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Monday, 18 February 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Cambrai to Luzern

1st Feb.
A long day. We got the steering fixed on the van, but it took twice as long as they said it would and they charged twice as much, (€480 for removing both McPherson struts, changing bearing housings and bearings).
The access to the bolts on top of the suspension strut is difficult, involving removing sections of the fascia, unbolting fuse boxes and working through the maze of wiring. At the same time the mechanic lost some oil from the gearbox via a drive shaft seal (pulled the shaft out past the splines) and didn't know how to top it up (remove the speedo sensor gear). This is a garage with a Fiat sign outside!
When I took it for a test drive the brakes didn't feel hard enough, but we couldn't find anything wrong, hopefully they will settle down again. The good thing was that we were able to stay with the van, so we didn't have any security worries, but it was so cold we could hardly move after a couple of hours.
Le Cateau Cambresis has an excellent aire for six vans, with free water and electricity, five minutes walk from town and we spent the night there.

2nd Feb.
A gentle run down to Stenay, in brilliant winter sunshine. I had a couple too many glasses of wine last night so Sue drove, which she seemed to enjoy. Stenay is a great stopover, down by the canal in the "Port de Plaisance". Six pitches directly by the boat berths and many more over the bridge in shade of trees, all with electricity plus shower facilities, for 6 euros a night. The town is pleasant with a good supermarket and a launderette close to the aire.

3rd Feb.
A 300km drive today, down through Verdun. Whenever you pass these war cemeteries, it’s not just the scale of the numbers that gets to you, but the absolute symmetry of the crosses - maintained with a laser like accuracy, 90 years later.
Then on to Neufchateau and Epinal and finally into the Alps to Thann. Tempted to do the Ballon d'Alsace mountain pass, but we were losing the light so saved it for another time. Thann is a pretty town with its own cathedral with a stunningly illuminated tower. A welcome aire for 27 vans is set aside in the town centre car park. Will we ever see the likes of this in England? Hmmm.
Thought about going out to eat but it was -3ºC with a bitter wind, forecasting snow. Sue flashed up a roast dinner instead.

4th Feb.
Woke up to the sound of rain dancing on the roof. 6ºC - so much for the snow.
Time for the promised visit to the Schlumpf motor museum in Mulhouse. The Co-pilot GPS got us easily to the main gate but it was all firmly shuttered! Did an about turn and found the official car park (with tram station attached). Opening hours are 1300 -1700 on weekdays, not 1000 - 1700 as in the our Green Guide.

The National Automobile Museum (from a collection of cars acquired regardless of cost by mill owning brother Fritz Schlumpf) is supposedly the biggest in the world – and it’s not easy to doubt that claim when you walk in. The effect of looking at cars as far as the eye can see is enhanced by a complete mirrored wall at the far end of the old mill house. But just when you thought that was it, there is a vast collection of racing cars behind the mirrors, and then on the opposite side of the hall, an even more spectacular collection of luxury cars, some so rare as to be almost priceless.

On the way out there is a collection of ancient restored engines. Press the button and the engine rumbles into life! Actually, it is just a very good sound recording, but a computer graphic next to the engine shows how the mechanisms actually moved when it was running, and even digitally peels away the casings to show the internal workings. Brilliant for fifty-something kids.

5th Feb.
Spent the night in a canal side car park at Niffer, near Mulhouse. Made our way to Baden in Switzerland to see some friends we met in Ronda, Spain. They have a super house in Ehrendingen, NE of Baden. At around 500 metres altitude, they would normally have snow all the winter, but it was 6 degrees and there wasn't any snow across the valley, even up to around 1000 metres.

6th Feb.
Peter took us for a guided tour of Zurich. I was impressed by the multi-story carpark - the control room looked straight out of a ship's engine room. Every bay had a sensor to count whether it was full or not, with red and green LED's above the car - imagine how long that little lot would last in a British city!
Everyone except the tourists looked so stylishly dressed, conservative but impeccable - we felt like tramps in our camping waterproofs. The streets are spotless, the trams immaculate and many buildings have the Swiss flag hanging outside, together with the blue and white diagonal of the Zurich canton.
Peter took us to the central police station to admire the ceiling paintings. Unsurprisingly to us, but much to his disgust, the uniformed Fraulein at the desk wouldn't let us in - it seems you have to commit an offence to enjoy high culture in Zurich, but we got a glimpse through the sliding glass doors.
Walking over the bridge our ears were suddenly assaulted by what sounded like two ships sirens trying, alternately, to outdo each other - flocks of pigeons were wheeling in the air, and people looking nervously around them. It was 1330 and Peter explained that this was the annual test of the civil emergency warning. Looking around I don't think a lot of people knew that!
We retired to the Johaniter Bier Keller for some refreshment. Two plates of pasta and 5 beers came to 51 CHF.
Retrieving the car from the high tech Parkhaus, we drove to Baden. The old centre of this town looks as typically Swiss as you can get. Next a visit to the town hall (built in 1497) and Peter got the keys to the old court room. A beautiful timbered room, it is now used for civil weddings.
After meeting up with Brigitte we headed for their favourite café, but I got side tracked into the Pickwick English Pub. Not a bad stab at an English boozer, but 3 pints and a low alcohol beer came to 32 CHF.

7th Feb.
Topped up with Autogas, which we found hidden at the back of a Renault garage complex in Regensdorf. Finding it so easily was the slick outcome of internet research and GPS technology on our new gizmos.
Moved on down through Zurich and along the lake side, then climbed to Einsiedeln. Not a particularly pretty place so we found a car park by the frozen Lake Sihl for the night.

8th Feb.
Stopped at Oberiberg. Having passed several ski stations closed due to lack of snow, it was good to see skiers moving down the slopes. Oberiberg is a pleasant little town with a large car park in the centre giving direct access to the lift. Only a couple of blue pistes and a nursery slope, so we watched the action from the sun terrace at the Posthotel. The German only menu was all but incomprehensible to us, so we made do with a beer.
After a visit to the supermarket and the tourist office we headed up the hill to Ibergeregg, part of the Mythen ski area and one of Peter's recommendations. Most of the skiers were leaving in their cars so we easily found a place to park down the road from the small ski lodge - it would do nicely for the night.

9th Feb.
Only – 3.5º during the night, not as cold as Einsiedeln. The decision not to ski was based on the hordes arriving on the last day of the school holidays. As it turned out, it wasn’t that crowded as the resort is larger than it first appeared. Hiking boots on, we headed for the Winterwanderweg. It was a glorious walk around and across the pistes, with a stop for some barbequed Wurst and, you know, some of that amber coloured stuff.
We had some hot showers in the van, then drove down to Einsiedeln to dump the washing water in a car wash, then back to our quiet spot by the frozen lake.

10th Feb.
Stopped for the night in a cheap campsite near Goldau. Pumped, dumped and did the laundry. Mindful that we would need some more gas before long, we decided to go next to Engleberg, another resort Peter had circled on the map.
On the way we could top up with gas at Kussnacht am Rigi and have a look at Luzern.

11th Feb.
Loaded 13 litres of gas in at the Avia garage, roughly half our capacity, so we could have lasted another 4 nights or so before topping up.
In Luzern we stopped in the large car park near the Lido campsite. There are some public toilets there, and a large bay for bus/coach washing - useful for a waste water dump, though only a sort of drinking fountain for water.
We were stunned by the level of atmospheric pollution (smog) here, the view of the mountains was all but obliterated. Sue was having trouble with her asthma and even I could feel it at the back of my throat. Looking out over the lake you could hardly see the other side. It cleared a bit when we got up to Engleberg, but the visibility was still restricted. Don’t think you'd come to Switzerland for your bronchial health these days.

The Engleberg campsite (http://www.eienwaeldli.ch/) is attached to a hotel and seems a bit pricey – a dip in the pool is 8 CHF extra . Looking at the piste map they have yellow runs, marked as very difficult, which I suppose is the Swiss version of the double black. Seems a bit ironic naming them "yellow".

12th Feb.
Back in Ibergeregg, we parked on an icy carpark with only the stars and a piste basher for company. A visit to a sprawling resort like Engleberg makes you realize what a neat place this is. Yes, the skiing is tame by most people’ s standards, but we could walk across the road from the van, ski to the lift, and ski back.

13th Feb. Ibergeregg.
Skied in perfect weather and had a great time till we took the drag lift back to the top to come back to the van. Half way up we ended up in a heap and Sue bruised her leg. Still, no lasting damage we thought.

14th Feb.
Recovery day. When we eventually raised ourselves we decided to go back to Luzern, along the lakeside road this time, and stay the night in the car park, before a pump & dump in the morning. We would then top up with gas again in Kussnacht - this would have to last us until we got to Magadino, near the Italian border, as there are no more Autogas stations in the South East.

Amazingly, a guy who barked German instructions to me while I was studying the car park ticket machine, turned out to be English - from Bexhill on Sea no less, a retired banker for UBS. The upshot of this was that, contrary to the guide books, the campsite was still open,
so we checked in, leaving us confident to leave the van for a night out.
The walk into town along the lakeside was chilly but beautiful, the smog deepening the red glow of the sunset. After gawping at the opulence of the Palace Hotel, we tried to find the most expensive watch in the windows but gave up after a Carl F. Burcherer at CHF 28,000.
Time to find a nice Italian pizzeria in the backstreets. Lo and behold, we soon found it, but it was packed. The Pizza was excellent but Susan grumbled at 5.5 francs for 100 mL of Montepulciano, probably because it came in a glass big enough to hold half a bottle!

15th Feb. Luzern.
A day at the Swiss National Transport Museum. If you're into trains of the steam, early electrified, mountain and even model types, you could spend the whole day in this section alone. The fact that Swiss train electrification was kick-started into being because the electrical companies had too much capacity and needed to find something to do with it, is to me, interesting stuff.

We couldn’t get round it all in one day, especially as the ticket included a visit to the IMAX cinema attached. We saw the Deep Sea film, narrated by Jonny Depp and Kate Winslet – stunning stuff, I particularly liked the Wolf eel (with a face only a mother could love) that liked to munch on sea urchins, though even he seemed a bit unsure at times!
There is a planetarium, an aviation section, a nautical section, a section dedicated to the F1 Sauber team complete with drive yourself simulator and the recent cars, it goes on and on.
We missed out on the planetarium and a film in the nautical section because they shut down early, so Sue had a winge at the box office and got some free tickets for tomorrow. Looked like our stay in Luzern would be longer than anticipated.

16th Feb. Luzern.
Our second visit to the Verkehrshaus der Schweiz. Two trips to the planetarium – we could have laid back in our seats all day, listening to the ethereal music and gazing at the stars. Two very different programs, one on the signs of the Zodiac, the other a trip to the outer edges of the universe (all in 20 minutes!).
Then on to the Nautirama multimedia show we had missed, an absolute hoot - I think the designers had watched too much Monty Python.
We had longer looks at the aviation section, the space section and a go each in the F1 simulator.

Another walk into town, not many people about for a Saturday night. Macaroni, potatoes and cheese (all in the same dish) for dinner in the Lion restaurant – very tasty actually, and they give you a bowl of apple sauce to freshen the palate as you work through it.
I thought the Pilipino waitress had a certain look about her, and when Sue went to the bar upstairs to use the loo, she discovered rather more than you might imagine downstairs!

17th Feb. Luzern.
Back to the IMAX theatre to see “The Alps” a film about the Swiss American John Harlin, who sets out to climb the most difficult route up the north face of the Eiger – the route which claimed the life of his father 42 years ago. With narration by Michael Gambon and original music by Queen, it is stunning and emotional. Our hands were running with sweat at the end and I felt like I had just had a blast down a steep piste.

Back into town again, and every man and his/her dog were out Sunday promenading. The smog, after two dull, damp days had cleared a lot. We visited the famous Lion monument to the Swiss mercenaries who fought at the Tuileries in 1792. Mark Twain is supposed to have called it “the saddest piece of rock in the world”.
Did the sights of the old town, but suddenly there was the noise of endless car horns, the streets filled up with cars waving red flags. I figured the Swiss had won a football match – shows how much I know about football. It turned out that the Kosovo government had declared independence from Serbia. The streets became virtually gridlocked with flag waving, hooting, whistling Albanian emigrants, and they all seemed to be driving BMW’s or Mercedes. It went on and on and obviously began to test the patience of some of the locals.
We retreated to the ‘van and I flashed up the campsite Wi-fi (CHF 5.0 for 24 hours, usable over three months – that’s a good deal)