Saturday, 30 April 2011

Heading Home – Germany’s Black Forest and on to Calais

14th to 20th April 2011

So the trip draws to a close - almost a year away in a smallish van. Twenty-one countries have been visited, some for several weeks, one for less than 24 hours and a few twice, and this final leg sees us heading home.

We decided to make the most of driving back by pulling in a few days around the Black Forest in Germany. We crossed the Rhine at Laufenburg, one city but two countries, being half in Switzerland and half in Germany, and stopped a few kilometres down the road at Luttingen where we shopped for meat at a wonderful butcher’s. Having found shopping in Switzerland a bit limited in terms of good local shops and cost, we were now spoilt for choice with such lovely looking produce at prices which didn’t make us wince, baulk or pale.

Black Forest – Menzenschwand – village and stellplatz, and sunset at Eisenbach - Höchstberg

We drove up a gorge to St. Blasien, and ended the day on a little stellplatz on the edge of the pretty village of Menzenschwand. The massive farmhouses in the village were fairly typical of the area, with hefty stone ground floors and a couple of timber storeys above. They tend to be built on a bit of a hill – and there are plenty of those around here – with the rear entrance leading straight into the hay barn on the first floor. The animals used to live below this hay barn, while the living area was on first floor, with its windows facing the best view. The enormous shingle roofs of these farmhouses create a striking impression from afar. A few are still in use as farms, but a great many more are guesthouses and hotels, as the whole of the Black Forest is one of Germany’s prime holiday areas and is well set up for all kinds of tourism, including motorhomes.

Black Forest farmhouses

On Friday 15th we headed back into St. Blasien to see it properly. It’s a spick and span little tourism-orientated town, which has grown up around an over-large basilica with an accompanying monastery complex, which is now a private school. The enormous late 18th century dome is meant to emulate St. Peter’s in Rome, and it has its own beauty with an interior which practically shines in gleaming white, but the place never really took off as the huge ecclesiastical centre it was intended to be and seems decidedly out of proportion today.

St Blasien

We drove past a small lake called Titisee, with a few hotels and campsites around its edges. If you studied German at school in the 1970s it is just possible that your class followed the fortunes of Reisebüro Atlas, a travel agency that booked a trip to Titisee for a certain Frau Bender, which are two names guaranteed to raise a snigger in a class of 12 year-old boys. So I (Rob) now know that Titisee really exists. About Frau Bender I cannot be so sure.

Signpost to Titisee – so it really does exist

The rest of the day, and most of the next, was spent driving in a northerly direction through the lovely Black Forest and admiring the scenery for which it is deservedly famed. It really is chocolate-box picturesque, with rolling meadows, wooded hillsides, great expanses of forest and rocky gorges. We didn’t feel it was over-touristy either, until we hit the town of Triberg on Saturday afternoon. The roadside signs announced that we were on the cuckoo clock route, and Triberg was cuckoo clock kitsch town. It is also home to Germany’s highest waterfall, and these two features draw the crowds to the otherwise unremarkable place. We joined in the tourist spirit and had a portion of schwarzwalder Kirschtorte or Black Forest Gateau with our afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.

Triberg kitsch

From Triberg onwards we were well and truly on the tourist highway, and it felt less remote but no less scenic than the more southerly parts. The road followed a gorge to the village of Schiltach, which was built in the same Germanic Fachwerk, or half-timbered style as the Alsace villages we had visited on the other side of the Rhine 11 months ago.  


We slept at the village of Betzweiler, where we had a quite awful meal (too large and too salty) in a charming-looking old mill building, and next day, Sunday, drove on to Freudenstadt. This town holds more memories for me (Rob), as the first place that I ever spent a night in Germany, in 1981. It is a planned town from the 1600s (though in reality much rebuilt after WW2 damage), and consists of some elegant arcaded buildings around what is apparently Germany’s largest market square. I remember the buildings very clearly, but in my memory the square was much smaller. Today the town centre was awash with people at shops and cafés and just out and about, enjoying what we took to be a special pre-Easter piece of Sunday opening. Germany in 1981 did not do this sort of thing!


From here, the so-called Black Forest High Route runs right along the summit ridge at around 1000 metres, and offers sweeping views on either side, heat-haze allowing. We dodged swarms of daredevil motorcyclists who were out enjoying the warm afternoon on the zigzag bends, and finally dropped down abruptly towards the Rhine to Sasbachwalden, a small timber-framed village surrounded by vineyards at the very foot of the hills.


We parked up with the many other motorhomes in the decent little stellplatz there, and walked into the village to sample some local wine. We also treated ourselves to a Flammkuchen, an incredibly thin pizza-style bread with bacon and cream cheese topping, to make up for our disappointing meal of the previous night. Sitting outside a bar in the lovely evening sunlight was a good way to spend what we were looking upon as our last proper day before we began heading home for real.

Sasbachwalden – a curious sign by the stellplatz

We began the last leg of our trip on Monday 18th April, but not before visiting the local wine growers’ shop and stocking up with white wines to take back with us. Soon after that we crossed the Rhine into France, and took a motorway through Alsace and the Vosges. We crossed back into Germany near Saarbrücken and got onto their (toll-free) motorway network, which we then followed through Luxemburg and into southern Belgium. By evening we were driving on a small road through the thick woods of the Ardennes and along the meanders of the river Semois, and stopped for the night at an aire beside the river Meuse at Monthermé, just over the border in France once again.

Ardennes – Rochehaut (Belgium)

To bring a pet back into the UK, it has to be seen by a vet between 24 and 48 hours prior to arrival, and we therefore had to find a suitable and willing vet’s on Tuesday 19th. We headed to the nearby town of Revin armed with a list of addresses from the tourist office at Monthermé, and struck lucky with a very helpful vet who fitted us in at a few minutes’ notice, and we emerged with Charlie’s pet passport duly stamped for the required tick and worm treatments. Revin itself was set in beautiful countryside, but had a rather depressed, post-industrial air to it.

Ardennes - Monthermé aire (France) - overnight spot

We crossed a fair portion of northern France that afternoon, and the woods and hills gradually gave way to vast agricultural prairies and the war memorials of the Somme. We had a rendez-vous that evening near Amiens with our motorhoming friends Bob and Wendy. We first met on a windy campsite in far-off Estonia last September and have been planning a follow-up ever since, and our paths now crossed as they headed south from Calais on a new trip while we headed back at the end of ours. We had a good evening of travellers’ tales and laughter, though our hopes for an evening on the town were thwarted, as the choice on a Tuesday this early in the season was limited to the village kebab shop.

With Bob and Wendy at Conty near Amiens

It was with some reluctance that we dragged ourselves away after breakfast next day, but our Channel crossing was booked, and there was still last-minute shopping to be done. The road to Abbeville went through attractive countryside, reminding us of southern England and the fact that we were nearly home. Calais seemed a surprisingly long way, and we took the motorway for the final stretch, arriving in good time for the 18:05 ferry to Dover. The security checks were the tightest we have experienced for a year, and Charlie’s microchip was scanned for the first time ever. The crossing itself was smooth on the calm mill-pond of a sea, and the weak sun on the deck was still warm. Then we were back on UK soil, 347 days since we left.


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Switzerland – Unforgettable Scenery, Unbelievable Prices!

7th to 14th April 2011

A very cursory glance at our passports and a peek through our windows was all the check we had at Swiss customs on Thursday 7th April, then we were in country number twenty-one on this trip and heading downhill into Lugano.

From a distance Lugano looked to be mostly tier upon tier of smart high-rise apartments rising up the hillsides around its Alpine lake. There is an older centre though, with attractive 19th century buildings, upmarket shops and numerous cafes where the stylish city folk were having business lunches as we drove round and round looking for a parking place. It didn’t help that it was far too hot to be stuck in a van, that we had no Swiss currency for a parking meter if we had happened to find one or that the only carpark with no height restriction seemed a long way from the busy shopping streets and lakeside cafes. After driving round the whole town several times we were frustrated, to say the least, so in the end we gave up, stopped by a small harbour on the edge of town, got some money from a hole in the wall and had our own picnic.

Lugano – This is about as close as we got.

We headed over the hills to Bellinzona, another smart town, though we suspect that most towns in Switzerland will fit that description. It is most visited for its three looming grey castles and their accompanying long lines of walls which dominate the whole place – all of which are now UNESCO sites - but the rest of the town has a lot of appeal too. Now we have left Italy we can safely use the term ‘Italianate’. We wanted to use it to describe the villas all along Lake Como, but it is entirely appropriate for Bellinzona, which has very Italianate-looking buildings from 16th century palazzi to Art Nouveaux villas, mingling with just a few steep Swiss chalet style roofs. The Italian influence in these parts is not so surprising, as the Ticino region uses the Italian language, and was even part of Lombardy in the middle ages.

Bellinzona – Town centre and castle walls

We were a bit hesitant about wild camping in a new country, especially with the Swiss reputation as sticklers for regulations. Just look at the way they’ll patiently wait until the green man lights up on a crossing, even when the road has been empty for hours. Seriously, on the motorhome front there are enough stories of people being fined to keep us alert – many of those come from a few areas, e.g. Geneva, and we understand there is no blanket ban, but the nagging doubt stayed with us throughout our stay in this country. For our first night we thought we might try the designated motorhome place by the sports centre. It was not bad, apart from costing 6Fr (about £4) for 6 hours just to park in a fairly uninspiring location, with extra charges for water and no electricity. So we had a drive out of town looking for a campsite. There were a few but all charged upwards of 24Fr, which you might splash out on if you wanted to relax all day there, but we just wanted somewhere to sleep. In the end we drove back into Bellinzona and parked in the large town carpark, which was free over night and 50 cents per hour from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. There didn’t appear to be any restrictions specific to motorhomes or camping, so we chanced it and had a super sleep. In fact we were very surprised to wake the next morning and find it practically full. It had been more or less empty when we went to bed and we slept so soundly that we didn’t hear any of these arrivals, despite having windows open in the heat.

Bellinzona – More castle, main square and our stealth parking spot.

On Friday 8th April we headed from Bellinzona towards the Gotthard Pass. We bought a vignette for 40Fr, on the basis that we hope to see a bit more of Switzerland within the year and with most of the high passes still closed we knew we’d need to use the motorway through the Gotthard tunnel. As we climbed we went back into oooh and aaah mode at the sight of snowy peaks, deep ravines and tumbling waterfalls. Many villages still had a bit of an Italianate feel, but that increasingly gave way to scenery and farm buildings with much more of a Heidi-ish look about them. We even thought we saw some edelweiss, but close up it proved to be large drifts of wild crocuses, though we ended up with the dratted tune running on in our heads for the rest of the day.

It’s all beginning to look so Swiss – views of Giornico and Faido on the way up to the St Gotthard Pass.

The last village before the Gotthard tunnel was Airolo, and we decided to look for somewhere on this side to spend the night. Of course, there were no proper aires and we still weren’t sure about wild camping, but we headed up the side road towards the Novena or Nufenen Pass, which we knew was closed, on the basis that in our experience a dead end often comes up trumps as a good place to sleep. At the point where the barrier blocked the road before the first snow, there was a small carpark and the two other motorhomes which were already there reassured us that this lovely spot would be OK for overnighting. We were at over 1600 metres, surrounded by snowy hillsides, yet the afternoon sun was surprisingly hot, and it turned into a clear, starry, chilly night. The next day was Saturday, and the first winter sports enthusiasts arrived at 5.30 a.m., strapping on cross-country skis to trudge up the slopes before sunrise. Many more arrived during the morning to take advantage of the unseasonally warm weather. Cross-country skiing always looks appealing to Rob and made him wonder about getting some lessons – but it’s unlikely he ever will.

Sunbathing at All'Acqua overnight spot near Passo di Novena (or Nufenenpass) – note that Charlie dog is sporting the latest in fashionable leg warmers to cover his ever growing lump.

We moved on north, taking the only open route, through the 17 kilometre-long Gotthard Tunnel. The road is almost straight, rising slowly then dropping slowly, until you emerge blinking into another Alpine valley some 15 minutes later. Our first instinct here was to come off the motorway, and we took the steep switchback that clawed its way up a severe, bare gorge behind us and back towards the ridge of the Alps. At the top we reached the town of Andermatt, at one end of a wide, elongated plain between yet more high mountains. Andermatt is a pure holiday town, a centre for a wide range of both winter and summer sports and has plenty of holiday apartments and hotels. However, the authorities around Andermatt do not encourage motorhomes. Every public carpark has big signs banning parking from 2 to 6 a.m., and the few campsites were not yet open. The girl in the tourist office helpfully suggested we could get a hotel room.

Andermatt – old church and village

We continued along the plain to Realp, where mountains abruptly closed in and the road was barred on the approach to the Furka Pass. Well, the road was barred but traffic could still get through – at a price. The amazing little railway here, which climbs astonishing gradients through use of a rack-and-pinion system in the track to increase adhesion, operates a vehicle shuttle through a tunnel below the pass, and we sat at a bar in Realp watching large tour coaches disembark from the little train, dwarfing the engine that had hauled them. 

Realp - Furka Pass approach road, and the car train at Realp.

Half-way between Realp and Andermatt, following a hint from a German website, we found a great overnight place by an out-of-season chairlift above the village of Hospental. It was a beautiful, peaceful location and in the event an undisturbed night.

Hospental - overnight spot and general view

There was only one way out of Andermatt by road, and that was down the gorge the way we had come in. The three other ways lay over passes – Furka, St Gotthard and Oberalp – and all were still blocked by snow. So on Sunday 10th April we headed north again, down a wonderfully scenic valley that went from a gash in bare mountains to a wide, lush vale filled with dairy farms, until the valley floor gave way to lake after the town of Altdorf. We trailed this lake for some way, looking this time for a campsite as an antidote to the previous night’s crafty stealth camping. The lakeside towns were still busy with weekend visitors soaking up the sun before the return to the cities, and we found several campsites but the first to take our fancy was at Vitznau near Luzern (or Lucerne – again we’ve used the local spelling). We didn’t even baulk at the thoroughly Swiss price of 40 franks – about £27 – making it our most expensive accommodation by a long way.

Vitznau – campsite, village, lake and Rigi railway

The lake in question is the Vierwaldstättersee, often called Lake Lucerne in English. It lies in the centre of Switzerland, and is surrounded by some of its most charming villages and countryside, with the majestic backdrop of the high Alps on the southern horizon. Vitznau itself is a sleepy place with a few hotels, a quay for the lake steamers and a rack railway that takes tourists up to the peak of Rigi some 1200 metres above. A few miles away is the chocolate-box pretty town of Schwyz, the place that put the Switz in Switzerland in the 13th century, when the first alliance was formed between four small forest communes in this area, that would ultimately develop into the country we know today. The William Tell legend was set around these parts too. The good weather continued on Monday, and we stayed in and around Vitznau and the lake.


On Tuesday we went visiting. Some old friends of ours from teacher-training days in Leicester, Vere and Helgrid, moved to Zurich many years ago, and over the years we had all moved again and lost touch. Now, with the wonders of the internet, we had managed to get a message through to Vere and all agreed that it would be wonderful for us to visit them on our way back to the UK. The only trouble was that we had somehow not quite got as far as a definite date, an address or even a phone number. On Tuesday morning, as we picked up one of our intermittent internet connections again, there was an email from Vere with an address – but his work address only, in Luzern where they now live. We were by now only 20km away, and there seemed nothing for it but to go there and try some doorstepping!

Luzern – Kapellbrücke, and view from above with Hofkirche.

Amazingly it worked. Vere found the post-it note we’d stuck to his office door and we finally got together. All that was left to do was find his apartment, then somewhere to park for the night (more stealth parking on a side street), and we were then all set for an evening of reminiscing about the old days and catching up on what had gone on in between. We spent the next day visiting Luzern, having first found a good carpark for motorhomes at Alpenquai. The city has a lot to see and we could have spent longer there. As it was, we did a tour round the old streets and across the two medieval covered wooden bridges. Another time we’d like to take a boat trip, visit the art museum and the transport museum and maybe take in a swim in the lake, though we noted from the signposts by the bathing spot at Alpenquai that naked bathing is forbidden! So, thankyou to Vere, Helgrid and your charming children (we can’t believe they are all grown up now, when we last saw them as tiny wee blond things), you’ve whetted our appetite for Luzern and we may well be back.

Luzern - Musegger city walls and view over Vierwaldstättersee.

With our ferry back to the UK booked, we were all too aware of the days passing, so on Thursday 14th April we made, for us, a big push on and wound our way up to the Rhine and into Germany.

Luzern - Jesuitenkirche – blinged-up relics