Road Trip: Commie Style
I like off the wall trip itineraries but figuring out the nuts and bolts tends to circumvent my ambitious agendas. Plan A was to fly into Poland to watch some MAN truck racing or GT eastern bloc, cruise into Bratislava, Slovakia (formerly part of Czechoslovakia) and onto Budapest, Hungary before heading down to Croatia for a few days. I'd drive back to Poland with a side trip to Sarajevo before flying home. File that plan under nearly impossible. European car rental companies are very particular about what kind of car you can rent and what countries you can drive into, basically to prevent their cars from an unintended ferry ride to Africa or joyridden East to Russia. Many of those cities fell under “hell no” on the rental agreement. Coupled with airfare nearing $3k and taking a full 24 hours with 1-2 long layovers, time for Plan B.
I still wanted to see more of those former Communist cities so out with Poland and Croatia and in with Slovenia, a once Socialist country formerly part of Yugoslavia wedged between Italy, Hungary, and Croatia hugging 49 kilometers of the Adriatic Sea. And talk about cheap- a decent Air BNB or hotel room in this central European region runs about $50. Even better- five beers and a 10 year Ardbeg single malt is $14, tip (discouraged but allowed) and hangover included!
The rental agreement was for a Fiat 500 “or equivalent.” They got the Fiat part right. Walking up to the sea of neutral colored cars, the parking space was slightly obscured by the rental office. But then I saw it… a fluorescent green Fiat Panda greeted me like a cruel joke on American tourists. This one was probably thrown in for free with purchase of 10 beige counterparts. Loud American stereotype or not, I didn't want to drive around in something that attracted more looks than a SEMA wheel model losing her balance or later her dress!
“Sì, lo so che è una Fiat Panda verde…”
The Panda had a cuddly 1.2L 69 horsepower engine with manual transmission and power that varied between turtle when sipping on Austria's gas to running on a treadmill with Hungary's questionable piss gas. Cresting the Alps felt nearly insurmountable on occasion. At least the 0.32 coefficient of drag didn't suck down fuel. Fiat advertises its love for the “Squircle” as inspiration for the car's boxy-“ish” design that still contributed to a turning radius on par with a tractor. The Panda feels like a cartoonish creation of a car.
Italy has toll roads similar to the U.S. – take a ticket, drive, pay but most European expressways are the land of the vignette, or toll pass. These countries (Slovenia, Slovakia, and Austria in this case) require you to purchase a vignette at a gas station or stand just before and/or after crossing the border. While you may never experience a country checking for a current vignette, the fine is quite steep if you are caught without one. While crossing from Slovenia into Austria, the Slovene police were checking all departing vehicles, a nice gotcha on the way out.
If you plan on taking a long road trip, especially in a foreign country where you probably need to pay a little more attention, this tip comes from the day I covered the 800 kilometers from Venice to Trieste, Italy to Lake Bled, Slovenia through Austria to Bratislava. Pack some instant coffee mixes in your bag. As your eyes start to get heavy and you almost accidentally take the highway towards Romania, mix those little capsules of liquid energy with whatever half finished drink you can find in the car. Shake weight that baby until it resembles a stale cup of kick in the arse.