I have driven the Brussels ring road three times in my life. Each time it has been packed with far too many cars, driving far too fast and close, whilst negotiating nutty junctions. And each time I have seen an accident. Thanks to Brussels, Belgium has one of the highest death rates per capita in traffic in the European Union. This is mainly due to the fact that many Belgians speed at drastic levels. Take my word for it: the Brussels Ring is a nightmare concerning traffic and averages at least one accident per day. My hatred has developed into an obsessive fear, bordering on a phobia. Despite trying to persuade Marilyn, the Satnav, to send us south of the ring road via Waterloo, I make the mistake of listening to her at one point and ended up on the dreaded road anyway. I definitely need to be more assertive when it comes to Marilyn.
The previous night’s stop before traveling to Liechtenstein had been in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. We plan to fill up on petrol there where it is cheap, and cigarettes are only a third more expensive than in Slovakia, so we stop at the first service station. The queues could have signified an oil crisis, but in fact merely show that everyone else has had the same idea. There are two boys directing the vehicles into lines for the twelve pumps and a bit of a party atmosphere. People are hanging around chatting outside their cars or motor homes while they wait. But it is efficient. Fill up, drive to the booth (a bit like the ones on toll bridges) where the cashier pushes open a metal drawer to collect the money, pass over the card reader or give change. Up goes the barrier and off you go. Or you would have done had the motorway not been such a stop start affair. I was looking forward to Luxembourg, simply because I have never met anyone from there. I don’t even know what they call themselves. Luxembourgish? Maybe Luxemburgers. Nevertheless they were an elusive race, even in their own country. At the service station there were German and Belgian cars, French and Dutch, but no Luxembourgolian. I bought a baguette and coffee but don’t ask the girl who served me where she is from. If I started a “Where are you from?” conversation with a random young female, even if in an honest quest to meet my first Luxembourgino, Tash would… well let’s just say “I choose life”. Another way to get yourself in trouble at a Luxembourgillon service station would be to take advantage of the free massage service offered to travellers by a very nice young lady. I sort of like Luxembourg but still cannot say for sure if I have met a Luxembourgian. Finally we head off the motorway into a rolling, rural setting which reminded me of Devon. I had thought of Luxembourg as a city. Wrong. The goal of finding out more about the little countries beginning with ‘L’ is achieved, however I did manage to lose my car key in Luxembourg. Tash had assured me that it must be somewhere in the camper, so I had used her key. Mine never turned up though. Finally, in desperation I later emailed the friendly Dutch couple who ran the campsite. They immediately replied that they had found the key in the shower and were kind enough to send it to Slovakia, refusing any payment for their efforts. The whole sorry affair with the key was just another chapter in the lost car keys in Europe saga. Once, in the Ardeche, Tash had pulled me in to a river to swim. The Vauxhall’s keys were in the pocket of my swimming shorts. The keys are, to this day, at the bottom of a river in the Ardeche. All this led to an encounter with Eric le Garagiste. But not before I had had to purchase a pair of Incredible Hulk swimming goggles to search the muddy water, much to Tash’s amusement. Eric le Garagiste, his side kick used to tell us, was always out buying bread, or eggs, or doing whatever it was that he did all day. But rarely did he ever take on the role of Garagiste. We did catch up with him once, only to have a conversation about how he did not want to break the window to get in, and how if it had been a French car he would have been in by now. The conversation ended with him pronouncing solemnly, “La prochaine fois, Monsieur, achetez Francais!” All this took days and it was not until the evening of the day before our ferry back from Calais that he was in. OK, the car started with a screwdriver, which Eric le Garagiste/obsessive grocery buyer kindly donated, and now it was an all nighter back to the port. This did at least have the advantage of a drive through the very centre of Paris in the small hours when the streets were completely empty.
I have a wall map at home with pins in the places we have visited. Tash smugly points out that I should have one of Europe, but with pins showing the places where I have lost car keys after the Luxembourg incident. “I never lost any keys before I met you,” I tell her sulkily.
The return journeys from the UK to Slovakia have taken us through France, Belgium Holland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, and Austria. Some days we drove four countries in 12 hours. We collect fridge magnets for our van, “Peaches”, at the places we stay. Last time we had not got one from Belgium and had decided to stop in Bouillon for a night and hopefully to find a magnet. Belgium, a country of countless friteries and no toilet paper on campsites.
Bouillon is a pretty riverside town in the south of the country, has a castle above it and styles itself with a medieval theme. It was there that we found the perfect fridge magnet – a cone of chips backed by the Belgian flag.
The brown tourist roadside signs in Belgium showing the delights of the regions often have photographs on them. But why would I want to look at a photo when I can see exactly the same scene through the windscreen simply by looking away from the sign? Then there are the usual berserk slip roads into the fast lane or doubling as entry and exit roads. Whoever is responsible for these roads must have had chip fat on the brain, if you ask me. Or just be insane. Having said that though, the people in Belgium we found to be friendly and helpful. The campsite and friterie owners had lent us an electric hook up cable for free and were interested to chat about our travels.
We crossed the Maginot Line near the fortress of Hakenburg. This line of concrete bunkers, tank obstacles, artillery or machine gun posts, and other defences, was constructed in the thirties by France along its borders with Germany. Although it successfully dissuaded a direct attack, it was a monumental failure, as the Germans indeed invaded Belgium, defeated the French army, flanked the Maginot Line through the Ardennes forest and via the Low countries, completely sweeping by the line, and subsequently conquered France within days. The Maginot Line was impervious to most forms of attack, and had state-of-the-art living conditions for garrisoned troops, including air conditioning, comfortable eating areas and underground railways. It is a stark reminder that all these open borders, with little more than a blue EEC “Welcome to wherever” sign and a few deserted buildings (Liechtenstein/Switzerland and the UK being the only exceptions), that we cross so freely, were actually hard won, long-fought-over dividing lines in the past. You cannot help but appreciate the freedom and relative peace of today when this strikes you.
Do you ever fantasize about “The Sound of Music”? Bear with me, it’s about a road. Are you impressed by Cheddar Gorge, or are pine clad mountains your thing, or do you actually dream of running naked, hand in hand with Julie Andrews (or Christopher Plummer) through upland flower meadows, with her(or him) intoning softly, “Oh Pete… why did I ever even bother with that surly, sour-faced loser Von Trap when there are men like you in this world… come with me into the forest!”? Obviously, it goes without saying, I am not one of those people; only the worst kind of sick, perverted, menopausal mind, with no regard for the feelings of his wife and who was clearly smack bang in the middle of his sad midlife crisis would ever even dare to fantasize in such a way. But if any of this ticks even a small box, then the E31 between Freiburg and Geisingen will be the road for you to take through Southern Germany.
This is close to the source of the Danube, but still some six hours from the majestic, wide, fast flowing river we know and love so well from our home in Bratislava. Marilyn guides us south around Bodensee before sending us via Munich to the A8, giving us great views of the Austrian Tyrol off to our right.
Germany is a country to explore more and offers some breathtaking scenery. And then into Austria and back to Slovakia, before heading down to Italy. In Austria we have learned to love the service stations! In the UK these can be a bit like a cattle market with their teeming fast food joints, but at least you may get a Marks and Spencer’s, or even a Waitrose if you are lucky. And in Italy they are like a cattle market conducted in a Reliant Robin. But the Austrian version is more like a stately home with rare breeds roaming free in the landscaped grounds. The food is fabulous, served by smart waiting staff in a rarefied atmosphere of wood panelling, china lanterns are hanging on chains over each table, old ceramics line shelves between double curtained windows looking out onto the lovely lake. And for once I am glad to have listened to Marilyn. All is forgiven. We are friends again.