Make a righthand turn at Ukraine

Summer Roadtrip 2019

My trusty car (with bike on the roof), pictured here in the North Macedonian capital of Skopje. Photo by Mark Baker.
This marked-up Google capture shows my travel route. I started in Prague and Leipzig in the upper left and moved toward Ukraine and eventually Greece. More than 30 nights, 3,000kms, a half-dozen (painful) border crossings, and one bout of food poisoning.
When I finally got home, I spilled my wallet and it was still stuffed with lei and lev and zloty and crowns and dinars. Photo by Mark Baker.
I loved Leipzig. This is part of a ramshackle indoor/outdoor cinema in the hip district of Connewitz. Photo by Mark Baker.

As a travel writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the road. To give you a taste, earlier this year I spent a month in Kraków for Lonely Planet. After that, I left for the United States and a long road trip along the Great Lakes for another two months. It can feel nonstop sometimes.

I’m not complaining. I feel good on the road. The thing is, though, I rarely travel for pleasure. Almost everywhere I go is for a writing assignment about a place chosen by someone else.

A funny thing happened this summer. After I got back from the U.S. and answered my editors’ queries on the materials I’d written for Poland and the Great Lakes, I ran out of assignments. For the first time in many years, I was staring down a summer without anything pressing to do. When life hands you a free August, what do you do? If you’re me, I suppose, you hit the road.

For this post, I’ll simply outline the route I took and throw in some comments here and there. The photo at the top of this story shows a rough map of the route in red. The dots are stops along the way.

The first destination was a short trip up to Leipzig to see Irena run a triathlon. I figured I might want to extend the journey, so before leaving Prague, I tossed some clothes into the car and bolted my bike to the roof. I reasoned that I may or may not want to continue traveling, but at least I’d have the option (and, besides, “Eastern Germany” was one of my “Ten Places To Visit” this year, so I had some added incentive).

Leipzig turned out to be cool. Irena ran/swam a great race and the weather was perfect. I’d accidentally chosen a hotel that was fairly far (10km) from the center, so my bike came in handy (and like all German cities, Leipzig has some beautiful bike trails).

My original thought had been to use Leipzig as a springboard to visit other places in eastern Germany, but here fate tossed in the first of several monkey wrenches along the way. I normally sleep with a plastic mouth-guard to prevent myself from clenching my jaw, but once I got settled in Leipzig, I realized I’d forgotten to pack it. After a few days in Leipzig, instead of continuing onward, I decided to backtrack to Prague and restart the trip once again from there.

The main square of Český Těšín/Cieszyn, as seen here on the Polish side. Photo by Mark Baker.
Just a random house on a street in Český Těšín/Cieszyn. Photo by Mark Baker.
I love the mountain architecture of the High Tatras in Slovakia. Photo by Mark Baker.
The evocative exterior of the Grandhotel Starý Smokovec in Slovakia's High Tatra mountains. Photo by Mark Baker.

And here’s how it went: From Prague, I first drove east to the Czech-Polish frontier town of Český Těšín/Cieszyn, where the national border runs through the center of the city. I love bi-polar border towns, where cultural identities and loyalties bleed seamlessly into one another. The city had been on my list for an extended stopover for several years. (Last year, I had the chance to visit another divided border town, České Velenice/Gmünd, and wrote about it here).

From Český Těšín, I pointed the car south and east toward Slovakia to spend a night in the High Tatras and lucked into a room at the Hotel Slovan in the resort of Tatranská Lomnica. There was a time back in the day when I would spend almost every birthday in the Tatras, but I hadn’t been back for years. This particular detour was driven mainly by nostalgia. Rather than go into detail in this overview post, though, I’ll simply name check the High Tatras here and circle back in a future post (I later wrote about it here).

For years, Ukraine had been my most glaring travel blind spot (and another one of those "Ten Places" I vowed to visit in 2019). For a writer who promises “travel and adventure in Central Europe," it was always an embarrassing admission in conversation when I'd have to stammer out I’d never actually been to Ukraine. If there was anything I was determined to do on this trip, it was to check off some of those vital, writer-cred Ukrainian boxes (though further afield towns like Kyiv and Odessa will have to wait for a future trip).

Pro tip: The biggest issue in any drive to Ukraine is choosing the right border crossing. The wrong border at the wrong time risks tossing you into a tailback that can run miles and cost hours. The Ukrainian government maintains a helpful website showing border wait times, though even these are just guesses. In reality, you never know until you get there.

On this journey, I threw caution to the wind and decided to cross from Poland at the town of Krakovets', midway between Kraków and Lviv, along Poland’s super-fast A4 highway. Real Ukraine buffs will know I had it relatively easy when I say the wait was four hours and a real punch in the gut (to be fair, it wasn’t the worst crossing I’d experience on this trip).

A short aside on borders: all that time waiting patiently at crossings on this trip stimulated a lot of thinking about borders in general. First off, a rebuke to any Brexit-friendly friends or anyone else working to undermine the EU’s free movement of people: be careful what you wish for. The EU’s greatest achievement has been to eliminate pointless crossings between member states (and I genuinely hope it stays that way).

I seem to have a primordial fear of border crossings, probably from all of those trips back in the day to the old Eastern bloc, where the visa preparations were always so arduous and the guards so capricious. One slip-up in the paperwork -- a missing stamp or a cross look or wrong form -- could easily leave you stranded at the border with no choice other than to head home. Nothing unusual happened on this trip, but I always felt on edge as customs officials grimly scanned my U.S. passport together with my Czech car documents, no doubt considering whether to motion me to the side for a more thorough inspection.

The good news is that once inside Ukraine, you discover the wait was worth it. I spent a week on this first visit to the country, dividing my time between Lviv and the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi/Czernowitz. I’ll try to come back to these places in future posts, but each was fascinating in its own way. Chernivtsi, a former Habsburg outpost in the province of Bukovina, had been on my bucket list since I lived in Vienna in the 1980s. I downloaded a copy of local writer Gregor von Rezzori’s landmark “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” to my Kindle to transport me back 100 years in time to when the main story takes place.

Lviv's lively central square here bears a strong resemblance to Kraków. Photo by Mark Baker.
Brutalist architecture from Lviv's period within the Soviet Union. The building is actually holding up pretty well and the style seems to work well. Photo by Mark Baker.
A bus stop in the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk was a total surprise. I'd never heard of it before. This is the Jewish cemetery, with a memorial to a horrific Nazi-led pogrom shortly after the German occupation in WWII. Photo by Mark Baker.

From Ukraine, I had a difficult decision to make. One of the other goals of this trip was to get to the Greek island of Alonnisos and to my friends Colin and Deborah. From here, I could easily return to Prague and fly to Greece, or I could press on southward, through Romania, and continue the drive. The Romanian Black Sea resort of Vama Veche was also on that “Ten Places” list for 2019, so in the end, the blog won out and I kept driving.

I’ll step things up here and merely list stops and add a few descriptive sentences where needed. From Chernivtsi/Czernowitz, I crossed the Romanian border to Suceava, where I had dinner with old friends Paula and Costi, and spent the night. The next day, I made the long haul through eastern Romania, along crowded two-lane highways, to Vama Veche and a few sunny days on the Black Sea. I know “Vama” has plenty of detractors – Romanians themselves are both quick to criticize and yet secretly love their hedonistic, student resort from the 1980s. I never had the chance to experience it back then though I really appreciate the resort’s decidedly anti-glam image, where hippies and hipsters co-mingle over beach and beer.

From Vama, I drove the four hours over to Bucharest, where I snagged an Airbnb with a working kitchen and pretty garden. I took the opportunity one evening to cook dinner (I was homesick for my mother’s chili) for a Bucharest friend, Madalina. On that particular night, one of my Airbnb neighbors, a visiting American from Los Angeles, wandered over to our outdoor table with a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Romania & Bulgaria in his hand to ask me if I might autograph it. He’d apparently recognized me from one of the book’s author photos. Madalina was impressed.

From Bucharest, I cut through south-central Romania, trying to guess the best place to cross the Danube River over into Bulgaria. Though both Romania and Bulgaria are members of the EU, neither is in the bloc’s Schengen Zone, so normal border and customs procedures apply. I put in for the night in the Romanian city of Craiova and the next day I drove down to a nearly abandoned car-ferry port at Bechet, Romania. I entered Bulgaria (on a very slow boat) from there.

After all that travel, I decided to head over to Sofia for a couple of nights' rest at an airport hotel I’d found on my previous trip to the country last year. I love Bulgaria (and especially Bulgarian food), but this particular stay was marred by a nasty bout of food poisoning (contracted ironically at a restaurant, Boho, I’d previously recommended for inclusion in the Lonely Planet guidebook). I’d pull it out of the book if I could, but readers beware: it was a poorly cooked burger that got me.

From Sofia, I continued south to Greece for a stopover in the town of Larisa to visit with another friend, Nancy, and then continue on to the port of Volos to catch a ferry over to Alonnisos. Everything -- hotels, ferry tickets, a place to stash the bike, and a place to stash the car -- went according to plan, and I managed to snag four glorious days with old friends in the idyllic Aegean Sea. Thanks guys!

A Jewish memorial standing in the former Jewish wartime ghetto of Chernivtsi/Czernowitz. Photo by Mark Baker.
Chernivtsi/Czernowitz's remarkable university was actually designed by Prague architect Josef Hlávka. Photo by Mark Baker.
The beaches of Romania's Vama Veche Black Sea resort. Photo by Mark Baker.
The sun and weather in Vama Veche were cooperating but the sea was almost too rough to swim in. Photo by Mark Baker.

After Alonnisos, it was time to start the long drive back to Prague. Instead of retracing my route, though, I cut up through former Yugoslavia, dividing my time between the North Macedonian capital, Skopje, and Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. Skopje, with its enormous buildings, baubles and statues, certainly merits its own post, so stay tuned for that. The city has so many statues and plastic façades it looks like the closing down sale at a garden center. (I wish that were my line, but I have to credit a fellow journalist on Twitter, Alastair Jamieson).

Fate would save the worst border crossing – from Serbia to Hungary – for last. Seven hours of agony in the hot sun. Blame the Hungarians and not the Serbs for that one. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s fantasy of an immigrant-free Hungary, in practice, has led to slow, methodical, and not particularly efficient border searches, crying babies, emergency bathroom breaks (where no facilities exist), and a day of needless discomfort for families from all around Europe as they return home from their summer holidays. There has to be a better way.

I spent the last night in the charming Hungarian border city of Szeged and made a mental note to return. I'd love to have stayed longer, but at that point I still had many miles to go before I slept.

(Scroll down for photos. MB)

Bucharest's hulking Palace of Parliament, one of the biggest buildings in the world and a pet project of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Photo by Mark Baker.
On my trip to Bucharest I naturally popped into my favorite bookstore in the region: Anthony Frost. They had both our Lonely Planet guidebook and Rick Steve's Europe book standing side-by-side. Looks like LP is selling a bit better :) Photo by Mark Baker.
This kid on the left had the right idea as temps in Bucharest on this day would approach 37C/100F. Photo by Mark Baker.
Bucharest on a sweltering day, looking out toward the enormous Palace of Parliament in the background. Photo by Mark Baker.
Craiova's outrageous town hall. This city has gotten so much nicer in the decade that I have been coming here to update guidebooks. Photo by Mark Baker.
My lonely car ferry from the Romanian Danube port of Bechet, looking out over the river toward Bulgaria in the background. Photo by Mark Baker.
Sofia has the best street art of any Eastern European capital. This Socialist-era mural probably dates from the 1960s or early 1970s. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on a stifling August day, with the landmark Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the background. Photo by Mark Baker.
That's my friend Nancy on the left during our dinner one evening in the city of Larisa, Greece. Photo by Mark Baker.
My vote for the best hotel of the trip. The modest, inexpensive Achillion Hotel in the Greek city of Larisa. Comfy bed, decent breakfast and this old-school lobby. Photo by Mark Baker.
The "Flying Dolphin" hydrofoil that makes the three-hour trip between the Greek port of Volos and the island of Alonnisos. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of several beautiful beaches on the Greek island of Alonnisos, in the Aegean Sea. Photo by Mark Baker.
Walking around the old town on the Greek island of Alonnisos. Photo by Mark Baker.
These are my friends, Colin and Deborah, pictured here while on a short hike around Alonnisos. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Turkish quarter of the North Macedonian capital, Skopje. Photo by Mark Baker.
Skopje has so many statues and plastic façades 'it looks like the closing down sale at a garden center.' Photo by Mark Baker.
The exterior of the Brutalist 'Hotel Jugoslavija' in Belgrade. By the time I got to Serbia, I was exhausted, running out of cash and already mentally on my way home. I will be back! Photo by Mark Baker.
The surprisingly interior of the Brutalist 'Hotel Jugoslavija' in Belgrade. Photo by Mark Baker.


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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker