Our Five Country Day

When we were doing a lot of traveling Europe by car, on a “normal” travel day we would try to arise for breakfast at a decent time, roughly between seven o’clock and eight, have time to enjoy one of those great European breakfasts, then be on the road at about nine.  “On the road” could mean anything from literally being in the car on the road, or perhaps just heading out to spend the day walking around and seeing the local sights.

 If we are literally “on the road”, we try not to spend too much time driving or to travel too much distance before we stop for dinner and/or look for a place to stay.  This allows more time to find a place, especially in a strange area, and it is a lot easier on everyone’s nerves.  Everyone can relax a little knowing we have a nice room to sleep in that night.

That said, there are always exceptions to the rule.  The one example that jumps to mind when I think of our travels is the day we covered five countries in one day.  In Europe, this is not considered an impossible or even moderately difficult task, but for us, who were relatively new at this, it was a bit of a challenge and ended up to be an interesting journey.  One can easily cruise through five countries if you plan a route to use the highways, autobahns, etc. to skip from one country to the other. 

Diana enjoying the South Tirolean ambience
Diana enjoying the South Tirolean ambience

On this trip, we were traveling with our friends Harvey and Shirley, great travellers and lots of fun.  We were comfortably ensconced in our wonderful Kohlern hotel in the Dolomites of northern Italy,(see Travel Tale “Our South Tirolean Gem”) and decided one evening after pouring over some maps that we could take a few smaller roads, take in some spectacular scenery, and still have a day where we could start with breakfast in Italy, lunch in Switzerland, afternoon snacks in Liechtenstein, evening coffee in Austria then dinner in Germany.

Ian enjoying the same.
Ian enjoying the same.

As we finished our breakfast and enjoyed our last cup of delicious coffee, the plan sounded good, and quite achievable.  Of course, being beginners to this game, we really had no idea of the distance involved, or more important, the time required to drive it.  Nevertheless, we were on the road at our scheduled time and were soon enjoying the drive through the Italian Alps north of Merano, through Glorenza, making our first morning stop for coffee at an alpine roadside café somewhere up in the Ötztaler Alps.  These are the same mountains where, high above Merano, the famous Ötzi, or “Iceman” was found buried in a glacier in 1991.  Can you imagine the history that was being made over a period of five thousand years as this man lay buried in the ice?  But that’s possibly the subject of another ‘Travel Tale’.

We then headed through Zernez, then west to the Swiss village of Davos where we stopped for lunch, a delicious plate of tortellini with a Gorgonzola sauce.  Gorgonzola!  For most of us, this was our first introduction to this aromatic cheese delight in a pasta sauce.  We all loved it so much, we ordered another, then took notes and tried it at home when we returned.  Switzerland is amazing, a small country that uses at least three main languages, the main ones being French, German and Italian, depending on what part of the country you are in.  They also have some ancient tongues still used in remote mountain villages, and of course, everyone knows English. Similarly, each area has different food specialties, closely related to the three languages.   The village of Davos is quite international, being the centre for many meetings and conferences of top political leaders from around the world, so one can enjoy almost any kind of food there.

Continuing on our journey, we motored on to Liechtenstein, where we stopped at a little restaurant for coffee in Vaduz, with a view of the castle above us.  The principality of Liechtenstein, ruled from this castle above its capital of Vaduz, always seem to me to be a “mini-Switzerland”.  It is a very small country in the mountains that thrives on tourism, skiing in the winter,  beautiful stamps for collectors, and a banking system much like the Swiss system, well known for its secrecy laws.  It even uses the Swiss Franc as its currency.  A coffee break stop was all we could afford, as restaurant prices in Liechtenstein can be even more shocking than Switzerland.

Continuing on northward, we were in Austria in a matter of minutes.  Having just finished our coffee break, we decided not to stop in this country, but to continue on into Germany.  Entering Germany just north of Bregenz, Austria, we followed the road along the eastern shoreline of the Bodensee, or what North Americans call Lake Constance.  Normally when we travel in September, finding accommodation almost anywhere around the Bodensee is not a problem.  Most of the towns and villages have a tourist information office with an English-speaking staff that can help find a nice little hotel, guest house or B&B very quickly.  But as I said at the outset, we normally stop much earlier in the day.  As we entered some villages, we were horrified to find the tourist offices closed!  That left us the confusing and time-consuming task of driving around, looking for “Zimmer frei” signs on guest houses with rooms to rent, or stopping at every small hotel to check vacancy.  Village after village we drove, hotel after hotel, only to find them all full.  We started to become a little concerned, the wives a bit panicky!  As the sun set and dusk descended on us, the task became even more difficult, as we had no idea where we were most of the time.  Our only reference was the distant view of Lake Constance, which we made sure stayed on our left side, to the west of us.  Each of us was on the lookout for hotels or guest houses.  As we approached, one of us would jump out of the car, enter the facility and asked if they had any rooms free.  Let me correct that, we asked if they had TWO double rooms vacant, making our choices even more limited.

Hotel Restaurant Traube
Hotel Restaurant Traube

Finally, as it was growing quite dark, and the wives were in total panic mode ( as we were as well) we spotted the sign of the Hotel Restaurant Traube, a small hotel in the village of Ailingen. I checked, and sure enough, they had two rooms – and bonus, a restaurant!  Jubilant, I returned to the car to the joy and relief of the entire crew.

Before long, we were carrying our bags inside, heading up to our rooms with the agreement to meet in the dining room within minutes.  The half-timbered construction, old style German decor, wall hangings and paintings on the walls produced a warm, inviting atmosphere in the halls and our rooms.  As we entered the large dining room, the decor was even more welcoming, with delicious smells coming from the kitchen.  A young waiter was bustling around the few remaining guests, then greeted us with gusto, anxious to practice his English on these lost tourists.  We learned later that it was run by the Stolcic family.  The father ran the front desk and the bar, while mother kept busy in the kitchen.  The son, still in his late teens, did the leg-work, serving the tables and cleaning up after.  They explained that they had finished serving for the evening (disappointment!), but if we were willing to wait a short time, they could cook something special for us (jubilation!).  We were so happy to even be there, that we agreed to wait as long as it took.  We ordered large beers all around and sat back to enjoy the ambience.

It would be an understatement to say we were relieved and very happy to be ensconced for the night, in a comfortable hotel with what promised to be good food.  As we started to sip our beers, we looked over to Shirley, and to our surprise, she was sitting there with an empty beer mug and a very relieved and satisfied look on her face!  We were surprised at her action as she was not normally a beer drinker, especially not that fast!  I swear the beer didn’t even touch her throat on the way down!  We did not realize she was that stressed out before we found our hotel room.  We had all been getting a little concerned, but Shirley had the answer for relief, so we ordered more beers for the table!

Laughs all around, the beginning of one of our most memorable evenings in our travels.  Our hosts were delightful, the food and service great!  The ‘special meal’ that ‘mother’ had conjured up was fantastic, made even more special by our circumstances.  They served four huge, delicious German meals with all the finesse of a Michelin star restaurant, complete with some colourful nasturtium blossoms artistically placed on the plate.  Although I have not stopped at that hotel again, I drove it by recently and they are still in business . . . probably will be for the next hundred years.  That little hotel proved to be a winner, as it was our lifesaver late in the evening of our “five country day”.

Note:  For those of you not familiar with the German language, ‘Traube’ means grape, and you see it in many places throughout German speaking countries, grapes or bunches of grapes on Hotels, B&B’s, and especially restaurants and bars.  Sometimes it makes it difficult if you are searching for the Traube Hotel or restaurant that a friend mentioned . . . and Google shows you dozens of them!

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