An American Couple in Delft
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Grand Tour

Some of the travel we do is for business and some is just for fun so usually when Lynn travels for business, I go along. Occasionally, though, I’m not able to go with her and that happened recently when she was gone for a week. Faced with the prospect of being home alone for the week and the weather having been so good for quite a while, I thought this would be a good time to do what I refer to as the Grand Tour. This trip was not so much to see different cities as it was just to take the ride through some areas I hadn’t been to. I prepared impeccably because I knew just where I wanted to go.

Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. The trip hadn’t even started and things became slightly askew. It was raining hard on the morning of departure and the weather forecast for the next several days was terrible for much or Europe. I almost bagged the whole thing. What a mistake that would have been. The first day was the long trip to Füssen, Germany, and I thought this would be the hardest part of the trip because it was the longest and most of it was on highways. Highways, whether in the U.S., Europe, or the Antarctic are all pretty much the same and my idea had been to take the back roads. The rain had subsided before I left but it was cloudy and overcast for several hours and then it rained like it would never stop. But by the time I reached Stuttgart the sky had cleared. With about a hundred miles to my destination and the time getting toward 6 p.m., I had two options. First, stay on the highway which was boring but I’d get there sooner. Second, go via the back roads, take an hour longer, but see what there was to be seen. I picked (b) because that was the point and was that a great move. The back roads were really back roads. Some times I stopped and turned off the car. There wasn’t a sound except for cowbells, the Alps were in the background, and it was an incredibly pastoral scene. The road went through many small German villages in southern Bavaria with what looked like populations of less than 500. The ride from Stuttgart to Füssen was so beautiful, so serene, that I think that that two hour period may be the definition of what I wanted to see in Europe that I wouldn’t have been able to see as a tourist. But even so, I hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet.

The purpose of coming through Füssen was to see Neuschwanstein, the New Swan Castle. You can read about that here. Füssen is a stone’s throw from the Austrian border and almost immediately after crossing the border, one starts to go up into the mountains. At this time of year, the mountains are a lush green. The road went through tunnel after tunnel. Sometimes after emerging from a tunnel there would be a town. Then the road would start to climb the switchbacks and one could look down and see the village below surrounded by mountains. Once I caught a glimpse of where the road I was on had exited from the tunnel. Sometimes I hear people describe a sandwich or a pair or shoes as awesome. Sandwiches and shoes cannot ever be awesome. This view was awesome. And yet, I still hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet.

I made my way to Innsbruck. The reason for coming to this city was that the Olympics had been here once and I just wanted to see the place. It, too, is in a valley and it’s easy to see why this was an Olympic site. There was nothing about the town that made me want to stay for any length of time and I wanted to get to Vaduz by evening. Vaduz?

What, you’ve never heard of Vaduz? Neither had I until a week ago planning this trip. Vaduz is the capital of Liechtenstein which is the fourth smallest country in Europe (the Vatican, Monaco, and San Marino, if you’re counting) at four miles wide and twelve miles long. Its total area is about 62 square miles compared to Philadelphia’s 142. When I crossed the eastern border from Austria, I drove for about ten minutes until I reached Vaduz and the hotel. I didn’t realize it then but I had crossed the whole country as Vaduz is on the western border with Switzerland. Liechtenstein is a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire and as a principality, it is presided over by a prince who is the ninth wealthiest head of state in the world. (Here’s his castle on the hill from below where I was and from near the top. Where does all this money come from in a country whose population is about 34,000? Consider that there are more registered corporations here than people. That tells you something; this is a tax haven, even more than Delaware.

Liechtenstein is sort of the little brother of Switzerland. Because of the Schengen Agreement, crossing borders in western and central Europe is generally like going from Philadelphia to Montgomery County, but because Switzerland and Liechtenstein are not signatories to this treaty, there is a border patrol in both of them which consists of security by license plate. Coming from Austria into Liechtenstein, they looked at my Dutch license tag and waved me through. Pretty secure. Once when entering Switzerland on a previous trip from France, I was asked the difficult question, “Where are you going?” Sissach. I guess that was the right answer because they waved us through then, too. But the border between Liechtenstein and Switzerland is almost invisible. Not only that, Liechtenstein uses Swiss money, Swiss stamps, and the whole Swiss postal system. However, they have different football teams.

Leaving Liechtenstein from Vaduz, I went to Chur, Switzerland, and began a climb into the Alps. This was why I was here and I was about to see sumthin’. The climb began slowly and it became apparent after a while that “up” was the only way I was going. The roads started to have switchbacks after a bit and they haven’t heard about guardrails around here yet. The vegetation changed a bit and I reached an altitude where there was snow. From a great distance away, it’s clear that the highest peaks were still covered with snow but I was nowhere near that. The highest peak in the Alps is Mont Blanc at 15,780 feet on the French-Italian border. The highest I got was 6,700 feet at Oberalppass. While not covered, there was plenty of snow and it was very close to higher peaks. Being so close, the mountains look different than they do from far away. Shadows from the trees are visible and when the sun shines on a severe angle it makes for a sharp contrast. You’ve seen pictures like these in magazines and that’s what it looked like: a picture. It looked as though this couldn’t possibly be real. It was indescribably beautiful.

The descent from the Alps was faster than the climb with switchier switch-backs and narrower roads. My car is fun to hit the corners hard with, but there was zero margin of error and I’m no dope. Getting to the base, though, didn’t mean I was finished with the mountains. If you can’t climb them, you go through them, this time on a train. Twice the road ended at the base of a mountain. Cars then drove onto the back of a train and went as far forward as possible. When the train was loaded it headed into a tunnel. The rides lasted about 15 minutes through total darkness and a lot of noise. I have no idea have many thousands of feet of earth were above me and I tried not to think about it. It was a very strange feeling.

With the Alps now behind me and shrinking as I moved away, I headed to Strasbourg, France. There was another border incident, this time, at the Swiss-German border. The traffic was backed up for about quarter to a half mile on a Sunday afternoon. There was a barrier there not unlike the barrier one sees at a toll booth crossing a bridge but there was only one lane open. We inched forward. No, we centimetered forward. Sorry. Once again, the security was really tight. The one border patrol person waved everyone through one car at a time. I don’t think she even looked at my license tag.

On the way to Strasbourg, I indulged in a making a minor fantasy come true. Many years ago, long before it ever occurred to me that I would ever live in Europe, I always dreamed of visiting here and I wanted to one day stand on the banks Rhine River in Germany and look across to France. So I did just that.

The journey was coming to an end and about the last thing I wanted to do was to take the ride from the city of Luxembourg to the northern border with Belgium. I’ve written about this before. This road was built with my car in mind. You gotta love a place that has names like Wilwerwiltz, Esch-sur-Sûre, Wemperhardt, and Useldange. Near the border I took a slight detour. There is a point where there is the confluence of Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. It’s in the woods and there’s a monument to a unified Europe about 100 yards away. The border is marked by a little creek flowing into a larger one. This picture was taken from Belgium. Across the small creek on the right is Luxembourg; across the large one at the top is Germany.

Four days on the Grand Tour. I came back a much richer man.

See all my pictures of the Grand Tour.

Read an essay about Neuschwanstein.

See a video from Austria.

See a video from Bavaria.

See a video from the Swiss Alps.


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008