A car journey through Europe of fifteen hundred miles requiring about twenty-four hours of driving seemed a bit daunting at first.
However, having spent some time in September at our holiday home near Lake Balaton in Hungary, we decided to check out the feasibility of heading south-west to Albir, near Benidorm in Spain, in order to visit relatives we had not seen for two years because of the pandemic.
The answer to driving that long distance was of course to split the journey into manageable stages, and, on checking the map, there were some interesting places for stopovers along the way, namely: Venice, Milan and Marseille.
The countries we would pass through are all in the Schengen Area so we did not foresee problems at borders because of the pandemic, and in the event that proved to be the case.
Hungary to Venice
Hungary has developed a extensive motorway (autopalya) system over the past few years, so that travel from Budapest along the M7 motorway to the Slovenian border, passing Lake Balaton on the way, is simple and speedy. However it is necessary to obtain a motorway vignette (matrica) from a garage or online before entering the motorway system. This costs about £12 for a month when purchased at a garage.
At the Slovenian border, a one week vignette for the Slovenian motorways cost €15. Travel along the 200 miles of motorway to the Italian border, via Ljubljana, again proved simple and speedy with relatively little traffic at that time of year. The final 75 miles to our hotel near Venice required collecting a motorway ticket and paying by credit card as we exited the motorway.
We had chosen to stay outside Venice to avoid the problems with car parking there. The Crowne Plaza Venice East at Quarto D’Altino proved an excellent choice, with a good Senior Discount available.
The railway station just by the hotel provided connections every 30 minutes or so to Santa Lucia Station in Venice, a journey time of about 25 minutes, at a cost of just €3.60 per trip. Tickets can be purchased at the machine in the station by cash or credit card.
The vaporetto (water-bus) terminal is just by Santa Lucia Station in Venice, providing a thirty minute ride along the Grand Canal to St Mark’s Square. A single ticket costs €7.50. However, we decided that while the weather was pleasant and sunny, we would take a gentle stroll through the back-streets and along the canals and then return to the station by the water-bus in the early evening.
Our two mile walking route took us past many fine buildings, including the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, both of which contain many fine works of art, and over the Rialto Bridge to arrive in St Marks’s Square in a leisurely three hours.
St Mark’s Square and the surrounding area were relatively quiet, maybe because of the time of year and the pandemic. Hence we could enjoy St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs in relative tranquillity. The view out across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore island was quite breathtaking.
Venice to Milan
This should have taken about three hours by motorway, but an accident about half way along resulted in a detour passing by Lake Garda. The attractive scenery made up for the extra hour’s journey time.
We were undecided whether to stay at the Indigo Hotel very near the centre of the city or the Crowne Plaza Milan City slightly further out. The former would have involved the complication of driving into the Limited Traffic Zone. Hence we opted for the Crowne Plaza, again with a good Senior Discount, and were pleased to find it was just five stops away on the Metro from the central Duomo area.
With limited time in Milan, we concentrated our visit on the Duomo itself. The entry charge was just €5 but proof of Covid-19 vaccination was mandatory before tickets could be purchased.
Although quite a strange mix of styles, as often commented on in the past in sometimes derogatory ways, we found both the exterior and interior of the Duomo to be interesting and quite magnificent. It brought back nostalgic memories of Andrea Bocelli singing in Piazza del Duomo last year at the height of the pandemic in that part of Italy.
The nearby Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II provided the other well known side to Milan, with its profusion of top brand shops such as Prada and Gucci. After marvelling at the prices in these shops, we enjoyed viewing the building itself with its impressive glass-vaulted roofs and huge dome.
Following a brief look at the exterior of La Scala (interior tours had been cancelled because of a lighting failure) we headed back to our hotel.
Milan to Marseille
The three hundred mile drive from Milan to Marseille took just over five hours passing through attractive scenery in the hilly Montferrat wine region of Piedmont and along the Mediterranean coast, skirting Monaco, Nice and Cannes.
We chose the Holiday Inn Express St Charles in Marseille as it was central, had car parking and was just a few stops by Metro from the iconic Vieux Port area.
Having purchased a combined transport ticket from the hotel front desk for just €1.80 per person, we travelled initially by the Metro to the Vieux Port, where we caught bus number 60 to travel up to the Notre Dame de la Garde perched high above the city.
As well as great panoramic views across Marseille and out to the Frioul Archipelago, the cathedral itself was fascinating with model ships and naval paintings commemorating Marseille’s long sea-going tradition.
A gentle walk down to the Vieux Port area provided great views back to the Notre Dame basilica. Within the Vieux Port area, we lapped up the atmosphere over glasses of pastis as we pictured Popeye Doyle’s frenzied chase in French Connection II.
Marseille to Albir via Perpignan
The final stages of our journey covered the six hundred miles from Marseille to our destination Albir. An overnight stay at Perpignan along the way proved very enjoyable as Holiday Inn Perpignan was one of the best Holiday Inns we’ve ever stayed at, with large balconied rooms and a good restaurant overlooking the swimming pool.
The Spanish border is just fifteen miles south of Perpignan and that is where our puzzlement started as we drove along the AP-7 motorway. Instead of picking up tickets or paying at the toll booths, we simply drove through at a maximum of 30 km per hour. So it continued past Girona, Barcelona, Tarragona and Valencia. We were of course expecting a massive toll charge when we left the motorway at Albir, but there were no toll booths. Later we learned that tolls had been abolished on the AP-7 on August 31st 2021 – a very pleasant surprise!
Albir is only five miles north of Benidorm, but is a world apart. Instead of high rise hotels and a seafront lined with with British bars and restaurants, Albir offers a much quieter, more sophisticated beach resort.
There are great walks from Albir either along the seafront to the nearby resort of Altea or in the other direction through the Parc Natural de la Serra Gelada high up to the lighthouse, Faro de L’Albir.
We stayed at the Hotel Noguera in Albir, arranged through Booking.com. This proved an excellent choice with large clean rooms, very good breakfasts and friendly, helpful staff. We can also very much recommend the Ni Hao Asiatic restaurant next door for its superb range of food and free drinks for just €14.50 per person.
Return to England
After a few pleasant days in Albir, we headed back to England. Rather than 24 hours on a ferry from Bilboa, we opted to drive up to Caen and take the six hour ferry across to Portsmouth.
We stopped at Bordeaux and Deauville on the way, staying at Holiday Inn Expresses in both places, and covered the the 1000 miles in two days without any problems. However our evening drive from Portsmouth to Yorkshire proved rather different. There were evening road closures on several of the roads with poorly signposted diversions – the worst bit of driving in our two week odyssey!
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• Road Travel Tips
• More Than Beaches to a Spanish Costas Holiday
POSTED 20th OCTOBER 2021 by STEVE HANSON. The photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.