By William Thomas

It’s been exactly 20 years since the European Road Trip from Hell and … we’re going back! In the spring of 1995, I took my brother-in-law Dan on his first trip to Europe. Portugal to be exact, and it turned out to be more of an overland military mission than a holiday.

As the organizer of the trip, I made one serious strategic error in traveling with my brother-in-law in that, after I agreed to go, I … okay, make that two serious strategic errors.  After I agreed to go, I put Dan in charge of the driving. As the official navigator, translator and sightseeing guide, I was deeply disappointed in not being able to use my talents because as the official driver, Dan did not stop. Except to sleep and even then, sometimes at the wheel. After landing in Lisbon from Toronto, we drove south to Alentejo, north to Garda, east to Spain through Malaga, then southeast to Africa and Morocco, then we did stop because Dan felt that was enough driving for the first day.

Early in the trip, we had several disagreements about the daily itinerary, but Dan stuck to his claim that during all the preparation sessions, no mention was ever made of stopping.

Roaring north out of Lisbon, we passed through the picturesque mountain village of Belem, where I pointed out for Dan the famed tomb of Portugal’s greatest explorer, Vasco da Gama, who sailed from here in 1497 and returned in triumph having discovered the passage to India. Without even slowing down, Dan said “India?” and asked me to pass him the map.

We went to Seville, the heartbeat of Spain with its mysterious winding alleys, secluded, sun-drenched patios and jasmine-scented gardens. At least that’s what the guidebook claimed.  I didn’t actually see any of this because we went to and through Seville, as Dan likes to say, “like ripe grain through a loose goose!” We did Seville in less than 30 minutes and if it wasn’t for “a bunch of noon-hour geeks and gawkers,” Dan feels we could have done much better. All I saw was a man with an overturned bread cart in the rearview mirror, shaking his fist at us near the Cathedral de Seville.

All told, we passed by, but did not visit, the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the mausoleum of Henry the Navigator in Sagres and even the shrine to Christopher Columbus in Seville, because as Dan said (and he does have a point here), these were all just dead guys who couldn’t pump gas or clean windshields.

So for Dan, Europe was strictly a matter of speed and mileage.  For me — not that I mind sitting in a car for 14 or 15 long, hot, sweaty hours at a time — it was a little tiring.

I shouldn’t say we never stopped. Near Badajoz, Spain, he stopped and had me take a photo of him beside an old man on a donkey so he could tell all the guys back at the post office he’d met Juan Valdez on his holidays.

Our European motor tour became our ultimate bonding experience in the sense that we spent so much time driving on oppressively hot days, a few times we actually stuck together.  But we did a lot of European-type things too.  For instance, after evening meals, I explained to Dan the quaint continental custom of “taking the air.”  Dan enjoyed this and we did it a lot. He preferred to call it “bar-hoppin’.”

And I think Dan learned a lot on his first trip abroad, like you can’t wash your hands with chicken and noodles even though the words sopa and soup have a similar sound to them. Dan learned the hard way that if a toilet doesn’t have a toilet seat, it’s probably not a toilet. He also learned that a herd of goats in the road has the right of way unless you want your license plate butted clean off.

Dan has that insightful curiosity critical to a traveller of the world. For instance, after leaving the Spanish town of Moron (we had our picture taken in front of the sign after we added an “s” to the word with a magic marker), we were cruising down a four-lane Spanish autopista when Dan said, “Ah, Bill, this autopista thing – does that mean everybody on this highway is drunk?” Is it any wonder I love this guy?

I hope this account of my travels with Dan doesn’t give you the wrong impression.  I had a terrific time.  I really did.  In only three weeks, I got to see every town in Portugal, Spain, the northern part of Africa and I think once while I was asleep in the back seat, we went through France and Germany.

And yes, we’re going back after two decades because, as guys, we are not only destined to repeat the mistakes of the past, we rejoice in them.  Plus now, with all the advances in automobile technology over the last 20 years … Dan thinks we can make better time on this trip.

I keep telling him he needs to bring clothes and toiletries, but he insists he’ll buy that stuff when we get there.  He’s already hit the maximum weight of 110 lbs. for his check-in bag with motor oil, windshield wiper fluid, air fresheners and turtle wax. I’ll keep you posted.

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