From B to A… Expat Style. The conversation between the Bucharest Expat team and a friend of ours went something like this: Anyone interested in joining me for a road trip? Where are you going? Amsterdam. What are we driving? An Audi TT. I’ll be packed in five minutes. When do we leave???
After the initial enthusiastic reaction, the real world arrived with one or two minor concerns about the distance, Romanian roads and the possibilities for bad weather but this did not deter. The planning process was brief (which route and where to stay which turned out to be interdependent) and one very recent Friday evening we set off for Venice of the North.
The first leg was just a warm up as we stayed in Rimnicu Valcea with friends for a post Christmas catch up. The traffic was relatively light apart from the large black and very dead dog on the highway to Pitiesti that successive drivers were running over. This looks easier in a SUV then it felt and sounded in the Audi, but the car was visibly unscathed so on we went (the dog had clearly been past help for some time).
We left early on Saturday morning, destination Prague. Setting out into the cold, misty and very dark pre dawn morning it felt more like destination Venus. The weather was grim, and we discovered that whilst the Audi TT is a fine and fast friend, the standard headlights seem to have been designed for something with the top speed of a wheelbarrow. Audi can, of course, provide much better headlights but these are on the options list and we suspect must have been expensive as the box was left unchecked. We were pleased to discover that the original owner had specified cruise control as an option, which must have been incredibly useful in Bucharest traffic and across the myriad highways of Romania.
As the journey continued, light started to appear in the sky but this could in no have been described as daybreak. It was more like dawn staggering blearily out of bed with a hangover then immediately lying down on the couch with pink eyes. This was a shame as the drive along the river Olt is beautiful at any time of year, but you need some light to see it. Early morning pedestrians started to appear, adopting the traditional approach of dressing like a ninja warrior on a mission rather than someone keen to survive the mostly pavement free walk to wherever their destinations were. Reflective yellow might not be trendy of fashionable but it does make wearers visible….
The day did brighten just in time for the welcome surprise of the morning – 17 km of highway that took us around Sibiu that we had to share briefly with two trucks. Sibiu is a beautiful city to visit but not so great to drive through, so this new development raised a smile. It also caused us to reflect on what could have been if large amounts of the Romanian GDP had not been absorbed by the successive curses of the Peoples Palace and the pockets of politicians and their pals. Highways can apparently be built if there is some money, but the money needs to get from the tax payer to the projects without the regular interventions that appear to occur.
On we forged towards Arad the views of the countryside came and went through the mist. There is some great natural beauty to be seen across Romania, blighted in some areas by the legacy of industrial architecture (this is a generous description). The lowlight of the trip was Deva that had nothing to see of virtue other than the perspective from the rear view mirror as we left. It was a parade of grey apartment blocks and road works and managed to look thoroughly miserable.
As we got closer to the border the concentration of trucks seemed to increase and it appears that exports from Bulgaria and Turkey are doing well, mixed in with some local exports for good measure. Add in the enthusiasm of all other vehicles for overtaking the aforementioned trucks and we were starting to have an interesting day. This is where our insider advice was employed in an effort to dodge the Budapest bound rat pack.
Once past Arad, traffic continues to battle towards the border crossing at Nadlac with a procession of trucks and attendant dodging cars. We ignored this option and followed a tip to turn right in the direction of Turnu, where there is a quieter border crossing. The difference was like flicking a switch as we suddenly arrived in the truck free zone. The roads are generally straight and empty, with the obligatory potholes. This means that you can actually relax a bit and focus on dodging the holes in the road instead of trucks and kamikaze drivers. There were no trucks (that’s zero) at the crossing and a queue of one car that we were about to disrupt.
It has long been our experience that having documentation of differing origins can lead to a discussion. The border crossing proved to be no exception as we tried to enter Hungary with a Romanian registered car, British passport and Dutch driving license. As the border guard spoke Hungarian or Romanian, we opted to (attempt to) communicate in our best Romanian. This meant explaining the reason for the assortment of documents that worked pretty well until the last question – “Are these documents original?” Keeping a straight face as we scrolled through the answer options was a challenge but we made it, and were dismissed with instructions to drive safely and pay our road tax.
With our first border crossing under our belt, we set off towards the highways and Prague with high spirits. The road to the highway and Budapest is well marked, easy to follow and almost traffic free. It is a slightly longer route than the more direct one through Nadlac, but much more relaxing. The road conditions continued to vary between rough and bone shaking but the more direct route is no better and the absence of trucks was a joy. It is approximately 130 km from Arad to the highway to Budapest and beyond. This is a longer but much more relaxing route than driving through Nadlac.
The rest of the journey to Prague was monotonously uneventful as we drove through Hungary, the Slovak and Czech Republics. The road surfaces could not be described as smooth and our Audi turned out to be exceptional at finding road imperfections. The final stretch approaching Prague was the noisiest as we pounded across the concrete and the expansion strips and it was a relief to finally turn towards the city until we got lost. We had directions and a Garmin GPS device but neither proved to be up to the task of guiding two weary travelers to their destination the quick way, so we took the scenic route…. We marked our arrival in Prague by celebrating with some of the green substance that the city is partly famous for: Absinth. Do not try this at home!
Sunday morning arrived and with it the threat of sunshine and a shorter journey to Amsterdam. Fortified with a rousing dish of bacon and eggs (thanks to our host, James) we set off in high spirits, knowing that the journey would be completed in daylight. The roads were mysteriously smoother but this is not a complaint, and we made good progress. The selection of cruise control finally made a case for itself, so once we were in Germany we set it at 150 kph (in unrestricted areas) and let the car manage the speed. The distance passed and the fuel consumption dropped slightly so the cruise control system has now justified itself (outside congested city areas). The speed may appear to be a bit tame for Germany but we were not in a hurry and the pockets of fog that kept appearing meant that too much speed was not necessarily the smartest of options.
The final leg was the smoothest and by far the fastest in terms of average speed. Even arriving in the Netherlands with their old-fashioned maximum of 120 was not too much of a disappointment. The big surprise was the updated highway from Utrecht to Amsterdam, which is now five lanes wide, has a maximum speed of 100 kph and lends itself to agoraphobia when first encountered on a quiet Sunday afternoon. The plan appears to be that the speed keeps the traffic moving and it’s cleaner and quieter. The average speed of traffic around us indicates that this may not succeed but it’s a noble effort.
Finally we arrived at our destination in Amsterdam, weary but pleased to have completed the 2,334 km journey. The total time behind the wheel was just less that 24 hours that is about what we expected. We celebrated our arrival with some of the green substance that Amsterdam is famous for and had a bottle of Heineken 😉
Our conclusions were that it was a long way to drive, the Audi TT acquitted itself well from point B to A and the parallel route from Arad to the highway is very worthy of consideration. The journey through Romania is beautiful in its own way but there is still scope for some improvement to the infrastructure. Europe still has a lot to offer the traveler.