When you spend the night sleeping in your subcompact car in a cul de sac on the outskirts of Trieste, your perspective really shifts. The months you spent exhaustively planning ten weeks’ worth of activity and lodging, budgeting to the last dollar, making sure all the things you ought to see were going to get seen…they suddenly seem unimportant because you’re worried the carabinieri are going to tap on your window and make you move. In that moment, you don’t realize that sleeping in cars is kind of going to be a thing, but you do know that you’re pretty fucking tired of your meticulous schedule – it was the meticulous schedule that landed you in shitty Venice and then sleeping in a Peugeot.
It’s also almost the halfway mark of the summer. And you’ve discovered that many of your unplanned moments (screw the French riviera, let’s get on a ferry and head for an island) have been far more memorable and enjoyable than your planned ones. Let the anarchy commence!
You weren’t ever planning on being in Trieste which means you weren’t ever planning to drive through Slovenia. And man, that would have been a tragedy. Because it was beautiful. And even though you haven’t managed to actually visit the country, it’s definitely a drive you remember fondly. You pull up in the Austrian city of Graz, a destination not on your itinerary, but definitely on your map, and you decide: why not. You have no reservation and end up at the most expensive lodging of the entire trip – which is a bunk bed in a hostel that costs $65. But damn the expense, you’re adventuring now.
Graz has crazy artwork, a mightily impressive arms museum, the creepiest puppet museum imaginable (do not go – definitely do not go with children – under no circumstances go under the influence), and ponies. Famous ones. There was something extremely liberating about going where the day, and the Lonely Planet guidebook, took us. I can’t imagine another scenario where I would have ended up in Graz and, thankfully, it was only the first of many, many unexpected destinations.
From Graz we made our way to the lake town of Hallstatt. All we really knew about Austria was that we couldn’t afford Vienna or Salzburg. We stopped by the first zimmer frei sign we saw at an old Austrian woman’s actual house, discovered that for about $40 we could have beds and breakfast, and decided Hallstatt was as good a place as any to pass a couple of days. We visited the huge ice cave in Hallstatt (eishol?), discovered the wonder that is brown bread (brunbrot?), and spent more time than I care to admit feeding this duck, whom we named Captain Insano because he had no fear of us provided we kept up the supply of brunbrot. We were relaxed. We had no schedule to keep to and so we enjoyed just being together, being silly, and being excited to be far away with no responsibilities. I’m not going to go so far as to say it was a turning point in the relationship – frankly deciding to spend ten weeks with another person is a commitment that far outstrips any either of us had previously made – but it did open my eyes to the kind of person I’d want to spend my life with. And that’s the kind of person who feeds Austrian ducks for an hour.
But I digress.
After Austria, we moved into the Czech Republic. We actually had reservations at a hotel in Prague, but we had several days to kill and chose to kill them in Bohemia. Right decision.
Bohemia is gorgeous and was unspoilt and un-English speaking (ask me about the time I made animal noises while pointing at the menu to determine which animal we might be ordering). We chose Cesky Krumlov as our base, a gorgeous town with cheap beer, cheap schnitzel, and gorgeous architecture. While browsing in a store, I saw a placemat that had a map of all the castles of Bohemia…and now we had a plan for Bohemia: drive around exploring the countryside with the stated aim of seeing all the castles. Makes as much send as anything else. In between castle-spotting, we rode horseback in the countryside, led by teenagers who were amused by the size of our feet and heads (large), played blackjack in a casino in neighboring Cesky Budejovice (boo-deh-yo-vit-say) that was straight out of James Bond film, and marveled at beers for 15 cents and packs of cigarettes for 50.
In the next chapter, I’ll explain why this was poor preparation for Prague (which, spoiler alert: we hated and which spoiler alert: we fled from on the most epic of all this summer’s adventures), but that week or so we spent meandering through the small(er) towns of Austria and the Czech republic remain among the most memorable of the summer. And I struggle to say memorable because, with time, many of the details have actually faded and all I’m left with are the impressions, the feelings. I remember it was really hot in Graz as we walked around to look at all the crazy art, that our hostel was very spare and modern, but I don’t remember what we had for dinner or where. We likely walked on every major street in Cesky Krumolov, but I only remember vividly the corner where an old man may have mistaken me for a prostitute. The details, like the photos, grow blurry with time, but I credit that week with changing how I saw travel, how I saw myself, and how I saw the guy next to me feeding the ducks.