Jonathon Dean

Writer. Human. Nerd.

Tag: europe

The End of the Road

And now for the final part in my increasingly inaccurate trilogy of five (say, that’s catchy!), the final leg of our fellowship’s journey took us through the mountain staircase of Cirith Ungol, and into Mordor… Nope, hang on, not that one, that was last year. France. We went through France.

Since we’d spent more time than planned in Switzerland, and in any case we’ve all been to France many times before, we ploughed through most of the country at lightning pace. Despite that, the first night in France’s campsite proved to be… a challenge.

Despite multiple phonecalls, the camp site we had decided on just wasn’t responding. We decided to gamble, and make for it anyway, reasoning that in that part of France, there were plenty of campsites around, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find another if it turned out to be full.

We probably shouldn’t have made that gamble.

For various mountain-roads-related reasons, we didn’t end up getting to the camp site until around 9pm. At which point it turned out to be full, at which point we needed to find another camp site. And fast, because it was starting to go dark.

We made for a nearby campsite listed on Google Maps, but when that turned out to be little more than a gravel car park next to a public hole-in-the-ground outhouse, we decided that camping there simply wasn’t viable. The solution? Basically, camp in a truck stop.

See, in France, Italy and a handful of other countries, they have what are known as aires; service stations with basic facilities for campervans to stay for the night. But these sites aren’t really designed for pitching a tent, so we were lucky to find one with a scrap of grass suitably well hidden behind the van. At least these guys had proper toilets, running water and showers – I even managed to plug in my phone for a few hours while I ate a €7 boxed salad.

Back on the road, and thankfully free of the noise of crickets (!), our destination for the day was Château de Fontainebleau, just southeast of Paris. Now, not to demonstrate my ignorance, but I’d never heard of Fontainebleau before we got there. Finding out that it was the palace that Napoleon abdicated in, by reading the plaque in the actual room where he signed the papers, was quite a nice surprise.

As ever, French palaces are so much more elaborate and over the top than any other palace I’ve been in in any other country. There’s something about the absurd amount of riches so gaudily on display that it’s hardly a surprise that the French people decided to snick off the lot of their aristocrats’ heads. Can you imagine being one of the revolutionaries walking through those rooms for the first time? There’s not a single sight in the world more likely to convince you that what you’re doing is just.

And hey, as ever, I’m a sucker for a gift shop full of tat.

From there, we had about an hour to eat before moving on. Unfortunately, cafés and restaurants in France like to close (or at least stop serving food for a few hours) in the late afternoon before re-opening for evening meals. Which just so happened to be when we needed to eat. Cheers, France! That’s a stop at the Carrefour, then!

At least the camp site for the second night in France was quite nice again. Actual toilets, actual showers, actual electricity hookups, and an owner who apparently didn’t notice four of us in the van, so as we later found out only actually charged for two of us. Which was nice.

Tents up, plugs in, showers had, bowels voided, mead drunk. Early bed, early up, and early ferry.

Or, what should have been an early ferry. Thanks to the new border security checks taking forever (despite apparently only checking our passports and nothing else), we ended up waiting over an hour, and missing our ferry as a result. And we were stuck behind this bonkernaut;

It’s worth noting that that level of junk-strapped-to-the-car continued around the sides and the front of the car too. I’m frankly astonished they made it through the border checks without having every inch of the car checked over.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure why the border checks took as long as they did. Admittedly as a van full of four white British people, we’re likely getting through the UK border checks pretty swiftly compared to say, a dark-skinned family from the middle east (not to imply that the current British regime’s immigration and border policies are racist, but, you know, they are). Even so, if this is the kind of ballache the Daily Mail want when anyone attempts to enter or leave the country, they can piss off even harder than they already should.

Eventually the ferry arrived. We grabbed a beer, sat out on the deck, and waited for the floating building to carry us back to Blighty (which, as I discovered, is actually an Indian loanword). Just one brief stop in Oxford to visit a friend, and it’s back to sunny Manchester.

Returning from a journey like this can only ever be mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s back to life as normal, without the thrill of adventure or new places to explore. On the other, it’s a return to home comforts; a soft(ish) bed, hot and cold running water, showers, a full kitchen, friends and family.

I find myself wondering whether, for all that “travel broadens the mind” is true, perhaps the break from everything you know makes you appreciate the things already around you that little bit more.

Still, I can’t wait to do it all over again.

There and Back Again

So here we are, the third and final [yeah, this was the plan – sorry, you’ll just have to put up with another part or two, otherwise it’ll nd up far too long!] part of my summer roadtrip adventure.

After the exhausting, exciting and ex…tremely awesome week that was Metaldays, it was time to bid farewell. Farewell to metal (particularly since the van’s music system had gone bust), farewell to the awesome Metaldays arena pizza, farewell to that melon flavoured vodka stuff that we drank near constantly… and back on the road.

Getting out of Slovenia was considerably easier than getting into the country. The lack of any van-related smoke was a good sign, for starters, and it wasn’t long until we had crossed the border into Italy.

Just a few days after we left continental Europe, it entered a danger-level  heatwave, with the temperature in many places exceeding 40°C. Luckily we missed those highs – in a van without air conditioning, that sounds like a pretty good approximation of hell. Passing Venice, the heat hit its highest temperature of the week at around 34-35°C, and even that was a little too much, with windows open fully as we belted down the autostrade, trying desperately to make enough breeze not to cook, and guzzling down litre after litre of water.

In fair Verona, where we made our first stop, the sun was high, the river was beautiful, and our clothing was already soaked with sweat. Well, we had to have something icky, otherwise it’d all get horribly, sickeningly romantic.

Of course, we couldn’t go to Verona without doing something a bit Shakespearian, so we all held up skulls and… nah, just kidding. We did actually go to the balcony of Juliet. Two things struck me while there – first, the decades of regular rubbing have meant that Juliet’s statue’s breasts are a noticeably different colour than the rest of the statue, thanks to the repeated polishing. Second, that the romance of lovers writing their names on paper and sticking them to the inside of the courtyard entrance is slightly undercut by the fact that a not-insignificant number of them are written on sanitary towels.

Much of the pageantry and tradition here seems to be for people hoping for luck in their love lives, which seems particularly unusual to me. Do these people not know what happens in Romeo and Juliet? Luck in their love life is pretty much the exact opposite of what they got. Might as well rub a statue of Richard the Third in the hopes of good posture. For that matter, I wonder what happens if you rub Bottom’s bottom?

Our bed for the night (I know, actual beds!) was at a hostel at Lake Garda. Annoyingly, the absolutely stunning Lake Garda was a place we had deliberately planned to spend time in, but by the time we get there it was early evening, we had a vanload of laundry to do on the single washer and dryer available, and another gigantic thunderstorm was about to start. And so, the night was spent eating watermelon in a large room filled with Italian teenagers playing drinking games, and waiting for our laundry to finish, because we are just so damn rock and roll. Any other night I’d have personally outdrank the lot of them, but the night after a seven-day booze-filled metal festival? Nah man, I just needed to go to bed.

The next day, another disappointing lack of time meant that we couldn’t spend any time at all in Lake Garda (so that one’s in the “to revisit” folder!) as we had to hightail it to Milan, as luckily we had a local guide to show us around.

My first thought in Milan was “Wow”, my second thought was “Bloody hell”, and my third thought was “I really wish people would stop trying to scam money out of me.” This third thought was primarily intended for the street-level scammers, who attempt to tie string bracelets to you and then guilt you into payment, but in hindsight I should have also applied it to the local shops, who apparently quoted us a price of €2.50 for gelato, before revealing it was in fact €6 after the fact.

Many of the sites in Milan are churches and cathedrals – including one church that’s made out of bits of other churches (and also has the skeleton of Saint Ambrose on display in a glass coffin, because why not?). Which does mean that I’ve been to more churches this year alone than I have at any other point in my life – which, for someone who had a full Roman Catholic education, is actually quite impressive.

Holy hell though, Milan is pretty. The sheer amount of marble and gold and effort that must have gone into everything is truly staggering. It does make you wonder what architectural treasures the UK might have had if Henry VIII hadn’t bulldozed as many monasteries as he could get hold of, if there had been a true British Renaissance in the Italian sense, and if the Georgians and Victorians hadn’t simply decided they could do better and gone on demolishing sprees of their own.

I couldn’t let this write-up of the day in Milan end without my favourite statue of the whole place, though;

Yeah, that’s right, I am not a grown-up.

After loading up with a hell of a lot more drinks, we made for the final campsite in Italy – based in the grounds of the Monza racetrack – before making our way northwards to Switzerland.


To be continued. Again. Sorry.

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