Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Day 28 - Through the Alps and back to France

San Siro Visit then Ciao Italia

I slept pretty well at the "Apollo" Hotel, Milano. Too well, if anything as I didn't wake up as early as I had thought. So I was a bit late setting off for my first destination, the impressive looking (but ask Gerry for a second opinion!) stadium, home to both Inter and AC Milan.

I've seen the outside of the stadium before. When I used to work for British Airways I used to be able to fly to Europe for ten pounds. As I worked in IT, I could check which flights were most likely to have free seats and the deal was you could fly anywhere on standby for 10% of what it cost the public. Unfortunately, I was only able to take advantage of this for a year as you had to have been a member of staff for twelve months before the perk kicked in and I was only there for two years. I remember flying to Milan one day to watch Kaunas Zalgiris, the Lithuanian basketball team, play Milan in the European club championship one year - must have been 1989. I checked the flight at about 4pm, left my work stuff by my desk, nipped from Hatton Cross to Heathrow after work. I caught the flight at about 5:30, arriving in Milan about an hour later. I caught the bus to the city, found a cheap hotel and booked a room. Then I set off to the stadium, bought a ticket, and watched the pride of Lithuania (this was still the dark days of the Soviet Union, remember) play Milan. I can't remember anything about the match, except that for me at the time it was the first live basketball game I'd ever seen and I was impressed with the atmosphere. After the game I went back to the city and had a few beers before going to bed. Next morning I got a taxi to take me to the airport via the San Siro stadium.Crazy, but I must have done something like that.

The stadium itself didn't seem to have changed much in the 27 years since, indicating the general decline in the standard of the Italian league, Serie A.

The San Siro hasn't changed much in 27 years at least

Not having a data connection in Italy meant I had to load the route through WiFi at the hotel and just hope I didn't go off track too far. In fact the journey was very smooth indeed. Selfies added, it was time to leave Milan and head north.

My (yes, I know, crazy) plan was to visit Liechtenstein. Woy wuncha? It's a country in Europe I haven't been to - and I think I've been to most, so I thought this was an ideal opportunity to do so. It would be the 7th country on this trip.

Trouble started, though, when trying to leave Milan. The traffic was horrendous and my phone crashed and restarted as Google Maps froze, so I lost the route I'd set up at the hotel. However, despite this, using the amazing GPS feature smart phones have, it's still possible to use the map, to locate one's current position and, with a bit of common sense/guesswork you can still get to where you want to go.

I was listening to poor old Roy's goodbye press conference on the BBC 5 Live Podcast as I struggled to inch my way through the morning rush hour and make my way north to Como and the mountains.

Como MacDonalds

I had visions of breakfasting by the beautiful lakes, with green hills and white peaked mountains as a backdrop to the inevitable selfie, but alas, it didn't quite go that way. The town of Como itself is very busy and without a decent map loaded I had to find somewhere that did WiFi. 

Is it just me, or has Maccers become slower and less Wifi friendly?
MacDonald's always used to be the ideal choice but this year I'm finding that more often than not it's a frustrating experience. Firstly the touch screen menus seem to just slow everything down. Whatever happened to "fast food"? I estimate it took half an hour before I had received my "tasty" (i.e smokey) burger and fries. Worse, to get access to the internet you now have to supply your mobile phone number and then they SMS you a login password. Frustrating at the best of times (assuming you can remember your phone number - even if you just looked at it again for the sixth time, two seconds ago) but it just didn't work for me - probably user error but maybe it just wasn't working as I was in Italy. Wouldn't it be good if someone abolished these silly tariffs and hassels? Someone like the EU? Oh yeah sorry, the UK just left that.

When I eventually did find a WiFi I could use - the local shopping mall - the speed was slow and all I discovered was how going to Lake Como would add extra time to the journey and that Lake Lugarno, although on the way, was not quite right for another stop.

Swiss Scenery

Anyway, the bottom line of all this frustration was that my time line was now seriously slipping. So at about 11am, having scoffed pancakes with a sickly sticky goo for maple syrup, I decided to skip my lakeside location idea and just head for the hills. I rightly thought that there's be enough beautiful scenery drifting by from the car for the next few hours. Sure enough Switzerland did not disappoint. I'd never seen the eastern part of Switzerland and although not as spectacular as the French side, it was of course still very impressive.


More successful was my quick "tick off the list" visit to the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. There is a shrinking list of European countries I've not visited now that Bulgaria and Liechtenstein have been visited. This was 55th country. Of the European countries still to visit, probably the top five on my list are Norway, Georgia, Turkey and Iceland. 

The Informnation Center is very swish

Pretty  (the buildings, that is)

There's a lot of historic castles and museums to see and fantastic trails to do here, but for me I had a much simpler and, for most, much more bizarre goal - to see the Reinplatz stadium where England played Liechtenstein in the qualification group game in 2003. England won 2-0. 

On tenth of the population of Iceland

Amazing! Mind you they are only a tenth of the size of Iceland, so even England were expected to win that one.

I was hoping to hear the national anthem "Oben am jungen Rhein"

which is strangely sung to the same tune as "God Save the Queen" but unsurprisingly no-one was singing it. I had one of the best ham and cheese toasted sandwiches ever, so I could get Wifi and load the next map I needed. Liechtenstein use the Swiss currency and as I didn't have any of those I paid in Euros. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone in Europe used the same currency...?

The stadium is really quite a nice one and is situated right next to the Rhine, which is obviously much smaller here than downstream in Germany, with a magnificent alpine backdrop.

Reinpark Stadium - witnessed a truly great England win in 2003. 2-0!

FIFA Headquarters

That task done, it was time to set off back towards France. On the way is Zurich, and there was only one place I wanted to visit there, the former work place of a certain Herr Sepp Blatter - the FIFA headquarters.

As I was now a couple of hours later than I'd planned, I hit the rush hour traffic in Zurich which delayed me still further.

Again with the use of the GPS and a really crude map image I managed to locate it and get there. Luckily, the gate was open so I just strolled in and nosied around. It is very plush, as you'd expect when one considers the billions of dollars that has slushed around that organisation. I have to admit that it did look very tastefully done and, I must say I was impressed with the preponderance of football pitches around the building.

American football being taught at FIFA HQ?

Another chance to where my FiFA protest shirt

Selfies done (with my FiFA protest T shirt on) I again used the GPS to inch my way out of the now diminishing Zurich traffic and then made good progress to Basel and through to the French borderless border. Every time one does that one can't help but remembering how much hassle it used to be to go through passport control when one traveled around Europe and how, thanks to Brexit, something akin to those days is set to soon return.

Strasbourg Frustration

I had another big frustration getting to Strasbourg. Of course my mobile data credit ran out and the service station I stopped in at as we approached the city didn't have the facility to sell me any pay as you go credit, so I had to GPS it again. The time ticked away, and my hope of getting here in time to go out and explore the old city was fading away.

I stopped at a service station and managed to reload another map and then set off for the final stage of the journey.

Murphy's law kicked in at this point. Google Maps now decided, after weeks of being reliable, to start crashing every five minutes, even with a reboot and everything else closed down. So I had to wing it from memory. The web site I'd used to book my accommodation assured me that the hotel was in an old, historic part of town but as I homed in on the locality of my (very cheap) hotel, I began to realise why it was so cheap. It is nowhere near the beautiful picturesque old town and was close to the industrial port area by the Rhein. It looks more like a building site as massive road works and a new bridge are being developed. It also looked a bit of a dodgy area and as it was now 10:20pm I decided not to go out, after all. (Mistake there. Reading back on this, I should have gone out. Always do more, not less.)

These things happen when you try to bite off more than you can chew. Lesson to self: Don't try to fit in ridiculously too much - or at least make sure you get up really early if you do.

My plan now is to do just that, tomorrow morning, and have brekkie and potter around the old town then, before setting off for Lille.

So, a mixed day really with lots of frustrations. Still it was good overall. You have to take the rough and the tedious and the frustrating with the smooth, exciting and enriching.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Day 27 - Forza Italia

Forza Italia!

Italy look the strongest team so far, so it's apt that my next stop was Italy.

I had a coffee and did a bit of internetting whilst I still had data coverage on my mobile in France before setting off for Milano. I actually ran out of data credit and set off to buy a top up but couldn't find a 'tabac' and in the end decided not to bother. (That was a mistake, always keep mobiles topped up and charged.)

The drive from Nice into Italy was beautiful but a little wearying. There are miles and miles of tunnel-bridge-tunnel and I must admit to getting a bit freaked out. One minute you're a little claustrophobic in a dark tunnel, then a few seconds later, you're flying 500m over a valley on a bridge, uncomfortably close to big lorries and flimsy-looking safety barriers. It certainly gets the adrenaline running. 


Cliffs and tunnels on the way from Nice to Milan

Dramatic dash to La Scala by 2:30pm

At one quick stop I checked when my tour of La Scala was booked for. I know, I should have done this the day before but somehow, after England's performance against Iceland, seeing an opera theatre wasn't upper most in my mind. I discovered that - eek! - it was at 2:30pm and here was I, just into Italy and it was already about 11am.

Italian motorways are not very helpful when you don't have SatNav working. I had almost reached Genoa before I even saw a sign that had "Milano" written on it and I started to panic as time was ticking and I was still clinging to the coast and it's scarily sheer drop to the Mediterranean to my right. So when I saw the sign I was relieved but, a few seconds later, due to confusing a couple of confusing (to me) road signs I missed the turn off.
I knew there must be another major road to Milan from Genoa so I kept going, all the time thinking "maybe I should have stopped and turned back!" But eventually, my faith in my geography paid off and, at about noon, I finally left the coast and headed north towards Milan.

So here I am, driving at the maximum allowed speed, heading for the very big city of Milan, knowing that I had a tour booked, at the famous opera house right in the center with about two hours to get there. I had no data connection so had no idea how far it was. From memory I thought it was doable, so I kept my foot down. It would have been great if there had been a few road signs indicating how far away Milan was but, frustratingly, it wasn't until about it was about 70 km away that one appeared. This was good news. At least I knew it was theoretically possible. But did 70km mean the center or the outskirts? And how was I going to get through the traffic? 

As I got closer, I saw the answer - there was a park and ride facility. All I needed to do was park the car, nip onto the metro and I'd get there.

So, yes, I parked the car (it was almost full, so I had to go to the very top of a four level multi-storey) then, as Murphy's Law kicked in again, the lifts were broken so I had to run down the escalators to the ground floor where I saw a bus station but no metro line. Don't panic, Mr Mannering!

After asking a couple, I was told where the metro line was - at the back of the bus terminal and so I legged it down there, still not knowing how far away the city center was, or how long it would take. It was now five past two, and part of me thought "Why bother? You're not going to make it!" But I thought if I get there a bit late, surely, they'd let me in.

Anyway, I bought a day ticket for the metro line 4 Euros 50 cents - bargain and asked a intelligent-looking guy which stop for La Scala. He turned out to be an oncologist and, as he was going to the same stop, he came with me and made sure I changed lines (from M2 to M1) and got off at the right station (Duomo).

The time was 2:25 as I legged it up the staits to the magnificent site of La Duomo cathedral. I had it in my mind where La Scala was, but I was mistaken. So, getting increasingly sweaty in the 30C heat, I again asked for directions and eventually found my way into the museum to catch up with my group and tour guide, just 5 minutes into the tour.

Made it!

La Scala, Milano


Feeling relieved at making it to the tour in time

I love La Duomo. Beautiful Catherdral.

England winning a major football tournament - sembra la fabrica dello duomo

The tour of the opera house and its museum was interesting and the ideal way of calming down after the two hours of stress getting there,

Having made it to my tour and calmed down, it was time to find the hotel. My mobile battery was draining away and without any data connection it was a bit of a struggle but eventually, after having three different (and seemingly contradictory) pieces of advice, I eventually caught the right tram (no 24) and got to the hotel. The room was fine but there always seems to be something wrong and this time it was the lack of a convenient power socket. I ended up recharging my phone through the shaver socket next to the sink.

As my stuff was recharging, I got a taxi to the park and ride place. The taxi driver was a big football fan and we chatted about the England debacle (in English) before I left him with a "Forza Italia!". I found the car easily enough and drove back to the hotel and parked right next to the building.

Then, having brought in my bag of clothes I had a shower and got changed and then when out to the Navigli district which features a couple of canals and hundreds of bars. 

I walked half of the journey and then caught a tram for the other half.

It was a lovely area with a great vibe. It was great to be able to just sit down and have a few beers and a nice meal.

The craft beer scene is pretty strong in Italy and I went to two excellent bars, especially one called BQ (for Beer Quality, in Italian).

I had a nice talk there about the Brexit referendum result with the barman. They had a board offering free hugs to anyone sad about the result. He didn't give me a hug but I did appreciate his sympathy. It feels like someone who has been with a group of friends for 40 years, suddenly deciding that they no longer want to be seen with them. Hurtful and sad.

Lovely seafood linguine

BQ - Great Craft Beer Bar in Milan

Everywhere in Europe there is shock and sadness at the UK decision

Ice cream to end with

At closing time, I had a nice ice cream and then walked back to the hotel to crash out.


Day 26 - Montpellier and not Nice for England

England face second Euro Exit in 4 days

Montpellier Wash

Having stopped at an "Aire de repos" near Bezier, I woke up at about 5 am and decided to head to Montpellier. I thought if I get there early I could do another clothes wash as I was getting smelly again. I drove into the city and, thanks to Professor Google, found a laundromat near the center and somewhere to park. I changed into my rubbish clothes so that I could wash the ones I had slept in and been wearing since leaving Donostia. Luckily the laverie was open already and it provided the perfect opportunity to have a coffee and do a bit of sight seeing.

Dawn after another sleep in the car

The streets of Montpellier


La Place de Comidie

Cassanove Laverie

Montpellier ticked off, it was time to head to Nice, the venue of the day's big match, the round of 16 game between England and Iceland.

Nice location, shame about the reception

I chose my AirBnB spot because, on a map, it seemed close to the stadium but I'd forgotten how big Nice is. When you arrive in Nice you are immediately impressed by the massive crescent shaped sea front, called, appropriately, Le Promenade des Anglais.

It took a bit of time to locate the place and Google SatNav gave some strange advice as I homed into it. But eventually, I parked the car near what I thought was the location. Unfortunately, my host John was busy "at a business meeting" so he said couldn't greet me until 5 pm. I arrived hot and sweaty and was looking forward to a nice shower and get changed and a couple of hours of exploring Nice before thinking about the two football matches later.

As I arrived at 2 pm, earlier than I had thought, I tried to call John to ask him if he could let me in the room earlier. He didn't pick up. I texted him with the same message and then sat in the car with the AC on to cool down a bit while I thought of what to do.

Rough pebbly beach... not so nice

Beautiful, turquoise panorama

I couldn't just sit there for three hours so I decided to go off for a walk along the prom, prom, prom. It's a gorgeous scene with the brilliant turquoise sea splashing against the beach. At least it is from a distance. When you actually look closely though you realise it's a pebbly beach  which isn't that nice to walk on.

I had walked for about half an hour when I felt a buzz in my pocket. It was John. He texted me saying "ok. I'll be there in five minutes".

Eek! So now, I had to try to scamper back to the house in FIVE MINUTES!? I thought about running for a second but realised that wasn't going to happen. I texted back "Please wait. On my way" and then flagged down one of those cyclist tuk tuk type ride thingies - I'm sure they have a proper name. The poor guy cycled as quick as he could to the place I'd just walked from and, because it took more than ten minutes he charged me 25 Euros. Rip off!

I ran back to the car and, breathing heavily and sweating cobs, phoned John again. He picked up this time. "Sorry Aljice, I am at a business meeting. I could not wait." I must admit I lost my rag with him a bit at this point. He suggested I needed to cool down by going for a dip in the sea.

After a bit of consideration, I realised it wasn't actually a bad idea so that is what I did. I parked the car nearer his house, which I know knew exactly where it was, and got changed into my bathers, put sun screen on and headed for the beach.

It was lovely to cool down but I came back to the car still feeling a bit grubby and really wanted to have a shower.

At about 4:45 I got another text from John saying he was home.

So, at last, at about 5 pm I was in my room, had a shower and got changed. 3 hours, not totally wasted but it was a frustrating start to my time in Nice. A sign of things to come later. 

Italy Uber Spain

Time was ticking and having now realised how big Nice is it was clearly not an option to watch the big match, Spain v Italy anywhere near the center. I asked John if he knew any bars near the ground but he didn't.

So, I decided the best plan was to get an Uber to take me to the ground and walk back from there to find somewhere close to watch the game.

Again, Uber didn't disappoint. The driver arrived within two minutes, offered me a very welcome bottle of water to drink and knew the perfect place to drop me off - a nice little brasserie about 15 minutes walk from the ground.

The waitress set me up at a table right in front of a TV with the pre-match show already on. I saw on the menu there was a fish section and one I didn't recognise. I asked her in my crappy French, what it was and she said (honestly) "c'est un poisson, it is a feeesh". So I ordered it.

It was octopus!

Not really a fan of that, but as I was hungry I managed to eat half of it.

At one point I chatted to a guy was supporting Iceland but was Norwegian. He assured me that the Brexit result was a good one - on economic grounds. I replied that I was skeptical but appreciated a view that was not totally gloomy. We both agreed that the main reason for the vote, however, was not economic but due to xenophobia which he also finds abhorrent.

Italy 2 Spain 0

This was definitely the biggest match so far and could easily have made a suitable final. Billed as the clash of two giants, everyone was expecting a close encounter but, in truth, Italy destroyed Spain and dominated pretty much from start to finish. 

The press have slated the Italian squad as "their worst ever at a major tournament" but under their astute manager of new Chelsea boss Conte, they continue to impress.

So, Italy's reward for beating Belgium then Spain? a quarter final against Germany! Some teams seem to always get the hard draws. Not like England, we only had Iceland, a country with the population of Coventry!

I walked to the ground, most of the time with a nice German guy from Munich who was a Mainz fan.

Feeling good at this stage
Convenient Brasserie

Arrived at the ground
Before the drama

Not Nice for England

I arrived at the new stadium full of excitement and anticipation. The stadium was full of England fans. Some of them might be a bit stupid sometimes but you cannot help but admire their amazing support. I reckon at least two thirds of the ground were England fans.

England Iceland 2

The game started explosively and within two minutes England were awarded a penalty when the much maligned Raheem Sterling was bundled over in the box by their goalie. Rooney scored impressively. 1-0 to England. This was the perfect start, the one we'd all talked about. If England could just get an early lead, Iceland would be forced to come out of their shell and England would surely go on to win easily.

Unfortunately, Iceland had other ideas and equalised almost immediately. Sigurdsson evading the "marking" to head home after a throw in was flicked on. For 12 minutes, England were on parity, and Deli Alli almost restored England's lead before Sigthorsen's shot, again, mysteriously slipped through Joe Hart's hands and into the net.

England laboured to recover but, despite creating a few chances ioncluding a lovely volley by Kane, couldn't manage it and went in at half time facing catastrophe.

I was sat next to a Swiss fan who seemed to take some joy in how badly England were playing. He suggested England were just hoofing the ball up every time and had no idea how to break down the Icelandic defence, to which I replied that in the Slovakia game England played a tic-a-tac passing game and that failed too. We needed a bit of variety. Kane's close effort was the result of such a long ball.

Anyway, like the Norwegian guy earlier, he reassured me that Britain leaving the EU was no bad thing. I wasn't sure I could agree but, again, it was good to hear a more positive spin on it.

As the second half started, the realisation spread through the England fans that we were about to witness yet another English sporting debacle. Rather than showing fight and determination, England seemed to freeze. They were choked with fear. Rabbits in the headlight. The one player with some experience, captain Wayne Rooney, the one the younger lads would be looking to, shrank into a nervous wreck and seemed to forget how to play football. His passing was terrible. The panic spread through the team and it turned out to be the worst performance I've ever seen from an international team. Lithuania would have beaten England on that form.

Iceland fans ecstatic afterwards

Great scenes before
Putting a brave face on
Another historic disaster for England

England distraught

I watched with gloom and never really thought they'd equalise despite Marcus Rashford coming on, and showing a bit of intent for the first time.

The self destruct button was pressed by England, but let's not forget that Iceland played really well. Their defence was well organised and the whole team competed for every ball. This wasn't a park the bus scenario either. In the second half, Iceland created more chances than England and, if anything, the score should have been 3-1 rather than ending 2-2. 

For every Icelander there are 157 English, and yet at the end it was as if it was the other way round judging by the singing after the game. Not the booing, note. It was the most hostile I've ever heard England fans react to their team's performance

England fans took it on the chin and I saw no trouble whatsoever. I went out of my way to shake the hands of every Iceland fan I saw and congratulate them on their win. It took ages to walk to the bus stop to catch a bus back to the city. I had a nice chat with three lovely young ladies, two Norwegian and one from Iceland. Back in the city I walked around a while but couldn't face the prospect of drinking any beer so I walked along the long promenade des Anglais back to the house, stunned.

So much for my dream of watching three England knock out games on the trot and England v France in Paris. Yet again, England excel themselves at embarrassing themselves. Two European exits in four days.