Well, not really, the Iron Curtain fell 27 years ago, but Sharon has read way too many spy novels for her own good, and we wanted to go see the sights in Eastern Europe, so we took a deep breath and started out from Graz, Austria, headed for the Hungarian border. Like our spot in Vienna, we had picked as our destination another campingplatz in Budapest that was close enough to the Metro system to get around without driving the van. Only trouble is, I hadn't bought and loaded Eastern Europe on my GPS.
In addition, Hungary and Slovakia, our intended destinations, had a toll system like Austria which penalized vehicles over 3.5 tons, like us for instance, so we needed to stay off the toll roads. Our workaround was to use Google maps before we set out, write down the complex series of steps to get from point A to point B, and hope for the best.
Getting to the border was easy – our GPS worked in Austria. As we got closer, the complex web of roads and towns on the display showed a vast featureless plain of green to the east of us – no information at all. Gripping our trusty written instructions, we headed out on Route 8 across the Hungarian countryside, which was mostly flat farmland with little villages every few miles. We were basically going down the Danube valley – both Vienna and Budapest are right on the river.
After one mishap at a traffic circle (the road we were supposed to join passed through this circle and we picked the wrong direction) we got close to Budapest, but we were hampered by the different system. You know how highways have a direction in the US – east/west, north/south? Here they have names of towns. Highway 7 toward Minsk, and over the other way it's Highway 7 toward Pinsk. If you don't know the towns, you can't very well look them up while driving around the traffic circle.
As we came up from the south toward the ring road around Budapest, we got lost in a spectacular fashion – the next thing I knew was, instead of taking a bridge across the river on the ring road, I was on the riverbank road itself, headed for downtown. After a U-turn of questionable legality I thought I was headed back south, but instead I went right over the Elizabeth Bridge into the heart of downtown Budapest.
Sharon squealed with joy. I squealed, too, but not with joy. As it turned out, by dumb luck I had ended up on the road that led to our camping accommodations, and was delighted to recognize its name once I figured out that road names are on little plaques stuck to buildings, not on signs.
We had a few eventful days seeing the sights in Budapest, where the currency is florints, worth about a third of a cent each. Fuel was 325 florints a liter, or about $1.20. ATMs work like they do everywhere, so the change in currency wasn't a big deal. We ended up with one bill and some coins which Sharon kept as souvenirs. Budapest is a mixture of the old and the new – here's a decidedly antiquated apartment building with a giant modern building housing multinational corporation Siemens peeking over its shoulder. Some of the building facades had patched bullet holes in them – whether from World War II or more recent political upheavals is anyone's guess.
Here's a bit of the strange mix of pre- and post- Wall Budapest: there's a lot of really bad construction left over from the Soviet era. Some of the walls and metalwork would definitely not pass modern building codes. There was a fair amount of corruption in the old system.
We headed out toward Prague after three days, making better written instructions with town names instead of directions, and measuring the distance of each leg on each particular road so we'd know fast if we missed our turn. Which was good, because we missed our first turn. It smoothed out as we got to the suburbs, and after a hour or so we were passing through villages with spectacular orthodox churches in them, headed for the Slovakian border. We needed to pass through Slovakia and briefly back through the northeast corner of Austria on the way to Prague.
The Danube is the border, so we got to cross it yet again as we entered Slovakia. As soon as we were over the border, all the road names disappeared – each traffic circle just has the names of towns. Every once in a while out in the middle of the countryside you'll see a sign saying you're on Highway 503 or whatever – none of that in the villages. We pull over, out comes the map, and we memorize town names along the route we are trying to find. Worked like a charm. I learned to quit worrying about road names and to head toward cities I'd never get to, because my turnoff was on this side of them. It's just a different system – I imagine they have trouble with our way of doing things when they get over to the States.
Slovakia is mostly agricultural – vast fields of wheat and sunflowers, and tiny towns where people would just stop on midstep and stare at us as we drove by.
I bet they don't see many Roadtreks around these parts. There were a few strange old trucks from the Soviet era whose names I didn't recognize, but most of the passenger cars were Renaults, Opels, Fiats – they're part of the European community now.
The Slovakian currency switched to the euro in 2009. Hey, they even have McDonalds! We skirted the northern side of Bratislava the capital, crossed a small mountain range which turned out to be the Little Carpathians (maybe 1000 feet in elevation above the plain), and soon we were approaching the Austrian border.
I turned the GPS back on, and sure enough, we were leaving the vast green featureless plain and approaching roads and towns.
In five hours of driving I had gone exactly 150 miles, so we decided to call it a day and hang out in the tiny Austrian town of Poythress in the northeast corner just south of the Czech border for a few days, while I try to convince Sharon that we don't have to be right downtown in the nation's capital to get a feel for the place.
Maybe I'll have some luck. Pray for me.