Tuesday, July 12, 2011

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!

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