5000 miles around Europe — part 1

2020 was the year of no travel. In the grand scheme of things this is probably the smallest of our worries. Yet, as the months went by, lockdown followed lockdown, summer arrived and went and we just couldn’t stop thinking about 2019, when we embarked from London on a fantastic trip across 12 countries. So here’s a little recount of that journey and all the amazing places we visited!

The plan

In 2019 we were lucky that we could take 5 weeks away from work over summer for our holidays. We never did something like that before so when the opportunity arose we just jumped at it! 5 weeks, summer, sea and sun, our 18 year old BMW, the four of use travelling, seemingly, forever. So we got planning!

Now, let’s face it, planning a roadtrip in Europe today is not exactly the most difficult thing on the planet. Everything is available online. Everything is bookable online. Google Streetview can show you ground level views of pretty much everything (not Germany though!). Still, there are ferries and trains involved so a bit of planning is needed for scheduling and, of course, when you have 5 weeks and a choice of too many countries the choices are too many! We did have three constraints, the start date, the end date and the fact we would be spending two of the five weeks visiting family in Greece.

Having done a shorter version of the drive to Greece before, we decided that the best thing (and this is a good tip for any roadtrip) is to do the heavy driving upfront and slow down on the later part. This way you avoid having 2 days of non-stop driving as the last thing you remember. As such we wanted to get to Greece in under a week, get the two weeks done there and then have two weeks driving leisurely back, with 2–3 days spare to fit either way. One week it is then for the first leg, taking us through France, Switzerland and all the way to the south-east of Italy (courtesy of fully booked ferries from Ancona).

Day 1 — France

We loaded our car and at 6.30am on the hottest day of 2018 we left to get to Folkestone, to board the 8.40am Eurotunnel train to Calais. If you have never used the train shuttle it is a much quicker way to get across to France, much shorter than the 2+ hour ferry and, more importantly, having a 5 and a 2 year old at the time there is no chasing the kids around a grubby ferry.

An uneventful 35 minutes later we got off and onto the French motorways, driving south east for the 570km (350 miles) towards are first destination: Dijon. Now, as much as we love France, that drive through the middle of France is a bit boring: flat plains, farms, wind farms, road tolls and services. At least the services are good, you can actually buy food you want to eat and they even have some nice playgrounds for the kids.

8 hours later (with a three stops and a couple of traffic jams in between) we arrived in Dijon. It was almost 7pm and it was 39C. The heat was unbearable, the city baking the whole day made it feel like it was 45C and we retreated to our hotel in the old town for a while, before going out for a walk and a bite to eat.

Dijon is a very pretty town, the old town at least. The cobbled streets, old houses and grand civic buildings make it as pretty as any other wonderful French town. We found a hotel close to the old cathedral and simply explored on foot. And obviously no visit to Dijon is complete without buying some mustard!

Day 2 — Switzerland

Day 2 had Genova in Italy as the destination. The quickest way is down France and over to Italy via Chamonix. However, the point of a roadtrip is to take in the sites! On that day, the real destination was the Great St Bernard Pass in Switzerland. We didn’t know what to expect really, it was just a place to drive up simply to drive up a high mountain (we don’t have those in the south of England). However, start digging a bit and beyond the history of it (I’ll let you Google it) you’ll soon realise the the words of Matt Monro will be ringing in your ears as you drive the Italian side of the road (and if you don’t know what I mean just go watch the opening scene of the old Italian Job!).

So, having bought our mustard, we set off early from Dijon to be up the mountain by midday. As we approached Switzerland and got off into smaller roads the scenery got greener and taller, the houses got pointier roofs and soon we reached the border where we had to buy the little Swiss road tax sticker. We kept going, past Lausanne and eventually off the main road to start the ascent.

That road is simply an amazing one to drive up. The scenery is stunning, streams and small waterfalls dotting the landscape around you as you climb up, alongside patches of snow, even in July! Finally you get to the top where a small lake made of mountain snow welcomes you.

What a difference 300km make, the day before we were melting in 40C heat and today’s lunch was a few dozen meters from actual snow! We played in the snow, dipped our feet in the lake, had a pizza (on the Italian side, obviously) and just admired the scenery, the vast skies and the amazingly fresh and clear air. Simply a fantastic place to be, just on our second day of driving!

That top of the mountain feeling (Leica M4, ZM 21/4.5, Portra 160)

Three hours later, we got in the car and drove downhill from the 2.5km elevation of the Pass to ground level at Genova. Sadly, all we saw from Genova was torrential rain and the endless port as we got there in the evening. We only had time for dinner, sleep and then an early start.

Day 3 — The Rain

Today was a day for the famed Cinque Terre. We had high hopes when we were planning this, after all the picture perfect villages hanging on the cliffs, the blue waters and the promise of good food is enough to excite anyone. Only we started the day with more torrential rain. The kind that makes everyone drive at 30km/h on the motorway with their headlights, fog lights and hazard lights on. Still, the Italian gods were kind to us so by the time we got to Portofino the skies were almost clear. Which was very unlike the streets of the town in front of us. The crowds, the humidity, the heat made it all a rather unpleasant experience, one where we were glad to leave behind after just an hour or so.

Don’t get me wrong, Portofino is amazingly pretty, if not slightly intimidating with all the super yachts moored in the marina, but that was not a pleasant day out. Still, we had Vernazza to look forward…didn’t we?

Did we…not. We arrived at midday, just as the thunderstorm had moved off, leaving behind a sticky heatwave of 35C and probably 99% humidity. The crowds, though, were just mind blowing. We battled our way through crowds of tourists being spewed out endlessly by boats arriving every half an hour and trains relentlessly stopping and unloading hundreds of people. We managed to find a table for lunch, eat and then walk the 1km steep hill up to the car park, to a car that was almost melting in the heat.

Note to self: Cinque Terre is amazingly pretty, just never go in the summer again...

Off we went then for our final destination of the day: Pisa. We were hoping that we could get there in time for a quick view of the leaning tower (the kids were super excited to check if the Go Jetters fixed that glitch) and then some dinner. Unfortunately the heavy rain followed us all the way from Vernazza to Pisa. After waiting for 20 minutes parked in the car for it to go away, we gave up and decided that shorts and flip-flops are as good as any attire if you are going to get soaked.

A quick walk to the tower and the square, admiring not just the architecture but the waterfalls falling from the elaborate gargoyle drains and then we were off to our hotel by Florence airport. Why the airport you say? We were not planning to go into Florence at all, so something by the motorway made sense for a quick morning getaway!

Day 4 — Mesagne

Day 4 found us nicely rested and refreshed, ready for our longest driving day planned. But first, a quick trip to Piazzale Michelangelo. We may not be visiting Florence but there is no reason we can’t have a look from the top!

With that done we set off for our longest drive, over 800km south past Rome, past Naples and Vesuvius, across to the east coast and then down towards Brindisi. A mostly boring drive, broken by a few stops to stretch our legs and to refuel at the most expensive petrol station ever, at over 2€/litre.

Eventually, after a long day we turned off the motorway towards our destination: Mesagne. At this point we knew nothing about it, the destination was simply picked because the B&B looked nice, the price was good and it was close enough to the port for next day’s ferry travel. As we closed in, the landscape changed to farmland mixed with a slightly depressing view of half completed concrete silos and other farm buildings. Entering the city was not that much more inspirational, a collection of low modern concrete buildings in not the best state of repair…that is until we got to the old walls!

Separating the new town from the old one they blocked the view either way bar from one narrow gate, wide enough for just one car. We entered and it was really like going through a time machine, one one side modern life and one the other cobbled streets and ancient buildings leaning into each other. Our host having met us by the entrance, we drove at walking pace to the B&B (literally one person walking ahead of the car!), narrowly avoiding the entrance steps of houses and the flower pots around them in a “street” just about wide enough for the car to squeeze in.

That was a truly unexpectedly wonderful end to our day, one of a few surprises of that kind we had in our trip! We spent the evening walking around, watching people eating out at restaurants that spilled out onto the cobbled streets and having some of the best ice cream we ever had. Thank you, Mesagne!

Day 5 — The ferry

And that’s it for the first leg of the journey. We woke up, had a little farewell walk around Mesagne, then drove off to Brindisi. We bought some snacks from a supermarket and headed off to the port, just to wait for a couple of hours getting bored under the scorching sun till we boarded. A “short” 8 hour sailing later we would disembark in Igoumenitsa.

This was the end of our first leg of our journey. A short 5 days across France, Switzerland and Italy. Still, those 5 days were enough to have a quick glimpse of some amazing places. The Great St Bernard pass is still a place the children talk about and Mesagne, despite being a tiny place in the far south of Italy, introduced us to the delights if Apulia. Arrivederci!

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