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Bertha vs. Bertha

August 13th, 2014 (by Steve)

The clash of two titans. One has travelled thousands of miles, bringing chaos to transport systems; the talk of the media in the UK despite it being near the end of its journey. The other is, of course, a hurricane. Yes, as we settled down for our last few nights of the trip, we were ready for anything.

Our penultimate destination was the lovely town of Montreuil sur mer. We’re not exactly sure why it’s “sur mer”, as it’s not even near t’ mer, but nevertheless it’s a lovely town. Our aire for the night (two nights in fact) was a gravel car park next to the town petanque club. We thought we might be in for a bit of a noisy night when a van load of boy racers rocked up, skidding around, however they were just there for a civilised game of boules. Lovely really. What was a shock to the system though was the number of British numberplates we saw and British speakers we heard. Maybe it was some kind of gentle introduction back to life in the UK, but it was a bit strange to be able to understand so much of what was going on around us. Whilst the wind did pick up overnight in Montreuil, we’d hunkered down in the shelter of a larger motorhome and slept soundly. So, we think our Bertha won round 1 of the meeting with the other Bertha. It might have been through hiding / cowardice, but that’s still a win!

montreuil

With mixed feelings we headed up the coast to Calais, for our final overnight stop of the trip. Night 241. That’s a lot of nights… and we couldn’t help but be happy that we would be returning to the UK to some kind of familiarity and normality. But at the same time, this has been our life for the last 9 months… well, longer than that if you count all of the time spent preparing Bertha too. Were we ready to give it up?

frenchweather

We’d heard a few horror stories of aires in Calais not being safe, so we mused on whether we might have an extra story of robbery and intrigue following our stay there. Happily for us, but sadly for the interest of the blog, the only excitement was the return of Bertha (the storm that is). After a night of torrential rain (as our Bertha didn’t leak, we’ll count it as a draw rather than a victory for the other Bertha), we chomped down on a pain au chocolat before heading to the ferry… on which we consumed a croissant each too.

ferry

And then we were back on British soil. Accompanied by a “Home” playlist compiled by Kiri (including Billy Joel, Kate Rusby, Green Day, Martyn Joseph, Bright Eyes and of course Lynyrd Skynyrd), we remembered to drive on the left and were home before we knew it.

So that’s that then. 4510 miles covered in the last 4 months to add to the 7368 covered on our first leg.

loop2

What next? Well, we’ve put Bertha in for her MOT (our van, not the storm), and now we’re catching up on 4 months of paperwork – tax return here I come!

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Another breakdown (in communication?)

August 10th, 2014 (by Steve)

“I don’t think I could cope if we broke down today”. We’d just topped up with petrol in France; being forced to go with SP98 (the 98 refers to the amount of octane in the fuel), as they had no SP95 which we normally go for. We knew that SP95 E10 (the E refers to ethanol) wouldn’t work in Bertha, but we were fairly sure that we should be fine using SP98. A little doubt remained though as we switched our wipers to full to try to clear the torrential rain from our windscreen. With visibility down to about 50 metres, we slowed right down. Suddenly… BANG.

rain

A bang is never a good sound to hear in Bertha. Especially not when coupled with the oil warning light coming on. Either we’d run over some foreign object, or that was a misfire. Fortunately, by now we’re dab hands at breakdowns (this being the 3rd of the trip), so with hazard warning lights on, we drifted to the side slowly, at which point Bertha’s engine cut out. Good. Something in my subconscious told me we would be better off the motorway and as we were inches before a slip road, I tried to turn the engine back on. Just the standard turning over and a clicking sound… nothing more. It was difficult to see whether it was smoke, steam, or just spray coming from Bertha’s bonnet, but deciding that caution was the best option, we grabbed our coats, hi-viz jackets and warning triangle and bundled out of Bertha.

We needed to call our breakdown company, but without much credit left on our phone (deliberately, as we were only 4 days away from returning to the UK), the first job was to top up. Which we needed to do online. By now the rain had eased to a steady pour and we could see that there was no smoke coming from Bertha, so we hopped back inside (along with several gallons of water), onto the laptop, got online and topped up the phone (getting an extra £2 credit – bonus!) before calling Britannia. They then reminded us of the breakdown rules on French motorways. As we didn’t want the hassle of walking to the SOS box and really didn’t want to disturb the police we tried the ignition again… which fired up immediately with no warning lights. Cautiously we crawled off the motorway and reconstructed our breakdown configuration, whilst I pondered the higher grade fuel we’d used and whether that might be the cause.

breakdown

When we called Britannia again, the hold music was, ironically, “Happy“. I spoke to a guy called Steve, who said he’d pass on our details to IMA. Shortly afterwards IMA called us and I spoke to a different guy called Steve who told us that a recovery truck would be with us within an hour. So we had lunch; one of the benefits of being in a motorhome when you break down!

When the French mechanics arrived (neither of them called Steve), I explained the situation in broken French (although IMA Steve said that he had told them already). The mechanic then pointed at the non-illuminated oil light and said that we’d have to go to a Peugeot garage. Not good news; we hadn’t had a particularly positive experience with a Peugeot garage in Switzerland. After turning Bertha round, we hopped out of her and watched her being winched onto the back of their truck, giving the fresh water tank a good old scrape on the ground on the way. Accompanied by Queen and the Bee Gees we headed in the direction we’d just come to the Peugeot garage, where Bertha was unceremoniously dumped outside… again, with a good old scrape of the water tank.

berthaontruck

At the Peugeot garage reception, our mechanics took charge, explaining that there was a problem with Bertha’s oil and that we should call our breakdown company to get a taxi to a hotel. Ummm… sorry? They then disappeared, leaving us unsure what was going on. Eventually a Peugeot mechanic sauntered over and asked where the oil leak was. It was apparent that we were in the midst of another breakdown – this time in communication. We got the bi-lingual IMA on the phone again to act as translators whilst someone checked the oil level (unsurprisingly, this was fine) then started to fiddle around with the carburetter.

After a couple of minutes during which we heard the word “carburateur” being spelled out on the phone to IMA, the phone was handed back to us and we were alone once more with Bertha. The guy at IMA (sadly, not Steve) then explained that “a line” going into something that he didn’t know the name of (I suggested “carburetter” and he enthusiastically agreed) had been loose and was now fixed.

We’re not really sure why Bertha was carried 15km out of her way just to re-attach “a line” (which, with the help of the guys at TalbotOC.com we’ve diagnosed as the connection to the idle cut off solenoid), but hey ho, we were on our way once more with the only cost being the tiredness from an emotional rollercoaster (and possibly a little more damage to our fragile fresh water tank)!

carb

Hopefully that will be the last big drama of this trip, but with Bertha’s namesake storm getting ever nearer, who knows?

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Bertha in Binche

August 8th, 2014 (by Steve)

As we arrived into the province of Luxembourg (in Belgium) from Luxembourg (the country) having missed seeing Luxembourg (the city)… all very confusing… we realised that our view of Belgium as a flat country was incorrect. You see, as we passed through Belgium on the outbound leg of our second loop we experienced a very level country of Flemish-speakers. Coming in from the south, it was a different picture with rolling hills and a French-speaking population… as well as amusingly-named towns… I wonder if they’re M+S?

bras

After spending a night next to a babbling brook in the south east of the country, we ventured to Binche to help at a church there for a few days. Charles + Frances are friends of our parents and they lead the Eglise Protestante Evangelique de Binche. We’ve tried to visit a church most Sundays of this trip and at times it’s been a bit daunting to go to a new place where we don’t know quite what to expect and how we will communicate. Church should be a place where we join with others who have a similar outlook and focus in their lives, but actually, sometimes our fear of potential awkwardness and the unknown become a barrier. Some Sundays it’s been much easier to just spend quiet time together in Bertha.

But in Binche we were in safe hands with Charles + Frances. After getting Bertha plugged in and being given a very warm welcome, a hot dinner and a refreshingly cool bed (sometimes it gets a bit hot in Bertha), we joined them on Sunday morning at their church. Kiri was set to work on the djembe during the songs as well as painting a picture of a doorway to illustrate the passover story. Charles had provided me with a rough outline of his talk in French, which I was just about able to follow, but it was good to tune my ear in to Frances’ translation into English too! After the service we had some lovely conversations with other church-goers, although due to our poor language skills some of them had to be quite simple. And then our first Sunday roast in a very long time!

At every project that we visited in the first loop, our focus was on how we could serve. This might have been our sole project of the second loop, but we still had the same focus; offering to help in any way that we could. Although we jet-washed some peeling paint on lintels, washed and vacuumed a car and helped to lay part of a new floor in an art + prayer room, we came away afterwards feeling like we’d received far more than we’d given.

On Monday evening, we joined Frances + Charles at their English conversation group; a great bunch of local people who meet together to practise speaking English. We’d timed our visit pretty well as it coincided with a barbecue they were having, where we had great fun as well as great food. Occasionally the conversation would lapse into French (or even Dutch!) and we’d be straining to catch the gist of what was going on, but most of the time everyone was really keen on practising their language skills. Which worked well for us! One particular moment of joy for us was the amazement that the local Belgians had at seeing chocolate cornflake cakes that Frances had made.

On Tuesday, Kiri was invited along to a ladies’ group meeting where she shared about our trip with the ladies of the church. She talked about the people we’ve met on the road and the qualities that we’ve learned from all of them. There was then a discussion about the variety of churches that we’ve been to (when we’ve been brave enough to actually go to church!) and how all of us are part of one body.

Throughout our few days with Charles + Frances, mealtimes were probably the times we valued most, and not just because we ate some incredible food. As we ate, it was great to talk deeply with them about our faith, our lives and our aspirations for the future. We’re not particularly good at small talk, so it was refreshing to get into deep conversations with them, as well as joke around at times too. It was then a great privilege to all pray together before we departed in Bertha.

charles+frances

On a different note, it appears that the media have been going crazy over Bertha’s return to the UK. So, as the BBC asks “What will Bertha bring to the UK?“, we’ll break our silence. You’ll be pleased to know that before we left Belgium, we stocked up on beer.

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Homeward bound

August 1st, 2014 (by Steve)

Walked barefoot in the Black Forest? Tick. Eaten its namesake gateau? Tick. Ticks? Nope (thank goodness)! Now how do you match that? Well, our plan was to see some of the stunning Pfälzer Wald; a low mountain region with great walks through beautiful woodland, rocky outcrops and lakes. What did we end up seeing? Well, something along the lines of this:

rain

As the torrential rain laid siege to Bertha we re-evaluated. We could hang around and hope that the rain would clear, or we could move on. But then we would miss out on seeing something beautiful. It’s a situation we’ve been in so many times on this trip; with a limited number of days and a limited amount of money, we’ve had to miss out some “must-see” places. We’re also getting to the point where we’re so used to seeing new places and having new experiences, that our understanding of “normal” is probably skewed with unnaturally high expectations. Maybe a kind of cultural indigestion (thanks to Uncle Richard for coining that phrase). This is also coupled with a sense of guilt that we’re not making the most of the privilege of travelling. So, to soothe the inner battle, we did as we’ve done many times before and promised ourselves that we’ll just have to come back at some other time, when we can fully appreciate it.

Luxembourg beckoned as our final unique country of this trip. We crossed the border from a cloudy Germany and immediately entered a long tunnel, before emerging into sunny Luxembourg. Now I didn’t think that weather respected borders… but I’m willing to be proven wrong! In fact, the sun remained for the whole of our time in Luxembourg (apart from at night obviously). Our first stop was quite urban, in the town of Dudelange where the motorhome parking was situated between a skate park and a boule court (pitch? green? piste?) – an interesting clash of cultures! The second was in Redange after a gorgeous drive winding through woodland and along tree-lined arrow-straight Roman roads.

luxembourg

It was here, in Redange that thoughts turned to the UK. To home. Well, actually, we’ve been thinking about this for a while (our ferry tickets back to the UK are already booked), but as I filled in my first job application it suddenly felt real. We’re on our way home. In our home. It’s all a bit twisted… what does “home” actually mean? Bertha’s our home. Wherever Kiri and I are together, that’s home. But also the UK is our home. St. Mark’s Kennington (the church we worshipped at in London) is our home. Before we left for the trip, several people warned us that we might find a place that we like so much that we’d end up settling there, but it’s family that draws us back to the UK. They’re home too. There’s no single place or group of people that can represent the concept in its entirety.

After a couple of nights in Luxembourg, we removed a cricket which had taken up residence in one of our roof vents (we’re willing to open our home to others, but not if you’re going to chirrup throughout the night!) and took advantage of the cheap petrol on the border.

And look at that – we’re back in Belgium! We might be homeward bound, but we’re still going to appreciate the view on the journey.

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Barefoot in the Black Forest

July 31st, 2014 (by Steve)

There is no doubt that Bertha is a miracle on wheels. How else could a 24 year old motorhome make it so far through Europe? However, occasionally her performance is a little sub-optimal and so it was with her brake lights. During our weekly checks, we noticed to our horror that they weren’t working. Nada. Zilch. Kein licht (as they say in Germany). So, we checked the fuse first… intact. Next was a bulb check (although strange that 4 bulbs would go at once)… all fine. Finally I dug out the wiring diagram and followed wires for a while. I found plenty of loose wires… but then they’ve always been like that (we guess previous owners liked to play with electrics!), but multimeter readings at various points in the circuit showed no voltage.

This is the point at which we were pleased we were due to visit family near Stuttgart; they’re German speaking and they arranged for us to visit a mechanic nearby. In the meantime, we adapted our driving style to be smoother as well as making occasional use of rear fog lights when braking (well, you’ve got to improvise). It’s not as if we brake much in Bertha anyway; “slow” is her preferred speed setting.

Prior to seeing Catherine, Michael + Jessica, we parked up for the night in the beautiful town of Esslingen, up by the castle. This location afforded us stunning aerial views of the vineyard and town in the evening light and we added a brief interlude to our twilight stroll to watch locals playing boule. This is the life!

esslingen

And then to Böblingen. We had barely stepped through the door when our clothes were in the washing machine and we were being treated to a traditional Schwäbisch dinner of maultaschen and spätzle coupled with a tasty local Schönbuch beer. Correction from earlier… THIS is the life! Happily replete after such a warm welcome and with the promise of the first proper bed and non-campsite shower in over 3 months we settled in for a great weekend.

Whilst it can sometimes be difficult to get out of Bertha’s bed due to headroom and the ladder, it’s even harder to get out of a proper bed… but for different reasons! Having dropped Bertha off at the mechanics we were introduced to the first of many riches that this part of Germany has to offer. Chocolate. More precisely, the Ritter Sport chocolate factory where we had a free wander around the museum before stocking up in the outlet shop. Upon our return to the house, we got stuck into a bit of gardening in the afternoon… well, actually it was Kiri doing most of the work. Then in the evening we all ventured to Schlemmen am See; one of many “fests” happening in the area with local restaurants providing tasty offerings, accompanied by good music. Enough to make you want to dance (well, some people anyway!)

schlemmenamsee

The following morning, a guided tour of some nearby woods was punctuated by a call from the mechanic; Bertha was fixed. The problem was the switch above the brake pedal; whilst the original part is no longer manufactured (quelle surprise… oh wait, that’s French!) the mechanic had found a Renault switch that worked just as well (ooh, that’s French too!) and had fitted it; all for £25 or so. Bargain!

brakeswitch

Sadly, as has happened so often in Germany on this trip, the rain arrived for the day, stubbonly refusing to move on. Nevertheless we ventured to a local organic farm which was having an open day, refusing to let the weather put a dampener on proceedings. As well as livestock, we appreciated seeing old farm vehicles, including cars that had been adapted to run off wood burners during the war when petrol was scarce. But the highlight for us was the chainsaw carving. Now I’m not sure how to word this to avoid making Kiri sound scary, but she loves chainsaws. I’m not quite so passionate about power tools, but I was still transfixed by the guy carving stuff out of wood (he was in the early stages of sculpting a frog, we think).

bioland

After offering hospitality in the only way possible we know with Bertha (i.e. a cup of tea!) we were treated to another local dish for dinner; a thick lentil soup with sausages. So tasty! This was followed by another treat; watching the film “About Time“, which made us nostalgic for the UK and, slightly surprisingly, London (considering that we had previously vowed that we wouldn’t return there after this trip).

It was impossible to be this close to the Black Forest without venturing there, so for the first time in Germany we got to experience what it’s like to be in a normal car on the autobahn. It’s such a different feeling being in a car that’s overtaking slow motorhomes rather than driving your home on the inside lane, struggling to reach 90kph! Our destination was the Barfusspark (or barefoot park) in Dornstetten. With naked feet, we set out on a 2km trail through woodland (and a little bit of meadow) that took our exposed tootsies over gravel, pebbles, water, bark, pine cones, glass beads and mud. Now that’s a novel way to experience the Black Forest – it was great fun and my feet felt very invigorated as I washed and scrubbed them (with a patriotic brush!) at the end.

barfusspark

After a leisurely picnic (during which a large dragonfly landed on my head) we meandered our way through the Black Forest to Nagold where a local delicacy awaited. Yes. Black Forest Gateau. In the Black Forest. It would be rude not to! So much tastier than any reproduction we’ve had in the UK. By chance, there was a classic car rally there at the same time, providing unexpected entertainment as we munched. According to their definition, Bertha only has 6 more years to go before she qualifies as classic… the label of “vintage” (as applied by the 2014 Summer Special of Practical Motorhome magazine) will have to suffice for now.

nagold

Sadly we had to say farewell the following morning, but Catherine softened the blow by arming us with half of the contents of their fridge. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with them and it was great to explore an area with local people who could point out hidden gems.

So here we are. Day 227 in the Big Bertha household. Kiri has a revelation:

Steve? We live in a van. I’ve only just noticed. It’s so weird

Do you think it’s time we made our way back to the UK? Maybe.

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Ups and downs in Bavaria

July 24th, 2014 (by Steve)

We like mountains. We also like toboggan runs. So when we heard that if we ventured a little further south of our planned route we could go down the longest summer toboggan run in Germany, we were there like a shot. Well, maybe not quite that fast; we hadn’t consulted Bertha about going back to the mountains and she obviously wanted to take her time. Alpsee Bergwelt was our destination; a short distance from Immenstadt.

After our rather tame experience of a toboggan run in Slovakia, we didn’t want to get our hopes up too much. Sitting in the car park at the bottom, we noted that lots of toboggans were being held up by people in front of them, so realistically, we probably wouldn’t be able to go that fast. After our chair lift ascent (yes, we could have walked, but the chair lift looked more fun!) we waited in a queue for an hour for our opportunity to weave our way down the mountain, hoping that we wouldn’t be stuck behind someone slow.

toboggan1

And then it was our turn. Our game plan was to both be in the same toboggan (higher mass leading to higher velocity) and not to use the brakes. Our briefing on how to use the brakes (we listened politely) bought us extra space between us and the toboggan in front. We were off. Now our thinking was that health and safety would dictate that it must be possible to do the whole run without touching the brakes (unless we caught up with the person in front). That worked out pretty well for us until the 4th corner. It’s simple physics really – an object will continue to travel in the same direction unless a force directs it otherwise (Newton’s first law of motion para-phrased). Well, the track guided the toboggan around to the left. We were leaning forward, with our seatbelts loose. It’s fun trying to brake when you’re hanging out of the right of a toboggan, travelling at speed around a left-hand corner, held only by a loose seatbelt. But, technially we didn’t actually fully fall out! We still maintain that it is possible to go down that course without braking… you just have to lean perfectly into every corner. Nevertheless, we touched the brakes a little in addition to our leaning for the rest of the corners on the 3km course. At 10.50 Euros each (including chair lift) it was a little too expensive for us to do it again immediately, but we wanted to!

toboggan2

After a night in Immenstadt, we chose to venture along to Lake Constance. Now we’d previously read about Ju + Jay’s experience of the German Alpine Road and as a result had decided to avoid Bad Tolz and the south east of Germany. We might like mountains, but Bertha’s not a fan, so the Deutsche Alpenstrasse wasn’t on our agenda… until we saw this sign:

alpenstrasse

Sorry Bertha. We hoped that the western end of it wouldn’t be too punishing and that we would have patient drivers behind us. Let’s say we had patient drivers behind us. In good weather I’m sure the views are even more stunning than they were in the rain. At least we had plenty of time to see them as Bertha puffed and wheezed up and down the winding roads. One part was even like the toboggan run in the way it wound downwards, hugging the hillside… only experienced at a much slower pace!

alpineroad

The rain didn’t clear up… in fact it intensified and only Kiri was brave enough to venture the kilometre or so to the lake from our next overnight stop location. I stayed with Bertha because I wanted to keep dry make sure she was ok after a stressful couple of days.

After a very wet night (it just didn’t stop falling!) we headed straight up the main roads towards Ulm. Just as we were approaching, we saw signs warning us that the “umwelt zone” started in 3km. Those two words have been tinged with bitterness for Bertha ever since we received a letter from Germany in October last year informing us that “Unforunately [sic] no environmental badge can be issued for your vehicle”. And here we were, heading straight into the forbidden land. I immediately panicked and pulled off the road at the next exit, at which point Kiri pointed out that the satnav was bringing us off the main road in 2.4km.

Suddenly we swapped places (not physically, as that would have been tricky whilst driving) and I was keen to carry on (there were sure to be more signs) whilst Kiri was keen to stop and look up the extent of the low emission zone online. I was in the driving seat, so I won the brief conflab and we ventured on. We only saw one more sign on the dual carriageway, which I interpreted to mean “warning, parts of Ulm are a low emission zone”. After that, no more signs and we happily pulled into our stop for the next few nights amongst motorhomes young and old. Kiri went for a little explore whilst I double-checked the extent of the umwelt zone online. Oops. We’d driven slap bang through the middle of it and were now parked inside its limits. Time to move on!

It’s quite hard to drive whilst you’re kicking yourself, but I somehow managed it as we hurriedly and sheepishly left Ulm. I didn’t really want to climb the highest church tower in Europe anyway. No matter what spin I try to put on it, I goofed. I should have done the research that I’d done for all of the other German cities – there’s even handy information online (overall map and detailed maps). It doesn’t matter that when you put it into perspective a 40 Euro fine is comparative to some of the tolls we’ve paid in other countries…. and we’ve had to pay no tolls in Germany and we’ve been able to drive as fast as we want(!!!) on some of the best quality roads in Europe. We’ll await the letter in the post with a German postmark. Never have I been so happy to see a road sign in my life:

endumwelt

And then I looked in the rear view mirror to see that we’d left the bathroom window open. Not having a good day!

I was going to write “hopefully there won’t be too much more drama”, but in all honesty, it’s the drama that makes this trip interesting. This trip isn’t the 100m; it’s not even the steeplechase; it’s an obstacle race. And that’s so much more entertaining to run.

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Melting in Munich

July 19th, 2014 (by Steve)

So this is what it feels like to be in a country when it wins the World Cup. You know, it’s quite a good feeling… England should try it. And we were there when it happened. By “there”, I’m talking about a proper locals bar, where everyone knew each other and there was only space for us on bar stools at the back. During the match we got chatting to a lovely German lady… mainly about England actually. Her choice of subjects included Maiden Castle, Red Dwarf, Monty Python and the war (she mentioned it once, but I think she got away with it). We could hardly get a word in edgeways and it certainly provided a surreal backdrop to the events on the big screen. Add in the free schnapps for every goal (apparently the semi-finals had gotten a bit messy!) and the least passionate swinging of a football rattle that we’ve ever seen and you’ve got a great evening, topped off with the result we were all after.

worldcup

From Cadolzburg, we headed down towards Munich via overnight stops in Weissenburg and Neuburg an der Donau. So many “burgs”; each being a pretty walled town and each celebrating the World Cup win in some way or another! The further south we ventured, the sunnier and warmer the weather became and the more wild and wacky the other motorhomes became (not that we’re jealous or anything!).

burgs

Our stop in Munich was a farm to the south of the city, so we ended up taking in most of the sights of the ring road during our circumnavigation. It was worth it though as we parked up in a lovely rural spot with a few other motorhomes, a couple of friendly dogs and everything else you’d expect from a working farm.

After an afternoon of planning and an early night, we headed in to a city of chiming bells and lederhosen. With no fixed agenda (aside from avoiding the scorching heat as much as possible), we casually wandered around the city taking in the endless stalls of cherries and the countless human statues. We stopped for a while by the synagogue, marvelling at the monumental stone cladding before moving on once again. Even with the sustenance of a cool icecream, the heat was too much by 3pm and we retired back to the farm, to find Bertha moonlighting as an oven. Not really what we needed, but quite handy when it came to cooking our München weißwurst for dinner.

day1

Day 2 in Munich got off to a bit of a slower start due to our need to hand-wash some clothes, however we were rubbing shoulders with the rest of the crowds in the centre by lunchtime. Having taken in a lot of the city in our previous wandering, we took more time out to people-watch and appreciate buskers. As with all cities, you get such a mix of talent; concert-hall standard string players within a coin’s toss of people with squeaky devices in their mouths just doing it for the money. After spending a bit of time listening to a group of Spanish musicians, we ventured inside Heilig-Geist-Kirche where a “Garden of Eden” exhibition was being set up. The church was being adorned with trees, branches and other assorted foliage, whilst overhead a flock of origami birds hung, suspended in mid-flight towards the altar. A great use of the space!

church

Back out in the main street, we became aware of an increasing police presence. In Athens we kind of expected that level of policing due to the almost daily protests, but not in Munich. It was only when we walked on a little further that we realised the reason. Behind crowd barriers was a gazebo over a table and display stand. Next to it was a stage with a public address system. And all around were placards protesting against a proposed Islamic centre in the city; labelling all Muslims as terrorists. I’m not surprised there was a large police presence. Several passers-by asked the police why they were just standing there whilst the speaker on stage shouted and gestured wildly. I guess it’s about free speech, but is that level of extremism and hatred acceptable? Not in my eyes. Why can’t people live together in harmony, embracing diversity?

Once again an icecream called – possibly the best icecream of our trip so far (yes, that is a big claim). As you leave the Hofbräuhaus (because obviously you would be in there if you visited Munich!), turn to your right and walk for maybe 50 yards (sorry, metres) and you will see “Schuhbeck’s Eissalon & Joghurteria”. I had a fiery ginger icrecream, whilst Kiri opted for chilli chocolate, which we munched on whilst watching a professional human statue interacting with and entertaining the crowds.

statue

It had been ordained that dinner would be currywurst and chips, so at 6pm we headed to a stall in Viktualienmarkt, where we’d seen them advertised. Well, it was 6:02pm actually. Guess what time they shut? What followed shall be forever known as “The great currywurst hunt of 2014”. Maybe that’s a little unfair – it was easy to find currywurst… just not with chips. Maybe in Munich it’s more traditional to have it “mit semmel”, but we like it with chips! Having traversed most of the city, we finally located a stand by the Hauptbahnhof, where we not only found it with chips; we had a choice of “rot” or “weiss” sausage and heat of curry sauce. So, against the idyllic backdrop of the station taxi rank we sat and ate. Nom nom!

As we venture onwards, I will leave Munich a changed man. I can’t say that I expected the city to change my outlook on life, but I’ve seen things that have opened my eyes. Yes, I now believe that I could probably rock the lederhosen look.

lederhosen

That could be me…! I’ll leave you imagining that…

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Fußball und Achterbahnen

July 14th, 2014 (by Steve)

We’ve crossed a lot of borders in Bertha within the last year. Some crossings have been totally uneventful; you can hardly tell that you’re in a different country. Others have been a little more fun (for example Serbia to Macedonia!), whilst the crossings of other borders have elicited certain feelings, despite no visible boundaries. The move from the Czech Republic back into Germany falls into the latter category; we drove straight past the borders that 15 years ago I had waited at for 4 hours in sweltering temperatures, yet emotions were stirred. On the one hand we were back into familiar territory; it felt a bit like a homecoming, but on the other hand we were sad to be leaving the eastern European cultures.

We stopped just over the border for a quiet night at an aire with free facilities (a rarity in eastern Europe) and had a lie-in until 10am (again a rarity, but this time not location-specific!). And then on to Nürnberg… well, Fürth to be more precise, where we parked up and planned to walk into the centre to watch Germany vs Brazil on a big screen in the central square. It’s not only in England that the best laid plans of mice and men fall apart due to rain… the heavens opened and we didn’t really fancy venturing out. With no TV in Bertha and limited internet data allowance, we couldn’t watch the match, unless…

semifinal

Yes, that is a neighbouring motorhome, whose owners kindly left the curtains and blinds open and if you squint, you can just about make out a bright rectangle which is their TV. From our vantage point it was impossible to see details of the match (the rain-smeared windows of Bertha and her neighbour making it a vaguely psychedelic experience), but we got the gist once we realised they weren’t just doing multiple replays of one goal. Fürth motorhome neighbours, we thank you.

The following day Kiri was not particularly well, so after I’d been to Lidl to stock our cupboards a little, we decided to cancel our dinner reservation for the evening (ooh, get us… a dinner reservation! More on that later). Instead, we had a short (and soggy) wander around the beautiful old town of Fürth, stopping to stock up on some more tapes for the video camera and treating ourselves to a DVD, which we watched in the evening. The rain conspired against us once again as we ventured into Fürth the following morning, with the main highlight being a council worker killing weeds between cobbles with a flamethrower… und why not?!

furth

Our need for facilities caused us to move 12km down the road to another beautiful town; Cadolzburg where we planned to park up for a few days to do some web design work. By this stage I too had succumbed to the cold, but as we still had our appetites, we decided to venture out to dinner, having made another reservation. Now we haven’t eaten out much on the road (apart from street food) in order to keep costs down, but we’d been given some money by some close friends to spend on a meal on the trip. We wanted to spend the money wisely, so when we found a restaurant where your meal arrives at the table via a rollercoaster, we were sold. Kiri did very well at managing my excitement to make sure that it wouldn’t be an anticlimax when we got there, but even she was excited by the time we stepped through the doors.

Upon arrival, we were given a tablet (of the computer variety, not of the Matrix “red pill” or “blue pill” variety) and an A4 page of instructions and told to find table 5. Once seated, we ordered our drinks via a well-designed user interface on the tablet and within a few minutes, they had whizzed down the rollercoaster track to our table. Very cool. Having ordered our food in the same way, we spent the next 15 minutes open-mouthed as we watched food and drink speed along over our heads to other tables. When our food arrived, we dispensed it from the pots (the delivery mechanism) onto our plates and tucked in, still entertained by the delivery mechanism to other tables. The temptation to order more food and drinks (just so we could see them being delivered) was very strong, but we somehow resisted, taking our tablet to the till to pay before departing with huge smiles etched on our faces.

rollercoaster

We shared the aire with another British motorhoming couple overnight and planned to invite them around for drinks the following evening, but sadly they were moving on. Instead, for the first time in nearly a year I settled down to do a bit of paid web design work… and it felt good. I hadn’t realised quite how much I’d missed a task-centric way of life until I started planning out the job in hand; it bodes well for our return to a slightly more conventional way of life when we get back to the UK. I’m learning a lot on this trip from living life in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve embraced the chance to experience life at a different pace and in a different style. I’m not sure that I could cope with full-time motorhoming indefinitely though.

Perhaps it’s the crossing back into Germany, or perhaps it’s the addition of some work into our routine, but it feels like the winding up of our adventure has begun. It’s a similar feeling to the one that we had when we crossed into Portugal near the end of the first loop; the finish line was in sight. But whilst there are still teabags in the cupboard, tread on Bertha’s tyres and new beers to taste we’re still having an adventure. We’re not finished yet.

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I love Prague

July 8th, 2014 (by Steve)

One of the things we love about travelling is observing people; especially when we’re in places that don’t see many motorhomes. As we were preparing to leave Svitavy, a couple of young guys were washing their car at the motorhome service point. Now I don’t speak much Czech, but from the pitch of their words and the accompanying body language, this is what I assess went on:

Frank, keep cool, but one of the people from the weird van is coming this way with a box. Smile and keep washing the Škoda. What do you think the box is, Frank? He’s unscrewing a lid and now he’s… OH FRANK, HE’S EMPTYING A TOILET DOWN THE CAR WASH.

Needless to say, they moved on pretty swiftly.

After a brief overnight stop outside Hradec Králové (where the most eventful moment was Kiri expertly capturing a centipede in a glass, only to find out that it was part of my watch strap), Prague was our next destination. Well, actually a campsite just to the south of the city. Our first quest was to get a load of our clothes into the wash. I say “our”, but actually, it was Kiri’s job, as the washing machine was in the ladies’ shower room. The mind boggles as to how any single male campers wash their clothes.

And then to Prague. With no fixed agenda, we chose to amble around this beautiful city, managing to arrive at the Old Town Square just in time to join the other 2498 tourists for the 12pm clock chiming. We know that the Old Square is a bit of a tourist magnet and we hate being tourists… but it’s also the place with some of the best buskers. We therefore stayed in the area for a good hour or so, appreciating the musical offerings of talented individuals and groups; particularly enjoying the Bohemian Bards. The music in Prague really is cracking; which is probably the reason that my school chose to go there on a concert tour just before the turn of the century. Our jazz band and barbershop group were particularly well received, as were half of the instruments which were stolen from the coach one night… but that was a long time ago! Back in the present, this first day was all about the music, so once we’d had a bite to eat, a little bit more of a wander and had cooled down with an icecream, we armed ourselves with a dark beer each and sat down in the shade to appreciate some more buskers.

day1

One of the most striking memories of that first visit to Prague was the beauty and tranquillity of Charles Bridge (if you could ignore the rest of the school party). Roll the clock forward 10 years to my next visit and that peace had gone, buried by tour groups and stalls everywhere. I was determined to dig it up again though on this visit. The first train from the station by our campsite left at 4:32am the following morning and we were on it. The streets were surprisingly busy at that time; the hour seeming to belong to joggers, travellers with early connections and photographers. But the tranquillity was there; in that golden morning light the early start was worth it. Surprisingly, the quietest time on Charles Bridge wasn’t at 5:30 when we arrived, but around 6:30.

625am

But I was interested in more than just the tranquillity; I wanted to see the transition from the stillness to the bustle, so we chose a spot on the bridge a little out of the way, set up the tripod and camera and got a time lapse going. Now you never quite know what to expect within the course of a time lapse; we certainly didn’t expect a photographer and model to turn up and start doing a photo shoot at 6am, especially not a photo shoot of that flavour. We’re not sure what the nuns who followed soon after would have made of it all. Add in a bride and groom, someone dressed up as a medieval king and people randomly lying on the ground and we think we’ve seen it all! The stalls were all set up and the crowds had reached their mean daytime density by 10:15am, at which point we stopped the camera.

1017am

And here’s the resulting timelapse:

Rather unsurprisingly we didn’t have much energy for exploring Prague after all of that, so after a bit of a wander we gave in around lunchtime. As we made our way towards some shade, we were handed free samples of iced coffee… how did they recognise our need? After a quick hot dog, we did a bit of a grocery shop, then returned to the cool of Bertha to collapse before an early night.

It was painful getting up the following morning and we weren’t sure whether we’d have the energy to make the most of another day around the city. However, we’re pleased we pushed ourselves to get on the train as it was another cracking day. Our first stop was at the John Lennon wall; Prague’s equivalent of the Berlin wall in terms of street art. In the 80s, an image of Lennon on this wall became a sign of hope and was joined by other messages of hope, peace and love. Now, as with the Berlin Wall, it seems to be a place where visitors just want to make their mark. As I watched a tourist write “#GETABSOLUTELY******”, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the obsession with making a mark on the the world has overtaken the desire to observe and learn from the marks that others make.

lennonwall

Avoiding the plague of Segways that roam the streets of Prague, we climbed up the hill into Petrin Park where we had a little picnic with a wonderful view. From there it was a short walk to Prague Castle where memories of the school performances there came flooding back… as well as memories of lugging a bass drum down a narrow staircase! We joined the crowds of tourists marvelling at the stained glass windows inside the cathedral and made our way towards the Golden Lane… only to find our way blocked by turnstiles… were they there before? This led to a long discussion where we considered the merits and tolls of tourism for both travellers and the communities they visit.

castle

We stopped for a refreshing half of St. Norbert’s in the brew pub next to the Strahov monastery (we’ve learned on this trip that monks certainly know a thing or two about brewing!) before venturing up to the observatory in Petrin Park. After a pleasant amble, we descended into the city once more, getting on the train mere minutes before the torrential rain started.

Our final day in Prague fell on a Sunday. Well, actually, we engineered it to be a Sunday as we thought it would be a good city to find a place of worship. And it was. We were given a very warm welcome at Prague Christian Fellowship, where we joined with others in a relaxed and grounded gathering. For a lot of this trip, Kiri and I have been pondering, discussing and praying on the concept of church being one body across denominations, cultures and borders and we’re sure that it’s no co-incidence that the message at the service was on being part of one body. We’re not finished with our ponderings though, so watch this space! There’s a strong emphasis on relationship within the Christian Fellowship, so once the service was over, church continued as we decamped to a local Czech restaurant to share food together. There’s something really special about sharing food with new friends (as well as old friends), but I’ve got three words. So. Much. Meat. Replete, we rolled around Prague for a while before saying goodbye to the city (in English with a Czech accent, as I can never remember “Nashledanou”). We’ll be back.

Our time in eastern Europe has come to an end, so filled with cheap Czech fuel, Bertha once again eyed up the autobahns of Germany. Fly Bertha, fly!

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Party time in the Czech Republic

June 30th, 2014 (by Steve)

Whilst we both like a good party, we appreciate them most in moderation as we’ve only got limited energy for that kind of thing. This trip for us certainly isn’t about finding the best parties and “living it large”, however since we’ve crossed into the Czech Republic, we’ve been unable to avoid them. Maybe it’s just the season, or maybe the Czechs are just really into parties; after all, if figures from 2012 are still relevant, they “led all other nations in per-capita beer consumption for the 20th consecutive year”.

I’ve been to Prague a couple of times before and whilst it’s on our list of places to visit in the Czech Republic, we were keen to see a bit more of the country than just the typical tourist haunts. After turning down a couple of hitch-hikers at a service station outside Brno (they wanted to go to Prague), we headed to our planned campsite a little to the north of the city. Upon arrival though, we were to be disappointed. Our plan was to stay for two nights, however we were informed that due to a weekend death metal festival there, we’d only be able to stay for one and, even more disappointingly, the festival was sold out too. Plan B was put into action (we’re used to having to have multiple plans by now!) and we ended up at a lovely family-run campsite, with a huge (but very young) dog who insisted on playing with us. Ideal.

dog

The following morning we headed into Brno, still not quite sure how to pronounce it (apparently it’s more like “brrr no” than “bruno”), where we found a very pretty old town. After visiting the tourist information office and wandering around for half an hour, we came to the conclusion that aside from architecture, the main thing to do there is sit outside one of countless bars in the sunshine, sipping on cheap beer. In Freedom Square the local radio station had a stage with live music acts, but the visiting American singer wasn’t quite our cup of tea, so we resumed our wandering. Finding a random piano in a corner of a side street being played by a teenager with his arm is a cast was slightly more to our taste, especially when we twigged that the piece of music he was skilfully playing with beautiful arpeggios was in fact “Smells like teen spirit”. Genius. We were just coming to the end of our exploring when we heard an altogether more interesting sound from the live stage… we would probably categorise it as Folk Metal, but the band themselves use the term “Folk Rock”. Their captivating style (a fuse of metal vocals, folk violin, rock drumming and the happiest bass player in the universe) was enough to keep us in the square until the end of their set. We’ll forgive the fact that the lead singer was a former X Factor winner… now if only we can work out how to buy a CD from their website

brno

With our ears rejoicing from the great sounds, we caught the tram and bus back to our quiet campsite… which appeared to have been invaded by 30-40 inebriated teenagers. The cooking and eating of our dinner was accompanied by quite an entertaining show of typical teenage party melodrama, complete with clichés such as beer pong and throwing each other into the pool. It slowly dawned on us though that we were sitting ducks in the middle of it all, so in a quieter moment, we moved Bertha out of the way… or so we thought. In fact the space behind our new position served as great cover for a heartbroken teen with his phone glued to his ear, others running away from a close encounter with shaving foam and a couple of girls who decided to change out of their wet clothes. All oblivious to the fact that this inanimate object (sorry Bertha) might actually have people living in it. Now we don’t know what the story behind this teenage party was, but when we came to pay the following morning, the campsite owner was incredibly apologetic and sheepish, explaining the events of the previous night as “a catastrophe” and charging us for one night only. We guess it might have been a case of “Mum, can I have a few friends over please?”. We’d certainly recommend this campsite though.

From Brno, our ideal option would have been to explore the Moravian Karst region; rural Czech Republic at its best with exciting caves, gorges and the like. However, once we started researching it properly, we read that to go to the caves you have to book weeks in advance as they’re so popular… it’s not really that kind of trip for us. We’re lucky if we know what we’re doing 5 days in advance. Instead we took a very scenic route to Svitavy where there was the promise of a free aire, complete with motorhome facilities. Ideal – a place where we could catch up on some sleep.

journey

Upon arrival, the car park was heaving and it was obvious from the placement of parked cars and vans that there was little regard for spaces reserved for motorhomes. We squeezed into a space and pondered our next move as we munched on some lunch. It soon became apparent that there was some sort of 5-a-side football tournament going on at the nearby stadium, so we decided to sit it out, wait until some of the cars cleared, then move into one of the motorhome spots where we could use the free electric hookup on offer. When it got to 7pm and there was no sign of movement we realised that our plan might not happen and soon our ears were ringing with a loud, repetitive “doof, doof, doof” (that’s meant to be a heavy bass beat). We had two options, either move on to… well, who knows or…

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Techno beats and football crowds aren’t normally a combination that attract us, but we actually quite enjoyed the evening at the stadium where there was a disco, a bucking bronco ride and World Cup games being shown on the big screen. The beer wasn’t bad either and at 20 CZK for half a litre it was both cheap and tasty. We were slightly bemused when we were handed little cans of promotional “Carling British Cider” (cherry flavoured – it tasted like cherryade) and if I were the letter-writing type, I would write to the British Embassy to ask them to rectify the situation. I come from Somerset. Enough said. Anyway, we retired at 11pm, expecting the revelry to finish imminently, but it wasn’t until 2am or 3am that it finally went quiet.

carlingcider

The football team who had camped next to us in the car park woke us up a mere 4 or 5 hours later, at 7am with another heavy bass beat and we realised that this would be a two day tournament. With no prospects of getting Bertha into the motorhome space any time soon, we instead chose to watch a few matches and cheer on our noisy neighbours.

football

And then it was all over. The car park was silent. We hopped into the motorhome space. And exhaled. Peace. If there’s one down side of this type of motorhoming, it’s the unfamiliarity of your surroundings. There’s a certain vulnerability about turning up somewhere and not knowing whether it will be noisy or quiet, whether you will feel safe or uncomfortable… whether you’ll even be able to stop there for the night. When your motorhome is your only sanctuary, it can be a bit tough. The last few nights have been, well, a little challenging we’ll admit (I think more so for Kiri). But for now, it’s so quiet. I think we’ve got a little bit of stillness. We’ll treasure it.

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