After 5 and a half months of mostly planes, trains and buses Chris was keen to get behind the wheel again, particularly as his career involves training other drivers. One highlight of our RTW trip was hiring a car and driving through New Zealands‘ south island. You can stop and start as you please; change your route if you wish; you don’t have to stick to bus or train routes or timetables and you can chuck your stuff in the boot without having to keep a watchful eye every time the train or bus stops…
So as part of our European adventures we decided to drive to Prague and back which took us through 6 countries in 11 days: France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Luxembourg.
Summary of the route we took:
Calais – Bruges – Ghent – Maastricht – Kerpen – Frankfurt – Bamburg – Prague – Colmberg – Heidelberg – Luxemburg – Lille – Calais
This route gave us a good mix of large bustling cities, historic mediaeval towns and peaceful villages. The driving time between each location was around 2 – 3 hours. We took our own car from the UK and crossed to France and back via the Euro Tunnel. Other than the Dartford Crossing in the UK there were no tolls on this route.
There are two key driving points to note however:
- To drive in most German cities you need an emissions ticket. You can order these in advance (if you have time) but if not we found it straightforward to simply drive into a TUV centre and pay 5.5 Euros to obtain a sticker which you place on your windscreen. We searched for TUV in Google Maps which took us to the nearest centre just outside of Bonn and en-route to Frankfurt. (And you need your vehicle registration document too…)
- Before entering the Czech Republic you need to pay a 10 day road tax in the form of a ‘vignette‘. Again this was really straightforward as the motorway service stations sell these on the approach from Germany to the Czech Republic. The cost is 310 Czech Koruna but you can pay in Euros. We added this next to our German emissions ticket on the windscreen.
For further information on driving in Europe, the AA has helpful PDF’s you can download and Michelin have a good route planning website. We purchased a Euro car kit from Halfords which contained most of the specific items such as breathalysers (for France); red triangles and headlamp beam converters.
This blog post covers some of the places of interest we visited along the route…
We took a late morning Euro tunnel crossing from Folkestone to Calais and arrived in Bruges in time for lunch and an afternoon to explore the city. Parking in any city can be difficult so (after some hasty on-the-way research) we drove directly to Bruges train station car park which is only a 10 minute walk from the historical part of the city and cost only 2.10 euros for our stay.
Bruge is famous for its canals, cobbled streets and quaint chocolate shops. The city is small and compact and easily walkable in a couple of hours. We walked along past the canals and into the central market square where there was a large number of tourists. We had lunch in a smaller off-the-beaten track square and sat people watching and soaking up the Bruges atmosphere.
From Bruges we drove to Ghent where we spent the night.
From Ghent we drove past Brussels and towards Maastricht. The Brussels ring road was busy and also slightly confusing at times. At some points you had to take a turn off the road in order to stay on it… needless to say we went wrong once and ended up driving towards the centre of Brussels…
Once we made it to Maastricht we stopped at the Cafe Slavante where we had a snack for lunch with a fabulous river view from Mount Saint Peter. We ordered cheese and garlic bread and were given a ginormous dish of cheese and the bread arrived with two huge cholesterol busting slabs of garlic butter!
This was a great stopping place as it is on the site of the St Pietersberg caves where you can have a guided tour of the underground network of caves. There are also walks all around the area and the caves ticket office can provide maps. We walked for about 20 minutes to the Litchenberg Castle where you can climb to the top of a tower for great views of Maastricht. This is a small castle with free entry but well worth a short visit (above pic).
Kerpen is a small town not far from Cologne. We stayed in a hotel which was a 5 minute walk away from the Berg Bergerhausen as shown above. This small castle was closed however it is located in lovely countryside and parklands with several marked walking trails. We walked for a couple of miles and headed into the village where we found a typical German pub for dinner.
Interesting fact: Michael Schumacher began karting at the age of 4 in Kerpen…
From the peaceful late afternoon walk in the countryside last night we drove to the city of Frankfurt the following day. The hotel was located on the south east side of the city and we drove through Frankfurt to get there.
Frankfurt is a financial hub containing many bank HQ’s, is the 5th largest city in Germany and is culturally diverse with a large number of young people and foreign nationals.
We arrived in mid afternoon and purchased a one day Frankfurt group tram ticket for 11 euros which covers up to 5 people. This took us into the centre of Frankfurt where we spent 4 hours or so exploring.
We had dinner, walked along the river bank, through the historical quarter and had a drink in Romerberg, Frankfurt’s old central square. We also climbed the 324 steps of the Gothic tower of the cathedral which gave us amazing panoramic views of the city.
Bamberg is in northern Bavaria and was probably our favourite place as visited on this road trip. Bamburg also happens to be twinned with Bedford which is one of our UK ‘home’ towns. We arrived at around 1 pm which was too early for checking into our hotel so we left the car and spent the afternoon exploring this delightful town.
Bamberg is jam packed with quaint old mediaeval buildings and narrow cobbled streets, offering picturesque photo opportunities at every turn. There was a warm, sunny and relaxed atmosphere with an abundance of bars and cafes, perfect for sitting outside with a refreshing drink.
Smokey beer is one of Bamburg’s specialities, a beer with a unique smokey flavour. We enjoyed sampling one of these in the garden of the converted monastery we were staying in.
While there were a few tourists, Bamburg wasn’t overrun with them. We went out later in the evening where the streets were quiet and low key despite Germany playing France in the UEFA European cup semi finals. Indeed during the match we had dinner in an Italian restaurant which just happened to have a rather chuffed French waiter!
We spent the weekend in Prague and have a separate post on this!
Above is Leuchtenberg a lovely idyllic village sitting proudly on the top of a hill in the Bavarian countryside. This was en-route back from the Czech Republic and into Germany and was a gorgeous lunch stop-over point. The village has a castle but we were unable to visit as there was a drama event being filmed inside.
From the hectic touristy pace of Prague we opted for some peace and quiet and spent the next night in Burg Colmberg, a rural German castle not far from Nuremburg. The interior of the castle with its creaky uneven stairs and higgledy piggledy nooks and crannies was crammed full of antiques, artefacts and stuffed animals and even had its own chapel.
This was the most expensive accommodation of our 2016 travels so far however it was a unique experience and was fascinating to wander around the castle and its grounds and take in the impressive views of the Bavarian countryside where we heard wild boar and saw deer roaming about. We were fortunate to have a warm and sunny evening where we had a traditional Bavarian dinner in the castle courtyard.
Rothenberg ob der Tauber
Another gorgeous Bavarian town, Rothenberg is only a 15 minute drive from the Colmberg castle we stayed in. We parked the car in one of several carparks located just outside the old town city walls and spent a couple of hours wandering around. Like Bamberg, Rothenberg is very picturesque with many photo opportunities!
We started by walking around the city walls for a bit before walking into the centre of Rothenberg. There we climbed to the top of the tower which is situated in the main town square on the top of the town hall where we had amazing view of the town and surrounding countryside.
From Rothenberg we drove to the Midori guesthouse, just outside Heidelberg. In complete contrast with the castle this was a’green’ hotel which had a modern minimalist feel and uses environmentally friendly technologies.
We stopped in Heidelberg for a couple of hours while en-route to Luxembourg. Heidelberg was almost completely spared of Second World War bombings and as such its narrow mediaeval streets are well preserved. The main attraction of Heidelberg is its castle. We visited the castle but to be honest we were a little disappointed that for 7 euros each you mostly have access to the courtyard.
We spent 2 nights in Luxembourg and will shortly cover this in a separate post!
Now into France and the final stop of our trip was in Lille. Lille has two large main squares with historic buildings together with an abundance of outside cafes and bars. There are also many small patisseries selling freshly made cakes and bread. Our hotel recommended we visit the Aux Merveilleux de Fred which is a tiny bakery with a huge chandelier taking up most of the ceiling. They specialise in Merveilleux cakes which are made with light meringue sandwiched with cream in the middle. Laura tasted a white chocolate cake and Chris had a coffee one, both of which were delicious. (And we’ve found they have a shop in London…yeeesss….)
Driving in Germany was a pleasure… the roads are well maintained with clear markings and virtually no potholes, there is much less traffic than in the UK and the autobahns get more and more scenic the further south you go as they cut through the strikingly green forests. Even though there were roadworks in places, even they were well organised with no queues and little impact on our journey time.
All 6 countries are in the EU and there are no border stops. As you approach a border you simply see a sign which informs you of the country you are entering but you don’t have to stop. Just the road name changes at the border.
The word ‘berg’ features a great deal in this post and it means ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’ in German!
The weather at this time of the year (early July) was warm in Bavaria and the Czech Republic (26 – 30 degrees) although much cooler in Northern Europe (around 20 degrees). We had a couple of short thunder storms but these happened while we were driving…
Finally… what an adventure! We both really enjoyed our Euro road trip and have certainly now been inspired for more similar trips in the future 🙂