Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Big Drive

Today I'd like to take a little detour (excuse the pun) from my regular content and share with you my impressions from our recent holiday to Croatia. Not the holiday part itself, but the big drive from Amsterdam to the Peljesac Peninsula, about and hour and a half north of Dubrovnik. This post is for my family and friends back in Australia and their requests to 'tell them all about it'. It's a long one, so you might want to get a cup of tea before you start.

Australians in Europe get pretty excited over the same thing - how close everything is. Just this week I was talking to an Aussie girlfriend about her visit with me later in the year. We get a little crazy about all of the 'possibilities'. Already on our to do list is to visit a German Christmas Market (after all, it's only just over an hour to the border...), and we have had the Paris discussion also (there's a sign as you leave Amsterdam showing Paris a mere 492km away). "It's closer than Sydney," we enthuse. "It's just like driving down to Byron!" we note, conveniently forgetting that we very rarely actually drive to Sydney. Because it's a bloody long way away!

So, with this as our context, my Dutchman and I prepared for the big drive from Amsterdam to Croatia - the same distance as Brisbane to Melbourne, FYI. Hindered at the start with a flat battery, but saved by Sander’s Aunt Olga and her jumper-cables, we had to make an unscheduled sleepover at Sander's parents' house where Hans fitted a new battery for us, and then we were on our way early Thursday morning...

Crossing the German border (only fifteen minutes from Hans’ and Tanya’s house, I was excited to realise) I immediately missed the Netherlands aesthetic. Pretty, ordered paddocks and farms either side of a manicured highway strip give way to somewhat greyer and haphazard countryside. It is so strange how the crossing of an imaginary line can have such a real effect on the landscape. It is like this until Cologne, a couple of hours in, and then my opinion was changed. At this time of year, Autumn is setting in and the trees are changing colours on a scale not seen in Oz. Dense forests on the sides of hills and mountains (a welcome sight after the lowlands of NL) range from deep blue-green through to road-works yellow, all mixed in together.  It really is incredible how true each of these colours are. The reds, for example, can be deep merlot-coloured or even fire-engine red. I now love Autumn!

During the drive through this setting, when the mountains and valleys are plentiful, I got the distinct impression that I was in some fairytale or medieval land. Little pastel-coloured cottages with thatched or red-tiled roofs dot the sides of the hills, and converge in higher density on the valley floor, usually centered around a high, white church spire. These pretty houses remained so bright and lovely despite the grey laid over it by the rain. To add to the fairytale, on one of these village hills I saw the most beautiful castle! It was made of honey-coloured stone, and was complete with rounded turret walls and arrow-slit windows. Sander is a good and patient driver - especially seeing as I was often beside myself with excitement and leaning across him to get a photo! I was pretty unsuccessful, as you can see below.

Such a beautiful, blurry castle.

Further to the centre of the country more and more of the village roofs sport shiny solar-panels; an interesting twist of modernity that I really enjoyed. Then, towards the south and the Austrian border the houses get bigger and bigger, less villages and more farms and their dominating farmhouses. These dwellings, although much larger, are no less picturesque. Three storeys high, with white render and exposed dark-wood beams, they are mostly thatched and have cute wooden shutters on either side of small windows fringed with lace curtains.  This tradition carries into Austria, and we got to stay in one for the night - much nicer than a concrete road-side motel. But I’m a few hours ahead of myself, as our accommodation was right at the bottom of the country and we had a few hours of Austria to drive through before reaching it...

And, of course, we were driving on the autobahn through Germany. Standard highway speeds through the Netherlands are 100kms, with some 120km zones, and in Croatia the limit is usually 130km. So crazy, and I’m unsure that my old little car would have been able to keep up. When I was driving on the autobahn, however, I stuck at around 135km per hour. Quite nerve wracking at the beginning, but I adjusted quite quickly. More scary was when I, even when doing 140km, was tailgated (although only in the middle lane), and then a car would overtake at speeds in excess of 160km per hour. Too often for my liking also cars would zoom past in the left lane (the fast lane over here) that had to be doing near to 200km per hour. I was sure that I’d see them followed by a Top Gear camera crew! People couldn’t drive that fast on a regular basis!

In spite of the autobahn it takes a long time to drive through Germany, and to entertain ourselves I started my own version of the License Plate Game. In our game, we tried to spot license plates from other countries, and as an added extra I had to guess which initials stood for which country of the European Union. Sander wasn’t allowed to help me unless I said something very stupid. Like when I thought, near the Italian border, that the ‘I’ on a plate stood for Iceland. And then my second guess was Ireland...  Here are the initials I spotted - see how many you can get! Added to this are the non-Euro Union countries, who still like to display union-style stickers next to their plates, which can be confusing for an out-of-towner...

The initials (answers at the end!): NL, D, B, I, F, RO, SLO, HR, BG, DK, EST, BIH, A, CZ, H, L, PL, SK, S

Just as exciting was passing road-signs of cities only before experienced on maps. Munich, Dusseldorf and my favourite, Ingolstadt. Ingolstadt! That’s where Frankenstein created his Monster! And Verona! Fair Verona!

The 'A' in the circle stands for Austria, the 'I' for Italy.
Totes exciting.

It took about eight hours to drive through Germany, and when we reached Austria I was once again surprised by just how different each country was. Austria grows mountains on its mountains, and, thanks to the rain, we didn’t see the mountains until we had crossed our last German pasture and were right at their feet.  Huge! Gigantic! Like the Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland, except instead of seeing these from a distance we drove right at their base and, at times, through them. The longest tunnel was over seven kilometres. At other times we crossed elegant bridges spanning deep ravines (spotting a waterfall or two). Really, the country is impossibly mountainous, with cows grazing on vertical fields, and houses having straight roofs but angled bases. It was here in Austria that I entertained Sander with the complete Sound of Music songbook.  How could I help myself? The hills were alive! And right in front of me! I didn’t find out until the return trip that my Dutchman has never actually seen The Sound of Music, and so my half-remembered and mostly off-key rendition of Climb Every Mountain may have seemed a bit strange. PS - I’m downloading the film as I type.

On Day Two of the drive we were in Slovenia within an hour, after another seven kilometre tunnel. These tunnels are tolled, by the way, as are many of the freeways, and we ended up spending over €50 ($75) on tolls alone. I should probably let you all in on the other dark side of European road-tripping: we were incredibly excited to reach the petrol stations in Slovenia as the petrol was so much cheaper than the Netherlands. In Slovenia it was only €1.52 a litre. I was about to buy a jerry-can and fill it for later, I was so happy. I can sense the Australians wrinkling their foreheads as they work it out. We bought cheap fuel in Slovenia at €1.52 a litre. That’s AU$1.92 per litre. In the Netherlands we’re currently averaging €1.85 per litre - or a princely AU$2.34. So even though everything is so close, it is so very expensive to get anywhere.

This Slovenian petrol station chain is called 'Hip Hop',
which helps when you're paying stupid prices for fuel.

Let’s talk of more pleasant things! Slovenia is pretty and perfect, with green rolling hills and pretty little churches and houses, and the countryside around Bled is just as dark, brooding and mysterious as one would expect. I want to spend more time exploring this little country. 

Finally - Croatia! Crazy stone mountains - white and grey stone upon stone, as if the Gods had played a giant game of jacks and left their pieces scattered about. Desert landscapes with surprising blushes of deep pink from a particular autumnal bush. Finally we escaped the rain, and as we continued south the weather warmed up. At this point we thanked the Croatian government and their lovely new highway, as periodically a digital road-sign would span the road, giving us the speed limit and also the current temperature. We watched it go up by degrees, from 11 degrees Celsius at the start inching onwards and upwards to the mid twenties. We took a wrong turn at Split and accidentally avoided the coastal road for another few hours, instead enduring more desert until the highway ended (quite literally ended, because it hadn’t been built yet. The road suddenly stopped and we made a sharp turnoff in sight of concrete with iron rods poking out and a ravine below) and we found ourselves on a tiny road weaving our way down to the valley floor. In each valley (because we went up and down a number of mountains and into a number of valleys - lets just say that my childhood carsickness almost made a reappearance with all of the winding roads...) we drove through little settlements - too small to be villages - of stone houses set amidst back and frontyard orchards. I started pointing out each fruit and vegetable I saw growing - olives, grapes (for wine and fruit), pomegranates, mandarins, rosemary, peaches, and a whole lot of kale in little rows on the edges of driveways and alongside the road. It was a while before we saw the sea, but when we did it was spectacular; bright blue contrasted against the light grey mountains. (For friends and family, this is where our photos on Facebook take over. Too many bathing suit shots for the general public to post here!)

Beautiful Croatia. No bathing-suits in this pic...

In summation (and I know, as an English teacher, how wrong it is to begin a conclusion as such), it was wonderful. I’m looking forward to doing the whole drive again, only this time we’ll have some more time, and we’ll spend it by taking each and every highway exit that interests us. Oh, and do you know the German word for highway exit? Ausfarht. Hee hee! Imagine seeing that every few kilometres. I giggled inside each time...

Answers for the License Plate game
NL - Netherlands, D - Germany (Deutschland), B - Begium, I - Italy, F - France, RO - Romania, SLO - Slovenia, BG - Bulgaria, DK - Denmark, EST - Estonia, A - Austria, CZ - Czech Republic, H - Hungary, L - Luxembourg, PL - Poland, SK - Slovakia, S - Sweden and the non-union HR - Croatia (Hrvatska), BIH - Bosnia and Herzegovina

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