Hungary (11th),  Croatia (12th), Bosnia and Herzegovina (13th country on our travels)

We slept soundly in the Tesco car park in Pécs, Hungary for a second night.   You could really feel autumn was in the air with the cold start to the day but once the frost cleared, the sky was beautifully blue and it got to around 25 degrees by midday.  (It was a real treat to see real blue skies again, not the pale version you generally see in the UK.)  The small section of the city that we had previously walked around made us believe that Pécs was a pretty rundown place.  All the houses around this part of town had either very high fences resembling fortresses or they had exterior shutters drawn down on the windows facing the street.   After our eventful “Odd Job” day the day before, we decided to travel through the city for a bit of look before leaving the area completely.  The blurb in the Lonely Planet Guide raved about the place, we initially thought this was a bit over the top as the suburb where we had been staying, bore no resemblance to their description at all, but just in case we missed something worthwhile we agreed to at least walk through the city.   We found that we couldn’t park in the McDonalds’ car park for long.  They had a security man there who was diligent at moving you along if you weren’t spending money inside, so we just picked one of the residential streets nearby and carried on driving until we found a suitable parking spot.

Plain houses....

Plain houses on this side of  Pécs ….

... but they've got great chimneys

… but they’ve got great chimneys

Walking in the general direction to the centre of the city we began to notice that the houses looked a bit more upmarket, some even had flower gardens.  And then we turned a corner and found ourselves in the most beautiful city we had seen in ages.   It truly was remarkable, the change.  The streets were crowded with the most beautiful old buildings on both sides.  Lots of lovely cafes with their patrons keenly watching the people passing by.  The whole place was full of history and they had kindly provided many information boards in various languages, explaining the roles these buildings had played in their past.   Often between two shop fronts there was a small driveway, leading into a square courtyard surrounded on all sides by houses.  So as you walked down the street the shops were in groups of two, then a driveway, then two shops, etc.  This created a lovely atmosphere of relaxed living and working together.  We ended up walking for hours, just following our noses and came across ancient churches, a Jewish Museum, lots of schools with all the students in very smart uniforms, beautiful leafy parks and the famous Mosque of Pasha Qasim which is half Mosque and half Catholic Church.  As a real treat we indulged in a couple of yummy pizzas and swapped our role as tourists to cafe patrons surveying the passersby.  It got interesting when we had to retrace our steps to return to our vehicle.  We had headed in approximately the correct direction but it took ages to find the right place.  We asked several locals if they could locate the photos we had taken on our way into town before we finally found it.  That in itself created lots of bemusement as we tried our best to explain our problem, which then turned into amusement as they finally understood that we had lost our own van.

Fantastic doors

Fantastic doors

Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque presides on one side of the main square.

The 16th century Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque was built on the site of a Catholic Church, using their original stones.  Today it is used by both religions.

Quirky trees in Pécs

Quirky trees in Pécs


Inside the Mosque/Church the two halves are quite distinctive

Loved this city

So many fine buildings in this city

There were so many small vineyards all around this area and small orchards  popping up all over as well.   The last time we had seen apples and pears growing was in the south of England.  Lucerne was another new crop, along with the ubiquitous maize or barley.   Well, the maize and barley had been harvested and they were busy resowing the paddocks again.   It’s disheartening to see the thick layer of pollution while driving in the countryside.   It’s so easy to take our clear air in New Zealand for granted, until you see the pollution levels over here.

The present shape of Pecs Cathedral was finalized during the reconstruction of 1882-1891.

The present shape of Pécs Cathedral was finalized during the reconstruction of 1882-1891. That’s Ignác Szepesy (1780-1838), bishop of Pécs in the foreground if you were wondering.

Pécs Synagogue

Pécs Synagogue

That haze is the ever present pollution in Bosnia

That haze is the ever-present pollution in Bosnia and inland Croatia

When Dennis presents our NZ passports at the border crossings it always causes a bit of a stir, in the positive sense.  The Hungarian woman got quite excited about it on one side of the River Drava as did the Croatian policeman on the other side of the bridge.   As soon as we were given permission to carry on driving into Croatia, we passed a huge swampy lake with the most beautiful herons and egrets.  There would have been around 50 of them.   Once more we noticed the big birds in the sky, there were five jets patrolling the skies here instead of the three we had overhead in Hungary.  It really feels quite oppressive to have them flying up and down all the day and makes me nervous about what they are looking out for.  Maybe I should think positively and consider they are keeping me safe, but from what or from whom?

And always overhead are the jets partrolling the skies

And always overhead are the jets patrolling the skies

The villages in Croatia are a lot smaller and much closer together than we’ve seen thus far.  Once more we drove down an empty motorway (A5 south) that looked like it had been built last week.  We stopped at a massive new truck stop for the night along this road, that was very nicely landscaped, clean and tidy and only had to share it with two other vehicles.   We were aware that when we left this motorway we would be required to pay tolls again, but not understanding any of the signs we wondered how much this was going to cost us.  We drove about 200kms and in the end it was only 5.75 Euros ($NZ9)   We noticed many falcons and kestrels, particularly in the mornings, standing on the fence palings with their wings spread out, presumably drying their feathers.  They probably stand 50cm tall, have a wingspan of around 80cm, they look quite majestic.  IMG_0591
Sitting up front in the motorhome we get a great view, it’s quite a bit higher than in a standard car.   Driving past some farmland, on the outskirts of a small village called Babina Greda which is in Croatia but only around 3-5 kms from the Bosnia and Herzegovina border, we found we could look over the 1.5 metre high soil barrier that had recently been erected.  It looked as if the farmer had scrapped the soil off his paddock and piled it deliberately along the front edge, where it bordered the public roadway.  It was the other screen which caught our attention and caused us to look more closely at what was happening in this otherwise ordinary farm paddock.  Behind the solid barrier several men were carrying something and the white screen shielded them from another small group of men and one woman walking along behind them.  I saw what I took to be quite a few open grave sites.  The soil had been neatly removed from them, leaving gaping holes running parallel with the soil barrier.   We both came to the sudden realisation that this was more than likely an exhumation of several bodies buried here during the time of the War of Independence between Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia.  When you see sights like this one happening right in front of us, it gives you quite a jolt.  The reality of life for these people living in a war zone just 15 years ago must have been horrendous for them.  It also makes us realise that we are now in a vulnerable position, traveling through poor countries where we may be seen as affluent tourists driving around with all sorts of goodies in the motorhome, with no way of communication – they don’t speak English and we have no knowledge of their language either – and we know little of their living circumstances today.   We had left behind the happy, friendly people of the other European Union countries we had traveled through and entered into a scary sort of phase of our adventure.  
When we stopped at the next border, this time going into Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were a little nervous.  The Border Control Officer insisted that we show him the papers for the van.  As far as we knew the only official set of papers for the vehicle we were required to carry with us, was the certificate from our insurance provider to say that our insurance was valid for the whole time of our stay there.  But it was obvious he wanted something else and the NZ passport didn’t impress him as it had everyone else thus far.  He knew few words of English in his repertoire and even though he repeated them often and loudly we were left none the wiser.  The steadily increasing length of the queue behind us was upsetting him as well so eventually he got out of his booth and climbed into the back of our van and looked around quickly and thankfully waved us on our way.

Unbelieveable!  A stork's nest on top of the power pole.

Unbelievable!  A stork’s nest on top of the power pole.

The power poles are attached to the houses in the country villages in Bosnia

The power poles are attached to the houses in the country villages in Bosnia (not the ground)

No sooner had we driven a few metres into the country when the little lady on the TomTom informed us to be careful to stick to the main road as she didn’t have any information on other roads in this country!    But it wasn’t that easy to stick to the main road, we took a wrong turn a few kilometres down the way and the TomTom screen went blank.  I was at screaming stage by this time and the further we drove down the road the more nervous we both became.  The people were glaring at us, wondering what we thought we were doing?  The whole place looked so rundown, the farms were small and the tractors looked to be very small and ancient.  It wasn’t too long and Dennis thought better of carrying on and turned back looking for the main highway again.  As soon as we corrected our mistake Mrs TomTom came back on stream and we were careful to stay on the correct road from then on.  No sooner had we found the main road and we were pulled over by a policeman.  Apparently in Bosnia and Herzegovina you are required to have your vehicle’s lights on 24/7.  This was the first time in 25,000kms we’ve been stopped by the Police, a testament to Dennis’ careful driving!

Mum and Dad on their way home for lunch

Mum and Dad on their way home for lunch

Stacking hay in Bosnia is interesting.  They stook it around a central pole then cover the last bit with spindley branches.  These ones were special in that theyb had an extra plastic cap.

Stacking hay in Bosnia is interesting. They stook it around a central pole then cover the last bit with spindly branches. These were special in that they had an extra plastic cap.

Late that afternoon we arrived in Sarajevo and parked over the road from the main Police Station.  We walked for a few hours enjoying the city before retiring for the night.    We had a large park next to us as well, where a pack of feral dogs lived.  They spent a good deal of the day sleeping under the trees or being patted by locals but come nightfall and they fought each other and barked at all the passersby ALL night long.     We really loved this city, the people were friendly and happy to talk with us.  For lunch we stopped off at a restaurant which only sold one dish!  This was the national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is called Ćevapi.   It consists of a huge flat bread with a thick layer of tasty cream cheese, sliced raw onions and as many small handmade sausages they could stuff into the pocket.  So yummy!  Dennis was approached quite brazenly by a young chap at this restaurant and offered an iPhone 4.  He declined and was then offered an iPhone 5 as well for 100 euro all up! or “make an offer”. 

Mmmm, is delicious

Mmmm, Ćevapi is delicious

The Orthodox Church was pretty amazing, complete with a baby body in a coffin that alledgedly hadn't deteriorated and a ??

This Eastern Orthodox Church (Church of St. Archangel Mikhail and Garvil) was pretty amazing, complete with a baby’s body in a coffin that allegedly hadn’t deteriorated and someone else’s shriveled up pinky!  It was opened to the public as a Museum in 1890.  There was virtually no seating in the whole church, as it is their custom to stand during services.

We had known previously that this city had suffered during the War between the Serbs and Bosnians, as a result of the breakup of communist Yugoslavia.  We remembered watching some of the Winter Olympics on TV, held in Sarajevo in 1984.   I can remember thinking a few years later “How strange that there is an ethic cleansing type of conflict going on in this modern city, only a few years after they hosted the Olympics.”  The War of Independence raged between 1992-95 and was particularly brutal.  Most of our knowledge was as a result of watching the TV news in NZ, a safe, secure haven on the other side of the world, as a consequence we hadn’t appreciated the extent of that suffering.  During the siege of Sarajevo, 11,541 people lost their lives, including over 1,500 children.   I had also read the book “The Cellist of Sarajevo” a few weeks before travelling there.   In the book, a local cellist named Smajlović plays every day at 4:00 pm for 22 days, always at the same time and location, to honour 22 people killed by a mortar bomb, while they queued for bread on May 26, 1992.  It is a moving story and full of vivid descriptions of life in a city under siege, it wasn’t until months later that I learnt that the account of this daily concert is fictional and Smailović has publicly expressed outrage over the book’s publication.   He said, “They steal my name and identity,” and added that he expected  an apology and compensation, which I’m not sure he has received.  He did become famous for playing his cello in the midst of bombed out buildings in the city though, before he escaped in 1993.  

Sarajevo is quite the modern city today

Sarajevo is quite the modern city today

Sarajevo Roses on the pavement

Sarajevo Roses on the pavement

The city sits in a valley surrounded by sizeable hills a bit like Wainuiomata in New Zealand but much bigger.  The Serb soldiers hid in these hills and terrorized the inhabitants for three years, shooting civilians as they attempted to cross roads, walking between the tall buildings in the city or anywhere they weren’t protected by makeshift walls they had erected around the perimeter of the city streets.   The Serbs encircled Sarajevo with a siege force of 18,000 stationed in the surrounding hills, from which they assaulted the city with weapons that included artillery, mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, rocket launchers, rocket-launched aircraft bombs, and sniper rifles.  Even though the rest of the world knew these atrocities were happening little help was given to Bosnia.  NATO and UN forces weren’t deployed until 1994.  We went to a Museum, giving us all the information about this time.  The video and photographic displays were graphic and quite distressing. 

Powerful graffiti in Sarajevo

Powerful graffiti in Sarajevo

Speaking to the younger locals reinforced the images we’d seen in the museum.  The younger people were happy to talk about this recent history and we were surprised that although they had clearly been terrorized they were trying hard to put that behind them and learn afresh the concept of living with their enemies in peace within their own city. They were very proud that their city had withstood the siege. The older citizens were more skeptical and wondered how long this so-called peace could last when maybe some of the same people who were the snipers are now back living in the city.   Even today as you drive around Sarajevo and the surrounding countryside there is still plenty of evidence of this conflict.  Burnt out houses and businesses dot the landscape and it’s easy to understand how people were targeted in particular, due to their ethnicity, rather than a random attack flattening a suburb in a general way.  On the pavements the scars caused by mortar shell explosions are filled with red resin and are known as Sarajevo Roses.  These are left as memorials all over the central city.  There are so many buildings, still occupied, bearing the scars of bullets and larger munitions all over this area that while initially it was shocking to see this damage, after a very short time it became commonplace and we almost overlooked the significance of it.  Nowadays, the UN still has a presence in town.


They are slowly repairing the older buildings, plastering the bullet holes

They are slowly repairing the older buildings, plastering up the bullet holes

The remains of bombed businesses near the city centre

The remains of bombed businesses near the city centre

Out in the country you see bombed out houses (there's one in this view).

Out in the country you see bombed out houses (there’s one in this view).

We went for a walking tour of Sarajevo with a woman in her twenties, who’s English was pretty good.  She was so proud of her home town and a great tour guide.  She remembers her mother taking her out of bed one evening and carrying her onto the balcony of their small flat.  They overlooked the large Library building that housed millions of books, as well as many National treasures.  It was ablaze and thousands of burning pages were floating around in the air, landing around their home and starting other fires throughout the city.      Even though she was only six at the time this has had a lasting impact on her.   The Serbs were endeavouring to erase all the cultural and historical records of the Bosnians liberal muslims.  Some three million books went up in flames, along with hundreds of original documents from the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. 

The new Library is so beautiful, built in ...

The new Library is so beautiful, rebuilt using the original plans, it won’t be completed until 2014.

Not all the new buildings are beautiful though...

Not all the new buildings are beautiful though…


….though the historic ones certainly are

We returned from our Walking Tour around 6p.m. keen to sit down and have a quiet drink before dinner.  Wandering up the hill I recognised a couple of my clothes pegs sitting in the gutter – I thought that was strange!   A couple of steps further and Dennis let out a yell “We’ve been broken into!”  And we had, they had wrenched the bottom half of the stable door leading into the back section of the motorhome to gain entry and ransacked all our belongings looking for anything of value.   It was awful, thankfully the damage to the van was not worse.  We decided before we got all our fingerprints over everything we should lay a complaint at the Police Station directly over the road.   Once entering this large building we did think it looked strange for a Police Station.  There was a tiny office off to one side, with the TV blaring and an uniformed Policeman and another guy inside watching a Soccer game.  They were not pleased to see us, disturbing their fun and the uniformed guy came out grumpy even before we had opened our mouths.  Every time Dennis began a sentence in explanation the policeman stood straight and tall and said over and over, “Nien! Nien! Nien!”  He kept this up for five minutes and even though Dennis was getting rather annoyed he did not relent.  Eventually we got the message and left, without explaining a thing or hearing anything other than “Nien! Nien! Nien!”  Talk about upsetting… After tidying everything up we realised that we had lost quite a bit.  “They” had used my heavy-duty cloth shopping bags to carry all the loot away, filling them with two inverters (one to recharge the Computer), a DVD writer, a voice recorder (which had Dennis’ Dad’s voice recorded on it), a video camera, all the spare coins in various currencies, clothing and other bits and pieces.  The only way to fix the back door was to screw it shut and not use it all, while Dennis was doing that another uniformed policeman walked past.  So Dennis tried to explain to him what had happened but once again he wasn’t interested either.  He was more worried about us being aware that at 8a.m. the following morning we were to start putting money into the parking machine or we would receive a fine.  His English was pretty good but other than explaining the perplexing problem of feeding the parking machine the following day, he didn’t really want to know about the breakin either.  Finally the quiet drink before dinner turned into a stiff one to quieten our nerves!  Both of us were quite shaken by this turn of events and determined then and there not to travel to Turkey as we had planned.  While driving around wealthier countries (in the UK, Germany, Holland, etc) we always felt like our motorhome was the least attractive and oldest one on the roads but now that we are in Bosnia and Herzegovina our little portable home looks pretty extravagant and now we realised we will likely be a target for further attacks.  To get to Istanbul, where we were due to met up with my cousin John, the only way to get there was to travel through Serbia and Bulgaria.  These two countries are explicitly excluded in our Travel Insurance, because it’s so dangerous to be there and today’s events have given us reason to reflect as to why they exclude them.  The world-wide recession has hit these countries so much harder than our own.
After dinner we decided to find another Police Station, knowing we would need proof of our burglary to claim for our loss.  We joined the thousands of younger people who use the main street of Sarajevo to promenade up and down the pavements, strutting their stuff, looking so relaxed but all the while checking out who was looking at whom.  We came across three more policemen standing outside the UN offices.  One of these men was so helpful, being a UN Policeman he had no connection with the local coppers but he was happy to phone them and explain our circumstances in their language.  He apologised four times to us on behalf of the City of Sarajevo that this terrible thing had happened to us on our travels.  He told us that the building we thought was the Police Station was in fact a dormitory for policemen in the area.   After speaking to the local Police he told us where we were to go first thing in the morning to report our loss and receive the relevant documentation.  He also warned us that it was well-known that they would keep us waiting for hours and probably not do what they had promised  anyway and gave us his name and email address if we needed further help!  Well-warned, we drove to the main Police Station to formally lay our complaint the following day.  We did indeed have to wait “until the interpreter” arrived for four hours until we finally realised that this was just a nice way to say “We are not interested and we won’t be doing anything so you may as well leave empty-handed.”   Which we did.

I became quite adapt at finding out where there was free WiFi as well as power points to recharge our netbook

I became quite adept at finding out where there was free WiFi as well as power points to recharge our netbook


A glass Fountain commemorates the fallen from the Seige of Sarajevo


 Hungary (11th country on our travels)

Good to see renewable energy again in Hungary

Good to see renewable energy again in Hungary

Leaving Slovakia we had to once more present our passports at the border and pay more tolls, this time to the Hungarian government.  It’s a flat rate for a specific time frame allowing access to all motorways in Hungary, which makes it a simple transaction, with a sticker for your windscreen so the police can see what you’ve paid for.  Once into Hungarian territory it’s back to every square inch of soil being put to good use and heaps of wind turbines.  We realised that we have not seen a farm animal outside, other than the odd horse, since Germany.  The paddocks are for the usual crops of maize, barley and grass  not animals, with vegetable growing nearer the cities.  We were driving down through a huge, wide plain that stretches for miles.   Hungarian drivers are mad as well!  We came across a horrific head-on accident where a people-mover had been demolished by a huge truck, carrying massive rolls of paper.  Some of the rolls had fallen off the back of the truck and it looked as if they may have landed on the van.  It was very sobering to realise that with the state of the people-mover it meant that it was certainly a fatal accident.  No sooner had we got past this scene and Dennis and I were both yelling at this small car passing us!  Passing drivers tend to stay in the other lane (when there are only two lanes) for so long and quickly pull in directly in front of the oncoming traffic.  It seems to be normal behaviour for all these eastern European drivers and it’s usually only the frightened Kiwis who object, but on this occasion the oncoming truck driver was shaking his fist as well, the gap was almost too small.  They are so impatient!
We noticed so many “pubs” along the way around here.  I guess it’s easy to turn the front room of your home into a pub, you only needed to add blinking, coloured lights, a few chairs on the front lawn or under the veranda and you’d be away.  In a village with a population of maybe a couple of thousand we passed seven of these businesses, just along the main road.
Budapest was our next stop.  Not being nearly as informed as Dennis, I was unaware that Budapest was actually two cities, Buda on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the other.  The two became a single city back in 1873 and it is now the capital city of Hungary.  The first settlement here was built by the Celts before 1 AD and was later occupied by the Romans, who did their usual thing and constructed roads, amphitheatres, baths and houses with heated floors.  Down through the ages this region has suffered from one takeover after another, from the Ottoman rulers through after the Second World War.  Budapest sustained major damage during the War.  All bridges were destroyed by the retreating Germans and around 38,000 civilians lost their lives during the conflict.  250,000 Jewish inhabitants died during the Nazi occupation.  I am always overwhelmed with these dreadful statistics, we are so sheltered in New Zealand from the harsh realities of what happened during the War years, being such a small place all the way on the other end of the globe.  After WW2 Hungary was declared a communist People’s Republic and it was only in 1989 that they finally became a fully independent Republic again.

Our first day in Budapest was so cold and wet.

Our first day in Budapest was so cold and wet.

The amphibian bus is a strange sight on the Danube

The amphibian bus is a strange sight on the Danube

We parked in Pest in a metered car park that worked out to be quite cheap for 24 hours at a time, once you had converted the florints to pounds, as the evening hours were free.  The currency here is hard to reconcile when you are paying 459.5 florints per litre of diesel ($NZ2.53) and the paper notes in our wallets range from 500 to 10,000 florints.  IMG_0343

My cunning plan to photograph the street names where we have parked our van has proved very useful from time to time

My cunning plan to photograph the street names where we have parked our van has proved very useful from time to time

I was desperate to find a laundromat of some description and so our first stop in Hungary was at a McDonalds to look up the location of such a place online.  The weather was awful, cold and raining, so there was no way I could do my usual trick of hand washing the lot and stringing up the washing line to some convenient tree or lamppost.  Tripadvisor online told me that Budapest only has one laundromat and it boasted that I would be thoroughly impressed with this funky, modern facility in the heart of the city.  Armed with the address we set off again.    We parked the van a few streets away and had to walk in the pouring rain with the TomTom in hand.  Happily, we found another laundromat on the way to the only one in town and settled down for a couple of hours waiting for the machines to finish whirring.  I make the most of these infrequent visits to real washing machines that will take up to 16kg of clothes, with all the towels and sheets thrown in as well, consequently we now have ‘grey’ whites.  

These taxis looked a laugh.  The driver sits on a bike up front.

These taxis looked a laugh. The driver sits on a bike up front.

They were in the middle of cleaning the Parliament Buildings.  What a difference!

They were in the middle of cleaning the Parliament Buildings. What a difference!

Once I had the vexed question of the laundry sorted we were free to explore the city on foot.  What a beautiful city.  We were parked right alongside the huge River Danube and really enjoyed watching all the river traffic.  Lots of cruise ships, not the tall sort we are familiar with but overgrown barges really, as well as all the cargo vessels.  The bridges had interesting stories to go with them as well.  Margaret Bridge leads across to Margaret Is, mid stream in the Danube, the two main parts have a 30 degree bend in the middle and another bridge at the apex branches off the main one onto the island! Quite strange. Beautiful old buildings are everywhere, most of them in excellent repair.  The food in Budapest was cheap and very yummy.  We had the best kebabs we’ve ever tasted and they had free WiFi in this small restaurant as a bonus.  

They make excellent use of the rivers in Europe to transport a huge variety of goods

They make excellent use of the rivers in Europe to transport a huge variety of goods

Cruise ships are very popular as well

We have seen these cruise ships all along the Danube

The following day we got up extra early with the intention of Skyping most of our children back in NZ (Richard is always very hard to get a hold of, so busy is he designing Loomio, check it out at  but unfortunately, although this particular McDonalds had power points available for their customers, none of them were actually operational and so after a quick five-minute chat to Matt, we had to use our computer battery time on checking how our online auction at was proceeding.  We were initially excited to see we had been given the opportunity to purchase extremely cheap tickets from London to Wellington, until we realised the place we had to book them through only spoke Spanish!  The whole idea of is that their online agents compete amongst themselves for the finder’s fee ($US 49) to tell you where you may purchase the cheap tickets from, they don’t do the booking for you, just send you their recommendations.    When I realised the “only in Spanish bit” I emailed them to complain as I had presumed that I would be able to communicate in English (Flightfox is an American company after all) and they replied that I should download a translating program.  I tried this but to no avail, my children will tell you that I give up easily when working with computers, but I did try.  Once more I complained and they helpfully returned my fees and we were able to choose one of the slightly more expensive flights instead.  To book our flight home was such a joy, not only because of the price (all AirNZ flights, which was a real bonus, saving us a cool $NZ1000 each!) but we were so ready to come home.  We had been on the road for 13 months by then and we were getting quite homesick, even though we were enjoying all the wonderful experiences of being in a foreign land.


Neprajzi Muzeum, Pest




Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill in Buda

The indoor market place that Dennis raved about

The indoor market place that Dennis raved about

We had an extra spring in our step on the way to the Pest Free Walking Tour starting point.   Turned out there are two streets with the same name and we happened to choose the incorrect one, so we missed the morning tour.  Nevermind, we’ll catch them for the 2.30p.m. Tour at the correct place.  I found a Starbucks, to first of all remove some of my thermal underclothing as the weather had warmed up considerably and to make full use of their free WiFi, while I sipped my coffee very slowly.  Two hours over one coffee meant I got a lot of blogging done while Dennis walked the city some more.   He found a fabulous huge indoor market, housed in a purpose-built very ornate space which covered about an acre.  When he returned to Starbucks he raved about the building in particular as well as the beautiful fresh produce for sale, which left me wondering why he had bought me some garlic that was mouldy?  We were well in time for the afternoon Tour at the right Lion Fountain but no one else showed up, not even the guide, which was a great disappointment to us as these walking tours are the best way to learn about a new city.

Budapest is just as spectactular at night

Budapest is just as spectacular at night


Many quirky statues, this one is Little Princess along the Danube Promenade in Pest


Chain Bridge and the Buda Castle in the background

Hungarian Flag in front of the Parliament Buildings

Hungarian Flag in front of the Parliament Buildings

Dennis had picked out Pécs as our next stopping off point. It is on the southern border of Hungary.  He had worked out well in advance our route, remembering that Istanbul is a long way to go and we now had a firm date of when we were due to leave London, bound for the Southern Hemisphere.  We took the M6, which turned out to be a newly built dual carriage motorway, complete with truck stops and petrol stations.  The only thing it lacked really was traffic!  It is 190 kms long and I reckon we would have seen 20 cars and trucks along the route from Budapest to Pécs.  Quite astonishing.  I really felt quite creepy driving on this modern highway with virtually no one else around. We figured it was probably EU money again.  When I started noticing the jets in the sky, that had me worried more than ever.  Three jets were obviously patrolling the skies, back and forth, back and forth, over and over again.   We watched a beautiful pink sunset (before the sun set at 6p.m) with the vapour trails streaming through it.  We were driving through a wide, wide plain with farms either side of the road.  The largest grain silos we’ve ever seen standing in groups of four or five every few kilometres and those huge round bales of straw and hay dotted all over the landscape.   Even very flat country can be very picturesque.  I found out later that this is part of the Great Hungarian Plain and it covers almost 60% of Hungary.  It also is part of Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, the Ukraine and Romania, covering 100, This one plain is around half the size of N.Z!  In Hungary the highest point on the plain is 183 metres above sea level.

Maybe I've got a guilty conscience but I thought it was creepy having jets patrolling the skies full time

Maybe I’ve got a guilty conscience but I thought it was creepy having jets patrolling the skies full-time

The M6 from Budapest to Pécs, built in 2010

The M6 from Budapest to Pécs, built in 2010

Pécs is a city of 150,00 people today but it was first established by the Romans in the second century.  Pécs is a multicultural city home to Hungarians, Croatians and Swabians (German-speaking people of the Danube).  We were so surprised to find they had a 24 hour Tesco Extra Superstore and settled down in their carpark for the night.  Tescos are a very large chain of supermarkets in the UK and their Extra stores usually include a pharmacy, cafe, clothes department and electrical goods, etc as well as the grocery lines.  In the UK it’s 70% grocery and 30% extras whereas in Pécs it was the opposite.  They sold everything from huge flat screen TV’s to tacks.  This is the first time we have found a Tescos outside of the UK.   The day was beautiful, bright blue skies and very warm so Dennis decided that today was the day he would get some jobs done.  Before getting down to business he would first like to try some local cuisine and he ordered an unknown dish from the cafe at Tescos.  Of course all the labels were in Hungarian and the lady behind the counter couldn’t understand a word of English, so after looking at what the other diners were eating he selected  some unknown dish from what was on offer.  He had to stop the generous lady from filling his plate too high, wondering how he would carry the flimsy plastic plate over to one of the tables.  I declined his suggestion that I choose another selection so he could taste two of the dishes and was content with a bottle of Coke.  They looked all so unappealing to my discerning eye.   Having the spectacle of tourists in the room meant all the other customers were very interested to see how Dennis would fare.   Turned out it was chopped liver and onions.  Now we actually like liver, a plate of Lamb’s Fry and Bacon with fried Tomatoes is rather a treat from time to time in the Bartlett household but this liver was cooked in straight soy sauce as far as I could tell and after two or three mouthfuls Dennis failed in his resolve.  It was disgusting!  

What do you think this is? Chopped liver?

What do you think this is? Chopped liver?

Thus fortified, Dennis began to make his way through a short list of odd jobs that needed doing on or around the motorhome.  First of all, we needed to find a replacement gas cylinder.  We use gas to heat the water, run the fridge, cook our food and warm the air with our flued heater in the back of the van.  In the UK we can use either a 6kg or 13kg gas bottle (similar to one you use on a BBQ) but in Europe they have a different system,  different sized bottles (no problem)  but with a different thread (a major problem).   We started walking into the city centre and found a Shell service station nearby.  The male attendant outside had no interest whatsoever when he realised that we could not speak Hungarian.  This was a disheartening start.  He pointed to the gorgeous looking lady inside every time Dennis opened his mouth.  We were hopeful that this meant that she understood some English, so trotted off to find out that no, she didn’t understand either but she did have a helpful attitude.  I got out my notebook and Dennis started drawing cartoons of a motorhome, the hapless driver, gas bottles and then to the technical drawing of a regulator with the correct thread.  She was excellent in understanding cartoons and yes, she understood our predicament but no, they didn’t sell spare parts.  “Keep walking and you will come to another Shell station closer to town” I think was her advice.  On our way we saw a sign for a camping site so naturally thought, “Ah ha!  A camping site owner would know just what we were on about.”  As we walked up the drive an elderly lady came out of the house looking a bit  concerned at our presence.  Dennis explained our story in some detail, only he had forgotten to ask her if she understood English  first!  Out came the notebook again and yes, she understood cartoons as well but no, the camp site was closed for the season and although she understood our need she had no answer.  She was however shelling walnuts, that had fallen from the six or seven huge trees around her property, with a cute little hammer.  With much hand waving and eating noises Dennis persuaded her to sell us a 250gm bag of shelled nuts.  Delicious!  That cheered her up no end and we parted best of friends.  Back to walking into town again, when we saw a plumbers’ supply store.  Once more the cartoons came in handy and provided the three staff members many moments of merriment with the end result of yes, they understood our problem but no, they don’t sell adaptors there either.  But one of the happy staff had a brain wave and used the Internet to find the correct shop and printed off a Goggle map to direct our way.  Once at the plumbers’ trade supplier the cartoons proved their worth once again.  The shop assistants assured us that they not only understood the problem, they had the correct part in store.  Dennis thought it might be wise to walk back to Tescos to retrieve the van and just make sure that this part was indeed the correct one, before he purchased it.  So off we went again.  All this walking was taking a fair bit of time but as Dennis assured me, we really were getting to know the place quite intimately by now.  I had to laugh when a chap in a car stopped us while on our way back to Tescos.  His first question to us was “Do you speak English?”

One traveller helping another

One traveller helping another

He was from Croatia and spoke a little English, he was looking for the Railway Station and was lost, could we direct him?  Dennis, being the resourceful chap that he is, did exactly that, even though we had never seen the Railway Station ourselves.  Out came our English TomTom from the backpack which Dennis used to interpret some of the Hungarian signs and managed to do a drawing showing him the way.  My notebook was proving invaluable.  When we drove back to the trade supply shop it turned out that the part was indeed incorrect and we were now given a new address to try.  Suez Ltd was a gas fitting place and the helpful man assured Dennis they would have the correct piece of equipment.  He also told Dennis the address and explained how to get there.  As Dennis climbed back in the van he said “That’s easy, I know where that is.” “How?” thought Janette silently, as we promptly got lost!  After driving for some time and confidently assuring me that “it will be in this next street” on several occasions, he finally pulled over and loaded the address into the TomTom.  Turned out,for a start the shop was called Alcatraz not Suez. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, this place had a choice of two adaptors, both of which fitted our thread  type.   Happily he walked back to the second Shell station just down the road to purchase a 7kg gas cylinder and I began preparing lunch in the van.  While Dennis walked back to the van two Hungarians saw this wealthy looking tourist and asked him for the cylinder!  He pretended he didn’t understand them though he had understood they were begging and carried on walking.   Next thing we know, while Dennis was installing the new adaptor and cylinder, an old man approached him.  He couldn’t speak English either but this didn’t stop him asking for two chickens!  Dennis couldn’t believe this to be true and makes like a chicken on the pavement, doing a fair impression of squawking and flapping his elbows, one of which is sore and needs Voltaren smeared on it regularly, to verify that “he did mean chickens?”  “Yes! Yes!” assures the old man but I don’t believe either of them and decide that he must mean eggs and get out the egg carton and wave it about between them.  “Yes! Yes!”  Two eggs is what he’s after, which we are happy to supply.   He’s so delighted he gives the surprised Dennis a big hug!  By this time it was almost 3.30p.m. and Dennis was a bit downcast that he hadn’t achieved much on this “odd job” day and to top it off he was horrified when I forgot about his lunch in all the excitement and presented him with very burnt toasted sandwiches.   

Even the bugs are beautiful in Pécs

Even the bugs are beautiful in Pécs

We proceeded back to the Tesco carpark, where Dennis parked the motorhome with one side up on the garden kerb and the other on the pavement.  He explained this was to enable him to wriggle under the van and replace the rear engine mount.  What a clever fellow!  I took the opportunity to do another hand washing season, it may sound silly but keeping our few clothes clean and in good repair was a major preoccupation for me, particularly when we had decided not to spend unnecessary money on campsites.   Not having much storage space in the motorhome meant we had a very restricted wardrobe each.  Part way through the engine mount replacement, Dennis realises he doesn’t have the right sized spanner!  What a blessing to be parked outside a Tescos Extra.  They sell all sorts of tools and it’s not long before Dennis is back under the vehicle with the correct tool and just his shoes poking out.  Tomorrow we must explore the city centre but today I have a very happy husband, pleased with his day’s adventures.

Clever husband!  No wonder the locals were looking at us rather strangely...

Clever husband! No wonder the locals were looking at us rather strangely…

There is a line strung up on each of the other panels as well

There is a line strung up on each of the other panels as well

Climbing towards the Czech border

Climbing towards the Czech border

Germany (8th), the Czech Republic (9th), Slovakia (10th country on our travels)

There was a heavy frost when we woke on our last morning in Dresden but it was a beautiful sunny day, the first we’d had for ages, so it was worth it.  It was back to the nearest McDonald’s to check on our emails and also monitor our auction on  This was a website that Dennis had read about in an English newspaper brought in Germany.  The idea is that you put up your destination on this website, pay a small finder’s fee and they use the principles of crowd sourcing to discover the least expensive flights available for the dates you’ve listed.   They have three days to do this.   Ideally, you would want to be in front of your computer all day to dialogue with the flightfox people as they put up their suggestions but we can only log on once or twice a day depending on the availability of cafes with WiFi or McDonald’s.
Driving south we were really enjoying the beautiful countryside.  Small villages that looked so old, where the road narrowed between the houses right on the sides of the road.  Everything looked clean and tidy, the autumn trees sparkling in the morning sun.  It was so beautiful. 

These small villages are so beautiful.

Built in 1497!

Built in 1497!

It wasn’t long and we arrived at the border with the Czech Republic, where we had to present our passports for the first time in Europe, they are not part of the EU and it shows.  No sooner had we crossed the border when everything seemed to change.  We had driven up a fairly steep hill and were soon enclosed in low cloud, then heavy rain and the temperature dropped several degrees to just 8.  As we reached the summit we were so surprised to see a man coming up the road on a pair of in-line roller skates, pushing himself up with ski poles.  It looked so bizarre, I was disappointed not to have captured the scene on my camera, I managed to take a photo of the pillar beside the windscreen instead!   The smell of burning coal was pungent and when we emerged out of the cloud on the Czech side of the hill, the road surfaces were in need of repair, the cars were old and rusty,  the houses looked rundown, litter all over the place, a terrible blue haze hung in the sky and everything looked in need of a bit of money spent on it.  We also came to the realisation pretty quickly that Czech drivers are maniacs!   We passed two car crashes within five minutes and the drivers’ were still rather irate.  They were so impatient and it didn’t matter that we might be coming up to a blind corner, off they went staying on the wrong side of the road for ages.  It wasn’t just because they were keen to pass our slower motorhome, if there was someone in front then that would be enough to make it a necessity to pass that vehicle, no matter the road conditions.   

Some of these mountains looked very much like volcanos

Some of these mountains looked very much like volcanos

Surprisingly, 30% of Czech power is from nuclear generation

Surprisingly, 30% of Czech power is from nuclear generation

Love these buildings

Love these buildings

We were driving towards Prague (a city of 2 million) and I was getting more and more anxious about the Low Emission and Congestion Zones, looking out for these signs in a foreign language adds to the stress levels.  If you get caught driving or parking within the Zone you may be liable for a hefty daily fine.  In London, they are kind and give you plenty of warning signs before the Zone begins but if you cross into the LEZ the cameras take note of your number plate and it’s an automatic fine of $NZ200 per day.   Who knows what it might be in these poorer countries?   They don’t tend to give you any warning either, you’re either in the zone or not.  We have seen more policemen while in the Czech Republic than we have since the beginning of our travels.   So when I saw the first sign, as we drove past it, we immediately turned around and retraced our route until we found another Lidl Supermarket car park and stopped there for the night.  This was the first time that I had felt nervous about sleeping in a car park.  It was just that we had seen obvious poverty today, in comparison to where we had been before, and this supermarket seemed to be out in the country with no houses nearby, just other businesses that had closed up for the night.  Dennis wasn’t worried at all, so I bit my lip and got on with it.  

This is a fresh milk vending machine in Prague.  You purchase an empty bottle from the right side of the cabinet and fill it on the left side.

This is a fresh milk vending machine in Prague. You purchase an empty bottle from the right side of the cabinet and fill it on the left side.

The doors in Prague are magnificant

The doors in Prague are magnificent

The following morning, after an uneventful night, we decided to walk to the nearest train station, with mad drivers on the road there was no way we were going to use our bikes.  It turned out to be quite a walk as the first small train station was on the wrong line for us.  We asked a friendly Yank who was watching his young son play soccer at an International Primary School and followed his instructions to the nearest Metro Station.  When I say quite a walk, I’m talking almost three hours from when we first stepped out of the van, but it was a beautiful day.  Once on the Metro it was a seven minute trip to the centre of Prague.  


…another fabulous door…

The old part of town is the most beautiful city we’ve seen yet but the newer section was  surprisingly rundown and quite grotty. There was evidence of real poverty that was so sad.  Many people sleeping rough, entirely wrapped in a blanket (heads and all) and all their possessions tucked in around them, sleeping the day away, and of course many people begging.  We took another free Walking Tour with an Aussie guide called Ashley (he was married to a local).  He was brilliant and earned every Czech crown he was given.  We were due to start the tour at 1.45 p.m and my camera completely died at 1.40 p.m.  Knowing we were about to be walking through the most picturesque city in Europe for the next three hours without  a camera was disappointing to say the least. 


..and another

What a beautiful place, so full of history and amazing buildings.  We thoroughly enjoyed this tour and made the most of it, asking Ashley all sorts of questions while wandering from one fabulous building to the next.  He apologized on behalf of the majority of Czech people, for their apparent rudeness.  They have a reputation of being surly and they don’t like tourists.  He reminded us that if our country was invaded as many times as this one has been, we might have turned out the same.  They also have ongoing problems coming up to scratch to meet the entry requirements for EU membership plus the world-wide financial collapse had hit them hard. The only downside to this interesting day was that we still needed to get back to our motorhome and we weren’t that sure of how to get there.  On our way into the City we didn’t have a detailed map with us, so I had taken  photos of the street names as we went along, thinking that we could refer to these on the way back.  But then the camera died and we couldn’t view the pictures and the street map we picked up in town only showed the centre City so we had to rely on our memories, which had led to arguments on the way into town in the first place, oh dear!   The first problem was to find a Metro Station in the City, they are so poorly marked that I think we walked right past a few before finally getting on our way.  The next thing was to get someone who could understand English to ask if one of the many buses went near our Lidl Supermarket, as we were not keen to walk for another three hours.  This bit sounds easy but actually took us some time to do.  After unsuccessfully asking a few locals, we went off to a large hotel up the road from the bus depot.  When we walked in through the revolving doors of this swanky place, the concierge took one look at us, up and down, and deliberately turned his back on us and resumed reading his newspaper and left us to it!  I agree that we probably looked quite underdressed for his establishment but who knows, maybe we were millionaires with a shocking sense of fashion?  The receptionist was marvelous though and drew us a wee map and told us the bus number we should take and we were on our way.  It all sounded great while we were sitting in the bus shelter, the only thing was that bus never came.  It was so cold by this time around 10.00pm, the frost had already settled and the temperature was plummeting.  After an hour we decided to just hop on any bus and ask the driver if his route would take us in the general direction.    The bus driver couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English and though he repeatedly spoke to us in Czech we were left none the wiser.  While all this discussion was going on he just carried on doing what he always did and kept driving down his route.  So here we were in a bus going who knows where, it’s dark outside so we can’t really recognise the places we saw briefly this morning and we’re wondering what to do next.  Up pops one of the passengers and explains where and when to get off, in very good English.  When we begin to talk about the bus fares that we haven’t paid yet, she laughs and says casually “Don’t worry about them.”  The driver makes it clear that he doesn’t want to get into another discussion so we take the free ride and say no more.  Once we leave the bus there’s still another hour’s walk but this time we use the farmers’ paddocks to keep away from the maniac Czech drivers on the narrow, unlit, country road.  One thing we did find while walking back, was that the sign signaling the beginning of the LEZ was only for six tonne vehicles (our van is three tonnes) which meant we could have parked at the Metro Station all along!  If I hadn’t been so paranoid about it and slowed down somewhat and read it properly the first time, I could have saved us having to walk an extra four hours today.  Once back in our home on wheels we drove back to the Metro Station and found they had free parking for motor homes there as well.  Talk about adding insult to injury.  

Opera House

The Prague State Opera House

The main railway station in Prague was very run down and looked to be falling to pieces

The main railway station in Prague was very run down and looked to be falling to pieces, this was just a block away from the old section of the city.

It's obvious the Soviets built this building - the Czech Bank

It’s obvious the Soviets built this building – the Czech Bank

Our halfway mark on our walking tour was an excellent coffee from this cafe

Our halfway mark on our walking tour was an excellent coffee from this cafe


Dating from 1475, Powder Gate is the only one left standing out of 13 gates into the Old Town of Prague


..after another


It’s one grand building…


.. everywhere you look in The Old City


The Church of Our Lady before Tyn, built in the 14th century


St Galus Church, circa 1330


The Prague Astronomical Clock on the Old City Town Hall.  Erected in 1410 it is the oldest working clock of its kind in the world.  It became such a tourist destination back then, that the authorities had the clock maker blinded and had his hands cut off so that he wouldn’t be able to build another one somewhere else.  He had the last laugh however when he threw himself into the mechanism in a suicide dive and jammed it.  It took 100 years before they found someone to fix it!

We were back on the Metro bright and early the following morning and went in search of a new camera.  Having been delighted with the old Canon we purchased the upgraded version and retraced our steps taking photos of the buildings we admired on yesterday’s tour.  We also visited the Pinkas Synagogue, which was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941.   After WW2 it was converted into a memorial, with wall after wall inscribed with the names, birth dates, and dates of disappearance of the  78,000 Jewish Czech victims of the Nazis.   Wow, this Memorial was so moving.  Upstairs was dedicated to a collection of paintings and drawings by children held in the Terezín Concentration Camp during WW2.   In the Camp were many Jewish intellectuals who used this unusual situation to educate the children there, thinking that they would be the future Jewish population in Czechoslovakia.  One of the teachers taught the children to express their feelings through the means of art.  She saved their drawings between 1942 and 1944 and buried them in a suitcase in Terezin.  There were more than 10,000 children under the age of 15 over that time.  The museum has more than 4000 drawings, half of which are on permanent world-wide tour.  What a moving reminder of their tragic fate.   We walked around in silence and many people were crying as they read the inscriptions and looked at the pieces displayed on the walls, until a couple arrived and talked so loudly in Dutch, complaining that there were too many people in the small rooms!  We actually had a similar experience while in the Museum of Murdered Jews in Berlin, with another Dutch couple behaving inappropriately (I presume they were two different couples).  

Almost 80,000 names covered all the interior walls of the Synagogue

Almost 80,000 names covered all the interior walls of the Synagogue

The Jewish Quarter in Prague had five synagagues????

The Jewish Quarter in Prague had several synagogues.  This one is the oldest active one in Europe, called The Old New Synagogue.

Overlooking Prague stands a giant, working Metronome.  It stands on the plinth where an enormous statue of Stalin had previously stood.  It took 800kg of explosives to destroy it.  The ticking of the Metronome marks the passage of time since the Communists rule.

Overlooking Prague stands this giant kinetic sculpture. It stands on the plinth where an enormous statue of Stalin had previously stood. (It took 800kg of explosives to destroy it.) The ticking of the Metronome marks the passage of time, as it swings backwards symbolising the time lost under Communists rule and forwards measuring time as a free state .

We have been in quite a few public toilets in our travels but the ones in Prague have been the most startling yet.  On the positive side they were the cheapest so far, 30c (NZ).  I must admit that I do object to paying with a passion.   Anyway, we came to a wall with three doors side by side.  The left one for muž (man), nothing written on the middle one and žena (woman) to the right.  Just as well they included little pictures, or we would have been completely stuck.  Dennis and I walked through the appropriate doors and were surprised to see each other on the other side, with a woman sitting on a chair directly behind the middle door between us.  She was having an animated discussion with two male friends, at the same time she held out both hands, waiting for Dennis and me to pay her before proceeding.  She seemed to ignore us but we got the general idea and dropped our coins in her palms and walked into one of the toilet stalls on either side.  A quick glance around and we were both out of those booths looking for paper.  We had to go back to the lady and ask where was the paper, a nod with her head indicated the roll attached to the wall directly in front of her.  From there you had to think carefully about how much paper may be required, too much and she would be cross, too little and you had yourself a problem.  What a great job, sitting effectively in the middle of four toilets, gathering the coins.  Eek!  Her and her companions were having a wee drinking party as they attended to our needs.
When we left Prague the motorway was fabulous, they were still working on the finishing touches.  Being a brand new road the surface was excellent and the sound proofing panels on either side were transparent, it was so good we thought maybe the EU had put money into it.  For the next hour everything was fine, then all of a sudden we came to the old bit of the motorway and then realised why they needed to replace it.   This was a concrete road and each section was dished between the joints creating a distinct bump at each and every join!  It was bump, bump, bump for the next 250 kms at regular intervals of 5 metres apart, that’s three hours over that dreadful road.   We carried on until we got to the outskirts of Brno and stayed the night in a truck stop, thankful to be standing still.  

The worst section of road in Europe!

The worst section of road in Europe!

The outskirts of Brno didn't tempt us to go any closer

The outskirts of Brno didn’t tempt us to go any closer

Generally speaking the Czech people were rude, sour and unhelpful but then from time to time we did meet lovely people who were keen to help us as best they were able.   I really noticed how many people were smokers, as in so many countries now they weren’t allowed to smoke indoors so most people on the streets carried a lit cigarette.  The countryside was lovely, rolling hills and then mountains looking very volcanic to our eyes.  Although there was a good portion of tilled land there was a greater percentage of idle, waste land than we had seen thus far in Europe.   There was a persistent haze in the air, when we learnt that 60% of their electricity generation plants use brown coal it began to make sense.  Only 6.5% is made from renewables and the lack of wind turbines is testament to that, actually I never saw any recycling of any kind.   Having just come from the wealthy country of Germany this place looked and felt very tired in comparison.  Definitely a new experience for us. Also, the north of the country had terrible damage from acid rain stunting the forest growth.

It wasn’t until we crossed the border into Slovakia that we were told that we should have been buying driving time on the Czech roads!  When we joined the motorway system we had vaguely thought we would come across a toll gate somewhere but then we never did.  We had mentioned to each other noting how many cameras along the highway there were but never clicked they were for number plate recognition.  We tried paying online retrospectively but that facility wasn’t available so I got in a bit of a panic wondering again how many tickets would be waiting for us at Rob’s place but Dennis thought it was all a bit of laugh as he intended to challenge any penalty we may get.  As he said worse comes to worse they are hardly going to put the bailiffs onto us in NZ.  The Slovaks were just as ‘friendly’ as the Czechs but on the positive side they didn’t use the same road builders on their highways. 

Love those doors

Love those doors

More beautifully carved doors in Bratsilava

More beautifully carved doors in Bratislava

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and has a population of about 460,000.  The city sits on both banks of the Danube River.   Its location on the borders with Austria and Hungary makes it the only national capital that borders two countries.  The contrast between the old part of the city and the bit that the Communists built was amazing.  Most historical buildings are concentrated in the Old Town.  After the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the city became part of the Eastern Bloc.  As well as the usual drab residential highrise blocks, the Communists also built the fascinating ‘UFO’ bridge and the building that houses the Slovak Radio headquarters. 

The extraordinary Slovak Radio building

The extraordinary Slovak Radio building

The Novy Bridge over the Danube, with the UFO restuarant on top.

The Novy Bridge over the Danube, with the UFO restaurant on top.

The Danube has it's source in Germany and travels through 10 countries before it reaches the Black Sea

The Danube has its source in Germany and travels through 10 countries before it reaches the Black Sea

It was obvious that the city’s infrastructure, outside the few blocks in the Old Town, needed many million korunas spent on it, to upgrade the shabby appearance of what they have now. This city is certainly one of contrasts, with many beautiful old churches and buildings.  Ever mindful of the time it was taking to travel to these new and exciting places heading south, we thought we should be on our way again, heading towards Budapest this time.  The Romans introduced grape growing to this area during the first four centuries AD and began a tradition of winemaking.  (Bratislava was one of the border zones of the Roman Empire during that time.)   Winemaking continues today, with many small patches of vines up the slopes over the hills. 

Bratislava Castle

Bratislava Castle

Beautiful churches in the Old Town

Beautiful churches in the Old Town

An example of a rundown building, with the plaster peeling off to reveal bricks underneath

An example of a rundown building, with the plaster peeling off to reveal bricks underneath


The back of the Opera House

Old Town views are so lovely

Old Town views are so lovely

Notice the sign

Notice the sign

The Slovakian and EU flags

The Slovakian and EU flags

Probably my favourite sculpture so far

Probably my favourite sculpture so far

Slovakia/Hungary border.  Slovakia is not in the EU so there's customs and police checks to get through

Slovakia/Hungary border.


Along with artistic graffiti the statues and artworks in and around the city are fantastic as well

Along with artistic graffiti, the statues and artworks in and around the city are fantastically evocative, the strip between the couple is the wall footprint

Once more we biked into the centre of Berlin, which takes over an hour from where we parked the van.  When I say centre that’s not actually true.  Because of the history of dividing Berlin into four sectors, there is no real centre of Berlin, which does feel quite odd.  On the way into town we called in to the Fiat distributor to collect the engine mount Dennis ordered before the weekend.  What a disappointment to find that the efficient German chap had done nothing about ordering it yet!  We had never intended to stay this long in the city but now with the still strong possibility that Dennis can purchase that new part, we will wait another day.  There was another young man in the office as well today, whose English was significantly better so we are hopeful that this time tomorrow we will be on our way with the part. We really love Berlin so it is not a burden to stay another night but it is a bit of a nuisance to have to bike to this office each time as it is within the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) and we can’t take the van.  

Berlin is full of wonderful graffiti

Berlin is full of wonderful graffiti

Most of it is very clever

Most of it is very clever

Even transforming a brick shed

Even transforming a brick shed

We decided to take a free walking tour around the City and learn more about the history of the place.  I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned the idea of free walking tours or not before, but they are so good.  The guide is generally young, has a degree in History, Architecture, Political Science or the like and is passionate about his/her city.  The only money they make is by tips from the tourists at the conclusion of the tour, so they are very motivated to make a decent job of giving you lots of interesting facts, typically in a humourous way.    Matt, our guide from Liverpool, was excellent!   He was studying at the one of the many Universities in Berlin and had lived there for five years.  He condensed eight centuries of German history into eight minutes to give us a context and then we were on our way, walking through the streets of Berlin for the next four hours.   He was so passionate about his topic, feeding us ancient, and not so ancient  history throughout the afternoon.   The building of the Wall, as well as the destruction of the Wall, is still a huge topic of interest in the City today.   There’s still a line of bricks that follow the footprint of the Wall and it was amazing to see where it zigzagged around the streets.  I had imagined it would have been in nice straight lines, but no, it seems haphazard until you consider that they were trying to divide up an existing city, with parks, rivers, apartment buildings and monuments all in the way.    When the Wall was built in 1961, Germany had already been a divided country for 16 years.  At the conclusion of the War in 1945 the nation of Germany was carved up into an American, a British, a French and a Russian zone.  Before 1961, 3.5 million East Germans fled from the Soviet controlled sector for various reasons such as: they had family members in the western sectors, their property had been confiscated by the Russians, they may have been persecuted as Christians, the rationing was so severe and because they found their political freedoms systematically taken away.   On 17 June 1953, the population in the Russian sector staged a massive national strike demanding free elections, proper wages and re-unification but the response from the Russians was to quash this rebellion with tanks and guns.   Obviously the Soviets were unhappy to be losing so many people and they decided to erect a border fence and only let those East Germans through who had acquired a pass from the authorities.   Initially this barrier was made of barbed wire but it was soon replaced with concrete.  When it was finally complete and secure, it was 156 kilometres long  and left western Berlin as an island surrounded by the Communist East Germany.  Starting on the western side there was a concrete wall 3.6 metres tall, a wire mesh fence behind that, next a wide stretch of clear ground with lighting all the way along, next anti-vehicle trenches, a patrol track, a couple of electric wires with the dog patrol track between them, 217 observation towers spaced out evenly and finally a fence with a built-in alarm system on the eastern side.   And I had always imagined it was a single concrete wall!   

A few of the Watch Towers are still in place today and they look very sinister

A few of the Watch Towers are still in place today and they look very sinister

Between 1961 and 1988 they have records of over 5,000 successful escapes through the Wall and the Death Strip and 136 deaths.   People thought of ingenious ways of escaping by tunneling, bomb attacks on the Wall itself, crashing into the Wall with either a stolen armoured car, a stolen bus or a stolen bulldozer and even a Trojan Cow that was taken from one side to the other on a trailer, with people jammed inside.   90% of Berlin had been bombed throughout WW2 and 40% was left in rubble by the end.  As in other cities in Europe, they rebuilt the grand buildings from the original plans including the French and German Cathedrals, the Opera House, the Music Hall and some of the Universities.  Currently, they are rebuilding the Royal Palace at an estimated cost of 700 million Euros.  There’s ongoing controversy over this as the city of Berlin has 15% unemployment and yet the Council is prepared to spend that sort money. They seem to have a history of profligacy having gone bust three times in the last few decades and then being bailed out by the rest of Germany.

We were shown where Hitler’s Bunker had been and told how the Russians had tried unsuccessfully to destroy it but Hitler had built it to last, using concrete four metres thick to make it bomb proof.  Eventually they filled it with rubble, sealed it, and covered the entire site with soil.  Most people want to keep it that way as they don’t want the site turned into some sort of shrine to the Nazis.  Adjacent to this cleared, vacant site are ten story apartment blocks.  In their day they were the most modern and expensive houses in the East.   As they towered over the height of the Wall they were a good way to show the West how advanced communism was.

The people are standing on the site of Hitler's Bunker with the stunning apartments behind

The people are standing on the site of Hitler’s Bunker with the ‘stunning’ apartments behind

The East German sports stars who were pumped with steroids were given leases to these apartments as their reward for world-wide fame.  They also built a 368 metre high TV tower as another symbol of their prowess but unfortunately it kept sinking in the swampy soils of Berlin and they ended up having to get Swiss engineers in to design and install better foundations to keep the thing upright! 

One building that was left standing after the War is what was then the Luftwaffe headquarters.  It is built in the typical Nazi style, enormous, grey, ugly and intimidating.  The East Germans used it as their Government Building and since re-unification it has become the home of the German Tax Department – there’s a  German saying that describes how it’s been used for three lots of misery.

What was the Luftwaffe Headquarters

What was the Luftwaffe Headquarters

The Communist masters installed a huge long mosaic piece on their Government Building to reflect the happy populace

The Communist masters installed a huge, long mosaic piece on their Government Building to reflect the happy populace (yeah right)

Our tour took us to the outside part of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews (also known as the Holocaust Memorial) again and the guide told us the story of how the supplier of the anti-graffiti surface that was sprayed on the concrete stelae, turned out to be the same company that had developed the Zyklon B poisonous gas, that was used to murder the Jews!  You can imagine the uproar when that was discovered, the company supplied at cost the coating material so they were not seen to be profiting from the descendants of those who were killed.   


The Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church in Berlin

The famous Brandenburg Gate

The famous Brandenburg Gate

The French Protestant Cathedral and the ?? Cathedral sit facing each other

There are two Cathedrals, very much the same, sitting facing each other across the Gendarmenmarkt square, this one is the French (Reformed) one.

The concert hall also situated on the Gendarmenmarkt square

The Concert Hall also situated on the Gendarmenmarkt square

After the walking tour was over we spent the next 75 minutes walking around the History Museum.  We have been so impressed with how the German nation has recognised that acknowledging their history and speaking about it freely is the best way to deal with the legacy.  It really is the healthy way of dealing with the consequences of the previous generation’s decisions and has allowed the Nation as a whole to move on.  Even today many of the older people feel uncomfortable with all this openness and can be quite unfriendly towards tourists but the younger people are relieved that the truth of these matters are being discussed openly at last.   After almost three hours on our bikes and eight solid hours walking I had a great sleep that night.  Why aren’t I loosing weight with all this exercise?

and Dennis prefers this sort of thing

and Dennis prefers this sort of thing

I love these things

I love these things

The newer buildings

The newer buildings

are beautiful as well

are beautiful as well


Bold statements in amongst the older buildings

Now that the

The Reichstag (name of the building) is where the Bundestag  (German Federal Parliament) meets.  It was completely restored after reunification in the 1990’s.  The newer buildings to the right are for the local Government

Although Berlin has a population of 3.5 million it still has a relaxed feel to it.  Having wide boulevards gives the impression of loads of space and they have catered well for the needs of pedestrians and cyclist, they have provided many parks and green spaces which always improves the cityscape as well.  The main city surrounds do not cover a huge area so it seems as if we have become quite familiar it, with all our walking and cycling.   We have thoroughly enjoyed our time here.


The name ‘Berlin’ means ‘town on swamp’. Our guide told us that as the water table is so high in places they need to continually pump out construction sites and that’s the reason there are so many of these temporary, overground pipes around the City

Although Berlin is so interesting to look at the smell is something else! Passing over these drain covers the smell of sewage as strong as paintstripper!

Although Berlin is so interesting to look at the smell is something else.Passing over these drain covers the smell of sewage is as strong as paint stripper.  It’s so disgusting!

The next day was a busy one getting ourselves organised before travelling on.  Dennis took the van to a garage to have the tyres rotated.  They thought he was a bit mad, I think, as they had never heard of that before (putting the front tyres onto the rear wheels, etc  to even out the wear patterns).  Next stop was to bike to the Wascher Salon that Dennis had found a few days previously and do another load of washing.  Then after biking back to the van to pack away the clean laundry, we cycled back to the Fiat place to collect the engine mount (45 minutes biking each way to the Fiat garage in a freezing wind).   What a pain to find that they had ordered the wrong bit.  It was the front engine mount this time.   We weren’t a bit pleased to remember that we had already stayed in Berlin longer than we first intended and now it was all for nothing.  It was at this point that the little German chappie who had more English than the first guy, told us that there was actually another Fiat distributor in Berlin who would probably have the correct bit on his shelves!  And to top it all off this garage was outside the LEZ so we could drive there.  He phoned the said garage and yes, they did have a rear engine mount in stock and we could come straight away to purchase it.  Thank you very much and Auf Wiedersehen to you.   We finally left the grand city of Berlin around 3.30p.m heading to Dresden, with the much-anticipated engine mount on board to be installed at a later time.

No wonder there are so many people smoking in Germany - this huge bag of tobacco

No wonder there are so many people smoking in Germany – this huge bag of tobacco offers excellent discounts, our Turkish friend assured us

100-foot Molecule Man Sculpture on the Spree River which flows through Berlin

100-foot Molecule Man Sculpture in the middle of the Spree River, which flows through the centre of Berlin

The drive to Dresden was initially very straight, very flat and very boring, with a dense pine forest planted either side of the motorway, which limited our view to about the first few metres of very thin trunks.   They plant the trees so close together that the forest is completely dark after a few more metres.   After a few years they obviously come back several times to thin out the pines, the first time when the trees have the girth of a fence post.  Even the fully grown ones are only about half the diameter we are used to in NZ, I suppose with our mild winters they’re faster growing.  Once we got clear of the pines it was beautiful.  Huge, unfenced paddocks, clearly this used to be the collective farming system while the Communists were in control. The fields were filled with the usual animal feed crops as well as hops, berries and grapes.  Around the towns along the way they had allotments, much like the English ones only larger.  

It's common to see pines planted so close together

It’s common to see pines planted so close together

So exciting to see a NZ flag fluttering in a section of German allotments

So exciting to see a NZ flag fluttering in a section of German allotments.  Instead of small hothouses as they have in England, here it’s common to see substantial buildings on each plot.

Driving around the countryside you are constantly reminded that this used to be part of a commmunist country, whether it's old watch towers or the extra large unfenced farm paddocks, part of the collective agricultural system.

Driving around the countryside you are constantly reminded that this used to be part of a Communist country, whether it’s old watch towers or the architecture.

The Lonely Planet Guide recommends that you visit Meissen before visiting Dresden.  Dresden was completely wiped off the map by the Allies in WW2 and Meissen was virtually left untouched, so if you want to see what the old Dresden looked like, visit this smaller town first.  This we did and we were enchanted with this beautiful place.    It sits on the banks of the River Elbe 25kms north-west of Dresden.  It’s famous for the high quality porcelain made here and to celebrate the occasion of the town’s 1000 year jubilee in 1929, they made the  world’s first porcelain carillon, housed in the tower of Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).   It  produces a quiet tinkling sound, they play out a familiar hymn (the name of which I’ve now forgotten) rather than the usual bing, BONG, bing, BONG type of tune.   The place was full of tourists,  German-speaking ones – no one could speak English, and they had the prices to match (that’s tourist prices not German ones).

Meissen is full of the most beautiful buildings

Meissen is full of the most beautiful buildings


Disappointingly we missed the English walking tour in Meissen so we still have many unanswered questions about all these lovely places

Albrechtsburg Castle in the foreground and Meissen Cathedral right behind it

Albrechtsburg Castle in the foreground and Meissen Cathedral right behind it

Messiem sits on either side of the River Elbe

Meissen sits on either side of the River Elbe, we were surprised at how swiftly this large river flows

Inside the tower there's a spiral staircase, nothing extraordinary about that.  It's just the windows placed to match the slant of the stairs that's unusual.

Inside the tower there’s a spiral staircase, nothing extraordinary about that. It’s just the windows placed to match the slant of the stairs that’s unusual.

It's very common to see the flood heights marked on the Church in the centre of town

It’s very common to see the flood heights marked on the side of the Church in the centre of town (which already sits quite a few metres higher than the river)

Small reminders of how old these places are

Small reminders of how old these places are

The Frauenkirche with it's porcelin clarion

The Frauenkirche with its porcelain carillon

The whole town of Messiem is filled with buildings of Renaissance architecture, sitting alonside and over the cobbled streets.

The whole town of Meissen is filled with buildings of Renaissance architecture, sitting alongside and over the cobbled streets.

The Cathedral and Castle are built on top of a hill made of rock so there's many stairs to climb getting to them

The Cathedral and Castle are built on top of a hill made of rock so there’s many steps to climb getting up to them

The view from up by the Caste shows you just how close all the houses are in the old town.

The view from up by the Caste shows you just how close all the houses are in the old town. There are narrow little cobbled lanes winding their way through this maze as well.

Everwhere you go in the old part of Messiem the buildings are amazing.  So different to what we've seen in the UK.

Everywhere you go in the old part of Meissen the buildings are amazing. So different to what we’ve seen in the UK.

I must make mention of the wonderful bread in Germany!  Holland comes a close second in the bread stakes but Germans sure know what a good loaf of bread tastes like.  The UK range is awful from start to finish, no substance to it and always stale.  In general Germany has very cheap food and oh, their sausages are so good too.

Between Messiem and Dresden small vineyards are dotted around the countryside.

Between Meissen and Dresden small vineyards are dotted around the countryside.

As I mentioned earlier, the controversial Allied aerial bombing towards the end of World War II destroyed the entire city centre and incinerated 25,000 civilians.  The impact of the bombing and 40 years of urban development during the East German communist era have considerably changed the face of this city.  The Soviets only restored a few of the old landmarks, preferring to remove the bombed out remains of the others and replace them with Soviet styled structures.  After reunification the German nation made it a priority to repair and rebuild many of the old favourites, reusing as much of the old stone as possible.   What a wonderful job they have made, truly beautiful.

The contrast between what the Soviets built in their day to the beautiful older ornate buildings is stark

The contrast between what the Soviets built in their day to the beautiful older ornate buildings is stark

Now some modern buildings try to combine the Soviet style of a stone box and add a bit of decoration in places

Now some modern buildings try to combine the Soviet style of a stone box and add a bit of decoration in places

Surprisingly the Katholische Hofkirche in Dresden was rebuilt during the Soviet era.

Surprisingly the Katholische Hofkirche in Dresden was rebuilt during the Soviet era.

The Opera House (Semperoper) was also rebuilt when this was still East Germany terrority

The Opera House (Semperoper) was also rebuilt when this was still East Germany

We loved it in Dresden.  We parked the van in a supermarket car park way out in the suburbs and walked into the city for two and a half days exploring

We loved it in Dresden. We parked the van in a supermarket car park way out in the suburbs for three nights and walked into the city to explore

The inner courtyard of the @@ Castle is now @@

The Stables of the original Castle

The outer wall of the Castle stables was decorated with a fresco when it was built in 1589.  By 1876 it was redone and enlarged.  Since the picture rapidly deteriorated, it was replaced with about 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles between 1904 and 1907.[3] The mural depicts the 35 Saxon margraves, electors, dukes and kings from Conrad, Margrave of Meissen, who ruled in the 12th century, to George of Saxony who was king for only two years in the 20th century. The only ones missing are Heinrich I von Eilenburg (c. 1089) and the last king of Saxony, Frederick Augustus III, who ruled from 1904 to 1918. Also shown are 59 scientists, artisans, craftsmen, children and farmers.[2]Only minimal damage to the tiles resulted from the February 13, 1945 bombing of Dresden.

The outer wall of the Castle stables was decorated with a fresco when it was built in 1589.   By 1876 it was redone and enlarged but since the picture deteriorated, it was replaced in 1907 with about 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles.   The mural depicts the 35 Saxon margraves, electors, dukes and kings from the 12th century to the beginning of the  20th century.   59 scientists, artisans, craftsmen, children and farmers are also shown.  Remarkably only minimal damage to the tiles resulted by the bombing of Dresden.

I just love all the details

I just love all the details



The Dresden Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is actually a Lutheran Church.  It wasn't unitl 2005 that it was rebuilt again after the War.  The were meticulous about reusing all the old stone blocks where possible, that's why the colour is patchy.  We stopped to enjoy the free organ recital they have every day at 3p.m.

The Dresden Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is actually a Lutheran Church. It wasn’t until 2005 that it was rebuilt again after the War. They were meticulous about reusing all the old stone blocks where possible, that’s why the colour is patchy. We stopped to enjoy the free organ recital they have here every day at 3p.m.

How amazing the transformation as this photo of a photo shows the terrible devestration

How amazing the transformation as this photo of a photo shows.  The terrible devastation of Dresden after WW2

We decided to get our computer repaired, I couldn’t get it to run the portable DVD writer anymore, to make copies of all the photos we’ve taken.  We’re keen to send copies back to NZ “just in case”.  We found a repair place and I tried hard to explain my problem to the repairman.  I wasn’t sure if it was a problem in the computer itself or the DVD writer but I was fairly confident I had explained this adequately to him.  A sign on the wall informed us that his services were one Euro per minute so we were getting more and more alarmed the longer he took.  He was serving other customers in between tinkering with our Netbook and each time we asked how it was going he indicated he was nearly finished.  After 45 minutes Dennis started getting a bit anxious with him and made it clear with hand signals, a stern face and a raised voice that it was definitely time to stop whatever it was he was up to!  “Nein, nein!” was his reply with a smile, “Yah, Yah!” says Dennis getting more forceful, “Nein, nein.  In a minute.”  So we had to wait and hope it wasn’t too much longer, it’s not something we can just remove from his grip and walk out, we know our limitations as far as computer repairs go.  But it wasn’t that much longer and he motioned me over and showed me that he had indeed fixed the problem and gave me a demonstration of it working well.  Dennis came over with his wallet opened to which the man said, “Nein, nein!”  he didn’t want any money at all for his time and wished us happy travelling.  Wow!  We felt we were on a roll now so we decided to get the next technical problem fixed.  We had been unable to figure out how to put more money on our cell phones that have English SIM cards.  It seems like a simple problem but we couldn’t figure it out after many attempts of trying it online.  For some reason I couldn’t get the website to recognise me, my phone or my password though I had used it in the UK before and when I tried to register again it told me someone else had the same name and/or password as me!   Turned out T-Mobile might have the same name in Germany but it’s a completely separate company with no relationship to the British one so we had to buy a German SIM card as the English one only took pounds, not Euros, to reload.  As a consequence, all the texts I get for T-Mobile are now in German and I can’t understand a word.   We do feel it’s important to have at least one phone that words, even if the instructions are in German, in case of an emergency when we’re somewhere out in the wop-wops.

Autumn has arrived with the changing leaves and shortening days

Autumn has arrived with the changing leaves, drop in temperatures and shortening days

The Elbe has been navigable by commercial vessels since 1842, and provides important trade links as far inland as Prague.  The river is linked by canals (Elbe-Seitenkanal, Elbe-Havel Canal, Mittellandkanal) to the industrial areas of Germany and to Berlin.  When the two nations were reunited, works were begun to improve and restore the original links: the Magdeburg Water Bridge now allows large barges to cross the Elbe without having to enter   We saw similair

The Elbe has been navigable for about 100okms by commercial vessels since 1842. This gets you as far as Prague.  The river is linked by canals  to the industrial areas of Germany and also to Berlin. After reunification work was begun to improve and restore the original links: the Magdeburg Water Bridge now allows large barges to cross the Elbe in a giant aqueduct.  We saw aqueducts for the barges in the canal system in the UK but never anything so modern or large as this one.   (This is also a photo of a photo)


Mission:  Get the washing done and dried. (Thus saving $NZ60 for one night’s accommodation at a local Camping Site, plus the cost of the washing and drying machines!)
Complications:  No suitable street map, no knowledge of what a laundromat is called in German and my regular, 9.a.m constitutional is pressing!
Plan:  Go to nearby dunny, which is a supa-dupa, stainless steel, electronic, high-tech pay toilet in the middle of a suburban shopping area and then find a Laundromat.
Equipment:   Cellphone and TomTom.
Staff:  Dennis
Weather: Wet (as usual).
Execution:  Made like penguin one kilometre to said dunny, put 50c in slot, promptly rolled out and door didn’t open!  Waddle to nearby Turkish Dairy with Internet Cafe, asks if he speak English?  He replies, “Little but good at German and Turkish!”  Explain dunny bung, recounted word on-screen of dunny’s instruction to see if it meant Kaput?  He’s not sure.  “How about I use yours?”  He said, “he no have one!”  I say, “What now?”  He suggests McDonald’s, 1 kilometre away, heart sinks, waddle off with smaller more rapid steps, occasionally stopping to think of England!  En route, spot 24 hour pub still going strong, think valour is the better part of discretion and walk straight through a crowded bar and find toilet.  RELIEF!  Walk out again, get grumpy glare from barmaid.   Back to unfriendly Turk at Internet Cafe.  Buy an espresso to sharpen brain for mission ahead.  Use Internet, Google Translate and establish that Laundromat means Wascher Salon.  Mention to Turk, “Ah..”  He gives me an address two kilometres away and points to general  direction to a different suburb.  He attempts to load said address in TomTom but does it wrong, I then reclaim TomTom and he gets mad with me and stomps off in disgust!  Address successfully entered, show Turk, we’re all friends again.  Walk in a brisk manner with 10 kg of laundry between five storey buildings which obscures GPS signals.  Get there in 45 minutes with a few minor mistakes (GPS’s fault).  I walked a 400 metre pirouette at one stage for no reason.  Find Wascher Salon at last with 40 machines, of three different types!  Next problem all the instructions are in German, but very clearly written.  Eventually, sort it out, put washing in machine, add own laundry fluid, go to the payment machine, misread instructions, figure out I have now fired up the wrong machine, with no laundry or detergent in it!   Friendly Krut helps out, Kiwi admits being stupid, away at last!  23 minutes later job is done.  Go to different machine and put in dryer.  Repeat same mistake, but not a problem because the machine inadvertently selected was already broken.  Drying complete, no problem, leave Wascher Salon after one hour with clean and dry laundry.  Next problem, where’s home?  I think it’s Treptower Park.  Do numerous aforesaid pirouettes on the way home, as GPS cuts in and out, think I need further input!  Speak to Fräulein nearby, very helpful.  Points me in completely the wrong direction, 120 degrees out.  Follow her instructions for ten minutes, toss up who makes more sense, a wonky GPS or Fräulein?  Decide to back GPS.  Eventually following GPS to Treptower Park.  Remember Treptower Park isn’t where we live, we live in Alt-Treptower Park, parked beside a park which is not Treptower Park, but in the suburb of Alt-Treptower Park.  Think, I have cellphone, text red-headed Frau via London back at motorhome (cost 28p) ask for the actual address at intersection.  Verify GPS is clever.  Four hours after leaving arrive at home, with the top layer of washing now damp again from all the rain, but saved over $50 for my trouble.

Holland (7th), Germany (8th)

Dutch and Germans didn’t like the look of the sound-proofing barriers along the highways either so they’re using Virginia Creeper to disguise them. Good thinking. You can tell this is in Germany though because in Holland there would not be weeds growing underneath

Our favourite stop for the night is a Truck Stop. It might be noisy but it feels very safe

We were keen to see the rest of the famous Delta Works, south of Rotterdam.    The Dutch engineers are masters at clever designs and this was no exception.   Just south of the city in the low-lying flood plain the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt rivers meet the North Sea.  These rivers travel 350-1200 kms to get to here so all three of them are massive.   A major flood in the region during January 1953 killed more than 1,800 people when a storm surge caused 89 dikes to fail.  Over 72,000 residents had to be evacuated and 10,000 houses and buildings were destroyed.   This same storm surge actually caused massive flooding along the east coast of the UK as well.    This prompted the Government to build a system that would minimise the possibility of a repeat performance.  They have used a series of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers  over a long section of the coast and all this is known collectively as the Delta Works.  The constructions took from 1950 and 1997 to build them and now with the threat of sea water levels rising due to climate change they are now considering ways to strengthen them and make them taller!   We felt sure that they would have a Visitor Centre where we could learn more about the process of how they built these impressive gates, etc so we stopped at the first large building that looked a likely suspect.  Unfortunately, it turned out it was an aquarium and pool complex, although they did have a video running about the Delta Works as well, an odd combination really.  The video in English was not due to start for ages and you couldn’t buy a ticket to the film session alone, so we decided it was probably not worth the effort and expense and would watch something on the internet instead.

Some of the impressive gates that make up the Delta Works, as you can tell the weather was terrible

We stopped at the town of Middelburg and took a wander around the town square.  What a beautiful place this is.  What I thought must be a cathedral used to be the Town Hall but is now used as the University.  It completely dominates the town square.  Dennis couldn’t resist buying another cone of patat, “you never know how many more of these delicious treats we were going to see in our travels so you have to be prepared to take every opportunity” is his motto.

The Middelburg town square

Somebody had a sense of humour, carvings on the side of the University

What a friendly place

Even in residential streets right in the middle of cities the Dutch authorities think that kids can still have fun

Middelburg is so beautiful

Between the towns south of Rotterdam it’s farms or industry cheek by jowl all the way

Ineke had told us about Floriade 2012.  It is a huge exhibition covering 66 hectares, along the same tradition of the Chelsea Flower Show in London.   It differs in that it’s held once every 10 years and runs from the beginning of spring to the end of summer.    This year it was on the outskirts of a place called Venlo, right near the border with Germany, and when we went there it only had six more days to run.  To gain entry you needed to park in their own Park and Ride place a few kilometres out of town and take their bus to the actual exhibition site.   We were on the first bus at 10a.m. determined to make the most of this opportunity, even if it was raining.  Everything, including all the buildings, had been built specifically for Floriade and were an attractive mix of quirky styles.  I really enjoyed the floral displays, huge hothouse complexes with 1000’s upon 1000’s of blooms all tended to perfection.  Other than the signs advertising that the exhibitors’ buildings were up for sale now, as well as their products, you wouldn’t have known that the gates would close for the last time on Saturday and everything would be dismantled!   The display gardens had lost most of their flowers, due to the combination of the current weather and the time of year, which was understandable but still they were impressive.  The general theme for Floriade this year was “sustainability”, a common theme for this type of gardening expo I find, but they presented good ideas and the latest in green technology as it relates to growing in general.  The only thing (other than the weather) we were disappointed in was with the technical sections.  Why do they try to cater for seven-year-olds rather than the people likely to be spending money on these items?    There were crowds of people there on the day we went, I would hate to have gone through in the height of the season, at least we didn’t have to queue for very long at popular venues.  We must have walked for miles before we left the site at 6.30p.m. but we loved the day and were thankful to have been able to attend.  

The entrance to Floriade 2012, that snake-like thing in front is the footbridge over a very busy motorway.

Lots of neat statues, garden art, etc all over the site

The living sculptures were great, sorry we didn’t get to see them while the flowers were putting on a good display though

Taking the 1 kilometre long cable car not only saved the legs but gave you a great perspective over the entire site

Eh? Surely not!

We had seen signs for K&R and not realised what it stood for until today! Usually it’s P&R for Park & Ride

Sorry, I couldn’t help staring! But what happens when it’s windy?

My favourite things at the Floriade 2012

Dennis had a vague idea of a route planned in his head for the rest of our travels and I was just happy to go along with his plans, now that we had left behind my family in ‘s-Gravenzande.  He was aiming to spend a few days in Berlin.  When you look at the map this is a long way to drive so he decided that we should get going straight after our evening meal and avoid some of the traffic in this heavily populated area.    But contrary to our expectations the motorway was so busy!  Along with the trucks, which is normal there were plenty of cars as well, which did seem strange.  By the time we found a truck stop just outside Emden in Germany I was completely exhausted.  We quickly made the bed up and I fell asleep instantly until 9a.m. even though we only had a grass verge between us and the very busy motorway.  As well as that the trucks come and go all night long, the drivers must have a set number of hours they are required to rest, and they have the habit of running their engines a good 15 minutes or more before they actually leave so truck stops are usually very noisy places but on this particular night, after walking for miles around Floriade then driving for a few hours, I never heard a thing.
 We set off again the following day and enjoyed the scenery now that we were driving in daylight again.   We had noticed yesterday that quite soon after crossing the Dutch/German border the flat plain soon turned into rolling hills and we felt like we were slowly climbing all the way.   This part of Germany had so many more trees than Holland and the majority were just starting to change into their autumn hues.  Very beautiful.   They also have more wind turbines than I have ever seen anywhere.  They all need to have blinking lights on the “box” bit, white for daylight hours and red ones at night.  It looks quite weird at night or when it’s foggy, all these blinking lights seemingly suspended way up in the air, as you can’t see the tall poles they’re sitting on.  It was quite common to see large sections of photovoltaic cells attached to sloping platforms raised off the ground on farms, here they were farming the sunlight.  Germany is certainly very “green” – some of the escalators only start up once you step on them, very clever!   Dennis remarked that there seemed to be so many signs for a place called Ausfarht.  I actually thought it was a weak joke so didn’t reply, but when he repeated it after a few more kilometres I laughed and laughed.  Surely he had realised that Ausfarht means Exit in German?  Just like in Holland they were harvesting huge paddocks of maize for silage all through this district.  We called into the small town of Dulmen looking to restock our larder.  It did seem very odd to find that all the supermarkets were closed at 2.30 on this Wednesday afternoon.  It was days later that we learnt that it was the public holiday celebrating Re-unification Day.  No wonder the motorway was so busy last night!  

Farmers cover their effluent tanks to extract the methane gas

Germany has so many turbines it’s remarkable

Sorry Dennis, but that was funny!

Good to see the Germans are trying to do something about it

McDonalds is our new favourite place!  Free WiFi for one hour, clean English style toilets and safe parking.  We don’t eat their food very often, knowing from experience that it tastes like cardboard, but the McCafe coffee’s not too bad and their ice cream is rather yummy.
Dennis remembered that Matt and Kathy had flatted with a German guy in Newtown, Wellington years ago and he had the bright idea to contact Matt to ask if he knew where he was now.  Turns out Torsten lives in Berlin now so we emailed him to arrange a meeting.  He was so helpful to us and suggested an ideal place for us to park as Berlin has a Low Emission Zone as well.  Following his instructions we stopped beside a small park on the corner of Heildelberger Straase and Schmoller Plats in a quiet residential neighbourhood in the suburb of Alt-Treptower Park.  This area used to be part of East Germany and still has a line of bricks laid down the middle of Heildelberger showing where the Berlin Wall used to be.    We ended up staying in this spot for five nights.   

The footprint of the Berlin Wall

Berlin is so beautiful

We met up with

On our way to breakfast with Torsten we passed a Church with a statue of Martin Luther, we must go back and look inside but we never found it again

Torsten for breakfast on the following day and had such a lovely time with him.  He was eager to hear all about our other children, most of whom he had met on occasion in Wellington.  He tells us the longer he stays away from NZ the more homesick he is to get back.  He loved the relaxed pace of life back there and the fact that you didn’t feel you needed to keep up with the latest fashions, etc.  There are so many rules and regulations in Germany which he finds annoying particularly remembering the more spontaneous atmosphere in NZ.   Also the contrast of living in a country that only has 4.5 million compared to a 3.5 million just in Berlin and on top of all that NZ’ers are so friendly.  He remarked that Berlin was known as a lonely city with 50% of the population living by themselves.   We enjoyed a typical German breakfast of hot bread rolls, a selection of salamis, olives and cream cheese, with a delicious coffee on the side.  


We walked around Berlin for seven hours, just getting the feel of the place and taking note of things we wanted to explore further.  It is an interesting city and had very helpful notice boards up in front of important buildings, etc explaining the history of each in English.  During our walk Dennis noticed a Fiat distributor, which sold various car parts to the public.   What a find!  While we were back in Epsom, England he had ordered a rear engine mount for the van as the one on there is fairly sloppy and is definitely getting worse.  When the part arrived it turned out it was for a different model and didn’t fit, so he has had it in the back of his mind to find the correct one while we are in Europe.   It was funny trying to communicate with a German who spoke very little English and us who had no German.  Dennis is really quite the artist when words don’t work.  As this was on a Friday afternoon he told us the part would not be delivered until Monday morning, that was okay as long as they had understood all of Dennis’ explanations and it was the correct part.   Walking back in the general direction of home we passed the famous East Side Gallery.  With a name like that I was looking for a building but of course Dennis knew it was a section of the old Berlin Wall that was completely covered in astonishing graffiti.  Wow, it turned out to be quite amazing.   Now I realise why there’s so much graffiti of the artistic kind in this city.

The Easy Side Gallery stretches along a 1.3 kilometre section of the old Wall

While we were slowly walking down the length of the Wall, six Trabant cars pulled up alongside. Needless to say Dennis struck up a conversation with the first driver.  This was his business, providing guided tours to tourists in these cars.  (They do a self-drive option as well.) The Trabant car was built in East Germany.  It has a two-stroke, two-cylinder engine, weighs 600kgs and has a fibreglass body.  He told us that years ago when the cotton crop failed in Russia they used the fibres to create the world’s first fibreglass.  The car’s top speed is 100km/hr which earned it the nickname of The Racing Cardboard Car.  The driver opened the bonnet to show the now gathering crowd where the petrol tank was and explained that the dip stick clamped under the bonnet was to determine how much fuel was left in the tank.  Each car has a birthdate and this is stamped on the chassis, this one was made on 5 May 1988.  The cost for one of these Tarbants nowadays ranges from 200-2000 Euros.  

Trabant cars are known by their nickname of Trabis

The Oberbaumbrücke Bridge built in 1896 is a double-deck bridge spanning the River Spree, (cars on the bottom and trains on top). It was one of the checkpoints between West and East Berlin.

Huge section for pedestrians and bikes on the bottom section as well

Each afternoon in Berlin we experienced a thunder-storm.  Torsten had warned us that Berlin in particular had an awful climate, usually it’s cloudy and can be pretty cold,  never-the-less with the place being so flat we decided to use our bikes after that first day of walking.  They cater for cyclists really well, with dedicated lanes on the roads or on the pavements everywhere.  The cyclists here are not as bossy as in Amsterdam so we were confident that we would be able to blend in all right.  We went looking for an Internet Cafe as we needed to sign a few documents for our accountant back home and have them scanned back (why does it take so long to wind up a business?).  Dennis finally found one a few blocks away from where we were parked, none at all in the central city, but he was unimpressed with the dour man who spoke to him there.   When we went back later, there was another Turkish guy behind the counter who couldn’t have been more friendly.  While I was doing my thing on the computer and getting Dennis to sign here, here and here, Dennis was having a great chat to this guy.    Turns out the dour man was his brother who along with owning this business was a bodyguard to Angela Merkel, the German Prime Minister.  They had opened this shop that was a small cafe/bottle store/tobacco outlet about 10 years ago and when the Wall came down they shifted the shop across the road so that it now stood on what was once East Germany.  He told us how the East Germans were so scared and timid for the first few years.  There had been no shops in this area at all on the other side of the Wall, they had never seen a Turkish man before and they didn’t trust him.  It took them a long time to purchase the items that were unfamiliar to them, it was only that this guy was kind and patient with them, explaining what all these new things were and how they should use them.    Slowly his gentle, friendly manner worked and now people pop in just for a chat with him!  We were there for around 45 minutes and he was just as friendly to everyone.  When Dennis asked “how come a Turk was living in Berlin?”  he told us the story of how after WW2 German Government representatives went to Turkey inviting men to come and work in Germany.  Understandably, there were few German men left after the War.  They offered good wages and his father decided to stop being a farmer in Turkey and shifted his whole family to Berlin and become a factory worker.  They still go back to their hometown for holidays from time to time but this guy had his own family now and there was no way he would shift from Berlin.   There are 180 different cultural groups within Berlin but it is rare for intermarriage with native  Germans to occur.    He thought it was amazing for us to drive all the way to Istanbul, very adventurous.  He also warned us about driving straight through Romania and Bulgaria, not stopping at all.  He said the people are so poor they are dangerous, whereas we might think we had little of value we would look very wealthy to the locals.  When he drives his family to Montenegro he gets there as fast as he can, in his smart Mercedes V-8.

The friendly Turkish brother

The following day after listening to a sermon from St. Helen’s on our computer, we cycled back into the central city again.  This time we  went to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  What a sobering place.  We both thought that the German nation have made such a fitting memorial here in the heart of the city, even though it has been the subject of controversy over the years.     Outside there are 2711 stelae of varying heights and sizes lined up, covering 19,000 square metres (4.7 acres).  Stelae are the above ground graves that Jews have in Israel, having just come from visiting Jerusalem these ones were so evocative.   Narrow lanes between the stelae give you an overall oppressive feeling, you never quite know what might be around each corner and the ground underfoot is uneven and adds to the confused feeling all around.  You can see over top of some of the “graves” while others are so tall they tower over you.   Just this large section of the Memorial is pretty impressive by itself but then after passing through the security scanners you walk to an underground bunker, where the ceiling has the undersides of the stelae in relief.  Here the various themed rooms tell the story of the who, how and where the Jews, disabled, homosexuals and Gypsies were murdered.   The first section explains the changing attitude the Nazis held from 1933, when these people were imprisoned in the Ghettos, through to the 1940’s when they developed the factory style killing systems.  Six large portraits of real Jewish people were hung in the foyer, symbolising the six million murdered Jews.  In the following rooms each of these person’s story was told using the spoken word, written articles and videos to describe their fate, not all perished.  We are all familiar with the infamous concentration camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz but there were actually hundreds of similar sites all over German occupied Europe.  Before the gassing of people had been ‘perfected,’ about a third of all deaths were by massed shootings.  This really brought home to me that it was individuals shooting other individuals and not just a faceless mass of people being gassed by a few men who were just following orders from higher up.   Hitler was so intent on wiping out every Jew he could find, he employed Germans to travel throughout Europe and even into Africa to trace Jews who had escaped before the War and return them to Germany to be gassed.   One of the rooms at the Memorial, traced the lives of 15 separate Jewish families, using photos, personal letters and historical records, detailing each family member and their history during the war years.  Many were murdered but a few had managed to escape or hide.   One example was of an extended family that had 26 members, only one of those people survived.  Another example I remember was of a large Jewish family who thought at the beginning of the War that surely only the men would be targeted.  Subsequently, the father and sons either fled or were hidden by sympathetic Germans, thus leaving the mother and sisters at home, who were promptly sent off to one of the murder camps.   In another room, they had the names of a few murdered or missing Jews on a screen with a short biography read out about each person.  They change the names continually and in this way it takes 6 years, 7 months and 21 days to read through the entire list of known names!   It truly is so hard to comprehend the enormity of the evil done to this section of society.  I believe it is crucial that we don’t forget what happened not that many years ago, it’s like what they say “those who forget history are likely to repeat it”.  The last section was so interesting.  We didn’t get to see all of it as it was close to closing time and the screens were eventually turned off.  We were watching an interview between a few people off-screen asking the questions and a Polish Jew called Sabina van der Linden-Wolanski.   We missed the first part where she detailed her life through the War years.  When we sat down and watched she was telling the story of how she survived after the 1945.  How after liberation, at first she just wanted to forget about life in a concentration camp and the killing of her parents and siblings and all that horror and pack all those memories away in a little padlocked ‘box’ in her mind and get on with her life.  She spoke of meeting and marrying her first husband in Paris and emigrating to Australia, of the birth of her children and the successful business she developed in Sydney.  How she loved Australia, its friendly people and the great climate, etc.  But all was not well in her head, it was such hard work keeping the lid on the ‘box’, in all this time she had not talked about her experiences to anyone.  Eventually one day one of her children began to ask her about her life back then and she realised then that it was part of their history as well.  Over time she did explain to them her experiences at the hands of the Nazis and actually took her children back to Poland  to show them the significant places in her past.   Although it was a terrible time for her, this was the start of her healing and from then on she made it her life’s work to visit schools, clubs, etc and talk to young people in particular, to convince them not to hate others.  She taught them to forgive one another and was so concerned that all the evil done during WW2 by the Nazis towards the Jews and others should not be forgotten, so that all those people who had been murdered did not die in vain.   She was determined to teach others that hatred and discrimination are doomed to fail.  It was so moving but also such an uplifting story to hear this old woman speak from the heart.  It was a fitting end to our visit to this solemn Memorial.

It’s difficult to take a photo that gives you the true impression of the vast size of this Memorial

Before Josef Pitel of Parczew, Poland moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1938 they had a family photo taken. In 1942 his entire family was murdered in Treblinka.

All those orange marks are where the Nazis had their Death Camps


My parents, Jan and Ger, were both born in ‘s-Gravenzande, Holland.  My father had been widowed previously and had one young son, Leen.  It’s a rather romantic tale of how they came to be married, so I will tell it to you.   Jan was the conductor of the Church Choir and Ger was one of the members.  They both attended the same Church but the congregation was so large they did not really know one another.  My Mum told me that she felt sorry for Jan when he came to Church each week, holding the hand of his little, motherless child.  One Sunday afternoon there was a knock on my grandparents’ door and when they opened it there was Jan, asking to speak to Ger’s father.  They met in the front room of their house so Ger could not hear what the conversation was about.  After a bit, her father came out and suggested that she take a walk with Jan and he would explain about his visit.  I think my mother was in her late twenties at this time and she thought of herself as “past it” and “that she would always be a spinster”.  While on their walk, Jan asked for her hand in marriage!  He had been aware of her through the Choir activities and was impressed with her good, Christian character and thought she would make him an excellent wife and also be an excellent mother for his son, who I think was five at the time.   She was very surprised at this news and after a few minutes asked him for seven days to consider his offer.  The following Sunday she accepted his proposal.    By the time they left Holland in 1952, my mother had three children of her own (Maria, Gerda and Dick) as well as Leen, whom she loved as her own.  Once they arrived in New Zealand they had three more (Ron, myself and Jo).

The house on your left is where Ger lived with Opa and Oma van Oosten

Both Mum and Dad came from large families, around six or seven siblings each, I forget the exact number.  Gerda had been in contact with my mother’s side of the family and had organised for her and Barry to stay with our cousin Ton and his wife, Nicolien.  I had written to one of my mother’s sisters, Tante Rie, asking if we may park our motorhome on their property and proposing that we could look after ourselves in the van, knowing that she was either in her late 70’s or early 80’s.   Her very helpful daughter-in-law replied on their behalf, as she has a good grasp of English and could email me, inviting us to stay the weekend with her family.  Ineke and Dirk, live in the house next door to Tante Rie, which turned out to be perfect.

Oom Klaas and Tante Rie’s home, Ben now manages the hothouses on the property

Dirk and Ineke’s home

We were determined to not keep Gerda waiting and ended up getting to the Church two hours early!  Not like us at all to be early.  We parked in the supermarket car park and did a spot of shopping.  Surprisingly, we found NZ wines on the shelf so we were happy to take a few with us for the family.  We strolled through the village and really loved the atmosphere of the place.  Being a Friday, the market stalls were open in the Town Square and we bought Dennis some decent woollen socks and had a coffee while we waited.  I kept finding myself looking intently into everyone’s face to see if there was a family resemblance at all.  About half an hour before the appointed time we decided to shift the van to a more prominent parking spot and then stand in front of the Church.  While we were slowly driving around, each of us looking for that elusive park on our side of the road, there was a loud commotion in front of us, on the other side of the road coming towards us.  Someone was yelling and half hanging out the passenger window, waving frantically.  That someone was Gerda, beside herself with joy!   She didn’t wait for us to find a place to pull off the road but jumped out of their car and ran down the road after us.  What a great way to meet up with your sister!  Laughter and hugs all around.  Happy, so happy to give each other a big cuddle and another one for good measure.   After we had calmed down somewhat, we followed Barry back to Oom Klaas and Tante Rie’s place and parked our vehicle off the busy road and so our Family Weekend began.

Gerda and Barry, she had a smile from ear to ear all weekend!

Looking down the main street of ‘s-Gravenzande


Walking into Oom Klaas and Tante Rie’s house was like arriving home.  The same warm welcome and the Dutch feeling of gezillig-ness as my parents’ home had in Nelson.  We had met these two before, many years ago, when they came to NZ to visit Mum and Dad and my Tante Nel (Mum’s sister) and Oom Wim.  What a bonus to have Gerda with us, her Dutch is so good and it wasn’t long before Tante Rie, Gerda and me were talking away without too much trouble.  I would stop and translate for Dennis but in actual fact he caught on to a lot without my help.  Tante Rie has all the same mannerisms as my Mum, the same easy laugh, the same way of speaking as well as the same familial look about her, it brought tears to my eyes just watching her.   She was so funny describing the lectures she would get from her mother, my Oma, about not writing to her sister Ger in New Zealand often enough.  Nevermind that she had six children to look after as well as help Oom Klaas in the glasshouses full-time!  My memories of my Oma are of a very large and very grumpy woman.  Tante Rie assured me that when she was in Holland she was still large but not at all  grumpy, it was only that she couldn’t understand English and us smaller kids wouldn’t speak in Dutch to her, even though we could understand it.   Of course, Maria the Golden Girl could and would reply in Dutch, so she is remembered with special fondness!  Oom Klaas had trouble trying to keep up with Dutch, then English, then back to Dutch again and was happy to relax in his chair and just listen it to all our fumbling with the language and the laughter.  He was very happy to see us and wanted to know all about our travels so far.  When Gerda left to go to Nicolien’s place, I really struggled with the language, my tongue just wouldn’t work fast enough even though my brain had the words on the tip of my tongue.  It wasn’t too long when a tall, dark-haired lady walked into the lounge and introduced herself as Ineke to us.  Thankfully, her English was excellent.  She had spent some time living and working in the UK when she was single and it made all the difference.

Happy Oom Klaas

Tante Rie and Oom Klaas were invited to join us for dinner at Ineke’s home.  As I said they lived in another house on the same property so it was a short walk to retrieve our things from the van and then to Dirk and Inekes’.  Thankfully, I could wash all our laundry that hadn’t dried properly from my last effort and had gone all smelly.  We met up with Dirk and one of their daughters, Karin, when they arrived home from work.  Ineke had prepared a veritable feast for us to share for dinner and in a short time we felt very much at home in this house as well.  We were astonished to find that Dirk and Ineke had given up their very comfortable bed for us and they were to take the guest room upstairs!  Very generous.   I was so tired, it’s hard work trying to think in Dutch and keep up with all the conversations.
The following day we were in for a real treat, actually several.  Dirk works in the administration and IT side of things for the largest tomato growing company in all of Holland, that is saying a lot as Holland is famous for its horticulture.  He proposed to take us on a tour through a couple of their local hothouses, they have sites in several different Dutch provinces.   At present the company has 64 hectares in tomato production and they have plans to take this out in stages to 144 hectares.  When you consider we had one-third of a hectare in production when we were growing hydroponic tomatoes, you begin to realise the difference in scale.  One hothouse we toured through covered nine hectares, employed 50 permanent workers as well as other part timers, had 300,000 plants and was 7 metres tall up to the gutters (as a comparison, our “new” hothouse was 3 metres to the gutters).  Dennis and I found it so fascinating to hear about all the advanced technologies used today in growing hydroponically.  Essentially, the basics were similar to how we did it but this was in another league entirely!  Production levels in this system is roughly twice what we ever managed fifteen years ago.  Five staff were employed throughout the company to specifically manage the insects – monitoring the harmful ones and balancing these with predatory ones, as well as all the bee hives.  They had huge 7,000kw gas turbines, similar ones that fly jet engines, which produced enough electricity to not only power the entire operation but sell the surplus back to the National Grid.  The cooling water from these was used to heat the hothouse.  With the darkening days in autumn and winter the hothouses had overhead lights on for up to 18 hours each day.  All the rain water is collected off the roofs and stored in enormous tanks outside and if and when they run out of this water during the season, they need to use their own desalination plant for their well water.   The majority of the workers were Polish as they are keen to work (too dirty and too much like hard work for Dutch people on the whole) and they had a great bonus system to keep them interested.  The Saturday we were there, college students were working amongst the young plants, removing the stakes that had supported each plant for the first few weeks.  Each worker had their own code and after finishing each row, they logged their progress on a computer using different bar codes for specific jobs done.  They were paid on work done not hours worked.   It was great to see things that we had learned about at the various conferences we had attended in NZ all those years ago, working so well here.  Even though Dirk does not actually work with or on the plants but rather more in the office, he was a very knowledgeable guide and we thoroughly enjoyed the tour.

Dirk, Dennis and Ineke with just one of the computer control panels in the boiler house behind them.

Amazing the size of this equipment

The glass is cleaned regularly to allow as much natural light in as possible

Very strict hygiene standards are followed in each hothouse, that’s the reason we looked so glamorous.  The manager (pictured) along with all the workers  change into their work clothes on the premises.


On the way back from the hothouses, Dirk showed us the flood protection system along the waterway into Rotterdam and drove us through the Hoek Of Holland.  Known as the Maeslantkering, it is one of largest moving structures on earth, and is the final section of the Delta Works system of flood protection.  Once a year they have a trial run for these surge protection gates.  This was completed two weeks previously, it takes eight hours to close the gates and another eight to open them again.  The Maeslantkering has only been used against a storm surge once since opening in 1997, after six years of construction.  Rotterdam is one of the busiest ports in the world and while we were standing alongside that waterway the ships were coming in thick and fast.  They have reclaimed acres of land around this area, with a whole section created on the opposite bank for the North Sea Oil refineries and storage. 

Each of the two gates sit in dry docks on either side of the waterway. Once they are closed they fill the hollow gates with water and they then sink to the bottom. The gates can then be emptied in stages to allow the Rhine to drain away to prevent flooding caused by the build up of water on the other side. Clever. Standing upright, these arms would be as high as the Eiffel Tower.

Pretty impressive

The wharves of Rotterdam are immense

The Hoek of Holland has beautiful sandy beaches and is very popular with the locals from Rotterdam and the surrounding areas for swimming, fishing and other recreational activities.  There are still large bomb shelters and bunkers along these sandy shores left over from WW2.  One large bunker was where the Dutch Cabinet met at the beginning of the War and where they decided that the Dutch Queen and the royal family were too vulnerable so they sent them to England for the duration.

The famous bunkers over the road from the beach at the Hoek of Holland

The Dutch people on the whole are very keen on being green.  Dirk drove a Skoda that stopped the engine automatically when you had to wait for the traffic lights to change, it was so fuel-efficient it would do 25 kms/litre!  They had also installed solar panels on the roof of their house, they were able to sell the power back to the National Grid for the same rate they were charged by their electricity supplier!  The entire EU have introduced subsides for these renewable technologies (after Dirk first installed the panels), recognising that it’s cheaper to encourage people to use solar panels for power generation and to heat their hot water and to use wind turbines than to have to build more gas or nuclear power stations.  Why don’t we have the same incentives in NZ, one may ask, when the problems are just the same and our skies are so much clearer as well?

Gardening is truly in our genes! Great fruit and veggie garden at Dirk’s, notice the photovoltaic cells on the roof

We went back to Ineke’s for a quick bite of lunch before the main event of the day,  the Open House at Tante Rie’s.  When they learnt that both Gerda and I would be staying the weekend, Tante Rie put out an open invitation to all her immediate family who lived in the surrounding district.  And what an afternoon we had!  Around 25 people showed up during the afternoon and some had travelled considerable distances.  It was fun meeting them all and sorting out who was related to whom and who was married to whom, etc.  Gerda and Barry proved to be wonderful translators once again.  It was quite overwhelming to see the response to the open invitation, how welcomed we were and realise that all these people had made so much effort in providing yummy things to eat, had given up their Saturday for us and were genuinely happy to met us!  We had a ball.  They also came bearing lots of lovely presents.  This was just a small selection from the entire van Oosten side of the family.

Tante Hetty (wife of Oom Dick) and Tante Jo.  Tante Jo really reminded me of Mum

Marja van der Hout and Trude Lock-van Oosten, both are Oom Dick’s daughters

Tante Rie and Nicolien

Ineke with Maarten Nieuwenhuizen (son of the late Oom Jochem and Tante Cor)

Klaas-Reyer, son of Oom Klaas

Eric van Bergan, married to Arien, and their son Jeroen

Some of my Mum’s siblings: Tante Jo, Oom Dick, Tante Rie

The two Gerdas, both named after my Oma. Gerda Valster, daughter of Oom Klaas, came all the way down from Delfzijl especially to see us.  (The round trip to and from ‘s-Gravenzande is 550kms.)



Dick, son of Oom Dick with Dirk. Dick and his family drove from Utrecht.   Not the best photo Dirk, sorry about that!

Ben, son of Oom Klaas and his partner, Cynthia

Ton Nieuwenhuizen(brother of Maarten) and Oom Dick

Maarten gave us a bunch of old photos to take back to NZ (Gerda has them) which everyone enjoyed seeing. Ton, Nicolien, Marit (daughter of Oom Klaas) and Tante Rie. Marit was busy in the kitchen for most of the afternoon

Karin, Dirk’s daughter, and her boyfriend Tony

Arien, daughter of Oom Klaas. Doesn’t she look like Wilma?

The following day we joined Gerda, Barry, Ton and Nicolien and went to the morning service at the Noorderkerk where my parents were married, had their Dutch children baptised and were faithful members.  I’m not sure of the reasons but none of the family we met the day before now attended this congregation, some of them are members of other smaller congregations in ‘s-Gravenzande and Poeldyk.  It is lovely inside the building and although they have recently done some renovations basically it still has the same layout as when Mum and Dad were members.  I became quite emotional during the service, especially with Gerda standing beside me singing her heart out in Dutch, with the other 1000 people there. (She really has a beautiful voice).  I kept thinking about what a blessing this Church has been to our family.  Both my parents were baptised here, as were their parents, and their parents and so on.   Generations of my family on both sides have been chosen by God to be part of His family and are now singing His praises in heaven, joined by our daughter Rebecca.    That’s a blessed legacy and one I treasure.  The preacher spoke slowly and clearly so I managed to understand a good bit of the sermon, but poor Dennis was completely lost.  He just read through the Gospel of Mark in his English Bible.

The stained glass windows looked pretty trendy but apparently they’ve been there all along

Nice organ

After the service we walked the short distance to Tante Janny’s place.  She is my father’s youngest sister and she was so happy to see us.  She lives in a small flat very close to the ‘s-Gravenzande shopping area (all the shops were closed on Sunday!) and had attended the same Church service as us.  She had invited her son, Jan and daughter, Jeanette to come back for coffee after Church to meet their cousins from the other side of the world.  Jan is single and Jeanette came with her husband, Pieter and their two children.  Tante Janny was widowed 10 months ago and is still learning the sad process of living alone.  She is 85 and looks like she manages very well.   She really reminded me of Dad.  We enjoyed cakes and coffee with them but we had a full programme that day and it wasn’t long before we had to leave and grab a bite to eat back with Ineke before visiting the next van den Berg lady.  It was lovely to spend this time with Tante Janny.

The previous day they held a marathon in ‘s-Gravenzande and in the main town square they had helpfully set up portable urinals! What is it with European men that they have to piddle out in the open all the time?

Tante Janny and her son Jan

Cousin Jeanette, and doesn’t she look like Janneke and Colleen?

Tot ziens, Tante Janny

Tante Nel had been on a short holiday out of town but when she heard the day before that we were in town, she cut short her holiday to make sure we could meet up.  She lives in another small village about 15 minutes drive away, called Poeldyk.  She has a smaller place that Tante Janny, in a four storied retirement home.   She was delighted to see us and chatted away non stop.  Her son Hans was also there and it was great to meet him as well.  We just couldn’t get over how sharp Tante Nel’s memory was, at 92 she is very sprightly.  After hugs all round, the first thing Tante Nel told Dennis was that she used to be so scared of him!   She had visited NZ with her husband, Kees (and her sister Tante Janny and his brother Johan) many years ago.  My parents had driven them around to visit all my siblings in the North Island.  Apparently, when they had a meal with us Dennis had threatened our small children with discipline if they didn’t behave.  She never forgave him for this and always wondered how these poor children survived!  I was happy to assure her they were all sane and in fact we are very proud of them.    Dennis had taken her, Tante Janny and my mother for a ride in his old Ford Prefect that day as well.  It had very bouncy suspension in the back seat and he purposefully drove over every pothole along Oxford Street he could find and she and I could still remember the three of them screaming in delight when they hit their heads on the ceiling with every bump.    We had such an interesting conversation with her about why my father and his brother had such a fraught relationship, we learnt a lot more about the background for this and it began to make more sense to us.  We were pleased to reassure her that they had forgiven each other while my father was in hospital,  a few weeks before his death (though they had tried unsuccessfully to be reconciled many times previously) and that Oom Koos and Tante Gre were so good to Mum when she was a widow.  We also heard for the first time one of the main reasons behind my parents leaving Holland.  Dad worked with his father primarily keeping ditches clear though when that work was done each day, they also worked in the local hothouse industry.  It was Opa’s responsiblity to keep a specific section of the town’s ditches clear of vegetation and he was employed by the local Council to do this.  Being such a low-lying country this work was of vital importance and they were well-known as a hard-working and conscientious team.  My father already had problems with his back and when he saw other people using the newly invented machines for this work, rather than doing it all manually with scythes, he suggested to my Opa that they should invest in this updated technology.  Opa was adamant that they were not going to spend money on it and would continue as they were, he had no sympathy for Dad’s back problem and as he was as strong as an ox himself carried on using the scythe.  (Many years later in NZ, Dad ended up requiring surgery on his back several times.)  Apparently, my father was so upset with this final decision he decided to follow Oom Koos, who was already living in Nelson, NZ.  As well as that, the devastation after WW2 in Holland meant there was a chronic shortage in housing and they were still the effects of rationing, so these things combined made the decision easy for Dad.  I remember talking to my mother about that, she had been most upset and at first told Dad “he could go by himself,” as she could not leave her family.  But, Dad being Dad would not argue about it, his mind was made up and he applied to the relevant authorities in New Zealand.  When he went to The Hague to present his case at the British Embassy my mother stayed at home and prayed that it would not be successful!    I was shocked when she told me this as I had always considered Mum as meek and mild and content to follow Dad’s rule.   Tante Nel had lots more stories to tell, how Opa van den Berg had favourites among the grandchildren in Holland as well and how upset all the mothers were about that (Maria was his favourite in NZ), how he was a very stubborn man (must be a hereditary family trait) and astonishingly, how my mother took an instant dislike to her!   She said it wasn’t long after Mum and Dad were married that Mum came and apologised to her and they became firm friends after that.  We had such a great time with Tante Nel, she was so excited to see us and kept repeating what a wonderful day it was for her.  When it was time to go she walked us down to the front door and waved frantically through the window of the downstairs lounge.  She told me she was going to show off to the other oldies sitting in the lounge, that she had just had visitors from NZ!

Tante Nel, doesn’t she look like her brother, Koos and her father?

Hans de Winter

The view out of Tante Nel’s lounge reminded me of The Wood in Nelson

Barry drove us back to Oom Klaas and Tante Ries’ place where we all had another coffee and slice of cake.  It was time for Gerda and Barry to return to Ton and Nicolien’s for the night, they were due to pick up their touring companions in the morning and leave for Germany again.  Interestingly, everyone remarked that they thought Gerda looked like a real van Oosten whereas they thought I resembled the van den Berg side of the family.  What a joy it had been to be with them for the weekend, it has been a real highlight of our travels for me.  

What a great time we had

Dennis, Ineke and I attended the evening service in a church in Poeldyk.  They had a visiting choir singing through the service as well, which is a novel thing for us.  Dirk was on taxi duty picking up another one of their children from a weekend Youth Camp.   We really appreciated getting to know my cousin Dirk and his family better each evening, when we had time to sit quietly over a glass or two of wine and enjoy wide-ranging conversations in English.   It didn’t take long to realise that if we had lived in the same vicinity we would have not only been relatives but friends as well.   
On the Monday we were surprised to learn that Ineke had taken the day off work to enable her to show us around all the places that had been important in my family’s life in ‘s-Gravenzande.   After the guided tour we came back to say goodbye to Oom Klaas, Tante Rie and Ben.  It is difficult saying goodbye with the knowledge that we won’t be seeing them again on this side of heaven but I am so pleased that I came here.  Both Dirk and Ineke were so kind to us all weekend and we are so appreciative of all the work Ineke had done on our behalf, helping her mother-in-law with all the preparations, etc as well as the beautiful meals she served each day.  We had a fabulous time with my relatives and it has been a real highlight of our trip away from home.   Whenever they come to New Zealand we will surely have a hard act to follow.

Opa van den Berg lived here

The house that Mum and Dad lived in before coming to NZ. Obviously, it didn’t have a shop downstairs then

The primary school which my Mother went to

Mum worked as a maid in the Manse beside the Church before marrying my Dad

Gerda was born in the house in the middle

Now that they have removed the urinal we get a good view of the old Town water supply

The coffee was good too…

Our friendly tour guide and the ‘s-Gravenzande windmill