It’s one degree outside and the fields, forests, undulating hills and stone villages of Brittany in northern France are frozen over like a winter wonderland. And yet the sky is clear azure blue, the sun peeking over the horizon but never rising too high to provide warmth.
I’m on a road trip with my teenage daughter and we’re travelling by car. Since I was a child I’ve been doing road trips, by car, by motorbike, in Europe, Central America and Southeast Asia, but this is the first time I’m taking my next generation along for the ride.
We’ve just done an overnight ferry trip from the Land of Brexit to Saint Malo in France and now, before we drive to Spain — nine hours to San-Sebastian in the Basque northeast — we’re stopping off at Mont Saint-Michel, a magical rocky island in the sea detached from the mainland by the ebb and flow of the tide.
It’s early, and as we climb the cobblestone streets towards the abbey at the summit, our hands freeze in the biting sea-air cold. Only 50 people live on the island these days — eight of them monks — but rewind 150 years and the population was almost 2,000. Now hotels, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops take the place of private residences, but at the top, the Catholic Church still reigns.
History, the aura of the monastery and abbey, soaring landscapes, castle-like embankments — this place has ‘special’ etched into every bas-relief, every Celtic-designed stained-glass window, every nook, cranny, stone, brick and tile.
As we leave and the busloads of tourists start to unload, we hold our breath. The trip was magical, more so because we came early, among the first to arrive.
For years I’ve been wanting to do the European road trip — my last was when I was in my early 20s.
The most recent idea was to fly from Vietnam to Paris, get a connecting flight to Nice and then rent a car. We would do the French Riviera before heading north into the Alps and driving a loop that would take in Switzerland, Venice, Rome, Florence and Milan. Then we would return to Nice via Monaco.
It’s a cheap and fun way of seeing Europe, and unlike other parts of the world, the places to visit are close by; the highways of Europe let you cover long distances at speed.
Unfortunately, the road trip never happened and that summer we instead went to the UK.
This time I was determined to make it happen.
I took a car from the UK, an overnight ferry crossing included. Then the long drive through France. But our two days in San Sebastian held the promise of good weather, nightlife, the beach and tapas so good the city has been garnering awards and more Michelin stars than you can count on the EU flag.
The Land of Pintxos
The drive to San Sebastian is painfully long. But once we got past Nantes in western France, it’s fast. The highways and their 130km/h speed limit see to that. But we don’t arrive in Spain until 9pm and by then we are exhausted.
Still, I am determined to go out, have a beer and get something to eat. I settle on a local bar in the Gros area of town called Desy Bar. The owner speaks English and we chat. I have some tortilla and some other tapas known locally as pintxos (pronounced pin-tosh). The various dishes are lined up on the bar — they’re what the city is famous for. I also try the beer — two local IPAs. The Gross IPA is as good as Britain’s finest, Punk IPA from Brewdog. The Basqueland Brewing Project IPA which I try by the bottle is even better.
Yet as we discover the next day, besides the beautiful municipal beach, the old town, the nightlife and the mountains, it’s the pintxos that make this city tick. Similar to tapas, the main difference is that pintxos come spiked with a skewer or toothpick, often to a piece of bread (although we see an olive, pickled chilli and octopus pintxos which looks amazing). They are part of the eating and drinking culture, of the nightlife, which centres on the city’s many bars. What strikes us is the sophistication of the cuisine — bar after bar seems to have their own elaborate versions of pintxos. What we taste is so moreish we just don’t want to leave. And as for the pulpo, the octopus with paprika and salt, if I could insert a big smiley face into this article, I would.
Mountains, Fog and Toledo
Two days after arriving in San Sebastian and we’re driving through the mountains of Northern Spain towards Toledo. It’s mid-morning but with blue skies above it’s still bitterly cold. It’s a word you don’t often associate with Spain.
We drive through one of many tunnels and on the other side we see a layer of fog resting in the valley below. Then we go through another tunnel and now the fog descends. Visibility in places is less than 100m and the temperature gauge goes down to -4°C.
As the road descends towards Madrid, some warmth returns. And by the time we get to Toledo, an hour before sunset, we can take off a layer of clothing. It’s not hot, Spanish hot, but it’s bearable.
Years ago I visited Venice. I spent most of a day there and then left for the next city along, Padua. I loved Venice and yet couldn’t stand it — it felt like a living, breathing museum, a place set up for tourists and not much more. Toledo is similar.
Driving in is spectacular. A medieval stone-built city with turrets and castle-like walls emerges out of the central Spanish plains. Around it on all sides are gorges, rivers and mountains, and ascending the cobblestone streets and tight alleyways you feel transported back in time. And yet we both get bored with the place.
I love the way it looks and feels, and yet the cathedral, despite its size and spectacular exterior, is disappointing. It’s been over-hyped. The souvenir shops at every turn give the place a tacky feel and even the two synagogues — Toledo once harboured Islam, Christianity and Judaism all in one tiny space — lack interest. I’ve seen better elsewhere. Budapest, Lithuania and even Yangon.
I’ve lost the car. It’s early morning, still dark and we’re trying to leave Toledo, but the car’s not there. We parked it in a private garage — it was arranged by our hotel — but now I go to pick it up, someone else is in our space, number 29.
For a moment, everything I have to do runs through my mind. The insurance company, a police report, travel plans for getting home. It will be complex, but we’ll be okay. No need to panic. But then I decide to walk outside the garage and see if the car’s been moved outside. There’s a possibility it’s been put somewhere else. The question is how?
When I entered the garage I walked down the stairs. It was dark and I couldn’t see. This time I ascend via the roadway and suddenly I realise that there’s another level above me. Had I descended too far?
My mind focuses. All the spaces have numbers. So I walk along to space 29 and there is the car.
I laugh, laugh and laugh. Laugh at my stupidity. Laugh like a madman. Thank God it’s early and no-one can hear me. Spain wakes up late.
We arrive in Madrid on New Year’s Eve and after a trip to the hypermarket for Spanish wine, jamon and cheese, we head to the Stadio Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid. I park the car and spend five minutes working out how to use the pay and display machine. It’s all in Spanish, but my French gets me through.
The Real Madrid stadium tour is phenomenal. The museum, the changing rooms, the dugout, the VIP box, the multimedia effects. Two hours of wow, although I don’t come away supporting the world’s most successful team. There’s too much positivity, not enough talk of the failures and difficulties the club has faced. Too much one-sided PR.
Then we head to the hotel. Like in Toledo, we park the car in a private garage, only this time I won’t forget where the car is.
Madrid is a criss-cross of grand boulevards, underpasses and intersections, lined with apartment buildings, shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. There is something majestic about the city, whether you’re in town by the palace, or in the barrios — we stay in Salamanca, 30 minutes’ walk from the centre.
After heading to the Plaza Mayor and then stumbling on the Mercado de San Miguel, a bustling food court version of a typical Spanish bar, we walk to the palace at sunset and then get the metro back to the hotel. It may be New Year’s Eve but the temperature is starting to drop — it’s going to be minus 3 out there and my daughter is only 13. I can hardly take her out for the night.
So with a bottle of whisky to hand — for me, not her — and back episodes of Game of Thrones — for me, not for her — the two of us settle down in our hotel room and wait for midnight. She’s got her own movies to watch and books to read.
At times I go outside for a walk. No matter how cold it is, I want to see, breathe and feel Madrid at night. The place has an energy to it that I’ve not seen or felt elsewhere. It’s an energy I feel attracted to, like the pulse I felt when all those years ago I first crossed from Cambodia to Vietnam. It’s an energy I want to discover, too. But we have two days in this city, enough to scrape the surface. It’s the final stopping point of our trip before we head back to the UK.
Midnight strikes and the whisky glass gets raised, the hug between father and daughter, the wishes for the New Year. I’ve already done this once tonight, six hours earlier when Vietnam made it into 2017. On that occasion it was my wife, other daughter and brother-in-law. By Viber and Facetime. Now it’s us two.
I decide to take a walk outside again and above me stars peek through the lightened haze of the city. Fireworks blast. Police car sirens go off. Taxis speed through the streets. People shout, cheer, scream, roar. And out there with its downtown focus on Plaza Puerta del Sol, the main gathering point for New Year’s Eve, Madrid continues its after-hours party into the coming year.
Tomorrow I can sleep. I’m looking forward to it.
Car Rental and Licenses
Car rental in Europe is cheap and easy — although expect to pay a premium if you pick up the car at an airport and return it to another location. For a small car, off-peak you should be able to get a decent vehicle for under US$150 (VND3.45 million) a week. Make sure the vehicle uses diesel. Diesel is cheap on the European mainland and one litre of diesel should take you about 20km, important if you’re travelling long distances.
In the past I’ve used Budget, Europcar and Avis. However, the best company I’ve come across for variety of vehicles and price is Sixt. They’re German but with branches across Europe.
Vietnamese driving licences are accepted in Europe as are licences from pretty much everywhere in the world. Although it varies from country to country, the general rule is that if you are a non-resident, you can drive for 12 months on a foreign licence from the date of your last entry into that country.
Photos by Nick Ross / January 2017