Author’s note: Unless you’re going for some sort of record (and getting paid for it) touring 7 European cities in 7 days shouldn’t be on your bucket list.
It was all an unforeseen, terrible hit-and-run sort of disaster. And it included a train wreck (sort of). Either way, at least five of the seven European cities we hit in just under a week were a wonderful accident. We loved it. And we would never do it again.
It all seemed perfectly normal
For those not entirely familiar with the Balkans, ease of access to so many interesting destinations is by far one of the region’s best features. Skiing in Bulgaria, summer on a Croatian beach, spring on a Greek island or a weekend in Paris aren’t far-fetched, romantic notions at all ’round these parts. (Unless you’re on an average Balkan salary, that is. #checkyourprivilege)
Just ahead of Christmas, I managed to grab incredibly cheap return tickets to Rome for the five of us. The departure time and date kind of sucked – 6.30 a.m. local time on January 1st – but I figured seeing Rome was worth it.
We got little to no sleep while the rest of the world was celebrating New Year’s Eve and left for the airport at 2.30 a.m., arriving promptly at the airport and taking off on time. So far so good.
Make sure it’s NOT a Roman Holiday
Anyone ever planning on landing in Rome at 7.30 in the morning on a major holiday should take note – nothing. is. fucking. open. Nothing. Nada. Niente. Che palle! So there we were, on the first day of our exciting Roman Holiday, with nowhere to enjoy an espresso.
Well, except for McDonald’s. (And yes, McDonald’s serves espresso. McCafés are an integral part of most or all European McDonald’s locations.)
Va bene. I ordered (good) double espressos. Erik took selfies. He called it a ‘ristorante’, because that’s what it says on the doors. Because it’s in Italy. The kids loved it. We laughed. And we had our first family breakfast and espresso in Rome at a McDonald’s (luckily) around the corner from the Airbnb we booked in the Trastevere neighborhood on the Tiber river.
It all looks right before it goes terribly wrong
The next couple of days spent in Rome were, for the most part, wonderful. Trastevere is a typically Italian residential neighborhood and a half-hour, monument-ridden walk from the Colosseum.
Trastevere was plenty more lively and welcoming the next morning. We went out for breakfast to a cafe and restaurant where, after years of searching, my 19-year-old son finally met his perfect cup of coffee – a strong, creamy double macchiato.
Properly coffeed up, we headed out on foot toward the Colosseum. Again, take note: cities like Rome should be seen on foot. Seeing the historical, world-renowned monuments is all fine and dandy, but if you miss the details on the buildings, the snippets of conversations on the street corners, the rows of small shops in the residential neighborhoods, and the potholes -then you haven’t really been there.
On the way to the Colosseum, we stopped off for a snack at the Circo Massimo, then decided the long lines and chilly January winds weren’t worth seeing the inside of the Colosseum. It is, indeed, colossal and there’s plenty of it to see on the outside.
In the next three days, we walked the city for most of the day, got lost at least once, gaped at the Dome of Illusion in the Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (a must), gawked at Michelagelo’s Moses at the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (deeply impressive), dropped in on the folks at the Vatican (fun place, large open spaces, family friendly), walked through the Sistine Chappel (we were none of us impressed), and had what claimed to be tacos at an Irish pub in downtown Rome.
Our last stop was Antico Caffe Greco, where we hoped to catch the ghosts of Byron, Wagner, Liszt or Keats. They say time stands still in this, the oldest cafe in Rome, opened in 1760. It did for us anyway. Somewhere between our first round of tea and the crumpets that succeeded the tea, we stopped looking at our watches.
When we realized that we had just enough time to go get our luggage from the Airbnb and make it to the airport in time for our flight, we scrambled to the taxi stop. On our way back to the Airbnb and then to the airport, I tried checking us in online. The airline’s online check-in wasn’t working, which isn’t a first and is yet another thing I should have predicted.
Long story less long, we made it to the airport before the plane took off… but 10 minutes after check-in closed. In a row of closed airline counters, we found a lone airline rep to help us figure out how to get home. Her best offer were one-way tickets back to Belgrade for the next day, at more than twice the price I’d paid for the return tickets. It would also mean the temporal and financial expense of spending another night in Rome and having to find new accommodations at 8 in the evening.
Three countries in three days
We took a few minutes to regroup. Though spending the night at the nearest airport hotel and catching the flight back in the morning would get us back home in time for lunch the next day, it would also cost us more than we’d already spent on the four-day trip. The total cost of the four-day trip would double, giving us zero additional experience in Rome in return. We still had a few days off left, so we decided we’d rather drive back to Central Serbia.
And this is where it really gets interesting. There are, obviously, several routes from Italy to Serbia. The most usual driving route from Italy is through Slovenia and Croatia to northern Serbia. Because it was already late, we’d have to spend the night in or near Venice (not terrible). That would leave another 10 hours of driving from Venice to get home, which meant we stood a chance of getting home late the following evening.
Another option was my favorite childhood route from Italy to Serbia, by way of Montenegro. That would mean renting a car to drive down to the port city of Bari, take the overnight ferry to the Montenegrin port of Bar, then rent another car to drive another seven hours back home.
Unfortunately, it was too late to get to Bari to catch that evening’s ferry, which meant we’d still have to spend the night either in Rome or Bari, then lose another night on the ferry. Any way we turned it, it would take either an additional $1800 or so to get home or an additional three days. Opting for the additional three days, we headed for the half dozen car rental agency counters at the airport.
Ridiculous Rental Rules in Europe
We soon discovered that renting a vehicle in one country and dropping it off in another, even another EU member state, was costlier than the ridiculously priced airline tickets. Which is just stupid. Serbia is not an EU member state, so there’s an added cost for requesting vehicle pick up there. One well-known global car rental agency offered pick-up service in Belgrade for a mere $2200. That’s just the pick-up fee, not including the actual rental fee and insurance.
Finally, we reached the Europcar counter, where the agent convinced us we had struck gold. This car rental company just happened to have a vehicle with Austrian plates that needed to be returned to Austria anyway. Note that they’d probably already charged whichever sucker drove it from Austria to Rome for the pick up of the vehicle in Rome.
But beggars can’t be choosers and this guy was offering to wave any pick-up fee if we drove the car back to Austria – i.e. returned their vehicle for them, while paying to rent it. The Europcar office in Graz, he assured us after tapping away on his keyboard at looking meticulously at his monitor, had vehicles ready that we would be able to drive to either Croatia or all the way to Serbia, at regular rates and with little or no pick-up fee.
We were thrilled. Roadtrip! We’d spend the night in northern Italy and drop this car off in Graz the next day. Sure, Austria is a little out of our way, but we’d pick up the new vehicle and be home in the next couple of days, just in time for Orthodox Christmas. And we could take in some more sights in the meantime. We had a new plan and off we went.
By 1.30 a.m., we were in Florence, where we made a pit stop for coffee and bathroom breaks. At the only cafe still open there. Not a McDonald’s. Within half an hour, we hopped back in the car and spent another half hour or so sightseeing in Florence. At 2.30 a.m..
It was close to 6 in the morning when we finally reached a hotel just outside of Venice, where we got a couple of hours of sleep, and we were back on the road. With a couple of more quick stops along the way, through Udine and Klagenfurt, arrived at the Europcar office at Graz airport that evening.
Spoiler Alert: Graz was a bust
The airport was eerily empty and the Europcar office there was closed. Stranded at our second airport in two days, we spent the next hour on the phone with Europcar, trying to figure out the next step. Despite assurances from the Europcar agent in Rome that we could drop off the vehicle in Graz any time and there’d be another one there for us to pick up (that we could definitely, absolutely drive to Serbia or at least Croatia), no such thing was possible, according to the customer service agent on the phone.
Instead, the Europcar customer service agent suggested we drive the car to Vienna – which happened to be even further off our original route, and our destination – where this new Europcar agent assured us we could most definitely pick up a vehicle that could be driven to Serbia, without the exorbitant pick up fee. The Vienna office, however, would be closing soon and we, again, had just enough time to get there.
With five of us in the car, speeding on Austrian highways on a January evening wasn’t an option, so I called the Vienna airport Europcar office. The young man on the line said he was the only one working at that office that evening, but committed to waiting for us a few minutes past closing time.
And that he did. He waited for us a good 10 minutes past closing and then proceeded to sigh and blink slowly as he told us there was nothing he could do for us. To clarify, he could give us another vehicle, but the pick up fee for that vehicle in Belgrade would be even higher than the one initially offered in Rome.
After we ran him through all of the promises made by his Roman colleague, under which we’d agreed to the rental in Italy in the first place, he gave us a take-it-or-leave-it shrug and said he had to close shop. We opted for leave it and dropped off the Italian rental, while I booked an Airbnb for the night in Vienna. We’d take a train to Budapest, then a rental car or another train to Belgrade.
A chance encounter with Monet
In the taxi on the way to the Airbnb, Erik noticed a billboard advertising a Monet retrospective at the Albertina Museum. The exhibition was on display in Vienna from September 21st 2018 until January 6th 2019. That was the evening of January 5th. We had one more day to see the exhibit and we, quite literally, just happened to be in Vienna for it.
It was striking. Seeing Monet’s life and work, collected in five large rooms. If you’d asked me the day before I saw the nearly full Monet opus which Monet paintings I liked best, I would have listed at least three or four of his boat and sea-related works. The small fishing boats lined up on the southern coast of the English Channel, for instance.
Walking through Monet’s life, hung in five rooms of the Albertine, I fell in love with the young Monet. You can Google the life out of the period I’m talking about, but you’ll find no life in the digital photos of those paintings. You’d have to stand in a room and face them to understand what I mean. At the Albertina, I stood at eye level with Monet’s early impressionist works, the series he began under the tutelage of Charles Gleyre upon his return to Paris after serving in Algeria. Depictions of a young man’s daily life and family. The first Madame Monet peeking out from under her parasol or sitting in the grass. His young son Jean, a toddler, refusing to eat a bowl of porridge. His love for them plain to see.
In an overcrowded, overheated room with dozens of other people, I felt I was alone with those paintings. I walked into the next room, my 6-year-old in tote, to find the rest of my group. I found the 19-year-old standing in front of a huge canvas, his face still, his eyes wide, and tears streaming down his cheeks. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered. Mhm. It is. And totally worth landing serendipitously in Vienna for.
So thanks, Europcar. You suck balls through a wire fence and we loved seeing Monet’s stuff.
It was time to catch our train to Budapest – and we weren’t going to risk being late. We boarded the train well ahead of departure and the train left on time. The train from Vienna to Budapest leaves every hour and a half and the journey comes to about two hours and 45 minutes. As soon as we had crossed the border into Hungary, I was online looking for a hotel to book in Budapest for the night.
Less than twenty minutes into Hungary, the cell phone connection disappeared. A minute or two later, the train came to a dead stop. We peeked out the windows and saw nothing but snow. It was already dark out. We waited.
Ten minutes later, still dead in our tracks, passengers began leaving their seats and asking questions. We soon found out that there was an electrical outage in the area and it would be a while before we were moving again. At this point, despite being tired and hungry, we could do nothing but have fun with it.
Don’t go in there!
We were also thirsty. Despite knowing all too well how terrible transportation and travel-related services can be in the Balkans, it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d be equally as horrific in Austria and Hungary. There was not only no restaurant car on the train, but no vending machines or water either. And don’t even get me started on the toilets.
I bid my travel companions farewell and left our car in search of water. At the end of the second car behind us, there was a door that didn’t look like the other doors between cars. It looked more like what you’d expect would lead to a cargo area or an engine car even.
The door looked like it should have a “DO NOT ENTER” sign on it, but I didn’t see one, so I jiggled the rusty handle and opened the door. Beyond the door was a long, dark train car hallway with a worn, dirty, dark red, oriental-patterned carpet. There was a flickering neon light at the end of the long hallway and I heard what sounded like a radio coming from a cabin at the end.
Now, this is the part where everyone in the movie theater yells, “Turn back! Don’t go in there alone!” But the character always does go in, of course, so I had to. Before I got to the end of the ghost train car, I let out my friendliest, “Hello-oo?” to make sure whoever was there could hear me coming.
It worked. A young, dark-haired female head popped out from the lit cabin at the end of the hall. I call her Katya, although I never actually got her name. Katya began speaking in a Slavic language that I didn’t immediately understand.
Because Katya was speaking Russian and I don’t understand much Russian. Katya was also in a special police or military police uniform and very friendly. I explained in Serbian that I was looking for drinking water and she responded in Russian that she had some. I got three small bottles of water from my new friend Katya, thanked her (in Russian), and went back to our car.
The train was moving again, after an hour. We arrived in Budapest, dropped our things off at the hotel I managed to book on the way, and went out for burgers in the hipster nightlife neighborhood of Budapest, just around the quarter from its historical Jewish quarter.
It was Orthodox Christmas, snowstorms and a cold front hovered over Hungary and the Balkans, and we were still at least a day from getting home.