Friday - London
I decided to write this on Monday night, so everything up to then is just memory.
London was an exciting place to start BEST MAN. Full of character, and conveniently in the same country as the residence of everyone involved, it seemed perfect. The exact meeting point was described as ‘Trafalgar Square’ but those of you who have been there before will know that this is a fairly large area. As a result, at least 10 minutes were spent trying to get everyone together in vaguely the correct place. However, unity eventually triumphed and we were briefed on our first challenge by the DIRECTORY, AS, CC and DC. Like all the best challenges, it was simple: run from the square to the start of the Mall, when we would get to choose a spoon to use in the forthcoming egg- and-spoon race down the aforementioned Mall. We were lined up in order by the National Portrait Gallery amidst crowds of blinking tourists, and then the race was officially started. I headed into an early lead before hitting upon a brilliant tactic of getting lost.
As you can see from this wonderful image, this is quite an achievement given the small distances involved. The upside of getting lost is that at least one other contender trusted me and we both got lost together. Eventually, I got to the spoon-choosing step in 4th. Consequently, my spoon selection was limited, but I ended up with what I thought was a reasonable choice - not too large. The challenge began soon after.
Let me say this. The mall is not a short road. It is in fact a long way. It is an especially long way when you’re carrying lots of stuff, and an egg on a spoon. Despite an early lead, I succumbed to pain and had to settle for second. However, we were off the mark. 4 points to me. We raced to Victoria station to catch a 22:30 coach to our next destination: Amsterdam.
Saturday - Amsterdam
I really like Amsterdam. It’s tiny, but there’s so many amazing things that can be found just from wandering about. Unfortunately, I’d only be there a day and I didn’t think we’d have much time for sightseeing. Getting to Amsterdam involved a slightly hellish 12 hour coach journey upon which we were set the second chellange. “Know your Groom” was a good attempt to separate the BEST MEN from each other based on how much they knew about AS. Questions varied from various aspects of childhood through to certain antics at university. A low point was reached when only one person could correctly identify AS’s date of birth. Still, we soldiered on. Once arrived, we meandered over to the hostel on the edge of town. Our next challenge was exciting and simple. In 2 hours, find as many things in the city from a given list as possible. We’d be in pairs for this and I hit the jackpot, being paired with the sporty yet wise JB. He hit on a brilliant idea of spending the first 10 minutes asking the hostel person where on the map each thing was. Not everything was a place: in amongst the churches and other buildings were things like ‘a woman riding side saddle’, which we pretty much abandoned from the start. Still, we had a route planned, and two hours isn’t a long time. We ran, a lot. See the image below, and if you’re keen / bored, you can even download a GPS trace of our route (apologies for the anomolous data points, not sure how they got there).
When we got to the end, we had covered about 9 miles, which is significantly more than anyone else and had enough wins in it to secure first place. Tragically, JB fessed up some hours later to owning an illegal map and had all his points deducted.
The final challenge of the day was a good idea and very suited to the city. A simple surveillance exercise in which we had to follow the merry couple without being seen, and take notes about what they did. A good idea, in principle, was ruined by the weather. The rain conspired to smudge most of my notes meaning that instead of handing a nice dry stack of notes, I had to submit a soggy papery mess. This resulted in me doing badly in this challenge. Very badly.
With the first full day over, we were slightly thankful to find a real bed. 6am start the next day.
Sunday - Brussels / Lille
Every day has a theme. Whilst Saturday’s theme was ‘information gathering’, today’s can only really be described as ‘talking to strangers’.
We got an early train to Brussels and subsequently got totally confused by the Brussels public transport system. Our task was simple. In three hours, collect as many signatures for a petition as possible. It was left entirely up to us what the petition actually was and where to go and get signatures. Again we were in pairs, this time I was with the bearded JT. As he and I at that moment were in first and second place in the points standings, he suggested the tactical move of ‘not really bothering with this one’. It was tough. There was chocolate and ice cream all around and neither of us wanted to spend time talking to strange foreign people who we feared may take offence. We dithered in various cafes for a good hour and a half before deciding that a bit of effort might be a good thing. Suddenly, we noticed one of the other teams who seemed to also be nervous about talking to strangers and adopting a similar strategy to our own. Assuming that they had, in fact, adopted the same ‘cafe’ strategy as us, we concluded that to come second in this chellange we only had to beat them. We shifted from a ‘cafe’ strategy to a ‘find English people’ strategy. On a summer Sunday morning in Brussels, this worked rather well. A solid second place was achieved with about 12 signatures for the petition ‘We the undersigned think that Brussels is very very good’. Special mention needs to be made for the winners, who managed to collect 120 signatures. We have no idea how they achieved this feat as they were very reluctant to talk about it afterwards.
The afternoon saw us leave Brussels for Lille. We knew we could only be in Lille for a couple of hours as there was another train to catch later that night. The challenge was explained. Titled the ‘talking to girls challenge’ it was another simple idea. In 13 minutes we had to get as many girls to say their name and nationality into a video camera. I got my French phrase perfected (including the subjunctive) and succeeded in having an intelligent conversation in French with a lady who didn’t seem to understand how to say ‘My name is’ in French. That, coupled with some miserable looks of confusion led me to believe that the French are fundamentally grumpy people. I needed English people. I won’t got into details, but I was doing rather well until a confidence-crushing, soul-destroying encounter which left me virtually unable to complete the challenge. I limped back in a tired 4th place. At least I wasn’t last.
The train was waiting. I had slipped down the leaderboard, but was still in the main pack chasing the table leaders. We collected our reservations and headed for Dijon.
Monday - Dijon
It was cold and raining, which not what what you expect from France in August. It was in a slightly grumpy mood that I got up in the Morning to find that today would involve a combination of rain and physical exertion. Our first challenge though, was not physical. We would go to an art gallery, and in each room attempt to pick out AS’s first, second and third choices for his favourite thingemebob. This was hard, due to a combination of AS having no taste in art and his tendency to sometimes pick out the furniture rather than the pictures. Naturally I did badly, and came last for the morning.
The afternoon saw the introduction of BEST MAN Olympics. We went to the beach. We also got distracted by mini golf, which took slightly longer than expected. AS played a pivotal role in the mini golf challenge by setting the par, or ‘Stevo’, for the course. However, given that points were awarded based on relative and not absolute performance, this had no impact on the final result. Overall, kit was probably the best mini-golf course I have ever played. I finished “2 over Stevo”, a comfortable second place behind the magnificent “11 under Stevo” attained by MH. Having been straggling in previous challenges, this was starting to look like a comeback. Whilst the others finished, I sauntered down to the cafe place to eat bucket-loads of celebratory ice cream. I had just finished this and was wallowing around like a beached whale when it was announced that the next BEST MAN Olympic event was to be a run down to the beach (~750m). Let me be the first to point out that I am not a runner. I am less of a runner after ice cream. However, it turns out that 4 of my competitors are even worse than me, even factoring the celebratory ice cream into the equation. A consistent 2nd place was therefore secure.
The events proceeded fairly rapidly after this. The next challenge was to dig the deepest beach hole in 5 minutes. This is more difficult than it might at first seem especially when I say that there were no digging implements provided. MH scored a brave victory here, but not without the drawing a blood. Dedication! The third Olympic challenge was much like the first: a simple race to swim to a jetty and back as fast as possible. Given that I can run a lot better than I can swim, I gave up after an embarrassing incident involving my trunks bailing out on me and the realisation that I probably wouldn’t make it there and back. There was an amusing moment where BE pushed off on the return in entirely the wrong direction which gave the impression that he had just got bored at the halfway point and wandered off. MH won this again. The final challenge was the “throwing a rock into the circle”. As ever, more difficult than it looked. Especially when the rock was lost and had to be hastily replaced. I did badly, again.
When everything was added up, we found that we were cold and that I had finished 3rd. Not bad. We ambled back to the station to catch the sleeper to Florence.
Tuesday - Florence
The main thing that I’m beginning to notice about this trip is the oddity of the language. I’m about a day behind - I spent most of my time in France talking English, and most of today in Italy talking French. Tomorrow, I expect to be making up Italian in front of bemused strangers.
Florence is amazing. It has these cool tiny buses that only seat about 4, and therefore never seem to be taking anyone anywhere. We arrived, usefully, at the wrong station thus prompting another train just to get to the big main station. The grand central station itself seems to have been built in 1930 in a blaze of extravagance and then not looked at since. Proper falling apart slightly musty Italian style. Still, after getting lost on the way to the Uffitzi, we arrived to be presented with some paper and a pencil and told that we had 30 minutes to draw the ‘fake David’ statue. I can’t really draw, so this was tricky. The idea was that afterwards, we each had to present our efforts in front of the statue whilst random tourists were asked which they preferred. Surprisingly, due to a combination of my combatants feeble efforts and a group of excitable Japanese tourists, I nearly won.
We moved onto the bulk of the day, which involved making a video documentary about Florence without any editing or retakes. Seemingly fairly simple, in practise this took a lot of rehearsal and a long time. The end result was far from polished, but this was another case of only needing to be good enough. Many odd shots of accordion players were taken during this.
The final challenge was a blind ice cream flavour identifying test. There was a lot at stake, and very little information. As it turned out, the flavours being rather obscure helped me. A lucky early guess at “yoghurt” gave me a vital point that ensured joint first on that and pushed me into first place at the end of the day.
Another late sleeper train to catch, destination Munich.
Wednesday - Munich / Innsbruck
I’ve only ever been to Germany once before, and that was to Hamburg back on the school exchange. I already knew that I wasn’t going to be doing German for GCSE, so spent the entire time speaking English. This, along with only a year’s worth of not paying any attention in German class itself meant that I was slightly apprehensive about heading from the unintelligible sounds of Italy into the equally unintelligible sounds of Germany.
I did however learn a useful trick. The only phrase you need to get by is ‘Haben sie …’. After that, you can just reel off English words with ‘isich’ and ‘gegangen’ on the end, punctuated by the occasional ‘ein’. Seeing as I never ended up with something that I hadn’t actually asked for, I can only conclude that this is how German works.
The most striking thing about our arrival was the contrast between the railway termini of Munich and Florence. We had departed the previous night from a large, ugly, empty, grubby, badly maintained concrete building and arrived in a large, ugly, bustling, clean, steel and glass building. The fact that the German station was covered in bright advertising with plenty of shops, whilst the Italian station was similarly sized, but with a single lonely food shop leads to a self-evident conclusion: Germans are better at railways than Italians.
Our challenge for the day was a race. We started at an Internet Cafe near the centre and were given a clue to the next place. We would then have to race there and back, before getting the next clue. Paired with MB, we leapt into an early lead. However, this was shattered by an unfortunate choice of word on a clue which lead us around 3 miles from the city centre and about 3.1 miles from where we needed to be. Having lost over 30 minutes, we fought back, bravely downing beer and climbing tall towers wherever appropriate and managed to rescue 20 minutes to finish second. It was a brave effort of which I am personally proud. Finally meeting back at the station, we took an afternoon train to Innsbruck where we found a rather nicely-furnished hostel which included amongst its entertainment options: a pool table with no cues, a dartboard with only two darts, a table tennis table with no paddles and a table football with no ball. Oh the fun we had. We were off somewhere else in the morning, so after stocking up on hyper-cheap coke, we slept.
Thursday - Vaduz
I got up filled with excitement. We were going to a country I had never been to before!
There was an early train to Feldkirch, a town just east of the Austria- Liechtenstein border. From there, we would catch a bus to Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital. Despite being the world’s sixth smallest country and barely bigger than Manhattan in New York, the country appeared to have its own post service, bus service and beach volleyball tournament. Reading the guidebook revealed a number of oddities in the country’s history, such as the fact that it was purchased by the Liechtenstein family, sent its army of 80 men to fight WW2 (all of whom came back, along with an extra Italian ‘friend’) and is now the world’s largest exporter of dentures.
Our challenge was cultural - to capture the spirit of Liechtenstein in only 10 photos. My companion for this challenge (BE) and I both decided that we didn’t really want to do a lot of walking. Existing as it does in the hilly bit of Europe, a lot of it is quite steep. Instead, we thought we’d eat a lot and then take some abstract pictures about which we could waffle. At some point, I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking pictures of postcards , cropping out any text. My cunning plan was unravelled when the powers that were overheard me saying this and threatened heavy penalties. After taking some artsy photos, we eventually came joint second (joint last), probably because we didn’t try very hard.
Taking the bus across the border into Switzerland, we discovered a whole new currency and a new odd combination of language. Here was a country where people babbled in German, thanked each other in French and then waved goodbye in Italian. We decided to just go with English. Despite missing the train at Buchs, we eventually wound up at a flat underneath Europe’s tallest free-fall waterfall in Lauterbrunen. It’s an impressive thing.
Friday - Lauterbrunen
Friday was meant to be a rest day. However, this was only partly true due to the preparations for the final on Saturday. We went and had good steak up the valley where the “sculpt a crazy monster out of blutack and cocktail sticks” challenge took place. This was followed swiftly by the yoga challenge. I failed at both, miserably.
Back at the flat, we were given details on the Final. Conceptually, it was very simple: climb the Lauberhorn. At 2434m up, it’s not the largest of any of the summits around, but it’s a lot bigger than anything you might find in the UK. The interest in this challenge was in the fact that there weere 6 permitted routes, all involving some combination of walking, train and cable car. Each route involved getting to Kleine Scheidegg somehow and then hiking to the top. The winner of the week’s challenges would get first choice, second got second etc. I had come third, so needed my favourite three routes. I could pick a route already chosen, but the rules stipulated that I would have to wait 30 mins after everyone else before setting off. The afternoon was taken with much planning and the checking of train times to make sure connections worked. At 11pm, the great route-choosing-announcement was made.
Annoyingly the two ahead of me picked my two favourite routes, so I had to go for my least preferred out of the non-crazy three. This involved walking to Lauterbrunen station, taking a train up to Wenig and then a ~6Km walk to Kleine Scheidegg. Everyone, bar MH picked a different route, so it was going to be interesting what the final outcome was. An early morning called for an early night.
Saturday - Lauterbrunen / Lauberhorn
In the morning, CC took everyone’s lunch order and went to go buy it from the supermarket. Meanwhile everyone else stood round strategising. I knew I had a good 34 minutes between the start time (9:30) and my train, and had to cover what was described as a 20 minute walk in that time. There was a 9:39, but I really didn’t feel like running a 20 min walk in 9 minutes at the start of the day. I was therefore slightly annoyed to find that it only took me 12 minutes to cover the distance at a leisurely pace, and I watched the 9:39 leave.
The train took about 15 minutes, during which I realised I had left my water at the station. Clearly, I had to get some more, so wasted 10 minutes at Wengen getting cash and water before setting off. I was disheartened to find a sign pointing the direction of Kleine Scheidegg saying ‘2hrs 40 mins’ - I had expected to cover it in 1hr 30mins. The going was steep. There was a lot of height to cover it was getting hotter. The time passed surprisingly quickly and I got to Wengenalp much faster in my head than I had been expecting. However, I then received a phone call saying that the front two were already there and had been for some time. Everyone was being held for a fixed time at Kleine Scheidegg due to AS missing a bus. We would start for the summit in the same order and time gap that we had arrived at Kleine Scheidegg.
Disheartened, I pushed on. It took about 20 mins to cover the final distance. When I got there, I found that I had come in 4th behind JB, and 50 mins behind MB, in the lead. I checked the GPS and found that it had taken me 1hr 50mins to cover about 8.5Km, which given the height, I thought was quite impressive. It was clear though that for my route to be successful I needed to have caught the early train and been a lot quicker uphill. Still, we waited for about an hour before setting everyone off to the summit. MB went first, with JT in second following 10 minutes later. Meanwhile, with a significant amount of time to wait, the remaining 4 of us decided to revolt and just climb together, with our respective penalties determining our final places.
It was a fairly tough climb and took just over an hour. That said, it was wholly worth it for the views. MB had won, with JT making up 9 of the 10 minute gap to come a minute behind in second. I was deemed to have finished fourth. Utterly exhausted, we picked our way back down the mountain to Kleine Scheidegg. We found a bar. Got a bit drunk and watched the sun set.
Here’s what my final route looked like when plotted on Google Earth:
We got home, eventually. Somehow, we managed to get to Milan for lunch, then the airport, then Gatwick, then home. Sunburnt, I had to work the next day so didn’t get much time to recuperate. Still, I think I was pleased with the result. At least I was now relieved of any further organisational responsibilities and could sit back and enjoy the endless parties that would follow. It also meant that I didn’t have to give a speech at the wedding.
There’s talk of a sequel. There always is. The question is what prize could possibly beat this?