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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.

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