Summer 2017. My wife Jill and I hadn’t taken a long vacation in a few years. This time we wanted to travel through Eastern Europe. While I was born in Salzburg and had visited all over Austria and Italy, I had never ventured East of Vienna or South-East of Carinthia (Kärnten). Jill, however, had lived in Budapest for 2 years and wanted to go back to see the changes after 15+ years. So we packed our bags, bought airplane tickets, rented a car and made hotel reservations in the big cities. Here are the seven countries:
- Germany – Munich
- Austria – Salzburg, Vienna
- Slovenia – Lake Bled
- Hungary – Lake Balaton, Budapest
- Slovakia – High Tatra
- Poland – Krakow
Here is the approximate route we had planned:
Saturday, July 1
We flew from Miami via Düsseldorf to Munich, Germany to both see my sister as well as for me to participate in my 35.th high school reunion.
Unfortunately, our checked bags didn’t make it to Munich. We didn’t think much of it and drove to my sister for the first evening and the high school reunion. The weather was kind and we enjoyed an outdoor lunch at the Ammersee with some surfers playing the wind under a characteristic white-blue Bavarian sky:
The high school reunion was a nice event, seeing former classmates again after decades is an interesting experience. I was still a bit jet-lagged, but enjoyed the evening where we could sit outside and reminisce about the time when we finished high school.
Sunday, July 2
Going on to Salzburg was painful in two regards: The highway to Salzburg (A8) was packed and it was raining. We stood in a long backup, the rain was pouring down, our bags were missing, we had just spent a good chunk of money on the rental car and I said half-jokingly: You know, we could have just stayed at home and walked 10 minutes to the sunny beach – why are we doing this here again?
In the afternoon the rain stopped long enough for us to at least go for a walk. Here a photo with my parents and my son Philip who had come to Salzburg for his own 2 week Europe vacation:
Coincidentally, today was the start of the RedBullXAlps competition which happens every two years: Crossing the entire alps from Salzburg to Monaco on foot and by paraglider. The athletes start in the town center of Salzburg, and the Gaisberg mountain in the picture is the first turnpoint. This year’s weather at the start was the worst they have ever had, pouring rain and low hanging clouds; they couldn’t even fly down from the Gaisberg, instead had to run all the way up and down. At the time of our little walk the athletes were running along some highway in the rain next to cars whizzing by – instead of flying towards the next turnpoint…
For the next several days we checked via phone and on the web for our bags, but unfortunately there was no trace of them for the first week. Although quite annoying, we refused to let this weigh us down – instead, we just went shopping in Salzburg to get some minimal travel outfits and continue with our plans.
Monday, July 3
Our next stop was Bled in Slovenia. Fortunately our drive across the Hohe Tauern and through the two big tunnels (Tauern- and Katschberg-Tunnel) was fairly uneventful and the weather South of the Alps turned sunny again. Bled is a tourist destination, so there was some traffic just outside of town, but Jill had booked us in a lovely hotel called Vila Bled. We checked into our room and then enjoyed the idyllic scenery from the patio overlooking the lake.
We had an afternoon coffee, then headed out by rowboat to the nearby island in the lake with the little church on it. There were many people out by rowboat, paddleboard, kayak, or just swimming. Only electric motors are allowed for boats on this lake. It is quiet, clean and very picturesque.
After the boat ride we go for a walk around the lake – about 1.5 hours or so. There is a national rowing club which proudly displays the Olympic medals won by the teams who train here on this lake. This explains the rows of buoys across the lake, a regatta track.
It’s cloudy in the late afternoon, but no rain. We have delicious dinner sitting outside, right next to the road and lake.
Are we the only ones who take photos of our food with our iPhones? As it turns out, this appears to be a common pastime, and photos of dinner plates or deserts will fill up our iCloud.
Tuesday, July 4
After another sumptuous breakfast overlooking the lake under a cloudless, blue sky we head out West into the only National Park in Slovenia, the Triglav National Park area.
The road leads into a valley to the Lake Bohinj, from where a lift goes up almost 1000m vertical to the Vogel ski area. From up there we hope to catch a view of the Triglav mountain. Luckily we are relatively early in the morning, with the parking lot not quite full and barely any ticket queue – behind us the first tour buses changed this very quickly. 20 mins later we ascend to the top of the lift, where a breath-taking panorama awaits us:
The Triglav just to the North of us is already in the clouds, but we nevertheless get a good view. Due to the lack of our hiking shoes we don’t venture too far from the top with restaurant, ski chalet and hotel. The scenery is very similar to some of the skiing areas in Tirol or Bavaria.
The cool air is very welcome, and we both think about how our dog Jackie would enjoy running around up here.
There is a little village called Ribcev Laz at the East corner of the lake (right edge in above photo), with a picturesque church and some hotels and lake related tourist attractions.
We drive back to our “basecamp”, the Vila Bled and relax a bit. For the afternoon we have a couple of more attractions planned. First, we drive to the nearby Vintgar gorge. There a mile-long walkway leads through a narrow gorge along bridges.
It’s a refreshing walk on a hot summer day; only the crowds get to us a little bit. Hard to believe, but there are probably a dozen tour buses arriving during the time we are in the gorge. With the narrow path it means you are constantly single-filing along crowds of people, through selfie-sticks and posing tour groups. It would perhaps be better to come here on a rainy day, without the tour bus crowds…
We have one more highlight for today, designated in Google Maps as “fairytale castle on lakeside & museum”: Bled Castle.
The location of this castle on a rock about 500 ft above the lake is very scenic. The view from the top is amazing. The other day, we tried to get a dinner reservation here, but it was all sold out. This would have been the ultimate drone footage to fly from the lake shore up to and around the castle in the mellow evening light – it is here that I truly regret not having brought my drone with me…
The museum is also quite interesting. Jill engages a local artisan in a conversation about the art of iron welding which is still practiced nearby and some items exhibited in the castle. I also found a tourist presentation quite interesting which features surround video footage displayed on about 12 flatscreen monitors wrapped around the wall of a circular tower-room.
Back to the hotel we decide for dinner at a nearby restaurant where we can walk to. The evening sun is painting beautiful colors on the lake shore.
This was a long day with lots of different impressions – mountains, lake, river gorge, castle, etc. Bled was a complete success, Jill is very happy.
Wednesday, July 5
I get up early – the sun rises at 5am – and go for a long swim in the lake around the nearby island with the church. It’s a 45 minute swim, the longest I have been swimming in a lake in years, maybe decades. I get quite cold towards the end and need a good breakfast to warm up again. We feast on the breakfast buffet of Vila Bled one more time. Somehow this never gets old.
Then we drive East via Lubljana, the biggest city in Slovenia and our Southern-most point, and then North-East towards Hungary. We skirt the border of Croatia, at times less than 100 m away just on the other side of a small river. Eventually we get to Kesthely at the Lake Balaton (German: “Plattensee”).
The moment you get off the main highway, the roads are much narrower than what we are used to in the Western countries and driving through the small villages feels a bit like a time warp. Lots of cyclists are riding along on nice bike paths separate from the road. Apparently there is a bike path all around the lake, some 200km to complete the circumnavigation. But it is a very hot day, with temperatures in the nineties (Fahrenheit) and around 35 C. Consequently, we see many cyclists with severe sunburns.
I very much looked forward to driving around this large lake. We stop to take a 1 hour tour on a ship. Being out on the water gives us a welcome breeze; the water is fairly shallow and milky. We don’t get too far out on the lake, but we see how the water stretches out to the Eastern horizon. A nice break in the long drive today.
After the boat tour we walk into the center of town. Pedestrian zones with some market stalls being set up and lots of cyclists. Jill gets an opportunity to practice her Hungarian language skills when she orders us coffee, some cake and a big ice-cream.
We take the smaller road on the Northern shore of the lake and head towards the town of Tihany, some 50km to go. Here it is good for us to have a powerful rental car, as we need to bypass the occasional truck or bus. It reminds me that in Florida we rarely ever drive on normal country roads anymore, it almost feels like a time warp in that regard as well.
Tihany is located on a hill on a large peninsula which creates a narrows in the lake. From up there we have nice views of the lake and get a better feel for the expanse – about 80km (50 miles) from West to East.
There are many local artisan shops, pottery, paprika, arts & crafts, and very good food. In fact, one of the best things about Hungary is its cuisine. Especially if you like meat. We had Venison for dinner – and pretty much every variety of meat you can imagine over the next couple of days. While we were eating, this platter was brought out of the kitchen for a group on a nearby table:
Hungarians love to eat, and they know how to cook. And people seem to particularly like paprika in all its forms and flavors. Many villages have at least one paprika house for tourists:
In the evening hours we continue our drive towards Budapest. The road winds through rolling hills and large sunflower fields, all very picturesque. The modern highway gets busy with traffic as we approach the metropolis of some 3 million people, almost 1 in 3 Hungarians live there.
After some city traffic we reach one of the big bridges across the Danube and enter the city center. We are tired from the long drive and our only goal is to find the Hotel, park and check in for the night. Thankfully with our GPS it is all fairly easy. As we pull into the underground parking garage, I notice an old Trabant car next to a modern Tesla S – I wish I had taken a photo of this multi-generation contrast, sort of like the first PCs compared to the latest iPhone.
Thursday, July 6
<more to come>