First to introduce himself is Donald. “Hi,” he says in his thick Californian drawl as he stretches out his arm to greet us. “I’m Donald from San Diego.” Big and bulky, sporting a tidy white beard and thick black rimmed Ray Bans, he continues in an over excited tone: “When they tell you it’s a once in a lifetime experience it’s an understatement.”
A sharply suited South American gentleman approaches. His eyes gently scan the six of us who are awkwardly huddled together. On my right is Lizzie, a British journalist and my driving partner for the next seven days. Next to her is Mercedes public relations manager Geoff, a dapper Scotsman who would be at home on the pages of an Oscar Wilde novel. His entourage include Donald, a Washington based TV presenter called Henry, Mike from New Jersey and the Peruvian. “I’m Jorge,” he whispers, emphasising the Spanish pronunciation kho-khe, “Jorge Koechlin von Stein”.
I hadn’t quite measured the magnitude of this road trip until we entered the launch party at the L’Automobile Club de France at Place de la Concorde in the heart of chichi Paris earlier that evening. I let the talk wash over me as I scan the room. After all, these people will be my companions for the week.
To my left are a very hip Chinese TV crew. Dressed to perfection, all style boxes ticked, I wonder if they’ll keep this effort up for the whole journey. There’s the Italian mafia, chaperoned by a bottle blond Donatella Versace look-alike gathered in a corner, in Armani-esque dark moody suits, clouds of smoke lingering above them. There’s a Japanese contingency, a Taiwanese loner, some Poles, a few Spaniards, a plump Portuguese journalist and a young, scruffy looking Lithuanian reporter.
Day 1 Paris – Stuttgart – 663 km It’s a crisp Saturday morning as we are chauffeured to Place Jacques Rueff. 36 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans, each draped over with abstractly painted national flags, are lined chronologically protected by the overpowering shadow of the Eiffel Tower. We locate our car; it’s number 23.
Mercedes is replicating – although in the opposite direction, the first transcontinental car race from Beijing to Paris that took place 100 years ago. 11 brave men had participated and the winner had been an Italian aristocrat by the name of Prince Scipione Borghese who had reached the finish line in August 1907, a whole three weeks ahead of the others!
Back in 1907 the French initiators wanted to prove the power of machine over horse; now the purpose is more reflective of our eco-conscious times — the aim is to see who can achieve the lowest possible fuel consumption. The 3.2-litre diesel powered cars will be driven in five stages by 360 drivers that include the press, celebrities and competition winners (there were 50,000 applications!) from 35 countries. The cars will travel 26 days and cover a total of 13,600 km through some of the most exotic locations in Europe and Asia.
“When in Paris you’ve gotta kiss a girl under the Eiffel tower.” I hear Donald’s voice in the near distance. He is hogging a French TV crew. Steve another hired cameraman, corners me, but it’s too early to be interviewed and I wish I had an ounce of Donald’s confidence. Mercedes’ big boss Dr Dieter Zetsche hands us our car keys, cameras click from all directions, a film crew hover above us in a helicopter as we leave Paris in a convoy along the tree-lined elegant Champs-Elysees.
The road to Stuttgart is a familiar one, yet it’s a chance to get to know our co-pilots. It’s also an interesting introduction to the various nations driving antics. In a show of pure machismo, the two Italian cars overtake one another from every possible direction; the Americans get over excited at being able to speed, while the Chinese car reverses on the motorway!
“Number 23 can you hear us,” a voice appears on our GPS system as we arrive late into Stuttgart. “We have run out of gas,” continues the translator in the Chinese car. Our tank is half full. I sincerely worry how some of the group are going to make it to Beijing.
Day 2 Stuttgart – Berlin – 649 km Another early start as we are ushered to the Mercedes museum, a truly glorious structure all curved concrete and extreme glass. We huddle around as photographers click and helicopters hover above capturing our every move. It feels creepy. Big Brother (Mercedes-Benz) is monitoring our every move, but then the carmaker has spent a fortune on this adventure and needs to get as much publicity as is possible.
And its timing couldn’t be more perfect, what with the launch of clean diesel powered cars on US soil, perfectly in tune with the need to cut oil dependency on how shall we put it, ‘less stable’ sources as well as our new found effort to curb harmful carbon emission gases. The fleet will also arrive in Beijing just as the Chinese motor show is about to unveil. Mercedes knows how crucial this powerful emerging market is to its future.
Are we just pawns to this huge publicity stunt, I wonder as we hit the road in a neat convoy down the pristine streets of Stuttgart. This is an unbelievably clean city, even by German standards. It is also exceptionally wealthy thanks to both Porsche and Mercedes headquartered here. Last night in a bid to strike up conversation I had mockingly mentioned buying property here to which our host, the uber-dry Johannes had replied: “As a journalist you wouldn’t be able to afford it.” Hmm, Germans are not famed for their sense of humour!
Helicopters follow us until we are way past the outskirts of the city. The sun is bright, and the light is that magical late autumn shade, casting low shadows on the flawless A81 autobahn.
Lunch today is a brief pause in the magnificent gardens of the Hermitage in the outskirts of Bayreuth famed by the composer Richard Wagner who built his own theatre here that still to this day performs a yearly festival. It is autumn at its best. A pallet of burnt yellows, oranges and piercing reds fill the landscape.
I sneak out for a moment’s solitude when one of the Polish competition winners Piotr joins me. “I am very excited to find out what you’ll think of my country,” he says as he lights a cigarette. I confess that sadly my only visual image of Poland is from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s melancholy Three Colors White, filmed mainly in the snow drowned Warsaw suburbs. “Oh but you should visit my home town on the northern coast,” he says. “It is so warm and beautiful.” Piotr runs a bar but makes three times more than his wife who is a doctor. “We’re thinking of moving to London for a while. It’s impossible to make a decent living in Poland,” he sighs.
We set off on the road to Berlin with the knowledge that from tomorrow a less polished Europe lies ahead — one that has not been as lucky post war as the land we’re leaving behind.
Berlin has huge presence. It’s sheer size, expansive roads and concrete buildings that stand erect, tall and proud, give this city a majestic presence. Drenched in a history that not only includes the partician that ended in 1989, but also that of extreme creativity. Berlin, after all, housed the founding fathers of the Modernist movement, the last Bauhaus was in this city; this is where artists and thinkers pushed the boundaries of art, where the Nazi’s coined the term ‘decadent art’. We settle in the flash Radisson SAS hotel in former East Berlin, which is now the hip part of town.
Day 3 Berlin – Warsaw – 632 km It’s another early start, and more flashing cameras, as we leave behind Western Europe. At the Polish border we are stopped and our passports are checked for the first time since arriving in Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
On first impressions Poland is painfully austere. The motorway, which is also the main link between East and West, has only one lane, the asphalt is shabby and the driving antics completely insane. Tattered, single-story houses are scattered in uncomfortable distances at the roadside. “There seems to be no planning,” comments Susannah, a Mercedes rep and a quintessential German beauty – tall, blond, strong. I smile thinking just how alien a few miles east must be for a girl accustomed to the perfection of Germany.
Sellers display kitsch nick knacks by the roadside, and a peasant sells honey. ‘Welcome to the East’ an invisible sign says as we hesitantly join the ludicrously dangerous act of overtaking huge trucks on the one lane highway.
Lunch is a quick stop at Rogalin Castle, south of the city of Posen. We sample local cuisine surrounded by what is said to be the most beautiful gardens in Poland. I’m sitting with the Polish crew who are talking in their mother tongue yet the conversation seems agitated. Piotr translates: “Ivon says joining the European Union has been the best thing that’s happened to us, but we are arguing that it’s not so simple and we have a long way to go,” he pauses. “In Estonia they have a 50% growth a year,” he says. “We need to catch up.”
Ivon is another competition winner. He comes from Warsaw and is plainly hungry for change. He loves classic Mercedes-Benz cars, which are hard to come by in Poland, and is busy persuading his driving partner to do a quick detour back to Stuttgart where he’s spotted one in perfect condition!
We arrive too late at night to appreciate Warsaw, though our first encounter is with a giant 24 hour Tesco (England’s answer to Wal-Mart)! Streetlights reveal a city undergoing some serious metamorphoses. The financial capital of Poland is one gigantic construction site.
You get the feeling Poland is desperately trying to catch up with its western neighbours. I wonder how much of the countries history of occupation has affected its sense of identity. Henry is keen to discover the homeland his grandparents left behind. The American tells me his parents haven’t revisited since evacuating during the war and bar his surname, Kophecz he feels no sense of belonging to this land.
Tonight is a glitzy party at the Mercedes HQ to celebrate 10 years of presence in Poland. I stand speechless at the bar as bottled blond ladies, and men with equally brash fashion sense consume what seems to be vodka on tap!
“May I buy you nice ladies a drink,” says a middle-aged man as he sleazily eyes Susannah who is having a drink with me back at the Royal Meridien hotel bar. “I’m the ambassador of Lithuania,” he grins. We look over to his colleague who has collapsed drunk on the sofa.
Day 4 Warsaw – Vilnius – 573 km With last night’s image fresh in mind we set off for Lithuania. I have no formed image of the Baltic States — nothing at all connects me to these three small countries. There’s a definite sense that we are heading north as the sun sits low and the lights casts an unusual shadow.
We arrive late in the capital Vilnius. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” gloats the young Lithuanian reporter Saulius. He is evidently excited to be staying in the city’s poshest hotel, the Radisson SAS Astorija. I ask if he intends to visit his family. “Oh no we live outside in the residential area,” he replies. These are endless Soviet-style concrete housing estates that surround every city since Berlin.
Vilnius is a city with only 542,000 inhabitants, but then again the whole country only has 3.4 million living in its 65,300 km sq expanse, which according to our guide equates to 52 people per km sq. I try to put this in perspective — approximately 20 million live in Mumbai alone!
Day 5 Vilnius – Riga – 335 km The drive from Vilnius to the Latvian border is simply breathtaking. Yellows battle against burnt oranges and browns, cut sharply by the deep green of the pine trees. Clouds form angry contours, the low sun gleaming through creating a spooky feel. We drive in sheer silence along the empty A2 that leads us to the Latvian border.
Entering Latvia’s capital Riga is not quite as exciting as I had anticipated. Viewed as one of the most beautiful cities of the Baltic region, it feels large and industrial. Perhaps the silence of the countryside has spoilt my senses.
It’s Henry’s birthday and the others hit a local strip bar. It’s the first time for most of the crew and they are childlike excited. “Oh I don’t ever want to see another strip joint,” muses Joe, a young journalist from Bangkok. “All I see, day and night, in Thailand are naked dancing ladies,” he mocks.
I, however, am shattered. I fall a deep sleep in our chic boutique hotel that could have been at home in Paris, in anticipation of our drive tomorrow that takes up north through the dense forest to Estonia and the medieval city of Tallinn.
Day 6 Riga –Tallinn – 311 km The driving pace has slowed down and we have time to absorb Tallinn. The IT city, as it is dubbed, is an interesting blend of medieval architecture, Soviet buildings and ultramodern glass structures. Founded in the 13th century by the Danes, the old town is heavily influenced by the medieval architecture of that era.
But Tallinn’s history of occupation has left a bitter mark in the fabric of the city. Like the other two, the smallest of the Baltic States declared true independence from the former Soviet Union occupation in 1991. From most official buildings flies the national flag, the black representing one-fifth of the population who were killed at the hands of its occupiers.
As we walk around Tallinn in the drizzle I witness an incredible scene. There is a complete break up of class and national barriers amongst the crew. Sheahan, a dot-com millionaire from Majorca has become life long friends with Per an asphalt road layer from Denmark. Sandra a housewife from suburban Germany is hanging out with hip graphic designer Hans.
That night we are treated to a medieval dinner. We have been on the road for nearly a week and the atmosphere is warm. Jorge is on full form, charming us all with is stories of seduction. “You must never consumer more than a half of Viagra,” he belts out laughing at his own humour. Geoff is entertaining the table with his sharp tongue and theatrical delivery. Donald is busy photographing Susannah. We dig into the earthy Baltic dishes with our hands.
Day 7 Tallinn – St Petersburg – 387 km Tension physically cuts through the air as we are ushered into our cars at 5 am. The normally composed Johannes looks positively edgy this morning. I have had patchy sleep and feel jaded. We are to drive in two sets of convoys, arranged by car numbers all the way to the Russian border. It’s still pitch dark outside; the rain is sharp, mixed with the strong northern winds making for a pretty nasty drive across the Gulf of Finland. By midday we reach the grim town of Narva on the Russian border.
It takes three hours to squeeze our way through one of the toughest borders I have ever crossed. It’s like being in a time warp — the guards, dressed in Soviet-style harsh uniforms stand erect with stone cold expressions. Policewomen march up and down the border gates in their short severe skirts revealing stocky legs necessary to endure this Arctic weather.
The landscape is austere on entering Russia. A couple of rough looking sex workers stand at the roadside. There are Ladas (Russia’s own car brand) and more Ladas, some stacked high with goods, some so old and shabby it’s hard to tell what badge they wear. Everything seems to be covered in a think layer of grime.
There are plenty of police cars guarding this abysmal motorway. We are warned to drive at walking pace at every police station on the way, and there are so many. Even though everyone abides most of the cars are pulled over and the drivers breathalysed for alcohol. Yet despite the negative result, Henry and Jorge’s cars are both fined.
Heading into St Petersburg is one big housing project. High-rise concrete grey structures stand erect, one after another after another. This is where the majority of St Petersburgians live, and it looks austere and grim. But then we enter the magnificent city itself.
“Do you want me to describe St Petersburg,” I hear Donald as we approach the decadent hotel Astoria lobby in the stunning St Isaac’s Square. “It’s Paris gone wrong.” I look around this glorious city and wonder at the blind vision of the man from San Diego.
St Petersburg was coined the window of Europe, or the Venice of the North under the reign of the Tsars. And it has a pretty wild history. Catherine the Great’s presence can be felt everywhere — more so than the Bolsheviks, from her magnificent Winter Palace and the Hermitage to the glorious Summer Palace on the outskirts of the city and its endless Baroque interiors decorated with an abundance of gold.
It’s our last night and we have a farewell gala to attend at the ostentatious Marble Palace. I cannot believe this was a country ruled by socialism only a decade ago. It just seems so utterly at ease in its new cloths. Is the ghost of Catherine still lingering above the skies of St Petersburg, I wonder as I stroll through the glorious building admiring the art collection.
We have driven through seven countries and completed 3,550 km. That night we reluctantly hand over our keys to the next group. There is sadness in the air and I long to be back on the road to Beijing. Photos