Travel: From Istanbul by `people bus'

What's it like to cross Europe by car? And is it cheaper than flying? Hugh Pope found out, the hard way
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The Independent Travel
Perhaps I just wanted to know if it was feasible. Or because taking an aeroplane year after year seemed too easy, and, frankly, boring. A few hours' flight high over the enticing snow-capped mountains and green plains of Europe and I was back in the same traffic jam out of Heathrow.

What would it be like, I wondered, to drive from one end of Europe to the other? Was this not why we had bought a big, air-conditioned American "people mover", doubtless itching for the open road after a year of school and supermarket runs? And how easy the map made it look! A sweeping run from Istanbul, where I work, across the north of Greece to the Adriatic port of Igoumenitsa, our jumping-off point for Italy's autostradas heading north and home.

The last ferry from there, the agent said, would leave at 11.30pm. It occurred to us that it might be easier to turn back. But our honour was engaged. We had to do it. It was just unfortunate that we celebrated the decision by taking a wrong turn out of Kavala, giving ourselves an extra hour along a lonely mountain road.

But here we were, 11 hours and 800km (500 miles) out of Istanbul, hitting one of the ugly city of Thessaloniki's revolving rush hours. There were nine hours left to reach Igoumenitsa.

Soon afterwards we struck east into real mountains. For the last 100 miles to Ioannina we twisted up to a 1,700-metre (5,600ft) pass which amply showed why the Ottoman governors of the province often ended up as independent kinglets.

The road seemed to be following the line of the old donkey track, but it was also beautifully cambered. Our big car zipped between mist-bound hairpin bends, past marble blocks that had tumbled off on to the edge of ravines. For me, it was an exhilarating experience. My white-knuckled wife kept her own counsel.

With my watch showing 10.10pm, we careened around the mountain lake and the outskirts of Ioannina. There was still hope of reaching the ferry in a last plunge through more mountains to the port of Igoumenitsa. By a miracle, we survived and made it on the dot of 11.30. The ferry was still loading in the harbour, alone and brightly lit against the black sea.

I pulled up at the harbour entrance, the tyres hot and fragrant, 17 hours and 1300km (810 miles) out of Istanbul. I was sent back. "You have to buy a ticket," the customs men not unreasonably advised us. In my haste I then spent pounds 200 on a cabin in the wrong ferry, and (through lack of choice) to the wrong port, not convenient Ancona, but Brindisi, closer by sea but further to the south of Italy.

Our ferry eventually steamed in late at 3.30am. It had no air-conditioning and few passengers, and one of its engines broke down in mid-Adriatic, forcing us to proceed at walking speed.

"Oh, don't worry," the pretty Anglo-Greek purser airily said. "We heard on the radio that the gas tank of another ferry blew up today, and of course you know about the one that ran aground three days ago. During the season, they don't stop for repairs, you know."

We eased into the pretty port of Brindisi at 3.30pm. After the Greek roadworks, the Italian autostrada was beautiful, straight as the seam of a stocking up from the heel of Italy, the laurel bushes in the dividing strip bursting with pink and white blooms, the succession of high bridges and deep tunnels a breathtaking tribute to long-forgotten engineers.

We were far behind schedule, but our spirits could not help rising in the Italian autostrada cafes. Each was as friendly as the next, with chatty espresso bars and delicious sandwiches.

The Italians also drive fast, which suited us. Our need to beat the clock forced us to hurtle through the night, and I found I much preferred driving the motorway at night. Traffic evaporates and the illusion of movement is much greater, since you see only close speeding lights, not the unchanging countryside mocking your slow progress from a distance.

By 4.30am, 13 hours out of Brindisi, 47 hours out of Istanbul, and pounds 40 out of pocket to the autostrada system, we reached the Mont Blanc tunnel. A credit card swipe relieved us of pounds 25 more for the pleasure of driving through it. Then, as dawn broke over Lake Geneva, the Swiss helped themselves to pounds 25 for a 10-minute short cut through their country. The fine castles that still guard each bend through Aosta-Chamonix valleys up to Mont Blanc doubtless once ran a similarly extortionate system.

For a while it all seemed worth it as we bowled along the lovely roads and awakening countryside of eastern France. Sitting at the little town square cafe in Polignac, to the south west of Lyons, I mocked the vapour trails of the jets overhead. But I will also remember how much our coffees and croissants set us back when, next time, I am looking down from an aircraft eating my free breakfast.

Seen from the autoroute, the countryside turned flat, dry and dull as we headed north of Dijon and through the Champagne country, reaching a series of road signs that read like a history of the First World War.

It was with considerable relief that we confronted the question of how we should cross the Channel when we reached Calais, 10 hours from Mont Blanc, 22 hours from Brindisi and 57 hours from Istanbul. How much would it cost to take Le Shuttle through the Channel tunnel? "pounds 64.95," said the man in the ticket booth. "Is that your cheapest?" I asked. "Well, if you take the day return, it's pounds 59," the man answered.

Le Shuttle is so quick and frequent that almost all its passengers felt obliged to linger for hours in a nearby shopping centre. We tried to have a French meal to celebrate, but had to take the only fare on offer: Le Burger King.

Then came England. A motorway of cheap, concrete slabs, and shabby-looking small fields, made the place seem the most primitive we had seen since somewhere back in Greece - even the Turkish motorway was better - and the muddled scenes around a long M25 roadworks completed the impression that we were back on the margins of Europe.

It took another two hours to reach our final destination in Oxford. We had driven for 40 hours (not counting sleeping and eating time) over 3,880 kilometres (2,425 miles) from Istanbul, burnt 373 litres of petrol and in a total of 60 hours' travel had spent pounds 600 - almost exactly the cost of a family's return air fares.

Now that it is over, a sense of pride and achievement has crept in, and I also have a hard-earned new sense for the geography of Europe, and an admiration for a new political unity that meant our passports were only glanced at twice. Our car papers were never asked for.

I also found out about a new European sense of cash. I never once had to worry about money. Cash machines coughed out local banknotes; credit cards were acceptable in most places. But with my pockets now full of useless small change and teller slips testifying to how much banks have ripped me off, I have become a firm supporter of the Euro.

And I have also learned an important lesson. Personal cars were indeed made for trips to schools and supermarkets. Next time I shall take the plane, and hire somebody else's car when I get there.