Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Slovenia to Hungary

Although I hadn't planned it that way, driving 500km+ from Ljubljana to Budapest on an Easter Monday was a smart move. Little traffic and I wasn't really missing out on much in either city. The speediest route involves going back down the motorway towards Zagreb, re-entering Croatia for about an hour - and thus having to go through more strenuous border controls twice.

Having poor-nil coverage of Eastern Europe on my AutoRoute 2007 software and Garmin GPS* I worked out an alternate route on paper with some help from a hotel receptionist. Europe being the wee little place that it is, the weeer little countries in it all run together, and I just wanted to cross from Slovenia into Hungary, without hitting either Croatia or Austria.

Driving up to Maribor was pretty straightforward, although you have to stop frequently to give tollbooths your spare change. Luckily Slovenia adopted the euro this year, so I had been spared from getting Tolars from an ATM. They have been very rigorous in their conversion, and you'll find prices for tickets and tolls in cents, without rounding to the nearest ten cents. From there I had to find my way over to Murska Sobota, which was not really well signposted. I was on country roads, interspersed with fragments of new highway which would one day link up all the way to Hungary.

Which way to Hungary?

Something which did strike me strongly, was that if I ignored the writing on all the signs, then the architecture and landscape was such that I could have been in an Australian town or urban fringe, rather than somewhere in an ex-Yugoslav state, and now prospering new EU member.

Last Slovenian town I passed through: Odranci; Bondi frolics by Lake Balaton.

After about 4 hours I crossed into Hungary near Lenti. It's possible that I may have been able to cross further down at Lendava, but the roadsigns were very unhelpful and suggested that would take me back into Croatia, rather than indicating that I would be able to get to Hungary directly. The border people were all full of smiles seeing Bondi's head sticking out of the window as I pulled up to their window, waving me through and (yay!) stamping my passport.

I learn now that I should have stopped to sup the waters of Lenti:
It is famous for its water throughout Europe, which is excellent for treating degenerative vertebral and articular deformations and other locomotor disorders.
Unless of course they shoot a fireman's hose of Lenti water at your hunchbacks and scoliotic spines to force everything back into place.

Lake Balaton

The countryside for the next hour or so was pleasant stuff, reminded me a but of Suffolk. Then we hit the western end of Lake Balaton with the choice of driving up the (supposedly more scenic) northern side or the (faster, has mostly highway) southern side. After 5 hours of driving, the south won.

We stopped for about 1/2 an hour on the lake shore near Balatonszentgyörgy, so we could both stretch our legs. Lake Balaton is known as the "Hungarian sea", being the largest lake in central Europe, although never more than 11m deep. During WWII, the Nazis were dependent on oil from this area, and struggled to hold onto Hungary for this reason.

From there we drove through the villages of Balatonmáriafürdő and Balatonfenyves, and then turned onto the highway, thus missing out on Balatonboglár, Balatonlelle, Balatonszemes, Balatonszárszó,and Balatonföldvár.

Sometime after 4pm (we'd left Looby at 9.30am) we got into Budapest, following signs to centrum, maybe the last recognisable word we'd see on a sign for the week, apart from the big Tesco billboards.

I found a free parking spot (I couldn't see a means to pay, but it was a holiday so it didn't really matter) at the end of the very touristic Váci utca shopping street. We hadn't even pulled fully into the bay when - and I do not exaggerate - eight tourists started gathering around the car to gawk at Bondi, and he was sitting in the back seat with the windows up. I know that in many places since Italy, that a right-hand drive car with GB plates (and a NSW dealer sticker!) is even more of a curiosity than an arctic hound, but I could see where their gaze was fixed.

We walked south along this street, after going to an ATM and finding a useful city map:
  • ATMs here seem to be as annoying as those in Croatia which dispense notes of denominations higher than most businesses can handle in change. Not every business takes credit cards (and they're not great for incidentals anyway) so you either have to keep running back to an ATM to take out piddling amounts of money (in $/£/€ terms) and pay a ridiculous per-withdrawal fee, or take out lots of money and make some careful large purchases that yield useful smaller denominations.
  • Most of the city maps here are pretty useless to tourists - they cover the entire city out to the 'burbs, in unmanageably large sheets the size of bath towels, and have no expanded view of the central monument-filled districts.

Újlipótváros seen from Margitsziget
For this week we were staying in a quarter known as Újlipótváros (New Leopold Town, obviously). This was 5 minutes drive up the side of the River Danube, and we were lucky enough to have another Doris Day parking moment, finding a bay right outside the door of the apartment block. Our host, Marton, was not going to be available for an hour or so, so we walked over the nearby Margaret's Bridge, to Margaret's Island, in the middle of the Danube, where many people were enjoying this fine spring afternoon. We're quite fortunate to have this rare piece of Budapest greenery so close to us this week.

The banks of the Danube, Margaret's Island.

*There's a very new update for the Garmin maps which supposedly includes Eastern Europe, and I hope corrects all the problems with woeful errors in Italy. I ordered that from their website (I had to go looking, as signing up for automatic notifications just doesn't work) and got an email from them a week later saying they had just changed their order process (after releasing a major new update! clever!) and would I please read the THREE attached documents about how to do it the new way and resubmit, and of course it now takes TWICE as long to fulfil an order with the new more convoluted process, grumble, grumble, grumble ... honestly a mapping company that couldn't find its backside with its hands tied behind its back). Anyway I'm still waiting. I think I need to run out into the street and wave my umbrella at someone in a codgerly manner until I calm down.

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