Monday, April 5, 2010

The Hills Are Alive

By Claire
We arrived in Austria this morning, driving along the motorway from Italy noticing that the scenery was changing before our eyes—things were definitely looking like they belonged on the set of The Sound of Music.

We had one major (to us) fiasco with the toll booth. First, Chuck missed a bend in the road leading us to where we wanted to go while I had my head in a German phrase book, entertaining us with my pronunciation. Fortunately, Susannah started madly recalculating and suddenly an hour was added to our trip time. This was all the information we needed to make the swift decision to get off at the next exit (they are few and far between), pay the toll and turn around, paying another toll. Life is just full of these little annoyances.

We pulled up to the unstaffed toll booth and Chuck tried to feed in the €1.30 but the machine kept spitting the coins out. He was feeling stressed about the fact that we had missed a turn and now he was having trouble with a heartless machine. Everything was very dead—it’s Easter Monday and everything is closed. I spotted an official looking man and waved him over. He told us in Italian to put different coins in. Fumbling through our coins, turning them over to identify them, and madly feeding them in just added to the stress. I asked the man if he spoke English and he did the usual “a little.” I then asked how to get back on the A4 towards Venezia and he said “Milano” while twirling his fingers to indicate turning around.

So off we went, both with high pitched frantic voices shouting upon seeing a sign for Murano. Huh? Oh no, which one did he say? Then we saw Milano, roared onto the A4 and happily zoomed down the road, hoping to find the connection to Venezia. But….the hateful toll booth loomed ahead. Again, no one was in sight and we drove into a booth that indicated Telepass and coins, showing a picture of a hand holding coins. We didn’t have a ticket to pay with but the LED readout told us it was €2.90. Searching the machine with nothing but Italian instructions, including what to do with an unreadable ticket, we could not find a place to put the money.

I grabbed my credit card and Chuck stuck it in. Out came a very long receipt and the guard rail came up. Happily, we putted down the road, heading in the correct direction. We even found the split and took the correct fork. However, I started reading the receipt and realized that what it was saying was that we had an unreadable ticket and that unless we paid within 15 days we would be fined 15% and for each week beyond the 15 days the fine would increase. Uh oh. It even showed our license plate number! How did it do that? Apparently, it did not charge our credit card—ours mostly do not work in automated machines because European cards have an electronic chip in them and ours does not.

So, we worried and worried about this. Here we were, leaving Italy in a matter of about an hour and EVERYTHING WAS CLOSED. The receipt nicely mentioned that we could pay at the bank and have the money transferred to their IBIN number. The banks are closed today. Or, if we preferred, we could pay at the Post Office. The Post Office is closed today. We had visions of going online and doing a bank transfer with a $30 fee from Bank of America for a €2.90 toll fee. We even talked about driving back to Italy tomorrow to deal with it. Arrrrgggghhhh.

Meanwhile, there is another fee required for driving in Austria (and Switzerland and Hungary and the Czech Republic). It’s called a motorway vignette and each country requires one. It costs around €25 and you must have this sticker on your vehicle or suffer a SEVERE fine. Chuck spotted a sign that he thought said something about “vignettes” as we breezed by—who has the ability to read all the signage that is usually 5 or 6 lines long (and of course in another language) as you buzz by going 110 km. per hour? But I digress. We pulled off at the rest stop thinking we would reward ourselves with a couple of cappuccinos standing up at the bar. But, it was mobbed inside (Easter, remember?) so while Chuck hit the WC, I went outside and into the little shop. It was blessedly quiet with no one there but the two helpful guys behind the counter. I bought the vignette and asked about paying the toll, showing him the dreaded receipt. He read it over and told me we could pay it at the “controlle” at the border and assured me that there would be a person there.

He was right. 70 km. later we arrived at the toll booth and a man was inside. He grumbled loudly in exasperation but more at the bureaucracy than at us, I think. He did some magic and handed us our copy of a document showing that we had paid. What a relief! Sometimes you just need your heart to race a little during the day.

Shortly after crossing the border into Austria we could really feel the difference. How is it possible? Everything began to look Tyrolean even though that is another region of Austria to the west of us. The hills are covered in forest and it is so squeaky clean! Did you know that the two biggest money makers are tourism and Red Bull Energy Drink?

We made it to our wonderful campground, Seecamping Berghof, €15, in the town of Villach. The bathrooms may receive our highest score: heated, automatic lights that pop on the instant you enter, hot water in the sinks the moment you turn it on, a soap dispenser and even paper towels. The showers have a separate sink area and there are counter tops and electrical plugs and plenty of mirrors. It even smells good. There is a laundry room with washer and centrifuge as well as an ironing board (yeah, right) and deep sink. The grounds include lakeside spots, tennis courts, 3 playgrounds, and a skateboard park (fortunately far away from the campers). There is also a wonderful restaurant and market. The only downside? The WiFi is €9 for 2 hours! You really have to move fast and be organized to get a blog post up and read email that you haven’t been able to check for 5 days.

View out the front window

We walked around the area—it’s cool and crisp out—very Austrian. This punk looking duck stopped us in our tracks.

It’s a wonderful place for families and at the moment, there are 60 Italian campers who had come together and were here for 3 days, leaving today.

We decided to have dinner in the restaurant and what a great idea that was. We started with the draft beer, delicious. As Rick Steves always says, “drink beer in the beer countries and wine in the wine countries.”

We had a fun time struggling a little with the language. The waitress was very friendly and helpful and we sorted it all out. We decided on the Wienerschnitzel and pommes frites. She suggested a salad so we ordered the large and shared it.


For dessert? Apfelstrudel of course! The waitress asked if we wanted coffee and Chuck went for it. She asked if he wanted espresso or normal. Normal. Soon I could see her working the huge coffee machine and we heard loud steam noises. Normal coffee? What is she doing? It arrived with a miniature pitcher of hot steamed milk, cookie, 2 sugar packets and tiny spoon, all carefully placed on a small tray.

What a nice evening. I checked the weather report and it’s good for the next 3 days and then rain. We’ve decided to head straight for Vienna tomorrow, about 3 hours away. If the rain does come on Friday, we’ll decide what to do then.

First bake the strudel then sit down and ponder. ~ Austrian Proverb

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Hello you two! We love the blog and are enjoying being on the trip with you! How fun to camp on the ferry and be back in Italy for a short time. It's interesting how many campers are on the road so early in the season. Enjoy Vienna. Thanks for the comments on Greece as we'll be there in just a few weeks.