A dog’s life on a drive across Europe
I’m not sure whose idea it was to drive across Europe for three days with nine pieces of luggage and a dog. We were heading from London to Wengen, a ski resort in Switzerland, and my grown-up son (Nick) and the dog (Boss) are inseparable, so it must have been one of them. Frankly, I was dreading it. Le Shuttle, pet passports, four hotels, motorway tolls, 18 hours with my wife each way. I wasn’t even sure our antiquated satnav worked abroad.
Well, it did. And that wasn’t the only surprise. I’d never used Le Shuttle at Folkestone, but it’s a remarkable operation, efficient and stress-free – and the ANPR software recognises the car and flashes up a welcome message with your name. Nobody noticed the dog (but then it was leaving the country, taking its germs with it) and the train began its 35-minute journey exactly on time.
The first leg – the A26 to Reims – took less than three hours with hardly any traffic, no repair work, smooth surfaces and a speed limit that often rose to 130kph (80mph). Perhaps the (toll) system forces drivers on to smaller roads, but at just € 60 for the entire journey I was happy to fork out. Even the petrol pumps are fully automated, so there’s no need to queue. Why don’t we embrace this technology in the UK?
We were completely relaxed four hours later when we arrived at our first stop, a lovely hotel in the middle of champagne country – Domaine Les Crayères (lescrayeres.com) on the outskirts of Reims. This perfect little chateau, set in extensive grounds, still feels like a private home, with sumptuous furniture, chandeliers, striking coloured wall fabric, decent art and antique mirrors. The dog was welcome – in both our room and the attractive pavilion restaurant.
We were a 30-minute walk – or walkies – from Reims itself and strolled in the following morning. Reims cathedral cannot be missed. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, it is uncluttered and ethereal, with lovely stained glass by Marc Chagall (it lost most of its original windows in the First World War). A million visitors come here every year, but I was almost alone as I strolled along the beautifully lit nave with organ music playing softly all around. Dogs are welcome almost everywhere in France – the French attitude is more liberal than ours – but, reasonably, this does not extend to churches.
And so on to Strasbourg, which I’d chosen with a ruler and a pin. I had no idea how beautiful it was (it’s a World Heritage site, which should have been a clue). The glory, for me, is the interplay of roads and the Ill river (a tributary of the Rhine) that surrounds it, turning the centre into an island. Cobbled streets and timber-framed houses – some from the Middle Ages – and the great cathedral of Notre-Dame suddenly give way to ancient bridges with the water churning past. Strasbourg prides itself on its Christmas market, which has spread like ivy.
We stayed at the Régent Petite France (regent-petite-france.com), a former ice house near the city centre, which has friendly staff but is a little over-modernised. We didn’t have time to enjoy its sauna and hammam. That’s the trouble with a trip like this.
He’s the Boss: striking a pose on the slopes