Road Trip Europe stage 2
Anyone that has done any writing of any sort will know that losing what you have written can be very frustrating. But, having written all of this twice has made me realise just how good this trip is and how much fun we really are having. I had hoped to have this one out before New Zealand Christmas Day, and I would have if I had saved it correctly, so it’s a few days late but MERRY CHRISTMAS to everyone from Lisbon, Portugal. Here is how we got here.
We spent two nights in Cesky Krumlov. It’s a medieval walled city in the south of the Czech Republic. It is unique in that the river wraps almost completely around the old town. It’s that feature that has preserved the old town from development over the centuries and it really is a pretty example of an old town with walls and an impressive palace and castle to round off the trifecta. We could have toured inside the palace, but it would have been the same things from a different owner I’m afraid. We were also not alone at Cesky Krumlov the day we toured around. We had the company of at least a dozen busloads of tourists from around the world and the surrounding hotels were all full each night, even with subzero temperatures to deal with.
We went for a day trip to Austria the next day. We visited a city called Linz which is on the Danube River (this river runs from Germany through 10 countries, more than any other European river!) and visited the science park ARS Electronica Centre. It’s a museum of the future, sort of like MOTAT but smaller and only for new technology. It’s all about collaboration when it comes to science and technology and Austria is an amazing country for this. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. Talk about rowdy neighbors. When we return to Europe we will be exploring the eastern end of Austria. We’re looking forward to that.
Our next stop was our much-anticipated visit to my cousin Nicola and her family, David and Noemie. The last time I visited David and Nicola, they were living free and easy in a Munich apartment with VIP passes to all the local night clubs. What a difference Noemie has made and now they are living in an amazing, quiet, child friendly village west of Munich. This village really is right out of a story book. It has a forest to pass through that comes out at a picture-perfect village complete with church and clock tower with a river running right along the edge. They live in a house that is so old no one really knows when it was first built. Thankfully it’s been renovated since the 1400’s and is now a modern comfortable home that made it hard for us to leave. (oh, did I mention they have 2 cats…. miss you Blackie)
We parked the car outside their house. The car was in a spot that meant a lot of locals drove past it in and out of the village. Let’s face it, it’s an awesome looking adventure car! It looks set for anything and having some fire wood strapped to the roof just says ‘TAKE ME OUT NOW’ David and Nicola became the talk of the village and everyone wanted to know what the story behind the ‘Sehr schones Abenteuer Fahrzeug’ was. During the days before Christmas the village has many functions with different activities at different houses. It was a great insight into a completely different way of looking at Christmas. I feel like in New Zealand, it’s all about one event, Christmas day. Through most of central Europe, Christmas is a near month long event that involves a lot of talking to family, friends and neighbors and drinking hot wine in the town square. Pre-Christian involvement, the mid-winter celebrations were all about getting people out of the home to re connect with the rest of the village. What we started in Berlin with Katja and continued in Munich with David and Nicola was refreshing and fun. We felt so Christmassy we had an early Christmas dinner, Kiwi style. We had a homemade mince n cheese pie with pavlova and whipped cream for desert. It’s about as kiwi as it gets I can tell you and the mince n cheese took me back that’s for sure, thanks Christine!
The Christmas spirit didn’t stop there! Nicola started to make us a special Christmas tree for the car and kindly had one of her friends in the village, Natasha, finished it for her. It’s great and now hangs from the rear-view mirror (when I don’t need to see the sat nav) and reminds us that Christmas is coming even though it doesn’t feel like it.
While we were staying with David and Nicola we were treated to the best tourist attractions that southern Germany has to offer. We went to the most amazing castle that inspired Walt Disney to build the famous Disney Castle in California. The real thing is way better (having seen both). It was built by King Ludwig II when he ruled over Bavaria. It’s a bit of a sad story in the end as he never lived in the new castle and died under strange circumstances not leaving an heir or Queen. The new home was never completely finished and although it looks complete on the outside, it has only one finished room and one kitchen. Ludwig stayed one night only and this is how it now remains. We did tour through the castle his dad, King Maximilian I rebuilt and lived in for many years. Incredibly both these castles are still owned by the family and remained untouched during both European wars last century and really look like they will go another few 100 years.
We also went to the highest peak in Germany. What a trip! It really is testament to the engineering skills of the Germans. We first went on a cog train through more than 5kms of tunnel to a ski area that is located right on a glacier in a basin just below this peak. When I say ‘ski area’, don’t forget we arrived by train… it was large! Chair lifts everywhere, cafés and restaurants… We were then bundled into a very large gondola that took us to the very top of the mountain. This was not a wide flat top, rather a pointed rocky peak that had 2 large restaurants, 1 for the German side, 1 for the Austrian side (as this is also the border between the countries), weather stations and of course an ice skating rink (what else do you need at the top of your country’s highest peak) The first tourist building was completed in the late 1800’s when we in New Zealand were still struggling to build basic infrastructure. Wow
We left David and Nicola’s place complete with treats from Natasha (you’re on this trip now Natasha) and headed to Liechtenstein. This country is only 25kms long! Its squeezed between Germany and Switzerland and is basically a private country that has a government with an actively involved prince... It’s really a complete blow out to read about these little places. They are largely a throw back to when the Holy Roman Empire broke up and several areas were granted ‘principalities’ and a few still remain. The Liechtenstein’s ‘purchased’ the land to gain a seat in the empire. It’s still in the family! All sorts of financial magic is performed in Liechtenstein to make money appear from nowhere and we came across an ATM that dispensed bitcoins in the corner of a gift shop. We drove around after sending a post card and before we knew it, we were in Switzerland. It was a climb up to the border and into the clouds we went. The 2 days we spent in Switzerland were pretty much a white out. The clouds eased up just before dark but in the morning, were a thick blanket which is how it remained until we popped out into France.
We went to visit CERN which is right on the border between France and Switzerland. We took the free tour of the Atlas sensor, which is on the large collider. The facility is 27kms around and 100 metres’ underground! They started this carryon in the 1950’s and a city has grown up around the place that’s full of scientists driving small Citroens. It was interesting but not mind blowing. It excites some people more than others and the guy that lead our tour was a scientist that had been working on the same experiment for years and years. I like science, but it’s the same as liking bread. Doesn’t mean I need to like the baking part. For these scientists, what they are looking for is already all around us and they are looking for ways to detect and measure them. Then we could start to use them or do new things because we understand why they do what they do… Like I said, I like the technology it can create more than looking at how they discovered the science of it. Having said all that, it was cool to see the control room where they conducted the experiment that discovered the Higgs Bosun……whatever that is J
We headed south through Switzerland and back into France. The next day really were the most amazing driving we have had on the trip. We headed towards Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe which is in France. That was when we headed towards Italy and underground. We spent the next hour travelling under and through the alps. When we weren’t in a tunnel we were on a viaduct. At one point, we exited a tunnel onto a viaduct that was 100’s of meters above the valley floor only to enter a tunnel into the next mountain. The scenery was amazing. The roads were also amazing and a feat of engineering. The only problem was all the way down the alps towards the Italian coast we had no stopping on the motorway. We would have loved to get more photos of the dramatic mountains and picturesque valleys.
We first glimpsed Monaco when we were 1 bay away high up on the hillside above the country. The entire country is only around 2 square kms big and a lot of that has been reclaimed from the bay. It occupies just 1 bay on the coast and the roads down to the coast are very, very tight and narrow. We had to use both sides for some of the hairpin turns and we were by far the largest car around with most of the other cars on the road ‘micro’ size or small taxis. Even though its only 2 sq. km we managed to drive about 20kms around and around the place. We couldn’t find a parking building that could take our 2.15-meter clearance and street parking was completely out of the question as it is pretty much 100% reserved for residents. So even though we spent an hour or more in the country of Monaco we never managed to have a coffee on the waterfront and send a postcard as planned. We headed to Cannes for the night and the next day we went to yet another small country, Andorra.
Andorra first popped up when the local people were gifted the country as a reward for fighting the Moors people in the 1200’s. It slipped through the cracks of change for the next 700 years due to the country’s isolation in a valley high up in the European alps, and has really only seen any change in the last 80 years. The entire country is only a little over 450 sq. km’s in size and is totally dependent on tourism for its income. They come for the skiing and duty free shopping. When we first started walking through the streets of El Pas de la Casa, I said to Christine it was like walking through an airport. Duty free everywhere and people were filling up! The car parks were full of shoppers filling their cars with booze and cigarettes. We didn’t see any sort of limits and some people has a dozen cartons of smokes and boxes of liquor. The ski field looked amazing and is open most of the year. Looks like a good place, skiing, cheap booze and smokes… hehe what more is there?
What a fun place Barcelona is! We had 2 days in Barcelona where we stayed in a hostel right in the middle of the tourist area. It was very busy even though it rained most of the time and although we didn’t do too many of the usual tourist activities, we satisfied ourselves that we had seen the sights. Parking was again a problem though we did find a place that we could fit into. We had less than 10mm clearance between the roof tent and the carpark lighting. It was secure however and that’s what’s important. We travelled right across Spain spending two nights on the road before we entered our last European country, Portugal.
We have an apartment in the city center that’s walking distance to all Lisbon city has to offer. The apartment was a lot more than we were expecting having booked just a hostel room with shared bathroom, we ended up with our own awesome place! Lisbon is very cheap compared to the rest of Europe and I can buy a coffee from the café 10 meters down the road for 50 eurocents. Hard to imagine we were paying €4.50 in Scandinavia! We are here for the next week at least. We are having some time off for our 10-year anniversary and of course Christmas day today… happy Christmas! Next week we will start to stock up on some of the items we will have trouble finding in Africa, the car needs an oil change and service and we will start the endless paperwork required to travel around Africa by car. The next update may be from the African Continent!
Thanks to everyone for reading these blogs. 2016 has really been an amazing year for Christine and me but we feel that the adventure is only just to begin. Let’s face it. It’s easy to travel around Australia, USA and Europe. Things are a lot like home and we can adapt easily and quickly to the challenges and problems we are faced with. Africa is going to be very different. The people do not live the way we do and probably won’t speak any English and the conditions will be different to what we are used to. Everything from buying food, finding a toilet or getting an internet connection will be more challenging. We plan to take 12 months to get around Africa but many people have told us this will not be long enough. We have planned every step of the trip in Africa but we are still approaching the travel week by week for flexibility. Look out for our first blog in Africa. We are looking forward to Morocco..
Here we are in Prague, Czech Republic. It’s quite an amazing place and it ‘feels good’ here. We have been here for the last 3 nights, 1 more to go. Sort of like a holiday from our holiday, although we may have already had one of those... No don’t worry, we are not getting sick of it, we are actually just getting used to it. The trip to Prague was pretty uneventful, but here’s how we did it!
After we returned from Sweden we headed back to Amsterdam and the first stop was a place called the Hobby Hall. No, not to do puzzles and make quilts, but to do some work on the car. I found Hobby Hall with the help of I-Site Amsterdam. It’s a fully equipped workshop with 2 post hoists, welding gear, spray painting booths and general workshop areas and is available to the general public for an hourly rate. Before we headed off to Scandinavia I did the wiring and added an extra battery while Christine arranged the rear of the vehicle at the Hobby Hall. We spent 3 days there! This time we just wanted to unfold the tent and remove the ice and dry it some, and I wanted to redo some of the wiring I put in for the fridge and add a fuse to the inverter wiring. It’s a great place even though it’s a bit out of town. A lot of people don’t have houses with garages or even yards where they can work on cars, hence Hobby Hall, thanks guys!
One of the great things about having friends that live in faraway countries is that every so often you can call in for a visit. If they live really far away, its best to call in as much as possible while you can because you never really know when you’re going to be able to just ‘call in’ again. So, due to this, we found ourselves back at Vanessa and Ants place ‘calling in’ hehe.. We really love you two and hope you will have had enough of a break from us before we call in again. It is invaluable to be able to see the locals side of any city, especially a city that has such a tourist presence that Amsterdam has. We saw the tourist attractions but having the time to visit the places that are full of everyday locals as well, is really fun and makes the trip quite different. Thanks for offering us the use of your lovely Amsterdam apartment. We loved staying in your city and all it had to offer.
We headed off southish, down through Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. While we were in Berlin we went to the Berlin wall memorial. It’s hard to understand the wall. They only just saved the little bit they did. The locals wanted it all gone and I don’t blame them. We also had an evening with Katja who we first met on the Appalachian Trail this year. Katja, under the trail name “Spacious” walked from Harpers Ferry, Virginia to the end of the trail at Mt Katahdin. We enjoyed some great catch up time from the days on the trail and Katja showed us around some of the East Berlin she grew up in. Katja knew only the half-walled city as a child but is now justifiably proud of her new city and country. It showed as she toured us around the areas that had changed in her neighborhood after the unification of the east and west Germanys. It was interesting that for her a thing that she remembers above most other things, when the wall came down, was the buildings in West Berlin were bright colors. In her East Berlin, the buildings were raw render or cement and grey. They had never been painted. She said she remembered that lots of the buildings were patched from bomb and bullet holes made during WW2 and remained that way until reunification in the 1980’s when investors developed, and sold, building after building. It was really great to catch up with you Katja and we wish we had more time. We are looking forward to seeing you and staying a bit longer after we have been to Africa.
We made a visit to Auschwitz concentration camp which is in Oswiecim, Poland. I was really surprised at how much of the story they told at the camp. We had it taught to us in schools and we have all heard about the Jews that were put to death at the camps but the untold story for me was about the Polish and later what happened to the Germans. The Auschwitz death camp was originally built to exterminate the Polish people and more than one million Polish were killed by the Nazis. It was later in the war that they included the Jews. Altogether an unusual place and although we were two of the crowds that were there, it was strange to see so many people wanting to visit such a place. The other interesting point displayed at the site were stories about what happened to the German people after they lost the war. Of course, we don’t want to remember that either but I was always taught that 2 wrongs don’t make a right… We didn’t do a guided tour. We could have had someone tell us about what happened in gruesome detail but we already knew what happened at this place. It was terrible for this to have happened in modern times, more than just the fact that it happened. More than once I just found myself saying ‘what were they thinking’ to think they could exterminate an entire country of people. It’s amazing to think of nowadays and I hope that modern communications and a good solid media will stop this sort of thing happening again, but hang on… oh it already is in Syria.
We then travelled to Slovakia for the night. It was our first taste of Eastern Europe and cheap prices. Hotel prices dropped by around two thirds and food by nearly three quarters. Diesel was down to around one euro a liter. We were paying over two euros per liter in Norway! Straight away we realized that English was not the easy second language that it is in central Europe and Scandinavia. Slovakia (and Czech Republic) are really new countries. Formed in the 80’s out of Czechoslovakia, they had the ‘velvet revolution’ and voted in a democratic government for the first time in generations. As countries go, they are doing really well. Low unemployment and good GDP. It is a very strange thought for me, having grown up on an island nation, that a new country could be formed and new borders be drawn up, and over there could be going to another country! Pretty normal for the Europeans though and they did it here and drew a line through the country. The night we spent in Slovakia, our car was broken in to!! They smashed the right rear window and of course the alarm went off and whoever it was fled without taking anything. They did however leave glass right through my ‘wardrobe’ on the back seat. I heard the thing go off at around 4am and went outside straight away. Hmmm I thought, I might have said ‘bugger’ once or twice. I stayed at the car and cleaned it up and taped some plastic over the hole.
Then we were in Prague. We went and checked in to our apartment and then went to the local Toyota dealer who had to order the glass in from Gent, Belgium where they have the Toyota European warehouse. Gent is the same city that Volvo has the main parts warehouse too so I have waited for parts from Gent before. We found some secure parking just on the outskirts of the city to leave the car with a taped-up hole where a window was and waited for the glass to arrive. We only had to wait one extra day than we had planned to stay in Prague but it is a really nice place to wait a while. Prague is very pretty. It has no high-rise buildings, even in the CBD they are around 8 or 9 stories max. In the suburbs and the old city, the buildings are all very ornate and have a lot of elaborate plaster work and statues or verandas with pillars. It’s a complete contrast to what we saw in Germany (so far) and Poland where the buildings were very dull and utilitarian. We did more walking around Prague than any city so far. It was not all flat but it was always nice and interesting.
When we arrived at our accommodation we picked up a map and city guide produced by locals. It was how to be like a local and not look like a tourist while seeing all Prague has to offer. Ended up being a good guide. One of the things in the ‘never do’ section was don’t go to the Palladium shopping mall, it’s too busy, they say. We thought it would be an ideal place to get a few supplies like new undies and a new toothbrush. It was like St Lukes mall except it has 4 floors of it. We found what we needed and did a good long mall walk for fitness. Hehe. We also went to the big old castle by walking over the 600-year-old bridge. It’s a silver lining of the communist era that they did look after the big old buildings and castles and the Prague Castle is in really good condition. There is an amazing collection of palaces and government buildings in an amazing setting on a hill looking over the river as it runs through the city. If it wasn’t 0 degrees C we would have stayed longer. We know we are never going to see everything but it would have been nice to see more of Czech Republic, we are going south to Cesky Krumlov but there is so much more...
We headed off from Amsterdam somewhat tentatively. Are we ready? Do we have all the things we need?? When you are driving around the world, google has no checklist to follow, and if they did it may be country or car specific. We didn’t know for sure if we were ready but here we are at the first hotel stop and this is only because it is minus lots and snowing outside at the moment and we didn’t want to sleep out in it!
We have a plan, or I should say HAD as it went out the window in the first few days. The plan was to travel first to Sweden and drive up the coast road stopping every few hours to take in the beautiful scenery and relax a little before we push on to the picturesque campsite waiting for us an easy days drive apart… all the way around the world! ha ha ha ha ROFL. In truth, so far is has been far from that. Let me tell you how it’s been to date.
We had planned an early morning escape from Vanessa’s place in Amsterdam but with the last-minute shopping and the really important things called ‘mucking around’ we didn’t end up getting away from Amsterdam until around 3 pm. I thought we should have had another go the next day but we pushed on like the troopers we are. We spent our first night at a camping ground that was closed… well they closed that day, and said we could stay as technically they were open till midnight. They promised not to kick us out till the next day. At this point we should have got the idea and did like the birds did and head south. The next day we headed up to Germany and the autobahn. If I didn’t have a roof rack and a 100kg tent on the back I would have given her a bit of welly but I left that to the Audi and BMW drivers that were passing us as if we were stopped! That night we stayed at another camping ground/camper van place and paid by honesty box as the owner was on holiday in Spain (joke, but you might see a pattern) The days are short up here at the moment and the sun set today at 3:10pm so we are arriving to the campground in what feels like the middle of the night. Sunrise is around 7:40 and I am having big problems laying around till that hour as well..! Christine on the other hand is loving the lie in. So, Sweden. We entered the country from Denmark (choosing to pass straight through Copenhagen and Stockholm to get to the north of Sweden as soon as we could.) Sweden is a place I have been associated with all my life. As a child, I can remember the sales reps from Volvo Penta Sweden that used to visit Dad several times a year and then later when I worked for various Volvo companies I visited Sweden myself. I remember it fondly. Clearly I never went too far north and I also mostly did my visits in the summer time.
We wanted to come this far north to see the Northern Lights. The best time to see them is during the winter. Well, the BEST time to see them is when its dark and up here during the summer its daylight all day AND night so no point coming to see an event that needs darkness when it won’t get dark. The ‘season’ is from late October onwards (till summer) so we are here November and we still have had no northern lights. Turns out you also need a clear sky (duh…) and this time of year the clear sky is a hard thing to find. So is was going to be a bit hit and miss if we were going to see the northern lights this time or if we will have to wait until we have travelled around Africa. When we were drawing up the plan for this trip, we never included the heading north bit at the start, it was south all the way to Cape Town. It has been fun so far though.
In search of the northern lights, we kept making our way north. We went through Lapland, Sweden then headed west into Norway. We followed a route called the Blue Highway (or Bla Vagen) It’s a road that goes from Norway, east to Sweden following the wide river valleys of the Uma River all the way across Sweden. At Umea, you pick up a ferry to Finland then further east to Pudozh, Russia where the route ends. Its called the Blue Highway as in the 1500’s to 1800’s it was used by traders and travelers heading from ‘the west’ and of course they travelled mainly by boat down the rivers and across the many ‘blue’ lakes. The road was completed as a tourist highway in the 1960’s and is now a ‘European Road’ and a popular tourist route. We had a great night staying at a rest area along the route. In Sweden and Norway, freedom camping is legal and allowed pretty much anywhere! We had bought some fire wood and found a rest area with a day shelter that has a fire place. It was nice to have a fire but when the temperature is getting down to minus 10 or lower, the fire doesn’t make too much of a difference. The next day we crossed over to Norway, and then crossed the Arctic Circle 66.33 degrees north. Yahoo!! Driving into the Arctic Circle was something I have wanted to do since we first started to talk about this trip.
The conditions for the Northern Lights were not playing the game for us and we decided to head south. We were not in a position to sit it out in a hotel until the weather and the sun flares provided the right conditions for the lights. Never mind! To be honest, we were not prepared for the cold here in the north and were faced with buying more clothing and gear or getting out of the cold. We chose the warmth. We have been in the cold before but this was something really different. The night we spent in the tent above the arctic circle was something else altogether. I filled a water bottle with warm water before bed, sort of like a hot water bottle but not boiling water as I didn’t want to deform the bottle. When I woke up 4 hours after going to bed, the water was frozen. Not solid but I had to break the ice up to drink some. In the morning, it was completely rock hard, as was the 12 litres of water we had in the back of the Ute along with pretty much everything else we had. Some other things that froze were Christine’s hand cream, the drinks not in the fridge, the water from the windscreen washers was freezing on contact with the window, even with the (very expensive) special anti-freeze additive, our iPhones wouldn’t work below -10c, even cooking was hard as the propane wouldn’t flow very strongly. To put the tent away we have to fold it and tuck in the sides. It was not a nice job to do when its frozen solid. I am sure with the right gear and preparation a trip into the frozen north during winter would be fine and comfortable but we did not have the right gear and had made no preparations… (hehe still went tho eh and got the photos to prove it). We are heading to Oslo now and will spend 2 nights there before we head back to Sweden and Denmark. The drive down the west coast of Norway has been excellent. This country really is beautiful and a real match to New Zealand for scenery and natural wonders. Seeing it in a half frozen state is quite something and we really are glad we decided to do this part of the world during the late autumn.
We have this awesome vehicle, a 4x4 Toyota Hilux. It’s a go anywhere vehicle and just as well too. The roads here are really well made and very smooth and wide. The problem this time of year in the north of the country is that the surface is just ice. In the towns off the main roads they do not scrape the snow completely off the roads. They let it pack down hard and combine it with some grit for traction and leave it till summer. If they salt the roads, rain can wash it away and black ice can form very quickly so it’s easier to deal with the snow. The people up here are well used to the slippery roads and travel very, very slowly on the ice. We witnessed a lot of cars sliding sideways down the roads and even a bus loaded with people drifting through a roundabout. No one seemed to care too much, normal everyday life here in winter. Our car has a full set of new tyres that are all terrain type, good for mud and snow. Combined with the 4x4 we have had no problems at all with the slippery conditions. Its really starting to feel like home now and is turning out to be a great choice of overland vehicle. When things get a little warmer and we have a camp for a few days I will make a video of how we have set up all our stuff in and on the car and how we make camp each day.
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!