ArchieVan heads north.
That could be a ridiculous title, after all ArchieVan started heading north back in May when we were released from the Cretan lockdown. But when it’s another country north is just a direction, when you get to England north is The North, a place, a culture, an attitude.
A week ago we posted a blog filled with green.
We’d worn ourselves out and rested up on the banks of a lake, and on the edge of the forest.
We came back to tourism with a bang.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is Germany’s most popular walled town. The medieval masterpiece of grand buildings is backed by barns and animal stores, although they no longer hold beasts and grain but instead give shelter to guests paying the high prices of boutique hotels.
The walk up from the campsite is probably only 20 minutes, but it’s a heck of a climb. As you gasp for breath you wonder how an enemy knight might manage this climb clad in armour and loaded with weapons. How would he ever find the strength to then attack? Fortunately all we had to attack was the less than delicate local pastries.
Despite the heaving throng of tourists. Despite the streets of shops selling overpriced tat. Despite the tours in electrified old cars. Even despite the barely edible schneeball*, Rothenburg delivers delight in spades. Its buildings are beautiful, in particular I love the insanely protruding guild signs.
The views of the countryside beyond its walls tempt you to see more, and while its restaurants may be crowded, there are fabulous alternatives down the hill.
It was our second visit in three years and it probably won’t be our last.
We were in town for Minty’s birthday and to spend the weekend with our lockdown friends.
Gisi and Werner.
As we waved goodbye to our lovely friends Gisi and Werner we realised that we have spent longer with them than anyone else this year. Through the Cretan lockdown we kept each other’s spirits high. We shared knowledge, meals and Raki. Their well informed, intelligent and open approach to life is an inspiration. I value time spent with older folk who have done so much and lived so differently to us.
It was Werner’s suggestion that we stop at Wurzburg.
Approaching the university city your view is dominated by the huge Marienberg Fortress. It’s one of Europe’s most extensive castle complexes.
It was home to the Bavarian prince bishops for over 500 years.
It was home to ArchieVan on Sunday night.
When Minty directed me to drive through the massive gates I doubted her instruction and insisted on having a walk through to check things out. This felt like driving up to Windsor Castle, then pulling up onto a bit of lawn expecting to stay the night. And that is exactly what we did.
Today the fine walls of this medieval monster protect the extensive vines that stretch in every direction rather than the prince bishops who built it. It was destroyed by bombing in March 1945, but painstakingly rebuilt with US Marshall Aid and completed in 1990.
The best time to visit is at dawn when you can wander through the 20m wide moats alone. Alone there is nothing to offer scale and the effect of its towering ramparts will diminish any feeling of importance you may harbour. Polly and I were as ants scurrying through the ditches.
There are a heck of a lot of steps to descend to the town. Then there’s the C16th Mainbrücke to cross. The pretty pedestrian bridge spans the Main river where tiny pleasure craft vie with juggernaut barges for a place in the lock. It had become an impromptu wine bar in the warm September sunshine where the beautiful people enjoyed perfect tints of rosé, and expensive perfume scented the air.
Churches are often incredible buildings that display the very best skills of the era when they were built. To see one is definitely not to see them all.
The first we visited displayed the most ornate white painted plaster work. Its gold shone all the more brightly for the fact that most of the walls were without colour.
The cathedral doesn’t stand out, other than for its size, but we were glad we stepped inside. St Kilian’s was largely destroyed towards the end of WW2. Its reconstruction is intensely interesting.
Stepping through the west doors (massive modern brass works of art) you’re assailed by an ornate fence such as that which keeps us commoners from picnicking on the lawn at Buckingham Palace.
Ahead of this is a menorah that must be four metres high. Looking at the candelabra leads your eye up to the organ, another piece of modern art that’s encased in studded burnished steel.
Light is filtered through subtle stained glass, the ceiling is a delicate mosaic, the art is more likely to be a recent interpretation of Christ’s journey than the prescribed scenes of old, although everything that survived the bombing is on display too.
The 110m view to the altar is such that there’s a haze to the air as you gaze across the whiteness.
The cathedral’s rebuilding was completed in 1967.
I guess folk have yet to fall in love with the skill of its modern works. They barely get a mention in its write ups.
Is this too real for you?
Wurzburg felt more real than previous stops.
There were young folk being young. Wearing their recent tattoos with pride. Sitting in the street looking untidy. But still they greet the passers by. Real life as we know it is still a long way away.
What climate crisis?
Moving north Germany finally gets more crowded.
Passing Frankfurt on the A3 the cars reach peak excess.
Muscle car was once a term reserved for the extreme motors of the US.
Today family saloons from BWM, Audi and Mercedes sport 5 litres and more. Beside me a C-class Mercedes proudly wears its 6.3 badge, even though the 1.8 version from the same stable has more power than most drivers can handle.
I have never seen as much solar PV as in Bavaria.
I have never seen such efforts so blatantly snubbed as on the motorways that speed past those panels.
I love cars. I can’t kick the habit. But this excess has to stop. It has to stop very soon.
Polly needs a check-up before the tunnel. Her vet of choice this time is in yet another idyllic town.
The half timbered houses of Idstein sit comfortably alongside unashamedly modern places in a way that both Germany and France deliver so well.
After Polly’s check-up I leave my hat and shirt at the vet’s. I was their last customer of the day. On the way back this morning I practised “Gestern habe ich mein hemb vergessen.” And although the receptionist sniggered at me she did go and get my shirt. Result.
The realities of Britain in crisis are kicking in. We’ll be glued to bumbling Boris this evening as he admonishes the nation once again.
For now though we’ll wander these streets once more and wonder whether Germany is really just a huge model village experiment. We’ve seen so much manicured perfection. We need a trip to Hamburg to be reminded of what’s real.
Hey – now there’s an idea, we loved Hamburg before. Perhaps next time we part from Britain’s shores it should be our first destination.
Just one more idyll then.
The stelplatz at Mayschoss is huge, yet even in late September there were no available spaces between the hundred or so vans. Fortunately we were early. Others had to drive on.
Most of the vans were the usual affairs that would look huge in Britain, but are commonplace here. But then there was this, the biggest live-in beast that we’ve seen to date. A veritable coach, with four slide out panels**.
Mayschoss is wine country. Vines stretch in every direction. Fine vignerons and restaurants dot the streets and we indulged handsomely in both.
Healthy retired Germans stride out on walking tours, they pedal the cycle routes, then, righteous after their exercise they tuck into succulent plates of meat swimming in delicious gravies to be soaked up by huge dumplings.
The food doesn’t always look great, I’m particularly challenged by dark beef in white sauce, but the taste can be truly special.
Classic car tours wind through these valleys too. Three Mercedes 190SLs glide by, at least half a million pounds worth of gleaming metal. There’s a Porsche tour that’s altogether more shouty. Morgans look tiny parked alongside modern behemoths.
As we leave the vines, the walkers, the cyclists and classic cars behind we also left the hills. We won’t see another until we emerge in Kent on Thursday.
The last night of our escape.
My first night in the van beyond the UK was in Aachen. Polly and I stopped off to visit our friends Marlon and Silke.
Our last night will be a few spaces along from where a fit Polly and I stood 3 years ago.
Aachen is more real.
There’s litter and graffiti. There’s diversity. People don’t wait for the green man before crossing the road. It’s a gentle introduction to what awaits us on the other side of the Channel.
That said it’s a fine town.
It was Charlemagne’s chosen seat and his final resting place.
It was from here that he ruled the greatest empire Europe had seen since the fall of Rome, uniting Western and Central Europe.
It was from here that we enjoyed a great bratwurst and took an early night to gather strength for a long distance drive to transit Belgium and France pressing on through the crowded British motorways with St Albans as our destination.
I haven’t driven that far in a year at least.
Just thinking about it makes me tired.
The distance and the green fields of…
A gentle tourist’s meander through a hundred miles of unknown territory can be truly tiring. A 320 mile blast across German, Belgium, French and English motorways was somehow OK.
It was a shame not to stop in Belgium, it felt rude. Still, crossing the border it was immediately obvious where we were.
Belgium’s architecture is distinctive. There’s a clean approach to building. Often dark brown/red brick is used to build houses with minimal overhangs, steep roofs and fenestration clear of mullions. This house exaggerates every aspect as if to prove my point…
France greeted us with torrential rain that made the motorway a scary place and left us longing for the security of the tunnel.
35 minutes lying in the back of the van didn’t seem much of a rest, but it was enough to power us on across the empty M20, and only moderately busy M25. In the other direction there was a taste of things to come as several miles of trucks queued down two of the three lanes of motorway (oh, did Mr Farage not tell you about the hell his plans would rain down on Kent?).
A gentle introduction. St Albans.
Verulamium Park. It was good enough for the Romans.
In the morning young men park their smart new cars around us before lolloping off to school (as students, not teachers).
Dog walkers stop their huge four wheel drive beasts beside those of their friends who’ve driven from next door and venture out into the green of the extensive Verulamium Park.
The massive cathedral crowns the skyline, built from materials pilfered from the ancient Roman city that once stood on Watling Street, the key trade route between London and Chester.
There’s none of the Britain we dread here. This is a good place to land, where we can gently absorb the country we call home.
Dinner with friends.
At dinner we sit close with friends for the first time since the outbreak of Corona.
We speak English with English. It’s a novel and exciting experience. Words tumble over each other in an effort to learn of home and to tell years’ worth of stories in minutes.
Hopefully Tony and Marianne managed to squeeze a few words in too.
St Albans. The cathedral.
When we tour the unfamiliar our senses are immediately heightened to absorb the new.
Coming back to England after so many months away perhaps that same heightened awareness is possible as the once familiar is no longer so.
In the towering cathedral of St Albans the wonder of building is as palpable as any place we have visited. The first impression is one of scale simply delivered. But this building is anything but simple. Britain’s finest medieval paintings. The shrine of the country’s first Christian martyr. The centuries of building, many in styles distinctive from what went before. The virtuosity of its craftsmen. It moved me to tears.
This is no relic in stone though. It’s a living place. There were so many people. Having tours. Having lessons. Preparing for an event. Bustling around. And those, like us, wandering in wonder.
Ahead of us we have a mini-tour of the north seeing family and friends where it’s allowed.
Next week I’ll conclude this tale with thoughts on our learning from 30 months living outdoors, living in a van, living an adventure that already feels like it might have been a parallel life.
* Schneeball. The snowball is a local speciality of Rothenburg. In its basic form it’s a barely edible ball made from strips of pastry. To avoid shame being brought to the gastronomy of the town several bakers have tried to elevate the original with chocolate coverings and cream fillings. It’s still best photographed but otherwise avoided.
**Slide out panels. Space is an expensive luxury, especially in van world. If you can afford it you can create new space in your van with slide out panels which give you a few extra metres inside once you’ve parked. They are close to magic. And so is the price. A single panel is likely to cost upwards of £15k, and that’s before you fit out your new space.
***Three wheeler. This is bonkers. When I saw one of these on the autobahn I hardly believed my eyes. I later researched it and found that you can shell out €5,000 to have your Fiat 500 converted to a three wheeler and the power brought down to just 20 HP. Why? So that it falls into a category that can be driven at 16 (as it says on the side).