Day 1-27 – The Wine Tour

This journey was not supposed to happen – the trip to Scandinavia was supposed to be our only one this year; but we felt that one finished too fast: there was still plenty of summer left, and once we rested for a few days, the wanderlust awakened anew. So we scrapped what little money we had left, patched the car up for one final journey, and departed Warsaw in the beginning of September, in a south-easterly direction.

This was a different trip than others: shorter, faster, more intense, and focused less on sight-seeing, and more on relaxing and – naturally, in this part of Europe – drinking wine. It couldn’t have been any other way, since our route took us through Alsace, Rhone, Provence, Veneto and beyond, in the middle of the grape harvest season.

Surprisingly, we tasted our first local wine already the next day, in Prague. This was our first time in Prague, and the city is definitely not overhyped – in late summer, it is one of the finest cities we’ve ever visited (and that’s saying something!).

To save money, we avoided motorways wherever possible, except Germany where they were free – that way we could also see plenty of surrounding countryside along the way. In Germany we stopped at Nuremberg; what’s left of its old town after the war is well worth seeing, especially if you have time to sit down with a large beer on the steps leading to the castle.

Heading towards the Mediterannean, we stopped at Strasbourg, Besancon and Vienne, before arriving into the magnificent Papal City of Avignon: another highlight of the journey. The following couple of days, between Avignon and the marshes of Camargue, were, in hindsight, the best of the entire trip – the weather was perfect, the pace of the journey most leisurely, and the wines, in the southern Cotes du Rhone region, the tastiest. However, the marshland of Provence was also where the plague of this trip started.

If the bane of last year’s British expedition were the gale-force winds, and the heat wave made the Baltic trip at times unbearable, this Mediterranean journey was marred by insects: flies and mosquitoes, some of them of the more tropical variety. And of all three, this plague proved the most annoying and exhausting, ridding us of sleep on worst nights. Nothing we were able to muster could stop those beasts from leaving our bodies pock-marked with bites in the morning.

This inconvenience aside, we moved slowly along the Mediterranean, with stops at the beach resorts in Cassis, Hyeres and St Tropez. Once again, travelling in a campervan proved to be the best solution by far (mosquitoes apart) – I don’t see how else we could get a spot 150m from St Tropez’s famous Pampelonne Beach, on a weekend, without booking, for 20 euro for two people!

Nice, which I was really hoping to see next, turned out to be a disappointment – not because it wasn’t nice, but because it was unsuitable for visiting in a campervan. There were no campsites on the outskirts of the city, and not a single parking space for a car our size (all parking slots were underground). That day was our greatest challenge; from crowded, narrow-laned Nice we trundled on to Monaco’s even more crowded, and narrower streets, and then, in search of a campsite, to a small border town of Menton.

The Menton campsite – the only one for miles – is on top of a mountain, in an olive grove. We were at the bottom. At the end of this tiring day, we had to drive up a series of hairpin bends, where we discovered that a 40-year old campervan can drift 🙂

The campsite in Genoa was luckily much easier to access, and we could spend the next day strolling through the city which turned out our favourite of the entire trip. Genoa is an archetypal Italian city, with narrow canyons of tall renaissance tenements, rugged, dirty and smelling of urine and garbage, but somehow oozing a fantastic charm; the Via di Canneto il Lungo, a small, narrow alleyway on the old town, filled with fishmongers, greengrocers and small trattorias, has risen to the top of our favourite food streets in the world, just after Nishiki-koji!

Emilia-Romagna region, which we drove through next, may be the industrial and agricultural heart of Italy – but it’s well off the tourist path, and for a reason; there are only two campsites between Piacenza and Bologna, both of them rather terrible and over-priced. It’s an ugly region, and worth passing only if you’re a fan of Italian cuisine – or cars, as Modena is not only the centre of balsamic vinegar making (we took a tour of one of the private villas where it is being made) but also the seat of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Masseratti. The renaissance-rich cities along the way – Piacenza, Parma, Reggio – are also worth a detour, but we drove straight into Bologna, to see the oldest university in Europe; the old walls are still awe-inspiring, even before you remember the names that strolled the grand piazza, from Dante to Copernicus.

There’s an easily accessible campsite at the bottom of the San Marino mountain, so naturally we stopped there, too – and got another flag on the “virtual sticker board”! The next day we were back at sea again – but this time, it was the Adriatic. Here, the autumn was already in full, with the haze and the wind and the rain-storms which wreaked havoc with our electrics. The sea-side resorts were dead – the season ended a few days earlier; only one campsite out of five was open, but that didn’t matter – we had the entire coast to ourselves 🙂

Veneto is marshland again, so we were back to fighting mosquitoes. A long day in Ravenna, where we saw all there was to be seen in the city – every single mosaic and ancient church – and off we went towards Venice, with a stop-over in a “miniature Venice” of Chioggia, and its immense fishing fleet.

Venice, like Strasbourg and Vienna, was a city we knew well, so again we just strolled its streets from an ice-cream stall to a pizzeria, soaking in the atmosphere rather than the sights. Venice was also where we took a fateful decision of cutting our journey short. Originally, we were supposed to continue hugging the Adriatic coast, through Trieste, to Rijeka, possibly beyond, and then back across Hungary. But it was not to be. We had reached the end – of our strength, of our money, of the weather – not in Italy, but we knew it was getting cold in the north – and of the car, which began to develop minor technical faults one after another. With a heavy heart, we decided to go back, the shortest possible way, through Vienna.

We did make one detour, into Budapest, to finish the wine tour in style and at least bring a crate of the finest Hungarian wines, if we couldn’t travel across the country. Racing the frosts (the temperature in Austria went down to 3 degrees at night) and the exhaustion, we drove through Slovakia in one go, and reached Warsaw, a week earlier than we had originally planned, but not a day too soon.

The Loot :)

The Loot 🙂

The trip took us 27 days, and 5000 kilometres. Altogether, we drove nearly 30000 kilometres since we departed from London last June. The car passed through 21 countries (and several autonomous territories); we reached the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean, we drove across the Alps (reaching 1100 metres on the Austrian passes) and through marshland, and spanned all of Europe between Ireland’s coast and Finland’s eastern border. The deep south of the continent is still a virgin territory for us and the car – we failed to make it to Spain, Sicily or Greece – if we had a month more, we’d have done it, but it was not to be. But at least this leaves us with something to look forward to next year!

Day 97-99 – …and back again!

Mazowsze

Mazowsze

If you’re in a hurry, the distance between Warsaw and Vilnius can be made in half a day.

We were anything but in a hurry to end our expedition, however, so we spent the next two days slowly driving around the post-glacial lakelands of North-East Poland, starting with the quiet and lonely Wigry – with its fortress-like Camaldolese monastery and still strong Lithuanian and Belarussian minorities – and ending in the Masuria, a string of lakes running in an almost straight north-south line from the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast’.

These are tiny bodies of water compared to those we passed in Scandinavia, of course – entire Mazury would fit into one of the larger lakes of Finland or Sweden – but Poland’s most densely populated regions are but a stone’s throw away, and so the lakes are packed full of yachts, boats, marinas, campsites and small tourist resort towns. Historically, this is also a significant region, forming an age-old frontier between East and West; originally, it was inhabited by the Baltic tribes, close relatives to Lithuanians and Latvians, but wiped out centuries ago by Germanic conquistadors so thoroughly that nothing but a handful of place-names and reconstructed pagan rituals remains. After that, the region formed the easternmost boundary of Germany, expanding into, or defending from, Polish, Lithuanian and later Russian neighbours, until finally, the “East Prussia” fell to Poland, after another bout of ethnic cleansing and name-changing.

Centuries of wars left plenty of scars on the landscape – gothic castles, 19th century fortresses, Nazi bunkers – but luckily did not change the character of one of the finest regions of (now) Poland. The roads, now hurriedly fixed with EU money, wound lazily along the avenues of majestic oaks and maples, up the causeways, across the wild forests. The woods are filled with wild beasts and birds – even as rare as lynx and wolves. The birch-grown bogs, though miniature in size, sometimes resemble a more Nordic landscape, reminding us that we are still very much within the basin of the same sea.

We make the last stop at a marina in Ruciane-Nida; a shock of nostalgia: more than fifteen years ago, we (or at least half of us) used to sail from here with friends every summer. Surprisingly little has changed since then; even the yachts remain the same, except now everyone has an electric hook-up to charge their wi-fi-enabled gadgets.

Originally, we were supposed to fly through the Baltic States, stopping only in major cities; we changed our minds at the last moment, and it’s a decision we don’t regret. At a little over a thousand miles, and mere 9 days, this was still a short episode in the entire journey, but then these really are small countries, even on the European scale. That said, they proved surprisingly diverse, from landscapes to the ways in which their people chose to cope with the remnants of Soviet past. Incidentally, the people of the Baltics – when they make an effort – turned out to be among the most attractive in Europe, combining the best of the Nordic and Slavic features into one hot pile of gorgeous.

Nowhere in Europe have we been welcomed with such an enthusiasm and joy as in the Baltics. All the cheering, flashing, v-signs, thumbs-up, satan’s horns and general glee made us feel eventually as if we were carrying the dreams and hopes of the entire region on our backs. Just seeing the old VW putter along seemed to make everyone feel young and free again.

After 99 days and over 7000 miles, our Baltic odyssey is over: too soon; we ran out of money before we ran out of steam this year, and if we only could, we’d keep on driving.

To our surprise, the car fared brilliantly once we left London, though we deliberately ignored a few obvious signs of failure in the last weeks, hoping to reach Warsaw before anything serious breaks down. It remains to be seen how costly the repairs will be… The weather was the opposite of last year’s: dry and unbearably hot, though it certainly didn’t seem so at the start: in Norway we were still freezing under the snow-capped peaks of fjords. But the heat is better than cold, and we remain in far better shape than last October, and not just because the journey was a whole month shorter.

It was supposed to be a “Scandinavia trip”, but it turned out to be an expedition around the Baltics (with the exclusion of Poland’s coast, though we’re familiar enough with that part): we’ve even peeked briefly into Russia. We made a lot of the route up as we went along: we were never supposed to reach the Arcic Circle, or spend more than a couple of days in the Baltic States. But if I regret anything it’s that the journey was too short, and that we visited too few places. The Baltic is a fantastic sea, full of history and wild nature, and though its shores have once been awash in blood, these days it remains possibly the only sea in the world that you can still safely circumnavigate in an old, rickety Volkswagen van: a testament to the hard-won unity and prosperity of Europe.

Mazury

Mazury

Day 76-78 – Chasing the Sun

Lapland

Lapland

Due to Orca’s venerable age and less-than-stellar condition, one crucial factor that determines our route is the quality of roads and ease of driving. Uniquely in the North, Finland’s roads are all flat, straight, and (mostly) wide, so after some deliberation it became obvious the Finnish part of the trip will be by far the longest and furthest. Our target: the Arctic Circle.

We drove from Tampere due north, almost without stopping, before reaching the coast near Kokkola; the final 10 km to the campsite was our first – but sadly, not last – taste of the unsealed, gravel roads that link the motorways with the smaller settlements in the bogs and forests of northern and central Finland. The car survived it, driving at the brisk walking pace, but we ended up looking like a Camel Trophy vehicle rather than a stately old camper 🙂

The middle of Finland is a rough, post-glacial landscape, dense “timber factory” forests growing on rock-rubble; there isn’t much farming or pasture land to be found between the boulders and marshes, and what little there is, sustains only some oat. The settlements are tiny and far between, and it’s surprising to suddenly emerge, three hundred km later, onto the fairly densely populated coastal strip.

Historically, this is a Swedish-speaking country, which some of the inhabitants mark with yellow-on-red flags (similar to flag of Scania) on their houses. After our adventures in Northern Ireland last year, seeing flags segregating neighbourhood by language spoken brings back chilling memories, but luckily, the Scandinavians are too relaxed about their differences to turn them into anything violent.

There are populous towns all the way from Vaasa to Oulu and beyond, towards the Swedish border. Many of them are locally famed for their well-preserved timber old towns – Rauma being the largest of them; there is one in Kokkola, nicely set along a river, and we pause here to see one of the most unique sights in Europe. Everyone knows (or should know) about the Winter War, but here in Kokkola’s riverside park, was another, older proof of why you shouldn’t mess with the Finns: the only Royal Navy vessel still in foreign hands. Rather underwhelming up close – just a small, battered 9-men sloop hiding in a glass shed – this is a remainder of the Battle of Kokkola, when, during the Crimean War, a British invading flotilla was forced out of the harbour, with heavy casualties, by a handful of local militia supported by two ancient cannons.

Oulu is a large and rich city by Nordic standards, and holds a number of records, due to its northerly location; for one, it’s the northernmost 100k city outside Russia. Its oldest part, centred on a red brick market hall and marketplace, surrounded by timber warehouses, reminded us strongly of Hakodate: not surprising, really, as they both started out as trade outposts on the edges of Russian Empire. It’s the first – but by no means last – clear reminder of the vastness of Russia linking Finland and Japan together. Maybe that explains why we travel most to these two places…

We stop at a confusingly named town of Ii, just before Lappland, in an old campsite in the middle of another historical harbour village, Hamina, transformed into a living museum. The information plates mention the Tsar, Alexander I, struck by the beauty of “local girls”. We’ll later find out it’s a cliche common throughout Finland. Alexander I seems to be treated in Finland with no less celebrity than John Paul II in Poland; the only person mentioned more often in local histories is Mannerheim, the uber-marshall of the Winter War.

We cross the Lappland border the next day, and after a brief stop at the Kemi harbour – nice cafe in a red-paint warehouse overlooking the sea – we drive full steam towards Rovaniemi. The Arctic Circle crosses through the Santa Claus Village (you know, where Santa lives), a few miles north of the city, and this is where it’s easiest to make the crossing; as you can imagine, July is the lowest of low seasons for a Santa Claus-themed attraction, and the village is mercifully empty and quiet, comparably – there are still a few bus-loads of tourists, but nowhere near what this place is prepared to cater for.

We cross the marker, and drive for a few hundred meters more, to make sure Orca has actually visited “the Arctic”, before turning back and heading east. Everyone we spoke to before and after tells us that by not going further we missed out “the best part” of Finland, but in truth, we’ve already strained the car, the budget, and the timeline as much as was possible to get even this far – and it would still take a few days more to reach the true North.

It seems to be the National Day of Closed Campsites, as we approach Kuusamo. The first address on the map is missing entirely – we simply can’t find it anywhere; the second one, as the proprietor, a distinctly Tomte-like tiny old man in a blue Smurf hat explains, has “mumblemumbletoiletproblemmumble”. He gives us the address of another nearby place, on the shores of Samojarvi Lake near Ranua. This one looks empty and abandoned too, until the landlady comes out. She speaks little, and none of it in English (even though the place is advertised in the English brochure), sipping from time to time from a near-empty vodka bottle; but at least we are offered a place for half the usual price, with electric and something resembling a toilet. As the polar night “falls” around the lake – the sun never truly sets, and before twilight can come, the new dawn already begins – the buzzing mosquitoes and the haunting cries of the arctic loons lull us to uneasy sleep.

Royal Navy Gunboat in Kokkola

Royal Navy Gunboat in Kokkola

Arctic Circle

Arctic Circle

Polar Midnight

Polar Midnight

Days 40-44 – Inevitable Monty Python Pun

Rogaland

Rogaland

Yes, we are now in the land of fjords. Get all your parrot jokes out of the system now.

Unless you’re on a cruise going towards Lapland, or have arranged some other way of transport, chances are that Bergen is the furthest north you’ll get in Norway, as this is where the ferry from mainland Europe stops. Bergen loomed heavy on our previous journeys to the North of Britain; as the capital and main port of medieval Norway, it had a major connection to the island earldoms of Orkney, Shetlands and Hebrides; as such, it was a place we always yearned to visit.

The city was not very welcoming. Bergen is famously wet, and the rain with which we struggled was at times apocalyptic. Between this, and the narrow, winding streets of the old town, lined with tiny wooden houses bathed in flowers, we got lost for a good hour before finding the Bryggen.

The old Bryggen was Hansa’s Nordic headquarters, and the colorful warehouses that line its waterfront belong now – rightly so – to the UNESCO list, and while they present a very pleasant front to the main street, their true stunning beauty lies inside, in the dark, narrow wooden alleys which resemble the creaky passages on the old merchant ships.

The fish market across the harbour is a jewel – set in a modern building, but positioned on the spot of the old market, it very much resembles the great consumer-oriented fish markets of Japan, even having many of the same fare: the giant crabs which had reached Norway from the eastern seas through Arctic, and – rather shockingly – whale meat.

In the harbour we spotted a familiar shape of a three-masted barque we’d already seen twice on two different occasions: once in Kirkwall, and then years later in Lerwick. It was the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, the 100-years old training ship that seems to follow us around Europe!

From Bergen we headed inland; it wasn’t a pleasant journey – the rain got even worse, reducing the visibility and worsening driving conditions; the road became a succession of dark, narrow tunnels, and some really evil truckers – Danes, again! – tried to bully us out of their way. The destination, however, made up for all the trouble: we reached Voss, the gateway to Hordaland’s mountain and skiing region.

Snow was something we didn’t really expect to see in June… but it was on all surrounding mountaintops, melting into mighty waterfalls. We didn’t quite realize how tall Norway’s mountains were, even this close to the sea. From the map we’ve learned that what we were actually looking at were the edges and tongues of snow seeping from one of Norway’s largest glaciers.

The weather cleared the next morning, and we spent the next three days driving through one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, up and down an arduous, but stunning road along the Hardargen and Sor fjords. Norway’s roads are in constant process of improvement, and for a country with a population of mere 5 million, the number of high-tech tunnels and mighty bridges strikes a bit as showing off. We get it, Norway, you’re rich 🙂

From Voss to Eidfjord, a gem of a town at the head of Hardargenfjord; the population of this tiny hamlet fluctuates daily, depending on the size of the ships that moor at its miniature pier. In the morning, a floating hotel dwarfed the town – Costa Mediterranea, the sister ship of the infamous Costa Concordia – bringing with it a horde of tourists who stood by the railings, waiting to descend upon the sleepy village like a thousands-strong army of zombies.

We managed to get away just in time; the road along the Sorfjord is like nothing we’ve seen before, and it will remain a definite highlight of all our travels. Another thing we didn’t expect from Norway were the waterfalls. They were all immense, some of them 500, 600 meters tall, so mighty and powerful that their roar carried from across the fjord, drowning out the noise of the passing cars. Two of them pass right along the motorway, so close that you need to switch on the wipers as you drive through; alternatively, you can stand on the roadside, awash in their thunderous spit. It’s an unforgettable experience. I stood under a large waterfall in Iceland before, but these were a whole magnitude greater and more majestic.

The final day’s journey through Hordaland was less exciting, though by no means unattractive; the road was at times precariously perched high above the fjords below, and at times passing through a wooded lowland no different to that of Sweden or Finland. We entered the oil region, the first sign of which was a massive shipyard for building and repairing oil platforms… and a Polish cafe in the town, reflecting mass migration of Polish ship-builders into the area.

We got back to the North Sea coast at Haugesund, a place steeped in Norway’s medieval history, but not particularly impressive in itself. It does make for a nice hour-long walk from the campsite through the leafy, affluent suburbs to the restaurants on the waterfront, but that’s about it.

We don’t get much sleep – the northern night wreaks havoc with our biological clocks. The civil night around here – the time when you need artificial light to perform everyday actions – lasts about two hours in June!

Midnight in Voss

Midnight in Voss

Costa Mediterranea in Eidfjord

Costa Mediterranea in Eidfjord

A view from the E134

A view from the E134

Underground roundabout , E13 meets E7

Underground roundabout , E13 meets E7

Day 9-25 (!) – Save the Campervan, Save the World

London

London

We were supposed to stay in England for a week: get the MOT done, do the admin, pick up the mail and be on our way.

But that was based on a, now I see, misguided assumption that nothing major would break in the van by the time we got to London. As luck would have it, not one, but three things went bust along the way.

The 40-year old VW plastic fuse box snapped in two, leaving us with half the electricity gone. We patched up just enough cables together to stay road-legal (indicators, headlamps) and trundled on through wet and windy Europe. The oil light went next, showing us dangerously low oil pressure; this one was a bit more serious, but we still had to reach London, so after checking with the local garage that it’s still safe to drive, we moved on.

So we reached London on our “last wheels”. We spent the next two weeks between the garage and the campsite – having to drive right across the largest city in Europe, often in rush hour to make it on time. That’s when the third thing broke – our front breaks.

Our stay in London was nothing out of the ordinary – we visited the usual bunch of favourite markets, restaurants and cafes, spending way too much money we didn’t have; the weather was usual as well: cold, wet, windy with one or two sunny spells and a mini-heat wave in the middle. Just as expected from early English summer.

I fixed the fuse box myself, after three days of trying to figure out which cable connected to what. I’m rather proud of it, even if the finished job doesn’t look too solid – but it passed the MOT just fine, and the tester hadn’t even batted an eyelid! The oil light turned out to be a combination of several factors: faulty sensor – cheap and easy to replace – wrong oil – ditto – and an oil pump which has seen its better time. That was more dear to replace, but still, within reason.

The breaks were a mess, and the reason for the final few days of delay – with a bank holiday weekend in between, which we decided to spend in Hastings and Battle; at least the weather was nice. We took a gamble, and booked the ferry to Denmark, hoping for the best.

As always, everything worked out at the very last moment. After two long weeks of delays and uncertainty, the final two days were hectic: on Tuesday, we got the brakes fixed and passed the MOT re-test. On Wednesday we got the last of our necessary mail (bank stuff, insurance etc.). On Thursday we boarded the ferry to Denmark. At long last, we’re back travelling!

Hand-made fuse box. I'm an electrician now :)

Hand-made fuse box. I’m an electrician now 🙂

At least we got to drive through Tower Bridge.

At least we got to drive through Tower Bridge.

Maltby Street, perfect as usual.

Maltby Street, perfect as usual.

Day 4-8 – Chilling Out

Zuid Holland

Zuid Holland

We’ve spent one whole day in Hamburg, partly to soak in the mood of the city in the rain, partly to try and find the one piece of camping gear we failed to obtain beforehand – a CEE electric plug, which we could use on continental sites. We eventually found it the next day near Bremen, but by Sod’s Law, of course, we never had to use it again all the way to England. Hopefully it will come useful when we get back on the main land 🙂

From there we drove south-west, towards Holland, through Saxony, which looks just like rural Southern England. Flat, green, fertile, with fair country houses of red brick or half-timber, thatched or neatly tiled. It seems, just like the Vikings in Scotland, and Frisians in East Anglia, the Saxons were searching for a land most like the one they had come from. I can only assume Denmark will look like Yorkshire.

Dummer See is a large, almost perfectly round lake in the middle of all this green and pleasant land, roughly half-way between Hamburg and Amsterdam, so we make our stop there. The season is still far away, so with most facilities closed shut, and with the weather more suitable for November, it feels we’ve come here in the middle of winter. The only sign of it being May are the maypoles, decorated with flowers and ribbons, standing in every village and even in the middle of the campsite, and the fresh strawberries and white asparagus being at the roadside stalls.

Leaving Dummer See, the car splutters to a halt and refuses to move. A summoned mechanic discovers the reason for this – and most of our other engine troubles so far – to be a loose wire at the idle pressure valve. It never ceases to amaze (and slightly frustrate) me how almost all the problems with this car can be solved with pliers, a set of screwdrivers, some masking tape and a good wrench.

Rain, rain, wind, cold, drizzle, cold. That’s the succession of weather patterns over these four days. Everything in the car is soaked through, and fighting the headwinds on the motorway uses up all of our fuel and patience. It’s 10 degrees C when we drive into Amsterdam, and a furious, lashing rain. In the middle of May! The forecast for the next week is giving us some hope – there’s a warm front coming into England from Tuesday.

John Holt’s “Police in the Helicopter” playing in the campsite reception tells us we’re in the right place to finally relax and unwind 🙂 We spent another full day in Amsterdam, following our by now usual itinerary of “Amsterdam’s best”: a falafel in Maoz for lunch, pancakes for dinner, a smoke in a coffee shop, a glass of beer and jenever in a bar and a good cup of java in an indie cafe. Personally, I get a lot more relaxed from drinking the coffee than from the joint, but I put that down to lack of experience as a smoker 🙂 (also, it’s a damn good coffee)

Netherlands is where we start sight-seeing properly. We’ve never been outside Amsterdam/Schiphol area before. Heading for the Hook of Holland ferry, we stop first at Delft. As postcard-perfect doll-house quaint little Dutch town as you can imagine, criss-crossed, naturally, with a myriad of tree-lined canals, with the main square ensemble preserved in its entirety: the cathedral, the town hall and the weighing house are all in place, reflecting in each other’s stained glass windows. We drink another coffee – of course, the Dutch would have good coffee, having once owned the island of Java… what don’t they have…?

Rotterdam looks just like we imagined. A big, modern, vibrant harbour city. By luck we turn first into the district inhabited by immigrants from the former Dutch colonies: Suriname, Indonesia, India, the Antilles… Over half of Rotterdam’s inhabitants have “non-Dutch” origins – hardly surprising, considering the city’s sea history. The mix of peoples and cultures here is a completely new and different to that found in London – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Suriname or Aruba before – and here it’s also mingled with a nascent Chinatown. As a result, the supermarkets store every food imaginable and the bars and restaurants offer meals from every corner of the world.

We find the more central part of the city later, with the shops, the skyscrapers and the old harbour museum of antique ships and port gear. The area around the old docks is the one that’s suffered the most in the 1940 bombing – of which the anniversary is nearing – and here is where Zadkine’s famous “Destroyed City” monument stands, by the waterline.

Our last night before crossing the Channel we spend on the Hook of Holland. The causeway road leading to it passes through the greatest continuous expanse of greenhouses in the world. For a moment, I’m sure we’re driving through a fake village of model houses, scattered between garden centres, narrow canals and fields of glasshouses, but no, this is where actual people live. The houses and gardens of Westland are impossibly immaculate, even though they have to nestle sometimes on a tiny strip between a motorway and an agricultural equipment warehouse. It’s like a model train village built out of ready-made kits by somebody with severe ADHD.

The campsite is by the sea, and it’s the first beach we see this year. It still feels like November as we climb the wind-swept dunes between a closed beach bar and a shut-down marina. The beach here is another world-first: this is where the ever-industrious Dutch have constructed the Zand Motor: the Sand Engine, a way to build up the South Holland coast with sand using the power of waves and currents.

We may have driven around thousands of miles of British coast, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a beach like this one. A flock of sheep is grazing on the dunes (as everywhere else in Holland: sheep, cows, goats and horses roam freely around every empty piece of grassland); a couple of surfers and a group of horse-riders meet half-way in the waves; an Indonesian-style beach bar lies closed and half-covered in sand like some forgotten Bali ruin; the sand motor churns to the North, the refineries and harbour cranes labour to the South, tankers and coast guard ships pass along the horizon to the West.

And, as if all that was not enough excitement for one evening, as we head back to the campsite, six airplanes come roaring out of nowhere, pass over our heads in a tight formation and treat us to a free acrobatic spectacle against the setting sun.

IMG_1491

Day 1-3 (again) – German Blitz

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

And we’re off!

Contrary to what you might think, it’s actually harder to try this again. We now know all the things that can go wrong, and know to expect more than we can think of. In true Zen fashion, the journey is more daunting now that our minds are no longer “empty”.

It’s one brief stop after another for now, until we reach UK – only then does the actual journey start. Poznan, Berlin, Hamburg… one or two more stops before Amsterdam, and then a hop across the channel. 300 km a day – a lot more than what we, and the car, is used to. We stay on city campsites, not very glamorous, but simple and close to transport links.

There’s lots of military activity along the A2 linking Berlin and Warsaw. Army trucks, armoured cars being towed, fighter jets scrambling over Poznan. Not a happy sight, considering what we hear in the news. Maybe it’s just a coincidence…

Northern Germany is the flattest land we’ve seen. It’s field bug season, and the van is committing a windshield genocide; we have to scrape off a layer of smashed insects at every gas stop, or else it’s getting hard to see through!

The Germans are taking the energy crisis seriously. Half the land between Berlin and Hamburg is now one big alternative power plant: forests of windmills, hectares of solar panels, interspersed with fields of biofuel crops.

We don’t do any sightseeing in Berlin and Poznan, just grab a bite to eat, meet a friend and go back to the campsite. We’ve been here before, anyway. Hamburg is the first city we do a short trip around, and we’re loving it. It’s everything a “second city” should be – almost as big, as rich, and as vibrant as Berlin. It’s huge and somewhat chaotic at first sight – we jump straight in without any research, and so we have hard time finding out where the “centre” of the city is supposed to be. It turns out way too big a place to just randomly wander about and hope for the best, especially with swathes of the centre burnt out in the war and rebuilt as inconspicuous residential districts. But it doesn’t matter.

There’s a good vibe here, as in any large German city. I like to think it’s a vibe of a prosperous and industrious people, but I don’t know enough about the Germans to make sweeping statements like that, and I don’t want to play on stereotypes. But like Berlin, it’s a city I can imagine myself living in in some comfort, and not getting bored with it for a few years.

We finish the day eating a vegan Curry Wurst in the famous St Pauli –  Hamburg’s Soho, though it’s really more fair to say Soho is London’s St Pauli. It’s still a bit of a shock to visit a legal red light district – on a rainy day there seems to be more girls than clients on the street, hiding under umbrellas as colorful as the neons of the sex shops and night clubs. Unlike Liverpool, the Beatles fame (they have a poignant monument on the “Beatles Platz”, showing the four musicians together and a forlorn Sutcliffe aside) and the throngs of tourists swarming to Kaiserkeller did nothing to change the character of this place – it’s just as sleazy and entertaining as when the Fab Five drugged their way through the gigs here.

A few problems with the car already, though that’s to be expected after the long winter. So far it’s still moving forward, which is always the best we can hope for.

Kaiserkeller, Grosse Freiheit 36

Kaiserkeller, Grosse Freiheit 36

 

Two weeks to go…

Orca-engineI think we are both little surprised how fast those winter months have passed and now only two weeks separate us from another trip. I guess it’s time to dust off my Tilley, make few lists and gather camping gear in one place.

Orca was taken to the garage in March for checks. The front wheel bearing and the track rod finally wore out last year and had to be replaced. We also changed passenger seat belt, bled the breaks, removed rusted door speakers, replaced light bulbs and asked the electrician to double-check indicators, horn and dashboard lights, as those were not always working properly. Finally Orca was taken to another garage and got a brand new set of summer tires. We also rummaged around the tool section in local store for a few ratchet spanners, listed and repacked all tools and spare parts. We still don’t have a car jack…

When it got a little warmer, we scrubbed her inside, took the curtains to wash, cleaned up the fridge and checked if everything is working: leisure battery, water pump, cooker, kitchen light, car stereo… Finally, with the priceless help of the internet, we set up ignition timing (tutorial) and adjusted the points (video).

There are things left to do, before we go. Car-wash is in order. Also buying a Europe-wide SIM card, Camping Key Europe card, Nordic Camper Guide and updating the Sat-nav. Most of the countries we are going to visit this year are in Schengen Area, which makes crossing borders a breeze but otherwise, roaming charges, breakdown covers, ATM charges and several currencies make it slightly more complicated that it should be. Still, we remain hopeful 🙂

Day 118-125 and beyond… – Overwintering

Mazowsze

Mazowsze

Well, here we are. October 15th – exactly four months after leaving our London flat, we are in Warsaw.

As we had planned, it took us six days to drive across Europe – with stops in Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin and Poznan. We drove for 200-300km per day, all on motorways (including the new one in Poland – it wasn’t here the last time we traveled the country), at speeds the van hadn’t dreamt of… we think something may have gotten broken again, but we made it through all in one piece, and now have the winter to figure out if, and what, to fix.

We stayed with family in Brussels, with friends in Poznan, and on campsites in Germany. It was cold, windy, rainy, and for the last night in Berlin we had a fierce thunderstorm above our heads competing with airliners landing on a nearby Tegel airport.

We didn’t do much sightseeing – it wasn’t that kind of a trip; we did eat, though (and drink) in some of our favourite places, even if it meant standing 2 hours in a queue in Berlin for Mustafa’s legendary Gemusekebap. We did stroll around Brussels and Cologne for a bit, but that wasn’t our first time in either of them. We still need to go back to Cologne to visit the Roman Museum – it was already closed by the time we got there, and it looks like a full day trip anyway.

The campsites in Germany are of a completely different standard than the English ones. I’m not saying better – just different. There’s a very 70s working class holiday vibe in them; the one in Cologne is probably the best of the three, right on the Rhine; there’s fantastic Autumn going on in Europe right now, and there is no better sight in the world than autumn trees reflecting in the water (those who’ve been to Kiyomizudera in November will know what I’m talking about); Germany had plenty of that on offer.

We got into Warsaw on the last moment; the night before it was already frost on the ground, and first of the winter fogs, dissipating as we entered the motorway for one last time. It’s still Indian Summer in Poland, but it feels like the snow might come at any moment now, and we’re not fit to face the winter – not just yet, at least. So ,like a Great Heathen Army staying the winter in Repton, we’ll be in Warsaw, waiting for the spring thaws, before moving on.

This is definitely not the end of our journeys. Next year – next trip! And until then, we’ll be posting more summaries of last year, things we forgot to mention, tips, and whatever else we can think of – only not as often as before. So don’t go away too far!

Day 102-103 – Coffee and Gannets

Lothian

Lothian

We stay in Edinburgh for two nights, waiting for the final fix to the rear wheels; the garage is in Newtongrange, a former mining colony on the southern outskirts of the city with rows of identical red brick houses and a tall, disused railway viaduct; so is the campsite we’re staying at. Edinburgh centre is a mere half an hour on a fast bus, so we get to walk around the Old Town for a bit before coming back to learn the wheel bearings we ordered are still not the right ones. Third time’s lucky, though, and the next day we get the proper bearings fitted, along with the new brake drum. Hopefully this will last us all the way to the end – and more!

There isn’t much that can be said about Edinburgh that wasn’t said before by hundreds of travel writers and guidebook editors. Britain’s second most famous city, Edinburgh is basically all tourists, bagpipes, artists and students. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great place, but can feel a little monotone at times, and I don’t just mean the yellow-grey of its walls. Plus we have been here before, so this time we focused just on finding good places to have a sip of coffee. Between our last visit to Auld Reekie and now, the Edinburgh cafe scene has exploded, and now you can’t pass two kebab shop on Clerk Street without stumbling onto a new cafe.

If I mention kebab shops and indie cafes, it’s because that’s what Edinburgh’s high street seems like; for someone coming from London, with its massive social divisions and bubbling class war, Edinburgh is remarkably ungentrified. Apart from the row of department stores on Princes Street, you get everything together: Polish delis, posh restaurants, halal butchers, indie cafes, organic grocers, pubs, clubs and curry houses. It’s all mashed up together in a combination which makes one dizzy and wonder, what social-economic sorcery is this?

Another thing we’ve noticed this time is how small everything is in Edinburgh. It’s as if we had grown up since the last visit; I remember climbing to the top of Calton Hill – it seemed as if we’d conquered Ben Nevis; and when we got down, the prospect of climbing again to the castle was a daunting one. This time, we found ourselves at the castle gates pretty much by accident (admittedly, coming from the direction of Old Town it’s much easier) and we almost missed Calton Hill and its monuments altogether.

The cafes of Edinburgh are up to highest standards, especially around the Old College, and the Brew Lab alone is worth the journey; there are several outlets of the Artisan Roast which we have already met in Glasgow. Other than that, everything in the tourist section of the city centre is far too expensive, but then that’s to be expected anywhere. The Asian and Middle-Eastern shops around the Central Mosque, on the other hand, were brimming with cheap and tasty goodies we eagerly stocked up on.

Once we got the car back, we made our way towards North Berwick. It’s a small harbour town, which would be perfectly missable if it wasn’t for a bit of rock jutting out of its bay: Bass Rock, world’s largest gannet colony.

To the naked eye, the Rock looks just like another off-shore reef, albeit strangely silver all over. But even in the sights of poor binoculars, the silver turns into a countless, chaotic myriad of birds. Gannets, as we’ve discovered before, tend to live in huge cities; and the one at Bass Rock is the largest of all, a mind-numbing 150 thousand strong.

What was a shock for us was just how close the Rock is to the town. We expected having to sail deep into the Firth of Forth to see it, and we didn’t really have time for that anymore, after all the delays. Instead, the Rock loomed over the campsite in the morning, over the town, and even popped over the horizon a few times later in the day as we drove on, like some Hitchcockian nightmare.

In the town there’s a modern building, proudly named “Scottish Seabirds Centre” – but since it costs ÂŁ8.50 just to get inside, we’ll never know what exactly is it that they do there, other than having cameras pointed at the Rock and a few other nearby islands – if somehow you still didn’t have enough of gannets. The seabird season is coming at an end, anyway, with all the guillemots, razorbills and puffins long gone to their winter abodes.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

Scottish Seabirds Centre

Scottish Seabirds Centre

 

 


Tantallon is a large holiday park on the North Berwick coast; it’s split into three parts – tent site, static caravan site, and touring site. It’s the touring site that’s the closest to Bass Rock, a breathtaking site in the morning, as it emerges from the mist. The facilities are a bit meh, though, and not justifying the price tag of ÂŁ20 per night.