To set the scene: several months ago, I was asked if I’d like to take part in a road race in Italy, in the prosecco region. A resounding YES was my answer. And so it was that in October I drove, with 2 others, 1,000 miles to Italy in a van. There, the other 5 met us, and we took part in the Prosecco Classico Gran Fondo.
Here’s how it all played out…
9am in Norbury, I arrived at Bernie’s house to discover him leaping about in the road. “Did you see the Merc, crashed in the road, down by the station?!” he asked. Sure enough, a Merc was wedged between the kerb and a bollard, surrounded by firemen scratching their heads. Ignoring this fantastic omen, we picked up our gleaming white van from the hire shop. No ipod jack, but the cab looked so spacious! This was going to be a breeze.
After filling ourselves with coffee and the van with bikes, bags and assorted tools and spares, we took some cheesy photos and hit the road – on schedule!
We headed down the motorway to Folkestone, arriving with plenty of time, allowing us to stop at a services and get Subway for lunch. Did you know that Subway have unlimited drinks refills? I wouldn’t recommend this for van journeys – too many wee stops. We managed to spend so much time at the services that we were 5 minutes late checking in for the Eurotunnel and missed our crossing… And then I got so overexcited at passport control that I accidentally threw all the passports at the very bemused guard.
Our arrival in France was heralded by the discovery that our road atlas was almost impossible to use for navigating as every town’s name was plastered over the entire town. We also went over the most aggressive rumble strips, which we decided were the French way of telling us we’re not welcome. Al, it turns out, isn’t all that fond of the French. We discovered this about three minutes into France, as he announced, “I like the Belgians, but I can’t stand the French. They can fuck right off!”
Luckily we were soon to leave Frogland and pass into Belgique. We liked the look of Belgium. Near Gent we took a bit of a wrong turning and ended up at an Aldi, where we marvelled at the cheap booze and then wandered about the car park. A fixie skidder rode past: “DO A SKID!!” He appeared initially to have obliged but it turns out he was sending a text.
Trouble hit at Brussels. Now, I’ve never been to Brussels itself. But from what I’ve seen of its frankly ridiculous ring road, I have no inclination to ever go back. It seems to have been designed by someone with no concept of traffic flow, as we crawled along at a snail’s pace, merging and unmerging and remerging repeatedly. In fact, I think it was designed by a team of people, all with no idea about traffic, but with some working in Flemish and others working in French. Because that’s the other thing about Belgium. Everything has two names. For example, Liege, commonly known as Liege, is known in the Flemish bit of Belgium as Luik. WHO KNEW? We certainly didn’t when we were looking for signs to Liege.
The other thing I didn’t realise about Belgium is that it’s a lot bigger than you think. We were going across the widest bit, and by the time we got to a service station (we lost count of the number of services) near the border it was getting dark. Unperturbed, we stopped for coffee and awesome Belgian waffles, having a quick chat with someone with the same van as us. Yeah, van buddies.
We’d noticed that there were no lights on Belgian motorways, and assumed that Germany would be different, being super efficient and all that. Sure enough, at the border, some lights! For about half a kilometre. Then dark, as we drove past factory after factory, windfarm after windfarm, joined by ever more lorries as it got later.
The novelty of being in the van was starting to wear off, and Stuttgart, our destination for the evening, didn’t seem to get any closer. We made several abortive attempts to go to a services near Frankfurt before finally stopping for dinner at a Burger King. German Burger King’s don’t have any veggie options. It was cold and we crashed the van for the first time, reversing into the barriers at the edge of the BK car park.
Finally, the signs to Stuttgart looked a little more sensible. 150km? Walk in the park. 60km? Stroll to the shops! We pulled off the motorway and found our lodgings, the slightly scary Gastehaus Wolf. As it was by now 1am the owner had left our keys in a very clever pin-entry device, and we crawled gratefully into our plastic-sheeted beds.
Read what happened next: Day 2