Friday, 7 October 2016

Ferry - Hook of Holland to Harwich - Thursday, 6 October

This morning, we drove about thirteen miles across beautiful flat farming countryside, through villages, with canals sometimes running parallel, to reach the town of Gouda, famous for its cheese. Although we have seen plenty of wind turbines in The Netherlands, there are still some old-fashioned windmills and we actually saw one working today which was a fine sight to behold.

Plunging right into the centre of the town, we suddenly found ourselves driving along narrow tree-lined, cobbled roads, one way along one side of a canal and, on the other side of the canal, traffic going the other way. Needing to park, we found a space next to a canal and I very cautiously reversed into it, being very careful not to end up in the canal. I'm sure that vehicles get fished out of canals from time to time.

We wandered along picturesque streets, amazed by the number of bicycles being ridden by people of all ages. In a town such as Gouda, where the roads are absolutely flat, it makes so much sense.

We went into the tourist information office, occupying the ground floor of a historic building, constructed in about 1686. Here, we paid to visit the cheese museum on the first and second floors. We were the only visitors and were given a personal potted history of the building by one of the museum curators. Upstairs, there was short film about the cheese-making process. Going back downstairs, we sampled various examples of farmhouse Gouda. Gouda, together with Edam, are cheeses that I tend to avoid at home as they are generally rubbery and tasteless. I assume that those are factory-made rubbish. The cheeses we tasted were delicious and we parted with some cash.

Around the corner from the museum was a traditional cheese shop and we couldn't resist going in just to have look. Well, that was the idea. There were so many Gouda cheeses to try and we were persuaded to buy some, saying that it could go in the freezer for Christmas. We have Gouda flavoured with green pesto, red pesto, Gouda made from goats' milk, from sheeps' milk, young and mature. In chatting to the lady owner, we established that her in-laws live in the same very small village in England as our son.

For a late lunch, we made our way to Toko Ina, an Indonesian shop that sells all sorts of spices and food ingredients, together with cooked Indonesian food to take away. They also have tables providing seating for just six people to eat in. We each chose a meal comprising rice, two meat dishes and two vegetable dishes, together with a drink, all for €11 each. It was a cracking good meal and a fine way to round off our tour of Northern Europe.

We then drove through rush hour traffic to the ferry terminal, in plenty of time for the night crossing home, following signs for Hoek van Holland and then Engeland. Disconcertingly, the check-in opened a good hour earlier than scheduled and we were in our cabin by 7.30pm, the time check-in was due to start. Just before take off, the captain announced that we would have a "moderate to rough, but steady, crossing" but hopefully being horizontal will make it bearable.

Last posting from foreign lands - well, foreign seas to be exact because we are already aboard the ferry at Hook of Holland.

It has been a lovely last day. Woke to a beautiful, bright, chilly autumn morning, and we could have been on the Norfolk Broads. (I have to make a correction to yesterday's posting; we are beside the River Ijssel, not a canal). It is a splendid site.

Gouda, halfway between Ijsselstein and the ferry port, was the obvious choice for a last day of exploring, and proved to be an excellent one. It is like a mini Amsterdam, really lovely. We found ourselves in the old centre very quickly, all one way roads beside canals, and decided to park in one of the canal side parking spaces. I vetoed the first one Geoff wanted to go for - very, very close to the edge of the canal with no barrier at all, and we found one with a little bit more room to manoeuvre, but not much! The parking fee was gulp-making, but it was very convenient, and our last day! The meter refused two of our cards, but happily accepted the third. No idea why.

It was a short walk along the canal and down a narrow, picturesque lane of interesting shops to the Markt, with the rather ornate Town Hall in its centre. It was market day too. We first checked out a place Geoff had discovered online, where we fancied having a late lunch, of which more later. Then St Johannes Kirke, which was like a Tardis, and is particularly famed for its stained glass windows. It apparently has over half the surviving 16th century stained glass in the Netherlands.

From there we returned to the other side of the Markt, to the Cheese Museum. Here we had our own "guides" on each of two floors in what was originally built as a warehouse in the 17th century, climbing up two long spiral staircases. We learnt how Gouda cheeses are made, and saw all sorts of cheese making paraphernalia. Of course they were selling cheese, and yes, of course, we bought supplies. This tastes nothing like the Gouda Cheese available in England. One is a Goat's cheese, and there are others at various stages of maturity.

The lady guide, being rather disloyal, had told us about the best other place to buy cheese. We found that one, of course, and it was amazing. We were getting a bit peckish by now, so tasting all the cheeses available was very pleasurable. We had to find a basket to collect the ones we wanted, and the choice was difficult. We got chatting to the lady in charge - manager or owner, not sure, but she referred to "my cheese'' - and it transpired that her parents-in-law live in the same very small village in West Sussex as James and Natalie! Small world!

Then it was time to eat properly so we decided to leave the town museum, with its Erasmus exhibition, for another time. The little Indonesian place was a real find. It is a shop, selling all sorts of Indonesian ingredients, and also ready cooked Indonesian dishes. It also has a nicely laid out table which can seat up to six in the window so that you can eat there. There were lots of different meat and vegetable dishes to choose from, and we had the set price meal - two meat and two veg dishes with rice. It was all very tasty indeed.

Strolling back to the campervan, we agreed that this was a place we would be happy to revisit.
An hour's drive along the now familiar horrendously busy A20 and we were at the Hook of Holland by 5.30, very early for check-in which wasn't scheduled to open until 7.30, but happy to be in position and make ourselves comfortable in the camper with a cup of tea. We were then taken by surprise when they opened the check-in at 6.30, and by 7.30 we were all aboard and settled in our cabin. Which even has a double bed!

With so much unexpected time here, we grabbed the DVD player to bring on board with us in case we fancy an episode or two of Mad Men.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

IJsselstein, south of Utrecht - Wednesday, 5 October

An early morning walk around Bad Bentheim made a good start to the day. The satnav took us to Lidl but only to where it used to be. We eventually found the new one not far away. We got various odds and bits of wine and beer. A lot of it is ridiculously inexpensive. The beer, for instance, (good German beer) was €1.99 for six 500ml bottles.

It was then only a few miles to the border into The Netherlands. We took the motorway towards Apeldoorn and then Utrecht and the traffic was horrendous. Bunches of articulated lorries and then having to wait for a space to move out to overtake. Then, exiting, in no time at all, we were on a single carriageway road and then on a single track road to our camperstop. It is a marina on the River IJssel. There are just seven places and it all seems quite new. We are parked looking out on to the river.

First stop today Lidl to stock up on wine. It will be interesting to see what prices are like in Holland where we won't have to do calculations to compare different currencies. A lot of things are really inexpensive in Germany compared to home, which comes as a bit of a surprise. Beer and wine especially so.

The motorway from Bad Bentheim to Utrecht, two hours plus but felt like more, was pretty manic and packed with lorries again; the Utrecht Ring Road in particular was like the M25. Geoff was very pleased to turn off it and immediately we were in quiet country roads and peaceful countryside, and only a few minutes drive from our night's Camperstop at Ijsselstein. This canal side area, with a marina just the other side of a pedestrian bridge spanning the canal, appears to be brand new and is splendidly laid out with facilities for just seven campervans, and moorings for boats. There is also a smart modern restaurant, and foot/cycle paths aplenty across the flat open countryside. The weather has been beautiful, if a bit on the breezy side, and there was a lovely sunset complementing the almost new moon.

A very nice setting for our last night before the overnight ferry back to Harwich tomorrow. But we still have a full day to enjoy, and only an hour's drive left to the Hook of Holland.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Bad Bentheim, Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) - Tuesday, 4 October

Nienburg didn't detain us this morning, although I'd gone out for a walk into town before breakfast and found some excellent wifi in the high street. We chatted with an older couple from Schleswig Holstein. He was most impressed with our compact camper van. We told him he was not the first! He said that he prefers rather more space and comfort at his age. Will we feel the same way in a few years time?

Having experienced some odd noises from the camper yesterday, we espied a VW garage a few miles out of Nienburg. I thought it was a wheel bearing noise. The garage was very helpful and in no time a mechanic drove the camper with me as a passenger and then got it up on a lift. It seems that it isn't wheel bearings but uneven tyre wear and this is causing road noise. Certainly, there shouldn't be a problem in getting home so nothing to worry about. There was no charge for which we were extremely grateful. What excellent service.

Today was mainly a driving day. We drove to a Lidl and bought a few odd bottles of wine. We are particularly interested in German red wine so bought two bottles with a view to having a tasting this evening.

We ran into some very slow traffic for a while but then some rather scary autobahn. Overtaking was OK but it was necessary to check the near side mirror very carefully as cars tended to hurtle at breakneck speed in the outside lane.

We arrived at Bad Bentheim late afternoon. The Camperstop is in a car park just below a castle. There are about a dozen others here. There are loos nearby and we even have free wifi in the camper, all for €8. We took a walk into the village this evening and it is really nice. Apart from the castle, there are also museums and rather nice bars, restaurants, etc.

We had our wine tasting and will find another Lidl tomorrow (which isn't difficult) to buy some bottles to take home.

There was no great hurry to get away this morning to do the next leg of the journey across Germany, aiming tonight for somewhere not far from the Dutch border. We chatted to a distinguished elderly German gentleman and his wife who were interested in the camper. Not luxurious or spacious enough for them though. Cosy, he called it. Which it is, of course.

We made a couple of stops on the 25 mile stretch to get to the motorway. The first was at the Volkswagen dealer and service garage which we came across conveniently located just outside Nienburg. We had both become aware yesterday of what we at first thought was road noise, but it didn't go away. Nothing too alarming but a definite rhythmic grumbling. Geoff thought it might be a wheel bearing, and had been undecided as to whether we should get it checked out. So we did.

The manager was very helpful, immediately got a mechanic, who took the camper out for a drive with Geoff, leaving me with my coffee and the paper comfortably settled in the showroom. He could hear the noise, jacked the camper up and investigated , and diagnosed it as uneven tyre wear. Definitely not wheel bearings. And not a problem. No charge, and we were on our way again.

The second stop was at a Lidl to pick up some German wines for sampling tonight before deciding which to buy in slightly larger quantities to take home.

Once we had got through a very slow diversion just after joining the motorway, the journey was not too bad, although the traffic was quite heavy and there were a huge number of very large lorries. We arrived at the Camperstop at Bad Bentheim around 5 o'clock. This is another municipal site, and has to be the most surprising. It consists of 25 spaces within the car park for the castle, and is well equipped. We are right next to the castle, which is built high on the sandstone rock for which the town is known, and is really quite big and impressive, surrounded by lovely formal gardens, and right in the centre of town. This evening before supper we walked the circuit around the castle, through the town and back through the gardens. Very pleasant. As an added bonus there is town-wide free wifi which we can access in the camper. It is no wonder that these municipal Camperstops are so well used.

There is a Town Nightwatchman who does the rounds at night telling local stories, like the one in Ribe, in Denmark, right at the beginning of our travels way back in July. Sadly, not on a Tuesday night, though.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Nienburg, Mittelweser (Germany) - Monday, 3 October

We breakfasted on the ship, having prepaid, and disembarked around 8am. We headed straight into Lübeck, only a few miles, although as it is on the south of the city, it seemed that we went quite a long way round. The city was very quiet for a Monday morning. We parked by the river and had a wander round. It was very pleasant, people fishing, sun shining. It was all a bit too early so we moved on. We wanted to avoid the inevitable traffic around Hamburg so planned to take a route south to Lüneberg.

Before we left Lübeck, however, we located a Lidl. As we drove into the car park, we realised it was virtually empty. I went over to the entrance and saw that it should be open. What was going on? As I walked back to the camper, a lady came over and said today was a "feiertag" (holiday) and so the shop was shut. Anyway, we found a garage open and bought some long life milk and a few bread rolls so we wouldn't be destitute. Amanda went online and ascertained that today is German Unity Day, a public holiday, presumably since 1989.

On we went, a very pleasant drive down to Lüneberg. Parking was a problem initially as there seemed to be a disproportionate number of "parking houses" which are out of bounds to our camper, unless we want to lower the roof. However, going down a side street, Lüner Straße, we found a space just by the church. It was then just a short walk in to the centre of the town. Here, our ears were assailed by the sound of live music and found a crowd gathered round a band, Lazy Beat Bones. They are a school band whose members are disabled and able bodied and were rather good.

Going on to the town square, there was more music and suddenly we were among numerous stalls. Far more (and better) than a Christmas market. It was a three day event, the fourteenth annual Lüneberger Sülfmeistertage, celebrating the town's history and heritage of salt mining. There was music, food and beer stalls, crafts and all sorts of other things. We grabbed our lunch for later, one roll each of brown shrimps and Bismarck herring. Apart from these festivities, none of the shops were open.

We had a quick look round the church of St. Nicholas, just over the road from where we were parked, an impressive building dating back to the 1400s. Neither this, nor any other buildings in the town suffered damage in WWII. Lüneberg is noteworthy for being the place where Montgomery accepted the German surrender; also, Heinrich Himmler's ashes are buried in an unmarked place somewhere in the surrounding Lüneberg Heath.

We planned our overnight stop at Nienburg and had a meandering drive across country to arrive here around 4pm. We are amongst other camper vans alongside the River Weser. I took a walk into town, pleasant enough but not particularly noteworthy.

A very civilised start to the day, with breakfast from 7.30 to 8.30 included in the overnight charge, then disembarkation at 9 (still on Finnish time) and the weather is lovely. Although we wouldn't want to do such a long journey again for a while, it has been a very good experience. Once again, the old fashioned feel suited us. Peace and quiet, very restful. Geoff did go a little stir-crazy yesterday, but a trip to the gym helped.

We drove straight to Lübeck, having put our watches back an hour. Even so, it seemed terribly quiet for 8.15 on a Monday morning. Was this rush hour? We parked by the river, and strolled back towards the Tourist Office, admiring the old red brick buildings. No shops open yet, but that was not surprising, and we decided not to wait another ten minutes until the TIO opened at 9, as we were a bit uncertain about the lawfulness of our parking place.

The decision had already been made to avoid the motorways around Hamburg this time, so we headed south, putting Lüneberg in the satnav - a random choice. After two days on the ferry we had an empty fridge, so stopped at Lidl. No cars in the car park, and no sign of life. It was now getting on for 9.30. As Geoff went to investigate, it dawned on me that it must be a Bank Holiday of some sort. A kind lady meanwhile had approached him, and explained in German that he was able to understand that it was indeed a public holiday.

As we continued on our way I used a day's data roaming allowance ascertaining that today is German Unity Day, a celebration of Unification, and everything is well and truly shut. All Day! I also did some research into Lüneberg, and learned that it had much of historical interest, old and relatively new, to offer, both as a Hanseatic town which had not suffered in the war, and of significance in relation to WW2. Montgomery took the German surrender here, the town hosted the Belsen trial, and Himmler committed suicide here.

We were fortunate to find a garage with a shop, and there we purchased one of two remaining cartons of UHT milk and half a dozen rolls, the best on offer, and enough to see us through. We do have a few tins of stuff remaining in our dwindling store cupboard.

Finding somewhere to park in Lüneberg proved a bit of a nightmare - all roads led to car parks with height barriers - but then, in escaping from one of said dead ends, we found a two hour roadside parking space next to St Nicolas Church, and right in the middle of the old town.

Lüneberg is a particularly attractive town, and we were already enjoying it when we came into the Town Hall Square to the sound of singing. A school band/choir, called The Lazy Beat Bones. They were very good and I will see if I can find out more about them when I can get internet access. We strolled on down the next street, where there were a few street food stalls. And then we emerged into the main town square to a full scale street fair going on. Think German Christmas Market without the Christmassy tat, just loads of great food stalls and some really nice craft stalls. It was the last day of a four day annual Town Festival. We made some purchases, some edible, some not, and got back to the camper with just enough of the two hours left to look around St Nicolas Church, which was really well worth the visit.

The satnav led us through what seemed like a rather circuitous route, which may have been to avoid a closed road, and was also in obedience to instructions to avoid motorways, to the Camperstop we had picked out at Nienburg. One very strange thing we noticed as we drove is that autumn hasn't arrived here yet, and all the leaves are still on the trees. So different from Finland, where they are settling in for the winter. It was an enjoyable meander through quiet roads and small German towns, but it is possible that the motorway may beckon tomorrow!

Nienburg itself is an unremarkable place, but the municipal Camperstop, on the banks of the river Weser and a short walk from the town, is very pleasant. And it has electric hookups, an essential requirement tonight to chill the fridge!

On board Finnmaid from Helsinki to Travemünde - Sunday, 2 October

At sea.

Relaxing at sea.

All day.

And evening.

Arrived Travemünde, Germany 10.30pm Finnish time, 9.30pm German time.

Night on board in dock.

Monday, 3 October 2016

On board Finnmaid from Helsinki to Travemünde - Saturday, 1 October

Not an eventful day, which is no bad thing once in a while. On going to empty our on-board loo (part of the deal is that this is my job), I surprised a red squirrel only four or five feet away. It froze for a few seconds and then scampered away. I have seen a few others on and off on this trip.

We left the site for the ferry terminal via Lidl. Fortunately, the terminal is only about three miles from Rastila Camping. We got there nice and early around 1pm. Check-in opened at 1.30. No problems and we were directed to lane 5 and it was another one and a half hours before we were able to board. This was done in batches by convoy. The ferry being very much a cargo ferry, we went quite a windy route of about a quarter mile to where we went on board.

Cars are loaded on forwards and, on unloading, will drive to the end and go down the other side and then off. As there is a bulkhead towards the end, we and other higher vehicles, had to reverse into position. I made rather a hash of it.

Our cabin is absolutely fine with a large rectangular window. The ship is in the process of being facelifted and modernised and so facilities were a little limited and the duty free shop quite small and also limited. Leaving just after 5pm, the weather was fine but breezy. We went out through the archipelago, enjoying the views. It is a 29 hour journey and very calm so far.

Very little to report today - and tomorrow will be even quieter! We left the campsite at 12.30 for Hansa Terminal, the city's eastern ferry terminal, just 10 minutes away, but allowed time for a stop at Lidl on the way to stock up with supplies for the voyage. We had decided not to go for the meal package, preferring to play it by ear. Check-in was easy, but with a lot of sitting in vehicles. It opened at 1.30 and closed at 3, two hours before departure. The Finnmaid is a vehicle and cargo ship, and loading up is probably quite complicated, as is the journey through the docks - vehicles are led through in small convoys.

I hadn't known what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised by the cabin. Once again we have beds rather than bunks, one of which converts into a settee for daytime use, all pretty basic but it is perfectly adequate. The ship is a complete change from yesterday's ultra modern catering for the masses. Relatively small, with just one small bar/cafe and one restaurant which has one sitting for dinner, all utilising one open space, it has an old fashioned air about it. The sun deck is just one large open space with a helicopter landing pad, and overlooks the cargo deck, full of containers. It also afforded magnificent views over the archipelago as we left port just after 5 pm with sunshine and blue skies. One last look back at Scandinavian scenery!

We ate in our cabin - very tasty prawn and smoked salmon open sandwiches from the bar, supplemented by Lidl purchases - and are now intending to settle down for a couple of episodes of Mad Men. What a brainwave to bring the camper's DVD player to the cabin! It will help to pass the time until we disembark in Germany on Monday morning. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Rastila Camping, Helsinki - Friday, 30 September

Up really early to get to West Harbour by tram and Metro. Our ferry to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, left at 8.30. We had a cabin, reserved as we went in, and it was nice because it was quite a choppy crossing and I find that the best thing to do when the ship is heaving around is to lie down. Anyway, if I'm going to be sick then I'd rather have privacy. However, all was well.

We walked into Tallinn, which wasn't far from the ferry terminal. We had a few sights to tick off. First was St. Olaf's church, a massive structure completely hemmed in by closely packed streets all around. Then we were in need of a pick me up. A café beckoned, the Bogapott. Here, we had excellent coffee and a slice of Tosca cake each. This was a meld of dried fruit and nuts on a marzipan sponge base. Definitely one to be replicated at home.

Next was the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, onion domed, and filled inside with icons and lots of gold. We then walked through to the Raekoja Plats (town hall square), lined with ancient pastel-coloured buildings, most of which seemed to be restaurants which spilled out into the square. The sight of the restaurants reminded us that it was lunchtime and we didn't fancy eating later on the ferry, particularly if if was going to be choppy. Nor were we tempted by any of the restaurants with photos of the meals on offer and/or where staff tried to get us to go in.

Having rejected a few others, we liked the look of the menu of the Olevi restaurant in Olevimägi, entered by descending steep stone steps into a cellar. It had a slightly eastern feel to it but we took to it right away. We both started with a lovely fish soup.  I then had stewed wild boar (a casserole) topped with mashed potato and a side dish of red cabbage and berry sauce. Amanda had Estonian pork cutlet. We were both very pleased with our choices and stayed quite a long time feeling very relaxed.

Emerging from the restaurant, we though we would gradually make our way back to the ferry terminal but I was attracted by another church to visit. This was the church of Saint Nikolai the Miracle-Worker, orthodox and all very ornate inside; not mentioned in Lonely Planet but it ought to be.

The ferry back to Helsinki was actually a little calmer than this morning. All in all, an excellent last day in Finland. Tomorrow we take the ferry over to Germany.

We were up at 6, and away before 6.30, on a very dark and blustery morning, to take our now familiar Metro and tram route to the Vastra Terminal, in slight trepidation this time given the weather. When we got there I went straight to the Eckerö Line Desk and booked us a cabin for both legs of the trip. Look at it as an insurance policy, I told Geoff.

It was definitely a good move. There was plenty of rolling motion for most of the two and a half hour crossing to Tallin, and it was much more comfortable to be able to lie down and enjoy the peace and quiet. The ship, MS Finlandia, can take 2000 passengers, and all the bars and restaurants, where nearly all the available inside seating is to be found, were looking pretty full. We have been so spoiled on our quiet ferry journeys!

Once we had arrived, it was great to be able to walk from the ferry terminal straight to the Old Town. The few spots of rain quickly passed, and we had alternating cloud and patchy blue skies for the rest of the day. Our first stop was St Olaf's Church (Protestant), with a roof as high as many cathedrals. From there we wandered the streets, making our way towards the Upper Old Town, where the Orthodox Andre Nevsky Cathedral and the castle are to be found. Visitors enthuse about Tallinn, and understandably so, but in some ways it is little different from other lovely towns we have seen around the Baltic.

Where it is unusual is in the way the medieval city walls, and their turreted towers, are all mixed in with the later buildings, and the large number of churches in such a small area. As well as the Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic cathedrals, there are numerous churches of all three denominations.

Coffee was much needed by this point, and we came across Bogapott, a shop, cafe and pottery studio, quirky and delightful. There we enjoyed a large coffee, and a slice of Tosca cake, a Swedish speciality that was new to us and quite delicious, all served in and on pottery made on the premises. From there it was a steep climb through an entrance in the wall and up a cobbled hill to the Orthodox cathedral.

From there we followed our noses down to the Lower Old Town via steps going in all directions and on to the Town Hall Square, with its grand buildings and restaurants, and along Pikk, the Main Street of old merchant houses.

By this time we were on the lookout for somewhere to have a late lunch that would see us through the evening as well, not wanting to risk a meal on the ship in case the crossing was a bit rough again.We looked at a few places that didn't really grab us, but then stumbled across Olevi Restaurant where a dive down some steep stairs into a cellar took us into another world; smart, dimly candlelit and comfortably furnished. The traditional Estonian menu was appealing., and we were the only ones there, although two other tables were filled while we were eating. Stefan, our waiter, was excellent. He is clearly called upon to handle any English speaking customers. We both had an amazing fish soup, then Geoff had a wild boar dish, and I had an Estonian pork dish, both very good. Strong coffee rounded the meal off nicely, and it was all very leisurely and comfortable.

We made a conscious decision not to try and do museums today, and contented ourselves with spending a while longer pottering through the streets, and a look inside St Nicholas Orthodox Church. Then it was time to brave the Friday night crowds, waiting to board the ferry, which was 30 minutes late arriving. Great to know that we could retire to our own little haven in our cabin, have a shower, and relax for the duration of the journey. Plenty of movement still, but not as much as this morning.

It has been a very pleasant and memorable way to spend our last day before starting the journey homewards, and Tallinn is definitely worth seeing. With at least three ferries doing three return trips each every 24 hours, not to mention the cruise ships, it must be a bit of a nightmare in the summer, though. The ferries are well known for their weekend booze-cruises and hen/stag parties!

Back 'home' by 10.30, and after a welcome mug of tea, ready for bed after a long and satisfying day.