Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.
We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.
Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African
It is one of those songs, which I cannot read the words without singing the tune. I still have the record (LP) ‘Come along and sing along’ with Charles Berman and company
which I’ve listened uncountable times as a kid growing up in Yellowwood Park, Durban. In my head this Em’rald Isle they mentioned was some exotic sunny island with coconut palms, white sandy beaches and hours of leisure in the sun. I simply had to one day visit it! It was with a big ‘Ahh, they talk about Ireland’ that I later learned what the Em’rald Island actually was, but it never tempered my curiosity to one-day travel over this island.
Nowadays the musical reference to Ireland is probably more Ed’s Galway Girl, and that too is a great song, rather than Kelly.
If I still had a slight expectation of sunny beaches and leisurely hours enjoying those sunny beaches in my head in anticipation of our 10 day Ireland trip, I was rudely jerked into reality when we received the message from Ryan Air about 36 hours before our flight informing us our flight was cancelled! Not delayed, sommer completely cancelled, gone, finish ‘en klaar’. Europe was caught in a week of serious snow and bad weather and Dublin airport was closed for a few days. After frantically phoning around and surfing around (the web kind, not the anticipated sunny waves kind of surfing), Cara was able to get us a 22:00 flight, for the Sunday evening! We were supposed to fly Thursday but had to wait until Sunday night. Before you think of my Ugly Story post and that infamous Lufthansa flight LH572, this was different and we accepted it as such, while keeping our eyes peeled to weather forecasts and news bulletins of the European weather scene. Oh, by the way, after 22 months, Lufthansa refunded us a few euros per ticket, of which the lawyers took nearly half.
We landed in Dublin at 23:30 Sunday night, picked up our rental car, grabbed a serious coffee or two or six, and headed into the snowy, misty darkness of the M4 and the 215km I had to drive to get to our Galway accommodation.
It was a good call to drive through to Galway that night, because we woke the next morning at our destination, with a view across the bay, and a little grocery store stocking real bacon, eggs and cheddar among a few other necessities just around the corner. English breakfasts instead of continental in itself is sufficient reason for visiting Ireland.
‘On day four, it was time to move on. Francois and Talitha said their goodbyes and headed back to Wildernis, while we headed north-west, towards Mata Mata and its border post. We still had 10 days ahead to explore the vast distances and rugged beauty of the Namib and Etosha. Distance for today was 774km of dirt road; pure ‘lekkerte!’’
Mata Mata is one of the three conventional camps in the Kgalagadi and lies on the eastern border of Namibia with the convenience of a border post. One can enter and exit Namibia at this post if you stay in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for two nights, preventing the park becoming a transit route, which is obviously a good rule. Namibia has vast distances and travellers more often than not underestimate the travel distances and times. I too made that mistake. Not so much in my planning, but more so in my execution. Enjoying the goodbyes with Francois and Talitha, the showers in Twee Rivieren and the game drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata too much, meant that we exited South Africa about three hours later than initially planned. We still had 570km to cover from Mata Mata to Sesriem, and it was already after lunchtime. Of the 570km 90% was dirt roads, which translates to at least 8 hours of driving. Its normally not a problem, but this being wild country with plenty of wild animals, its not wise to travel after sunset. That clichéd quote ‘its better to travel hopeful than to arrive’ really rang true that evening, with frequent encounters with oryx, zebra, kudu and other large animals roaming the roads in the dark. Fortunately, we travelled well and arrived safely at Sossus Oasis Camp Site, Sesriem.
Namibia must be one of the best-kept secrets and I actually don’t want to promote it too much through my blog, as I’m afraid of more people traveling there and spoiling it for us selfish ones. It is pristine, wild, mostly dry, tranquil but rough and expansive. And why I have a very selfish stance on trying my little best to keep it that way is because people spoil things. Sitting and enjoying our campfire late afternoon the next day, sipping a Pinotage from Tulbach and not speaking much, the serenity was abruptly ended by an Englishman and a German entering a particularly abusive shout-fest over their camping spot and access to the electricity. Right there and then, Europe spoiled a perfect African setting for the better part of an hour. But the rough beauty of the place convinced me to ignore them and enjoy the splendour of God’s creation.
Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!
A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.
Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.
When I blog on my travel, I prefer to focus on the good stuff, because travel writing is a good thing, it’s a learning experience and its about sharing motivation with others to pack their bags and find new places, meet new people, eat new food and create new stories. My Blog post number 39 however, is a sour, ugly one. I met people I would rather not. I don’t like it, and I am hesitant to post it. It’s a story of travel going wrong, which does happen, and giving me an eye-opener on how ugly and incompetent problem-solving by a world-renowned corporation can be.
I’m sitting in the Vienna airport with a cold beer waiting for my connecting flight to Doha after what was probably my worst ever weekend of traveling in my life and I’m struggling how to approach this blogging task. In my head I hear the good lesson I learnt from Dr. Humphrey Mathe over and over again. ‘When you have a difficult assignment to write about’, he taught me, ‘write it after time has passed, then let it sit for a few hours, then read it twice, and then re-write it so that you don’t include too much emotion’. Its wise words, and I’ll try, but its also an incident I would like to report on exactly how I experienced it. (this previous paragraph I wrote in July 2016, while still in the emotion of the incident. I let it simmer until today, but it still bugs me).
‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority; from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see!’ – Samuel Johnson
Click on the photos to enlarge
I have seen It, I have traveled It, I have driven It, including that magnificent Amalfi coastal route, I have experienced a cutthroat Italian shave and now I have to share these travels as I simply cannot see so many inferiority complexes continue. However, I doubt if I can even slightly give justice to the experience, pleasure and sights I have seen on my three-week trip in this blogging attempt. If, however, I can inspire just one to visit Italy because of this blog, I’ll be happy.
So, please, go and just do it ✔
To add to an experience such as traveling Italy, its not a bad idea to take some of your best friends along. Sharing the beauty, the tastes, the wine, the music and friendship chatter with Andre en Rentia added that cherry on top satisfaction, which we had. It was good.
The first delightful stretch of road I discovered was still in Austria where I traversed the Alps between Zell am Zee and Heiligenblut over the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, all the way up to the Edelweißspitze. I seriously suffer from fear of hights and this road tested me to the extreme of my bravery as far as hights go. I will, however be tested further on this journey as far as narrow, winding roads and Italian bus, car and scooter drivers are concerned. I believe I am now an accomplished driver and may even appear as a guest ‘Stig’ on Top Gear. Jeremy must just first discover me!
‘Ah Venice’ unfortunately is rapidly becoming ‘o no Venice’. The once magnificent icon on my third visit there was certainly the disappointment of the trip. Though the little alleyways, canals and architecture obviously are still there constantly posing for the Canon lens,
the Italian charm is mostly gone and replaced by a cheap plastic feel where shopkeepers are all but Italian and where the Gondola boats-men chat on cellphones and smoke rather than sing there once famous opera arias! Even those rows and rows of restaurant chairs on San Marco’s Square were pathetically empty, with some restaurants providing music to not a single customer at dinnertime. The once classy establishment had made way to a cheap ‘follow-the-flag-and-quickly-take-a-photo-from-a-distance’ type traveller who sees, but does not feel nor experience. Have the many years of exorbitant prices caught up with Venice, or is the Europe-wide influx of cheap labour and associated cheap stuff more to blame? It was a sad sad situation to observe. Very disgruntled by what we saw and experienced in Venice we were adamant to find some of the old charm for lunch and Cara took the lead out of the main streets. We were lucky. Seeing a little osteria (Da Mario at Fondamenta de la Malvasia Vecchia San Marco) tucked away in a quiet street we peaked through the door to see it filled with gondoliers.
Surely, this is the local hangout and we must try it. It was the real deal, with cheap great food, beer and wine as well as an Italian ‘mamma’ running the tiny kitchen with all the charm, sweat and noise which one would want and expect as the scene from an Italian restaurant. Venice was not yet completely lost!
Despite the disappointment of Venice, our stay was a delight, even though we camped. I opted for the lessor advertised and harder to find Agricampeggio Mose on Punta Sabbioni.
This camp is part of a working farm where they have a little stall selling the farm produce and which is run by (another) ‘Mama’, who even offer free transport to the ferry-bus and who runs the tiny café-bar, reception, shuttle service and no-English loud and fast Italian conversation with true Italian aplomb. Prepare for your survival by learning some life saving Italian phrases, such as ‘due espresso macchiato per favore’ and practice to say it in the required Italian rhythmic tone, with hands pointed backwards, all fingers clenched together and giving the beat of the request. Very important to then respond to Mama’s question, ‘latte caldo o freddo?’ with a confident ‘caldo’ (for hot milk) and not with a ‘huh!’ to prevent Mama whipping the floor with you! Even with the communication gap firmly in place, Mama’s sense of humor and joking with our ignorance regarding Italian ways and customs will make me recommend her camp-site with great pleasure. Just remember, Venice has plenty of water, take mosquito repellent.
On the west coast in the famous Cinque Terre region is another magic, yet slightly menacing to reach campsite, Campeggio Il Nido, which has been owned and run by Roberto for the past 28 years. Reaching Campeggio Il Nido was, even including the drive across the Alps in Austria, my first real driving challenge, negating the winding and narrow roads with crazy death challenging Italian drivers, each in his own mind totally convinced that his Vespa, Fiat 500 or even Piaggio 3-wheel delivery van/scooter thingy was a full-blooded Ferrari! Il Nido is truly tucked away in the coastal bush, on the edge of the mountain and with the most amazing views of the Mediterranean imaginable. The campsite consist of a few terraces where mostly only two- or three-man tents will fit and since its not in town, its little restaurant is where the entire camp will gather in the evenings and leisurely sit, eat, chat or catch-up on their Facebook status! It was here where I noticed the small interesting little library, with a particularly interesting book, for this part of the world.
Although the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre (remember cinque means five) can be reached by train, taking the hop-on-hop-off boat proved to be a stunningly relaxing way to visit the towns, with the added advantage of providing those exquisite views from the sea on the towns. The five towns that make up this must-visit destination are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Five old world fishing villages consisting of one or two mentionable little streets lined by the most exquisite and quaint buildings proudly inviting the camera lens for more and more. This coastline is rugged, with each town, except Corniglia, hugging a small bay/harbor where ‘the fish know all the fishermen and boats know each other’s name’, as Valiant Swart puts it so eloquently. Cinque Terre should be very high on any prospective traveller’s bucket list. Whether you love simply wandering around, browsing the many little stores, dipping into the clear clear water of the Mediterranean, sitting and sipping something cold to wash away the salty anchovies or actively hiking, taking photos and ‘ticking off’ your bucket list items, you will be happy in Cinque Terre.
And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful five towns and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi. But that’s the next post.
‘it is situated on a fertile plain, far from the mountains, an hour along the track, with large quantities of wine and grain on either side, and the land is good for wheat, onions and other fruit of the garden. This city is the centre of Alsace and is a single league away from Kiesersperg, Ammersweiler, Rechenwyer and Rappoltzweyer, towns that make most excellent wine, the finest of all Alsace’ in the words of one Sébastian Münster in 1552. Yes, 1552! Unfortunately Messieur Münster lived many years too early to be treated to the delicate tastes of Messer’s Pierre Jourdan, Danie de Wet and many more who produce those fine ‘tranquille’ Cabrières, Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs way way down south at the tip of Africa. Judging Messieur Münster’s praise for the Alsace wines, I am very sure he would have approved with great satisfaction the younger South African products.
However, he was justly accurate in his description that Colmar is a pleasant city, even beautiful with its stunning, be it slightly confusing architecture. This is France in 2014, but the German Tudor style is in abundance, and beautifully restored, maintained, decorated and neatly painted sitting there just waiting to be photographed or painted. I can’t paint, though. To understand this slightly confusing ‘look’ of this treasure of a French city, I had to ask Google for clarity.
Colmar is first mentioned in 823. Roughly around 1226, Colmar was made an imperial town (city formally responsible only to the emperor in the Holy Roman Empire) by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, a Roman Emperor. In 1278, King Rudolph of Habsburg gave Colmar its civil rights. Rudolph was originally a Swabian count, but was the man who sort of started the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled much of Europe for nearly 600 years from the 1200s out of current day Austria. Thus, this is the first mention or reason for the German architecture and place names so evident in French Alsace.
Ever since those days, there was a tug of war (pun intended) between the Germans and the French for this beautiful little town. In 1648 the Treaty of Munster handed part of Alsace back to France. In 1871 the Treaty of Frankfurt sees Alsace come under German rule again and a German ‘kommisar’ replaces Mayor Peyerimhoff. In 1883, French is banned from all official documents. On 23 August 1914 a French cavalry rides into town, but hesitantly retreats back into the mountains when the confrontation gets too hot! ‘Zeez French were lovers, not fighters!’ However, on 18 November 1918 the French troops moves into the city and the Tricolor once again is hoisted. It was still not the end, though. June 1940, those dark dark days in European history dawn on Europe and the German troops again annexed Colmar and Alsace. They take it so far that everybody between the ages 14 and 18 is forced to join the Hitler Youth! Then, five years later on 10 February 1945, General Charles de Gaulle marches into Colmar after the battle was one a week earlier.
May 29, 2014, my family and I ride into Colmar after a relaxing full-day road-trip of a mere 440km from Köln through some tiny little roads which included parts of the Mosel Valley, and unpack our weekend luggage. Colmar features as the second town in the recent article ‘The 23 Most Quaint Small Towns You Must Visit Before People Find Out About Them’ on sfglobe.com. So, maybe this post of mine will spoil Colmar for a few future visitors since I can now, after my visit actively promote Colmar as a worthy visit.
‘Quaint small town’, however, is a very loose term for many of these gem towns we so enthusiastically seek out. Europe is really old, as can be seen from the time-line above, which means for a destination such as Colmar, the ‘quaint small town’ is purely the centre old part of town. The village is surrounded by a large busy modern and often ugly outside city which does distract from the experience. In the ‘quaint small town’ of Colmar, we bought our groceries in one of the largest modern supermarkets E.LeClerq I have seen. The E.LeClerq chain is widely spread across France, and I always wonder whether it is the successful result of Messieur Le Clerq, the ‘often disguised as a secret onion seller’ in Allo Allo’s venture.
That centre ‘quaint small town’-part is definitely worth a visit though. It provides ample awe-inspiring old-Europe architecture, the beautiful buildings, people watching, fine cuisine and photo opportunities galore. I often regard the highly spoken of ‘flammekueche’ also known as ‘Tarte de Flambee’ in these parts as a lame effort to copy a pizza and hardly ever order that. This weekend though I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent cheeses the Colmar chefs use to dress their ‘flammekueche’ and I thoroughly enjoyed the local ‘potjiekos’ dish (its more a casserole) called ‘baeckeoffe’
or ‘baker’s oven’ (see the German in this French province). It consists of sliced potatoes, onions (bought from Mssr LeClerq, no doubt), carrots, cubed meat, predominantly beef and pork, which have been marinated overnight in Alsatian white wine and juniper berries before being slow cooked in a traditional sealed ceramic casserole. The taste is further enhanced with leeks, parsley, garlic, marjoram, thyme and time.
As I tend to do, I did drive to the real quaint towns too with a day-drive through the likes of Neuf-Brisach, Breisach, Riquewihr, Hunawihr and Eguisheim. Under the title ‘the most quaint towns’ Colmar can never be visited in isolation. To complete the experience, one has to visit Riquewihr, the fortified church in Hunawihr and the quaint Eguisheim too. Neuf Brisach is a nice to see due to the fact that the town in its entirety is still walled and moated off, but the other three are pristine examples of the feudal medieval towns where the town was build and walled off around the church and market square. Nowadays there are plenty of little bistros, cafés, bars and restaurants lining the streets amongst the ‘vinstube’, cheese merchants and in general typical local merchandise aimed at the tourist market. To complete the picture, these little villages are nestled in the midst of the famous Alsatian vineyards, which prompted me to make a note to visit the area in autumn again.
An environmental feel-good story in this part of Alsace is for sure the breeding of the storks. I remember reading a book in primary school translated from Dutch into Afrikaans as ‘Die wiel op die skool’ (the wheel on the school), which was a story about the school providing nesting to a stork. Well, that is all I remember of the story, or maybe not even. I suppose the name gave me a hint. Nevertheless, I have now seen it with my own eyes. Many a roof in Alsace, even in the centre of towns, have a wheel of some sorts on its roof, with a breeding stork happily returning the stares of the tourists in the streets below while caring for their young.
As a dog owner, the term Alsatian obviously rings an inquisitive bell. I found the explanation rather interesting. The name German Shepherd, for the Deutsher Shäferhund, a breed which obviously originated in Germany, was changed by the UK Kennel Club after World War 1 due to the belief that ‘German’ in the name would harm the breed’s popularity due to the negative sentiment towards the Germans at that time. Thus, the UK Kennel Club officially changed the name to ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’ after the name of the French German border area of Alsace. Many other international kennel clubs used this name. The name was officially changed back to German Shepherd in 1977, though ‘Alsatian’ is still often used in parenthesis.
The camping scene in Europe is a curious but very healthy industry, which covers a wide range of different vehicles and tents. I was pleasantly surprised to find a real stove-like fireplace in our pitched tent, complete with wood and chimney through the canvass. Novel touch by the French! The most popular camping for the Europeans are definitely the motorhome (various shapes and sizes) and normal caravan. However, tiny tents, from one consisting of only a stretcher bed with a meter high tent on the stretcher to old-timer restored VW Kombis (as we know them in South Africa) and completely fitted Land Rover camper vans grace the lawns with their presence. I wonder if that Swiss Land Rover has ever put rubber to a dirt road. A number of people cycle, others travel by motorcycle and a few hitch-hike with their rucksacks if not using conventional transport. But the travel and sightseeing scene is truly alive and well in the rural areas of Europe.
So, yes, I agree with the article in http://sfglobe.com/?id=908&src=home_feed regarding Colmar. Incidentally I have also visited Annecy and can vouch for that too. And where they state in the article ‘We advise you to plan a trip before they become too crowded!’ I sincerely hope my blogpost regarding Colmar doesn’t make your planned trip too late. However, feel free to contact me for advice when you need advice or help or a chauffeur!
I am so looking forward to our summer tour to Italy in a few weeks.
The next morning was Sunday; Easter Sunday, the day of The Resurrection. We started the day with a magnificent sunrise sermon on the banks of the river Rhine, feeling the Good News and seeing His great works in nature. Pastor John and Amos were their brilliant self and fed us spiritually before the men fed us with pancakes, bacon and syrup, the way the Americans have breakfast.
Click on the photos to enlarge them
Then we hit the road.
It was mid-April and the ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ were standing tall, flowering in their full splendour and we were in the mood for some iPod ‘Ek-en-jy-en-die-highway’-family time on the road again. Thus, westward bound we took off with an initial stop logged as Lisse, the hometown of Keukenhof and the Tulip. We’ve been there before and were not interested in doing the entire garden walk again. We just needed a reason to drive a few 100 kilometers, see some Dutch ‘platteland’ (pun intended) and then see where the road will take us after that.
Keukenhof is beautiful (see my post ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ dated 19 April 2012) but it is so crowded that one visit somewhere in your life is probably enough. However, do that one visit, if you’re in the area.
This trip was one of those ‘drive in a general direction’ type trips. No specific destination in mind, just see what you’ll find to see. And for this, you need to get off the highways and tread on ‘de smalle weg’. The thing is, we’re in Europe. Its been decadently civilised for many years. Even ‘de smalle weg’ here is a tarred road, with plenty of civil engineering ingenuity to ease up the going! And that’s exactly what we found at Deltapark Neeltje Jans.
However, before reaching Neeltje Jans, I felt quite at home with the day’s drive. We missed Amersfoort but passed Utrecht, Dordrecht, Breda, Roosendal and Middelburg. Dundee was unfortunately over the channel in Scotland.
Neeltje Jans is an artificial island halfway between Noord Beveland and Schouwen Duivenland in Oosterschelde. It was constructed as part of the Oosterscheldedam, which is actually built as a storm water surge protection. After the mega floods in 1953, this well-known civil works construction was necessitated. ‘Most of Zeeland is at or under sea level. In 1953 the dikes were in poor condition and too low. In those days the chance of flooding was once in eighty years. Thanks to the storm surge barrier, this risk has now been reduced to less than once in 4000 years. Take the opportunity to visit this construction inside and outside. You will be surrounded by concrete with a 200-year guarantee, 45 meter wide steel doors are raised to let the tides rush through below them. A must to visit – a must to have seen!’ (www.neeltjejans.nl).
We were just in time for a stunning sundowner photo-shoot, amongst those monstrous wind turbines that nowadays spoil the entire European skyline. Sometimes I believe the scenic pollution of these monsters is worse than burning a few tons of good quality Waterberg steam coal. Unfortunately, we were too late to visit the museum and construction sites, which gives the added incentive that I’ll have to go there again, with better time management this time. Though we wandered (and not all who wander are lost!) through the beautiful little town at Vrouewenpolder (I’m not sure if the town’s name is actually Vrouewenpolder), we couldn’t find accommodation that late on the Sunday evening of Easter Weekend, and had no other option than to push on.
Most of the times traveling without a plan and just driving is fun. However, we were now dead tired, it was late and dark and we still had no accommodation for the night. Only option, and I dread to admit that, was to head for the Formule 1 70km southeast on the outskirts of Ghent. Formule 1 hotels are not to be recommended as accommodation. However, if you arrive there after 23:00, need a shower and a bed and plan to hit the road by 08:00; it enables you to see places. In that case, its fine, if you can bare the smell of smoke in the carpets and duvets.
Bruges is beautiful, its clean, its fascinating and has great architecture with the prominent Belfry of Bruges being the most famous. It was famous long before Collin Farrel were even born, as this fascinating bell tower was originally constructed in 1240.
The ‘little red brickwork’ architecture in this part of Europe must be extremely inspiring for an architect to visit, photograph, copy or simply just admire. I loved our morning ‘in Bruges’. I just hate those plastic silly traveling merry-go-round fun park junk Europe allows on all its magnificent old town squares. No proper angle to take photos, the magnificence of the square spoiled completely by plastic clowns and little bumper cars with irritating continual music sounding worse than those ice-cream Combis from the 70s. I cannot believe in this day and age that there are still people who spend money on those.
And fancy that, being served at the restaurant, by a Belgian waiter who grew up in Rwanda and spent his first 35 years there. We were so intrigued with each other’s stories and political commentary that the poor man was in trouble with a few of his other customers. Here was a man who saw serious genocide and had to escape it himself, but who also saw and experienced that magical natural beauty and splendour of the African bush to such a level that he does speak fondly about the place. But, it’s the politics he hates.
1000km in 1 day 6:22 hours and a successful sightseeing family bonding weekend behind us!
The Eifel is not a tower; that one is spelt with a double ‘f’.
The Eifel is a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium, which spans a renowned scenic rural area. It’s a favourite daytrip destination of mine within an hour’s leisurely drive from Köln and which rewards me with something new and spectacular every time I venture there.
This past Easter Weekend was no exception. When my friend Rudi suggested that its blooming time for the wild daffodils in the Eifel, I bunched the family into the car, packed a picnic of breads, cheese, hams and pesto and headed east.
Flowing hills, bushy meadows and yellow blooming canola fields broken up by patches of forest ensures scenic splendour all the way, that type which is often difficult to capture in words. I did find the ‘Fuhrbachtal’ valley outside of the small village of Kalterherberg easily enough and enjoyed a cool and leisurely stroll down the valley to do some flower searching. It didn’t take much of a search, as in Germany everything is so well organised and well kept that nature walks simply entail following the path. That’s simply what we did, and sure enough, we found some beauties.
The ‘Fuhrbachtal’ is on the border of Belgium and southern Holland, which also means that this is a World War 2 hotspot area. I, however wanted to enter Germany from Belgium, the direction the Allied Forces did on 12 September 1944. So I first drove into Belgium with some small country roads through some magnificent scenery, stopped on the edge of the Hürtchenwald for a picnic and photoshoot before driving through the ugly town of Neu-Moresnet. I had to visit Neu-Moresnet simply to mark of some irrelevant fictitious to-do list item that I have been in the town where Heintje Simons nowadays live. Remember Heintje? He was a darling little singer from the Netherlands who wooed amongst others the South African radio listeners in the seventies with songs like ‘Mama’ and ‘Heintje Boembantje, boem, boem, boem’ or something in that vein. (I have no idea what he was actually singing, but this was how my brother and I sang along in those days).
We didn’t see Heintje, and I didn’t even stop in this town, as what I saw in the drive through was not inspiring at all, plus I was on a mission to enter Germany through the Hürtchenwald and the town Roetgen, find some remains of the Siegfried Line and take some pictures.
Roetgen is the first German town to fall under American control. They marched into the town on September 12, 1944 at 14.30. After the American forces entered Germany at Roetgen, they engaged the German forces in what became known as the Battle of Hürtgen, a fierce series of battles in the inhospitable terrain of the forest which lasted to December 1944 and in which the Americans lost at least 33 000 men to death or incapacitation. We too entered the town of Roetgen from Belgium and I found some excellent remains of the Siegfried Line. Fascinated to find these remains, I walk amongst them and let my mind wander to the ghastly historic events, which took place at this exact place where I was wandering around; I took some pictures and simply contemplated the insanity of war. As Chris de Burgh so aptly states in ‘Borderline’,
‘But these are only boys, and I will never know,
How men can see the wisdom in a war…’
Hürtgen Forest is however not only the venue of these battles and the beautiful thick forest scenery, but also, according to local folklore, the forest where Hansel and Gretel were kept, fed and oh so nearly served as dinner. We did keep an eye out for them too, but (fortunately) didn’t see any traces of them, nor of the witch.
As always, I chose some further ‘small roads’ back to Cologne and with the usual luck of discovery found a stunning piece of ‘watered castle’, the ‘Weiße Burg’ in Friesheim, complete with moat providing stunning photographic opportunities.
Tomorrow we head off to Holland for an extended drive.
The Europeans are a classy bunch, well, mostly. The high fashions of Paris, Milan and London are well known across the globe and browsing throung the streets confirm this. At this very moment I’m sitting in Extrablatt am Neumarkt in Köln having a breakfast and I’m amazed at how well dressed every-one around me are. Scarfs, jackets, boots and cardigans of the highest quality, design and fashion are in abundance. Even jeans are wore with style so typical of European way and not in the casual way the Saffas will wear them. Its not always easy to put your finger on the exact difference, but the general look certainly is different.
But, ‘o my word’ the Europeans are bad at beach attire! The men, I specifically mean the men, are incomprehensibly bad when it comes to dressing for the beach. Let me put it clear that I find very little fault with the swimming attire the European beach-going ladies wear (or not wear). But why the men have stuck on wearing only ‘speedos’ or even worse, those tight fitting little trouser costumes with the short straight ‘legs’ sometimes even with the little fish belt and buckle, that I last wore as a five-year old boy back in the sixties, I simply cannot comprehend. As soon as a boy turns 7, the mom should put him in baggy shorts, and nothing else, and that is what he should wear to the beach for the rest of his days. But then again, its probably better for them to wear those ugly costumes, than the few (mostly guys, it seems) who wear nothing and parade around on the fringes of some normal family beaches in the Adam suits. These Europeans surely have some strange habits.
My preference, though is travel, photos and stories, not fashion. So travel I did once more during the past summer holidays. With parents visiting and us having to hit the road all the way to the Costa Brava in Cataluña, that stunning country bordering Spain,
we decided to try out the very popular RV (recreational vehicle) or camper van as they are also called, as means of transport and accommodation. I am used to camping; in South Africa, I own a 4×4 trailer and we have done many off-road camping trips to nature reserves, wild life areas such as Baviaanskloof, Marakele, Mapungubwe, Kruger National Park, Botswana and Swaziland. Take note, these are all remote wilderness type destinations, none are beach holiday ‘caravan parks’, which means the shear thought of camping in the RV in a crowded caravan park where the tent ropes of your neighbour stretches into your braai area was daunting, to say the least. I do, however, believe in trying out new things first and then decide whether its good or not in stead of just writing them off from preconceived perceptions, thus entered behind the wheel of the monster camper with some uncertain anticipation and hit the road.
Many of my travel companions in the past must have rued traveling with me, as I tend to add time and kilometres in curiosity of places and other roads than the obvious straight line. The result of this was that we added 600km to our already 1200km trip from Köln to the Costa Brava but the positive is that we were able to explore the Loire Valley of France and to witness the decadence of the royalty of 16th century France. The architecturally magnificent Chateau de Chambord being one fine example of this decadence. This castle was built for François I in the 1500’s and took 30 years to build. It was built as a ‘hunting lodge’ and apparently with money laundered from the church. Must have been some hunting party when these guys came together to shoot boar as this chateau has 440 rooms. Since it was built in the wild and for hunting purposes, the effort and cost to furnish it was so vast that it was never furnished on permanent basis. Each time it was used, everything was brought with the hunting party; imagine that! No wonder François spent only 7 weeks there in all his life, and no wonder the French revolted some 250 later.
Our end destination was Lloret de Mar (pronunciation lesson nr 14, Lloret is pronounced Joret as double ‘l’ in Spanish is a ‘j’. Disclaimer though for the Capetonians, please don’t start calling Llundudno Jundudno as it is named after a Welsch town, not a Spanish one). Lloret is a smallish town on the spectacular Costa Brava, some 70km north of Barcelona and this is where my daughter decided to spend the next 8 months to learn Spanish. I too asked the question ‘why learn Spanish in Cataluña?’ but when I saw the beauty of Lloret de Mar, any other reason wasn’t required anymore. With beaches (ignore the men in their bathing shorts for proper comprehension here), cafès, villages, parks, horse-riding and Barcelona at her doorstep, it will require some discipline to focus on the studies, thus preparing her well for what lies beyond being able to speak Spanish.
And exactly here, at Lloret de Mar, is where we camped in our RV for a week. The RV camping went well, as its very easy camping with everything in its place. Setting up camp very much consists of
park your vehicle,
turn the fridge from 12V to 220V,
stack out your chairs and table
and open a beer!
Lloret de Mar, as most of the towns on the Spanish coast, stems from old fishing towns where some remnants of the days gone by are still visible. A pristine example of the ‘old town’ still relative intact is the walled old town of Tossa de Mar, a few kilometres north of Lloret. With a sandy stretch of beach lined with multiple restaurants where the tapas, wine and beer are excellent and the view across the sandy beach from your dining table exquisite. To the south the beach is intercepted by a rocky hill with the old walled fishing town and remains of the church still beautifully preserved. Walking the inside path of this old village provides the most stunning views across the roofs of the town to the west, the sandy beach to the north and the pristine rocky seaside to the south, and when we were there, the rising full moon over the Mediterranean to the east.
We had to return home, the holiday was over, and Köln a long drive (10 hours for 450km in the August holiday traffic of southern France just to get to Lyon) away. Then the reality shock of returning home hit me and I realised that my family has now reached that first major change which happens to all families, but for which we were not nearly sufficiently prepared. We had to leave our eldest behind. Cara finished school in June and her first ‘after school’ objective is to learn to Spanish. This is why we headed to Lloret specifically, because this is where my daughter will stay for the next 8 months to learn Spanish before embarking on her university studies. It was one of the hardest parenting duties I have ever had to do, driving back home while your kid stays behind, in another country, nogal!
But then, thinking about it rationally, I realised this is exactly why we moved to Europe originally. We came here for new challenges and opportunities and this has always been a major item on Cara’s bucket list, to live in Spain, learn to speak Spanish and to work with horses. That is precisely what she is now doing. Thus, slowly but surely we are fulfilling what we set out to do, sometimes with a very serious emotional shock accompanying the reality of our decisions, but also with the gratitude and a sense of achievement overshadowing that emotional hesitation. Still, as her younger brother said when we arrived home and the visiting grandparents also left for South Africa ‘our home is suddenly weird’.