Thursday, 13 January 2011

Wet and western Europe

Leaving the UK.
First on-the-road entry! Ten days down and so far we've made it to Hungary. I say we because I was joined by two Aussies, whom I'll refer to as R and B for the sake of anonymity and because it makes it sound like I'm travelling with an actual genre of music. Which I'm not: mostly Gary Newman and other car-related singers are keeping us entertained.

The crossing to France was uneventful, but the cliffs of Dover provided a poignant reminder of how long it will be before I see the UK again. It always surprises me how un-white they are, though. And then it was a quick blast along the motorway (and an horrendous sting by way of a 20 euros toll) to Reims, capital of the Champagne region. Nothing pre-booked but a scout around the dark back streets yielded a suitably dingy hotel with a broken window: must be cheap, therefore perfect. To celebrate the first night we shared a bottle of champagne and watched as a waitress exploded one all over herself. Years of practice, apparently.

Mr Car in front of a Champagne house, Reims
Quickly out of France and into Luxembourg, a country I've driven through many times but never really seen, it being in the way between southern Europe and home. The capital's peaceful, old centre is well worth the stay, and the castles atop the hills to the north are perfect for getting lost around. And get lost we did, even more so as we approached the Rhine in Germany and attempted to navigate ourselves along it. It turns out there's another river there and we were headed back in the other direction for quite some way, admiring completely the wrong castles. No matter: we cut over a snowy ridge and dropped into the Rhine valley, finally finding our way to Bacharach and our castle for the night. Yes, you read correctly: we stayed in an actual castle.

They're cold and the stairs are awkward. Good in case of imminent battle, though. At breakfast a lady asked me about Robin Hood. I thought I must have misunderstood her German but no, she really did want to know if I knew him. I don't.

Looking down into the Rhine valley.
South to Karlsruhe. We were stopped twice on the autobahn by the police. The first was at a service station and a little scary: a car pulled in front of us and another behind so we couldn't escape. “We are looking for drugs; do you have any?” asked the biggest policeman. I resisted all urges to provide cocky retorts and answered honestly that we didn't. (Well, I was at least sure I didn't.) He seemed satisfied, talked about where we were going for a bit and then said something with the word 'drei' in it. I didn't recognise it. His friend started laughing and said it again. More policeman laughed. I'd feigned ignorance of any German in the hope that they'd treat me as a stupid tourist, so it was evident he was saying something rude. I later found out the word to mean 'threesome'. Never used that in German before, funnily enough. Cheeky copper.

It was raining when we arrived. It seems Europe has finally heard about global warming and decided to stop snowing and start raining. Constantly. I worked in Karlsruhe a year or so ago so I took my companions to the must-see palace. Unfortunately the grounds are being dug up for no understandable reason: the pictures of the finished vision are exactly the same as it was before.

We were kindly given keys to a caravan in the Black Forest, so off we went, popping into the lovely Baden-Baden on the way (so good they named it twice – not my joke) and arriving in Kirchzarten near Freiburg in the no-snow. This is a skiing region but it's 16C! We spent two nights here, taking a day trip past the glacial Titesee and the too-perfect-to-be-accidental village of Shiltach.

My desperation to see whether Liechtenstein really exists became too great and we drove east, round Lake Constance, briefly through Austria. And there it was: the world's biggest exporter of false teeth, the only county named after its founders, sixth smallest in the world. The capital Vaduz comprises just one street, where we ate what must be the world's most expensive kebab (it's all we could afford). We stayed the night with the Büchel family in Schellenberg, which would have awesome views if it weren't for the continuing fog and rain. They were extremely friendly, but possibly confused that we didn't leave that evening for dinner. (We were trying to save money after spending far too much on the accommodation despite it being the cheapest in all of Liechtenstein.) Still, we had the promise of a hearty breakfast to look forward to.

Actually in Liechtenstein!
Two slices of limp cheese and ham and a bread roll does not constitute a hearty breakfast. I tried my best to look happy but I died a little bit inside. Why is it that other countries struggle so much with breakfast? How can people start their day on crescent shaped, air-filled pastry, or a few pieces of salami arranged in a pleasing circle? I love experiencing new dishes wherever I go in the world but I am persistently disappointed by the first meal of the day.

Up high into the alps to get above the clouds, stunning views from Lech and Zürs. Over the Fernpass towards Garmisch, then on to Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, the famous Chitty Chitty Bang Bang castle. The castle itself was beautiful, but it was the view across the top of the clouds that impressed me the most, the mountaintops floating like islands in the distance. And then back into Austria for a stop in Innsbruck.

Up and over the Alps.
Innsbruck's famous landmark, the golden roof, is a lot smaller then I'd imagined. It didn't do much for me. But it's the kind of city I love: amazing buildings, a stunning backdrop (there are mountains all around when it's not cloudy) and a sense that it's alive, with things happening. And then last stop in western Europe (and a long drive from Innsbruck): Vienna! A majestic city with palaces in every direction. One must feel very insignificant living here.

We left Vienna this afternoon, right after Mr Car's first bit of trouble. Whilst searching for the way out of the city he got all hot and bothered and had to stop for a drink. A few litres of water later and he was galloping away again. He got us all the way to Hungary, past Budapest and into a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I don't know if I'll survive til morning: there may be wild animals about. But the restaurant serves great goulash and cheap spirits. It's good to be back in eastern Europe.

My aim is to be in Sofia next week, where I'll attempt to sell Mr Car. It will be a sad day because he's taken me on an incredible trip so far, the beginning of one I'll never forget.


  1. Good to hear you are doing well buddy and sorry to have missed you in Karlsruhe!

  2. excellent post J. you are really selling Europe to me. looking forward to future posts and be safe x

  3. Hi cousin! Good to hear from you. Sounds like you're having a great time. Good luck selling Mr Car and 'bon voyage'! Love from the 4 of us.

  4. hey jayjay! glad you enjoy yourself. should have told you about the "dreier" (threesome) before ;-)
    im soooo sad that i missed you in karlsruhe :-(