Some of you will have spotted, via Facebook, that member Louise Chicot, recently undertook an amazing journey, despite Covid difficulties, through Europe. I am so pleased that Louise has now offered us this account of her travels. I hope you enjoy sharing her story. Thank you Louise
It was May 2020 when I first met my little B and it was love at first sight. I knew straight away that we were destined for travel and adventures together. B was a birthday gift to myself as compensation for the disappointments and havoc that 2020 was having on me and the rest of the world. She spent a few months having some cosmetic tweaks, lovingly attended to by Jim Taylor (An excellent mechanic from the club Trusted Garage List) and then she was ready to embark on her first Grand Tour. Four years ago I bought a house in Bulgaria and as the sky there remains blue 80% of the year, I had always wanted to get a convertible to enjoy over there. So finding B completed my dream. Now I just needed to get her there! The 1,847 mile drive from Manchester UK, to Plovdiv, Bulgaria can be managed in 31 hours non-stop – but where is the fun in that? I wanted to enjoy the drive, admire the scenery and explore along the way. So I sat down and planned the route. There were specific landmarks that I wanted to visit and devising a way to get there during the Covid restrictions proved to be a challenge. Some countries denied you entry if you had been to certain other countries and there was always the chance that things could change en route. But, undeterred, I booked the ferry, filled the tank and set off on our first road trip together.
I arrived in Hull and lined up for the ferry. A very nice security guard allowed me to position B for a photo and then we boarded the vessel. Within a few minutes the ferry was ‘fully’ loaded – 6 cars and 2 trucks! It was like a ghost ship and every crew member wanted to chat. I settled in my bunk early in readiness for the journey ahead.
As I drove off the ferry I couldn’t help but smile; it felt like B was home. Driving a left hand drive car in the UK presents a few challenges but now she was better aligned and I felt more relaxed. It was time to get this show on the road. The goal for the day was to get lunch at a nice Vegan restaurant in Bruges and continue on to Luxembourg for the night. It was here we had our first fight with Covid. Belgium was in lockdown and everything was closed. All we could muster was a pit stop at the service station for snacks and water. Not the most auspicious start. But the roads were clear, the B was purring and we arrived in an autumnal Luxembourg hungry but happy.
I started the day with a quick 5km run to stretch my limbs before the big drive ahead followed by a quick breakfast. Then the little B fired up and off we went again, this time to cross through Germany straight on to Austria.
I had heard stories of the German autobahn system, but had never had the pleasure personally. I deem myself a confident driver who has had nice and fast cars previously, but nothing on earth had prepared me for the absolute madness that I experienced that day. Bullets, guided missiles and particles in the Large Hadron Collider don’t go as fast as Germans in an Audi or BMW. It was genuinely terrifying!
But German efficiency prevailed when, with unfortunate predictability, there was an accident ahead. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the cars in the 2nd and 3rd lanes separated to create a clear passage for emergency vehicles to pass through to attend the scene. This respite allowed my frayed nerves to settle and after a few justified mutterings of ‘no wonder when they drive like that’, we were back moving again within 40 minutes.
Pope John Paul used to kiss the ground when he descended the steps from the airplane – that’s what I felt like doing when I arrived in Austria. The tranquillity of the snow capped mountains, crystal clear rivers of melt water and a quick G&T to control the shaking were a welcome end to a traumatic day.
Words are inadequate to describe the driving experience that I enjoyed travelling through Switzerland; a complete opposite of the day before. Perfectly manicured tarmac, insanely picturesque views, combined with careful and courteous drivers. My route took little B from Santa Maria Val Mustair to Casa Cantoniera, through the Umbrailpass and we were in road trip heaven! Due to the time of year, there were smatterings of snow on the higher ground but not on the roads. The goal was to get into Italy ready for one of the highlights of the trip, but this was driving perfection and totally unexpected.
Then, refreshed and eager, I looked forward to experiencing one of the driving Wonders of the World – the Stelvio Pass. “15 miles of asphalt spaghetti, draped on an Alp” as it was described by Jeremy Clarkson. And I was doing it in my little B. The anticipation was overwhelming and as the road started to climb and I approached the vicinity, I was stopped by an Italian policeman who asked where I was going. With faint recollection of something I was fluent in 30 years previously (from living and travelling in Italy) I murdered the most beautiful language in the world by clumsily explaining I was heading to Venice. With the grace of an Operatic aria, he told me that today it was the Giro d’Italia, that the Stelvio was being used by cyclists and if I wanted to wait 5 hours I would then be able to continue my journey. He kindly pointed to a safe spot for me to park the B and I decided to wait it out, not really knowing what the fuss was about. After sitting for about 20 minutes, I decided that a walk to the restaurant at the summit for a hot chocolate would help time pass and I set off upwards. Upon arrival at the summit, I was greeted by TV cameras, crowds of people, stalls selling Giro souvenirs and a considerable feeling of stupidity. The Italian version of the Tour de France was happening in front of my eyes. Bad or great timing, depending on perspective, afforded me the chance to see records being beaten, people cheering their idols and watching the spot where I was standing being broadcast on a TV that I was watching. Surreal!
Finally the Giro teams passed, the stalls were dismantled and the crowds dispersed and I was allowed to resume my journey. With a stroke of luck (and almost as a reward for my patience) due to the race and the road being closed, the Stelvio was deserted. This afforded me the rarest opportunity to enjoy the straights at speed and the hairpins with confidence, as I was the first and only vehicle to have been released by the police. And it was magnificent!
Top Gear: Worlds best road – Davos to the Stelvio https://youtu.be/tW729j3roVk
Italy was the only place we hit a Covid related incident as the rules had changed that day and we were turned away from our hotel upon arrival. Ten minutes later, I had found a replacement AirBnB and I fell asleep contentedly after processing the exquisite day I had shared with the B.
Following a day of rest exploring a deserted Venice with clean waterways, it was time to hit the road again for a big drive through Slovenia, back to Austria for a driving treat in Vienna. Having decided I hadn’t done enough driving, I had booked a tour of the city using Hot Rods. These quirky little machines are great fun to drive and you feel like a celebrity as people wave, point and take photos as you speed past. I cannot remember much about the history or information imparted by the tour guide, but who cares? I was driving a Hot Rod!
An early start, with a quick 5k run along the Danube, had me prepared for the longest driving day on the trip; 11 hours, through Hungary and on to Romania. Covid restrictions meant that visitors could transit through, but not stay in the country. Designated service stations along the route allowed refuelling and rest stops and the bright yellow badge we were given and told to display gave us passage permission. This was also the only day when the weather was bad and I was relieved to reach the hotel, only to find a family of 6 boisterous children using the hallway outside my room as their own racetrack whilst their parents drank themselves into a stupor in the bar. Firmly inserting my earplugs, I passed out from total exhaustion.
No trip to Romania would be complete without a visit to Transylvania and Bran Castle – the inspiration and hometown of Dracula. The quaint town with cobbled streets and boutique shops was a far cry from the image I had of a spooky, misty vampire ridden hell-hole. But my intrigue into the macabre was satisfied when I took the add-on tour in the Castle. The display of medieval torture instruments was disturbing, and a sad reflection of how cruel people can be.
I had an excited feeling knowing that the remainder of the day was to be more pleasant. In 2010 Top Gear had set off to find the fabled ‘best driving road in the world’ which happened to be in Romania. Jeremy stated that the Transfagarasan Highway was the most amazing road he had ever seen and I was about to drive it in my little B. “From above it looks like every great corner from every great racetrack in the world has been knitted together to create one unbroken grey ribbon of automotive perfection” Clarkson states as the camera pans down the valley. He then claims it to be better than the Stelvio. And I would agree.
Top Gear: Greatest driving road in the world https://youtu.be/OLAtcrB0GZg
But my excitement was to be cut short by a HUGE boulder and a No Entry sign. The time of year which had blessed me with autumnal colours and snow capped mountains had also meant my arrival coincided with the winter closure of the Highway. Dejected, I stared at the boulder and reluctantly turned the B around to find another, lesser fabled route. My gloom was short lived when I realised that I could come back in better weather as the Highway was only a day trip away from my home in Bulgaria.
So, I rerouted the Sat-Nav and headed to the border for my final border transition, where I hit the biggest problem of the whole trip. Due to Covid, DVLA were experiencing a huge backlog in processing applications and my paperwork for the B was still in their system. This didn’t impress the tired, humourless border control who wanted to see my documentation for the vehicle. A lot of time passed while there was frantic tapping on their computer and searching under the bonnet for the VIN number. I stayed in my seat, smiling occasionally, praying to Keldoran (the god of all things automotive) that the seizure of my little B wouldn’t be the dismal end of a glorious road trip. Knowing that if they found the V5 wasn’t in my name, or that when you search for parts using the number plate it thinks it is a Fiat Ducato motorhome I might be refused entry or B would be confiscated. I then had a flash of divine intervention (thanks Keldo!) and found my insurance certificate on an email from Chris Knott. Name and registration plate matched and this seemed enough proof for the jaded officials (or they just got bored) and I was cleared to continue. A few hours later the little B gently rolled to a stop outside its new home. A place of sunny skies and stunning scenery which it will be able to explore when spring arrives.
I had travelled 3,750km through UK, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. I had taken RAC cover for peace of mind, but I needn’t have bothered. The B was a dream to drive, hadn’t faltered once and had been acknowledged and appreciated by others many times throughout the journey. What a car!
Louise Chicot January 2021