THE MINI GRAND TOUR 2016.
A CLUBMAN ROAD TRIP.
THREE MEN. ONE MINI. AN EPIC ADVENTURE ACROSS EUROPE.
This summer, MINI are sending a handpicked team to Europe. The whole of Europe. Over 30 days, they’ll visit no less than 30 countries by road, from the white cliffs of Dover to the fairy chimneys of Göreme; the forts of Wallonia to the crypts of Moravia.
Our team, led by British Travel Writer of the Year 2015 Jonathan Thompson, will be circumnavigating the continent in the MINI Clubman, exploring Europe’s roads less travelled and lesser known cities in effortless style.
With a carefully curated itinerary powered by group adventure travel experts The Flash Pack, Jonathan and his crew will face a number of challenges en route, as they seek to shine headlights on Europe’s quirkiest corners.
Using key features such as in-car navigation and the MINI Connected GoPro app, the team will document the entire journey from start to finish. Follow Jonathan, cameraman Simon and photographer Oli on social using #Clubmanroadtrip and visit this page to see their journey week by week.
WEEK 1: THE GRAND TOUR BEGINS…
JONATHAN THOMPSON REFLECTS ON THE FIRST WEEK OF OUR CLUBMAN ROAD TRIP, WHICH SAW THE MINI GRAND TOUR TEAM DRIVE FROM DOVER TO STOCKHOLM.
Nobody tells you how pretty Wallonia is. Probably because nobody really talks about Wallonia. And for British drivers, that’s a major miss.
Belgium’s hilly southern half, punctuated by picturesque villages, forests and fortress towns, is a wonderfully exhilarating drive. We’re deep in the wooded bosom of the Ardennes within three hours of arriving in Calais, and well en route to our first destination: Durbuy, the smallest (and quite possibly the prettiest) city in the world.
It’s day one of the MINI Grand Tour and team spirits are high. Our mission over the next month is to drive our six door MINI Clubman through no less than 30 European countries - all 28 EU States plus Turkey and Albania, which we'll need to cross in order to make the necessary ferries. On the road, our aim is to explore some of the continent’s quirkier corners, made considerably more accessible without an over-reliance on the nearest airport.
We reach one such stand-out destination on the evening of day four: Angavellen - a unique eco-hotel near the Swedish town of Malmo, with 26 guest cottages scattered among its sprawling fields. Justifiably lauded as “a living Utopia” by Gourmet magazine, it also boasts an award-winning restaurant, only serving organic ingredients grown on site. The hearty field-to-fork menu is a major treat, and the perfect pit stop before driving the 400 miles north east to the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
This drive too - much like the winding road through the Ardennes from Brussels to Durbuy on Day One - is astonishingly beautiful. We pass vast, glittering lakes and picture-perfect wooden houses, coated in a riot of vibrant colours. By the time we reach Stockholm Harbour and our idiosyncratic accommodation for the night - former navy ship the AF Chapman, now converted into a popular floating hostel - we have all fallen a little in love with Sweden. Parking up on the dockside next to our buoyant boarding house, we reflect on the first 1,800 miles of our 10,000 mile continental circumnavigation. All of the team - the Clubman included - are still in top form as we prepare to head East across the Baltic Sea towards Finland. And, as far as the route ahead is concerned, the best is yet to come.
OUR WEEK ON THE ROAD.
WEEK 2: INTO THE HEART OF EUROPE.
THE MINI GRAND TOUR TEAM MOVE SOUTH FROM FINLAND, THROUGH THE THREE BALTIC STATES.
Latvia has a classic case of middle child syndrome. Wedged between its two Baltic sisters, it’s an obvious blend of them both: the pseudo-Scandinavian swagger of Estonia and the older Eastern European echoes of Lithuania.
But this middle sister has plenty to say for herself too - not least her pretty capital, Riga, the largest city in the Baltics. Here, a gastronomic revolution is underway, with ambitious young chefs flocking from across Central and Eastern Europe to join the fray.
At one of these newer foodie outposts, Biblioteka on the edge of picture-perfect Vermanes Park, the menu is a quirky fusion of old ingredients and new ideas. Think Baltic herring served inside a block of ice, stuffed mushrooms cooked in Latvian honey and, perhaps most outlandish of all, a delicious carpaccio starter - of ostrich meat.
It’s day nine of our MINI Grand Tour, covering 30 European countries in 30 days, and today we’re driving through all three Baltic states. We’re doing so in style too: breakfast in Estonia, lunch here in Latvia and later, dinner in Lithuania, at restaurants in the three nations’ respective capitals: Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.
Our morning began, fittingly enough, at the Three Sisters hotel, in Tallinn’s fairytale old town. A favourite of the British Royal family, the Relais & Chateaux property does a superb signature Estonian breakfast of smoked salmon and potato pancakes, which the Queen enjoyed when she stayed here and we tuck into in the property’s pretty cobbled courtyard.
From Tallinn, the morning’s drive to Riga is both swift and pleasant. It’s here too, that we notice our trusty MINI Clubman causing more and more of a stir. British number plates and right-hand drive cars - especially those with Union Jack wing mirrors - are clearly an oddity in these parts, and our chili red Clubman is becoming a minor Eastern European celebrity, judging by the amount of locals wanting to take selfies with it.
Five hours after leaving Riga we’re settling in for dinner at the outstanding Stikliai, one of the best restaurants in Vilnius, where Daniel Craig was a recent visitor and specialities include “Zeppelins”, the traditional potato dumplings stuffed with meat and served with local curd.
Today has been a perfect microcosm of our whistlestop itinerary, designed by adventure travel gurus The Flashpack. Poland beckons tomorrow, but today we've made it to three countries in comfort and style, enjoying the similarities and contrasts between them - and their respective cuisine - en route.
Which Baltic state was our favourite? Cut a brother some slack - that would be like picking between three sisters.
OUR SECOND WEEK ON THE ROAD.
From Stockholm, we sailed with Aferry.co.uk to Mariehamn in the rugged Ãland islands, situated half way between Sweden and Finland. Here we stayed at picturesque Havsvidden, before continuing our journey East to mainland Finland, and the country's pretty former capital, Turku. Next we drove across southern Finland to Helsinki, catching yet another ferry - across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn. From the Estonian capital we turned south through Latvia and Lithuania in the same day, then onto the Polish city of Lodz, Europeâ s street art capital. Finally, from Poland we pushed into the Czech Republic, making for the countryâ s picturesque second city (and the ancient capital of Moravia), Brno.
WEEK 3: THE ROAD TO CYPRUS.
THE MINI GRAND TOUR TEAM MOVE DEEPER INTO EUROPE, REACHING THE EU’S OPPOSITE CORNER, VIA A NIGHT IN AN AUSTRIAN PALACE.
“Please be careful,” says the manager as she hands over the keys to our suite for the night. To be fair, we don’t look much like the traditional guests to this particular property. For a start, we pulled up in our trusty MINI Clubman, rather than a horse drawn carriage or the middle of a royal motorcade.
It seems ridiculous to even contemplate, but paying guests are now able to rent out the Imperial Suite at one of Vienna’s Hapsburg Palaces and live like Emperors for the night. This evening - just 12 hours after waking up in wooden barrels at the bottom of a Moravian field - we’re the latest guests to receive the royal treatment.
As our host points out while leading us through a series of ever grander locked doors, and finally up the royal ‘Geheimstiege’, or ‘secret staircase’, staying in this suite is like “booking bed and breakfast at Buckingham Palace.”
And what a suite it is. Situated in the east wing of the UNESCO-listed Schönbrunn Palace, it was home to Emperor Franz Joseph in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, boasting two cavernous bedrooms and a warren of supporting parlours, bathrooms and salons over 167 square metres.
And that’s not all: once the main gates are locked at 9pm, we have 400 acres of landscaped grounds to ourselves too. Needless to say, parking the MINI not an issue. We’re 5,000 miles and 15 days into our MINI Grand Tour now - exactly half way through our epic European road trip - and this is the perfect way to mark the occasion.
From here, our route - designed by London-based adventure travel specialists The Flash Pack - takes us through Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to the outer edge of the EU: Cyprus. From here, the most southerly point of our challenge, the long road home begins…
OUR THIRD WEEK ON THE ROAD.
WEEK 4: THE LONG ROAD HOME.
THE FINAL LEG OF THEIR CROSS-CONTINENTAL CLUBMAN ROAD TRIP SEES THE MINI GRAND TOUR TEAM RETURN HOME, VIA CYPRUS, GREECE AND MALTA.
There’s a long list in the glove compartment of our MINI Clubman. It’s marked “places to go back to”, and as of this week there’s a new destination at the top - Thessaloniki.
Greece’s second city is a wonderful fusion of breezy beach vibes and lively café culture, with a hefty helping of history and the arts thrown into the mix too. In fact it’s nigh-on impossible to find a box that Thessaloniki doesn’t tick. After an excellent day spent here in the ancient Aegean port town, soaking up the vibes and sampling the local restaurants, it’s something of a wrench to hit the road once again.
From here our route - designed by British adventure travel specialists The Flash Pack - takes us through the alien landscape of Albania. Peppered with mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers from its Communist past, it’s still outlandishly beautiful - all mountains, lakes and fields, with horse-drawn carts still a frequent sight on its major roads.
From the Albanian port of Durres, we cross the Adriatic for Italy, and one of the best sections of the entire trip: Sicily. Here, the winding coastal roads and graceful ancient towns like Taormina, Catania and Syracuse make for outstanding driving - and the near-permanent sunshine bathes everything in a caramel-like glow.
After Sicily and Malta beneath it, we head north to the Italian port of Civitavecchia, boarding the big overnight car ferry for Barcelona. Here, in the Catalan capital, we have what is indisputably the finest meal of the entire trip, at the outstanding Fàbrica Moritz - a restaurant inside the city’s oldest brewery, on a leafy street in hip Sant Antoni.
Time seems to fly over our final few days, as the Clubman’s mileage ticks ever closer to 10,000, and our finishing line in Dublin. We’ve been to no less than 30 European countries in one calendar month, taking in 14 ferries en route (courtesy of the superb aferry.co.uk). We’ve driven as far as Cyprus and back again, taking in everywhere from Finland’s remote Åland islands in the north to Malta’s golden beaches in the south. And the whole way, all 30 days, two things have been consistent. Firstly, the warm welcomes we’ve received everywhere en route, and secondly the car herself. Our trusty Clubman has not let us down once.
Now, back in Britain, it’s time to fish that list out of the glove compartment - Thessaloniki, Brno, Turku, Durbuy, Szeged - and all the other destinations we want to go back to. There’s no time like the present for planning the next Clubman road trip…
OUR FINAL WEEK ON THE ROAD.
TRAVEL WRITER AND TEAM LEADER.
A producer, cameraman and editor whose career has taken him from Russia to the Caribbean via Africa, Simon has worked with major broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Channel 5, producing more than 1,000 hours of television. His company Kerbstories has produced original digital content for clients including Puma, Philips, Live Nation, Men’s Health, The Daily Mail and Esquire.
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