The Two Crabs recently returned on a week-long camping-backpacking-driving tour of the area known as BENELUX (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg), with detours in Cologne, Germany and the Champagne region of France. On all the photos here, click on the image to see the bigger photo, like this gorgeous shot above of Vianden Castle in Luxembourg (more on that later!). And as always, you can click on the Flickr icon on the upper-right hand corner of this page to go to our complete photo album!
Day 1 - LONDON TO HOLLAND
From London, we took the train to Dover on the southeast coast of England (£12 each with Network Railcard, 90 minutes), then hopped on the SeaFrance ferry for the 70 minute journey across the English Channel (£15) to Calais, France. There, rented a tiny Citreon compact car from Alamo (150 euros per week).
Our goal was to make it to The Hague (Den Haag) by sundown but as we lolly-gagged getting to the ferry port, we didn't arrive in France until late afternoon. Hit the road and our trip was uneventful until we reached Ghent and got HORRIBLY lost. Belgium street signs -- or lack thereof -- SUCK ASS! I have never seen such a horrible city for drivers. Even BAGHDAD has better road signage! Where there were signs in Ghent, they were tiny and tacked atop a pole about 50 feet above the road, so you had to drive while looking up at the sky to watch for signs! We also saw a motorcyclist get hit by a minivan. We had intended to stop in Ghent but after our two hours of circling the city looking for a way out of this rat maze, we gave up and continued north to....
THE NETHERLANDS. Southern Holland to be exact. Holland was night and day compared to Belgium: Great wide roads, excellent street signs. By this point we realized we were not going to reach the Hague so we stopped at the first campground we saw: Braakman Family Holiday Resort in Hoek, Holland. Huge resort mainly full of families and kids but it had several bars and a bingo hall where, oddly, everyone was playing Bingo in silence. When you won, you simply stood up and took your card to the caller. Go figure. The campground bar attracted local drunks, including an ex-convict who insisted on becoming our new best friend, and a guy who kept lifting up his shirt to show us his nipples and kept trying to hit on Mrs. Crab! We got there quite late (9pm) and just barely made last dinner service. This ain't Spain! They eat dinner early here, not good for us night owls. Camping was only 19 euros a night TOTAL!
Day 2 - THE HAGUE (DEN HAAG)
We woke up early and packed up and stopped in "downtown" Hoek, an area about 2x2 blocks looking for an ATM. Cute town with a windmill and church in the heart of the town. NOTHING was open as it was Sunday (except for the church, of course), so we ended up having brekkie at a gas station. Surprisingly, European gas stations have great croissants, coffee and my personal favorite, pain au chocolate (crossaint with chocolate center!). The road through western Holland was gorgeous, and mainly deserted except for the occasional tractor on the road. Everything was fine until we got to the Hague. The first two campgrounds were completely BOOKED. We didn't realize that the Hague was a HUGE vacation destination for its beautiful Scheveningen beach. We asked around and finally found a campground with space...in a cheezy little town called MONSTER. This campground SUCKED. It was basically just a big open field with a few mobile home toilets. And they had the nerve to charge us 16 Euros a night for this dump. Not even toilet paper! The only nice feature was that it was right on the beach, so it was nice going to sleep hearing the surf. Set up our tent and then went into downtown Hague to sightsee and enjoy a great steak dinner at Argentinos Restaurant, great food but lousy service. Mrs. Crab beat me in Canasta...as usual. Someday I shall get my revenge.
Day 3 - THE HAGUE, DELFT AND SCHEVENINGEN BEACH
I'm a night owl yet when we camp, we always tend to wake up with the sun. We were up by 7 and by 9am we were in Delft, a GORGEOUS little town about 20 minutes east of The Hague. The city is best known for its remarkably tall cathedral, huge square, canals and cobblestone roads. One of the town's churchest leans like the tower of Pisa! Yummy breakfast of an Omlette with cheese and a pancake with bacon, mushrooms and port wine and Stroop, a kind of maple syrup but not as sweet as your typical Aunt Jemima syrup!
Random thoughts on Holland: Dutch people are BEAUTIFUL. Men, women and children, they all look perfect! Tall, blue eyes, blonde hair, educated, everyone speaks at least 2 or 3 languages. And the Dutch public transportaiton system is bar none. Every town with at least 5,000 people has a tram system. And even the most tiny rural villages had access to a public bus service. All roads have bike lines, which are marked with street signs just like roads.The Dutch also seem to be the most fervent campers in Europe. Every other camper and trailer we saw in Europe had NL license plates. I've developed a new love and appreciate for the Netherlands.
So anyway, by lunchtime it started raining. And raining. And raining. It rained for the next 24 straight hours. And not just a sprinkle. We're talking torrential downpours. DELUGE. Horrible. After Delft, we nevertheless went to Scheveningen Beach. Awesome beach that looks like Atlantic City with a concrete boardwalk, dozens of beach-front bars, pubs and restaurants. We even won 7 euros at a cheezy casino on the pier. We met a friend for drinks
at the Sahara Club, followed by SCRUPTIOUS dinner at Bora Bora restaurant.
We arrived back at the campground about 11pm, completely soaked from head to toe, only to find that a group of LOUD DRUNKS had set up their huge mansion-like tent next to our tiny REI pup tent. I'm not going to stereotype these people's nationalities, but let's just say we've had bad past experiences with tourists from their particular vodka-swilling country.
Our new neighbors -- kids and adults -- were EXTREMELY LOUD (even by loud American tourist standards!), and the more they drunk, they louder they got. We pulled out the "American card", yelling for them to shut the hell up but it never worked. I finally fell asleep about 2am to the sound of rain. I only got about 4 hours of sleep.
DAY 4 - HAGUE TO COLOGNE, AND THE MORNING FROM HELL!
At 6:30am we woke up to silence. No rain. No Wind. No drunks. That should have been our cue to leave but we decided to sleep in. But about 30 minutes later, all hell broke loose. WIND ROARING LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN. RAIN PIERCING SIDEWAYS FROM THE NORTH SEA. DEBRIS FLYING THROUGH THE CAMPGROUND. Tent flapping. It was like being inside a hurricane. Even seagulls were being tossed around like plastic bags. We decided to make a run for it and started taking things to the car, rain be damned. Which was a really stupid thing to do. Without the weight of the sleeping bags and clothes, our tent began to blow away. The Two Crabs got inside the tent and just sat there hoping we would not end up in Kansas.
Finally after 15 minutes, the wind relented a bit and I ran out, pulling up stakes, only to discover that the IDIOT DRUNK NEIGHBORS HAD TIED THEIR TENT TO OUR TENT! What the hell were they thinking? Now the wind started picking up again and I wasn't going to take the time to nicely untie and re-tie their tent down in the middle of a tornado. So I yanked up our entire stake, along with their line, which caused half their tent to collapse (their brown tent seen in the photo above!). Too bad for them and that's what they breaking the camping code of honor-they-neighbor. I grabbed our tent, shoved it in the trunk and we got the hell out of "Monster." Appropriate name, huh?
As a result of the storm, one of our two tent poles was damaged. The pole is considerably bent, and as a result the entire tent now stands lopsided!
We drove until we got to a rest stop where we changed out of our wet clothes and then continued driving east to COLOGNE, Germany. Now things began to look up. We stayed in THE nicest campground: Campingplatz der Stadt Koln. It was so nice that the moment we arrived, we decided to stay two nights. And we didn't even leave the campground for the rest of the day. Washer & Dryer, big clean restrooms and showers, shady grassy tent spots, cheap local Reissdorff Kolsch beer. We really "felt the love" for this campground. We stayed in and did laundry and enjoyed the little pub. Brilliant, simply brilliant! A Greek traveler insisted on feeding us everytime he spotted us: fish, bread, pickles, coffee, etc. The campground was run by a nice old man on an honor-system. "Just pay me when you can or when you leave," he said when I pulled out my wallet.
DAY 5 -- COLOGNE
Wednesday morning, we took the tram to downtown and spent the day in Cologne. We didn't have enough coins for the tram so we rode illegally until we spotted ticket agents, so had to jump off and break bills to make change. We spent most of the day hopping beerhalls! German beer rocks! Every region brews it's own distinct style of beer. I actually don't care for the Cologne Kolsh beer as much as, say, Bavarian ales, but it was still beer. Yum. We strolled through the famous Dom Cathedral, where, according to legend, the remains of the three Wise Men are buried. Mrs. Crab hung out at an outside cafe while Mr. Crab decided, against better judgement, to climb to the top of the cathedral tower. 509 steps straight up through a narrow spiral staircase. By step 250 I was already knackered, but spurred on by a lazy American sitting on the steps who was having a panic attack. Cologne was not a particularly attractive town from above. Not from the ground either. Most of the city was destroyed in WWII and was replaced by hideous 1960s-type concrete blocks.
Day 6 - COLOGNE TO BITBURG TO VIANDEN, LUXEMBOURG
Hit the road early towards Luxembourg when we decided to make a detour to Bitburg to visit the world famous Bitburger Brewery! This was the favorite beer of Mrs. Crab's late father, so we did it for him! Oh how he would have loved this town. Bitburg was so much nicer than Cologne. Quaint little town. We were really feeling the love for Bitburg. Unfortunately the town smells like a giant fart as a result of the wort cooking in the brewery. Mrs. Crab calls Bitburger "Fartburger" because of its, well, after-effects. But damn is it a good beer! We had an awesome lunch at the restaurant on the brewery grounds, the Brauerie-Ausschank zum Simonbrau. Fantastic meal of wirsthausbrezel-by-nature (a GIANT pretzel topped with a salad and butter) and Bitburger Riesenbratwurst (grilled sausage with cold potato salad and mustard). Much cheaper than Cologne. Unfortunately the brewery only gives tours on Monday, and only in German, so we were outta luck on that front.
From Bitburg, we continued west on the scenic highway of rolling green hills and pastures that reminded me so much of the Shenendoah Valley. Finally in late afternoon we reached the border of Luxembourg, where we had to pull over and take the obligatory photo next to the sign. (This was the 47th COUNTRY Mr. Crab has stepped foot into!). We got to Vianden in the late afternoon and set up camp at Camping de L'Our, a cute campground on the River L'Our. I think we were the youngest guests by about 30 years!
Now I must digress into my love for VIANDEN: WOW! WOW! WOW! This was a GORGEOUS village. As Mrs. Crab described it, Vianden is like a Euroepan town you read about in books but don't really believe it truly exists. It's what we Americans think of when we picture Europe: a quaint little town on a small river, medieval architecture, cobblestone roads, cute cafes (some guarded by poodles), and above the town, on a craggy rocky hilltop -- a magnificent castle in the clouds!
We took a chairlift to a mountaintop cafe with spectacular views of the castle and enjoyed the local Dietrich beer. Dinner at Hotel Victor Hugo was perfect, one of the best meals of the trip: escargot and beef. Too many beers and asleep by 11pm.
DAY 7 - VIANDEN TO LUXEMBOURG TO CHALONS EN MPAGNE
A very long day of driving. After a very late start, we went up to the Vianden Castle, worth every penny of the 4.50 Euro admission fee. The beautiful 13th-century castle has been meticulously restored since 1979. Dined on lunch of salad and ice cream sundae!
Then we hit the road headed to the opposite end of the country to the capital, which took us all of 45 minutes. Yup, it's a tiny country! Unfortunately, Luxembourg City did not live up to expectations. It was a crowded mess of one-way streets and bad parking. Some nice buildings but even the main town square had been turned into a hideous monstrosity filled with Pizza Hut, Chi-Chi's, McDonalds and other crappy American fast food joints. We did NOT feel the love for this town. We had one drink and got the hell out of dodge.
After that letdown, we headed west towards France. Our goal was to reach Reims, ut we soon realized we were not going to make it by sundown. It was a lot further than we estimated. Mrs. Crab quickly scanned the camping guide and found us a cute little campground in Chalons en Champagne, right in the heart of the Champagne province. Every major city has a municipal campground. And Chalon was no exception. It was well-marked with signs everywhere. We dined on tough beef, bread, brie, salad, French fries and a bottle of champagne. Oo la la! The campground also had FREE showers (every other campground had coin-op showers), a TV and game room, pub, laundry facilities and more. The French sure know how to camp in style!
DAY 8 - CHALONS EN CHAMPAGNE TO LONDON
Uneventful but long and tiring trip home to London began with a three hour drive to Calais, dropped off the car and hopped on the ferry for our trip back to Mother England. We had planned on perhaps staying a night in Dover but we quickly had second thoughts. DOVER SUCKS. Do NOT go to Dover. The only reason to go to Dover is to catch a ferry to France, or to make a day-trip of hiking the beautiful White Cliffs of Dover. But as for Dover itself, it sucks. I can't say enough about how much this town blows. We got off the ferry, half-starving and looking for food but NO PUB IN TOWN SERVED FOOD. The only places serving "food" were corner chippy shops (fish & chips, greasy kebabs and chips), or Chinese food. No thanks. We started walking back to the train station and happened upon a cute restaurant, whose name I cannot remember, but they served a fine duck and chicken. We were the only patrons in the restaurant. I was surprised that Dover even had such a "posh" restaurant because none of the locals seemed to be the type who would dine at such an establishment. I give them 2 months before it goes out of business. Anyway, we hopped on the train and were back home by 11pm. Asleep by 11:01.
Overall, a great first camping trip across Europe. This was Mr. Crab's first European camping experience; Mrs. Crab has previously packed in Amsterdam. I had forgotten how much I love camping! Unfortunately, we also quickly realized that our equipment is seriously old and obsolete. Sleeping bags and tents, for example, are now half the size and weight of our current models yet still keep you just as warm and dry as the heavier models. Our little REI tent is more than six years old and showing its age, and the windstorm in Holland did not help. Besides the bent poles from the storm, one of the tent flap zippers is wearing out and the mesh has small holes (luckily there are no bug problems in Europe like in American camping!). Also we wish we had done a longer trip. One week was just too short. On the next trip will likely be longer, and hopefully with better equipment! We might consider caravan/camper trip, but it's hard enough to park a tiny car on the narrow streets of Europe, let alone a giant camper!
TIPS FOR CAMPING EUROPE:
---If you are tent camping, you usually don't need reservations at
campgrounds. Even if it's full, they can usually find a spot to put up
a small tent. The exception is for campgrounds located near beaches,
where reservations are mandatory unless you enjoy sleeping in your car
at a rest stop.
--PACK LIGHT! I can't stress that enough! Not only will you be more comfortable and have better freedom of movement, but you won't have to worry as much about getting your bags stolen or lost. We only took 3 changes of clothes apiece. We found coin-operated laundry facilities at most of the campgrounds we visited. And this is where good, modern equipment comes in play in keeping down your pack weight.
--Pick up a copy of the AA Camping Europe guide, which lists several hundred campgrounds around Europe. Unfortunately, despite being published by the Automobile Association, their directions suck. You might need to call ahead and get directions. Our Lonely Planet Western Europe guide was also proved useful with its camping suggestions.
--A tip for Americans living in Europe: When you rent a car in
Europe using the car rental website, put down your (or a relative's)
U.S. ADDRESS! Why? Because, for reasons that defy logic, it's much
cheaper to rent a car if you claim that you're coming from the United
States. Our rental was 50 euros cheaper simply by changing country of
residence! When you pick up your car, simply show your valid U.S.
driver's license, US passport and pay with a US credit card.
--Gasoline (petrol) is very expensive in Europe. We paid about 60 Euros everytime we filled up our tiny 10-gallon gas tank of our rental car. Drive with a light foot! Park and walk when you can. Tolls can also take their, err, toll on your wallet. A short drive from Reims to Calais set us back 18 Euros ($26)! You can usually avoid tolls by taking side scenic routes.
--Buy a regional map of the area where you plan to spend the most time. Our Europe-wide AA Atlas (1:800,000 scale) was pretty useless inside cities. You need at least 1:300,000 scale or better, which are sold in any gas station for about 5-8 euros apiece. Even better, if you have the extra cash, splurge for a GPS system with your rental car.
--Dining out can get expensive. Stock up at local grocery stores on cheap bread, meats and cheeses to make sandwiches. Many gas stations in Europe offer free coffee too!