Since the house renovation cannot start until September, Silviu and I have decided to treasure the rest of our summer holidays and make a road trip to visit his home town, Sebes, Romania. After staying only five days in our new home, we put down our mops and rags, declare a moratorium on the battle against the spiders and grime of our new home, and embark on our 3-day, 2000km drive to Sebes.
Day 1: Home to Nuremberg, Germany
Day 2: Nuremberg to Vienna, Austria
Day 3: Vienna to Sebes, Romania via South of Budapest, Hungary
Day 1: France to Germany
We left on 1 August, on a Sunday morning at 08h30. After making a quick trip at the gas station, we got on to A10 highway. It was fortunate that we were moving towards east of France; on A10 of the opposite direction, we saw slowing traffic as French vacationers clamoured to the south of France, a popular holiday destination.
German Highway Speed Limits
I have heard that there are no speed limits on the German highways and have imagined that it would be a wild wild west out there.
It is not exactly true. There are indeed sections on the highways without speed limits, but there are also sections with limits of up to 130km per hour. Drivers really do not joke around when there are no limits. On the 3-lane highways, cars just zoomed past us on the outermost left lane at 150km, 160m as if there were no tomorrow.
In the beginning, I told Silviu to stick to the kiddy lanes, drive at 130km while leaving the adults play at the fast lanes. (I think I have a teeny-weeny bout of Tachophobia, fear of speed, be it in the car or on a bike, especially downhill). The weird thing was that, after a while on the German highways, it seemed (even to me!) that driving at 130km per hour felt normal, almost like travelling at 50km on a city road. We reckoned that the speed impression is all relative: if every car on the highway flies through at a minimum of 130km, I don’t really feel the speed. However, on a more ‘normal’ highway, if there were more cars travelling at a much slower speed than us, I would feel that we were speeding.
French vs German Highways
We have had our little Golf, Volkswagon for three years and this is the first time we have brought it out of France (our overseas road-trip plans were postponed last year). Due to the pandemic health measures, we have been restricted to travelling within France for the past three years and thus are used to the French highways system: frequent and expensive tolls, gas stations with amenities (usually a restaurant, a cafe, minimart, free restrooms and shower rooms) every 50km or so. If you are in a rush, you can just grab a sandwich or a pastry from an adequate selection, pleasingly placed on the display shelves.
Germany highways was our first foreign encounter. The service experience was quite different. On the positive side, there are no tolls in Germany. We travelled for 800km for free. As a comparison, we paid €21 on tolls when we drove 200km to Gonneville-sur-mer, Normandy for Christmas in 2020.
Gas Station Amenities
However, in terms of comfort of the gas station amenities, I prefer those of the French ones. For one, the aesthetic aspect of the German amenities are not as welcoming as the French one. I find the amenities are not as well lit here. During the 9-hour trip, I had some sweet cravings and was looking forward to getting a pastry from a minimart or a cafe. However, the sad and unappetising selection of bakery dampened my craving. One good thing was that it helped me to ward off some unnecessary unhealthy calories.
Another difference between the French and German highway service stations is that one needs to pay for the German toilets. It’s a nominal amount of €0.70 and one can redeem €0.50 through a purchase at the cafe. Some of the toilets have turnstiles which accept credit card and coin payments.
At our first stop, we went to the restroom without any small change. We almost turned back to our car to get change when a gas station customer who had just stepped out of the minimart (next to the toilet) and seemed to have overheard our conversation about the lack of small change, offered to give us €2 to pay for the entrance fee. His kindness helped us save a trip back to the car.
Overall, the German drivers are disciplined drivers who follow the basic driving rules: signalling when they want to change lanes and do not swerve suddenly in front of you when they see you trying to overtake them (quite common among the French drivers).
We did not know what to expect at the customs borders at Forbach / Saarbrücken. Germany is in Schengan Area; so, normally there are no border controls. However, there might be sanitary checks at the border due to Covid-19 which could cause a jam. We were pleasantly surprised to be able to cross the border without any hassle.
Other than a lunch stop and a couple of coffee spots, we drove non-stop and reached Nuremberg at 17h00 after driving close to 800km without any incidents.
We planned to stay just one night in Nuremberg, Germany for the first transit stop. Since we only had a few hours to explore the medieval Bavarian city, we chose to splurge on a city-centre hotel which would save us time from travelling; a hotel outside the centre would definitely be cheaper and most likely come with free or inexpensive parking (we paid €20 for a private overnight parking at Nuremberg).
Covid-19 Sanitary Measures in Bavaria
We should have done better research on the different Covid-19 sanitary measures in the different countries. We knew that wearing masks were mandatory in enclosed places in Germany, but were unaware that FF2P masks were required when visiting public enclosed places like restaurants, supermarkets and train stations in the Bavaria State, which includes Nuremberg, the second largest city in Bavaria, after Munich.
After being informed at the hotel check-in that our medical masks were not accepted (guess that the hotel was not that strict as they allowed us to check in without the proper masks) and also being told that the hotel had run out of FF2P to sell to guests, we were left to our own devices on procuring FF2P masks.
Hunt For FF2P Masks
It was on a Sunday that we arrived in Nuremberg. As most of you may know, Sundays in Europe are quite different from Sundays in Singapore, Asia generally. In Singapore, Sunday is a day in the week when most people do not work and spend time with their friends and families in air-conditioned malls shopping and eating—shops and restaurants are not only open, but also open full day.
In Europe, it’s another story. Like in Asia, Sunday is a non-work day for most people but mainly for religious reasons. There are exceptions, especially in the bigger cities, where some shops are open for reasons of tourism. You can also find some shops like groceries and pharmacies open in train stations.
When we arrived at 5pm in Nuremberg, all the shops in the city centre were closed. Based on Google, we found a couple of minimarts that were still open, but they were located in the main train station. But, there was the catch-22. How could we get to the enclosed minimarts in the enclosed train station without the required FF2P masks?
- Eat only at restaurants that have outdoor terraces. That would mean no toilet visits (a big No No for me)!
- Buy take-away food and eat in the hotel. It was too depressing a thought to even entertain. We had just spent eight hours in a car and were going to spend another seven hours the following day. We really needed to relax and try some local food in a good restaurant, and not to eat some lukewarm, (likely soggy) takeaway food.
- Find a restaurant that sells/give us FF2P masks. Someone at the hotel told us that some restaurants did provide masks to the guests.
- Find a way to get into one of the open minimarts in the train station. We were hoping to meet some police personnel at the entrance of the train station who might be kind enough to help us buy the masks.
We started with Option 3. Our plan was to obtain FF2P masks while getting an apéritif and then to go for dinner in another restaurant with the masks. Unfortunately, the three restaurants that we approached did not supply masks. We were getting desperate after an hour of fruitless search in the city centre for shops and restaurants selling masks. It was around 7pm when we decided to try our luck at the train station.
Kind Souls To The Rescue
While waiting for the traffic light located opposite the train station to turn green, I spotted a Chinese-looking couple by the traffic light, busying themselves with their two young children. An idea popped up in my mind: the couple looked like they were tourists. If they were tourists, they might have extra masks, especially since the woman was carrying a handbag (one never knows what treasures a handbag can hold).
With that in mind, I approached the couple. When they first spoke, I thought they were visiting from Hong Kong. However, it seemed that the young family was indeed visiting Nuremberg but they were currently living in Dusseldorf, another Germany city.
Without further ado, I asked them whether they had any spare FF2P masks. The woman immediately replied that they ran out of FF2P masks. As if to verify her answer, she fumbled in her handbag and took out a small pouch filled with masks, but hélas, medical masks and not FF2P ones.
Our hopes were dashed again…Not wanting to give up any hope, I unabashedly asked the couple whether they would be kind enough to cross the street and enter the train station on our behalf to buy the masks. The couple looked at one another, and then I saw a look of reluctance and hesitance on the face of the woman. I was very disappointed but I could understand their dilemma: a strange couple approaching them in a foreign place and most important of all, they had two young kids with them (one of them still in a pram). Understanding their awkwardness, I reassured them immediately that it was quite alright and we would try to find perhaps a police officer to help us at the station.
With that, Silviu and I left them and crossed the road to the train station. Like most main train stations I have come across, the Nuremberg train station does not give me a safe feeling. There was a crowd gathering at the steps at the entrance of the station, spectating a ruckus caused by a wild, drunk looking man and three police officers. The drunk looking man was flailing his arms, shouting presumably in German at the police officers while the latter seemed to be trying to calm him down. I saw two other uniformed guards, most likely security guards of the train station, spectating the commotion. Since they were doing nothing, I approached one of them. Before I said anything, she glanced at me sternly and pointed at the commotion, and moved nearer to the spectacle.
Really? Does dealing with an unarmed drunk man need that many police officers and security guards?
A few seconds after the blatant rejection by the security guard, we were surprised to see the Chinese man with whom we were talking several minutes ago appeared suddenly appeared by himself in front of us. He had to have settled his young family nearby and chased after us. Without preamble, he volunteered to find the masks for us in the train station while we waited outside for him. Five minutes later, he came out victoriously with two masks in his hands. Our short night in Nuremberg was saved by this kind couple.
Day 2: Germany to Vienna, Austria
Since it was a relatively short drive of 500km to Vienna from Nuremberg, we started out late in the morning at 10am. The ride from Germany to Austria was placid; the Austrian landscape looked similar to the one in Germany, the traffic was smooth (but there are NO no-speed-limit highways) and there was no Covid-19 control at the border. However, unlike Germany where the highways are free, Austria requires us to buy a minimum 10-day validity tax disc costing €9.50.
We arrived in Vienna with plenty of time to explore the city, had a cocktail at the terrace of the famous Palmenhaus, a former greenhouse, which overlooks a park. After that, we strolled to the restaurant which had our dinner reservation and enjoyed a copious portion on the traditional Austrian schnitzel.
Day 3: Austria to Sebes, Romania
Austria to Hungary
It was a long day on the road as we had to cover 730km, crossing two borders to reach Silviu’s hometown in Romania. We checked out early at 8am, grabbed a quick breakfast and left the city.
Like in Austria, Hungary’s highways are not free. We bought a one-month tax disk of €14 online before leaving France and displayed the printed copy prominently on our windshield when we crossed into Hungary. With a one month validity, it means that we do not have to buy another one on our return trip. It’s the same for the Romania highways; we bought a one-month tax disk at €7 online which could also be used on the return trip.
Since Vienna was only 70km away from the Austria/Hungary border, we crossed into Hungary in less than one hour after leaving Vienna. Like in the previous two countries in the Schengan Area, there was neither border control nor Covid-19 check in Hungary,
Despite having only two-lane highways (2 lanes in each direction), there was not much traffic on the highways in Hungary. Other than the occasional slowdowns caused by the some trucks trying to overtake each other, the ride of 400km across a flattish landscape to the Hungary / Romania border passed without any incidents. We only made a pitstop at a MacCafe where we bought coffee.
It was our first time in Hungary. Unfortunately, as we were pressed for time, we skirted around the famous Budapest without stopping. Hopefully we would get a chance to visit Hungary, especially Budapest, in a leisurely fashion in the near future.
Hungary to Sebes, Romania
At the Hungary / Romania border, there was a holdup due to Romania not being in the Schengan Area. Cars slowed down as every car had to stop at the check-point and showed the national identification documents to the officers. Fortunately, we only had to wait around fifteen minutes before it was our turn. Besides giving the officer our passports, we were also told to show our car registration documents. Shortly, we got back our passports in which I found an Hungary exit border stamp on my brand new passport.
Still withholding our car registration documents, the officer directed us to park our car a few metres ahead of the checkpoint and to come back when he called us. Slightly worried, we did as instructed: parked and waited next to the car, under the blazing sun. Fortunately, he called out to Silviu in less than five minutes. He gave back the documents to Silviu and informed us that we could leave. It seemed that it’s quite common for the border patrols to conduct random car identification checks.
After the twenty-minute interlude at the border, we made one last toilet stop at a gas station before continuing our last leg of the road trip. We got to Sebes earlier than expected and managed to join our in-laws for dinner, enjoying the sumptuous dinner prepared by my mother-in-law.