After waking up in Verona and enjoying our espressos at dawn, (twenty paces!) Marissa and I set out on our longest day of driving yet. We had to make it from Verona to Vienna by nightfall and we only had one day to do it. I didn’t know it at the time, but by the time we had reached Vienna we would have driven 700 km. And it only took us probably…9 hours or so?
So, breakfast in Italy behind us, we ventured out east following signs to Venezia. Although we had some interest in going to Venice, the timing was against us and it’s not really a terrible car-friendly city anyway. The strange things about this roadtrip were two-fold. First of all, there was an insane amount of fog. It got so bad sometimes that I couldn’t see the car immediately in front of us. Everyone slowed to a crawl and we proceeded very carefully. Sometimes it looked like we must be surrounded by cliffs and drop-offs on either side of the highway. We might as well have been, for all that we could see!
One driver was not so careful, tragically, and caused a pretty big traffic jam that snarled up the highway for 40 minutes, or so. When we passed the site of the crash, there was a body laid out under a green tarp and a pair of cops talking with the paramedics. Not a great or confidence-inspiring sight.
After a good long while, it was time for a pit stop! We pulled in to get some gas for the car and some coffee for me. Oh how I was to be disappointed. I ordered a latte, because they’re delicious and Italian! I returned back to the car where Marissa was chilling. I hopped in, and took a sip of my much-needed caffeine-boosting latte to discover that it was really just hot milk. You know, the kind of milk that you give to a child to help them fall asleep? Yeah. Not helpful.
“I know!” chirped Marissa, “just go in the other shop and get a shot of espresso. Then mix your own latte here in the car!” I went in, grabbed her some juice, paid for the gas and got back in the car. I only remembered to buy the espresso once we were back on the highway. Dang!
This was also the point in the trip when we bought a few CDs to use in our car. The adaptor we bought outside of Trento turned out not to work, so we were really jonesing for some familiar tunes. We picked up a pair of compilation albums that turned out to be crappy covers of famous and not-so-famous songs. The best one was the one we would listen to in Budapest about a twelve year old girl who was in love with an older man. It was creepy as all get out. I think we mutually agreed to throw the CDs away at the end of the trip. Yick!
Just past Venezia, the highway forked and we had two options. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to continue south towards Trieste, so we hung a left and soon crossed into Slovenia.
For those of you unfamiliar with the region, Slovenia might be a made-up-sounding country. “Don’t you mean Slovakia?” No. I don’t. Slovenia is the northern tip of what used to be Yugoslavia and is wedged between Italy, Austria, and Croatia. It’s got a name and flag that bear a strong resemblance to Slovakia but it’s quite a different place. It’s also got one of the more intimidating-to-read national capitals: Ljubljana. Go on, give it a try! Read it outloud! It’ll be fun and no one will judge you, I promise.
Crossing from Italy into Slovenia was a bit of a system shock. It wasn’t like time traveling or even really like going from a developed to an undeveloped country, but the differences were fairly stark. The roads were poorer and the signs were harder to read. The buildings looked a wee bit more run down and you could feel the communist legacy in a lot of the architecture itself.
We turned on the radio once again and Marissa and I played a great game called “Find the Singer’s Equivalent.” We heard Slovenian Jason Mraz, Slovenian Alanis Morisette, Slovenian U2, and a whole bunch of other sound-alikes! We kept playing this game throughout the whole region whenever we crossed into different countries!
We also had to start relying on my Russian once we crossed to Slovenia. Whereas German was similar enough to English and Italian to French and Spanish, Slovenian was most similar to Russian, of all the languages we know. It still was a challenge as it uses the Latin alphabet and isn’t really that close to Russian, but hey, lemons to lemonade, right?
As we entered the outskirts of Ljubljana we wondered if we hadn’t made a huge mistake. At least from the edge, Ljubljana looked like a run-down post-Soviet blech town along the lines of Gldani, Rustavi, or Novgorod. Lots of Stalinskii Dom and concrete behemoths. We finally found a place where the signs for the center disappeared and parked. Must be the center, right?
Luckily Slovenia uses Euros, so our money was still good from Italy and Germany. We walked across a park, looking for a place to have lunch, and soon found the old part of town flanking a river. Jackpot!
At the tourist information center we got a map of Old Town and directions to a “good Slovenian restaurant” and headed further into the heart of Ljubljana. I’ve heard it described as the “New Venice” or “New Prague” because it has a lot of the charms and benefits of both those towns without being swamped with tourists. Prague used to be sort of an “undiscovered gem” of Central Europe, but the word got out and now it’s quite a popular destination. Ljubljana is at that undiscovered stage of the cycle right now.
We descended into this little basement restaurant and popped down at a sturdy wooden table. We asked the waiter for his recommendations and ordered up a couple of Slovenian beers and waited for our entrée. Funny coincidence, Marissa and I know two people who live(d) in Slovenia! Since it hadn’t been on our agenda until the day before (when we decided to detour through Italy) we didn’t bother getting in touch with them until it was too late. I know, I know, we really dropped the ball on that one.
Finally, our meal arrived. We had ordered the “Game Plate” which was a delicious combo platter of Boar, Stag, and Deer in various cuts and cooked in various sauces. It was incredible. The boar was a little gamey, appropriately enough, and the stag was quite tender. I won’t speak for Marissa, but I thought they were all really freaking delicious. Apparently these are quite common, traditional meats eaten throughout the Slovenian countryside. You won’t hear any complaints from me!
Full from delicious meat and beer, we decided to have a stroll for a bit before hitting the road again. Walking around with our tourist map in hand, we found a whole bunch of the historic bridges and churches, but decided not to go up to the castle. Lucky for us, we found a phenomenal Dragon Bridge instead! Marissa’s got the only photos of that, alas, but man was it cool! Ljubljana: City of Dragons.
Leaving the City of Dragons behind, we drove the final stretch of Slovenia and entered Austria near Graz. The sun had set and we still had a good ways to go. It only took us a few hours though before we were entering Vienna proper. We found the Zentrum and drove around in circles looking for our hotel.
Vienna was actually the only place where we had some kind of reservations prior to arriving, courtesy of my dear father. As my Christmas present he booked us a fancy hotel in downtown Vienna for Christmas Eve and Christmas night. It was awesome! Finding it was decidedly not awesome.
At this point we were starving and running around in the cold, having parked the car in a dubiously legal spot. We found our hotel and inquired about parking. The doorman told us he could hook us up if I hurried and brought the car around. I ran back to the car and then immediately got lost in Old Vienna’s maze of one-way streets. At one point I even found myself in what appeared to be a traffic circle with no exits. Everything was Einbahn! I finally spotted the alleyway that led me out and took me right past some of the Hapsburg palaces!
When I arrived at the hotel, at long last (and with an insanely full bladder), the doorman gave me a paper to put on the dash that identified our car as a Danish diplomatic vehicle. “I have many friends at the Danish embassy. Do not worry!” We turned to go back inside and I naively thanked him and began to walk away. “You know,” he stopped me, “People usually give me money for helping them out. I have to buy coffee and donuts for my Danish friends, you know.” I felt like such a jerk! He’d even shook my hand and I hadn’t palmed him any money. Whoops! I gave him a bit and headed upstairs.
Marissa and I went out, late on Christmas Eve, and almost everything was closed. We finally found a little Italian place in the basement of some building and chowed down on our third meal in our third country of the day.
Life is pretty good when breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all delicious and are all in different countries!