“Nothing interesting ever happens on motorways or in hotels,” says Charley Boorman, poring over the humongous map of Europe currently cascading over the edges of his kitchen table. “You need to put yourselves in places where adventure can find you.”
Historically, a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe was a rite of passage for young Englishmen: a cultural pilgrimage across the continent, expanding their cultural and social horizons over a period of months, even years. My goal this summer – along with a photographer and videographer – is a 21st Century spin on that concept, confined to one calendar month: a “mini” Grand Tour.
We’re aiming to take in all the key stopping points of a traditional Tour – from Calais to Vienna to Rome – but also to unearth some hidden gems en route, from the depths of Europe’s “forgotten” countries like Wallonia, Transylvania and Moravia to the backstreets of her liveliest second cities, such as Aarhus, Turku and Brno.
Unlike our 18th and 19th Century forebears, of course, we’re not restricted to horse and carriage as our primary means of propulsion. So to even things up, we’re making it more difficult for ourselves. Blessed with tarmac roads and GPS, we’re aiming to visit every EU country during our Tour. There are 28 in total, from the UK to Cyprus, and to make the route function within the confines of a calendar month (or, more presciently, the confines of Europe’s car ferry schedules) we’ll need to cross two others in addition: Turkey and Albania. So there you have it, a neat target for our millennial road trip: 30 countries in just over a month – and back in Britain for the referendum on June 23.
It’s a big challenge, and one that could easily get out of hand, as many of the original Grand Tours famously did. To troubleshoot this, a “bear-master” would traditionally be appointed: a wiser, more experienced head who’d been there and seen it all before. In our case, that’s where Charley Boorman comes in.
“The first two or three days will be a bit confusing, but after that you’ll get into the rhythm of travelling and things will just happen to you,” says Charley whose epic road trips include The Long Way Round and The Long Way Down, both undertaken over thousands of miles on motorbikes with best friend Ewan McGregor.
“At various stages you’re going to get cabin fever, and you’re going to annoy the hell out of each other, but that’s when you know you need to either eat or sleep,” continues our bear-master. “You need to channel your inner dog: know when you need food and when you need rest. And if you get stressed, know when you need to go walkies. You need to become road dogs.”
Like Charley’s own missions, planning the route was our first major hurdle. Thankfully we had expert help on that front too, in the form or London-based adventure travel specialists The Flash Pack.
Owners Lee Thompson and Radha Vyas painstakingly plotted our path across Europe, with the help of British company Aferry, who booked the 12 car ferries necessary to complete our continental circumnavigation.
The monster circuit will take us from the English Channel through the Benelux countries and up through Denmark to Sweden and Finland. From here we cross the Baltic Sea to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania before zigzagging down through Eastern Europe, and out to Cyprus after crossing Turkey from north to south. From here, we swing back round through Greece and Albania for a ferry across the Adriatic, before travelling around the boot of Italy and onto Sicily. After racing down the East Coast of the Mediterranean’s biggest island, we shoot out to Malta, before using a cunning combination of ferries to whisk us from Palermo to Rome and across the Mediterranean to Barcelona. Then it’s the final stretch: northern Portugal, Spain’s Basque coast, then up through Western France to Cherbourg and onto Dublin, before returning on our final ferry to Liverpool.
“Loads of stuff will happen to you on an adventure like this; you won’t be able to help it,” grins Charley as he waves us off from his house in Wimbledon. “You’re going to come across all sorts of hilarious things, just keep your eyes open. That’s the ultimate beauty of a road trip like this: you have complete and utter freedom to explore and an entire continent waiting.”