Le dernier article (pour le moment)

Trundling along on our way to the Loire, checked the weather forecast and it showed heavy rain. Not fans of too much driving in the rain so we pulled off at Montmorillon, found the municipal campsite and settled in for 48 hours. As you would then expect we had about 25 minutes of rain! Never mind “tidy Friday” was completed, we had the campsite to ourselves and visited somewhere we had previously never heard of.

Montmorillon is is bi-famous (if that’s a word), firstly for macaroons – there is even a macaroon museum. For the sake of not missing we visited the oldest macaron bakery in town which was established in 1920, Maison Rannou-Métivier. There were some free samples, but not the coloured shinny ones a’la Mary Berry – these were like weird little cakey biscuits. At a price or €15 for 6 tiny cakes – we passed.

Secondly for books, it’s the Wigtown of France. Known as the Citie De L’Ecrit, there are more small bookshops than you could shake a feather quill at, surprisingly even one that specialises in English books.  The town is your typical medieval affair, old cobbled street up the hill at the top of which is an 11th century hospital come monastery.  One claim they don’t make is for giant sized objects, however we found a few including a fairly large pile of books and a massive bike.

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With just over a week left we were planning to spend most of the time around the Loire. We arrived at the white-town of Saumar, a place where everyone seems just a bit too cool and trendy when you have been travelling for 4 months and don’t own an iron! For us it’s the Lake District of France, so many lovely things to see which equals more people than you really want to see doing the same things as you. We did have a quick pit stop for lunch at the chateau, one of the iconic images of the area and worth battling with the crowds to park up outside and brew up.

saumur

Chateau at Saumur

We ended up a few km along the river at Turquant. More our style, a small village set just back off the Loire that contains a great number of troglodyte dwellings, many of which are now part of the arts and crafts village. By early evening the village was filling up fast, the small aire we were on was packed to overflowing with more motorhomes arriving late into the evening. The arty people were opening up for the season so a good few had demonstrations taking place in their gardens, their were bands and food-stalls booked for the main opening day, of course that was going to be the day after we left.

We moved off in the morning deciding that further along the Loire maybe quieter. on route we came across the village of Rochemenier, one of the most complete cave (troglodyte) villages in the Loire.  The museum is two former farms that were inhabited until the 1960’s. Fascinating to walk through the caves and see how people lived – and we loved that as the family grew the parents just carved out another nook in the limestone walls to place an extra bed. There is a constant temperature of 12 degrees in the caves, so no we wont be moving into one anytime soon :).

Les Ponts De Ce

We finally found somewhere that took our fancy just outside Angers, on a small island at the town of Les Ponts de Ce. The site had just opened for the season so we spread out and took advantage of having it to ourselves. From outside the gate more fabulous Voie Vert cycle paths,  on the first day we cycled along the Loire, miles of cycle path and quiet farm lanes, we hardly saw a soul. We stopped for lunch by a bridge and soaked up the sunshine, looks like the tourists don’t arrive in this area just yet as only us at the picnic area sitting watching the river rush by.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction, along the river for a few miles and then intending to head up and around Angers on the long loop back to camp. Just as we arrived outside the city the heavens opened, being prepared as always (never) we didn’t have any wet weather gear with us. Thus we needed to get back to camp and that meant the route straight through the city. There were cycle paths they but to the French they mean nothing in the city. Bendy-buses are going to win any disagreement over who owns the lane, cars nipping in and out of side streets are also not to be messed with. By the time we were back I was not at all worried about being soaked to the skin – more my nerves were in shreds and I needed a strong tipple to steady them after surviving the French road systems best attempts at taking me off my bike.

With just a couple of days left we hopped over to Brittany to catch up on the the attractions we missed in the fog on the way down.  Mont St. Michel has been high on our list to see for a long time, we pulled into the car-park, took the ticket from the barrier machine and were then just a little startled to see the price for parking ping up at €124!!! As we were both climbing back up off the van floor a lovely French mademoiselle came scurrying up on her bicycle to tell us we  had inadvertently entered the coach park and needed to move to the next car-park being the one for motorhomes. Even then it was €17.90 and we were sure we could find cheaper.

Mont St. Michel – absolutely worth the return visit

We drove a couple of km down the road to a Camperstop, €10.80 for the night all in – more our range. We took the bikes off and cycled back toward the causeway. We had been told there was a restriction on taking bikes over, but plenty were riding down so we followed suit. Sign of the times I guess, but we were a bit disappointed to see they have built a bridge over the causeway. We cycled over, mixing in with walkers, the local buses and horses and carts, with over 3 million visitors a year time and tide really doesn’t wait for man here – the bridge means its now a constant throng in each direction.

Last few days we have spent along the coast between St. Malo and Cancale, it has been a bit of a culture shock to see so many people. Cancale was packed to the rafters, bars and restaurants all fulled to overflowing with people eating and drinking and not a parking space to be seen. As its known as the oyster capital of France we didn’t feel we were missing out too much on the particular village. From the viewing point above the village we both felt Cancale could easily pass itself off as Tobermory if they used a few pastel paints and moved the church a few hundred yards. From there we drove right around the headland, but with only a couple of days we missed out on so many walks and cycle rides we have decided to go back in the autumn for a few weeks summer holiday.

cancale brittany

Cancale

We left possibly our biggest surprise to the very last – St. Malo. Expecting just another port were were stunned at what a beautiful town it is. We hadn’t left enough time to see anything other than quick cursory glance around from the van – another reason to return. The weather has been amazingly kind to us this trip, we have counted less then 8 days rain in just under 4 months. Iain looks incredibly well for all the sun – I on the other hand am suffering from insisting on wearing sunglasses all the time, I bear more than a passing resemblance to Ronnie Racoon!

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A picture of health 

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And so another trip ends, but one always ends with plans for the next one. So it’s back to work, save some money and 2018 we plan to head for Russia, Finland and some more of the Baltics.

France – South West and middle bits

Not sure how or where but we arrived in France! We pulled off the main road and saw road-signs saying France was in 1km but nothing really happened, no border signs, nothing we were just suddenly there. We were on the coast looking back at San Sebastian – seemed very built up so we gave the coast a miss – probably not the best thing to do but we can always come again.

We fancied visiting Lourdes, somewhat surprised to find nearly 5 hours drive (it was only 6 hours from our starting point at Navarre in Spain?). Putting hands in pockets we paid the tolls and €18 and 2 and half hours later arrived in Lourdes. First thing, where were all the people? so quiet we could not believe it. We visited the grotto, literally us and five other people there. Inside the Basilicas it was very much the same, a few people milling around but no crowds anywhere.

Lourdes France (4)We thought we would try our luck and see what the queues were like for the baths. Iain was straight in – no queue for men. I waited 40 minutes which wasn’t too bad. We were both totally unaware of what this was going to entail. Basically, it’s skinny dipping with several other people you have never met, whilst praying, in the coldest water you can imagine.                                                                                    

 (not our photo – pinched from internet

You go into a bath area which looks like a hospital ward, strip off, whilst an assistant stands holding a cloak behind you. As you are called into the actual bath they wrap a wet sheet around you to preserve your modesty as they whip off your cloak. Two assistants walk you to the bath, you step in and walk forward, then as they say prayers they pull you backwards so you are sitting down up to your neck in water than less then 11 degrees i.e.. absolutely freezing.  So much so it took my breathe away, I couldn’t breathe or speak, I honestly thought I was going to be the first person who died in the baths instead of being cured 😦 :(.  The two assistants seemed to notice my inability to breathe or join in with the St Bernadette prayers and whisked me out fairly pronto. Once you are out they hold up a sheet and tell you to get dressed – no towels, only wimps get dried first – just pop on all your clothes whilst you are soaking wet – awesome.

It is an fascinating place to visit, the various churches and basilicas are in the main incredible to see, although the underground St. Pius did, to us, resemble a concrete car-park with seating for 25,000. There are more shops selling religious artifacts than you could ever imagine. Bernadette graces everything from pens to candles to jackets to jewellery, with prices from a few cents to upwards of thousands of Euro.  And to cap it off there is a castle dating from the 11th century right in the centre of town, perched high on a hill it gives wonderful views over the town and the Sanctuary.

Lourdes France (5)

Lourdes – taken from  the castle

Winding our way up through France we happened upon Condom. It would be easy to be immature, I cannot believe there is a Brit who visits who doesn’t have a school-child snigger!! Ok, that aside, its actually a lovely place. It doesn’t seem to have a major claim to fame and therefore is low on the tourist trail rankings. The main street is the usual cobbled affair with shops dedicated to the local specialities of Armagnac and Foie Gras, alongside some tres chic boutiques and cafes. At the lower end of town the Baise river runs out through several miles of parkland, we found a beautiful free aire a few miles along and called that home.

 

The only other main claim to fame for Condom is its connection to D’Artagnan and his Three Musketeers.  He was born in a castle nearby and hence the town has a very large reminder of him placed firmly in the town square.

We were unaware of the number of Bastide towns in the South West of France, again our ignorance meant we thought there were one or two fortified medieval towns, and yet it seems there must be many more (we found out later over 500) as we passed one every few miles. Those we visited, including our favourite Vianne, were very un-touristy, just a few shops and a cafe or two in a small square, considering they date back to between 1200 and 1400 the walls are astonishingly complete.

Traversing the Midi Pyrenees we were aiming to find a decent canal path for a good bike ride. Our best bet looked to be the Canal Garonne, miles of towpath and not a road in sight.  We had a night at the start of the canal but decided to move on to an aire 15 km up the road to cycle from. As we neared the aire, literally 3 km away we hit a diversion. My French is way to poor too understand what it was about other than we were too wide and only 1 cm under the height restriction. Therefore we followed the yellow divertion signs, and followed them and followed them. We stopped at Tonneins for a lunch break and re-stock of the cupboards, then we got on the diversion trail again.

Tonneins

We finally arived, an hour later and over 35 km detoured. At this stage Iain convisgated my Sat Nav for a look.  Lets just say he wasn’t the most pleased he has ever been. The low bridge was about 1 km after the aire we were heading for – so we really didn’t need to take the detour at all! From my view adds to the trip – from his – adds to the fuel 🙂

The canal cycle ride was worth the minor skirmishes, mile after mile – all off road and not another soul to be seen barring our good selves. We planned for a stop for coffee and something cakey at the first cafe, not a great plan as we didn’t see an open cafe in over 40 miles of cycling. 

This region of France is challenging for campsites at this time of year. Open ones do not appear to exist. Sure we have found websites showing campsite, we arrive they aren’t open. It drives me mad. We went to Duras, purely to get a campsite and do some washing. The kindly British owner told us he wasn’t going to open for a few more weeks – then why advertise including a hoarding on the nearest roundabout saying open? On the upside Duras threw up a quick visit to the chateau and the lady on the information offered us a free night parking around the back!

Chateau Duras

It was then time for us to sample the delights on the famous Dordogne. We followed the river across and came across beautiful village after beautiful village. It does get a bit confusing though, some villages are “one of the most beautiful” others “one of the plus most” etc. etc. Suffice to say its all a bit over-whelming. Just when we thought we had seen the best of something, another one pops up ahead and its even better than the last.

The Dordogne

We ‘happened’ across Limeuil (wrong turn, not mine), apparently this one comes in the “Plus Beau” category, easy to see why to be fair. A steep walk up to the top of the village where every house would have looked perfect on next years kitchen calendar. We missed the one where  the exit of the latrine falls straight out to the path right below! It is hard to miss that so many of the voices your hear are English, in a small village I heard several people in gardens and around the lanes speaking English, a few German and even a couple of French :).  We have met several Brits living in France, at least half of whom tell us they don’t really speak French as they don’t need to. Must have badges if you live here then as we find most of the French want us to speak in French, although we are pretty sure its just for their own amusement.

Limeuil – Dordogne

After a final night in St. Cyprien we left the chocolate box land and headed into Limousin. Still any number of cutesy villages but it much less touristy.  We did stop off at Brantome, an island village totally surrounded by a river, unlucky for us we arrived on a Monday and nothing at all was open, so we had a quick scoot around and moved on. Driving around we saw more and more empty and derelict buildings, we were told its one of the cheapest areas in France to buy property, obviously we then visited a few estate agents 🙂 yup we can just about afford a shed and that would need some renovation.

 

For us we had two reasons to visit Limousin, first to ride the Voie Vert cycle path at Chalus, yet another old railway line, as it our addiction. Yet more perfect piste for cycling used by no-one other than us. The cyclist here seem to prefer the roads, although quiet they are mainly hills – whereas railway lines are fairly flat so we will stick with them.  Lucky for us the chateau at Chalus was closed, if not then I as an Englishwoman (Iain wouldn’t have felt obligated as a Welshman) would have needed to visit the place where Richard the Lionheart died – and more importantly where his entrails are still held – how yuck is that? (other parts are scattered around France).

The other reason was to visit Oradour Sur Glane, where 642 men, women and children were slaughtered by the SS in June 1944, the town was then pretty much destroyed.  A new town was built after the war but the original town was left as was as a memorial. The entrance is underground and leads through some exhibitions from where you are free to walk through to the memorial village. It really speaks for itself, buildings and cars left as they were after the massacre. Plaques on the remains of many of the houses just show the family name and the profession of the occupants.  At the church where the women and children were killed there are some very simple plaques and prayers, and along the streets are plaques that tell of people being tortured or bodies found in certain places, you cannot fail to be touched by the horrors that took place.

As usual we were lucky with the time of year we are visiting as very few people around. Although we had been told that taking photographs was prohibited at one time there was no restriction as the few people there were wandering around with cameras mainly observing the requests for silence.  We both felt very privileged to have been able to visit Oradour, I think it will stay with us for a long time to come.

Eleven more days for us before its time to head for the high seas. Forecast of storms tomorrow then good weather to see us through to the ferry – here’s hoping 🙂 🙂

 

Camino De Santiago and other places

Hola Espana

We crossed into Spain at a little known border crossing of Bemposta, a single track road on the dam crossing the river. The road right up to the border had been so quiet, we saw a car every 20 or so miles and that was it, staying off the main roads brought us through lots of tiny villages and mile after mile of green farmland. A very different Portugal than we have seen before, and for sure one we would visit again.

Spain border crossing sign

After crossing our last ‘barragem’ then our first Spanish must see on the list would be a ‘presa’. This one being the Almendra Dam, to me a big expanse of water, to Iain something of a huge engineering feet. We had been able to see the dam from our overnight spot in Bemposta, at least 45 minutes drive away. It is to be fair an impressive sight. Driving over the 2.5 km over the dam wall  there are a couple of good size viewing places from where we could see back over to Portugal.

Almendra Dam

For me, best part of the morning was the realisation that the flock of birds above us were a volt of Griffin Vultures – yup indeedy, a group of massive birds flying over a hydro electric dam are called a ‘volt’ (Wikipedia says so, therefore it’s true). We stood with a couple from a Portuguese moho for at least 20 minutes trying to get a decent vulture photo  – this was my best effort, zoomed many times.

vulture griffin

We took the minor roads up top Zamora, skirted around it and went North. No particular reason other than to travel across Spain below the coast but above the mountains. As our intended stopping place was closed we drove a little further and ended up at the teeny village of Aguilar De Campos in  Castile and Leon. One of very many villages that time seems to have forgot in the province. They mainly consist of a castle, flowing down from which are numerous cave-houses and the chimneys of same; a massive church with bricked up windows and 75% of the village houses in dire need of repair and in most cases completely roofless. Despite that there are always groups of elderly men wandering around the streets passing away the day, the female counter-parts usually found on benches in the shade watching the world, and the odd motorhome, pass by.

Aguila de campos (1)Aguila de campos (2)

Aguila De Campos cave-houses

Castile and Leon is part of Spanish central plateau – known as the Meseta. Although its very flat it lies between 2200 and 3280 ft, mile after mile of gently rolling fields with the odd hillock. We seem to drive forever without seeing anyone. The odd car or van does pass every so often but it is incredibly peaceful driving on these roads. Some of the roads were so straight we could count three or four villages ahead, just the massive church and a few buildings repeated into the distance.

The Meseta

At Palencia we were greeted by Cristo Del Otero, appearing to direct the traffic off the motorway and into town. He has been in situ since 1931, and does look a bit past his best, I guess most of us would standing next to a motorway for 80 odd years. He is 21 metres (69 ft) high and stands on top of a chapel, which in turn stands on a knoll. On a hot, sunny day there was not a soul nearby. No-one walking up to it, parked at the bottom taking photos – seemed he is a bit forgotten even by the Palencians.

cristo del otero

Needing a lunch stop we pulled into one of the multitude of castle villages on the route, Astudillo. Yes again there was a castle, wine caves, caves-houses, we walked over the grass mounds with chimneys sticking out – bit like the hobbits. The streets were cobbled and the front doors of the houses were the thickness of the walls. Places of incredible history and beauty and not another soul in sight. Just us and the odd rabid dog that attaches itself to you in the hope of food, we found it amazing that tourists aren’t flocking to these places and that the locals aren’t savvy enough to make a Euro by charging you to get in or selling ice-creams and fridge magnets.

Astudillo

By sheer force of luck we stumbled onto the Camino De Santiago. Having seen the symbol a few times on road signs we finally clicked to what it was and that we were on it. Our campsite for the next couple of nights was also on it, literally. Castrojeriz is a bit of a diamond, we understand similar to most villages and towns along the route just larger. There are several churches, two monastery and one convent ruin, a live convent, a castle high on the hill and a stack of cave houses dug into the hills above the town.

Castrojerez

Camino De Santiago sign posting 

Pilgrims having been passing through the town for over 1000 years on the 500 mile pilgrimage. You would struggle to get lost anywhere on route as signs abound at every path and junction. We did our bit, albeit by bike, as some do. We cycled 20’ish miles along the pilgrims path and were surprised at seeing 23 walkers in just under an hour, all bar two were individuals and ranged from teenagers to peoples of our generation. The path weaves in and out of villages with most pilgrims / walkers stopping in small hostels on route where they use their pilgrims passports to record their stop and eat and sleep for very low prices. As we drove on over the next few days we saw hundreds of pilgrims along the route, and we were told this is the quietest time as July and August are the peak months.

The Pilgrims Path – Camino De Santiago

 Hontanas on the Camino De Santiago

Just off route is the convent Santa Clara, aka  ‘cake convent’. You go into a reception type area and there is a wooden shelf that rotates. You ring a bell and a nun shouts a “Hola”, you ask for cake and the revolving shelf turns and your box of cakes appears – you put your money in its place and it disappears off on the next turn. At no time do you see the nuns, its a brilliant little idea – and in all honesty the cakes were top class sponges filled with fresh cream – worth every Euro and one of our favourite experiences in Spain :).

Our route out of Spain crossed Rioja. It has been said that I don’t have great taste in wine, my absolute favourite is a good cheap Rioja so that said it was essential for us to drive through the Rioja region. So many vineyards, so little time! Every turn has a winery selling by the bottle or cask, offering tasting sessions or just tours of their museums.

Glorious Rioja

In the heart of the region is the small town of Elciego.  A superbly restored historic centre is surrounded by more winery that you could visit on a full weekend.

Elciego

Whilst that is a good enough attraction to warrant the visit the first thing that hits you as arrive in town is the Hotel Marques De Riscal, which looks as if giant sized reels of steel ribbon have escaped from the front and back of the building.

Designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao it is no shrinking violet, causing us and many others to head up to the entrance to see it up close and take photos. A very charming, very large, Spaniard blocked the way , telling us no entry unless you are staying. I begged a photo, no way Jose said your man on the gate. I and many other disgruntled tourists trundled off. They do allow you into a very grand and expensive “tourist area” posh term for shop selling tatt, very expensive to be fair but tatt none the less. If we can’t take a photo of your hotel we aren’t buying your junk is our motto so we left.


Never to be defeated, we took the van up the vineyard roads, possibly not that suitable for a motorhome but needs must. A few km later, we turned into a small track and hey presto a great view of the hotel and as many photos as we wanted. From there we ventured back to the town and walked around the old buildings. Being Saturday afternoon and 22 degrees the Spaniards were out in force, enjoying a glass of wine and wearing enough clothes to warrant a winters day in Wales.

We continued through Rioja, stopping off for a weekend’s rest (all this travelling gets tiring!) in Estella, where we did nothing much other than sit and watch the grass grow. Rather than take the quick route up to the border at Irun we went over the mountains, a rather long and tortuous journey without too many rewards – well until we reached the summit at Lizzaraga. It wasn’t so much what we could see as what we couldn’t well above the cloud line we had an incredible view over the clouds with just the mountain tops peeking out – stunning.

 

Adios Espana and the Osborne bulls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portugal – the boondocks

We can always tell when are back on the road less travelled (for us), we find so many things to take photos of, hence this post is going to be somewhat overloaded with images.

Somewhere we had planned to visit a couple of times but never seen was up the Portuguese / Spanish border at Minas Sao Domingos, a deserted open pit mine which closed in 1966. Since then it has become a popular tourist destination as many of the old mine buildings and the open cast pit are very much in evidence. There is an English graveyard that contains the graves of mine managers and their families who originated from Cornwall. The old pit houses looked well cared for and appear inhabited although there weren’t many people about other than motorhomers.

minas-sao-domingos

Minas Sao Domingos

On our way out of Sao Domingos we re-traced our route back to Mertola. A spectacular sight from the approach road, set on a rocky spur overlooking the Rio Guadiana. We spied a road sign for a viewpoint, up a fairly uneven and rocky track, we thought it would be a km or so, more than 7 km later we reached the viewpoint – it was worth it for the photos, not so sure the van enjoyed the experienced quite as much. When we arrived in the town we climbed the cobbled hills  up to the small castle, from which you can view the many white houses and a picturesque church that was once a mosque.

Mertola

We were going to stop off for a night at the Camperstop in the village, but we met a Brit guy there who was full of telling us how he had been living in his massive Hymer moho, in what was a car-park, for the last 3 weeks and was staying at least another two as it was free.  For us the reason that so many places are putting up height barriers so we moved on and had a stop off Castro Verde instead – not much there but what there is – well kept, a surprising good little municipal campsite, more surprising in that of the 40’ish vans on site over half were Finnish, seemed to be the hip place for the Finn’s to be meeting up. We stayed a few days to do the boring stuff, washing, cleaning, shopping and left with a fresher odour in our wake.

Destination Odivelas Barragem but on route the gorgeous little town of Alvito made us re-consider. We parked up for a lunch stop and a few cars pulled in next to us with folk sporting cameras with lenses like telescopes. It seemed we were on route for the Alentejo Volta cycle race, part of the European tour. Never ones to miss some free entertainment we decided to stick around and watch the race pass (in less than 40 seconds) and stopover on the local barragem at Alvito, followed the next day by a short hop and a stopover at the Pego Do Alta barragem. Portugal has over 300 barragems (reservoir / dams) every few miles a sign points to one, some are magnificent but it does becomes after a while – seem one, seen most of them – due to this we decided no more and aim for the coast again for a while.

Alvito town square

The Alentejo Volta 

To avoid Lisbon or not – yes lets. We took a stretch of tollroad – highway robbers were out at €9 for less than 20 miles. Due to this we took the next exit and the long and winding, and more winding road to Mafra. We probably didn’t save much as a 35 minute toll road journey took 2 hours on non-toll roads – but then again sometimes it’s all about feeling you have won :).

The first sights of Mafra Palace remove any thoughts of tolls, times or distance. It is a colossal building with a limestone facade over 200 metres long with towers at each end, set right in the heart of the town.  It took from 1717 to 1755 to build (the King had promised to build his wife a convent if she gave him offspring – he paid out and then some) and has been both a monastery and a palace.

Lucky for motorhomers there are parking spaces right alongside and opposite these stand the army guards for the barracks at the rear of the palace – safest place we have ever parked yet! Surprisingly there were just a handful of tourist around

Mafra Palace

We were both so impressed with Mafra we decided to backtrack towards Lisbon and see the two of the “Seven Wonders of Portugal” Sintra and Pena Palace. What a bloody nightmare. We being we, don’t park as far away as possible and walk in. Nope we drive in as far as we can, and we see the error of our ways as roads shrink in width and buildings close on our wing mirrors. Luck strikes and we see a signpost pointing away from the medieval lanes but as we turn to it a helpful little GNR fella shakes his head and points us left – great we are now climbing little cobbled lanes that the small family car in front looks rather big on, if I stuck my hand out of the window I could have rung doorbells as we passed.

We achieve the height of Pena palace entrance – and a dead end, so turn around and start nightmare all over again back down the hill, this time with traffic still coming up and having to pull into passing places where they can. Iain spotted a sign for Lisbon, we took it to escape Sintra, left the city and high-tailed back up the coast to Mafra. Lesson learned for the umpteenth time – do not attempt to take motorhomes into medieval towns (but it will happen again).

Agreeing that all the historical culture was well over-rated instead we visited Buddha Eden, the largest oriental garden in Europe. Possibly one of the best places we have been recently, €4 each, free parking and a  over 35 hectares of gardens created as a reaction to the destruction of the Buddhas of Banyan. There are oodles of Buddhas – ranging from a few feet to some over 21 metres high and 700 startling blue terracotta life-size soldiers, and when that all gets overwhelming there are Modern, African and Contemporary sculpture gardens containing over 200 sculptures set around 1000 palms.

It is a surreal place, at bit of the Far East in Portugal, with some Africa thrown in. We absolutely loved it, taken for what it is you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer number of sculptures, Buddhas etc.  And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy it is part of a vineyard and they sell their own wine at very decent prices.

Next stop, Obidos, wiser this time finding a small German owned Camperstop a few miles out of the village where the kindly owner was happy to ferry us around on a taxi service for a few Euro, instead of us driving up lanes more suited to a pony and trap.

The town itself is jaw dropping, completely surrounded by a crenellated wall, the historic centre is a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, alleyways and steps. The whitewashed houses have splashes of yellow and blue painted edgings and flowers spilling out of every possible window and to top it off there is a pretty spectacular castle at the top.

The main street is full of tourist shops, the tour buses come in, for an hour its manic, then they go and its bliss. We read that many people feel its too touristy so miss it out visiting – a top tip from us – don’t miss it, – no matter how many people are there it is beautiful and worth the effort to see it.

Every shop sells shots of the local cherry liqueur from tables outside on the street. These are poured into small chocolate cases, you drink the liqueur then eat the cup – Iain was in liqueur / chocolate heaven.

The other main attraction in the area is Peniche, set on a headland and surrounded by sea. It is still very much a working town which mixes with several campsites and a good deal of watersports but doesn’t have any of the charm of the inland villages.  More to our liking was the surfers haunt of Baleal, a few miles along the coast. White sand, a few bars and cafes and a minimum of 50 surfers in the sea at anyone time. The actual island is reached over a causeway, we didn’t attempt it – the tide was coming on and I could picture the headlines as we floated away!

Iain improving his surfing at Peniche

At this point the plans fells by the wayside, they had been to visit the canals of Aveiro and then Porto and head North to Vigo. But we happened across a website detailing the Ecopista Do Dao. Basically a 49 km cycle path on a old railway line, tarmac all the way running from Viseu to just outside Coimbro.  We took the Atlantic coast road up, much quieter than the Algarve, still plenty of people around but not as many high-rise hotels and we found camping costs half of those in the South.

It would be remiss to not mention the weather – the further North we went the hotter it was. We left Obidbos and it was 25 / 80 degrees – by the time we reached Combrao it was up to 28 / 85 degrees. Hate to say it, but it was too hot! We even went in the sea (briefly and paddling) at Pedra De Ouro, for the Atlantic in March is was warm enough. I wasn’t as impressed when a massive wave caught me unawares paddling and I got soaked head to toe :(.

We skirted around Coimbro city as we have visited before and took a detour to a former monastery at Lorvao instead.  We went in and asked if we were allowed to look around, the amazingly kind gentleman offered us a personal tour for €1 each. We spent the next 50 minutes seeing and hearing a very detailed description of every artifact, we could probably produce our own guide-books as there is really very little we don’t know about the place!

Home for the weekend was one of the best places we have every stayed -Terra de Iguanas. Many places offer a bread service, where your rolls are delivered for a few cents daily. Here they gave us a bag of 6 rolls each morning for free, proper home brewed coffee, wifi, showers,  etc. etc. €10 a night!  Add to that our wonderful hosts offered a service to take our bikes up to the start of the cycle path at Viseu so we could pedal back.

So we spend my 54th birthday cycling the 54 km from Viseu back to the campsite, it was a bit breezy but other than that a perfect ride. All along the track the old stations are in the process of being converted to cafes or other municipal buildings, we even came across a train and carriages at one stop.

Its nearly time to start the long trek North so today we ambled up through Northern Portugal. We stayed off the main roads and took minor roads through the Serra De Estrela mountains, hardly any traffic on the roads and loads of places to just stop and look at the incredible scenery. We ended our day at the teeny town of Meda,  there is a clocktower on a rocky outcrop at the highest point of the town, from there the view stretched out across to the Spanish border, impossible to capture on camera, one of the most mind-blowing views we have ever seen.

The view from Meda

Algarve

algarve-motorhome

This year we were ready, our Peage was pre-paid in the UK, no fear of the motorway. Why then as we crossed the border did the lane instructing “foreigners” to pull over and register for tolls strike fear into us?  Piffle, we didn’t follow instructions keeping every limb crossed our pre-pay €40 was in operation (we will know when we get home and find a big fine if we have done it wrong).

Instead of heading straight along the Algarve we went inland and followed the border up to Alcoutim. On a clear Sunday morning we stood in Portugal looking over the Guadiana River to the Spanish village of Sanlucar De Guadiana. As Portugal is an hour behind Spain its fairly interesting when the village clocks chime – each one within shouting distance of each other over the river – the one in Spain chimes one one bell for 1 o’clock whilst in Portugal they ring out the full 12 o’clock. We took a walk down the cobbled streets into the  modest little village square and from there down to the riverfront to look over at the mirror image village and castle in Spain.

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Sanlucar De Guadiana

We stayed at Odeleite on  a camperstop (N 37 19 54 W 7 28 06) good views down to the Barragem, an ace little coffee house in the teeny village of Alcaria – the only negative for us was Portuguese owner man decided we could share electric with the French couple next door, and plugged us into their supply by joining our cables to their on their van!. In theory fine, in practice we had less than 2 amp so just having our fridge on when they boiled a kettle meant we continually tripped out the electric. We gave up and disconnected and saved ourselves €4 which we spent in Alberto’s village cafe on a couple of milky Sidal coffees.

Loving the inland we took the scenic route west through the countryside and then down Moncarapacho. Where the hell did all these motorhomes comes from??? Route 66, last time we visited 3 vans on the site – this time 70+., they offered to find us a pitch, run electric over roads etc. We declined sure we knew of plenty of other sites. Next stop, Caravans-Algarve, uhh sorry full up. A new campsite has opened in the village, takes 60 vans – well it now takes 70+ as its full and they are also parking in the arrival area queuing up to 3 days for a pitch. Plan B, head for the beach Olhao and Fuseta – reliably good for a spaces on massive sites that take over 300 vans, not a one!!!

We are told the police are moving on Free Campers off the beaches and therefore the sites are all now much busier, add to that Morocco is not that preferred destination that it was for many of the French and its motorhome chaos in some places. We were surprised just how many new campsites, aires and motorhome parking sites have sprung up, there must be hundreds upon hundred of new pitches – however didn’t help us as the ones within a 30 miles radius of us were rammed full.

Seeing our bottoms with the area we decided to head to Lagos, knowing we would easily get on the site massive 5 star site at Espiche we left the crowded sites behind. Just over an hour later we arrive at Tursicampo Espiche, to be told they have 3 spaces (and the 3 were rubbish). We paid up, booked on, put our shoes on and went to the restaurant for a meal to celebrate Iain’s birthday.

On the upside, Portugal is showing some serious sunshine, change of pitch and lets bake. Factor 15 on and still reddnning gloriously. After a week done the attractions of Luz and Lagos as been to both a few times and nothing new. We needed a site near Albufeira for the arrival of the Bates. I found a reasonably new one and emailed the owner to check if they had space. Knowing things were tight on lots of site I went for the impressive email that is translated into their native language. Bit of Google translate and boom – press send. An hour later a response saying they will find us a space, oh and well done with the email translation – really well done into Spanish – when the site is Portuguese and the owner is Dutch anyway!!

Moving onto said site, all we could say was “wow” Mikki’s Place to Stay is gaining both fame and notoriety in Portugal. Mikki is a ceramic artist and has a studio slap bang in the middle of the site, together with a tres chic little hippy bar and cafe. The man in charge is Arno, who has built one of the best sites ever, a massive swim hole, as someone else put it – an oasis in the middle of the sand and dust of the Algarve.

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The Bates arrived and brought even bluer skies with them, plus a stock of Tetley Tea Bags for Iain. Binty kindly cooked paella for us at Chez Posh Knob villa they were staying at, we thinks they were a tad concerned with our jalopy being parked in the complex as some will have thought we were Free Campers using the car-park as a handy overnight!

Over the many, many times we have driven up and down the N125 we have never gone into the village of Alcantarilha, mainly because the road diverts you around the edge but also because the mecca of motorhomes, Aldi, is on said ring road. To make up for missed visits we walked into the village – worth it? totally. Very small, a little run down maybe, not very touristy. The side streets were cobbled, the church was built in 1586, we went in for sit. It was beyond our comprehension this place for 450 years old. At the top of the village another church, for us the pièce de résistance a “bones” church. The ossos was built using the bones and skulls taken from local cemeteries – it’s not our first ossos and probably wont be our last.

ossos

The other place we always intend to call in at is Loule, we should have done so before. It’s fantastic and the Bate / Baxter day trip enjoyed it immensely. The indoor market is half fresh fish market, the remainder holds stalls of local crafts, wines and foods. A slight damper was Loule had the average rainfall of Snowdonia in about 2 hours. Rather than grow webbed feet we moved on to Vilamoura, same amount of rain so we took cover for lunch in the Old Navy on the marina, where Emyr offered (was forced??) to buy lunch for one and all. No matter how long we are away its always a massive treat to see friends and family from home – the Bates cover both.

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villa-1

Back down the coast, again, to Moncarapacho to wait for the next visitors, Alex and Alistair. Much better prepared this time with a few new sites, the first had opened 2 weeks previously and just a couple of Brits on, we were in and on before lunch. We walked down to the village, despite it being Sunday there were a fair few people around but nothing had changed, and that’s all for the good. (N 37.08030 W 7.71031), highlight of any trip to the Algarve for me, the Moncarapacho pottery shop, some of the best ceramics we have found anywhere, made locally and at really good prices.

We will be here for at least 8 days, whilst the campsite was good I felt we were a bit isolated for such a long stop. A quick reccy at Quelfes and we found another new small site, O Sol de Quinta, the gates were open and there scene was a bit devastating , torrential rain over the last 4 hours had brought torrents on water down from the hills, the drains and land couldn’t cope and water has flooded through the owners house and over the campsite. Iain parked us on the higher ground and sorted out our electric etc, I took to my bucket and helped the French campers start clearing up the rubbish. A little later the owner knocked on our door and handed over a bag full of home-made cakes in thanks for the assistance with flood clear up, then the next day a French couple came over with half a gateaux they had left over – seems we look like we need cake deliveries and we accept without question.

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We spent the week trying to outwit that old adversary of ours, the Algarve cycle path. Possibly the most well hidden path in the history of cycling – when you do find it there is nowhere better to ride. Then suddenly it disappears meaning you need to cycle on the main road, or carry your bike over rivers, fords and railway lines. We managed to find a complete route from Olhao to Tavira and a few minor routes off, each time all roads led to Fuseta and a great little beach cafe so we called it a draw between us and the path.

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 Fuseta coffee stop

The end of the week and Baxters Number 1 and 2 arrived. We forgot to order sunshine so it was cardigans and hoodies on and some exploring at the Ria Formosa national parque and salt pans, Alex testing our his telescopic snake hook (kid you not), and some trying out the possibles for ham and cheese at various cafes. We made a second trip to Loule, this time in blazing sunshine, everyone was getting ready for carnival, the streets were being decorated and they had ordered proper sunshine, a relief for us as we were feeling slightly guilty that the good weather might not show.

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The finale of the visit – dinner at Antonio’s in Moncarapacho, food was incredible, wine as I like it, Spanish and tasting of grapes and the fig grappa was something that you could possibly run a tractor on. Suddenly 2 days had disappeared and time for flights home for some – and time to explore the hinterlands of Portugal for us.

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Dinner at Antonio’s

Spain West and Rocio 2017

Cut a long and boring story short – drive a long way to campervan shop at Malaga, find campervan shop closed down, still no water cap. Slightly fed up as we aren’t too keen on the area anyway, its just a bit too busy for us – decide to leave the coast.

My extensive Google research (which didn’t included checking shops are still in business) also had another potential water cap supplier near Seville and as we wanted to visit El Rocio it was a perfect excuse to take A45 up and up, just a few miles and we were well away from the metropolis and mile after mile of olive groves lined the roadsides. Hardly a car on the road for hours, then suddenly three cars in a ditch, a lorry on it’s side and another car parked on the outside lane! Not sure how on earther they had all managed to be in the same place at the same time but everyone was milling around on the road waiting for the police so there weren’t any serious injuries.

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We had visited Humilladero a few years ago and remembered there was another small site a few miles away on the side of the gigantic lake so we agreed to give this one a go even though we read a few reviews that said it was too good. Five minutes up the road and Laguna Fuente De Piedra loomed ahead, as did the little eponymous village next to the lake. The campsite, Rosa De Los Vientos (N37 7 44.4 / W 4 43 59.4) was at the end of the village, looking very rural and as if it has been there a long, long,long time. A kindly chap let us in and told us to park where we wanted, as no one else was staying we had all the choice we could want. Nothing there for us not to like, old, a bit worn and seemingly seen a few better days – bit like us then  :).

From the campsite we walked down through the groves to the Laguna and the visitor centre, which although open all year was for some reason closed the day we were there. A walk around the village showed a reasonably lively place, few shops, but many bars so easy to see where the locals priorities were on the food versus entertainment.

Another couple of hour up the road and we found Campervan heros, Hidalgo caravans yard, shop and aire (N 37 19 43  W 5 48 20) was in our sights. We pulled in, parked up and were told its fine to stay in the guarded parking overnight for just €4.50. Cheap as chips will do us, Iain went into the parts shop and found a watercap with key – hurray that’s another €17 gone, and whilst we are there our bike rack needs a stronger bar, €20 – right so a €4.50 stop just cost us €41??? That said, it’s a life saver place where they carry out repairs in their workshop and stick pretty much any parts and accessories you could think of. I did feel the need to be honest with Iain – this company has a shop less than a mile from the one that didn’t exist in Malaga – oops should have mentioned that when we were then!!

As we were stopping we had a quick look on internet and the town of Alcala De Guadaira looked worth a visit. I checked it out thoroughly and assured Iain it was less than 3 km walk to the centre, see the stunning castle, coffee and 3km back. What could be better and easier. A good couple of hours later, at least 5km and no sign of any castle, just lots and lots of houses. We gave up and trudged back, our only success being a 10 km walk. I double checked my information, ah it was an 8km walk to the castle, no wonder we didn’t find it. On the flip-side, sun was out, skies were blue, tans were improving and we visited somewhere we wouldn’t have seen otherwise – so all was good.

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El Rocio – always on our lists, always the last time we will go. Couldn’t resist so yet again we checked into La Aldea, on Sunday morning and walked the 10 minutes into ‘cowboy’ town. We have seen a few fiestas there before but this one was certainly bigger than our previous experiences, hundreds of people around, many of whom were posing on their horses strutting around outside the church whilst the parades wait to enter church. We tried to go into the church, not a chance – sardines would not be as tightly packed.

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For me, one of the attractions is always the tacky shops selling religious paraphernalia. I cannot resist a bit of tatt, this time a very swish bracelet that in some way is related to the Virgin Mary, who cares €3 well spent, the sun beating down and fireworks cracking in the air no where better to be on a Sunday morning.

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The other main draw here is the Donana National Park, the large National Park in Spain and home to some of the best bird spotting anywhere. There is a visitor centre on the edge of the village, we walked down and spent a couple of hours treading the board-walk.  Our ‘tick’ list had hoopoes, storks, glossy ibis and even purple swamphens with 10 minutes of arriving. Obviously, we (well I) love a bit of spotting, Iain will trudge along and actually is the better spotter, if not the better identifier. Not being content with a  morning here we rode the bikes the 10 km down to the next visitor centre the following morning and sat amongst the azure magpies eating our picnic – it feels like being in the desert in Africa, fascinating place and so worth visiting I cannot praise it highly enough.

As we have battery bikes now (lazy we know before anyone else tell us – but so much fun we  🙂 ) we tackled the ride down to Matacalanas  on the coast. Down the main road but a good hard shoulder with plenty of room and not too much traffic. Considering its is literally miles from anywhere it was much bigger than we imagined, with more than its fair share of 1970’s eyesore hotels and apartment blocks. Take that away though and the beach still makes it a place worth seeing. Miles of sand, gentle breakers – oh and bizarrely it’s known for having an ancient upside down tower on the sand called Torre la Higuera, a base of one of the seven defense towers built in the 16 century by Philip II – left in the sea for aesthetic purposes only, as the sign nearby says it’s a €200 fine if you jump off it. matalascanas-beach

matalascanas

That’s Spain for us, time for a bit of Portugal next :).

Spain North and Costas 2017

Finally into Spain we both felt in dire need of seeing that little yellow fried egg in the sky for a few days so we agreed on a fairly straight line down through Spain to the coast and hopefully some warmth. We found an aire near Pamplona but it looked a bit sad and empty, I had an alternative ready just up the road so we set off for that. As we turned off the main road and started heading East we also noted that ‘just up the road’ was more like 40 km up the road and in the wrong direction.

Never letting something that minor get in the way we continued to the tiny hamlet of Aoiz – and the small Hotel Ekai. Nothing there to say it was a stop so Iain popped into reception where they said we were welcome to park up next to the fields, no charges and also use their wifi. A peaceful night was broken only by the revving engines of a couple of tractors pulling in for breakfast at the hotel, peeking out the windows we were so pleased to see a thick frost yet again, but at least the sun was out and clear skies.

It was only three hours to Zaragoza and the campsite (N 41.63803  W 0.94318) used by the world and his wife on route to the coast. As food and milk stocks were low we got directions to Lidl, easy to find, in fact easy to find at least three times as we drove past looking for a parking space. Each trip around took in most of the city on the one-way system, after an our we gave up, just as we got back to camp we saw a Mercadona! Without a doubt we love Mercadona not least because they sell Tremeco – of which we purchased a few large jars – and spent the afternoon over-dosing on preserved lupin seeds.

Next morning we were away early for the long run down the A23 to the coast. Not sure where everyone else was, hardly any traffic, breathtaking views, plenty of good stopping places – it’s right up there with some of our favourite roads anywhere. The plains of Spain are, in our opinion, vastly under-rated.

camping-monmar-moncofa

Our first option was Monmar Camping at Moncofa Plage (N 39.80855 W 0.12751) – one look and we both nodded it was for us. Big pitches, very quiet, exceptionally clean, a few minutes walk to the pebble beach. What’s not to like, well accept I was a little unsure how much I loved the idea of glass frosted doors on the loos. Working on the basis I could clearly see people wandering in and out of the facilities from inside the cubicle, then my belief is they didn’t have such a good view either!

camping-monmar-moncofa-es

The town is about 30 minutes walk, on January 5th we headed in for the Three Kings Festival. Due to start at 6pm it finally started at 7pm, a drum band followed by ‘Minions’ throwing sweets, followed by Three Kings on pony and traps – also throwing sweets for young children to scramble over the road collecting and then hoard into bags. The atmosphere was one of family and having a good time, it felt very friendly and safe to be wandering dark side streets in a strange place, not something we would often do back in the UK.

three-kings-moncofa

The area is very flat – pancake flat. Good for bikes and even more so as there are bike paths everywhere. Painted a pale pink they mainly take you through citrus groves but many run alongside the main roads too. We cycled out to Marcella – 20km off road to a well worthy of the effort walled village. The Spanish cycling fraternity were out in force, we passed group after group, lycra clad and pedalling hard and fast. We felt a little in the way at time as we ambled along with our batteries on.

Moist bizarre spot of the day, a young Spanish lad “guarding a dead goat”. Assume it was road-kill, he had carried it off the main road to a side road and rung for ‘Goat kill Assistance’ as we passed a truck stopped, two older blokes got out and threw dead goat into the back and were away in nano seconds – seems the art of getting first dibs of road kill is well practiced here. We stopped for our picnic, settled on a wall and opened the rucksack to discover the picnic was still in the van! My distress was far greater than Iain’s, we shared a banana and then headed back to camp.

moncofa-cycle-path

Iain developed a liking for Thermal Baths when we were in Hungary, so he was muchly impressed to discover there were some at Fortuna. To add to his pleasure I duly researched and found a campsite that was not only open but had said thermal waters pumping directly onto their site. With Iain doing giddy kipper impressions we set off inland to find said baths. Has to be said the 3 hour drive was worth it, into the mountains, hardly any traffic and mile after mile of olive groves, red earth and spectacular views.

fortuna motorhome.jpg

We arrived in the hamlet of the thermal baths and campsite, all quiet as is the case in Spanish hamlets, just a wizened old man puffing on a ciggie sat on his door step, turn the corner to the campsite entrance – BOOM – more German motorhomes than you probably see at a Hymer convention. The campsite was heaving, motorhomes everywhere, then we walked up to see the thermal swimming pool – rammed with Germans (most of whom had natty swimming caps on). We enquired at reception who told us the campsite was full – but we could park on a bit of carpark for €15 but the thermal swimming pool would be included.

Forget that, our plan never included sharing a pool with a few hundred others. I had an alternative plan, there was another campsite a few km up the road, we would go there and then walk back to the municipal Spa in the middle of the village, pay a few Euro and spend a day taking the thermal waters without our German bretheren.

We drove to the campsite, were allocated our plot and settled in. We soon realised that actually it was just us in a motorhome, everyone else lived in statics. The English owner told us people turned up for a few days, then decided to stay, bought a static and rent the pitch for many years. We just nodded knowing that was going to be the case and he would get 2 nights maximum out of us. We took a walk into the municipal spa – to find a sign explaining it had been closed for 2 weeks as from that morning for maintenance!!!!

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We returned to camp to sit in the sun and moan about our bad timing, a short while later a mamouth British motorhome turns up and stops next to us. The couple keep making gestures at us, so I walk over and say hi. The guy tells me if we move our chairs he can fit his motorhome onto our pitch. I tell him nope, its our pitch we paid for it. He and wife grumble a bit then squeeze their motorhome into a space with about 3 inches around the edge of their van outside their static.

To cap a pleasurable waste of a 3 hour drive Iain heads for the shower, and heads straight back as their isn’t any hot water. The English site owner is around so we tell him and he sets off to have a look. After a good hour of clanging around with the gas tanks, spanners and taps he admits he has not idea why there isn’t hot water and says no one has used the showers for ages. He did offer to not charge us for our stay but it was so cheap there we paid up anyway.

Being slightly inland was suiting us and I had another Camperstop penciled in at Totana, about 45 minutes down the road. Iain had been studying the maps and wasliking the look at the coast at La Manga, are you sure? yes he is sure, I am somewhat amazed as I couldn’t imagine why he wants to go but he doesn’t often get a choice so La Manga it was – 2 hours later we hit the metropolis. Camspite a ginormous 950 pitches, we ask if any spaces – just a few!! Iain fancied the area as the map shows an awesome spit of land forming an inland lake – not so good to look at when its covered with high-rise hotels and no way we wanted to cycle it.

Instead back to the hills McGregor, 4 hours on we are at Totana which would have taken 45 minutes  first thing. Bikes off and we followed the canal path for around 12 miles, incredible views down to the coast – and a gale force wind which a times attempted to side swipe us off our bikes. Another Brit on the site had told us we wouldn’t make it to the end of the canal in the wind, an obvious challenge to us so we had no choice but to do just that and then to make a point cycle a few miles in the opposite direction too.

Back to coast and down through the Cabo de Gata to Maz Azul at Balerma.- 2 year old site, very busy but looks fine in the middle of plastic jungles mile after mile after dpressing mile. However we eat salads and they need to make a living so we squint our eyes enough to stop looking at it. On stopping we find water cap is missing. Iain firstly blames me for not securing, then moves on tot hinking another camper pinched it last stop – unlikely as most of the vans cost upwards of £65k am not sure they sneak out in the night and pich €14 plastic caps.

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More importantly, there is a whacking great trampoline at the entrance to the site and not a soul on it – would be rude not to surely :).

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We spent a good for days, cycling to the marina, looking at buying a boat – we still think of getting a boat and sailing off into the sunset, we appreciate we don’t have the skills or talent so probably safer to keep this as a pipe dream to enjoy whenever we are at marina- rather than involve the lifeboats of several small countries on a daily basis.

We had made our own water cap, a very inventive use of a folding water bottle tap, tapped up to enable it to be jammed in gap. It looked stupid but was doing the trick stopping any creepy crawlies make there way in for a bath night.

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Motril 

Time to move on, we followed the coast but found too many people, too many cars and nothing to see but mile after mile of hotels. Motril was less busy, possibly as the beach is a few miles out of town and maybe because the sun had done a disappearing act for 24 hours. We didn’t find much there other than a ferry terminal which we assumed to be heading for Africa due to the people waiting for the next departure. Yet again we discussed the merits of travelling to Africa, Iain vetoed me yet again so we packed up and were back on the road – Malaga was plugged into the Sat Nav to find a water cap and then inland.

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Motril promenade and the only 2 tourists around

 

 

France 2017

After a long stint back in the Salt Mines we are back out on the road for four months. Destination sunshine, but instead of the usual Santander crossing we took the Poole – Cherbourg route this time. Horrendous journey down to Poole, accidents galore and way too much traffic on the roads, 8 hours later we arrived at Poole where they kindly allow you to park up overnight on the dock for the princely sum of £5.

Next morning we were loaded on the Brittany ferry pronto and off, blue skies, calm seas and a fabulous breakfast saw us through the 4 hours and arrival at Cherbourg.

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We headed off to the coast for a free stop at the Plage Sciotot  (N 49 30 2.1  W 1 50 50.4) A few hardy souls around but as night fell everyone left except us and a few surfer vans.  We congratulated ourselves on choosing to drive down through France, smug as bugs we were thinking of pottering around in a bit of winter sun for the next couple of weeks.

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Typical Baxter plan, lasted all of 24 hours, then we hit fog. Really thick fog that was freezing, down to minus 5 in the daytime. We took cover at the aire at St. Nazaire (N 47 14 13  W 2 18 01 ) For aire, read small parking area no view, just fog and an eerie feel to the place. there were two motorhomes already there, after an hour we realised they weren’t inhabited – just kind of dumped.  We knew this was a blip and fully expected the sun to be back next day – nope!! Next morning it was worse, frost so deep it looked like a good layer of snow and for so dense we could see 50 metres from the van tops.

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Ooooh fab – winter sun in France 

We rapidly agreed that France in fog and frost wasn’t going to so much fun. Digging deep in the budget we hit the toll roads and try and find clearer weather. By the time we reached Bordeaux the fog had cleared, still freezing though so we headed for the campsite on the ring road, Camping Beausoleil (N44 45 20 W 0 37 39 ) mainly as the tram / bus to the city runs from a few hundred metres outside the campsite. I went to book us in, met with a rather stern lady on reception so I decided to lighten the mode by giving her the benefit of my O’level standard spoken French – she remained stern looked askance and immediately re-started the conversation in English :).

New Years Day, wrapped up against the element we took the bus to meet the tram – (€3 each bargain). We love trams, our favourite mode of transport, maybe not so much after a whole city has been out celebrating until a few hours previously. Eau-de-puke and spilled beer was very prevalent, as were some puddle type areas on the floor we avoided as best we could! I would like to write a very detailed description of Bordeaux, suffice to say we loved the recently restored neoclassical architecture, the city appears to full of things to see and do – but quite honestly it was too cold for us do much more than wander around at a fairly rapid pace to prevent frostbite.

The biggest disappointment wasn’t the weather, it was the “Miroir d’Eau”, water wasn’t on so it was just a case of standing on a concrete slab remembering how it looked on Google pictures.

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Back on tolls, still in fog and we crossed the border at Irun into Spain – 10 minutes later fog lifted, sun shone – hurray for Spain. We crossed in seconds, the traffic coming in from Spain was queuing back over 4 miles in two lanes. Lots of French checks going on with police and transport, think we will avoid that route going home, but that’s too far away to worry about for now it’s all going to be about Spain :).

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  Viva L’Espania

And so it ends (well for this trip anyway!)

Our last post of call, before the call of the port so to speak, was Brugge. The one sure plan we have always had was a day in Brugge before we caught the ferry home. Quite frankly we were both fairly gobsmacked as to how we managed to arrive with such impeccable timing.

Brugge is said to be one of the world’s first tourist destinations, having set up a Tourist Information as far back as 1909, they have certainly had time to work out what the tourist wants and they have it with abundance – medieval architecture, lace and chocolate are  everywhere.  We find it hard to believe anyone leaves the city without purchasing chocolate, you need a steel brace to avert your eyes from the mouth watering displays.

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The Markt – Brugge

By luck or whatever Brugge remained relatively unscathed during the war and retains most of it’s medieval architecture. We struck lucky and both the Church of our Lady and St. Salvator’s Cathedral had their scaffolding removed recently, on the downside the insides of both buildings are being restored so we missed seeing the interiors.   It was be churlish to complain though when instead we visited the Burg Square, the Markt and several other areas containing some of the most sensational buildings we have seen anywhere.

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Burg Square

We popped in Sunday for a couple of hours and decided to go back for a full day Monday thinking it would be quieter. Not a bit, possibly busier on Monday – we stayed on the town aire next to the coach drop off and pick up, hundreds of buses in and out all day with at least half of them British and the other half school children.

Despite Brugge giving the impression of a a tranquil place to visit it really isn’t. The sheer numbers of tourist, the horses and carts clattering around the cobbles and the carillon of 48 bells, added to the bells of several other churches, meant at times it was difficult to hear yourself speak.  Surely though one of the highlights of Brugge is when the carillon in the Belfry of Brugge strikes up a ringing rendition of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” on the hour, every hour – truly amazing.

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When in Rome….so obviously when in Brugge chocolate is mandatory. I never thought it would be possible to say this but, there are too many chocolate shops. It is mind blowing, hundreds and hundreds of them on every street. I needed to shop for chocolate so left Iain to his own devices for a couple of hours whilst I perused. I then came to realise the benefits of so many shops – everyone I actually went in offered me a sample chocolate! On a roll I visited eight shops before purchasing :), now slightly sick of the taste of Belgian chocolate.

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Aside from chocolate we wanted to visit Brugge to see the canals. I am going to have to say it didn’t come across as the ‘Venice of the North’ to us, a fair few canals but mainly small with lots of dead-ends. That isn’t too take away from the charm of  the canals and their setting alongside 17th century warehouses and homes, it stands on it’s own merits without needing a  Venice type canal label.

We of course took the obligatory canal boat trip, forget sedate and flowing – think more pack ’em in and speed ’em round. Due to the low bridges there are just one type of boat and they fair nip around causing a few wakes as they go.

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There endeth the Grand Depart tour around Europe for us, Zeebrugge tonight and ferry home tomorrow.

We have had the absolute time of our lives, we have seen and done more than we thought possible – it has been everything we hoped it would be and so much more. In summary :31 border crossings, 20 countries, 19,000 miles, (passports checked just twice).

We are well under our budget, amazingly, but sure we will see a lot of that go with the 25 essential maintenance jobs on the list required for the van (thank the Lord for gaffer tape its all that’s holding us together right now).

There have been a few navigational related skirmishes, but trying to get us around Europe on a 1:3 200 000 atlas was always asking for a few headaches!

We would do it all again without a moments thought – well we did think we might like one of these to go with, but guess our van will have to do.

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The first question is always where we did like best? We didn’t, honestly, every country we visited we found amazing sights, lovely people and had fun. Whenever anyone asked that questions during the trip it was always the country we had just left.

Every day was an experience, things we had only read about previously were seen in the flesh : visiting Meteora, driving Trollstigen, flying in an Airship, crossing Millau Bridge, walking into Russia (ok only two steps but we did it). Others were stark reminders of how lucky we are: the ferry fire on the Norman Atlantic, Auschwitz, the WWI and WWII battle-grounds and the military cemetery.

Our lack of real planning and direction paid off more than we could have hoped mainly because Europe is stuffed full of incredible things to see – you would struggle to miss them – luckily for us!

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In the words of the that famous 20th century commentator “That’s all folks”.

The Last Post (but not quite ours)

When we left home 11 months ago we said our destination was Belgium and we would take the longest route we could to get there. Just over 11 1/2 months, 17000 miles and 600 gallons of diesel later – we have arrived :).

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Belgium held out on us slightly on the weather front as 10 miles over the border we hit pea soup fog.  We agreed it was pointless to carry on driving as we weren’t seeing anything. I had noted down details of a little camperstop outside a castle, sounded like the best plan to sit out and wait for the sunshine to come back (misplaced optimism there!)

We arrived at Wegimont Chateau and it wasn’t quite as expected,  eight spots for motorhomes but also about 200 permanent pitches where the owners stretch out to the limits of their space, a bit like a canvas city.  Showers were only allowed at set times and bingo took place each afternoon in the community tent – not somewhere we were going to be staying too long at all!

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Wegimont Chateau

On the upside there was a castle on the site – or Chateau –  a Louis XIV style building that was the only Lebensborn maternity home in Belgium. During WWII, these homes were state approved associations with the goal of raising the birth rate of Aryan children via extramarital relations of German men classed as racially pure and healthy with unmarried women. Known locally as an ‘Ayran Stud Farms’, the resultant children were then adopted by likewise “racially pure and healthy” parents, particularly SS members and their families.

A cold, wet and dull day we walked around the park – full winter gear out of the cupboards including gloves for the first time in nearly a year, we managed a full sweep of the arboretum and then a quick hike around town to stock up on a few bits then back to the van for a warm up. Each time it gets a bit colder I have used this as evidence to convince Iain we should head for Portugal for some winter sun – alas so far he is holding out for heading home.

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We had planned for a few days around the Liege area, however waking to sleet on Wednesday scuppered that one. Instead we aimed West and left the sleet behind, instead we hit snow! Proper white flakes of the stuff, falling fairly rapidly but luckily not sticking enough to make driving a problem.

By the time we had arrived in Tournai all signs of snow had gone, replaced with rain and a promise of sunshine later.  Tournai is the oldest town in Belgium, we had never heard of it, not sure why as its very impressive. One of Belgium’s most culturally import towns, it is chock full of magnificent buildings, including the oldest cathedral in Belgium.

As is usual for us the cathedral was shrouded in scaffolding undergoing restoration. The ‘Grand Place’ town square is a mix of trendy shops, bars and several museums set around cobbled streets with a series of water fountains – all in all a great place to spend an afternoon – unless its freezing and damp which it was so we made do with a couple of hours whistle stop tour.

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As we  started off last November with a visit to the Etaples military cemetery in France so decided our penultimate stop off point would be Ypres. I have never been before, for whatever reason I thought it was a village with the famous Menin Gate.

Somewhat surprised then to find a fairly substantial city, rebuilt post WWII with German reparation money. The main buildings in the city centre have been reconstructed as close to the original as possible, it is nearly impossible to believe these building were raised to the ground so recently.  The Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages in Europe,  the new structure is the exact copy of the original medieval building.

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the Cloth Hall

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the best roof ever – anywhere

The main reason for visiting Ypres, for us as for many others, was to see the Menin Gate Memorial for the Missing. Over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers from WWI that have no final resting place are commemorated here (with a further 35,000 names that wouldn’t fit on this memorial inscribed at the nearby Tyne Cot memorial).  We were told by a lady from the British Legion in town to be at the gate just after 7pm, even though the service is at 8pm.

We were amazed, when we arrived there were close on 1,000 people, and we were told this is the same every night of the week, every week of the year since 1928 (with a short break during WWII when Ypres was occupied). We stood with a group of Blackwatch Cadets who had travelled there for the weekend, the next night they were forming a guard of honour (the youngsters had all funded their own trips in order to stand for 10 minutes in honour of the dead).

When the three buglers from the local fire brigade sounded the Last Post, it was one of the most simple and moving events either of us have had the honour to attend.

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The Menin Gate

Quiet but not peaceful

After 20 countries we have to admit that sometimes places merge and we have to stop and think where we are. This week being in the “Little Switzerland” region of Luxembourg has been a tad confusing, as we never made Switzerland we will take it as a taster version.

We are both surprised at Luxembourg, it has been nothing that we expected. We thought such a small country would be very cramped with little outdoor space. We couldn’t have been further wrong, it’s like driving around one big parkland with the odd small village or town slotted in.  Whilst we have seen more than our fair share of forests in the last year we have never seen so many broad leaf woods. Hardly a pine or conifer in sight and being autumn the trees are magnificent it really felt as remote as Scandinavia as we drove up the German border.

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The benches come in big sizes here

As we drove through we were passing walking trails all the way, the forecast was for sunshine so we stopped for two nights at Kohnenhof so we could get out and do some walking.  Of course it rained fairly solidly all day, despite that we followed a trail up through the forests and then back down along the river. It pleases our sense of the adventure that we crossed over and back from Germany on the river footbridges twice, not even a sign that its a new country.

Language gets more confusing here all the time, we go into a shop and speak French, they respond in German – so we try a bit of German and they go to French! It seems natural to the people here to talk in both languages, we are now encountering more Dutch mixed in too. There is also a language called Luxembourgish, a French version of German but it seems not many people use that one – thankfully.

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He stayed dry

Our last stop in Luxembourg has been Clervaux another postcard setting with a castle, historic church and even an Abbey on the hill. We rolled in Saturday morning looking for the crowds, nope just us then. Car-parks empty, hardly a soul around, Luxembourg feels deserted, it may be out of season but even so we have not seen a country this quiet before. The town centre consists of several shops, four good sized hotels and river running through. Anywhere else this would be a tourist magnet but for some reason not here.

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Clervaux

The castle, as with pretty much everything in Luxembourg, was destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge, now fully restored it houses the museum of the Battle of the Bulge, more a collection of thousands of war artifacts from guns and uniforms to cigarette tins and pieces of old crates. As with most of the country they have a U.S. Sherman tank that participated in WWII and a German 88 anti-aircraft gun, both  outside the castle walls.

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The combined ticket also took us into the model castle exhibition. A 1:100 model of every one of the 15 castles in Luxembourg including the surrounding villages,  they are well done but have to say after the third or fourth it felt like groundhog day.

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Every town and village has a tank they are rightly proud of

The castle towers house the world famous “Family of Man” photographic exhibition. First shown in 1955 in New York, it then toured the world for eight years, having shows in 37 countries and being seen by more than 9 million people.  The photographs focus on the shared  features of mankind and humanism, with over 500 photos it is a lot to take in, some sad, some funny and many thought provoking. We spent an hour walking through but could easily have spent a day to really see every photograph properly.

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from The Family of Man – one of my favourites

This morning dawned bright blue skies so we set off to for the Benedictine Abbey of St. Maurice on the hill above the town. The Neo-Romanesque structure was built in 1910 but looks much older, a footpath winds it way up through the trees and after half an hour we were at the gates. We arrived just as one of their services was finishing, from outside the church we could just hear the gentle singing of the monks, perfect voices in a perfect setting.

There was a small exhibition area we were allowed to visit which showed photographs of how the monks live such as one on a tractor, another on a computer etc. Other than that there was no admittance to the abbey as the monks live a very secluded life. They do make a slight exception from their retiring lives and open their gift shops for an hour a day 🙂 commerce doesn’t stop for even a Benedictine Monk.

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Church Saints Cosmas and Damian

As we are being blessed with a few days of Indian summer we have stayed put for the weekend, on an amazing little campsite just on the edge of town. Everything we need plus a pitch the size of our garden and joy of joys a washing machine and dryer – never realised how much I would miss our washing machine. Most weeks we do a hand-wash but as the budget looks good went mad and did two loads in the machine – woohoo.

We have spent the rest afternoon sat in the sunshine listening to the hundreds of motorbikes roaring around the country lanes vying for attention with the constant bell ringing every 15 minutes at the town church and the Abbey getting in on the act every half hour.  Sunshine forecast well into next week so the plan is to work out a plan to see as much as Belgium as we can before we head home.

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Relaxing reading for the final push North 🙂

so good they named it twice?

Sunday morning we shot through Belgium and arrived in Luxembourg (Belgium is being saved until last).  Our first impressions were so much space and a love of pink – in every hamlet and village pink paint abounds on houses, restaurants and even the odd garage. The other thing that struck us is we have hit autumn – in the space of a few hours drive the trees are in shedding leaves like there is no tomorrow.

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Our first stop was just outside Ettlebruck at Dietsch. A gigantic campsite next to the river but only five or six vans and a couple of caravans there so we had roughly 30 pitches of space each between us, or we should have. Not sure what’s with people who need to pitch next door, acres of space but three nights running vans came in and parked either side of us.

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Chateau Berdorf

Monday morning dawned cold, damp and grey, we got the bikes out for a ride to on yet more brilliant cycle paths, all off road – so good that despite the cold we continued onto Colmar (home of a Goodyear factory – weirdly good smell) before retracing out steps into Ettlebruck for a warming coffee stop – they even gave us blankets at the pavement cafe.

Being slightly confused with what language we should be using we asked the waitress, she said any will do, people speak French, English, German or often Portuguese!

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The way ahead – blankets at all cafes

The town was liberted by the US in 1944 but re-taken by Germany in the December during the Battle of the Bulge. No less than General Patton himself led the the troops into retake the town again a couple of weeks later for the final liberation from the Nazi occupation. With so much fighting taking place the town has very few older buildings, lots of post war apartments, shops with the occasional ally-way of pre-war houses dotted around.

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Pink painted buildings abound

Breaking a habit we went been to Luxembourg city for a day. We used the local train which  ran hourly, 40 minutes each way, a double decker train and €4 each – worth it for the journey alone.

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Luxembourg Luxembourg (ie the city bit) is  ranked 1st in terms of safety out of 221 cities across the world. Not surprising in a lot of ways as its very small, most people seem to be office folk and maybe because it was raining cats and dogs there were very few tourists around.  That said there are more than enough historic buildings to visit, we saw the Ducal Palace but sadly the castle was under wraps as scaffold covers a large part.

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For a small city there is a fair bit of up and down hill to get around. There are two deep gorges running through the city, both over 230 ft deep, most of the city is built high on the cliffs each side leaving the bottom of the valleys at parkland and open green spaces. We braved the rain and headed for the Bock, a natural cliff at the edge the city that contains the ruins of a castle and miles of tunnels.

It is an easy city to walk in a few hours, the old town has a good shopping area with all the household names but the rain meant we weren’t really that interested. Wet through we gave up after a lunch stop and headed back to the campsite.

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We decided to move along to the border region and arrived in Echternach, a small town on the German border, literally – cross over a small foot bridge and you are in Germany – less than 20ft between them over a small river. The town was founded back in 698 AD by a Brit, none other than St. Wilibrord from Ripon (another Yorkshire man!).  An impressive Basilica stands in the centre of town where Wilibrords tomb is housed in the crypt. The town was very much what we thought all German towns would be more like, medieval walls with towers, cobbled streets and tall houses – most of the town was badly damaged in WWII but has since been completely restored.

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Echternach

Another of the must see here is Vianden, a small village but with a whooper of a castle perched on the hillside.  Built in the 11th century it was left to fall into disrepair in the 1800’s. It was only recently in 1997 that the Grand Duke gave the castle to the state and restorations were completed.  The other main claim to fame is the annual ‘nut fair’  where local walnuts are on sale together with walnut cakes, walnut confectionary, walnut brandy and walnut liqueurs – it on this Sunday so we may go back.

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Vianden village

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Vianden castle

Whilst in the village, joy of joys, we came across a chair lift which climbed over 450 ft up a sheer cliff. We did, as you do – bloody nightmare. It started off fine, then crossed the river, followed by the main road and if that wasn’t bad enough your feet are dangling in the tree canopy all the way. Strangely enough no people coming down, just seats with beer barrels and crates!

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When we got to the top it was a bit of a let down, no views of the castle as the trees have grown way too high over the years. To use the loo they want another 50 cents of your money and for the photo they took of you terrified on the way up another €6. I was going to walk down it was that bad going up, to be fair the down trip wasn’t as bad.

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The Great War fields of Verdun

After two nights in Charmes we had to move on, my nerves were in shreds – a huge flock of roosting crows came into the trees around the canal at dusk. The noise was actually quite frightening, like being in the ‘Birds’, there must have been over 300-400 of them. This was nothing though compared to the encore that took place from around midnight for 2-3 hours something must disturb them as it just gets louder and louder

To the North of Nancy we found the small town of Pont-a-Mousson, with a lovely aire on the harbour. The town had a bit more life about it than Charmes, with what we call a very French town square : plenty of pavement cafes with men smoking disgustingly smelly gauloise cigarettes and drinking wine, women looking super chic clattering around the cobbles in high heels and all the teenagers loitering around looking achingly cool as they wander around with music bouncing out from iplayers.

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Pont-a-Mousson

No matter how many lovely towns and villages there are and what tourist attractions are promoted, it is impossible not to be drawn to the history of the area, the echoes of WWI are everywhere. We drove through the Lorraine National Park along lanes not much more than forest tracks, in the midst of pretty much nowhere we came across the Calonne Trenches. A short walk from the road we found trenches together with tunnels used for supplies, medical purposes and communications bases.

Along the same pathway we came across the pit where the body of the famous French author Alain Fournier ( writer of the French classic ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’)  and 20 of his comrades were discovered in 1994,  they died in 1914 fighting in the trenches and their bodies lie undiscovered in a shallow trench for 80 years.

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Tunnels at Calonne trenches

We couldn’t help but be drawn to the Ossuary at Douaumont, which contains the remains of 130,000 unknown German and French soldiers, the skeletal remains can be seen through small windows at the lower edges of the monument. In front of the monument stands one of the National cemeteries of France, where the bodies of a further 16,142 soldiers are buried.  Iain climbed the tower and took some incredible photos of the graves whch are situated where once many of the battles took place.

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The Ossuary Douaumont

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View from the Ossuary tower of some of the graves

Despite the incredible beauty of, and the stories behind, the memorials the place that probably touched both our hearts most was Fleury Devant Douaumont. There is a road sign for the start and end of the town – but no town. After being captured and recaptured during 16 battles it was totally destroyed. Nothing at all remains except the narrow roadways and where homes, businesses and civic building once stood now just a simple stone marker with an inscription as to the type of building once there.

It is one of eight towns that are officially designated as “villages that died for France”. Fleury still has a mayor and is listed as a town but the damage to the land meant a decision was made it will never be rebuilt.

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Once a thriving town

Aside from the Ossuary the other great structure of memorial is that of the Mountfaucon American Monument. It can be seen from miles and miles around, nearby stands the US cemetery with thousands more graves. The monument is just over 196 ft high we climbed to the top, up 234 spiral steps, for the views over the fields that were once the scene of the many battles of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World WWI. The monument faces the front line of the US army at the start of the offensive on September 26th  1918, the biggest battle in American history up to that time involving over 1.2 million US soldiers.

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Mountfaucon Monument

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The site of the Meuse-Argonne offensive

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Whilst touring in the area we have seen literally hundreds of monuments from the smallest inscription on a bridge, to statues and obelisks, to the enormous Ossaury at Douaumont and the American Monument of Montfaucon -what every single one has in common is it seems to be treated with respect. There are no gates or walls surrounding any of the memorials and many of the graveyards. In most cases roads pass alongside the monument be it large or small so access is possible 24 hours a day. Yet, there is no damage, no graffiti, no vandalism. It’s hard to imagine some of these things being in the UK and not needing to be locked up with high security to prevent someone stealing the crosses or the lead guttering, or spray painting some inane message on a monument.

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 Trenches Des Baionnettes

Our week ended at Dun Sur Meuse, another small town with a  camperstop on the side of the river where we parked up with the locals. Early evening a tres jolly lady came around and collected our €6, a couple of the other French vanners got out the fishing roads and we all settled down to a stunning sunset.

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Our spell of good weather came to an end this morning, its lasted way longer than we thought so no complaints here. Probably quite a scenic drive through the Ardennes, we didn’t see much due to drizzle, fog and total concentration on looking out for a garage. Yes indeed, we pulled that old school boy trick of letting the diesel run to just on the red then looking for a garage in France on a Sunday! After a good few miles on clenched bottoms we spotted an open garage – diesel gauge now showing an attractive looking half full, rained stopped, sun peeking out and the Belgium border in front of us – all good with our world again :).

In search of the quiche

When we were leaving Alsace on route to Lorraine all we needed to do was re-trace our steps then take a left instead of a right over the Alsage – simples then. Oh no, Iain had seen a tunnel on the map, over 5 miles of tunnel so as tunnels appeal to him we needed to take that route.  Mile after mile of dead straight road under a mountain, no other vehicles in either direction – uh how much is this costing? Iain guessed at around €4, I was sure nearer €6. Oh how well we were fooled € 17.20 to drive through a dark hole! Iain is no longer allowed to choose routes.

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More of this – less of tunnels

We are in no rush at all  as we have covered pretty much all we want to (Luxembourg is yet to come but on route). We know we can be in the channel ports in a day at a push so we intend to meander around and take longer breaks for the next few weeks. In the spirit of being on a holiday from travelling we found a small campsite  on the edge of the small village of Raon L’Etape to sit in the sunshine for a few days.

It probably isn’t  visited by too many tourists, all the more mundane shops essential to daily life, just the one cafe and a rather plush outdoor swimming pool. One thing they have got a monopoly on is fountains – we counted at least six, elaborate Victorian type structures in the town centre. We stopped off at a small local shop to stock up with fruit, not sure how well our French translated as we seem to have bought shares in the shop rather than just pay for a bag of fruit!

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Raon L’Etape

Driving through the region it’s nearly impossible to go more than a few miles without reaching a war memorial or a military cemetery.  Every village or town has it’s own battle story, in most they have two – one for each war. At Raon L’Etape there was a simple plaque dedicated to the memory of 1500 soldiers of the US 100th Infantry who died, were injured or captured during a 14 day battle for the town in 1944, then in the cemetery on the way out of town were the graves of hundreds of French soldiers who died in in WWI.

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Literally a few miles up the road we came across Chipotte memorial and cemetery. The site marks the place where a WWI battle took place over 15 days, the cemetery has 1,006 individual graves and two ossuaries holding the remains of 1,899 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. Whether it be in military cemeteries or those included in town and village graveyards the crosses are all similar in that they show just a name, date of death and the words “Mort pour La France”.

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Col De La Chipotte

We have have an interest in recent history so visiting these places is always an honour, whilst it’s without a doubt often a very bleak and sad experience it seems wrong not to visit where so many have died to enable us to do what we do, travel freely around Europe.

Therefore having read about the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp being close by we both agreed to take a slight detour to visit. It is the only concentration camp that was established on French soil, mainly housing political prisoners and members of the Resistance, together with lesser numbers of Jews, gypsies etc. The camp held over 8000 at its fullest and also had 70 sub camps in the immediate region holding a further 19,000 prisoners.

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The stories remain as unbelievable as those of any other camp including medical experiments, tortures and gas chambers.  As with other camps the prisoners knew the Allies were approaching in 1944 and believed liberation and freedom was imminent. In a matter of days before the Allies arrived at the camp that hope was sadly crushed as the German’s decided to evacuate the camp and march over 7000 prisoners with them to Dachau concentration camp where most were subsequently murdered – as the memorial there says “Freedom – so near and yet so far”.

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 Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration camp

From Natzweiler we took a scenic route through Lorraine towards the Moselle River and the town of Charmes. Very few other vehicles on the roads so a peaceful afternoon to appreciate the beautiful scenery, whilst none of the villages we passed would be classed as a tourist must see they all had their own charm. In lots of ways its the older houses with plaster falling off, paint fading on the shutters and geraniums hiding much of the building that, for us, are the spirit of France (no cyclist with onions round his neck and a black and white t.shirt yet but we live in hope).

Charmes is a small village, pretty well destroyed in WWI, rebuilt and then it suffered the same fate again in WWII. On the positive side the Moselle River and the Canal De L’Est ru through the centre, and on an even better note the aire is next to the canal so we pitched up with a pretty perfect view for a few nights. Seemingly a popular stop with the French moho’s, a good number parked up with picnic tables out and a couple of petanqe tournaments taking place on the roadway.

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Canal-side home for a couple of nights

Nothing much we enjoy more than the bikes off for a cycle on a good flat canal tow-path, it is perfect cycling country here. We rode over 25 miles on tarmac paths and saw three other cyclists – not sure the French appreciate how good their velo network is.  The canal is decidedly quiet, we passed one quarry that had a few barges filling up but other than that no boats, not even a holiday barge cruising. There are plenty of locks but it seems all are now automated, there are signs for the boats to use some sort of remote key card, as they do the locks are automatically filled / emptied and the gates opened and closed, clever but not as good to watch as the old fashioned way.

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The Canal De L’Est

Not quite Amy Williams

We left our little campsite on Thursday morning, a few delays whilst we worked out with the young receptionist how to explain we wanted to pay and leave,  the sight of my debit card eventually did the trick.  First stop was walk along to the dam at the Michelbach Barrage, built in 1979 on the edge of the village it is classed as one of the most important conservation lakes in the region.

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Lac  De Michaelbach

The Vosges mountains dominate the area, not being too much for climbing we avoided hiking up the highest, the Grand Ballon, and instead took the mountain road pass to the Col du Ballon. At the top of the pass there are several car parks, we parked up and walked the last bit to the peak at 3842 ft.  Despite some clouds it was worth the effort, views for miles and miles. It doesn’t feel at all like being on a mountain, plenty of people drive up for lunch in the restaurants or just for a walk around. In 1905 the road was the first official mountain climb on the Tour De France, although the race had run two years previously they discounted the slightly lower nearby – by 65 ft – passes as not been true mountain climbs.

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View from the Col Du Ballon

There are loads of different monuments strewn around the summit, statues of the Virgin Mary, memorials to the wars, Tour De France plaques,  Joan of Arc in various guises and on it goes.  The one that grabbed our attention most was that  of the ‘Hurt Locker’ which commemorates the sacrifice of 500 French plus hundreds of Italians, poles and Germans who died or were maimed detecting the thousands of mines placed on the mountain by the Germans in WWII.

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Hurt locker memorial

Plenty of ski resorts and ski areas in the Vosges, the majority seems to cater to more to day skiers as there aren’t too many hotels but the car parks are massive. We stopped off for a night at La Bresse, a small village seemingly based around the winter tourist. We found a small campsite a few miles out of town and in the morning walked back in to town for a browse around the shops – after just over an hours walk we were in town for 1150am – which is wonderful as the French shops shut from 12-2pm for lunch! We made do with a quick coffee and trudged back up the hill for an hour and a half (it’s slower going uphill) to the van again.

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La Bresse – cute but shut

As shopping was out we packed the van up and went in search of something else to do. At the top of the Col De La Schlucht, where we were thrilled to see the chair lifts running, not only that but the summer luge run from the top of the chair lift was open all the way back down ( I was so not thrilled but am getting bored of being a wimp). No queues (no one else stupid enough) we were on the ski lift before I could think about it. At the top the attendant gave us a luge each, said pull the handle to slow – push to go fast and that was it!  Just over 350 ft of descent, no helmets, no crash barriers and no knee pads – just a little too much of the French indifference for me but it was the luge or the ski lift down, lesser of the two evils then :(.

The luge I used may need its brakes replacing as I had them jammed on pretty much the whole time. Everytime I did let the brakes  off the bloody things started climbing up the walls on the corners. There were two runs and Iain and I started together, however Iain is a bit of a speed freak and took the run down as fast as he could – he was at the bottom, off the luge and taking photos by the time I got down.

I was ‘slightly’ faster than it looks 🙂

Needing an overnight stop we weren’t too worried where and pulled into a large aire at the edge of the first major town we came to.  At least 50 motorhomes there and we couldn’t see the attraction at first, so after parking up we took a stroll around the corner and found we were in the charming medieval town of Kayserberg.  Stacked full of half timbered Renaissance houses, colourful shops, flowers everywhere – it really is like something out of a fairytale – for us how a romantic French village should look.

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Too beautiful to be true

Absolutely it is a tourist mecca but why not, the tourist thing is done well, quality shops, cafes and even an accordion player in the street (she only knew the first 4-5 lines of any song). Iain treated himself to a pastry, not cheap at €4 but everything seemed to be priced for the coach trips (it was nearly an even more expensive pastry as I threw out the carrier bag it was in thinking it was rubbish! – luckily it was wrapped and in a box within the bag so it was retrieved and saved as was my life).

Postcard pretty Kayserberg

Last thing we wanted to see in the Alsace was a chateau, and the Haut-Koenisgbourg looked a good choice.  Emperor Wilhelm II had it rebuilt early in the 20th century so it is fairly modern, apparently the French tend to sneer at it slightly due to its relative newness and the fact it was re-built by a German. That attitude doesn’t seem to stop the visitors though, its one of the most visited chateau in France.

At the top of a high hill over 3000 ft up, the road snakes around until you are suddenly below the outer walls. One of those places you need a helicopter to take a photograph of as everything just keeps growing above you and standing back isn’t an option.  Several parts were closed for renovation so we made do with a wander around the outside and the gardens – we are still living on the budget and saving entrance fees for somewhere that’s totally open.

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If we had a helicopter this would be ‘our’ photo…..

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but as we haven’t this is the best we managed

nous retournés à la France

Only four weeks to go, so time to take stock and put a bit of a plan together. We have always said Switzerland was out as expensive and not enough time, so Sunday night we agreed to go to Interlaken! Monday morning sanity was restored and we turned right instead of left and arrived back in France.

A moment of panic when we realised we were on a motorway with has tolls, we took the first exit before we reached the toll booth. As we have plenty of time we intend to keep off the toll roads and amble North on the back roads.

With a mile or two we had remembered why we were so taken with France 11 months ago – quiet roads, quaint villages (still bereft of people) and as with Germany an easy life for a motorhome with specific parking and signs for ‘Camping Cars’ at every town and village.

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With no real plan of what to do in France we followed the road until we reached the Regional Park of  Ballons des Vosges – when in doubt head for the green bits on the map seems to work well for us. From a first glance it doesn’t appear to be the most touristy of areas, that is a plus for us as we are looking for a quiet week seeing a little bit of somewhere that to be honest we had never heard of until we arrived here!

First stop, Guewenheim, two chevaux village with a butchers a bakers possibly a candle stick maker but nothing much else. Strangely enough the French here speak French with a German accent, probably because they have alternated being under the control of the French and the German several times over the last couple of hundred years. We popped into the bakers and stocked up with some very good looking breads and pastries and then followed the signs to a campsite a few hundred yards out of the village.

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Guewenheim – picture pretty but no people

The campsite was about to close for the year, all the pitches were empty except a few seasonals still packing up.  Madame La Campsite owner was more than happy to have stay and offered us a price as cheap as chips so we parked up for a few days.  With the weather being a bit overcast we have set about a big clean out in the van, done a ton of washing and packed away anything we are unlikely to use in the next month.

The weather improved today so we cycled up to the next village, Masevaux for a coffee and cake break. The Alsace has over 10,000 km of marked walking and cycling trails,  the one we took followed the route of an old railway line, a slight incline all the way but we prefer that as we know going home is going to be easy peasy.

Masevaux is famous for it’s annual organ festival, sadly we will be missing that as its not on until next month. Despite it being so close to the border it does feel very French, even such a small village has a boulangerie, bouchers, charcuterie and of course a couple of patisserie – the only thing missing was a few French guys playing boules.  As we wandered around the little pedestrian High Street we noticed the piped music playing, nowhere else have we come across this other than France, The Village People, Brotherhood of Man,  – all the songs that make you proud they are in English 🙂

The village was as we find with most French villages- a bit deserted to us, the shops were open but not many people around.  We sat outside at a pavement cafe with our coffee, and Iain’s enormous croissant, and saw just a handful of people pass by.

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The French certainly take the ‘in bloom’ thing a bit seriously, the villages here are marked with stars on how well they did. Guewenheim has only two stars and a few window boxes, whereas Masevaux has four stars and some fairly amazing floral displays. the best of which was a full wooden building with flowers spilling out around wooden figurines, stunning.

We want to go up to the highest peaks in the park so have been waiting out the grey weather – from tomorrow its forecast wall to wall sunshine so time to get out and explore the park and maybe find a chateau or two.

Buses, trams, funicular and cable cars

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Just because….

The second half of this week has been all about Freiburg and transport. It’s a small city full of trams :), an eclectic mix of old and modern shuffling through all the small city centre streets and outwards to the suburbs.  A university town so plenty of young people, trendy shops, bars and restaurants mixed with a good sprinkling of things for the tourists.

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Freiburg Old Town

One of the things the city is known for are the Bächle, small water-filled runnels,  supplied with water by the River Dreisam. These run along the edges of most roads and streets in the old city, originally used for carrying drinking water around the city back in the 15th century, now popular with tourists and with children who sail boats along them.

When large parts of the city were destroyed by 300 bombers from the British RAF Bomber Command in 1944 most bächle were badly damaged.  Since being rebuilt two people have tried to sue the own when they have driven into or tripped on a bächle – in both cases the courts found against the claimants and made them pay costs as they felt it impossible not to visit the city and know they were there.

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Sailing your boat down a Bächle

On the cobble streets there are small brass plaques inset, called ‘stolperstein (stumbling blocks), each one commemorates a German who lived in there and was affected by Nazi persecution, concentration camps, death, emigration and even suicide.  As of last year 48,000 of these plaques had been placed throughout Europe – the sight of them is another stark reminder that war touches so many.

Stolperstein

For a small city its certainly noisy, every 100 yards there are accordion players belting out Bavarian music, many very good, some not so good but taking the chance on a few coins, add to them a mobile funky jazz band touring and it was anything but peaceful.

All the regular city attractions are in the old town within 15 minutes walk of each other, a massive Gothic Cathedral cathedral dominates and around it there is a cracking ‘Munster Market’ open five days a week. Plenty of “ye olde German wooden toys” etc but it has numerous flower, fruit and bakery stalls too. The city tours take a walk around many of the oldest buildings including several red stone 16th century Historisches Kaufhaus  – former merchants houses.

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Kaufhaus

We were already mightily impressed with the amount to see and do, then we came across the pièce de résistance – a “floating woman” illusion. Iain  wasn’t fussed and felt he could explain it all away – I on the other hand love it, I could have stood there for an hour. I adore people who get off their bums to make a fee euro rather than rob old ladies and if they do sitting on a platform pretending they are floating then they get my couple of Euro everytime.

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At the edge of the old town is a large town park, which in turn leads up to The Schlossberg, a 1500 ft tree covered hill.  There are several footpaths up to the hill from the town, or there is a funicular railway – we took the lazy option.  There have been fortfied structures on the hill for over 900 years and more are being uncovered to attract visitors.  For us the most attractive thing about it was the sheer peace and quiet, despite there being plenty of other walkers it is high enough that there is no traffic noise (and no accordions either!)

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Schlossberg funicular

For a small city we found so much to do, despite poor weather, for most of the four days we have been here. The one thing we hadn’t done was visit Schauinsland, for a few reasons : its over 4200 ft high and to get to the top you take the longest loop cable car in Germany for just over 2 1/2 miles – the ride in the cable car takes 20 minutes. 

This morning it was reasonably sunny and we had nothing better to do, so a bus and a tram later we were at the base station. No matter how brave I thought I was after a few chair lifts nothing had me ready for this.  It was horrendous, this little glass bubble trundling up into the sky on a bit of wire, however as there were another four people in our bubble, sorry car, then I had to put a brave face on.

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that is the “brave” face

Twenty minutes is a long, long time – 1200 seconds and every one of them felt like an age. On the plus side, as a loop cable car you don’t get the horrendous shake and judder as it passes over the pylons, also when its thick with cloud you can’t see too far which for me is a bonus! It was built in the 1930’s but closed down in 1987 when the a safety permit wasn’t granted – only to be re-opened again in 1989 after updating of the cable cars and cable stations.

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A long way in any direction

At the top there are several cafes, restaurants,play areas – oh and a massive car-park as there is a road all the way to the top, in my new found cocky braveness though roads are for wimps :). We were expecting amazing views but the low cloud looked set in on the mountain and we made do with a sit on the deckchairs looking at the grey mist.

We did plan to walk back down, but as it was cold and a bit damp at the top we came down on the cable car back into the sunshine. We spent the afternoon riding the trams around the city as we had an 24 hour pass and decided to get our money worth. Much quieter everywhere on a Sunday and a pleasant enough way to see the whole city, especially with a stop off for coffee and cake at Starbucks ending the week perfectly.

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The only views were of clouds

 

Enough with the cuckoos now

The week started for Iain with the dentist, severe tooth pain for a week so he bit the bullet with an emergency appointment at the dentist in Mengen. At this stage we have to say that the German reputation for efficiency is so well deserved: ring for an appointment at 8.30, in the dentist chair by 1045, out and sorted by 1115. The best bit though – cost a big fat €0 – just show a passport and E11 and off we go. 🙂

Despite Iain having a frozen face we took a hop to Sigmaringen, a small town just 20 minutes up the road.  The whole town is dominated by the castle perched on a chalk cliff that towers over 120 ft above the Danube. The current castle was rebuilt after a fire in 1893 (the towers being the only original part of the medieval castle that remain). For a short while the castle was the seat of the French Vichy Government, moved there by the Gestapo after the Allies liberated France. Now its a museum as the family owners (claimants to the Romanian throne) live in other castles in the area.

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Sigmaringen castle

As we are becoming used to the town was immaculate, shops, streets, pavements cafes – everything neat and beautifully kept.  We were both very much loving the town, stopped for a drink in a pavement cafe and a bottle of fizzy water costs us €5 – we weren’t so impressed. That aside though we are finding Germany very welcoming and easy, every village has a dedicated area for motorhomes to park, the prices (except water) seem cheaper than most Western European countries and the dreaded height barrier doesn’t seem much in evidence.

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Town hall – Sigmaringen

Our belief that everyone can speak English is as wrong as ever – whilst the youngsters seem fluent the older generations speak very little English – not too worry my German is astounding them daily. The local greeting here translates to something akin to “God’s blessings” it seems I have been greeting people saying “Great big God” instead! what is brilliant is no-one seems to care, people just nod, smile and say “hallo”.

We do find the Germans to be slightly reserved, they are not rude just maybe a little formal. Usually we find if we speak first they are happy to chat in response, one German lady told us it is often that they don’t feel they know enough English to converse fluently so in those cases feel it better to stay quiet, as opposed to us who just say it a little louder and hope the translation comes across.

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Sigmaringen town square

The Black Forest is of course famous for cuckoo clocks and I love them. So much so we had to go see the biggest cuckoo clock in the world in Schontach. There was one each end of the building, the first one you put in a euro and the giant figurine came out as the music jingled, the other end was an authentic clock with all the workings. Inside it was cuckoo heaven – clocks everywhere ranging from €20 to €900 – could have stood there all day listening to them (and watching goggle eyed as a couple purchase one for €850!).

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One of several “largest cuckoo clocks in the world”

As we headed through Triberg it became apparent that you can have too much of a good thing, more and more cuckoo shops, and oddly enough another four of the “worlds biggest cuckoo clocks” within a 20 mile radius – so that’s five all awarded the title by Guinness Book of Records, no idea how that works?  Triberg itself held little of other interest, it does hold two of the only dedicated “men’s parking spaces” on earth but we made do with the main town car-park which was reasonably empty, enabling Iain to park without the need of a ‘special man space’ :).

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A chronomentrophobiac’s nightmare

We found Schiltach, a cosy little half timbered village, much more to our liking with a campsite right in the village; we squeezed down the entrance where various roof overhangs threatened to turn the van into a cabriolet. Down on the pitches we had a choice of three, after that there is a railway bridge right across the middle of the site – which is 5 cm lower than our roof – its a dangerous place for motorhomes for sure. There is one VW past the railway bridge – no idea how it got there and we are staying as long as it takes to see how the hell its getting back out :).

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Two bridges under 2.7 metres across the middle of the site

Schiltach is, for us, exactly what a Black Forest village should look like. The ‘German Half Timbered House Road’ (imaginatively named) runs through the village and the amount of car-parking available would seem to denote that its a busy tourist attraction. On a drizzly day though there were just a few hardy souls wandering around . There must be somewhere between 40-50 vernacular half timbered houses built anywhere between the 16th and 19th centuries. Tight cobble streets run up the hills between the houses with a medieval market place at the heart of town.

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Quintessential Black Forest

For us, quite simply stunning – we loved it so much we went in for a wander in the morning, stopped for coffee and cake then came back to the campsite. Late afternoon we went in a second time to walk the same route and make sure we had seen everything, we met up with an English couple who we first met last weekend at another town. They told us about a walk up a steep hill to the site of the former castle – we both agreed steeps hills to where something used to be were not for us.

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Beautiful Bavaria

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On leaving the Alps our aim was to cross into Italy,  as always things don’t pan out as we thought and instead we crossed in the opposite direction into Germany. Looking forward to no more vignettes, tolls and charges – second road we hit was a private road and had a toll. Not the end of the world at €8.50 and worth every cent as we drove along the side of the Sylvenstein river towards the dam and our first taste of Bavaria. As with many rivers in the area the water takes on a chalky white appearance from the rocks – it looks more like milk than water.

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Sylvenstein

First intended stop was to be the lake at Tefernsee, we drove round it in a couple of directions (minor driver / navigator scrap!) and in the end agreed there wasn’t really anywhere worth staying. Instead we went to Bad Tolz, a small spa town just a few miles to the West.  A typical Bavarian town, a wide river running though the centre and tall buildings all painted with ornate frescos. The main street was pedestrianised, pavement cafes  and various museums and gift shops all busy with the coach tours in for the afternoon.

As with Austria we were surprised at how many shops sell traditional Austrian costumes for men and women. Without exaggeration every other shop had several costumes for men and rack after rack of ye olde German dresses for women. We see plenty of people if cafes and restaurants wearing the costumes but not enough to warrant the amount on sale. Before the question comes, at this moment lederhosen have not been purchased – but you never know :).

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Bad Tolz

We took a couple of days driving around the lakes to the South of Munich, Starnberger and Ammersee and an overnight in Diessen.  Again the houses and shops were similar to Austria but in the main they lack the flowing window boxes, relying more on the paintings and woodwork for decoration. We had a wander around the shops but resisted spending on cow bells and cuckoo clocks – so far anyway but there are so many its becoming more difficult by the day.

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Our mid-week aim was for the dual splendor of Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenschwanstein, the former being most famous as the castle Disney modeled their fairy-tale castle on. We expected a few tourists so we arrived early, well before 10am. It felt like actually being in Disney, the most people we have encountered anywhere we have been. It is very well organised, there are loads of shops, cafes and even horses and carts to take you up to the castles but more people than you want to meet in one go anywhere.

Our plan was a quick trek up to the bridge to take some photos and get out of there. We were scuppered as the bridge was closed for repairs, so no choice other than to follow the hoards up to the top. We had to question how on earth the bridge can ever be open, would hate to stand on it with a few thousand tourists pushing and shoving for a selfie shot.

The best we could capture on ‘film’

Both castles were built at the end of the 19th century, more folly than castle, seemingly with an eye too future tourists.  We knew there were two castles but we were surprised just how close they were, within minutes walk. Without a doubt Newschwanstein is the star attractions – Hohenschwanstein gets a passing glance but no more. We lasted an hour at the site and that was enough, plenty more castles in Germany so hopefully find a few less popular ones.

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On the right day, from the right viewpoint – a bit of Disney in Germany

We booked on to a campsite down the road and got the bikes down for a trip around the lakes, very much up Alp and down dale. The following morning we decided to do the same route but to hire electric bikes from the campsite.  Despite fairly rubbish old electric bikes it was more fun than should be possible on a bike. The views had gone – lost to freezing fog – loved it so much though we got back to camp, packed butties and a flask and set off again to do the route in reverse – best bike rides ever :).

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Rest stop

Following the ‘Deutsche Alpine Tourist Route’  it was onwards to Friedrichshafen and Iain’s second nirvana after Skoda – the home of the Zepplin. The only trip on offer was the 45 minute €350 trip, one place left for the last flight of the day. Ah well, only one seat of course I let Iain have it!  We were there at lunchtime so whiled away the afternoon sat in the sun outside the hangar bar, Iain filling his face with struddle whilst I was astounded people want to go up in a box hanging off a balloon.

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Five o’clock came, Iain was off for his safety brief (which consists of “ be careful climbing up the steps to get on as it moves” and “it’s ok to take off the seat-belt and wander around once airborne”.).  I think its possibly more terrifying watching someone else go up, six or seven guys holding the ropes to stop it floating off whilst they do “two on – two off” to keep the weight even. The  they let go of the ropes and its gone, very little noise it just floats off. When it comes back it nose dives down to land, literally head down and the guys on the grass run around grabbing ropes.

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After the excitement of Zepplin flight we were planning a quiet weekend around the Bodensee lake, looking over at Switzerland. We pulled onto a campsite and found ourselves shoe horned in between a couple of large German vans. One of the German ladies spent most of the evening stood by our door smoking and glaring in at us, quit honestly she scasred us both! We got up and 7am and she was there again (or maybe had spent the night there). We decided to make a quick exit and leave the hoards around the lake.

With a few miles of leaving Bodensee we found a small Stellplatz next to a set of fishing lakes and parked up for the weekend. Nothing much to do but walk and cycle, suits us perfectly for the weekend.

Crystals – snow and glass varieties

Austria seems to have a few quirks – one of which is the road systems. It seems on a two lane road if the speed drops to below 50 miles per hour then the traffic immediately filters to either the outside lane or the hard-shoulder. This leaves the inside lane free for emergency vehicles but also stops all the lane jumping you usually getting in slower traffic. As soon as things speed up everyone filters back out – sad but true that we are mega impressed, so much so we love seeing a bit of a hold up ahead!

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Roads and views in Austria take some beating

Despite some low cloud we followed Gerlos Alpine Road over the mountains, passing the Krimml waterfalls — the highest in Europe and 5th highest in the world.  The road only opened in 1964 and closes in November due to snow, until then its motorcycle heaven with all the cafes, guest houses and car-parks trying their best to attract some of the hundreds of bikers who visit each day.

At the top of the pass we reached over 5000 ft, turned a corner and we reached a toll booth! As we have a vignette we were a bit surprised and agreed if it was too expensive we were going back – well maybe not as it would have been about about a 60 mile diversion. It was only €8.50 so we paid up and took the downward slope and into Gerlos, a very traditional looking ski village with plenty of expensive shops and bars.

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It’s not blue skies every day

Iain has a yearning to go on a bob-sleigh run, we have yet to find a dry run but we did find roller-coaster type run at Zell am Ziller, worth a few Euro to see his smiley little face, and another few Euro for the photo. According to Frans Klammer-Baxter he reached speeds of over 70 kph -evidence below 🙂

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With more rain on the horizon we were looking for something to do that didn’t involved a castle or museum but kept us dry -Swarovski Crystal World in Wattens was a perfect fit.  Built 20 years ago to celebrate 100 years of the Swarovski company, describing it as a museum would be wrong, there is only one room with old artifacts and really nothing about the history.  It is called an experience – you enter under the waterfall that runs from the mouth of the giant and inside there are 15 unique “Chambers of Wonder”  – a very apt description of what is there.swarovski (71)

Enter under the giant

Each chamber has been designed by different artists and use crystals and glass in some very unique and mind blowing manners. My favourite was the Crystal Dome, 595 mirrors in a geodesic dome that creates such a feeling of depth it feels (and sounds) as if you are inside a crystal. Music composed by Brian Eno plays in the background and as the colours in the glass change from time to time hidden art objects appears behind some of the mirrors. One of the most amazing man-made objects ever – worth the entrance fee on it’s own.

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impossible to photograph  – borrowed from the Swarovski website

Every installation is very different, classical sculptures in crystal, clouds containing crystal rain drops, forests made from crystal and glass where you feel trapped in a 3D world and so many others it would take the whole blog to describe it.  There is of course a large Swavorski outlet shop, nothing cheap there but a massive selection for those with big purses. Outside there are further sculptures along with a giant maze and a pool that you walk into by way of a pathway giving the impression to onlookers you are walking through the water. Despite it costing €19 to get in it is without a doubt one of the most fabulous places we have been to.

more of the chambers and the outside clouds

Our plan was to visit Innsbruck, we drove in and drove out. We expected a ski town, it was just like any other very large town and not what we were after. We remembered a comment on here about Seefeld so set off there instead. Up in the mountains a small ski village that is just perfect for us at this time of year; plenty of quirky little shops, quaint hotels, cuckoo clocks galore, horse and carriage rides and cafes with oodles of struddles .

A lovely campsite on the edge of the village, the most expensive site since we started out 10 months ago. That said we both think its great, Iain has been making regular use of the sauna, the restaurant serves very, very good food (on a wet day the best comfort food ever – Tiroler Grostl) – its all so good we have been here for four days.

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Seefeld

Continuing the theme of “I hate heights so why are we in the mountains?” we went up in the ski lift to 5000 ft. My nerves were shot to you know what, I believe clinging on to the hand-rail will save me if the cable snaps – I did do no hands for a split second to take a photograph, just the one :).  Seefeld is a very popular resort with British walkers, we met a couple who have been coming for 11 years, they were surprised we were using the lifts and not walking – we were surprised you would walk that far up a steep hill if you didn’t have to. The sun popped out for half an hour whilst we were in the mountain restaurant having lunch – the views absolutely made up for the terror trip up there.

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On the way down

Made it both ways 🙂      We went how high ??

It’s been our first few days of poor weather for months, the sun has peeped out now and again but the first snows of the season fell on the slopes above us during the night.  We did venture out today for a decent walk, following one of the many Nordic walking trails down the valley and back. Back of camp now planning on moving on tomorrow before we take root here.

No sign of Julie Andrews – yet!

As usual Sunday was border crossing day – we trundled over the mountains and arrived in country number 19, Austria. A few things changed, the currency of course – back to Euro, but more so the scenery. The houses grew bigger, the balconies became full of flowers, the mountains became higher and the road surfaces became quite frankly smoother than your average babies bottom.

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The country is wonky not my photo

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Lake Traunsee

Stop one was at Ebensee, in the Salzkammergut mountains.  We drove around Lake Traunsee and saw more people and cars in an hour than we usually see all week. The weather was playing its part for sure as people were parked up and swimming everywhere.  We found a small stellplatz near the lake, parked up for a walk around the village and a quiet over-night.

Mistake there then, at 9.25pm the air raid sirens started. We had no idea what was going on, Iain half asleep said maybe its to tell you the dam has burst!!! We waited, no one seemed to panic or move so we stayed put even though it had put the fear of God into us (we found out later that they use the siren to muster the volunteer fire brigade).

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Lake Traunsee

Looking for a ‘must see’  village we chose  Hallstatt –  known as one of the ‘most beautiful villages in Austria’, always a sucker for the tourist blurb we were there bright and early ready to say it wasn’t that special. How wrong could we be? it deserves all it’s accolades – set on the side of the Hallstatter See (lake), wooden houses clinging to the side of a mountain, flowers trundling out of window boxes, cafes with gents dressed in their lederhosen – really the classic Austrian village.

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Hallstatt 

It was only possible to reach the village by boat or rough trails until just over 100 years ago when roads were blasted through. The village has 940 full time inhabitants, and something like 3000 visitors based on the people milling around the teeny lanes. Many, many were Chinese, and they could have saved themselves a big trip, a complete replica of the entire village was built in the Chinese town of Huizhou China in 2011.

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Hallstatt

On the edge of the village is a funicular railway up to the salt mines, it looked steep but we bit the bullet and got on. It was, quite simply, terrifying – no not just me, several small German children (aged about nine) stood with me, facing the back, refusing to look down. It shoots up the hill like a bullet – then it meets the other one coming down and suddenly slams on the brakes, I am amazed I paid to be scared half to death.

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The funicular railway

If that hadn’t been enough then according to World Heritage “everyone needs a bit of excitement” and to give you that they have built a viewing platform that extends out from the mountain and hangs 350 metres (1150 ft) over the rooftops of the village. In the spirit of already feeling like my knees were about to collapse I made the “Sky Walk” – I stayed long enough for a photo and was off, Iain on the other hand was a cocky sod and even did a few aerobic poses whilst taking some panorama shots of the views.

Brave or stupid – who knows?

So many castles to chose from but Hohenwerfen Castle appealed firstly because it was an 11th century castle high on an imposing hill towering over the villages. Secondly though,  we do like them to have some current history and this one was the setting for the film Where Eagle Dare and main backdrop for the song “Do-Re-Mi” in the Sound of Music.

We expected some mention of either or, nope not a one. The castle is reached by either a 20 minute slog up the hill from the car-park or (yet another) funicular railway. Great! it was hotter than hot so we went for the railway, this one was even better you pushed the buttons as if you were in a lift, not as high though and certainly easier than the walk. The castle was a little under-whelming inside, a few exhibitions of contemporary arts, a museum relating to birds of prey and hunting and twice daily falconry displays.

Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton and Julie Andrews and I have graced these hills!

Zell am See was next on our list, one of the most popular ski resorts in the area. Being one of the hottest days of the year it was all about sunshine and the lake, the ski lifts were running but we really couldn’t muster the effort to do anything other than sit on the opposite side of the lake and look back at the village.

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Zell am See – minus the usual snow

We considered stopping for a few days at a campsite, to be honest the price put us off but so did the whinging Brits stood outside reception moaning about everything from the weather, the amount of traffic and the service.  Instead we plumped for a space outside a guesthouse on the side of a mountain, along with mainly German neighbours, and spent the evening marvelling at the views from our little pitch for which we had paid just £6.50. Whilst that included our electric and wifi it apparently doesn’t include rubbish, when Iain tried to dispose of a small bag of rubbish it cost him 50 cents 🙂

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The view through our windscreen

Paddling in pea soup

Day 300 – something of a milestone and, as people keep helpfully telling us, we are down to our last couple of months. As yet we are still heading South so it really doesn’t feel anything like being on our way home yet, we expected to be out of the Czech Rep by now and into Austria.  The good weather together with our both very much liking it here resulted in our agreeing to stop for a few extra days for a ‘mini-break’ near Lake Lipno.

Before that we had our last hit on the culture scene, Cesky Krumlov. Yet another Unesco site, where as Budejovice had some listed buildings Krumlov old town is listed in its entirety.  Thinking it would be a few more old buildings we were both a little awestruck when we arrived, like something out of a fairy story with castles, turrets, steeples and cobbled streets galore.

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Wow just about covers it!

The town and castle were both built back in the late 13th century. Most of the architecture that still exists dates from the 14th – 17th centuries with a wealth of the usual Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles. The main part of the town is set within a keyhole bend in the River Vltava with the castle on the other side. It really is one of those places where you don’t know where to look first, our eyes were out on stalks trying to take it all in.

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The Eastern Bloc era wasn’t kind to the town and it fell into disrepair, you wouldn’t know it now. Since the 1989 Czech Velvet Revolution the town has had a radical makeover and been restored beautifully in most place, only the castle gardens are now an ongoing piece of work.

It is a major tourist destination, not a few tourists – there were thousands of them flooding off buses every few minutes. We arrived just after 9am and there were a fair few people around, by lunchtime it was bursting at the seams. Seeing how busy it was proved our theory that Prague would have been way to chaotic in August, as the morning wore on it was becoming difficult to see anything other than people!

It is a city that claims notability for many things, gingerbread being one, there is a history of gingerbread being produced in the town that dates back a few hundred years. In the ‘ye olde’ type gingerbread shop we loved that the gingerbread was labelled as edible but also guaranteed to keep for 100 years – if it only keep for 99 years make sure you take it back then?

Krumlov is also known for  puppetry, mainly due to a historical connection where puppet shows and theatres were common place forms of entertainment in the 18th century. There is a museum dedicated to puppets and theatres and there are numerous shops selling everything from old fashioned marionettes down to finger puppets.

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puppets everywhere

The most controversial aspect must be the bear moat at the castle. Records show bears have been kept in the moat since 1707 and on and off ever since.  It does seem cruel but there are arguments that it is no worse than a zoo and that there is a successful breeding programme.

The moat bears are a much-loved part of the community, they even have birthday and Christmas parties, where the local children bring gifts and exotic foods for them. We spied the bears for a few seconds, then they sat under the drawbridge where no one could see them – says how they feel about it then :).  Whilst its very probably very un-PC to admit it – I was thrilled to see the bears.

Once it got too hot we got going, off to Horni Plana, on the edge of the Sumava National Park. Situated in the Bohemian Forest the village is on the edge of Lipno Dam. We found a small campsite on the lake, complete with its own sandy beach, and booked on for a few days. Iain has had a hankering for a scooter, we have seen more and more adults on them in recent weeks, so as the the hire shop had some he was off out for a trial – verdict : great for the flat and downhills, too much like hardwork on the uphills. There was a brand new tarmac cycle path though, which we took advantage of to cycle down to the next town, you still can’t beat a bike.

Scooter man                                Man-made beaches at Lipno

We have been what can only be termed as fairly idle for the last three days. We have sat in the sun, then built shelters to keep out the sun (using string and sheets, all very Blue Peter).  I had a first and went out on a pedallo – never been on one before, a quick whizz around the lake but think I got on Iain’s nerves keep moaning about I didn’t have life saving equipment on-board!  Iain yet again found a kind site owner happy to loan him a canoe without charge. By this afternoon the water on the lake here was pea green, looked a bit like cabbage soup. Despite it being 35 degrees the green bloom put off all but one or two hardly souls from taking to the water.

Tomorrow we will move on,  Austria awaits.

Sun-baking and cycling

We took to the back-roads on our way out from Kutna Hora, decent roads, not at all busy and lovely to be back off the beaten track for a while.  After the last few months of forest lined roads through Scandinavia and Poland it was a real change to see  open countryside, mile after mile or rolling farmland – pretty much all harvested.

The joy of the back-road without a map is we never quite know what is coming up next. Down through a village, turn a corner over the bridge and hey presto Cesky Sternberk.  An early Gothic Bohemian castle, the most impressive fact is that its still in the ownership of the family who built it in the mid 13th century.

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Cesky Sternberk Castle

Onwards and downwards to our next stop at the city of Ceske Budejovice. Main reason for coming was that rain was forecast and we thought we might do a bit of shopping. On arrival it was cracking the flags, lucky for us a new swimming pool had just been opened at the motel site we were staying at. Not sure why but hardly any  of the Czech’s were in for a dip, everyone seemed a bit reticent – enter us and a very pleasant and cooling dip. We really hadn’t thought of this country as a summer destination but they seem very geared up to good weather with the pool at the site and another very large outdoor pool in town.

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Pre-dip

The drizzle came in on day two so we had a day in the city, a bit of sight-seeing and a wander around the shops. The old town is on a small island which is linked by several bridges. Much of the town was destroyed in bombing raids in WWII, that said there are still plenty of stunning of examples of  Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings, mainly around Ottokar II Square.

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Ottokar II Square

Around the edge of the city runs a maze of Skoda trolleybus services, linking the several shopping centres and the suburbs. I managed a little bit of shopping the we went all ethnic and ate at the local McDonalds (at £3 for dinner and drinks for two we wont knock it). By mid afternoon the sky was clear again so we finished our retail therapy and went back to some sight seeing.  We found plenty to see and do on top of the architecture, several sculptures, a couple of parks, and some very impressive bridges crossing backwards and forwards over the rivers

“Rush hour” and “Restful” sculptures

A couple of the buildings are Unesco listed, but in the main its a working city and for us none the worse for that. Less of a museum setting and more a chance to see how the average Czech lives. Iain climbed the 16th century Black Tower and took some cracking ariel photos, whilst the square is the main attraction many of the side streets held better preserved buildings and for us were much more appealing.

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Ottokar II Square

Other than the war damage, architecture and a stack of ice hockey stadiums, the town is best known for beer production, so much so it was the imperial brewery of the Holy Roman Empire. As infamous is the legal wrangles between the local brewery, who produces Budweiser (and has the legal right to market its beer and name through most of Europe) and the American ‘Budweiser’. The US version is a different beer and a different company, who used the same name to imitate the successful Czech beer.  The American company has made many offers to buy out the Czech Budweiser to secure the rights to the name but the Czech government wont let the name go as a matter of national pride. So in some countries asking for a Budweiser gets you the American brew and in other the Czech brew.

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Our well earned Budweisers (Czech version of course)

We were moving on this morning but decided on an extra day by the pool.  Where we are staying is on the edge of the town park, acres and acres of grass and trees with a lake in the middle – just a good old fashioned park. We walked across to the local Kaufland to treat ourselves to some bits for lunch and then retired to the sun-loungers around the pool  to sun-bake (as they say here). By late afternoon it was cooling down so we took the bikes out for a quick mile or two around the park. From the park though we found a cycle path along the river so, as you do, we needed to follow that. And follow it we did for 6 or 7 miles down to the next village, brilliant wide tarmac path all the way.

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The cycle path was incredibly busy but what shocked us most was for every cyclist there were at least two inline skaters. A few youngsters but in the main aged from mid 20’s up to mid 50’s, as many blokes as women and they can skate a hell of a lot faster than we can cycle.

The other big sport here is canoeing, at the end of the cycle path we came across a canoe slalom course, again full to over-flowing with people on the water. We sat and watched for a while, Iain pondering if he is buying a canoe (!) before heading back to camp for a quiet evening to work out where to next.

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This could be him soon!!

Simply clever

Part II of this week was going to be all about cars, so en-route we stopped off for some castle action. There is no shortage of choice as Bohemia has numerous castles and châteaux from it’s various historical epoques, travelling down any road there are signs in most directions to a historic church, castle or museum.

We went for Frydstejn, perched high on a hill it is a typical rock castle. Built sometime in the 14th century the castle consists of a tall turret on a sandstone ridge, the rooms were carved out of the nearby rocks and have long since gone. The car-park was a 15 minute walk away, where we encountered the most unhappy looking car-park attendant on earth. Once we established a price he insisted I walk over and read his sign stating we had one hour. Not sure what happened if we went over but he looked so glum we didn’t risk the potential repercussions.

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Frydstejn castle

Moving swiftly on, after 10 long months we finally arrived at destination nirvana for Iain – Mlada Boleslav – the original and largest Skoda production plant in the world.  We weren’t just there for a drive by visit, we had booked a tour inside both factory and museum. It’s fair to say excitement levels were high, mine in case it was like the Guinness tour and you a free sample at the end, Iain’s just because he is a Skoda freak :).

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Happiness is a car-plant

A strange system for the tours, you arrive at the museum but the first visit is around the factory a couple of miles away. You take your own car, and also have to transport your guide there and back. We were exempt due to the motorhome, so they shoved us in with a few people who didn’t own a car and we got a lift the Skoda mini-bus.

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After much mockery I will concede the factory tour is very interesting, it firstly takes you into two of the pressing plants, where we saw doors and roofs for Octavia being produced. From there it’s into the production line – where we toured the main line as cars were being produced. Other than an instruction to not take photos it was access all areas. A yellow fluorescent jacket was all we needed, cranes moving over-head, gigantic dies being moved, the sound of metal being thumped at a  million decibels – a H&S nightmare in the UK but nothing to worry about here as long as you wear the jacket that says ‘visitor’.

The site is similar in size to that of your average town, all the staff have to park their cars outside the factory and walk, with 25,000 employees in the main factory there are a lot of car-parks – oddly enough rather full of Skoda’s! Back at the museum there are many Skoda cars to see, many, many, some old, some not so old. I left Iain to it and went and read a book whilst he indulged in Skoda history.

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After an automotive over-load the plan was to visit Kutna Hora. We had toyed with idea of Prague but decided against as a) its mid August and we are told it’s heaving, b) the four campsites in the city all advise they are full. Kutna Hora is recommended by the Czech tourist info as the place next worth visiting after Prague, so that’s where we went.

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Kutna Hora

The city is in the central area of Bohemia, and was established as a silver mining area by the Germans in 13th century.  Now a Unesco site (where isn’t?), there are truck loads of thing to see in a very small area, for although they call it a city it’s really no bigger than your average small market town stuffed full of historical buildings, cobbled streets and quaint ally ways of shops.

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Cathedral of St. Barbara

Surprisingly, it wasn’t as busy as we thought it could be. There were plenty of people around but nowhere was over crowded and we were able to get to see everything we wanted without queues or hoards of people. Unfortunately several of the buildings we wanted to see were shrouded in scaffolding for repair or restoration, no matter there were more than enough with two cathedrals, a Jesuit college and even an ossuary (bone chapel).  We found that if we wanted to shop then we needed to be up earlier on a Saturday – shops were only open from 8am to 11am then closed until Monday.kutna hora (42)

Jesuit College

Just when we thought a place couldn’t get any better we came across more cars – this time a vintage car rally in the centre of town. Iain believes all his Christmas’s have come at once this week. The cars were all pre 1935 and the owners were all dressed in period costumes, my favourite bar none was the gorgeous little girl sat in the rumble seat, happy to pose and wave at anyone with a camera.

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The Czech Republic is proving to be a winner with us. My role of chancellor of our tour exchequer is reaping the benefits of some of the cheapest prices we have seen throughout Europe. Campsites are much improved, the weather is good enough that evenings can be spent sat outside until after 10pm with just the sound of campers chatting and the smell of over-cooked sausages on barbecues.

Again there are not too many motorhomes about, as with Poland vehicles over 3.5 tonnes need Go Boxes to pay tolls, possibly why so few larger moho about. The mix of campers in tents and smaller vans here is very cosmopolitan, tonight we are on a small garden site with vehicles from Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Russia, France and one Czech.

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Just window shopping

Poland into Czech

All our moaning about the weather came back and bit us on the bum – Monday was pretty much rain all day. The first couple of hours were bright enough so we walked into the village to see what was there.  Whilst Bolkow will probably never win any beautiful town awards it has the look of being well lived in, yet well cared for.  Around the town square on three sides were old buildings, once painted in bright pastels, which although they looked like they needed a new coat of paint when the sun came out they looked well enough. The majority of the shops were open, selling the usual stuff we all don’t need with the addition of many, many arrangements of silk flowers.

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Bolkow town square

We had a perusal through the town shops, still marveling that everything is a bargain based on price – whether we need it or not. I couldn’t resist a new oil-cloth for the picnic table at £2! Got it back to camp, put in out, sat and admired it under the awning along with our friendly wasp brigade. Twenty minutes later we noticed a hole burnt into the cloth, that would be the insect repellent bottle that we had left on there. If it does that to the tablecloth Lord alone knows what its doing to our skin so we have binned that one and will be embracing the wasps more often.

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Borlow town 

Back onto  town and the main attraction of the village is the castle, as all good castles should be high on a hill above the town. Built in the 13th century and devastated in the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, restoration work didn’t start until 1905.  The restoration is ongoing, not all sympathetically as lots of very new looking brick work appears around door frames. The central courtyard houses a bar and cafe and an annual Gothic rock festival takes place inside the castle walls – it seems more restoration is to stop it collapsing than to bring it back to its former glory.

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Bolkow Castle

Our route towards the Czech Republic took us over the Giant Mountains, not actually that giant as they are relatively low but despite that they have a climate similar to the Alps with low winter temperatures and a long period of snow cover.

We stopped off at Szklarska Poreba, a popular ski town just before the border. Plenty of new building work taking place with wooden hotels and chalets sprouting in every corner. The ski area covers a massive area for both alpine and Nordic skiers, this along with the low costs here compared to the Alps has seen the whole area growing in popularity with those fans of hurling themselves along in the snow.

Even in summer its busy, a few outdoor shops, lots of restaurants and bars and more ticky-tacky stalls than we have seen since Dracula’s castle. We walked up to the chair lifts to consider a lift up and a walk back down –  deemed pointless though as low cloud meant there weren’t any views that could be seen (phew).

Instead we made do with an evening in the centre of town at a small campsite come hippy haven. An eclectic mix of people who took too much of one thing or another in the 1960’s along with a few motorhomes – everyone rubbed along together rather well.

On our way out of Poland we found a garage selling vignettes, £5 for 10 days, and exchanged our Zloty into Koruna – for the first time in nine months (except the Euro zone)  we have arrived in a country with the correct currency and road tax, we seem to be getting the hang of it at long last :).

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We only travelled a few miles over the border before stopping off at Tanvald.  Not the biggest or most exciting looking of towns, now mainly a winter ski resort but not so long ago the centre of glass making in Bohemia, the evidence of which can still be seem with several gargantuan abandoned factories along the valley.

We cycled to the nearest factory as we had seen a sign for a museum there. Slightly disappointing to find it was a wooden toy factory not a glass works, but still worth visiting and spend a few koruna at the factory shop where Detoa wooden toys are still produced over 100 years after the company started here.  Each factory has a small supermarket area, a sports bar (aka the pub) and two or three blocks of apartments for the workers. Whilst some of the housing appears a bit Eastern Bloc many of the factories were here long before any thoughts of dividing up Europe ever too place, it seems they just replaced the factory worker houses with blocks of flats.

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One of the many Tanvald factories

At 4 pm we were somewhat disconcerted to hear the air raid sirens start, first in this village, then in the next, then the next etc. We had seen the loudspeakers on lamp posts through the villages and lanes and assumed it was for some type of fete. Ostensibly the air raid sirens are still tested once a month through out the country, just to be sure they are working in case they are needed – makes you feel safe here the then!

The Southern Poles

As we were back in Poland we both felt we may as well travel South through Poland, rather  than cross into Germany.  We love the brilliant Polish roads – not too much traffic, great surfaces for mile after mile through the forests.

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Our campsite in Kobylanka was on what appeared to be an old park, just us and a few tents and a few hundred years of rust and rot in the facilities block! We were both very much at the stage of its too hot, not just a bit hot, way too hot. At 36 degrees we were both cooking, so much so we hit the beach on the lake for a dip – like bath water and very clear, too clear as you could see the fish swishing around your feet . A perfect sandy beach but the walk out was endless, after a good five minutes it was still only knee deep but never has a body of water been an inviting to a body.

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Kobylanka lake

The Polish do swimming lakes well, there is always a load of imported sand, cafes, all the blow up swimming aides you could think of and a general feeling of the seaside brought inland.  We were feeling a lot of love for the campsite and village until the campsite loud-speakers burst into the Polish national anthem at 6am  – we dreaded looking out the window in case everyone was up doing star jumps, luckily there were just a few hundred cyclists getting ready for a cycle marathon. We also saw our favourite campervan to date on the site – what it lacked in room it made up for in character and the French owners both strung up a hammock each to while away the afternoon and evening.

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Our next campervan??

Driving down the S3 Southbound we were somewhat stunned to spot a colossal statue of Jesus on the edge of the town Swiebodzin.  At  33 metres (108 ft tall), the crown alone is 10 ft tall, it stands on a mound so the whole thing stretches up over  52 metres (172 ft).  The town residents paid for the construction with donations totalling over €1 million. It’s all very impressive but, if it had been me I wouldn’t have built it right outside a Tesco supermarket and I wouldn’t have piped cover  music of  Michael Jackson’s Heal the World ringing out around the site – both things detract immensely from what is a very beautiful and simple structure.

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It is incredible to see, more so when you consider a small town of 22,000 residents found the money to pay for it. Built in just 5 years it was completed in 2010 and is now the largest statue of Christ in the world (yes, it beats Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro by 3 metres).  The grounds are still being landscaped and what appears to be a small hotel being built. There were very few tourists there but sure at it matures it will become a must see on the coach trail along with the Hill of Crosses in the North, Poland looks to have secured two of the iconic Catholic pilgrimages of the future.

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It has been a week on excessive heat and thunder and lightning. Every night we have had cracking storms to watch followed by torrential rain, then by the following morning each day the sun has steamed the ground dry and it all starts again. It’s been too hot for our fridge which just couldn’t take the temperatures so we have let everything defrost and eating our way through a few odd mixtures over the next couple of nights to use everything up.

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Beautiful house at our stopover in Przytoczna

Ending the week we are just an hour off the Czech border in the town of Bolkow. The area was once part of Germany but many towns were ethnically cleansed after WWII when the native German residents were expelled and replaced with Poles. Seems strange to think that not only has the town moved to a new country but that the people here are pretty much newcomers.

Here we found our cheapest campsite we have stayed on anywhere in Europe at £5 per night all in – and the all-in includes the town municipal outdoor pool being a few steps from our door. Oddly the campsites off the coast have been all but empty, it would seem holidaying inland in Poland is not de rigueur, so it’s just us and two  other familys on the site.  We have both had a swim in a pool, its old, it’s a bit cracked and worn (like us then) but when the mercury hit the mid 30’s this afternoon we weren’t even slightly picky and joined the town’s people for a dip.

Wrong turn – right good result

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The last few days we have pottered around on the South Coast of Sweden, enjoying the sunshine and working out what to do next. Once we turned the corner from the South East coast it all became more urban, more holiday town, more people and much less the Sweden we have found so wonderful.

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Our final night was just outside Ystad, amongst the dunes with 30-40 vans, all very peaceful and quiet. Come 7am the rumble of wagons, many wagons, the circus is coming to town and pitching up in the next field – yippee! It took nearly 2 hours for all the circus wagons to pull on, at least 50 or so including plenty of proper old fashioned circus caravans.

I was telling Iain about memories of circus having camels and elephants – Iain was laughing that circus don’t have camels – at which stage they start unloading the camels 🙂 followed by a call that can only be the elephants unloading :).

To leave Sweden our options were to drive back through Denmark or catch a ferry direct to Germany. The latter seemed favourite and we found loads of ferries that run from both Trelleborg and Ystad. One of the cheapest options was to catch a ferry from Ystad down to Swinoujscie, which is in Poland but only a few miles over the German border.

We sailed with Unity Line, somewhat old fashioned but have to say a perfect crossing. We asked for electric for the fridge (our experience of the Greek ferry practically cooking the insulin still gives us palpitations), which was no problem but meant they loaded us three hours before the sailing time. So even though it was due to be a six hour crossing we were on-board for nine hours.

We went mad and plumped for dinner out on the boat – everything was bread-crumbed, no really everything – and not a vegetable in site other than some sauerkraut. Maybe not our finest hour in the culinary stakes of travel but it was the first time we had eaten out of the van since Holland, so a treat none the less.

After a mill-pond crossing we arrived in Poland, a vague plan set that we would drive 5 miles along the coast and stay on a camper-stop in Germany. All seemed good even though the ferry appeared to be docking on the wrong side of the estuary.

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Late evening arrival in Poland

Problem one -we needed to cross the estuary to get to Germany – there isn’t a bridge. We found mini-ferry and also found problem two, it takes cars only. No worries we re-routed Sat Nav – 590 km if we avoid the ferry!! It’s a very long estuary. Iain went off to see the ferry man who told us there was another ferry several miles up the road (our Sat Nav obviously hasn’t heard of it).

By then it was nearly 9 pm, we didn’t know the route, we didn’t have any Zloty to pay for a ferry, it was nearly dark – it seemed easier to just head for a campsite in Poland, and there was one 15 minutes up the road in Miedzyzdroje. We arrived as the gates were closing but they let us in to what seemed in the dusk a very busy site.

Woke up this morning to the busiest of busy sites, heaving with tents, caravans and motorhomes. People were everywhere – a massive shock to our system after being used to no more than a handful of vans anywhere. Our pitch was an unpopular one as we were a wee bit close to our German neighbour, so much so we could hear him slurping his morning cuppa – we moved to the next one and avoided any diplomatic incidents.

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Being totally unprepared for Poland we set off on the bikes to explore and more importantly find some Polish money and do a bit of shopping. On the good news front, we can afford anything we like again :). Prices in Poland are incredibly cheap after being in Norway and even Sweden. We did a small shop and priced that a similar basket cost us £24 in Norway, £15 in Sweden and just £7 in Poland – after a few months of watching every penny we spent its fabulous to just shop without counting for a change.

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It does appear we have inadvertently arrived in the Blackpool of Poland! The village has a permanent population of 6000 – in summer this swells to 200,000 (and pretty sure we met most of them walking in the opposite direction to which we were cycling).

The road through the village runs for about tow miles and consists of tourist tack shops, arcades and cocktail bars. To be fair it all looks very clean, its full of people, the atmosphere is a cheerful and friendly one and there seems to be enough things to do to keep people occupied for a week or so.

 We went to the beach where people were squeezing themselves onto the smallest specks of sand, with another few thousand heading their way hate to think what it was like by lunchtime.

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We did think we were going to stay a few days, the sheer numbers of people make it not for us and we have sat out the afternoon in the sunshine (a very warm afternoon at 86 degrees (27 degrees) at its hottest. Tomorrow we will head down the Polish border looking for some peace and quiet and apparently even warmer weather before crossing into Germany somewhere in the South.

 

 

North Wales meets Hawaii Five O

We have kept to the coast and the sun has stayed with us and then some. We hoped for some sunshine whilst we were up here but we have been totally spoiled with blue skies and the thermometer reading over 24 degrees and up to 28 degrees all week. The good weather and our love for the area have combined to mean we have stayed a week longer here than we planned or expected.

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We finally found where the Moose hang out 🙂

The South East coast in Sweden is, be their own admission, overlooked for tourism. Considering its the worlds biggest archipelago, with over 30,000 islands, skerries and islets, it’s amazing to us that the tourists don’t flock here. To be fair the main attraction is the sea, islands, more sea and then some more islands. But if you like those things, as we do, then it’s a pretty amazing place.

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The views most of the time are very like this

The majority of visitors come in by boat or yacht, there are marinas large and small on every cove. Talking marina here is much less than talking them at home, here more a small harbour with maybe a cafe, basic facilities and space for half a dozen boats. That said some very exclusive and expensive vessels pull in for a night or two.

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Another night – another harbour

We pottered down as far as Monsteras, saw it was flat with plenty of cycle paths so we pitched up for a couple of days. The village itself had a church, a few shops, a Wok’n’Go kiosk and not much else. It’s major claim to fame apparently is its links to the writer of the hymn “How Great thou art”, Carl Boberg. Other than that it was just small town with an impressive cobbled main street, pleasant enough to walk around for an hour.

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Monsteras to Okno

We found our favourite ever Tourist Information centre in Monsteras, they didn’t just give us leaflets, they gave us a whole goody bag – a bag (obviously), pens, soft drinks, sweets, water, bottle opener, trolley coin and of course a ton of literature. Little things, but they make all the difference so first impressions were great.

Based on this we took their tip of visiting Pataholm. I was reasonably sure it was 7 or 8 miles, I must have mis-read something though as it was 16 miles each way! Long hot cycle ride so we were hoping for something pretty special when we arrived.

To be totally honest Pataholm wasn’t jaw droppingly amazing – it was just 10 or 12 very cute cottages on a cobbled street.  With only 20 residents it was never going to be a massive town but it was once a market town for the area and they have beautifully preserved the buildings turning them into cafes and craft shops.  pataholm

Pataholm 

It seemed safer to let Iain chose the next destination, we cycled straight down to Okno, a small island liked to the mainland by a causeway. As with everywhere we have been in Sweden the local children were congregated around a diving platform – as soon as the sun shines the Swedish youngsters appear to head for the water, fun for them and very entertaining for the holiday-makers to watch :).

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National past-time of Swedish youngsters

The island of Oland was down on the list for at least a night. We drove over on the imaginatively named Oland Bridge (6km / 3 mile and toll free – bargain). On arrival we were both a bit under-whelmed, the roads run along the middle of the island only glimpsing the sea. We stopped off to have a look at some of the famous windmills, and both agreed not to go any further along the island road. With it being a roasting day and the weekend coming up traffic was queuing back over the bridge – all in all it wasn’t going to be for us.

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Oland Windmill – one of many

Instead we aimed for Sandholm – a little spot of nothing in the far South East. The two guys who run the marina here kindly offered Iain the use of a kayak!  No instructions, no nothing just a life jacket and in. My heart stopped several times before he left dry land – as he paddled away the harbour-master and a couple of sunbathers were loudly humming the theme tune from “Jaws” – gives you loads of confidence then!

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Next stop Finland??

However it has to be said that within a few minutes “Jaws” had been replaced by “Hawaii Five O” humming. Several trips around the harbour, and no fish, people or other boats were harmed in the taking of these photos. The only downside is Iain now wants a kayak, confident he won’t injure himself on the kayak – it’s the getting it on and off the van roof that will cause the damage (to him, the roof and the kayak!)

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Eat your heart out Steve McGarrett

Call it what you will but we are struggling to move on from Sandhamn. The harbour consists of a few guest moorings and several spots for motorhomes. there is a cafe, a supermarket 10 minutes away and a nature reserve which stretches down the peninsular. Whilst there are a good few boats and motorhomes here its very peaceful. The main activities here are fishing and sunbathing – I have joined in with the latter were Iain has been out partaking of the former. 

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Fishing in the last of the evening sunshine at 9pm

Last night most people were still sat outside at 10 pm watching the sunset, a few drinks were passed around and we were invited over by some Swedish people for a drink and a chat about travelling. All in all it suts us well here, we should be moving on but just paid for another night so we are here for a bit longer.

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 Sunset over Sandhamn Hamn

Allsangsmandag

We agreed to take the East coast route down so had a stopover at Vasteras, one of the bigger towns in Sweden, before we hit the coast. The entertainment for the day and evening was provided by a snazzy zip-wire come wake boarding school outside the front window. Think water skiing on a board but being pulled by a zip-wire rather than a boat – amazing people doing amazing things on a bit of wood and a wire, we would have paid for the view but luckily it came in with our parking spot.

On route down we needed LPG, first obstacle we faced was none of the garages sell it – fail to us, we forgot to check availability and found that there were only 30 suppliers in the whole country. We found one at Falun, closed on Sunday, so instead went for Eskilstuna where lucky for us we found a gas supplier – who happily tried to  top us up, only to find the tank wouldn’t totally fill.

When we stopped off at the marina Iain rang the LPG  system  suppliers in the UK, who spent half an hour telling him how to fix the problem – seemingly we have at some stage over-filled the tanks. After freaking out the motorhome next door and a yacht in front of us with  several large emissions of gas we hope we are fixed – and have enough gas left for the next 2 weeks until we test refilling in Germany.

It would seem repetitive to mention the roads and how quiet they were, but again they were – Sweden is empty. it’s all lakes and forest. We drove over the bridge on Hjalmaren Lake – over 480 square kilometres and 58 km long or lake – that is the same size as Andorra. Standing on the road side we could see false horizons but not a soul on the lake in any direction. One of the most magical things about Sweden is the sense of space amongst all the amazing views.

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Hjalmaren Lake

The holiday season in Sweden is incredibly short, it starts mid June and ends mid August. Just 2 months then tourist stuff starts either closing up or reducing hours. At the moment most things seem to be open until 9pm-10pm at night, that includes anything from big shops to little ice-cream stalls. The vast majority of people on holidays here are Swedish, we have seen very few other nationalities. In the last four days we have seen one Dutch and three German vans – whereas in Norway we were seeing that many Dutch and Germans every hour.

We did meet an amazing English lady last night. She is sem-retired and touring Sweden and Finland. She is on her own, driving a 4×4 with a canoe on the roof and that’s it. She sleeps in the back of the car and uses public loos and showers, cooks with a small stove outside her car and camps out in the woods on her own. A very gentle lady, polite, well spoken, retirement age – the biggest thing was she is doing it – no moans that she doesn’t have a motorhome or can’t afford hotels, just enjoying it the best she can. We were both a bit humbled by her story and more than a little impressed.

As the weather has turned to Swedish summer we have had a couple of days parked up in Valdemarsvik, as is now our usual on the local marina. We cycled up a former railway track to the next town but other than that we have spent our time just sitting and watching the yachts come and go, topping up our tans and generally watching the world go by.

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Today’s view from our window Valdemarsvik marina

Last night we were treated to the peculiar Swedish phenomenon of Allsangsmandag. It is said here you have not experienced a Swedish summer if you have not been to an Allsang, they are mad about them. The concept is the same be it on national television or in every village and town in the country. Half the town turn up with picnic chairs and sit around a stage  set up in a 40ft truck. There is a pop-group with celebrity guests, some  singing of traditional Swedish songs, then members of the audience get up and sing with the bands to modern chart stuff – but the best bit is the audience are given song books with the words to join in with the bands on several songs. The majority of songs were of course Swedish but a fair few English ones in there – we were awesome and did the British proud :). If Allsang isn’t on British tv in 12 months I will eat my hat – it’s going to catch on, hopefully!

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You can’t beat a bit of Allsangsmandag!

The other strange obsession here is ‘Loppis’ – flea market, garage sale, boot sale – call it what you will, you cannot fail to come across one. In the back of regular shops, outside supermarkets, in peoples gardens they. It’s not what they sell that is remarkable, its the number of them.  Here on the harbour  there were  four Loppis huts, a Loppis in the corner of the bakery and even in the loos one of the small storage rooms had been converted into a self serve Loppis. The GDP of Sweden must be impacted by selling junk as we have never seen so many people doing it anywhere else.

Tomorrow a bit further South, keeping to coast and hopefully keeping with the sunshine.

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 We came across this little moho the other week, their trip detail on the van puts ours to shame!

Hej hej Sweden

Our grasp of Swedish is limited, we have though taken to the local greeting. Everyone, be they four years old or 94 years old, uses the greeting of “Hej, Hej” – it’s a sunny expression that is always accompanied with a smile. As importantly we can pronounce it so it’s a winner all round.

We have ambled down through Sweden on  more or less straight roads, mile after mile after mile of pink tarmac, through forests with the odd lake at the side of the road. Whilst its been single lane it hasn’t mattered as there was very little traffic.

Every so often a ‘one elk town’ came into view but within a nano second we were out the other side. We drove over 120 miles and it was possibly the least stressful piece of road we have yet to come across – the E45 is now our official favourite road! Parking up for the night has been a matter of the side of the road along with caravans, tents and even a Danish couple eating and sleeping in their yacht on a trailer.

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Maybe not enough lakes?

On Thursday we planned to visit a small lake where we had read there was a quiet camping spot, when we arrived it was like hitting a mini-metropolis in the sticks. It took us a while to work out, three wooden buildings, several rough car-parks and lots of very tall painted wooden horses – along with one or two chickens.

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He sat on the chicken because he couldn’t get a leg up on the horse!

We had arrived at the Grannas Olsson factory in Nusnas, famous as the home of the hand-made Dala wooden horses. The carving of wooden horses in the region dates back to the 17th century, and the same traditional methods of carving and decorating are still used. A walk through the factory showed everything really is done by hand from the original wooden blocks being carved, sanding of each horse, painting and laquering – you can watch every process taking place.

As the horses are carved by hand no two are exactly the same, well maybe one or two are as there were thousands of them in various stages of carving and painting along with several hundred herds for sale. Ranging from a few inches high to over 20 ft high you buy them at pretty much every size in a dazzling array of colours, or though red seems to be the most traditional.

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One of the smaller Dala herds

We shyed away, :), from staying overnight as there wasn’t room to breathe in the car-parks and instead moved onto Mora. Iain had mentioned a couple of times the number of classic American cars on the road, by early afternoon they were outnumbering regular cars. We pulled into the teeny village of Vikarbyn and found a campsite, even on the campsite there seemed to be classic 1950’s cars everywhere. Chatting to some locals we discovered that we had hit  “Cruise Week”, week 31 is traditionally the week when somewhere in the region of 2500 classic car enthusiasts from all over Sweden descend on Rattvik to cruise and show off their cars. Several hundred are registered for displays and events but the rest just turn up, take part and enjoy.

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Thursday being their last night they put on a cruise display from Rattvik through several of the villages, we watched for over two hours and there was no sign of it ending. It was full on stuff – they don’t just drive the cars here they live the life! Cars are piled with bodies, the outfits scream 1950, a bit odd when the radio is blaring out a song you know you know but the lyrics are being sung in Swedish.

Several of the cars were staying on the campsite with us, with their retro caravans, all of whom shared their love of 1950’s music with us through the night until daybreak! Next morning we left the campsite, memorable as our first ever Baptist campsite – where New Testaments were hung on string in each toilet to encourage a bit of bible reading whilst you, you know what! Two very different sides of Sweden in one night :).

Next stop Falun, a small town with a massive copper mine, now Unesco listed as one of the important industrial sites in Sweden. The copper from the mine was used for the production of castle roofs, church steeples, coins, and household utensils all over Europe. It looked as interesting as a mine can (to me) but as we had done the Salt Mines in Poland we made do with a look at the outside only.

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Entrance to the copper mines

We found a little campsite next to the lake on the edge of town and went off for an explore on our bikes. We were looking to visit Lugnet, the sports  complex which is home to the Swedish National cross country skiing and ski jumping teams. Cycling to a ski jump wasn’t one of our well thought out plans, a 6 mile up hill ride, fair killed the both of us. The 2015 World Cup ski jumping was held here a few months ago and even in the middle of summer it’s a busy place with over 60 different sports practised at the centre.

The two ski jumps defy belief in the size of them, whilst we knew they were massive it”s only when you stand near them you sense the true scale – which I would describe as frightening. Anyone who thought Eddie the Eagle was a wimp wants to come and stand at the bottom of this jump let alone sit on the bar at the top.

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Lugnet Ski Jumps

It’s all about the lakes in Sweden

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Our last sunset in Norway

Back into Sweden on the E14, we thought it would be a busy dual carriageway but just a good main road that took us over the border and up high over the mountains and through the ski resorts. Whilst there aren’t many skiers around there are a surprising amount of holiday makers in the mountains, the scale of the resorts was much larger than anywhere else we had been, hundred upon hundred of chalets together with some very impressive hotels. A few ski lifts open taking walkers to the mountain tops but we resisted the urge to go up as low cloud was obscuring the views (my excuse and one I am sticking with).

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Arriving in Jamtland our first attempt at a stopover was at a large ski hotel complex, one of those closed for the season but with a large poster saying feel free to stay for night, the showers and loos are unlocked and heated and leave some money in the letterbox! Only that it was right on the main road did we not – so close to home and yet such a difference in terms of trust and honesty.

We had our first couple of nights at Rista, a small dot miles away from anywhere or anything except the 50 metre wide and 14 metre deep waterfalls. The sound of the river and the falls drowned out pretty much any other noise. Incredible amounts of water and nearly as incredible the number of walkers that appeared out of the trees from early morning through till very late evening.

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Rista Falls

St. Olaf’s Pilgrims walking trail ran through the centre of the campsite , hence the amount of modern day pilgrims. We walked a section of the trail that followed the falls down stream, every so often someone had kindly left a wooden bench or small hut or a fire pit ready for the next set of walkers. No matter what is left out and where, it seems people are able to resist either removing things, spraying them with paint or just smashing things to pieces.

After a couple of nights listening to the falls we agreed to move to calmer water, just under an hour down the road at Mattmar on Lake Storsjon. The fifth largest lake in Sweden at 464 km2 and one of the more famous as it’s the only one reported to have a lake monster! First sighted in 1635 and known as Storjoodjuret it’s apparently still spotted on the odd occasion, warning signs abound on the edges to be careful :), we were and can report we didn’t see anything resembling a monster.

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Monster warnings!

We found ourselves outside a café and a tractor museum, a small piece of land in front of a couple of fishing boats and £10 to stay over, as the sun was doing overtime we elected to stay for 24 hours – sadly when the sun went on a tea-break the mossies came out – feasted on my arm – and left me looking like a relief map of Sweden. Once everywhere had closed we were joined by another four motorhomes and spent a quiet evening watching a local seaplane take off and land on the lake in front of us, the odd fishing boat come and go and a couple of people fishing out on rowing boats.

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Heading slowly South we have passed a few churches with a wooden bell tower outside which are common in Jamtland. Mostly built around 1736-1780 the towers are wooden and painted in the bright colours first used in the late 1880’s. Inside the church the pulpit had been painted in 1662 (the date painted on gave the year away), and next to it stood an ornate font – carved from a single log, crowned by a wooden pelican – being the symbol for Jesus in the region.

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Our route down over the last few days has taken us as far at Ytterhogdal where we are parked up behind the Tourist Information office for the night. As seems to be the case at every stop in Sweden we are beside a lake, this one has a few small boats chasing around with the local teenagers towing tyres containing other teenagers. Despite the fact that the water temperature must be pretty cold this far North there are a good few in swimming, the radios are on loud so we may have stumbled onto the local night spot for late night water play!

Back in Sweden this seems like a very different country to the one we hopped through a few weeks ago heading into Norway. It feels very much like a wilderness, the main roads are long straight and wide, we have seen very little traffic of any sort over the last four days, what traffic we do see has at least five spot-lights and bull-bars. There are small communities dotted around where there are a few shops, a bank and a garage but very little else.

It is very hard not to notice how the Swedish people appear to have a pride in the places they live and keep them immaculately. Houses are freshly painted, lawns are always well mown, we haven’t seen any rubbish or tipping The other thing its been hard to miss is the size of the caravans here, not just big but often off the scale of caravans as we know them. The Swedish Kabe is king here in motorhomes and caravans – we have seen several of the size of the one below – they don’t do small here.

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Not something you would want to meet on Trollstigen

Wandering in the West

Following our very touristy few days we took off away from the main attractions onto some of the fjords and islands on the West Coast. A couple of ferries, a few bridges and some very quiet roads and we found ourselves well off the holiday routes on the island of Ertvagsoya. We had no reason to head there other than we saw it on the map and decided to have a look. Linked on both hips to other islands by bridges it seemed more of a transit point down to the ferry points, especially now the toll of the main road has been removed.

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Mile after mile of fjords, forests and not much else. The odd small village tucked in here and there but even those didn’t really seem too worried about tourism – no souvenir shops, no ice-cream sellers, no cafes.  People seem quite happy to just wander around and look at the views – not hard to see why.  As with everywhere in Scandinavia picnic spots abound, find a good view, a quiet corner and they put in tables, chairs, some good parking and even a bbq, we have found a couple where even charcoal has been left by the previous incumbents for the next visitor.

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Lunch spot just for us

Despite it being peak summer holidays for the Norwegians as well as the most of the rest of Europe the roads are very quiet, nowhere seems overly busy. Whilst we have loved the scenery here without a doubt we have also been amazed at the sense of space – we looked it up to double check there really is that much more room here and there is. Norway has 14 people for every square metre of land, whereas in the UK we have 267 people for every square metre – amazing – oh and we feel very justified in not visiting Monaco as they have 19,183 people per sqm, they must have to stand way too close to each other!

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We have used a few campsites and all have had plenty of pitches, parking hasn’t been a problem and we have yet to queue for a ferry rather than just be waved straight on. We expected the wild / free camping areas to be similar to those in Spain, bursting at the seams, but we have parked up for nights on stunning spots overlooking fjords and beaches and not had another vehicle join us on several occasions.

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Views we would happily pay for

Last night we tucked ourselves away on a marina, a Norwegian motorhome joined us, had their tea and then left, just us a few passing cruise ships and a couple of dolphins out in the fjord for the night. Not sure a spot like this would be empty anywhere else in Europe.

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Last nights stopover

The whole do we don’t we visit the Lofotons has been a major topic for the last few weeks. We are close in that we are in the same country and it seems a shame not to go, then we checked ‘close’ and found we are 715 miles away, and on Norwegian roads the driving time is estimated at 18 hours to get there. We both agree its too far and too rushed, hey ho will need to come back in a couple of years to see the Lofotons and Nordkapp.

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Fishing huts on the fjords

Instead we took to a few more of the back-roads, if the main tourist routes were quiet and the Western islands quieter then these were deserted. We drove around the coast and didn’t see more than a hand-full of vehicles in two or three hours.

Our route North was capped at Trondheim, so we found a campsite next to the fjord and have sat out in the sunshine for our last few hours in Norway. The weather has turned from drizzle grey to “way too hot” and we have joined the mass ranks of the beetroot look-a-likes :).

Tomorrow we turn around so our route South will be through Sweden, we have no fixed plans of what to see and do so will see what we find on route. Our first stop will be supermarket to stock up – the supplies have lasted well but we are looking forward to getting more than half a carrier bag full of fresh fruit and veg for less than the national debt of several small countries.

Two of the world’s great road journeys

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View of Geirangerfjord leaving heading North

Two nights at Geirangerfjord was enough, we had done a month’s worth of washing, had a sit in the sun and watched the ships come and go, wandered round way too many souvenir shops and were both looking forward to somewhere a bit more peaceful and maybe seeing some trolls :). The route out of the fjord continued on Route 63, one of the tourist roads or ‘Veg’ as they call them. Pretty much as impressive as the road in, the Eagle’s Road has hairpin bends climbing steeply with not too much in the way of Armco, the worst bits were the dread of meeting a bus coming round the corner at the same time as us . Half way up there was a view point looking down the fjord, somewhere to stop for a photo whilst gathering nerves for the last few bends.

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Mountain pass on Tourist Road 63

It’s been surprising to us just how often the road stops and we have to take a ferry, if we had a proper road map this possibly wouldn’t be so surprising – however as we are still working with our trusty atlas the scale throws up a few surprises. We are the 6 metre length required for the lowest car charge and it’s cost us £8-£10 on most crossings. Eisdal was our only unlucky crossing where we were charged the next length (fairly as we have bikes on the back) and it doubled the cost to £20.

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The weather was looking ok for driving the Trollstigen Pass, a bit overcast but no rain all day. As we pulled over the final brow to the visitor centre we hit a wall of cloud and fog, visibility was so poor that just parking up was testing. We walked to the view-point, we couldn’t even see the a few feet ahead of us let along the famous pass, a series of harpin beds, 11 in all, that zig-zag up the side of the mountain to 825 metres above sea level in a 9% climb. It’s only open for 5 or 6 months of the year as snow closes the road from October through to early May.

For us it was a must drive, we had missed driving the complete Transfagarasn in Romania due to snow,  so we really wanted to do this one in reasonable weather so we could at least see it.

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They must be real then!!

Several hours later we were still sat there waiting for the cloud to lift, most of the tour buses and other tourists had gone down, the café and visitor centre had closed but at least 20 motorhomes were sitting it out with us overnight.  Come the morning it was looking just as cloudy, we had breakfast and pottered around and then suddenly the cloud lifted.  We shot along to the plateau viewpoint that looks down over the pass and our first view of Trollstigen – one of the most scenic drives in the world.

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Trollstigen – worth the wait

There is a viewing platform at the top from which nearly the complete road can be seen, its looks great until you start spotting the vehicles trying to pass each other. Coaches crawling along allow motorhomes, cars and caravans to take the outside edges with absolutely no room for error. The longer we watched the worse my nerves become so of course Iain added to it by standing on the largest viewing platform that has a sheer drop of 200 metres, a glass fence oh and just a few holes in the steel floor so you can see the valley floor below.

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Iain ‘hanging out’ over Trollstigen

Suffice to say, we made it down, credit to mon chauffeur – he did great, not sure I did anything other than scream how close the edge was several times!  Once you are on the road (navigator view) it’s actually not as bad as some of the serpentine routes we have come across in Norway, the fact that 130,000 vehicles drive it every year means it seems better maintained and safer than some of the other mountain routes.Bud (6)

As we were in full tourist mode the next thing to do had to be to drive what the Norwegian tourist blurb calls ‘the most beautiful  journey in the world’ the Atlantic Road. We had been debating whether to do this one as a few people had told us that many other roads were as good. But, being suckers for a well named road we just couldn’t resist.  The route started in the old fishing town of Bud and followed the coast up through numerous small villages and hamlets, each one having the prerequisite small harbour, red wooden houses, thousands of tiny islands and views over the Atlantic.

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For us and probably for most that visit, the small section that actually traverses the Atlantic is  the piece de resistance. Eight bridges that come up one after the other in just over 800 metres linking small islets and skerries. A breathe catching moment when the iconic Storeseisundet bridge comes into view, appearing to be twisting into the Atlantic. In the middle they have built a floating walkway around one of the small islands, view out over the Atlantic with a few small islets and then nothing much until Greenland.

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Storeseisundet bridge from the West

When we reached the end we took the advice of  several who had been before and didn’t continue through the tunnel into Kristiansund, as if we didn’t make the cheap price it was going to cost us £40 to get there and then either the same to get back – or even more for a ferry. Instead we parked up on one of the many viewpoints along with plenty of other motorhomes and spent the evening looking at the Atlantic, end result was we then drive the whole thing again the next morning and it was more than worth it.

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Storeseisundet bridge from the East

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The Atlantic Ocean

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Geiranger – jewel of the fjords

We had read a couple of reports that the Briksdals glacier was worth a visit, not sure what we expected but finding 12 coach tours at the base wasn’t one of them. Would love to have said we hiked up to the glacier, it was steepish but very like doing the Snowdon Conga – follow the kagool in front and you couldn’t go wrong.  For those not wanting an hour uphill walk there was an option of using a “troll cart” being  a 4×4 golf buggy, popular with many of the Asian visitors until they found out it dropped them a good 15 minutes walk to the glacier :).

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On the way up

Briksdalsbreen ends in a small glacial lake  346 metres (1,135 ft) above sea level. For us the most astounding thing was the marker posts showing where the glacier has grown and receded over the last few hundred years. Even in the 20 th century it receded by over 2500 ft in the first half of the century revealing the lake and then grew by 1600 ft in the second half recovering the lake again. It looks like the ice is going to break off any second, we sat for half an hour with our butties and a flask waiting for an ice slip but nothing doing.

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Briksdalsbreen – lake currently visable

Following our trek we treated ourselves to coffee and cake in the cafe at the car-park. Fully expecting to shell out enough to buy a new kidney we were pretty happy at less than £5 for cake and coffee for two. Norway is without doubt a bit contrary on prices, its either eye wateringly expensive or cheaper than your average trip out to the seaside in the UK.

We have found campsites at £35, then again we have found just as many charging £15 – usually on the side of a fjord with everything thrown in on the cost. Service Points for motorhomes wild camping (water fill / empty and loo empty) are all over the place – usually free. We found one the the other day that was the 5-Star of service points, so much so it even had a guest book so you could comment on how you found the facilities to empty your loo!! it was amazing, Iain was in there 15 minutes he was so impressed.

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Jostedalsbreen National Park

With wall to wall sunshine forecast for Friday we chose that as our day to arrive at our latest Unesco site, Geirangerfjord. Two hours drive on wonderful roads, scary tunnels and views that delay progress as they beg for photo stops every mile. We have never come across so many switch-back roads before, up and down each mountain on route, the smell of smoking brake pads (usually ours) pervades the air at the bottom of every mountain.  Again there were surprising amounts of snow and ice covered lakes as we crossed the mountains, whilst the roads are completely clear we passed drifts on the sides well over 7 and 8 ft deep.

The tunnels are freaky, too empty, too eerie, often no lighting and rough sides. Midway through many of the longer  tunnels are sets of gates with traffic lights which go red if the gates are closing (if floods are due!) – so 3.5 km in if they close am intrigued as to what your average car and caravan does to turn around as there isn’t usually a turning point.

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Frozen lake on the road over Dalsnibba mountain

The route over to Geiranger took us along Oppstrynsvatnet, a fjord that stretches forever with towering cliffs and the greenest water we have seen. As with everywhere we go in Norway most houses, sheds and holidays huts had grass roofs, it’s the norm rather than the exception to see them even on modern family houses. Many have flowers growing and we have seen loads with small shrubs and trees shooting out from the roof tops. It is on the project list for when we get home – maybe the shed first and then see if it catches on with the rest of the street :).

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Hairy houses – the norm in Norway

Geirangerfjord is listed as one of the most visited and photographed places in Norway, it is so easy to see why. Sheer cliffs each side with the small village at the head of the S shaped end of the fjord, visiting cruise ships come and go throughout the day and evening.  We were told it has rained every day for the last  three weeks, the luck of the trolls was with us then as we came down the mountains to clear blue skies, snow capped cliffs and pure green fjords.

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Our first view of Geirangerfjord

The village consists of a good number of souvenir shops, a couple of restaurants and a large hotel. It caters very much to the cruise ships and to the out-door adventure types – trips on offer ranged from Rib rides, a Renault Twingo safari (no really) and Road Skiing. The latter seems popular here, we pass someone skiing along tarmac roads at least a few times a day, and have even seen a few going up the mountains – we have so far resisted the urge to hurtle along on 4 ft long roller skates and pretty sure we are not going to be tempted any-time soon.

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Home for the weekend

Today its been less sunny, a fair bit of rain on and off. We wandered around the village and the tourist shops checking out the millions of wizened trolls for sale and mingling with a few thousand Brits off the Arcadia cruise ship that is docked in the bay here, it felt a bit like being in the Lake District on a wet Bank Holiday. Arcadia left at tea-time to the sound of guns being fired from the quay-side, returning the salute with several loud blasts from her horn.

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Big and noisy neighbour last night – Arcadia

The Norwegian Tall Ships race has been on this weekend, lucky for us three of the ships arrived this evening, then an further four have appeared to yet more gun-fire and all anchored just outside our windows :), whatever else may or may not be expensive here the views are priceless!

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Two of tonight’s neighbours

Fjords and glaciers

We fully expected Norway to impress, it has already gone beyond impressing and is fast becoming jaw dropping. The weather has been up and down, sometimes that just adds even more, seeing somewhere in a mist and cloud, then the sun pokes through and the view changes from stunning to breathe taking.

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Iain’s stunning photo of Hardangervidda

Following route RV7 – across the Hardangervidda we pulled in for morning coffee break at Lake Skiftessjøen, where the edge of the lake is lined with hundreds of small cairns and has views over the glacier. Along with several other moho we stuck the kettle on, poured the coffee and spent an hour taking photos as the view changed every few minutes as the sun broke through more of the clouds.

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Lake Skiftessjøen

Once we left the lake the day settled into a pattern that has continued all week, drive for 10 minutes, stop get out and take photos, drive for 10 minutes, repeat. As we headed over the pass the snow thickened, and at every parking space small groups of children were running around in the snow. Snow in July is too wonderful to ignore, as soon as we found a parking spot to ourselves we were out there – and yes we avoided the yellow bits! In some places a few inches deep, in others literally several feet deep – if this is summer cannot imagine it in winter.

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You can’t beat snow in July

Just before Eidfjord, there was a small cafe, a car-park and over-looking the area a 7ft troll stood high above on the next hill. Most of the snow had gone on the path up to the troll, making it somewhat of a tricky, slippy and muddy path but our first real troll so we needed to brave the elements. Since then there have been more waterfalls than we could count, several gigantic trolls, too many tunnels to mention and yet we still stopped for photos every couple of miles.

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Baxterbus down below from the troll point

Another day another bridge – the Hardanger Bridge opened in 2013 – another of the longest this time in Norway. Overshadowed by another first for us – as we left the bridge we entered a 7 km tunnel and after 500 metres there was a roundabout in the tunnel! We had heard of tunnel roundabouts but experiencing one is one of the strangest driving experiences, it looked like the Starship Enterprise was beaming down through the rocks. We took the wrong exit off the roundabout and had to come back to it again, our most worthwhile wrong turn to date.

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Tunnel roundabout – mind boggling

Waterfalls have ranged from the spectacular to the unbelievable, Voss was incredibly busy with bus loads of tourists, others as we climbed up and down the mountains were just as stunning but not a soul around.

Everywhere we go the hardy Norwegians are out in force, we see them at every picnic stop be it at a tourist attraction or at the side of the main road. Rain or shine, the tablecloth comes out followed by picnic hampers that Fortnum and Mason would be proud of.  Guess that they have long winters so make the most of the long summer days, sun set this week has been at 1114 pm, the days just never end its fabulous :).

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Voss waterfall

The roads marked as tourist routes are not subject to tolls so we followed the E13 from Voss to Vangsnes, . The switch back roads up some of the passes were views I could have done without. At the top of one of the passes there was a platform being built that hung out over the valley to give a view back down over the roads, I left Iain to get that photo. Some of the roads are not very wide, despite the fact there are buses and wagons, along with a few hundred  motorhomes, trying to squeeze through. Too often for my liking we were breathing in to get through a gap with a sheer drop on my side of the road.

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Switchback heaven – Utsitken RV13

Sognefjord was our first ferry crossing,  a 15 minute hop over for just under £12, not quite a cruise but as close as it gets as we were first van on so had the view over the open deck.  Whilst we are sure Sognefjord looks perfect in bright sunshine, it has to be said it is far from shabby in any weather. The third largest fjord in the world, 127 miles long and at it’s deepest over 4100 ft – which is deeper than Ben Nevis is high. Dotted along the edges are numerous small fishing villages, some of which date back to Viking times. The pace of life seems slow, no-one rushes, cars wait to over-take, people have time for a smile and a word – the Norwegians have got the pace of life just right for us.

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Sognefjord

We are quietly parked up on Nordfjord at Olden for the evening, well it would be quiet if we weren’t within spitting distance of both the Caribbean Princess and Balmoral cruise ships, moored less than a couple of hundred metres in front of us with generators working over-time.  At the quay side it’s a hive of activity with a few thousand people racing around the dozen shops trying to buy as many souvenirs as possible, taking trips on the toy town train or a double decker bus trip up the glacier (rather them than me!) and rib rides on the fjord. Strangely mesmerising just sitting looking at cruise boats that are going nowhere.

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Iain and Caribbean Princess

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Me and Dora – happy as can be in the snow in July

 

Top of the world

Another day another country, time for Norway at long last. When we first talked about this trip it was with the intention to visit Norway, many countries and months later we are finally here.  Crossing the border was memorable for more than one reason – the rain was so torrential we could hardly see the Norway sign.

Despite our leaving the EC we didn’t pass through Customs, the choice was Red to declare or Green and just keep going, we did the latter and were in with no passports yet again.

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That sign says Norway – honest

The question everyone asks us when we arrive in a new country is do we see a big difference. The usual answer is not for the first few hundred miles. However, Sweden to Norway one notable – the elk / moose signs show more than a few family differences within a mile either side of the border.

We both agreed we weren’t spending a day driving in rain so pulled into Fredrikstad (birthplace of Amundsen). Possibly not high on the tourist list of must sees, but there was a water bus, offering a free service so rather