Could I drive to 12 countries in one day?
Ten cars I really like:
Alfa Romeo 4C
Nissan Patrol SWB
Mercedes SLS AMG E-Cell
Toyota MR2 Mk II
Jaguar Mk II
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I once drove from Lands End to John O'Groats in a car I bought for £50. It was for BBC Top Gear magazine and I made the cover with the story.
It was an old Hillman Avenger Estate. Most of it was orange but there was a grey door and a red bonnet.
There was a hole in the floor under the driver's feet that conveniently matched a hole in the exhaust underneath. The fumes were so bad I had to drive with all the windows open and leaning half out of the driver's door.
By the time I reached Walsall I was so ill from exhaust poisoning I collapsed at the services. An ambulance took me to the local hospital, while Top Gear's photographer helpfully took photos.
Eventually I recovered enough to complete the bizarre mission which was meant to show that, errr, you could drive a very cheap car along way.
I later did the same trip in a diesel Kangoo van as a publicity stunt for Renault.
Neither of these adventures compare with driving a Mini across ice lakes in Finland. I must remember to write about that and put it on this site soon....
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My world-record-breaking road marathon started in England. I had 24 hours to reach Croatia via France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Slovenia...
Was it possible?
Colonel Ray Pye’s eyes bulge with disbelief. The owner of Folkestone’s Harbourside Hotel has just asked what he always asks guests eating his full English breakfast. ‘Where are you going today?’
‘France,’ I reply. ‘Well, have a safe...’ he begins before I interrupt: ‘...and Belgium and Holland.’ The colonel looks mildly impressed. ‘Then through Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland.’ The colonel stares as if I am having some kind of fit. ‘Then into Austria via Liechtenstein,’ I continue. ‘Down into Italy. And finally Slovenia and Croatia by the end of the day.’ As I leave the restaurant and head upstairs to pack I’m sure he mutters: ‘Nutter’.
Nutter? I prefer to call it eccentric. Being eccentric is something we Brits have a right to be. It’s a privilege handed down through generations of consummate oddness - we’re good at it and we’re proud of it. And what could be more eccentric than trying to drive to 12 countries in 24 hours? But why? you might ask. Because you can. Because there is the school-boyish thrill of the chase; eating, drinking and sleeping on the move, can I do it in a day? And because BMW had leant me a spanking new 745 that is nicer to sit in than my house.
I start amid the Victorian terraces and lace curtains of Folkestone Harbour. After a 7am fry up with Colonel Pye I pack the essentials for travelling across a dozen nations - a handful of euros and my passport - and head down to say goodbye. Pye is waiting for me in the lobby. His look has changed. Struck down by a bad case of British eccentricity himself - Colonels are as English as they come, remember - he has decided that I am no longer a nutter but a pioneer. And he wants to help.
He is carrying the same silver service tray he used to serve the morning eggs and black pudding but now there is a map on it. It looks like something from a old school atlas with the British bits marked in pink. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he says, ‘I thought this might help.’ He has carefully drawn a route for my 12-country drive in green biro. It goes all the way to Athens because, in the colonel’s book, Yugoslavia is still one country and Liechtenstein isn’t marked. ‘Thank you very much, that could be useful,’ I mutter on the way out.
Befuddled by too many cups of the colonel’s strong English tea, I finally leave the UK at 9.50am. Within an hour I have
enjoyed a speedy club class Eurotunnel crossing, traversed northern France and reached a standard blue Euro-sign announcing I am now ‘en Belgique’. Three countries notched up already and I haven’t even finished adjusting the driver’s seat. Forget the backpacker’s view of travel that dominates guide books, this, I assured myself, is the gritty reality of modern travel.
I am taking a unique snapshot of Europe’s biggest countries in the 21st century. For starters, a brief coffee stop at motorway services near Ghent shows I won’t need 12 different languages. I guess correctly that cartons labelled "Coffee Boy" are UHT milk and when I pay a little old lady in a red-and-white nylon uniform she chuckles at my stumbling French. ‘I can speak the language you want,’ she assures me in perfect English.
As this is a pure journey, undiluted by time-wasting sightseeing, or indeed any conventional ‘tourist’ experiences, I stop as soon as I get to a ‘Welcome to the Netherlands’ sign. There is no time for windmills, tulips or Gouda. I tick off Holland and do a U-turn on a huge patch of tarmac, which turns out to be the world’s widest cycle lane. As I head south it soon becomes clear how relentlessly flat and featureless the top left-hand corner of Europe is. The first hill comes in to view after 163.7 miles. Provinces and countries merge into one endless field that lasts for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. Is there really a difference between France, Belgium and Holland?
Not until the A26 motorway through the Ardennes does Europe’s scenery liven up. Here there are ancient woods and rolling hills, views tempting me to turn off and explore. Instead, I stay on the motorway through southern Belgium and discover Arlon Services, where a smart three-star hotel forms a motorway bridge, its Art Deco restaurant giving diners a street-light’s view of juggernauts thundering by a few feet below.
By lunchtime I am passing through nation number five. Photographer and co-driver Adrian Sherratt is sulking because I have sped past the Luxembourg sign without noticing. There is nothing Luxembourgish - do we have to say Luxembourgois? - for him to photograph. The tense silence is broken when both our mobile phones bee-beeeep simultaneously with an automatic text message in English welcoming us ‘to the first Luxembourg chocolate festival.’
This wealthy little Euro-Trumpton prides itself on total immersion in the new Europe. At a petrol station a sign tells customers ‘11 languages are spoken’. This surely is the future or Europe. Or may be not. Queuing at the cash desk, a tubby lorry driver in slippers asks if I want him to translate. ‘Me speak English but me a Belgium man,’ he said pointing to his expanding waistline as if it is proof that he is from the land of moules, frites and biere blonde.
At 2.43pm, at a service station just outside Metz in France there is a huge leather seat providing a six-minute ‘automatic electronic massage’ for two Euros. Two Italian businessmen in suits giggle like schoolboys, nudging each other to have a go. A sign in English claims: ‘It will release your tiredness.’
Out on the road again that initial burst of pioneering spirit is wilting. I start to get annoyed by the hectoring French motorway signs shouting: ‘Speed or life?, ‘How are your tyres?, ‘Sleep or drive’ and ‘Less speed, more distance’. It is already dark when I drive over the Rhine into Germany. A man wearing what appears to be a London traffic warden’s uniform
waves cars through. On the other side, German traffic immediately seems to be faster moving but better behaved, racing past at over 100mph but keeping a safe distance. I spot a German ‘Men at work’ sign which features a stylised pin man who seems to be working a lot harder than the more elegantly drawn figure over the French border.
Entering Switzerland at Basle is anything but cuckoo-clock friendly. A soldier with an automatic gun but an oddly feminine purple beret holds out his hand and, as if in a Second World War film, demands: "Papers?" Monsieur Raspberry Beret directs me to a kiosk to buy a Swiss motorway pass. Inside I ask a bespectacled official what the pass is for. He suddenly gets mysteriously cross. ‘Do you want to use our highways? Well you have to pay!’ he bellows. ‘But if you want to walk to our castles instead it will take you 12 hours without using the highways. Ha Ha!"
On the choked A3 to Zurich I stop for petrol at Movenpick services and talk to the first non-English speaker of the trip a middle-aged woman cashier who replies to all my questions by repeating the word: ‘Here’. Useless, but strangely reassuring. Above the pumps is another innovative motorway bridge this time containing shops greetings cards made from chocolate, gruesome hunting knives and jewellery costing £10,000 a piece.
Eating take-away pots of pasta on my knee I drive on through the darkness to Liechtenstein, a country so small I keep losing it on the map. We drive through Vaduz, looking for something to photograph. It seems like we are trespassing in a private housing estate. We’re almost nodding off by the time we reach the Liechtenstein/Austrian border, an impressive Doctor Zhivago-type scene with guns, spotlights, barriers and soldiers in furry hats stamping frozen feet. Men with guns point at us. Suddenly it all becomes a bit serious...
It has gone midnight and time for a can of Swiss K-fee Turbo cold coffee and a progress check. We have clocked up nine countries and 650 miles. Only three to go, but at least as many miles, on lesser roads and with increasingly tired drivers. It is going to be close.
After the church towers and castle ramparts of Feldkirch, Austria turns into another motorway marathon. In the drizzle it seems go forever. I sleep in the passenger seat while Adrian drives but I wake at midnight in the Arlberg tunnel that runs for miles under the Alps. After another stroboscopic drive under the lights of the Brenner tunnel, we emerge into Italy in a blizzard and swap seats.
At a lonely motorway toll booth in the Dolomites I pull up quickly to find a man and woman cashier squeezed into the same booth. She looks flustered while he quickly struggles back to his own booth with a big smile. Adrian wakes up: ‘This must be Italy,’ he mutters and goes back to sleep.
We pass the 1,000 mile mark at 3.35am. Carriageways are already filling with lorries slowing our progress. Time is racing by faster than the flat Venezia countryside and for the first time I think we might miss our 24-hour deadline. We are simply running out of time. At a service station before Trieste a five-language sign in the car park warns: "Attention! Distrust abusive retailers of various articles.’ By now Adrian and I are too exhausted to laugh.
We make endless circuits of Trieste, hopelessly lost. The sat-nav DVD doesn’t go this far east and our previously fool-proof dashboard map and arrow now show us positioned in the Adriatic Sea a few miles offshore.
It is almost five in the morning when we reach the Slovenian border. Perhaps it was the way we mumbled or the sight of two weary travellers driving a vehicle normally reserved for the pampered few, but the border guard, who looks like Dennis Hopper, singles us out for special attention.
‘You haven’t got the special permit for photographic equipment,’ he says, with a theatrical frown. We park and wait until he swaggers over and wastes more time pouting and saying: ‘This is a major problem. What are we going to do?’ Was he waiting for a bribe? Time was ticking away. Was the marathon going to end here, on a scruffy tarmac patch round the back of a lonely customs hut in the Balkans. I have to do something. I take a deep breath and march up to the puffed up guard who is trying to avoid eye contact. ‘We’re working for The Times of London,’ I blurt out, which, in truth, we both sometimes do. ‘Have you heard of it?’ I smile.
It does the trick. He looks back to the shed where his boss is presumably lurking. He's thinking: 'This could mean big trouble for me.' We are suddenly waved through into Slovenia.
Thankfully, the distance to the Croatian border is short. I just have time to note that in Slovenia the ‘Watch out for children’ sign has a girl with sweet carefully drawn pigtails before we reach the next, last border. And so, just after 5.30am, a young Croatian border guard reaches for our passports and, like Colonel Pye almost 20 hours earlier, asks his routine question: ‘Where have you come from today, Sir?’ I had the greatest pleasure telling him… but I don’t think he believed me.
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