Europe is Not a Small Place
It’s an overcast morning, which I’ve come to associate with perfect driving weather since the sun can’t glare in my eyes, rain doesn’t slippen the roads, and sunshine’s shadows won’t ruin the travel photos I’m taking for my Instagram account. I’m halfway through a 30-hour sailing from Bilbao to Portsmouth, perched in a lounge five decks above my Land Cruiser looking out over the Atlantic Ocean while drinking English Breakfast Tea in honor of sailing to the United Kingdom. We’re currently slicing through a strait off the French coast near Brest, flanked on either side by lighthouses, in a stretch of dangerous water dotted with thousands of small islands and jagged rocks. There is no question in my mind that some of the first lighthouses ever created by mankind were installed here, and I can see several of them on the horizon right now.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been hearing from a lot of friends and acquaintances. Countless suggestions, questions and comments about my trip, all of which I’ve appreciated, but the one that’s given me the most pause, without an easy answer, has been “…what have you learned?” Of course, I’ve learned many things on this trip, and gained many insights, but it’s taking a bit longer to discover the deeper insights.
After arriving in Frankfurt in early March, the Land Cruiser has gathered close to 10,000 miles, roughly enough to cross the United States four times. I have piloted it through 19 countries so far, with another 10–15 potentially left on the itinerary between now and early June. I’m only halfway. All this driving offers a lot of time to observe, analyze, reflect and think. Most Americans don’t appreciate how physically huge Europe is. When you drive a vehicle, even when you’re on a well-built superhighway, you start to grasp the enormity of the place.
You can also see for yourself how the economic base of a country or region changes. When you drive for hours — at 85 miles per hour — through enormous olive groves coating hillsides in Spain en route to Madrid from Gibraltar, you start to wonder why people usually associate olive oil with Italy. And then in conversation locals point out that a lot of “Italian” olive oil is actually grown in other countries, like Tunisia and Spain.
One of my biggest surprises is the amount of agriculture to be found in Europe. Pretty much anywhere you find flat land, it’s being used for agriculture. Another surprise is the number of mountain ranges. Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but clearly many national borders are defined by geographic features such as mountains and rivers. When you see firsthand the difficulties inherent in crossing mountain ranges or wide fast-flowing rivers between European countries, you start to think about how it made some regions more defensible than others. Or how people might avoid traveling through the mountains or avoid crossing rivers, leading to a divergence of languages and dialects.
Although this shouldn’t be a surprise, I’ve seen many cars with Ukrainian plates in Europe, especially in Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. The occupants of these cars are usually women, often with kids inside. It’s a regular reminder of the war next door which many of locals are very unhappy with, but also avoid talking about.
One of the little surprises is that it’s hard to find stickers in souvenir shops in Europe. I’ve been accumulating stickers representing places I’ve driven the Land Cruiser to, but it’s been hard to find them in many of the countries, and have had to resort to getting many of them FedEx’d to me from the USA.
One day my passport was stamped six times. I woke up in Istanbul, drove into Bulgaria, and then, prompted by an exit sign, randomly decided to drive down into Greece. After lunch at a beach restaurant crowded with locals in Kavala, a bright sunny Greek town grown like barnacles on a hillside overlooking the northern Aegean Sea, I drove back to Bulgaria to stay in Sofia for the evening. Most of that day was spent on traffic-free secondary two-lane roads, driving through regions with endless green fields of agriculture stretching to the horizon, multiple mountain passes, warm weather, chilly weather, sunshine and rain.
Traveling between countries by land in Europe can be jarring at times. Languages change rapidly, signs change, attitudes change. Sometimes you can feel the culture merging with the culture of the adjacent country as you near a border — for example, Switzerland’s Lugano feels like part of Italy — but often it’s an abrupt shift the moment you clear immigration and customs. Other times, such as when I drove through southwestern France into the Pyrénées towards Andorra and Spain, you could feel the influence of Spanish culture creeping into the names and architecture of towns.
My relentless pace to take in as much of Europe by car has become grueling at times. Many days have become stressful tradeoffs. How hard do I push to get to my destination for the day? Should I linger at my last destination in the morning? What might I miss? Should I climb to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar and see the caves and monkeys I’ve heard about from friends, or is it better to push on to Madrid and arrive before dark? That town I’ve heard about halfway to Porto … should I stop and explore that castle? Well, that sounds great, but parking might be tough and if I spend too much time at the castle, I’ll get to Porto too late and won’t get a chance to explore the old town. Should I use the high-speed toll road to get to my destination two hours earlier, or take the back roads? Unexpectedly, too many days have been punctuated by feelings of FOMO, which is something I hoped to completely escape on this trip.
This conundrum has consumed me for weeks. When I started the trip, I thought I could have it all — spend lots of time in each region, relax, learn, move on to the next spot, and see most of Europe. Maybe even find a few places to take hikes or race cars. After about a week of the trip, I started to realize that it wasn’t going to be possible. Even if I had years for this trip, I’d still have to make tradeoffs. Europe is so much larger than I realized — not just in the scale of geography, but also culturally, economically, and historically. So, the question I now face is … do I continue with my mad pace of driving? Or do I hit the reset button and visit just a few regions for the rest of my trip?
I’ve decided to push on while the Land Cruiser is here, and drive through as much of the rest of Europe as possible in the next six weeks. Rather than trying to optimize each day with the perfect towns and the perfect stops, I’m going to focus on driving and experiencing landscapes few tourists visit, as well as catching up with friends along the way. My hope is that this unique approach — optimizing for scale and distance over narrow depth — will yield insights about Europe which I couldn’t get any other way. At a minimum, this approach is helping me learn the right questions to ask; perspective and questions that would never occur to me otherwise.
If you’re interested in daily updates from my travels in Europe, please follow me on Instagram @theclutchpedal. Although I have a basic idea of the rest of the countries I plan to visit, and a goal of driving all the way to Nordkapp, at the top of Norway, I’m still looking for recommendations on cities and regions I should be sure to visit in Scotland, Ireland, Northern France, Germany, Poland, the Baltics, and the Scandinavian countries.