kilometers of sheer driving misery.
Our home exchange with a couple in Munich had been under construction since last summer through the usual avenue of exchange websites in which both parties are members. First, one exchanges emails and if all goes well one’s homes. After the initial contact, we agreed on dates and other logistics and soon everything was arranged for an exciting early summer exchange between Munich, Germany and Atenas, Costa Rica!
When the actual trip planning time arrived this spring, we initially decided to take the train. Certainly for travel ease and comfort, but also because parking in large cities is usually a nightmare and thanks to the excellent public transportation systems in European cities one doesn’t need a car to get around. Indubitably, you are familiar with the saying ‘all roads lead to Rom’. Not in the proverbial sense, but in its literal reference to road superintendent Caesar Augustus’ Milliarium Aureum, the Golden Milestone in ancient Rom. It listed all the roadways throughout the Roman empire and gave their distances to the capital. It was the marker for the center of the empire. In France, all roads lead to Paris, and so do all rail lines. But Paris doesn’t have a milliarium aureum vel ferrum in the shape of a central railroad station. Instead, it has a separate station for each of eight compass points. For a trip from Bordeaux to Munich, one arrives at Gare Montparnasse and must transfer to Gare de l’Est for the connecting train to Germany. In itself, this isn’t an insurmountable problem, as there are buses, metro, taxis, über, etc. to facilitate such a transfer. But there are also heavy suitcases and old joints and very, very long stretches of train platforms and tunnels to be walked while schlepping said luggage. And this Parisian detour adds hours to an already long journey. Therefore, after careful consideration, we decided to take the car and build in a nice stop-over in the Alsace. We booked a room in a B&B near Strasbourg and looked forward to Flammenkuchen and Gewürztraminer.
Our Munich exchange partners, let’s name them The Millers for privacy reasons, invited us to spend a couple of days with them to get to know each other a little and to ease our transition into their home before their own departure to Costa Rica. They even offered to clear their parking space in the building’s parking garage for us. We happily excepted and everyone was anticipating a great home exchange when France was hit by a wave of strike actions in protest of proposed labor law changes. Intermittent strikes soon escalated into a general strike called by seven of the largest unions.
Less than a week before we were to leave Saintes, gas stations began to run dry, with continued blockades of refineries and distributions centers executed by unions members. Truckers drove at a snail’s pace on the national highways resulting in traffic chaos, while the stations that still had fuel reserves limited the amount of gas dispensed per car to 20 liters (about 5 gallons). Many drivers queued patiently to move up the line to the pumps for their allotment. We were watching the news rather anxiously, wondering what we might encounter on our 900 Km long cross country drive to the German border under those circumstances.
Two days later, we chickened out. An interactive map of France showed more and more gas stations in red. We abandoned the road trip for the railway option but had to settle for tickets on Friday, a day later than intended because there were no seats left on the Paris to Munich leg on Thursday’s TGV, the high-speed long distance train. We also paid for a home-to-home luggage service the French railroad offers, where they pick up your suitcases from your home and deliver them to your vacation address. No heavy cases for our Paris transfer! The later departure date gave us more time to prepare the trip, so we ran our errands less hurriedly and took our time to pack.
That’s when the railroad conductors union decided to enter the fray.
There had been some strike action by rail workers all along but the main union emphasis had been on energy production and road traffic. The day after we bought our train tickets, the government sent troops and riot police to break up the refinery blockades and the trucker’s representatives accepted to sit down for negotiations. Roads were passable again and gas became more readily available with every passing hour.
Trains, on the other hand, stopped running. At first, the strike action was focused on local traffic around major cities, TGVs to foreign destinations were not yet affected. Our trip was scheduled in three legs, from Saintes to Niort, Niort to Paris and Paris to Munich. Promptly on Wednesday night, 15 hours before the luggage pick up, the automated notification center of the national rail system sent me an SMS. Our Niort – Paris TGV was canceled. Reschedule for the following week (!) or cancel your trip for a refund. Reschedule? We were already arriving a day later than planned and the conductor’s strike was going strong. We were back in the car!
Suddenly, our speedy departure became an urgent issue. In order to get to Munich in time to hang out with the Millers, we had to be on the road as early as possible on Thursday. That ratcheted up our activity levels considerably. Doing laundry, repacking for the car, getting our house in shape to be closed for three weeks, and even an appointment at the optician on Thursday morning had to be squeezed into as few hours as possible. And sleep, I almost forgot the sleeping part.
At 13:00 hrs on Thursday afternoon our Peugeot entered the freeway on the outskirts of Saintes to commence our off-again-on-again 1303 Km road trip to Munich under a dark gray sky promising the rain that only stopped occasionally for the majority of our drive. And speaking of rain, through international news media I had been well aware of horrid weather conditions with severe flooding causing a number of fatalities in North America and in Germany. French media, on the other hand, had been exclusively focusing on labor laws and strike actions for the last couple of weeks, rather than bad weather and the alarming rise in river levels. When we started our trip, we had no idea that we were heading toward a region of the country that was already largely under water.
Our route went roughly diagonally through the central portion of France going from SW to NE, passing by or crossing such major rivers as the Cher, Loire, Seine, Marne, Meuse, Moselle, a bunch of their tributaries and the mighty river Rhine. All had broken their banks and their waters were spreading freely across lowlands and infrastructure. Our troubles started with the complete closure of highway A 71 toward Orleans. A pragmatic closure of a major highway without detour signage or a suggestion of an alternate route. Great. We were thus forced to leave the tollway system and make our way across both the Cher and the Loire floodplains on two-way country roads for about 150 kilometers before we were able to pick up a highway again to safely cross the Seine south of Troyes. “Route Inondée” [road flooded] signs turned us around, again and again, sending us through a maze of narrow, shoulderless back roads, the nervous atmosphere and dragging minutes accentuated by the rhythmic swishing of the windshield wipers.
Once back on a freeway, I wanted to continue to the next larger city. Since it was already after 8 PM Barry vetoed in favor of accommodations as soon as possible, which was easier said than done. Internet access had proven to be very spotty all afternoon and we were cruising through a rural area in the Meuse valley. As negative an opinion one might have about billboards and cheap chain hotels, they do come in handy every now and then! Still being weary about the gas situation, we pulled into the Aire Service de Val-de-Meuse [toll road service station] to top off our tank and I went in to ask the attendant about hotels in the area. She confirmed the existence of a very nice hotel in a small town just off the autoroute and immediately wrote down the specifics for me.
This most helpful and cheerful young woman saved our day.
After selecting a room, we gratefully settled down with an aperitif in the restaurant of the Hôtel l’Arcombelle, less than ten minutes before the kitchen closed, but the cheerful manager assured us not to worry about such minor details.
The next day dawned a little brighter, but soon reverted to yesterday’s wet conditions and again included longish stretches of two-lane roads until we finally crossed the swollen Rhine.
Soon thereafter we entered the German freeway system for a few more seemingly endless hours of very heavy traffic before the Millers welcomed us in their home and the four of us relaxed with a glass of bubbly – and a big sigh of relieve on our part!
P.S.For your enlightenment, should you ever travel in Germany: Most public restrooms require a fee of 50 cents to 1€ to enter both the lady’s and the man’s rooms. You’ll encounter these fancy turnstile entry gates from freeway rest stops to department stores. The machines accept cash or credit cards and spit out a ticket which releases the turnstile. No free pee in Germany! But the ticket often offers a discount on a future purchase …