4,100 miles in 35 days — pulling out all the stops on a self-drive tour of Europe

This article appears on page 6 of the January 2011 issue.
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The Swiss Alps as seen from within the Piz Gloria complex on the summit of Schilthorn.

by S. Ryan Edgar, Hannawa Falls, NY

I grew up in a small town, and the closest I had come to adventure was living vicariously through friends. But my college graduation trip to Europe was going to change that!

Making plans

I had 35 days free before I would begin my doctoral work, so my first step was to pick the cities I wanted to see — 22 in all. There were some places I absolutely had to go and adventures I had to experience. I threw caution to the wind and went for the kinds of things I would never consider any other day of my life.

In my planning process, the more likely I was to be turned down for something, the earlier I tried to book it. For example, when you are 22 years old, renting a compact convertible in Europe is nearly impossible — at least, at a reasonable price. So I ended up just leasing a Peugeot 207CC convertible for the trip through AutoEurope (800/223-5555) at a total cost of $2,241.

Then I booked my hotel rooms, mostly in the low-to-mid price range, prepaying for the majority of them. I also prepaid most of the activities I chose. My plane ticket — for my first-ever plane ride — was a graduation gift from my parents.

Spectacular scenery

My May 15-June 20, 2010, trip started in Brussels and I took the scenic route to Paris, which took me 4,100 miles through Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, Monaco, Spain and France.

Ryan sitting in the driver’s seat of a 2010 Lotus Exige in the RSR Nürburg parking lot before the Lotus Road Rally.

I arrived in the tiny principality of Monaco with limited financial resources, so two days there was my limit. Everything in Monaco was extreme — extremely expensive and extremely lavish. But who could say ‘No’ to a waterfront lounge chair with a good cocktail and fresh watermelon? Better yet, how about a gourmet dinner overlooking Port Hercule?

Of course, there were places on my itinerary that were a little easier on the wallet. Many of them were also more nature oriented, providing opportunities for physical activity.

I swung through Germany’s Black Forest on my way to Zürich. I stayed in the picturesque town of Seebach for one night and wish I had stayed longer. The hiking trails and views along the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse, or Black Forest High Street, were amazing.

The Swiss Alps, where I spent three days, was another location with incredible natural beauty. I ascended to the summit of two mountains, Schilthorn and Mount Pilatus, one by aerial cable car and the other by cogwheel railway. The views were spectacular, and I was able to get some great photos.

I also went hiking near my hotel in Gluringen, Hotel Walliser Sonne, and almost made it on foot to the summit of a third mountain, but I gave up when the trail became snow covered and wet. I figured that hiking alone in such conditions was a sure way to miss out on the rest of my trip.

Another great hiking location was the Cinque Terre, the group of five villages nestled amongst the mountains on Italy’s northwestern coast. I hiked between four of the villages and took the boat to the last one, Monterosso. The trails along the mountainsides were comparatively easy to navigate and there was no snow!

Europe on foot

The majority of cities in Europe are also great for walking, so I mostly roamed around on foot. The medieval cities of Toledo and Carcassonne each had a certain charm, but even the bustling, industrialized cities were easy to walk through, provided I was carrying a map. I visited Zürich, Milan, Toulouse, Barcelona, Madrid, Bordeaux, Nantes and Paris, averaging 20,000 steps per day, according to my pedometer, and managed to see all the major sights I was interested in.

If I ever came across a building or monument that I could walk up to, I was climbing those steps! The views from the top of the Atomium (Brussels, Belgium); the Duomo (Milan, Italy); Scaliger Castle (Sirmione, Italy); Palazzo Rosso (Genoa, Italy); Castell de Montejuïc (Barcelona, Spain), and Paris’ Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Sacré-Cœur all made the many steps worth the climb.

I also spent an entire afternoon doing nothing but walking… in the Louvre. It was incredible wandering through this massive museum admiring its paintings and artifacts.

Unique adventures

All of these sights made up a large part of my trip, but I actually went to Europe to take a path less traveled, one that led me on more offbeat adventures.

Ryan learning the art of Venetian rowing.

One of the most educational was a lesson in Venetian rowing from Row Venice (phone +39 345 2415266). While browsing the news at home one day, I had found an article on how to avoid overpaying for a gondola ride in Venice. The article recommended taking a Venetian rowing lesson; at €50 ($69) for two hours, it costs less and lasts longer, plus you can take away the knowledge of how to maneuver a gondola.

The experience lived up to the hype of the article, and my instructor, Jane, was very helpful.

Venice’s maze of streets and canals all are beautiful, but they all looked the same to me, which made it nearly impossible to navigate the city without a map. The only reason I made it to my lesson remotely close to on time was because a kind stranger named Alberto picked me up by motorboat and took me on a 20-minute ride through the city and across the Grand Canal to my destination. That’s how lost I was!

For an even more interactive activity, I decided to see the autonomous community of Catalonia*, in the province of Barcelona, by self-driven “buggy,” a souped-up go-cart with a 250cc engine, electric ignition and shock absorbers for a smoother ride. RocBuggy (phone +34 628199211) provided this off-road opportunity for €135 ($187).

With a guide, I spent six hours driving along dusty trails and barreling along cliffs and through woods. Along the way, we made stops at historic ruins that ranged from several hundred to more than 1,000 years old.

The tour included visits to three villages — Talamanca, Mura and Rocafort — and a traditional Catalonian breakfast and lunch made from local produce.

Taking to the sky

For a bit riskier yet, oh, so worth it adventure, I recommend exploring the skies.

If you are interested in learning more about flying, then a flying lesson in Barcelona is an incredible experience. My instructor from Lifestyle Barcelona (phone +34 93 270 2048) went over the entire operation of the plane and a preflight checklist with me. Once the engine was started, he turned the controls over to me. I was the one who took the plane off the ground and did the flying. This was only my second time in a plane, and I was the pilot!

It was quite the experience, with breathtaking views of both the coast and the mountains. The instruction and one-hour flight cost €290 ($403).

For more ordinary sightseeing from the skies, a helicopter ride over Paris (phone +33 1 48 74 05 10) is worth the investment. And with my investment (€385), I got not only the 45-minute helicopter ride but lunch plus a chauffeur to take me to and from my hotel. Given the traffic in Paris, I was grateful for this bonus.

The helicopter ride was exciting. The views of the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles were awe-inspiring.

Caution is advised for the faint of stomach because the helicopter does make some abrupt but, I thought, very fun changes in direction and altitude.

Serendipity and speed

Then there were the unplanned adventures, like going backstage at a rock concert. It started when I met a member of The Standells, a ’60s rock group, while on a walking tour of Bordeaux. The group happened to be on a tour of Europe.

A wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower during my helicopter flight over Paris.

I’m one for classic rock and ’60s music, so I hit it off with band member Pauly. Over lunch, he mentioned that the band was going to be in Paris that weekend, the same weekend I had planned to be there. I took full advantage of the remarkable coincidence, and I was welcomed backstage, where I witnessed the prep work, listened to the dressing room banter and watched the show.

My most favorite adventure in Europe, however — and the main reason I went — was three days of race-car driving at Nürburgring, a world-famous motor racing complex in western Germany. Believe me, it did not disappoint!

My three days included a Lotus Road Rally, in which I drove a Lotus Exige on the surface streets around the track; four laps on the track in a Renault Clio Cup, and four laps in a BMW M3. The entire experience was an absolute blast.

I booked all three days through the same rental company, RSR Nürburg (phone +49 2691 931952).

From hearing about the history of the ring during the road rally to tearing around the track at over 110 mph, it was the most fun I’d had in a long time. Throughout the entire three days, I worked with the same instructor, John, from the UK, who knew the area and the track. He was a great, friendly guy.

Nürburgring was the biggest hit on my wallet, costing €1,347 ($1,852) but worth every penny.

On the issue of money, the rental car company at Nürburgring requires a deductible for more expensive cars before you actually take the car out on the track. When the person handling the rental asked for my credit card to reserve €35,000, nearly $50,000, as the deductible on the M3, I tried my hardest not to laugh, for I knew my student credit card limit was $1,250. Luckily, I had cleared this issue with the owner by phone before I set out on my trip, so they backed off the credit card reserve and sent me out with a chaperone instead.

The food

Also worth every penny were the mouthwatering meals I had — always local cuisine and always delicious. One of the best was the gourmet dinner I had at Mandarine (Quai des Etats) overlooking Monaco’s Port Hercule: dory fish poached in white wine with coconut (€70).

I also feasted on confit de canard in Toulouse; veal steak with mushrooms in Seebach; fried fish in the Cinque Terre; grilled trout in Sirmione, and grilled sole in Barcelona.

The best part, however, were the desserts. Among the best I had were apple strudel in Nürburg; churros con chocolate in Madrid; profiteroles and tiramisù in Milan, and macaroons in Paris.

The second-best food day of my trip was when I decided to buy chocolates from as many chocolate shops in Brussels as I could find, and I ate them all on a sunny park bench.

But my self-guided gelato tour in Sirmione beat them all. I went to every gelateria in Sirmione I could find, seven of them, and bought two scoops of gelato from each. I was in search of the best mint or mint-chocolate-chip gelato, and I found it at a little shop named Ai Cigni (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 12). The mint was delicious.

Lessons learned

Driving in Europe can be a challenge. In Brussels, all the intersections had too many traffic lights and signs. To me, it looked like a free-for-all between the buses, taxis, trams and cars. The easiest solution, being alone with my GPS, was to find a car going in the direction the GPS was telling me to go at each intersection and follow it.

I also learned to never carry important items in my backpack while gallivanting around a city. My backpack with a pair of shorts and the valet key to my car was stolen, literally from under my feet, at an indoor café in Barcelona. It was there one minute and gone the next.

I’d recommend bringing two wallets and splitting your money and credit cards equally between them. And never carry more cash at any time than you can afford to lose should the worst happen.

If you’re using a credit card, be sure to get one that does not charge extra fees for overseas transactions. My 1st Financial Bank Visa card charged zero percent for foreign transactions and only three percent for cash advances. Before leaving, I paid $500 on my zero balance, creating a credit to avoid further interest charges when obtaining cash.

Lastly, always put the top up on a convertible if you’re traveling on a car-carrying Motorail train. Having the top down on my convertible on the train through the Swiss countryside was not a good idea. Rather than passing beautiful landscapes, my ride was actually 20 minutes through a pitch-black tunnel with the wind rushing by and occasional drips of water on my head.

During my glorious 35-day trip, the only real downside was, of course, the cost. When it was over and the last credit card bills had come in, I had spent $15,000, depleting my entire savings account.

Was it worth it? You bet it was!

*(Correction published in the March '11 issue, pg. 59) In S. Ryan Edgar’s article on his dream trip to Europe, the author’s original wording was edited in a way that, erroneously, made it seem that Catalonia was in the province of Barcelona. What was meant to have been conveyed is that the area being toured was in the province of Barcelona, one of the four provinces that make up the autonomous community of Catalonia.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
The Swiss Alps as seen from within the Piz Gloria complex on the summit of Schilthorn.

by S. Ryan Edgar, Hannawa Falls, NY

I grew up in a small town, and the closest I had come to adventure was living vicariously through friends. But my college graduation trip to Europe was going to change that!

Making plans

I had 35 days free before I would begin my doctoral work, so my first step was to pick the cities I wanted to see — 22 in all. There were some places I absolutely had to go and adventures I had to experience. I threw caution to the wind and went for the kinds of things I would never consider any other day of my life.

In my planning process, the more likely I was to be turned down for something, the earlier I tried to book it. For example, when you are 22 years old, renting a compact convertible in Europe is nearly impossible — at least, at a reasonable price. So I ended up just leasing a Peugeot 207CC convertible for the trip through AutoEurope (800/223-5555) at a total cost of $2,241.

Then I booked my hotel rooms, mostly in the low-to-mid price range, prepaying for the majority of them. I also prepaid most of the activities I chose. My plane ticket — for my first-ever plane ride — was a graduation gift from my parents.

Spectacular scenery

My May 15-June 20, 2010, trip started in Brussels and I took the scenic route to Paris, which took me 4,100 miles through Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, Monaco, Spain and France.

Ryan sitting in the driver’s seat of a 2010 Lotus Exige in the RSR Nürburg parking lot before the Lotus Road Rally.

I arrived in the tiny principality of Monaco with limited financial resources, so two days there was my limit. Everything in Monaco was extreme — extremely expensive and extremely lavish. But who could say ‘No’ to a waterfront lounge chair with a good cocktail and fresh watermelon? Better yet, how about a gourmet dinner overlooking Port Hercule?

Of course, there were places on my itinerary that were a little easier on the wallet. Many of them were also more nature oriented, providing opportunities for physical activity.

I swung through Germany’s Black Forest on my way to Zürich. I stayed in the picturesque town of Seebach for one night and wish I had stayed longer. The hiking trails and views along the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse, or Black Forest High Street, were amazing.

The Swiss Alps, where I spent three days, was another location with incredible natural beauty. I ascended to the summit of two mountains, Schilthorn and Mount Pilatus, one by aerial cable car and the other by cogwheel railway. The views were spectacular, and I was able to get some great photos.

I also went hiking near my hotel in Gluringen, Hotel Walliser Sonne, and almost made it on foot to the summit of a third mountain, but I gave up when the trail became snow covered and wet. I figured that hiking alone in such conditions was a sure way to miss out on the rest of my trip.

Another great hiking location was the Cinque Terre, the group of five villages nestled amongst the mountains on Italy’s northwestern coast. I hiked between four of the villages and took the boat to the last one, Monterosso. The trails along the mountainsides were comparatively easy to navigate and there was no snow!

Europe on foot

The majority of cities in Europe are also great for walking, so I mostly roamed around on foot. The medieval cities of Toledo and Carcassonne each had a certain charm, but even the bustling, industrialized cities were easy to walk through, provided I was carrying a map. I visited Zürich, Milan, Toulouse, Barcelona, Madrid, Bordeaux, Nantes and Paris, averaging 20,000 steps per day, according to my pedometer, and managed to see all the major sights I was interested in.

If I ever came across a building or monument that I could walk up to, I was climbing those steps! The views from the top of the Atomium (Brussels, Belgium); the Duomo (Milan, Italy); Scaliger Castle (Sirmione, Italy); Palazzo Rosso (Genoa, Italy); Castell de Montejuïc (Barcelona, Spain), and Paris’ Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Sacré-Cœur all made the many steps worth the climb.

I also spent an entire afternoon doing nothing but walking… in the Louvre. It was incredible wandering through this massive museum admiring its paintings and artifacts.

Unique adventures

All of these sights made up a large part of my trip, but I actually went to Europe to take a path less traveled, one that led me on more offbeat adventures.

Ryan learning the art of Venetian rowing.

One of the most educational was a lesson in Venetian rowing from Row Venice (phone +39 345 2415266). While browsing the news at home one day, I had found an article on how to avoid overpaying for a gondola ride in Venice. The article recommended taking a Venetian rowing lesson; at €50 ($69) for two hours, it costs less and lasts longer, plus you can take away the knowledge of how to maneuver a gondola.

The experience lived up to the hype of the article, and my instructor, Jane, was very helpful.

Venice’s maze of streets and canals all are beautiful, but they all looked the same to me, which made it nearly impossible to navigate the city without a map. The only reason I made it to my lesson remotely close to on time was because a kind stranger named Alberto picked me up by motorboat and took me on a 20-minute ride through the city and across the Grand Canal to my destination. That’s how lost I was!

For an even more interactive activity, I decided to see the autonomous community of Catalonia*, in the province of Barcelona, by self-driven “buggy,” a souped-up go-cart with a 250cc engine, electric ignition and shock absorbers for a smoother ride. RocBuggy (phone +34 628199211) provided this off-road opportunity for €135 ($187).

With a guide, I spent six hours driving along dusty trails and barreling along cliffs and through woods. Along the way, we made stops at historic ruins that ranged from several hundred to more than 1,000 years old.

The tour included visits to three villages — Talamanca, Mura and Rocafort — and a traditional Catalonian breakfast and lunch made from local produce.

Taking to the sky

For a bit riskier yet, oh, so worth it adventure, I recommend exploring the skies.

If you are interested in learning more about flying, then a flying lesson in Barcelona is an incredible experience. My instructor from Lifestyle Barcelona (phone +34 93 270 2048) went over the entire operation of the plane and a preflight checklist with me. Once the engine was started, he turned the controls over to me. I was the one who took the plane off the ground and did the flying. This was only my second time in a plane, and I was the pilot!

It was quite the experience, with breathtaking views of both the coast and the mountains. The instruction and one-hour flight cost €290 ($403).

For more ordinary sightseeing from the skies, a helicopter ride over Paris (phone +33 1 48 74 05 10) is worth the investment. And with my investment (€385), I got not only the 45-minute helicopter ride but lunch plus a chauffeur to take me to and from my hotel. Given the traffic in Paris, I was grateful for this bonus.

The helicopter ride was exciting. The views of the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles were awe-inspiring.

Caution is advised for the faint of stomach because the helicopter does make some abrupt but, I thought, very fun changes in direction and altitude.

Serendipity and speed

Then there were the unplanned adventures, like going backstage at a rock concert. It started when I met a member of The Standells, a ’60s rock group, while on a walking tour of Bordeaux. The group happened to be on a tour of Europe.

A wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower during my helicopter flight over Paris.

I’m one for classic rock and ’60s music, so I hit it off with band member Pauly. Over lunch, he mentioned that the band was going to be in Paris that weekend, the same weekend I had planned to be there. I took full advantage of the remarkable coincidence, and I was welcomed backstage, where I witnessed the prep work, listened to the dressing room banter and watched the show.

My most favorite adventure in Europe, however — and the main reason I went — was three days of race-car driving at Nürburgring, a world-famous motor racing complex in western Germany. Believe me, it did not disappoint!

My three days included a Lotus Road Rally, in which I drove a Lotus Exige on the surface streets around the track; four laps on the track in a Renault Clio Cup, and four laps in a BMW M3. The entire experience was an absolute blast.

I booked all three days through the same rental company, RSR Nürburg (phone +49 2691 931952).

From hearing about the history of the ring during the road rally to tearing around the track at over 110 mph, it was the most fun I’d had in a long time. Throughout the entire three days, I worked with the same instructor, John, from the UK, who knew the area and the track. He was a great, friendly guy.

Nürburgring was the biggest hit on my wallet, costing €1,347 ($1,852) but worth every penny.

On the issue of money, the rental car company at Nürburgring requires a deductible for more expensive cars before you actually take the car out on the track. When the person handling the rental asked for my credit card to reserve €35,000, nearly $50,000, as the deductible on the M3, I tried my hardest not to laugh, for I knew my student credit card limit was $1,250. Luckily, I had cleared this issue with the owner by phone before I set out on my trip, so they backed off the credit card reserve and sent me out with a chaperone instead.

The food

Also worth every penny were the mouthwatering meals I had — always local cuisine and always delicious. One of the best was the gourmet dinner I had at Mandarine (Quai des Etats) overlooking Monaco’s Port Hercule: dory fish poached in white wine with coconut (€70).

I also feasted on confit de canard in Toulouse; veal steak with mushrooms in Seebach; fried fish in the Cinque Terre; grilled trout in Sirmione, and grilled sole in Barcelona.

The best part, however, were the desserts. Among the best I had were apple strudel in Nürburg; churros con chocolate in Madrid; profiteroles and tiramisù in Milan, and macaroons in Paris.

The second-best food day of my trip was when I decided to buy chocolates from as many chocolate shops in Brussels as I could find, and I ate them all on a sunny park bench.

But my self-guided gelato tour in Sirmione beat them all. I went to every gelateria in Sirmione I could find, seven of them, and bought two scoops of gelato from each. I was in search of the best mint or mint-chocolate-chip gelato, and I found it at a little shop named Ai Cigni (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 12). The mint was delicious.

Lessons learned

Driving in Europe can be a challenge. In Brussels, all the intersections had too many traffic lights and signs. To me, it looked like a free-for-all between the buses, taxis, trams and cars. The easiest solution, being alone with my GPS, was to find a car going in the direction the GPS was telling me to go at each intersection and follow it.

I also learned to never carry important items in my backpack while gallivanting around a city. My backpack with a pair of shorts and the valet key to my car was stolen, literally from under my feet, at an indoor café in Barcelona. It was there one minute and gone the next.

I’d recommend bringing two wallets and splitting your money and credit cards equally between them. And never carry more cash at any time than you can afford to lose should the worst happen.

If you’re using a credit card, be sure to get one that does not charge extra fees for overseas transactions. My 1st Financial Bank Visa card charged zero percent for foreign transactions and only three percent for cash advances. Before leaving, I paid $500 on my zero balance, creating a credit to avoid further interest charges when obtaining cash.

Lastly, always put the top up on a convertible if you’re traveling on a car-carrying Motorail train. Having the top down on my convertible on the train through the Swiss countryside was not a good idea. Rather than passing beautiful landscapes, my ride was actually 20 minutes through a pitch-black tunnel with the wind rushing by and occasional drips of water on my head.

During my glorious 35-day trip, the only real downside was, of course, the cost. When it was over and the last credit card bills had come in, I had spent $15,000, depleting my entire savings account.

Was it worth it? You bet it was!

*(Correction published in the March '11 issue, pg. 59) In S. Ryan Edgar’s article on his dream trip to Europe, the author’s original wording was edited in a way that, erroneously, made it seem that Catalonia was in the province of Barcelona. What was meant to have been conveyed is that the area being toured was in the province of Barcelona, one of the four provinces that make up the autonomous community of Catalonia.