31 May 2010

Stena Line early return of the Stena Explorer on Holyhead Dun Laoghaire route

As further proof of the way ferry companies have benefited from the increase in demand resulting from the Ash Cloud and people's reluctance to commit to flying, Stena Line ferries are initiating the summer service operated by the Fast Ferry Stena Explorer one month earlier than planned.

The vessel has started crossing from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire and will continue to sail this route until September 5th. The Stena Explorer departs from Holyhead at 10 am and from Dun Laoghaire at 13.15 pm. This ferry crossing over the Irish Sea takes just 2 hours. Foot passengers are welcome and there is a direct rapid rail connection to Dublin from Dun Laoghaire.

Visit the Drive-Alive website for more info on the Holyhead Dun Laoghaire ferry crossing, including booking links and links to timetable information.

Driving from Skopje in Macedonia to Edessa in Greece

Getting out of Skopje was a lot easier than getting in, as at least the motorway was signed. We needed to head for Athens on the E75, because although our destination was Edessa, a small town north-west of Thessaloniki, the E75 goes all the way to Athens, by-passing Thessaloniki to the west.

The road from Skopje to the Greek border was a mixture of two lane road and motorway and once again passed through some spectacular mountain scenery. Motorway speed limits in Macedonia are 120 km/h with good conditions, so progress on these newer sections was good, and the light traffic meant that there were no real delays even on the older two lane sections.

Tolls were charged on the motorway sections, amounting to about 4 euros, also payable in Macedonian Dinars, a good way of getting rid of our few remaining Dinars as they are worthless outside Macedonia. This was also the case with Hungarian Forints and Serbian Dinars, so try and get rid of them before leaving the respective countries.

The border between Macedonia and Greece was our last potential hurdle before rejoining the EU, but once again the crossing was completely trouble free. Once in Greece we found ourselves on a long, quiet toll-free motorway with a signed limit of 100km/h. Given the state of the road surface this was probably a sensible speed. The normal motorway speed limit is 120, although some newer sections are signed at 130. Direction signing is in Roman script as well as Greek, so no problems there.

This north-western part of Greece is called Macedonia, like the country we'd just left, so when in Greece do not refer to the country of Macedonia by that name or the Greeks get annoyed. Most of them seem to call the country of Macedonia by the name of the capital city, Skopje. Or else "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia". All very confusing and typical of this part of Europe where boundaries have changed many times, often in living memory. In the case of the former Yugoslavia not long ago at all, of course.

After a rather boring journey across the plains of this region, with the traffic getting progressively heavier, we finally left it all behind and reached the foothills of the mountainous border regions and our destination Edessa, a pretty town perched on the edge of a plateau with fantstic views across the plain, waterfalls, and so many coffee bars there must be practically one for every inhabitant!

Visit our website for more about driving in Europe.

26 May 2010

Driving from Belgrade in Serbia to Skopje in Macedonia

Leaving Belgrade proved harder than it should have been as major roadworks were taking place on the route to the motorway and diversion signs were patchy at best. But we eventually reached the motorway, which initially was badly in need of repair, but improved as we moved away from the city, and headed south towards Macedonia.

Motorways in Serbia are subject to tolls as they are in Macedonia, although these are not as expensive as in France, for example. It is possible to pay in both countries in Euros, although this costs about 10% extra due to exchange rates not being great. The total toll costs for this leg of our trip were about 10 euros, and you hand over your cash at toll booths. Credit cards were not accepted, although they were at service stations, which were plentiful on the motorway, but few and far between otherwise.

Just as when we entered Serbia, there were no problems crossing into Macedonia. We had to produce our vehicle registration document and the Green Card.

Between Belgrade and the border was a mixture of motorway and decent quality two lane road. Thre was good motorway for over half of the drive from the Macedonian border to Skopje, and again as we approached Skopje. The light traffic and the gorgeous scenery meant we made good and enjoyable progress, the whole trip fro Belgrade to Skopje taking about 6 hours of relaxed driving.

Driving in Skopje, which is quite a large city, is as erratic as I have experienced anywhere. This, combined with the fact that all street names are in Cyrillic script, meant finding our hotel in Skopje was interesting. Before leaving the UK we tried to find a SatNav which covered Serbia and Macedonia but although some now cover the main roads, none have yet incorporated city street detail. You really do need someone who can read a map! In spite of the apparent lack of any driving rules, as long as you drive carefully, much as you would in any new city, people respect your road space and we had no problems.

We really liked Skopje. The people were very friendly and in spite of the driving habits, very relaxed and cheerful. The city centre is an interesting mix of the modern and ancient, with lots of street art and sculpture and a lively cafe culture in the newer centre, alongside a much older "bazaar" quarter just across an old stone bridge.

Throughout Macedonia we saw churches and mosques next to each other. This made us wish we had a better understanding of the history, recent as well as older, of this part of Europe.

22 May 2010

SeaFrance extra services Dover Calais to meet increased demand

In common with other ferry operators, especially on the ferry crossings to France, SeaFrance has experienced a surge in demand since the volcanic ash crsis began.

To meet this the company has made extra sapce available for foot passengers and also laid on extra services. SeaFrance claims to have helped over 20,000 stranded passengers on their way to their destinations.

SeaFrance is often overlooked in favour of its more famous competitor P&O Ferries. Yet SeaFrance has perhaps the most modern ships on the Dover Calais ferry crossings, with up to 15 daily return crossings, and its rates are competitive, with fares starting from just £25 each way for a car and up to 5 passengers no matter how long you're away.

More about SeaFrance Ferries Dover Calais.
More about ferry crossings between the UK,Ireland and Europe.

20 May 2010

Driving from Belgrade back to the UK with a broken laptop

Well here we are back in the UK after a trouble free but fascinating journey since we last posted to this blog back in Belgrade. I say trouble free but of course our laptop packed up in Belgrade.

We drove to Macedonia where there wasn't really time to try and do anything about it, and no sign of any internet access. In Greece we visited a computer repair shop where a very helpful person told us the video card had died and the laptop wasn't worth reparing, something a quick phone call to the UK confirmed.

Unfortunately they don't use Roman letters in Greece so the keyboards are totally different and we would have needed to source a laptop from the UK for it to have been useable. As we were travelling delivery would have been tricky.

We did try using PCs in Internet cafés and hotels but it was hard work. As we were in Greece websites like Google kept directing us to their Greek servers so everything was in Greek, and even when this wasn't the case programme menus were often in Greek.

So we decided not to make any further posts to this blog but to write it out as we went along and to resume posting when back in the UK.

So this is by way of an apology and to let you know that if you want to follow the rest of our epic drive from Belgrade through Macedonia, Greece, ferry to Italy, then home through the Fréjus Alpine tunnel and France, check here or watch our Twitter panel on the Drive-Alive website.

4 May 2010

Driving from Budapest to Belgrade - Hungary to Serbia

Leaving Budapest was easy with good sign-posting to the M5 motorway, a good quality road to the Serbian border across the totally flat plain of the Danube.

We had wondered whether we would encounter any problems entering Serbia, but it was plain sailing. Coincidentally the car insurance has just fallen due for renewal. We'd had difficulty finding an insurer to issue a Green Card for Serbia and Macedonia - this is still required for both these countries, but succeeded eventually, although at a small extra cost. The alternative is to purchase the cover at the border on entry, but there seems to be a question mark over the usefulness of such cover.

Anyway, our Green Card was accepted without question and after a cursory inspection of the contents of the boot we were on our way.

Serbia is a different country! Signs of neglect are everywhere. The maps show a motorway all the way from the border to Belgrade. Well, it's not a motorway as we know it, being a two lane highway with a hard shoulder. On coming drivers overtake into the opposite lane forcing you onto the hard shoulder, so you need to keep alert. Fortunately traffic is light, so it's not as horrendous as it sounds.

This style of road continued all the way to Novi Sad, with no sign of any upgrading imminent (except for one short section), so I'm puzzled as to why map makers such as Michelin show the road as a full motorway. Anyway, from Novi Sad onwards you pay a toll of about 7 euros (acceptable in Euros but slightly cheaper in Serbian dinars) for the rest of the journey to Belgrade.

The journey took about 5 and a half hours, longer than expected as the "motorway" is subject to a limit of 100 km/h, although once it becomes a proper motorway the limit is 120. We stuck rigidly to the limits, not wanting to run the risk of getting involved with the local police, and there were a number of mobile speed traps.

On the approach to Belgrade the road continues as an urban dual carriageway, rather like the major A roads that enter London. Except there's much less traffic. It reminded me of driving in the UK about 40 years ago.

We'd been warned that Belgrade driving was pretty hairy, but we saw no evidence of this, although road markings are not great. It was much less stressful driving here than in say Paris, Milan or Rome. One slight problem is that street names are mostly in Cyrillic so working out where you are can be difficult.

Belgrade, although rather decrepit, seems friendly and welcoming and the central area is as tourist friendly as any other city, with attractive squares, pedestrianised streets, plenty of green spaces, a spectacular castle and an old "Bohemian" quarter.

2 May 2010

Driving from Vienna to Budapest

Before we leave Vienna I should tell you that you need a good street map because signposting is virtually non-existent. I remember this was the case last time I drove in Vienna, about 30 years ago, and it hasn't got any better. Which is odd, because throughout the rest of Austria signage is good.

It was May Day when we left Vienna, so traffic was light and we were sorry not to be able to stay and enjoy the parades, but Budapest beckoned. I have never been to Hungary, let alone driven there. Of course Hungary is now part of the European Union, although, like the UK, they are not part of the Euro block.

So on arriving at the border Euros were changed to Forints and a vignette allowing travel on Hungarian motorways was purchased - about 7 euros for 4 days. These are available in garages on both sides of the border, as well as in well-marked booths alongside the motorway in Hungary. We bought ours in Austria, but could probably have saved the equivalent of a euro if we'd used Forints in Hungary.

Speed limits on Hungarian motorways are 130 km/h. The motorway is continuous between Vienna and Budapest and not particularly busy, so an easy journey taking about 2 and a half hours.

One mistake we made was to stop at a parking area and leave the car unattended for just a few minutes. When we returned a couple of guys were busy cleaning the windows. I let them finish and offered a Euro. They were clearly not happy with this but I remained polite but firm, and they grudgingly accepted. As I pointed out, I didn't ask them to do the job. From now on one of us will stay with the car!

There is zero tolerance of drink driving, and even a small amount of alcohol in the blood can result in severe penalties. Quite right too. Having said that, I don't think we've seen a single policeman or patrol car in Hungary so far.

Budapest is spectacularly beautiful, especially at night, when the castle, the amazingly ornate Parliament building and many other monuments are floodlit to great effect. Driving seems reasonable. Many streets are one way, even major routes. Often two way roads will forbid turns across oncoming traffic, and to make a turn across the traffic can involve a considerable detour around two blocks.

The city feels very safe, well lit and no evidence of anti-social behaviour. Budapest is however, not a cheap city. In fact food and drink are if anything more expensive than in Vienna, where prices were surprisingly moderate for a popular tourist destination and capital city.

We've made some progress with our video and have managed to download the images to the laptop and perform some basic editing. But I'm afraid the results are not ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.