So the summer is over, though with the current heatwave you wouldn't think it in Britain this week; the only mellow fruitfulness to speak of round here involved the spotty bananas I mashed up with Ideal milk the other day. Eight weeks on the road left me little time for blogging, unfortunately, though I did at least manage to report on the perfume highlights of the last few months.
However, it's been a while since my last "pure" travel post, so while my memories are fairly fresh, I will pick up where I left off at the end of July.
The second trip got off to an eerily smooth start - the surprise discovery of the Chanel Les Exclusifs range at Birmingham airort was just the start of it. On the plane there was no one else in my row, the flight arrived early, there were none of the usual queues at passport control in Stuttgart, and my bag was first off the plane. My hire car had air conditioning, and being diesel, was incredibly economical on fuel. Yes, it was a Skoda, but the build quality of Skodas has improved immeasurably since the mid-90s, when the company's mission statement used to be: "Step by step into the second century" (click on the fax below - lovingly preserved since my meeting at the Czech plant in 1996 - to enlarge the logo!).
What else? My first hotel allowed me to extend my check out till 1pm, provided two plump pillows!, a switch to activate the extractor fan - or not - in the bathroom!, and a choice of shady spots for my car - a life saver in the 35 C heat prevailing at the time. And the very first person I interviewed turned out to be a huge fan of our client, especially the lady in customer service, whom he described - most tantalisingly - as "so much more than a friend".
And then there was my "corridor vignette coup", whereby I managed to slip in and out of Switzerland for only two euros, instead of the usual 30 or so (40 CHF). I may have slightly fudged my itinerary to qualify, nipping out of the prescribed corridor between Germany and Switzerland into the adjacent reception rooms of Austria and Slovenia, but I figured I could play my "hapless tourist" card if I was rumbled. It worked for me a treat that time I rode a tram in Frankfurt without a ticket.
And the other triumph in Switzerland was to buy a wrap in McDonalds for under £10, which, despite the predictably high ratio of wrap, really did look as though it might have contained chicken somewhere deep within its floury folds. And whatever it was, you had to love the free Coca-Cola glass that came with it!
So there were a lot of things that went well. And to be honest, apart from failing to clock that Hungary had its own currency, my ineffectual mime of "smoked paprika" in a Hungarian branch of Tesco, and one or two hairy escapades involving Slovenian post offices and a communal laundry in Austria (which may warrant a separate post), most of the trips were free of incident. Of incident perhaps, but not oddities. So here is a round up of some of the things that particularly struck me on the last three trips.
Much of Austria is underground
Now Olfactoria may take issue with this statement, as she lives in the relatively above ground city of Vienna, and her summer house is not a cave dwelling either. However, if you drive from the Swiss border to Innsbruck, you are obliged to negotiate upwards of 30 tunnels, some mercifully short, many claustrophobically long, and all of them dark and dull. I couldn't help thinking that it would have been easier just to knock the mountains down rather than turn visitors to Austria into toll-paying troglodytes.
Curious sanitary ware and other toilet humour...
A rectangular toilet
"Rectangular" being the operative word... This was in my hotel in Udine, northern Italy, another unfortunate "near miss" kind of term. And "near miss" is arguably yet another one!
Papering over wise cracks
I consider myself a seasoned traveller, but this was my first brush with edifying toilet tissue: a homily in a roll, no less, with each sheet bearing a different nugget of wisdom. Here are some of my favourites, though they lose a bit of their snappiness - and all of their rhyme - in translation.
"Bad luck is a door which sticks as you are running to the toilet."
"Happy is he who forgets what cannot be changed."
"A financial genius is a man who can earn money faster than his family can spend it."
A seventies time warp en-suite
The bathroom of my Vienna hotel had floor-to-ceiling tiles in a pervasively beige colour scheme accented by brown and orange daisies - and an avocado suite! I was catapulted right back to my teens in the 70s. A bottle of Badedas bubble bath and a suggestive canister of Tickle deodorant would have made the scene complete!
On one of the rare non-subterranean stretches of Austrian motorway I spotted this lorry delivering a consignment of Portaloos:
Chupa Chups water towers (aka more strange things on poles)
Well, I assume that this silver ball on a pole is a water tower, having encountered broadly similar structures in the US, though some of those are admittedly more like leggy sputniks.
Window box frenzy
Window boxes on Tyrolean chalets are nothing out of the ordinary, but I nearly swerved into a ditch somewhere near the Austrian/Slovenian border on spying a chalet that was almost completely obliterated by window boxes in shades of purple and white. I wish now that I had photographed it, but it was a windy, mountainous road with nowhere where I could have safely parked. The photo below is a total lightweight in the window box density stakes, but if you multiple the number of boxes by a factor of three, and make the blooms extra voluminous while you are at it, you will be in the right ballpark.
Peremptory traffic signs
I came across this rather startling traffic sign several times in Austria. I am sure it is very effective in preventing the phenomenon of "Falschfahrer" (drivers mistakenly driving against the direction of traffic) which so bedevils the German motorway network. There are frequent radio announcements on German radio, warning other motorists to watch out for this "wrong driver" and on no account to overtake, in case he or she happens to be bombing along the other way at that precise moment.
Unidentified main courses
I was in some pretty remote spots over the summer, where sometimes it was a struggle to make myself understood in English or German, my "go-to" languages in Central Europe in which I can invariably conduct my interviews and get by generally. I was routinely baffled by menus in Slovenian, Hungarian and Czech - even in Serbian once - though I wasn't actually IN Serbia! (My Slovenian hotel was run by Serbians). Thus it was that some of my meals were the ultimate "pig" or "fish in a poke" - twice the unknown fish in question came complete with head, which is not something I would knowingly bring upon myself.
The board pictured below (from Slovenia), is a rare example of a menu with an English translation, for which I was understandably grateful.
Everywhere I went in Central Europe, I spied tiny chapels: sometimes by the road, sometimes perched atop hills, while others had merely been plonked randomly in the middle of fields. They were so very, very tiny that I could have sworn some of them had been cut in half.
Every era of hotel room
The bathroom shot above nicely showcases the 70s throwback decor of my hotel in Vienna, but across my various trips I enjoyed the full spectrum of period decor, from bediggled baroque to loft dwelling minimalism. No prizes for guessing which I preferred!
Disappearing waste paper baskets
Now if anyone reading this works in the hotel trade, they may be able to explain whether I am imagining this trend, or whether there really has been a move of late to cull the population of waste paper baskets in hotel rooms. I remember that - regardless of the category of hotel it seemed (and here's where I may be mistaken) - there used to always be a bin in the bedroom and one of those annoying flip top or mini swing bins in the bathroom. Recently I have noticed an absence of bins in the bedroom, and have had to resort to drastically overfilling the little bathroom bins with all my empty mineral water bottles, fast food detritus, balled up tissues and discarded Google maps. Obviously I cannot feature a photo of the bins in the bedroom, as they have now vanished, so here is one of the uselessly diminutive style of bathroom ones instead.
And - rather symbolically, you may say - given its white colour, this bin appears to be disappearing too, like a polar bear on an ice floe...
I didn't have time to visit it, but was intrigued to note that Vienna boasts a Museum of Contraception and Abortion (Museum fuer Verhuetung und Schwangerschaftsabbruch). That is right up there in my book with the wackiest museums I have ever come across - in Kansas City, if my memory serves me: an exhibition devoted exclusively to Caroline Kennedy's dolls, a museum of ghost trains, another one of barns, and my personal favourite, a museum featuring jewellery made entirely of human hair.
And finally, should any proof be needed that my business trips are just that little bit bonkers, here is a picture of some chickens in Srepenica, Slovenia, and one of a funny statue in Vienna. (If anyone is concerned, that flesh coloured excrescence is in fact the leg of a strategically placed passer by.)
Photo of chicken wrap from theimpulsivebuy.com, photo of tunnel from juniorannex.wordpress.com, photo of Tickle from flickr.com, photo of Chupa Chups from giftsguideuk.com, photo of chapel from redbubble.com, photo of swing bin from housekeepersheaven.co.uk, photo of cartoon from only-apartments.com, other photos my own.