Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

Godollo is a place that I have always related with happiness. It is a prosperous small city, west of Budapest. The town is most famously known as being home to the Royal Palace of Godollo, the favorite residence of Hungary’s most beloved Queen, Elisabeth I. Otherwise known as Sissi, the palace is a must see for anyone spending time in and around the Hungarian capital. I always had a positive feeling about Godollo, as though nothing bad could ever happen there. It is one of those places whose reputation precedes it. To my mind, anyone going to visit Godollo, might expect the sun to always be shining when they get there.

My opinion of Godollo was frozen in the fin de siècle, that was up until the point that I went across a deceptively icy bridge on the M31 that slices through there. In a breathtaking few seconds I felt myself losing control of the car. As the wheels begin to slide, I was frozen in fear. What happened next was a minor miracle. We struck dry pavement in time for me to gain control. We had crossed the bridge and the wheels now gripped drier pavement. The loss of control and the regaining of it happened so suddenly, that it was not until after it was over that I realized just how lucky we had been to escape unscathed. One moment we were on the edge of disaster, the next we were cruising across the Great Hungarian Plain.

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

A Happy Place – Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter (Credit: EtelkaCsilla)

Travel As Near Tragedy – The Road To Mortality
The loss of control was a frightening reminder of how little control we really have over our lives. Control is not so much an illusion, as it is a delusion. I have always believed that we are the ultimate deciders of our fate. This is nothing more than an act of self-delusion. A ruse that allows me to make some sense out of the trajectory of my life. It is not until forces beyond my control intervene and push me towards the edge of disaster that I realize the road to mortality is paved with bad decisions, many of which I had made that morning and throughout the trip. A sheet of ice, an anonymous bridge, a twelve kilometer strip of pavement near Godollo, a lethal combination of these three components could have undone a week’s worth of adventure or forty-seven years of life for me and forty-five for my wife. Losing control and regaining it is a humbling feeling. I suddenly realized that I needed to be more careful, that the risk was not worth it and never will be. Moments like these, are the most important in travel. I want to forget them and know I never will.

Friends, family and casual acquaintances often think that my travels are filled with one fascinating discovery after another. The kind found in photo albums, with days spent amid world famous sites, breathtaking scenery and spectacular architecture. There is plenty of that to be sure. I am guilty of advertising this type of travel when I go back home with a phone full of photos. It is all so wonderful, but it never seems quite real for a reason. What my Eastern European travels have really been about are the same exact things that terrified me on that icy bridge, a loss of control, fear of the unknown and the taking of risk. I have crossed the icy bridge near Godollo countless times, sometimes with my wife in tow, sometimes alone. There is always the thrill of dodging death followed by the morose thought of what if. These experiences have taught me quite a bit, not about Hungary or the Czech Republic or Slovakia or wherever, but about myself. What I am capable of and what are my limits, what I can let go of and what I must hold onto for dear life.

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – Journey To The Other Side
The most memorable moment of this trip did not occur in the southern reaches of Bohemia or Moravia, it came while driving down the M31 on a gloomy winter morning. I survived that moment and learned a life lesson in the process about what it means to lose and regain control. The lesson was to always remain vigilant. Death awaits even in a positive place like Godollo. I should never have let my guard down because mortality is but a moment away. In the aftermath, I felt gratitude for having escaped with my life intact. Compared to that moment, the rest of the ride was uneventful. How can Hatvan or Gyongos compare to having your life flash before you? The answer is that they cannot compare.

I can barely remember anything about the rest of the drive eastward on the M3 and then the M35 to Debrecen. It was, as it has always been, a rather dull affair. The churned up, pitch black soil in the empty field was covered by dirty snow. This was some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, but no one would know that by how it looked on this day in the dead of winter. There were no traces of greenery or hints of the bounty which bursts forth in the springtime. This was a landscape waiting out the winter. The deeper into this land we drove, the more time seemed to slow. I was tired and shaken by what had happened earlier. Debrecen could not come soon enough. When it did, I pulled into my mother in laws driveway with a feeling of resignation. The journey home had been exhausting.

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

The Final Stretch – M35 Motorway in eastern Hungary (Credit: MrSilesian)

Upon Arrival – A Haunting Thought
The journey ended where it all began, in a housing estate on the edge of Debrecen. A light dusting of snow was on the ground, but there was no hint of the icy conditions that had plagued our travels throughout Transdanubia and continued to stalk us until we got clear of Budapest. The near whiteout conditions at Austerlitz that started this snowy odyssey seemed as though they had occurred months ago. My mother in law was sitting in the house awaiting our arrival, reading one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves in her living room.

She asked in broken English how the trip went. I said “wonderful”, then rattled off a few of the more notable places – Cesky Krumlov, Brno and Prachtice – we had visited. I asked, “Have you been?” even though I already knew the answer. A deeply cultured traveler, there are few places in Europe she has not been. Her reply was pleasant and brief, “Very nice places.” Of course, I did know one place she had probably never visited, an icy bridge near Godollo. I did not mention what had happened there just a few hours before. The thought of what might have been was haunting. Sometimes the most memorable travel moments are the ones we would rather keep to ourselves. In this case, I reserved the right to remain silent.

Stormy Weather – Debrecen To Cesky Krumlov (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part One)

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.

Difficult Driving - Less than desirable road conditions in Austria

Difficult Driving – Less than desirable road conditions in Austria

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.

Rumors of Greatness - Landzeit in Austria

Rumors of Greatness – Landzeit in Austria

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.

Click here for: From Fairy Tale To Austrian Reality – A Landzeit Love Story (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Two)