Six weeks Cruising in a VW Camper Van in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France Sept. 3 to October 16, 2013

Sept.3/4: We left from Richard’s home in Caledon, Ontario. Rick drove us to Pearson Airport, Toronto and we boarded the plane at 9 a.m. After a 3-hour layover in Newark we boarded the plane for Frankfurt, Germany. We watched movies and our position on the screen as we travelled overnight across the ocean. We got to Frankfurt at 6 a.m. The train to Köln was almost two hours late. When we finally arrived there, Sebastian, the young man who had rented the VW camper van to us, was waiting to tell us our van had been in an accident, one of three that had been damaged in the last week. He was equipping another for us, but it would take a few days. He offered to find us a hotel room, but we were happy when he offered us an empty van so we could visit Richard’s family. (Note: There are two Sebastians in this story. The other one is my niece Breanne’s husband.)

While we waited with our luggage and nibbled and sipped in the courtyard of a Spanish restaurant, the VW Sebastian took a train to Brűhl and brought back an empty former military van. He gave us a cell phone, and we were off north to Richard’s sister Josie’s place, in a southern suburb of Dusseldorf, around 5 p.m. The GPS, with her calm polite English voice, got us there. We christened her Emma, and she became our best friend for the whole trip. Richard’s half-sister Josie had cooked us a lip-smacking meal of goulash and noodles. Dessert was ice-cream with strawberry sauce. I was so tired that ny face kept falling into the food, while we ate and visited on the balcony. We were in bed by eight, which was 2 a.m. in Canada.

The next day Josie tapped on our door at 7:30 to wake us up. After the first of many hearty German breakfasts (boiled egg, sausage, brötchen – fresh-baked rolls – with jam and coffee) we went to another suburb to visit Richard’s full-sister Mausi and her husband Manny. We stopped at Manny’s printing shop and he loaned us a bike for the trip. (Sebastian was supply the other one. Mausi served us home-made pumpkin soup. After a long visit (made longer by my sketchy understanding of German) we visited Richard’s 96-year-old mother Maria, who lives in a fully-subsidized and very comfortable retirement home nearby. She wanted to walk to a nearby neighbourhood bar for Schnapchen. We walked down to it, Maria with her walker, and sat outside in the sidewalk café part of the bar, and visited with the people around us. Maria was lively and funny, but we had to cut her off after 3 drinks so we could go back to Josie’s. Josie had made plans for dinner at her favourite restaurant. We sat in the restaurant’s garden and ate fresh pfifferling mushrooms and drank wine until way past our 10 o’clock bedtime. On Friday I checked email at Manny’s print shop and we bought toiletries to use in the van. We both still had jetlag.

We expected to get our equipped van on Saturday, but Sebastian called to say he had sent his girlfriend off to buy a new fridge for it and he would deliver the van the next day. Richard, Josie and I went to see Margot, Richard’s half-sister on his father’s side (not related to Josie, his half-sister on his mother’s side, but they grew up together). She is a knitting fiend and has crates of beautiful wool socks that she donates to charity. She gave Richard and me each 3 pairs.

On Sunday Sebastian came with our camper and it was beautiful and clean. The motor was strong for an old VW camper. The roof was high, and he warned us to avoid parking garages. He gave us an internet flash drive, which worked well in Germany. We planned a tentative route. We moved into the van and unpacked into the ample storage space. Then back to Manny and Mauzi’s to visit and meet their son Thomas, in his forties, who had been working when we were there before. Thomas was damaged by surgery when he had leukemia as a toddler. Paralyzed on one side, deformed by the surgery, speaking with difficulty, and confined to a wheelchair, he is a gentle sweet-natured person and adores his little nephew Ben.

During all of the visiting, my German kept improving.

Mon., Sept. 9: We shopped for groceries to stock the van. Richard bought a lot of sausage, salami and other German meat which we never did get all the way through, even though I took to using it for hostess gifts. But it was well-preserved and kept until the end of the trip.

We drove up to Kartenkirchen in Belgium to visit Richard’s cousin Ula and her husband and children and grandchildren. Ula is an accomplished sculptor and I saw pieces of her work in the homes of all the other family members. Richard even has one of her sculptures on the boat. Josie came with us and, because she knew the way, overruled GPS Emma who, unbeknownst to us, was directing us around highway construction. We were lost until I finally persuaded Josie that Emma knew best and we should just obey her. On the way home Josie kept telling Richard to go a different way and slow down. But we ignored her and the return trip was much shorter.

Tues., Sept.10: Under way by 8:30 a.m. and by the Mösel by noon. Many mountaintops have castles on them, in various states of repair or deterioration. I wondered how they could have been built way up there thousands of years ago.

Every view looked like a postcard setting. The high houses crowded around crooked narrow streets and usually surrounded a large church with a steeple that towered over the town. The town was often encircled by a high stone wall with a walkway and guardhouses. I took way too many pictures.

We found a BauMarkt (like a Home Depot) and got most of the bits and pieces we needed to set up the camper. That night we parked by the Mösel, nestled into a row of larger motor homes.  It took a while to get ready for bed that first night – organizing the bedding, getting the curtains up, finding our nightclothes, but it was fun to finally be on our own.

Wed., Sept. 11:  We were awakened at nine by a bell rung by a baker with a little van full of fresh warm brötchen. I dressed and ran over to buy some. After breakfast we drove back up to the shopping centre to get more things that we needed. Richard loves shopping centres and we visited them often during the trip.

After lunch there we drove to the Waldeck ruins, where Richard had camped weekends and holidays as a teenager and young man. But the ruins were blocked by a large gatehouse which was locked. There are several buildings surrounding a large campsite and youth festivals are held there now. We had just missed a reunion of all the members, where Richard would have seen many old friends. We parked alone in the camper area, surrounded by woods, and with a porta-john nearby.  A gentle rain kept us asleep all night.

Sept. 12, 2013: We explored the castle at Kastellaum(?), then drove back through Cochem to Ernst. We parked for 8€ in a little RV park next to a winery, bakery, butcher shop and restaurant/bar. At the winery, we tasted and bought enough to last us for the rest of the trip and for gifts, and rode our bikes along the Mösel. After supper in the van, we sipped wine in the restaurant. The one-man band played old German music that brought tears to Richard’s eyes, and when the boss joined him, the sweet sound of his trumpet brought tears to my eyes. We danced waltzes and a polka.

Peer, an old friend from Richard’s youth, lived in Dommershaufen, near the Waldeck. On the way, we walked around in Burgen, where Richard and his friends had often slept in a hayloft, but the barn is upscale apartments now. Peer and his wife Lilo live in a house built in 1855, with large beams across the ceiling and a big Dutch oven in the kitchen. I could understand more now. They talked about the large Muslim population in Germany. Lido said that when the Muslim men requested that the law be changed so they could have multiple wives, the German government said okay, but the law must be equal, so women would be allowed to have multiple husbands as well. The Muslim men withdrew their request. Later, Peer and Lido took us for supper and drinks at the local pub with their friends. Then we walked back to our van, parked in a farmer’s laneway nearby.

Sept. 18, 2013: Breanne, my niece, and her German husband Sebastian were setting up inflatable beds for us when we arrived at their apartment in Bad Hersfeld, near the former East German border. They had moved their car to the street so we could have their spot. During a long walk through this beautiful old city (okay, they are all beautiful old cities), Sebastian took the picture above of Richard and me with Breanne. We went out for supper with Sebastian’s family to celebrating Lisa’s and Breanne’s birthdays, and Breanne made broken glass cake (mostly jello and delicious.)

Breanne is subject to vicious migraines, but has forgone her medication while she is pregnant. So on Sunday she stayed in bed in the dark, and Sebastian took us touring, showing us a house that had been divided in two when the DDR (East German)border went up. He took us to a piece of it, Point Alpha, that had been preserved to show how families had been divided and people killed if they tried to leave. Richard and his family walked through it one day when he was 12, disappearing into some woods in a blind spot. A family that tried the same thing a week later was killed. Our next stop was the castle Tannenburg, which has been restored and is staffed by people in Middle Ages costumes cooking, knitting and working at a forge An archer showed us how to shoot a bow and arrow.

Monday, Sept. 16, 2013: Sebastian had gone to work and Breanne was over her migraine and served us the usual hearty German breakfast of sausage and cheese and hard-boiled eggs and jam and bread. Then we drove to Hartzungen, where Richard had lived as a kid during the war. He showed me where the concentration camp had been. The children, playing up in the hills, could look down and see what was happening. Richard says those images are as vivid in his mind as if it were yesterday, and they are terrible.   It is a playground now. No one wants to build a house there, where, as the Americans were coming at the end of the war, the prisoners who were still alive were pushed into a hole by the Nazis, shot and buried. The villagers were made to dig the prisoners up and give them proper burials in a nearby churchyard. A day later we went to Mittel Dora in Nordhausen, where the U2 rocket was built with slave labour from concentration camps like the one in Hartzungen. Local villagers were forced labour but could return home at night. We visited the museum and went under the mountain to see where people lived and worked and died. It is too difficult to give you details. It is hard to imagine that the German military could treat humans that way. Modern Germans are determined to remember this part of their history, and school children are bussed in to learn about it, so it doesn’t happen again. Admission is free and many adults visit as well.

We visited Gerhardt, a friend of Richard’s and now a wealthy farmer who grows Christmas trees and hunts small deer and wild pigs. Many of their skulls are mounted on his walls, as you can see in the picture with Richard in the foreground.

That night we stayed in a real camping spot, about 14€, and had hot showers. We climbed up and explored the Hohenstein Castle ruins, where Richard played as a kid. The castle still isn’t kidproofed. There is an open well and many open spots along the wall where a child could fall to his death.

The van was cold and we didn’t really have enough blankets. Snuggling helped, but I was chilly all the next day. After our trip to Mittel Dora, we visited Richard’s friends Gunter and Dörchen. They took us to visit Barbarosa’s castle, really three castles on different levels, at various stages of restoration. They took us out for supper and loaned us a sheepskin blanket. I have liked all of Richard’s friends and family, and learned more about him by meeting them. We parked and slept near a row of little garages where Gunter and Dörchen keep their car.

Wednesday, Sept.18, we woke up warm, thanks to the sheepskin blanket. Josie would return it later, so we kept it for the whole trip. After our goodbyes, we drove to Őderan to visit my ex-sister-in-law and her husband, mostly travelling on the Autobahn. It is no worse than the 401, as long as you stay out of the far left lane. There is no speed limit and very high-end cars drive 200 kilometers per hour in that lane. They don’t take kindly to old VW camper vans getting in their way. Almost at the Műllers, we had to take a long detour up out of their valley, by a field with thousands of white geese being fed up for Christmas, and down a steep narrow road where we had to back up for a large tractor. Then a large bus and a truck met beside us. The bus backed up and all of the kids waved at us.

At Jutta and Siegfried’s, there were hugs all around. The last time I visited them was in 1990, just before the wall came down. Their son Jens lives upstairs. Very computer savvy, he translates my updates into German for Jutta by computer program. We watched Siegfried’s video of their 50th wedding anniversary and vacation pictures, and pictures of our trip so far on TV. It was a far cry from passing snapshots around in 1990. Siegfried is a beekeeper and Jutta gave us a jar of his special honey, made by bees that collect sap in the woods.The next day Jutta took us on a walk along the Hetzdorfer Viaduct, where we could see for miles over rivers and villages, and we walked back under it on the way home. Picture on previous page).

Friday, Sept. 20:  After breakfast, Siegfried and I took pictures before we drove away. It was so good to see them. I have known them for forty-five years, but we have only visited together five times, although the first visit, with Mike was a month long. Across the language and distance divide, we are old friends. They made us feel at home.

We had wanted to visit Dresden, but it was so rainy and cold that we drove south instead, looking for warmer weather. We passed large fields of solar panels, not collecting much sun-power on this dreary day, and blocking the light from so much farmland. In Forsheim, we followed the little motorhome signs to a pretty (but soggy) city camper park on the Sportsinsel (3€ plus 1€ for a shower at the stadium in a change room normally used by a whole soccer team. We took our bikes off the van and rode around the old city. More pictures.

Sunday, Sept.22: Angela Merkel was re-elected today. Germany does seem to be a sensibly–run country. We drove from Forsheim to Parkplatz #3 in Rotenburg ob der Tauber, the most touristy old town so far, crowded with people brought in by the busload, taking pictures and having Schnitzel und Bier and Kaffee und Kűchen. All very picturesque.

Monday, Sept.23: Drove most of the day, through the postcard scenery with its little scattered villages, the valleys getting deeper and the mountains higher as we approached Switzerland. We were in Waldhűt on the Rhine which is the border there, at 5 p.m., and Emma directed us up a steep hill in the city to Richard’s ex-wife’s apartment. Rick, Richard’s son, had asked if he would stop and check on her. She lives on the top floor of a small building with a spectacular view over the river. She seemed happy to see us and go out to dinner. We easily made the long walk down into town, but the climb back up was challenging for us two old ladies.

The Waldhűt camping area was on the river, 10€, with showers and a laundry, both coin-operated and complicated. But we got it sorted out and had lunch in the restaurant, watching the Rhine race by as we ate.

Crossing into Switzerland, Emma stopped co-operating. I could only get her to list German cities, until Richard noticed the “country” button. We ended up in Zurich at rush hour, messing up traffic in an area reserved for busses. Horns honked from all directions. A sweet policewoman came over and asked us what we were doing. Richard explained that we had no clue and were Canadian. She gave us concise directions for escaping. She also noticed how upset Richard was and patted him gently on the shoulder. He felt better. He said he had dreamed about her coming to rescue him the night before.

Back on the autobahn we went through several tunnels and came out into the stark steep beauty of the Alps. We stayed in a little camping place in Aldsdorf, where cable cars carried hikers clutching maps of the trails to the tops of the mountains.

Wednesday, Sept. 25: We kept going south and ever higher, the motor heating up, until we got to the top of the Gotthardt (sp?) Pass.  I snapped this picture of Neanderthals on the other side of the lake. They ran off and then came back and did it again. Then I noticed the guy with the movie camera on my side of the lake. (I know they really are extinct, but their brow keeps appearing in our relatives, who are Schleihaufs. We saw lots of people walking over the pass. Most were young, There were very tired-looking stragglers.

On the way down into Italy, it was the brakes that got hot. We stopped several times to let them cool off. We ended up in the municipal camper parking in Leiden, on Lago Maggiore in Italy. We couldn’t understand a word of Italian. It had been our most dramatic drive so far. And now the weather was warm and sunny.

Thursday, Sept. 26: We had espresso coffee and visited with the couple in the motor home next to our camper. We didn’t get away until late. We drove on the autostrada to Geneva, then turned right and went south to the Med. We were directed to our camping spot in Finale Ligure by a young couple who sang it’s praises. It was on the Med, but the Med was windy, grey and cold, and it was raining. The camping area was muddy, with no grass or trees. The toilets (squatters) were locked at 8 p.m., and when I went out in the morning to use one, they were being taken away on a truck. For this, 18€!

Friday, Sept. 27: When you get up in the morning, the first thing you want to do is use the toilet, and ours had disappeared. So we got on the autostrada and drove to a pretty picnic area, with washrooms that had toilets on which one could sit. After coffee and Brötchen, the day got better. We drove past San Remo and through Monaco and Nice. Too many people and too much traffic. We turned north and drove into an area of cliffs, mountains and dramatic pinnacles. Driving along the Var River and into France, we found a campground with a little lake surrounded by mountains, nice showers and toilets with seats, not squatters. Heaven.

Saturday, Sept. 28: A relaxing layover day, despite the 4-hour walk to Entrevaux and back – my favourite Medieval town. It really looked old, and hadn’t been tarted up. The city was occupied, and laundry hung on lines. We saw only two cars and they were all scraped from trying to get down the narrow streets. We looked at the citadel, far above us, and decided to leave it unexplored.

I have many pictures of this pretty place. It was hard to choose just one, but the town square, with its little restaurants, was quiet and noncommercial.

Saturday Sept. 29: We spent the next two days in the most dramatic scenery of the trip – les Gorges de Daluis. The first day we didn’t get very far before it started to rain really heavily. The narrow road had steep cliffs to the left and only space dropping to invisible depths on the right, with mountains on the other side of the gorge. I kept making gasping sounds and Richard was afraid to look anywhere but straight ahead. So we pulled over into a layby, put on the parking brake and ate lunch, snoozed and played cards until the rain let up a little and we could drive to Guillaumes and park down by the River Var in the municipal campground. We climbed up to the citadel. If you take the big path you can see it from a distance. But Richard took the small path and I followed, begging him to turn around and not looking down as I crabbed along the side of the mountain, clinging to weeds and bushes. We reached a narrow flight of stone stairs with no handrails and a deep open well on one side. And there was a little room into which we could climb. The trip back on the wide path was easy.

Monday, Sept. 30: We drove back to the gorge in the sunlight and got better pictures. Richard bravely walked out on this pinnacle, connected to the roadside by a natural bridge. After looking over the edge he felt a little weak in the knees and carefully crawled back to where I waited with my camera. After admitting to ourselves that we couldn’t capture the grandeur of this place with a camera, we drove back through Guillaume and continued to climb, in our little VW van, zig-zagging through sharp switchbacks, over the Cayolle Pass, 2350 metres above sea level. We drove slowly down into the valley and gave way for cattle and other vehicles. The one-lane road with no barrier between us and the shadowy depths was to be enjoyed slowly, we decided. We found a pretty campground near Barcelonette. After supper we watched a few more episodes of Firefly, which a friend in the Bahamas had downloaded onto my computer.

Tuesday, Oct. 1: The road got bigger – two lanes – and the driving became a little easier. We drove along a beautiful turquoise lake, the Lac de Serre-Ponҫon. That night we stayed in a campground near the city of Gap, Camping Napoleon. The next morning I read my emails beside the little pool, just closed for the winter. We hadn’t realized that most campgrounds would be closed on Oct.1.

Wednesday, Oct. 2: It was too soon to turn north. We decided that since we had no destination, we could not be lost, and there were no wrong turns – a relief to me, the navigator. We stopped often to take pictures. We started looking for a campground just after lunch, but they were all closed. Past Chancery, the woman care-taker at Riviere Bleu relented and led us a mile or so to an area where the water and electricity had not been turned off yet. It was a really big campground and we were the only ones there. We unloaded our bikes and explored the campground. Then we had a good hot supper, a bottle of wine, and more episodes of Firefly before turning in.

Thursday , October 3: Twists and turns, getting lost, and more heart-stopping mountain roads, and then a nice valley road. The heifer in the picture above is exercising its right-of-way privileges in a narrow spot. We kept missing the municipal camper parks, which were badly signed. Around dark we pulled off the road behind a rocky spur with trees on it. Cars kept pulling in for a few minutes and then leaving. It was a popular spot to run up into the trees for a bathroom break.

Friday, we drove up past Geneva on the southeast side of Lac Léman to  Yvoire. At the trailer park, Richard made friends with our neighbours, the peaceful dairy cows, who were curious. We relaxed, went for a walk along the lake, and had naps.

Saturday, Oct. 5, we drove through more Alpine pastures, and crossed the border back into Germany. At 5 p.m., we parked in front of Bárbel Horn-Schleihauf’s apartment building in Freiburg. My paternal grand-mother was a Schleihauf and Bárbel looks just like my father’s sister Aunt Vonni. She was expecting us tomorrow and was on her way out, but made us comfortable and directed us to a pizza place. It turned out to be an elegant restaurant and we dined in candlelight. Afterwards, showers and TV were a treat.

Sunday, after eating the classic German breakfast and catching up on each others’ lives, we walked around the new city (there was much bombing during the war) and the old city that survived. There were little plaques here and there among the cobblestones that commemorated Jews that used to live at that spot, with dates and places they were deported to, and where they wound up and when. One read “Auschwitz” and another “USA via Cuba”. Bárbel took us to a nearby village to escape the crowds and have Kaffee und Küchen. But it was Sunday and there were flea markets and festivals. Everyone was in the streets. The bakery was very organized and we enjoyed the best Kaffee and Küchen of the whole trip.

Monday, October 7: Bárbel sent us west to Colmar and back into France. Another historic old town. But we were getting blazé and didn’t stay long. There we met the only beggar we saw on the whole trip. He pretended to be an attendant in the parking lot and bustled up, took our change and put it in the machine for us. Then of course he needed coffee money. In this picture the tourists don’t look convinced that his services were essential. We travelled on the Autobahn all afternoon, heading towards Düsseldorf. Richard wanted to go to Hohenfels, a large manor house. He had camped on the grounds and spent time in the house  when he was a kid with his brother Peter, now dead of lung cancer. But when we finally got there, following Emma’s somewhat convoluted directions, it was locked and closed for rennovations.  It was getting dark so we stopped in an empty factory parking lot surrounded by fields. Nobody bothered us, but when we woke up at 8 a.m., the lot was full.

Tuesday, October 8: We gave the address of Richard’s sister-in-law Monika (wife of the deceased Peter) to Emma, and she took us there. Monika was happy to see us and told us about her new love, the perfect man. She had answered an ad in the local paper, and they met at Monika’s church. In the three weeks she has known him, he has never asked her for money. But he can only see her for a couple of days a week because he is busy taking care of his elderly mother, he told her. Peter was a tyrant, Richard says, and she deserves some happiness, but she would be very vulnerable to a predator. After we visited for a couple of hours, we left and tucked into a hidden corner of the lower parking lot at Schlossburg, a castle that Richard wanted to show me. Dinner at the castle restaurant.

Wednesday, October 9: Schlossburg has never fallen into ruin, and is now used as a tool to teach history to schoolchildren. They were all over the place, but in organized groups. I wasn’t looking forward to another castle, but still enjoyed this one. Each one has its own distinctive characteristics.

The Rest of the Trip: We moved back into Josie’s spare room and cleaned out the van. We visited family again. I couldn’t help but think, when I was taking their picture, that this might be the last time that Richard and his 96-year-old mother see each other. We did a huge laundry at a laundromat, and packed our clothes. Josie took us by taxi to the Hütte-Ho (means giddy-up) and we dined while overlooking the horses that trained on the inside track. Then she took us  to dinner with sister Margot and old friends Metchild and Blacky, We visited Manny and Mausi again. Too much eating. On Oct. 14, we took the van across the Rhine on a little ferry to another medieval walled town. North of Brühl, where we stopped for supper, I pulled a muscle in my leg, jogging to get out of the rain. From then until we got home, I could barely walk. The mechanic Sebastian’s Mom is a physiotherapist, and gave him an elastic cast and medication for me. Sebastian drove us to the train station. I had to hobble a very long way along the platform to our gate. Gallant men carried my bags for me, Richard being already loaded down. The train was late but it didn’t matter. When we got to Frankfurt Airport, we spent the night sleeping on benches until we could check in at 6 a.m. I asked for a wheelchair and the rest of the trip was a breeze. In Newark an attendant was waiting to take us and our luggage through customs and on a train to another terminal. Richard followed happily. A wheelchair and attendant also waited in Toronto. The distances were long and I could not have walked them. Rick, Richard’s son, was waiting for us in the Toronto Airport. A wonderful trip.

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