He didn't get where he is today by stealing somebody else's catchphrase.

Destination Nürburgring (Part Two)

Unknown Gems - (12th January 2009)

As I left my lodgings, I remembered my mental note to get the car washed. Luckily, I’d noted the directions correctly and arrived just after they‘d opened. The car-wash was a bit like a tunnel, and vehicles gradually worked their way down. The price varied according to the size of your vehicle (roadster = car = 7 euros) and the whole operation was orchestrated by two chaps who had it down to a fine art, with one working on one car and the other working on the next like a production line.

I pulled my vehicle in and they started to clean, firstly by spraying detergent over the nastiest bits, then pressure hosing it all off. (I should add at this point that my Roadster has never complained when pressure hosed). The vehicle was then waxed and dried with a variety of cloths. I watched with curiosity as they cleaned, polished and buffed. Once dry, the vehicle was gleaming. Seeing that I didn’t have a local’s number-plate, French conversation ensued.

“So, where are you from then?”

“I’m from England, I’m on holiday.”

“Ah, so not from here, then?”



I’m not sure what the last “ah”, meant. Did it mean that in these austere times they were truly grateful for my custom, or were thinking, “bloody foreigner”? I’ve no idea.

As I handed my money over, I stood back and appreciated the gleam. They’d even done a good job on treating the sills, wing-mirrors and alloy-wheels. Black things were black, silver things were silver and grey things were truly grey. It was a sight to behold…

...well, for about a hundred metres, at least.

I left the car-wash and promptly joined the motorway, destination Luxembourg. I remarked to myself that the motorways were still pretty empty, or at least they were by British standards. I enjoyed the emptiness, put my foot down and cranked up the stereo. Driving euphoria was back.

If you ask the man on the street what he knows about Luxembourg, he’d probably admit that it wasn’t a lot. Until a day or two ago, I’d have classed myself in this category too. I knew it was a small country. I knew that the capital city is also called Luxembourg - and I think that’s it.

As I crossed the border-line, I came to a petrol station and immediately remarked upon the price - 0.92 euros for a litre of 98 octane, versus about 1.30 euros in Germany. With the current exchange rate, that put prices on a par with the UK, so I filled up.

Driving further down the entry-road into Luxembourg, I remarked to myself on the other petrol stations. Despite being run by other fuel companies, they all quoted the same prices. Does the government standardise the price? If so, it would make sense. It prevents it being a lottery of whether you get the best deal.

I continued to trundle onwards, my destination for the day being Vianden, a small town in the north of Luxembourg that boasts spectacular scenery and a rather nice castle on a hill, dating back to about the 3rd century. All the time I drove, I remarked on how a small country such a Luxembourg had such good roads. It had been dual-carriageway or A-road for a good chunk of the journey and only now was I on something akin to a wiggly country lane. My descent was quite steep, passing some woods, farmland and descending into a valley. At this point, I could do nothing but come to a halt and go, “wow” (the road was empty). The valley was nothing short of breath-taking. Whilst busy in awe, I took a shot of the car against the snowy-plains and forest. I think that looks pretty good in itself.

Heading down the hill, I was presented with the sort of driving conditions that you only see in car-adverts - combination hairpin hill descents, wiggly hill-climbs and drives past sheer rock-faces - and then there was the drive over/past the hydro-electric system - complete with floating ice-sheets. Amazing stuff - and I wasn’t even at Vianden yet. As I descended, the temperature dropped about 7 degrees and I drove through forests of white trees and still, icy rivers.

I finally arrived at Vianden, a pretty place which could best be described as an ideal location for a remake of The Sound of Music, should it occur (probability indicates that this will eventually happen). The town is built either side of a river, down in a valley of rolling hills, is pretty much completely cobbled (apart from the main road through it) - and did I mention the castle?

I parked up and had a walk around the town, although as it was a Monday, most things were closed (most of Luxembourg works Tuesday to Saturday). The castle was open to visitors and is worth a visit. It’ll cost you just over five euros and will keep you entertained for a couple of hours. The castle is bigger than it looks and seems to have a veritable maze of corridors running through it, along with some great views across the valleys. There are the standard displays of armour, weaponry and artwork.

There’s also a cable-car that runs from the bottom of the town to the top of a nearby hill, but as you can imagine at this time of year, it’s probably closed. (I didn’t investigate - I’ve seen a Bond film too many)

Once I’d seen the sights (which, to be honest only took a few hours), I took a quick trip into Luxembourg city and had a look around. The drive takes about 45 minutes and is mostly on a fast stretch of motorway that goes through three tunnels - yet again, an enjoyable drive. I went through the town of Diekirche and whilst I didn’t stop there, I made a mental note that if I came back through this way, I’d stop here and have a look. It looked like a nice town.

I was only in Luxembourg for a couple of hours and all seemed nice. It’s got to break a record for the highest concentration of cafes and eateries in a square mile. At some point in the future, I’d like to return and do it justice - there was a whole chunk of the old town that I didn’t get to see - maybe another day. I’d definitely like to come back.

I returned to the hostel, a great place in view of Vianden castle, floodlit. That evening, my host introduced me to fruit-beer (Battin, a beer from Luxembourg that looks like Ribena). I was the only guest for the night, in a hostel that sleeps 200. Winter travel has some perks, y’know.

Questions - And some answers...

I've had a few questions asked in comments, so I thought I'd answer them for all to see.

As far as preparation went for this trip, I did the following:

• Had a service about beforehand. (With clutch adjustment)
• Had new tyres. (They aren't the original tyres, but a slightly softer compound - once I remember their name, I'll post the brand up here). They aren't winter tyres, just good all-rounders, which'll probably wear out quicker than the originals. (I still had tread on my original tyres after four years - the canvas was starting to deteriorate instead).
• Had a new battery. This has been a lifesaver in such cold temperatures.
• Replaced the headlight bulbs. They hadn't gone yet, but I put some new  super-bright ones in whilst Halfords had a special offer and haven't regretted it, as I know they won't go whilst I'm away.
• Put blue screenwash stuff in - which, as you've read, has been of limited benefit in extreme cold, but useful nonetheless.
• I also brought with me the standard stuff that you're required to by law (triangle, bright tabard, bulb kit), plus a small toolkit and stuff to get rid of ice from the vehicle.

That's it - nothing too special. Hope that clears up any questions....

Update: The tyres are Toyo.

Was Guckst Du? - (13th January 2009)

Breakfast was conducted in silence. My host had been replaced with a more surly version, who certainly didn’t want to oil the wheels of international relations over mealtime. I initially asked a couple of questions on arriving in the dining area, but she then sat down and proceeded to stick her nose into her plate, eating like a thing possessed. When I returned my room-key after breakfast, I was thanked with a cheery “Have a nice trip!”. Maybe she didn’t do smalltalk.

On my way back across the border to Germany, my last call in Luxembourg was at a shopping centre that had been advertised in the hostel (at Mersch). Unfortunately, with a shedload of shoe-shops and hairdressers it wasn’t particularly man-friendly, so I promptly ran away.

It took about an hour to get to Trier, but as my TomTom cheerily announced that I would “reach my destination”, I already knew I was well and truly there. The main entry-point to the city-centre boasts a significant amount of old buildings, along with a huge stone-gateway at the bottom of the town. Trier was listed in my guide as being one of the oldest towns in Germany - and it shows. Just off the main street, there’s a huge cathedral, containing more mini-churches than you can shake a stick at, along with a nice consecrated area/courtyard.

Architecturally, the place is pretty amazing and what makes it more amazing is the fact that these days, such an ornate and intricate piece of stonework such as this wouldn’t be attempted. I felt compelled to leave a donation - seeing something on this sort of scale is a humbling experience and even though I am as un-religious as they come, you can’t help but be in awe of it.

The other great thing to see were the three roadsters I saw that day, one of them a coupe. I‘d seen more here than in the rest of my journey. I couldn’t help but take a snapshot of one….. I’d been wondering if they’d all gone into hiding over the winter.

Whilst the church visit went towards demonstrating how pleasing to the eye Trier is, you’ll find plenty of other architectural gems here - I seemed to discover one around every corner and it doesn’t take much to hunt them down. However, I shall also remember Trier for it’s youth hostel, which I can only define as an über-hostel. Aside from the rooms, it boasted wifi, a café, cinema, meeting rooms, music room and what appeared to be a bar. For 21 euros per night, including breakfast, it was great - I’ve known many hotels with worse standards than this. They also managed to instantly put a smile on my face by putting my name on the welcome-board and leaving a small pack of Haribo on my pillow - I’m easily pleased.

What also made me smile more was the mynah-bird in the hallway, who seemed to have an almost perfect pronunciation of everything.

As I walked by, he started to chatter…

• “Hallo!”
• “Was guckst du?” (What you looking at? (I think))
• “Guten tag!” (Good day)
• “Ja!”

Whoever had taught “Big Beo” to talk had obviously had a sense of humour.

That evening, I thought I’d go out and take a long walk. Whilst I like driving holidays, there’s one downside - the fact that you’re so inactive. If you’ve read Dave Gorman’s America Unchained, also about a road-trip, you’ll know that he had exactly the same problem. I was starting to feel pretty lardy, so that evening I went on the longest walk ever. With my GPS in hand, off I went to do a bit of Geocaching (see geocaching.com for an explanation) and I walked five miles, but as I returned to the hostel, the police stopped me….

“What’s that around your neck - what are you doing?”

“Ah sorry, yes. Well, I’m English, this is a GPS and I’m looking for my Youth Hostel.”

“OK. Bye.”

Hopefully, that’s all they’ll stop me for - I was doing 110mph/176kph on the motorway today. ;o)

Aperitif (14th January 2009)

It’s been hailing slushy-stuff overnight. As the overnight temperature drops below freezing, the slush welds itself to the car - making it look like someone has attacked it with a bucket of wallpaper-paste. Strange. My soft-top has gone not-so-soft and is a bit like a sheet of bumpy-ice.

Today, I’m heading on to Namur, back in Belgium. The journey takes a couple of hours and I’m not enjoying it so much. There’s more congestion on the roads and the surface isn’t so good. It’s that noisy concrete stuff that we’ve used occasionally in the UK. As you drive over it, you get a low droning sound - meaning that you have to crank up the stereo a few notches to compensate. My head hurts after a while, so I’m glad to arrive.

I’m hoping for better things. Liege was pretty disappointing and I’m hoping that it’s a blip, not the norm. I wouldn’t want to think that all of Belgium was like that. First impressions are that it certainly seems to be nicer - the town centre has a few oddities and the town-square is nice enough.

But that’s it. The attractions are few.

The town’s got a fortress on the other side of the river which warrants further investigation. To get there, I’ve got to follow the lane that runs parallel to the river and hop across the bridge when I get chance, but as I’m enter the lane, something is very apparent - it’s a minefield. The amount of canine excretion per square metre gets to record levels. Ironically, there’s a doggy-bin posted every couple hundred metres, but it’s quite apparent that nobody uses it.

Feeling like a grumpy old-man, I head back to the car and find the hostel, which is about a mile and a half outside of town. It’s in a lovely location, next to the river. There’s geese, ducks and swans ice-skating on frozen sheets of the water. It’s a shame that the whole of the town wasn’t like this. As the sun sets, Namur looks better than by day.

That evening, I take a walk back in to town, in the hope that I could find a local bar, try conversation with some locals and have something to nibble. I probably had my hopes set a bit high as Wednesday isn’t a big social evening. Most of the bars are empty and in the end I settle for a beer and a snack from an eatery before returning. As I come through the door, I hear someone shout.

“Oi, you! Come here!”

It’s the manager of the hostel, and his office is conveniently situated behind a bar. I take a seat and he offers me a drink on the house. It‘s time for fruity beer again.

“Ah! You drink a girls drink!”, says the bartender. (I’d better be careful not to slip into any BlackAdder quotes here. I explain that as you can’t buy the stuff in the UK, I feel strangely compelled to drink it - girl’s drink or otherwise. “OK”, he says, “But it’s still for girls.”. Indeed the girl to my right is drinking it.

And so the evening truly gets started, as the six of us sat at the bar get to know each other. To my left was a girl from Lille, doing an internship in Namur. To my right there’s a Romanian couple, who are travelling through Europe. Finally, there’s another Belgium chap who doesn’t look like he’s staying here - more that he’s a professional bar-propper-upper. He chats with us, thankfully only in French, and that gives me the chance to inflict my language skills upon him. He seems to get it, though - or he’s good at nodding.

“Namur is rubbish”, said the Romanian girl, “I’ve been to the fort on the hill -but it was boring . There’s nothing else worth looking at.”, she chirps. I feel relief at having not paid the entrance-fee and turning back.

“Well. Fuck you. I like it here”, says the bar-tender, who’s being jokingly defensive. The thing is, she does have a point. Namur is divided up into multiple sections, called quarters. There’s an old-quarter, a university-quarter, a theatre-quarter and a dog-shit quarter. Funnily enough, it’s got six quarters, which isn’t mathematically correct. If it’s boasting, it’s not working, as they’re poor compensation. Shame.

Namur is better than Liege, but not by much. It’s probably why it’s not mentioned in my little guide to Belgium.

Our conversation topics continue onto other random and stupid subjects. I have to demonstrate the miming actions to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, discuss the changes that had taken place in Romania since I’d last visited about ten years ago and explain a few marvellous English phrases in French, such as, “Breaking the seal”. The native French-speakers are perplexed on this one, because a literal translation makes no sense at all. The phrase, “pisser un verre” (to piss a glass) is the closest we can get. You learn all sorts of useless stuff when talking crap to strangers. I’d blame the fruit-beer, but it was probably also the Leffe, the two Duvel and the Rochefort that did it.

The Rochefort is truly evil stuff. At 9.2%, this is not the sort of beer you drink gallons of. Our bartender explained that having one of these before you went to bed helped you sleep well, “like an aperitif”, he says. I couldn’t believe that trappist monks could actually concoct something so vicious.

And if one helps you sleep well, why did he give me two? Did he want to induce coma?

It was at the point, I had to call it a day, with just me, the bartender and Mr Propper-Upper left. Amusingly enough, I think the bartender had given me more in free beer than the original cost of staying at the hostel for the night.

It won’t be an early morning tomorrow.

Hangover (15th January 2009)

Against my will and my beery head, I get a rude awakening at 5:30am. My room-mate, who is obviously leaving early that morning, believes it‘s time to get up. For me, it isn‘t. Five-thirty is a fictional time, like the tooth-fairy and Santa - whilst we talk about it, we should never see it. To his credit, he’s aware of this and is fairly quiet in going about his business, but the smell of beer and smoke from the night before is still haunting me and I’d rather wait a few hours to perform the exorcism. I try to shut out the noise and return to sleep. Eight-thirty is much more civilised.

Unfortunately, it arrives all too soon. Bleh. I feel decidedly crap - those are consequences of overdoing it when you’re not used to overdoing it.

As I stumble downstairs for breakfast, I’m greeted by the manager/bar-tender - who irritatingly looks like he hasn’t had a drop the night before. I struggle over a cup of coffee and whilst I’m trying to gradually lull my body into full consciousness, I can see him entertain some French guests at the bar. It’s all too obvious that he’s done this many times before - and I should expect no less.

I’m a little bit paranoid that I’m not OK to drive, so to be on the safe side I postpone my departure from the hostel as much as possible and take a trip down the road to see the ducks. They’re still ice-skating and seem completely unruffled by their predicament. The cold fresh air was amazingly, like a breath of fresh air - funny that, isn’t it?

By midday, I'm ready to face the world and slowly bumble my way to Gent. As I start up the car, I notice that something has finally disappeared from my dashboard - the snowflake, for a while, at least.

I head to Gent at a fairly pedestrian pace - I’m in no mood to rush. I feel it’s appropriate at this point, though, to give you a word of warning. Should you ever drive through Gent, just remember - they are kamikaze pilots - and pedestrians aren’t much better. This is because they will:

1. Step out in front of your car, anywhere - without warning.
2. Not wear crash helmets.
3. Probably be tossing a salad, using a phone, doing their make-up or writing a sonnet whilst cycling. Hands will not be on handlebars. The road is just there and they’ve got other more important things to focus on - you’re not one of them.
4. Not observe one-way roads. Don’t be surprised if you have a pack of cyclists coming towards you on a one-way street (and you’re going the right way). It’s just one of those things. Deal with it, along with the trams.
5. Master the element of surprise, running into blind-corners with no fear for the consequences.

Beware. Really. Just beware. It’s scary. The trams add an extra level of fun.

Despite the cyclist mayhem, Gent is a nice city. With respectable public transport, a good few things to see (such as the castle near the town square), a nice setting and a great café culture, I can’t help but think I’m crossed an imaginary line somewhere. In Namur, the majority speak French. In Gent, it’s Flemish. Here, things look generally as they should be - but pop over to the French speaking side of the country and whilst things look a little more “rustic”, the people tend to be a little more friendly - at the moment, I have no idea why.

But this is something I’m going to examine further, because there is something there, even if I don’t know what it is - why have a Belgium (Flemish) Youth Hostel association and a Belgium (French) Youth Hostel Association? Why not just have one for Belgium? Have I missed something?

But this brings me to a little problem. The nearby Youth Hostel is closed until next month, leading me into a frantic search for somewhere else to stay. Unfortunately, I end up having to make do with staying at a rather expensive and soulless generic motel, right next to the motorway and a factory either side. I think it’s time to dial-out for pizza and beer.

Snippy & Chippie - (16th January 2009)

The title of today’s post will make sense if you’ve seen the film, In Bruges. If you haven’t - shame on you, go see it - then come back and all will be clear. Happy

You get the impression that you’re going to see something special when as soon as you enter the city boundaries, you’re presented with a, UNESCO listed”, sign. Indeed, the quote that, “Brugge is an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement”, is no word of a lie - it’s quite beautiful.

I arrived at the town quite early, which was lucky really, because even without the trams of Gent, Bruges has more cyclists coming from every direction. I found a space close to the centre, meaning that I didn’t have to walk too far to see everything.

The reasons why I came to Bruges were threefold:

1. Guide-books love it.
2. My Dad says he slept on a bench in the town-square.
3. Seeing the above film made me feel like coming.

I have no doubt that point (iii) has made people want to visit since watch the film - it is very photogenic.
Whilst it’s not quite Venice (thankfully, Venice is a bit overrated), it does have a fair few river walkways and architectural sights - the bell-tower in the town-square is pretty damn tall (you can climb it) and the best part is that it doesn’t feel like it’s sold-out to the tourists (as per Venice). Sure, there’s the odd souvenir shop, but there’s also a normal town-centre that people who actually live here could use. It’s a town that does still work, even without the tourists.

In the evening, it’s time to head to my lodgings. As luck would have it, I saw where the Youth Hostel was on the way into town, so finding it on the way out isn’t too much of a problem and as I arrive, I’m either the first person to check-in that day, or I’m spending the night as the only guest. As I check-in, I’m doing so in French - I’ve done it in Liege and Namur, so I just continue the habit. Midway through the conversation, the lady on reception says…

“…do you speak English?”

“Well, yes”, I reply.

“Well, why are you speaking French, then? Speak English!”, says the receptionist.

There’s a multitude of answers could have given here, but the one that seems to be the most common-sense is that nearly half the country does, so if I’m hedging my bets, I’ll at least try to speak the one I know and is an official language. At the point this question is put to me, the tone is such that the receptionist genuinely has a real chip on her shoulder about it, however, to me this feels wrong. I’m in Belgium - why I should I speak English to everyone? Surely that’s the image of the quintessential awful English tourist? Perhaps I should just speak louder too - just to ensure that I look like a total idiot.

When I head to my dorm, there’s a French chap in there and we exchange hellos, but I head back to the common area and freeload for a while on a neighbour’s hot-spot. I make a point of researching the whole language thing in Belgium and come up with this for a start. I wouldn’t exactly call it tension, but things aren’t exactly right there. Mental note to self - be more careful next time.

That evening, I don’t want to brave the traffic again and find somewhere local to eat. The big thing in Belgium seems to be chips and mayo/ketchup/whatever, so it seems appropriate to do what the Romans(the Flemish ones, at least) do. As I’m heading back, I stumble upon another laundrette and feel it’s time to get cleaned up again. Anyway, with a laundrette such as this, it would be daft not to. It has comfy seats, hot-drink machines, TV, radio and magazines, so at least I can read a book in comfort whilst the pants go around and around again.

Anyway, it’s a better option that sitting and reading in my dorm. Before 8pm, my room-mate has already gone to bed and is snoring like a pig.

He snored solidly for 12 hours.

Dangling Pink Balls (17th January 2009)

That morning, I get up at 8. Mr Snore is still asleep – either he’s in the middle of cold-turkey from a battle with smack or his snoring means he doesn’t get a particularly good quality of sleep. As his alarm goes off, he gets up and looks like your average middle-aged European person, so I figure he won’t be cooking up before breakfast. He goes outside to smoke a Gauloise.

I want to get out fairly promptly and continue onwards The more observant among you will have noticed that I’m not that far away from Calais now, with just a couple hours of driving left. However, I remember what the girl at the bar in Namur said to me about Calais being a particularly unimpressive place and decide to break the journey up with a couple of detours on the way back.

There’s also another sign that I’m getting closer to Blighty – the rain. The thaw has finished and the heavens are now officially open. It doesn’t make for a good drive.

As I head into France, I remark that again I drove straight through the border – no passport checks, no stops, nothing - apart from my preliminary check in Denmark. This gives me plenty of thoughts about day-tripping European migrants. Germans who are close to Luxembourg probably buy their petrol there. The Danish who are close to Germany probably buy just about anything apart from petrol from Germany. The Dutch probably go to Liege to remind themselves of how nice their country is in comparison – the list is endless.
I’d heard a story recently about people in Eire, who were heading across the border into Northern Ireland to do their shopping once the pound achieved parity with the euro. I’m sure it’ll happen with the UK mainland shortly. It’s only a matter of time.

Arriving in Dunkerque, the weather is nothing short of shit. Whilst parking is easy, it’s hard to be a tourist when it’s enough of a struggle trying to keep dry, so in a cafe I consider my options and decide to head for Lille - which is away from the coast. Having already been to Lille on a previous trip, I know it’s a safe enough bet with plenty to do if the weather gets foul.

Ninety minutes of driving later and my plan has worked. Lille is pleasant and the weather is dry. As with most European towns, Lille radiates out from it’s town-square, but after walking for just ten minutes I hear a commotion in the distance and I can’t help but be nosy.
It’s protest day, but there’s not just one – there’s four).

An old work-colleague used to regularly cajole me about the fact that when I went on holiday, civil unrest or war sprung up at my destination. She’d say it was my fault. This was purely bad-luck and coincidence, of course. NATO Bombed Yugoslavia, resulting in the trashing of the British Embassy in Macedonia back in the late 90’s, just two days before I was planning to visit (I was in Croatia at the time and was getting enough frosty looks). ETA did a terrorist attack in Spain about five years ago - I accidentally walked into the police cordon during the raid of their headquarters in the south of France. These things happen. It’s just bad luck.

And anyway, this is a peaceful protest.

The first one takes place in the town square and is regarding the treatment of immigrants in France. It’s a quiet affair and the images on the placards are that of immigrants with their faces covered up – as though in hiding or shame. The literature indicates that immigrants are denied basic rights under international law.

The second one is actually three protests linked together. The first is regarding the recent cuts in the French education budget, one is regarding the Israel/Palestine/Gaza situation and another is completely unintelligible. I can’t make head or tail of it. I sit and watch the proceedings as slow moving vehicles move through the city centre, marchers march, banners are waved, whistles are blown, literature is distributed, megaphones are squawked and the police look on in bemusement. Despite the size of the demonstration, the police are fairly low-key.

This makes me think. From what I understand, protest is a fairly common thing in France. In recent times it has happened on a variety of matters on an almost weekly basis. I can’t remember the last time there was a protest in my area. Well, actually, I can – it was the poll-tax marches back in about 1990. The police genuinely got paranoid and there was a huge showing through the middle of Plymouth. With recently law changes to stop protests happening so easily, it’s become something of a distant memory. Shame.

As the commotion finishes, I continue to be touristy and get my share of camera-fodder, easy in a city as pleasing to the eye as this. Lille is a nice city to finish on.

My lodgings for the night are in a place called Coquelles, just outside of Calais. I think Coquelles is just a huge dormitory, where French and English people sleep before moving on. However, instead of getting an early night I head into Calais to see what the town has to offer – was the girl in Namur right?

No, she wasn’t. It’s not all bad.

I pass by a floodlit church that has perfectly tended gardens and looks quite strange when bathed in green light. I pass by a gigantic mall, a couple of shops, cafes, bakers and other random stuff. Everything isn’t as bad as it was painted out.

Maybe the girl had been spoilt after living in Lille.

I make a mental note to visit the boulanger in the morning and spend my euro-shrapnel on bread to bring home.

This time tomorrow, the trip will be over.

Two Grand (18th January 2009)

The morning arrives and I get my bags packed for the last time - it’s time to go home. Loading my stuff in the car, I say farewell to the guy on the front-desk at the motel and fire up Alf for what is to be his penultimate journey - the journey to the tunnel terminal - but it’s time for breakfast first.

Having spent my remaining Euro notes at the Boulanger for “take home cake” (yeah, like it’ll make it there), I have to make do at the terminal with coffee from the “splut” machine and ropey pain-au-raisin. I pay in euro-shrapnel (all five/ten cent pieces) and my wallet and pocket are now strangely light and ready to accept sterling again. The shame of accommodation such as eTap is that you have to pay extra for what is a relatively ropey and joyless breakfast. I guess they have to make some money somewhere, especially when the rooms are so cheap.

Half an hour later, we’re called to start our motors and embark onto the train. Having never been on one of these new-fangled transportation devices, this is all something of a novelty, really. Mind you, I think the security staff overseeing the boarding of the train probably thought the same about me, as smiles and glances are made at the vehicle as it’s sniffed by an entourage of alsatians. Funnily enough, that doesn’t take very long. I don’t have space to smuggle anything.

The crossing takes approximately thirty-five minutes and the whole process of moving off and arriving really is effortless. At this stage, I don’t even get out of the car, preferring to read a book for a while until we arrive and roll off the train.

Mental note to self - DRIVE ON THE LEFT.

The familiar sights and sounds come flooding back, as roll onto the motorway - speed cameras, congestion, bad-tempered driving and motorway services are aplenty. What’s a chap to do?

Head to a Little Chef, I guess.

I sit and munch my bacon sarnie, whilst pondering the last couple of weeks - one thing is blatantly clear - that Britain aims to make you as miserable as possible whilst you’re driving - and to what ends?

I’ve driven across seven countries with a variety of conditions, roads and climates. I simply don’t understand why us British are made to feel so utterly miserable in our cars. I could have flown this trip (although it would have been marginally less satisfying) and I could have taken the train (although I’m not entirely sure a similar version would have actually been possible). I’m not entirely sure that in terms of carbon emissions this would have been any more environmentally friendly. Most of the calculations performed for comparison purposes are usually based on full occupancy - and we know that’s not always the case. Quite simply, efficient cars are not evil.

As I return home, I clock a look at my trip counter which I’ve left running throughout. It reads just under 2,000 miles. The car has functioned and performed like a dream. It’s started in absolutely freezing conditions, ran economically, ran reliably and was bloody good fun. Sure, it’s not a journey that two people could’ve done (well, unless you took advantage of the extra space in a coupe), but it didn’t matter. I can honestly say that my Smart has been the most fun car I’ve ever drive - and this journey was perfect. Hopefully this log will serve as proof that actually I wasn’t such a nutter after all.
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