Winter Road Trip: East Central Europe

We opt for a winter road trip over trains and planes for this adventurer, as it is almost the only feasible option. For winter city breaks we’d easily drop into any city on budget flights, but to explore the hills and mountains, and to call in to pokey European villages, a winter road trip is the only route possible. Some places we visit are barely even reached by local buses. But I also love road trips and, while Fanfan does create a sightseeing tour to follow, I find myself more inspired by the challenge, the freedom and of course the snow, which should be found all over at this time of year. Starting with car rental, we use price comparisons for this with www.carrentals.co.uk, which pretty much guarantees the cheapest price. We also go sensible with a Ford Focus which does a great job overall. It only costs £249 for 18 days rental, so it is quite probably the cheapest option as well. Add 50 Euros at the counter for cross border travel. Note, with car rental in Europe it will always say a credit card is needed as a deposit, but UK Debit Cards, with sufficient funds, work fine (it’s however best to double check with the hire company). The car comes with winter tires and we rent snow chains at an addition 25 Euros which are compulsory in some of the mountainous parts of Europe (Austria and Germany are two on our itinerary). We do use them once, or at least try to use them. It’s probably best to learn to fit them beforehand. With rental the petrol is full to full, and we use our own GPS satnav to save money. Note, there is a downloadable eBook of this post available on sidebar >

Ford Focus, Winter Road Trip in East Central EuropeRental Car for Winter Road Trip in Central Europe and Alps Fitting Snow Chains Winter Road Trip in Europe


Driving in Europe

I have driven quite a bit abroad, but this in no way means I’m good at it. In the past I’ve taken on road trips in western Europe, the US and Thailand yet they never get any easier. This winter road trip would have me switching to right-hand drive but, having just got used to driving in the UK after 5 years in Asia, this made it harder than ever. It will always take time to reprogram habits for driving, and at the beginning I was switching between three driving habits; Asia, UK and Europe. The hardest part for me is using my right hand for gear changes, and to begin with I was instinctively hitting the door beside me with my left hand. Either way, it takes no more than half a day to become fully comfortable on the road. This would also be my first time driving in freezing temperatures, and in snow, so I do make ridiculous school boy errors along the way. Some potentially disastrous. But we otherwise do rather well, despite our somewhat ambitious itinerary planned. Note, vignettes, which are pretty much toll road passes, are necessary for a number of countries in this region (Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and Czech Republic in our plans). It is best to buy them at gas stations when crossing borders or, to avoid queuing, it is possible to buy them in advance online. They’ll be around 10 Euros or less for a week or so.

Right Hand Drive Winter Road Trip in Europe Driving in Czech Republic Winter Road Trip in Central Europe Vignette for Austria Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


The Winter Road Trip Begins

The route we have planned is more of a guideline, very loose, and other than car hire and the airport hotel we arrive with nothing else booked. We also set a budget of £1,000 for the 18 days (not including flights and car hire) and we miraculously stick to it. Throughout we will book last minute accommodation using Agoda.com (to continue our loyalty points) but Booking.com is pretty much the same (both Priceline companies). I’ll link to booking.com as I go along. So our Winter Road Trip starts out from Katowice in Poland, due to extremely cheap flights, but it also makes an ideal starting point. Katowice is in the south of Poland, near Krakow, but more importantly it’s a not-so-far drive to find the Tatra mountains and the upper border of Slovakia. Our winter road trip would then take us south towards the Mediterranean before spiralling up through East Central Europe and the Alps. The original route (pictured below) was planned to take in seven countries, but this becomes nine as changes in weather force us to chase the snow. So after a two hour excruciating, but extremely cheap, flight we arrive to Katowice where we spend the night at an airport hotel, which is more like a farm house. We’re still around 35 km from Katowice itself. The next morning we wake to sirens across the area. I’ve no idea what this was but it felt quite haunting. We get free shuttle to the airport and we pick up our rental car just before midday. Our winter road trip begins.

Simple Map of Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Wizz Air to Poland, Winter Road Trip in Europe Leaving Poland Winter Road Trip in Europe


Day 1: Zakopane, Poland

We considered to start our winter road trip in Krakow where Three Kings Day in being celebrated (Epiphany, 6th January) but I honestly didn’t feel confident in driving towards big city centres given it was still in the first hour. Instead we skip past this area knowing we’d be back again when returning the rental car. So we continue on to Zakopane, roughly 200km south, where we arrive just in time for sunset. I was relatively comfortable by now with driving so we continue straight into centre and follow signs towards Kasprowy Wierch which is the starting point for a funicular train to surrounding hilltops. Zakopane is a small resort town located at the foot of the Tatra mountains, which is a range that acts as a border between Poland and Slovakia. At the top of the viewpoint there are some impressive views of these mountains but it is also the starting point for a number of ski slopes. We could have gone skiing but, as we can’t actually ski, we just make the most of the views before forwarding on to our hotel for the night. The atmosphere is still Christmassy at this time of the year and, at the base of the funicular train, there are lines of traditional markets which sell all-sorts of weird foods and hot winter drinks.

Kasprowy Wierch, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Christmas Markets, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Zakopane Poland, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


We stay out-of-center in Zakopane where it’s cheaper and, given we have a car, we can (Zakopane hotels here). One of many benefits of the road trip.We pay less than 20 quid for a modern mountain chalet guesthouse suite with balcony views over Zakopane which would be one of the cheaper stays of the winter road trip. Costs do vary through different countries (ranging from 16 quid to around 50 in all) but Poland will be the cheapest destination. We therefore make the most of it with food as well as I get a good start on my tick-list of national dishes. At a nearby, local restaurant, called the 7 Kotow, or the 7 Cats in English, I order Polish Bigos, Hungarian Goulash and Austrian Wiener Schnitzel. These go well with hot winter drinks with mulled wine, mulled beer, but I draw the line at piwo grzane z żółtkiem (mulled beer with egg yolk). Hot winter drinks are found all over the region at this time of year. So the restaurant is cute and local with tables set round a well-scuffed lacquer floor, which looks to be used for Polish folk dance. A family at the front are watching the World Cup Skiing hosted not-so-far away in Austria. Christmas decorations are still up and all very cosy and homely. It feels like the perfect start to our winter road trip.

7 Kotow Restaurant, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Zakopane from Above, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Hotel with Views, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 2: Bojnice, Slovakia

This day was set to make-or-break the itinerary with our longest planned journey of the winter road trip, beginning with alpine mountain routes. With icy roads in the morning we hold off until 10:00 am when the tarmacs have been better worn and the road are busier. We book the hotel for that night, just before we leave, and this will be the norm throughout. I was a bit iffy about this area before setting out but the roads prove to be well maintained and safe. After crossing the border we also pick up our first vignette by registering our car number plate at a local gas station. So today we plan a slight detour and, given the ease in crossing the Upper Tatra range, we continue east to Spis Castle a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest castles in Europe. By now driving feels normal and I am comfortable to stop at points of interest along the way, another of those great advantages in the freedom of road trips. So after Spis castle we turn back to west as the route takes us down towards Hungary. For the night we remain in Slovakia however in the small town of Bojnice. Here we can stock up on road trip snacks and essentials. I am really missing bottled still water by now where every bottle we buy is fizzy. I’m also missing coffee where hotels only really give us tea. 

Tatra Mountains, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Spiš Castle, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Small Church Stop, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


We spend the second night in Bojnice in a rental apartment next to the town square (Bojnice Hotels here). Here is a small town and a minute walk brings us to everything of interest. It feels like a fairytale town as well in winter with the central square covered in snow and music playing from the central Christmas tree in the sounds of a wind-up clock. The surrounding buildings are decorated with Christmas lights and locals would stop to look over the nativity scene which is built into the corner of a church building. At the far end of the square is Bojnice castle where people ice skate and play hockey on the frozen lake, in the park beneath it. Cliched winter scenes which I honestly didn’t expect. We eat at a restaurant in the nearby town square going with a Farmer’s Plate where various local meats and sausages (Domáce Klobásy) are served with Bryndzové Halušky, the slovakian national dish of potato dumplings, sheep cheese and bacon bits. It honestly didn’t like the sound if this but it was one of the food highlights of the trip. The texture is a bit like a chewy pasta and the cream sauce reminds me almost of carbonara. Anyway, prices here are quite a bit more than previously in Poland but they do use the Euro (Zloty in Poland) so it makes currency and pricing easier to understand. It’s also still cheap when compared to western Europe. That night we are kept awake at the rental apartment where the owner next doors plays music and parties until 3am. Just one of the downsides of guesthouses and apartments.

Bojnice Castle in Snow, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Bojnice at Christmas Winter Road Trip in Europe Slovakian Sheep Cheese Dumplings Traditional National Dishes of Europe East Central West


Day 3-4: Budapest, Hungary

Budapest would be by far the biggest test when driving in big cities where it’s likely double the size of anywhere else we visit. We decide to stay in the outer areas of the Pest side of the city where we would travel to the centre on the underground metro (outside Budapest hotels here). This would have been easy given we set the GPS sat-nav to avoid the city centre. Instead we find ourselves in heavy traffic and running side-by-side with the tram network. It was still relatively easy but it’s probably a better idea to avoid. So we stay next to the Ecseri Street Underground station where we check-in to the hotel, throw our bags into the room, and rush out to catch sunset over the Danube river. The underground metro here is beautiful, in an ugly kind of way, outdated, stale. It feels a bit like riding a museum. But when we come to the first transfer station we are approached by two men who tell us our tickets are wrong and fine us 16,000 Florint (roughly £38 quid). We’d barely been in Budapest for an hour so it’s best to be wary of their validation system here because there’s no help or goodwill whatsoever. So we lost more than half our budget for Hungary and this limits my night off. We make the most of the riverside area, which is a bit of a masterpiece, once you see past the tacky restaurant barges on the nearside. Then, instead of enjoying my first night off we are back to the hotel with bread, salami and cheap wine, from the local LIDLs.

Budapest Chain Bridge, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Budapest Riverside, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Sunset in Budapest, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


We do make the most of our second day in Budapest, given we have no great desire to return. We use the one-day metro tickets this time and squeeze in as many city attractions as possible. We do rather well. We start on the Pest side of the Danube exploring churches, and castles, and basilicas which are all really quite nice. We try some local cuisine with lots of Paprika dishes which, like goulash, are on almost every local menu. We pair these with lots of mulled wine to build our enthusiasm for the next half of the day. But the real highlight of Budapest is most definitely the Buda side of the Danube where we walk across the Chain Bridge and take the funicular train to the top viewpoints and the old city. This is the masterpiece we had looked over from the previous night. It is now raining however as a tropical storm had just arrived to the region, and now all the snowy landscapes are melting. Until now the grounds had been covered in snow, yet we haven’t seen any snowfall ourselves bar a short spell during our night in Bojnice. Anyway, we are happy to walk completely soaked, through the cobbled streets of Buda. Given just one day in Budapest this is definitely where I would be.

Matthias Church, Winter Road Trip in East Central EuropeSt. Stephen's Basilica, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Buda over Pest, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 5: Ljubljana, Slovenia

The original plan now was to travel south to Croatia and to Plitvice lakes, which can look unworldly when covered in snow and ice. But, with the tropical storm, chances are it will look more miserable and dead. So we have few options but to change destination as we reroute to Ljubljana, the small capital city of Slovenia. It’s only a sixth in size to Budapest and so we risk a hotel booking in the city centre. The route then follows a straight line south and, once we leave Budapest, the GPS tells us “in 140 miles, turn right”. There’s really not much going on in Hungary. Anyway, this would be the furthest distance of planned travel in a day, so we decide to break up the journey with a stopover in Lake Balaton, which is like the Costa del Sol of Hungary during summer months. It’s a big summer destination with beach parties, watersports and buzz tourist population. But it’s like a ghost town in winter where ice cream stalls are boarded up, and the lake is frozen over completely. Other than the two photographers who pass a seemingly abandoned beachfront hotel, we are the only people here. It feels somewhat surreal. There’s a lot of ducks. So we did plan on eating here but, given everywhere is unexpectedly closed, we buy snacks at a service station and keep going.

Lake Balaton, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Retro Hotel, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Frozen Lake, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


So we have a guesthouse in the old city centre of Ljubljana which is a bit sketchy in finding, along with nearby parking (Ljubljana Old City hotels here). Fortunately it’s a Sunday so traffic is light and I manage to find free on-street parking, although I would need to wake early Monday to feed the meter. The guesthouse does offer similar onsite parking but it’s expensive, and I am cheap, and it’s on the exact same stretch of kerbside anyway. So we are again quick out and as the guesthouse backs onto Ljubljana castle we climb the hill for views over the city. Ljubljana is small and I while I have heard much praise for it in the past, it fails to compare with most other destinations of our winter road trip. It does feel very touristic in the centre, the riverside especially which has taken on that generic café culture and is now lined with trendy gastro-pubs, artisan beers and happy hours. It’s lost its old character. But there is still charm to be found in surrounding cobbled backstreets, churches and squares. We do try to move away from the tourist centre to find a traditional Slovenia restaurant, which oddly felt themed. I go with another Farmer’s Plate with all-sorts of meats, blood sausage and other local favourites. We are again paying in Euros, which helps.

Ljubljana Slovenia, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Ljubljana Town Square. Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Ljubljana Riverside, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 6: Lake Bled, Slovenia

We have given up on the snow by this stage and, with temperatures in the region of +8’c, we decide to go see some Mediterranean coastal areas. So we drive down from the mountains of Slovenia, briefly passing through Italy, to reach the Croatia border, only to be turned away again. Croatia isn’t in the Schengen region and, while they do accept travellers on Schengen VISAs to cross the borders, it does mean we have left the Schengen zone. This can’t be done on a single entry VISA (only multi-entry) and our paid for beachfront apartment in Pula is wasted that night. We do get to turn in Croatia and we spend around 5 minutes in the country as we queue to leave again. This makes nine countries visited in total on our winter road trip (is this cheating?). Anyway, we find ourselves turning back into Italy where tiny, winding and somewhat terrifying streets lead is up and over hills and cliff sides, until we reach Trieste. This is a seaside city, which just felt depressing in the pouring rains. We had considered staying here but we ultimately decide to go back on track and find ourselves travelling up the mountains to Slovenia. In Trieste we call in at a pokey Italian café, order cappuccinos, eat free olives and use their wifi to book a hotel near Lake Bled (Lake Bled Hotels Here). After a full day of driving we end up just 40 miles from where we started out.

Slovenia Italy Border, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Trieste From Above, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Trieste Italy, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Our detour to Croatia was to wait until these tropical weathers pass so arriving to Lake Bled, we are guaranteed at least two more days without snow. So we either spend three days here waiting for the snow to arrive, or we push higher into the mountains and on to colder climates. Having missed out on Plitvice in the snow we would now miss out on Lake Bled in the snow as well. Other than beautiful views over the lake, we have little else to do here. So, after arriving, we don’t actually see Lake Bled until the following morning when I drive to the lakeside, to park the car and walk around. This proved trickier than expected where pretty much every inch of space surrounding the lake is owned by hotels or other businesses. At the time I drop Fanfan to the lakeside and tell her I’ll drive to park the car up ahead up ahead, then walk back to meet her. I completely fail. Instead I have to turn back to our own hotel, park the car there, and chase after her. Lake Bled is also really quite large so it took me near two hours to find her again while she walks almost the entirety of the lake looking for me. Anyway, we saw plenty of Lake Bled in these two hours and decide to push on. Throughout this road trip, the day times tend to be rushed. There’s not much more than 8 hours of sunlight in a day and many of these will be spent on the road. We therefore rush to photograph landscapes in the short-lived day hours, then spend the evenings with food and drink.

Swans at Lake Bled, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Lake Bled on Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe AnOther Church, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 7: Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

So, after getting lost in Lake Bled, we drive to the not-so-far Lake Bohinj which I personally enjoyed more. The lake at this time of year is perfectly serene and it’s surroundings are silent, with almost no one else around. Unlike Lake Bled there is no built up tourist town area surrounding, other than a small village settlement, a cute church, and on arrival we do pass a hotel or two. Otherwise it’s a perfect and pristine lake and I’ve honestly not felt such natural beauty since our time at the Takayama Mountain Village during our tour of Japan last year. It’s a Shangri-La of sorts. It’s also only a 30 minute drive or so from Lake Bled and, on the return journey we do have to pass back through on our way to Kranjska Gora, which again isn’t so far, but it is quite a bit higher up in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. Kranjska Gora is famous for its skiing at this time of the year and, given we are now a week in without any sign of significant snowfall, we are at least hopeful for some snowy vistas. It feels like we are chasing the snow at this stage as we run from miserable weather in the lower lands.

Beautiful Lakes, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Lakeside Church, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Lake Bohinj, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


So we are now higher in the mountains where we arrive to Krangsha Gora envisaging a snowy mountain town, only to again be disappointed (Kranjska Gora Hotels). Other than the compact snows of ski resorts, and the peaks of the surrounding Julian Alps, there again is no snowfall, and the town’s streets have already been cleared. But it’s still a nice town nonetheless and, given the current weather has put off most visitors to the area, the centre is still like a resort town hosting a Christmas market in the village square and there is a large pinewood fire-pit set alight in the evening to keep warm. But there are few people on the streets other than a slow trickle of skiers who pass from the slopes above. It’s still very Christmassy, yet it’s now past mid-January. So we do consider a second night here and, if the snow arrived overnight we would definitely have stayed, but without any we push further again, across the border, and into the Austrian Alps. Weather reports say these areas would be covered. So we set off the following morning following a breakfast of croissant and tea laced with schnapps. With a full day of driving ahead, the lady of the guesthouse insists on adding 30′ alcohol schnapps to me tea. It’s apparently tradition, normal and legal and I prefer not to be rude.

Kranjska gora in Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Night Time, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Slovenian Kitchen, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 8 – 9: Salzburg, Austria

I’m somewhat relieved to find no snow now as I cross the Slovenian border into Austria, with it’s tight winding roads and steep inclines and drops. It’s scary enough without snow. Again I pick-up a vignette early on in Austria but find soon after that there is one toll road not included in the vignette. This road follows a seemingly endless tunnel through the mountains and emerges to surroundings of deep snow, and snowflakes the size of confetti begin to land on our windscreen. We soon turn off the motorways towards Hallstatt, our next detour destination, and this is when driving becomes very different. I am forced to reduce my speed to less than half and I drop to low gears. The downhill slopes would terrify me more than uphill as, if I loose control on a downhill slope, it will be extremely hard to stop. Otherwise, I did cope well, but felt the danger almost always comes from other drivers. A lorry for example finds itself stuck on a hill ahead of me and, when it tried to force itself upwards, it instead slides back towards me. Eventually he gives up and gets out to put on snow chains and I manoeuvre round him. Locals here as well are better equipped and confident in these weather conditions, so they do press behind and accelerate to overtake, which isn’t easy on slippery roads.

Stopping for Snow, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Snowy Churches, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Building Snowcat, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


After an hour, which would typically have taken 30 minutes, we reach Hallstatt which is disappointingly empty of snow. In the space of a few miles we go from mountains of snow, to none. Slightly worried now that we’d missed our only opportunity to enjoy it I therefore drive back towards the snow and park the car so Fanfan can make snow angels and a snow cat. Coming from the never-ending heats of Thailand, this was a first for her. We then continue  to our final destination of Salzburg, where we had given ourselves two nights. This would be my first proper break from driving since Budapest and, given it is the most expensive city of this winter road trip, we make the most of it. The cheapest accommodation we can find is an apartment near centre which costs around 50 quid per night, including city centre parking (Salzburg Hotels here). For the first time I could park the car in a safe garage, and ignore it for a while. So the opportunity was value for money as we also make the most of the kitchen and washing facilities in the apartment and make up for the added expense by shopping in the EuroSpar opposite. We prepare our own foods, drink local liquors, and pig out in the apartment for a couple of days. But again there is no snow.

Austrian Beer, Salzburg, Winter Road Trip in Europe Parking Garage Winter Road Trip in Europe Hotel Views, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


The apartment is next to the main transit hub in Salzburg with train, bus and tram stations on our doorstep. It also costs around 2/3rd the price of a basic studio suite opposite in the Ramada Hotel, yet it is around 3 times the size. It really did work well. From our balcony we have views towards Hohensalzburg Castle with its mountains backdrop behind and this is the direction we follow on the first morning, There are trams and other ways into Salzburg’s centre but the walk is only 10 minutes to most of the main attractions in the city. We walk it. The route is again well pedestrianized and, as we approach closer to the Salzach River and old city area, the streets become cobbled and almost every shop is some quaint boutique or antiques shop. It really is a cute city at street level. We make sure to cover all the sightseeing spots on this one day, which is doable given Salzburg is a small and compact city. For views over the city we also take another funicular train to Hohensalzburg Castle which overlooks Salzburg and the surrounding Alps.

Salzburg from Above, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe View over Danube, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Fanfan in Salzburg, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 10: Passau, Germany

Having missed out on Croatia, and skipped quickly past Lake Bled, we find ourselves now well ahead of schedule and struggling to find destinations to fill the remainder of our winter road trip. We decide to add a second day to our upcoming stay in Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, and consider a second night in Bratislava despite not being fussed for the one night we already had planned. But, for now, we decide to break the journey up slightly as we detour into Germany and the lesser known Bavarian city of Passau. This was partly for Fanfan to visit Germany, but also for me to drink lots of Bavarian beers, in Bavaria. We succeed in both. But, before leaving Austria, we reroute back again towards Hallstatt and back towards the earlier snow. It is about an hour in the wrong direction but it is no doubt worth as we pass seriously beautiful mountains, lakes and small town scenery along the way. Just look below. The first is Hallstatt, which was worth giving a second chance following our initial disappointment. I have no idea where the second photo is, we just stopped here to play in snow for a bit. The third photo I think is called Traunkirchen. The snowfall had also finished which makes landscapes easier to photograph this time around. Anyway, these parts of Austria are picture perfect and is well worth the extra expense.

Hallltatt Austria. Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Quaint Villages, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Traunkirchen Austria, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


I find a lot of winter beers (blonde beers) in Bavaria, which is understandable given it’s winter. We again stay on the outskirts of the city in a cheap Best Western (Passau Hotel List here) with plans for a quick visit to centre in the morning. But we find Passau to be a relatively easy city to drive and park in, so we call in on the first night as well. It’s only a 10 minute drive to the centre. We honestly arrive with little expectation of the city so it was a nice surprise to find our first proper in the city as we photograph the bridges and views over the Danube. It’s really quite beautiful. We also realise here that we’ve pretty much followed the Danube River since Slovakia. So by now the tropical storm has fully passed and temperatures are dropping quite a bit. It is when we go to leave Passau where I realise my first school boy error in driving. The freezing point of water is 0’c and it was now -8’c. I had recently filled my windscreen washers with water and the obvious happens. The entire windscreen washing system freezes and we have no clue at how to fix it. In these situations the tubes and mechanics can also break but for new we can only leave it as we cross the borders into the Bohemian regions of the Czech Republic. Our only hope was for the heat of the engine to maybe unfreeze it, but this does not happen.

Passau Bavaria, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Bridge in Snow, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Sea Gulls, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 11-12: Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we cross the Czech border, driving becomes quite a bit slippier where main motorways are left behind as we travel into remote parts of Bohemia. Roads here are completely covered in snow and, instead of being cleared by plows, they are instead scattered with gravel. It seems to work, but I take my time anyway. But there are times when I am dubious and one occasion, when we arrive to a steeper slope, I get out of the car, peer down the hill, then u-turn to drive miles in another direction, in hope for the GPS to reroute onto safer roads. This doesn’t work so I am forced to edge down slowly. Fortunately the roads are almost empty in this region so there’s no pressure to hurry. When we do see other vehicles it’s almost always Mitsubishis and Subarus who look to be out racing in the area. So we also get to start and stop as we please and the scenery here is truly beautiful where we navigate roads lined with snow walls and pines trees. These are apparently the Šumava mountains and Bohemian Forests as I take note of a couple of small towns along the way; called Kristanov, and Kwis. Anyway, now that temperatures are in the double minuses, the windscreen wipers are only to get worse. In an attempt to fix them I pour a -40’c antifreeze fluid in with the water hoping they’ll eventually mix. It’s not for three days when things get back to normal.

Ford Focus, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Car maintenance, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Snowy Forests, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


In Cesky Krumlov we have two nights booked in a two bedroom apartment (Cesky Krumlov Hotels here). This is in the historical centre of the city, in a building which doubles as a museum, and is right next to the main square. It costs roughly 30 quid a night and travel is cheap again. But getting to it proves to be trickier than expected. The historical centre and Unesco zone of Cesky Krumlov is almost entirely car-free. This means parking outside, in one of three car parks, and trekking in with our bags and luggage. It’s quite easy in the end as the old city area is compact and small and we leave the car behind again and pay for a two day ticket for parking. Again I have a two night break from driving and Cesky Krumlov is the perfect place to be. This small city is the fairy tale picture of eastern Europe and, on the first morning we wake to the perfect snowfall, It really is hard to show how beautiful this city is in pictures, so I’ve added a video below. While the city is known to be a major tourist destination in summer, at this time of year it is almost empty of tourists. This maybe because it’s hard to reach. Prague would be the obvious entry point for most tourists but, with no direct train route, and buses taking three hours in normal driving conditions, there just aren’t many options on getting here,

Central Square, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Throwing Snowballs, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


So Cesky Krumlov was the highlight of the trip as it brings together everything we had wanted from this winter road trip. We have the cute and quaint old city, we have the snow fall, and we have the extremely cheap prices. We of course make the most of it and feast like Bohemian kings. Prices here are half that of our previous destinations so we reserve tables at the best reviewed restaurants for every lunch and dinner of our stay. Between frolicking in snow we will be found hidden in bohemian taverns eating until we near puke. So, given I’ve not posted much food in a while, I’m going to add extra here. It is well deserved. The traditional / national dish of the Czech Republic would likely be Vepro Knedlo Zelo, a plate of roast pork, “knedliky” dumplings and sauerkraut. We go through a number of variations of this where we find all sorts of cooked meats including venison, rabbit, pheasant all at tiny prices. Days blend into nights within a haze of meads, schnapps, ales and grogs. But, given Cesky Krumlov’s tourist status, I expect it to feel somewhat themed in parts, but this isn’t true. With well preserved heritage buildings and architecture Cesky Krumlov still feels held in its Bohemian past.

Krčma v Šatlavské, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Beef Steak, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Beer, Wines, Liquors, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Cave Restaurant, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Krčma U dwau Maryí, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 13: Stachy, Czech Republic

With three days left in our winter road trip, we really don’t want to spend them all in Bratislava. We consider extending our stay in Cesky Krumlov, where we could give a week or more, to just eat and drink and throw snowballs around, but the road trip must continue. And my two days parking was up. But, instead of forwarding to Bratislava and Slovakia, we find ourselves travelling back further into the Czech Republic and back into the snow. This was Fanfan’s idea where she picks out a random town in the Šumava mountains and books a random hotel there. The town she finds is called Kašperské Hory where there is some tourism in the area with cross country skiing at this time of the year. But there are also few options of hotels (Kašperské Hory Hotels here) and we instead opt for a home stay which is just 15 minutes out, in the tiny town of Stachy. We are not only the first foreigner tourists to stay with them, but we are also the first to get our car stuck on the ice on the way up, and the first to arrive for the sole purpose of building a snowman. Anyway, this would be our first attempt at attaching snow chains and, given the instructions are in Polish, we fail miserably. We do manage to attach one half way and this is enough to get us going, I then have some trouble pulling the chains back out where they’d wrapped underneath and around the wheel axis. It maybe best to learn how to fit snow chains before setting out.

Kašperské Hory, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Freezing House, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Snow Cat, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


We are setup in a room in the back of the house where snow is piled to near the height of the window and outside there are two foot icicles hanging from the roof above. The outside temperatures are now -11’c at daytime and close to -20’c at night which is the coldest we have ever come across. We are also kind of (very) new to home stays and we find ourselves somewhat out of our comfort zone with expectations to socialize and be involved, when we really just want to take it easy for a bit. But this does work to our advantage as it gives us an otherwise unlikely insight into local life here and in a somewhat bizarre coincidence we find ourselves next door to possibly the only other Thai person within hundreds of kilometers. So that night we are invited to join them for dinner and we get to see inside the lives of locals in the region. What fascinated me most here was the older generations of the family who are still rooted to their hunter gatherer origins where the dad of the house would hunt for deer and other game in the surrounding lands, Next to their wood fire burner, and high piles of freshly cut wood, there are two game birds, grouse I think, which had been caught recently and will no doubt soon be eaten. I also get to sample local moonshines and liquors.

Stachy Town, Winter Road Trip in East Central EuropeSunrise in Stachy, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Log Boiler Room, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 14 – 15: Bratislava

Bratislava was never a planned destination for this winter road trip but, given a screw up with dates on Fanfan’s Schengen VISA, she is forced to fly out early (in hindsight we would have applied for a VISA anywhere else but Poland). So we are now travelling back east and as we do the Czech Republic again offers some of the most fascinating winter scenes. With constant freezing temperatures in the region, the surrounding landscapes have become completely frozen, the trees look like crystal ornaments and even the air looks to be frozen. It’s quite unworldy. But as we travel further into Austria and towards the borders of Slovakia, the snowy scenes will begin to disappear. This route takes us almost direct through Vienna where we manage to avoid the city centre to begin with, passing through underground motorways, only to take a wrong turn and end up driving back in. This was one of very few screw ups throughout our winter road trip. We did consider one night in Vienna but it’s really not a road trip destination. It’s big, expensive, hard to park in, and we can easily just fly there at a later date to enjoy a less rushed city break. So for now we pass through Vienna where it’s little more than a 30 minute drive, 80km, to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. These (I think) are the closest two capitals of the world.

Crystal Trees, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Frozen Trees, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Passing Vienna, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe

So we didn’t manage to muster much enthusiasm for Bratislava and in many ways the winter road trip now feels to be at an end. It had felt like this since leaving the Czech Republic, but there is still quite a bit left for. We book one night to begin with in the city where we stay in the outskirts of Bratislava (zone II) which is roughly a 30 minute walk from the old city area (Bratislava Hotel List). Ideally we would have stayed central but, compared to surrounding countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, it’s really quite expensive here. Plus parking will be hard to find in the centre where much of the old city is pedestrianized. Anyway, for the first night we stay in the area of the hotel, eating cheap kebabs and preparing for Fanfan’s flight the following afternoon. The surrounding area is a little bit grim which again didn’t give us much enthusiasm to venture further. But we do decide to visit the old city area on the following morning, which is a thirty minute walk each way, and in the end is worth it. Once in the pedestrianized old city area, it really is quite a beautiful city. So I’m glad we made the effort. 

Bratislava Old Town, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Bratislava Viewpoint, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Bratislava Sculptures, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


Day 16: Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland

Fanfan flies out from Bratislava and I take time out to relax before the next journey. There’s now no hurry whatsoever where Katowice airport is only a 4 hour drive away and my own flight doesn’t leave for another three days. I book in a Bratislava airport hotel and begin to write up this road trip as I’ve only really written up scraps until now. I then check out around 10:00am the following morning and make my way back up to Poland. I decide to follow the most direct route for this, hoping to get the driving finished and out of the way. Unfortunately the most direct route isn’t always the easiest route and, as I approach the borders of Poland, I find almost every route through the mountains here are at a standstill. I am forced to spend two hours stuck in a tailback of traffic as police, emergency pickups and ambulances siren back and forth. The snow is coming thick and fast again and there’s parts of the country can be treacherous at this time of the year. So I make the most of this time to eat leftover road trip snacks, clean the car, pack bags, and get to work again on this write-up. When the traffic finally moves again it is only the cars allowed through and I pass a seemingly endless tailbacks of lorries on all sides of the borders as police blockades send us off track and through routes which don’t even exist on the GPS satnav.

Eating Snacks, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe GPS Sat Nav, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Hotels in Auschwitz, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe


There’s really not much going on in Katowice and despite promising a return to Krakow earlier, I just don’t want the hassle of navigating the city centre. So I was a bit stuck for plans and without Fanfan here my enthusiasm isn’t as it was before. To not completely waste the opportunity I instead stop for two nights in Auschwitz, which is just an hour or so drive from the airport. I book a hotel for roughly 16 quid a night (Auschwitz Hotel List) which is only a five minute drive from the infamous concentration camps. Given the tailbacks earlier on the borders I arrive to the hotel late in the evening, so it isn’t until the second day when I pay a visit to Auschwitz. It is grim as expected but, at this time of year, given it’s -8’c now and covered in snow, it is especially grim. These areas don’t feel overly hospitable in the best of times. So I visit the Auschwitz concentration camps, and kill time on the final night sampling local beers and liquors. The next day I return the car to Katowice airport which was a relatively simple process. I drop the keys to the counter, the agent runs out to give the car a once over, then I’m good to go. I find myself with three seats on my flight home so I can kick back to celebrate with some Polish Soplica schnapps from duty free. The return journey wasn’t half as excruciating as the flight out. The highlight of our winter road trip? Most definitely Cesky Krumlov.

Aushwit in Snow, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Barrier Fences Auschwitz, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe Entrance to Auschwitz, Winter Road Trip in East Central Europe

5 Comments

  • HEY Allan, very nice photos and great description of your road trip.

    My girlfriend and I are planning to do the same in Feb, 2017. All by car, going from Berlin to Krakow, then High Tratras, Budapest, Viena, Prague, Cesky Krumlov and Berlin again.

    Did you have any problems with the roads or black ice during your trip? We are a little bit concerned driving during the winter time.

    Please, could you give us some comments about that?

    Thanks
    Felipe

    • We were surprisingly fine. It can be a bit nerve-racking at times but we made it through and we’re pretty rubbish. The local roads etc. are used to the weather so they’re quick to clear them when needed. Hope you have a great journey 🙂 Would love to hear how you get along.

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