In the first report from his spring research trip to Morocco, Peter Schindler gets a surprise on the way to Fes, discovers the Roman ruins at Volubilis and breaks bread with a local family in Skoura…
Tag Archives: Driving
Posted on 26 Jul, 2017
Stick your head out the open windows of the world’s bounciest trains and perfect the art of riding motorcycles side-saddle. Rumble down quiet back roads on ancient bullock carts or swish along by car, and chug down the Irrawaddy on stately government ferries.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Burmese transport!
Posted on 22 Jun, 2017
Thanks to long tradition and a shaky power supply, handmade industries thrive in Burma. We take a look at – appropriately enough – a handful…
Posted on 30 Aug, 2016
I have been working for On the Road Experiences since 2013. I started as a host…
What does a “host” do? As a journey host I oversee the whole journey from greeting guests on the first day until we all say goodbye on the last. I am responsible the service we provide and for the experiences guests enjoy; our aim is to make each journey enjoyable for all parties involved.
My role has grown over the years, and now I enjoy researching new itineraries, enhancing our existing journeys, and meeting guests before they join a trip and developing the German market. Peter gives my colleagues and I the chance to grow – sometimes it seems that every day I find myself with a new project, which makes me busy and happy!
Looking back at all the journeys I have hosted, I remember a lot of laughter and happiness, and my hard-drive is full of pictures of sunsets, beautiful landscapes and people. Two things that I can’t capture on film, though, are the hard work and long days that go into making each journey a success.
Explaining my job to friends isn’t easy, because it is not at all like being on holiday, and neither is it “just” being a tour guide. We have to work with the fact that on each journey there will be many unforeseen events along the way – hopefully these will be fun things, such as yaks on the road or coming across a colorful local festival, but they might include road closures or even landslides.
In March, for example, we got held up by market day in a small village on the way to Puzhehei, where all the roads were gridlocked with trucks both big and small.
Nobody could move until the stallholders began to clear up two to three hours later. Thinking of it now, the pictures it brings to my mind are of our guests sitting on the side of the road, relaxing – one smoking a cigar, and chatting with the market-goers.
Our drivers got stuck in, handling and coordinating the traffic while the policemen lolled about drunk on the pavement! I love that our guests and my colleagues managed to make the most out the afternoon and still find something good in a situation that wasn’t so good. It was very hot that day. As I tried to get cold drinks to keep us all refreshed, I ended up going from shop to shop as I discovered that none of the fridges were working! Finally, in a tiny shop I found cold beverages and local snacks, which I took back for us all to share.
This kind of experience is a good reminder for everyday life – of course I had all sorts of worries going through my mind: “What if we’re stuck here forever? “How long will this traffic jam last?” “What are our customers thinking?” “Will it get dark before we arrive?” “Are there any short cuts we could use?”, and so on and on… And I wished that we might have had a smoother journey on that day, but the reality is that life doesn’t always go to plan, and sometimes you just have to make the best most out of whatever happens!
Curiously, almost without fail, it is the unforeseen events, well handled, that our guests remember the most after we return home. Sometimes it’s the bends in the road that are the most memorable and meaningful!
Posted on 15 Mar, 2016
(For Part I, click here)
The only way I can describe driving among the mountains on that day is as a sensation of near-flight. Gliding along the perfect mountain roads, I seemed to soar and sink, descend and climb, and in these motions partake in the sensations unique to flight, at once accelerating forward, upward and sideways. On those mountain roads, I felt like a hawk, lifted and dropped at a thermal’s whim. The road set my course as the wind directs a paraglider’s flight. At times, I slowly ascended on a straight path, while at others, I spiraled up around serpentine twists and – coming to a standstill – seemed to float in midair atop each saddle. With each pass crested, I swooped into the first tight hairpin bend, only to take off once again as I reached the bottom of each valley. That morning, I frolicked and played for hours, diving into broad valleys and cleaving a way between sharp peaks, forgetting about the world left underneath.
In the past – as was the case on this particular day – I had to steal a moment here or there to get my fix of mountain roads. Nowadays, it’s part of my job: I can’t believe my luck! In designing our European driving holidays, one pass that often features high on the list of “must-drives” is the Stelvio (or Stilfserjoch) at the eastern end of the Swiss-Italian border. With its 48 hairpin turns, it attracts not only drivers of cars and motorbikers, but also masochistic cyclists. For one reason or another, it has become the iconic Alpine pass and I am asked about it time and again.
So, last year when a client asked “Can we drive The Italian Job?”, I was taken aback. I hadn’t thought about the movie or the mountain pass featured in the original 1969 version of the film for a long, long time. “Of course,” I replied, relishing the thought that, in preparation for this client groups’ trip, I would be forced, as it were, to drive it ahead of time to re-familiarize myself with it.
Rather than the dramatic Stelvio Pass, The Italian Job features the Grand St. Bernard Pass, which straddles the Swiss-Italian border far to the west. This is the mountain pass that gave the St. Bernard dog its name. (I grew up with one of these furry, cuddly beasts, and always struggled to measure up to its size, much as my mom struggled to rid my clothes of its sticky, long hairs.)
Eventually, the day arrived, last June, when I drove the Grand St. Bernard again, retracing the legendary Italian-side ascent featured so beautifully in the opening scene of The Italian Job. While Rossano Brazzi drives his Lamborghini Miura through turn after turn, along this Alpine road on a gorgeous day, the song On Days Like These plays in the background. Never in the history of movie-making has a song matched the emotion evoked by the opening sequence of a film so well.
In my case, it was a lovely spring day and I was on my way from Milan to Gstaad in Switzerland. These days, the main road through the Aosta Valley goes through an ugly tunnel from Italy into Switzerland. If you want to drive over the pass, as I did, you have to pay attention to find the right turn-off, otherwise you might zip right past it.
The Italian Job road is relatively short, but what it lacks in length it compensates for with scenic beauty and spectacularly twisting bends. Its curves are just as enjoyable to drive as those of the Stelvio, if not more so: some of the Stelvio tornante are downright hard work, and drivers that miscalculate are forced, embarrassingly, to make a three-point turn. The Grand St. Bernard’s corners are gentle and a breeze to drive. Nerd that I am, I started playing On Days Like These, cranked up the volume, rolled down the window and opened the sunroof for the climb to the pass. The meadows were covered with spring flowers – I stopped a few times to smell them and take photos – and at the top, as spring gave way to vestiges of winter, I saw patches of snow. After parking my car by the lake that graces the pass, I got out, leant against the bonnet, turned my head toward the sun and closed my eyes to listen to the birdsong that floated on the breeze.
Indeed, on days like these…
Please click this link an example of one of our On the Road in Europe itineraries that features the Grand St. Bernard Pass.
Posted on 5 Mar, 2016
For most people and much of human history, mountain passes evoked visions or memories of anything but pleasure. Instead, they were associated with the pinnacle of hardship as traders, exhausted and starving, struggled to carry their wares across mountain ranges wrapped in deep snow and whipped by ferocious winds. Or they were frozen graveyards of soldiers since mountain ranges formed natural boundaries turned political borders. Mountain passes were the places where one came face-to-face with the enemy and the violence of war.
How different my world is. I grew up in the heart of the Alps and in a period of peace and unprecedented wealth creation: there are fabulous roads to drive across the Alps and the only enemy I recall encountering at the top of a mountain pass was a bird that shat into my open-top car while I got myself a grilled sausage from a stand by the roadside.
According to one website for motorbikers, there are over 300 mountain passes dotting the Alps. I must have driven across at least a third of them, including some of the highest, like the Col de la Bonette in eastern France.
(When I drove across this one many years ago I felt quite proud, though I’ve since driven over a mountain pass on the S304 in Tibet that’s early twice as high, topping out at 5,450m.)
Once, on one day alone, I crossed fifteen Alpine passes. On days like these, when I have the luxury of driving for fun, the agony of waking to the sound of an alarm clock in the early hours of the morning was almost instantaneously replaced with eager anticipation of the treat to come. In no time, I was up, dressed, had put on my soft driving shoes (all the better to work the pedals), and had rushed out to my car.
On that morning I started off in Bregenz, an Austrian town by Lake Constance. At first, with the early morning temperature hovering around five degrees Celsius, the car’s engine was still cold, not ready to be put through its paces. The engine spluttered and vibrated edgily in its compartment. But by the time I reached the city boundaries, heading south, it was purring and I was raring to go.
When the last of the city’s stop-lights turned green, it threw open the road before me. I sped up and found myself rushing toward immense beauty: the black, purple, pink and orange of dawn in the Rhine valley. There was the instant thrill of being pressed into my seat, feeling the engine coming, then coming again, and again, as I shifted through the gears. It was a sensation of total immersion and bursting free, both at the same time.
About an hour later, the sun rose and divided the world in two, the still-dark valleys below and the glorious mountains above. In fact, I had finished climbing the first mountain, the Bielerhöhe, which separates Austria’s two western-most states, and was already descending into a Tyrolean valley, negotiating hairpin turns on the way down, one after another.
The only way I can describe driving among those mountains on that day is as a sensation of near-flight…
Come back for the continuation of On days like these … soon…
Posted on 12 Jan, 2016
Fifteen minutes of pleasure is quite something when it comes to some activities – or so Dr. Tatiana of Sex Advice to all Creation fame, tells me – but when it comes to driving, I have high expectations. I grew up careening through the Austrian Alps, where the roads are gorgeous and men do go the distance, and in my Alpine Republic no one would get out of bed for fifteen minutes of driving, no matter how sinewy, how sensual, how sexy the road might possibly be.
“Try the Horse Shoe Pass”, my friend suggested in response to my question “Where should I go for a bit of driving fun?” The route my friend is describing – the Horse Shoe pass from Llangollen along the A543 and the A5104 – will take no more than fifteen minutes or so to drive. But it’s two to three hours from London; add in coming back and it’s nearly six hours. Six hours of highway driving, on a Friday for god’s sake, for a quarter of an hour on a sinewy road?
Alas, I left Austria a long time ago and now I am desperate. The bright sunshine of this lovely autumn day makes the decision for me and I set out northwest on the M40 toward Birmingham. I’m not even an hour on the road when clouds begin to line the distant horizon. Still, the sun is overhead and almost the entire sky a solid blue.
But by the time I leave Birmingham behind, rain has set in and my spirits are as dull as the sky overhead. I take the M6 north, the M54 toward Telford, then I’m on the A5 toward Shrewsbury. The rain now is not falling, but sweeping across me in near-horizontal sheets chased by low-hanging clouds.
I enter Wales and, bereft of dreams of fifteen minutes of bliss, I contemplate the down-to-earth challenge of pronouncing Welsh words without vowels. (Later in the day I see a place name that takes the cake: “Pllgwyngyll”. Thank heavens that’s not where I am going because I wouldn’t, in my life, be able to ask for directions to it.)
Twenty five miles to Llangollen. The road is covered with, and made slippery by, brown, mushy leaves. At the rate that I am going, the many speed camera signs that I see – Camerau Cyflymder Heddlu – seem pointless. Who could possibly speed? And indeed, there don’t seem to be any speed cameras, only these signs, like powerless scarecrows, an empty threat as far as I could tell.
I am now only a few minutes away from Llangollen where the A542 turns off to lead north over the Horse Shoe Pass. The fifteen minutes are about to begin, but it seems less likely than ever that it will be a magical experience.
But miracles do happen. And so, let the fifteen minutes begin. The instant I cross the bridge over the river Dee in Llangollen, the wind picks up and carries away the driving rain, leaving behind only a faint drizzle which, a few breaths later, vanishes altogether. All that remains, for the moment, is the wind and the low scudding clouds. In less than two minutes, I’ve left Llangollen behind, cranked up Anastacia Not that Kind and started up the Horse Shoe Pass. It begins with a few long-stretching bends and then twists through two serpentines along the left slope of a wide valley from which protrude thin slices of sharp-angled, black-grey slate.
Four minutes. I have reached the top of the pass, all 1,367 feet of it, no more than the height of an Alpine valley. On my right, I am invited to buy Horse Shoe Gifts at the improbably named Ponderosa Café. My heart beat has just revved up. You mean, this is it? Yes, as far as the Horse Shoe is concerned, but no need to take a cold shower just yet.
As I begin the descent into the Northern Wales highlands that stretch away from me for as far as my eyes can see, the cloud cover cracks open to my left and the darting rays of the setting sun burst through, at 3:30 in the afternoon. It is one of those eerie moments when the world appears brighter then it is ever meant to be. The lid of clouds is still near-black and covers the earth from due East all the way across to the peep hole through which the sun unleashes its bursts of light. The contrast is startling. It should be dark, dark almost as at night, but it isn’t. The landscape lights up as if shone upon by a thousand suns. The grass is so green it jumps off the fields and the shadow of anything that stands in the way of the sun is as sharp as the blade of a razor. Everything is so near I can touch it with my eyes and my hands. The horizontal rays of the sun are streaming across the Welsh hills to set them alight.
Eight minutes. I turn left to enter the A5104 and am now driving West, directly into the sun. I am electrified by the landscape and my rushing through it. The black shadows of white sheep. A rainbow with colours as sharp and iridescent as ever I have seen, no more than two to three hundred yards from base to base, stands mightily before me, almost inviting me to drive through it to enter a different world. Occasionally, puddles and cattle grids make my car float for a split second and send a shiver through my spine. Leafless trees, ghosts of summer, fly toward and then through me. A flock of migrating birds flickers low across the road, as if trying to avoid colliding with the ominous cloud ceiling. The road itself is narrow and beautifully winding, not too tight, but certainly also not too straight. The surface is sealed with rough, gripping tarmac for the most part and lined by hedges, some of them high-growing bushes, neatly trimmed, others walls of rocks diligently and carefully stacked one on top of the other. Very British.
Twelve minutes. As I drive into the sun, hip-hopping from turn to turn, I am squinting my eyes. The world glistens because everything is still drenched. The meadows are soaked. The road is streaming and steaming. The birds’ feathers are damp. The trees are dripping. The sky, too, is wet. Everything I see sparkles and my eyes are filled with flashes of light, most of them white, some of them red or yellow or orange, cascades of turning leaves gleaming in the light.
I ride my car, spur it on and will it to move. Yet it has its own life and its own rhythms that it presses on me. One moment, I am entirely relaxed and made pliable from doing what I love, not minding in the least being thrown around by an animated object with whom I am wholly entwined and together as one. A moment later, I am nervously excited as every turn, and every shift, makes the car teeter on a slippery edge, giving me all the symptoms of fear while, at once, making me quiver with all the sensations of pleasure.
Fourteen minutes. No, no, this mustn’t be. I don’t want to see what I am seeing, but there it is. Only a few hundred yards away, the A5104 rejoins the A5. As I come to a halt and look right and then left onto the empty A5, the sun disappears behind a cloud, the spectacle fades with the fall of the curtain. I turn off Anastacia. There is near-darkness, stillness and silence, except for my heart pounding. Fifteen minutes.
Posted on 16 Nov, 2015
When we leave the highway behind and opt to discover the world from its back roads, curious things can happen. More often than not, those things can give us a glimpse of what makes local people tick.
A recent research trip of ours ended in Shangri-La, the main settlement in Yunnan’s ethnically Tibetan northwest. On the day of our team’s departure, we caught a taxi to the airport. Our driver was a burly Tibetan gentleman with an infectious laugh, who had somehow managed to squeeze himself into the cab’s cramped driver’s seat.
On the outskirts of Shangri-La a large white stupa stands at the centre of a roundabout – seemingly a typical piece of Chinese municipal architecture. As we joined the roundabout, the driver turned left instead of right and calmly circled the roundabout clockwise, against the usual flow of traffic.
Mercifully, nothing seemed to be about to crash into us. Still, we asked with some alarm, “What are you doing?! Aren’t you supposed to go the other way around?!”
“No, in the mornings we can go around it this way,” he assured us, smiling, “because the stupa is holy, isn’t it?” For Tibetans circle all holy things – roundabout stupas included – clockwise, in a show of respect.
“And what if a non-believer should come the normal way around?” Peter pursued the argument to its inevitable conclusion.
“Well, there might be a crash,” he said, his expression deadpan.
Posted on 11 Nov, 2015
On September 1, 2003 my life began anew. I had recently left my job in a large consultancy – the culmination of two decades in the corporate world – and on that Monday morning I sat down to start writing my first book, On the Road – Driving Adventures, Pleasures and Discoveries.
The chain of events that led to that morning had been set in motion six months earlier. My wife, Angie, and I were celebrating my birthday. Over dinner she presented me with a beautiful book on the Italian car designer, Pininfarina. “I know you love driving, and I wanted to give you a book about it, but I couldn’t find anything. This is closest thing out there…”
The book was fascinating, but I found my mind returning again and again to Angie’s comment that she couldn’t find any books about driving.
I started searching high and low for books on the experience of driving, but while there were thousands that dealt with cars and engines, I could find nothing that adequately expressed the joys I had experienced on the open road.
Surely someone somewhere had written about the marvelous sense of freedom that I, for one, feel behind the wheel? Or about the pleasure of going (and stopping) where you like? About feeling the wind in your hair and the sun on your face while driving down a beautiful country lane? How was it that I couldn’t find a single book that described all that?
Eventually, Angie made a comment that she must have since regretted: “If you can’t find a book on driving, why don’t you write one yourself?”
And so it was that on that day in September, I went for it. It was the most thrilling and frightening decision of my life, essentially setting convention aside and making the decision to be myself. The scope for embarrassment and potential for failure seemed boundless as I slowly transcribed my feelings onto that first blank page.
* * *
In hindsight, the opening spread I chose for my finished book was strangely prescient. The author of this much-loved quotation, Alfred D’Souza, might be horrified at my adaptation of his words, but for me this version still rings true.
That first page was the beginning of all my subsequent adventures (about which more later). Starting by simply facing down my own fears of embarrassment and failure, I’ve slowly built a richer, fuller life for myself, one more in tune with my own energy and passions. Just think what might happen if you dare to be yourself, and to “dance as though no one was watching”? What might lie around the corner?