Its raining, raining in the Harz
Our journey through the Channel Tunnel was more eventful than usual: because all the trains were fully booked we were directed to the car park by the “duty free” area to await our call, rather than being sent straight
up to the loading queues. This is the first time this has happened to us, so we entered the “mall” to see what was on offer. We might as well not have bothered. It is very similar to a motorway service area, the same shops, coffee
bars and fast food outlets, plus the large “duty free” shops selling spirits to the gullible at higher than supermarket prices. We were told the perfumes were cheap, but that is not something we shop for so could not compare prices.
However it did give us a chance to buy our last Guardian for a few months, and for me to have my last vase of English “coffee” before going back to proper continental coffee in a normal sized cup. It was a mistake, as I spent the next few
hours needing the loo.
There was a long queue at passport control, presumably because staff had been drafted to Heathrow to cope with the London 2012™ arrivals. Then the train itself was not fully staffed, just one poor man running backwards and forwards trying to control a queue of caravans. Sadly, he lost control and instead of each caravan waiting to check the next carriage was clear, as I did, they just followed gaily on, resulting in all the ones behind me having to reverse because they had parked across the carriage joints.We emerged into France eventually to find the weather fine. The first time we have seen northern France without rain for some years. It would not last though, and as our Dutch neighbour at our last UK site had warned us, it was raining in Holland (and in Belgium too). Fortunately it stopped not long before we reached our first site, Bospark ‘t Wolfsven, just west of Eindhoven.
As we arrived we wondered what on earth we had come to. The car park at the entrance was full, so we drove on and ended up at the barrier, which needed a key card to get in. We could not reverse, as not only was there nowhere to reverse to, there was already a queue behind us. I got out to try to let reception to let us through, but the queue was huge. I was made welcome by one of the animators, dressed as a huge rabbit, plied with leaflets on upcoming events by another, but eventually managed to explain our predicament and one of them, after a lot of negotiating with the receptionists, managed to get the barrier lifted so we could park inside. We then joined the long queue ourselves to check in.Having checked in and paid for our two nights up front (the norm in the UK but most unusual in the rest of Europe) we were allocated a pitch number. Driving off down the hill I had great difficulty understanding the map, until I realised that the green bits were the grass and the brown bits were also the grass, but the grass you were allowed to drive on. The white bits were tarmac roads, but also the trees and scrub between the pitch areas. The pitches were marked on the map, but not in the real world, apart from the worn patches under the trees, which might have been pitches, or pathways, or maybe rabbit excavations flattened by the lawnmower. I manoeuvred my way through the trees to where I thought our pitch was, only to find someone else parked there. We were checking the pitch number on the marker post when a young lady emerged. “I think we might be pitched on your pitch” she said. “We did not like our spot so we moved”. When asked if she had told reception, she said she had not yet gotten round to it. So we set up camp on a spot two pitches away, which, to be fair, was a better plot. And of course, as we were setting up, the heavens opened and I got soaked.
Sitting in the caravan with a cup of tea, listening to the pouring rain, we read the leaflets that had been given us as we arrived. Bingo tomorrow night in the restaurant, laser games every Sunday, Koos the rabbit making his morning wake up rounds every morning between 9 and 10, and a kids timetable covering virtually every minute of every day. What had we come to? Thank heavens it was only for two nights. However, when the rain stopped and we began to explore we realised that it was not nearly as bad as we thought it was. Pretty good, actually. The touring area was set in woodland in quite a separate area from the cabins and mobile homes and well away from the “games” areas. There were several clean loo blocks, a restaurant, takeaway, pizza takeaway, well stocked shop, pool and three large lakes, one for swimming, one for boating and one for fishing. The site was ginormous. 67 hectares, 165 plus acres. It took us an hour to wander round just part of it. I suppose it had to be an all singing all dancing site to attract visitors. The area has not much else going for it. Unless you are an avid DAF truck fan or interested in the history of the Philips electronics family there is not much else. There is, however, one of the largest camping and caravanning shops we have ever seen, the size of a big Tesco, which we visited the following day in search of a sun canopy. After a difficult conversation with a lady who spoke no English we finally selected one at what appeared to be a bargain price. We have yet to erect it, so who knows whether it was a bargain or not.
On Wednesday we moved on eastwards to the Harz Mountains, an area I had always wanted to visit, and not just because of the trains! Our journey took us past some famous industrial cities, such as Duisberg, Essen, Dortmund to name but three, then out into the north German plain and past Kassel. It was at Kassel, whilst they were court librarians, that the brothers Grimm first started collecting the folk tales and fairy stories which they later published. Little did they know that their book would become the second most sold book in Germany in the 20th Century, would provide the stories for so many Disney films and be one of the few books which Hitler considered essential for every family bookshelf. Kassel is on the river Weser, and just 60 or so miles downstream lies Hameln, better known as Hamlyn, of Pied Piper fame. The hills and woods around here and on to the Harz itself were very dark and spooky and one could imagine Little Red Riding Hood creeping along on the way to the gingerbread house, being stalked by the seven dwarves.
Our target was Camping Prahljust , just outside the double town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld, an old mining area in the north-east of the Harz. The website and other details we had read made this out to be pretty close to heaven on earth, but sadly the recent weeks of rain had had their effect here too. The pitches were very waterlogged, downright boggy in places, and because there had been little chance to maintain the site it seemed very unkempt. Like Eindhoven it was set on a lake, but this time the lake was part of the Unesco World Cultural Heritage Upper Harz Water Management System. The area was once rich in minerals, with many small mines in the midst of wood-clad and slate- clad houses. It is presumably in these mines where the Seven Dwarves learned their crafts. Now, like South Yorkshire, mining has ceased and the mines themselves have become museums and tourist attractions, several attracting Unesco World Cultural Heritage status. Clausthal and Zellerfeld both have huge wooden churches, reputedly the largest in northern Europe. Clausthal’s has Unesco World Cultural Heritage status, whilst Zellerfeld’s is in scaffolding and protective wrap.
On our second day in the Harz we drove over the hill to Goslar, a very pretty little town on the northern slopes. The streets were lined with half timbered buildings; many dating back to the 15th century, in fact the largest concentration of timbered buildings in Central Europe (says the guide book). The Altstadt has earned itself the Unesco World Heritage Historic City Centre badge, whilst the Rammelsberg mine in the suburbs, having produced ore for over 1,000 years, now enjoys its retirement as a museum and Unesco World Cultural heritage site.
We wandered the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying a nice coffee and kuchen in one square, ending up at the Marktplatz in time for the noon chiming of the animated clock. The square was lined with wonderful buildings exhibiting the wealth this once Imperial free city which was a member of the Hanseatic League and had the right to mint its own coins. We then sat out in a street next to the square and dined on that Imperial speciality, currywurst and chips.
On the way back to the campsite we called by the Oker Dam and lake, a huge concrete dam in the Oker valley holding back several miles of lake with pleasure steamers running to and fro. We were surprised to see the water
level quite low, but as they were rebuilding a bridge over the lake a bit further up the valley we guessed this was deliberate. The dam was built to replace an original wooden dam of the 1570’s.
Back at the site the rain started again and many of the pitches became even more waterlogged. Our awning flooded, as I discovered as I stepped out in stockinged feet to get my shoes. A new arrival on a pitch behind us got completely bogged down, with his car wheels sunk up to the hubcaps in mire. I was able to use the two plastic strips of tyre grip which I had bought four years ago and never even opened, as the site groundsman and I pushed this unfortunate soul out of his hole. The site tractor made light work of the caravan, pulling it out and moving it to a better pitch. A rather sheepish Dutchman came knocking on the door later on to thank me for my help and presented me with a couple of bottles of French Pelforth Brune, which went very well with the curry I was cooking!
Next day we decided to find the Brocken, Harz’s and northern Germany’s highest peak at 1142 metres (3,747 feet, slightly higher than Snowdon). The drive was very pretty, up hill and down dale, through interminable forests with the occasional glimpse of a distant view, and past hundreds of cyclists. Just as the public tennis courts in England are full around Wimbledon time, so the roads in Europe fill with cyclists at Tour time. We eventually reached the village at the foot of the Brocken, Schierke, where we parked in a very full car park ready for our morning coffee. Although bright and sunny, the temperature had dropped considerably. At one point it had been as low as 10 degrees. There were lots of people about, heading for the station for the train to the top, heading for the horse drawn carriages for the ride to the top and heading for the footpath to the top (several hours steep climb). Yet the coffee shop was closed. We walked into the village proper, passing several cafes, all closed, until we reached a bakers shop that had a few chairs and tables, where we had an excellent coffee, and of course a slice of kuche.
I had hoped to take the train to the top, but at €32 for 30 minutes, each, decided it was a bit extravagant. We neither of us felt like an hour in the cold behind behind a team of smelly old horses, nor were we up to the walk. Because it is a National Park (and no doubt a Unesco World Cultural heritage site) we were not allowed to drive up, so we never got to see the top of it. However, seen from afar, it was decidedly unimpressive. On the way down the hill towards Wernigerode we saw smoke and steam ahead of us and pulled in at the station of Drei Annen Hohe for a wonderful half hour.
The Harz railway is a working narrow gauge railway, providing the main means of transport across the Harz Mountains, with a branch that climbs the Brocken for the tourists. It has 25 working steam engines as well as 12 diesels and 10 railcars. Drei Annen Hohe is one of the main interchanges, where locos are changed and watered. In the short time we were there half a dozen trains came in, changed their locos and moved on. It was all done extremely efficiently, with all the staff knowing exactly what they were doing, no hanging around. Within minutes of each train arriving the loco was detached, run to the other end of the station, watered and was ready for the next train, whilst the resting loco was run to the appropriate end of the train and pulled off.
Further down the hill we reached Wernigerode, yet another delightful half timbered town with a lovely Marktplatz. We sat in a pavement café with a sandwich and a beer watching the world go by. Yet there was a difference, which we could not pinpoint at first. The people looked the same, the atmosphere was just as relaxed, but maybe some of the shops were a little downmarket compared with Goslar. Then it dawned on us. Goslar was in the old West Germany, Wernigerode was in the East, DDR. Even over 20 years on, there is still that slight, intangible, difference. Is that why the cafes do not open at coffee time? The old DDR work ethic? Who knows. Just as an aside, the old east-West border, which we had crossed without realising what the monument was for, is now a designated European Green Belt. Perhaps this is so they remember where the border was so they can split it again? Perhaps it is so that it will be recognizable in perpetuity and enable the Harz region to gain yet another Unesco World Cultural heritage site.
After a relaxing day next day we set off for Dresden, to a site we had visited some years ago, Luxe-Oase, where the temperature has soared into the 30’s and the sun has shone from blue skies (well, most of the time, anyway!). More about that to follow.