Leaving Britain for a while.
We wake in Brighton, on the street side. A walk in the park for Polly, a wave goodbye to James, and onwards.
At the Channel Tunnel terminal, a Swiss E-type convention. More Jaguars than I’ve ever seen in the same place, and each worth a fortune.
More interesting to me, a Bristol 410. Just someone’s family car.
And hundreds of motorbikes.
Breakfast from Leon. Probably no better, or worse, than its McDonalds equivalent, but it felt virtuous.
Then the curious experience that’s the tunnel.
So sure I am that they just move the scenery and create a gentle rocking to convince travellers of movement.
The E40 across the vast flat lands of north eastern France fades into the E40 across Belgium with no more than a degradation of road surface to let you know the difference.
Eeklo – don’t lose your head!
We’re to camp at Eeklo, near the Dutch border, on a huge canal.
As we pull up to our canal side parking place we notice a curious sculpture that’s a tower of skulls. Later we discover what it’s about.
In this town of old, so legend would have it, it was the hip thing to drink an elixir of youth, have your head lopped off, bake said head, and during the requisite baking time to replace your head with a cabbage. Curiously I can’t find evidence to suggest whether or not this led to rejuvenation.
What we did find though was an unusual approach to the end of the working week. Almost all of the town’s many bars shut on Fridays, and those that were open closed by 9pm. So much for our first night sampling the delights of Belgium’s famous breweries.
While we didn’t get to experience the inside of the scores of bars, it was interesting to absorb the architecture.
A simple street reveals much when studied. A common roofline may cap a terrace of completely individual properties. Many dwellings look industrial, workshop like, from without. And modern single pane windows are used in both old houses and new. Each house is different, wildly different, yet this doesn’t feel hotchpotch – coherency comes at street level, pavements and street furniture help to create a feeling of whole.
Back at the sleep site all is suffused with the sweet smell of the nearby biscuit factory on its night time bake off. Can you breathe calories?
Dinant. Home of Leffe Brewery
On the recommendation of Markus, our penultimate ArchavonStudio guest, we head down to Dinant in the south. It was mostly an unexciting motorway drive, but once past Namur (looks a great city, we must go back there, rivers, castle/citadel) that changed dramatically. Now we were skimming along the banks of the Meuse, one of Europe’s great rivers, even though it’s overshadowed by the Rhine and Danube.
The N4 is referred to as the Route des Vallés, and indeed the gorge cut by the Meuse is pretty with many attractive towns and lots of castles and chateaux along the way.
It could just as easily be called N4Nookie.
Along the way there are many ‘offices’ where scantily clad girls sit at computers in the street facing windows.
Loads of them.
I guess the title of ‘secretary’ could have a whole different meaning there.
Distractions aside, Dinant is beautiful, dramatic too.
Thankfully, being a Wallonian city it’s French speaking making it a heck of a lot easier for us than the Dutch in Eeklo.
Straddling the Meuse, and towered over by its citadel, this ancient trading town is much more than just home to one of Belgium’s great beers.
Our parking spot was unromantic – a large car park on the river side, under a church (on a Sunday!), but only 500m flat walk into the town proper, and quiet enough until the tolling of the bells.
Dinant was the site of one of the early First World War horrors. 2300 lives were lost in the space of a day as French and Germans fought over the important crossing of the Meuse. There are many memorials to the fighting through the town.
We visit the castle and its truly freaky trench experience where at one point the floor suddenly angles at about 30 degrees to the horizontal and messes with your mind. The views from the battlements are pretty special.
Now the touristy town offers riverside restaurants (we chose the most basic as great Belgium frites were what we wanted, and got), pretty multi-coloured houses, Leffe, and saxophones – it was the home town of Adolphe Sax and there are huge saxes all over town.
Other strong beers are available!
We started our evening with these beauties, weighing in at an impressive 10.5% ABV.
Early Sunday morning Polly and I stanked up the road through Leffe and along the floor of a pretty valley that had once supported 22 mills. Now most of the industry has been replaced by big houses on massive plots, but on this sunny morning no one was up yet.
These two days at two very different ends of Belgium have changed our impressions from last year’s crossing. We’ll be back for an Abbey brewery tour I reckon, but for now we press on.
The known bits of Europe are not our aim for this trip.
Where are all the people?
We cross a hundred miles or so of Belgium following the pretty Meuse river.
Hang on – we’ve driven for miles, it’s a beautiful warm sunny day. It’s a Sunday – and yet there’s no one on the road. There may only be 11 million people in this country, but it’s also a small place, it’s considerably more heavily populated than Britain – so where are they all?
We don’t worry. Instead we enjoy pottering along at a gentle pace absorbing the scenery.
We cross the border.
Ah, everyone’s in Germany – on their motorbikes! The German roads are much busier and there are thousands of bikes.
But because it’s Germany they all know what to do and it all works fine.
We camp on Sunday and Monday nights at a beautiful lake, the Rursee, 20 minutes outside Aachen (we couldn’t get hold of our friends Marlon and Silke in Aachen unfortunately, we hope you two are OK).
The rest day was needed and we spent a gentle day swimming (I love lake swimming and the temperature was rather higher than in Scotland last week), walking around bits of the lakes, and catching up with practical duties.
The local ladies swimming club seems to meet here at 7am every morning. Impressive!
Tomorrow we head gently north east.
Sometimes the best places are planned, but they’re more fun when you fall across them by accident.
After a few hours of driving through pretty ordered towns and soothing green forests Minty sensed my fatigue. “Why don’t you pull in at the car park coming up?”
We pull into a large car park that might have doubled as a city park at home. Trees all around, but not a soul in sight.
We knew immediately that what was going to be a quick rest would instead be a perfect overnight spot.
A tunnel under the main road took me to Hennesee, a large reservoir with a huge new café that optimised its view with a large terrace.
A swim. Dinner. A long evening walk. A restful sleep. A swim. Breakfast at the café. And on the road set for our third lake in as many days.
Not all driving can be bliss.
Today is hard.
Far too hard.
The A2 is a mix of two and three lanes.
And, as so many German autobahns, it has more lorries than you might see in a year’s worth of UK driving.
And every one needs to go as fast as it can, overtaking whenever it’s moving ever so slightly faster than the one in front.
Although ArchieVan can pull off a turn of speed when requested, it’s most comfortable driving at 90 – 100 km an hour.
Just a bit faster than the trucks.
A few hours of overtaking when the outside lane is generally very, very fast is enough to wear you down.
By the time we pull into the stellplatz at Steinhuder I’m too knackered to know if I’m happy to be there or not, just relieved to stop.
Quenching my thirst and calming my nerves with a large glass of Scotland’s finest might not have been the best answer though. I spent much of the evening in a stupor while Minty hobbled along on a damaged heel that has been troubling her for a few days.
It’s our first big site, and facilities are scant – a good clean toilet block, but only two cubicles and two showers for over 100 vans.
Seeing ArchieVan with so many motorhomes did make us a little smug to have something individual, particular.
Steinhuder is a big draw and unlike the previous lakes it’s very touristy, although quiet at the moment. Early in the morning a long walk along the lakeside was pretty enough, with the joggers pounding out their rhythms, but I’m not bothered when it’s time to go. I could have stayed days at either previous stop.
Hamburg deserves its own post. We’ll come back for longer before too long.
It’s amazing to be able to stop the night so close to the centre. We pull into the Fischmarkt and park up with 15 or more vans for just €14, right on the banks of the Elba.
This is no calm utopian lakeside, this is life in the fast lane, and we’re right in the middle of it. Huge container ships, a multitude of river taxis, some expensive looking launches, mega yachts to charter, even boats with bands playing, and of course booze boats, all right in front of us.
Leaving Minty and her sore foot on the Feuerschiff (ex-fireship restaurant bar) with a pile of beer tokens I head off to see the new(ish) Elbphilharmonie by superstar architects Herzog and de Meuron.
I could have spent all day there.
And even after an hour I hadn’t left the viewing platform that surrounds the original warehouse building. The new concert hall tops the original building with its striking modern construction. Entrance to this 125,000 square metre masterpiece is free and even if you never hear a note there you should visit if you have the chance. Note to my sis: Book a yourself weekend and concert there if you can.
The early morning stank was truly early, and long. By 6.30am we were pounding the streets of the Reeperbahn as some were just leaving clubs, and bands were playing as if it was 10pm. This seedy aspect is what I expected from Hamburg, so I was surprised by how beautiful the city is too.
Architecture, parks (huge parks, and in Platen un Blomen a Brutalist water cascade that looks about to be restored, the juxtaposition of concrete and gently falling water appeals to me greatly), inner city canals, elegance, upmarket shopping, city beaches (really) Hamburg has it all.
We also had great beer and pizza! Happy Minty.
Before leaving we spend an hour on the U-boat museum, a 1976 Russian sub. An hour? Fascinating. But a life? Oh God no, not for any amount of money would I go to sea in one, let alone go under water.
Nordstrand. Nearly in Denmark now
North, ever north. A short but uninteresting drive to the polders (or koogs) of Northern Germany for a last stop before Denmark.
We get the bikes out! Yay!
Minty can’t walk comfortably, but she can cycle so we tour this reclaimed marshland and get to England, a tiny hamlet with 3 bars (how appropriate) for well earned refreshment.
It’s flat for as far as the eye can see (though that’s not far as the dykes come every kilometre or so.
The tide goes out for miles, literally, and when we finally got to the coast we couldn’t see as far as the water.
Moin moin the local greeting goes, and here everyone greets you – after all they don’t see their neighbours very often. The grid of roads each connects a house or so, but there aren’t many houses, and so there aren’t many roads.
Apparently the silage and hay grown here is rejected by animals elsewhere as it’s salty. I didn’t try any, I’m happy to believe. And I reckon that’s the reason we have seen thatched cottages here but nowhere else in Germany. You need something to do with all that reed.
Our site, Womoland, is excellent. We’re on a little patch of meadow with two other vans while all the huge German mobile homes are on gravel. They considered it to be squeezing us in, but we reckon we have the best spot they have to offer.
Tonight they barbecued. Simple fare – a sausage, a steak, or a lamb shoulder, all served with salad, but their large hall was packed, inside and out. We spent the evening with Bolli (Transporter) campers Sigi and Burkhard, but were early to bed after many miles walked and cycled.
Tomorrow Denmark. A new country for ArchieVan
Brighton: Just because it’s outside our friend’s place, but I wouldn’t advise it. 50.827230, -0.156042
Eeklo, Belgium: A simple facility for vans on the canals side and a short walk to town. €10 with or without electricity. 51.180015, 3.550429
Dinant, Belgium: Just a big car park, but 10 minutes or so into town, quiet until the church bells kicked off. On the Meuse river. No facilities. Free. 50.265635, 4.907822
Rurberg, Rursee, Germany: A stunning setting. Official camping facility for about 15 vans. Lakes, cafes, great walking and swimming. €8. 50.605393, 6.380406
Henesee, Meschede, Germany. Another great find. Just a car park, but in the countryside, a short walk to the lake for swimming. No facilities. Free.
Steinhuder Mere, Germany. Good price at €11. Large basic campsite in the German style (not much grass, basic facilities all charged, but great location. 52.448415, 9.354332
Fischmarkt, Hamburg, Germany. I can’t believe there’s a site so close to the centre of such an amazing city. No facilities. No privacy. €14.
Womoland, Nordstrand, Germany. Loved this place. Simple, friendly, great facilities, barbecue a couple of nights a week. €16.