Eurotrip 2009, Day 1: Kolding – Brussels: The Long Hard Road Into Hell

Following a lot of discussion and calculations, Tina and I had decided that our epic journey towards Brussels would start at 7 AM which was all fine and dandy except that none of us are really morning persons, so the aspect of getting up at 6 AM really wasn’t that thrilling. Especially not for myself who had been working the night before and only made it home at 1 AM thanks to my colleague covering a bit for me and a German cabbie who offered me a fun but expensive ride home.

 

Regardless, we somehow managed to get up at 6 AM, me after about two hours of interrupted sleep and Tina after a little more but with a cold or whatever to add to her not feeling too fresh and chirpy in the morning. After a bit of texting back and forth, many of them containing phrases along the lines of “fucking hell it’s early in the morning!”, Tina arrived by car and picked me and my various belongings up from outside my house at 7:15. I happened to be carrying both luggage, dinner for Friday music for the ride and various bottles of wine so I was quite happy with the whole picking me up arrangement.

 

The task ahead of us was seemingly simple: We were stocked up on coffee, rock music, we had a map and driving instructions courtesy of Google Maps (long live Web 2.0!). We had four countries, 800 kilometers and a 7h20m ride ahead of us.. But as we know by now, in the world of the Johan, nothing is quite as simple as it looks on paper.. But that’s not to say that things didn’t go well for a while..

 

Having poured ourselves a cup of coffee, we tore into the rising sun to the tune of Marilyn Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar”, turned onto the motorway and headed due south, making the border in no time and chatting happily as we crossed into Germany where I jumped right into the role of idiot tourist and started snapping pictures of such idiotic things as German rest stops.

 

The German Autobahn (motorway) is a pretty interesting place: They’re large, wide, built for speed (there are in fact, in most places, no real speed limits) and in certain places in horrible conditions.. Which I guess is not too surprising as they were built in Hitlers pre WWII Germany – that is to say the 1930. Luckily, a lot is being done to fix this, but what no one had told us was that this very effort was going on at this very time – in a lot of different places all at once. As a result, during the course of our trip, we were  to become frighteningly familiar with the German concept “Stau!” Stau is a concept generally feared by Danes and other tourists alike. It refers to traffic or congestion that can seemingly pop out of nowhere in certain places and last for hours and kilometers on end. Some cases are worse than others but once you’re stuck there’s generally no way of knowing when you’ll be out and moving again.. As such, road signs of “Staugefahr!” (danger of congestion) have become dreaded signs for Danes heading down the German Autobahn.. And let’s just say, we saw our fair share of these signs and had our fair brushes with the Stau experience.

 

 

Stau on the Autobahn.. A bit of a tight squeeze we're in!

Stau on the Autobahn.. A bit of a tight squeeze we're in!

 

First time around, it really wasn’t too bad, only unexpected. When traveling over Hamburg, which we did, you can generally expect to get stuck in or around the tunnel leading under the river Elb simply because there are a lot of cars that need to go down some essentially old and very narrow tunnel tubes. By stuck of luck, we didn’t get stuck here.. But we did get stuck in a bit of road work around 70 kilometers north of Hamburg.. Our first brush with Stau which lasted a little under an hour and really wasn’t too bad (on me at least) because we spent the time chatting, scaring the passengers of random (slowly) passing cars by blasting rather a lot of Slipknot rather loud, and just generally laughing at weird sights and passing cars.

 

All things considered, we made it through pretty quickly and tore through the Elb tunnel where, owing to cosmic karma, we didn’t get stuck. We emerged on the other side and drove by Hamburg’s industrial harbor, which is a pretty amazing sight, and continued due south before turning westward on Autobahn A1, passing more road construction work and general mayhem without getting too stuck and eventually made our first pitstop at one of the more fascinating places I’ve ever been to! See, Germans employ another strange concept that I’ve chosen to refer to as “Pimp my Rest Stop”-ism! Apparently, in an effort to draw customers and seem better than the next man, Germans create really luxurious and stylish rest stops featuring strangely appealing architecture, an array of services, shops, restaurants and various forms of accommodations.. It’s all rather confusing and fun! The place we arrived at, I immediately christened “The Burger King Motel” because that’s essentially what it was.. A combination of a Burger King franchise and a motel.. With a restaurant, a cafeteria, service station, small shops and various other goodies thrown in.. Including the fanciest rest rooms I’ve ever seen – a German struck of genius that’d make even the Japanese go “Whoa!”

 

 

The Burger King Motel!

The Burger King Motel!

 

The toilets were so fancy, actually, that they set you back 0.50 Euro to use.. And no cheating!! No, they actually had coin operated turnstiles at the entrance! But.. Those .50 Euro were well spent.. For starters, your hard spent money earns you a .50 Euro voucher you can redeem when purchasing stuff from the shops or restaurants , secondly they give you access to a strange, brave new world of high tech toiletry.. We’re talking soothing colors, soft music, self-cleaning toilets, censor operated faucets and tissue dispensers.. And nice recordings of pleasant female voices greeting you in several European languages.. I was so taken aback by the whole experience that I actually got lost on my way out, much to the amusement of the cleaning lady and Tina who was waiting for me outside.

 

Still weary from my bathrooming experience, we stocked up on water and Red Bull from the service shop amidst greetings of good morning which I found kinda weird seeing as I’d already been up for five hours, but then realized it was still only 10:30 AM. We then went on to the Burger King part of the “Burger King Motel” and got our eat on. I, being really overly tired and wired on caffeine, had a good time laughing at Tina for ordering about twice the amount of food I did.. Which really wasn’t that funny in retrospect, as she actually ate less than I normally would have, but I was seriously sleep deprived.. So it seemed funny at the time.

 

Having finished our early lunch, we piled back in the car, blasted more rock and metal and headed on, sipping our precious Red Bulls and looking for trouble. Red Bulls are always a fun part of visiting Germany. They’re understandably outlawed in Denmark because of the more or less lethal addition of various vitamins and what have you in obscene quantities.. So sipping them in other countries make you feel kinda like an outlaw while you get to enjoy one of the few energy drinks that actually have an effect.. The subsequent sugar crash is another story all-together, but I figured out that the trick was to keep drinking and not worry too much about your intake of vitamin B soaring over 2000% of your recommended daily intake.

 

But I digress.. Back to the story which now took a turn for the worse. Apparently the A1 is undergoing really heaving renovation and expansion, so saying that it was a road working hell is probably putting it mildly.  We got more or less stuck in countless kilometer long stretches of construction or seeming deconstruction, but it really wasn’t too bad until we hit the stretch of road heading into the fair city of Bremen – and a 70 kilometer stretch of road work goodness. It was interesting to say the least. We were stuck in traffic for god knows how long and when we finally started moving again, we realized that they’d actually closed down an entire stretch of the Autobahn and were leading the traffic off of it and onto the smaller roads in the greater Bremen area. You’d think this was a problem for a couple of happy go lucky Danes cruising through Europe with only a couple of Google Maps directions to aid them.. And you’d be wrong, because Tina and I are awesome! 

 

We spent a fair time navigating by use of common sense, sheer fucking luck, general traffic, a sense of direction and a Dutch car in front of us which we figured was heading towards Holland – the same direction as we were going.. Only they eventually stopped so we were on our own.. And still somehow made it out of there alive on the first try.. And right back onto the A1 when it opened up again. Which we thought was pretty f’ing cool and spared no expense in congratulating each other and ourselves on our awesomeness.. The only minor problem being that the whole thing had set us back about another two hours. So by now we were about five hours into our journey and had only made it about half way to Brussel. So we took advantage of the no speed limit part of the German Autobahn concept and sped on towards the Dutch border with no mentionable complications other than a rest stop for gas and more Red Bull, and the by now ever so common stretches of slow moving traffic due to so-called infrastructure improvements.

 

 

Being led off the motorway at the Dutch border, this is the only pic I managed before the MPs showed up

Being led off the motorway at the Dutch border, this is the only pic I managed before the MPs showed up

 

Holland, it turned out, was.. Not as fun as I remembered it.. For starters their border checkpoints kinda looked like something out of the Cold War. We’re not really used to passport control in Western Europe these days owing to the Schengen agreement, so for the most parts we just speed into other countries on the motorway. In Holland, though, we were guided off the motor way and through a strongly guarded checkpoint. I thought it was all rather funny and were snapping pictures until I realized I’d left my passport in the trunk, so I had to crawl back and get it while we were still in motion and conveniently produced it before the police and MPs showed up, at which point I also stopped taking idiotic touristy pictures of everything.. In the end we had no trouble getting through, though, they actually didn’t even want to see our passports – guess they were looking for someone that wasn’t us.

 

We didn’t spent too much time in Holland, we only had time to see a few greenhouses for growing tulips (the Dutch are NUTS about tulips), some more road work and an infrastructure even more confusing than that of a German Autobahn grid overrun with road workers.. Oh and we had time to chat a bit with Zascha who called to see if we were planning on showing up in a foreseeable future to which I could only reply that, really, we were doing our best.. But all in all, Holland wasn’t too bad, or too long of a stretch.. It sure was a hell of a lot better than our first impression of Belgium which we soon entered into with a feeling of “Holy mother of God, we’re in Eastern Europe!” I mean, really, the Belgian motorway had this whole industrial, boring, run down and monotonous look and feel to it.. And it didn’t get a heck of a lot better once we got off at a rest stop as we both had to pee pretty badly.. Only to discover that there were no means of doing so, just a parking lot and a small strip of business that probably had been open for business.. Some time in the early 70’s.

 

Quickly, we moved on, and things didn’t get a hell of a lot better for the next 60 odd kilometers or so, until we finally found a stop that offered not only a service station but also a rest room.. Which cost less to use than its German counterparts but was also substantially more run down and rather than turnstiles were operated by a Flemish lady sporting a paper cup, a broom and a weird habit of talking to herself. She seemed oddly happy when I, not having any grasp of the Euro coin system, paid her a Euro to use her bathroom and even gave a free pass, saying that I’d paid more than enough.. Or something along those lines.. Before going back to talking to herself. Popping back out from our Belgian rest stop experience, we set out for the last 40 or so kilometers which also turned out to be the most testing of all.

 

We kicked things off by making our first and only wrong turn as we merged onto the wrong motorway a few kilometers later as the one and only and really small sign designating our direction was partially covered by a fast-moving truck. Luckily, I’d spotted parts of it thinking that something ending in “ssel” could probably only be “Brussels” which Tina agreed with.. And even more luckily, though merging wrong, we somehow ended up on the motorway we were supposed to be on, only heading in the wrong direction.. So in theory we were only supposed to exit that particular motorway and then reenter it in the right direction.. A seemingly uncomplicated task that was made substantially difficult by the nature of the one way road we ended up on and.. You guessed it.. more road maintenance. We eventually made it, though, already cursing and cussing at Belgians by the time we hit the right motorway in the right direction..

 

 

Stuck in four lanes of barely moving traffic.. and rain.. 20 kilometers from our goal.

Stuck in four lanes of barely moving traffic.. and rain.. 20 kilometers from our goal.

And headed right into another damn spell of traffic and congestion! This time clocking up all of the four lanes of the E40 motorway leading into Brussels, apparently owing to an accident. By now, the clock had approached 6:30 PM and both of us were pretty fed up with things when Zascha texted me enquiring about where the hell we were and I could only tell her that we were about 20 kilometers away, hopelessly stuck as two cars had apparently crashed into each other and spun around, taking up two of the four available lanes. All things considered, things could have been a lot worse.. And as if we hadn’t had enough bad luck, they were about to get worse as we made it past the accident site onwards through a couple of road forks that weren’t in our map or directions.. And straight into Brussels rush hour traffic! Which meant that we were stuck on some major boulevard with no idea where we were, in which direction we were heading and seven lanes of traffic around us, all of them apparently looking to be in the same lane at the very same time. 

 

Brussels is not a fun city to be lost in.. At least not by car during rush hour. Street signs are only posted on the corners of buildings and are ridiculously small and hard to read from the center of a seven lane boulevard.. As a result, we were playing a pretty funny game of trying to figure out where exactly we were and calling back and forth with Zascha who was sporting a map of the city and some local knowledge, obtaining directions and then frantically trying to get in one of the provided directions through the barely moving mess of traffic that was Brussels during rush hour. I’ll be the first to admit that I was cracking at this point.. Two hours of sleep, 12+ hours on the move, constant confusion and what have you.. I owe Tina a lot of respect for not only managing the whole, long drive, but also keeping her cool throughout it and the rush hour hell. She also really did try to cheer me up and spread good spirits by being her own merry silly self and I love her for it.. Which I chose to show by either acting broody or snapping uncontrollably.

 

After what seemed like hours.. And probably was hours, we finally made it not only in the right direction but also to where we were supposed to be.. More or less.. We did admittedly spent some time driving around on smaller one way streets before finally making it to Zascha’s street and then spending some time driving around looking for her exact address and a place to park.. The end result being that Zascha spotted us from the window and called us telling us to stop, then ran down with an umbrella (it was, of course, pouring rain by then) and guided us around, looking for a space to park.. Which we eventually found, parked at, shut off the engine and prepared to unload.. We’d made it to Brussles.. Only about five hours fashionably late!

 

To be continued.. 

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