Journal 12

Europe... the easy bit?

February 06

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Thanks Updated 15.03.06 Virtual Tour of Mel Please join us - added 20.02.06

After three nights on the ferry from Israel we arrived at Piraeus near Athens. At last we have made it to Europe! So this should be an easy border….

We disembarked and went over to the customs office, where a man who asked to see our paperwork intercepted us. After filling out all the forms we were told we would need car insurance at 180 Euro for the month (although he claimed he could get us through customs without it!?). Then he demanded 50 euros for clearance, as it turned out he was a customs broker…ah ha! We had seen this trick before, some guy overcharging for completing a couple bits of paperwork. We refused, saying we have been through enough borders without help. We then found the real customs guys, filled out all the same forms again and headed over to another office. The first question was "where is your insurance, you need a man to help you." (We got the impression the Broker man had had a chat with the customs.) "No we don't, we are going into Athens to get insurance from there and will be back tomorrow". We left customs and spent over an hour trying to find our way out of the port, with Greeks giving us terrible directions.

It was Sunday so we had a day to explore Athens before we could get car insurance, leaving poor Mel stuck in customs. The centre of this large city is chocker block with ancient ruins, including the famous Acropolis. The next day we were up early, and eventually managed to find some insurance and then rushed back to free Mel.

Arriving in Pireaus Greece Athens Enjoying a beer
Arriving in Piraeus, Greece Exploring Athens Enjoying a cold beer

Back at customs the warehouse was deserted, other than the Broker, who said we needed a stamp from another office. Not entirely trusting him or his directions, off we set but after 30 minutes of running around we could not find the other office. We asked an official near the exit, he said we were ok to leave, so we decided to go and liberate Mel. We walked into the warehouse jumped in the car and tried to start her. She always takes some persuasion to start, and as we were trying the Broker came running trying to stop us, shouting for another guy to close the gate. Luckily the gate was jammed, suddenly Mel roared to life, I floored her and shot through the gates making the Broker leap for safety. Unfortunately we got lost again trying to escape and by the time we found the exit we had the customs police chasing us around the port (blue flashing lights don't faze us too much after Egypt), so we begrudgingly went back. By this time all the customs people had turned up and we were allowed out at last, shouting at the Broker for obviously trying to make the procedure hard for us because we didn't pay him 50 euro. Definitely the worst border so far.

Anyway, at last Mel was in the promised land of tar roads. We knew it would be getting colder and colder from now on, but were still caught off-guard by the sight of snow on the outskirts of Athens. Now time and money were really getting tight, so we upped the pace, reaching Bulgaria in a couple of days.

In Bulgaria our first stop was Melnik, a quaint little village with beautiful wooden buildings and cobbled streets. It is famous for its wine that locals declare is hangover free. Feeling it was our duty to investigate this claim, we spent the day by an open fire drinking red wine by the litre. We both felt fine the next day and headed to Sofia. Mel was not taking to the cold very well, only just jumpstarting at the last second, down a one km hill that ran through Melnik village. So in Sofia we decided we would buy a diesel heater, which would not only warm Mel's engine, but also heat us in the car at night. It took an afternoon to fit but it was almost a pleasure to watch the workmanship in Europe compared to the mechanics in Africa, who invariable break more than they fix.

Wine Town, Bulgaria Sophia
Wine Town, Melnik, Bulgaria Church in Sophia, Bulgaria. On the road to Timisoaras, Romania.

Thankfully we had the diesel heater as that night is reached at least minus 7°C, although it still needed a few adjustments. We initially had tubes running from the fan heater in the cab to the back, that we pushed in at night to bring us hot air. This contraption looked like something from Wallace and Grommit's mad inventions with piping, gaffer tape and pegs holding everything together. This wasn't very efficient however, so Andy installed a radiator in the back instead.

The next country was Serbia, but when they wanted 100 euros for insurance that we would only be using for a day or two, we headed back to Bulgaria and drove through Romania instead. To get there we had to catch a ferry over the river Danube a vast, mighty river. We stopped at Timisoaras, the town were Romania's uprising began, that eventually freed then from a leadership that was bleeding the country dry. Today it is more peaceful and we watched as people fed a huge flock of pigeons, occasionally one would startle and trigger the whole group to fly off in a loud rustle of feathers, circling us until they were convinced it was safe to land again.

 Feeding Pigeons Feeling cold Dusk over the Danube, Budapest
Feeding pigeons Timisoaras, Romania. Feeling cold, Kesckem, Hungary Dusk over the Danube, Budapest.

The second night in Romania was COLD, at least minus 12°C. The diesel heater stopped working and so it got colder and colder. In the morning with just our faces poking out from the sleeping bags we watched as every breath out brought with it a large puff of steam. Dragging ourselves out of bed we worked out that the diesel had frozen. With no way of heating the fuel tank, it was a case of waiting until the sun warmed it up, we just hoped it would get warm enough, otherwise we might be here until summer! In a nearby café we defrosted our bones and found some diesel additive that reduced the freezing point. At 2pm, the warmest part of the day, the diesel at last was runny enough to get to the diesel heater, which then could warm the engine (I never thought I would say "Oh look it is really warm now it has risen to -5.5 C"). After waiting until the heater was up to temperature we tried to start Mel, after a lot of tries she suddenly churned into action. YES! We began reversing out and had got half way across the road when she conked out. Now the battery was dead. After a lot of pushing and then a car towing us for a jumpstart we got Mel going again. Sounding very croaky we let her wake up slowly, not moving until she sounded normal again. We realised some of the fuel we had was from Egypt, which was not suitable for such cold temperatures. We added another few bottles of diesel additive that should stop the diesel from freezing again.

Castle Hill Ceiling at Spa Bath Spa Bath
Castle Hill, Budapest. Spa Bath Ceiling Spa Bath, Budapest.

We still managed to get some way down the road into Hungary, through such an easy border it was a delight and stayed in Kesckemet, a town famous for its Art Neauvou buildings. We asked at a hotel if we could pay to plug in to their electricity for the night, so we could have the electric heater as a backup if the fuel froze again. They felt so sorry for us, since it was supposed to be an even colder night, (forecasted minus 16°C) that they gave us a room for a fraction of the normal price.

The next day we were very excited when we found a 24 hour Tesco and so spent the evening wandering around, amazed at the fact that we are really back in civilisation. In Budapest we bought some snow tyres and then explored the city that sits on the Danube River. There were huge, ornate buildings everywhere. In Heroes Square, just to the north of the centre, there is a monument of colossal proportions with armoured men on horses and a large pillar in the centre, topped with what looked like an angel. The old citadel called Castle Hill was enchanting to walk around, especially since it was covered in snow. The most relaxing time we had for a while was spent in the spa baths. The building was incredible, with pillars along the pool, covered in patterns of sea monsters and seahorses. There were separate thermal baths and saunas for men and women. Andy came out looking like a sunburnt lobster.

Next was Slovakia, a small country that we stayed in for only one night. It was very beautiful, covered in forested mountains. Cheryl had a good idea to go for a beer early so we did not wake up in the night needing the toilet (it is very difficult getting out of bed for the loo when it is so cold). Unfortunately the one early beer turned into a pub-crawl around a pretty town. Poland is a lot flatter in comparison to Slovakia and it was a very grey, gloomy day. A traffic jam delayed us by a couple of hours. But eventually we reached Krakow that has a castle, fantastic cathedral and a huge medieval square.

Nice day northern Poland Concentration camp, Poland
Pub crawl in Slovakia. Nice day in northern Poland. Auschwitz Concentration camp.

The next day we visited the sombre site of Auschwitz and Birkenau. These camps were the result of the Nazis final solution to eradicate "undesirables", which were mainly Jews. On arrival the fittest were sent to work, many only surviving the terrible conditions for a few months. Those not deemed as strong workers were immediately fooled into gas chambers, on the premise they were being sent for a shower. On display are rooms full of belongings of the victims, such as shoes, glasses and even hair, which would be used for textiles. One and a half million people were killed in this death factory. We left the camp in a sober mood, really finding it hard to comprehend all that had happened in that sad place.

Carrying northwards we now had to decide if we would stick with the route via Finland or instead to go up along the Norwegian coast, which may be warmer due to the Gulf Stream. We decided to brave the colder weather as it was 800km shorter and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are much cheaper countries. Just have to keep fingers crossed it doesn't get too cold (or hold thumbs as Andy says?)

Arriving in Lithuania quite late, we wanted to try to find a cheap hotel, as we needed to wash some clothes and treat ourselves to a night away from the car. After two hours of driving around following hotel signs that didn't lead anywhere except to dead-ends, we gave up and went and slept in a supermarket car park.

The next morning it was a real job to wake Mel up, you could almost imagine her saying "just five more minutes!" (We really have been spending too much time with the car). Eventually after putting a hot-water bottle on the fuel lines and adding some more cold temperature diesel we managed to get going. Enroute to Latvia we stopped off at the Hill of Crosses, a small rise covered in crosses of all sizes placed there as memorials. It was bulldozed and banned by the Soviets when they occupied Lithuania. Pride lead the Lithuanians to ignore this and they would sneak in to place more crosses on the hill, a crime that was punishable by death. Nowadays, with Lithuania's independence it is no longer a crime and so crosses hang on crosses that sit on the hill.

Another easy border crossing and then into Latvia. We rested for a couple days in Jurmala on the Baltic Sea. The tourist brochure promises a seaside town with white sandy beaches. What with the beach covered in snow and the sea frozen it was defiantly white, although there weren't many people sunbathing. Cheryl decided to build a snow-castle.

Hill of crosses Snow castle, Lativa
Hill of Crosses, Lithuania Snow castle, Jurmala Beach, Latvia Church in Tallin Square
Tallin Icilces on Mel Icy Sea to Helsinki
Tallin Town Square Icicles on Mel Icy sea on the ferry to Helsinki

Then time to head north again into Estonia and straight to Tallin, where we would catch the ferry to Finland. On the way we had another tyre puncture, thanks to our previous practice we changed it quickly in the cold, but our fingers felt as if they had turned to ice. The Old Town of Tallin was wonderful to explore with colourful buildings, cobbled streets and hidden courtyards.

The ferry across the Baltic was another interesting experience, as the sea had frozen, so the ship had to cut through the thick white crust. We sailed past another ship, which seemed to actually be stuck in the ice. The ferry arrived safely at Helsinki port, so through the normal formalities and into Finland. This country has thousands of lakes, although at this time of year they are covered in snow and ice. Each day as we head north the days are getting shorter and shorter.

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