05/03/04-05/11/04 A quick one-week trip to Europe. The plan was to visit Switzerland, explore the Alps a bit, drop by the Nurburgring and then head back. Originally I had hoped to rent something interesting, like a Clio 172 (a tiny car with a big motor and decent chassis). Unfortunately that car was not available for my planned travel dates and after much searching I reserved a Mini through Hertz at a decent rate. Also checking around I realized that the Stelvio pass which I had wanted to explore is still closed by the snow. Bummer. Undaunted, I made plans and reservations.
Day 1. After spending the morning working on
the dp1 plug, I packed my two bags, walked down the hill, grabbed
lunch and took the train to the airport to catch a direct Lufthansa
flight from Portland to Frankfurt, then connecting to Geneva. The
flight was uneventful. The plane was decked out with fancy Recaro
seats which still managed to be quite uncomfortable. I don't know
what it is about airline seats, but only one airline - Air New Zealand
- has figured out that the cushion has to be tilted UP when the seatback
is reclined, to keep from putting stress on the lower back. On the
flight to NZ and back that simple feature had made a huge difference
and it was the one and only time when I had slept comfortably on a
plane, regardless of class of service. The Lufthansa seats slid the
cushion forward but did not tilt it. Why is beyond me. The result
was a great looking, uncomfortable seat and only a couple hours of
uneasy sleep on a 10-hour flight.
Getting to Geneva at the Hertz counter I'm informed that they don't have any MINIs. Damn. I'm offered a Golf but resist. They keep checking and offer me a Megane which I accept but then they say it's not available. Ditto for a Focus. So basically after half an hour of polite smiles and broken English, Golf it is. I recalled reading that the newest generation Golf was supposed to be better than the previous one, getting back to some of the fun-to-drive values. Uhmmm, yeah.... The thing feels like driving a huge pillow, with the anemic 1.6L engine buzzing away hopelessly to motivate its substantial heft. To its credit the Golf is solid and rattle-free, in an overdamped kind of way. It has a 6-speed but the ratios are so tall that 5th and 6th are only usable for economy cruise on flat sections of freeway. I'm afraid this is not going to be fun on the 'Ring. That said, on the way up the mountain to Leysin I actually manage to pass several cars but it's a real adventure trying to pull off each maneuver. This is a great car for people who don't really like to drive. Tomorrow I'm going to check if it's possible to swap the Golf out for something else - I'd gladly drive the 1.5 hours each way to Geneva to do it. At least the drive is scenic. Except that it's been raining since my arrival...
Day 2. A call to Hertz in the morning clarifies that they no longer have any MINIs in the fleet and that they basically can't give me anything better than a Golf. Well, a Golf it is then. After spending most of the day talking to mother's students about my car design at her request, I head east to Lucerne. The drive is picturesque but rainy.
Then, over the short but steep pass between Interlaken and Lucerne, I encounter snow. A sprinkling at first, then a couple hundred feet higher in elevation the road is covered. The Golf actually does quite well in this and is starting to grow on me. The trick is to keep the RPM way up and to brake very late for turns. Amazingly, a guy ahead of me is going over the snowy pass on a motorcycle - albeit rather slowly. Arriving in Lucerne the traffic is terrible. The main streets are completely clogged and so are side streets feeding into them. To make matters worse, a lot the streets are one-way. It takes me a good hour of circling to finally find a parking garage near where the hotel is supposed to be. I then locate the hotel on foot. The hotel is situated right in the center (the fact responsible for the difficulty of locating it). Parking in the garage is expensive and I'm told there is no street parking. Yet I see cars parked on the street one block away and no meter signs. So I decide to chance it - successfully, as it turns out (and again the next night). Sometimes it pays not to take people's word for things. Once checked in, a couple hours walking around the dark, cold, rainy city. It's a picturesque place and nice to just walk around. I only wish the weather weren't so miserable.
There is some activity in bars and restaurants but after briefly peeking into a couple of them I decide to just call it a night and try to get over the nasty case of jetlag.
Then I try to get to the pass from this side so that I can check out some cool looking roads running across the top. It's in vain, the pass is closed.
So, reluctantly, it's back down through the tunnel, this time taking the turnoff at the other end to try and get to the roads this way. An electronic sign shows most of the passes closed but a couple open so I decide to try and see what's there. After a half-hour drive through ever heavier snow and fog, I pass a train running alongside the road and then pull into a town - where the road stops. It turns out the way to go forward is by 'car train', that carries cars over the pass. Sounds interesting. I buy the ticket, wait about twenty minutes, then drive onto the train. As it pulls away from the station it's a weird feeling to be sitting behind the wheel of a moving car, as a passenger. I was hoping for some cool scenery but unfortunately just half mile from the station the train pulls into a tunnel where it stays for the whole trip.
On the other side I ask if the pass I was planning to take back to Lucerne is open. Nope. The only way is south which would result in a couple hundred extra miles that I wasn't prepared to tackle. So another ticket, back on the train again and back down to Lucerne, this time taking the side road that runs parallel to the freeway. Then along the side of the lake, taking in the grandiose scenery whenever it's not obscured by clouds.
Having had enough driving I stop in Brunnen, a small town along the way, and take a look around. There is regular boat service on the lake, almost like a bus, and I decide to go a couple stops then come back. The boat ride is peaceful and not particularly interesting. But it's a welcome break from being on the road.
Then back in the Golf, scooting along the winding coastal road through the ever-present rain all the way back to Lucerne. Tomorrow is the drive to Nurburgring, where I'm once again meeting Ed, so I try to get some rest. I fail...
Day 4. The Ring. This is becoming an annual pilgrimage - not a bad tradition to have. The drive up from Lucerne is uneventful and I find a rest stop where I catch a couple hours uneasy sleep in the car. I now feel a bit better. Steady rain is punctuated by a single ray of sunshine just before the German border. The sun brings a glimmer of hope for better weather up north, which is soon washed away by the return of steady downpour. Oh well. I fill up, feeding the Golf some premium fuel in hopes the CPU would recognize it and squeeze another horsepower or two out of the motor. It does seem to respond to the way I've been driving it in the mountains for the last 500 kilometers and the car feels a bit more lively now. Or maybe I'm just getting used to it. Also I pump up the tires from 2 to 2.75 bar. Once into Germany I put the right foot down and find out that the Golf tops out at 190 kph in sixth gear and 200kph (125mph) in fifth. The speed is quite entertaining in the rain and I maintain it for quite some time, burning a ton of fuel in the process. My arrival at the Ring is greeted with a drizzle that quickly turns to downpour. Ed is already there and out on the track. I buy a 6-lap pass, catch a two-lap ride with Ed to refresh my memory of the course and then do a couple laps following him. Ed's current ride is a hot version of Renault Clio, a 'hot hatch' similar in spirit and performance to my MINI.
In the dry he'd be a whole lot faster than me in the Golf, but in the wet the disparity is not as ridiculous. Still, he has to hold it back some so as not to lose me on the lead-around laps. I do seem to have some memory of the track from a year ago. I still can't sit down and picture the whole thing but when I see a turn I can generally recall what comes next. Most of the time. This helps me maintain a reasonable pace. I pass a 944, then a Maserati cabrio, then a whole string of Porsches, BMWs and Audis running in a group. Only five people pass me the whole time I'm there (8 laps total, 6 initial ones and two more later) - Ed, of course, then a Smart Roadster in its hardtop configuration (reportedly driven by a pro test driver), then a silver late-model 911, then an A3 Audi. One of the later laps, a 993 C4 starts out right behind me. I lose him for a while, then on the long uphill section he gains on me but not enough to close. He edges closer on the straights and I pull away in the corners. The Golf is doing quite well then, despite its wimpy 1.6L motor and all-season tires (though strangely the motor that used to buzz now seems to almost growl a bit? must like the premium fuel). The stability control is particularly impressive. I 'discover' the technique of going into a corner hopelessly fast, resulting in an instant of understeer, at which point the electronics take over and neatly bring the tail about - to match what the steering wheel is attempting to do. Pretty cool (by contrast a MINI simply provides enough control to let the driver do the same thing - assuming he has the ability that is). Given the circumstances I'm not complaining though. The Porsche does catch me on the final straight and I let him pass just before we slow for the exit. Next lap I let him go ahead and hang on his tail until the lengthy uphill where his horsepower advantage can't be overcome, premium fuel or not. I do keep him in sight for most of the lap and when I enter the final straight he's about halfway down. That means he gained about 20 seconds on me out of a roughly 12 minute lap. At this point I'm rather happy with the rent-a-Golf and pat it on the steering wheel as we pull in, thanking it for a job well done. A video clip here. Then, onwards to Luxembourg. The hotel I'm staying in is very nice and will serve as a base for my exploration for the next couple of days. Much better than the one I stayed at last year - neater, better located and cheaper too. Checking in is a major dejavu moment - I could swear I saw this whole sequence in a dream during my Euro trip last year. At the time it made no sense which is why I remember it (or I think I do anyway). Weird.
Then, back to the hotel to get the car and off to explore the countryside. Normally I just look for fun roads on a map and see what adventure I can find there. This time I tried a different approach, taking the recommendation of a Frommer's guide book. So I went to explore the Valley of Seven Castles. Getting out of town the traffic is heavy and the suburbs are uninspiring though not as bad as most other places. Of course the guidebook directions were not so great (wrong road numbers) and the starting point was less than ideal. Also it wasn't obvious how to get to some of the castles. But once off the main roads, the back roads are really cool. They wind through the hills, often alongside streams. Most of the time the roads are lined with trees right at the edge of pavement (no shoulder), with white lines painted on their trunks. Wouldn't want to hit one of those.
Speed limits are 50kph through towns but 'unlimited' elsewhere - I suspect there is a default speed limit of probably 100kph or so. At any rate 100-120kph is as fast as I'd want to go here anyway, especially in the rain. Giving up on the Frommer's I resort to my usual methods and head north to interesting-looking twisty pavement. Ahhh, that's more like it. The road winds its way from Diekirch towards Eche-Sure along a stream, sometimes climbing high above it and then coming back down. Surface is usually immaculate but there are some rough stretches where Golf's solid structure and supple suspension prove to be an asset. I happen upon a feisty Renault to play with and we tear along the wet curves at a good clip. There is hardly any other traffic. I see a number of neat castles along the way and stop to take a couple of pictures.
Then upon reaching Sure I discover that it also has a castle. At this point the rain has stopped so I decide to park and explore for a while. The castle ruins are in two groups high on a cliff above the small village and there are two separate paths leading up. There are no signs so it takes a bit to find the way. There are very rough stairs carved into the rock of the cliff that the castle sits on.
After spending a couple of hours climbing rocks and taking in the views I pick an interesting way towards the city and head back. The scenery is great (note the deer in the first pic below).
This corner of the world has a look unique to itself, in my experience anyway. Very glad I came to check it out. Then, back to the hotel to relax after a day's drive and contemplate the best route to Switzerland tomorrow... Naturally navigation again proves a challenge, as does traffic, but I make a couple of wild guesses and get very lucky, emerging from a narrow side street directly across from the hotel. Cool.
Day 6. Transit to Switzerland. I've been contemplating a couple of different routes - one through Germany, 100% high speed roads (some unlimited), the other through France being about half Autoroute and half secondary roads. The Autobahn route would be longer distance-wise and would use more fuel, but I expected the French Autoroutes to be toll roads so both time and money would presumably come out equal. I decide on the latter, heading through Metz and Nancy almost directly South. I'm pleasantly surprised by the absence of toll booths. On the minus side, there are some radar cameras along the road and at some point I think one gets me (it flashes as I go by doing about 110kph in a 90 zone). So maybe in a few weeks I'll get a ticket in the mail from Hertz. My main hope is that since Switzerland, where the car is registered, is not part of the EU, the revenue machine may stumble and let me fall through the cracks. Time will tell. Once the divided highway ends the secondary roads are narrow, relatively slow and of only modest scenic value. Oh, and it's raining, of course.
I miss a couple of the intended turnoffs but manage to maintain a general direction and finally, after passing through snow-covered mountains and countless rain-soaked valleys I enter Switzerland. Then it's an easy fast cruise to Aigle and a spirited sprint up the mountain to Leysin. Early in the climb I catch up to two cars that despite being slower than my desired pace are still making good progress so I stick behind them and the three of us ascend all the way nose-to-tail, thankfully unimpeded by any other traffic. Mildly entertaining, which is all I could ask. Then, time to relax a bit.
Day 7. Monday, the final full day here. Thankfully the rain has decided to give me a break and I wake up to rising sun coloring the tops of the peaks outside the window.
An easy stroll while mother takes care of her morning classes and then we're off on an errand to Bern, taking the scenic route there and back. I've driven the same road several times already, both a year ago and a week ago, but always in the rain. Now with the weather being more cooperative the stunning views are there to behold in full.
Neat. The road is dry, the traffic is light and my mother is heroically tolerant of my velocity through these twisty bits. After some forty minutes of this, the first stop is Gruyeres, a picturesque medieval castle just off the main road.
There is a small number of buildings at the foot of it, including a museum containing the works of HR Giger (the guy who designed the creature and sets for the Alien movies). His art definitely leaves an impression, always dark, sometimes graphically erotic in a disturbing kind of way. Across a small courtyard is an Alien-themed bar. Cool but not very inviting. Trying to sit in the multi-vertebraed chairs makes my own spine feel exposed somehow.
A few more pictures and a snack at a nearby cafe, then onward to Bern. For whatever reason I did not look at the city map before arrival so trying to navigate through it is rather stressful. The streets are very busy, the sun is bright and the whole situation is a bit much. My own fault, of course. Finally we park, take care of the errand and then walk around the city a bit. My initial impressions are still that it's not my kind of place - too big and busy.
But after some clouds cool things down and we find a quiet spot by the river it gets more tolerable. Some views are actually rather neat. And of course they have the bear pen, where a few rather plump bears lounge around and snack on food thrown to them by tourists.
Then back to Leysin retracing the morning's trip. The roads are dry and mostly empty and I proceed at a good pace, taking in the views. Progress is impeded for about 20 minutes by a herd of cows in the middle of the road (just like my final day's drive in NZ, hopefully it's not an emerging trend).
Once past the bovine roadblock the rest of the trip goes smoothly. I seem to have clicked with the Golf finally and we tackle the twisties with some vigor. Tomorrow I'll be up before 6 am for the drive to Geneva and a lengthy flight home...
Day 8. The return trip goes smoothly. Being the engineer that I am, I solve the airline seat problem by stuffing a pillow under the forward edge of the seat cushion to raise it. This works like a charm and I spend more than six out of the ten hours in the air soundly asleep. Back home in Portland it looks like rain had recently stopped and clouds are starting to clear...