“WE SHOULD see more of Europe . . . ” This was how the whole thing came about — it was a throwaway comment that was meant to balance our frequent North American trips. Six weeks later, myself, my Canadian wife Stacey and two children Parker, 13, and Jackson, 9, were easing out of our farm in the Cotswolds bound for Istanbul — and back — by car. Suddenly I was in the footsteps of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor — except I was in a 4×4 with my family.
We had given ourselves three weeks to do the trip and I’d sketched out a rough schedule that would involve a maximum of six hours’ driving a day with a two-night stopover in a city every three or four nights to unwind and do laundry.
Our vehicle of choice was a Land Rover Discovery SDV6 HSE Luxury. There was no way I was going to do this trip in any form of people carrier — that would be just too naff. A car such as a Bentley or an old Mercedes would have been great — were it not for those pesky kids. So the Discovery was perfect: rugged enough to survive Balkan roads but luxurious enough to allow the children to watch an entire TV box set of How I Met Your Mother (160 episodes), while Stacey and I listened to audio books (Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad) up front.
We’d packed pretty heavy, including four comfy pillows for when we encountered European torture bolsters. We’d also brought our trump card — a three-wheeled push-scooter for Jackson so that he’d actually enjoy sightseeing in the cities we visited instead of the usual harrumphing sulkily about the place. This was a stroke of genius and pretty much made the holiday for us. We also had plenty of room left in the boot to fill with our anticipated pillage of European markets and bazaars.
We drove to Harwich in Essex to catch the Stena Line ferry over to the Hook of Holland. This allowed us to sleep overnight and arrive in Holland the next morning ready to hit Amsterdam. I do TV ads for Stena Line and so there were some curious looks from travellers who saw me aboard — a bit like people spotting Lenny Henry in a Premier Inn, except maybe a little less creepy.
I do TV ads for Stena Line and so there were some curious looks from travellers who saw me aboard — a bit like people spotting Lenny Henry in a Premier Inn, except maybe a little less creepy.
We joined the rush-hour traffic into Amsterdam and I realised with surprise that I might have come across a nation of drivers even more impatient than us Brits. In fact I’d go so far as to say that when unhitched from their caravans the Dutch may well be the world’s worst.
We cruised canals and viewed Van Goghs before heading off the next day on a five-hour drive to Berlin. I was looking forward to putting my foot down on those famous autobahns with no speed limits. Sadly it turned out that this was a myth. We were stopped twice by police and given roadside warnings before I finally accepted that there were speed limits. Our Land Rover did get some admiring looks from the almost universal traffic of BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. It was almost as though it was illegal to drive non-Teutonic vehicles in Germany, although curiously we saw almost no Volkswagens.
In Berlin I drank vats of beer and went on a phenomenally dull open-top bus tour of the city. Stacey loves these things — it’s the Canadian in her — but the kids and I just wanted to get off and get a currywurst. Unfortunately we couldn’t hang about to do the David Bowie tour (much more up my strasse) or the “Trabi safari” — driving around the city in a rented old Trabant, the former East German vehicle of choice — as we had to be in Prague for lunch.
I was a diplomat in Prague back in the early Nineties. When I’d first driven from there to Berlin I vividly remember the eternal lines of lorries queuing at the border whose drivers were serviced by a gaggle of entrepreneurial prostitutes. There was no sign of the highway hookers this time and we made it to Prague in just over three hours.
To my delight there was still the odd ancient Skoda scuttling round the cobbled city. Back in 1991 I drove my white VW Golf GTI cabriolet there from London. This meant that not only did I have the first convertible in the city but I was also the only wide boy in the former Czechoslovakia.
The following day we drove from Prague to Vienna. This should have taken three hours but the moment we crossed into Austria everyone turned into Count Von Snail and started driving at 40mph. It was really weird, though preferable to driving in Holland.
I’d given us two nights in Vienna and we fell in love with the city. We consumed our bodyweight in cakes and goulash and visited museums and the stunning Spanish Riding School, the 440-year-old equestrian academy. We were not the only ones who loved the Austrian capital. It turned out that our passports had rather fallen for it too as they remained behind in the city as we drove the two hours to Budapest.
I was quoted extortionate sums for an Austrian taxi to bring the documents to us in Hungary but was saved by our brilliant hotel concierge. He told us to go and enjoy the hot baths at Szechenyi and he would arrange a car for half the price. I rather suspect that it was he who made the drive, but no matter — the passports were waiting for us the next morning.
Everyone was still in good spirits as we set off towards Belgrade, the Serbian capital. This leg was supposed to take about 4½ hours. We knew that we were in an older Europe when people started to fill the car up for us at petrol stations. I was nervous of driving into Belgrade with a British vehicle. After all, we’d been bombing the city as part of Nato back in 1999. I shouldn’t have worried. The Serbs, although frightening-looking, were incredibly friendly. Belgrade was a bit raggedy round the edges and I totally loved it. Minarets vied with domes for control of the skyline — we were now in the Balkans good and proper.
The drive from Belgrade to Sofia in Bulgaria was a good 5½ hours and we nearly didn’t make it. The scenery was stunning and I was too busy admiring it to notice the Serbian policeman waving his gun at us and demanding we stop. I roared past him and he jumped into his car to pursue us. I made an executive decision and raced for the border two miles away. We made it into no man’s land as he screeched up to the barrier. We gave him a wave while pointing at something else to distract the kids.
I’d been told that Bulgaria was incredibly ugly. This was so untrue — we loved the capital Sofia and visited its Museum of Socialist Art, a surreal garden full of unwanted communist-era statues. By now the sheer number of dead insects on the front of the car was in the thousands but we refused the offer of a wash: we were travellers and had earned this look — there was no way we were going to turn up in Istanbul with a clean car.
Then it was a six-hour drive to Turkey’s largest city, despite the sat nav refusing to acknowledge the existence of the place. I tried Constantinople and Byzantium in case it was a political issue but it was having none of it. We spent three nights in a Turkish jail. Luckily, it was a former prison — the gorgeous Four Seasons Sultanahmet hotel. We wallowed in luxury, and shopped and tramped all over the magical city, just voted the world’s No 1 tourist destination.
Then it was a six-hour drive to Turkey’s largest city, despite the sat nav refusing to acknowledge the existence of the place. I tried Constantinople and Byzantium in case it was a political issue but it was having none of it.
Then it was home or bust. We made a six-hour drive across into Greece to Thessaloniki for the night. The next day we detoured to visit the ridiculously beautiful area of Meteora in northern Greece where monasteries perch on tall thin columns of rock. This was the eighth wonder of the world in our opinion.
Later that evening we reached Igoumenitsa, a port town close to the Albanian-Greek border where we caught a ferry to Venice. It was odd seeing Corfu, all built up on one side, opposite the vast emptiness of the Albanian coast on the other. Two worlds collide.
Venice did not disappoint. We parked at the relatively cheap multistorey car park at Marco Polo airport and entered the city as one should: up the Grand Canal in a water taxi. The kids were speechless. We spent two nights on Giudecca, the island opposite St Mark’s Square, in an Andrea Palladio-designed place — heaven.
Next came a five-hour drive to Geneva. Once again the sat nav rebelled and refused to acknowledge the existence of Switzerland. I went old-school and used a proper map to guide us down to Lake Geneva where we stayed overnight at one of my favourite hotels. With everything closed for Good Friday we embarked on a mammoth 10-hour drive to the Hook of Holland and our boat home. It shouldn’t have taken that long but Luxembourg had ground to a halt with construction traffic and we made the ferry with an über-stressful 12 minutes to spare.
It had been three weeks, 4,076 miles, 14 countries and an utter blast. Everyone had told us that we were crazy, that the kids would hate it and that we would get divorced. They were wrong. It was the best family experience we’ve had. We bought great art, exotic furnishings and most importantly logged memories to last a lifetime. We’re already planning our next one. We want to do Hammerfest in Norway to Ouarzazate in Morocco. Sahara or bust, here we come.
Thanks to Stena Line, Radisson Blu (Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Sofia), the Four Seasons Sultanahmet (Istanbul), the Mandarin Oriental (Geneva) and Land Rover UK
Radisson Blu Hotel, Berlin; firstname.lastname@example.org; radissonblu.com/hotel-berlin. Rates from €116
Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, Budapest; email@example.com; radissonblu.com/hotel-budapest. Rates from €70
Radisson Blu Alcron, Prague; firstname.lastname@example.org; radissonblu.com/hotel-prague. Rates from €159
Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna; email@example.com; radissonblu.com/stylehotel-vienna. Rates from €165
Radisson Blu Grand Hotel, Sofia; firstname.lastname@example.org; radissonblu.com/hotel-sofia. Rates from €135
Mandarin Oriental, Geneva; mandarinoriental.com/geneva/
Rates from £357 per night on a B&B basis