Twelve Countries, Nine Days, 350 Euro – European Road Trip Volume One

European road trip - the car, the mountains, Austria

H e looked at my mother, rolled his eyes and shook his head. He was the Inscrutable Dutch-man. Extreme cultural differences meant I was unable to determine precisely what he was thinking as I handed over my money. I guessed it was half “sucker” and half “hurry up so I can get back to eating raw herring”. I had just exchanged 350 Euro’s worth of cold hard cash for a mid-90’s French hatchback that had clearly seen better days. I asked my mother what she had said to him to elicit such a reaction. She told him, in her own special version of Australian-ised Dutch “they’re going to drive it to Bucharest mate….bloody Romania.” From where we stood, Bucharest was almost 3000 kilometers away. Inscrutable Dutchman tossed me the keys, turned around, walked away, tilted his head back, and dropped a raw fish down his throat. And so it begun. Another European road trip.

Europe is made for a classic car journey. Nowhere else offers so much diversity in such a small amount of space. Fifty countries. An almost countless number of languages. Several alphabets. Architecture both old and new, a population of more than 800 million people, with perhaps the richest amount of preserved history anywhere on Earth. Few border checks. It’s a smugglers paradise out here. And, for the most part, a great network of international highways and infrastructure. Bulgaria, Albania, countryside Romania and parts of Serbia, you need to lift your road game, buddy.

Once you get outside of the city and hit the open road, it’s clear why the automobile has deservedly become the modern symbol of personal travel freedom. Offering the traveller a genuine choice of route, true independence, limitless time, and dare I say it – the ability to take control of your destiny.  That may sound like a car commercial, but the reality is that more than once I mentioned to Phillipa in all seriousness that “ya know, we could keep driving until we reached Singapore. Such is the power of the concept of an automobile. It turns a rational being into an unstoppable travelling maniac. I’m now determined to continue to drive this Renault until it begs for mercy. I love having a car.

palace stanislas nancy france at sunset
Entering the “Place Stanislas”, town square of the remarkable city Nancy, in the Loraine region of France. Night one.
luxembourg city view
Hard to believe that this is the downtown area of a bustling capital city. Luxembourg City, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
widest point of the river danube
This is the widest point of the Danube River – the most “international” of any river on Earth. I’m standing in Serbia, in the distance is Romania.

Try reconnecting with nature, on a bus journey. Try getting your train driver to make an unscheduled and un-timed stop, just so that you can spend a few hours staring up at a crisp night sky. How does catching an overcrowded overnight ferry compare with carefree motoring though winding vacant roads in the European countryside? When was the last time you named the 737 aircraft you were squeezed onto? My Renault is called Nancy. She’s French.

There are billions of people on this planet who wouldn’t dream of living without a car. But as soon as they get to Europe, so many people opt for cramped budget airlines, slow buses, and packed ferries. No, I don’t really have anything bad to say about trains, because I love trains. Trains are number two, and cars are number one. I didn’t make the rules, don’t shoot the messenger.

A car allows you to travel at your own pace, your own way. And within the space of two weeks, my initial plans did change. It seems that 800 million Europeans all taking summer vacations at the same time can have quite an effect on a city. After heading south from the Netherlands, I travelled through France, and then slowly started to realise just how busy, and therefore expensive, some places in Western Europe can be. So after a quick stop in to the Grand Duchy of Liechtenstein, simply so I could casually drop “oh, Liechtenstein is marvelous in the spring time” at my next high-brow dinner party, it was time to look for an alternative route.

Having a car means plans are flexible. I had no problem, as long as Nancy was up for it. I considered heading North to Prague, or South though Austria and then into the Balkans. Having a car allows for this on-the-run decision making. Given the multitude of ways to get from the Netherlands to Romania, the route decision came down to what I wanted to see, and what I wanted to spend. Finding accommodation enroute is easy. Each day, I would use any free Wifi I could find to search for somewhere to stay that night.

In many ways, slow travel is the current trend. But there is so much to be said for fast travel. Really fast. The European road trip volume one was, well, fast. Twelve countries in nine days.  The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The record was five countries in one day, which I think I actually did twice.

I stopped in each nation for a drink, a bite to eat, to check out a castle, smoke a french (or sometimes a dutch) cigarette (they’re all foreign these days) or just to admire a view. No, I didn’t get to deeply explore the rich history of Swiss clock making and fully automatic assault rifle collecting. But, I did get to see Switzerland, from West to East. Not to mention The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (I want to live there just to be able to say that more often).

Now I get an extended pit-stop in Bucharest, before taking off on part two of the journey. All without setting an alarm clock to make sure I don’t miss a bus or train, or having to get to an airport two hours early only to find out the flight has been delayed by another two hours. Suck it, budget airline passengers, I have my own wheels. What’s the downside? What am I missing here?

golubac fortress highway
The highway between Serbia and Romania passes through the middle of the ancient Golubac Castle Fortress. That car is moving.
Golubac boat trip serbia
Do we have time for a nice young dude to row us around the Danube checking out an ancient castle fortress? Why, yes. Yes we do. Golubac, Serbia
communist monument sphere
A giant decaying communist era concrete sphere? Perfect spot for a coffee break.
iron gates serbia
After stopping in Belgrade for two nights, it was fantastic to see some more remote areas of Serbia. The “Iron Gates” of the river Danube.

 

Practical Information For a European Road Trip

You’ll need a car (really), with insurance that covers every country you plan on visiting (make sure non-EU countries like Serbia are covered, if that’s your plan). Many countries require you to purchase a “vignette” – this is just a sticker that shows you have paid the road tax. There’s no swapping of license plates, and the odds are your drivers license will be recognised in every county in Europe. Stick to the speed limit, except in Germany, where the rule is continue to accelerate until the car sounds like it’s screaming.

Total costs will vary dependent on how far you travel, and how thirsty your car is. I would say that in most circumstances, a small car is cheaper than European train travel, similar to bus, and more expensive than budget airlines. Accommodation is easy to find – with France in particular having a range of motel chains for as cheap as 25 euro a night (sometimes even less).

Things can and do go wrong. I visited a mechanic in Serbia after the car overheated during a particularly long and hot day. He determined that my coolant system was full of brown sludge, and that this wasn’t good. In Romania, I visited a “vulcanizare”, one of the few words I know in Romanian, to watch a hefty guy bash my front wheel back into shape after I hit a huge rock in the middle of the road. The tire was also destroyed during this incident. Hey, scheisse happens.

As for technology – I relied heavily upon a GPS. Most smart phones these days have GPS capabilities and I found no need to purchase a dedicated unit. Even the smallest villages are covered – in general, I spent most nights staying in areas outside of the main cities, and the GPS led me to my destination every time. I downloaded the voice that sounds like Jeff Spicoli (and I’m genuinely amazed that he has a Wikipedia entry). For charging your smart phone on the run, get a cigarette lighter/USB charger – available at all good cigarette lighter/USB charger stores.

 

european road trip route map
The route so far (almost accurate). Each green dot was an overnight stop. Please note that this map is not interactive. So, You can stop clicking it, Larissa.

 

Back in the very olden times, the 1970’s and 1980’s, there were a large number of tourists (aka, hippies) that would arrive in Europe, pick up an old Volkswagen bus or van, and just cruise around the continent until the money ran out. These days, this seems to be a less popular way of travelling. Despite being an almost perfect blend between slow and fast travel, it’s uncommon to see even long term European travellers pick up a cheap car and really get off the well trodden tourist trail, to see some out of the way and lesser travelled sights.

I’m not really into “bucket lists”, but I do find it strange that whilst the great American road trip often features on such lists, the European road trip doesn’t often get a mention. I’m looking forward to part two of mine.

Nate

 

PS, later this week I will be heading to The Republic of Moldova, and then to Transnistria, to experience Independence Day in the capital city of a nation that isn’t really recognised as a nation. This should be Eastern Europe at it’s most Eastern. I’m really looking forward to it, and can’t wait to show you the photos of this unknown destination.

PPS, also this week I had the good fortune of meeting Earl AKA “Wandering Earl” here in Bucharest, and I can confirm he is the consummate gentleman and extreme long term traveller. Phillipa and I had dinner a couple of times with Earl, and swapped travel tales and advice from the road. If anyone is looking for a genuinely great travel blog to read, check out Wandering Earl.  We agreed that long term travel isn’t for everyone, but it’s possible for anyone. <–click

 

Also… I’ve said it before, but travel photography really is easy when you know how to get out of auto.

 

 

29 thoughts on “Twelve Countries, Nine Days, 350 Euro – European Road Trip Volume One

    1. Cheers Turner… where are you now buddy? I use the Fuji X-Pro 1.. but seriously, Phillipa has been killing it using just an iPod camera. It’s not the camera, really! If you haven’t already checked out Getting Out of Auto, give it a look.

  1. Ahhhhh, I am obsessed with bridges. I was supposed to walk across the the Adolphe Bridge on my first trip to Europe. Like most things I plan, it got pushed back once I realized I had planned way too many places in too short of a time. Seeing your picture of it reminds me to push it back forward and get there sooner than later.

  2. Nate:

    Love the post again! I share most of your posts with my readers in the Travel Blogger Buzz posts I do. Always unique writing and fantastic photography.

    What is the location of the top picture?

    Keep driving:-)

  3. Awesome as usual….you must be feeling extra relaxed, as the humour seems to be dialled up a notch in this one!! USB charger store indeed!

    So is the plan to run the Renault into the ground, or will part 2 be the end of the road trip segment?

    1. Hey Peter.. yes, after the long drive I’m now surprisingly relaxed! Tomorrow I hit the road again, and hopefully the Renault will last – I have a few more weeks of driving (on and off) ahead of me. We shall both see what happens!

  4. This is so awesome, Nate! Tony & I would love to do something like this, though I wasn’t sure how involved it would be for non-EU nationals to purchase vehicles while over there: did you have to pay taxes or file any paperwork to transfer ownership of the car to you? I haven’t been able to find much information about how one can legally buy a car in Holland if one is not a resident there so I’d be really curious to hear what you had to do.

    1. Hey Steph. I was hoping someone would ask me this… the tricky bit is buying the car. I have family in Holland, hence my reasoning for buying the car in Holland and registering it in a family members name. I tried to register it in my name, and it’s correct you must be a resident. The thing is, each country has different requirements, so you may need to keep hunting around until you find a “loophole”. One tip I can give you – don’t hold me to it – but I believe it’s quite easy in Germany, as they are very accustomed to foreigners buying cars and exporting them to other European nations. I believe you could have up to a year of your German registered car before you would need to be a resident and extend it for the second year. It’s something along those lines in any case, so maybe make Germany the focus of your searches.

      I always think where there is a will, there’s a way. And with Europe being around fifty countries, I’m sure there is somewhere that would make it possible for you to do. Good luck!

  5. All the pictures are lovely, particularly of Serbia — I’d love to get out there.

    Steph took the question right out of my mouth. Traveling by car through Europe is something I’d like to do in the next year. I’m in Moscow now… I think actually it would be much cheaper to get a car in Europe rather than Russia, but am not sure of the laws in Europe. Like you said, when there’s a will there’s a way!

    Thanks for the great travel inspiration.

    1. You’re welcome Polly. From what I’ve seen – cars are cheapest in Germany and the UK (but the problem is UK cars have the steering wheel on the opposite side to European cars). Enjoy Moscow, would love to get there one day.

  6. Loved this, what a great perspective on the places we think we know through all the guidebook and blog photos– this was a whole different side. Your pics of the roads were somehow really compelling and made me nostalgic for my own road trips.

    I love traveling through Europe by car…as a passenger. Unfortunately I dislike driving of any kind so I’ve been lucky to travel with people who love driving Europe’s winding roads while I coast along and call out the pit stops. Until my girls’ trip to Ireland where I planned a very ambitious driving itinerary. We all arrived at the rental car place then looked at each other blankly, we somehow all thought someone else was driving. We finally bribed the most frugal girl with offers to pay her share of the car and gas. The rest of the trip was four girls shrieking as we edged too closely to every stone wall and passing car. Which was often.

  7. Nate,

    Thinking to do it the rough neck way(ha!). Just me and my gal, two scooters, well packed back packs and off we go… Okay, the scooters will be those new fangled BMW 650 GTs, kitted out max, lots of tools tire patch kits…dreamin’ brother just dreamin’!
    Be well

    Laurence

    p.s. actually i want to tour the North Kimberly, and then the Scottish highlands.

  8. Hi Nate,
    I’ve been following you around now for a couple of weeks, and I’m really fascinated by your way of travelling, your attitude, and of course your photos! To put it this way: it’s all your fault that my wife now has to undertake a journey all the way through Iran anytime soon ;-) I also like what you wrote about Europe, because you made me view my home-region (I’m from Germany) through a different set of eyes, which is always a good thing to experience. So – thanks for sharing all your thoughts and pictures with us, and thanks also for making me want to hit the road again! If you happen to come through the middle of Germany (Hessen, that is), just let me know, you two can always stay at our house – it would be an honour meeting you!
    Cheers,
    Carsten

  9. Ok, 1) your photo captions were cracking me up in this post, bravo! and 2) I continue to love your attitude about traveling. Yes, there are some touristy things that should be seen, but there’s definitely something to be said about hitting the road and seeing what else is out there. I love driving myself (I would love to try my hand on the German autobahn as I have a lead foot) and love a good road trip where you can go as fast or as slow as you want, stopping at whatever grabs your interest. Your point about the European road trip not even getting a mention on road trip lists is interesting and definitely seems like at oversight. I can’t wait until you get Stateside, especially if you do a road trip here. We have so many cool things to see here outside of the normal tourist attractions. I think just the grand landscapes you can encounter here are one of the coolest things. As I mentioned on Twitter, the Route 66 road trip from Chicago to L.A. (or vice versa) has always kind of captured my imagination because of the old remnants of the pre-interstate highway era of America that still struggle to exist. Definitely a portrait of a certain point in my country’s history that I would love to see and experience.

  10. love following both of your adventures and love road trips only done small ones, once from Barcelona to Nice, another Nice to Florence and Nice to Munich and recently Copenhagen to Oslo harder with two little kids but possible

  11. Nathaniel –

    I love you, I miss you and I’m so stoked to see you and Phill still rocking the European continent full-speed ahead. Your photos are amazing, I wish I was that handy with a camera. That is all.

    Sincerely,

    Larry Gypo

  12. Just simply breathtaking European places! I enjoy road trips more because I can see the places closer. I really enjoyed reading your adventures. Thanks for sharing!

  13. we are 02 friends want to visit 12 countries.
    1 350 euro include…….
    2 hotel accomodation…..
    3 time from a to …… each day
    4 tour date
    5 amsterdam and back to amsterdam….

  14. Very cool itinerary. So agree with you on the point that anything (‘schaisse’) can happen on the way. We had an issue with our tires being overheated when we drove through Alps, due to constant breaking. Unpleasant experience, but you definitely have to be prepared for such things when you are doing a roadtrip.

    1. Agree… one reason I settled on a ’95 model car (apart from price), is the simplicity of fixing anything along the way. Because, yes, shit happens. We had a few small dramas, including an overheated engine, replacing three tyres, and a few holes in the muffler due to bad Albanian and Moldovan roads. But on aggregate, the car was amazing.

      I would do it all again tomorrow… but first, I need another car.

  15. Hey, I’m myself planning a European Road trip with my buddies in April 2017. Would certainly appreciate some help. How do I contact you?

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