I laughed out loud as we got caught behind the slowest tractor ever, which crawled up the hill out of Sommerach at a speed so leisurely that it failed to register on our speedometer.
Besides every plan going horribly awry, a further feature of this year’s tour has been a plenitude of Farmer Palmers. They seem to lie in wait, then shoot out from their side roads the minute they see us coming with the caravan.
The tractor blankly refused to pull over, so he forced us into a slight misjudgement that ended as a dangerous manoeuvre. We overtook him at the top of the hill, on a straight section of road with a clear view ahead, but failed to account for the velocity of German drivers. A dark BMW suddenly appeared, hurtling out of the space-time continuum at twice the speed of sound. Mark and I both heaved a huge sigh of relief when he deigned to slow sufficiently to avoid a head on as we hastily shot back on to our carriageway.
Our break for the border was a pretty drive through rolling hills of vineyards, barley and maize, with the odd castle here and there. All signs lead to Schweinfurt, a town whose gravitational pull had seemed reluctant to release us over the last few days. Sadly for me, our route missed Düllstadt, and so denied me my final opportunity to capture its tourist-attracting potatoes on film. I’m can only apologise for being so remiss and hope that one day, you might get to Düllstadt and experience its spuds for yourself.
As soon as we crossed into the Czech Republic, the roads became quieter and more relaxed. We remembered to buy a vignette (a road toll sticker) and even managed to fill it out properly and stick it on the correct part of the windscreen. That didn’t spare me every anxiety, however. I worried that they had sold us the wrong one, since it stated that it was for vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes. While it is impolite to give away a lady’s weight, our van Big Blue weighs about that, and Caravan Kismet adds a tonne and a half.
Being forced to make the purchase on credit card was a sharp reminder that we had departed the Euro zone and were in the land of the koruna česká – Czech Koruna.
Our destination was a one-night stopover at Karlovy Vary, the biggest spa town in the Czech Republic. As we drove through the outskirts, it looked awful; acres and acres of industrial estate. We considered going on, but since the campsite was out of town, we decided to give it a chance.
The campsite is adjacet to a hotel, but there were no signs for campsite reception. We drove our twelve-metre lenth towards a building with Camp Vary emblazoned across its gable in big letters, only to find it was the toilet block. I left Mark there with the caravan and wandered up hill and down dale until I found someone who could understand English, French, Italian or German. They directed me to the hotel reception. I wandered lonely as a cloud through the terrace restaurant, until one of the waiters finally pointed me towards the carefully concealed reception desk.
I laid out my language possibilities for check in. The receptionist selected German, so I explained my limitations,
“Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut” – My German is not good.
She proceeded to check me in trilingually. Vocabulary vacuums were filled by translating Czech into Italian on her computer, to which I replied in German,
“Zwei Personen” – ‘two persons’ and “Nein” for the use of the showers, which cost extra. At this point, I was playing it safe, since I had no idea how much we would be charged. I was in for a surprise.
One night cost 440Kč – about £15, with no charge for dogs. This contrasted rather starkly with Germany. At €40 per night, our last site, Camping Katzenkopf, had hit our all-time record high for extortionate campsite charges.
German campsites are usually on the more expensive side for Europe. They have a different pricing system, where they charge separately for absolutely everything. You pay a tariff for each person; your pitch; your caravan, your tow vehicle; electricity (which is sometimes metred); each dog; plus tax. On top of that, some then have the audacity to charge extra for using the showers!
Camp Vary was lovely and relaxed – it had only half a dozen pitches on the top of a hill, with a few wooden cabins on the slope between us and the facility block at the bottom. I didn’t count, but by the end of the evening, around a dozen vehicles had squeezed in to join us, though!
I love it when our caravan loo has a view, and this was the first of our trip. We had a pretty, red sandstone folly on a hill, the Goethe Viewing Tower, and a zip line! That was a brand new experience; watching be-helmeted zippers whizz past our toilet window!
We met Jan next door as soon as we arrived, because his elderly Viszla was desperate to say hello to the Fab Four.
“You travel with four dogs!” he exclaimed.
He told us that the industrial wasteland that we had driven through was what had grown up around the old town of Karlovy Vary. He explained that there was a 4km walk through the forest from the campsite into the pedestrianised centre of the old town. Jan pulled out his phone and showed us his app, Mapy.cz,
“It has all the tourist maps and walks on it, and you can use it offline. There are many footpaths in the forests around the town, for the spa visitors to take the air.”
We decided immediately to stay another night and walk to into Karlovy Vary the following morning. Jan pointed out a shorter walk from the campsite to a lake, so we chose that for a late afternoon puppy stretch.
The path led us through a dark, pine-scented forest. By the lake, we were confronted with a group of youths and their campfire, which was surrounded by many bottles of vodka, a pall of pungent, herbal smoke and the white noise of Czech thrash metal.
I was concerned that they might decide to barbeque the dogs, but Mark and I remembered advice from a fun, bodyguard training day that we once did; ‘Exude confidence’. As we walked past in our shorts and sandals, with four fluffy, frou frou pooches in tow, we oozed assurance. When we smiled and gave them a friendly, “Hi”, they ignored us completely, which was excellent.
Further around the lake, we met a chap with a Pit Bull, straining on a short leash. We clipped on The Fab Four’s leads and gave him a wide berth. Exuding confidence provoked disinterest from the youngsters, but we were less sure of its efficacy against a Pit Bull.
Once we had bypassed the hazards, The Pawsome Foursome got their swim in the lake. Aside from a fleeting sense of danger to life and limb in a new and strange country, it was a pleasant walk through the shady forest. It was hot in the sun, but it wasn’t Provence.
But I’m not making comparisons again. Cooler temperatures were a relief and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset. Peach and indigo streaks daubed softly across the sky, while the lights of Karlovy Vary winked and twinkled in the valley below.
After a brief hiccup in Germany, we felt once more that we were back to Living the Dream.
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