Accepting the car rental company's offer of an an upgrade to a full-sized wagon-style vehicle seemed like a good idea when we arrived in Frankfurt. It didn't cross our minds that bigger cars are always the last to go at European rental agencies for a reason. Our Opel Vectra -- a behemoth of a vehicle by European standards -- was about to be the source of more than one close encounter as we set out on our Central European road trip.
Adventures on the Autobahn
We headed out from Wurzburg, Germany towards the Czech border right after breakfast on our first morning. Since Byron had successfully navigated from the Frankfurt airport to our hotel the night before, it was my turn to drive the Autobahn. Wow, do Germans ever drive fast! I was cruising at what I thought was a respectable 145 km per hour, and still a fair number of them passed me like jet planes.
A few kilometres into the drive, I noticed some signs that said "Ausfahrt", with arrows indicating various exits. And a few minutes down the highway, more of the same. I asked Byron if we were going the right way, since I was sure I had spotted a couple of signs for this Ausfahrt place the day before, on our way out of Frankfurt. "Do all roads in Germany lead to Ausfahrt?", I asked? It took him a moment to recover from laughing before he could tell me that Ausfahrt is the German word for Exit.
Our first notable auto-related adventure was the day we left Prague, getting the car out of the hotel courtyard parking area. Getting our wagon IN to the courtyard through its narrow arched entrance hadn't been a problem, but the angles getting out proved almost impossible. Byron and one of the hotel staff members had to direct me inch by inch as I negotiated a 49 point turn (or so it seemed) to gradually manoeuver the vehicle out. It was a lot like this Austin Powers scene:
At one point, Byron told me afterwards, the clearance was less than half an inch on either side. Thankfully, the rear-view mirrors could be folded in to give us that extra few inches. Somehow, we managed to get it out without a scratch. Whew!
Around the Danube Bend
Later that week, we got ourselves good and lost trying to find our way out of Budapest. The driving-related adventures continued when we reached the quaint town of Szentendre in the Danube Bend and accidentally drove up a narrow, winding pedestrian street. We must have missed a Hungarian warning sign whose meaning was lost on us. The result was a nice little scrape in the rental car as we tried to quickly turn around on the steep grade with the stick shift. There was a set of metal posts that were just low enough that they weren't visible in the rearview. Crrrunch!
We had to laugh at how we had gone to so much effort to remain scratch-free back in Prague, only to end up side-swiping a silly little curbside post in this little town. We fully expected to pay through the nose for this incident when we arrived back home. Little did we know we'd be pleasantly surprised when the charges never came through. The paperwork must have miraculously disappeared.
Close calls in Serbia
In Serbia, our driving nearly got us in trouble with the authorities twice! Crossing the border from Hungary into Serbia, we cruised right by the guard booth, expecting it to be unmanned as they had been at every other border crossing up to that point in our trip. It turned out there WAS a guard in this one. He literally had to run after us, only catching up breathlessly when we stopped to change some money. We managed to smile and shrug our way sheepishly out of any dire consequences. A stroke of luck.
But we weren't out of the woods yet. Less than 30 minutes later, we were flagged down by a Serbian police officer for speeding. I will note that Byron was at the wheel. What's more, I had just finished reading aloud the section of our guide book warning about how zealous the Serbian authorities are about speed limits.
The officer spoke enough English to communicate that we were to pay a fine, and quoted a rather large sum. We dug around for our wallets and travel documents, adding up our cash supplies while the officer looked at our passports. As soon as he realized we were tourists from Canada - "very far away!" - he handed our documents back, smiled and waved us away. Lucky once again.
We weren't about to push our good fortune any further -- from that point on, we were on our very best and most cautious behaviour. We did get lost a few more times, but managed to avoid any further run-ins with the law. Whew!