Don’t Fly There. Try intervanning and go the long way
By Theo Silverbeck
University summer holidays, and after a long year of ‘working hard’, we only had one destination in mind: a szabadság szigete. Or, if you aren’t familiar with Hungarian, the Island of Freedom.
About six months ago, I pitched the idea to my friends:
“How about this, erm, so what we do yeah, is we get an old builder’s van or something, we kit it out, put a bed in the back, and we just drive there?”
My friends smiled and nodded politely, thinking they would appease me and my idea until I realized it was dumb and forgot about it.
One Month Later
One month passed; a month I spent mercilessly scouring the internet researching cheap vans and watching 36 hours of YouTube DIY campervan conversion videos. It was then that my friends realized I was serious about this.
EasyJet flights were only around £25 (something I didn’t happen to mention to my friends), but, seeing as Coronavirus had curtailed our inter-railing plans, we decided that taking the long way to Budapest was a good idea.
The more we got talking about this road trip, the more we all got excited, each for a different reason: Zak was excited to see the cities; Tovy was excited about meeting different people along the way; and I was excited about the nature we would see. It turned out to be a combination of these three things that made this trip what it was.
Setting off on the first day from Folkestone, England, we didn’t have a place to stay in mind.
“I mean that’s what I’ve been saying: a hotel… but on wheels” (a masquerade of confidence). Worrying about what we had gotten ourselves into, and whether we had packed enough boxers, we drove through France, chatting about astrology and the current state of the economy, amongst other things that intelligent 19-year-old biochem students chat about.
Take my word for it when I tell you that there isn’t a more relaxing way to spend an evening after a long day of ‘intervanning’ than sitting on the bank of the River Senne in Brussels, a non-alcoholic beverage in hand, marveling at the swarms of skaters practicing in front of a background of hip street-art.
Acting Classy and Casual
We acted classy and casual, a façade to onlookers, desperate to give the impression that this type of free-spirited travel is a highly regular occurrence for us.
We cracked on with the driving for the next few days, strategically breaking up the journey with stops in Cologne (apparently pronounced Koln), Frankfurt and Nuremberg. Foolishly, we were worried about driving on the wrong-hand side of the road in Europe, when we should have instead been worrying about the crazy (maybe drunk?) German drivers, speeding down the Autobahn (German motorways) with triple digits on the speedometer.
However, we had established some kind of comforting routine, divvying roles to make Zak the navigator, Theo the driver, and Tovy the DJ/morale-booster. Thankfully, by now my perpetual unsettled feeling was passing, and I was getting more accustomed to the lack of daily structure that goes with van life.
Day three, the second half of our drive through Germany, was when our surroundings started to get really pretty. It was at the German-Austrian border that I first set my eyes upon Passau, a beautiful little town which upon spotting, I instantly decided would be my future place of residence.
Third Wave Coffee Shop
At first, compelled to take a quick stop at a delicate third-wave coffee shop, we then inevitably prolonged our stay to go on a picturesque hike, where we encountered heaps of locals dipping in the Danube and tanning their thighs, thanks to Speedo.
By now we were feeling more confident with driving and had learned to emulate the techniques of the Autobahn, comfortably taking advantage of the lack of speeding regulations. Next up, was Vienna, or as we called it, “the city of palaces”, where we got some great food at the Naschmarkt, and learned a bit about my family heritage, tracking down my great-grandma’s pre-war flat.
Entering Hungary, we were politely reminded by Austrian police that purchasing a vignette (a windscreen sticker, showing you have paid your road tax) is not optional, something which I doubt we will forget after paying a 120 euro fine.
In Budapest, we visited the Szechenyi Bath Spa, which enabled us to see more men in speedos, with each bath being packed to the brim to house the 1.7 million annual visitors. Impressed by the cheap and tasty foods (including the local snack of Kutoskalacs, or chimney cake), we hung out in the bustling tourist scene near the Hive Party Hostel.
Island of Freedom
Nearing the aforementioned “island of freedom” we realized that the freedom we had sought after would not come in the form of an island of music, alcohol, and parties, but instead in the form of a 2007 Vauxhall Vivaro Van, allowing us to stop wherever we like, for however long we like, without the regular traveling restraints of hostel bookings and commercial transport links.
We collectively noted that we felt empowered by the active role we had taken in determining our own travels, with the added bonus of understanding the geographical context of a city, in a way that traveling by plane doesn’t give you.
We entered into Sziget, which was more of an “island of dust” than an island of freedom, but then again, I suppose that isn’t such an appealing catchphrase. To make the most of our time there, we implemented the lessons we had learned along our travels and made sure to speak to lots of new people and stay open-minded to finding unlikely new friendships. As well as the great music, we met lots of veteran travelers, each with a story to tell and a lesson to teach, and even some with advice on navigating van life.
We left the festival, coughing and spluttering the dust out of our lungs, ripped off our entry wristbands, and longed to hit some more open roads.
Reliving our festival time, playing Arctic Monkeys and Calvin Harris on repeat, we headed to the Austrian Alps, more specifically to Wolfgangsee. Breathtakingly beautiful, this lake sits only a short 30-minute drive from Salzburg and is known for its hiking, climbing, windsurfing, and stand-up paddle boarding.
DMC on the Docks at Sunset
Our stunning surroundings allowed us to have two days of blissful relaxation: a morning swim in the lake, followed by some locally-sourced breakfast, a three-hour hike up the mountain, and a DMC (deep meaningful chat) on the docks at sunset. Turning down the noise of the cities allowed us to turn to each other and connect and communicate in a way that brought us closer.
Heading back home, we had breakfast in Salzburg then stopped off in Munich and the Dachau Labour and Prisoner of War Camp. A long and heavy day of history and sightseeing ended abruptly when the van’s clutch gave in, and the van broke down in Pirmasens. “Oh, so that’s why it was so cheap”, I silently thought to myself.
Shoe Making Center
Now, I’m not sure how well you know obscure towns on the German-French border but after looking it up, we learned that Pirmasens is best known for its shoe manufacturing. Its shoe manufacturing and of course its devout Christian population.
Not the ideal combination for three boys from London who are stranded there on a holy Sunday afternoon. Not a single shop, restaurant, or garage was open, so, we sat and waited. At the beginning of the trip, we may have panicked, but that nice Slovenian couple in Sziget had really given us the good advice that every bit that is unplanned is what makes it an adventure.
On reflection, we had some great experiences along the journey, but I honestly believe that we had our very best night of the trip sitting on three camping chairs on the porch of a German garage, reminiscing on our trip as we waited for them to open in the morning.
All those hundreds of articles we had read to prepare for this trip and nothing was said about what to do when your van gives up on you 500 miles from home. In fact, none of what we read was particularly helpful. Lack of planning was a major mental obstacle for us to overcome – our mollycoddled, structured little brains couldn’t cope at first.
If we had taken the £25 EasyJet we would still be those people, but pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones and taking hold of every opportunity along the way is what allowed us to deal with the broken down car, and arrive back to London in good spirits, with one piece of advice:
Go the long way.