On the road again: Czech Republic/Slovakia/Hungary
August 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
The transition from Germany to Czech Republic was beautiful. It felt like we were driving through the Tuscan countryside. I haven’t been to Italy before, so I am no scenery expert, but my Grandpa gave me many books about Italy when I was growing up – and most covered the wonder that is Tuscany. (My Grandpa Antonio is half Eritrean and half Italian – and very good about connecting us with our roots).
Czech Republic is definitely undergoing some renovation in the highway department – something that we learned the hard way. After about fifteen minutes into the country, the GPS guided us off the highway and onto a narrow country road that trailed off into the hills. Skjalg estimated that the maps he’d downloaded for the trip were about two or three years old and therefore did not account for the newly built roadway. We continued down the narrow country road for almost half an hour, following the re-routed GPS directions. Though stressful in the beginning, it quickly turned into an enjoyable experience. It was around 17:00/18:00 and the sunlight was soft, warm and glowing – my favorite time of day. The small towns we passed through were beautiful, with golden grass, tall oak trees and stucco buildings. We passed children racing on bikes, a girl riding her horse in a bikini, and various café goers enjoying the calm summer evening.
Had it not been for a fair amount of other cars traveling the same road, we may have worried that we were on the wrong route. The traffic and speed eventually picked up and we were soon on our way back to the hustle and bustle of the main highway, where we were met with our second GPS challenge – an unfinished highway. As the two-lane highway we were driving on picked up, we found ourselves at an odd fork. Our lane split into two: one heading parallel to oncoming traffic and another veering off to the right. The GPS indicated that we continue straight, so we did.
“Uh, Skjalg, is this a one-way highway?!”
It wasn’t long before we realized that we were the only car in our lane and that all the cars behind us were continuing on the lane that veered off to the right. We were already too far for a quick, last-minute, and possibly illegal lane change, so Skjalg reduced his speed to just-above-crawling and we crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t meet another car head-on. The highway curved almost 270 degrees around a small hill so it was impossible to tell what was coming or where we were headed. Luckily, our lane broke off on its own, away from oncoming traffic. We then found ourselves on an unpainted, unmarked, and unfinished highway. There were no signs, no cones, nothing to mark that it was closed. There were about twenty or thirty parked work trucks but no people in sight. We found a narrow gravel path leading across the divide (couldn’t very well head back the way we came) and almost immediately spotted an entrance ramp for the highway that we had originally been on. There were no other cars around, but I’m sure the cars passing on the highway above us were entertained. Thinking back on it, the highway we were on when we first entered Czech Republic and the one we were led back onto, could very well be the same highway – just not connected yet. Maybe they started one end of the highway at the border and the other in Prague and are building them towards each other?
Prague was absolutely beautiful and I was happy that the route brought us right through the middle of it. It is very spread out and the streets are pretty intimidating, but it is definitely a city that I would like to visit in the future. If not for any other reason than to get some decent shots of it…
About 20 minutes after we left Prague, the roads…changed. The quality of the roads that is. Up through Prague, the roads were in great condition: smooth, easy turns, smooth driving surface, and cleanly painted lane lines. Our speed was the same, but the truck was jerking and rattling every second. It was almost as though there were raised strips of pavement, perpendicular to the road, that occurred every three meters (about 10ft). It was getting darker and Skjalg and I had to almost yell to hear each other over the shaking of the car. Skjalg tried to slow down slightly, but the flow of traffic was too fast to slow down enough and it was honestly just as bad no matter what speed he drove. At around 20:30, we were exhausted, completely drained from the long drive and horrible road conditions. I’m sure the roads were fine for a normal sized car, and more so in the left lane than the right, but for a large truck filled with furniture and boxes, it was a nightmare.
With about four to five hours ahead of us to Budapest, we began discussing whether we wanted to keep driving or call it a night. It wasn’t just an issue of getting to our destination, but also how and where we could safely park the truck. I turned on cellular data on my phone so that I could research parking options. The general consensus online was: don’t drive in Budapest. Many sites warned that finding parking in the center was close to impossible and that one could only park for two hours at a time. There are many, many parking structures but not all of them are guarded and Budapest does not have a good reputation when it comes to car safety. I eventually stumbled across a site that told of three different P+R (park and ride) parking lots that were guarded. These offered parking for a minimal fee and were located only several minutes away from major public transportation.
By the time I was done looking up our parking options, we were close to Brno: a city located near the border of Czech Republic and Slovakia. We passed through the city, reflecting on the time where we had actually considered studying there (Brno includes one of the medical schools one can apply to through Bjørknes – the school that hosted our applications). Once we left the city lights and continued into the darkness of the night, we decided that we should start looking for a place to sleep. Our timing was horrible because there wasn’t anything, for almost the entire way through Slovakia. We were nearing Bratislava when we saw the first “bed” sign and at this point we were only three hours away from Budapest. It felt too silly to spend the night in a hotel when we could just save the money and tough it out for a little bit longer. This was easier said than done. About an hour into Hungary, Skjalg got extremely tired (which is understandable after 12 hours of driving through Europe). The only light we saw going through Slovakia and Hungary came from the cars on the road and some sort of red lights in the distance – light reflectors, wind power generators, other cars… I honestly don’t know…. maybe aliens. The lack of street lamps and perfectly straight road made it impossible to concentrate and stay awake; it felt like being on a treadmill in complete darkness. We stopped off at the few rest stops we saw but the fresh air just made us more foggy headed. It was around midnight and it was getting to the point that we were just doing ourselves a disservice. So, at the first bed sign we saw, we pulled in for the night.
The place we stayed at could be most closely related to beer goggles when drinking. We were beyond tired, desperate almost, for a place to sleep and this place was still open, had a cheap, available room (200,- or $33), was right next to the highway, and there were several other cars packed with luggage in the parking lot, so we felt safe parking there. At this point in the trip – it was heaven. We took in our overnight bags and the extra suitcase that I had packed with important documents (in case the car or anything in it got stolen – over-prepared, I know). We felt like we had won the lottery as we ran up the marble stairs, using the little energy we had left to throw our bodies and chosen luggage in the direction of our room. That’s where the illusion ended. The room was cramped, sticky and beyond-warm. We opened the window but then realized that we weren’t really prepared to battle the array of bugs that would visit our faces during the night. The shower curtain was yellowish brown and there was some kind of long ant crawling around the drain. The bathroom floor displayed several hairs from a not-so-hygienic part of the body. The bed sheets were clean, but the comforters were clearly not washed with every visit. The bed itself wasn’t even made of a normal mattress; in fact, it looked more like a giant woven sofa cushion. We kept our shoes on until we were ready to fall asleep, quickly brushed our teeth, and settled into bed with just the cleaned sheets. When we woke about six hours later, we took a look around the room and decided to get out of there as fast as possible. There was no rush to get to Budapest, but there was no way we were staying there.
Staying the night at the hotel was totally worth it, despite the lack of cleaning and its close proximity to Budapest (it was only an hour away). Rather than finishing the drive the night before in our tortured, over-tired state, we were doing so almost completely refreshed and genuinely excited. I didn’t have to worry about Skjalg driving off the road and we could actually enjoy the scenic drive in the daylight. Hungary and, as I’ve mentioned, Germany and the Czech Republic, look a lot like what I imagine Tuscany to look like – and Hungary more than the others. We’ve been passing small farms and acres of corn fields for the entire trip, but the first vineyards we’ve seen are in Hungary.
We have yet to get to Budapest, and I am already falling in love with this country. I would have never, in my life, thought of visiting Hungary if you had talked to me three years ago. It could be because I never learned much about the country when I was growing up or that it has a smaller role in the cast of European countries covered in pop culture – I’m not sure. I considered Italy, France, and England as must-see travel destinations, as those three seem to dominate the list when it comes to the general “countries to visit in Europe”. Since moving to Norway, my “travel horizons” have broadened; access to smaller, less advertised countries is cheaper, easier and more common. I will embarrassingly admit that I had never heard of Montenegro before I moved to Oslo. Hungary was such a foreign place to me. I honestly knew nothing about it, other than that its name was kind of funny and that it was somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe. Now? It’s the location of the next huge chapter of my life. It’s my home… and I love it.