Monday 25 September 2017

Croatia: A tail of adventure

Travelling to Croatia with the family seemed an easy enough feat for David McWilliams, until they decided to accommodate a canine companion and travel by road and boat

David with his wife Sian, son Cal, daughter Lucy and Sasha the dog
David with his wife Sian, son Cal, daughter Lucy and Sasha the dog
Split, Croatia
Passau, Bavaria, Germany
David McWilliams

David McWilliams

'What are we going to do with her?" "What are we going to do with who?"

"With her, the dog."

"We can't take her."

"Where are we going to put her?"

"Kennels."

"No we can't," bawled the children

"I'm not going if Sasha isn't coming."

"Nor am I -- we're staying here with our dog."

"You are eight and 10 -- who's going to read you stories?"

"We don't care. You're not the boss of us. We are staying with Sasha."

"Okay, that's it, we're taking her."

"How?"

"By flipping boat -- how else?"

"But we are going to Croatia, not Clifden. It's halfway across Europe!"

And she, the Labrador, just looked up from under the table with her big dark eyes, wagging her tail, sensing victory was at hand.

And thus began the McWilliams' summer odyssey, 3,000km, eight countries, Mum, Dad, two kids, a dog and potential divorce proceedings.

Sasha joined our family on Good Friday 2008 and, ever since, the rhythm of the day and the state of the furniture has been dictated by the needs and urges of a beautiful, very feminine Lab.

I realised on the first night when I got into a sleeping bag to stay beside her crate in the hall, as the rest of the family slept in their beds, that this little lady would have a profound effect on our lives.

Nothing can be planned without the "what about Sasha?" question. Now, the "what about Sasha?" question was leading me online to the Michelin route planner as I typed in the words 'Dun Laoghaire to Split'.

Up came a snaky line across the magical map of Europe with less than exotic names such as Crewe, Peterborough and Harwich.

Now, I don't know about you but I have always wanted to go to Crewe with a dog. It's been up there on my list of 'must dos' for years, along with playing in a World Cup final.

In fact, the summer's World Cup added spice to the journey, as my eight-year-old and I picked out how many countries we would be driving through that were playing in the World Cup: England, Holland, Germany and Slovenia.

Any more? Did Austria make it?

"Maybe we can stop in Holland for the game, Dad?"

"There'll be no stopping for football, anywhere," growled the wife.

"But it's going to take days."

"Yes, and it'll take longer if you two are stuck in front of a big screen somewhere outside Eindhoven, and, anyway, if we stop to watch the football, what will we do with Sasha? I mean, you can't just take a dog to a pub to watch football, seriously."

We hadn't thought of that. What were we going to do about hotels? Where were we going to stay and where would the dog stay? How would we take her to restaurants or pubs?

Luckily for those of us who travel with bowlers on the continent, Germany, Holland and Austria are much less strict than Ireland and dogs are welcome in most public places. But in England, their well-advertised love of dogs doesn't extend to welcoming them in public places.

So, on that basis, the plan was to hurtle from Holyhead to Harwich in Essex as quickly as possible and get on to the Continent.

And so, with the car packed and Sasha in the back of the estate, we drove the two miles to Dun Laoghaire. Within minutes -- no airport hassle, all very civilised -- we were onboard and ready for the 90-minute hop. Sasha was happy to stay in the car as we zipped across the Irish Sea over to Holyhead.

This was a journey I'd done dozens of times, over and back to London in the 1980s, so for many thousands of Irish people, there is a certain nostalgia about seeing the craggy cliffs of Holyhead coming into view.

Holyhead looks like the town that time forgot, best driven through at speed past beautiful Anglesey, the nuclear power plants and across the bridge to north Wales.

The dual carriageway to Liverpool is almost empty except for a crew of ageing Irish Mods -- all parkas, badges and bomber jackets -- farting along on battered Lambrettas.

Then, just before Liverpool, the children in unison removed their heads from the Nintendo to suggest: "Sasha needs a pee!"

"How do you know?"

"She just does, look at her."

That was to be the first stop of many by the side of the road.

We headed down the spine of England towards Birmingham, took a left at Coventry, towards Cambridge and realised that England is bigger than we thought, because we're still 140 miles from Harwich. More pee stops required. But at least as the sun sets behind us, we are almost there.

This part of England -- the bum, which juts out curvaceously into the North Sea -- is flat as a pancake and unexpectedly rural. It rests on the same limestone plateau that stretches from the south of the island all the way to the Russian steppe, without a hillock from Ipswich to Moscow.

Harwich, once the parliamentary seat of Samuel Pepys, is a former navy town down on its luck. The Victory, draped ceiling-to-floor in the flag of St George, doesn't look the most inviting for an Irish family and their friendly Lab, particularly since England had just been beaten again by Germany.

After six hours in the car and early for our ferry, we decided to take Sasha for a walk on the pier, past the boarded-up jellied eel shops and the yoof in hoodies drinking on the wall who are uncharacteristically soft at the sight of a playful dog. Maybe the authorities in England should forget ASBOs and just issue the hoodies with Labradors?

The Stena Hollandica was a wonderful ship. We were greeted at reception and taken down to the kennels and into our cabin. It was all very civil indeed.

The ship itself is less than a year old and the cabins are beautiful, designed to a high standard. In our cabin, there were four beds but we didn't even use them all, as one of the lower bunks was easily big enough for two.

My wife was impressed with the huge window, the white cotton-covered duvets and the clean, modern bathroom. Sasha had her own large kennel and there were two other dogs nearby to keep her company.

The canine quarters were super-clean and warm, brightly lit and well ventilated, with plenty of fresh water.

But it was difficult leaving her there with no explanation. We were given the security code and were free to come and check up on her as often as we pleased. However, we decided it would be better to leave her to let her settle down, hopefully, to sleep.

Meanwhile, we headed for dinner. There are several choices, including self-service and a bar, but we headed for the restaurant, where we received excellent waiter service.

The ship left Harwich at midnight and, after a good night's sleep, we arrived into the Hook of Holland at 7am.

First day over, 500 miles behind us, no accidents, no proper rows, Holland stretched out in front to us.

We drove into a country bedecked with orange flags. The Dutch were about to play Uruguay in their typically quietly confident mood. It's a wonderful country to drive in, except for one thing: you can't buy any road maps because everyone has a sat-nav.

So if you don't know your Rotterdams from your Eindhovens, make sure to buy maps in Ireland. Luckily, the very frequent motorway stops throughout Holland, Germany, Austria and Croatia are fabulous.

At this stage, the hound was sleeping all the time and she hardly made a sound as we sped towards Mönchengladbach. The very word brought back memories of 1980s footballers with luxuriant mullets when Borussia Mönchengladbach were a force in European competitions.

For anyone thinking of driving through Germany, the motorways are a bit of a disappointment. They are crowded with trucks and surprisingly marred by endless road-works.

But the lovely thing about the country is the friendliness of the people. Everywhere we stopped the reception was welcoming and enthusiastic and, most importantly, they seem to love dogs.

Critically, it is cheap too. We plan ned to stop driving by early evening so we could go for a walk before dinner and then get a good night's sleep.

Looking at the map (which we finally tracked down in northern Germany), we decided to head for the beautiful town of Passau, deep in Bavaria, where the rivers Danube, Inn and Markt meet.

The architecture is Counter-Reformation Bavarian, monumental and stylish. Towns like Passau, which were not bombed in the war, indicate what urban Germany must have looked like in 1939.

We booked in to the first hotel we saw in the town centre and the receptionist wouldn't allow the dog to sleep in the car. "She simply must sleep in the room," she beamed.

At €118 for a huge room for five (including Sasha), breakfast and free underground parking, you can see why Germany is regarded as good value by anyone who visits this part of Europe. Sasha bounded out of the car and, like a good Labrador, headed straight into the wide expanse of the Danube, much to the delight of the locals.

The following morning, we headed into Austria and straight down through tiny Slovenia into Croatia. On the home straight now, we encountered the usual border-guard antics. But even these cynical officers were reduced to giggling children at the sight of Sasha, who peered out the back of the car with her big black eyes, tail wagging as if to say "just play with me".

By 7pm, we were at the harbour in Split. The motorways in Croatia are the best in Europe, if a little pricey. Unlike Holland and Germany, where roads are toll-free, once you hit Austria the tolls mount and many had warned us about the relative expense of driving to Croatia through France and Italy.

We decided to go for speed and cover the 3,000-odd kilometres left in two days. Next time we will meander.

Next time?

Yes, there definitely will be a next time. Compared with the cattle market of airports, security checks, queues, excess baggage payments, delays and ridiculously expensive, second-rate food, driving is a piece of cake.

What's more, it's fun. If, like us, you spend your time in airports shouting at your children, travelling by car is wonderfully calm. You can chat, play silly games such as pronouncing Welsh names and speculating why everyone in Holland appears to have buck teeth.

The cabins on the Stena Line ferries are more than adequate and the roads -- with the exception of a stretch in middle Germany -- largely hassle free.

People's reactions to us were uniformly positive. Then again, there might well be something intrinsically funny, if not a bit crazy, about an IRL sign so far from home with a cute Labrador smiling out the back window and wagging her tail at the world as we hurtled across Europe.

Need to know

GETTING THERE

We sailed with Stena Line (01-204 7777; stenaline.ie) A return family fare from Dublin to Holyhead and onto Rotterdam from Harwich (car, two adults, two children and one dog) costs from €688 return. From Rotterdam, we drove through Monchengladbach, Cologne, Frankfurt, Nuremburg, Linz, Graz, Zagreb, Zadar and Split. STAYING THERE We stayed in a lovely functional hotel in Passau called the Weisser Hase (0039 851 92110; weisser-hase.de). The International (0038 516 108 800; hotel-international.hr) in Zagreb was also extremely dog friendly.

FIVE TOP TIPS TO KEEP YOUR POOCH HAPPY

To avoid six months’ quarantine on return from the Continent, make sure your dog is micro-chipped.

Be sure to apply for a pet passport in plenty of time, as it can take six months to get all you need.

Bring your own dish for water and your own dog food, because you don’t want to change their diet when they’re facing a 3,000km journey in the back of the car.

They will need a rabies vaccine, follow-up rabies blood test and a certificate of its results, all signed by a vet, as well as various tick and worming treatments.

Treat your pet like a family member, so when you stop to stretch your legs, let her out for a stroll.

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