Five Days, Five Countries, 2776 km Euro Road Trip

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Europe » France » Lower Normandy » Caen
January 1st 2010
Published: January 25th 2010
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With our bags packed we load everything into the Ford C-max, our rental car for the next five days. The next challenge - to figure out how to use the Sat Nav. We get the hang of it eventually and head away from Rotterdam and towards Lieden where we make a short pit stop to pick up costumes for a New Years fancy dress party later in our trip.

Safely avoiding the canals (which are freaky to try and parallel park next to) we leave Leiden heading first west, then south-west along the Dutch border with Germany.

As we travel through rural Netherlands we chuckle that instead of using stone walls, hedges or steel wire to fence their sheep, the Dutch make use of their abundant supply of water to surround the paddocks with mini moats. It doesn’t look that deep, but we guess you don’t need much to stop a sheep - plus they’re probably not bright enough to figure out that they can walk on it when it’s frozen.

Anyway, we soon pass through the border into Germany and head south towards Koblenz. As we do so the canals disappear and for the first time since
Rhine Valley Cellar DoorRhine Valley Cellar DoorRhine Valley Cellar Door

Home of Riesling
arriving in Europe for our Christmas holiday we see hills.

The drive south of Koblenz through the Rhine Valley is certainly everything that we’d read about. The steep hillsides are completely covered in vineyards (obviously hand picked - given the gradient) and punctuated by stone castles. Even in the drizzling rain, it really is beautiful.

This region of Germany is also renowned for its Riesling wine, so in the small market town of Boppard we park up the car. Our mission - to find a cellar door! We make our way along the cobble-stoned streets, admiring the old buildings, and upon reaching the market square we pop inside a Church to have a look and get away from the cold rain outside. Typical of many smaller European churches, the interior is simple but given the time of year, it’s decorated with a collection of fir trees filling the altar.

From the church, we pop across the square to the tourist information centre (TIC) where the helpful girl behind the counter tells us about the only winery which has its cellar door open today (given that we’re visiting during the the low season). So, full of anticipation, we head up the street in search.

It doesn’t take us too long to find and soon enough we’re seated inside with a tasting list (in German) placed in front of us. Luckily the lady at the cellar door can speak good English and she explains that there’s a range of wines, including several styles of Riesling, that we can taste. We were expecting to be able to try one or two different wines, but our host, who we later find out is the winemaker’s wife, is ever so generous and takes through almost the whole range! We regret not being able to return to the UK by train as at the bargain price of a few Euros a bottle, a case or two would be a great purchase. But we settle for a couple of bottles and Sal and Andrew take advantage of being Continental locals and pick up a case.

Lachlan’s our dedicated driver, and he takes the next small driving shift as we head from Boppard to our destination for the night - the nearby village of Oberwesel.

We were a little unsure whether it was a good call or not when we booked our accommodation, but on arriving we’re instantly at ease because our hotel, with its exposed wooden beams and period furniture is absolutely beautiful! After checking in, we dump our bags in our rooms and head out in a search of a local restaurant for dinner.

The lady at the hotel points us down Oberwesel’s main street (which seems almost like its only street) and about 100 metres from the hotel we venture into a very local looking pub where the friendly elderly couple running the place motion us towards a table.

The menu is in German so we go with what we know and order three schnitzels, goulash, and ‘vier bier’ (one for each of us)! When our meals come it’s exciting, albeit a little bit of a lottery, to see who ends up with what. Our reservations are quickly shown to be unfounded as everyone’s food looks and smells fantastic. Ariana’s goulash is rich, like we expected, and Lachlan’s veal schnitzel comes with pungent local mushrooms, cream sauce and fries. Yum.

After dinner we wander around the cobblestone streets before ending up back at our hotel in time for a round of coffees and dessert. It’s a perfect end to our first day on the road and our first, and only, night in Germany (for this trip anyway).

Wednesday morning breakfast is a real treat. In true German fashion, the buffet at the hotel is laid out with muesli, six kinds of cold meats, boiled eggs, smoked salmon, a basket of crusty bread rolls and slices of heavy black bread. After eating what is probably far too much, we pile back into the C-Max and hit the road.

The second half of the Rhine valley is equally as picturesque as the first and there’s no shortage of castles, vineyards, and great views along the fast flowing river to keep us engaged.

After about an forty-five minutes or so, we head away from the Rhine and begin to follow small highways through semi rural countryside as we head south west. The thing that strikes us most is the presence of dozens of wooden hides. As regular as clockwork, on the edge of each small patch of forest sits a small wooden box about two metres off the ground with a little wooden ladder provided for entry. We’re not too sure what they are for - they could be for bird watching, but we guess that they are probably for hunting wild boar and/or deer which would no doubt roam the forests.

One thing is for sure, almost as soon as we pass the blue sign on the side of the road welcoming us to Luxembourg, the little wooden hides stop. The Luxembourgians (is that what you call someone from Luxembourg?) seem to have a different approach to the animals that live in their forests. In the thirty minutes or so that it takes us to get from the German border to the centre of Luxembourg City we pass under about half a dozen deer overpasses... or maybe it’s just that they care about their cars.

Upon arriving into the centre of Luxembourg we park up the car and take the chance to check out at least a little bit of this tiny country.

In the centre of town we stroll into a cafe and order ourselves a round of sandwiches and coffees... in French! After lunch, we wander around the surrounding streets looking at the souvenirs to see if we can expand our knowledge of what is famous from this part of the world.

The first thing we notice is that all the postcards are pretty much the same, with photos of ordinary looking stone buildings, random steel structures (there must be some sort of art connection...), and, our personal favourite - portrait photographs of the Luxembourg royal family looking as boring and pompous as possible!!! If you’re a little known European Royal family we can’t think of any better way to raise your profile then to have postcards printed with your face on them!!

With the time on our parking ticket nearing an end, we pile back into the car and hit the road again. About 20 minutes after leaving Luxembourg city we pass the little blue sign on the side of the road letting us know we’re now in France and it only takes a few more minutes before we arrive at a toll booth.

We know that it’ll be the first of many but the privilege of driving at 140 km/hr on a double and sometimes triple lane freeway is going to save us quite a bit of time, so we pick up the ticket and pass through onto the motorway.

It’s a move that
Vineyards of ChampagneVineyards of ChampagneVineyards of Champagne

It all starts here...
pays off, because there is hardly any traffic and we move along making really good time. As we do so, we notice that the countryside out the window has changed again quite noticeably. Gone are the small farms and forests of Luxembourg and in its place is kilometre after kilometre of broad-acre farms. Agriculture on such a scale is a first for us to see in Europe and in fact the farming here doesn’t look too dissimilar to Australia.

The empty wheat fields are the norm for a further two hours until just short of Riems where a most welcome change occurs when the fields turn to vineyards. Yesterday we were in the home of Riesling, today we’re in the home of Champagne!!!

From Riems we follow local roads south to Epernay, the capital of the Champagne region. Keen to visit the home of Moet and Chandon before it closes, we make it our first stop. As expected, the foyer is grand and full of tourists like ourselves keen to catch a glimpse at the Champagne caves filled with the highly coveted beverage. Unfortunately, the final tour of the day is already full so we console ourselves with
Cellar doorCellar doorCellar door

Somewhat famous...
a leisurely browse around the gift shop and a few photos out the front.

Disappointed but not deterred, we make our way to the TIC (just opposite) to ask if there are any other Champagne houses still open. Fortunately we’re in luck so we jump back in the car and drive down the beautiful Avenue de Champagne (currently bidding to become a UNESCO World Heritage site) until we reach a beautiful chateau. Following the welcoming glow of chandeliers we head inside to find a friendly French gentleman who offers us a personal tasting of three Champagnes from their range. We choose the Blanc de Blanc (Chardonnay), the Rose, and the 2003 Vintage Brut. Each one is more incredible than the last and it is a fantastic experience to learn all about Champagne in Champagne. It’s a real tick in the box!

After our tasting, as we’re not staying in Epernay, it’s back in the car for a further hour and half drive south to the town of Troyes (pronounced Twah). After checking into our budget hotel for the night we head off in search of dinner. As we wander about Troyes’ old town we feel like we’ve stepped back in time - the narrow cobblestone streets are filled with wonky exposed timber and plaster buildings and it feels old so ‘ye olde worlde’.

In the middle of the restaurant part of town we find a great looking set menu at a small restaurant and we instantly feel right at home. With an entrée of snails, mains of Burgundy style beef and a bottle of wine we settle back to contemplate how much we’re all enjoying being in France. We’re particularly grateful for Sally’s French language skills as on previous visits we’ve had to fumble through with some poorly pronounced words from a phrase book.

Thursday is a big drive for us as we’ll be travelling almost the width of France so after grabbing a simple breakfast of croissants and coffee from a local patisserie we hit the road.

From Troyes we head west and after two and half hours driving we reach the city of Orleans where we stop for lunch. In the city centre we wander past a couple of cafes with enticing looking set menus, before we eventually stumble upon an indoor market.

So we split up to cover the whole market between us and armed with bread, cheese, and ham, we race back to the car before our parking ticket expires. With Andrew picking up the next driving shift it gives us ample time to fill the back of the hire car with breadcrumbs from our crusty baguettes as we munch away happily.

Driving through the rural landscape we enjoy spotting as many small brown hawks perched on roadside fence posts (to get the best view of prey) as we can. There seems to be one every two or three kilometers. We figure that it’s a good indicator of how flat and treeless the countryside is when the only vantage point a bird of prey can find is on a fence post!

The landscape does however become a little more interesting towards the back end of the Loire Valley. A few small dairy farms start to spring up every now and again and there are even small patches of forest. We see a local out hunting in one with his 12 gauge shotgun and spaniel, and a few kilometers further along we spot a wild boar running along a farm track just a few metres outside the forest tree line.

Eventually, after a big day in the car, we reach our destination for the night, the small seaside town of Pornic, where we’re soon off to a party! French mates of Sal’s, who she worked with in Oz, are home for Christmas and NYE and were kind enough to invite all four of us along to their fancy dress ‘P-themed’ party.

So with Sal dressing up as a Policewomen, Andrew as the Pope, and both of us as prisoners we’re off. To be honest we were a little bit worried that because we didn’t speak any French we would feel a little bit like fish out of water but everyone at the party are really friendly and have excellent English.

We have great fun meeting and chatting with almost everyone at the party. Ariana is always talking to someone new, Lachlan talks for about an hour with a bloke from Toulouse about rugby, and we even meet one lass who spent six months living in Nottingham! We end up staying far too late and drink probably a little too much but it has been an excellent NYE party. One we’ll remember for many years to come.

We rise late on new years day and after a fast food lunch / breakfast we pop down to the beach to get a look at the Atlantic. It’s a first for us as we’ve seen the Med, North Sea, Baltic Sea, and the Sea of the Hebrides, but never the Atlantic. There isn’t much of a beach but the sun is out and the small sandy alcoves are all busy with families (and their dogs) making the most of the pleasant weather.

We’ve still got a fair drive to go today so it’s back to the car and back on the road heading north. Sal and Andrew share the driving and after a couple of hours we follow the signs off the motorway towards Mont St-Michel. The closer we get to the coast, the smaller the roads become and as we reach the rise of a small hill we get our first glimpse over the coastal countryside to the island village, crowned by an old world church, that is Mont St-Michel.

Reminding us a little of Lindisfarne castle in the north of England, we drive down the causeway towards Mont St-Michel before pulling over to get
Rooftops of CaenRooftops of CaenRooftops of Caen

Looking towards the city centre from our hotel.
a good look at it. As dust fades into early evening, one by one the village’s lights come on to give Mont St-Michel a truly magical feel. If we were staying nearby we all agree it’d be great fun to walk all the way across the causeway and explore the streets and stone lane ways, but it’s dark now and we’ve still got further to drive today, so as hard as it is, we jump back into the car and hit the road again.

We reach our destination for the night, the small city of Caen, around 7pm. We check into our hotel, find some takeaway pizza for dinner, then crash out relatively early - after all we need to make up for last night’s lack of sleep.

In the morning, we have an early start and walk into the city centre just before dawn in search of breakfast. A string of locals coming and going gives away a good bakery, so it makes for an easy choice for pastries and coffee.

Finishing our breakfast, we grab a couple of loaves of bread and some fruit tarts for later in the day and set off to see some of the city centre. With a fresh overnight dusting of powdery snow the grounds of the castle look like quite a good spot for a walk and we make it up to one of the guard towers to see the sun coming up behind one of Caen’s many churches.

After our stroll (and Sal and Andrew’s snowball fight) we stop by a supermarket to grab the final ingredients for our picnic lunch - ham, tomatoes and Normandy camembert cheese (you know, when in Rome...) before jumping back into the hire car and getting. once again, back on the road.

There is so much to see in this region of France and the few hours that we’ve got spare just doesn’t do it justice, but from Caen we head south to check out at least one of the D-day beaches.

The D-day beaches are where the Allies launched their attack on Nazi occupied Europe in the second world war. Of the five beaches, the Yanks landed at two in the south and the British 2nd Army, consisting of Brits, Canadians, French, Polish, and Aussies, landed at the northern most three.

The middle of the three northern

Juno beach, Normandy.
beaches, Juno, is where the Canadians landed and we turn off to have a look. From the car park, we take the track down over the small snow covered sand dunes to the beach before spending a good hour walking around checking out the remains of a Nazi gunning bunker and the plaques which retell the story of the landing.

Apparently, the casualties at Juno beach were the second highest of the five D-day landings with half of the first wave of Canadian troops losing their lives in heavy fire. It’s a sombre thought and a reminder of the price paid for freedom in Europe.

We would’ve loved to have spent more time in the area to really understand the history and sacrifice, but we’ve got to make it back to Rotterdam tonight, so it’s back into the car and back onto the road.

We head north-east, past Caen, to the small seaside town of Etretat. Even in the middle of winter it’s very busy and we can’t find a car park anywhere near the water. But a short walk never hurt anyone and we take our picnic lunch down onto the waterfront. There’s a stiff onshore breeze blowing and it’s absolutely freezing but we stay to eat our picnic lunch. We get a few surprised looks from the locals (and at one point we have to fend off a gigantic seagull!) but we don’t let it bother us and enjoy our tasty lunch.

By now it’s 3pm and we’ve got nearly 600 kms between us and Rotterdam, so in a mission to save some time, we follow the Sat Nav with blind faith as it sends us down tiny little snow covered one lane country roads. Yikes - hope no one’s coming the other way!

It works and soon enough we’re back on the motorway again heading north. The fresh snowfall creates a bit of delay for us in northern Normandy, but we keep pushing on and in the early evening we pass the little blue sign saying that we’re now in Belgium.

With more than 70 Euros spent on motorway tolls in the last three days it’s a welcome relief to be back in the part of Europe where the motorways are free. Phew....

Belgium passes quite quickly and even with a pit stop between Brussels and Antwerp for food and fuel it doesn’t take us too long to pass completely through the whole country. Just after 10pm, absolutely knackered, we arrive back at Sal and Andrew’s in Rotterdam.

The next morning upon returning the C-Max to the rental company, the Dutch guy behind the counter is completely shocked as he lets us know that we racked up 2776 kilometres in 5 days!!!! ‘Don’t worry,’ we tell him, ‘we’re Aussies, it’s normal.’

With the rental car returned we grab a Sunday lunch with Sal and Andrew before catching the train back to Amsterdam Shipol airport. The last 10 days have been tonnes of fun, and by going overland we really feel like we’ve seen a big part of western Europe- the real way.


25th January 2010

Wot a trip...
Great story and the night photos are getting even better..
31st January 2010

The pics of the tarts and Mont St Michel are my favourites.

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