Wagon wheels through central Europe

July 24, 2018
Octavia Wagon in ŠKODA's own backyard

Intrepid motoring journalist, Peter McKay, strays off the beaten path to discover the grandeur and beauty of ŠKODA’s own backyard, in an Octavia Wagon, no less...

Paris, Barcelona, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, London, Venice, Dubrovnik, Monaco, Berlin…all wonderful, but all predictable and obvious European tourist destinations.

Been there; done them all.

Instead, on our To-See list are enigmatic former Soviet countries with chequered histories but now reborn, refurbished and often wearing shiny new names to help smother shadowy pasts. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. Plus an inquisitive detour to the Italian Dolomites and transit through Austria.

Trains, planes and buses in Europe have a reputation for being affordable and abundant. But we needed to get easy, sometimes spontaneous access to places of whim, along with national parks and endearing little destinations researched before leaving Australia.

A rental car it is then. There is but one choice for two adult couples demanding space and comfort, and accompanied by an unwieldy, oversize stack of luggage. For some, even in rural central Europe, dressing to impress is an imperative…

It has to be a ŠKODA Octavia Estate. We know from our experience back in Oz that no other medium-sized wagon offers the same ability as an Octavia Estate to swallow a mountain of luggage.

Relief then, when an Octavia Estate is ready at the Budapest collection point. Next up is the anxious challenge of coaxing the cargo into the rear compartment without impinging on the space and comfort of our significant others in the rear pews. It looks tricky. There are large suitcases the size of city apartments, two smaller soft bags and a suit pack (our friends, but who’s pointing the finger?) plus two modest-sized suitcases and two back packs (ours). It’s a snug jiggle but, by Jove, we manage it. All squeezed under the cargo blind too.

Our rental Octavia is powered by a petrol-engined 1.2-litre turbo, an engine not available in Australia, and one that we fear couldn’t match the stingy thirst of a diesel engine. Even with the five-speed manual gearbox, we worry too that a mere 1.2 litres may struggle hauling 290 kilos of edgy humanity plus a stack of clothing-for-all-occasions heaving around the hilly Balkans.

With a flexi-route of roughly 3000km and three weeks before the renter is due back, we hope that our Octavia will prove willing and comfortable. And fuel efficient.

We are accustomed to Australian-market Octavias – indeed all ŠKODAs – being loaded with features. While Aussie ŠKODA buyers routinely tick most of the boxes for extras, the sombre black rental car is clearly built to the austerity blueprint. No cruise control, no navigation, no power seats, little of the obligatory active safety gear and not even the metallic paint we expect in our own cars back home.

Our opening gambit, an easy drive from Budapest to Bratislava in Slovakia, banishes doubts. The Estate drives superbly, in near silence. The front buckets are brilliantly supportive, the gearbox and clutch light and smooth and it’s certainly no slouch when it comes to keeping up with the traffic on those excellent European highways.

Google maps are our saviour. And two sets of eyes on the lookout for ever-changing speed signs.

Fuel efficiency settles quickly to a heartening 5.3-litres per 100km. Better than we’d dared hope and the trigger for an unspoken contest to chase epic fuel efficiency immediately between the alpha males.

We’d been warned, and researched a potential trap for the motoring naïve travelling in central Europe where many countries expect drivers using their main roads to buy and display a vignette windscreen sticker. Not to purchase the vignette risks a hefty fine via hidden cameras. Purchased at border fuel stations and costing between nine and 15 Euros for seven to 10 days, we gradually decorate our windscreen with vignettes for Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic,

What we spend on vignettes, we saved on liquor. Unhappily for motoring tourists who like an occasional glass, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia mandate zero blood-alcohol levels for drivers.

Next for us is Prague, dripping in history and culture but a little awkward for navigation within the claustrophobic older parts. Fortunately we’ve booked a hotel (with free parking) a few kilometres from the centre, with trams conveniently nearby.

The Czech Republic is the home of ŠKODA and loyal natives certainly reveal their nationalism and good sense in their choices of personal transport.

A couple of nights follow in Linz, Austria, as we bee-line towards Slovenia, a beautiful and compact country of just two million and one of the gorgeous secrets of central Europe.

Romantic, hard-to-spell Ljubljana is the pristine little Slovenian capital, with its baroque architecture and cobbled streets. Riverside wine bars and restaurants hum into the night. All of the countryside delights are within a two-hour drive from the Ljubljana; turquoise mirror mountain lakes, lush forests, rolling vineyards, and castles.

A few kilometres from the buzzing Ljubljana centre we opportunistically snare (on bookings.com) a delightful modern hotel which is an ideal, easy base from which to drive to Slovenia’s acclaimed Triglav national park and Lake Bled. Then a little further to nearby Lake Bohinj, which if anything is even more idyllic.

House-proud Slovenes are rightly very proud of their neatly kept country, mercifully bereft of the rubbish and graffiti that blight some higher-profile destinations in Europe.

Naturally we monitor the Octavia’s fuel consumption constantly. Mountain climbs send the usage north of 5.0L/100km although on one momentous leg we eke out an astonishing 4.4L/100km. Maybe it was largely downhill.

Our dose of Italy this time is limited to the north-east - traffic-crazed Trieste and then to the craggy Dolomites. The Hotel Aplis near Ovaro offers lots of walking, cycling, motoring and breathing clean alpine air. When we check out, our bill bears a most unusual restaurant charge - eight Euros for the arduous task of setting four places at a dinner table. Perhaps diners are an imposition threatening on the lazy off-season tranquillity.

We say arrivederci and the Octavia, weighed down further with some extra affordable bottles of local wine and limoncello, heads towards Croatia.

A few hours later we’re gaping at the luminous Adriatic Coast, pausing for a couple of sleeps in pretty, sun-kissed and lazy Senj, and then to the port city of Zadar, with its charming walled old quarter loaded with restaurants, ice creameries and boutiques.

Croatia’s island-dotted coastline is special but more so is its inland attractions such as the UNESCO world heritage Plitvice national park and its amazing ensemble of 16 terraced (natural) lakes, joined by stunning waterfalls.

Having the convenience of a car to get to these wonders is so much easier than the bus alternatives. We set the alarm indecently early and arrive before the tourist hordes, tackling the Plitvice hiking trails and walkways around and over the water.

Motoring around this serene and beautiful region it is impossible not to reflect on the bloody civil and ethnic conflicts that wracked much of the former Yugoslavia until Croatia and Slovenia locked-in their independence in 1992. Today there is little evidence of lingering animosity.

A short drive via Smiljan, the birthplace of Nicola Tesla, the inventor and physicist, puts us in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. It’s a party town par excellence, the pervading joyfulness more than compensating for the city’s scruffy patina.

Finally, it’s on to Budapest where, after a smorgasbord of conditions covering cities, motorways, alpine climbs and snaky single laners, our end-of-trip fuel consumption readout settles at an impressive 4.9.

It’s been heroic stuff from the Octavia. Thanks, grazie, köszönöm…

The luggage is now a problem for the airlines.

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