Slovenia…Italy…Slovenia… .

Biking in bright sunshine the beautiful eight miles or so to the Bohinj Bovine Ball we were in high spirits.  Arriving bright and early at 10.30am things were just starting to kick off.  Accordion music blasted from outdoor speakers, craft and food stalls had set out their wares and the barbecues were just cranking up.

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Cheesemaker’s at the Cow Ball.

We looked set for a good day out.  No cows to be seen yet as the parade was to be later on.  Three hours later on.  That would have been fine if the weather hadn’t deteriorated.   The clouds appeared, got lower, and lower, and lower, then drizzle came and then the rain.  Not torrential rain but that steady wetting sort of rain.  Not prepared, we mooched about in our sandals, shorts and non waterproof jackets slowly getting wet through.

Three hours was a long time to wait in the rain, with no shelter, for the parade of the cows.  We broke up the wait with a traditional Slovenian lunch of sausage, corn mush and sauerkraut which I can only describe as a flat sausage patty served on a bed of grit.  The cows, led by their herdsmen, were worth waiting for though trotting through the crowd, bells jangling, replete in their bouquets.  Calves, some as young as a few days old, and a bit skittish, hopped, skipped and jumped along after the adults.  They will graze in the valley now until early spring when they’ll go with their herdsmen back to their mountain pastures again.

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The parade of the cows.
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What handsome cows!

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Traditional cheesemaking equipment.

Back at the campsite we wrung out our clothes and sat steaming away in the van with the heater on full blast to dry out.   After another couple of days hiking and biking in dodgy weather we threw in the towel and headed for the north eastern coast of Italy.

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Savica waterfall.

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Bohinj Lake.

Once again, it was a bit of a culture shock driving back to civilisation once away from the Triglav National Park.  Several miles of retail outlets lined either side of the road into Udine where we’d planned a stop for the night.  It was one long strip of Malls, DIY stores, food outlets, supermarkets, garages and car showrooms which seemed to go on forever.  And ever.  The weather was warm and sunny but I already had that sinking feeling of ‘what are we doing here’ having no interest in any retail therapy and already missing the calm tranquillity of the Slovenian mountains, albeit a grey, wet and cold tranquillity.  We did, however, walk to the Decathlon shop a mile or so away after we’d parked up the van at the aire to peruse the miles of aisles of sports equipment.  Yeah, I know, double standards.

Not feeling the love for Udine, even though it is said to have a historic centre, we pressed on to the coast the following morning.  We were waylaid for a few hours in Palmanova though.  We knew nothing about Palmanova but the shape of it on the map drew me in.  Planning our route I hadn’t even noticed it.  It was only when we were a few miles outside the town, whilst I was faffing with the Maps.Me app zooming in and out, that I realised it was definitely worth investigating.

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Palmanova on the Maps.Me app.

 

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Aerial shot of Palmanova courtesy of Google images.
Built by the Venetians towards the end of the 16th Century the nine pointed star structure was conceived as a defence system to keep out the Turks.  The town is now designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Walking the ramparts.

A walk around the inner ramparts followed by a second lap around the outer ramparts and a mooch about the town square took up most of the afternoon and we were really glad we had stopped.

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The centre of Palmanova.  The fair was parked just to the right of the picture!

Not least because we spotted these guys basking in the sunshine in the moat below the upper path.

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Turtles catching some rays in the moat.

We hit the Italian coast at Grado. This was our first glimpse of the sea since early May when we’d left the French coast.  The sun was out, it was warm and there was an aire (aka large carpark) fifty metres from the beach at €4 per night.  Life doesn’t get better than that let me tell you.

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Carpark aire at Grado, Italy – living the dream!

Approached by a four kilometre long causeway Grado, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, is a little island beach resort backed by lagoons teeming with birdlife.  It was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days enjoying the sunshine whilst biking around the nature reserve.

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Grado.
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Fishing boats in the Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve.
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Cycling the causeway into Grado.

Onwards then east along the coast and back into Slovenia.  Slovenia has just over forty kilometres of coastline sandwiched between Italy and Croatia.  We based ourselves for a couple of nights at an aire on the marina at Lucija.  When we arrived there were only about seven or eight vans parked so we felt mightily pleased with ourselves that we were able to bag a ringside seat right next to the sea.  Perfect.  When we returned from a bike ride to Piran several hours later though we were completely surrounded by Slovenian and Italian vans settling in for the weekend.

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Aire at the marina in Lucija.  It filled up on the Friday night.

Piran, set on a triangular shaped peninsular, is just charming.  Thanks largely to nearly five hundred years of Venetian rule much of Piran and the coast of Slovenia is Italianate.  It’s a compact warren of alleys lined with narrow houses and tiny churches.

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Approach to Piran.
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The narrow alleyways.
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Looking down on the rooftops of Piran.

 

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Tartinijev square, Piran.
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Looking towards the square from the harbour.

The following day we thought we’d cycle to Croatia.  Now, Tim has been itching to get to Croatia for months and his plans have been scuppered by our dilly dallying here and there.  But finally, finally he was going to get there.  We picked up the Parenzana Cycleway just outside the marina which took us past the salt plains to the nearby border.  Once at the border we were confronted with passport control.  What?  Taking our passports hadn’t even crossed our minds.   We haven’t needed them on any other border (apart from Gibraltar).  I tried it on with my driving licence but passport control man said ‘NO’.   Croatia, then, still eluded us.

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Passport control on the Slovenian-Croatian border.  No passport.  No entry!

Returning to the van I left Tim to check on the back of his eyes whilst I cycled to Koper along the Parenzana Cycleway in the other direction.  And what a great mostly traffic free ride it was too.  A bit up and down, a couple of tunnels, views of the coast, vineyards, and olive groves.  A very popular day out it seems and a well used section of the path.

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One of the tunnels on the Parenzana cycle trail.
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Looking towards Izola.
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The old coast road from Izola to Koper is now traffic free.  It felt like riding on a road that had been closed for the day.

On Sunday morning we nudged Ollie out through all the vans, camping tables, chairs and bikes surrounding us and made our way to the Croatian border.  This time clutching our passports.

Tako dolgo!

The ‘Romantic Road’…. .

So, our ‘Romantic Road’ road trip is still ongoing and, in truth, we haven’t actually got that far along it.  We are in no rush.  We have been basing ourselves for two or three nights at towns along the route exploring the ‘Romantic Road’ cycleway to see some of the ‘must see’ sights.  Germany is so well set up for cyclists with miles and miles of cycleways along either traffic free paths or quiet country lanes.

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Cycles and farm traffic only.

We’ve really enjoyed tootling along in the countryside from village to village with only other cyclists or the odd tractor for company.  It has all been so well signposted which really does take the tedium out of constantly stopping to get a map out checking whether we are still on the right route.  It’s a big thumbs up from us for Germany on their cycleways.

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A welcome watering hole on the cycleway between Creglingen and Tauberzell.

The countryside here reminds me a little of the Wiltshire countryside with gently rolling hills, forest and farmland interspersed with hamlets, villages and market towns.  Cycling from Tauberzell, where we had based ourselves for a couple of nights, we followed the river to the hilltop town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.  The cycleway took us in to Rothenburg from river level giving us great views of the medieval town perched on the hillside above.

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The view of Rothenburg ob der Tauber from the river below.

Most of the town’s growth took place in the 15th Century but the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which swept across Central Europe, put paid to further growth.  Development came to a standstill in this once thriving and prosperous town as wealth and population were lost.  Therefore, little has changed since that time leaving pretty much perfectly preserved city walls, medieval buildings and a gothic cathedral although some had to be restored after 1945.

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Spital Gate built at the end of the 16th Century.

Our guide book had warned us of the sometimes oppressive number of tourists visiting the town but other than outside the Rathaus (townhall) we were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too heaving.  We were amazed that the walls were free to wander around and not too busy (which was just as well as you do have to breathe in to pass other people) and we spent a relaxing couple of hours exploring a complete circuit of the them.

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Rothenburg town walls.

Most of the walkway is under cover making it an ideal outing on a wet day.

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There can’t be much room on the top floor of that house.

Our next stop was an excellent free stellplatz at Feuchtwangen which turned out to be perfect as the stellplatz was a ten minute walk from the town, two minutes to Lidl or Aldi and had a fantastic outdoor swimming complex right next door.

 

 

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The free stellplatz at Feuchtwangen.

After 5pm, for just one euro, I could make full use of the beautifully landscaped outdoor pools sharing them with only half a dozen other people.  Incredible!  I’d be paying a euro just for a shower on a campsite.  Needless to say I made the most of it.

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The eight lane fifty metre pool was just one of the pools.

Cycling from Feuchtwangen to Dinkelsbühl we were reminded again of how much wildlife we have seen since being in Germany or maybe we are just paying more attention to it without having to worry about the traffic.  Either way we have seen plenty of hares, deer, storks, heron and birds of prey.

Dinkelsbühl, having escaped being damaged in World War II, truly is a perfectly preserved medieval town.  Not that we would have noticed!  Unless you look really closely it’s not always easy to tell which bits have been rebuilt or restored.

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Dinkelsbuhl.

I still find it amazing that even in such a compact area that many of the houses have plenty of garden space and how well kept and beautifully landscaped they are.  In fact, everywhere we have been to in Germany so far we have been greeted with very well kept gardens and green spaces much as we saw in France last year.

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Most houses seem to have beautiful gardens.

When we resume normal life again, whatever form that might take, I am going to try to make more of an effort on the garden front.  That’s if we have a garden that is as we still don’t know what our future life is going to look like!  Anyway, I digress.

We arrived in Nördlingen yesterday and bagged the last grassy edged spot at the stellplatz just outside the walls of the old town.  At €3 per night, it was a bargain.

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The stellplatz at Nordlingen.

Nördlingen’s claim to fame is that it was built on the site of a huge meteorite crater.  Fifteen million years ago, give or take a year or so, a meteorite fell from the sky with a heavy bump creating a 25km wide crater, today known as the Ries, and supposedly the best preserved impact crater on the planet.  Go Nördlingen!   It is also another perfectly preserved medieval walled town.

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The town walls of Nordlingen.

The town walls are pretty much completely intact giving an impressive 2.7km circuitous walk around the old town including five gates and twelve towers (dating from the 14th to 15th centuries).

Surprisingly again, there weren’t that many people circling the town on the walls so we had a very quiet and enjoyable hour or so taking in all the sights from a perfect vantage point.  We climbed the 90m Daniel tower of St George church to see the views of the town from above and to try to work out where the edge of the crater was.  Mmm, 15 million years is a long time and the edges must be a tad blurred by now so we had to leave that one to our imaginations.

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The view above the town ninety metres up.
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For a Saturday afternoon it was surprisingly quiet.

Taking a circular walk around the outside of the town walls proved to be equally as picturesque seeing the walls and towers from a different perspective.

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Lovely open spaces outside the walls too.

There are some lovely houses built into the walls with beautiful gardens as well as open parkland.

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House built onto the outside of the town walls.
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I suppose you really can say you have a walled garden!

So that concludes this weeks excitements and the over use of the word ‘wall’ (I counted fourteen times!).  Tomorrow we’ll move on again and see where the ‘Romantic Road, takes us.

Bis dann!

 

 

Meandering along the Mosel…. .

So a break in the weather sees me returning to the blog.  Apart from some rain overnight and the odd shower we have had two glorious weeks of weather here in Germany.  Today, though, it is raining which gives me a chance to catch up on a few things.

We moved on yesterday after having spent a whole week at a stellplatz at Losnich on the Mosel.  We hadn’t planned to stay that long but every evening I found myself saying ‘eine weitere nacht bitte’ to the lady who came to collect the money.  We just didn’t seem to want to leave.  It wasn’t that there was anything exceptional about Losnich it was more that every once in a while it is nice to stay put for several nights.

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The stellplatz at Losnich.  It filled up as the week went on as the weekend was a bank holiday in Germany.

We managed to pick up some free wifi in the village to do some research on a few little projects we have on the go at the moment so for a couple of hours every morning we’d go to ‘the office’ in the village to ‘work’.  ‘The office’ being a couple of benches in the shade set around a fountain.   It might conjure up a nice picture but it wasn’t without its frustrations with the wifi dropping out occasionally or not working at all sometimes but we managed to get a few things done and some info downloaded.  Not least of which was we have organised another Helpx to start next week.  Woop!  This one is going to be a challenge.  Not so much in the work we’ll be doing but the language barrier.  I think only one person in the family speaks English.  With our German being non-existent it’s going to be interesting.  Hence taking advantage of the free wifi to frantically download some language learning material.  We are now on a crash course in learning German.  We need to be fluent by next week or we are doomed!   There’s nothing like a deadline to get me motivated.  More on the Helpx next week.

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Bernkastel-Kues.
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You can volunteer at this former winery just outside Bernkastel-Kues, via the Workaway website, painting antique furniture amongst other things.  It will be opened as a hotel later in 2017.

In addition to our language learning exploits we thought we’d start a new fitness regime to give us a bit of structure to our day and keep us ticking over.  Tim came back from a run feeling mightily pleased with himself but then somehow managed to pull a muscle in his calf right at the end.  I did some circuit type training and got up the next morning feeling like I’d been repeatedly hit by a cricket bat.  After walking around like a pair of cripples for a few days we are probably ready for another go at it if we can summon up the enthusiasm again in this rain.  Watch this space.

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Happy as larry cooking…………something!
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Speed boat event going on at Traban.
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Our first Bratwurst in Germany 🙂

 

In amongst reading, language learning, planning, researching and cooking we have combed the countryside on the bikes and on foot.  It’s a very lush green area dominated by forest and steeply terraced vineyards.  In the last week I have pondered on how the vineyards are maintained being on such steep slopes.  Every scrap of the hillside is utilised for vines.  Even the rocky outcrops don’t go to waste.  My musings were answered whilst out on the bikes cruising the cycle paths along the Mosel.  We watched as a mini caterpillar contraption attached to a tractor was winched up and down the hillside whilst rotavating the land in between the vines as it went.

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The mini digger thing is winched up and down between the vines.

Then, we noticed the metal snakes winding their way at intervals up the steepest slopes.   Aha, kind of a stanner stair lift to transport the workers up the slopes and to get the grapes down from the hills.  Apparently it is called a monorack train.

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A monorack train to transport workers and grapes to and from the vines.

Even with the machinery it still looks like a lot of hard work and labour needed to look after and harvest the grapes.

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We’d have loved to have a go on it but had to make do with just sitting in the chair!

Bremmer Calmont, one of the steepest vineyards in the Europe, at a 68% incline, is right here in the Mosel valley at Bremm.

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On the cycle path looking back towards Bremm.

We just happened to be staying on a stellplatz a few kilometres away from Bremm and we’d seen some walkers traversing the hillside in amongst the Bremmer Calmont vines when we cycled past on our way upriver to take a look at Zell.

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Looking down to Zell.
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That was at least four of my five a day!

We did the walk the following day.  And what a walk it was.  Wunderbar!  It’s only a few kilometres in length but the views are spectacular and there are various interesting obstacles to negotiate along the way.  You’ll see from the pictures it isn’t ideal if you have no head for heights and the warning signs clearly spell that out at the start.

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We had no idea what the walk entailed.

The walk, or climbing trail, as it is called was set up in 2002 as a joint project between the communities of Bremm, Ediger-Eller and Neef.  The German Alpine Association secured the paths with the steel ropes, ladders, stepping brackets and pegs.

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As well as the stupendous views the walk was great fun too.

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Bremmer Calmont vines.
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Did I sign up for mountaineering?

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P1040336.JPGI can’t ever imagine Joe Public being free to roam on such a trail in the UK.  The health and safety police would be all over it before it was even thought of.  Seeing the vines from the path really gives you a feel for what it must take to farm this sort of terrain.

Surprisingly, you can pick up a Bremmer Calmont wine at less than €10 a bottle which is cheap as chips when you consider what it takes to harvest the grapes to get it.  We would have bought some if we could have found somewhere open in the village but everything was as dead as a dodo. It was the day after a national holiday with few people about.  We hadn’t even passed anybody on the walking trail either.  Ah well, maybe next time.

Onwards then to the Rhine or Rhein as we are in Germany.

Bis später!

 

Germany…. .

We arrived in Germany, in the rain, over a week ago.  After twenty four hours of rain the weather significantly improved to become warm and dry.  Then warmer and drier.  Then warmer still.  Then hot.  Then hotter.  Now we are roasting.  I have to keep remembering to turn Tim over every twenty minutes or so to cook him evenly on both sides.  Temperatures for the last few days have been in the thirties.  Just a little too high to be comfortable but we’re not complaining.  It’s a good time to sit in the shade and catch up on this here blog.

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Tim got the honour of putting Germany on the map.

Our plan for Germany is to keep to the southern half as the country is vaaaaast.  Germany is a motorhomers dream destination.  Like the French aires network, Germany has a similar set up with their stellplatzes.  There are thousands of them.   It makes travelling around in a motorhome so easy and we’ve been spoilt for choice.  The ones we have stayed on so far are more like informal campsites and range from €5 to €10 per night.   For the locations they are in I think that’s a bargain.

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Not a bad view for six euros a night.

For example, I’m currently sitting writing this at a Stellplatz on the banks of the Mosel, flanked by steep vineyards, with the odd barge or tourist cruiser quietly chugging past.  Ok I admit, I can hear the traffic from the road on the other side of the river but you can’t have everything.

So, we arrived in Germany and randomly picked out Saarburg as our first stop.  No other reason than it is set on a river where we’d likely be able to get the bikes out for a tootle about.  It turned out to be a good choice.

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Saarburg.
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Saarburg town.

A pretty riverside town boasting not only a Lidl but an Aldi too.  Double the excitement.  Having now done back to back visits of Aldi and Lidl in a few towns since then we have decided we prefer Lidl in Germany as it has a better fresh bread section and some provide dedicated motorhome parking.  It’s Lidl all the way from now on.

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Motorhome parking at Lidl 🙂

Breaking out the bikes in Saarburg we spent a very relaxing few days making the most of the traffic free cycle paths either side of the river in both directions.  We joined hundreds of other people for a cycle event last weekend where the road from Konz to Merzig was closed for ten hours and open only to cyclists, walkers and a few roller bladers.

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Bicycle event along the river Saar.

The whole stretch followed the river.  As with all good events beer tents were set up at convenient points along the way.

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A beer at the end.

We are still fascinated by the barges especially at the locks.  We’ll quite happily spend half an hour watching a barge go through a lock and not get bored.

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Our narrow boats would feel like match sticks in these locks.

We also walked some of the steep wooded hillsides along the river Saar.  We wanted to see the Saar river bend near Mettlach which can be viewed from the hills above it.

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Bend in the Saar.

A huge wooden and steel viewing tower, which looked like it must have been great fun to design and build, enhances the experience.  It will cost you €10 each for that enhanced experience.  Suffice to say we remained on terra firmer with a more than adequate view thank you very much for €0.

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Elaborate viewing tower above the Saar river bend.

Moving on from the Saar we have been moseying on down the Mosel for the last few days.

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Campsite along the Mosel.

Eventually we’ll end up in Koblenz where it runs into the mighty Rhine.  We are firmly onto the Mosel Wienstrasse, or Mosel Wine Road.

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Looking across to Piesport.

It’s the final 195km stretch of the Mosel between Trier and Koblenz and home to some of Germany’s steepest vineyards and best full bodied wines.  We’ve spent the last few nights at a lovely stellplatz at Ensch right on the banks of the Mosel.

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Stellplatz at Ensch.

Despite the heat we’ve cycled twenty or so miles in each direction enjoying picnics whilst wondering how the farmers actually look after and harvest the grapes on such steep hillsides.  I must look that up.

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Just like on those Viking River Cruise adverts!

So far, then, Germany has lived up to our expectations.  We are settling in and learning the German way particularly in relation to recycling plastic bottles, cans and beer bottles.  I was bemoaning the fact that there seemed to be plenty of places to recycle glass and paper but nothing for tins and plastic.  The Germans can do better surely?  It wasn’t until our second visit to Lidl that the penny dropped.  A machine at the supermarket takes any plastic  or glass bottle or can which has a ‘Pfand’ recycling symbol on it and gives you money for it.  25c for each item.  Wow, amazing.

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Returning our plastic bottles and cans.

There must be a catch right?   Of course there’s a catch.  We’d already paid the 25c for each of them in something called the Pfand, or bottle deposit.  Any bottle or can with the Pfand symbol on incurs a deposit of 25c each which is added on to your grocery bill.  Doh!  When you return the empty items in non squashed condition you get that money back at the check out.  Makes you think twice about throwing it in the bin.

Tim was mildly put out about the Pfand after he had thrown away some plastic bottles and a few beer cans in a fit of pique as we couldn’t find anywhere to recycle them and they were becoming a pain stored in the van.  Shouldn’t have been quite so hasty.

Whilst out walking now if I see a bottle with the Pfand symbol on it I’ll pick it up to return on our next visit to the supermarket.  Tim is incredulous.  He probably thinks I’m just one step away from picking up road kill to cook but 25c is 25c and it can go towards the ice-cream Pfund!

Tschüss!

Boat-lifts and barges in Belgium…. .

L’Ascenseur furniculaire de Strépy-Thieu, before it was trumped by the Three Gorges Dam in 2016, was the largest boat-lift in the world. We thought it would be interesting to take a look. At just over 100 metres high and 135 metres long it is a monster.

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Strepy-Thieu boat-lift.

By the 1960’s the four existing hydraulic boat lifts, built in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, were no longer sufficient to accommodate the larger barges that were by then plying the canal network. A program of modernisation was needed. Taking twenty years to build the lift was finally unveiled in 2002 and can accommodate barges of up to 1350 tonnes.

The Voies d’Eau du Hainaut website entices you with the words ‘climb up through the core, all the way up to the panoramic viewing point at the top where you can experience the “Land of Genius” interactive tour’. We were not to be enticed. After seeing a barge enter the lift at the bottom we frantically scrambled up the steep bank to see it exit at the top. It’s cheaper that way. Genius!

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Out comes the barge at the top.

Parked right on the edge of the canal at the free aire at Thieu we spent three days cycling and walking the canal.

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The aire on the canal at Thieu.

Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site the four ‘old’ boat lifts were a much more photogenic affair than the new one.

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Boat-lift number 3.

Spaced out over seven kilometres each boat lift hauls its cargo up or down 15-16 metres. They are still in their original working condition.

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Boat-lift number 1 in the foreground and number to beyond.

Tim extolled on the quality of the rivets and the craftsmanship of the build. Not being an engineer myself I can’t really comment but it all looked pretty sturdy to me.

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Odd to see a flock of goats on a housing estate?!

Even though Belgium hasn’t been up there for spectacular landscape it has got some excellent traffic free cycle paths. 15km along the canal took us into Mons.

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Mons.

We didn’t go specifically to see Mons as we were after a bit of peace and quiet really but we had to find somewhere to print off a couple of documents to get posted back to the UK.

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The Bell Tower at Mons.

Job done the round trip took about three hours. It is nice to have the time to take three hours to print and post a letter though.

Twenty kilometres further up the canal we stopped to take a look at the Ronquières super lock completed in 1968. It’s not a lock as such more a kind of boat slide. Stretching 1.4km in length it is quite a sight. The boat motors into a type of lock which is then winched, on rails, up or down the 68m hill.

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Ronquieres super lock/lift/slide.

We arrived expecting to be able to walk along a tow path alongside it but were disappointed that it can only be seen from the bottom, halfway up or at the top. Also there wasn’t a boat to be seen so we didn’t see it in action.

We nipped back over the French border to stop for a few days at Givet as I thought we could cycle to Dinant along the river Meuse from there. We parked up at the ‘unofficial aire’ on the opposite side of the river from the town. The official aire, a ten minute walk away, was full of plant machinery for some refurbishment that was going on.  I don’t think anyone uses it though.

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Givet, France.

I asked at the tourist information whether they had a route map for a cycle to Dinant. Unfortunately, as Dinant is in Belgium it’s not their remit to provide guides for anything across the border but I could have a lovely spiral bound glossy guide to the Voie Verte going south along the river on the French side.  Oh, Ok.  So we went south down the Meuse towards Fumay instead.

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The view from Chooze village on the cycle path.  So picturesque but there is a nuclear power plant on the other side of the village!

Along the way we happened upon a rather large group of youngsters on an outing with just two adults in charge and nary a high viz vest in sight. They’d never get away with it in the UK 😉

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A gaggle of  over forty goslings 🙂

We’d never seen anything like it before counting at least forty two goslings being led by two adult geese. I later googled it and was surprised to learn that goose crèches are fairly common. An article in the Daily Mail does say though that forty is exceptional. It made my day seeing them 🙂

Not being able to find a suitable traffic free route along the Meuse to Dinant we drove instead.  Quite a lot of the route followed the edge of the Meuse and was very picturesque.  We were into the Ardenne region which is full of gently rolling hills, forests and quiet roads.  Quiet roads, that was, until we got to Dinant where every man and his dog seemed to be driving through.  Our guidebook describes Dinant as ‘picture-postcard’ which it kind of is except for all that noisy traffic.

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Dinant, birthplace of Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone.

We didn’t have the relaxing stroll we were hoping for and spent just an hour there.   Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was born in Dinant so with Tim being a sax player it was a chance to get the obligatory photo outside where the inventor was born.

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Outside the tiny Adolph Sax museum.

There is a free tiny museum to look around but it isn’t much to write about and the interactive commentary was drowned out by the constant traffic rumbling past outside.

We stopped overnight at the free aire behind the fire station at Arlon which is in the Province of Luxembourg but in Belgium and where many residents apparently speak Luxembourgish.  Mmm weird, but then Belgium has a curious mix of languages in different areas with predominantly Flemish (similar to Dutch) spoken in the northern region of Flanders, French spoken in the southern region of Wallonia and a teeny German speaking area in the eastern province of Liege.  Add in the Luxembourgish and all the different dialects and it all gets a little bit complicated!

We went out for a couple of Belgian beers and I ordered them in French.  So far so good.  On the second round I asked the lady ‘Qu-est ce-que vous recommendez?’  She started to reply in French and seeing my blank expression morphed into what sounded like German and then what appeared to be Dutch?  I just said ‘yes’ to what she had suggested to keep things simple.  What came out was not a beer at all but a kind of homemade wine or punch with a bit of orange floating on the top.  And foul it was too!  When I paid she said she thought we were Dutch which explained a lot!

Anyway, next up Luxembourg.

Au revoir.  Auf wiedersehen.  Vaarwel.  Ӓddi!

On the road again…. .

So, after just over three weeks back in the UK seeing family and friends and sorting out various bits and pieces that needed sorting like giving away all our possessions (!) we are back on the road for Season 2 of our tour.   I just want to say a big thank you to all our family and friends for taking the time to meet up with us.  It was lovely to see everyone on our whirlwind of a tour and we’ll look forward to doing it all again next year!

So what’s the plan this year?  This year is going to be a bit different as we are going into new territory now!  Queue drum roll.  Not being ones to make any rash decisions we were pretty cautious when we first set sail for France in May 2016.  For our first extended foray into Europe we just planned to tour through France, Spain and Portugal to get a feel for long term travel in countries well set up for motorhomers.  Even though neither of us had visited Spain before (in our adult lives) we’d already been to France several times (in the van) and Portugal a few times (flying) so we felt we were squarely in our comfort zone.

We’ve had a loose plan for this year in our heads for some time but I have been somewhat lacking on the planning front of pin pointing exactly where we’ll go.  I say me because that’s my job as part of Team Ollie.  I do the planning, Tim does the driving.  We travelled down to Dover from Yorkshire ten days ago to catch an overnight ferry to Dunkirk.  After a quick flit to Aldi to stock up on this year’s tea bag supply I thought it would be a good idea to maybe have a look at the guidebooks and maps to start planning our route for this year.  A bit late maybe but…..what can I say?…….I’ve been busy with other things!  The beauty of travelling in a motorhome though is that, well, you don’t really need a plan as such.

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Tea bag stash 2017!

Driving off the ferry at Dunkirk we could choose to go left, right, or straight on, whatever, it doesn’t really matter.  However, the very loooooose plan is to travel through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Slovenia and Croatia to eventually end up in Greece for the winter with a few stops for some volunteering via Helpx along the way if it fits in.  That’s as detailed a plan as I have got at the moment though!

I’d been perusing the guide books looking for an interesting route down to at least Germany as a start but was feeling pretty overwhelmed with information overload.  It seems to be taking my little brain forever just to get my head around the lie of the land so to speak.  I did, at one point, throw up my hands and bleat to Tim that maybe he could plan a route for a change.  After pointing out to me, in addition to all the driving, the 101 different van related tasks he undertakes as his part of Team Ollie, including the dreaded toilet emptying, I thought it prudent to wind my neck in and go back to the guide books!

Our first stop, then, was just across the Belgian border at Ypres.  There’s a very good aire a fifteen minute walk from the town centre which costs a very reasonable €8 per night inclusive of electricity.  Before we went rushing off into town, though, it was time to break out a shiny new sticker for our map of Europe on the side of the van.  It’s been a long time coming as the map hasn’t been added to since we crossed the border into Portugal back in September last year.  Yay, Belgium, new country.  We are sooo easily pleased!

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Belgium goes on the map.

On first sighting the town centre of Ypres (or Ieper as it is also known) you’d be fooled into thinking that all the buildings date back hundreds of years.  Not so.  The centre of the town, which served as the Allied communications centre, and within range of German artillery, was completely razed to the ground by shelling in the First World War.  The citizens had to be evacuated in 1915 but returned after the war determined to reconstruct their town.  The reconstruction, which took twenty years, is remarkable.  It really is hard to believe that the Lakenhalle (old cloth hall) and the Cathedral are less than 100 years old.

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The Lakenhalle (cloth hall) at Ypres.
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Tucking in to a tasting tray.  Well we are in Belgium after all!

You can’t come to this area of Belgium and not be moved by the reminders of the Great War.  World War I cemeteries, monuments and memorials pepper the towns and surrounding countryside.  The Menin Gate war memorial has engraved upon it the names of fifty thousand British and Commonwealth troops who died in the Ypres Salient but who have no grave.

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The Menin Gate War memorial.

The Last Post is sounded every evening at 8pm under the memorial.  We joined another 2000 or so people that evening to pay our respects.

Consulting our Camper Connect App we found Lesaffre Escargot, a France Passion site, just back over the border in France, where we would be able to take the bus into Lille.  Even though we’re not members of France Passion the site accepts non members at €5 per night and €3 for electricity.  We got a warm welcome from the owner and it was a chance to use that rusty French that I have let slip over recent months.  Oh dear!  I have forgotten so much of it that I am making a conscious effort again to relearn what has drained away.  Goldfish must be a part of my DNA I think.

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Lesaffre Escargot France Passion site.

The little campsite is really nicely laid out, set in quiet countryside and is a 15 minute walk to the bus stop so a perfect base for a few days.  The owners raise their snails in poly tunnels and sell various snail related produce in their little farm shop.  We had a peek into a couple of the poly tunnels to see the snail nursery with the inmates, looking exactly like the snails you’d find in your garden at home, fattening themselves up over a period of 5-6 months for their eventual fate.  Snails being ugly and slimy aren’t really our thing so we weren’t tempted into buying any of the produce.  Our dogs, who were real scavengers and would eat anything, even drew the line at snails and wouldn’t touch them!

Lille was easily reached by the bus which took about 45 minutes and only set us back €3.60 return each.   So much easier and less stressful that driving.  Lille, unfortunately, didn’t really capture our hearts though.

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Lille.

Oh it was nice enough in the old town but lacked something I couldn’t quite put my finger on and sitting here now, writing this, I still can’t!  It just didn’t have the wow factor that we’d seen in Seville, Granada and Valencia I suppose.  Lots of the old town is made up of chic boutiques and as we don’t do either chic or boutique it didn’t really do it for us.

We ended up wandering around aimlessly not really having any direction so called it a day after a couple of hours and returned to the campsite to make the most of the afternoon sunshine.

To counter our disappointment of Lille we had a day of biking to get out into the fresh air. We picked up a cycleway in the pretty town of Comines which follows the canal towards Lille. We whiled away some time watching the huge barges trundling past.

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Barges in Belgium are just slightly bigger than our Narrow boats!

Went past a bijou little campsite.

 

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Glamping site next to the canal.

And were chased off by these geese!

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These geese wanted us off their patch!

Right, I’m going to quit now whilst I’m ahead as we’ve had little or no free wifi since we left England and it has taken an age getting these photos uploaded and my battery is almost flat!  Such is the life of a vagabond!

A bientôt!

More pueblo blancos…. .

The rain is, once again, drumming on the van roof.  It’s been raining now for the best part of 36 hours and the natives, chez Ollie, are getting restless!  We are currently pitched up at a great aire at the entry to the little hilltop town of Casares, a 15km or so drive from the coast.  We arrived here on Thursday afternoon but, due to the shi inclement weather, we have yet to venture out.  Sometimes I can see the town across the valley from our parking spot, sometimes not.  The rain and mist are sweeping in and out obscuring our view.

The kitchen window is leaking and has been gaffer taped up and Ollie has been turned around the other way to protect said window from the elements!  The forecast for tomorrow isn’t much better. So, this lifestyle is not all glamour let me tell you!

Oh but……………..oh but……………..the week we have just had touring the hilltop towns north of Gibraltar has been just brilliant.  We left Ronda ten days ago heading down the A397 to the coast road near Marbella in search of a garage selling LPG.  The drive down to the coast, winding its way down through mountains, was spectacular.

We’d spent a week touring the quiet Pueblo Blancos so, as always, coming back down to the coast was a bit of a culture shock.  It still never ceases to amaze me that, in the space of half an hour or so, you can go from seeing shepherds scratching a living in the hills with a few goats and a scabby dog to humungous luxury villas, leisure complexes, marinas and tower blocks.  The contrast still gets me every time!

But, back to the quest for LPG.  We discovered that our aires book, which has a list of garages selling LPG in Spain, is out of date.  The garage near Marbella didn’t sell LPG.  Meh!  Two more garages were found but the LPG pumps were out of order.  Double meh!  We finally found one on the outskirts of Algeciras.  Lesson learnt – do more research on t’interweb – don’t rely on a book published several years ago!

So, LPG tanks brimming, we stopped overnight at the aire at La Linea de la Conception, just across the water from Gibraltar.  This wasn’t in the plan as we weren’t supposed to be in Gibraltar until next week when I’m meeting up with a friend.  We decided to save exploring Gib until then but we did make a quick flit over to visit the supermarket, because, well, it would be rude not to wouldn’t it?  And, we haven’t had any baked beans or spaghetti hoops for eleven months!  Or an easter egg, or prawn cocktail crisps!

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Ah, Waitrose Essentials Spaghetti Hoops – that’s why we wanted to go to Gib!

It was back to the hills we wanted to be though so taking the A405 out of La Linea we stopped for the night at the aire at Castellar de la Frontera.  The aire is actually at Nueva Castellar, a new town built in 1971, 10km down river from the old hilltop town.  I was confused at first as, wandering around the town, which is fine with a nice square and a few cafes, I was thinking ‘where’s the castle?’ and ‘it’s not on a hill?’.  Then, on re-reading the guide book, I realised the original town was 10km away………………..uphill!   Still, it was a beautiful sunny day and perfect for a bike ride!

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Approach to Castellar de la Frontera.

It was definitely worth the climb up.  The tiny town, enclosed by the walls of a 13th century Moorish castle, has all but been restored.

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Inside the walls of the castle, no vehicles, all cobbled narrow streets.

Our next stop was Bennaraba, a pueblo blanco, 50 or so km north, which has a brilliant little aire just as you enter the town.

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View from above the aire at Benarraba.

Unbeknown to us at the time, we arrived for the start of a food festival.  The little town was bustling with activity and we were able to sample some of the local produce.

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The Great Spanish Bac-on Off!
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Reminds me of the film ‘Good Morning Viet-ham’.

We had the best beer we have tasted since leaving Yorkshire ten months ago.  It would have given some of the Yorkshire real ales a run for their money that’s for sure.

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The best beer in Spain from La Catarina Brewery in Marbella.  The Muelle de Hierro was superb!
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A cheese and onion roll and a really good beer…………….the simple things are the best!

There are plenty of footpaths around Bennaraba to explore the area, which we did for a couple of days, so if you are into walking it is worth a stop.

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Aww, the first donkey ‘hands-on’ for a month!
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Benalauria – another white town further up the hill off the A369.

Next up, Grazelema, another Pueblo Blanco, set within the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema.  Oh this one was a good one!  We spent two nights there at a large lay-by below the town where wild camping is tolerated.

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Grazalema viewed from our wild camping spot.

What a beautiful village set in such dramatic scenery.

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Grazalema town.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather whilst there.  Warm, sunny, clear days with views for miles.

A circular bike ride took us up and over the Puerto de las Palomas (pass of the Doves – at 1350m the second highest past in Andalucia) down into the fortified hill town of Zahara de la Sierra, along the edge of the reservoir and back up and over to Grazalema.  Fantastic!

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Cycling up the CA9104 from Grazalema to Zahara de la Sierra.
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The view just over the summit on the Zahara side.
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We were so lucky to have a clear day after so many hazy days.
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Lunch in Zahara de la Sierra.
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Happy bunnies to be back in time to soak up some sun at our parking spot.

The next day, we took a footpath out of the town which wound its way up to the top of one of the peaks above the town for incredible views right across the Natural Parque.  Perfect!

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The views above Grazalema.
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View down to Grazalema.
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Mountain goat catching some rays.

On hindsight, looking out of the window at the weather now, we were so lucky to have had a week of perfect weather for exploring this area.  So there we are, mustn’t grumble at a couple of days of rain!  It’s given us a chance to catch up on some over due admin too. We haven’t been idle, oh no!

Hasta Luego!