After spending a fabulous month skiing in the French Alps, we bade a fond farewell to Gilly and Dave and headed through Les Gets and towards Evian on Lake Geneva before circumnavigating the edge of the lake to Montreux. We hoped to pay homage to Freddy Mercury’s statue and perhaps stay on the nearby aire. The trip to the Swiss border was uneventful under leaden skies. When we got to border control we were in for a shock as Aurora was over 3.5 tonnes so we had to pay a tax. This amounted to about £20 for 10 days driving in Switzerland which was valid for the next 12 months. We are still confused whether this negated the need for a motorway pass/vignette – the info we received seemed to allude to this but Ade in Les Saisies had bought one for his Concorde which weighs in at a hefty 7.2 tonnes. If anybody can clarify this it would be much appreciated!
We soon got to Montreux but parking near Freddy’s statue was impossible so we continued to the aire, which turned out not to be an aire but rather a sevice point with parking limited from 8am in the morning to 10pm at night ie overnight parking ist verboten!!
We therefore headed for an aire at Saint Blaise near Neufchatel. The scenery en route was unimpressive and we seemed to be travelling through quite an industrialised part of the country. It was a far cry from the images of Switzerland on boxes of Alpen!
The redeeming feature of the aire was that it had all the facilities, including good wifi and 16 amp (full fat!) unmetered electricity for CHF16 (about £11) so bang on with the Alde heating at the maximum setting which soon got us toasty. The aire was quite noisy however being positioned in between a railway line and main road.
I didn’t really get a warm feeling about Switzerland. Clarkson on Top Gear always jokes that the Swiss don’t like cars. Well double that dislike for motorhomes! All I really wanted to do was to get through the country, which is precisely what we did the next day as we crossed the border into Germany. Maybe I was doing the country a disservice but we had also been warned it was very expensive since the Swiss government has pegged the exchange rate, and consequently the value of other currencies against the Swiss Franc had fallen by about 20%!
As we crossed the river Rhine which marks the German border, I felt a degree of comfort which was strange as we had never visited Germany either camping, or in a motorhome, other than on our way to somewhere else. In fact I had heard a lot of good things about Germany. Our first night was on a stellplatz – the German word for an aire – at Waldshut. just by the river. It had all the services including electricity for €10 pn – nothing much else interesting, just a place to stop on a drizzly day (although Cathy was excited as a washing machine and tumble dryer was on site so she was able to catch up with the laundry).
The next day we moved on towards towards Schlussee. This is on the southern end of the Schwarzwald – the Black Forest. Given we were over a 1000 metres the lake was completely frozen. The stellplatz (€10 pn) wasn’t far from the town or the lake. We were under beautiful clear blue skies but it was very cold (around -7°C so we were grateful for ‘full fat’ electricity (16 amp) which cost €1 for 8 hours (!!!). After plugging in and sorting out one or two things we walked into the town which was small but had a nice feel. It bordered right onto the lake and had its own railway station, again right on the lake shore making for a very scenic picture. As we headed back to Aurora we stopped at a bar which had a verandah overlooking the lake so we sat and felt the last rays of the sun as we sipped a glass of wine for Cathy and a very tasty German beer for me. I have been looking forward to some decent beers and Germany is famous for it. The air temperature really began to fall as the light went so we headed back to a warm and toasty Aurora. After a home cooked meal we snuggled down and watched a film.
We awoke to another bulebird sky with hoar frost covering the trees. After breakfast, we donned our gear and walked along the path bordering the lake. We went down to the edge of the lake and had fun trying to break the ice and skimming stones across the surface which made a weird sound.
The sun was warm and as we walked we had to shed layers. In all we walked about 9 kms, so some good exercise.
From Schlusee we headed to the university city of Freiburg. The weather, although still cold, had now turned wet and we moved from snow to rain as we dropped in height to the town, which is at a mere 280 metres – the lowest we have been since mid February. The stellplatz was only a 15 minute walk into the town and cost €10pn (do you see a pattern here?!) plus metered electricity which worked out at €1 for every 8 hours.
We really liked Freiburg. Its a lovely walkable city on the edge of the Black Forest and is aparently known for being the sunniest corner of the country. And indeed the sun was shining! We explored the old town (Altstadt) and headed up to the castle hill to take in the views of the city. How convenient we did this from a beer garden! The town has water running everywhere in gullies next to the roads. Stall holders sell wooden boats that children can sail down them.
The following day we went back into town and enjoyed the sun that now had broken through.
Later on we decided we would get something to eat and chose a local beer house. it was an actual micro brewery with the copper brewers on site. The beer was wonderful and complimented our meal.
As it was a Saturday night the placed was rammed so it was a matter of finding any seat you could which meant sharing tables. We shared with two German couples and soon got talking – as you do. One couple had just got married and were having a few days away as a sort of honeymoon. We had just bought a SIM card from Aldi which provided us with 1.5GB of data for €9.99. The only trouble was that everything was in German! However our new friends helped us greatly and completed the registration on line on their own phone. We needed to register a German address! Hmmm that may be a problem. Nope, following our new friend’s suggestion, we simply registered it to the beer house using the address which had been kindly provided on the menu!! Job done and SIM activated.
The following day we drove back towards Lake Constance and got to the north east end at a town called Strandbad Bodman. Again a municipal stellplatz which officially was closed for the winter. The water points were turned off, but the electricty was still on – again 16 amp and free – so we plugged in and turned the heating to max! We wandered down the shoreline of the lake into the town which was quite quaint, but in the middle of improvement works.
We both agreed that this area would be fantastic in the spring. As we headed back to Aurora we noticed a garden full of weird sculptures which seemed out of keeping with the town and wondered what the residents made of this.
After Bodman we continued down the west side of Lake Constance to Meersburg. Again another stellplatz with services and electricity. It was here we discovered Norma – a German discount store!! The set up is very similar to Lidl and Aldi, but even cheaper! The town is right on the lake and on the day we were there an icy wind was blowing down the lake! It was bloody freezing!!
The view across Lake Constance – that is Switzerland on the other side
This was now Monday 23rd February and we were due in Isny at the Dethleffs factory on Thursday 26th. We decided we would get one more stop and set the sat nav for a stellplatz up in the mountains at Scheidegg which meant climbing back above the snow line. The snow had obviously been very heavy in recent weeks as it was piled high by the road. The stellplatz was reduced in size because they hadn’t cleared all the snow. However it didn’t matter as we were the only van there.
There was again free electricity although it was only skimmed (6 amp) and no good for running the heating so we had to turn on the gas. The area seems to be popular for Nordic skiing (cross country skiing) as there were lots of signposts for the various routes. There was also a restaurant just down from the stellplatz which we went into initially for a coffee but ending up staying for the biggest Wiener Schnitzels we have had!
This lead us into Wednesday so we made the short journey to Isny in Allgau, the home of the Dethleffs factory and Aurora’s birthplace. The stellplatz is actually within the grounds of the factory and is free to stay on if you have a Dethleffs, although you need to pay €1,50 per person per day to the town as a local tax. However electricity was free and yet again full fat. Initial impressions of Germany bear out what people say in that it is motorhoming nirvana in the way they cater for the motorhoming fraternity. Mind you they make some of the best motorhomes on the market so motor homing is very big in Germany.
We wandered around the town which was effectively walled. It was quite compact so didn’t take long suss out. It was then back to Aurora for the evening. It was to be an early start the next day as we had to get Aurora to the service area at 7:30am so they could start work on making repairs to the lounge floor which had developed a ‘bounce’, and the Hartal habitation door, which wasn’t seating proper in the opening. There were also other minor jobs to be looked at.
After dropping Aurora we had to get back to the factory for 9:15 am to start the factory tour – something i was looking forward to very much to see just how they make their motorhomes.
The company have been making caravans for 50 odd years so hopefully know a thing or two about how to out them together properly. There were about 25 of us on the tour which was in German – we were the only two English so the tour wasn’t that informative for us, although the guide could speak English if we had specific questions. However you could get the gist of what the steps were. The first thing to happen was construction of the floor which is a sandwich arrangement with insulation built into the layers. The floor covering is laid over what is effectively an oblong piece of wood and bonded to it. Once cured computer guided saws and routers cut out the right shapes for the appropriate model such as wheel arches, service hatches etc. This shaped floor is then mounted onto the chassis and the wiring loom installed as well as water and waste tanks. The furniture, kitchen and bathroom fittings are then assembled and mounted on the floor. Next the sides are put on and more inside assembly takes place. Finally the roof is bonded to the sides and essentially the motorhome is complete. The vehicles are constantly moving and the associates crawl inside and underneath the vans doing their various jobs. There is no real rush – it all seems quite relaxed. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures so I have pinched some from google images!
After the tour we had some time to kill so wandered round the local DIY store to buy a couple of essential items. We returned to the service centre at 3pm whereupon they walked us around Aurorato explain what they had done. They had made a great job of the items I had requested, the most important being the floor and the door. Each item was quite inexpensive but the bill ended up at €619 which included the labour charge. However I was happy with that, and especially the friendliness and standard of service provided.
We spent another night on the Dethleffs stellplatz before heading north to Baden Baden, and what a lovely city. We spent the first day cycling in, and then walking round the town, albeit in the rain, looking at the various sites. We got absolutely drenched in a hailstorm on the way back to Aurora. We also found that the town is famous for its thermal springs and Roman Baths, so thought when in Rome….!! The next day we rose early and after breakfast cycled into town and then spent 4 hours luxuriating in the Friedrichsbad – the Roman Irish bath.
They are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, and you wander from room to room marvelling at the ornate architecture, which all adds to the experience.
They start your treatment by gradually raising your body temperature in hot rooms, the hottest of which is 68° C (about 150° F) beforecooling you down, during which time you can have a brush and sponge soapy massage, before being tucked up in bed under warm blankets to relax after your treatments. The whole experience was very relaxing, and very enjoyable!
We left Baden Baden and had spotted a stellplatz at a place called Alpirsbach. It was in a beautiful area and the pitch was right next to the river.
However it was on grass, which was soft after recent rain and snow, and last thing I wanted was all 5 tonnes of Aurora sinking up to her axles. However there was a campsite adjacent so we made enquiries if we could stay there. The very friendly owner said yes and booked us in, charging us €10 pn, which also included two bottles of the local brew! There was electricity but that was charged by usage. Cathy took advantage of the on site washing facilities, emptying out linen basket. Most of all there was piping hot showers. Mind you we weren’t exactly dirty after our soak and scrub in the thermal baths at Baden Baden!!
The town was about a 20 minute walk so we ventured in to look at the brewery.
It was a Saturday but everything was closed much to Cathy’s frustration! We had a meal in the ‘restaurant’ that evening – I say restaurant – it was the reception area for the campsite but it was warm and cosy and the food was good.
This campsite was a real gem and would be stunning in the spring!
Our next stop, and which proved to be our final days in Germany, was Koln (Cologne). The stelllatz was right on the banks of the Rhine, also adjacent to the footpath and cycle way that leads right into Koln.
The stellplatz could accommodate about 40 motorhomes and was fairly full. It cost €10 pn with electricity extra via metered posts and was also manned for extra security. The first night we walked along to the local restaurant where it was schnitzel night and had a nice meal. The following morning we walked into the city. Surprisingly there isn’t a vast amount to see – the whole city is dominated by the vast cathedral which overshadows the centre.
Branching off the main square are shopping streets in which you can see all the chains you would see in the UK including C&A!! We also decided we had to experience german sausage and so found a beer house that specilalised in sausages. Cathy and I opted for the meal that gives you 0.25 of a metre per person. As there was two of us 0.5 metre of sausage duly arrived in one single length!
It was delicious, being very meaty, Of course all washed down with some more excellent German beers. An extended stay in this country would not be good for your waistline!!
The following day we headed north and out of Germany into Holland and towards Amsterdam. We have been there before and enjoyed it immensely. It is a very beautiful city, with a very relaxed atmosphere, with a superb transport system comprising trams and bicycles! Bicycles are everwhere.
The aire is on the other side of the river from Central Station with free ferries to take you right into the heart of the city. We spent three excellent days there and took in two walking tours: a three hour one of the historic city and key sights and a two hour tour of the Red Light District. Our guide was a German lad, called Michael, who was very interesting and knowledgeable.
Our walking tour guide Michael
The following day we came back into the city and visited various sites Michael had identified on the tour.
Where shall we go today?
One of these was the Cannabis College Information Centre (www.cannabiscollege.com). The staff here were all volunteers and sought to provide tourists with proper and reliable information on cannabis which as most people know is readily available in Amsterdam via the Brown Cafe’s or coffee shops. The other interesting thing is that hemp also has industrial uses, and if you own a BMW or Mercedes apparently the sound deadening insulation materials are made from hemp! Now you know. As for the drugs they provide you with details of the reputable coffee shops, which variety of cannabis to buy, and they will even provide you with a lounge area in which you can smoke/eat/inhale your particular pleasure. Did we try any? Thats for us to know, and you to find out!!
As I mentioned we also did a walking tour of the Red Light District which was very informative. Prostitution was legalised in 2000 so now the girls are self employed and work for themselves with no pimps. As it also regulated, they pay taxes. It is just another example of the tolerant nature of this city.
There is also a shop dedicated solely to condoms – the Condomerie.
Mine is the one on the left – sorry I mean right!!
The following morning we went back into Amsterdam to visit Anne Frank’s house which was very interesting indeed. It is a well known story in which the Jewish Frank family (Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne) decided to hide from the Nazi’s, rather than flee. They adapted the internal structure of the house to create a secret annexe and the family went into hiding on 6th July 1942. They were assisted by some Dutch friends who got them provisions etc which was no mean feat as food etc was in very short supply for themselves let alone an entire family. However they were betrayed – it is still not known by whom – and all the residents were arrested on 4th August 1944 and duly sent to concentration camps. Margot and Anne were initially sent to Auschwitz and then subsequently Belsen and whilst they were not subjected to the gas chamber they both died whilst incarcerated from typhus in March 1945, only a matter of months before the end of the war. Anne kept a diary which detailed her secret life, which was fortunately saved by one of the familly’s helpers on the basis that she thought she would be able to return it to Anne after the war. Only the father Otto survived the war who got hold of the diaries and had them published. Interestingly though, as our guide Michael was at pains to point out, similar stories were being lived out in houses all over Amsterdam, although no-one ever knew as a diary of events was never kept, or never came to light. A very sad but amazing story!
On our final evening we decided we would eat out and chose the option of a curry! Nothing newsworthy about that I hear you say! Some of you will observe that we like to photograph our food – or Cathy does!
The inside of a CTM
However on this occasion she managed to drop her phone just as she was taking the picture, so now we have a very unusual angle – this is the inside of a Chicken Tikka Massala!! Showing soon at the Tate Modern!
We enjoyed Amsterdam very much – it is a photographers dream with fantastic views at every turn. I have included a few of the photos we took to try and capture the spirit of the city.
The narrowest house in Amsterdam
All the buildings are a bit wonky!
Our final night in Holland, and mainland Europe was spent in Gouda on the aire right in the middle of the town. It is small and picturesque.
Gouda Cathedral in the main square
Someone described it as Brugges without the crowds. I am not sure that is right having now been there but it was pleasant enough. There was a fabulous cheese shop where you could sample all the different varieties of Gouda cheese and very nice they were too. We chose a selection and headed back to Aurora. The aire was the town car park with designated parking spaces for motorhomes with a service point, free unmetered electricity and wifi, all for the princely sum of €8 for each 24 hour period. Bargain!
It was now Wednesday 11th March and was almost a year since we set off on our “Adventure before Dementia” and I cannot believe it. We have packed so much into our year and seen so much. We have met some lovely and amazing people on the way. But now we must return to the UK to get Aurora and Soo MOT’d. We are using the opportunity to catch up with friends and family as well as undertake some running repairs to Aurora and also some improvements. Needless to say I have been using the free wifi over the last few days to order quite a bit of stuff on eBay and have it delivered to our friends address in the UK. It will be a bit like Christmas when I get home as I unwrap all my packages! (thanks Karen/Christina!!!)
We made the short journey from Gouda to the Hook of Holland where we were scheduled to catch the Stena Line ferry to Harwich, which is a 6 ½ hour crossing. We were due to sail at 14:15 but you are requested to be there two hours earlier. We were loaded about half an hour before departure and we pretty much had the ship to ourselves as there were only about 50 vehicles, the majority being freight. The lorry drivers have there own section on the boat so we pretty much had free choice of some very comfortable seating in the lounge. Around 5pm we went for an a la carte meal in the restaurant which was very good and reasonably priced. In all I would say that the ship was the nicest one we have been on. The crossing was smooth and we arrived in Harwich 30 minutes ahead of schedule whereupon we disembarked back onto UK soil for the first time in 345 days!!
And so our first year of this incredible journey has concluded…..for the time being! We will be returning to work at the French campsite, Ruisseau du Treil, in the beautiful Lot area for mid May, when we start leg 2 of our Tales from Aurora.