Caroline and Bianca in France
Caroline and Bianca in France

Arctic Swan, Changing Lanes And The Lanes Challenge

It all started when my friend and co-automotive blogger, Bianca Hurduc of Arcticswan, invited me to her hometown of Thionville, France. There was talk of great cars, road trips and crossing borders into Luxembourg and Germany. It was an invitation I could not refuse and I knew it would be a fun adventure with Bianca as chief-coordinator. So I checked my diary, booked some flights and packed my bag. Simples!

Bianca sorted the cars for the weekend with her contacts at DS Store Thionville and Losch Luxembourg. We also needed the latest and trendiest eyewear for our bespoke road trip. So thank you to Mes Petites Binocles who supplied us with the prettiest of sunglasses for the weekend.

Bianca also introduced a challenge aspect and so ‘The Lanes Challenge’ was born. We documented our adventures through photos and videos posted on social media. And we also made a video, which you can watch here!

Day 1: France

On Day 1, we popped over to DS Store Thionville to collect our first test car, the quintessential French DS 3 Crossback. The model provided to us was particularly special because it was the La Premiere (First Edition) with a luxurious specification that included ruby red quilted leather seats and 18 inch Black Onyx diamond-cut alloy wheels. Quelle beauté! Under the bonnet there was the 1.2-litre Puretech petrol engine with 155 hp and the car featured an 8-speed automatic transmission.

I was happy to let Bianca plan and sort out our itinerary for the weekend, as I believed in her intuition and local knowledge. So where did she bring me in the DS 3 Crossback?

The beautiful DS3 Crossback from DS Store Thionville
The beautiful DS3 Crossback from DS Store Thionville

Our first stop was the beautiful Château de Malbrouck, close to the German border and the town of Manderen. Before exploring the castle, the DS 3 Crossback posed for a few shots outside the castle. The elegance and style of the DS 3 Crossback of course blended beautifully with the classic French château. Clever Bianca! I was feeling full of joie de vivre at this point, a feeling that would become very familiar to me over the weekend!

The castle was an exciting place to explore with four towers and a parapet walk. Then an almighty thunderstorm arrived somewhere after ‘The Witches Tower’ with a heavy accompaniment of rain. It was a beautiful and atmospheric experience thereafter, one that will stay with me for a long time.

Then it was time to begin making our return journey and it was my turn behind the wheel. I was super excited to drive the new DS 3 Crossback as it hasn’t arrived in Ireland yet and I really enjoyed the larger DS 7 Crossback when I drove it earlier in the year.

The significance of driving a French car through the French countryside and visiting a French château was not wasted on me. The DS 3 Crossback is smooth and agile on the road and I quickly relaxed behind the wheel. The engine is a typical gem from the PSA group with brisk performance and excellent refinement.

The interior of the DS 3 Crossback is quite individual and heavily adorned being a twist on contemporary French luxury. The diamond motif features heavily in the interior and while some of the switches can be hard to find on the move, the digital instrument cluster and infotainment screen are as clear as day!

Bianca had another surprise in store for me. The sat nav directed me to Schengen, which is a small town on the border between France, Luxembourg and Germany. The famous Schengen Agreement was also signed here, which led to the creation of the Schengen Area and the abolition of internal border checks.

I believe Bianca was slightly bemused by my enthusiasm for taking photos of road signs but she cooperated amiably. It was so inspiring to be able to walk between three countries, across the beautiful Moselle river.

Concluding thoughts on Day 1: I’ve had fun, I’ll never forget that thunderstorm, I’m tired, Schengen was awesome, I can’t wait to drive the DS 3 Crossback on Irish roads, thank you Bianca for an awesome Day 1.

The DS3 Crossback at Chateau de Malbrouck
The DS3 Crossback at Chateau de Malbrouck

Day 2: Germany

It was time to change the whole mood and pace of the Changing Lanes/Arctic Swan collaboration. And who was responsible for that change? The Volkswagen Up GTI!

Bianca had arranged an Up GTI from Losch Luxembourg as our test car for the next few days. Again, I was super excited to be driving the new Volkswagen Up GTI because it’s not officially on sale in Ireland.

The Volkswagen Up GTI looks the business in the metal. Our test car was finished in white with red and black GTI branding and elements. The Up is cute for sure and very compact! Inside, the Up GTI carries the classic GTI tartan seat upholstery and features a special red dashboard panel and gear knob with GTI badging. It’s very SMART with typical VW build quality. In terms of equipment it’s basic enough with no touchscreen, but there was air con, electric windows, cruise control and Bluetooth.

So what had Bianca planned for today? Well, she had an awesome day planned for me in Germany. And again, driving a German car in Germany was not wasted on me!

But first it was time for a challenge. I was put in the driver’s seat to take us from Thionville to Trier in Germany without GPS. Feeling confident, I hit the motorway.

It was a good opportunity to get to know the Up GTI a little better. The free revving 1.0 115hp petrol engine is perfect for nipping around town and putting larger cars to shame, while on the twisty stuff the Up GTI is fun, fun, fun, with a pure and natural feeling to the drive. You might not be going exceptionally fast but you will feel like you are flying! Volkswagen pumps some artificial engine noise into the cabin to enhance your driving experience and it’s actually a very realistic growl and adds to the sporty ambience!

So there we were on our way to Trier. Without the lady from Google maps telling us where to go. And me driving. Soon we passed the border between Luxembourg and Germany and I began to see the signs for Trier. I think Bianca was trying to distract me as she was talking a lot, which was nice of course, but I could easily have had my mind carried off to some obscure region of Bianca’s brain and missed the exit for Trier and end up in an even more obscure region of Germany.  So I politely stayed focused on the task at hand (sorry Bianca!), took the exit off the motorway for Trier, and joined the traffic on the way into the city.

At the Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany
At the Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany

I was really excited to be in Trier because it’s the home of Rallye Deutschland and I won the challenge! Finding a parking spot proved more difficult, not because of the Up’s small dimensions, but because everyone seemed to have decided to go shopping in Trier on that day. Still we got the Up parked and began walking the streets before stopping in a traditional German restaurant for some fine local food.

I was in awe that I had eaten breakfast in France and was now having lunch in Germany after already driving through Luxembourg. I observed the difference in the cultures, the way the people were dressed and how they carried themselves. We got as far as the Porta Nigra (Latin for ‘black gate’), which is a local landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in the 2nd century by the Romans and was the old gate into the city. Inspiring stuff once again!

Then it was back to the car, this time with Bianca taking the helm. She took me to the beautiful, picturesque Bernkastel-Kues, another chocolate box German village on the banks of the magic Moselle. The Moselle valley is famous for wine and there are vines growing just on the outskirts of town and along our driving route. This town reminded me of Ireland and all the greenery made it feel like home too.

Then it was back in the car and we followed the Moselle back home. I was driving during what was another torrential downpour. I had left Ireland seeking sunnier climes but the rain here was some of the heaviest I had ever seen!

We made it back to Thionville after our German adventure and put the Up to bed for the night, to dream of the next day’s adventure.

Day 2 highlights: the church bells at Trier Cathedral, an amazing lunch, the beautiful Moselle valley, beauty tips from Bianca in Bernkastel-Kues (!).

The Volkswagen Up GTI from Losch Luxembourg
The Volkswagen Up GTI from Losch Luxembourg

Day 3: Luxembourg

So it was Day 3. Could Bianca Hurduc of Arcticswan fame really do better today? Could she outdo herself in the itinerary planned for today? Was she still gunning for crown of France’s best travel blogger as well as top automotive blogger?

HELL YEAH because Sunday turned out to be unforgettable also.

We fired up the Up and hit the highway for Luxembourg. Our destination was Vianden Castle close to the German border. Viandan Castle has huge historical significance and is a proper fairytale castle. We must have spent a few hours there. But after an afternoon looking at old stuff, it was nice to get back into the modern cabin of the Up GTI – the coolest city car that ever roamed the earth!

I grabbed the keys from Bianca and we headed for some of Luxembourg’s finest rural roads – such beautiful roads and scenery! I was having fun.

Our destination was Luxembourg city. Now Luxembourg is a place I never thought I would visit in my life. As a kid I would have looked at the map and thought “That’s a tiny spot, I’ll never go there”. Well life has surprises for us.

Luxembourg city turned out to be a real highlight for me. But first food. Bianca knew where we could get the best burgers in town, which we did. But the Irish must have been here because there were a scary number of Irish references on the menu.

So once we had filled our tanks, it was time to explore. Luxembourg city is beautiful – elegant, clean, quirky and full of surprises. I had no idea that the city was on two levels. We had another pinch yourself moment in the Notre Dame Cathedral, as we arrived just as Sunday service was coming to a close. It was so special I cried!

SO…after another truly special day, we drove back to Thionville and put Up GTI to bed for the last time. This was going to be emotional.

Day 3 highlights: that burger, that church, that city, that plane, that video, MAGIC happened. Luxembourg you were awesome!

Getting to know the staff at Vianden Castle. Luxembourg
Getting to know the staff at Vianden Castle, Luxembourg

Day 4: Lost in Thionville

And so it was emotional. But not before Bianca let me off in the car, this time the challenge to find the centre of Thionville without GPS, park the car and behave like a French person (haha not really).

But I enjoyed exploring Thionville, itself full of history and character, and got the opportunity to talk in bad French to the people in the stores. On the way back to Bianca’s house I did the very French thing of stopping in the Carrefour shopping mall to buy nothing other than Jeff Bruges chocolate. Life was happening in Thionville just like anywhere else in the world and yes I felt happy and comfortable here.

But all good things must come to an end and it was a rather sombre Caroline and Bianca that brought the Up GTI back to Losch Luxembourg on Monday afternoon.

But Bianca had one last challenge for me. To read the description of the car in German! I took a ten-week German course when I was 21 but never really got far past hello (hallo) and goodbye (Auf Wiedersehen). But I gave it a good shot and well, I think she was impressed.

We had our memories, a thick tapestry of painting places with hearts and tyres – a weekend of fun, laughter, tears, selfies, ice cream and coffee. My heart was full and the Up was part of it.

I was touched by Bianca’s kindness and thoughtfulness towards me, to take me into her home and her family with the warmest of welcomes and finest hospitality. I was very grateful to Bianca’s motoring partners DS Store Thionville and Losch Luxembourg for allowing the Irish person they had never met to drive their cars. We had an amazing time and we are already plotting a new awesome collaboration!

The magic Volkswagen Up GTI in Luxembourg city!

A bientôt!