Postcards from a Peugeot: Part 4.

[singlepic id=3267 w=720 float=] I’ll admit it. It’s a strange thing to like, but I really enjoy sleeping in motorway service areas. I mean In Europe, anyway; I can’t honestly say I’ve tried it in England without recourse to a Travelodge or some similar mischievous-night-away-with-the-secretary establishment. But in the big, well lit rest areas of Europe, with no “2 hr maximum stay” in force, and no teenagers wheelspinning furiously in neon yellow Citroen Saxos, I feel strangely comfortable. I even enjoy watching the traffic speeding by, the colourful convoy of heavy haulers destined for ports far and wide. At a service area I feel involved in something, I’m in my little boat, sheltering from the storms in a cosy harbour, mixing with the salty sea-dogs and their big freighters. Weird romanticism aside, this was another very pleasant place to stay,  nicer if it wasn’t for the stares I noticed from the main building, as waiter-looking types in shirts and nametags wondered what the little Peugeot with the steamed up windows was doing there all night long. No matter, after a brief pause to eat some brekkie and use the excellent Sanifair facilities, we were back on the road. For the second time in as many days, I had to resist the temptation of begging Nicola to let us have a spin around the Nurburgring. We had passed it to the south yesterday evening after dark, and now, after turning north we were passing it to the east. It has long been an ambition of mine to do “the Ring”, ideally driving something a bit special, and one of my pet hates is seeing the little Nurburgring sticker displayed on anything that has blatantly never left the country, let alone been flung around the Nurburgring. My own Audi proudly wears an “M25 Ring” sticker on the bootlid, at least I’m being honest. [singlepic id=3269 w=720 float=] But there were two main reasons to pass the opportunity over today. Firstly, the car we were driving was entirely inappropriate, not from the perspective of it being a Peugeot 306 1.4, but rather from the point of view that it was actually in service as a motorhome, and was weighed down by coolboxes, bottled water and all our worldly goods. Beside which Nicola wasn’t particularly keen on the car being subjected to potential race track treatment, after the Stelvio Pass a CV joint was already causing concern and the Nurburgring could potentially inspire the clutch and brakes to shut up shop. And that relates to our second reason: Near Nurburgring to the South, last night, we had passed the aftermath of an accident. Not a fatal one, by the looks of it, but it reminded us again of the fact that the car was our accommodation and our sole means of getting home. On racetracks, things can get broken, and if anything was to happen to the Peugeot we had literally no contingency plan, no money, no time to spare waiting for repairs, and in three days time we all had to go back to work, including the car. We pressed on; there would be other chances, I’d make sure of it. We had made today’s target the city of Dusseldorf, for no other reason than it pretty much marked the halfway point on what was now the last stretch of our journey. The city is absolutely tangled in a web of autobahns, so finding a way in wasn’t tricky. Once we were in, though, it was slightly less obvious knowing where to stop. From the side we had approached the town, apart from getting gradually more built up, there was nothing to tell us that we had arrived in the city centre. [singlepic id=3260 w=720 float=] We parked in a multi-storey belonging to a large Kaufhof department store and, after exploring the toy department and grabbing the latest Lego catalogue we set foot into the heart of Dusseldorf, or rather, tried to. It soon became clear that we had no idea which direction to head; all the streets looked the same. It was just sheer luck that we found ourselves on the Konigsalle, the city’s most prestigious shopping street. We took time to explore Sevens, a grandiose new shopping mall with an enormous Saturn electronics store atop it, keeping our hands deep in our pockets. This was true of most of our time in Dusseldorf, we concentrated on looking, rather than desiring, and held off the temptation to visit any more shops. Instead we drank in the atmosphere of this bustling and cheerful city. From the obvious wartime destruction, Dusseldorf has risen to be quite avantgarde, and seems justly proud of itself. [singlepic id=3261 w=720 float=] After authentic German cuisine by way of Pizza Hut we followed the suggested city tour route on our guide book. This took us past the several historic department stores and the various important theatres before we wandered along the west bank of the Rhine. It was here that we felt the Dusseldorf’s real warmth coming through, the blazing sunshine had brought the citizens out in their droves and they had filled the many riverside bars and cafes, all watching as coasters eased their way up the lazy river beneath the elegant suspension bridges. We felt good as we took shade under a tree, before realising we were thirsty and that it was time to get on. Once away from the river we followed the tramway back to the Kaufhof where we had parked. Nicola humoured me and we visited a vast toyshop, lined with model cars (somehow I managed to resist adding to the 63 1:18s I already own…), noting that the Germans must really, really like toys if the quality of their toyshops is anything to go by. Dusseldorf sits surrounded by various satellite autobahns and it took a fair degree of cunning to get out and heading in the right direction. When we had made it through the maze and onto open road we took advantage of a lay-by to grab a bite of road-readiness munchies and brew a coffee, which led to me nodding off in the late evening sun. I am again thankful to Nicola for her seemingly infinite patience when these matters surface. [singlepic id=3266 w=720 float=] Caffeine and calories ingested, we began to carve our route north-westerly, out of Germany and into Holland. The roads again grew smoother and as we reached lower ground, straighter. Our travelling mood at this point was one of quiet pride and achievement, sadness that we had only one full day left but joy that we had come so far. Amsterdam, which we would be visiting tomorrow, would be a fitting end to our journey. For now, though, all we had to worry about was somewhere to spend the night. I had already identified a suitable candidate in the guise of a service station near Amsterdam, but it was too early to call things to a halt just yet. And anyway, I had always held a sneaking interest in the nearby town of Almere, one of the newest towns in Holland and who’s’ oldest house dates from only 1976. It was a shame that, once there, it was rather too dark to see anything much. A quick tour of the tidy, cosy housing estates surrounding it was capped off by a drive along the seafront in Almere Haven, with its very striking apartment buildings and private, residents only lanes. Leaving Almere we chased a distant commuter train as it headed for the lights of Amsterdam, and finally made ourselves cosy at the services, parking as far from the lorries as we could reasonably get. Tomorrow would be our final full day of journeying. Better make it a big one. The final days: Amsterdam and Home. Next day I exposed my ulterior motives for visiting mainland Europe again. The last time I made the journey through Europe, ending up in Sweden, I had discovered a couple of particular delicacies I was pretty keen on reacquainting myself with. [singlepic id=3270 w=720 float=] The first was Pocket Coffee. My quest for this divine confection (dark chocolate with a genuine liquid espresso centre) had seen me exploring motorway service areas and sweetshops in minute detail right across Europe. I finally struck gold in a department store in Munich, where I bought £24 worth. Yes, it’s an illness I have. And the other is a particular kind of crisp that you only seem able to procure in Holland. They’re sold under the name Smiths Hamkas, they are a cheese and ham effect (I shall use the word effect instead of flavour, as doubtless nothing either animal or dairy in involved in the production process) and they are waffle shaped corn-derived snacks. Also, they are absolutely delicious, having a lightness of flavour that nothing so heavy-handed as Cheetos or Doritos could ever hope to equal. I marked my desire for this undisputed snack of the gods by heading into the services and buying six party-sized bags. I packed them away into the boot and tried to forget about them. Today we headed into Amsterdam, a city I am reasonably familiar with but that Nicola had never visited. My previous trips here have been either with college or my parents, and had been accordingly either nicely cultured or loutish. I hadn’t been, though, for over three years, enough for my memories to lose their straight edges and become a little misty. Following the signs led us to a large multi-storey car-park which turned out to be quite some distance from where we really wanted to be. It was also fearsomely expensive, but at least looked like being reasonably secure. From the car it was a considerable walk across the various canals before things started to look familiar, and then we were in the narrow, crowded street providing Amsterdams main shopping arteries, and leading into the famous Dam Square. [singlepic id=3265 w=720 float=]  The Dam was covered in scaffolding, but still dominated the scene, and served as a useful navigational tool, but even so we still desperately needed a street map, both to maximize our enjoyment of the city, and to give us half a chance of finding our car again. So a long trek was required to the only place I could guarantee the existence of a tourist information kiosk, Grand Centraal Station. The kiosk, a large, American looking two storey building also acommodates the booking office for canal trips and guided tours, and this combined with the fact that it was a saturday, meant that the place was absolutely mobbed. By now we were completely without Euros, so I joined the snaking queue with my credit card to attempt to acquire a map. I was now starting to drip with sweat in the non air-conditioned kiosk, and was denied a map when I reached the counter. Cash only. Frustrated, I rejoined Nicola who waited outside with her own heat-related fatigue, and we duly slumped off to the station in search of a cashpoint. Centraal Station is colossal, and was swimming with tourists. And there were overhead signs promising the existence of an ATM, which we couldn’t bloody find anywhere. Eventually, after several circuits of the station and having virtually conceded defeat, we found one, buried in a corner, concealed by an army of tourists. I promptly withdrew twenty Euros. Meanwhile Nicola had noticed that the machine directly next to it was actually an electronic Tourist Information kiosk, and, as if to nullify the whole cashpoint-seeking endeavour, it also printed out highly detailed colour street maps completely free of charge. This was terrific as it meant no more queuing, so we could spend my freshly vended twenty on dinner. Which was, to continue with the tradition of authentic national dining experiences, was KFC. [singlepic id=3259 w=720 float=] After lunch we made a foray into the red-light district, honey to a bee for British tourists for its heady blend of drugs, pornography and legalized prostitution. There is probably some culture in the mix as well, but we avoided it. Amsterdam is generally a very safe city, but we noticed our possessions (Nicolas bag, my camera) receiving some envious glances from those we’d rather not get involved with. Of course, these days Tourism is a massive part of Amsterdam’s income, and there were plenty of places to stop and buy miniature clogs and model windmills. This was all well and good but, after fulfilling our appetite for souvenirs, we realised something; there was absolutely no way we could make the most of Amsterdam in the timescale we had available, and with no money. So, vowing that one day we would return, maybe with bulging pockets and a hotel room booked, we made our way back to the car, fed the rest of our Euros into the parking machine and hit the road once more. With heavy hearts we made our way to our last rest area, outside Rotterdam on the road to the Hoek Van Holland. Another BP Garage, with an attendant demanding a substantial cash donation if you want to take a leak. Other than that, our final night of sleep in the Peugeot was uneventful yet extremely, In fact I wondered if we’d sleep at all at when we got home and reacquainted ourselves with the luxury of actual bedding. [singlepic id=3263 w=720 float=] In the morning we followed the signs into Hoek Van Holland, and though it appropriate that we explore the place properly. The Hook tends to be a place that people just pass through, and we soon discovered it has much to offer in its own right. Beyond a rugged range of sand dunes The Haven sports a long, sandy beach, which looks like it might be full of life in the summer months, indeed it was pretty busy just today, except nobody dared to enter the water. We stood for a while at the waterline, looking out into the North Sea. Geographically this was the de facto end of our trip, and the sea-state wasn’t exactly welcoming us home, the sky hanging heavy with purplish blue storm clouds. The queue for the Stena Hollandica had no more than thirty or so vehicles, but even despite our early arrival we somehow ended among the last to pass the check in. Stenas’ magnificent North-Sea ferry was well under capacity, among which was several rowdy school parties. Not to worry, we were able to rest in the sanctuary of our pre-booked seats in the Stena Lounge, providing free refreshments, a comfortable airliner-style chair and a superb view out to sea. I had a very rewarding chat with a gent involved with Siemens, and through mutual exchange of view it appeared that my opinion of Britain’s failings compared to the European way of doing things echoed his. Also, the lucky sod got to visit our road network behind the wheel of a BMW 130i. [singlepic id=3262 w=720 float=] I spent much of the trip on deck, gazing out at the continent we were leaving behind us, oil rigs and tankers looming out of the spray and disappearing over the horizon. As it darkened I tried in vain to take the perfect photograph with which to end this trip while Nicola stayed cozily inside for most of what was a fairly rough crossing, joining me outside for one warm celebratory embrace. We had come a long, long way in 9 days, covering 2634 road miles and suffering only a broken indicator bulb in terms of failures. Harwich didn’t do a great job of welcoming us back; this country really needs to sort out the environments in which it welcomes visitors, but it didn’t take much gloss of of what we had achieved. I had amassed a great many notes to compile, seven hundred odd photos to sift through, and a much much greater understanding of how we fit into the European whole, in fact, the greatest impression I had picked up was just how small Europe is. If an Englishman can drive pretty much from England to the Mediterranean in one day, the countries of Europe really ought to get on with each other. And finally, and certainly not least, the car. Our 1995 registered (‘94 built) Peugeot 306 XN 1.4 had been a terrific travelling partner. A ride quality rarely experienced these days, never less than 45mpg economy, comfy seats, flawless reliability, the doubts I had had on that drive down to Dover had been completely unwarranted, and I couldn’t believe how much fun it had been behind the wheel. As a closing thought, how many cars like these are thrown away every year, either through Scrappage schemes or simply lack of interest? As a tool, this little Pug had been as effective as any new car, and a damn sight more economical and fun than many. We can live without big alloy wheels, climate control and xenon headlamps.  It is about time that the public got a grip and realised the importance of a lost commodity; the essence of driving. The End. [singlepic id=3264 w=720 float=] Chris Haining, or Roadwork, or Rust-MyEnemy or whatever he’s calling himself this week would like to thank you for reading all four installments of Postcards from a Peugeot. He realises that there was rather a lot of it, and it was hard work sometimes. For more ramblings, his blog is still out there, full of nonsense and waffle.

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