Cologne and home

Monday14th May 2012, Oyten near Bremen, Germany
Well as you will see we are now back in Germany so you will not be surprised to know that Modestine is still unwell. This morning she protested but eventually her engine started. We then discovered the hard standing we’d been told to use last night was new and had not been compacted properly. During the night her wheels had sunk deeply into the asphalt and she was unable to pull herself out! Eventually we did manoeuvre her free, leaving huge ruts in the surface, and drove across Jutland straight to the Citröen garage at Nustrup seeking help. After more than an hour investigating her intestines they have diagnosed that the solenoid activating the fuel pump at start-up is malfunctioning. They could not replace it for us while we waited but cleaned it up and reassembled it. So the problem might recur at any time. In the light of this we decided to get out of Denmark as quickly as possible and are now gradually heading towards home. There is no pleasure to be had in travelling when we are permanently worried about stopping for more than an hour or so, as she may well not start again.

As we crossed between Denmark and Germany we stopped at a motorway service area, still unsure which country we were in. It turned out to be Germany and we were able to change all our Danish Kroner into Euros. It was the cheery German lady in the bank who explained to us the Danish diagnosis concerning Modestine. The garage had written it down for us in Danish but we’d not really understood very clearly. I think we will still run it through Google translate when we can find internet access.

All day we have driven along the motorway carrying us out of Denmark and down around Hamburg where we spent an hour in a motorway Stau - a classic German traffic jam with huge international juggernauts stretching back for several kilometres. One had broken down right beside the road works, thus closing two of the three busy lanes around Hamburg.

Tonight we are camped in woods beside a lake and the birds are singing as night falls. It is a relief to be back in Germany. I do hope we can resolve Modestine’s problem as it would be good to linger here a while.

Tuesday15th May 2012, Cologne
We decided over breakfast to make our way back to France. If we cannot find a Citröen agent able to fix Modestine there we won’t find one anywhere and hopefully we can seek help from friends if we find ourselves without shelter overnight while the repair is carried out. To our relief Modestine started straight away this morning and has been behaving perfectly all day.

Bypassing Bremen, which we have visited before on our travels, we joined the motorway and have been on it for most of the day. It’s a quick way to move around a country but you see absolutely nothing of interest. German motorways, especially in the central part of the country, are heavily congested with international freight lorries from every corner of Europe. There are thousands of them thundering along day and night. Hemmed in by gigantic lorries we felt very small and fragile. The very worst bit is when they are converging from the right. They change speed for nobody, so seeing one of these monsters, seemingly on a collision course with us, and frequently towing a second container of equal size, requires stronger nerves than mine to remain unruffled!

I’m blessed with a navigation system far superior to any GPS. Ian sits there with his map on his knees and a happy smile on his face amidst the mayhem of the motorway with converging and diverging lanes leading to Dusseldorf, Bonn, Cologne and Aachen, cheerfully directing me around the spaghetti spirals of on/off lanes linking the different interchanges. Once again we got caught up in a Stau, this time on the ring road around Cologne. I have to say some German drivers can be very naughty about driving up in the wrong lane and cutting in at the last second while the rest of us have been sitting for the past twenty minutes wearing out the clutch and handbrake creeping slowly along. I leave it to their fellow citizens to blast them with their horns.

Beside the motorways on the edges of cities we passed many large scale factories. While the pipes and funnels of such huge enterprises can never be pretty, they were all gleaming chrome and white paint, evidence of German production and efficiency in this difficult economic time. Its current growth may be minimal but at least it is not stagnating as in the UK where we produce and sell almost nothing, relying instead on imports and the unstable financial market for investment and economic growth.

Around lunch time Modestine began to feel rather empty so we turned off at Bramsche for fuel. The little town was a delight though we’d never heard of it before. The residential parts were smart, frequently half timbered and generally pretty, while the shopping zone was pedestrianised and very pleasant, bustling with shoppers with time to pause for a chance meeting with friends. Even the cloth museum in an old factory looked picturesque with the mill race covered in waterlilies.

Cloth Museum, Bramsche

Town library, Bramsche. The 18th century house was originally owned by a cloth merchant.

We stopped for an early lunch of a sandwich with coffee. We were back in a country where we could afford not to prepare every meal in Modestine. To prove the point Ian was up to his old habit of a daily cake. Today’s was a Schwarzwälderkirschtorte.

I am getting a great personal satisfaction from being in Germany. Never having learned any German at school, after years of listening to Ian speaking with German friends and reading everything I see on the streets and in the shops here I’m discovering that I really understand more and more of the language. I am thoroughly enjoying the friendly atmosphere of the country, particularly the way of life observed in smaller towns. I know that some German people can be lacking in humour and rather dogmatic but generally we’ve been very fortunate in the people we meet.

Because Modestine has caused us to change our travel plans we decided not to return via Holland but to cut straight across through central Germany. We needed to stop somewhere this evening and decided that if we get stuck and have to call out the rescue service it might as well be somewhere more useful for us than on a campsite out in the wilds of the countryside. So Ian navigated me without a single error straight to this campsite on the banks of the Rhine. Nearby, far above our heads, there is a busy road bridge joining the two banks of the river. From the far side we can take a tram in one direction into the centre of Cologne and in the other to the centre of Bonn. So here we are and we don’t intend starting Modestine’s engine again for several days. If we do have to get rescued we will at least have seen the cities rather than simply driven through them. Until then we will forget our worries and enjoy our time here to the full.

Cologne seen from the bridge above our campsite

As we relaxed with a glass of wine, watching the barges making their way downstream a delightful Dutch girl came to ask us for help with her degree project for the University of Utrecht. She was studying German but also spoke excellent English. First she needed us to help with the questions as some were not really in the correct English idiom. We’d already drunk our wine but we offered her a glass and happily kept her company as we helped with her questionnaire on intercultural relations. It was a very pleasant interlude. She’s working here on the campsite over the summer to improve her German. It was amusing that she kept breaking into German and back to English without noticing. We are very impressed at how well young people in Europe cope with so many different languages. We are just too insular in Britain with far too few of our students learning more than a smattering of a second language whereas over here many speak coherently in three or more languages. (Almost none include French which they all say is notoriously difficult.)

Monday 4th June 2012, Exeter
Well one never can tell what is around the next corner. We’d expected to spend several days at the Cologne campsite on the banks of the Rhine and instead, within 48 hours we were back in England!

It all started so well. The morning after the above entry we made our way into the centre of Cologne on the tram which turned into an underground on the edge of the city. Leaving it at the main station we made our way to the surface to emerge right in the heart of the city immediately beside the most magnificent building in Cologne - one of the most splendid gothic cathedrals in all of Europe. Started in 1248 it’s a huge, perpendicular building, its twin spires soaring into the grey, cold and windy sky tainted with a dreary mizzling rain. On the parvis were several living statues, their garments blowing in the breeze and their teeth chattering with cold. Not the most comfortable way of earning a living.

Facade of the Cathedral, Cologne

Parvis of the Cathedral, Cologne

From this distance in time my main recollection of the interior of the cathedral is that it is really massive. Along with Beauvais and Compostella it must count as one of the largest and most impressive gothic cathedrals we’ve seen during our travels – and we’ve seen more than a few!

Interior of the Cathedral, Cologne

Interior of the Cathedral, Cologne

Interior of the Cathedral, Cologne

Interior of the Cathedral, Cologne

Adoration of the Magi. Stephan Lochner. 1455, Cologne Cathedral

In some ways we were a little disappointed with our day. The city centre was almost wiped out during the WW2 bombing raids (95% destroyed) so points of interest are widely scattered across the city. It is such a huge place not easy to navigate on foot and one cannot do it justice in a day spent walking around in the cold searching for the highlights. Of particular importance is the Cologne trade fair, a couple of notable churches, the town hall and a plethora of museums and galleries.

Gross St Martin, Cologne

Old Town Hall, Cologne

Antoniterkirche and modern architecture. Schildergasse, Cologne

St Aposteln, Cologne

Cologne houses a museum dedicated to the works of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). She was an outstanding painter, etcher, sculptor and draughtswoman. Her works concentrated on social matters with many drawings of working class people and images depicting human misery - she produced a set of lithographs for Zola’s novel Germinal. She was attracted to the Communist ideal and in her later life she was threatened by the Nazis who banned her works. Because of her international renown however she was not interned as threatened and some of her works were actually used by the Nazis for their own propaganda. Her works recalled to us our visit to the Neue Wache in Berlin when we had been so impressed by a sculpture taken from her WWII work entitled Mother with her Dead Son which stands alone in the centre of the silent rotunda. Since German reunification that building has become the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny”. It symbolises the suffering of civilians during WWII.

Kollwitz Museum, Cologne

Kollwitz Museum, Cologne

A couple of years ago, as a new metro line was being drilled beneath the city, the ground collapsed and within a couple of minutes the building housing the city archives disappeared into the ground, killing two people and burying Cologne’s written heritage beneath thousands of tons of rubble and ruptured water mains! We only realised this when we called off at the smart modern building currently housing the archives and found very little on display apart from an exhibition of crumpled, sodden documents awaiting restoration. Of course a massive salvage operation was launched but it is estimated it will take at least 50 years to restore those documents that they have been able to recover. Others are lost forever.

Damaged documents in the city archives, Cologne

Having walked to the town gate, the Hahnentor, we returned towards the centre of the city, exploring a friendly street market and passing a monument to Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of West Germany from 1949-1963 who led his country along the road to recovery after the WW2, forging links with Western Europe and guiding Germany along the route to economic recovery.

Hahnentor, Cologne

Konrad Adenauer, Cologne

We paused for a late lunch at Nordsee. This is a chain of excellent German fish restaurants offering a range of good value North Sea fish dishes. Having selected and paid for our lunch of grilled cod with sautéed potatoes and asparagus in hollandaise sauce we sat planning what to see during the rest of the afternoon. It was only as we left that Ian became aware that his purse had disappeared. When and where it went we have no idea. It was certainly there when we paid for our meal and we’d only moved across to the nearest table. Nor was the restaurant particularly crowded. But it seems to be a very common occurrence to judge by the number of people who have since told us of similar experiences. The staff were helpful and sympathetic but equally mystified.

He may have lost his purse, but Ian has never yet been known to lose a map! So at least we were able to find our way unerringly through the back streets of Cologne to the central police station! Here we were scowled at and told it happens all the time, why were we bothering them? We explained we needed a police report for our insurance. This was met by a grunt of derision and we were told we’d have to wait at least half an hour before anyone would be available.

When we were eventually seen the officer was rather friendly and sympathetic. After our previous experience of completing a police report in Spanish last autumn when our computers were stolen we found doing one in German a complete doddle. Our request to send an email to our bank to cancel our credit card was refused however and we were told to go off and find an internet cafe. Huh! What were we supposed to pay with? Our purse had been stolen hadn’t it? It even had our return train tickets in it. I rarely carry money when we travel as we are always together. Fortunately Ian had given me a 10 euro note on our way into the city just in case we became separated and I needed to get back to Modestine on my own. It turned out to be exactly enough for two train tickets back to the campsite!

The campsite did not have wifi. Time to find where I’d packed my mobile to cancel our card and inform our insurance. That was all straightforward and we were even told our stolen money would be refunded as we now had a police report.

It was during the night that we realised Ian had his house key and a camping card with his personal details and home address in his stolen purse. Next morning we realised we could not be happy continuing our travels when, however unlikely, there was the possibility of our key and details being circulated internationally. We decided to head straight for home and change the lock. Typically the campsite was unable to accept my emergency debit card as its machine was not working and we were miles from a cash machine! After our identity was cloned a few years ago in Venice (yes, we’ve experienced most forms of theft during our travels) leaving us in dire straits, we’ve carried some emergency Euros which we hope never to touch. So we’ve used them to pay the campsite and get us back to England.

Modestine thankfully behaved herself. It would have been the last straw if she’d refused to start! We left Cologne and drove all day across Germany, Holland, Belgium and France to reach Calais at dusk. I was so weary we decided not to take a late crossing but to use a campsite at Gravelines we remembered from the last time we crossed from Calais to Dover in 2008. Next morning at the port we were charged three times the normal ferry price because it was a daytime crossing and we’d not booked in advance over the internet! We had no choice but we will never use P&O Ferries again on principle.

Soon we were back in England and facing the long drive across southern England to Devon. At Andover we called off to offer our condolences to David and Lesley on the tragic demise of Eric (their Romahome camper van) and ended up invited to supper with their friends and to spend the night. It was such a delightful welcome home and after all the driving I was grateful not to have to continue the extra 100 miles to Exeter that night.

By lunch time next day we were home. Since then we’ve changed our door lock, sorted out replacement cards – bank, library, bus pass, camping and more, worked our way though a huge pile of correspondence, cut the grass and hedges, weeded the flower borders, painted the front of the house, planed the garage doors and repainted them and taken several more loads of broken sanitary ware, rotten timber, plasterboard, broken glass and assorted detritus from Kate’s house down to the recycling centre. Ian has completed a couple of overdue articles and has even managed to finish the general index to our travel blogs. We’ve also seen friends and enjoyed some wonderful summery weather.

Our garden back in Exeter

The day after we got home the Olympic torch was carried through Exeter on its circuitous route to London. The streets were crowded with residents cheering the runners along the way. We were amongst those lining the route as the flame was carried past. It was rather an exciting moment.

Olympic flame passing through Exeter

Crowds cheering the Olympic flame on its way to London, Exeter

As I write the nation is celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. There are street parties and fetes across the land and a massive flotilla of boats gathered on the Thames. Last night a chain of beacons was lit across the country. Never (since we have left Denmark) have we seen so many flags flying from official buildings or red white and blue bunting across the facades of houses.

"Beer shortage, please panic buy!" Pub landlords express the Jubilee mood

Union Jacks fly along the seafront at Teignmouth

For the time being at least everyone seems happy to forget our economic troubles and celebrate 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Two things blight it for her today – the Duke of Edinburgh was taken to hospital last night leaving her to face this special day without the support she has enjoyed from him throughout her reign, and so far today has been cold and wet with constant rain. We are off now with our umbrellas to see whether the free celebration on the River Exe quayside will be going ahead despite the weather.

Former quayside warehouse, Exeter

Morris men dancing with sticks and bells, Exeter quayside

Related links from our previous blogs
Hamburg and Bremen

Berlin and Potsdam, including the Neue Wache and the sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz

Calais and Dunkirk, including Gravelines