After (finally) leaving České Budějovice, we had no real alternative but a full-fat hack up through Germany. The route out of Czech took us past a stretch of the Vltava river, dammed by a hydroelectric plant, and thick with campsites… From here, over the border, and on towards the autobahn, we were heading through forest – the same one both sides, but (as ever) with different names – Šumava (Bohemian Forest) in Czech, Bayerischer Wald (Bavarian Forest) in Germany. Whatever, it looked stunning – a gorgeous day, with sun and blue sky on the rich autumn colours and rolling hills.
Once we hit the autobahn, it was just a long and steady grind north through Germany. A quick overnight break near to Würzburg was our only real stop. The campsite was nice, although it certainly felt more than a bit organised after spending six months in ex-Communist countries… The belching chimney from a factory the other side of the Main river was a little at odds with the otherwise peaceful setting, it has to be said.
Another long day of kilometre-killing found us eventually arriving in Dusseldorf at Philipp & Melanie’s flat, almost exactly a year after meeting them at the campsite at Pompei. It’s amazing how compressed friendships get when you’re on a trip like this – we’d known them for precisely three evenings, yet when we arrived on their doorstep, we were greeted as if we were their longest-standing friends. Philipp’s a superb cook, and effortlessly knocked up several utterly delicious tapas-style dishes (including mouth-wateringly gorgeous Brussel Sprouts. No, really…) whilst we all watched the vivid green wild parrots in the trees behind their flat, chatted and disposed of a few more bottles of wine before hitting the sack on a leaky airbed on Philipp’s studio floor. Their ancient cats, Moritz and Felix, meandered around the flat, averaging out to be a pair of fairly rotund moggies. That average was a bit skewed, however, since Felix is very skinny…
The morning eventually dawned, and we headed off for a wander round Dusseldorf. It’s a lovely town – the old town has some gems of buildings, and the “power consumption” clock/sculpture underneath the landmark TV tower is interesting – a series of concentric bases underneath steel triangles, each ring rotates to show how much electricity, heating, water the city’s using… It’s not a big city, but over the course of the day I think we must have wandered most of it – through the park, to meet Philipp’s father and have a little lust over his Alvis convertible; back into the city centre to meet with some friends then off to the “beach” – a sandy stretch of Rhine riverbank – to have a crack at “slacklining”. Basically, it’s tightrope walking on a ratchet strap. Philipp’s friend Jan has the kit, and showed us how it should be done. The 50mm wide flat strap’s tight between trees, but has enough give in it to sag and stretch under your weight. One foot on, the other foot on, and fix your gaze on the far end. That’s the theory.
The reality is, of course, somewhat different. After an hour or so, we’d got to the stage that we could reasonably comfortably walk ten or so slow paces, steading yourself against the shoulder of a friend walking next to you. If you removed that steadying hand, mad flailing around followed, with an ignominious sprawl in the sand not far behind. Of the three of us, Ellie took to it most quickly, with a fixed stare almost willing the strap to misbehave.
The evening wrapped up back at the flat of Philipp’s friends Ulf & Anya, slap bang in the town centre, and looking fresh out of the pages of a glossy magazine. Ulf had got some Texan beef, which was quickly cut into thick and sublimely tender steaks. On the barbecue for almost no time, they were perhaps the best steaks we’ve ever eaten, positively melting in the mouth as we sat on the terrace in t-shirt sleeves under a starry sky. Washed down with a local microbrewery beer, another very pleasant evening passed far too quickly.
Our final stop of the whole trip was Antwerp, to see an old 2cv friend, Joke, and meet her 20 month old daughter, Rosa. We were instantly charmed by Rosa, her infectious laughter and blond curls impossible for even me to resist. Even the third member of the family, Cookie, was utterly upstaged. Antwerp’s another city that’s new to us, so another guided tour was in order. In deference to Rosa, we split it into an afternoon around the newer side of the town centre, with the wonderfully updated central railway station, then – after a substantial meal at a Turkish fish restaurant – a morning in the old town and around the river, including a view over the city from the panorama floor on top of the MAS tower.
And, after 17 months and two days, twenty countries, and somewhere around 50-60,000 km, that was it. Off to the Hoek of Holland for a boat back to Blighty. A quick detour to find an Indonesian restaurant, meticulously researched beforehand, failed miserably when we just couldn’t quite find where it actually was in the pretty little town of Vlaardingen. Still, we didn’t board the boat with empty stomachs – the entrance to the port boasts a small hut housing a very tasty fish and chip shop… Yep, seriously. Battered cod fillet and chips. With mayonnaise.