Why are we doing this? A friend of mine is getting married there, and this car is to be the wedding day transportation. It is a gift for the bride.
It's an in-line four-cylinder Citroën DS23 EFI, front wheel drive, five speed gearbox.
But that doesn't describe the foibles of the car. For a start, the car has a column-mounted gear shift, and the handbrake is a little lever underneath the right-hand side of the dashboard. It also makes noises, lots of them, and they are somewhat strange. Low whirring sounds emanate from behind the dashboard, and pieces of plastic trim resonate with the engine. Gear selection is also problematic, with first gear sometimes being a pain to select without getting a false neutral; and the reverse gear is sometimes unselectable, unless you inch the car forward in first gear, and then change to reverse.
There is no brake pedal - instead you get a circular pressure pad. To add to all of this, when filling it up with petrol, you have to make sure that you hold the nozzle vertically, otherwise the petrol splashes out of the tank and runs down the inside of the bodywork, pooling on the ground rand looking suspiciously like a fuel leak.
And we are to drive some 1600 miles in this?
It isn't so bad. It is an excellent car for cruising on the motorway; it just sits there, and has plenty of power to spare. I call it 'The Barge', as it is so big and ponderous. My girlfriend Alessandra calls it 'The Bath', which means something appropriate in Portuguese.
We (Alessandra and I) left Bristol at 2:15pm, heading out down the M4 motorway towards London. Almost immediately we were confronted by one of the most imponderable questions of modern life: why do old people wear hats in cars? It isn't as though they are wearing them to keep the rain off, as they have a perfectly serviceable roof over their heads; and it isn't as though they are wearing them to keep their hair in place, as the windows are always shut. Why?
Apart from this, the run to Dover was uneventful, the car eating up the miles with ease. We reached Dover at 5:20pm where we purchased a cross-Channel ticket and boarded the ferry 'P&Q SL Calais', which left almost immediately.
The ferry arrived in France at 7:05pm CET. We did the most important thing first: we visited the Continent hypermarket.
The French haven't yet got used to the British idea of shopping when you want to, so the hypermarket insists on having quaint1 opening hours, such as shutting at 9pm and not opening on Sundays. As we would be coming home on a Sunday, we had to buy what we needed then and there.
This area of the French-Belgian border is full of canals, and it should be remembered that still water is an excellent breeding ground for mosquitos and similar undesirable insects. The entire European insect population seemed to be milling around: all of a sudden the car were being bombarded by mini-blood-bombs. Various 'splats', 'phuts' and 'tings' rang out as they hit the steeply-raked windscreen: it was a lesson in insect biology. We learned all about the differently-coloured bodily fluids of the various insects, some red, some green, and some a kind of revolting grey. All attempts to clean the windscreen proved fruitless as the windscreen wipers only served to smear bits of insect around the glass. As we neared Brussels, though, the impact frequency decreased.
We were planning to stay at the Formule 1 hotel in Leuven, just off the A20 at junction 20, but the junction was closed heading northbound so we had to go to junction 21 and turn around. The hotel book said to look for a sign to Aarschot, but there wasn't one; however, eagle-eyed Alessandra spotted some tiny signs attached to the bottom of the road signs, pointing to the hotel.
By now it was 9:45pm.
Formule 1 hotels are just collections of glorified sleeping boxes, designed for short overnight stays at a cost of £20 or so (the room fee is fixed at 1300 Belgian Francs). Our room was designed to take three people, two in a double bed and one in a bunk. The room itself was about 3m by 4m, with a wash basin in one corner and a TV in another; shower and toilet facilities were shared. For an overnight stay it wasn't bad, but the lack of air conditioning and an air temperature of over 20 degrees made for an uncomfortable night. Breakfast for two added about another 150 BF to the total. It consisted of as much coffee as we could drink, with bread, butter and jam: it was fine for the price, but considering the drive ahead it was a touch insubstantial.
We left Leuven at 7:30am, heading on to Aachen. We arrived in Germany at 8:30 am. On the way, we passed Zolder, the scene of Gilles Villeneuve's fatal motor-racing crash in 1982, and Maastricht, a city forever condemned (in the UK, at any rate) by its association with the European treaty. From Aachen we took the A4/E40 to Cologne, the smokestack capital of Europe, where we passed factory after factory before taking the A1/E37 to Dortmund, where we moved onto the A44/E331 to Kassel.
The scenery from Cologne to Kassel could, in many cases, be described as 'gently wooded countryside', which doesn't really do it justice. What you see is trees, trees and more trees; and, just to break up the monotony, more trees. They are all of the same colour and height, seemingly conforming to the German national norm of ordentlich. You do get the odd glimpse of field, but nothing very substantial, and as a result it is more interesting to check out the tourist signs as you drive down the autobahn. Each region puts up brown signs, each with up to three symbols on it, in order to coax you to stop. Between Cologne and Kassel these signs invariably contain trees, with the odd building on a hill thrown in for good measure, but just for variety one sign did feature a boy and a girl dancing together; (there was no explanation as to why they were doing this, though: there were certainly no German youngsters dancing in the nearby hills that we could see, only trees).
To liven things up though, we did encounter a minor traffic problem just before Kassel where they were working on one of the carriageways. Germans are different to other nations in the way they treat the traffic in such situations: what they do is squeeze four lanes of traffic onto one side of a motorway, which was designed for two lanes of traffic and a hard shoulder. This is fine when there are only cars around, but this motorway was heavily used by lorries moving east-west. Many of the trucks move about a great deal in their lane, and our barge of a car was huge. To overtake these trucks we had to either wait until they were going perfectly straight, or wait until they wandered to the right of their lane and then accelerate rapidly past. Whatever method we used, it called for a lot of concentration.
From Kassel, we took the A7/E45 to the A4/E40, the main motorway into the former East Germany. As we swung right onto the motorway, we saw the first sign to Dresden... and immediately hit our first major traffic jam, something that was to be a feature of this motorway. A lorry had managed to fall off the side of the autobahn, and all of the traffic had to filter past the blockage.
The trees began to thin out, and wind turbines started to spring up. As we approached Gotha we saw two ruined castles standing on hills, on either side of the autobahn, guarding the entrance to the east. They also guarded the gates to traffic hell. The problem is that, as part of the German effort to bring the former East Germany up to scratch, they are trying to upgrade the infrastructure, but rather than do it one bit at a time, they are digging up all the bits which are not already three lanes. The total roadworks are some 100km in length, which severely restricts the flow of traffic.
The second traffic jam was created by a Polish van breaking down in the middle of a roadwork section. The bonus was that this enabled the lorry drivers to get a good look at our car, one even leaning out to have a chat. They seemed to be very impressed.
We met our final traffic jam as we saw Dresden for the first time. We crested the hill and saw the city spread out before us, but it didn't look at all like the communist concrete block I was expecting... until we saw the columns of cars stationary in all three lanes. 45 minutes later we arrived at junction 83, Ottendorf-Okrilla, and pulled off to drive to Radeberg, the venue for the wedding and the location of our hotel. And it was here we saw the most visible sign that this was East Germany: most of the side roads were cobbled.