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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Quedlinburg to Bad Harzburg

15th January. 
The BBC 5-day forecast for Hannover said we were in for some low temperatures and they weren’t kidding: the air temperature plummeted to -10° during the night; typically the coldest period was just before dawn. This was too much for our waste tank heater and side drain valve – even after attacking it with the hair dryer – and no water could be extracted. Time to revert to bowls and a bucket!

It's starting to get nippy in Quedlinburg!

Precisely as we finished our breakfast our reserve gas bottle ran out – which was a bit of surprise as we normally get 3 - 4 days in cold conditions like these! It was a reminder however that Autogas on the continent is a mixture of Butane and Propane, and since Butane will not flow much below zero, we had a loss of supply.

This phenomenon was vividly illustrated in two ways: when the air temperature later rose a few degrees, we were able to run the heating again for a while from the “empty” bottle; also, when we did get to an LPG station, though effectively empty, we were only able to load 23.5 litres of Autogas into our bottles (with a nominal capacity of 30 litres), a reduction of 22% – the rest of course, being unusable butane!

It is worth remembering that this effect is cumulative: unless you burn off the accumulated butane at temperatures above zero, your tanks will gradually fill up with the unusable stuff; though over a winter season we have found this to be a gradual and not too restrictive a handicap, probably because you often get daytime spells, even in ski resorts, that hover around zero or above.

Still, it was a glorious day with a brilliant blue sky and bright sunshine. Our destination was the Rosstrappe, a rock peak overlooking the deep Bodetal Valley and a popular walking and mountain biking area. It’s a short hill climb up from the town of Thale and there is a large car park just above the Rostrappe Berghotel. A regular bus service comes up from the town and you can also get a chairlift when it is running, in the season.

The snow covered car park had just one solitary car in it and this was an opportunity to try out our new Michelin Agilis Camper tyres on a couple of centimetres of snow and a gradient. I completed a three-point turn with not the merest hint of wheel spin: the old Michelin XC Camper tyres would have just spun and spun – happy bunny! The car park would do nicely for an overnight stop at this time of year.

GPS: 51.7407 N, 11.0173 E
The view from the Rostrappe Berghotel

From the hotel terrace there is a spectacular view over the valley floor. We walked the 0.5 km or so to the lookout point and spotted the footprint left behind in the granite by the giant white horse ridden in desperation by the Princess Brunhilda. She was out to escape her fiancé – a fearsome Northern giant and not her chosen one – and legend has it that her horse leapt the entire abyss of the Bode valley to save her, whilst the ugly giant failed to make the distance and crashed to the bottom, forever haunting the area as a black dog: run of the mill stuff really!

The trail to the Rostrappe

Sue looks into the abyss – what no black dog!

The horse's hoof print in stone


Also from Thale, a gondola runs to the Hexenplatz or witches place on the other side of the valley, or what has been grandiosely called Germany’s “Grand Canyon”  


We decided to move on, and looking for a pitch for the night we settled on the Hotel An Der Talsperre, by the Rappbode Reservoir, which has a Reiterhof or riding school and stables attached. The hotel complex seemed to be closed however and the stellplatz, although open, was deserted – no facilities or hookup were available.

GPS: 51.7344 N, 10.9073 E 

We had become used to the easy availability of electricity and the prospect of a night at sub-zero temperatures in an isolated spot suddenly seemed daunting, until we reminded ourselves how many times we had done it before. We just went into “battery economy” mode and carried on as normal. 

16th January 
The exterior thermometer was still reading minus 6.5° by mid morning and it was snowing lightly, long tentacles of frost attaching to everything – including the nostrils of some ponies that padded by the van: they looked about Shetland pony size and had some very happy children on board; the ponies seemed somehow more sure-footed in the snow than the instructor’s full-size horse!

Minus six, but cosy inside! 

An articulated truck driver that had joined us late at night moved off and we soon followed suit; I was again delighted with the performance of our new tyres, not only did they grip without slipping, it was even possible to gently accelerate!

There was some rediscovered satisfaction in happily surviving a night in such conditions without any exterior services. We did however need some water, and the battery probably wouldn’t last another night like that without getting the generator out or finding somewhere with a hookup: winter driving never recovers the same charge in the battery – one of these days I will get that Sterling battery to battery charger fitted!

Thinking a swim would also be nice we moved on to Nordhäusen, a town at the southern edge of the Harz mountains, and what turned out to be single bay in a tiny car park next to the Badhaus or swimming pool. For €8 you get overnight parking plus services; for €9 the motorhome package plus one swim for an adult.

The tiny stellplatz at Nordhausen Badehaus 

A few minutes after paying up at reception a cheery young chap arrived, unlocked the waste drain, opened up a door to the basement, switched on the exterior socket and dragged out a water hose and filled us up. We felt like it was a special occasion – can’t think they get many motorhomes this time of year! There is a handy Greek restaurant a couple of hundred metres past the bathhouse and a Chinese a similar distance in the other direction.

GPS: 51.5063 N, 10.7841 E

Nordhäusen was three-quarters destroyed in bombing raids in 1945, but was home to a Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts and also a V2 rocket factory built inside tunnels in a hill nearby. Some of the old town still survives, but today Nordhäusen is noted for its small science university and Nordhäuser Doppelkorn – a brand of schnapps famous throughout Germany. 

17th January 
We had a reasonably quiet night – the rush of water from the river behind providing a lulling backdrop to the diminishing traffic noise; we even enjoyed once more the whoo…whoo of the Harzer narrow gauge railway steaming its way through the town.

The original Nordhausen Badehaus was built in 1906, but a modern extension has made it into a magnificent complex with 2 large baths, an inside/outside “fun” pool and a kiddie’s pool, sauna, jacuzzis and solariums as well as a poolside café.

Nordhausen Badehaus, old and new 

Alongside the new large bath is a water chute and I was intrigued to see two ladies – of apparently more advanced years than us – carefully make the journey to the top of the steps. They arrived at the bottom a few moments later with a look of smug satisfaction on their faces: this must be worth a splash I thought!

Moments after launching myself into the black hole of a fibreglass tube I was whooping with laughter. If you have ever done the Space Mountain roller coaster at Los Angeles Disneyland it will take you back for sure. The whole flume is totally blacked out so you have no idea which turn comes next, and set into the tube are LED lights like stars at the top and large red lights near the bottom – definitely a blast and sufficient to bring a smile to anyone still young enough at heart, even your grandma! 

The elusive wi-fi in old Eastern Germany was still eluding us, so we fixed our sights on a Knaus Camping Park, just over the old border in Walkenried. This is an ACSI site and a top class one at that, with an indoor swimming pool, restaurant and site-wide wi-fi. On a gently sloping hillside next to a forest, it is partially wooded and has a little lake and picnic area at one end; also a small football pitch, volleyball court, BBQ spot and children’s adventure play area.

The toilet facilities were also some of the best we have seen, and the swimming pool is a good size. With the ACSI discount, the daily rate came to €16 – the same as it would cost to stay on the stellplatz out front. With the superb facilities and free entry to the pool included, that was a no-brainer.

Wi-fi €3.50 per day (24 consecutive hrs). Rubbish disposal tax an extra €1.60 per day!

GPS: 51.5893 N, 10.6244 E 

Sue - ready for the trek!

18th January  - 26th January 
Intending to stay only for a couple of days before doing a quick tour of the rest of the Harz area, we soon settled down to a cosy existence – the lovely peaceful ambience of the snow covered campsite, the heated indoor swimming pool just a few yards away, the cheap and reliable wi-fi, the excellent restaurant on site, all seduced us into extending our stay. It was a joy to walk around every morning in the crisp un-cleared snow by the lake and spot the new animal tracks made overnight. The wi-fi was fast and rock-solid, we were able to watch news videos without a single glitch and had a faultless video skype call; we also flooded our new Kindle eBooks with downloads from Amazon.

We are late to the eBook party I know, but the choice of books amazed us, especially the classics: the Compete works of William Shakespeare for £1.32? Seems almost sacrilegious! Many modern fiction books also surprised us by their discounted prices; although VAT has to be added for eBooks, they are still cheaper than books-in-shops, and many ebooks are available for download free – though the presentation can be a bit rough.

The joys of "Paperwhite" kindle reading are many: it is so light to hold (or can be propped up with a glasses’ case); the page always opens where you left it, no matter how many books you have on the go; you can make the text as large as you like; the dictionary definition of a word is always just a finger touch away; you can read easily in the dark without disturbing your partner – not to mention that we can now clear a cupboard of paperbacks and are never going to run out of something to read again!

Walkenried is quiet in the winter...  

Though 900 years old, Walkenried is just a small town, but home to a famous Cistercian monastery – in its time the largest and most influential church in Northern Germany. It is only a short walk away and after a good overnight dump of snow we walked into town to visit the cloisters and museum of the old monastery. The Zisterzienser Museum is new: expensively created and lavishly presented, and said to be one of the best in Europe to cover the history of Monastic life; however it had very little to read in English and only a German language sound guide. Whilst the artefacts were interesting and we could glean some history from them, when an unintelligible (to us) sound and light show extinguished all the lighting on them, we felt it was time to give up.

Part of the old abbey  


Lunch in the Klosterschänke Hotel was a simple and tasty, good quality, good value meal of noodle soup, Jaegerschnitzel, salad and chips. With 3 beers: €31.30.

After 8 nights, we were sorry to leave; the hard working couple that run the site both spoke good English and couldn’t have been more helpful – and we’d had two great meals in the Ragusa restaurant. 

We headed north up to Zorge, 800 metres high – the trees white with hoar frost. Next was the ski resort of Braunlagebusy, as a ski resort should be.

The frost remains hard at 800 metres

Then on to Bad Harzburg – one of the top-rated health spa towns in Germany – and a new stellplatz conveniently situated just above the Sole-Therme swimming pool and spa. We plugged in and enjoyed the sights and coloureds lights of the free open-air ice rink, available from November to February – the techno music, blasting out until 20.00hrs, not such a bonus! €9 per 24 hrs. Electricity and water from metered outlets.

Ice dance and techno at Bad Harzburg

GPS: 51.8692 N, 10.5583 E 

27th January 
The tourist office just downhill from the stellplatz sported a beautiful lynx on its balcony, but if you want to see the lynx in the wild there are public feedings of the cats every Wednesday and Saturday at 14.30. In the winter, you have to take the hiking trail to the café Wirtshaus Rabenklippe, an 8 km round trip – though there is a Bergbahn or cable car to cut out the strenuous part of the hike; from April to November you can get a bus. The whole area is renowned for hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails.

The proud lynx at the tourist office  


At the base of the cable car there is also a “Nature House”, which is mainly an educational experience for children, but contains a stuffed lynx in a diorama and displays on the local flora and fauna. 

Like most spa towns, Bad Harzburg has a surfeit of bars, cafes and restaurants, plus a casino. We did the pedestrianised walk down town, warming up with the usual pastries and hot chocolate on the way back. 

Some fine old buildings Bad Harzburg

Finally, we indulged ourselves with a swim in the Sole-Therme; there are 4 pools – supplied with warm brine from 840 metres below ground – and all imaginatively formed and equipped with various little water-borne treats, plus a show-piece sauna complex and a café/bistro. The exterior pools were just a little nippy however, the high wind and snowflakes taking the edge off the thermal experience! €7.50 for a swim only. 

The Sole-Therme Spa – it looks better on the inside! 

Next stop: Goslar.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Wernigerode to Quedlinburg

9th January.
We finally extracted ourselves from the stellplatz at Wernigerode after 17 nights; not the happiest long stay we have ever had, but we were certainly grateful for the safe and cheap haven it provided us with; the weather and our illness was not the fault of Wernigerode – a town and a base we would certainly re-visit. I shan't miss the aircraft museum next time!


Laundry was now a priority, and having failed to find any kind of launderette in Wernigerode, we took advice from the tourist office that there were two in the small town of Blankenburg, but despite a trip round some very narrow cobbled streets, they never materialised.

Next stop: Halberstadt, where Sue had identified (her head in the Green Guide) a fine and historic cathedral to visit. As the only touring visitors on site at Camping am See, the proprietor charged us just the exterior stellplatz rate of €10. In his broken but charming English, he handed us the key to the gate to the lake – with instructions not to lose it – and some very complex re-cycling instructions!

Minutes after we parked up, I was amazed to see a Red Kite directly over the van, its wings spread still and wide as it tried to hover in the stiff breeze. Excited that this might be something of a wild life sanctuary we visited the lake after lunch but disappointingly, didn’t glimpse the kite again; having to make do with some Coots, Great Crested Grebes and tufted Ducks, as well as a few Mallards.

More wildlife than you might think at Camping am See

GPS: 51.9099 N, 11.0847 E

10th January
Laundry finally dry and tucked away, we left Camping am See with a cheery wave to the owner and headed into town, stocked up with essentials in a rather bleak and empty Aldi (they can’t compete with Lidls or PennyMarkt can they!) and luckily found a place on a free car park just below the Domplatz.

GPS: 51.8965 N, 11.0440 E

Entry to the church is free, but add a visit to the treasury, plus the more or less essential sound guide and it costs €10 each (€ 2 off for pensioners). The treasury is all sumptuously housed and laid out, but the lighting is so dim over the paintings, tapestries and textiles it can be hard to make out the detail.

Some wonderful stained glass in Halberstadt Cathedral


The cathedral and treasury were both exceeding cold, and after closing time at 1600 we made a dive for the Stephanus café on the platz. Having just thawed out on hot chocolates and plates of plum flan we exited into a very wet snowstorm!

We moved on to a car/bus/motorhome stellplatz in Quedlinburg, about 17 km away. Fortunately the weather didn’t worsen much and after one wrong turn in the dark we found it; totally deserted except for one car – no one as mad as us to go sight seeing in this weather!

The parking meter didn’t seem to want to accept our €5 worth of coins and we gave up, but did connect to the electric supply: €1 for 8 hours. Later in the evening the wet snow stopped, the sky cleared and the temperature fell rapidly – it was time to switch on the waste tank heater!

GPS: 51.7911 N, 11.1397 E

11th January
The overnight temperature dropped to minus 2.5°C but by mid morning it had risen a bit and I managed to drain off the waste tank into the toilet cassette. We’d leave the side drain valve open from now on, whilst these temperatures continued, and empty into a bucket when stationary.

The young guy in the information office attached to the car park had no English and couldn’t explain why we couldn’t get a ticket out of the machine; he did however give us a useful sheet map of the town, the centre of which turned out to be a five minute walk down the hill.

Quedlinburg claims to have around 1300 ancient half-timbered houses; we certainly wouldn’t have disputed that as we wandered through street after narrow street of well preserved examples. Before the 1970’s there were apparently around 3000, but in the late 70’s and early 80’s substantial areas were bulldozed to make way for new housing. The new houses were built to Swedish designs, and in concrete, but dressed to match the old styles. Experts from Poland however, were brought in to restore some of the more treasured old buildings that had fallen into disrepair.

Typical old street in Quedlinburg

Some are highly decorated

In the impressive central market square (dug up for renovation of the cobbles), we found a little road train and took a 45 minute tour of the city for €6: it certainly kept us warm! Not finding any restaurants open for lunch that fitted our cheap and cheerful desires, we padded back to the van as large slow flakes began to fall.

The market square and town hall

We decided to move to another stellplatz out of town next to a deer farm. According to our Bordatlas they had a wi-fi hotspot – a rather rare beast so far this trip. The owner was a genial fellow but had no English, and on our request for “laptop internetten” he invited me into his large and warm kitchen instead of the rather chilly conservatory set up for visitors. Thanks to the vagaries of networking and our insufficient knowledge of the technicalities I was unable log on – so it was back to the USB dongle, but there was a very good and fast high-speed 3G signal. We were the only motorhome on site.
€10 including electric hookup.

GPS: 51.8043 N, 11.1680 E

12th January
We slept one of the most blissful nights we have had in the perfect tranquillity of this spot – even the rooster seemed late and laid back about what time he crowed in the morning! I had a wander around and admired the little fishing lake, complete with log cabin, decking,  BBQ and lots of quirky trimmings.

Fishing lake, BBQ, fridge and satellite - what more could you want!

Over the fence was the deer farm; a large herd chewing at the forest floor. Sharp and alert, dozens of pairs of eyes fixed on me instantly as I raised my camera. Overhead, above the trees, another red kite circled effortlessly, watching.

Dozens of pairs of eyes followed my camera

Packing up to leave, we found there was no suitable fresh water tap available because of the winter cold, and were instructed to use the basin tap in the shower room; fortunately one of our many adaptors saved us from an otherwise very laborious bunkering process.

Back into Quedlinburg, we opted this time for the stellplatz near the Schloss, which is again a bus and car park with some bays allocated for motorhomes. You get a great view of the Schloss from the park and a cobbled back lane takes you up a hill to the entrance.

There's not many stellplatz with a view like this!

There are the usual disposal facilities and a four socket electric pillar: €1 for six hours. The freshwater, however was shut off for the winter. Take a card on entry to the barrier and then insert your card and your coins into the machine accordingly as you leave. Our 3 night stay cost €9.

GPS: 51.7870 N, 11.1340 E

It was a lovely sunny afternoon and we decided to explore the town a little more and leave the castle till the next day. As the sun dropped slowly away, the temperature began to plummet and we took refuge in the Sam0cca coffee shop nearby. This is a coffee shop for serious connoisseurs: coffee beans are actually baked in store, and behind the counter are rows of labelled bean drawers like an old fashioned pharmacy. When ordering you are presented with a tick-box card with a bewildering choice of beans and brew – there are even a selection of vintages i.e. Meisterröstung 2009 or 2010. Starbucks eat your heart out!

The odd thing was – even taking into account our non-existent German and sign language – the young men serving seemed positively alarmed that we English had the brass neck to come into their coffee house and ask for a coffee! Fortunately, a German holidaymaker explained that all the employees were actually handicapped and that the coffee shop was run by an organisation supporting them; the tick-box card is a simple and effective routine enabling the young people to process and charge the order accurately. That thankfully understood; we enjoyed a superb and memorable cup of coffee and some mandarin gateau.

We returned to the van via the square in front of the Schloss; the sun was disappearing fast and the whole setting was very atmospheric. By the time we were battened down, fine snow was falling and dusting the roofs white.

The snow cometh!

13th January
We awoke to a centimetre or two of snow, just enough to get a few householders out clearing the pavement. As heavier snowflakes floated down we made a circuit of the cobbled streets surrounding the castle and then climbed the steep lane up into the central courtyard. If it weren’t for all the scaffolding and the building contractors doing their re-roofing (I’m sure they plan ahead of us!) it would have been a perfect setting!

The steps to the Schloss...

Not far now!

On the castle mount, the ladies’ convent was established in the 10th /11th century by decree of Germany’s first king, Heinrich I, who died having previously determined that there would always be an established body of women on site to pray for him and his descendants!

The courtyard and entrance to the musem

We paid our €8 each for the museum and castle interior – the only area not included for the price was the cathedral crypt: an additional €1.50. The museum, including local archaeological artefacts, was very comprehensive and well presented but not a word of the text was in English. One section is given over to the attempt of the SS leader Heinrich Himmler during the 2nd World War to convert the cathedral into a secular temple: “dedicated to the German nation”.

The castle staterooms of the principal ladies’ or Abbess’ were quite impressive; most of all the inlaid wooden floors and re-created wall hangings – they certainly have the skills for silk and woven wallpaper in Germany. In the lower rooms, some more gruesome and entertaining exhibits included a 14th century portable wooden prison cell, various “instruments”, and weapons of war. There are also four pieces of famous “knotted carpet”: a very early, thick and luxurious carpet – even by today’s standards – decorated in the style of a tapestry and once forming a much larger whole.

The cathedral interior stonework is (thanks to Himmler) stripped and bare, and the crypt – though venerated for its frescos and the tombs, was a disappointment: the area of fresco was small and very faded.

A modern tale however attaches to some of the relics in the cathedral treasury: During World War II, sixteen chests of treasure, some going back to the 11th century, were stored in an old mine nearby. In April 1945, as American troops occupied Quedlinburg, the cases were returned to the cathedral. Weeks later, two were found to have been opened and ransacked; twelve items were missing, and consequently, considered lost forever.

Forty years later, the Texan family of a deceased army lieutenant tried to sell one of the Gospel books on the international market, provoking a lengthy investigation. The lieutenant had in fact discovered the chests in their hiding place, raided them, and shipped the priceless relics back to America by military mail.

The Texan judiciary ruled that any crime he committed had expired “by statute of limitation” and the relics were the property of his family. Eventually a settlement was reached, German private initiatives and public endowments raised a sum of 3 million dollars, and all but two of the relics were returned to Quedlinburg. Make of that what you will! 

There was however a sting in the tale for the soldier's family: see the full story on the link below.


Just a few yards from the exit to the museum is the Schlosskrug am Dom restaurant; it must have one of the most romantic settings for a restaurant we have come across – provided you can handle the steep climb up the ancient cobbled lane, and you can get a window seat – you will be rewarded with a terrific view over the rooftops of this historic medieval town. As it was lunchtime we didn’t get twinkling lights, we just had to settle for snowflakes drifting down!

Schlosskrug am Dom restaurant

Within a typical old half-timbered building, the long dining room has large roof beams and views on two sides from tall windows. We grabbed the last available table and waited for the overworked and solitary waitress to take our order. We settled for consommé and one of the house specialties – pork medallions covered with ham and cheese on a bed of vegetables with Swiss Rösti. Washed down with a couple of beers each, this came to €44.40: excellent value and quality in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

GPS: 51.7862 N,11.1372 E

Sue (with her head in the Green Guide again) had now decided that she was an aficionado of Impressionist art blended with Cubism in the manner evolved by the American artist Lyonel Feininger. As the only significant collection of his works outside of New York was just down in the square below, we paid our €6 entry fee to this newly built temple of modernism. Taken as I was with a few of his woodcuts, most of the rest of his work left us cold; heathens we may be, but: “overrated, overpriced and over-here” springs to mind!


The Finkenherd and the entrance to the Feininger gallery

14th January
The temperature dropped to minus 6° during the night and there was another light snowfall. We had a look at what is known as the “new town’ and the Church of St Nickolai with its 72 metre high twin towers, it forms the distinctive profile of Quedlinburg whatever direction you approach the town.

Back at base, only an icicle was forthcoming from our wastewater tank, so out came the hair dryer – soon there was a satisfying bucketful for my efforts. A 2 kW “professional” hair dryer might seem overkill for thawing out pipes, but you have to remember that when the air temp is well below zero, even full throttle gives an outlet air temp only a little more than hand-warming! Ours cost €15 from one of the ubiquitous German discount stores, and is an essential part of our winter touring kit.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Winter Tyres - Part 1. Do you need them?

The law on winter tyres...

I was recently asked the question: Is it a legal requirement for foreign visitors to have winter tyres on the continent? Having done a lot winter touring in France, Germany and Switzerland, my immediate reaction was: “not to my knowledge, the roads are generally cleared quickly, we just use chains when indicated on mountain passes and getting into snowbound campsites” 

However, a quick Internet search reveals that there is indeed legislation in most European countries - in Germany and the Czech Republic, quite recent legislation - though getting a definitive answer is not simple as different sources give different interpretations!

Suffice to say that if you are travelling to the Continent, and particularly to Germany or Austria, in what are defined as the winter months (typically from the middle of November to the middle of April - all countries vary and local conditions apply), you should definitely have tyres that carry the appropriate markings: either the “M+S” symbol, or the “mountain/snowflake”.

This obviously presents a conundrum for UK motorhomers, when, as we do, they travel for long periods abroad. Our typical six month trip may start in the Alps in winter and end on the Mediterranean in summer, and the prospect of carrying another set of wheels and tyres, or even tyres, is out of the question.

But ignoring the law could be expensive as well; not just a fine from a friendly traffic policeman after a cursory inspection, but worse and more expensively still, fines and insurance repercussions, or even prosecution, following investigations after an accident!

What is the current legislation?

The list below is compiled from the Automobile Association: www.theaa.co.uk
the German motoring organisation ADAC: www.adac.de
and the German website, “Winter tyre duties”: www.winterreifenpflicht.de,

Andorra: Winter tyres recommended. Chains to be carried and used when indicated.

Austria: From 2008, Winter or All Season tyres are mandatory for vehicles up to and over 3.5 tonnes, including foreign vehicles, from the 1st November to 15th April, and at other times in ice, snow or slush conditions, and must have a minimum depth of 4mm. Chains to be carried and used when indicated, but only if the road surface is not damaged. Fines will be levied for violations. Also, the use of Daytime Running Lights is mandatory regardless of the time of day and visibility.

Czech Republic: Mandatory since October 2011. Minimum tyre tread 4 mm

Finland: Winter or All Season tyres (marked with the M&S symbol) are mandatory from the 1st December to 28th February and must have a minimum tread depth of 3mm. Chains are permitted. Fines are based on net income and start at the equivalent of about 75 euros.

France: Winter tyres recommended on all roads, but are mandatory on roads designated by “Pneues Neiges” signs. Chains to be carried and may be used as an alternative when “Pneues Neiges” is indicated.

Denmark: Winter tyres recommended. Chains to be carried and used when indicated.

Germany: From December 2010, Winter or All Season tyres (marked with the M+S or Snowflake symbol) are mandatory in wintry conditions – including foreign vehicles! Chains to be carried and used when indicated. Contraventions will be punished by a fine of 40 euros, or 80 euros if contravention leads to an impediment of traffic flow. In the event of an accident, those driving without suitable tyres could be accused of gross negligence.

Italy: Winter or All Season tyres are mandatory from 15 October to 15 April in the Aosta Valley and other times if conditions dictate. Chains to be carried and used when indicated. Provinces can introduce their own legislation making the use of winter tyres and snow chains compulsory and roads may be barred to cars without winter tyres on an ad-hoc basis.

Latvia: Winter tyres are mandatory from 1st December until 1st March.

Norway: Winter tyres recommended. Chains to be carried and used when indicated.

Slovenia: Winter tyres are mandatory between 15th November and 15th March and when wintry conditions indicate. Tread depth must be at least 3 mm. Snow chains must also be carried.

Sweden: Winter tyres, (marked with the M+S symbol) with a tread depth of at least 3mm are mandatory from 1 December until 31 March for Swedish registered vehicles and also for foreign registered vehicles!

Switzerland: Winter tyres mandatory. Chains to be carried and used when indicated. Vehicles not equipped to travel through snow and which impede traffic are liable to a fine. In the case of an accident it is assumed that non-use of winter tyres will have constituted a large contributory factor to the cause of the accident, reducing an insurance pay-out even if the other party was at fault.

Where winter tyres are fitted a minimum tread depth of 3mm is required in most countries (the Czech Republic now requires 4mm). For other tyres, while the legal minimum is 1.6mm the AA recommends at least 3mm of tread for winter motoring, and certainly no less than 2mm.

There is currently no legislation in the UK that requires anyone to use winter tyres, and you might think that with all the chaos that ensues when we do get snow, there should be, as the extra grip and traction available really would make a difference. The fact is, despite good advice to fit them over the winter months, most accidents happen in this period.

In Andorra, France, Denmark, and Norway, winter tyres are recommended, but not compulsory, though a lot of the driving population are in the habit of fitting them, often keeping an extra set of wheels to change with the seasons. In these countries it is theoretically possible to just use snow chains, but the problem arises when the conditions are marginal and you could be pulled up and even fined for causing damage to the carriageway or holding up the traffic. 

However, if you want to drive in Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland, you are currently required by their law to have winter tyres fitted and these are recognised by various markings on the tyre wall. 

So what constitutes a Winter tyre and what markings will it have? 

Basically, there are three elements that define a winter tyre; a rubber compound that keeps its flexibility to maintain contact with the road surface in cold weather, a more open tread pattern to give better grip on soft surfaces, and finally “sipes” (named after John Sipe, who first patented them) – small cuts in the tread pattern that increase the number of lateral edges and help to give grip in wet and icy conditions, much in the same way as a yachting deck shoe has many cuts in the sole to give good grip on wet decks.

What are the tirewall markings the authorities will be looking for? 

First up is the M+S symbol, which fairly obviously stands for Mud and Snow. Next are the “3 peak/alpine” mountain/snowflake symbol, and possibly the Snowflake in a box, which may also indicate the minimum tread depth for satisfactory performance. 

To the best of my knowledge from researching this article, M+S usually only refers to the suitability of the tread pattern, i.e. the amount of open tread to improve grip, but may indicate a modified compound that is more suitable over a wide range of temperatures. M+S appears on what are generally called “all season” or “four season” tyres suitable for light snow, mud and wet surfaces. There is no specific test for an M+S tyre as to its suitability for winter conditions. Manufacturers can produce their own symbol and variations might be: M&S, MS, MUD AND SNOW.
 A true, dedicated winter tyre, which is capable of giving a good performance in thick snow, ice and slush will have the mountain/snowflake symbol, as well as the M+S designation. Crucially, it will also have demonstrated adequate performance in a certified snow traction and brake test. The distinction for the mountain/snowflake marked tyre is in the more advanced tread design, but also in the rubber compound and the number of sipes on the tread. 
The critical point however for us motorhomers - and this is backed up by the AA and the Caravan Club - is that the M+S symbol is currently acceptable to the relevant authorities in relation to “winter” tyres. This ruling allows “all season” tyres to be used as a “winter’ tyre, and thus saves us the expense and inconvenience of having to change tyres and/or wheels at the change of seasons.

Are there any insurance implications of fitting winter tyres?

There can obviously be some issues of assumed negligence and serious implications if you have an accident in a foreign country (as in this country) and are deemed to have been using inappropriate tyres. Hence you are at risk of loss of cover and potential criminal prosecution or civil litigation if you don’t have winter tyres fitted when in a country that deems them to be mandatory.

Do I have to tell my insurance company?

Motor insurers recognise that some motorists may wish to fit winter tyres to their car during cold weather. Also, whilst no substitute for common sense driving, winter tyres can have a positive impact on improving road safety.

However, if you fit winter or all-season tyres in place of your standard 'summer' tyres there should be no need to tell your insurer – even though the speed index might be lower.
The lower speed index is still likely to exceed all national speed limits by a considerable margin – with the exception of some German autobahns – and is not checked as part of the passenger car MOT test.

Could my insurance company increase my premiums if I fit winter tyres?

I did come across some reports of some insurers increasing premiums if you fitted winter tyres, or remarkably, even refusing cover, but the Association of British Insurers (ABI) statement on the link below pretty well clears this up. I looked at the list of insurers and very few had any quibbles, but it's important to check, as some require that you inform them if winter tyres are fitted even though there is no effect on premiums or cover.

see also:

Winter Tyres - Part 2. Selecting the tyres

What types of tyres are there? 

The M+S mark requirement – to comply with legislation on the Continentreduces the choice down to either the full winter tyre, a so called “four season” or all-season tyre, or surprisingly, in the case of the Michelin offering, a “Camper” tyre.

It could be argued that all-season tyres are a misnomer; they are just “grippier” tyres more suitable for wet and muddy conditions – there being no substitute for a dedicated winter tyre for use in the ice and snow. But for us, the legal requirement is the thing; everything else, as so much in this life, is a compromise. All-season tyres are unlikely to be as good as the best specialist winter tyre but can be expected to work better on wintry roads than a summer tyre, and you will avoid the hassle and cost of swapping wheels/tyres twice a year.

It must also be remembered that modern winter tyres are not just for snow and ice, advances in compound technology and tread pattern design mean that they provide higher levels of safety in cold and wet conditions too; as we ourselves have now found, the improved levels of grip even with an M+S tyre can be remarkable over a standard summer tyre. 

I did at one stage contemplate fitting a full winter tyre, and Continental is one source that says if you are unable to swap tyres, you can use winter tyres all the year round, but there are issues here. 

Winter tyre compound contains a higher percentage of natural rubber and is designed to remain flexible below +7 degrees Centigrade, as this is the temperature below which – research has shown – potentially hazardous conditions are most likely to be encountered. However it will wear faster and run warmer, compromising the handling in the summer, possibly even making the vehicle feel unstable – such as through small steering movements on long corners – because the rubber has become so soft. 

But, opinions differ as to what is a safe upper limit for these compounds, 15° C is one recommended figure, though the performance of compounds will vary from one manufacturer to another, and tyre type to another.

Secondly, there are trade-offs on grip and braking distances as well. Winter tyres will always out perform summer tyres on snow and ice covered roads, but what you gain in superior grip with a winter tyre under braking in wet and wintry conditions, you will lose in the warm and dry compared with a standard summer tyre. The reductions in stopping distances for winter tyres in the summer though, are smaller than for the opposite case of summer tyres in winter conditions. 

On wet roads the differences will be much smaller or insignificant, the summer tyres losing out to the winter tyres at 5°C, but coming marginally on top at 20°C. Thus, winter tires on a wet road in the summer show only minor disadvantages compared to summer tires.
However, on dry roads the summer tyres will beat the winter tyres on braking distances by an increasing margin with rising temperature. This is hardly surprising as modern tyres are highly developed for their designed task. As most accidents happen in wintry conditions however, you may consider this to be a compromise worth making.

Thirdly, a softer, more open, “blockier” tread is likely going to be noisier, wear faster and give rise to higher fuel consumption, despite reassurances to the contrary – see the section on EU label ratings.

Some or all of the above comments maybe applicable to four-season tyres as well and you will have to seek out assurances from the manufacturer as to their suitability for the conditions in which you intend to drive.

Finally, another conundrum. Winter tyres lose their suitability - and legality - for winter conditions when the tread depth falls below 3 or 4mm (depending on the countries’ legislation), but the partially worn tread blocks no longer deform so much when braking and so their performance in the dry actually improves. This has led to owners with worn winter tyres “using up” their winter tyres in the summer, albeit accepting the reduced performance in the wet and longer braking distances compared to summer tyres. 

So, it makes sense to buy your winter tyres at the beginning of the winter season, however long you keep them. Remember though, every year the rubber compound will have matured and hardened a little more, reducing its grip at low temperatures! Michelin say it is impossible to predict the usable life of a tyre as there are so many variables affecting its condition, but after 5 years they should be inspected by a professional every year.

However, for motorhomers like us, the all important issue is the M+S symbol for compliance with the Law in continental countries.

What are the new Euro label markings?

The new Euro label ratings came into force on 1st November 2012. They measure three factors: Fuel Efficiency and Wet Grip (on a descending alphabetical scale, similar to the efficiency/environmental ratings on washing machines, etc,) and also Rolling Noise in decibels. They quickly and easily indicate distinctive differences between regular “summer” and “winter” tyres, and the performance of tyres at the cheaper end of the market!

They are crude yardsticks however, not taking into account other important factors such as handling and driving stability; resistance to aquaplaning; braking performance on dry roads; and durability. 

Winter tyres are designed to perform to their highest abilities in temperatures below 7°C, and the rubber compound is able to retain its elasticity – unlike a summer tyre, which is prone to solidifying in freezing conditions!

Caution is therefore also required in reading too much into the differences in EU Tyre Label scores for winter tyres, as the tests are carried out in the same conditions as all-season and summer tyres i.e. relatively warm. Winter tyres do not perform to their best abilities in these conditions, so it is very likely that they will continually score poorly against summer tyres.
When selecting a winter tyre it is more important to investigate and take into account the type of compound used in the tyre's construction, the size of the tyre's contact patch, the tread pattern and the sipe design, and of course, how the tyre has scored in the specific winter driving tests.

Can I just fit winter tyres on the driving wheels?

One consistent piece of advice I came across was always put your best tyres on the rear, even if you have front wheel drive. However, it is definitely not recommended to fit winter tyres on just two wheels – and some tyre fitting companies may refuse to do so – because of the unbalancing effect on the cars handling.

The logic behind this is to avoid “oversteer”, or the rear wheels overtaking the front, rather than “understeer” when the front tyres are slow to respond to the turn. If you think about it, oversteer is more likely to be disastrous if carried to its ultimate conclusion in a spin, especially with a rear-heavy motorhome, than if the front wheels just ploughed on a bit when they should be turning. Either way, having different tyres front and rear is likely to upset the proper handling of the vehicle.

What makes of tyre are available?

Knowing that I needed an M+S marked tyre, and thinking along the lines of an all season tyre, my research started by sending the same email enquiry to six of the major tyre companies: Continental, Dunlop, Goodyear, Hankook, Michelin and Vredstein. 

Interestingly, Continental, Dunlop and Hankook responded immediately with useful information and Vredstein 10 days later (having been forwarded from Holland to their UK office). Goodyear and Michelin did not respond at all, which is very disappointing for Michelin as they produce a very specific tyre to our needs.

After a preliminary look at the tyre ranges, three brands appealed to me: The Continental Vanco series - a huge German company with a well deserved reputation, the Vredestein Comtrac series - a Dutch company with an excellent reputation, and the ubiquitous Michelin Agilis series. I liked the look of the Continental and Vredestein tread patterns on their all-season tyres, less so the Michelin range.

Michelin produce a specific motorhome tyre, the Agilis Camping, which is often categorised as a summer tyre, but magically it has the M+S symbol and hence would apparently be acceptable as a winter tyre in the above countries. Michelin do not make an all-seasons tyre, neither do Dunlop or Hankook.

Continental also make a “Camper” tyre, as does Pirelli. However the Continental “Vanco Camper” and Pirelli "Chrono Camper" tyre do not carry the M+S marking and so fell out of the running

I discarded the Continental Vanco Winter, the Vredestein Comtrac Winter and the Michelin Agilis Alpin winter tyre for the reasons of uncertain performance in high summer temperatures.

That left me with the Continental Vanco Four Seasons, the Vredstein Comtrac All Season and the Michelin Agilis Camping, that meet the winter legislation requirements.

Continental Vanco Four Season (215/75 R16 113R)

The Continental Vanco Four Season tyre, with the M+S symbol, has a softer compound and a coarser tread pattern, but is suitable for summer use, and was for me the leading contender. In the words of their technical representative: “it has some great benefits: high safety in the summer due to improved handling characteristics, high safety in winter due to reliable traction and braking on wintry roads, good grass contact and is very quiet. This tyre works to the same level as a summer tyre and has no limit on temperature, so you don't have to worry like you would a winter tyre.” 

The EU ratings for Vanco Four Season are: 

Fuel Efficiency: (E)
Wet Grip: (C)
Rolling Noise: (72 dB)

When I raised the issue of the EU ratings, he responded:

The Four season tyre will give you all the applications you are looking for annually, this tyre is great all year round. The EU ratings measure three aspects only, wet braking on a 1mm of water on a particular flat road surface, rolling resistance, and external noise levels measured in decibels, there are so many other factors which make up a good premium tyre. The EU label is just a guide and should not be used for the only decision when purchasing a tyre.

(for some reason this link does not show the Four Season tyre, but it is easily found on supplier’s websites)


The Vredstein Comtrac All Season also greatly appealed to me, particularly as it carries the mountain/snowflake marking, which means that you are absolutely sure it will be accepted as a “winter tyre” by the authorities. The fact that there is no regulatory control over manufacturers applying the M+S symbol to their tyres means that in the future only the certified snowflake symbol may be acceptable.

The specification reads: “The Vredstein Comtrac All Season is a van tyre that offers both summer and winter performance in equal measure. This tyre suits van drivers that want to benefit from enhanced winter safety without having to run 2 sets of tyres and avoid the costs of swapping these over each season. The Comtrac All Season has a carefully designed sipe structure, which is a key feature of winter tyres and offers great traction on snow and ice. This tyre has the mountain/snowflake and therefore fulfils the requirements for designation as a winter tyre in countries where winter tyres are mandatory. It has a directional tread design that is great at clearing slush in the winter and rain any time of year. The tyre offers comfort, excellent handling and stable road holding. The compounds in the Comtrac All Season are balanced for both winter and summer use and allow for a high degree of wear resistance for a long life span. As with the Comtrac it benefits from a steel reinforcement strip, making it suitable for all modern delivery vans

The EU ratings for Comtrac All Season are:

Fuel Efficiency: (E)
Wet Grip: (E)
Rolling Noise: (71 dB)

Michellin Agilis Camping Green X (215/75 R16 113 Q)

The Michelin Agilis Camping is a one off, it is the only “Camping” designated tyre to carry the winter M+S (Mud and Snow) rating. How Michelin managed this, I don’t know, as neither the Continental Vanco Camper or the Pirelli Chrono Camper achieve the same feat. This is classed as a summer tyre with a more “grippy” tread suitable for light snow and wet, muddy surfaces, but Michelin would have you believe that the compound is something special as well.

The Michelin Agilis Camping is designed especially for motorhomes, for long tyre life and very safe journeys! Product benefits include: Long life, Robustness & Versatility (M+S marked) The design and technology is derived from the new Michelin Agilis van tyre range. New technology, such as the DCP (Durable Contact Patch), equals a long lasting tyre capable of use over several seasons. The reinforced construction using two casing plies enables the use of higher inflation pressures to provide resistance to heavy loads (up to the tyre's rating). Protected sidewalls: 8 kerbing protectors have been positioned on each sidewall to increase resistance to sidewall scuffing. A tread pattern with 30% more sipes and 20% more grooves, combined with a rubber compound capable of operating over a wide temperature range, provides sufficient grip for occasional use in difficult conditions. Simply the best tyre on the market for camper vans or motor homes.”

The EU ratings for Agilis Camper are:

Fuel Efficiency: (C)
Wet Grip: (B)
Rolling Noise: (70) dB)

Other Factors

The manufacturer's claims for reinforced construction and protected sidewalls open up another can of worms when it comes to the difference between “Camper” designated tyres and “Commercial” LCV tyres – there really is a fog of contrary information as to the real and important differences. 

Suffice to say, perhaps, that the old 8 and 10-ply designations have fallen into disuse (they only really applied to cross-ply tyres anyhow), and that the manufacturers’ are well aware of the abuses that “white van man” puts their tyres to, so the technology going into “Camper” tyres is unlikely to be significantly different to LCV tyres, other than a few tweaks aimed more at the marketing angles for motorhome owners.