Our next day of driving began with our finally leaving Italy, or at least its official boundary. We drove by the lake near the border, emptied for some works on the drained lake bed and looking rather forlorn compared to the beautiful images Google Earth had shown me the day before while I was searching for potential wild-camps; then we swept unceremoniously past the “Austria” sign and into a new country.
The nearby hillsides became, if not less precipitous, more grassy, with little brown huts sprinkled liberally around. We wound our way down a couple of switchbacks in the road and through a beautiful pass lined with pine trees, nearby rocky peaks wreathed in cloud. The road wound along the hillside above a deep valley, a bright blue river snaking through it. We stopped briefly at a supermarket we came across to stock up on supplies.
The road continued to wind through the mountains, affording us some rather spectacular views of misty/snowy peaks. At one point, the road passed by a shallow and crystal-clear lake of brilliant blue. The mountains gradually decreased in size, and very suddenly we were on a motorway, and Noia the navigator was displaying the welcome screen for Germany!
Motorway driving is rarely anything but tedium, and today was no different; we drove until we’d had enough, and on a hunch I pointed Noia towards a green patch on the map that displayed a parking symbol within. Sure enough, we’d found a very pretty forest, interspersed with green fields, and a little parking area for walkers. We pulled up, and took the opportunity to take a walk in the intensely green woods — the stuff of fairy-tales.
For the next day, we’d identified part of a driving tour of the Mosel Valey that sounded promising, to the west and very near to our route. We headed that way, towards the Rhone-side town of Bingen am Rhein, arriving relatively late in the day.
After the success of the last night’s camp, I targeted Noia at a road in a large green patch beside the town, little realising at the time that the road in question was barely a footpath through the woods. So, we turned down this little road that got smaller and smaller, to our consternation, and had a slightly worrisome yet relatively pleasant drive through the woods, feeling a little sheepish as we drove past walkers on the track above. (Katherine: Mike handled this with remarkable poise)
We came out beside a little pub, and decided to pull up in the nearby car-park (also the car park for walkers) for the night. With Katherine’s high hopes for a schnitzel, we visited the pub, but found the restaurant closed. Still, we found a seat in the dimly-lit lounge, various animal heads hanging grotesquely from the walls — all seemed very “German pub”-esque — and had a few beers (Veltins, which the barman recommended and which we enjoyed immensely).
Rather desperate to fill up with water, the next morning we set out along the Rhone hoping to spot a caravan park or similar that we could drop into. Sure enough, Katherine spotted one a little distance down the road, and we negotiated our way under the railway line that ran alongside the river, along the narrow little lane, bordered by bright green rows of vines beside the river, and pulled in. The woman in charge was very friendly and happy for us to use the facilities; she was bustling about on various errands as we filled up, and kept making rather endearing “I’m run off my feet” huffy sighs with lots of exclamations in German, to which I grinned and nodded sympathetically.
While Katherine was filling the tank, she heard a hissing, and realised that the front left tyre was leaking air from the valve — just like what happened to us in Arezzo! Uh-oh. I poked at the valve until the hissing stopped, and we deemed it drivable, for now, as the pressure seemed to be relatively normal still. Hoping to find a tyre service facility like last time, we drove for a little while keeping our eyes open, but the one possibility was shut, whereupon we realised it was Sunday. I checked and topped-up the tire pressure at a petrol station, and we hit the motorway, hoping that it would last us until we could get it fixed.
When we decided to pick a town randomly to visit for lunch, the steering felt suddenly very odd, and sure enough, the tyre was down again. We pulled into a petrol station and decided it was time to put the spare tyre on. It’d been a while and my memory was fuzzy (I work with computers, not cars!), but Nettle’s manual, albeit in German, seemed to have all I needed. Out came the jack, and I wrestled the slipping handle until the wheel was sufficiently off the ground, and started on the wheel nuts (probably should’ve done that the other way around, but oh, well). I remembered something about European threads being the opposite to ours — probably the same phenomenon that makes water swirl the opposite way down drains, I guess — and the manual confirmed that clockwise was the way to undo them, so I laboured away, trying everything I could think of to loosen them. No luck, and I was scratching my head wondering what to do next, when a friendly German voice behind us announced the arrival of our saviours for the day. He was a mechanic, amazingly, and his wife spoke English, so we were in excellent hands — apparently, as she told Katherine, he rescues people like this quite frequently. Our benefactors took command, and I held my foot on the brake while he undid the nuts — anti-clockwise, of course — by jumping on the spanner’s handle. Within a couple of minutes, the new wheel was on, and we were good to go. We thanked them profusely. How lucky we are. (Katherine: We had a giggle at Mike’s masculinity taking a bit of a hit, especially given the super buffness of the mechanic in question. He still gets man points for getting the wheel off the ground though. I had an “I’ve watched too much Dexter moment” when I quietly wondered to myself if this guy has a “dark passenger” which he satiates by going around playing the good samaritan but actually sabotaging vehicles and sending their startled drivers to an untimely – and untraceable – death). We went and had a couple of schnitzels at a nearby pub. We were amused in the pub to see a race on the TV, and then realised that it was happening just around the corner, at the Nürburgring. Cool! We felt unreasonably chuffed at having had beer and chicken schnitzel in Germany. Our German experience is complete – at least this time around. (Katherine again: obviously our tire didn’t fall off sending us to an untimely startled death. Sorry for my uncharitable thoughts good Samaritan German guy).
So, with a fair bit of time lost, we decided to just hit the autobahn again, and skip the driving tour this time — how exciting, the prospect of having a “next time”! We crossed over the border into the Netherlands, to our surprise, as we don’t tend to do much map-gazing lately — navigation is more Noia’s realm now, as she’s been so great, we trust her to get us where we want to go. Within a few hours, we passed into Belgium. Belgium!
We headed into the city of Hasselt, where a friend, Kris, lives, who I’d met a year or so before through a WordPress theme I wrote. We’d arranged to pay a visit, so we found a park at a spot Kris had recommended, in the car park of a sports oval already populated with a few campers, reassuringly, and set out on foot to find him.
About twenty minutes later, we set out on foot the right way, as I sheepishly realised I’d directed us in precisely the wrong direction… twice. We walked along a busy, noisy road (Ah yes… This is why we’re not big city fans!), then towards the quieter town’s centre. We made our way under the train station and found Kris’s street on the other side, with lots of imposing brick houses lining the road. We greeted Kris (I experimented on him with some Dutch — “goede middag”), and he invited us in for a moment before we all ventured out into the evening. Kris took us on a walk around the inner streets of the town, and showed us a few of the sights (greeted a few very punk-band-esque friends of his that we encountered along the way), then we dropped in on the local Irish pub briefly — quite funny hearing Irish accents here. We asked for a recommendation from the bartender for a Belgium beer to try and ended up with an interesting beverage that tasted a bit like honey… and beer. We wandered through Hasselt (via the best veggie burger I think I’ve ever had), through the city’s impressive park, while we talked companionably. I was amazed with the depth of Kris’s knowledge of his town, and the amount of awareness and involvement he has in its community and local politics — a local council member in the making, there.
We decided to spend the night in Hasselt, and spent the next morning with a couple of errands — laundry, a little shopping; Katherine was excited to find a well-stocked art supplies shop and basically moved in for a while.
Then we hit the road again, and headed onwards; we left Belgium and entered France, finally ending up in Dunkerque. We stayed the night at the huge and rather fancy municipal caravan park, in preparation for our departure on the ferry the next day, to Dover. Quite fun to be speaking French again.