22 Jan 2011

The school run

Nic and I have just returned from dropping off Julia (her oldest daughter) at her place of residence in Berlin. She’s studying there and will be living there for the next year. So, a car packed full of suitcases, bedding and other necessities for student life, and the three of us headed off on a road trip that was just under 4000 kms in 7 days! I think it was just recently after my driving experiences in the UK that I’d said to myself – never again. 

But this time there were two of us driving, and the weather forecast was ok. And there wasn’t a bit of snow that fell, though there was certainly quite a bit laying around on the high ground from the big Christmas freeze.

Also some of the mountainous areas still had a lot of snow, but the worst driving conditions we had was heavy rain/heavy motorway traffic (at the same time!) in Switzerland, and incredibly thick fog in the Czech Republic. Scary enough but a walk in the park compared to the snow experiences. The older I get, the more daunted I seem to be becoming with anything but good daylight driving conditions.
It's not only France that is dotted with nuclear power stations and huge wind farms.
We got to Berlin late on the second day and were pleasantly surprised with the economical two room apartment we’d booked for three nights. It was in the former East Berlin and certainly didn’t look too impressive from the outside.

Given the layout inside, we’re assuming that they were residential flats in the old days, and had been given a make-over and turned into rental apartments. And it was affordable and ideal – clean as a whistle and nicely decorated. The radiators were on full blast and we even though we turned them off, there were so many pipes running across the walls that kept hot, we had to have the windows open as much as possible.

One of the bonuses was the view from the window – straight across to the Alexanderplatz railway station and the famous Berlin TV Tower in full view!

Yes, it was busy and with the windows open, pretty noisy, especially with the trains pulling into the station. But double glazed windows and the apartment was quiet and cosy. Here’s the view out of the windows –



and several other views of the tower.





The first day saw Julia sorted with her accommodation and moving of luggage, the second and last day Nic and I did a hop-on hop-off bus tour of the city. It’s a huge city and we wouldn’t have been able to get to all the places on foot.

On the weekend, there’s a huge flea market that’s held, and that’s one of the places we decided to stop for a while. One of the things I noticed that are different from the vide greniers here in France is that quite a few of the stall holders specialise in one thing only, whereas here most have a real hotchpotch of things.

For example - Steins, candle holders and door handles....


And I’ve never seen so many real fur coats in one place – the well-dressed women (and men) of Berlin certainly don’t mind a bit of fur.



And a few other interesting bits and pieces:
With very carefully applied designer stubble on the mannequin
In the very short time we had there, I thought Berlin was an exciting city. It’s certainly vibrant and lots of development has happened.

White crosses to commemorate those who were killed trying to cross the Wall to get to West Berlin
2700 concrete blocks - Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
More than a kilometre of the Berlin Wall remains intact – “The East Side Gallery”. It’s now a  freedom memorial and its panels are covered in paintings by artists from all over the world.

We also stopped off to visit The Story of Berlin museum.
A display to commemorate the burning of 20,000 books on the orders of the Nazis - the floor of this corridor is made of the spines of many real books.
 

Included in the visit to the museum was a visit to the underground nuclear bunker. Surprisingly, it was built in the early 70s during the Cold War, but never used. It’s now known that it wouldn’t have been effective. It was built to take 3600 people, on a first come, first served basis.

The idea was that there were enough provisions for a two week stay, after which time it was thought it would be safe to go outside. I think two weeks in that place would have sent you crazy – claustrophic and apparently the temperature would have been mid 30s and high humidity with all the people. And no water to wash!
The entire floor space was taken up with the sleeping arrangements, apart from a small area of toilets and basins (no showers).
 

We had four days to get back to France, so we drove a different route to include lunch and a bit of a look around Prague.

This is where the fog happened. We were saying how lucky we were with the weather, clear blue skies and only a few clouds, when we drove through a particularly long tunnel – only to exit the other side into what looked like cotton wool. I’ve never experienced fog like it. Fortunately Nic was driving at this stage as I felt like I was still recovering from my snow experiences!

We drove out of the worst of it as we approached Prague so were able to appreciate just how gorgeous the city is.

A quick lunch (with great beer) in the square –


followed by coffee on the roof terrace of the same restaurant to get fabulous views (freezing cold but worth it), and the fog had cleared a bit by this stage.

The 15th century Astronomical Clock on old Town Hall Tower

The Charles River over the Vltava River, Prague




We’d decided to get a few hours on the road after leaving Prague, looked at the map and decided we could reach a town called Plzeň before it got too dark.

It wasn’t until after we’d booked a hotel that we realised that the German pronunciation is Pilsen – yes, purely coincidentally we were staying in the home of the famous Pilsner beer. We reckoned we couldn’t pass up a chance of doing a tour, and planned to do one first thing the next morning.

However, we made good time, and as luck would have it, drove right by the brewery on our way into town. We had a bit of trouble finding an entrance, and finally pulled up to the security gate at the gates (below) thinking we could take a ticket.
Nope. It was a staff entry and needed a swipe card. By the time we worked this out, we had a car behind us - an employee! He let us use his swipe card so we could go inside and then come back out again. Eventually we found the visitor car park about 100 metres away. By which time we were ready for a drink!

Anyway, again we were lucky – we’d arrived 10 minutes before the last tour of the day. So we joined a group of about 12 and spent the next hour and a half going through the whole brewery. It was a really interesting tour, with a glass of the original barrel-brewed unpasteurised and unfiltered beer at the end. Delicious.
The old building
The very old original copper vat
The old .....
The newer ..
The very new
State of the art new bottling plant

The open-topped oak brewing barrels in the underground tunnels. There are about 9kms of tunnels under the brewery, but only a few hundred metres are included in the tour.
The next day we drove to Dachau and visited the concentration camp. It was a sobering experience to say the least, and brings it home even more that this has happened in very recent times.
Sculpture in the exercise yard, depicting people caught in the barbed wire fence
One of the seven guard houses

In stark contrast is the town of Dachau itself, cobbled streets, colourful painted buildings and pretty as a postcard. Somehow it didn’t seem right, given what was right on the edge of the town.

We found we really liked some of the German beers too - felt we had to give them a try.

Ditto some of the cakes.
Though the dark one above was a bit of a mystery - it's called mohn, the woman in the cafe told us. With much difficulty, she explained it was 'poppy seed'. Well, the unsweeted paste was ground poppy seeds - an acquired taste I think. The redcurrent one was delicious though.

And then on to Lyon, the second largest city in France, where we’d booked our last night’s accommodation. The hop-on hop-off bus tour wasn’t running in January so we got instructions and a map from the Tourism Office and did a walking tour of the old parts of the city.
The view over Lyon from the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvièr
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvièr
The room we’d booked was a little shabby and rough around the edges – on the fifth (attic) floor of an old building without an elevator. But the most worrying were the instructions in case of fire – if you can’t get down the stairs, call out the window for help (they were about 15 cm slats with one velux in the ceiling), and keep the door wet until help arrives! Given that the lock on the door was problematic, it was all a little unnerving – but hey, we survived to tell the tale.

Lyon is a beautiful city and there’s plenty to see. Again we did a whistle-stop tour but managed to see some lovely sights.

The following day – the homeward leg of the trip – we stopped at the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct bridge. What an incredible structure the bridge is – the entire aqueduct itself is 51 kms long, constructed in the 1st century to carry an estimated 200 million litres of water a day to Nimes.


It was a great week away, and we saw lots, but it was good to get back home after having covered all those kilometres.

It was a little hair-raising on the autobahns in Germany where there are parts that have no speed limit. While we were sometimes doing between 130 and 140kph, we were often passed at such speeds it made us feel like we were tootling along at 60. Scary!

And speaking of speeds, seems like we ourselves overdid it at some stage. When we arrived back in Bize, there was a speeding ticket waiting for us. It was from the first day of our trip while we were still driving on French roads.

I guess we were a little lax with the speed limits, and I suspect this may not be the last ticket to come through the letterbox.

As we shared the driving – and truth be told we’re both a little lead-footed – we’re sharing the cost of the fine(s).  Ouch.

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