A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend.  I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.

I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.

The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.

When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi)  border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.

I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.

We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.

I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].

Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.

The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries.  I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.

[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]

Rovinj

I’m generally quite positive, upbeat even. Except when I’m tired. Or hungry. Or feeling ill. Then I can’t stand to be with myself let alone socialise with others. I retreat inwards. Any attempt to boost my mood or chivvy me back to normalcy is met with an almost childlike churlishness that borders on embarrassing. My usually low tolerance level sinks even further to the point where I’m better off left alone. I’ve been around myself long enough to see the signs and know when to hole up, recognising the valour in a strategic retreat to my world, population of one. But sometimes, such a retreat isn’t possible. Read more

Almost ripe olives

Years ago, when I was of drinking age, we’d go out on the town for the night. Invariably, the drink would hit someone harder than the others. The rest would smugly ask: Surely you ate before you came out? ‘Tis only asking for trouble to drink on an empty stomach. Fast forward a few decades and I can say, with certainty, that one thing worse than drinking on an empty stomach is tasting olive oil on an empty stomach. Read more

Poreč, a lovely town Istrian coast of Croatia is a great spot for festivals. If you’re into electronic music, it’s the place to be. MTV Summerblast is high on the calendar for enthusiasts. There’s the Open Air festival of life with its offshore tuna fishing challenge. And Rise up Poreč, another music festival. The day we were there, we tripped across the historic festival, Giostra. Read more

I had Poreč on the brain. But unlike Pula, I knew why. When I was in Israel, I’d heard about the famous mosaic tiles that dated back to the Byzantine era and they’ve been on my list since. What I wasn’t prepared for was the town itself, its narrow Roman streets, its Venetian-style houses, and it’s lovely waterfront. Read more

Back when Croatia was still part of old Yugoslavia, I was inter-railing around Europe on my tod. Yugoslavia was high on my list. I took the train from France into Italy and headed to Trieste where I crossed over into Yugoslavia heading towards Ljubljana. Soldiers with guns got on the train as we crossed the border. Read more

Dining out alone one evening lately, I got into conversation with a couple of Canadian tourists who were on a driving holiday through the region. They seemed very impressed with Budapest, so I didn’t feel the need to switch into ambassadorial gear and sing its praises. We agreed that Prague, while interesting, was simply too full of tourists to be enjoyable. And we shared similar impressions of Vienna as an aging dowager who had lost some of her joie de vivre. Read more

In 1963 this drug was released and became astonishingly popular: between 1969 and 1982 it was the most prescribed drug in America, with over 2.3 billion tablets sold in peak year of 1978 … and  Leo Sternbach, the man who discovered Valium, was born in Opatija to Hungarian parents. Now, that might certainly explain the air of relaxation about the town, were I to completely discount the fact that it was off-season and what few tourists that were left (with the exception of my good self) were well into their dotage. Read more