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23 September 2015

Drive Across Europe: 12 Countries In 24 Hours

Why not drive across Europe in a day?

The hotel receptionist on England’s Kent coast routinely asked where I was going that day.

“France,” I replied. Before she could say: “Well, have a safe…” I continued: “Then Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg.” She looked mildly impressed. “Then down to Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein,” I added. She started to look a bit puzzled. “Then into Austria, cutting across the top of Italy and finally down into Croatia via Slovenia by this time tomorrow.”

She looked at me speechlessly, as if I’d just had some kind of mental breakdown. But I walked out to the car park with a big smile. Big drives across Europe are great 21-st century adventures.

Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall

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Car

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That was the day I drove to 12 countries in 24 hours. Of course, it was an exhausting marathon motorway trek. I did 1,145 miles in 19 hours 40 minutes and at the time it was a world record. Admittedly, I had an excuse for my mad motoring marathon: I was writing for a glossy international magazine and I shared the driving with a photographer (who wondered what he’d done wrong to merit such an assignment).

I’m not suggesting any of you should try the same thing but I can tell you it was GREAT FUN. There aren’t many 24-hour periods in my life where I’ve seen so much and felt like I’ve achieved such a wonderful, if completely, meaningless feat. News of my 12 countries-in-a-day glory traveled around the world. And my achievement prompted a wave of further attempts to break the record. The last time I checked it stood at an almost unbelievable 17 countries in 24 hours.

Driving

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But you don’t need to go to extremes to enjoy motoring across Europe in a day. Wherever you go, you can have a memorable motoring adventure by utilising the open borders and excellent roads across the continent. Along the way it’s easy to dip into a wide range of different cultures.

I’ve had many great motoring adventures driving across Europe in a day. I found that six-countries-in-a-day is easy. And I managed ten nations in a day in an unreliable old Rover. It was the middle of a snowy winter but that just made for a better view from the continent’s wonderfully cleared and maintained motorways.

It’s perfectly possible, for example, to have breakfast in Brussels, lunch in Luxembourg and dinner in Dusseldorf and still make it home that night. Imagine the next day telling your friends where you went yesterday. It’s a relatively cheap way to get a world-class, impressive adventure.

Luxembourg

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For example, a drive from Calais in France to Warsaw in Poland will rack up five countries in about 900 miles. It will take you about 14 hours to drive and cost around 150 Euros in fuel and tolls. You’ll drive from the white cliffs of the English Channel, through the flat countryside of the Low Countries, across rolling German hills, then through the Polish forests. You’ll be able to stop off for meals at amazing places close to the route, like Bruges, Brussels and Berlin.

Or try driving from Brest (France) to Bratislava (Slovakia). That’s only four countries, but a hefty bout of 1200 miles from the rugged Atlantic shores to the old East European capital on the Danube. It’s a long day of 19 hours driving that will need to be shared and the tolls and fuel will cost about 250 Euros. But what a day!

Brest-France

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Something easier? How about Zurich to Zagreb? This is a mere day trip of 500 miles or less than ten hours. Tolls and fuel will cost you about 170 Euros.

Using the spectacular new Oresund Bridge, Malmo (Sweden) to Prague (Czechoslovakia) via Denmark and Germany is just 520 miles. For those that want to make a multi-day adventure how about Nordkap at the northern extreme of Norway to Cap Terifa at the southern point of Spain? It’s 3,500 miles and will probably take you a week with overnight stops. But you’d see all the types of landscapes Europe has to offer along the way.

Oresund-Bridge,-Sweden

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Today, it’s easy to fly to and from both ends of a drive like this. Pick up a hire car at the first airport and away you go…

And Europe is now criss-crossed with multi-lane motorways. National borders and mountain passes used to mean travelers would take days crossing the continent. Now we can do it in a few hours.

In fact, forget the backpacker’s view of travel that dominates guidebooks, this trucker-style travel gives you a more authentic flying snapshot of Europe in the 21st century. I remember a little old lady in a red-and-white nylon uniform at a service station near Ghent chuckling at my stumbling French. ‘I can speak any language you want,’ she assured me in perfect English. At a motorway services in Luxembourg there’s a sign saying “11 languages spoken here”.

Instead of the traditional differences between nations, you’ll spot more interesting modern clues that you’ve crossed international borders. Travel becomes less about classic tourist clichés like national costume, local delicacies and unique church interiors – instead you notice the national traits by the selection of goods in motorway service cold cabinets and the way a country’s character is displayed in road signs and driving styles.

Germany-road-sign

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The German ‘Men at work’ sign, for example, features a stylised pin man who seems to be working a lot harder than the more elegantly drawn, posing figure on equivalent signs over the French border. Swiss services sell a gruesome array of hunting knives while Arlon services in Belgium includes three-star hotel bedrooms on a bridge over the motorway with perfect views of the juggernauts thundering underneath. Italian tollbooth operators can be very flirtatious, while Austrian border officials can look like Special Forces commandos.

On a long drive across Europe you learn to enjoy the evolving landscape framed by your windscreen. From snowy mountain passes through the Alps to the sun rising over a glistening Mediterranean, I’ve found you can achieve much of the best stuff… and you don’t even have to leave your car seat.

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