Camper vans

Camper Van Diaries: Grand Tour of Europe

Camper van in Germany

On location in Germany

 

The European Grand Tour

The European Grand Tour was the first time that we’d attempted to take the old Hymer motor home across Europe. Would it survive the trip without breaking down?

On this leg of the trip we hit Germany, the Czech Republic and Holland within just a few days… an ambitious venture in an ageing camper van.

Wednesday 22 June – Dresden, Germany

We’d arrived in Germany via Holland and had driven through the northern Rhine to Dresden in the former East Germany… 

Dresden Zwinger

Dresden’s historic quarter

“Arrived in Dresden, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. This city by the river Elbe has been restored to its former glory after the terrible bombing of the Second World War.

“We picked out a handy stellplatz (a city camper van site) overlooking a pleasant grassy area. Walked into the city and looked around the largely rebuilt historic centre which is now brimming with trendy cafes, bars and restaurants.

“The restored Frauenkirche in the heart of the old city is a miracle of restoration. When I last saw this building in the mid 1990s it was a ruin, a hollow shell and a pile of stones with its church bell lying outside next to a pile of rubble.

“Now it looks glorious after a super-human effort to rebuild it with a mix of new and original stones blasted by the bombers during the war.

“It’s a humbling experience to witness its transformation. We sat quietly in the solitude of the church taking in the weight of history and reflecting on past events. Dresden is Germany’s Coventry – both places defined by their wartime devastation.

Dresden church

Frauenkirche – a humbling experience

“Afterwards we walked around the nearby museum quarter, looked inside a couple more churches and returned to the van for a siesta, one of the joys of having an RV.

“After a sleep, we jumped on the bikes for an early evening trip over the other side of the River Elbe to the city’s ‘new town’.

“Cycled back via the historic quarter where we ate at a moderately priced restaurant with World Cup themed-food. Tony picked the special – South African ostrich with weird southern hemisphere vegetables. Not very German but fun all the same…

“Back to the van to watch the football. Germany beat Greece. The noise in the city was deafening after the match with the blaring sound of klaxons hooting away.

“Next day we cycled around the city and completed ‘the culture tour’, calling in at the main museums and galleries. Tammy dragged Tony around three or four before he was allowed to chill out over lunch.

Dresden restored

Dresden restored

The Albertinium was one of our favourites. It has recently reopened after major restoration following the Dresden floods. A superb building, great sculpture and a brilliant collection of modern art. Tammy’s top treat!

“Then it was on to the Zwinger, a beautiful Rococo building in a splendid ornamental park with fountains and ballustraded walkway. It’s an amazing sight so close to the city centre. It’s incredible that this monument survived the ravages of the 2nd World War.

“The Old Masters collection boasts impressive works by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and Rembrandt.  There’s also a lot of picturesque 18th Century dross and tedious religious art. Tammy found it quite interesting, if a bit musty, but it got a thumbs down from Tony who was bored rigid.

Dresden Zwinger

Dresden’s impressive Zwinger

“After lunch we got back on the bikes and took ourselves over to the Art Quarter in the bohemian, studenty new town over the other side of the Elbe river.

“It’s less touristy than the city centre and has a more authentic air with boho shops and cafes. The colourful Art Passage area has a  fun and frenzied feel.”

Dresden's Art Passage

Dresden’s Art Passage

Favourite historic character 

Augustus the Strong – the oldest ‘Zwinger’ in town. Commissioned the Porzellansammlung at the Zwinger, a tasteless collection of giant porcelain animals from Meissen Pots Ltd.  Tony hated the collection so much that he left after halfway around.

Augustus is also featured on a giant golden horse on the north bank of the Elbe in Dresden.

Friday 24 June – Czech Republic and Prague

From Dresden we drove over the German border into the neighbouring Czech Republic on a whim because it looked “close by” on the big map. It wasn’t on our original route and was much further to drive than we’d thought…

“The day got off to a good start with an easy drive out of Dresden over the German border into the Czech Republic. But then the trip took a turn for the worse with road congestion grimmer than the M25 at rush hour.

“Welcome to the Czech Republic where tourism and the economy appear to have grown faster than the country’s infrastructure.

“The trip took us through a mix of scenery from pretty countryside to ugly, industrial towns. It also took us three times longer than expected, stuck behind lorries and slow moving cars. Finally we arrived after four hours on the road, hot and bothered.

“Due to poor map reading we ended up in the city centre driving the big van along narrow, cobbled streets more suited to cyclists and pedestrians. A very bad idea. Finally got parked in a space in a historic square. In reality the parking space was far too short for the camper van and I’m surprised we didn’t get hit by a passing truck.

Prague street

Prague’s historic streets

“Tammy ran across to the information centre whilst Tony watched the van. The woman in the tourist office laughed when we asked about camper van sites – and grabbed her friend to jest at the mere idea of camping sites near the city centre. We left feeling angry and frustrated.

“Finally we found a route out of town and escaped the traffic jams. We remembered a previous trick for locating camp sites… always follow the signs to the zoo, if you’re stuck! You’ll almost certainly find a camping site nearby, and thankfully we did.

“Unfortunately the site was pretty congested. We were ushered to a plot a few inches from the toilets, four feet from the table tennis and next to the local smoking club. Cramped and horrible.

“Eventually managed to work out local transport and took the tram by the camp site into Prague city centre.  Here’s a few of our recommendations for good things to see in town…

Prague

Tony enjoys a beer overlooking a vineyard in Prague

* Look out for the chilled-out wine bar and restaurant on the quiet walkway down from the castle, overlooking rows of vines. The bar boasts a panoramic view across the city’s roof tops. It’s far from the madding crowd – a relaxing spot, The sparkling Bohemian cava is a winner.

* There are numerous eateries off the main tourist trawl down alleyways and quieter side streets. Don’t expect gourmet cooking but at least they’re cheap and cheerful… and dumplings come with everything!

* Bohemian wine is light and drinkable – an ideal aperitif for an early evening or lunchtime drink.

* The National Gallery of Modern Art is a fabulous museum. This amazing functionalist style building dates from 1928 and houses a brilliant collection of modern masters – Cubists, Futurists, Vienna Secession and Impressionists. The gallery also has a fascinating collection of industrial design, decorative arts and theatre interiors  & costumes.

“The historic city centre is a tourist trap around the over-congested Charles Bridge, Castle & St Vitus Cathedral where we spent our time fighting off the crowds and long queues. Go early to avoid the masses.”

Cathedral in Prague

St Vitus Cathedral in Prague – beware big queues

Top Prague tips

Tip 1 – Don’t attempt to take a camper van into central Prague. Rotten signposting and confusing traffic systems found us driving around in concentric circles.

Tip 2 – Never believe the words ‘tourist information centre’ in the Czech Republic. There are very few useful leaflets, no decent maps and a distinct lack of literature about camp sites and RV parks.

Tip 3 – Never try to navigate to a camp site without a sat nav or detailed map of Prague. Tony got cross whilst Tammy sulked in the passenger seat with a rubbish, tiny map which was missing 1/3 of the city centre.

Tip 4 – Don’t forget to brush up on your Czech – dobra den (hello), dec-q-varn (thank you) and prosim (Please)…  Other useful phrases include ‘where is the camping site’ and ‘how the hell do you get out of central Prague, I’ve been going around in circles?

Most Czechs speak only tourism English which extends to ‘We have dumplings and King Charles beef steak’ or ‘Beer? Brown or light Bohemian?’ or ‘You want to buy tickets for the castle?’.

Tip 5 – Avoid crowds on the Charles Bridge and by-pass the terrible trinket shopping and trashy, cheap Bohemian glass. I’m sure that posh Bohemian glass is lovely but the versions we saw looked like something from the bargain buckets in Poundland.

Tip 6– Prague appears to have few food shops in the city centre so don’t bother searching high and low for a charming farmers’ market, supermarket or fresh fruit & veg emporium.

On the plus side, Decin has a fab, cheap Tescos – approx one hour from Prague. And they sell ox bollocks for £1. Yummy!

Sunday 26 June – Saxony’s Switzerland

We left the Czech Republic and headed back to Germany in the camper van, stopping in Saxony en route – another unexpected destination which we hadn’t planned for! 

“Today we escaped from Prague and headed for the hills. No major traffic hold-ups for once. Arrived in Saxony where the scenery became more craggy and rocky with a landscape reminiscent of a small-scale Swiss Alps.

“Found a superb campsite on a farm. Solitude, lovely views and we were the only people there. Interesting wildife including deer, bats and red kites plus a small wetland pond with brilliantly coloured dragonflies and damselflies.

“Watched the rotten England football team getting trounced by Germany in the World Cup on the TV in the van. The Germans who ran the camp site were gracious in victory and invited us over for a consolatory beer.

Tammy in Saxony

Tammy in Saxony

“Spent the next morning on the road back to Berlin. On the way we stopped off at the Moritzburg Schloss outside Dresden, an impressive former hunting lodge near the Elbe.

“Crazy deer trophies including the weird ‘distorted antlers room’ featured throughout the house. Even stranger was the modern taxidermy exhibition. Bizarre but oddly compelling in a morbid way.”

Antler room

Antler room at Moritzburg Schloss

“Drove on to Berlin and arrived in very hot and humid temperatures. Found a very handy stellplatz in Berlin city centre right next to the main tram line and close to the historic attractions. A bit cramped but nice folk were running it so it worked for us…. plus it was cheap.

“Caught the S-tram and headed to the Hahinsche Hof down the road for a great Germanic meal in a splendid outdoor courtyard. Giant wiener schnitzel and Germanic sausage stew for Tammy and Tony.

“Back to the van for a well deserved sleep despite hot temperatures – a sizzling 35 degrees.

Monday 27 June – Berlin by bike

“Poor Tammy was forced to ride her bike for 10 miles in extreme heat around the Berlin Wall by Tony and his fit cycling brother, Guido.

“Stopped in a coffee shop with pavement seats for refreshing lemonade. Cycled to the Reichstag, Jewish Memorial, Topography of Terror exhibit, Karl Marx Allee, and East Side Gallery in one large loop.

“Ice cream in the park. Back down deserted streets to little known ruins of the Berlin Wall. Lots of cobbles. Then back to the van for Tammy to complain about her poor legs.

“Great day despite the cycling marathon – and a really unique view of the city by bike. Tammy was half dead with exhaustion!”

Berlin Wall

Berlin East Side Gallery – from the bike…

Thursday 30 June – Germany and Holland

We spent the night at a strange but characterful campsite at the former gravel pits outside Magdeburg, having taken an amazing ferry ride on a very small barge over the River Elbe.

Ferry ride

Ferry across the Elbe

“Escaped from ‘Mad Max’, the weird German camp site owner (who was missing fingers from a shooting accident) at the gravel pits and drove on towards Hannover.

“Arrived in Hannover where we grabbed our bikes and cycled into town. Called in to the Sprengler Art Museum with its excellent collection of abstract art. Indulged in sensory overload at the mesmerising James Turrell light box installation.

“Cycled back into city centre, a mix of rebuilt traditional architecture (90% of the centre was blitzed in the Second World War) and ’50s and ’60s grey blocks of uninspiring modernist architecture.

“Long and hot journey towards Holland. We were doing really well until we hit the border when the van had a major blow-out which sent us veering violently across the motorway. The noise was cacophonous… a giant bang, bang, bang.

“Tony saved the day and manouevred us manfully into the service lane where we got out to survey the damage. Feeling slightly shakey but Tony managed to call a local garage and explain what had happened in his best German, using a phrasebook!

“Lovely repair man Mannfred Jesse arrived and our ‘rescue angel’ fixed the trashed tyre and truck. An hour’s detour followed back at the garage when we sorted the bill… but there was a huge sigh of relief that we weren’t injured and the truck wasn’t badly damaged.

“Back on the road to Zwolle in northern Holland. Finally got to Giethoorn, dubbed ‘the prettiest town in Holland’, quite justifiably.

Tony in Giethoorn

Captain Tony in Giethoorn

“Cycled around, parked up and hired a small motorised boat to cruise around the labyrinth of waterways created by religious settlers and peat cutters in the 17th Century.

“Headed out onto the big lake and then back to the maze of narrow canals, dodging ducks and their chicks, and avoiding collisions with other boats. Brilliant fun, superb place, ‘picture perfect’ and extremely relaxing despite the tourists.

Giethoorn

The town with no streets – Giethoorn’s picture perfect canals

“The end of a great European tour. Now time to head back to Amsterdam via the weird, flat landscape of the Polders. It’s been quite an amazing adventure”

Our next tour?

Perhaps we’ll return in the new van this summer on yet another European tour?

After all, there’s always something new to discover when you’re on the road… and with our new, slimmed-down van it’ll be easier to weave in and out of those narrow historic streets!

Hymer van

The camper van at twilight – time for wine

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