27.10.2018 - 31.10.2018
All that remained of our epic adventure was to drive ourselves across France and Belgium, filling ourselves with baked goods and filling Gav with wine. We took the opportunity to reflect on the things that defined this leg of our trip before jumping on the ferry to Hull and reaching our first winter for two years!
One of the advantages of being mobile is that you can adjust the speed or even direction of your journey to maximise any good weather. That said, we rarely had to think about it, so reliable was the sunshine. Our trousers, jumpers and coats spent most of the time stowed away in the recesses of Gav’s storage. It was not until October that we started wearing warm clothes with any regularity and, even then, the sun still shone. In the height of summer, it was so warm that we actually bought a small paddling pool so that we could bathe our feet in cold water to cool ourselves down. It wasn’t until our final week travelling home through France that we had a prolonged period of cloud. We were even forced to turn back because of snow whilst driving across the Vosges!
Whilst English is certainly the second language of choice virtually everywhere we went, we still tried to pick up the basics of each of the languages we encountered if only to manage “hello” and “thank you”. Spending so much time in The Balkans made things simpler as the former Yugoslav languages are more like different dialects than different languages. The Balkan languages are also relatively straightforward to read as each letter pretty much makes one sound regardless of what comes before or after it. We hardly covered ourselves in glory, but our feeble attempts certainly helped raise a smile, although all too frequently the words would stumble out in the language of the previous country as our brains took time to adjust.
Perhaps it’s obvious that driving is an integral part of a road trip, but with seventeen different countries visited, getting to grips with the nuances of each one made for some entertaining moments. The rules for each country were easy to look up, but working out the application of these presented various challenges. For example, the speed limit in built up areas was 50kph in every country, but each country has a different way of telling you that you’re entering a built up area. Occasionally, they adopt the radical approach of actually telling you the speed limit. Usually, though, you just get the name of a town to indicate a built up area, although in some countries a different coloured sign indicates that, whilst it is a town, it’s not a built up area, so you can go faster. You just have to work this out, though. Because these signs are in a language that’s foreign to us, or worse, in a non-Roman alphabet, this can make distinguishing between the name of a town or a sign advertising the local shop even more problematic, and that’s before considering the numerous missing signs or the plethora of vegetation that frequently obscures the signs altogether. Looking to other drivers for clues was a tactic employed with varying degrees of success. In Switzerland, this is foolproof as the Swiss conform to a national stereotype and obey their rules. In most countries, however, the other drivers are almost certainly speeding and looking to them as an example is a bad idea.
Whilst we tried local beer in all of the countries, they were all fizzy lagers of varying quality. What was perhaps surprising was the range of local wine on offer in these places. Most of the countries we visited have their own wine industries but, with the obvious exceptions like France and Italy, they don’t produce enough of it for it to make its way into the international market. We had wine from Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, some of which was surprisingly good.
The local drink of choice in eastern Europe is rakija (essentially schnapps). It comes in a variety of different flavours, depending on what it’s made from. The most common is plum, but we also had apple, pear, grape and apricot. A huge proportion of the rakija drunk is homemade. It’s also a very common sight to see people selling it at the side of the road. Depending on the country, you can pick a litre up from between 50p and £3.
We spent a huge proportion of our trip in the mountains and so we did lots of walking - we’ve now got a small collection of walking maps (of varying quality!) from across Europe. Most of the mountains we visited were quite steep and so there tended to be two sorts of walk: a gentle stroll round a lake at the bottom; or a steep ascent to the top. Medium length walks were hard to come by without sleeping in mountain huts.
We also used our bikes a fair bit. It wasn’t always for a massive ride. Sometimes the campsites are rural and the easiest way to get to a town is by bike as it saves packing Gav up, plus the parking is free!
Whilst this leg of our trip was less action packed than our time down under, we still managed a fair few activities. As well as the hiking and cycling, we went canyoning, kayaking on both flat and white water, SUPing, rock climbing, rafting and via ferrata climbing.
What trip of ours could be complete without food! Last year we made a point of eating out once in each country we went to, but that was Scandinavia and so expensive. In eastern Europe and The Balkans we didn’t need to be quite so restrictive as you could get a full on meal for the same money that a beer would cost you in Norway. Having spent a lot of time in the mountains, a lot of the food was rib-stickingly stodgy. A meal didn’t seem to count as food unless it contained at least two out of meat, cheese and pastry. Whilst the food in eastern Europe isn’t going to win many culinary awards, that’s not to say that it’s bad quality. They just have a more limited supply of ingredients, the upside to this being that everything is fresh and local. Much like with the booze, it’s common to see people growing their own vegetables and selling them at roadside stalls. Conditions must be right for growing cucumbers and tomatoes because we seemed to eat a lot of them.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about food in eastern Europe without mentioning doughnuts. From the moment we entered Romania, we had over a month of doughnut-based cuisine until we arrived in Croatia. Who would’ve thought that doughnuts, jam and feta would be a winning combination?
With our fourth trip of our break complete, and with it being twenty two months since we last did a day’s work, it was time to park Gav on our drive and begin the task of reintegration to the real world.