In this episode, we will travel from the west coast of Sweden to Umag on the northern coast of Croatia, a 2500 km journey via Prague in the Czech Republic and Budapest in Hungary. Since we also needed to get Scott’s passport stamped, we had to leave the open borders of the EU for a quick trip through Serbia — and what a crazy mission that was!
In the last episode of nomads for love, we gave you a little backstory of how we got here. Basically—this is a love story. We live full time in a van, jumping borders every 3-months, just so we can be together! We are not allowed to legally live in the same country until one of us immigrates which can be up to a 2-year-long process for us. So, Dory, the blue adventure bus has a very important role to play in our relationship over the next few years while we wait for the paperwork. After that, we hope to use Sweden as a base as we continue exploring the world in our epic van.
Playing by the rules
We love just exploring and discovering new places as we go with an open mind and without much of a plan. This particular journey is no different but it is framed by a few parameters that are out of our control.
First of all, we have to stay out of the Schengen area for at least 3-months in order to comply with visa restrictions while we wait for immigration. Since Sweden belong to this Schengen area, which functions as one single zone for international travel purposes, it means that we have to travel pretty far in order for Scott not to overstay his visa every 3 months.
Second, the immigration interview will most likely happen sometime during this time. We have opted to do this in Athens since that was the embassy with the shortest waiting time. So we want to be within reasonable driving distance to the Swedish embassy in Greece when the time comes for this appointment.
The only other item on our checklist is a wish to prolong summer for as long as possible this year, which means driving south.
Since we set off without a plan we have no idea where this journey will take us. This is part of the adventure! So be sure to follow along, it is bound to be an interesting journey!
Driving through Germany
We left Sweden via the ferry from Trelleborg to Rostock on November 1. We arrived in Germany pretty late so we wanted to find a place to park up pretty soon. We tried to find this lake people had recommended online but found no public access to it so we ended up parking up at a truck stop along hwy 19. The Rostock ferry drops you off at a convenient 2-hour drive from Berlin on fast roads through Germany. But since we were on a mission to get out of the Schengen area in just 5 days we decided to save Berlin for another time and covered Germany in record time (for an LT …inside joke for you fellow VW LT enthusiasts).
Prague — Czech Republic
We did, however, want to stop in for a quick visit to Prague on our way south. Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, is aptly nicknamed “the city of a hundred spires” due to its historic baroque architecture and many Gothic churches. While it is a city that begs for a much longer visit, we at least want to get a feel for it. So we spent the day on foot doing a few of the more touristy things. We began with a stroll across the popular pedestrian 15th century Charles Bridge into Old Town. A popular tourist attraction, it is lined with statues of Catholic saints and colorful buskers. The bridge crosses the Vltava River, another prominent feature of the city as it splits it in two, separating Old Town from the Castle District. Towards the end of our loop, we stopped to admire the Astronomical clock on Old Town Square. The square was filled with people and street performers and lined with smoking stands serving up amazing street food.
We left the city before dark and parked up at another truck stop on the E65, no more than 20 km from the Hungarian border. The motorways are lined with these stops and they feel safe and convenient for us since we are just passing through on this trip. We were just about to hop into bed when there was a knock on the door. An officer from the transit authority had spotted us and not found the required vignette for the Czech highway system on our bus and now wanted money. Dammit!
Many countries in the region charge a fee for driving on principal motorways and you must purchase a different vignette pass for each country. We knew this but had spaced on buying one when we crossed the border into the Czech Republic. So the vignette that would have cost us €12 turned into a €40 fine. Needless to say, we were sure to get our pass for Hungary when we crossed the border the next morning.
Budapest — Hungary
We spent the day in the capital city of Budapest. It is a lovely city that we decided we would like to explore more thoroughly at a later date when we have more time. We crossed over the Chain Bridge with connects the hilly Buda district with the flat Pest below and parked up along the river bank. We had phenomenal weather for a nice stroll along the Donau river where we came across the “shoes on the Danube bank” memorial. It is honoring the victims who were shot at the edge of the water by fascist militiamen during World War II and was quite powerful in its simplicity. We also stumbled upon a small Italian deli and restaurant where we got some exceptionally good service and Italian coffee before continuing on our journey into Serbia.
On backcountry roads through Serbia — at night
We crossed the border into Serbia at the Hercegszántó crossing and got the stamps we needed for our passports. The plan was to make a beeline back over into Croatia as fast as possible, but after paying a staggering road tax fee after just a few miles on the main motorway, we left the pay roads. It turned out to be a rather scary nighttime drive on the tiny desolate backroads of Serbia — thanks a lot Google! I’m sure it was not quite as dodgy as it felt, but since it was totally dark on very narrow poorly maintained roads through bombed-out villages and shady street corners, we felt pretty unsafe, out of place and lost for those few hours we spent in Serbia.
With a huge sigh of relief, we finally crossed over into Croatia at the Backa Palanka border crossing in the middle of the night. We really wish we could have filmed the exchange with the Serbian border guards when we rolled through… They could not for the life of them figure out why a Swede and a Kiwi would come through this crossing with a camper. We had a good laugh at it as we drove off.
It was really late when we finally pulled into Osijek on the Croatian side so we just parked up in the supermarket parking lot for the night and went to bed.
Croatia — heading for the sea
We were so happy to have made it out of the Schengen area on time, with our passport stamped, and into beautiful Croatia. The plan was to drive until we hit the coast so we headed west towards the milder climate along the Adriatic Sea full of anticipation. We had enough of big cities for the time being so we just made a quick stop at Bauhaus for a few supplies on our way through Zagreb, which turned into yet another interesting google navigation story as we scraped past houses on narrow back roads on our way to the shopping center, then continued on towards Istria on the coast. In Croatia, you pay at tollgates instead a vignette pass, and fees stack up quickly if you travel far. So we stuck to the smaller roads to avoid the tolls and to get a chance to appreciate the countryside while driving through. A nicer way to travel anyway. Being here in the offseason there are very few outsiders around and we found we could park up almost anywhere without the locals taking much notice of us.
Driving west we saw signs for what looked like an epic waterfall. So, in the spirit of exploring, we left the main road in Skrad for a switchback adventure down into a steep gorge in search of this waterfall. While the quest was unsuccessful, we never found the waterfall, it was a nice break from just making the miles. We stopped in the small mountain village of Brod na Kupi to make lunch. The main business, the rafting center, was closed for the season and it was pretty much a ghost town—a sign of things to come. We did not mind though, it was a beautiful spot. Apparently, Croatian brown bears are common in this area and we went for a walk along the river looking for bear signs but found none.
We almost accidentally crossed the border over to Slovenia at the Petrina crossing here as we were leaving town. Oops!!! I could have sworn it said Bosnia and Herzegovina on the sign which would have been even more of a surprise… but it must have been my mind playing tricks on me. We made a u-turn at the gates, much to the border guards confusion, and got back on the road heading towards the coast.
We finally rolled into Umag on the Istria Peninsula in the very north of Croatia as the sun was dropping into the Adriatic Sea. We had reached our goal and we parked up on a deserted beach for the night.