Sunday, July 17, 2011

London Finale

The end to the tour was a couple of days in London with Ali and my mother-in-law (and Ali's grandma), Anna.  The plan was to stay at a club in St James (The East India Club) and using Ali's terminology forage out from there.  Ali had to deal with his Uni accommodation issues so I would organise the itinerary for Anna.

I haven't really complained about much in the blogs to date but must make an exception here as I find it scandalous that public transport in England is soooo expensive.  At a time when economic disarray is the norm, public transport should be cheap. Despite what the spin doctors, talking heads and all around numbskulls in the media say about things, the UK is in a nearly bankrupt mess.  This is courtesy of the former government and stupidity/cupidity of the banks and where real inflation is far higher than the 'normalised core' figures the government uses to set policy.  Now that is something that gets me.  How can you exclude food and energy costs when calculating 'core' inflation?  I know the argument is that it is irrelevant at the macro level but the individual doesn't eat computers and drive their cars using flat screen TV's.  Those are the things that are coming down in price.  The consumer eats food, consumes petrol and gas in driving and heating things, and generally consumes all that stuff which is excluded from the 'core' figures.  The reality is that the UK is getting more expensive, unemployment figures are continuously being tinkered with (downwards) by the statisticians in government and the country is facing a huge debt burden that cannot sensibly be repaid in generations.  That will crimp economic growth in the future and it looks like those numbers are starting to be seen now.  All of the political posturing counts for nothing so long as the reality is as bad as it is.  So why is public transport so wretchedly expensive?  I would have thought that making one small aspect of public life slightly more tolerable would have been a good thing now but clearly having privatised public transport, the new owners want their 15% ROE or they start to cut.  Some things really do need to be nationalised and transport is one of those things.  And that's from a died in the wool capitalist who believes that government should stay out of everything!

So we took the coach and not the train.  The coach was clean, virtually empty and got to Victoria Coach Station in 1 hour 45 minutes -- just about the same time the train/tube combo would have taken.  The coach driver helped with the bags and stowed them in the bus' hold.  On the train nobody would have helped and we'd have had to struggle with them on the train and then the tube.  The East India Club was welcoming and ready too so we just dropped the bags and headed off -- Ali to Uni and his accommodation stuff, Anna and I to paint the town red.

It was nearly 3pm and only 100 yards away from Fortnum & Masons so the immediate question of lunch/tea was simple to navigate after which I proceeded to walk Anna around town.

The Mall on Sunday
It was a beautiful day and really nice to bimble around fairly aimlessly taking in shops, Bond Street, Oxford Street and taking tea in a couple of places for a rest.  London is a really nice city and it came as quite a shock then and in the next couple of days to realise that having driven all over Europe and visited endless world heritage sites and old towns, medieval cities, Roman ruins and all the rest that the best place of all was here.  You name it, London has it.  OK, not the weather and beaches but certainly all the rest.  Maybe no Roman amphitheatres either but more museums of all sorts, more palaces in good condition, more memorials and monuments to people of global importance ... well its a huge cosmopolitan city with millennia of history and most importantly it has never been invaded and had a major competing power take it over although as Wellington after Waterloo in 1815 said there have been some close run things.

Dinner that night was in my favourite Youngs pub off Bond Street (called 'The Guinea' -- great steak pies) when we caught up with Ali.

The next day being Sunday was quiet in London so simply wonderful to walk around.  The first obstacle was a road race with 20,000 entries running past the club so Anna and I couldn't cross the street for a while but when we did I walked Anna through 3 parks in a couple of hours -- first St James' Park and the Serpentine, then Green Park and finally Hyde Park.  Just wonderful to see so many Londoners out walking, running, biking or just bimbling.  And as for the tourists, well there were too many to count.

You just have to love the guy in the chicken suit!
Anna told me that Chinese people always referred to Buckingham Palace as the 'dog house' because the statues around the place looked like dogs, hence the nickname.  Never knew that.

With Anna outside the "Dog House"
We stopped off here and there for a brief rest and finally ended up in a Chinese restaurant in Baker Street for dim sum before splitting up and going our separate ways.  Ali wanted to check on some shops.  Anna felt like doing the same or having a rest and in everyone's absence I took in a museum and what a museum it was.

Of course Wellington and Waterloo related, it was the Wellesley family's London residence Apsley House which these days is a museum show casing the Iron Duke's china, silver, gold and art work.  Apparently after the Battle of Vittoria in 1813 when Wellington thrashed Boney's brother Jerome, then King of Spain, and finally kicked the French out of the Peninsular, a cavalry charge overtook Jerome's baggage train and captured it all.  The officer in charge brought the carriages back to the duke who was too busy to pay much attention so he said box it up and send it to London and promptly forgot all about it.  After Waterloo the duke was in London and had a bit of time to take a look and to his surprise found hundreds of works of art, gold, silver, etc.  For this was the entire looted treasury of Spain that Jerome was trying to take back with him to France.

It must have been a temptation for Wellington to say thanks very much and get hanging but he wrote to the restored King of Spain and told him where his treasury was and how it got there.  The King of Spain wrote back thanking the duke for his honesty and generosity and said as a small thank you for liberating Spain from the French yoke, keep it.  The duke did just that other than for 6 huge masterworks which celebrated the history of Spain and lineage of its rulers that he had copied (and hung).  He then sent the originals back to the King of Spain.  Clearly the duke had quite a bit of class.

What is the rule about being on a horse?
What remains is magnificent.  In addition, the duke received a lot of presents from grateful European heads of state.  Where you and I may send a card and bottle of wine, the heads of state sent 400 piece dinner sets commemorating the duke's life and battles.  He also acquired booty from France and all manner of other magnificent stuff that really needed a very large house to show off.  Apsley House is where the duke held his annual Waterloo banquets when he hauled all this stuff out but these days it is simply a joy to see it all laid out.  As for the paintings ... I am not a mad art fan and rarely go to art galleries but seeing 300+ 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th century old masters in one place hung as they were in a sort of any old how manner put shivers down my spine.  The duke really was quite something and this museum really is quite a place.  And it is not one of the must see sights of London.  You do really have to look for it.

The last night was quiet and we parted, Ali with Anna back to Canterbury, me to Heathrow with sadness knowing the trip was all but over.

Can't wait for what's next though...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ars Longa, Vita Modus

One of the real high points of the tour was the Modus and the arrangement with Renault.  I don't know why it is not more widely advertised but I found out about the scheme when looking to rent a car for 3 weeks via the usual rental firms and was ploughing through endless rules and regulations about where I couldn't drive (anywhere outside western Europe) which was a bit annoying considering where we wanted to go but on the broker website, I entered the dates I wanted and up came a suggestion: "have you thought about leasing?"

Well, no I hadn't actually so I read on a little more.  The contract was set up as a sort of guaranteed sale/buy back of a brand new vehicle.  I didn't really get the details so called the Renault Canada number and talked through it and glory be, it is totally kosher and actually works!  All you have to be is non-EU resident to qualify.  Having a UK passport I had to prove residence outside the EU and go through the shopping list of documents they needed as the deal really was a sale and buy back.  The nice upside was that there was no restriction on where I could drive and the fully comprehensive insurance was included in the price.  AND it was less to rent this way than say through Avis or Hertz.

Its all about the VAT of course which is why if you are UK resident, the whole thing falls down. I don't know if it works for non-UK but EU residents.  We had red number plates that identified us (according to the Renault lady) as tourists and targets!  Thanks.  But it did let us spot other "tax dodgers" as Ali called them.

The pick up points for Renault were all round France and at various other places including London but in these cases with a delivery charge.  As we were heading to Calais anyway and had a hire car in England already, I simply arranged to drop the UK car off in Dover, walked into the ferry terminal and bought a ferry ticket, walked off the ferry in Calais and into the area where the Renault pick up point was.

The new Modus
 It was then I realised that ALL the French manufacturers do this -- i.e. Peugeot and Citroen -- because the Renault lady was also the Peugeot and Citroen lady too.  And Jan later told me that the Germans do it as well.  But out of a cast of thousands I had chosen the Modus as our tour vehicle.  It wasn't the smallest in the fleet, nor the swankiest, but looked a good, solid vehicle that would go from A to B and then C and ... Z.  It would also hold all our stuff and at a pinch we could sleep in it (didn't have to put that one to the test).

It passed with flying colours!

May of the drives were long.  Le Touquet to La Rochelle for example was 750 kms and the Milan to Stuttgart day was 8-9 hours long.  Everything worked beautifully.  Part of this was due to the fact we collected it with only 5 kms on the clock -- the Renault lady recommended we should use a qualified Renault dealer to do its first service at 25,000 kms!  During these journeys Ali and I worked out a sort of lineage for Renault vehicles starting at the bottom: Clio son of Modus

Next was the siblings: Megane brother of Modus and Espace big brother of Modus.

And finally the parents:  Scenic father of Modus.

But of course, there was the black sheep of the family: Kangoo.

The nice thing was that each day I started the car, the comforting message popped up saying that oil, water and all the rest of it was "bon".

Modus out on the town one night in Split
One irritant was that Ali being under 25 wasn't allowed to drive but he navigated well.

A big plus of course was the never ending road photos that Ali took at various places.  Most from the car came with a bit of Modus in them whether screen reflection, door frame or something else like a road sign, road barrier, tree or bush blocking the way to whatever the photo's object was.

One of the many tunnels in Autoroute du Sud in France

Portofino in the background ... honest!

On the road in Croatia towards Rajetka and Split

Heading down to Dubrovnic

15 minutes in Bosnia

The fjord in Montenegro towards Kotor
Lost in Vienna

Raining at last in Austria

Great photo.  This is a chemical plant in Austria normally invisible but because of the black rain clouds the white smoke stands out.  Ali took several of this with the best (!) obscured by a tiny road sign that came out of nowhere at the last moment
We tried to keep up with frontiers and customs posts too.  Some were very substantial and we could easily imagine what life could have been like pre-EU when you had to stop everywhere.

Italy/Slovenia border post

Into Croatia for the first time 

The countries we visited were (in order) France, Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia (we think), Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France.

Modus in Kotor

Driving in Serbia (maybe) or Bosnia

Bosnian border with someone

Bosnian road engineer on mobile phone ...  it happens there too!
Modus in trouble! Parking ticket in Zadar

Austria for the first time ... one day we criss crossed into Austria,  Switzerland and Germany on many occasions

Trust the Swiss to go over the top with their border post

But we did come up with THE name for Modus:  OPTIMUM MODUS TRANSPORTAE.  Thanks Modus, you were great!

The Long Way Back

Rather sadly we turned left out of the hotel and left again at the lights and turned onto the autostrada heading north... WHAT!!!  Why didn't the road instructions give these details on the way in?  OK, moving on ... Ali and I decided we'd rather like to have a final pasta meal at lunchtime so chose Lake Como to be the location, or rather Cernobbio, a small town on the lake.

Pulling out we turned back on the wrong side of the motorway heading back to Milan and passed through all the tunnels, etc, that should have led us to Switzerland but in fact led us back towards Milan.  Those bloody road signs or this time lack thereof!  Anyway we managed to turn around and head north, the plan being to take the San Gotthard pass in Switzerland this time and then head through Zurich and overnight in Stuttgart.

This was a day for tunnels and bridges like no other.  I've enthused about roads and infrastructure but really the Swiss went way overboard.  The tunnel through San Gotthard is 17 kms -- the longest of the trip -- but that meant we hit Zurich at rush hour time where we got caught in traffic for nearly 3 hours.  This meant we made it to Stuttgart around 8.30 pm but on the way we'd experienced the 'thrill' of the German autobahn.

Lake Locarno from the car ... nice barrier
The Modus is a fine vehicle of course and maintaining 130-135 kms is a breeze (about 85-90 mph) however on those roads the big Audis, Mercedes and BMW's in the rear view mirror are pretty intimidating.  They all have big wide wheelbases and are low to the ground.  Plus the newer models have these little halogen light dots that highlight their headlights making them look like sinister snakes as they approach at near warp speed and then roar past.  Not so many sports cars though, just these big saloons driven very, very fast.

Stuttgart is a nice town though, what we saw of it.  90% destroyed in the war, it was not restored for some reason.  The town planners simply built whenever so its a 'new' town in the sense that there's not endless medieval buildings all over the place.

The main platz in Stuttgart.  The only place where any old buildings are standing.
Not sure why but Ali next wanted to stay in Eindhoven.  That was a long drive!  Not so many windmills in Holland any more.  There's quite a few of those big wind machines though as its so low lying -- and quite boring actually.  We'd not booked anywhere as we were not sure we could make that far but rolled into the Information office (the VVV) who found a place opposite a gay bar for us just out of town.  We had our usual bimble around town to get a grip of the place and found an Indonesian restaurant for one of their rice tables (rijstafels) which consisted of 17 different dishes and rice.  A stand out meal indeed.

The skyscrapers of Eindhoven in the distance

A modern day windmill, without the wind bit.  Or  the mill.
The final stop would be Brussels as we wanted to eat mussels again but this time I booked a place ahead of time in the Avenue Louise neighbourhood.  And where I was critical of Milan's road signs, they almost pale into insignificance behind Brussels.  It took about 1.5 hours to drive into the outskirts and the same again to find the hotel, no more than 2 kms away.  Just hopeless!  In the end we stopped and found a street map on the street next to a bike hire stand (that seem to be in every city these days, nice idea by the way).  Armed with this information and after only a relative few more side turnings and mini detours, we found the hotel and checked in.

I actually missed an important side bit in that en route and pre-traffic holdups and wrong turnings and bloody one-way streets and no sign posts and ... we delayed and headed for the Battle of Waterloo Champ de Bataille in Waterloo itself.  I've just finished reading a great book on Wellington on the Peninsular War and Waterloo campaigns so am full of this stuff right now and Ali in reasonable humour tagged along getting more interested along the way.  The battle of course redrew the map of Europe and established a new European order, the tour guide used the word 'hegemony', namely that of the main victors of the battle: England and Prussia.  Sure Austria and Russia were waiting their turn and Spain and Portugal were nosing in from the south but it was Wellington and Blucher who won the battle and very clearly the peace that followed.

The lion monument at Waterloo.  The English position was atop a range of ridges and small hills which were razed to make way for this memorial.  The lion is aimed at France supposedly keeping watch.  Wellington visited the battlefield 2 years after this was completed and complained "Where is my battlefield?"
At the top of the lion monument

For years after England had the veto on virtually every major foreign policy decision taken by any European nation and with Wellington first Ambassador to pretty much every country in Europe, then C-in-C, then Prime Minister (a really bad one incidentally) and then finally the crusty old warrior that nobody ever wanted to cross ever, England was able to roll above the everlasting 19th century continental European squabbles, revolutions, restorations, wars, and such and say "No, you can't do that" at various junctures and the various parties would say "Alright, sorry, didn't mean to do that.  Hope you don't mind" and everything would be hunky dory (for England that is -- Milan however as an example didn't do so well).  It only took 100 years for the Prussians to get sufficiently resentful that they felt like taking on England again in WWI but I suppose they'd been busy unifying Germany (at sword point) and thrashing every other upstart nation nearby (Austria 1865/66 and France 1870/71).

The Belgians rather nicely have legislated that the Waterloo battlefield will never ever be built upon as it such an important national as well as European icon.  Curious that they have leased the field itself out to lettuce and cabbage farmers who've put up "Properte Prive" signs everywhere.  But the tour was great although the farm at Hougoumont is under repair so we couldn't go inside.

Once ensconced in Brussels we headed into town on the Metro.  I have to say this is the way when driving around Europe.  Most cities have efficient public transport and with the city centres impassable to traffic and parking crazily expensive, why not stay near a Metro stop a little way out?  The city is lovely and the Grand Place spectacular of course and if I haven't waxed on enough about Belgian cooking, that is an oversight as realistically European cooking outside France, Italy, Spain and Belgium is bog standard meat and potatoes (Scandinavia is probably herring and potatoes) which after a couple of days is pretty uninteresting.  Belgians love to eat and drink.

Getting ready for the entertainment in the Grande Place
I've mentioned before the hundreds of different beers brewed in Belgium, most of high alcohol content and made with wheat, fruits, and in other fancy ways which I personally find undrinkable.  The standard beers though are just really nice though and Ali and I mosied into a couple of bars to taste test Brussels' finest.

The first place was recommended in the guidebook (Delirium Cafe) as having 2500+ beers in stock at any one time.  It was jammed and with only 2 barmen, nobody wanted to take the time to discuss beers so we left in a huff and found a small, street corner bar nearby where the barman greeted us with a cheery "Hello Boys".  We ordered a couple of beers and started chatting with the locals when I realised that they were all guys and that the only younger guys in there appeared to be ... well, the object of the older guys' attentions at which point we realised we were in a (unadorned) gay bar.  So we left and found this time a waffle bar where Ali had his first Belgian waffle of the campaign.

The 'evening snack' waffle -- chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream

I did say that Belgians love to eat, didn't I?  In the streets around the Grand Place were restaurants of all kinds, coffee shops, waffle shops, ice cream stores, and chocolatiers galore.  Ali marched into one for a bar of dark chocolate which is when I fell from grace and broke the seal, as it were.  Being a lover of chocolate in all its forms, I know my limitations and weaknesses -- they are great.  If I start eating chocky I will continue until next year and the 5 individual pieces I bought from that shop lasted probably 30 seconds.  Some form of inner steel kicked in at that point for we marched on now looking for a dinner option.

The Grand Place was having some form of medieval ceremony with people of all ages dressed up in old clothes marching around to some stirring music waving flags which was a fun diversion but once finished we felt the need for dinner and found Leon's -- a 100+ year old mussel shop.  Ali didn't have mussels whilst I did (plus oysters) and they were very fine indeed.

The following morning was a 200 km dash to Calais to drop off the Modus and catch the ferry back to England so Ali and I decided to seek for more waffles and the elusive frites with satay sauce and headed back into town.  Both were satisfied (frites were a little disappointing as the shop had no satay sauce) so we headed off.

The 'breakfast' waffle -- strawberries ("to cut the sweetness"), chocolate sauce and whipped cream

I did mention about how in Brussels there's no helpful road signs, didn't I?  That works for going out as well as going in for we drove around the tunnel system for ages until we saw a road sign but when we did we were able to crack on.

I'd been a bit worried about the mechanics of dropping off the car and called the Renault number I had to negotiate a return time.  I said I could do it around 1 pm and the lady at the other end said that was lunchtime, could we make it at 2 pm?  Just as well as with all the messing around in Brussels we were behind even that return time and finally made it back to Calais harbour (drop off at the ticket office) around 2.30 pm to find nobody there.  So I called the number again and spoke to the lady who said she'd finished work for the day and could I just return the 2 keys, the car documents and any other relevant paperwork and leave the car anywhere in the car park?

So all in all very easy indeed.  We parted from the Modus -- now 7619 kms old -- bought ferry tickets and went back to Dover where Paw Paw awaited.

Farewell Modus and thanks!

Paw Paw of course had cooked up a storm and did Ali's washing as he planned to stay on in England another month.  We'd arranged to go up to London for a couple of days first before I flew home on Monday.  So it wasn't over just yet!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Forza Italia!!

So many factors determine what makes a successful country but sometimes its pretty easy to see at once what problems exist.  My Roman friend, Angelo, said in the past that when Italy got into troubles, it simply devalued the Lire again and immediately they were competitive again and became (temporarily) more successful.  Now its part of the Eurozone it has zero ability to do something similar again so its economy continues to slumber and drift but that isn't why I think Italy will never rise above where it is right now.  I think its down to road signs.

How can anywhere seriously look to grow if at no point in time does anyone not from the locale know where they are?  (Brussels is just as bad by the way but they have the excuse of trying to tell people where they are on their tunnel ring road ... which is gibberish to anyone not from Brussels).  I'd chosen a hotel in a business district -- on the subway but a couple of kms away from the centre.  However the road signs wherever they existed were pitiful.  I'd written down instructions given by the hotel themselves which were simply useless.  They may as well have been written by a 4-year old.  Ali called the hotel and tried to tell them where we were -- a tough thing in itself -- but the hotel said if he gave instructions, they'd be useless so refused to provide any.  So Ali asked a guy getting cigarettes from a shop who said "follow me" which we did which was how we found the hotel.

I cannot hammer Milan and Italy too much as all cities have traffic issues and have instituted mazy one way systems all around their city centres making driving a miserable task for any that do not have a GPS.  Next time I will get a GPS!

8 stops on the metro later and we walked out into the Piazza del Duomo and boy what a duomo it is.  My chum in York Minster had told me that the Minster was #2 in the duomo size rankings in the northern hemisphere after Milan and where York is all business (courtesy of the Reformation), Milan is all ostentation.  But what magnificent ostentation!

We took it in a bit and then bimbled on and around the inner part of the city centre finally settling on a restaurant for some risotto milanese and the result of Ali's internet research regarding the cotolette.

Both wiener schnitzel and the cotolette have only been around since the mid-1800's when Milan had fallen into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- this was fairly recent as Boney (again) had rolled up all of Italy by 1803 and had himself crowned King of Italy.  Before this the Duchy of Milan was an independent city state, a position it had held under the Sforza family since medieval times.  Whether the cotolette beat the schnitzel into existence depends on your perspective -- whether you are Italian or Austrian.  The Italians of course believe that their Cotolette Milanese is pre-eminent while Austrians believe the wiener schnitzel came first.  The important thing is that Ali was able to chow down on both in order to make a definitive conclusion as to which was best.

He said they were both as nice as one another.

Next day we headed out on the hop on hop off bus tour which was good (they'd all been good, the only dodgy one being the tourist train in Ljubljana) and enabled us to have an early dinner before heading out to the Roger Waters' show.  More risotto milanese but this time no cotolette.

The show was held at Mediolanum Forum in an outskirt called Assago.  Mediolanum is the old Roman name for Milan.  But we'd had some interesting debate on its whereabouts with the receptionist at the hotel which went something like this:

"Can you let me know where the Mediolanum Forum is?  We are going to a show there tomorrow and would like to know how to get there."


"Mediolanum Forum.  Its in a place called Assago."

"For-Uma-Sago.  Never heard of it."

Ah, so it DOES exist!
"You don't know where the stadium is?"

"What?  San Siro??"

"No, not San Siro.  Its another stadium where they have shows and that sort of thing."

"You want to buy some shoes?"

"No, no.  Shows.  Things like concerts, basketball games.  That sort of thing."

"You cannot get shoes there."

"No, I know.  Its the stadium at Assago."

"Aah, you mean Foro Assago?  Its not very close.  Very difficult to get to from here."

"OK, but you do know it then?"

"Of course.  Who doesn't know the Foro Assago?  Concerts and basketball matches happen there."

"Yes, yes and that is where we are going tomorrow."

"You want to go there tomorrow?"

"Yes, tomorrow evening.  We'd like to know how to get there."

"Its very difficult."

"Yes, so you said.  So how would we get there?"

"You could take the Metro to this stop and then get a bus."

"Great, so that's how.  How long will it take?"

"Ooh, long time.  Depends on traffic.  Maybe one hour."

"What if we got a taxi?  How long would that take and what would it cost?"

"You want a taxi now?"

"No, maybe for tomorrow.  To get to Foro Assago, how long would it take?"

"Depends on traffic.  Maybe 20, 25 minutes."

"OK and how much would it cost?  Just an estimate."

"Maybe 20 Euros".

Ali was having trouble not laughing out loud at this exchange but at least we had a plan.  We'd take a taxi there and wing it coming back by following the crowd.

And this is what we did and remarkably easy it was for to nobody's knowledge the Metro line had in fact been extended out to Foro Assago so getting back after was a breeze.

The show itself was great of course and I think RW had made a couple of small changes (for the better) since I last saw it in Antwerp.  The solo on 'Comfortably Numb' for example was extended, better and more showcased.  Our seats were good too, right next to the wall on the right hand side.  The stadium was full and audience enthusiastic.  Shame RW didn't do an encore.

Big come down tomorrow though as we were about to turn north and head for home.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Northward Bound

How can anyone be annoyed about a place that calls itself Zadar?  It is something out of Star Trek, for goodness sake.  "Aliens from the planet Zadar are running amok in Kotor" -- just brilliant.  However when we left Mira's place we found a parking ticket on the Modus.  Other than outright amazement that someone could defile such a vehicle, we were amazed as we'd spoken to a cop the night before who'd assured us that we'd parked just right and shouldn't get a ticket.  Clearly he'd not spoken to his colleagues when he'd knocked off.

Putting this brief interlude behind us we headed for Slovenia, our target for the day being Ljubljana, its capital city.  We'd crossed Slovenia already and had noted that clearly no love was lost between Slovenia and Croatia as the motorway ran all the way to the Italian border where it changed to a single file road across 25 minutes of Slovenia before Croatia picked it up again with a motorway of its own.  This time though we headed inland and after a while picked up motorway and the remainder of the journey to the 280,000 person capital city was a breeze.  Even finding the hotel wasn't a major problem this time as somehow we drove up to it almost at once.

It was hot though and making an immediate mistake in having a beer in the sun compounded things to the point that torpor set in.  Ali decided he needed a nap while I took a look round, pretty sluggishly and was pleased to find that Ljubljana was in fact a lovely city set aside a little river running through it.  There was of course an old town but without walls as they'd been overrun more often than, well I can't think of anywhere right now actually but it had been an awful lot and they seemed pretty resigned about the whole thing.  There's only 900,000 of them in the whole country so they probably couldn't make much of a fuss anyway even though the country is pretty much 100% mountains.  The Austrians had been the overlords longest so their architecture seemed to be most dominant.

We found a place to eat specialising in suckling everything but it had been a busy night so they'd sold out but could help us with the local specialty -- horse or young horse (i.e. foal).  Gently declining the 'colt tartar (a house specialty)' we ate sparingly as the search for the real wiener schnitzel would take place the following day as we were headed for Vienna.

Colt Tartar anyone?
En route it began to rain for the first time in ages but we still made good time to Vienna where we had no chance finding the hotel so Ali headed for the central information office and found it.  The hotel was right next to Prater Park, famous in the 39 Steps movie, and a little out of town on the underground but was just fine for us.

The ferris wheel in Prater Park
I'd found reference to a biergarten in the park that served beer and schweinehaxe so we headed there first to chow down on some real pork.  My goodness, what a hunk of meat!  But just perfect when combined with Budvar pilsner.  It was mid-afternoon on a Friday and the place was jammed.  Next to us was a man with a haxe and a BIG glass of beer, some cabbage salad and some bread and he'd clearly made plans to stay the night as he was not going anywhere!

What a hunk!!!
We on the other hand headed for the centre of the city and as the hotel said we were only 20 minutes out of town decided to walk.  It wasn't 20 minutes out of town.  Anyway ultimately we made it and began to criss cross the city to try to make it to the Opera House where the hop on hop off tourist bus started from.  We found it and then also found Cafe Sacher nearby and decided to stop for a cafe and sacher torte (chocolate cake and whipped cream) which is their globally renowned piece de resistance.  Very nice it was too but by the time we'd finished, so had the tourist buses for the day.  So rather than do the tourist bus thing, we decided to head back to the hotel to change and really seriously look for some wiener schnitzel.

I'd found reference in the tourist book to a place where prominent locals ate.  It said that the ambience was interesting but don't expect fine dining.  It was a little out of the centre but on the subway so we headed out that way and tramped around for a bit before finding what looked like a church hall (forget the name, sorry).  Inside were cheery, red faced Viennese drinking all sorts of stuff and chowing down on large slabs of something that on closer examination seemed to be schnitzels.  A table at the back was found and we ordered beer and bog standard wiener schnitzel and looked around at the other patrons.

The place was jammed.  At one table were 8 young people all eating and drinking.  One young lady at the end started accumulating all the uneaten hunks of schnitzel looking stuff and with the waiter's assistance began wrapping it up -- and there was a lot of extras.  The 3 person table next to us clearly ordered the meat combo as the waiter brought in an enormous platter piled high with schnitzels, sausages and other meat like looking substances that they managed to finish less than half of.  As for us we'd already eaten schweinhaxe and sacher torte so were not really ready for an onslaught but it came anyway in the shape of plate size schnitzels (2 each) and a bucket full of fries.

Not sure how we managed but we did (not the fries though) and the whole thing was laughably inexpensive too.  However we weren't able to converse much for the rest of the evening and suffered a bit during the night too.  Not helping at all was heading back to Prater Park to go on the famous ferris wheel.  We were the only people there at the time so the show was all for us.  The operator stopped the wheel at odd places throughout the cycle but the longest was right at the very top.  Given that the wind was howling and the compartments were shaking and shimmering, this was not the most comfortable of experiences on a stomach in any state at all, but when said stomach was filled to the brim and beyond with haxe, sacher torte and schnitzel galore, well ...  This said, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

"Don't ask how I am feeling right now"
However we did take the tourist bus the next day which was just great.  Vienna is a lovely city and has beautiful buildings all over the place.  The empire of old has gone but they certainly loved to bling the place up.  Summer Palace at Schonburg; the Duke of Marlborough's sidekick Prince Eugene' palace at Belvedere; just lovely and realistically a shame we had to leave after only 1 day.

On the way out we drove by a WWII flak tower, one of 6 erected by the Nazis against bombers and which were so well built could not be torn down after as the damage it would cause to the nearby buildings would be absolute.  Some 30-40% of Vienna was flattened in the war.

Flak tower still standing
The drive to Munich was uneventful although finding our digs was again torture however having found the Regent Hotel only 100 metres away from the station as the guide said we were pretty much sorted. We'd planned to stay 2 nights as the first would take in the Hofbrauhaus where Hitler had started and which Viv and I had visited before.  I expected a slow morning after so suggested a lazy tourist day rather than 6 or 7 hours driving.  Great stuff!  We had a haxe just because we could and settled down to sing and chat with the locals.

The first bunch on our table were locals who'd been there for 3 hours and it showed.  One young chap said "you English make fun of us, you call us krauts.  After the cabbage."  Ali asked what the Germans called the English and he replied "you drink too much and it is always raining"... fine talk coming from him, we pointed out.  Also it was raining outside.  "OK" he said and we got on famously.  Next were a family from Emden ("the furthest top left in Chermany you can go.  It is 12 hours drive tomorrow") and finally a family of all things from Uruguay.  The oom pah band didn't play as much as we liked but after several more steins of beer, it was clearly time for bed and the headache that followed.

We did the tour bus and discovered that over 90% of Munich was flattened in WWII and what the town did with the rubble was scoop it up and make hills good enough to ski and sled on in the section of the city that hosted the 1972 Olympic Games -- the so-called 'Munich Hills' for other than this it is as flat as a pancake.  Great tour again and ideal for a lazy day.  Ali took over the navigating and marched us around Munich in the sun until we found it was time for a mid-afternoon haxe and beer in the English Biergarten preparatory to the last wiener schnitzel of the day and a reasonably early night.

A modest snack
Germans love to eat and drink.  All the stuff you read about the Europeans being more circumspect in their drinking habits and diet is simply nonsense.  There's just as many heavy drinkers and eaters around Europe as anywhere else.  The Germans I would say though rank #1 in that category though.

Next is Milan and the show!!!