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Trip Through Europe

17th December 2006

My oldest son, Alan, had his 21st birthday party today back in Australia. I rang him and my youngest,  Michael, who has his birthday on the same day. Unfortunately Alan was a little too inebriated to get much sense out of. Michael had his 13th birthday party yesterday and seemed pretty happy. It seems my brother Gavin, his wife Willy and family went to see the kids for their birthday which was much appreciated. On ya Gav!

The Channel Tunnel

Checking through the ticket point at the channel tunnel

We (my mate Alex, his young son Ben, and myself) drove to Folkestone in Kent and then took the car on the train to Calais in France. There was no customs check, no passport or immigration check, nothing! This was a little irritating as it means my wife, Di, on her Chinese passport could have come after all (she didn’t come cos she couldn’t get a Shengen visa! – apparently its OK to live in the UK if you are Chinese and married to an EU citizen but you aint goin’ on the mainland).

I am going to be told that we spent far too much time on the road on this trip and not enough time out and about. Before you even go there understand this, Alex was visiting from China, he had a very limited amount of time in Europe and a desire to see as much as possible. Yes, we did spend a lot of time in the care but in Europe distances are short and we took every opportunity to stop, look around, eat local food, drink local drinks, and talk to local people. We saw and immense amount in a short time and it was a holiday I would repeat again in a heart beat.

Anyway we drove from Calais to Paris where we stayed in a skanky hotel on the outskirts (an Ibis hotel – Alex had a yen for staying in Ibis hotels. A little like the reason people by McDonalds. Its crap, but you always know what you are getting). The weather was cold and wet but not too bad (meaning there was no wind and it was a tad above zero degrees). Not much time for sightseeing so we settled in after a meal at a French chain restaurant and a long walk around the suburb we stayed in.

18th December 2006

We set off to Paris to see the usual round of tourist attractions, Notre Dame (awesome as ever) where I got some good photos of the stained glass, and the Louvre (didn’t go in this time). We walked from there all the way to the Arc de Triomphe (it’s a long way – about 2 miles up hill). On the way we stopped at LV on the Champs Elysses (as you do) and bought nothing – that’s a first, probably due to the absence of my wife. Then we went to the big TV arial thing but we didn’t go up as it was getting too cold to be tolerable. Instead we went back to our hotel and had dinner at an arab take away where the waiters’ French was worse than mine and their English was non existent.

Di spent the day back home in Sunbury-on-Thames getting ready to go to China tomorrow. She seemed in good spirits and looking forward to seeing her Mum and Dad.

19th December 2006

Alex is starting to call me a whinging pohm (prisoner of her majesty) but what are you supposed to do when the French constantly underfill the beer glasses (how do you say “and how much for a full glass?” in French)? One shock is that the french wine IN FRANCE is actually potable, not like the swill that they export to the UK, they must be laughing all the way to the BNP!

We had a slow drive today from Paris, heading north. We avoided the motorways and found a huge Carrefour where we bought a bunch of cheeses, a few bottles of tablewines, meats and bread. This is the way to live in France, just picnic from place to place!

Late in the evening we had quite a close call on a country road when I forgot for a few minutes what side of the road to drive on. We were chased by an irate French farmer who we nearly ran off the road. Luckily he stopped at the police station and we just hot footed it out of there… We stopped at a village about 20 miles further on where we ate some ghastly greasy snails and frogs legs (badly cooked food is badly cooked food wherever you get it and whatever it is). Alex spent the night driving the porcelain bus as a result.

At the risk of spoiling a good whinging record, the hotel we stayed at was actually pretty good, very friendly and the rest of the meal was quite OK.

20th December 2006

We spent a pleasant part of the morning exploring the french village where we had spent the night, walking, and generally taking in the scenery before visiting Luxembourg.

I have a suspicion that Luxembourg is duty free because the prices were so good (very cheap), but the place itself was not a lot to write home about.

The average age of the citizens seemed to be about 65. There was agreat walk through the centre and this sort of ravine thing that splits the city in two. Quite attractive in a lot of ways. and tidy without too much grafitti (but then again its hard to imagine all those pensioners out with their spray cans on the 15th century walls).

Don’t get me wrong, its not that I don’t like good graffiti, I do, very much. But the trouble is that so much of it is bad, and it doesn’t look good on a 15th century wall.

I am a bit ashamed of my ignorance of places like Luxembourg but I really had no clue what we should be looking for, or at, and everything that might have enlightened us was written in French so I was pretty stymied when it came to reading tourist brochures.

Anyway we stayed over the night at, you guessed it, another Ibis hotel. The only difference between this Ibis and the last Ibis was that the Luxembourg hotel was new.

The Luxembourgians seem to have the same problem finding the high water mark on the beer glasses. These guys could really use a Kiwi Host course! What a way to piss the tourists off, a sort of guarantee that your guests won’t order a second half glass of beer.

We travelled from Luxembourg south on the French side of the border and up into the mountains to cross from France into Switzerland.

As I recall, the drive up into the Alps was a long one, not particularly steep but consistent so that by mid afternoon we were well above the snowline and poised to begin what was an extremely steep descent into Switzerland.

21st December 2006

Goblin

This goblin kept showing up in photos

Ahhhh! Switzerland. Geneva is not the most attractive city in the world but we had a great drive in through the French Alps where Ben got to play in some light snow.

We met up with Alex’s brother Lawrence in Geneva, he flew in to join us there from his home in Amsterdam and we three men and one boy (nick named “the goblin”) enjoyed each others company for the rest of the trip.

It was a long day in the car and it took us some time to find our hotel. We drove all the way back to the top of Mont Blanc (I think) before we realised we had put the wrong destination into the sat nav.

Swiss pocket knife

Swiss pocket knife

Despite that we enjoyed seeing the hoar frost on the trees again and it was thrill for Ben. We finally got into our hotel and went to a nearby shopping centre where I picked up a French English dictionary so that I could figure out what “douanes”are (customs officers). That purchase just might have saved us a few problems later on.

22nd December 2006

Icicles in the Alps

For us Aussies, icicles on the side of the road are rare

The good news is that the Swiss fill the beer glasses exactly to the line every time. EXACTLY! They also make a lot of watches. Every second shop is a watch shop.The Swiss have a very interesting take on being a member of the EU. To them it means: “we are in, except that we will remain out. We will use different money, AND we will maintain a border with customs and immigration between ourselves and other member states”.

Switzerland is great though, very little grafitti (although again the average age of the population seems to be a few decades higher than France or the UK) and lots of motorbikes which no one seems to lock up (or down) like they do in the UK. I forgot to lock the car for two hours in the centre of Geneva and it was still there when I got back!

The trusty merc

I did like this car, it had legroom to burn and just kept on keeping on

Alex couldn’t get over the amount of dog shit on the streets. People just don’t seem to care and it is one big let down. Perhaps there is a dog poo fairy and she was on a break.

The river running through town was so clean that you could see the shopping trolleys and rubbish bags on the bottom under several metres of water.

No, really, compared to most European cities, Geneva is very clean and tidy if you watch where you step.

23rd December 2006

Probably the best day of the trip so far, drove back through Geneva and along the lake to Montreaux. Sent an SMS to Alan in Australia along the lines of “We just got down to Montreaux by the Lake Geneva shoreline, to send message with a mobile, we haven’t got much time, Frank Zappa and the Mothas are nowhere to be found….” I wasn’t sure if he would understand the relevance but later found he recognized immediately the reference to Deppe Purple’s song Smoke on the Water. It gave me a chuckle and felt amazing to be there! Incidentally my great grandfather and grandmother were born and bred on the North side of Lake Geneva so there was a double significance in being in that locale.

We then drove up into the Swiss Alps following the sat nav’s instructions to get to Northern Italy. After many hours of climbing higher and higher, beautiful scenery, etc… we get to a railway station and sat nav says “take the ferry”. Well we looked everywhere… no bloody water in sight, let alone a ferry! So we figured that sat nav got it wrong. BIG MISTAKE.

We decide to keep driving in the general direction of Italy, after all it LOOKS like there might be gap between the mountains somehwere right?….. WRONG.

We start to get into some pretty gorgeous country, chalets everywhere, literally dozens of little towns, each with a little church, lots of snow, skiers all over the place, really lovely except we are getting higher and higher and the roads are getting worse and worse and we have no snow tyres, no chains, and no idea of where we are actually going.

To make matter worse the Swiss are all speaking German and the best they can do with regard to other languages is to tell me they speak a little French, well so do I and I am sure that is going to work…..NOT. We clearly each speak a different subset of French.

We even try speaking Chinese to them to see if they are just being difficult but that doesn’t work either.

Eventually we get to another railway station and the penny, at last, drops. The FERRY is actually a car train that heads through the mountains to a better place. So we pay our twenty Euros and blindly take the next train to somewhere.

Well….. somewhere turns out to be an even prettier village, even higher up, with even more snow. The roads are so frozen that when you put your foot on the brakes you just slide. We drive until we get to the end of the line, even the Merc won’t go through snow a foot deep and the barrier looks pretty forbidding so we turn around.

In desperation I put “recalculate original route” back into the sat nav and it finds a motorway only a few kilometers away that takes us post haste through a massive tunnel, about 20 kilometers long and then down into Italy.

I just hope we can find our way back again one day but tonight we are in a lovely two bedroom bed and breakfast in Porto de Ceresio in Northern Italy, very close to the lake, had great food for dinner and met some great people.

Best of all free Internet access!!!

24th December 2006 – Christmas Eve

Vatican City PD

Vatican City PD

We spent much of the day in Pisa, visiting the leaning tower (of course) and the surrounding church, graveyard, and public buildings. We also did some shopping for the obligatory cold foods for on the road eating before moving on to Rome. Pisa attracts millions of tourists, although, apart from the central attractions it is not a particular prepossessing city. There are several ancient ruins scattered in various parts of the old city which appear quite neglected.

We travelled on from Pisa and down to Rome, where we found a hotel on the outskirts in the south west. We had decided that we would like to visit Vatican City on Christmas day, sounded like a good idea at the time even though none us was Catholic. This plan was somewhat ill-conceived.

The first sign that we should have picked up on was that, we had trouble finding a room in any hotels. When we did, we arrived at about 9 pm to find that the hotel carpark was almost empty. You could have fired a shotgun through the hotel restaurant without hitting anyone and there was a deadly silence across the whole place. We did find this a little curious and even after turning on the TV later and realising that the feature programming for the evening was midnight mass at the Vatican, the penny didn’t drop.

25th December 2006

The next day we woke to find the car park packed solid and, sfter breakfast and a walk around, we caught a bus and then a train into Rome and then Vatican City.

When we arrived the crowds were just starting to build, literally hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Vatican Square to hear the Papal address. There were nativity displays and market stalls scattered around and security everywhere. It was an occasion worth seeing and we caught, from a distance, sight of the papal party and the pomp and ceremony on the stage but decided to leave before the main event as the seething crows were just a little too much and none of us spoke enough Italian to understand anything that might be said anyway.

We travelled back to the centre of Rome for lunch and enjoyed a pizza at an open air cafe. This was one of the most memorable meals of my life for some reason, sitting at a table on the sidewalk,  ice cold beers, and a pizza that was just about big enough to cover the whole table. Good Italian pizza has to be experienced and I don’t think I have ever had coffeee as good as that which we were able to buy in Rome.

After lunch we set off to find the Colosseum and enjoyed several pleasant hours walking around and reading the inscriptions and various tourist information that we could find in English. Sadly the colloseum, at least when we went, was covered in scaffolding that somewhat detracted from its appearance and we couldn’t get inside so had to try to find ways of peering in through various gates. I think there had been a deliberate attempt to stop people from seeing inside and this is a very petty attitude to take, especially when you couldn’t get even even if you wanted to pay because tours were restricted to coach groups.

 26th December 2006
Somehow we drove today to Venice, travelling via Perugia, Forli, and Argenta through some magnificent countryside and a variety of road types. There is a lot to see in this country and I wish we weren’t on such a tight schedule but Alex has limited time and we all want to see a lot.
Venice is pretty much as you would expect. You can’t drive into the old town on the water, you park your car and get a water taxi around to St mark’s Basilica where you disembark and can walk for miles over canals and through tiny little alleys. Venice is, a city for lovers, it was strange to be there with an all guy group and we soon tired of shops and crowded tourist traps like St Mark’s. This is really not my type of tourism, when I travel I like to spend some time getting to know local people, eating and drinking like a local and enjoying a different lifestyle. I am not terribly interested in historical monuments and churches. I feel owe it to myself and my children to take the opportunity to learn at each one and to share my interpretation and understanding it is not my favourite way to pass time.
We left Venice late in the afternoon and drove to Cortina, in the Italian Alps where we found a hotel for the night (not an Ibis) and enjoyed some good pizza, good beer, and good company in a lively local restaurant. Tomorrow Austria!
27th December 2006
Packing the car in Cortina

Packing the car in Cortina

The snow goblin

The snow goblin

We awoke to a crisp, cold and sunny morning. The car was solidly iced over as the temperature was a few degrees below zero. We packed ourselves up and headed off through beautiful scenery toward, Mozart’s birthplace, Salzburg, Austria.

The drive through the mountains was spectacular, the temperature dropped to -8 degrees centigrade and there was around 8 inches of fresh crystal, powder-snow over everything. Very few people around and a lovely, still, sunny day.

Powder snow in Austria

Powder snow in Austria

Memories of Saltzburg are that it is a little grey, there is a huge castle that stands ominously over the city, looking down on a frozen ponds and a fairly busy shopping district. We climbed to the Festung Hohensalzburg (the Hohensalzburg castle) and admired the view across the city before descending so that the Goblin could skate around the fountain and we could try some Austrian beers. We decided not to stay overnight in Salzburg but to press on for Munich, Germany, about 145 kilometers away.

We arrived in Munich around 7pm and managed to locate an Ibis hotel without too much trouble not too far from the city centre. Munich is a very large, very modern city. Reminiscent of nothing that I can think of in terms of other cities in the world. I got an overwhelming sense that everything was in its place and that disorder and any sort of organic development would simply not be tolerated. There was s disappointing lack of graffiti and what we did find was understated and neatly placed. I like good graffiti when it is appropriately placed in a city, it reflects the spirit of the city and its people and can often reflect the value that is placed on art, culture and freedom of expression.

28th December 2006

The next day we walked quite extensively through some of the parks and gardens in Munich. We visited the Munich railway station and took photos of some of the many decorated fibreglass lions that adorned the public spaces.  We stayed a second night in Munich and the next day we set off for Frankfurt.

29th December 2006

The drive from Munich to Frankfurt was a memorable one. Travelling at the Mercedes’ top speed of around 130 mph on the autobahn we had to constantly move out of the centre lane to let the fast moving traffic through and about three quarters of the way to Frankfurt it started to snow heavily. This was quite disconcerting and in fact the snow was so heavy that at one stage we slowed to around 30 mph just so that we could effectively see the road and stay safe.

We stopped for some time at a castle on the way which was reminiscent of Castle Wolfenstein! very German and this castle had been a centre for the SS during the second world war.

The main attraction of Frankfurt was the 150 year old cathedral, a massive gothic church in the centre of Frankfurt that is quite inspiring in an architectural sense. The old part of the city has many attractive building and we spent a pleasant evening exploring it and the vibe of the thousands of people who were out an about. our stop for the night was a really nice hotel that was more like a bed and breakfast, single story, like  a rambling farmhouse with great food and a charming country setting.

While I would like to see a little more of Germany I found it a bit sterile. A big industrialized nation, an overwhelming air of efficiency and quite a dour and grim sort of attitude amongst people in the cities. These are, of course, first impressions only and we didn’t spend enough time there for any credibility to be given to my impressions.

30th December 2006

Our drive the next day took us through increasingly less rolling country side as the land flattened out and we got closer to Holland.

Arriving is The Netherlands by car is like coming to a screeching halt. Gone are the unrestricted speeds and the general pace of life tends to slow to a crawl. Lawrence had lived, at that time, in Amsterdam for several years and he was diligent about ensuring that we understood the rules. Motorways in Holland had speed limits of 100 kmh and these are strictly observed. There are speed-cameras at very frequent intervals everywhere and speeding simply not done.

Lawrence was kind enough to accept us all into his home, so it was that we found ourselves at the end of the year staying in the suburbs of Amsterdam where we were able to relax and unwind through to the new year.

31st December 2006 (New Year’s eve)

I have to say I am somewhat in awe of the Dutch people. They live on a massive parcel of land reclaimed from the sea and a huge portion of it is below sea level. The country is a tribute to the genius of the Dutch in managing water and their physical relationship with the North Sea.

The city of Amsterdam and its surrounding suburbs are easy to navigate and predictable. In most situations pedestrians and push-bike riders are given precedence over motor traffic and, perhaps because of the predilection of the people for push-bikes, most of the people you see seem noticeably fitter than those you would see in other places. This is backed up by the WHO statistics which indicate that only about 9% of people are obese in Amsterdam, compared to more than 25% on average in the UK.

Shopping in Amsterdam was tedious, the country does not seem to be a nation of meat-eaters in any meaningful sense. I was hoping to be able to cook our host a traditional large roast meal but was unable to find and cut of meat above the size of your average coffee mug. In the end I think I settled for chicken. I recall that beer was incredibly cheap, sometimes the deposit on the case was more than the cost of the beer although of course the range is pretty limited, lager, pilsener and lager being pretty much it, with a smattering of German wheat beers to cater for those who want to drink something different.

We spent New Year’s Eve in, a tradition for me; and of course not a matter of great import to my Chinese friends who celebrate a different New Year in a greater amount of style.

The Dutch celebrate New Year with fireworks and they do it with gusto. So at 12 midnight I was awoken from a deep slumber by what sounded like the beginning of world-war three. this went on for probably 15 minutes and the next day, following a shower overnight, the streets, and the cars, were plastered red with soggy firecracker paper.

We spent several days in and around Amsterdam, enjoying the canals, the lovely old buildings and historical sights, visiting the famous dykes, admiring the many windmills and absorbing the general ambiance. It is not a place I would rush back to, although I have had to visit several times for work, but worth seeing once.

4th January 2007

Our next destination after Amsterdam was Arlon in the southeast corner of Belgium, where my cousin Adreana lives with her husband John and their two boys.  Adreana and John had kindly offered to put us up for a couple of nights so Alex, the Goblin and I bade farewell to Lawrence in Amsterdam and packed out bags into the Merc for the penultimate leg of our journey.

This was a pleasant trip, driving through some lovely countryside, some of it pine-forested with a good covering of snow and other parts just cold, crisp and open. We arrived in Arlon in mid afternoon to find that John and the boys were going out to play indoor-football. We went along to have a look and to meet some of the people from the village where Adreana lives.

The village square was set up for the Christmas season with tents and merchants stalls selling sweets, drinks, and hot foods as well as all sorts of Christmassy, European trinkets.  We enjoyed some hot mulled wine and great conversation in the village and it was a great opportunity to see how others celebrate this time of year.

Adreana and John could not have been better hosts, they introduced us to a full range of Belgian beers and spirits and we had a wonderful meal together in one of their favorite restaurants. The best part of any trip for me is always staying with people who are familiar with the local area and with whom you can share so much more than a casual visitor would experience.

5th January 2007

Parma hamWe spent the day on the 5th visiting the famous town of Shengen on the border with Germany. Here we found shops selling fabulous parma hams, cheeses and fortified wines that were as much as 80 years old. There were a selection of wines including some bottle in 1938 and it was somewhat poignant to touch one of these bottles and to think about  the world events that have transpired since the grapes were pressed and the wine began to mature.

The countryside around this area was very pretty and it is somewhere that I would like  to go to again.

And so our trip drew to a close, we travelled back across the Belgium and then down to Calais where we caught the train home to England. We had the privilege of seeing Europe at a time when I think a lot of tourists would not travel. We shared Christmas in Italy, ate a wide range of traditional foods, enjoyed imaginative Christmas decorations across many countries and criss-crossed the Alps to enjoy the scenery in 7 countries. It is a journey I tried to replicate with my children some years later but, sadly, we couldn’t recapture the atmosphere that this first trip developed.

Thank you Ben, Alex and Lawrence for a memorable winter holiday.

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3 comments on “Trip Through Europe

  1. I had lots of fun on this trip. Loooooooooooong car trip tho. I’m a little goblin 😀
    Ben.

  2. It was an awesome trip! We thoroughly enjoyed it, even though we had to put up with Ben’s “are we there yet? are we there yet?…”. The best holiday I ever had! Thanks snox!
    Lex.

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