Felt so good to be back on the road in Europe after lockdown in the UK. Two fantastic shows to banish the corona blues in Sweden, following local guidelines for live music of course – 50 people max, social distancing, etc. Can’t beat live music 😊
A warm welcome at Strandkompaniet near Ystad in southern Sweden – beers and burgers and chat with owner Sebbe. He told me every ticket was sold, cool! I set up later on in the extended covered area outside and played 3 sets to a typically lovely Swedish crowd.
The second event was a private event – Corona Blues! – a party thrown by our friend’s Andy and Ucci for their neighbours and friends and family. I played perched on ‘the rock’, a very scenic stage among the heather. Again, a lovely crowd and very kind – I sold almost every CD I’d brought. Neighbour Alfred joined me for a few tunes, great guitar player and nice lad.
We enjoyed a fantastic week in Sweden, before starting to head home. Many adventures, swimming and fishing, hiking, eating and drinking well, visiting friends and family. Good times!
We travelled through Belgium, Germany and Denmark – quite different to the UK in the COVID-19 rules and attitudes. First stop in Belgium – we had to wear masks in the main square, but not in the side streets, and not in the bars, where they took our names, numbers and travel details. In Germany, we didn’t go into town but there was very little distancing going on at the campsite, compared to where we’d stayed in the UK! In Denmark, we passed through border controls and saw the COVID-19 testing stations, but once we got to Copenhagen, it was very relaxed – no one had masks, we went for a meal with no reservations, no details taken, stopped at a bar afterwards, etc. Felt strange to feel normal.
There had been no lockdown in Sweden. They implemented a set of measures quite early on and stuck to them. They’ve been criticised for this in some quarters, but there was no panic buying, no businesses bankrupted in lockdown, etc. We heard that they are sticking to the approach agreed across Europe after a pandemic planning exercise a few years ago.
After our moonlit flit from the wild west of Sweden to Denmark, we had a lazy day wandering forest trails and eating Bev’s van-baked blueberry pie. Then, with a few days to fill before my next gig in Odense, we had time to explore some of the sights of northern Denmark…
Strandby Church – a really striking modern design
The so-called sunken church – only the tower remains, as the rest was demolished after being repeatedly buried under drifting sands
Grenen Beach – at the convergence of two seas. We joined thousands of Danes and tourists to wander to the end of the spit of sand and ‘stand with one foot in the Skagerrak and the other foot in the Kattegat’
Råbjerg Mile – the largest migrating sand dune in Northern Europe. A bizarre and eerie sight, some distance from the coast
Aarhus – with a fantastic botanical garden and distinctive art museum
Middlefart – we stayed by a marina by the Lillebælt bridge and caught a glimpse of harbour porpoises at play
Live ‘On the Roof’, Odense
The last gig of our summer tour was at a cool bar in Odense – PåTaget – which is literally ‘on the roof’ of a multi-story building and car park right in the middle of the city. There was a fantastic jazz, blues and folk festival on – with the likes of Larkin Poe and Jamie Cullum and UK bluesman Lawrence Jones playing. One of the Jam Days festival acts, a Faroe Islander with the awesome stage name ‘Johan Solo’ hosts a regular jam night at PåTaget and I was booked to play an acoustic set before the jam. It went well, great bar, fun bar staff, friendly crowd. Johan jammed with me at the end of my set, adding a cool electric guitar solo to my song ‘Cold Wind’.
We didn’t really have a plan for Hungary – no surprise there! We’d seen Lake Balaton on the map – it is huge, 78km long – and heard about it from a German chap we met at the camp site in Venice. When he was young, in East Germany, he liked to visit Balaton because it was like a ‘mini-West’ and you could get things like ‘Coca Cola’! We’d pass it on the way to Budapest.
Then, on the morning we set off from Slovenia, we got a reply from Gábor Ádám, the owner of a vineyard in the Badacsony wine region who holds regular wine-tasting events with music. How had googled ‘Balaton blues music’ and found Sabar wines and emailed on the off-chance as this seemed to fit with our ‘playing gigs in cool locations’ ambitions very well….with the added bonus of wine!! Gábor suggested we meet to discuss it.
Lake Balaton and Badacsony
We arrived at the most stunning location imaginable… gentle slopes covered in grape vines, warm sun and extinct volcano hillsides scattered all around. It’s this terrain that gives the predominantly white wines of the region a delicious mineral taste. Gábor introduced us to his range of wines, which were amazing. How certainly felt the effects, drinking in the hot sun! I was designated driver and with a zero tolerance blood alcohol limit in Hungary, I had to be very sensible.
Gábor already had a big event booked for the coming Saturday, which we were welcome to attend and perhaps join in, but he suggested the Friday evening for a small concert. This meant we had a week to explore the Badacsony region and the northern side of Lake Balaton. We found a nice campsite a few km away right on the lake – perfect for paddleboarding and taking it easy for a week. During that time, we also visited Tihany, famous for its lavender, and the ‘geological interpretive site’ of Hegyestű .
The Friday evening arrived and the weather was perfect for an outdoor event on the terrace, with the sun setting over the vineyards and volcanoes. Gábor and his wife Krisztina provided a delicious spread of meats, cheeses, breads (and Orsi’s pancakes for dessert!). Everyone enjoyed How’s music and we were both able to sample a good deal of Gábor’s wine, thanks to the fact that we were camping at the vineyard. We met some awesome people and were blown away by their hospitality… hopefully we will be back this way one day!
During the week, How had heard back from the Yellow Zebra bar in Budapest with a booking for the Saturday night. Sadly, this meant we missed Gábor’s big event, which would have been great to attend, but we can’t pass up an offer to play the capital city… its a great opportunity.
We tried to make a quick dash across the country, only to be delayed when the road was closed for 3000 bikers coming the other way along Lake Balaton! It took them 35 minutes to roar past, with much honking, waving and glad-handing from my passenger seat. A pretty amazing sight! Most were dressed up, it looked like something from a Mad Max movie.
Eventually we arrived in Budapest and found a campsite about 3km out from the centre of the city, on the ‘Pest’ side. The Yellow Zebra was a 2500HUF (£6) taxi ride away. It’s a pretty cool little cellar bar. The gig went fairly well – with locals and tourists enjoying the original songs as much as the well known stuff.
We did a bit of research on what we wanted to see in Budapest. We want cheap, dog-friendly and photogenic! It was going to be very hot and public transport with the hounds looked tricky. We decided on a walking tour of:
Chain Bridge. First permanent bridge across the Danube in Hungary.
Shoes by the Danube. Sixty pairs of bronze shoes to commemorate the Jewish citizens shot by the river by Hungarian Nazis during WWII.
Fisherman’s Bastion. A fairy-tale like Neo-Romanesque building on the Buda side the river, which gives great views over to the Pest side.
Buda Tower. A 600 year-old bell tower that has somehow survived every siege, attack and war waged on Budapest during that time. The bells in the courtyard ring every hour.
Outdoor eating in Erzsebet Square. Pizza, burgers, beer… and water for the hounds. Perfect!
Film location spotting, including. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; Blade Runner 2049; A Good Day to Die Hard; 12 Monkeys; The Alienist and Citizen X.
We liked the city – the scale of the buildings, everywhere you look, is very impressive. We went back the next night to visit the ‘ruin bars’ and tried some Hungarian specialties – goulash and ‘chimney cake’. All good!
With the weather in Hungary set to stay so hot (34°C!) for a while, we thought we’d move on and set off north for Slovakia.
I guess we did have a plan to start with. We fancied a change. Bev would finish work, we’d sell the house in Newcastle and move to Northumberland, get some chickens or alpacas and set up a music studio in the garage. But our house didn’t sell – buyers being cautious with Brexit maybe, or maybe just no-one saw what we saw in our house and garden. Then there came an opportunity for an exit scheme at my work – too good to miss. I applied and was successful – I’d finish 6th April and get a payout at the end of the month. New plan – never mind Brexit, let’s vote with our feet and get out.
Bev tidied up the house to rent it out and we started to sketch out a route through Europe. Our friends Andy and Ucci are building a house in Sweden so we’d aim to get there and say ‘Hi’ at some point, probably late July/early August.
We part-exchanged our VW campervan as a deposit for a larger motorhome. After a few worrying weeks in the run up to the 29th March Brexit deadline, decided to get a loan and pay off the balance for the new van early and get set off, in advance of the new ‘deadline’ of 12th April.
This meant a truly bonkers and exhausting week after finishing work… My leaving do and farewell gig with the band; packing up the entire house into boxes; loading into a storage unit; trying to sort the rental, sorting road tax, insurance, etc then collecting the new van from Scotland; sourcing a new acoustic amp; trying to pack all our kit in…
…and seeing friends to say goodbye. I barely had chance to reflect on leaving work after 15 years. Leaving a good, solid day-job at the age of 45 to go off travelling. Leaving the house we’d loved for 14 years, etc. Ah, well. It’s done now and we’re off. Bring it on 🙂
Bringing forward our departure meant that I hadn’t had time to put any effort into findings gigs in Europe either. So we really didn’t have anywhere particular to be. The only place I’d contacted was a bar in Ghent, Belgium, but I’d not heard anything. May as well head that way, you never know!