I have never done a true road trip in my life. Sure, I have gone up the A5 to North Wales, I have even driven as far as Manchester. But a true road trip, across a continent, or at least encompassing a few countries and dodgy border posts. No, that is something I had never done until the Summer of 2011. There, at the age of 31, I finally embarked on a grand road trip across Europe, a total journey distance of 1,000 miles!
(The beastie, in Slovakia).
This road trip also meant that I engaged in the visitation of two more countries which meant that I have now visited 35 countries in total! The Czech Republic (which to be honest was really a series of endless highways) and Slovakia (quiet but stunning). And my destination? Budapest, again!
The last year has been a strange one for me. Really, Budapest was like a left turn in my life, but for so many good reasons. If it weren't for the fact that Caution Wet Paint was screening here, I would have never even bothered with Hungary as a destination for years to come. Instead over the course of the last year, I have begun to explore this brave new EU. And my own life, as I have mentioned has dramatically changed, both in what I am doing and possibly where I am heading. But of course, I always remain elusive in my own writings, hinting but never directly telling you what I actually get up to. I liken myself to an open book. I do not hide anything, but I will not be reading directly from the pages. It is up to you dear blog reader to piece the puzzle together, while I give you a shot of the Czech Republic, my first view of country 34...
To be honest, I feel like a cheat. I did not really see the Czech Republic. I just stormed through the country. After getting lost in the Eastern badlands of Germany, I managed to navigate my way into the Czech Republic. My night drive was beginning to turn into a nightmare. So I floored it on dodgy Czech bypasses and highways to Slovakia. My destination was Budapest and I aimed to reach it from the West of Poland in one night.
But mange it I did. I got flashed by a speed camera in Bad Moscow in Germany, I got fined by the Czech customs patrol for not paying the road tolls and on top of all that, I had to drive on the wrong side of the road!!!
But the morning came and I was driving through the outskirts of Slovakia's capital, Bratislava. Now, rush hour is never a great way to introduce yourself to a country, but I was late. Very late. But I trundled through Bratislava's suburbs with the other mad drivers. Whole they were in a rush to get to work, I dawdled until I reached the Hungarian border.
(That lamppost in the middle of the pic roughly marks the border between Slovakia and Hungary)
Yeah, so in one night I had travelled through four countries - a start in Poland, a wrong turn into Germany, a lonely night in the Czech Republic and a dawn in Slovakia - so by Friday morning I would arrive in the fifth, Hungary. Really, that was only possible because of Schenghen (more to come on that later this month). orderless travel meant that these customs posts that you now see are effectively useless. They are relics of a time when stamps in passports were there to be collected. Now there is...freedom! Okay, I may smack of the European ideal, but in a practical sense, it makes life so easy! And while on old border points like this, there are the old custom posts, on newer crossings, it is so simple to whoosh from one country to the next, you may not even notice the change in jurisdiction.
There are still some hindrances to this European practice of one simple easy area to go whistling through. Firstly, the currencies still change in this part of the world. Only Slovakia has the Euro. Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary keep their own dodgy paper notes (along with 'Sterling') which means that you still need a wallet full of different colours to get from one side to the next. In practice, the border areas will accept Euros, but if you don't have cash beforehand, the exchange rates are silly when paying for tea, coffee and fines.
Also there is the toll system. An alien idea to a Brit, but the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have a road toll system. The Czech Republic sneakily hides its toll booths and signs and instead you have to go to a petrol station to get your sticker. Slovakia has booths at the border points to sell you their toll sticker. And Hungary has booths at the border as well as signs for half an hour in telling you to get your Vignette. Unlike the other two countries, Hungary's system is based on number plate recognition.
Finally, each country has different rules and regulations. Broadly, across Europe, the road rules are the same, but there are little differences. The obvious one when travelling in Europe is that the metric system is used. The world may have adpoted the archaic English language as its current universal language, but no one in their right minds would ever use inches, feet, yards and miles to measure distances, lengths, heights and widths. Of course, when you see a width restriction stating 2m, I keep wondering if that means 6'6". Thankfully, it did...
Secondly, a lot of European Countries require your car to carry an assortment of the following:
Spare Bulbs, Tool kit, First Aid Kit, Hi-Vis Jacket and Warning Triangle(s) in the car in addition to Spare Tyres and in Winter for the car to have Winter Tyres. You also have to carry your driving licence with you at all times (in addition to your state sponsored ID Card or Passport), and have to have all your documentation in the car (insurance, ownership papers).
Oh, and one thing, many of these countries require your headlamps to be on at all times, yes, even in daylight. Poland is a particular stickler for this.
Compare this to the laissez faire attitude of British driving. If the cops stop you (and they do) if they request to see your papers, you have up to seven days to produce them. Of course, the UK's system is far more computerised than the rest of the EU, but it still is an old law that has been around long before I started driving.
The irony is that all of these safety conscious countries have far higher accident rates than care free Britain, despite the facts that our roads are far more crowded and designed for medieval horse and carts rather than 20th Century road traffic...
I will compare our European cousins to ourselves later on this month, but here is another photo of Hungary, where I had my first cup of tea on this long drive...
(In Western Europe, you find product placement. But in Soviet Hungary, product placement finds you!)
I was nearly there. Tea drunk, breakfast eaten, we were off. To the Hungarian Capital, the roads became good (after a torrid night of Czech bumpiness) and just before noon, the suburbs of Europe's eighth largest city had filtered into view. We arrived in our hotel and unbeliveably I had arrived back in Budapest, a year later. If you had told me a year earlier I would be back here after a European road odyssey, I would have laughed at you.
But 16 hours after I started out in Western Poland, I had made it to Hungary's Capital. I had a full weekend here before I would head off back to Poland. So what did I get up to in Budapest, again? Ah, that is another blog post for another day...