On the autoroute

There is nothing romantic about the roads of Europe. No Jack Kerouac “adventuring in the crazy American night”. No one, but no one, getting their kicks on the Boulogne périphérique.

But the European road trip has always intrigued me. Everyone does coast to coast America. But, for most of my life, the road map of Europe was so complicated by potholes and politics that it simply couldn’t be done. Even today, it’s rare to find a European who has gone at the continent from top to bottom behind the wheel.

I last tried it in August 1989, heading straight from the French port of Calais to the East German border where the $200 bribe we paid to retrieve our passports from border control presaged difficulties. Then, on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, spontaneous travel was more or less outlawed: it was almost impossible to find accommodation and, in some places, even a meal in a restaurant.

Two months later, the Berlin wall collapsed and ever since I have wanted to do it again. How would I fare in the European Union of 27 countries in the summer of 2010? Could you really cruise North American style, with the radio cutting from station to station as you do in Tennessee or Texas?

As in 1989, my personal circumstances for this adventure were some way short of Kerouac’s beat generation mania – just a family of four, our two daughters, aged 12 and 13. We even planned to take the dog before concluding that the August heat would be too much.

When I started planning, my grown-up daughter and a veteran of the 1989 trip had a word to say. That adventure had, she said, been life-defining (why do children never tell you these good things at the time?) but she thought I should recall how it ended: with divorce. I gulped and started worrying about a better balanced schedule.

So, rather than trying to drive everyone to St Petersburg or the Lapland wilderness, my two favoured northern starting points, we settled on me driving and the rest of the family flying to Stockholm, from where we would take a ship not a car around the shores of the Baltic sea, allowing us to visit Helsinki, St Petersburg, Riga, Gdansk and Visby in Sweden, before hitting the road south from Stockholm, through Denmark into northern Germany and then south through Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Munich, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and then by ferry from Dubrovnik to Italy, more ferry from Civitavecchia to Sardinia and yet more nautical miles from Sardinia to Barcelona. Then over the Pyrenees via Lourdes to Saint-Malo and a ferry home.

For this we had the unprecedented luxury of just over six weeks. We stayed in a mix of hotels, friends’ houses and homes obtained by exchanging ours in London on a house swap website.

The trip itself was magic. There’s not space even to list most of the wonders we encountered. Viking ships in Denmark; Stockholm’s extraordinary Vasa maritime museum; a shopping mall exhibition of the Latvian Society of Artists sequenced in one ghostly decade after another. Of course, the girls were more visibly enthusiastic about Stockholm’s Absolut Ice Bar and biking through Uppsala in Sweden than our agreed allocation of no more than one museum or gallery a day, but they also loved trying to pocket bits of the Berlin Wall and we were all gripped by Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. From the Polish port of Gdynia, we grabbed a train to central Gdansk so as to stand outside the famous shipyard gates, where now sits an awkwardly unresolved museum recalling the exploits of Solidarnosc, the Polish trade union.

In Munich, we briefly met our house exchangers and took their advice to swim in the nearest suburban lake, with its precisely demarcated shore zones, one for barbecues, the next for nudists. They also urged us not to overlook Munich’s “dark side”, so down we went past the suburban kindergarten into Dachau concentration camp and its tongue-tied places of worship, one designed without right angles as a statement of aesthetic resistance to the swastika.

In Bosnia, we visited a favourite former nanny and stayed in the family’s tiny apartment in Zenica, a steel town 30km from Sarajevo. On a hot Sunday afternoon we lingered over the longest barbecue ever to learn how the Yugoslav war had both united and dispersed this Muslim family from Germany to South Dakota.

In Italy, we exhausted ourselves on the hot cobblestones of Pompeii but still found the energy later that day to climb a smoking Mount Vesuvius. In Rome, we ground our way through the Vatican Museum queues in order to sit for a surprisingly blessed 45 minutes in the Sistine Chapel. A couple of days in Tuscany aren’t enough but the girls sat in hot springs and our hosts gave us a huge tin of home-pressed olive oil to provide peppery reminders of Tuscan well-being for weeks to come.

The big chill-out was in Sardinia, where our house swap had landed us a jewel of an apartment in Porto San Paolo on the island’s north-eastern coast. Here the girls swam like turtles from what must be Europe’s finest selection of warm water beaches and we got the talking time that usually, let’s face it, we resolutely avoid.

After this, we were ready for another city. I hadn’t been to Barcelona other than on business since I was a student. The riot of Gaudí’s modernismo is astonishing in its scale and depth of civic soul. From a distant hillside, his still incomplete Sagrada Familia church erupts from the Barcelona suburbs like a volcano whose lava has instantly solidified into turrets and spires. Close up, as the construction cranes hover, you lose yourself in its reverential detail. What are the sources of such energy in secularising, sceptical Europe? Later we mused to Spanish guitar in the Palau De La Música of Catalonia and dodged acrobats on the Ramblas. Heading north to the Pyrenees we stumbled upon the Bodega Antion, a wine business and restaurant housed in Jesús Marion Pascual’s silver sand-dune of a building, shimmering among the irrigated vine terraces of new Spain. That evening we reached Lourdes in time for the torchlight procession and discussed shrines with a party from Harrogate.

The practical question we had asked about the trip was: would we be able to drive across the continent in the easy way you can drive across North America. To that, the answer is a clear yes.

But the real beauty of a road trip is the story that emerges from all this essentially random movement. Everyone’s journey is different: it’s a piece of authorship, which is probably why long journeys recur so often as a literary form all the way back to Homer and the Nordic sagas. On a road trip, you take an itinerary and then season it with people, books, music and chance events. The story in my own head was about politics, history and the family. How strong is this new Europe of big roads and broadband? Weirdly, I set off from Britain on the day that Peter Mandelson’s memoirs were published and as we steamed for home from St Malo, Tony Blair’s A Journey was all over the media.

Could it be that in 2010 we were voyaging at some high water mark of freedom to travel Europe, given the uncertainties attaching an EU troubled by culture wars and the implications of its own currency union? Would our children look back and marvel at the ease of movement or will it be the opposite? Perhaps Afghanistan and India will again be in reach for them, in their zero-carbon land-cruisers.

Six thousand five hundred miles after we set out, our 2009 Toyota Verso stands outside our house wearing a glow of achievement. Not a flicker of a problem and the best part of 500 miles per €50 of diesel.

Toyota Verso? Not exactly beat-generation wheels, I know, but now part of our karma. “Live, travel, adventure, bless and don’t be sorry,” said Kerouac. We did and we aren’t.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University and a former deputy editor of the FT

Tips on how to make your grand tour a success

1. Plan ahead

We started dreaming a good year before our departure and we started the serious planning six months in advance: if you’re travelling in the summer holidays, remember that ferries get busy.

2. Head for the open road

Europe’s roads are now good and if you want to drive 500 miles a day listening to country and western, Wagner or even Italian pop music, you can.

3. Get a good satellite navigation system

We found a couple of villages in Croatia and Bosnia where the roads weren’t well mapped by our TomTom satnav but everywhere else it was spot-on. We were very tired one evening as we roared across Rome to a suburban business hotel (cheap and with a swimming pool) but found it with no effort. If you want to be really in the groove, switch the commentary to the language of the country you’re driving through. And don’t forget, the satnav’s walking route option will also get you back to the most obscurely located hotel after a late-night walk.

4. Use the internet

Online hotel booking systems make finding accommodation as easy as ordering home-delivery pizza. We mostly used Booking.com but in some countries, such as the Netherlands, there are good national systems that also deliver the goods. For the most part, we booked hotels before we left. For the rest, we booked them on the road. We aimed for and achieved an average of €100 a night for the four of us.

5. Don’t rely solely on the internet

The internet is useful in many other ways but is less ubiquitously available than you might think. A BlackBerry is a horribly expensive way to tap the net and we often struggled to find reliable wi-fi in cafés, hotels and public places. On a trip such as this, the net enables you to do without guidebooks and the local tourist office. It also enables you to stay in touch with home and work as much as you wish. We did take a few guidebooks of which the most used was The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Above all: take your laptop.

6. Consider a house swap

This was our first swap and we did it by joining Homeforexchange.com, which you access for an annual fee of $59. It took a few weeks but we found great swappers who looked after our home as well as we looked after theirs.

7. Take in-car entertainment

I never got round to iPod playlists but I wish I had. We took too many books but one was a big family success: A Little History of the World, by the art historian EH Gombrich, which provided the pre-1940 narrative overview for our trip. We read it aloud to each other on the big, wide roads.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.