And so finally we reach the end of our European journey with our final adventure.
From the top of the Rhone we followed our glacial valley down the river to Lake Geneva, dazzling in brilliant sunshine with the mountains at its back and parasailers soaring above. It was at that point that we wondered whether we should have followed the sat nav’s choice of route in to Switzerland rather than coming through the Alps but it’s on the list for another time and we turned and headed north up and up away from lakes and mountains heading for Germany.
From the motorway there isn’t a lot to see of the centre of Switzerland; fields and cars and service stations and the moment when without any warning the road signs suddenly change from French to German and we plodded along, watching the miles tick past on the sat nav. And then we were watching and waiting, trying to find the Rhine and watching out for the border. The dotted line on the map got closer and closer and then suddenly it was there; a small square yellow sign on the side of the road with the black German eagle perched on it and we were past and into our third country of the trip.
According to H there was a customs post a little further on on the other side of the road, but we scarcely noticed it because for the first time in our lives we were on the autobahn. German motorways don’t have speed limits, or at least they have sections where they don’t have speed limits, you’re just expected to drive at a speed that is sensible for you and the vehicle you’re driving. Way back in the day H used to work for a car company and so he’s done a fair amount of advanced driving to be able to take their cars bombing round the test tracks and I know this was a bit of the trip he was really looking forward to. As we cruised up the nearly empty motorway with only the occasional car overtaking us on the outside I looked at the trees out of my window, and then across to H’s beaming smile;
“so how fast are we going sweetheart?”
“Oh only 112” came the reply, “but I think that might be us maxed out!”
112, in a solid family car fully laden with five people and all our camping kit. Automotive engineering is an impressive thing.
We headed up into Germany following the banks of the Rhine with the French border always on our left until the hills on our right became more and more densely covered in thick green forest and we turned in, driving along twisty turning roads, through properly chocolate box pretty villages and up and over the ridge line of the first wave of the Black Forest to find our campsite, nestled down in the valley.
It might have been because we’d spent two and a half weeks on the road, it might be because the campsite was wonderful, and it was probably a good mixture of the two, but I think this was where we were at our most relaxed. It helped that the site had a car free camping section, a flat grassy field bordered on two sides by a brook and only accessible on foot over a wooden bridge or through the ford. You parked your car up at the top and took everything down in a little red wagon; heaven for the girls and heaven for us too; for the first time we could let Pip crawl without having to have him constantly within arm’s reach, and the girls loved having the swings and the little house and the roundabout ‘just there’ so that they could play and shake off a day in the car while we put the tent up.
This was the first campsite where they made friends too; first with some German girls (the international language of colouring in winning out again) and then with an adorable duo of very similar ages to my girls who pitched next door to us. And for the first time we found we were meeting other families like ours, families for whom the travelling was as much a part of the adventure as the destinations. We talked about Annecy and coming over the Alps and they told us about how they’d gone as fast as they could to Salzburg to do all things Sound of Music and then slowly pottered their way back through Austria and Germany and were now planning a lazy route back to the channel.
I’ll admit we spent quite a bit of our time just sitting at the campsite enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful views but we drove up to the view point on the top of the hill behind us to see the forest spread all around us like a lumpy duvet of prickly green, and explored Bad Wildbad in the late afternoon sunshine watching the trams come running in along the pavement and doubling my knowledge of German (“haben sie schlüssel für toilette bitte?” being a key phrase when navigating German supermarkets with small children).
Baden-Baden is the jewel in the crown of the Black Forest and we headed over one morning. I’m not sure exactly what we were expecting to see, but probably more of the wooden houses, shutters and endless geraniums that we’d so fallen in love with. Instead we found a Regency spa time, German style; cool white stone, beautiful gardens, fountains, and sun dappled esplanades. The Roman Baths (situated in a corner of the car park and a surprise hit with Kitty) gave a clue as to the origins of this rather majestically beautiful town; as my knowledge of the Roman invasion of German stems almost entirely from Lindsey Davis Falco novels I’d had no idea they’d ever made it so far north, but I can see why they’d want to stay.
We wandered, just soaking it all in, spent ages deliberating over coloured pencils, and fell completely and utterly in love with a children’s bookshop despite my complete lack of German. We did buy a book for our godson whose mother is German, based entirely off the pictures and because it had a recipe in the back only to discover later that while the story was great, the recipe was for a spread made from daisies!
We passed on the daisy spread and instead tucked into a giant slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. None of the Sara Lee of my childhood, this was the real thing, deep chocolate sponge, fresh cream, juicy cherries and inexplicably (to use, used to the aforementioned Sara Lee) sat on a pastry base. Only when we got home and caught up with the Great British Bake Off did we realise that that’s probably how it’s meant to be. Black Forest Gateau in the Black Forest – bliss.
German food doesn’t seem to have the same culinary reputation as say French or Italian does, but we ate so well in Germany, from the spicy sausage that we stirred into our tomato pasta, to an amazing cherry yoghurt that I could have eaten by the gallon and my first taste of sauerkraut, at least I think it was sauerkraut. It was presented as the salad esque filling in a ham roll we bought for lunch and while the girls and H stayed well clear, Pip and I gave it a try. I’d always thought it was going to be weird and mushy but it was crisp and sharp and delicious – so much so that I bought a pot of what looked to be something similar from the supermarket. Google translate called it “white cabbage salad” and if I get a bit of time over Christmas I might have to try making some myself.
And all of that is before I even mention the bakery in Enzklösterle. Walking down the hill in the morning with the sun peeking over the hill was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments, the nip in the morning air and the smell of fresh soft pretzels even before you get around the corner. The girls and Pip loved the pretzels and H and I were spoiled for choice; strudels packed with apples or cherries, cinnamon swirls, a blueberry cheesecake that we manfully resisted as not really breakfast food and my hands down favourite, Quarktaschen – a sweet cheese turnover that tastes a million times better than it sounds.
But finally our time was up and we packed up the car, big farewell to our new friends and pointed the car for France and the ferry. The French border it turns out it even less marked than the German one; it’s the river on the map, and on the road not even a sign with a small blue cockerel, instead the road signs just change language. We drove on, well H drove and I navigated and tried to entertain the children as the miles ticked by. We paused outside Paris and seriously contemplated spending a night camping near Disney but after our forest haven there were just too many people and we kept going, eventually ending up at the southern edge of Rouen, a mere 470 odd miles in one day. We’d planned to camp but in the end ease won out and we found ourselves a couple of rooms at an Ibis full of British families doing much the same thing judging by the cars overflowing with camping bits and bobs that surrounded ours.
And then finally we headed to Cherbourg under thunderous skies and through pouring rain. We were about eight hours early for the ferry after our mammoth drive the day before and so we drove along the coast until we found a beach. We ate lunch in the car as droplets plopped down the windscreen but then the skies cleared and for a little while we had the beach to ourselves. Sitting in the sand, watching Pip crawl through rock pools and Kitty and Elma dipping their toes into the surf was quite simply the perfect way to end what was quite simply a life changing trip.
I’ve one more post to write, all about the practicalities of doing a big trip like this, catering and finding campsites and all that sort of thing, but for now all the postcards have arrived home, well at least until next year.
And so, with apologies to any genuine German speakers, let me share with you our final video postcard: