"Life doesn't happen along interstates. It's against the law." — William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
Traveling by motor vehicle offers unparalleled access to the land and to the people and creatures that inhabit it. If you take advantage of this power and weave your itinerary with a spirit of adventure, with a desire to learn about places and people and about yourself, with a willingness to shed the familiar, a willingness to change, you'll find it quickened by the unexpected; you'll feel it assuming wonderful dimensions; you'll put it on and go go go; and it'll fit like a glove.
Of course you can vitalize your itinerary simply by the tried and true method of leaving the beaten path — and I do heartily recommend this tactic. Yet humanity has run rough-shod over the expanse of Europe for untold thousands of years. As a result, there are lots of beaten paths. Many of these paths are hard to avoid; many are glorious and should be sought.
What's most remarkable, then, about the state of the continent is its ubiquitous and seemingly irrepressible natural beauty. From the verdant Pyrénées to the savannah-like wilds of Hoge Veluwe National Park in the Netherlands, from the dusty plains of Southern Spain to the misty and precipitous fjords of Norway, from the stretching lochs of Scotland to the angel-hair falls on the sculpted cheeks of Swiss valleys, wonderful nature waits both on and off the beaten path.
As for Europe's civilization, it hasn't yielded fully to the virus of pyramid-bedecked strip malls, coast-to-coast culture-clones, and all the homogenizing effects of 20th-century machinery. In the villages of France, people yet ride rickety black bicycles with a baguette strapped across the rear rack; and groups of old men sit-out the afternoon on corners along the main roads, recounting and making and becoming stories. In Scotland and Wales and Ireland, farmers still call to their children the ancient Gaelic language. Alongside tidal rivers in Portugal, knotty-knuckled fishermen stand, leather-skinned and wincing, in the heavy afternoon, their fingers moving furiously to untangle nets, everything else — from their thick-soled black shoes to their greasy blue-gray pants to their bent backs to the hang of their necks to the slow sideways turns of their heads in the dense shadows of their hats to the oil blue sky — seeming sapped of time and swollen with the ocean's inertia; jazz drifts from the restaurants there and drops in the street. Levity is the rule not far away in Spain, where past low white-washed houses on dusty dirt streets, black-clad men beneath thin black hats ride high in the saddle and hugged from behind by women whose long dresses caparison the horses too. Even in tourist-choked Venice you can stroll as the lone anachronism in alleyways under windows open to the ever coming and peaceful night, the meal-time cling-clangs and banter of ghostly Venetians the repast of your haunt. This must be exactly the way it was, you'll think.
Indeed, from our perspective ghosts still pass for neighbors in Europe: they live on and compose the physical and cultural fabric of the continent. But as such, these ghosts are dynamic and cannot be captured by canned descriptions or preconceived notions — although they will play along. Consider the words of esteemed historian Daniel J. Boorstin.
Modern tourist guides [circa 1961] have helped raise tourist expectations. And they have provided the natives — from Kaiser Wilhelm down to the villagers of the Chichacestenango — with a detailed and itemized list of what is expected of them and when. These are the up-to-date scripts for actors on the tourists' stage.
Yet if you let the natives tender their story instead of encouraging them to reinforce yours, you may even make friends with a few. In fact they rather than some book should function as your primary guides.
Nevertheless, you should use a good guidebook or two. Indeed, I specifically designed this book to go hand in hand with one by leaving out detailed descriptions of sights, accommodations, etc. Guidebooks should function as the islands of information from which you launch journeys of true discovery. In other words, sometimes it's best to put your trust in a guidebook and sometimes it's best to put the guide away.
Besides, you don't want to work too hard at having a good time: such work can be a pain and it tends to be misguided. Remember the fecundity of the unexpected I spoke of in the chapter Why Drive Europe? How the wise traveler — indeed the true traveler — must ultimately surrender to it? Here's what intrepid traveler and novelist Lawrence Durrell had to say about that.
Journeys, like artists, are born not made. A thousand different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will — whatever we may think.
An example of this fecundity is a visit I made to the little town of Dômme, in France's Dordogne River valley. I happened to meet an American woman at one of the valley's many caves that house prehistoric paintings. She told me I must go to Dômme. She didn't offer much more advice, just that I should go. I'd planned to go to Bordeaux that day; I went to Dômme instead. Well, the view of the valley from the bluff Dômme sits on overwhelmed me as much as a stretch of peaceful space can. Later in my journeys I met a guy who became a good friend, and I told him about the view at Dômme; I was proud to possess this relatively esoteric piece of travel knowledge, and I enjoyed relating the experience, wrestling with it to draw some meaning, verbally painting its picture, making it mine. When I returned home, that friend sent me a letter with this quote by one of my favorite writers, Henry Miller.
Just to glimpse the black, mysterious river at Dômme from the beautiful bluff at the edge of town is something to be grateful for all of one's life. I believe that this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot for man and that when the cities have killed off the poets this will be the cradle of poets to come it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. The Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.
It was as if back there at Dômme I'd looked at a great painting for the first time — with no preconceptions — and felt exactly what the painter had felt when he created it. Indeed, many artists and art historians abhor the trite explanations which plaques or tapes afford the museum-goer. Such connoisseurs prefer to open themselves to the art rather than to some canned description of it; they trust primarily their own reactions; they know this approach is their only hope of maximally experiencing the art. It's like when you nudge a child and say, "Go take a look": you may want to describe a wonder to the child, but you know it's in their best interests to let them discover it for themselves. Once a writer describes a place and once you've read that description before arriving there, the place, in at least one way, is lost to you forever: your impression of that place will always be distilled through the eyes and words of another. Not an altogether bad thing, but not the type of thing that makes for discoveries. My original ignorance of that natural work of art that is the view from Dômme, my original ignorance of Henry Miller's or any other writer's or traveler's description it, lets me claim my experience of the place as my own; it let me experience a discovery. And long after I left Dômme, that ignorance let me truly connect with the very thoughts — seemingly still wet in the brain — of one of my favorite writers. Sometimes it's better to learn about a place after you've traveled to it.
Still, most of us already have a collection of knickknack notions about Europe, ideas that we tend to employ as the linchpins of our itineraries. Of course these ideas work just fine to support a bric-a-brac set of experiences, but they give way under an itinerary laden with reality. And that's what we're after isn't it, reality. But how to come up with an itinerary that will sop it up?
Well, since the ideal teachers are waiting all over Europe, and since I'm just as likely as you to bias the itineraries I come up with, and, what's more, since it'd be hypocritical to define a path when it's my stated goal to help you leave the beaten path, I'm not gonna delineate specific itineraries. Besides, there are already a handful of guides that do this. But not only are such itineraries suspect spiritually, they're suspect practically as well: it's virtually impossible to properly treat the continuum that a motor vehicle opens to you. Czech author Milan Kundera captured the essence of these basic faults when he wrote,
A route differs from a road because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A route has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A route is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.
In attempting to strike the right balance between interacting with the locals (or, for that matter, with your fellow travelers), using a guidebook or two, using your own head, and surrendering to the fecundity of the unexpected, you'll naturally imbue your travels with the kind of spirit that makes for invaluable experiences.
Nonetheless, a systematic analysis of more mundane issues is necessary to manage that effort and let it work its magic amid the unavoidable constraints of time and space and resources, constraints that suggest certain patterns for the grand scale design of your itinerary. You might notice that I include no topographical and very little road-condition information in this book. I omit the first kind of info because I don't want to waste your time with verbal descriptions of landscapes when maps can pictorially give you much more precise, thorough and immediate information. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Even non-topographic maps are filled with clues about the nature of the landscape: you can bet that the more winding the roads the more problematic and interesting the landscape.
It's worth noting here that mountainous countries such as Austria, Norway and Switzerland boast mountain tunnels — oftentimes marked on maps by dotted lines — which allow roads or trains to carry motor vehicles through. Many of these tunnels are disconcertingly long and many run below natural passes and in an essentially parallel relation to a much older road which painstakingly but beautifully negotiates the vertical as well as the horizontal.
In Switzerland especially it's often impossible to "make good time" unless you use the expressways and tunnels. Check your Switzerland road map carefully when planning your schedule. But besides realizing the limits that the hyper-meandering roads impose, you should realize the potential they offer — increasingly breathtaking views on every turn. Plan to drive for driving's sake, and try to minimally constrain yourself with time-related issues. Ask yourself this question: Why do I want to drive quickly and horizontally through Switzerland?
Switzerland's postal coaches are famous for challenging the third dimension and thus providing unrivaled service to the extents of the country. Experienced chauffeurs with special training captain these coaches (which have three independent brake systems) on half- and full-day excursions along the backroads — both high and low. You can even take hand luggage of up to 50 kg (110 lbs.) free of charge.
As for road conditions, virtually none of the roads in present day Europe constitute a prohibitive threat to your safety or your plans; their condition should play little to no role in the planning of your itinerary. Go where you want to go.
Countries with toll roads demand more attention if you want to avoid paying tolls. Mountainous terrain of course, as alluded to earlier, demands especially careful planning because of the up-and-down and winding nature of the roadways — and the unusually slow and difficult-to-predict pace of travel that results.
But don't get hung up now on the details. It's both more realistic and more cost-effective to address many of these issues when you're out on the road rather than when you're at home. Why overwhelm yourself with info you're likely to forget before you need it? For one thing, your instincts will quickly process most of the driving situations you'll encounter; and what's too complex for them will probably be easy pickings for your analytical side. Hey, besides this or any other guide, you've got untold millions of years of evolution going for you.
What's more, saving some studying and decisions until later tends to jive with the spirit of adventure and the fecundity of the unexpected that I discussed earlier. Indeed, it's arguable that you should minimize the planning you do each travel-day. There's so much to do and see in Europe that you'll never be at a loss for wonderful new experiences: everything will tend to fall into place. This tendency is especially strong in a motoring tour. Despite all the flexibility that a motor vehicle gives you, it also constrains you. The reasonable per-day distance associated with motor travel is much less than that associated with rail travel. Immediate options are limited: the next day's destination should lie within roughly a two hundred-mile radius. The route that tends to emerge and often makes sense is some sort of circuit or circular route. As such, the next destination usually emerges as obvious.
For those of you without much time in which to travel, adhering to a practical circular route may keep you from experiencing the kind of variety that you want to experience. Well, by putting your vehicle on a train or by dropping off a rented or leased vehicle somewhere other than where you picked it up, you can effect linear itineraries. Driving an essentially straight route allows you to experience great variety at a leisurely pace and in a relatively short time.
The French rail system, SNCF, offers a service called "Trains-autos-couchettes" that can take you and your car and passengers overnight to destinations in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Finland's trains also provide such a service. In fact, the train systems of most countries offer some sort of auto-train service (called "Motorail" in English, "Autoreisezuge" in German, "Treni per Auto Accompagnate" in Italian, and "Trenes de Autos" in Spanish). Look for signs reading "auto/train" and depicting car-carrying flat beds or box cars.
Apart from offering the merits of a linear route, the advantages of traveling by Motorail include savings on gas and tolls (you'll take toll roads if you want to make the best possible time; figure about 0.2 per mile, 0.12 per kilometer) and the avoidance of wear and tear on your vehicle and yourself. Motorail trains make far fewer stops than typical trains; you travel faster and without having to change trains. Of course traveling overnight by train frees the daylight hours for other pursuits. Some sort of sleeping accommodation is compulsory on most overnight Motorail services. These accommodations range from, say, first class single-bed sleepers to second class couchettes holding six berths costing far less.
But the savings don't necessarily stop with the above. The European-wide hotel chains Ibis, Mercure, Novotel, and Minotel grant reduced rates to SNCF (not just Motorail) travelers, as does Avis. Several ferry services do the same — but for Motorailers only. These include the following which cross between Britain or Ireland and the continent: Brittany Ferries, Hoverspeed, Le Shuttle (through the Chunnel), P&O European Ferries, and Stena Sealink. Motorailers will also get discounts when plying the sea between France, Corsica or Sardinia on SNCM Ferryterranée, and between Spain and the Balearic Islands on Transmediterranea.
Stena Sealink also offers tickets combining Motorail service with their Landbridge ferry service that connects Ireland to the continent by way of Britain. The offerings include one-way ferry passage plus one-way Motorail travel, return ferry plus one-way Motorail, and return ferry plus return Motorail.
Whether a linear route will save you money depends on several factors. Let's say, for example, you got a good deal on a return flight to London and you want to taste a little of England before getting a car and driving at a leisurely pace to Rome. Let's also say that you have three weeks to get to Rome and back to London. Finally, let's say you lease a car for free delivery in Calais. One option would be to pay to leave the car in Rome, before returning to Calais by train, or by plane to London. Another option would be to make flight arrangements into London and out of Rome — arrangements, however, which may cost much more than a simple return flight to and from London. Motorail allows you to take delivery of the car in Calais, drive it to Rome, and put it on an overnight train back to Calais.
Regardless of whether you plan to travel a circuitous or linear route, you'll have to start from a city. But you do not need a motor vehicle to see a European city. At least you don't want to begin your trip by doing lots of driving in a city: not only is it unnecessary, but it's also the most difficult driving you'll encounter in Europe. Plan to see the city in the days before you get the vehicle or in the days after you return it — or both. I recommended you do both. A vibrant city may be just what the doctor ordered to battle the jet lag at the beginning of your trip; while as a more experienced European traveler, you'll be more relaxed at the end of your trip and able enjoy the sophisticated side of a place like Paris much more than you were in the beginning.
Once off the beaten path you should have little trouble finding quality and relatively inexpensive accommodations — even during the high season. Unless you plan to rent a property or properties, consider making few accommodation reservations, some to cover the nights you'll spend in the city or cities you fly in or out of and some, perhaps, for your first day or two on the road, just to encourage a smooth start. Abstain from developing a detailed schedule. Also, think twice before driving on a holiday weekend. Not only are the roads more crowded on such weekends but so are hotels and restaurants. The Easter holiday and the two weeks around it play host to the worst crowds and traffic — especially in Southern Europe. On the other hand, many interesting festivals take place around holidays. My advice is that you plan your trip to include a national holiday but that you don't plan to travel much during that holiday.
To estimate distances, mark your map's scale on the edge of a piece of paper and then move the marked edge around your general route, adding the miles or kilometers as you go and using your imagination to add miles or kilometers to winding sections. Most atlases and maps, however, boast tables relating driving distances between major cities.
If you plan to do the classic grand tour, consider circling south early in the year, enjoying the early season warmth and avoiding the high season heat, humidity, crowds and prices.
The further south you go the more prevalent becomes petty crime. Most European countries don't experience a high incidence of vehicle theft. Unless you're driving a very expensive vehicle, thieves probably won't consider taking the vehicle itself. The taxis in Western Europe are evidence of this — they're Mercedes. Still, the South is noted for its high incidence of theft from vehicles. The cities of Seville, Spain, and Naples, Italy, are infamous hotbeds of such crime. Instead of taking your vehicle into Naples, stay on the Ischia or Sorrento Peninsula and take the catamaran or aliscafi to the city. Otherwise, try parking out of view of the streets in such cities, or park on the street but near a place where traffic police are working or in front of banks or embassies where security measures are in place already. Parking on the even the busiest street in broad daylight won't help. Thieves, usually in packs of three or four, cruise the streets looking for foreign-registered vehicles, which they pilfer in a matter of seconds.
No matter where you are in Europe, don't leave any valuables in your vehicle if you can help it. Leave the glove compartment open and emptied. If you have a hatchback, take off the shield that conceals the trunk space. Pull down the back seat that gives access to the trunk. Consider leaving the passenger door unlocked: thieves will get in a locked door easily, but they may break a lock or a window doing it. In short, don't tempt; make the vehicle look as if someone else beat the thief to the prize.
You can even make your vehicle repulsive to certain thieves by leaving a life-like, rubber tarantula or snake in full view on the front passenger seat or on the open door of the glove compartment. This advice may sound ridiculous, but even the most hardened criminal has his phobias. And besides, you'll get a kick out of knowing that you — whom most petty European thieves would take to be a fumbling, naive tourist — might be able to freak out one of these jerks.
On top of these tactics, you should take care to avoid a more much more rare type of thief, the type that's not deterred by the prospect of a confrontation with you. From Madrid comes a story about how such thieves might operate. The rental agencies at Madrid's airport park their vehicles in unprotected and unsupervised areas. This being so, thieves in Madrid have learned to puncture the tires of these vehicles, wait outside the parking area, follow the exiting vehicles, and rob them when the unsuspecting driver pulls over with a flat. Always be wary of roadside help offered by anyone other than a police officer or civil guard. If someone stops to help, ask them to contact the police for you. And conversely, don't you stop to help a stranded motorist: in the more marginal parts of Europe, roadside brigands are known to feign car trouble then rob you and/or steal your vehicle when you stop to help.
Undoubtedly you'll hear horror stories about driving in Italy. Try to evaluate the source. For example, on my first tour I met a family from Oregon who'd just finished driving in Italy; they resounded that driving in Rome was ridiculous chaos. Two days later, however, I met a couple from Manhattan who laughed and said driving in Rome was a breeze. Fewer deaths occur per million registered vehicles in Italy than per million registered vehicles in the United States. After driving extensively in Italy I'll say this: The cars move fast, but the streets in the cities are surprisingly wide, and the highways are fine. Italy, after all, is the home of the paved road. I'm from Iowa; I've had fun driving in Italy.
Although I want to abstain from giving specifics, there are at least two campgrounds in Italy that demand special mention. One of these is in Florence, immediately below and to the right of the Piazzale Michelangelo as you face the city from the Piazzale. The view from the Piazzale at sunset is unforgettable: the River Arno running from the grapey night, hugging the bluff's base, passing the silhouetted mountain that is Brunelleschi's magnificent dome, cutting through the city's plateau of desultory red roofs, suffering bridge after antique bridge, and, in a long French kiss with the dying day, taking on before the folded arms of the horizon's hills the glow of memory and promise a tableau of time. The view from the campground is essentially the same. The other campground worth mentioning is across the lagoon from none other than Venice. Camp on the shore and look across to the glorious city. From the campground entrance take the regular boat service across the lagoon for a ten-minute approach to the city that'll have you pinching yourself, thinking that such things were reserved for movie stars.
If, on the other hand, you choose to park at Venice's huge Tronchetto garage, you may be met on approach by a man seeming to be an employee and who will direct you to the right side of the garage, away from the Vaporetto dock. He'll try to help you with your bags and usher you to a water taxi charging exhorbitant fares. If you balk he'll claim that the boat line you want is not in service. Just ignore these lowlifes and head to the left side of the garage for fairly priced parking and a cheap boat ride to the city center.
Looking to the east of Italy the question arises: How to do Greece by car? This is a good question. Currently, the best answer may be that you shouldn't. The problems in the former Yugoslavia make the most direct overland route to Greece very problematic, and traveling across the Adriatic accompanied by a vehicle means a costly ferry ride. Regardless, the myriad-island nature of Greece doesn't lend itself to driving. And the Greek roads are generally the worst in Europe. Perhaps as a direct result of these poor roads, Greece endures Europe's second highest incidence of motor-vehicle fatalities — and the worst accident rate in terms of the number of collisions per vehicle. Furthermore, the ports at Bari and Brindisi, Italy, are infamous for their thieves; think twice before you leave your vehicle at one of these ports.
But when will you have a better chance, right? You'll have a better chance if you fly in or return to London, where a return flight to Greece is cheap. Persons using train passes should consider doing Greece separately as well. Train travel in Greece is slow and frustrating; the bus system is much better. Note that by going to Greece later in the year, you can avoid the big crowds and the high prices that go with them. Furthermore, you can avoid the uncomfortably hot days and nights. May is considered the best month in which to visit Greece. By October the rains return — but only one day a week on average. And averaging 60° Fahrenheit, nights are cooler and more comfortable in May and October (on average, 12° Fahrenheit cooler than July and August, 6° Fahrenheit cooler than June and September). Ferries serve some Greek islands on a daily basis and some on a weekly basis. If you want to maintain maximum flexibility in your travel plans, consider traveling only to those islands that the ferries serve daily.
You can travel to Turkey by motor vehicle via the Istanbul route — an expressway bypasses the city — or by ferry. Note that Turkey's train system is quite bad; buses there offer much more timely and extensive service and cost a few dollars per hour. Perhaps the bus travel is so good because Turkey's roads are surprisingly good; don't hesitate to drive in Turkey.
I mentioned earlier that theft of vehicles is not a problem in Western Europe, but this is not the case in Poland, for example. Poland suffers (or benefits, you might say) from a very high rate of theft of western vehicles, which, once swiped, are taken to Russia and sold. (In Poland the taxis are not Mercedes!) The same is true for Prague, in the Czech Republic, and for the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In these places consider parking near a train station in outlying areas or towns that tourists don't frequent. Thieves hang out where the tourists hang out. You can take one of the frequent trains (there's usually one every hour) into the major metro areas, where you don't need a vehicle anyway. The ride will cost just a few dollars. I once left my car for four days near the train station in Plzen, the birthplace of pilsner beer and the home of the world-famous Pilsner Urquell brew. From there I took a 3 train ride the remaining one hundred miles into Prague. To read the train schedules, however, you should know that in Slavic languages like Czech and Polish the preposition Do, do, or go, pronounced "doe," means to (literally, until), as in "departing to"; while the preposition om, pronounced "ott," means from, as in "arriving from." There's a good chance, however, that thieves won't rip-off your vehicle if you drive into the major metropolitan areas of these countries — especially if it's ugly and you're careful. Of course a deterrent such as "The Club" or an installed kill switch (standard now on many new European-version vehicles) will help, as will turning your wheels all the way to the curb and engaging the steering-wheel lock.
If you plan to drive a BMW or the like, you may be justified in fearing the criminals of Southern and Eastern Europe. As such, one compromise option to consider in the initial stages of planning your journey is the following: take the trains in Southern and Eastern Europe and drive in northwest Europe. Not only is crime more prevalent in Southern and Eastern Europe, but the train tickets are much cheaper there as well. To take advantage of such price gradients, you'd have to buy point-to-point train tickets or single-country passes instead of inter-country passes. Besides the issues of crime and rail fares, there's the issue of language. The populations of Southern and Eastern Europe do not speak English with anywhere near the frequency or skill as do the populations of Europe's northwest. In the northwest you can realize the full potential of your motor vehicle by getting out to meet and actually converse with the people who don't see tourists very often. I've already mentioned that it's better to buy a vehicle in the northwest. Well, if you do buy, staying in that region with the vehicle will keep your fuel costs down, and if any problems arise — and they are less likely to arise in the more temperate, industrialized and Anglicized northwest — you can deal with them much easier. Defining the limits of your itinerary on a more geological basis, however, may be the best approach. Here's an idea: Don't drive south of the great mountain ranges (the Alps and the Pyrénées) or east of the former Iron Curtain. You'll want the motor vehicle in the mountains, however, to propel you up into beautiful scenery and hard-to-get-at hideaways.
The criminal, economic, and cultural issues which prompt consideration of the above compromises are complex and generally not weighty. I don't want to give the impression that enough circumstances, dangerous or otherwise, exist to justify a broad recommendation of these compromises. On the contrary, I recommend that you resist, in spirit at least, such compromises, for they are based largely on fear and fear alone — and fear is usually overblown and much more likely to sabotage your trip than are criminal elements or monetary or cultural constraints.
There's another grand plan which combines train and motor vehicle travel, a plan which is not basically a compromise and which does arise from weighty issues. Because a motor vehicle is usually a liability in major cities, you may want to use the high-speed trains to dart disjointedly to the major cities you wish to see, doing this either before you get a motor vehicle or after you return one. You can use the motor vehicle to explore the smaller towns and the countryside. This way you'll experience all the major facets of the European travel infrastructure and subculture, avoiding the most negative aspects of each while exploiting the most positive. The one drawback to this plan is the unbalanced nature of the itinerary — a continuous series of cities followed by a continuous series of small towns and countrysides. Although I hesitate to call such series monotonous, they may not constitute the proper balance for you. You can be flexible, however, using the train to go to some smaller towns or countryside stops and using the motor vehicle to make an occasional excursion into a larger town or city. You may also want to combine this plan with the compromise of taking trains in Southern and Eastern Europe and driving in northwest Europe.
Moving north we come to the land of my forebears: Scandinavia Norway's cost of living is the highest in Europe — you'll pay 50 a night for a bed in an Oslo or Bergen hostel. Surprisingly, however, I've spent less money per day there than in any of the other countries I've visited. Why the paradox? Norway, Sweden and Finland sanction or tolerate camping on just about any unfenced land — even if private — as long as you're 100 meters (about 100 yards) from any dwellings, stay no more than two nights, and pick up after yourself. The long summer days in Scandinavia make camping there easier still. Bring a good sleeping bag though: it can get cold. I've spent three-fourths of my Norwegian nights free-camping.
Sounds like a lot of camping, I know. But Norway's scenery is truly incredible, especially her fjord country — maybe the world's most salient precinct of the possible. And the civilization is ideally and wonderfully integrated: In Norway you always feel close to nature, but never far from civilization. If you do go to Norway, be sure to visit Oslo's Frogner Park. Over 150 granite and bronze statues sculpted over some thirty years by Gustav Vigeland stand in the park — the most remarkable collection of sculpture in Europe, in my opinion. Admittance to the park is free of charge.
Late spring or early summer is the best time to visit Scandinavia. The longest days occur in late June, when it's light until midnight. There is snow in the summer, high atop the fjords. In fact, you can ski in the summer near Stryn, Norway, about six hours by car northwest of Oslo.
Of course you'll have to end your motoring tour in a city or town. Note that Paris makes a good transition point. Paris is one of the best places in the world in which to hangout without a vehicle.
Several factors coincide to make London the best place in which to transition or conclude a grand tour. First, you'll make many Aussie and Kiwi friends while traveling on the continent. Most of these folks base their travels out of Britain — London especially — where they've come to spend a couple of years. Late in the summer they tend to return to Britain to work and pay for their summer fun. As such, you can travel the Isles with these temporary Brits or stay at their place and avoid the high costs of London's accommodations. And it's likely that after showing this book to these notoriously high-spirited travelers, you can persuade them to chip in and help you buy a motor vehicle in which you can then travel the Isles together. The market will be a buyer's in late summer. Second, London is the home of the cheap flight. Off season you can fly from London most anywhere very cheaply. Third, your command of the local language will allow you to make complicated arrangements for extensions to your trip. If you do plan an extension to your trip, stop in Stanford's Travel Bookshop, 12 Long Acre, London: they claim to offer the largest selection of travel literature in the world. Fourth, note that in the beginning stages of a trip you'll be psyched to try other languages, but by the end you'll pang for good 'ol English. Finally, a special note for budget travelers on a serious budget: unlike those on the continent, most hostels in Britain and Ireland take Visa and MasterCard, so if you're running low on funds, you can finance more of your traveling with a credit card.
Also contributing to the above argument are three factors which make Britain an outstanding bookend to a grand tour — whether it stands at the beginning or the end. First, Britain does not honor Eurailpasses but it does offer many exciting alternatives. Second, the English Channel and Britain's left-side driving convention tend to make transporting a vehicle between Britain and the continent an unwise venture. Finally there's the weather. Rain falls in the Britain and Ireland an average of two to three times a week all year round. Don't get too cute and go to Britain or Ireland with sun and warmth figured into your plan; sun and warmth are not why you go there. Although the waters that surround the isles buffer them from grand climate changes, this just succeeds in making the weather consistently blah. But you can work the isles' blahness to your advantage by realizing that most people equate high temperatures with good weather and good times. The vast majority of people visit the Isles in July and August when the temperature is highest. But what's this? It rains much more in July and August than it does earlier in the year. And in the South of England and in Ireland it also rains less in September and October than it does in July and August. A tour bus operator in Killarney, Ireland, told me that in July and August up to 150 tour buses work the Kerry Peninsula; while in October there are only five or so a day. He also noted the fortuitous nature of the colder temperatures: the days tend to be clearer after the night frosts. Of course, the lower temperatures and smaller crowds mean lower prices and fewer hassles as well. Strongly consider combining the world-famous Edinburgh Festival — held from mid August to early September — with a September and October tour of the Isles, but make your reservations in the spring for accommodation in Edinburgh during the festival. As for spring around Britain, you'll love England and Holland in late April and May if you're into flowers. Note also that June is considered the best month — weather-wise — in which to visit Britain. September/October seems to be festival time in Ireland:
Here are some other major European festivals and happenings.