Up with the larks I was at the ferry terminal before most of the employees of DFDS and so I was first in the queue to get boarded. I picked a seat right in the nose of the ferry and watched like a dog waiting at the front window of its house awaiting its owner to return, except I was desperate to see the famous white cliffs again.
I won’t bore you with my drive home, I have probably bored you enough already. But let me summarise the trip the best I can.
– I loved the freedom of going where I wanted, when I wanted.
– I loved visiting history spots and feeling like I was surrounded by the echos of the past; Mierlo, Bastogne, Normandy.
– The drive from Italy back into France was amazing.
– I met some really nice people and saw some amazing characters.
– I did too much driving and not enough viewing. I should have stopped at villages and wandered around rather than seeing places at 30 mph in my car.
– I wish I had spent more money on toll roads and given myself more time to get out into wherever I landed each night and bought meals. I like food, but ended up eating tins of meat from the UK or supermarket cheese and bread. I only had two bought meals in restaurants.
– I wish I had planned more and worked out what I wanted to see and the route ahead of the trip so I could spend more time taking in the sights and people around me and less time looking at maps and Googling routes!
I packed up the tent and said my au revoirs to my little French friend in the campsite reception. I am not 100% sure that he understood a single word I said, but I was happy that I had tried my best.
I was heading home the next day and so needed to be near Dunkirk for an early ferry. I hate being under pressure for time so for once I knew where I had to be that night in order to be able to sleep comfortably.
I had plenty of time and so decided to swing by the famous Pegasus Bridge in Ranville. It is the on the easternmost section of the D-Day invasion area on the River Orne. Three gliders landed 100 meters away from the bridge and captured it intact; taking the German garrison totally by surprise. By capturing and holding the bridge, it prevented the German forces from reinforcing the landing areas with armour during and after the invasion.
The landing of the gliders so close to the bridge, giving the vital element of surprise, was described as the greatest flying achievement of the Second World War. Just next to the bridge was a small café that was, and still is, owned by the Gondree family. It was said to be the first building liberated on D-Day.
Arlette Gondree (the daughter of the owner on D-Day and who was there as a child herself on D-Day) owns the café today and her daughters run the show. It is a hot bed of memorabilia and a meeting place for veterans. I had to visit this place and take a look but was cautious as the reviews on TripAdvisor were not the best. Apparently the owners were sick of people taking photographs of the family and the memorabilia and were not scared to remind you of the photography ban they have put in place. It’s their café; they can do that if they like, no problem.
I went in with my camera respectfully packed away and my phone in my pocket and politely smiled when I got to the front of the queue ready to place my order. “NO PHOTOS” was barked at me by the most charming lady behind the counter, ‘Urm, yes, I wasn’t going to take any photos, sorry’. Being English, I felt like I had to apologise for doing nothing wrong.
I asked for a coffee and a croissant and was told that it was 3 Euro 75. I handed over a five Euro note as I had left my change in the car and was barked at ‘Do you not have anything smaller?’ Once again, I apologised for turning up in a café having not revised the price list before hand and turning up with the correct change. What was I thinking? She just shrugged her shoulders and began to serve the next person. It turned out that they don’t give change.
I laughed and drank my piss poor coffee and several day old pastry with a smile on my face. I was feeling sniffly and miserable after my run in the rain followed by a day in the rain. I had had enough of France and enough of the War memorabilia. I had been to the museum at the end of the bridge on a previous visit, so I had no interest in going again. As I stood up to leave I left my tray and empty cups on the table and, somehow a spoon from my coffee must have fallen into my bag. In my mind there was no way I was going to leave a €1.25 tip but I was happy to buy a €1.25 commemorative spoon!
I walked back across the bridge and stood at the markers on the grass next to the bridge that were placed where the gliders came to rest. The feeling of being surrounded by history was still there, and I took a while to take it all in before heading back to the car to get away from Normandy. Next to the bridge a mic and PA system had been set up and an event was clearly just about to begin. As I crossed the road I could see that a marching military band was heading over the bridge. I had seen enough. I didn’t hang around and headed home.
Nothing much happened on the rest of the drive. I probably spent around £30 extra on fuel while trying to avoid toll roads that probably would have cost £10. I followed the coast along and drove through some lovely villages but, I must say, I was sick of driving and missing home. Titchy Feet had recommended Honfleurs where she had visited as a child and said it was very pretty. I drove through and it was indeed a lovely looking town. I couldn’t find a parking space near to the shops and so I drove on after three laps of the town’s one way system. I wanted her to be there with me. I was missing her and my kids a lot.
I paid off half the French national debt to get over the Normandy Bridge, which connects Honfleurs to Le Havre. It was 2,143 metres long and felt like it was based on one of my Scalextric tracks in my front room when I used to try and make jumps by putting cassette tapes under the track to cause a lump. As you entered the bridge you couldn’t see the other side, just the peak half way across. It had the feel of a roller coaster where you spend a long while getting to peak but without the thrill of the free wheeling drop at the other side.
I actually made it back up to Dunkirk by early evening and chanced my arm at the ferry terminal. I asked if I could bring my ferry time forward so that I could get to England that night and head home through the night. I was turned away, which was probably best as I was in no mood for driving an all nighter. I found a pitch at a place called Cappelle-Brouck which was about 15 minutes away from the ferry terminal.
I got my tent up and had a wander along the canal with my camera before having a couple of medicinal beers in the campsite bar. The manager of the site was a traveller and a very intelligent and interesting guy. He suggested that I should come back with my family and stay in the site owners’ house that slept 10 people. It sounded amazing and it is in the notebook for future adventures!
Yet again, with no food on offer in the bar, I had to rely on a tin of chicken curry to get me through the night. It was time for bed.
On June 6th 2017 I woke up, on the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, about 100 meters away from the sea at Lion Sur Mer. I would quite like that to be on my gravestone if possible, that’s how excited I was about this coming day ahead. I had slept with my window open so that I could see the grey English Channel as soon as I woke up and try to image what it would have felt like, as a French Citizen living in that time, to see the huge armada closing down to provide deliverance.
Showered and ready for the big day ahead, in the most overly complex and useless shower I had ever seen, I packed up and checked out of my room. I was just about to set off when the hotel owner, who must have anticipated how useless I was, had been into my room to make sure I had left nothing behind, bellowed at me out of the window and threw my blue tooth speaker down to me below. Suitably embarrassed, I headed for Arromanches as the hotel receptionist had told me that was the centre for events that day.
As I made my way along the coastline, my excitement really built up. Pretty much every village had a green that had been turned into a makeshift campsite that was filled with period military vehicles such as jeeps and trucks, each one surrounded by enthusiasts dressed up in military regalia. There were English, French, Germans and Americans and there were soldiers, paratroopers and nurses. It all felt like I was in the middle of the preparation for D-Day on the other side of the water.
I followed the sea road west until the road turned sharply to the left and there was a car park on the bend full of trip buses and hundreds of cars. I didn’t stop but slowed enough to see what all the fuss was about. Opening out below was the town of Arromanches and there, quite clearly visible still in a broken semi-circle out to sea, were the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.
This was a giant floating harbour that was built in the United Kingdom and dragged over to France just after the D-Day landings. Without a port or a harbour being liberated, there had to be somewhere to land supplies to keep the advance powered. It would take a long time to liberate these strongholds and so we decided to bring our own with us in the meantime. Here, 70 odd years later, I would say that 15% of it still stands. Yet again, I felt like I was slap bang in the middle of history.
I followed the road down into the town and quickly found a overfull car park full of motorhomes and men with interesting beards and even more interesting sock and sandal combinations. I got lucky and managed to pull straight into a space as someone was leaving, I didn’t see one other person in the next 20 minutes get parked in there.
I was as close to the centre of town as I could have been as the centre had been cordoned off to make it a pedestrianised zone. There were security guards rummaging through bags, no doubt with the recent attacks in London and Paris still in people’s minds. The centre was alive with people and I stopped and got a croissant and a coffee and spent 20 minutes people watching.
The high street was full of two things, cafes or gift shops; the only thing breaking them up were the two museums. In terms of people, there appeared to be five groups:
‘Allied’ tourists, like me, there to pay their respects and feel part of history.
‘Axis’ tourists that, in my mind at least, seemed to be tip toing around and not being too German in case it upset anyone.
Veterans that were being dropped off on coaches and delivered by London black cabs. They wore blazers, caps and their medals with huge pride and, the majority of them at least, seemed to wear dubious stains on their trousers.
The military fancy dress enthusiast. I would class these as military re-enactment types that take things seriously making sure that look as authentic as possible. Not to be confused with;
Fancy dress types that buy a camouflage jacket from a gift shops and walk around as if they are in the army for a day.
It was group 5 that annoyed me the most. If I had been one of the veterans, there to remember my lost comrades and show my respects, I am not sure I would have been too happy to see people trying to get in on the act by wearing a polyester cap and desert fatigues. Anyway, who was I to judge?
My coffee finished, I watched the Dutch military marching band come down the main street and form up in the town square. Shortly afterwards about 20 jeeps turned up with reenactors waving at the crowds. There was then a short ceremony and speeches in the town square and a moment’s silence and reflection.
I wandered around the shops and picked up a few gifts and, no, I didn’t wear anything remotely military all day. Outside of the museum there seemed to be a crowd gathering and so I wandered over to see what was going on. There was a veteran sitting on a bench with his hands over the head of his walking stick looking like a sorcerer staring into his crystal ball. He was just telling his D-Day story and had a crowd of maybe 50 people around him in raptures. I say ‘just’ but it was totally remarkable hearing a first-hand account of the day.
He was laughing and joking and making it sound like a lads’ day out by saying things like ‘We got a hell of shock when the bastards started to fire back at us, we didn’t think that was fair’. But you could see an underlying pain in his eyes that were, I’m sure, slightly filling up. God only knows what sort of horrors he saw and how many friends he lost on that day and the months that followed. I felt uneasy, like I was intruding on his grief, and so walked down to the sea front and walked on the sands for a while and just took in the emotion of the day.
I didn’t want to be stuck for accommodation again that night and there was a break in the proceedings so I walked back to the car and headed back along the coast to the east. I had passed a campsite on the way into town and thought it looked ok so there, on the main road at Asnelles, I headed into Camping Quintefeuille.
The guy behind the counter did not speak a word of English and so I tried my very best to speak to him in French. It didn’t make the transaction any quicker, but it was a good test and I seemed to make myself understood.
I got my tent put up and headed back down into Arromanches. My prime parking space gone, I parked on a farmer’s field just outside of town and wandered back down into town. I took the longer route to walk along the sea front and watched the dozens of jeeps and various other vehicles form up on the beach for a parade. Pretty much the second the last vehicle formed up, it began to lash down from the heavens to such a degree that you could see rivers of rainwater forming on the sand.
I stood huddled into the sea wall until the downpour passed and then made my way for another coffee in town. Heading back to the town square, I passed another crowd which had formed around a veteran. I missed his story, he was just finishing when I arrived, but realised that he had a Geordie accent. I waited until the crowd had gone and introduced myself as a fellow Geordie and shook his hand and thanked him for his service. It turned out that he worked in the civil service and had taken a few trips to a stately home very close to my house and, although he didn’t live in the North East any more, seemed touched that I had taken the time to chat. Maybe it’s true what they say, a true hero has no idea that they are a hero.
Making my way around the sea front, there was a guy dressed in full on English country gent fancy dress: yellow pants, tweed jacket, checked shirt that only farmers wear and yellow brogues. My first thought was ‘bloody hell, a French Nigel Farage’. It wasn’t until the news crew following him came around the corner that I realised that it was him!
I followed him back down onto the beach as there was clearly something going to happen. I got chatting to a veteran as we walked across the sand to the piece of the Mulberry Harbour that had been detached and washed up on the beach. Right next to this, around nine or ten veterans had gathered with a lady dressed in black. It turned out that her father had been coming to these celebrations for years but this was the first one that he had missed as he had passed away. Words were spoken by his daughter, salutes were made by the veterans and a minute’s silence was held as his ashes were spread on the golden sand. With white topped waves crashing in the background and the wind whipping up the beach, one chap just said, ‘Lie in peace, back with your mates’.
It was one of the most emotional things I had ever witnessed.
As I walked back up the beach I chatted to one of the veterans and said that I thought there would be more things happening in and around the town, that it was supposed to be the centre for activities but there was very little organised. He explained that the organisers didn’t have enough money for anything else as they were saving up for the 75th Anniversary in 2019. As each passing year goes by, the numbers of veterans that are alive and fit enough to make the trip dwindles. It was a privilege to be there and see them.
He also told me that the vast majority of the veterans in town that day were ferried there by London taxi drivers as part of an annual charity event. They drive in convey from the UK and are looked after by the drivers.
With no further activities organised for the day, I made my way back up the hill to my car and headed back to the campsite. There was to be a firework display at midnight and it should have been visible from the sea front just down from my campsite.
Heading back east along towards the campsite, I spotted an older guy hitchhiking and I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t stop. He jumped in and I drove him along to his hotel as he had been separated from his sons. It turns out that he was a taxi driver living in Portsmouth but was born and raised in Sunderland, it really is a small world.
Back in my tent, I relaxed with my book and a brew and sampled some fine dining (bread, butter and a tin of beans) and relaxed until it was time for the fireworks. I walked down to the sea front and was surprised to find myself alone down there and, in typical French fashion, to see all the houses down there in pitch darkness and looking as if they had just evacuated in anticipation of a super storm hitting the beaches that night.
I walked about a mile up the beach, it must have been 12.15 by the time I gave up and got back to my tent. Just as I was undressed and tucked into my sleeping bag, the fireworks started. I leapt into my walking boots and pulled my shorts on and ran down to the sea front just to catch the last few whizzes and bangs. Shivering and with tears in my eyes, caused by sand being whipped up from the beach rather than emotion, I walked up to the tent and had the best night’s sleep of the trip so far.
I set off nice and early, convinced that if I got myself on the road, I wouldn’t spend all day in the car and would be able to walk the Normandy beaches that evening and enjoy a nice meal for a change.
Just out of the hotel car park, I had to stop pretty much immediately to take a photo of the beautiful church that I had missed in the dark the previous evening; then I was off! I tried to avoid the motorways. If I told you that it was see the beautiful villages and see French life you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll be honest and admit that I just wanted to avoid paying for the roads.
I quickly worked out that the French road system is brilliant if you want to head north/south or east/west but if you are driving diagonally across the country then you are in a pickle. One village blended into another as I drove and drove and drove. I was a spectator to French village life, which seemed to involve cycling to the bread shop for a baton and then heading home to close your shutters and sit in the house all day. There seemed to be very little social activity and the streets always seemed to be empty.
With so much time on my hands my mind began to wander and I got a little philosophical. My journey had become like the journey through life. At each junction, I could turn any direction that I wanted and I would never know what I had missed out on around the next corner by plotting the route that I had. I couldn’t go back, time didn’t permit, so I had to make sure that I picked the best route I could to make it as enjoyable as possible and not look back and worry about what I had missed. Just think about what was to come.
After that, for me, deep thought I was happy to come crashing back down to earth as I passed a sign for Camping Du Coq at a place called Au Bourg. Then I passed a huge silver Coq statue and had to stop to take photographs and laugh at my own coq jokes. Normal service was resumed.
I passed through the lovely town of Autun, cutting over west to east towards the equally lovely Bourges before heading north towards the Normandy coast. As time ticked on and I became sick of driving the day continued to blur at the edges with so much driving. I was beginning to regret not paying the tolls and no doubt would have arrived by now, as night began to fall.
Heading towards Caen, inland but on the eastern end of the D-Day beaches (so the area where the English forces were more prevalent), I started to recognise some of the place names on the sign posts and my excitement levels started to pick up again. I arrived at the beaches at Luc-Sur-Mer, convinced that I would be able to find a campsite but aware that they may be busy. It must have been around 7pm by the time I arrived in Caen and I spent maybe an hour driving up and down the coast following signs to campsites that all seemed to be closed for the evening. I would guess that I followed signs to 5 different sites and I didn’t speak to a soul at any of them.
Disappointed, I began to look for hotels as it had just started to drizzle and my mood was sour. Eventually I ended up at Lion Sur Mer, after driving through many little seaside places that looked to have been abandoned, and asked a hotel if they had any vacancies. I was so relieved when the chap said that they did and handed me the key to my room. I took up my bags and opened the window and realised that my room looked out over around 100 meters of footpath and then the English Channel. I would be waking up on the anniversary of D-Day and the first thing that I would see when I woke up would be the very water on which the boats would have been on so many years ago. All of a sudden, the long drive and fuss to find a bed for the night didn’t seem to matter.
The fact that my room looked like it hadn’t been painted or redecorated since 1944 didn’t matter to me. I was buzzing and decided that at half eight at night I had done maybe 2,000 steps and that wasn’t good enough. I jumped into my running gear and decided to go for a run along the D-Day beaches. I must have got about 20 yards from the hotel when the gentle drizzle that had been hanging in the air progressed into a full on blizzard. I ran just short of 5km wearing a waterproof jacket and by the time I got back in the room there wasn’t a single centimetre of my clothing that wasn’t wringing wet.
Showered and dried, I wandered down into reception to see if I could get some food. It was about half nine and I was told that there was no food being served and that the bar was shut. I assumed that I wasn’t the only one that was in the area to commemorate D-Day and I was stunned at the lack of foresight. When I asked why the bar wasn’t open they said that they had been very busy serving evening meals and were too tired to stay open. My mind blown, I went out on the hunt for food.
I knew from the hotel/campsite search in the surrounding villages and town that there were no shops or takeaways open so I knew I had a task on my hands. I did pass one kebab shop that looked open but by the time I had parked and walked back down the road the lights were off and my opportunity was missed. I ended up in Ouistreham and picked up a McDonalds but, as it was closing I had to take it away. It was black dark and still lashing down so I headed back to my hotel to eat in my bed.
By the time I got back my chips were freezing, the burger was like a leather belt and the coke in my ice had melted so I ended up with watered down Coke Zero. I watched the end of the only English language TV that I could find, the wartime classic ‘A Bridge Too Far’, and drifted off to sleep listening to the sea lap up against the shore. This was so far from being perfect, yet perfect, all at the same time
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.
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.
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
The 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.
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.
The 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.
Walking 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.
Back 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.
I 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.
I 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.
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.
It 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.
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?
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.
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?
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.