Touring Europe in Third Gear

[NOTE: Kristen has tried endlessly to upload the video of us in the cathedral in Verden; she admits defeat. The internet will not play at this time.]

Distance to destination: 1,970 kilometres. Time to complete journey: 8 days. We knew it would be challenging and tough at times, but we thought we could do it comfortably. We had no idea how much effort would be required to get from Graepel in northern Germany to central Croatia until we started driving. When we realised the reality of what it would take to get to Plitvice Lakes in time to meet up with Andrew and Kara (Kristen’s cousin and his girlfriend), we had no choice but to knuckle down and do our best to make it. Which we did, just 45 minutes late…

The challenges:

  • Our home for the next nine weeks, an ancient and trusty Eriba Triton caravan, is being pulled by an aging VW Golf with a tiny engine. The legal top speed of this car and caravan combo in Germany (80 kmh) is nothing but a desperate dream, achievable only when driving downhill on smooth roads. With a tailwind.
  • The drivers of this snail-paced contraption have a combined experience of driving on the right side of the road of just two weeks, and that was nearly nine years ago. To add spice to the mix, neither of us have ever towed a caravan on the wrong side of the road.
  • There is a minor obstacle between Germany and Croatia: the Alps. Coupled with the fact it is not legal to drive on Austrian, Slovenia or Croatian autobahns if you can’t maintain at least 60 kmh, we have to detour around the Alps as far as Vienna before heading south, sticking to B- and C- roads the entire time.

The goal:

  • Meeting up with Andrew and Kara, which will quite likely be our only rendezvous with folks living in Australia during the entire year. They are currently on a tour of Europe, and their itinerary takes them to the famous Plitvice Lakes in Croatia at about the right time for us to meet them. We resolve to make the effort to be there, because we know it will be a highlight of the entire world trip to do so!

The reality:

  • We can only average approximately 40 kmh for the entire trip. Do the math, and you get a bum-numbing 50 hours of driving time, broken up into what turned out to be seven driving days. Although that’s an average of 7 hours a day, some days exceeded 10 hours on the road and we were certainly over it at the end of every one of them!
  • That average speed is due to the frequency of villages (where speed is limited to 50 kmh) on the secondary roads we are forced to take, and the inability of our trusty car to maintain speed while towing if there is the merest hint of a hill. Which there are a lot of between Germany and Croatia, as it turns out.
  • Almost the entire journey was conducted during a European heatwave. Who would have thought that southern Germany and Austria could record temperatures of 36 or 38 degrees?? Not us, until the roadside temp gauges showed us the score. It was Australian-like in its relentlessness, with temps at 10am or 11am often exceeding 30 degrees and only going up from there. Naturally, our trusty VW steed does not have any air-conditioning.

All of the above is true, and is described the way it is to give a picture of how gruelling the journey south turned out to be. But none of it should be taken as meaning we don’t like the car, the caravan, the weather, Plitvice Lakes or Andrew or Kara! If we had known how long it would take we simply would have allowed more time, but we didn’t discover the truth until we were on the road. And anyway, our epic mission has had some wonderful upsides:

The benefits:

  • We made our rendezvous with Andrew and Kara (and Kara’s parents) at the truly spectacular Lakes. And we met up with them just 45 minutes later than planned!
  • We made it south early enough to spend our intended amount of time in Slovenia and Italy – the main destinations we want to visit during our time with the caravan. Without the goal of making Croatia at an appointed time we would probably have taken up to three weeks to cover the same distance, with a correspondingly shorter time to spend in Slovenia and Italy. And as I write this post, sipping an afternoon wine on the magnificent shores of Lake Bled in northern Slovenia, we’re extremely grateful for making the deadline!
  • We stayed off the autobahns. Knowing we had a deadline did force us to try out the autobahn once. However the speed differential between our contraption and the rest of the traffic (especially trucks) was too great for comfort, and there is much more traffic than the backroads. Plus you have to pay to use them (except in Germany), and the tolls can add up quickly if you’re driving a long way.
  • Driving along the secondary roads of Europe is infinitely more scenic than driving on expressways. I knew this already from my time in France in 2003, and after our failed attempt at autobahn driving we were content to take the picturesque route as much as possible. We drove through some spectacular valleys and vistas, particularly one twistingly beautiful valley in eastern Bavaria and alongside the Donau River in western Austria. Slovenia has a postcard view at almost every turn, and even somewhat derelict (and sometimes bullet-ridden) Croatia has an appealing rustic charm most of the time.

Here’s a day-by-day rundown of our journey south, recorded for posterity and also to give some ideas for our inevitable return to this part of the world in the future!

June 25th – Graepel to Holle

Reality began to set in on this day. We had no intention of staying here for our first night, thinking we’d be able to do around 400 kms on our first day of driving. Not. Even. Close. As it was our first day driving I was extremely cautious (read: slow); and the weather was troublesome, to be fair, with occasional rain and gusty winds forcing us to drive even more slowly. The mood was truly set by our inability to find the campsite at the end of the day’s driving, even though we had a map and instructions. Apparently direction signs are not considered necessary or even helpful here!! It turns out we were a mere few hundred metres from our destination before taking a wrong turn on to the autobahn, which necessitated an hour-plus detour to get back to where we started. A joyous beginning.

June 26th – Holle to Seeburg

We’d intended to stay our first night near the historic towns of Erfurt and Weimar, but due to the slowness of day one’s travels we pushed that back a day. We reasoned that we could still fit both towns in if we got to our planned destination early enough. But once again going was slow, and by mid-afternoon we were still facing another couple of hours of driving. The thought did not fill us with joy… we got slightly lost in the backroads (quite a common occurrence!), but in the process passed through a beautiful looking small town of carefully tended old buildings, a lovely church, and signs to a campground. We both said that if we had more time we’d love to stay there, but as we were on a mission we had to simply carry on.

For about three minutes, that is. As we watched the town recede in the mirror we asked ourselves why are pushing on to get to an unknown town when we have a perfect one right there? Especially when we were already tired of driving in the punishing heat? Very soon we’d decided that we’d bin our plans to visit Erfurt and Weimar, turn around and stay at Seeburg for the night. It turned out to be an inspired decision J  The campground was pleasant, but we soon discovered the real attraction of the area was literally next door: a tranquil and very scenic lake called Seeburg See. When we looked closer at our maps it was marked as an area of particular beauty, and judging by the size of the parking area near the lake it’s very popular in summer. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking to the lake, then the long way around the town and back via a gorgeous country lane. Seeing very friendly sheep, enormous pigs and even storks in high nests made this spot an unexpected highlight of the entire trip south!

June 27th to 28th – Seeberg to Bamberg

This was another spot we’d intended to visit as it’s a very historic city (the central church is 1000 years old), and for a change we actually managed to make it there on the day we’d planned. Though only by ditching all the previous plans, of course…. Once again we arrived late in the afternoon and had some serious issues finding the campsite. Over a late dinner in the campground’s outdoor restaurant by the river (very pleasant indeed), we decided to reward ourselves with a day off the following day. There was free wifi there, and one of the semi-finals of the Euro 2012 football was being shown on a large projector screen for a sizeable crowd of guests. We stayed up late and thoroughly enjoyed not driving the following day!

June 29th – Bamberg to Pielenhofen (near Regensburg)

Before heading off to our campsite near another historic city of Regensburg, we made the effort to bus into Bamberg for a quick look around. The centre of the old town is spectacular, with immaculately maintained buildings dating back over 500 years and of course the amazing 1000-year-old central church, the Dom. The Dom is enormous and we were keen to do a tour inside, however on this particular day religious ceremonies meant it was closed so we had to content ourselves with viewing it from afar. We had a couple of missions to achieve (eg. buying maps for Austria and beyond), and wandering the streets was a delight. Bamberg is also a famous brewing town, and if we’d had more time we certainly would have sampled a few of the local treasures! As we visited more pretty towns further south in Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, the unique beauty of Bamberg became even more apparent to us in hindsight. It’s a must-see town if you’re anywhere in this part of Germany.

As is Regensburg, apparently, but we weren’t able to find out this time around. Once again our expectations for the days’ journey were too optimistic, and although we made it to our intended campsite for the night we were very tired. It was here that the reality began to sink in very deeply: we still had all of Austria and Slovenia to travel through, as well as the northern part of Croatia, and just three more nights to do it in! And the heat was oppressive, hitting 35 degrees or more every day with no sign of the heatwave ending soon. We decided that we had no choice but to ditch our plans to visit Regensburg and simply hit the road early the next day to burn through the miles…

June 30th – Pielenhofen to Ybbs a.d. Donau, Austria

A good day overall in terms of distance: we exited Germany (after travelling over 1100 kms in that country from north to south!), and we were making good time through western Austria for the first hour or two as well. And that was despite some lengthy periods behind enormous (and enormously slow) farm machinery that we weren’t able to overtake. The Donau valley just over the border in Austria was stunning, but not as spectacular as one particular valley in eastern Bavaria the day before between Schmidmuhlen and Kallmunz. That narrow valley had jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas at every turn, and it was clearly a popular place to paddle a canoe gently down river. We resolved to return to Bavaria one day to see more of this beautiful place with more time!

Things started to go pear-shaped when we hit the largish town of Linz, however. Crossing cities and large towns had become a bit of a bane of our existence, due to the often confusing nature of direction signs (or their complete absence). Linz set a new standard for Getting Lost, and we were rather frazzled by the time we finally exited it an hour after arrival. We wanted to push on to a campsite on the edge of the Donau, which we did arrive at around 7pm. It was small and located on the edge of the river, and would have been a perfect stopover if not for the one-off concert that was being held literally outside the door of the campground. We had to pass through the concert entrance to get to the ground, and were informed by the organisers that the music would be loud and continue until approximately 1am. That didn’t thrill us, but we checked out the campsite anyway on the off-chance that the noise might not be so bad up the back – anyway, we were very tired after a long day’s drive and just wanted to rest… But the noise was pretty bad everywhere, and the camp manager was Herr Grumpy incarnate, so after some discussion and despite the tiredness we headed off again to another site about 20 kms down the road.

Another right call, as it was nice and cosy and most importantly: quiet! We were shattered by the time we arrived but happy to be somewhere pleasant, and we even met a retired Australian couple from Adelaide who were cycling through Austria (they have spent Australian winters in the European summer for many years, apparently – a tempting idea!).

July 1st – Ybbs a.d. Donau, Austria to Bad Gleichenburg, Austria

If you can’t go over the Alps, you’ve gotta go around ‘em. So we did, heading east almost to Vienna before heading south along a variety of backroads. In Austria it’s illegal to be on the autobahns if you can’t maintain a speed of at least 60 kmh, so we had no choice but to stay off them. And given the underpowered nature of our car we can’t go up steep hills, and many roads in that part of the world were marked on our map as “not suitable for caravans”. Navigating a clean path through all these pitfalls was tricky, but fortunately we didn’t have any major mishaps.

We had hoped to make it all the way to northern Slovenia on this day, but by late afternoon it was clear we wouldn’t make it. There was a campground at Bad Gleichenburg which was just within reach, so we headed for that instead. Just 15 kms away from it I took a fateful wrong turn in Feldbach (sp?) which ended up costing us nearly an hour, and with only a few kms to go to our destination I was so exhausted I could barely stand up, let alone drive. Kristen, who had not done any caravan driving to this point, was forced to take over for the final steps to the campsite. Upon arrival we discovered the gate closed and no one at reception, and it was only 8pm. What was the story?? As we’d assumed we’d be able to enter we’d driven right to the gate, and due to a quirk of the caravan’s braking system we were unable to reverse up the hill to get out of the driveway. In a word, we were stuck until we could find a way in… fortunately someone who was already staying there walked past and showed us the key to the gate that was hanging on a chain just metres away! As I said, we were VERY tired at this point!!

July 2nd – Bad Gleichenburg, Austria to 60 kms north of Plitvice Jezera, Croatia

As we started our final full day heading south, we knew it would be a long one but had hopes that we could make it all the way to Plitvice by the end of the day. We crossed into Slovenia early and found our trip through that country rather easy – and extremely scenic! We’d been advised by friends that Slovenia was a gem and nearly every turn revealed that to be true. During this day we crossed the eastern half of Slovenia very thoroughly, and were making such good time that we felt that we would actually make it all the way! Entering Croatia and the scenery changed, but was rustically charming in its own way and certainly a bit more rugged. We were powering along until the town of Karlovac, where another crossing-town mishap waylaid us for some time. Eventually finding the right road, we had only 80kms to go until Plitvice and I steeled myself for the final leg.

But not far down the road fatigue set in badly, and we had to rest at a café for about half an hour. I felt a little better for it, but as soon as we started off again I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way that night. We had passed countless signs advertising “zimmers”, or rooms for rent, and decided to pull in at the next zimmer that offered food and stop there for the night. We found one only 60 kms from Plitvice, and resolved to get up at 6am the next morning to burn through to the Lakes for our rendezvous. The zimmer’s room was pretty bad (with possibly the worst bed I’ve ever slept in, and the bathroom looked like it had never been cleaned), but the food was decent enough. Next morning we stuck to the plan and got to our campsite early, found a great spot and managed to call Andrew to make a time to meet. We thought we’d be there at 8am and actually met them at 8.45am – not bad at all in the circumstances!!!

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One thought on “Touring Europe in Third Gear

  1. Tonia Campbell

    Dear Kristin & Damien, You are now in places that I’m very familiar with So I am enjoy8ing your travels even more. Well Done! Love, Tonia

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