snakes and ladders

Bonjour mes ami from France,
  We have been on the road for a few days, making a very pleasant journey from Austria, to Germany, back to Austria, through Switzerland and now in France. For Australians, it seems remarkable that this is possible in two days.

The road journey was made more engaging because of the engineering solutions to transport needs. In Australia, the difficulties arise because of the distances. In New Zealand, by way of example, the biggest hurdle is the number of watercourses. Here in southern Europe, the steep terrain presents nearly insurmountable (pardon the pun) problems. For this reason there are many tunnels, some many kilometres long.

5-star roadhouse

Road trips in Australia are usually perfunctory events. Here in civilised Europe, we stopped briefly at a roadhouse which compares well with 5-star restaurants. There was a chef (sporting a chef’s hat), an extensive range of wines, a very inviting delicatessen as well as a huge range of salads all ready for weary travellers to enjoy a sit-down meal, served by people wearing suits and ties. This was a chain roadhouse, clearly attempting to attract the finer diners among the travelling public. Their prices matched this aspiration, too. They are setting the bar impossibly high for their principal competition viz. the multi-national petrol companies.

Hobson’s Choice

Driving on the right-hand side has been interesting. I’ve been left with a choice akin to Hobson’s: risking the white-knuckle ride in the passenger seat on the one hand; and putting up with the “helpful” advice from my passenger whenever I take the reins on the other. On these latter occasions, I often feel the need to opine about the benefit of one of those dual-control vehicles they use to teach young people to drive; you know the ones with a brake on both sides.
   We stayed one night in southern Germany in a village called Krun. M. said it was “too cute” to drive on through. It was very quaint and scrupulously neat, including the firewood stockpiles for the next winter. Most of the residences had murals on the exterior walls depicting some aspect of local life. These people are clearly very houseproud. We walked up to a local lake and dipped in the cool water with snow-capped limestone mountains in the background. 

the “cute” word

Next day we ventured to Switzerland. On the way we skirted Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline, but not to make records with a mobile, as Deep Purple famously did in the early 1970s. We stayed in French-speaking Switzerland with Jean-Marc and Nicole. There the dairy cattle are ubiquitous, both in images and in the flesh. The poster says, “Le bon lait Suisse la force et la sante.” which I think can be translated to “Good Swiss milk gives strength and health.” The abode was a charming B&B with low ceilings, hand-milked cows and rooms called Rhododendron, Narcisse and Gentiane. The ‘cute’ word was again invoked that evening.


During that day we fortuitously stumbled on a real treasure: the village of Gruyeres. Nowadays it is famous for the eponymous cheese which it spawned but it is also the site of a fascinating castle (Chateau de Gruyeres) and adjacent medieval village, which is still home to 170 inhabitants. Built 741 years ago, the castle has commanding views of the valley both north and south. 19 Counts of Gruyeres lived there between the 11th century and 1554, when Michael – the last one – went bankrupt. It’s always comforting to know that nobles were capable of falling into financial ruin, in the same way that it’s comforting to see modern rich kids – especially those who inherit their wealth – occasionally drop down the slippery snake, after being helped up the ladder. It assures us that privilege is not necessarily permanent. Today, the castle is authentically preserved and maintained and is owned by the state. That evening, we just had to try the local delicacy: Gruyere Cheese Fondue.

Every region has its speciality.

We landed in a village called Montrevel, where the wheat crop is near maturity. (There’s no need to rush to harvest before Christmas here!) It seems every place around here makes a claim to being the best producer of something or another; here it was Bresse chickens. We had to try the highly-acclaimed chicken, which – says the blurb – “unlike their battery-raised cousins” are free-range. I have to report that they lived up to their reputation on the plate.
   This morning we travelled west through Charolles (specialty = white Charollais cattle). There we learnt that the four great dukes of Burgundy were Philippe (the bold), Jean (without fear), Philippe (the good) and Charles (the rash). Rash, eh? And guess which one is commemorated in the street names, shop names etc? Charles the rash! Is there a lesson here?

Strassbourg Cathedral
canal transport

Onward again, we ventured to another village on one of the extensive canal networks which were built during the 19th century. The canals here were constructed for transport rather than irrigation.

 At Digoin the canal crosses the river on an aqueduct, which is itself a major piece of infrastructure. It spans the Loire River for 230 meters and has a working lock at one end. Bettina was operating the lock (her second day on the job) and told us the usual number of boats to pass through is about 15 per day. Bettina told me she was named by her father after a photographer who specialised in photographing naked women. We watched enthralled as a boat then passed through from east to west in about three minutes. (What have the Romans ever done for us?)
   We are in Vichy this evening (specialty = carrots), heading south to the border with Spain on the morrow.
  A bientot 

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