A Road Trip Across Europe With A Very Grumpy Cat!
Photographs by Mike Vickers
Feature photo above: On the road and heading north, Andy driving us across the Dardanelles on the largest suspension bridge in the world, passing from Asia into Europe.
‘Why are you going?’ We’d heard this so many times from so many people over the last few months, but Jan and I never planned to fully retire to Turkey. Our intention was to come over for an extended stay and travel as much as we could, and despite the pandemic, we managed to accomplish a goodly part of that, but eventually we knew we’d reach a point where we would be happy to return to the UK.
So, after three and a half wonderful years of living in Fethiye, and having spent several months in preparation, packing, cleaning and returning our lovely rented house to its default settings, we were finally on our way home back to Gloucester. By van. With Andy. And Archie and Lucy, our two cats. Plus Buddy the dog. Oh, and not forgetting Yorkshire Al as well.
We could have flown, of course, but post-Covid aviation is difficult enough without having to factor in pet transport, plus the UK will not accept pets flying directly in from Turkey, so we would have had to fly into an EU airport, endure another certification process before taking the ferry across the channel, followed by the ongoing trip back to Gloucester. With two reluctant cats. Not going to happen.
In addition, we had lots of mementos we wanted to bring back with us, so we eventually decided that it would be best if the cats, us and all our chattels travelled together, and that’s where Andy came into the picture. With his van.
I’d like to point out that it’s a really super van, a capacious Volkswagen Crafter, immaculate both inside and out. The size of a large minibus, it has two comfy aircraft-style seats in the back, windows, sun roof, spacious and comfortable cages for the cats, stacks of room for our many boxes and, most importantly for this time of year, cracking air conditioning – the weather forecast was for hot summer sun all the way back to the UK. Except in Belgium. More on that later.
This would be no leisurely amble. We would not be stopping for a hearty lunch or to take some nice photos at scenic spots. This was a journey with a purpose. We engaged Andy to take us directly back to the UK in the shortest reasonable time by the most efficient route, and that’s what he intended to do, so most of the photos I hurriedly took were through the van windows as we swept by at, I have to say, some considerable velocity. This will become obvious as you read on, and for that I apologise.
Monday 1 August – Turkey to – er, still Turkey.
So the day finally arrived. Andy pulled up first thing and we went off to the vets for worming and de-fleaing and checking of microchips. To clarify, that was for the cats, not Jan and I. We then visited the government Tarim vet for his official input. This would take a couple of hours, so we returned to the house for a light breakfast with Iskender, Hurish and Cengiz, our lovely neighbours. Everyone was very sad we were going. Around mid-morning, Andy reappeared and we went back to the Tarim office to collect his paperwork, then to our vets again for final certification of paperwork before we were finally able to depart. Yes, it’s long-winded, but that’s Turkey for you, and believe me, we’ve had plenty of exposure to its unique bureaucracy over the years. In all, I’d say we got off lightly on this one!
So, with the van having already been loaded with all our boxes a few days before, we were finally able to get away at lunchtime, leaving Fethiye behind and starting the long journey home. We stopped at Dalyan to pick up Yorkshire Alan, our very tall and extremely tanned relief driver, then headed for Milas to collect some feline blood serum samples destined for the UK labs, then on to Didim to collect Buddy, a lovely Maltese terrier who was joining us for the trip. His new home was going to be Edinburgh, the lucky boy.
By this time it was quite evident that our cats were struggling. Lucy gave voice to her grumpy displeasure, loudly and frequently, and timid Archie retired to the back of his cage. However, when we got Lucy out of her cage, she settled on our laps and was much calmer.
We stopped for a short break north of Didim and then motored on in earnest, joining the motorway to Izmir just as the sun went down, then pushing on through the late evening to get to our pension at Lapseki, just south of the giant new suspension bridge across the Dardanelles. We arrived in the early hours after a long day and while the pets settled down in the van, were very grateful for a basic but clean room with a shower and a nice bed.
Tuesday 2 August – Turkey to Serbia via Bulgaria.
Up at 7am, we tried to get get the cats outside on their harnesses, but both were spectacularly disinterested. You’re no-one until you’ve been ignored by a cat! We left Lapseki, heading for the new bridge. With one tower in Asia and the other in Europe – and a major, very active geological fault running between them under the water – this new bridge is an impressive and extremely sturdy structure. In fact, it’s so new there were still men working up on the cables, which was slightly unnerving.
Once over the span, were were officially in Europe and were greeted by endless fields of super-bright, super-sunny sunflowers. The dual carriageway roads we used were of the highest quality motorway standard and we zipped along, but this being Turkey, I saw a horse and cart loaded up with the family trotting along the opposite carriageway. Everyone on the cart wore big sun hats. You don’t get that on the M25 – or do you? As the price of fuel continues to spiral, maybe we will be seeing more animal-powered conveyances in the future, with the added advantage that instead of fumes and CO2 coming out of the rear end, there’s something good for the roses!
After passing Erdine and stopping for a comfort break mid-morning, we finally arrived at the legendary Kapikule to Kapitan Andreevo crossing into Bulgaria, the only border that worried Andy. Crossing can be arduous – his worse ever experience here was a 15 hour delay!
This was one bustling place. Apparently, it’s the second busiest border crossing in the world, pipped only by the San Diego to Tijuana crossing. Patience is required. It’s an important entry into the EU from all the middle-eastern countries bordering Turkey and so checks are made on every vehicle. We were confronted by multiple parallel queues of stationary vehicles.
Passing through the Kapikule Turkish side wasn’t too bad, but then we were stranded in no-man’s land between the two countries for about three hours, inching forward at a glacial rate towards the Bulgarian gates. People were getting out of their cars and strolling around. Babies were being born, children breezed through puberty. Joking aside, the authorities actually provided toilet facilities, a cheerful admission of the time you could be spending in limbo-land. It was all very tiresome, but however long it takes, you always do eventually get through, and when we did, we were on the road again, heading north towards Sofia.
Right, Bulgaria. Looks a lot like England, but with far less traffic and a lot more sunflowers. Couldn’t believe the two countrysides were so similar, but there we go, a little reminder of Gloucestershire right on the edge of Eastern Europe with, perhaps, a touch of the Peak District thrown in for good measure. I also noticed their electricity pylons looked like tall and very bandy old men marching across the landscape on a pair of spindly legs, each anchored and stabilised by a network of steel guy ropes.
The roads were either fast and smooth or fast and lumpy, and frequently bordered by fields of sunflowers and forests of broadleaved trees, so nice to see after the endless pines of coastal Turkey, with distant ranges of stately hills drifting by as we motored along. We stopped at a KFC as a treat for Jan – the menus were in Bulgarian so we just pointed at the pictures – before circling Sofia on the ring road and veering off west into Serbia having spent the princely total of just seven hours in the country.
It was dark by the time we reached the border, passing a long stack of stationary trucks queuing on the inside lane. This border crossing was way up in the hills and no easier to negotiate than the one into Bulgaria earlier in the day, with understaffed booths dealing with huge amounts of holiday traffic, and impatient motorists who repeatedly attempted to push in along the serpentine queues. Andy and Alan saw a fist fight in one car where people were getting so frustrated. It took hours. Just what we needed! We again reminded ourselves that however bad the situation, you always eventually get through, and indeed, we finally made it into Serbia.
So, Serbia. It was dark and we were tired and exasperated, but soon reached the town of Pirot, where our hotel awaited. We’d found it only a few hours earlier on booking.com and ordered rooms using the app. A most welcome sight, the Hotel Dijana was modern, clean and had a receptionist who was patiently waiting for us. The rooms were spacious and possessed spotless en-suites. A wonderful shower was the last thing I remembered and I have no idea how I got to bed!
Wednesday 3 August – Serbia to Hungary.
We’ve all had sleeps like the one Jan and I had that night. Deep oblivion after a tiring day. Just the ticket. Another shower helped to revive me and we set off once again on a cool and bright Serbian morning, which was a pleasant change to a hot and hazy Fethiye morning. The roads were very good, the countryside green and fertile, the terrain mountainous in places with broadleaf forests everywhere, numerous apple orchards, but the main crop now appeared to be sweetcorn, unlike Bulgaria, where they have a particular affection for sunflowers.
The other thing I noticed that seemed to be unique to the country were roads that sing to you! As we drove along, certain patches of the road surface were ribbed or textured, creating musical notes of different pitches. Tickled me pink, it did.
We stopped at a service station to brew tea then got back on the road, cruising some top-class motorways as we headed north towards the Hungarian border, passing through lovely landscapes on the way that now really looked like England. I’ve got to say that the parts of Serbia we saw were very picturesque. It was most definitely a beautiful country – and extraordinarily well-provisioned with sweetcorn to boot! I mean, just how much sweetcorn does the average Serbian eat? I’d look out the window to see fields full of the stuff, then look out the window again an hour later to see an identical view. Maybe it was even the same field…
Lucy was still grumbling as only a really grumpy cat can, so we got her out of the cage and she sat on our laps, which certainly did the trick and she soon curled up and went to sleep. This started a pattern that continued until the end of our trip. Even Archie came out of his cage on occasions and settled down between us for a snooze, and with Buddy up front in the cab having a kip, all three of our fellow four-legged passengers were cruising in the land of nod.
By the way, one little thing I also observed – the further north we travelled, the steeper the pitch became on the roofs of all the houses. This marked a transition from the semi-arid climate of Turkey, where there is a prolonged dry season every year and roofs have a very relaxed attitude towards protecting the houses beneath them, to one where there’s much more rain, and a steep pitch allows water to drain off quickly.
Hang on, just glanced up to look out of the window and by way of a change, saw an apple orchard off to the right, then looked left and guess what – yep, more sweetcorn!
So, the next city we visited but only saw as a moving blur was Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Depending upon which window you decided to peer out of, it was either a depressing remnant of post-war Soviet architecture from their well-documented Bleakness Of Existence period, specialising in huge, multi-storey, uninspiring, grubby concrete apartment blocks, or, if you’re wealthy, dynamically thrusting towers of futuristic shaded glass built along the banks of the Seve river running through the centre of the city. We particularly liked the one shaped like a giant blue microphone. Maybe all their pop stars live there.
The land to the north of Belgrade was flat, fertile and extensively farmed, with vast areas devoted to various cereals and sunflowers. The road was straight and fast and we drove for hours, passing endless cultivated squares of different colours and heights, most of which I was unable to recognize, but which the farmers obviously thought were well worth planting. Could have been some beans in there somewhere, then, as we approached the border, the landscape slowly changed, the openness replaced by small rural villages and farms with tree-lined fields and fruit orchards. The country churches were small but with very ornate towers. It was all really rather lovely.
After spending less than a day in Serbia, our next international crossing was into Hungary at Röszke. Andy took us off the motorway and through a quieter crossing used by locals. This was the first border where we saw evidence of migrants. There was razor wire everywhere. Lots of razor wire. In many rows. It still took us three hours to get through, however, which seems to be about par for the course on this journey. Luckily, there were no problems or searches. However, now that we were in Hungary, the remainder of our journey was within the EU, so there would be no further monitored borders and we should have a clear run all the way through to Calais.
OK, Hungary. We got away from the border crossing late afternoon on really good, fast roads, as you would expect from a modern EU country, but sadly, their voices were mute – none of them sang to us like they did in Serbia. We immediately noticed the rather attractive acoustic barriers on the side of the motorway made from interwoven wooden strips, like really large twelve-foot high fence panels, many draped in ivy. The countryside was essentially flat, with scattered farms and lots of trees. Crops were being harvested, the land was dry, dusty and brown, and the occasional imaginative farmer preferred to construct his haystacks to resemble giant bars of Toblerone. The road verges were also very neatly mown, as opposed to Turkey, where road verges are deemed the location of choice for passing drivers to discard their rubbish while watching videos on their phones.
There were numerous service areas distributed along the road and we pulled in to one for cuppas and hot dogs, then set off again. There was no dawdling on this road trip. A little later, as we passed through a forest, I glimpsed a big electricity pylon with a giant steel image of Father Christmas welded into the lattice structure, complete with pointy beard, bobble hat and three big round buttons on his coat. You don’t see that in England, which is a shame – pylon art could be the next big thing for Banksy.
I also spotted a number of what looked like giant metal Belisha beacons rising vertically from the fields, which I assumed were water towers, but after seeing the Santa pylons earlier could well have actually been art installations from Banksy’s much-loved Cotton Bud period.
With Alan at the wheel, we headed on up towards the Austrian border, Andy asked Jan and I to search out a place to stay for the night, anywhere on either side of the border. We got back on booking.com again and finally came up with the Panzion Hummel in Gyor. Jan booked online and shortly afterwards, lovely Nora phoned Andy. She explained that because it was a pension, there would be no-one on site after 8.30pm.
We hurried on, but were still late and apologised to Nora when we finally arrived. However, there had been one unexpected bonus – we got to drive through Gyor town centre on the way to her pension and it was really something quite special, with lovely floodlit buildings alongside the river and a magnificently florid town hall. How lovely it was, indeed.
With the van safely parked up in Nora’s driveway, she scampered off back to her kids. She was very tall and lithe and admitted to being a bit of a gym bunny, and she was certainly first woman I’ve ever seen with washboard abs! Andy brewed up and we got the cats out in their harnesses, but Archie freaked out and leapt around the garden like a deranged Morris dancer at a punk concert before sinking his claws into Jan’s arse. We got him back in his cage but then Lucy started misbehaving and trashing her cage, so Jan brought her up to our room for the night.
In all, it had been another long day, but they all are on this journey. We started today in Serbia and ended in Hungary. Really clocking off the countries now. Unsurprisingly, we were both tired and went to bed, but Lucy started yowling again in the middle of the night so we put her back in the van. Honestly, I don’t know what we looked like, two grey-manes creeping around a Hungarian pension in their jim-jams with a vociferously protesting, really pissed off cat!
Thursday 4 August – Hungary to France via Austria, Germany and Belgium.
We both didn’t really get enough sleep, what with Lucy’s nocturnal shenanigans, plus the busy main road next to the pension, but a shower first thing did help to revive us a little. With the van loaded and on a beautifully bright, sunny and cool morning, we popped into a nearby Lidl to top up our on-the-road supplies before getting back to the serious business of heading north to Austria.
Just before we reached the border, Andy took us off the motorway and through a small, quiet, little-known local crossing that he’d used before. It was manned but no-one in a uniform and packing a pistol looked in the slightest bit interested, so we simply drove across into Austria without being stopped. Had we stayed on the motorway, we’d have no doubt suffered yet another long delay. Good local knowledge, that.
Wow, Austria. We were immediately surrounded by a truly enormous wind farm – and all the turbine blades were painted with red and white bands. Not only does this warn any straying birds, but these are also the colours of the national flag. Nice, patriotic touch.
The motorway was a superb stretch of smooth, fast and safe blacktop. Good job, because this was going to be a very long day. Andy planned to drive on all the way to Calais, hoping to arrive sometime during the night.
As we motored further in, the landscape changed from flat and covered in wind farms and the occasional surgically clean and highly polished oil refinery, to sublimely callipygous (like a nicely-rounded arse and one of my favourite words!) hills draped in verdant green forests. The trees looked like they were combed every morning by a highly-trained arboreal coiffeuse. Not a leaf was out of place. For the enjoyment of motorists, the high acoustic fences on either side of the road incorporated occasional transparent panels through which you could see picturesque little villages with quaint onion-domed churches nestling in perfect grassy valleys.
There was no litter. Anywhere! I didn’t see a single piece of rubbish during our entire journey through the country. Turkey, please note! The place was as clean as an Archbishop’s internet history and drop-dead gorgeous. We could have seen much more of the place had there not been so many acoustic fences on either side of the motorway. We covered many miles (they call them kilometres), stopping only once for a comfort break and brew. Andy filled up the tank yet again and I spotted an employee polishing the petrol pumps. He even got a shine on the rubber fuel hose!
Next, Germany. Lunchtime, and the crossing out of Austria was literally no more than having to slow down momentarily because the road narrows at the border, then we were speeding away into southern Germany. Superficially, at this point, it looked exactly the same as Serbia, but with less sweetcorn, as Hungary, but with a slightly more undulating countryside, and as Austria, but not quite manicured to the same fastidious level.
What can I say that most people don’t already know about our old friends. They’re prosperous and industrious, impeccably polite, efficient, follow the rules, keep their country neat and very tidy – and now they’re having to get used to losing to England at football! Go, girls…
It was also by far the largest country on our trip. Again, we settled into travelling ever northwards, this time on the autobahn, lined by some of the tallest acoustic panels we’ve yet seen. At times it was like driving along the bottom of the Grand Canyon!
Yorkshire Al made good progress behind the wheel. We passed numerous solar farms – the Germans need to build as many as they can in order to wean themselves off Putin’s oil and gas, and once more, the landscape was lovely, with lots of forests and stubbly fields recently shorn of their crops. The were no signs of human habitation for long stretches, then the sudden reappearance of the acoustic panels indicated there were houses nearby.
We pulled over in the early evening near Frankfurt for another comfort stop, fuel top-up and to let Buddy have a little walk around, then onwards and upwards once again. We crossed the Rhine just south of Cologne – I recognized the distant cathedral from a previous visit to the city – then headed for Aachen and Belgium as dusk fell.
Friday 5 August – Belgium and France to England via The Channel.
Soggy Belgium. We finally got into a very dark Belgium some time around midnight and guess what – it started to rain. Good old Belgium – it never disappoints! After the desiccating summers of Turkey, to smell rain was a joy. We like Belgium very much.
Finally, France. Jan and I snoozed as we entered France and eventually fetched up at the virtually deserted Port of Calais. There were vast areas of floodlit empty car parks. The formalities took very little time, which was pleasant, and then we were through, queuing in front of a very large ferry due to sail for Dover at 3am.
Loading commenced, and multiple lines of vehicles shuffled forwards onto the ship, a P&O ferry. Once parked, we went upstairs to the lounge. Andy and Al stretched out on sofas and were immediately asleep. Jan followed shortly afterwards. The crossing was smooth and we reversed into the berth at Dover just under ninety minutes later.
However, I have to say we saw no members of staff at all apart from a crewman standing on the staircase, the ferry interiors were tatty, grubby and dowdy, and the toilets were most definitely not clean – and hadn’t been clean for some time – and with no heating, the lounge was uncomfortably chilly. After all their recent bad press, P&O were obviously still very much wedded to their programme of cost saving. Still, looking on the bright side, we didn’t sink, but using their ferry was not particularly pleasant. I’m happy to report other ferry services are available and would recommend anyone making the crossing to book elsewhere.
Brilliant Blighty. We were back in England at last. Lucy was going mental by this time, yowling constantly, but we were simply too weary to care. Dawn arrived. Andy delivered the cat blood serum samples to the lab in Surrey, but we got lost trying to find the place before Jan spotted their large and imposing gate covered with signs!
Back on the M4, we headed to Swindon to drop off Buddy, our lovely, exceptionally cute, faithful canine companion who, unlike Lucy, remained irrepressibly cheerful and mercifully silent for almost the entire journey from Didim. His mum had flown back from Turkey and Andy arranged a rendezvous in a garden centre car park. It was like an early morning drugs deal, but with more fur. Boy, was he pleased to see her – he could have swept the entire car park with that waggy tail. We waved him goodbye with warmest best wishes for his new life in Edinburgh.
We were the final drop. After the amount of driving we’d experienced over the last four days, it seemed like the shortest of hops from Swindon to Gloucester. Andy reversed the van up our driveway and we unloaded everything directly into our garden cabin. Andy and Al had a final cuppa and chat, then we waved them both goodbye. From Gloucester, they were heading north up the M5 to Redditch for a few days R&R with Andy’s family before touring the country to accumulate a new set of pet passengers and setting off once more on the long haul back to Turkey.
We were home at last. After three and a half years away in Turkey, our feet kissed English soil once more. Everyone was driving on the correct side of the road and the gently-rolling countryside was a vision of chocolate-box perfection. This was England. Land of heroes, of Marmite and lardy cakes, of Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Boris and Biggins, of Stonehenge and The Cotswolds. Our England. Home.
What the duck! Are you telling me a tub of Lurpak now costs £7.20?
I cannot lie, this was an arduous journey for Jan and I. Our spring chickens had clucked off some time ago and never returned, and we were extremely tired by the time we reached home, but we were also successful in getting ourselves, Archie and Lucy and a goodly number boxes of various shapes and sizes delivered safely to our front door in Gloucester. Andy and Alan are expert professional drivers who equally shared duties, and boy, can they brew a mean cup of roadside tea!
Our days were very long, but they had to be – we covered a total of 4245km in just over four days, passing through nine countries, four of which I had never visited before. We saw some wonderful things through the van windows, including a spectacular continent-spanning suspension bridge and an awful lot of sweetcorn and sunflowers. At times we even heard the road singing to us. In all, it was a hell of an experience and one we will – for all the right reasons – not forget.
Andy Hewitt makes regular trips throughout the year carrying pets – and occasionally people and their goods – back and forth between the UK and Turkey. On average, he completes one round trip a month, starting in Turkey, driving to the UK and then returning to Turkey again. His vehicle is registered with both DEFRA and the Turkish authorities to carry up to a maximum of 17 animals and is fully serviced after each round trip between the two countries. He can also offer valuable assistance with the preparation of all the necessary documentation required for international pet transportation prior to departure.
Andy can be contacted on +44 7407 473403