There wasn’t a real plan for our autumn trip in 2019. We could have gone south for sunshine and warmth. But we decided to head north. It was late September – what could possibly go wrong?
Camping La Chaumière
A trip using the P&O Dover Calais ferry, remarkable only because it was largely trouble free – we were able to catch the ferry earlier than the one booked, but it left late, so we were travelling pretty well as scheduled.
Camping La Chaumière is a pleasant stop-off close to the channel ports. Not surprisingly, a lot of the campers are British. We ate dinner with people who live just a few miles from us and share common friends. They also also provided the musical entertainment for the evening. A nice way to start the holiday.
Last time we visited Bruges the aire was so crowded that we could scarcely squeeze between our van and the one next to us. It’s come on a bit since then, with a well-kept space, still pretty tight, but wonderfully located to walk through the park to the town. If the aire is full, or you’re claustrophobic, it’s possible to overflow into the bus parking area, but you then lose the electricity hookup. Bruges is very touristy but with good reason.
We’d never visited Ghent before. In many ways it has a similar feel to Bruges, but it was just a little less touristy. Camping Blaarmeersen is a friendly, well-appointed campsite situated in a leisure park just outside the city. It’s within cycling distance, but there is a free bus which leaves from just outside the site (and brought us back to the gate, because all the passengers were going that way).
We had arranged to meet friends in Antwerp. We parked for free in a large car-park alongside the river, where the river cruisers moor. I found the car-park location on the Park4Night app which suggested we could have stayed there overnight. It looked as though that was legal, but we actually stayed overnight at our friends’ house.
There was one little complication that I discovered when I was exploring the options for the trip – Antwerp has its own low emissions zone. It’s free to apply and get approved, but how are tourists supposed to know these things?
We were now en-route for another meeting with friends in Berlin. This was one of those days when we set off in the right direction and decided on our overnight stop as the day progressed. This was another destination from Park4Night, and it was an excellent location for a free overnight stop, close to the town (with a walk through a park), plenty of horizontal parking space and even free WiFi. I knew nothing about Helmstedt, but it turns out that in the days of the Cold War it was the gateway to the road corridor to Berlin. It’s a pleasant town.
The drive from Helmstedt to Berlin was along the A2, which used to be the corridor to west Berlin. The Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint was Checkpoint Alpha in Cold-War times. The autobahn is still very much a corridor through the forest. We were driving to our destination in our friends’ garden. It was to be our longest stay of the holiday – with the added benefit of WiFi and shower facilities.
Cold-War history was becoming a theme. I suppose it’s to be expected in these parts. Our friends’ house is situated right on the line of the wall. There was a gate on their street which was used to allow West Berlin’s rubbish into the East! The 155km Berliner Mauerweg (Berlin Wall Trail) now passes right outside. I couldn’t help wondering about parallels in today’s political situation. While staying here we drove to Potsdam, and took a city boat cruise in Berlin.
Our first stop near Potsdam was to the north-east on the Havel, parking near Wirtshaus Moorlake and walking along the river to Krughorn . We were yet again on the line of the Wall. At this time of year it was a deserted wooded area.
We then moved to see Sanssourci Palace and the surrounding gardens. The car park included space suitable for motorhomes.
We then moved back out into the countryside to Templiner See, where a walk and cycle path run alongside the railway across the lake.
Berlin City Tour
We decided the best way of seeing the city in the weather conditions was by boat – a relaxing place to chill and be shown the sights. We then had the pleasure of a meal with our hosts.
I’m an engineer, so I was excited to see that Peenamünde was within easy reach. It turned out that we got more excitement than we intended before we got anywhere near our destination. We became the subject of what I can only interpret as a robbery attempt on the Autobahn as a pair of Mercedes cars tried to stop us and force us off the road. Twenty miles per hour is not very safe, but no-one ran into us, we didn’t stop, and we stayed on the road.
Peenamünde is where the German World War Two V2 rocket was developed. The museum presents a very well balanced perspective on this difficult subject, covering technical, political and human aspects. It’s one of the best museums I’ve visited. There are several other museums around the harbour and I enjoyed a visit to a Russian U-boat. We stayed overnight in the coach-park just outside the museum (pay and display).
We were now very close to the Polish border, and the route along the coast looked intriguing. In practice, while there were probably interesting and scenic locations along the route, the actual road was not terribly exciting. The border crossing was very congested, not helped by extensive roadworks, but we found our way to Camping Nr 44 Relax. This site has mixed reviews, but for a motorhome the pitch was pretty good. The facilities blocks were not the best, but the location is very convenient for the beach and the town. If you stay at Camping Nr 44 Relax and want a mains hook-up, then you will need a cable with a standard European domestic plug on it, not the normal blue hookup connector. I had left our adaptor at home, and after unsuccessfully searching the shops for suitable parts to make one, I ended up changing the plug on our hookup cable.
We enjoyed a break in the rain, allowing a walk along the beach and a cycle ride to look at the ferry crossing. We could have enjoyed ourselves for longer than the two nights we stayed at Świnoujście , but we still wouldn’t be able to pronounce or spell the name.
I had a bit of a surprise when I looked at the route out of Świnoujście – we had the choice of taking a ferry (which I had seen on my bike ride had long queues) or retracing our steps. It had to be the ferry – time shouldn’t be an issue on holiday. Having gained some understanding of the geography of the area on my bike ride the short ferry trip was very pleasant. It was free too.
Although we were now heading south, we wanted to stay in Poland rather crossing the border back into Germany. We were following a road that varied from good motorway to construction site. We didn’t have any particular target for the journey that day – we were heading for the Black Forest at a gentle pace, seeing what we might discover on the way. The Zacisze campsite at Łagów Lake was a delightful discovery. At first sight I thought it was closed for the winter – but a cheery greeting from the manager assured me that they were open for business, even if the weather had washed away part of the access road. We had the entire campsite (complete with electric hookup) to ourselves. My modification to the hookup cable for the previous site proved useful for this site too, but there was a further impediment. I had fitted a European plug which didn’t accommodate an earth pin in the the fixed socket. I was able to overcome this by using a European plug adaptor on my European plug – magic.
The lake was peaceful and beautiful, and in the evening it was host to a huge number of energetic fish leaping out of the water.
The day started in sunshine, with the trees steaming from the overnight rain. We were locked into the campsite, our hookup cable was locked into the electricity box and we had to drive uphill on a wet surface partly off the track due to earlier flood damage. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing at all, as it happened.
We were going back into Germany, and had decided that Dresden would be an interesting destination for the day, with all the ingredients for a city stopover – history, architecture and a big river. The Stellplatz didn’t let us down. I was surprised to see a spare place right in the corner, facing the historic town across the river. I was surprised that such a prime spot was free. It was only after I had explored a little more that I realised the other motorhomes were clustered around the electric hookup point – which made some sense given the chilly weather. However, we were comfortably installed with a great view, so we settled for an off-grid night. The ticket machine was an interesting intellectual challenge, but I guess it’s good to be surrounded by high IQ campers.
Like so many German cities, Dresden is both magnificent and sobering. It’s not as old as it looks – most of the city centre had to be rebuilt after the war. But that is a side effect of the killing of 25,000 people. So much of this journey has been a reminder of the devastation of war.
When you park on a Stellplatz there’s often less pressure to get away early than on a campsite – you often pay for a full 24 hours. We left Dresden late in the morning, and then stopped off at a supermarket. But despite the late start this turned into a travelling day.
Campinginsel Bamberg is an excellent riverside site – the facilities block was probably the best I have seen anywhere. There was a very popular on site restaurant. The camping ground itself was looking a little tired – it was the end of the season.
Bamberg was an interesting town, easily accessible by bus from a stop right outside the campsite entrance. For some of the time we were walking in Bamberg it wasn’t raining – but those rivers need to be filled! The very smart town museum gave a good cultural orientation, and made us aware of the places to visit, as well as what we were missing by not wandering further.
We were making our approach to the northern part of the Black Forest. I was regarding Baden Baden as the landmark for the start of this phase of the trip – which is fine in principle, but where were we going to park? When my research showed that there was a Unimog museum https://www.unimog-museum.com/ in Gaggenau the decision was made.
The Stellplatz at Gaggenau is part of a car park just outside the town. It’s clean, well organised and free. There are electric hookup points and it would have been possible to get attached, but we were happier to choose a more spacious parking space and live off grid. The Stellpatz is alongside a park. A walk through the park takes you to the museum – and also gives access to other walks. We didn’t visit the town.
The museum didn’t disappoint. The static exhibits are relatively modest, but the real highlight is the opportunity to be driven around their demonstration track. For me a Unimog-based motorhome would be a dream.
We were perfectly positioned to experience the iconic Schwarzwaldhochstraße, or Bundesstraße 500. Ideally we would savour this twisty steep scenic road and the places around – but it rained, a lot. The sights couldn’t be seen, the walks were flooded. We reluctantly decided to simply drive the road. All we needed was sunshine and a motorcycle.
We were heading for Camping Weiherhof, on the edge of Titisee. It didn’t disappoint. We had a lakeside pitch with a glorious view. Staying at the site gave us free public transport for the area. And the campsite boathouse restaurant was atmospheric and friendly.
We had a free travel pass, so it would be rude not to make use of it. The go-to city from Titisee is Freiburg, and rightfully so.
We took a bus from near the site entrance to the train station, and thence to Freiburg. It’s always a bit of a shock when you emerge from a station looking for the city it serves, but we found the centre and got into the relaxed feeling – it’s definitely one of those places where sitting in a square and eating Black Forest Gateau is the thing to do. And it wasn’t raining!
We had heard about the Sauschwänzlebahn https://sauschwaenzlebahn.de/ when doing our preparation for visiting the Black Forest. It’s a rather spectacular stretch of railway that runs steam-hauled excursions for 25km from near Blumberg towards the Swiss border. It would have been an easy day trip from Titisee, but we had decided to check out and go on somewhere else after our train trip.
The first part of the mission was to obtain tickets. It was a Saturday, and the train was heavily booked, but we got seats – or more correctly, we got tickets with allocated seats. More on this later.
We had plenty of time to explore the museum and historic signal box before the arrival of our train. As you would expect in Germany it was easy to find our allocated seats – but they were already occupied by some German people who were part of a loud crowd of drunk people, who were not open to reasonable discussion. We retired to some vacant seats in a corner and awaited developments. Another group of Germans came along to claim their seats from another part of the loud crowd – problem solved.
The trip was indeed scenic and interesting, and the return journey was in the company of a delightful and friendly German family – such a contrast.
We decided not to travel far for our overnight stay. The weather was good, and it was nice to be able to take advantage of it at a Stellplatz a few minutes away.
Col de la Schlucht
We had reached the point of the holiday when we were heading back, slowly, to Calais. We decided to travel through France – we feel at home there, but we’d be travelling through a part of France that we don’t know.
Before leaving Germany we stopped at Münstertal where horses and sports cars were being exercised.
We parked at a riverside Stellplatz at Breisach and took a walk along the Rhine. This was the border with France – we could have walked across the bridge. It was too early to stay for the night, and we were only a few miles from Freiburg, where we had been days previously.
Our eventual overnight stopping point was at Col de la Schlucht. There is considerable development going on here, and it’s very much a work in progress at the moment. While this col is not one with magnificent views into the valleys below, it’s a pleasant stopping point and the starting point for a number of walks.
Lac de Madine
It was a day of lakes. We were in no great rush to leave Col de la Schlucht, and it was nearly time for lunch after we’d had a leisurely walk. It was a short drive to Lac de Longemer for lunch with a view.
Lac de Madine is a large leisure area offering a range of motorhome camping facilities. We chose a simple grass pitch, which with heavy rain overnight and in the morning turned out not to have been the best choice. There are walks and bicycle routes, and I enjoyed a ride round the lake before the heavy rain set in.
There was a a strong World War One theme today. I had already had a sight of the Butte de Montsec on my cycle ride (see the picture above), so we decided to start our journey by visiting the monument. It turned out that the road journey was surprisingly long and when we got there the weather was particularly unfriendly, so we were left to imagine the magnificent views.
Like so much of this trip we were seeing place names we recognised from history – but couldn’t remember why. Verdun is one such. Our visit gave us a sobering reminder of the magnitude of what had happened on this soil around 100 years ago – and the crazy idea that military force is a way to conduct world affairs. We stopped at Douaumont Ossuary, a bleak and forbidding building.
We moved on a short distance to the Verdun Memorial and Museum. The museum gave a human context to the horror of what had gone on, while also describing it at the strategic level. It’s a good museum, but it’s not a piece of history to be proud of.
It was another short drive to Fort de Douaumont, which had been captured by the Germans in the first few days of the Battle of Verdun. Somehow, the sight of the battered fort, the barbed wire and the European flag all felt somewhat ironic in our current political situation.
While I had been wandering the fort, we had been given a leaflet for a motorhome aire in the vicinity. We had no plans for our overnight stay, so we made the short drive to Village Gaulois (https://www.villagegaulois.com/), not knowing quite what to expect. It’s an idiosyncratic fairy-tale place, with hotel, restaurant and a motorhome park with all the facilities you could require. The restaurant was warm and friendly, and we ended our meal sharing a table with some American tourists.
We were destined to continue along the Meuse. Our first stop was a very different war museum at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. In essence the message was that after the Europeans had been messing around with World War One for years, the Americans came along and sorted it. But that message is presented well, with due respect for the suffering on all sides.
It was still raining. Our route was well off the beaten track. At one point was saw a tank, parked in a green area just off the road. It was marking Butte de Stonne, a viewpoint on a Roman tumulus, reputed to offer one of the best views in the Ardennes. It might be, but the weather was not helping. The village of Stonne was destroyed in a tank battle in 1940. This area has certainly taken a beating over the years.
I climbed the viewing tower, looked at the clouds and rain all around – and then we continued on our journey. After about 90 minutes of driving we were beside the Meuse at Bogny. It was raining – but it stopped. There is a very impressive new riverside aire, just a short walk along the river into the the town centre. Off season it was deserted, and free, with WiFi. During the season there is a hut which will no doubt take parking fees, and there are electricity points all around. There is a full service point a few yards along the river. If you’re in the area, this is a good stop-off.
La Chévrerie des Sabotiers
The journey continued. We had plenty of time, and no real itinerary. The fluidity of national boundaries in Europe was well illustrated when our road took us briefly into Belgium, and then back into France. The weather was changeable, which made it a good day to just travel. We normally try to get right off the road for lunch, but there were not so many opportunities here, and we stopped at a lay-by alongside a river, with nothing between us and the road. It was not ideal, but the road was very quiet.
And so we continued, just inside France, to the obscure village of Mecquignies where, tucked on a corner is La Chévrerie des Sabotiers. This is a wonderful old-fashioned goat farm offering a very warm welcome to motorhomes. The goats and the people are both very friendly, as indeed were the pigs, up to their knees in mud, but apparently very happy.
A motorhome would normally park in the orchard, but due to the weather they allowed us to tuck into a corner on a hard track. We had the opportunity to meet the goats coming in from pasture, to watch the milking, and to buy some of the fresh natural produce. You can see a little video about the farm at https://youtu.be/DydkrJ0_HCk.
At this point we were very close to Calais and had a day to spare. It had been a long holiday, and we’d travelled a long way, so we decided there was no point in trying to be clever in how we used our time. We thought it would be a good idea go back to Camping La Chaumière, where we had spent our first night, have a meal cooked for us, all the facilities we could need, and just chill. When we arrived at La Chaumière there was no-one to be seen, but it was lunchtime and off season, so no big surprise. The barriers were open, so we decided to park ourselves on a pitch and have lunch while we waited for the owners’ return.
I wandered around the site a few times, and there was still no-one to be seen. There was no-one else camping on the site, but that is not unusual so late in the year. Nothing at the site said it was closed – but nothing said it was open either. After lunchtime was well past, even by French standards, I was feeling a little uneasy. I decided that we should pack up again and go.
We got as far as the front gate – the one we had driven through before lunch. It was now closed. In fact it was locked with a padlock. We had visions of being locked in until the spring. I tried all the contact methods – phone, email, website. No reply. I looked at videos on how to pick a lock – no success. We had plenty of time, and I told our story on Facebook. Amongst suggestions involving large hammers, a friend came back to tell me that the previous owner of the campsite still lived nearby. Eventually I was able to speak to him and explain my story. He said he would arrange something. We made sure we woke up early the next morning, and sure thing, the gate was unlocked. We drove out instantly, and I was just about to leave a thank-you note when a man appeared out of nowhere. He didn’t quite understand how I had got in – but it didn’t matter. We were free!
It was lucky that we did have a day to spare in the schedule. Our inadvertent imprisonment had prevented us doing the pre-ferry supermarket trip. Now we could go to the Aire at Wissant, where we knew we wouldn’t get locked in, via Cité Europe shopping centre near Calais.
View the pictures of our trip at https://www.flickr.com/gp/21184532@N00/h951H8