Thursday, 27 January 2011

Roadwork Vacation:- Trans Europe Express Part Two

The following has already been hosted at Hooniverse where I'm eternally grateful to Tim Odell for all his support. I thought it about time I gave it a permanent home here, as it concerns one of the greatest weeks of my driving career.

Monday 6th October 2008 Bellagio, Italy to somewhere scary in the middle of Germany.

We had parked up in the wee small hours, and had no real idea where we had ended up, except that there had been many corners and we were obviously very, very high up. From inside the car all I could really see through the condensation was trees and I could smell the scent of a nearby bonfire. Seeing where we were for the first time in daylight, the car park turned out to be basically abandoned, with an uneven covering of flint gravel and several somewhat intercooler-unfriendly raised sections.

And then I saw the view.

Here we had a panorama, at least 180 degrees of Lake Como. The height meant we could hear many of the sounds of the lake and the city below, the distant roar of traffic fighting the hydrofoils on the lake for sonic attention, whispering softly as if played through pair of extremely high quality headphones. To continue our journey we would have to descend the hill and cross the city. Last night we could make out the silhouettes of the scenery but today we were treated to the full Technicolor, the ringing of church bells conspired to make our experience especially Italian.

Today we learnt that Italian drivers more than live up to their infamous, albeit stereotypical, reputation. Their weapon of choice is the Fiat Panda (‘90s vintage) or the 50cc Vespa Typhoon. These guys were easily reaching the speed of light on the chicanes, one particularly courageous soul managed to overtake me, only to be seen parked up outside the church two minutes later, possibly late for a funeral. Old ladies lined the road wearing shawls and heavy coats, despite the 23 degree morning heat, looking disapprovingly at the young moving with such haste. They had probably never left the village in their lives, let alone travelled three thousand plus miles across Europe in a week, so we decide to give them a bit of space in the same way as you might pass horses slowly for fear of alarming them.

Our appetite for miles having not abated, we pressed on towards the border, but Italy didn’t want us to leave. We made a couple of attempts to negotiate with the local road network, twice we found ourselves on an autostrada of some description and twice they spat us back from whence we came. We passed the very glorious Di’Angelo BMW dealership several times in a variety of directions. Eventually something went right and we found ourselves at the Swiss border.

We were navigating with a European Road Atlas of severely limited detail. The legend explained that toll roads are marked in a slightly more purply blue than the normal motorways. It also shows that France is full of them, and Italy has a smattering of them too. But it revealed Switzerland to be a haven of lovely, free roads. So when a woman at the border demanded 30 Euros for a “vignette” we felt justifiably hard done by. It turns out that the whole of Switzerland was a single enormous toll road. We were haemorrhaging money at a terrifying rate, and still didn’t have any gas for the stove. 

Since my father waxing lyrical over it in my childhood, and it being featured on Top Gear, I had a burning ambition to conquer the Passo del Stelvio. From where we were, the Stelvio was reachable, but wasn’t quite in the direction our gut instinct wanted us to take. Besides which, it being quite badly affected by the seasons there was a good chance we would get there and find it closed. Instead, we went for the San Benardino pass, smaller, but still no mean feat. As we ascended, tackling the numerous reflex bends we noticed the topography changing with the altitude. The Eagles Greatest Hits provided our soundtrack for the climb, Alone and Easy Feeling striking a strange chord with our mood in the car. But suddenly, upon seeing the lake at the top, the glistening white peaks and blue sky above, we understood why we had wanted to come on this trip. Breath was well and truly taken.

Time stood still on that peak, my Nikon and I needed time to ourselves. There was silence enough to hear the snowmelt trickle into the lake. The car sat there ticking as hot bits contracted in the cold mountain air, the man-made aroma of well exercised clutch jarring with the finest environmental smells the Alps could offer. Having never visited real mountains before, the best this Essex lad had experience were those seen in Scotland or the Lake District. This scenery was much, much bigger. Looking at the car sitting there I had at once a feeling of achievement, a feeling of pride and a feeling of isolation. We were a long, long way from home.

Patting the bonnet affectionately, we prepared for the long decent. This was tackled in a slower, more reluctant fashion. We were on a come-down after the main event, what we had seen at the top would stay with us for a long, long time to come. Once back on main roads the rest of Switzerland passed before we knew it. Fascinatingly, we also passed along the border of the principality of Lichtenstein, the smallest German speaking country in the world.

It was dusk when we got to the German border, manned by two very Teutonic looking men, presumably armed to the teeth. Numerous signs indicated that swarms of people would descend to check our papers, give us the full Gestapo treatment about who we were, what we were doing and why the hell we were doing it. This never happened, and we were waved through. German car, see.

The map indicated that Germany was a toll-free haven, but then a big sign emblazoned with “Tolls On Motorways” hove into view, and our spirits sunk an inch or so. Still, chin up, I was about to get my Autobahn induction. Gently at first, the traffic was fast, but they knew the roads. Our plan was to head roughly in the direction of Berlin, via Nuremberg. Studiously we ignored the thousands of signs pointing towards Munich, the official wrong way. And we did well, until we got to Ulm. At which point the friendly Autobahn we had been on just vomited us out into the German wilderness.

Surely there would be some road signs pointing us in the right direction, but no. German villages around Ulm are probably very beautiful, but they all look the same when it’s dark and you have no idea where you are.

The old-school Map o’ Germany we had as backup only served to annoy. It was so big that using it inside the car was basically impossible, and a map is basically useless if you don’t know where you are on it. None of the roads we found bore any labels, road numbers, recognisable village names, all we knew was that the nearest major city was Ulm. Eventually, we happened across the very village we were looking at on the map, meaning we had been heading in entirely the wrong direction and were about 20 miles off course. We found our way back onto the Autobahn more by luck than judgement.

By now we needed sleep, so, we pulled over into a Rastplatz. These are scattered throughout Germany and consist of a large parking area set a bit back from the road with a building containing the basic cleaning facilities required for two people sleeping in a car to remain a part of the Human race. A Co-Op DIY store in Switzerland having yielded the gas we so badly needed for our stove we boiled water to have our first cuppa tea of the trip. This was also, we had decided, the juncture at which we would dive into the slightly questionable looking tin of ravioli we had picked up in the French hypermarket.

As we sat protected from the persistent drizzle by the projecting eaves of the toilet block, a car pulled up and three eastern-European looking men got out and started wandering around. We watched them for a while and their pattern of behaviour didn’t match what we would expect of your ordinary Rastplatz clientele. They meandered about, speaking in hushed tones, behind the toilet block, then around the front. They were clearly biding their time. But for what?

We had finished our banquet, and were packing the kit back into the car, contemplating making our beds for the night. At that point, a second car pulled in and parked adjacent to the first. I was occupied by packing, but Jades eyes were caught by the goings on at the other end of the lay-by.

“Chris... did you see that?”

What Jade had seen, and I had acknowledged in my peripheral vision, was the occupants of the second car, with their hands in the air, being patted down by the men from the first car.

“Shit Chris, what’s happening here?”

Indeed what? What could be done in a remote Rastplatz with little or no audience, away from police or witnesses, unlikely to be heard by civilization? My mind conjured up a number of possibilities, it was like we had inadvertently driven into the plot of a gangster film. What if they didn’t want us there? It would be easy for them to, say, get rid of us.... We were unarmed, from a foreign land, nobody saw us arrive, nobody needed to see us go. Silently, having decided we were better off being somewhere else, we packed the last few vestiges of our inventory.

And then a third car arrived. It drove straight to the other two, turned and reversed with its boot lid open. What was this? The merchandise? Guns or drugs? If it was guns, then everybody could be armed. Yes, we were very definitely in the wrong place.

We had thoughts of silently slipping away into the night, but they were replaced with getting the hell out of there as soon as we could. And we did. As soon as we hit the slip-road we floored it. Jade was driving and she probably surprised herself by executing a textbook drag strip launch. Moments later we were flying along the Autobahn, relieved by what we had avoided being caught up in. Deep sighs were breathed.

We drove deep into the night. When it was my turn behind the wheel I couldn’t resist the opportunities offered by an unrestricted road, to open the lungs of the Audi and see what it could muster. Jade was asleep, or at least had her eyes closed. There was a break in the traffic, all instruments read well, no warnings, 15 degrees outside. The car felt good. Gently I fed in the accelerator. The car has a five-speed box, so, already in fifth it was just a case of opening the throttle as far as the car would comfortably stand. At four-thousand revs the car was doing 95.

I took my eyes off the tacho, and concentrated on speed. I was surprised how rapidly increments of 5mph fell. when we passed 130mph the acceleration waned. But it felt good, and the car was still pulling. At that speed distant lorries were only distant briefly, and the autobahn had only two lanes. I hadn’t concentrated like this since A-Levels. I pushed and eventually the needle flickered above the 140 mark, probably about sixty-three hundred revs. I would call it 142. That was enough for me. I engine-braked back to an 85mph cruise, scanning the dashboard for signs of unpleasantness. There were none. Oil and water temperatures good, no warning lights. I affectionately squeezed the steering wheel, and patted the top of the binnacle. I was now ready to drive conservatively. I was also ready for bed.

Another Rastplatz somewhere near Leipzig was home for the night. No guns, no gangsters, just trucks. We pulled up, organized our sleeping bags and settled into a warm, accomplished slumber.

Tuesday 7th October. Berlin, Germany.

On this trip, Berlin was unavoidable. It stood out on our map like a beacon, and, to be honest, was always inevitably going to suck us in. In fact, the idea of only being able to afford time for a day-trip to Berlin was very appealing. It would provide a taster, hopefully wouldn’t put me off a future visit. I felt proud of having covered France from North to South without visiting Paris, an irony akin to visiting the Moon without having your photo taken next to Neil Armstrong’s flag. We had resisted the pull of Paris but, credit where credit is due, Berlin put up a stronger fight.

It would be Jades opportunity to display her navigational prowess as we entered Berlin Zentrum, A not entirely hitch-free operation. From the Leipzig direction the best way into Berlin was via the borough of Charlottenburg. We followed a map we had procured earlier with some success, soon having a fix on where we were, yet somehow we managed to find ourselves very accurately navigating ourselves away from Berlin, rather than towards it. Some frustration and disbelief later, Jade succeeded in finding Berlin Mitte. We found a Parkplatz, and excitedly prepared ourselves for a day in this historic city.

Where we had parked was a little way south of the Teirgarten, a large and contemplative forested park through which runs the Straße des 17 Juni. It is a long walk along this from the Berlin Victory Column or Siegessäule, past the Soviet War Memorial and to the Brandenburg Gate, or Brandenburger Tor. Interestingly the straight, wide thoroughfare was used as a landing strip towards the end of the second world war. Steeped in history, and with an explosive sense of occasion, I fired my Nikon off with some fervour. The square of Unter Den Linden is absolutely packed with tourists, among which an army of beggars to contend with. The popular opening line seemed to be “Do you speak English?” a cunning ruse to identify foreigners dripping with disposable currency.

The bulk of our time in Berlin was spent walking between souvenir kiosks and enjoying the sights in this fiercely proud and avant-garde city. We visited Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of the points for Westerners and Allied Forces to cross the Berlin Wall from West to East during the Cold War. I felt richer for having been there, it did tick a very small box in my list of lifetime experiences.

Just before this we had eaten a handsome dinner in a steak restaurant. We had felt it apt to end our day with a well-deserved “proper dinner” during which we synopsised our experiences so far and tried to form plans for the rest of the trip. We were, near as damn it, half way through the voyage.

On the way back to the car we wanted to see the Holocaust Memorial, hoping it would be well lit, Berlin being a very dark place this late in the evening. The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” consists of a 4.7 acre site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs. According to the brief used creating the memorial the slabs are “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason”. It certainly makes for a bewildering landscape, and we spent time taking photos on long exposure, trying to record the atmosphere and scale of the installation.

Although we feared finding the Parkplatz closed and our possessions and sleeping accommodation trapped behind locked gates, we still took time to stop for photos of the Brandenburg Gate at night, a long exposure catching the busy evening traffic and the rich green of the overhanging trees. We were on a sort of smug photographic high, and we hopped, skipped and jumped much of the long walk back to the Parkplatz, which we relievedly found hadn’t closed yet. 

Finding our way out of Berlin was much easier than the journey in, we simply followed the signs for Hamburg. Delighted by our introduction to Berlin, although we had barely scratched the surface, we felt that we had earned a good nights sleep. We pulled over for the night earlier than we had of late mooting an early start and some serious miles tomorrow. This time the Rastplatz, was near Wittenberg, a name familiar to me from F19-Stealth Fighter, a game I relished on my Atari ST. Reliving moments from my day and wanting the remainder of the trip to last forever, I slipped once more into unconsciousness.

To be continued in Trans Europe Express Part Three (Click Here).