Maastricht, The Netherlands

Within spitting distance of Belgium, Our really expensive motorhome camping is on the banks of the Meuse river.  It is 5km north of Maastricht city.  It’s too hot for a pair of unfit fifty somethings to do very much, so we chilled out for the first afternoon trying to keep cool.  The next day and the need to keep cool meant a (slow!) 10 km cycle ride to visit the Maastricht underground site and the extensive underground limestone quarries that are over 400 years old at Zonneburg caves.  There is no lighting installed in the system, so the whole tour was conducted by torchlight. Never mind all the fantastic tales we could tell you about the quarries or the people that dug them, all you need to know is that for one hour, we had 12 degrees C and almost 100% humidity – it was fantastic!  Traditional Netherlands dishes for lunch followed and then a very slow 10 km back through the town to the mothership. We didn’t get to see much of the town centre. Few photos from Maastricht, the caves were too damn dark!

Tagebau Hambach Mine, Germany

As we were sitting plotting (the conservatives downfall bwa ha ha.  No, not really, the route west from Cologne with google maps), we noticed a bloody huge hole in the ground to the west of the city.  A little research showed us the Tagebau Hambach mine. It’s a lignite mine – low quality coal.  Reserving commenting on the environmental impact, we could not resist stopping off at the visitors centre for a look.  The scale of the place just boggles the mind. There are perhaps ten bucket wheel excavators moving overburden from above the lignite.  At the other end of the pit, machines put the overburden back one the lignite layer has been extracted. The whole shebang moving ever Southeast.  Throughout the pit a huge conveyor network moves the spoil and the lignite around.

The photos won’t do the scale of the operation justice.  It was about ten minutes before we could focus on any details that we recognised – in the end it was a pickup truck dwarfed by one of the excavators.  The mine is around 500 meters deep.

The bucket wheel excavators are the largest in the world and if you really want to geek out, check out some stats: they are around 100 meters tall, 200 meters long and weigh nearly 15,000 tons.  Each drinks about 16 Megawatts of juice to run.

The mine has plans to operate for at least the next 20 years, so it’s unclear what this will mean in the context of Germany’s commitment to stop burning coal by 2038.  Again, to give an example of scale – one of the plans after the mine is closed is for a man made lake. Using water from the Rhine, they still estimate that the lake will take decades to fill taking the final cleanup beyond 2100.

We tried a quick drone flight here – not over the mine as that would not be permitted – but just a panning shot as the drone climbed.  But it was rubbish – the place is just so big that moving the drone results in almost no change to the shot. Still, it was nice to chalk up another country and justify the effort of getting the fireproof tag fitted to the drone!

Whether the weather be hot

26/6/2019 – Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

You’ve not heard from us for a week or so now.  Don’t worry, we are fine! The excitement of the motorhome lifestyle does wane a little when it the temperature is in the late 30’s and you are in a tin box….  In our case it’s a winterised tin box so it tends to stay warm at night.  Great!

Mothership has plenty of windows and sunroofs, but the evening wind has been light and we didn’t invest in air-con for the hab area (it’s a £3K option and requires a hookup to operate), so our night time temperatures have been in the 30’s

Toby has invented an idea for motorhome manufacturers to decouple the vehicle air con pump from the engine and put an electric motor on it.  It will still need a hookup to run but won’t require a 50KG box on the roof. 

Anyway, currently we are holed up in Cologne.  We have the mothership parked under a stand of trees in a lovely campsite right on the banks of the Rhine. We are 5km outside the city.  We have ventured out to the Dom and bought new tires for T bike, but other than that, we are wilting away and waiting for weather that won’t kill us!

We hope you are ‘enjoying’ the fight between Johnson and Hunt. It doesn’t seem like sanity is going to prevail any time soon does it?  We are still hoping for a peoples vote on the deal – whatever it may be.  If the xenophobes still prevail, then so be it!

Apeldoorn, The Netherlands

Our campsite is about 8km outside the town.  It’s a truly lovely site with huge pitches. We are still getting away without electrical hookup and are no longer worried about every watt – mothership electrical systems are just fine – no ‘Main Bus B Undervolt’ for us (sorry, you may need to be a bit of a geek for that one).

We took a long detour to come back to Apeldoorn, just a stone’s throw from Utrecht (well, 40km, but who’s counting?) The reason for this is that we discovered a really cool primate park called Apenheul, which tries to present various primates large and small without barriers.  Many of the smaller primates just wander around the visitors.

Even where it would not be safe (for the apes or humans!) to mix, the park employs clever barriers to make it seem as though you are with the Apes. The highlight of the day was seeing the gorillas up close.  We were in the front row and the only thing separating us from six bloody great apes was 20 feet of water.  None of the primates like water much and it’s an effective barrier between species and in this case us! More than half the species are free to roam among the visitors.  It was a wonderful day.

The Apenheul has a greater mission too: It’s a non profit organisation and all profits raised are invested in primate research and conservation programmes across the world.

Nearby the Apenheul are public gardens, Park Berg en Bos, including a pretty spectacular wooden tower with a great view of the surrounding forest.

Steinhuder, Lower Saxony, Germany

Sadly, we had to miss out Hanover – the logistics for the mothership and the available motorhome stellplatz and campsites made it too much like hard work.  Maybe we can go back out of season when it will be easier to find a pitch!

Anyway, from Wolfsburg, it was 100km west and a lovely camper-van site near the 30 km square  lake Steinhuder Meer (lake).  The afternoon looked like it would be a washout with rain showers predicted.  But as the forecast for Sunday was worse, we decided to set out for a lap of the lake (35km).  In the end, it was wonderful. We had one sudden downpour, but there are shelters all around the lake, and we stayed dry.

Sunday we went into Steinhuder town and had a wander around. It’s mainly a tourist town – the lake is hugely popular and draws in large crowds every weekend.  There was also an American car show running so we checked out more American muscle!

Monday was a down day planning for the next month of stops and generally doing all the hundred of little jobs that build up!

Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, Germany

The campsite is on the edge of a lovely lake.  Water skiing, kayaking, sup and swimming all available.  Our schedule is too tight to get the boat out – maybe at the next stop!

The first day and it was a wander around the town and a trip to the Kunstmuseum.  This was great, although there were two surreal things that freaked us out.  The first was that in one part of the museum, there are paintings and photography exhibits around a large square room.  If you move more than a couple of metres from the wall an alarm sounds. Yes, you may not move *away* from the artworks.  The guard chuckled at us and managed (eventually) to make us understand that we had to stay near the walls.

The second thing that was odd was that we were not allowed to go backwards to revisit previous exhibits.  In one part of the museum, we deliberately left out one room and we meant to go back to it. But when we started to work back through the rooms, the attendant would not let us and shooed us forwards.  Bear in mind that there are no directions and no single path through the museum – each time we tried to go back through one of the routes to a previous room, we were hustled onwards. The museum was not busy – we saw six other visitors in the whole place!  We had to lose the attendant that was by now following us into each room and then do another lap! Interesting place!

Toby would not have been happy without a factory trip, and so to the global HQ of VW and a day at the factory and visitors center – the Autostadt.   As we were the only English speakers, we got our own guide – the wonderful Anna!  Anna explained to us all the interesting stuff about the VW plant and the customer center.  

For example, in Germany, customers normally buy their VW from a dealer but save €500 euros by collecting it themselves from the factory.  The buyer registers the car themselves in their local town, and at the appropriate time, they travel to Wolfsburg with their paperwork and number plates.  Little six wheeled robots take the number plates from reception and deliver them to the finishing centre where they are fitted to the cars. The customers spend a little while looking around the various brand pavilions and then they get to go drive off in their new VW.  It’s possible to collect a car from the group from the Autostadt, even though only a few VW models are actually made at the plant.

Dominating the landscape are the two Vehicle towers.  These 25 story cylinders store 400 cars each and are fully automated.  At the appropriate time, the robitized pallets pick up the car from the tower and deliver it underground to the customer collections centre. On the day we visited, 500 cars were collected.

Another interesting statistic that our guide told us: over half of all VW production is sold to China.  Now that’s a big market!

Anna pointed out to us one of the highlights of the Museum – a Bugatti that once fetched  $30M to make it the most expensive car ever sold at that time, the amazing 1936 Type 57SC Atlantic.  We think there are only three of these in the world and this one (possibly) is on loan from Ralph Lauren.

Although there are brand pavilions for all the VW group manufacturers here and you can get hands on with all the cars, the two exceptions are Bugatti and Lamborghini.  Both stands have only one car each and you can get nowhere near them 😉

But for VW, Audi, Porsche, Seat and Skoda – no worries, you can get in all the cars and examine all the toys.

We thought the Autostadt would be a half day, but it ended up a full 8 hours and we still missed parts of the museum and some of the interactive exhibits.  We topped the day off with a visit to the merch shop and a pack of VW part number 199 398 500A.

Berlin, Germany

And so we arrive in Berlin.  This is about as far East as Selina is comfortable travelling, so this is home for a week.

It’s a long drive, so our first day is more of an evening.  We scope out the local area buying groceries and generally mooching around.  From the camping platz, we can see the Humboldhain Flak tower standing on the hill, so we wand over and take a look at that.  It seems that only organised tours are allowed inside. The flak tower is a repeatable design and we had already spotted one in Hamburg.  When the Germans designed them, they already had in mind post-war uses for the buildings and so they were actually designed to be clad in stone.

Our first day into town is a large walking tour.  We take in the intact section of the Berlin wall over at Mühlenstraße – now an outdoor art gallery.  We visit checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg gate, the parliament buildings, and we even have time for an impromptu visit to the cultural fair which was on for three days.  Pulled pork burgers for lunch. Nom nom!

It’s really busy in town, so many of the things have huge queues.  Even though queuing is a supposedly British national pastime, we eschew waiting and continue the wander.  Many kilometers of pavements pounded!

Second day in town and we intended to go back to Potsdamer Platz to check out the Lego experience and the German Espionage Museum.  But we didn’t get that far. We got to Potsdamer Platz okay, but then spotted ‘Die Welt’ a tethered helium balloon that we had previously seen from the top of the Flak Tower on the day we arrived.  It was only 25€ each, so we splurged out on it. We were really lucky: We were the 8th and last flight of the day because the wind picked up.  So glad we did this. A great view of Berlin from 150 meters. Very apt that the Balloon is positioned beside the Luftwaffe HQ from the war.

After that we needed beer with sauerkraut hotdogs for lunch.  Then it was over the road to the Topography of Terror – the old site of the Gestapo.  From there it’s back to Potsdamer Platz and the Espionage museum – which was really interesting – Toby _finally_ got to see another Enigma  machine = two in fact. The Lego Experience was a non starter – it was just shy of 20€ each! That’s too rich for us non-earners 😉

The next day and it was a trip to the outskirts of town and the Computer games Museum. Even Selina played some of the games.  Toby now wants to raid the loft when we get home and get out the Amiga, the BBC and the Atari ST! Selina even played ZorkInternet Rabbit Hole warning: Play Zork and HHGTTG online.

Our final expedition for this trip to Berlin was a guided underground tour with berliner-unterwelten learning about the tunnels that were used to escape West Berlin in the early days of the cold war. We learned many of the heroes of Berlin that rescued hundreds of people from the wrong side of the wall and reunited many families for example Tunnel 57.  None of the actual tunnels exist today – they were normally destroyed with hand grenades on discovery, but the Berlin Unterwelten have access to the sprawling basements of a number of buildings and each story is told in an underground setting.

Schwerin, Germany

Another one night Stopover.  We got away from Hamburg early enough to actually use the day rather than only using it for travel.  The Schwerin stopover is a grassy space for around 20 vans set next to the Harbormasters office in a small yachting marina.  There are a series of large lakes here and the area is really popular for boating. This is one of many marinas in the area.

The reason for visiting Schwerin is the Schloss Schwerin castle that has been on our to-do map for simply ages. Is a 3 km cycle around the lake and into town and we spend the afternoon at the castle.  The weather deteriorates, so after the castle, we don’t get to see too much of the gardens or town – it’s back to the van between the showers of rain… find that – minor disaster – we left some of the rook lights open. Remembering to shut the roof is a real issue in a mothership with seven roof lights!  Oops. We spend an hour drying the worst of it. Hopefully the damp bits will dry out over the next couple of days!

Chilli for dinner and general housekeeping!

Hamburg, Germany

A one night stopover on the way to Hamburg:  Bremervorde is lovely – it is a relax by the lake destination that we want to come back to someday, but for us it was just a one night stand on the way East!

After a late lazy departure from Bremervorde, we arrived in Hamburg too late to go into town.  The Campingplatz is under the metro lines out to the east of the town, but still in walking distance.  On google maps it looks a little salubrious, (Because of privacy concerns, there is no Google Streetview in Germany, so we couldn’t do our normal research before we set out). But on arrival, it/s a really nice site.  Run by an ex lorry driver (who used to deliver Airbus wings!). We get settled and it was oven cooked sausages with jacket spuds for din-dins. Selina was not at all impressed that the sausages had cloves in them. Extra Sausages for Toby!

Next day and we tried to fit in plenty. We took a tour of the docks by boat.

Pretty cool to see the huge container ships up close. We went up the St. Nikolai Memorial Tower and spent nearly a day at the Miniature Wonderland.

We did wander down the Reeperbahn during the day, but not Herbertstraße! And that’s it for Hamburg – everything else will have to wait for the return trip – we need to head on East.

Bremerhaven, Germany

We arrive in Bremerhaven quite late in the day and the Motor home aire is already full.  Not a great sign for our first German stopover. But there are camper-vans in the marina car park just over the road, so we go and park over there while we work out what to do.  The Germans parked in a camper next to us tell us that the workers that came to clean up had told them that overnight parking is not forbidden, so we decide to just stay where we are.  We cycle along the seafront and visit the German Submarine U2540, Wilhem Bauer, our main reason (Toby!) for coming to Bremerhaven.

Back to the Mothership late afternoon to discover that a) there are now about ten motor homes sharing the car-park with us and b)  there are lots of German ‘kids’ in modified BMW, Audi and VW converging on the car park. It’s getting louder!

We have dinner and watch a movie.  More cars show up – the party is just getting started.  We watch another movie and turn in at midnight. By this time there are not too many cars left, but the last one doesn’t go until after 2 AM – they were no trouble at all, just loud!  In the morning we notice that all but one of the other camper-vans had gone too – guess they didn’t like the company!

Anyway, by the time we get up, the Camping Platz over the road has spaces – so we shift the mothership over there.  The ticket machine doesn’t work properly and the less than helpful attendant is crap, but we get it worked out and head into town. We visit the maritime museum.  Most impressive is the new VR experience which details the German Arctic explorer vessel, Polastern. We spend an hour watching some VR video.  It’s really cool. We explore two other ships and cycle down to the shipping terminal to see the observation tower made from shipping containers. We fit in a great lunch and that’s the day done!