A look back at our road trip through the Alps

After coming back from Rovinj to my parents’ house in Zagreb, Aneta and I set off on another road trip, through the Alps. This time without Emili. Here is a summary of the trip.

Day 1: Zagreb – Eben im Pongau

We set off from my parents’ house just after 8 o’clock, and after roughly two hours of driving we reached the highway exit for Bled in Slovenia. The town’s popularity was reflected by the traffic, it took us another 30 minutes to reach the city located only five kilometers from the highway. Bled is known for its beautiful lake and is one of Slovenia’s biggest turist attractions. I am not sure of how famous it is internationally, but in the former Yugoslavia we all know of Bled. Less people know of Bohinj though, a lake only 30 kilometers from Bled, and our first stop on this trip. I don’t know why Bled is more popular than Bohinj. Both are very beautiful, but Bohinj is more peaceful as it is much less exploited. We felt very content – we chose the nicer of the two (less turists) but got to see the other one also, since one has to drive past lake Bled to get to Bohinj. Just don’t tell anybody about this, otherwise Bohinj will get equally crowded! Watching over Bohinj is a mountain called Vogel. A cable car lifted us quickly to just over 1500 meters over sea level. We took an additional chair lift to Orlove glave at 1800 m. It was strange to sit in a chair lift with no skis on my feet and no snow on the ground. We hiked a bit more to reach a bell which is supposed to bring good luck to all who ring it. Ok, to be honest, we hiked because of the view, not for good luck. Unfortunately, clouds covered Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak and another symbol known to all ex-Yugoslavians. After a pleasant hike back down to 1500 m we enjoyed some traditional stews and an apple strudel at the Merjasec cottage. This was great value at only four euros per person. After taking the cable car back down, we walked to the shore of the lake which sure looked inviting for taking a dip, but we had planned to swim in a different lake.

We did not take the Karawanks tunnel this time either. Instead, we briefly entered Italy and then took the A23 highway into Austria. Our goal was lake Weissensee at roughly 1000 meters above sea level. The lake has almost completely transparent water of drinking quality. When we arrived there, the weather was not really inviting, it was cloudy and just over 20 degrees. But I told Aneta that I came to swim and swim is what I was going to do. We went back to the car to change into our swim suits and in the meantime the sun broke through the clouds! The water was warmer than we expected, around 22-23 degrees. It felt magical to swim there, it ranks in my top three beaches together with Kolorina bay in Dubrovnik and Eagle beach on Aruba.

After getting refreshed (I never felt so clean after a swim as I did then), we continued towards Eben im Pongau which was where we would spend the night. Unfortunately, we missed my cousin Tomislav again, as he was on vacation in Croatia. We went to the nearby ski resort of Flachau where we had a very good dinner at restaurant Hoagascht. Flachau had an American feel to it, it reminded us of Oakhurst in California where we spent a night back in 2013 during a road trip through California, Arizona and Nevada.

Day 2: Eben im Pongau – Innsbruck

The second day of the trip was the one I looked forward to the most, because it contained the essence of the trip – the Grossglockner high alpine road. Just saying “high alpine road” makes me shiver. I love roads, I love the Alps, how could I not love a combination of the two?

Before setting off towards Grossglockner, we had a short drive through Eben, Flachau and Altenmarkt – all neat looking places set in wonderful nature, but also places whose purpose was clear – making money from skiers. I don’t think Las Vegas has as many hotels as these places do. Since summer is low season, there was a sense of tranquility there, something that is probably lacking in winter.

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A typical sight in Austria – ski slopes

After the drive, we had breakfast in a hotel in Eben and then went onwards. We made an unplanned short stop in Bischofshofen, a place I know for its ski jumping tournament (I used to be a fan of ski jumping when I was younger). I only visited one ski jump hill before (Holmenkollen in Oslo) and remember it being an interesting experience despite not seeing any actual ski jumps being performed. Here I got hopeful when I saw that the grass was being watered. And after some five minutes, the wait paid off – it was the first time in my life that I saw a ski jump live. Granted, there was no snow, but that just made it more interesting. We stuck around for a few jumps – it was very cool to see this. And the landings were quite loud. Just before reaching the entrance to the Grossglockner high alpine road we took a drive through Zell am See, a picturesque town beside a beautiful lake. Unfortunately we did not have time for another swim.

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A ski jumper at Bischofshofen

And then Grossglockner… I don’t even know how to describe it. I will try to illustrate its awesomeness with some of the photos I took, but have in mind that photos cannot fully capture such vast beauty, it needs to be experienced live. Apart from driving and stopping all the time to take photos, we climbed Edelweisspitze from where you can see all the way to Zell am See. Even though it was short, the climb at this altitude was thought, we could really feel the lack of oxygen. We also took the cable car up to Schareck from where you can see many peaks over 3000 m and from where you get a nice view of Grossglocker. Unfortunately, the very peak was hidden behind clouds. When we got back down, we had to run from the cable car to our car due to a heavy shower. Fortunately, it was short lived. Our next stop was a glacier called Pasterze. It was an impressive sight, but the viewpoint (called Kaiser Franz Josefs Höhe) was very crowded and generally ugly with big grey buildings that felt very out of place in the beautiful nature. As we were driving down, we realized that apart from the countless ski slopes and hotels, Austria is also abundant with waterfalls.

On our way to Innsbruck, which was the ultimate goal for the day, we had the pleasure of driving on Felbertauernstrasse. It is a bit less scenic (but still with very beautiful views) than the Grossglockner high alpine road, but much more fun to drive. You drive the Grossglockner road for the views, not for the driving pleasure as it is crowded and narrow and windy. But Felbertauernstrasse allows you to also enjoy the drive itself.

On approaching Innsbruck, we decided to skip looking for a nice place to eat and instead eat something fast and unhealthy at a place whose name starts with the letter M, and then hit the sauna in the hotel in order to relax. But at the hotel we were told the sauna was closed because it was a holiday. So we hit the town instead and after a short walk ended up at a restaurant called die Wilderin. Ok, ended up might not be completely true, the fact that the restaurant was number one on Tripadvisor in Innsbruck certainly helped. This was exactly the type of place we like – it serves modern food and a modern interpretation of traditional food, and has only a very limited menu which usually means that the ingredients are fresh. It was also very price-worthy. A great end to a great day!

Day 3: Innsbruck – Liechtenstein

When we woke up the weather was bad, it was raining and there were low clouds all around, which was a problem as we planned to take Nordkettenbahnen (a funicular and two cable cars) up to the mountains above Innsbruck. After breakfast (which proved to be the best breakfast of the trip, good work Hotel Bierwirt!) we took a drive up to Bergisel, Innsbruck’s ski jump hill (yes, here also) and then the rain stopped so we decided to give Nordkettenbahnen a chance. And we were glad we did, despite the steep price of the tickets. It was impressive to be lifted from the city up to over 2000 meters above the sea level and such unspoiled nature in such a short time. I envy the people of Innsbruck for the mountains that surround the city. Did I ever mention that I like Austria :-)?

By the time we made our way down to the city, the weather had cleared up completely, it was nice and sunny again. And hot. Since we did not eat fast and unhealthy food as we had planned the night before, we decided to eat hamburgers for lunch. Just not hamburgers at the M place, but better ones instead. Over the recent years I have seen a new trend in Stockholm and in Zagreb – small restaurants with gourmet hamburgers. Innsbruck seems to also follow this trend. So we went to a place called Ludwig Das Burger Restaurant. The burgers were ok, but we like the ones we tried at similar places in Sweden more. Then we had some ok cakes and a bad cappuccino at a nearby cafe bar. During the whole vacation we were trying cappuccino in different countries, I am not sure why we started doing this. Probably because in Sweden you cannot get a good one. You can get good espresso, good brewed coffee, good caffè latte, but not good cappuccino. It is always too watery and the foam is not properly dense. In Austria it was not any better.

The planned drive for the day was relatively short, just under 200 kilometers. The goal was Liechtenstein, one of Europe’s micro countries. We did not know much about the country and we doubted we would have many reasons to visit it in the future so we took the opportunity now. Just before entering Liechstenstein, we were pulled over by the Austrian police. The very polite police officer checked my driving licence and the car documents and I thought it was just a routine control until he said: “The problem is that you were driving 84 km/h and the speed limit was 60”. In my defense, it was a semi-highway that allowed driving over 80 safely… Anyway, I was worried about getting a very expensive fine until the policeman said: “What you can do is pay the 20 euro fine and continue your journey”. I just looked at Aneta and we had one of those moments where you do not need to say anything but you know exactly what the other person thinks. What we both were thinking is that the fine was ridiculously small. So it ended up being a nice experience which reminded us about driving safely, but without hitting the wallet hard. A compliment to the Austrian police officer for good manners and good knowledge of English.

Since Liechtenstein is in the Schengen area, but not in the EU and its corresponding customs union, our passports were not checked, but there was a customs control at the border. They just asked us where we were going and if we lived in Liechtenstein. We quickly reached the hotel, checked in and continued to the capital city of Vaduz. On the way to Vaduz I took a wrong exit from a roundabout and ended up in Switzerland. Had I taken a different exit, we would have ended up in Austria. This illustrates the size of the country :-). The problem with Switzerland was that we entered the highway without having bought a vignette. So we took the first available exit and entered Liechtenstein again.

On the way to Liechtenstein, thanks to free roaming within the EU, Aneta had been reading (aloud so that I could also hear) about it and we learned that it had a population of roughly 35 000 people and that the biggest town was not the capital Vaduz, but the adjacent Schaan. Not that it matters much, because they are both very very small :-). We took a walk in Vaduz and it was quite empty. There was only one working bar where we went for some expensive drinks.

Day 4: Liechtenstein – Bolzano

After a not very good breakfast at our hotel, we went for a drive around the country. The geography is quite simple – high mountains in the east (towards Austria), valley in the west (towards Switzerland). The nature is beautiful. The architecture is purely modern, apart from a few alpine houses there was nothing traditional or exciting. I like modern architecture when it has character, but here it was just bland and boring. Reading about the country we had also learnt that they are a very traditional society (they are the last European country to grant voting rights to women, in 1984; they have some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe) and that they are very formal when doing business. A very expensive country of formal traditionalists who live and work in boring architecture… Well, at least the nature was nice. I am glad we saw the place, but there is not much saying in favor of ever coming back. We left Liechtenstein for Switzerland…

In Switzerland we made a stop at Bad Ragaz. Not because we needed to or because we had planned to, but because my high school friend Stjepan was on a motorbike trip through the Alps with his girlfriend Marina, and this was a spot where our journeys crossed. We spent a lot of time on the phone (again thanks to the free roaming), and considered meeting in Austria or Liechtenstein before we could agree on Bad Ragaz. There is something very cool about meeting your friends in a place where neither of you live. Especially when these friends value travelling as much as you yourself do. So it was worth to lose a couple of hours waiting for them. While waiting, Aneta and me had an expensive and not very good lunch at Restaurant Central that was supposed to be good according to Tripadvisor. When Stjepan and Marina came, we had moved to a nearby cafe bar where we again had some bad cappuccino. We could have spent the whole day catching up with Stjepan and Marina, but unfortunately we only had a couple of hours. Before our ways parted, I asked Stjepan to give me a short ride on his motorbike. 

Aneta and me continued to the Vereina tunnel where we planned to take a car train (are they called car trains?). Not because we needed to, there was a road we could take, but it was something we never did before and thus wanted to try. We paid the toll and drove our car onto a train which would take us through a 19 km long tunnel. You stay in your car for the whole ride. For some reason, the ride was very fun for us and we were giggling from the beginning to the end. I wish us adults could be like this more often – happy about things that in essence are quite trivial.

On our way to Bolzano where we would spend the night, we had again a taste of essential alpine roads – the Umbrail pass and then the Stelvio pass. The scenery at the Umbrail pass was amazing – vast meadows of lavish green grass bathing in golden sunshine. Where the Umbrail pass and the Stelvio pass meet is the border between Switzerland and Italy. Reaching Italy was nice for connectivity purposes – we could enjoy the free roaming again. Switzerland should look up to Liechtenstein here, Liechtenstein is not a member of the EU either but it does participate in the free roaming agreement. At the top of the Stelvio pass you get a great view of an impressive glacier. Driving down was a bit strenuous as there are 48 very narrow hairpin turns. They were fun in the beginning, but it got a bit repetitive soon. So don’t trust Top gear who claim that this is the greatest road in the world. Maybe it was for them when it was closed for other traffic, but it is not in the normal conditions. In that sense it was like Grossglockner – it had amazing scenery, but the driving aspect was not particularly fun.

The rest of the drive to Bolzano was nothing spectacular. We reached our hotel (Der Eggentaler) by 21 o’clock and had a surprisingly good dinner at the hotel restaurant. After dinner we had a swim in the outdoor pool which was very refreshing in the warm summer night. The room was probably the nicest we had during the whole vacation – it was a perfect combination of traditional and modern. And there was a stream just next to the hotel, which provided a great soundtrack for sleeping.

Day 5: Bolzano – Mestre

The breakfast was a bit limited which was disappointing since we had high expectations after the nice dinner. After breakfast we went to the center of Bolzano for some sightseeing. It is a nice mixture of German and Italian culture. When we were planning the trip, we could not make up our mind between Bolzano and Trento, so we booked hotels at both places and left the decision for later. Ultimately we decided for Trento, but then I realized that the period when it was possible to unbook the hotel in Bolzano had ended, so I had to unbook the one in Trento instead. This was the first mistake in the planning. Not that it was a costly mistake, but I felt I should have had this under better control.

The second mistake was planning too much for day 5 which was supposed to be the last day of the trip. We planned to visit Bolzano, lake Garda, the city of Trieste, and maybe a city on the Adriatic coast in Slovenia, all this while driving more than 650 kilometers to Zagreb. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe if I had more time for planning, I would have not made this mistake. But again, not that it was a big problem – after a phone call to my mom to check on how things were going with Emili, we decided that we will prolog the trip with one more day. Since we now had a bit more time, we could enjoy lake Grada properly, by swimming. First we drove to the city of Grada for a lunch and a walk and then we went on looking for a beach. I felt that we should have picked a beach at the northern part of the lake where it is more narrow and dramatic due to the high mountains around it. Here in the south the lake was wider and there were no mountains. I was even ready to drive back north for some 30 kilometers. But Aneta said we should continue driving towards the very south of the lake and the city of Sirmione. That was probably the single best decision of the whole trip. What a gem Sirmione turned out to be. The city felt like a miniature mixture of Dubrovnik and Rovinj and it had a very interesting rocky beach with a great view of lake Garda and its shores. We enjoyed a swim there, of course. The only problem with Sirmione was that it was crowded and it was hard to find parking, but it was a small price to pay for the beauty we got to experience.

We needed a hotel for the extra night and the potential area was very broad – from Padua in Italy to the Slovenian coast. In the end we picked Mestre as its vicinity to Venice was a guarantee that we would find decent accommodation. We would arrive after 21 o’clock so while driving there I just had a shower and sleeping planned. Not Aneta… Her reasoning was that it would be a shame not to visit Venice when we were so close by. It did not take much to convince me :-). So after checking in and a quick refresh, we were on the tram towards Venice. This was my fifth time in this fascinating city and it never ceases to amaze me. It is romantic, weird, cozy, depressing, beautiful, dirty, endangered by the hoards of turists, alive thanks to the hoards of turists, all at the same time. We just had time and energy for the main sights – a walk from Piazzale Roma to the Rialto bridge and the San Marco square (this sounds easier than it is, of course we got lost numerous of times, but this is one of Venice’s charms). For the way back we took a vaporetto (taxi boat), whose path through the wide Grand canal provided a different perspective of Venice compared to walking through its narrow streets. I am very glad we made this unplanned visit to Venice.

Day 6: Mestre – Zagreb

After a very loud and chaotic breakfast we set of from Mestre towards Trieste. The road was boring and the weather was bad, so we took the opportunity to read more about Venice (Aneta was reading, I was listening) – we were mostly interested in how the daily life looks there for its inhabitants. They mostly agreed that it was very difficult. And that they would not live anywhere else :-). When we reached Trieste we got stuck in a traffic jam, but this was completely my fault – Google maps warned me about this so we could have chosen a different route, but I really wanted to drive on the coast of the Adriatic sea. And the rain stopped while we were entering Trieste.

Trieste has a mythical status for us Croatians (and probably Slovenes). It is where we went on countless shopping trips in the 80s and early 90s. I was very young then so I have no memories of these trips (on the other hand I do vaguely remember the shopping trips to nearby Gorizia and to Leibnitz in Austria). But I still wanted to check what the fuss was about. I asked my mom which were the shopping places and visited one of them, the Coin mall. It was quite bad – not much to choose from and the prices were high. Granted, it could have been better 25 years ago, but if we drove for hours to such places, imagine how bad it was in Zagreb at that time. I guess as Croatia and Slovenia were developing economically, Trieste was declining. I doubt any Croatians and Slovenes go there for shopping anymore. With that said, it is actually a very pleasant place to visit for the city itself. It is a mixture of Romanic (Italian), Germanic (Austrian) and Slavic (Slovene) culture which can be seen both from the architecture and the languages spoken. And since this is Italy the coffee here must be great, right? Well… wrong. Neither the espresso or the cappuccino that we tried were very good. Sorry Italy, but both coffee and pizza are better in Croatia. At least the Aperol spritz and the free snacks we got with it were good!

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Coffee break in Trieste

Shortly after leaving Trieste we entered Slovenia. We took a short drive through the city of Koper, too short to form any solid opinions. But it was impressive to see that the port in this small city was equally big or bigger than the one in the much bigger city of Rijeka in Croatia. Croatians like to mock Slovenes (mostly because Slovenia is very small), but this is without any solid foundations, the Slovenes do know their stuff. Our goal was a beautiful beach called Mesečev zaliv. It is located just below a cliff, which made it difficult for us to find a way down. But after an hour of getting lost, we got there and took the final swim of the vacation. On the way back to the car, we did not want to take the same way so instead of climbing the cliff we took the long way around by walking on the beach. Which actually meant walking through water a lot because it was high tide. This was beautiful, but with a constant fear of “will we be able pass all the way through or will we have to turn around and walk back for an hour”. But we made it.

The rest of the trip was just driving. I did feel very tempted to exit the highway at one point and enter Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, but Aneta and the oncoming storm made me change my mind. We reached my parents’ place just before 23 o’clock. Since we made countless trips that are very dear to me, I cannot choose a favorite one anymore, but this one was extremely enjoyable.

Some statistics… We drove over 2200 kilometers, visited five countries, used over 105 liters of diesel (the average consumption was around 4.8 liters per 100 km). Our total expenses (accommodation, fuel, tolls, drinks, food, cable cars…) were just under 1200 euros. We got to see a lot from the Alps and the Adriatic, but at the same time so little compared to how much they offer.

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