Innsbruck is a pleasent town and we took the opportunity to ride a cable car up the Alps. We then travelled from Innsbruck to Vienna. It is between these two cities that we were to discover our next problem: a fist sized hole in the exhaust silencer! Roaring through Vienna, although amusing, proved not too popular with the locals. The ‘what the hell is that vehicle?’ factor being added to by the ‘what the hell is that noise?’ factor. A simple equation that meant we could soon attract the attention of the local authorities if we didn’t get it fixed. But as Austria is expensive, roll on Slovakia.
In Vienna we were fortunate enough to get into conversation with a local medicine student called Andy who kindly took us on a bicycle tour of the city centre. We stayed in Vienna 5 or 6 hours before packing up and heading for Slovakia. Bounding up to the border with as much stealth as a stampeding elephant with bowel problems, we expected the passport control officials to at least show some concern, but not a bit of it! Our passports were checked, we were waved on through and soon were parked up in Bratislava at a popular campsite similar to Butlins.
We were up early to hunt for the local Land Rover, auto repairs, anyone-who-could-mend-an-exhaust shop. But we had little luck. As I was in the BMW dealership asking directions for a local mechanic that could help us, Dwyer was making friends with the unofficial Land Rover club of Slovakia that just happened to be passing and thought they’d come and investigate. After a few phone calls, we were told that nowhere in Bratislava had the silencer but that a new one could be ordered in 4 days or so. But fortunately there was another solution! Our new friend Patrick, a landy enthusiast driving a Defender 90 since his Freelander engine blew up on a recent trip to Albania, directed us 35km out of town to a local mechanic who would fix the problem and weld on another outer shell for about £50. Bargain.
An hour later we rumbled our way into a town north of Tarnava and were given a warm welcome by Edo and his wife, who hustled us out of the sunshine and onto a shaded porch to enjoy some well needed cold refreshments! As I was driving, Dwyer got to enjoy a cold Slovakian beer, but the coffee-cola I was given was delightful too! Edo finished off work on another car and within half hour had started welding our exhaust together. We were given the honour of a grand tour of his home: his small orchard of apples, patches of gurkins, peppers and tomatoes, his goats, a small acre of land and his pride and joy: four large Austrian sheep. Of course Edo spoke no English and our Slovakian is non-existent, so the tour was conducted with the utmost hand-gestures and smiles that could be mustered. Further drinks and lunch followed and we left with a great sounding exhaust and a bag of fresh vegetables for our journey too. We had previously read of the Eastern European hospitality, but to be the recipient of such a friendly people was marvellous and this was further enhanced when we met up with Patrick a few hours later in the centre of Bratislava for a beer or two. He listened to our intended journey with great enthusiasm and before long we were trying to work out whether it would be possible to plan a trip to Libya with him next year!
We left for Hungary that night, stopping for a quick sleep and to buy another vignette for about €5 on the way, and headed toward the wonderful citadel in Budapest. The view over the Danube across to Pest and parliament were first rate, really not surprising why this has become such a booming tourist haunt. It was also baking hot so I had to resort to sitting in the local fountain to cool down - a necessity at near 40 degrees. Again due to the time lost at the start of the trip, we had to push on and decided that our time would be best served heading to Romania, travelling through the town of Szeged rather than staying the night in this south-eastern hub of Hungary.
Romania posed more political problems than previous countries as not only were the international driving permits, passports and V5 needed, but a further road tax payment. This wouldn’t have normally caused a problem, but with the refusal to issue the permit for anything other than Euros (no debit or credit cards and no Romanian currency - Lei - which we found quite extraordinary, we were in a bit of trouble). Finally we stumbled upon Dwyer’s coins saved for parking machines in France, so we metered out €3 in 20 cent coins and were on our way once again!
In late evening we pulled over near the central park of Timisoara and went to have a look around Romania’s fourth largest city. The road leading into the city itself was pock-marked with ramshackle housing, but the centre was a resplendent affair that showed off the capital of the richest county in Romania. Timisoara was central to the protests that eventually toppled former dictator Ceausescu and strangely we had inadvertently parked on 16th December 1989 street - a street name in almost every town in Romania as testament to the troubled past. Although Timisoara has a small centre, it was catered and ready for tourists, the incoming flux expected when Romania eventually joins the European Union as a full member. This was also the first country where fuel was much cheaper than anywhere previously, a fill up costing £6.
Central Transilvanya and the small tourist town of Sighisoara, the birthplace of the infamous Count Vlad Tepes (otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler), was our next stop. The Count is widely believed to be the subject of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, and this was evident in the summer festival in the town - a throng of vampire memorabilia being sold to the young crowd of black metal fans and regular tourists. From Sighisoara we made our way that night to the small town of Fagaras that provided the doorway to the magnificent Carpathian Mountains. The route required us to pass through Brasov - the second biggest city in Romania. The marks of the communist past are very clear here - with massive, decaying concrete towers blocks laid out in grids around huge streets.
As we mostly tend to do, we stayed in a lay-by, and woke the next day to find we’d attracted the interest of a few local herders - two of which were Gabriel, aged 23, and his co-worker Johannes aged 9. Communicating in pigeon German, Gabriel told us that both his father, mother and brother had died when he was only a child, and he had no choice but to work as a herder. The same was true of Johannes. He was one of 12 brothers and sisters, but as his mother roamed from town to town having a child or two and then leaving, Johannes had sought work and it seemed Gabriel had taken him under his wing. They allowed me to take a quick photo and were very impressed that they could see themselves on the digital camera. Much to Gabriel’s delight it had started to rain, which was unfortunate for us we wanted to take in the views of the highest mountain pass in Europe along the windy Trans-Fagarasan Highway. But with the rain came an eerie mist that enhanced the feeling of being in on the plains of Transylvania. The climb was made easy by our tough old landy: the pot holed roads torturing most other vehicles whilst we cruised over them effortlessly. Great fun! Having crossed the pass through the Carpathians we made a bee-line for Bucharest - the capital of Romaina. Similar to Brasov only much bigger and with the added hazard of a vast number of stray dogs roaming the streets, its hard to find anything good to say about this city. The depressing reality of the decaying buildings and grim streets is a clear indication that Romania is by far the poorest country in eastern Europe and has a massive struggle ahead of it to try and turn its fortunes around. 80 Km outside Bucharest we crossed the border into Bulgaria. This was the most torturous border crossing yet with a whole series of booths to go to and pay various fees - my favorite being the disinfectant fee which involves you paying 5 dollars to drive through a puddle. Eventually we made it through after being asked did we have a gun and we made camp in a lay-by a short distance from the border.
Ah, the first entry. People have been harassing us for days for this. We´ve only been gone 10 days – have patience.We arrived in France on Saturday the 15th and headed to Dunkerque. This is where the trouble started. You can claim your sweepstakes now – we did in fact break down on the first day! One up for the lads. The next 5 days were spent in Belgium where we worked on the engine to change the gaskets in between travelling around the sights by bike and foot. We spent a night in Brussels soaking up the atmosphere on the Grand Plaza and meeting up with friends and toured around the First World War memorials, the military graveyards in Ieper and the surrounding area of Flanders. By the 22nd, the engine was sorted and we hit the road with a vengeance. We had to drive hard to make up the time we had lost. Sunday the 23rd we arrived in Luxemburg city having passed through France and Germany from Belgium. Luxemburg is a visually pretty city but there wasn’t much of a buzz and we toured most of the sights on the bikes within a few hours. We then drove down to Strasbourg where we went to see Notre Dame Cathedral. The exterior is impressive (though undergoing renovation) but the interior is dull….harsh but fair.
Back in the landy again and we drove into Switzerland to Lucerne.Switzerland is stunning and we spent a few hours exploring Lucerne and going for a swim in the crystal clear waters of the lake. We then headed into Liechtenstein to the capital Vaduz. This has got to be the smallest country in the world. Vaduz is no bigger than a large village. We continued our drive through the stunning backdrop of the Alps and crossed the border into Austria. Our first destination there is Innsbruck. The first week didn’t go exactly to plan but neither of us were very surprised. Our time had been very limited before we left so it was inevitable that faults would remain undiscovered until we travelled in earnest. Now that we are moving again we are looking forward to getting into Eastern Europe where the petrol and beer will be cheaper!