Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Wormeldange to Haguenau

July 26th
Today we changed course completely to arrive in the town of Wormeldange in the Moselle valley which is the wine-growing part of Luxembourg, to the east. Literally every scrap of available land has a vineyard of it.
A relaxy day was called for so once we had found a suitable spot, we did a bit of exploring and found an nearby stream (which ran underneath where we had parked) flowing from a lovely little waterfall. Got a really nice picture of Nailz here too. Later on it started to rain so we kicked back in the van, admired the view and settled down for the night. Lovely.

July 27th
From Wormeldange we headed south to Ehnan and stopped briefly by the river Moselle. While there we were passed by the boat MS Princesse Marie-Astrid, which was the venue of the the signing of the first Schengen Agreement. This agreement stipulated terms for removing of internal border controls between Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany and has since been altered to include all members of the EU with the two notable exceptions of the UK and Ireland.
From Ehnan we headed to the town of Schengen itself but stopped of first at the town of Remershen. There we saw an exhibition showing off creative and hands-on skills of children aged 12 - 26 to celebrate the Schengen agreement's 25th anniversary (this year). The idea was to design and build a hut, or similar with the theme "traveling without borders". Seemed entirely appropriate we were there! Among my favourites were amost literal description of the Schengen Agreement, and a bike which keeps you dry in the rain, transforms into a tent and according to the accompanying diagram you can ride it off a cliff (it transforms into a parachute) and land it in the sea as it, of course, is also a boat. When we're back we need to start work on this!!
Next we arrived in Schengen and found the European Museum which held a lot of detail about the formation of the EU, the Schengen agreement and the various bodies which control different aspects of European integration.
It was really nice to be in the town where the agreement was signed, that allowed us to roam from one country to the next. To emphasise the point we then drove straight over the river into Germany and then back into France!

We were heading for Strasbourg, to an 'Aire Municipal' (or free service stop that allows people to camp and using the services) when we stopped for a break in the town of Bitche. Here we found a fort which was part of the defenses of the Maignot line, built after WWI to prevent Germany invading. The German Army did attack it unsuccessfully, but then broke through in Belgium, sweeping round the Maignot line and occupying France. Nailz had a good explore around the fort, and I think he enjoyed the views as much as I did.

Heading towards Strasbourg again, we stopped for the night in a town called Haguenau. The road we had initially stopped on was called the Rue de la Torture, but a swift bit of reversing ensured we stayed on the Rue de la Liberation! Much nicer.

Click here for the route so far!
There are more photos on our Flickr account, click here to have a look at all of them.

Luxembourg City

We spent the morning slowly getting ourselves together and headed down toward Luxembourg city, stopping off to update blogs outside McDonalds (never thought I'd be so happy to see them - you don't even have to buy anything if you can park close enough to get free WiFi!!).
We got to the city itself in the afternoon and it is truly amazing. It is like nothing I've seen before, a complete mash-up of styles, from the intimidatingly gothic to the downright picturesque (a word I'm using quite a lot I know). This place has the lot.
From the bit of history I have read on the place it has changed hands more often than a typist with RSI. The Burgundians, the French, the Spanish, the Austrians and the Germans have all held it at some point and have all added to it's defense too, making it the "Gibralter  of the north". Some more interesting facts about the city, it is divided into three levels of defenses; the inner 'girdle' is fortified with bastions, the next contained no less than 15 forts, and third layer a massive exterior wall which contained an extra nine forts all hewn into the rock. There is 23km of underground tunnels, 40,000 m² of underground rooms (said to be bombproof) in the foundations of the city. The city surface covers 120 hectares while the fortifications covered - at their peak - 180 hectares.

Makes you think really. It doesn't matter how careful you are, if someone really wants to get in...

There are a huge number of stairs and steep slopes to climb and I'm sure we have done the equivalent of a step-aerobic marathon today.

On leaving the city we headed to the "Land of the red rocks" which is where iron ore used to be mined making the rocks red, hence the name. The problem was we headed a little too far to the west and actually crossed the border back into Belgium again to a town called Auberge, where we spent the night.

Click here for our Flickr photo album

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Luxembourg Ardennes

So we woke to find the best view so far and made the short trip down to Esch-sur-sure where we found a delightful ruined castle overlooking the river Sure. Surrounding the castles was the now familiar lush green of the Ardennes and it made for a lovely picture (sorry for the blemish in the foreground!).
From there we headed on to Bourscheid which boasted another castle, this time restored to a large degree. We had a look around the castle and then headed further west to Vianden to see, you guessed it, yet another castle. Luxembourg is spoiled with romatic ruins and castles, in fact in the Ardennes area (nothern Luxembourg) alone there are dozens of historical sites dotted around the country. More than enough for a second visit sometime!
The castle at Vianden is particularly nice and the town as a whole is very pretty. We had a little lunch in the town and then a roam around the castle grounds. There is also a 450m chair lift, but we decided Nailz wouldn't like it so stayed on terra firma.

That reminds me, we mentioned a zip line in the Ardennes area of France that we wanted to have a go on. We did try to find it and when we asked at the tourist info office at Charleville-Mezieres, we were told that it had been torn down during a "tempest"! When we travelled through Belgium the first time, we saw evidence of trees being plucked from their roots and snapped in two and apparently the storm had hit only the week before. If we had left a week earlier it seems our beloved van would have been in the path of destruction!

Leaving Vianden, we headed toward Luxembourg city along the beginning of the "Valley des sept Chateaux" or valley of seven castles. We found a nice one at Hollenfels and decided to park up for the night nearby. We were just cooking dinner when a car pulled up next to us and it's occupants, in a midlands accent, said "you're a long way from home!". This is how we met Keith and his wife Vilma, who now live here in Luxembourg and Vilma's sister, Teresa who was visiting them. After dinner we met them at the local restaurant for a drink and quickly got chatting about all manner of subjects (notable football scores - they were keen Wolves supporters) and our travel plans. They invited us to another town to a bar to meet some further friends of theirs, including Steve and Steve (that made remembering names easier!). We had a great night chatting away to them and the other locals, most notably Pete (a master trumpeter, who loves "The sons of the Pioneers") and Sergie (another football and rugby fan).
In the hope that they get to see this blog, we want to say a big thank you for a wonderful night! Unfortunately being slightly inebriated, I managed to leave the card with Steve's details in the bar but please drop me a message through google messages on this site!

Here is the route so far!

Bastogne to Luxembourg

We left Charleville-Mezieres on the evening of the 22nd and headed into Belgium again so we were well placed to get to Luxembourg the next day. We found a nice lay-by near the village of Neuvillers and set up for the night. The next day we woke to a massive queue outside, which it transpires was for an international agricultural festival which was being held in the field next to us!
I had spent the night before reviewing a tourist brochure downloaded from the Luxembourg tourist website and decided that we should explore the Ardennes area of Luxembourg before working our way down to the capital itself. This also meant that a visit to the Belgian town of Bastogne was en route. This also seemed worthwhile as we had seen the series Band of Brothers which recanted the exploits of "Easy" Company, part of the US 101st Airborne who famously held the town against German encirclement during the Battle of the Bulge, so we headed there first.

This was a lively town with plenty of WWII memorials and monuments to the sacrifices made not only in the town but the surrounding Ardennes area. An American Sherman tank guards the main square which is named after General McAuliffe who famously replied "NUTS" when the Germans asked for the Americans to surrender the town (they were encircled and cut off from the rest of the Allied troops). It just so happens that there is a big nuts festival in Bastogne every year and had been since long before the war, so anyone who thinks that Americans know nothing of irony has been mislead.
There is also a quite imposing church, the Church of St Pierre.
I visited an exhibition called "J'ais 20 ans en 40" meaning "I was 20 years old in 1940" which recounted the experiences of the war from all sides and I found it hugely thought-provoking. There were displays of Belgian civilian life under occupation and how Belgian male civilians and soldiers were transported to Germany and forced to work in the factories, supporting the German war effort. Those who refused to go to Germany had to go into hiding and become part of the resistance, forgoing their supply of rationing unless others could provide them with assistance and risk their own lives.

In the exhibition, amongst lots of other interesting displays, there was a room which was completely white with about a dozen or so tree trunks commonly found in the Ardennes. As you walk in you hear the sound of coughing and a wheeze. Suddenly you hear the explosion of gunfire, and then artillery which gets louder and louder, which then suddenly dies out only to start over again. When you are in this room you can't help but be thankful that you weren't fighting in the forests surrounding Bastogne. There is a memorial to the members of "Easy" Company who fell on the outskirts of the town and some foxholes in the forest nearby. The forest itself seemed to quite foreboding to us, and as if to add to the atmosphere, thunder rippled from the sky as we walked among the square-ish holes in the ground.

In to Luxembourg
As the thunder clouds were coming in we decided to head for the border and enter Luxembourg rather than sleep in the forest. I had read about a picturesque town called Esch-sur-sure so we put that into the SatNav and off we went. As we got over the border to Luxembourg we were greeted with petrol stations selling Diesel at 0.98 Euros per litre, which by my reckoning is about 83p per litre!! Needless to say we filled up.
Heading toward Esch-sur-sure we found what I think will be a contender for most picturesque place to sleep. We were on a very large hill overlooking a huge lake and dam. Words can't describe this so just look at the pictures!

Here is the route so far!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Chillin' in Charleville

21st July
Today we stayed in Charleville to do a bit more exploring and generally have a relaxing day soaking up the sites and sounds. We ventured into the town and admired the architecture. Some of it was quite amazing, others not so. Charleville was built in the 17th Century and there are many grandiose buildings which reflect that time. For example there is the Place Ducale which is a replica of the Place des Vosges in Paris. Rachel, having been to Paris, even commented that the buildings were very familiar, before we found this out!
The other part of Charleville-Mezieres is the 10th Century town of Mezieres. We were told that this was the medieval part of the town, however we could not identify much architecture from this period apart from a historical monument and the Basilique Notre Dame. This was an imposing gothic-looking building and we got to have a look from the outside, but it was closed by the time we got there. Still, I'm hoping to get inside tomorrow as the stained-glass windows are apparently well worth a look.

The Nailz effect
Having Nailz with us is a real help. Wherever we go we are approached by folks wanting to say hi to him. After a few false starts we are quickly getting into dog-french and finally I'm able to use my basic french skills - "Il s'appelle Nailz" I say confidently, "quoi?" is the usual reply, "errr, 'ammeur and Nailz" I reply hopefully... Still dogs are great in which ever language you make a fool of yourself in and it always ends in a smile and a wave "Au revoir".

Local tipples
We weren't going to miss this, a 10% lager for me and a 8% cherry lager for Rachel. I can't remember the name of either of them, or what happened after that to be honest but I remember thinking they were great. Something Rouge was the cherry one... Someting about Trappiste monks...

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

From Wimborne to Charleville-Mezieres

L'Eurotunnel - 20th July

So the day of reckoning came around in both a lifetime and the blink of an eye. Rachel, Nailz and I had been ready for this adventure for some time, yet when the day came it was still a bit of a surprise!
We started the day the right way with full cooked breakfast courtesy of Rachel's gourmet-chef-of-a-brother (cheers Mike), and soon we were on our way to Folkestone in our self-built campervan. I'm going to post about this wonderful creation in great detail very soon, but I need to catch up with the day's events first.
So we get to the Eurotunnel terminal in good time, and I was surprised with how easy it all was. Everyone we had dealings with from security and passport control to the folks who just help you park on the train were all very helpful, courteous and above all friendly.

France to Belgium and back again

Once if France we headed straight for the Ardennes region, specifically a town called Charleville-Mezieres. We had read about a massive zip line in the area and looking at the pictures was something we definitely wanted to have a go at. Also the Ardennes region straddles France, Belgium and Luxembourg which is where we wanted to head next. It also left most of northern France and Belgium for us to discover another time.
So we hit the road and soon were blasting through the countryside of France before zipping past Lille and up into Belgium. Click here for the route we took. The only indicators that we were now in a completely different country were the change in numberplate format and accompanying B badges and subtly different road signs. Further on into Belgium, and nearer the Ardennes region, the motorways and main roads were completely lined with thick woodland and the tone of the country changed from farmland and industrial to lush green forests.
We passed by Mons and Charleroi before heading south towards Charleville-Mezieres and the invisible French border. It was a beautiful drive.


We got to Charleville at just before 8pm - right when the shops were pretty much closed and only the bars and cafes were getting ready for business. We had managed to park in the town so we could have a wander round and get our bearings for the following day. After our long day of driving we also wanted to celebrate the first night with a drink and found a nice little bar right in the center of the town. They had an array of lagers and interestingly the weakest one was called Stella Artois! Being only 5%, seems Stella is the "soft" drink in these parts. Next to that was 6% Leffe (which is served in half measure only where I come from), then three Trappiste lagers (more Belgian lagers) ranging from 8% to an incredible 10% strength! I was gutted that I had brought the van and vowed to return to sample these delights the next day. We then had a stroll by the river and Rachel was excited to see some flying fish before we headed back to the van.

Making camp

On our drive into Charleville we spotted a decent place to set up camp for the night and got back there just before dark. There was already an articulated lorry parked up so we knew it would be alright to stop there. Next to us in the field to our right was what seemed to be a huge gun emplacement or more likely an observation point, possibly a remnant of WWII. Whatever it used to be it was now covered in graffiti giving an art-deco feel to it. A bit like Banksy in reverse. We just had time for some noodles before collapsing into bed after what had been a tiring but brilliant day.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

What's this all about then?

Firstly thanks for visiting this blog! If you already know myself (Matt), Rachel or Nailz (our Jack Russell Terrier) then it's great to be able to update you on our adventure. If you don't know us (yet) but have stumbled across this blog, our aim is to provide a detailed narrative of our adventures as we explore parts of Europe in a self-built campervan. We will be free-camping where possible, scuba diving, and generally exploring. On top of having loads of fun, I'll be busking and jamming as much as I can, we'll be sampling local cuisine, trying to learn a bit of local lingo, and seeing what free festivals we can get to.

If we have a great experience we will be sure to tell you what happens and what we think about it, as well as providing photos either here or on Flickr. Of course not all things go to plan - when there is one - and we will also tell you about any problems we encounter and how we deal with them.

That's the mission statement, of sorts, so the next thing I need to tell you about is how we can inform you when there's an update to the blog. We will be using free wi-fi spots to get access to the internet (what a great excuse to buy a coffee, whilst avoiding the extortionate cost of using data abroad on mobile contracts) so updates will probably be a bit sporadic. You could keep checking this blog every few days, but if we go off the beaten track for a bit it may be some time till we can post updates, so if you want you can follow me on twitter. I'll post on there when there is an update so you won't miss out!

That's it for now, but over the next few posts I'll write about the kit we're using, the van, the dive equipment, and anything else which may be of interest.

All the best,

Matt, Rachel and Nailz!