Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A Brief Glimpse of the Rhine and then on to the North Sea

Onwards and upwards through Germany

Lesley’s bit –

On Saturday 12th June we left the Mosel, heading at first high above the river valley for some impressive views, then dropping down to our next big river, the Rhine, at Boppard, which reminded me of a cross between Brighton and Bath, albeit with massive barges sailing along in front of the elegant riverside spa hotels. It was here that we crossed the Rhine on a small ferry.
Ferry across the Rhine

We began to see a few of the famed Rhine castles after Boppard, though further south is the real area for romantic fairy tale towers. I also thought that I’d begun to find an answer to my search for internet cafes, which is becoming a minor obsession, as we passed lots of cafes which I thought were displaying a particular brand sign of Geoff net. I mentioned it to Rob as a possible place to stop, but when he looked over at one of the cafes he just laughed (rather unkindly really) because “geöffnet” in German just means “open”!

Rob’s bit -

We finished Saturday on a medium-sized stellplatz right beside the Rhine at Braubach, south of Koblenz. The village itself is another gem of fachwerk houses, strung around the base of a rocky hill which is crowned by Marksburg castle, one of the fortresses that tower above the Rhine valley. Marksburg looked in fact every bit the mediaeval fortress, with its sheer walls and soaring towers, and maintained a stark, defensive character as opposed to those castles that had acquired big windows and ornamentation reminiscent of our ‘stately homes’ in later centuries. And not to mention the string of modern reconstructions and replicas that were built by the German elites as romanticism became popular in the 19th century (the castle at Cochem for example dates only from 1874!).

We felt it was time to eat out – we’d had enough, for now, of barbecued sausage – and found a lovely olde-worlde, dark-beamed tavern in Braubach where we had a lovely meal with more local wines, and I got the chance to eat a dish I’d wanted to try for years.

Saumagen – on Mrs T’s trail

There is a reliable story that in the mid 1980s, the then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited British premier Margaret Thatcher to stay with him in his home village in the Rhineland, hoping to break through her unstinting hostility by showing her that Germans were human too. A high point was to be a meal of good homely cooking in a local restaurant, to which Mrs Thatcher and her advisers and minders duly came. On the menu was Saumagen, a kind of haggis-like dish of spiced forcemeat cooked in a pig’s stomach then served in slices. While Kohl tucked into this local delicacy with relish, Mrs T was seen uneasily pushing the food around her plate until the ordeal was over. Needless to say, the Lady was not for turning. So for around 25 years I have been longing to try Saumagen and see what it was that defeated the Iron Lady, and in Braubach I got my chance. All I can say is that it was delicious, a hearty slice of clove-infused meatloaf that melted in the mouth. Good one, Helmut.

The following morning, Sunday, we lingered over breakfast, and then lunch, on our riverside stellplatz. It was on asphalt, ie. basically a carpark, but the position in the Rhine valley, between the huge river and the soaring Marksburg castle (and the main railway line along which freight trains ran all night) was very appealing. We seemed to be only feet away from the huge barges and pleasure boats that navigated the river.

Lesley’s bit –

Onwards and upwards, as they say – and our journey headed north through the middle of Germany. The Sauerland, hilly uplands to the east of Cologne, were filled with fields where huge stands of purple lupins grew. I’d never realised that this was their naturalised state and they looked stunning. Unfortunately every time we saw a particularly photogenic cluster we had another vehicle up our behind and couldn’t find a place to safely stop! We also passed the bluest cornflowers in the fields, growing alongside poppies and tall, swaying daisies.

I have to say at this point that Charlie has taken to van travel like a duck to water. He sits patiently to have his seatbelt put on and then collapses with a huge sigh to lie very ungracefully on his back with his little legs up in the air, snoring away. It’s a dog’s life isn’t it?

Charlie the travelling dog

Rob again -

Sunday night’s stopping place was rather an improvised affair. Heading into the Sauerland from the town of Olpe we arrived at the Biggesee reservoir, where only a few stellplätze were shown but we suspected there might be other chances of wild overnighting. However, after much driving through ideal, deserted waterside carparks we realised that everywhere worthwhile was designated ‘No motor homes’, and so we set our sights a little further afield and drove to a stellplatz shown in the village of Niederhelden in the Repe valley (Repetal). It was attached to a hotel, and we arrived at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night to find the whole road dug up, the hotel closed and no sign of said stellplatz. But necessity breeds invention, and we found a secluded car park between another hotel and a golf course, and decided that this would be the place. We did our best to be inconspicuous and quiet, but need not have worried for we had an undisturbed sleep. The few golfers who turned up from 8:30 on the Monday morning either ignored us, or gave us a friendly nod.

We continued on our way north. We left the Sauerland and by Paderborn were approaching the flat north. We detoured to the small town of Lemgo which has a well preserved core of 16th to 19th century buildings. There were many more fachwerk houses, but more regular in shape and the pattern of the beams than they had been further south. The flat, broad straight streets reminded us strongly of Flanders or Zeeland. The town hall had an ornately decorated stone facade, in the so-called ‘Weser Renaissance’ style, named after the river that flows from this region up to the north sea, and whose route we would be following.

We ended the day at the town of Nienburg, which lies in the middle Weser valley where we had stopped for the night on a car park which was an overspill for the stellplatz right on the river bank (and much nicer than the stellplatz!)


Lesley –

On Tuesday morning we explored the town of Nienburg. There were many more impressive example here of the Weser Renaissance style, and 16th century timber framed houses in a very open, square style, with brick infill and sometimes with rather Dutch looking gables. The town hall was in this style, but with stone vaulting on the ground floor.

The landscape from here on was very flat. You could have been driving through the Fens or Norfolk if you took away the architecture, with lots of drainage channels leading into larger canals and the fertile land in between mostly given over to arable farming, with a few milk herds dotted here and there on the fields.

The architecture of the farmsteads in the area between the mouths of the rivers Weser and Elbe is quite striking, being a sort of version of the longhouse, where humans live under the same roof as their animals. The farmhouses are timber-framed, with large steep roofs, and occupy quite an area. The family quarters seem to have lots of square paned windows on the ground floor and generally have some sort of religious quote carved on a lintel at the front of the house. The barn section has an arched central door large enough for carts, with symmetrically placed doors either side and a larger overhang on the roof. Many have been converted into stunning residences these days now that they are no longer needed as farms, but many continue to be working farms.

Wanna Farmhouse

We arrived at our friend Maggie’s house in Wanna, near Cuxhaven on the north coast at about 7:30 p.m. and it was great to catch up, slipping easily into conversation after nearly twenty years (which was partly down to Maggie’s absolutely excellent English). Charlie dog made himself particularly cute for the whole of our stay in Wanna and was consequently a great hit, particularly with Maggie’s mother, who fed him titbits and talked to him lovingly in German.

There is something very relaxed and comfortable about German home cooking and we had some wonderful meals prepared by Maggie and her mother, but German breakfasts have always been a highlight for us, so much so that Rob and I long ago adopted them as our preferred style for weekend brunch. German breakfasts are particularly suited to sharing with guests - fresh rolls with interesting seeds, copious amounts of hams, salamis, tee-wurst, cheeses, sometimes with boiled eggs, ending with jams and honey and always with lots and lots of coffee – eaten during the course of an hour or more, with lots of great conversation. Needless to say that for the whole of our stay in Wanna we never managed to do anything much before midday!


On Thursday we went to Otterndorf on the coast – a very attractive town with more timber framed houses, though in a noticeably different style to further south, having a ground floor which covered quite a wide area, with lots of windows, and steep roofs. The town is slightly inland from the sea and separated by a huge dyke. On the town side of the dyke an artificial lake and sandy beach have been created to give everyone a chance to swim and relax. We could see why when we got to the top of the dyke and were accosted by the blast of wind from the North Sea and saw its very unappealing murky waves. Anyone who really wanted to sit there and watch the sea for any length of time could really only do so by hiring a Strandkorb or ‘beach basket’ - double basket chairs, kind of hybrid beach houses cum sun-loungers – reminiscent of rickshaws without any wheels. We saw a very strange warning sign beside the sea which had us speculating as to its meaning. We came up with “do not attempt to leave ships by surfing large waves” – feel free to suggest other interpretations – answers on a postcard please!

What does this mean?

Every now and then as we drove around we passed villages which were holding a Schützenfest – literally a shooting festival, which still generally include shooting competitions, but are also general village fetes. These villages were often decorated and the houses of those chosen as having special carnival roles such as kinderkönig or children’s king were treated to garlands of flowers in large heart shapes or long bowers. It seems that these village traditions are still kept very much alive in Germany, and we saw evidence of this in the many maypoles in village centres. These were generally tall pines stripped of all branches except for the very top where a Christmas tree is left, and they have a circular garland further down the bare trunk, along with strips of ribbon which float about in the wind.


Rob -                                              

We visited Cuxhaven too. I (Rob) cycled there twice to sort out some replacements and repairs at bike shops, and one day Lesley and I went in there together to visit the place known as Old Love. Well, it’s actually Alte Liebe, but sounds just as peculiar in German. Alte Liebe is a double-decked wooden promenade situated on a jetty at the tip of Cuxhaven harbour, that was built in stages from the 18th century, when in an effort to halt coastal erosion, a life-expired ship called ‘die Liebe’ (‘Love’) was filled with stones and sunk at the harbour’s edge. This then formed the foundation for much further expansion and strengthening of the harbour wall up to the present day.  Hence the jetty is indeed built on the old ‘Love’.

Cuxhaven - Alte Liebe

Cuxhaven is otherwise a functional town, and is unexceptional except for the quality and range of fresh and smoked fish for sale in its old fishing warehouses by another branch of harbour. The matjes (pickled) herring and salmon steaks from here provided two good meals during our stay.

Beyond Cuxhaven on the North Sea coast lies the Watt, extensive mud-flats and marshes that are exposed at low tide, and which can be seen in smaller form off the North Norfolk coast around Stiffkey and Cley. Along the German North Sea coast they are so extensive that there are many islands in the shallow Wattenmeer, cut off at high tide but reachable on foot or horse cart at low tide. I only saw the island of Neuwerk against a grey sky and greyer, choppy sea, but in the mornings guided walks across the mud-flats to Neuwerk were on offer.

Beach baskets on the coast near Cuxhaven

One other interesting point about this area was a DNA survey done a few years back that revealed beyond doubt the shared lineage of the Saxons of this area and their descendents with the Anglo-Saxons in what became England. The area around Otterndorf was chosen for the German DNA samples as the population was believed to be descended directly from the ancient Saxons whose neighbours had crossed the North Sea in around 500 AD, unlike the areas to either side which had since been settled by another Germanic people, the Frisians.  The DNA survey backed up and strengthened archaeological and place-name evidence, and I read that pottery samples have been found around Otterndorf and in Norfolk that appear to have been  made by the same man, presumably before and after migration.

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