02 November 2012

European Expedition - Part 3

Day 4

Weather: Clear
Destination: Czech Republic

When we discoved that we'd be going close to the famous Schloss Colditz, we thought we'd add it to the itinerary. It's in the town of Colditz, about an hour from Leipzig. I lead us out of the city, and for some of the journey we were accompanied by a group of Porsches on British plates. They turned off at the Autobahn while we carried on cross-country.

The key word when driving in Germany is "Umlitung", meaning diversion. There were a lot of roadworks going on and the previous evening we'd got in a bit of a muddle on one diversionary route as they tend to be signed with just a "U" and an arrow. Taking the diversionary route to Colditz, we approached the town with plenty of time to spare before the 10.30 tour that we'd decided to do.

Unfortunately there was a lack of signage within Colditz as to where the castle was, and we were well out the other side of it before I realised my error. I blame an ambiguous direction sign on a roundabout in the town centre.

Disaster was avoided though and we arrived in the courtyard, again via a slightly illicit-feeling route through narrow streets. Also parked there were the British Porches from earlier, and they were also on our tour.

I decided to put as much of my bike kit as I could in the panniers, and that's when I discovered that my pannier keys weren't in my pocket... Not of my jacket, not of my trousers, and not in the glovebox of the bike either. Bother.

Still, one disaster at a time and all that, so I decided to worry about the keys later. Assuming we were allowed out at the end of the tour! Our guide was a German lady who took us around and showed up the Pat Reid cellar, the meadow where POWs were allowed to exercise, the hall where the famous camp dances and shows were staged, numerous tunnels that were dug in various parts of the castle, and all the while introducing us to the stories of various inmates who either escaped or were caught escaping.

When you see that the castle was built on bedrock, you can understand how the Germans thought it would be escape-proof. But if you bring together a lot of talented POWs with a desire to escape, it seems nothing is impossible. Some of the schemes were downright ingenious.

Various useful items were sent through in the Red Cross parcels that were allowed to be sent, including maps, dye and items of clothing, including wigs, under the auspices of being needed for the stage shows. Permission was also given for inmates who were officers to go to the bars in the town, and even do a little work locally - all on their word that they would come back. And they did. The ability to get out and about, to scout out the local area and mingle with the town's residents was too valuable to risk losing by someone escaping that way.

The stage shows were so well regarded that German officers from other camps would regularly travel to Colditz to see them, so one of the easiest ways to escape was to dress as a German officer and simply walk out. Unfamiliar faces were common, so it didn't arouse any particular suspicion with the guards.

Once our guide said that, for us, ze tour was over, the question of the keys returned. There's something slightly ironic about losing your keys at a prison camp, but I'd had a memory while on the tour. That morning, I remembered dropping my keys whilst loading the bike, and where they fell I couldn't reach them without moving the bike. I got distracted, got on the bike, and moved it all the way to Colditz. I had a spare set with me, safely locked in one of my panniers...

Being 95% sure of what had happened we retraced our steps to the hotel, and there, nestling amongst tufts of grass in the corner of the car park, were my keys.

Having wasted an hour or so each way, we had a bit of time to make up if we were to cross the Czech border that day. That meant an Autobahn run across to Dresden, before turning to more cross-country routes.

We crossed in to the Czech Republic near the town of Děčín, on the banks of the River Elbe, and took a moment for a photo-call at the sign. As the night was drawing in, our plan was to find a hotel and call it a day.

Having used a variety of methods to locate hotels, including the lists on our respective sat navs, we gave them a try: and we found a Formula 1 hotel. Except we didn't. It just had the same name, and was up a very dark, narrow side-street... Maybe not...
Back on the main road we found what looked like a hotel, so I went to investigate. It was, and they had a room, and could do dinner. But not English: Czech or German were the choices. So, a bunk bed it was, in a building that resembled a eighties nightclub. Dinner was superb though, as was the beer, and it was all very cheap. We both had the most expensive dish on the menu (~£4.40) and a couple of pints of beer (77p). In total the bill was less than £50 all-in.

Overnight: Hotel Kovarna, Děčín
Food: A 'mixed grill' of chicken, beef and ham, chips and salad.
Language: German

Next morning, breakfast was waiting for us, but it was good and tasty, and we hit the road heading for our next destination. We meandered across the country, sticking to the more minor roads and generally enjoying the journey. The scenery throughout most of the trip was so familiar that we could be riding in the UK. The roads were reasonable too, and whenever we saw something of interest we'd go and have a look.

One of the places we spotted was Trosky Castle, which was perched on top of a couple of basalt columns left behind by glacial erosion (I read the info board!). Unfortunately it was closed when we visited, but it still imposing when viewed from the outside.

The roads in general weren't too bad, and traffic was light. One thing we did notice is that in every town or village, no matter how small, there were loudspeakers on top of the telegraph poles or lamp posts. They were often new-looking, so not a relic of past times, and in one place we actually heard them broadcasting - although of course we've no idea what was being said ("There are foreigners in town - smile and look happy!" perhaps?).

We continued heading east, and spent a second night at a rather upmarket (for us) hotel in the city of Ostrava. We'd ridden around looking for a likely hotel, and tried a Park Inn by Radisson, but its prices were distinctly western at £100 for the room! Turning to Trip Advisor, I spotted a budget hotel with good reviews, so we decided to go and take a look.

Turning on to the Ostrava equivalent of a council estate, we found the hotel. Craig wasn't impressed. The bikes won't be there in the morning, he warned. Hmm...

There was, however, another hotel just literally around the corner, with a man in a hut operating the car park barriers... Looks promising. Looks expensive.

It wasn't. Whilst far more upmarket than we were used to, the rates were reasonable. The reception was obviously furnished from the local branch of IKEA, and the rooms had an aura of the seventies about them such that I wouldn't have been surprised to see Miss Moneypenny and James Bond having a flirt in the corner.

For dinner, we decided to try the hotel's restaurant; there wasn't much choice. It was a very upmarket affair, the waiter with a cloth over his arm, and a deferential manner. Despite the "no shorts and T-shirts" sign on the door, we were shown to a table, and the candle was lit... Hmm...

The food was superb, but the portions small. That said, if you think what you'd pay for a meal in an upmarket hotel in the UK, £9.50 for two including drinks was very good value.

Overnight: Vista Hotel, Ostrava
Food: Silver service chicken with a selection of onions.
Language: English

Next time: Oświęcim, Poland, and a very well known museum

25 October 2012

European Expedition - Part 2

Day 3

Weather: Misty. Err... that doesn't translate well to German... umm... Slightly Foggy.
Destination: Leipzig

When we arrived in Würzburg we'd seen a castle in the centre of it, and decided to go and have a look. Again we gave the hotel's breakfast a miss, and trundled round the corner to have McFrühstück. It's where we'd had dinner the night before - the problem with budget hotels is that they tend to be on industrial estates and decent places to eat tend not to be...!

Threading our way through the streets and up the hill to the castle, Fortress Marienberg, it always feels slightly illicit to be riding along narrow, cobbled, residential streets, but a nice dedicated motorcycle parking area before the (chargeable) car park was nice. With hardly anyone about, we went for a wander. Monday seems to be an extension of the weekend in Germany, and none of the museum areas were open but we could wander freely around the grounds and inspect the tower in the centre - which Rapunzel would have been proud of. We could only go in to the bottom section, which used to be a prison, and not upstairs, so I couldn't see if there was a fair maiden or damsel in distress.

The ornamental gardens overlooking the city were very well maintained and added a touch of colour to the mis... slightly foggy day. I'm sure the view would have been good too, but as it was we could see the Main River, complete with boat traffic, the vines and hear a particularly noisy ambulance making its way through the town below.

Leaving Würzburg behind, we set a course for Leipzig. Our destination was of course in the old East Germany, and whilst there is a noticeable difference between the two parts, there's nothing to denote the old border except for an easily missed sign. Which I missed.

As lunchtime approached, we started looking for somewhere to eat and this is when we really discovered that Germany is closed on Mondays. We stopped at a few likely looking places, including one that had a distinctly Marie Celeste feeling about it as the door was open but there was nobody around, without any luck. We eventually back-tracked slightly to a hotel restaurant that I'd spotted earlier, but Craig had missed. Walking in there were a group of evidently local people sat at the bar, and nobody else... We took a table, were presented a menu, and enjoyed a very nice lunch.

Continuing to Leipzig, the roads were not unpleasant if not especially memorable. Leipzig itself is how you would image a former East German city to be, complete with old trams, wide roads and imposing buildings. The roads themselves were a bit worn, and combined with the tram tracks you had to keep your wits about you. I also spotted my first Trabant, the infamous two-stroke, plastic-bodied car, chugging along in front. Actually, that's not fair, it was more than able to keep up with traffic speeds.

An early-ish arrival in town gave us time for a little sight-seeing.  One building had a Police guard outside, and a number of American cars outside, so we suspect it could have been their consulate. Walking past it, and towards the main road we'd come in on, the imposing town hall had a huge, well kept paved area in front.

The cinema opposite had a choice of a tribute to Michael Jackson, or the BBC's Planet of the Dinosaurs - an interesting choice.

East Germany is also the home of the Ampelmännchen, the figure on pedestrian (and cyclist) traffic signals. The be-hatted figure is one of the few GDR symbols to survive and remain popular since the fall of communism. It adds a touch of character to the traffic signals than those elsewhere lack.

Heading off to the outskirts of the city, we spent another night in one of Herr Ibis's Budget hotels, which had been recently refurbished and was very modern and comfortable. Although it helps if you check the towels are in the shower before you start otherwise things can get a little awkward...

Leipzig is also the only city we visited twice - and the reason will be revealed in part three.

Overnight: Ibis Budget
Food: Pasta in a German bar mit bier
Language: English

24 October 2012

European Expedition

I must have a lousy sense of direction. Last time, I planned a trip to Iceland I ended up in Morocco, and this time the trip to Nordkapp saw us in Poland...

Craig and I decided that as both had time off in October, we'd go somewhere. Research in to Norway in October suggested short days, low temperatures, and possibly snow... So Eastern Europe it was.

With no real plans, no hotels booked and just the return ferry crossing to aim for, we set off on an early Saturday morning crossing from Dover to Calais: destination Poland.

Rolling off the boat, we turned left, and kept going. Belgian roads are dreadful. Motorways with huge potholes that, in the rain, fill with water and can't be seen. Lovely. And why, in the roadworks, are all the cars squeezing over on to the one lane? Oh, OK, it's a road-roller trundling down the live carriageway towards the oncoming traffic, with just its hazard lights for protection. But of course. Imagine that on the M1!

Overnight: Liege, F1 hotel. Cheap.
Food: Pizza made by a Macedonian chap in an Italian restaurant.
Language: Italian.

Day 2

Weather: Misty
Destination: Germany

Through the morning gloom we set off east. Belgians have the comedy "give-way to the right" rule that France is generally abandoning, and with there having been no driving test there before 1970, driving standards are low.

Climbing up on to a hill-top road, we spot an American WW2 cemetery.

7992, if you're counting. In the sunshine, with misty edges, it's quite a moving experience.

Not having had breakfast at the hotel, we spot a sign to McDonalds but at a roundabout we see a biker café instead and, as we'd crossed the border without noticing, we sat down to frühstück. Fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, ham, cheese, rolls, bread, orange juice and coffee. There was probably some sauerkraut there too.

Realising that our route was in the general direction of Colditz, we decided to pay it a visit and looked for somewhere to stay halfway there. Würzburg was the answer.

The journey there was mostly on fast German roads and Autobahn. Unfortunately, loaded with panniers my top speed was limited as the bike developed a wobble between 120 and 130 KPH (it seemed to depend on wind direction too).

Spotting a sign to the Nürburgring, we thought we'd go and take a look. It was closed to bikes, apparently, but there were plenty of cars including a couple of KTM X-Bows (one British, one German).

From there, onwards to Würzburg. Arriving in a smallish town, we noticed an interesting looking stately home. It wasn't really grand enough to be called a castle, but certainly looked moderately impressive in the setting sun.

The circus was in town too, and no, I don't mean us!

Overnight: Würzburg, Ibis Budget hotel. Slightly less cheap.
Food: McDonalds
Language: Deutsche

More to follow...

03 July 2012

Ireland - February 2011 (Part 1)

On cold and wet Monday night in February, a figure is stooping over a partly undressed motorcycle. The floodlight illuminating his formerly high-vis coat that's now anything but, while the rain drips gently from his nose. The beam of his head torch attempts to light the odd corners of the bike as he tries to reassemble the bike like a three-dimensional jigsaw.

Tuesday dawns and it's bitterly cold. I'm booked on to the lunchtime ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, and it's going to be a ride to be endured rather than enjoyed. The panniers are filled and fitted to the bike, I've got a few extra layers of clothing on, the bike is outside the house and it's time to go.

Where's the key?

I've just taken the bike out of the garage,  and I needed to key for that - it can't be far away... It's not in the top-box, it's not in my jacket or trousers. Or my trousers under my over-trousers. Or the kitchen. Or the lounge. Or the key storage place. Or the study. Or on the drawers in the bedroom... ARGH!

Twenty minutes later than planned, I'm on my way after finding the key in the bathroom(!). I don't get far before the storm-collar on my jacket comes undone at the wrong end of the zip. Pulling over in to a lay-by on the A1 I try to put it right, and end up spending an age trying to unzip and reattach the collar to the jacket (it's never done that before!). Do you ever get the feeling you're not supposed to be going away?

Setting off again I settle in for the long haul to Holyhead in Wales where I have an appointment with the aptly named Stena Adventurer for a crossing to Dublin.

The A14 is a dull road, and the M6 isn't much better. Eventually the cold gets the better of me, and I stop for a coffee at Stafford Services. I'm only there for twenty minutes, but in that time I get a phone call from the builder who was supposed to come and do an estimate at the weekend. "No, you can't come today, I'm not going to be there".

Turning off the Motorway network on to A roads, the traffic isn't too bad and I make reasonable progress. Not long after crossing in to Wales I need some fuel and pull off the dual carriageway in to a petrol station: "What's that on the road? Diesel? Oh joy...".

No harm done, and as I leave I see someone setting about with a bucket of sand. "You're going to need a lot more than that!".

The sun is shining as I arrive at the ferry terminal and check in for the crossing. The HSS is moored against the quay, and the Irish Ferries boat is also in town. My boat, Stena Adventurer, is at the other side of the harbour and we trundle from one holding area to the next until eventually the bike is aboard and securely strapped down. I'm the only bike on the crossing.

Travelling alone, I've opted for the Stena Plus upgrade with a separate lounge offering free tea, coffee, pastries, nibbles and the like, which gives the possibly false sense of security that I can leave my bike kit while wandering around the ship.

One of the perks of Stena Plus, if you're a car driver, is priority boarding. You're given a card to hang on your rear-view mirror which also has the magic code to open the door to the lounge. I wasn't driving a car, didn't have a rear-view mirror to hang the card, didn't get priority boarding, and didn't have the code to get in to the lounge. Fail.

Thankfully there are stewards present who let me in once I'd convinced them that I had paid for the upgrade, and that I didn't realise I was supposed to have been given an access card at check-in ("If I'd known, I'd have asked for it!").

It was a very smooth crossing, and we slid gently alongside in Dublin at 17.00 that evening. Just in time for rush-hour. If you've ever been to Dublin you'll know just how bad the traffic is, and whilst there is a tunnel from the port that bypasses the city centre, it's 10€ for cars and motorbikes (but free for lorries and coaches). I guess the aim is to attract the bigger vehicles and keep them out of the city.

I'm booked in to the Holiday Inn Express, Dublin Airport, so I battle through the traffic (not easy on the Adventure with panniers!) and finally get there to discover there's no HIE at the airport. After a couple of laps of the airport I give up and stop at a hotel I'm told used to be Holiday Inn and get given directions back towards the city centre. Ho hum...

All in all, not the greatest start to a holiday. Having been made redundant at the end of January, I decided to do a bit of travelling. The original plan was to go to Iceland, but the ferry doesn't start running until April and I'd managed to secure a new job starting in March. The alternative plan was to go to Ireland and have a wander around: I've not been there for many, many years despite having originally come from Belfast.

With the first, slightly inauspicious, day out of the way, I was looking forward to the rest of the trip.

06 April 2012

Sport Relief 2012

It was Sport Relief weekend on the 23-25 March, and somehow I got roped in, literally, to doing the Sport Relief Mile in Bedford. Although I wouldn't just be running the mile, I'd be part of a team from Beds, Herts & Cambs Land Rover Club pulling a Land Rover Defender 90 along the one mile course.

Being the same weekend the clocks went forward an hour, it was a cool and cloudy morning when I set off to meet the rest of the team in Bedford Park. The longer distance 'miles' were already in progress, and for safety we would be at the back of the last run - just in case we ran anyone over.

The start and finish lines were about a hundred metres apart on the perimeter path, and we started wondering why we couldn't just go the short way... But that would be cheating!

As 13.00 approached, we made ready, the sun came out, and it was time for the warm-up laid on by the organisers.
Once warmed up, and hitched to the ropes, we followed the other runners under the start gantry and off on the 'run'. Having been asked to take photos and video, I pulled for a bit before running ahead to film, and then rejoined the pull - especially for the surprisingly steep hills.

25 minutes later the finishing line was in sight and, with a final effort, we managed a sprint... well... jog finish. We were greeted with water and Sport Relief medals all-round, including one for the gallant Defender.

We raised £1147 for Sport Relief, putting us in the top fifty fund-raising teams across the UK - thank you to everyone who sponsored us.

And this is how we did it:

08 February 2012

February Snow

With the recent heavy snow, it wasn't much of a surprise when the Northants 4x4 Response Team was called into action to assist the council and other services. Responders were out continuously through the Saturday night, all day Sunday and in the late evening on Sunday night.

My own call out came on Sunday morning: could I go to Wellingborough to assist with Meals-on-Wheels... and PS, there'll be a BBC cameraman waiting for you.

Arriving at MoW HQ in the Defender, I met up with two other responders, Dave and Mark, and was introduced to the MoW team and the cameraman. The plan was to go out delivering the hot meals in our Land Rovers, escorting the lady who usually does the round, starting in Wellingborough and heading in a circular route out to Woodford and back.

Time is of the essence with MoW as the food needs to arrive hot, and at lunchtime. Unfortunately the needs to filming slows the process down, so the meals were transferred to Dave's vehicle while Mark and I helped the cameraman get the footage he required.

By early afternoon the meals were delivered, the BBC had their footage, and an interview with me, destined for the regional BBC Look East programme that night.

At 18.50 I sat with bated breath wondering exactly what the results of our effort would be:

Not too painful, but do I really sound like that?!?

Next morning, I'm having breakfast when the Breakfast edition of Look East starts and to my surprise I'm on it again, with a different part of the interview and Mark in a supporting role as we point at a map:

A great bit of publicity for the Response Team, which has been picked up by other groups and the national 4x4 Response forum too. It's an honour to be able to represent the Response Team network like that, and to show that we, often criticised, 4x4 drivers aren't all bad.