Germany

Mosey-ing along the Mosel Valley

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Like a dog straining against its leash as it is lead closer to the end of its “walkies”, we were very much pulling ourselves away mentally from the reality that us and the old Eriba would soon be parting ways. Our two months trundling along the roads of Europe was such a wonderful adventure and we were extremely reluctant to admit to ourselves that like all good things, it must come to an end. It got to the point that we would scry (our made up word to describe the act of screaming and crying at the same time) aloud and in mock desperation, “Wohnwagen!”(along the lines of the “WILSON!!!” moment for Tom Hanks character in Castaway).

When we crossed over the border from France into Germany, there really was no more denying that we truely were homeward bound, so to speak. But stuff it, nothing like bald-faced denial when confronted with unpalatable truths! Our planned two night stay in the Mosel Valley very easily and readily got stretched out to five nights.  We thus set ourselves up for what we expected to be two days of epic driving, al la route to Croatia. But we didn’t care, quite frankly. Deny, deny, deny!

Admittedly our decision was aided and abetted by some insider knowledge imparted by our new found friend, Colin. The German/Pommy we met at our campground in Erden. Colin assured us over a few quiet ones that the Mosel Valley was really the last standout tourist destination on our return path to Graepel, so obviously, we owed it to ourselves to set up camp and dig in our heels in Erden! Erden incidently means “earth” in German. So therefore, a perfect place for digging in!

And dig in we did. We pretty much whiled away the majority of our time in and around the immediate surrounds of our little campground at Erden. It was such a lovely and quiet little spot, with luscious green grass that was long and soft and entirely inviting underfoot. The camp was well located right next to the Mosel River, and it had what I came to decide was some of the most picturesque views of vineyards along this seemingly never ending valley of vines. The staff were also friendly and I think they were quite taken with the novelty of having some Aussies staying with them. One day as we sat having lunch at the restaurant the owner had me on the phone to her daughter for a yarn, as her daughter had spent some months in Australia in 2010!

There was also Colin who had a caravan at Erden and has been coming to the Mosel for years. Colin spoke English with a Pommy accent but had grown up predominantly in Germany. It was a bit of a novelty I guess for us to have met Colin as the vast majority of our last six months has been spent living in countries where English is not the first language spoken, so you never know to what degree you can communicate with the people you meet. Thus we hit it off with Colin, and we both missed him when he left a day earlier than us.

Our time in Erden turned out to be a very fitting and relaxing end to our caravan capers. Although we were content to hang out mostly in Erden, we did go for a very enjoyable bike ride along the valley to the town of Bernkastel-Kues. The Germans really embrace bike riding and there are bike paths extensively throughout the country. Mosel was a great example of how this German past time has been made such a great experience. Not content with just one bike path, there was usually paths on both sides of the road and on occasions a third just for good measure! It all added up to just a top way to get around and take in what I assume is a unique example of vineyards on sheer slopes. I had what I refer to a serious case of perma-grin during said bike ride.

The valley apparently extends from source to mouth for 546 km (thanks Wikipedia). I guess we drove through about 200 odd kilometres of that. If you take into account that the cliffs of the valley are then covered in vineyards, you start to get a picture of just how vast and impressive a sight it is. Some of the cliff faces (like those opposite our campground) are very steep and you’d have to pay me a lot of money to want to work under those conditions! I spent one morning photographing in awe the workers across the way, toiling on the precipice of the opposite bank. Clearly they do not suffer vertigo like this little scardie cat!

Bernkastel-Kues is a bonafide tourist destination, with good reason I might add. It is a totally charming town and an excellent example of the highly appealing architecture of the valley. The buildings are a very pleasing combination of wood, colourful but tasteful paint jobs and a lovely example of (what I think) are dark brown layered slate buildings. Couple that with the ever present vines growing on slopes and throw in an ancient castle on a hill that you can hike up to, and hey presto! You have a winning town visit (minus the extremely dodgey coffee experience in the castle – lucky the views compensated!).

In short it may not be regular on the Aussie tourist trail but seriously, it was a great find and I rated it as our final Wohnwagen long stay moment.

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Ten things I have noticed whilst driving through Germany

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We spent roughly two weeks in Germany in total. The first week or so was spent with friends in Hamburg and Grapel. The second week was spent driving from the north to the south with only one rest day whilst in Bamberg. This was driven by our desire to make it in time to meet up with my cousin Andrew in Croatia. We did over 1100 km through Germany that week.

What we saw of Germany whilst driving we both liked a lot. In fact, I think now that we are even further into our European road adventure we are realising even more how lovely a country it is. We are both adamant that we will return again one time to see more of it. We were especially taken with a part of Bavaria we drove through in between the towns of Schmidmuhlen and Kallmunz. The road meandered alongside a pretty river set in a gorgeous valley. I looked longingly out the window and wished we could have stopped and stayed a while but our onward commitments kept us moving.

So much of my impressions of Germany south of Grapel are what I could glimpse out of the VW window. Following are just ten things that stood out to me:

  • There is a major commitment to renewable energy. The north and centre are dominated by wind farms. The south by fields of solar farms.
  • Push bike riding is extremely popular. There are very often bike ways that run adjacent to the road linking up the towns.
  • Traffic lights are located in a perplexing position, that being directly above the car and not out in front of the waiting vehicle in clear view. It is not uncommon for traffic lights to be blacked out. I assumed that this was an energy saving measure.
  • There is basically little or no road side advertising.
  • There is a distinct lack of any shops of any kind in many towns meaning that getting any supplies has to be done in major towns or not at all.
  • There are basically no overtaking lanes. And on the topic of overtaking, it was not uncommon to see cars overtaking a line of about five cars at once. Though, for the most part this was done on straight roads with good visibility.
  • There are virtually no road side rest areas. This was difficult for us as it was more of a mission to find somewhere to pull over for lunch.
  • Similarly, there are no road side shoulders to allow you to pull over in an emergency or, in our case, to let our massive tail of cars go past us. I should mention here though that aside from a couple of occasions where we accidently ended up on autobahns we were not travelling on major roads.
  • Most fields had no fences. The main crop was corn. Bright green and luscious looking.
  • There were wildflowers of many pretty colours growing on the side of the road and particularly masses of red poppies.
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Visiting friends in Grapel

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Way back in the 80’s my family met Helga when she was staying in Kandos (where our relatives live) after coming to Australia for the 16th World Scout Jamboree (1987-88). Helga enjoyed her time down under so much that she wanted to stay on longer and do some travelling around and thus came to stay with us in Sydney. Helga’s love of Australia has never died and she has come back to visit five times over the last 25 years!

Many times over the years Helga has asked me when I will come and visit her and Jean-Pierre (Helga’s now husband, who we met during one of her subsequent visits) in Germany. I think she may have been lamenting that none of the Carrolls would ever make it over to Germany! However, when Damien and I commenced planning our trip for 2012 I said that we would have to make sure we visited Helga and JP in Grapel.

We soon realised that camping around Europe was going to be the only way that we would likely afford to stay in this part of the world for the period of time we would like. So I got in contact with Helga and asked if she would mind helping us buy a car when we got to Germany so that we could go camping. To this Helga replied that we could instead borrow their car and caravan for as long as we liked. Damien and I were both a bit gob smacked by this generosity! But Helga stressed that this was her way of thanking all the people in Australia who have been kind and helpful to her over the years. Thus, we thanked Helga profusely and accepted her offer.

As I mentioned in my post about Hamburg, we met JP the first day there but we didn’t meet up with Helga until she kindly drove up to Hamburg to pick us up a couple of days later. It felt strange and wonderful to me to be meeting her in Germany after all the years of her always meeting me in Australia. Damien had been fortunate to meet Helga and her daughter, Christine, when they were last in Australia so he was at least familiar with my dear friend already.

Damien and I had been keen to check out the Hamburg Ohlsdorf Cemetery that Christian had driven us through on our mini tour on the first night there. It is the largest cemetery in the world and it is quite a sight to behold. It is so beautiful that it feels more like a mega park than a cemetery. Christine had told Helga that we wanted to go there so after meeting us in the early afternoon we went for a drive through some of the cemetery. It is literally so big that it has more than 10 chapels and you would seriously get lost in there without a map! We stopped off at the Commonwealth War graves section and had a bit of wander and saw the graves of a number of Kiwis.

Arriving in Grapel at their home was really cool, as although I have seen photos of what Damien and I had dubbed (as a result of the photos) as the Gingerbread House, it was so lovely to finally see it for real.  We spent nearly a week in total with Helga and JP in their gorgeous home. We were so content just to be there for a while and soak up the calm and ambience of their home and village. It’s fair to say that we were treated like royalty and I on occasion felt a bit guilty about how well we were being looked after by our hosts! Needless to say, the old belt buckle tells a story about that…maybe one too many slices of bread, cheese and meats with lashes of butter may have been consumed!

We did go on a couple of day trips whilst we were with Helga and JP. The first was to the nearby town of Stade which was very charming indeed. JP took us specifically to a museum/house that is exactly the same vintage as their home in Grapel. It has been preserved inside to look as it would have been three hundred odd years ago. This was a wonderful insight for us and added to the knowledge that JP had already imparted with regard to their own abode. After that we went and had a delicious lunch at a café that they enjoy dining at from time to time with friends. Our meals were huge! I forget the German name for what Damien and I both had but it was a kind of meat in jelly with a decadent cream dressing…oh and Damien had a side of what was to become one of our German faves: Bratkartoffeln – potatoes and speck sauted in butter. I had potato balls. This is not the German nor elegant way of describing them I’m sure, but they were tasty little balls! Probably the way we would describe them at home is croquettes.

One of our other day trips was to Verden where JP, Helga and her daughter Christine were participating in a choir gathering of several hundred people at the cathedral. Damien and I spent the day in the town lazying around in a café and it was an entirely brilliant way to waste a day!! I know it is one we will both look back on fondly. We met the others back at the Cathedral for lunch. We watched the grand finale of the choir gathering later in the evening from our prime position at the back of the cathedral. I’ve attached a video of us that perhaps is only amusing to Damien and I, but hey, it’s there if you want to take a peek.

One of the really great things about our time with Helga and JP was that we got such an insight into local culture that would have completely passed us by if we had not been with them. For example, whilst we were in Grapel the Schutzenfest was on. This as we were informed by our friends is a gathering of people from the shooting club and they literally travel all around Germany during summer attending the various Schutzenfests (shooting festivals). However, they are apparently more about getting together to drink and be merry! Each age group has its own king and queen ceremony and those who get crowned king and queen for that town have their front lawn decorated in a garland arch. The king and queen are then responsible for paying for all the booze for all the other Schutzenfesters…so I figure you must need to be pretty well off to even want to be the king and the queen!! Some towns, like Grapel, have a communal kitty that accumulates over the year so that the king and queen are not soley responsible for financing the endless drinkathon but not all towns are the same.

We were involved in the preparation of the street for the Schutzenfest. JP, Damien and I went to the neighbour’s house where the women assembled floral arrangements on poles and the men later went and placed them in the ground along the street. Whilst all this preparation was going on, there was a reasonable amount of drinking. I soon had a Radler in hand. This a common drink option in Germany and elsewhere, of beer and lemonade. Basically it is what we call a shandy, though this comes already made in the bottle. But there was also a neighbour wandering around with a bottle of Jagermeister and everyone was having shots from the same glass. Next minute I was being ushered into the garage with the ladies to have some other shot with a preserved plum in the bottom of the glass. Anyway, we left before things got more merry but it was nice to see how everyone in the neighbourhood got together to prepare for the Schutzenfest even though they may not have been participating.

JP explained to Damien and I on the first night that if you come to a new village it is pretty much mandatory that you join a club. He told us with a cheeky grin on his face that he had very cleverly chosen his club because it had but one meeting a year!

One of the other “insider’s knowledge” experiences was when Helga took us to have a meal of matjes. These are a type of herring that apparently are only in season for about 6-8 weeks of the year. This just so happened to be when we were in Grapel so Helga took us out for lunch to a restaurant to sample these young matjes. We had originally planned to go to a town very near the Danish border but the weather was bad that day and instead we ended up at a restaurant with the dubious name of Fahrkrug!

The matjes were delicious! And might I add, totally not what I expected! They were raw and had been marinated. After this I had a bit of a matjes love affair and ate them elsewhere during our travels south through Germany. The restaurant in Osten where we dined overlooked one of the few remaining transporter bridges left in the world. We went for a “joy” ride (if this tame event can be described thus!) on the transporter bridge. It is a unique design in that the platform you ride to get to the other side of the river is suspended in the air from the metal frame that spans both sides of the river.

Whilst I am on the topic of food I may as well throw in a few of the foodie things that I enjoyed during our time in Grapel. It soon became apparent to Damien and I that both breakfast and dinner were meals mostly based around eating bread, meats, cheese (and honey or jam at breaky). Lunch is the main meal of the day. Damien and I both went slightly overboard on our daily meat, cheese and bread quota I am sure but when everyday a new myriad of delights were presented on the table we were unable to resist! Some of the more unusual options we dined on were sliced horse meat and blood wurst. We also got to enjoy some of Helga’s home made delights, a strawberry jam that she infused with the white flowers from her garden. Simply delicious! And then one night we were introduced to the decadent eierlikor! Yummo! This I made sure I learnt how to cook and Helga gave me a demo one afternoon on some wizzbang German device she owns and which Damien and I are very keen to purchase when we get back home. Eirlikor is basically alcohol mixed with cream, sugar, vanilla and eggs and it is damn fine! It is pretty much alcoholic custard. What’s not to like?! Our supply that Helga and I made together is getting low…it has been a lovely treat whilst caravaning around Europe  🙂

Before I get too carried away and write anymore about our time in Grapel (as Damien and I are now about a month behind…whoops) I have to mention the evening that JP gave us a demo of some of the many instruments he owns. For someone who is as much of a music lover as I am it is disappointing that I have no natural music ability to speak of, despite many years of organ lessons! Thus it was also somewhat embarrassing to lamely twang a bango or pretend to elegantly play a harp. But hey, at least I can say I played a harp. Such a beautiful instrument. JP told Damien and I that he is a folk story teller and that he does performances where he tells his stories with the accompaniment of the harp as he feels the music conveys the feeling of the tale. I wanted to ask JP to tell us such a story as I am already well aware of his talent in this area…maybe I shall when we get back to Grapel….

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