Monday, October 31, 2011

Sunday October 30th, Brittany Ferries’ Mont St Michel, Ouistreham to Portsmouth

And so the home straight – we’re on board the ferry, we’ve just left Ouistreham harbour near Caen in France, and in a few hours we’ll arrive in England, will drive once more on the left for the short journey from Portsmouth to Winchester and will, to all intents and purposes, be home. At least, for a night – tomorrow I set off again with the caravan to Lawn Cottage in preparation for Dad’s funeral on Thursday. Frances, George and Charlie will join me later in the week, so we’ll be together again in the caravan for a few nights before taking it back from whence we bought it, taking advantage of their buy back scheme. But more of all that later.

I last reported a week ago on a rainy morning in Challons-en-Champagne, eagerly awaiting the afternoon’s planned trip to the champagne houses of Epernay and Reims. We drove the twenty or so kilometres along the arrow-straight Roman roads of the otherwise pretty featureless landscape, denuded of hedgerows, only occasional copses to shorten the distant horizon. No sign of vineyards, no ripening sun, just hectare after euro-hectare of what appeared to be turnips, the harvest in full swing with giant mounds of recently unearthed produce by the roadside. A small rise on the horizon became the hills of Epernay as we drew close – and then we were driving through the town, markedly different to those of the previous day, with the ostentatiously affluent and revered champagne houses lining the principal road through the town. On advice from the tourist information office, we visited Mercier – not renowned as the best champagne, but as the best tour, particularly for families. After a warm reception in the impressive foyer, we descended by lift into les caves below for a guided ‘train’ ride through the 36 kms of tunnels through the chalk, all dug by hand in the late 19th century. It was fascinating, illuminating, and desperately tempting as we passed thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne at various stages of maturation. Finally we were released to the tasting room above where we were able to sample some of the merchandise – most satisfactory!

Mission accomplished, we wandered a little way through the town before deciding that the weather and our enthusiasm weren’t up to visiting Reims, and so headed back to Challons. We had thought we might eat out, but a quick visit to Carrefour for supplies on the way home dissuaded us. In fact, it turned out to be a bit more of an epic, as we discovered visits to French supermarkets tend to be. If the Italians have brought art and passion to supermarkets, the Germans ruthless efficiency, the Scandinavians Ikea-like ‘customer journeys’ – well, the French have turned supermarket shopping into an extreme sport! So vast are the Carrefours that they have shop assistants on roller skates, whizzing along the aisles and past the checkouts with typical gallic style. And such is the range of food, fresh, packaged, preserved that just choosing becomes an ordeal (albeit a rather pleasant one). In the end, we couldn’t resist the temptation of the Boeuf Bourginnion gently simmering behind the display counter – and after a tediously long queue (this part they really haven’t cracked!) we headed back to the caravan, opened a bottle of red and settled down to a simply excellent dinner. Why can’t it always be that simple?

On Wednesday, with George, Charlie and me feeling a little under the weather with the onset of colds, we packed up and headed towards Paris, again foregoing the Autoroutes in favour of the more scenic N roads. Our target campsite was in Maisons Laffites, on the Seine in the west of Paris involved diving right into the afternoon melee of La Peripherique – no quarter asked, none given as the seemingly suicidal drivers and moto riders ducked, dived and squeezed past the lumbering Volvo and caravan. Still, as Dad had pointed out before we set off, one of the great advantages of being slow is that you always have clear road ahead – sage advice! We cruised through without getting too ruffled, and after a final few narrow lanes through the suburbs, emerged unscathed at our site. And what a site – literally on the banks of the Seine, with its vast cargo barges slipping uncannily-serenely by every few minutes. The site itself was ok – large enough grassy pitches with the now customary hedges and many large poplar trees looking beautiful in the autumn sun. Pity the ‘facilities’ didn’t quite meet the same standard – no lavatory paper is one thing – but no lavatory seats? We made camp, put the kid’s tent up to give us all a bit more space for a couple of nights, and had an early night (again thanks to Carrefore – this time their delicious and hot Tartiflette!)

We made an early start on Thursday and, along with the long-suffering Parisian commuters who looked on our travellers’ attire of walking boots, scruffy clothes and back-packs with some disdain, headed into Paris on the train and metro. We headed straight to Le Musee de Louvre to buy tickets and avoid later queues, then hopped back on the Metro to the Champs Elysee – it’s a magnificent boulevard with its crowning Arc de Triumph – more so now than when I visited thirteen years ago. Having received an impromptu warning of pick-pockets playing tricks on tourists from a passer-by who heard our English accents, we marched off down more Parisian boulevards towards the Eiffel Tower.  What an incredible spectacle it still remains – a testament to the engineering skills and the ambition of its time, as strong and imposing and yet graceful and elegant now as it must have been to its first visitors. We’d pre-booked tickets (well worthwhile to avoid what looked like a long queue) and so were able to head straight to the summit, the view from which is breath-taking – an uninterrupted view across the otherwise relatively low-rise and rather flat city, but with so much white marble and the occasional gilt statue and dome it all positively glistens far beneath one’s feat. Incredible that it was created for, and created a sensation at the world fair in the 1880s, and is still one of the world’s most impressive tourist attractions over 100 years later. George and Charlie were captivated, marvelling at the magnificent view, the ant-like cars and people below, morbidly discussing the perils of falling from such a great height, wondering what would happen to the hapless spectators below if Charlie dropped her tangerine on them – they were even excited by the scale of the engineering (such as the 2.5 million hot rivets used in its construction!). 

After the tower, we needed lunch and a bit of a rest, so headed to Les Jardins de Tuilierres. We sat in the comfortable looking chairs provided to eat, after which George and Charlie rented and played with model sailing yachts on the pond, while I pulled my hood up, my hat down, my sunglasses on, closed my eyes and had a well-earned snooze. The chair proved incompatible with a protracted nap (never judge a book by its cover!), so once the yachts had been returned to harbour we made our way into the adjacent Louvre for our long awaited visit to the Mona Lisa. The museum faces the same issue that we’d encountered at the Uffizi in Florence – it’s a victim of its own success. Such is its popularity and the fame of its collections that it is literally thronging with people, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of this amazing work of renaissance art or that piece of Greek or Roman sculpture. The net effect is that it’s a bit of an anti-climax, the headline act, Mona Lisa in particular. Standing to view the most famous of DaVinci’s work in crowds five or six deep and 10 or 20 across, it’s almost impossible to form an emotional attachment to it or to many of the other works we saw in the museum. Pity – because that smile really is enigmatic!

From the Louvre, we made a quick bolt across the river to Notre Dame, transformed through cleaning from the ominous, menacing black I remember from my last visit to a gleaming bright white. But time was tight and we were on a mission, so didn’t dwell or go into the cathedral, Instead, we retraced our steps to Hotel de Ville, and then on to the metro again to head over to Mont Martre and Sacrre Couer. We had planned to get a portrait drawn of George and Charlie by one of the street artists for which this district is famous, but it proved very expensive, and it was getting late. Much of the bohemian charm of the churchyard overlooking Paris and the adjacent streets and market seems to have evaporated, lost to the somewhat aggressive efforts of the many itinerant street traders, and the excessively commercial shops and restaurants – it’s a pity as this was the artistic soul of the city.

Wearily we headed back to the metro and on to Maisons Lafitte – we’d packed an enormous amount into a day. By the time we got back to the caravan, George was understandably complaining of shin splints, a very uncomfortable leg injury, and Charlie’s cold had deteriorated into a nasty chest infection (bad news as she’s asthmatic). Over dinner we discussed the options for the following day, Friday. For some time now we’d been planning to pay a surprise visit to Disneyland Paris – while it was far from in-keeping with the rest of our travels, we felt it would be a fun climax to an amazing adventure. As we revealed our plans, the injuries and ailments were forgotten and the children went to bed brimming with excitement.

So, another early start on Friday, and back on the trains, this time from one end of the line to the other as we headed out of Paris to Disneyland.  We arrived to the spectacle we’d been anticipating – all saccharin and tinsel, but nevertheless pretty and efficient. We paid the walloping entry fee, wolfed down some snacks under the warning signs that picnicking was prohibited within, and, girding our loins, headed into the throng. I don’t intend to give a detailed account of it here – those of you who are interested have no doubt already been, and those who aren’t, well, you aren’t interested are you? Suffice to say that this is the perfect day out if you enjoy standing in endless queues waiting to have the living daylights scared out of you! Or if you have so much money and such poor taste that you simply have to dress up in Mickey Mouse ears and an Alice in Wonderland dress while scoffing over-priced pizzas or burgers. Sadly, we weren’t really in either category – but compared to a day’s kayaking on a fjord with Asbjorn, or learning the complex history of Prague and its many defenestrations with Jacob, it was simply not a match. We had a couple of fantastic rides on rollercoasters and flumes brought to life with incredible theatre and effects. But we had a couple of frustrating hours waiting in line for rides that went out of action as we got close to the front of the queue – and once you lose time in this place, with average queues for rides over 45mins, you’ve really lost out on a big chunk of the day. George loved the rides that he did manage to get on, as did Frances and I – but we left feeling that it was a bit of an anti-climax, even a let-down.  Charlie, however, left feeling plain ill. We’d rented a child-sized stroller in the afternoon to push her around as she was visibly deteriorating. But by the time we got home, her cold had become a chest infection and her asthma was causing her real difficulties.

We had planned to have a leisurely morning and then visit Versailles in the afternoon – but when we woke and tested Charlie’s breathing peak flow, it had fallen well below 50% of her normal capacity. Frances made enquiries at the campsite reception about seeing a local GP, but after a few phone calls, it was decided that she’d need to visit a hospital – and that required an ambulance. As we prepared to settle down for our morning croissant we heard the sirens in the distance, and within a few minutes there were blue flashing lights right outside the caravan. By extraordinary fortune one of the three on-board paramedics was an English guy who’d grown up in Paris – the only bilingual on the force he told me. After a few questions and phone calls, Charlie was bundled into the ambulance with Frances by her side and whisked off to hospital for treatment. George and I settled in for a pleasantly quiet wait at the caravan, reading our books and watching the barges glide past on the Seine. A couple of hours later, we received the message to collect the girls. They’d had an efficient and comfortable experience, with the nebuliser and steroids  having the desired effect of freeing up Charlie’s airways and the prescription arming her to effect a speedy recovery. With the day a write-off, George and Charlie settled in to watch a film, while Frances and I wandered into the charming suburb of Maisons Lafitte for a mooch around and a quiet drink.

We packed up this morning in reasonable time, helped by the changing clocks, and left the campsite, one of the last to do so as it closes down for the winter this weekend. With slightly heavy hearts we made our way towards the coast, stopping at a supermarket to buy supplies, then driving through the beach resorts at Ouisterham, scene of the Normandy D-Day landings, before forming up in the queue to board the ferry. We’ll arrive late this evening in the UK, and will drive to Frances’ parents John and Susie for the night. We’ll unpack a bit in the morning, before I head off to Lawn Cottage. We now have about three weeks in the UK before we depart for Australia via Hong Kong, to begin the next exciting chapter in our lives.

There are so many thoughts about completion of the trip – things and places we’ve explored and learned about, people we’ve met and those who we haven’t but have observed, the wonderful things we’ve experienced. I think these will be worthy of a separate entry in due course.

Until then….bye for now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday 25th October, Camping Municpale, Chalons-en-Campagne, France

Our last entry was just a week ago, the morning after we’d arrived in Schwangau, the heart of German Bavaria, a day in which we caught up on chores and home school, and gave George and Charlie time for an afternoon playing down by the lake – when Frances and I visited them to see what they were up to, we discovered they had been hard at work building a shingle jetty which stretched out into the lake. In the afternoon, we put the tent up for the kids to give them a bit of a breather from us! We ate dinner in the cosy warmth of the caravan, looking out over the mountains across the lake which turned a magnificent shade of purple as the sun set.

Refreshed and re energised, we set off early on a cold, crisp but beautiful Wednesday morning for our tour of Schloss Hohenschwangau and Schloss Neuschwanstein. Both castles appeared straight out of fairy tales, with their keeps, battlements and towers facing each other across the valley. Hohenschwangau had been extensively re-developed by King Maximilian of Bavaria and his wife Maria, who very sensibly had a second smaller castle built immediately next door for the kids, Ludwig and Otto. The main castle was beautiful from the outside, resplendent in yellow with blue and white striped window shades to keep off the morning sun – and ornately decorated inside, although, in truth, the many rooms were all a bit pokey (perhaps cosy would be kinder) and the art was….well, let’s just charitably say that King Max was from the ‘more is more’ school of art appreciation! The castle is still owned by the descendants of the important Wittelsbach family.

Max and Maria’s influence clearly rubbed off on son Ludwig, who had Neuschwanstein built on the ruins of a former castle high up on a hill overlooking Hohenschwangau, a decent walk away from his parents as we discovered. He wanted to create a romanticised  Romanesque homage to Richard Wagner’s operatic works  Lohengrin (the only guest who was permitted to stay within the castle), and the castle he created certainly lives up to his ambition.  Sadly for Ludwig, he died within a year of its completion (in fact, much of it was never completed) in mysterious circumstances – found drowned in a lake – and so the castle was opened to the public. What they would have discovered is much as we did – a real fairtytale castle rising up from the cliffs, which when overlooked from the high footbridge spanning a gorge and waterfalls below brings to mind images of princesses in turrets and noble knights charging around on white stallions. In other words, as described by critics of the era as I’ve just read on Wikipedia, all a bit kitsch! Here’s what Ludwig said about his plans in a letter to his pal, Wagner (source Wikipedia):

“It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day (in 3 years); there will be several cosy, habitable guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol and far across the plain; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. It will also remind you of "Tannhäuser" (Singers' Hall with a view of the castle in the background), "Lohengrin'" (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel); this castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven”.

Ludwig never married – he broke off his only engagement after six months, again without explanation, although Frances has inferred a theory about his devotion to Wagner!

Inside, the castle is ornately decorated in romantic style again, full of romanticised images of daring knights and devout disciples. Every conceivable surface has works of art – many painted directly on the wall – and sadly, none of which (in this Campbell family’s humble opinion) are very good! Notably absent by comparison to other great noble houses and palaces we’ve visited around Europe, however, are any paintings by the great masters or, for that matter, artists of any renown. On enquiry of our rather peculiar tour guide, it transpired that Ludwig had hired a few art students from nearby Munich to create all of the artworks – following in his father’s ‘more is more’ footsteps!

We walked back down the hill to the car in rapidly descending temperatures as alpine fog rolled down the mountains towards us. As we drove back to the caravan we stopped at the supermarket, and while Frances shopped the heavens broke in a huge hailstorm – within a couple of minutes the car and road were covered in a layer of ice. Back at the campsite, a small sprinkling of snow had fallen and settled around the tent. In the evening, Frances, George and Charlie went to the Krystal Therme spa, which, despite George’s anxiety about there being nudey-rudies wandering about, proved to be very pleasant and fun. Much to George’s relief there were no nudey-rudies but there were wonderful outside hot thermal pools (heated to 36⁰) full of healing salt water with fabulous views through the steam rising from the lakes of both castles lit up in the night sky.

It rained hard overnight, and we woke on Thursday to discover that there had been heavy snow in the mountains just a few feet above the lake and campsite. The rain drops on the tent had frozen, and George and Charlie emerged in the morning like arctic explorers in search of the cosy warmth of the caravan.

We made an early start and headed off towards Munich (Munchen) to Dachau, site of the infamous Nazi concentration camp. We’d just missed the start of the English speaking tour, so scurried off in pursuit, catching them up just as Steve, the guide completed his overview. He then took us on an absorbing and sobering tour of the camp, brought to life by his incredibly comprehensive and detailed knowledge. The camp was liberated by the US army and preserved as a result of the efforts initially of survivors and subsequently the authorities as a lasting reminder and lesson – all German school children of a certain age must go on a tour of a concentration camp during their schooling. As we passed through the intact gates, the sense of foreboding was chilling. The camp was established in 1933 at the very start of the Third Reich as one of the first initiatives of the new Nazi regime, initially for dissidents and political prisoners. It was immediately a place of torture and death, which rapidly developed on a highly organised and industrial scale and was used as the model on which all the other camps were based – it was here that on-site crematoria were first built to circumvent the need to rely on external crematoria and the necessary awkward accompanying paperwork, for example. And here were developed the Xyclon-B gas chambers for the ‘industrialisation’ of genocide, although there is some doubt as to whether they were actually put into use at Dachau.  In the first years, the camp was orderly in extremis – the slightest infraction (a bed not perfectly made, a blade of grass out of place) resulting in torture or death for the perpetrator. But in the later part of the war, it became the centre of a massive slave labour scheme, and it became clear that it was more productive to work prisoners literally to death on farms or in munitions factories than to have them worry about the state of order, cleanliness or hygiene in the camps. Steve’s insight and knowledge, based on clearly extensive research helped answer our many questions – were prisoners ever released? (yes, but most were released as ashes in urns); did people know they were going to their death? (perhaps not initially, especially in the west – but in the east, in Poland, rumours were widespread); were their huts heated? (yes, in the day-room, but not in the dormitories, where they were not allowed to sleep in their meagre uniforms which had to be folded neatly away even if wet, and where they would have to have slept naked on straw beds in freezing temperatures). That any survived these terrible conditions is incredible, and testament to the determination of the human spirit. The camp lives on as a monument to those who suffered so much at the hands of tyranny – and as permanent lesson about the importance of democracy and dissent, and against the perils of blind consensus and cultism. In an era when people seem less interested and prepared to actively engage in ideology and the pursuit of progressive social change, where plurality is increasingly overwhelmed by consensus and personality-led leadership, where the motivation of individuals and society seems focussed on personal material gain rather than social development, and where recent conflicts in the Balkans, the middle east and Africa continue to expose tyranny and the darker side of human nature on both sides of each conflict, these lessons seem more relevant than ever.  It was a valuable and indelible lesson for us. We made our way back to Brunnen in reflective mood.

We left Schwangau on Friday and headed west, winding our way through Southern Germany and past the Bodensee, Lake Constance through Fredrichshafen towards Freiburg in the Black Forest, arriving at a river-side site in Staufen, a small historic town.  We were efficiently marshalled into our pitch by the site manager, and headed straight for a swim in the gloriously warm water of the site’s own pool. Our site fees included a free rail pass allowing us access to Freiburg and on to Basel in Switzerland, so on Saturday morning we ambled into Staufen and hopped on the train to Freiburg. We had a mooch around the old city and the market which was packed with stalls selling beautiful fresh local produce and thronging with locals doing their weekly shop. Entertainment was provided by a number of buskers who, like those we’d seen in Dresden, were very talented and seemed to be from Russia and Eastern Europe.  These included a quartet in Russian army uniforms playing traditional instruments and singing well known Russian songs, and an accordion player who, with one’s eyes closed could easily have convinced that he was a full orchestra. In the afternoon, we headed back to Staufen and sat in the beautiful historic market square eating Shwarzwalder Kirschtorte and admiring the beautiful old buildings, although noticing with some anxiety that several of these had large cracks in them. Back in the campsite, this was explained by a neighbour in faltering English to be caused by some kind of mining – he advised I look up the Staufen town website. It transpires that the refurbishment of the Rathaus (town hall) in 2006 included the installation of a thermal ground water heating system, involving the drilling of bores to a depth of 450m to access the naturally occurring hot water. As a result, this water has leaked into a layer of plaster-like rock which has caused it to set and expand, causing the land above to rise by up to 1cm per month, with devastating effects on the listed buildings in the old town.

On the advice of Jed and his wife, a retired English couple we met on the site who have sold-up in the UK and taken up residence in their caravan on the site for the winter before they buy a house in Staufen, we took further advantage of the free and brilliant train services and headed into Basel on Sunday. Roger Paisley, Charlie’s godfather and our great friend from Sydney living now in Hong Kong, gave us a number of Basel top-tips by text as we travelled on the train. Basel was so quiet on Sunday morning you could hear a pin drop – but rest assured, the rattle of the kids’ scooters on cobbles (an ever present cacophony on this trip) shattered the peace as we made our way across the Rhine into the old city. We visited the cathedral and marvelled at the hugely powerful organ as the organist rehearsed for an evening performance; we wandered through the town and saw the ornate Rathaus with its very beautiful courtyard paintings; we window shopped past the fortunately-closed shops with their displays of fabulously expensive and luxurious watches; we inspected the menu of a typical and traditional Swiss café….and beat a hasty retreat! And we found and boarded the small ferry plying across the Rhine on a fixed line like a zip wire suspended across the river, propelled across by nothing more than the current of the river. It was fascinating – and unlike the café, very inexpensive. And that was it for Basel – we headed back on the train to Staufen for a delicious, tasty and inexpensive late afternoon lunch in an old restaurant in the market square.  This left time for us all to visit the Vita Classica spa in Bad Krozingen – another large scale multi-pooled thermal baths which, to the kid’s great relief, was clothing-mandatory for the pools. Frances and I left George and Charlie to the pools and headed for the sauna, returning somewhat redder in the face (it was hot in the saunas!) to find them completing an hour’s non-stop lap swimming!

On a foggy Monday morning we rather reluctantly packed up and headed off to leave Germany for the second and last time on this trip. We like Germany – the orderliness, the efficiency, the warm welcome of the people, the emphasis on tradition – and the wurst und beer! We hit the autobahn heading west towards Strasbourg and drove on, the fog enveloping us to create the sensation of driving through a tunnel. Without fanfare we slipped into France, the only tell-tales being the slight change in road signs. In the afternoon the fog lifted, the sun shone, and we headed off the autoroute onto the N roads to wind our way through rural eastern France through rolling hills and woodland bursting with beautiful autumn colour and across the tree and hedge-less farmland, towards Reims in Champagne. We passed through many rather unattractive villages and towns, past Metz, all of which recalled Western Poland more than they did the beautiful towns and villages of Brittany and Normandy. We didn’t have a site booked, and were increasingly concerned as the afternoon wore on. So a last minute call to the Chalons-en-Champagne tourist information office pointed us in the direction of the municipal site in Chalons. We couldn’t reach them by phone, so keeping our fingers crossed, we followed the many clear signposts to the site and rolled in to a very nice, orderly, spacious, well equipped and leafy site – most unexpected! It had been a long drive – about 550kms, so we were tired and glad to set up quickly and head to bed early.

This morning, Tuesday, rain stopped play. We decided to spend the morning in the caravan catching up, and will head off this afternoon for a tour of the champagne wineries. Tomorrow we’ll head to Paris for the last leg of our trip. We have brought forward our return to the UK by a week so that we can head up to Lawn Cottage on Monday for Dad’s funeral later in the week on Thursday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday 18th October, Camping Brunner am Forggensee, Schwangau, Bavaria, Deutschland.

Since the last blog entry from Venice, we’ve had the sad news that my father, George and Charlie’s Grandpa David has died. He was preparing to give a speech at Highclere Castle’s armed forces charity day, the place where his father David went as the first patient to convalesce from his wounds sustained at Gallipoli in the First World War, and where Lady Almina, the fifth Countess of Carnarvon nursed him to health. On Sunday morning, the morning of his speech he was taken ill and collapsed, and died soon after. While it’s sad that he has gone, I’m sure he would have been happy to do so while in the thick of things as he was, in preparation for his speech. I won’t dwell on it in this blog, but I will say that he had texted and emailed to express his enthusiasm for our recent itinerary, as we were following very much in the family footsteps which he had forged in the early ‘70’s when he took all of us, the car, caravan, awning, Mirror dinghy and inflatable two-man kayak across the alps to Marina di Venezia on two occasions, and the south of France on the third. I distinctly remember the tension in the car crossing the Alps as we all sat with chocks at our feet ready to spring out and chock the wheels should we find the going too steep (more of that below!). And although there were plenty of heated exchanges on these trips, there were many more happy memories of exploring Venice, sailing the Mirror on the Adriatic, swimming across Lake Tittersee, even skiing in Galtur in Austria where we took the caravan. This trip was always going to have a nostalgic element, and I’m pleased that Dad got to hear about so much of it.

When we last reported we were in Venice, preparing to depart for Florence. We had lazily left the awning up on the Wednesday night before departure, but in the warm dry weather this was no problem – no dew, wet grass or mud to clear off, no condensation on the inside to dry out – we just dropped the awning, brushed it off, packed it and were ready to leave. Sounds so easy doesn’t it? I’ve got the process and more importantly the packing down to a pretty fine art, so it only took about an hour. Not bad. And so we headed south, the sun bearing down on us from dead ahead, creating mirages on the autostrada, the vineyards lining the route gradually giving way to olive groves. From the flat Venetian plains the road began to climb as we headed into Tuscany. I had expected gentle undulations rolling into the distance, but was quickly disavowed as the road began to steepen and the car began to labour. Fortunately, so too did the trucks, and we comfortably kept pace as we climbed higher and higher. The road wound on, through tunnels, across spectacular bridges arching across deep gorges, with churches, monasteries and palazzos crowning the hill-tops to either side of us. Another major road building programme followed our route, affording us views of new tunnels being bored and bridges stretching out across the gorges, creating what will become a massive highway bisecting the mountains. Finally we reached the summit and began the descent towards Florence. We hadn’t booked a site, but used the sat-nav to find one we’d been told about by Robert, a Belgian we’d met in Vienna and again in Venice (happens a lot!) as we approached the city. We followed the directions, and after finding ourselves lost and negotiating rush hour traffic down by the river, we made our way back up the Via Michelangelo a short way to the site, a dusty olive grove on the hillside with grandstand-views overlooking the cathedral Santa Maria and the heart of Florence. We camped under an olive tree laden with ripe (but very bitter!) fruit. As George and I sorted the electric hook-up, water supply, caravan legs and so on, we were approached by a fellow camper. A German, he told us of his adventures in Australia over a couple of years in which he did 130,000kms with 4WD car and caravan, and spent a quarter of a million dollars in the process! He remarked on my reversing and parking – “your Dad is the best driver I have ever seen” he said to George, as I had reversed straight back into our pitch in line with and close to the hedge. If only he knew…

On Friday we walked into Florence, the saving on public transport costs offsetting the very high campsite fees. It took just twenty minutes to reach the Ponte Vecchio, the jewellers’ shop- lined bridge spanning the river Arno glistening in the glorious sunshine (in truth, the glistening river was much more attractive than the glitzy shops). Over the bridge and we were in the centre of this historic and artistic city, surrounded by more beautiful buildings, piazzas and renaissance marble statues.  We made our way to the cathedral, resplendent in its multi-hued green, pink and white marble façade, with its magnificent dome and bell tower looming upwards. On recommendation of our great friend Carole Anderson, who I gather is a bit of a Florence devotee, we found our way to Gelaterria  Grom, a specialist ice-cream shop – worth the trip to Florence alone! Suitably fortified, we then made the ascent up the 460 odd steps which wind their way up the dome of the cathedral to give spectacular views first of the ceiling paintings depicting damnation in the furnaces of hell and salvation through the gates of heaven, before emerging on the roof of the dome (and almost of the world) for the most incredible views over all of Florence. The magical timelessness of the earthy pastel shades of the city’s houses and their terracotta tiled roofs is captivating.

We lunched in a piazza a little off the beaten track, basking in the warming sun, before heading to the Uffizi to explore the extraordinary Medici family collection of renaissance and religious art. George and Charlie worked their way through a work-book requiring close observation of the paintings and sculptures by the likes of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Donatello. It’s a massively extensive gallery, and in truth we only were able to scratch the surface in a couple of hours, but felt that this was a sufficient immersion to warrant our second Italian pizza in the evening.

We could have stayed in Florence longer, and as we were so close to Rome we debated heading south, but as we were by this stage becoming a bit citied-out we decided to head north the following morning. It may seem a shame to have missed so much in Florence (we saw the bronze replica overlooking the city but not the original of Michelangelo’s marble David), and not to have pressed on to visit the Coliseum, Sistine chapel and other sites of Rome, but in truth there is only so much we could accomplish – and it’s important to leave something unexplored for George and Charlie to discover for themselves in their future. And so on Saturday morning we hitched up and headed back into the Tuscan hills on a very blustery but again beautifully sunny day.

Our original intention had been to head for Como. But as we headed north and studied the map, we realised that this wasn’t really en-route to where we intended, so instead made our way to Bardolino on the shores of Largo de Garda. We headed to the first campsite we saw signposted, and found ourselves right on the shores of the glittering jewel of a lake, again in amongst trees and Italian dust! The site was a bit of an enigma – beautifully situated, well maintained, and loads of caravans on permanent pitches and touring motorhomes bearing German registrations to bring a good sense of order and discipline to the site….and yet with the now blissfully-rare squat lavatories that used to be so common in Southern Europe. Still, needs must where the devil drives!

On Sunday, we headed out to explore the hinterland – our first objective to find a local vineyard open for tasting. We headed into the hills through acre upon acre of grapevines to Negrar, to the Fratelli Vogadori. It was while en-route that I received the call about Dad, but rather than returning to the campsite to mope, we pressed on to the winery. We were met by one of the three fratelli (brothers) who own, farm, harvest, make wine and olive oil and sell their produce around the world. He gave us a really good look at the recently harvested grapes which we were able to taste, at his production facility and methods, and finally a tasting of his Valpolicela and Amoroni while soaking up the beautiful views from his tasting room – his enthusiasm and passion were so strong they really shone through in the wine. We drank to Dad’s memory, and discussed his own wine making efforts. And we bought a few bottles of wine and oil – with our massively packed car, it could fortunatley only be a few!  I’ve drunk very little Italian wine since being in the UK – much to my now deep regret – seeing so much land devoted to its production, such perfect conditions, such passion in its production (evident in the incredibly orderly and well maintained vineyards everywhere we looked) and, I’ve no doubt, consumption, makes me realise that I’ve missed out on some great wine experiences!

As we were now so close, we headed to Verona en-route back to Garda. With no preparation or planning we had little expectation – but as we drove in we immediately realised one of our travel ambitions, to discover ancient Roman remains – the wonderful amphitheatre, Theatro Arena Verona on the banks of the Adige river, built in the first century BC and then progressively overbuilt over the ensuing centuries with a convent before finally being excavated in the 18th century. We only had a short time as it was late in the afternoon, but it was wonderful to sit on the steps of the theatre overlooking the stage, the river and the town behind and thinking of the Roman dignitaries doing the same in their togas over two thousand years before.  We drove through the city en-route back to Garda and caught glimpses of the impressive fortifications, and of Juliet’s tomb, but missed so much more – the roman Arena, gates, Juliet’s balcony, the old town! Our glimpsed impression was that it was even more beautiful than Florence, well worth a longer future visit. When we returned to the site, we had some time for contemplation and reflection – George and Charlie took themselves off to the jetty, and returned later to tell us that they’d said a prayer for Grandpa David while chucking stones into the lake. And I looked out over the boats on their moorings thinking how fitting the view was.

With the news of Dad and while the weather was so good I was keen to head north across the Alps, so on Monday morning we packed up. With the words of the German from Florence ringing in my ears and under the watchful gaze of another who had offered to help pull the caravan out of the very tight pitch, I reversed the car straight back into a tree! Fortunately there was not much damage – and the German from Florence wasn’t there to witness it. We set off, and he mountains quickly loomed ahead of us, their foothills punctuated by castles and forts strategically placed to control progress up and down the valleys. The autostrada threaded its way along the floor of the valley, climbing imperceptibly, and with its billiard table smoothness we were able to keep a good pace. For about 100kms we had an open road ahead of us and a trail of caravans and trucks snaking behind us as we bore on towards the Brenner Pass. The Dolomites, the Italian Alps’ magnificent craggy pink granite faces towered impressively above us in the sunshine, with more vineyards lining every available acre of their flanks. We stopped towards the summit for lunch, where the vineyards had finally given way to alpine grazing land. As we got out of the car the fragrance was incredible and the air crystal clear, giving quite a different light to the softness of Venice and Florence. We made the summit and headed into Austria, dutifully buying our highway vignette (once bitten…). The pink of the dolomites gave way to the grey of the craggy, snow-capped Austrian Alps. We headed down towards Innsbruck, past ski fields and cable cars, and then slavishly following the sat-nav we turned off the motorway on the road to Garmisch Partenkirchen to take us into southern Germany.

Immediately the road steepened ahead of us and our pace slowed. I selected a lower, and then locked in the lowest gear of the auto-box. We made headway, but only just. I kept my foot nailed down, the engine screaming in protest and we crawled upwards. A hairpin bend appeared, first on the sat nav and then in front of us – with a welcome large, flat car park and a tempting café. We stopped to regroup – could we make it on upwards? What if the road steepened? Or went on like this for miles? What if we got stuck – would the handbrake hold? Should Frances and the kids walk while I drove to lighten the load? Should I unhitch and drive up just with the car to recce? Or was there an alternative route? We went in to the café to consider our options, aided by a coffee for me and hot chocolates for the others. The waitress assured us that there was only a further 800m before the road levelled – “just stick it in a low gear and go slowly”, she reassured us.

We headed back to the car and made preparations – nothing around our feet or on our laps to aid a swift exit of the car if necessary; documents and emergency numbers in Frances’ hands should they be needed; and the chocks, lent to us by Grandpa David before setting off, at Frances’ feet ready for her to spring out and chock the wheels, with strict instructions not to walk behind or between the car and caravan. The caffeine from the coffee was coursing my veins, my heart rate was right up, and the kids were instructed to sit in silence. This really was an homage to Dad, circa 1973! Frances, however, had disappeared. Now, she’s doesn’t have the strongest of constitutions for this sort of adventure, but this was a surprise. I looked in my review mirror, and there she was, approaching the car with an Austrian police woman in tow.  She’d seen her and her male colleague sitting in their car in the car park and had approached to ask if they thought  we’d make it ok. “No chance” they said – “in fact, it’s prohibited, as you should have seen by the numerous signs on the approach to and up the hill so far prohibiting trailers over 750kgs” – and we’re about 1400kgs laden! “They’re banned because all too often caravans get stuck or go over the edge and have to be rescued” they said! With a smile, the police woman leant in to advise of a much better alternative route via Fussen to the west, over the Fernpass.

Very greatly relieved we headed off, down the mountain, grateful of the locking low gear to slow our descent!  We commented on the very nice police woman who’d advised us – Charlie and Frances noted the Pandora bracelet she’d been wearing, just like her own. I noted how attractive she was, just like the waitress in the café! And George recalled the pistol, Taser, pepper spray, Victorinox pen knife, other knives, hand cuffs, truncheon, claxon and other accoutrements attached to her belt. We headed along the prescribed route and wound our way through the most magnificent alpine scenery across the Fernpass, across the border and into Tyrolean Germany. As we did so the autumn arrived like a switch being thrown – from the glorious tee-shirt and shorts sunshine of Venice, Florence and Lake Garda, across the snow-capped alpine pass, and down into the rich bronze and copper colours and crisper, cooler temperatures of autumnal Germany.

As darkness approached we arrived at Camping Brunnen, a typically beautiful, orderly, fabulously equipped site right on the shores of Lake Forggensee, and in the middle of the Konig Schloss district of Bavaria, so called because of the several spectacular Schlosser built by the mad King Ludwig who was exiled here. These include Neuschwanstein, made famous by the opening sequences of Disney films, and by one of our favourite films, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Quick one for the trivialists amongst you:

Q: What do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and James Bond have in common?

A: Much!: both written by Ian Fleming, both produced by the Broccolis, both featuring many of the same actors (Auric Goldfinger was played by the same actor as played Baron von Bomb Burst; Q in the Bond films by the same actor as plays the scrap metal merchant in CCBB)….and several others which escape me.

This morning we’ve had another home school session – Frances and the kids in the caravan, me running around the lake (not a full circumference – I’m not that fit!). The morning has been spectacular – cold and crisp to start, with frost in the fields, mist rising off the lake, and then the sun beating down to create a crystal clear day. We’re overlooking the lake with the Alps in the background – it’s incredibly beautiful. And the kids haven’t been seen for a couple of hours – they’re off fossicking on the beach. Although the weather is forecast to deteriorate (snow on Thursday!), we’ll head off to visit the Schloss tomorrow and then perhaps Dachau the following day (about 120kms away). We’ll make decisions about returning to England for Dad’s funeral when the date is confirmed – but our current thinking is that we’ll keep on with the trip, and that George and I will return by plane or train for a few days, leaving Frances and Charlie on a site with the caravan. We’ll then return to complete the trip with the ferry crossing back to the UK on the 6th November as planned.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Home school posts from George and Charlie

As part of the on going home schooling, George and Charlie were set an English assignment today: to write about, using descriptive language the four most interesting things of their travels in Europe so far. They wrote these longhand – I have typed them up and entered them into the blog for you to read.

4 Amazing Experiences in Europe

Flam, Norway:
We arrived in Flam in Norway one soggy, cold evening in September. Dad set to work with the caravan, while Mum, Charlie and I went off to the shop, to get the supplies we needed. When we got home to the caravan, we tucked into a delicious shepherd’s pie, made by mum.

The next morning was warm but with a hint of rain. Waterfalls cascaded down the tremendous mountains and cluttered the valley we were in, like ivy. We discovered that this was the cause of a weekly torrent of rain. In a few days they would all dry up to just a trickle. We walked through sloshy puddles to the train station. Then we caught a steam train up to the highest peak. The view was spectacular. The tiny houses were dotted around like lego and the trees rampaged in a tangle of branches, across the complex hills in an eternal fusion of glory.
As we began the steady descent down, the small dribble of rain turned into a huge shower. The clouds were colossal, grey nuggets. As we trudged doggedly on down a slope with 21 hairpin bends, we sapped up the scenery like sponges.

By this time we were soaked but it was all part of the adventurous fun we were having. A surge of thrill pulsated through my gleeful body as I giggled out of pure joy. I would give anything to do this again. We ran down the hill as I laughed and rushed through the tunnel at the end of the path. When we came out the other side we ran straight into a small, tumbling waterfall coming off the over hang of rock above our heads. We shrieked with shock and then laughed. Then we tipped our heads up and drank. The water was sweet and refreshing. When I say sweet I mean sweet like sugar. It was incredibly tasty. We kept walking in silence because we were knackered. Our boots felt like lead and every step took tremendous effort.
At last we reached a farm with hundreds of goats, big and small, swarming around the path. We went through the open gates and bought some goats’ cheese and goats’ salami! Two juvenile sheep came over to me and Charlie and nuzzled our legs so we stroked their ears. Then we carried on walking. This time, we were concentrating so hard to get to the station that we were oblivious to our surroundings. At long last, we got to the station. We arrived with only two minutes to spare as the train pulled in. we were relieved and jumped into the cosy, comfy train to go home.

The campsite wood, Stockholm, Sweden:
I trampled moss and grass as I strolled through the wood near to the campsite in Stockholm. As I walked, I felt a sense of belonging. I clambered over rocks and foraged my way through the undergrowth. I came to a part where the sun didn’t shine. Someone had had a fire but it had gone out. A state of rapture shone through me as I explored. I jumped off boulders, kicked down mushrooms and ransacked the leaves of their contents. I found a sick with a carved end an I made a trail with it by smashing up mushrooms. Each time I came into a clearing I would turn in a circle. Then another part of the wood would beckon to me and I would rush off to be part of it.

Each place would offer something new to explore. I plunged into the dense thickets of fir trees only to find myself on a path on the other side. I followed it back to our caravan. I told everyone about my adventure and remembered it with a sense of nostalgia.

Dresden, Germany:
It was a warm day. We had just done a 4km run around the beautiful lake at the bottom of our campsite and now it was time to cool down. We put our swimming clothes on and took our boogie-boards down to the lake. We splashed about in the cool water and covered our sweaty bodies with water. I finally plucked up the courage to swim across the lake. I dived into the icy liquid and it engulfed my body, sending a shiver through me. I surfaced for air. Then I began a steady breaststroke. My feet got tangled in the cold depths while my body stayed afloat on the warm surface. I started to struggle for breath and my aching legs were dragging me down. I struggled over to the shallows and trod water while I regained my breath. Then I swam on. The cold bit into me, even though I was wearing a rashy. The beach seemed quite close, so I put my feet down. I fell under and swallowed water. I surfaced, hacking up water. I panicked and put on a burst of speed. Eventually I reached the other side.  A surge of relief and achievement swept through me as I climbed out onto the warm land. I ran all the way back to my mum and received a huge hug.

Venice, Italy:
As we strolled through the corridors of Venice, we felt a feeling of awe. We walked through to the water. It was a shimmering turquoise and looked forbidding and inviting at the same time. We took a Gondala over to the other side of the canal. The house looked very odd with crumbling first floors and washing hanging out of the mass of windows. We crept along the tangled maze of alleyways and back streets and peeked through windows to catch a glimpse of a normal Venetian family. The bulging houses looked like they had eaten too much and some looked like they were about to collapse at any moment.

In my point of view there are three parts to the city of Venice: The fancy Prada shops and all the stalls selling little masks, the houses and streets waiting to be explored and the streets daring people to come down through their scary, dingy tunnels of darkness.
Some people say that Stockholm is the’ Venice of the North’ but in actual fact, there is nothing that compares with Venice.

This from Charlie:

My Four Favourite Things On This Trip So Far.
Venice, Italy:

In September my family and I set off with our caravan to Europe. Now we are in the middle of our trip and I am going to tell you about the things I liked best so far.
If you ever go to Venice in Italy I recommend going on a local Gondala and looking at all the amazing things in the city built on water. Also, go down the side streets and look at the houses. Venice is built on a marsh and all the houses are built on the water and canals, it has a lovely layout.

We also watched glass blowing on the island of Murano.  When a man blew a piece like a balloon he popped it and almost gave me a heart attack! Dad bought a prancing Ferrari horse that we watched the man make. The colour of the water in the Venice lagoon is like a creamy turquoise.
The best thing to do in Venice is to get lost on purpose, you find your way around better that way!

Vienna, Austria:
When we went to Vienna (in Austria) we went to watch the famous Lipizzaner horses in the Spanish riding school. Mummy and Daddy bought tickets for us to watch them training! Even though we had to get up really early I really enjoyed watching the horses. And there was a girl! (a girl rider). One of the horses was really grumpy, and almost bucked! None of them liked being next to the wall. Every time the music stopped the horses went off and new ones came back on, we thought the riders were the same but they weren’t!

Berlin, Germany:
When we were in Berlin in Germany we went on a Trabi safari. Trabis are old fashioned cars from East Germany. They are very polluting cars and they aren’t allowed to be made in Germany anymore. We booked the convertible leopard coloured Trabi but when we got to the lady, somebody else had booked the leopard so we did heads or tails. So they picked tails and we got heads…And….we won! We had great fun doing tyre squeals, handbrake starts and we drove through a red light! The people behind were always getting stuck in the red lights. We crossed over at Checkpoint Charlie and entered what used to be East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down When we came back we were so happy and I was so full with happiness I thought I would burst.

Vienna, Austria:
The night before we went to the Spanish Riding School we went to a Mozart concert. It was really fun and just when I started to think that the evening couldn’t get any better the doors opened and an opera singer came in and sang a lovely song in Italian. Then a lady let open the door and the opera singer went out and a ballerina came in and danced with a male ballerina and they were lovely. In the second half all the musicians were wearing snazzy clothes because they were playing Strauss. The opera singer made eyes with dad. We all went home and fell asleep. But not before we had ice cream for dinner!

Wednesday 12th October, Camping Village Miramare, Punta Sabionni, Venezia, Italy

We left Vienna as planned – early on Saturday morning as the planned drive to Venice was over 600kms – and over the Alps. As we left the campsite, the Von Campbell Family Singers erupted in a rousing chorus of the Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music, ably led by Novice Frances. Then she cracked open the school books, smacked her ruler on the dashboard for silence, and George and Charlie dutifully settled down for their home school, now a ritual feature of every drive. Times tables tests, roman numerals, and the next section of their Maths On Target books completed, then English – creative writing (George continues to work on his epic), followed by the haunting climax of Frankenstein on audio cd.

Meanwhile, I was struggling a bit in the fierce cross winds as we left Vienna – I’d been warned that the winds would be high and that Vienna is notoriously windy, but this still took me a bit by surprise. Fortunately the roads were largely clear and marvellously smooth and straight – a real change from the drive from Prague. We made cracking progress towards the distant mountains, and as we got closer the wind dropped and we began to see the peaks gleaming white with fresh snow. We climbed inexorably on, the car not seeming too troubled by the ascent or the load. Soon we were at over 1,000m, the temperature had dropped from the high teens in Vienna to low single digit degrees Celsius, and the road began to wind through the snow fields. We stopped at a big rest area towards the summit for drinks and photos, the cold air biting through the summer clothes we’d worn to leave Vienna.

We continued on towards the Italian border beyond Graz (we’d earlier planned to overnight in Graz but this seemed unnecessary). Again we approached the big border crossing expecting to sail straight through, but this time were surprised to see a group of paramilitary-uniform clad officials pulling vehicles over. The tension immediately mounted in the car, and sure enough, we were their next victims – and yes, I choose my words carefully! Having dutifully pulled over, a guard approached and asked to see passports and registration papers. Frances rummaged for some time in the caravan and returned to produce the documents – the guard looked at them cursorily, and then produced a document of his own – an Austrian highway vignette which one is supposed to buy and display in order to drive on Austrian roads – purchase price, 8 for a couple of week’s use. “Hadn’t we seen the signs at the border?” he asked with a smirk. “Of course we hadn’t, otherwise we’d have bought the pass” we replied indignantly. “No problem”, he went on “you can simply pay me the €120 on-the-spot fine – we take cash and all major credit cards, have a nice day!”

We were furious, but had no option. I asked the guard to show me his ID – he produced some flimsy photo-card. The uniform, the asking to see passports, the positioning of themselves at the border – all this was just for show, to give innocent travellers the idea of officialdom. In reality, he and his colleagues were just like the car clampers of London – employees of private contractors whose job it is to fleece the unwary. Frances went to his van to pay while my blood slowly came to the boil – so I went to the car and produced the camera, which I took as close as I could to their van and began taking pictures – not as a memento, but just to make them feel as uncomfortable as they’d just succeeded in making us feel. As we left, in my best and recently practiced (at the concert in Vienna to the cloakroom attendant a couple of evenings before) indignant Englishman-abroad voice I told him that I thought this was nothing short of highway-robbery. With his equally well practiced smirk returning, he replied “No, it’s a tourist trap”.

And so smarting from the second fleecing in successive days we bade farewell to Austria and headed into Italy. At least the Italians have the good grace to tell you they’re going to fleece you as soon as you arrive – the very first thing we did was take our ticket at the payage for the Autostrada. We headed into the Italian Alps and soon found ourselves beginning the descent, through a series of tunnels boring their way down the mountains, interspersed by bridges spanning spectacular gorges. And as we’d emerge from each tunnel onto the bridges the again fierce wind roaring up into the Alps would hit us from completely unpredictable directions. We were in the grip of a real mountain storm, with rain lashing down on us, the wind roaring from left or from right. I kept the pace down to a crawl on the bridges, but maintained good speed in the tunnel. And then before we knew it, the last Alps slipped past us like ice-bergs on the ocean and we found ourselves on the plain in glorious sunshine for the last 100km drive to Venezia. The contrast was remarkable – properly Autumn as we left Vienna with the copper and bronzed leaves swirling in the wind; the onset of winter in the Alps, with snow, wind and rain; and then back into summer as we reached the plain, clear blue skies, grape vines in full leaf and fruit lining the roads, beautiful stands of tall, straight and green-leafed trees on either side of us – and that unmistakable Italian light, soft, slightly hazy which makes even run-down or derelict farms and villages look so peaceful and picturesque.

The last twenty or so kilometres were a little precarious as we wound our way towards our destination along the narrow roads on top of the levees which line the rivers. We had wanted to stay at Camping Marina di Venezia which is situated on the Adriatic side of the peninsular to the northwest of the Laguna Venezia – it was a great site when we had two lovely holidays there in the early ‘70s, and looking at it now on the internet, has been massively extended. It looked incredible – beautiful and vast pools, restaurants, supermarkets, secluded pitches – an absolutely wonderful summer holiday destination – but now, sadly, closed for the winter. Instead we are staying at Mira Mare, just on the Venezia side of the point – stepping out of the site allows you to look over the lagoon towards Venice in the South West, into the setting sun – it’s beautiful. The site is nice, many trees providing filtered sunlight to the dusty pitches, each marked out with hedges. The shoreline is the site of a massive construction project (the Mose) to provide Venice with tidal flood defences in response to the alarming increase in frequency of damaging floods. And we’re just a few minutes both from the wonderful Adriatic beach (not quite as wonderful or dramatic as Manly’s beautiful sandy beach) and from the ferry terminal to take us into Venice. We arrived at around 6pm and managed to get the awning up. But then, to quote Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, ‘The horror, the horror’ – we opened the bathroom door to discover that the skylight had, well, disappeared.  We both maintained that we hadn’t opened it or left it open, so can only assume that one of the big gusts as we emerged from a tunnel caused it to blow out – that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it! We contacted the Caravan Club roadside support, and they set the wheels in motion to get it sorted, while we headed out for our first proper Pizza. Italian Pizza – perfect – it’s simple: a thin bread base, not cooked to a frazzle, not thick and bready – a few simple fresh ingredients sparingly spread, and the whole? – Superb, a world apart from the gooey offerings elsewhere in the world.

Sunday was a day of well needed rest and recuperation – we stayed at the site, read books, did washing, enjoyed the glorious weather. On Monday we had to wait for a visit from a local caravan repair company, so a good opportunity to catch up on more home school. Frances and I went for a run to the lighthouse and onto the beach at the end of the promontory, and took the opportunity to visit the beach front of Camping di Venezia – just as I remembered it. In the afternoon, we all headed to the beach – we swam, sunbathed, made sand sculptures and fished from the rocks (don’t worry, the fish were as safe as houses!) – a wonderful late-summer’s day. Later we paid a visit to the local supermarket – what a contrast to the Scandinavian and northern European supermarkets. Here, fresh, ripe and succulent looking fruit and vegetables were given pride of place, enticingly displayed – huge varieties of salamis and cheeses fought for space with olives and other delights in the delicatessen, the shelves in the aisles had wonderful varieties of pasta and bottled pasta sauces. We stocked up and returned to a supper of fresh pasta and vegetables – delicious.

Finally on Tuesday, yesterday, we headed into Venice on the ferry. The tickets provide unlimited travel on ferries in the lagoon for 36 hours – expensive at almost 100, with no reductions for kids – but they proved good value. The weather was surprisingly cloudy as we made our way across the lagoon, and we were hopelessly under dressed in shorts and tee shirts – at least Venice should be quiet we thought. Ha! As we arrived at Piazzo San Marco (St Mark’s Square) we disembarked into hordes of tourists. We made our way to a tourist information office, and realised that the costs of tours, museums and galleries, and of course gondolas, was prohibitive. So we bought the map and guide book and headed off to lose ourselves in Venice’s extraordinarily intricate maze of beautiful palaces, churches, houses, alleys and canals. It is almost indescribable. All of those other cities that describe themselves as the Venice of the North – well, they aren’t – they’re wrong. There is only one Venice. I’ve heard it said of London that ‘it’ll be nice when it’s finished’ due to the never ending construction that’s around every corner. Well, Venice is ‘nice’ and was finished hundreds of years ago. It’s incredible. Obviously there is some maintenance work going on – but it all looks so right, so complete in whatever stage of renewal or dilapidation. We followed narrow alleys, took random turns to left or right, over bridges, under buildings – and around every corner came upon the next stunning work of art. We managed to lose the crowds as we walked (not easy, and this was a dull Tuesday morning in October – I shudder to think what a busy Sunday in July would be like), and emerged on-target at a small platform at the end of an alley onto the Grand Canal. Here we stepped onto a Gondola ferry – not the 100-plus gondola tour – but a 1 ride across the Grand Canal on a real working gondola used as a ferry by locals. Fabulous.  And then we hopped on board a ferry to take us along the Grand Canal. Us and hordes of others, mainly local – extravagantly dressed elderly ladies, elegantly dressed business men and women, a bride and groom with their photographer – and the ticket inspectors in their suede Gucci loafers and bright red D&G glasses – they really do know how to dress. We had our picnic lunch in a park in the increasingly warm sun which had by now made an appearance, and then headed on on another ferry to Murano, the centre of Venice’s famed glass blowing furnaces. We watched an impressive display of the art that’s been practised here for hundreds of years, and then made the obligatory departure through the showroom where we bought the cheapest souvenir we could find! No doubt it will be in a thousand pieces by the time we get it to Sydney!

As we returned via St Marks on the ferry to Punta Sabionne in the beautiful late afternoon sun, we passed a vast cruise ship leaving Venice by the Grand Canal. The views back over Venice with the Alps in the hazy distance were spectacular, the creamy jade lagoon sparkling in the glorious sunshine  – a great end to a lovely day. We headed home to lasagne made the previous evening.  

This morning is another at base – we had to wait for the camping repair guys to visit. They did so promptly and were finished replacing the skylight in half an hour flat – we’re clearly not the first to have needed their services for this! George and Charlie are busy doing home school, and Frances is out sorting out some minor family medical needs. We’ll have lunch here and then hop on a ferry to the islands – not Venice, but Burano and perhaps Torcello. When we return this evening I’ll take the awning down in preparation for leaving for Florence tomorrow.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday 7th October, Camping West Wien, Vienna, Austria

Well, another few days since I last posted an update to the blog – another city, another country, another currency. If I wasn’t writing this I think we’d have a hard time keeping up with what we’ve been doing, quite apart from the challenges posed to the reader.

Prague – what a beautiful, crazy, mixed up, cosmopolitan city – if it wasn’t in Bohemia, you’d call it Bohemian! We arrived in Prague from Potsdam on Monday after a somewhat interesting drive – a diversion off the autobahn took us winding up one side and down the other of a steep mountain pass, now bisected by a tunnel through the mountain. This had the unexpected benefit of exposing the Czech Republic’s magnificent countryside to us, which on the autobahn we’d be sailing past in oblivion. We arrived mid-afternoon at our campsite, a small but again leafy, green and well-kept site on the outskirts of Prague and made camp – as we were only staying a couple of nights we decided to forego the extra space of the awning, but instead set up the tent for the kids to sleep in. Frances and I then took ourselves off for a walk into the local suburb to find a supermarket and cash. We followed the directions given by the site manager and ended up after two or more kilometres at a huge hardware store (just like Homebase or Bunnings) – not entirely what I’d expected, but convenient as I managed to buy some nuts and bolts to make more running repairs to the hard working scooters and a packet of rubber O-rings to fix up out water inlet pipe. When we finally arrived back at the site, we found Charlie and George having a great time scootering around the site with a German boy who also had a scooter. They’d managed to exchange names, and that seemed enough to form a strong bond of friendship for the duration of the evening.

With the kids tucked up in their tent, Frances and I managed a sly beer or two at the quiet campsite bar – four big beers for 140 Czech Crowns – that’s about £3.00 – could be seriously damaging to one’s health – or at least, judging by some of the locals, one’s girth!

On Tuesday morning we began our now well-rehearsed routine of packing ourselves off on the local public transport into the city centre. We’d enjoyed our walking tour with Grite in Dresden so decided to find something similar in Prague. We lucked upon Sandemanns New Prague tour – a free (tips only) guided walking tour. Our guide, Jakob was really the most interesting and entertaining chap – so much so that we completed the morning old-town tour (10.00am to 1.30pm), and then continued straight on with him for the afternoon castle tour from 2.00 until 6.00pm. I’m not going to attempt to record the many interesting buildings, artefacts views that we saw – it would be impossible to do so, and impossible to do it justice if I could. But much more importantly, it would miss the point of our day – which was to spend time in the company of a young man who’d been born in communist Czechoslovakia, sat on his grandfather’s shoulders in the main square of Prague jangling his keys in unison with hundreds of thousands of other Czechs in the peaceful protest which became the Velvet Revolution, saw the emergence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, the subsequent cessation of Slovakia and finally the emergence of the Czech Republic  and its rehabilitation into the European Union. What an incredible recent history – and one which reflects Czech’s very complex historical past. With a Scotish step-father, Jacob had spent several years at school and university in the UK. His perspective about the communist and post-communist years couldn’t have been more different to that of Grite in Dresden – perhaps this was influenced by his well-travelled youth, perhaps by Prague’s evident prosperity and his own success, perhaps by being just a few years younger – but unlike Grite, his perspective of the years under Soviet control was that they were ‘hard communism’, that one tyrannical regime, Soviet Stalinism had simply replaced the other, Nazism, and that the Purple Revolution had finally brought ‘freedom’ to the Czech people. For a young man (mid-late twenties) he gave a very moving speech while outside the Jewish cemetery about tyranny and evil, and the importance of being actively good rather than simply being passively good. For us, while the buildings, churches, castles and bridges of Prague are indisputably beautiful, it’s these personal insights which bring the city and its people to life and cast such an indelibly memorable image for us.

By 6.00pm, after a full day’s walking and an eight hour history lesson, we were, understandably, knackered! After a dutiful stroll on the Charles Bridge we flopped wearily back onto a tram and then bus to the very welcoming comfort of the caravan. 

We unhurriedly packed up and left Prague on Wednesday morning for the relatively manageable 340kms to Vienna, via Brno. Once again we found ourselves having to navigate without the aid of the Tom Tom sat nav app on the iPhone, which was no great problem once we hit the autobahn, but for the first 15kms or so we had to make our way through Prague using Google Maps – that’s fine while you’re on the right route – but if you make a mistake – well, you could end up in hospital…as indeed we did! One slight wrong turn and we found ourselves heading into the casualty/ambulance reception area of a major Prague hospital. Which would, of course, be fine in a car – but towing a caravan?! We took a look around at the unfortunates hobbling in and out on crutches and in wheelchairs, made a hasty and (even if I do say so myself)  damned well executed three point turn and headed off down a winding suburban street in search of the route out. This took us straight through the centre of Prague, but that was the route Google insisted we travel – and as we all know they know best – so we wound our way past trams, beautiful Baroque museums and galleries, on past communist era rows of apartment blocks and finally, as we hit the autobahn, we saw our first sign to Vienna. Plain sailing. At which point, the communists took over the road-building, and for the next couple of hundred kms we rattled our fillings loose on the corrugations of their seen-better-days concrete autobahn. A quick pit stop to buy food and booze at a pre-border Lidl (very quaffable Czech red wine for about £1 per bottle – marvellous!) and then we headed past the eerily deserted labyrinthine border crossing – this would once have been a big and secure border between east and west – and now just one building is occupied, by a cheap café!  It’s a bit of an anti-climax now – somehow we miss the queues, the tension, the stamps in passports that would have gone before – now, there’s just a lonely sign saying welcome to Austria.

The roads improved immeasurably once we got into Austria, and so once more we barrelled into the setting sun towards our destination city, this time Vienna. We arrived at our planned campsite to find it closed. Ah. So we rang the next one, and got an answer-machine. And the next – the number was disconnected. By this time, the sun had set and dusk was falling. We re-set the sat nav, managed a swift u-turn and headed off more in hope than in confidence. We got to the next site without too many problems, and found it closed. Permanently. Being re-developed into housing. And so on to the next. We finally arrived at this site in the dark, picked our way around and squeezed ourselves into a very tight spot. With all Vienna’s other sites closed for the winter, this is packed like a motorway service station car park – caravans, campervans, massive mobile homes all cheek-by-jowl on hard-standing – it’s practical and convenient, but not exactly schone ausblick! Nevertheless, once we’d made camp and we settled in to eat the dinner which Frances had prepared, we were very comfortable – as the French say,plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change the more they stay the same.

On Thursday we again headed off into a new city on public transport. It’s such a great way of exploring a city, we really enjoy the fun and adventure that each trip brings. Having had such an intensive immersion in Dresden and Prague we decided to wander a little less formally in Vienna, and were quickly rewarded with the most magnificent, impressive baroque buildings, adorned with statues, bas-reliefs, frescos, gilded statues to crown the buildings, boulevards, parks, horse-drawn carriages – the opulence and splendour are incredible. Much of it seemed to have been built in the nineteenth century – when Australia was already 100 years old, which puts Sydney’s historic buildings into a rather meagre perspective! Still, this was a city and nation, the Austro Hungarian Empire (the hugely wealthy Habsburg family) at the absolute height of its powers at the centre of Europe, so a rather unfair comparison to one just starting out in the then remotest corner of the globe!

In the afternoon we made our way to the Hundertwasser museum. I’m sure you’ll all know about Hundertwasser – as indeed should I before we went. But in truth, all I knew was that we had a framed poster of a rather odd painting of his hung in our kitchen in both Sydney and Winchester – and that we’d stopped off at a roadside public convenience which he’d famously re-designed and decorated, on a drive from Auckland north to Whangerai in New Zealand  a few years ago. So quickly, my summary of this remarkable man is that he was (he died in 2000) an artist, architect, environmentalist, peacenik and activist who truly believed that his ideals and beliefs of design could be brought to life in building and town planning to make the world a better and more sustainable place for all. The museum was in a building which he had designed – his artistic philosophy was centred around organic forms (spirals in particular) and was opposed to straight lines – and so this multi-story building in the middle of an urban district of Vienna featured his love of uneven floors, unexpected twists, turns and voids, unusual colours and reflective components, and organic plant and water elements. He was very well travelled (aboard his own sailing boat) spending much of his life in New Zealand (hence the public toilet!), and amongst the exhibits were his proposed alternative flags for New Zealand and Australia (I thought he’d cracked it for NZ, but not quite for Aus) along with several models of amazing urban developments seamlessly integrating green and organic space with homes and garages. Really clever. And then up the street was another building of his design in which artists have apartments. And here, sadly (at least in my view) the practical realities of an urban building collide with his artistic ideal as, in truth, the colours had faded, the rain water and city pollution had turned the whites grey, and really the building looked rather sad.  Nevertheless, we loved his ideas and idealism, and really enjoyed the art and the rest of the exhibition.

After Hundertwasser we headed back into the centre of town to a small evening concert of Mozart and Strauss. After a slightly awkward start (the old ‘you must check your bags and pay $1.50 each’ routine!) we found ourselves moved into front row seats in the small and intimate room in which Mozart had evidently given his first ever concert with his sister! The string quartet and pianist took to the stage and despite their diminutive number immediately filled the room with beautiful music. They were joined by a beautiful soprano (she had a wonderful voice too!) who was followed by an equally beautiful and very, very Austrian looking ballerina, who was then joined by the tallest male ballet dancer in the known universe!  And all of this action was taking place just a couple of feet from us – I had to duck a couple of times to avoid the flailing legs of the male dancer as he pirouetted around the small stage. The Mozart music was wonderful – although I couldn’t help but smile at the comment made by Jakob in Prague about why Mozart had been musically exiled there by the  Viennese Royal court – because his music had ‘too many notes’!  The second half was Straus – much more orderly and, well, Austrian in style – until that is, the soprano took to the stage once more and directed her beautiful aria from Die Fledermaus at me in an almost personal serenade that made me blush! She brought blushes to George and Charlie too with her very engaging smile and very, very direct looks! The couple of elderly Irish ladies behind us were delighted with George and Charlie’s attentiveness and interest in the music. We had a really beautiful and memorable evening watching these very talented performers at such close quarters.

Today was another wonderful day. The beautiful weather we’ve enjoyed up until now finally made way for a cold and rainy day, so we donned our wet weather gear and headed to the Spanish Riding School to watch their morning training session. To watch the incredible horsemanship and beautiful Lipizzaner stallions at work was a great privilege – it is incredible to see the new young horses being schooled in the complex moves that they perform so gracefully, and in such a beautiful environment. We’d loved to have gone to the evening performance but would have had to take out a second mortgage to do so.  We’ll make do with a DVD and the memories of having seen the horses and riders at work. In the afternoon we visited the Belvedere Palace art gallery – a beautiful palace housing an impressive collection, including a Gustav Klimt (The Kiss) exhibition, as well as a couple of our other favs: another Hunderterwasser, a Nolde (we’d seen his exhibition in Ellos in Sweden) and another Edvard Munch. George and Charlie completed the challenging kids quiz which guided them around the gallery setting difficult questions which required a really close inspection of many of the works – a great way to expand their knowledge and understanding of the art they’re looking at. By mid-afternoon we were hungry and tired, and so had the much anticipated Vienna Schnitzel and Goulash we’d promised ourselves at a very local restaurant – superb.

And that, dear readers, if you’ve made your way this far, is that! Tomorrow we head off early for a long drive (600kms) into Italy and on to Venice. We were hoping to stay at the campsite we Campbells had stayed at in the early 70’s and of which I have such happy memories, but sadly, despite Dad having sent the name today, we’ve discovered that it’s closed for the off-season. Shame as having seen it on the internet it looks even more wonderful than it was then. Never mind – we’ll stay at an alternative close by, and head off into Venice by boat on Sunday or Monday.  The weather looks promising in Venice which would be a real treat.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday 3rd October, Lux Oase Camping, Kleinrohrsdorf, Dresden, Germany

It's the morning of the 3rd of October - German Reunification day, a public holiday in Germany. And rather than wrapping up in fleeces and raincoats as we should at this time of year, we're again waking to a beautiful, sunny and warm 'summer's' day – incredible.

We decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and campsite and stay here a day longer than planned. After our day in Dresden, we reckoned we could live without a river cruise on the Elbe or a day exploring local castles, and settled instead for a day in the campsite. We started with an early morning run into the forest, spent the afternoon swimming across the lake (in October!), the boogie boards which we've been lugging around finally making an appearance, and then paid a visit to the local Kaufland (a big German supermarket, of which almost half is devoted to the sale of beer – all in 1/2 litre bottles, in crates which the customers stack precariously high on their trolleys) which ended with the rather awkward 'we only take our own store card' scene at the checkout (fortunately we had just enough Euros). In the evening we had a very German barbecue – bratwurst und fleisch mit rosti kartofle!

Sunday was equally glorious, making the early start we needed much easier. Frances had booked for George, Charlie and me to go riding at a local stables. We wound our way through a couple of very typical German villages with colourful old houses fronted by very orderly well kept gardens (hard to imagine that just twenty years ago these would have been the uniform drab grey of the DDR) and found our way to the very impressive stables, complete with full sized indoor ménage arena, with stands and a bar for spectators! And then ensued a very rigorous investigation of our horsemanship before we were allowed to ride. First, we had to lead ponies to a paddock some distance away – odd, as we’d understood these were the three we’d ride. Then we walked back and were instructed to groom three different steeds, all of which were rather small – Frances and I looked quizzically at each other, and then suggested that they’d be rather too small for my gangly legs. Our instructor insisted that this was fine – I’d be able to paddle along. We had a quick a quiet conference, and then complained, rather more forcefully this time – at which she laughed and said she was just joking. Our grooming efforts were carefully inspected and with more good humour – ‘hmm, this pony is supposed to be white, not brown’. We were then helped to tack-up, and lead our mounts to the outdoor ménage where we then led them round at a walk for another 15 minutes before we were finally allowed to mount. And this only under very anxious observation and under a short leading rein! We were then put through various exercises – walking, trotting, rising trot, standing trot for what seemed like ages, with plenty of detailed correction and instruction. Finally, a posse was assembled to head off for a ride out – and again, leading reins were clipped on to each of our mounts, firmly held by our leaders. So, after last year’s wild galloping across the plains of Mongolia, we had a rather sedate walk and trot around local fields. I was very privileged to be let off the leading rein for a while as we walked – but then as we made to trot the rein was quickly grasped once more. When we returned, the starting process was repeated in reverse – endless walking around in circles to warm down, followed by washing down the horses before they were finally taken from us. Despite all the close attention we did have a lovely and memorable time, and headed straight to  local Gasthaus for a much needed drink and bite to eat.

We again swam in the lake in the afternoon along with some of the many locals here for the long weekend. The campsite has a full summer-season atmosphere – loads of kids on bikes and scooters charging around, people fishing in the lake, barbecues everywhere in the evening. It will be hard to leave it this morning. But leave it we must, to head on to Prague – it’s only a couple of hours away. We took the awning down in the late afternoon while it was dry, which will make for a reasonably quick get-away this morning. We just need to give the caravan a bit of a wash before we do – it’s looking decidedly second-hand now!

Couple of omissions from my last entry about Dresden:
Besides the beautiful buildings, opera and symphonies which Dresden is renowned for, it’s also the notable birthplace of some important inventions: Odol mouthwash (?), toothpaste in tubes (now that’s a big one!), the bra (an even bigger one), chocolate in bars, the coffee filter, the teabag, the filter cigarette (Dresden was once home to many cigarette factories. The closet one being right in the old city.. the local government told the owner that they didn’t want an ugly factory spoiling the skyline and so he had it built in the form of the most beautiful mosque, where it still stands today looking magnificent!), and magnetic recording tape – where would we be without them? Interestingly it was also the home of the DDRs first microprocessor plant – evidently they had PCs at about the same time as the west and even had early gaming computer consoles to plug into the TV in the mid-eighties.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed being here – perhaps not seeing or doing all the touristy things we could, but really getting immersed in the local lifestyle. Just wish we could stay longer!