France, Germany & Denmark August 2021

We left Jarnac and had a dreadful drive to Beaune in the Burgundy region, due to traffic and road works but with food and a nice wine, we soon relaxed and recovered. Our first night was spent in an aire because the camping ground was full, but we shifted to the campground bright and early the next morning.   While we were in the aire we met a couple from Sydney! It was terrific to hear an Aussie accent and to be able to share travel experiences, how to stay in Europe and bureaucratic bungles in this age of Covid.

On arriving in Beaune we made our way into the city by foot straight to the Tourist Office, to book some tours and tastings and to find out more about the Route de Vins bicycle tour.

We had ridden our bikes along the Wine Route before and remembered how beautiful it was, so this time we again rode through the vines to the town of Pommard, home of several Premier Crus wineries. Where the grapes come from – the exact vineyard - is terribly important and is fiercely guarded and controlled. Recently one of the Grand Crus vineyards was purchased for 38 million euros a hectare!! We rode along the trail watching what was happening in the vineyards, mostly lots of trimming of the canopy and some spraying. We stopped in the village and had a wonderful lunch of escargot accompanied by a brilliant Chardonnay – really smooth and creamy. We did a tasting at J.M Boillot and bought a couple of bottles; although in Beaune the wine is so expensive that they charge for tasting and don’t expect most people to buy. We think this is a great system that suits our nomadic lifestyle, with our lack of storage and ability to cellar anything.

 

The next day we were booked in to the tour & tasting at Maison Champy, the oldest winery still operating in Beaune itself. It was established in 1720 and still does all its wine making and storage in the original location in the middle of ‘old town’ Beaune. This means that in September when they harvest, all the little streets around them are shut for 2 hours a day, just so they can bring in the grapes.  

They have had interesting alliances with scientific minds, notably Gustave Eifel who designed their winery rooms and Louis Pasteur, who helped them with eliminating wine disease through pasteurization. Today they are aligned with a Portugese cork company who use a system to ensure that 100% of corks are good – their wine is never ‘corked’. It was a fascinating tour and the wines were wonderful, too! We’ve become quite good at explaining our nomadic lifestyle and lack of cellaring ability and find it easy to enlist the aid of the sommelier to purchase the best bottle of affordable ‘drink now’ wines. The sommeliers have never misled us yet. So we purchased a couple of bottles, which we have already enjoyed!

It was time to move on and revisit another of our favourites – Epernay in Champagne. The last time we were here was when we’d just arrived in France, had just picked up Grubie from the airport and hired a car while we waited for our camping car to be delivered. We stayed in an AirBnB in the midst of the vineyards. This time we stayed at the camping ground near the river and rode our bikes into the Avenue du Champagne. We walked around the town, tasted several champagnes – some of which we didn’t actually like! - and booked in to do a tour.

Our tour was in Champagne Mercier, a large champagne house at the top of the Avenue du Champagne. It was a very interesting tour that was actually better than the tasting. It was also the first time we’d had to present our Vaccination Certificates/Health Pass to be able to attend. The tour was mostly underground on a little laser-guided train through the 18kms of caves.

The Champagne Mercier house was started by Eugene Mercier when he was only 20 years old. He was a very forward thinker who thrived on doing things differently. He had engineers design his champagne caves – all 18km of them!- all on one level, so the champagne wouldn’t need to be moved so much. He also built a huge ‘foudre’ or barrel, which he took to the Paris Exhibition. It caused a big stir, second only to the Eifel Tower. It took years to build it from oak sourced in Hungary and it was beautifully carved. To get it to Paris took dozens of oxen and horses and then the purchase and demolition of Parisian houses that were in the pathway. Eugene Mercier was a marketing genius, so for the Paris Exhibition he had an anchored hot air balloon, where people could go as high as 300M while they sipped his champagne!

We were due to meet some of our German friends on August 5 in Hatzenport, on the Mosel River, not too far from Koblenz.  But first we wanted to stop in Trier, not far into Germany from the border of Luxembourg. Trier is the oldest town in Germany, with many Roman monuments including Roman baths and lots of interesting Gothic architecture.

We knew that fuel in Luxembourg was very cheap and we managed it so we coasted into the first fuel station just about empty. Good job! The fuel was less than 90centimes a litre as opposed to the 1.40+ cost in the rest of Europe. No wonder the man at the pump next to us was shaking his car, to try and fit in that little bit more fuel!

We were excited to see our German friends Moni and Waldemar in Hatzenport, along with Peter, Rita and Dieter who we spent winter with in Peniscola. We all stayed together on the only true island on the Mosel River. The drive along the Mosel was very pretty, with lots of small villages close together. There was some evidence of damage from the terrible June floods but it was mostly back to normal. Our friends Rita and Peter were at the camping ground at the time of the floods and were evacuated, with less than 24 hours notice. They managed to get their caravan, awning, animals and other bits and pieces out but lost their boat, bbq and pavilion.

We spent some time together every day, mostly to share the main meal of the day. Moni made her famed Chilli con Carne, Rita & Peter roasted whole chickens, we did a classic BBQ mixed grill with salad and roast potatoes and Moni did a Wurstsalate. This is a popular summer German dish that we often see on menus and Moni’s recipe had 4 different types of wurst, cheese, dill pickle, onion, capsicum and some herbs. There were very favourable comments from our German friends but neither of us loved it – just a fritz and cheese salad by us!!

We had a very funny 'hat party' where everyone brought out hats they owned, that they discovered were made in Australia. Who knew that hats were a leading Aussie export?!

Every day Michael and I did something to explore the Mosel region. The weather wasn’t wonderful – a mix of clouds, sun and rain, but we managed to dodge the showers and got to explore. One day we rode north, then across a bridge over the Mosel to a village to do some shopping. Michael went back later on a similar route to a different village and – surprise, surprise – found a cave to do a wine tasting! The Mosel area has caused us to re-think our views on German wine, particularly the red wine.  It’s much more delicious than we had thought. Of course the white wine, particularly the chardonnay is wonderful, but you must ask for it ‘trocken’ or dry.

 

Probably the thing that amazed us most about the region was the vineyards. So steep! And planted so that they were usually vertical to the river and running up the mountain/hill– for sun. They must have been so difficult to work!

The other thing that we just couldn’t get over was the sheer volume of water. The rivers are so full and flow so fast! There are waves when the rivers meet the bridge pylons and the huge barges, which are used to transport all sorts of things, really have to work hard going against the current. Michael managed a swim in the Mosel, although it was very cold.

One day we caught the local train to Koblenz. It was a bit of an adventure and we ended up not buying a ticket because we couldn’t find a ticket machine, so were relieved that the conductor didn’t get on, as this sort of thing is treated harshly in Germany. It took about 30 minutes to get to Koblenz, with much of the journey along the banks of the Mosel, so very scenic.

Koblenz is where the Mosel and the Rhine join up. OMG! How much water is that! The area where they meet is called Deutches Eck and has an imposing statue of Kaiser Wilhelm 1. There are many huge barges plying the waterways, some as long as 138M.

We wandered around the town, with its many parks, gardens and fountains. One fountain was amusing, it was a statue of a small boy and as you walked past it was activated to spit at you!  Many a person going close for a photo got wet!

Another day we went with Waldemar and Moni on a 40km ride north along the bicycle path next to the Mosel and then across the bridge and south to Tries-Karden, then across the bridge and back to Hatzenport. Along the way there was one pretty village after another.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the Mosel, driving the small roads along the edge of the Mosel and then the Rhine for a little way before heading for Cologne (Koln). The traffic on the autobahn was unbelievable!  Millions of trucks and four lanes coming a standstill for about 8km before we could exit and find our campsite on the banks of the Rhine, about 6km from the centre of town.

We walked across the bridge to the tram stop and caught the No.16 into town. On exiting the station you are right there in front of The Dom, or Cologne Cathedral. How magnificent! It is so enormous and dominates the skyline of Cologne, being seen from kilometers away. It began to be built in 1248 and took 632 years to complete! The amazing thing is that successive builders over the years all stuck to the original plan, so the building has a wonderful sense of unity. During WW2 Cologne was bombed to smithereens and the cathedral was severely damaged. Fortunately many of the priceless artifacts inside had been evacuated but many stained glass windows were lost. Both inside and out are covered with decoration and lots of lacy filigree plasterwork, but it’s the sense of height and airiness that impresses the most.

 

While in Cologne Sue was very excited to visit her first art gallery in two years! She went to the Ludwig Museum, famous for its very modern collection. There were lots of interesting works, including some Picasso wood sculptures and ceramics.

Cologne was quite busy with tourists and locals out and about. We walked for miles and thoroughly wore ourselves out, vowing that next time we would use the bikes.

We had been in contact with Henry Schilg, son of our friend Craig. Henry is living and working is Dusseldorf with his wife Bel. We arranged to meet them at a trendy spot in Dusseldorf late in the afternoon and to have dinner and a bit of exploring. Dusseldorf is only 39km from Cologne and trains were meant to be running every 30 minutes, but things were a little complicated by a train strike. We rode our bikes to the local tram station this time, and then caught the tram into Koln (about 30 minutes). From there we caught a train to Dusseldorf that took about 40 minutes. It was a very nice experience as we caught the top class train and went business class – all by accident, but it was very luxurious. We sat in the restaurant car having a glass of wine and chatting to the very helpful staff. When we came home at night we missed our train, so had to travel with the masses and it wasn’t nearly so much fun. By then it was fully dark and we needed to follow up with the local tram and a bike ride in the dark, along unlit bicycle paths. We finally made it home by 11.00pm. A big day out for us!

While we waited for Henry and Bel to finish work for the day, we took the opportunity to walk around Dusseldorf. It has a lovely Altstadt (Old Town) full of churches and old houses, as well as some very trendy streets full of cafes, restaurants and art galleries. The promenade along the Rhine is lovely and we really enjoyed the Carlsplaz Markt area.

For dinner we went to a famous brewery. When you order your beers they make a mark on your coaster. When its time to pay you hand over your coasters and they do the tally.

It was great fun to spend time with Henry and Bel and hear about their experiences as Expats working in Germany. It seems that France is not alone in making people jump through hoops to get residency permits. It was also interesting to trade Covid stories and reflections.

Leaving Cologne was easier than arriving, maybe because it was early on a Saturday. Our German friend Waldemar had advised us to visit the Beverungen region, for it’s lovely rural countryside, little lakes and pretty villages. So we dutifully took ourselves to see and it was just as he described.

We had a beautiful drive on small but good roads from Beverungen to Hannover. It must have been the tractor’s day out because they were everywhere on the roads and we were always getting stuck behind them. We went through some pretty villages and some with very dreary architecture. But there were lots of forests and fields to make for interesting vistas. Haymaking was in full force, probably winter feed for the many dairy cows we saw.

In Hannover we stayed on the outskirts at a small lake called Arnumersee, only a 10km bicycle ride into the centre of the city and on bicycle paths all the way. It was an interesting camping ground mostly full of small privately owned chalets, but with maybe 20 spaces for travelling vans. It seemed to be a weekender place because it was really busy when we arrived on Sunday and absolutely deserted when we woke up on Monday! We were right on the lake, so it was very pleasant.

Unfortunately Hannover was a bit of a disappointment, except for all the examples of really good street statues. The extensive bombing meant there was very little remaining of the old town, except for the fascinating Gothic Lutheran Church. It was heavily damaged in WW2 and was built like a Gothic cathedral, but with red bricks when it was reconstructed in 1952. Interestingly, any bits of the old cathedral that remained were included in the rebuild, in situ. There was a fascinating set of modern brass doors depicting tanks, bombing and women fleeing with children – not at all your usual church doors!

 

Summer continued to be dismal in northern Europe, with one or two nice days of sun and cloud followed by 3 or 4 days of cloud and rain. It wasn’t particularly cold, but it wasn’t swimming weather, either!

From Hannover it was a short drive to Bremen – yes, of the famed Grimm’s Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Musicians of Bremen”.  There is a statue of the four animals and it is used as ‘branding’ for the town. But there’s so much more – a wonderful church, beautiful ‘rathaus’ or town hall and lots of historic little laneways to wander.  There was something beautiful wherever you looked. We found a cute little bar in an old house that was built in 1450!

Bremerhaven was a delightful surprise to us and we ended up extending our visit. We knew it was the fourth-largest container port in Europe, so we were expecting quite an industrial place. We hadn’t expected the attractive town and all the interesting things to see.

We went to the wonderful emigration museum, Deutches Auswandererhaus, which commemorates the 7.2 million Germans who emigrated between 1830 and 1942. It used very clever displays including waxwork figures and each visitor got the name of an emigrant and to follow their story through many of the exhibits. Michael’s person was Richard Morgner, who emigrated in 1954 not long after the war. Both his father and grandfather had committed suicide during and after the war, so his reasons for emigrating were very sad and complex. The museum was an interesting mix of artifacts and stories and used a very clever card that, when you placed it at a station, the information and stories were automatically told to you in your own language. One great display was of people waiting to board a boat in the late 1800s and each wax person told their story and how they were feeling.

We also went to the Technikmuseum U-Boot, where you actually went inside a German submarine built for WW2, but which never saw any action. We both decided we could never live in such cramped conditions and can’t believe that 60 men lived aboard.

We rode our bikes out to the container terminal, to the viewing platform and saw the port operation, which stretched for miles. The logistics of getting the right container on the right ship were mind-boggling!

Bremerhaven is still decidedly nautical, with a re-vamped harbor area full of old sailing ships, breath-takingly original modern buildings and interesting little sailors bars. There are some lovely buildings in the town, too.

Leaving Bremerhaven we headed to Putgarten to take the ferry to Denmark, and then drive to Copenhagen. The ferry cost 139 Euro and in the restaurant we were asked for our Covid Certificates.

 

In Copenhagen we stayed at a nice campground about 10km from the centre of the city and were advised that cycling into the city centre was quick and easy. Denmark is very cycle-friendly, with 12,500kms of cycle paths. 50% of people in Copenhagen use a cycle to commute to work or study every day. This means that the cycle paths are very crowded and busy, with people whizzing past in the outside lane. We joined the thong for our trip to and from the city for three days before Sue couldn’t take it any more and used the excuse of predicted rain to persuade Michael to catch the train from then on.

There is a lot to see in Copenhagen, and some is quite spread out, so we bought a hop-on bus ticket to help us get around. We also took advantage of an afternoon when it was a little sunny, to do a boat tour of the harbor, which was very interesting. There were lots of examples of modern architecture and thriving Copenhagen business.

On our second day in Copehagen we caught a train to Roskilde, to the Viking Ship Museum at the Roskilde Fjord. Five Viking ships built in the 11th century were sunk and filled with rocks at the mouth of the fjord, to protect the town. In 1962 they were excavated and a clever process used to save the old timbers before they were reassembled. The rebuilding was all done using the same tools and techniques of the Vikings years ago.

We also visited the Roskilde Domkirke, where there has been a church since the first built by King Harold Bluetooth in 985. More than 40 kings and queens have been buried here and it was fascinating to visit all the tombs, where details were provided of their rule and it’s highlights, or low-lights in some cases! We also found out that kings used to be elected by the nobles and it was only in the 16th century that Denmark became a hereditary monarchy.

 

We spent three more days exploring Copenhagen. We went to the hippie/artists colony of Christiania but found it to have declined in relevance and it was now just a graffiti covered derelicts haven.

We loved exploring the Christiansbourg Palace, the home of the Parliament, Supreme Court and Prime Minister’s office. We went through the main reception rooms, the kitchens and the Great Hall used for formal dinners. The rooms all had dazzling chandeliers and the Great Hall had amazing tapestries created from 1990-2000 showing Danish history of the last 1000 years, but in a very modern style reminiscent of some of Picasso’s tapestries.

We also visited the winter palace of the current royal family, the Amalienborg and were struck by the beautiful symmetry and classical style of the four palaces that make up the complex. We were lucky to catch the changing of the guard.

The nearby church of Marmokirken was absolutely beautiful, with a very imposing dome modeled on St Peters in Rome.

What is a visit to Copenhagen without seeing the Little Mermaid Statue? We had been warned that it was small and simple, so we weren’t disappointed.

We had wanted to try some of the New Nordic cuisine but were unable to get a reservation for lunch on the days we were there, so we instead became connoisseurs of open sandwiches and the unexpectedly delicious Danish hotdogs! That was as well, because we needed to save our Kronen, after getting stung for 75 Euros for 3 glasses of wine and a coffee, although it was our fault for sitting in a tourist area and not ordering from the wine list. But, still!!

 

We wanted to see more of Denmark than just Copenhagen, so we decided to visit the Westfyn area, that we were told had pretty villages. We stopped in Assens, at an aire in the Marina.

The drive there was very pretty, if incredibly flat.

Westfyn has 85km of coastline and sailing is very popular. The weather was dreadful when we first arrived, a howling gale and sideways rain. We were tucked up inside our camping car bemoaning the weather and then through the window we watched 3 little sailboats enter the marina! They sure breed them tough in Viking land!

Assens was a really pretty town with a rich trading past and a strong nautical trade these days.

On our latest trip we clicked over to 56,000km in over 4 and a half years of living in our camping car and we are travelling along in it quite happily. Our next adventure is to the Netherlands with a long stop in Amsterdam before gradually making our way back to Jarnac. But those stories will appear in our September blog!