“Shaken, not stirred”. This is how drivers usually feel in Bulgaria, because of those terrible roads all over the country, including in the capital Sofia. Even some of the new roads are deeply rutted. Counting their potholes would take centuries.
I expected to leave those roads behind, when I embarked on my car trip from Sofia to Berlin on Sunday, for the first time since 2004. But the bad road quality issue is not limited to Bulgaria. Those freeways (motorways) in Hungary were not in a good state either, and those in Czechia sucked big-time.
On the last day of Bulgaria’s long summer vacation, the Kalotina border crossing was not that full. A few Bulgarian business travelers, probably those who hate flying, and Turks who live in Germany or the Netherlands formed a waiting line in their vehicles, but crossing did not take much longer than 15 minutes.
While the old country road from Sofia to Kalotina has not been refurbished since communism, the situation in Serbia turned out to be the exact opposite: A brand new freeway with neat tunnels now surprises travelers.
Fifteen years ago, drivers had to squeeze through narrow and unlit tunnels in the mountains between the Serbian town of Niš and the Bulgarian border. Any truck coming at them in the opposite direction would force them to get out of those enormous craters in the tunnels in reverse, since there was not enough room.
Years later, the tunnels were repaired. They even added a new invention called lamps. But the trip through the picturesque landscapes and mountains in eastern Serbia took almost as long as before. Today, that neat new freeway decreases the travel time between Kalotina and Niš by at least 45 minutes.
The old freeway from Niš to Belgrade, on the other hand, was built in communism and has not been refurbished since. Again, I felt “shaken, not stirred”. But, during this early phase of the trip, I was still full of energy. My goal was to get out of Serbia as fast as possible, also because placing phone calls and downloading mobile data costs a fortune in this non-E.U. country. Smart phones should be switched to airplane mode for that reason.
When I finally crossed Belgrade, the city reminded me of my days as a reporter during the Bosnian war. Back then, the embargo against Serbia led to wide-spread poverty and a terrible inflation rate. A 1000-Dinara-bill would lose half its value over night.
In northern Serbia, the notorious ‘Autoput’, a dangerous three-lane highway, was replaced in the past few years. This part of the trip can be covered a lot faster as well, due to yet another new freeway. ‘Gazprom’ gas stations are mushrooming up in Serbia. The ties between Russia and Serbia are strong. Belgrade wants to be part of the E.U. without giving up those ties, which is a difficult endeavor.
Then, I approached the Schengen border between Serbia and Hungary. Nothing moved for a long time, at least in my waiting line. For about 45 minutes, three border guards studied the documents of one single traveler. Just as things were about to normalize, a huge convoy of Czech police vehicles arrived and squeezed through all the cars waiting.
It looked like the Czech police unit returned from a mission. Those officers probably supported local police in Kosovo, or they might have helped secure one of Europe’s southern borders, since the refugee crisis is not over. That is also why every trunk of every car was searched. Hungary’s impressive border fence, which they quickly built during the peak of the crisis in 2015, is visible from the Röszke border crossing.
Approaching Budapest was easy. There was not a whole lot of traffic, until I reached the ring road around the Hungarian capital. Gazillions of construction sites slowed everyone down. On the ‘M1’ freeway towards Mosonmagyaróvár things were not much better.
It was after midnight, when I finally crossed the hardly visible border into Slovakia. For both Hungary and this small country, I had purchased electronic vignettes online. So I did not have to deal with those. In Serbia, the toll system is based on paying the toll in cash. The alternative is some electronic box, which can be bought at the border. It needs to be loaded in advance. I chose the cash option. Changing 20 Euro into some 2,200 Dinara at the border turned out to be enough for the toll, plus a pack of chewing gum and some chocolate.
Since I could hardly sleep in the car, I hit the road again. Czechia was the next country I entered. Even though I had read the content of two websites about the Czech toll system beforehand, I did not comprehend it. Here at the border, I bought a one-month vignette at 2 a.m.. The sales person told me the instructions were explained on the vignette itself, but the text is so small I could not have read the shit with an electron microscope. So I just stuck part of this thing to my windshield.
My second attempt to sleep a little, somewhere between Brno and Prague, was a little more successful. At 6 a.m., I ate my last cheese sandwich. Shortly after 7 a.m., I was stuck in the Monday morning rush hour in and around Prague. What a pain in the neck. Due to heavy traffic and millions of construction sites, it took me some three hours to get to the highway towards the town of Teplice and the German border.
Surprise, surprise: Since 2004, yet another new freeway was built, from Prague all the way to Dresden. Last time I drove this stretch, I it took me through countless villages, some of which were equipped with speed traps.
In Dresden, I had my first German Schnitzel, the kosher chicken version, in eight years. Also I shot some photos, before hitting the road yet again.
The very last stretch of 185 kilometers was one of the most difficult ones, since I really had enough by then. At around 1 p.m. I was in Berlin. Without that mess in Prague and my photo shoot in Dresden, I would have been here about 6 to 7 hours earlier.