From UK to Ukraine – by road
The first driving holiday I went on from the driver’s seat was to Cornwall. From Norfolk, in a 1.25-litre Ford Fiesta, this felt like a very long way indeed.
Norfolk to Cornwall is not very far at all though. At least, that is what I’d go back in time and tell myself as I chugged up the M4 armed with tales of my most recent driving holiday: London to Donetsk, in the far east of Ukraine, and back again.
You can probably guess why I went there, but I’ll spare you my punditry here. Besides, the Ukrainian roads and those who use them boast as much drama as any penalty shootout. A good job, then, that my four fellow travellers and I had a Land Rover Discovery as our long-distance companion.
Driving east across western Europe is easy: French, Belgian, Dutch and German motorists seem that bit more clued up on lane and motorway etiquette than us Brits, and it ensures speedy progress, particularly on the autobahns of Germany.
I expected problems to start in Poland. Well-travelled Autocar chief snapper Stan Papior had a few war stories on Polish roads that threatened to make our estimates of how far we could travel each day optimistic at best.
And a phone call to European editor and Stuttgart resident Greg Kable on what sort of roads to expect east of the German-Polish border made me doubt if we’d ever complete the 2000km from Dresden to Donetsk.
As it happened, we had nothing to fear from Poland. Clearly, a lot of money has been spent on the roads, and made any view that the major Polish roads were anything but fantastic seem a bit prehistoric.
The 400km from Germany to Krakow in the south of Poland is possible in three hours, although the 250km east of Krakow and to the Ukraine border takes at least four hours as the brand-new dual carriageways (complete with electronic signs telling you the temperature of the road) is swapped for brand-new single carriageways because they serve less traffic.
If we’d been pleasantly surprised by Polish roads, we expected the pleasantries to end in the Ukraine. Not so initially. What was noticeable were the cars the locals were driving.
The Fords and VWs that are so common in western Europe are almost non-existent in the Ukraine. Instead, Ladas (both battered wrecks and sparkly new ones), Dacias and three-box Japanese saloons were the most common road occupiers. Oh, and horse and carts.
The hosting of Euro 2012 has clearly brought with it a lot of investment for the Ukrainian road network. Heading east to Kiev across the north of the country is around 50 per cent brand new dual carriageways; the other half being resurfaced single roads. Passing is a doddle on these sections, as the roads are so straight and wide.
But head east of Kiev and a real adventure starts. ‘That’ll do’ is the attitude to roads once you’re on your way out of Kiev heading east to Kharkiv.
Smooth dual carriageways can become mile upon mile of dirt track next to where new roads are being built with no warning; major junctions are a free-for-all as they have no white lines, traffic lights or warning signs; potholes that can swallow a Discovery have a habit of appearing on even the smoothest of roads; and huge tracks have been carved into poorly surfaced asphalt roads by the huge lorries that use them.
The Discovery, predictably, handled everything that Ukrainian roads could throw at it, even when the elements got involved with the frequent lightning storms. This is a car that just works, whether as a workhorse on a Herefordshire farm, in heavy commuter traffic on the M25 or taking five hopelessly optimistic football fans across an entire continent.
The road trip highlight was saved for driving through the centre of Ukraine’s westernmost city, Lviv. Here, trams fight with cars, taxis, pedestrians and cyclists on cobbled streets that drop several feet from one side of the pavement to the other, with several other dips in the middle.
It would have been intimidating in anything other than a Discovery, but the high driving position and boxy shape meant it could be positioned in gaps in the traffic where we could look down on the chaos around us. If ‘that’ll do’ is the unofficial motto of Ukraine’s roads, then the Discovery is the thing to do it in.
From UK to Ukraine – by road