2016 06 26 Newsletter – Five Countries Closer to a Wedding

After collecting Cynthia from Calais nine days ago, we’ve had a hugely enjoyable if rather tiring trek across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. We’re now in Denmark, parked next to a tranquil freshwater lake half a mile from the coast.

After hauling Cynthia and her luggage on board nine days ago, we drove out of France and through Belgium in the blink of an eye before stopping for the night in a campsite in the beautiful seaside town of Sluis. We are very much looking forward to exploring unknown areas of Europe in a much more leisurely fashion, but the limited time available for our current trip has dictated a fairly swift passage.

A relatively short fifty mile hop the next day saw us in Westenschouwen, with an hour’s break en route to shop at the Jumbo supermarket store in Ternzuizen and to try half a dozen Vietnamese spring rolls from a very successful happy and smiling street vendor. Cynthia tried to convince me that he was selling monkey meat. If it was, I thoroughly recommend having a chimp or two for lunch. We then enjoyed another half hour stop, as our road raised to allow a line of cargo carrying boats to pass along a canal which dwarfed most of those in the UK.

At Westenschouwen we found a deserted corner in a large and peaceful car park for the night, close to a coastal footpath and a small field containing three emaciated ponies which kept Cynthia occupied for hours during the evening. Who needs television?

We spent much of the following day walking through quiet sand dunes and and then basking in the evening sun in a waterfront cafe, dribbling uncontrollably as waiters and waitresses laid doormat sized steaks in front of happy diners on adjacent tables.

Another hundred miles north the following day brought us to another seaside town, Egmond aan Zee. The lane to the beach ended at a car park with enough space for 1,000 cars. As you can see from the photo below, they had one or two spaces free. We parked for the night, slightly worried about the number of youngsters driving hot hatches driving into the car park. But this wasn’t England. At a sensible time they all drove sedately home to bed.

Plenty of space in this car park

Plenty of space in this car park

We spent the following day in a beach cafe. We only intended to have a quick coffee while we used their free wifi to catch up on our emails, but the food looked good, the service was excellent, and staff were busy preparing for a beach wedding, so we stayed long enough for lunch and to update one MacBook, two iPhones and an iPad.

Another one hundred miles journey the following day was broken by three hours for lunch in the centre of Rotterdam. I was dreading the city visit because (A) I was going to meet Cynthia’s brother Jeff for the first time and (B) I thought parking in a city centre was going to be a nightmare. I had no cause to worry on either count.

Downtown Rotterdam has more car parking spaces than you can shake a stick at. Finding one, or in our case two, was no problem at all. Paying for the parking was a different kettle of fish. Everyone we met in the Netherlands spoke perfect English, so there was never a problem asking for advice. I stopped a businessman who looked like he had parked a car or two in his half century on the planet. He told me that paying for Rotterdam parking isn’t easy. You have to follow street signs to the nearest ticket machine and then hope that it’s one of the few that works. A working machine took ten minutes to find in heavy rain so I was a little damp by the time we met Jeff outside Rotterdam’s central station. We had to meet him outside because you need a ticket to get in, even if you only want to use one of the dozens of shops within the complex.

Lunch was wonderful, an enormous pile of mussels and pasta for me, a beetroot salad with goat’s cheese for Cynthia and a club sandwich for Jeff which needed scaffolding to keep it upright.

Jeff left to catch his Amsterdam train while we headed further north and a disastrous afternoon.

On board route planning

On board route planning

We had become a little blasé about Cynthia moving around the Hymer while we were moving. On another typical drive she left her seat to use the bathroom, the van lurched and she fell over onto her bent wrist. She was in agony, but we suspected a sprain rather than a break.

I stopped at the first shopping centre we saw in the outskirts of Amsterdam. The area looked similar to the kind of council estate parade of shops that you would think twice about visiting in England, but, once again, everyone was friendly and spoke perfect English. Five minutes and many pounds later I had a bag full of bandages, wrists supports, plasters and ointments and Cynthia was wrapped, creamed and sedated enough for us to continue our drive.

As usual we tried to find a place to park with a sea view. We failed on this occasion because of a high and endless flood protection embankment. We had to settle for a layby half filled with agricultural machinery. Still, it was a peaceful spot so we had no complaints.

We needed water the following morning. We have an extensive directory of free or low cost overnight parking spots for motorhomes. The locations have grid coordinates rather than addresses. I entered what I thought were the correct coordinates in my TomTom device and set off for nearby Dokkum.

After the fourth turn along impossibly narrow town centre streets I suspected that I had done something wrong. I knew for sure when I ended up on a pedestrianised cobbled street with nowhere to turn. With the aid of what I suspected was a Dutch lorry driver on his day off, plenty of sign language and much head shaking, I reversed into a space which a sardine would have felt claustrophobic in. I managed to get out of the town centre without leaving any of the van behind, so the experience was an improvement over those I had in March in Devon and Cornwall.

While I was trying to extract myself from the narrow streets, Cynthia disappeared to do a little shopping. When she reappeared she told me how pretty the town was and how incredibly friendly and helpful the locals were. We found a campsite close to the town centre then spent the rest of the day wandering the streets close to a network of canals and drinking coffee in a waterside cafe.

Dokkum town centre

Dokkum town centre

After realising where I went wrong with the TomTom, on Thursday we decided to stop at a location in our Camperstop guide. The directory lists 9,000 official parking spots for motorhomes throughout Europe offering a range of facilities from simple overnight parking to campsite-like facilities including laundry, showers, water, electricity and Elsan and grey water disposal. The location next to Sander See, an eighty acre acre lake on Germany’s north coast five miles from Wilmshaven, was at the lower end of the scale offering a simple, hassle free place to park for the night.

We parked in one of the designated spots available on the edge of the main car park, then wandered down over to the lakeside cafe. We sat with a coffee for an hour enjoying the view and occasional gentle rain.

We were joined by two other motorhomes before dusk. The owner of one, a single guy, unhitched a mountain bike and sped off along the lakeside path. The owners of the other, a tiny German lady and her pot bellied, chain smoking husband, settled down into their evening routine. Every half hour, the husband climbed out onto the road to smoke two cigarettes one after the other. He had the perfect excuse for a few more at dusk when the show began.

Lightning forked across the sky every few seconds and thunder crashed around us, but not a drop of rain fell on the dusty ground. The display continued for at least ten cigarettes before the black clouds dropped sheets of rain on us. Our smoking neighbour quickly retired for the night.

The storm was both entertaining and very useful. During the early evening a steady stream of hot hatch owning German boy racers arrived at the lakeside car park. Of course, I compared them to young English car owners. I expected drinking, shouting and screeching tires throughout the night. These continental car owners are a different breed. As darkness and sheets of rain fell on the lake, they quietly said their farewells then drove slowly home.

We endured a long and painful drive on Friday as we crossed from one German coast to another, mostly in torrential rain along roads which made the M25 look like a traffic free super highway.

We drove 220 tedious miles through Bremen, Hamburg and Kiel before leaving the fumes and heavy traffic behind we both despise so much at Eckenforde. We picked this area to stop for the night hoping to find somewhere close to the sea to wild camp. Unfortunately the only spots near the coast were on campsites. We picked a likely looking site at Langholz.

The location was unbeatable. The beach was a dozen steps from our sandy pitch. The site itself was a little down at heel. Tatty campers and tents jostled for space on tiny pitches. The proprietor of the on site shop slouched on a bench nursing a two litre brown plastic cider bottle, and the toilets were an experience that I hope to be able to forget one day. I won’t say any more other than flushing waste away involved a more hands on approach than I suspect most people were comfortable with.

We sat on a waterside bench reading in the sun for an hour before heavy rain forced us indoors for the evening. Our evening entertainment was watching a giant German and his wife and two very small children manage their weekend camping from a tiny VW camper. Our night time entertainment was listening to his two children crying for hours on end. At least the sound of rain hammering on our roof almost drowned out their high pitched wails.

On Saturday we moved on again, hugging the coastline as much as possible. We drove through heavy rain again for two hours before negotiating what passes for border control in Europe these days as we entered Denmark. Two uniformed officials waved us through with a friendly smile as we headed north looking for a likely place to stop for the day.

As we skirted Aabenraa’s harbour we spotted a dozen motorhomes parked next to the sea wall. We turned into the harbour and then drove into the official motorhome parking area through a barrier which raised for us as we entered. Seeing that the parking area was mostly submerged under two inches of rainwater, we quickly turned and headed for the barrier again. This time it refused to open.

After half an hour searching the harbour for someone who knew anything about the barrier operation we eventually found the harbour master who let us out after she asked some probing questions. She clearly thought that we were trying to escape after a night’s free parking.

We drove for another hour to the coastal village of Hoptrup and our current idyllic wild camping spot next to Silvso lake. It’s the most peaceful spot we’ve found in the last week. We heard nothing last night apart from the wind and, of course, heavy rain rattling on our roof.

Cynthia relaxing by our lakeside parking

Cynthia relaxing by our lakeside parking

We’ve been here all day. The lake is 9km in circumference with a well marked track and regular benches around it. We’ve walked and sat and soaked up the sun. We’ll stop here again tonight, pretending not to notice the sign written in Danish limiting motorhomes and caravans to a maximum stay of three hours.

If we’re challenged we’ll move of course, but we understand from the motorhome forums that, as long as we don’t unload tables and chairs and roll out our awning, our stay will be tolerated.

Tomorrow will be a busy administration day. We’re waiting for my decree absolute to be sent via DHL from Swansea to Cynthia’s friend who lives in Odense. In the meantime, we have a wedding to arrange. It’s going to be a registry office affair with just a couple of witnesses. Before that though we have to deal with Danish bureaucracy to obtain and complete the paperwork.

We’ve managed to stay connected to the internet through five countries now. Our phones work in some countries for voice and text calls but not in others, our phone data will only work with paid for add ons, and our Three internet service is also dependent on what country we’re in. There are always cafes to use as a last resort. I wanted to pop into one of Amsterdam’s cafes for some coffee and cake while I browsed. Cynthia thought it was a bad idea. I can’t imagine why.

Time to down tools now and take another lakeside stroll. I’m very much looking forward to the coming week. I hope to be able to report that, once more, I’m a married man.

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Cynthia Says—

……Canals of Asphalt and Water

This past week has been a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Our long-awaited re-union in Calais France finally happened. I was overjoyed to be back in the fold with my beloved family after a long but very enjoyable stay at my friend’s in Provence, along with my very productive time in Spain.

I had just begun to feel comfortable speaking (my somewhat limited!) French, when I found myself having to switch over to German. We were most fortunate in the Netherlands because nearly everyone speaks English. That said, one evening on the beach the waiter didn’t speak English, but he did speak German so we went with that.

I was thrilled and charmed by all I experienced in the Netherlands. Everything is so spit and polished and pristine. It was like being in Disneyland! And the people are friendly, helpful and warm.

The country is a catacomb of bike paths bordering every roadway, and canals and dykes everywhere! There are so many kinds of boats to be found on these canals of varying widths. I loved the sailing models that fold their masts down hugging the deck, and the huge leeboards hanging for dear life on to the gunwales. They are as wide as a house and oftentimes quite old—I saw one online for sale that was built in 1898! And she looked to be a beauty.

Our second to last day in the Netherlands Paul was looking for a campsite to fill up with water and we ended up in the Friesian village called Dokkum. I fell instantly in love and quickly decided I could envision us living here on our boat. What a town! I felt like I had landed in Utopia! We happened to be there on a Wednesday which was perfect as it was outside market day.

We didn’t find the original campground, but came upon another one just a stones throw from the village. After lunch we decided to venture into the town to explore. We made the rounds of the market then settled on a canal side cafe for something to drink. It was a perfect place to be and very few tourists which made it even more delightful. We shared our dreams and talked about how we want to find ourselves relaxing in these lovely waterside cafes throughout the continent.

Paul returned to the motorhome shortly after a quick shopping stop at a minuscule organic food store–that had pretty much everything we needed–and I ventured back into town to poke around a bit more and hit the outside market one more time to pick up a succulent chicken to add to our salad. I also found a store that was chock full of housewares items we needed, so I arrived back home fully stocked up.

As we made our way out of the Netherlands and into Germany I found myself feeling a bit sad. Things just weren’t as precise and pristine—the yards not as neatly cared for. And the people we encountered for the most part did not speak English and weren’t as customer service oriented. And worst of all NO ubiquitous canals with canal boats!

Now that we are in Denmark and that much closer to our goal, things have settled down and we have found an idealic spot near a lake and a stones’ throw from the beach. Today we took a break and walked Tasha down the nice dirt path along the lake. All of us enjoyed the sound of the wind in the tall grass, the birds singing and a sky full of fluffy white clouds. By the end of the summer Tasha will have a new friend–a cousin by the name of Florence. Paul has been kind and generous to OK this addition to our family. Since giving away Bromley last January there has been a big hole in my life and heart….Florence is the one to fill that hole.

Next week we will hopefully be able to report that the long awaited wedding will take place…..stay tuned!

PS. We are still adding new paying subscribers to the site and hope those of you who read our newsletter regularly will join soon. The hundredth subscriber will get a free Discovery Day!

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.