Five countries in five days – The final leg of our European tour

We had to drop Delaney off in Lille and with another 4 countries on the agenda in the interim we had a pretty epic drive ahead of us with some sightseeing on the way. We headed east back towards Italy with the plan of making it to Switzerland to camp that evening but this proved too much, especially as we were avoiding the toll roads. After hugging the coast up until Genova we headed north along the Italian and French border. The road wound along the river Roya which is beautiful and we passed several spots where people were swimming in the river and many a charming village. It is definitely an area we would explore further with more time.

It was approaching 7pm and after many hours of driving and Harry Potter audio book we had to stop. We headed for the nearest camp site we could find and pitched up in the Aosta valley at a sprawling campsite with views of the mountains behind. We initially picked a spot by the river but we were accosted by an irate man who appeared to be incapable of reversing his car through a gap wide enough to allow a jumbo jet to pass and was determined we were not going to camp in his way. Weary and not feeling up for an argument we moved.

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The next morning we drove in to Switzerland which looks simple on a road map but there are some pretty big mountains in the way meaning that you have to pay a small fortune to drive through a tunnel. We love a good mountain drive and had been looking forward to our jaunt through the Swiss Alps. Whilst it was pretty we confess to being ever so slightly bit disappointed and thought that it probably wouldn’t rank in our top 10 drives of the trip so far.

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Our destination was Zermatt, because we wanted to see the Matterhorn. Here’s a helpful hint that apparently no one but us needed: you cannot drive up to Zermatt. Here’s another fun fact fact: Lonely Planet fails to mention this entirely! Never mind, we’re adaptable. We pulled up on the side of the road in Tasch, a small town which, thanks to car-free Zermatt, is 90% carparks, all of which are full. Over cheese sandwiches and tea on the roadside we debated the height of Delaney. It was quite an important point because the one car park that wasn’t full was a multi storey with a height limit of 2 metres and we felt that ripping off Delaney’s roof would ruin his aesthetic somewhat. We aren’t completely dim, we googled it first but there are multiple potential dimensions for Transporters and we were terrified of picking the wrong one and thus forcing an earlier than planned return to full time employemnt. In the end we went with the truly scientific method: Caro knows that she is 171cm tall and when she stood next to the van we judged that if she put a 30cm ruler upright on her head it would definitely be above Delaney’s roof. Confident in our results we trundled in to the carpark. Don’t worry this isn’t a sad story, we easily made it under the barrier and have since confirmed with the lovely Celine from the rental company that Delaney is 195cm tall.

After all of the effort that we had put in to park we certainly hoped that the Matterhorn was worth it. Having paid roughly the deposit for a garden flat in London for train tickets, we clambered aboard with all the other backpack toting tourists and were zipped off up the hill. Zermatt is not our idea of a fun place to visit, it is so touristy it makes Disneyland look authentic.

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We immediately knew that this was not somewhere that we wanted to spend any length of time and set about trying to find the viewpoint of the Matterhorn. The best place to see it (without going on a lengthy hike) turned out to be halfway down a road, between some buildings. Admittedly, it’s a pretty cool mountain.

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We did wander to the other side of Zermatt village but couldn’t improve on the view we’d already had. Orginally, we had planned to do a walk but with our extra couple of days in France we didn’t have time to stay long enough to do a proper hike. We weren’t sorry to be honest, the whole experience had been a bit of a let down.

Once back in Tasch we tried to work out a route to Germany that avoided toll roads and maps.me helpfully told us that we were going to have to drive through another mountain. Maps.me is not clever enough to tell you that what you think is a road is in fact a car train, so we were a bit surprised when we arrived at the train depot and were asked to hand over a month’s rent and sign over our first born in order to board the train. Whilst the expense hurt, we love alternative transport and were quite childishly giddy as the train rumbled off, gradually pick up speed to the point where it really was a terrifying experience.

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The drive improved after the car train with the road winding among lowland alpine scenery of small villages and farms. The north of Switzerland is not blessed with lots of campsites and whilst we struggled to track one down and we just pushed on thinking we may end up in a field gateway. After a long drive Caro found us a campsite just south of Basel where we handed over three years’ worth of university fees  to camp on a driveway next to the actual pitches, but it did have showers and bathrooms which is pretty much all we needed. To top the experience off we were woken up by a digger at 6.30am, something we are used to from our time at Caro’s parents. Caro took the reins as we pushed on towards the German border as quickly as possible to bring our 2 days in Switzerland to an end. Caro had spent 4 months working in Geneva before and we had not particularly fallen in love with the country then, this experience had only reinforced our views.

Back on the toll free motorways in Germany we motored on towards the Black Forest and the town of Triberg, mainly because we had read it was the capital of cuckoo clocks. It did not disappoint, there were thousands of clocks. Each shop seemed to claim to have a larger array of clocks than its neighbour. The rule seemed to be the larger, more elaborate and therefore uglier the clock, the more expensive it was, the truly horrific going for tens of thousands of euros.

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One shop had taken it a step further by turning the outside of the building in to an enormous clock.

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The town has a waterfall and woodland area which we decided was a good option for a leg stretch. This turned out to be fairly disappointing as the site was being used for filming and so was covered in camera gear and lights, completely ruining the natural environment. The short walk did take us through some pleasant woodland and past a few of the towns heritage building so was not a complete waste of time and money.

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After several long days of driving we decided we needed to stop early. We took a scenic drive through the Black Forest towards Baden-Baden and camped at Camping Herrenwies in the north of the Black Forest. It was another odd place with lots of permanent sites/residents and very tight security on the facilities. As Caro put it; who in their right mind is going to make off with a camspite toilet?

The next morning, with only two days left before we had to return Delaney in Lille, we fired up the Harry Potter audio book and powered north along the excellent and toll free motorways of Germany, stopping for the odd cup of tea and cheese sandwich in a layby on the way. Travelling with your kitchen has the distinct advantage of being able to satisfy your tea cravings with ease.

James had not visited the battlefields and war cemeteries before and so we had decided to spend our last day in Delaney around Ypres in Belgium. We visited a number of the Allied cemeteries and one German cemetery. We did not take any photos during our visit because we didn’t feel the need and, once again, you need to be there to take in the scale and sadness that the cemeteries represented. The immensity of the loss was further reinforced as we drove around, passing what appeared to be endless cemeteries. Because of this, it is worthwhile having a plan of a few places that you want to visit before you go. Our route was easy (if you have your own transport) and gave a good general overview.

  • Tyne Cot – The largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world and beautifully maintained, as are all CWGC cemeteries.
  • Langemark – A German cemetery which now also contains remains translocated from sites all over Europe.
  • Essex Farm – An Allied cemetery which also has the remains of a Canadian dressing station nearby and a monument commemorating the composition of the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who reportedly composed the poem after seeing a friend buried there.
  • Yorkshire Trench and Dugouts – A small site oddly located in the middle of an industrial estate. This is a section of trench discovered during construction works and excavated by local archaeologists. It is free to visit and has been left for visitors to explore and get an understanding of the fortifications created during the war. Details of the archaeological works and finds from the dig are exhibited at the In Flanders Fields museum which gives more of an understanding of the complex we saw. Bear this in mind if you visit both. A quirky but interesting side-stop.

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In the afternoon we drove into Ypres to visit the excellent In Flanders Fields museum. We spent  a couple of hours taking in the exhibitions and masses of information. The museum is extremely well done and we would definitely recommend that you visit. We both particularly enjoyed the exhibit on the rebuilding and resumption of day to day life in Ypres after the war. For an extra euro you can also climb up the bell tower in the museum, which of course we did. There are some pretty impressive views and we timed our ascent with the bells ringing and can confirm they are very loud up close.

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It was a National Holiday in Belgium and so the town was very quiet while we wandered around the main square and a few side streets towards the Menin gate. This monument is equally as impressive as the immaculate cemeteries.

We camped on the outskirts of Lille for our last night and enjoyed a cheese board on bed for dinner, echoing our last meal in Heidi many months ago, unfortunately without the champagne this time.

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The next day consisted of packing and cleaning, ready to return Delaney. We did manage to squeeze in a trip to Decathlon as well as a final lunch in a car park.

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That draws our road trip around Europe to a close. We clocked up a fair few kilometres and we have seen a lot more a lot closer to home, we know places which we definitely want to explore further and places we will not be rushing back to. We were both excited to be heading back to Asia and starting the next leg of our trip in Malaysia.

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