Istanbul Nearly

A succession of fundamental errors means we don’t make it to Istanbul.

But we do prove that a round trip from the UK to Turkey’s European capital is well within reach of the annual fortnight. All you need is a shed load of money*.

Click for the route.

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Traffic lights on Slivnitsa Boulevard

Istanbul: nearly. From Slivnitsa Boulevard, Sofia.

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Dover. Lunchtime. Late spring.

Monday morning. Dover. Late spring.

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Lolling around in bed instead of getting up at the crack of dawn costs us dearly: £80 one-way DFDS Dover-Dunkirk, a fog delay and breakfast in Burger King. We also hit the Brussels ring road at rush hour.

However, there is a river view room left at the Crowne Plaza in Maastricht. After a few beers in Vrijthof we fire up the Aferry app and spend £446.79 on the Minoan Lines boat from Italy to Greece.

London-Maastricht, 307 miles.

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It rained when we were on holiday

It rained when we were on holiday.

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The torrential rain does a cracking job of cleaning the windscreen. Otherwise this is a straightforward drive down through Germany – over the Westerwald, past Frankfurt – then onto the A5 for the final run to the Black Forest.

Baden Baden Tourist Info books us into the Atlantic Parkhotel. It’s pricey, German clean, has great views of the surrounding wooded hills and a restaurant terrace next to the tinkling River Oos.

Maastricht-Baden Baden, 285 miles. Total 592 miles.

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Lucerne:

Lake Lucerne from the A2.

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‘Paradise for curve geeks’. It’s too easy to get carried away on the racetrack roads of the winding ‘Schwarzwaldweinstraβe’ (Black Forest Wine Roads). After three hours we’re fifteen miles, as the crow flies, from where we started.

Rather than carrying on cross-country to Bregenz, Austria – on the list ever since Quantum of Solace – we head to Italy via Switzerland.. It means spending €33 on a vignette we won’t use again this year and, because all the mountain passes are closed, a 90 minute queue at the Gotthard Tunnel.

The all-downhill A2 after the tunnel is spectacular even in the dark. Arriving in lakeside Lugano we find that our old favourite, the fine old Hotel Continental, is at the tail end of a budget makeover. But the views are spectacular as ever.

Baden Baden-Lugano, 334 miles. Total 926 miles.

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skdjhskdgjhghhg  hghghgh

Passo della Futa, SS65 between Bologna and Florence with Raticosa straight after. Lamborghini and Ducati test their latest machinery up here.

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Long queues – again – at the Italian border. What’s happening to the Schengen Zone? Gridlock around Milan too, but that’s normal.

After 180 miles, by mid-afternoon we’re in Bologna ready to drive the legendary SS65 Futa and Raticosa Passes. Wow!

Possibly even better is SS85. It’s not the Road of the Seven Bridges we were aiming for but it twists and turns up the side of the heavily wooded Monte Secchieta, past the ancient front door of the Abbey of Vallombrosa, with panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside and a delicious backdrop of fresh pine.

It’s dark by the time we roll into Arezzo. Hotel Continentale is nothing special apart from the roof terrace looking out over the old town.

Lugano-Arezzo, 331 miles. Total 1,257 miles.

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Potholes and peaks

Via Tiburina.

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An early morning dash on a mix of roads, all deserted, in carefree, open windowed anticipation of our upcoming overnight cruise down the Adriatic to Greece. La-la la la-la!

It’s not until we check in for the once-every-two-days ferry we realise the passports are still in Arezzo.

Happily they change the booking without charge and there’s a boat the next day because it’s Saturday.

We drive back along the coastal A14 past San Marino then go left back to Arezzo on Via Tiburina.

Arezzo-Ancona-Arezzo-Ancona, 417 miles. Total 1,674 miles.

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certain death

Are we really allowed to stand here?

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It’s amazing to stand right on the quayside as the ship reverses onto the berth, certain death if anything goes wrong.

On board it’s harder to loosen up than expected bearing in mind there’s nothing else to do for the next eighteen hours but drink. Pathetic though it sounds we’re worried about the road signs in Greece..

The boat is slick and clean. Sitting on deck in the early morning, with the misty mountains of Albania slipping by on one side and the craggy, isolated beaches of Corfu on the other, is an encouraging start to the day.

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Igoumenitsa, with xx snaking up the xxmountgains behind

Igoumenitsa, with the Ignatia Highway snaking up into the Pindus mountains.

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Everything you read says Istanbul is six hours drive from Igoumenitsa. Actually it’s more like nine, plus negotiating the Turkish border. Still, that’s doable in the entire day you have after leaving the ferry.

We’re really on the hook because it’s Sunday morning and we don’t have to be home until Friday.. We could still make it to Istanbul. It’s hard to say whether we chicken out or decide to be sensible. Either way, it’s destination Thessaloniki instead.

It’s an enormous relief that the road signs are also in English. The landscape is monumental. Embarrassed to be speeding through at 130kph we detour on local roads around Mount Olympus.

Initially Thessaloniki is crushingly disappointing but the infectious energy of millions of people living on top of each other, ancient ruins in the back streets and a great dinner in the roof top restaurant of our €170-a-night five star Electra Palace hotel has me bursting into tears.

Igoumenitsa-Thessaloniki, 258 miles. Total 1,932 miles.

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Not to worry! Most of the road signs in Bulgaria are in English (Latin) too.

Not to worry! Most of the road signs in Bulgaria are in English (Latin) too.

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The drive north takes much longer than it ought because we elect for the rough scrubby back roads over the part-finished motorway.. But it’s not until the Bulgarian border that things start to go really wrong.

To sum up: we bust a tyre in a pothole – to be fair, the only pothole there is – then indulge in some low level corruption after getting caught speeding.

On the drive through Sofia we’re focusing on places that might sell tyres rather than fine old buildings.. It’s late afternoon by the time we find some. It’s tempting to stay the night but we really need to crack on so head north west towards Romania.

We’re fairly wide-eyed by the time we check into the hotel in Ruse, on the border, next to the Danube, well after 22:30. Honestly, it’s only thanks to the generosity of all the Bulgarians we meet, even those coppers, that we made it.

Thessaloniki-Ruse, 395 miles. Total 2,327 miles.

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'Kilomterul 0' Bucharest

‘Kilomterul 0’ Bucharest

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A drive through Bucharest and a trip up one of the world’s most famous mountain roads. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, we’re keenly aware now of the difference between the geographical centre of a city that the satnav takes you to as opposed to the actual/real centre of the city. We miss all of Ceausescu’s monstrous buildings. Transfagarasan, Top Gear/ Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite road, is shut (like it always is in May).

The drive across west Romania is spent permanently overtaking on single lane main roads because there aren’t many motorways yet.

But just the fact we’re in Romania means none of this is quite as frustrating as it might be. Every undulation of the landscape, every town and village, is a fresh feast for all the senses. We’re seeing this country as it actually is. We auto buy bottles of beer after finally finding a hotel in Timisoara, at midnight, but they stand half finished because nothing can beat the buzz of these incredible few days.

Ruse-Timisoara, 447 miles. Total 2,774 miles.

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Lovely Linz

Lovely Linz

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It’s amazing to us that seven hours after leaving Romania – there’s a one hour time difference – we’re in central Austria. Who knew it was that close?

On motorway virtually the whole way – via Szeged, Budapest and Vienna – it’s an easy drive too once we’re over the Hungarian border, and find somewhere to buy the vignette.

By early evening we’re drinking in Linz’s very fancy main square. Thanks to the Tourist Info we bagged the last hotel room in town.

Timisoara-Linz, 495 miles. Total 3,269 miles.

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Decadent Luxembourg:

Sightseeing from the bar of Sofitel Luxembourg.

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Cruise control has transformed long distance drives. No more heel ache, constantly checking the speedo, or an inevitably declining average speed as the day wears on. Wish we’d realised this years ago.

Thanks to that, even after driving round Luxembourg city centre for ages arguing about where to stay, we make it to the rooftop bar of the Sofitel early enough to grab a window seat.

The barman is a real star. Our first ever martinis take an hour to drink. By the third round we order custom cocktails and don’t remember paying the bill. Fortunately we can lie in and it’s only 370 miles back to London.

Linz-Luxembourg-London, 849 miles. Total 4,118 miles.

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* The trip costs just over £4k, but that includes lavish spending at every opportunity and two new front tyres. Aiming for comfort rather than luxury, and pre-booking, would cut the cost by a third easily; parsimony – camping out on deck on the boat to Greece, and everywhere else – by well over half. Fuel for our Audi A4 Avant 3.0TDi was approx. £550.

You can read about the trip in excruciating detail starting here. The Romanians who’ve read it liked their bit.

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