After three relaxing days at Nevegal in the Dolomites, it was time to head north. On Sharon’s list of things to visit is Vienna, Austria, which was about 400 miles away. As is usually the case in the mountains, though, you can’t get there from here, so back we went down the valley we had come up, east across the plains south of the mountains, with temperatures creeping into the high 80s, and then north toward the Austrian border. I had had to pay cash for fuel in Italy because none of the gas pumps will take an American credit card – they want dedicated fuel cards, or the chip and PIN type credit card like they have in Canada and the rest of the civilized world, so I bought a last 20 euros worth of fuel in Italy (at 1.64 a liter, over six dollars a gallon) in order to have enough to make it to the border.
Coming up the valley the E55 followed, we saw amazingly beautiful waterfalls and turquoise streams, cloudy with rock flour from the glaciers. The streambeds are all filled with pieces of white limestone from the mountains here, so it’s a wonderful sight. The bare rock up on the mountains is so white you can easily mistake it for snow. The driving was easy, though – this was a big truck route, with many bridges and tunnels to make things not so challenging for us heavy vehicles. I got passed by passenger cars going 40 mph faster than I was.
The mountains got higher and higher as we approached the summit at 2700 feet, and we saw villages with the tile roofs of Italy giving way to the shingles of Austria. The Alps have always been a natural barrier, but it’s interesting to see everything – architecture, language, and people – change in such a short distance. It’s a big difference between Europe and North America, where there are vast stretches where you have no idea where you are by looking out the window as you drive by. Sometimes it seems as if it’s McDonald’s coast to coast.
After topping out we descend slightly, and there’s the border. First thing to do upon entering Austria is to check in with the local authorities and get outfitted with the right gear for the toll roads. True to their temperament, it’s very organized. Vehicles less than 3.5 metric tons (7717 pounds) buy a vignette, a sticker for the windshield which is fairly reasonable costwise – I think a ten day day pass is 8.90 euros. Over 3.5 metric tons and you need a device called a Go Box, which is one of the reasons why European RV manufacturers strive mightily to meet this weight limit. The standard driver’s license is also only good up to 3.5 tons, so if you do what I am doing, make sure that you get an international driver’s license from AAA, which is basically a translation of your American license reassuring any gendarme/carabinieri who gets curious that you are indeed licensed to drive vehicles up to 26,000 pounds in weight.
The Go Box is a transponder interacting with overhead signalling devices – you attach it to your windshield and it beeps every time you drive under one of these things, which seem to be every five miles or so. Depending on number of axles and Euro emissions class, you get charged somewhere between 19 and 25 cents a mile, deducted from money you give them up front. I part with 75 euros at the border (minimum amount) and get my Go Box. Sure enough, it starts beeping at me as I drive along. One beep is good – after a couple of hundred miles it started beeping twice, which is bad. I went into the Go Box place at the next rest area, and another 75 euros departed my wallet. I found out that it started beeping twice because I had used up a little over half of my initial allotment – 40 euros. Beautiful roads they have here, but I’m not used to the high overhead. Maybe that’s why everyone tries so hard to stay below the 3.5 ton limit. Besides, somewhere there’s a database with all this information about where you were at what time. It’s a little creepy to me, having gotten used to leaving no trace as I travel in North America.
We call it a day in Klagenfurt, maybe 30 miles into Austria, and pull in at the Campingplatz Klagenfurt Worthersee, a nice place full of bustling blonde children because school’s out and it’s a holiday coming up – Corpus Christi. Like VE Day in France, all holidays are taken very seriously in Europe. Every business in town closes down – it looks like Christmas morning out there. We are low on groceries, but survive on strudel and Kaiser rolls from the camping store, and head out again the next morning. There’s a huge Alpine lake here with a beautiful park full of volleyball courts, beer islands out in the lake you swim up to to order your drinks, etc. Judging by the license plates in the RV park, many people from Germany come down here, probably because it’s as far south as you can go and still get a decent schnitzel.
The drive the next day was uneventful as we came down out of the mountains into the Danube valley – beautiful scenery, and many small towns with an agricultural economic base. One of the quirks of Austria is that they have overhead power lines, rare in the rest of Europe. My guess is that there’s probably a significant hydroelectric generating capacity up in the mountains (edit: I looked it up; 70% of Austrian electrical generation is hydroelectric), and they use this to power the cities down on the river. Most of the lines looked like high tension transmission lines. As we approached Vienna, we followed the directions to our centrally located campingplatz carefully, because there are also no-go zones for large vehicles in this town as well, and you don’t want to get lost. We got lost about a block before we made it to the campingplatz, running into a row of barricades across the road, but I executed a beautiful 20-point turn and safely made it around the block to a welcoming camp host, who plied us with brochures about all the things to see in Vienna. My main goal right now is to find a decent grocery store and try the local delicacies. We are down to our last Kaiser roll.