She was worried, more so than usual. My mother in-law stood at the car checking, double checking and triple checking for anything that might possibly go wrong. Her level of anxiety manifested itself in questions and nervous glances. She even gripped me on the shoulder at one point. This was out of character for her. As my wife and I got into her car, which we were borrowing for a trip to southern Bohemia, my mother-in-law kept looking at us with an expression of worry. I could see the stressed look in her eyes despite the lack of light. The sun was just coming up over the great Hungarian Plain. We were leaving earlier than usual due to the lack of daylight in the dead of winter. Google Maps said the trip between Debrecen and Cesky Krumlov should take seven and a half hours if we took the shortest route. Of course, the amount of time was based on optimal travel conditions. I knew better, because I knew the weather was supposed to be worse. By looking at my mother-in-law I could tell she knew as well.
Wishful Thinking – Intermittent Worries
We had been on the M35 in eastern Hungary for half an hour when my wife said to me, “my mom was worried”. I hesitated, not wanting to ask why since I already knew the answer. After a prolonged moment of uncomfortable silence, I gave a quiet answer and got the reply I expected. It was the weather. The forecast for Austria, which we would be spending several hours driving across, was not good. Several times in the days before our departure I checked the forecast. Lower Austria showed intermittent snow while there was a 70% chance of snow in Linz. Cesky Krumlov also had the same forecast.
Noticing this, I tried the last refuge of a foolish traveler, searching for any shred of evidence to provide a false sense of security. Sure enough, I found something to ameliorate my worries. The snow accumulation was going to be light, only a centimeter or two. That was nothing! Especially in a land such as Austria where they knew how to deal with winter road conditions. I imagined a fleet of plows surging onto the A1 Motorway (West Autobahn). They would be there to ensure that snowfall need not keep anyone from meeting their schedule. It would be Teutonic focus at its finest. At least that was what I hoped was going to happen.
Tunnel Visions – The Gathering Storm
The drive across eastern and central Hungary was blissfully boring. Traffic was light, even around Budapest. It only began to pick up as we neared the Austrian border. There was also a noticeable change in the weather. The wind, which had been blowing forcefully at times, suddenly grew ferocious. Our little compact Suzuki Splash was whipped about within its lane. The roof antenna rattled, then began to bang on the rooftop. After awhile we grew used to this, unlike those times when the strengthening gusts nearly blew us out of our lane and into another one. When we stopped to fuel up and purchase our toll vignette for Austria at the last Hungarian highway rest station, I had trouble standing in place while pumping the petrol. On the horizon I could see the blades of Austrian wind turbines rapidly turning. There was a serious gale in progress which likely meant a storm was brewing somewhere beyond the horizon.
After crossing over into Austria the weather worsened. The wind continued to howl, then suddenly became visible in the form of a ghostly white mist. It would vanish and re-materialize in a matter of seconds. The mist threw a thin veil over the not so distant horizon. As we attempted to make our way around and beyond Vienna, the hills of lower Austria became increasingly obscured. I tried to act nonchalant about the deterioration in weather conditions. I chattered nervously aloud, stating that the hillsides could still be seen. I was just trying to make myself feel better about being foolish enough to drive all day in bad weather. You know the situation is getting out of hand when entering a tunnel brings instantaneous relief. I began to imagine how nice it would be if the entire A1 Motorway to Linz went through a tunnel.
Less Than Appetizing – Food Fairy Tales
My attempts at creating a false sense of security were soon defeated by a barrage of snow pellets striking the windshield. This was followed by snow showers interspersed with drizzle that limited visibility to less than a hundred meters. Amazingly, none of the precipitation seemed to be sticking on the roadway. I began to wonder if the Austrians had created some sort of magical system to melt snowfall along hundreds of kilometers of roadway. I did not trust the lack of snow buildup on the road. I took to the slow lane while all the other cars roared past. Trying to keep up with the flow of traffic was difficult. I noticed that I was going as fast in the slow lane as I had gone in the fast lane in Hungary. The speed limit had increased in Austria to 140 kilometers per hour (kph). Many motorists were availing themselves of the opportunity to push their speed to the limit. One wrong move and there would have been a colossal accident.
Austrian motorists did not seem worried, if anything they had become energized. This winter road race fit perfectly with the Austrian mentality, a nation of perfectionists with no room for error. The A4 was built for speed and efficient transport. No need to let a 40 kph wind with snow detain anyone. The entire time my wife kept telling me to keep an eye out for a Rosenberger or Landzeit. I soon learned that these were an Austrian roadside restaurant and hotel chain that she talked about in terms of a traveler’s salvation. I did not quite take her seriously since her description sounded more like a food fairy tale than the truck stop grub Americans suffered along forlorn freeways. It sounded a little bit too wonderful. This too good to be true left a less than appetizing taste in my mouth.
Roadside Attractions – The Guilt Trip
I wanted to make Cesky Krumlov by nightfall. That goal was beginning to look less than attainable as the weather slowed our travel time. We passed a Landzeit, but I did not care to stop. I argued that conditions were much too dangerous for such a frivolous delay. Then, after being subjected to a guilt trip the likes of which made our perilous journey seem pleasurable, I was pulling off an exit for a late lunch at Landzeit. This may not have been the safest decision, but it would turn out to be a fantastic one.