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Destination Nürburgring (Part One)

Insurance (4th January 2009)

If you still don't know what's going on (and why), here's the plan.

I'm aiming to do a ~1,500 mile round trip around Europe in my Smart Roadster. From my home in Devon (UK), I'll be heading to Harwich, taking the ferry to Esbjerg in Denmark and then heading back to Calais in France, via the Nurburgring in Germany. That's about as much of a trip plan as I have, I shall make the rest up as I go along.

Don't ask why. There have been a few people that have questioned my sanity in relation to doing such a thing. However, to allay the concerns of those who are already waving their arms and shouting "YOU IDIOT! IT'S JANUARY!", I'd like to reassure you by saying that I am aware of the issues and at this point, I'd like to say that I think I've prepared reasonably well:

• I have an insurance policy that covers the car if things fall off. They get repaired.
• I have an insurance policy that covers me if things fall off. Things eventually repair.
• I have an insurance policy, should other people hit my car and things fall off. They'll get repaired.
• I have an insurance policy that covers me if things don't fall if, but instead decide not to work as they should. Someone will help me make them work as they should.

Apart from acts of God, I've got most things covered. Yes, I have thermal pants, too.

So, at this point, all that remains for me to do is to load my stuff in the car, cancel the cat, switch off the milk and ensure the gas is well fed. Harwich, here I come.

The Floating Hotel (4th January 2009)



…and so, nearly six hours and 334 miles later, I arrive in Harwich and join the queue for the ferry to Denmark. It's been a completely effortless drive. The evening starts to draw in as I complete what is probably the longest single leg of the trip.

As I check-in (which raises a smile from the check-in staff), I board, get my stuff and head to my cabin. As I flick through the TV channels in my cabin, the majority of which (unsurprisingly) are mostly Danish, I decide to have a look at the Danish weather forecast. I find it always brings it home to you how cold things will be when the weather presenter looks like he’s just come in from a blizzard and is wearing a sensible coat in the studio - whilst the forecast is sunny, daytime temperatures look set to barely manage anything above zero. The nights will be *cold*. (~-7c) I booked the crossing back in the times when the British economy was doing a little bit better for itself and I could afford to be a little less frugal. As a consequence, the cabin is actually in pretty good shape - and quiet too. The sound of the engines is barely audible. Therefore, given that the rest of the trip will be done on a shoestring, it seems appropriate to take full advantage of the free mini-bar before turning in and catching some zeds before rolling off the ferry in Esbjerg.

The Damp Patch - (5th January 2009)



Well, I'm currently at Billund - and it seems deeply ironic that the temperature in Blighty is probably colder than it is here, at about ~-2c. Maybe my decision to come here wasn't so mad after all. Happy

Whilst I may be at Billund at the moment, I've done my fair share of pootling around for the day. The ferry arrived at Esbjerg at about 1pm (although I was treated to a nice sunrise-at-sea first) and as usual, I got a little smile from the immigration control man as he almost had to kneel to look in the window, to see whether the driver matched the passport - and that there was just one person in the car. Perhaps he thought I was smuggling twenty illegal immigrants? 

After heading in to Esbjerg, having a wander, then heading out again, I happened to pass by an interesting monument, which from my (exceedingly bad) translation marks the 100 year anniversary of the area. I'm not entirely sure what the significance of the second person being one step behind everyone else is, though. (Suggestions, anyone?)

The beach was pretty cool. The tide was out, the sand was frozen and even the water from the last time the tide came in had frozen, too - a weird site, an iced-up beach.

And so, I continued onwards. Driving in Denmark is a pretty easy affair. Danish drivers seem pretty considerate, plus the volume of traffic on the roads isn't quite the same as the UK. Add that to the godsend that was my TomTom (which faultlessly navigated me to my B&B in Billund) and the whole thing was a painless affair.

As for the B, (I can't call it a B&B, as I didn't pay for breakfast!), well it's a nice, typically Scandinavian house with nice communal facilities, plus a Wii and a fridge full of beer (just 7kr in the honesty box) - so I guess I'll keep entertained this evening.

Oh, and as for the posting title, sorry - I spilt my cup of tea in bed. What else did I mean? Happy


Above: Insect destroyer or bondage tool?

Footnote: For some reason, when I checked into the B there was a fly-swatting thing - very prominently placed next to the bed. This didn't really make an awful lot of sense to me because it was about -6 degrees outside and most things would have promptly died when the weather got colder several months before. I didn't quite get around to asking why.

Got Wind? (6th January 2009)



Firstly, let’s clear something up - I got my place-names mixed up, idiot that I am. I said that I was at Billund, when I was actually at Billum - there’s a few miles difference between the two, even though they’re both in South Jutland. The little map (above) has been amended accordingly. As I go out to the car that morning, it’s nicely iced up. I think the temperature dropped to about -7c last night. I start it up (thank God for a new battery), get my super 38p ice-scraper out and notice something interesting - the house is completely empty. Even my host has left for the day. It reminds me that the Danish are a trusting bunch. I could clear out the house and leave the country. Mind you, I might have to hire a bigger vehicle first…

But it all goes to show how different people are in Scandinavian Europe, although this isn't the first time that I've encountered it. So many things work on trust. Whether it's the money in the honesty box for your beer, or the fact that you'll leave the place in a good state and leave like a nice resident (we won't talk about the *cough* stain), or the fact that shops sell some of their wares in the street, unguarded, it's all based on trust - and it's a wonderful thing, which sadly, doesn't happen much in the UK any more, because we're always fearful that whatever the item is, it's got to be locked down or safe, in case it's "nicked".

Anyway, soapbox mode is now off. Gasp)

When the car’s warm, I drop in the room-keys, hop in and head to Ribe.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Denmark is one of the European leaders in wind-generation. As you drive along most roads, you’d be blind not to notice random clumps of wind-farms on a hill somewhere. They do look rather photogenic.

Driving between towns is a fairly easy affair. Most roads are completely straight (like American ones, only a bit shorter), drivers are pretty laid back and conditions aren’t bad - even in the snow and ice. As recommended by Smart, at particularly icy/snowy points it’s worth turning the traction-control off, as the poor car just gets confused. I did quite a nice wheel-spin at one point when pulling away from the lights. People continue to stare and smile at the car - I wave back every so often.

I paid a quick visit to Ribe, cobbled streets and all, before heading on to Haderslev. Ribe was certainly picturesque and had plenty of good architecture, pedestrianised areas and riverside walks. Haderslev, whilst supposed to be near in a fjord area, didn’t have quite the same charm, or as impressive a set of fjords as I thought, but after the visit, the youth hostel was exceedingly friendly, providing me with good facilities so that I could cook my special “budget trip pasta“.

I’ll be leaving Denmark tomorrow, probably by heading down the east coast of South Jutland. It’s a shame really, because the country is friendly, beautiful and I would have liked to have stayed here longer, something I theoretically could do, but the sheer expense doesn’t permit. My B&B and Youth Hostel have both come in at about £28 a night, which isn’t as cheap as I would have liked. Combined with the expense of eating and “stuff”, it would quickly blow my budget. On the plus side, parking has always been free - and I don’t think I’ve seen a single person that looks like a traffic warden.

I’ll be back, when the exchange rate balances out a bit. I want to explore more.

Zip (7th January 2009)


As I left Denmark, I figured the best thing to do was to hit as many small places as I could in short succession, so I did just that, leaving Haderslev and visiting:

• Abenra
• Tonder
• Mogeltonder

(Apologies for the lack of special Danish characters)

And so, I left the country. Abenra was a bit of a gamble (and consequently, wasn‘t up to much), but Tonder and Mogeltonder had already been recommended by Lonely Planet. I spent just one to two hours at each site, meaning that I’d been in four different locations that day - I finished for the evening in Neibull in Germany.

Now, I was expecting to head past some sort of border or checkpoint. Perhaps I’d see a big red line across the middle of the road? I was mentally geared-up and my passport was ready on the passenger seat - but as the dulcet tones of my TomTom directed me into Germany, there was no border control. Nothing. In fact, the town that sat on the border looked like it had completely shut up shop and disappeared for the winter. 

I guess this is a concept that I’m not very used to. After years of intense immigration scrutiny that we endure at UK passport control, I was waiting to be frisked and have my vehicle searched. As much of an anti-climax as this was, I would be lying if I didn’t say it was quite refreshing to have such an open border.

The drive into Germany was quite a strange one. It felt exactly like Denmark, but with faster, smaller roads. In less than fifteen minutes, I was at my Youth Hostel, which unfortunately had an unmanned reception until 6pm - so I thought I’d head into the town and see what was there. The answer - the same as most small German towns. A butcher, a baker, possibly even a candlestick maker - but there’s always an imbiss, too.

You may not know. I don’t call myself a vegetarian - I call myself a meat-avoider (note: and not a very good one, at that). There’s a subtle difference. I have my reasons, none of them ethical. When I used to explain this at work, one of my colleagues would always say that I chose not to eat meat because I obviously hadn’t found the right thing yet. To explain this further, he said that most die-hard vegetarians still enjoy a bacon-buttie, even if it’s just for the smell. There is always something that will get them to break the habit.

The imbiss is my Achilles-heel, my bacon-buttie - and within five minutes, I tucking into a currywurst like a diehard carnivore. Sorry, vegetarians everywhere.

After munching sausage (*kyuk*), I went back to the hostel. As it transpired, I was one of two guests in a two-hundred bed hostel. I guess this should mean I get some quality sleep before doing some serious mileage and heading south!

Footnote: German youth-hostels are wonderful places. The majority of them, even though it was one of the quietest parts of the year were still open and had a full-range of facilities. I couldn't praise them enough for how good they were - whilst being cheap places to stay at the same time.

The Autobahn Experience (8th January 2009)



Leaving Niebull this morning, my mission for the day was simple - to make plenty of progress across Germany. Since landing at Denmark four days ago, I’d only gone about 75 miles south - so now was the time to zip across a chunk of Germany and make a dent in the mileage.

Within about twenty minutes I was on the motorway. It was barely above zero, but nobody was hanging around. Whilst there are sections with compulsory speed limits, there are significant sections with merely advisory limits of 130kph (just over 80mph). Apart from trucks, not many stick to the advisory - and for that reason, the majority of people will be doing something more like 140kph (~85mph). Despite the speed and the mainly two-lane carriageway, it felt surprisingly safe and natural. Then again, the traffic density on the roads is significantly less than in the UK. Inevitably, there’ll usually be the odd car or five (for some reason it’s usually an Audi) that’ll be doing far in excess of 100, attempting to drive up your bum.

And for a while, me. I picked a clear stretch of road and let the pace quicken a tad.

If you told most people that you were doing in excess of 100 in a Smart, they‘d probably think you were trying to blow yourself up. Luckily, with 6th gear, it’s not such a big deal - it makes motorway cruising all the easier. I didn’t even push the turbo up to 1.0 bar - at a comfortable 0.5 boost, I got to 102 before easing off. That’ll do until I get to the Nurburgring...

I actually covered a far bit of distance pretty quickly, so I had a bit of time to kill before checking in to the Youth Hostel. I picked a random nearby village called Anderlingen. As a word of warning, if you happen to be in the area, don’t bother - it’s a few houses and farmers sheds, mostly selling potatoes - and no more.

So, I made my way to Zeven. As I made my way down the snow-covered lane, a deer ran across the road behind me. The hostel was in a quite remote location - and the temperature continued to drop. As I parked up, the dashboard said it was -4.5c. Another cold night approaches.

Problems? (9th January 2009)



I made a point of getting up as early as I could manage, so that I could catch the first daylight and head onwards, whilst being able to stop off elsewhere. As luck would have it, despite the hostel being filled with fifty schoolkids on holiday, I managed to sneak out quickly. The manager of the hostel (spookily) knew me by name, even before I met him at breakfast, figuring that as I wasn’t a noisy thirteen year-old, I must have been his other guest. He greeted me with the sort of good morning that Bond-style villains welcome 007 when he’s given the piranhas the shake. Even spookier.

Firing up the car, scraping off the ice (again) and heading down the lane, I could tell that the weather was turning colder. That morning, it was -5c, and whilst I’d not read any weather reports, I could tell that things were going to get colder still. The lack of proper sunlight and a cloudy sky was my omen.and before I continued onwards, I went into a nearby service station and filled up with 100-octane “racing” fuel.

About thirty minutes later, I was in Bremen. Lonely Planet had described the city as something akin to “compact but bijou”, which was as good an endorsement as I needed. Getting into the city-centre was pretty easy, along with parking, which for the first time, I was going to have to pay for - but it was worth it, as I got all the bijou I could feast my eyes on. I came out of the car-park and walked straight out into the town square, filled with cobbled streets, a huge-spired cathedral and a man sat in the square playing an accordion, which wasn’t bad, considering he had gloves on and it was still pretty cold.

But, despite my easy arrival, I had a mission.

Up until now, I’ve been booking my hostel accommodation a few days ahead. This has usually worked out pretty well, as I would write down the details on a post-it-note (of all the things to bring with you) and then tap the details into my TomTom, which inevitably would find the location with ease. However, since I’ve been in Germany, I can’t really use my USB broadband dongle any more, as the cost per MB is on par with the debt of a third-world nation - so I’ve had to find cheap (or free) wi-fi spots. And as luck would have it, there was a café around the corner with just such a thing. Making my daily travelogue posting and booking my next overnight stay was made all the harder because it was near the weekend and most hostels were now full.

But book something I did, after which I did the touristy thing and headed on to my next hostel, at Lunen. The drive to Lunen took a couple of hours, and as I thought, the temperature wasn’t getting any warmer.

As I arrived in Lunen, it was -6c - and it was still only about 4:30pm - and the roads were quite thick with snow - not the crappy half inch dusting which brings Britain to a standstill every could of years, but a proper covering. Snow that has since frozen and turned into ice, which has then had new layers of snow on top. Snow which has children tobogganing down hills and walking across the nearby frozen lake.

“So, you’ve had no problems driving this far in a roadster, then?”, said my host, as I checked in and unloaded my stuff from the car.

“It’s all been pretty good up to this point. Not so far”, I said.

And as the night went on, the temperature dropped further…

Don't rely on the blue stuff (10th January 2009)



When I first arrived in Denmark, I bought a gallon of screen-wash fluid. It’s not supposed to freeze until -21c. Quite sufficient, I thought.

It froze.

As I went out to the car that morning and put my bags in, I pressed the dashboard temperature gauge. It was still -14c - and that was in sunlight. So, if the car had been subjected to as low as -21c, that meant that other parts would have frozen too, such as the battery, coolant, etc…

Then there was the matter of trying to get out of the youth-hostel car-park. On arrival, I hadn’t noticed that it was on something of an incline - a problematic thing if you’ve got a rear-wheel drive vehicle, but there was the matter of starting-up first. Whilst I had my breakdown cover, I’d rather not have to use it.

As I turned the key, the engine started - first time! Whilst the car obviously thoroughly hated me for subjecting it to such a cold temperature, it started. I gave thanks yet again for having a new battery fitted before I left the UK. I let things warm up for ten minutes.

Whilst the car started to warm, my mind turned to the next problem - moving. Any movement on the snow was just spinning my wheels, so I dug out little holes in the snow, each side of the tyres - right down to the tarmac (thanks again 38p scraper). With the ESP off, I managed to slowly climb the hill back to the main road.

I punched the air in jubilation and promptly fuelled up for the next stage of the journey - Aachen.

It took 35 miles before the engine fully warmed up to where it should - and even minor changes in the heating settings whilst driving seemed to prevent it warming up any further, such is the problem with having such a small engine. I arrived in Aachen about an hour later.

Aachen is quite a city. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a bit of a German shopping Mecca, with a shop for everything. With a huge amount of historic buildings in the centre, all the shops radiate out - I managed to get lost in what must have been the largest ever bookshop I’ve been to - The Mayersche building, spread over five floors, which also contains three cafes, an internet access area, a computer store and reclining sun-loungers with views out of the windows over Aachen. As a person who wouldn’t describe themselves as an avid reader, I didn’t leave for two hours, amusingly enough, having bought nothing but a coffee.

However, the situation of the morning made me think about the future direction of my trip. If the weather got more extreme the further south/east I went, then it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to head much further that way. At my lodgings that evening, I started to plan and consider other options…

An ice-cube in hell (11th January 2009)



The previous evening, I’d made copious usage of the internet in order to formulate Plan-B. My original plan was to head east to the Nurburgring, then head around Central Europe in an almost clockwise circular route until I reached Calais. However, the severely adverse weather conditions meant that there wasn’t a hope in hell of The Ring being open and heading further south-east would be a bad idea. I didn‘t want the poor car turning into an ice-cube. That morning, I called the Nurburgring Visitor Centre and they confirmed my suspicions - that it wouldn’t be open again until at least January 17th - ironically the day before I was going to come home.

This pretty much ruled out a visit. Ironically the Ring of Hell got too hellish.

Disappointed? I was a bit, but them‘s the breaks. I couldn’t do the trip a few months later and had to accept the possibility that the track might not have been available. On the plus side, I’ve now managed 105mph/168kph quite legally, which is only about 12mph short of my Smarties top speed. It’s not all bad.

That morning as part of Plan-B, I went west to Maastricht in Holland, instead of east to the ring. Maastricht is in the bulbous part of Holland that looks like it was constructed as part of a jigsaw. It took me just half an hour to get to the lump, allowing me to arrive early and view the city whilst it was still half-asleep, perfect for a Sunday morning. The church bells were ringing, the snow was still on the ground, the air was crisp and it was clear and sunny. I took a long walk down the riverside.

I have to say that it didn’t take long for Maastricht to hit me with it’s beauty. Whether that was due to the wonderful architecture, the town square, the riverside walk, weather or the nice little eateries on each corner I don’t know, but it was all pretty good. As an added note, I was recommended to try the fresh hot Oliebollen, which didn’t disappoint - they‘re a bit like doughnuts, but nicer and with hot fillings. The apple ones rock. (See image two)

And finally, they even have imaginary friends sat at your table, so when you’re on your own you aren’t - there’s European Unity for you. Maastricht rules.

By about 1pm, things were starting to liven up - there were a lot more people about now, so at this point I felt that I should move on, as I wanted a couple hours of daylight left to explore the next place I’d be staying. I hopped back in the car and went on to Liege (Belgium).

All this travelling between countries in central Europe tends to give you “country-blur”. At some points, you’re not entirely sure which country you’re in, or where you are now, or what day it is - but arriving in Liege on a Sunday afternoon woke me up and told me that I wasn’t in lovely Maastricht any more. Maybe I’m being unkind, but I thought it a bit “scraggy“, to use a term, if one exists. Graffiti adorns most walls. Dirt adorns most floors. When I found the town-centre and found little to keep me entertained for a few hours, I was a bit disappointed.

But out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman (no, not like that). She was carrying one of those blue Ikea bags, seemingly full of laundry. I was getting to the stage of severely needing some clean clothes and wondered whether she’d just come from a laundrette. What followed then was a strange path of logic and supposition, where my brain tried to undo the steps that I never saw her take from the laundrette in order to find it.

Hey, presto! Whether it was luck or judgement, I had reverse-stalked someone to a laundrette - a bit bizarre maybe, but I had my reasons. This is probably not a good thing to confess - but hey, if there’s nothing else to do here, I might as well watch my pants go round in circles and read a good book in the process, that good book being Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder, a set of travelogues from a guy who hunts down nasty and unlikely holes of the earth as holiday venues. Bad as Liege is, you’ll be glad to know it isn’t a contender.

However, in my lodgings that evening I started to think that perhaps I’d given Liege a bad write-up - that perhaps there was an undiscovered gem around somewhere that I could photograph. So that evening, I took a very long walk.

I found an underpass where you could get mugged, if you were lucky.

I found a McDonalds.

And I found a car-wash.

I made a mental note to get the car cleaned-up the following morning. It’s greyness from the scummy snow was now an embarrassment. I also made a mental note to leave Liege as soon as possible.

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