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Driving Around in Croatia and Slovenia

When I first told people that we would want to spend a week driving around in Croatia and Slovenia prior to joining a river cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, most would give me a sidelong glance before showing interest.  Even my wife had misgivings up to the point of our departure. She heard many horror stories of how tourists got stranded and robbed, especially in countries with foreign cultures and foreign languages.  She told me she even prayed very hard at church.  As it turned out, her prayers were fully answered because we had one of the most relaxing and enjoyable weeks ever.  We encountered zero problems throughout.  There was no difficulty in communicating as English was truly a global language, especially in the hospitality circles, failing that, body language worked wonders too.  On the whole, we found people in both countries very friendly.  We never met anyone unwilling to answer our questions, be they for direction or general information. The roads in cities and highways were in excellent repairs and when the sceneries were also pleasing to the eyes, the trip became a total pleasure. 

We picked up the car at the Budapest airport and went directly to Zagreb, Croatia. At 9 Euros a day, we declined the use of a GPS and relied solely on maps.  While preparing for the trip, I researched into Google Maps and would wholeheartedly recommend them.  I printed individual maps for the daily schedule along with detailed written instructions, which were necessary when we went into town.  They proved to be up-to-date and accurate.  There was another very neat Google feature.  By moving the little guy symbol provided along the route, it will provide 3-D pictures as I move. It was like taking a virtual tour which enabled me to familiarise myself with the conditions of the roads and various landmarks which became an aid when I was trying to get to a destination.  One time I booked a hotel but cancelled it after a tour of the neighbourhood on line (again, using the litter guy symbol) when I saw graffiti in every wall and the area did not look well kept.

Zagreb was our first stop after Budapest. Our driving route for the entire trip is shown in the following map.

Zagreb was the capital of Croatia and was not large.  The cathedral was its main attraction.  The side streets in the north part of town were more appealing. Sidewalk cafes were very well patronised in the afternoon and everybody looked relaxed.  The crowd thinned out in the evening and it was apparent people enjoyed their happy hours after work. We found this a common phenomenon in both countries.  We were told in Ljubljana, Slovenia, that many people worked from 7 to 3 so the sun was still out when they finished work and there would still be hours in the day to enjoy outdoor fun.  It was the beginning of spring when we were there and people couldn’t wait to get outside after the winter especially when we had May weather in March this year.  There were days when the thermometer climbed up to over twenty degrees Celsius when the average temperature in normal years only stayed in the low teens.

 

   

After Zagreb, we turned south to the Plitvice National Park.  We heard a lot about this park as a must-see.  The topography was very similar to Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝) in China.  It was beautiful indeed.  It was not as large as Jiuzhaigou but then we only got to see the southern part of the park as the north part was not open at the time.  One huge advantage topped it all.  There was practically no crowd.  We walked at our own pace and enjoyed fully the peaceful environment and breathtaking scenery. We stayed in a hotel just 7 km from the park and had a delightful time enjoying the countryside setting and wonderful meals served at the adjoining restaurant.  The people were extremely friendly.  They took the time to recommend to us the various points of interest on our route and would even go on the web to show us the appropriate sites.

   

To reach Ljubliana, Slovenia, we went north and had a very pleasant drive along the coast of the Adriatic Sea and passed a lot of towns and resort areas. 

 

                                                              Along the coastal area

 

                              Entering Rejika                                                          Rijeka Centre

Ljubliana was a total delight.  It was not large and we could practically walk everywhere.  We compared it to Budapest in Hungary and Prague in the Czech Republic, two famed cities with beautiful architecture and bridges, and did not find it short.  We absolutely loved the impressive buildings, willow trees, and the sidewalk cafes on both sides of the bank.  A dinner in the evening in one of these outdoor restaurants accompanied by singers and local music was a wonderful experience.  We were presented with a bill for 31 Euros.  When my wife was trying to dig out the change, the waiter took the 30 Euros and walked away with a smile.  This would never happen in North America.

 

                                                            Ljubljana in the morning

                    

             The legend goes that if the dragon sees you and wags its tail, you are a virgin

 

               The umbrella is the Street light

 

                            People here work from 7 am to 3 pm - it's happy hour now

Another forty five minutes’ drive took us to Lake Bled, a picturesque Alpine resort.  An island which housed several buildings including a pilgrimage church built near the end of the 17th century stood in the middle of the lake.  A castle on the mountain top completed the panorama.  Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia for 40 years had his summer residence in this area as well.  There were row boats run by professional rowers to take people cruising around the lake.  They were not in operation when we were there because it was still early in the season.

   

Before going back to Budapest to join the river cruise, we stopped over at the town of Hévíz in Hungary.  This is spa resort town, located near Hévíz Lake, Europe’s largest thermal lake.  Many of the spas provide facilities for visitors seeking to use the waters for medicinal purposes.  The hotel we checked into adjoined a spa complete with many different pools and a lake for swimming.  It was a common sight to see people walking back and forth to the resorts in their bath robes.  We thoroughly enjoyed dipping in the thermal pools.

 

                      In front of the spa hotel                                      In front of the thermal lake

 

                                                             The thermal lake facility

Back in Budapest in time to join our river cruise; the boat was anchored just under the world famous Chain Bridge.

All in all, this driving trip was one for us to remember.  The two countries were safe, and beautiful.  Washroom facilities were plenty, modern and clean.  Quite a few of them, including the ones attached to the restaurants along the highways did charge a fee, redeemable when you later made a purchase, but it would still be convenient to have some small change for the occasion.  The highways were more than comparable to the ones in North America but we were surprised to find that in many regions, the speed limit was 130 km.   Small wonder that other cars whizzed us by constantly.  There were toll booths in Croatia but we were supposed to get a permit for the highways in Slovenia.  We were not aware of it at the beginning but were lucky that we did not get stopped by the police patrol to incur a hefty fine.  We subsequently purchased a weekly pass for 15 Euros and drove with peace of mind.

There were no border check points entering or exiting Hungary or Slovenia.  Croatia was the only country with more stringent inspection. Not only did we have to pass through very meticulous passport inspection, there was yet another booth for the “Polizia”.  The same happened when we were on the cruise.  Immigration officers would come on board and spend hours interviewing and going through each passenger’s passport.  All’s well that ends well but we could not understand their overzealous caution. 

The only hiccup we had in the whole experience was the security deposit we had to pay (615 Euros) upfront when we picked up the car at Budapest.  Normally, rental car companies would not submit the credit card voucher to the banks and would have it cancelled once the car was returned intact.  Not so this time.  Though they assured us that the refund would be automatic, it nonetheless took them over a month after numerous exchanges of letters and a complaint to the original booking company to have the matter resolved.  It is a lesson learnt. 

If people ask me about driving in east Europe, I would unreservedly give a thumb up.  It helps of course to be prepared and know what we are doing.  Go with an open mind and we will naturally have a good time.

To watch the video made for this trip click here

---- By Dominic Chan (64)

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