I felt like a new man when I woke up in Bruges. Which was nice, because the me of the day before was a broken-down alcoholic with impending liver failure.

After checking out of the hostel we pottered into the middle of the old, walled town of Bruges. It was a lovely little place, full of well-restored older buildings (without internet access here in our villa in the Dordogne, I hesitate to guess at what period the older buildings are but I’ll plump for anywhere in the last 400 years) and well-architected new ones.

To me, the way that modern buildings had been integrated into the existing fabric of the town was as impressive as how well kept their older neighbours were. It seems to me that in Britain, shitty architecture in the middle of grand old towns is a given: buildings which are meant to blend in end up as lazy pastiches of the prevalent architectural style, and those ‘statement’ buildings striving to make a break from the past are boring, corporate sandstone monstrosities. In Bruges, though, modern buildings were either indistinguishable from their older neighbours, or were timeless enough to not embarrass themselves by standing out. Minimalist glass-and-steel cubes sat at ease in amongst centuries-old ornate stonework, and simple, modern shopfronts made for intriguing rather than incongruous additions to older buildings.

We ordered coffees and pastries at a swanky little café on a square of jewellery and couture shops. Our waitress, perhaps only 17 years old and already with near-perfect English, brought them to us at an outside table and we watched as the inhabitants of Bruges (Brogues?) went about their daily business. The striking thing was how healthy everyone looked: tanned, slim and generally good-looking, not to mention quietly well-dressed, if not quite so intimidatingly fashionable as in Italy.

Bicycles were everywhere, but the lycra monster/rusty MTB commuter split typical of the biking population of Edinburgh was nowhere to be seen. Here, almost everyone rode sit-up-and-beg Dutch city bikes in a very bof (or the Flemish equivalent) manner, trundling along at a dignified pace and chatting on mobile phones or smoking a cigarette. It was very, very civilised.

We pottered around for a while longer, taking in the leafy canals, narrow back streets and the intricately carved stonework which appeared here and there in the form of crests and gargoyles on houses and churches. The one fly in the ointment was the occasional waft of a vaguely sewage-type smell — another reminder of Florence, and apparently the price one has to pay for a well-preserved medieval town. Other than that, Bruges was a town for which the word ‘charming’ was invented. I’m tempted to make a return trip one of these days.

* * *

We loaded up the car and took our leave around lunchtime, heading out onto the motorway for the first long driving stint down towards Paris. There had been some discussion as to whether this was a good idea.

“Hell no,” I said.

“I’ve printed out a Google map with directions,” said Ash, and so in the absence of any better plan we decided to roll with it.

We hit the périphérique around 4pm and spent the next hour and a half in nerve-shredding nose to tail traffic, with motorbikes shooting past on the white lines with their hazards on and their horns blaring. Our first exit was closed by roadworks, the hard shoulder was littered with broken cars and at least one SUV trundled past in a tunnel with smoke billowing out from its engine bay. We’re going to become a tunnel fire statistic, I thought. British tourists perish in Paris traffic apocalypse.

After what felt like a complete orbit of Paris we found another exit and turned south towards Orléans. We arrived around 7pm, at the tail end of rush hour, and the streets were still clogged with cars. Roadworks on the way in threw us off track almost immediately, and after being funnelled all the way across town by the relentless traffic we capitulated and asked for directions at a nearby hotel. We found our own hotel (forming part of Orléans’ conference centre, as it turned out) without too much more fuss, but getting into it was another matter entirely. At every step there was a problem.

Gain entry to the building
The door is locked. Wave at another guest loitering in the foyer to buzz us in.
Find room key
Reception is closed. Follow another guest up to the second floor at the direction of the manager, who is providing instructions via the guest’s mobile phone. Enter a code (again provided over the phone by the manager) into a wall safe and find inside a bunch of envelopes with names and room numbers on them.
Park car
Find that parking garage is locked and that the room key and key fob do not operate any of the four entry systems on the wall beside it. Await egress of another car and drive craftily under the closing shutter. Drive two floors down to find a space reserved with the hotel’s logo.
Return to room
Call lift from garage. Find that lift cannot be called to this sub-basement floor. Take emergency exit stairs up two floors, noting in the process that every door onto the stairs has a blanking plate rather than a handle — once you exit, you can’t get back in — and exit at street level. Re-enter hotel via front door. Go to room. Collapse, mentally and physically exhausted.

We did nothing else that night. Orléans could suck it, for all we cared.

* * *

The next morning dawned a little brighter. Only one more day of driving before we got to the villa! Having packed up and tidied the room, we entered the Crystal Maze a second time.

Take lift to sub-basement level of parking garage
Enter lift and discover that the sub-basement button does nothing. Take the lift to the basement instead.
Take stairs to sub-basement level of parking garage
Exit the lift at the basement level, pass through the poubelles room and enter the emergency staircase. Descend one floor to the sub-basement level and pry open the handle-less door by fingertips under the door. Leave door ajar so that future fingertip gymnastics will be obviated. Reflect that perhaps parking is not included in price of room.
Leave the parking garage
Load up the car and drive up two floors to the exit. Discover that the four exit systems (still) do not respond to the room key or key fob. Press all visible buttons on all door-related systems. As a last resort, press the big red panic button attached to the door motor and discover that it is an emergency stop button rather than an emergency exit one.

Concede defeat and call for help
Reverse car away from door and park in nearest free space, which coincidentally is reserved for the “Président” of some construction company or other. Return to street level via the emergency stairs, find contact number at (still closed) reception and call for help. Occupy half-hour wait for weekend manager to arrive by ordering cappuccino at neaby tabac and realise that the staff are subtly mocking you by providing instead a latte with a massive dollop of squirty cream on top. Fume silently. Ignore Ash’s laughter.
Gently coerce weekend manager into releasing locked parking garage door
Accompany weekend manager on same odyssey to parking garage as undertaken earlier, with added complication of mistakenly entering a pitch-black room next to the poubelles with a locked door at the end. Try to suppress laughter as weekend manager fumbles with keys in the light from your phone’s screen and fails to unlock door, then retrace steps back to emergency exit stairs. Feign surprise when handle-less door off stairway is ajar. Try and fail to convince weekend manager that the car was not in fact parked in the Président’s space all night. Learn unequivocally that parking was not included in room rate (“This is not your parking place. We do not even do parking ‘ere. ‘Ow did you say you got into the garage?”). Wait for manager to release door. Drive off waving in a bemused touristic fashion. Thank your lucky stars you weren’t stuck in Orléans all weekend. Drive south very rapidly indeed.