Monday 5th February 2013, Exeter
Our return flight from Bucharest to Munich was uneventful. By 8.30pm we were on the unstaffed platform of the S-Bahn to catch our train back to the centre of Munich. The train was already waiting to depart as we rushed to the machine to purchase our ticket allowing us to board the train. As Ian fumbled to insert his 20 euro note into the jaws of the machine it was snatched from him by an itinerant Romanian who thrust a ticket into his hand in exchange and signed to us to board the train before it departed. It was not until we’d squeezed through the closing doors and the train was speeding us towards the centre of Munich that we worked out what had happened. We had our ticket and it was the correct price. But the Romanian had made a cool 20 euros! He’d obviously been through the bins on the arrival platform, retrieving all the abandoned 20 euro freedom tickets for the Munich metro discarded by those arriving for outgoing flights. They are the cheapest way to reach the airport. They are in fact valid for 24 hours use of the trains for up to five people, anywhere on the network. So had we been inspected, our ticket was quite legal. The arrivals and departures platforms at the airport are completely separate so normally abandoned tickets could not be picked up and reused. However, the East Europeans trying to scratch a living in this expensive city know every survival trick in the book. Almost certainly our ticket vendor had a whole pocket full of salvaged tickets and could make a tidy income reselling them to passengers rushing to catch the train into the city. It all happened so quickly we had no time to think about it. The loser of course is the railway company but it is their problem to block that loop hole. We could not but admire the dexterity with which we had our money removed and the way the Romanian melted away into the crowd.

It was a Sunday evening during the Oktober Fest and the trains were full of leather clad youths with short trousers and buxom Fräuleins with petticoats, white stockings and low-line bodices. Naturally on the platform as we changed trains for our connection to Trüdering we found ourselves stepping carefully between the many unpleasant and smelly pavement pizzas splattered along the ground and over the seats.

It was dark by the time we reached Trüdering where we had to walk back to Charlotte’s house carrying our luggage. By the time we reached the gate and found Modestine peacefully asleep in the front garden my head had started aching badly and my arms were painful from carrying my luggage home from the station.

Charlotte was back from Turkey and we all greeted each other at the door with great delight. Over supper we swapped news about Istanbul and Bucharest. Charlotte gave us each a blue glass eye as a souvenir from Turkey. They are reputed to bring good luck. Ironically, during the night I was woken by a stabbing pain in my head and several days later I discovered I was the victim of ocular shingles.

Ian gives us the evil eye – a sign of good fortune

Next day Modestine refused to budge. Eventually we sent for the road rescue service. The young mechanic asked her age and discovering she was 14 years old with over 150,000 miles (around 230,000km) on the clock he declared she didn’t need a mechanic, she needed to go to the knackers’ yard! He would think that, as Germans mainly drive Audis and Mercs mostly under 4 years old. Modestine was incandescent with rage and promptly burst into activity proving beyond doubt that she is “In her Prime”. Since then she has behaved impeccably.

Charlotte and Jill with coffee

We spent a very happy couple of days with Charlotte, helping her clear the garden for autumn and going out for a couple of drives with her to explore the countryside around Munich. We then left and drove north to Rohrbach, an hour to the north to visit Anne and Ray. They are a regular oasis for us when we are far from home. By now my headache was becoming worrying and we had no idea what was causing it as there was as yet no sign of blisters. Anne was out riding Hal near the stables when we arrived. She talked us in to the stables from Hal’s back using her mobile phone having seen us arriving across the recently cleared fields of hops.

Charlotte’s autumn garden

Great for rolling along the flower beds clearing weeds

The rest of the day was delightful. It was a public holiday and everyone with a horse billeted at the stables had turned up with cooked meats and sausages, salads, rice, puddings, cakes, biscuits and lots of beer. Once the 17 horses had been unsaddled and released back into their field we got out picnic tables and gathered round for a wonderful afternoon of relaxation in the heart of the Bavarian countryside. Even Ian found he could not understand the broad dialect around us. Everyone was friendly and included us completely, speaking carefully to us in Hochdeutsch so we could understand. Some of the children practiced their English and the sun shone comfortably warm.

Anne with Hal

Horses at the stable having their own picnic beside the hop fields

Picnic lunch at the stables

Anne’s two ponies, Hal and Norman

As the afternoon wore on the sun gradually cooled and we took a stroll in the woods and watched the horses being moved to their overnight pasture. We returned home with Anne for supper with Ray who had spent the day in Garching with fellow astrophysicists. Ray was his usual exuberant self eager to express his personal views on everything from the German education system to the current state of the Euro and his unique solutions for dealing with them all.

Moving the horses to the lower field for the night

The next couple of days passed very happily despite the worrying headache that nothing would ease and the increasing discomfort in my eye. Anne took us to the Donaudurchbruch, a narrow gorge on the Danube where it passes between high cliffs near Kelheim. At the further end of the gorge stands Kloster Weltenberg, a baroque Bavarian monastery with its own brewery and outdoor tables where hearty German sausages are served with fried potatoes and mustard. We arrived in time to see the hourly riverboat through the gorge slipping slowly away from the bank. Beside the quay was a sign stating we were 2415.8 kilometres from the Danube estuary where we had been just a few days previously!
Missing the boat, Donaudurchbruch

A long way to the estuary

Having literally missed the boat we decided to walk downriver through the wooded gorge. Eventually the path gave out forcing us to climb steeply up into the woods where we followed the river from the top of the gorge, splattered by the rain which had typically begun as soon as we were sufficiently far from shelter. Eventually we returned steeply down to river level to find ourselves on the opposite side of the gorge from the monastery, and, even more importantly, lunch!

Entering the gorge, Donaudurchbruch

Anne and Jill on the banks of the Danube

A kilometre further on we discovered a sort of raft that swung out across the river attached to an overhead cable to prevent it being swept downriver. It was carried by the current, and the skill of the ferryman, across the fast flowing river to a landing stage on the further bank. By the time we had squelched our way back through the rain to the monastery we were more than eager to do full justice to the monks’ beer and culinary skills. We squeezed onto the wooden benches in the courtyard, sheltered from the wet by a brightly striped awning and indulged in what Bavarians do best – attacking a plate of sausages, red cabbage and gnocchi with a tankard of beer from the brewery across the cobbled courtyard just a few metres away from us. Surrounding us were the baroque walls of the Kloster, founded in 620 by Scottish monks who definitely got their priorities right – caring for the inner man. While the chapel is one of the baroque creations of the Assam brothers and dates from the 1720s the brewery has been in continuous active service since 1050 and claims to be the oldest in the world!

Kloster Weltenberg, Donauduchbruch

Kloster Weltenberg, Donauduchbruch

Ferry across the Danube

Enjoying the benefits of the monastery, Kloster Weltenberg, Donaudurchbruch

Monastery fare

Oldest kloster brewery in the world. The proof! Kloster Weltenberg, Donauduchbruch

We returned along the river bank as far as the ferry stage. With the cold and the wet we decided to return in warmth and comfort by boat and enjoy the impressive sheer, grey cliffs rising up to the woods through which we had walked earlier.

Passing through the gorge, Donauduchbruch

Back in Kelheim, after the statutory Kaffee und Kuchen in a busy coffee shop we drove up to the summit of Mount Michelsberg to explore the huge rotunda known as the Befreiungshalle, that overlooks the little town. Eventually completed in 1865 it was built to commemorate the victories of King Ludwig I over Napoleon during the Wars of Liberation, 1813-1815. Inside is a circular marble hall with an inscription inlaid on the floor while around the walls are heroic statues representing victory.

Main street, Kelheim

Main square, Kelheim

Befreiungshalle above Kelheim

Befreiungshalle, above Kelheim

Looking down into the gorge from the steps of the Beifreiungshalle, above Kelheim

Beifreiungshalle interior – taken from Wikimedia commons

By now the skies were grey and leaden. As we drove homewards along the Autobahn lightening flashed, thunder rolled and the Heavens opened flooding the roadway in seconds. We crawled on through the downpour along with homeward going commuters. By the time we reached Rohrbach Ray was anxiously awaiting our return having finished his teatime breakfast and about to begin his nocturnal day. Thank you Anne and Ray for the hospitality you show us whenever we land up on your doorstep. It’s good to have such entertaining and helpful friends.

Our plan, once we left Anne, was to make our way down to the Languedoc to stay for a couple of weeks in the home of our Bristol friends Ivor and Lesley. On the way we arranged to call on Eva, a longstanding family friend dating back to the days of the friendship between her mother and Ian’s. Eva has a charming, sunny flat on the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance). It was hot and sunny when we arrived. By this time my eye was becoming very painful and the bright light added to the discomfort. Eva served lunch on her balcony and we all took a walk by the lake. Eva is a doctor and as the pain in my eye continued she became concerned and rang an emergency ophthalmologist in Stockau. Shingles is difficult to diagnose until the rash appears and I was told I had conjunctivitis caused by the air conditioning in our hotel in Bucharest. I was given antibiotics and told it was not serious. By this time it was too late to continue so we sought out a campsite we had used in earlier years for the night. We’d spent a happy day with Eva, as we always do. Thank you Eva for your kindness and help.

Eva on the shore of Lake Constance

Ian and Eva, happy to meet again

As we drove past Titisee next morning I commented to Ian that the eyedrops seemed to be burning my eye. Glancing across at me he noticed blisters appearing around my eyelid. By the time we reached the border with France we realised I probably had shingles. In our ignorance we did not realise quite how nasty it can be. We realised we needed to head for home so turned north and headed up through France reaching Châlons-sur-Saone where we found a campsite for the night. Next morning I knew I had to get help quickly. The medication we’d been given in Germany was not working. The campsite manager was wonderful and spent an hour trying to get me an emergency appointment. Eventually he rang the Samu (French emergency number equivalent to our 999). Someone could see me in Châlons-sur-Saone in half an hour. In minutes we’d packed Modestine, been given a map of the city and were on our way, driving one-eyed to Châlons. The ophthalmologist was very understanding when we arrived late having had to find our way around the city and park. He confirmed our diagnosis of shingles on the optic nerve and sent us off with the appropriate drugs warning it would be about seven weeks before I recovered. I was horrified but I now realise just what an optimistic expectation his was as I am still far from fully recovered five months later.

What a sight!

With frequent stops to sleep or be sick we made our way back up through France over the following couple of days. Camping on the Loire at Gien we rang Genevieve and warned her of our unexpected arrival. During that night a violent thunderstorm culminated with lightning directly overhead. It woke me from my really deep slumber, convinced the explosion had been in my eye! By the time we reached Caen I had strength only to crawl upstairs to bed where I slept te best part of the next 24 hours. Genevieve and Ian were both marvellous caring for me until I felt able to make the crossing back to England a couple of days later. Brittany Ferries were excellent, allowing Modestine to board immediately, ahead of the queue, where I slept throughout the crossing in a clean and comfortable cabin.

Back home I finally gave in and spent most of the next few weeks asleep. Ian has been an amazing nurse and I have become fat and lazy. I must be feeling much better as I am angry at the time I have wasted unable to read or use my computer. So I have donned dark glasses and as my eye gradually readjusts to coping with daylight I have attacked the last of the blogs, just in time for our next foray into Europe. I am improving but I could never have believed how slowly the body recovers and how lacking I still am in energy.

So as this is my blog and I can say anything I like, can I please take this opportunity to thank everyone for their kind wishes and support while I have been convalescing? I am sorry to sound such a useless wimp but it really is the most exhausted I ever remember feeling.

I would especially like to thank everyone in a huge arch across Europe stretching from Munich to Exeter who have helped us get back home and have taken us in along the way. None of us realised at the beginning what had happened but you must have found me lacking in my usual energy. My special thanks to Charlotte, Anne, Eva and Genevieve. How lucky we are with our wonderful friends.