European Road Trip 2018: Germany through Austria to Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and return to Munich
Munich to Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and back to Munich
This year’s road trip is 18 days and to 2 countries that we haven't been to before; Slovenia and Croatia.
In addition to going to Ljubljana and Zagreb (capitals of Slovenia and Croatia) we are going to some less well known smaller towns and cities.
In this part of Europe, most tourists go to Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava or pass by on a Danube River Cruise. These cities seem to suck people in, and it’s not too difficult to see why people get lured into visiting; they are all beautiful.
But this time we are going to a few less well know places;I guess that unless you’re from Central Europe or are spending a significant amount of time in this part of the world, you probably haven’t been to them, let alone heard of them.
So Day 1, Tuesday 24th April we set off in our Avis racing car (a very very fast Ford Focus ST wagon with Recaro seats and an extremely good car) and drove from Munich to Gyor (pronounced 'jyeur') in Hungary. About a 550km drive, all on motorways and uneventful except for a 1 hour delay due to road works on the A8 Autobahn near Salzburg Austria which caused a 20km Stau or traffic jam.!
Gyor was our base for 2 nights at the Hotel Capitulum in the old town city centre. It is pedestrianised but Hotel guests can use a complicated system and lower the barrier and drive in. Very nice…
We checked in, stopped by a café for a Hungarian beer (a bit average) and an Aperol Spritz, wandered the town and had dinner on a boat moored on the river. The town centre is amazingly clean and tidy. No rubbish, no graffiti. And not old grey and Communist looking.
Gyor contains a large number of historical buildings and significant monuments and the old town is very beautiful.
Day 2, Wednesday 25th after breakfast, we took a walk around the town and nearby parks. And as it is Hungary; the breakfast condiments are in 3’s; Paprika, Salt & Pepper!
We walked about 10km all up, including a walk to a nearby shopping centre. Not so many tourists at this time of year, but it’s still a busy city. There is a large Audi factory nearby so it gets plenty of business visitors, most of who seem to be staying at our Hotel. We stopped at the same café for another Aperol Spritz and some Bosardi local beer, and then walked around the corner to a restaurant in the main square and had a reasonably early (Italian) dinner outside. People watching was interesting..a lovely gay lady was at the table adjacent to us alone, frantically messaging on her phone for 30 minutes and looking as though she was anxiously awaiting a first date. A lady with her young daughter arrived; they ordered food; a gift was handed over, and then it all turned to crap. A tug of war over the gift; lady and daughter stormed off food uneaten, leaving a lonely gay lady to pay the bill and take the food away.
As it was a very pleasant evening and it with reasonable light we wandered the town again to take some pix at dusk. The yellow lighting makes it very pretty.
Day3, Thursday 26th we had a short driving day; about 150km to Lake Balaton in Hungary and to a city on the south side called Siofok.
Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe, and one of the Hungary’s most popular tourist destinations. The Zala River is the largest inflow of water to the lake, and the canalised Sió is the only outflow.
The northern shore is more mountainous, and we drove through this area until we reached a town called Tihany. Tihany sits on a peninsula on the lake and is known both for its historic character and as a major wine region. The climate seems quite mild and there were large vineyard areas and lavender farms.
Tihany is apparently the most expensive town in Hungary for real estate with averages higher than Budapest. Thatched cottages, Hungarian wine, craft villages, castle ruins, lavender farms, paprika heaven, and the amazing lake.
We then drove around the eastern end of the lake to Siofok, which is the lakes main resort town. It cooled down in the afternoon, and when we arrived it was quite gray and windy. Siofok looked very desolate; we drove around the tourist area and much of it was boarded up.
So, I thought I’d at last lucked out on choosing destinations. We checked into our Hotel La Riva and the girl at reception said it will get better…! Their restaurant would be open tomorrow Friday, and some of the other restaurants would be open. Nevertheless we thought we had picked a dud town. For dinner we walked to one of the few open restaurants; a huge place called Mustafa’s which turned out to be really good. Not very busy, and my Kebab and Heather's pork were excellent; with beer and pancakes for dessert only Euro 25.
Day 4, Friday 27th, we woke to beautiful clear morning, much warmer than Thursday with a high of 26 forecast. Breakfast at the hotel was excellent; the usual European cold meat, cheese, bread, fruit etc, and with omelettes and eggs cooked to order. Travel lesson learned though; omelettes are made only with eggs in Hungary; if you want ham or tomato etc its always served on the side. The hotel guy thought I was crazy wanting it mixed in, but his lady chef still made a very nice mixed omelette for me!
Sure enough the Hotel wood fired pizza oven was being stoked up, and when we went off to explore the town there were certainly more signs of life. The local shopping area was about 1km away, so we wandered over to a very nice town square with lovely gardens. The centre of the square has a water tower, which has been transformed into a viewing tower with a revolving platform. It’s a pricey 6 Euro to go up in the lift but were glad we did. Very nice place completely restored. And the coffee tables are made out of the frames of old Samsung Plasma TVs now with glass inserts. Very cool idea.
We had lunch of a shared pizza at our hotel; excellent pizza. Then filled our car with petrol and drove about 25km west to take a look at the lakeside villages.
For dinner I'd read about a nearby restaurant called Mala Garden which was highly rated. It was right on the lakefront and proved to be excellent. Huge portions, delicious food, and although more expensive at about Euro 60 for both of us, it was definitely worth it. Plus views of the sunset over Lake Balaton were a real bonus.
Siofok would be a lively place in midsummer, but was a bit of an oddity for us. Most clubs bars and restaurants were closed, but a few opened for the weekend visitors. It must be humming in the summer otherwise they wouldn’t exist at all.
Day 5, Saturday 28th we had a 400km drive from Siofok Hungary to Lake Bled in Slovenia. The quickest route was to stay on the motorways, which were amazingly good. There was some road works before the Slovenian border, and then all the motorway traffic was routed in a rest area, where about 40 police were inspecting cars, buses and trucks, We didn’t need to stop, and we got to the Hungarian/Slovenian border about noon, and had to buy the road toll vignette sticker. It’s Euro 15 for 7 days, and took quite a while to buy; large queues at the counter plus tour buses stopping for passengers to use the free toilet at the gas station.
Slovenia was instantly different than Hungary; houses on hillsides with vineyards in a more Austrian style than Hungary. The Slovenian motorways were great and well signposted, but we did have some urgent braking required when a truck in front of us shred a retread and left all sorts of rubbish spewing on to the road. But cars stopped, people got out and cleaned it up very quickly and we were soon on our way.
We arrived at our pension in Selo village at about 3pm; it is a rural village about 2km from Lake Bled itself. We grabbed a map and drove to find a rare car park at the southern end of the Lake and did a 6km walk around most of the lakeside. Slovenia only has one Island,and it’s in Lake Bled. Not a bad claim to fame. It’s as beautiful in real life as in any of the photos; stunning from every view point. Clear water, snow capped Alps, a cliff with a castle on top, a church on the island, rowing boats, and extraordinarily clean and tidy give the number of day trippers in town. Its only 55km from Ljubljana and quite close to the Austrian border and Italy, so very popular.
We drove into town for dinner at an Italian Osteria near the Lake.
Day 6, Sunday 29th, we set off at 9.30 after a nice breakfast to get a car park in the city before it got too busy. We took a rowing boat over to Bled Island; it cost Euro 14 each for a guy to take about 18 people and row us the 30 minute across the lake to the island. Expensive, but a tough job. And one that has been done by the same 4 families for more than 300 years.
The day was perfectly calm and sunny so our rower had a relatively easy job. They leave you on the island for 40 minutes, which is enough to climb the 99 stone steps up to the Assumption of Mary Church. It was built in its current form near the end of the 17th century, and has a 52 metre tower. It is regularly used for weddings, and it is traditionally considered good luck for the groom to carry his bride up the steps on the day of their wedding before ringing the bell and making a wish inside the church. If you pay another Euro 6 pp you can go inside and ring the bell for good luck, and climb the tower. We didn’t as the queues’ were long and I noticed that the tower had wire mesh over the viewing area so no good for photography.
Back on shore at noon, we drove up to Bled Castle and lucked a car park for 3 Euro for 2 hours and paid our 11 Euro each to go into the castle. It’s being renovated but gives you an amazing view over the lake to the Island and church, plus great views of the surrounding mountains. There is also a museum that shows the history of settlement in the area around the lake for the past 1000 years, Very interesting artifacts and clothing displays.
We then drove about 20km south to the largest lake in Slovenia called Lake Bohinj. It is located within the Bohinj Valley and is part of Triglav National Park. Very beautiful river, clean water and views up the lake to the mountains. Well worth the drive. For lunch we had a sandwich and a large slice of Bled Cream Cake. Similar to our custard square but much lighter, and better.
Back to the pension by 4pm, I took a walk around Selo Village; apple trees in flower, the most neatly stacked woodpiles I’ve ever seen, and an amazing green landscape.
Day 7, Monday 30th, we drove from Selo to Ljubljana (Slovenias capital) via two towns; Radovlijca, and Skofja Loka.
Radovlijca was quite small but had a very nice old town, and a great viewing point over the valley and farmland.
Skofja Loka was very pretty; a lovely old town, a castle on the hill above, and a river with several bridges giving access to the old town. We walked the old town and then up the Hill to the castle. Unfortunately it was closed on Mondays so we didn't get to visit the Museum. But the gardens surrounding the castle were very nice with good views over the surrounding area.
It was then only about an hour into the centre of Ljubljana; Ljubljana is the capital and largest city of Slovenia. It has been the cultural, educational, economic, political, and administrative center of independent Slovenia since 1991, but has been settled for 2000 years and has plenty of remaining Roman walls.
Road works and closed roads in the city confused our navigation but we eventually found a way to our Hotel and into its underground car park. Our hotel is right in the city centre adjacent to the old town, so we can leave our car for the 2 nights and walk everywhere.
After checking in we walked about 5 minutes into the old town; The Ljubljanica River separates the old town from the commercial area, and both sides of the river are lined with outdoor cafes and bars and restaurants. And the Ljubljana castle overlooks the old town.
The city is amazingly clean; separate garbage bins for 6 different types of waste & recycling. It won the European award in 2016 for clean green city. No rubbish lying in gutters or in the river.
Dinner we went to a restaurant in the old town called 5-6KG. Local Slovenian food; Heather had piglet pork belly and I had beef rib. Perfect.
We did notice a restaurant with Goose breasts, Frog legs and young horse fillet on the signboard menu. Interesting but not for us.
Day8, Tuesday 1st May. We took the funicular up to the castle, and took a river boat trip for about 1 hour up and down the river.
Ljubljana Castle has a very interesting museum of Slovenian settlement over the past 2000 years. And there is a great viewing tower that gives you views right over the city to the Slovenian Alps on the border with Austria. Spectacular.
The city was not as busy today for the May Day public Holiday as it was yesterday. Most of the shops were closed today, but of course all cafes bars and restaurants were open.
Ljubljana is a lovely city; The Lonely Planet folks who voted Wellington the ‘coolest little city in the world” title back in 2011 can’t have ventured to Ljubljana. Ljubljana is half the size, twice as nice, and much cleaner and greener.
Day 9, Wednesday 2nd May. A short 140km drive from Ljubljana to Zagreb, the Capital of Croatia. (Hrvatska in the local language)
I’d read and heard that there were some difficulties with rental cars at the border. Slovenia is in the open Schengen EU zone, while Croatia is not. So it is a hard border crossing but we had no problems. A stamp in our passports leaving Slovenia; drive 50 metres and a stamp entering Croatia. No questions; just happy police guys at each border post. And it only took about 15 minutes.
Just across the border into Croatia we spotted a Harvey Norman shop. Apparently they operate in Ireland and Croatia as well as ANZ. Weird. We stopped at a large shopping mall for a bite to eat; very nice mall with the usual array of department and designer stores.
We reached our Hotel at about 2.30 after a bit of navigational difficulty; one way streets and markets. Hotel Academia is very nice; close to the inner city; modern and we have a huge room.
Zagreb is separated into two areas; the Upper Town and the Lower town; the upper being the older area. So we walked up to the ‘old town’ a climb of several hundred steps. Quite a few government buildings in the area as well as St Marks square and church. Lovely building with a colorful roof. And some interesting museums; The Museum of Broken Relationships being one.
We then walked down to the main central square in the city; Ben Jelacic Square and returned to the hotel via Tkalciceva Ulica which is full of cafes, boutiques and restaurants. People watching and local beers filled in an hour or so..
Dinner was at a local cuisine restaurant in the same street “Kod Mike”; delicious traditional food, a meat platter and chicken kebabs with grilled vegetables. Lots of red and green capsicum.
Day 10, Thursday 3 May; we walked the city centre; The Dolmac market is the open air food market; fruit, vegetables meat and fish. It’s been in the same location for more than 100 years. Interesting area with cheese and milk people selling traditional cheese.
We also found some attractive parks and the flower and plant markets.
Zagreb has many museums; 3 of the odd ones are the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Museum of Torture, and the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art. We couldn’t decide which one to go to, so we had some beer instead. All up, 12km of wandering another wonderful city.
Day 11, Friday 4th May we drove from Zagreb to Rovinj, normally about 250km. But I decided to drive a bit further south in Croatia so it was about 320km, and about a 4 hour drive which would get us to our hotel around check in time of 2pm. The route also took us along the west coast of Croatia overlooking the Adriatic sea to the city of Rijeka, before crossing the Istria peninsula to the Adriatic coast and the city of Rovinj.
Rovinj is a Croatian fishing port on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. The old town stands on a headland, (many years ago an island) with houses tightly crowded down to the seafront. Cobbled streets leads to the hilltop church of St. Euphemia. The Rovinj archipelago’s 14 islands lie close to the mainland. Our hotel was immediately opposite a dry dock with views across the bay.
After check in we walked to the old town and did a circuit of the headland. Beautiful historic town with the waterfront streets packed with cafes and restaurants. We stopped at a cafe for Ice cream and drinks; I just had to have a Spaghetti Ice. These things are so good! And the small one was rather large..
We ate dinner at an open air seafood restaurant opposite our hotel; I had a whole grilled sea bream with vegetables, and Heather had sea bass; served whole as well which was a surprise but she managed to eat it all without any problem
Days 11 and 12, Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th of May, we spent wandering the town. Sunday morning we took a walk inland and south from the hotel to the Zlatni RT forest park bordering the coast. A very enjoyable walk of about 10km total though trees and along well formed tracks and then returning beside the very clear and blue Adriatic. Some very nice stacked stone artwork on the coast as well.
Day 13, Monday 7th May we took a drive about 30km south of Rovinj to the city of Pula, also on the coast of the Istrian peninsula. It is home to a Roman Amphitheater built around 2000 years ago, an amazing structure in the city centre. We spent an hour or so at the Amphitheater and Museum and then walked the town. Beautiful pedestrian streets with many cafes and restaurants.
After a snack at the car park café, we drive back up the coast about 15km to the village of Fazana. This small town gives boat access to a National Park of several islands off the coast. Prior to 1990, Yugoslavia's former President, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, was fond of Fažana and the Brionian Islands, spending up to six months of his year there. A beautiful village with nice restaurants. Pity we had no time to take a boat across to the Islands.
Returning to Rovinj we walked another lap of the headland and later in the evening had another seafood dinner at a waterfront restaurant.
A very relaxing 4 nights/3 days on the Istrian Peninsula.
Day 14, Tuesday 8th May we had a 400km drive; from Rovinj Croatia, through Slovenia and on to Italy and Desenzano at the south end of Lago di Garda for 2 nights.
After leaving the hotel at 0930, we had no problems exiting Croatia or entering Slovenia; 2 border stops with passport checks and stamps. We chose one of the smaller border crossing points so there as very little traffic.
Unfortunately we needed to drive about 20km on Slovenian Motorways so needed to buy another vignette toll sticker for 15 Euro. Expensive but better than being caught without one and getting a 300 Euro fine!
As Slovenia and Italy are in the Schengen Zone, it was straight across the border to Trieste in Italy. From Trieste the E70 Autostrada motorway to Venice, and onto Turin & Milan was very busy; large numbers of trucks with Italian, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian plates.
But by 2.30pm we had driven the 400km and arrived at our Hotel in Desenzano. The street in front of our hotel was closed for a festival, and a friendly Italian policeman gave me the wrong directions…but after a U turn and driving back past him he was laughing and waving!
We ate at an extraordinarily good Pizzeria restaurant on the lake front for our 4th time; 2011, 2014, 2015 and now 2018. Always excellent with a really good spaghetti scoglio.
Day 15, Wednesday 9th May we drove east along the coast of Lake Garda to Sirmione
From Sirmione, we then drove to the town of Pescheria del Garda; both two of many historic towns on the lake front.
Lunch at a great pizza restaurant and then back to Desenzano via a car wash to give the Ford Focus a well deserved clean and a fill up of expensive Italian petrol (Euro 1.80 or about NZ$3,10 a litre so just over NZ$180 to fill the tank).
Day 16, Thursday 10th May we had a relatively short 200km drive from Desenzano to the Alto-Adige (Sud-Tirol) Province of Italy. Rather then take the Autostrada toll route we took the road to the west side of Lake Garda and over the hills to Trento, then to Bolzano and on to Merano.
Merano (Meran) is in the Alto Adige (Sud Tirol) which is the northern most province near to the border with Austria. It is bilingual with 3 main languages although,most people speak German followed by Italian and a third language called Laden.
We had booked into a traditional hotel in the village of Lagundo near Merano. We checked in, had lunch in the beer garden restaurant and then drove into Merano for a look around.
Beautiful scenery; mountains, vineyards, and orchards.
In Lagundo most people speak German; yet in the next village most people speak Italian and it is less than 2 km away. Italian is spoken more in the cities of Merano and Bolzano, with both Italian and German in the various villages.
We at at our hotel in the Pizza Restaurant for dinner; nice pizza but very busy with hopeless service,
Day 17, Friday 11th May, we took a walk along the hills above Lagundo on the Algunder Waalweg (German) or Roggia di Lagundo (Italian) A beautiful walk of about 8km though vineyards, orchards and alongside irrigation canals that have been there for 300 years. This area is just spectacular.
There are very few non European tourists here; its very popular with Italians Austrians and Germans though and is surprisingly expensive. Amazing really as it is one of the most beautiful areas in the world. Perhaps its not so popular with foreign tourists because it is not “Italian” enough?
Friday night we walked about 1km down through the village to a Trattoria for an extraordinarily good Italian dinner and where the menu was in Italian, with German underneath.
Day 18, Saturday 12th May. We checked out of our Hotel and it was then a 230k 3 hour drive from Italy through Austria into Germany and we were back to Shelley’s place in Munich by about 1.00pm
All up, we did 2944km in our Ford Focus ST wagon EU AZ 8495. An amazingly good car and a pleasure to drive it through some of the best scenery in Europe.