In the footsteps of the famous

We didn’t plan it this way, if fact we hardly planned it at all. A six week Grand Tour of Europe in our motorhome, visiting places we’d not seen. The rough outline was to start off in Holland, go into Germany and then play it by ear as to where next, with a visit to Weimar high on our list of “must sees”. Leaving in late summer, we were to return in early October. Our default plan was that we would follow the sun. This we did, but we somehow also managed to follow in the footsteps of the famous.

In Hamelin we couldn’t help but be immersed in the story of the Pied Piper. From the campsite by the River Weser it was an easy walk into the town, and once there we appropriately followed the sound of music, as did the children in the famous story. There was a festival in full swing. Live bands ranged from jazz to noisy europop. We’d missed the weekly enactment of the Pied Piper story but we spotted several “Pipers” decked out in full costume. We didn’t see any rats…

Travelling east through the Harz Mountains we reached Weimar, famous for the founding of the Weimar Republic between the two World Wars, and a hot bed for German creativity. The Bauhaus Arts and Crafts Movement was founded there, writer and politician Goethe lived there, as did poet and playwright Schiller. Composer Liszt also lived for some time in Weimar.  Goethe & Schiller

We visited the homes of both Goethe and Schiller, now interesting museums with rooms intact as when lived in by these two cultural giants. Weimar itself has a pleasant cosmopolitan atmosphere, wide leafy boulevards and extensive parkland. The central square is dominated by a statue of its two great men, who were close friends.

In the original rough plan, it was planned that we would continue to head east towards Dresden and then to Saxon Germany with its weird rock formations. But the weather app was reporting highs of 13 degrees there, with rain, so we implemented the default plan and followed the sun south.

Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance appealed and the well-appointed lake shore campsite was a pleasant 10 minute walk from the town. Views across the lake to the Austrian and Swiss Alps were a daily delight, as were the nearby nature trail, cycle path and lakeside bars where we enjoyed our early evening weissbier. Once again we were travelling in the footsteps of the famous. Friedrichshafen is home to the Zeppelin Museum, and is the city where these airships were born. The Museum is well worth a visit, with a mock up of part of an airship. We learned that they were built with large viewing windows on the underside, giving passengers a wide angled panorama of the earth below. After the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, this method of air travel ceased, but it’s still possible to take a trip in a Zeppelin over Lake Constance. It’s a fascinating and impressive sight to see one pass overhead.

We moved on, travelling through Switzerland, Italy and into France where we stayed in St. Rémy de Provence. We knew it was famous for Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” but there were only a couple of tatty information boards about this. St. Rémy is also the birthplace of Nostradamus, famous for his prophesies, but we saw no other reference to him at all apart from a side alleyway named rue Nostradamus, and a Banksy-type graffiti image of him on a wall. Did they miss a trick here in St. Rémy by not featuring him more, or are they a bit ashamed of him and his prophecies?

Heading north we stayed at the municipal site in Langres, set on the ramparts of this picturesque hilltop town, once again chancing upon another famous figure. Philosopher and writer Diderot was born here, and Langres proudly celebrates the man who wrote the Encyclopédie, a dictionary of arts and sciences.

Famed for its archiQuiche Lorrainetectural grandeur, Nancy beckoned. The École de Nancy led the Art Nouveau movement in France and the city offers a visual feast to be savoured. Whilst there we sampled one of the region’s famous dishes. I have to question the saying, “Real men don’t eat quiche”. The portions of Quiche Lorraine we had for lunch were so large and rich we didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day!

This edited and updated article first appeared in the Murvi Club in-house e-magazine.

Paradise found

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Give me a few butterflies and birds to look at, maybe some dragonflies and bees, and I’m in my element. Of course, all this has to take place somewhere warm and sunny and preferably on a campsite which is not just any old campsite, whilst spending relaxing days of leisure in Audrey, our motorhome.

carpenter bee in pollen

One September few years ago this state of relative bliss was achieved. Having travelled south through France via a couple of sites in the Loire region we revisited the Dordogne and the aptly named Camping Le Paradis, a beautiful sub-tropical garden of a campsite with large shaded pitches and immaculate facilities.

Leaving behind the mosquitoes which had feasted on my blood in the Loire, we didn’t encounter any at Le Paradis, in spite of its direct access to the River Vézère, which flows alongside the site. Here I was able to indulge in close up viewing of shiny violet-black carpenter bees as they busied themselves amongst the colourful flowerbeds on site. These solitary bees are alarmingly large and make a loud buzz as they swiftly fly between flowers, seeking out pollen. One of the many I saw was smothered in it. They rarely sting and nest in dead wood, hence the name. In bee-spotting mode, I watched a red tailed bumble bee, also busy with pollen. The black and yellow furry stripes on its abdomen made it look as if it was wearing a frilly ra-ra skirt.

Lush vegetation abounds on site and in addition to the many different kinds of bees, the flowerbeds are visited by hummingbird hawk moths, fascinating day-flying moths which hover as they collect pollen through a long proboscis. They resemble real humming birds, have beige furry bodies and black and white striped rear ends. They’re a delight to watch but are difficult to photograph as they move so fast. Time can stand still just observing these insects go about their daily life.

There were plenty of butterflies to keep me happy as I walked along by the Vézère with views of the historic Roque Saint-Christophe on the opposite bank. This large IMG_3682prehistoric dwelling has numerous rock shelters on five levels, which have been hollowed out from the limestone cliffs. Earliest traces of occupation go back 50,000 years.

Having been to this ancient site, it was the butterflies which demanded my attention. Adonis blues darted across the nearby fields, in and out of the long grasses, and sometimes visited our pitch. They look like bright jewels in the sunshine. Meadow browns were everywhere, mostly where it was sunny, whilst the speckled wood butterflies preferred the shaded areas along by the river.

The high point for me was spotting a lesser purple emperor butterfly feasting on horse dung in a field not far from the campsite’s community herb and berry garden. Seeing this large and rather beautiful butterfly as it tucked into what might be considered a disgusting meal, the interconnectedness of the web of life was demonstrated while its wings reflected a purple sheen like shot silk.

And then, of course, there was the snake. Walking along by the river bank one day, I’d stepped off the path to get a better view of the water as it flowed over some reeds. “Why are you standing next to that snake?” asked husband. Executing a backwards leap that would have had a ballet master shouting “Bravo!” I managed to take in the lazily curled length (50-80cm according to my research) of this smooth snake (rapidly researched when we got back to the van together with its status – non-poisonous), before it quickly slithered into the nearby undergrowth. No photo of this; I was as busy getting out of its way as it was getting out of mine!

We did tear ourselves away from the flora and fauna to go to the nearby attractive town of Sarlat, well worth a visit, but decided to give the Lascaux 2 caves in Montignac a miss. The lure of the leisure time in the sun was just too strong to be ignored!

This edited and updated article first appeared in the Murvi Club in-house e-magazine.

Costa Rica kitchen

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We stopped at this roadside cafe and fruit stall while travelling in Costa Rica. We’s seen the strawberries on display and wanted to take some back to the hotel with us as a juicy treat for dessert.

The smiling lady in the kitchen was happy for me to take her photo while she prepared food. Her companion posed obligingly, offering the strawberries. But I have to be honest. Although the strawberries looked delicious, they were not very  tasty, and were a bit of a disappointment. Still, the photos aren’t too bad.

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The freedom bug

I’ve been a motorhomer or 20 years. I love the freedom, flexibility and sheer joy of being on the road. I wouldn’t swap van trips for package holidays, and I reckon it all started when I was sat on the back seat of my dad’s black Ford Anglia. Here’s how.

We were following our brand new Connaught Cruiser caravan which was being towed from the deConnaught Cruiseraler’s in Ilford to a campsite near the Essex coast. It was 1950, I was 5 years old and completely innocent – I had no idea that the “freedom” bug would bite me hard as soon as we started taking holidays in that caravan. A magical exploration of seaside and countryside opened up. There were sand pies, Punch and Judy shows, dens to be made in undergrowth, and a stream to be paddled and fished in. Then there were the birds, butterflies and wild flowers to spot and tick off in “I-Spy” books, and long grasses to lie in watching bugs and insects of all kinds at close quarters.

The freedom bug that bit me continued to nibble away contently. In my 20’s, as a young mum, we took our 6 month old son on his first camping holiday in France. This was the 1970’s and there was a horrified reaction from family and friends to taking a baby abroad, let alone go camping with him. “You can’t do that!” they said. Fortunately, I’d married someone who was quite happy to go along with my passion for the freedom, fresh air and flexibility that camping offers. He’d never had holidays like it and he’s probably just a tad more enthusiastic about the freedom and flexibility thing than I am, having not grown up with it and coming to it later in life, so to speak.

We graduated from holidays in hired tents to owning our own but for years there had been a background yearning, a constant inner gnawing at us by the freedom bug, to have our own motorcaravan. In the 1980’s we nurtured a pipe dream of taking the children to the United States, hiring an RV and having the holiday of a lifetime; the dream dissipated when we did the sums. Practically, this wasn’t going to work as we simply couldn’t afford it. But the open road still beckoned along with the attraction of having a home on wheels.

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To the manor born

Hazelwood - I was born here!I was born in a castle – a real castle with lots of history steeped into its walls and surroundings, and a mention in the Domesday Book. The castle is Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster in Yorkshire. It was owned by barons and dukes for 900 years, and in 1461 a battle in the Wars of the Roses took place on the adjacent moor. It has priest holes and underground passages, and its own chapel. It is now a rather classy country hotel but it retains most of its original features.

Between 1939 and 1953 the castle was requisitioned as a maternity hospital and my mum was booked in to Hazlewood for my birth in September 1945. She left heavily blitzed London for Yorkshire and going north must have felt like going to a foreign land for her; she was a Londoner through and through.

Her stories about the castle as a maternity home included a description of the large Norman Hall as the lying-in ward, where the expectant mums stayed. Babies were born in a separate, adjacent room where Queen Victoria is supposed to have once stayed. It has a huge stone fireplace with ornate chimney breast and is now used as the room where weddings take place.

 The Norman Hall used as the lying-in ward.      The impressive birthing room

During the time that Hazlewood was used as a maternity home, over 2,500 babies were born there. I’ve made a couple of nostalgic visits which brought my mum’s stories to life. Especially moving was to stand in that grand room where I was born.

My dad travelled from London to see me as a new-born. The bus dropped him off at the end of the castle drive and he walked for what seemed nearly a mile between huge rhododendron bushes. When he arrived, the matron told all the ladies in the ward to smarten themselves up as the King had come to visit. Then in walked my dad! It was a story that used to come out at family gatherings, as did the fact that there were not enough cots for all the babies, so a bed was made for me in a large drawer.

In the courtyard

Requiem for a dying bee

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I found this large buff-tailed bumblebee on the grass in our garden, still, dormant and not appearing too happy. I watched it for a while and kept the dog out of the area. It wasn’t moving. Was it tired? Did it need a little sugar water? One wing looked crumpled and squashed. Was it injured and in recovery?

I tried sugar water but it slowly walked away from the sweetness so I placed it on the garden stone bench. It wandered abound a bit, did a large yellow poo, then settled down again.

I left it and came inside to do a web search on “bee with crumpled wing”, described as follows:

Deformed wing virus (DWV) is one of the viral diseases associated with Varroa mite infestations. Other things can cause an occasional case of deformed wings and a diagnosis is impossible without laboratory tests. However, if you see a bee with distorted, misshapen, twisted, or wrinkled wings, there is a good chance you are seeing the results of deformed wing virus.

There was nothing I could do to help, except place the bee on an alium flower – a favourite, chosen bloom which is currently frequented by many bees, busy collecting pollen from the small star-like purple flowers which make up the head of each bloom.

And there I’ve left it, and nature will eventually take its course. It’s currently hunkered down amongst the myriad flower stems which make up these large globular blooms, and is supported by them, as if in a hammock. It should be a silken one; I think it is probably a queen.

Sleep well, beautiful bee. You may well live to see another day.