The easiest way to break an addiction is to go cold turkey. We sold our cars when we moved from the United States to Bratislava two years ago, extinguishing our decades old car dependency overnight. Having the right permissions and insurance to drive is complicated when you live in the highly regulated countries of Slovakia and Hungary. Now we rely on “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of Central Europe’s public transportation system to get around.
In our current home of Budapest, we enjoy ‘the good’–a system which is fast, cheap and ubiquitous. I sometimes crave a car on Saturday, market day, as I lug bags of groceries home from the store. Otherwise, I integrate the metro, trams and buses – with miles of walking – to cover my day to day needs. As a side benefit, I am in the best walking shape of my life at the ripe age of 55. (A shout out to my son, Mike, a transportation planner in the United States. He is fist pumping as he reads this).
Traveling farther afield is challenging. I am writing this blog during our vacation on the coast of Slovenia. It is a difficult destination to reach from Budapest. For decades the countries behind the iron curtain fenced in their citizens restricting free movement. Enabling efficient, international transportation through a well integrated network of trains wasn’t part of the plan. Couple that with wars in this region during the dissolution of Yugoslavia – and you get ‘the bad’. Inter-country rail connections range from frequent to rare to non existent and more often than not, slow.
To reach Slovenia, we daisy chained a series of breaks into a longer vacation. For our first leg, we rode the six hour train from Budapest to Zagreb (you can read about this trip, ‘the ugly’, here). The next day we recovered by wandering the cobblestone streets of the old town, watching the lamplighter race down narrow lanes as dusk settled – illuminating the more than 200 black iron lamps. We strolled back to our apartment under the soft glow of lamplight and sated by the unexpected treasure of Zagreb.
Next, we moved three hours closer to our destination, the small baroque city of Ljubljana which straddles a weeping willow and café lined canal. This is a young and trendy capital where most speak English and love to practice. Whenever I glanced at my map, I heard, “Please, can I help you?” Ljubljana is a capital of well educated and extremely friendly people–a city which charmed us.
A young woman at the tourist information office in Ljubljana helped me solution the final leg of our journey–a bus to the seaside village of Portorosz. In a leap of faith, we had begun the trip not knowing how to travel the last 100 km to the shore. Ultimately, we hopped a bus in Ljubljana, alighted three hours later at the coast, and walked the final two kilometers to our hotel.
The unexpected charm of Zagreb and Ljubljana coupled with the inexpensive fares more than offset the opening day train ride. My ‘glass half full’ spirit remains intact.
That said, car ownership is a right of passage in the eastern bloc countries. Recently, I asked a Hungarian friend why everyone drives to work given the easy and inexpensive train options. Beaming with pride, he answered without hesitation, “We own cars because we can.” After years of suppression, my friend can own a car, drive to work, careen carefree across borders, and vacation on the popular beaches in nearby Croatia and Slovenia.
When I think about this, I realize he and I are a bit alike. He owns a car because he can. I live without one because I can. And we both are enjoying our new found freedoms.
Categories: How To