Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Day 287 – A hand-made brooch and a painted rock. (Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary)

We had had a very tense few weeks what with the deadline of Christmas and New Year hanging over us, forcing us to rush through the Balkans and lock in accommodation, so whilst we’d had a good time in Prague, it was kind of a relief to hit the road again. Having reached Central Europe, we were becoming a bit sick of being back on the tourist trail after so long off it, so we were looking forward to heading out East towards Romania, Moldova, Transdniestria and Ukraine.

Leaving Prague, we seized the opportunity to pick up a hitch-hiker. Elena was a Romanian girl around our age, living in Bratislava, but on holiday in Prague and Vienna for New Year. Her friends had caught public transport between the two cities, but we were very happy she had decided to hitch-hike, giving us the opportunity to meet her. Greatly enjoying her company, we adjusted our route slightly to take her as close to Vienna as we could without getting stuck in traffic. Although we were only with her for a couple of hours, Elena is definitely one of the memorable people we’ve met on this trip, and a testament as to why picking up hitch-hikers is just another fantastic opportunity to meet exciting new people.

It’s funny being sad to farewell someone you didn’t even know existed two hours previously, but we were. Elena gifted us with a hand-made brooch and a painted rock and we dropped her off at a spot we thought would be good for getting another lift. And what a good spot it was, as by the time we drove one or two km’s to do a u-turn, then passed back by where we’d left her, she was already gone!

We continued onto Slovakia, taking the opportunity to camp which we hadn’t had for a few weeks. We stopped for dinner in the small town of Kostoliste, and for the first time in a very long time had to order from a menu with no English on it, to a waitress who didn’t speak a word of English. After getting used to the luxury of English speaking Europeans over the past few weeks, it was an oddly refreshing challenge to be thrown back in with this type of language barrier. We found a fantastic camping spot in a forest and we had one of our favourite camping nights, just sitting outside with a few drinks, telling stories, making jokes, and jovially chatting into the wee hours of the morning.

We wanted to make a quick stop in Bratislava the following day, the city that until this trip we had all deemed Europe’s most boring capital. Having explored more of Eastern and South Eastern Europe though now, we realise that there are in fact a few other contenders. Podgorica, Montenegro is right up there, along with Chisinau, Moldova. Tiraspol, Transdniestria, if you count that as a country, would probably take the cake, and Tirana, Albania and Sofia, Bulgaria weren’t exactly exciting. Don’t get me wrong – each of these places do have certain charming aspects, and some of the social and political history is nail-biting; I’m not saying they’re bad places, and we actually had some fantastic times in these places thanks to the people we met. If you rock up though with no idea of what to do or where to go, and no one to show you around, you won’t really find anything other than a pretty town centre or scenic surroundings (in some examples).

After spending our allocated 90 minutes in Bratislava (including lunch in a cafe), we headed for Hungary, planning to make it to Budapest by the late afternoon to collect Ben’s forgotten shoes and some Christmas mail that had been sent to Tom Unkles’ family but hadn’t arrived in time. On the way out of Bratislava though we accidentally missed the turn onto the motorway, and thinking we could just take the next one kept going. As we left the outskirts of the tiny city though, much to our amusement we found ourselves back in Austria. I’m always intrigued how a town that is essentially a suburb of a city in a different country, just looks completely different. This Austrian town, despite Bratislava being the closest centre and being able to see the city from there, looks and feels completely Austrian; all the signs are in German and all the products sold are Austrian. It’s so bizarre after all the crazily controlled border crossings we’ve done on this trip, that we can now just cross from country to country, willy nilly and as we please, almost without even noticing.

We quickly crossed back into Slovakia for a few minutes before making it to the Hungarian border. Soon after the border we stopped in an abandoned petrol station to eat the lunch we’d bought at the supermarket, before driving straight to Budapest and successfully collecting our things from Tom Unkles’ cousin.

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