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!

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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

 

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!