Loop Around the Alps
To view a larger version of the pictures, click once on a photo in the gallery at the bottom of the post.
It had been two and a half years since Fabian and I had taken a car trip and we were ready to hit the road again. This time we headed for mountains of the non-volcanic sort and set out to make our way through the Alps, eastward toward Budapest, down to Croatia and back through Slovenia to Milan where we started. I was keen on seeing more of eastern Europe since previously I’d only been to Prague. I won’t bore you with daily details. Instead I will choose a few germane topics to help the sundry traveler. The well captioned photos also speak to my particular experience. For reference, here is a map of our trip:
In my Southwest Loop post I discussed the option of couchsurfing: staying in a stranger’s home for free. On this trip I experimented with another option: Airbnb. With Arbnb you still stay in another person’s home, but in this case you pay something (usually less than a hotel) and receive a little more in return such as more privacy or a clean bed instead of a couch. I arrived in Milan a day earlier than Fabian in order to get a good sleep before we met up and embarked toward the mountains. Incredibly, just as my first couchsurfing experience was incredible with Mikhael, my first Airbnb experience was stellar with Sandy. She actually picked me up at the airport, took me to her apartment (where she was not staying at that moment) and gave me the keys. An hour after my arrival I was standing alone in a stranger’s apartment in Italy. Then, after I napped, she came and took me to have a snack and meet a friend, only to be followed later by inviting me to an outdoor
dancing/garden party with more friends. That night I had another solid sleep. All that for half the price of a sterile hotel! Thank you Sandy, ambassador for Airbnb! You might think I’m crazy to just hop in a stranger’s car at the airport. Or especially that Sandy was crazy for bringing me, a strange man (both unfamiliar and odd) home. There are safety checks with this system, but nothing beats your good ole intuition. I found an excellent link that explains these alternative accomodation styles here.
Renting Cars in Europe
On this trip Fabian and I ran into a few issues regarding car rental in Europe. Americans should note that most Europeans that I have spoken to are of the opinion that American car insurance (even what comes with your credit card usage) either does not work in Europe or is incredibly difficult to file a claim with. So the rather inexpensive daily rate is only a teaser. Next, be careful of where you can or can’t drive the car!! Fabian realized too late after he rented the car that Hungary and Croatia were not included in his insurance package. Because of this we took the train to Budapest from Vienna, as I was quietly insistent that we follow our original plan. To get to Croatia we had to rent another car for a day out of Slovenia. Also, when they offer to give you a nicer car, do the math. Fabian was happy to get upgrade to a BMW but the small daily charge of $10 does add up a bit. I think he was happy driving the BMW though ! – especially through the 28 switchbacks up and down the mountains in Triglav National Park in Slovenia.
Bathing in Hungary.
I think I have reached a surfeit of caving for one life…but I don’t think I could ever have enough hot natural baths! Bring on the spa! While doing my research for the trip I discovered that the borders of Hungary seem to encompass quite a fine piece of real estate for natural hot springs and Budapest has been called the “City of Baths.” This spa tradition in Hungary was accelerated by the Ottoman occupation from the early 16th century to the late 17th century, and while few of the original Ottoman bath structures remain, the concept of the Turkish bath lives on. Fabian and I chose to visit the Szchenyi Baths in the City Park downtown. This is the largest bath complex in all of Europe with a variety of indoor and outdoor pools and all kept at different temperatures. I think my photos capture some of the Old World charm of the tiling and pillars and painted ceilings.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
UNESCO World heritage sites are a constellation of cultural or natural places around the world that have some historical or physical significance and are protected from demolition or further development. According to wikipedia there are 981 such sites as of 2013 – 759 of them cultural, 193 natural and 29 of them being mixed properties. For a full list check here (what site lies near you?). Plitvice Lakes in Croatia is just such a site and one that I happened to discover through the website “Amazing Places in the World” (check that out too!). I saw some stunning photos from this Croatian park and made a note of determination in my mind to go there. These lakes completely lived up to their hype too. I almost felt like they couldn’t be real; like I was was at Disney World or some such contrived place. Instead of planning your vacation around what hotels you happen to have booked, I suggest you might organize your vacation around sites you’d like to see or experiences you’d like to have. Do your research with regard to this idea and don’t worry so much about accomodations. Booked hotel rooms can also limit your spontaneity should something awesome come by and smack you upside the head. This will make your time much more memorable.
Slovenia. Who knew?
Slovenia, a country I fear a majority of Americans don’t know exists, proved to be a stunning surprise. The eastern Alps extend far into this country and they are much less developed here. Small family farms dot the mountainside. And it feels timeless; you might be living one hundred years ago under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thirty years ago in the former Yugoslavia, or now as part of the European Union. Triglav National Park, on the border with Italy, is not all that far from traditional places in the Alps and is well worth the trip!