Blog

Day 350 – Esbeek to Blackheath

We slept in ‘Transit mode’, an adult and the two boys in the roof, and the other adult on the made up bench seat, with the boot packed. This was to give us a quick start in the morning. However, things did not go to plan. At about 6pm we had light rain, and this deterred me from packing  the tent awning, and in the morning it was still damp, so it was not until 10.30 that we departed. Still, we had nearly six hours before our 4.20pm crossing for the three hour drive to Calais.

We wanted to stop twice on the way, once for lunch and once for wine. We were forced into an early toilet stop, and then traffic around Antwerp delayed us by another half hour. 50 minutes down, and the need to check in Meg before checking in Amarillo at the Shuttle terminal meant we were under pressure for lunch.

We identified a suburb of Ghent called Flora as a good place just off the motorway for lunch, and Clare found a ‘child friendly’ restaurant for our last meal. I’d envisaged Clare tucking into a massive bowl of moules-frites, the boys a steak hashe and me a steak-frites. All quick, and all easy.

Instead the restaurant was rather posh, certainly child friendly with its own bouncy castle and ‘Little Tikes’ plastic slides and modular climbing equipment – but still rather posh. With no time to search alternatives we stayed. Clare and the boys shared two set menus, and I had my steak and chips – excellent fillet with about six hand cut soggy chips. The boys ate three each, while I was a pure carnivore.

On another occasion I could have really enjoyed the meal and the restaurant. But it just didn’t work for us. No wine, just water, but the Belgians don’t do tap water in their restaurants: we were charged 10 Euros for 750ml of sparkling and 250ml of still. Wine would have been cheaper!

We arrived at the tunnel terminal at 3.30, checked in Meg which was painless and efficient, then checked in ourselves.

I’d booked in the van as a ‘car over 1.85m’ with an unknown registration. When I plugged in the registration the website tried to overcharge me as a campervan, but our van does not fit Eurotunnel’s own definition of campervans (which includes a kitchen and fresh water tank). I wondered if I’d need to argue our case, but no, we sailed through as a car over 1.85m.

The queue for UK Border Control was slow, and all four of us were checked carefully, with Ben and Jack having to wave at the official through the open sliding window that Ben has now learned to open and close himself.

Then we were waved straight through the terminal and onto the platform ramp just as the 16:20 train pulled out. We were stuck on the platform ramp with one other vehicle, and were the second vehicle onto the 16:40 train. No time to buy wine…

The drive into South East London was painless, stopping once for a bottle of M&S wine for dad. An hour and a half from Folkestone and we were all tucking into mum’s roasted pork, red cabbage, too few potatoes, gravy and extra crunchy crackling. We were home.

Day 344 to 349 – Esbeek

I’m sure a psychologist would read much into us spending the last week of our year travelling around Europe almost on the doorstep of Calais. We have enjoyed our year away but we are now keen to return home. Our tenants vacate our home at 10am on Saturday. Friday night and maybe Saturday night we will be with my parents in Lewisham.

Our final week has been quite lazy. This campsite has provided most of our needs. A great playground for the boys, two pools, one for children and one for swimming. Over the road is a forest which extends all the way to the border with Belgium.

We have cooked all our own meals on site, shopping before we arrived, then one trip to the supermarket and several to the bakery. I also made a round trip with Meg to the vet to administer a worming tablet and stamp her passport.

We have walked or cycled several times daily in the forest and have been eaten alive by insects.

IMG_5591IMG_1903IMG_5592IMG_1898IMG_1887

We are now all packed up, ready for an early start tomorrow. The boys and me upstairs, Clare on the bench seat below. We’ll be stopping for an early lunch in Ghent so Clare can have moules-frites.

Day 343 – Bielefeld to Esbeek

A much more sedate drive to a campsite on the Dutch side of the Dutch Belgium border. We had to change our destination en-route as when we phoned the campsite we’d selected for our final week.

We were told.

  1. The cost was 15 Euros plus 15 Euros per child; and,
  2. Dogs are not permitted.

I set the filters on the excellent Camping Card app for swimming pool and no charge for children, an we have found ourselves a lovely little campsite with a toddlers’ pool and a nice size outdoor pool, and probably the best playground yet. We are camped on the playground field.

Arriving in good time I was able to fit the new chain to my bike once we were all set up. The blithering idiot of a mechanic had sold me the wrong thickness chain. After removing a few surplus links I fitted the chain. It works, but it rubs. It will need replacement again.

I have left an honest review of Lucky Bike Bielefeld on Google. Please do view and ‘like’ my review.

Day 342 – Bielefeld

Snap!

The chain on my bicycle broke on the way to the toilet block. I’ve had this happen before on my touring bike, and it’s not a pleasant experience. One moment you are pushing hard on the pedals – as it would be a moment of extreme exertion when a chain snaps – and the next moment your Crown Jewels are making violent contact with the crossbar. But not this time, I was on my Brompton, so no crossbar – just an unoccupied child’s saddle. It’s no less painful.

IMG_1801

Once my eyes had cleared I managed to work out what had happened. A visit to a bike shop was necessary.

Our reason for visiting Bielefeld was to see Clare’s friend Patra, and her little girl Maya. Patra had worked in London as an architect, living on Blackheath Hill, before returning to Germany and running her own business renovating property. She was unable to see us until five that evening. It gave us ample time to find a bike shop.

Convieniently, the bike shop was located just over the road from Ikea – yes the town that many believe not to exist can support an Ikea. A plan formed: drop off the bike for a new chain, lunch in Ikea, then pick up the bike. I was naively unaware of how poor customer service can be in Germany.

“Lucky Bike” is a big shop with a huge range of bikes, electric bikes and children’s bikes. The workshop is located at the rear of the children’s bikes showroom. I had brought my bike and broken chain in with me. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes, a little”, came the modest reply in an Oxford accent.

“My chain is broken, how much to replace the chain? I’ll be going to Ikea for lunch so could pick it up afterwards.”

“We can do it, but it will take three weeks.”

Flabbergasted I took a step back and nearly fell over a toddler’s Puky bike. I explained that it was just a broken chain, a five minute job to replace. “All these five minute jobs add up”, says he, “three weeks.”

I bought the chain he recommended for €9.99 and a chain breaker for €18.99, a specialist tool that I already have but did not bring away with us.

Never before have I come across a bike workshop that need to book you in for minor repairs.

We had a lovely lunch in Ikea, Jack chose meatballs, Ben and I schnitzel, and Clare a wrap. Then we dumped the boys in Ikea’s wonderful child disposal unit and had an hour to ourselves walking Meg.

Petra lives the far side of town, in a house she shares with her father and brother, each with their own apartment in The multigenerational house her father built in the sixties. Petra’s father was a specialist mechanic for Mercedes, but now at 85 spends his time restoring old cars. The garden is littered with car carcasses, and there is a beautiful old Citroen truck in the front drive. Born in Lithuania in 1933 he lived through Nazi then Soviet occupation before being expelled to Berlin with his mother because of his mother’s “East Prussia” papers.

Patra’s Polish partner cooked us a very fine BBQ.

Day 341 – Dresden to Bielefeld

A fast and furious drive to the mythical town of Bielefeld. Even the German Chancellor, Angel Merkell doubts its existence. Making reference to a Bürgersprach – the equivalent of s town hall meeting – she had attended in Bielefeld, she said: “…so es denn existiert” – “if it even exists”. “Ich hatte den Eindruck, ich war da”, she said – “I had the impression I was there. I hope I can go back”; “Ich hoffe, ich darf wieder hinfahren”.

The exit road to Bielefeld was closed, so we had to skirt around the area where the city is alleged to exist to our campsite which certainly does exist. And surprisingly pleasant too with an amazing playground with water feature in the sandpit designed to make Ben and Jack messy, and a kangaroo enclosure designed to amuse and bemuse Meg.

IMG_1869.JPG

Day 340 – Dresden

5 June 2017 was the day we drove to Folkestone, took the Eurotunnel shuttle service to France, and spent the first night of our year away in our van, not really knowing what we had done.

We had tenants for a year move into our home on 17 June, so bridges were burnt: no return home. Our tenants move out on 16 June, and as we return to England on 15 June we have one or two nights with my parents before moving back into our lovely house again. We are very much looking forward to being home now.

This is Day 340 of our blog, not Day 365, why? In mid August, having travelled around the Baltic Sea, we returned to England for four weeks. We had a few nights in our van, but mostly we spent our time in my parents’ second home overlooking Chichester Harbour in Emsworth. Those days went unblogged. There appears to be a discrepancy of three days in the blog: if none of the 28 days in England were blogged, then this should be Day 337. I’m unsure what has happened there, but as these things bug me I will investigate properly once I can review my blog properly on a PC.

Best experiences?

Cycling down Flåm mountain on a Brompton, hauling two toddlers in a trailer is up there. Also in Norway, leaving the boys alone and asleep in the van at midnight at Nordkapp and standing hand in hand with my wife hoping to glimpse the midnight sun below the cloud. Snuggled up in the top deck of our van with my wife and two boys watching Mary Poppins while the rain thundered outside. Having the entire city of Pompei to ourselves to explore on a wet and cold November day. Walking down the main road in Viscri late afternoon, watching the animals being brought home for the night. Being presented with a 15 Euro bill for a two course meal, plus drinks, for four people.

Day 339 – Božanov to Dresden

After barely dipping our toes into Czechia, we left. I don’t think that we strayed more than 3 Km from the Polish border. We left via a road marked as a track on our sat nav, but is was a very good road with a pristine tarmac surface. We have been finding roads more and more frequently that are not mapped on our 15 month old sat nav system – most notably a 200 Km section of the A5 motorway in northern Greece, opened in August 2017.

Pristine roads, however, soon became pot-holed mess, more typical of rural Poland, as we headed north to the toll free A4.

We stopped at the last service station before Germany to top up with cheap Polish diesel. At the largest service station I think I have ever seen, each pump with a queue of 3 or 4 cars, I snuck in behind a Sprinter van as another car pulled out, making me second in line.

Soon the Sprinter refuelled and moved forward. Following various conversations about premium diesel, I have decided to refuel with the more expensive diesels after each refill with AdBlue: about one refill in eight. This may or may not prolong the life of the engine.

I think I put in about 55 litres. I moved the van forward to allow the next person to refuel and queued to pay. With just two people on the fuel counter, the queue was long, and with many people buying large quantities of cigarettes, the queue was very slow moving. I was holding a fast asleep Jack in my arms as Ben and Clare had gone to the loo, and I couldn’t leave him sleeping in the van. I said “Pump 4” and indicated 4 with my fingers, and was infuriated at being asked to enter my PIN for a value in UK pounds. This is a con popular in Poland with foreign credit card users. You try to buy something priced only in Zloty, but they try to charge you in your home currency after adding on anything from 5% to 25%. I insisted on paying in Zloty, knowing I’d be charged no more than Visa’s conversion rate plus 2%.

After paying I returned to the car, put Jack in his seat, and noted the mileage of the van on the receipt and off we went.

We had another short toilet stop before Dresden and I tapped the figures into my phone which returned 68.79 mpg. We had been charged for 28.99 litres of fuel not about 55 litres.

I am not sure how it happened. Did I pay for the Sprinter’s fuel, or the person behind’s fuel. I thought I was very clear about it being Pump 4, but perhaps I used a different pump or was charged for a different pump. Who knows!? All I do know is that I was charged the incorrect amount for my fuel.

City campsites never seem to be very nice. This one is very busy, but it has a swimming pool and is close to a semi rural park for walking Meg and the boys.

Day 334 to 338 – Božanov

This really is just a cursory visit to the Czech Republic. The place we really wanted to see was Prague, and springtime is, apparently, the best time of year to visit Prague. But we learned early on in our adventure, in Copenhagen, that cities do not work well for us. Traipsing about with a dog in a big city doesn’t work well, with exceptions: Oporto and Dubrovnik were two such exceptions; and the boys are not particularly interested in cities. So with Prague off our wish list, we have just dipped into Czechia.

Our campsite is just the Czech side of the Polish/Czech border, almost due south of Walbrzych in Poland where we spent a night in a hotel after a Polish driver rolled his van backwards into Amarillo last August. The campsite is run by a very friendly Dutch couple, and the site feels like a bit of The Netherlands dumped into Czechia, complete with flood defences.

One afternoon we had a violent thunderstorm. A wall of water gushed towards the campsite, was caught by the ditch to the north, transported west, then southward downhill, then east in another ditch just below our pitch. The ditches were highly effective at moving water around the campsite.

The area used to be populated by Germans, they were expelled after the Second World War, but their houses and statues of Jesus remain. There is one such statue on the campsite which provided the boys with entertainment when a crane came to remove it for restoration.

IMG_1842IMG_1843IMG_1845

Extended families live in the houses, grandparents, parents and grandchildren. It is the same with Clare’s friend Barbera in Unna. Her parents live on the ground floor, Barbera and her family on the first floor and Barbera’s sister and her family on the second floor. These are big houses. We saw a pair of such houses, one restored and the other with a new roof.

IMG_1847

But it seems to me that these long houses with windows at the front but none along the side above the first floor must be part barn.

IMG_1850

At the poolside we chatted to a Czech family. They told us that Czechia had nearly full employment; the unemployment rate is only 2.3%. I quipped that Czechia could take some of Italy’s unwanted migrants. Apparently there are more anti immigrant members of the republic’s parliament than migrants: the figures being 22 and 12 respectively. I checked this out: 12 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in Czechia; there are 22 SPD MPs, the SPD being the far right anti immigrant party. Perhaps the Dutch campsite owners are not considered migrants.

We tried migrating – we got on our bikes and rode for Poland. And we made it.

IMG_1851

On Sunday the only shop in the village was shut, so we cycled to the nearest open supermarket which was in Poland. It was good that we did, Polish grocery prices are 62% of the EU average, the Czech Republic’s are 81%; the UK does well with prices just below average, but I expect that is because most food in the UK is VAT free. Food prices in Switzerland are close to being three times more expensive than Poland. See chart here.

Tomorrow we return to Poland, refuel before entering Germany, and camp somewhere outside of Dresden.

Day 333 – Belá to Božanov

Belá is close to the Czech, Pole, Slovak border tripoint. After leaving Slovakia, our long drive along the Czech-Polish border was nearly all in Poland, only the last few minutes were in our 32nd and final country of this tour.

We stopped for supplies at a Tesco in Slovakia, and wished we had gone to Lidl instead. Tesco in Krásno nad Kysucou was the worst organised supermarket we have visited in Europe. Lidl, in contrast, is uniform wherever we have been. Some products might vary from country to country, but you learn the layout of the shop, breakfast cereals in Lidl, Tarifa, are in the same area of the shop as in Lidl, Balchik, the opposite side of the Union.

Although the bread is good, I really don’t like shopping in Lidl in the UK, but for us on this trip, Lidl has given us a consistent feel of familiarity. It was this we hoped for in Tesco, but all we found was chaos.

Day 330 to 332 – Belá

They are holding the 2018 European Championships of endurance mountain biking here on 3 June. A family from the Isle of Man turned up on Sunday, the father taking part in the race, expecting to complete about 40 laps of the course. Curious, I took Meg for a walk of the route. The uphill section was a bit steep, but I reckoned I could get my Brompton up it. The downhill sections had some very sharp bends, but again I reckoned I could do it on a non MTB folding bike. And then we were back at the campsite 55 minutes later. That wasn’t hard… I could manage 40 laps over 24 hours on my Brompton!

I spoke to the competitor about this and was distressed to learn that I’d just walked the small loop of a 9.5 Km figure of eight. The bigger loop goes up, up, up, up, up into the Nízke Tatry hills, apparently. I decided then that I wouldn’t enter the race on my Brompton.

We are almost back to Bulgarian prices now. We ate out on Saturday night, for the four of us (the boys splitting an adult meal) the bill came to 14.60 Euros including drinks for Clare and me. I had goulash and dumplings, Clare had sausage and lentil soup and the boys shared pork schnitzel with chips. I had a beer and Clare’s wine was aweful. In comparison, Jack’s two course birthday meal in Bulgaria came to 15 Euros, so that was better value.

We spent most of Sunday trying to hunt down Slovakia’s highest waterfall. We drove for miles across the mountain range, but failed to locate it. Instead we settled for number two, the second highest waterfall.

Clare, Ben and Jack were fed up with me for hauling them up a mountain trail in our failed search for #1, so it was down to Meg and me. After an hour trudging up a damp mountain trail we found it, but it wasn’t really a waterfall, it was more of a water drip. With a volume of an average 3 litres per second, it wasn’t quite the scale of the Ystradfellte falls (I wasn’t expecting Niagara). But at 55 metres high, the Brankovský Vodopád drip beats Niagara by 4 metres.

IMG_1827.JPG

This is the photo of the drip from a Slovak tourism website.

IMG_1831

I think my photo represents what the drip is really like much better than the website’s photo.

We like the feeling of this campsite. There are various covered areas for camp fires and BBQs, with tables and benches. A group of female colleagues spent all day at one, sizzling sausages and getting sozzled, protected from the occasional thunder showers.

The boys spent their time playing in the river.

IMG_1823.JPG

And we found the most enormous tick on Meg, right next to a nipple.

IMG_1825.JPG

Ticks on dogs are expected, but with spot on treatment we rarely had to deal with them. With this collar we use on her now we keep on finding ticks. We have probably extracted 20 over the year, compared with perhaps four over the previous four years.

Campsite fees were 12 Euros per night plus 30 cents per shower. Ticks were free.