Monday, 31 August 2015

The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line was built by the French along their border during the 1920's and 30's. It was a huge line of bunkers and military defences that stretched from the river Rhine next to Germany and up to the Belgian border near the north sea. It left an opening at the top, but Belgium was a neutral country so France thought that was acceptable.
The defences were supposed to protect them from any future invasion by the Germans, and would have worked fantastically well if the next war was fought in the same way as the First World War.
Unfortunately for the French, when Germany decided to invade in the Second World War, they simply went straight through Belgium, round the top and on to Paris in less than six weeks.
We learned all about the Line when we cycled past the end bunker which has now been turned into a museum.
We had a lovely day cycling along the French side of the Rhine, then crossing over a bridge into Germany to cycle back down the other side.
We came across a little cafe and enjoyed a not very healthy lunch of chips, pretzels and two large glasses of German wine.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Neuf-Brisach

We are now staying just outside the ramparts of the superbly fortified town of Neuf-Brisach, in France.
The reason for the huge stone walls is because in the 17th century it was a very important fort right next to the river Rhine.
Picture three shows the original plan of the town, with the walls forming a triple star round the outside and four tiny gates that are more like tunnels into the town.
All of the buildings are in a careful grid with a town square exactly in the centre.
We wandered around it all, but really needed a hot air balloon to see it in all its glory from above. Unfortunately, we can't fit one in our campervan.
In the afternoon all we could do was sit in the shade as the temperature hit 36 degrees, and work up a bit of a thirst.
In the early evening we got out our bikes and cycled over the Rhine to Germany and a wine festival.
It was all very civilised and we tried some wine, listened to the brass band and then got lost on the way home.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Greedy storks

We have got used to storks zooming around just a couple of feet above the top of the caravans, and then using the little campsite roads as runways. They need a long take off and landing strip, and we are right next to the main road which seems to be their favourite.
Three of them were hanging around together this evening and two were interested in the people opposite who were having a quiet outdoor dinner.
As it was so hot I was grilling some sausages next to our van on the George Foreman grill, and the third stork was watching carefully from a few feet away. I had to stand in our doorway to keep a close eye on the bird as I didn't want it to get too close and burn it's beak.
Also, we only had six sausages and we were both really hungry - all this cycling gives a girl an appetite.
Picture three is of them back on their nest in the moonlight.
I am going to really miss them when we move on tomorrow.

Cycling around the vineyards

It's a hot, hot, hot day again today, and we have been out again amongst the vineyards.
The grapes all look ready to be picked, as they are plump, juicy and ripe. We have stopped to taste a few and they were gorgeous, sweet and warm in the summer sunshine.
We went to the town of Kayersbourg today, and there was no surprises as it was just as gorgeous as everywhere else around here.
We climbed lots of steps to see a ruined castle on a hill overlooking the town, and someone had helpfully put up a picture frame to help to capture the view.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Haut - Koenigsbourg

Excellent day today as we cycled to the Chateau de Haut - Koenigsbourg.
We headed along the Route des Vins (wine route) which took us on a hilly cycle through vineyards and villages. We stopped at one of the most famous, called Riquewihr, and it was full of tourists in the middle of guided tours.
That was the only busy village though, and we cycled through another half dozen sleepy places until we could see the Chateau on the horizon - pic 2.
Haut means 'high' in French and this place wasn't joking, as it was about 500 vertical metres above the surrounding valley.
Due to it's position, a Chateau was first built there in the 12th century and it was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again over the next 500 years.
It then stood empty for 250 years until the year 1900 when the area was part of Germany (it changed from French to German in 1870).
The Germans decided that they wanted to rebuild the Chateau as a museum, and they were just adding the finishing touches in 1918 - note the German eagle on the ceiling in pic 5.
The area was then given back to France after the First World War, and the Chateau was opened to the public.
That's a potted history of the place, so moving back to today.
We turned off the Route des Vins and headed uphill for eight kilometres, around lots of hairpin bends and through a forest.
I told Darren that I would meet him at the top, then swallowed a mouthful of sugary wiggly worms to give me an energy boost, set off peddling.
Unbelievablely, I made it to the top without stopping and Daz finished only a couple of minutes ahead.
I was really chuffed and put it all down to my new cycling kit.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Colmar

We walked to Colmar today to see another timbered town. There is one area of it called Petite Venice that is packed full of old buildings. Obviously, it has a couple of waterways, but the connection with the famous city is very tenuous.
However, apart from a bit of water, another thing that they have in common is that they are both ancient and really beautiful.
The sun was beating down during our visit and all of the best views were directly into the sun, although I do like the first shot in particular. To me it asks the question - what is hidden just around the corner? Unfortunately, I didn't go and look at the time, and frustratingly, it seems more interesting now than it did when I was actually there.
We also got very involved in a wine testing session and as you can see, the portions were very generous. They also make excellent pretzels here, but for some reason they call them bredzels - or maybe I am getting a little dyslexic.
Ps, the storks are extremely popular here and lots of the houses have bird related decor.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Stork encounter

No, don't get too excited, there isn't a new baby in the house, as the stork hasn't paid us a visit. However, we are right in the middle of their territory so we are visiting them.
Keen readers of this blog will have noticed that I usually struggle with creatures, but I do have a few favourites. Along with donkeys, pandas and frogs, I have a real thing about storks.
Maybe it is because they are enormous, or that they nest on the top of roofs and chimney pots, but I think they are great.
One of the online comments about our new campsite said that the birds come down for lunch, but I thought that was only a rare treat.
However, we had only been here a few minutes when I looked out of the window, and a stork was walking right past our campervan.
Pic 3 is an animation of me trying to feed it bread, but the stork was not very impressed. I found out later that they are very partial to cooked pasta and I watched them catch it in mid air when thrown by other campers.
They are really tame and fly down for lunch and tea before eventually heading back to their nest in the early evening. One nest is on the top of a pole right next to our shower block, so they can keep an eye on us as much as we can watch them.

Turckheim, Alsace, France

We have driven down to Alsace today which is an area of France that is right on the border with Germany.
It is also incredibly beautiful, in a fairytale chocolate box kind of way.
We went for a walk around the village this afternoon and every building was brightly painted, with lots of shutters in contrasting pastel colours. The number of red geraniums was amazing and there was huge flower displays everywhere.
We stopped for a glass of the famous local wine and just sat in the shade and soaked up the atmosphere.
There is also a lot of cyclists around here and a cycle path called the 'Route des vins' which I can't wait to try.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Luxembourg city

We caught a bus from our campsite to Luxembourg city for a good nose around. At first it didn't look very exciting, but then we found the old town and it all started to look much better.
The stone castle in the first photo is the place where Luxembourg began, way back in 963. The rock had been important site for many years, as it was surrounded on three sides by a valley so was easily defended, and it was an ideal place to build fortifications.
The huge bridge to the left of it replaced a wooden drawbridge in 1735.
Over the next four centuries, the best military engineers in the world turned the whole area into one of the most fortified places in the world.
It all looks very calm today though, and we spent our time climbing on castle walls, walking up and down towers and stumbling through dark underground military tunnels.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Wolf Gorge, Luxembourg

Darren has just been reading a book about a family who spent nine years planning their six months long trip around Europe. Now I am not saying that we are ever as forward thinking as them, but yesterday the weather forecast in Holland was for rain in the afternoon, so we decided to drive Luxembourg.
Unfortunately, it is only about 100 miles due south, and when we got here it also rained in the afternoon, and all evening.
We are in the northern part of Luxembourg and it is known as the Petite Suisse (Little Switzerland), I assume because of its hills.
This morning we took a walk from our campsite and followed the E1 path to Wolf Gorge.
I don't think I have ever been anywhere that is so well signposted - this example wouldn't look out of place at Lands End or John O'groats.
Wolf Gorge is exactly what it says, a large rocky gorge with stone steps and a footpath running through it.
Apparently, many years ago wolves used to hide out in it, and I can imagine that as it was a quiet and scary place.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Final cycle ride in Holland

This will be my last blog about cycling in Holland, as I think that I am getting too repetitive. However, I can't help the fact that we were out on the Amstel Gold course again today.
We didn't intend to do the third segment, but we woke up this morning and it just seemed a shame to miss out on the final challenge.
We set out early as we knew that it would be hilly, and also over 110 kms, which is the furthest that we have ever ridden.
Great ride and to ditto the last two days - lovely weather, great cycle paths, thousands of other cyclists, friendly caf├ęs and tired legs.
To put our efforts into perspective, the winner of the 2015 road race, Michel Kwiatkowski, covered 258 kms in 6 hours and 31 minutes.
We cycled almost an identical route, but it took us just under 14 hours on the bikes. (On his own Daz would have been faster, but he had to keep stopping and waiting for me.)
Unfortunately, you should technically also add on two nights sleep, a few coffee and lunch stops, dozens of water stops, the time that I got lost and followed some unknown guy who resembled Darren, and two short sections where I walked up the hills - something that I have never seen in the Tour de France.
Ps, tomorrow I will write about something else in a different country.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Kitted out in lycra again

Another good day out on our bikes. Holland is so lovely, and just as you would expect. We have seen a few windmills, amazing cycle paths that go on for miles and miles, and thousands of other people on bicycles.
There are so many bicycles that we have joined flocks of them heading in all directions. I even managed to get lost as I followed one group and didn't notice that Darren had gone in a different direction. I travelled a couple of kilometres before he phoned me to find out why I had disappeared.
Today we cycled the 75 kms section of the Amstel Gold race and fortunately it was a lot flatter than the section that we did yesterday.
After that ride I zonked out just after 10pm and didn't move again for nearly ten hours, but I am feeling much brighter tonight.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Amstel Gold cycle race

We didn't realise that we were right in the middle of the area that the cycle race called the Amstel Gold is held each April.
We found out all about it at an attraction called the Amstel Gold Experience,and got ourselves some free maps.
The real race is nearby 260 kms long and goes over the top of almost every hill in Holland. Thoughtfully, the race is made up of three loops that all pass by our front door.
You can choose from routes of 75, 79 and 113 k, or obviously the whole lot if you are either totally crazy or a top class athlete.
We opted for the 79 k route and set off on it this morning. At this point I should mention that we had a fantastic time yesterday at the local cycling shop which was full of end of season bargain outfits.
We eventually walked out with a new outfit each, and it is a first for me as I have never looked like a proper cyclist before.
I woke up early this morning, a bit like a child on Christmas morning and rushed to put on my new clothes. I did feel a bit of pressure as I didn't want to be an 'all the gear, no idea' type, but I was ready to go as fast as I could.
We started the ride and immediately hit the Cauberg hill, then cycled along the flat for a short distance, down a hill and then doubled back to go up another long slope. That was the story for the day as we twisted and turned around Valkenburg, looking for every incline.
We had believed in the myth that all of Holland is flat, but I can assure you that it isn't.
Picture two was our halfway stop and I think it shows how much effort I had already put in. I foolishly allowed myself to think that it would be easy once we had passed halfway and instead the roads got steeper.
Fortunately the last 15 k did calm down and we finished at the Amstel Gold Experience bar where they helpfully sell Amstel Gold.
If you haven't already guessed it is also known as the beer race.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Sliding around in Valkenburg

Great fun today as we visited a place called the Agogo. It is right next to our new campsite in the middle of Valkenburg.
I don't quite know how to describe it, but it is a sort of slidy toboggan track. We paid our three euros, sat down on the sledge and waited our turn.
It was easy to use - there was a lever in front that you held on to and pushed it forward to go faster, and pulled back to brake.
I went first, checking out the brake on a few corners, but Daz whizzed much faster and caught me up - much to his annoyance.
Once we got to the bottom a clever mechanism pulled us back to the top for a second go. I promised to go faster this time, but he caught me again.
I just don't think I am good at scary high speed stuff.
I also wanted to scream on the corners, but as none of the little children did, then I felt a bit stupid.
I probably concentrated too hard on keeping quiet, and less on going quickly, well that's my excuse anyway.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Maastrict

We went to Maastrict today and it was less exciting than I had expected.
I knew the name very well from the News, and assumed that it was a big political place. I have looked it up on Google and the Maastrict Treaty is huge. It was actually the Treaty that created the European Union and then the Euro. However, it only happened in Maastrict by chance, and it is not the heart of European Politics after all.
It is actually a very pretty town and full of lovely old buildings, coffee bars and cyclists.
We also went to visit the Bonnefantenmuseum and Contemporary Art Gallery. We were mainly keen because they had bought a large tapestry by the English artist Grayson Perry. It was called the Walthamstow Tapestry, and as Darren was brought up there, we thought that we would take a look.
It was large and rather strange, but quite good in a weird sort of way. (Sorry no photo as I had to check in my handbag.)
It turns out that it was the high point of the exhibition and the rest included a giant burnt out wreck, lumps of plaster with pipes sticking out, plain white paintings with a few tiny numbers in one corner, etc, etc.
I could tell it was bad when I accidentally walked into the cleaning cupboard and thought it was an exhibit.  I then walked into another room in the gallery and walked straight over to the window to look at view instead of any more of the odd stuff. Time to call it a day, I thought.