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How to cross Europe in a van

(During a global pandemic)

By Luke Mccarthy Published 4 years ago 14 min read

So, I met my girlfriend in Southampton, England (my home town). I had recently returned from living in Bulgaria and she was studying as a film student in Southampton when we met. After a while, we decided to move in together. Everything was perfect. We lived together; worked together; basically did everything together. Until one day we, and the rest of the world, would be thrown into utter turmoil.

Being from Mykonos, Greece, my girlfriend already felt very far from home. Halfway through a master’s degree in post-production, in a different country, we had planned to book a short holiday to fly back around Easter time to Mykonos in order for her to see her family. Unfortunately this never happened. The United Kingdom went in to a full scale lockdown. Bars, restaurants, everything except essential stores like supermarkets closed. After months of being locked down in our flat, we started to notice that foreign students were packing up and heading back to their home countries.

It's important to know that at this time I was the proud owner of a 2005 Vauxhall Vivaro (Freddie). I had bought the van with the idea that I would convert the van into a camper. Being a carpenter, I was handy with wood and could easily build a small kitchen and bed in order to take the van surfing and climbing.

It came to our attention that after 3 months of being locked in our flat, my girlfriend would have to make a decision: stay with me in England or move back to Greece to be with her family. The future was uncertain. After weeks of tears and video calls home, we were sure that whatever happened, we were not going to part ways. So the decision was made to pack up the van with everything we had and to drive the 3500 km to Mykonos.

Now this may all seem like an amazing thing to do, and it is a journey I have done before. However, throw in a global pandemic involving: closed borders, entry requirements, and travel bans, this was a particularly stressful prospect. With much deliberation and even family members asserting “You will never make it", we booked a €100 Eurotunnel ticket to Calais. Armed with a €750 van, everything we had in the world, and a lot of energy drinks, we set off.

At this time, we were unsure if we would even be granted entry to France. Each country had their own entry requirements and these would change daily, to the point where a couple of the countries along our route were still closed at the time we set off. We had been given advice from certain embassies that these countries "should" be open by the time we arrived. Still, we decided at 11pm that night, we would head to Folkestone to make our train.

Eurotunnel to France, June 2nd 03:00am

Our first sunrise in France was amazing.

A 3 hour drive to Folkestone later, we were at the French/English border. The van rolled up to the desk only to be met with two, very happy men sitting and watching a Tv show on the small screen they had in their booth. It seemed like we were the only two people crazy enough to make this journey, and when asked where we were going, the two men looked incredibly confused that we were attempting a trip like this at this time. But, with all of our papers in order, we were granted entry to France via the tunnel.

Now, given that we were in the midst of a global pandemic, with countless numbers of deaths per day, I was rather surprised that the only feeling I encountered was pure elation. We had done it! This was only a small win in the grand scheme of it all, but step 1 was complete.

It was nearly 5am when we steered the car off of the train. The sun was a pastel pink and there was a smell that can only be described as "European". I’m not sure about you, but I love the smell of a new country. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s tangible none the less. Driving through northern France that morning was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever experienced. All that planning and preparation but most of all worry about what Europe would look like with the virus and yet here we were, driving through France in the most peaceful of ways. If anything, it felt by leaving the UK we were, in a way, escaping all the madness.

We drove for another hour or so into northern France. We had an app detailing the free parking spots in Europe that would enable us to park the van for the night to sleep. We stopped at a free campsite just south of Calais. It was perfect. We parked next to a lake. Secluded, safe but most of all quiet. That night was probably my favourite of the whole journey.

The next morning we were met with what I can only describe as a near death experience. While the UK is quite a cold country, France on the other hand was seeing the first few weeks of summer. We had managed to park in the only non-shaded part of the site and the sun had been on the van for nearly 4 hours by the time we woke. With no doors or windows open, we were being cooked alive. While I had food on my mind that morning, I would have preferred the sight of fresh, oven baked pastries to burnt, van baked people.

We jumped out of the van and drenched ourselves in water to cool off. We changed our clothes into something more fitting to the scalding French climate and set off fuelled with iced coffee and snacks from the local French supermarket. Our destination was Germany.

We were pleased to learn that overnight, Serbia had opened its borders with Hungary which would allow us a clear run straight through to Bulgaria. This gave us great optimism and set the tone for an incredible day driving through France.

The plan was to head into Germany through France, then make our way to Greece through Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and finally Greece. (Not to mention the 5 hour boat from Athens to Mykonos after that). Although we were filled with confidence over our journey so far, we still had thousands of miles to go.

Germany, June 2 - 19:00pm

On our approach to Germany, we gathered our relevant travel documents as requested by our embassies in order to pass through. Much to our surprise however, upon arrival at the French/German border, the checks that we were expecting did not appear. In fact, after driving for more than 40mins, we were starting to become really confused as to why we had not come across any kind of border control whatsoever. By this time, all of the road signs had changed to German and we had already received the "welcome to Germany" text that you receive when entering a new country; but still no border control. After an hour of feeling incredibly confused, we accepted that there would be no border control and we keep pushing through.

The time was nearly 7pm when we checked, and we were pumped that we had made so far. The Hungarian border was open but the rules stated that we could only drive through the night and had just 24hours to pass through into Serbia. So, after planning the route, we decided that we should push on through Germany and stop close to border with Austria. This would give us the opportunity to pass through Austria the next day and be at the Hungarian border by 8pm. We drove through the night to make our stop at a campsite just west of Munich in Chiemsee, Germany.

This was brutal and in hindsight, the better decision would have been to stop earlier. But dear lord was the view the next day worth it. High in the Bavarian mountains, we woke to the most incredible lake. The sun was beating down on us when we woke, oven baked, but that didn't matter. The site was amazing. Clean, friendly and incredibly cheap (not to mention the best shower I’ve ever had). Set on the edge of an enormous lake, families were swimming and boats with happy holiday makers enjoyed the beautiful scenery that they were gifted with that morning. Everything that we had had to do last night was completely worth what we experienced that morning.

Honestly, I could have stayed at that lake forever, and it will always be a place that we will want to go back and visit. But we had to push on. We were on the border with Austria and we had a very long day ahead of us.

The scenery that we would witness for the next 4-5 hours I will never forget. Lakes, mountains, beautiful rolling hills and cute little Bavarian cottages placed perfectly on the hillside were around every turn. In a way, it looked like there was no such thing as a global pandemic at large here- just a country enjoying life.

Austria, June 3 - 13:00pm

gas stops were perfect opportunities to take some quick photos.

The crossing between Germany and Austria was easy. We showed our passports and moved on through. The journey was starting to become very real as only 2 days ago we were sitting in a flat in Southampton, and now we were driving through the Austrian Alps listening to our favourite music. Compared to the flat in Southampton, this was pure freedom. What lay ahead of us was still an incredible amount of driving.

We stopped only once in Austria and we both wish we had more time to enjoy the incredible scenery. But we managed to enjoy it still by taking pictures as we made our way through beautiful Salzburg and Vienna. The aim here was to get home, and that meant a gruelling 19 hour drive from that lake in Germany, until our next stop in Serbia. What was to come after that would be even harder.

Hungary, June 3 - 20:30pm

We arrived at the Hungarian border at around 8pm that night. We were following news updates from the borders ahead and we were hearing stories of hour long queues to cross into Hungary. It seemed like a few people had the same idea as us. As no flights were operating to Greece at the time, the only option was to drive. It was like we were entering a different world when we arrived at the border to Hungary. The landscape started to change and everything felt a little less relaxed. The line for the border wasn't too long and we passed through fine, after being instructed that we were not allowed to stop unless we were stopping for fuel and only at designated fuel stations. Needless to say, we wanted to pass through as fast as possible.

We drove through Hungary with only one stop to use a bathroom. As our location on the map edged closer to the Serbian border, we became ever more anxious as we could see from updates that the queue for the border was very long. Having driven through Serbia at night before, it is not the most welcoming place and I did not feel safe the last time but I knew that on the other side was my home from home in Bulgaria. The border took almost 2 hours to pass through and by this time it was nearly 2am. We had been driving for 19 hours but despite how tired we were, we were convinced that we did not want to stop in Serbia until the sun had come up.

Serbia, June 4 - 00:00am

Freddie the van having a well deserved rest in the Serbian mountains.

That morning we were greeted with the most incredible sunrise over the Serbian hills, with the van still ticking along. We were happy to drive until we reached the next service station. We slept, woke up and carried on. Once again, fuelled with iced coffee from the service station, we made our way to Bulgaria.

Mr preconceived ideas about Serbia were proved absolutely wrong this time. It was beautiful. The scenery was breath-taking and the people were welcoming and benevolent. We were so tired but for some strange reason, if the van kept going, we kept going. Passing through Belgrade was surreal with heavy traffic and Crazy drivers. Again, you wouldn't expect that there was a mass global pandemic tearing its way through Europe. We made good time through this incredible country and were greeted with the most amazing views of mountains and winding rivers as we made our way closer to Bulgaria and the Balkan states.

Bulgaria, June 4 - 15:00pm

Before we knew it, we saw the once familiar sight of the Bulgarian flag. The border was only an hour’s drive from its capital city; Sofia. A city I knew very well. I didn't need my sat nav from this point until we reached Greece as I knew these roads very well. Listening to my favourite songs and my wonderful girlfriend feeding me snacks, we made amazing time through Sofia and towards the Pirin mountains. By this point we had driven through Serbia and most of Bulgaria in one day. We stopped to call parents once again and started to discuss our day of arrival. It was such a weird feeling, thinking that we are so close to the end of what was the adventure of a lifetime. The topic of discussion between my girlfriend and her parents would put us in a mad rush to Athens and another 9hour drive on top of the 8 hours that we had already driven that day.

The boat from Athens to Mykonos runs multiple times a day, but the time in which we would be arriving just so happened to be on a national holiday for Greece. This meant that the boats are full of Greek holiday makers getting their first sun of the season. Problem is, the only boat that had availability was at 7am the next morning. The only way we make it to the port in time is to drive straight from Sofia, Bulgaria, to the port of Rafina just outside of Athens stopping only for fuel. If this was the only way, then this is what we had to do.

The road from Sofia to the Greek border felt like home. Driving the same roads that I have driven many times before, the van cruised down the newly built highway past Blagoevgrad and towards the Town of Simitli and my beloved Bansko. The roads towards Greece were easy and before I knew it, my blast from the past was over. It was a strange feeling driving any further than the town of Bansko. Almost like Frodo leaving the Shire. This was new territory; a road I had driven before but only once.

If I am honest, I never thought that the journey would have been so easy this far. But, like everything else on this trip that had been so easy, the Greek flag made its appearance and the border was finally in sight. The last leg seemed so exiting when we first set off from Southampton, but now all I could think of was getting to Rafina and on that boat so I could sleep.

Greece, June 4 - 20:30pm

We passed through into Greece with almost no trouble. The line for passport control was huge but as we were in a van, they moved us to the truck lane and we passed through with ease. The sun was starting to fall and the sky was painted in a wash of pink and orange. It was beautiful. 3200 km had passed and we were exhausted but we still had the entire length of Greece to pass through before we could finally rest.

The last leg of our incredible adventure was full of every emotion possible. Excitement, exhaustion, anxiety and relief all at the same time. With the lack of a hot shower to perk us up and in need of a big meal, we pushed further into the country that we had talked about going to for months. The fields of olive trees and views of the sea at every moment, it felt like we were safe. We had made it.

Until now I had never really become tired enough to fall asleep while driving. I guess it was the sheer excitement of the whole journey that kept me going, but in that last 4-5 hours, I could have fallen asleep at any moment. My back was in shreds as I had been sat driving for 3 days straight so my girlfriend applied tiger balm whilst I was driving. We didn't have the time to stop. We were approaching Athens and were around an hour away. The sky was a deep blue; the kind of light that is still too dark to see, but you know the new day is approaching.

The Greek capitol made its entrance to the day in incredible style. After hours of nothing, we started to see suburbs and street lights; we knew we were here. As we drove past this ancient city I thought back to the journey that we had just accomplished. A whole continent in just 3 days -a quarter of the globe. It didn't seem real. You know that feeling when you travel on a plane for a holiday, when you arrive and look back with such confusion at how you had woken up one day in your home, and are going to bed in another? Well this was on a new level. I couldn't believe that what was a crazy journey that we would "never make" had been made absolutely possible in only 3 days.

Freddie the van rolled smoothly into the port of Rafina where our boat lay waiting in the dock. I sat with my hands on the wheel, almost oblivious to the world around me with exhaustion. In a way I didn’t want to turn off the engine. This van had been fantastic. Not once did I ever doubt that my little van wouldn't make it and he did me proud. I sat there watching the workers pull the ropes in and prepare our boat for boarding. The sunrise that morning was as beautiful as the rest of them. It seemed that the most amazing part of this trip for me would always be the sunrise each day. It seemed like I was being rewarded each day for my efforts the day before.

Our last stop on mainland Europe at the port of Rafina (Athens), and our first Greek sunrise.

We drove the van onto the boat and made our way upstairs on to the top deck. The air was cold but you could tell that it was going to be another hot day in the Mediterranean. Standing on the top deck and watching the sun rise fully, I felt once again that I was being rewarded for the efforts of the past 20 hours. After a while, I was too tired to stand. We went to the cafe and bought a cheese pie (my girlfriend insisted I try a Greek classic). We sat by the window and waited for the boat to pull away. I sank into my chair and fell immediately asleep.

Our boat leaving Rafina for Mykonos.

I woke a few hours later, feeling more disorientated than I ever have before. I tried to enjoy the rest of my first ever boat trip to Mykonos; little did I know that it would be the first of many. The announcement came through that we were approaching the island of Mykonos. Me and my girlfriend went back out to the top deck to take a look. The speck on the horizon slowly became larger and larger until the island was clearly visible. The white washed buildings of Mykonos started to appear amongst the hills and small fishing boats bobbed around the harbour. This stop was our last and as the new day began, our adventure came to an end.

Three months later and I often find myself thinking about that adventure. It’s funny, although you know at the time that you will never forget what you are doing right now, you never know exactly how much what you are doing will mean to you until its done and you look back on it all. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Enjoy everything, every moment, everything you do. Because what you do right now, might just be the most important thing you ever do.

Freddie enjoying the well earned sunset in Mykonos.

"It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end" - Ernest Hemingway.

couples travel

About the Creator

Luke Mccarthy

Explorer, Vanlifer, Coffee lover.

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