Monday, September 17, 2007

A long day's journey into night

Leaving Brela was not quite the smooth easy drive that getting there had been (despite the end-of-trip diversion). The second week of our holiday was to be in a small village in N-E Slovenia, which on the map seemed like a not unreasonable drive, sort of 6 hours up the motorway, by the look of it. We started out just before 7am, and headed back on to the motorway (easily this time) and started going up the coast. The first hour or so was plain driving until we got diverted off the motorway before the first big tunnel as they had opened it up in both directions for traffic going in the opposite direction (this could have been our first clue that things were not going to be as easy as we would have liked). It didn't seem like a big imposition though as we had intended to exit a couple of exits further on to visit Plitvicke Lakes national park. This just meant a slightly longer way around to them.

So we rolled on up to the national park, and found somewhere to stop in the vast and rambling car park that seemed to go on for miles, and to already (it was about 11) be packed full of vehicles. An extended hike from there to the front entrance ensued, with maps and signs informing us that there were various option to see the park - involving a kind of bus-cum-train, walking and boats. The shortest of these was advertised as taking 2-3 hours which seemed to fit our schedule fairly well, so we took it. The amount of info was fairly limited though, and after we'd bought our tickets, we got on a brain (or trus, take your pick of portmanteau words) and headed up into the lake area. We weren't really sure what to do, but got off with everyone else at what appeared to be the end of the line. From there the signs indicated that the next stage was a walk. So off we set, walking among the beautiful green lakes and waterfalls of the national park. And we walked and we walked and we walked. Some pictures what I took:

So, anyway, the problem here was not the lakes, which as you can see were well worth seeing, but the fact that we had to walk so far, taking hours over often uneven and rocky paths to get to the end of the section. Not a problem for most people, in truth, but (a) we were pushing Paula in a pushchair, which didn't quite suit the terrain, and (b) my father-in-law fell out of a walnut tree a few months ago and is still not exactly as mobile as he once was. The lack of warning and information in advance was, then, a bit of a pain. Still, a nice place for able bodied visitors who don't need to push anything.

Eventually then we set back off on our way, a little later than expected, but expecting to get to the house in Slovenia by sunset-ish. Hah. Little had we figured with the vagaries of the Croatian highway authorities. First we hit a ridiculously slow traffic jam on the motorway to Zagreb, which turned out to be just so that everyone could pay the toll. I still don't really understand this one as there were something upward of 10 toll-booths for three lanes of traffic, which you'd expect to work relatively efficiently. No such luck. 1 hour to go ten kilometres. In some countries you need to pay a kind of "motorway tax" when you arrive if you want to use the motorways - Hungary is one such place - whereby you pay the tax for X days, stick a sticker in your window and off you go. It's a little bit irritating (I always thought) but it certainly avoids this kind of chaos.

So, we eventually got round Zagreb and set off on the motorway towards Maribor. Smooth driving for the first 50km or so, and then we get directed off the motorway (at the humorously named Krapina) and onto what in the UK would be called, oddly, a trunk road. A few kilometres later and we were directed off the trunk road and onto this back country lane. Things weren't looking up. We joined a queue of traffic (which to be honest was not so much a queue as a long parking lot)

[An aside: One of my favourite US/British misunderstandings story was of an American friend of a friend who was driving round England in a rented car and stopped to ask someone where he could park. The conversation went like this - American:Is there a lot around here? Bemused local: A lot of what?]

I tuned into the radio (one of the Croatian radio stations does hourly traffic bulletins in English and German), and discovered that as much as I could ascertain (the idea is a good one, the translation a bit lacking) the Croatian police/customs/border guards had decided that the border post we were headed for was too busy, so with impressive logic, they had closed it. So every vehicle headed towards Maribor (which also included cars going towards Austria, Germany and beyond) was now parked on this back road inching towards an unknown border post in some tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I'd characterise it as less than fun. We took 3 hours to crawl three kilometres to the village of Lupinjak (Look it up on a map, you won't find it. That's how small and inconsequential it is). Still, there are not that many people who can say they've seen Lupinjak (aside from anyone traveling north on Saturday August 18th 2007), but I and my family, have. It's a shame really, as we'd had a great time in Croatia, but the authorities seemed to want us to have misery and annoyance as our lasting memory of the country. The Israelis do the same thing, subjecting you to the 4 hour plus exit policy specifically designed to ensure that you never darken their doorstep again.

Once through the border, we then of course had to find our way back towards the direction we were supposed to be going. This involved some little Slovenian back road over a mountain which was kind of daunting by that time (at some point on this leg of the journey my right eye started to behave oddly, seemingly unable to focus on anything but the road ahead - if I looked at the radio or something it went haywire. And my neck was killing me). We got stopped once by the police, but perhaps interpreting my twitching eye as an unlikely come on he let us off whatever it was he'd stopped us for (driving a Romanian car in a built up area, I think).

We finally made it to our destination - a cottage in the village of Bodonci in the far north east corner of Slovenia - at about 1.30. Over 18 hours after we had set off the previous morning. Luckily the key was under the mat and we could let ourselves in and crash (though I did find the time and energy to sink a deliciously cold beer which I had been promising myself since about 5pm).

Slovenia and the second week of our holiday to follow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Seven Hills

(Apparently this blog has been locked by "spam prevention robots". I always thought there was a niche in the kids TV market for an avenging army of Transformers type vigilantes going round trashing supermarkets who dared to sell processed meat in cans. No idea when this post will get published in the meantime)

I have more of my holiday experience to post on, but am just back from a short work trip to Iasi in the east of Romania, and needed to let any readers out there know that I have discovered a truly excellent Romanian beer. This is not to say that some of the better Romanian beers (Ciuc, Ursus, Silva dark, etc) are bad, but they're not excellent exactly. They're just reasonably good quality fizzy lagers, not much to write home about. But in Iasi I was introduced to a stunningly good beer. It's called Sapte Coline (7 hills). It's unfiltered and unpasteurised and really it compares well to some of the good Belgian beers. It also comes in extremely cool bottles. Here's their website.

There is, of course, a catch. 7 Coline is only available in certain restaurants and pubs (no shops) and only in Iasi (at least this is what my Iasish hosts told me). I hereby start a campaign for wider distribution of what is by far and away Romania's best beer. I hope you join me, and if not, that you make the trip to Iasi to sample this amazing find.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


So, Brela

Gorgeous. Crystal clear water, warm sunny days, no throngs of tourists, and more importantly no throngs of touristy shops full of things that Bogi would spend all day every day coveting. I'd recommend it to anyone - and the nice thing is that because of it's topography it's never likely to get any more crowded than it already is. The town's website.

The apartment we stayed in was pretty well situated, only about 100 steps from the beach (and by steps I mean here steps as in stairs - it is a hilly place), whereas most others we saw were well over 300 steps up and down. In fact I did one day count the steps and there were exactly 101, which meant that they constituted 101 Dalmatian Steps.

The beaches are superb - not sandy, but the water is just exactly right for swimming and especially for kids, shelving gradually, clean and warm and clear and salty enough to hold you up but not sting your eyes. Apparently they have won some prestigious Euro "blue flag" award which means nothing to me but they seem inordinately proud of it. I was also told that Brela beach once appeared in a list of the top ten beaches of the world in Forbes magazine (it must have been a slow news week in the world of rapacious capitalism), and was the only one in that list in Europe. I can't actually verify that fact but it does seem to be repeated at a number of Internet sites (which doesn't of course make it true). This is the most convincing page featuring that information. Though having looked at that list I would take some issue with it, given that I have visited about 5 of them, and they are in a very weird order. I'd like to know what the criteria were.

To finish, as is traditional when I go somewhere, name five famous Croatians, and while you think, so as not to have my answers give the game away, here are some pictures:This rock is the symbol of Brela. if you look closely you can see that there is a little notice on it. The notice indicates that dogs are not allowed. It is not clear how a dog is actually supposed to get on to it in the first place. The only explanation is that the notice actually means "Do not throw your dogs on to this island"

5 Croatians: Davor Suker, Ante Gotovina*, Goran Ivanisevic, Franjo Tudjman, Tito.

*It's obviously a bit risky mentioning Gotovina's name, since there are people out there lurking ready to misinterpret any use of his name in the category of "famous Croatians" as meaning that I hold him personally responsible for the deaths of 2 million Serbs. However, I do feel at liberty to express the opinion that Franjo Tudjman was an arsehole. And I wish he'd gone to the Hague.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Banana Split

...Part 2, of the epic drive around the Balkans (is it? Where do these mysterious Balkans begin and end? I have a feeling we kind of circled them, but am not really sure because I'm not really sure where they begin and end - and why they are a they at all, since as I understand it, "they" is a peninsula)

The next morning we awoke to find that Törökszentmiklós actually had residents and wasn't in fact some bizarre ghost town. They were up and about and shopping and going about their obviously diurnal existences. Perhaps there had been an air-raid the previous evening that had made them enforce a blackout and had them all huddling silently in their bomb shelters. We shall never know, since we packed up and shipped out sharpish.

We had decided that rather than traversing Hungary by motorway, we would (as we had given ourselves enough time) see a bit of the country, and so head off in a vaguely south western direction. There really wasn't much to see to be honest, at least east of the Danube, as the countryside was unremittingly flat and uninspiring and the towns not really much better. The one thing you have to be a bit careful of when driving across Hungary from East to West (or from West to East, obviously) is to make sure you plan where you are going to cross the Danube. If your itinerary takes in Budapest obviously you can do it there, but otherwise you have to be fairly careful as there really aren't that many bridges. We elected (in advance, thankfully, so we didn't have to back track and keep banging up against a wide and uncrossable watery barrier) to cross at a town called Dunaföldvár, which was a pleasant little place dominated by it's bridge (obviously), and having a very bridge-based sense of identity - in the town square there is a statue of two blokes surveying which is not something you normally see in statues (Everywhere it seems, but in Hungary particularly, statues are very keen on involving horses).
The surveyors of Dunafoldvar

We stopped for lunch under the watchful gaze of the lifeless team of surveyors, and then continued on. This time with added contours - the landscape west of the Danube is much more appealing. Sadly we didn't head south for Paks (birthplace of one of my favourite Hungarian slang expressions - as reported here) or even Pecs, a town which I really would love to see, as it has the reputation as Hungary's most interesting/beautiful town. Finally we fetched up in Nagykanizsa, which is fairly close to the border, and since there was an intense rainstorm going on, found a place to stay. This proved much easier than it had been the night before, as there were people and lights and life in Nagykanizsa (despite the downpour).

The next day we were up early for the long drive to the coast, this one to be more or less all on motorways, so while it would be the longest day in terms of kilometres, it promised to be the shortest in terms of hours and minutes. Another day, another border, this time leaving the glorious free market of happiness and prosperity that is the EU. Would we have difficulties? Would the Croatian border police, venting their frustration at Romania's accession without them, pick a fight and drag us aside to be questioned at length? No, we were waved through in seconds (though the bloke was ridiculously surly) and then even handed a series of tourist information leaflets and maps of the country. This is a service I have never received before. Free maps! What a brilliant idea. I was instantly well disposed towards this country (leaving the country a week later was a different story, but I'll leave that for now).

We hared down the motorway towards Zagreb, eating up the kilometres in a way unheard of in our motorway free world. You don't get to enjoy the landscape in the same way by this method, but you do get to your destination a lot faster. We slipped past the capital and were then off and running towards the coast, on what must be one of the world's most international motorways. I'd reckon about 25% of the cars on the road were Croatian, and the rest were from all over Europe - In rough order of volume Austrians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Slovaks, Bosnians, Poles, Romanians, Dutch, French, Belgians, Brits, and Russians. I had thought we had travelled an unfeasibly long way to get to this coast, but passing or being passed by Poles and Belgians, made me realise that we'd barely even had to get out of bed.

Another thing to note about this motorway is that my brother built it. On his own. Armed only with a spoon and a trowel. In four months. He's good at stuff like that, my brother. OK, he didn't actually build all of it, just some of it, and he had some help I think. But he was (at least temporarily) involved, and I even went to stay with him in the small town of Ogulin back when he was doing so. That town, indeed, was my first introduction to the concept of pizza with ketchup - something which I rediscovered (to my horror) when I got to Romania. Anyway, he did a good job did my bro' as this motorway is a pretty spectacular piece of engineering work, involving numerous tunnels (two of which clock in at at approximately 6kms long), and long stretches on concrete stilts along the sides of cliffs ("stilts" may be the wrong word there, but I don't know what is. Columns? Pillars? Girders?). Aside from the fact that this motorway was entirely the work of one of my family members, it did beg the question as to how come Croatia has managed to install this very fine infrastructurial artery to serve the country (and it's by no means the only one - there are more of them to the various corners of that banana shaped country) while Romania, member of the EU and all that, has managed so far to build a short one from Bucharest to noted population and tourism hub Pitesti and very recently one that nearly goes to the coast. Transylvania and Moldavia don't have a centimetre of motorway in them. It's a bit pathetic really.

Anyway we zipped south, and waved goodbye to the long queue of traffic exiting at Zadar, while we headed on towards Split. (The town immortalised in the classic "Theme from the Hair Bear Bunch" - "So don't yell, Help! Help! Here come the bears, Lets split!").

One odd thing as you head down the coast on the motorway, is that you basically never see the sea. This, it turns out, is because Croatia's coast is very mountainous and the road is built one ridge back from the sea. This is something we discovered to our cost when we finally reached the end of the motorway, which has conveniently been constructed to a point about 15kms from Brela, our destination. Or at least we thought. Sadly, though, the road between the motorway and the coast had been temporarily closed and we were forced onto a diversion of epic proportions, having to head south around a massive mountain before being able to cut back to the coast and back up to Brela - a 100km, 2 hour plus journey which I really didn't need at that juncture. My father in law enjoyed it immensely, getting to see tiny dusty Croatian villages and all that, but I just fancied a break from driving. On this unexpected tour of out-of-the-way villages we did also get to see a poster proclaiming Ante Gotovina a hero, which reminded me of the reason why Croatia isn't yet in the EU while much less developed (at least to the naked eye) Romania is. (though to be fair, it's not like Romania doesn't have it's fair share of powerful people who probably ought to be arrested and tried for stuff they did in the past. Yes, Domnul Iliescu, I'm looking at you)

Finally, though, we made it to Brela, our destination. Total distance from Csikszereda - 1600km on the nose. 1000 miles for those who still use them. I sank a well earned beer or five, and we headed straight down to the beach to cool off. Rave review follows tomorrow in the next instalment of this enthralling "what I did on my holidays" style essay.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I would drive 500 miles

and I would drive 500 more...

Friends from Budapest had booked their holidays in Brela, Croatia, and suggested that we join them. Having finally obtained a reasonably sized car for such an undertaking (a Daewoo Tico really isn't suitable for a family of four and luggage to make such a trip), we said yes, and I started looking on the excellent ViaMichelin website for the route we should take. The shortest distance involved driving to Timisoara, down to Belgrade, and then across Bosnia to the coast, but this wasn't necessarily the quickest, which instead involved utilising those miraculous things called motorways (unavailable in Romania, Serbia, and Bosnia) to make the trip through Hungary and Croatia. Since we had also decided to bring my father-in-law, we thus chose the quicker route (especially because we would have to first call in at Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures to pick up our passenger). In the spirit of the age in which words are combined to make other more ridiculous and crap sounding words (like "infotainment" or "synergy") here is my contribution to the new vocabulary: a narradrive. Enticing huh? Read on...

After the pick up, on the well worn route through Hungarian speaking Harghita and Mures counties, we set off towards Cluj. En route ( a road I have driven a few times) you pass the most amazing houses in Campia Turzii. I don't have a picture to share, but here is a similar one in Huedin (which we also passed later)
(courtesy of Dumneazu's excellent blog).

These are houses built by rich Roma, and the ones in Campia Turzii are, if anything, even more exotic and overwhelming than the one pictured above. Next time I pass them, I will definitely stop and take pictures. (Later update: Please see comments to this post for Randy's link to a photo of the houses)

We descended into Cluj - however you approach Cluj you have to seemingly descend into this large hole that the city seems to be built in. From the south the descent is particularly dramatic, but every other way seems to involve a similarly precipitous descent (I've never actually flown to Cluj, but I'm making an educated guess that the same would be true in that direction too). One thing you pass as you engine-brake your way down the mountain is a huge sign by the side of the road welcoming you to the city. This welcome is conducted in many different languages - Romanian, English, German, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese etc. Only one language (given Cluj's history and ethnic mix) is conspicuous by its absence. Yes, you guessed it, Hungarian. This sign is, I strongly suspect, a cheery reminder of the Funar years when Cluj was presided over by a lunatic Romanian nationalist mayor who did everything he could to piss off Hungarians, but instead, unsurprisingly, ended up looking like a petty minded idiot.

Through a very congested and chaotic Cluj, passing straight through Romania's most beautiful suburb, a horrible mess of a place which is, I think, called Manastur. I've only ever really been to central Cluj before, which is quite nice, but Manastur is about as horrible as it is possible to be. We then climbed back out of the city on the road to Oradea (and Huedin, see above). This is a road I hadn't driven before, and it is (in places) very attractive, especially when it climbs to the top of a mountain pass just past Negreni.

Finally we made it to the border at Bors, just past Oradea, and crossed with incredible ease, our first time crossing a land border since Romania joined the EU. A brief look at our passports, and we were waved ahead. No checking of the car papers, no checking of whether or not the Romanian passport holders had 500 Euros each (as they used to have prove), no problems. Miraculous. We stopped off for a coffee, at which my father-in-law told us how the first time he'd ever crossed this border sometime back in the 60s, the first thing he and his friend had done was to drink a coffee since real coffee was at that time unavailable in Romania.

Things you notice when you leave cross from Romania to Hungary by road:
  1. The road surface becomes immeasurably better (to be fair this is partly just because the road between Oradea and Bors is a complete mess, not because all Romanian roads are still as bad as they were a few years ago)
  2. Suddenly the landscape becomes incredibly, impossibly flat. It's like whoever drew up the Trianon treaty said, "We'll mark this border here - you can keep this endless flat bit, and the bit with any sort of contours we'll give to Romania".
  3. You no longer see blokes pissing by the side of the road. You do see cars which are stopped and you can assume that somewhere there is someone watering the roadside vegetation, but it's done much more privately than in Romania, where people just pull over, whip it out and let fly there and then, regardless of visibility or any other considerations of decorum.
  4. The overall average standard of driving goes up considerably. No longer do you get people screaming up the wrong side of the road outside of queues of traffic, no longer do you see death defying acts of bravery/stupidity on a quarter-hourly basis.
  5. There are reflective things by the side of and in the middle of the road, and reasonable lighting in towns and villages. This is probably something you would only notice crossing at night, but it is certainly very very noticeable. While driving at night in Romania is pretty hard work, since you can only see what your headlights illuminate, in Hungary it is much much better.
We thought we would drive about an hour into Hungary and then find somewhere to stay the night. This proved somewhat harder than anticipated. The towns that we came to, once we'd made the decision to stop when we could, were unremittingly lifeless and unwelcoming to visitors. We did find one pension that was open in some dusty one horse town somewhere the name of which escapes me, but, predictably, given that it was the only accommodation for hundreds of miles (possible exaggeration alert), it was full. Finally we arrived in the by now familiarly dusty and underpopulated town of Törökszentmiklós (or "Turkish Saint Nicholas" - a town specifically named so that you don't mistake it for all the other Saint Nicholases). There we did find a person who we could ask about accommodation, and he directed us down a back street to a panzio. Which was signposted but apparently invisible, even though the sign indicated that it was 50m away down a small road. We did eventually locate it, but it was not in the direction that the sign pointed, and neither was it lit up in any way. Nonetheless, we managed to rouse the owners (it really wasn't that late, but you know, Törökszentmiklós is one of those places that makes Csikszereda look like New York), and finally got ourselves a place to stop for the night, making our own entertainment (Paula running around energetically for about an hour, finally released from the confines of the car seat), since the town had nothing else to offer us.

Next installment: Our intrepid heroes leave the endless plain behind and head further west...Tune in whenever I get round to writing it for episode 2