Thursday 25 August 2016

My Grand Tour: The Police play an unexpected role

I've never been frightened of the police, I'm not a member of an ethnic minority group who feels targeted by the authorities. I didn't grow up in a high crime area where the police employed heavy-arm tactics to deal with wayward yoofs. On the contrary, my first brush with the law was when my mum asked a bobby to have a chat with her seven year old who had lifted a fiver from her purse to blow on sweets and matchbox cars. The police, to me, are just naturally flawed people stuck between government legislation and those chose to harm us, protect and serve. Foreign police are another deal altogether, they carry guns, they don't say 'please' and they know you are alone.

As the Bulgarian officer waved me over to the side of the road, I knew we were

in for a state sponsored shake-down. Their job is to raise money for the state through on the spot fines for and a smile for themselves by terrorising tourists. I had neither the budget nor the stomach for either.

He tapped the windscreen and started in Bulgarian then threw in the Greek words 'teli kykloforeias' (road tax). My wife pulled out the folder with the car paperwork and Handed over pieces for his perusal.

Applied arts museum, Budapest 
"No, no Bulgarian tax. Vignette," he said in English.

Shit! I had no idea we needed any tax and what was a vignette? A small film or prose? I had been told that when Bulgarian police give you a fine you can wave a €20 and amicable arrangements can be achieved but I have never bribed anyone and would not know how to offer one without evoking an insult. Then to my utter surprise he sent us on our way telling me to get one at the next petrol station. Could this be the EU in action? I hoped so but I didn't hang around to push it any further. We headed off gingerly and got one before crossing the border into Serbia, €10 worth of phew.

The border was slow and backed up but not nearly as much as the other side going into Bulgaria, the gods were on our side. It took the best part of an hour to get through the two check points but at the Serbian side one of the boot/trunk divers, those whose job it is to go through your smalls looking for contraband, spied the car's plates and shouted "Yiassou re!" a very casual Greek greeting. I returned the sentiment.

Alone and dejected. A Red Bull Air Race obstacle

We stopped just after to change up the remainder of our Bulgarian Levs to Serbian Dinar in a sweaty shed. Would we need a vignette for Serbian roads? I jumped the barrier onto the incoming queue and looked for someone to ask. The first car was Italian, the driver shrugged at my question quite apologetically, no English. Then I spotted a German car with a family. "English?"

"DEUTSCH!" came the drawn-out reply from the rotund driver without looking up from the wheel.

I tried to explain my question, tapping on the windscreen and making international gestures for money.


So much for euro relations, I headed off to find some travellers' camaraderie.

One of the teenage girls from the German car called me back and in broken English explained that their was no vignette for Serbia. A Romanian who despite having very little English confirmed in great detail that there were no tolls until Nis then motorway began but the tolls were quite cheap.

Tolls and Rain, these are two of my favourite things!
At Belgrade we hit rain and the tolls. The rain was much harder than the €6 toll, they cheerfully took Euros. A board just before the gate showed the charges for different vehicle categories and point of entry onto the highway in both currencies. Serbia has been a candidate nation for the EU since late 2011. It still hasn't earned membership but treats European travellers well and appears to be behaving itself. The highway after Nis are great and you get a lot more for your money than in Bulgaria.

So that's Serbia, covered in 6½ hours of driving and 10 lines. We saw a bit more on the way home. Our next stop would be Budapest but first we had another border. 

The Serb side was a breeze but the Hungarians were much more difficult. The boot/trunk divers were making a show of turning out baggage and grilling drivers. We were checked by two crews who seemed to be checking each other as much as us. A rather stern woman in uniform made me open the boot then walked off, were we done? I went to close. NO! she poked at my bags, What is this? A bag. What is this? A bag... What is this? Cigarettes? alcohol? No. then she walked off again. It took one of the other uniforms to wave us on. The next just gave us a cursory check then grunted us on our way.

I bought an €11 vignette from a very glam young lady (absolutely no irony. She was dressed to kill.)... in a garden shed. They had run out of stickers so I just got a receipt. I could have got a special double with Hungarian and Austrian vignettes for €14 but the disco shed did not inspire confidence.

The greatest power in the land...and the Budapest Parliament
Now, remember my list of things that shouldn't be too cheap? Well, Budapest added another candidate, a hotel room. I had booked a room for €23 through It looked basic but serviceable and well placed. It was very well placed. We arrived around 9pm to a dark red-light zone replete with sex toy shops and a police watch. The reception was full of desperate looking people and a fat sweaty man in string vest sitting over a pc in a box room, this was the receptionist. Ever the optimist, I decided to ask to see the room. A couple of Lithuanian bikers came out swinging their heads and rubbing their noses.

"How bad is it?" I asked.

"We will find and sleep in our sleeping bags. NOT here!"

The benefit of the doubt had gone. But where would we stay?

"Sweetheart, I booked a WHORTEL!"

So with the night getting old we had to find somewhere to stay. Police to rescue again. The wife went over to speak to the police and came back with an address. Passing, I waved a thank you to the Bobbyskis. Next thing I know they've overtaken us with blues and twos and beckoned us to follow... at speed, through red lights until we reached a decent looking hotel.

For €50 we got a very comfortable 6 floor suite without breakfast. DONE!
Budapest is basically two cities, Buda and Pest. We stayed on the Pest side. The night was vibrant and the architecture opulent if a little dilapidated. Looking up was a wonder, looking down told another story. The pavements were streaked with piss. Whether this was negligent dog walkers or pub-crawlers, I couldn't be sure but doorways were occupied by men and women clutching the by now ubiquitous family-sized beer bottle. They didn't appear to be transients, they didn't seem to have the equipment that homeless have. It may just have been their idea of a night out.

This was once one of the capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and It is well-worth seeing. Many of the buildings are Gothic or Neo-Gothic style and very grand in scale, their parliament building is the third largest of its type in the world. Although a little research reveals that they are not as old as they look, mostly mid to late 19th century. 

A student's bedroom in Budapest
Budapest is teeming with Brits! This we discovered at a nice pavement bar. The next table were Brits around our age group. Down in the basement of the bar there was another table of younger Brits. The bar was very cool, decorated like a well-read student's bedroom with an excellent soundtrack. 

Finally the bar closed and after four large Urquells for €7 we went in search of some local fayre. Again fruitless. Was it us or has everyone franchised over to pizza and burgers? Local beer was easy but noone seemed interested in food. We hit McDonalds again full of Brits and assorted tourists doing the 'talk slowly and loudly' but still using their same colloquial vocabulary in hope of being understood.

Next morning the heavens opened so we snuck into the breakfast room. Busted! The camp chubby fellow who beavered around the buffet tried to tick us off his little list that we weren't on...oh dear! I resolved to settle up on check-out. Sorry, I resolved to see if I could side-step settling up on check-out. The wife ratted me out as I tried to shush her. The receptionist tried to rush me €19 and I took it out on her, I had nearly 6000km and a lifetime to go with the wife, the receptionist would soon be a stranger. We settled on €10 and left.

We met a couple from Germany who had travelled down by train. While we were outside in the pelting rain under a half-roof having a cigarette. I introduced myself as British and asked the man about Brexit.

He laughed, "How stupid! How will you travel now? Better you stay and Greeks leave!" My wife introduced herself. He said sorry.     

Budapest was hosting the Red Bull Air Race that weekend and we went down to the banks of the Danube to watch the action but the rain and wind had other plans. It was cancelled. 

Watch my Budapest moustache tour

Part 2:


By around 3pm, the rain was not letting up. I turned to the wife in the car while eating scenic sandwiches and asked, "Shall we go to Austria?"

Goodbye Budapest, we'll be back.

Sunday 21 August 2016

My Grand Tour: Into the Eastern Bloc

Shopping for Freedom
Just a Brit, a Greek and a French car heading north. We hadn't booked anything, the route was advisory and we had only owned the car for a week. Oh, and I'd forgotten what 3000km really means. The missus and I had reached middle-age but were more than willing to put that all behind us. Something told me we were being pretty reckless and it was about bloody time.

We were sans enfants for the first time since, well since I lied about being happy with just a cuddle on the sofa. The kids had been packaged off to Britain with Grandma. Just a couple of teenagers with wrinkles instead of acne bowling off to the Bulgarian border and way beyond our comfort zone.

This wasn't my first venture into the ex-eastern bloc Balkans. Back in the early nineties me and a bunch of assorted Europeans ran the gauntlet of Yugoslavia just before the bombs started to fall. Banknotes were exchanged and the guy at the window scrubbed out the last three zeroes with a marker to show their new value. We only stopped for a cup of warm mud on the road while half of us guarded the cars. Some years later me and the missus took a trip up the Adriatic to Venice, a firework display of rockets from the coast added ambience to our romantic weekend; the Kosovan war was in full swing and the Slavs were bombing the hell out of each other. I recently went to the Serbian town of Leskovac to speak about innovation in education at a public school. The town was still pock-marked with bullet holes and its razed industrial zone was acres of bombed-out twisted scrap metal. I spoke to a teacher there about what they'd been through, Tito's communism, Slobodan Milošević, civil war, ethnic cleansing and now the euro-zone economic crisis. His reply will remain with me forever, "Things now, David are shit... which is a major improvement." There was no hyperbole, no drama, it was simple fact.

A Truss in Sofia
Bulgaria is now a member of the EU but a long way off joining the single currency (maybe a blessing). In 2013, I went to Sofia where I met David Rothschild and other business innovators at DIGITALK. I visited a start-up incubator that was far advanced of anything in Greece. Bulgaria had only ever been a suburb of the Soviet Union but it was obvious to me that it was keen to join the west and put its days in the shadow of the iron curtain in the past.

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral
My wife is very fastidious about paperwork and she had the car's history, insurance and green card ready for inspection. The border guard simply asked for our passports and waved us into no man's land, the 500 metre gap between the Greek and Bulgarian check points. A few months before, according to the press, the Bulgarians had threatened to fence the border to keep out refugees but all we saw was a deeply rutted road and a shiny little Duty Free shop. We took a selfie and wee break and ploughed on.

Bulgaria welcomed us with a single lane country road peppered with 50kmh (31mph) speed limits and the threat of radar traps. I kept a light foot on the peddle and a vigilant eye on every corner, I had heard too many tales of police shake-downs and even fake police blocks to relax.

We stopped for breakfast in Sandanski, a pleasant little shopping town popular with Greeks for its fake designer wear and cheap cigarettes.

A few km before Sofia the road opened to a wide modern highway with 120kmh limits. The road network seems to be building out, slowly, from Sofia and it was good to put my foot down and cut the breeze, I was finally starting to relax.

Sofia is surrounded by grim blocks of soviet era housing but as you enter the centre the Former Communist Party building looms and the cars rumble on cobbled streets, Sofia is unexpectedly impressive. We parked up next to a British-plated Jaguar opposite the Bulgarian assembly and headed through the park for wifi to book our first night's stay.

Hotel Bon Bon was the type of place you check the rooms before committing to anything and €32 a night was no quality seal but it was great. A big attic room with two big double beds and a balcony. I paid an extra €5 for guarded parking, which was a fenced-off corner of scrub land with a couple of guys armed with 2-litre beer bottles and began to explore.

The 2-litre beer bottle appeared to be the accessory de rigueur. Just imagine those huge Coke bottles... with beer! I later found out that they also came in  2.5 litre and cost between €2-3 depending on quality. I never had the gaul to buy one, I have a list of things that shouldn't be TOO CHEAP and on that (short) list is booze and ladies. I chose instead to take in the ambience at a pavement bar with reasonably priced draught beer and my most exorbitant wife.

Eventually, hunger set in and we began a very fruitless quest for locale fayre, pizza, spaghetti, burgers and Greek food was abundant but nothing that looked local so we headed back to a place we had spied earlier. The proprietor of the empty Chinese restaurant almost fell off his chair when we sat down and summoned a menu, This would not be our last Balkan Chinese meal as we made a pact not to eat pizza anywhere but Italy, a pact that was broken twice and very pleasantly. We avoided seafood dishes and were not disappointed, the next morning would be the acid test.

Next morning, our stomachs were unaffected, result! and I booked our next stop in Budapest through, €23 (I later revised my list of things that shouldn't be too cheap to include hotels!). We took breakfast in the Hotel's Hawaiian beach-scape themed basement. The car awaited unmolested and protected by the same two men re-armed with more beer and we hit the road.

Sofia's highway network soon gave out to a single lane speed trap. We had over 800km to Budapest and 50-90kmh was not going to cut it. I pushed as hard as I dare but less than 100km from the Hungarian border I spotted a couple of uniforms and they were not waving.

Next: The Police play an unexpected role and a Grand 'Tache tour

Friday 19 August 2016

My Grand Tour

This summer we decided to dispense with the usual beach lounging holiday for something a little more ambitious. A journey that took us over 6,000 km through 13 countries and 15 cities and some of Europe's most fabulous landmarks. It's not the first time I've driven through Europe between my adopted home and my place of birth but it was definitely the most pertinent. Along the road I spoke to locals, immigrants and travellers. Among them were migrant workers, business owners, artists and some EU civil servants.

We had an amazing time and I almost became desensitised to grandiose and opulent architecture but just when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner, my jaw dropped and OMGA! Europe opened a six-pack of awesome.
The British voted for divorce from a union that they never truly felt part of. The Greeks nearly got ousted. But how do the other members feel? 

Is Europe in peril? Is it Fuck! Follow me as I take you on a road from the Parthenon to Big Ben via the serenity of Venice, the odious ghosts of Nuremberg and the ambition of The Eiffel tower.

NEXT PART: Into the Eastern Bloc

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY