Germany Netherlands France September 2021

We left Denmark via the Fehmarn bridge. What an experience! It’s 20km long and very high. It cost 83 euro to cross. Unfortunately it was a very windy day, 100kph at least, with the windsocks flying horizontally. We were really knocked about by the wind and it was quite terrifying – the 20km felt like 200km! Michael rates it as his scariest drive yet.

We drove through the very pretty north German countryside, which was flat and full of cows and beautiful old barns. After a brief overnight stop in Bremerhaven we continued on to Leewarden, a very pretty village north of Amsterdam. It too has lots of canals, including in the new suburbs on the outskirts of town. We stayed in an aire on a canal and caught the local bus into the town.

We had been to Amsterdam before, but last time it rained a lot and we missed out on seeing some things. So, seeing we were driving past, we decided to stop in for a week. We stayed at Camping Vliegenbos, right in the trendy Noor district. It was an easy 2km bike ride to the free ferry to Central Station. The ferry was packed with cyclists.

The first day we just wandered around getting our bearings. With the weather being so much better, we got to see the Dutch people enjoying the terraces and cafes along the canals. It was pretty busy at the weekend but otherwise we think about half as many tourists as when we were here pre-covid. It made it so much better when we weren’t fighting the crowds.

We walked for miles, appreciating the many gorgeous houses that lined the canals, especially all the leaning houses, called ‘dancing houses’ in Dutch.

The next day we took advantage of the sunshine to do a canal boat tour that was really interesting. It gave a different perspective of the city, with information about why and when the canals were built and a look at the system of locks that underpins the whole thing. We also enjoyed a glimpse of the mansions along the Keizersgracht canal and were amazed by the huge amounts of money the merchants earned during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The buildings were beautiful in the typical Amsterdam style and the canals were lined with barges that were lived aboard, although apparently that’s very expensive now.

Michael went in to Amsterdam by himself one day to do some research on good cannabis shops. We bought some CBD oil to help with Michael’s psoriasis joint pain and also some CBD topical cream that works wonders on arthritis flare-ups.

The real purpose of our second stay in Amsterdam was a visit to Anne Frank’s House and museum for Michael (Sue had been before) and another visit to the Rijksmuseum for Sue. Anne Frank’s House now has a wonderful museum attached, full of stories about Anne and all the people she hid with. The crucially important bookshelf was still there, although all the furniture had been burnt. No photos were allowed to be taken inside.

Michael found it very sad that after all she had endured, she died only three weeks before liberation. It was particularly poignant that the Allies had already landed in Normandy, yet the Nazis continued rounding up Jews in Amsterdam and sending them to concentration camps.  The Nazis killed 6M Jews at a time when Australia had a population of only 7M.

One beautiful day we spent on the foodie trail, where we wandered the streets of the Jordaan and Negan Straatjes neighbourhoods. Both are well-known for their cafes and restaurants, but most restaurants weren’t open for lunch, only dinner. The cafes were open but we didn’t fancy smashed avocado and the other foods that you can get anywhere, so we found a lovely restaurant instead. We had brilliant meals – zucchini flower tempura followed by a stunning chicken liver mousse with fennel and beetroot for Sue and the most fabulous fettuccini marinara for Michael.

Both neighbourhoods had lots of really interesting little shops and many small businesses such as design studios and florists, with apartments on top.  We browsed some great antique and curio shops and Michael bought a lovely little silver cognac flask.

We left Amsterdam bright and early and drove through Belgium back into France to Boulogne sur Mer, not far from Calais. Our friends from Les Mathes, Christine and Jean-Claude live here and had been encouraging us to visit. Boulogne sur Mer was much larger than we had anticipated, with a population of 80,000 and a huge commercial port and fishing fleet. We stayed at a camping ground at Wimereux, a very popular beach resort on the outskirts of Boulogne. It had a long beach promenade lined with privately owned bathing shacks, which were all packed on that sunny Sunday. Then we rode down the hill and around the port area. It was enormous, with literally miles of fish packing companies and truck bays. In a political decision, it was organized that Calais became the people moving centre and Boulogne the fishing centre. Boulogne is 4km closer to England than Calais. Jean-Claude worked on the tunnel when he was younger and was actually there when the two halves were joined.

We rode to Boulogne from the port and found the Sunday market, which was absolutely huge. We were too late for the fish and produce market but wandered around the ‘everything else’ market. We celebrated our return to Atlantic France with a bowl of moules, of course.

Jean-Claude and Christine joined us for champagne at aperitifs hour and we made plans for the following day. It’s always wonderful to see a town through the eyes of the locals! They picked us up at 10am the next day and drove us to the historic centre of the town.

Boulogne has been a fortified town for over 2000 years! In 43 AD the Roman Emporer Claude conquered Britain from here and since then it has been a staging point for the likes of William the Conqueror, Napoleon and Hitler. The town still has its ramparts intact, making for a beautiful and scenic shaded walk. There are lots of gorgeous old buildings, the towering Notre Dame cathedral and the smaller town church with its 12th century belfry.

Boulogne is very proud of its citizen Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) a scholar, archeologist and Egyptologist who founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There was a pyramid dedicated to him near the ramparts and a really fun interactive exhibit in front of the Town Hall.

Boulogne is the home of Nausicaa, the largest aquarium in Europe. It also had more street paintings than we’ve seen anywhere. In a clever idea, there is a map of all the street paintings around town for you to tour.

We had a delicious lunch of seafood in the town square and the serves were enormous. We all had to have a little siesta in the afternoon and then Jean-Claude and Christine drove us to a quaint little pub with really quirky decorations for the most delicious tapas.

Michael and Sue decided it was time for some R&R. We’d been on the go as tourists for 6 weeks and we’ve found that we need to take a break every now and then, or we risk becoming jaded and losing the WOW! factor. We drove to a secluded rural area in the Vendee to a beautiful little campsite with a pool, for a week of quiet time. It’s surrounded by tiny little villages, apple orchards, chook sheds and dairy cows. We rode our bikes 6km to a nearby village to do some shopping, admiring the gardens along the way.

Our campsite overlooked the duck and swan pond and the 2 donkeys and 2 sheep were all very friendly.

It’s the end of the summer season, with most campgrounds closing on September 30 and there’s not a lot of people about, except on weekends. We were still awaiting Part 2 of our Carte de Sejour – this year it took 7 weeks! – so we revisted La Tremblade, where they have finished the new marina. On the way we called in to Royan to have the mistake on Michael’s Pass Sante (or Vaccination Certificate) corrected.

Then we returned to Jarnac and had a very productive stay - Carte de sejour collected, went to the hairdresser and doctor, did some business for Thomas and had our business card updated with a new cartoon. And of course we rode again along the Fleuve de Velo bike path along the Charente, watched the local canoe competition and caught up with friends!

Finally, on Sunday 26th we headed off, wending our way to Nice. We planned on taking a couple of weeks to get there, exploring the Rhone valley along the way.

Our first stop was in Aubusson, in the Creuse region. This town of course has been famous for the weaving of tapestries and rugs since the 15th Century. We stayed at a Municipal Campsite on the River Creuse. A Municipal Campsite is owned by the town rather than privately and they are often a little basic. We had a pitch right on the river and it was beautiful to sit and watch the changing light and the reflections.

After wandering around the town and up a very steep hill to the clock tower, we visited the Cite international de la Tapisserie, with its wonderful collection of tapestries from 1480 until the current day. It showed the tools of the weavers, the process of creation from drawing (called a cartoon) to dyeing to weaving. As an art form it’s an amazing collaboration of artisans and artists and we’re still amazed how they can weave such minute detail. The current project is the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien, woven as tapestries. It started in 2013 and is due to be finished this year.

While we found the ancient tapestries impressive and the modern ones interesting, we still liked the modern tapestries we saw at the Palace in Copenhagen the best.

Unfortunately we visited Aubusson on Sunday and Monday, so all the ateliers were closed, but we were struck by just how very many there were – weaving is obviously still a thriving industry here.

Our next project was to explore the Beaujolais wine region, just north of Lyon. We stayed in the quaint little village of Fleurie, and were visiting right in the middle of vintage, so the place was a hive of activity. The Beaujolais region is very hilly, with wineries tucked away on the hillsides, up the narrowest of roads we have encountered yet. It has 12 appellations, each with its own characteristics. Beaujolais has over 2000 estates, the average estate size being only 12 hectares. The region produces over 70 million bottles a year. The grape here is the Gamay, with a little Chardonnay for making white wines, although this is only 3% of the output. The Gamay vines are very low (2 feet high!) and are bushes rather than trellised

Michael started his exploration at La Maison du Cru Fleurie who represent 37 different producers, so he got a really good idea of the style of wine for this area. He also rode up to the church of the Madonna, which sits alone on a very high hill overlooking the valley.

 

The next day Michael and Sue attempted to ride to village of Chiroubles and then on to Avenas but unfortunately took the difficult route, i.e. the vertical one! Even with electric bikes they had to get off and walk! The excursion was abandoned as too difficult, so we needed to think of different ways to explore the area.

 

We decided to take a private tour to the main villages of Beaujolais, including some historical sites, three wine tastings and a picnic lunch. The owner of the campsite (Marie) was our driver and guide and she was just brilliant, with very good English and a thorough knowledge of the wine process, the vignerons and the area. She crafted the tour just for us, which was tricky being in the midst of vintage.  We started at Fleurie and went south as far as Brouilly along tiny little winding roads. We climbed very high to the top of Mount Brouilly and to the terraces at Avenas. It was a gorgeous, clear sunny day so the views were superb and we could even see Mount Blanc in the far distance. The harvest is nearly finished and the vines were turning golden; the grass was still green due to all the rain this year; and the patchwork of vines, forest and little villages with church spires was incredibly beautiful.

Our first tasting was in the Moulin a Vent appellation, named after the 15th C windmill on the hill. We visited a rustic family-owned winery where we visited the barrel hall and bottle cave. We found out that, unlike regions such as the Medoc and Saint Emillon, most wineries here are family owned and have been in the family for generations. The Beaujolais region is also unusual in having so many soil types and this is partly responsible for the variety of tastes of the Beaujolais wine.

Our second tasting was in a more commercial style of winery, although still family owned. We tasted wine from 3 different appellations there – Chiroubles, Morgon and Reginie. Our last stop was a beautiful winery in the hills behind Fleurie, the Domaine Aufranc. As well as Beaujolais they made a wonderful Chardonnay. Philipe took us deep into his vineyard, on a crest overlooking two magnificent views and left us there with a traditional ‘worker’s lunch’ of fromage and charcuterie, wine and a berry tart. We watched the pickers finish the picking – just imagine how back-breaking that is with 2 foot high vines!

Our tour was worth every penny, taking 7 hours and really giving us an overview of the area, the history, the geology and the wines.

When we have eaten out lately it has been in cheap and cheerful bistro and we felt the need to experience something a bit more upmarket and adventurous. There is a Michelin-starred restaurant in Fleurie and when we’ve been past it has been packed, so we decided to reserve a table for our last day in the region, before we move on to Lyon.

The ambience of the restaurant was elegant and restrained and the menu was both interesting and extensive: three degustation menus, plus the A La Carte. Michael started with an aperitif of the local Crement and while we perused the menu we were served two courses of amuse bouche. Our favourite was a tiny steak tartare with a smidge of a tomato sauce, a haricot blanc salad and a hazelnut crumble. Of course, all this was served in a tiny little bowl with a tiny little teaspoon. It was a great glimpse of all the delicious things to come - especially since neither of us really liked steak tartare before!

Sue decided to have the Menu de Marche – a puff pastry ‘pie’ filled with cooked pate and apples; slow roasted chicken with mixed mushrooms, barley risotto and wilted leeks; and for dessert a summer berry ‘consommé soup’ with mixed berries and home-made vanilla ice-cream. This was followed by petit four and coffee. Everything was totally delicious and with beautiful presentation. All this for 23 euro in a Michelin restaurant – amazing value when you consider that a bistro fish and chip meal is 13 euro!

Michael had a fricassee of escargot that was stunning! It was accompanied by confit of onion and a fennel broth – all served on/in a hollowed baked onion. He followed that with a selection from the cheese board. Michael saved his calories for a wonderful half-bottle of Beaujolais from Regnie and a glass of Eau de Vie de Marc, the local version of a brandy.

It was a luxurious way to finish our stay in Beaujolais, a wine region we have really enjoyed and where we learned to appreciate a good Beaujolais wine.  On our last night Michael joined the local Mayor and other dignitaries at the campsite end-of-season party and had a great night!

Next stop is Lyon, on our way to Nice by mid October.