Friday, September 08, 2006

We're All Going on a Summer Holiday

Part Two: Vive la France!

A little belatedly (I have been caught up with end of holiday/backtoschoolitis, of which more later), here is the next scintillating story of our summer holidays. Or the tale of how things got worse...

Actually, after our grim day in the caravan, the following day dawned a little brighter and we set off with high expectation on a trip to Neuschwanstein, one of several castles built by mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the nineteenth century - more commonly known for being the castle they used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Spouse has always wanted to go there and though it was a two hour schlep we thought we couldn't come all the way to southern Germany without visiting. And having watched the film on the way through France the kids were reconciled to the fact that their irritatingly castle obsessed parents were going to take them to a slightly more unusual one.

The journey though long, passed without incident. It was only when we came into Hohenschwangau, the little town that sits below Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castle (built by Ludwig's dad, Maximilian II), that things started to get a little on the stressful side. Our Rough Guide to Germany had promised that this was the most rampantly commercial place in Germany - I'd happily concur with that. In fact, barring Lourdes, I think it is possibly the most rampantly commercial place I've ever visited. So naturally, it is rather busy. And our first taste of quite how busy was the traffic jam we joined in Fussen, a little town to the south of Hohenschwangau. We had set off at 9.30 - Spouse wanting to get there as soon as possible - and arrived at Fussen just before 11.30. We then spent an hour queuing to go about three miles. When we finally hit Hohenschwangau itself, we were rewarded with spectacular views of both castles and a nightmarish trawl around the car parks, till we finally found somewhere to park. The weather had been a mixture of sun and showers on our journey, but as soon as we got out of the car the heavens opened (natch), and there was a mass chorus of I need the toilet, which was all very well, but not ones to miss a moneymaking opportunity the good folk of Hohenschwangau charge for the privilege, and our scrabble for change nearly had very dire consequences...

Nature thus satisfied, we set off for the tourist information office, which was uphill. Actually, pretty much everywhere in Hohenschwangau is uphill, so it is fortunate that my children are used to walking. The queues for the castle proving massive, I took the children into a restaurant to get some lunch. By now I was feeling quite confident in German (hey I've coped with a hospital, I can cope with anything) so I ordered pizza for them and what I thought was chicken breast for us. As it turned out my confidence was somewhat misplaced, as we ended up with chicken schnitzel, but you can't get it right all the time. Actually we got it wrong pretty much in every restaurant we went into, as I was always trying to ascertain quite how large the portions were so we didn't over order, but nine times out of ten I didn't make myself understood, or they pretended to ignore me and we ended up with twice as much food as the kids could eat. However, at least the very cheery waiter thoughtfully kept Spouse's aside till he had returned with the tickets. Presumably the queues outside his restaurant are pretty good for business...

On Spouse's return it transpired that the only way of seeing both castles was a guided tour. Our first was at 2.45, but we couldn't get into Neuschwanstein till about 5.45, which was rather later then we wanted, but given that the whole point of coming was to see it, we didn't have a lot of choice. The sun had been out when we were eating, but of course decided to pop behind a big black rain cloud once we got going, so we got everyone's kagoules back on (apart from mine as no 1 had left hers behind, so I just got wet), and set off up the hill to Hohenschwangau. It was a pretty quick stroll up to the top and after we had visited the king's rose garden (into which he would emerge from his rather over the top bathroom), we stood waiting for the tour, while the rain came down once more. Luckily, the rather wild thunderstorm that followed took place when we were inside the castle.

The tour itself was great - though rather ott for my tastes, you have to admire these Bavarian kings their vision. The grand dining room was huge, but apparently never used - this was Maximilian's hunting lodge, and he tended to keep his parties for his main residence. When Ludwig took over he dedicated a lot of the rooms to the Lohengrin myths and being Wagner's patron had a music room dedicated specially to him - apparently Wagner only came twice though, so the piano made specially for him and meant only to be played by him, was only used a handful of times. Ludwig spent seventeen years building Neuschwanstein, and every day looked at how the building was coming along through a telescope in the music room. He never finished the castle, being declared insane by his physician, and two days later both men were found dead in mysterious circumstances by Lake Starnberg. The story goes that they both committed suicide. Hmm, doesn't sound all that likely to me... Or that he was that mad. He apparently had a lot of political enemies, who appear to have got him in a very effective way. I felt quite sorry for him by the end. And boy do you have to admire his vision. While not to my taste, Neuschwanstein is still an incredible place and well worth a visit.

We still had time to kill when we had finished the tour, so as we were all wet and a bit cold we headed for a cafe for that German necessity, Kaffee and Kuchen or in the children's case Heisse Schokolade and Kuchen. No 1 was after black forest gateau, and we followed suit. Once again our language skills weren't enough to ascertain how large the portions were so the other three got masses of cake at vast expense, which none of them liked particularly...

Heading back up the hill, we decided we'd stroll to the top of the castle, rather then waiting in the rain with the crowds for a horse and trap (which no doubt cost a fortune anyway). And we were very glad we did. Despite the steepness of our climb, the views, particularly over the lakes, were spectacular. And though even I found it hardgoing at times, when we eventually got to the top, it was well worth it. Ludwig built a bridge over an incredibly steep gorge from where you can look back at the castle. I'm not normally too wussy about heights, but this was - high very very high. And springy. And there seemed to be rather a lot of people on it. Knowing the way our holiday was going, I wasn't at all sure we would get across and back unscathed, particularly as Spouse was suggesting we have a go at reaching the resonant frequency... Had I seen the view of the bridge you get from the castle I doubt I would have gone on it all...

The castle itself was a bit disappointing to me. It was built on a grand scale it's true, but so much of it is unfinished, there isn't a whole lot to see. And while I can admire the ambition of the King's courtroom, which is decorated in gold leaf and very splendid, it's a bit ornate for my tastes. However, the views from the castle itself are stunning and that was the highlight for me.

The kids of course loved it all, and though it transpired that only one staircase in the castle was actually used for the film, they couldn't get over the fact they had visited the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang castle - even if their legs were aching.

As we left, via the inevitable giftshop, my faustian pact with no 2 resurfaced as she started demanding the gift we hadn't bought her at Meersburg. The giftshop being full of really expensive tat, we promised something when we got back to the town. There were several giftshops on our way down, but they were all packing up, and offered yet more tat. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, it was so late there wasn't a gift shop open and no2 was throwing a major sulk. Never mind, darling, I rashly promised, I'm sure we'll find something in France.

France was our destination for the following day. We had arranged to meet some friends there and camp together. However, being as we were so busy before we left, and being as Spouse was incredibly difficult to pin down and make the arrangements, and I was very distracted and got my dates muddled, our friends were coming to France a week earlier then I had realised. This meant that rather then go to our intended destination of the Loire in two days, we had to make it across in one. Oh thank the Lord for in car DVD players.

By dint of several emails sent via the internet cafe at our Bodensee campsite, followed up with phone calls via Spouse's mobile (mine had died and I couldn't recharge it) we managed to find a campsite between us to the south of Tours in a place called Montbazon. The distance from where we were was roughly 700km, which is a very very long way... And had we packed and set off early it would have been just about manageable. However, having promised to get up early and finish the packing as Spouse was driving, I managed to sleep in, and everything took much longer to sort out then we had bargained for. It is amazing how easy it is to unpack from a car, and how much harder to pack it all up again. Particularly as four children can scatter their belongings all over said car taking up all available neat little spaces for shoving that last vital object in place.

However, eventually we were ready and off we set for the next stage on our journey. The sun at this point proceeded to blaze forth with glory and for the first time since our arrival we could properly see the mountains in Switzerland. Grr....

We had planned to go via Germany to get to our destination, but taking a wrong turn, and discovering that Switzerland had motorways while our German route did not, we decided we'd go that way instead. Which may or may not have been a mistake, given that we don't know how long the German route would have taken. However, we were charged the privilege of 30 euros for driving on some frankly indifferent motorways and having no idea of the speed limit, and not fancying a trip to a Swiss police cell to cement our happy family holiday memories Spouse took it nice and slow.

As it turned out we didn't have a lot of choice with our speed, particularly when we got to Basle and discovered that the whole of the motorway system had been turned into one ginormous set of roadworks. Spouse, who doesn't have a great deal of faith in my map reading at the best of times (most unjustified I might add, as I don't often get us lost, and when I do, I usually get us out of trouble fairly quickly) wouldn't believe me when I told him we hadn't gone off the motorway. Well, we had, but we weren't on the wrong road. It's just to get to the road we wanted, we were diverted through tramlines, and down tiny tunnels which spiralled downwards in ever decreasing circles, getting lower and lower until we were in fear of the roofbox being ripped off...

It was only when we got to the French border and came right out onto the motorway that he actually admitted I hadn't led us wrong.

It was with great relief that we finally got onto the peage and started putting some miles behind us. By now though it was nearing four o clock and we had only put five squares of the map behind us - we had another nine to go and were getting slightly twitchy about what time we might arrive. The sun was still shining - dammit!- and we both felt frustrated that today of all days the rain hadn't set in again. But at least the kids weren't making too much fuss. An entire series of the original Dr Who seemed to help.

By seven o clock we were nearly at Orleans, but we were on a two lane motorway in which we encountered some of the most stressful driving I have ever witnessed. Namely cars whizzing in and out of the overtaking lane leaving the barest minimum gap, but all going at a speed at which you really didn't oughter be doing when you're behaving like that. I was white knuckled all the way, but Spouse's coping mechanism was to make jolly little jokes. Sadly I didn't feel like laughing.

We rang our friend at Orleans to say we were about an hour away, but in reality it turned in to nearly two as the motorway disappeared here, and though the road was good, it wasn't that good. Still, at least we had lost the maniacal overtakers.

We eventually arrived at the campsite at about 9.30, and it was time for me to shift gear and switch my brain into French mode. Which, after a week of German and years of no practice in French took some doing I can tell you. Still, I understood sufficiently where we needed to park our tent, and that we had an electronic key to open up the barrier, which was all I really needed for now.

We put up the tent while the children ran down to the river, conveniently behind our camping spot, and wonderfully idyllic. By this time it was getting dark, and Spouse was desperate for some liquid refreshment. Sadly in our haste to get to the campsite we hadn't purchased any alcohol en route, the cafe attached to the campsite had just shut and we were left sipping cans of warm beer. Time for bed, said Zebedee, rather grumpily, tomorrow had to be a better day.

Tomorrow, as it happens, was. Or at least to start with...

The rain held off long enough for us to visit Chinon - a wonderful ruin where Henry II made his court. It was amazing, and all the more spectacular for me, as I had recently read Elizabeth Chadwick's The Greatest Knight, which makes mention of the place, and thanks to her brilliant descriptions I could really picture how a mediaeval castle might be.

The highlight though was discovering that Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master was actually imprisoned there and had inscribed his name on the dungeon wall. I know diddly squat about the Templars, but they are one of Spouse's passions (and well before The Da Vinci Code made them trendy) and he had told me Jacques dramatic story. Imprisoned by Philip IV of France (basically to steal all the Templars' money) and accused of heresy, Jacques spent some eighteen years in prison before his eventual death at the stake. He apparently cursed both Philip and Clement V and promised they would both be dead in a year, which they were. So it was very exciting to discover that he had actually been imprisoned here... another frisson of touching real history moment.

As was the discovery that Joan of Arc also had her first meeting with the Dauphin here (and you realise what a damned long way she travelled - Reims isn't exactly a stroll away). There was a whole tower dedicated to Joan which was fascinating, although a little tricky to ge the gist of what was going on, as most of the information was in French.

The sprogs by now were getting all castled out, so we wandered down to the town and got some lunch at a pleasant little cafe in the square. I do love the way the Europeans, particuarly the French do cafe culture. Whenever we try it in England it is never quite the same. And it's not just the weather - we just aren't relaxed enough for it. Me, I could sit all day and watch the world go by at a cafe, but Spouse finds it too tedious for words.

We headed back home intending to have a barbie that evening, but by now the weather had changed, and though we managed a quick swim in the pool, the rain was soon coming down in droves. We did manage our barbie, but ate it under the tent door which serves as a porch when propped up on sticks. Spouse and I were now beginning to feel as though the weather gods had really got it in for us, and went to bed feeling glummer then ever. The rain continued to pour down, and I woke intermittently through the night, fretting about the proximity of the river and ever mindful of the dire warnings all over the campsite that in the event of flooding we would be roused by a siren and would have to leave all our belongings behind.

So it was with some anxiety that I woke at around four to the sound of a siren in the distance. Thinking I had imagined it, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. There it was again. And there appeared to be several people talking outside our tent in excited French.

Bugger off! was Spouse's grumpy response, and would have been mine probably but I heard them say, Anglais? Oui, I replied. Voleurs! Voleurs! Came the urgent reply. I leapt out of bed, shoved on some shoes and emerged from the tent into the dark teeming rain, to be met by two Frenchmen who were pointing at my tent. Someone had slashed the door.

Oh shit. We'd been burgled.

(to be continued...)

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