ALASTAIR CAMPBELL decided to spend a few days in Europe to recharge – and he can’t recommend it enough.
From Take Back Control to Out of Control in four crazy, chaotic, useless years, under three progressively worse prime ministers.
First David Cameron who at least could look the part but made one horrendous strategic error which is his place in history. Theresa May who tried her best, but her best just wasn’t good enough either for the complexities of Brexit or the horrors of her demented party. Now Boris Johnson, the thread in their demise (and eventually his own) who has completed that journey from Take Back Control to He’s Lost Control via a multitude of three-word trolls of the nation, among them Get Brexit Done, Oven Ready Deal, (RIP) more recently Whatever it Takes, (RIP) Following the Science (RIP) Build, Build Build (aka Bulls**t Bulls**t Bulls**t, Roosevelt my arse?) and now Let’s Get Going. Let’s Get Going!! For a party that has been in power for a bloody decade.
On the day Michael Gove was announcing the latest taxpayer-funded focus-grouped-to-death blah blah blah, I took him at his word. I got going. To Europe. And I can tell you from experience the best three world slogan to follow right now is JUST GET AWAY. I know for many there will be professional, financial, medical or other reasons why they can’t just up and go. But for those who can, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. JUST GET AWAY.
As we drove towards the tunnel last week, the radio burbled away on the latest Brexit madness, confirmation of the £705 million cost of patrolling border posts the liars promised us we would never need; news that we would have to take out expensive health insurance on future trips to Europe, that firms would have five times more forms to fill in to escape the Brussels red tape that apparently used to strangle them, and this might be the last time we could take the dog without giving soulless Priti Patel and tortured soul Matt Hancock four months’ notice. Dogs hate Brexit.
By a strange quirk, we were driving past the turn-off for Ashford when local MP Damian Green came on to say it was ‘unfair on the people of Ashford’ that it was the chosen site of the gigantic lorry park that is about to disfigure the Garden of England.
That would be the Ashford that voted 59-41 to leave. Don’t Blame Us. We always knew they were being lied to by the Take Back Control.
The tunnel crossing was swift and smooth, and the feeling of getting away was nice, albeit weird after four months of lockdown. The French signage industry was doing a roaring trade in service stations giving instructions on social distancing and coronavirus.
The Swiss, mind you, went even further – I found a urinal with a corona hygiene slide show playing as you pee! Whatever it takes!
I had a work reason to be in Germany, where we spent the first night, but I was not sure about flying or taking the train, and Fiona had the idea of driving, coming along with the dog and spending a few days in the Dolomites afterwards. A plan! However, we are so set in our ways holiday wise – France every summer, Scotland every winter – that we hadn’t actually planned a trip like this for ages. So we asked someone to plan it for us, to Take The Strain.
My son Rory’s partner runs her own business, which you can check out at Victoria-Payne.com or on their instagram account Curated__Travel. Don’t ask me why there are two underscores, I assume someone else got the single underscore first, underlining that the bespoke travel trade was taking off until Covid came along.
She fixes business trips and holidays for often demanding and difficult people like me. Adopting the same approach as Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings take to multi-million pound, non-tendered Covid contracts – Friends and Family First – I gave her the gig, but with a tough brief. Short stay in Germany, longer stay in Italy. Comfort but not poncey luxury. Decent food without it being served by half a dozen over-attentive waiters drooling over an amuse-bouche you neither ordered nor wanted. Outdoor pool or nearby open water swimming essential. OMG!!!! views.
As the inventor of the Tree Olympics – check my Twitter account for details – I wanted great trees front and back of my hotel, and Skye wanted amazing walks free from the lead. Dogs love walkies. Victoria delivered in style and we arrived to the kind of perks and vouchers I would never think of asking for myself. Vorsprung durch Upgrades.
Getting to the Black Forest in a day was a schlepp for sure but the journey was helped by having Billy Connolly’s audiobook, Made In Scotland, for company. I wondered at one point whether, in the event of an accident on the Autobahn, I’d have been charged with dangerous driving through laughing so hard my stomach was hurting.
But there was plenty of serious, thought provoking stuff too. Big Yin Wisdom. More anon. As for trees and views, see the pictures – more on Twitter – taken from our hotel room in Germany. No, it is not a painting. And the air, my God, the air. So clean, so fresh. Nature heals all.
The next day Austria, and a quick stop in the Green Hills of Tyrol. The Green Hills of Tyrol is one of the most famous bagpipe tunes ever written by the way, made even more so by Andy Stewart turning it into A Scottish Soldier, and being described as a ‘singing shortbread tin’ by Connolly for his troubles – he is clearly into the three word thing too. Then into Switzerland past five miles of lorries parked up like soon they will be in Kent.
Time once more to fulminate at the liars and the charlatans who told us how straightforward it was going to be to Take Back Control. Finally to Italy, the Dolomite views even more dramatic than those in the Black Forest. The hotel was exactly what we wanted. Three fabulous trees at the entrance, hundreds of thousands more within walking distance. Really nice people running it, and though it took a little bit of getting used to they wore masks all the time – as did we in public parts of the hotel other than when eating – it helped to build a sense of security about Covid. So did the hand sanitiser machines on every floor.
Eating out after three months of eating in was weird at first, but nice. As for the walks, if you follow me on social media you will know that I have been mildly obsessed with the beauty of the trees on Hampstead Heath. But this place… oh my God.
That the hotels are struggling is clear. Ours, the Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano, has 50 bedrooms and the most they had occupied on any of the nights we were there was 22. On our final night, there were just 10 people in the restaurant, us, a Slovenian family of four, an elderly German couple, and a middle aged couple whose incessant amorous advances on each other suggested to me either a late marriage or, more likely, an affair. It was entertaining, if borderline obscene at times.
The hotel staff told us that normally at this time of year they would be at 90-100% occupancy, mainly Americans, Russians and Italians. The winter months are when the Brits tend to come and the locals are obviously desperate for the skiing season to be successful, but realistic that lots of people will be unable or unlikely to travel with the same enthusiasm as before.
We didn’t see a single British registration plate once we had left northern France. We met only one British person, a man married to an Italian who had lived in Trieste since 1998. I was reading the German papers most days and the UK barely figured. The Manchester City money story was big. Banksy’s exploits on the tube made the German main news. And Die Welt had a piece headlined ‘Pfund vor dem Rauswerf aus der Geld-elite’, with a sub deck saying investors were viewing Brexit Britain as a Schwellenländerwährung… in other words the clowns and charlatans are reducing the great pound to a table of an Emerging Market Currency.
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Towards the end of the Billy Connolly book he was on to the kind of reflections that come on you more as you age, and he has the added fact of having Parkinson’s, his account of which is both interesting and moving. I had always known him to be more left than right, and more right than wrong, and with a sense of social justice. But I had never had a sense of his political leanings beyond that. He said he had never been one for Scottish independence but Brexit was making him revisit that if he felt an independent Scotland could be part of the EU. Brexit, he said, was a sin and a crime. And he wasn’t laughing. Because Brexit’s Not Funny. A sin and a crime. That is exactly what it is. And great though it was to be away, you find yourself asking constantly ‘why are we leaving this? For what?’ Even the charlatans have stopped pretending there is much good coming out of it.
One thing I do know is that the short break has refuelled my energy and my passion to make sure those who committed the sin and the crime get nailed. So … Expose the lies. Nail the liars. Don’t accept it. Never give up. We’ll be back.