Bonjour, Hola, Guten Tag, Hej! The European stretch of our European Vacation has arrived - although, as you'll soon see, it was nearly over before it really began... Almost a month after we left home, we arrived on a grey June morning in Calais, and after a few quiet days pottering around on a campsite, we headed south through St Omer, Lille, Arras and Laon to Belgium and then to Luxembourg.
Far-and-away the highlight of this stretch was a place called La Coupole, a massive concrete complex of domes and silos, built towards the end of WW2 with the aim of launching a fusillade of rockets to raze London to the ground - which could and would have happened if D-Day had been just a few weeks later. The top boffins who were thwarted in this scheme were rushed out of the country in hush-hush secrecy, pardoned, promoted, and then became the top boffins behind America’s victory in the Space Race. It was the most incredible story and an awe-inspiring place. And we’d never heard of it, and only stumbled across it by chance - it’s so cool finding these hidden gems dotted along the road!
There was one cloud in the sky (actually there were no clouds at all, the weather was blistering - I mean a metaphorical cloud): something was wrong with Hans. When we started the engine, it would start and stall, start and stall a couple of times until it eventually kept going. At first we tried to convince ourselves that it was OK: Hans is an old-ish van (he’s 13 years old), we couldn’t expect him to start perfectly every time, he always got going eventually. So we motored on in a state of mildly fretful denial for a few days until Hans did his start-stall-start-stall routine nine times in a row at the entrance barrier to a campsite in Luxembourg while a queue of traffic built up behind us, and we admitted: this wasn’t fun.
And so began a frustrating few days as we set about trying to get Hans fixed, first in a little roadside garage and then at the main franchised Fiat dealer. The Fiat technicians of Europe did not exactly cover themselves in glory: because the fault wasn’t showing up on their computer, they kept treating us to those famous passive Gallic shrugs. A bit of Google research brought up the number of a chap called Nick in Leicestershire who answers all Fiat-related queries in my favourite magazine, Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly (shut up - it’s cool). Nick gave lots of helpful suggestions over the phone which were then laboriously translated into French (Susan was awesome at this - picture her calmly convincing an unhelpful mechanic to test and/or replace the crankshaft position sensor) - but to no avail; every time we drove away from the garage, Hans started misbehaving again.
The one saving grace of these couple of days is that we met a fantastic couple, Frank and Sue, who had arrived at the same garage at the same time with another malfunctioning Fiat motorhome. It was great to have someone to chat to for the long, long hours sitting around in the reception area of the garage, sharing travel stories and sympathising with each others’ current woes.
But as time went on it became clear that if our troubles were annoying, Frank and Sue’s were epic. The mechanics dismantled their engine in order to find the fault, and then cheerfully announced that it would take at least a week and 2000 Euro to put it back together again. The assistance offered by their breakdown company was jaw-droppingly shambolic (and I speak as something of a connoisseur of breathtaking bureaucratic incompetence), leaving them stranded with no hire car and no phone credit in a cripplingly-expensive hotel straddling an 8-lane motorway.
The weekend intervened: the garage closed, we let Hans rest at the campsite for a few days while we took the bus into Luxembourg City (which was lovely).
On the Monday morning we all reconvened back at the garage (which was starting to feel like a second home) and two things happened in quick succession. The mechanics announced that Frank and Sue’s bill had mysteriously inflated over the weekend from 2000 to 3000 Euro. And Nick from Leicester phoned to say that he’d found a dismantled engine identical to ours - did we want him to send out a box of parts to Luxembourg?
We had a better idea.
We helped get Frank and Sue sorted out with a hire car and a much nicer, much cheaper hotel. Then we turned Hans towards the bright lights of Leicester, got him started, and didn’t let him stop (except for getting on and off the ferry, obviously, and a brief overnight kip in a car park in Canterbury) until we rolled up at Nick’s garage 24 hours later.
It’s hard to know how to describe Nick without getting a bit gushy. He’s just a nice normal down-to-Earth mechanic bloke, but his knowledge of the intricacies of every single component of the Fiat Ducato diesel motor is something superhuman - and his willingness to treat our problem as a challenge to be solved, rather than a nuisance to be shrugged at, was something of a revelation after our recent travails.
And so began a slightly surreal few days. Nick still needed a few sessions of trial and error before he got Hans comprehensively fixed, and so we commuted from nearby Stratford Upon Avon, spending grimy days in Nick’s garage, and cultured evenings at the theatres of Stratford. We managed to get tickets to see Romeo and Juliet performed by the RSC (awesome) and Pride and Prejudice performed by a tiny little local theatre group (incredibly, even better).
Once Nick had replaced, tightened, tested, loosened, lubricated, and worked his wonders on every part of Hans’s engine that could have been at fault (we never did discover exactly which bit of magic did the trick), he sent us on our way with a box of spares (and probably a sigh of relief). We spent a few days in the Cotswolds (glorious, beautiful, how did we miss them the first time round?) getting our confidence back that when Hans’s engine started, it would actually (O joyous delight) keep going.
Then it was time to wave goodbye to the white cliffs of Dover once more… there was a continent still waiting to be discovered.
We didn’t really want to faff around starting up again where we had finished off, so this time when we got off the boat, we hung a hard left and zoomed through Belgium (with a glorious 2 days in Bruges, which is just heartbreakingly perfect) to the Netherlands.
Almost as soon as we had crossed the border, there seemed to be something serene about the Netherlands. The South West of the country especially is just so empty (in a good way) - vast expanses of flat, soft earth, criss-crossed everywhere with canals and rivers, dykes and dams, with massive deserted beaches, huge skies, astounding sunsets. We spent a few healing days breathing it all in.
Further North, the modern defence dams which battle with the sea co-exist with the gorgeous old windmills which used to do the same job (Kinderdijk - where 19 working traditional windmills line up alongside a river - is about as lovely a day out as we’ve ever had).
In complete contrast, driving to Delft through Rotterdam (following note-perfect directions from Ali) felt like being in a sci-fi movie, surrounded by steel and industry and machinery belching smoke. At one point we stopped in a line of traffic waiting at the lights when suddenly the road in front of us swooshed upwards on massive pistons to allow a container ship to pass underneath.
Nobody could accuse Amsterdam, where we spent the next few days, of being empty and quiet - but it has a lovely chilled-out vibe.
We loved the Van Gogh museum, soaked up the sun on a proper cheesy tourist river cruise, and walked our little legs off wandering around the canals and higgledy-piggledy houses to our hearts’ content.
Our last stop in the Netherlands was at Zuiderzee, an immense open-air museum (a la the Folk Museum in Northern Ireland's own exotic Cultra) which recreates an old Dutch fishing village - complete with traditional fishing boats and sailing ships calling in and out of the harbour. We overnighted in the free camperstop at the marina, surrounded by the masts of the old ships bobbing in the breeze.
And that pretty much brings us to the end of this chapter! A quick scoot across Northern Germany (not impressed: but Germany will get another chance later in the year) and we're ready for some hygge, Danish pastries, Scandi style, weird currencies, pricey beers, fabulous fjords, and (hopefully) lots more…