It’s been a tough & eventful year in many ways & the year has flown by. After a very busy 3 weeks in the UK sorting things ranging from health issues, diet, selling off old furniture & a caravan, preparing my brothers car for sale, I was packing as I always do, 3 hours before my flight back to Bucharest when I had the crazy notion to buy the car myself from my brother & drive back the 3700 km instead of using a perfectly comfortable seat on the 3-hour flight.
It was so nice to spend some time back in Shipston, a wonderful market town I left 11 years ago when I rented my house & moved to Romania. Nothing much has changed, with many of the same old friendly faces, and plenty of new ones as the town booms. Truly a model community in a wonderful countryside setting & a place I could happily retire there after I have grown up! At least for a few months before the travel bug kicks in again, I imagine. The only problem with stretching your horizons & imagination by travelling is, that it no longer fits your old life.
After meeting with a few old & great friends in the UK, I was reminded how fortunate we are to have interesting & loyal people beside you in life. They add so much colour. One old buddy I knew from the Oxford Salsa scene in the late 1990’s was showing me his life-blog in which he left the comfort of Oxford to go live 5 meters up a tree in a Costa Rican rainforest with his 2 small kids & younger wife. Tales of all-night parties, of tasting the barrel of a loaded Cold 45 in his mouth, bar fights, accidentally crossing borders with contraband cargo & petting the border guard dog, only later to see what was in his bag would have seen him locked up for a long time. We reminisced about our misadventures in Cuba together in 1996. After just a few hours with this friend, I reminded myself how rich & exciting life has been & how it is important to water the flowers of friendship regularly, lest they are expired relationships when you most need them.
So, after a very nice Thai meal in the Black Horse pub the night before, I spent the day in Staines, Kingston, Chertsey & Weybridge sorting out all sorts of loose ends of personal stuff. At 6 pm, I set off for Kent, to say bye to a good friend in Kent & eat together. One quick hour of power nap with earplugs & eyemask before finishing the last 90 mins down to Dover.
Day 1 KM Zero, Shipston to Tirano, Italy
I booked a last-minute ferry & set off to find the best roads in Switzerland & Italy to colour my otherwise long trip home. Trying to remember which roads the TopGear trio was raving about.
1 am, I sat parked on the Dover dockside, making a mental list of everything that could go wrong & what to do in each case. 3 am, onto an almost empty ferry, 530 Dunkirk time, and its go-time. Feels a lot like getting out of bed straight into the racing lane of a marathon circuit when you leave the Ferry. From slow crawling on & off the boat, with papers & gadgets all over the passenger seat, you end up directly in a fast dual carriageway sending you deep into France with trucks bearing down hard on any slow drivers.
Onwards into France in the dawn light, roof down in the light rain & occasional sunshine, earplugs & baseball cap donned to prevent tiredness & wind in my eyes.
After a long day, I finally enter Bern, Switzerland & then on down to Interlaken, Lake Luzern & Thun, up into the mountains again towards Italy, still roof down driving under the stars by this time, through the fog of low clouds at the crest of the alps & 12’c temperatures. Finally, after 15 hours on the continent,I stop in St Moritz to marvel at the architecture & the amazing beauty it exhibits by night, & to get some of the 430 litres of petrol I consumed on the trip. Here I had my first crisis momentarily. My Lloyds bank card never works. If I take it out of my wallet with thewrong fingers, it gets blocked. My Bancpost-Romania card is only good for cutting cheese and opening doors (allegedly!) so I was reliant on my HSBC card, but since these unmanned petrol pumps in remote places are common card scamming sites I heard, HSBC also refused the transaction. Amazingly though, the Bancpost one worked but it never worked before on this trip, nor after. A single event, although it rarely works in Romania either.
Onwards a few hours into Tirano Italy through a small border crossing. The border guards search my car & ask why I have three 4 litre bottles of Engine oil in my footwell. I couldn’t easily explain to him that at the speeds I had been travelling the empty roads on, you tend to use more than normal engine oil but he waves me through, thinking most probably, ‘only a crazy Englishman would drive through the mountains at 1 am with the roof down’. Onwards to a small town’s factory & I park in the staff car park at 1.30 am so as not to stand out. 4 hours later, I awake to someone peering in the window asking aloud whose car this is, since many of the workers’ cars were somewhat simpler utilitarian ones.
Day 2: 1600 km completed so far, onwards from Tirano Italy to Sibiu
05.30 am Time to go so I rub my eyes, I down some fruit juice, eat a salad for Breakfast & head back on the twisty alpine roads again. Quite a way to wake up. After an hour, I stop at 6.30 am for coffee in a small, surprisingly busy Italian café, 1 hours driving north of Lake Como, my next destination.
Quick catch up on emails, a conversation with my business partner (it’s already 730am in Bucharest) & away I go. Being a torrential rainstorm, no chance of the roof down for this part. At 7.30 am, I arrive from the north passing the incredible beauty that is Lake Como. A quick photo stop, to capture the memories, wash my face in the lake’s water & head onwards to Venice/ Trieste, on the Adriatic coast. My Satnav reads only 1200km to Bucharest so I pause to wash my face again in the sea, take a walk & post some pics on facebook.
Onwards to Slovenia & the amazing beauty that is Ljubljana. Now somehow my sat nav reads 1400km to home. Lost 3 hours on a closed highway so I taught myself a new trick. How many straws can you fit one inside another, while crawling at 2km for the afternoon? I counted plenty before I gave up. There’s a technique to this that I won’t share because I want to save it for barroom tricks & the chance of winning a few bets.
Onwards to Budapest & another motorway closure for an hour before the long fast sprint down through Szeged & onto the Romanian border. Time to wake the heck up now, despite 15 hours driving. Rules are very different here & assuming that driving without care for those around you will get you in serious trouble. It’s not uncommon to see unlit horse-drawn carriages on highways & country roads with drunk navigators at the reins. Been there, done that, so I summon my full focus when driving back from afar into Romania. After an hour or 2 on the new highway, onto to the horribly broken, pot-holed serpentine & sunken roads that follow where the motorway is unfinished, between Timisoara & Sibiu. Then back onto the highway for another new section & 130km later you reach Sibiu. This is where you need to be wide awake, but for me, it was already 3 am, 22 hours after setting out from Como Lake.
Just outside Sibiu, you have to take the beautiful but lethal Valea Oltului, or Valley of Death as I call it. I consider myself an experienced & well-trained driver, with advanced, test pilot & racing licences in my former life as a Car Design Engineer. But even with all that skill, at that hour, you need 2 more things. Lots of luck & God to be on your team. Driving a supercharged 450 horsepower car gives you the ability to move around quickly, change lanes, escape danger, make overtakes in the shortest time & distance desirable. But it doesnțt prevent the drivers of white vans with big car trailers or trucks 50 cm from your bumper as you are hemmed in, in front by other cars, drawing your focus on the mirror rather than the car in front. And from crazy overtakes in both directions. At many times on the 160km valley road, you will have to make sudden changes of plan. By day, its much easier & pleasant even. By night, it could not be more different.
Around 20km into that 160km, the road was closed. 3.15am, 13km of stationary traffic as people waited for what we guessed, was a bad accident to be cleared away. People were sitting by the road, playing cards, repacking their luggage, chatting & waiting. Lots of waiting. After half an hour or so I decided to use google maps to find an alternative as the road was clearly not going to free up any time soon. I ended up going through a hillside village & onto a forest road, so extreme that I was crawling at 4-5 km/h until after some distance, an hour maybe, I decided it was crazy to continue the 20km to the other side so I turned around, checked that the queue had not moved an inch, so found a quiet space & slept from 5.30 am.
Day 3: 3250 km completed so far, onwards from Sibiu to Vama Veche, Romania
Becuase of the 6 hours lost in Ljubljana and 1 in Budapest caused by closed highways, I was going to need an extra day. But the previous plan was to be home and on the way to the beach by now.
8 am, I awoke, refreshed myself with too many cigarettes & I re-joined the previously closed valley road, now clear & sunny, & the 160km whizzed by. I did see the site of the horrendous wreckage & the news the next day showed this images included here. This road has scenes like this all too regularly & I promised myself I would never drive it at night again, because invariably, I am coming from a long distance by the time I reach here. I can’t think of too many roads where I say my prayers in thanksgiving after using it
The trip from there (Pitesti) to Bucharest was uneventful, 33-degree heat meant having the roof down was a challenge. So I arrived back home, quick shower, ginger & lemon tea, bowl of soup, packed a new bag with tent, sleeping bag & some beach clothes, grabbed my willing housemate, a work colleague & his partner, & we set off to Vama Veche Beach to catch probably the last weekend of the year.
3 short hours later, we arrive at the beach, find a spot on the coast next to the best club, Acolo & I start to make plans to dance in the best music bars on the beach until sunrise, fooling myself I had another 8 hours of battery power left in me to reach 630am awake.
For those of you who don’t know Vama Veche (or Old Border), it is a beach like no other. Just a few hundred meters from the Bulgarian border, it used to be a hippy commune. Now it is for THE place for the thinking man (& woman).
I have travelled around the world & never come across a place this special. It has no match. Run down tatty, badly decorated makeshift houses, hotels, shops amid ugly misplaced new constructions. Multiple 24hr supermarkets with prices 2 to 3x normal shops (eg, a beer is 10 Ron & only 4 Ron in a regular supermarket), but they are always busy day & night, at every hour. Every possible type of person you can imagine, you will find here, without class barriers. Rich & poor, young & old. One thing they have in common is, they have good vibes & good intentions. Rock bar, a hipster bar, hip-hop/ electro, latin, every genre, all full, sitting untidily side by side & not a shred of tension or disturbance. You will almost never see the one Police car in town and you will definitely never see him get out of his car. The music is excellent, whatever your taste & the people dance, mostly sober until the sun rises.
This is a credit to Romania & a testimony to what good, traditional upbringing does to a society in the long run. Yes, there are people on substances, & drinking away, some heavily, some not. But the overall feeling is of couples dating, groups of friends away for the weekend, of crazy old hippies refusing to grow old & of music fanatics getting the dose of their drug of choice, cool music.
So, with my grand plan of enjoying the same, I put up my tent at 10 pm, lay down for 5 mins rest, & woke up naturally at 7 am to see the misty sunrise! So much for partying. I spend the rest of Sunday resting & recharging my batteries, after the 3700km drive. At the end of Sunday, I headed back to Bucharest & was back in the office fresh & fully charged with ideas & creativity, for Monday morning and a string of Real Estate requests.
You can’t beat travel to expand the mind, especially with the roof down on mountain roads.
Total trip, 3700 km, 60 hours.