...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).
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.
Podcast 319: Ralf Rangnickering
2 days ago