Tag Archives: sketching

Germany – A stormy traverse

Germany – A stormy traverse

We left our damp campsite on Als next morning, careful to ensure we safely got off the very wet pitch, to head south out of Denmark to northern Germany.  We spent the next two days struggling through Germany, cursing the volume of traffic, only later realising that the whole of northern Germany was being battered by a storm named Xavier, with a state of emergency being declared in several cities.  The traffic was entirely solid, and every detour we took offered only brief respite before we were stationary again.

Even with our ability to be anywhere, with no time constraints and with a constantly changing target aire to head for, we were still firmly stuck in the web of fallen trees, closed roads and tens of thousands of vehicles all desperately trying to be elsewhere.  We drove for five hours making all of 77 miles, most of them before leaving Denmark, before calling it a day at a quickly selected fourth-choice aire in the town of Itzehoe.  We sat out the continuing deluge in a huge gravel car-park behind the town centre under opaque sheets of rain, but at least the town had free Wi-Fi on offer to help entertain us.

The next morning nothing had changed other than the depth of the puddles that surrounded us, like our own private moat.  We carefully exited the car-park, after facing several rather annoying dead-ends where we had to reverse back out from, where we rejoined the busy roads to again be battered by high winds and rain.  Our second day in Germany’s storm was proving more of the same, stuck with having to use the bottleneck that was the stalled ring-road around Hamburg, replete with all its road works and lanes lost to downed trees and other debris.

We finally broke free and hoped to flow past Bremen, but the road again soon became solid red on Google, passable only with the stoic application of hours of static patience.  We had little, so we jumped off again at the first opportunity, heading back south east away from Bremen to hide ourselves in a small paid aire at a castle in Thedinghausen.  The rains stopped for about a half hour around 6pm and we jumped out to have a quick walk around the sodden gardens and castle grounds, making it back to Benny with only seconds to spare before the skies opened again.  This brief, rushed walk was our only exercise, gentle or otherwise, for two full days.

From here we had to backtrack all the way to and past Bremen, all the while dreading getting stuck again on blocked roads.  But with a few exceptions, we made reasonable, if juttering, progress along the chosen route and finally seemed to have escaped the worst of the traffic as we approached the Netherlands border.  We stopped just short in a town called Bunde to both visit services and to pick up some fresh provisions, then over into the Netherlands we went.  Our German traverse was difficult and potentially dangerous, and went wholly unrecorded, photographically speaking.  So to liven up this otherwise entirely dull blog post, here’s a sketch Nicky did of some penguins – Enjoy.

Nicky sketch - penguin statue

SE Sweden – Sandhammaren & Ystad

SE Sweden – Stopping to see the beach and lighthouse at Sandhammaren, walking the standing stones of Ales Stenar & visiting Ystad, Falsterbo and Kalgshamn.

On our space on the damp cobbles of Skillinge marina, we awoke inside a deep white bubble, visibility reduced to metres in the grey low cloud, full with rain.  With little sign of coming change, we sat out the worst of the continuing rain in bed then finally stirred for a late breakfast as the mist began to lift, ever so slightly.  Our first target to visit was Glimmingehus, a medieval stronghold turned museum that dominated all the local literature, as it was only a few kilometres from us.  We had a short look and wander around their shop, but didn’t pay to enter the grounds.  Instead we kept on moving along the coast to see Sandhammaren.  We parked up in the sandy car-park where several other motorhomes had overnighted, and walked first to see Sandhammaren Fyr and rescue station.  It was a tall skeletal red steel lighthouse with outbuildings that looked tired and forlorn in this weather.

Sandhammaren (lighthouse)

Sandhammaren (wild beach)

We retraced our steps to reach the wide sandy beach, said to be one of the finest in Sweden. Today, it was a little rainy with strong sea winds, and the frothing waves were breaking high right along the coast as far as we could see.  It was a wild, and invigorating sight, but not a place for us to linger too long.  Sandhammaren was established as a protected nature reserve in 1987, to retain the value of the area for both natural and cultural reasons. The beach is at the southernmost point of Sweden.  Beyond its fine sands and wild weather, it also has a sinister past.  Due to the many sandbars and spits, it was a popular stretch of coast for pirates to ply their trade.  They would use false lights to lure passing ships aground on the sandbars to then plunder their goods; the coast is littered with the corpses of unlucky or unwary ships.

Ales Stenar (stones from low level)

Ales Stenar (aaron at stone)

We drove next to Kåseberga, parking in the town in a large, free car-park from where we walked to view the main tourist site.  Positioned high on the steep coastline of Kåsehuvud is Ale’s Stones, or Ales Stenar, a large ancient construction of standing stones in the notional shape of a Viking ship, set out to reflect the annual movements of the sun.  It is Sweden’s largest preserved stone ship of this type, with 59 large standing stones precisely positioned to create the elliptical ship-like form, stretching to 67m long and 19m wide.  This type of stone-ship design has been noted in history annals since the early Bronze Age, from as early as 1100 BCE.  These specific stones are difficult to accurately date, but were likely erected in their current form by Vikings between 500-1000 CE.

Ales Stenar (stone ship)

Ales Stenar (nicky in stones)

Along with the symbolic boat form, the stones are also positioned to act as an astronomical calendar.  Certain key stones mark sunrise positions for each passing month, with the central end stone marking the Summer Solstice.  When viewed from the central position of the ship, the rising and setting sun traces a route across exactly one quarter of the stones at each solstice.  At each equinox, there are an equal number of stones positioned between day and night.  For a brief time we had the entire hillside site to ourselves and enjoyed walking between the tall stones, imagining the site as it may have been in those times.  We wandered over to the nearby cliff edge, looking both out to sea and back at the stones.  It was an impressive site.

Ystad (busy aire)

Leaving the Viking-laid stones in peace, we next doodled along the coast to reach the main regional town of Ystad, where we planned to overnight in a large, free aire with a view of the sea on the outskirts of town.  We found it quite busy, more so than most aires we’d passed in recent months, but still with plenty of room available.  After picking out a dry and almost level spot, we decided on a short walk to see the local beach, but would leave off exploring the nearby town until tomorrow.  The weather was poor, grey and damp, so we snuggled in and watched the sea boil and fluster for the comfort of Benny.

Ystad (colourful streets)

Ystad (town view)

Ystad (walk around towm)

In the morning we walked along the coast into Ystad. We had no real expectations, not having researched it before arrival, but it turned out to be a surprising delight.  Once we had successfully negotiated crossing the rather restrictive coastal railway line, we wandered through the town with no goals or plans, happily enjoying its quaint neatness and the gentle exercise.  We found the lovely square outside St. Mary’s church and many pretty streets of colourful timber buildings, much like Ribe in Denmark.  After a decent, exploratory walk around the town centre, around 8km in total, we returned to Benny and spent the afternoon sketching and relaxing in the sun, looking out over the sea. We lazily sat here, wine glass later replacing pencils, until the sun set calmly over the sea.

Ystad (reading at aire)

Ystad (sunset from aire)

The next morning we moved on, first passing through the town of Trelleborg where we picked up a useful map, then on to Falsterbo on the south west corner of Sweden. Our newly-acquired map told us of long coastal walks around the headlands, so we found suitable parking at one small nature reserve car-park and set off for a long, flat walk.  We started out across flatlands similar to parts of Lincolnshire or Norfolk, peaty moorland and scrub woodland that was likely below sea level.  The land was sparse, the sky huge.

Falsterbo (on the beach)

Falsterbo (beachwalk to pier)

After a few miles we reached sand dunes and behind them a tiny sliver of sandy beach.  We followed the beach, passing a long timber pier, before cutting a little inland to skirt around a protected nature area, where we saw lots of bird-watchers, and a busy golf course.  A small lighthouse stood on the edge of the golf course.  From there we cut back along empty roads, through extensive residential areas with many beautiful, interesting houses.  This had the feel of a retirement village, with large neat plots, expensive housing and proximity to easy walks and golf courses.  We finally returned along a long, straight cycle path, to close our varied and interesting 16km loop of the coastal peninsula.

Kalgshamn (view of bridge)

Kalgshamn (harbour)

From here we drove north, to reach a large beach parking area, at Kalgshamn, about 10km short of Malmö.  We parked up, with only one other van in residence, and walked to where we could see the bridge leading across to Denmark.  This was, sadly, to be our last night in Sweden, after 51 days in-country.  We walked around the small harbour behind the beach to watch the slowly developing sunset.  We returned to Benny and finished off all our remaining wine in celebration of our wonderful times in Sweden, sipping thoughtfully with a view of the spectacular Öresund Bridge, our route ahead, ever onward, stretching out away from us across the misty white sea.

WorkAway – Ringstad (Part 1)

Part 1:  Arrival at our WorkAway in Ringstad and settling in with our hosts, our allocated jobs and our responsibilities.

We left our fjord-side aire in Årstein and headed west, deep into the Vesterålen islands.  The weather was incredible on the way over; clear, bright skies with light wispy cloud and the temperature stuck around 24 degrees.  The bodies of water we passed as we crawled our way through to the Vesterålen islands were of such luminous light green colour, mineral rich with blonde sand visible below, each framed with brooding, dark mountain peaks.  We passed through the main town of Sortland on our way, pausing for a quick look at the famed blue houses at the harbour.  We also passed the town’s bronze statue of their recently retired, very dedicated and much loved litter-picker.

Ringstad - (beautiful route in)

The winding route we followed hugged the coast, avoiding any of the large, jagged mountains that formed the ever-present backdrop to our scenic drive. We arrived into Ringstad , at Huset på Yttersiden, after around three hours driving, where we met the proprietor Ian, originally of Cornwall, and several of the other current WorkAwayers, who were mostly young students from various places around Europe.  The WorkAwayers were all living in the same house and we were offered a tiny room with bunks alongside them, but politely declined, deciding to live in Benny instead.  The house’s clutter, grime and noise was just a little too much of a reminder of our own student days, times we had left behind us twenty years ago, and we didn’t want our old, grumpy heads to cramp their laid-back student style.

Ringstad - (first kayak tour)

Ringstad - (n on the water)

After having been on site for less than an hour we got invited to join a beginner’s kayak trip, out around the local skerries, but with only one spare kayak remaining Nicky bagged the only available spot.  She was to be trained up to perhaps lead future kayaking trips, once she learned how the site was set-up and where the standard local route goes.  She followed the group out, led by Ian, taking in the direction of the route and learning how best to deal with novice kayakers in what could be a dangerous environment if the winds or weather were to quickly change or someone went over.  The trip took a leisurely three hours or so, and Nicky enjoyed every minute on the calm water.

Ringstad - (kayak store shed)

Ringstad - (the setting)

That evening we finally met the lady of the house, Karina, when we all sat down for dinner.  Ian and Karina had met many years ago in Germany, before returning to Karina’s homeland of Norway where they had now run their hospitality and tour business for over ten years.  Along with many kayaking trips, Ian led rib-boat bird-watching and photography tours, local hiking tours and hired out fishing boats to guests.  There were bookings to manage for their houses and apartments, along with all associated house cleaning, laundry and daily maintenance.  On top of that, they ran a busy bar and restaurant, the only one in the local vicinity.  No wonder the welcome assistance of keen, hard-working WorkAwayers was something they relied upon.

Ringstad - (row boat at night)

We all sat on the external decking as we ate dinner, looking out to sea, the night still and beautiful.  Seagulls were nesting on a nearby island and they were the only disturbers of the peace, with their raucous calls and squawking the main background noise.  With the skies entirely cloud free the views out to the far mountain ranges were simply incredible, but the temperature had cooled dramatically and we shivered in the cold air for a while, until thick, woollen blankets were brought out to help warm us.  Even in the summer, being this far north we should have expected to experience cold, crisp nights.  Wrapped up well, we talked late into the night as we continually stared out at the island-filled view, enchanted by its simple, still beauty.

Ringstad - (cutting the grass)

Ringstad - (site plan sketch)

I was put on gardening and maintenance duty, a job that suited me just fine.  I strimmed edges and pathways, raked off moss, trimmed hedges, weeded and cut grass all around the site on their sit-on mower.  It was sticky work under the hot afternoon sun, but it involved a level of pleasant effort that kept me very active and produced immediate, satisfying results.  I also engraved a couple of fishing gaffs with personal messages, to be presented as a small token of their appreciation to long-term returning guests.  I was also tasked with sketching up a quick site plan for both WorkAwayers and customers, so they would know where each property was located for cleaning or visiting respectively.  I was later asked to help with producing fire plans for each of the properties, and sketched up quick floor plans of each, noting escape routes and positions of fire extinguishers and break glass points, that were later to be framed and hung in the properties.

Ringstad - (a kayaking)

Ringstad - (nicky in kayak)

Nicky had been on cleaning duties, either in the kitchen or turning over apartments between guests.  But with our host Ian feeling rather ill one morning, Nicky was tasked with leading her first kayak group, with my back-up support.  Nicky led them out of the bay, after explaining all the basics; how to put on spray decks, how to get in and out of the kayak safely, and how to paddle correctly and efficiently.  I followed behind, carrying the safety tow line, medical kit and spare paddle, staying at the back to keep a watchful eye over the novice paddlers.  I had to correct a few, those somehow using their paddles upside down or back to front, and taught several how best to steer their kayak, but generally they all managed to muddle their way through the peaceful island tour with no real issues.  The sea was mirror-calm and the warm sun glimmered lightly off the flat surface, making the whole experience quite idyllic, perfect for their first ever sea paddle and for Nicky’s first kayak guiding experience.

Ringstad - (nicky on rib-boat)

Ringstad - (island lighthouses)

Afterwards, as we hadn’t lost any paying guests to the sea, we were rewarded with seats on the rib boat for a Nature Safari trip.  There were ten paying guests so we sneaked on at the back as the last two extras.  Before setting out we were all dressed in full fleece overalls and life vests, with hats and gloves optional. The powerful rib could run at over 60 km/hour, bouncing smoothly over the small waves.  We visited Hellfjorden, a spectacular, narrow strip of water with high cliffs, and the site of many nesting arctic terns.  We watched the very pretty but highly territorial birds until they grew slightly irate with our presence, then moved off before we disturbed or upset them too much.

Ringstad - (arctic tern)

Ringstad - (cormorants)

After a fast crossing of the wide Eidsfjorden, we reached a scattering of small rocky outcrops where a large colony of cormorants nested.  They sat dramatically on the top of rounded bumps thickly coated with guano, their bodies neatly silhouetted against the greying sky.  We next travelled to view a colony of yellow headed gannets, where they similarly stood around in large groups, resting in the afternoon sun.  We cruised past many small lighthouses or stone day-markers, and later passed a very remote house on a small island that the current owner was transforming into a hotel to offer an exclusive, peaceful experience.  It was perched precariously on a steep, rugged cliff and reachable only by boat.

Ringstad - (gannets on rock)

Ringstad - (sea eagle swoops)

On our return leg, close to home, Ian suddenly veered the rib boat violently to the left, turning a sharp bend and then cutting the engines to glide towards a small island.  He had spotted the main focus of the trip, a sea eagle, watching us from its high perch.  Ian threw a fish into the water, knowing that an eagle could spot it from up to 2km away, and we sat back with pregnant anticipation. In only a few moments, we saw the huge sea eagle take off, with its wing span of two and a half metres, then elegantly swoop down and take the fish from the water, talons first.  It was the definite highlight of the rib-boat trip, and we felt privileged to have witnessed it at such close quarters.

Ringstad - (a rowing)

Ringstad - (n rowing)

That night we were offered a la carte in the restaurant, and we both chose to have peppered steaks with frites from the menu, which was a very tasty, richly sublime and rare treat. We later celebrated our wonderful day, and dinner, with a fun trip around the sheltered bay in a small rowing boat, peacefully floating around and absorbing the view.  After a few days we have expected the beauty to wane and our enthusiasm for it all to wear off, even a little, but we were both still deeply enthralled by the subtlety of the changing light on the islands and on the extensive saw-tooth mountain backdrop.  We could see the peaks of the Lofoten Islands far to the back, with the island of Hadsel standing tall in front, set just across the deep blue Eidsfjorden.

Part 2 to follow.

Northern France – The First Five Days

Day 1

Rolling off the ferry in the port town of Dieppe sandwiched between a convoy of commercial lorries made Benny feel much smaller than usual. It was late at night and we were both tired from the long drive south. With less than a kilometre to drive until our first overnight aire, our inaugural experience of driving on the right was welcomingly unchallenging. After a night’s nervous sleep we were excited to wake up in a busy port adjacent to imposing cliffs, albeit in low mist and constant drizzle.  A quick reshuffling of priorities due to weather and our first stop now became the historic city of Rouen.

Armed with no information on how best to park ‘le camping-car’ in this (or any other) city, we were at the mercy of French signposts to assist. Ignoring city centre signs, we spotted a long riverside gravelled parking area under a bridge and stopped up, leaving us only a five minute brisk walk to the centre’s sights.

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Soaked but happy, we splashed our way first to Rouen’s cathedral, famously painted dozens of times in changing light and weather by Claude Monet. The imposing and yet delicately detailed facade was a striking contrast to the impressively time-twisted medieval timber structures of adjacent buildings. We wandered around the old centre, enjoying the narrow streets, the Grand Horlage clock tower and adjacent cloisters.

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Our drive south to Giverny, to avoid motorway tolls, was on winding A-roads through small, pretty stone and timer built villages, with plenty of roundabouts and traffic lights to keep us thinking about driving on the right.

The village must be overrun on fine summer days, but on a rainy, dull September day the vast parking areas were relatively quiet.  A large bronze head of a bearded Monet greeted us on arrival and a short walk took us to the entry point of his house and gardens.

The long stone with salmon-colour rendered house with green window shutters was vibrant and alive with exceptionally varied planting externally and paintings internally. Many accurate copies of Monet’s paintings hang just where the originals did many years ago, allowing an insight into his working life. Externally, the waterlily pond was a true highlight, with many still in flower even this late in the season.  It was lovely to see the original inspirational source for so many familiar paintings, studied in a distant arty past.

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We returned northwards to the small town of Pont de L’Arches to overnight in a quiet riverside aire, luckily bagging the penultimate space despite our late arrival.

Aires in France are basically municipally run specialist ‘camping car’ park spots. They are unmanned and cannot be booked in advance, operating on a first-come first-served basis.  Popular Aires are busy and, if full, can end with disappointment so a backup plan is always required.

After a pleasant stroll around the town centre and local church, we had dinner and settled in for the night, buzzing with ideas and possibilities when considering the success of our first day on the road.

Day 2

Our second day was mostly about relocating further west, so we undertook an ambling four hour journey, avoiding motorway tolls, to Avranches.  We passed through many small villages and settlements, all with a distinctive style. Comfortable now with driving on the right, the lack of traffic even on popular french routes is a welcome surprise. We stopped in what was obviously a very popular aire with no true spaces, but double- parked across another van with agreement from the kindly Aussie couple within.

Steeped in WW2 history, Avranches played a key strategic role and hosts a large monument to General Patten, complete with tank. We passed a pleasant day exploring the town and local parks, with Jardin De Plantes a highlight, sculptured and beautifully planted,  overlooking the central Notre Dame church. We returned to the park early evening after dinner with sketchbooks and pencils to draw a little and later to watch the sun set over the distant Mont St Michel, tomorrow’s goal.

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Day 3

Early (for us) start for a longish off -road cycle to visit the island fortress of Mont St Michel. Began in 738 CE as a seat of learning, the island grew with the construction of a large Benedictine monastery and the trade brought by being a popular pilgrimage.  Today the weather was perfect, maybe even a little too nice – a hot mid 20s with only insubstantial wispy clouds in the deep blue sky. Avranches sits on a steep hill so we knew we’d pay later for the initial exhilarating downhill to the water’s edge. From here, a long distance walking and cycling path hugged the coast all the way around to Mont St. Michel, 30km west.

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We had the cycle route mostly to ourselves for the duration and were constantly amazed by the lack of people around, especially on such a lovely day. The crowds suddenly grew larger as we approached the imposing site via the new causeway, as most visitors only walk the last kilometre or so from a huge coach park on the mainland.  Horse-drawn carriages and specialist buses run back and forth for those not able or willing to make the walk.

We passed through the narrow entrance archway and along the crammed lower streets, thronged with colourful shops and visitors.  This lower area is free to access and many had taken the opportunity to explore and browse.  We climbed up many more stone stairs to the monastery entrance and bought tickets to access the main buildings and enjoyed a few hours exploring.  The views down and out to sea from the external plazas on each level were exceptional, showing off just how precarioulsy perched the entire structure is.

We returned by the same route, small country roads and riverside bridleway. We chatted to two old local characters sat outside their home, who refilled our water bottles for us.  Their French was practically indecipherable to us, but we had a nice conversation regardless.

In total the cycle was just shy of 60km, mostly off-road, but felt longer in the legs as we’re not yet fully bike-fit. Still, a fantastic day of water-side cycling in blazing sun.

Day 4

We left our comfortable aire in Avranches and drove to St. Malo, with the plan being to explore the historic central area.  But on arrival we found thousands of full parking spaces and no clear options for stopping with a motorhome, so reluctantly moved on.  What little we did see of the town looked very nice, so will require a visit again, some day.  We headed on to our next stop, at Dinan. We passed through the Port de Dinan and parked in an aire by the river Rance under a hugely imposing viaduct.

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We walked up a steep gravel path and steps leading to the main town walls, to again find another beautifully preserved medieval town.  The main tree-lined square and huge central church boasted a small plaza with views over the river.  Timber framed buildings and winding streets with cute artisan shops led through and around the town.

Later we found a steep cobbled path, rue Jerzual, winding back down to the Port de Dinan and enjoyed watching a local running club running intervals up the busy street.  Lots of quirky local shops and tiny cafes and bars line this rue, creating a wonderful buzz.

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Day 5

Today’s cycle began in the very pretty Port de Dinan, following the river Rance northwards on the western bank. High cliffs on one side, the river slowly opened out from narrow stream to full marina, housing many dinghies and sailing yachts moored in open water.

We followed a chalky pathway lined, and sometimes enclosed, by tall trees.  It passed through several villages en route before it took us most of the way to the town of Dinard. Just two extra minutes along a quiet road we turned left down a steep cobbled path to be faced with a stunning vista of open sands, built-up coastline and many sailing boats, framed by the prominent city walls of St. Malo a few miles behind.

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We hugged the water’s edge admiring the view, almost giggling with excitement. Cutting back into town we locked up our bikes and explored the centre on foot, before eating lunch in a quiet, shaded square.

We returned to the first beach, la Plage du Prieure, and relaxed on the expansive sands.  Besides a happy, rowdy crowd of students playing volleyball at the eastern end, only a handful of locals shared the beach with us, many of them seemingly on extended lunch breaks and soon disappeared back indoors. We swam lengths parallel to the beach in the cool, calm, surprisingly salty water before relaxing in the hot midday sun slathered in factor 50. It’s a far cry from what our standard Friday lunchtimes consisted of just a few short weeks ago. We passed a delightful hour enjoying the sea and sun before rejoining our bikes and heading back to base by a mostly similar route.

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A 60km cycle with a cooling swim at a lovely beach, finished off with a relaxing beer in the shade of an ancient viaduct by a tranquil river; that’ll do.  It definitely feels now, after all the stresses and efforts to get away, we’re shedding our work skins piece by piece and slowly relaxing into our new lifestyle; living our dream.