Hi. My name is Mathias. I am 20 years old and own a car that is 53. Her name is Puppy. She is a Volvo Valp that can be a bit stubborn and give me (mechanical) headaches. But when she starts without a hitch, I drive her around the world and thoroughly enjoy life on the road.”

Mathias is, Mathias Laugesen from Denmark. Mathias had a dream to drive an ancient Swedish army Volvo L3314 (aka a Volvo Valp) around Europe. Notably he wanted to drive it through the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia), the Ukraine, Belarus and Turkey. Those were his dream countries. And to get there he had to drive through a big chunk of the rest of Europe too. This is how an epic roadtripping adventure was born.

Mathias and his Volvo Valp

The car: A 1963 Volvo Valp

Mathias had gotten his hands on a 1963 Volvo L3314, a legendary Swedish army vehicle that, after its introduction in the sixties soon got nicknamed ‘Valp / Hvalp’ meaning “puppy”, due to its clumsy look and the big, round headlights.

Puppy, the Volvo Valp in action

It was exactly this clumsy look that appealed to Mathias:

I call it Valp’en (the Puppy) when I refer to it, and it has become more and more affectionate. We have good and bad days, and it is kind of a love/hate relationship. When she starts, runs and behaves I really love it and the experiences I have got and will continue to get are amazing. When I have to wait 1,5 week for spare parts from Denmark and then spend 2 sweaty days fixing her, then.. But everything is forgotten when she starts up again, the smile on my face lasts for a very, very long time.

Mathias means this kind of smile…

The route

Mathias and the Volvo Valp’s route went as follows:

Denmark – Germany – Poland – Transit (Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia) – Turkey – Georgia – Armenia – Georgia – (ferry) Ukraine – Moldova – Romanian (current) – Transit (Hungary, Slovakia, Poland) – Belarus – Lithuania – Poland – Germany – Denmark.

the Volvo Valp in its element

That is quite some countries, but their main ‘focus’ has been Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Belarus. Mathias tried to spent some time in his ‘transit-countries’ as well and take the small roads in order to see the country and not just blast through on the highways and miss an entire country.

I think that that says a lot about the trip. Taking it slowly, not rushing it and enjoying the pace is kind of the whole point in traveling, because that way brings you so many experiences that you otherwise miss. But it is also easy to forget to take it slow. It is sometimes much easier to just hurry on and see the next thing on the check list. And this is where the Puppy comes in handy. It cannot drive fast, it does not like to be rushed and you can therefore do nothing but enjoy the pace. Driving at 50 km/h is wonderful and you see so much more. You can also stop at any time, enjoy the view and you also almost always strike up a conversation with a local because they all want to know what that big, white thing is.  

Mathias driving the puppy

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Mathias’ Volvo Valp Euro trip proves that cars can become ‘alive’. At least for their drivers. It reminds us a lot of an Austrian couple’s world trip in a ‘Herbie’ Volkswagen beetle. Equally quaint. Equally kickass.

A Volvo Valp full of signatures

Along the way Mathias picked up hitchhikers and fellow travelers he met in hostels and guesthouses. Puppy loves company. And so does its driver Mathias.

Each person they took along and met along the way is asked to sign, or leave a message, on the Volvo Valp.
Slowly the car fills up with signatures and messages of well-wishing which results in an even more eye-catching ‘puppy’ car.

Travelers signing the Volvo Valp

Playing football with Georgian Monks

The Caucasian mountains of Georgia were a true playground for Mathias and puppy. Loads of offroading, beautiful scenery and gorgeous vistas. Driving through mountain streams and groups of cows high in the mountains. 

A Volvo Valp and its surroundings

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While driving from the beach town of Batumi to Zarzma in the lower Caucasus another one of those chance encounters (which always happen while on the road) resulted in a football match with monks.

Suddenly I hear the familiar sound of my tires against the asphalt. Although I enjoyed the gravel road, it feels liberating not to have to use the entire width of the road to avoid the worst holes. I stop at the first town and park the car in the square in the middle of the village, where the church is the obvious gathering point. On the smooth, paved square 6-8 kids run back and forth, chasing whoever has the football. I quickly become a part of the game and before long a small group of monks curiously stick their head out of the church gate to see what is now going on. One monk decides to help the kids and becomes their goalie. Now I do not have it quite as easy as before. Another monk joins and before long we run eight kids, four monks and a blond tourist around on the village square after a football. The monks are surprisingly good at football, but also have a clear advantage with their long, black robes that hides the ball whenever it is between their feet. My feints from football school some 7 years ago are nothing compared to those of the Orthodox Church, I must admit.

After the game the monks invite him in the monastery, offer him lunch and give him a grand goodbye. But not before they signed the Volvo Valp of course.

A monk siging the Volvo (Small)

Transnistria independence day

Mathias and puppy happened to arrive in Transnistria – that odd little piece of land between Moldova and Ukraine that claims to be a country – on their Independence day. On top of that it was also the 25th anniversary of the self-proclaimed country.

Yes, if the country of Transnistria does not ring a bell, then there is a very good reason. It does not exist in the eyes of any others than their own. An independent, sovereign country with its own police, bank and notes, government and army. And we are soon to get acquainted with the latter as the bus rolls up to border control of Transnistria.

Independence day celebrations, for a country that tries to stand by its self-proclaimed borders, logically revolve around a display of military force.
Mathias arrived just too late in Tiraspol – the ‘country’s capital city – to catch the early morning military parade. But luckily they do it over again in the afternoon. In full force.

In the last minute we get to the big boulevard, where military vehicles are ready to go. Before long the ground is shaking as tanks, armored vehicles and all sorts of other military hardware roll by and fill the air with noise and smoke. Thousands have turned up and watch with great admiration and pride the parade of a military that is not recognized by anyone other than themselves.

Transnistria tank statue Transnistria military parade during independence day

After the parade the festivities continued with sports activities, a lot of eating and drinking and a crowd of 150,000 gathered on Tiraspol’s main square to watch the final fireworks which were accompanied by the tunes of the Russian version version of Taylor Swift!

Having spent two days in “this funny time capsule of a Soviet dreamland it’s hard to say much about the country, but one thing is certain – if independence is measured with fireworks and festivities, Transnistria does it quite well.”

No speeding tickets, No flat tyres and smooth border checks…well almost

A trip of this magnitude is bound to have its fair share of mishaps. But, even to Mathias’ own surprise he has had no flat tires, no speeding tickets and only one police check (in Moldova after about 9000 km!)!

Border checks have gone super smooth as well…… until the Ukraine-Moldovian border that is, as that one almost went as wrong as it possibly can go…….

Eleven hour Moldovan border crossing & jail, Almost!

Next stop on Mathias and ‘puppies’ roadtrip was Moldova. And this is where his dream trip turns into a nightmare. At 22:30 the night of the border crossing Mathias wrote the following message to his parents:

“Long story short. At a market in Odessa I bought, what I thought was a kind of optician instrument from the 60s, with a Soviet hammer and sickle emblem. It turns out to be a periscope for a tank that is still in use today. In other words, I am transporting military hardware across the border. I have been talking, waiting, explaining, waiting and waiting. You know you are in shit when you talk to the Danish State Department’s Help Center. I have never had to keep a straight face for as long as today. 11 hours after arrival at the Ukrainian border I am now in Moldova. I’m done. Hugs”

While writing that message of relief to his family in Denmark the Volvo Valp is parked in a Moldovan vineyard while Mathias is trying to fathom what just happened during his 11 hour border crossing hassles into Moldova.
Buying a simple cool, old-school souvenir he had bought in Odessa had jeopardized his entire trip. Maybe even his life.

It was an optician instrument from the 60s. Well, maybe not the classic souvenir from Odessa. But it was cool. Two adjustable things to look through, a few buttons of metal, some Cyrillic script, two handles with buttons at the ends and then of course a hammer and sickle symbol. It oozed of Soviet and 60s. It could make it as a kind of sculpture with its eye pieces as the eyes, forehead support as a mono-brow and handles as small arms.

It looked so cool that it was a must-have for Mathias. Understandable. It was beyond kickass.

But it was not what it appeared to be. Instead of a harmless optician set, it was a periscope with  built-in night vision for a tank still in use in the Ukrainian military.

Yes, either my ability to estimate thing’s age and use is completely skewed or the army’s equipment in that country is a little too museum-worthy. I of course lean to the former.

The Moldovan border guards suspect him to have participated in the war in Eastern Ukraine. Luckily his landlord in Odessa can confirm Mathias has been there the entire time he was in the Ukraine. Nonetheless he is thoroughly interrogated for hours and hours.
Then suddenly stop.
Nothing happens for three hours.
Border guards look worried. And buy. Making phone calls all the time. While giving no sign or indication of what is going to happen to Mathias whatsoever.

Then finally one border guard takes Mathias apart and tells him everything will be fine. There is only a pile of documents and declarations to be made.

“Well. Now we need to write your official explanation, and it is important that it sounds right,” the border guard says and he dictates my official explanation. I follow his words, and my innocence and clarification of why I’m innocent is spelled out in detail in the official explanation. It is now together with a detailed report on Mathias Laugesen, located in a Ukrainian archive somewhere.

An hour later Mathias has his so desired exit stamp in his passport and starts the car finally entering Moldova the way he had planned, instead of a Moldovan prison.

Without his oh so cool soviet souvenir from the sixties! But big relief instead. 

Now, the only souvenir I have from Odessa is a coffee cup, which I got from my landlords. It has all of the city’s tourist attractions photoshoped together in a collage. Not exactly pretty, but it is at least legal and now it means more to me than I ever could have imagined when I got it.

The only Odessa souvenir left, a tacky coffee cup

The only Odessa souvenir left, a tacky coffee cup

For more info on Mathias and his Volvo Valp trip check http://homeiswheremyvolvois.com/