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 Traveller's Tale - Europe

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wheatypete

wheatypete

Cabin : Club
Location : Devon
Posts : 53
Join date : 2013-06-25

Traveller's Tale - Europe Empty
20131231
PostTraveller's Tale - Europe

An Orange, Flower-Covered Bay, Little Countries Beginning with ’L’ and a SatNav called Marilyn.

 

Let’s go to Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, I thought.  Two of the smallest countries in the world.  I don’t know much about them, which is reason enough to include them in our annual summer travels back to Blighty from our home in Bratislava.

We drove wide, green valleys through Austria reaching Salzburg for the first night’s stop.  Then on to a campsite just outside Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein.  There is a wide mix of nationalities here and storytellers all: a Scottish family, a South African whose parents are from Liechtenstein and the wild haired, handle-bar mustachioed character standing in front of me now, peering through bottle thick lenses while I sit over my morning coffee outside the van.  Somewhere on the wrong side of sixty, the man has a suitcase on wheels, more suited to plane travel than hiking.  He and the lady he describes as his “girlfriend” travel light.  Just the flight bag and small backpacks.  I ask where he is from but he just shrugs. 

“I am a citizen of the world, I guess.  I have lived so many places.  Now I live in London.  I was born in Belarus.  I served in the Russian Army for a while.  Do you know the only country in Europe to still have the death penalty?  Belarus!”

The man has tales to tell of his days in the Red Army, describing how the soldiers were made to run, with bare torso, but heavy backpacks, for three kilometers in temperatures down to twenty below freezing.  Many of them contracted pneumonia.  In Moscow now, he complains, you hardly ever see any Russians.  Everyone has an accent.  Tartars, Georgians, Armenians and scores of others, from deepest Asia to the shores of the Baltic.  When he learns that we live in Slovakia he smiles wryly and confides that the Slovaks are “a very naughty people”.

“When Hitler invaded Poland from the north, they came from the south.  And then when the Russians came they welcomed them!

His girlfriend arrives back from her shower and they tramp off towards the mountains.   He had told me they were heading for Italy.  How?  With no transport?

Liechtenstein, I have learnt, has the claim to fame of being, despite its size, a world leader.  It is the number one exporter of… dentures!  Judging by the apparent affluence of the place, people do probably live long and healthy lives here.  The local wines are, apparently, excellent, but rarely exported.  At about eighteen euro’s for the cheapest bottle, the people probably can’t afford to shorten their lives by over-indulging in these fine wines anyway.  That, along with the clear alpine air no doubt conspires to give people every chance of enjoying their excellent dentures, in turn creating a booming industry for the younger generation.  What a country!

 

 Liechtenstein is a member of a federation of small countries.  They even have their own Olympics.  You must have a population of fewer than one million to be a member.  We had driven through Vaduz on the way to the campsite, but I had just thought that it was another of those quaint little towns with a castle on a hill.  The mountains are on a grand scale, but the rest of the “little and large” country, like the capital city, compensate by way of a clean, Lilliputian charm.  Like the Tyrol, the chalet style houses seem overly large, but the border post was tiny.  We spent a great day just driving up a mountain to where the road finished. 

I need to be more assertive with Marilyn.  Having worked out that I can fool her into a route along toll free roads by omitting the house number and giving the road number as a via point, I can keep her away from Swiss motorways, which experience had shown, costs you a year’s worth of motorway tariff, even if you’re only there for a day or so.  Simple, but brilliant!  It probably said all this in the manual, but real men, as the saying goes, don’t read the instructions.  Mollie, at three, is convinced that Marilyn is a real person living in that little black box.  I argue with Marilyn constantly and especially when she tries to send us out of Liechtenstein via Switzerland and its wretched year’s worth of motorway fees.  She bangs on about the “highlighted route”, with me shouting, “WE ARE NOT GOING TO SWITZERLAND, MARILYN!”  It all gives Mollie the chance to indulge in her damn-beloved “Why?” questions. 

“Why is Baba cross with Marilyn?  Why Marilyn her not answer me, Mama?  Why Marilyn want us to go there?...”

Eventually Mollie elects to support the black box and starts to shout at me on her behalf.    “Baba!  You made Marilyn sad!  Now I’m very cross with you!”  Marilyn, goes silent and for some reason there are no more voice commands until we get to Belgium.  I think Mollie may have been right about Marilyn being a real person living in that black box.  She is actually sulking!  I wonder what she is wearing and how old she is?  Tash, for her part, and because this musing was unfortunately vocalized, will tell you that this is all just part of a mid life crisis.  But I am still with Mollie when it comes to Marilyn.  She is real to me.

 
I have driven the Brussels ring road three times in my life.  Each time it has been packed with far too many cars, driving far too fast and close, whilst negotiating nutty junctions.  And each time I have seen an accident.  Thanks to Brussels, Belgium has one of the highest death rates per capita in traffic in the European Union. This is mainly due to the fact that many Belgians speed at drastic levels. Take my word for it: the Brussels Ring is a nightmare concerning traffic and averages at least one accident per day.  My hatred has developed into an obsessive fear, bordering on a phobia.  Despite trying to persuade Marilyn to send us south of the ring road via Waterloo, I make the mistake of listening to her at one point and ended up on the dreaded road anyway.  I definitely need to be more assertive when it comes to Marilyn. 





The previous night’s stop had been in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.  The second of the little countries beginning with ‘L’.  The rolling, rural setting we find ourselves in reminds me of Devon.  I had thought of Luxembourg as a city.  Wrong. 

Luxembourg, is one of the most exciting countries for me simply because I have never met anyone from Luxembourg. I don't even know what they call themselves. Luxembourgish? Maybe Luxemburgers? Nevertheless they are an elusive race, even in their own country. At the service station there are German and Belgian cars, French and Dutch, but no Luxembourgolian. I buy a baguette and a coffee, but don‟t ask the girl at the counter her nationality. Tash would possibly emasculate me, or worse, if I started a “Where are you from?” conversation with a random female at a service station, even if it was in search of the first Luxembourgino I have ever met. As a good friend of mine always says in such situations, “I choose life”. Another way to get yourself in trouble at a Luxembourguillon service station would be to take advantage of the free massage offered to travellers. I sort of like Luxembourg.



“Hello, my name is Fred” is how the friendly Dutchman who runs the site with his wife greets us.  The goal of finding out more about the little countries beginning with ‘L’ is achieved, however I did manage to lose my car key in Luxembourg.  Tash had assured me that it must be somewhere in the camper, so I had used her key.  Mine never turned up though.  Finally, in desperation I later emailed the friendly Dutch couple who ran the campsite.  They immediately replied that they had found the key in the shower and were kind enough to send it to Slovakia, refusing any payment for their efforts.  I liked Luxembourg last time we passed through and I still do.  The whole sorry affair with the key was just another chapter in the lost car keys in Europe saga.  Once, in the Ardeche, Tash had pulled me in to a river to swim.  The Vauxhall’s  keys  were in the pocket of my swimming shorts.  The keys are, to this day, at the bottom of a river in the Ardeche.  All this led to an encounter with Eric le Garagiste.  But not before I had had to purchase a pair of Incredible Hulk swimming goggles to search the muddy water, much to Tash’s amusement.  Eric le Garagiste, his side kick used to tell us, was always out buying bread, or eggs, or doing whatever it was that he did all day.  But rarely did he ever take on the role of Garagiste.  We did catch him once, only to have a conversation about how he did not want to break the window to get in, and how if it had been a French car he would have been in by now.  The conversation ended with him pronouncing solemnly, “La prochaine fois, Monsieur, achetez Francais!”  All this took days and it was not until the evening of the day before our ferry back from Calais that he was in.  OK, the car started with a screwdriver, which Eric le Garagiste/obsessive grocery buyer kindly donated, and now it was an all nighter back to the port.  This did at least have the advantage of a drive through the very centre of Paris in the small hours when the streets were completely empty.





 I have a wall map at home with pins in the places we have visited.  Tash smugly points out that I should have one of Europe, but with pins showing the places where I have lost car keys after the Luxembourg incident.  “I never lost any keys before I met you,” I tell her sulkily.   One year later we returned to this lovely spot in Luxembourg with the best bottle of wine we could afford for Fred.  This site is one I would recommend far more than the services of Eric le Garagiste.

The return journey from the UK to Slovakia is via France, to Belgium for a night, then through the Alsace, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, home briefly, then Italy, and finally home, home.  We collect fridge magnets for our van, “Peaches”, at the places we stay.  Last time we had not got one from Belgium and had decided to stop in Bouillon for a night and hopefully to find a magnet.  Belgium, a country of countless friteries and no toilet paper on campsites.  Bouillon is a pretty riverside town in the south of the country, has a castle above it and styles itself with a medieval theme.  It was there that we found the perfect fridge magnet – a cone of chips backed by the Belgian flag.

The brown tourist roadside signs showing the delights of the regions often have photographs on them.  But why would I want to look at a photo when I can see exactly the same scene through the windscreen simply by looking away from the sign?  Then there are the usual berserk slip roads into the fast lane or doubling as entry and exit roads.  Whoever is responsible for these roads must have had chip fat on the brain, if you ask me.  Or just be insane.  Having said that though, the people in Belgium we found to be friendly and helpful.  The campsite and friterie owners had lent us an electric hook up cable for free and were interested to chat about our travels.

 

We cross the Maginot Line near the fortress of Hakenburg.  This line of concrete bunkers, tank obstacles, artillery or  machine gun posts, and other defences, was constructed in the thirties by France along its borders with Germany.   Although it successfully dissuaded a direct attack, it was a monumental failure, as the Germans indeed invaded Belgium, defeated the French army, flanked the Maginot Line through the Ardennes forest and via the Low countries, completely sweeping by the line, and subsequently conquered France within days. The Maginot Line was impervious to most forms of attack, and had state-of-the-art living conditions for garrisoned troops, including air conditioning, comfortable eating areas and underground railways.   It is a stark reminder that all these open borders, with  little more than a blue EEC “Welcome to wherever” sign and a few deserted buildings (Liechtenstein/Switzerland and the UK being  the only exceptions), that we cross so freely, were actually hard won, long-fought-over dividing lines in the past.  You cannot help but appreciate the freedom and relative peace of today when this strikes you. 

 

We plan to fill up on petrol in Luxembourg where it is cheap, and cigarettes are only a third more expensive than in Slovakia, so we stop at the first service station.  The queues could have signified an oil crisis, but in fact merely show that everyone else has had the same idea.  There are two boys directing the vehicles into lines for the twelve pumps and a bit of a party atmosphere.  People are hanging around chatting outside their cars or motor homes while they wait.  But it is efficient.  Fill up, drive to the booth (a bit like the ones on toll bridges) where the cashier pushes open a metal drawer to collect the money, pass over the card reader or give change.  Up goes the barrier and off you go.  Or you would have done had the motorway not been such a stop start affair. 

Do you ever fantasize about “The Sound of Music”?  Bear with me, it’s about a road.  If you impressed by Cheddar Gorge, or if pine clad mountains are your thing, or you actually dream of running naked, hand in hand with Julie Andrews (or Christopher Plummer) through upland flower meadows, with her(or him) intoning softly, “Oh Pete… why did I ever even bother with that surly, sour-faced loser Von Trap when there are men like you in this world…  come with me into the forest!”  Obviously, it goes without saying, I am not one of those people; only the worst kind of sick, perverted, menopausal mind, with no regard for the feelings of his wife and who was clearly smack bang in the middle of his sad midlife crisis would ever even dare to fantasize in such a way.  But if any of this ticks even a small box, then the E31 between Freiburg and Geisingen will be the road for you to take through Southern Germany.  This is close to the source of the Danube, but still some six hours from the majestic, wide, fast flowing river we know and love so well from our home in Bratislava.  Marilyn guides us south around Bodensee before sending us via Munich to the A8, giving us great views of the Austrian Tyrol off to our right. 

 

  Germany is a country to explore more and offers some breathtaking scenery.  And then into Austria and briefly back to Slovakia, before heading down to Italy for a wedding.  In Austria we have learned to love the service stations! In the UK these can be a bit like a cattle market with their teeming fast food joints, but at least you may get a Marks and Spencer’s, or even a Waitrose if you are lucky. And in Italy they are like a cattle market conducted in a Reliant Robin. But the Austrian version is more like a stately home with rare breeds roaming free in the landscaped grounds. The food is fabulous, served by smart waiting staff in a rarefied atmosphere of wood panelling, china lanterns are hanging on chains over each table, old ceramics line shelves between double curtained windows looking out onto the lovely lake. And for once I am glad to have listened to Marilyn.  All is forgiven.  We are friends again.  SatNav’s are ok by me.
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Traveller's Tale - Europe :: Comments

AbsintheKombi
Re: Traveller's Tale - Europe
Post Tue Dec 31, 2013 5:34 pm by AbsintheKombi
Thanks for that. Making me yearn for the open road and adventure. Just what I need at the turn of the year.
wheatypete
Re: Traveller's Tale - Europe
Post Tue Dec 31, 2013 5:51 pm by wheatypete
Happy New Year to you, Absinthe.  Great moniker, and a nice comment.  That is what these Brazillians are for!  And there is a chance that we may be working on Lake Geneva next year very close to the source of you moniker, you would be welcome to visit... rather you than me with that evil stuff though!  Or is it just the VDub who runs off that fuel?
AbsintheKombi
Re: Traveller's Tale - Europe
Post Tue Dec 31, 2013 6:23 pm by AbsintheKombi
Both of us I'm afraid. Ou est la fee verte?
wheatypete
Re: Traveller's Tale - Europe
Post Tue Dec 31, 2013 7:23 pm by wheatypete
En Suise ou cela a origine (excuse le manque d'accent!).  Mais j'ai l'idee que c'est illegale en Suise de nos jours.  Eaux, qui l'ont invente de grace!
 

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