The First Frontier
We set off from London heading towards the channel tunnel; our passage to the continent. Ross spent much of the journey fascinated by the gigantic trains that take you from Kent to Calais. The scale and complexity of that simple thing - the ‘chunnel’ - is remarkable. Fitting dozens of articulated lorries and hundreds of cars onto a single train and then transporting them miles underneath the vast English Channel all the way to France is an incredible feat of engineering. As we’ve prepared for treacherous potholes and African mud pits, this type of passage is a dream. We digress, but as you can imagine, this occupied Ross’ mind for quite some time.
Upon arriving into France, we searched for somewhere to camp. It was our first attempt following the storms Cape Wrath and fortunately the weather was kinder, but only just. After finally locating our digs for the night, we set off to buy a drink for the evening. Unfortunately, France has similarly antiquated Sunday opening hours as England so there was not a single supermarket to be seen. Luckily, we were close to the border with Belgium so we set out to satisfy our thirst.
Initially, Belgium seemed no better. Our thirst was turning to desperation as we sought to toast our arrival on European soil. And then it came, like an angel from heaven, a vending machine that served alcohol! Hallelujah, the Europeans do live an enlightened life. Cancel Brexit.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Our hopes were crushed as ID was required, Belgian to be precise. Would this singular beer never arrive?
With some gentle encouragement from Emma, Ross gathered the courage to ask passing motorists at the petrol station. Having not asked, “excuse me pal, gonnae buy us a drink?”, since he was 15, Ross wasn’t best pleased. The breakthrough happened when one of these drivers said he couldn’t help personally but we should try “Monnewahr”. Given Ross’ broken French, we had serious reservations about whether this nirvana actually existed. Nonetheless, we set off and, low & behold, came across this mystical oasis in a barren desert of dry lives and clean souls, at least on the Sabbath. Mont Noir seemed like a Flemish frontier town where anything was possible. And by anything, I mean, purchasing beer, eating chocolate and buying cigarettes by the carton.
So, in the words of Proximo from Gladiator, “We went to Mont Noir and had bloody adventures. And the great whore suckled us until we were fat and happy and could suckle no more”. In short, we had a beer.
Following a very frosty night in the tent, we set off for Switzerland via the Alsace region of France. In what could be a fast journey down the motorway became a back road epic as we sought to avoid the exorbitant French tolls. This was both a gift and a curse. The curse was clearly time; we’d spend far longer moving from A to B than the average joe, whoever he is. The gift is that we’d see far more of the countryside and the communities we passed through. This was particularly striking on our journey south via the Alsace Wine Route. Neither of us had been fans of Riesling or that part of France. Something more down to ignorance rather than judgement. Ross’ Dad, a particular fan of Riesling, especially when it costs £4 from Aldi, has never understood his son’s misjudgement. Alas, the times are a changin’. The circuitous, scenic route to Switzerland revealed these stunning little villages and incredible vistas. It was hard not to be seduced by the beauty of it all.
No matter, we pushed on. Straight through the majesty of Switzerland and deep into the Alps. Switzerland is like a model country; not perfect per se but thoughtful, efficient and beautiful. If Apple made a country, it’d be this one. Unfortunately, like Apple, it’s reassuringly expensive so we couldn’t afford to stay during the cold winter months. Instead, the mountain kingdom of Liechtenstein awaited.
Liechtenstein is a fascinating place. No army, no unemployment, no prison to speak of and the highest GDP per capita (i.e. wealth) of any country in the world. Surely, they must be laden with oil, gold or some other valuable mineral? Nope. Instead, they’ve fashioned this effective little economy centred on banking but now extended into other industries too. And it works. Well, at least for the 38,000 inhabitants, who all go round to the King’s house for a beer on their national day. We liked Liechtenstein.
Heading up into the mountains on our ‘rest day’, we met a friendly local couple who were out riding their bikes. Having taken a particular interest in our car, we assumed they were petrol heads, only to discover that they were also adventurers at heart. When describing our journey, they revealed that they’d actually completed the full ‘African circle’ down the west and up the east. It’s amazing that in such a short space of time, you can meet and connect with such kindred spirits. Their travelling has brought them a warmth, optimism and humility that we hope to emulate.