Tuesday, 1 March 2016
Famous people often look shorter in real life but not Peter Hitchens. He is neither tall nor short but, as a voice to my left whispered as he came on stage, he looked about right. Straight up, solid and as forthright as his opinions, he speaks from the experience of more than 30 years as a political and foreign affairs reporter, observer and commentator.
Delivering a guest lecture at the University of Lincoln last night, he began by saying : "Same sex marriage is unimportant, the EU referendum is a waste of time, New Labour is not right wing at all, and everything you have been told about Russia is completely wrong." If he expected an adversarial or shocked reaction to suggest that these popular issues are irrelevant in the current global storm of war, Britain's uncertain economic and political future, our frenzy with an in/out EU referendum, Russia, Putin, and other world leaders, then he would have been disappointed. Most people either agreed with him or kept their reactions to themselves.
"We are told we face a new Cold War threatened by an aggressive Russian dictatorship which proposes to sweep westwards and we should be prepared to stand up and position ourselves against this enormous and powerful country," he said.
He spoke at length and in detail about Russia's historical relationship with the Balkans and the Caucasus, the public joy at the collapse of Communism and bursting into song himself as he drove through Moscow, the West's lack of understanding of Russian borders and the problem of the EU "following German policy" and moving in on the Ukraine and Georgia which, Hitchens said, provoked the reaction from Russia to annexe the Crimea. "In the Russians' view, this was a bit like parking its tanks 20 miles outside of Guildford," he said. "Which country gave up quantities of land in Asia? Which country has given up 700,000 square miles without any kind of physical struggle? Which power expanded its authority given up by Moscow which no longer controls Belarus, Ukraine or Georgia or any of those old Warsaw Pact states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria? They all come under the control of the nation of the EU."
It is not that Hitchens is a Putin fan. Far from it. But he shares in common with many British people the concern of the EU's empire building and sees Germany as the architect and driver of it all. "I yield to no one in my dislike of Putin," he said. "I was one of the first journalists to write about his threats to liberty. He is a tyrant. He won't speak to me and his spokesman won't take my calls."
Western and British hypocrisy also got caught by Hitchens' sniper fire as he questioned our Government's strong moral tone against Russia while welcoming Saudi officials from a country with appalling human rights and delegates from China including a visit to Buckingham Palace by the Chinese president.
"China is a country that is currently engaged in kidnapping book shop owners in Hong kong, it has gulags, and it executes people and then harvests their body organs," he explained to anyone in any doubt about the regime in power.
He doesn't rate any of the candidates currently running in the US elections. As much as he would like to see a woman President in America, and as much as they needed one, he said, "belligerent" Clinton was not that woman. He's no big Donald Trump fan either but he'd rather him or anyone other than Hillary although he would laugh if Bernie Sanders made the White House, "because there would be no more US sponsored wars."
Questions from the floor included whether he thought that our view of Russia had been influenced by America, whether Russia was right to side with Assad, and whether Tony Blair should face prosecution for war crimes.
I missed the answers to the first two as I was preparing a question of my own but someone then beat me to it. As far as Blair is concerned Hitchens described him as "olympically dim."
"War crime is a misleading term because all war is crime. I don't think Blair should be prosecuted. I think he's too dim to understand what he was doing and in some way it would be unkind to put him on trial."
Something of a school boy smirk occasionally flashed across his face as he spoke. He answered questions with sincerity and held your gaze as he explained his view. My public question was whether he thought there could ever be peace in Syria. He said it could find peace and he hoped it would soon and although Assad was a nasty tyrant, most of his downfall was orchestrated by Saudis. When asked about the refugees, he said the Syrians fleeing war didn't go far from the borders and they want to go home as soon as they can. Others currently walking through Europe are a mixture of economic migrants and others seeking better lives but few are Syrians.
He said he would be staying home for the EU vote on June 23rd believing it a waste of time because even if the country votes no, it will take us a good 15 years to extricate ourselves from the EU but before that, like when Ireland voted no to the Lisbon Treaty - the EU constitution - if the leaders don't get the yes they want then it will keep coming back until they get the right answer eventually.
At the end of the event, as people began to file out of the room, I wandered up to the desk as Hitchens gathered up his papers. I had to ask him a question completely unrelated to anything he had been talking about and I felt a bit embarrassed to ask in the public hall in the middle of so much intellectual analysis of world affairs. I think he was a little taken aback by it.
"Do you do shorthand?" I ventured.
Hitchens smiled and then recalled his days 40 years ago learning Pitmans, something he still uses and can read back but his speed is not quite what it used to be.
"Can I tell my students that Peter Hitchens says shorthand is very important?" I asked. (They need motivation and it helps for them to know their journalistic heroes and heroines use it too.)
"More than that," he replied, "you can tell them that Peter Hitchens says he bitterly regrets not keeping up his speed and he wishes his shorthand teacher was here to help him again," he said.
He remembered the name of his shorthand tutor, as many students do throughout their journalism careers, and of course it would have been churlish of me as a shorthand lecturer not to offer to help him reach that speed in Teeline but he graciously declined the opportunity to sit in with my Year 1 or Year 2 students although I think they would have enjoyed it very much.
The "hated Peter Hitchens" as he often describes himself appeared to charm all who met him in Lincoln and I was one of those. Dare I say he is a lovely man. I profoundly disagree with him on many issues but there are many more that simply make sense.
You can read more from the pen of the man himself HERE and below is a video of Lincoln University student Jarrad Johnson's interview with Hitchens on his opinions, his politics, and his general visit to Lincoln.
Saturday, 6 February 2016
So many musicians from my era have been lost this year, most notably, Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie, and Glen Frey, but lest we forget, it is five years ago today that we lost Gary Moore, one of the greatest guitar players ever born who could make that guitar gently weep like no other in its time. We've still got the blues for those greats we've lost but their music is the legacy they left behind and that makes them immortal.
Sunday, 8 November 2015
I don't recall the first time I ever saw the love of my life Marc Bolan, probably much later on Top of the Pops, but I do remember when I first heard his music. I was about nine or 10 years old and listening to Radio Luxenbourg on my transistor radio in bed under the blankets, so my mum didn't know I was still awake on a school night, when the strange and mystical sound of Ride a White Swan rose above the crackling sound of a station that Government tried to block by jamming and interfering with the signal at a time broadcasting was strictly controlled.
I wasn't the only one to be hooked after the first few notes. Millions of children and teenagers around the same age as me knew they were listening to something new, radical, and unlike anything we had heard before. This was music for our generation. My mum was into Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, my dad liked a bit of Beniamino Gigli and my older sisters were still following Elvis Presley and the Beatles even though Elvis was past his best and the Beatles were at the end of their career as a group and about to split up and go their separate ways. T.Rex and Marc Bolan were all about rock, free spirits, electric guitars, glitter, shine and poetic lyrics about wizards, elves, magic and the iconic beauty of Marc Bolan and his unique voice with a cockney twang that was music in itself.
We didn't own a record player when Ride a White Swan hit the charts but mum bought me and my sister a second hand High Fidelty record player to share and gave us some money to buy something we could play on it. The first record I bought was T.Rex's Get It On and with what I had left after spending 50p on it, I went into a second hand shop and bought a 1960s copy of the Tremeloes Greatest Hits and my sister bought the sound track to West Side Story which I had to endure before she had to endure Get it On over and over again. I'm surprised I didn't wear it out.
The Teenybopper phenomenon was born with the Beatles but became a fully fledged and intensive devotion with determination to grab a piece of this beautiful pop idol and his band T.Rex. Fans camped outside his home, followed him everywhere, and stole things if the opportunity arose as they did when T.Rex came to my home town. This wasn't because they were looking to make a few quid from selling on something of value because Marc had owned it, but rather because they wanted to be close to him and in the absence of being able to walk by his side hand in hand, they treasured any scrap of something they could say he had touched.
I eventually got to see my idol in the flesh when the new four piece band, formerly known as Tyrannosaurus Rex when it was an ethereal acoustic and bongo drums hippy duo, when they played at Lincoln's ABC cinema, 45 years ago tomorrow November 9th, 1971. My birthday was at the end of November so this was my birthday present and to date it remains the best I ever had although the satin jacket and Oxford bag trousers I got the year after were a close second.
I wore my older sister's smock top that night with jeans, I think, and we all sat timidly in rows as if sitting watching a film. I couldn't stay seated for long once the music began and got up and just started dancing on the spot. No one else did but Marc noticed me up there jigging about and stopped playing for a moment to say to the crowd :"C'mon be like that chick there and get up and dance." and the place exploded, others joined in, got to their feet and the place came alive. That was bound to be my overiding memory of the event but the other thing I remember is that the band played Jeepster, Marc said for the first time ever, before it was released as their next single.
It was years later when I worked at my local paper that I found the old report of the gig. I've still got it somewhere and read what I didn't know at the time which was that the group's car had been broken into by fans who stole things out of it. It was not me. I wasn't there. By then I guess we were on the bus home. I wonder if whoever stole stuff from the car still has it. Marc always seemed to take these things in his stride and once said in a TV interview that he didn't mind all these children hanging around but his neighbours often complained which caused him a bit of trouble.
As the 70s went on, I never fell out of love with Bolan and often bought T.Rex singles out of loyalty even when I was growing away from the sound as my musical passion moved towards Northern Soul, Tamla Motown and Phillidelphia.
I suppose most people know where they were when Bolan was tragically killed in a car accident driven by Northern Soul icon Gloria Jones I was in the kitchen at home when I lived in North Wales when it came on the TV news and someone shouted at me to come in watch it. It wasn't long after Elvis had died. Marc was just 29 years old. His home was raided by fans and many items were stolen. Like in Lincoln, I wonder if that stuff still exists, who has got it and whether or not they would ever return it to his son who, it appears, has little left of his father except for a few trinkets.
Bolan's music and style has immortalised him and left a legacy of greatness which inspired pop icons like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Roxy Music. He also influenced a whole new generation of future musicians from punk, new wave, New Romantics, and Rock and he still has his army of fans and now belongs to them. Many Facebook pages are devoted to him and many fans uploads his music to YouTube for new generations to enjoy. But the saddest thing is that he never lived when he still had so much more to give to the world of art, music, literature and film. He was in all things a creative genius which is why I was taken aback with surprise when I recently mentioned him to my students and found that they didn't have a clue who he was.
It's a shame that his son Rolan hasn't made more of an impact in the mainstream. With music like this, he should have done and probably would have done had his father lived.
More than ever Marc now belongs to his fans who have created a shrine to their hero at the spot in Barnes, London, where the car driven by Gloria crashed into a tree. I must visit one day just to say thanks for my childhood memories and the music that will be with me all of my life.
Monday, 14 September 2015
We stayed two days and nights in Enspijk and then hit the road again. Amsterdam was just over 60km away and so we were there within a couple of hours.
We pitched up the tent at the site north of the city and then went off in search of the free ferry we were told would take us across the river to the Central Station and the heart of town. It was about a 30 minute walk. The ferry was packed with cyclists and walkers and the pleasant trip across the water was one of the things we liked best.
At the station there was a piano and passers-by were invited to play it. The man I photographed was playing classical music which was very good. On our way back someone else was having a tinkle and playing chopsticks so whether you were a concert pianist or a plonker, you could still entertain the crowds as they walked through the station and have a little bit of fun yourself. It is very community minded over there and you get a sense of real equality for everyone.
Amsterdam was heaving with people. We headed down a narrow side street and found a coffee shop where people smoked inside. It was very small, and like many others we saw, it appeared to be mostly a take away service. You buy your spliff and either smoke inside, if it has no tobacco in it, or you smoke outside if the devil weed is present in the mix. At this point I didn't know this and the cafe we stopped at didn't seem bothered about what you smoked inside. I had half the joint and put the other out because it was very strong and I didn't want to vegetate but rather be alert as to what was happening around me. Instead, I rolled a tobacco cigarette, smoked it inside, and no one batted an eyelid.
When we left the coffee shop, I suddenly became aware of how intimidating a very busy and crowded Amsterdam was. It was heaving with tourists. I got trod on and pushed and noticed some very dodgy looking sorts skulking in those narrow alley streets - or was it just me being paranoid thanks to the spliff still having an effect? I certainly held on to my bag as if my life depended upon it.
The road system was just as manic. First you had to negotiate the cycle paths. If clear, cross quickly and get to the tram tracks. Watch out no trams are hurtling towards you and then cross quickly and you get to the road for cars. Look both ways and cross quickly to safety on the pedestrian path. Big breath : Phew! Cyclists were the worst. They come from all over usually when you don't expect them and they don't slow down but ring the cycle bell and expect you to jump out of the way.
It was while we were sitting by the river having a smoke that we became aware of a rumpus right next to us involving a motorist and cyclist. We couldn't have expected a better show if we'd paid for tickets to a live theatrical drama.
The cyclist had clipped the car as he cycled past and the motorist wasn't going to let him get away with it. I thought the car driver looked like a mafia sort. He had silver hair groomed back, a dazzling white shirt and black tie and suit and his car was very big, black and shiny so you could see your face in it and he was tough. The cyclist was a tour guide who had a bunch of tourists with him. They all looked on and said nothing as the altercation continued.
The motorist pulled the cyclist off his bike as he tried to cycle away. He stood there as the motorist remonstrated with him in Dutch. I had no idea what he was saying except for the word "arsehole" which must be the same in both languages. The cyclist said nothing and just stood there as the motorist continued to shout at him. After he was done, the mafia-type grabbed the cyclist's sunglasses off his face, tossed them far into the middle of the river, and then slid his finger across his throat as he gave the cyclist a backward look before getting back in his car and driving off. The cyclist blew a sigh of relief and his group of tourists rejoined him before they cycled off in the opposite direction.
There was lot of activity in the main square. An almost naked woman surrounded by pots of paint invited people to paint her for money and she was obviously much in demand. A little further away was a man dressed as the Grim Reaper who charged people to have their photo taken with him.
We spent most of the day looking around the streets, walking and sitting by the river, having a look inside the church, and visited other landmarks like the castle and we did it all again the next day but on the other side of town.
We wandered into the red light district where naked women bounced and posed in windows, parents with children hurried through embarrassed and others, like the older Muslim woman we saw, walked through the back streets off the main road, I assumed to avoid the sight but the thing that most struck me was the tolerance of different groups all, apparently, having a live and let live attitude.
We planned to have another three or four days in Rotterdam and then spend the last two or three days in Belgium. As it turned out, the weather and atmosphere in Rotterdam was so good we decided to spend the whole of the last week we had left in this more peaceful Holland city that was certainly much less intimidating and more open and friendly.
We pitched up at the same camp site that we stayed at when we first reached Rotterdam at the start of our journey. As luck would have it, there was a free festival in the park - called the Duitzel in Het Park which just around the corner from our site so we spent some time there over the three days it was on. People smoked, both tobacco and cannabis because you got an aromatic waft as you passed by someone smoking a joint, families and groups of friends had BBQs on the go so there was plenty of outdoor smoke from all kinds of sources, others danced or lay in the sunshine enjoying the festival and there was a really good vibe.
A really cool DJ who looked just like Elvis Costello played some sound tracks but although we had a Dutch programme, we couldn't read a word of it and never knew who was on stage at any given time. On the last day, we decided to walk into town and buy two comfy camping chairs that we could take back to the park and sit in to enjoy the rest of the festival. As we walked through we were stopped in our tracks by a band playing. This time I did video it and later found out the band was called Big Moose. (sorry about the fuzzy zooming in and out at the start)
We walked miles around Rotterdam every day and got to know it well. Before long we knew exactly where we going and even found quicker ways to get there. We took one day out to visit The Hague and again found another coffee shop - more like a pub - which had huge No Smoking signs everywhere which I assumed must only prohibit the smoking of tobacco. Jam jars of chopped cannabis leaves were provided on the bar and at tables for those who rolled their own. We stayed for a half of a joint an half of a pint and then set off to explore the city where war criminals are tried.
We only found one coffee shop in Rotterdam that let you sit inside and to do so you had to produce ID and we never had any on us and didn't like the idea of it anyway. After all, it's not as if either of us had to provide proof of age. It's written in our wrinkles. We did like a lot of the public art work we came across like Fikke or Fido and his pile of poo which, apparently, was created after the bronze sculpture of the dog and was used in a clean up campaign.
There was also this statue which my other half swore was a gnome holding a butt plug and we tried to get our heads around town planners in a council meeting discussing that one and where they would put it in the city. After getting home, however, and doing some research it seems the statue is really Santa Claus holding a Christmas tree.
We wandered into town one day to find ourselves right in the middle of a right noisy calamity of an American group of young Christians spreading the word through singing and shouting as they walked through the centre of town. We were queuing for food as they passed and the noise seemed to frighten at least one child we saw who clung to his mother who clearly wasn't a Christian because she wore a Muslim head scarf. I sat down to have a smoke later and perhaps it was the mark of a sinner because a young Christian approached me and told me how she had been saved and how her religion helped her to deal with the fact she had been brought up in poverty by a drug addicted mother. I felt for her but, as I said, we each have hard times and we each have a way of getting through it. If religion helped her that was great but it wasn't going to help me. I have other ways of dealing with tragedy and rarely ever pray for a miracle. She wanted me to pray with her right there and then but I declined politely. She said she'd pray for me later but I told her to say a prayer for my religious mother. I don't believe that God will answer the selfish so it's better to pray for others more than pray for yourself - then hope if you need it someone will pray for you. My mother often "put one in" with God for me so I think she would have appreciated a stranger putting one in memory of her. She would have enjoyed that. We said goodbye and the girl rejoined her friends and passed nosily on through Rotterdam singing and chanting as they went.
It was soon after that encounter that we discovered Poffertjes - small Dutch pancakes served with icing sugar and butter and they were scrumptious. Perfect for when you have munchies. I liked them so much I bought a poffertjes pan after I got home and had a go. The first batch were a little overdone but each one I've made since has got better.
Suffice to say we absolutely loved Rotterdam and made the most of every day we spent there. By arrangement with the camp site we were able to check out late in the afternoon of our last day and we had decided to drive to Belgium, spend a day there and then head over to Calais and spend all night there waiting for our channel tunnel train due to leave at 7am. We though this would be cheaper and easier than staying at a camp site and then have to leave at silly-o'clock in the early hours to make that train.
The sun was hot and the sky a pure blue, as it had been for the whole week in Rotterdam, as we approached Oostend. People were coming from the beach as we drove but in the horizon, grey was moving over like a screen being pulled across the sky as if it was roof closing. We knew it would rain but we decided to take a walk through the main street which appeared to lead to the sea. The last time we were in Oostend, we did the same but before we got there we headed back as snow began to pelt down. This time we never reached the sea before the heavens opened and lashed down with rain and a good helping of thunder and lightening. We headed for the nearest restaurant and decided to eat, wait for the rain to either stop or slow down, and then we'd head for Calais. It was very early and we would have hours there but we couldn't think of how else to waste these last few hours given the awful change in weather.
We arrived at Calais at about 9pm. The man on the gate said we could amend our ticket and if we paid another £11, we could get the next train in a hour so we jumped at it. We eventually got home at 2am a good day earlier than we expected. Sadly, the hot weather hasn't been a feature since we got home. There has been some sunshine but always accompanied by a strong cold wind.
Many of our friends and family worried about the Calais crossing because of the negative stuff about migrants but we never saw any at all. Whether they were on the lorry side or not we couldn't say but certainly none where the cars come in and there were no queues at all.
We have discussed where we would like to go next on our travel adventure but for now, with the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, we think it will be better to see how things lie next year. Europe appears to be in chaos and with so much suffering at its borders, it feels almost immoral to enjoy life as a tourist to see so much desperation from people for who travel and staying in tents is now way of life for people with no home.
However, that said, one day I would like to see the Scandinavian or Nordic countries including Denmark, Sweden and, perhaps, Finland. But for now, work looms ahead and I have another busy year to plan with no time to think about summer, holidays or travelling - and it will be back to me writing about shorthand for my students and other things I do that make up the rest of the year when summer ends.
Wednesday, 9 September 2015
We found ourselves back in Holland much earlier than we would have liked. With 12 days left to the end of the trip, we had time to kill - if we could find somewhere to pitch the tent or a hotel to lay our weary heads after another long drive.
Holland does have signs for both hotels off the motorway and camp sites. We pulled off where we saw a turning to both. The hotel was a motel where conferences are held and weary motorists stop to rest, and just up the road there was a camp site that looked like a place made in heaven for children to have fun. It was hot, crowded, and very noisy but we thought if we couldn't get into the motel then we would stay one night to at least get us off the road and rested.
The hotel only had an over-priced executive suite left so we declined and headed to the camp site. We pulled up near the reception and didn't even get through the door before we were stopped by a big man sat in the heat outside. There was no room, not even a piece of grass for a small tent. This was the height of the holiday season. He was full and could not be persuaded to let us stay so we had no choice but to drive on.
Before long we noticed that we were less than 70km from Amsterdam. I wanted to stop if we could find somewhere but my husband was happy to press on even if it was getting late and then we saw another camp sign that led us past a McDonalds to a huge site that we hoped could find us a space. We had no idea where we were but the receptionist told us the place was called Enspijk. The site had just about everything you needed. A variety of entertainment and activities for children, a shop, bars and cafes, and a nearby self service restaurant, La Place, which sold delicious if somewhat expensive food when you're on a budget.
We camped by another fishing lake, past streets of static caravans that looked like people's own homes, and at the edge of the site which offered us the kind of peace and quiet we needed. The next day began with drizzle rain and grey clouds. We took a walk around and saw that there was a market and on stage was a scary looking clown handing out prizes to children and young people against a backdrop of probably un-politically correct black minstrels painted on the wall behind.
None of the above at the Rotonde site was of much interest to us oldies so we decided to leave the site and have a look at the surrounding area or maybe even find a town to walk around.
We decided to head for the countryside instead of the town we thought might be in the distance. The sun came out and it got hot again in the afternoon as we walked. We found the delightful village of Enspijk with a church in the centre of what looked like a small village green with a handful of thatched roof houses scattered around. We were following a sign that looked like a symbol for a castle but after two and a half hours of walking, we never found it and ended up at a part private and part public country park called Marienwaerdt. It was delightful and worth the walk even if we expected a castle but found a couple of hay barns, beautiful bronze sculptures of two fine horses, and some vintage vehicles instead.
It didn't look as if the village had changed much since this scene painted by Dutch artist Justus Versteegh now in the Royal Collection
After a while, we decided to head back and even though our feet ached, we knew we probably had another two and half hour walk back to the camp site. We followed a sign for Enspijk that didn't involve retracing our steps and after about five minutes walking, we came to a dead end at a river. Then a small ferry crossed from the other side with a couple of cyclists on board. It cost a euro each to cross over the narrow river and we found ourselves back in the village green by the church. We'd clearly walked the very long way around to the country park but we didn't mind. We both enjoyed that day.
The next monring, with 10 days left, we packed up and headed on towards Amsterdam and arrived at noon. Again we hoped to find a hotel but a camp sign found us first. We followed it and ended up at Camping Vliengenbos which was heaving with campers which appeared to have congregated into groups on the three camping fields. One looked like it was full of stoners - they were very quiet - another was full of families with children, and ours appeared to be for real camping enthusiasts - the sort of people with pop up tents who pack everything into rucksacks on their backs and then walk away.
We chose it because it was the most spacious when we arrived - until a group of about 20 schoolchildren arrived and camped all around us, so close in fact that we had to pull up our tent and move away from them for a bit of space between us. We went out for the day and when we came back later, there was a mound of canvas in the only space left that looked like a collapsed tent which we thought had been left by someone who had gone off and probably intended to pitch it up when they got back.
The schoolchildren were very noisy and singing camp site songs until 11pm when the camp warden came along and asked them to be quieter. They obeyed and disappeared into their tents and went to sleep. My husband went to bed and I sat up a while. A few minutes later the owners of what we thought was a collapsed tent came back. There were loads of them. The canvas was just lying over their bedrolls and sleeping bags. They laid it out, put their beds on it and then got into their sleeping bags and slept in the open air under the stars. Lucky for them it was such a beautiful clear night with not even a hint of rain on the horizon. True camping heroes. They were gone before we stuck our heads out of the tent the next morning.
When in Italy I drank wine and ate olives, and when in Germany I drank beer and ate bratwurst, and when in Holland I had to do what people tend to do in Amsterdam and headed for one of the coffee bars. I might not be allowed to smoke tobacco indoors but marijuana without tobacco in it was perfectly acceptable.
I'll write more about that in the next post plus the brilliant music festival in the park we stumbled across in Rotterdam and how the grey skies and rain found us in Belgium, followed us home, and have blocked our access to the sunshine since.
Thursday, 3 September 2015
We had four weeks to travel and as soon as we knew that we wouldn't be going as far as Sardinia we hoped to spend the majority of those weeks in Germany. We arrived back in Treis Karden a bit too soon for my liking and I beat myself up often for not investing in a decent map of Germany before we went away. We always had the sense that there was so much more to see but it was the availability of camping sites, and clear directions to them, that decided where we ended up.
On our first visit to the Mosel Valley we stayed at Burgen but we had nipped into Treis Karden for a refreshing German beer during the heatwave which hit as we arrived in the area. Now we wanted to stay in the town, even if it was bit cooler by day and a lot colder at night, and have a better look around. It was very traditional and charming and lay next to the Rhine in the valley surrounded by hills and rolling vineyards. We both fancied taking a walk in those hills. There is a map in the town square that tells you where the walks are.
We just wandered up towards the vines in search of pathways that would take us to the top where we saw a huge cross on a hill in the landscape. We soon found it and took to the footpath. At the bottom was a cave with an image of Christ praying and it was only after we had climbed to the top that we realised there was a theme to this walk. Christ was pleading with God to "Let this cup pass from me," and as you walked there were stone monuments and each carried the story of Christ's crucifixion from Judas' betrayal, to his arrest, to his walk through the streets with a cross on his back to the help he was given to carry it, to his actual crucifixion and then his resurrection.
Near the top was a small church and at the top was a huge cross. Near to that was a wooden table that others had carved their names into over the years. Sharp stones were left on that table and so we couldn't resist adding our names too for posterity in a "We Woz 'Ere" kind of way.
After the walk we stopped for an icecream and later went out for our first taste of real German food at a delightful restaurant owned by the Otto Knauf family that has made wine for generations and who organise trips to the vineyard in a waggon where visitors get the chance to taste some of their finest tipples.
The meal was delicious. I had salmon and my husband had chicken. He still talks about it and the meaty piece of breast he had. He found Germany to be his spiritual home in many ways. He adored the country.
On the menu we found this little story which aims to explain the difference between wine drunks and beer drunks. Some of it is a bit mistranslated but the general theme is that wine drunks make better drunks than beer drunks. I like both but I don't think either make me better or worse. Drunk on beer or wine makes no difference. Having too much alcohol of any variety makes me retreat to the nearest toilet with my head down the bowl so I tend not to drink more than enough to make me slighty tipsy but still in control of my senses and the contents of my stomach.
Our camp site was on an island surrounded by water and by a huge lake. There were notices saying fishing was forbidden at certain times of the year which wasn't the time we were there but despite this there were a few fisherman with rods in the water from the bridge and across the lake on the other side which wasn't part of the site.
A young woman pitched up near to us and later her boyfriend joined her with an array of fishing gear. They sat up all night by a small fire as the young man fished. We were due to leave the next morning but as we packed up we noticed he had got a bite. It must have a been a huge fish because it took him ages to land it, with the help of his girlfriend. We both decided to sit and wait to see what came up before we drove away. After some time, the young man managed to get the fish into a net and bring it to the shore. It was huge and I grabbed my camera to take a shot of it as he posed proudly with it in his arms but my camera battery chose that monent to die. I whipped out my tablet to take a picture of this incredible catch but it's difficult to get a shot in full sun and I failed. I just got an orange blur and no more. We asked the lad how big the fish was. He had a little English but he didn't know the weight only in German. "Elf," he said and then chattered something to his girlfriend who said "11." Whether that was 11 Lbs or 11 Kg, we didn't know but it was a damn big fish and he beamed at his catch.
We decided we would try and head for Bonn next. After some time of driving the wrong way, we managed to get back on track and found a road that ran parallel with the Rhine. It was very pretty, very hot and sunny, and we stopped for a while at a picnic area by the river just before Bonn where we made sandwiches and a cup of tea using the car kettle which plugs into the cigarette lighter. It was great but we both knew that stops would take a while because it took almost an hour for the car kettle to boil.
We were on the outskirts of Bonn when we followed camp signs and found ourselves in Bad Godesberg, just across the river from Konigswinter and about a km walk from Mehlem where we found another Stumbling Stone outside of a big house in a very smart street.
We could see two castles in the distance on the other side of the river and we wondered how we could get there when there didn't appear to be any bridge to cross.
It was only when we took a day to walk the length of our side of river, past Mehlem, that we found there was a ferry that crossed the river every 8 minutes and back to Konigswinter where the castles were. The boat ride was delightful. It cost us a couple of Euros each. Once we reached the other side we had a good look around the town and stopped for another German beer. I discovered Kolsch beer here and if anything could tempt me to become a beer drunk this was it. After a refreshing glass at a pub in the town we wandered uphill to find a path to the castles.
At the bottom were donkeys which tourists could ride to the top. Even though the animals looked like they were up for it, because they were very restless, we decided to save their legs and use our own. There was also a train to the top but we wanted to walk. And it was a very challenging walk that took a while but it was beautiful. It went through a wooded area that had the occasional shop such as the dragon garden, a honey stall and a couple of bars and there was an historic picture that indicated the donkeys had been carrying people up there for generations.
The first castle we came across was the Drachenburg. This cost six euro to enter so we didn't bother. Instead, we headed onwards and upwards towards the ruins of the other castle the the Drachefels that looked far more interesting. It was older and the views from up at the top down on the Rhine were spectactular. It was impossible to get a shot of the Drachenfels because it was so big it didn't fit in the camera frame but we did get a snap of the people climbing it's base rock and then some stunning views of the Rhine below from the bar at the top which offered welcome refreshments after the walk.
We had another Bratwurst but the service at the bar, where you had to sit and wait for someone to come and take your order and then wait for the beer to be served, took longer than we had time to wait. It was getting late and we knew the last ferry back across the Rhine was at 9pm and the way things were going, we'd be lucky to get a beer before we had to leg it back down the hill. It was hectic up there and packed with tourists and clearly the bar didn't have enough staff to serve them all. After waiting three-quarters of hour and still no sign of the beers we had ordered, we left. We walked down hill to the next bar we came to and downed a couple of Kolsch in no time at all.
The Drachenfels is said to be the place where the dragon lived who got slain by Siegfreid. I read all about it in a little book I bought from Konigswinter that told the tales and legends of the Rhine and it's heroes and folklore. My other half likes to have tales to bring back for the grandchildren. Last time, during our trip to Italy, my husband got stung by a jellyfish and he told the children that he fought a giant octupus and won. The eldest grandchild now has the scepticism of an adult on hearing such tales but the youngest sat wide-eyed as granddad recounted how he was attacked by a angry octopus, that he fought and won by tying all his legs together before throwing him back into the sea.
This time he told the youngest that he met a huge dragon up there and had thrown water to put out his fire before bashing him and throwing him off the cliff. I think next year the youngest will begin to have his doubts at granddad's stories but for now we all cherish his wide eyed innocence.
We didn't get to Bonn after all but we weren't that bothered. We both preferred to be in the country walking than in the city. We left Bad Godesburg and headed north west and realised that before long if we didn't find somewhere to stay we would be over the border and back in Holland much sooner than we anticipated. We didn't want to leave Germany yet and intended to stay in a little town called Neuss but when we drove through, my husband got freaked out by the tram lines and little streets and wasn't sure if he should be driving in the some of the areas that looked pedestrianised. We got out of there and drove on again and whether it was too soon or not, we found ourselves out of Germany and over the border.
In the next post, I'll write about the castle in the tiny village of Enspijk that didn't exist, Amsterdam, and the last week spent in Rotterdam before heading back to Calais via Belgium and home.
Tuesday, 1 September 2015
Taking a train is clearly easier than driving when you don't know an area and neither of us had been to Basel before. We'd driven through, decided the traffic was too manic, and headed out again to find camping nearby which we found at Bad Bellingen. The train from nearby Rheinweller took 30 minutes at a return ticket cost of four euros and 50 cents. It's so easy to travel by train in Germany. You just type in where you want to go and you get times, cost and ticket with the touch of a button.
We were hungry when we arrived so we stopped at a kiosk not far from the railway station that sold Arancini - a snack I fell in love while travelling around Sicily last year. The further you get away from the roots of a particular dish, the less authentic and tasty it is and this was true of the Swiss version of this Italian treat. That's not to say it was awful because it wasn't. It was very nice but not quite the same. I think the sun was the missing ingredient, perhaps. We paid up in Euros and thought no more about it until the next time we tried to spend some money.
My husband collects fridge magnets and aims to get one from each place we visit both at home and abroad. He chose a nice one of the Basel flag but only when he tried to pay for it did we consider that we were in a different country. The lady behind the counter said she didn't take Euros because Switzerland has it's own currency - Swiss Francs. We both felt a bit silly because we should have realised. We left a bit red-faced and empty handed and then went off in search of a cash bank for money we could spend. We got 20 Swiss Francs, bought a fridge magnet and wanted to spend the rest before heading back to Germany. The 12 SF we had left weren't enough to buy a small loaf of special Basel bread that I wanted to take back for supper so I asked the lady in the bakery what it would buy. For 10 SF, and a handful of small change, we got two small cakes. They were beautifully wrapped and very nice but we got the idea that everything here was more expensive than over the border in Germany.
We sat by the river to eat them and watched people swimming. The day began a little overcast when we set off but it became bright, sunny and hot as the day wore on. Some of the people swimming held what looked like swimming aids to keep them afloat and it only became clear what they were holding onto when they got out of the water. They were sealed waterproof bags, something like this that held their clothes, bags, shoes, and phones which all looked bone dry when they got out of the water to get dressed.
We wandered around the town some more, found a cigar shop advertising one brand named after one of Britain's most iconic former Prime Ministers, it's always good to get a little reminder of home when we're away, and ambled around the colourful town hall with its frescoed court yard, statues and the poshest public toilet door we had ever encountered on our travels.
Just off the main street was a charming residential street. It would have been great to get a taste of more of Switzerland and had we been able to follow the original planned route then we would have done but reluctantly Basel was as far as we would go into the country this time. Maybe next year.
It was long and exhausting day and we arrived back quite late after the long walk from Rheinweller station to our camp site at Bad Bellingen. We packed up and left the next day and headed back towards Rotterdam and ultimately home via more German Rhine towns that we hoped to see.
Speyer looked lovely as we drove through so we decided to park up somewhere near the Cathedral and stay awhile. I think it was the huge plane on display outside the Technik Museum that caught my husband's eye but we didn't get time to look around.
There were some statues in the grounds and nearby a man was playing The Godfather Love Theme, Speak Softly Love, on an accordion. He played so well it made me think of my Italian mother and brought tears to my eyes. I wished I'd videoed it for all to enjoy but instead I just got a photo of him.
I was still feeling a bit weepy when we got inside the cathedral which was beautiful and serene. It was so quiet, I hardly dared to breathe. I lit another candle for my mum by St Mary and sat awhile just to enjoy the peace and tranquillity.
The feeling wouldn't last and we soon hit the road again in search of camp sites. We wanted to stay near Speyer so we could come back and spend more time exploring the city but after miles of driving, we still hadn't found anywhere. We stopped off in worms in hope to get a hotel but they were all full. We were running into the start of high season and "no vacancies" was a reply we had in three different towns after leaving Speyer. Eventually, even though it was getting late and we were a few hours away, we decided to head back to the Mosel Valley where we knew there was plenty of camping and more than one site.
We came off the motorway several times at brown tourist signs hoping to pick up camp site signs but we never did and just added hours to what had become a very long journey. We came off again at the Nahe valley and at about 11pm found ourselves pulling into a camp site at what we learned the next morning was Bacharach. The pitch we got was tiny and crammed between two other tents. Only after we got settled did we realise that we were right next to a train track with noisy freight carriages clattering past every five minutes. My husband jut got his head down and got on with it but I was dead tired and as much as I tried to sleep the train noise just kept getting louder. I literally thought I was going to be driven insane before morning.
We wanted to stay two days but it would be impossible if we wanted to keep our good temperament so we checked out as soon as possible. The owner was lovely and only charged us half price because of the bad spot we had. The camp site had been full but he didn't want to turn us away after we arrived so late and bedraggled so he took pity on us and squeezed us into the only spot we'd fit. We were grateful for that and having a safe place to stay for the night. Things had got so desperate at one point that we thought we'd have to sleep in the car in a motorway layby but even those were full with lorries parked nose to tail.
We just couldn't find our way out of the Nahe due to the awful map we had that only had big and slighter smaller towns on it off the motorway and we found ourselves driving up and down the same stretch of road not knowing whether to go this way or that. We didn't want to but we had to get back on the motorway and so headed north west. At least we knew there was camping at the Mosel and that was near Koblenz which was signposted on the motorway and on our map.
A few hours later and we there. We stopped at a Bratwurst kiosk for lunch and made a cuppa with our car kettle as we watched people water skiing in the Rhine. Burgen, where we stayed on our way up, was a bit further along the road. It was the two hour closing period when we arrived so we had a look at the other camp sites nearby. In the end owe chose Mosel Island camping which had campers, tents and yachts pitched on an island in the middle of the Rhine.
The photo below shows our tent and car by the lake where we were pitched and where we witnessed a huge 11lb carp being caught and landed by a young couple who had been up all night fishing - but more about that, the walk we took that told the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, Bad Godesburg and the Dragon Castle at Konigswinter in the next post.