Monday, 24 August 2015


We had an ambitious plan to travel this year but it was feasible. After all, last year we drove 6,000 miles without incident around the whole of Italy's boot and Sicily before heading back home through France. The planned trip from Rotterdam along the Rhine, through Germany, up to Austria and then Bolzano in the North of Italy, across the country from Bologna to Livorno on the west coast and then over on a ferry to Sardinia and then back to Calais and the Channel Tunnel via the South of France couldn't have involved many more miles than we had already conquered.

However, we got off to a very bad start when our car died 70 miles from home in the middle of the night. Our travel adventure this year looked like it would end there. It was raining, pitch dark, and we had no idea who we should call. I only have a standard mobile phone that can get internet access but what I really needed was wifi for my tablet to Google nearby break-down trucks. There weren't any connections available. I tried to call a relative who could do the Googling for us but at that time of night, or early morning, calls went unanswered. Luckily for us, a lorry driver parked in the layby the car had just managed to limp into got up and after telling him of our plight he gave us the number for the AA.

We'd never joined before because my husband is a mechanic and has always managed to fix breakdowns but this was major - the equivalent to a sudden and fatal heart attack. The cambelt had gone and when it goes, apparently, it takes out the engine with it. Even a miracle wouldn't have saved the car which worked so hard for us last year and has never been anything but reliable since. The AA were great. Within an hour they had someone at the roadside with us who towed us to a safe place - a nearby service station. After telling us what we already knew about the car, the mechanic left saying that within another hour someone would come and tow us home. We grabbed coffee, Facebooked our dilemma, and within no time at all, a really nice chap came, loaded up the car on his break down truck, took us home and loaded the car onto the drive before wishing us well with our endeavour.

I was disappointed but counting our blessings. Thank God this happened where it did. I didn't even want to think what might have happened if the car had died in the middle of a German motorway, for example. Our annual holiday savings would be severely depleted but we had to get another car. My husband got it insured, taxed and ready to go and we decided to see how far the rest of our savings would take us in Europe but we were both sceptical that Sardinia, or even the north of Italy, would be possible. I amended our Eurotunnel ticket for about £6 extra and we were off two days later than planned.

People asked why we chose the Tunnel and a drive from Calais to Rotterdam rather than get a ferry from Hull to the Europoort. The simple answer is that Eurotunnel is cheaper and faster. I was a bit worried about the migrant crisis at Calais after all the scare stories we had heard but we saw none on our trip out which was uneventful. Our first stop was Bruges. It isn't our favourite city. It is very beautiful of course but we have been many times on day trips. We've walked every inch of the city, seen all there is to see many times over, but my other half wanted to go and stay overnight. We chose a hotel for its parking, went for a meal, and stayed one very long night before moving on to camping.

I agree with hitman Ray in the film In Bruges. It isn't my favourite place either, although the film is one of the best. Perhaps you have to be "in Bruges" to get it.

Last year we had a camping book to help us find sites in Italy but this year we needed a map of Holland, Germany, Austria and Sardinia, and camping books for all of those places and that amounted to over £100 before we set off. I decided on a European road map and I lifted some useful pointers from the ACSI camping site. If we go again next year then I'll aim to invest in a smart phone so we can check along the way for sites near to where we end up. The European road map was useless as it only had main towns off the motorway and no camping signs to follow once we exited. We used an old fashioned compass my son bought me as a present from a school trip he went on about 15 years ago to try and find our way. Basically Rotterdam was north west and we were aiming to go south west so it helped to keep us on course and forward rather than inadvertently going backwards due to having a map that was wasn't helpful once off the motorway. It was mostly down to luck that we found sites near to where we wanted to explore. Many times we didn't. I haven't been able to find a country map that has camp sites marked on it but I'm sure they must exist. I had one for Sardinia but by now we knew for sure we weren't going to get there. Perhaps next year.

I had been to The Hague before and tried to recall the Dutch name for it. While trying to get out of Belgium, I noted a sign pointing towards De Haan. :"That's it"" I cried. Take that turning, Rotterdam isn't far from there so there must be directions towards it once we find the road to De Haan."

After three hours of travelling around some very pretty seaside towns (the most bizarre sight was watching as a woman walked her ferret on a lead towards the beach) and ending up back in De Haan time and again, my other half pulled over in frustration to check the map. "You numpty," he said. "I think it's Den Haag we want which is miles above where we are now. De Haan is Belgium and Den Haag is Holland."

"Doh! Of course", said I and eventually our groundhog day was broken and we began to make progress towards Rotterdam. We followed the camping signs as soon as we hit the Rotterdam ring road and found StadsCamping - a lovely site about 40 minutes walk from the centre of town. That first evening's walk told me that I clearly didn't walk enough I ached so much I didn't think I'd make the walk back. It began to lash down with rain and so after a couple of hours in the town we decided to get a bus back. The campsite reception staff had helpfully given us a map and the details we needed to get a bus back but they didn't tell us the last bus left the city centre at 8pm and it was now 9.30pm. We walked back in the rain and I could have kicked myself for not taking my rain coat with me. Still, strangely enough, aching as I was and soaked through to the skin, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Rotterdam Zoo was just around the corner from our site so we went for the day. We walked around for three or four hours and still didn't get to see everything but we saw many animals. As I wandered past the enclosure for a Manenwolf I smelled the distinct fragrance of cannabis. "Someone must be smoking a spliff somewhere nbearby," I said to my husband as I looked around to see if I could spot who it was. Surely it wasn't the chap in front with his kids. Then I read the information about the Manenwolf which came out of its den to pee before shooting back inside again. Apparently, a Manenwolf urinates the scent of cannabis which once led to a police raid on the zoo looking for an illegal marijuana plantation which didn't exist. I'm sure they all had a good laugh about it afterwards.

My husband liked the Polar bear and its cubs best. I liked all the animals except the sharks and crocodiles, but I kept thinking whether or not a zoo was really the place they should be. I hate to see animals in captivity but then some have been born in the zoo and others might be danger without it so I'm also convinced by the conservation argument for zoos. As a tourist, it was a great day out. One thing seemed certain, this holiday was going to be all about walking miles, lots of them, round towns, cities, and attractions and maybe even some walks along the Rhine if we ever got to find it because we hadn't had sight of it in Rotterdam yet - at least as far as we knew - but we did walk along some of the canals and saw plenty of wildlife, including a rook and a baby rabbit playing together who shot off out of sight before I had time to get the camera out. We saw herons and kingfishers, and moorhens and ducks and geese all happy in their environment and apparently untroubled by humans.

I'd never birds like the black eyed geese we saw so I have no idea what they're called and as a townie, we assumed the other bird we saw a lot of was a heron but then what would we know?

We planned to stay two days in Rotterdam but it rained heavily the morning we planned to pack up so we stayed another day hoping for a clear and dry day to follow. The weather mostly didn't let us down and stayed hot and sunny. There is much more to say about Rotterdam and Holland in general, we it enjoyed very much, but I'll save that when writing about the trip home. First we had to get to Germany, find the Rhine and then come up with a plan on how to follow it up to Basel in Switzerland where it begins it's journey to the North Sea.

In the next post, I'll write about our time in Koln or Cologne, the Mosel Valley, Baden-Baden and the wonderful spas, and why I had to keep telling my Basil Fawlty husband the war had been over for 70 years and it's time he got over it. What is it about the English abroad.

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