Chapter 11 Easter Tour
It is quite true that most people who have to cope with tourists in Paris can speak better English than we can French. But I found that they sometimes became unhelpful, even impatient with people who expected that everyone ought to speak English as if it were the only civilized tongue. One has the choice of asking politely "Excuse me please, do you speak English?" and if the answer is negative, of stumbling through with French, or preparing beforehand what one will say and reciting it silently until the right moment. I mostly chose the latter approach and gave the other person the opportunity of answering me in excellent English. They were generally pleased to rescue me, or stop me from mutilating their tongue.
At a railway station I asked in carefully memorized French
"One adult and three children to St Lazare, please."
"What ages are the children?" he asked in French.
I understood the question quite well... but my answer came out in German.
It turned out that only children under ten are half fares. My boys were eleven and twelve. Sitting in the train, hearing only incomprehensible French, I thought about the 'pen of the aunt' I had learnt at school. My French teacher was small and quiet and persistent. She would accept nothing but one's best, and she finally prodded me through the Leaving Certificate with first class Honours in French and my name in gold letters above the main entrance. Oh, how much I had forgotten. My German teacher was much more understanding of my problem at home, a sick mother, and a long way to travel each day from Ramsgate to Fort St, right in the heart of Sydney... and so I got a 'B' in German. But I had married a German born man, had spent a year with him visiting his folks when Peter was a baby, so my German had somewhat improved whereas my French had deteriorated dismally.
Like everyone who visits Paris in the spring, we were enchanted. Knowing we would return this way, I decided to drive on now, as our feet protested too much at the thought of any more walking. On a trip like this it is best if it can be arranged, to do a certain amount of walking, and a certain amount of travelling each day. Too much of either, and the children became quarrelsome. In the big cities this was difficult, because there is so much to see, frustrating to omit things that sound exciting, and impossible to go any other way than on foot.
On trying to proceed on our way the next morning, we found the Ring Road without too many problems, and drove along it for some time before Peter commented that we were going the wrong way. By then it seemed easier to continue... at least we must eventually come to the right exit, even if we had to circumnavigate Paris in the process.
"Watch out for the exit to Nancy," I said about half an hour later. "We must be more than half way round, because the sun is now on the other side."
"I can see a sign to Nancy," said someone helpfully. "Turn off here mummy."
Too late, Peter observed that the route to Nancy left the Ring Road at the next exit, the sign we had seen was just a warning. Once on the exit, there was no return. We were headed irrevocably toward a satellite town along an Expressway.
"Look, there's a spaghetti junction," cried David enthusiastically. "Look how many roads there are. Which one will you take?"
I was less enthusiastic. "Just watch out for anything you can recognize. Otherwise I'll have to take one and hope for the best. None of these signs mean anything to me. Can you see any of these places on the map?"
There was no time to sort out the tangle.
"I'm going out here and find somewhere I can stop and get my bearings."
"I hope it takes us out and not further into the mess. You can't tell where it's going."
Luckily we escaped. We found we were in a tiny village, without any main roads indicated. Rather than risk the Expressway or Ring Road again, we took the by-ways through a hundred little cobbled villages. As in an Alice in Wonderland maze, we were headed in the right direction about half of the time.
These delays meant we were rather pushed for time to reach the next camping area, and having arrived at the town of Nancy, we were rather pushed to find someone who could either speak English or understand my French, and who could direct us to the camping ground.
It was well situated on a hill overlooking the town. As it was still early in the season, it was only half full. The amenities block was typically French, no doors and only half walls, somewhat chilly and somewhat lacking in privacy.
"Look over there," said Jacqueline, as we came back from the toilet, carrying water. "There's a bus with an Australian flag on it. Let's go and talk to them."
"I'm terribly tired, I want to get the stove on and have a cup of coffee. You can go."
She went and said hello to the occupants and came back with an invitation to have a cup of tea. We met a retired couple with two teenage sons. They had been in New Guinea for many years and had now set out on a six-month tour of Europe, before they settled in Australia. Their mobile home was equipped with its own shower and toilet, so they were really self contained, but Europe doesn't have many spots where large vehicles can be parked beside the road overnight, so they found they were virtually restricted to the established camping sites.
"See our pantry," they said proudly. "We have just about all we need for three months. We went to England first, so that we could stock up on things we recognized, baked beans and powdered milk. We have to buy bread, but other than that we can get along without having to buy local foods."
"Oh," I was rather surprised. "I had the idea that half the fun was trying the local specialities."
They seemed to pity me.
"We're sorry we didn't know or we would have brought Vegemite from home."
"I'll agree with you there. At home Peter eats it like jam."
"Have you got your route all planned?" they asked.
"No, only in a general way. So much depends on the weather, and what we happen to find especially interesting as we go along."
Again that expression of pity. "We have our route all planned. We have to collect correspondence lessons for the younger boy who is still at school. So we had to work out a plan and follow it pretty closely. At least we know where we will be and can get mail."
Our van was due for its first service after the new engine had done five hundred miles, so we had to look out for a VW agent. After some difficulty we located one in Nancy, but found it was deserted except for a cleaning lady, who explained that it was shut on Monday. She did not know of any other VW agent. There her knowledge and my French ended, so we pressed on.
The mileage indicator was creeping up and no service station in sight. Eventually we found one in a little town, just as the whole place was shutting up for lunch. Already a little over the limit, and afraid of losing the engine guarantee, I decided to wait, and told the proprietor we would have lunch and explore the town. We soon exhausted the possibilities of that little place when all the shops were closed for lunch, so we strolled back to the garage and sat in the warmth of the waiting room for another hour. By three thirty I decided to ask, as I had seen the van going out some time before, presumably for a test drive. The girl in the office checked, and sure enough, it had been ready for an hour, but someone had forgotten to tell us.
At eight we arrived at Bonndorf, and entered the warmth of Auntie Gret's kitchen.
"Goodness gracious," she said as she bustled about getting us some supper. "I told Willi you wouldn't be coming in this weather. Snow is forecast."
"Yes," said Uncle Willi, "and I told her you would be coming, weather or no weather. I'm going to move my car out of the shed and you can park inside. It will be much warmer if it snows."
"Mutti is in Bonndorf now," said Auntie Gret, serving us some home made soup. "They are in their new flat. You can go and see them tomorrow, but you'll find her much worse. Alfred has a full-time job looking after her. She can't be left a minute."
"We all went for a drive one day to the lake and she disappeared in a flash, and we had to call the police and a rescue team, before she was found. She was with some people in a snow cabin, but of course she couldn't tell them who she was or where she lived."
"I'm so glad the children saw her at Christmas," I said. "At least she knew who they were. What can be done?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid. She will steadily deteriorate until she has to be put into a home, if Alfred can't cope."
"She has to be fed and dressed, and can't always say when she needs to go to the toilet. Alfred is very patient and considerate, and she is in no way a wife or companion."
Uncle Willi and Auntie Gret thought I should turn back to France and Holland where the weather was better, but we wanted to go on if possible. After a couple of days in Bonndorf visiting and getting our clothes washed and dried with difficulty, we set out in the direction of Austria, hoping to see Salzburg and Innsbruck.
First to Schaffhausen in Switzerland to the Rheinfalls, the greatest volume of water flowing over a fall in Europe. We walked over the bridge and through an old castle on the far cliff, and down to several vantage points from which the spray can be felt, and where you cannot shout above the tremendous noise.
A small vessel was ploughing its way up toward a little island in the very middle of the falls, where a Swiss flag was flying.
Somewhere around Bregenz we took a wrong turn and found ourselves near Liechtenstein. We drove up a mountain overlooking the only town in the country, Vaduz, through a tunnel to a sheltered village where people were skiing in the gently falling snow. Along the road the fresh soft snow was about two feet thick, cut by the snowplough like frosting on a cake. We turned back to the tunnel, and emerged above the town and the river far below. From this point we could probably see most of the tiny country.
Liechtenstein (I think)
I knew from previous experience when I was in Europe with my ex-husband, that passes are not usually open at Easter, but the sign said quite clearly that the Arlberg Pass was open, so we proceeded without qualm until it began to snow. Then there was chaos.
Vehicles with chains put them on, all others had to turn around. Those trying to turn blocked those trying to proceed, and most of us were unable to do either.
"Light the heater," I said to the children. "The van will get cold quickly while we're stopped."
Nearly three hours later we were about ten miles back down the pass. For much of that time we were stationary. We had run out of gas and had to eat bread and cheese for tea. The engine heat was quickly lost.
"Get into your sleeping bags, and pass me my other cardigan and my sleeping bag. I want to try and wrap it round my legs."
The traffic lower down the mountain was finding it necessary to turn around and those higher up had to wait longer and longer for the road to be clear.
Snow was flying into the headlights, like plagues of white moths; the windscreen wipers were working overtime and threatened to go on strike. The children had all gone to sleep. By ten o'clock the traffic suddenly melted away and I felt very much alone. I had had enough. The next opening of any sort I would pull off the road.
The main road was comparatively clear of snow because of the volume of traffic which had been using it, but it was difficult to distinguish anything else. The ground nearby under its white mantle might have been suitable for parking, or it might have been somebody's garden, for all one could tell. I saw a shop set back a bit from the road, and it seemed presumable that the area in front was a parking place. In any case whatever it was, I was stopping for the night. I pulled in cautiously. When I looked out, hoping to find a spot I could use as a toilet, I could hardly believe my eyes... directly behind the shop was a camping ground!
Rather than disturb the sleeping children I decided to sleep on the front seat. What a night! My feet were already painfully cold, and although I wrapped them in another cardigan and put an extra rug at that end of my sleeping bag, they did not thaw out all night. The front seat was not my size... add cramp to cold and you have misery.
Snow..... delightful, detestable... magic, malevolent...
I had first seen snow twenty years ago in Tasmania on my first big bushwalking trip. We had walked several miles from out campsite in order to find a small patch and enjoy the excitement of some snowball throwing. We acted like a bunch of little children, although most of us were teachers-in-training. How long ago that was, I thought during that sleepless night in Austria. My first long journey, the beginning of my roving adventures to many places. Tasmania must remain not only the first, but also the greatest.
The camping ground had Porta-gas, which enabled us to warm up and cook breakfast, after which the whiteness outside took on a different appearance to me. We retraced our route to Germany and set out for Munich. It snowed nearly all day and I found it very exhausting. A bad accident involving a large double truck caused a major holdup and reminded me in case I might forget, of the danger of driving in these conditions. It was still snowing when we arrived in Munich about three o'clock, and found a good, if expensive camping ground. I was beginning to realize that all areas in or near cities are much dearer than those in little villages. Most cities require a few days for sightseeing, so at least two nights are necessary in the camping ground. After Munich I thought, I would try to stop at the last small place before a city, spend the next day sight seeing and drive on in the evening to the next stopping place. Except for a couple of cities, which demanded much more time, we kept to this resolution. Anyway, in general, the countryside interested us more.
My sister-in-law and her husband lived in Munich. It took us three hours that night to find their place, and when at last we located their block of flats and pressed the button next to the main door, there was no response. For each flat in the building, there was a labelled button outside, which visitors press.
"Why do they have that?" asked Jacqueline, while we waited hopefully.
"Keeping the main door closed, keeps the building warmer, and keeps out intruders. People here are used to flat life and know how to make it comfortable."
"What if Auntie Uschi and Uncle Armin have some children?"
"That won't make any difference. Hardly anyone can afford a house."
We accepted the fact that there was no one at home. We had come part of the way along the Ring Road. In peak hour traffic, it had taken longer to get on to the road than to reach our point of departure from it, (except that we got off it once by mistake and had to queue up to get back on). On our return we followed the Ring Road for a much greater distance, almost to the camping area, passing the brightly-lit Olympic Stadium on the way.
Munich Olympic stadium
Munich Olympic stadium
"Can we go and see that?" asked the children.
"I'll see if we can. It may not be open to the public, but I'll see how close we can get."
Next day we found in fact that the stadium was very much open to the public, for a price. While we walked around the arenas, and tried to picture it as the venue for a sporting event, snow fell steadily. There were thousands of visitors, in spite of the weather, and souvenirs and meals were available for their pleasure. Presumably good use is made of the sporting facilities, but in any case, so many tourists were spending money there it was like a Mecca. We used the resources of the van to refresh ourselves before going on to the city centre, Marienplatz and the Townhall, all now forbidden to motor traffic. I bought some very expensive sweets in the shape of hedgehogs, which tasted strongly of rum, and which the children found rather rich, and gave to me, which made me rather sick. Greedy.
This time when we pressed the button for Uschi, there was an answering buzz and the main door opened. Up the stairs to the second floor, where Armin and Uschi were looking to see who was coming. Uschi, as usual, was impeccably dresses. She was tall and blond, now in her mid thirties, and wore a smart black slack suit. When we were in Germany ten years ago, she had an unhappy romance, and I wondered if she would ever marry, ever find someone to come up to her expectations. A few years ago she apparently had. Armin was a little taller, good looking, very pleasant, had a good job with a photographic firm. They had no children, and I would be surprised to learn that they intended to.
During the evening they told us of their plans to go skiing, and of trips and holidays they had enjoyed. Before leaving, we were given some oddments of groceries, which Uschi thought we might be able to use in the van, packet soups, and chocolates. Did she guess that we were on the tightest budget, and a packet of soup was a luxury to supplement our diet of essential foods?
"By the way, you should take the children to the Deutches Museum tomorrow. They would enjoy it," they called as we left.
It was marvellous, and after three hours hard to get them away. There were displays of ancient boats, trains, cars, and aeroplanes to look at. There were models which the children could work, buttons to press, levers to pull, and hundreds of people, young and old waiting turns at the most popular items. Peter saw a sign to the solarium, so we followed the arrows to the appropriate wing, only to find that it was only open during summer months.
By the time we left at midday it was pouring. There was no point in attempting any more sight seeing, and any place demanding footwork was unpopular, the warmth and comfort of our mobile home were enticing. Finding the way out of Munich was easy, and we were on our way to the Bavarian Alps in a snowstorm. Uncle Willi and Auntie Gret had been right about the weather. Suddenly the clouds parted and there were the snow-clad peaks quite close. In Salzburg, the sun shone brightly as we searched for the camping ground, promising beautiful weather in the morning.
Every promise was kept. It was a Sunday, and people strolled to the massive church and strolled around the pedestrian plaza, buying flowers from the stalls, or looking at displays of violins, chess sets, national costumes, in the tiny windows of the ancient shops. One shop was open and doing a roaring trade with tourists. We bought a set of cowbells, after testing the tones of every set they had, some postcards, and some extravagant cake. Armed with our refreshment, we took the cable car to the castle, high above the town.
"A bite for a bite," offered the children, as usual wanting to sample everybody's goodies. We sat on the terrace and absorbed the sunshine and the view of the bright mountains across the flat fertile valley.
"You remember 'The Sound of Music'? This is the castle they used as the convent. Most of the filming was done in this district."
Mozart paled into insignificance compared with this revelation.
"Where is the house where Maria lived?"
"In the district. There is a picture of it on the postcard. And some of the scenery was filmed in the mountains over there."
There was a feeling of well being... the solidness of the castle, being elevated above the noise and bustle of the streets, and the panorama of white Alpine peaks, and the blue sky.
During the next two days the weather remained perfect allowing us to enjoy the setting of Innsbruck in the Inn Valley, with snow covered ranges on either side. Coming out of the van, we could see skiers on the slopes above.
This roof in Innsbruck is coated in gold leaf - yes really
"The last time I was here we drove along the road between Brenner and Innsbruck. They were building an enormous bridge. We came around a corner and there were these huge piers rising hundreds of feet above the valley. We screeched to a halt and just had to get out to be sure we weren't dreaming. While we were there dozens of other cars did the same. It was unbelievable. The road is finished now and I want to show it to you. It's the Autobahn over the Brenner Pass."
The children set out to explore the vicinity of the camping area, while I strung a line of washing between trees. The area was almost empty when we arrived, but while I was doing the domestic chores, three more vehicles pulled up, one containing two young Australian men, the next an Australian middle aged couple, and a mini bus of Australian young people. Everywhere we went there was a high proportion of tourists from 'down under', but this I think was the record.
In the evening we drove up to find the remarkable bridge. A few miles south of Innsbruck, there it was, just as fantastic as I had imagined. A six lane road, six hundred feet above the river bed, and nine hundred yards long, the highest in Europe, between two slender piers. In the twilight there was an air of unreality, but nothing unreal about the traffic speeding across, seemingly without noticing. We parked in the area provided and allowed ourselves time to savour the experience.
The bridge over Brenner Pass
"How did they build it?" the children marvelled, and I was no help.
"When I was here before they had the two piers, and were starting to build the road on top. They began at both ends and eventually met in the middle."
On Monday, after a morning in the town, we drove back into the Bavarian Alps, to Linderhof Castle.
Neuschwanstein - Mad Ludwig's other castle
"This castle was built by a king the called Mad Ludwig, He also built Neuschwanstein, which is much bigger. I believe this was his favourite." (Inspired by Versailles)
While waiting with a group who wanted an English speaking guide, a verbose American family, who had more money than appreciation, kept up a dialogue about how trying it is to do anything where people declined to understand what you wanted.
Was I a little condescending when I said, "Oh really? I mostly find people very helpful."?
After several vain attempts to induce me to add further to their misery, they decided we were too stupid to waste more time on.
When our guide arrived, we entered the ornate doors, and climbed flight of marble steps. Each room is decorated in a different style: one contains two huge mirrors on opposite, which has drastic effect upon the sanity when you look into one: a silver room, where every possible item is encrusted with silver decorations: a room ornamented with exquisite hand painted porcelain: the bedroom with gold trim, blue velvet drapery, an enormous chandelier for candles, the whole effect so elaborate that it was oppressive.
In the front of the castle is an artificial lake, with a group of gold figures in the middle, which becomes a jet fountain at intervals.
In the mountain at the back of the castle is a grotto, with an 'open Sesame' rock, which rolls aside to reveal a short tunnel leading to a setting for the Wagnerian opera 'Lohengrin'. A small lake in the cavern, a swan eternally waiting, garlands of flowers on the rocks, seating and lighting. Everything for his highness to enjoy a private performance in a unique setting... except suitable acoustics.
Out in the sunshine once more, and a short walk to his 'kiosk', his afternoon tea room, a white building with a golden dome, and stained glass windows in peacock colours. Here his imagination ran riot on the peacock theme. Three proud jewelled birds standing in front of the bright blue and crimson stain glass, blue crimson and gold tapestries and carpets. I wonder what he could eat in this setting? Reputedly a little 'touched', did he forget his anxiety with champagne and caviar in his exotic teahouse? In any case he disappeared one day, presumably into the lake at one of his castles, and ended his poor miserable life.
As close as we got to Neuschwanstein