Our second big European road trip took us over around 8,000km through the center of Europe. Most of our journey covered France and Germany but in total travelled through 8 countries including Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands as well. For us this was around two months of travelling, but there are so many places we will definitely be back to explore some more!
For this trip we slightly modified the van we had used for work during summer, removing the seats and adding a mattress so that we could pretty much eliminate any accommodation budget we would have had with the car. Everywhere we went there were places we could park nearby for free and sleep in the van. The law in these countries is pretty unclear about the rules regarding free camping, but it seems in general as long as you avoid areas where it says no camping or no parking overnight it’s fine (pretty logical really). We found all the good park spots using the Park4Night app, and all of them were great.
Our plan was constantly changing as we went, and our final route looks absolutely nothing like what we thought it would at the beginning. We decided where to go next based mostly on recommendations we got while travelling and meeting up with friends along the way. Having no plan meant we could spontaneously boost up to Berlin from the south of Germany to meet up with a good friend (and the speed limit free highways in Germany meant we could get there pretty quick!). A small issue with the van in Lille also didn’t really phase us because we could just catch a bus to Amsterdam for the weekend to catch up with another good friend while it was getting fixed! Honestly I think no plan is the best plan with something like this.
I didn’t write any blogs while we were travelling because there just really wasn’t the time, but just for memories sake I thought I’d put together the map and a little blog of some of the best highlights of the trip. It’s also mainly just photos because writing retrospectively about everything we have done is too daunting to even think about (and would probably become pretty monotonous and boring), but with far too many photos from the trip to choose from I decided building a blog with those should be a breeze. So here is a brief glimpse at a few of the things we did and some snapshots of places we can’t wait to return to.
Beauts of Nature
Hidden in the mountains of southern Germany is this beautiful crystal clear lake. We just had one day to go hiking but there are many multi-day hikes to refuges spotted around the mountain ranges which would be incredible, it is a really stunning area. We first took a ferry across to a small lake just past Konigsee called Obersee. We made sure to be on the first ferry out because we had heard that it can get insanely busy, and we could see why, the views from everywhere around this lake are postcard perfect. We just took a short walk to the far end of the lake before heading back to the ferry to go to our big hike for the day. By the time we got back the place was packed and it was only maybe half an hour after the first ferry had arrived… Lucky we got there early!
We then got the ferry to St Bartholoma on the west side of the lake. This is the place most people choose to go to and most do the classic short tourist hike before taking the ferry back. Instead we hiked back from here along the mountains. We were warned at the information office that the first section of the hike was dangerous and challenging but that the views from the cliffs were stunning. It sure was stunning, and little bridges and small climbs made the hike really interesting and varied. I don’t know if you’d call it dangerous but as it was directly up for the first half it was a decent challenge, but we also saw people doing it in jeans and other impractical attire so maybe we were just still tired after the marathon 3 days earlier.
Once again hidden in the mountains of southern Germany is this a canyon walk. The entrance to the canyon was 5€ each which we obviously wanted to avoid, so instead we followed a path up through the hills lining the canyon hoping that the entrance on the other side of the canyon was free. It turns out it was. Not only that but we got some beautiful views over the canyon and of the surrounding mountains free from tourists (and we could instead spend our 5€ on a beer at the refuge at the top). It’s really worth walking that little bit extra rather than just following the crowds, we have found this in so many situations that it doesn’t make sense to go where everyone else goes anymore.
The short walk took us through a well made path in the wall of the cliff right next to the river. The water is a beautiful shade of light blue, a bit like Soča River in Slovenia, which is a stunning contrast against the dark of the cave.
Lake Konstanz, Germany/Switzerland/Austria
Not only is this a beautiful lake but it also borders three countries which is kind of a novelty thing for us travellers. We found beautiful views from everywhere around the lake and from the German side were able to see a beautiful sunset with the snowy alps in the distance. It would be a pretty nice place to run a marathon if you had trained for one.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
One of the most well known castles in Germany made famous as being the inspiration for Disney’s Magic Kingdom. We did this hike the day after the 3 country marathon around Lake Konstanz so we were a little fatigued to say the least, but with so much to see there was no time to slow down.
We first walked up to the Marienbrücke bridge, the classic viewpoint everybody walks to. It was a bit like something out of horror movie… The bridge was so packed full of people you could barely move, and everybody was pushing and nudging each other to get the best photo for themselves. Despite not being in the best shape we decided to walk a little further up the hill opposite the bridge. Pretty much everybody stops at the bridge, and the small number that continue stop at the first official viewpoint a few minutes further along the trail. Just 20 minutes further up the hill we found the most incredible view of not only the castle but the lake and mountains in the distance, and there was not another person to be seen or heard. One piece of advice I’d give to all travellers is to walk in the opposite direction of the crowds.
Saxton Switzerland National Park, Germany
On the east side of Germany bordering the Czech Republic is a national park called Saxton Switzerland, go figure. In this park there is a 112km hike called the Malerweg or Painter’s Way which has been the inspiration for many artworks and a filming location for movies such as the Chronicles of Narnia. There are so many entrance ways into the national park that we just found a random free parking spot and easily found one. I honestly think wherever you started you would find a beautiful path, it really is an incredible place and walking here during autumn made it all the more spectacular with a sea of orange leaves covering the paths. We were alone for most of the way until we got close to the Schrammsteine Viewpoint, a view out over some beautiful rock formations shooting out of the forest.
One famous spot in this national park is the Bastei Bridge, a stone bridge built out in amongst the rock formations. Anyone going here I think needs to go early in the morning before all of the tourists pack in and when the sun shines directly on it. We went in the afternoon and found it a crowded tourist trap and was not spectacular like we thought it would be. Once again an example where you find the best places walking the opposite direction of the crowds…
South-West/Central France (Rocadamour, Gouffre de Padirac, Collonges la Rouge, Puy de Sancy)
In a rush to get back to Dordonge we had a massive day and a half of exploring all of the little villages and beauties of nature on the way. A small half day hike in Puy de Sancy took us up to some beautiful views over the countryside. It is the only mountain range in the center of France and in winter there is a small ski resort here. We splashed out on a hostel for the night and had a few bevvies with a delicious veggie burger to celebrate our last night of travels.
The next day we hopped through a few beautiful villages. My personal favourite was probably Rocadamour, an old village with beautiful old white stone buildings nestled into the side of a cliff. We also decided to take a trip into the Gouffre de Padirac, a really stunning cave. I wasn’t really expecting it to be as impressive as it was with massive ceilings and a little boat that takes you a little down the river at the base of the cave. It was a well run self guided tour too with an audioguide (in any language) included in the entry cost (which was a pretty reasonable price!). We packed our last day with as many stops as we could before heading home. We are definitely a couple of people born to travel, we never like to stay in the same place or too long!
The striped cliffs shooting up of the beach here are astonishing. A definite highlight in the north of France.
North Bretagne/Brittany + Mont St Michel
The whole northern coast of Bretange/Brittany is filled with beautiful beaches, clear water and stunning rock formations. Everywhere we went we found something incredible. One of my favourite towns in the area was St Malo, a beautiful old town on the coast surrounded by golden beaches. The water there is crystal clear with small boats for hire and there is even a free sea water swimming pool complete with a diving board! The town was beautiful to wander around too with old stone buildings and brick streets. Unfortunately we didn’t have too much time to spend here but I would love to go back at some point, it seems like there is a lot to do and see.
Côte de Granit Rose was also a beautiful spot in the area with interesting rock formations. There is a classic tourist track we walked on through the rocks which was unfortunately quite busy, but was still beautiful for a quick stop!
Of course we couldn’t travel through this area without going to Mont St Michel, one of the most famous and most visited landmarks in France. Historically it was debated whether Mont Saint Michel is a part of Brotange or Normandie, but now officially it is part of the latter. The cathedral is very impressive perched on the top of a little island just off the coast. There is one parking lot close by with ‘free shuttles’ that was incredibly expensive so we decided to try our luck just parking on a tiny farm road just a little past the parking entry and walking in. It turns out the free shuttles are not actually associated with the parking lot (as was the impression we were given) and instead are for anybody wanting to visit Mont St Michel. We walked there anyway because it was a nice wander, but hopped on the shuttle on the way back to save some time getting to our next stop on the road!
Berlin really is beautiful city with a history that is difficult to comprehend. It was unbelievable reading the stories of the horrors that occurred under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the Topography of Terror museum and seeing the beautiful artistic transformation of the remnants of the Berlin wall on the East Side Gallery. Walking around the Memorial of the Murdered Jews was pretty overwhelming. Although many people have associated the concrete blocks with graves and found other meanings hidden within the memorials design, it turns out all the artist really wanted was that people feel uneasy walking through it, and he really succeeded with that.
Despite having a troubled history the city is also vibrant and artistic. When we were there we were lucky to catch the last night of the Festival of Lights where all of the old buildings were lit up with artistic light displays created by artists from all over the world. The displays were on buildings all over the city and were very impressive, sometimes a little random but I guess art is often pretty out there, it was all very impressive all the same.
The bike capital of the world definitely lives up to its reputation. There are bikes lining every street, every canal, every building and everywhere else you look. The city is so well set up for bikes that I don’t know why anyone would own a car here. It also means by getting a bike you can easily get a bit off the tourist track (which is not only worth it, it’s necessary). The center is beautiful but I think the best parts lie a little out of the center, away from the crowds and into the land of the locals.
A beautiful old town in Alsace surrounded by vineyards and beautiful villages. Alsace was one place in France I had always wanted to visit, and as Elric had spent two years studying here he was a great tour guide! It really is a beautiful town with a very unique history. The region of Alsace has bounced back and fourth between France and Germany creating an interesting mix between German and French culture, food and architecture. In short, I really loved it here.
Memories Beyond the Maps
Because of course travelling is not just about the things that you saw and the things that you did. It’s also about those unforgettable little moments and the people you did them with. Often it’s things that could have been anywhere yet make a more classic location be remembered as beyond extraordinary. To make this generic blog a little more personal (and to jog our memories when we read this in a few years time) I written a few of them down.
Mission of a Marathon
When we were in Meribel for the the winter we thought it would be a great idea to enter a marathon for after the summer. The 3 country marathon around Lake Konstanz crossing the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland seemed pretty perfect timing in a pretty perfect place, so we just did it. We never realized that pretty much every day of summer would be over 30 degrees and burning sunshine, so we did no training. When the day came we realized we were in a pretty ridiculous position, but we are no quitters, so we picked up our race packs and pigged out on ‘free’ pasta at the pasta party the night before.
On the day we got just a little past halfway before deciding to take a scenic ‘wander’ through the refreshment stands (they were pretty fantastic; coke, bananas, muesli bars etc. Probably ate more calories than we burned…). It was a mission, and I don’t really think we can say we have ‘run’ a marathon together yet, but it was a bit of a laugh for sure (just may be good to do a little training next time). We definitely felt it the next day walking up to a viewpoint of the Neuschwanstein Castle, we are not used to being overtaken by anyone on hikes, let alone elderly people with canes, but I hope they got some pleasure out of beating us up the hill.
The Vegan Scene
Over the course of the year we have done more and more research about the environment and how we can best have a more positive impact. The consumption of meat and animal products is something that has the largest carbon footprint for most people on the average diet. It’s something we always knew has some kind of negative impact, but we have only recently discovered the full extent of that impact (and to be honest I’ve found researching it pretty scary…). With a change towards a more plant based diet we have found a lot of great places and eaten a lot of amazing things we never even knew existed. One place in particular comes to mind in Leipzig, Germany.
We had searched up a vegan restaurant and found a burger/gyros place (named Vleischerei) a little in the suburbs with great reviews, if we hadn’t searched it there would be no possible way we would have found it. On the corner of a block was what looked like an entrance way to a seedy student flat with graffiti on the walls and not a menu in sight. We were welcomed in to heavy metal booming from the speakers and found at the far end the counter and kitchen where we put all our trust in the reviews and made an order. Honestly it is some of the best food we have ever eaten. The vegan ‘chicken’ was tastier and juicier than any real chicken we have tasted before, and the ‘cheese’ burger was a killer, both with some of the nicest homemade fries and vegan aioli. To die for. We have found so many incredible vegan places like this one. It seems when you take meat out of the picture the chefs get a lot more creative with what they make, and what they come up with is incredible. This place was certainly a laugh though.
Normal is Bizarre
One thing about travelling away from ‘home’ is being far away from ‘normal’. Every country has it’s own normal, and although it’s amazing to experience being immersed in another country’s normal, sometimes things do really seem a bit bizarre. Elric is obviously used to the European way of doing things, so when I would be a bit frustrated with something like the shops being closed not only on the weekends but also on Mondays, for several hours in the middle of the day every day exactly at the time you want to shop, on every holiday (which seems like it is every second week) and every random day they decide to make a holiday, he would not really know how to explain it because for him it makes sense. It wasn’t until we went to Amsterdam to catch up with one of my oldest kiwi friends that I was finally able to feel normal in thinking that everything was bizarre. It felt so good to finally find someone who also thought it bizarre that baking powder is only sold in sachets of 2.5 teaspoons (so inconvenient) or that despite a cooked brunch being the best thing ever it is so hard to find in Europe (and basically doesn’t exist in France). Needless to say we had a lot of bizarre European stuff to bond over. But that aside it was also so amazing to just catch up after not seeing each other for too many years.
Travelling without a solid plan meant we could spontaneously go anywhere at the drop of a hat. Although we were planning to just stay in the south of Germany (thinking that’s all we had time for) when we found out a really good friend was in Berlin we decided we were going to make it work! Somehow we were able to make some time we thought didn’t exist to drive up north to Berlin for a couple of days. It was so good to spend time together and would never have been possible if we had stuck to a rigid plan. Somehow I feel being spontaneous has ended up making a lot of time in a lot of situations just exist out of thin air, meaning we can spend more time seeing new things and spend more time with important people in our lives. I feel like this is one important ‘lesson’ I’ve learnt travelling anyway, go with the flow, be adaptable and things will always work out somehow!
Living life out of a van has been incredible. Being able to park up and sleep pretty much anywhere you want gives you so much freedom to do what you want when you feel like it, no strings attached. Our version of #vanlife on this trip was the very old fashioned kind. Our van was not decked out with shelves and sinks and toilets and stuff you see in a lot of travel vans, we just had a blow up mattress in the back surrounded by our bags and food and everything else that we would need to move to the front seat every time we wanted to sleep. Very low maintenance travellers we are, which is lucky, because our blow up mattress popped on the second night which left us sleeping on thin camping mats for the rest of the time, until one of those popped too (they were both the same brand, but I wont mention which one, because despite the fact that nearly everything we have gotten from them has either broken or hasn’t worked properly Elric loves them, so I wont say *cough* Decathlon).
Campfires by the Lake
One night in the south of Germany we headed to a spot we found on Park4Night right close to a beautiful lake. Before parking up for the night we went right next to the lake to cook up our dinner of mashed potatoes while watching an incredible sunset over the water. It turned out where we stopped there were several fire pits, so we picked our spot and started up the fire. There’s nothing particularity interesting or funny about this memory, it’s just a nice memory, and I like fires.
Travelling through many countries has also meant travelling through many languages. Generally ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ are the things we tend to learn when we go into each country (yes and no is helpful too), but anything more than that we need to do in English. Going into Germany the only thing Elric knew in German (on top of what we learnt in the other countries) was how to count to 3, which as it turns out can make you look pretty fluent. Ordering at a cafe? All you really say is “hello, one coffee please” or “two sandwiches please”, rarely do you ever need any words other than the niceties, 1, 2,3 and the label on the item you want. So Elric would go and make all of his orders in German, looking as fluent and non touristy as possible. Of course when they reply in German, thinking that he can speak German, he would have to somehow play along with random sounds of agreement and hand gestures to not break his cover, which all ends up looking pretty crack up. It would also mean we would sometimes not be exactly sure what we had ordered because he said yes to all the extra options we didn’t even know existed. Oh languages, aren’t they great.
After two big roadies covering a large chunk of Europe and two seasons of working in polar opposite conditions it’s time to head back to NZ. It has sure been one incredible year filled with so many new experiences and memories that will stick with us forever. And although we are heading home and this is the last European blog for a while, there is still more to come in the future, so stay tuned… 😉