From Sweden to Croatia in seven days

We really love flying but we also really love driving. This year we decided to drive from Sweden to Croatia, which is planning-wise, duration-wise and cost-wise a more demanding option than flying, but it is also more fun. And we have not done it since 2009, so we were quite eager to try it again. One big difference between then and now is that now there is three of us. Here is a summary of the trip. Warning: it’s a lengthy read :-).

Day 1: Stockholm – Helsingborg

Driving in Sweden is relaxing – the highways are in good condition, drivers mostly keep the speed limit and well, it’s home… We started from our apartment (where we moved in just one week before the trip) just before 10 o’clock with nice sunny weather and 20 degrees (Celsius, of course :-)), perfect for driving. The first stop was the city of Linköping, which is one of many Swedish cities with a population between 100 000 and 150 000. We just took a very short walk in the city center, too short to form any opinions about the city. The first “proper” stop was planned in Jönköping, half way from Stockholm to Helsingborg. Aneta was the driver for this part. The road approaching Jönköping is very scenic with a nice view of Vättern, Sweden second largest lake. In Jönköping we had lunch, took a walk, reminisced about when we stopped here in December 2009 and had some coffee and sweets. Here is us in Jönköping in 2009 and now (I avoid posting face photos of Emili, she will have plenty of time to do that herself if she wants to when she grows up, I hope you understand).

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Aneta and me in Jönköping in December 2009 and July 2017

From Jönköping the fastest way to Helsingborg is the E4 highway, but we choose a slightly longer way, through Halmstad, just because we had not driven this road before. Unfortunately, the weather was bad and most of the way the road is surrounded by forest, so there were no scenic views. We took a very short drive through the city of Halmstad, and luckily the sun was back. We reached Helsingborg around 20:30 where Toni greeted us with a nice dinner. After dinner, we went for a walk by the Öresund bay. Toni is moving to Stockholm in a couple of months, which makes us very happy, but he was visibly nostalgic about leaving Helsingborg. We cannot say we don’t understand, Helsingborg is truly beautiful. But Toni will soon realize that Stockholm is also, even more so :-). The night ended with beer in a nice bar by the Gröningen beach where we met some of Toni’s friends.

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Emili playing with lights in the beautiful sunset

Day 2: Skåne and Halland

The day started with a luxurious breakfast (it was at the level of home made smoothies with chia seeds) prepared by Toni. Then we went for a walk in the center of Helsingborg. It is always nice to get to see a city through the eyes of a local. Even nicer when that local lived in the same city we lived in (Västerås), so we could compare Helsingborg to our common reference point. After this, we went for a drive through the Mölle peninsula. Aneta and I were blown away by the beauty of the picturesque village of Viken. Unfortunately after this the weather turned on us and treated us with heavy showers. The frail Swedish summer… I was looking forward to see Höganäs, the city where my neighbor Jonny (unfortunately former neighbor, I mentioned that we recently moved away from our house) is from. But the weather was still bad so we did not see much. We went on to the nature reserve of Kullaberg, hoping that the weather would improve. It didn’t… But the view from Kullaberg is breathtaking regardless. We went for a late lunch in the nearby city of Ängelholm. When choosing the place Toni asked us if we liked Indian food. Come on Toni, this is our favorite cuisine. After the very good lunch we took a walk in the city, and the sun was back. After this we drove north and left the province of Skåne for the province of Halland. We visited Sweden’s longest sandy beach at Mellbystrand and had coffee at Skummeslövsstrand where Emili got to enjoy a nice playground. The day ended back in Helsingborg with Toni making an apple strudel. Thank you Toni! We are very glad we got to meet another beautiful part of the fascinating and diverse country that is Sweden.

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Toni at Mellbystrand

Day 3: Helsingborg – Stade

After another luxurious breakfast by chef Toni, it was time to hit the road again. We reached Malmö quickly and had a drive through the city. We would have loved to have more time there, it is a very interesting city (I visited Malmö a year ago but only for one afternoon).

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The Öresund bridge (view from Sweden)

I was looking forward to finally drive the Öresund bridge (in 2009 we took the ferry from Trelleborg to Rostock). It was cool to finally do it, but not really mind-blowing in any way, especially having the very expensive toll in mind. So we entered Danmark, a country I am still trying to learn to like. There are not many aspects of it that attract me and on top of this it is very expensive (even for Swedish standards, except for fuel which was surprisingly cheap). But we still decided to take the long way around. The shortest way is to drive southwest and take the ferry to Germany. We went west towards the city of Kolding and then south towards Germany. This route took us through another one of Europe’s great bridges – Storebælt. It is even longer than Öresund (and the toll is cheaper :-)). Before exiting Germany we took a drive through Christiansfeld, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was quite nice. Ok, so we got an impressive bridge and a nice town from Danmark, this is an improvement in my relation to this country, but I still feel it owes me. Or maybe rather I owe it, owe it a more proper visit to get to know it better. 

Now Germany… Being raised in Croatia, I had it implanted in me that Germany is the best country in the world. Well I think Sweden is, but Germany still fascinates me and I look forward to each visit. It is big, diverse and has many beautiful places to see. Also, by Swedish standards it is cheap. On the other hand, I don’t like its strict hierarchy-based mentality (even though my PhD puts me high in that hierarchy) and I don’t feel it is as child friendly as Sweden. Its roads are impressive and frightening at the same time. Some people interpret having no speed limits as “I can drive like an idiot in my middle-age-crisis-sports-car” which makes me check the rear-view mirror even more often than I usually do. Also, the dreaded “stau” can always turn a short trip into a long agony. But still, its Germany, as a Croat I am destined to like it and I do. Driving through Germany and listening to the radio, I got reminded how much of German I still understand. But I can say almost nothing :-(, when I try to speak German, Swedish comes out.  We were lucky to not be stuck in a “stau” and we reached the town of Stade just after 19 o’clock. We checked into our hotel and went out for dinner. We had planned to try restaurant Knechthausen which was named in the Michelin guide for is good cooking, but alas, it was closed. A Tripadvisor consultation and a short walk later, we were sitting in Rammbock grill, a nice modern German restaurant. Well, “mučkalica”, “vješalica” and “ćevapćići” that were listed on the menu showed it was actually a German/Balkan restaurant. The Bosnian owner heard us talking in Croatian and that was enough for us to get special treatment. I am not sure how I feel about bonding based purely on geographical origin, I think people should bond based on their interests and dreams, but this is a different topic. The food was very well prepared and it was not your typical “I will cover the lack in quality by the quantity of food” kind of place, which both German and Balkan restaurants so often are. Here it was both about quality and quantity. Since Rammbock grill delivered, this made us forget our disappointment about Knechthausen being closed. We had some customary schnapps before taking a walk through Stade, which is a beautiful small town, exactly what we wanted to see.

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The picturesque town of Stade

Day 4: Stade – Utrecht

Day 4 had less driving planned, which we used to do more sightseeing. We started by a short visit to the Elbe river which is impressive due to its size. Then we had a couple of hours in the city of Bremen. It was a bit nicer in photos than in real life, but it did not disappoint either. Apart from the relatively unexciting cakes we had at Konditorei Knigge. It was again time for Aneta to drive, as I felt tired. But all it took was a short power nap and I was back. Before entering the Netherlands, we made sure to refuel the car as fuel is cheaper in Germany.

Upon reaching Utrecht we took a drive through the city before heading to Aneta’s sister’s place. Sofija and Boris have just done the opposite of what we did – they moved from an apartment into a house. They had done a lot of renovation and were quite tired from the whole process. I completely understand them. Unfortunately, Emili’s cousins Filip and Stefan were not there, they were spending a part of the summer with their grandparents in Belgrade in Serbia. After getting a tour of the house, we went out for dinner and then to a nice lakeside bar called Key West. It was a short visit, but I always enjoy meeting Sofija and Boris.

Day 5: Utrecht – Amsterdam – Louvain-la-Neuve

When I woke up in the morning Sofija was already gone for work. Boris was working from home as he was waiting for several deliveries. We had breakfast and headed on further. Or to be more precise backwards, towards Amsterdam and my highschool and university friend Dinko. It was a challenge to reach him as there was a lot of roadwork around the place he works at, so we were circling around it for some time before finding our way. After catching up over coffee, we headed back through Utrecht towards Belgium. I love how everybody kept the speed limit between Amsterdam and Utrecht – it was impressive to see five highway lanes and all of them moving at exactly 100 km/h.

Before entering Belgium I wanted to visit Baarle-Nassau, which is a town with an incredibly complex border situation. The best way to explain is showing a picture – there are enclaves of Belgium in the Netherlands and some of them in turn contain enclaves of the Netherlands.

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The border situation at Baarle-Nassau

In practice, the border is drawn by small crosses on the ground. I don’t know why this is so and how it affects daily life. Since both countries are in Schengen there are of course no border controls, but whose laws do the houses belonging to Belgium follow? What about the houses where the border cuts right through them? Are there Belgian kindergartens in the town? I have to read about this when I get some time.

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The white crosses under our car are the border, and it goes right through this garage

Antwerp was the next stop, what a beautiful town that is. Of course we had some Fren… I mean Belgian fries there.

Around 19 o’clock we reached Louvain-la-Neuve. This is a university town. One peculiarity about it is that it is in the province of Wallonia, but the architecture is typically Flemish. Another peculiarity is that car traffic is not allowed in the center, but is moved to a complex (at least for me who drove there only once) system of underground tunnels. This is where my brother Andrija and his wife Helena live with their son Filip (yes, Emili has one cousin Filip on her mother’s side and one on my side :-)). As soon as we arrived Emili and Filip started wreaking havoc together. We did not mind as we were busy enjoying the stoofvlees (Belgian beef stew) that Andrija prepared. After giving the kids a bath and getting them to go to bed (this was a long process), Andrija, Helena, Aneta and me took the opportunity to catch up.

Day 6: Louvain-la-Neuve – Munich

Andrija went to work really early (the notorious Belgian traffic makes his work commute lengthy) so I said goodbye to him half asleep. After breakfast it was time for us to go, we had the lengthiest drive of the complete trip planned for the day. Filip really loves cars, and Helena needed to pull him away from ours, so we did not part on he best of terms as far as he was concerned.

From Belgium we entered Luxembourg and took a drive through Luxembourg city. Its architecture reminded us of Zurich. Our first stop of the day was the village of Schengen where the Schengen treaty was signed. I am a proponent of free movement within the EU so this place means a lot to me. I visited it back in 2012 alone and was glad I could do it this time with Aneta and Emili. Schengen is tripoint, a place where the borders of three countries meet – Luxembourg, Germany and France. We entered Germany and France just for fun, then went back to Luxembourg for a short visit to the European museum. And to refuel the car again, the gas price in Luxembourg is dirt cheap.

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Emili enjoyed playing with the flags in Schengen

The next stop was the city of Karlsruhe in Germany. Aneta and me visited it back in 2008 for a business trip. This was before we started dating. We both had nice memories of the city and wanted to come back for a new visit. A big part of this nice memory was a brewery and restaurant called Vogelbräu. So we went there for lunch. What were we thinking? The food was not good and the place was full of sad drunk people. I guess some memories should be left in the past as reliving them only brings disappointment. This we noticed several times. I guess our taste for restaurants changed over the years :-). Even the next memory was not relived nicely – Marktplatz (the central square) was a building site and not nearly as nice as we remember it. At least we had some good coffee and a nice apple cake to comfort us. Despite all of this, I was very glad to have come to Karlsruhe again.

It was getting quite late and we still had 2.5 hours of driving to Munich. But then the dreaded “stau” hit – my GPS navigation started postponing the calculated time of arrival more and more. The news on the radio confirmed that there was congestion close to Augsburg due to an earlier accident. We exited the autobahn and took some local roads to bypass the congestion and arrived to Munich after 22 o’clock. After unloading the luggage, I had to circle around the block for 10 minutes before I could find a parking space. We booked the same hotel (Hotel Brack) as the one we stayed at in 2009. Then it was a great deal for 80€ per night as we got a huuuge room. This time it was not as good as then, the price was 120€ and we got a small room. Well…

Day 7: Munich – Zagreb

The first thing I had to do in the morning was to look for a new parking space as the one I had was valid only until 9 o’clock. So 10 more minutes of driving around. Then we took the subway to Marienplatz and did a short sightseeing walk to Odeonsplatz. We were not impressed, but we needed to head back to the hotel for breakfast. Breakfast was another aspect of the hotel we really liked back in 2009 – dishes were made to order (so no typical breakfast buffet) and served by personell in traditional Bavarian clothes. This was still valid and it was nice, but maybe not as nice as I remember it. I realized it might be a bit of clever marketing – on the outside it looks cool and different, but it basically saves money for the hotel, as guests most probably consume less food when they have to ask for it compared to when they take it themselves from a buffet. And this morning Emili was acting out, she did not want to eat anything other than Nutella and a lollipop! Trying to reason with her and explain for the millionth time that this is not a good idea ended up in tears. She is really stubborn and persistent. I am glad she can stand up for herself, this will be useful later in life, but sometimes I just wish she would do as we say. After breakfast we went for a car drive in the center of Munich. I don’t remember seeing anything impressive. And when we left the city, we had to take some small roads to avoid another massive “stau”. So it feels like the Munich debt has not been settled…

The next county was Austria. Ah Austria. My homeland, my love :-)… Well I never actually lived there, but had I not fell in love with Sweden I probably would have moved to Austria. It has equally good quality of life as Sweden, but is much closer to Croatia. And the nature there, wow… I think I would not have problems to activate my passive knowledge of German, but I don’t feel starting our life over now that we are over 30 and have a kid.

We planned to stop for lunch in Klagenfurt, but thanks to the “stau” back in Germany we were running late and were already getting hungry. So we went to Salzburg. I mentioned earlier that plans are never followed completely and that we love to get surprised – and oh how Salzburg delivered. The first cool thing about it was the parking garage built into a hill that separates the old town from the newer parts. We entered the garage from the new town side and after parking the car we entered a series of pedestrian tunnels that exited in the old town. The old town had a Lord of the rings meets Vienna kind of feeling to it. The positive feeling got amplified by the great lunch we had at restaurant Zum Zirkelwirt. I visited Salzburg back in 2002 (I think) but I don’t remember being impressed as I was now (I guess I had different interests then). The only thing I remember from then, and what was present even today, was the smell of horses and cows. But it did not bother me this time. Btw. I could see how much Aneta enjoyed the city, so I sparked love for Austria in her too! To make things even better, by entering the city we also avoided a big “stau” (yes, Austria has them too).

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Austrian highways offer beautiful scenery

Driving through Austria was the part of the trip I looked most forward too. And it delivered, the scenery was amazing! Since we visited Salzburg, we had to skip Klagenfurt. Well, of course not, it would not be like us to do so… I visited the city back in 2008 during the European championship in football and wanted to see it again. But before reaching Klagenfurt, there was the beautiful lake of Wörthersee. We exited the highway and drove by the lake, stopping at several places. The water of the lake was beautifully green. It was like Sweden, only warmer. Aneta kept talking about how we should move here. What have I done, did I make her fell in love with Austria too much and too fast?!

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Wörthersee at sunset

When we reached Klagenfurt, it was already dark, so instead of walking in the center, we did sightseeing from the car. After refueling, I set the GPS for Slovenia. The Karawanks tunnel is an impressive piece of road between Austria and Slovenia. It’s just that we did not reach the highway after 20 minutes of driving, so I stopped to make a sanity check of the GPS route and instead of cutting through the mountain by taking the tunnel, it was guiding us over the mountain. I would lie if I said I was not glad, I had actually considered this alternative earlier, but gave up when it got dark. But I guess we were destined to take it, so we did. It was a very fun drive up the mountain, but I guess the night hid some pretty awesome scenery. Soon we entered Slovenia. Since it was dark and since we will visit Slovenia in a couple of weeks for our road trip through the Alps, we made no longer stops.

We reached the border with Croatia quite soon (I will skip the obligatory Croatian joke about the size of Slovenia). The border is just 30 kilometers before Zagreb and the house I grew up in. It is quite interesting that we drove all the way from Sweden and only 30 km before the goal our passports would be checked. Google maps reported some delays at the regular border crossing, but we know here is a smaller one in the vicinity (shhh, this is a secret). It was getting close to midnight, we were two persons with a Croatian passport, one with a Macedonian passport, driving a car registered in Sweden and chose a really small, not well know border crossing. It was like we were asking for trouble :-). But the Slovene border officer just said “Kaj ste vi?”, which would translate to “What are you?” and when I replied that we were Croatian he just forwarded us to his Croatian border officer colleagues. They discussed Aneta’s Macedonian passport briefly between themselves but asked us no questions whatsoever. After 20 minutes we reached my parents’ house which marked the end of this awesome journey.

Conclusion

Here are some statistics about the trip. Even though the original plan said that the trip would take 3100 km, it actually took 3580 km due to all the detours we took. We spent just over 170 liters of fuel (diesel), which gives an average consumption of about 4.8 liters per 100 km. Not bad for a relatively big car! We visited 10 countries (out of which we did not need to visit France but chose to do so anyway :-)). The numer of border crossings we took is unknown, thanks to Baarle-Nassau. The amount of money spent on fuel, hotels, food, parking and road tolls was roughly 1000 €. Much more expensive than flying, but definitely worth it, it was a great trip.

Thanks to Emili for being a great co-traveler most of the time. Thanks to Aneta for sharing another awesome trip with me. Thanks to everybody who hosted us. And finally, thanks to you my dear reader for enduring through this long text. I hope you had fun reading it, I definitely had fun experiencing it.

I often get the question why somebody in their right mind would drive so much. I hope this text explains that this drive for us was not a matter of getting us from A to B, but rather that the journey itself was the point.

One thought on “From Sweden to Croatia in seven days

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