Roaming Across Europe In A Vintage Volkswagen

On a road trip through Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland where vestiges of the past intrude into a languid present
Aerial view of the German Autobahn highway viaduct
Aerial view of the German Autobahn highway viaductShutterstock

We make a great team - Jan Peters the environmentalist, Passy the car - a 1994 Volkswagen Passat convertible - and me. Every year we go on a road trip in Europe, covering thousands of kilometres, avoiding tourists, urban din, and the highways with toll charges, preferring to drive along a river or through forests or farmlands on local roads. For those few days, we are vagabonds, nature, our home, the sky, our roof.

A 1994 Volkswagen Passat
A 1994 Volkswagen PassatPinterest

Life On Wheels

Passy is our abode on wheels. We love this life. It unfolds dramatically on a daily basis, with constantly changing contexts and contours. This year, we covered about 2,500 kilometres in eight days, criss-crossing through Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. The association with a city or a village is stronger when you walk or cycle around it. We would do as natives did - find free parking for Passy and then stroll through places.

On a sunny afternoon in August, when Europe was sizzling under a heat wave, we set off on a happy note from Berlin. Driving on autobahns, where there's no speed limit, can actually be boring. When high speed is a constant, it ceases to thrill.

A shot of Autobahn
A shot of AutobahnShutterstock

Within a couple of hours, we reached Dresden, flattened by the British towards the end of World War II. Dresden's famous church, Frauenkirche, reduced to rubble, was meticulously restored, brick by brick, after the unification of Germany. Frauenkirche to me is a monument of German resilience - a nation that was destroyed by two world wars, only to emerge stronger. Nationalism is a bad word here though, to the extent that many refrained from celebrating the football World Cup victory last year, including Jan.

We were hosted by Jan's friend, a young doctor, who offered us potent homemade fruit-based liqueur. We spent the evening by the riverside. Elbe's crystal clear waters were like a glass top on a rocky riverbed.

Summer Charms of Europe

In this part of the world, public spaces are pretty, and city dwellers congregate by the riverside after work and spend some quality time with friends and family, or in solitude. I contrasted it with Delhi, where the polluted Yamuna is effectively an open sewer, its banks an extended litter-yard.

The Dresden Castle and Green Vault on an overcast day
The Dresden Castle and Green Vault on an overcast dayRudiErnst/

Europe during summer, we went to the old city of Dresden to eat and drink. Younger men, distinctively alternative in their attire and hairdo, huddled together on the footpath facing the road, indulging in the national pastime sipping beer, leading a life of defiance. There were so many of them that alternative seemed mainstream. I love the fact that in Germany, walking around or drinking beer on the streets or public places is acceptable. We ate big pizzas without much fuss at a brisk pace and walked back home inebriated.

En route, we came across an Indian restaurant called Bollywood run by a gaudily dressed Afghan Pathan. "Bollywood is in Mumbai," I asserted. "But, King Khans, who rule Bollywood, are all Afghans." "Do they speak Pashto", I retorted. "They don't, but their blood is Afghan." It was harmless banter, and we hugged and laughed loudly. There were two young Indian men on either side of a small table on the footpath, silently eating chicken curry and tandoori roti. They replied in monosyllables when I forced a conversation. One of them confirmed he was writing a thesis on an issue that deals with some cryptic aspect of advanced Physics. That was the end of the conversation. Indians in Europe, especially the students, I avoided proactively - there are so many of them back home. Many of them seem shy to them, going to a bar is like visiting a monument.

Across Czech Republic

We entered the Czech Republic one afternoon. The vast expanse of hilly farmland, like sand dunes, was punctuated by islands of forests. We parked Passy by Elbe, in the middle of nowhere. A walk took us back to the main road where we lodged ourselves in a local bar and drank cheap beer liberally. We had beer every evening and discussed reality devoid of fantasy, fantasies devoid of reality, and the inherent conflict between the two. In short, some healthy bullshitting.

View of Prague from the Castle
View of Prague from the CastleShutterstock

For a week, we would skip dinner, but never beer, considered liquid bread here. We mostly tried locally distilled beer - Pilsner Urquell was our favourite. Jan described it as one of the best in the world. We tended to be very categorical about our conclusions.

We would sleep inside Passy. Folding the back seat forward made for a queen-size bed. We would sleep in our respective sleeping bags, keeping windows slightly ajar for fresh air. In Prague, the evenings were cool, days hot. "It's hot like Delhi," I complained.

We would wake up when the sunlight, sieving through a dense canopy of trees, would fill Passy. There were eight windows and a sunroof. We would yawn loudly to announce it was time to get started. Surya Namaskar was a morning ritual we never missed. This was followed by - despite, and in spite of, our hangover - a swim in the river, lake or sea, as the case may be, in the nude. Swimming in the nude is a profound experience in the balmy morning sun, to say the least. Jan would spend the next 15 minutes preparing coffee, and we would have bread, cheese, sausages and fruits for our leisurely breakfast.

After a few evenings of drunken exuberance and mornings of prolonged breakfasts, there was nothing left to be said between us. We weren't desperate to repeat ourselves, either. There were long pauses, phases when silence reigned. Passy would creak occasionally to remind us say something One such morning, Jan played a Chiwoniso number to break a silence that was getting difficult to ignore. It started with wind chimes set in a tune, followed by lazy beats, and deep and intense vocal rendition. I felt unbound joy and called it "sunshine music". Jan made it a point to play it every morning. This track became our trip's anthem.

On To Poland

We spent one afternoon by the Vistula riverside in Torun in Poland. Jan was not in a mood to drive Passy, instead craving a nap in the sun. He lay on the grass under a leafy tree, reading a book, falling asleep soon. I went for a walk. A hobo (or possibly hipster) was waiting for no one in particular, sitting on a bench facing the river, while young teens were creating a ruckus around him.

The association with a city or a village is stronger when you walk or cycle around. Our idea of knowing a place is to assimilate rather than assert being different. We would do as natives did. We spent sizeable amounts of time to find free parking for Passy and then walk the cities. Prague was hot, and walking was not particularly fun.

Auschwitz Memorial
Auschwitz MemorialShutterstock

Jan for the first and the last time wore trousers on this trip. We were to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, the site of mass organised killing. Death was deferred for the able-bodied, who were condemned to a life of blood, sweat and tears to create a bigger infrastructure to kill the likes of them. The rest were huddled in the gas chambers. It was difficult to guess who were more cursed, those killed in the gas chambers or those left to toil in the biting cold. The museum store stockpiles items of personal use of those killed - hair, shoes, combs, suitcases and bags. A picture of a girl with an intense look is fresh in my mind, barely three years old. The picture was taken a few minutes before she with her family was herded to a gas chamber. Had she been alive, she would have been exactly my mother's age.

We were lucky in finding pulchritudinous spots to camp. One evening we struggled, driving for hours before we could find a proper place to rest Passy for the day, about 30 kilometres away from where we had planned, near Gdansk. A 15-minute walk took us to the beach. The sun was about to set, the sky was crimson, clouds hung close to the horizon. Strong winds blew silently over a calm sea. We felt welcome, as if the entire cosmos was entertaining us road-weary travellers. We sat long into the night under the starry sky, almost falling into the sea, sipping beer and eating emaciated Polish sausages.

Northwestern Poland is blessed with green hills. Multiple lakes, big and small, dot the landscape. We camped near a big lake, and later, went for a walk around the lake, returning five hours later - having walked through a dense jungle, swamps, past ruins of a Nazi bunker, circling three lakes instead of one, before hitting the highway on our way back. We went for a swim well after sunset, drank beer for hours, and discussed life as it's not, but could have been.

Market Square at Greifswald Germany
Market Square at Greifswald GermanyWikimedia Commons

Our journey concluded at Griefswald - a university town nestled in northeast Germany - where Jan lives in a 100-year-old cottage with some friends. We made biryani and danced to Bollywood songs to celebrate brothers on the road.

The Information

Driving Basics

Driving in Eastern Europe can be a diverse experience, varying widely from country to country. Roads range from modern highways to rural, potholed paths. Traffic regulations may differ, with some countries exhibiting stricter enforcement than others. Urban areas often face congestion, while scenic countryside routes offer picturesque views. Drivers may encounter varied driving styles, with some regions known for aggressive maneuvers. Signage can be inconsistent, and understanding local languages helps. Winter driving demands caution due to snow and ice. Overall, driving in Eastern Europe offers adventure, requiring adaptability and awareness of local driving customs and road conditions.


Indian nationals planning a road trip from Germany to Poland via the Czech Republic need a Schengen visa, valid for all three countries. Apply at the embassy of your main destination or the first entry point if the stay is equally distributed. Required documents include a completed application form, passport-sized photos, a valid passport, travel itinerary, proof of funds, travel insurance with at least 30,000 euros coverage, and proof of return travel. Biometrics and an INR 7220 fee are also required. Visa processing can take up to 15 days, so apply well in advance. Check official embassy websites for updates.

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