Week 6

This was the week of the change of plan and the lost day!

When we first planned the route we had planned to go up to the Artic Circle to see the Midnight Sun and then down through the Baltic states to Poland, but, of course, we were planning on leaving on 1st May. As we didn’t leave until 7th June and then had to go and pick up the motorhome, we are a bit behind schedule for the Midnight Sun, so we have decided to re-plan the route and head for Poland now and pick up Scandinavia on the way back home. Our main concern being the weather in Eastern Europe in Autumn and Winter.

We don’t know how we lost a day! But we thought that we left Ribe on Monday and travelled to Billund. But it seems that we arrived in Billund on Tuesday. We knew nothing of it, until yesterday (Saturday) when the garage was shut and a lady said, of course they shut on Saturday, by our reckoning it was only Friday. I keep a personal diary which forms the basis for this one, and by my diary it should only be yesterday if you see what I mean. I couldn’t work it out so cross checked with the boys’ diaries and they agreed with me. I think the answer could be to write up the diary every day! What will it be like when I get really old?!

The highlight of the week was Legoland at Billund. It is more compact than the one at Windsor, but they have much the same rides. The boys had a great time and were exhausted by the end of the day. We stayed at a very professional campsite within walking distance, so it was all very easy, though expensive. I have included a few general pictures and one of the boys in ice cream heaven. The Danes seem to go for large ice creams, but we generally have a one or two scoop one, but as it was a real treat the boys had four scoops and all the extras, amazingly they weren’t sick!

From Billund which is on Jutland, we went to the island of Fyn, the principle town is Odense which is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, always referred to as H C Andersen over here. We did a town walk of all the principle sites including one of the house in which he was born, which was tiny.

The part of Denmark that we have seen is as calm and clean as our first impressions led us to hope it was. There are not many people here, so not many cars. However, they do have a marvellous system of cycle tracks, and the cyclists have right of way most of the time including around roundabouts. It makes cycling very easy and the preferred mode of travel. In Odense we were staying about four kilometres outside the town, and to cycle in we only had to go along a road for about 500 metres and that was along a dedicated cycle track, the rest of the journey was along the river and through the zoo, all shaded by mature trees.

I have put in a photograph of a typical Danish cycle track alongside a road. Perfectly safe and accessible.

We have also seen a lot of windmills, in Belgium, Germany and Denmark, so I have included a typical set of windmills! All this part of northern Europe is very flat, as you can also see from the picture.

As we have changed our route, we headed to the port of Gedser on the southern tip of Lolland, from where we caught a boat back to Germany.

We decided to stay at a stellplatz (all facilities for motorhomes and cheap) and found one in Lenz which had lots of stars in the book, and was only an hour from the port. What a disaster! It was miles down a tiny track that was very bumpy and windey ( not sure about the spelling there). We got to the dead end at the bottom, via the narrowest bridge I would ever want to go over in the motorhome, to find a grotty looking site that had no spaces. So we had to turn back, but we had almost no fuel left and weren’t sure we were going to make it, particularly as we then got stuck behind a pony and trap driven by some children who were obviously in no hurry… Thankfully we found the garage and still had two litres left in the tank, so no reason to panic really! New rule, always fill up when down to a quarter of a tank of diesel no matter what!


Week 7

We have been so impressed with the stellplatz around Germany that we decided to stay in one in Berlin, that was right in the centre, but when we got there after a long and difficult journey, we thought that we had arrived at a breakers yard. I went in to enquire and we indeed had the right place, but there was no toilet or shower. Despite being very tired we decided that it was just too awful to stay, so drove for another hour to Potsdam, where it was clean and there were toilets, showers and even a washing machine.

We visited Berlin by tram and train. The amount of building work going on is just unbelievable. It seems that everywhere you look is a large construction site. Most of the sights are in the former East Berlin side and the most beautiful buildings are beside rectangular grey housing blocks that are dreadful to look at. We walked through a residential area and although the architecture was uniform and grim, we didn’t feel at all threatened or uncomfortable. We went to checkpoint Charlie and the museum which gave accounts of escape attempts, some of which were successful and some weren't. The boys were very interested in it all.

The the rain set in and my goodness did it rain! It was quite a novelty for the first ten minutes, but it seems barely to have stopped and the novelty has definitely worn off.

Our next stop was determined by being a small place with a stellplatz, Fiat garage (as the first oil change was due) on the road between Berlin and Poland. We chose Templin, at random. It is one of the nicest towns we have been to. The shops are mostly around the market square and are delightful and are staffed by people who genuinely seem to enjoy working there. The fascias have been renovated and the whole place is just delightful. It is a walled town and the wall is still complete. We didn't get to the hot baths, but if the brochure is anything to go by it would be worth visiting the town just for that!

Poland was next. The border was very easy and the motorway in first class (unlike autobahns which tend to be patched up dual carriageways). Then we came to the cobbled section... everything in the motor home shook, including the fillings in our teeth. I had serious misgivings of how much of Pland we would see as it was very hard going. But then it gave way to another good road.

Our first stop was a seaside town (I am in an internet cafe in Gdansk and can't remember the name of it) we went for a walk to see the Baltic sea and noticed that in the famed amphitheatre which was about 200 yards from the campsite a major rock/punk festival was about to begin, it was called "Sunrise"! The lads were all wearing white cotton cowboys style hats with the string tied on top of the hat and black sunglasses. The girls we wearing shorts so short that it looked as if they had forgotten to get dressed at all in their excitement to get to the concert. I must be getting old! Well, they rocked all night. Sunrise wasn't just a name, but an intention.

Sunday is meant to be our rest day, but we were all keen to move on, so we pushed on to Gdansk. The amount of blocks of grey concrete identical housing has t be seen to be believed. It looks so depressing; you would have to be affected if you had to live there. But, in some places they had been painted and it made the world of difference. Unbelievably in other places new blocks of flats were being built in the old Soviet style, I would have thought it would be last thing people wanted.

Then we came to REAL, a shopping complex that was as good if not better than anything in the West, the prices are very cheap so we had some serious retail therapy. But in makes you wonder how the small local shops will survive, selling basic items.

Today we are in Gdansk.


Week 8

The old town in Gdansk seems to be fast becoming a tourist destination. It is one of the few places in Poland where the American tour operators have been in evidence and the shops have caught on quickly. That said, it has beautiful old town and has become a very prosperous. What we found extraordinary was that Lech Walesa is not mentioned at all. I thought that there would be t-shirts, mugs, tea towels and embroidered pictures dedicated to the great man, but there was nothing at all. When I asked in the museum if there was a museum dedicated to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement, the assistant looked in amazement and said that museums were only for historical things!

We did walk down to the shipyard where there was a monument to those killed at the shipyard, but we really had to seek it out. There was a small kiosk, attended by a man who clearly had little interest in the job. We asked for a booklet on the Solidarity movement, but he said that we would have to come back the next day.

Sopot is the holiday spot for the tri-city of Gdansk, Gydnia and Sopot. It has the most amazing modern building that I have seen, it is called the crazy house and that is just what it looks like! The rest of Sopot is very much a seaside town, with restaurants and bars, but not a lot of character in season. Amber, which is prevalent in the area, is sold everywhere.

To round off our trip to the tri-city, we went to Gydnia. The main thing of note was the statue to Joseph Conrad. There was also an aquarium that was interesting, particularly as there was a model of the depth of the sea, and it became clear why ports are where they are.

On our last night in the Gdansk, I had just finished overseeing the boys’ showers, (having given many pertinent instructions on exactly how the operation should be performed) when I heard an English voice saying “hello, you must be English as well”. It was the first time I had heard a non-family English voice for weeks. Monica and Richard came over for a drink and it turns out they are from Nottingham. We couldn’t believe it when Monica said that not only did she know our friends, Pete and Angela, but she had been married to Pete’s late brother. I know it is trite to say it is a small world, but it was an amazing coincidence!!

We next headed to Malbork, home to the largest brick castle in the world, built by the Teutonic Knights largely in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is colossal. It would be interesting to find out the statistics of how many bricks were used etc. There is a huge amount of restoration needed, as the interior was ravaged by fighting in World War II. It is such a shame, as pictures taken in 1901 show that it had remained intact and magnificent up to that date. Also, the exterior is showing alarming signs of subsidence which will need urgent attention.

Torun was our next destination and is our favourite place to date. It has two claims to fame; Copernicus was born there in 1472 and they have a special type of gingerbread.

Because of the Copernicus connection there is a good planetarium with an English show every day. Josh was very worried to find out that the Sun would ultimately use up all it hydrogen and die, taking the Earth with it. Even the predicted date of 5 billion years hence didn’t cheer him up! Another quirk of the town is the leaning tower, built as a punishment by a monk who didn’t live up to his vows of chastity! We had an excellent lunch in an upmarket hotel restaurant. Gary had half a huge duck, with more vegetables, potatoes and garnish than could easily fit on the plate, all for £5.75!

Week 9

We were planning on spending a few days in Lodz, but the grim architecture, comprising of literally hundreds of grey rectangular blocks of communist housing put us off. We started off by all keenly looking out of the windows for camping signs, but when we eventually came to one, we took a straw vote and decided to move on. If that is the effect that it had on us after a very short while, imagine what it would be like to live there. Of course, our shallowness may mean that we have missed something amazing, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

Instead, we kept on going to Czestochowa which has a basilica that houses the Blac Madonna, or as it is also known, the Miraculous Image of Our Lady of Jasna Gora. It was originally believed to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist on a table top where the Holy Family gathered to say prayers and eat. However, more recent research has indicated that it is a Byzantine icon of between 6th and 9th centuries.

The interior of the church has to be seen to be believed, it is genuinely breathtaking. It is baroque at its most ornate. The church is full of people on pilgrimages and emotions seem to run high on a private level. Quite an extraordinary place.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was also extraordinary, numbingly so. The horror of the place is still palpable. We had a tour of both camps. Auschwitz was the first part of the tour and is much smaller than Birkenau. One a half million people were murdered there. However, for me, the desolate awfulness was concentrated into one small blue leather sandal with red trimming. It was probably size 10 (childs) or so and you could see that it had been bought with love. The leather red trim would have looked marvellous when it was new and you could imagine the delight of the child in having such smart pair of shoes. How the shoe ended in the pile does not bear thinking about. Certainly the girl was gassed; she can only have been about 8 years old.

The guide told us that the town of Oswiecim about 1.5 miles away is dying, as no-one wants to live there. That night, we stayed in a hotel car park that doubled up as a campsite quarter of a mile from the concentration camp. It was a mistake, I couldn’t sleep at all. Worst of all, was when the trains came through. You could just imagine them being jammed full of people shortly to be murdered.

A couple of lighter moments were provided on the journey to Auschwitz. We stopped at a railway crossing; the lights were red and the barrier down. A bus pulled out from the stop, in front of us, so it was first in line at the barrier. Then, the barrier lifted up about half way and the bus went underneath!! “What shall I do?” Gary asked. “Stay where you are!!” I replied. After a (very long) minute or so, the barrier came back down. Five minutes later the train came along, we were waiting, patiently.

Then, we were going along a dual carriageway, which was very well defined. A car in the overtaking lane of the opposite carriageway watched us drive past, and then pulled into our lane going the wrong way. We watched horrified in the mirrors, as he drove up the road for 100yards and then turned into his driveway. Well, I suppose it saved a few minutes going up the road to the turning and then back down again!

Today, we’ve moved on to Krakow. We spent a couple of hours in Carrefour. We bought shopping (including smoked salmon), two sweat jackets and cotton trousers for me, a fire extinguisher, clothes horse and rucksack being among the 57 items - £70!

Week 10

It probably didn't help that it was raining in Krakow and that we were feeling rather shell-shocked from Auschwitz, but Krakow was not as fantastic as I was anticipating.

It is a lovely city with many beautiful buildings, but somehow it lacked its own character. I had been really looking forward to going there, but I suspect that I will hardly be able to remember it in the future. Inevitably we saw where John Paul II lived whilst he was archbishop. In Poland he is revered on a scale that I have never experienced before. Everywhere there are pictures, sculptures, and memorabilia. He is utterly adored, by everyone.

Having said that I doubt that I will really remember Krakow, I should qualify that by saying that I am unlikely to forget the bus ride back to the campsite. There was a new road being built near to the campsite, resulting in the inevitable queues - but not for us! The driver saw the jam ahead and seeing round into the petrol station, crossing the forecourt, then along the hard shoulder for a bit before crossing back into someone else's property and through their frontage, back to the hard shoulder and then back across the land belonging to the campsite and through a no mans land to the bus stop. We left the competition standing!! Naturally, as he was a true Pole, this was all done at break neck speed with almost no regard for other road users who may have been a little alarmed at this!!

The following day we went to the salt mines at Wielicz, just outside Krakow. The deepest part open to the tourists was 130 metres, quite deep enough for me. The sculptures and relief works are quite amazing. The sheer scale of the mined area is truly awesome. There is a chapel at which regular masses are said and marriages take place and it is easily as big as most churches.

There is also a concert hall for prestigious performances.

That said, I couldn't help remembering just how far underground I was and was glad to be above ground.

By the way, the salt is a grey black colour because of the sand and other minerals, so it was just a bit gloomy. And another interesting fact was Copernicus (of Torun fame) was one of the first tourists to visit the mine.

Then, unexpectedly we spent our first night in a hotel. We had been trying to find a campsite, but couldn't find anything, except a really scary place that looked as if it were full of people with no permanent home. No doubt it would have been a most enlightening stay, but I was past enlightment and just wanted what passes for normality. Anyway we ended up at a hotel near the Slovak border, for two twin bedded rooms it cost 30 pounds, so a real bargain. I slept like a log in a room with Josh, as the boys who were so excited to get their own rooms to begin with, suddenly got rather worried the later it got. Gary shared with Rory - Rory slept, but unfortunately Gary found that the TV could also show the camera on the motor home and he just couldn't help watching it - not all night you understand, just when the noises from the yard got too much!!