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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Munster to Wernigerode

20th December.
A light frost greeted us in the morning, and finally, some pleasant sunshine in which to drive through the rolling countryside to Osnabrück; still a British army base for another couple of years.

Despite purchasing a 2013 edition of the indispensable Bordatlas stellpatz guide in Xanten, the first park we checked out was being re-developed into something more profitable, and the second turned out to be at back of an Unnewehr Hymer Motorhome dealership. They were very friendly however, and happy to provide us with a free overnight stay with electricity; the water though was shut off for winter. We had a good browse in their well stocked accessory shop and bought some new Thule ramps for only 26 euros.

GPS: 52.2619 N, 08.0022 E

The bus stop is directly outside the showroom and despite knowing where we wanted to go, the driver took us for troublesome tourists and waved us through to the seats without paying! Nuemarkt had a drab, disjointed appearance, but away from the bus station there are some impressive shopping precincts, beautifully enhanced with coloured floodlights and lighted decorations. 

Osnabrück's Christmas market occupies the old town

Further on, the Christmas market meandered through parts of the old town and seemed much more food orientated than Munster. The choice was comprehensive: from Oriental through to Doner, though the ethnic traders didn’t seem to be picking up the trade as well as the traditional outlets selling pizza, and bratwurst and chips. We chose succulent pork butties in a hot crispy roll, with pickled cabbage and mustard mayonnaise. 

Colourful displays abound...

The picture doesn't really do it justice

Suddenly aware that our neighbours by the pork butty stall were tuning into our conversation, we introduced ourselves to a British ex-army man, who, incredibly, was from our hometown!  I actually knew and had worked with his brother - how small a world is that!  Curiously, his German wife would have preferred to live in England, but he wanted to stay in Germany, a secure job obviously influential in that decision.

The crowds swell as the night deepens

We followed up the butty with a strawberry and white chocolate kebab – heaven, and finally, a liqueur coffee to keep out the cold.

Gingerbread heart or chocolate goodies?

Chocolate covered Strawberries - mmm... they were good!

The old buildings just add to the atmosphere
Father Christmas goes berserk with the confetti blower!

Colourful floodlights everywhere

 Don't forget the shopping as well!

Wandering around the Schaffer Department store, checking its, er.. services, we came across an incredible kitchenware department. I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to kitchen equipment (engineers and their tools!) but this was certainly an Aladdin’s cave up with the best.

Off the bus back from Nuemarkt, we found a British van parked next to us - the first we had seen this trip - and the entrance blocked for the night by a car belonging to the franchise.

21st December
Up early, but not early enough to say hello - or goodbye - to our British neighbours, we hit the road for Hameln, the town immortalized by the Grimm brother’s fairy tale of the Pied Piper. Apparently the true story is not one of the Piper’s revenge for non-payment of services rendered; ridding the town of rats, but one of population control, removing the next generation!

Our weather station's prediction of snow ultimately proved correct, and we drove into sleet on the motorway, the wipers struggling to shift the slabs of ice that swiftly built up on the windscreen. This is more like it we thought, winter is on its way, we could get a white Christmas yet! After all the fun we have had in the Alps over the years, the grey skies and misty atmosphere lifted our spirits with the promise of frozen delights.

One entrance to Hameln's old town and market

From our Bordatlas again, we found a super stellplatz by the river and a railway line, within easy reach of Hameln centre. On a well organised and paved plot between two commercial buildings, to our surprise it was sparsely occupied, with Dutch and German vans only. A gate leads down and along the riverbank all the way into town, passing a café and a bar/restaurant on the way. €8 per day.  Electricity €1 euro for eight hours.

A well appointed stellplatz, convenient for the town

GPS: 52.0962 N, 09.3582 E

After battening down the van with the winter outside covers (strange no-one else was bothering) we walked into town but the sleet was already turning to rain. Not the best start, especially as it was still bitterly cold - that bone chilling, jacket penetrating cold at just above freezing, before true sub-zero dries the air.

Hameln was virtually untouched by the World War II destruction and this was probably our most picturesque setting yet. 

Hameln's old streets are beautifully preserved

Wandering though the ancient and decorated streets, we discovered snow capped market stalls around the church and the Rathaus (the town hall), with its rows of bells below the roofline, and an advent calendar laid out in its 24 small windows. We stood in the rain for 10 minutes waiting for the “glockenspiel” of the bell chimes at the appointed hour, but nothing happened, obviously we need a new Green Guide! For the kids, a small ice rink was laid out between the buildings, and a gazebo erected at the top of the steps for the carol singers.

Hamelin's Rathaus and the Kirche of St Nikoli's

The Town Hall, 24 windows dressed as an Advent Calendar

The rest of the market wraps around these two buildings, and in the street behind, a beautifully decorated children’s Christmas train was whizzing around, the kids entranced. The now continuous heavy rain didn’t seem to be putting much of a damper on the festivities, but after one gluhwein and a wander around we retreated to the shopping mall opposite the church to warm up – these Hamelnites (Hamelnonians?) must be made of sterner stuff! We eventually did hear the peel of bells, but as we couldn’t see the fun standing and eating bratwurst in such weather we decided to find a quiet restaurant for some traditional grub.

Shame about the rain, but it doesn't dampen the local's spirit! 

The kids are having fun as well

Easier said than done, but I had earlier spotted the Kartoffelhaus im Büergerhus on the Kupferschmiedestrasse, and therein we had a good bellyful of German comfort food. Pork steaks on a bed of fried potato, onion and bacon, with a salad and a 50cl carafe of a good red wine came to €38.70, and it absolutely hit the spot!

The beautifully restored Kartoffelhaus im Büergerhus

GPS: 52.1034 N, 09.3547 E

22nd December
The one snag with the stellplatz in Hameln is that the water supply is shut off in winter. I used our grey water to wash out the toilet cassette, but that still left us a very nearly empty fresh water tank. Overnight the rain had completely washed away the snow from the ground, but a little remained on the roofs.

A little snow is left on the fields

We were soon out of Hameln and enjoying the countryside scenery, dank and misty though it was, the snow-white fields gave it a slightly surreal air. Just off to the right, I spotted a motorhome parking sign at Eschershausen and turned off to find a large carpark with a segregated wohnmobil area opposite some residential housing. This had an electrical supply and thankfully a working water supply, which delivered exactly 100 litres at high pressure for 1 euro.

GPS: 51.9298 N, 09.6287 E
The ease with which we found and used this open and unattended facility got me thinking – even if such a provision for motorhomes could be set up in the UK, would it not be only a matter of days before some mindless yob rendered the equipment unusable, simply because he or she thought they could, and get away with it?

Our destination was Wernigerode, our intended stopover in the Harz mountains for the Christmas holiday. The Harz has a 25,000 hectare national park, through which the old East/West German border ran for 40 years, and was then largely a prohibited area. After reunification, conservationists moved swiftly to establish the national park and secure the future of the wild life. What was once the longest fortified border in the world was formed into part of a Green Belt that now extends across Europe taking in over 150 nature reserves. A re-introduction programme for Wild Lynx was started in 2000 and the first wild born pups detected in 2002. As well as wildlife there are all the other mountain pursuits of skiing, hiking and mountain biking

Wernigerode was first chartered in 1121 and became a spa and holiday resort at the beginning of the 19th Century. Its write-up was full of ancient half-timbered buildings and narrow streets and its unique 15th Century town hall, overlooked by an imposing neo-Gothic Schloss. It is one of the top Christmas market destinations, as well as a summertime holiday mecca.

Wernigerode forms one of the three main hubs (with links to main line services) of the Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen or HSB, a narrow gauge railway network that, at 132 km, is the largest in Europe. It is served by 25 steam trains and 10 diesel locomotives, which have to tackle gradients of 40% and curves as tight as 60 metres. Most locomotives date back to the 1950’s but the first train ran from Wernigerode in 1898. As industries later collapsed much of the freight traffic was lost and it now serves the nostalgic passenger traffic, with three separate Railway Lines: the Trans-Harz, the Selke Valley and the legendary Brocken.

First, we checked out the Harzblick stellplatz at Darlingerode, slightly out of Wernigerode. This had only a few vans in a fenced off, gravelled park, but did advertise the bonus of available wi-fi.

GPS: 51.8528 N,10.7367 E

However, we were not sure of any bus route into town and decided to examine the town centre stellplatzs. The one closest to the old town doubles up as a bus and car park and has no electricity facilities. Surrounded by busy lanes of traffic we did not find it a tempting prospect and neither, apparently, did anyone else.

GPS: 51.8379 N,10.7953 E

We moved on to the one over the river and the railway line known as AmKatzentiech. It’s in a great location, only ten minutes walk to the centre of the old town, but has the benefit (?) of the whoo…. whoo! of the Brocken steam train whistle echoing through the trees at regular intervals together with the oily, coal-smoke scents so evocative of steam loco travel. It is actually tucked behind a large, and at the time, empty lorry park. Entrance is 5 euro via a traffic light controlled barrier, the pitches roughly delineated by shrubs on what was then rather soggy grass. Electricity is supplied at 1 unit (kW hour) per euro, water via a similar set up.

Looking from the stellplatz, water and show facilities available in winter

GPS: 51.838 N, 10.7816 E

Walking into town we had a lovely view of the Schloss in the fading light from the bridge over the railway line. 

The neo-gothic spendour of the Schloss at Wernigerode

The market square of Wernigerode is an impeccable setting for a Christmas Market; rough cobblestones and timbered buildings all around, dominated by the 10 metre high Christmas tree and the twin spires of the Rathaus. In front of the town hall a brass and woodwind band was doing its best to murder some popular carols, but each stall was a joy, its colourful wares and lights just picture-perfect. Around the bars, traditional square metal and glass candle lanterns – desirable objects in themselves - illuminated the elbow high drinking tables thronged with happy drinkers enjoying their gluhwein.

The 10 metre tree contests the twin towers of the Town Hall

The kiddies train goes round and round...

More colourful candles

Appetising smells catch your nostrils at every step!

At one of the bigger food stalls, we asked for a tiny sample of the ubiquitous Gruenkohl and were presented with a full paper tray of the stuff and two forks. It’s cooked in a huge paella type pan, with bacon fat and seasonings and we found it very salty - nice enough, but in small portions. Instead we opted for the sautéed baby mushrooms with herb mayo and followed them up later with chips and more mayo! If my German had been better, we could have ordered the Harzer Kartoffelecken or country potatoes (chunky chips with the skin on), which looked a much better bet. These were served with a cheese sauce or Greek tsatziki.

Here we met a German English teacher and her family, and again we raised the question of “what you do for Christmas dinner?” The answer in this case was go for a hike in the forest, followed by a meal in a restaurant within the forest, at which everybody ate what they chose; no enforced adherence to turkey or, heaven forbid, the apparently traditional cold potato salad and sausage!

Schneeballen...Eat one if you dare!
As we were about to leave a band of wandering minstrels dressed in medieval costume struck up with a very vigorous, even impassioned, series of renditions; something of a cross between Irish jig and Morris dancing tunes, but foot-tapping stuff anyhow.

They were giving it their all!

On our return from the town the stellplatz entry light had changed to red, indicating there was now a full complement of 19 vans. We were all set for Christmas – except we had no snow… and we hadn’t got anything to cook for Christmas dinner!

Next: A soggy/frozen…different kind of Christmas!

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