Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Old Continent Still Has Much To Offer

Have you ever been at a party where your suburban neighbour is going on and on about his recent adventure trip to Nepal, the Antarctic or the South American rain forests where he got to live among natives who travel piranha filled rivers in flimsy wooden canoes? These monologues are usually accompanied by a digital camera filled with photos of our intrepid traveller gasping for air at 22,000 feet on some Nepalese mountain or wrapped in layers of goose down setting out across the frozen wastes of Antarctica looking like some snow-bound Michelin man.

Calling Room Service At 20,000 feet
During all this you sort of slink in the corner, made to feel that your recent trip to Paris was little more than going to Walmart for a new outdoor grill. Your neighbour’s hard-won souvenirs might include the blackened, frost bitten toes or the permanently disrupted digestive system of a real traveller. All you have to show for your efforts might be an elegant new hand bag, a fashionable dress, and a very satisfied, content digestive system. Your luggage might even include a couple of bottles of delicious claret which, admittedly, might not have the kick of your neighbour’s fermented yak milk. But it goes much better with boeuf  bourguignon.

Do not get dismayed! The Old Continent still has much to offer. You can enjoy splendid architecture, unparalleled museums, glorious concerts and superb scenery and, this is very important for travellers of a certain age, still enjoy the marvels of indoor plumbing and comfortable beds. Not to mention food that you recognize.

It is easy to take a car on a train through the Channel Tunnel and wind up in Calais in about half an hour. From there you can go on the excellent French motorway system to any part of the country or onto surrounding countries. There’s an added bonus if you travel on Sundays because, unlike the UK, very few trucks are allowed on continental motorways on Sunday.

As we zipped comfortably through northern France on beautifully made wide roads I was reminded of another road trip I took several years ago from New Delhi to Udaipur. We were in a gaily coloured minibus with an unnaturally serene driver and a hyperactive assistant. The assistant’s job became clear when the driver attempted to overtake on this narrow two-lane road filled with trucks, minibuses, and assorted sacred animals that brought all traffic to a screeching halt to allow them to cross the road unharmed. There was much less concern for the fate of humans. After overtaking in the face of a solid wall of oncoming traffic the driver would attempt to pull in on the correct side of the road. At this point the assistant would frantically wave his arm out the window to open up a tiny space in the dense line of traffic for us to enter seconds before the oncoming articulated lorry would reduce our minibus to scrap metal.

Having made it safely to the Süd Tirol in Italy you are confronted with the magnificent soaring crags of the Dolomites brilliantly illuminated in a rainbow of colours every evening as the sun sets. You have the option of doing absolutely nothing other than sitting an enjoying the scenery while being waited upon hand and foot. Or you can set off on one of the hundreds of well-marked hiking trails. These trails are designed for all levels of energy from the semi-ambulatory to serious rock climbers and mountain bikers. We were walking along one intermediate trail when we came upon a group of oddly smiling people running fast off a cliff in full faith and hope that their paragliders worked. We watched them circle around like giant hawks, but we never did see one actually land.

Sunset In The Dolomites
One of the really nice things about these Dolomite walks is that you never have to walk very far to one of the good restaurants in the mountains. You’ve made it this far and then reward yourself with a good lunch and a bit of wine. Then the only question is whether to walk back down or take the handy cable car. It’s not that hard a decision.

A short trip takes you to Verona where, in addition to the inevitable visit to Juliet’s house with its much-photographed balcony, you can enjoy an opera staged in the Roman arena. One advantage of an opera in a large setting is the opportunity for enormous stage sets. In Rigoletto the sets of medieval Mantua were much more realistic than anything in venues like Covent Garden in London.

The Italians may have speed limits on the autostrada but if they exist no one seems to pay a great deal of attention. On the way to a friend’s house in Ivrea at the mouth of the Val d’Aosta we were doing about 80 mph – in the slow lane. Most of the invasion routes into Italy over the centuries seem to have come down the Val d’Aosta, and those armies left castles, fortresses, and roads scattered all over the hills and towns of the area.
Roman Walls In Aosta
A very scenic trip up the valley, past the Courmayeur ski area and through the 6.5 mile Mt. Blanc tunnel takes you back into France. The toll for the tunnel is expensive, €41, but, given the alternative of going over the Grand St. Bernard pass, it’s not unreasonable. After a while you enter the gentle rolling hills of Burgundy where everyone was getting ready for the vendage.

A leisurely trip back across northern France after two days sampling the many delights of Burgundy rounded out our trip through Europe. Granted, there were no Amazonian piranhas, no frozen mountain peaks, and very few suicidal lorry drivers to generate stories for the barbeque. But despite those drawbacks we found that the Old Continent still has much to offer.

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