Driving Across Europe to Slovakia

I’ve been to Slovakia twice, the first when I went to attend the funeral of Jaro, an eighteen year old kid, who left this planet when he met with a tragic motorcycle accident.

This was in the October of 2008. At that time we promised his grieving mother that we would come back and visit during Christmas. Whereas I didn’t take any pictures given the sad occasion, I did take plenty of photographs during the Christmas visit.

So this blog is really a combination of the two visits.

When we received news about the tragedy, we searched for the quickest means of transport available, however discovered that the only possibilities were to take a flight the next day, and arrive into Slovakia only around 6 PM the next day. And that too we would land in Bratislava, and from there would be driving to Dolny Kubin, so in all probability would be at final destination around 8-9 pm.

So I’m thinking, rather than just wait around till the next afternoon all gloomy and sad, why not just drive to Slovakia. It would help pass the time, and we would end up arriving into Dolny Kubin around the same time.

Google showed us that this was a 1,100 mile drive or about 1,800 odd km, but I was most certainly up for it.

I had a rather mean machine, a Mercedes GL 450, and it would most certainly do the trick. So we quickly got prepped, filled up the tank, and got on the road at around 11 pm. It was too late to take the train ferry, therefore we had no option but to take the Dover – Calais ferry crossing option.

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The White Cliffs of Dover

As we leave the white cliffs of Dover behind, I’m reminded of a movie, The Scarlet Pimpernel, that famous classic, that epic, which depicted the civil war in France, and how The Scarlet Pimpernell, launches rescue mission after rescue mission to save some of the French aristocracy from the gallows. I’m also reminded of The Three Musketeers, and some of their tales.

That, my friends, was me drifting off subject, as is usually the case. Let’s get back then.

The crossing takes about a couple of hours if I’m not mistaken, and we pull in at Calais, drive off the ferry, and guess what? We are in France!

Now here is the interesting thing. The said GL 450 is a left hand drive import from the US, and I’ve been driving a left hand drive vehicle in a right hand drive country. A neat trick, but then I am a really good driver, or at least I fancy myself as a really good driver. Now that we are in Europe, back to a left hand drive region, I am able to switch back to driving like I did in the US pretty easily.

The journey itself is really wonderful, and the roads are superb, especially in France, where the tarmac is laid like a carpet. The mean machine, takes to the tarmac like a fish to water, and we are speeding on our way to Slovakia.

We pass through several countries, first France, then Germany, Czech Republic, before we finally enter Slovakia.

London to Dolny Kubin
Docklands – London to Dolny Kubin, Slovakia: 1100 miles/1800 kms.

What really struck me as a pleasant surprise, was that we didn’t have to stop even once for any sort of border checks, as there were none. All these countries were part of the European Union (EU) now, and all border controls had been dismantled. Well, there were a few border posts, but they were nothing but the unmanned, forsaken, abandoned remnants of the pre EU days. The Indian passport is not exactly a powerful passport, despite the fact that I had an US work permit, a UK work permit, a Shengen visa for Europe. Had it been earlier days, pre EU, I’m sure I would have been stopped multiple times, what with the color of my skin, a real fancy (expensive) car, and a white woman as my travel companion.

The only place where we did get stopped was in the Czech Republic I think, and that too for having my car headlights off at 4 pm. See, it was wintertime, and cars were expected to have their running lights on all the time.

Why drive a really fast car at snails pace?

If you want to hear something really funny, hear this. Ever hear of the German Autobhan? I had. What I had heard (and was true when I did those trips) is that there were no speed limits. So I’m driving along at a steady 80 mph, and find it really strange that nobody, except a few odd balls, are whizzing past me like I’m standing still! I’d see a patrol car approaching behind me, and I would back off to 70 mph. We then stopped off for some coffee, a smoke and some fuel, and I happened to ask the attendant, what the speed limit was. I was really embarrassed, when I was laughed at and told, this is the Autobahn, there are no speed limits. He further said, you have a powerful car, you can even fly! Imagine that! Here I have the occasion (urgency to get to Slovakia), the opportunity, and the ability to let loose, and I am crawling, well relatively speaking of course. Duly enlightned, and maybe even chasticed, and hugely embarrassed, I am soon in flight. I have broken the speed limits before, in the US, in the UK, and have taken the speed up a few notches, but here is the perfect opportunity to open up the throttle and see what this baby, the GL 450 can do. All I remember is passing through Germany like a blur clocking a top speed of 130 mph, limited only by the electronic speed limiter.

“The 5.5 liter V8-engine in the Mercedes-Benz GL450 generates 382 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque. At only 6.4 seconds, the 0-60 mph acceleration time is almost comparable with that of a sports car, as is the electronically limited top speed of 130 mph. The GL450 has a displacement of 4.6 liters, power output of 335 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque. It makes the dash from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and goes on to an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph”.

Funnier Still – why wait at a fuel station all night?

I pulled an even funnier funny, during another trip into Europe.

Now I ALWAYS tank up before I do a long drive, ’cause its the sensible thing to do. This time around, we were running late. We had opted to take the “Chunnel”, Channel Tunnel, and drive the car RORO (roll on roll off), to France and beyond. I had a meeting at the Paris office, and needed to get the car on the damn train, so as to arrive into Paris in time for my meeting the next morning. From Paris it was off to Slovakia. This is what the route looked like.

Europe Round 2
London to Slovakia via Paris: 1301 miles/2080 kms

This time we transit, France, Germany, Austria, and finally Slovakia. This time around I didn’t crawl.

So we roll off the train, drive for a couple of hours on the French highway, and then I’m looking for a fuel stop, but for the life of me, can’t seem to find one. The digital fuel gauge says I have no fuel at all, and now I’ve switched off the air conditioning, am coasting in neutral as far as possible. I fall back on the GPS, to find the nearest gas station, and she’s telling me there is one in some French sounding location about 20 miles off the highway. I haven’t a clue where we are, am panicking, and therefore fingers crossed, follow the lead of the GPS. The location is some remote French village, but we hit pay dirt, there is a fueling station. So promptly drive in, only to find its unattended. No damage done, I’m sure they accept cards, and so I’m trying to figure it all out, but try as I might, the thingy, or rather all the dispensing thingies don’t want to work for me.

I think perhaps my international cards are remiss, I try my Indian cards, my American cards, my UK cards, both debit and credit, and none want to work. I have cash, always carry cash for emergencies, and I have the foresight to carry Euros, but no attendant, and no slot in the pumps to accept cash.

I fall back on a rather ingenious plan of giving someone cash and asking them to use their cards to fill me up, but there is a minor problem. It is 2 am in the morning, it is an unattended station, there are no other customers’, and it is a remote village. So desperation makes me go and stand on the main road, and try to flag down some kind soul to assist. Can’t find, or rather, nobody is willing to stop at that godforsaken hour.

Finally someone rolls up, can’t speak English, and my French is so broken, that hand gestures work better, but the poor soul has no credit card. Another hour goes by, more flagging (trying), another soul at the gas station, and still no luck.

Finally, at about 4 am, this dude on a motorbike, exits one of the houses in the village, notices us, and stops to see if something is wong. He understands some English, I manage some French, and we actually understand each other. He laughs out loud, and takes us to one of the dispensing thingies, there is a switch on one of them, he switches it on, and eureka, it whirr to life, and does accept my card.

I seriously was ready to hit myself hard.

Dolny Kubin, Slovakia

It is Christmas, the family is still grieving, but the mood is somewhat lighter, and so we travel around a bit, visit some of the nearby towns and villages, and this time I do take a lot of pictures.

Dolny Kubin is a beautiful little town, nestling in surrounding hills.

As is typical, a beautiful town square, cafes, restaurants, clubs, and the like. The town itself, is just a few streets wide, and a couple of turns and you’re headed outa town.

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What was amazing was the way people looked at me. This was probably the very first time they had laid eyes on an Indian, or for that matter someone colored like me. I exaggerate not, when I say that whole villages came out just to get a look! I could now understand what white skinned people feel when they visit India, and everyone is just staring at them, nudging each other, and passing remarks.

One weekend we traveled to a town which was at the foothills of the Tatra mountain range. This range borders Poland. The house we stayed at was simply beautiful, well-appointed with every creature comfort.

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The weekend before we had to head back to London, I was taken to the ski slopes. Its pretty late, so no time for skiing, but there is time to take a ride on the ski lift. The view from up there was simply breathtaking.

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Snow had been steadily falling all through Christmas and New Year and therefore the drive back was a lot slower than the way in, and finally we are back again at Calais, and on the way back choose the ferry crossing over the Chunnel crossing.

We get back January 1, and the next day we are back to our routines, back to reality, leaving yet another fond memory to reflect on and reminisce. The events events that unfolded after that visit pretty much changed the direction of my life, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. Maybe I will write about it some day, maybe I won’t. At the present time, all I am willing to say is, the reason why events unfolded the way they did, were a combination of the tragedy, and my own actions.



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