Peter Ustinov said, “Love is an endless act of forgiveness.” For Mark and me, living the dream had become an endless act of problem solving.
We had done our best. At the first hint that France was ‘bubbling with coronavirus’ and might lock down, we’d made a homeward dash from the Ukranian border. Now, in Germany, our time had run out.
The news reported,
… anyone arriving in the UK from France or the Netherlands after 04:00 BST on Saturday 15/8/20 will be required to quarantine for 14 days.
With more than half a million British tourists in France, never mind the rest of Europe, Eurotunnel claimed to be “pretty much booked” and “didn’t have the capacity to get additional travellers back to the UK.”
Industry group Airlines UK described the move as “a blow amid the worst crisis in its history” and to top it all, the French government promised “reciprocal measures.”
Could the day get any better? While still co-ordinating an international manhunt for our missing friend Neil, our tasks for the day now required us to deal not only with German campsite bureaucracy, but getting a caravan and four dogs back to the UK without entering Holland or France, plus enduring a new form of internet abuse; ‘Travel Shaming’ when we pleaded for help online.
Our new campsite in Thale was the type where you feel the management would be a lot happier with no customers to interfere with their routine. Blocked in at our previous site, we arrived with minutes to spare. Reception closed between 1 pm and 3 pm, but quite how forcibly closure was enforced, we didn’t yet realise.
After a bit of a kerfuffle in German between the staff, which I roughly translated as, “There’s a huge British caravan just driven in. Are we expecting it?” we were awarded pitch number 9. In these coronavirus times, we had the foresight to book. The receptionist barked out instructions,
“Caravan doors must all face one way. Car at the front of the pitch!”
It was a sensible rule. The pitches were so small that if the doors faced each other, you would break social distancing rules by mounting your neighbour as you exited your van – and there was nowhere else to put the car.
Even with this rigid campsite discipline, I had to return to reception and explain that pitch number 9 was not an option. The receptionist poo poohed my claim of insufficient room to manoeuvre. Despite her conviction otherwise, I’d already had to mime the path of the swing to persuade a motorhome owner that our caravan tow-hitch would unavoidably clobber her vehicle if we pushed it in.
The pitch next door was free, but when I asked if we could have that, the reply was, “Definitely not!”
The receptionist took the trouble to walk over to our pitch in order to prove me wrong. Her appraisal of the problem was swift.
“Ah. No motor mover.”
I really couldn’t be bothered to argue yet again that a motor mover is useless when there simply isn’t enough room to move!
She announced we should put the caravan on the other side of the pitch.
We objected. Not because we didn’t want to flout regulations, but that was an even tighter and more unfeasible tactic. Once more, we proposed a radical solution. Was there any way we could claim the vacant but curiously verboten pitch number 8?
By now, we had a queue of traffic waiting to pass on the one-way road that we had blocked, so there was no pressure.
After a prolonged rummage back at reception, she granted us special dispensation to occupy pitch number 8. Then, without a motor mover, Mark shattered all expectations but mine by reversing straight on to the two lines where the wheels were supposed to go, with the door facing in the correct direction.
The only problem now was that we found ourselves imprisoned between the hours of 1 and 3 pm. When I approached the receptionist at 13:05 and asked her to open the barrier, which she was standing right next to, so we could go to the supermarket for supplies, she snapped, “It’s lunchtime!” turned her back and walked away.
There is a large theme park in Thale and, at the campsite, a clientele to match. The scent of vape hung heavy in the air, while screaming children tore along the pedestrian walkways on their bikes. Parents left them to it, stealing the moment to punctuate their puffs with the odd vat of wine, or barrel of lager. We made our escape on foot.
The Harz Mountains in Saxony-Anhalt is the land of German fairy tales. A world of dark forests, gushing rivers and mysterious peaks, shrouded in mist. Once, it was a spiritual centre of pagan worship. With a population who toiled deep beneath the earth in silver mines, it was a fertile breeding ground for fables and legends. A pair of academic siblings, Jacob and Wilhelm, collected and published the area’s rich folklore. They are better known as The Brothers Grimm.
While Grimms’ Fairy Tales is available in over 100 languages and has kept The Disney Company in royalties since they released Snow White in 1937, a lesser-known body of work is the Grimms’ German Dictionary. Their lexicon reached Frucht (fruit), although as we saw in the Dr Johnson episode of the BBC’s historical sitcom Blackadder III, compiling a dictionary is a tough gig. After accidentally incinerating Dr Johnson’s manuscript, on pain of death, Rowan Atkinson’s character vowed to re-write Johnson’s master work overnight. He got as far as ‘Aardvark’.
I have to say the town of Thale was more Grimm’s dictionary than Grimm’s fairytale. Neighbouring Quedlinburg and Werningerode are so unbearably picturesque that Quedlinburg’s centre, filled with Germany’s best collection of around 2,000 creaky half-timbered buildings, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The jumble of cobbled streets and steeply gabled gingerbread houses that one might expect in a settlement that dates to the 10th century and claims the title Thale sagenhaft (Legendary Thale) was notably absent. Read any description of Thale and it fails to mention the town’s ugly modern centre and cuts straight to the outrageously spectacular natural surroundings.
Although home to an iron works since 1445, Thale’s more recent claim to fame (and fortune) is Europe’s oldest sheet steel enamel works. That dates back to 1831, and was at one time responsible for 10% of the world’s production.
When they covered Edwin Starr’s original, Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood answered the question ‘War. What is it good for?’ with ‘Absolutely nothing’. They even said it again.
Yet Thale begs to differ. When you’ve had a manufacturing monopoly on steel helmets since 1934, war is jolly good for business.
With excellent railway connections, tourism was the unlikely progeny of Thale’s industrial heritage. The radon-rich Hubertus (Healing) Spring and the spectacular and legend-filled Bode Gorge attracted thousands of visitors each year, along with notable poets such as Goethe, Heine and Quedlinburg boy, Klopstock.
The Tourist Information Office in the train station was a slight misnomer. It had very little information and could tell me nothing about the Mythenweg. A trail of horse shoes embedded in pavements guides you around the town, taking in statues of characters from Norse mythology, such as Sleipnir; Wotan’s eight-legged horse. Certainly a plentiful provider of shoes to mark the way.
We bought a walking map to peruse over lunch in the cute Anatolia Bistro next door, which was so dog friendly it even had a Mutt Only menu!
In Anatolia, my time had come. I felt the need to sample a dish so close to Germany’s heart that it is the subject of a novel and play. It has its own museum in Berlin, and car maker Volkswagen‘s butchery division produces seven million of them a year. I’m talking Germany’s national delicacy; currywurst.
They credit Berlin’s Herta Heuwer with inventing currywurst. Given ketchup and curry powder by British soldiers, she thought, “I know. I’ll stick that on a sausage and sell it as a street snack.”
My first taste left me wondering.
Why had it never crossed my mind to combine curry sauce with a steamed sausage? It truly is the food of the gods!
After lunch we followed a trail into the Bodetal. It passed through the unbelievably busy theme park and a mini golf course, but when we departed the motorway-like Goetheweg and crossed to the rougher track on the left side of the river, the dogs could run free.
The path rose steeply up the gorge, through a dank mossy forest that oozed primordial serenity. It was so lovely we walked for miles, before deciding it would be rude to miss the top. With impeccable timing, a strap on my sandal broke!
A couple of lads descended past us. I asked if it was far to the summit, “Is est lang der Kopf?”
They fired something back in rapid German. My blank look encouraged them to speak more slowly. The only thing I understood was “900 metres.”
I mimed ‘up or length’ and they mimed back ‘length’, so we carried on. With a substandard sandal, a steep rocky ascent was preferable to a steep rocky descent!
The summit was a revelation. Known as the Hexentanzplatz (Witches Dance Floor), it was originally a place of Saxon pagan worship. The site’s big moment comes once a year on 30th April, exactly six months after Halloween. Known as Walpurgis night, local witches mount their broomsticks and fly to the Brocken, the highest peak in the Hartz range, which is the backdrop of a famous scene in Goethe’s Faust.
A black poodle, actually the demon Mephistopheles in disguise, takes Faust to the Brocken’s summit on Walpurgisnacht where “Tonight the mountain’s mad with magic”. There, in his own blood, Faust signs a pact with the Devil and trades his soul for infinite knowledge.
Once they’ve danced the snow off the Brocken, the diabolical company broomstick their way back to the Hexentanzplatz. There, they finish their Walpurgis celebration with wine, song and a wedding between Old Nick and the most comely in the coven.
Christian Frank immigrants forbade these pagan practices and posted soldiers at the Hexentanzplatz to enforce the ban. Dressed as witches with blackened faces, the Saxons scared the guards so much they never came back. Ultimately, however, the Christians got their revenge. Publication of their how-to-spot-a-witch guide; Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) in 1487 literally ignited centuries of witch hunts and persecution. As an example, in 1589, Quedlinburg burned 133 suspected witches in a single day.
The scenes that greeted us at Hexentanzplatz were as chaotic as the wildest Walpurgis night. An entire village of souvenir shops selling witch-themed tourist tat, diabolical sculptures, one of Germany’s oldest open-air theatres, a hotel, a zoo, and the Walpurgishalle museum, with its exhibit of a stone used for human sacrifice. If your granny lacks a broomstick to get there, fear not. A cable car from the theme park feeds a constant stream of ice-cream-slurping tourists to the Hexentanzplatz, while in Wernigerode, an old steam railway can puff you to the top of the Brocken.
And if you want more, a second cable car is ready to whisk you to the Roßtrappe, a granite outcrop opposite the Hexentanzplatz. There, flaxen-maned princess Brunhilde, betrothed to the Prince of Hertz, escaped her forced marriage to Bodo the giant by stealing one of his two colossal war steeds. One horse was white as snow, with eyes like stars; the other was black as night, with eyes like lightning. Neither was My Little Pony, but no prizes for guessing which one she chose.
In sight of the Brocken, her lover’s mountain pad, she hit a dilemma rather like the one we had encountered with our travels. Faced with the wild abyss of the Bode Gorge, her snowy steed hesitated, yet behind, the terrible black horse with Bodo on board thundered towards her across the Hexentanzplatz.
When she spurred him on, her mount soared like an eagle across the gorge, and left the imprint of its giant hoof in the rock on the other side.
Brunhilde didn’t make it unscathed; she lost her golden crown in the gorge. Bodo and his horse fell and were broken on the rocks. Bodo transformed into a hellish black hound, destined to guard Brunhilde’s crown for eternity. The gorge and river are named after him.
Mind you, for someone with a broken sandal, the gondola was a welcome sight.
Considering everything that had gone wrong with our plans, I was beginning to believe we had a hex on us. Unaware that the light-green cars have glass floors to grant passengers the full vertigo experience, the fact we descended in cabin number 13 did nothing to reassure me the gods were on our side.
That evening, we pondered our options for getting home. Our return ferry at the port of Caen was impossible to reach without stopping in France.
We faced the same impasse as we had in May, when Italian lockdown ended, but the UK lockdown was in full swing. With our house rented out, we had nowhere to quarantine, and had no idea how to isolate with four dogs to exercise. After close examination of the regulations, we came up with two solutions;
- A person who has not been in a banned country does not need to isolate even in the same household as someone who has. It seemed ridiculous, but if I flew home from Germany, I could still walk the dogs and shop for supplies while Mark quarantined. However, common sense seemed to suggest that boarding a plane significantly increased my risk of contracting coronavirus and if I did, we would both need to quarantine and be back to square one.
- Travel Corridor Exception – if you do not stop in a banned country, you do not have to quarantine. We could reach Eurotunnel non-stop from Germany. It would cost about £80 to cancel our ferry booking, although we could cancel up to 24 hours before our sailing. If Brittany Ferries suspended operations due to travel restrictions, we might qualify for a refund. Besides, remaining self-contained in our caravan would certainly be safer than a plane in terms of avoiding infection.
When I asked for advice on a forum that claimed to be non-judgemental and had, to date, been very supportive through the coronavirus pandemic, I was Travel Shamed by the Admin, no less. It really hurt. She slapped me down with a,
“Jackie, the purpose of quarantine is to keep us all safe!”
Wasn’t that exactly what I was trying to do?!
Perhaps Mark and I should never have sold our souls to a black half-bred poodle and her three cavapoodle familiars!