Friday, 28 January 2011

Roadwork Vacation:- Trans Europe Express Part Three

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.

Wednesday 8th October

Wittenberg, Germany to Lagen, Sweden.

The map was pretty intimidating to look at early in the morning, as condensation dripped from the glass, skin emerged from sleeping bag and shuddered on contact with cold leather, and stomach rumbled with dissent. We would be notching up another couple of countries during the day, but first priority would be to stem the ferocious bassy roars from each of our bellies. Opening our 12v coolbox revealed the bacon to be a little close to the edge, but we figured it could be cooked back to life. It pretty much worked and after an apple and the last of the yoghurts hunger pangs were defeated for the time being.

A long drive took us past Hamburg and to the Danish border, across the threshold and into Scandinavia. Whilst eating our lovely steak in Berlin I had accidentally mentioned that I had always wanted to visit Legoland; a throwaway sentence said without any real intent. But Jade was now viscously attached to the idea, and I decided to played along, none too reluctanly. So we were now heading towawards Billund where, amusingly, Legoland was closed on Wednesdays. Defeated, we turned around and headed back to rejoin the road through Odense and to Copenhagen beyond. We had become slightly giddy with excitement with the prospect of all that Lego and we changed drivers at the first toilet-equipped lay-by we passed.

Onto the E20, we pretty soon had to stop and re-fuel yet again. The Audi was pretty good on gas, but we were still devouring the route in 350 mile chunks. It was at the first Danish petrol station that it suddenly became blatantly apparent that Scandinavia has a much more fertile gene pool than the rest of Europe. The girls in the petrol station were amazing. I mean, not in the same league as my girlfriend, obviously not. That would be impossible, but still, wow. Would the trend continue as we headed north? 

Two islands stand between Denmark and Sweden, Funen and Vestsjelland, linked togther by magnificent bridges and causeways. These structures are incredible, and also very hard to photograph from on the causeways themselves. Of the two bridges, the one crossing the Öresund was slightly the more impressive. An amazing construction carrying car and train underground in a tunnel before rising majestically out of the sea on an elegant cable stayed suspension bridge. Also, at the very top it was extremely windy as we found when we briefly opened the two front windows of the car. This triggered a whirlwind of toffee-papers and receipts and anything that wasn’t tied down made a beeline for my face.

It was a bit of luck that the toll barriers accepted plastic as we hadn’t stayed in Denmark long enough to gather currency. Jades credit-card bill was building up, but we had no choice and yet more debt was pumped into her account. This would happen again when we reached Sweden, where they use a different kind of Krone to Denmark. At any rate, admission to the Country cost us roughly £25.

Our entry point was near Malmo, our first major target on the Svenska part of our trip, yet still we managed to find ourselves heading South, towards Trelleborg and the tip of Sweden which demonstrated our combined lack of sense of direction. This was the official wrong way, but once we got our act together Malmo gradually faded up around us, looking slightly unlovely and reminiscent of British new towns. Sadly, much of the industry that built Malmo has long gone, and its populace have turned to other things for a living. Truth be told, we nearly didn’t bother stopping but once through the windswept and bland outer suburbs we found ourselves in a lively, bustling town with healthy, smiling people on bicycles.

To enter the main shopping areas you have to cross a canal, and then you have a choice of several long, thin streets lined with three (or more) storey buildings, all old and sympathetically maintained or restored. Eventually you reach the Ostra Hamkanalan, a canal between the main business area and the Central Station and harbour beyond. It was hardly the weather to visit the Ribersborg beach, (the alleged Riviera of the North, which we will reserve for our Arctic Bathing road trip, stay tuned for that one) or the Western Boardwalk, apparently where all the hip people hang out.

Surrounded by very tall, imposing fifteenth century buildings we were quite taken by the atmosphere of the Stortorget; the town square. Sweden was, so far, undeniably a very cool place, the people, the sights, the spaces were all a good fifteen percent cooler than England. Malmo has a large student population, and I was jealous of all of them. The rich Scandinavian gene pool was evident, people looked healthy and proud. Elderly folk were on bikes or walking, mobile and not a mobility scooter in sight. On Pension Day they probably hang-glide to the post-office.

On the drive out of the city centre the Driver Information System of the Audi had suddenly thrown up a loud beeping and a terrifying looking red animated symbol on the dashboard. My heart stopped, my balls shrunk and my stomach churned, digesting the prospect of cutting short our visit, forking out many Krone for repairs or abandoning the car and flying home. Fortunately, I suddenly remembered that the symbol was just a bulb failure, so, while Jade shopped at a big Hemkop supermarket with an astonishingly well equipped confectionery department I was outside fitting the spare I had brought along. We restocked our cool-box of gastronomic delights and hit the road once more.

Out of Malmo we again found ourselves incapable of navigation, the motorway kept spitting us out and sending us in wholly inappropriate directions. Every time we tried to retrace our steps we found an entirely different set of road signs and ended up covering the same 15 or so miles of dual carriageway at least twice. We passed through countless warm, friendly looking villages, at one point braking heavily for a whole family of deer on the roadside, poised to leap in our path. They didn’t, they just sat there looking cute and we drove on with the Audi un Bambied.

Apropos of nothing we decided to head for Jonkoping. By now we were tired, and sleep was becoming essential. We tried a Shell garage-cum-truck stop just off the motorway but there were a great many forbidding looking signs hinting that they weren’t keen on overnight parking, plus there was a very real chance of ending up under a Scania over night. So, we stole a piss and the use of their teeth-brushing facilities and moved on.

We eventually struck gold a little short of Lagen, with a very rustic looking restaurant and parking area. There was a secluded area set aside for camping, but Jade thought this too “Creepy looking” and didn’t like it, so we slept at the edge of the car park. And we slept especially warmly. It felt like Sweden was hugging us.

Thursday, 9th of October.

Lagen, Sweden to Gothenburg, Sweden.

Until last Saturday I had little concept of what a minimum of five hundred miles per day might feel like. We still had to face the homeward journey too. Choices were being made all the while, stopping off to see the sights would be great, but we were constantly haunted by the spectre of a mammoth 1000 mile drive on the last day to make it to the ferry. The biggest problem is that, on any round trip, the furthest you can go is halfway. Outbound, and then homebound.

Fortunately our progress so far had made a nonsense of our schedule. Here we were in Sweden and four days ago we had been sat in a traffic jam in Marseilles. I actually derived a perverse delight from having shrugged off Mediterranean Europe so readily, content with just passing through.

What I hadn’t expected was the Audi to be so driveable and to relish those long stints behind the wheel. Motoring journalists forever carp on about refinement and every car is incrementally better than its predecessor, but do we actually benefit from all this improvement?

It is the limitations of an older car that make it a far more sensory experience. They feel alive. The Audi is front-wheel-drive and turbocharged, so there is torque-steer, it’s not savage, but it’s there. There’s a slight transitional vibration around 80mph, but that just heralds the arrival of the upper power band. At 4500rpm, road and wind noise give way to engine noise, but it isn’t misplaced, just the honest expression of an engine enjoying getting on with things. Today in these times of financial drudgery, I strongly advise you to quit leasing your tedious C Class and buy a couple of grand’s worth of ten year old car, If you can find a nice one.

Today we woke in our roadside haven to find that our location was jaw-droppingly lovely. A chat with the very friendly restaurant owner revealed that there was a power outage leaving her business thwarted for the day, and the WC facilities inoperable. Jade washed in the unlit restaurant bathroom, I opted instead to use the next facility we see en-route which inevitably was a McDonalds. I breakfasted richly on a McDonalds pancake to justify our use of their facilities.

According to our local “things to do and see” leaflet, Lagenland promised to give us a real feel for Swedish life. The plush, glossy, two page advertisement boasted of an Elk reserve, a car museum and a great range of other attractions, and we just had to visit. When we arrived at the attractive, modern building, our first impressions were positive.

Approaching the admission counter via a vast gift shop we purchased entry to the Elk park. A number of Krone changed hands and we passed through an unprepossessing wooden door into a shabby room containing a couple of skulls, sets of antlers and mixed Elk-related paraphernalia. Undeterred by the less than sparkling display so far we reassured ourselves that outside we would find a Swedish wilderness where the Elk roam free.

We didn’t. Behind electric fencing, in a compound the size of a large bungalow there lay a group of the most bored looking Elk you could possibly imagine. They had the look of animals that had totally lost touch with what they were and were now just meaty Elk shapes. They sat there, occasionally being fed and watered and looking bored, so very bored. Jade accused them of being “rubbish Elk” which I thought was somewhat unfair. We strolled the compound, half hoping, in fact naively believing that there would be more than just the Elk we had seen. Maybe a big open clearing where Elk frolic, laugh and dance. There wasn’t.

Lagenland had dampened our spirits. I had seen and photographed real elk, and witnessed the most incredible variety of Elk themed souvenirs I ever thought possible, and yet I still didn’t wish to own a pair of slippers with antlers sprouting out of them. I didn’t even visit the car museum.

We lifted our mood by stopping for breakfast proper, in the cooking over a stove tradition. It was the day of the Swedish sausage, with variously spiced offerings on a theme of Bratwurst and Knackwurst. They were astonishing, Jade had cooked sausage perfection. I almost cried, such was the meaty goodness. The skins split crisply on the bite, the smooth exterior contrasting sublimely with the soft porkiness on the interior. We consumed this banquet on the edge of an enormous lake surrounded by woodland, with a slope towards a slightly incongruous service station with many huge Swedish road-trains being refuelled. It also played host to two thirds of a Cadillac buried in the hillside to honour the Swedish Cadillac Owners club, and an extraordinarily awesome Volvo 760amino, with a gauge pack on the A-Pillar leading me to suspect that some tinkering might have been performed on oily bits, as well as bodywork.


Jonkoping was the Easterly limit of our trip, sitting on the lakefront of Vattern. The shorefront water was deep blue, the light was milky and soft, the air was crisp and healthy. Jonkoping is a low-key city, not large, and certainly feeling friendly. It is also home to many of the same expensive, high quality shops as we had seen in Malmo, specialising in the very latest in fashion, interior design and lifestyle items. Our biggest problem here was trying to decipher how the parking meters worked, we mistakenly bought two permits, having realised that our initial attempt had only scored us three minutes of parking time. After brief exploration we visited the A6-Center, an upscale out-of-town shopping centre with an IKEA , identical to any other branch I had ever visited. If it weren’t for the language differences I could have been anywhere in the world.

We didn’t even stop on the Journey west from Jonkoping to Gothenburg. Route 40, starting out through a very Scandinavian landscape of starkly coloured bungalows, wooden churches and icy looking lakes, later became a proper motorway. Jade was asleep for the entire journey, awaking only to my excitable exclamation of “we’re there!” Yet once we got to somewhere in the vibrant city centre that looked like a good place to explore, all I could think about was sleeping.

We were in a canalside car park busy with students and teacherly-looking folk, often on bicycles precariously loaded with books. Warm in the Audi, Jade lay unconscious and my eyelids grew ever heavier. I expected a man to tap on the window and demand Krone in exchange for the right to remain parked. We knew we ought to get out and spend an evening in Gothenburg, maybe a nice meal, a few drinks, but I just couldn’t. I lay reclined on my leather lounge chair, subdued the radio and felt my head sink into its restraint. And I slept.

It was getting dark as I woke, simultaneously with Jade. We both laughed gently that we had been asleep whilst stealing parking space in a car park. Gothenburg looked like somewhere we wanted to explore properly with its trams, pavement restaurants and bustling atmosphere, and we vowed to return tomorrow. For now safe refuge was found in the suburbs, in another excellent Euro-style lay-by with washing facilities. The nearby road had either a number of loose manhole covers or a cattle grid because every passing lorry (and they were big, very big) was announced with a thunderous roar. Fortunately our tiredness was such that this probably didn’t matter.

Now was my chance to drink the a bottle of beer I bought in Berlin and to read the latest Viz, a particularly fine issue sending the Audi rocking with mine and Jades combined laughter. Jade and I were becoming good travelling partners, able to speak our minds and understanding of each other’s foibles. When you’re spending the whole of Europe together in a car, it is vital that personalities don’t clash and combine with claustrophobia to really spoil things. I still desperately missed Nicola, though; I sent her text messages every night.
Eventually, we were too tired even to laugh. Tomorrow we would be finishing Sweden off, and had an awful lot of driving to do. No problem. Bring it on.

Friday, 10th October.

Gothenburg, Sweden to Vejle, Denmark.

They didn’t know what the hell Jade and I had been getting up to. Here was a ten year old car wearing British number plates, in a Lay-By outside Gothenburg with steamed up windows, through which could be seen glimpses of two youngish and very dishevelled looking people. And there, sitting not ten feet away, was what must have been the Swedish al fresco breakfast society. Two oldish couples, in what looked like Sunday best, enjoying a classic Svenska breakfast, but occasionally casting disapproving glances towards the offensive Audi.

We looked at each other, giggling like school kids and then another man turned up. He was a council sort of chap and emptied the bins while the breakfast society continued their feast. He also stared at us. We were glad we didn’t speak Swedish, we didn’t really want to know what they were saying, but their expressions were that of grandparents when they catch you masturbating in the kitchen. Probably. Finally, the bin-man went, and then the breakfast society upped and left, presumably to go to their lunch appointment. Curiously, the two women drove their Seat Toledo, with the men sitting in the back.

Back in the city centre we strolled past the bars and cafes I had seen yesterday and enjoyed the vivid greenery of the Kungsparken. All the while I found my head darting to and fro with another abundant display of incredible women. All this tantalisation was great in the same way as reading a copy of FHM is great, but it really brought home just how much I missed my girlfriend.

In the centre of Gothenburg’s’ shopping district is the Nordstan shopping mall, a vast urban consumer Mecca lined with youthful fashionista and the sort of emporiums where I simply do not fit in. Even my teeth were unfashionable. Jade confidently marched into one of the stores, strutting like a born shopper but even she found herself defeated. Trying to pick out one item among the trillion or so that you’d like is next to impossible, so you might as well not bother. Besides which, our reserves of Krone were running very shallow.

Rather than spending cash in the dry we opted to explore the rest of Gothenburg in the rain, the map I picked up from a tourist information booth soon resembling papier mache. The historic dockyard is reached from the Nordstan by means of a long walkway and covered escalator. Here, pride of place goes to the rather striking Barket (Barque) Viking, which has been in situ since 1950 and is now in service as a hotel and restaurant. It is actually one of the last ten four masted basques left in existence, and was preserved by virtue of it being the largest sailing ships ever built in Scandinavia. Unfortunately, her height and the number of bridges between its permanent berth and the sea mean she’s unlikely to ever ride the ocean again.

Back in the car we headed south on route E20, which would eventually take us back over the Oresund Bridge. En route yet more quality cuisine was necked in the shape of another McDonalds. Eventually we bade farewell to Sweden, desperately hoping to return. We lifted the mood with karaoke, singing over any familiar tunes we heard on the Swedish and then Danish radio waves. I surprised myself with the fact that I know all the words to “If you don’t know me by now” by Simply Red.

Tomorrow, we would go to Legoland, and it would be open. Tonight we would sleep to gather energy for all those thrill rides, all that plastic. The Danish luxury lay-by we landed in consisted many individual bays for single cars, each having a park bench and grass area. They seem to be purpose built for people like myself and Jade who are determined to live in their car and expend zero funds on accommodation. But what else could they possibly be used for?

We sat and watched for a while, several times cars came into the lay-by, loitered, and then slunk off. They tended to have two occupants. One car, a slightly shabby Golf GTi had a normal looking, baseball capped male, and a lady friend who had done rather more than just “scrub up”. She was wearing a full on lace dress, showing off the more intimate of her curves to full effect and not leaving much to the imagination. From the reassuring warmth of our car we were allowed to be suspicious, to look at these possibilities with an innocent light heartedness. But we both knew that there was a darker side to these lay-bys and what goes on. Prostitution? Sex, drugs, murder? We didn’t want our imagination to run too wild.

We closed our eyes, laid back on the leather and all thoughts of nastiness subsided.

Saturday, 11th October

Vejle, Denmark to Groningen, Holland.

Living and sleeping in a car day after day, it can be a challenge to keep control of your personal hygiene. I have a hatred of smelly people, but living in a confined space, not showering for a week and breathing recycled air, there is presumably some chance that these smells could develop and go unchecked. We had become so used to our accommodation and the ambient odour that neither of us had any real idea how we smelled, except for the fact that Jade obviously smelled nicest, ‘cos she’s a girl and that.

This morning I would pay even more attention to my hair, my teeth, and also any other areas where freshness might deteriorate, because we were about to spend a day in a family theme park, in wholesome surroundings. The gentle rain couldn’t prevent us from enjoying a full day giggling and grinning at Legoland, we were there until closing time and sadly missed out on a fair few attractions. Oh, bugger, I’ll have to visit again some day. But after buying the appropriate Lego related holiday knick knacks and a final photographic sortie, we were on the road once more, with every intention of skipping the country.

Throughout the trip Jade had been granted almost total control of the music system, and when we grew tired of the Mamma-Mia soundtrack, the greatest hits of Elton John or the first New Kids On The Block album (on cassette) we would switch to the radio, the highlight of which was undoubtedly the amusing names that some the stations have, and passing near the town of Bastad I felt the urge to take a photo of the car stereo with BASTAD written dyslexically across the display.

The evening drive saw us back into Germany by way of Hamburg, again, past the extremely impressive dockyards with their statuesque cranes, great industrial monuments lit with a sodium glow. They were as stirring and unforgettable in their own way as those Swiss mountains had been.

Apart from a couple of accidental wrong turns the roads behaved rather well and we were effortlessly guided into Holland. We knew that the more driving we did tonight, the less would be required tomorrow, but we could only go so far. Having dispatched two countries, we finally ran out of vitality on the outskirts of Groningen. With no joy on the lay-by front we so snuck up a little tiny lane in the middle of nowhere and called it a night.

Tonight was our last night in the Audi, tomorrow night we would be in warm beds, which seemed a really boring prospect. In our minds there played a loop of all the things we had seen and done over the last week. A look at the odometer revealed we had already covered over three thousand miles, just us, sleeping, eating and washing in random locations. What a way to live. In seven days I had more than doubled the number of countries I had ever visited. And as I slipped under sleeps warm blanket the wonderful thought was that it wasn’t quite over.

Sunday 12th October

Groningen, Holland to Frinton-On-Sea, England.

Christ, it’s miles from Groningen to Hoek Van Holland.” Said Jade as we woke, having slept through the alarm. And not only was it a long way, but we also had Amsterdam en route, and heaven only knows what the traffic would be like there. But at least we still had several hours, the ferry didn’t leave

A quick glance at the paperwork revealed that the ferry actually left an hour and a half earlier than I thought. I had programmed myself to allow for a certain amount of time and now my usually reliable body clock into was sent into a frenzy. We needed to go. Now. And fast.

Now in daylight we realised we had parked on a building site, an area of hardstanding up a little tiny access lane (which turned out to have an, ahem, no entry sign) covered with sand and gravel. It also turned out to be on a major dog-walking route and several jolly couples with doggies’ tail a-wagging wandered past the scruffy foreigners, showing slight looks of confusion and disdain.

We didn’t care about them; we had a mission, a fight between Europe and ourselves. If we won, the spoils would be a nice comfy ferry home. If we lost it would be a whole bunch of phone calls, more spending money, and a conversation with my boss about why I wouldn’t be in work tomorrow. I really couldn’t face that, not after a week so rich in experience. We would have to win, that’s all.

Today we would pass over the final engineering masterpiece of our trip, something I had wanted to see for ages. The Afsluitdijk is a causeway and dyke separating the North Sea from the vast Ijsselmeer, a fresh water lake. Opened in 1933 it has been continually added to since then and is now really quite something, albeit looking rather more interesting by air than by road. Sadly, our hurry was now such that we could ill afford to spend time at the public viewpoints. Again, maybe next time.

My pulse was starting to race as we waited at a swing bridge. Expecting some enormous ship pass through, it turned out to be a single thoroughly disappointing sailing boat. With the slightly panicky timescale we were working to, we were getting a little tense and conversation was starting to flow less fluidly. And then we hit Amsterdam.

The roads around the city allow you to either pass to the east or around the south and to make things nice and complicated both routes are still called the A10. By fluke I had put us on the eastern by-pass, the shortest route which took us past Amsterdam and then underneath Schipol airport. The traffic was heavy, but moving. The sun was shining and suddenly we were smiling. I made the most of every glimpse I got of the city skyline, it might well be the last impressive thing I see in Europe. 

As we reached Hoek Van Holland it was with mixed feelings of relief, excitement and depression, and also an element of fear when we realised we had
no idea how to find the docks. We randomly selected a car to follow in the hope that it was going the same way as us. Certainly it seemed to be taking us further into the bowels of the Hook rather than away from it, which was a good sign. Then there were roadworks and a diversion. The car we were following paused for a minute as if to look at a map, and then continued around a maze of small residential streets. I had totally lost any orientation I had when suddenly we saw the Stena logo. We had made it.

I gave silent thanks to Amsterdam for being kind to us as we pulled up to the ticket booth. Impressed when we told her of the trip we had just made, the check-in lady directed us straight onto one of the car decks of the Stena Hollandica to cross the North Sea from the Hook of Holland to Harwich.

It was dark when we landed at Harwich International Port. We joined a queue full of depressed looking cars, slumped on their suspension and sighing that they were back in England. Reluctantly passing through UK Border Control signified our return to boring everyday life.

We reflected on the Journey as we stood beneath a Harwich road sign. After another seven miles we would be once more in Frinton-On-Sea and Jade would get in her borrowed (the best kind) Hyundai and drive off to stay with her sister. Next time I saw her would probably be up in Edinburgh. Possibly to hatch another insane plan.

As soon as I got home I phoned my girlfriend. I would see her tomorrow after work for a whole lot of catching up. I had a bath, literally the best bath I had had in my life, I physically lost weight as the deep seated grime was lifted from my body. It was a strange sensation, laying there in my Essex bathroom, thinking about looking at the sea in Marseille, the service station near Genoa, the night traffic on the autobahns, my many, many memories would stay with me for a long, long time.

In these days of cheap air travel a thousand miles per day is almost trivial, but my trip felt more like travelling than any flight I had ever taken. My £1000 Audi had carried us 3912 miles in the last week, the only incident being a blown bulb. Speed, rain, heat nor cold had troubled it, and I sensed that it was waiting for me to take it somewhere interesting again.

In my own bed with two clean pillows beneath my head, I put the week to rest. My last conscious thought; “How far can I drive in a fortnight?”

The End.