Travelling to Istanbul across Europe with a caravan is a challenge, but an exciting one, as John Rawlings discovered.
If you think caravan holidays are dull, then look away now, or this travel story to Istanbul, through 21 countries in 21 days, might change your mind. We went seeking adventure and new experiences that we wouldn’t get by simply flying there, and returned with unforgettable memories, having seen an incredible amount of scenery, history and culture.
For example, waking up in Turkey to the sounds of the local mosque calling people to morning prayer, or the dawn chorus in Greece, which sounded like every dog in the country was barking, were just things we’d never experienced on a caravan trip before.
You’ve got to like road trips to undertake a 5,000-mile journey this, and in case you’re wondering, the 21 countries we visited were: UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium and Holland. We did all this with a regular car and caravan – a Skoda Octavia Scout estate towing a Bailey Pursuit caravan.
We hadn’t been caravanning beyond Italy and Austria before, so Slovenia was the first surprise and delight of the trip. We had a fantastic meal of traditional Slovenian dishes in the restaurant at Camping Bled, right on the edge of the beautiful Lake Bled.
Croatia also exceeded our expectations. We spent a night by the Adriatic Sea at a campsite just south of Split, before experiencing one of the most memorable and beautiful drives of the trip from there down the coast road to Dubrovnik.
We passed through a section of Bosnia, and thought it was such a shame this country is better known for its recent wars than its scenery.
Dubrovnik was stunning, and a mecca for Game of Thrones fans, but it was incredible to think it had also been a war zone relatively recently.
The following 24 hours soon made Dubrovnik feel like a lifetime ago. The Caravan and Motorhome Club’s recommended (and inspected) overseas sites went only as far as Croatia, so it felt like the adventure really began from here.
Our plan to get to Macedonia in a day via Montenegro and Albania was hampered by delays and hassles at border crossings. We didn’t feel they saw many British tourists with a caravan in tow, and leaving the EU soon made us appreciate how easily we usually expect to cross country borders.
While Bosnia and Montenegro had been pretty but rustic, entering Albania immediately felt much more basic. Apparently it has lovely countryside and coastline, but we missed it as it was getting dark. After heavy rain and a puncture, we finally reached the Albania-Macedonia border at about 11pm thinking we’d soon be at our campsite 10km the other side.
Wrong. Exiting Albania took ages; after border police searched our vehicle, we discovered we couldn’t buy a Green Card until 8am, so ended up spending the night in no-man’s land between the two countries. Thankfully, we had our caravan to sleep in, so made ourselves comfortable while listening to the wild dogs and big trucks passing outside.
Our morale was lifted as soon as we got into Macedonia by a friendly welcome at Camping Rino on the shores of the beautiful lake named after the Unesco World Heritage city of Ohrid opposite us. This is a country we’d definitely like to return to.
Entering and leaving Greece was uneventful, thankfully, and we enjoyed being back in the land of smooth motorways for the first time since Croatia. That evening, our campsite provided our first views of the Aegean Sea.
Gallipoli had to be our first stop as we wanted to see the Anzac beaches and war memorials. It’s a beautiful area and as the sun set over the sea it was so sad to think of all the fighting and lives that had been lost here because of its strategic importance as a shipping channel between the Mediterranean and Russia.
Reaching Istanbul, we crossed a bridge over the Bosphorus strait leaving mainland Europe behind us and finally entered Asia.
We stayed at a campsite on the Black Sea, enjoyed a day trip experiencing the amazing sights and sounds of central Istanbul, and sampled lots of Turkish tea, coffee and food.
We still had countries ahead of us that we hadn’t seen before: Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Surprisingly, we weren’t searched leaving Turkey, but the process still took hours as they took issue with some of our paperwork. We ended up having to pay a fine – in cash, of course.
We found Bulgaria and Romania to be surprisingly pleasant. Our campsite in Bulgaria was owned by a British couple from Cardiff, who made us feel very welcome, and in Romania, we visited the famous Bran Castle and just had to stay at Vampire Camping.
Budapest and Prague were added to our list of glorious cities we’d seen. Both have a lot of history and elegance, and deserved more of our time.
From there, after an overnight break by the mighty Rhine at Rüdesheim in Germany, we just had the final leg to the Hook of Holland for our Stena Line overnight ferry back to the UK.
As we came off the ferry in Harwich, the police checking our passports asked a question that took a long time to answer: “Where have you been?”
We took overnight Brittany Ferries service from Portsmouth to Caen in France on our outward journey (which is great as you get a nice early arrival and start in France), but returned to the UK on the Stena Line Hook of Holland to Harwich overnight ferry crossing. www.brittany-ferries,co.uk www.stenaline.co.uk/Harwich
We booked our ferry crossings and a lot of our campsites via the foreign touring department of the Caravan and Motorhome Club: www.caravanclub.co.uk, tel: 01342 316 101.
For the rest of our campsite bookings we found www.campingcard.co.uk very useful.