Motoring journalists and future mobility expert Jess Shanahan relives the time she took an unforgettable road trip in a truly forgettable car

Sometimes the right car can turn a good drive into the drive of your life. Equally, sometimes what you’re driving couldn’t matter less.

On my travels, I’ve always tried to focus on the unique experiences that can be found in every journey. Taking a perfectly reasonable but relatively unexciting car on a road trip, for example, means that you tune into everything around you, rather than thinking about what’s getting you from A to B.

So, when I rented an Audi A4 – a perfectly good but fairly ordinary family saloon – and headed off on a road trip around Croatia, the virtues of the A4’s German engineering paled in comparison with the stunning coast roads, hidden military bunkers and hilltop views I experienced en route.

My journey started in Dubrovnik and took me north along the coast, dipping into Bosnia and Herzegovina and passing through some lesser-known Croatian towns before ending in Pula, where I caught the ferry to Venice. The trip as a whole was incredible and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different – but there was one place along the way that completely stole the show.

From the coast road that runs the length of Croatia, you can see a chain of islands dotted in the Adriatic. The archipelago is made up of tourist hotspots such as Hvar, as well as a number of smaller islands that offer quiet beaches and a place to moor a boat for the night.

One of the islands furthest from the mainland is Vis, which is accessible by ferry from Split. Formerly a Yugoslav naval base, the whole island was closed to tourists until 1989. This means it retains an untouched charm and a more relaxed way of life than many of Croatia’s more popular islands.

As a visitor, you’re treated to beautiful hidden beaches by day and delicious seafood and local wine by night. This alone is a glorious way to spend a few days, but Vis has so much more to offer too, with plenty of hidden history just waiting to be discovered by adventurous road-trippers.

No matter what car you’re in, the roads across the island will bring you immense joy. I loved driving from the town of Vis in the north to the island’s other main settlement, Komiža, over on the west coast. Wide, open roads are intermixed with gradual climbs and great sweeping corners, plus a few steep hairpin sections too. If you turn off the main roads, you’ll find tracks that hug the curves of the hills, dirt and gravel roads aplenty, and little lanes leading to small villages and vineyards. Just watch out for the many moped riders who seem to have no concern for other road users or, indeed, their own safety.

The first inkling I had that Vis would steal my heart was when I took the road less travelled, powerless to resist the implied adventure of a sign that said “Cave”. As a flatlander born and bred in Norfolk, the thrill of narrow roads leading up into the hilly wilderness with a perilous drop on one side is not something I’ll forget any time soon. Excited by the promise of a cave and some panoramic views, I pressed on until I reached a car park.

The final stage of the journey took me on foot up a set of stone steps through spider-festooned trees. I had no idea if I was still heading in the right direction.

Vis was once the general headquarters of Marshal Tito, initially leader of the Yugoslav partisan resistance movement and later Yugoslavia’s communist dictator. During World War II, Tito had worked from a secret location on the island and, as it happened, that’s exactly where I was heading. At the top of the stone steps were two caves with stone carvings marking the spot. It’s not the most spectacular site, but I was so thrilled to find it that it inspired me to dive deeper into the island’s history.

After the war, Vis was transformed into a naval base, complete with submarine tunnels, military bunkers and a missile silo. By now, the island had already lured me in with its beauty, but the prospect of being able to explore abandoned military installations won me over completely.

A bit of sleuthing and a quick history lesson later, and I thought I’d identified the location of Tito’s famed missile silo. Armed with the co-ordinates, I set off on another unexpected adventure. The smooth roads took me to one of the island’s highest points, where I turned off again and parked up.

Faced with a long gravel path, I left the Audi behind again and started my trek. At the end of that track, I hoped to find a big gun, specifically the gun encampments that would lead to an underground bunker. I was not disappointed.

I rounded a corner to find a large tunnel looming ominously ahead of me, complete with camouflage netting still in place above the entrance. This was the missile silo I’d read about. Large enough to drive a big truck through it, the inside of the tunnel was flanked with storage rooms sealed off with giant metal doors.

I followed the tunnel, all too aware of every horror movie I’d ever seen. Stepping out into the midday sun on the other side, I was treated to more abandoned buildings than I could possibly explore. I continued towards the cliff edge, and that’s when I found one of the gun encampments and an open door leading down into the depths of the bunker.

It didn’t disappoint. Pitch black and featuring original furniture and signage, the bunker was a dream come true. A primal fear of getting lost, never to be seen again, stopped me from venturing too far, but I have plans to go back and seek out more of the island’s mysteries.

The drive from Dubrovnik to Split and then on to Vis was incredible – and that’s not to mention the island’s glorious roads – but the coast road from Split to Pula, where my journey ended, was absolutely breathtaking. Even so, this adventure was about so much more than my experience in the driver’s seat. Criss-crossing that island and exploring its hidden secrets taught me so much about spontaneous adventure and off-the-cuff exploration, and that’s a lesson that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

If you’ve had a journey that has changed your life or made a lasting impression, email to feature.

This is an edited extract from IMI MotorPro magazine, received free as part of IMI membership. Time to find out more about becoming a member of the most influential community in UK automotive…?

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