Category Archives: Germany

Berlin

There’s a wonderful system in Holland where if you buy a weekend train ticket to a major European city, they throw in a hotel more or less for free. Thus it was that, seeing a slow weekend coming up, Maria and I more or less randomly decided to go to Berlin. It meant getting to Amsterdam station ridiculously early on Friday morning, but that was no great hardship because it was the start of Sail 2000, and all the tall ships were in. As we strolled past amongst the other early onlookers, the flower-covered tugs were being warmed up, and dozens of ferries and tour boats were loading up with passengers. The tall ships themselves sat serenely aloof; these were creatures of the high seas, and looked uncomfortable crammed together in Amsterdam harbour amongst the hoi poloi.

Sail2000, Amsterdam. The tugs really went to town in the flower department.

Sail2000, Amsterdam. The tugs really went to town in the flower department.

Some hours later we poked our noses into our Berlin hotel just long enough to dump our bags, and then headed straight out for the Kurfurstendam. As it happened, there was a big street festival in progress, with hundreds of stalls selling food, beer, jewellery, beer, that sort of thing. At regular intervals along the street were positioned local DJs, including one rather bizarre area where both performers and audience danced in synchronisation on exercise bikes.

This mural was on a building near the hotel. Its all mural, there are no real windows at all.

This mural was on a building near the hotel. Its all mural, there are no real windows at all.

I used to have a farm in Africa

I used to have a farm in Africa

Another in the long line of photos of "Reinhard in a famous place". Unter den Linden, at last.

Unter den Linden, at last.

Another stall had the traditional fairground test your strength sledgehammer-and-bell apparatus, and we watched as two youths battled it out to get the maximum prize. Vying with one another, they shelled out piles of Deutschmarks, winning armfuls of small toys but always not quite succeeding with the big one, until finally amid much banter and in front of a huge crowd of cheering onlookers, they finally won the big blue teddy bear. Honour satisfied, they randomly picked a pretty girl from the crowd and loaded her up with toys before continuing on their way.

The hotel brochure claimed that they had twenty metres of food at their breakfast bar, and I must say I found no reason to disagree. The breakfast was incredible, and it set us up for the long walk through the Tiergarten (the central park), passing through the Brandenburger Tor into East Berlin and along Unter den Linden. I knew that the Wall used to come through here, but there was absolutely no sign of it; it had been completely erased. The most astounding thing about the Tor these days is the incredible number of tourist buses, parked nose-to-tail for at least a kilometre behind the Gate.

Yes, its the Brandenburg Tor, OK?

Yes, its the Brandenburg Tor, OK?

Once in the East, we headed for the Gendarmemarkt, billed as the most beautiful square in Europe, but although the Academy of Music is a good solid piece of architecture, I’m not sure that it is even in the running. Nevertheless, it is a fine place to sit in the sun with a heverweiss beer.

The obligatory picture of Reinhard with a beer.

The obligatory picture of Reinhard with a beer.

A short step from the Gendarmemarkt is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, monument to the Wall years, which is truly engrossing. There is an incredibly harrowing display of escape methods, stories and documentation, vividly highlighting the sheer ingenuity of the human mind. There are beautifully engineered hiding places under cars, in petrol tanks, inside the passenger seat of a mini, inside welding gear. There are also home-made microlights, submarines, and an inflatable canoe powered by a sail constructed from a bed sheet and a couple of hockey sticks. And then there were the tunnellers, aided by helpers, mainly students from the west who were often themselves imprisoned, or shot and killed. The latter reaches of the museum are given over to other struggles around the world, but they don’t begin to approach the sheer desperation and dare-devilry that characterised the years of the Wall.

Outside the museum, we found that much of what used to be East Berlin was closed for repairs, as the authorities make up for years of neglect. Even the Fernsehturm (TV tower), which I was sure would be able to provide us with a panoramic restaurant meal, was being refurbished, and we were getting quite hungry before we discovered a little bierkeller in the twin shadows of the Nikolaskirk towers.

The twin towers of the Nikolaskirk

The twin towers of the Nikolaskirk

Fernsehturm peeks over the Rathaus

The Fernsehturm peeks over the Rathaus

Berlin Rathaus

Berlin Rathaus

Inside the church itself, there happened to be an exhibition of Russian gold- and silver-work, which I just couldn’t resist. There were some beautiful engravings, and some truly fantastic pieces (described as “biscuit plates”) that gave the impression of gold baskets with silver napkins carelessly draped across them: but all crafted in stunningly lifelike detail from precious metals. The star of the show, though, was the jewellery. I’m not generally a huge fan of glittering rocks, but these delicate traceries of gold and silver, studded with diamonds, emeralds and amethyst, which could so easily have been gaudy, were so beautifully crafted and so finely worked that they were utterly breathtaking.

Outside again, much of the rest of East Berlin was less attractive. Much of it is taken up with ugly post-war tower blocks, the occasional architectural antiquity looking less like a scattered gem than a lost relic hunkering down under the lowering tonnes of concrete. Even the River Spree conspires against picturesqueness, hemmed in as it is on each side by stark concrete banks, with the occasional reconstruction of a mediaeval wooden bridge only serving to accentuate the problem. Mind you, until recently the Spree was armoured, spiked and alarmed, so it has a lot of past to live down.

Flower Power

Flower Power

Maria is mostly wearing Berlin ironwork

Maria is mostly wearing Berlin ironwork

Bits of old Berlin

Bits of old Berlin

The Charlottenschloss, a bijou pad of a hundred rooms or so knocked up for one of the queens, sits in spacious grounds scattered with the odd folly and lake, and sitting in a semi-forgotten corner is a tiny little mausoleum to the long-dead knight and his lady. Each tomb is topped by a figure of the occupant, and although the kings is pretty ordinary, the sculpting on the queen is breathtaking. The way she is lying, draped by a thin silken sheet, you could be forgiven for thinking that she is but resting and in a moment will open her white marble eyes and get on with pruning the roses.

Amazingly sculpted tombstone in the mausoleum of Charlottenschloss

Amazingly sculpted tombstone in the mausoleum of Charlottenschloss

The Dom (cathedral) is dominated by its enormous dome, squatting centrally over the cross-shaped building. Inside, the whole thing is one vast open space, and everything that isn’t heavily gilded and painted is carved in relief. There was an organist showing off on the huge organ; particularly impressive was the thunderous James Bond villain piece which brought applause from the slightly stunned crowd. In fact, the whole atmosphere was very touristy, with guides strolling around carrying placards, cameras flashing and people talking.

The Berlin Dom

The Berlin Dom

Death put in an appearance, tastefully gilded for the occasion

Death put in an appearance, tastefully gilded for the occasion

Much of the cathedral was being restored, repaired or rearranged, so we had a little trouble working out how to get from one end of the building to the other, but eventually we discovered the stairway up to the cupola. It was lined with numerous photographs of the building in various stages of disrepair; the dome has burnt down and been rebuilt at least three times since the 1880s. On the way up there are all sorts of nooks and doorways to explore, and in one place it is possible to emerge onto a narrow ledge clinging to the inside of the dome. Hidden as it is from below, the top of the ledge is scattered with spotlights, microphones and loose knee cushions. I’m not normally bothered by heights, but even I would have had real problems making my way along that tiny strip of stone to change a light bulb, not because of the fearsome drop down to the pews, but because of the curious but overwhelming feeling of vertigo induced by the roof closing in overhead.

The inside of the Dom dome

The inside of the Dom dome

A few more tunnels and stairways led us onto the outside of the dome, where the whole of Berlin was spread out before us. The lights twinkled all over the city as the sun edged slowly toward the horizon, the calm of the evening disturbed only by thousands of swooping starlings, and the distant wail of sirens around a small apartment fire in the distance.

Oberstaufen

After a pleasant few days motorcycling around the Black Forest, we headed down to the German/Austrian border for a week in a hotel in Oberstaufen. Heading into Singen we took the coast road around the Bodensee, which was beautiful but plagued by terrible traffic. The local road planners didn’t seem to have understood the concept of linked traffic lights, as they were scattered around on apparently random timing patterns. People spend so much time there waiting at red lights that there are signs asking you to switch your engine off to prevent pollution. However, eventually we made it through and got back onto the minor roads all the way to the hotel that was to be our home for the following week.

Oberstdorf
From Oberstaufen it is a short step to Oberstdorf, where we climbed up the highest ski-jump in the world with a view to bungee-jumping off the top, but the jump was far too expensive, although the climb was worth it because the views from the top were incredible.

Olympic Ski Jump

Olympic Ski Jump

Hiking above Oberstaufen

Hiking above Oberstaufen

Neuschwanstein
Another day we rode through dreadful traffic to the fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein (as seen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and thought that a romantic-sounding horse-drawn carriage up from Schwangau would be a nice idea. The reality was far from romantic, as after a lot of loud wrangling with rude German tourists about who had and who hadn’t pushed in to the queue, about fifteen of us crammed into a very small buggy and were pulled very slowly up the mountain by a very smelly horse.

Once at the castle, we spent an hour queing for a ticket (the ticket clerks thought that it would be a good idea to go for lunch at the busiest period), and then we had to wait for another half hour for our guide. I think that if I hadn’t been there before I would have given up before we got in, but I knew that it would all be worthwhile in the end, and it was just as crazy as I remembered it, commissioned by Mad King Ludwig whose personal style could best be described as Big, Colourful, and Gothic.

Mad King Ludwig's castle at Neuschwanstein

Mad King Ludwig’s castle at Neuschwanstein

Rather than face the crowds again on the way down, we hiked across country, following a stream bed that cut down the wooded mountain side back to Schwangau. We did look up at the twin castle of Hohenschwangau, and thought about visiting, but we’d really had enough of queuing for one day, and left it for another time.

Cheese and farming
Another morning we spent an agreeable if rather smelly time at a traditional cheese-makers, where huge rounds of cheese were hand-crafted by jolly German craftsmen.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Blessed are the cheesemakers

More cheese than you can shake a stick at

More cheese than you can shake a stick at

One afternoon we spent a long time trying to find a local museum of traditional farmhouses at a place called Illerbeule. We nearly failed, but by considerable luck we managed to find it, although since we arrived at 16:00, which is closing time for most places in the area, we thought it had all been to no avail, but for some reason this one place still had another couple of hours of opening time.

The cheese shop

The cheese shop

Colourful church facade

Colourful church facade

It really was a fascinating place, consisting of a complete farm built from cottages and barns from different eras and from different parts of Germany. The thing that struck me most compared with similar structures in the UK, was the amazing amount of living space that these farmers seemed to have. In Britain, in most historical ages, everybody hunkered down in a tiny room with all the animals. Here, if a farmer decided to go in for instance for cheesemaking, then he just built a whole new cheesemaking room on the end of his farmhouse. The barns were enormous too, and beautifully finished in boldy painted designs.

Not a small barn at Illerbeule

Not a small barn at Obersdorf

Impressive barn paintwork

Impressive barn paintwork

Hochgrat
On yet another beautiful day of blazing sunshine, we caught a cable car to the top of the 1833m Hochgrat ridge which marks the border between Germany and Austria, and set off westward along the top. Some 5km and several hard hours later we decided to leave the crumbly conglomerate of the main path and continue along the spine of the ridge, but somehow we went a little astray, and after an interesting 1500m descent through an almost vertical forest we arrived at somebody’s farm.

Views across Hochgrat

Views across Hochgrat

The amused farmer explained to us that the reason that we couldnt work out where we were on our map was that we’d walked right off the edge and were now in Austria, so there was nothing for it but to climb all the way back to the top and then back down into Germany.

Good hiking country

Good hiking country

Once more at sea level, and thoroughly footsore, we were extremely grateful to discover a small bus waiting to take us to civilisation, Jacuzzi, and beer.

Breitachklamm and Sturmanns Höhle
We also spent a day visiting a couple of local geological features. The first was Sturmanns Höhle, a 300 metre meltwater shaft and tunnel bored over 600,000 years ago through a mountain near Obermaiselstein. There is quite a climb up to the entrance, and then, once inside, a long long descent into the heart of the mountain, at first along a crack or crevice, but then down the actual vertical shaft itself by means of a series of metal steps. It’s dark and drippy, but fun to be that far underground without benefit of ropes or a mineshaft.

From the Höhle we headed for the Breitachklamm, rightfully hailed as Germanys most beautiful gorge. It is really impressive, a deep fissure scoured by a fast-flowing river, with sides so high that they appeared to close in at the top and blot out the daylight. Judging by the mangled and twisted steel handrails along the way, the river must get pretty tempestuous at times, and there were also entire pine trees jammed crosswise across the valley some twenty or thirty feet above the current water level. It must be an incredible place in a storm.

The fantastic Breitachklamm gorge

The fantastic Breitachklamm gorge

Looking upward at jammed fallen boulders

Looking upward at jammed fallen boulders

This pine tree was jammed here by a flood

This pine tree was jammed here by a flood

Massive rock fall at the top of the gorge

Massive rock fall at the top of the gorge

White-water rafting in Switzerland
Finally, we nipped over into Switzerland to go white-water rafting with a German fire brigade, which wasn’t as scary as I expected but was still great fun.

The quiet upwaters where we embarked

The quiet upwaters where we embarked

And then it was time to get back on the bikes and go home, visiting a few more campsites along the way. On the border between Switzerland and France we passed a long queue of steam-powered cars, which was strange, and in the tiny French village of Freland we ate at a museum that doubled as a restaurant in the evenings, but on the whole we just rode, tired and happy, home to England and to bed.

Schwarzwald

Motorcycling through Germany, we were headed for the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. Rain threatened and we put on our waterproofs, but the promised precipitation never came, although the hills of the Schwarzwald faded into cloud ahead. On a small side-road near Baden-Baden we branched off into the woods and set up camp in a small glade. Since the midges were active, we set up a spare flysheet as an insect-proof porch and picnicked on pickled herrings and bratwurst, washed down with olives, gherkins, Mosel wine, and beer. It was a very comfortable night, despite the rather lumpy ground. There’s a lot to be said for camping by a babbling brook.

Dark trees and running water

Dark trees and running water

Baden-Baden appeared to have turned itself into a tourist trap. There was a bewildering array of signs pointing to hotels and car parks, but none pointing to useful things such as the Roman baths after which the town is named, so we escaped along a tourist road invitingly called the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – the Black Forest High Road.

It got colder as we gained altitude, and the forest got very thick and dark (surprise surprise!). We took a short walk in the gloom to a nice little waterfall and back, and then after a series of winding roads with vistas over blue-shrouded hills, stopped for lunch at a crowded little cafe on the outskirts of Freudenstadt. Bypassing Freudenstadt we took another minor road into Triberg, full of tourists and cuckoo clocks. We couldn’t resist experiencing the immense roadside shop ‘The House of 1000 Clocks’, which as well as an incredible number of over-carved tourist timepieces also sold what looked like quality Vienna clocks at what seemed to be reasonable prices. It must be all the competition.

We had some trouble finding a campsite, but eventually struck lucky in the tourist resort of Titisee. While contemplating the enormous list of rules and regulations (“From your selected pitch you should be able to see only the number of your own pitch; Motor vehicles must be parked at right angles to the slope; We would not hesitate to remove lines attached to trees; Vehicular movement is prohibited between 13:00 and 14:30”), we met up with a group of four other bikers, and after a shower and some friendly beers we all set off into town for an evening’s entertainment.

Party animals in Titisee

Party animals in Titisee

After the restaurants had closed, we found our way into a nearby bierkeller, where I started on Diebel Altbier (Devil dark beer, which is supposed to be drunk in moderation) and the other guys got into the pils with schnapps chasers. The ladies were a little more circumspect, but it turned into a riot of an evening, and next morning I suffered for every drop of alcohol that I’d consumed.

The perils of excessive Diebels Alt consumption

The perils of excessive Diebels Alt consumption

We spent a slow morning rehydrating in Titisee, and then took a nice leisurely pedalo out across the lake followed by a medicinal Black Forest gateau.

Gateau brunch stop on the Titisee waterfront

Gateau brunch stop on the Titisee waterfront

Looking a little more lively

Looking a little more lively

A nice relaxing paddle around Titisee

A nice relaxing paddle around Titisee

That afternoon we headed up the Feldburg for some dramatic views across the brightly lit but incredibly dark forest, but the traffic was getting heavy again so we consulted our National Geographic tourist map and found that it recommended a minor road through Schonau toward Mullheim. This was excellent advice, as we were the only things moving on it, and it was a fantastic scratching road through often breathtaking scenery.

The Black Forest

The Black Forest

Eventually we looped back around through Freiburg (where we didn’t stop, although the latticework cathedral steeple looked interesting) and back to Titisee, planning to head south to the lake at Schluchsee, since we had noticed that where there’s a lake, there’s a campsite.

Indeed there was, but the tent part was packed so we kept on going until we found a hillside site with no lake but lots of space. As a sort of money-saving exercise (more from guilt than because we were actually short), and because we couldn’t cope with any more rich restaurant food, we fried up some sausages, apples, onions, gherkins, and spatzle (a local pasta). No beer for me, as my head was still hurting.

The back roads to Bonndorf and Singen were fantastic for biking, with loads of sweeping forest curves and hairpins, beautiful weather, and a lot of motorbikes. It must be pretty popular around here, as some villages had signs up banning motorcycles between 22:00 and 06:00.

The Black Forest is excellent biking country

The Black Forest is excellent biking country

Mosel and Rhine

A Breakdown in Belgium

We rolled off the boat at Calais into a beautiful sunny morning, and instantly turned northward intending a late breakfast in Brugge. However, the 130kph E40 soon got boring, so we turned off to take the parallel the coast road through De Panne and Nieuwpoort. At first it seemed like a good idea, and a much better way of starting a tour than hammering up the motorway. Even though the Belgian polders were as flat as ever, at least there were interesting dykes and canals to look at, and I was just congratulating myself on another successful long cut when we suddenly ran into Grockleville B.V., packed wall to wall with cars carrying tourists to enjoy a day sandwiched on the beach.

Rather than struggle up the beach zone, we turned back toward the E40, but almost immediately Lisa’s CBR dwindled in my rear-view mirrors and rolled to a stop by the roadside. Only one of the four cylinders was firing, which didn’t provide enough power to ride, so after checking for the usual faults I left Lisa with her bike and went off to find help. First I met a policeman, who directed me to an Audi garage, who directed me to a bicycle shop in Nieuwpoort, who directed me to a Honda dealer in Veurne. Miraculously, this shop was still open on a Saturday afternoon, but their tow-truck was ‘en panne’.

They were talking about ringing around some friends to see if they could find anybody with a trailer, but instead I borrowed a tow-rope and went back to the CBR, where Lisa was getting happily sunburnt by the roadside. My TDM towed her CBR without any problems, and the hard shoulder was wide and clear so we didn’t have to worry about traffic.

A few miles up the road, a police van did a U-turn to check us out, but they couldn’t work out whether what we were doing was illegal or not so, realising that we probably knew more about what we were doing than they did, they left us to it.

Fifteen minutes later we were installed in the bike shop in Veurne, where the nice man soon spotted that the fuel pump had failed. He didn’t have any new ones in stock, but he did have a lot of customers bikes in for repair, and we spent a merry time poking around in a load of crash-damaged frames looking for something that would fit. None of the CBRs had the right pump, and one off a Revere was the right design but had far smaller bores which suggested that we wouldn’t get a high enough flow rate for the CBR. Not to be defeated, the salesman opened up the showroom and pulled the pump out of a brand new Transalp that was standing in the window. A few minutes later, we were off.

Finally we rolled into the Brugge campsite, had a much-needed beer, and then set out on foot to have a look at the city. It is an attractive town, packed with narrow streets lined with gable-ended houses, and dominated by the clop-clop of horse-driven taxis and by the huge cathedral in the centre. The cathedral did not seem to be open to the public, but from the outside it had a vast presence, sprawling over a surprisingly wide area, an imposing brick-built edifice reminiscent of the monastery in ‘The Name of the Rose’. We sat in its shadow in a terrace cafe and ate an expensive but excellent dinner of ‘kroketten’, ‘moules’, and a local dish made from a mixture of fish in a creamy spinach sauce. All, of course, washed down with lashings of Belgian beer.

Brugge Cathedral

Brugge Cathedral

Crop Circles

The following day, after a leisurely start, we whipped around the Brussels ring-road and then, rather than stay on the boring motorway, took the quieter N4 toward Luxembourg. It was another beautiful day, and at a petrol stop we spent our few remaining francs on chocolate milkshakes and sat at the side of a cornfield to drink them. The corn had been recently cut, and the hay was lying in golden rows under the blazing sun. We sat and admired the scene, and then something strange started happening in the air in front of us. and swiftly a little dust-devil built itself up into a straw-filled whirlwind some twenty feet high. It had a footprint about four feet in diameter and acted like a big hoover, sucking up circles of hay and then moving on with the stalks whirling around inside the cone. It bumbled around the field at walking pace for a while, pausing now and again to leave mysterious crop circles in its wake, before heading up the bank onto the main road. A car passed through it without any noticeable effect, and then it was across the road and into some shrubbery, where it dropped its load of hay but we could still make out its progress by the swaying of the bushes on this otherwise still day.

Bemused, we got back onto the road, and for a while enjoyed a leisurely ride past the little high-gabled houses that formed the occasional village, punctuating the long flat plains of cabbages and potatoes that stretched to the flat horizon. Soon, however, the road degenerated into just another motorway, and I was glad when we were overtaken by a dozen Belgian bikers out on a run. They were really tanking it, but I snuck in behind the rear machine and we stayed with them all the way to Luxembourg.

Luxembourg

As soon as we crossed the border, the nature of the countryside altered dramatically from flat crop land to tree-lined hillsides. About 25 miles from the city we turned off down a random side road, sat on a bridge for a while watching damselflies, and then drove along the small hilly lanes until we found a small camp site. It was a tree-lined field with no visible signs of authority, but some French campers told us to pitch up and then go to a certain house in the village at 18:30 to book in. A kindly elderly lady in a small house stuffed with antiques accepted a small amount of French francs in lieu of the Belgian ones that we didn’t have, and told us that although there weren’t any restaurants locally, tonight was the night of the local village fete and we might be able to pick up something to eat there. We were starving, so we made our way up to the tented area where everybody seemed to be having a fun time, although we felt very much like outsiders intruding on somebody’s private party. Nevertheless, we stood and drooled by a family-run hot-dog stand while they animatedly discussed exactly how much ten French francs was in Belgian currency, which was all pretty academic as all we had were ten-franc pieces and we’d have happily given away everything we had for a chance at those succulent sausages.

Finally everybody was happy, and we were ceremoniously presented with our food, which we wolfed hurriedly while debating going through the whole thing again at the beer stand. Cowardice prevailed, and we returned to our bikes to see if we could find a restaurant that accepted Visa. A few miles up the road was ‘Le Martin Pecheur’, dominated by an impressive stained-glass window of its namesake, where we washed down an excellent meal with a terrific Mosel wine, very tasty and a far cry indeed from the sugar water sold to teenage girls in England.

Feeling that our wine trip had now truly begun, we finished off with an interesting variation on Liqueur Coffee, with the coffee sandwiched between a layer of cream above and a clear layer of spirit below, served in a tall glass and drunk through a straw. Very potent.

Luxembourg City

Another late start, a leisurely coffee, another beautiful morning. A gorgeous run through rolling forested hills dotted with small sculpted villages and friendly people, ending in the fantastic city of Luxembourg itself.

Luxembourg city centre

Luxembourg city centre

Based around an AD 693 fortress almost surrounded by a deep hairpin chasm, the city is intermingled with rich parkland and vertical cliffs. Many of the buildings are impressively spired, most are intricately moulded. Walking along the old fortress wall, we discovered the Bock Casements, the remnants of the original castle which was voluntarily destroyed by the city itself in an attempt to establish their neutrality. They had comprehensively razed the castle itself, but there wasn’t much they could do about the subterranean tunnels, so they just blocked them off. Now they were open to the public, and stuffed full of history.

During the last war, 35,000 people sheltered during air-raids, and prior to that many of the caverns had been used for imprisoning this or that Duke, or provided a home for this or that exiled monarch. Most of the main tunnels were sign-posted, but many were not only unsigned but also unlit, and with a torch you could meander deep underground. In fact, the whole underside of the city is riddled with tunnels, and it is easy to see how it gets its name of The Gibraltar of the North. We completed our circuit of the city wall, grabbed some supplies from a handy supermarket, and headed for Germany, the Mosel Valley, and the start of our holiday proper.

The Mosel Valley

Suddenly we had arrived, and were confronted with more grape vines than I had ever seen in my life. My first impression was of the sheer mono-crop dedication that characterises Spanish olive groves. My second was that all the camp sites were heavily commercial and packed with caravans. Camping areas must be at a premium where every other square inch of land, even down to the roadside verges, is cultivated with grape vines. However, along a quieter stretch of road and a little away from the river itself we came across a little camp site that consisted of a small field ringed with permanent caravans. No sooner had we set up the tent when strings of people wandered up and introduced themselves, tut-tutting at our equipment and lending us tables and chairs, until very shortly we got involved in a Mosel wine-drinking session from the camp site’s own cellars. The world seemed to be entirely populated with friendly fat retired Germans slowly drinking the summer nights away, and as the sun set into the haze over the vineyards, I reflected that there was very little wrong with that.

The Mosel Valley is littered with castles

The Mosel Valley is littered with castles

The next morning we returned all the furniture, said our goodbyes, and headed off once more into the sunshine. The villages and towns along the Mosel valley were a riot of colour, skilfully painted and gilded and carved and hung about with flower boxes stuffed with colourful blooms. In Traban Trarbach a storm blew up out of nowhere and we sheltered under a bridge until the worst of it had passed. The rest of the afternoon was duller weather-wise, but geographically beautiful. The storm appeared to be trapped in the valley, but the villages continued to be picturesque, linear populations facing each other across the broad expanse of the river, dotted with far more thin-steepled and onion-towered churches than can possibly be required, and backed by a quilted patchwork of vineyards studded with religious shrines, huge rock sundials, and hundreds of tiny figures lovingly tending the vines.

Eventually we entered Koblenz, and headed into the city intent on finding the confluence of the Mosel and the Rhine. We found it at a place called Deutsches Ecke, parked up and caught the sightseeing boat. The trip took an hour and travelled up each of the three arms of the t-shape where the rivers meet, surprisingly placidly, at a monument to the Kaiser. I say surprisingly, because the Rhine was flowing very fast indeed. The bow waves of the ubiquitous hundreds-of-feet-long Rhine barges threatened continually to swamp them as they forged their way upstream, and those coming downstream were greased lightning. These barges were immense, carrying all sorts of cargoes including coal, scrap metal and petroleum products, and sported mobile-home sized living accommodation fore and aft, with enough parking on board for a couple of cars too.

The Mosel had been occasionally punctuated by immense river locks for these craft, and often while one was coming through there would be another holding perfect station against the current below, waiting patiently for its turn, surrounded by a myriad tiny pleasure cruisers struggling against the fierce current, trying to stay close enough to nip in after the colossus when the locks opened.

Rhine barge

Rhine barge

The Rhine Valley

Once more on dry land, we were presented with a choice of two B-roads, one on either side, that headed south with the river. The B42 on the eastern bank ran through national parkland, so on the grounds that it might be less busy we took the western B9. The heavy traffic had become a bit of an issue for us, as even in the countryside it felt like we were driving through town, and as a side-effect it meant that the camp sites were literally packed tent-to-tent and caravan-to-caravan, not to mention satellite-dish-to-satellite-dish. So far, by judicious choice, we had been lucky with camp sites, and we wanted to keep it that way. The Rhine valley south of Koblenz sprouted more castles than we could shake a stick at, most of them apparently occupied, and although many of them were splendidly photogenic the roads were too narrow and busy to stop.

We only rode a short distance, just far enough to get fully clear of Koblenz, and then started looking for camp site signs that pointed away from, rather than toward the popular riverside locations, on the basis that these would probably be smaller and quieter. We ended up on a tiny strip of grass hacked out of a forested gully, with a little restaurant bar at one end. After a good meal, some beer, a walk in the woods and some more of yesterdays Mosel wine, we went to bed.

After a preprandial coffee at the camp site, we had a light breakfast in the picturesque town of St Goar, before continuing up the Rhine valley as far as Bingen. Here you enter the huge industrial complex of Mainz, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Ludwigshafen and Mannheim, so we cheated and took the motorway to Heidelberg. Although it strictly isn’t in the Rhine valley at all, I had always wanted to go there and this seemed like a good excuse.

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Castle

The old town was pretty enough, and after lunch we set off up the hill to see the castle. This proved to be particularly impressive, all pink stone, heraldic emblems and gilding, and had obviously been extensively restored, with work continuing apace. In the Great Hall beneath the castle were two enormous wine barrels, called Klein and Gross Fass; the latter at 220,000 litres is allegedly the biggest in the world. Certainly it is the only barrel that I have ever seen with steps leading up to a balcony on top, on which you could hold a fair-sized dinner party. We supped a commemorative glass of Heidelberg wine, and then hit the road for the Black Forest.

Klein Fass is the smallest of the two wine barrels under Heidelberg castle

Klein Fass is the smallest of the two wine barrels under Heidelberg castle

Three men on a train – England to Germany

Who were they, these three unwashed young Englishmen, curled up asleep on the floor of a train as it rumbled across 1980s Europe?

It was our first taste of independent travel, and for me it was the trigger for a lifetime of flitting from place to place, never quite settled, always moving on. This is the tale of that first trip, when, wide-eyed and naive and wet behind the ears, we set out with empty wallets, ridiculously heavy backpacks, and a wide-eyed wonder at the world beyond our borders.

 

The Grand Tour

There used to be a tradition among a certain class of English gentlemen that when the firstborn son came of age, he set off on a “Grand Tour” around the cities of Europe. Ostensibly this was to educate him in the classics of art and architecture, but it was also his first and only chance to spread his wings and do some growing up on his own. On his return, he was expected to rejoin Society as a fully formed and well-adjusted individual who had had his fun (and, possibly, sown some wild oats) far from the critical eyes of Polite Society, before taking up the serious business of marriage, children and the family estate.

That era is of course long gone, and I certainly didn’t belong to the titled or monied class, but as an eighteen-year old who had just left home to start out at university, the idea had a rather splendid appeal. I got together with David and Andrew, my closest friends from school, and bought an ‘Interrail’ ticket, available to anyone under the age of 26 and valid for 30 days on any train in the whole of Europe.

 

Free train to Loch Ness (Scotland)

Interrail were doing a deal whereby if we purchased the ticket early enough, we received a ‘free ticket to anywhere’. Having never travelled together before, or indeed done any long distance train travel, we decided to do a trial run on the longest train journey available to us over the Easter weekend. After careful perusal of the timetables, we figured out that we just had time to take the train from London in South East England to Inverness in North East Scotland, hike to the famous Loch Ness, camp overnight on its shores, and then turn back around and go home again.

We had a fine old time, and took the opportunity to shakedown our hiking and camping gear, and work out what we would take with us when we left for Europe a few months later.

Europe by Train: Loch Ness

David and Andrew at Loch Ness

 

London to Dover (England)

September soon arrived. Since our Interrail ticket was not valid in the country of purchase, David and I chose the cheap option of a bus to Dover to catch our ferry to France, where we could start our rail journey with an overnight train to Paris. For reasons that remain obscure, Andrew chose not to travel with us, but instead took a train. David and I arrived at the port without any problems, but the ferry to Calais began to board with no sign of Andrew. We already had tickets so we got on the boat anyway. After a look around the decks, we tried to page him on the intercom, but with no result so we had to assume that he was not on board.

Europe by Train - White Cliffs of Dover

A misty morning over the White Cliffs of Dover

Calais (France)

Arriving in Calais with an hour to kill before the next ferry arrived – hopefully with Andrew aboard – we went for a wander. We established that there seemed to be two “cathedrals”, but one was derelict and the other was the town hall, which I later described in my diary as “a technicolor version of Big Ben”

Europe by Train - Hotel de Ville in Calais

Calais’ Hotel de Ville, our first foreign tourist attraction

We were particularly enamoured by the local treatment of railway crossings. If the barriers were down across the road, it simply meant that the drivers needed to slalom around them without slowing. Pedestrians just ambled across whether the barriers were up or down. On one occasion, there was actually a train parked across the road, presumably waiting for a signal, but the first pedestrian to reach it simply opened a door, stepped into the carriage and out of the door on the other side, the rest of us trooping after.

Andrew wasn’t on the second ferry either.

Remember that this was 1983, well before the invention of mobile phones. We had previously arranged for a relative to act as a message depot if we ever got separated while travelling, so after spending some time trying to understand the labyrinthine French public telephone system, we finally received a message that Andrew was going to be on the second ferry after ours. Apparently he had got on a London bus to the railway station, but the bus had crashed, resulting in him catching the wrong train which went to the wrong side of Dover. When he finally arrived at the ferry port, out of breath from running across the town, they told him that his ticket wasn’t valid until the third ferry.

The problem with this was that he would arrive after the last train had left Calais for the night. We had booked no accommodation because we had intended to sleep on the train to Paris, but the next departure after the ferry was due to arrive didn’t leave until 05:30 the following morning. In fact, once his ferry docked at 20:00 there weren’t any trains leaving for anywhere.

We suddenly recognised Andrew standing at the ferry port. His boat had come in early, and so we all sprinted with our 35lb backpacks to the station and boarded the only remaining train. Apparently it was going to Italy via Switzerland.

Europe by Train - Three men on a train

Three men on a train. Finally.

 

Basel (Switzerland)

Andrew and David curled up on their seats, and I chose to stretch out on the floor, which was comfortable enough albeit a little bone-shaking over the points. We had come up with a new itinerary, intending to sleep until our early morning arrival in Basel, and then change for Munich, ultimately bound for the fabled fairy-tale castles of Fűssen. David and I were up and ready and hopped off when the train stopped, but Andrew had found a hot-water basin in a carriage further up and decided that he just had time to have a quick shave.

There were no open borders back in 1983. David and I headed for Customs, where our shiny blue-and-silver passports got us waved through without any attention. From behind the barrier, we noticed that Andrew’s carriage had been disconnected and was being shunted out of the station. Some distance from the platform, he suddenly appeared at a doorway, leaped out and headed back for the station, waving his passport in the air as he ran.

We repaired to the station buffet and broke our fast with coffee and a sausage roll, congratulating ourselves on having finally arrived somewhere more or less as planned and more or less together. As we lingered over coffee and made smug notes in our diaries, our Munich train rolled out of the station.

According to the timetable, it was theoretically possible to catch another Munich train from Basel’s other station, a tram ride away. “Streetcar Number 2” said a helpful uniformed gentleman, but that tram left without us while we were still trying to understand the ticket machine. Eventually Andrew managed to organise the correct change, and we purchased 60 minutes of travel time. A Number 6 passed, then another Number 6, but no Number 2. Suddenly we realised that the Number 6 also went to Badischer Bahnhof, climbed aboard the third one, leaped out at the station and sprinted across a busy street and onto the deserted platform. We’d missed the Munich train by three minutes.

It was still before 09:00 on our first day in Europe. A close perusal of the timetable revealed that, with a couple of changes, we could get to Munich by 17:00. The first train didn’t leave for a while, so we headed to the station bathroom for a wash and, for Andrew, for the second half of his shave.

After a snack of chocolate bars and iced tea, we climbed aboard the 08:36 to Singen. We’d already noticed that some trains were made up of a mixture of rolling stock from different countries, and this was our first Deutsche Bahn carriage, with compartments which boasted seats that converted into couchettes. We resolved to look out for more of these carriages in future.

 

Lindau (Germany)

We arrived in Singen with 6 minutes to transfer to the Lindau train, and made it with time to spare. We even managed to score another DB carriage, although when David pulled the seat out to form a couchette, the whole thing fell off the wall. As we were trying to quietly put it back together again, we congratulated one another on having, nevertheless, executed a flawless train connection for the first time. Then the ticket inspector arrived and told us that we were in the wrong carriage, and that the train was being split in two and we were at the wrong end of it. We sprinted up the corridor and just managed to jump the gap before our carriage moved off.

Finally, for the first time on this trip, we had a chance to sit quietly and look at the scenery. The train was zig-zagging back and forth between Germany and Switzerland, allowing us to admire the picturesque Swiss villages, partially obscured by low-lying clouds.

In Lindau, we wound our way between groups of souvenir-buying tourists and found a cafe with views across Bodensee (Lake Constance). The lake was very attractive, and although it was warm and sunny, there were thunderous cloud formations rising above the Swiss Alps.

Europe by Train - Bodensee

Lindau harbour on Bodensee (Lake Constance)

The cafe prices were rather high for our shallow pockets, but as we sipped our coffee we discovered that they were happy to sell us individual slices of bread, which we could then load up with sliced German sausage that we had purchased earlier from a butcher.

Europe by Train - Cafe in Lindau

Andrew and David write up their diaries and picnic in a cafe in Lindau

Europe by Train - Tres Amigos in Lindau

Die drei Freunde in Lindau

Europe By Train - Lindau mural

A typical mural on a house in Lindau

Having bought some more supplies, we boarded the correct train at the correct time, and even got a DB carriage. There was nobody else in our six-seater compartment, so we converted all the seats to give ourselves a big flat space to lounge around in, and then – for the first time since leaving England – we dared to take off our boots.

 

Fűssen / Neuschwanstein (Germany)

Several changes later, including one missed connection and the wrong end of another splitting train, we arrived in the town of Fűssen. I ruefully tallied our record of correctly executed train connections in my diary: a grand total of One. Obviously there was more to this Interrail business than met the eye, but at least we could only improve.

We’d bumped into another pair of Interrailers on the train who already knew the lie of the land, so they took us on a night-time hike to a viewpoint where we could catch a glimpse of the famous castles. There are two of them, one white and one yellow, and we stared up at them spotlit against the pitch-black mountainsides, hanging up there in the stars. This was new, this was different, this was the sort of thing that we wanted to experience. We resolved to climb up to at least one of them in the morning.

While our guides returned to their hostel, we found a flat piece of grass and pitched our tent in pitch darkness, cooking tinned chicken and rice before falling into a deep and satisfied sleep.

We woke and struck camp early; necessarily so, because we had pitched our tent in the grounds of a local hotel, within view of the breakfast room, and we thought it politic to be gone before anybody noticed. We washed up and performed our ablutions down the road in the surprisingly warm waters of the Alpensee, which stands at the very foot of the Alps in a glaciated basin, and began the long climb up to the fairy-tale white castle above.

The path lead through dark and dripping pine forests, hewn out of the mud and edged with railway sleepers, with each step an awkward one-and-a-half strides. Humping metal-framed 16kg rucksacks was a bit of a chore, but finally we reached the top.

Schloss Neuschwanstein (then called Neu Hohenschwangau) was built and inhabited by “Mad King Ludwig” in the late 19th Century. He had spent the happiest days of his youth in his father’s refurbished castle, the gothic yellow Hohenschwangau that we had seen at a distance the night before. Although still rich and powerful, Ludwig’s sovereignty of the kingdom of Bavaria had been removed during a deal with Prussia, so he had it in his mind to create a small private “kingdom” which was more true to his vision of romantic Bavarian tradition. As his power dwindled, he began tinkering with the plans, focussing on the legends of the Knights Templar of the Holy Grail as his model.

Europe by Train - Neuschwanstein

Schloss Neuschwanstein from the Marienbrucke

The result is a candied confection of Gothic splendour mixed with the very latest in 1860s convenience and technology. The walls are painted with spectacular friezes from German legends, separated by buttresses painted in a crazy clash of red, blue, green and yellow. The Gothic carvings in the master bedroom are superb (apparently taking 14 master carvers 4 years to complete), and the chandeliers throughout are modelled on Byzantine crowns in gilt brass with coloured glass gems. The kitchens are massive, and filled with labour-saving devices such as rotisseries driven by smoke turbines.

The difficult but picturesque building site was originally chosen because it could be viewed dramatically from a suspended foot-bridge, the Marienbrűcke, that Ludwig’s father Maximillian had had built as a birthday present for his mountain-climbing consort, Marie. It was a hard climb up to the bridge, but worth it for the views.

Rain had begun to fall as we began our descent, this time running with our backpacks crashing around us at that wretched step-and-a-half, step-and-a-half cadence, but regardless of our efforts, we were soaked to the skin by the time we reached Fűssen. We were out of cash, but one of us had a credit card, so we treated ourselves to a decent Bavarian meal in the touristy Restaurant am Park.

 

Munich (Germany)

On the way to Munich, we met a girl from Chicago who recommended the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl for its “ethnic atmosphere”, so we dropped in to see if we could get a spot of dinner.

The enormous underground cavern was awash with music and song, packed with beer-mug thumping locals in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats. We fought our way through to an opening on a long trestle table, and tried to attract the eye of one of the impatient serving girls. Even though I spoke reasonable schoolboy German and was theoretically able to communicate effectively, everything had to be shouted over the deafening music and laughter, and the serving system proved incomprehensible. The waitresses, bulging enticingly in our teenage eyes from their traditional dirndls, seemed overwhelmed and somewhat grumpy. Some girls seemed to serve only food, and others only litres of beer, but it was never clear which we were going to get. We did, however, end up with three steins of amber nectar and a single meal of sausage and sauerkraut and sweet pastries, which we shared. Then a nearby party moved away, leaving unfinished beers, so we commandeered them, at which point the waitresses got the idea and kept bringing steins to us, whether we had specifically ordered them or not.

Europe By Train - Munich

Somewhat blurrily, David and Andrew with litre steins at the Hofbrauhaus

When we eventually staggered out into a riotous evening of street entertainers performing in the Gothic shadows of central Munich, we were perhaps a little tipsy, and somehow managed to lose Andrew on the way back to the station. Luckily we had arranged a meeting point at Platform 15, where we decanted ourselves aboard the night train to Vienna.