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Saturday, 7 February 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Home to Karlsruhe

A new year, a new trip.
To those of you with the stamina to read last years travels – welcome back! I will try to make it easier to read and put in more pictures.

What a wet summer in the UK, maintenance and repair jobs dragged on and on.

The major event motorhome-wise was a visit to Brownhills in Newark to get the repairs to repairs (to repairs) completed after our accident in France, winter of 2006.

Some hopes. We could write a book on our travails with this outfit, but suffice to say that they messed up again. All the exterior panels down for replacement were wrong, despite the best attentions of the Parts Manager.

The key thing that really had to be done was the cracked shower tray and cubicle - and thankfully this was completed. It was too soon to celebrate however - on our way home the shower drain kept blocking up with putty!

(click on this picture to see what a bodge it was!)

On my back under the ‘van I stripped out the drain and found that the holes in the tray and the support base weren’t in line and it was thus impossible to connect up the drain fitting properly, consequently the “skilled fitter” had just shoved it all back with a load of putty! Despair?... Yes. Tears?... No, but it was close.

Norwich Union took up the baton very swiftly and to our pleasant surprise soon came up with an offer to give us a cheque for the value of the outstanding repairs so that we could take the work elsewhere. This we accepted and we shall never cross Brownhill’s doorstep again. Six years of frustration, disappointment, anger and disbelief at their after-sales service has finally come to an end.

We also fitted a few new toys and gizmos to the van. These included a SOG unit
to the toilet cassette - this is basically an extraction fan which removes all nasty niffs when using the toilet and avoids the need, and hence the cost, storage and environmental concerns of toilet chemical.

Also new is a remote sensor for the Truma heater to get more even temperature control, and a 3 in 1 gas sensor unit from Guardian valves to detect leaking LPG, Carbon Monoxide and Narcotic gases.

However, the big excitement was over a new 12V roof vent and fan from the
USA. Fan-tastic Vents of Imlay City, Michigan (http://www.fan-tasticvent.com/ ) produce a very robustly constructed and powerful fan which was recommended to us by friends Brian and Kath. In their van they have both 220V air conditioning and a Fantastic fan and their firm advice was "don't think about A/C until you have used a Fantastic fan".

As full A/C is not really an option for us for weight and space considerations, a Fantastic fan it had to be. It is remarkably quiet in operation and draws only 3 amps at its maximum speed.

Where to this year?
This year’s route (as ever) is undecided apart from a few vague ideas – all we have is a booking for the ferry across the Channel. The outline is to see a bit more of Germany, ski some of the German alps (which we haven’t done before), a look at Austria then Slovenia and Croatia, perhaps as far as Dubrovnik. Thereafter either more of Italy or Greece, or both!

22nd Jan.
The Seafrance ferry to Calais didn’t offer the same standards of décor & service as P&O, but it was cheaper. A wild and stormy night greeted us as we rolled off the ramp and we headed straight to the free aire at Calais Plage (take the first right for the town centre directly after the docks exit, GPS: 50.9664 N, 1.8442 E).

23rd Jan.
The morning brought a full blown howling gale, raindrops flying horizontally with the impact of hailstones - time to retreat inland. We picked up the E40 for Brugge and found a little respite for ourselves at Eeklo, a small Belgian town NE of Gent. Our new Reise Mobil Bord Atlas Europa edition was earning its keep already.

The Yachthaven at Eeklo

Alongside the canal in Eeklo is a modest yachthaven that rents out self-drive cruise boats in the summer and also has a dozen pitches for motorhomes - complete with a café/bar pumping out a salivation-inducing smell of waffles that invades your nostrils at 50 yards away. (€5 a night, plus a rather steep €5 for a hookup, GPS: 51.178 N, 3.5490 E).

24th Jan.
A chill out day to recover from the frantic last minute preparations, then a walk into town where we admired their distinctive restored cathedral and supped a beer as the world went by.

25th Jan.
Koln (Cologne) was our next stop, the handy Stellplatz again by the mighty Rhine. (€8 plus €1 for 8 hours of electricity, GPS: 50.9630 N, 6.9863 E).
Wrapped up in our best winter gear we did the 25 minute walk into town along the riverbank.

A wintery walk into Cologne

We still can’t get excited about Koln, it is a disjointed place, having never recovered architecturally from the pasting it received from the allied bombers in the last war.

It was Sunday night and we struggled to find a quiet bar for an aperitif. Then the chain smoking barman left his cigarette to waft into our faces, so we headed off to find the elusive “reasonably priced good quality meal”.

An unreasonably large platefull at a reasonable price.

We settled for the Steakhaus am Dom and stuffed ourselves with a platefull of Jaegerschnitzel with mushroom sauce, fries and salad for €12.50 a head. Excellent.

26th Jan.
Leaving the outskirts of Koln behind, we tried to follow the Rhine south. It’s very industrial until you reach modernistic looking Bonn, then it becomes more scenic past Remagen (of the famous war film) towards Andernach and Koblenz.

Drawing from our Bord Atlas again we crossed the river to Neuwied looking for another yachthaven. By now a filthy freezing fog had descended and we found ourselves up a dead end near the river. It turned out to be the car park for a bird reserve and suddenly seemed to be what we were looking for - we settled for the night.

Cooking up the fish risotto, we were suddenly startled by our new carbon monoxide alarm beeping into life. Mounted on the bulkhead opposite the cooker it had raised the alarm with only two hobs simmering gently. Taken aback that it should do so in a situation that we had been countless times before, I opened the new Fan-tastic vent fully, gave a blast on the fan and reset the alarm.

This settled it down and we shut the fan off, leaving the vent cracked open an inch. This kept it quiet for the rest of the cooking, but we certainly have re-appraised how much ventilation to have whilst the stove is on.

It’s a bit unnerving to think that we may have been on the point of poisoning ourselves on many occasions and a few considerations are worth a mention. We have in the past shut off the dashboard vents to cut down on the icy draughts coming across the cab and we had done that shortly before the alarm went off.

At the same time the new Fantastic vent makes a tight seal when it is closed, unlike the Ominivent it replaced - which gives some ventilation even when it is tight shut. To be fair, Fan-tastic Vent Corporation do make this point clear and we obviously have to learn from that as well.

The alarm gives an intermittent beeping when it detects a rise in CO levels and a continuous sound if the concentration increases. It can be easily reset by pressing a button on the master unit and if you open a vent straight away, by the time it has scanned again the air has cleared and it doesn’t re-alarm.

After a working lifetime on and around ships I’ve had my share of alarms of every description, but despite my reluctance to have more in my mobile home it was a sharp lesson to be reminded of how quickly gas levels can rise in an enclosed space.

Beware, do your own checks - Google: “symptoms and effects of Carbon Monoxide poisoning” if you need some motivation!

27th Jan.
Despite all that drama we did wake up in the morning, our sleep disturbed only by the rumbling of large engines as the huge Rhine barges slipped by in the dark.

Back across the river and the B9 follows the Rhine as far as Bingen. Here we found a deserted Stellplatz a few kilometres out of town on a quiet country site (€8.50, GPS: 50.4153 N, 7.4842 E)

28th Jan.
Arrived at the ferry terminal in Bingen just in time to catch a brand-spanking-new ferry across the Rhine.

Armchair drivers

The captain/pilot sits in a comfortable leather armchair looking through floor to ceiling plate glass windows, making him look like an exhibit in a museum, but just twiddles a little joystick to guide the vessel across this rapid strewn river. The current is fierce and not for beginners. (€7.50 for a 3 minute trip)

A 5km drive took us up to the newly refurbished Prussian statue of Germania, high above the Rhine on the edge of the Neiderwald Forest. On a clear day there would certainly be breathtaking views but it was overcast and misty. The site was deserted except for us and a crowd of Lancastrians in a British tour coach. The driver gave us a big thumbs-up sign, presumably indicating that he’d rather be in his own motorhome, going his own way, than ferrying that lot around!

3km downhill (you can take a cable car in the summer) is the quaint riverside town of Rudesheim. Firmly on the tourist trail (the Lancastrians followed us down), a lot of its medieval mansions and its 15th Century parish church were destroyed in 1944, but it still has a lot of charm.

Der Klunkhardshof - restored in 1929, 1963, 1984, 2006!

Who's for a wine tasting?

There is an annual wine festival held in August in the market square and in the narrow medieval streets you can nip down into a wine cellar to sample some Reisling. We were surprised though to find it run by a Japanese family!

The tourist guide pictures show the streets packed in the summertime but we virtually had the place to ourselves. A few restaurants were open but lunch was aborted as the waitress explained that they were closing in five minutes at one thirty. Not even a bowl of soup was to be had, shame, you’d think they would want the business.

Our next stop was a Stellplatz in Ladenburg (€5, GPS: 49.4643 N, 8.6088 E)
This is an old Roman town, still with remnants of the old wall incorporated into buildings.
It was also the home and site of the first garage of Carl Benz of automotive fame. Unfortunately the Museum opens only Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, his house only on Sunday.

An amusing sculpture on the streets of Heidelberg

29th Jan.
It’s possible, at least off season, to drive right up to a small car park just opposite the entrance to Heidleberg Castle. Spectacularly perched on the hillside overlooking the River Neckar, it's construction continued over 300 years, but it suffered destruction from two wars and finally from a great fire caused by a lightening strike in the 18th Century.

From the castle grounds over the Neckar

The 7 metre walls blown apart by the French (after many attempts!)

I think I must have tied one on last night!

The castle chapel, the only original part to escape the fire and devastation

We were just in time to take the English language guided tour (€4) and it was well worth it for the exclusive visits to the reconstructed interior and the witty commentary.

Heidleberg is the proud keeper of the largest wine barrel in the world. According to both the castle guide and the Green guide this oak barrel holds close to two hundred and twenty two thousand litres, that’s 222 tonnes!
Apparently the daily wine consumption of the castle’s household was 2000 litres (water was considered too contaminated to drink) so I guess it seemed like a good idea!

130 oak trees were felled for its construction and the local producers had to contribute 10% of their production in tax - it all went in the barrel - red, white, even cider!

The guardian of this reserve was the dwarf court jester, Perkeo, who (so the story goes) fatally accepted a glass of water after a lifetime dedicated to the noble grape and died soon afterwards.

There is also a superb Apothecary Museum with a fascinating collection of recovered pharmacies and very informative scripts and artifacts covering the history of medicine and treatments.

Our stop for the night was at Bruschal. A free Stellplatz (no services) with a good Italian restaurant nearby, also a swimming pool with Thai massage available. (GPS: 49.1321 N, 8.5898 E)

30th Jan.
We pumped and dumped at a free station attached to VW dealer in the town, then moved off to another free Stellplatz at Worth am Rhein (GPS: 49.0374 N, 8.3057 E).

We had noticed a problem with the Battery separator which controls the charge between the service battery and the engine battery and vice-versa (basically it wasn’t working). I spent the afternoon going through diagrams and reams of wiring and concluded that the problem had to be in the circuit board of the separator itself. Gloom and doom pervaded as it it’s a fairly obscure Italian piece of electronics made for a French van.

31st Jan.
This was the day we had arranged to meet friends Ursula and Wolfgang that we met in Greece last year. They live in Karlsruhe, a short distance away.

It was well below zero during the night and despite running the generator the previous evening the engine battery failed to start the engine. The battery separator, or lack of it, was obviously going to be a problem.

To the rescue, my new Cetek charger came into play with the generator again and within another hour we were on our way. Funny how gadgets that you buy suddenly find themselves a use – bit like James Bond really with his wire winch in a watch!

1st Feb/2nd Feb.
Spent a very pleasant time with Ursula and Wolfgang who showed us great hospitality, including a guided tour of Karlsruhe.

In between times I stripped out the battery separator and soldered up a dry joint on the circuit board. To our surprise and delight it appeared to be working normally again – how many times does that happen?

Next we are off to the Black Forest, see if we can have our cake and eat it.