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History – Croisière Minerva – day by day journal

02/10/1953 - The departure

In the early hours the 10 crew members assembled together in Brussels to start their journey. The crew was a mixed bunch and had only met for the first time a couple of days earlier. The cars were loaded with the last necessities and the expedition was on its way.

Expedition organizer was Raymond Boschmans, a seasoned traveller and his wife. He was the first one to travel overland by car from Brussels to Belgian Congo in 1928. The entire trip would be documented by Pierre Levie, Gérard Perrin and Philippe Colette. They had to their disposition 2 Land Rovers that were prepared by the Minerva factory, one of them had a PTO driven generator to power all the lights and film equipment needed for their project.

Paul Frere was a very well-known and acclaimed racing driver and journalist & he would make sure a book was publicised about the trip and he would keep the newspapers in Belgium updated on their progress.

Pierre Levie was accompanied by his wife and son, who would join them for the first part of the trip until Baghdad. 2 mechanics were also taking part, Jean Pierre Douret and Guy de Pierpont.

During the first leg of the expedition, between Brussels and the Dutch border, they were accompanied by Mathieu Van Roggen, the owner of Societé Nouvelle Minerva. After a very thorough customs check at the Dutch border, they could finally start their journey and enjoyed the German Autobahn.

They clocked up 725km on the first day and ended the day in the small city of Ulm in Germany.

Croisière Minerva vehicles ready for departure

03/10/1953 - Ulm - Graz

Although the crew had received brand new Land Rovers and Armstrong Siddeleys, they had noticed during the first day that the Land Rovers were both completely overloaded and behaved terribly on the road. Before continuing their journey, they had the road springs on the Land Rovers reinforced at a local garage in Ulm.

The 107 Land Rover had a PTO driven generator installed between the front seats which probably added another 300-400kg to the already fully loaded vehicle. Next to the roofrack where tripods and cables were carried, the back of the 107 had a metal rack with shelves, where all the lamps for the film crew were carried.

The upgrade of the rear springs took quite a while and the next leg of their journey only started in the afternoon. Extra film equipment & film stock needed to be picked up in Munich by the film crew. Pierre Levie had 2 cinematographers that would make several documentaries during the trip, some commissioned by the Belgian government.  These documentaries would later be used for educational purposes in schools and would cover subjects such as the Crusader Castles of Syria, the marshes of Iraq or the wonders of Persepolis in Iran.

Later in the day the crew met again at the Austrian border and continued the journey towards the wonderful city of Salzburg. Only 290km driven today, but much needed changes done to the vehicles suspension.

Revised - Croisière Minerva - Ulm, Germany visit to the garage
Revised - Land Rover 107 during night film shoot at Persepolis (Iran)

04/10/1953 - Graz - Salzburg

This morning started with some bad news, the beautiful weather the crew enjoyed until now had changed into a cold and rainy breeze. The film crew had hoped to make some shots in the old centre of Salzburg, but decided to leave early for Graz because of the weather. Before leaving Pierre Levie decided to add some signwriting to the roof of his 107. Paul Frère would later complete the signwriting on the vehicles by adding all the stages as they progressed.

The smaller and winding roads took them through the Austrian countryside and mountains, taking in a couple of steep gradients up to 23%. They stopped for lunch at the shores of the Grundlsee and continued their trip until they reached Graz, after only 270 km’s..

Because of the bad weather and the fact that on a Sunday the roads were packed with tourists apparently, this stretch of road was very tiresome to drive. Especially the cyclists who drove without light proved to be nerve wrecking to the drivers of the crew. Nothing new actually, 70 years on.

Mr. Boschmans who organised the expedition had made sure that when possible they stayed in good hotels. In Graz the crew had a good night’s rest in the famous Parkhotel, known to attract all the famous celebrities and politicians of the time.

05/10/1953 - Salzburg - Belgrado

At 7 o’clock in the morning, the crew hit the road for their next leg into Yugoslavia, with Belgrade as their destination, a hefty 700-kilometre trek ahead.

After a quick stretch in Austria, they faced their first real hurdle at the Yugoslavian border. Border controls here were a tedious ordeal, taking over an hour as a customs officer manually copied all their documents onto different sheets of paper.

Driving through the lush countryside, they stuck mostly to smaller roads. Only after passing Zagreb did they find themselves almost alone on a straight stretch of highway. Paul Frère noted that hardly any other vehicles were in sight, and the ones they did come across looked like they couldn’t handle long distances without breaking down.

Zagreb turned out to be a world apart from the Western cities they’d traversed so far. They got their first taste of Eastern Europe here. During a quick pit stop for refuelling, they noticed that the organised and clean streets of the West had given way to open-air markets and cobblestone streets filled with potholes. Oddly, police officers were at nearly every intersection directing traffic but there were hardly any cars. Horse-drawn carts seemed to dominate the traffic scene.

Upon their arrival in Belgrado in the evening, they were awaited by the Belgian attaché to the country, who organised a small reception for them. The crew was eager to discover local Slavic cuisine and had a, rather disappointing, dinner at a local kebab joint. To conclude the evening they visited one of the most famous cabarets of Belgrado, but also here they left a bit disappointed. Maybe they expected to find Slavic folklore, that had actually already disappeared a while ago from local culture. 

Once again, the crew found respite in an excellent hotel, this time at the distinguished Excelsior Hotel. It was a favoured haunt of the upper class during those times. Though their stay was short, they appreciated the comfortable accommodations, resting up for the challenges that awaited them on the road ahead.

Crosière Minerva Yugoslavia
Crosière Minerva Yugoslavia

06 & 07/10/1953 - Belgrado - Skopje

Already from the start of the expedition the crews had agreed that it would be more convenient if everyone followed their own tempo and itinerary. This meant they did not travel together all the time, but met up every 2 or 3 days at an agreed location.
This gave the opportunity for the 2 faster cars, the Armstrong Siddeleys, to do a bit more sightseeing, while the Land Rovers with the film crew visited some locations that were interesting for their film project.

When leaving Belgrado in the morning, Paul Frere drove in the direction of Mitrovica (now in Kosovo), enjoying the wonderful countryside. They remarked that all the villages they crossed were really poor and dilapidated and lacked any of the Western comforts that they had seen so far. Frere noted however that, although seemingly poor, the people they met were extremely welcoming and hospitable and shared with them the few things they had.

In Mitrovica they had some trouble finding accommodation for the night and settled for the Hotel Jadran, which was very rudimentary and dirty. Breakfast in the morning was limited to 4 slices of bread and plenty of slivoviç.

Pierre Levie & the rest of the film crew had left Belgrado towards the ancient monastery of Studeniça, which was well known for its frescos, to make some recordings. The plan was to spend the night there, but after inspection of the sparse ice cold rooms, they decided to drive on towards Skopje and look for accommodation there.

After a long and tiring drive they arrive in Skopje at 2 in the morning only to hear that the hotel is fully booked. No other solution than to spend the rest of the night in the freezing cold vehicles..

Crosière Minerva Yugoslavia

08/10/1953 - Skopje - Thessaloniki

Skopje proved to be a good stop for the crew. The small city already had all the traditions and customs from the east and proved to be very picturesque. The small cobblestoned streets were bustling with activity, the different craftsmen were grouped in the various quarters according to their occupation.

Especially the corner with the blacksmiths was very interesting because they had a peculiar way to change the horseshoes. The horse was led into a contraption and was then turned on its back, the legs were then bound together and fixed to the structure. This must have been very distressing for the horse, but apparently this was the local way to do it.

Some more scenes were filmed, especially the openair markets that interested them with a large variety of handwork and copper vessels on display. Taking photos and filming proved to be quite difficult, since they were constantly hassled by the police for their permit and papers were checked all the time.

Early in the morning on the 8th of October they all set off in the direction of Greece.  They made a stop at the ancient Macedonian city of Stobi, which now lies in Northern Macedonia, a wonderful site with an amphitheatre and sprawling ruins.

When continuing onwards it started raining and the roads quickly became very tiring to drive. The first stretch after the Greek border was especially terrible, according to Paul Frère, one of the worst roads he had driven so far. The potholes in the road had filled up with mud, constantly splashing over the bonnets of the cars.

After their arrival in the coastal city of Thessaloniki they were invited for a drink by the Belgian consul who introduced them to an official of the ministry of culture, who would tour several archeological sites with them the next day.

Crosiere Minerva - Stobi

09 & 10/10/1953 - Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is the first city where they have a small stopover. The film crew takes the opportunity to shoot some scenes together with an official of the archeological service of the various ruins and ancient sites nearby.

Paul Frère uses the time to change some money into Turkish Lira for the trip ahead. This proves to be quite a bureaucratic experience. In order to get his money changed it takes around 25 different employees of the local bank of Greece and more than 50 different papers need to be signed and copied. After more than an hour he can finally leave the bank with his Turkish money. A good display of the Greek bureaucracy of the time.

Expedition leader Mr Boschmans makes an early start to Istanbul to organise the next legs of the trip, while the rest of the crew enjoy some time off in Thessaloniki.

Most vehicles that are driving in the streets are American pre-war cars, and although they are dated around the 1930’s they still are in a good condition, which is probably helped by the Greek dry climate. Remarkably they also notice a lot of more recent Land Rovers running around the city.

11/10/1953 - Thessaloniki - Alexandropoulos

At 5 in the morning the crew sets off for Istanbul. Unfortunately the weather deteriorates during the day and the rain changes into a torrential downpour. Driving carefully on the rutted bad roads towards Alexandropoulos, they have to stop repeatedly to give Paul Frere and his Armstrong Siddeley the chance to catch up. These kinds of roads are not really what the designer of the Sapphire had in mind supposedly.
A flat tire on the 107 of Pierre Levie adds another delay to their journey.

Around noon they stop in Alexandropoulos and have a pick-nick. They are informed by some passing-by truck drivers that the road towards Turkey has flooded and cannot be crossed anymore. Not wanting to jeopardise their timing they decided to continue anyway and see how the conditions are further up the road.

When they reach the town of Soufli, most of the village is already flooded and the bridge crossing the river is almost submerged. They continue anyway in the hope the situation will get better. At the next river crossing the bridge has collapsed and the only way to cross is via a small railroad bridge nearby which is still standing. Since darkness is almost setting in they decide not to push their luck and return to Alexandropoulos to spend the night there and hope for better weather the next day.

12/10/1953 - Alexandropoulos - Istanbul

In the morning, the 107 loaded with wooden boards to make crossing the railway bridge easier, they headed for Soufli again. On arrival in the village, the group met Mr and Ms Boschmans, who were having breakfast after spending the night in their Armstrong, which was still loaded on a railway carriage that should have brought them to Istanbul. The train was scheduled to leave that day finally, since the rains had ceded somewhat and the rest of the crew decided to press on.

The swollen river that had blocked them the previous day was now passable and the 3 cars continued on the roads that had turned into a mix of mud, stones and water. Only a couple of kilometres further, a large 6×6 army truck stopped them. They were warned that a very treacherous part was ahead, where a large truck had gotten stuck. After assessing the rutted tracks with the small Land Rover, slowly both remaining cars tried to cross the flooded section. All bystanders and the group in the army truck were impressed with their driving skills and especially the Armstrong Siddeley limousine that crossed the bog without scratches.

The Turkish border was getting closer now, but 6 hours of driving had gotten them only 90 km further. Another treacherous section close to the village of Didmotichon was passed with the help of a large bulldozer that had cleared the road ahead. At last after driving through hours of darkness with a less than detailed map they reached the Greek border post.

Passports were checked and a border guard boarded the Armstrong Siddeley of Paul Frere to help them cross the muddy road in the no-man’s land. This was really the worst part of the route they had to navigate until now. 10 minutes after the arrival of the first car, bad news arrived. The small Land Rover had slid off the road and was now stuck in a ditch in the middle of no-man’s land. Quickly the 107 was rushed back to assist in the recovery. With the combined force of both Landrovers and a rope they managed to free the 80” and continue on to the Turkish border post.

Without further hassle they cleared the border and were greeted by the Boschmans, who had unloaded their car from the train, not regretting they took the easy option.
Another 280 km had to be covered in darkness to Istanbul, this time on a very well maintained asphalted road. A week of rest and a good taste Oriental culture was awaiting the exhausted teams.

Croisière Minerva - Sapphire of Paul Frère stuck on a muddy road in Greece
Croisière Minerva - original roadmap of the expedition crew

13-16/10/1953 - Istanbul

10 days and 4000km after their start in Brussels everybody enjoys some rest in the magnificent city of Constantinople (Istanbul). 2 full days are spent cleaning, greasing and maintaining the vehicles. They seem to have withstood the grueling roads in Yugoslavia and Greece without any issues.
Only in the small Land Rover the rack that has been build to carry the luggage in the back has collapsed, damaging the beautiful newly purchased suitcase of cinematographer Gerard Perrin. Disappointed he remarks, “Overland expeditions may build your character, but they definitely dent your luggage”.

The rest of days are spent wandering around ancient Istanbul and visiting the magnificent cathedral and mosque Hagia Sophia. A city of contrasts, as Paul Frère notes, where east meets west, old and new coexist together. A city of contrasts with beggars and poor people working hard as animals on the one side and beautiful Ottoman palaces and stately houses on the other side.

On 17/10/53 the group is split in 2 parties: the 2 Land Rovers with Pierre Levie and his crew will film and explore the countryside in Anatolia and it’s Roman ruins. Paul Frere, Mr. and Ms. Boschmans and the rest of the crew driving the Armstrong Siddeleys will continue to Ankara to visit the Belgian consul to arrange visa and permits for the rest of the trip to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Croisière Minerva - Istanbul
Croisière Minerva - Istanbul view on the fortifications
Croisière Minerva - Istanbul
Croisière Minerva - Istanbul view on the bosporus

17-24/10/1953 - Bursa - Ephese - Izmir

Pierre Levie’s first stop takes them to Bursa, where they visit the Green and Blue Mosque, both completely covered in ceramic tiles. They need to cover another 450km to Izmir and since it’s already getting dark, no more filming is possible. The next day the group splits up: Pierre Levie leaves for the thermal hillside springs in Denizli in the 80” Land Rover, Suzette Levie and cinematographer Gerard Perrin are accompanied by the conservator of the Ephesus museum and a Turkish guide and set off to film the ruins of the temple of Darius in the 107”.

After extensively documenting the ruins, Perrin wants to finish the shoot by filming the sunset on the ruins from a nearby mountain. They hurry and continue for another 2km on the curving road to find the perfect spot for the sunset, but all of a sudden a very sharp curve in the road appears. Since the Land Rover was driving at high speed, no braking or turning helps, the vehicle slides off the embankment and overturns into a field below the road. 


Suzette opens her eyes in the overturned vehicle, and crawls out on hands and feet. All the luggage and equipment has been strewn around, Gerard Perrin is still inside the cab, bleeding heavily from his face, he seems unconscious. The Turkish guide accompanying them, seated in the back, is in a more precarious condition. Covered between all the heavy film equipment and luggage in the hardtop, he screams with pain, it seems his leg is broken.
Suzette frees him and gets him out of the vehicle into safety. Perrin is still unconscious, but after 10mins he finally opens his eyes and although bleeding heavily from his face, he seems to be fine. Despite being shaken by the events, Suzette starts to do the practical stuff, unloading the luggage from the overturned vehicle and arranging all their belongings. Help has arrived in the meanwhile from passers-by and the local police. The Turkish guide is driven to the hospital in Izmir for treatment, Suzette and Perrin get the Land Rover back on it’s wheels with the help of a local Turk and his truck, who tows the Land Rover back to Ephesus. It seems still drivable, but has a broken windscreen, a dented roof and wings and all other damage needs to be assessed.

At the hotel that night Suzette tries to get in touch with her husband Pierre and the rest of the crew, but is unable to reach anyone to tell them about their ordeal. After a long sleepless night, with nightmares of more accidents, she’s finally able to get through to Pierre in the morning. He joins them in Izmir and together they drive to damaged Land Rover, without windscreen or doors to a local garage for much needed repairs.

That night the other part of the crew, visiting the Turkish capital Ankara, is greeted by a rather short telegram from Suzette when returning to their hotel: “Land Rover overturned, no serious injuries. Short delay expected”. Not overly worried they assume the delay will be short and make plans for the next days. Their itinerary will lead them via ancient villages in Anatolia to the famous Cappadocian landscapes.