It Just Got A Lot Harder To Use the Words “Epic Road Trip”

European road trip - the car, the mountains, Austria

 

W
hat I needed, was a test-run. I had just paid 350 Euro’s for a twenty year old French hatchback, in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. For that price, I didn’t expect much. I gave it a wash, a changed a few fluids, and a mechanic checked it out for safety. Soon after, the test-run began. Phillipa and I hopped into “Nancy”, left The Netherlands, drove through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. Nine days later, we arrived in country number twelve on the test-run, when we pulled-in to Bucharest, Romania. And I started to think, maybe, I’d got a bargain.

There is something to be said about road-trips. Compared to a plane, you see more, and the food is much better. On a bus, it’s impossible to just stop whenever you like, for as long as you like, for whatever reason you like. Trains are very cool, no doubt – but it’s not really a “road-trip” if you’re on train tracks. With a road trip, you’re on the ground, interacting with the locals, seeing what other tourists rarely see. So, if you want to take an epic European road trip, there’s only really two clever options. You can either plan your way around Europe using the available public transport, or you buy a car, hit the road, and just keep on driving.

Originally, Nancy was purchased on the condition of “shit, if it lasts a few days, I’ll be happy”. By the end of the trip, together we would visit 28 different nations, including a nation that doesn’t really exist. The odometer would prove we covered about 18,000 km’s. Our shared memories would be from two continents, as we trekked into Asia and back again. It was by far, the best 350 Euro’s I have ever spent.

 

Akhaltsikhe georgia - deep in snow
Crossing remote mountains somewhere in the Caucasus.
black sea snow turkey
Coast of the Black Sea, Turkey, in the middle of a cold winter.
Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - snow tyres
Seemed as nice a place as any to get snow tyres fitted. I could feel my feet freezing, the ground ice. Akhaltsikhe, Georgia.

 

Meeting up with friends in Bucharest, it was time to extend the test-run. Our newly formed two-car-convoy crossed Romania, rolled through Moldova, and into Transnistria for the national day celebrations of a country that doesn’t exist. Car-related highlights include paying a bribe to the Transnistrian police/militia, which was $30 US dollars ($15 per car). We’re still not sure what we did wrong, but hey, I don’t think that sort of thing really, well, matters when you’re that deep in Eastern Europe. After spending a few nights in Transnistria, we continued our convoy back through Moldova and Romania, heading through Bulgaria, Macedonia, and reaching the spectacular coast of the little-travelled Albanian Riviera.

Road Trip Through Cannabis Land

The mafia strangle-hold village of “Lazarat” – largest, and most illegal, marijuana plantation in Europe – was the highlight of an incredible month or so  driving around Albania. Sure, a day trip into Lazarat is one thing I’ll never forget, but Albania in general is perhaps my number one country pick for a European driving holiday – despite the conditions of the roads, which are comparable in Europe only with Moldova.

A quick welding job in Berat allowed Nancy to continue cruising along the Albanian Riviera, eventually ending up in spectacular Kotor, Montenegro. A few nights relaxation within the old city walls, and then it was over another set of mountains arriving in  Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. By this point, I no longer cared whether Nancy ran another day or not, and I’d totally given up on counting countries. Little did I know, she was just getting started.

 

road trip Albania
High above the Albanian Riviera. Nancy, the 350 Euro Renault Clio, and her new friend, Andrea’s cute little Fiat 500.
communist monument sphere
Somewhere in Serbia, near the Romanian border. A giant decaying communist era concrete sphere? Perfect spot for a coffee break.
road trip bobsled sarajevo
The road-trip took us into the mountains above Sarajevo, to explore the abandoned Winter Olympics bob-sled track.

 

 

It was around this time, plans for a “real” road trip started getting a little ridiculous.

Distances started to be measured not by hours or kilometres, but by experiences. Motion had become my travel muse. As each day passed, planning became simpler. Wake up, get in the car, go, and have the time of our lives. All who entered Nancy fell under the same hypnotic spell – we all believed that she made anything possible. As long as roads existed, we could drive there. No destination was too remote, too far, or too crazy.

We picked up Larissa in Mostar. By the time we had reached Sarajevo, a few hours later, we mutually agreed to just keep driving – into Asia. We just had to decide where. It took about a drink and a half, on that first night in Sarajevo, before Tbilisi, Georgia became a serious idea. Two days later, I checked the oil and water, and we commenced the longest leg of the road-trip yet. Taking in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey from West to East and quite a bit of South to North, and into the Caucasus, using mountainous remote back-roads we were warned against using, we reached Tbilisi several weeks later.

And then we decided, we couldn’t stop at Tbslisi, so we carried on to Yerevan, capital city of Armenia.

A bribe paid to an Armenian policeman ($10), for being a foreigner with a foreign car in front of a policeman, was overshadowed by the life-changing hospitality of the Armenian government officials we befriended, as I told them “this is the worse fucking country I’ve ever been to”, and “seriously, I’m not paying any more fucking bribes” (we remain friends to this day). The story is an example of  the best border crossing story you will ever read, and importantly – a story that could only have happened because we were driving in our own car. This single experience alone, was worth far more than what I paid for Nancy. It wouldn’t happen on a plane, a bus, or a train. Only, a car.

After returning to Georgia, we said goodbye to Larissa, as she flew off to Ukraine.

As an icy winter continued to roll in to the Caucasus, Phillipa and I realised that we would need to more-or-less repeat the last journey, and drive back to Europe.

For about a month or so, we hung out in Tbilisi. Before I totally succumbed to the charms of my new favourite lunch, a large bottle of Vodka and dumplings,  we adorned a couple of cheap Chinese made winter tyres in an unpronounceable town I recall as “Boom Shakalakalakka”. The issue was, getting out of the Caucasus would involve driving across some of the coldest, highest, snowiest, and deadliest roads in the world. It was trial and error. Some roads were passable, others weren’t. After a few snowy dead-ends, we made it out of Georgia, and headed across the Turkish edge of the Black Sea from East to West. Even in Turkey, the wintry conditions were such that snow lay all along the beach, right down to the water. We crossed through Bulgaria, and back to Belgrade, Serbia. That leg alone was several thousand kilometres, and took several weeks. It could have been a book, instead, it’s a paragraph.

But, Nancy wasn’t done yet, and this road trip wasn’t finished.

We drove from Belgrade, Serbia back to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. From there, Phillipa and I flew to Dubai, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, whilst  Nancy rested outside on the mean streets of Bulgaria. Alone, in the cold, Nancy waited for about 10 or 12 weeks. Honestly, I had no idea if she would still be there when I returned from the other side of the planet.

 

turkey road trip
Deep in Eastern Turkey, the roads passed heights of 2600 meters.
serbia snow car
Photo taken during the only week in Belgrade, Serbia, that no parking tickets were being left on Nancy’s windscreen.
serbia bulgaria border
Moments later, Nancy would make her final border crossing – from Bulgaria into Serbia.
europe road trip
A small selection of overnight stops on the road trip.

 

In April this year (2014), I returned to Bulgaria. I didn’t have a single parking ticket, and Nancy started up on the first attempt. I drove her back to Belgrade, Serbia, where I received many, many,  parking tickets. Combined with the tickets I had been issued from previous visits to Serbia, it could have been, let’s say, ten tickets in total. Maybe twenty. Or thirty. In any case, it wouldn’t have been more than fifty. Or so. Understandably, Nancy was scooped up by the authorities, and taken to the impound. I went to the impound, paid the fine, and then sold Nancy for about 150 Euro.

Why did I sell her? Well, either way, this was to be the end of Nancy. She couldn’t be registered in Serbia (she was too old, and didn’t meet the import requirements), and unless I got back to the Netherlands within a short amount of time for an annual check-up, Nancy would  be de-registered in the country I purchased her in, less than a year before.

I wasn’t able to make that journey back to the Netherlands.

It was a lose/lose situation.

It’s highly likely Nancy has now been crushed, or stripped for parts.

For the first time ever, I got just a little sad when I said goodbye to a car.

28 countries, 2 continents, 18000 km’s.

A big travel dream of mine, was to one-day just hit the road and allow it to unfold beneath, with no particular end point.

Nancy made my road-trip dream, a reality.

It all started here.

 

Nate

 

PS, I’ve been planning another over-land journey. The timing is still being worked out, but it will be later this year, to a huge part of the world I have not yet visited. Pop your email address in here, and be kept up to date with all things Yomadic.

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