Thursday, August 24, 2006

We're all going on a summer holiday...

Part One: Auf Wiedersehen, Pet

You may have noticed (if you're still out there that is) that I have been rather quiet for the last month. That is because we have been on our summer holidays. I was going to blog before I went about a fabulous evening Spouse and I had seeing Texas at our local race course, but ran out of time before I went, so helas the moment has passed. (But to the four annoying pissheads who insisted on dancing wildly in front of us for the duration, may you rot in hell, you irritating gits).

Anyway, moving swiftly on...

As the tale of our holidays this year is somewhat epic - eventful doesn't quite cover it somehow - I have broken it up into a two parter, so as not to bore you interminably...

Our tale starts on a sunny Saturday in August, when I ran round all day house cleaning/last minute packing etc, while Spouse tried to work out how on earth we were going to fit all the luggage in our shiny new MPV, bought specially so we could go on said epic holiday. As it was the first day of the holidays, he not unnaturally woke up with a raging sore throat - picked up from me no doubt, as I had been suffering earlier in the week. Given that we had rather a lot of driving to do, he decided to dose himself up with antibiotics to stave it off. Which turned out to be a somewhat optimistic hope...

Last year we went camping in Poole and the weather was dire, so this year Spouse had the bright idea of going camping in Europe. The weather surely had to be better there. And given that we had such a hot July and the weathermen were predicting an even hotter August, we set off with high hopes of tres relaxing vacances.

As if.

This being OUR family, of course the weather in Europe decided to play up.

Though we left England in the sun, and caught a little bit en route to our first night destination of Metz, and it stayed with us on our arrival in Germany on our second day, by day three the rain had set in. And boy how it set in.

However, first things first. We had decided to break up our journey as though we have DVD players in the car (thank the lord!) we thought 6-7 hours might be too much for the sprogs. En route we took a break at Rheims and had a fabulous hour wandering round the cathedral. We were fascinated to discover that Clovis and all subsequent French kings were crowned there (including one called Dagobert - remember that name, he crops up all over the place) - and it was also where Jeanne d'Arc ended up (before the English nabbed her, obviously) and the dauphin was crowned.

From Rheims to Metz wasn't too far, so we arrived comfortably about 5.30pm. What was not quite so confortable was a) finding the Novotel we were staying in (we ended up driving three sides round a square and rather a lot of marital stress ensued as a result) and b) when we got there realised that at a height of 1.8m we weren't going to be able to get into the car park as our lovely MPV though large isn't large enough to take all our luggage sans roofbox. I hopped out, ran into reception, which bizarrely was a floor up from where the entrance of the hotel was, and explained the problem in my halting French. Pas de probleme, says my French maitre d', I will open the gates. I go back and explained this to Spouse, illegally parked as he was on a Metz side street. He looked doubtfully at the entrance to the car park, and sent me up to check again. Eventually after much gesticulation and me saying over and over again, ma voiture est trop haut, we got there and he told me we could park in front of the hotel.

Our next bit of excitement was sorting out the sleeping arrangements. I had booked online and found a great deal on a room for 74 euros. It said it had a double bed and a sofabed, so I thought that would be plenty of space for six. I couldn't find any mention of a family room, but I had emailed and explained there would be six of us, and no one had written back to say there wasn't a problem. However, when we went to check in, it transpired that no more then three people could stay in each room. I explained that the children were pretty small and we could all share, but he was adamant, that we had to have two rooms - next to each other? I said, Oh yes, was the response. Which is why of course they were nowhere near each other, on opposite sides of the corridor...

After some debate, and realising there was more then enough space for us all to sleep in the one room, I went down and argued the toss with him, as I had also twigged we were about to be charged an extra 150 euros for the other room. He argued it back but I stood my ground, he spoke to his manager, and voila! We were back to one room for 74 euros. It was only when we went to bed that we discovered that the sofa bed in the corner was a very very small single. So while the children snored in the double, Spouse and I elbowed each other all night long. In the morning we declined the offer of breakfast at 12 euros ahead, instead finding a lovely cafe on a square where we got hot chocolate and croissants and felt (despite an ominous burst of rain) that our holiday had really begun. We managed a quick swim in the hotel when the sun came out briefly and then were on our way again.

The sun followed us through Germany to just outside Tubingen where we staying with Spouse's cousin and family. It was lovely to see them, and they couldn't have made us more welcome. After a very jolly evening, when the wine flowed (and after it had so did my German conversation - amazing how fluent one feels after a bottle of red...) we retired to bed looking forward to visiting the mediaeval town the next day.

Tubingen was (as we'd been promised) beautiful and very picturesque. The main square, with it's huge Rathaus (town hall) had amazing buildings, many of which were ornately decorated in a way you just simply don't ever see in England. We visited an ancient seminary, where Spouse's great aunt was the sometime cook, and his cousin's father trained as a vicar, and the outside of the castle (it was shut - for which, given the number of castles we subsequently saw was probably a great relief to the children). We did get to hear the bat colony who have taken over one of the towers - being a protected species no one can move them, even though they have taken up residence next to an ancient 80 000 litre wine barrel, which is one of the castle's key attractions. If you press your ear against the door, you can hear them all scratching and screeching away... very Count Dracula....

In the evening Spouse and I went on a jolly trip to the Max Planck Institute. Sorry that should have been prefaced by World Famous - except I had never heard of it, being a total ignoramus in the science department. Spouse being somewhat cleverer then me couldn't let the opportunity of being in the vicinity of such a world famous place pass without going to visit, and his cousin kindly offered to babysit to allow us to go on an open day.

Now I don't like to stereotype other nationalities, but I was always under the impression that our Deutsch Kusine were much better then we are at organising things. Not on the evidence of this particular evening... Spouse and I queued up to get tickets (having been told earlier in the day we just had to turn up), for ages before it transpired that it wasn't going to be possible to attend all five of the different programs on offer - having a simulated helicopter ride, going for a light and sound show, etc. - and people were being limited to one ticket each. Of course, all the good programs had gone (unless we wanted to hang about until eleven thirty, which we didn't particularly), so we ended up going to hear a lecture (conducted entirely in German natch - given that I can't grasp most of the concepts when I hear them in my own language, I was lost after the first minute) on senses and how they can be tricked. However, we did get to play on a neat machine which I presume has some kind of industrial use, where you think you are picking something up, but actually it's an illusion and you are getting an electronic hand to pick the object up for you. We also spent a merry half an hour wandering around looking at different optical illusions till our eyes went screwy and we decided enough was enough.

The next day took us to Wildbad, a spa town in the Black Forest which Spouse had visited as a child. Of course memory being a fickle thing and the times having a-changed somewhat, things weren't quite as he remembered. However we went for a lovely walk by the river, the children all ate their lunch without grumbling (always a worry when we're abroad) and we then took a mountain train to a place called Sommer's Berg where there were fantastic views of the valley. The rain held off, the sun came out, we sat at a cafe eating Black Forest gateau (of course) and I fulfilled a longheld ambition to visit the Black Forest (if only a small part of it), which was just as beautiful as I had imagined.

Our third day in Germany took us to Lake Constance, where our wonderful hosts have a caravan, which they generously lent to us for a few days. At this point, we started to get a taste of things to come. Spouse having got rid of his sore throat, came down with it again, and no 1 also began to suffer - unusually for her she stopped eating and wandered around looking pale and wan. Oh well, we thought if we get some sunshine, everything will seem much better.


Our first night in the caravan was spent listening to the rain pounding on the ceiling. Being of far too imaginative a nature, I lay awake half the night wondering a) how much rain it would take to make the Bodensee flood and b) whether we would end up being one of those families you see on the news who get flooded out on their holidays.

The next day the rain stopped momentarily while we set off to explore the Bodensee. I had of course entertained fond hopes of running around the lake and then practising my swimming. But as we looked over at Switzerland - barely visible in the grey fog across the lake (we were assured there were mountains to see, but we only ever glimpsed them) - my hopes receded rather rapidly. This really wasn't the weather for swimming in lakes, even for me, who likes to swim wherever I am.

However, there was plenty to see in and around the lake, so we spent a pleasant morning in a place called Langenargen, and then when the rain, really set in, we drove up the coast to a place called Meersburg.

Now that turned out to be really worth the effort, as it has a wonderful old town and a fabulous castle which dates back to about the 9th century. It is perched on top of a pinnacle and there is only one way across (luckily it is not possible to appreciate quite how high up and precarious you are walking across the path to the castle, till after you have been in it.) The entrance still has buckets hanging up in it in case of fire, and the first part of the castle is decorated with wonderful old murals dating from god knows when. In the first room we went into the names of the various owners were inscribed on the wall, including dear old Dagobert, whoever he was (an early Frankish king, I think.) He certainly got about a bit. We were all impressed with the Knight's Hall which had tapestries on the wall, and real boar skins on the window seats, and a fabulous drinking cup resting in an elk's foot. I don't know how accurate it was really, but you certainly got a great idea as to how bleak life in a mediaeval castle must have been, and thanks to its lack of accessibility the castle was never taken, so there is a whole lot more to see then in its English equivalent.

I particularly liked the great trough we passed which apparently in olden days was filled with wine by the lord, for the villagers to drink on feastdays. And there was also the scariest largest oubliette you've seen in your life. Talk about throwing away the key...

So much there to capture the imagination. And also for me it was like touching history somehow. I studied sixteenth and seventeenth century European history when I was at school, and it is a period which still fascinates me. So to walk into the armoury and see not only a picture of General Tilly ( a particularly nasty and brutal leader in the Thirty Years War) but an example of the armour some of his troops wore, gave me that frisson of excitement I always get when I encounter something real that I have read about in a book. At times like this I always want to jump in a time machine. The enduring disappointment of my adult life is knowing that time travel actually doesn't work... It would be so neat if it did.

The children on balance were pretty interested in the castle, but once we got to the gift shop and offered them the chance to get something things went slightly pear shaped, as no 2 insisted on having a cuddly toy - which as Spouse rightly pointed out she could get in England and refused to buy her. Thus thwarted she went into a huge sulk until I took her to another shop to see if we could find her something she liked. Helas, there was nothing, and she sulked pretty much all the way home. In the meantime I indulged in a faustian pact and promised her that she could have something else the next time we found a gift shop...

The rain was still coming down in sheets as we set off for home. We had promised the children swimming, but there was no way we could swim in the lake, so instead we found an indoor pool on the outskirts of Meersburg. It was 6.30pm - a mad time to take them swimming, but it seemed a better alternative then going back to the caravan and listening to the rain coming down. The pool had a lovely outside section, which must be great in the sunshine, so we swam out to it and had the surreal experience of looking over at the grey grey lake, while the rain came down and the steam poured off the pool. We were probably wetter getting into the pool, then we actually were coming out, but at least we had time to dry off and the rain slightly eased as we made our way home. It was late when we got back and everyone was tired and fractious. But still, tomorrow was another day, and we had been told that the weather was about to improve...

Contrary to such predictions, the next day dawned grim and grey, so we set off fully armed with fleeces and kagoules and our first stop was the Zeppelin museum at Friedrickshafen, which we reached by boat. Ignoramus that I am I had no idea, that Zeppelins were originally made here, and there was some fascinating stories to uncover, though I have to confess, looking at bits of metal that came out of various zeppelins does nothing for me.

Our next stop (at my suggestion - and oh, dear reader, how I rued it!) was Romanshorn in Switzerland.

"We've never been to Switzerland," said I merrily, " it seems a pity not to go."

We should have twigged really as none of the guidebooks we had mentioned much about Romanshorn, which rather implies there isn't much to say...

Which is about the size of it. Romanshorn is basically a through station. People get off the boat and get on a train to go somewhere more interesting. There is NOTHING THERE of any interest, WHATSOEVER. I've never been to a more boring place.

Still at least the sun came out for a bit, so we took our fleeces and anoraks off and wandered fruitlessly round a park that bordered the lake, before coming across a rather neat play area. Dragging the children off to have lunch in a very indifferent cafe (but at least it was dry as the rain set in once more), we promised them we would go back after lunch.

Mistake. Big mistake.

I was returning from taking no 4 to the loo, when I heard no 2 screaming the place down and found Spouse cuddling her on a bench. It transpired that swinging on some bars like a monkey, as is her wont, she had missed one and fallen and hurt her arm. Nothing seemed swollen and after getting her to wriggle her fingers and move her hand from side to side (having had nos 1 & 2 break their arms on previous occasions, we are veterans now) we hoped that we had got away with it, and it was just a bad sprain. However, she was clearly in a lot of pain, and we didn't fancy getting stuck in a Swiss hospital, so we thought the best thing to do was to head home and find out where we could get help in Germany.

En route home she took a rather long time to perk up - reminding me of the time no 1 had had a green stick fracture to her radius. Hmm. That hadn't looked lumpy either... By the time we were back at the caravan I was convinced it was broken (but then, I always think the worst), and when she lifted her jumper off and screamed the house down I decided to find out what our options were.

There was as it turned out a doctor on the site, but not on a Saturday, so we decided the best thing to do was to head for the nearest hospital. So I got instructions (in German - always a bit worrying as you might not have exactly understood what's been said to you) and was assured it was ten minutes up the road.

Half an hour later, we finally found it, and no 2 and I trotted off inside. By this time she'd had some calpol and was beginning to feel rather proud of herself. I had (with foresight) fed everyone before we went, just in case we were a long time. I had taken a chance with feeding no 2 as I figured that it was unlikely that she'd need an operation (last time she broke her arm in two places and needed an op to fix it).

The hospital we went to was very quiet and out of the way. There seemed little sign of activity apart from a bored looking chap behind a desk. I explained in my halting German what had happened, and he sent me in a rather disinterested way towards some stairs. The trouble was when we got there I couldn't work out whether he had said go upstairs or downstairs. Neither looked very preposessing and I went back to ask him again. It was upstairs as it transpired, and we were met by a friendly middle aged chap who spoke no English. Luckily the words for broken arm in German aren't so dissimilar - gebrochen Arm, just about does it, and with a leap of imagination I hazarded at GrunStuck Fraktur - which as it turned out was also exactly the same as English. Then we were back to safe subjects like discussing the weather, and agreeing that yes, Germany had had the hottest July ever and now it was raining...

After not too long a jolly young medic appeared, who it transpired spoke some English. He decided, as I thought he would, that it needed an x-ray so we were sent back to the basement of the hospital to the Rontgen department. There was me thinking the word would be Radiografie or some such, but Spouse told me afterwards that Rontgen is the chap who discovered x-rays so that explains that then.

The Rontgen department was down a dark and dimly lit corridor where all the doors were locked. No 2 and I felt like we'd been left in the oubliette. Eventually a lady pitched up, also very jolly, who spoke no English either. So after saying Grun Stuck, and talking about the weather, and yes, wasn't July sunny?, she took the picture and within minutes my worst fears were realised. It was indeed, a Grun Stuck, but luckily no more serious.

So we were back upstairs to meet our jolly friends up there, and be told what we already knew that no 2 needed to be plastered up.

Plastering done, we were sent on our way, I enquired about a letter for our local hospital, but the doctor reckoned (probably rightly) that no one in the UK would be able to decipher a German treatment plan, so he just told me to go and see someone in three weeks.

So it was back to the car, with no 2 proudly waving her pot, and then on to the caravan, where we all went to bed and listened to the rain pounding the roof.

The rain didn't let up in the morning, Spouse's throat was still killing him, the children seemed bored and listless, so we spent a long day in the caravan watching Germans on holiday in the pouring rain, being entertained by men in lederhosen and those funny little hats they wear. In desperation, in the afternoon we thought we'd go to visit Lindau, an attractive sounding island not too far away. We went into Lindau, which looked lovely, but parking was hard to come by, the rain was coming down in sheets and the little ones had gone to sleep. So we didn't even get out of the car, and just drove off further round the lake. We went into Austria, just because we could, but there wasn't a lot to see in the rain, so we came home.

We put the kids to bet that night, feeling glum. We had a child with a broken wrist and after a summer of burning heat, and fighting with a hosepipe ban at home, we were stuck here in a caravan while the rain came down.

It could only happen to us...

Still, we had another week and a half to go, we were planning on visiting Neuschwanstein and then heading up to the Loire with friends, the weather was set to improve the following week.

Things could only get better....