsh meadows, wet grasslands, willow shrubberies, groves and marsh forests. The middle section is mainly designated for anglers but has some good birding areas. The southern section is the main tourism and water sports area.


Photo: Lake Tisza north east of Poroszló

”Little Hortobágy”:

The “Little Hortobágy“ (Borsod Mezőség) covers an area of 115 square miles and is located north west of the River Tisza. It is a protected area managed by the Bükk National Park which lies further to the north. The “Little Hortobágy“ is very similar to the larger Hortobágy area to the south east but it has much less strict visitor regulations and access can be more problematic unless the rough tracks crossing it are dry. The main habitats are alkaline grasslands (puszta) and arable fields with some small areas of woodland. The best area for birding is the rough track between the villages of Tiszabábolna and Szentistvan.


Photo: “Little Hortobágy“ between Tiszabábolna and Szentistvan

Bükk Mountains and Bükk National Park:



The Bükk Mountains (meaning Beech Mountains) are situated in north east Hungary and they are a southward projecting spur of the Western Carpathians. Much of the area is included in the Bükk National Park.

The Bükk Mountains comprise a forested highland area extending around 30 miles from the Tarna River in the west to the Sajó River in the east and around 20 miles from north to south. The central core of the Bükk Mountains is a 12.5 by 4.5 mile limestone plateau with a rim of white cliffs dominating the surrounding lower mountains. The Bükk Mountains, with a continuous tree cover for the most part, are one of the most rugged areas in Hungary.

Although Kékes, the highest point in Hungary at 3327 feet, is not situated in the Bükk Mountains but in the nearby Mátra Mountains, the average height of the Bükk Mountains, with more than 20 peaks higher than 2900 feet, exceeds that of the Mátra Mountains. The highest point in the Bükk Mountains is Szilvási-kő at 3143 feet.

There are 1115 known caves in the Bükk Mountains, including Bányász-barlang and István-lápa which are the deepest caves in Hungary.

Bükk National Park (Bükki Nemzeti Park) is a national park in the Bükk Mountains located to the north east of Eger and south west of Miskolc. It was established in 1976 as the third national park in Hungary and it is the country’s largest national park covering an area of 166 square miles. It is an area of low, rolling and mostly deciduous wooded hills and it has important geological features including various karst formations, particularly caves, swallow-holes and ravines.


Photo: Bükk National Park

Bodrogzug:

The River Bodrog flows in to the River Tisza at the famous wine town of Tokaj in north east Hungary. Just to the north and east, between the 2 rivers, lies a vast floodplain of wet meadows, ox-bow lakes, marshes, reedbeds and riverine forest and woodland. The landscape is unique in Hungary for being the only area that still experiences regular flooding, most notably in late April and early May.

Bodrogzug is part of the Tokaj-Bodrogzug Protected Landscape Area which was designated in August 1986 and comprises around 20 square miles. In 1989, the Tokaj-Bodrogzug Protected Landscape Area became a Ramsar wetland site of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Zemplén Mountains:

The Zemplén Mountains lie to the north of the towns of Szerencs and Tokaj in north east Hungary. They are an upland area of volcanic origin forming part of the Carpathian Mountains. The highest peak is Nagy-Milic at 2933 feet which is situated near the northernmost point of Hungary on the border with Slovakia. The Zemplén Mountains are surrounded by the flood plains of the Bodrog and Hernád rivers and are primarily covered in oak, beech, birch, ash and alder forest with conifer forest at higher levels. Orchards, vineyards and pastures occur in the valleys and on lower slopes.

The 110 square miles comprising the majority of the Zemplén Mountains became the Zemplén Protected Landscape Area in 1984.

The steep peaks of the Zemplén Mountains form the bases for many medieval stone castles.


Photo: Zemplén Mountains near Füzér

Aggtelek Karst and Aggtelek National Park:



Aggtelek Karst is a karst area in north Hungary which is especially well known for its abundance of caves. Many of these, plus some of those in the Slovak Karst National Park in neighbouring Slovakia, were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst) in 1995.

Aggtelek National Park (Aggteleki Nemzeti Park) was designated in 1985 and covers an area of 76.8 square miles. It is a hilly area with forested and more lightly wooded areas plus areas of meadows, pastures and dry scrub.

Hungary – getting there and leaving:

I flew from London Gatwick airport to Budapest Liszt Ferenc airport with Norwegian on 16th May 2017. The cost of the flight including baggage and taxes was £52.31. The schedule was as follows: depart 11:25 a.m. and arrive 2:45 p.m. (local time GMT+1). The flight departed and arrived on time.

I left Budapest for Bratislava in Slovakia on 27th May 2017 on the EC 280 ”Jan Jesenius” train. The cost of the train was £24.96 (first class), booked in advance via Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) but with the ticket collected from one of the ticket machines at Budapest Keleti, the main international and inter-city railway station in Budapest. The schedule was as follows: depart 5:25 a.m. and arrive 8:07 a.m.


Photo: Budapest Keleti station


Photo: Budapest to Bratislava train

Hungary – getting around:

At Budapest airport, I rented a Renault Megane for 10 days from Budget booked in advance. The cost of car rental was £187.56 reduced by cashback to £161.27.

The car proved to be very reliable and economical returning around 59 mpg with diesel at an equivalent of between £0.92 and £0.98 per litre compared with £1.18 per litre in the UK.

During my trip around Hungary, I drove 2467 km (1533 miles) and driving in Hungary proved to be an interesting experience! Other than the motorways (for which tolls are payable and which I rarely used), roads were generally in a poor or very poor condition with patched repairs, potholes and subsidence and driving on them required great care and attention to avoid damage to the rental car. In addition, many of the roads were very busy with a large number of lorries and driving standards were particularly poor with total ignorance of speed limits and dangerous overtaking very common.

It is very important to be aware that in Hungary, there is zero tolerance to driving after consuming any alcohol i.e. 0 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (compared with 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in England and Wales and 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in Scotland).

Hungary – itinerary:

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK.

16th May: outward flight to Budapest > pick up rental car at Budapest airport > Lake Velence and Dinnyes marshes > Vertes hills > Oroszlány

17th May: Oroszlány > Csakvar marshes > Fornapuszta > Ócsa > Kiskunság National Park (Bugyi to Kunpeszér) > Kecskemét

18th May: Kecskemét > Fülöpszállás > Dunatetétlen > Kecskemét > Csanytelek > Nádudvar > Hortobágy National Park > Hortobágy

19th May: Hortobágy > Hortobágy National Park

19th May: Hortobágy > Hortobágy National Park

20th May: Hortobágy > Hortobágy National Park > Tiszafüred > Lake Tisza > Tiszaszőlős

21st May: Tiszaszőlős > Ároktő > “Little Hortobágy” (Tiszabábolna to Szentistván) > Mezőkeresztes > Mezőcsát > Kisgyőr > Sály-Lator

22nd May: Sály-Lator > Bükk National Park (Sály-Lator to Bükkszentkereszt) > Kisgyőr > Mezőkeresztes > Szentistván > Négyes > Tiszababolna > “Little Hortobágy” (Tiszabábolna to Szentistván) > Mezőkeresztes > Sály-Lator

23rd May: Sály-Lator > Bükk National Park (Eger to Répáshuta) > Miskolc > Szerencs > Prügy > Tarcal > Tokaj > Bodrogzug (Bodrogkeresztúr > Bodrogkisfalud > Szegi > Szegilong > Olaszliszka > Vámosújfalu > Bodrogolaszi) > Tokaj

24th May: Tokaj > Bodrogzug (Bodrogkeresztúr > Bodrogkisfalud > Szegi > Szegilong > Olaszliszka > Vámosújfalu > Bodrogolaszi) > Zemplén Mountains (Sátoraljaújhely > Füzér > Füzérradvány > Kéked > Regéc > Óhuta > Boldogkőváralja > Tállya) > Aggtelek National Park (Tornanádaska > Bódvaszilas > Bódvarákó > Szögliget > Szin > Szinpetri > Jósvafő > Aggtelek) > Perkupa > Kazincbarcika

25th May: Kazincbarcika > Aggtelek National Park (Jósvafő to Bódvarákó) > Miskolc > Budapest > return rental car to Budapest airport > Budapest (see Budapest section below)

26th May: Budapest (see Budapest section below)

27th May: Budapest > Bratislava > Slovakia itinerary (see Slovakia section below)

Hungary – accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via booking.com (other than a direct e-mail booking with Farm Lator) who provided a cashback discount of 4% off the prices indicated below.

16th May – Oroszlány: Kata Panzió – HUF 11000 (£31.02) for 1 night


Photo: Kata Panzió, Oroszlány

Kata Panzio is located in Oroszlány, 48 miles to the west of Budapest in the central Transdanubia region of Hungary. I stayed for 1 night in a large modern studio flat with kitchen which was clean and comfortable. However, I had 2 issues with the accommodation. Firstly, I reserved the accommodation during 2016 via booking.com for £18 but when I arrived I was told that prices had increased for 2017. This was fair enough but I was also told that there was only one room remaining, the most expensive studio flat for £31, and I therefore, I paid nearly double my budgeted price. Secondly, whilst the accommodation was quiet overnight, the road outside became very noisy from before 5 a.m.

17th May – Kecskemét: Mediterrán Vendégház – HUF 9000 (£25.38) for 1 night


Photo: Mediterrán Vendégház, Kecskemét

Mediterrán Vendégház is located in the centre of the city of Kecskemét, 54 miles south east of Budapest in central Hungary and convenient for visiting Kiskunság National Park. I stayed for 1 night in a very large double room which was clean and comfortable. I received a friendly welcome and Mediterrán Vendégház was in a central location and within close walking distance to the excellent and highly recommended Kecskeméti Csárda, a 170 year old historic tavern. The only minor issue that I had was that there was extremely limited parking outside or within the accommodation grounds.

18th and 19th May – Hortobágy: Hortobágyi Kemencés – HUF 31700 (£89.83) for 2 nights


Photo: Hortobágyi Kemencés, Hortobágy

Hortobágyi Kemencés is located in the village of Hortobágy, 23 miles west of Debrecen in eastern Hungary and a central location to visit the amazing Hortobágy National Park. I stayed for 2 nights in a very large double room with kitchen which was clean and comfortable, albeit relatively expensive compared with other accommodation during my trip. The “boss” was very friendly and offered me 2 free cans of Hungarian beer on the first evening and pointed out the White Stork’s nest within the grounds of the accommodation (although the absent birds had “gone to eat” to quote him!). Hortobágyi Kemencés is within close walking distance to the excellent and highly recommended Hortobágy Csárda, a 300 year old travellers inn situated next to the historic Nine-holed Bridge (Kilenclyukú híd).

20th May – Tiszaszőlős: Falusi Patika - Tisza-tó Vendégház – HUF 11780 (£33.38) for 1 night


Photo: Falusi Patika - Tisza-tó Vendégház, Tiszaszőlős

Falusi Patika is located in the village of Tiszaszőlős, 22 miles west of Hortobágy and a convenient location after visiting Hortobágy National Park and for visiting Lake Tisza and onward to the “Little Hortobágy”. I stayed in a standard sized double room which was clean and comfortable and the accommodation complex set in a historical building from the 1850s provided excellent value for money. I received a very warm welcome from Tamás, a young Hungarian man with excellent English (although he claimed that his English was poor) which allowed for a lengthy and interesting discussion about Hungarian society and politics before, during and after Communism, including the politics of the current Viktor Orbán government. He also gave me a guided tour around the on-site Pálinka distillery, recommended the Lake Tisza seafood at Hotel Hableany, Tiszafured and arranged for an excellent breakfast at 6 a.m. to enable an early start the next day. Thank you Tamás .... it was great to meet you!

21st and 22nd May – Sály: Farm Lator – 70 euros (£59.09) for 2 nights


Photo: my bungalow at Farm Lator, Sály


Photo: Farm Lator, Sály


Photo: Farm Lator, Sály

Farm Lator is an eco-friendly farmhouse accommodation and campsite located in the tiny settlement of Lator 5 miles north of the village of Sály which is 26 miles east of Eger in north east Hungary. It is situated in the foothills of the Bükk Mountains and at the southern boundary of the Bükk National Park (a forest road starting just beyond Farm Lator requires a permit to access the Bükk National Park). Farm Lator is in an excellent location to visit these areas to the north and also “Little Hortobágy” to the south.

Farm Lator is run by a Dutch biologist, Rob de Jong, and his Hungarian wife, Barbara. This was the only accommodation during my trip which I booked directly by several e-mails with Rob. However, on arrival, I gained the impression that my booking had been overlooked (I may be wrong) since I did not stay on-site at Farm Lator but in a small bungalow adjacent to it and rented out by another owner. The bungalow was very basic in terms of its quality and facilities and relatively poor value for money compared with much cheaper and better quality accommodation during most of my trip. Furthermore, there was no TV (not really a problem) and a very poor and intermittent wi-fi signal. The latter made checking the weather forecast and UK general election news somewhat challenging and I only found out about the Manchester terrorist bomb attack some 24 hours after it occurred.

However, the meals, cooked by Barbara and eaten outside with other residents were excellent. There was a birding group from Sweden also staying at Farm Lator but I shared a table with Stefan and Katherine from Basel in Switzerland during my 2 night stay. Stefan was a keen moth trapper and introduced me to the contents of his overnight moth trap on the second morning before breakfast. This was extremely interesting and proved beyond any doubt that moths are not all boring, brown jobs! Katherine is a social democrat MP in the regional government in her country and we had an interesting discussion on European and UK politics whilst Stefan went off to set up his moth traps on the first night.

Although the accommodation that I was provided with was not particularly memorable, the grounds of Farm Lator and the surrounding areas within immediate and short walking distance were amazing for the abundance and diversity of birds, especially in the 2 hours or so following the “wall of noise” (the dawn chorus) which woke me up at before 5 a.m. each morning.

23rd May – Tokaj: Angéla Vendegház – HUF 8450 (£23.95) for 1 night


Photo: Angéla Vendegház, Tokaj

Angéla Vendegház is located in the famous wine town of Tokaj in north east Hungary and convenient for onward visits to the Bodrogzug floodplain area immediately outside the town and the Zemplén Mountains further to the north. I stayed for 1 night in a very large double room with kitchen which was clean and comfortable and provided exceptional value for money. The pre-arrival text messages and welcome that I received from Angéla were very friendly. The only issue that I had whilst staying in Tokaj was that after an unsuccessful attempt to see an Eagle Owl in one of the nearby quarries, all the restaurants were closed which therefore meant my evening meal was a few snacks that I managed to buy in the petrol station.

24th May – Kazincbarcika: Hotel Lukács Superior – HUF 10390 (£29.29) for 1 night


Photo: Hotel Lukács Superior, Kazincbarcika

Hotel Lukács Superior is located in Kazincbarcika, an industrial town 126 miles north east of Budapest in northern Hungary. Whilst there is no reason at all to visit the town itself, it is convenient for visits to the Aggtelek Karst and Aggtelek National Park to the north. The hotel is not situated in a particularly nice neighbourhood and I found it quite hard to find as it is set back some way from the main road. However, the location is quiet and secure and the hotel is large and modern. I stayed in a large double room which was clean and comfortable and provided excellent value for money. The on-site restaurant was very good and the room had a large HD digital TV which allowed me to watch the Europa Cup Final between Manchester United and Ajax Amsterdam (essential!).

My accommodation in Budapest on 25th and 26th May is detailed in the cities section of this trip report (see below).

Hungary – research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to other than a few variations.

Hungary has been visited by birders for some years and as a result there are a number of Internet trip reports provided by others, particularly in respect of the Hortobágy National Park.

In addition, I found the following books to be invaluable in terms of both pre-planning my itinerary and as guides whilst travelling in Hungary:

“Lonely Planet: Hungary”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a region by region basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information.



“Finding birds in Hungary” by Dave Gosney available from Easybirder. The Gosney book, as with all his publications, is available with an accompanying DVD.




“Crossbill guide: Hortobágy”: this book follows the usual Crossbill format and provides substantial information on landscapes and ecosystems, flora and fauna and walking and driving routes.



“Birding in Eastern Europe” by Gerald Gorman.



I also used Michelin regional map 732 covering Hungary in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.



Slovakia – background:



Slovakia is a small and long land-locked country situated in central Europe. It covers and area of 18859 square miles and is bordered by 5 other countries: Poland to the north (another part of my trip), the Czech Republic to the west (another part of my trip), Austria to the south west, Hungary to the south (another part of my trip) and Ukraine to the east. There are 8 regions named after their largest town or city and Bratislava is the capital and largest city.

The Slavs arrived in the territory of present-day Slovakia in the 5th and 6th centuries. In the 7th century, they played a significant role in the creation of Samo's Empire and in the 9th century established the Principality of Nitra. In the 10th century, the territory was integrated into the Kingdom of Hungary.

After World War 1 and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Slovaks and Czechs established Czechoslovakia. A separate Slovak Republic existed during World War 2 as a client state of Nazi Germany. After World War 2, Slovakia became a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union.

In November and December 1989, the Velvet Revolution ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Slovakia became an independent state on 1st January 1993 after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia, sometimes known as the Velvet Divorce. Slovakia has remained a close partner with the Czech Republic.

Slovakia joined the European Union in May 2004, the Schengen Area in December 2007 and the Eurozone in January 2009. In addition, it is a member of the UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, the Council of Europe and the Visegrád Group of 4 central European states (including additionally the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary).

Slovakia is predominantly a mountainous country although it has a lowland belt in the south along the River Danube and the easternmost parts are also largely flat. The landscapes vary with altitudes ranging from around 300 feet to Gerlachovský štít at 8711 feet, the highest peak in the High Tatras mountain range. Some upland landscapes such as those in the Slovenský raj are stunning and include impressive crags and gorges, sheer cliffs, steep forested ridges, stony scree, Alpine pastures and rushing stream valleys with rapids and waterfalls. At lower levels, landscapes include rolling hills, grassy meadows, hayfields and deciduous woodland dotted with quiet villages and old wooden churches. Arable land dominates lowland landscapes but almost everywhere these are complemented by areas where meandering rivers are lined with water meadows and floodplain woodlands.

Slovakia has a long tradition of nature conservation and there are 9 National Parks covering 3% of the country’s area.


Map: National Parks of Slovakia

In addition, there are 14 Protected Landscape Areas and numerous National Nature Reserves, Nature Reserves and other protected sites.

Slovakia – primary target areas:



I undertook a route around Slovakia from Bratislava, the capital city and my arrival point in the country. My trip commenced with sites to the immediate north of Bratislava before moving south and then to the north and east, finally returning back to Bratislava. The primary target areas for wildlife watching during my trip were:

Záhorie:

Záhorie is a region located in west Slovakia about 15 miles north of Bratislava and situated between the mountains of the Little Carpathians (Malé Karpaty) to the east and the River Morava River to the west. Although not an administrative region, it is one of the 21 official tourism regions in Slovakia. Záhorie also creates the borders between Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria.

Some parts of Záhorie are protected by Záhorie Protected Landscape Area, the first lowland Protected Landscape Area in Slovakia. It covers an area of 106 square miles and is divided into 2 separate parts, the western and north eastern areas.

The western part starts near the village of Kúty in the north, follows the borders between Slovakia and Austria alongside the River Morava and ends near Stupava in the south. The north eastern part is bordered by the Záhorie military district in the east and south.

The western part of the Protected Landscape Area is formed by the River Morava and it mainly consists of vast riparian zones and floodplains including meadows, marshes, peatbogs, ponds and lakes, reedbeds and riverine woodland. This area is well preserved because it had been a strictly prohibited border (the “Iron Curtain”) between eastern Europe and western Europe for 40 years after World War 2. It contains the largest water meadows in Slovakia and the riverine forests, mainly in Horný les and Dolný les, contain trees similar to the original old growth forests. The north eastern part contains an undulating plain of wind-blown sand deposited as dunes and coniferous forests.

The Malé Karpaty Protected Landscape Area, including the Little Carpathians, and the Biele Karpaty Protected Landscape Area, including the White Carpathians, are also partly situated in the Záhorie region.

Little Carpathians:

The Little Carpathians (Malé Karpaty) are a low and 60 miles long mountain range located in western Slovakia and covering the area from Bratislava to Nové Mesto nad Váhom. They are part of the Western Carpathian Mountains and are bordered by the Záhorie lowlands in the west and the Danubian lowlands in the east. The 3 highest points are Záruby at 2520 feet, Vysoká at 2474 feet and Vápenná at 2467 feet.

The Little Carpathians are largely covered in dense deciduous forest, in particular beech forest but also oak forests. In the foothills there are extensive vineyards, orchards and other agricultural landscapes. Several castles or castle ruins are situated in the Little Carpathians.

Some parts of the Little Carpathians are protected by the Little Carpathians Protected Landscape Area, designated in May 1976 and covering an area of 249.5 square miles.

Parížske marsh:

Parížske marsh (Parížske močiare) is a National Nature Reserve and Special Protection Area situated in the Danubian Lowland in south west Slovakia. It is a large wetland covering an area of around 2 square miles and comprising reedbeds and peat bog pools between the River Hron and the River Danube. Surrounding habitats include wet meadows with bushes and trees, fields, orchards and sand pits.


Photo:Parížske marsh

Low Tatras and Low Tatras National Park:



The Low Tatras (Nízke Tatry) are a mountain range of the Inner Western Carpathians situated in central Slovakia. They are located south of the High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) from which they are separated by the valleys of the River Váh River and River Poprad. The ridge runs west to east and is about 50 miles long.

The Čertovica pass divides the range into 2 parts. The highest peaks of the Low Tatras are located in its western part. Ďumbier is the highest mountain at 6703 feet. Its neighbour Chopok at 6640 feet is accessible by a chairlift and it is the most visited place in the Low Tatras. Other peaks in the western part include Dereše at 6575 feet and Chabenec at 6414 feet. The highest peak in the eastern part is Kráľova hoľa at 6385 feet.

The lower elevations are mostly blanketed in dense forest with prevailing coniferous forests in the northern part and mixed forests in the south. At higher elevations there are tarns, deep valleys, limestone cliffs and impressive granite formations.

Most of the Low Tatras are protected by the Low Tatras National Park (Národný Park Nízke Tatry). This comprises an area of 281 square miles and a buffer zone covering an area of 425 square miles. This makes it the largest National Park in Slovakia.

The protection of the Low Tatras started with the first attempts during the period 1918 to 1921 and continuing after World War 2. In 1963, a proposal was made for the establishment of a National Park under the name Central Slovakia National Park. During the period between 1965 and 1966 and right before the completion of the last proposal, a draft for a National Park Ďumbier was proposed. The aim of this draft was to include the north and south part of the central territory of the Low Tatras. From 1967 until 1968 the draft was reformulated with the goal to establish the National Park on the 25th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising.

However, it took another 10 years to overcome various obstacles that prevented the establishment of the National Park. In 1978 the National Park was finally created with the Regulation 119/1978 of the Slovak Socialistic Republic. The area of the national park was set at 313 square miles and its protection zone at 479 square miles. The status of the National Park was published in the same year by the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Socialistic Republic in Regulation 120/1978. This regulation set out the conditions for the protection of particular areas.

The borders of the National Park and the protection zones were revised in June 1997 by Regulation 182/1997 of the government of the Slovak Republic. The revised area of the National Park was adjusted to 281 square miles which is 32 square miles less than the original area. The revised area of the protection zones was adjusted to 425 square miles which is 53 square miles less than the original area.

Currently, the following protected areas are established in the Low Tatras National Park or its buffer zone: 10 National Nature Reserves, 10 Nature Reserves, 5 National Nature Monuments, 6 Nature Monuments and 1 Protected Site.

The Low Tatras are the second most visited mountains in Slovakia after the High Tatras. Tourism is very popular and during the winter there are several ski resorts such as Jasná and Tále. There are also a range of summer activities such as hiking, trekking, rafting, kayaking, fishing and other outdoor pursuits.


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras


Photo: Low Tatras

High Tatras and High Tatras National Park:



The High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry in Slovakia and Tatry Wysokie in Poland) are a mountain range along the border of northern Slovakia in the Prešov region and southern Poland in the Małopolska province. The High Tatras should not be confused with the Low Tatras which are located south of the High Tatras in Slovakia.

The High Tatras occupy an area of 303 square miles, of which about 236 square miles (77.7%) lie within Slovakia and about 68 square miles (22.3%) within Poland.

The High Tatras' length, measured in a straight line from the eastern foothills of the Kobylí vrch at 3638 feet to the south western foot of Ostrý vrch at 3700 feet, is 35 miles and strictly along the main ridge, 50 miles. The range is only 12 miles wide. The main ridge of the High Tatras runs from the Slovakian villages of Huty at the western end to the village of Ždiar at the eastern end.

The High Tatras, having 29 peaks over 8,200 feet are, with the Southern Carpathians, the only mountain range with an alpine character and habitats in the entire 750 mile length of the Carpathian Mountains system.

The 15 highest peaks of the High Tatras are all located in Slovakia with the highest peaks being Gerlachovský štít at 8711 feet, Gerlachovská veža at 8668 feet and Lomnický štít at 8638 feet. Other notable peaks include Kriváň and Rysy. Multiple surveys have ranked Kriváň (8168 feet) as Slovakia's most beautiful peak and it has also been a major symbol in Slovakian ethnic and national activism for the past 2 centuries. A country-wide vote in 2005 selected it to be one of the images on Slovakia's euro coins. Rysy lies on the border between Poland and Slovakia. It has 3 summits: the middle at 8212 feet, the north western at 8199 feet and the south eastern at 8114 feet. The north western summit is the highest point in Poland whilst the other 2 summits are in Slovakia. Since the accession of Poland and Slovakia to the Schengen Agreement in 2007, the border between the countries may be easily crossed at this point.

Two thirds of the High Tatras are covered with coniferous and deciduous forests. Alpine meadows, rocky terrain and habitats and extensively used pastures in the foothills occur in the non-forested areas.

The High Tatras are one of the most popular places in Slovakia with over 5 million people visiting each year to walk, climb, cycle, ski or snowboard. There are around 375 miles of hiking trails, chairlifts and cable cars, offering breathtaking views of alpine scenery.

The High Tatras are protected by law by the establishment of the Tatra National Park, Slovakia (Tatranský Národný Park) and the Tatra National Park, Poland (Tatrzański Park Narodowy), the first European cross-border national park. In 1992 the Polish and Slovakian national parks were jointly designated a trans-boundary Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Tatra National Park, Slovakia (Tatranský Národný Park) is one of the 9 national parks in Slovakia. It protects the Slovakian areas of the High Tatras mountain range in the Eastern Tatras (Východné Tatry) and areas of the Western Tatras (Západné Tatry). The western part of Tatra National Park is situated in the Žilina region and the eastern part in the Prešov region. Tatra National Park covers an area of 284.9 square miles and the surrounding buffer zone covers an area of 118.5 square miles. The highest peak in Slovakia, Gerlachovský štít at 8711 feet, is located within Tatra National Park. Tatra National Park was established in January 1949 and it is the oldest national park in Slovakia. In 1987, a section of the Western Tatras was added to the national park. Since 2004, the national park has been included in the Natura 2000 ecological network, the network of nature protection areas within the European Union.


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras


Photo: High Tatras

Slovak Paradise and Slovak Paradise National Park:



Slovak Paradise (Slovenský raj) is a mountain range in eastern Slovakia. It is a part of the Spiš-Gemer Karst, which in turn is a part of the Slovak Ore Mountains (Slovenské rudohorie), a major subdivision of the Western Carpathians. It is located between the towns of Spišská Nová Ves in the north and Dobšiná in the south.

Slovak Paradise is a plain with high plateaus between 2625 feet and 3280 feet. The highest peak is Ondrejisko at 4167 feet. The area is mainly formed of karst limestone and dolomite. The karst plateaus show phenomena such as sinkholes and limestone pavements. Other typical features are canyons, gorges and ravines which form picturesque rocky scenes with waterfalls which were created mainly by the Hnilec and Hornád rivers and their tributaries. 80% of the area is covered with spruce forests. There are more than 200 caves and underground abysses. Among the caves, Dobšinská ľadová jaskyňa (Dobšinská Ice Cave) and Medvedia jaskyňa (Bear Cave) are the best known.

Slovak Paradise is protected by Slovak Paradise National Park (Národný park Slovenský raj), one of the 9 national parks in Slovakia. It covers an area of 76.3 square miles with a surrounding buffer zone of 50 square miles. It is situated in the Banská Bystrica region, Prešov region and Košice Region. The highest peak is Predná hoľa at 5069 feet.

Slovak Paradise National Park includes 11 National Nature Reserves and 8 Nature Reserves and around 185 miles of hiking trails, often equipped with ladders, chains and bridges. It also contains about 350 caves but only the Dobšinská ľadová jaskyňa (Dobšinská Ice Cave), a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, is open to the public.

The first protected reserve in the area of the Slovak Paradise was founded in 1890. The name Slovenský raj first appeared in 1921 in the "Krásy Slovenska" magazine and replaced many names used until that period. In August 1964 the first Protected Landscape Area in Slovakia was established in Slovak Paradise. The area was redesignated as Slovak Paradise National Park in January 1988. Since 2004, parts of the national park have been included in the Natura 2000 ecological network, the network of nature protection areas within the European Union.

The best known tourist centres in Slovak Paradise National Park are Čingov, Podlesok, Dedinky and Kláštorisko.


Photo: Slovak Paradise


Photo: Slovak Paradise


Photo: Slovak Paradise

Slanské Hills:

The Slanské Hills (Slanské vrchy) are a range of mountains located in eastern Slovakia extending south east of the city of Prešov and forming part of the Inner Western Carpathians. They are approximately 31 miles long, 10 miles wide and average 2600 to 3300 feet in height, with the highest peak being Simonka 3583 feet. The southern section continues in to Hungary as the Zemplén Mountains.

The Slanské Hills are predominantly covered in beech forest, oak forest and mixed beech-oak forest with some maple forest in the highest areas. In the lower foothills, there are meadows, unused pastures and arable farmland.

Bukovské Mountains and Poloniny National Park:



The Bukovské Mountains (Bukovské vrchy) are a mountain range in north east Slovakia and form part of the ranges belonging to the Eastern Carpathians. They are located in the Prešov region near the borders with Poland (Bieszczady Mountains) and Ukraine and adjacent to the Laborec Highlands in Slovakia. The highest mountain is Kremenec at 4005 feet.

The Bukovské Mountains are characterised by 80% forest cover and contain the highest concentration of old growth forests in Slovakia. Beech forests dominate but there are also oak and hornbeam forests and maple and fir woods in combination with the beech forests. Meadows, known as poloniny in eastern Slovakian dialects, situated on the main ridges are common. Agricultural land is represented primarily by permanent grassy vegetation and in lesser extent by arable land.

The Bukovské Mountains were designated a Special Protection Area in January 2008 and they are additionally protected by the Poloniny National Park.

The Poloniny National Park (Národný park Poloniny) was created in October 1997 with a protected area of 115 square miles and a buffer zone of 42 square miles. The highest point of the national park lies at 3,963 feet at a point where the borders of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine meet near the summit of Kremenec. The national park is the easternmost and the least populated area of Slovakia but there are many winter (cross-country skiing) and summer hiking trails. Besides the several mountain trails, there is also one connecting outstanding wooden churches from the 18th century at Topoľa, Uličské Krivé and Ruský Potok.

The primeval beech forests of Havešová, Stužica and Rožok were designated within a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2007. Together with the Vihorlat Mountains further to the south in Slovakia and an additional 6 sites in Ukraine they form the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians.


Photo: Bukovské Mountains


Photo: Bukovské Mountains


Photo: Bukovské Mountains

Vihorlat Mountains and Morské oko:

The Vihorlat Mountains (Vihorlatské vrchy) are a volcanic mountain range in eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine. They form part of the Inner Eastern Carpathian Mountains. The Slovakian section is 34 miles long and up to 9 miles wide. The highest peak is Vihorlat at 3530 feet and the largest lake is Morské oko. It is a mountainous and mostly forested area with a predominance of beech and forests in addition to hornbeam, ash, maple and some conifers. Arable land and unused pastures and meadows can be found in the non-forested and foothill areas.

The middle part of the Vihorlat Mountains in the Humenné, Sobrance and Snina districts was designated as the Vihorlat Protected Landscape Area in December 1973 and they were also designated a Special Protection Area in April 2010. Kyjovský prales, a primeval beech forest in the Vihorlat Mountains, was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in June 2007.

Morské oko (literally Sea Eye) is the largest lake in the Vihorlat Mountains (Vihorlatské vrchy) in eastern Slovakia and the third largest natural lake in Slovakia after the Štrbské pleso lake and the Veľké Hincovo pleso lake in the High Tatras. It is situated at 2027 feet high with a maximum length of 0.47 miles and a maximum width of 0.19 miles. It covers an area of 0.05 square miles and has a maximum depth of 82 feet.

Morské oko has been designated as a wider National Nature Reserve covering 0.42 square miles since 1984 and it is part of the Vihorlat Protected Landscape Area within the Vihorlat Mountains. There is a walking trail around the lake but recreational activities such as fishing, swimming and boating are prohibited.

Morské oko contains many species of fish, of which the most numerous is the European Chub.


Photo: Morské oko


Photo: Morské oko


Photo: Morské oko


Photo: Morské oko


Photo: Morské oko


Photo: Morské oko

Zemplínska reservoir:

Zemplínska reservoir (Zemplínska šírava), sometimes called the "Slovak sea" (Slovenské more), is located in eastern Slovakia at the southern foothills of the Vihorlat Mountains near the town of Michalovce. It is a man-made reservoir and the largest waterbody in eastern Slovakia. The dam was built between 1961 and 1965 and the reservoir covers an area of 13 square miles, has an average depth of 31 feet and a maximum depth of 46 feet. Water from the dam flows into the River Laborec, which in turn flows into the River Bodrog. The northern and western shores are primarily used for recreation activities such as sailing and angling. However, the eastern and shallower part of the reservoir is protected as a nature reserve.

Latorica:



The Latorica Protected Landscape Area (Chránená krajinná oblasť Latorica) is the second lowland Protected Landscape Area to be designated in Slovakia. It is located in the Košice Region in south east Slovakia around the Slovakian part of the Latorica River (a river in the watershed of the Danube with its source in the mountains of the Ukrainian Carpathians) and around the lower parts of the River Ondava and the River Laborec.

The landscape consists of the system of riverbeds surrounded by alluvial riverine oak, ash, alder and birch forest, oxbow lakes, ponds, marshes, reedbeds, sandy banks, dyke-lined canals, pastures and hay meadows. Much of the surrounding floodplain is farmed.

The Latorica Protected Landscape Area was designated in 1990 and covers an area of 90 square miles. Part of the area was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 1993.


Photo: Latorica


Photo: Latorica


Photo: Latorica


Photo: Latorica

Slovak Karst and Slovak Karst National Park:



The Slovak Karst (Slovenský kras) is one of the mountain ranges of the Slovenské Rudohorie Mountains which are part of the Inner Western Carpathians. It is located in the Košice Region of southern Slovakia and forms a single limestone karst region with the Aggtelek National Park across the border in Hungary. It is the largest karstic area in central Europe, covering an area of almost 160 square miles. The highest peak is Jelení vrch at 3107 feet.

The Slovak Karst is composed of several layers of Mesozoic limestone and dolomite, beneath which there is non-permeable sandstone, limestone and slate. The huge plains and plateaus have many karst formations, such as karst pits with diameters of up to 820 feet and depths of about 150 feet, conical hills and blind valleys, and subterranean features such as deep vertical abysses and a large number of caves. The area also includes karst lakes, the largest of which is Jašteričie jazero (literally Lizard Lake). The area is characterised by rolling hills, limestone gorges, rocky plateaus, oak, hornbeam and beech forests, wet meadows, scrubby grasslands and stream valleys.

The activities that dominate the Slovak Karst region are mountain climbing, hiking, cycling, horse riding, winter cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities. Very well signed walking and cycling trails cover the area.

One of the most visited places is the Zádiel gorge (Zádielska tiesňava), a National Nature Resreve in the Slovak Karst National Park (Národný park Slovenský kras) where the Zádielska stream has gouged the mighty karst gorge. The Zadielska gorge is almost 2 miles long, between 985 and 1315 feet deep and the narrowest places in its bottom are only around 30 feet wide. A walking trail (Zádielska dolina) begins near the village of Zadiel and leads up the gorge surrounded by high rock cliffs, caves and waterfalls.

The Slovak Karst National Park (Národný park Slovenský kras) was established in March 2002, after being a Protected Landscape Area since 1973. The National Park covers an area of 134 square miles and its buffer zone covers 45 square miles. The Slovak Karst was also the first Slovakian UNESCO Biosphere Reserve when it was included in the UNESCO's Programme on Man and the Biosphere in March 1997. In addition, in 1995, 12 out of 700 caves in the Slovak Karst National Park were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst).


Slovak Karst


Slovak Karst


Slovak Karst

Slovakia – getting there and leaving:

I arrived in Bratislava from Budapest in Hungary on 27th May 2017 on the EC 280 ”Jan Jesenius” train. The cost of the train was £24.96 (first class), booked in advance via Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) but with the ticket collected from one of the ticket machines at Budapest Keleti, the main international and inter-city railway station in Budapest. The schedule was as follows: depart 5:25 a.m. and arrive 8:07 a.m.

On 29th May 2017 I left Slovakia and drove in to southern Poland via the border crossing at Lysá Poľana in the Tatra National Park.

I returned to Slovakia on 30th May 2017 via the border crossing between Niedzica and Spišská Stará Ves in the Pieniny National Park.


Photo: Slovakia-Poland border at Lysá Poľana


Photo: Slovakia-Poland border at Lysá Poľana

I left Bratislava for Prague in the Czech Republic on 5th June 2017 on the EC 282 ”Slovenská strela” train. The cost of the train was £20.55 (first class), booked in advance via Slovak Rail. The schedule was as follows: depart 6:10 a.m. and arrive 10:06 a.m.


Photo: Bratislava to Prague train


Photo: Bratislava to Prague train

Slovakia – getting around:

At Bratislava airport, I rented a Skodia Fabia for 8 days from Budget booked in advance. The cost of car rental was £86.70 reduced by cashback to £76.29.

The car proved to be very reliable and economical returning around 60 mpg with petrol at an equivalent of between £1.10 and £1.13 per litre in Slovakia and only £0.95 per litre in Poland compared with £1.17 per litre in the UK.

During my trip around Slovakia, I drove 2621 km (1628 miles) and driving in Slovakia proved to be a more relaxing experience than that in Hungary. Roads were generally in a much better condition and there was much less traffic other than in and around towns and cities. However, as in Hungary total ignorance of speed limits was very common.

I drove very carefully in full compliance with the speed limits except on one occasion where I was caught in a police radar trap for marginally exceeding the 60km speed limit. After the police inspected my passport, driving licence and documents relating to the rental car, I was awarded with a 10 euros on the spot fine as other cars passed by at a much greater speed than I was caught at!

It is very important to be aware that in Slovakia, there is zero tolerance to driving after consuming any alcohol i.e. 0 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (compared with 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in England and Wales and 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in Scotland).

Slovakia – itinerary:

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK.

27th May: Budapest > Bratislava > pick up rental car at Bratislava airport > Záhorie (Vysoká pri Morave > Jakubov) > Malé Karpaty (Jakubov > Malacky > Senica > Myjava > Piešťany > Trnava) > Pezinok > Podhájska

28th May: Podhájska > Parížske marsh (Nová Vieska > Gbelce) > Zvolen > Low Tatras (Tále)

29th May: Low Tatras (Tále > Srdiečko > Tále > Čertovica > Jasná > Chopok > High Tatras (Pribylina > Podbanské > Štrbské Pleso > Nový Smokovec > Starý Smokovec > Horný Smokovec > Tatranská Lomnica > Tatranská Kotlina > Ždiar > Tatranská Javorina > Lysá Poľana) > Ząb > southern Poland itinerary (see southern Poland section below)

30th May: southern Poland itinerary (see southern Poland section below) > Spišská Stará Ves > Spišské Hanušovce > Spišská Belá > Strážky > Kežmarok > Smižany

31st May: Smižany > Slovak Paradise (Čingov > Podlesok > Dobšinská ľadová jaskyňa > Dedinky) > Dobšiná > Spišská Nová Ves > Spišská Kapitula/Spišské Podhradie (Spiš castle) > Prešov > Slanské Hills (Sečovce > Trebišov) > Vranov nad Topľou

1st June: Vranov nad Topľou > Humenné > Snina < Bukovské Mountains > Vihorlat Mountains and Morské oko > Zemplinska reservoir (Jovsa > Kusín > Hnojné) > Michalovce > Vranov nad Topľou

2nd June: Vranov nad Topľou > Latorica (Brehov > Rad > Zatín > Boľ > Leles) > Turna nad Bodvou

3rd June: Turna nad Bodvouv> Zádiel > Slovak Karst > Bratislava

4th June: Bratislava (see Bratislava section below)

5th June: Bratislava > Prague (see Prague section below)

Slovakia – accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via booking.com who provided a cashback discount of 4% off the prices indicated below.

27th May – Podhájska: Penzión MAX – 24.49 euros (£21.39) for 1 night


Photo: Penzión MAX, Podhájska

Penzión MAX is located in the small village of Podhájska, 80 miles to the east of Bratislava and 33 miles from the River Danube and the border with Hungary. I stayed for 1 night in a very large studio apartment which was clean and comfortable and provided exceptional value for money. I received a warm and friendly welcome from the host albeit our respective lack of Slovakian and English made communication an interesting experience! The adjacent restaurant tied to the accommodation was excellent. One of the staff spoke good English and he was able to discuss and recommend local beers. In addition, the huge home made pizza and beers cost less than 10 euros!

28th May – Tále: Pension Kúria na Táloch – 30.50 euros (£26.63) for 1 night


Photo: Pension Kúria na Táloch, Tále

Pension Kúria na Táloch is located in Tále, 28 miles east of Banská Bystrica and 50 miles east of Poprad in central Slovakia. I stayed for 1 night in a standard sized double room which was clean and comfortable and provided good value for money. Although Pension Kúria na Táloch is a large establishment, it was almost empty but I would imagine that it would be much busier during the winter months during the height of the skiing season. However, for my purposes, it provided easy access to areas within the Low Tatras for birding. The on-site restaurant was very good and a large meal with beers cost only 13 euros.

30th May – Smižany: Penzión Mária – 26.60 euros (£23.23) for 1 night


Photo: Penzión Mária, Smižany

Penzión Mária is located in the small town of Smižany, 15 miles south east of Poprad in central eastern Slovakia. I stayed for 1 night in a large studio apartment which was clean and comfortable and provided exceptional value for money. I received a warm and friendly welcome from Mária, although again our respective lack of Slovakian and English made communication an interesting experience! At least the breakfast menu had photos to point at! Penzión Mária provided a good base for visiting the Slovak Paradise area the next day and Mária kindly gave me a detailed tourist map and pointed out the most scenic routes. Restaurant Wimbach, a small bar and restaurant, is within close walking distance of Penzión Mária and I had a very good meal there plus beers for just 11 euros.

31st May and 1st June – Vranov nad Topľou: Penzion Família – 80 euros (£70.05) for 2 nights


Photo: Penzion Família, Vranov nad Topľou

Penzion Família is located in the town of Vranov nad Topľou, 35 miles north west of Košice in eastern Slovakia. I stayed for 2 nights in a large double room. However, whilst Penzion Família is a large modern establishment, I had 2 issues with the accommodation. Firstly, although it was quite clear that I had arrived and wished to check in, I had to wait for probably around 15 minutes and when I was eventually dealt with there was some confusion over the booking, not helped at all by our respective lack of Slovakian and English. Secondly, the room that I stayed in, whilst clean and with a comfortable bed and huge bath, had no air conditioning which I found very surprising in such a modern hotel, not least compared with many of the other much smaller guest houses that I stayed at. With daytime temperatures of around 27°C to 29°C, this made my evening and overnight stay in the room an uncomfortable one, exacerbated by the fact that opening windows was not a solution due to the constant noise of passing traffic until past midnight and again from around 5 a.m. Penzion Família was one of the more expensive accommodation bookings of my trip and had these issues not occurred, I would have looked on the experience more favourably. However, Penzion Família did provide a good base for visiting the most easternmost parts of Slovakia close to the border with Ukraine and the food in the on-site restaurant was excellent.

2nd June – Turňa nad Bodvou: Penzión Réva – 25 euros (£21.88) for 1 night


Photo: Penzión Réva, Turna nad Bodvou

Penzión Réva is located in the small village of Turňa nad Bodvou, 22 miles west of Košice in eastern Slovakia. I stayed for 1 night in a small single room which was clean and comfortable and provided exceptional value for money plus a view across to the ruins of Turňa Castle on the 1230 feet high karst hill. The on-site bar and restaurant was very convenient and I had a very good meal there plus beers for just 12 euros. Penzión Réva provided a good base for visiting the nearby Zadielska valley and gorge in the Slovak Karst the next day.

My accommodation in Bratislava on 3rd and 4th June is detailed in the cities section of this trip report (see below).

Slovakia – research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to other than a few variations.

Slovakia has been and still is less visited by birders than Hungary and as a consequence there are substantially fewer Internet trip reports provided by others.

Unlike Hungary, there is no dedicated Lonely Planet guide to Slovakia but I did download the Slovakia chapter from “Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a region by region basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information.



I used the following book to gain some background on Slovakia birding sites and in the absence of any detailed site guide for Slovakia, I found additional information on sites via Google searches.

“Birding in Eastern Europe” by Gerald Gorman



I also used Michelin regional map 756 covering Slovakia in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.



Poland – background:



The establishment of a Polish state can be traced back to 966, when Mieszko I, ruler of a territory roughly co-extensive with that of present day Poland, converted to Christianity. The Kingdom of Poland was founded in 1025 and in 1569 it cemented a long-standing political association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by signing the Union of Lublin. This union formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th and 17th century Europe with a uniquely liberal political system which declared Europe's first constitution.

Following the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, Poland regained its independence in 1918 with the Treaty of Versailles. In September 1939, World War 2 started with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, followed by the Soviet Union invading Poland in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. More than 6 million of Poland's citizens died in the war.

After World War 2, the Polish People’s Republic was established as a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1989, most notably through the emergence of Solidarity, Poland established itself as a democratic republic. It joined the European Union in May 2004 and has been part of the Schengen Area since December 2007. In addition, it is a member of the UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, the Council of Europe and the Visegrád Group of 4 central European states (including additionally the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia).

Poland is mostly flat with around 90% comprising lowland habitats although high mountains occur along the southern border with Slovakia, most notably the High Tatras and Pieniny Mountains which were the areas that I visited on this trip to Poland.

Poland has a has a long tradition of nature conservation and there are 23 National Parks, including High Tatras National Park and Pieniny National Park which I visited, and many Landscape Parks and Nature Reserves. Some were created to protect particular habitats and species whilst others were created to conserve areas of outstanding natural beauty or because of their historical and cultural value.

Poland – primary target areas:



I spent less than 2 full days in the extreme south of Poland, specifically in Tatra County and Nowy Targ County in Lesser Poland (Małopolska) Province, the region just over the border from Slovakia. The primary target areas for wildlife watching during my trip were:

High Tatras and High Tatras National Park:



The High Tatras (Tatry Wysokie in Poland and Vysoké Tatry in Slovakia) are a mountain range along the border of southern Poland in the Małopolska province and northern Slovakia in the Prešov region.

For a general description of the High Tatras, see the Slovakia section above.

The High Tatras are protected by law by the establishment of the Tatra National Park, Poland (Tatrzański Park Narodowy) and the Tatra National Park, Slovakia (Tatranský Národný Park), the first European cross-border national park. In 1992 the Polish and Slovakian national parks were jointly designated a trans-boundary Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Tatra National Park, Poland (Tatrzański Park Narodowy) protects the Polish areas of the High Tatras mountain range and it is situated in the Małopolska province. Tatra National Park covers an area of 81.7 square miles, of which 58.6 square miles is forest and the remainder mainly meadows. Strictly protected zones account for 44.5 square miles, of which 23.7 square miles are forests. The first calls for protection of the Tatras came at the end of the 19th century and in 1925 the first efforts to create a national park, in co-operation with Slovakia, took place. Tatra National Park was created in 1954.


Photo: High Tatras

Pieniny Mountains and Pieniny National Park:



The Pieniny Mountains are a mountain range in the Małopolska province in the south of Poland and the Prešov region in the north of Slovakia. The range is divided in to 3 parts: Pieniny Spiskie and Pieniny Właściwe in Poland and Małe Pieniny in Poland and Slovakia.

The Pieniny mountains consist mainly of limestone and dolomite. The highest peak is Wysoka at 3445 feet but the most famous peak is Trzy Korony (Three Crowns), the summit of the Three Crowns Massif at 3222 feet. The massif is an independent but central portion of the Pieniny Mountains consisting of 5 sharp peaks. The summit of Trzy Korony is separated from the surrounding peaks by the Wyżni Łazek Pass which descends in to deep valleys with streams surrounded by forested slopes. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Pieniny Mountains and an observation deck hangs over a 1600 foot precipice with extensive views of the Dunajec River Gorge (Przełom Dunajca) and the vast area of the Pieniny National Park (Pieniński Park Narodowy) and the Tatra National Park (Tatrzański Park Narodowy).

Caves are few and rather small in the Pieniny Mountains but rivers and streams are often deeply indented in the rock, creating approximately 15 ravines and gorges. The most famous gorges of the Pieniny mountains are the Dunajec River Gorge (Przełom Dunajca) and the Homole Ravine (Wąwóz Homole).

The Dunajec River Gorge (Przełom Dunajca) forms the border between Poland and Slovakia. It is another popular tourist destination in the Pieniny Mountains and wooden raft trips have been organized daily by the Pieniny Gorals ethnic group since the early 19th century when their customers consisted mostly of guests of the nearby Czorsztyn Castle and Niedzica Castle. The trip begins in Sromowce Wyżne-Kąty and ends in Szczawnica, 5 miles downstream and taking 2 to 3 hours. The second leg of the trip is only 3 miles long. It begins in Szczawnica and ends in Krościenko nad Dunajcem. The Dunajec River Gorge makes 7 loops in its length and the surrounding rock cliffs reach 985 feet in height throughout most of its length.

The Dunajec River includes a chain of 13 medieval castles dating back to the early 12th century. Most of the castles are in ruin now and some no longer exist at all. The most well known are Czorsztyn Castle and Niedzica Castle, both located on Lake Czorsztyn (Jezioro Czorsztyńskie), a man-made reservoir in the Dunajec river valley.

Pieniny National Park (Pieniński Park Narodowy) is a protected area located in the heart of the Pieniny Mountains. It covers an area of 9.06 square miles, of which around 70% is forested. On the Slovakian side of the mountains there is a parallel national park (Pieninský národný park). The idea for the creation of Pieniny National Park arose in 1921 and in the same year a private preserve was created around the ruins of Czorsztyn Castle. In 1928 the Polish government made its first land purchases and in May 1932 a “National Park in the Pieniny” was created covering an area of 2.8 square miles. In 1954, Pieniny National Park was created.


Photo: Pieniny Mountains


Photo: Pieniny Mountains


Photo: Pieniny Mountains

Poland – getting there and leaving:

On 29th May 2017 I left Slovakia and drove in to southern Poland via the border crossing at Lysá Poľana in the Tatra National Park.

I returned to Slovakia on 30th May 2017 via the border crossing between Niedzica and Spišská Stará Ves in the Pieniny National Park.

Poland – getting around:

For travel within southern Poland, I used the rental car that I rented at Bratislava airport (see Slovakia section above).

Poland – itinerary:

29th May: High Tatras (Lysá Poľana > Ząb)

30th May: High Tatras (Ząb > Zakopane > Bukowina Tatrzańska > Białka Tatrzańska) > Pieniny Mountains (Czorsztyn > Krościenko> Szczawnica > Czorsztyn > Sromowce Wyżne > Sromowce Niżne > Niedzica) > Slovakia itinerary (see Slovakia section above)

Poland – accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via booking.com who provided a cashback discount of 4% off the price indicated below.

29th May – Ząb: Hotel Redyk – 100 złoty (£20.86) for 1 night


Photo: Hotel Redyk, Ząb

Hotel Redyk is located in the small village of Ząb, 3 miles north of Zakopane in the High Tatras. I stayed for 1 night in a double room which was clean and comfortable although unfortunately the room and balcony was at the front of the hotel and therefore did not have a view of the High Tatras. However, this was a beautiful hotel and provided exceptional value for money. I received a warm and friendly welcome from the girl on the reception desk and her excellent English allowed a discussion on my visit to north east Poland in May 2013. However, when I mentioned “Hungary”, where my current trip had started, she thought that I was “hungry” and told me how to find the restaurant! The on-site restaurant, which did have a view looking towards the High Tatras, was excellent with a meal and beers costing only 64 złoty (£13.34).

Poland – research and planning:

For my short detour in to southern Poland, I used the following book to gain some background on birding sites in the High Tatras and I found additional information on sites in both the High Tatras and the Pieniny Mountains via Google searches.

“Birding in Eastern Europe” by Gerald Gorman



I also used Michelin regional map 756 covering Slovakia, which fortunately covered the extreme south of Poland, in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.



Impressions, experiences and memories:

This trip provided a wealth of impressions, experiences and memories.

Hungary is a very varied country in terms of its scenery and landscapes and has a staggering diversity and abundance of wildlife in a wonderful mosaic of different habitats which appear in many respects to be unchanged and undamaged by human impacts in a very long time. There is a strong contrast between the very flat grasslands of the Great Hungarian Plain and the wooded and forested hills and mountains in the north. However, away from protected habitats and sites, there is a lot of empty agricultural land.

My particular highlight in Hungary, and indeed of the whole trip, was Hortobágy National Park and especially the Hortobágyi-Halastó fishponds area. I visited Hortobágyi-Halastó on the afternoon of 19th May 2017 and again the following morning of 20th May 2017. The abundance and diversity of birds was truly staggering and I do not think that I have visited a better site in Europe. An English birder that I met earlier in the week referred to Hortobágyi-Halastó as “Titchwell or Minsmere on steroids” which is a fully justifiable description. On 19th May 2017, I recorded 34 species on a very brief late afternoon visit. On 20th May 2017, I recorded 67 species in the 2 hours after dawn and a total 79 species for the site for the day, including Moustached Warbler as a “lifer” (see below). The following records undoubtedly under-estimate the number of birds seen both in terms of the number of species and individual species counts.

Trip list - Hortobágyi-Halastó

Slovakia is one of the most beautiful countries that I have visited in Europe with extensive woodlands and forests, meadows, limestone gorges and other features, pretty rural villages, old wooden churches and, most memorably, impressive mountains extending in to south Poland. However, wildlife was generally much harder to locate than in Hungary. There were no particular highlights in Slovakia other than that the country is so stunning to travel around!

My experience in Hungary and Slovakia reminded me of my trips to Poland, Estonia, north Greece and some parts of Spain and suggest how impoverished and degraded many UK habitats and landscapes have become in recent decades with a consequent adverse impact on wildlife.

Hungary, Slovakia and Poland were all exceptionally cheap to visit compared with the UK, whether that be accommodation costs, groceries and restaurant bills, petrol costs and car rental and other transport costs.

There are 2 non-wildlife related memories from my trip, namely the UK’s position in a pre-Brexit and post-Brexit Europe and the Roma communities in both Hungary and Slovakia.

With regard to the UK’s position in a pre-Brexit and post-Brexit Europe, this was my first trip to Europe since the EU membership referendum in June 2016.

I am a UK citizen but I am also a European. I voted “remain” in the referendum with no hesitation whatsoever, albeit the EU does require significant reform not least in the area of agricultural policy where significant damage has been done to many landscapes and habitats through the current CAP.

I had a number of discussions during my trip regarding the outcome of that referendum and the UK’s plans to leave the EU. Without exception, those that I spoke to failed to understand the UK’s ill-informed decision or the complete and utter confusion and incompetence of the UK government in implementing that decision.

I have travelled to many European countries in recent years and it seems to me that the identity of being “European” is very different for UK citizens and those of their European neighbours. The UK has not had the experience of most European nations and therefore maybe it is less committed to the joint European vision.

The UK is a lucky country. It was on the winning side in World War 1 and World War 2 and in the “Cold War”. Unlike virtually every other European, African and Asian state in the 20th century, the UK has never been invaded or occupied. Furthermore, it has never been subjugated under totalitarian fascist and communist dictatorships like much of western and eastern Europe.

On my travels around Europe, I have visited several sites and museums that throw this in to very sharp focus. These include a number of the World War 1 graves and cemeteries in France and Belgium including the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing near Zonnebeke in Belgium, the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres in Belgium, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke in Belgium, the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka in Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto in Warsaw in Poland, the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad in Saint Petersburg in Russia and the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn in Estonia and, on this particular trip, the House of Terror Museum in Budapest in Hungary, the ”Shoes on the Danube” memorial in Budapest in Hungary, the Slavín war memorial and cemetery in Bratislava in Slovakia, the Museum of Communism in Prague in the Czech Republic and the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague in the Czech Republic.

In my view, UK exceptionalism helps explain (amongst many other reasons) why 17.4 million voted to leave the EU. Countries with more tragic histories would never have taken such a reckless step of economic and social self-harm and seek some neo-Imperialist isolationist fantasy.

I sincerely hope that what ever the outcome of Brexit it will not place too many restrictions on my ability to travel to and around Europe.

Finally, a comment on the embarrassing spectacle of seeing the behaviour of some English people in Budapest, Bratislava and Prague. You do not have to appreciate the diversity of history, culture, art, music, food, environment and wildlife across Europe as I do but please at least respect the people and the countries that you visit and show some self-respect.

With regard to the Roma communities, I only had limited knowledge of them prior to this trip. However, having seen a number of Roma communities in north Hungary and Roma communities in north east Slovakia, it is appalling that slum shanty towns worthy of the Third World exist in the EU in modern times. I have never seen such poor quality housing that shows no evidence of safe construction or basic services. The communities are characterised by dreadful squalor and poverty and so many under-nourished people. Most of the communities appear to be located on the far outskirts of established villages and towns where they are quite obviously forgotten or neglected. From my subsequent reading, it seems that the Roma communities are subject to discrimination and little effort is made to integrate them in to wider society and improve their living conditions.

The people that I met during my trip were generally very friendly, particularly all the accommodation hosts.

Special mention, however, goes to ….

Tamás at Falusi Patika - Tisza-tó Vendégház in Tiszaszőlős in Hungary. Thank you Tamás for your hospitality during my stay, our interesting discussion about Hungarian society and politics before, during and after Communism and the guided tour around the on-site Pálinka distillery.

Stefan and Katherine from Basel in Switzerland who were fellow guests at Farm Lator near Sály in Hungary. Thank you Stefan for educating me on the wonders of moths and for showing me the contents of your overnight moth trap and thank you Katherine for our interesting discussions on European and UK politics (including the experience of direct participatory democracy in Switzerland and the self-inflicted harm that is Brexit) whilst Stefan went off to set up his moth traps. Thank you both for the friendly rivalry between our respective football clubs, FC Basel and Manchester United, and our recollections of the 2 Champions League games in 2011.

The 2 English birders that I met in the northern section of the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary with whom I shared the experience of a pair of Rollers and a Long-legged Buzzard plus a comparison of our sightings around other parts of Hungary.

Weather:

Generally, the weather was amazing!

During my 11 days in Hungary, I experienced warm/hot and sunny weather on every day although on both 23rd and 24th May there were thunderstorms with accompanying short spells of torrential rain. Daily maximum temperatures ranged from 21°C to 29°C.

During my 9 days in Slovakia and the short excursion in to south Poland, I continued to experience warm/hot and sunny weather other than 30th May when there was again a thunderstorm with accompanying torrential rain and 31st May which was almost entirely rainy. Daily maximum temperatures ranged from 25°C to 32°C, the highest temperature being in the city of Bratislava.

By the end of my trip, whilst in Prague in the Czech Republic, the temperature had dropped to a maximum of 18°C.

Wildlife highlights:

During my trip, I was able to record 143 species of birds in Hungary and 107 species of birds in Slovakia and south Poland with a whole trip total of 158 species.

My visits to the capital cities of Budapest, Bratislava and Prague were not primarily for wildlife watching but from memory I did see common birds such as House Sparrow, Starling, Blackbird, Robin, Chiffchaff, Swallow, House Martin, Swift, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Hooded Crow, Magpie, Jay, Mallard and Mute Swan. More notably, I saw White Stork (1) and Common Buzzard (2) in Budapest, Cormorant and Kestrel (3) in Bratislava, Black Redstart at Prague Castle and Sparrowhawk at Prague Airport.

Trip records - Hungary

Trip records - Slovakia and Poland

My trip total of 158 species of birds included 4 species that I had not seen before, 3 of which were targets when planning my trip.

The first “lifer” was Saker Falcon. This large falcon breeds from eastern Europe eastwards across Asia to China and is at the western extreme of its range in Hungary. I managed to see 2 adults and 2 juveniles at a nest site on 21st May 2017 in the “Little Hortobágy” in Hungary (along the track between Tiszabábolna and Szentistván and specifically where the electric pylons cross as recommended by Dave Gosney in his book). These were distant telescope views somewhat hindered by heat haze but nonetheless an exciting record for the trip.


Photo: Saker Falcon nest site (second pylon back) in the “Little Hortobágy”


Photo: Saker Falcon nest site (metal box on the left) in the “Little Hortobágy”

The second “lifer” was Eastern Imperial Eagle. This large eagle species which breeds from south eastern Europe to western and central Asia was formerly lumped with the Spanish Imperial Eagle which is found in Spain and Portugal and which I have seen several times in Andalucia in the former. However, the previously described Imperial Eagle is now split in to 2 separate species. I managed to see a single bird on 19th May 2017 soaring over Ohat north of the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary.

The third “lifer” was Moustached Warbler. This warbler breeds in southern Europe and southern temperate Asia with a few in north west Africa and it is a bird that I failed to see at several known sites on my trips to south Spain. I managed to see a single bird on 20th May 2017 close to the terminus station of the Hortobágyi-Halastó narrow gauge railway in Hortobágy National Park.


Photo: Moustached Warbler site near the terminus station of the Hortobágyi-Halastó narrow gauge railway

The fourth “lifer” was Grey-headed Woodpecker. This woodpecker species is found in wide parts of central, northern and eastern Europe as well as a wide belt south of the boreal coniferous forests across Asia all the way to the Pacific coast and Japan. However, it is a species that I have failed to see on several European trips and I was therefore very pleased to at last record it and finally complete the set of Europe’s 10 woodpecker species. I managed to see 2 separate birds, the first on 31st May 2017 between Smižany and Čingov in the Slovenský raj National Park in Slovakia and the second on 1st June 2017 in the Bukovské Mountains area of the Poloniny National Park in Slovakia.

These 4 species took my European list to 447.

In addition, I saw several notable species i.e. birds seen before either as (a) a single UK vagrant or (b) on a few occasions in the UK or elsewhere in Europe:

In Hungary, these 43 species were as follows ….

Red-crested Pochard

Ferruginous Duck

Common Quail (heard only)

Black Stork

White Stork

Glossy Ibis

Little Bittern

Black-crowned Night Heron

Squacco Heron

Purple Heron

Great White Egret

Pygmy Cormorant

Short-toed Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Montagu’s Harrier

Long-legged Buzzard

Common Crane

Black-winged Stilt

Collared Pratincole

Yellow-legged Gull

Whiskered Tern

European Roller

European Bee-eater

Eurasian Hoopoe

Eurasian Wryneck

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Red-footed Falcon

Red-backed Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike

Eurasian Golden Oriole

Eurasian Penduline Tit

Crested Lark

Great Reed Warbler

Marsh Warbler

Icterine Warbler

Eurasian River Warbler

Savi’s Warbler

Barred Warbler (heard only)

Bluethroat

Collared Flycatcher

Western (Blue-headed) Wagtail

White Wagtail

European Serin

In Slovakia and Poland, these 29 species were as follows ….

Hazel Grouse

Common Quail (heard only)

Black Stork

White Stork

Purple Heron

Great White Egret

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Yellow-legged Gull

European Bee-eater

Eurasian Wryneck

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker

White-backed Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker

Red-backed Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike

Eurasian Golden Oriole

Eurasian Penduline Tit

Crested Lark

Great Reed Warbler

Marsh Warbler

Icterine Warbler

Eurasian River Warbler

Barred Warbler (heard only)

Red-breasted Flycatcher (heard only)

Western (Blue-headed) Wagtail

White Wagtail

European Serin

Here is a summary of the bird highlights from my trip.

Geese: The only goose species recorded was Greylag Goose with a huge flock at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary being the only notable sighting.

Swans; The only swan species recorded was Mute Swan with small groups at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary.

Ducks: I recorded 10 species of ducks, particularly in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and most notably small numbers of Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard and Garganey.

Grouse: The only grouse species recorded was Hazel Grouse with a single bird of this very elusive species seen near Dedinky in the Slovenský raj National Park in Slovakia.

Quail: I recorded 8 birds, split equally between Hungary and Slovakia Frustratingly, but not surprisingly, all were “heard only” records of this difficult to see species.

Grebes: I saw 2 Black-necked Grebes in their stunning summer plumage at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary.

Storks: I recorded 9 Black Storks (5 in Hungary, 3 in Slovakia and 1 in Poland at various sites) and approximately 435 White Storks (215 in Hungary, 118 in Slovakia and 2 in Poland at various sites).

Glossy Ibis: I recorded a single bird at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary.

Herons and egrets: I recorded 6 species of heron, namely Great Bittern (1 heard), Little Bittern (1 heard and 2 seen), Black-crowned Night Heron (40), Squacco Heron (c.20), Grey Heron (c.225) and Purple Heron (12). The vast majority of sightings were in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary, in particular at Hortobágyi-Halastó. Only Grey Heron and Purple Heron were seen in Slovakia. I recorded 2 species of egret during my trip, namely Little Egret (c.35) and Great White Egret (c.370). Both species were seen in Slovakia but again the vast majority of sightings were in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary, in particular at Hortobágyi-Halastó. Hortobágyi-Halastó was most definitely “heron central”!

Eurasian Spoonbill: I recorded c.115 Spoonbills, all in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and in particular at Hortobágyi-Halastó.

Cormorants: I recorded both Great Cormorant and Pygmy Cormorant but the latter was more common with c.45 seen, all in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and in particular at Hortobágyi-Halastó.

Birds of prey: I recorded 14 species of birds of prey, most notably the 2 “lifers” (see above): Eastern Imperial Eagle (1 at Ohat north of the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary) and Saker Falcon (2 adults and 2 juveniles at a nest site in the “Little Hortobágy” in Hungary). The other notable sightings were Short-toed Eagle (1 near Sály in the foothills of the Bükk Mountains in Hungary), Lesser Spotted Eagle (1 over Farm Lator in the Bükk Mountains in Hungary and 1 near Zvolen in Slovakia), Long-legged Buzzard (1 in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary), Red-footed Falcon (11 in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and 1 near Mezőcsát in Hungary), White-tailed Eagle (2 at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and 1 near Sály in the foothills of the Bükk Mountains in Hungary) and Montagu’s Harrier (1 at an unrecorded location in north Hungary). Amongst the more familiar species recorded were Red Kite (1 at Jakubov in Slovakia), Eurasian Hobby (2 in the “Little Hortobágy” in Hungary), Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2 in Hungary and 1 in Slovakia), Western Marsh Harrier (74 in Hungary and 26 in Slovakia), Common Buzzard (66 in Hungary and 53 in Slovakia) and Common Kestrel (46 in Hungary and 11 in Slovakia).

Rails: I recorded both Common Moorhen and Eurasian Coot but both were surprisingly uncommon given the number of wetland areas visited. The most notable rail species recorded was Corncrake with a single bird heard only (obviously!) in the Latorica flood plain area of Slovakia).

Waders: I recorded 10 species of waders, mostly in small numbers other than the huge flock of Dunlin at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary. The most notable sightings were Common Crane (49 at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary), Black-winged Stilt (c.35 at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary) and Collared Pratincole (1 in Kiskunság National Park in Hungary and 1 at Polgar fishponds in Hungary).

Gulls and terns: I recorded both Yellow-legged Gull and Black-headed Gull but both were surprisingly uncommon given the number of wetland areas visited. In addition to just 5 Common Terns, c.130 Whiskered Terns and c.10 Black Terns at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary were notable.

Pigeons and doves: Woodpigeon and Collared Dove were commonly seen but the abundance of Turtle Dove (25 seen and 9 heard in Hungary and 8 seen and 4 heard in Slovakia) compared with the UK was notable.

Common Cuckoo: Like Turtle Dove, the abundance of Common Cuckoo (33 seen and 38 heard in Hungary and 9 seen and 9 heard in Slovakia) compared with the UK was notable.

Owls: Both Hungary and Slovakia provide excellent opportunities to see most of the European owl species. However, I managed to record just Little Owl (3 in Hungary) and Tawny Owl (1 heard only in Hungary). My under-recording of owl species was not entirely surprising given that the highest chance of seeing owls is in March and April when they are more conspicuous in their activity and calling. With regard to owls, I have seen Great Grey Owl, Hawk Owl, Ural Owl and Pygmy Owl and heard Scops Owl on previous European trips plus Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Little Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl and Snowy Owl in the UK and/or Europe. There is, however, still just Eagle Owl and Tengmalm’s Owl left to complete the set of Europe’s 13 owl species.

European Roller: I recorded a total of 15 European Rollers (4 in the Kiskunság National Park in Hungary, 4 in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and 7 in the “Little Hortobágy” in Hungary.

European Bee-eater: I recorded a total of c.65 European Bee-eaters (c.30 in the Kiskunság National Park in Hungary, c.25 in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary and c.10 in the Latorica flood plain area in Slovakia).

European Hoopoe: I recorded a total of 20 European Hoopoes in Hungary (11 seen and 9 heard).

Woodpeckers: This was an excellent trip for woodpeckers! I recorded 9 species in total with 5 in Hungary and 7 in Slovakia. Most notably, I recorded a “lifer” (see above) with 2 separate Grey-headed Woodpeckers seen (the first between Smižany and Čingov in the Slovenský raj National Park in Slovakia and the second in the Bukovské Mountains area of the Poloniny National Park in Slovakia). This now finally means that I have seen all 10 of Europe’s woodpecker species: White-backed Woodpecker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Wryneck. In Hungary, I recorded Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (1), Middle Spotted Woodpecker (1), Great Spotted Woodpecker (12 and 7 heard) and Eurasian Green Woodpecker (2 and 2 heard) and Eurasian Wryneck (1 heard). In Slovakia, in addition to Grey-headed Woodpecker, I recorded Syrian Woodpecker (1), White-backed Woodpecker (1), Black Woodpecker (3 and 2 heard), Middle Spotted Woodpecker (2), Great Spotted Woodpecker (6 and 4 heard) and Eurasian Wryneck (1 heard). Frustratingly, I also saw 10 and heard 8 woodpecker species which I was unable to identify due to fleeting glimpses or distant calling or "drumming".

Shrikes: I recorded 2 species of shrike, namely Red-backed Shrike and Lesser Grey Shrike. Red-backed were exceptionally common in Hungary and I saw this species every day with a total of 132 birds seen. In Slovakia, I also managed to see this species on most days with a total of 32 birds seen. Lesser Grey Shrike was much more difficult to find although I did see 3 in the Kiskunság National Park in Hungary, 5 in the Little Hortobágy” in Hungary and 2 at Iňačovce near the Zemplínska reservoir in Slovakia.

Eurasian Golden Oriole: I recorded a total of 33 Golden Orioles in Hungary (10 seen and 23 heard) and 3 in Slovakia (1 seen and 2 heard).

Crows: Hooded Crow is a very restricted upland species in the north west Highlands of the UK so it was bizarre to see so many in different habitats throughout my trip, including in the capital cities of Budapest, Bratislava and Prague.

Eurasian Penduline Tit: I recorded a total of 18 Penduline Tits in Hungary (6 seen and 12 heard all at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park) and 3 in Slovakia (2 seen at Iňačovce near the Zemplínska reservoir and 1 heard at Parížske marsh).

Bearded Reedling: I recorded a total of c.15 Bearded Reedlings, all at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary.

Phylloscopus warblers: Small numbers of Willow Warbler and Common Chiffchaff wee seen and heard. In addition, I recorded 6 singing Wood Warblers, 3 in Hungary and 3 in Slovakia but none were seen.

Acrocephalus warblers: I recorded 5 species in this group. Most notably, I recorded a “lifer” (see above) with a Moustached Warbler seen at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park. In addition, I recorded c.50 Great Reed Warblers in Hungary and 4 in Slovakia, 6 Marsh Warblers in Hungary and 1 in Slovakia and large numbers of Sedge Warblers and Eurasian Reed Warblers. The vast majority of the Acrocephalus warblers were seen and heard at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary.

Locustella warblers: I recorded 3 species in this group: Eurasian River Warbler (1 seen and 2 heard at Bodrogzug in Hungary, 5 heard at Bódvarákó in Hungary and 1 heard in the Latorica flood plain area of Slovakia), Savi’s Warbler (1 heard at Ócsa in Hungary and 5 seen and 11 heard at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary) and Common Grasshopper Warbler (2 heard at Bodrogzug in Hungary).

Hippolais warblers: I recorded a total of 7 Icterine Warblers in Hungary (1 heard at Polgar fishponds in Hungary, 2 seen and 4 heard in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary) and 4 in Slovakia (1 heard at Parížske marsh in Slovakia, 1 seen in the Pieniny National Park in Poland, 1 seen at Podlesok in the Slovenský raj National Park in Slovakia and 1 heard in the Latorica flood plain area of Slovakia).

Sylvia warblers: I recorded 5 species in this group, most notably Barred Warbler (1 heard in the Little Hortobágy” in Hungary and 1 heard in the Latorica flood plain area of Slovakia).

Flycatchers: I recorded 3 species in this group, most notably Collared Flycatcher (1 seen and 1 heard in the Bükk Mountains in Hungary, 1 seen between Füzér and Kéked in the Zemplén Mountains in Hungary, 2 seen between Regéc and Óhuta in the Zemplén Mountains in Hungary and 2 seen and 2 heard at Jósvafő in the Aggtelek National Park in Hungary) and Red-breasted Flycatcher (1 heard at Morské oko in Slovakia and 3 heard at Zádielska in the Slovenský kras National Park in Slovakia). In addition, I saw 4 Spotted Flycatchers in Hungary.

Chats and thrushes: The notable records were the following: 4 Bluethroats at Hortobágyi-Halastó in the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary, 51 Nightingales (6 seen and 45 heard in Hungary and 12 heard in Slovakia), 45 Black Redstarts (25 in Hungary, 17 in Slovakia and 3 in Poland), Fieldfare (c.35 in Slovakia and c.55 in Poland), European Stonechat (51 in Hungary and 17 in Slovakia), Whinchat (5 in Hungary and 2 in Slovakia) and Northern Wheatear (4 in Slovakia).

White-throated Dipper: I recorded 1 in the Slovenský raj National Park in Slovakia and 3 at Zádielska in the Slovenský kras National Park in Slovakia.

Wagtails: I recorded both Western (Blue-headed) Yellow Wagtail (c.50 in Hungary and 8 in Slovakia) and White Wagtail (numerous and seen daily).

Finches and buntings: The notable records were 42 Hawfinches (37 in Hungary and 5 in Slovakia) and 23 Serins (11 in Hungary and 12 in Slovakia).

During my trip, I was also able to record the following mammals:

Muskrat

Red Squirrel

Roe Deer

Brown Hare

Unidentified mouse/vole sp.

Pine Marten (road casualty)

Hedgehog (road casualty)

Badger (road casualty)

In addition, I was able to record the following reptiles and amphibians although several others were seen but not identified:

Marsh Frog

Fire-bellied Toad (heard only)

European Pond Terrapin

Green Lizard

Grass Snake

Finally, I saw several butterfly, dragonfly and damselfly species, many of which I was unable to identify without the relevant field guides. Butterflies were especially numerous in Hungary.

Disappointments:

As far as birds are concerned, there were no major disappointments and I managed to see all 4 of my “lifer” targets, namely Saker Falcon, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Moustached Warbler and Grey-headed Woodpecker (see above).

With regard to mammals, I failed to see Wolf, Lynx or Brown Bear but all these mammals are rare and exceptionally difficult to see without a huge amount of luck. However, I have previously seen Brown Bears in Finland in June 2009 and May 2016.


Photo: the closest sighting to a Brown Bear at Podlesok in the Slovak Paradise National Park :-)

I was more disappointed in not seeing Chamois or Alpine Marmot in the High Tatras in Slovakia or Poland.

In terms of my trip generally, the complex itinerary over 3 weeks which included 2 flights, 2 train journeys, 2 car rentals and 16 accommodation bookings provided ample opportunity for something to go wrong despite careful planning. Fortunately, everything went completely to plan.

Tips:

From my own experience, I have several miscellaneous tips for anyone considering a trip to Hungary and Slovakia.

As always …. get up early! Dawn is around 4 a.m. or earlier but the best wildlife watching experiences are definitely at this time and for the following few hours. Evenings and dusk are also a very good time.

My visits to Morské oko in the Vihorlat Mountains in eastern Slovakia easily demonstrates the point. On my first visit, I arrived at around midday. It was very hot and there were plenty of walkers and mountain bikers at this beautiful site with its old forest and lake. The forest was very quiet other than a lot of singing Chaffinches although I was fortunate to also see 2 Marsh Tits, 2 Nuthatches and a Grey Wagtail. I heard just one distant “drumming” woodpecker. That visit was generally disappointing although a roadside stop on the return to Remetské Hámre did produce an excellent view of a Syrian Woodpecker and a Hawfinch. I returned to Morské oko for an early morning visit the next day. The car park was empty and I saw no-one else during my 2 hour leisurely walk through the forest and around the lake. I saw 1 White-backed Woodpecker and 2 Middle Spotted Woodpeckers and heard 2 Black Woodpeckers and 1 Red-breasted Flycatcher. In addition, I recorded 3 Grey Wagtails, 2 Nuthatches, 2 Common Buzzards, 2 Grey Herons, Goldcrest, Coal Tit, Blackcap, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush and 1 Red Squirrel, 1 Roe Deer and 3 unidentified mouse/vole species.

The standard advice for visiting the forests, marshes, bogs and lakes of northern and eastern Europe is take appropriate clothing, insect repellent and post-bite treatments. Biting insects can be a significant problem although I was very fortunate to escape the worst on this trip. Going prepared significantly reduces but does not entirely eliminate this unavoidable nuisance. Whilst there are several brands available, Incognito is my preference due to the 100% natural ingredients.

When travelling around Hungary and Slovakia, be mindful of the quality of the rural roads to minimise the risk of any damage to your car, always be aware of speed limits on all roads which are strictly enforced and remember that there is zero tolerance to driving after consuming any alcohol.

Like much of eastern Europe, intensive agriculture and expanding urbanisation has not yet arrived in large parts of Hungary and Slovakia and this largely explains the diversity and abundance of wildlife in so many unspoilt habitats. Go and experience it before it is spoilt.

Photos:

During my trip, I took almost 700 photos of the wildlife and landscapes of Hungary, Slovakia and south Poland plus the city sights of Budapest, Bratislava and Prague.

The best wildlife and landscape photos from my trip can be found in the European trips gallery.

The non-wildlife bit .... the cities of Budapest, Bratislava and Prague

The main purpose of my trip was wildlife watching and photography but Budapest, Bratislava and Prague all offered excellent sightseeing opportunities and interesting histories.

Budapest – background:

Budapest is the capital city of Hungary with an estimated population of 1.8 million people and distributed over a land area of about 203 square miles.

Budapest is both a city and county and it forms the centre of the Budapest metropolitan area which has an area of 2,944 square miles and a population of 3.3 million people comprising about a third of the population of Hungary.

Budapest is among the top 100 GDP performing cities in the world and one of the largest regional economies in the European Union with strengths in commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and entertainment.

The history of Budapest began with Aquincum, originally a Celtic settlement that became the Roman capital of Lower Pannonia. Hungarians arrived in the territory in the 9th century but their first settlement was pillaged by the Mongols in 1241. The re-established town became one of the centres of Renaissance humanist culture by the 15th century.

Following the Battle of Mohács and nearly 150 years of Ottoman rule, the region entered a new age of prosperity and Budapest became a global city with the unification of Buda and Óbuda on the west bank with Pest on the east bank in November 1873.

Budapest also became the co-capital of the Austro–Hungarian Empire or Dual Monarchy together with Austria, a great power that dissolved in 1918, following World War I.

Following the inter-war period, Hungary joined the Axis Powers in World War 2 and Budapest was partly destroyed by British and American air raids in April 1944. From December 1944 to February 1945, the city was besieged during the Battle of Budapest and it suffered major damage caused by the attacking Soviet Union and Romanian troops and the defending German and Hungarian troops.

After World War 2, Hungary became a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union which contributed to the establishment of the Hungarian People's Republic spanning 4 decades from 1947 to 1989. The country gained widespread international attention with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet Union imposed policies. Though leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet Union control since its forces drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War 2.

From the 1960s to the late 1980s, much of the wartime damage to Budapest was finally repaired. On 23rd October 1989, Hungary again became a democratic parliamentary republic and further developments and improvements to Budapest followed.

Budapest is viewed as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and it contains many important museums and cultural institutions. The central area of the city along the River is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many notable monuments, including the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, Fisherman's Bastion, Gresham Palace, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Matthias Church and the Liberty Statue. Other famous landmarks include Andrássy Avenue, Saint Stephen's Basilica and Heroes' Square. The city also has around 80 geothermal springs and the largest thermal water cave system, second largest synagogue and third largest Parliament building in the world.

Budapest attracts over 4 million international tourists per year, making it one of the most popular cities in Europe.

Budapest – getting there and leaving:

I initially arrived at Budapest Liszt Ferenc airport on 16th May 2017 after a flight from London Gatwick airport.

After my trip around Hungary, I returned to Budapest on 25th May 2017 and, after spending 2 nights in the city, I left for Bratislava in Slovakia by train on 27th May 2017.

Budapest – getting around:

Most of Budapest's highlights are within easy walking distance of each other and the city centre.

However, Budapest also has an extensive public transit system (metro, bus and tram) operated by BKK and which is generally convenient and easy to use. During my stay, I did make some use of the metro and the 24 hour travelcard priced at HUF1650 (£4.69) was good value.

Apart from seeing Budapest on foot, on my first evening I took a 1 hour trip on the River Danube with Legenda on the Danube Legend. This trip cost HUF 5500 (£15.57) and provided an amazing opportunity to see the illuminated Budapest cityscape. There are a number of boat trip operators in Budapest but Legenda receive consistently good Trip Advisor reviews.




Photo: "Legend" courtesy of Legenda website


Photo: Budapest at night courtesy of Legenda website


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building at night

Budapest – accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation:

25th and 26th May – easyHotel Budapest Oktogon – 80 euros (£72.04 for 2 nights).

easyHotel Budapest Oktogon is located at Eötvös utca 25/a on the Pest side of the city and only a block from the Oktogon intersection of Andrássy útca and Nagykörút.

Budapest has a huge range of accommodation options, ranging from the ridiculously expensive to the very cheap with highly critical reviews. For a budget traveller, the easyHotel Budapest Oktogon is perfect and provides excellent value for money combining good quality accommodation at a very reasonable cost.

I stayed at easyHotel Budapest Oktogon for 2 nights and I found the location to be very convenient being just a few minutes walk from the Oktogon metro station on yellow line M1 and within walking distance of the city centre less than a mile away. The reception staff were welcoming and friendly and spoke very good English. On leaving, they also booked a taxi for me to Budapest Keleti station for my train to Bratislava in Slovakia. My room was clean and comfortable albeit very small but it met all my needs during my stay. The wi-fi internet reception was reliable and strong.

The easyHotel Budapest Oktogon is highly recommended as a base. I would certainly stay there again should I re-visit Budapest in the future.


Photo: easyHotel Budapest Oktogon courtesy of easyHotel website

Budapest – research, planning and sights:

I used the following for my Budapest city trip:

“Lonely Planet: Pocket Budapest”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a district by district basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information



Official Budapest Tourist Office website

Visit Budapest

I used street maps accompanying the Lonely Planet book and a tourist map provided free by easyHotel Budapest Oktogon.

The following were my highlights in Budapest:

Hungarian Parliament building: The Hungarian Parliament building (Országház) is the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary, a notable landmark of Hungary and a popular tourist attraction in Budapest. It is a magnificent example of Neo-Gothic architecture and lies in Kossuth Lajos Square (Kossuth Lajos tér) on the bank of the River Danube. It is currently the 3rd largest Parliament building in the world, the largest building in Hungary and the tallest building in Budapest. In the 1880's an open tender was held for the design and construction based on the winning plan began in 1885. The building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 and fully completed in 1902. During the Communist era, a large red star was added to the central tower above the dome but after its downfall the star was removed.


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building


Photo: Hungarian Parliament building

Kossuth Lajos Square: Kossuth Lajos Square (Kossuth Lajos tér) is situated in the Lipótváros neighbourhood of Budapest on the bank of the River Danube. Its most notable landmark is the Hungarian Parliament Building (see above). A memorial to the victims of the 25th October 1956 massacre at Kossuth Lajos Square was created in the southern ventilation tunnel as part of the 2012 to 2014 reconstruction of the square. The memorial remembers the unarmed victims who gathered on this "Bloody Thursday" as part of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 with videos, photos, candles and memorabilia of the era. Little information is certain about this massacre, from who fired the first shot and why to how the protesters were led to gather in that location on that day to the death toll of the event. Sources cite as few as 22 shot dead up to as many as 1000. UK officials cite the number as being between 300 and 800. The memorial asks anyone with information on the massacre to report it to officials to help complete the story.


Photo: Kossuth Lajos Square memorial


Photo: Kossuth Lajos Square memorial


Photo: Kossuth Lajos Square memorial

Castle Hill: The first citizens arrived to Castle Hill in the 13th century after the Mongolian invasion and seeking protection in the hills of Buda. The first royal castle was built around this time. The golden age of Castle Hill was in the 15th century and Buda became an important European city. After the Turkish occupation, Buda was in ruins. A Baroque city was subsequently built and Castle Hill soon became the district of government. During World War 2, Buda was bombed to the ground and had to be rebuilt again. Today, Castle Hill is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many attractions, Gothic arches, 18th century Baroque houses and cobblestone streets. Though Castle Hill has changed much since building began in the 13th century, its main streets still follow their medieval paths whilst some houses date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.


Photo: Castle Hill

Fisherman’s Bastion: The Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) is a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style located in the Castle Hill district. It was designed and built between 1895 and 1902 and its 7 towers represent the 7 Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 895. From the towers and the terrace a panoramic view exists of the River Danube, Margaret Island, Pest to the east and Gellért Hill.


Photo: Fisherman’s Bastion


Photo: Fisherman’s Bastion


Photo: view from Fisherman’s Bastion


Photo: view from Fisherman’s Bastion

Matthias Church: Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom) is a Roman Catholic church located in front of the Fisherman's Bastion in the Castle Hill district. According to church tradition, it was originally built in Romanesque style in 1015, although no archaeological remains exist. The current building was constructed in the late Gothic style in the 2nd half of the 14th century and was extensively restored in the late 19th century. It was the 2nd largest church of medieval Buda and the 7th largest church of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom. A bronze statue of Stephen I of Hungary mounted on a horse was erected in 1906 and can be seen between the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church.


Photo: Matthias Church


Photo: Matthias Church


Photo: Matthias Church

Chain Bridge: The Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd) is a suspension bridge that spans the River Danube between Clark Ádám tér (Buda side) and Széchenyi István tér (Pest side). The first bridge to permanently cross the Danube and connect Buda and Pest, it was designed by the English engineer William Tierney Clark in 1839 with construction supervised locally by Scottish engineer Adam Clark. The bridge has the name of István Széchenyi, a major supporter of its constructi0on, attached to it but is most commonly known as the Chain Bridge. At the time of its construction, the Chain Bridge was considered to be one of the engineering wonders of the world. It opened in 1849 and became the first bridge in the Hungarian capital. At the time, its centre span of 663 feet was one of the largest in the world. The pairs of lions at each of the abutments were added in 1852.


Photo: Chain Bridge


Photo: Chain Bridge

”Shoes on the Danube”: The “Shoes on the Danube” is an exceptionally moving memorial. It was conceived by film director Can Togay and created on the east bank of the River Danube with sculptor Gyula Pauer to honour the Jewish people who were killed by Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party militiamen in Budapest between 1944 and 1945 during World War 2. They were ordered to take off their shoes, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial, containing 60 pairs of iron shoes, represents their shoes left behind on the bank.


Photo: ”Shoes on the Danube”


Photo: ”Shoes on the Danube”


Photo: ”Shoes on the Danube”


Photo: ”Shoes on the Danube”

Andrássy Avenue: Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy útca) is a boulevard dating back to 1872 and linking Elizabeth Square (Erzsébet tér) and City Park (Városliget). At the time of its completion in 1885, it was considered to be a masterpiece of city planning and even public transport was prohibited to preserve its character. Lined with spectacular Neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses featuring fine facades and interiors, Andrássy Avenue was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. It is now one of Budapest's main shopping streets with cafes, restaurants, theatres and foreign embassies.

Hungarian State Opera House: The Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház) is a beautiful neo-Renaissance opera house located on Andrássy Avenue. Originally known as the Hungarian Royal Opera House, construction began in 1875, funded by the city of Budapest and by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary, and the new house opened to the public in September 1884. It quickly became one of the most prestigious musical institutions in Europe and many important artists performed here, including Gustav Mahler.


Photo: Hungarian State Opera House

St. Stephen’s Basilica: St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István-bazilika) is a neo-Classical Roman Catholic basilica named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c. 975 to 1038), whose supposed mummified right hand is housed in a glass case in the chapel to the left of the main altar. Construction commenced in 1851 and the inauguration ceremony took place in 1906 and was attended by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. It was the 6th largest church building in Hungary before 1920. Today, it is the largest church in Budapest and the 3rd largest church building in present day Hungary.


Photo: St. Stephen’s Basilica


Photo: St. Stephen’s Basilica

Great Synagogue: The Great Synagogue (Dohány utcai zsinagóga), also known as the Dohány Street Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue, is a historical building located on Dohány utca in the Erzsébetváros district. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the 2nd largest in the world, capable of accommodating 3,000 people. The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival or Neo-Moorish style, with the decoration based chiefly on Islamic models from North Africa and medieval Spain. The Dohány Street Synagogue complex consists of the Great Synagogue itself, the Heroes' Temple, the Jewish Cemetery, Raul Wallenberg Memorial Park including the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum. Dohány Street itself carries strong Holocaust connotations as it constituted the border of the Budapest Ghetto. The Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Emanuel Tree, is a weeping willow tree designed by the contemporary Hungarian sculptor, Imre Vaga. It includes the names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust inscribed on each leaf. Also part of the memorial are 4 red marble plates, commemorating 240 non-Jewish Hungarians who saved Jews during the Holocaust.


Photo: Great Synagogue


Photo: Holocaust Memorial at the Great Synagogue


Photo: Holocaust Memorial at the Great Synagogue

Heroes Square: Heroes Square (Hősök tere) was laid out in 1896 to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary. It is the largest and most impressive square in Budapest, noted for its iconic statue complex, the Millennium Monument, commerorating the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and other important historical Hungarian national leaders, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The square lies at the outbound end of Andrássy Avenue next to City Park (Városliget). The square has played an important part in contemporary Hungarian history and has been a host to many political events. In 1989 a crowd of 250,000 gathered in Heroes Square for the reburial of Imre Nagy, the former Prime Minister of Hungary who was executed in 1958.


Photo: Heroes Square

House of Terror: The House of Terror is a museum located at Andrássy útca 60. It contains exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in 20th century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. The museum opened on 24th February 2002. The House of Terror is a member organisation of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, an educational project of the European Union bringing together government institutions and NGOs from European Union countries active in research, documentation, awareness raising and education about the crimes of totalitarian regimes.


Website: http://www.terrorhaza.hu/en


Photo: House of Terror


Photo: House of Terror


Photo: House of Terror


Photo: House of Terror


Photo: House of Terror


Photo: House of Terror

Bratislava.... to follow

Prague .... to follow

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