Calais, France, Monday, June 11, 2012
The rain held off overnight and next morning while we were packing up, but we had some rain en route to our next campsite, Kockelscheuer in Luxembourg. This is a convenient site on the outskirts of Luxembourg City,
very popular as a stopping-off point on the way to or from somewhere more interesting. Luxembourg is pleasant but fairly unremarkable and not somewhere to spend a long time. However, its main attraction to travellers is the price of fuel,
amongst the lowest in Europe – diesel is 1.19 euros, so we made sure to fill up whenever possible!
The campsite had obviously had heavy rain so the pitch was pretty wet. I caught sight of a small, shiny black creature wriggling in the grass, and assumed it was a large slug, but on closer examination it turned out to be some sort of lizard – it wasn’t a newt because it didn’t have webbed feet, so we think it may have been a salamander! The rest of the day was wet, so we passed the time by going to a large supermarket. The highlight of the trip was finding a copy of the Guardian – the first time we’d seen one since Madrid, back in March!
The next day promised to be mostly dry so we got a bus into Luxembourg City (it’s very confusing when the capital city has the same name as the country!) We called in at the Tourist Information Office then went and had a coffee while perusing the various leaflets. We concluded that there were a couple of places we wanted to visit but that on the whole we were underwhelmed. However, the National Museum of Art and History was interesting, housed in an amazing modern building on 9 floors, 5 of them underground, dug into the rocks on which the city is built. For a small country it has a lot of prehistoric and Roman remains, including a splendid mosaic of the Muses from a Roman villa.
Right in the centre of the city is the palace of the ruler of Luxembourg, the Grand Duke. We felt quite sorry for him as the view from his windows consisted of shops, offices and coffee bars, and even the sentries in their little boxes had disappointingly workaday uniforms – not a patch on the Ruritanian extravagance of Prague, for example. The Grand Duke is obviously suffering from spending cuts too, as there was only one soldier to cover the two sentry boxes.
The most popular attraction in Luxembourg is the Casemates, old fortifications dug out of the underlying rock in the gorge that runs through the middle of the town. There are miles of tunnels on several levels, most culminating in gun emplacements with views over the gorge. It was rather reminiscent of the Rock of Gibraltar. A great place for kids, but rather a trial for our creaky old knee joints!
We were lucky with the weather that day – not only did it not rain, but the sun actually shone quite warmly. However the next day was unremittingly wet so we made use of the internet, did a jigsaw and read books on our Kindles (a godsend to travellers.) The day after, however, was fine and we decided to go over the border into Germany, only 40 minutes’ drive away, and revisit Trier. This is Germany’s oldest city and was an important Roman town, at one time the capital of the Western Empire. We’d last visited it 15 years ago on our way to a camping holiday in Alsace with Helen and her friend Victoria, but hadn’t done it justice – teenage girls aren’t interested in Roman remains!
Our first impression was that it was a ghost town. The underground ca park was almost empty, the streets were quiet and the shops were closed. What was going on? The penny dropped when we came across a huge religious procession, with choirs, bands, bishops, priests and nuns, followed by hundreds of people. We followed them to the historic old main square, the Hauptmarkt, where an altar had been set up for a short service.
As this ended a deafening clamour broke out as every bell in Trier rang while the procession moved on into the Cathedral. It was Corpus Christi, which is a Bank Holiday in this Catholic area of Germany. Luckily all the cafes, restaurants and museums were open, or we would have had a wasted trip!
We continued towards Trier’s most famous landmark, the Porta Nigra, a massive Roman gateway built of local sandstone which has weathered over the years to black, hence the name. Inside we came across a Roman centurion in full armour, giving a guided tour. It was all in German, but sounded most entertaining and involved a lot of audience participation. It brought back happy memories of York where “Gluteus Maximus” used to do a similar tour in Museum Gardens, right next to the Library. As we left the Porta Nigra we passed a man dressed as a Roman senator. I hailed him with “Ave” and he replied in kind. Surreal.
There were parallels with York wherever we looked. Constantine, who was proclaimed emperor in York, built a palace in Trier, and the great hall or basilica still exists, now converted to a Protestant church. Constantine’s mother, St Helen (commemorated in York with a church and a square named after her) brought various treasures back from the Holy Land, including a robe said to have been worn by Jesus. This is now kept in Trier Cathedral, in a locked chapel, and is too fragile to be displayed, apparently. However St Helen’s head is on display, enclosed in a fancy casket on an altar in the crypt!
We didn’t want to leave Germany without enjoying that famous snack, the currywurst, so we sat in a street café outside the 13th century Three Kings House enjoying this hybrid delicacy with a large beer. The waiter turned out to be from Greece and John impressed him by saying a few words in Greek. He declared that John was a true linguist, as he spoke Greek with a perfect accent- this chuffed him no end.
Our final visit was a complete contrast to all the Roman and religious history around us. Karl Marx was born in Trier – not a lot of people know that – and the house is now a museum. None of the original furnishings remain, and precious little memorabilia, because the Nazis got rid of it all, but there was an audio tour with a clear account of his life, his philosophy, and how after his death it was adapted (some might say twisted) to suit the purposes of various regimes. Rather similar to what happened to the original message of Christianity, in fact!
Again we’d been lucky with the weather, which had been warm and muggy all day. It finally started raining as we made our way back to our car, and poured on the way back to Kockelscheuer. Checking the weather forecast on the internet it seems that all of northern Europe will be wet for the foreseeable future – great!
We packed up next morning and moved on to our next destination, a site near to Spa in Belgium. One of the first things I did after arriving was to put a load of washing in the machine – it had been building up to crisis proportions so, rain or no rain, it had to be done. Then a long session in the tumble dryer completed the job. Thank goodness, we’ve now got enough clean socks and knickers to last until we get back to the UK!
Our main aim at this campsite was relaxation rather than sightseeing, but things soon went pear-shaped. The site was very quiet and there were lots of empty pitches to choose from, and we were enjoying doing nothing. Unfortunately, a couple of hours after we arrived, a family group consisting of two men and three boys decided to ignore all the empty space and pitch their large tent right behind our caravan, about a metre from our “bedroom”. The boys were boisterous, as boys are, but not badly behaved. The problem is that every noise made in a tent is clearly audible. Bang went our peace and quiet. When we were woken by them at 7 o’clock the next morning we decided to move our pitch. But first I went to have a shower. There are two shower blocks, the one nearest to our pitch being small but very smart and modern. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I turned the shower on, there was no hot water. In the warmth of Spain this wouldn’t be a problem but on a chilly morning in grey Belgium I couldn’t face it. I got dressed and went to the bigger shower block at the other end of the site. I got undressed again. The water was warm – but I realised I’d left my soap and shampoo behind in the other block!! By an enormous stroke of luck the previous user of the shower cubicle had left their bottle of shower gel behind, as it was empty. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I managed to coax a few dregs out of it, just enough to have a wash, and stomped back to the caravan in a bad mood. We then had to go through the hassle of moving the caravan to a pitch well away from the noisy family. We enjoyed an hour or two of peace and then – you couldn’t make this up – two cars parked right behind our caravan and put two tents up, about a metre from our bedroom window again. We obviously exert some sort of weird magnetism over tents. The two young couples weren’t as noisy as the other family, but they still woke us up uncomfortably early next morning. But at least they then packed up and left, so at least our last night was uninterrupted!
Meanwhile we’d been out and about to have a look at the surrounding area, making the most of a break in the rain. The town of Spa was at one time the most fashionable place in Europe to “take the waters”, so much so that it has given its name to all other such establishments. It was strongly reminiscent of Harrogate, with its Pump Room, nineteenth-century buildings, air of slightly dilapidated gentility, and vast numbers of tea-rooms – though I bet none of them are as good as Betty’s! Near to the campsite was another interesting little town, Stavelot, whose main claim to fame is an abbey founded by St Remacle. (Who??) It’s now used as a museum dedicated to the history of the nearby Francorchamps Circuit, where the Belgian Grand Prix is held. I don’t know what St Remacle would make of that.
This morning dawned, like almost all the others for the last two months, wet. We left the campsite and headed towards a site near Calais, ready for our tunnel crossing tomorrow morning. It rained heavily on and off for the whole journey, only stopping when we got close to Calais. Here Jane took us off the motorway to cut the corner and pick up the road to Guines, where our last campsite would be. The road turned out to be a narrow and very rough tarmac strip through the cornfields. Fortunately after a few miles it joined a proper road, but at the next turn the bridge was closed for repairs, so we had to head back towards Calais to find another route out. The campsite guide gave directions from the centre of Calais, which is strange, but we figured that if we got back onto the motorway we could pick up the correct route. We did, but the exit to it from the motorway was closed because of roadworks, so we had another ten mile detour before we finally reached La Bien Assise at Guines, worn out.
Tomorrow it is back to Blighty, to see friends and family and catch up with a few bits and pieces. We are not sure how long we will be home, possibly three weeks. Blogs will resume when we set off again.