Driving in Europe is easy, they said! Great roads, scenic views and smooth border crossings!
Well yes and no.
Look for most South Africans, road trips are as much a part of our culture as braais, biltong and bunny chows . Ask any South African child to tell you a favourite childhood memory and you’re likely to hear a story about piling into the battered, Toyota during school holidays for a road trip to a game reserve, a weekend on the coast, or just a leisurely drive to explore parts unknown.
So for this reason (I’m an idiot might also be a reason), I decided I would drive from Slovenia to Croatia. I envisioned the spacious and smooth German autobahn when I booked my rental car. Scarf around my hair, winged sunglasses and red lipstick as I cruised along in my Alfa Romeo with the top down. Ok so I exaggerate but I did have visions of a simple drive.
This was not the case.
Slovenian highways are two lanes only and if there were cars joining the highway from an exit, the congestion was unreal. Coupled with this weird thing that they do where they close off one section of the road to allow incoming traffic to pass; then 30-40 minutes later they open it up to allow you to pass. Which means you’re sitting around in the blazing sun for ages or, if you’re German, you’re outside the car talking to the Austrians and/or sunbathing.
All of this added an additional 90 minutes of travel time to my supposedly leisurely drive. Throw in, a lack of English road signs with peculiar illustrations, my impossibly small bladder and umm… it wasn’t the pleasant drive I anticipated.
Nevertheless, after all that drama the unassuming Croatian border post crept up on me. No signs were in English so I was taken aback when I realised what it was! It was weird- you drive through and present your passport through your window to a man sitting in a booth. He stamps you out of Slovenia and a 20m drive later, you hand your passport over to the Croatian officer who stamps you in. You drive off without a worry in the world.
Well, not quite.
See, this was a small border crossing used primarily by landlocked EU citizens to go down to the beaches along the Croatian coast for a day trip or weekend. So the drivers were just flashing their EU ID cards at the officers who were waving them through. They couldn’t even care about the passengers in the car.
And then I drove up in my Citroen Cactus. With a PASSPORT. Oh boy. The Slovenian officer seemed utterly surprised to see a passport and looked again at my hand to check that I wasn’t hiding an ID card somewhere. Not a chance my friend- if I have one of those prized possessions, it would be permanently stuck to my forehead. Sure he smiled and chatted with me as stamped me out but not without looking in wonderment at my unusual face and the strange assortment of stamps in my passport.
I cruised on over to the Croatian officer who was also totally unprepared to see a passport. In fact, at first he didn’t even reach out to take it. And when he did, he began flipping through the pages while muttering in Croatian.
Me: Is everything ok sir?
Him: NO. ENGLISH.
I watched him take my passport and leave his booth. I didn’t know where he was going and what was going to happen to my passport. I sat in the car listening to the Croatian station blasting Martin Solveig (European radio stations love their EDM) and wondered what to do. Actually, what could I do?
People in their cars behind me were getting antsy and began to hoot furiously. They probably thought I forgot my ID card at home. The Slovenian immigration officer felt compelled to leave his booth to calm them all down. I was perspiring profusely by this point… The sweat was salty on my lips despite the air conditioning in my car.
Eventually Mr No English returned. He slowly counted every single blank double page in my passport as if he was waiting to say, “NOT ENOUGH. NO ENTRY.” But I have a maxi passport with twice the amount of usual pages so he wasn’t in luck. Inevitably I got my stamp, grabbed my passport back, kicked into first gear and sped off into Croatia!
Not really. I merged into the one lane road and became part of a cavalcade of cars whereby a groom was off to collect his bride. The cars were driving at 20km/h and passengers were waving Croatian flags out the windows and singing songs loudly through the open windows. A man on the side of the road was walking along with the cars… This drive was not coming to an end!
Google Maps, for once, did me a favour and helped me avoid the toll roads even though I didn’t ask her to. This was good because I had no Croatian money-Croatian Kuna. When I tried to exchange in Bled, the kind gentleman told me that kuna was only available in Croatia. No worries, I thought, I’ll just withdraw when I get there! One of the perks of having a Kuwaiti bank card with no bank charges!
But what good is a bank card when 4 different ATMs are all out of order? There I was, in this foreign land for the first time, hungry, exhausted and helpless because I had no money.
Eventually I stopped at a tourist information place and asked the lady working there where I could find a working ATM because I was seriously confused. Perhaps the ATMs don’t work on weekends (it was a Saturday).
Me: I need to withdraw kunas. Is there an ATM that I can use in the area? I’ve tried 4 and none of them are working.
Her: Oh no.
Me: Oh no?
Her: We have had a terrible fire in the county. Our phone lines are KAPUT (she waves her hands dramatically). No phone. No Internet. No ATM. Nothing.
Me: But I have no money.
Her: KAPUT. Everything is KAPUT.
Me: Ok… thank you.
I drove off to my guesthouse wondering what I would do now.
When I arrived, the elderly gentleman who greeted me (with his shirt open to his navel?), DID NOT SPEAK A WORD OF ENGLISH. He began to speak to me in Spanish and I wondered why… then I realised: with my hair and colouring, I was being mistaken for a very tanned Spanish lady! I shook at my head at the Spanish and he tried again, this time in German. My German is non-existent but still better than my Spanish due to a primary school education of being forced to learn Afrikaans. The languages aren’t similar but I could understand what he was saying. The problem was that my shoddy Afrikaans is barely understandable to me, never mind to a man fluent in German. (My sister is laughing at this point because she always tried to improve my Afrikaans and I never showed any interest in her help!).
Eventually another guest, a kind Italian lady who spoke beautiful English and some Croatian, came over and helped us both out. As she translated the story about no ATMs in the county working, she turned to me with widened eyes and asked me to repeat myself. I obliged slowly, and she began to panic- in Italian. She too, needed to withdraw money and didn’t realise the dire situation the area was in. Her husband came over to join the discussion and as people shouted over my head in Croatian and Italian, I stepped back and surveyed this scene. I wanted to remember this day and this scene, in all its glory, so I could recount it on the blog.
By some stroke of luck, I pulled out 90 Euro that I still had leftover from Slovenia and the gentleman at the accommodation exchanged it into Kuna for me at the going rate. So I was able to go eat some food and relax for a little while.
I was utterly knackered after the 5 hours I spent on the road and as I settled on my terrace to watch the sunset, read my novel and drink some iced tea, the internet kicked in.
If I had arrived an hour later, I would have avoided all the worries about money.
I leaned back in my deckchair and laughed loudly as my phone went crazy with the day’s unanswered messages. What a completely mental day!
A good travel story is usually the result of something that has gone wrong for a reason that is usually beyond your control.
Those “Uh oh” moments can be quite unpleasant experiences, but you instantly know that they will make an excellent story for years to come!
I love sharing these experiences, first of all because they show the less glamorous part of traveling (especially when traveling by oneself) and because they are an important part of the travel itself. They represent the challenge, the adventure, the thrill and yeah… THE STRESS!
Tips for driving in Slovenia & Croatia:
-In Slovenia you need a vignette. Basically this is a little sticker that you stick behind your rearview mirror and as you pass through the tolls, the vignette is scanned (In the UAE we call this salik). If you rent a car in Slovenia, you will already have the vignette stuck in your car, you will just pay the cost of having it. If you rent a car somewhere else you will need to buy a vignette as soon as you cross over the Slovenian border (you can’t miss the shops selling vignettes once you enter Slovenia). YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS as the penalties for not having the vignette are super high- around 800 Euro.
-Conversely in Croatia, you will pay your toll fees in cash (Do not enter the e-pass lanes- look for the money icons when you see the toll). Depending on the route, you will collect a ticket once you enter a certain highway and upon your exit, you will pass a toll booth where you will hand in your ticket and pay your amount in cash. Keep some coins and a few 10 & 20 kuna notes on hand. The toll fees are ridiculously low considering the excellent quality of the national roads.
-In case you didn’t know, you need coins to use a bathroom at a petrol station in Europe. The first time Bee told me about this I laughed… but then I went and learnt better. 50cents is good enough to get you in the facilities!
– Planning your route in Europe can be a challenge. Signs are in a variety of languages you may or may not understand, roads frequently branch off with little notice, and if you happen to miss your exit, the next chance to turn around might be 20 km further up the road, on the other side of a 10-km tunnel, or- in an adjoining country. Even with decent navigation, I almost ended up in Italy, once arrived at the mouth of a river in Slovenia, and driven countless kilometres out of my way because of missed exits. One tip? Use Google Maps offline; this way you don’t have to use data or incur roaming fees. Just make sure you download the maps you think you’ll need while you have internet before you travel!
– But with that being said, if Google Maps gives you an expected time of arrival, add at least an hour to that journey time. Depending on where you are, you’re likely to encounter delays at some point from traffic, accidents, and periodic road construction. While driving in Europe, you’ll also want to allow additional travel time to stop to buy those vignettes, pay at toll booths, wait in line at border crossings, and slow down for an endless stream of tunnels. If you think you’re being clever by avoiding tolls- you aren’t. You’re also likely to pass through what at times feels like a never-ending amount of tiny towns with reduced speed limits, single lanes, farm vehicles as well as inconvenient and random corkscrew turns. Give yourself plenty of time when driving in Europe!
-The speed limit on the highways in Croatia and Slovenia are 130km/h. After driving at 100km/h in and around Abu Dhabi, this was one of the BEST things about driving in Europe…. ENJOY!
I will wrap up my European holiday in the next post where I discuss my time in Croatia and share some of the pretty pictures I took! What is the weirdest day or experience you have had while traveling? I would love to read about it in the comments below!