Saturday, April 14, 2007
Greg on Driving in Europe
Ten days of driving through Europe. First day out was daunting, but manageable. Odd road signs, unpronounceable place names, and a dastardly driving culture. Making our way Southwest from Budapest to Slovenia, I lingered too long in the fast lane after passing a truck. An Audi appeared behind me, honking furiously, flashing lights. As he passed, the driver made an unfamiliar yet seemingly obscene gesture - knuckles out, all fingers up, the whole hand/arm arrangement pulsing in my direction. Assuming offense, I repeated the gesture back at him. Seeing this, the driver swerved his car sharply in front of mine and proceeded to throw two waves of garbage at us from out his window. First came parts of a newspaper and what looked like packaging from a bag of cookies. Then came the thin plastic cookie tray along with a few cookies and the contents of his ashtray.
People drive fast here. On highways, 130 kilometers per hour (about 80mph) is the speed limit, but many drive faster. Speedsters pull up a foot or two from your bumper until you get out of the way, then speed past in disgust. On the twisty-turny mountain roads cars accumulate behind slow moving trucks and farm equipment, then dash one by one into oncoming traffic to circumvent the stragglers, often blind to what waits just beyond the next turn. I've attempted this maneuver a few times, sometimes boldly, other times aborting mid pass. I don't have much stomach for it.
We're in Dubrovnik now. We arrived a few days ago late in the afternoon, exhausted after a six hour trek from Trogir, much of it through construction. In this part of Europe, road crews set up portable traffic lights at either end of their site to control passage. Two lane roads are reduced to one, and the lights signal which direction of traffic gets to go. Near Neum, Bosnia's only port, I waited at the head of a construction site for the traffic to pass. The cars kept coming even after our light turned green. The driver behind me honked angrily, gesturing for me to go. I gestured back that there was nowhere to go, in spite of the green light. He repeated the gesture I saw on the road to Slovenia.
Parking in Dubrovnik
Street parking operates on the honor system. You park, find a machine which dispenses parking vouchers, then place the vouchers on the dash. Our first night in Dubrovnik our landlady gave me directions to a street about ten minutes from the Old City where I could park "for free". She assured me I needn't fear tickets since the authorities would never pursue out-of-country violations, at least not on that particular street. Driving alone and at night for the first time, I soon became completely lost, and found myself speeding away from the city on a one way mountain road with three or four angry speedsters tailing behind me, each probably making identical obscene gestures in my direction. I made my way back to the city, got lost again, then found myself beside an open space close to the Old City. I checked the guidebook map. There was a black, felt-tip dot at the precise spot, put there by the landlady a few hours before. A you-are-here guide foretold.
Checking my car the next morning, I saw a tow truck picking a silver, VW hatchback vertically out of its spot with a special kind of car-sized claw. It looked like the arm and fingers of a disembodied skeleton. We're driving a silver, Ford hatchback - indistinguishable at a distance. I immediately bought vouchers for the rest of the day, fourteen in all, and lined them along the dash. Later in the day, I quizzed a tourist information person about free parking I had heard about but couldn't confirm. In a moment of weakness, or distraction, he described a secret spot up a gravel path near the bus station where the locals go to park for free. He seemed to regret the revelation the moment he spoke, then ended my inquiries with a curt "good luck, goodbye." His slip up reminded me of keeping mum around tourists in Wellfleet about certain ponds reserved for locals.
Tomorrow, Mostar, then Sarajevo. Bracing myself for the hardest travel yet, driving-wise.