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Road to Venice 2006 PDF Printable Version E-mail




The Log of a Motorhome Journey

Margaret and Barry Williamson

November 2006

This daily log gives an account of our motorhome journey south through Europe towards Venice and the Adriatic Sea, starting from Denmark after a summer and early autumn in Scandinavia.

Denmark was our 18th European country in 2006. After a winter and early spring in Greece, we left the UK in mid-May 2006 and travelled 1,650 miles via France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary for a 5-week, 1,000-mile journey in Romania. In mid-July we left Romania to travel a further 1,500 miles to Finland via eastern Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We entered Finland by ferry from Tallinn (Estonia), arriving in Helsinki on 4 August 2006.

FNor3_(48).JPGor a further 1,400 miles, we enjoyed some oDSCF0006.JPGf Finland's 187,888 lakes, its limitless forest (covering 70% of the land area) and glimpses of its 180,000 islands! After a canal trip into Russia, we crossed the Arctic Circle (see right), spent time in the northernmost town in the EU, reached Kirkenes on Norway's far north-eastern border with Russia, visited Vadso and Vardo on their lonely Arctic peninsula and, of course, struggled as far as Nordkapp (North Cape), the northernmost point in the world reachable by motorhome - or bicycle (see left).

After more than 6 weeks and 2,400 miles within the Arctic Circle, we travelled south from Norway's fiord and glacier-indented coast, into northern Sweden for a 1,000-mile journey down to the port of Goteborg and a ferry to Denmark. Continuing south, we passed through Germany and Holland before reaching Ypres in Belgium in time for the Armistice Day Commemorations.

After a brief visit to the UK for servicing at the excellent Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham, Road Tax and some English food specialities, we are now headed south and east through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland for Italy, Venice and the shores of the Adriatic Sea. After that - Greece, but by which route? 

Distances are given in miles; heights in feet; and costs in Euros. 1 mile = 1.6 km; 1 foot = 0.3 metres and, at present, 1 Euro = about 0.7 Pounds Sterling. The current exchange rate for each non-Euro country is given in the log. The daily rate quoted for campsites generally includes an electrical hook-up.

A Table of Distances, Fuel and Costs will be included at the end of this journey.

For daily logs of all our travels in 2006, click: Travel in 22 European Countries 2006

To view all our images of Venice, click: Venice 2006

1/3 November   At SKAERBAEK, Denmark   Skaerbaek Familie Camping DKr 86 (€12.00)

The End of our Scandinavian Journey; the Start of the Next

At Skaerbaek wDenmarkC_(15).JPGe found shelter from Jutland's storms on a small simple frDenmarkC_(17).JPGiendly quiet campsite, a couple of miles east of the town. Open all year, it has free WiFi internet access, hot showers and is a member of the ACSI off-season discount scheme (visit: www.campingcard.com). Being 4 miles inland, devoid of beach, tennis court, swimming pool, go-karts, etc, it's much cosier than the pretentious and over-priced holiday parks we'd seen in Denmark so far. There is no-one here except Henrik (born on the top floor of the adjoining house, 45 years ago!) and his menagerie of pet goats, rabbits, ducks, geese, birds and dogs. Settling in, we quickly retuned the cab radio when it started speaking German (not far from the border, now).

We tooDenmarkC_(19).JPGk time for writing, emailing, planning - and for counting. We have travelled 8,700 miles since leaving the UK in May and 4,600 miles since entering Scandinavia via Helsinki at the end of last July. Denmark is our 18th European country this year - and we have only 4 days until our motorhome insurance expires. This prompted a search of the internet, which also produced lots of data for the survey of Motorhome Insurers we're preparing for this website (click this link for more) and for a proposed MMM article on the subject.

Our own insurance quotes varied enormously and for no known or obvious reason. One agent quoted exactly double that of another, even though they both use the same underwriter (Norwich Union) and breakdown operator (RAC), and the cheaper one offers slightly better foreign travel arrangements. Metaphors such as 'minefield', 'jungle' and 'pitfall' come to mind. The surveys carried out by 'Motor Caravan Magazine' (link) and 'Which Motor Caravan' (link) both helped and confused us. Comparing their findings with our own internet searches simply demonstrates that none of the data comes anywhere near being hard fact!

Planning our onward route, we considered calling at Ardelt in Wettringen (a German motorhome dealer specialising in American RV's who has given us good service in the past). Sadly, neither their phone number nor their website now exist.

Checking cross-channel ferries, with a view to taking a day-trip to England without the motorhome, we found a new line operating from Ostend to Ramsgate (once our favourite route with the late-lamented Sally Ferries). Transeuropa Ferries only take vehicles (no foot passengers or cyclists) but they currently offer a 48-hour return for a motorhome up to 12m long, including passengers, for the one-way fare of ₤60 (!) We quickly booked a mini-break in Ramsgate – time enough for shopping and road fund licence renewal. See www.transeuropaferries.com for more info.

Our account of Ian Hibell's cycle ride from Bangkok to Vladivost42_John_and_Sally_at_Esztergom[1].jpgok reached completion, when we received his last email filling in the final piece of the jigsaw, as he crossed the Chinese/Russian border. John and Sally Watson's cycle ride from London to India continues to captivate us.

The barometer DenmarkC_(20).JPGswung from low pressure (windy, wet and muggy) to high (cold and crisp, with clear blue skies and overnight frost). We had to 'rug up' (as the Australians say) for a walk: through the woods, past the pig-processing works (its chimney smoking and the smell not reminiscent of frying bacon), across the railway line and into the small town of Skaerbaek. It had a good shopping centre, bank, library and old church. We bought a map at the Boghandel (bookshop)!

5 November   174 miles   SKAERBAEK, Denmark to HEIDENAU, Germany Ferienzentrum Heindenau €16.00

Over the Border into Schleswig-Holstein and under the Elbe to Lower Saxony

We left Henrik to look forward to his regular February break in Morocco, escaping Denmark's coldest month. It's pretty bleak now, very wet and windy again.

After pausing in Skaerbaek to spend our last 60 DKr at Netto, we headed south on road 11, which changed its number to 5 on crossing the German border into Schleswig-Holstein after 21 miles. In Suderlugum, the first town on the German side 3 miles later, the supermarkets were all open (despite being Sunday), their car parks packed with Danish cars – including one Lidl and two Aldi stores! Food or alcohol are obviously cheaper this side of the border, though there was little difference in fuel prices and no queue at the filling station.

The landscape was unchanged (indeed, this area once belonged to Denmark) – flat, damp, misty fields with cattle and windfarms and an occasional old thatched house. We crossed the railway line that runs west to Sylt, a long thin peninsula forming part of the North Friesian Islands. Sylt, belonging to Germany, has no road access, though cars are put on the train. It also has a ferry link with Romo, to the north, which is Danish and reached by causeway from the coast near Skaerbaek.

Our road swung inland to bypass the port of Husum, 37 miles from the border, then crossed the wide estuary of the Eider River 11 miles later, near Tonning, where we stopped for lunch with a blustery view. After another 9 miles at Heide, road 5 became a motorway, the A23, turning south-east with, surprisingly, no services along it. We crossed the broad Nord-Ostsee-Kanal 17 miles along, the waterway linking the Elbe estuary (North Sea) with Kiel on the Baltic.

A short unfinished section of motorway slowed us down as we came to Itzehoe (103 miles from today's start), then we had a clear run for the 40 miles to Hamburg. Most of the cars were registered HH - Hansastadt Hamburg – a reminder that Germany's largest port (40 miles inland on the mighty River Elbe) was a member of the Hanseatic League. The well-signed Autobahn took us smoothly across the city and under the river, via the Elbe Tunnel (free of charge and no lorries between 5 am and 11 pm). The traffic flowed so well that Barry drove through the whole way on cruise control, though it would have been a different story on a week-day rush-hour!

We emerged from the tunnel on the A7, alongside the massively impressive harbour, dense with ships, bridges, canal wharves, railway lines and freight parks. A huge container ship with Chinese lettering was in port, stacked so high it looked about to capsize. We recently heard on the BBC World Service in short wave that the world's biggest container ship had reached Felixstowe from China, carrying Christmas goodies. This must be its twin, come to stock the Lidl and Aldi shops! The port is right in the city centre: arriving on the ferry from Harwich in the summer of 1989 we cycled straight off and headed NE through the Alster Lake park, the start of our long ride to Istanbul via all the Iron Curtain Countries – except East Germany, whose borders our wheels were not allowed to cross.

South of the Elbe (in Lower Saxony), we turned off the A7 (which continues to Hannover) and headed south-west, joining the A1 (towards Bremen) at junction 43. It was now raining hard and dusk fell early. At exit 46 we left the motorway for the village of Heidenau, following campsite signs to an extensive holiday centre, about 3 miles south of the Autobahn. With mobile homes, wooden cottages, sauna and pool, fishing lake, pony rides, etc, it also offers 80 pitches for tourers in a lovely woodland setting, complete with ducks and red squirrels.

We had a quiet night (just one Dutch caravan in sight), with non-metered electricity and brand new facilities. The site is in the ACSI discount scheme in Spring and September, when we'd have paid €2 less! Nice to be back in a Euro-spending country with a language we understand (if not the inhabitants).

6 November   140 miles   HEIDENAU, Germany to WINSCHOTEN, Holland   De Burcht Camping €16.00

Over the Weser, under the Ems and into Holland

A few arrangements came together this morning. We phoned Bakers of Cheltenham to take out their motorhome insurance and breakdown cover for the next 12 months (the premium being half that of Comfort Insurance, who have covered us for 10 claim-free years). Also phoned Taylormade windscreen covers (our original is wearing thin after 10 years' service) and Edward will kindly make and post us another by the end of the week.

This done, we were back on the A1 heading south-west on a dry overcast and windy morning (10 degrees C). At Grundbergsee, the last services before Bremen, diesel cost €1.07 per litre or ₤0.75.

We bypassed Bremen, bridged its River Weser and soon left the A1 at junction 58, after 50 miles driving. Five miles of slow dual carriageway linked to the A28, which continued to Oldenburg, with a lunch break at Hasbruch Services on the way. Continuing west across the flat lowlands for 58 miles to Leer, we joined A31. After 3 miles, a free tunnel took us under the Ems River, which has the German port of Emden on the north bank of its estuary, the opposite bank being Dutch.

Another 14 miles to the Dutch border – welcome to the Netherlands, you are now on the A7! We turned off at the second exit for Winschoten and its suburban campsite, a couple of miles south of the motorway. The site 'formerly a castle' is fairly cramped and mean, with a minimal 4-amp hook-up (which wouldn't run the microwave) and extra charges for showers, cooking plates or hot water at sinks and basins, counted via a pre-paid key, with a €10 deposit. The couple in charge didn't have a word of English (or German) between them and it took some time to unscramble the unnecessarily complicated system! Not a place to linger.

7 November   169 miles   WINSCHOTEN to CALLANTSOOG, Holland   Camping Tempelhof Car Park

Across Friesland and the Afsluitdijk, in search of a place for the night

Back on the A7 NL_(10).JPGheading west, we crossed the flat polders, with Frisian cattle and sheep looming out of the mist. Huge mounds of turnips rose round the edges of ploughed fields, ready to supply their winter-feed. The vertical profile on the GPS showed a straight line at one foot above sea-level – had it been a heart monitor, Holland would be declared dead! But there were signs of life along the dykes, where hawks hovered, grey herons were in flight, swans and half-grown cygnets sailed by.

After 30 miles we crossed the Winschoterdiep (canal) near the UnivNL_(12).JPGersity city of Groningen, where traditional Dutch windmills and long low thatched farmhouses gave way to orderly modern red-brick housing, neat gardens and industry. At least the modern wind-farms, rarely absent on the Danish horizon, were much less common here in the home of the wind-mill.

Continuing across Friesland for another 20 miles of A7, parallel with a dyke, a cycle path and a railway line, we left at exit 30 onto a 4-lane dual carriageway, N31. After 11 miles it crossed the wide Prinses-Margaret-Kanal, carrying huge cargo-barges, and 5 miles later we turned off into Leeuwarden. The traffic was heavy and we saw no place to stop, even at the Winkelpark (Winkel is Dutch for 'shop'). We escaped by following the ring road round to the north, to rejoin N31 westwards. A fill of diesel was slightly less than in Germany, at €1.035 per litre or ₤0.72.

We met NL_(33).JPGthe coast 21 miles later at the small port of Harlingen, from where ferries ply to the off-shore Wadden Islands. A friendly Dutch motorhomer directed us to a free car park along the sea-dyke (past an Aldi store and towards the campsite). Sadly, the campsite was cNL_(23).JPGlosed and the car park prohibited overnight stays (a serious offence in Holland – a friend was once fined on the spot, without the option of simply moving on). After a walk round the harbour to photograph the beautiful Dutch sailing barges moored there (now mostly for summer tourist charter), we shopped and left. For more images of the splendid sailing barges in Harlingen, please click here.

7 miles south NL_(37).JPGof Harlingen we rejoined the A7, for its 20-mile crossing of the Afsluitdijk that retains the IJsselmeer, which used to be called the Zuider Zee, when it was open to the North Sea. Are theNL_(41).JPG Dutch ever good at dykes, canals, drains, windmills, living below sea level! And good at travelling, to escape Europe's most congested country. To our right, below the wall keeping the North Sea at bay, ran the cycle path we rode one October half-term, many years ago (see 'A Wet Week on the Fietspads'). On our left the IJsselmeer lay under an eiderdown of mist, just as we remembered it!

Once across the long dyke, we turned into the village of Den Oever, where we believed 'De Geest Camping' was open. It wasn't – in fact, it appeared to have died altogether. A few miles further along N99, in the village of Westerland, it was the same story. By now it was dark so we headed straight down to Alkmaar, where all 3 guidebooks (including the 2006 ACSI Discount Scheme) told of 'Camping Alkmaar, OPEN ALL YEAR'. Negotiating the country roads, far too narrow for the volume of commuter traffic, we eventually found Camping Alkmaar – barred, closed and deserted.

Uncertain whether the A9 motorway to the south had any service stations suitable for overnighting, we returned 15 miles north up the N9, then 3 miles west to the sandy seaside resort of Callantsoog. It has several campsites, one of which advertised winter opening. Of course, it was closed, but the visitors' car park opposite the site entrance was open and empty - we drove no further!

The people of Friesland (Fryslan) and its islands are descended from an ancient Germanic tribe of North Holland, the Frisians (infiltrated by Angles and Saxons on their way to England). The West Germanic language spoken by Frisians, closely related to Dutch and Old English, is the nearest to English of any European language. Despite being fluent in English and German, we couldn't understand a word anyone said! (Interesting that Frisi meant 'curl' and they were named from their hair style – modern word 'frizzy'!)

8 November   229 miles   CALLANTSOOG, Holland to YPRES, Belgium   Camping Jeugdstadion €10.50

South into Belgium and West to Flanders Fields

We drove 18 miles NL_(45).JPGsouth again to Alkmaar, a 'charming historical town with its cheese museum and weekly cheese market', though we saw only traffic lights, congestion and modern office blocks. Another 4 miles to the A9 motorway, from which we did spot some nicely thatched windmills and broad canals. A tunnel took us under the North Sea Canal, which cuts right across to Amsterdam aNL_(46).JPGnd the IJsselmeer.

18 miles along A9 we passed Schipol Airport, its runway lights shining through the mist, planes banked above waiting to land. After a further 10 miles we joined the A2, south of Amsterdam, and continued past Utrecht. All this on extremely busy motorways, thick with heavy trucks and wide loads. We now realise that Friesland was the less densely populated part of Holland, though it was too busy for us!

After 23 miles on theNL_(49).JPG A2 we crossed the wide river Lek (the lower Rhine), busy with barges, then turned onto A27, with a fast-food lunch at the services by exit 25. The Rhine splits into different rivers as it approaches the sea - 17 miles after crossing the Lek we crossed the Waal, and then 5 miles later the Maas, both carrying laden barges.

Circling Breda on a fast motorway, we NL_(51).JPGjoined A16 south towards Antwerp. After 3 miles it crossed the Belgian border, almost unnoticed, and became the A1 – 115 miles since breakfast (though only half-way to our destination of Ypres). The language was still Dutch (or rather Flemish) but the car number plates, red on white, signified a change of country.

25 miles later we joined Antwerp's Ring Road for 7 miles, clockwise and through the Kennedy Tunnel under the River Schelde. (Motorways and 6-lane tunnel were all free, as they had been in Holland.) Then we took the A14 (or E17) for 33 miles to Gent, with a tea break and a fill of diesel (exactly the same price as in Holland: €1.035 per litre or ₤0.72). Our GPS altimeter had revived, at 90 ft above sea level!

At Gent we Ypres5_(13).JPGbridged a narrower River Schelde and followed A14 south-west for 20 miles to Kortrijk (or Courtrai to French-speakers), where we turned onto A19 for Ieper (or Ypres). Our road atlas showed a German war cemetery near the Menin exit – we had reached West Flanders. The A19 ends at Ypres and we followed the signs to the municipal camping at the sports stadium, half a mile from the Menin Gate and town centre. A proposed extension of the motorway (to Ostend) was opposed in 2002, since it crossed the battlefields and passed very close to several of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. We understand it is Ypres5_(23).JPGto be rerouted.

The small campsite had a few motorhomes and caravans (mostly British, with some Dutch and Belgians). There were no Germans – or French (this is not a French-speaking part of Belgium). We learnt that the camping used to close at the end of October, until they learnt to stay open for Armistice weekend (until Monday 13 November, this year). It was dark and muddy, with a feeble 4 or 5-amp hook-up, no dump point, and a single water tap only accessible on foot! But it's ideally placed for exploring the battlefields and memorials of Flanders and we were grateful that it was not full at this appropriate time of year.

9/13 November   At YPRES, Belgium   Camping Jeugdstadion

We Shall Remember Them

For a full aYpres5_(36).JPGccount of our stay in Ypres, click The Ypres Salient 2006. We describe the town of Ypres and the Menin Gate, the Armistice Day Service, the Indian Memorial Ceremony (with Mrs Sonia Gandhi), cycling the front line of the Ypres Salient, our own reflections, some outstanding WW1 poetry and websites for further information. 

Click: Ypres Salient Photos to view a slide show of some of the images we took during the Armistice weekend.

14 November   75 miles   YPRES, Belgium to CANTERBURY, England    Camping & Caravanning Club Site ₤9.10

A Ferry from Ostend to Ramsgate, from Flanders to Kent

It was 54 miles from Ypres to the ferry terminal, driving north on N369UK_Nov1_(11).JPG through Diksmuide (a town badly in need of bypass surgery), then one junction along the A16 motorway and into Ostend. The Transeuropa Ferries boat (the only passenger ferry out of Ostend) sailed for Ramsgate at 1.30 pm. We arrived for check-in at 12.30 pm with 5 minutes to spare, delayed by a closed road and detour near Stade.

The good ship 'Primrose' wUK_Nov1_(18).JPGas packed full of lorries and cars (no coaches, foot passengers or cyclists allowed) and there was some confusion as to whether we would board, as the scheduled boat 'Larkspur' is 25% bigger. Finally, the men with walkie-talkies waved us on for the 4-hour crossing and we watched the long sandy beach of Ostend recede. Most of the passengers were lorry drivers, with their own lounge and cafeteria, so there was plenty of space. The Brasserie Restaurant was open, along with lighter meals at the Neptune Bar, and that was all – no shops, cinema, etc. In exchange for this simplicity, the fare was the lowest we've ever paid - ₤60 for a 48-hour return for a motorhome up to 12m long with up to 9 people! For vehicles below 6m long, it was a touch over ₤30. There was no extra charge for changing the return date (which we did) on the phone. Visit http://www.transeuropaferries.com for timetable and booking.

After a slightly choppy crossing, we landed at Ramsgate's New Port UK_Nov1_(21).JPGan hour late (at 5.30 pm GMT and local time). We have previously used Nethercourt Touring Park, close to town and ferry, but it's only open from Easter-end October. Instead we headed for Canterbury, 20 miles west, to the excellent Camping & Caravanning Club Park.

Bookings can be made on-line or on theUK_Nov1_(36).JPG telephone; non-members can join on arrival at any of the Club sites (or pay a higher non-member price). We were impressed with the friendliness and the speed with which the Wardens enrolled us into the Club, issued us with an excellent guide to British campsites and installed us on a hard-standing in the dark. Visit www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk for all you need to know.

It was a good quiet wooded place to recover from the culture shock of England's traffic and diesel prices. Next morning we watched 3 rabbits and a grey squirrel as we ate breakfast, while a colourful jay sat on our electricity box, yet we were within a mile of a busy city centre.

21 November   59 miles   CANTERBURY, England to ROESELARE, Belgium   Motorway Services on A17

A Ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend, back to the Mainland

Driving 22 miles from Canterbury back to Ramsgate, we parked on the seafrUK_Nov1_(44).JPGont near the Granville Theatre, where we have always found space (free of charge) just a brisk walk from the town centre. Just time for last-minute shopping, including a visit to the Vodafone shop for a free upgrade for Barry's mobile and a free 'Pay as you Go' card for his old phone. We finished with fish & chips for lunch on Harbour Street before checking in for the 1.30 pm ferry back to Ostend.

The Transeuropa waiting room hUK_Nov1_(43).JPGad free tea/coffee and newspapers, and extremely friendly staff. The 'Primrose' carried mostly freight again; the lorry drivers disappeared for their meals and cabins, and we passed the smooth crossing in conversation with just about the only other passengers: an English couple on their way to a Science Fiction convention at Maastricht!

At 6.30 pm Ostend was dark, very wet and unwelcoming, with nowhere to park at the docks (unlike French channel ports). We took the motorway A10 eastwards to junction 8, passing one service station whose lorry park was full. Turning south on A17 towards Kortrijk, we found a place on the next service station, 37 miles from Ostend. After a quick supper, we slept soundly.

22 November   64 miles   ROESELARE to MONS, Belgium   Camping Wauxhall €8.10

To Mons – yet another World War I Battleground

It was showery and very windy as we continued south on the A17 to Tournai. We filled with diesel (about 72p per litre - or 25p less than in England) but couldn't top up our LPG tank as none of the 5 connectors offered (nor our own) would fit! Then it was south-east to Mons on motorways A8 and A16 (with no tolls in Belgium).

The little municipal To_Venice_(22).JPGcampsite is on the east side of Mons, just off the inner ring road (Charleroi exit) and next to Vauxhall Park. It's nicely wooded, a short walk (or free shuttle-bus) from the city centre, open all year – and currently very wet and muddy. Luckily, no-one else was staying and we took the only large firm pitch available, backed into a corner. The price included luke-warm water in a ferociously hot shower-block, and a 10-amp hook-up for the first 2 nights (after which there would be a small metered charge).

We are in Wallonia and it's French-speaking.

23/24 November At MONS, Belgium Camping Wauxhall

Mons: Where the Great War started

Mons proved a good place to work on the photo gallery and written To_Venice_(11).JPGaccount of our Armistice weekend at Ypres. We finished it off with 3 poignant pieces of verse from the many World War I poets. In addition, we received travel articles from Susan Guscott (Morocco) and from Bob & Sandra in Streaky Bay (Australia), which we edited and added to our website.

It was a 10-minute walk into the centre of MoTo_Venice_(18).JPGns, to admire its architecture (11th to 19th century). There was none of the Battlefield Tourism overload of Ypres, just a splendid Grand Place (currently housing a funfair) and an upper square, where the medieval belfry is under restoration (with a modern Youth Hostel tucked below its walls).

We had a superb Menu of the Day at the Restaurant Exception on the Grand Place. Being Friday, it was fish – a succulent piece of white fish in a sauce laden with scampi & asparagus, served with pasta and a mixed salad, followed by rich chocolate or mocha ice cream, and all for €8.50 each. We'd never dined out in Belgium before (unless you count a box of Frites, which they claim to have invented) – and we've obviously been missing a treat! 'It's justTo_Venice_(14).JPG like French cuisine, but with sensible helpings' was Barry's commendation.

A wedding party posed for photos in the Grand Place outside the massive Hotel de Ville, where we found the Tourist Office. They didn't mention the war, but we did and they supplied a free leaflet (in English) called 'Battlefield Guide to Mons, August 1914'.

The very first clash of WWI between German and British armTo_Venice_(15).JPGies took place around Mons, the road and rail bridges across its canal being of strategic importance. In fact Britain entered the war because of Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality, marching German troops through Belgium on 4 August 1914, the day after declaring war on France. The British Expeditionary Force reached Belgium on 21 August and the brief Battle of Mons began on the 23rd.

The first 2 Victoria Crosses of the Great War were awarded to men defending the rail bridge on the Canal du Centre in Mons. Other British soldiers lie in 49 military cemeteries in the area. Their more fortunate comrades had to retreat, leaving the city under German occupation for 4 years. Visit www.firstworldwar.com/battles/mons for more. For a full account read 'Mons 1914' by David Lomas, available from www.historyofwar.org/books or www.amazon.co.uk.

Richard Holmes excellent book 'War Walks' (from Amazon or the BBC shop) covers 6 battlefields in Britain and 6 in Belgium/France, dating from Agincourt to WW2, including Mons. We remember watching his fascinating BBC series 'War Walks' and had his book to hand when we cycled the battlefields of the Somme. Holmes also wrote 'The Western Front', describing the staggering numbers of British and Commonwealth forces deployed in WW1 (9 million). Almost 1 in 9 were killed.

25 November   226 miles   MONS, Belgium to SAARBRUCKEN, Germany   Goldene Bremm Motorway Services on A6

Through Luxembourg to Germany's Saarland

It's a thousandTo_Venice_(23).JPG miles from the English Channel to the Adriatic and it was time we set off. We would have little time for revisiting places we knew from previous travels and it was important that we had time to reach Greece overland, before the cold winter weather reached the Balkans.

After heavy rain overnight, it was dry but very blustery as we headed north-east for 5 miles on N538 to join the Autoroute de Wallonie motorway A7/E42 eastwards, bypassing Charleroi. 37 miles later we turned south near Namur, taking the A4/E411 for Luxembourg.

Traversing the hills of the Ardennes and crossing the River Meuse, To_Venice_(24).JPGwe reached 945 ft before dropping to 460 ft to cross La Lesse, then climbed again. Near exit 24, 41 miles along the A4 up at 1,590 ft, we passed the Belgian Eurospace Center (of which we know nothing!) It was still windy but very warm (17 deg C outside).

After lunch in a rest area we crossed the border into the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, 129 miles from Mons. Our memories from previous visits were of a tiny country which spoke any language and accepted any currency offered! The official languages are French, German and Letzebuergesch; the currency is now the Euro. Deciding that we shouldn't simply rush through, we took the first exit to the village of Steinfort (3 miles), where Camping Steinfort claimed to be open all year with ACSI Camping Card discount and "a lot of attention for the guests … a hospitable welcome".

We were welcomed with a notice in the closed Reception, telling us to choose a place and pay tomorrow morning. We drove through with difficulty, brushing the low trees, past tiny muddy grass pitches. It was with relief that we exited onto a farm lane at the bottom of the campsite, as it would have been near impossible to turn round! It looked nothing like the 2 glossy photos in our ACSI book. Disillusioned, we got a fill of diesel in the village (Luxembourg has the cheapest fuel prices in Western Europe - €0.876 per litre or 61 pence) and returned to the A6/E25 motorway.

We passed south of Luxembourg's capital, which we've explored previously while riding from Rotterdam to Zeebrugge via the Rhine and Mosel cycle paths. At Bettembourg we turned east on a new motorway, the A8/E29, which led us through a tunnel before bridging the Mosel (the border) into Germany's Saarland. Our route across Luxembourg took just 36 miles. Near Merzig, we joined the older A620 to follow the Saar River south-east to Saarbrucken.

We had left the green hills behind and entered a grimly industrial region, heavy with traffic. By now it was raining and dark, though still very warm, with the wind in the south. Joining the A6 westbound, we stopped for the night at Saarbrucken Services, just before the French border. Not an ideal resting place but surprisingly warm (70 deg F inside, without using any heating), just a month before Christmas!

26 November   266 miles   SAARBRUCKEN, Germany to ALTDORF, Switzerland   Camping Remo Altdorf €18.00

Through France and Germany to Central Switzerland

It was less than a mile along A6 to the French border, after which we turned off (before the Peage toll-booth) onto dual carriageway D31. That returned us eastwards to join N61 south, past Sarreguemines. Headed for Strasbourg, we now had the choice of the A4/E25 Peage motorway or the slower national road. As it was a quiet Sunday morning and the rain had given way to weak sunshine, we stayed on N61, which ran parallel to the Autoroute through the villages of the Saar (or Sarre) Valley.

At Phalsbourg, 44 miles since breakfast, we joined the N4 (where we could again have taken the motorway if we'd been in a hurry). We had climbed to over 1,000 ft, on the northern edge of the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. A village called Danne-et-Quatre-Vents had an Hotel Quatre Vents, but we had our own 'Four Winds' to eat and sleep in!

The road hairpinned down from 1,300 ft, past a Botanical Gardens (whose car park was on the wrong side of a bend in the road), into Saverne town at 800 ft. We continued on N4 south and east into Strasbourg, to join the badly signposted and busy free motorways which circle the EU capital in grand confusion.

If you want to cross the Rhine into Germany to go south, don't follow 'Karlsruhe' (which is across the Rhine in Germany). No, follow 'Colmar' (which is not across the Rhine, in France)! Having unravelled this secret, we took A35 (signed Colmar) south, exiting at junction 7 to go east on a new dual carriageway and over the Rhine (signed Offenburg). Easy when you know!

We re-enteredTo_Venice_(29).JPG the Bundesrepublik 98 miles after Saarbrucken, and 5 miles later joined the A5/E35 Autobahn for Switzerland. German motorways now have a toll for heavy goods trucks (LKW's) but are free for private vehicles – but for how long? The motorway service stations (Rasthof) looked very crowded and we tried a truck-stop (Autohof) by junction 58 at Herbolzheim. That proved a good lunch-break, with a huge parking area, a McDonalds and a Burger King! Lorries from all nations were waiting there, taking their enforced Sunday break, the Polish drivers cooking sausages on primus stoves, as they do! Their driving skills and patience amaze us.

Passing Freiburg and the Black Forest to the east, we followed the RhineTo_Venice_(27).JPG south, though with only an occasional glimpse of the river itself or the Canal d'Alsace alongside. Entering Switzerland 82 miles after crossing the Rhine, we halted at the Customs Post to buy our motorway pass. Vehicles up to 3.5 tons must buy a Vignette costing 40 Swiss Francs and valid for a year (caravanners have to buy two!). Payment is easy (Euros, Sterling, Credit Cards or Swiss currency accepted. Exchange rate about 2.3 Swiss Francs to the Pound). Our motorhome is above the weight limit, so we needed a special permit for one day (3.25 SF), 10 days (32.50), a month (58.50) or a year (650.00). We chose 10 days, which don't have to be taken consecutively, so the pass is good for a return journey too, provided it's within one year. Excellent value, as the motorways include the 10-mile St Gottard Tunnel through the Alps into Italy!

Equipped with To_Venice_(32).JPGour pass, we took to the Swiss motorway system. (It would be very difficult to cross the country on other roads to avoid payment.) We crossed Basel through a series of busy tunnels, just catching sight of the Rhine as we went under and over it! Then it was A2/E25 south, climbing higher (maximum 1,823 ft), a backdrop of snowy peaks coming into view as we passed the lake at Sursee.

A very Swiss scene, all going smoothly, To_Venice_(33).JPGuntil the outskirts of Luzern (or Lucerne), where we knew the campsite was closed. We had driven 239 miles and were ready to stop – our wish was granted! A massive traffic jam gave us a 40-minute break (caused by roadworks in one of a pair of tunnels, which diverted all traffic through the other one). Darkness fell as we waited in line.

Several tunnels and glimpses of Lake Lucerne later, we progressed south-east along A2 through typical Alpine scenery at about 1,500 ft. After a final 6-mile tunnel (Swiss engineering astounds), we turned off for Altdorf and its excellent little campsite at the foot of the Eggberg, tucked between the cable car station and a large indoor swimming baths, about a mile north of the small town.

Here we were made very welcome. We were the only 'tourer' on the small camping area, alongside many static caravans which have evolved into holiday cabins, already decked out beautifully for Christmas.

27 November   At ALTDORF, Switzerland   Camping Remo Altdorf

A Good Rest Day

The campsite managerTo_Venice_(34).JPG whistled and sang 'You are my Sunshine', while 3 workmen helped him to put up more Christmas decorations and lights. A contented cat dozed in the 'stable' erected for a nativity scene. We learnt that the local Christmas Fair will be held 9-10 December, when the campsite will be full. It's 15 deg C outside today, warm and sunny, but Altdorf is normally deep in snow by now! As the name suggests, it's in the German-speaking part of Switzerland (the other official languages being French, Italian and Romansh.)

We walked a couple of kilometres into Altdorf, which has a quaint To_Venice_(39).JPGold centre with restored medieval buildings and a statue of William Tell. The Tourist Office/Theatre was closed (on Mondays). The atmosphere, surrounded by snowy peaks, was only spoilt by the volume of traffic rushing through. The mixed infants coming out of school wore reflective yellow tunics. Cyclists took their chances, in the absence of cycle paths.

We obtained Swiss currency in order to shop at a well-stocked Aldi store on our way back, though found they would have accepted Euros. We also got up to date with laundry and emails, ready for the next leg of the 1,000 mile journey between Ostend and Venice – from the English Channel to the Adriatic lagoon.

28 November   276 miles   ALTDORF, Switzerland to PADUA, Italy   Motorway Services on A4

Through the St Gottard Tunnel to Italy's Manic Motorways

On a still mistyTo_Venice_(45).JPG morning we continued south on the A2/E35 motorway, soon passing a service station which would have been good for an overnight (signs allowing parking for a maximum of 15 hours). Over 18 miles, below avalanche shuttering and through several short tunnels, we climbed to the St Gottard Tunnel entrance at over 3,500 ft. We were now above the mist and in sunshine, with spectacular views. The St Gottard Pass at 6,916 ft or 2,108 m (which we cycled in our pass-storming summer of 1995) is, of course, closed by snow from mid-October to early June.

The world's longest road tunnel (16.3 km or 10 miles), from Goschenen to To_Venice_(50).JPGAirolo, is an amazing feat, though not for the claustrophobic. It is narrow (one lane each way) with a 50 mph speed limit, and climbs to 3,800 ft or 1,159 m before descending. There is no toll – as part of the motorway system, it is covered by the vignette. A parallel railway also tunnels through.

The light at the To_Venice_(51).JPGend of our tunnel was something of a relief, exiting at 3,518 ft with a little snow on the grass verges. We paused at the 'San Gottardo Sud Area di Servizio', 33 miles from Altdorf - we were still in Switzerland but now in high Ticino, an Italian-speaking region. The motorway descended steeply, back into a cold damp mist at 3,120 ft. Dropping continuously, we were soon below 1,000 ft, driving down a narrow valley between densely packed contour lines. Industry and scruffy buildings had replaced the charming wooden chalets and alpine meadows on the far side of the tunnel.

We passed Bellinzona Nord services (30 miles from the tunnel exit)To_Venice_(57).JPG at 690 ft, noticing small vineyards on the south-facing mountain slopes, then climbed to 1,600 ft, Bellinzona spread out below us. Continuing south and entering the Lake Lugano region at about 930 ft, we had brief views of the lake as the motorway crossed it, after a series of short tunnels.

Lunch break was at Coldrerio service station, the last in Switzerland, 95 miles from Altdorf and at 990 ft. We crossed the border into Italy with barely a pause 3 miles later, at 850 ft, staying on the motorway (A9) southwards. There were more short tunnels and a To_Venice_(64).JPGmere glimpse of the foot of Lake Como before the Como Sud exit (taken by cars avoiding the Italian Autostrada toll-point ahead). There was a touch of rain, 12 deg C outside.

We paid our €1.60 Class 6 toll and headed for Milan, skirting the north side of the city on the A4 east-bound with another small toll (€1.40). Well worth the money! Once clear of Milan's outer ring, we collected a toll-ticket at Milan Est and headed towards Venice, straight into a long slow frustrating Coda (German Stau, French File, English Traffic Jam). There were no road works, no fog, it was nowhere near rush-hour – it was simply caused by the phenomenal weight of traffic and heavy goods vehicles queued down the slow lane, now seemingly a feature of all Italian cities.

After a fuel stop and break near Bergamo, 52 miles into Italy, we continued to make slow progress along A4 past Brescia, exiting at Sirmione, the bottom of Lake Garda (toll €6.40). Our Bordatlas (German guide to overnight stops) showed a good place for motorhomes on the lake at Lugana Marina – open all year for a small charge, with 150 places, hook-ups, etc. Making our way along road SS11 towards Colombare, we turned left to the lake-shore at a new sign, bearing the familiar motorhome logo. We soon found the place – deserted and closed, with a double barrier which would have kept an armed tank out! It would have been an ideal stop-over.

It was (of course) dark by now, the tea-time traffic even more congested. We rejoined the motorway A4/E70 at Peschiera del Garda and persisted east past Verona (which Romeo and Juliet would hardly have recognised). After trying each service station for parking possibilities, to no avail, we managed to stop at Soave services, beneath a splendid illuminated castle, for a pot of tea but there was no space suitable for the night, with lorries double-parked all around.

Fortunately the next services, just before Padua West exit, were more spacious and we found a quiet corner. After a quick supper (take-away pizza), we slept soundly. It had been a very long day, ending on a flat note (literally, 3 ft asl). Sadly, Italy's undoubted charms are hidden from us, under the wheels of a continuous procession of commuter cars and trucks.

29 November   28 miles   PADUA to VENICE, Italy   Camping Fusina €30.00

The Last Few Miles to Venice

After a leisurely breakfast and a couple of phone calls to campsites (for Venice), we drove the final few miles along A4. At the last service station we topped up our LPG tank, amazed that we'd used only 24 litres (12 pounds or 5 kg) since our last fill in Brno, Slovakia, at the beginning of June!

Immediately after the last toll-station (€6.50), we left the motorway to go south on SS309 (signed 'Ravenna'). There are several seasonal campsites down this road, with access to Venice by bus, including Camping Serenissima, but we knew all were closed. We took a left turn about 3 miles from the motorway, well signed for Fusina. The lane followed the north side of the Brenta River, through the village of Malcontenta, to 'Fusina Sculpture Park/Camping Village' at the river mouth, right on the lagoon looking across to Venice's skyline.

The large Venice_(11).JPGcampsite was virtually empty and we were soon camped right at the water's edge, able to make out the domes and bell-tower of St Mark's Square across the calm glassy waters of the lagoon. Camping Fusina is expensive (even for Italy), but it has a brand new toilet/shower block and the infamous mosquitoes are now dormant. Above all, it's in an exceptional position - just a 10-minute walk from the passenger ferry for a 20-minute boat ride across the lagoon into Venice, every hour on the hour. Not sure what the modern sculptures added to our camping pleasure but we appreciated the friendly receptionists who spoke English, handed out maps and sold tickets for the boat (€10 return, or €20 for a 3-day ticket). Facilities like the gym, bar, restaurant or internet bus are closed at this time of year, but there was an ATM and a phone box – and plenty of space.

The only alternative campsite we found that is open all year, Venezia Venice_(27).JPGVillage in Mestre, is a bus-ride from Venice (over the 2.5-mile road and rail bridge) and currently charging €26.00.

We rolled out our new awning (bright blue, matching the sky and the water) and settled in to lunch and watch the shipping sail right past, coming in from the open sea to the nearby port at Marghera. It was warm and dry, the horizon shimmering between sea and sky.

30 November   At VENICE, Italy   Camping Fusina

Winter Sun in the Most Serene Republic

It was a wondeVenice_(17).JPGrfully sunny morning; no coats needed. The English-speaking receptionist told us that a blanket of fog usually extends from Trieste to Milan in winter – 'Mama Mia, How can it be December?' he asked.

We joined a handful of passengers on the small ferry boat across the smootVenice_(30).JPGh Lagoon to the Zattere landing stage, disembarking between two of Venice's 200 churches: the Santa Maria della Visitazione and the Santa Maria del Rosario, the latter an ornate Jesuit establishment of 1736. We wandered along the waterfront past the 16thC Chiesa dello Spirito Santo, just enjoying the unique atmosphere of this fascinating yet tragic city, slowly sinking amidst rising waters. Every alleyway, broad or narrow, begs to be explored on foot or by gondola – or at least to be photographed. And there are no trucks, cars or bicycles – just legs or boats!

Venice is built Venice_(38).JPGon some of 117 islands in the Lagoon, with 400 bridges and 150 linking canals! The Grand Canal is the widest of them all and the main artery, edged with palaces and crossed by the humped Rialto Bridge. Built in 1592, the bridge is high enough to allow the passage of an armed galley and wide enough to be lined with shops.

We found ourselves at the entrance to the Grand Venice_(39).JPGCanal, by the baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute (Salvation), built in the 17thC to fulfil a vow after an epidemic of plague. Inside are Tintoretto's 'Marriage at Cana' (1561) and a ceiling painted by Titian – two of the greatest Venetian artists of the Renaissance. The Grand Canal was busy with Vaporettos (waterbuses: once stately steamers but now fitted withVenice_(63).JPG speedy diesel engines). There were a few gondolas on the water, the gondoliers wearing the customary striped jumpers and ribboned straw hats (though we didn't hear them sing). On a previous visit to Venice we had taken the obligatory Vaporetto ride, so today we were content to wonder and wander.

We passed the 15thC church of St Gregorio, in search of a bite to eat. There are many high-class, high-priced restaurants along the canals, but down the back streets we also found bars and cafesVenice_(53).JPG used by local workers, offering snacks and pizzas. We had toasted sandwiches and coffee at a pavement café, talking to a bilingual English couple with 2 small boys at the next table. They lived and worked nearby (we guessed it was in the fine art business) and told of the local way of life, beneath the tourist veneer, which we compared with daily life in Greece. Very interesting.

By the AcaVenice_(55).JPGdemy of Fine Arts, we crossed the Grand Canal on an arched wooden bridge, then rambled round a maze of lanes to emerge into the sunlight of another church square – this one the Campoi San Maurizio. Finally we came to the centrepiece of the city – Piazza San Marco – the great marbled St Mark's Square. Only two of the famous cafes appeared to be open and the few visitors played follow-my-leader, dragooned into cowed groups, while a couple of vendorsVenice_(70).JPG sold pigeon-feed at €1 a bag. Pigeons outnumbered tourists, a hundred to one!

We looked around the stunning Veneto-Byzantine Basilica of St Mark's, admiring the patterns of the mosaic flooring and the colours of the marble columns. Entrance into this Chiesa d'Oro (Golden Church) was free of charge. The 11thC church was built, on the plan of a domed Greek cross, as a tomb for the remains of St Mark. The Apostle's bones were brought from Alexandria in the year 828 and they still lie beneath the altar, under a canopy ofVenice_(90).JPG green marble. Renaissance additions to the Basilica harmonise beautifully into a breathtaking whole.

For €3 each, we climbed the stairs to the Museum and out onto the Loggia, the balcony bearing a replica of the Quadriga. The original four bronze horses, believed to be from the 2ndC BC, are in the Museum and they are magnificent. Brought here by the Doge in 1204 (booty from the pillage of Constantinople), they were removed to Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte, where they remained until the fall of the French Empire.

We had a superb view over St Mark's Square from the Loggia, soVenice_(91).JPG we didn't feel the need to climb the nearby Campanile, the bell-tower which has also served as a lighthouse. Perhaps we were deterred by the €6 charge, or the 325 ft height, or the fact that it collapsed and was rebuilt in 1902! We did enjoy its peal of bells for 2 o'clock, echoed by the pair of bronze giants which top the clock tower of the Law Courts. They have been striking the hour for 500 years!

We walkedVenice_(98).JPG round by the Doge's Palace to the Piazetta, the smaller square which opens onto the gondolier-lined waterfront. The two granite columns (12thC booty from the East) each bear a statue: the winged lion of St Mark looks across to St Teodor, the original patron of Venice, standing on a crocodile. The pink and white marble Palace was not only home to the Doge but also the seat of law and government. The Bridge of Sighs linked it to the prisons, from which Casanova made his famous escape.

The Palace is open to the public but we postponed that for our next visitVenice_(99).JPG to Venice, sure that we will return. We still have the islands of the Lagoon to explore!

We slowly returned to Zattere, passing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of 20thC art, housed in the 18thC Palazzo Venierdi Leone. In fact, at every turn we noticed a church, a school, a palace, an academy, a museum. Too many to describe here.

While waiting for the boat back to Fusina we enjoyed delicious ice cream cornettos before another smooth crossing. Half an hour later we were back in our motorhome after the easiest, most enjoyable visit to Venice we could have imagined - too late for the crowds of summer or Carnival, too early for the Christmas crush, and in perfect weather and light. A photographer's dream!

To see the full set of images as a slide show, click: Venice 2006