My Unplanned European Cross-Country Road Trip
Ten hours into my first solo trip, I call the hostel’s owner from a gas station in the pitch-black woods outside Ljubljana, Slovenia. My rental car’s dated navigation system decided to avoid highways and as a result, I’m 3 hours behind.
“Would it be possible to do a late check-in?” I ask.
“Ummm, no,” he says, albeit apologetically. The call drops.
I try to re-connect but my account is inactive. Skype has marked the call suspicious because it doesn’t expect me to be in Slovenia.
Well, Skype, I didn’t expect me to be in Slovenia either. But here we both are.
Solo travel was among my personal goals for Remote Year and by early September, I needed a break from the beloved chaos my life has become. During my first week in Belgrade, I researched bucket-list countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, etc.
Finding flights was easy. Getting excited about the trip was surprisingly hard. The idea of swapping Belgrade for another big city was exhausting and I didn’t want to hunt for sightseeing spots or walking tours or wifi-equipped cafes or hostels where all those things were accessible.
Maybe a city wasn’t where I needed to be. Next stop, Google: “Best national parks in Europe.”
Images of towering peaks, lush forests, and deep blue lakes flooded the screen. Suddenly, a week off the grid sounded perfect. Slovenia’s Triglav National Park was a quick 1.5-hour flight from Belgrade … or a 5- to 6-hour drive across Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia.
Pause. I hadn’t driven a car since February, had never driven across country borders, and couldn’t understand Serbian highway signs for my life. But thoughts of flying down an open highway; of being in charge of my own ETA were too hard to pass up. ROAD TRIP!
I originally decide to travel Sept. 12–16 but on Sept. 5, I wake up impatient and want to leave early. Nobody disagrees, so within an hour I book a hostel room, rent a car, pack a backpack, and hit the road.
The journey to Triglav’s Lake Bohinj is an experience. This GPS prefers backroads so my 5-hour trip becomes 10. I wind through Slovenian countryside, watch the sunset, get totally lost, and drive down a hiking trail (oops). Hostel Bohinj is impossible to find at 11PM, so I’m about to sleep in my car when the only open hostel in Slovenia appears. Travel win!
Come sunrise, I find the hostel and head to Slovenia’s largest permanent lake, nestled among the massive and beautiful Julian Alps. Being in the wild is invigorating after months of city life. I hit the trails, run miles around Bohinj and jump in its crystal-clear water until I’m tired, exhilarated, and refreshed. This is why I came to a national park.
A light rain starts to fall around 3pm, just as my workday is about to start. I camp out on a cozy hostel couch, sip coffee and write to the sound of rain falling in the forest.
My week follows this pattern: explore in the morning; work throughout the evening. It’s peaceful here and I find myself enjoying solitude I don’t normally crave. A break from the city, from Remote Year, helps me focus and gain perspective. I realize I needed to breathe.
But as with any adventure, there are surprises.
One day I run down a random trail. Ten minutes in, it takes a steep incline and the dirt path gives way to a rock face with pegs jutting out for support. What started as a run turns into scaling the side of a mountain, in shorts and running shoes, as hikers in raincoats and boots stare at me like I’m crazy. This may be true.
The trail never flattens, and my run doesn’t happen, but I find this lake at the top!
On Thursday I hike a trail that promises up-close views of Mt. Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak and the park’s namesake.
It’s not easy. I climb for 1–2 hours, savoring the accomplishment that only comes from pushing my physical limits. When I turn around, all I see are endless mountains; all I hear are my own breaths and pounding heartbeat. Being alone is less scary and more empowering.
At the top, I’m rewarded with a view of Triglav half-hidden behind clouds:
Early Friday morning, I reluctantly leave Bohinj to get back for a weekend bike trip. At Serbian border control, the man checking my passport seems confused.
“It’s just you?” he asks.
“You’re traveling alone?”
“Yep, just me.”
He raises his eyebrows and returns my passport.
I drive ahead and turn down the radio, thinking about the past week. My trip surprised me in a few ways. In the past I’ve always preferred to travel with people, mostly because I was scared: of loneliness, of discomfort, of the possibility of running into trouble on my own.
As it turns out, I’m more capable of navigating the roadblocks than I thought. Guess driving across three foreign countries with a prehistoric GPS will teach you these lessons.
I’ve spent so much time worrying about the dangers of traveling alone that I never focused on the good. In Triglav, I didn’t worry whether someone else wanted to swim or run or eat ice cream for lunch. Nobody cared how I drove (badly) or sang in the car (worse).
My choices were mine, and I was the only person they affected. This was addictively freeing.
While I still love traveling with people, there are definitely more solo trips in my future. This break from my hectic reality made me excited to head back to Serbia with a clear head, new energy, and the goal of hitting a national park whenever I can.
This post originally appeared on my blog Notes From A Remote.