Trouble in Switzerland

Switzerland mountains

“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”

We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.

“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.

As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.

“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”

“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.

I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!

mini cooper
It looks good!

I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.

Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.

The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.

“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.

“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.

This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.

I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.

I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!

Switzerland mountains
The Swiss Alps

We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.

“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.

And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.

Swiss hiking signs
Which way to Italy?

The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.

After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.

I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.

I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?

hairpin turns in Switzerland
A portion of the road (from Google Earth).

I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.

After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.

San Bernardino Pass
The top of the pass in daylight.

I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?

For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.

I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.

I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.

The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.

The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.

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Paradise at the Porsche Museum

Porsche 911

While I was driving from Dusseldorf back to Munich recently, I detoured to Stuttgart so that I could spend a couple of hours at the Porsche Museum.  The headquarters of Porsche is in Zuffenhausen, Germany near Stuttgart.  A striking museum building is set amongst the factory and office buildings.  The museum exhibits prime examples of the fine automobiles Porsche has built over the last 70 years.

The company got its start in the 1930s.  At first it was a design company and didn’t build its own cars. The German government hired Porsche to design an inexpensive car for the people.  This became known as the Volkswagen Beetle, one of the most successful car designs of all time.

1948 Porsche 356
1948 Porsche 356

After the war, Porsche designed prototypes of a car it called the 356.  The 356 was a rear-wheel-drive, two door sports car.  Because the 356 proved to be very popular with American aviators, a special version of the 356 called the American Roadster was sold in the U.S. starting in 1953.  Early designs were air-cooled, rear engine configurations.

Approximately 76,000 356s were manufactured from 1948 to 1965, with only about half of them still surviving.  They are highly prized by collectors today.

Porsche next developed a coupe design called the 356 1500 Coupé which came out in 1954.  The iconic and instantly recognizable shape of the 1500 Coupé would be carried forward to many future cars.

Porsche 356 1500
1954 Porsche 356 1500 Coupe

There were three evolutionary stages of the 356, denoted A, B, and C.  In 1963, the 356 C Cabriolet was introduced.  It was an instant classic.

Porsche 356 C
1963 Porsche 356 C Cabriolet

In the same year, the first 911 was produced.  The 911’s profile resembled the 1500’s shape and had a six cylinder “boxer” engine which produced 128 HP. While I was at the museum, there was a large exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 911.  Customers were being admitted to the museum at a reduced rate for anyone who was born in 1963 or owned a 911.  I missed on both qualifications.

Porsche 911 2.7 Coupe
1977 Porsche 911 2.7 Coupe

The 911 evolved over the years but stayed true to its original sports car heritage.  More power and more features were added as technology improved.

Porsche 911 Turbo S
1992 Porsche 911 Turbo S 3.3 Leichtbau
Porsche 911
1997 Porsche 911 Turbo 3.6

This year Porsche came out with a 50th Anniversary 911.  It produces 560 HP, goes from 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds, and hits a top speed of 197 mph, all for only $181,000 (layaway plan to pay for speeding tickets not included).

Porsche 911 Carrera S
2013 Porsche 911 Carrera S 3.8 Coupe


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A Drive Down the Amalfi Coast

beach scene in Italy

The huge bus sped towards the hairpin turn.  The driver tooted his horn as he started to make the turn.  He spun the wheel around and around.  He suddenly slammed on the brakes.  A car was coming from the opposite way.  The tiny car screeched to a stop before a devastating impact with the bus.  It was another close call.

The driver was muttering various Italian obscenities while gesturing with certain fingers.  The guide said that it’s a good thing we don’t speak Italian or we might be offended.

driving in Italy
Watch out for the bus!

We couldn’t go forward until the tiny car backed up. The bus driver yelled out his window at the car and motioned with his hands.  By this time three more cars had caught up to the tiny car from behind.  The whole string had to back up about 20 yards so our bus could make the turn.

Positano, Italy
The famous view of Positano, Italy

Welcome to driving the Amalfi coast road in Italy on a Sunday afternoon in August!  It was the busiest time of year.  Many families were here for their annual vacation at the coastal resorts to beat the heat and swim in the cool Mediterranean Sea.  The traffic was horrendous and the very windy road was built into the side of the mountainous coast.  I said every five minutes that I was glad I wasn’t driving.  Our bus driver was doing a masterful job.  Every hairpin turn was handled with finesse.

A view of the Amalfi coast
Summer on the Amalfi coast

The scenery was beautiful.  It’s a cliché, I know, but in this case absolutely true.  At times I looked out the window straight down hundreds of feet to the sea.  The views of the yachts and pleasure boats out in the azure bays were entrancing.  Each sight of the small fishing villages, cliff side resorts, and the world famous town of Positano was worthy of a post card or a jigsaw puzzle.

Amalfi coast view
Let's go for a sail

In the town of Amalfi we walked around the port and the main shopping street.  Strolling the streets of an Italian coastal town while eating a gelato is a nice way to spend a sunny summer afternoon.  It was so hot that I wanted to be swimming in the sea.

Back in the bus, the driver was refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the coastal road.  Soon we came to a tight pathway between the mountain on one side and a building on the other side.  Coming the other way this time was an enormous municipal bus.  Behind the municipal bus was a large line of traffic.  Behind us was another line of cars. No backing up this time!

the beach in Amalfi, italy
The beach in Amalfi, Italy

The buses slowed to a crawl.  They were going to pass each other on the narrow road.  Inch by inch the vehicles moved forward.  The drivers looked at each other with a grin as they slid by.  They were so close they could have picked each other’s pockets.

At one point the giant buses were about six inches apart.  There was a slight bend in the road so the drivers needed to compensate for this fact or the buses were going to scrape each other for most of the length of each bus.

Each bus curved the exact amount needed to get by.  And on we went down the Amalfi coast road, until the next hairpin turn or tight spot, when the bus driver….

beach scene in Italy
Bird's eye view of an Amalfi beach
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The Best Burgers in America

I’m an American. I like burgers. I like “French” fries. I am a connoisseur of both food items. You can travel all over the United States and find great burgers and fries in every city and state. Some people talk about Argentina steaks and Kobe beef, but in my opinion the USA is the only place for world class hamburgers.

I was on a spring break road trip to Florida with my friend Laurance. We had limited time to hit the beach so we were driving non-stop from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Clearwater Beach, Florida. Our mode of transportation was a 1973 Chevy Malibu. It had a big V-8 that got 12 miles per gallon. It was a dark green metallic color. We called it the Green Dinosaur. It should have been extinct.

A two door version of the Green Dinosaur

We left on a Friday evening. We passed through Chicago late at night and were barreling down the freeway in the middle of Indiana as the night got so late it became early in the morning. It was the time when it’s tough to stay awake. It was 4 am.

I was driving. Laurance was in the passenger seat holding the boom box as he slept. We needed a boom box because the car radio didn’t work very well. We were playing Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. That album doesn’t have much music to stay awake by. We were in the right lane, cruising along at 70 mph. There was no one else on the highway. Why would there be? Even truckers were asleep at rest stops.

I started thinking about girls in bikinis on the beach and started to drift. In more ways than one. My head lolled to the right side, my right arm sagged, and the car also drifted to the right side. I was dreaming of the Gulf surf when the sound of a machine gun blasted my brain. Why is someone shooting at me while I am lounging on the beach watching the girls walk by?

It wasn’t a machine gun, but the sound of the tires hitting the strip alongside the highway to wake up sleepy drivers who thought they could drive nonstop to Florida. As the car tilted towards the ditch, my brain became engaged with a sudden burst of adrenaline. Everything moved in slow motion in my mind. Laurance was awakened by the tilt towards the ditch as he crashed hard into the passenger door. He moved to punch me in the shoulder to wake me up. Simultaneously I grabbed the wheel and jerked it hard to the left to avoid the calamity of rolling the Green Dinosaur into the ditch and becoming a supernova fireball as I had seen in every cop show ever made. We careened across two lanes, right into the noise strips on the left side of the highway.

I knew they weren’t machine guns this time. I jerked the wheel back to the right before crashing into the median ditch. We finally straightened out as we flew down the road. It took an hour for my heart rate to calm down.

By 4am the next morning we were in Byron, Georgia. We were hungry so we stopped at a truck stop. Laurance insisted that we would find the best food wherever the most truckers were parked. On one side of the freeway was a modern looking restaurant with bright lights. There were a few trucks in the parking lot. On the other side of the freeway was an old diner. I think it was called The Road Kill Diner. The building was rundown and had a neon sign advertising a local cheap beer that blinked whenever it felt like it. There were a lot of trucks in the parking lot.

“That’s it!” said Laurance. “We have to go to that one. It will definitely have the best food.”

“But the other place looks so much nicer,” I pleaded.

“Come on, live a little. Let’s check it out.” said Laurance. “Do you see the big sign out front that advertises the Best Burgers in America, and below that one the sign for the Byron Special?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never heard of it. I’ve never been down South before.”

(Visiting the US from abroad? go to visum usa-ESTA for visa help)

We walked into the diner and stepped back in time. We were in the Redneck South. Confederate flags and opossum pelts were hanging on the wall. Framed black and white photos of KKK meetings were visible behind the bar. A jukebox was playing that Charlie Daniels song about the devil and the fiddle at an earsplitting volume. All of the tables were filled with middle aged white men with trucker hats, plaid shirts, dirty jeans and beer bellies. Every other trucker had a wad of chew in his mouth, even as he ate.

The only open seats in the joint were at the bar. A shriveled old waitress came to take our order.

“What it’ll it be, boys?” she asked.

We put in our order and I went to the rest room. Laurance stayed behind to observe. One of the truckers was sitting next to him. He was complaining bitterly to the waitress. He looked like a Yankee.

“I thought this place was supposed to have the best burgers in America? You should take down that sign. This thing is disgusting. The bun is old and moldy. The lettuce is wilted. The ketchup is rancid. The beef is gray and tough, with gristle in it. It has taken me three minutes to chew one bite. I wouldn’t feed this to my dog!  I want my money back before I throw up all over your counter.”

The ancient woman didn’t say a word to the man, but gave him his $4 back. The man grabbed his coat and left. As she walked past Laurance to the other end of the bar he heard her mutter under her breath.

“What do you expect when you order the Byron Special? We never said it was beef.”

I came back from the rest room feeling mildly refreshed and amused from reading redneck graffiti. Laurance was laughing so hard that he was in tears.

“What’s so funny at 4am in a truck stop in Byron, Georgia?” I asked.

“Tell you later,” he said.

Our food came. Laurance had a very nice looking plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, and toast. He ate every bite and said it was delicious.

I had ordered the Byron Special.

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