Exclusive: Travel writer Ben Hatch's tales of driving in Europe

Exclusive: Travel writer Ben Hatch's tales of driving in Europe
Every July, my wife Dinah and I pack up the car with more unnecessary plastic items than can be found in an entire branch of Poundland and nose it to a southern British ferry port from where we head to the continent for our holidays.

We have been doing this since our children, Phoebe and Charlie, were five and three respectively. They are now old enough to conduct all-out-war with water guns in the pool for several hours unaccompanied, debate whether to play Sims or Dubsmash on the family iPad and row about whether “ted” is a real word in Boggle.

We are both travel writers so we are the kind of nightmare parents who drag the kids to wolf museums, theme parks based around vegetables (we kid you not) and on silent mountain treks looking for Marsican brown bears (saw some). And for these and other missions, we need our car.

We love the car. We love the fact that we can transport 17 novels that we plan to read one after the other listening to the cicadas late at night. That there need be no debate about how many bags of clothes Phoebe can take, which trainers Charlie can pack and whether 30 DVDs is too many... of course it isn’t.

We also love the freedom that the car brings. Wife, late at night, reading guest book in our rented house: “Look here, it says George slayed the dragon outside this church in Montorgiali, let’s take a look tomorrow, its only 20 minutes away.”

But travelling in a foreign country with your car does, of course, bring its own challenges. Below are just a few we have observed and which makes us love Europe by car all the more…

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Filling up with petrol...

The sheer variety of experience in refuelling around the countries we know best; Italy, France, Spain, is staggering.

At one station you will drive up and a little man will rush out, smiling all the while, correctly estimate what fuel your car takes, ask you how much you want in heartbreakingly excellent English, fill it up, take your credit card, deduct the money and all but kiss you farewell as you drive away.

At the next station, however, you might equally find your custom is about as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool. This petrol station will feel like no man has staffed it since Thatcher was in her pomp.

You must work out a fiendishly complex pre-pay machine which only accepts credit cards issued during Franco’s reign before you can refuel. It is almost always surrounded by a panoply of Europeans and Brits scratching their heads and talking a sort of desperate Esperanto in order to work it out together.

And don’t even think about using the toilet while you are there. There will only be one, around the back of the closed filling station shop and it will look like it was cleaned by an ape with anger management issues.

European breakdown cover

Wherever you end up on holiday, we’ve got you covered

Tackling the toll booths...

Toll booths are the reason why motoring in Europe is such a joy.

The roads are well-looked after and devoid of daft maintenance works where there aren’t any workmen toiling - take note, M25. But ah, the fun of the toll booth stop.

Recently en route from Verona to Tuscany we stopped at one that made the Whacky Races look like a presidential motorcade. Barriers had stopped working, large sweating northern Italian men were gesticulating comically and cars were changing lanes wildly like ants on a table of leftover McDonald's.

As is the law in Italy, everyone tooted their horns with gay abandon. Fluorescent-jacketed workers sucked unperturbed on Nazionalis and gave 'The Shrug' when you asked them what the problem was. Just when the hooting reached fever pitch, magically the barriers opened and the situation defused. Gotta love Italy.

READ MORE: Top 10 tips for driving through France

... and driving in city centres

Just because you have successfully driven along the autobahn without encountering any problems (except for the motorists who drive RIGHT behind you at 100kph, flash you dementedly, overtake and then continue their persecution on their next victim immediately), do not think you will get such an easy ride in city centres.

If, like us, you have forgotten to update your sat nav because the night you were meant to do it the cat was sick all over the wellies in the hall, expect a fun experience encountering unexpected one way streets, strange bollards that pop up from the ground along lanes you absolutely need to drive down to get to your hotel and small signs explaining in specialised motoring French that you can only drive down this road if you are distant relations of Napoleon.

And then there is Naples. We believe there is some Hogwartian secret school that motorists must graduate from, perhaps with a discreet silver lapel pin of a much dented Fiat Punto as proof, before they are qualified to take on driving in city centre Naples.

The first and last time we took the car into Naples we had to stop on the outskirts for a little cry. I think the fearless man casually steering his Lambretta while holding a suitcase in one hand and talking on a hands-free around the Piazza Garibaldi says it all.

All that said, with your car you are free from the tyranny of the low cost airline cancelling your flight at the last minute; from the person who has been in a black hole since 1981 and has to be told to decant all their shampoos and conditioners into smaller bottles just ahead of you in the airport security line; and from the moment when you take off and your toddler starts crying and you need the loo after one too many G&Ts but you have to stay in your seat until the crew come round with egg sandwiches costing £8.58.

You are free! Vive la voiture. Bon voyage!