Winter Road Trip: East Central Europe

We opt for a road trip on this winter adventure, as almost all attractions planned are well off the beaten path, and they’re really just not accessible by either flight or even train at times. Plus, with road trips in Europe, much of the best scenery is found between big cities, in the mountains and forests, and with the quaint and pokey European villages along the way. So the Europe road trip is the only route possible. But we also love road trips, and while Fanfan does put together the entire road trip itinerary to follow, I find myself more inspired by the challenge and the freedom of the open road. And of course the snow.

Starting with car rental, we use price comparisons for this, with as they pretty much guarantee to find the cheapest price. And we remain sensible with the car, going with the Ford Focus, which does a great job overall. And for 18-days rental it costs only £249. So it is quite probably the cheapest option as well. Then add on 50 Euros for cross border travel which we paid on arrival at the counter.

Note, with the car rental in Europe, it will always say a credit card is needed as a deposit. But UK Debit Cards with sufficient funds, do work at times, although it’s always best to double check with the hire company). The car also comes with winter tires, and we rent additional snow chains (25 Euros) which will be compulsory in more mountainous parts of Europe (e.g. Austria and Germany on this itinerary). With the car rental, the petrol policy is “full to full”, meaning we must fill the tank before returning the car. And we use our own GPS satnav to save some money.

Driving in Europe

I have driven a fair bit abroad, where in the past I’ve taken on road trips in western Europe, the US and Thailand. Yet they never get any easier. And again, on this Europe road trip, I would have to switch to right-hand drive, which takes a bit of time to reprogram old habits in driving. As I am literally switching between three driving habits; Asia, UK and Europe. But the hardest part will be using my right hand to make gear changes, and instinctively, in the beginning, I kept bumping the door beside me with my left hand. Either way, it takes no more than half a day to become fully comfortable with the car and road.

This would also be my first time driving in such freezing temperatures and snowy conditions, and I do make some ridiculously silly schoolboy errors along the way. But we otherwise do rather well despite our rather ambitious itinerary planned through these 18-days of travel.

Note, vignettes, which are pretty much toll road passes, will be necessary for a number of the countries in this region (Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and the Czech Republic on our Europe road trip). And it is best to buy these either at gas stations when crossing borders, or, where possible, in advance online. Each will be around 10 Euros or less for a week or so.

The Winter Road Trip Begins

Our planned itinerary is relatively loose, and more of a guideline, as we have no hotels booked after our airport hotel. Otherwise our budget (not including flights and car hire) is set to around £1,000 for the 18 days (£56 per day) which we miraculously stick to throughout. And this was with last minute hotel bookings through and which I will lin to as I go along.

So our Europe Road Trip starts out from Katowice in Poland, partly due to extremely cheap flights, but it also makes an ideal starting point in the south of Poland near Krakow. And it’s a not-so-far drive to find the Tatra mountains which create the upper border with Slovakia. From here we would travel south towards the Mediterranean, before turning up and through East-Central Europe and the Alps. And the original route (pictured below) was planned to pass seven countries in Europe, but this becomes nine, as changes in weather force us to chase the snow through different parts of Europe.

Anyway, after a two hour, excruciating, but extremely cheap flight from Belfast to Katowice, we spend the night at an airport hotel, which is really more like a farmhouse. As we are still roughly 35 km out from Katowice itself, surrounded by mostly farmlands and quarries, in cold rural Poland. The next morning we wake to the wailing of sirens wailing, signalling, I guess, the start of the industry. Which really felt quite haunting. It was a bit like an air-raid siren. So we get a free shuttle to the airport, and we pick up our rental car before midday, and our winter Europe road trip begins.

Day 1: Zakopane, Poland

We actually considered starting the day in Krakow, where the Three Kings Day was being celebrated (Epiphany, 6th January), but I honestly didn’t feel confident enough to drive in the big city. Given it was still in the first hour of driving. So we instead skip through this area knowing we’d be back again to return the rental car. Instead we continue to Zakopane, roughly 200km south, where we arrive just in time for sunset. And I am relatively comfortable now with driving, so we follow the signs towards Kasprowy Wierch, and the starting point for a funicular train to mountains, which is found in the town centre.

Zakopane is a small resort town, located at the foot of the Tatra mountains, a mountain range which acts as a border between both Poland and Slovakia. And reaching the top of the Kasprowy Wierch viewpoint, we find impressive views across the mountains, as well as the starting point for a number of ski slopes. So we could have gone skiing here, if we could actually ski, but instead, we make the most of the views from above before taking the train back down to the bottom again. And continuing to our hotel.

The atmosphere is still Christmassy at this time of the year, at least in Zakopane, where at the base of the funicular train are lines of traditional winter markets, selling all sorts of weird snacks and hot winter drinks.

We are staying outside of the centre in Zakopane, where it’s cheaper, and given we have a car, we can stay anywhere (Zakopane hotels here). Which is one of many benefits of this Europe Road Trip. So we pay less than £20 for a modern mountain chalet suite, with balcony views over Zakopane, and it is by far one of the cheaper stays of this winter road trip. As costs do vary all over Europe, and hotel prices range from £16 to around £50 throughout this road trip. Although Poland will be the cheapest destination in all, and we make the most of it, with a feast of local drinks and dishes, as I get to work on my tick-list of national dishes.

At a nearby, local restaurant called the “7 Kotow”, or the “7 Cats” in English, I order Polish Bigos, Hungarian Goulash and Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, along with hot winter drinks of mulled wine and mulled beer. Athough I do draw the line tonight at the “piwo grzane z żółtkiem” (mulled beer with egg yolk). Hot winter drinks are found all over Europe at this time of year.

The restaurant itself is cute and local, with tables set around a well-scuffed lacquer floor, which I’m guessing is used for Polish folk dance. A family at the front of the room sit watching the World Cup Skiing on a small screen, a big event here, which is hosted not-so-far-away in Austria this year. Christmas decorations are still up and it’s all just very cosy and homely. And it makes for the perfect start to our winter Europe road trip.

Day 2: Bojnice, Slovakia

This day was set to make-or-break the itinerary with our longest planned journey of the winter road trip, beginning with alpine mountain routes. With icy roads in the morning we hold off until 10:00 am when the tarmacs have been better worn and the road are busier. We book the hotel for that night, just before we leave, and this will be the norm throughout. I was a bit iffy about this area before setting out but the roads prove to be well maintained and safe. After crossing the border we also pick up our first vignette by registering our car number plate at a local gas station.

So today we plan a slight detour and, given the ease in crossing the Upper Tatra range, we continue east to Spis Castle a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest castles in Europe. By now driving feels normal and I am comfortable to stop at points of interest along the way, another of those great advantages in the freedom of road trips.

After Spis Castle we then turn back to travel west as the route takes us down towards Hungary. For the night we remain in Slovakia however in the small town of Bojnice. Here we can stock up on road trip snacks and essentials. I am really missing bottled still water by now where every bottle we buy is fizzy. I’m also missing coffee where hotels only really give us tea.

We spend the second night in Bojnice in a rental apartment next to the town square (Bojnice Hotels here). It is a small town and a minute walk brings us to everything of interest. It feels like a fairytale town as well in winter with the central square covered in snow and music playing from the central Christmas tree in the sounds of a wind-up clock. The surrounding buildings are decorated with Christmas lights and locals would stop to look over the nativity scene which is built into the corner of a church building. At the far end of the square is Bojnice castle where people ice skate and play hockey on the frozen lake, in the park beneath it. Cliched winter scenes which I honestly didn’t expect.

In the evening we eat at a restaurant in the town square, going with a Farmer’s Plate where various local meats and sausages (Domáce Klobásy) are served with Bryndzové Halušky, the Slovakian national dish of potato dumplings, sheep cheese and bacon bits. It honestly didn’t like the sound if this but it was one of the food highlights of the trip. The texture is a bit like a chewy pasta and the cream sauce reminds me almost of carbonara.

Anyway, prices here are quite a bit more than previously in Poland but they do use the Euro (Zloty in Poland) so it makes currency and pricing easier to understand. It’s also still cheap when compared to western Europe. That night we are kept awake at the rental apartment where the owner next doors plays music and parties until 03:00AM. One of the downsides of guesthouses and apartments.

Day 3/4: Budapest, Hungary

Budapest would be by far the biggest test when driving in big cities where it’s likely double the size of anywhere else we visit. We decide to stay in the outer areas of the Pest side of the city where we would travel to the centre on the underground metro (outside Budapest hotels here). This would have been easy given we set the GPS sat-nav to avoid the city centre. Instead we find ourselves in heavy traffic and running side-by-side with the tram network. It was still relatively easy but it’s probably a better idea to avoid. Otherwise, Pest is well known for its famous Budapest Baths Tickets.

So we stay next to the Ecseri Street Underground station where we check-in to the hotel, throw our bags into the room, and rush out to catch sunset over the Danube river. The underground metro here is beautiful, in an ugly kind of way, outdated, stale. It feels a bit like riding a museum. But when we come to the first transfer station we are approached by two men who tell us our tickets are wrong and we are fined 16,000 Florint (roughly £38 quid) for not validating our tickets. Note, it’s best to be wary of their validation system here because there’s no help or goodwill whatsoever. In fact it’s a known scam there where they target unassuming tourists.

So we’d barely been in Budapest for an hour, and we had already lost more than half of our budget for all of Hungary. Which kind of limits my night off. But we still make the most of the riverside area, which is a bit of a masterpiece, if you can see past the tacky restaurant barges on the nearer riverside. Otherwise we ration our monies, and instead of enjoying my first night off, we end the night with bread, salami and cheap wine at the hotel, bought from the local LIDLs.

We do make the most of our second day in Budapest, given we have no great desire to return. We use the one-day metro tickets this time and squeeze in as many city attractions as possible. We do rather well. We start on the Pest side of the Danube exploring churches, and castles, and basilicas which are all really quite nice. We try some local cuisine with lots of Paprika dishes which, like goulash, are on almost every local menu. We pair these with lots of mulled wine to build our enthusiasm for the next half of the day.

But the real highlight of Budapest is most definitely the Buda side of the Danube where we walk across the Chain Bridge and take the funicular train to the top viewpoints and the old city. This is the masterpiece we had looked over from the previous night. It is now raining however as a tropical storm had just arrived to the region, and now all the snowy landscapes are melting. Until now the grounds had been covered in snow, yet we haven’t seen any snowfall ourselves bar a short spell during our night in Bojnice. Anyway, we are happy to walk completely soaked, through the cobbled streets of Buda. Given just one day in Budapest this is definitely where I would be.

Day 5: Ljubljana, Slovenia

The original plan now was to travel south to Croatia and to Plitvice lakes, which can look unworldly when covered in snow and ice. But, with the tropical storm, chances are it will look more miserable and dead. So we have few options but to change destination as we reroute to Ljubljana, the small capital city of Slovenia. It’s only a sixth in size to Budapest and so we risk a hotel booking in the city centre.

The route then follows a straight line south and, once we leave Budapest, the GPS tells us “in 140 miles, turn right”. As there’s really not much going on in Hungary. Anyway, this would be the furthest distance of planned travel in a day, so we decide to break up the journey with a stopover in Lake Balaton, which is like the Costa del Sol of Hungary during summer months. It’s a big summer destination with beach parties, watersports and buzz tourist population.

Otherwise it’s like a ghost town in winter where ice cream stalls are boarded up, and the lake is frozen over completely. Other than the two photographers who pass a seemingly abandoned beachfront hotel, we are the only people here. It feels somewhat surreal. There’s a lot of ducks. So we did plan on eating here but, given everywhere is unexpectedly closed, we buy snacks at a service station and keep going.

We have a guesthouse in the old city centre of Ljubljana which is a bit sketchy in finding, along with nearby parking (Ljubljana Old City hotels here). Fortunately it’s a Sunday so traffic is light and I manage to find free on-street parking, although I would need to wake early Monday to feed the meter. The guesthouse does offer similar onsite parking but it’s expensive, and I am cheap, and it’s on the exact same stretch of kerbside anyway. So we are again quick out, and as the guesthouse backs onto Ljubljana castle, we climb the hill to explore the attraction and for views over the city.

Ljubljana is small, and I while I have heard much praise for it in the past, it fails to compare with most destinations of our Europe road trip. As it does feel overly touristic in the centre, were the riverside has taken on that generic café culture, and is lined with trendy gastro-pubs, artisan beer bars and happy hours. It’s just lost its old town character.

But we do find some charm in the surrounding cobbled backstreets, and churches and squares, as we move away from the touristic riverside centre. And again we are back to eat, this time a traditional Slovenian restaurant, which felt oddly themed. And I go again with another Farmer’s Plate with all sorts of meats, blood sausage and other local favourites. Paying in Euros, which always helps.

Day 6: Lake Bled, Slovenia

We have given up on the snow for now, and with temperatures in the region of +8’c, we decided to go see some Mediterranean coastal areas. So we turn south from the mountains of Slovenia, briefly passing through Italy, to reach the Croatia border. Only to be turned away again. As Croatia isn’t in the Schengen region, and while they do allow travellers on Schengen VISAs to cross the borders, it does mean we have left the Schengen zone. However, this cannot be done on a single entry VISA (only multi-entry) and the beachfront apartment we had booked and paid in Pula is wasted that night.

We at least get to turn in Croatia and spend around 5-minutes in the country, as we queue to leave again. This makes nine countries visited in total on this Europe road trip (is this cheating?). Anyway, we find ourselves turning back into Italy following tiny, winding and somewhat terrifying streets up and over hills and cliff sides. Until we reach Trieste, a seaside city, which just felt depressing in the pouring rains. So we had considered staying here, but we ultimately decide to get back on track, and end up travelling back into the mountains to Slovenia. But we at least call in at a pokey Italian café in Trieste, to order cappuccinos, and eat free olives and use their wifi to book a hotel near Lake Bled (Lake Bled Hotels Here). So, after a full day of driving, we ended up just 40 miles from where we started out.

Our detour to Croatia was to wait until these tropical weathers pass so arriving to Lake Bled, we are guaranteed at least two more days without snow. So we either spend three days here waiting for the snow to arrive, or we push higher into the mountains and on to colder climates. Having missed out on Plitvice in the snow we would now miss out on Lake Bled in the snow as well. Other than beautiful views over the lake, we have little else to do here.

We don’t actually see Lake Bled until the following morning when I drive to the lakeside, to park the car and walk around. This proved trickier than expected where pretty much every inch of space surrounding the lake is owned by hotels or other businesses. At the time I drop Fanfan to the lakeside and tell her I’ll drive to park the car up ahead, then walk back to meet her. I completely fail. Instead I have to turn back to our own hotel, park the car there, and chase after her. Lake Bled is also really quite large so it took me near two hours to find her again while she walks almost the entirety of the lake looking for me.

Anyway, we saw plenty of Lake Bled in these two hours, before pushing on the daylight hours on this winter road trip tend to be rushed. As there’s not much more than 8 hours of sunlight in a day and many of these will be spent on the road. We therefore rush to photograph landscapes in the short-lived day hours, then spend the evenings relaxing with some local food and drink.

Day 7: Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

After getting lost in Lake Bled, we drive to the not-so-far Lake Bohinj which I personally enjoyed more. The lake at this time of year is perfectly serene and its surroundings are silent, with almost no one else around. Unlike Lake Bled there is no built up tourist town area surrounding it, other than a small village settlement, a cute church, and we do pass a hotel or two on the way in. Otherwise it’s a perfect and pristine lake and I’ve honestly not felt such natural beauty since our time at the Takayama Mountain Village during our tour of Japan last year. A Shangri-La of sorts.

It’s only a 30-minute drive or so from Lake Bled, although we do have to return past Bled again, with a return journey, as we continue on to Kranjska Gora. So Kranjska Gora is a mountain resort town not so far from Bled, but it is quite a bit higher in altitude in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. And it is famous for its skiing at this time of the year, so we are at least feeling hopeful for some snowy vistas on this part of the journey. As it feels like we are chasing the snow at this stage of the journey and away from the somewhat miserable weather of the lower lands.

We are now higher in the mountains in Krangsha Gora, where we envisaged a snowy mountain town, only to again be disappointed (Kranjska Gora Hotels). As other than the compact snows of ski resorts, and the peaks of the surrounding Julian Alps, there again is no snowfall. And the town’s streets have already been cleared. But it’s still a nice town nonetheless. And the centre still has the buzz of a resort town with a Christmas market in the village square and a large pinewood fire-pit that sets alight in the evening to keep the town warm.

But given the unlikely weather, there are few people on the streets, other than a slow trickle of skiers who pass from the slopes above. So we did consider a second night here, and, if the snow arrived overnight, we would definitely have stayed. But after waking to warmer weather, we decided to continue higher and further and to cross the border into the Austrian Alps. Where weather reports say the mountain areas are completely covered.

Before we do, the lady of the guesthouse hosts us for breakfast, and insists on adding 30′ alcohol schnapps to my tea. Which is apparently tradition here, normal, and legal, and I prefer not to be rude. So after a breakfast of croissant, and tea laced with schnapps, we set off in the morning with a full day of driving ahead.

Day 8/9: Salzburg, Austria

I’m somewhat relieved to find no snow now as I cross the Slovenian border into Austria, with its tight winding roads and steep inclines and drops. It’s scary enough without snow. Again I pick-up a vignette early on in Austria but find soon after that there is one toll road not included in the vignette. This toll road follows a seemingly endless tunnel through the mountains only to emerge to surroundings of deep snow, as snowflakes the size of confetti begin to land on our windscreen.

Our next detour destination is Hallstatt, which takes off the motorways, and this is when driving becomes very different. As I am forced to reduce my speed to less than half and drop to low gears. But it is the downhill slopes that terrify me more than uphill climbs, knowing if I lose control on a downhill slope, it will be extremely hard to stop. Otherwise, I coped well, considering, and felt the real danger comes from other drivers. A lorry, for example, found itself stuck climbing a hill ahead of me, and when it tried to force itself upwards, it was instead sliding back towards me. Eventually, he just gave up and got out to put on snow chains. And I can manoeuvre around him.

But then there are the local drivers as well, who are better equipped and confident in these weather conditions, so they often push close behind, and accelerate to overtake, and these manoeuvres are never easy in these slippery conditions.

After an hour, which would have taken 30-minutes in normal conditions, we reach Hallstatt which is disappointingly void of snow. And in the space of a few miles, we go from mountains of snow, to wet sleet and drizzle. But we are slightly worried now that we’d missed our only opportunity of snow, so I turn back around again, to park the car in a car park, where Fanfan can make snow angels and an adorable snow-cat. Coming from the unrelenting heats of Thailand, this was the first proper snowfall she had experienced.

We then continue to our next destination of Salzburg, where we have sorted two nights in an apartment, for what would be my first proper break from driving since Budapest. However, it is also the most expensive city of this winter road trip, where the cheapest accommodation we could find was a city centre apartment at around £50 per night (Salzburg Hotels here).

But the opportunity was otherwise great value for money, with parking included, and I could leave the car in a safe garage, and just forget about driving for a while. We also have a kitchen and washing facilities in the apartment, and we can make up for the added expense by shopping for snacks and ingredients in the EuroSpar opposite. So we can prepare our own foods, and drink local liquors, and just pig out in the apartment for a couple of days. But again there is no snow.

The apartment is next to the main transit hub in Salzburg with train, bus and tram stations on our doorstep. It also costs around 2/3rd the price of a basic studio suite opposite in the Ramada Hotel, yet it is around 3 times the size. It really did work well. From our balcony we have views towards Hohensalzburg Castle with its mountains backdrop behind and this is the direction we follow on the first morning, to find the historical sights of Salzburg.

There are of course trams and other ways to reach Salzburg’s centre, but the walk is only 10 minutes, and the route is well pedestrianized. And as we approach the Salzach River and old city area, the streets become cobbled and almost every shop is some quaint boutique or antique shop. It really is a cute city at street level. So we make sure to cover all the sightseeing spots on this one day, which is doable, given Salzburg is a small and compact city. And for views over the city, we take another funicular train to Hohensalzburg Castle, which overlooks Salzburg and the nearby Alps.

Day 10: Passau, Germany

Having missed out on Croatia, and skipped quickly past Lake Bled, we find ourselves now well ahead of schedule and struggling to find destinations to fill the remainder of our winter road trip. So we decided to add a second day to our coming stay in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, and also considered a second night in Bratislava, despite not being fussed for the one night we had planned. But, for now, we decide to break the journey up slightly with a detour into Germany and the lesser known Bavarian city of Passau. A destination inspired partly for Fanfan to visit Germany, but also for me to drink lots of Bavarian beers, in Bavaria. And we succeed in both.

But, before leaving Austria, we reroute back again towards Hallstatt, and back into the snow from before. Which is about an hour in the wrong direction, but it is no doubt worth it, as we pass some seriously beautiful mountains, lakes and small-town scenery along the way. Just look below. The first is Hallstatt, which was worth giving a second visit following our initial disappointment. Next, I have no idea where this second photo is, as we just stopped there to play in the snow a bit. Then the third photo I think is called Traunkirchen.

The snowfall had also finished by now, which made the landscapes much easier to photograph this time around. Anyway, these parts of Austria are picture perfect, and the visit was well worth the extra expense.

We again stay on the outskirts of Passau city, in a cheap Best Western (Passau Hotel List here), with plans for a quick visit to the centre in the morning. But realising Passau is a relatively easy city to drive and park in, we decide to call in on the first night as well. As it’s only a 10-minute drive to the centre. And while we honestly arrived with little expectation of the city, it was a really nice surprise to find the serene and photogenic riverside with bridges and views over the Danube. It’s really quite beautiful. And we also realise here that we’ve pretty much followed the Danube River since Slovakia. Anyway, I find lot of winter beers (blonde beers) in Bavaria, which is understandable, given it is winter.

By now the tropical storm has fully passed and temperatures are dropping quite a bit. It is when we go to leave Passau where I realise my first school boy error in driving. The freezing point of water is 0’c and it was now -8’c. I had recently filled my windscreen washers with water and the obvious happens. The entire windscreen washing system freezes and we have no clue at how to fix it. In these situations, the tubes and mechanics can also break, but for now, we must leave it as we cross the borders into the Bohemian regions of the Czech Republic. Leaving only our hope for the heat of the engine to maybe unfreeze it along the way. But this does not happen.

Day 11/12: Cesky Krumlov, Czech

As we cross the Czech border, driving becomes quite a bit slippier where main motorways are left behind as we travel into remote parts of Bohemia. Roads here are completely covered in snow, and instead of being cleared by ploughs, they are instead scattered with gravel. It seems to work, but I take my time anyway. But there are times when I am dubious and one occasion, when we arrive to a steeper slope, I get out of the car, peer down the hill, then U-turn to drive miles in another direction, in hope for the GPS to reroute onto safer roads. This doesn’t work so I am forced to edge down slowly.

Fortunately, the roads are almost empty in this region, and when we do see other vehicles, it’s almost always Mitsubishis and Subarus who look to be out racing in the area. So there’s no real pressure to hurry, and we are able to start and stop as we please. And can just take in the scenery, which is truly beautiful, as we navigate roads lined with snow walls and pines trees. So we are apparently in the Šumava mountains and Bohemian Forests, which I only find out after, having taken note of a couple of small settlements along the way (incl. Kristanov, and Kwis).

Anyway, the temperatures are now in the double minuses, and the windscreen wipers are likely only to get worse. So in an attempt to fix them, I pour in a -40’c antifreeze fluid, hoping that they’ll eventually mix with the water. But it’s not for three days that things get back to normal.

We have two nights booked in a two-bedroom apartment in Cesky Krumlov (Cesky Krumlov Hotels here), in the historical centre of the city, inside a building that doubles as a museum. And we’re pretty much right next to the main square. This costs roughly £30 a night. And travel is cheap again. But reaching the apartment proves trickier than expected, as the historical centre and Unesco zone of Cesky Krumlov is almost entirely car-free. This means parking is on the outside, in one of three car parks, before trekking in with all our bags and luggage. But it is quite easy in the end, as the old city area is compact, and we pay for a two-day parking ticket and leave the car behind again.

So I have a two-night break from driving, and Cesky Krumlov is the perfect place to be, as it really is the fairytale picture of eastern Europe. On the first morning, we then wake to the perfect snowfall, and it really is hard to show how beautiful this city with pictures, so I’ve added a video of it below. And while Cesky Krumlov is well known as a major tourist destination in the summer, it is almost empty of tourists at this time of year. Which may be to do with it’s hard to reach location, where Prague, the obvious entry point for most tourists is 3 hours by bus in normal driving conditions. And there just aren’t many options on getting here.

So Cesky Krumlov was the highlight of the journey where it brings together everything we had dreamed of on this winter road trip. We have the cute and quaint old city, we have the snowfall, and we have extremely cheap prices. So we of course make the most of it, and feast like Bohemian kings, with prices half that of our previous destinations through the week. We reserve tables at the best-reviewed restaurants for both lunches and dinners, and when we are not out frolicking snow, we would be hidden in bohemian taverns eating until we puke.

So given I’ve not posted much food in a while, I’m going to add some extra here. As it is well deserved. Including the traditional/national dish of the Czech Republic (Vepro Knedlo Zelo) which is a plate of roast pork, with “knedliky” dumplings and sauerkraut. And we go through a number of variations of this meal, finding all sorts of cooked game meats, including venison, rabbit, pheasant and all at tiny prices. Days blend into nights through a haze of meads, schnapps, ales and grogs.

Given Cesky Krumlov’s tourist status, I did expect the old city attraction to feel somewhat themed in parts. But this was not true from our experience, as the heritage buildings and architecture are all well preserved, and Cesky Krumlov still feels left in its Bohemian past. (Our Cesky Krumlov review here).

Day 13: Stachy, Czech Republic

With three days left in our winter road trip, we really don’t want to spend them all in Bratislava. We consider extending our stay in Cesky Krumlov, where we could give a week or more, to just eat and drink and throw snowballs around, but the road trip must continue. And my two days parking was up. But, instead of forwarding to Bratislava and Slovakia, we find ourselves travelling back further into the Czech Republic and back into the snow.

This was Fanfan’s idea where she picks out a random town in the Šumava mountains and books a random hotel there. The town she finds is called Kašperské Hory where there is some tourism in the area with cross country skiing at this time of the year. But there are also few options of hotels (Kašperské Hory Hotels here) and we instead opt for a homestay which is just 15 minutes out, in the tiny town of Stachy. We are not only the first foreigner tourists to stay with them, but we are also the first to get our car stuck on the ice on the way up, and the first to arrive for the sole purpose of building a snowman.

Anyway, this would be our first attempt at attaching snow chains and, given the instructions are in Polish, we fail miserably. We do manage to attach one side, halfway, and this is enough to get us going But I then have trouble pulling the chains back out where they’d wrapped underneath and around the wheel axis. It may be best to learn how to fit snow chains before setting out.

We are set up in a room in the back of the house where snow is piled to near the height of the window and outside there are two-foot icicles hanging from the roof above. The outside temperatures are now -11’c at daytime and close to -20’c at night which is the coldest we have ever come across. We are also kind of (very) new to home stays and we find ourselves somewhat out of our comfort zone with expectations to socialize and be involved, when we really just want to take it easy for a bit.

But this does work to our advantage as it gives us an otherwise unlikely insight into local life here and in a somewhat bizarre coincidence we find ourselves next door to possibly the only other Thai person within hundreds of kilometres. So that night we are invited to join them for dinner and we get to see inside the lives of locals in the region.

What fascinated me most here was the older generations of the family who are still rooted in their hunter-gatherer origins, where the dad of the house would hunt for deer and other game in the surrounding lands. And next to their wood fire burner and high piles of freshly cut wood, are two game birds, grouse I think, which had been caught recently, and will no doubt be eaten by the family in days to come.

Day 14/15: Bratislava

Bratislava was never a planned destination for this winter road trip, but given a screw up with dates on Fanfan’s Schengen visa, she is forced to fly out early (in hindsight we would have applied for a visa anywhere else but Poland). So we are now travelling back east and as we do the Czech Republic again offers some of the most fascinating winter scenes. With constant freezing temperatures in the region, the surrounding landscapes have become completely frozen, the trees look like crystal ornaments and even the air looks to be frozen. It’s quite unworldly.

But as we travel further into Austria, and towards the borders of Slovakia, the snowy scenes will begin to disappear. This route takes us almost directly through Vienna where we manage to avoid the city centre to begin with, passing through underground motorways, only to take a wrong turn and end up driving back in. This was one of the very few screw-ups throughout our winter road trip.

We did consider one night in Vienna but it’s really not a road trip destination. It’s big, expensive, hard to park in, and we can easily just fly there at a later date to enjoy a less rushed city break. So, for now, we pass through Vienna where it’s little more than a 30-minute drive, 80km, to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. These (I think) are the closest two capitals in the world.

So we didn’t manage to muster much enthusiasm for Bratislava, and, in many ways, the winter road trip now feels at an end. And it has felt like this since leaving the Czech Republic. But there is still quite a bit left to go. So we booked one night to begin with, where we stay in the outskirts of Bratislava (zone II) which is roughly a 30-minute walk from the old city area (Bratislava Hotel List). Ideally we would have stayed central but, compared to surrounding countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, it’s really quite expensive here. Plus parking will be hard to find in the centre where much of the old city is pedestrianized.

Anyway, for the first night we stay in the area of the hotel, eating cheap kebabs and preparing for Fanfan’s flight the following afternoon. And the surrounding area is a little bit grim, which again didn’t give us much enthusiasm to venture further. But we did decide to visit the old city area the following morning, which is a thirty-minute walk each way, and in the end it is worth it. As once in the pedestrianized old city area, it really is quite a beautiful city. So I’m glad we made the effort.

Day 16: Auschwitz, Poland

Otherwise Fanfan flies out from Bratislava in the afternoon, and I take time out to relax in the hotel before the next journey back to Poland. And there’s now no hurry whatsoever where Katowice airport is only a 4-hour drive away and my own flight doesn’t leave for another three days. I book in a Bratislava airport hotel and begin to write up this road trip as I’ve only really written up scraps until now. I then check out around 10:00AM the following morning and make my way back up to Poland.

I decide to follow the most direct route for this, hoping to get the driving finished and out of the way, but the most direct route isn’t always the easiest route. And as I approach the borders of Poland, I find almost every route through the mountains are at a standstill. As I am forced to spend two hours stuck in a tailback of traffic, as police, emergency pickups and ambulances siren back and forth. The snow is coming thick and fast again and there are parts of the country can be treacherous at this time of the year.

So I make the most of this time to eat leftover road trip snacks, and I clean the car, and pack bags, and write some bits for this blog. Then, when the traffic finally moves again, it is only the cars allowed through, and I pass a seemingly endless tailback of lorries on all sides of the borders, as police blockades send us off-track and through routes which don’t even exist on the GPS and satnav. It was really quite terrifying.

There’s really not much going on in Katowice and despite promising a return to Krakow earlier, I just don’t want the hassle of navigating the city centre. So I was a bit stuck for plans and without Fanfan here my enthusiasm isn’t as it was before. To not completely waste the opportunity I instead stop for two nights in Auschwitz, which is just an hour or so drive from the airport. I book a hotel for roughly 16 quid a night (Auschwitz Hotel List) which is only a five-minute drive from the infamous concentration camps.

Given the tailbacks from earlier on the borders, I arrive to the hotel late in the evening, so it isn’t until the second day when I pay a visit to Auschwitz. It is grim, as expected, but at this time of year, when it’s -8’c and covered in snow, it is especially grim. As these areas don’t feel overly hospitable at the best of times. Anyway, I visit the Auschwitz concentration camps, and then kill time on the final night with local beers and liquors, and just kick back a bit.

The next day I must then return the car to Katowice airport, which was a relatively simple process, as I just dropped the keys to the counter, and the agent runs out to give the car a once over, then I’m good to go. I then find myself with three seats on my flight back to Belfast, so I can again kickback to celebrate the success of the journey with some Polish Soplica schnapps from the duty-free. And the return journey was not half as excruciating as the flight out.

Anyway, the highlight of this winter road trip? Most definitely Cesky Krumlov.

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