“There are two windows to the soul, the eyes and the feet.”
Edgardo Osorio, Founder of Aquazzura
Needless to say that I love traveling and exploring the world. At the end of 2015, my hubby and I took off on a long planned journey – our Jaguar Grand Tour through Europe!
It’s a trip we’ve been talking about and planning since our wedding, often changing plans and the countries to stop in. In the days before Christmas, the time had finally come and we were all set up. Our beloved silver lady – Jaguar XJ8, was fully serviced, cleaned inside and out, had repainted seats, new tyres and alloys. Ready to stretch her wheels on a long drive!
European Grand Tour
The plan was to travel for 7 days and make our way to my parents in Bulgaria just in time for the Christmas holiday. We had planned the road, but not the stops. We only had booked the first 2 hotels before we left the UK and we thought that we’d decide where to stop depending on the road and the weather conditions. It’s one thing to calculate the distance on Google Maps, but it’s a whole different story when you’re actually on the road with bends, crossing mountains and driving in thick fog. Instead of driving late into the night, just to arrive at a hotel room, we thought we’d enjoy the moment.
We took the season into consideration and the fact that the days in December are much shorter than the nights. The plan we had to stick to was:
- Wake up before 10; have a quick breakfast, coffee and tea; leave the hotel by 12.
- Luggage stays in the car, parked somewhere safe, whilst we wonder around the city we’re in for a couple of hours for sightseeing and to have lunch.
- Get on the road by 4 pm and drive to the next destination until 9-10 in the evening.
- Check in the new hotel, leave our bags and find somewhere to have dinner.
Sometimes we’d arrive in a new city and we’d say: “Today we drove for so many hours, we can do more tomorrow” or “This place is beautiful, let’s stay a little longer and drive less to the next destination”. So every night before we went to sleep, we chose where to stop next and we’d book the next hotel. Our best friend during the trip was Booking.com.
New day, new country
There was something very special and so romantic in waking up in a different country every morning – tasting different food and seeing different people, Christmas markets, architecture & lifestyles. We stayed in one city per country. Only France had us for 2 days, because it was too long to cross from North to South (actually, I couldn’t resist the French desserts!). Having only one day – a night and a couple of hours during the day – for sightseeing in each town, gave us the opportunity to quickly make up our minds about each place. You just immediately get the vibe whether you like the place or not, where you’d like to return for a longer holiday and where you can cancel another trip to.
When we crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia, I instantly felt at home. Although every country we passed had its own different language and alphabet, I was able to understand the conversations on the radio and in the shops. I was even able to speak in Bulgarian and buy what I wanted. Made of different tribes, we were once one country and even if we developed various dialects throughout the past centuries, we still speak in the same tongue.
After hearing how beautiful Gent was, I finally had a chance to see it with my own eyes. The specific architecture made it look like a fairy tale town. On the wider spectrum, one can choose between a vast amount of century old churches, modern design and art galleries. Not to mention the amazing Belgium beer and chocolate!
Dijon is a typical French city with its old part of town and modern districts. Its tiny cobbled streets, churches, museums, large squares, antique markets… they made me fall in love with its beauty. The camera ran out of battery, but I captured amazing memories in my heart. I really didn’t want to leave Dijon so quickly!
Because of its high altitude, Grenoble was covered in fog in the evening. Our loft apartment was on the 5th floor, but all we could see at night were the roof tops around us. When we woke up, the view of mountain ranges surrounding us from each direction was breathtaking!
The French Alps
The French Alps deserve a separate blog post. When we entered Italy, the motorway was cutting through many tunnels which made it easier and quicker to get to Milan, but whilst in France we had a choice of 3 routes – motorway was probably the quickest; another short mountain road which was closed for road works; and one really narrow long road with many bends. Well, we chose the last option.
It took us at least 3 hours longer, but the views were worth it! We passed many scenic small French villages. I must admit that I had my eyes closed most of the time – there was a sequence of hairpin roads through the mountains. We stopped a couple of times just to admire the view and take pictures.
The duomo of Milan exceeded all of my expectations with its size and detail. The city was buzzing with people and the shops make it a destination for any fashion lover. A main difficulty I must mention is the parking – it’s literally impossible to find a spot for parking on the streets of Milan at any time around the clock, so finding an underground car park is a must.
It wasn’t planned to stop in Slovenia at all, but we realized that it would take too long to drive from Milan to Zagreb in Croatia, so we decided to stay in Slovenia’s capital instead.
With having no idea what the country was like, we discovered a place we utterly fell in love with. Ljubljana is full of nice and polite people which are ready to help you at any time. The food is amazing, the architecture, the art galleries, the shops, the craft beer… We’re already planning our next visit!
One thing to note, the temperatures in Ljubljana were noticeably lower than any of the other places we stayed in during that week.
We were lacking time, so we couldn’t stop in Croatia, as initially planned. We drove through the country at late evening and only stopped for petrol. It’s still on our bucket list, so hopefully, next summer, we’ll be able to get to its beaches.
A busy capital, Belgrade is a city thats kept the memory of a recent civil war and lots of other historical artifacts. The language sounded like mine, but with a harder accent. Tempting shops and cafes and very intriguing architecture.
Stara Zagora, Bulgaria
We drove really long on the last day and arrived in my hometown Stara Zagora just an hour after midnight on the 25th of December. Luckily, my kind parents had left a warm dinner in the oven for us, so we could enjoy it after an exhausting day.
Tips for driving through Europe
We were lucky enough to have a really mild winter weather during our trip and no snow. When the evenings drew in, the fog did too. The whole drive was a little exhausting, but fun at the same time. I became a professional navigator and we both learnt a few things for a self-drive trip. If you’re considering a European Grand Tour, keep in mind the following:
- Winter tyres and snow chains were recommended but not necessary in the countries we drove through. Before you head on the road, make sure you check the rules for driving abroad in winter.
- Petrol prices – each country has different prices, so it’s handy to know where you can cheaply fill up the tank to the brim.
- Different petrol stations – fuel is usually more expensive on the motorways, so make sure you fill up before you leave the town. When you’re driving for a whole week, budgeting your petrol is a very important part of the trip.
- Currencies – Most of the countries have Euros, but Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria didn’t. Usually the first petrol station after you cross a border will exchange Euros to the local currency, so no need to worry about that in advance.
- European Union and Shengen – Serbia is not part of the European Union. You can drive through most countries without even realizing you crossed a border, because of the Shengen agreement. Make sure you’ve given yourself an additional 2 hours for queuing when entering a country outside the Shengen or EU.
- Sat Nav – as a navigator the printed maps we had were enough for me to know the roads. Sometimes they would be outdated, or simply wouldn’t show you enough details. Therefore, I needed real time google navigation, especially to find our hotels at late night. I paid £3 a day for Internet roaming, so I could use Google maps. In Serbia it costed me more, because it’s not part of the EU.
- Debit card or cash – we thought that it was safer to use our debit cards rather than keeping cash, but were soon to find how wrong we were. Many cash points would not read our Visa debit cards which can get quite stressful at 11 pm when you’re checking into a hotel. Also, when you put petrol using your debit card, the system will hold a certain amount of money from your bank account (the maximum amount of litres times the price) and will only release it after a few working days when the transaction gets completed successfully. When we realised that our bank statements were going up and down every single day, we started using cash.
- Road toll and vignette – make sure you take the road taxes into consideration. In France and Italy we paid almost the same amount for road taxes as for fuel. In the rest of the other countries, the prices for tolls or vignettes got a lot cheaper. It’s better to keep some cash in the local currency to pay at the booths. You can pay the toll in Euros even in Croatia and Serbia which is not part of EU, but they give you change in the local currency.
I hope these tips will come in useful, if you’re planning a self-drive trip too.
All in all, we had an amazing road tour! We did learn a few things, we were going to bed exhausted every night, but the time spent in each other’s company exploring all the different cities was amazing. It was exciting, beautiful and so inspiring 🙂