I wrote the following as a guest post for Yankee In A New World, an American studying in Hungary. Reading her blog reminded me of the one time I visited Hungary and that we haven’t seen as much of Eastern Europe as we would like. This is not so much about what we saw as about how we got there, and almost didn’t get back…
One thing about becoming a settled expat is that you are not able to be see as much of your new country and continent as you might think. Yes, in Germany we get 6 weeks vacation per year, but most of that is used either to visit friends and family on the old continent or to show visitors from the old continent things you’ve already seen yourself. My parents saw more of Europe on a 3-week bus tour than I’ve seen in 18 years living here.
Our only true European adventure was back in 1996. We had just signed the contract to buy a house, and figured (rightly, as it turned out) that our time and money would be severely strained for the next couple of year. If we wanted to take a proper vacation, we had to do it now. But since we had just put most of our savings into the down payment, cost was a major issue. So we decided to do a Eastern European camping trip.
My wife had a business conference in Prague that June, and we used that as our jumping-off point. She had a decent company car, but wasn’t allowed to drive it the the “New East”, so I drove to Prague in my Renault R5 (similar to a Volkswagen Golf, except French and less reliable… in fact it died for good a year later). Loaded down with 2 bicycles and a hatch full of camping equipment, I pulled up to the Prague Hilton and spirited my wife away. Still in her business clothes, she was brought to our tent at a campground literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The next few days we were then able to take a closer look at the sights that she’d had only seen from the tour bus.
Our next stop was Lake Balaton in Hungary, which wasn’t quite what we imagined (too shallow and muddy). “I want to swim in the blue ocean on my birthday,” said my wife, and pointed to Istria on the map, just a hop, skip and a jump through Croatia away. The map was, however deceiving. What looked like 3 hours actually took 10. For one thing I had to wait over an hour at the border for a Croatian visa (lesson for spontaneous travel decisions… check visa requirements). In addition, the road from the border to Zagreb wasn’t exactly paved, and the motorway from Zagreb to the coast wasn’t yet exactly complete, so we spent hours snaking through the hills under half-finished bridges. But we arrived at a wonderful campground on the coast with hundreds of spaces, but only 10% occupied since the war had only been over for a year.
Now that we knew about the bad roads, we decided to return to Hungary via Slovenia and Austria for our last stop in Budapest. We found a beautiful campground on a wooded hill overlooking the city. It was great in the morning to coast with our bikes down to the river. It was not so much fun evenings to trudge with our bikes uphill.
All in all, bikes are a great way to explore a new city, and we’d certainly do it again, but without the R5 and without the tent. Last year we took a bike tour of Barcelona and loved it (except for the road up the mountain to the Citadel). Between the sights you have the chance to see the city from street level and get a feel for its pulse.
But even today I shudder to think… what if our R5 had broken down on that dirt road in Croatia. Would we have gotten anywhere with our German auto club card?