Eastern Europe, notes from the road

For seven weeks this summer, I rented a car and did a 4,200 miles road trip from Sofia, Bulgaria through 15 countries.
Throughout the trip, I tried to write about certain places and experiences in little excerpts. Here are some of them.

Bulgaria to Montenegro//
I arrived in Montenegro after 12 hours of driving through the slot canyons and switchbacks of remote Serbia; we paused only for espressos and to eat sandwiches by a mosquito-ladden riverside. In Montenegro I found myself most evenings sitting barefoot on the windowsill of my room, where just below my dangling legs the emerald waves of the Bay of Kotor lapped up on the whitewashed walls. I sat for hours on end eating from a bag of warm cherries that I had purchased earlier that day in the castle’s farmers’ market. The hills of the Balkans smell of mint and lavender, occasionally heavy woodsmoke, and the scent perfumed the air as we spent one evening watching the sunset from the top of a surrounding craggy peak. We spent nights walking along the pier, gazing up at the glowing, golden fortress illuminated on the steep black mountains.

Montenegro to Dubrovnik//
After a stunning drive along the careening bay of Kotor, along with a hitchhiking australian in the backseat, we arrived in Dubrovnik. It felt more like a movie set than a historical landmark, with its towering golden walls, steep cobblestone alleys strung with white cotton sheets flapping lazily in the warm Adriatic breeze, echoing church bells, steep drops from viewpoints into the clear waters of the sea. To save money, we’d been dining on pb&j sandwiches — feeling much like children all over again — and have had an ongoing competition to find the best lunch spot (Dubrovnik’s was pretty good, in the shade of olive trees on a castle wall built in the 13th century). We set up camp down the peninsula from the old city, where our natural alarm clock each morning was the unbearable heat of the rising sun through the tent’s nylon, but we found refuge in the evenings on the rocky shore down a shaded path from camp. On our final morning, we stopped to pick up pastries from a local shop; mine was coated with powdered sugar and oozing with thick, warm jam made from the cherries picked in the dalmatian hills. Overwhelming sweetness, lips stained cherry red.

Dubrovnik to Bosnia//
The road rose from the coast and steadily snaked through fields of dry shrubs, sand, and dust, past abandoned buildings, empty factories, crumbling stone walls, thin donkeys pawing the hot ground. The air stifling enough to suffocate inside of our small, cramped car. The city of Mostar felt war-torn, with its homes riddled with bullets, gaping holes in the sides of buildings, tank shells being sold at the crafts market to make ‘something good’ of a recent war. Our hostel here was empty, hospital-like with neon lights, and about a twenty minute walk to the stari most — the famous old bridge — which was destroyed in the war, rebuilt, and now stands in the midst of mosques and citrus trees. I remember hearing the call to prayer as we approached the bridge for the first time under a mauve sky. We had dinner one night next to a group of Austrian men who told Eric that he should go to this small town in croatia where the women outnumber men 9 to 1. They gestured to me and told me to cover my ears.

Bosnia back to Croatia//
A quiet, short ferry ride took us to the gem that is Mljet Island, where we camped at a completely empty site under the tangled shade of olive trees (although I was consistently pestered by the campsite’s abundance of horse flies). Down a dusty road we found an isolated cove in an inlet hugged by an ampitheater of pine trees. Here we swam in the warm Adriatic waters in the golden afternoon light; the sand white and sun-bleached; andrew bird and iron & wine playing from the speakers. We filled ourselves to the brim with grilled vegetables painted with olive oil, sea salt, roasted garlic and thick bread, with a spectacularly blue backdrop cradling the island’s shore and small villages. One evening we ran to a clearing to catch a sunset unlike anything I’d ever seen; the air thick with ocean and the perfume of wildflowers and fig trees.

Mljet to Plitvice//
We’d been making frequent pitstops at roadside fruit stands, buying bags upon bags of peaches, cherries, apples and sweet peppers warmed from the sun. By the time we arrived in Plitvice from Mljet we’d eaten all six of the peaches we’d picked up that morning, savoring their ripe juices as they flowed down our cheeks and splattered onto our laps and feet. For the first time in weeks we felt relief from the heat as we curved higher into the northern Croatian hills, setting up camp in the shade of pine trees in thick, plump grass. Plitvice consisted of miles upon miles of winding trails and boardwalks, snaking through countless cascading waterfalls, topaz-colored pools speckled with lily-pads that held neon-blue dragonflies. 

Plitvice to Slovenia//
Ljubljana felt as if it was picked straight out of a fairytale, where all the wonderful parts of Europe (the castles, the pastel-colored houses, the sidewalk cafes, the bridges and town squares studded with medieval statues) were condensed into one small remarkably pleasant city. We made our way from there to Lake Bled, which had a surprisingly dense tourism industry. The shores of the lake were blanketed with hotels and casinos, and the narrow streets clogged with tour buses. Overwhelmed, we spent most of our time here high in the neighboring national park, where we had a lunch of canned beans in a meadow where cows came to investigate their visitors, and ended up sitting with peeled oranges on the shore of a much quieter, yet much grander lake. The roads were often crowded with herds of cows making their way slowly home. One night we went for a walk, and I paused to pick lilac-colored flowers, and we sat in a field of tangled grass to watch the clouds settle on the granite peaks of the alps.

Slovenia to Austria//
After Bled we drove into Austria, where we stayed in a strange bunker-style hostel on the outskirts of Vienna as heavy gray storm clouds rolled in. On the night we arrived, we met up with a girl, Kristina (whom we last saw in Vienna a year and a half ago during a bitter winter), at a wine bar in a quiet neighborhood in a Vienna suburb. We drank cool white wine, ate thick pumpernickel bread, inhaled the cigarette smoke from local Viennese men watching a football match in the back corner of the bar, and chatted as the cool drizzle outside eventually came to a brief stop. We ended up wandering the pastel-colored streets of another nearby town, where Kristina found us chocolate gelato which we ate fondly as we gazed towards the Vienna skyline from the highest point of a grassy park in a clearing of weeping willow trees.

Vienna to Prague//
The drive from Austria to the Czech Republic was strange, as immediately over the Czech border we were bombarded with massive billboards advertising show girls, erotic shops, dinosaur-themed amusement parks, and tacky medieval-themed restaurants where you could watch fake jousting while eating dried fried chicken. Our hostel in Prague was in an unassuming part of town, but I swear to you that I will never forget the moment that I stepped into the Old Town Square for the first time. It was bathed in rich golden light from the setting sun, and I couldn’t help but turn in circles, overwhelmed by the majesty that is Prague. Words like marvelous and magical and majestic come to mind when I think of Prague. Even St. Nicholas’ Church brought me to tears; only the second time in my life a manmade structure has done so. We spent most of our days in Prague walking aimlessly, eating pastries coated in burnt sugar and almonds, sipping beers in the shadows of the castle, listening to a violinist on the Charles Bridge as the sun sunk into the spired horizon.

Prague to Poland//
We stayed in a small apartment above a restaurant in the peaceful Jewish Quarter of Krakow. Krakow was surprisingly pleasant, with its lively bar scene, colorful restaurants boasting mostly Israeli and Jewish cuisines, musical squares and shaded parks. We spent one day driving to Auschwitz, where we realized upon arrival that it’s necessary to book a tour in advance (which we did not), so we ended up on a 2-hour Italian tour. I crashed the car into a wall here, too. I was happy to leave.

Poland to Slovakia//
From the plains of Poland we winded into the high mountains of Slovakia, greeted by alpine lodges, remote roads, beckoning peaks shimmering with layers of snow. Our guesthouse here overlooked a meadow pinpricked with grazing horses in a clearing of thick pine forest. We spent our days driving to castles and wandered their ruins with to-go espresso cups, and took walks through the silent forests, never passing another soul. Each night it stormed, rain coming down in heavy sheets, and we sat in our room drinking lemony tea I’d bought in Prague and played Slovakian scrabble (which was a challenge, but we figured it out).

Slovakia to Hungary//
Back out of the mountains to the wheat fields of Hungary, rising into the gray buildings that comprise of Budapest. After spending a morning doing the obligatory walk to the main churches, we came to a pathetic yet amusingly honest conclusion that can only come after five weeks in Europe: we were burnt out on churches. We took a break from gothic architecture to spend the afternoon soaking in the famous thermal baths that run from the hot waters underneath Budapest. Under a gray, misting sky, we sat in the steaming pools up to our chins, laughing, people watching, feeling the mineral-rich waters soothe our skin. The next day was Eric’s birthday, where I surprised him with a 9-course wine tasting in a 13th century cellar under a castle in the Old City. We spent almost three hours there, and afterwards enjoyed cake on the steps of a statue in the castle’s main square. In the fading light we walked back to our hostel, pausing for water at a Cat Cafe; because, hell, you have to do it once.

Hungary to Romania//
The scariest part of the whole trip had been driving in Romania; the drivers were aggressive, selfish, pushing us almost off the road too many times to count. Happily we arrived in Transylvania, where we spent several days hopping from town to town, admiring medieval villages with their brightly colored lopsided houses, black gothic churches, and of course Bran Castle, which Dracula supposedly haunts (although I found it to be quite charming and not at all menacing). On an evening in Brasov after drinks and chips, we found a free movie playing in the town’s main square; the following morning we set off to climb high into mountains to stay at a small farm guesthouse, where we read our novels, listened to the cow bells out in the pasture, woke to the sound of rain on the tin-roof and the smell of coffee brewing on the stove, ate heaps of pasta overlooking the craggy granite cliffs. On the sunny evenings after dinner, we’d climb a nearby hill to see the sun set over the vibrant green hills, thatched roofs of the farmhouses, and the towering blue mountains streaked with snow and wispy, orange clouds. Every path, meadow, fence, road, hill here was blanketed in thick, unbelievably bright wildflowers, in colors so rich you’d think someone spilled paint on them. We waded through their tangled beauty, their smells staying ever present on our clothes — the scent of melted sugar cubes, maple honey, vanilla and crisp green apples.

After Romania, we arrived back in Sofia, where in a matter of 12 hours we returned the car, got a nominal amount of sleep, then immediately got on a bus the next morning to knock out the last three countries before the trip came to a close: Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Because our car insurance didn't cover these three places, we decided to bus it: upwards of eight hours every two days moving from country to country, attempting to check off some of the smallest countries in the world.

These countries were starkly similar yet different in their own quirky ways; Macedonia had an obvious obsession with bridges and statues; Albania was dotted with tens of thousands of anti-nuclear concrete domes leftover from when it was still hiding in the shadows of its communist period; Kosovo had an amusing obsession with all things American and Bill Clinton (and yes, there is a statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Klinton Avenue next to the Hillary Shop).

Without a doubt, I left thinking that perhaps far Eastern Europe is the strangest, most unassuming, and most misunderstood corner of the world.

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia