Watch out EU, here we come!
In the previous travel post we did a test trip to Moldova to see if the car and the travelers were ready for a longer road trip. This test was successful so now we are going to drive to Denmark to visit my family. The direct route is 1800km and leads through Poland and Germany. We are not going to take the route but will drive through Slovakia, Czechia (to see Prague) and Germany. This route is a bit longer, about 2200km. The main reason for the longer route is that we want to visit Prague but also stories of hours and hours of waiting to cross the Ukrainian – Polish border makes me want to take a different route. None of us has ever visited Slovakia so this is just an extra bonus. We start a Saturday morning (the last Saturday of June). “We” are the same as on our trip to Moldova. My wife, her sister, our almost-one-year-old baby and me.
About a 130 km from home there is a railroad bridge, that looks like something from a Harry Potter movie. It is also featured in our Ukraine inside out app https://www.ukraineinsideout.com/en/interesting-points/train-bridge-1896 and ever since I got a drone I have wanted to make a video with it. So this is the first planned stop.
After the stop at the railroad bridge we continue our journey. The road that we are taking is not very busy. I have noticed that my google maps shows that some part of the road is marked with red but I don’t pay attention to it. At some point we see a sign that tells that the road is blocked because the bridge crossing the river Dniester is being torn down and a new one is under construction. The strange thing is that cars still seems to be coming from this direction. So we ignore the sign with the detour (that seems to add an extra 25 km to the drive) and continue. I would like to see this old bridge and I also wonder if it is possible to cross after all. But a few km further there is two big "no entrance” signs and even though another car just ignores them I turn around and go back to take the detour. After the long detour that actually is quite scenically and another hour of driving it starts to get dark. I am also tired (and everybody else in the car also seems to be because they are sleeping) and want to stop but there is just an empty road. In a little town I see something on the hill top that looks like a memorial and decide to check it out to see if it could be a good parking spot for the night.
The memorial for Turkish soldiers is located next to the cemetery and a little further down the hill is the church.
The view is great and there is a nice little parking spot so we decide to stay for the night.
The next morning, we can sit in the sun and watch people going to church. A guy also walks by and ask if we slept well 😊 So we have been noticed but in Ukraine you can camp almost everywhere as long as you don’t disturb. Here there isn’t any “no camper parking” signs.
After a nice breakfast we hit the road again. I can see on the map that we are passing through a little national park (Skolivski Beskydy National Park) and decide to stop in the town Skole that is located in the middle of the park. There is a little green area next to the river that seems nice – we are not the only people who seems to think that because it is full of people here. After a little rest that includes playing in the river we continue. We want to get to Uzhhorod close to the Slovakian border today. I have planned to spend around 9 days to get to Denmark which is less than 300 km per day. But our car is not very fast – 90 km/h is the absolute max speed if you want to travel without earplugs. I also want to spare the old bus so we often go slower. We are now in the Carpathian Mountains and the roads are going up and down all the time. The road is in an excellent condition. And every time we are driving uphill there are two lanes. The right one for me and all the other slow vehicles and the left ones for the cars that can’t wait a minute longer to overtake us.
Somewhere on the road there is a road post. It is still quite common in Ukraine to find traffic police stations on the major roads. Here the police can stop suspicious and random people. I hope I fall in the latter category because they stop me. The police guy is asking me why I didn’t stop, I don’t understand the question, because didn’t I stop? I mean if I didn’t stop would we be having this conversation 😉 Before I can answer him he sees my daughter and then everything is forgotten and he just looks at her, and tell us something about his family that I didn’t understand and let us go after telling us to drive carefully and not to fast because his colleagues are working a bit further down the road. It is not my first encounter with the Ukrainian Police (actually it might be my 5th) and they are always friendly and I have never been fined.
We arrive in Uzhhorod in the early evening. Uzhhorod is a very nice town. The river Uzh runs through it and this warm last day of June there is a lot of people in the street, strolling up and down next to the river. There is a famous castle here but we are too late and the security guards will not let us in. But next to the caste there is a nice open-air museum which looks like a little village with wooden houses and a wooden church and here one of the security guards let us in. The person selling tickets is nowhere to be seen but the guard gives us 3 tickets in return for our money.
We walk back to the car that is parked next to a little square/park very central in the town. It is not a very good camp spot. I have checked google to see if there should be a camp site nearby and there actually is. The problem is just that is located in Slovakia on the other side of the border. On the outskirts of Uzhhorod there is a large park and we find a parking lot there with light and other cars where we are not directly visible from the nearby road. We have a good and quiet night and next morning we find out that we have parked next to a public toilet a nicer one. With running water and other modern stuff.
After a stop at a supermarket (where my wife must of emptied the section with baby food considering how much she carries) we drive to the border that is just a few km away. At the entrance to the border area a border guard welcome us (and as we learned on our trip to Moldova) handles us a piece of paper with the car’s registration number and two empty fields where we should have a stamp from the passport control and one from customs. He also informs us that there is 4-5 hours of waiting time to cross the border but before I can finish my sigh, he says that because we are travelling with a little child then we can probably skip the line. We park in the line of cars with is actually not that long (maybe about 50 cars) considering the 5 hours of waiting time and my wife walks down to ask the border guards if we can get some baby VIP treatment. She comes back and say that we should just join the bus lane. After about 10 min of waiting we have all our stamps and can continue to the Slovakian border. Here the border guy we talk to doesn’t want to give us the same VIP treatment as on the Ukrainian side but he tells us to go and talk to the driver of the car that is first in line and ask him to let us in front of him. The driver is talking on the phone and before we can talk to him a new Mercedes minivan arrives and just try to get in front of the talking driver. Another guy has seen this and comes to talk to us. He likes our car and its hippie vibes and tells that he also wants to buy a little van and travel in Europe. He points at the Mercedes minivan (who didn’t want to wait in line – and didn’t carry any children) and use a not so flattering term in Ukrainian that includes the world “smuggler” and say that he was been waiting for 4 hours in the line.
After a few minutes the gate open and the next 3 cars are let in to the Slovakian border area. This includes us and the “smuggler”. The passport control is quite fast but all cars are being searched. The guy who carries out the search tell me to open the hood to the engine compartment and to open the trunk. I say that my engine is located in my trunk (my old VW T3 van has the engine in the rear) he says with a little smile that he knows that. He spends a lot of time trying to look into the driver’s door using a piece of wood to twist it a bit open where the window slide in and out and after this he starts to check the rest of the car. The search is half-hearted and soon we can enter Slovakia. About 15 km from the border I have seen that there should be a lake. It seems like you can’t get to the lake unless you check-in to a campsite so we decide to do that. A warm shower and a swim in the lake would be great so this is what we do. There is not a lot of people on the campsite and the two girls that seems to run the place are not so used to foreigners but we manage to check-in and I discover that Slavic languages are well…. Slavic languages and have a lot in common and with my Ukrainian/Russian skills (that are not so well developed as I would wish) I can understand a bit and be understood. Especially the numbers seem to be very similar.
We just stay a day at the campsite. There is a swimming pool that is visited by a lot of guests that don’t camp on the site and then there is the big lake where we go for a swim. Except for that there is nowhere to go or nothing to do so after a day of rest we move on.
Slovakia is very beautiful with a lot of mountains and the roads are in great condition. You have to pay road toll to use the highways and some of the major roads and it can be done online. You just open the official website for the road service, register the license plate of the car, the dates that you plan to spend in Slovakia and pay with credit card. Around 10 euros for 4 days. Very easy. I did that already in Ukraine and that turned out to be a good decision because when we enter Slovakia I don’t have any internet connection. I have a Danish SIM card and inside the European Union this should allow me to use the internet as if I was in Denmark (Thank you EU for passing this law). But I can’t get any internet connection working. We stop at a McDonalds with Wi-Fi and I check the homepage of my internet provider to see if my account is not set up correctly but everything looks fine. When I call their helpdesk the woman there also confirms that everything is correct – but my internet still doesn’t work. It is a bit annoying because I have a few e-mails to read and answer and it is a bit difficult to handle on the phone. To cut a long story short: When I call my phone company the next day I talk to another woman at the helpdesk and fixes the problem in 30 seconds and apologize that her colleague couldn’t help me the day before.
We spend a good part of the day driving but we also have time to stop at this castle:
And this castle that claims to be the biggest in Europe:
With a very nice view:
When it is time to find a place for the night, I see a very big lake from the highway. We get off the highway and it takes almost 20 min to get to the lake but it is all forgotten when we get there.
At the parking lot next to lake is already parked a small old VW truck which attracts my attention. It could look like it was converted to a camper and I can see that it has French license plates on. In Ukraine I don’t like to approach strangers because of my poor language skills so when I am outside Ukraine I want to talk to everybody just remotely interesting 😊. The owner of the truck is a French guy around 30 years old. He is travelling Europe for 8 months together with his dog. We have a long chat in English about travelling and especially about travelling in an old car. As he says: “I am very slow – but I am always first in the line of cars”. Yes I have the same experience wherever I drive… He talks about visiting Ukraine so the next day when we leave (and he is still asleep) I stick a note with my name, phone number, e-mail as well as name of our home town in Ukraine under the windshield wipers of his car with the wish that we will meet again in Ukraine.
We are not the only once that are attracted to the beautiful lake because in the evening another VW bus arrives with a couple from Poland. We just exchange smiles but don’t start a conversation. However, the next morning I have a long and interesting conversation in German with an elderly lady. While we are having breakfast a new looking Mercedes Van in mint green arrives at the parking lot. I can see on the license plates that it is from Germany (I have lived there and love to speak German). An elderly woman gets out and walks the few steps to the lake shore to make some photos. We can see that the car has a nice mint green camping interior. The girls want to see the van inside and I want to speak German 😊. So when the woman returns to her car I smile at her and say hello and compliment her car and ask it maybe we can take a closer look at it. No problem, she says. She is somewhere in her sixties and tells that this is her fourth DIY camper and that she has done all the work herself. We have a loooong talk about travelling 😊 She has done it for 40 years and is not planning to stop. That was a nice chat – now I am not so afraid of getting old…
She tells us about a beautiful village not so far from where we are and we decide to go there. Which turned out to be a good decision.
The village and the mountains are very beautiful.
The trip to the village takes a lot of time and we have to get to Denmark! So I drive until it starts to get dark. Today I am not in the mood to look for a beautiful campsite (it is dark anyway, so why bother?). So when I get tired of driving I leave the highway in an area with a lot of fields and a few km away from the highway we find a field with grass where were are hidden from the main road. It is clearly not a public place but we will leave early and nobody will ever know that we have been there. In Ukraine it would be perfectly fine to sleep here, how the Slovakians sees it I don’t know, but worst case will be that the owner turns up and tells us to leave, I assume.
We have a quiet night and never see anyone. The next day we get to the border to Czechia. Czechia also has toll roads but they haven’t adopted the “pay online” version that Slovakia has and they also haven’t adopted the euro like Slovakia has. So I am already a bit “annoyed” by Czechia because where should I get the vignette for the roads and where should I exchange money? The first problem is solved in Slovakia where the last gas station before the border has a sign in Slovakian that I interpret as “buy your vignette here”. It turns about to be correct and in my broken Ukrainian I order and get my vignette that will give me 4 days to cross Czechia.
The problem about the currency turns out to be almost none existent. We can pay everything with credit card and the only cash we need is for the boat that takes us from the campsite in Prague to the city of Prague and this money I exchange in the reception of the campsite to a slightly (but not extreme) high exchange rate.
It takes us two days to get to Prague where we spent two nights at the campsite and check out the city during the day.
After Prague it is time to go to Germany. On a gas station on the highway just before the German border we have a little funny incident. Our little daughter is playing in the front seat of our van. Next to us is parked a shiny new van with a Slovakian family inside. Our daughter smiles to the people in the van and they smile back and the driver gets out and give my wife a banana “for the baby”. I don’t know if they think we look so poor and skinny that we need bananas from strangers but I decide to think that they just find our daughter irresistible cute and want to show it some way 😊
We get to Germany, thanks God for the Schengen Agreement that has (almost) removed that control at the borders and made border crossings simple (unlike our Ukraine – Slovakia crossing). In a little town outside Dresden we stop at a supermarket. My wife and her sister go shopping and I stay in the van with my daughter. After a few min a nice car stops next to us
And I have a very long conversation with a like-minded 😉
We have decided to visit Berlin mainly so my wife and her sister can see the city (because I have lived in Germany for 2.5 years and visited Berlin a lot of times). Berlin has environmental restrictions and only let new cars that don’t pollute a lot inside the city. Our old diesel van does not fit this category so I have devised a plan where we will sleep close to Berlin (which turns out fine – we sleep next to a beautiful lake with a public toilet) and in the morning we drive to a train station on the outskirts of Berlin and take the S-Bahn into the central Berlin.
Inside Berlin there is a very special convention:
My sister-in-law has bought a plane ticket from Schönefeld Airport in Berlin with departure the next day in the morning so this night we also spend close to Berlin. It is a bit tricky this time to find a good spot to camp but we end up in a dead-end street next to a lake (Do you see a pattern? I love water 😊 ) in a very wealthy neighborhood. The house that we are parked in front of seems to be empty but next morning, as I see the naked owner go for a swim, I can conclude that it isn’t.
We drive towards Schönefeld Airport but I have trouble with my GPS as well as the signs. When I look at my GPS it seems like there is two airports next to each other. As we approach the airport, I see signs pointing towards “Airport” that are covered with a cross as if they are not valid. We get to the airport but the first parking lot is closed I assume because it is full. The second one is an indoor parking lot but my car is too tall to enter. The third parking lot seems to be unused. There is a little grass growing on it and the gate doesn’t work. I decide to park at the roadside and follow my sister-in-law into the airport. In front of the terminal is parked some very shiny and expensive cars and a photo shooting is taking place. In front of us walk two people. We follow them into the terminal that to my surprise looks like a building site. I try to find out where to go when a security guard asks to see our ID cards. ”ID cards?” I ask. “We just want to fly”. “There are no flights from here” says the security guard. I say: “Aah, is this not Schönefeld?”. “No”, he replies, “it is over there”, he shows with his hand. Then I finally get it. This airport is “famous” in Germany because it has been delayed for years and the German reputation for “Ordnung” has been destroyed by this “scandalous” airport. The guard is very friendly and tells us how to get to Schönefeld and his farewell is: Maybe you can fly from here next year and I answer “you wish”.
We find Schönefeld. Here there is a lot of cars and people not like in the other “ghost” airport. We say buy to sister and head north towards Denmark. We stop in Schwerin in the northern part of Germany. There is a very impressive castle
That is now used by the local government.
In a little village a guy looks at the license plate of the van and ask me in Ukrainian if I am really from Ukraine – I answer in the same language that I am not but that my wife is. He shakes my hand and leaves again. You can find Ukrainians everywhere!
We are now close to the Danish border but it is also late in the evening and even though the days are longer here in the north we have to spend one more night in the van before we have arrived at our final destination.
Earlier in this blog post I praised the EU Schengen agreement that makes it possible to travel through Europe without showing your passport and without stopping at the borders. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case everywhere in EU. My own fatherland Denmark has “temporary” border control at the German border. This Tuesday morning the border guys don’t seem to find anyone suspicious because the cars in front of us can just pass the border without stopping but this change when they see the Ukrainian Van. The border guy shows us that we should stop, which I do. I turn off the engine and open the window. He asks for our documents in English and I answer him in Danish and handle him our passports. My Danish language and passport seem to be the magic words because he just asks if we are going home for holiday and I say yes and then we can leave.
It was a looong blog post. But if was a long journey. 11 days we spent to cover the about 2500 km from Ukraine to Denmark. In the next travel post I will write about our trip back to Ukraine. This time the trip will go through Germany and Poland and include World War II historical sites – but more about that next time.