Travel Log – March 2009

EURO ROAD TRIP 2009

Sunday:

As always we were at Babcias for Easter Sunday, it was lovely to have the family Z all together and have a giggle. We kept grinning at each other knowing that we had a bonkers road trip ahead of us. Ev and Ran had kindly offered us their apartment in Varna for a week and with that on the table who were we to refuse. Initially we had tried to get flights but as it is out of season (and due to the stupid credit crunch) flying meant 30 hours, 2 stops and many, many, hundreds of pounds.

In a moment of off the cuff lunacy Dami had suggested a road trip, two months of planning, google mapping and sat nav programming and we were ready.

The logistics of getting the car and documentation ready only increased the excitement to the point that every new certificate or green card was met with high fives. The plan was simple, get from Babcias to Varna, in one piece and still speaking whilst getting a snapshot view of a great swathe of Europe . . . then relax.

Rather than the normal travel Journal we decided that we would keep a log of times, places and things that we saw on the way and write it up later so here it is….

15.10 – leave Babcia’s, full tummys and ears ringing with good luck wishes we set out for the motorway, our new sat nav barking directions and grins stuck to our faces. Mileage on car – 55,200 – Michelle took the first shift behind the wheel as we headed for Dover. The sun was shining and as we drove down the A1 we saw the classic green fields and blue skies of England. 40 minutes into the journey we were treated to traditional bank holiday weather with a brief but heavy downpour. We felt a little pressured for time and we were a little behind schedule until we realised that our sat nav was heading to Calais not Dover – lesson learned and two hours in hand.

18.00 – Stop at Cambridge services for a comfort break and stretch and then continued towards Dover. Dami took over the driving and Mich settled into navigation duties.

20.30 Arrived early for the ferry and managed to get on to the earlier sailing, this was great as it would give us an extra hour in bed! Passport control and security was thorough but quick and we were soon on the ferry with our feet up and books in hand.

00.45 Arrive Calais, no-one seemed to care if we had passports or documentation or even if it was our car so we set off into France in search of our hotel. Dark motorways and several roundabouts later we arrived and after a brief squabble with the self check in machine in various languages we got our room and settled down for a good nights sleep.

Monday

06.30 – Alarm goes off, we got up and washed, dressed and packed up and headed into France and onwards into Europe

7.30 – We leave Calais and head for Dunkerque, there is a mist in off the sea and unfortunately visibility is low. Sat Nav estimates arrival in Vienna at 19.00. Realistically it will be later as we will stop for picnics and photos on the way.

07.40 – Cross into Belgium, we missed it, there is no border control just a small almost apologetic sign (we had kind of hoped for lots of stamps in our passports)

07.55 Stop at services for Croissants (delicious as you asked)

08.20 Pass through the outskirts of Brugges. that is the second time that we have been here in 6 months (check out us Euro-travellers). The mist is lifting in patches but the impression left in the dull light is an unfair reflection of the Country. Even the very pretty Brugges looks dull and nondescript in this weather. 

09.50 stopped for fuel and a snack. we have decided not to drive for more than half a tank at a time – just in case.

10.32 – Entering Netherlands. challenge on to spot a windmill. Once again no border control just a Euro sign, Euro unity is great but it does lack a certain sense of occasion as you pass from one country to the next.

10.50 – Deutchland – same sign different country, we hadn’t seen any windmills in Holland. As soon as we entered Germany everyone sped up. For the first 10 minutes Autobahn travel is bewildering. Everyone drives fast, very fast, but there is a calmness and order, lane discipline is exceptional and there are no ego-maniac reps hogging the fast lane.

People in faster cars simply hold position behind you, flash once and then when you finish your overtake they blast past with a wave of thanks. 

12.00 – Stopped for a picnic, whe had stopped for fotos and to call Babcia Z as it is her birthday. European ‘E’ roads have frequent rest places where there are toilets and picnic tables, its free to park and take a break. We plug the ipod in on shuffle mode and set off again, singing to the good songs and skipping the duffers.

16.30 – Sun is shining and all is well. The scenery is starting to open up. As we travel east the scenery is becoming more rural and more fairytale. We pass by an area called Bayerischer Wald, all mountains and forests with mall villages of close grouped housed nestling around the village church with a spire like the pointy bauble from the top of a Christmas tree. Deep valleys, forests and Castles, Lovely. Just what we had hoped for and something you miss at 35000ft.

17.45 – Brief bit of rain as we pass into Austria, now on the last leg into VIenna.

19.00 – Singing, snacking laughing happy.

21.45 – Arrived at the Hotel, the room is lovely and they even let us use their cables to get online and sort a few bits and bobs. Quick spruce up and then out to find somewhere to eat. In true us style we found a lively enough little place and grabbed two menus to be told that there was only a carvery on!! Carvery it was, fried potatoes, a huge dumpling and a massive slab of Gammon washed down with an ice cold beer! We walked back to the hotel checked our directions for tomorrow and hit the sack. 1 day five countries, lots of miles and lots of smiles.

Tuesday:

05.00 wake up call, the hotel clerk kindly made us coffee and orange juice to help us on our way, we dot dressed packed up, loaded up and then set off. The best time to drive in any city is when there is no-one else on the roads and so we took advantage and headed out to the motorway. This was going to be our biggest day and so we wanted to make progress while we could.

06.40 – Hungary, once again there was no ‘border’ as such we just needed to buy a vignette to travel on the toll roads. 6 Euro and a new sticker later we were ready to roll. We made the most of the fantastic roads and pressed on towards Romania.

11.05 – little hiccup, Our sat nav, and the road signs stopped correlating so we pulled over and checked our route only to find that Nuvi (our satnav and travelling companion) was taking us as planned into Romania but then into serbia before Bulgaria. This was not good as we hadn’t been able to secure insurance or and recovery service in Serbia.

Michelle and Nuvi argued for about 5 minutes and then after various re-programmings and threats Nuvi did as she was told and planned a route through Romania avoiding Serbia.

Shortly after this we crossed into Romania, at last a Border control! The bored looking official looked at our passports and thought for a minute – “where going?” Bulgaria we replied he shrugged and said “ok go!” so we did.

11.53 – Stopped for fuel and a butty. Michelle took over the driving and set out onto Romania’s outstandingly bad roads. Not wanting to labout the point but neither of us ad ever driven on roads quite as bad as these. To paint the picture Romania is clearly trying to upgrade its road system however this is being done piecemeal and apparently at random. The road that we were on was one of the larger ‘A’ typre roads across the country, it was potholed broken and at times little more than a gravel track. The upgrades seemed to be 500m sections of perfect blacktop however these were on different sides and often 1km apart it was hopelessly random.

Contraflows had been set us which were largely ignored by all – this made it very interesting and caused huge delays as what was effectively both sides of the A1 tried to squeeze down one lane of a gravel road with ditches and houses at the side. Progress was painfully slow. The roads did improve but the first four hours in Romania were slow and frustrating. Aside from the roads the parts of Romania that we could see were reminiscent of Lincolnshire, with seemingly endless flat fields stretching in every direction. The larger fields seemed to be divided into smaller individual plots that were being worked by the owner, more often than not a black clad old lady. 

On the road to Timisoara we drove through a town called Sandra, all the towns we encountered were small and looked like something from a news report, all the houses were lined along the road and whilst many were painted and well maintained most are in a poor state with chunks of render missing from walls and the occasional cow tethered next to the road. 

13.00 – Timisoara – all Romanian A roads go through towns rather than around them and therefore intrepid international motorists have to contend with the equivalent of putting the M6 through the heart of Manchester but with no road markings , fewer road signs, zero lane discipline and local with the road crossing skills of a flat hedgehog.

17.00 – We have got to the mountains and while the roadworks are still present we have stunning scenery to look at while statinary and fantastic mountain switchback roads to drive on.

18.30 – Now driving by the side of what looks like a huge man made lake fed by scores of mountain rivers tumbling down the valleys into the vast lake. At the end of the lake the dam was no less impressive with locks to lower barges the size of ferries down to the lower river. After looking at the map it turns out that this was the Iron Gate on the Danube. Absolutely stunning.

21.11 – Reached Craiova, just as difficult to drive through as Timisoara, only now its dark and there are few streetlights. On the road from Craiova to Bucharesti things improve, it is better surfaced and there is less traffic. Noone appears to know or care about speed limits which suits us so we begin to make progress.

The Crossing into Bulgaria is confusing, The Border control looms and we are directed by a pointed torch towards some shabby kiosks, Between us and them is a maze of low white walls, 10 minutes later we arrive (it’s about 100m).

We find that the kiosks are empty – we turn around and head back. (we should’ve just driven through but we were tired and just didn’t!) Another 10 minutes later we were waved to a halt by a balding border guard with an impressive moustache. Despite barely being able to speak for laughing he points us in the right direction and we cross into Bulgaria, flash our passports which are met with total disinterest and get onto the great, wide, smooth Bulgarian ‘A’ rods and spur the big red bus into a final push.

04.30 – We arrive at the appartment. Daniel, who manages the property for Ev and Ran meets us and lets us in, we were too tired to say much to the poor chap and after a quick wash up we collapsed into bed. job done.

Mileage reading – 57180 that means 1980 miles driven.

Wednesday:

11.00 – Alarm goes off – sleepy eyes are rubbed and we allow the world to swim into focus. 10 minutes later we are up, showered, dressed an eager to explore the apartment and Golden Sands.

Our first port of call was the beach, it was a bit symbolic and as we stepped onto the beach together we celebrated crossing an entire continent from the Channel to the black sea with just an Old Hyundai a sat nav and some maps we had navigated our way here, it would be another adventure getting home but for now we could relax and explore.

The beach was lovely, as the name suggests miles of Golden sand, loads of sea shells and turquoise water, perfect. The rest of the resort is exactly what you would expect from a young resort adapting to the influence of new money from mainly eastern parts (judging by the number plates on the various Audis and Mercs!)

As we had arrived off season the stalls and shops were being renovated, the pools cleaned and painted and the whole resort had the feel of a place coming out of hibernation.

The most eye catching attractions were a replica of the Eiffel tower with a cocktail bar at the bottom and an old wooden warship complete with sails and canon ports that had been converted into a restaurant.

The hotels are all very grand and most boast 5 stars. It was unusual but enlightening to explore the off season resort seeing it all behind the scenes as it were. After a good explore we returned to the apartment for some R&R. Essentially we spent the next 3 hours on the balcony in the sun reading and snoozing, snoozing and reading. As evening drew on we got dressed and headed out for dinner (having first popped to the shop for some evening drinks – monster sized bottles of local beer!). We headed to the Old House restaurant by the beach, we shared each others dinner and enjoyed a couple of cold beers in traditional setting. Friendly service, great food and good beer, lovely. 

Back home we didn’t even break into the beers just relaxed, snuggled up and totally happy and content we fell asleep.

Thursday:

10.00 – The alarm this morning was met with excitement at the prospect of another day relaxing and exploring. We breakfasted on salami and cheese on toast washed down with hot chocolate and then dressed and washed at a leisurely pace.

We had decided to explore a little today and to help we were going to try and find a few geocaches. The first was close to golden sands at an ancient monastery carved into the cliffs where troglodyte monks had lived hundreds of years ago. The site had been respectfully and tastefully kept and is open to tourists the area is also a nature reserve and afforded us a pleasant few hours strolling in sun mottled woodlands. (yes we found the cache).

We then aimed to find a cache on a beach south of Varna and buoyed by our morning success we pointed the big red bus south. We didn’t find this one, in fact we didn’t even come close. Every road that we thought headed to the beach, in fact led to a dead end as though the road builders simply got bored and stopped.

The one that got closes became a track and then even that petered out and finally became too much for our bus which had coped with everything else.

Sounds frustrating but in fact it was fun and gave us alternative views of Varna and also the Bulgarian countryside which varies from thick forested hills to dusty dry fields in a matter of a few kilometres. We drove back north through Varna to Golden Sands. We spent a few hours relaxing and enjoyed a bottle of local beer in the the afternoon sun, chatting, giggling and enjoying the warmth of the sun and each others company.

As evening fell we set off for a stroll to take some pics and to decide where to eat tea. We decided on a restaurant and then strolled down the beach hand in hand, totally content and very much in love. We stopped off at the supermarket and grabbed some snack items for the drive home then back to the flat for a shower, beer and get ready for dinner.

We decided to return to a quirky looking place for dinner and had found a restaurant that fitted the bill perfectly. The large round Bulgarian owner had tried to get us to come in for a drink earlier but we had declined (being busy exploring) but the food had smelled good and was being cooked on an outdoor grill and taken inside to the diners so we had told him that we would return.

He saw us walking towards the restaurant and beamed at us, ‘hello my friends, come in’ We were shown to a table by a cheeky but friendly waiter who was spot on with recommendations and made us smile all night. We chatted about the holiday and other stuff and enjoyed a really great meal, the restaurant was called Venice and was, bizarrely, built around a growing tree.

After dinner we returned to the flat for a quick tidy up and pack up then snuggled up for a good nights sleep. 

Friday:

04.45 – Alarm goes off and we got up, dressed quickly and both noticed a mood of apprehension. After the last Romanian epic, we were wary of what today may hold and whilst fully prepared for a battle with poor roads and bad traffic we were very much wanting to do without it.

We had already packed and so we simply loaded up the bus and plugged Nuvi in, we left the key with the security guard and waved goodbye to Golden Sands. Our first task was fuel and then, having taken care of this we pointed the bus at Romania and set off.

07.30 – By now we had left commercial and built up Bulgaria and were in much more rural surroundings, the towns were smaller and the scenery was greener. The road to the border was flanked by flowering cherry trees.

08.20 – We approached the Romanian border and having paid our bridge tax to cross over we were soon heading into Romania on a bridge covered in potholes – Romania was welcoming us back. At the Romanian border control Damian was questioned by the guard about why he had a Polish name and a British Passport luckily it seems that Romanian and Polish are close enough for a simple explanation and so he smiled, said ‘ciao’ and waved us on.

08.28 – Romania – Aargh

09.00 – M-Way thus far but now the fun begins, minor roads and potholes.

09.21 – Bucharest – we had programmed Nuvi to take us via Bucharest to ensure that we didn’t go into Serbia, On the way to Bulgaria we had a night time view of Bucharest which was of German car dealerships and bright lights, this side of town and in daylight revealed a different and less prosperous side, but an altogether more charming and warm side. As we drove through the bad roads and mental traffic we were surprised by the austere but beautiful buildings. Many were clearly now neglected and in decline but still showing their former importance. As we drove on the market was in full swing, this seemed to involve anyone with something to sell finding a bit or kerb and setting out their goods. After a frustrating period in traffic we finally left Bucharest.

10.26 – Motorway to Ptetsi, a man in an ancient Lada flashed us out of the way (from 6″ off our rear bumper) then smiled and waved as he came past!

12.00 – We are now past Ptetsi and on the A7. We are diving through little villages with roadside shrines and wells on the roadside. At teh end of every village is a sign saying Drum Bun – we guess this is the sign for you are now leaving.

13.08 – On route to Sibiu and stuck in another traffic jam, Romanian roads had been sooo close to redeeming themselves.

13.30 – Traffic magically disappears and we are into the mountains, Romanian is now redeemed. Snow capped alpine scenery is imply breathtaking. We drive up a deep valley with a lake at the bottom, reflecting the mountains and blue skies, this is very much postcard stuff. 

16.15 –  . . . still in Romania, the traffic is heavy but the roads are much improved. We encounter a police man directing traffic with a whistle, not sure if he is directing them or if they are directing him. We are on our way to Dera which will put us on the final leg of our journey for the day. Still blue skies and 25 degrees – nice.

16.45 – A half pajamad madman dashes out into the road, miraculously reaches the other side and crosses himself carefully then shuffles on.

19.13 – At the Hungarian border at last. This time Romania was more picturesque and the roads were much better making it less stressful and easier to look around and enjoy the views.

22.00 – We arrive at our Hotel in Budapest. Having arrived in darkness we promise to return one day as it looks very pretty and promises lots of exploring. Our hotel bears little resemblance to its website pictures but the bed is comfy and the beer is cold. Tired, relieved and with heads full of Romania we snuggle up and pass out.

Saturday:

07.00 – We make the most of the Hotel breakfast buffet and pack our bags.

08.00 – Having found the Muppet who parked us in and taught the desk clerk how to move the car out of the way we got going.

08.30 – We hit the Austrian border, back to no frontiers, just a sign to let you know that language, currency and country had changed.

11.00 – On the autobahns now we are making good time and are able to slow a bit to enjoy the views. We pass a huge castle at Melk.

11.42 – We are passing to the north of the Alps and as it is a clear day it is one of the most fabulous views we have seen. Huge snow capped mountains against the blue skies.

13.00 – German border – we are back on the autobahns proper now and once again our breath is taken away by the precision high speed ballet performed by German drivers. our accents have clearly improved as we have no difficulties at petrol stops and we are impressed by how smiley and friendly most people we meet are.

16.10 – Fuel and wee stop. As in the UK there are adverts over the urinals in the services – although here they are all for performance mods to your car! It has started raining and all the drivers who moments ago were flat stick are now leaving sensible gaps and driving much slower at the ‘rain’ speed limits. UK drivers could learn a lot.

20.13 We drive through Cologne to our Hotel and to our delight is is right on the river. We check in and then have dinner and a beer in the hotel restaurant. Full and feeling good we walked down the river to see the cathedral lit up. As we walked we reflected on this trip and other trips and holidays. We compared the different countries and planned future trips and made mental notes of places to visit. 

We strolled for about an hour hand in hand chatting and remembering highlights. The Rhine provided a picturesque backdrop and carried our thoughts and conversation downstream. We returned to the hotel and shared a beer in bed and then snuggled up to sleep.

Sunday:

last day

07.00 – We got up and enjoyed a long hot shower then took advantage of the breakfast buffet. The first part of the days travel was only short but it was still going to be a long day so we filled up on all that the buffet had to offer.

08.30 – We set off for Calais via Dunkerque. Weather was overcast but visibility was good and we enjoyed views that we hadn’t seen on the way out.

09.45 – Crossed the Belgian border – we are now seeing more of Belgium than we did on the outward leg, it is charming but unremarkable and has a look that could be filed under ‘northern european’ 

12.30 – We cross our penultimate border and are now in France, we head for Dunkirque and find it to be a very pretty little town. We are able to drive around with confidence and some of the town looks like a scene from ‘Allo ‘Allo!

13.00 – We break our journey with a stop on Calais beach. We stroll to the waters edge and write in the sand then watch the ferries coming and going, hand in hand, playing the trip over in our minds and voicing the best bits. On the way back to teh car a kite landed next to us. we picked it up to hand it back to whichever child had crashed it however we discovered that it belonged to a sheepish looking group of four 50-something men. Merci said one in a very English accent. ‘de rien’ we reply adding – I guess you guys are waiting for the ferry too, ‘yeah’ and more sheepish grins! We left the beach and drove to the Port.

14.15 – We passed through border control and customs and anti-terror checks and immigration – which was the same bored individual who would’ve looked more at home in a McDonalds drive thu.

15.00 – Onto the Ferry, bit of shopping, quick snack, a few photos and voila – back in the UK.

16.00 (GMT) – Rolled off the ferry and reminded ourselves to get back onto the left!! After a week of picnics and great continental food we gave in a treated ourselves to a McDs just outside Dover and then pointed ourselves North.

Alas the rest of the trip North was typically British, bit of drizzle, loads of roadworks, a goodly number of diversions and a very frustrated sat-nav. We eventually arrived home, tired but happy and having had a real road trip adventure. We had crossed Europe and got a real flavour of the look and feel of the continent. We had seen more that a flight could ever allow and had spent time together and worked as a couple and as a team.

Our advice, just get in the car, point it somewhere abroad and just go for it!

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