Dom Joly and his family continue their 2,000-mile adventure from the Cotswolds to Istanbul and back by Land Rover. We catch up with them as they journey from Budapest to their final destination, via Belgrade and Sofia… narrowly avoiding the law.
THE LAST time I wrote we were arriving in Budapest having left our passports in Vienna. This was our first big problem of the trip but the user-friendly concierge was eager to help. I’d been quoted a fee of €500 for a cab to be driven from Vienna to Budapest with our passports.
“The Austrians are robbers,” said our concierge. “I know a man who will do this for €200.” So we left him to it and went out to sample the delights of Budapest, including the wonderful public hot baths. The following morning, our passports were there but no sign of the concierge. I rather think he was the man who did the driving… Whatever, it was a Grand Hotel Budapest.
On we drove into Serbia and headed for Belgrade, a city that has been sacked 44 times in its history and that NATO bombed in 1999. I was rather apprehensive about driving in with UK plates but the Serbs, despite looking like cut-throat robbers, are the friendliest bunch of people I’ve ever met. Sure, the women never smile and they sell T-shirts showing war criminals but I loved Belgrade and could definitely spend a week there.
Clockwise from above left: Serbia is a dangerous country; we tried to ignore the T-shirts of war criminals on sale in Belgrade; we worried our European bug collection would constitute importing of animals.
By now we had gathered over 700,000 (approx) bugs on the car and were worried about importing animals into Bulgaria, but we had more to worry about as we approached the border. Out of nowhere a Serbian policeman stepped out onto the road and tried to flag us down while waving a gun. The traffic was going fast and it would have been suicidal to stop, so I didn’t. In my rear-view mirror I saw the policeman run towards his car. I gunned the engine and roared for the Bulgarian border, just a mile away. Fortunately, there was no queue and we slipped into no-man’s land just as the police car came into view. We waved at him from the safety of limbo-land.
I was rather dreading Bulgaria. I don’t know why; it was wonderful. Like an empty Greece. Sofia, the capital, was charming and we dined outside staring at distant snowy peaks. The road quality had definitely dipped but the scenery was awesome.
The car in Central Sofia, Bulgaria
The following morning we set off for Turkey and Istanbul, our halfway destination. The weather was glorious but my Land Rover sat nav was getting nervous at being so far from home and refused to accept that there was a city called Istanbul in Turkey. It offered me two small villages in Anatolia with a similar name but would not accept the city I wanted. I tried Constantinople and even Byzantium to see if this was a historical/political issue but it still refused. So I stuck a pin in the gap in the Bosphorus and set off regardless.
It took us six hours but finally we spotted the gleaming domes and minarets of Istanbul. We’d made it and awaiting us was a well-earned three nights in the magnificent Four Seasons Sultanahmet, one of my favourite hotels in Europe. We had two days to explore the city and then… we had to drive all the way back again, via a different route.
No longer #Istanbulorbust it’s now #Cotswoldsorbust.
Pest, as seen from Buda