10 Great European Drives
Published: May 2009
By Elizabeth Garnsey
Trade in your bucks for euros and hit the highway. These road trips, covering ground from Cornwall to Cracow, let you explore Europe at your own pace
The Peloponnesus, Greece's hand-shaped southern peninsula, is not the Greece of white stucco houses on islands with languorous beaches. It's a mountainous, sometimes unforgiving landscape with a rich history. Tales from antiquity and the Middle Ages echo through the ruins; imposing fortresses still fight against time. And long, sinuous roads climb over mountains, glide down into valleys blanketed with olive groves, and stretch to the sea. Five days is just enough to see the highlights of the Peloponnesus's eastern half, from the Argolis region in the north through Laconia and the Mani province in the south.
The road from Athens to Argolis—once you leave the well-trafficked highway—wends past hilly orchards and vineyards. Spend the first night in Nauplia, a seaside resort town whose Venetian houses and elegant Neoclassical mansions evince its past as the country's first capital, established after Greece gained independence from the Turks in 1829. The Nafplia Palace hotel, in a fortress overlooking the bay, is an ideal base for exploring the city and the region. Drive 20 minutes north to the ancient ruins of Mycenae, where Clytemnestra was said to have murdered her husband, King Agamemnon. Or head half an hour east to the third-century stone theater in Epidaurus, where some of the world's best-known actors perform classical Greek plays every July and August. Last summer, Isabella Rossellini played the role of Persephone, and Gérard Depardieu starred in Oedipus Rex.
Modern Sparta, about two hours south of Nauplia, is the rather disappointing capital of the Laconia region. Little remains from its days as a fierce city-state. But a short drive away, on the flank of Mount Taíyetos, stands Mistra, the cultural and political center of Byzantium. The 14th- and 15th-century frescoes adorning the walls and ceilings of the town's Pantanassa Convent and Perivleptos Monastery are some of Greece's finest examples of late Byzantine art. Many paintings are largely intact, and the convent's nuns, Mistra's only residents, quietly watch over them. After you've hiked up the steep, stony paths (bring water), stop for lunch on your way back down the mountain at the restaurant Xenia. American-born Heidi Floros and her Greek husband, John, serve traditional dishes made with fresh vegetables from their own garden (the leaf-thin fried zucchini and eggplant are superb).
On weekends, Athenians flock to Monemvasía, nicknamed Greece's Gibraltar, 62 miles from Sparta on Laconia's southeastern coast. The seaside town, with its five churches, stands atop a mountain that rises abruptly out of the water. Stay the night at Ta Kellia ("the cells"), a former monastery, to capture the ascetic atmosphere, or at the Hotel Byzantino, whose 25 rooms are scattered among several medieval buildings separated by shady fig trees. Monemvasía's main artery is a cobblestoned path lined with cafés and shops in buildings whose balconies drip with flowering vines. In one shop, elderly jewelry designer Ilias Livieratou sells silver and gold pieces based on Greek art—a Byzantine cross like one carved above the doorway of the Agia Sophia, the crumbling church that crowns Monemvasía; earrings with ancient Minoan designs.
The drive from Monemvasía to the Mani region follows the coast once you pass through Yíthion, where hundreds of freshly caught pink squid dangle from ropes along the seafront to dry, looking like Dr. Seuss's idea of streetlamps. Stop for a plate of calamari at the French-run Saga Pension Restaurant. Then press on to the Mani, the Peloponnesus's central and southern peninsula, through rocky gray hills where cypress trees spear the sky between scrubland and stout, twisting olive trees.
What the Mani lacks in ancient sites it makes up for in quiet villages and wild beaches along its western coast. Spend a night in Kardamyli at Lela's
Taverna, a pension run by a locally celebrated chef. Her dinners of stuffed tomatoes, eggplant salad, and roast chicken with rosemary potatoes are served on a stone terrace overlooking the Gulf of Messenia; every dish comes doused with Lela's hand-pressed olive oil. Facing south on the terrace, look for the sandy coves near the seaside village of Stoupa, where Nikos Kazantzakis met the mine worker who inspired Zorba the Greek. You can almost picture Zorba teaching Basil, the restrained English writer, to dance on the beach as the sun's last rays fade from the rocky coastline.
WHERE TO STAY
Nafplia Palace Nauplia; 30-752/028-9815; www.nafplionhotels.gr; doubles from $191.
Byron Hotel 2 Platonos, Saint Spiridona Square, Nauplia; 30-752/022-351; www.byronhotel.gr; doubles from $46. In a Neoclassical row house in the Old Town.
Ta Kellia Monemvasía; 30-732/061-520, fax 30-732/061-767; doubles from $80.
Hotel Byzantino Monemvasía; 30-732/061-254, fax 30-732/061-992; doubles from $51. Most of the rooms are in a 12th-century building on the main alley; several have exposed beams, arched ceilings, and tiled floors.
Londas Guest House Areopolis; 30-733/051-360, fax 30-733/51012; doubles from $62, including breakfast. All four stylish rooms in this 18th-century tower have private terraces.
WHERE TO EAT
Amimoni Restaurant Nafplia Palace; 30-752/028-9815; dinner for two $52.
Xenia Restaurant Mistra; 30-731/020-500; lunch for two $13.
Saga Pension Restaurant Yíthion; [This property may no longer be open].
Lela's Taverna Pension Kardamyli; 30-721/073-541; dinner for two $20.
WHERE TO SHOP
Livieratou Anastasia Jewelry Shop Monemvasía; [This property may no longer be open].
Western Transdanubia, the part of Hungary triangulated by Lake Balaton (Central Europe's largest freshwater lake) to the south and Austria and Slovakia to the west and north, claims a wealth of Roman and Gothic landmarks, thermal lakes, and small towns whose way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. Though many visitors never make their way beyond Budapest's grand steam baths and elegant Danube bridges, this region merits a closer look. If you tour it by train, you're limited to gloomy, post—World War II industrial zones; by car, you can explore narrow country roads and find architectural treasures in the historic centers of otherwise dreary cities.
Skip the highway from Budapest to Veszprém in favor of the less-traveled northwesterly routes. You'll meander through arcades of cottonwood trees and hilly fields of sunflowers. Around every bend are memorial shrines, marked with statues of saints and angels strewn with flowers and candles, and graveyards as carefully tended as gardens, in continuing homage to the victims of World War II. Spread across five hills, Veszprém is one of the more striking towns in western Hungary. The walled Castle Hill district has a single street, Vár Utca, which is reached through a stone gate. Walk up the cobblestones between Neoclassical buildings painted like giant Easter eggs in sea green, bubble gum pink, and butter yellow. At the end of the street, past an 18th-century palace and several churches, stand statues of Queen Gizella and King Stephen, who were married in Veszprém more than 1,000 years ago. Spend the night at the Villa Medici in the Veszprém Valley, a 10-minute walk from the old town, and have dinner—with a good Hungarian wine—streamside at the hotel's restaurant.
Veszprém is less than 10 miles from the Hungarian porcelain factory and museum in Herend, where patterns commissioned by Queen Victoria and the Rothschilds are among the 700 pieces on display. Tours spare no detail of the meticulous production process, as artists demonstrate how each delicate piece is molded, fired, and painted by hand. You won't find any bargains in the shop, but it's still worth a visit.
Forgo the Lake Balaton—hugging E71 highway and instead pick up the parallel two-lane route to the north, which leads through tiny villages, pastoral stretches of cornfields, and more flower-studded graveyards on the way to Hévíz. No trip to Hungary is complete without a soak in some form of mineral waters, and Hévíz is home to the largest thermal lake in Europe, the 12-acre Gyógy-tó, ringed with blooming pink and white lotuses. If you have trouble getting up the nerve to mix with the swarm of over-tanned habitués, you can reassure yourself with the fact that the lake renews itself every 48 hours with 20 million gallons of warm water from its 130-foot-deep source.
Stop for lunch at Gyöngyösi Betyar Csárda, an authentic 18th-century highwayman's inn just three miles north of Hévíz. The gallant waiters manage to transcend hokeyness in their period costumes: swashbuckler's shirts with billowing sleeves, gauchos tucked into black boots, and leather belts with attached pouches. The menu is a primer on Hungarian meat dishes—roast venison, pork chops stuffed with sausage, cabbage, and bacon—and such classics as the "Csárda-style" cabbage goulash, with chunks of pulled pork, served with sour cream to soften the peppery edge.
After lunch, continue toward Sopron, often called Hungary's Prague for its Gothic and early Baroque architecture. Start your tour of its Old Town by ascending a winding staircase to the top of the fire tower, built on the site of a 12th-century Roman gate. From there, you'll get a bird's-eye view of the cobblestoned main square, the Gothic Goat Church (named for its benefactor's favorite animal), and the red-tiled roofs on clusters of houses from the Middle Ages. The town's best museum is the Storno House, with its rare altarpieces and Gothic furniture. Sleep nearby at Szidónia Kastélyszálloda, a former hunting lodge, whose 16 acres of romantic gardens and new spa hark back to the aristocratic grandeur of Hungary as it was 200 years ago.
WHERE TO STAY
Villa Medici 11 Út. Kittenberger, Veszprém; 36-88/590-072; www.villamedici.hu; doubles from $63.
Szidónia Kastélyszálloda 37 Út. Röjtöki
Röjtökmuzsaj, Sopron; 36-99/380-013; www.szidonia.hu; doubles from $72; dinner for two $32.
WHERE TO EAT
Villa Medici Restaurant Villa Medici, 11 Út. Kittenberger, Veszprém; 36-88/590-072; dinner for two $35.
Gyöngyösi Betyar Csárda Hwy. 84, three miles north of Hévíz; 36-83/373-006; lunch for two $12.
Herend Porcelain Factory 140 Út. Kossuth L., Herend; 36-88/523-190; www.porcelanium.com.
Storno House 8 Fo Tér, Sopron; 36-99/311-327.
The Scottish Highlands are legendary for their cavernous glaciated valleys, mist-shrouded lochs, and sweeping mountainsides. A four-day western coastal route threads through all three natural wonders, passing castles, beaches, and manicured gardens along the way. Glenelg, roughly 200 miles from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, is a good starting point. But break up the drive to Glenelg by stopping in Glencoe for lunch at the Clachaig Inn, a 300-year-old farmhouse surrounded by mountains (try its version of haggis, with creamy white onion—Drambuie sauce).
After a day watching the waves crash against the rocky shore, spend the night at the Glenelg Inn, a restored 1800 stable whose restaurant specializes in local catch—salmon, prawns, and "squatties" (small lobsters). The pub has a fiercely loyal following, thanks to its live music (the traditional folk group Coinneach) and the peaty quality of the water—"excellent in whisky," owner Christopher Main will tell you. Every room at the inn looks out toward the Isle of Skye, across the Narrows at Kylerhea, where otters and sea lions patrol the waters. Ferries cross the narrows from Glenelg daily for excursions to Skye, but there are plenty of reasons to stay on the mainland if time is tight.
Fifteen miles east of Glenelg, the Eilean Donan Castle stands on a peninsula, defying the perpetual gales that blow in across the sea. This rebuilt 13th-century fortress made appearances in the film Highlander and the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. Any Scot will say it's the most photographed castle in Scotland; whether or not that's true, it should be. The interior, saved from ruin 100 years ago, has been kept as close to the original layout as possible—including a barrel-vaulted stone billeting room for soldiers and a medieval banquet hall. Hundreds of hiking trails lead into the nearby Kintail area, worth seeing for its Five Sisters of Kintail mountains and its Iron Age brochs, stone towers built about 700 B.C.
Heading toward Gairloch, 80 miles north of Glenelg, keep one eye pinned to the road and the other on the lookout for eagles, red-tailed deer, and, in springtime, fleecy newborn lambs. Hedgerows thick with primroses and violets line the path to Lochcarron, where a tartan mill, Lochcarron Weavers, hides out two miles west of the village, cloaked by dense woods. "Look for us the way Hansel and Gretel would," says Kirsty, the manager. The 1938 mill has 800 different tartans for sale, and even if you're not in a clan, a staff expert will eagerly find a plaid to suit your style.
The 55-acre Inverewe Garden, six miles northeast of Gairloch, was the 1862 brainchild of Gairloch native Osgood Mackenzie. On this barren peninsula, where only a single willow tree clung to the poor soil, Mackenzie envisioned a lush garden; he was certain it could thrive if he exploited the damp ocean breeze that caresses this land. He imported nutrient-rich dirt and planted protective hedges and trees along the shore. Today the garden is considered one of the world's great horticultural achievements, supporting thousands of plants from all over the world—from Tasmanian eucalyptus and Tibetan blue poppies to Chinese palms and Chilean myrtle trees.
On the way north to Ullapool, 60 miles from Gairloch, stop 12 miles short at Measach Falls, a 150-foot cascade that gushes down the Corrieshalloch Gorge. If you can handle it, walk across the 19th-century suspension bridge, built by John Fowler, the engineer who designed London's Underground tunnels. In Ullapool, stay at the Ceilidh Place, where folk music acts have attracted national attention and the restaurant makes a welcome departure from heavy Scottish fare (try the hummus and fresh greens).
Three miles outside Ullapool, look for a sign to Rhue Art, the gallery and open studio of painter James Hawkins. To gain inspiration, he takes regular hikes with his wife, Flick, who runs the gallery (the two got together as students at Oxford 25 years ago). Hawkins's canvases capture the visceral effect of the Highlands with frenetic, slashing brushstrokes and vibrant colors. His lochs ripple in ribbons of purple, blue, and green, reflecting jagged pillars of rock and flame-red mountainsides hovering in the distance. Prices start in the thousands; non-prospective buyers should still make a point of chatting up James and Flick. They've walked nearly every inch of the Highlands, from the Outer Hebrides to Inverness, and they're generous with trail suggestions.
WHERE TO STAY
Glenelg Inn Glenelg; 44-1599/522-273; www.glenelg-inn.com; doubles from $224.
Kinloch Lodge Sleat, Isle of Skye; 44-1471/833-333 or 44-1471/833-214; www.kinloch-lodge.co.uk; doubles from $242. Lord and Lady Macdonald opened their 1680 white stone farmhouse to guests in 1974. Expect creative meals from the owner, Claire Macdonald, a renowned chef and the author of 13 cookbooks.
Ceilidh Place 14 W. Argyle St., Ullapool; 44-1854/612-103; www.theceilidhplace.com; doubles from $160.
Summer Isles Hotel Achiltibuie; 44-1854/622-282; www.summerisleshotel.co.uk; doubles from $150. Choose one of three rooms in the main house (be sure to ask for a sea view). Or take the thatched-roof cabin, the cottage, or the Boat House suite; the latter has a spiral staircase and a bedroom that overlooks the Achiltibuie lochs.
WHERE TO EAT
Clachaig Inn Clachaig, Glencoe, Argyll; 44-1855/811-252; lunch for two $20. Try the venison stew with blackberries, juniper berries, and a dash of Scotch whisky.
Ceilidh Place 14 W. Argyle St., Ullapool; 44-1854/612-103; www.theceilidhplace.com; dinner for two $60. Order from the all-organic menu (many choices are vegetarian), and stay late for live music in the pub.
Seven More European Road Trips
The Route: Plymouth—Padstow—Penzance—Land's End—Lizard Point—St. Austell, then back to Plymouth (224 miles).
Why: Fishing villages, seaside bike paths and walking trails, windswept moors, abundant gardens.
Don't Miss: Cycling the Camel Trail from Padstow to Bodmin Moor (rent bikes in Padstow); the Eden Project (44-1726/ 811-911), the world's largest conservatory, east of St. Austell in Bodelva.
Must-Stop For Dinner: Seafood Restaurant Padstow; 44-1841/532-700; dinner for two $140. Rick Stein, a popular TV chef known for his fish and shellfish recipes, prepares Caribbean and Mediterranean dishes in a converted granary overlooking a busy fishermen's quay. Reservations are essential.
Outstanding Hotel: Lower Tregleath Country House Bodmin; [This property closed in 2002.].
The Route: Trás os Montes in Porto— Vila Real—Bragança—Chaves, then back to Porto (286 miles).
Why: The wine-making villages of the Portuguese interior, thermal baths, and snail's-pace rural culture.
Don't Miss: The port wine—producing village of Alijó; the renowned therapeutic waters at Vidago; Chaves's 300-foot, 16-arch Roman bridge, built around a.d. 100.
Must-Stop For Lunch: A Talha Rua Comendador, Bairro da Trinidade, Chaves; 351-276/342-191; lunch for two $16. Service is friendly, and Portuguese staples—such as salt cod—fill the menu.
Outstanding Hotel: Agricola da Levada Timpeira, Vila Real; 351-258/741-672; www.solaresdeportugal.pt; doubles from $53. A four-bedroom 1922 farmhouse redesigned by Portuguese architect Raul Lino. Owner Albano Paganini Costa Lobo raises boars and other indigenous animals; the family makes its own honey, jam, bread, and, of course, boar sausage.
Spain's Castilla y León and Castilla—La Mancha
The Route: Madrid—Segovia—Salamanca— Ávila—Toledo—Cuenca, then back to Madrid (537 miles).
Why: Castles set on the windmill-dotted fields that inspired Cervantes's Don Quixote and the art of El Greco; meat-lovers' heaven (roast suckling pig in Segovia is a Spanish classic).
Don't Miss: Valle de los Caídos (off the A6 heading north from Madrid), Franco's grave and his megalomaniacal shrine to the Spanish Civil War. Views from the base of the enormous cross above the basilica look east over Madrid.
Must-Stop For Dinner: Cason de los López de Toledo 3 Calle Sillería, Toledo; 34-902-19-8344; dinner for two $65; www.casontoledo.com. Traditional dishes are whimsically updated: gazpacho with avocado ice cream; wild-boar loin with goat cheese and quince jelly; chocolate-and-marzipan tart with pear ice cream.
Outstanding Hotel: Parador de Ávila 2 Marqués Canales de Chozas, Ávila; 34-920/211-340; www.parador.es; doubles from $115, with breakfast. A 16th-century palace tucked inside the walls of Ávila's Old Town. The best rooms face the meditation garden.
The Auvergne, France
The Route: Paris—Vichy—Clermont-Ferrand—Aurillac, then back to Paris (703 miles).
Why: Dozens of spas, châteaux, and volcanoes; enough robust food (Puy lentils, Cantal cheeses, Rhône wines) to last you a lifetime.
Don't Miss: The just-opened Vulconia Park, nine miles west of Clermont-Ferrand; a day spa in Vichy; the postcard-perfect medieval village of Salers.
Must-Stop For Dinner: Restaurant La Reine Margot Aurillac; 33-4/71-48-26-46; dinner for two $35. One of the Auvergne's top chefs, Bruno Drouet, cooks regional dishes—chou farci (stuffed cabbage), potato gratin—using only the freshest ingredients.
Outstanding Hotel: Château de Codignat Lezoux, Bort-l'Étang; 33-4/73-68-43-03 or 888-272-7471, fax 33-4/73-68-93-54; doubles from $292. Red-tiled roofs, medieval turrets, and views of Auvergnat volcanoes are part of this 15th-century château's allure.
river valleys of germany
The Route: Frankfurt—Trier—Koblenz—Oberwesel—Heidelberg (following the Moselle, Rhine, and Neckar rivers), then back to Frankfurt (360 miles).
Why: The oldest cities in Germany, plus dozens of 11th- to 15th-century castles scattered along the riverbanks.
Don't Miss: The hilltop castle in Bernkastel-Kues, between Trier and Koblenz; the wine taverns and 14th- and 15th-century half-timbered houses of Cochem.
Must-Stop For Lunch: Rotisserie Royale Bernkastel-Kues; 49-6531/6572; lunch for two $40. A rustic restaurant with Mediterranean specialties ranging from chicken in aspic to lamb chops.
Outstanding Hotel: Burghotel Schoenburg Oberwesel; 49-6744/93930, fax 49-6744/1613; doubles from $126. The guest rooms in this 1,000-year-old castle, now a family-run inn, overlook the Rhine.
the belgian art trail
The Route: Brussels—Antwerp—Bruges—Ghent, then back to Brussels (160 miles).
Why: A trove of Belgian art—Brueghel in Brussels, Rubens in Antwerp, Jan van Eyck in Ghent, Hans Memling in Bruges.
Don't Miss: The Brueghel Room at the Museum of Ancient Art in Brussels (3 Rue de la Régence; 32-2/508-3211); the Antwerp Zoo (26 Koningin Astridplein; 32-3/202-4540); a leisurely boat ride down the canal in Bruges (trips leave from various docks).
Must-Stop For Dinner: Sir Anthony Van Dyck Restaurant 16 Oude Koornmarkt, Antwerp; 32-3/231-6170; dinner for two $70. Chef Marc Paesbrugghe rejected a proposed Michelin star in an effort to keep his generous Belgian dishes reasonably priced. The dining room doubles as a contemporary art gallery.
Outstanding Hotel: Hotel de Orangerie 10 Kartuizerinnenstraat, Bruges; 32-50/341-649; www.hotelorangerie.com; doubles from $174. When the 15th-century convent was transformed into a stylish 19-room inn, most details—including the stone walls crawling with ivy—were left intact.
Lesser Poland (Malopolska province)
The Route: Cracow—Kalwaria Zebrzydowska—Tarnów—Lancut—Zalipie, then back to Cracow (277 miles).
Why: The country's best-preserved Gothic and Renaissance structures; secluded villages in the Carpathian Mountains.
Don't Miss: The cottages, farm buildings, furniture—even ovens—of Zalipie, all painted with brightly hued flowers; the Czartoryski Museum (19 Saint Jana St., Cracow; 48-12/422-5566), where Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine hangs.
Must-Stop For Lunch: Chimera 3 Saint Anny St., Cracow; 48-12/292-1212; lunch for two $30. Polish classics, such as borscht and roast duck with chestnut stuffing, served in a grotto-like stone dining room where the city's artists and intellectuals kibitz.
Outstanding Hotel: Hotel Zamkowy 1 Zamkowa St., Lancut; 48-17/225-2671, fax 48-17/225-2672; doubles from $40. The public rooms in this Polish landmark show off a mix of Baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic architecture. The castle is one of the best-known buildings in Poland and has an impressive collection of antique horse carriages on display.
Michelin maps and atlases are definitely worth keeping in the car; you can buy them at most bookstores or through AAA. The tire company's Web site, www.viamichelin.com, posts detailed maps, mileage calculations, and directions between practically every city and town in Europe; weather reports; and hotel and restaurant recommendations. VisitEurope.com is another all-purpose travel Web site, providing everything from maps and tour ideas for individual countries to dates for events such as Madonna's West End debut in London (May 23, at the Wyndhams Theatre, in Up For Grabs, a satire on the art world by Australian playwright David Williamson, who wrote the screenplay for The Year of Living Dangerously) and Eastern Orthodox Easter (May 5 in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania).
Guidebooks—always necessary on free-form road trips—are quite expensive in Europe, so bring them along from the States. The best ones for Europe are Michelin's classic Red (for hotels and restaurants) and Green (for sights and culture). The Lonely Planet and Rough Guides series and Europe Through the Back Door by Rick Steves provide insider knowledge on places to stay, eat, and visit and are especially helpful with budget options and short side-trips off the trodden path.
The Ins and Outs of Renting a Car in Europe
European rental cars are cheapest when booked by the week with unlimited mileage. On average, a compact car including collision damage—waiver insurance and gas (about $4 a gallon) will cost about $400 for the week. There are no border restrictions in Europe, unless you want to take your car from Great Britain to the mainland or to Ireland (and vice versa); regardless, it's usually more economical to rent twice than to ship a car by ferry.
A less expensive and often-overlooked alternative to renting is short-term leasing. Several companies specialize in this, such as Renault Eurodrive (800/221-1052; www.renaultusa.com), whose tax-free, 17-day lease with unlimited mileage costs $35 a day. The package gets you a new car, comprehensive insurance, and round-the-clock roadside assistance; it's available in more than 30 European countries. Europe by Car (800/223-1516 or 212-581-3040; www.europebycar.com), operating in Britain and Western Europe, lets you lease a new Renault, Citroèn, or Peugeot for up to six months, tax-free. Auto Europe (888/223-5555; www.autoeurope.com) has a similar program in 34 countries.
Most countries honor American driver's licenses, though a few require an extra permit (about $20). The permits, available through AAA, are especially useful if you're pulled over by a police officer who doesn't read English.
Even though many charge cards provide collision insurance, it's worth springing for the extra collision damage—waiver insurance if it's not already included in your rental plan; it completely covers your deductible and adds only $15 to $20 a day to your bill. Should you encounter any bumps in the road, so to speak, the additional coverage lets you walk away from an accident cost-free.