European Circle By Car
3 - 4 Months
Text and Photos: Andreas Staab
I have been thinking about this for some time now: So many people I know have embarked on one of the ultimate road trips and drove in a big loop around the USA; a good 24,000 km (15,000 miles) or the equivalent of some 1,200 hours of driving. Although I am sure they are out there, I personally do not know of anyone who has done a similar feat over here: driving along the perimeters of Europe.
My northernmost point so far: Are, Sweden
Some clarifications: Islands are excluded. That would just be too cumbersome with all those ferry rides, so Iceland, the UK, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus unfortunately do not appear on this itinerary. I should also aim to hug the coastline as close a possible, otherwise it is not really a circumnavigation. And then there is the age-old dilemma of defining the eastern fringes of Europe. St. Petersburg certainly has the look of a European city. The same applies to some extent to Kiev in Ukraine. But tough entry restrictions in Russia, and the volatile political situation in Ukraine (not to mention Belarus) makes me rather reluctant to include those locations. In the western Balkans, should non-EU countries be included? Without making a political stand, by simply looking at a map, the answer becomes rather straightforward. Travelling only through EU countries means that at some stage I would end up in Dubrovnik on the southern tip of Croatia, where I will be surrounded by non-EU countries, namely Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro. To get to my next EU destination, I would then have to travel all the way back up to Croatia’s border with Hungary. That just seems silly. So, for these obvious practical reasons, EU candidates should be on the list.
I got to work on a route planner (on this occasion, I used www.rac.co.uk/routeplanner), and to my amazement ended up with 23,000 km, practically the same distance as a fully-fledged U.S. road trip. I could of course drive the whole thing in one go, doing 1,000 km per day, and be done in three weeks, but I leave that ordeal to any aspiring race organisers. But maybe I could do 800 km or so, every 3 days? I did pretty much that when I embarked on my American road trips all those years ago. And on more isolated stretches (such as in northern Scandinavia), I could clock up some more miles, while in other places I might fancy a more leisurely pace. But whichever way I go about it, ultimately, the trip would come in at a whopping 3, most likely 4 months. I would certainly encounter fierce resistance (if not ridicule) from my family if I were to disappear for such a long period of time, but maybe I could sneak out and do the tour in several stages ....
My easternmost point so far: Krakow, Poland
And what should I visit and look out for? It seems pointless to merely clock up architectural highlights and cultural artefacts. Guggenheim in Bilbao? Done. Coliseum in Rome? Ditto. Maybe this tour should be more about people who hopefully could provide me with a deeper understanding of just how diverse this dense continent of ours is? It very handily would also force me to get out of the comfort zone of the lonely traveller and engage with as many locals as possible. Maybe I could also contact some friends and colleagues, who hopefully would not mind spending the odd hour over a cup of coffee, telling me a little bit more about the place they live in? And of course, I should aim to visit those spots that so far have not been on my travel radar. I have been to many but most certainly not to all European countries, so this is definitely something to look forward to. I have read about the Bialowieza Forest in Poland. I heard that Romania harbours the biggest wolf population in Europe, and I never made it to the spot where Norway, Russia and Finland meet.
My southernmost point so far: Tarifa, Spain
Slotting down the distances from the route planner, I realised that the trip can be roughly organised into four sections. Hooray! This is very handy if I were to do the circumnavigation in stages. There is the northern European part, encompassing the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as well as the lowlands of Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern Germany. Driving through those states totals a good 7,000 km. Then there is the western stretch along the Atlantic coast of Fance, Spain, and Portugal and across the Mediterranean to the French-Italian border. That is a further 6,000 km. Then there is the southern leg with Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro that comes close to 5,000 km (Italy alone is around 3,000 km). And lastly, there is the eastern European section to look forward to: some 5,000 km from Albania to Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The country count would be 25. That is a surprisingly comprehensive list and apart from the aforementioned islands, the trip would integrate all European countries bar the microstates of Andorra, San Marino, the Vatican, Liechtenstein, as well as Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. 25 out of 44 countries: This should – at least in my book - count as a truly EPIC European road trip.
My westernmost point so far: somewhere on the Atlantic coast, Portugal
So how about the vehicle? Many moons ago, I travelled across North America in a whale-sized 1976 Plymouth Fury, and camped wherever I could in order to save money. This time too, the journey in large parts would cover remote countryside, so camping once again seems an obvious solution, that is also less impactful on the environment than multiple stays in hotels. My obvious thoughts are turning to a campervan: no pitching up during a downpour and a comfortable mattress for my ageing bones. But even a 20-year old banger does not come cheap in these lean Covid times, and in any case, most likely has a toxic-spewing diesel engine. So I guess I just have to rely on my rather old Lexus SUV, which every now and then appears in some pictures on this website; 16 years and counting. The car is comfortable and feels more like driving a sofa. I could just fold the back seats down, throw in that mattress and camping stuff, and should be set to go. And the fact that it is a hybrid should allow me to offset my carbon footprint without robbing a bank. But at 190,000 km on the clock? I just have to keep my fingers crossed and hope that I do not get stuck in some isolated corner on the Polish-Lithuanian border.
Now we just have to wait for that horrific virus to subside. I’ll keep you posted.