The Battle of my Bulge, and the Hohes Venn

Though most of Europe is nowadays a union, their individual country borders are still very important. Trust me, I have witnessed it this weekend while camping in the picturesque Monschau area of the Eifel. A Dutch guy parked his caravan with the entire a-frame encroaching into the neighbouring German lady’s camping site, and she had none of that (understandably). After an amusing (for me), but serious altercation, and campsite management intervention, the Dutch guy was defeated, and with a lot of ‘brom-brom-brom’ had to swing his caravan by 90°. Only then peace and quiet once again dawned on this little piece of European Union. 

There’s a fascinating piece of borderline between Belgium and The Netherlands at Baarle-Nassau. Baarle-Nassau is closely linked, with complicated borders, to the Belgian exclaves of Baarle-Gertog. Baarle-Hertog consists of 26 separate parcels of land. Apart from the main parcel, known as Zondereigen and located north of the Belgian town of Merksplas, there are 22 Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other parcels on the Dutch-Belgian border. There are also six Dutch exclaves located within the largest Belgian exclave, one within the second largest, and an eighth within Zondereigen. The smallest Belgian parcel, locally named De Loversche Akkers, measures 2,469 square metres – or if it actually is square, it means 49.69m x 49.69m! In political geography, an enclave is a piece of land that is surrounded by a foreign territory. 

On the German Belgian border, where Heleen and I spent three wonderful days of cycling, there are similar, though not as complicated, borderlines. I have previously written about the delightful Vennbahn cycle route and these enclaves, so apologies for the repeat, but it’s such a delightful cycling area, please bear with me.

The Vennbahn or Venn Railway route has been Belgian territory since 1919, under the Versailles Treaty. It was originally built by the Prussian Government to primarily transport coal and iron, roughly between Aachen and the north of Luxembourg. When the Treaty became permanent in 1922, it meant that five enclaves of German territory (originally six) were formed, with the ‘bahn’ (railway track) a thin line of just a few meters of Belgium with Germany on both sides. The smallest German exclave, Rückschlag, consists of a house and a garden, some 155m x 100m according to my rough Google Earth measurements. I think I love cycling the Vennnahn cycle route for the feel and history of it because of the stunning railway remnants still visible; from old station platforms, railway signal posts and stop lights to the old station buildings. Maybe I love it for our daily stop at Kalterherberg station’s Waffelhaus for a cappuccino and sometimes a Belgian waffle, which really is so much better than any other waffle in the world; except maybe the Scottburgh Wimpy in the early 80’s?

A practical benefit of the open borders nowadays – on Sunday we stopped in Roetgen at a small supermarket to by an onion and iced coffees. The ‘left’ side of the road was in Belgium, where shops are open on Sundays, while across the road on the ‘right’ side, the shops were closed, because in Germany, the shops are closed on Sundays. We had onion on our burgers that evening, and ‘woema’ in our tanks for the Hautes Fagnes climbs ahead.

The area of Belgium is known as the Hohes Fenn, or Higland Moorland. The highland moor, which acts as a natural water reservoir, is the source of half a dozen rivers, including the Rur, Olef, Warche, Schwalm and Our. 

The area where we cycled our 170km falls lock stock and barrel in the so-called Battle of the Bulge. The terrain is not all friendly and I indeed did battle with my bulge as well, but then decided I’ll only lose it if I stop those beer and waffle stops! Why would I cycle then?

The Battle of the Bulge was sort of Hitler’s last serious offense to try and prevent Antwerp as harbour to the Allies, before he hit the road, blew up the Bridge at Remagen as part of his retreat and took refuge in a bunker in Berlin for a while (not historically accurate, but you get my drift). However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the American forces in this mountainous area. ‘The Hürtgen Forest occupies a rugged area between the Rur River and Aachen. This Rur is not the same river as the other Ruhr. The other Ruhr River has a ‘h’ in it, and is the water vein of that German industrial area which we all learned about in standard 4 geography. But this Rur is actually the same river as the Dutch Roer, and which flows into the Maas River at the stunning town of Roermond. In the autumn and early winter of 1944, the weather was cold, wet, and cloudy, and often prevented air support. Apart from the poor weather, the dense forest and rough terrain also prevented proper use of Allied air superiority, which had great difficulties in spotting any targets. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads, tracks, and firebreaks; vehicular movement is restricted. Conditions on the ground became a muddy morass, further impeding vehicular traffic, especially heavy vehicles such as tanks’ (Wikipedia)

Its in similar terrain, bordering the Hürtgen forest in the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes or Hohes Venn where I battled my bulge, but on impeccable infrastructure. It remains, for me as a South African, incredible to be in fairly remote and secluded parts of these European forests, just to see a young lady strolling her Sunday stroll alone, and on two-meter-wide tarmac cycle roads for many kilometres, nogal.

In the hilly forest of our daily start, is the interesting Kloster Reichenstein, which is currently being restored and where monks will soon again reside. In 1639, in the middle of the 30 year war, Stepfan Horrichem was put in charge of the Reichenstein Monastery as prior. Horrichem dedicated himself with full commitment to the consolation and assistance of the suffering population. Sometimes disguised as a farmer, he went from farm to farm and village to village to protect himself from infringement. In doing so, he earned respect, prestige and even admiration from the needy population. Next to the forest road, is a remembrance plague to Prior Horrichem, which unfortunately reminds us of the many many conflicts of Europe, as we actually see in the Ukraine at the moment.

You don’t have to be a cyclist, nor a camper, to visit and explore and enjoy this amazing part of Germany and Belgium, but to spend time in some of these slightly more remote nature-based camp sites in Europe, is highly recommended. The beautiful clean rivers, lush forests and green farmland hills all convert into real and peaceful scenic beauty. 

and into Yugoslavia (in 2015)

please click the thumbnails for a better view

From my previous post

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

Though often missed as a tourism destination, I made up my mind that Zagreb is a gem and secretly beautiful while genuinely worth a visit.

Its small and I was enthralled while strolling the inner city, just sitting and people watching (photographing) on Ban Jelacic Square or while browsing the open market Dolac. August though, was extremely hot and uncomfortable and after properly enjoying the shortest funicular in the world to elevate us to Gornji Grad or up-town Zagreb enjoying the magnificent Baroque architecture and descending throught the 13th century Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) to Donji Grad or down-town, it was time to head into the hinterland, where the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Lakes awaited.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those destinations better described by photos.

6.Plitvice Watervalle
Plitvice array of waterfalls

Its waters flow over limestone chalk, building over time various natural dams and waterfalls reminiscent of beaver dams over which one can only stand in awe and take in the wonders of Gods creation. The wooden walkways at the side of the lakes and little bush footpaths provide the opportunity for a leisurely workout in nature, building up a nice sweat while deciding which angles will make the best pictures and traversing the many ups and downs of this nature walk. Its not a tough walk, but it does take time and one should be prepared by at least carrying sufficient water with you. It’s a natural wonder, though, and should be included in any bucket list venturing in the direction of Croatia.



But man steps in


Plitvice is also the sight where the first shots were fired in March 1991 when a policeman was killed as the start of the Croation independent war. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia during the communist era but splintered relations brewed as conflict for many years before the violent eruption in 1991. Croatia and Slovenia had a more liberal (imagine that irony, liberal communism) view and pushed for more autonomy versus the conservative hard-nosed Serbian side. Yugoslavia was a communist country since after WW1 and was made up of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Traveling is not sight seeing


Therefor we enjoy and mostly try to find slightly more ‘authentic’ places to stay. Renting self-catering accommodation in these parts directly from local homeowners provide that ideal opportunity to meet and chat to the locals. We stayed with Ana, in Apartment Ana, in the sort of town area Smoljanac. The beauty of staying here was that you experienced rural Croatian daily life as well. You have the opportunity to buy your beer at the local little crocery shop, and take a seat at the wooden table outside on the street where the local labourers offer you their seats. Maybe because we’re foreigners or maybe because we had our parents with us, but still, six hardworking men, at the end of a long day and enjoying their Ožujsko beer without hesitance giving up their seats made me feel welcome, in an area where right in front of Apartments Ana you still see the sadness of a recent war in the soldier monument guarding the valley. Even today, some houses and building still show the bullet holes in the walls. Except for the tourism and accommodation side of this rural community, the existence is very much small scale farming where beans, tomatoes and corn are picked by hand, goats are milked by hand and all fresh produce produced locally for daily consumption.

Bullet holes still clearly visible in some buildings along the route in the rural areas


Dinner at the friendly (or rather I think it was friendly judged by the smiles, service quality and interest in us as we have no idea of the Croatian language, and they very little of English, German and no Afrikaans) Pansion žafran, Smoljanac 88 was delightful. We started to learn more about the Croatian cuisine, realising the influences of what we know as Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and a few regulars from Germany featuring on our plates. There were amongst others schnitzels and pizzas but also cobanac (a delicious spicy meat stew), cevapcici (a type of skinless spicy sausage), burek (a type of pastry dish) and for desert rozata (a flan like caramel covered desert) to name just a few.


Self-drive hands you the scenic route


Take the scenic route. Stop at the war memorials and plan the extra time to enable you the wonderful sights of the Dalmation coast. That’s what I believe! There are 101 or thereabout stops to be made, photo opportunities or cafe’s to be experienced and simply wondering about life out here when you venture off the beaten track. Taking route 25 through the heart of where serious battles were fought all the way to Karlobag at the coast and across the amazingly beautiful mountain passes to get there proved an excellent choice providing us with a stunningly scenic drive, feeling like an extended Chapman’s Peak, for the entire day. Our end destination was Split.


‘Split is nie vandag se kind nie!’               (Split is no youngster)


Split is an ancient city with some sources taking economic activity as far back as 2,400 years ago. It was Greek and Roman in its day, but today Split is a proud Croatian city providing a tourist destination ‘par excellance’ including access to many stunning Adriatic islands, perfect for a day tour in the sun and on the salty sea surface. That’s what we did. Chartered a skipper and ski-boat and we explored the fascinating Adriatic Sea, its islands of Hvar and Vis with a first stop in Komiža. We would occasionally dive into the crystal clear blue waters to cool off and then head further exploring. There is never enough time, but we did have time to visit one of my personal highlights, the ex Yugoslavian shelter for boats and submarines on the island Vis, just off the town of Rogačić. This is a 75m deep shelter carved into the shore and which forms part of an entire network of tunnels and underground shelters which the Yugoslavian army occupied for decades.

Further around Vis is the little island Ravnik and the Green Cave, where we ventured in with the boat, had the opportunity to snorkel and enjoy the beautiful images of the sun piercing through a hole in the roof to provide stunning scenes in the crystal clear water inside the cave. I know my home country is ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but once you’ve broadened your horizons you realise how often beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!


Our charter captain for the day, Alex, was a wealth of information and a delight to chat with. While relaxing for lunch at Restaurant Zori, Palmizane, I was able to get him talking about the history, the war and the modern day Croatia. The irony of the situation stays with me. We were having the time of our lives, thinking about Croatia as the best thing since sliced bread and making plans to come live here, while he was only interested to move away, where he can find a ‘proper’ job and be away from the ugliness of what the war reminded him of. He went on about the day the war ended, the evacuating senior officer giving orders to bomb Split, even though his family were still living in Split and how, though he saw the beauty and exciting future of a modern day Croatia, he preferred to move on.


The more I learn about Europe, the less I understand war.


North of Split is the bay area with is seven Kaštels making up the seven towns, before you reach the walled little gem of a town, Trogir, with its ancient architecture, zillions of photos to be taken, cafè’s to be tried and corners where you can duck behind to just restore your jaw into place after hanging open at the sights. Wealthy families built these seven Kastels in the 1500s mostly as summer residences but also as fortification against the attacking Turks who would come from the sea. Those young Turks certainly were a menace!

Kastel Gomolica


Stumbling onto a gem


Starting the long journey back, my daughter took initiative and secured our last stop. We were now taking the highway and not the small roads as we had many kilometres to kill, but it was still a scenic route through the central mountainous terrain, which is Croatia.


Ševlje, is a small little rural village in Slovenia, but it’s ideally situated for what we needed. We needed scenery, little mountain roads, a day trip opportunity and a warm shower. Then we would be happy. The fact that we got all of this, plus a delicious home cooked Fettuccini Alfredo courtesy of Linda and Pieter, some good conversation and a sip of wine to discuss the day’s events over, was pure bonus.


As is my nature, I selected the smallest little roads to get to Bohinjsko Jezero, or Lake Bohinj. It’s the slightly less famous lake in the Slovenian Alps with that clear Alpine mountain water as forefront and the snow peaked (its August yes) in the background. Old architecture of bridges, churches and more provide amply photographic opportunities, while there’s always sufficient coffee and ice-cream available in Europe. Lake Bled is the more famous one of the two lakes, and has the world famous Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja (maybe slightly more pronounceable Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria) on the Island of Bled in the middle of the lake. After some canoeing on the lake and criss-crossing through and over the mountains to photograph the lonely Church of St Primoz with its majestic outlook over the world, we knew its time to move on.

A fantastic three week road-trip from Cologne, through the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria had to end with quick stopover in Munich, just to show off the Marienplatz to Pa Cas and Ouma Koekoe before embracing the autobahn all the way back.


It was a magical three weeks, 4,131km and uncountable photos, laughter, wow-moments, lessons from history, hope for the future and just pure wonderful nature experiences making me realise once more, ‘what a wonderful world’ we have.

Our Croatian route

A day at the museum

Ja well, to say the truth, two days at a couple of museums, but wow, what interesting stories, photos and places! Some of them seriously scary and entirely screwed up though!


Berlin’s history is not for the faint hearted. But nowadays, it is truly a magnificent city and I love going to Berlin. As a matter of fact, it must be my favourite city in all of Germany because of its vibrant new world feeling combined with that old world cold war inquisitiveness. And when you think further back, it obviously has a sickening place in history too, but to be able to wonder the exact same streets now and shake your head in misbelief on what has happened here in the recent past is simply a marvelous traveling experience.

Modern day Berlin is a vibrant beautiful city, working hard to forget its past
Modern day Berlin is a vibrant beautiful city, working hard to forget its past

 And furthermore, I love to visit sites that featured in movies. When Jason Bourne ‘kidnapped’ Nicky on Alexanderplatz in The Bourne Supremacy, I new exactly where that was and how those trams operated. Thus, I decided to start my two-day museum visit in Berlin with coffee and croissant in Coffee Fellows on Alexanderplatz.Berlyn2

I need to qualify before saying anything further that I am no political analyst, I am no historian, I am no fundi on war nor spying, and I am not a psychologist. I will simply blog my experience and sentiment. I am, however so curiously intrigued by the German history and why certain things happened the way they did. Thus, even though I have visited the DDR museum previously and I decided that I don’t have to go there again, I simply strolled there on auto pilot and found myself wandering through this fascinating museum once more contemplating the irony why the socialist state called themselves the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (or German Democratic Republic – GDR). Can it be that these guys actually had a very deep deep hidden sick sense of humour? They were so democratic (and honest) that Walter Ulbricht (the Chairman of the GDR Council of the State) on June 15, 1961 answered a journalist who asked if they were planning to ‘erect a state border’ at Brandenburg Gate with a ‘Nobody intends to put up a wall’.

The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years
The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years

On the peaceful Sunday morning of August 13, 1961 the barbed wire were strung and the East Germans were erecting barriers. Walter Ulbricht signed the approval on August 12, 1961. That was the wiring that ended up in a full border around West Berlin consisting of a wall on its eastern border and fences along the northern, western and southern borders. In total, by 1989, this western island city was fenced in by:

  • 106 kilometers of concrete plates
  • 5 kilometers of metal fence
  • 105 kilometers of anti-vehicle ditches
  • 127 kilometers of sensor fence
  • 124 kilometers of patrol paths
  • 302 watch towers
  • 20 bunkers and
  • 259 dog runs

The main reason was the many GDR citizens who exercised their democratic right to relocate to the west (in 1960 about 360,000) reaching a climax in 1961 of 19,100 in June, 30,400 in July and 47,400 in the first half of August. Exercising one’s democratic rights under the German Democratic Republic’s autocratic powers was just to freethinking for their liking and image!

GDR philosophy
GDR philosophy

So, while the DDR museum enlightens one regarding life in East Germany for the period between WW2 and the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989, the Deutsches Historisches Museum on the other side of the Berliner Dom tells the entire German history of the past 1500 years. Here you can follow history’s path through the political changes, the church reformation in the 1500’s, the language development and that interesting phenomenon and the pursuance thereof called ‘hegemony’.

HegemonyThis ‘big word’ features in the history of Germany, and Europe many times and coming from South Africa, I just shook my head in disbelief while wandering through the timelines and the resultant conflicts and shear scale of some of these conflicts. The first genocide mentioned in the Deutsches Historisches Museum is actually very close to home where it is mentioned that between 1904 and 1907 under the ‘Deutsch Südwest Afrika’ colonial regime (present day Namibia) eighty percent of the Herero population and 50 percent of the Nama population were killed in a brutal and deliberate scorched earth campaign. The drive was under the German General Lothar von Trotha and its estimated that between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereo and 10,000 Nama were massacred. According to Wikipedia, a copy of Trotha’s extermination order can be seen in the Botswana National Archives where it states ‘every Hereo, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children, I will drive them back to their people (to die in the desert) or let them be shot at’. These mass killings were named as the first example of a 20th century genocide.

What is wrong with the human race?

Checkpoint Charlie nowadays is simply a tourist attraction with fake soldiers spoiling the photographic opportunities
Checkpoint Charlie nowadays is simply a tourist attraction with fake soldiers spoiling the photographic opportunities

This is the third time I visited Berlin, and although Checkpoint Charlie is nowadays just a tourist photograph spot, with the most irritating wannabe dressed-up soldiers occupying the best photo spot and demanding money even to evacuate the spot so that you can take a photo sans them, I cannot not go there, have a coffee near the spot and sit and wonder. Café Adler is no more, unfortunately and has become part of a Berlin Café chain, but I did have the privilege to drink a coffee there in 2007 when I visited Berlin for the first time. I did find this excellent post regarding Café Adler though, and exactly as Francine Mathews so eloquently puts it, this is the reason I too keep returning to Checkpoint Charlie. Read it at

A stretch of the wall in Niederkirchanstraße
A stretch of the wall in Niederkirchanstraße


Sort of just around the corner in Niederkirchenerstraße is a preserved part of The Wall, with nowadays a brilliant museum consisting mainly of photographs of the Nazi party’s rise and atrocities during the war itself. I don’t think one can visit Berlin without putting a silent morbid hour or two asides to stroll through the Topograhie des Terrors.

The famous Berlin Ampelmann
The famous Berlin Ampelmann

My personal highlight, though was my visit to the Stasi Museum just off the U-Bahn Magdalenenstraße. This is the actual office and headquarters of the Ministry of Sate Security until the fall of the wall. This is the offices, boardroom and even bedroom where Erich Mielke ruled this State Department with his iron fist from 1957 to 1989.Erich Mielke This was the spy headquarters where the East Germans conducted their propaganda, where they architected their subduing techniques and where the entire system of collaboration and civilian neighbour spying on civilian neighbour was run from.

Fascinating Stasi museum
Fascinating Stasi museum

Although the German history is scattered with atrocities of the grandest scale and incidents that truly make the stomach turn, there still is a weird and unexplainable nostalgia about the period of the cold war. In the seventies I was a child but remember the fascination I had when I heard the news mentioning the ‘lugbrug’ (air-bridge) of the western world servicing West Berlin or when my Dad told me about the spy novels he read where many scenes took place in Café Adler and those dark grey movie scenes portraying those days.

I love going to Berlin, I need more time.

East Side Gallery
East Side Gallery

The Italian Job : ‘Veni, vidi, vici’

‘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 Venice architecture is still glorious
The Venice architecture is still glorious

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.

Mama is still running the show
Mama is still running the show

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.

Aggricampeggio Mose is part of a working farm
Aggricampeggio Mose is part of a working farm

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.

One particular book intrigued me
One particular book intrigued me


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.

The beauty of Cinque Terre
The beauty of Cinque Terre


Perched on the edge
Perched on the edge

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.

The charm
The charm

and the breakfast
and the breakfast

Of Alsations, casseroles, villages and storks

Colmar is a pleasant city, ….

click on the photos to enlarge

Little Venice is probably an ambitious name, but it is a particularly scenic area of Colmar
Little Venice is probably an ambitious name, but it is a particularly scenic area of Colmar

‘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.

Cafe in the beautiful Colmar
Cafe in the beautiful Colmar

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 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’

My Baekeoffe
My Baekeoffe

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.

The streets of Riquewihr
The streets of Riquewihr

Still Riquewihr
Still Riquewihr


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.

Stork happily nesting in Eguisheim
Stork happily nesting in Eguisheim


The fortified church in Hunawihr
The fortified church in Hunawihr

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.

The camping scene
The camping scene

So, yes, I agree with the article in 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.


Viva la vida, and then dance me to the end ….

‘Viva la vida’

 First we ruled the world, we lived life. We were probably the oldest people there, but it was good, it was fast and rocking at the speed of sound, the clocks stood still for a while and Chris and the boys gave as life in technicolor for one evening; it was paradise.

It was a long and warm September evening, the venue was Rhein Energy stadium in Köln and it was full, so full. From the stands we were watching and they, the band, did not freeze. They rocked. They jumped and danced. They sang.

Each and every person in the stadium had an armband like this which was controlled by radio frequency and integrated with the digital choreography; stunning effect

The stadium was full of energy and the technicolor armbands handed out at the entrance were all responding in syncronisation on the radio frequency orders transmitted to them by the show engineers. Flashing, multicolored armbands strapped to each person’s wrist became part of the choreography and was responsible for a spectacle of note.

The previous rock show of this magnitude I saw was U2’s 360° tour in Soccer City, South Africa and its understandable that the likes of these giants such as Coldplay and U2 can put together spectacular productions which include the full Monty of digital effects and no limits on volume control. We were on the stand a full soccer pitch away from the main action, and still the youngsters in front of us attended a rock show with earplugs deeply squeezed into there ears. Sissies!

As can be expected from German organisers, I was mightily impressed by logistical ease of getting to and from the stadium, with plenty of extra trams scheduled, the easy entrance into the stadium and the many food- and drink stalls serving the thirsty rockers. However, what I cannot understand living in the so-called first world is how far behind they are to South Africa on a health and consideration-for-other-people issue such as no-smoking rules in public areas and in presence of children. This is one really important area of community enhancement where most of Europe are still years behind South Africa.

‘The maestro says its Mozart, but it sounds like bubblegum ….’

And then, two days later, we were probably the youngest groupies at Hockeypark, Mönchengladbach for another brilliant show, but this time at completely different pace, to nostalgically get carried away by that master Leonard Cohen. Leonard was born 78 years ago in 1934 but he still gives a performance (including a singing voice of unmatched caliber), which is remarkable, and adding the timelessness of his music, it made for a perfect nostalgic outing for Heleen and me.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Leonard and believe that the poetry in his lyrics is already worth raving about, and then he adds his voice. This was proved to be correct at this show too. Many of the people around us were not English speakers at all, but from the singing and pure joy it was evident that they all new every word of every song Leonard performed. I was taken back to Heleen and my visit to Budapest way back in 1994. We stayed in the real local suburbs after we brokered an accommodation deal with Kati at the Budapest train station after arriving early morning from Vienna. The added advantage of this accommodation was that it meant we could go to the suburbia local restaurants, far away from the known tourist areas. That night in that restaurant it was not Leonard Cohen, but Chris Rea’s ‘The road to Hell’ playing over and over again, with the waiters singing along in perfect English. However, when we ordered, it was clear that they did not understand one word of English; not even ‘one’ and ‘yes’ was understood. The result of the evening was a stunning outing with good music and excess excellent food. I ordered a whisky, Heleen and Lizette ordered wine, I ordered goulash soup and Heleen ordered salad for starters, we received three of each! After our amused giggles the waiter and us learned and we all ordered the same main dish, schnitzel, and we only received three dishes for three people. They were humungous, but delicious. Talking about that night, I wonder what eventually happened to our R10 note, which we donated to their collection of international currency behind the bar, counter.

‘I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time,

walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme

you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,


Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’

But this time it was Leonard and the Germans and Dutch singing happily along in very good English, especially when ‘we take Berlin’.

Leonard, you’re a legend!

‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this

The fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah’


Visça Barça i Visça Catalunya

‘…. I had this perfect dream

This dream was you and me

I want all the world to see

A miracle sensation

My guide and inspiration

Now my dream is slowly coming true….’

Rugby is and always will be my game.

However, since we attended two Confed Cup games in 2009 and 11 World Cup 2010 games back in South Africa, the family are all huge soccer (I know its football elsewhere) fans. And with three Barcelona and one Leverkusen supporter in the family, the Champions League draw earlier this year played so well into our hands when the draw resulted in Barça versus Leverkusen. For the not informed, this means an away and a home game between these two teams. Leverkusen is to Köln what Centurion is to Pretoria, thus sort of our local team.

Entrance ensured

In February Barça won their away leg in Leverkusen 3:1.

After an evening of rock and general ‘being proudly South African’ in the performing company of Prime Circle (and a guy wearing a Cheetah rugby jersey) in the Blue Shell, Köln, we joined three planes full of Leverkusen supporters on Wednesday morning 07:15 en route to Barcelona for a day trip. Arriving at lunchtime, it was fortunate that we could spend the afternoon strolling the streets and La Rambla.

In my book, a big part, and obviously hugely enjoyable part of traveling is the local cuisine and customs. We had only the afternoon to explore Barcelona (fortunately Heleen and I have been there on a previous visit) but probably being blasé we all agreed that its better to do fewer things and do them well than to squeeze too many things in and not doing anything properly. Thus sitting down in a café for tapas and wine

Spanish cuisine

was the logical choice. With a view over the harbour, the sun in our eyes and many foreign languages around us we sucked in the lunch feeling of one of Europe’s (and the world) great cities. Summer in Europe is drawing nearer and getting the feel in the few-degrees-warmer-than-Köln Barcelona enthused us to look forward to the evening’s Camp Nou experience.

After strolling the downtown streets and before departing for Camp Nou we had to sit down in La Rambla for a ‘quick’ beer. Be warned, when you order a beer you should specify the size required!

A beer in La Rambla is not for the feint hearted

And then we headed towards Camp Nou; the iconic Camp Nou which is the home of greats such as Messi, Xavi, Pique, Puyol, Fabregas, Iniesta, Alves, Guardiola to name just a few. Remember that we bought our tickets and transfers through the Leverkusen (the opponents for the day) travel agency and were thus transported as Leverkusen supporters. In Europe in soccer, this has certain implications, which we thought about but who’s significance we did not understand. It can even become dangerous to be a supporter of the other team if you’re in the wrong place. Fortunately no conflict other than raised eyebrows was bestowed on us, wearing Barça shirts amongst the Leverkusen fans. However, arriving at the stadium, Camp Nou, the Leverkusen buses were waved into a ‘secure’ drop-off zone, and we were at first not allowed to leave this area and group. It means there are a physical separation between the Leverkusen fans and the rest of the stadium. Fortunately Heleen can negotiate well and she was able to convince the policeman that we are Saffas and Barça supporters just traveling on Leverkusen terms so he let us through and we were able to stroll the streets and stalls around the stadium as ‘free citizens’.

Camp Nou, the home of FCB

‘Let the songs begin

Let the music play

Let the voices sing

Start the celebration

And cry

Come alive

And shake the foundations from the skies

Ah, Ah, Shaking all our lives’  – Queen

The line-up before kick-off

And then it was the game!

‘Tot el camp és un clam’  –  (The whole stadium loudly cheers)

The biggest game you’ve ever seen!

I’m proud, privileged and truly glad that I can say that we have seen a world-class performance of an unrivalled Barça team that evening. Systematically and clinically they took Leverkusen apart to lead 2:0 at half time and to finish as 7:1 winners, which included a superb 5 goal haul for ‘la pulga’ (flea), Lionel Messi, and 2 brilliant Tello goals. At the 2010 World Cup we were at the 4:1 drubbing of England by Germany in Bloemfontein as well as the Spain beating of Germany 1:0 in the semi-final in Durban, which were both great games. But this Barça performance and being part of this piece of Messi magic was something I will never forget. So great was the performance that even the Leverkusen supporters later honoured Messi with standing applause as he scored, and giving us friendlier smiles as if to acknowledge that tonight, only tonight, it was OK to wear Barça supporters attire.

The conflict and fighting at soccer matches are well documented and televised and is a huge headache to police. Though there was none of this at Camp Nou that evening, as a precaution the visiting team has fenced in seating, complete with nets in front of you so that nothing can be thrown onto the people in front of you. After the game, we were held back for 45 minutes, to allow the Barça supporters to disperse before we were allowed to leave our seats. Our flight back was scheduled for 03:40 so we had time for a late dinner in Barça before heading for the airport and trying our best to get some sleep on the hard airport seats and floor. Next day was a normal school day for the kids, thus every minute of shuteye was important, though Cara was so excited with her team’s performance she couldn’t sit and sleep, but wondered the corridors of the airport smiling instead.

Its better to travel hopeful than to arrive, and we are currently enjoying and making the most of our ‘travel’ opportunity. We set off on this European stint to experience and see things, which is not readily available from South Africa. In my book I have ticked the Camp Nou, a live Barça game and I can make a little note next to it saying, ‘successful, satisfied!’

‘Som la gent Blaugrana’  –  (we are the blue and red)


‘….where the lazy Tiber flows, and where yesterday still grows ….’

Allez Racing, allez, an earlier blog post refers as that post in the end cost me a few bucks, but also delivered a hugely memorable weekend in Rome in February.

After it became known that we supported Racing over London Irish in Paris, some of our friends in the UK took offence and committed us for a weekend in Rome. Jenny phoned and announced ‘we bought tickets, will we see you in Rome?’ Who wouldn’t jump to the opportunity to spend a weekend in Rome, see your South African friends (who is living outside London) and attend the Six Nations clash between Italy and England nogal?

And what a terrific weekend it turned out to be!

Freezing in Rome, not an everyday sight

The weekend started off on Friday with our flight midmorning from Dusseldorf Flughafen, which meant the kids ‘had a day off from school’. Obviously that already was a treat and just the incentive to become ‘tourists’ for the weekend. Also referring back to my first blog post, 20 Oct 2011 it needs to be emphasized that we came to Germany to have access to Europe and its new experiences, which it will present to us. Thus, every now and then, the ‘lammervanger’ will have to be sidestepped when we give the kids some time off from school to enable something such as flying somewhere for an extended weekend or event. Its simply part of what we do.

February was an extremely cold month and it was evident in Rome too, which is supposed to be warmer than Köln, being in the Mediterranean. But the cold was one of the many factors that contributed to the lasting memory of this weekend.

Accommodation is always a challenge as it is always expensive, you’re never sure what you’ll get and in winter, very important that you sleep warm. Heleen found a self catering apartment at 24 Via Genoa, which is ideally situated within walking distance from old town Rome, with mind boggling historic sites such as the Colosseum and the Mamertine Prison to name just two. It was a three bedroomed with en suite bathrooms, ideal for the group of 6 and with a fully fitted kitchen to do your own brekkies.

The Marmetine Prison consists of two gloomy underground cells where Rome’s enemies were imprisoned (and usually died), of either starvation or strangulation. Famous prisoners here include the Goth Jugurtha, the indomitable Gaul Vercingetorix and, according to legend, St. Peter.

Several ancient writers, including Livy, who dated its construction to the 7th century BC under King Ancus, mention the Mamertime Prison:

“It was found that in so great a multitude the distinction between right and wrong had become obscured, and crimes were being secretly committed. Accordingly to overawe men’s growing lawlessness, a prison was built in the midst of the city, above the Forum.” (Livy 1.33.8)

The Colosseum

Furthermore, imagine the magnificence of the Colosseum. I realise not all are equally fascinated by history, but standing at the foot of a ‘sports’ arena on which construction started in 72 AD, which seated 50 000 spectators and where many people battled for their lives is one true awe-inspiring experience. This is a stadium the size of Loftus Versfeld and it too housed bloody battles, just centuries before the first Loftus battle!

We strolled through these world famous and truly magnificent sites on Saturday morning, but we were in Rome for a modern day battle and in another stadium, the Stadio Olympico Roma, a battle in the six Nations rugby tournament between Italy and England.

In Via Nazionale

The previous evening it started snowing, which, according to our evenly amazed waiter, was the first time it snowed in Rome in 27 years. By Saturday afternoon when we arrived at the stadium, it was snowing so heavily that rumours of the match being cancelled started amongst spectators. The atmosphere was so festive though, that it was simply amazing to people-watch and definitely worth the effort and cost to be there. The playing surface was covered in a layer of snow, it was still powdering down an hour before kick-off, but nonetheless the stadium was one huge ‘Peroni’ party, complete with beer and

The playing surface 80 minutes before kick-off

hats! There was a humorous link to the cruelty of the Colosseum though, in that while the party on the stands was festive and loud, there were a couple of ‘slaves’ in the centre arena, slaving away with brooms and shovels in an effort to clear the snow from the playing pitch.

With still some snow on the pitch, the game was not called off and kick-off was not delayed. Fortunately, by kick-off it had stopped snowing although it did on occasions snow during the game again. And since I had the question after my Allez Racing post where I declined to provide the result, again my team lost as England scraped in a victory. This second loss simply means I need to pursue more sporting occasions in Europe, at least until I taste the sweet taste of victory, maybe sooner than later.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

It’s the one thing that is so totally different in Europe than in SA. People are not afraid to walk. Its winter and the streets are covered in snow but the entire stadium simply hits the road walking after the match and heads back to town. We did stop ¾ of the way home to dig into some excellent pastas and pizzas (when in Rome ….) and then walked back to the apartment, but in the end it came down to a 6 km walk.

Me, my faithful Bok beret and plastic poncho

Thus, thanx to Jenny’s ‘challenge’ I could tick another great weekend and experience with the added novelty of test rugby played in snow to our growing bucket list of things to do while in Europe.

Skiing is believing

I have now come to the conclusion that a 10-day ski-trip is very much the same as a 10-day beach holiday at say Scottburgh over the Christmas holidays, just colder. Its 10 days of real carefree childlike enjoyment in the way that you’ve last done when you were a kid with the energy of a kid and the honest enthusiasm for something new, like a kid. The refreshment of soft drinks has made way for something frostier though!

That’s what we did over Christmas 2011 and with some good Saffas friends joining us it was a great fun filled family outing where you have no commitments, no schedule, nothing to do other than to decide which slope will be tamed today and where will we get stuck for après-ski to mull over the adrenaline of the day, laugh at the expense of the ‘fallers’ of the day and sympathise, with the injuries.

Fortunately there weren’t any serious injuries, thus no real sympathy required!

In my book a proper holiday starts at home and not at the destination. This was no different and with the Moutons and a Verhoef visiting Köln for the first time, plus the need to stock up on some ski clothes the few days at our home was equally enjoyable. Our ski-trip therefor included three days of exploring- and shopping in Köln. We could boast off some of the Rhine scenery, some of the Weinacht-markets that are so abundant in Germany over the festive season and simply share some of the local bars and restaurants with our guests. We could also introduce them to the magnificent Köln Dom. Interesting little piece of trivia Dan shared with me is that his granddad bought a pocket knife outside this Kölner Dom on a visit there in 1952.

An added bonus, as if to really introduce the South Africans who departed SA in the height of summer was that that morning when we picked them up at Frankfurt Airport, it was snowing properly, even to the extent that driving was an adventurous new experience for me too. Point is a skiing holiday starting in falling snow when you step off the plane is just so much better than having to wait in the cold (pun intended) until you get to the mountains to see snow.

We were heading to La Plagne Montalbert in the French Alps as final destination with a packed VW Kombi and sedan Merc; 9 excited boertjies adamant to tame the ski slopes. It included the drive through some stunning Europe scenery starting off with meandering the Rhine Valley from Koblenz through scenic little towns such as Rhens, Boppard, Bad Salzig, St Goar, St Goarshausen, Lorelei, Oberwesel, Bacharach and exiting the valley at Bingerbruck after crossing the river twice by ferry. Heleen and I tend not to plan road trips in detail, which means no overnight accommodation was planned for as ‘you never know when something nice crosses you’re route’. This was the same on this trip and we decided to head for Lausanne in Switserland to bunk for the night. As it was already dark by the time we arrived and we planned hitting the road first thing in the morning, we didn’t particularly care about scenic accommodation. The kids held us ransom the next morning and we headed for MacDonalds in central Lausanne for breakfast before meandering around Lake Geneva, stopping for photos at the lake and listening to Chris de Burgh’s reference songs of the area, the war refugees and ‘saying goodbye to it all’.

Chocolate box picturesque, that’s so clichéd but its so real and accurate. This is Switzerland; Lake Geneva with its icy clear water and snow capped mountains surrounding it. Its also where so many things happened in history such as the unlikely couple of  ‘Oom’ Paul Kruger and Freddy Mercury sharing interest in Montreux and its just up the lake from where Asterix and Obelix kept a low profile in the Lakeside Hotel while hiding from Governor Curius Flavus while being not impressed with the local delicacy of cheese fondue.

(Paul Kruger spent his last days and past away in Clarence Switzerland, very far from his beloved South Africa. Freddy Mercury too had a soft spot for Montreux and spent lots of time with the other Queen members in their music studio in this town; there’s even a statue of him)

Country road in France

We also had a bit of ‘keeping a low profile’ to do as I forgot to pack the kids’ passports and didn’t want to land in a situation where we are confronted to show them while crossing into France; with the Swiss you’re never sure. Fortunately we have stayed in Genève in Daleen and Kevin’s house a few years ago and learned some of the back roads to sidestep officialdom. We circled the lake through Genève and the little town of Hermance and entered France on a stunning little country road from where we headed towards the absolute gem of Annecy


and then destination Montalbert. Annecy truly has a spectacular ‘la vieille ville’ (old town) and it being Christmas time, they too had their markets where we stocked up on the ‘vin chaud’ (gluhwein), homemade nougat, salami, cheese, baguette and obviously crepe (large pancake).

‘La Plagne was created in 1961, as with many resorts in the Alps, to save the valleys from becoming deserted. The agriculture and mining industries were in crisis, which led to young people leaving the valley in search of work. In 1960, four towns (Aime, Bellentre, Longefoy and Macôt) created an association to defend their interests, with an initiative of Dr. Borrionne, mayor of Aime. On 24 December 1961, La Plagne opened, with its two drag lifts and its four slopes.’ Montalbert is one of the mountain villages in this bigger La Plagne area and has access to more than 100 kilometres of ski slope. It’s a typical small ski resort town with a few restaurants, bars, delicatessens and one little supermarket. Accommodation is self catering chalets and we were right on the slope, which means you exit you’re chalet dressed in you’re ski-suit and boots and ski down to the ski-lift! No bus commuting or other tedious exercise to get into the fun and action, its right there on your doorstep.

I was very relieved when I realised skiing is like cycling, once you’ve reached OK levels of competency, you can ski. Our previous skiing exposure was Dec 2009 and we were al very comfortable to simply tie our boots and ski, not necessary for any lessons! Fitness and strength is another story, but ability to ski was there, immediately and this gave us all the confidence and ease to really enjoy the slopes. The two newbies as far as skiing goes, Jacques (6) and Dané (4) started in the ski-school but were quick learners. Jacques specifically was extremely quick and after one lesson hit the slopes with ease. By the end of the trip he was a real competent little skier, complete with little jumps, speed and jokes.

Had some serious snow while we were there

I have mentioned a ski holiday is the same as a December Scottburgh beach holiday. Its just so relaxing with a lazy breakfast, then skiing a few slopes, finding a pub or little eatery somewhere in the mountain, having a leisurely lunch with a beer or glass of wine and then an afternoon of further leisure skiing. The afternoons especially becomes such an enjoyable exercise because of that feeling when sunset creeps closer and you just don’t want this day and pleasures of the slopes to end; exactly as I remember those Scottburgh afternoons in the waves! Then its again hitting a bar for the après-ski (in Scottburgh is was the Wimpy, in Montalbert it was La Skanapia ) to close out the day, get some heat back into your frozen limbs and to decide what will happen for dinner. Every so often the hunger is so huge after the full day of skiing and cold that it became a case of ‘veni, vidi, velcro’ (We came, we saw and we stuck!) that the après-ski beer evolved into a full-blown dinner. Nothing wrong with that, because you are on such a relaxed, no appointments schedule.

We spent 10 days in this mode at Montalbert. I normally get itchy to drive around and see things after a few days but in these ten days we actually drove out to another town only once. It was a day of continuous snow falling that we simply wasn’t in the mood for getting ourselves soaked in temperatures under freezing point. Thus, heading for Macôt for lunch and testing our very expensive but compulsory snow chains was a good alternative.

It does snow in South Africa, and South Africans do rush off to Lesotho and other mountains when reports of snow come through. However, to experience, not see but experience, the Christmas snow of the Alps at least once in your life is really something worth planning for. It is just one of those ‘wow’ experiences that is never forgotten and that is worth the effort and cost. I can truly recommend it! Obviously adding to this ‘wow-ness’ is the experience of other languages, a bit of the culture and the cuisine! Our exposure on this trip was the French and enjoying culinary gems such as their salamis, baguettes, cheeses, pastas, wine and aperitifs, Hautes Savoie (remember the French pronunciations, in this case something like ‘Ô Sawua’ with Afrikaans in mind) herbs and Alpine specifics such as cheese fondue for some and a marmite ‘potjie’ (again pronunciation is important; ‘marmiet’ where the ‘r’ is not silent!) for others made me gain a few pounds in spite of the skiing exercise! Not even to mention the 1664 and/or Kronebourg beers, cappuccinos, crepes and other desserts to finish off the eating. We’ll cut down on another occasion.

Driving back to Köln I chose the highways through France (to skip the Swiss authorities and see some new scenery). We didn’t sleep over again and did the 1000 odd k’s in one day.

We had a stunning white Christmas and incredible two weeks thanx to the friends who added to this little Fench skiing sojourn by simply committing when they heard we’re relocating to Germany and then executing without hesitation, the Moutons and Annie Verhoef. We thoroughly enjoyed it.

‘Merci beaucoup mes amis’

Allez Racing, allez

I told Heleen Racing Metro is playing London Irish this weekend in Paris in the Heineken cup, and it’s the nearest rugby to our home in Köln. In true blue fashion she never hesitates to traveling proposals; weekends or longer, or an outing of any sorts and our weekend to Paris was on.

Racing fans showing their excitement

Its not the first time we travelled to Paris for rugby in the spur of the moment. In January 1994 we were on our first overseas trip together after selling our car to finance the trip. It was a six week back packing style trip including two weeks’ Kontiki skiing in Hopfgarten, Austria and four weeks’ Eurail train travel across Europe to wonderful places such as Vienna, Nice, London, Budapest, Venice, Florence, Geneve and Paris. It was Thursday 13 January ’94 (I know it sounds like a Neil Diamond song’s opening line) at about 16:00, having a beer in Budapest when I also mentioned to her that the French are playing Ireland (pure coincidence to the two teams in paragraph 1!) in the 5 Nations the coming Saturday. ‘Well, we have train tickets, why don’t we go and watch?’ was her immediate response. That evening at 21:something hours we boarded the train for Paris and arrived 16:something the next afternoon. It was before the euro and I remember that we had no deutsche marks for coffee going through Germany. You actually had to use the correct currency on the train for the country you were crossing at that point. In those days we travelled with Frommer’s as our GPS and found Hotel de la Paix in Paris as accommodation. It’s necessary to mention this as many years later I noticed Jason Bourne and Marie using the same hotel in The Bourne Identity.

This time we stayed in Hotel de la Paix’s sister hotel Hòtel Convention Montparnasse just off Rue de la Convention and its cosy cafes and bars.

For my South African frame of reference the mind-shift thing towards Europe is still slow. I found a parking garage at euro 38 for the weekend, but must admit that I did hesitate when the garage keeper simply ordered me to leave the car keys with him. Spread over his table was probably 50 car keys, each simply placed on a little invoice with your name on it!

The 5 Nations Test of ’94 was played at Parc des Prince as Stade de France was not yet built and the French won rather easily, very much to our liking! Those were the days of Philip Sella,  Phillipe Saint Andre, Marc Cecilon and Olivier Roumat to name a few and they ran with exquisite flair. If there is such a thing as your second team in rugby, the Cockerels are definitely mine. That day I bought myself a Springbok beret outside Parc des Prince which I still wear with pride and I have not yet seen a similar beret anywhere.

Parc des Princes in January 1994 with my Springbok beret

But back to December 2011 and our short weekend to Paris. Racing Metro is one of the two Paris based sides and has some of my favourite players such as Francois Steyn (unfortunately still injured after been bullied in New Zealand), Juan Martin Hernandez, Mirco Bergamasto and Sebastian Chabal in their ranks. Since it’s a leisurely 493km drive from Köln to Paris it makes for a very sensible weekend breakaway, and ‘El Classico’ played between Barcelona and Real Madrid in ‘La Liga’ on the Saturday evening complemented this one.

My varsity friend Henk often used the phrase that there is two things that make the world turn, sport and music. It crosses boundaries and cultures and makes people equal. The interesting thing about attending sports events in foreign places is that so much of the same little habits pop up such as the ‘braai and beer’ stalls outside the stadium, whether its at Loftus for rugby, Ellispark for Soccer 2010 or Stade Olympique Yves du Manoir for the Heineken Cup. This outing was no different and we enjoyed the ‘wors braai’, pommes frites and beer with mostly Irish supports outside the Stade Olimpique Yves du Manoir in Colombes to the north of Paris. This stadium hosted the Olympic Games in 1924 and was used as the stadium in the movie Escape to Victory starring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Pele in the early eighties.

We searched for a pub somewhere in Paris to watch the soccer after the rugby. Well, Paris doesn’t have many of the pubs we associate with sport, but they do use their cafes for big games such as ‘el classico’ and with great supporting spirit and gusto to accompany the good food and wine.

Obviously Paris is not only a rugby city, even if you practically only have a day and a half there. We have been in Paris a few times before, which negates that  ‘have to tick all the sites’ rush when visiting a city for the first time and allowing you to leisurely pace around the town and the hordes of people also roaming the streets. La Tour Eiffel, Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe built by Napoleon Bonaparte to celebrate his successes on the battlefields, surely are always the sites to wonder around and enjoy the Christmas markets and ‘vin chaud’, a French version of glühwein and then to finish it of with a freshly baked Crepe.

La Tour Eiffel, stunning photo Heleen

I’m not sure why nor where it came from but I have a real liking for France, its mannerisms, even if they are often deemed to be rude, and the language. In the three months we’ve been living in Europe we’ve been to France three times (keep an eye on this blog for trip report on the third visit, skiing in the Rhone Alps) and I know that there will be a few more. And hopefully I’ll one day be able to ‘prononcer une phrase correcte’ and order those delicious ‘cafè au lait avec croissants’ without the bemused gaze from the waiter.

Allez les Bleu!