Palacio del Partal in Alhambra, Granada.
This is Part 6 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. We have now completed the Scandinavian section of this adventure, and you can check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden, Part 2: Kustvägen to Finland, Part 3: The journey to North Cape, Part 4: To the Russian border and Part 5: Driving through Lapland, Finland. For this section of the trip, we “cheat” a little and take the plane from Stockholm to Paris. This way we can take possession of our Mercedes C-Class coupe and drive off to Spain aiming for Granada in Andalusia, with a first stop in Barcelona, some 1.040 km south. The C-Class coupe, along with the convertible both launched in the first half of 2016 two years after the new generation sedan and station wagon, have been instrumental in giving C-Class sales a second wind in most major European markets. In Italy, C-Class sales are up 4%, they are up 9% in the UK and post double-digit gains both in France (+13%) and Spain (+11%), particularly strong results that influenced the itinerary of this trip. I do want to test drive the C-Class in regions where it has strong momentum indeed.
Our Mercedes C220d Coupe for the week.
I have to admit the allure of the car is so damn sexy. Its silhouette is racy, aggressive and polished, looking like a true sportscar and not the poor attempt at a coupe version that Mercedes tried to impose on us with the previous generation of the nameplate. The model I will be driving is a C220d Coupé priced at 66.050€ including a variety of optional equipment such as diamond white paint, 9-speed auto, memory electric seats, driver assist pack, 360 degree cameras and 3D-Surround Burmeister sound. We are a notch above the 61.400€ invoice for the Volvo XC90 we just drove to North Cape, despite a slightly lesser level of sophistication. One excellent detail from the start: as you put your seatbelt on, it automatically adjusts to perfectly fit your body. It skids down from there unfortunately and my immediate impressions aren’t positive: the central console screen isn’t actually a touch screen and needs to be controlled by a rotary shift coupled with unintuitive left and right click functions all the way down between the two front seats. This has the very unsafe consequence of forcing you to look both at the screen and the rotary shift while driving, actually looking at the road becomes an expensive add-on.
Disappointing: the touch screen isn’t one.
All sound alerts, piano-like in the Volvo, are more aggressive in the Mercedes, bordering on annoying. Hopefully, these impressions won’t last for too long and the Mercedes will wow me when in motion. But first we need a name for it. We already had Albert the Ram 1500 in our U.S. Coast to Coast 2014 exploration, Bob the Ram 2500 in our U.S. North to South 2015 Report, Charlie the Jeep Wrangler in Hawaii earlier this year, Damo the Haval H8 in our Australian Outback adventure, Esmeralda the Sardinian Fiat Panda and Fyr-Björn our Nordkapp Volvo XC90. This Mercedes needs a female name starting in G, as this is a passenger car. In French, my native language, a car is feminine and a truck is masculine, and therein lies the rationale behind all our name choices at BSCB. Being from German origin, the C Coupe’s name imposed itself relatively evidently: Gretchen (think Gretchen Mol). We’re ready to go, Gretchen.
The A86 Ouest Duplex tunnel in Paris. Picture see.be
Not quite ready yet as it turns out. In order to avoid constantly changing currencies when I travelled to Sweden and Norway (both outside the Euro zone), I became pretty much cash-less and operated on card only over the past week. France seems to have difficulties catching up with the present though: the very first highway toll can’t be paid with my Australian Mastercard whereas all tolls in Scandinavia were automatically and painlessly deducted from Volvo’s press budget. This means I have to be evacuated from the highway! On paper a simple manoeuvre but with staff completely uninterested in actually opening the proper gates to make this happen, it took a few repeated requests to get out. All this with the purpose of finding an ATM in the nearest town, withdrawing cash and coming back: 45 minutes lost. It was worth it though, because Gretchen had directed me to the A86 Ouest Duplex tunnel. Opened in 2011, this tunnel has a double deck configuration allowing 2 x 2 lanes on two separate levels while only requiring one bore. At 10 km long, this is the longest road tunnel entirely located in France (longer ones cross borders). Its striking feature is its very low ceiling at 2.55m in order to fit two levels, with circulation prohibited for vehicles over 2 metres high as well as motorbikes, as a driver standing on the footrests would breach the height limitation. It is the first piece of French road infrastructure that is prohibited for motorbikes. We’re now – finally – out of Paris.
Gretchen has already clocked up 1.900km in two days.
Driving through France – unlike eating cheese and drinking wine – cannot be done with excess: highways are infested with speed cameras keeping you on your toes and, incidentally, drastically reducing the death toll on French roads over the past decade. A very good thing indeed. It’s almost midnight when I cross the border to Spain and there is heavy police presence on the French side. Despite making all imaginable efforts not to attract any of the police officers’ attention (I may even have whistled a little bit), I get stopped. It’s within the realm of possibles that I may have broken the speed limit ever so slightly over the past couple of hours… “Where are you going?” To Barcelona. “From where?” Paris. [a pretty extraordinary car trip by European standards now that a plethora of budget airlines can get you there in an hour and for a fraction of the cost] But he’s not batting an eyelid. “Is this your car?” Nope, it’s a loan from Mercedes. I’m getting ready to step out of the car with hands on my head and have to explain the test drive configuration, showing contracts, etc. Instead: “They must love you!” I’m sorry? “Mercedes must love you! To loan you a car like this! Wow! Enjoy the trip!” Just like that. Well yes actually, I believe Mercedes loves Daunhotcongnghiep. Why wouldn’t they?
A nasty surprise the morning after my arrival in Barcelona…
I arrive in Barcelona past 1 am and to my great surprise there is a heart-warmingly free parking spot right opposite the front door of my accommodation. I can even make eye with Gretchen from the balcony of the bedroom. In the morning though, Gretchen isn’t parked here anymore. I actually rub my eyes and open them again like in the movies as I can’t process this nightmarish vision. But no. Gretchen has gone. Instead, an orange sticker lies on the floor indicating she was taken by a tow truck as it is prohibited to park there after 8am… A 160 € online payment later and I am back at the wheels of the Mercedes again. After this minor hiccup, we are back on schedule for Day 2: on our way to Granada. This time my friend Héctor is coming along as potential relief test driver – just in case 9.000 km in less than two weeks prove just a tad too much – but also for a second opinion on the car and to prevent me from veering off too easily into a Volvo-Mercedes comparison after one week spent driving Björn to North Cape and back.
One of the many iconic toros de Osbourne we encountered through southern Spain.
You haven’t fully visited Spain until you’ve seen one of the iconic Osborne bulls (Toros de Osborne) on the side of the highway. These 14-metre high black silhouetted images have become one of the most recognised symbols of this country and are even embedded in the Spanish flag like a coat of arms in sporting events. Where are all these toros coming from? They were in fact billboards by the Osborne sherry company to advertise their Brandy de Jerez. They were headed towards deletion when a 1994 European Union law prohibited all roadside alcoholic advertising, but public attachment was so strong it was decided the bulls would stay as long as they were unbranded. However, their iconic national significance also means the toros have disappeared in regions with strong independentist movements such as Catalonia.
The view on Granada’s old town from the Alhambra. Picture Héctor Cardona
The 860km drive gets us from a Mediterranean landscape progressively into a desert environment. Palm trees slowly appear but surely take over, the houses get more white-washed, the grass disappears to give way to earth and rocks. In effect we are transitioning from continental Europe to Africa and it is happening right before our eyes. Speed limits are only rarely enforced in Spain so we may or may not have pushed Gretchen to 160 km/h, but she didn’t seem to notice at all. A relatively new launch, she does get lots of curious and appreciative looks pretty much everywhere we stop – not just by French police officers – and I’m pretty sure quite a few sneaky mobile phone pictures were taken when we weren’t watching. We can definitely sense the envy the car is generating, arguably something the Volvo XC90 did not exude in the least. We’ve checked: Mercedes is sexy in Spain.
Granada – Alhambra details
Parking in the old town of Granada is – as expected – a nightmare with the spots in car park buildings so cramped they require many ingenious twists and turns to slot in. Gretchen’s rear-view camera is of immense help in the sweat-inducing sport of parking a car in Granada. The desert surroundings, the fierce allure of the population and the mix of Arabic and Iberian architecture give Granada an other-worldly atmosphere. Indeed, deriving its name from Garnata al Jahud, the hill on which the Alhambra is built, the town was the last stronghold of the Moors in Western Europe and a Muslim emirate from 711 to 1492. Its Alhambra, from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle), is the pinnacle of intricately detailed Moorish architecture complete with palaces, fortified towers, patios, fountains and endless gardens. Despite the hordes of tourists, it’s the little details such as the ones pictured above that naturally lead the imagination to capture the sounds, scents and tensions of a time long gone. Granada locals declare “El que no ha visto Graná, no ha visto ná.” (who hasn’t seen Granada, has seen nothing). And it’s fair to say that for once, local pride hugs reality.
Dacia Logan MCV Taxi, Renault Twizy and Toyota Hilux in Granada
What about the cars in Granada? There are not many able to navigate the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, but among them I was very surprised to see a continuous flow of Dacia Logan MCV taxis. Why so much surprise you may ask? Simply because Dacia as a company has a “no fleet” policy as their retail prices are already incredibly restrained. It would appear that some Granada taxi companies still saw the benefit in buying fleets of Logan MCV over another model, even bulk-priced – the Seat Toledo is another popular taxi choice here. As it was already the case in Park Güell, Barcelona when I visited two years ago, the diminutive and electric Renault Twizy is used by the Red Cross inside the Alhambra.
This concludes the first part of the Spanish section of this European North to South adventure. Next, we drive to the cliff-hanging village of Ronda on our way to Gibraltar. But as the misleading title of this series doesn’t reveal, we will then drive even further south to Tarifa, then Cadiz, then Seville. Stay tuned!