What happens when you get together with friends, colleagues and industry – NDTV, Evo India, and Mercedes-Benz – to circumnavigate the world? Well, an exciting adventure ensues…
Off to a Rocky Start…
By Dhruv Behl
After much debate, discussion and planning, the GLA Adventure was finally set to begin. Concealing my excitement, I approached the Lufthansa counter at Delhi Airport to check in for my flight to Istanbul, via Munich. The lady behind the counter leafed through my passport furiously, and I couldn’t help but get a little impatient. I asked if there was a problem, as a way to hurry up the process. Suffice to say, her response caught me a little by surprise. “I’m sorry Sir, we can’t let you board the flight!”
You know what they say about the best-laid plans… my Schengen visa had recently expired – on the 20th of August to be exact. Before we finalised the itinerary for the start of the GLA Adventure, I had already reapplied since I was due to attend the Frankfurt Motor Show in mid September. When my visa was returned from the German Embassy, I only checked the date of expiry since I had applied for a two-year visa – I just assumed it would be valid effective immediately. It wasn’t! So, out of the 365 days of the year, there’s a gap in the validity of my Schengen visa to the tune of 25 days – the exact days during which I was due to drive from Turkey to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Austria – the first leg of the journey.
After much debate with the airline staff, I was able to board the flight and at least reach Istanbul for the start of this epic drive. I even woke up a Passport Control officer in the early hours of the morning during my transit in Munich, but it was to no avail. Nevertheless, I would at least be a part of the start of this adventure – and would also get to explore Istanbul, a bustling metropolis that I had never visited before. Our first port of call in Istanbul was the cargo terminal at the airport to pick up the cars, which had arrived from Mumbai a few days prior. It was quite an experience to see these MH-number plate machines – the star of the show, the GLA, and our support car, the GL – on foreign soil. People looked at us a little quizzically as we drove these right-hand drive machines out of the airport – something they continued to do in the days following. And something I suspect they’ll do the world over as we continue this great voyage.
But back to Istanbul for the moment. We spent the first day getting the war paint as it were put on the cars – the ‘GLA Adventure’ decals. And I have to say that the cars came out of the 3M centre in Istanbul looking tremendous. They certainly looked ready to take on the world. Our first stop the next morning was, of course, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia was previously a church – it was, in fact, the largest cathedral in the world for 1,000 years under the Roman Empire. It was later converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans obviously built the larger and grander Sultan Ahmed Mosque right across the plaza to show that they could do it bigger and better. Both structures are spectacular in their own right of course, and our two steeds looked pretty impressive posing in front of these historic structures.
The following day we picked up the pace a little, as our first stop of the day was the Istanbul Park grand prix circuit – the Herman Tilke track famous for its four-apex Turn 8. But Turn 8 wasn’t the only highlight of this spectacular circuit. It truly is a drivers’ circuit, in which the GLA felt right at home. It has fast, flowing bends, blind apexes, elevation changes, and all the character to make it one of the greatest circuits in the world – and it’s a real shame that it’s not currently on the F1 World Championship calendar. It’s definitely one of the greatest circuits I’ve ever driven on.
After Istanbul Park, we slowed it down a little by driving a home-grown Turkish machine – an Anadol coupe from 1969. Anadol produced cars from 1966 to 1991, and was Turkey’s first domestic mass-production vehicle manufacturer. The car we drove belonged to a young enthusiast. And while the quality of the restoration wasn’t anything to write home about, and the ‘engineering excellence’ of the car is a contradiction in terms really, it was heartening to see this 19-year old doing his level best to keep this piece of Turkish motoring heritage on the road. It also reminded us of the fact that you had to form a real bond with cars of the past to drive them down the road – unlike the cars of today in which you simply turn the key and select ‘Drive.’ All told, it was a great experience.
In fact, exploring Istanbul from the drivers’ seat of the GLA was a pleasure. The drive over the Bosporus Bridge was as beautiful as you would imagine. Tackling the somewhat manic Istanbul traffic, though, required skill and patience in equal measure. Istanbul truly is a proper bustling metropolis that never sleeps. It’s a melting pot and a meeting point for East and West. What better place, then, to commence the GLA Adventure. After all, this voyage is all about crossing borders, breaking barriers, and making the world a smaller place. God knows we have enough divisions amongst us – this is an opportunity to experience, and demonstrate, that people around the world are predominantly friendly and welcoming.
Like Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” If, through this drive, we can succeed in reducing any of those vices even by a little bit, within ourselves or in the people we interact with on the way, then it’ll have been a successful voyage. So Godspeed GLA Adventure…
The Journey Truly Begins…
By Jared Solomon
After a relatively relaxing couple of days in Istanbul, it was now time for us to embark on the Great Overland Adventure in earnest. We bid Dhruv adieu, and headed to the airport to pick up Ishan. But, before I go on, I must make clear that an adventure doesn’t necessarily mean a fun road trip. An adventure is simply a memorable travel experience – and it could be good, bad, or both. We found out the very first day just how unpredictable the Great Overland Adventure was going to be. After all, if it were easy to drive around the world then everyone would be doing it.
As we were driving to Bulgaria, we received a phone call from the Turkish Customs Authority and were told that we had to go to the airport in Istanbul and sign a few papers because a Turkish customs agent had made a small mistake in the paperwork. So we had to drive all the way back before we could head towards Bulgaria once again.
The next surprise was the Bulgarian Border, which just happens to be the second busiest border crossing on the planet. It also just so happened that there were thousands of Syrian refugees who were also trying to cross the border and make their way into Europe – so it took us a total of 8 hours just to cross the border. Then we had to get the cars insured in Europe, which took another 2 hours. We finally made the 450-kilometre road trip from Istanbul to Plovdiv in a little under 17 hours.
The next day we got to explore Plovdiv, which is one of the oldest and most historic cities of Europe. The earliest settlers lived here around 6000BC. We were on a tight schedule, so we wandered around the old town for a bit before making our way to Bucharest. The border crossing this time was much more relaxed and took just an hour. We reached the city late in the afternoon, and even ran into some fellow Indians and managed to play a quick game of cricket in a beautiful ground just outside the city. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by at the Tiriac Collection – which is the private car collection of tennis legend Ion Tiriac. And I have to admit that it’s one of the finest collections of cars I’ve ever seen. My favourite was the 2009 Mercedes SLR McLaren Stirling Moss Edition.
The next morning we got to check out a bit of the city, grab a quick breakfast and then head to Sibiu – which has been deemed to be the cultural capital of Europe in 2015. To get to Sibiu we had to make a 215-kilometre drive through the Carpathian Mountains. And we also got to see the famous Transf?g?r??an, which is a beautiful mountain road – and possibly one of the most stunning highways in the world. However, we couldn’t enjoy it to the fullest because there was a huge traffic jam. We finally reached Sibiu in the evening – when there happened to be a medieval festival in town and so the centre was bustling with energy. The town is very romantic and the architecture of the buildings is quite stunning. The next day we explored more of the city, but again were cut short for time as we had to make our way to Budapest. We had heard of the refugee crisis in Hungary, and so decided to leave early to give ourselves some extra time. Luckily, there was no fuss at the border and we crossed over in just 10 minutes. We got lucky for the first time on the trip!
When we reached Budapest, I immediately fell in love with the city. The people were very welcoming and friendly – and I have to mention that it was perhaps the most inexpensive place we visited when it came to food, lodging and drinks. The next day we met up with a Hungarian car collector who had some stunning machines, including an old Mercedes fire truck that we got to drive. After a quick joyride we made our way to the city centre of Budapest. The city really is impressive and the buildings, parks and bridges are just so captivating that I simply didn’t want to leave. We had a brilliant lunch in a very posh area of the city, and the food was brilliant. The best part was that the prices were incredibly affordable. My next summer destination on a budget will surely be to Hungary.
We were now on the road again, and this time we were heading to Austria. Our plan had changed slightly, and instead of spending two nights in Vienna we now had only one night there. Vienna is also truly magical in every sense of the word. The food is brilliant, the buildings are grand and the massive gardens in the centre of town are spellbinding. We got to visit the Industrial Museum, St Stephans Cathedral, as well as the Schonburn Palace and its beautiful gardens. But just like every other day, we were pressed for time – plus, we had an 850-kilometre journey to Milan in Italy. There was no way we could make it there on the same day so we decided to spend the night in a small town close to Venice. By now it had been 10 days, and we were driving on average for 15 hours a day. We were all exhausted!
We reached Milan on a bright sunny day, and luckily we had the first day to ourselves. We weren’t staying in the city of Milan, but instead in a small town called Oleggio – which was quaint and very beautiful. The next day we visited the city of Milan and also got to visit the Mille Miglia Museum close by. However, the highlight of the European leg of the trip was definitely the day trip to Lake Como in the Italian Alps. Lake Como is one of the most majestic places in Italy, and it’s no surprise that many celebrities have summer houses here. The clear water of the massive lake surrounded by the green mountains is a sight for sore eyes. We spent the day driving around the lake and tasting some delicious local food.
The next day we got the cars serviced, and also got a chance to meet the Mercedes F1 drivers Nico Rosberg and World Champion Lewis Hamilton – who were in Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. Both of them were very excited to hear about our journey. They signed the GLA and wished us well for the remainder of our trip.
We now had to make our way to Reims, which is a small city just 150-kilometres north of Paris. It’s home to another historic racetrack – the Reims-Geuex. This circuit was a Grand Prix Motor Racing road course, and the grandstand is still just off a public highway. And despite the fact that the last race took place in 1969, it’s still in pretty good condition. We took in the atmosphere, imagined the Grand Prix cars hurtling through the French countryside, and then headed for Calais – which is where we took the train to the UK. This was another new experience for all of us, because it’s quite a unique way to cross a border. We drove the cars onto the train, which then went through a tunnel under the English Channel – it’s really quite fascinating! It took us just 30 minutes to reach the UK and then we drove to Brackley.
The next day we headed to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Factory in Brackley and met with team boss Toto Wolff. He was a very charming man, and he was equally excited to hear about our trip. We then toured the beautiful grounds of the factory and got to see first-hand just how much planning and technology goes into the development of an F1 car.
We stayed in the UK for 4 days, and this time got to relax a bit more. Our entire trip had been very hectic and we hardly got anytime to really enjoy the sights, so it was good to get a day of rest. We were now supposed to make our way to the Frankfurt Motor Show, but made a small detour to Le Mans. We were lucky enough to have the legendary circuit all to ourselves, and we spent the entire evening admiring this lovely circuit. It really is an incredible track to drive on. The next day we made the 800-kilometre drive from Le Mans to Frankfurt, but not before stopping in Paris for a delicious lunch. We reached Frankfurt just after 10pm, and were all looking forward to a good night’s sleep. We had been on the road for 21 days now.
I had to fly back to India the next day, while the rest of the team continues on to Spain to hand over the cars to Sirish and Ouseph from Evo, who take on the next leg in Africa. The European leg was definitely a proper adventure, and a great experience. The cars worked beautifully, but we also had fantastic roads and spectacular sights. I believe the real challenge for the cars will come in Africa. Here’s wishing the next team good luck.
The GLA Adventure will be going around the world for the next several months. This is the first of many exciting stories. So stay tuned…
Also read:GLA Adventure to Africa, and the Sahara