Celtic Illumination, part 166, How much is that doggie in the window?
The only drawback with a Volkswagen Beetle, when you are planning a fifteen hundred mile, road trip, for four adults, is the limited amount of luggage space. We had to be in Trento for a specific date, so the less adventurous among you will now expect me to have planned to cover a certain amount of miles per day, moving from one pre booked hotel to another. How wrong you are. We were four young people seeking adventure, so we jumped in the car and set off. To navigate my way around Europe I chose to use an aeronautical chart. I think the scale would have been somewhere in the region of fifty miles to the inch, so I’m sure you are impressed at the space saving efficiency I was already employing.
We left Germany and cut through the southern tip of Holland for no other reason than to follow and access the most appropriate motorways. We crossed Belgium and drove straight into Luxemburg. Holland was and always will be a favourite country for me to visit. The people have a certain love of life and a wonderful approach to it. Belgium was veering toward the boring but Luxemburg really had nothing to offer us. We parked up in Luxemburg city and wandered about and were suitably under-impressed. In fact it was so boring, and I could not think of one cultural experience that we should visit in Luxemburg, that we got back in the car and left for France.
I had nothing planned for France and decided that Paris was a little too far away for us to visit. My plan was to cross France and to enter Switzerland at Basel. I had hoped Basel would be interesting as it sat on the border of three countries, Germany, France and Switzerland. We came across a lovely little French village somewhere between Metz and Nancy. I can’t remember the name of it but for me it matched the image I had in my head of what a typical, small, French village should look like. There was a hotel on the main street so we booked two rooms and settled down for the evening.
I noticed from my bedroom window that the police station was almost directly opposite and hoped that we didn’t get too drunk that evening. I wasn’t worried about getting arrested, but I was quite aware that all one had to do was walk in to any police station in France and declare that you wanted to join the French Foreign Legion. Within twenty four hours you would have a new identity and life. It was the sort of thing I knew we would probably do, as they say back home, just for the craic. I didn’t even tell the others because I knew that, after a few scoops, it could turn into a dare. We came downstairs to the main lounge area of the hotel and went to the bar. There was a handful of French locals enjoying a drink and I asked if they served food.
“What do you think this is,” said the manager. “A hotel?” Well; what he actually said was “Que pensez-vous de cette c’est un hôtel?” but then you already knew that. I didn’t give him the reply you might think automatically popped into my head, see, I was becoming more diplomatic, so asked for directions to a nearby restaurant. It was a typical, small, family run restaurant and we found a corner table and settled in for the night. Not only was I a literature lunatic but I was also a cultural sponge. I always believed that if you were in another country you should respect that country by eating whatever the locals ate, or drink what they were drinking, I thought it was only good manners.
I had explained this to my wife and friends who scoffed at me for settling, like them, for the steak and chips option, although I was the only one to attempt the snails as a starter. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that it was horse steak, but as they say, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. After the nosh we remained, probably for far too long, at the table tasting bottle after bottle of local French wine. It was a fantastic evening and when we left, with my three compadres, trying to speak French with an Irish accent, we staggered off to a fast food van for hamburger and chips before returning to our hotel, that wasn’t a hotel, and crashing for the night.
The girls were frightened of the hotel as it was quite small and basic. With one bathroom serving half a dozen rooms so they were quite keen to leave the following morning, and as it wasn’t a hotel there was no breakfast. We drove off and I glanced at the police station breathing a sigh of relief that I hadn’t signed my life away, again. A transport café provided breakfast and it was thoroughly enjoyable, sliced spiced meats, tomatoes, fresh bread rolls and strong coffee and all in the comfort of a bright yellow Beetle. I absolutely love driving through France. It’s so relaxing and the sights that continually pop up keep one interested and amazed.
Basel didn’t disappoint either. I didn’t really know much about Basel. It was somewhere that I was aware of but not really much more. With no real insight into its history or culture we satisfied ourselves with dandering around the city centre, lunching on the pavement, at a restaurant, and just enjoying life. Unfortunately we had a sort of schedule to follow so set off again. My only plan for Switzerland was to aim for Lugano, where I could cross into Italy by Lake Como and then drop down to Milan. But I also wanted to get as close to the Eiger as possible while in Switzerland, which was going to be impossible so my only other ambition was to visit Zurich, which we did. Zurich was lovely and very Germanic. We had a laugh and watched a man engrave brandy glasses, bought some chocolate and left, as for me Switzerland was about mountains, not chocolate.
I don’t normally give advice, well; I suppose if I tell you something that I did, you would probably know that the correct thing to do is the opposite, so that’s a sort of advice. So I would usually never knowingly give advice but on this occasion I feel qualified and confident enough to do so. Using an aeronautical chart to drive with is space saving, however it’s not very good at marking out roads, as it’s mainly concerned with airways, mountains, airfields and major cities. We were bombing along and came to a Lake.
I checked my map and saw that we could take the low road or, yes very good, we could take the other road, the high road. We opted to take the road that ran down the left hand side of the lake and set off. It was a brand new motorway and didn’t have very much traffic on it so a very enjoyable run through the Swiss countryside, until the road ran out. Well; when I say ran out I mean stopped, it was no more, hadn’t been constructed yet, although it existed on the map. I left the motorway, not that I had much choice and drove down to the lake side. There was a small village. I stopped outside a hotel and went in to ask for directions.
In Belfast, as a child, I had a bulldog try to take my left knee cap off for its lunch one day, so I never liked or trusted dogs after that. I breezed in to this small hotel to see two Alsatians sitting staring at me and can safely say my exit would have put Usain Bolt to shame. The dogs alerted their owner that a total coward had left the building. The owner came out and explained that we should travel another ten or so miles along the side of the lake where we would come to a ferry terminal and be able to cross the lake and continue our journey. Strangle enough the ferry wasn’t marked on my map.