Trieste, Italy, Sunday evening.
What a place to relish a panoramic sunset: with the old harbor acting as a sublime sandstone stage for two time travelers and their raven black chariot, this easternmost Italian seaport blends the perfectly preserved Austro-Hungarian grandezza with a slight layer of decadence that lingers wherever new capitalist and old communist Europe meet.
Behind us, lit brightly by the rapidly descending sun, the picture-postcard city center unfolds. It boasts such famous sights as the majestic former headquarters of Austrian Lloyd Trieste and old-money palaces that flank the opulent town hall on Piazza Grande. Over the time-honored skyline hover pockets of perfumed air that have escaped from the nearby Illy coffee and Stock Spirits factories, but down by the water, the cool air carries only the salty scent of the sea. We dive into a quayside pizza joint to fortify our bodies with pasta and Pellegrino for the 2250 miles that lie ahead of us.
The Volkswagen Tiguan seems like the perfect four-wheeled horse for our trek to the not-so-wild East. It offers a commanding view, a chassis tough enough to laugh at the few remaining Cold War potholes, a comfy leather-clad cabin, four-wheel drive (just in case), and a turbocharged, 200-hp engine that would surely be more than adequate to beat the pan-continental 130-km (81-mph) speed limit.
By and large, the Rabbit-based crossover does a competent job. But there is still room for improvement. The 235/55HR-17 all-season tires, for instance, deliver grip, traction, and roadholding, but not a plush ride. The 2.0-liter four, in combination with the six-speed automatic and 4Motion four-wheel drive, is neither very refined nor particularly economical. And the standard equipment on our midrange SE version lacks automatic air-conditioning, rain-sensing wipers, and xenon headlamps. All these goodies, plus power-operated leather seats, a top-notch navigation system, and a better sound system, are standard on the Tiguan SEL 4Motion, which lists at $33,630 - $4065 more than our SE 4Motion model.
Opatija, Croatia, Monday morning.
The first border crossing of the trip is unexpectedly painless: flash passports, exchange smiles, wave good-bye, and off we go. Opatija, almost unchanged for decades, still presents itself as a Golden Twenties seaside resort. Most of the olde-worlde villas are painted in a kaleidoscope of pastel colors, the estimated median age of the omnipresent bus tourist is seventy-five years old, and the holidaymakers' favorite pastime is plugging the emptiness between meals with tall iced coffees and even taller cream cakes.
But the true attraction of the Dalmatian coast is the softly rolling sea - translucent in all shades of blue, surprisingly unpolluted, and in many places quite challenging to access because of steep cliffs. Those with time on their hands likely would sail for the day to one of the beautiful nearby islands, like Krk or Rab, but we saddled our steed and exchanged money to pay the autoput tolls.
Ljubljana, Slovenia, Monday afternoon.
Until 1991, Slovenia, like Croatia, formed part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After the cruel civil war, however, the country was subdivided into seven independent nations. Of the seven, western-oriented Slovenia is the most prosperous. Yugoslavia was once home to the widely ridiculed Yugo, but these days, the former comrades are proudly assembling such up-to-date products as the new Renault Twingo, and Fiat has just signed a cooperation deal with the city of Kragujevac, Serbia, home of Zastava Automobili. With a bit of luck, Europe's answer to the Tata Nano soon will be sourced from a country that used to be famous primarily for slivovitz plum brandy, smuggled tax-free cigarettes, and generations of ace soccer players.
We would have loved to take the long route north via Klagenfurt, Austria, and follow the Sava River to the Triglavski Narodni National Park, but the timepiece dangling from the rearview mirror prompted us to take a shortcut via Maribor, followed by a direct route on the nationalstrasse to Hungary. Although the wooded, rolling hills that are so typical of the Slovenian countryside attract plenty of hikers and bikers, it's worth remembering that a handful of Carpathian bears still roam the thinly populated higher elevations, where the navigation system drew a big, monochromatic blank.