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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The rest of the trip

I am actually sitting at my desk at home, having just spent 2 hours clearing some of my emails.  As I have said before, and will say again now, email is definitely the "Black Death" of the modern age, taking some people out completely and sapping the life force from the rest.  This is therefore predominantly being written for posterity, and is also from memory.

The previous entry ended at Lake Garda, with a rather fetching shot of my flip-flops.  The following day we did indeed do mostly nothing.  We did nip out to the nearest supermarket for food and drink, and to find ice (not so easy to find on the continent we have found) for our drinks fridge.  We also invested in an inflatable dingy, which it is fair to say was a great hit with the whole family, and gave us all many hours of fun.  Best of all, Lake Garda being a lake, there were no currents or nasties to catch out the unwary, so the Maggots could take the boat out any time they wanted, with us able to keep an eye from our awning on the water's edge.

We spent a week in Lake Garda, and the main events of note we did were:
  • we took the ferry over to Sirmione, which was a delightful small village with a castle and LOTS of ice-cream shops.  It was a bit touristy, but that is the price you pay for visiting somewhere that is a destination, and we spent a happy few hours wandering round, getting the feel of the place and indulging in the largest ice-cream seen on planet Earth.
  • We hired a motor-boat for half a day.  This was a massive extravagance, but was also the best spend we did all holiday.  We have an absolutely fantastic time on the water, going very fast*, diving off in the middle and visiting, within 200m of shore, a number of the places round the lake.  You may consider us vacuous and shallow, but this was in our top 3 activities.
  • We visited Venice, by train.  We unfortunately had an abortive day the day before, when arriving at the station we encountered a half hour queue for tickets, so abandoned.  There were some raised voices, and apparently I am a "Dennis the Menace", but Plan B evolved and we went down that evening to buy tickets in advance for the next day, which started a bit damp, but ended up cooler and by far the better of the two days to visit.  And what a place.  I can say nothing to add to the words already written about the place, except to give our personal experience.  The waterways are absolutely bonkers, with private boats, taxis boats and bus boats all jostling for space with gondolas.  Quite how there are not more accidents is unknown to me, and in fact the day before a tourist had been sadly crushed to death between a gondola and bus.  On our visit, we took the bus down to St Mark's Square, wandered a bit, took the bus back, wandered a bit and had a beer by the famous Rialto bridge, at 19 Euros for 2 beers and an apple juice, but worth every penny.  The place was amazing, and something on our list to return to at some later stage in life.  We also bought a small vase made of Murano glass, but way of a memento and to celebrate our thirteenth wedding anniversary.
We had a lovely time at the lake, spoilt only by the music.  We were unfortunately near the main beach area, and there was a disco bar down the coast.  We were watching Game of Thrones with headphones most evenings so it did not really cause us much pain, however it did spoil for me a bit what was otherwise a most idyllic location, and I will be mentioning this in the review I write.

The main issue with the site was the pokey nature of our pitch.  This was something that LO had worried about from the day we booked, and I had worried about only from the day we arrived.  We had help man-handling the 'van in to its space, dropping the uphill wheel in to a specially made dip that kept the 'van level.  We were also two deep at the water's edge, with a tent between us and the road and campervans close either side, with a pretty narrow drive from our pitch to the road.  Our worries were therefore, in order:
  • how would we man-handle the van out of the dip
  • how would we position the car hitched to the 'van in its closely-packed position
  • would the car be able to drag the 'van up the first steep bump on to the road, and subsequently up the initially steep road to the top of the site
  • Once off the site, we then had some narrow roads, a blind bend and a "one car at a time" rat run up to the main road through the village. 
In the end, the night before departure we got 5 people to help man-handle the van out of the dip, and turn it around ready for towing out the following morning.  We spent the last night at a bit of an angle as a result.

The following morning, no-one had taken the inner pitch (the previous Dutch family having left 3 days previously) and with a bit of wheel-spin, and no-one in the car to add to the weight, I did drag us out of the pitch and up to level ground.  The final narrow roads between the site exit and the main road were hairy, but LO ran ahead to give me the thumbs up when things were clear.

Finally on the road, with a great sigh of relief from both the adults (the Maggots being largely oblivious to any problems), we were heading for the Black Forest.

The journey took us through the Swiss Alps, past Lake Como and through the Gotthard Tunnel (about as long as the Mont Blanc tunnel, yet free).  The scenery was out of this world.  High peeks, some with snow, plunging valleys with wide, white rivers and cable cars and chair lifts doing near vertical ascents, or so they seemed to us.  LO did comment that perhaps skiing was not for her, mostly because she would not be able to go up in such chair lifts, and once up, she could not get down again.

The journey to the Black Forest was around five hours.  We arrived late afternoon and were setup in no time.  Now, as you know, I try to avoid national stereotypes, but the German site was very efficient.  A man took us to our site, helped us un-hitch, put the 'van in to position and hitched up our power.  The latter turned out to be a process where our power cable was locked in to the power cupboard, and a meter reading taken, so that we were then able to enjoy the pleasure of paying for our electricity use, the only site we have ever used that does this.  My view is just add a bit to the day rate and avoid the labour-intensive process.  We could not get the wireless working, so had to use 3G to download the next batch of Desert Island Discs.

We were two nights here, so spent the next day visiting Triberg.  This is a small place, hard to find on the map, but actually home to the largest waterfall in Germany, something we walked up and down, before viewing a few cuckoo clocks (the Black Forest is also home of the clock, so it seems) on the way to getting a coffee and a slice of Black Forest Gateaux.  Well, you have to don't you.  It was a delightful village and a great half day out.

The next day, were were on the road again for Luxembourg.  Our site was large but fine for a night, and we took a short stroll down very steep steps to the local village, which was rather disappointing.  Otherwise, we did nothing much, reading, drinking and chilling.  We were starting to tire of the routine at this point, so did not even visit the swimming pool.

The next day were were off to Belgium for two nights at Klein Strand.  This site was easily the worst site of the lot.  The actual pitch was fine (the usual European pitch bordered by hedges) but the site itself was a dive.  It had a chippie, and the lake, with all the available water-sports on it, was somewhat over-sold on their website.  Nevertheless, we were there for two nights, and spent the full day in Bruges, the Venice of the North, which was an equally delightful city.  We took a tour bus, frowned on by some but actually the most time-efficient way to get just enough information so you feel you have a sense of the place, and can also highlight bits to which you want to return.

Our other activity was something we had read about in a paper in Italy, a tour of a brewery.  We had lost the paper clipping by this time, however some Googling of articles online afterwards confirmed that we had indeed visited the same brewery, namely the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery.  We had a dry (in wit, if not in drinking habits) but witty tour guide who was obviously a big beer fan, taking the tour of the old brewery, going up and down some very steep stairs, the highest point being on the roof, and ending with a free Brugse Zot bier.  In fact we liked it so much, we bought two similar glasses from the shop as souvenirs. The tour for adults was 7 Euros, with a free beer (priced at 3.50 Euro separately) so was fantastic value, as well as very interesting, informative and amusing.  One of the many jokes the guide told was that after our free beer, maybe we would try the double-strength beer, at 7 percent, and if we liked that, we might try the triple-strength beer, at 9 percent.  If we were really hardy, we might end with the quadruple strength beer at 11 percent.  If we did, when they handed over the beer, it would come with a piece of paper and a pen, on which you should write your name and the name of the hotel ("the one next to the church" not being particularly useful there being a dozen or more churches in the city).

The following day it was shower, breakfast and leave, which we did in record time, arriving at the Tunnel nearly 2 hours earlier than our planned crossing, and we were able to arrange for an earlier crossing as a result.  We always have the feeling that once you are on your way home, you might as well just get going as soon as possible, so this was good news, and we arrived home at Scobi Towers at around 2pm in the afternoon.  We then had a good couple of hours unpacking and clearing up before we had had enough, and retired to the sofa.

One casualty of the trip is the bathroom cabinet and sink, which we now know is a single plastic unit that attaches to the wall with four screws.  Presumably the amount of miles we covered finally did the screws in, because the whole unit had come off the wall.  This has therefore been added to my fairly long list of DIY tasks.

We covered 2220 miles on the trip, saw some fantastic sites, had some fantastic experiences and overall felt it was a success.  There are a few lessons we have learnt, though:
  • We may have selected too many sites/stops.  While doing so reduces the length of each leg, setting up and setting down does get a bit tedious, and can induce a bit of a "it is Tuesday so this must be Luxembourg" type of feeling.  I think I would rather do less stops and do longer driving days, and maybe having a minimum of 3 nights at any one location
  • we need to do a bit more research on the sites.  We assumed that as Caravan Club endorsed sites, they would be good, and while they were not bad, several were larger and tattier than we like.  We must actually research each site, Trip Advisor etc, just to be sure that the site is right for us.
  • We also need to research more the places we visit.  Bruges was a success because we decided that a bus tour and brewery tour was all we wanted to do.  Geneva was a failure because other than a general sense of the place, we did not have a plan.
  • Shade is very important.  We had the awning setup for shade, but really needed to extend it with a porch to be double the size, just to ensure there was enough shade for all the family, at any time of day
  • Refrigeration - our plastic fridge was just not good enough.  In Lake Garda, ice melted in a couple of hours.  We need a Yeti, as introduced to us by Brad and Angelina.
  • Space - we chose to keep the beds made up in the van, which was fine as we lived outside, but we did not have a "place for everything and everything in its place".  In particular, an outside locker that goes in under the double bed, something like A&E have, would have been ideal for us to store the chairs, table, umbrella and other outside bits.  When were were doing one or two nighters, they could stay there and did not need unpacking from the van before we could use it, and in any situation they gave more space that we had for storage.

One quick comment about driving.  Received wisdom is that French and Italian drivers are bonkers.  I did not find this, in fact of all the nationalities, the Belgians were the worst, but they paled in to insignificance compared to the British, with the two worst bits of driving, caused I suspect by irrational 'van-hating, were executed by British cars.

* I doubt any world records were broken, but regardless, the top speed was fast enough for us and did generate a lot of screaming

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