December 2013 Mainland Europe Tour Diary
After playing a final UK gig of the year at Forest Arts Centre (we had a lovely audience, including Charles Dickens’ great grandson who gave Charlotte a poem about a pair of pigeons) we set off for the not so lovely Clackett Lane services Days Inn (probably best avoided for those seeking to find their next holiday destination in this blog!).
What with all the storms a day or two before, we’d prepared ourselves for a rough crossing. However, the water was flat calm and we arrived in Dunkirk in what seemed like no time at all and were soon on the (right hand side of) the road to Brussels. We got to Hotel Le Beau Site (for fans of budget accommodation we would recommend this one – clean, friendly and a good breakfast!) around 7pm and set out to find some food. The hotel was far more central than we were expecting, given the price, and we were soon wandering around all the most beautiful parts of Brussels. We eventually found a small Italian restaurant and were drawn in by the large, affordable menu and blazing pizza oven by the window. It was packed, but they managed to squeeze us in and so we sat down to try to interpret the menu. After trying very hard not to fill up too much on all the various nibbles brought to us, our food arrived. John was particularly pleased with his Vegetariana pizza that appeared to have an entire allotment on top of it! We all had a great evening and if you ever find yourself in Brussels looking for tasty Italian food with a really friendly atmosphere, then look out for La Fringale.
The following day we had the chance to explore the city properly. On our previous visit we’d only had an hour, and John had never been before. As well as visiting all the usual sites (the Grand Place, the Mannekin Pis etc.) we decided to have a look at the Musical Instruments Museum. The museum itself is in the beautiful Art Nouveau ‘Old England’ building which is worth going to see in its own right. When we got to the front desk we were presented with an audio tour each. Instead of the usual talk, this one played sound samples of each of the instruments on display whenever the person holding it walked over a sensor on the floor. There were all kinds of things in there that we’d never heard of as well as some beautiful examples of more familiar instruments. Well worth a visit! Other highlights were the obligatory eating of frites with mayonnaise and waffles (not on the same plate).
Rue des Minimes
Kunstberg/Mont des Arts
Sunset during load in
That evening we were playing at the Brussels Folk Club. Phil and Lynda run a great club and, having been before, we were really looking forward to this one. The Porte Noire is a typical, well stocked cellar bar and is a lovely intimate place to play. It was the final gig of the year for the club and so all the floor spots had to be Christmas themed and the audience were given a delicious roast turkey dinner. Luckily we’d come prepared with a couple of Christmas songs ourselves!
We woke up early on the 9th due to some optimistic tour planning on Laura’s part. We were due to arrive in Munich, 743km away, by 6 o’clock that night ready to sound check at the Irish Folk Club, held in a former farmhouse in the centre of Munich. 9 or 10 hours later, having driven at around 95 miles an hour for as much of the way as we were allowed, we arrived only 10 minutes later than planned. Phew! We were all quite tired after the long drive but a delicious meal at the Stemmerhof restaurant downstairs perked us up just enough and we had another great night. Thanks to Frank and Alison for having us back a second time too – we love this gig!
The next day we had a night off but still a long drive down to Italy so unfortunately, despite having played in Munich twice now, we still haven’t really seen it. We’ll just have to go back!
John putting his ski gear to use on the terrifying German autobahns
Thanks to a last minute date change for our one Italian gig, we now had two nights in the same hotel in Bussolengo near Verona so were able to relax a little. After a lengthy check in made near impossible by our complete lack of common language with the lady on reception, followed by a quick fuss of the very old, very soppy resident Labrador, we went out to see what the town was like. Bussolengo is a lovely little town and was beautifully decorated up for Christmas with a market and an ice rink in the centre, but despite walking all around the town, we couldn’t seem to find an open restaurant anywhere so we set off to explore Verona and find food.
Verona is such a beautiful city and we had a lovely couple of hours wandering around looking at the Christmas lights before tea.
Piazza delle Erbe
The following morning we returned to Verona to see the sites in daylight. We were particularly pleased to find one of the stalls at the Christmas market playing Brad Paisley, and we all had a great time running around the amphitheatre and getting lost in the maze-like tunnels that go in and out of it.
The Adige River
After we’d finished pretending to be romans, we left Verona to catch the sunset at Bardolino on lake Garda before going to the venue for sound check.
That night we were playing at Club Il Giardino in Lugagnano di Sona. This was a venue that I had stumbled across through many google searches in an attempt to find anywhere vaguely suitable to play that would give us a chance to visit Italy, so we were interested to see what it would be like! We were pleased to find that it was a really great little music bar with gigs most nights and a really friendly audience. There was a brilliant lighting rig on the ceiling in the shape of a Stratocaster! Giamprimo was an excellent host and provided us and a large group of his friends and regulars with a wonderful home cooked meal and we were all made to feel very welcome. Despite our complete lack of Italian and the audience’s limited English, we had a lot of fun at our first ever Italian gig! Here we are signing the wall after the show:
Club Il Giardino
The following day, after a brief look around Sirmione on lake Garda, we set off for Switzerland. It was a long but beautiful drive through the mountains, and after many very long tunnels, the excitement of hearing Rhonda Vincent played on Swiss radio as well as some snow, we arrived at the Altes Spital in Solothurn. As the name suggests, the venue is an old hospital which had several events on that night. We were playing for ‘Acoustic Nights’ in a large cellar room and, having never played in Switzerland before, we were a little doubtful that we could fill it but the sound check went well so we were all happy. After sound check Chris and Eva, the organisers, took us upstairs to the ‘Spanish Club’ for some (predictably) Spanish food which was delicious. Charlotte was a particular fan of the mini tuna filled pasty things! By the time we’d finished eating, it was about time to go onstage and we were amazed to go into the room and find it packed! You can see pictures from that gig here.
We stayed that night at Hotel Bären, which seemed to be a very smart business-like hotel but with a gummy bear theme – brilliant! Bear shaped lights, bears on the doors, gummy bear shapes cut into the furniture and this on the bedside table:
Solothurn was our last gig for a few days, so to fill the time in between that and Cologne, we went to Austria for a skiing holiday! It was John’s first time, but by the end of the week he’d worked out the best way to keep up with Charlotte – continue to snow plough, but don’t bother turning!
After 5 sunny days on the piste, we were feeling refreshed and ready to continue with the tour. To break up the drive, we stopped overnight at Hotel Strauss in Würzburg. I always judge a hotel by it’s breakfast, and this was a GOOD hotel. Würzburg was very nice too! The next day we left for Cologne and got there with plenty of time to explore. We didn’t know much about it as a city, but it had a lot to look at and had 9 different Christmas markets going on with a road train to connect them all!
The Kölner Dom
Once we’d looked around the city, we got back into the car to find Kulturcafe Lichtung where we were playing that night. We found the venue, found parking about half an hour later and went in. We were introduced to a series of Michaels, sound checked, ate a toasted baguette and waited for an audience to turn up. A small but appreciative crowd appeared just before 9pm and so we began. It was yet again a fun gig to play and rounded off nicely what had been a great tour all round. Trying to explain ‘Lady Howard’ in German was a particular challenge. We stayed that night with one of the Michaels and left in the morning for the ferry. It was delayed by 3 hours but we managed to catch an earlier one so ended up being home an hour earlier than planned anyway – perfect!
We’d like to offer our thanks to Phil, Lynda, Alison, Frank, Giamprimo, Chris, Eva and Michael for giving us some great places play; Anne, Alison, Frank and Michael for very kindly putting us up in their houses; and of course to everyone who turned up to see us!