07/03/05-07/17/05 Time for another trip to Europe. Most of the travels in recent years I've undertaken by myself - easier that way. No need to deal with anyone else's preferences, interests or moods and I can always "share" the experience wih friends and relatives via the website. Lately, however, I've been spending some time with someone who I guessed would be a good travel companion so I asked her to come along. M has an appreciation of machinery and driving (she even assisted with dp1 assembly) so if anyone could deal with my car-oriented travel style it would be her. She even agreed to the Balance bar diet (later to be retracted, but to her credit she did at least make the effort). We've taken short trips together before and got along great, but both realizing this would be fourteen days in close quarters and the occasionally inevitable stress we agreed beforehand on means of conflict resolution and even a humorous code word for 'time out'. So, plans were made for a long-ish loop, starting in Amsterdam, going on to Paris, then Lyon, then Modena, where we'd check out some of the car and bike factories in the area. After that, a break from all the driving for a few days in Venice and a return via the Alps and Germany, possibly including the Stelvio pass in the former and a few laps at the Nurburgring before heading back to Amsterdam. All in all just short of 4K kilometers driving. We briefly considered doing most of the travel by train and only renting a car in Italy, but it turns out for two people car is slightly less expensive (even accounting for $6/gallon gas, parking and tolls) and gives a lot more freedom. So reservations were made, some of the hotels booked leaving the rest for on-the-spot decisions and off we went.
Previously jetlag has proven to be a recurring issue for me on travels to Europe so I tried a new approach - getting up very early for a couple of days prior to the trip, to shift my internal clock. Or something like that. On the day of departure it entailed waking up at 1 am or so. The method did succeed in getting me to feel jetlagged even before I left. The hope was that I'd be able to sleep on the plane and arrive fully adjusted. Except that the sleeping on the plane part has proven as impossible as every time before. M didn't want to do the pre-adjustment so it was a good comparison. We both felt equally tired on arrival so I guess my time-travel experiment was not a success. Oh well. The plane landed in Amsterdam around noon, so a fairly painless trip into town on the train, locating the hotel right across from the Central Station (the hotel is a disappointment - so it goes), then a couple of hours meandering around town. Finally visited the Van Gogh museum. I've been to Amsterdam several times before but museum-going is just not my thing. Neat to see the art and I did learn a few things about the artist, but overall my indifference to museums remains unchanged. Then the fatigue caught up and a quick nap back at the hotel was called for. Originally intended as one hour, ended up being more like three. Refueling with a couple Balance bars, more meandering - this time in the dark - then a beer at an old, smoky bar (Heineken tastes much better on draught than from a bottle) and then back to the hotel.
Tomorrow we pick up the rentacar back at the airport at noon.
Woke up at 4 am but it didn't last - eventually got up at 9:30. Overall the jetlag is not too bad though. A quick breakfast at a cafe on the corner, then train ride to the airport to pick up the rentacar. I had reserved and was hoping for a Ford Fiesta, which are supposed to be pretty decent little cars. Of course I'm informed that the only thing they have is an Opel Corsa. I'm really not a fan of GM vehicles, but so it goes. Upon getting the car I notice it has a number of scratches on it, so it pays to check these things before you go. On the onramp leading away from the airport a quick handling check - yep, understeer. Oh well. Perhaps more pressure in the fronts will help. Overall the car is not too horrible, it's just that it isn't great. So it goes. It does have AC, on the plus side, which comes in useful later in the day and throughout the trip. One thing we notice about European roads is the absense of old trashy cars. It is very rare to see anything older than 5 years or so. My guess is that all the old junk went to Eastern Europe. The first portion of our drive is to Paris, stopping arbitrarily in Gent along the way. The stop was mostly to delay a bit so as to miss most of Paris rush-hour traffic. I had been to Gent on a previous trip but didn't explore it much. On this visit, parking at the first available underground garage off the freeway (a good move), grabbed a map at City Hall which sits on top of the garage and went for a quick stroll along where most items of interest are on the map. Pretty cool. Passed a cathedral that seemed closed to the public, but on the other side an open side-door proved otherwise and provided access. Neat place. I'm not a fan of churches as such, but it's hard not to admire (and at the same time resent) the effort that went into its construction.
After a quick coffee at a sidewalk cafe, onward to Paris. Navigation proves a bit challenging at times on the freeways, but turns into an exercise in frustration and chance as we enter the city itself. Really glad to have help here so we manage to maintain a general direction and eventually find ourselves at the hotel. The hotel is in the city center, on Rue La Fayette, a few blocks from the Opera. The online booking description at Expedia promised free parking - no such luck. It's possible to park on the street from 6 pm to 9 am (provided one can find a spot, which I do at first but then lose it due to confusion over curb markings, then find another one several blocks of chaotic one-way streets away). During the day one must park in a garage at €23 a day. Oh well. The hotel is both cheaper and nicer than the one we stayed at in Amsterdam, and our 6th-floor room has a cool view of the surrounding rooftops and even the distant Eifel Tower.
Car and lodging squared away, we set out towards the tower - at first on foot, then getting about a third of the way there and realizing the magnitude of the undertaking at 11 pm we take the metro the rest of the way (and then all the way back). The Tower is lit and a few minutes after our arrival they turn on sparkling lights. Neat.
Afterwards, a search for a place to buy some bottled water (tap water is horrible) and some ice cream just because. A full day.
Day 3. Paris.
Woke up at 6 am, then again at 8 (with alarm). The jetlag is almost completely gone. Went and found the car on the street and moved it to a parking garage - that way I only have to pay for 24 hours. After a rather tasty breakfast at the hotel took the metro to the Louvre. The museum is huge and there is no way to see it all in a day so we decide to take in the most important stuff. Impressive. Surprisingly they don't mind photography so I take full advantage of that - below are just some of the pictures.
There is a long line to take a picture of the Mona Lisa but I kinda had to do it :) Museum-going is grueling work and after about 3 hours my feet are killing me. Time for a change. Meandered along the Seine towards Champs Elysees, looked at some shops, had a bite at a sidewalk cafe. Watched the traffic around the circle at Arc de Triumph. They actually have bleachers set up so you can spectate the mayhem. Crazy. No contact while we were there but dozens of close calls every minute. Sufficiently amused by traffic took the Metro back to the hotel for what was supposed to be a quick half-hour reset stop. Turned out to be more like a 3-hour nap, again. After that, a late-night trip to Montmartre. It's a former artist community (now touristy and residential) with a cool view of the city and a bunch of shops, restaurants and cafes.
Looking out over Paris what impresses is not just its sheer size but the fact that it's very dense housing (unlike LA for example) and has been there for centuries (again, unlike LA). This takes a while to sink in. It also explains the traffic nightmare. We stroll around, grab a dinner (quite nice and reasonable pricewise too), then realizing it's quarter to midnight we set out to find a metro stop, hoping the trains still run. A shopkeeper closing up gives directions, after doubtfully looking at the watch. Not a good sign. Eventually we locate a station and the remainder of the trip goes uneventfully, even if we do miss a couple of the connecting trains and have to wait a few minutes for the next one. Even this time of day trains still run at about 5-7 minute intervals. Back at the hotel, I type up the day's notes and give some vague thought to the next day. It already feels like we've been in Europe for over a week. What day is it? I'm not sure. That's good, in a way. It's an escape of sorts, right?
Day 4. Lyon.
Checking out in the morning an unpleasant surprise - continental breakfast was not included in the €90 per night hotel price, but rather was €14 extra per person, per day. It was nice breakfast, granted, but had I known I'd be facing an over-$60 bill for it for two days I definitely would have done something different. Oh well, live and learn. Getting out of Paris the traffic is nasty. Add to that the difficulty of navigating the chaotic streets with alien names and it's a pretty stressful experience. Overall impression of Paris is that it's just too big for me. Many European cities have a compact historic center that is easily walkable and most things of interest are accessible on foot, so it makes sense to stay in the center. Paris is just on such a grand scale (by design) that one has to take the Metro or buses everywhere, at which point it would be better to just stay on the outskirts next to a Metro stop and save the hassle of getting in and out, not to mention trying to park. I'll know better next time - but that won't be for a while I think. With local guidance it undoubtedly would have been a better experience, but as it is Paris now joins Rome, London and New York on my list of cities I've seen enough of, despite having seen virtually nothing of them. If it seems like there is a pattern there - there is.
Anyway, on to Lyon. Once I extricate myself from Paris (which takes nearly an hour), the drive is an easy 4 hours or so. I occasionally cruise 160 kph but most of the time stay within reason of the 130 kph limit. At one point something looks suspicious ahead and I slow down just in time to see a cop with radar. Or at least I think it's in time - he didn't go after me, but I suppose it's possible that he was using some kind of a photo gadget and I'll be getting a ticket through Hertz. We'll see. Some time later, weird flashes up ahead. It takes a couple seconds to process - speed camera! Again slow down, rolling by at the limit on the nose. No flash for me - hopefully I escaped this one as well. Lyon itself, despite still being a fairly large town, is much more to my liking. The historic center is around the river and a rather steep hill rising above it, so all is walkable if one doesn't mind steep streets and lengthy stairs. I splurged for the hotel this time and it's everything I'd expect. In fact I feel seriously underdressed but don't let it bother me - I paid my $225 for the night and I'm going to enjoy it. The staff are impeccably polite though visibly amused and slightly puzzled. Yes, please put my 1.2L rental Opel in the garage, alongside all the Mercedes and a blinged-out H2. Merci. No, I won't be making a reservation for dinner (not quite up for $50 entrees, although they are no doubt up to the standard). The room is excellent and once again we get a top-floor location with a view.
So it's up the hill to some Roman ruins and a rather gaudy 19th century basilica, then all the way down into town to walk the streets and have me put in my time as shopping companion. All goes well and we finish with an excellent dinner at a quiet restaurant on a cobblestone street. Then a lengthy climb up the stairs back to the hotel to relax for the evening.
Tomorrow, another lengthy drive, this time to Maranello in Italy.
Day 5 transit to Italy
Woke up late and got a late start. Navigating out of Lyon proves a pain (this is a recurring pattern). We miss the turnoffs repeatedly and have to retrace some steps. Finally, past the confusing one-way streets and snarled traffic, we settle in for the long drive to Maranello - our next destination. All goes smoothly until the road signs start displaying something that I think says the tunnel we intend to take is closed (my French is non-existent of course). The nearly-deserted freeway confirms the suspicions but a quick check of the map reveals an acceptable alternate route, over a nearby mountain pass so we press on. Sure enough, the tunnel is indeed closed. The remoteness of the area and the fact that most of the French-speaking travelers (meaning pretty much all of them) chose different routes the traffic on the pass is quite light. The Opel needs to be really flogged to pull off the few passing maneuvers that are required but that it does. It also takes me a while to figure out how to drive 'around' the nasty understeer (this despite bumping front tires up a few psi earlier). In one spot when called upon to brake downhill from about 90 kph I discover that the brakes are very limited in power - I stop with all of about four feet to spare. So this is really a balanced car then - no engine, no handling, no brakes :) This is why I'm not a GM fan. But I make do with what I've got and the comment from the right seat is 'I need a four-point harness here'. Guess the Opel works well enough afterall.
Then, back on the freeway for a long cruise through Italy. Outside temp jumps from 14C to 29C and the AC earns its keep. The Corsa is able to cruise reasonably at 160-170 kph and eventually we reach Modena, find our way towards Maranello and then locate the hotel. After the luxury in Lyon this is a bummer, but it'll do. We walk around town a bit and check out the Ferrari Gallery from the outside. It's raining a little.
Nothing here really besides the Ferrari stuff (which is closed this time of night) and a bunch of businesses trying to get everything they can from being located near the Ferrari stuff. M says "I hope Venice is better than this because I don't like this". I assure her it is. Much. We were originally planning to do a bunch of factory tours in the area but planning didn't quite come together. Looking on the map there are some tasty-appearing roads just south of here - perhaps my normal mode of exploration is in order for tomorrow. We'll see.
Got a late start again. Most factory tours close by 1 pm on Saturday and are closed altogether on Sunday. So it'll have to wait till later in the trip or another time altogether. We did get a visit to the Ferrari gallery here in town. From the outside, the modest size of the building led me to set expectations to match. Once inside, however, the amount of genuinely interesting things on display is impressive. Quite a few F1 cars, including a couple examples of my favorite, the 312T. Also a lot of engines, gearboxes and such. Even the cafeteria has an engine on display. Cool.
Back at the hotel we wrap up the day with some authentic Italian pizza (the crust is paper-thin). Nice.
This hotel does have free breakfast and it's nothing too special. Yogurt and coffee, basically. Good thing I have plenty of Balance bars (M can only eat a couple of the flavors and only sometimes). Once finished with breakfast we're on our way to Venice which is about 2.5 hours away. On the A1 autostrada I find out the Corsa is good for 185 kph (115 mph), which is a hair short of its 6500 rpm redline in 5th. Not too horrible for a wimply 1.2L. The car feels fine in a straight line at that speed but curves are a little nervous. There aren't too many of those here so I maintain the speed for a while. In Venice we park the car, catch the Vaporetto to the Rialto stop and locate the hotel pretty easily. Turns out the first night we'll be spending in a sister hotel around the corner. Hmm... OK. It's nice, though the room is tiny and has no view. We set out on a stroll about town, taking a lot of pictures and even doing the touristy gondola ride - it's quite pleasant and it's good to sit down for a bit. On the way back to the hotel we check out some local shops. Grappa is a local aperitif liquor - made from wine and packing quite a punch (40% alcohol). It comes in a variety of neat bottles and is relatively inexpensive, so we get a couple. A nice way to relax at the end of the day.
Days 8-9 Venice
The breakfast is included this time and is quite good. After which we transfer to the new hotel. The room is not ready yet but they promise that it's a good one. So we set out on a lengthy walk about town, visiting pretty much all the major areas. The pictures tell the story best.
Day 10 - northbound
Checked out of the hotel after breakfast, dropped by an internet cafe to check on the status of my website (someone inconsiderately hot-linked one of my videos resulting in over 30,000 views of it and so my site is down for the rest of the month due to bandwidth limits - bummer). Looking at the clock, remembered that the parking garage charges €18 for each day - it does not have an hourly rate. It is now 11:30 and the garage ticket says 12:07. So a brisk walk back to the hotel to get the luggage, then to a vaporetti stop to catch the waterbus back to the garage. It's going to be close, but whatever. Can't worry about it too much. Getting off the waterbus I leave M with the luggage and sprint for the pay machine, punching the ticket at 12:05 with full two minutes to spare. Ha. We have scheduled a Ducati factory tour in the afternoon, so we must now backtrack to Bologna. The drive is uneventful and we have about an hour to kill once we find the factory. A short drive towards city center reveals Bologna to be a typical medium-sized Italian industrial town. We don't get to see much of it of course but I get the impression it's not much of a loss. Back at the factory, the tour is pretty neat. We are not allowed to take pictures in the factory which is understandable but a bit of a bummer. It's cool to see the engines going together (turns out they powdercoat the raw castings prior to machining - makes obvious sense in retrospect but I just hadn't considered it I guess). Each engine is then dynoed briefly before going into a bike. Some completed bikes are dyno-tested as well, although not all of them are. It's more of a statistical sample. Saw some Sport Classics going together as well as a couple Sport Classic completed prototypes. They look great. Really wish I could have taken a picture of the Paul Smart prototype - I'm the first in line at the Portland dealer to get one. Should be arriving late fall. After the factory tour checked our the museum. Pictures are allowed there so here are a few of them:
The remainder of the trip is not planned out. We'll need to figure out what to do next and where to stay.... Candidates are Salzburg and Liechtenstein.
Day 11. Stelvio, etc.
Reluctantly left hotel Turm. We seriously considered staying another night, but logic won over emotion - afterall, we've already been here and undiscovered things await... So on we went. There was a brief attempt to try horseback riding at a nearby touristy spot but unfortunately there were no reservations available. Our initial destination is Liechtenstein, via the Stelvio pass. The Stelvio is something I've wanted to do for several years but somehow it never happened - from weather to convenience, all manner of things conspired to keep me away. This time, no excuses. So up we went. The road is narrow, only a bit over one lane wide, with only a stone barrier separating the traffic from the sheer drop at the edge. Traffic is fairly heavy, with cars, buses and bicyclists taking up a lot of the road. It's two-way, so occasionally it takes some effort for vehicles traveling in opposite directions to get by. All that, broken pavement and tight hairpin turns make going fast very difficult. The wimpy motor in the Opel makes it even more so. Later, when I ask M what she thought of the pass she said 'it's ok but needs a better car'. True enough. Still, I pass quite a few people and irritate quite a few more. Par for the course. The view from the top is impressive (click on first picture for full size image).
A quick snack of bratwurst from a vendor and bottled water, then onward via a smaller road into Switzerland (it even turns gravel for a while). I take some video, this time trying to velcro the camera to the dash. Initially it works well (but the slow pace due to traffic makes videos uninteresting). Later the pace picks up but the mount starts vibrating and making all kinds of noise. So the result is no Stelvio videos worth posting. Guess you'd just have to see it for yourself :)
Progress is fairly slow due to traffic but the spectacular views go a long way toward making up for it. Finally, Liechtenstein. The place is very small. The Prince's castle on the hill is being remodeled.
There isn't really a whole lot to see and hotels are expensive so we decide to keep going toward Zurich. A few dozen miles later, a town along the lake looks interesting. We pull off, and in my barely-existent German I learn that while there are no hotels here, a few can be found just down the road. So we move on and find a nice place on the lake. That'll do.
After checking in, we sit on a park bench by the lake and chug Italian wine we brought from Venice directly from a bottle. M says she feels like a teenager. Me too :)
Next destination is Koln. The idea is to stay there tonight, explore the city in the morning then drive back south to the Nurburgring which opens to the public at 6:15 pm. It's a long drive up, which takes most of the day. Getting a late start doesn't help so we roll into Koln around 5 pm. The town is neat but big, chaotic and confusing - as most big European cities are. We find parking in the center, walk around a bit, then take the U-bahn a couple stops to check out the gothic Cathedral.
At this point staying here and trying to look for a hotel is not appealing. Neither is backtracking 100 km to Nurburgring, especially given the fact that the wimpy Opel's brakes are making grinding noises after the Stelvio pass. So on the spot we decide to go on to Amsterdam, return the car a day early and just relax. And so we do. Once out of Koln, the autobahn is nearly-deserted and unrestricted so I can just put the pedal to the metal and maintain the Opel's top speed (185 kph or 115 mph) for some 45 minutes straight. This allows for a few experiments - for example turning on the AC costs 1 kph, opening a window costs 2. Given that it's still quite warm outside we opt for the AC option. Before we know it we're in Netherlands (and subject to the photo-enforced 120kph limit). We get to the airport at 10:55 pm, full 5 minutes before the Hertz counter closes. The booth in the garage is already closed but I manage to catch someone in the terminal and the return goes without incident. Then a bit of stress trying to find a hotel at this time of night, but we succeed in getting a room at the Canal Hotel, only two doors down from the place I had stayed at previously. This one is much neater though - decorated with 17th-century furnishings and no TV, the place has lots of character and charm. It's not exactly cheap at $160 per night but it's a very pleasant environment to be in and is well located.
Despite it being almost 1 am at check-in, we still head out on a walk about the city and grab some beers at a local bar. We get back to the room around 2:30 am.
Final full day of the trip, time to relax and just stroll around Amsterdam with no agenda or schedule. There are parks, canals, cafes, old neighborhoods... This is definitely a place I could live, at least part-time. M is of the same opinion.
Checkout is smooth, the trip to the airport uneventful. Flights back are uncomfortable with a long layover in Detroit. M asks when I'm finally going to get a jet of my own. Ha, it'll be some time - would love to do it though. Something to work towards. In the meanitme, lots of memories to go over (some 700 pictures to sort through!) and maybe plan another trip later this year.