Five countries, 2000 kilometres, about a million potholes, an unexpected ferry and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. A report of a crazy road trip through Europe. – A team member reports
Months of careful planning for the chess world championship in Sofia by the Anand team were disrupted by a volcano in Iceland, located under Eyjafjallajökull, one of the smaller glaciers of the North Atlantic island. Tens of thousands of people were stranded on airports in Europe. One on them was Viswanathan Anand, who had travelled with his wife and manager Aruna from Madrid to Frankfurt on Thursday April 15th. They planned to continue their journey to Sofia on Friday April 16, together with three other travellers. Two more seconds were to fly from other airports in Europe to the Bulgarian capital on Friday to join the team there.
Frankfurt airport, one of the largest in Europe [arial photo by Wikipedia]
On Thursday April 15, Hans-Walter Schmitt and another helper of the Anand team flew to Sofia to prepare the arrival of the team Friday. The plan was good and well thought through. But then, on Friday, the bad news was that the ash cloud from Iceland had reached Frankfurt Airport and the airport had to be closed at 09.00 a.m. This meant that the planned flight to Sofia, LH3484, which was scheduled to depart at 10.05 a.m., was cancelled, just like hundreds of other flights. It was quite unclear how long the airport would remain closed, therefore Aruna Anand and the team decided to rebook for the evening flight, LH3488, which was scheduled for 19.45 p.m.
Anand’s baggage was checked through to Sofia. Since it was not clear, however, if the evening flight would depart on time, or depart at all, Aruna thought that it wise to collect the checked-through baggage from Madrid, just to have everything under control in case of another cancellation. She was in close contact with Lufthansa, who were very cooperative, and picked up the baggage herself on Friday afternoon. You should know that finding four pieces of luggage in a major airport like Frankfurt is not an easy task, especially when there are heavy disruptions. Only in case of an emergency, e.g. if somebody has life-saving medicine in his suitcase, an airline is willing to make baggage available for the passenger.
The airport on a normal day [photo: Sven Teschke, Büdingen]
After solving this problem, it soon became clear that the evening flight to Sofia would not depart as well, since Frankfurt airport would be closed until Saturday morning at 02:00 a.m. Once again the tickets were rebooked, and despite a long waiting list, Anand and his team were accepted and even got boarding passes for the first flight on Saturday, April 17, LH3484, at 10.05 a.m. However, on Friday, when it became clear that the situation at all major airport was becoming more and more critical, Aruna Anand and her team had already started searching for alternatives. Plans were made to travel to Vienna, which had one of the airports that was still open at that time, to get a flight from there. However, Vienna also closed down on Friday evening.
Aruna began to study other train schedules in detail, but it soon became clear that everything was booked out and it was absolutely impossible to get a ticket. Team Anand also had to bear in mind, that travelling to Sofia by a land route was also problematic, since not every country on the way would accept transit travellers from India without a valid visa! The shortest route is via Serbia, for that Anand and his wife would need a visa, which was impossible to at such a short notice.
There were some very generous offers from Anand supporters, who wanted to help get the world champion and his team to Sofia as quickly as possible. Wolfgang Grenke, one of the main sponsors of the Chess Classic, and sponsor of the Bundesliga team Baden Baden, in which Anand plays, offered Anand the use of his private jet. However, German authorities could not give him permission to fly, since the airspace in Germany was now completely blocked. Even German chancellor Angela Merkel had to take an overland route when she arrived from San Francisco on Friday and was not allowed to enter German airspace.
The Mercedes Sprinter that transported the World Champion's team to Sofia
On Saturday, after another cancellation of all flights from Frankfurt and other airports in Germany, including all flights to Sofia, it became obvious that there was only one final possibility to reach Sofia: by car. However, most car rentals, taxi companies and other VIP services simply had no cars and staff available, while companies that did simply refused to drive all the way to Bulgaria. Finally, after many hours of trying, team Anand managed to find a VIP service by Taxi Lagerberg, located in Amstelveen, The Netherlands. They contacted two of their best drivers, Paul Oostheim and Peer Reintjes, on Saturday, and asked them to stop their shift immediately, in order to be able to drive to Bad Soden on Sunday. This is 500 kilometres from Amstelveen, a five hour drive.
Bad Soden, Sunday morning: the bags are packed in the Mercedes Sprinter
In the meantime, two more seconds of Anand arrived, very late on Saturday, in Bad Soden to join the team. They had originally intended to fly to Sofia on Friday, but after the closure of the airspace, they had redirected to Bad Soden. To do so they had to travel more than twelve hours by train on Saturday, coming from different countries. But they made it somehow – what other choice did they have?
Anand second Peter Heine Nielsen checks that everything is safely tucked in
On Sunday morning, at 11:00 a.m., the Mercedes Sprinter, equipped with all kinds of amenities like a fridge, two TV screens and a DVD player, arrived in Bad Soden and after picking up the team in the hotel, the journey started at 11.28h. The drivers had prepared the route for Sunday: we would cross the Germany border in Passau, drive through Austria and continue to Budapest, to spend the night there. That was a 1000 kilometre trip, and after a smooth drive with a lot of sunshine the team arrived in Budapest at 22.30 p.m. Bear in mind that the drivers had started their trip in Amstelveen at 06.00 a.m.
One of the many stops at a filling station en route to Bulgaria
On Monday, the journey continued at 08.00 a.m. with a morning traffic jam in Budapest. But the drivers managed to get the team out of the city pretty fast, and the drive to Szeged was easy, despite the heavy rain. The Rumanian border was reached at 13.30 p.m. The team had to transfer to Bulgaria via Rumania, because this country will accept Indian passports without a visa. The border was crossed near Arad, the federal border police recognised Anand. After crossing the border we started to watch the first film of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the extended version to be precise.
Welcome to Timisoara in Romania
We had to drive 480 km through Rumania to the city of Vidin at the Bulgarian border. If you use Google Maps you may find it a bit strange that we had to reckon with 9-10 hours for this fairly short distance. But when you actually have to drive this route you understand why it takes so long: there are numerous construction zones, about every ten kilometres, dead dogs and cats on the road have to be avoided, and there are about a million potholes. To make the situation even more difficult for the drivers it was raining continuously – a miracle that the car survived these extremely bad road conditions. Even the two very experienced drivers had never seen such bad roads.
Road conditions made for a long and arduous journey through Romania...
... with long traffic lock-ups on narrow, wet highways
In the car however, the atmosphere was very good, there was food and drink, and the second “Lord of the Rings” film, “The Two Towers”, helped us pass the time. After more than twelve hours driving through Romania, at 22.35h, we finally reached Calafat in Romania to cross the border to Bulgaria. That was when we saw a long queue and a ferry, and it dawned upon the passengers that there is no bridge across the river “Romania” and we would have to use the ferry. That meant waiting until enough cars had arrived for the ferry to cross the river. After over an hour, just before midnight, the ferry started, and twenty minutes later, on 20 April at 12:05 a.m., Anand finally reached Bulgarian territory. One of the Bulgarian border officers checked the passports in the bus. When he read “Anand” aloud he realized that he was checking the passport of the chess world champion and started laughing: “Ah, Anand!“ Without any further checks we were allowed to pass.
Only 250 km left to Sofia, with about four more hours to go, but the story is not completely over. In the meantime, the last part of the Ring-trilogy, “The Return of the King”, was running in our Sprinter DVD, and we were confident that we would reach Sofia at about 04.00 a.m. that night. And, dear readers, when the streets are empty, when you have driven 36 hours and your destination is within reach, you want to get there as quickly as possible. With only 100 km to go, at 02.15 a.m. on Tuesday morning, April 20, the Bulgarian police noticed a dark Mercedes Sprinter with a Dutch license plate, driving a just a little too fast. You guessed right: we had to stop and the driver had to explain why he was speeding (74 km instead of the allowed 50) – and what he was doing in Bulgaria. However, when the driver told the very friendly police officer that Vishy Anand and his team were on board, the officer smiled and said: “Ok, take him to Sofia, but not too fast, ok?!“
Arriving in Sofia in the early hours of the morning
Without a fine we continued the last leg of the journey to Sofia, although we were stopped again by the police, this time just for a routine traffic check. Finally, at 05.30 a.m. after travelling for more than 40 hours, we arrived at our destination – just in time to have an early breakfast. There was only one problem: we arrived at the Hilton Sofia still a little too early and had missed the last hour of “The Return of the King“. We will have to watch that on our way home…