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North to Lapland

by Terry Nathan

Interlaken, Switzerland, day 18 and just over 1,000 miles since we left home in La Manga. The very first day out was a disaster – we headed for Vinaros for our first night stop, a small town between Valencia and Barcelona. This was a new campground we wanted to try out; the cables which are strung over the entrance to the campground are three metres off the ground – whereas we are 3.80 metres. A Spanish midget man with a pole four times taller than him managed to raise the cables sufficiently high for the motorhome to pass under – except that is for the small chimney which used to sit on our roof and through which the fumes from the gas fired central heating used to escape – we probably didn’t need it anyway! Next came the overhanging trees, creating a wonderful slalom course through which to skilfully navigate the motorhome – but in looking up at the trees I didn’t look down at the bit of rubber sticking out from a parked caravan – Liliane managed to polish out the offending marks while I consoled myself with the first scotch of the day. Next came the wind – as fierce as I’ve ever known it – which brought down the branches from several trees around us, amazingly none touching us. While this was going on our neighbour and his family of illiterate, half-starved, uncouth, foul-mouthed yobbos decided to have a party, which went on until past 2am. Next morning we bid a fond farewell to Camping Torre Nostra, but not without first having to pass back under the cables – only this time there was no midget to help so I had to wield the pole while Liliane drove the motorhome out – which was when I discovered that one of the cables was for the electric and the pole I was wielding was metal!

So that was our first day, and after that it could only get better. North to l’Estartit on the Costa Brava, to a campground we know well and where the owner and his wife and son came over to welcome us back. We had decided to do a bar-b-q for my sister and brother-in-law, and for a German couple we’ve known for years, all of whom live here. Well, to be honest it was my sister who decided we’d do a Barbie but what the heck – I enjoy showing off and she wasn’t to know it was going to chuck it down with rain was she? The bucketful of sangria I made went down a real treat – as well it should, two bottles of red wine, a dash of Triple Sec (half a pint if you really want to know), and enough fruit to stock Sainsbury’s for a week! We all had a jolly good time, and I carefully stored away the bottle of white wine, which Rudi had thoughtfully brought with him (and remember that – you’ll see why later).

Day 4, cross the border into France and by lunchtime we are well settled onto Camping la Nautique near Narbonne, another campground we know well and we enjoy. Our last stop in Spain was to fill up with diesel as it is less heavily taxed than in France etc – in fact we paid 0.90 Euro a litre, in France some days later we paid 1.05 a litre. Anyway we had decided to do a bar-b-q again (this time it was Liliane’s ‘suggestion’) – for our friends and neighbours of some years previously Gerard and Annie, Claude and Fabienne - and she wasn’t to know it was going to rain either was she. So how come I’m the …. .who gets drenched? But I still had my secret weapon - the other half of the sangria, to which I had added even more potency! Once again everyone had a great time.

Day 8, Geneva beckons. Hit the border into Switzerland and remember that here we must buy the dreaded vignette (sort of a pass to drive on their roads). For the little car it cost S.Fr 40, valid for a whole year. For the motorhome we paid S.Fr 52, valid for 16 days – they never miss a trick do they? Anyway on to Camping TCS La Pointe a la Bise, about four miles from Geneva city centre. Right next to Geneva Lake, a lovely setting. Here we had decided to do a bar-b-q – but it started to rain and clearly the message had got out - Bob and Nini came armed with their Chinoise Fondue set (Chinese fondue set to you), and Guy and Colette shared the fun with us too. Remember Rudi’s bottle of white wine from Estartit? It is traditional to serve white whine as an aperitif when having a fondue so the bottle came in real handy – Bob took the first sip and almost threw up, Liliane always knows better so she tried it and she choked, Colette lied and said it tasted fine, so I tasted it – and I did throw up! It was awful, so in replacement out came the bottles of carefully horded red wine, which I hadn’t intended sharing with anyone – well, maybe Liliane but only a sip! Next morning I poured the remainder of the offending white wine down the drain, and then looked at the label on the bottle – it was a fine German schnapps! A lesson to learn – always read the instructions!

Next stop Lausanne, at the other end of the Lake of Geneva. No barbies this time, in fact we visited friends who have a gorgeous penthouse apartment overlooking the city of Montreaux. We had first met Paul and Nicole while camping in New Orleans some years ago, and stayed in touch through e-mails. They proved to be wonderful hosts, the views from their apartment over the lake was fantastic, and to sit on their balcony with an aperitif while watching the sunset over the mountains was a fabulous and very enviable experience. Next morning we left Paul and Nicole and took the Golden Pass Panoramic Train from Montreaux to the ski resort of Gstaad. We had booked our tickets on the internet some weeks previously, and were therefore assured of good seats – and they don’t come any better than that. The train driver sits in a little cocoon above the front carriage, so the passengers in the first row of seats (us in this case) had the drivers view of the track. For a train buff like me it was a great trip, we had a real gastronomic lunch in Gstaad, and then took the train back to Montreaux, and on to our campground at Lausanne. A very nice gesture from Paul and Nicole – they came back down to the train station near their home to say another farewell to us as we passed through.

Next stop Interlaken. A delightful town which we know well, situated between Lakes Thun and Brienz and very much under the shadow of the three great peaks of the Jungfrau, Eiger and the Moench. Manor Farm campground was almost empty, we have the prize spot immediately in front of Lake Thun with the mountains as a glorious back drop. The manager of the campground is Lawrence – as fierce a German Swiss as you will ever find! The booking form for the campground tells you “it is not the aim of these regulations to regiment the understanding and considerate camper”. Then comes Lawrence: “you vill only park behind ze red dots, you vill not use de vater from de pumps, you vill not wake up before 8am and you vill be quiet after 9pm”. Anyway we became friends – you mean I had a choice?

In Interlaken we are using the bikes more than the car, and have been on several trains into the mountains and up unbelievable gradients, only made possible by the rack and pinion tracks. Yesterday we were up on the Jungfraujoch mountain, the so-called “Top of Europe” at just over 10,000 feet, where the snow was very much in evidence.

It has become a habit for us to keep an eye on the internet 10-day weather forecast and to plan our excursions etc around the forecast. So yesterday we were high on the mountains in glorious sunshine, and today rain was forecast so we had planned an ‘in’ day – which means Liliane gets to stay in bed while I make breakfast, did one load of laundry, empty the various tanks – a guys thing if you know what I mean. And it is raining!

It is now 24 days and just 850 miles since we left the campground next to the lake in Interlaken. Our new destination was Colmar in the Alsace region of France, an area we enjoy particularly because of the wonderfully pretty villages and fabulous restaurants. Our route took us past the Swiss capital of Berne and on to the border town of Basel where the borders of France and Germany join Switzerland. We elected to take the border crossing into Germany, follow the autobahn for twenty miles and then turn west into France for the easy run into Colmar. Switzerland is not a member of the European Community, and although the border restrictions into the EC are being relaxed for individual tourists that will not happen until later this year, so we could have expected some kind of formality as we crossed. In fact the biggest hassle was for the German border guard who had to move the cones which created a slalom to slow cars down, otherwise we were going to crush them under our rear wheels!

The campground at Colmar is a particularly favourite of ours, and the owner made sure our ‘usual’ spot had been reserved for us. This was just as well because a large Dutch rally almost filled the campground and completely surrounded us. In Colmar we were joined by Belgian friends Roger and Chris Potie; they drove down from Brussels to spend the weekend with us, a gesture we appreciated very much. The last time we had been together was at Moab, the off-road driving centre in Utah, a very different experience. The first evening Liliane made a very enjoyable fondue moitie-moitie (cheese fondue to you), and together with oodles of wine we had a wonderfully nostalgic evening reminiscing about our journeys in North America. Next night it was their turn to be hosts and they invited us to a restaurant typical of this area. Aux Armes de France served regional wines, an excellent main course, an unusual but nonetheless tasty crepe suzette, and a wonderful Irish coffee – difficult to beat that anywhere!

Next we moved on to Hausbay in Germany, which is a convenient staging place for us en-route to the motorhome factory for service. We met up with friends Albert and Irene, fellow motorhomers from home in Spain. They intend joining a motorhome tour in early 2006 which will take them to Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey before coming to an end in Greece, and the tour organisers are based in Hausbay. A value for money meal in the campground restaurant, and while we were tucking into that we were shown the video of the proposed tour – oh wow, oh joy!!! Our friends left next morning to continue their journey to Latvia and the other Baltic states – perhaps we will manage to meet up again in Norway later in the summer, and failing that we’ll all be home in November, eager to resume our winter pastime of playing snooker. Hausbay is situated between the Rivers Rhine and Moselle so there is plenty to see and do. We had explored the banks of the Rhine when we visited here last year so now we went to the Moselle – no significant difference between the two, charming villages, lots of river activity with cruise boats and enormous barges plying their respective trades and tourist shops in abundance.

Next stop was supposed to be the motorhome factory at Bohmte – but that was before we had the e-mail from Guido, a friend who lives with his family near Osnabruck. He knew we would be in the area and invited us to call in on them on our way. Guido, his wife and three kids all speak really excellent English and we have always been treated by them as though we were family, so we could be sure of spending an enjoyable evening with them. We were not disappointed – the bar-b-q was superb, the wines ditto, and then the ‘grapa’ to follow - we took a taxi back to the campground that night!

Now it was time to rejoin the real world for a few days! Leave the motorhome with the people at Vario, drive in the little Smart car to the airport in Hannover, take the evening British Midland flight to London, and for the next seven days we had a hire car to get us around. We visited my Mum’s grave in the New Forest – first time we had been back since the funeral last July and very reassuring to see how well the field is being kept. It rained while we were there, and we didn’t have any tools with us to plant the rhododendron Liliane had bought on the way, so it was up to my elbows in mud to do the deed. We went on to Sherborne and spent an evening with brother John and his family before returning to the flat in London (still unsold). Saturday, and a day we had been looking forward to for many weeks – our first sight of baby James. Now almost three months old and weighing in at over eight pounds, he was a real joy to see. We tried very hard to ignore the very visible bags under his parents’ eyes, evidence perhaps that this is going to be a child who does not intend to be ignored! Anyway he is delightful, Paul and Caroline were very generous in sharing him with us, and we look forward to being back in time for his christening later in the summer. Last, but not least, was a dinner that same evening with Janet and Alan, and Michael, Tracey and Paul Junior – how he has grown, and how strange it feels to have two grandchildren, one of sixteen years and the other just three months old.

Finally it is back to Heathrow, drop off the hire car and over to Terminal One for the 5am check-in and the ninety minute flight back to Hannover. The Smart car was ready to go, once back at the factory we were treated to a nice white asparagus lunch in a nearby restaurant while the motorhome was being washed, and next morning we will be on our way once again – WRONG! The slideouts in the sitting room and bedroom are surrounded by a tube which, once inflated by the on-board compressor, stops the possibility of rain or the cold seeping inside the coach. While the technicians were finishing their work one of them inadvertently ‘pinched’ the tube, creating a slit some six inches long and of course making it totally useless. To cut a long story short it was another seven days before Horst (the chief engineer) told us the motorhome was now fixed and we could go – WRONG AGAIN! The retractable step to enter the motorhome wouldn’t extend so the following morning we spent another four anxious hours while Michael worked his particular brand of magic to make it work again, and then finally we were on our way. Of course to every sad story there should be a happy one – to make amends the boss at Vario agreed to fit a new fly screen to the entrance door as his gift – it was worth the delay!

31st May 2005, we left the factory yesterday and are now on a very nice campground ten minutes outside the German city of Lubeck. This will be our home for the next three days. Lubeck, with a modern population of 230,000 people (helped no doubt by the more than 100,000 refugees who had crowded into this town in 1945 to flee from the advancing Russian forces coming in from the east) is known historically as having been the business centre for the Hanseatic League in medieval times, and the main port serving the Baltic Sea. Perhaps too often it is a town which is bypassed by those travellers heading for the Scandinavian countries – the ferry port of Travemunde is just ten miles away (ferries to Sweden) and the other ferry port of Puttgarden from where travellers (including ourselves on Friday) take the ferry to Denmark is just sixty miles further north. Our campground provides evidence of this – everyone other than ourselves have stayed just one night before moving on.

On the outside of St Mary’s church in the town is an effigy of the devil – allegedly he was delighted when the church was being built because he thought it was going to be a wine bar, but when he realised that it was going to be a church he set about destroying it. The towns people were naturally alarmed by this and promised the Devil that if he would leave the church alone they would build a wine bar nearby; he agreed, so they built a wine bar for him, and Liliane and I had a glass in there at lunchtime today.

3rd June 2005

8am and it is time to get back on the road. In the Lubeck campground they have a rather quaint system for emptying motorhome waste tanks. They have a 5” diameter hose which runs along the ground for about five feet and then disappears down into a drain. You fit your own hose into theirs, hold it in place while you pull the handle to release the contents of your own tanks and hey presto it disappears through their hose and into the drain. The theory was great, the reality very different – their hose had a hole in it so the contents of your tank sprayed into the road! Fortunately we always test the system by first pushing grey water through, so we weren’t embarrassed on this occasion. Next stop just a few miles down the road to fill up with propane. The guage was showing empty, but we could only take 65 litres out of a useable capacity of 80 litres, so now we know the guage is not entirely accurate.

Back to the autobahn, head north for just over an hour and we arrive at the ferry port of Puttgarden. The signs are very easy to read – trucks one way, all other vehicles go the other way – so that is what we did. Drive into the ticket booth, it was very very tight, the extremely aggressive guy in the booth shouted that I should have followed the truck sign – how I was supposed to know that is beyond me - anyway pay him ($82) and off we go to find the ship. Now we find another very aggressive guy who is waving his arms at me like a windmill in a gale, urging me to move rather more quickly – anyway something like that! We interpret his arm signals as best we can and find that we are driving into the hold of the ferry, where another man has clearly caught the same arm waving disease plus he is jumping up and down in his excitement at seeing us. He is trying to direct us to park in one of the lane lines, but since his arms and legs are all pointing in different directions it is difficult to interpret his precise intentions. Just then I was distracted by something behind me – the ship’s door is closing and we are in the way, and very shortly we’ll qualify for a refund from the shipping company because instead of being 32 feet long our motorhome will be some six feet shorter!

The voyage from Puttgarden in Germany to Rodby in Denmark takes just 45 minutes, and there are at least three sailings every hour. Once on board we headed for the cafeteria to have the buffet breakfast which consisted of stale bread rolls, plastic scrambled eggs and luke warm coffee – what a day this is turning out to be, it’s still only 11am! Disembarkation in Denmark was very quick, no passport or customs control at all, and immediately we are on the motorway heading for Copenhagen. The roads were very quiet, particularly when compared to the autobahns in Germany, and we had a pleasant drive, skirting Copenhagen to head for our chosen campground at Naerum, some eight miles north of Copenhagen. We know the campground well having been here several times before, and anyway the wonderful GPS directed us almost to the door. No problem finding a space, and we managed to finish the settling in formalities just before the rain came.

Three nights at this campground, visiting the capital on one day to see the Little Mermaid (a tourist must), spend some time at Tivoli Gardens where we were shocked to find the ‘amusement’ rides were every bit as fierce and scary as those in Las Vegas, and view the convoy of wonderful Tall Ships which were visiting the city to celebrate the 200 years of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. Tivoli is Denmark’s number one tourist attraction, providing enough variety of entertainment, fantasy and charm to satisfy almost every taste; spelt backwards (i lov iT) and you understand people’s feelings very well.

No visit to Copenhagen is complete without paying respects to the famed Little Mermaid. This bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen was donated to the city by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. The statue is situated at the edge of Churchill Parken, an area which houses the Resistance Museum and which gives a fascinating history of what life was like in the Danish capital between the years 1940 and 1945. Next day we drove to Roskilde, the capital of Denmark in former times. The highly publicised church (Dom Kirke) turned out to be a glorified mausoleum to the Danish Royal family – there were tombs in every conceivable nook and cranny – but the church itself lacked any feeling of soul, or at least that was our opinion. More interesting was the nearby Viking Museum with a display of their boats in the harbour and an indoor display of recent finds. Visitors are invited to try on a cloak and become a Viking – if only for a few moments.

Move on – north from Copenhagen thirty five miles to Helsingor, the so called Gateway to the Baltic. Its main attraction is the castle which acquired international fame under the name of Elsinore Castle as the dramatic setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We had visited the castle on a previous occasion so today we head straight to the port to join the ferry to Helsingborg in Sweden. As with the previous ferry from Puttgarden to Rodby there was no shortage of sailings, and once we had paid the ridiculous fare of $160 we were directed straight on board and were off for the twenty minute three mile journey to Sweden. Disembarkation was straight forward, absolutely no formalities at all, and immediately join the motorway north to Gothenburg and three hours later we were directed by the GPS to Liseburg Camping, three miles south of the city. The campground was excellent, the view was wonderful, welcome to the west coast of Sweden!

Gothenburg is Sweden’s second city, and has the country’s busiest port. As a tourist city it has little to offer other than a couple of excellent museums, but it is the gateway to travelling up Sweden’s spine, the so-called Inlandvargen (inland route). This was to take us north to Karlstad, and then further north still to the busy year round resort of Mora. If your idea of scenery is immense forests stretching as far as the eye can see, a myriad lakes of assorted sizes all with water as black as coal making them seem both mysterious and frightening, and the occasional cabin gloriously situated on the side of the lake, as remote as can be, and with the inevitable canoe to go fishing for your bar-b-q’d dinner, then this is for you.

We stayed at Camping Mora for two nights, a huge campground barely a quarter full as we are still early in the season. The tank facilities were superbly simple and efficient, becoming a common feature in Scandinavia, but we had other reasons for coming here, or at least Liliane had. One of the tourist attractions near Mora is the wonderland Santa World – where Father Christmas and all his friends supposedly live – but Liliane was out of luck today, they were all on their holidays and the place was closed until 21 June! Not pleased, but there is another attraction, Orsa Gronklitt’s Bear Park. This park is on the northern edge of an area called Dalarna, a huge wilderness where bears, wolves, mountain foxes and wolverines wander freely. The park has created an area where we humans can walk andview the wild animals in complete safety. It was well worth the twenty mile drive, the hard walk up a very steep hill, and the bitter cold to see the baby bears – priceless. The area also has a 2100 feet long toboggan run – you sit in the cart while it is drawn backwards up the steep slope to the top, and then you are let go and plunge back down! Liliane didn’t suggest doing it, and I certainly wasn’t about to!

From Mora it was time to turn eastwards to the coast. If we thought the Route 45 was isolated with very little traffic it was as nothing compared to the ‘B’ class roads we now followed towards our destination of Sundsvall. I was very apprehensive as to the condition of the smaller roads and also the width but I needn’t have worried, it was an excellent drive and we arrived at Sundsvall in mid-afternoon. Now the forests and lakes give way to the sea as we follow the Gulf of Bothnia northwards. Our first seaside campground gave us a taste for what is hopefully still to come – the front wheels of the motorhome were almost in the sea. Wonderful. Amazingly we are situated at 62 degrees north, the same latitude as Anchorage in Alaska – that makes you think! We’ve also had three days without rain, can this continue we ask? Some domestic chores to do – one of the gas bottles has run out so we took that to a local propane dealer and had the bottle refilled, and we were running out of the necessities of life – whisky and wine, so that was another task to do, not too onerous.

In Part IV we leave Sweden and enter Finland, and spend our first night in the country on the Arctic Circle line.