Most German campsites are excellent but some are more excellent than others

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The Swabian Alb biosphere near Münsingen is perfect for cycling

We rarely plan much when it comes to our trips around Europe, so much depends on what we want to do, how we feel and the weather.  And so we rolled in to Hofgut Hopfenburg campsite near to the pretty town of Münsingen in Baden-Württemberg and south of Ulm expecting little more than a comfortable place to overnight.  We received a friendly welcome and I left reception with a local cycling map and information about the nearby Swabian Alb biosphere, a local nature reserve.  This looked promising so we decided to stay and explore.

The campsite is terraced and so pitches have a view across the town to the gentle green hills beyond.  The facilities are excellent with good hot showers, indoor washing up area [you remember how important I think that is] and were clean and modern.  Wonderful fresh bread was available every day and the campsite runs a small shop selling local products.  As well as touring pitches the site has a collection of wooden Romany caravans, yurts, tipis and some chalets so visitors have a choice of accommodation.  While we were staying a wedding was held in the garden.

If you are using this marvellous campsite as a stop-over there is a nature reserve accessible from the site where you can stretch your legs for an hour or so after a day of driving.  This hillside reserve with meadows, woodland and an arboretum has views over the town and is also a pretty walk in to Münsingen.

For around 100 years [until 2005] the undulating meadows and woodland to the east of Münsingen were used as a military training ground.  Initially by the German army and after 1945 by the French army who, in particular, used the area for tank manoeuvres.  Inaccessible to the public the area in some ways stood still and the wildlife was protected, although always at risk of being blown up.  Today this area is once again accessible and managed to protect the wildlife, although visitors need to stick to the paths because of the risk of un-exploded ordnance.

We began at the Biosphere Centre in the old military barracks which are surprisingly charming buildings.  As well as the information centre there is an art gallery here but as we cycled around most of the buildings appeared to be empty.  The Biosphere Centre has headphones with an English tour and we learnt a lot about the wildlife, geology, culture and the management of the area.

The tarmac paths around the reserve are perfect for cycling and are all way-marked and numbered.  The area is fairly flat with only small hills to conquer and cycling is just the right pace to enjoy this landscape.  On a sunny weekday there were few people around and we were happy cycling on these traffic-free routes lined with trees rich with blossom.  In the fields are large herds of sheep that are managed to maintain the diversity of plants in the grassland and kestrels and buzzards hunted over the fields.

On a hilltop is the abandoned village of Gruorn.  The villagers were forced from their homes to make way for the military training in 1939 and the houses were used for practice.  Today the church and old school house have been restored and both can be visited.  The schoolhouse has a museum about the village and a cafe.  The churchyard is attractive and colourful with flowers and we sat in the sunshine enjoying a beer before continuing back to the excellent campsite.

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Part of the old military barracks
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Doorways & windows around Europe: some ramblings

 

 

Looking through my photographs from recent trips in our campervan one theme stands out.  I have to acknowledge that I can’t help myself; I am always taking photographs of doors and windows.  You might ask how many photographs of doorways and windows one travel writer needs and the answer is clearly an infinite number.  Wherever I am, either at home in Salford and Manchester or in a new village or city, I look for the detail in doorways and check out buildings above the shops to see the windows and the details on the buildings.  This got me thinking, what is it about doors and windows that appeals to me.  I am certainly drawn to an unusual and beautiful doorway and window and I am a real sucker for shutters and stained glass.  But is it just the aesthetics of the doors and windows themselves or is it something more?  Windows and doors are portals to an inner world that is often private.  Am I secretly longing to know what is behind the openings or am I more interested in what might emerge from those doors and windows?

The Romans had a god for many things, including doorways.  Janus, usually shown as a two-faced god, looks to the future and the past and was also the god of beginnings endings and transitions; the Romans understood the lure and significance of the doorway.    Doors, although often beautiful, are closed; they act as the border between the open street and private space.  A closed door has potential but what is hidden beyond may be good and exciting or it may be evil.  The locked door is a familiar metaphor in many tales; we have to get beyond these closed doors to reach something we are seeking.  A locked door is both a temptation into the unknown and a barrier to access; knocking on an unfamiliar door is always daunting.   Doors have the duality of Janus, being closed and open, locked and unlocked, positive and negative and these contradictions are intriguing.

In contrast, windows are transparent, we can see inside and out through the glass.  Windows are also a public stage for beautiful objects; in our 80-year old flat we have wide windowsills and we use these to display favourite objects, a single ornament and an ancient inherited plant in a pot.  By placing these at the public face of the house we are sharing them with the wider world.  Windows are the eyes of the house and the items in the window give a glimpse behind those eyes.

Standing and staring out of a window is a way to travel to other places without moving from home.  Our flat has lots of windows that let the morning and evening sun flood in to the rooms and from these windows I watch the outside world, creating stories in my head.  Whenever we arrive somewhere new the first thing I do [before I check out the interior] is go to the windows and look at the view; I think this is me getting my bearings in a new place, finding out where the sun rises and who I can see and be seen by.  Looking up in a new city I like to imagine myself standing at some of the beautiful windows I see; I wonder how life in this street looks from above and what it would be like to live there.  For me windows only represent the positive; openings to different perspectives and portals for fresh air and sunlight.

The photographs in this post are really just a small selection from my collection of doorways and windows.  The evidence of my addiction is right before your eyes!

 

Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

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Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!

 

Art in Berlin

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Graffiti art at Teufelberg

You can’t swing a Bratwurst without hitting an art gallery in Berlin and so it was only right that some of our time in Berlin was spent visiting just a couple of the many galleries in the city.  The art scene in Berlin is diverse and vibrant; apparently there are 440 galleries across the city so perhaps there is something for everyone.  We picked out just two places to visit on our long weekend and the two we visited couldn’t have been more different.

The Gemäldegalerie has a collection of European painting ranging from the 13th to 18th century on permanent display; including paintings by Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt.  Housed in a 1980s building in the Kulturforum, the building is a simple design and the purpose designed galleries are well proportioned and light, laid out in a slightly confusing but entertaining pattern that visitors can weave around.  We spent an enjoyable few hours in the hushed and academic atmosphere of this amazing gallery.

The painting that made the biggest impression on me was Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs.  This is an illustration of about 112 different 16th century Flemish proverbs and idioms.  The painting is lively and human, in contrast to much of the religious art in the gallery, and this is perhaps why it spoke to me.  It is also humorous and reveals something of the past with illustrations of sayings such as, ‘one shears sheep, the other shears pigs’ [meaning one has advantages, the other has none] and proverbs I want to introduce to my vocabulary such as, ‘the herring does not fry here’ [it’s not going according to plan].  There are others we still use modified versions of today, such as ‘to sit between two stools in the ashes’ [to be indecisive] and ‘to try to kill two flies with one stroke’ [to be efficient].

Almost everything in Berlin reveals many layers of history as soon as you scratch the surface.  Our second gallery was on top of a hill in the Grunewald [green forest] that lies around Berlin.  This is no ordinary hill; Teufelsberg is a 80 metre high mound that was created from the rubble removed from the bomb sites of Berlin after the second world war.  The hill was in what was the British sector of Berlin after the war and in the 1960s it became the site of an Anglo-American listening station topped with radomes.  After almost 30-years of listening to the DDR the station fell in to disuse after the fall of the Berlin wall.  The hill was bought by a developer but planning permission for the hotels and apartments was not forthcoming and the abandoned buildings of the listening station remain and can be visited to see the graffiti art that uses the inside and outside walls of the crumbling buildings as a canvas.  For a €7 entrance fee visitors can wander freely around the jumble of buildings [at their own risk] and admire the huge art works and stand at gaping holes in the buildings to enjoy the view over Berlin and the forest.

After spending a few hours at Teufelsberg we followed the maze of footpaths through the Grunewald to the banks of the lake, as no trip to Germany is complete without a woodland walk.  With no signposts or compass we had to resort to using the sun and asking for help to navigate our way through the dense forest.

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The view from the Teufelsberg

 

Berlin without the campervan

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Bebelplatz in central Berlin brilliant with lights

Wow!  We have just enjoyed a few fun-packed days in Berlin with friends.  We walked miles, exploring the wonderful city and the surrounding forests, finding new sights, revisiting old favourites and marvelling at the changes in the city since our last visit eleven years ago.  We found culture [more of this in a later post], multiple layers of history and good food and beer.

We had timed our visit to coincide with the Reunification Day celebrations and public holiday.  We were also there during the Festival of Lights which is held over ten-days in October and uses some of  Berlin’s spectacular landmarks and buildings as a canvas for light and video films.  As well as the buildings, there are boats that are decked with lights making circuits around the river.  The festival makes wandering the streets on a fine evening even more awesome; we stood in the Pariser Platz and watched the key events in Berlin’s history drawn across the magnificent facade of the Brandenburg Gate and joined the crowds to watch an amazing and ever-changing selection of colourful pictures projected on to the cathedral.

I hadn’t taken a tripod as we were travelling with hand luggage only and so my photographs of the light show are not perfect but give an impression of the vibrant and imaginative lighting that transforms a building into something quite distinct.  The building is both a canvas for the light-art and enhances the images, while the light show alters the relationship between the people and the buildings, making people stop and look up, the bustle of the daytime stilled.

This link will take you to stunning photographs of previous years [the festival is in its eleventh year], as well as tips for taking great pics of the night-time scenes.

 

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The Berliner Dom alongside the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz during the Festival of Lights