Monday, May 31, 2010

Slovakia

May 23-25:


On the 23rd, we left Mirek and the Czech Republic. I have to say I was a bit sad leaving that beautiful country. We entered Slovakia and bought a highway sticker which they use instead of having toll booths. We bought a sticker when we entered Czech Republic, and we'll need to do this when we enter Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as well. We drove east across Slovakia and camped in a town near the Demanovska ice caves. Unfortunately the next morning the caves where closed because it was Monday so we got into the car and headed further east to the High Tatra mountains.


Stani and I are staying at a campground in the resort town of Tatranska Lomnica in the Tatra Mountains. Wow are these mountains beautiful! We took a cable car up one of the mountains to Skalnate Pleso at 1,751 meters and then hiked down for about 3 hours through rocks, streams, and cool forests with all kinds of interesting things growing. It was really fun despite my feet hurting from my hiking boots. This area is really busy in the summer with tourists and in the winter with skiers, but we're here at an off time, and it's pretty dead. Being surrounded by these beautiful peaks is really a treat!







Friday, May 28, 2010

Czech Republic

May 21-23

I love the Czech Republic! I was here in 2005 for the wedding of Stani’s cousin, Monika, and had a wonderful time touring the country with Stani’s parents. Stani’s father is from the Czech Republic, so it was really special to be able to visit places he knew. Now 5 years later, it’s great to be back! It’s such a beautiful country with fields of yellow rape seed flowers, castles, rolling green hills, yummy food and incredibly friendly people. This time our tour guide is Stani’s uncle, Mirek who lives in the US. It worked out that he was going to be in the Czech Republic the same time we were. For two nights we stayed in a small village called Novy Jachimov, where Stani’s grandpa owned a house. Mirek is here working on fixing up the house since no one has lived in it for years. There’s a lot of work to be done, but knowing Mirek, after he’s finished remodeling it, it’ll be really nice.



For most of the day Friday, we walked around Prague. This is one of my favorite cities…it’s really a very romantic place with incredible architecture, winding cobblestone streets, shops with unique gifts, delicious food, the biggest castle complex in the world and the lovely Charles Bridge. Old Town Square (Staromestske nam) is an energy filled place dominated by Tyn Church, St. Nicholas Church & the Old Town clock tower. When we were there, we listened to band called Rusty Circle playing Czech folk music. You can click on the video below to get a taste! I showed the band members this video which I took with my camera and they responded by giving me one of their CDs. I couldn’t believe it!

video

Our May 22, we drove east to another small village called Odry. This is where Mirek grew up and many of his family members still live here. We stayed in a condo that belongs to Mirek and was his mother’s before she passed away. It was really fun being able to see big cities as well as small villages.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

France and Germany

Sunday May 16:

In the morning we crossed the English Channel in the Eurotunnel. You drive your car into one of the train cars, put it in park and sit back for 35 minutes until you reach Calais, France. It’s pretty amazing! The Chunnel trip was probably the most exciting part of the day, since the rest of the day was just driving through France into Germany. Stani drove most of the day, but I did get a chance to drive on the infamous, no speed limit, German autobahn. As I crossed the border from France to Germany, I was driving 75 mph in the right lane and this guy flew by me like I was standing still. Stani thought this was funny and said, “Welcome to Germany!”



May 17-20:

We had a really nice time staying with Stani’s sister, Tania, in Frankfurt for a few days. It was great seeing her and her family, visiting the botanical gardens, seeing their garden plot with flowers, strawberries and a garden house, and walking around the city a bit. The old part of town was really cool. Most of this area was destroyed during World War II, but when it was rebuilt, they did it in the old style.

On May 19th, we drove from Frankfurt to Munich and stayed overnight with Olaf, a friend of Stani’s who studied in Ann Arbor about 10 years ago. We had a nice evening with his family, seeing his house, bikes, model airplanes and Volkswagen camper.


 

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Trip Vehicle

What is the ideal vehicle with which to drive across Europe and Asia? A VW camper – a practical choice to sleep and cook in efficient comfort, a Mazda MX-5 Miata or Porsche 911 – a blast to pilot through well-surfaced, winding European mountain roads, a Land Rover Defender (or a good horse) – to handle the Mongolian Steppe. Would you take a new vehicle? Or is a reliable workhorse that reduces the worry of wear-and-tear and theft be the better choice? Would it be cavernous to bring parts and equipment or small to fit on narrow roads and be fuel efficient? Should it announce our arrival with sponsor logos, a roof rack and spare gas tanks, or should it blend in and pass through nearly unnoticed? Surely it should be reliable, easily serviced and have parts available in the places visited. After much thought I settled on a 2002 Toyota 4Runner with 90k miles for this trip.

Reliability of the 4Runner is at the top of its class, Toyotas are sold and serviced nearly everywhere, it is comfortable on highways and is one of the most off-road capable 4WD vehicles sold anywhere, it’s medium size allows two people to sleep in it (with a custom sleeping/storage platform installed) and has some room for equipment while still fitting onto small roads, and in stock form it shouldn’t draw too much attention in most places.

Our 4Runner has a 3.4L V6 and a 4 speed automatic transmission. I get about 20 miles/gallon (11.7 L/100 km) in combined city/highway/light off-road driving. Off-road specs are 4WD high or low range, center differential open (with vehicle stability) or locked, 11” ground clearance, 36º and 29º maximum angles of approach/departure, Michelin LTX AT2 all-terrain tires.

For sleeping and storage I built a custom platform and drawers that can be converted to accommodate the rear seat in the up or down position. For camping I also added curtains that attach to the car’s inside trim and bug screens that attach to the car’s body with magnets.

Rear seat up
Rear seat down
View from side door
Curtains
Screen in side window
How will our trip vehicle work for us? Stay tuned…

Sunday, May 16, 2010

From the Scottish Highlands to the English Channel

Thursday May 13:

In the morning we left beautiful Glen Coe, but we were still treated the entire day with more nice scenery. We drove up to Fort Williams where we found a library that allowed guest internet access for 30 minutes. Since this wasn’t nearly enough time, we were happy to find a cool outdoor supply store just across the street that had free wi-fi. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain (just over 1,300 meters) is located nearby Fort Williams, so I’m sure this store gets plenty of traffic from outdoor enthusiasts. After our break, we continued our day’s journey, this time in search of the infamous Loch Ness monster. We stopped briefly in the town Fort Augustus which is at the southern tip of Loch Ness to see if we could spot Nessie, but since it was chilly and gray, we were told by the locals that our chances of spotting her would be slim. They were right, but it was nice to stop and admire the loch.



The rest of the day was spent driving. We passed moor after moor covered in heather. At this time of year, the heather was brown, but I can just imagine how lovely it would be in the autumn when it blooms and all you would be able to see for miles would be fields of purple. Instead of purple, we saw lots of golden yellow flowers called “broom” which grows on a thorny bush (maybe so the sheep don’t eat it!).



At the end of the day, we reached the town of Ullapool, where we found a perfect camping spot at Broomfield Campground right on the edge of Loch Brown which opens into the Atlantic Ocean. Because we were pretty far north, it was still light out at 10:30pm!




Friday May 14:



This was a driving day, but not just any ordinary driving day…we got to drive along the west and north coast of the Scottish Highlands. Before coming to Scotland, it was one of the places we were looking forward to visiting. From Ullapool on the west to Dunnit Head on the far east, we drove along a road that followed cliffs, mountains and fjords. The road in spots was just a single road with two way traffic and a small section that you could pull over if there was oncoming traffic. We took a small road to Dunnit Head which is the northern most tip of Britain. We drove south from here and stayed at a youth hostel overnight in a town called Newtonmore.



Saturday May 15:

We drove all day from Newtonmore to Folkstone, where we were going to take the Chunnel to Calais France the next morning. We camped at a nice campground that had a great view of the English Channel. It was neat to be able to look across and see our next destination, France.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Heading North into Scotland

Tuesday May 11:


On Tuesday morning we had breakfast with Dick & Margaret, admired their garden, packed up and headed out to start our drive towards Scotland. I’m so jealous of all the beautiful flowering trees and bushes they have, but I know that our backyard couldn’t look like theirs because our climate and temperatures are very different. I thought it was nice how so many things from their garden are gifts from others and have a story behind them. The entire rest of the day was pretty much just a driving day. There were lots of fields of yellow flowers along the road called rape seed. They look beautiful, but apparently a lot of people don’t like them because of their allergies, but they sure look lovely! At night we crossed the border into Scotland and stopped to sleep. We arrived around 9pm and had to stop at several campgrounds (one was closed and looked run down, another was only for motor homes, but the third we finally lucked out). Our home for the night was in the town Kirkpatrick-Fleming at a campground called King Robert the Bruce’s Cave Caravan and Campground. Pulling up in the dark, we weren’t sure we would be let in, but luckily a woman answered the office door and warmly welcomed us to the place. It was cold, but we set up our tent, ate our dinner and went to sleep. I was cold the whole night even though I had almost all my clothes layered on me!

Wednesday May 12:

In the morning we organized our stuff in the car finally using the nice drawers that Stani built under our platform in the back of the car. Stani has the right drawer for his stuff as well as tools and a first aid kit and I’m using the left drawer for my clothes as well as the guidebooks and maps. The drawers are nice, but certainly anyone who likes to have numerous changes of clothes would not be happy with the allotted space. My 3 pairs of pants, 1 skirt, 1 dress, fleece, sweater, 3 long sleeve shirts, 2 short sleeve shirts, jean jacket, underwear and 3 scarves all just fit. On top of the platform we have two plastic bins with lids (it’s actually a file folder bin). One is for food and the other is for cooking equipment. So far it seems like a good system. We’re trying not to have too many things on top of the platform so that our car attracts less attention.

After the car was ready, we took a short walk down a path to the campground’s namesake…King Robert the Bruce’s Cave. The story goes that King Robert the Bruce (who was king of Scotland in 1306) hid in this cave for 2-3 months in the winter, hiding from the English. It was here in his solitude that he caught sight of a spider who was trying to build a web on one of the small peep holes from the cave. This spider tried and tried but couldn’t seem to have success with his web, but King Robert the Bruce noticed that the spider didn’t give up. Instead he kept on trying. Finally after many unsuccessful attempts, the spider was able to figure it out and built his web. King Robert the Bruce was so inspired by the spider that after he left the cave, he gathered a small group of Scotsman who then defeated the English army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 helping to retain their independence from England. According to the brochure at our campground, this story is where the saying” If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” comes from.

We then began a picturesque day of driving from Kirkpatrick-Fleming to Glen Coe. The drive was a real treat full of green rolling hills, lochs and winding roads. We stopped for a picnic lunch overlooking Loch Lemond. As the day continued, the views became more and more impressive. Stani said the scenery reminded him of his motorcycle trip through Norway. The area near Glen Coe is a popular place for hikers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. We of course were just passing through and our time was short, so there wasn’t time to enjoy any of these activities, but it would be a beautiful place to spend more time exploring. We found an great campground in Glencoe Village called Red Squirrel campground. Our site was situated on a grassy area at the bottom of two mountains. We set up camp and celebrated the beginning of our trip with some delicious ice wine that Stani bought in Austria several years ago. A perfect setting for our celebration!


Monday, May 10, 2010

The Big Trip Has Begun


When I last wrote, we were still in London hoping our car would clear customs. Well...it did late Friday afternoon. The office closed at 4pm, so we stayed in London for the weekend and then could pick up our car from Felixstowe on Monday morning. So with a few extra days in London, we were able to get a nice although quick glimpse of the city. Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. In addition to the double decker bus tour, we also took a boat tour on the Thames River to Greenwich. This was neat since it's where people chose the prime meridan to be located and where GMT (time) is from. On Sunday we attended a service at Westminster Abbey. This was so interesting, expecially thinking that we were in the place where all the monarchs were crowned since William the Conqueror became king in 1066. On Sunday afternoon, we took a bus to Felixstowe where we anxiously awaited the reunion with our 4Runner.



























Monday morning, Stani went and picked up the car. Mostly everything was ok, however there were a few things missing, nothing too important (a roll of paper towels, flashlight, pen, plastic water bottle, 6 music CDs, tissues, ziplock plastic bags and Gateraid mix) but still it was annoying that these were gone. We think they were probably taken from the port in New Jersey. The good thing though was that we had our car and the trip could begin!

From Felixstowe we drove north to Sheffield and stayed overnight with one of Stani's work colleague's parents, Dick and Margaret. We enjoyed London, but it was really nice to be out of the big city and in the English countryside. Dick and Margaret gave us a really nice driving tour of the area and we enjoyed a lovely dinner (fish and chips and chicken & mushroom pie...and pints of beer of course) at a cozy restaurant. They were gracious hosts and we really enjoyed this visit. It was a perfect way to start the big trip!

Friday, May 7, 2010

We made it to London!


I'm happy to report that we arrived at our first destination, London, late at night on May 6. Our flights from Detroit to Chicago, Chicago to Warsaw and Warsaw to London were all late, so we arrived in London later than we first planned, but we're happy to be here. One nice part about the delays was that we were able to see our parents, who met us at the airport in Chicago.


Here in London, we're staying with my sister-in-law's sister-Kari, her husband-James and their little daughter-Elisebeth in a cozy apartment in the north part of the city. Our plan to pick up our vehicle today is also most likely going to be delayed because the car is still stuck in customs, but hopefully we'll be able to pick it up on Monday and start the trip to Scotland. Neither Stani or I have really looked around London before, so we'll do some sightseeing around the city which will be nice.  We're grateful to Kari and James for being such nice hosts and allowing us to stay here longer than we planned.