Total Eclipse 1999

It was late at night, and I was sitting in Utrecht in the Netherlands, poring over the internet’s meteorological sites trying to determine the best place to see the upcoming total eclipse of the sun. It didn’t look good, with a band of rain sweeping over Germany, closely followed by another rolling in from the Atlantic over the UK and France. I needed to get between the two weather systems, in the hope that the intervening skies would be clear. According to my calculations this meant any town between Reims and Luxembourg. On the basis that Luxembourg is my favourite European city, and that it had onward train connections to England and to a festival that I wanted to go to, the choice was not difficult.

The 03:00 train from Utrecht to Rotterdam contained the usual dribble of partygoers and the first wave of people going home from the bars. In Rotterdam at 05:00, an appreciable number of eclipse-chasers were on the platform, and I was lucky to get a seat. Well, it wasn’t luck really. While everybody clustered around the passenger doors I got in through the goods van and beat them to the seats; product of a mis-spent youth on Interrail.

The 07:30 train from Brussels was always going to a problem. I had tried to reserve a seat on it but had been told that the train had been removed from the reservations system. The clerk seemed puzzled but I had a good idea what that meant. Sure enough, the train was packed to overflowing with eclipse-watchers. I only just managed to wedge myself in through one of the doors, and a fat guy behind me had to give up. There was no room for him at all, and the train set off without him.

I was crammed in with a load of other people in the tiny corridor outside the toilet. Two large jolly ladies decided that they were going to co-opt the toilet, which made more room for the rest of us, and we were able to arrange it so that nearly everybody could sit cross-legged if nobody moved. Occasionally some outsider would fight through the morass of bodies to the lavatory, and we and the two ladies then had to perform an intricate dance to let them in. It was all quite amusing, and served to take our minds off the three-hour journey and the fact that the sky was still grey and overcast.

Just as we came into Luxembourg city, patches of blue appeared and a couple of times we actually saw the sun’s disk murkily through the fug. On one occasion, it even cast a small shadow, and we all cheered. Once in town, an hour late presumably because of the huge weight the train was carrying, we thankfully clambered off, cracking stiffened muscles and stretching our aching bodies. I expect that the few innocent passengers continuing on their way to Milan were quite relieved too.

I tried to buy a slice of pizza for breakfast, but they wouldn’t take Dutch Guilders, only Deutschmarks. I couldn’t remember the exchange rate for Luxembourg Francs, so at the cash machine I just pressed the lowest number displayed, working on he principle that in most countries this is the cost of a few beers, or around ten English Pounds. When I got my change back from the pizza lady, I realised that the machine had given me about seven times that amount.

All the major bridges were already lined with people, optimistically having their photos taken wearing their Eclipse glasses, and streams of bodies were for some reason heading for higher ground. Looking down from one bridge, I spotted an unoccupied bench far down in the valley, perfectly positioned on one of the tiny paths that wind up and down the valley walls. I happened to know that the route to this particular bench was intricate and not at all obvious, so I set off against the crowd, fairly secure in the knowledge that nobody was going to stumble on it by accident. Sure enough, when I got there the only competition was a local lad setting up a camera tripod a little distance away; perfect peace.

The only problem was that the weather was closing in. It looked like I’d judged it wrong after all, as you couldn’t even tell the general direction of the sun above the thick grey cloud layer. As the minutes ticked away to totality, the photographer suddenly picked up his carefully positioned tripod and began snapping the eclipse-watchers on the bridge above. There was no way that we were going to see the sun again today.

Nevertheless, the moment of eclipse was still impressive. With no cues to warn us, twilight suddenly fell as if someone had turned down a huge rheostat. A few automatic lights came on, the birds went silent, and some crickets began to chirp hesitantly in the trees behind me. A ragged cheer went up from the bridge, echoed by another from across the valley. We had a few moments to experience the almost-darkness, and then the invisible hand once more switched the lights back on.

It was all over, but what had we actually experienced? A momentary darkness at midday. Worth travelling all this way for? I think so. I had undertaken a long and difficult journey in the company of a disparate and international crowd, all fully aware that we had only a limited chance of seeing what we had come all this way to see. When it came to the moment of totality, the awe was inherent not in the sights and sounds, but in the huge implacability of the event, in the inevitability of the enormous forces at work. Definitely a moment to remember.


I got on my motorbike one sunny Thursday and headed for Oostende, a couple of hours’ ride from den Haag in Holland. The theory was that I’d meet up with Lisa who was bringing her bike over from England on the SeaCat, and we’d camp up in nearby Brugge and meet a dozen or so other bikers on Friday morning. We would all then head off for the annual MAG Eurodemo, which this year was to be held in Bonn.


I arrived in Oostende (severely sore: the road from Antwerp to Brugge is probably the worst piece of tarmac in Christendom) and parked up outside the ferry terminal, noting the serendipitous proximity of an al fresco alehouse complete with electric heaters to take the chill off the evening. Settled into a comfortable chair, glass in hand, I switched on my phone and received no less than four urgent messages from Lisa. Apparently the SeaCat had broken down (again; it does this with monotonous regularity) and the best that P&O could do was to put Lisa and all the other motorbikes onto a hovercraft which was bound for Calais, in another country and about an hour’s ride away.

By the time Lisa arrived in Oostende, the night was well advanced, but we managed to blag the last food from the kitchen, and discovered that the bar (the oldest in Oostende, so it claimed), had rooms to rent, so we settled in with a vengeance, deliberately ordering glasses of Kriek and Kwak because it sounded good when the waitress shouted it across the bar.

A Nut Loose in Bitburg

The next morning we completed a leisurely breakfast and then discovered that the SeaCat was still broken, so we abandoned the wait for our friends and set off for the Eurodemo campsite. This was only three hours away so we took it easy, but after looking around the town of Bitburg (which I wanted to visit simply because it made the beer that is named after it), I found that the front sprocket nut had vanished from my bike and the actual sprocket had fallen off, instantly turning the whole machine from a useful means of transportation into just so many motionless parts. It was getting on for closing time so I left Lisa to look after the pile of bits and rode her bike in search of repairs, on the basis that I speak German and she doesn’t.

A Mercedes garage pointed me in the direction of a Toyota garage (on the basis that they were as Japanese as the Yamaha and therefore probably had non-metric nuts), but on the way I stopped at a Suzuki Jeep garage where a bemused lady receptionist – the only person there – let me in to the workshops to see if I could find anything that looked useful, but sadly to no avail.

At the Toyota garage I met their mechanic, who was just going home, but after discovering that he didn’t have anything remotely like the sprocket nut that I was looking for he borrowed a car from the showroom and took me to a nearby Honda dealer. Sadly, no dice (Hondas don’t have sprocket nuts), but the Honda people reckoned that there was a motorcycle shop in a nearby town that might have one.

A phone call revealed that (a) they had one but (b) they were going home, but if I could be there in fifteen minutes then it was mine. Swiftly we returned to the Toyota garage, where I put Lisa’s bike back together (I’d taken it apart to show the mechanic what I needed) and headed out. It was about 20 miles and I had good directions, but sadly they did not include the roadworks diversion, so I didn’t get there in time. However, stuck to the door was a post-it directing me to the owner’s house, but he’d been looking out for me and showed up waving happily, and soon I was back on the road, complete with a new set of directions and a nice shiny new sprocket nut in my pocket.

Back at my own bike there was no sign of Lisa, but I got on with fitting the new nut, only to find that the spindle thread was too knackered to tighten the nut by hand. At about this time, Lisa emerged from a nearby pub with a large number of Germans who had discovered her asleep by the bike and, discovering our predicament, were ringing around their friends trying to find us a suitable nut. Finding that I now had a nut but no 32mm spanner (after all, who does?) they then phoned all their friends again and amazingly produced one with the requisite tool.

Sadly, however, the thread was too knackered even with the correct instrument, so Lisa went back to her beers and I scratched my head. At some point in the foregoing, Lisa had managed to get into telephone contact with our friends who had now arrived in Germany and were strangely enough just entering Bitburg themselves. Soon they all turned up too and scratched their collective head in the time-honoured manner until I gave up and did what I always do, to whit, cobbled something together out of a beer can and bits scavenged from the nearest bin. I figured that it would get me to the camp site, and I’d worry about sorting the thread out in the morning.

Off we set, following our friends who knew exactly where they were going. The Road to… Bonn? Time passed, and the roads became curiously mountainous with interesting hairpins. The altitude increased and we passed a road sign that looked suspiciously like a border sign for Luxembourg, and the guy we were following finally stopped and admitted that he’d been reading the map upside down and we were 180 degrees out of phase with our intended route…

My sorely abused chain had been getting slightly irritable on all these mountain curves, so I enquired of a passing local (who was attempting to pass rather quickly; it was after dark in a small village and there were lots of large rumbling motorcycles with large foreigners rumbling angrily to each other…) and discovered that there were no less than three camp sites within 500 metres, and two garages. Leaving the others to make their own way to Paris, Lisa and I stopped for the night and were so exhausted that we slept ’til midday.

Emerging to greet the day, we discovered that it was half-day closing and all the garages were shut. Enquiries pinned down a couple of open garages, especially a Hyundai garage in the next town. Again I caught the mechanic just as he was intending to go home, but he was happy to tighten up my new nut for me. Ten minutes later, after ever so carefully easing it on with the absolute minimum of force, we sat looking at yet another ruined nut. The thread on the spindle was just too knackered. The mechanic thought for a bit, then said that he was hungry and needed some lunch, but after that he would nip round his friend’s house and borrow a thread-cutter and meet me back at the garage (which had now closed for the weekend).

An hour later he returned, sans thread-cutter but with a hardened steel file, with which he proceeded to laboriously cut a new thread for me, by hand, using the in-gear, running, hoisted-up back wheel as a lathe. Well, I was impressed. Another hour, and I was back on the road again, leaving behind a considerable amount of gratitude and a fistful of beer money.

Vianden, Luxembourg

That night we discovered that the village that we were in was actually the outlying part of a town called Vianden, right in the heart of the Deutsch-Luxembergischer Naturpark and surely the most beautiful town in Luxembourg, set in a dammed gorge and overlooked by an impressive castle on an outcrop projecting from the tree line.

A pleasant walk up and down the main cobbled street soon revealed a plethora of flower-bedecked restaurants. Eventually we chose one of them (no mean feat!) and had an excellent meal, eventually weaving our somewhat inebriated way back over the river to the camp site. We stayed for another day too, taking the chairlift up the sides of the valley to look down on the castle, and going for madcap burns around the mountain roads, most of which seemed to be named after Victor Hugo, to whom memorials are ubiquitous, and one of which lead mysteriously through a large field of cannabis plants.

The following day, having fond memories of our last visit to the capital, we set off for Luxembourg city, which was every bit as beautiful as we remembered it. We spent an extremely pleasant day wandering around the warrens of switchback paths and tunnels that climb up and down the sides of the lush green gorge that splits the city. Definitely my favourite European city.

Almost a Full Meal in Hellenthal

After the success of our stay in one national park, we headed for another, the Deutsch-Belgischer. However, even though this too was quite beautiful, it did have a serious lack of camp sites. The only ones that we could find were rather dire caravan parks on the outskirts of unattractive modern towns, and we were looking for another Vianden. Later and later into the night we rode, until eventually, after a couple more caravan parks (all of whom had closed their gates at dusk) we encountered a tiny camp site on the outskirts of Hellenthal which was mysteriously deserted of staff and customers, but which sported a small green field and a clean and functioning toilet block.

We had spotted glimpses of a beautiful mediaeval village high above us as we descended into the valley, so after pitching the tent we climbed wearily back onto our bikes and set off again, desperate for something to eat. Luckily for us there was a small restaurant at the base of the town, so we climbed out of our waterproofs and stumbled in, to be greeted by an extremely friendly staff who gave the impression that they’d been sitting waiting all evening just for the pleasure of serving us.

About half way through the second course, when we had taken the edge off the worst of our hunger and were beginning to think in terms of making a night of it, it began to percolate through to our awareness that we hadn’t seen a single Visa symbol anywhere in the restaurant. Discreet enquiries revealed that they didn’t accept plastic of any sort, and although we had Belgian francs aplenty we were pretty low on Deutschmarks; we hadn’t intended to camp on this side of the border but had accidentally wandered across while searching for somewhere to stay. Luckily we had exactly enough German cash to pay for what we had already eaten plus a small tip, so we halted our meal, handed over everything we had, and departed rather abruptly into the night.

The next morning, after a pleasant night’s sleep, we still couldn’t find anybody to pay so we packed up and headed back up to the village, whose name I have forgotten but which began with an R.

All The Best Things Start With R

It turned out to be an ancient fortified town from the 1700s, virtually untouched since mediaeval times and extremely well kempt. All the houses were spotlessly white, all the graves in the graveyard were beautifully tended with burning candles, the church bells rang out merrily across the valley, and a hushed aura of history pervaded the air. We stayed for a long time, poking around behind houses and in the dungeons of the ruined castle, which curiously enough was being rebuilt by two cheerful men on a scaffold tower. They had built up to around thirty feet from the original foundations and showed no signs of stopping, and why would they? Perched on top of the world in the sunshine, the whole of Germany laid out in a patchwork below, they carefully laid stone upon ancient stone and rebuilt the past.