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Travels in Germany Summer 2016 PDF Printable Version E-mail

Travels in Germany Summer 2016

Margaret Williamson
July 2016

(continued from: Travels in the Netherlands Summer 2016)

The Ruhr, Germany's Industrial Zone
Crossing the border at Venlo, I see that German Autobahns now have a toll for trucks over 7.5 tons (formerly a 12-ton limit). A recent proposal to charge tolls for foreign-registered cars was rejected (illegal discrimination) but the days of toll-free travel on the country's extensive motorway system are probably numbered. There is also a requirement to buy an Umwelt Plakette (Environment Badge) in order to enter some German city centre 'green zones', although so far we've avoided this as it is not needed for motorway transit.
The A40 heading east from Venlo grew busier after crossing the Rhine and on past Duisburg, Essen and Dortmund – the Ruhrgebiet, the very heart of German industry – which sounds forbidding. In fact it was a mostly green and pleasant journey, with no holdups, not a single Stau (traffic jam). Entering Essen, the railway lines form the central reservation for a time, until the motorway tunnels under the city centre. The motorways throughout Germany need updating, as many are still 2-lane, but the traffic kept flowing. The Ruhr is not a tourist area, with few services and little reason to stop until clear of Dortmund.
Campsite or Stellplatz ?
In the Netherlands, camping usually means a campsite (it's the home of ACSI with hundreds of off-season discount offers) or mini-camping on a farm. In Germany the campsites cater largely for caravans and statics, with a few touring pitches. Motorhomes gather on the Stellplatz (Camperstop or Aire), often adjacent to a campsite, usually with a lower fee and coin-op facilities, though some are simply a public car park with a few motorhome spaces. Guidebooks list these with customary German thoroughness, my favourite being the Bordatlas published by the monthly magazine Reisemobil and available in England (though not in English) from Vicarious Books. Crossing Germany we sampled the best, and worst, of both camping and Stellplatz. 
Best Stellplatz - Soest, a small town east of Dortmund off the A44. Next to the City Motel there is parking exclusively for motorhomes, with clean facilities and free WiFi that actually works. Better still, it's a very short walk into the old town centre, with some 17th C half-timbered houses (one leaning alarmingly), a cathedral each for the Catholics and Lutherans, and a good range of shops. Our priority was a bank ATM, with the exchange rate hovering just below €1.2 to the pound.

Click: MagBazPictures of Soest

Worst Stellplatz AND Worst Campsite – Both titles go to the Gruene Insel (Green Island) camping & Stellplatz at Hann Muenden, which has a 3-ton limit on the narrow bridge over the lock. When we stayed 3 years ago the mean facilities were inadequate and outdated, with both areas packed full and cash pouring in. Nothing has changed. On the Stellplatz there is a tank of grimy water and a bucket for rinsing the hole down which chemical toilets are emptied. I paid €3 for one day's WiFi, which didn't work. No refund was offered because 'nobody else had complained'! 
So why stay there? The delightful half-timbered tourist town of Hann Muenden, just over the bridge, lies at the confluence of the Fulda and Werra Rivers, which form the Weser to flow north to Bremerhaven. A good long-distance cycle route follows each of the three rivers and we have good memories of riding the whole of the Fulda and Werra, and the Weser as far north as Minden. Unusually, the campsite hosts a large number of cycle tourists as well as a few canoeists passing by.
On this second visit, we cycled along the Fuldatalradweg (Fulda Valley Cycle Path) to Kassel and back (total 57 km). It was well laid and well signed except in Kassel itself, where we wandered amongst the traffic, trams and crowds to find a bakery/café. Arrived back at Hann Muenden just in time to watch the 3 pm performance of the Town Hall Glockenspiel, with the famous 18thC celebrity, Dr Eisenbarth, pulling teeth!
We followed this next day with a 58-km ride along the Werra, cycling the Werratalradweg through intermittent showers to the town of Eschwege for a night at a comfortable little guesthouse, theDeutsches Haus, next to a Greek restaurant and round the corner from an Indian/Italian place serving good chicken curry and warm tiramisu for dessert! The weather turned very hot and dry for the return ride, fuelled by an excellent buffet breakfast. It was well over 30°C inside the motorhome back in Hann Muenden.

Click: MagBazPictures of Hann Muenden
Best Campsite – Our next stop, Camping Jenzig in the university town of Jena in the former DDR, is a municipal site with real character on the old tram depot, set in the woods 2 km from the city centre, opposite the baths/sports field. Reception is in an old tram (built 1955, in use until 2002), which also serves as a children's playroom. I was taken straight back to my own 1950s childhood near Blackpool, where my father worked as a tram driver in a very similar tramcar. The site has a communal yurt, as well as some imported Airstream caravans that have been renovated to provide on-site accommodation. Best of all, there is a Kiosk selling home-made cakes and a range of take-away food prepared by two young vegetarian women, assisted by a large chef who comes some evenings to barbecue sausages and pork chops. Highly recommended and very popular with the many and varied campers in an assortment of tents and vehicles.
Two long-distance cycle paths actually cross outside the campsite gates: the 230-km Thueringer Staedtekette runs east-west, linking 7 towns, and the 427-km Saaleradweg follows the Saale River north-south. It's far too hot and muggy to be ambitious, but we had a cycle ride south along the Saale River to the little town of Kahla (47 km return). This is a small walled town founded in 876 AD, with some half-timbered houses round the market place and the church of St Margarethe dating from 1413. Some much needed restoration is underway, following the long neglect of the Soviet days. Inside the cool of the church I lit a candle to my namesake (Auntie Margaret) and learnt that one Johann Walter was born and baptised here in 1496. A composer and musician, he became a close friend and advisor of Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation, and Luther himself preached here. The Saaleradweg was well signed and, once clear of Jena, much quieter than the cycle routes out of Hann Muenden.

Click: MagBazPictures of Jena Camping

Shock and Horror in the News throughout July which used to be the Silly Season
I almost wish we didn't keep up with the news, via BBC Radio 4, the Guardian (website and via Kindle) and the thorough German TV bulletins.
In the UK - As Theresa May's cabinet takes shape, Gove and Osborne are left out but – astonishingly – Boris Johnson is to be Foreign Secretary. So she does have a sense of humour, though other EU leaders are far from amused. Meanwhile, the Labour Party implodes before splintering.
In the USA – Donald Trump confirmed as Republican candidate for the Presidency. This prospect once sounded as ludicrous as Britain leaving the EU, so anything could happen. Like the Brexit team, he appeals to the masses who know what they want and don't need any expert opinion, remaining ignorant of the process and its consequences.
In France – On the evening of 14 July (Bastille Day, a French national holiday) people in Nice were ambling along the Promenade des Anglais after a firework display. A truck drove into the crowds, deliberately killing and injuring, with 84 fatalities. Police shot the lone Tunisian-French driver dead. Boris was in Paris at the time, Theresa in Scotland meeting Nicola Sturgeon.
In Turkey – News flashes of an attempted Putsch by part of the army to remove President Erdogan. Istanbul airport and bridges were closed for a time but the coup failed and recriminations are bloody.
In Germany – After 6 pm on 22 July we watched German TV breaking news of Horror and Panic in Munich, where it was believed that 3 suspects had opened fire in the large Olympia Shopping Centre, killing and injuring adults and children before escaping. The reports were a confusion of hypotheses and varying numbers – 5 dead, or 6, or 7? Armed police squads poured into Munich, some coming from Austria, and helicopters circled. Buses, trains and taxis stopped running, people were warned to stay off the streets and the railway station was used to shelter those stranded. A recent incident in Bavaria, when a 17-year-old Afghani refugee armed with an axe and a knife attacked passengers on a train and was shot dead by police, has made Germans ever nervous of terrorism.
On the morning of 23 July the campsite felt quiet and sober, the happy holidaymakers glued to their smartphones or reading newspapers, with the headline in Bild: 'Horror in Muenchen'. As the story unfolds, it seems there was only one gunman, an 18-year-old Iranian-German, whose body was found 1 km from the scene. After killing 8 people, he shot himself dead. The panic is over but the questions remain. Is it coincidence that it happened on the 5th anniversary of the horrific shootings in Norway by the right-wing lunatic Anders Breivik? Strangely, we were in Norway when that happened and well remember the event. 
Pilgrimage to Lutherstadt-Wittenberg
From our final stop in the former DDR, on the River Elbe at Coswig, we cycled the Elberadweg to Wittenberg on a very hot Monday morning. Sealed and gravel paths led through sun-dappled woods and past a small ostrich farm (source of ostrich steaks for the pretentious Coswig Marina restaurant!) At Griebo the route joined the main Coswig-Wittenberg road but with a separate cycle lane, past the less than picturesque chemical works and on round old river harbour warehouses and back streets into theAltstadt (18 km) of the town where Martin Luther lived and preached.
As we rode into the large market place with its magnificent Rathaus and inevitable giant statue of Martin Luther, the cathedral bells chimed noon. First priority was coffee and apple strudel at one of the cafes, before locating the Marienstadtkirche – the Mother Church of the German Reformation, where Luther was married and baptised all his children. Unfortunately, the noon services were taking place, so we only saw the doors of the nearby Castle Church, to which he famously nailed his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517. Luther is buried below its pulpit, from which he had often preached. The Protestant Reformation had begun and Christendom was about to be shaken to the core.

Click: MagBazPictures of Luther-Wittenberg
Returning directly on the cycle lane alongside the main road, the Elbe-Caravan dealership about 5 km before Coswig proved a useful stop, with free iced water and a toilet. We did buy a new sidelight for the motorhome, to replace one that had cracked somewhere along the Autobahn.
Back at Coswig, the Stellplatzfuehrer gave each guest a gift: a bottle of beer brewed to a traditional local recipe, labelled 'Luther Porter' and bearing a Martin Luther quotation: Die ganze Welt ist voller Wunder(the whole world is full of wonder). Haven't drunk it yet!

Click: MagBazPictures of Coswig
Stops in Germany
City Motel Stellplatz, Soest, Westfalen – Excellent motorhome parking alongside the motel. 21 places with water, dump, WC, free WiFi, all for €8 per day (€20 for 3 days). Shower €2/10 mins. Electricity €0.50 per kWh. There is also a coin-op washing machine.
Camping & Stellplatz Gruene Insel, Tanzwerder Island, Hann Muenden, Hessen – Very good position but very poor facilities. Camping €19; SP €13. In both cases, a one-off €2 'connection fee' for electricity, metered at €0.60 per kWh. Shower €0.50/2 mins. WiFi €3 for one day, hopelessly intermittent, complaint futile!
Camping Unter dem Jenzig, Jena, Thueringen – ACSI Card rate €17; high season €19.50 inc electricity, showers and free WiFi (some of the time). Excellent take-away meals and home baking at the kiosk.
Coswig Marina Stellplatz, Coswig, Sachsen – Large motorhome camp by the River Elbe. 56 places with water, dump, WC, for €13 per day. Shower €1. Electricity €0.60 per kWh. Free WiFi at the nearby marina bar/restaurant. Close to town and on the Elbe Cycle Path.

(continued at Travels in Poland Summer 2016)