Day 8 – Sunday Funday

Day 8 – Sunday Funday

I woke up all confused in a bed, my head a little foggy after my handful of beers. The sound of heavy rain hitting the bonnet of my car made me smile as I was in a motel and not a tent.  I had forgotten to eat last night, the thought of trying to order food and getting it 7 hours later made me sad. So much for eating an authentic Italian meal made by a Grandma!

Breakfast was included in the stay and so I filled up on pastries and coffee.  The two young girls looking after the breakfast room hurried around picking up and cleaning and smiling.  They were dripping in fashion labels from head to toe and looked every bit the classy and stylish Italian stereotype.

As full as a gun, I packed up and set off heading for better Alps!  I was heading for the Aosta Valley and into Switzerland and wanted to see Mont Blanc.  As the hotel was right on the motorway, I was straight off on the road and ready to rock.  The Italian motorway system had other ideas.  I spent an hour driving back and forth along toll roads trying to get the right exit to head into the mountains.  I was feeling glum.

Eventually, after many swear words and many burnt Euros, I was on the way.  Again, I was on the flat, but this time south of the Alps, and could see the mountains starting to form up on the horizon.  I was starting to get excited again. Maybe this was the day that my ‘proper’ mountain drive would happen.

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As I made my way towards Aosta we were following the River Po up the valley. It looked cold and grey but in full flow.  It looked like it was an artery coming out of the alps and was bleeding heavily; just waiting for winter to turn up to help scab it over and stop the flow with its ice.

On my left-hand side, was a small mountain and from about half way until about 90% of the way up it was covered in cloud.  It looked like the mountain was trying to hide in the clouds but failing. Like a giraffe hiding behind a tree with its big daft head sticking out.

It looked as if someone was standing on the top of the mountain throwing enormous handkerchiefs down and watching them float to the bottom of the valley but it wasn’t, it was paragliders.  Maybe about half a dozen of them floating down. The views they had must have been stunning.

I was getting close to Aosta where I would be forced to make another route call. North into Switzerland or north west into France? I realised I had still not eaten a meal in Italy, other than a hotel breakfast.  I decided that I would take a rest in Aosta and work out the next steps.

I pulled up outside of Restaurant Caesar; a busy looking pizzeria with tables outside looking out onto the wide and clean street.  All the tables were busy with families enjoying their Sunday launch and that’s always a great sign.  I picked my pizza. It was like a quattro stagioni but it was salami, red cabbage and fresh basil and it was bloody lovely.  It was so nice and the service so good that I followed up with a load of ice cream.  I was as happy as could be. I finally had my authentic Italian pizza, it was a lovely day, and I was about to attack the Alps.

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Yes, I took pictures of my meal.

It was at that table that I decided I would head into France instead of Switzerland.  Switzerland would be expensive and the roads expensive and it’s so……well….neutral.    I may not like France too much, but at least they try things rather than spend their entire existence sitting getting splinters in their backsides.

With fresh excitement, purpose and desire (and a few extra dough-based pounds hanging about my midriff) I hopped back in the car and headed for the mountains along the E25.  A few miles from the border, I stopped for a diesel top up and pottered around the gift shop inside the petrol station.  It was mainly filled with Ferrari and Italian football memorabilia but there, right in the middle of the Juve scarfs and F1 key rings, was a thing of absolute beauty.  Titchy feet loves Limoncello, I had already seen a bottle in the Duty Free on the ferry over and was planning a bottle for the way home as her gift, but she would be blown away by the splendour of this. 1

IMG_9348The fact that is was filled with glorious golden yellow liquid maybe made it stand out like a golden nugget in a wall of shit but, there it was,  a bottle of  limoncello in the shape of Italy.  Priceless. I felt like Indiana Jones and was worried that as soon as I picked this glorious gift up, it would set off booby traps the would force me to prove myself worthy of such a classy gift.

I took a turn off at Chenoz and zig zagged over the mountain passes and worked my way up to the peaks.  Words don’t even begin to do justice to the views and the scale of beauty that I witnessed. Eight hairpin bends later, I ended up following the traffic into a car park rather than up the road.  I didn’t want to admit my mistake and turn around, so I was pleased when I realised that I had accidentally arrived at a Passerella Panoramica, (panoramic footpath according to my Google translator), so I grabbed my camera and set off walking.

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On the forest walk to the gantry, you could hear a rumble and roar that grew louder with every step. Eventually the path opened and you could see a drop of maybe 100 meters to a narrow V-shaped valley that was alive with white rapids.  The summer melt was clearly in effect and the noise was amazing.  I was as happy as Larry that the view was free to get down to and wasn’t too busy at all.  Happy with my lot, I continued along the path and as I turned a corner I stopped in my tracks with my mouth wide open.

IMG_9394The view point wasn’t for the rushing water in the valley below, that was just a warm up act. The main event was a suspended walkway that curved away and out from the hill side in an arc of maybe 200 meters.  Looking down, there was nothing but air between the see-through walkway and the ground 160 metres below, but you didn’t look down, you looked out at the most beautiful view of Mont Blanc.

I honestly think that I spent about an hour just taking it all in. Splitting my time between taking photos and trying to burn the sights into my mind in case my camera got stolen before I got home.  I just hope that the attached pictures do it some justice.

IMG_9383Walking back towards the car park I got chatting, in terrible French, to an old lady that must have been in her late seventies. She had been left to sit on a seat with her small dog while her daughter walked down to the gantry I had just left behind.  She was adorable. I told her (the best that I could) that she should walk down as the view was stunning. She told me(again I think she did anyway!) that she had lived in the town below all of her life and that she was too old to walk any further. Bless her. It was hard to work out if she was happy that I had taken the time to chat with her or if she was laughing at my terrible French.

IMG_9399Back at the car, I continued my way along the SS26 towards the Little St Bernard Pass.  The next stop was La Thuile. I stopped to take pictures in the lovely little alpine village. I had just missed the Bataille des Chèvres (goat fight) but the town was all dressed up in its finest still and looked lovely.  Back in the car, continuing up towards the peak, there were hairpin bends and just the most perfect views and the cleanest, crisp fresh air. I stopped every so often to walk up hills and take more pictures and, again, I just hope that they do the place justice as it was stunning.

IMG_9392I crossed the border into France with smatterings of snow all around me, then started my slow and winding drop into the valley that opened up below me.  Bourg Saint Maurice looked like a miniature town way down below, it just didn’t look real, but with each hairpin bend, it got more and more real until the Alps were just a beautiful view in my rear-view mirror.

IMG_9380I had been listening to a podcast on the way over the mountains and it came to me that the anniversary of D-Day was only two days away.  I checked the maps and realised that I could make it there if I didn’t muck about on my way through France.

I decided that I would get on and drive as much as I could. It would be around 600 miles from the Italian border to Normandy and so the more I drove in my great mood, the easier it would be tomorrow.  I ploughed on and I was sent on a massive detour as the Tunnel Du Chat was closed.  The views of the Lac Du Bourget would have been an acceptable compromise for the extra miles and time taken on any other day, but I had been spoilt by the earlier miles over the Alps.

I was frustrated and tired by now and started looking for a campsite around 7pm.  I had another 30-minute detour looking for a signposted campsite that, when I arrived, was shut for the night.  It was getting dark and I was getting tired and so I pressed on further, happy to pay for a hotel and take the extra time driving and getting well rested in a room rather than on a damp floor in my tent.

Eventually, after a fair bit of swearing and grunting at the lack of hotels or bed and breakfasts that had been plentiful all of my day until I wanted one, I ended up in a hotel in Bourg-en-Bresse.

It was too late for food and so I had a beer and bag of nuts as I caught up on the news.  I sat and watched the updates coming in from London of the terrorist attacks and found it all very upsetting.  I had experienced such a beautiful day with amazing sights and met some lovely people, yet lived in a world where hatred and anger like that could live side by side.  I went to bad happy and tired but disappointed at some of my fellow humans.

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Day 7 – Saturday, Champion!

Day 7 – Saturday, Champion!

I woke up all excited. Today was the day that I was going to drive over the Alps.  It was a bright but crisp morning and I enjoyed the red hot shower and a breakfast of nuts and coffee.  The tent was packed up in no time at all and I was back on the road, deliberately looking left all the way so that I wouldn’t realise that I was driving PAST a theme park at 9.30 on a Saturday morning.

The sun quickly burnt through the clouds and it turned into a glorious morning as I passed through little German villages, each of them looking more idyllic than the next.  It was Saturday morning and everywhere I passed through, people were heading to their local butchers, bakers and, probably, candlestick makers.  There were very few major supermarkets, it all seemed very old fashioned but beautiful to see.  Parents with kids on the back of bikes, or older kids on their little bikes peddling away like mad to keep up, but all on very safe and very well respected cycle lanes at the side of the road.

I say well respected.  I stopped at a little supermarket to pick up some bread, more nuts and some jam for lunch but as I pulled out of the car park my warning lights started flashing on the dashboard as my boot was still open.

I quickly pulled across to the side of the road as I was convinced that my tent and the rest of my gear was going to fly out across the street.   I pulled right in front of a guy on a bike that was, understandably, furious with me for pulling such a stupid manoeuvre and his mood wasn’t improved as, not realising at that point what I had done, I opened my door and nearly wiped him out a second time.

I learned a few new words in German, none of which I would like to try and repeat in polite company.  Poor fella.

I had passed through Mindenheim, Mindelweg, Kaufbeuren, Marktoberdorf and a town called Roßhaupten when I started to feel a bit peckish as it crept towards lunchtime.  I turned the corner and a beautiful scene unfolded in front of me.  Lake Forggensee looked like it was the equivalent of the Lake District as there were lots of walkers, cyclist and day trippers floating around and loads of water sports taking place on the lake. It turns out that it was manmade, formed by damming the River Lech to better control the melt water coming off the Alps, but it was a beautiful spot.

IMG_9330It looked very much as if the flat lands were now over and I was about to start my trip up into the Alps.  As the scenery panned out in front of me it looked like I was travelling from the centre of a very large plate pie and I was just coming up to the built up crust round the edges, all jagged and angry.

The backdrop was stunning and I was very excited as I ate my bread and jam and let the warm sun kiss my face.  I was surrounded by maybe 50 people sunbathing and playing around in the water and it all felt very out of place seeing this with snow and mountains in the background.

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This is not my Picture, it’s from Google, but its a good one!

I set off again, full and happy, and headed towards what I had been looking forward to for longer than I could remember.  My trip over the Alps; winding roads and stunning views.  This was it!

Maybe I was tired, maybe I was over excited, it’s hard to say, but the next few hours were really disappointing.  Rather than the tight hairpins and fantastic scenery I had in my mind’s eye, I sat on a motorway through mountains with high barriers and pretty dull views.  I made my way through Austria and stopped for petrol at a place called Fernpasse Rast.  It looked like a Bavarian hostel and all the staff were wearing traditional dress.  Again, maybe it was just my mood but it felt like hell.  There were about half a dozen trip buses, and about 250 Chinese and Indian tourists dismounted, each with a selfie stick in one hand and some seriously strong cigarettes in the other, and filled the toilets and shops with stink and excited chatter.

I pushed on to the Brenner pass and jumped over the border into Italy.  This part of the trip wasn’t what I had hoped for and I was starting to feel glum and then I remembered that it was Saturday.    Champions League final Saturday!

I quickly tried to recall who was playing and remembered that it was Juventus playing Real Madrid.  I would be able to watch an Italian team in the Champions League final in their home country.  Suddenly, my zest was back.  I parked up and had a quick review of the maps and realised that I could probably make Milan in time to get showered, booted and suited in time for the game.  Maybe wear a crisp white shirt and have some pasta made by a 95-year-old grandma that would welcome me into her kitchen to watch the game with her family?

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I felt like I had passed over an imaginary line from Northern to Southern Europe.  Suddenly, the clean perfection of Germany and Austria was replaced by scatty looking buildings, graffiti all over and a general feel of everything being half finished, or maybe half started.  Everything looked grim including the vehicles around me.

It felt like every 20 minutes I passed a pay station for the motorway.  I don’t even know how much I was charged at each station as the shame of having to get out of my car, run around to the passenger side to pay and then run back to jump in before the barrier came down was too much for me! It blows my mind that the rest of Europe still drive on the wrong side of the road 🙂

Lots of angry drivers and 4 hours later, I was near Milan.  I was tired, it was raining and I felt miserable.  I felt as if I had made the wrong choice and should have headed any other direction except Italy.  I didn’t want to fight my way into the centre of a town, never mind a city the size of Milan.  The driving was crazy and aggressive on the motorways and the city would have been a million times worse.  I felt like I wanted out of Italy and wanted to be close to the way out when I set off.

I pulled off the motorway and pulled up at a motel AS Cambiago.  I could pretty much park my car inside the bedside table and was happy to be in a bad and limitless hot shower.  I was washed and refreshed and my towel was on the bathroom drier faster than you could say ‘Forza Juve’.

I walked down to the bar, was served an ice cold Peroni and picked my seat for the match just as the teams were lining up for the anthems.  Perfect timing.  I exchanged nods and tuts with an Italian chap who was clearly a huge Juve fan and watched the first half happy that I was getting in the vibe with the locals.

Ronaldo scored on 20 minutes and it looked like it was going to be a horrible night but then Mandzukic scored an unbelievable goal to level it up and set up the second half to be a real spectacle.  I asked my new friend, let’s call him Mario, if he wanted a beer and he happily nodded his agreement.  I then spent the entire half time break and the first five minutes of the second half waiting to get served.

Let me be clear, there was just me stood at the bar.  There was no crowd and no fight to get to the front of a queue, just me, standing there with a 20 Euro note wafting it to show I intended to spend it.  The barman filled up peanut bowls, he wiped glasses clean, he moved papers around, he did anything he could find other than to serve the only customer he had.

I was starting to fall out of love with Italy.

Eventually I was served, gave Mario his beer but he was too engrossed in the football to thank me I think.  As Real Madrid slotted in a second, third and fourth goal without response in the second half I think Mario also forgot how to get the rounds in and say goodbye to me as he just got up and walked off never to be seen again.

Maybe he wasn’t a true friend after all?  That’s why I don’t feel too bad about naming him Mario.

 

 

The road to Germany – Day 6 (Friday)

The road to Germany – Day 6 (Friday)

I thought that with a few beers in me and a long walk and a good feed I would have slept like a log.  I hadn’t taken into account the two caravans either side of my tent filled with two families of travellers from Birmingham.  Their kids had been winding me up all evening; walking between my tent and my car and pretending to shoot me with their toy guns.  That wasn’t too bad but their inability to walk past my car, instead of favouring to walk INTO it was testing my nerves a little.

The fact that they decided to stay up chatting, drinking and swearing until three in the morning was harder to take, especially with the number of miles I had planned to do today.  When I woke up and started to pack my tent away I got chatting to two Dutch couples that were camping next to me.  They were cycling from Holland, through Belgium and then on through the Alps and must have been in their early seventies.

It turned out that the lady who was chatting with me had a sister that lived in Mierlo.  It really is a small world.  We swapped presents. I gave them my pots of porridge that I hated and they gave me their spare coins for the shower which meant that I could have a double shower, and then said our goodbyes.

Just outside of the campsite was a petrol station and I filled up for the journey ahead.  I had been averaging 60mpg since I left home and it felt like such an easy drive.  I love that Mercedes so much and I was pleased to be taking it back home to the Autobahns.

I headed out onto the N15 towards Luxembourg, the forests and greenery of east Belgium flowing past me in one big beautiful blur.  I passed through Luxembourg in no time, the sleepy town of Landau being the largest town I passed through and Ettelbruck being the prettiest.  It was Christmas Day 1944 that General Patton liberated the city during the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge and the town square is named in his honour.

As I dropped down out of the hills of Luxembourg and dropped into Germany, there was almost an immediate change in the scenery, the traffic, the roads and the pace. The grassy green hills morphed into flatlands and the lazy winding roads of Luxembourg became wider and ugly with unsightly bridges over dirty rivers and occasional hideous looking industrial towns on the Saar and the Rhein.

It was as if I had passed through the capillaries and veins of Europe and was now in the artery heading for the industrial and financial heart. It really was quite a dramatic change.  I skirted around Stuttgart and got hopelessly lost in Ettlingen whilst trying to find somewhere to buy lunch.

I ploughed on along the horribly busy autobahns that seemed to have an abnormally high number of Porsches and Mercedes all fighting to be the biggest dickhead on the road.  With both companies seeing Stuttgart as their home, senior executives get to use the roads as a racetrack to test out the cars.  That might not actually be true but it was the only way their driving made any sense to me and I am not noted for my sedentary pace in a car.

It was just north of Ulm that I nearly died as a truck pulled out of the inside lane towards me in the middle lane without either indication or reason to do so.  If there had been one of the German racers belting up the third lane at the time it would have wiped me and them clean out but it was my only escape route.  I was lucky, the same could not be said for my underpants.

I was getting tired and the skies were starting to look dark and ominous.  I was about half way between Ulm and Augsburg, some way short of my target of Munich, when I spotted a sign at the side of the motorway for a campsite and so let fate be my guide.  It seemed to take an age to get from the autobahn to the campsite but maybe it was just the ever-darkening imposing skies adding a sense of drama to my tent erecting.

I drove past the entrance to LEGOLAND, just 5 minutes off the motorway and my 10-year-old self was really pissed off at me for being this close to a theme park and not going in.  Well off the beaten track, and by now under the gloom of a slight misty rain, I pulled into Camping Stubenweiher. http://www.stubenweiher.de  It looked closed but after three circuits of the Bavarian Style reception/bar/restaurant sitting on the duck pond, a chap eventually popped out and took my cash and showed me to my pitch.

I sat in the car for 5 minutes deciding if the drizzle, upgraded from a mist, was as bad as it was going to get or if I needed to pitch the tent quickly in the wet before it turned into a full-on cloud break.  I was hungry and thirsty and so decided to make a break for it.  I got the tent up in no time at all with minimum fuss and sat under the shade of a tree and polished off a coffee and a tin of curried chicken.

Where I had pitched my tent, there was no phone reception and I needed to get my daily fix of Titchy Feet.  Wandering back up the hill, along the windy roads that led through the cornfields, I could hear nothing except the gentle breeze tickling the trees and the occasional hoot and squawk of wildlife.  Eventually I got my signal and had a good old catch up with home as well as hitting my daily step target on my Fitbit.

I wandered back down to ‘home’ and headed over to the bar to buy my shower voucher for the morning. I set up my laptop at a table for one by the side of the lake and ordered myself a beer.  As I watched the ducks pottering about, chasing the fish that seemed to be nibbling at their feet, I looked at Google Maps and tried to nail the big question, Italy or Bavaria?

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I pondered for a while, then gave up and had a quick check of the news to see what was going on.  It was then that I realised that the following day, Saturday, was the Champions League Final and that swung it for me.  I could watch the Juventus v Real Madrid match in Italy, enjoy some proper fancy Italian food and hospitality and spend the day driving over the Alps.  What could be more perfect than that I hear you say?  A fly swat and a mosquito net I reply.  Never camp next to still water.

Bloody Bastogne – Day 5

Bloody Bastogne – Day 5

Thursday – (Day 5) Bastogne

With my one Euro chitty in hand I headed for a shower in the communal washing block.  I had forgotten the pressure of timing a shower to 60 seconds, the frisson of excitement that that time challenge presents were almost as exciting as my mint shower gel on my privates. Almost but not quite.

The whole shower experience was significantly better then breakfast which was a pot of syrup flavoured porridge that I made up with boiling water.  It tasted like wallpaper paste mixed with cough.  It was at this point that I realised how much I missed proper English tea!

I drove into town parked up just off the main street.  I wandered back to the town square named McAuliffe Square after the wartime General.  The town of Bastogne was a key crossroads and was of a critical strategic importance to the Axis troops.  Surrounding the Allied forces in the town, the Germans sent a messenger to offer the chance of surrender, to which General McAuliffe responded with the now legendary single word, ‘NUTS’.

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Next to his monument, beside the crossroads at the top of the town square, stands a Sherman tank from that battle.  It looked defiant and strong; a symbol of strength and the epitome of resilience.  It wasn’t until you walked around and took a closer look that you could, very clearly, see that a shell had entered the side of the tank making a perfectly smooth hole through which, I suspect, you could have slotted in a can of soft drink.  When you walked around to the back you could see a larger, more ragged hole where it had clearly been hit from behind.

It is a very real, and somewhat sickening, reminder of the power of the weapons that were in use.  The way that this massive lump of metal has been broken with such apparent ease blew my mind and the damage that must have been caused inside was quite moving.

I walked down the hill, through town and then followed the sign to the museum.  I thought it would be in the town centre but ended up walking about 2 miles in the blazing sunshine of mid-day.  It was worth the walk.  The American Liberators Memorial was next to the museum and was a thing of beauty.  It is in the shape of a five-pointed star and must be over 10 metres high.  You can climb up some stairs in one of the points and walk around the roof area which gives amazing views of the town back down the valley.

The names of the 48 states that made up the USA during the war are engraved on the memorial and there is a history of the battle written over around ten panels.  The scale of the piece is breath-taking and the fact that it was paid for and is maintained by the Belgian people is amazing.

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The museum next door tells the story of the battle from the point of view of four different people; a young lad, a female resistance fighter and an American and a German soldier.  It was very interesting and stuffed with artefacts and memories.  I was just about getting to the stage where I had had too much of war stories when I got to the end of the tour.

I set off on the long walk back into town and realised I had missed lunch.  I made up for it with a very exclusive lunch in the town square….chicken kebab and chips!  Stuffed to the brim, I had a final walk around town.  It was a lovely place, clean and tidy with a feel of wealth and prosperity everywhere you looked.  Sure, there were reminders of war all over the town, in the gift shops, the roadside tanks and pill boxes and the occasional ostentatious American tourist wearing crazy caps and loud shirts.  But life was very, well, normal.

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I know that the war ended over 70 years ago and you can’t expect people to still be walking around in period costumes for the tourists, but it just seems as if life is going on inside a film set and it all looks out of place.  I know it sounds crackers, but that’s how it felt!

I had a nice stroll back to the campsite for a nice cup of coffee and a tin of beans.  A quick change of clothes and I wandered over to the campsite bar for a few beers and to catch up on emails and to download a few podcasts for the car.  I also spent a good chunk of time looking at maps and trying to work out where I was heading.  I knew that the choice was going to be either towards Berchtesgaden on the German/Austrian border or through the Alps and through Northern Italy.

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I still wasn’t sure which way to go but knew that, whatever the call, I could set off from the area around Munich and so that would be the target for tomorrow’s drive.

Going Dutch –  Wednesday (Day 4)

Going Dutch – Wednesday (Day 4)

I woke up in glorious sunshine and one of the nicest showers I had ever been in; lapping up the mod cons before going back to the stone age!  I had an important job to do today. A good friend of mine had lost her father in Holland in the Second World War.  She has never been over to see his grave and so I thought I would pay a visit to show my respects.  I had researched before I left home and knew that he was buried at a commonwealth war graves cemetery at Mierlo, just outside of Eindhoven.  As I waved goodbye to my friend I set route for Holland.  The problem was I had forgotten to download the maps for Holland!  I will never know if my friend ever spotted me parked up on her driveway stealing her internet, but if she did, I’m glad she didn’t come out to take the piss out of me!

Google Maps has totally changed the world hasn’t it?  Before it was around, when you looked at a map you saw where you were going but had no idea what it would be like when you got there.  Due to Google Maps Street View, I knew exactly where the cemetery was and what it looked like in the area around it.  I knew where to park and knew what sort of area it was.  The adventure, somewhat diminished, was about to begin.

I wanted to place some flowers on the grave and so drove into the centre of Mierlo to find a shop, a toilet and a pastry.  As with all Dutch towns and villages, the thing that hits you the most is the number of bicycles.  All the way from Dunkirk, the largest hills that I had seen were mole hills.  You could see mums and dads coming home from schools with loads of kids behind them on bikes, like a family of ducks.  The perfect terrain mixed with great infrastructure such as bike lanes and cycle paths made it so much more attractive compared to taking the car.

I stopped in the busy shopping street and picked up a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie.  The kind and happy old gent behind the counter seemed to know every one of his customers and often seemed to anticipate their orders before they even got into the shop. It was a lovely, clean and friendly place and I sat in the window and watched the world go by with the sun on my face and wonderful feeling that this trip was turning out to be everything that I hoped it would.

I tidied up my cup and my plate and said my farewells. I was on the hunt for flowers and had spotted a supermarket just next door. I picked up a bunch of orange roses, representing the national colour of the Dutch people, and headed for the little car park opposite the cemetery that I felt that I knew so well from Google Maps.

As I walked across the busy road heading from Mierlo to Geldrop from the car park, it was immediately apparent what a superb job the commonwealth war graves commission does day in and day out. The whole cemetery looked like it was a football pitch ready for a cup final with perfectly cut lawns and razor sharp edges. It was spotless. Perfectly tended and, I don’t mind admitting it, brought a tear to my eye.

I signed into the visitor’s book and checked the location of the grave.  As soon as I spotted the name right there in print it all became very real. As I walked over to the grave stone all I could hear was the gentle chirping of the birds sitting in the trees that were slowly swaying in the gentle breeze. It was perfect. I placed the flowers on the grave stone and just took a moment to take in all the emotion, peace and tranquillity of the moment.

I called my friend back in England to tell her where I was and what I had done and reassure her that her father was in a beautiful place and beautifully cared for.  I took some photos to share with her when I got home and as I walked back to my car I thought to myself that if the rest of the trip was a nightmare of rain, bad campsites and car breakdowns, today had made the trip worthwhile no matter.

I made my way south from Eindhoven, heading towards Genk.  In all honesty, I wasn’t sure where I was heading for the rest of the trip.  I was thinking Bavaria but possibly Italy, so just headed South/South East until I could make up my mind.  I didn’t follow the motorway; I stuck to local roads and found a lovely little spot to stop at the Lozen Waterway.

I just parked up and watched barges, and the rest of the world, passing by.  No-one was in a hurry, life was calm, the going easy and the sun belted down on the flat land and calm canal. The only noise was the light traffic and the occasional bicycle rattling past.

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By the time I arrived at Genk I had decided that I was going to aim to get to Bastogne for my first night in a tent.  The towns that were signposted such as Malmedy, Aachen and St Vith were steeped in history, especially for those that show an interest in the Second World War. I wanted to visit Bastogne as it was such a famous battle zone, even more so after it was highlighted in the TV series Band Of Brothers.

I slowly meandered through the beautiful green Ardennes region and got to Bastogne just before tea time.  With a little help from Titchy back home, I found a campsite and got the tent pitched in no time at all.  I had hardly moved all day and so went for a quick run into town to stretch the legs. I went to bed that night excited at the prospect of the following day, where I would be walking through history.

PS I know it’s immature, but I also passed through a village called Bra.  🙂

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Day 3 – Into Europe

Day 3 – Into Europe

Tuesday (Day 3)

I got to the ferry terminal at Dover at 8.45 and stretched my legs around the departure lounge.  I bought a new set of breathalysers which are compulsory in France as I had noticed that the ones I had were out of date.  I was going to try and wing it but the paperwork I was given on arrival specifically asked me to check they were in date and, so to avoid an international scene, I bought new ones.  Thinking that I would be ripped off if I bought them on the boat, I bought them at the terminal only to find they were 50% cheaper on the boat.  Add to that £3.20 for a hot chocolate on board and I was having second thoughts about this trip!

The sailing itself was perfect, the channel being a mill pond.  Having French and British passport control in the UK meant that as soon as the boat docked you just drove off straight into France.

I had downloaded a map app that allowed to you plan routes without having to consume data.  It sort of half worked but not really, every so often it would kick you off the motorway and send you along minor roads.  For your serious truck driver that would be a killer but for me, with time to kill and nothing interesting to see on motorways, it was bloody marvellous.

My host for that evening was an old workmate who lives just outside of Gent but as she didn’t return from work until gone six, I had loads of time to potter up there.  I initially headed for St Omer as I saw the sign as I got off the ferry and it brought back lovely memories of camping trips as a child.  It was always the last place that we would camp before we came home and we always ended up at the same campsite that was run by a little chap and his wife that we always called Rene as he looked just like the café owner from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

In my mind’s eye it was a tiny village and so, when I got there and found a lovely little town that was bustling with children getting out of school, I was very surprised. It was equally lovely and lively.

I decided to try a local burger bar called McDonalds, nothing like authentic French food.  Nothing at all like it.  Their free WiFi (to allow me to update my mapping app) was the main driver.

Once I was all French fried up, their lack of chicken select meals was very disappointing by the way, I followed the river Aa through side roads.  I stopped for a while to watch a barge negotiate a lock.  I was in the perfect position to record the barge as it dropped around four meters through the lock.  That was until the little window of the office slid open and the Lock Keeper opened a volley of French at me that, I guess, translated as “get off that bridge you crazy bastard, we are trying to move a boat here.”

I shuffled off the quickest route I could and wanted to drive off as quickly as I could, but as I had a canal between me and my car by that point, my shame was extended until the barge slowly shuffled off.

I pottered slowly up into Belgium to my friend’s house just outside of Gent, a little place called Merelbeke.  It was the loveliest house in the loveliest of areas and we sat in her back garden and enjoyed a BBQ.

It was great to catch up. It has been almost three years since our last catch up, and the conversation eventually swung around to what she missed about England, where she had lived for six or seven years.

I was stunned.  Apparently, our obsession with eating crisps is a bit of a ‘thing’ in Europe.  Over the water, they don’t mind a crisp but only as a nibble to enjoy with a glass of wine or beer.  The fact that we Islanders, as we are called over there, choose to eat crisps with our sandwiches at lunchtime is considered a bit weird.

It was also considered typically English that I took my barbequed sausage and popped it into bread to make a sandwich.  I didn’t even think about that as being remotely weird!  The fact that they eat raw cows made me feel a little bit more comfortable about who the weird one was!

I slept on the settee that night, but in my sleeping bag to prepare myself for when the camping kicked in for real.

The Grand Tour – Days 1 and 2

Sunday (Day 1)

I set off from the North East of England after a few weeks of packing and preparing.  The car is busy but not packed to bursting. I am travelling so light in fact that the parcel shelf still manages to pull over my kit so my car doesn’t look like a flashing sign to car thieves to break in.

In many ways, it has been a hard trip for me as I know that by travelling alone I am upsetting many loved ones, not least Titchy Feet.  But this is something that I have wanted to do for a while, and it is not something that I am doing without their thoughts.  This is an itch that I need to scratch.

It is not until now, sitting on the ferry on day three of my adventure that I think I understand quite why that itch has developed.  As I child, we used to have family holidays around Europe in a VW campervan.   I was picking up some stuff in a shop last week and I noticed a roll-on deodorant made by Brut.  I was strangely drawn to it and decided to buy it.

I wore it for the first time this morning and, as I drove to the ferry terminal, I realised that I carried the exact same smell of my late father.  I was on an adventure, maybe trying to be my Dad, trying to be as strong, as fearless and as cool as my dad was on those trips.  The memories were as thick as the proper gravy that we used to have on our pie and chips at the Hovercraft terminal, our traditional departure meal back in the day.

Whatever the reason, as I sit now half way between the mainland and our great island, it is too late to back track and I wouldn’t want to anyway.

Anyway, back to the last few days.  I have a friend that lives just outside of Woking and that was to be my drop off point for a few nights before heading off.  No matter how good the planning, I was never going to remember everything and it wasn’t until I was half way down and ticking things off in my mind did I realise I had forgotten a plate and pillows…. both easily sorted subsequently at a supermarket.  Tent, sleeping bag, gas cooker and a million tins of beans was all that I really needed.

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On arrival at Woking I attended a speaking engagement my host had at his local church.  It was a fascinating talk on the history of Jews from 70 AD to the modern day.  Not something that I would have ordinarily rushed to attend but it was interesting and thought provoking.  A perfect reminder that for the next 10 days I will be trying to open my mind and say yes to as much as I can to experience new things and take on new adventures.  I want to be the best version of me that I can.

I had driven down on cruise control most of the way, 70 mph on the open road and 50mph for what felt like most the way in the average speed check roadworks, and had managed to get there on an average MPG of 60.1.  Not too shabby at all!

Monday (Day 2)

I had arranged a stay over at a friend’s house just outside of Gent as part of my trip and she had asked if I could bring her a particular type of vodka from the UK that she could not get hold of in Belgium.  Supermarkets didn’t stock it (believe me I had tried several) and so my Woking host took me to a specialist independent off-licence in West Byfleet.

The happy little man behind the counter sorted us out no problem at all and so to celebrate we headed to the coffee shop just down the way for coffee and pretty damn good cake.  The weather forecast suggested 95% chance of rain between 10-1 and so we took our time over our break and then pottered our way around pretty villages and a huge house called Chobham Place House.  We were tempted to scale the fences to see who was on the other side but thought better of it and, instead, opted to head for Chobham Clump.

We had a great walk, with the rain just about holding off to no more than the occasional drizzle.    We walked by, and had a lovely chat with, two gents that were flying model planes around the large open space of the heathlands.  My late grandfather, who served in the RAF during the war and brought me up on his war time tales, would have been so proud of me identifying the black and white invasion stripes on the wings of the plane, but not so proud of misidentifying the Mustang as a Spitfire.  Poor show.

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We headed for another drink to reward our efforts at the Four Horse Shoes, the most Horsey and outdoorsy pub I had ever seen.  As we didn’t have a bike, jodhpurs or a dog they were not too keen on serving us but they backed down in the end.

Our lungs full of the fresh air and our appetite built up, we headed home to wash and get ready for the evening meal at a superb Indian restaurant called the Kayal.  Back home fully content and, at last, feeling excited about the road trip rather than nervous, it was time for bed.