Found a couple of old emails about my trip to Germany in 2002, which my sister had sent back to me as I didnt have a copy. This was pre-blog days, so the travelogue was just an email to friends. Thought I'd post them on this site and make them a public and permanent (ish) record.
This weekend just past (Easter time), I got to use my European Schengen visa for the first time...
Pete took me to Germany, because everybody had a long weekend here – from Good Friday to Monday, which was a bank or public holiday. We got back just this morning, after four really lovely days. The best part was that the weather was very fine, too... sunny and clear and not too cold.
Pete decided that we'd take the car on the ferry to Holland, and then drive from there to Germany. The trip to Hoek von Holland (Hook of Holland) took about 7 hours by ferry. From there we (that is to say, Pete) drove down to Cologne, in Germany. My god, the first thing - and the most impressive - you notice about Germany is the motorways, the autobahns. The speed at which the vehicles go is fantastic. I used to think it was quite fast in England (about 70mph officially on the motorway, but most cars do about 90) but Germany must be the most lenient where speed is concerned... can you imagine, Pete was almost chased down the autobahns by dozens of cars, and he was doing an incredible 110 miles per hour (about 190 kmph, I think). Is it any wonder that German race drivers are the best in the world??? They have a headstart on every other country's champs! I must say it was great to be going that fast, though - and boy, it certainly saves on travel time! But Ithink Pete was rathe r startled to find that cars were sort of queuing up behind him to pass... he's not used to being less than the fastest maniac on the road, I guess!!
Anyway, to get back to Cologne... I found my German came in very useful in translating the traffic signs and things, and in understand what the Germans said, even if my spoken language wasnt exactly fluent! :) I think I was a pretty good navigator! I'm certainly getting better at reading maps. We drove right into Cologne city centre and found a hotel right opposite the main railway station. Cologne is a very beautiful city, situated on both sides of the Rhine river and connected by some rather nice bridges.
Our hotel room balcony looked out at the railway station - goodness, the trains are very colourful! Red and yellow, blue and yellow, black and orange... rather like butterflies! :) And right behind the railway station is the Cologne cathedral, a great Gothic building that soars into the air in spiky towers. It looks like something escaped from a fairy tale... very incongruous between all those modern buildings, especially as we could only see the tall spires. The cathedral is absolutely glorious inside, with huge panels of stained glass showing scenes from the Bible and Jesus' life. Since it was a sunny day, the glass absolutely glowed - it was incredibly beautiful.
The rest of the cathedral's interior looks almost drab in comparison, but there are some lovely carvings of angels and things if you look closely in the dingy light. I guess if they put in bright modern lamps, the beauty of the stained glass would be lost. Gothic architecture is unreal... the eye just keeps going up because the towers and pillars and everything are so narrow and tall and spiky. There's no sense of breadth, just height.
There are also some Roman ruins in Cologne... we didnt get to do the official Roman road walking tour in the city because it was not at a convenient time - or something like that. Anyway, we walked around the city centre to the different plazas and found some Roman relics on our own. There's the remnants of a really huge Roman sewer system - yeah I know, of all things to walk into, a drainage system!! :) But the tunnel is man-height and of course it's bone dry and clean now (but who knows, I might have some ancient Roman dust on my shoe!!). It was also rather cool to see the original stone walls and all... real Roman ruins!!!
Cologne has lots of very nice street-side cafes... and on mild summer evenings, I guess they get really crowded with people. It wasnt too bad when we went because it's only spring now and the good weather was unexpected... not many tourists were about! :) Actually, the second notable thing about Germany is that there seem to be many many more non-Aryans than actual Germans around... plenty of Muslim Turks and Greeks, Chinese and some Negroes as well. Oh well, I guess they were very liberal with asylum-seekers, after all.
Since Bonn is only 21 km from Cologne (trust me on this, since you go on the motorway, you're in Bonn almost before you start!!) :) Bonn is not as pretty as Cologne, but it's also situated on both sides of the Rhine. Most people go for long walks by the Rhine... it's very pleasant, and you get to look at the fabulously elaborate bungalows and mansions and penthouses which look out over the Rhine from a height - they're all situated at a height, and have lots of trees hiding them from the common people! :) Not that any of the Germans look common... they all seem to have great new cars and dress very well - I didnt see much evidence of poverty or dirt. On the other hand I didnt actually go anywhere near what could be called the seamier side of the cities.
We took a detour into the German countryside on our trip back to Holland... the German countryside is rather different from the English countryside - I'm not sure exactly how, though it's just as pretty, and the houses are very nice too. One thing I did notice is that the fields there dont have borders - whereas in England, they usually are bordered with low stone walls or hedges cut to size.
Since we had almost all of Monday to kill (the ferry back was at 10pm), I persuaded Pete to drive to Amsterdam. We picked up a Dutch hitchhiker on the way, since he wanted a lift into Amsterdam. We thought he might be useful in directing us there, but he was rather less than that! :) He didnt know the way in, he didnt know where there were parking areas in the city centre, he didnt know where the central station was, and he didnt even know what some of the street signs meant, when I asked! Silly fellow. It was a little difficult navigating in Holland but not impossible, because I could usually make out what the words meant, even though I dont know Dutch... but it's fairly similar to German, and that helped.
Anyway, since Monday was a bank holiday, there were very few empty parking lots in the city centre. But finally Pete found a tiny space behind a trailer somewhere, and squeezed the Landrover into it - he just about got all four wheels in! :) That man can make the Landrover almost sit up and beg... what a driver! Someday I hope to be able to be a 10th as good! :)
Guess what the first thing you'll notice about Amsterdam? No, not the flowers... the bike roads! Cyclists are given as much importance as cars and lorries, so ALL streets have a cycle-path and at least one car lane, and most big roads have tram lines as well. In fact, you could say your chances of being run over are threefold - cars, cycles and trams! :)
Amsterdam the city was jam-packed with tourists and locals. If I thought Germany had lots of foreigners (or people of non-German descent, anyway), Amsterdam beats that hollow. Actually it seems like it's been taken over by the Chinese... a large chunk of the city centre is commanded by the Chinese - shops, businesses, eateries, even Chinese souvenir shops! What a brilliant idea - buy authentic Chinese buddhas and other trinkets in the middle of Europe. Ha! Anyway, there are many people of Jamaican/African/Chinese/Philippine extract in Holland, it seems... many of the Dutch are mixed-race offspring.
Back to the city... it's full of long narrow streets, chocabloc with shops and eateries... the lovely thing about it is that there are canals all over the place, and little squares and bridges overlooking the waterways where people can sit and have coffee and watch the barges and boats going by. And then there are the "weed" cafes, where you can smoke cannabis – the drug is legal in Holland! It smells dreadful, I must say - rather like a cigar gone bad. Pooh! And cigars are enough to make you sick!
I got quite tired of the city... it's too crowded and noisy for my tastes. I did feel bad that I couldnt go to a single museum, but they were shut because of the bank holiday. Never mind, I'll do that in May!
Anyhow... we didnt have the time to do a round-the-city tour on a barge, so I elected to go driving into the countryside and take the long way back to Hoek von Holland to board the ferry. So we took off to a place called Haarlem... the route from Haarlem to another place further down towards Hoek von Holland, called Leiden, is the main flower area. It's too early now for all the flowers to come out, but we managed to find some in a little town called Keukenhof. That's the main town for visitors and tourists who want to see the famed tulip fields.
The tulips were only just flowering - we could see the little buds, but they hadnt opened out yet. Still, there were huge rows of bright yellow and cream daffodils, and wonderful purple flowers with an amazing fragrance, and some vivid red ones... I cant wait to get back in May and see whole fields of 'em!
The way back to Hoek of Holland, the route we took, also went through The Hague! :) That's one heck of beautiful city, but man, it looks posh. The houses are huge mansions, with loads of trees and parks and things around them, and every other car seems to be a Porsche or BMW... unfortunately we didnt have time to see anything of interest there, but my overall impression of the Hague is - plenty of money!!! :)
Well, that's about it... we made it to the ferry about right on time, and got here this morning.