I’ve travelled Route 66 enough to be conscious of how towns and villages are at the mercy of those with planning power. A new highway, a new motorway, a change in public policy can be the death of a place. No doubt those who argue in favour of the change cite progress, the public good, and greater benefits as they justify their plans and decisions. Route 66, with its ghost towns, deserted gas stations, and ramshackle restaurants and bars, oozes nostalgia. People still drive the road daily. They still photograph its faded glory. They still support the occasional tourist spot or truck stop that has fought the odds and stayed open to feed their visitors.
The 420 unfinished housing estates dotting Ireland are a different story. These interrupted solutions to Ireland’s pre-crash housing issues haven’t a nuance of nostalgia. They don’t attract tourists or feature regularly in travel magazines. Today, they’re more likely to offer a public safety hazard than a photo opportunity. Writing for the Irish Times a couple of years ago, Simon Carswell described them as
an unofficial memorial to over-development, reckless lending and the failure of government policy to protect its people in a time of excess.
Strangely, neither affected me in quite the same way as the Goričan-Letenye border crossing between Croatia and Hungary. And no, not the main one on the highway, Letenye–Goričan II, but the older one, a few kilometres away, Letenye–Goričan I. From what I read, it’s only a temporary closure – between March and July this year – because of work being done on a bridge over the River Mura. And yet I find it hard to believe. With the exception of Club 114, everything looks deserted. The post office, the gas station, the motel, the tourist information centre, the currency exchange kiosk, the bank – all skeletons of their former selves.
From what I gather from the Letenye town website, the motorway crossing opened in 2008. It doesn’t require a huge stretch of my imagination to see this as the death knell for the old crossing. With most of the traffic using the A3 motorway from Zagreb which morphs into the M7 motorway to Budapest, the need for the original crossing waned. I’d imagine that when it is in operation, it’s used mainly by local traffic from the neighbouring Zala County (HU), Međimurje County (CR), and Varaždin County (CR) and at times has been limited to residents of these counties only.
Google’s satellite image shows the now empty bus parking lots. The aerial view says that some thought went into the planning but when it outlived its usefulness, that was that. We had come off the road to eat at the well-reviewed lakeside Zelengaj restaurant but it was closed for a wedding. Club 114 was our nearest option. It looked closed, too, but not for a wedding. The menu was extensive, testament to the variety of palates that once supped at its tables but as our selections were met with the Croatian equivalent of sorry, not available today, it seemed that the selection had shrunk. We both ordered Wienerschnitzel and the two lads who came in after us got the same. It’s been a while since I’ve seen as good a synopsis.
We sat outside, taking advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been having. It was like eating dinner in a ghost town. All we needed was the tumbleweed. Inside, two long tables were set as if for a wedding. And from the fussing the couple were doing with positioning the cutlery, it seemed as if guests were expected at any moment. It all added to the surrealness. Time seemed to have taken on new meaning.
We’d gone to Zagreb to drop off some friends as they made their way back to Australia, the long way around. The 24 hours we’d been away felt like a week. Our last supper in Croatia was as strange a one as I’ve had in while. Facing a border we couldn’t cross, we made our way back to the motorway and did as everyone else was doing: we got in line and waited. Hungary is in the Schengen. Croatia isn’t. Hence the delay. We got lucky. Even with just one lane open, it took little more than half an hour to cross. Friends travelling back from Serbia the same day had to make do with a 3-hour hold-up. It’s not high season yet. That’s when the fun really starts.
While I’m a great proponent of personal space, I have mixed feelings about borders. I like the sense of travelling between countries. I like to see the lines I cross. But I don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with it. It saddens me to see how much of rural life survives at the behest of planners and their ilk who have the greater good in mind when they make their decisions. The voice of the many is louder than the voice of the few. From the billboards and posters still in place, someone once had great plans for the area, plans which seem to have largely come to nothing. Although maybe I’m going it an injustice and perhaps Goričan warrants further exploration.
Make no mistake, I like the convenience offered by motorways if I’m on a fast track from A to B. But I also value the back roads, the old highways, the Route 66 equivalents that run across this region. I don’t want to see them die a slow death, starved of sustenance. Just as I will pay more for my washing-up liquid in the village shop because I want to keep the option of being able to shop there, every now and then I’ll take the low road, the back road, and spend my money at places like Club 114 – we might have been half the business they had that day and they won’t get rich from what we left on the table, but if that wedding table was set more in hope than in reality, I like to think that I contributed, just a little, to keeping the dream alive for another day.
This week, I’m grateful for the reminder that there is always a consequence.