We cannot complain about our driving adventures in 2012, even if they didn’t always go to plan…
‘Balkan Holiday’, Ardennes, Belgium
After a baking hot couple of days in Maastricht by the time we head south, north west Europe is wreathed in thickest fog. Nutty locals rush headlong while we hang on to tail lights, hoping for some warning if there’s a smash. Daredevil driving is second nature round here, just a few miles from Spa Francorchamps, the Belgian Grand Prix road race track. By Luxembourg it’s cleared up nicely: diesel costs 98p per litre.
Basel on a bad day. Late afternoon, oppressive, muggy heat and a pre-season building programme sees us press on to Lucerne. Not a good idea on day three of the World Rowing Championships. The only room in town is a €560 junior suite at the Schweizerhof. So a night in the car, our first ever, albeit a few feet from the edge of the lake. Our Audi A4 Avant, on its maiden voyage, is proving itself already. You can’t sleep in a 911.
Which pic to chose after an amazing day spent mainly around 7,000 ft? From Andermatt in south central Switzerland we could take the Furka or Gotthardpass but opt for the Oberalppass (6,706ft) east. The rain, fog, ice and snow at the summit, with barriers down for mending, is terrifying. It leads to the Julier Pass (7,493ft) after which we first hit bucolic pastures then St Moritz, dropping down into Italy by Bernina (7,638ft, above).
Trieste has a firm grip on our imaginations. Once at one end of the Iron Curtain, still a bridge between east and west Europe, it hasn’t lost its mysterious frontier glamour. Is it Italian or Austrian? Or Slovenian? Emboldened by an idyllic, relaxing drive past Venice, along the top of the Adriatic in late Spring sun, we rock up at the grand Savoia Excelsior Palace and attempt a sauntering, James Bond-style check-in. They make us pay in advance.
Despite some of the best mountain roads and motorways in Europe, we never get to grips with Croatia. The men are aggressive and rude. The (minimum) three night stay at the Le Meridien Lav hotel costs £768. There are stunning sunsets over Split, the German-built resort is futuristic film-set perfect but the food was naff and the place overrun with child-of-oligarch boisterous Russian youths. The porter asked for a bigger tip.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Crossing the Bosnian border was the moment DriveEurope earned its travel spurs proper. We talked our way across, it’s the only way, tackling Europe’s saddest country with third party only insurance and a massive excess. Thank God the Hotel Bosnia in Sarajevo has secure parking. Bosnia is a lush, beautiful country, Switzerland and the Highlands combined. Having finally cottoned on to the horrific details of its recent history, our drive through the grim eastern part of the country is unforgettable in every sense.
We’re in the centre of Belgrade, a maze of one way streets and heavy traffic. Even holding the map next to the street signs is no use. We absolutely cannot make head or tail of the Cyrillic alphabet. Google Maps saves the day. After an illegal u-turn in front of gun toting police, eventually we make it to the genteel Hotel Moskva, overlooking the main drag. Breakfast is hundreds of tiny, ornate cream cakes. The only English we see the entire time is a hand-scripted ‘A Momento’ written inside the hotel brochure left in our room.
Why didn’t we know about Bratislava? We had a much better time in the Slovakian capital than we ever have in nearby, boring old Vienna (no offence). We‘re so glad we didn‘t stop in Budapest. Overlooked by the beautifully restored castle and a Jetsons-style restaurant on top of a bridge, the crumbling Commie and Austro-Hungarian grandeur and cobbled back streets with cosy subterranean bars – not to mention the immense ice hockey stadium where it costs €7 to watch a world class match – goes on and on and on.
599 miles of cross continental motoring, via (not quite) the centre of Prague, saw us unctuously grateful for a room at the Best Western in Siegen, 60 miles east of Cologne. The latter half of the trip, from Dresden, was edge-of-the-seat in ceaseless rain, ‘bahnstormers pounding past clearly oblivious to the often extreme conditions. It put us 450 miles from home after nearly 3,000 miles and 14 countries in 12 days, a respectable average of 284 miles per day.
Expectations were huge for our two week September trip, tentatively titled Atlantic Coast (Spain & Portugal). We start in Amsterdam because, well, we can but are struck down by illness on the way. We pass a day in the fine Hotel de Doelen but it’s clear this trip is terminal (even if the patient goes on to make a full recovery). With the dregs of holiday goodwill we conclude that – at least – it’s quick and easy to get home. The voyage from Den Haag is comfortable, sprawled on a black leather divan in the quite salubrious, Stena Britannica.
DriveEurope’s first solo driving trip to the Continent, to get the inside line on road tolls at a conference in Brussels. But we also take in the Christmas market in Bruges (and Ghent) on the way, and the brand new Louvre Museum out-post in Lens, northern France, on the way back. We haven’t decided where we’re going in 2013. We probably won’t know until we roll off the boat. But next year we are definitely taking the dog.