Summary of the Debconf15 road trip (part 1)

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As planned previousely I did go to Debconf15 with my new car. It was a completely new experience for me. The longest car trip that had completed before this was a 600 km drive after Debconf14 from Portland, Oregon, USA to Vancouver, Canada and back and that was just a couple days with just under 6 hours of max driving in one of the days. This was to be much, much more than that.

As the initial plan to take someone with me from Riga to Debconf15 fizzled out, I decided on a short-cut and started my journey with a 26 hour ferry ride from Liepaja to Travemunde. I arrived a couple hours before the departure, checked in and got a bunch of passes. They waved my car past the gate and then a worker waved me up to top deck. That was a good thing as I found out later, because the lower deck is locked for the night, but you can still try to get to your car on the upper deck, if you forgot something there. The deck hands expertly maneuvered me in the car to a very tight corner and put blocks under the wheels. At this point you would want to fold your mirrors, put on a parking break and pick up everything that you will need trought the night and go to your cabin. I sucked at planing this enough in advance, so I did not have cabin - just a seat in a common seating area.

That is something that I do not wish to repeat, ever. Imagine around 20 people in a small room filled with around 40 airplane type seats. There are lockers there to put your stuff in, but that is it. You are supposed to bring your own blanket. I brought a sleeping bag, that was a good move as I was not cold at least. But I didn't get a good night's sleep either. The ferry was full of Estonian, Latvian and Russian long haul truck drivers who also used the ferry as a shortcut for the long road and also as a 26 hour break from work where they could drink and party as much as they wanted to. That went on to at least 4 am. The sleeping room was dark, but there was noise leaking in both from engines and from the truckers and when they simmered down, then another noise started - some drunk or maybe even crazy guy was there in the room constantly talking to himself for hours. No One could get him to stop. I did fall asleep in the end, but that was not a fun ride. There was food on board (3 meals included) and that was actually very nicely made, above common diner standard. And there was no Internet there - the ship was out of reach of the coastal mobile networks for most of the trip. I read a couple books in Kindle over that trip.

One noteworthy detail is how tight they manage to pack the cars onto the ship - there is barely enough space to squeese between the cars sideways and even that is sometimes impossible between the large trucks. For many cars there was definitely not enough space to open the doors. This adds to the need to pick up everything that you will need overnight from the car immediately. Unless you have a Tesla Model X that is :).

It took nearly an hour after docking in Travemunde before the first batch of trucks inched off the ferry before I could drive off and start moving too. And as soon as I got off, I immediately got lost. I was using the build-in navigation of the car so that I don't use up all the limited mobile traffic for Wase, but as that navigation data was not updated for a couple of years (car makers want you to pay insane money for map updates, like over 250€ every time you want to bring you maps up to date) it routed me to a dead end - to a street that no longer existed due to ongoing reconstruction. The map picked up traffic and weather information from a local radio transmitter just fine, but not map updates. Had to just drive randomly in the general direction of where I wanted to go for a while before the navigator rerouted itself along actually existing roads.

Then I drove to Hamburg and then the next morning continued down to Koblenz, where I decided to stay for a couple of nights so that I could enjoy more of the city and have less of a just-drive mode as well as to be able to enjoy some local wines. The Mosel Rieslings are amazing white wines with very reasonable prices. In the drive there was my first experience of the motorways and the first experience of road sections with no speed limit. I am not a risk taker, but on the perfect German autobahns when the road is dry and the sun is shining it feels perfectly comfortable to drive at 160-180 km/h. Even in a heavy downpour the speeds dropped to merely 120 km/h and it still felt perfectly safe. People were predictable and aware of their surroundings. That is one type of road where you have to look in your rearview mirror almost as often as looking forward. If you are going 160 on the middle lane and are coming up to a "slowpoke" doing only 140 there and you start to think about overtaking him using the third lane, then you must first check very carefully, because there can easily be a Lamborghini flying past at 220. And, by German road rules, the slow car gives way in such situation. At this point of the trip there were only a few unlimited sections along my way and I only felt comfortable increasing my speed to 200 km/h two times for a very short period. It took a lot of attention to drive at such speeds and it took a free road.

Just before I left for Germany one of the tires of my car started to let out air. Nothing much, but like 0.5 atm in a week. So I brought it into service. They pulled out a 8 cm long rusted screw out of the tire. They fixed the tire with a thread and a plug. Some experts warned me against using the autobahn to the full speed with such "fixed" tire, but after testing the waters with some high speed driving and regular pressure checks on the first days I can now say with certainty - if you tyre is repaired correctly, then there is no problem going with full speed on the autobahn. Maybe the tires would not hold their full W rating anymore, but 200 km/h they held without any issues.

After Debconf15 I picked up a passenger and moved on. The rest of the trip was planned in detail with hotels pre-booked and rough plan for every day ahead. The plans basically worked. Each day was similar to the next - wake up, breakfast, get in the car, drive between 5 and 8 hours with a lunch stop in the middle, get to destination, have diner, look around, sleep, repeat. For some places this worked, for others it did not.

On the first day I was still driving mostly through Germany, but this time going strictly down south. The roads were empty and thus faster. This was the place where I found the top speed of my car. It was 218 km/h. The car hit its electronic limiter and did not go any faster even if I felt that there was some more power to give. My car is basically the weakest Mercedes C class of 2012, but even with that there was plenty of power even for fun autobahn drives. You might get better acceleration at speeds over 90 km/h if you get a C220 CDI that adds a second turbine to the engine, but unless you do live in Germany that is really a useless feature as the slow speed turbine in C180 CDI gives it plenty of power at the sub-80 speeds where most people of the world really need it. Or rather really want it. The feeling of driving safely over 215 km/h is quite amazing even if it is very taxing to both mind and to the car. If normally the car ate 4.5l per 100km at 90 km/h and barely over 5.5l per 100km at 140 km/h, then upon reaching 215 km/h the fuel meter was alarmingly stuck at over 15l per 100km. Fun is not cheap.

Another non-cheap thing is driving through Swiss alps. The highway vignette there costs 40 CHF, which is basically 40€. Now I would actually pay that without a second thought if I were to plan going through there, but it was not in my plans. my plan was to simply drive into the border town of Basel, rest there overnight and drive out towards France. Here a fun feature of the in-car navigation save me a lot of time. There is a lot of options about what roads to avoid: highways, toll roads, tunnels and vignette roads. Typically one would use this to drive on vignette roads, but avoid roads with extra tolls, but for this part I switched it around and had the car guide me to the hotel with non-vignette roads only. That worked like a charm.

What didn't work was Basel. Maybe it is a nice city, but it is not a city where one can see much of anything if you just drive into it in the evening. Everything is closed and there are basically no people in the streets. Even the streets were pretty boring with just an ocasional old tram passing by.

We left Basel behind and went into France. Destination: Lyon. Immediately after leaving Basel we started hunting for some nice breakfast place. It took a couple hours of diving around small coutry roads and passing trough all the small villages before there finally was a bakery that was open in the morning. And judging from the amount of people coming there, it was the only one for some larger area. At least we had a nice, french breakfast there. Lyon was cloudy, but most of the rain was behind us in Germany. The city of Lyon was far more conductive to evening strolls and drive-by sightseeing. There was a very pretty river with riverside open swimming pools. There was a cozy restoraunt street with a very nice sushi place. And there was pretty church on a hill with a sprawling park that looked amazing even in the falling darkness of the summer night. Add a bit of backlit bridge spiderweb or a full moon by a nicely lit up hill and you have a great setup for an amazing evening.

After Lyon my plan called for something truly special. This time the destination was not the most important bit, the most important part in that day was the drive. That was because the plan was to drive via the highest paved road in Europe. Even before reaching the actual scenic road, the presceeding roads were magnificent. After hitting the first foothills of the Alps the roads became very, very  fun. The regular country roads mixed with narrow mountain roads and serpantines. Very often on such roads exchanging with an oncoming vehicle was only possible if one of the vehicles stopped on a side of the road and only on some parts of the road. I drove rather slow there while the locals easily did 90 km/h on the narrow mountain roads. That did look exactly as crazy as it sounds. It was especially crazy as there was a lot of fog, rain and clowds all around us as we were climbing the Alps. But sometimes it took only a few minutes and the fog was gone. And when that happened the sights were just amazing. As we went on and went higher, the weather just improved. The clouds were never too far but as we started the climb in the mountain pass itself, they parted around us in perfect sun bursts. As the elevation went over 2000 meters, trees disapeared and by 2300 meters only moss remained on the ground with some sheep eating it. The views were breathtakingly huge and only the small dots of sheep and cars on the only road around gave some semblance of scale. My car fit in here well. I was starting to feel the shortness of breath and the car was a bit heavier to start off as well, but still it kept moving and kept us warm as the outside temperature plunged as we went up. After reaching the highest point that one could drive to, there was still a place to go. There is a footpath to climb the remaining 70 meters to the very top of the Bonette mountain to 2862 meters. There is almost nothing there, but some information stands and an observation platform, but it is worth it. We saw the views for a few minutes before the clouds decided that we had enough luck and started rolling over the mountain with force. It was also getting dark already.

The way down was faster, darker, wetter and slightly scary. In less than an hour we went from 2862 meters and almost zero to sea level and +27 with high humidity. There was dew forming on the cold car as we were coming down the hill. I switched the transmission to manual as recommended in the manual and went downhill in the first two gears, breaking with the engine. The drive was fun and I wish there was more time and more light and also more driving experience for me to be able to enjoy that road more as the tight hairpin turns there are just amazing.

And after all that we arrived in Nice on the Coast de Azure, the famous seaside of the rich. I dipped into the sea there in the morning. It was an interesting experience, especially on a stony beach with very strong waves. I got a couple bruises, but I was quite happy with some swimming done in the Med sea.

(to be continued with Italy, Austria and Poland)

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