Do you ever get tired of seeing people’s travel photos where everything looks perfect? The ones where the women are sporting expensive hair styles, flawless makeup, and handbags perfectly coordinated to match their shoes? Everyone is smiling for the camera but casually posed as if they always stand that way. The light is magical, never back-lit or over-exposed, shining on upturned faces without a care in the world. The sharp edges of whatever ancient castle or famous monument or purple mountain majesty that happens to silhouette them is so clearly etched against the sky it seems unreal. I’m sure you’ve seen those photos. Heck, we might have even posted a few on this blog!
That being said, not all travel destinations are created equal, and the same definitely goes for road trips. After completing a 3,600 km road trip to Madrid in the spring, a road trip that was wickedly fun and briefly satisfied our need for adventure, we were ready for another by the time fall rolled around. When a couple of Romanian friends invited us to meet up with them in Cârțișoara, Romania where they were visiting family, we enthusiastically packed our camping gear for an open-ended road trip. Somehow I had a feeling I would like it so much there that I wouldn’t want to leave. Little did we know that the 16-hour drive to Corvin Castle, the first big attraction we planned to visit in Romania, would turn into a bit of a goat rodeo.
The first few hours of our drive started out pretty fun, as is often the case with road trips. Wide-eyed and well rested, 2800 km to our final destination sounded like a walk in the park. I was crazy excited that we were actually headed to Romania after years of wanting to visit. It still didn’t quite feel real that we could just drive there.
Crossing into Austria, we appreciated the superb motorway with little traffic, enjoying the same type of forested mountain terrain that we’d left behind in Switzerland. As we neared Vienna’s flat lowlands, the cool mountain air grew steadily warmer until the heat was unbearable; with Touille in the car, we finally had to resort to turning on the air conditioning. For the next few hours (and much of the next day), the incessant, irregular stutter–chug of the loose fan in our VW followed us like a pesky younger sibling. Even cranking the music couldn’t drown out the noise.
Well after the sun had set on our first day of driving, we decided it was high time we found a place to camp for the night. On our trip to Madrid, we’d unexpectedly camped at a deserted Spanish castle perched on a mountain top – it was unreal. We would have no such luck on this night. Still in Austria, we navigated to two separate campgrounds on Lake Neusiedl. Not only were both closed, but they were fully fenced, impregnable like San Quentin, with prominent signs warning against dogs on the premises. Our options shot, we dejectedly drove back to the freeway through the sweltering night, our car ripe with the earthy smell of marshy detritus, the clack of insects as loud as any jungle.
Deciding to push on to another campground in Hungary, we neared the border, eager to get some sleep. Completely baffled at the sudden stream of brightly lit computerized bill boards warning us we needed a “vignette” before entering the country, my first thought was that we already had a vignette – our Swiss motorway vignette. Unaware that many European countries have a vignette system to charge fees for driving on their roads, we had no idea that Hungary is unique in using an electronic, or e-vignette system. Our Swiss vignette would not work, and since we hadn’t bought a Hungarian vignette online in advance, our next obstacle was figuring out how to buy one so we could cross the border and get some sleep.
Peeling off on a gas station exit, we waited in traffic backed out to the freeway before eeking our way in close enough to run in and ask about the vignette. Following the attendant’s directions, we drove to the next service station just up the freeway.
In hindsight, their system seems simple enough (though incredibly time-consuming and inefficient to buy it in person). Chalk it up to the exhaustion or heat, but that night, things simply didn’t compute when we pulled into the next station. Cars were haphazardly parked absolutely everywhere and people queued in long lines at various outdoor booths. Pandemonium filled the lot. Feeling woefully out of our element, we fell into line behind a herd of other folks and watched to see what others were doing. Unfortunately, the booths were operating as a currency exchange as well, so not everyone had the same business needs as ours, making the scene more confusing.
By the time we reached the window, we still didn’t know what to expect. Holding all ten fingers up to the ticket gal, we tried to indicate we wanted the shortest duration vignette, hoping they wouldn’t require cash in Hungarian currency. We had none. Grateful they accepted our credit card, we paid 2,975 Hungarian forint (about 10 bucks) for a 10-day pass we needed for only one day. We filled out a slip with our names, contact info, and vehicle description, along with our license plate number. After receiving a paper slip in return, we put it in the car and finally left the carnival behind. Later we would see their radar cameras along the roadways constantly scanning vehicle plates, electronically identifying motorists who hadn’t bought a vignette. Fines would be issued to violators. Though the system sounds pretty high-tech, having to buy the vignette in person was truly a goat rodeo. (Save yourself the hassle folks – buy the vignette online!)
Bleary eyed, we headed straight toward the cheery little green tent icon on our phone’s map app. Navigating through the town of Mosonmagyaróvár toward the Leitha River, we started to have second thoughts. The heebie jeebies crept in as we passed housing compounds surrounded by high stone walls, themselves topped with barbed wire. Many were marred with graffiti, wreathed in Hungarian writing we could only assume were not uplifting messages of hope.
As we bumped along a narrow, potholed road, Trav swung the car one final right. Suddenly the river lay awash in our headlights down a steep embankment. According to our map app, our “campground” was just ahead – right in the middle of the river. Getting out to scout out the area, we could hear some party-goers at the river’s edge, but that was it. Absent were the unending sea of tents, camping cars, bikes, high fences, gated entry, and no-dog signs we’ve come to expect at European campgrounds. There was nothing but the quiet murmur of the river, the insufferable heat, and the occasional shrill laughter of our “neighbors”.
Too tired to keep looking, we pulled the car up a dirt track along the river that looked deserted, kicked back the seats, and crashed. Or at least we tried. As soon as we turned off the engine, the refreshing jets of the AC died too, leaving us almost immediately drenched in sweat. Gripped by the unshakable sensation we weren’t in a very safe place, we opened the windows only a crack. Not enough to let in even a breath of air, we lowered them bit by bit until they were all the way down. Seeing a light bouncing toward us where we were parked in the bushes, I froze and shushed Touille. A bicycler rode past, his face actually slack-jawed in disbelief as he peered at our car mostly hidden in the shadows. He’d probably never seen folks asleep in a car with Swiss plates on his bike trail, so I can understand his surprise. To be fair though, we’d never slept in our car on a bike trail in Hungary before so somehow that makes us even.
Sometime during the night, Travis finally just opened his car door to let in some air. As the heat eased off in the early morning hours, a light breeze picked up, allowing us to get at least a few hours of restless sleep. Awake before the sun, I finally gave up on sleep altogether and took the wheel. Driving back through the little town of Mosonmagyaróvár, I realized it was adorable! The graffitied walls were hiding little houses with tidy yards, cascading flowers hanging from planter boxes, and pretty curtains framing windows. Locals pedaled along for their morning errands on delightfully old-fashioned bicycles, waving at friends they passed on the street. Like so many things, the town we’d seen as a bit scary in the dark of night was bright and friendly in the cheerful light of day.
Back on Hungary’s world-class M1 motorway, we sped toward Romania. For hours, the terrain was flat, flat, and flat. I was so excited when we passed an exit sign that I took a photo. For a few seconds anyway, it provided a welcome distraction from the monotony. It was even hotter, flatter, and drier than driving across central Washington.
Our border crossing into Romania perhaps didn’t immediately provide relief from the heat or open grassland, but it was still exciting. We were entering Romania!
Friendly border officials checked not only our passports but Touille’s pet passport as well, curiously peering at her in the back seat before waving us through. I couldn’t help but admire our new passport stamp: proof we’d finally arrived.
Just the other side of the border, we drove through the little town of Arad, Romania. I breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the simple homes, uneven streets, and above-ground electrical wiring looped casually over street lights.
I really can’t explain it, but I felt like I’d come home in a way. Throughout the rest of our time in Romania, the sense wouldn’t let up. It was the same feeling I had while living in Costa Rica and traveling through Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Perhaps it was nothing more than a sense of familiarity because of the modest surroundings, surroundings more similar to how we were both raised than the luxury and wealth clearly evident in Switzerland, but I just felt comfortable.
Ready for a brief rest, we pulled over at a huge monument with carefully landscaped hedges. Curious about its peculiar location in the middle of parched country fields, we found little information at the site other than its name: Păuliș War Memorial.
Built in 1974, the memorial honors Romanian solders who died defending the region in 1944 against Hungarian troops allied to Nazi Germany.
Sticky from the heat, wearing yesterday’s clothes, teeth grimy and hair an absolute wreck, I stood on the blistering asphalt at the memorial. I almost wished we’d just gotten a hotel so I’d look more presentable for one of “those” travel photos, but instead, we got back on the road, laughing about our trip so far and how much we’d be willing to pay for a shower. Like a blank slate, I looked forward to the rest of our trip with anticipation. Before us lay a country with a long and complex history, a beautiful romance language, and stunning landscapes, a country about which we knew almost nothing. I couldn’t wait to explore Romania. I felt as if we’d just barely scratched the surface of a dented old penny and shining just beneath the hot, dusty exterior, we would find a steady stream of unexpected surprises and exciting discoveries. Despite the constant oppressive heat, the Hungarian vignette goat rodeo escapade, and a miserable night in our car that left us seriously questioning why we always choose to travel without planning, it was all worth it.
The red pins mark our travel for day one; the blue line roughly follows the first half of our entire 11-day travel path and attractions we visited.
What’s up next on our agenda?
Touring the creepy, Gothic stone towers of Romania’s Corvin Castle, also known as Castelul Corvinilor, or Hunedoara…