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Trip Report North Germany / Netherlands trip report – warning – long!

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A trip report about our recent trip to Bremen. We have been to Bremen numerous times over the last 20 years to see friends and so have seen a lot of the area. This time we (my husband (38), myself (41) and my daughter M. (16 mo.)) came for my work interests, so my husband and daughter had a holiday (if you call child-minding a holiday) and I was occupied during the week. However, on the weekends we decided to do small trips (we had a car), nowhere more than 2 hrs away by car because that’s about as long as you can amuse M. (She was mostly pretty well-behaved, by the way). I have a separate posting on the Travel Tips board on our experiences of travelling with a small child in Europe – click on my screen name.

At the risk of repeating myself from the other report, we had a holiday apartment in Bremen (www.gastnet.com), which worked very well for us. We chose an apartment on the border between the Ostertorviertel and the Steintorviertel – the Ostertorviertel is very nice, the Steintorviertel is ‘colourful’, if you get my drift. Lots and lots of interesting shops in the main street. Days were structured around M’s sleeps, meals and snacktimes, and there were many small excursions to the local shops and parks in between these, just as we’d do at home.

Groningen / Bourtange
On the first weekend we decided to cross the border into the Netherlands and visited Groningen. This is a likeable city, quite young as it is a university city, perhaps not as spectacular as some, but still with its share of historical buildings and parks. One of the first things we did was visit the VVV (tourist information board, which is on the main square near the Martinitoren), and get information on a city walk, which we followed around half the city – it was quite long but took us round the best parts of the city. To name some, we started with the Martinikerk. We visited the Prinsentuin (prince’s garden) and ate ice creams, and saw the Goudkantoor (gold office) from 1635. It was easily the most spectacular building in Groningen. It is just off the main square. Nowadays it houses a café, which would be nice to visit. At lunchtime we found that many establishments did not have high chairs – I asked a restaurant we did want to have lunch at, whether they had a high chair, and were directed to the News Café, in the main square. Lunch was OK, modern food as you’d expect in most Anglophone places; I had been hoping for a more traditional offering but you go where you can get the high chair!

We bought hand-made smoked sausage from a market on the square. M is now officially an addict. It kept her quiet in the car, at any rate. Unfortunately none of the salamis or sausages we bought after that time were as good. We also discovered teddy bear Wurst later in the trip, which had the eye appeal for M, even if it wasn’t as tasty. There was also someone selling cute Delft-pattern fabric at the market, a bit kitsch, but would have made a fab souvenir. Our luggage was already bursting at the seams so we didn’t buy any but I do keep thinking about it. Would have made nice kitchen curtains for us!

We also visited the supermarket – there was an Albert Heijn next to the car park (Rademakers car park, if you’re looking for it, is close into the main part of town, and is not overly expensive compared with big-city parking fees). I really enjoy supermarkets abroad, and so we stocked up on goodies to take back to Germany with us. Yum!

We stayed at a hotel the VVV found for us, the Hampshire Hotel Plaza Groningen (http://www.hampshire-plazagroningen.nl/eng/index.html). We requested a hotel outside of town so that we didn’t have to pay parking fees at night. This was a very beautiful hotel, probably aimed at the business traveller, with a very elegant restaurant. It is in a natural setting with a small lake nearby, and I think you could probably go for some nice walks.

I didn’t really feel comfortable eating with a one year old in the very elegant restaurant due to the food raining down onto the floor from the high chair, although the staff did have a high chair in the first place and did their best by making us a frikandel and frietjes (sausage and chips), so they seemed to be expecting families there. We also discovered that the telephone in the room, when unplugged, made a really good toy for M (she just loves phones and tries putting virtually everything up to her ear, including remote controls, keys, you name it). A good night’s sleep was had by all that night!

The next day we went back into Groningen and saw the railway station – you may laugh at our enjoying such a functional building but it is actually a spectacular example of Art Nouveau! It was also in very good condition (By this I mean clean!). I am a big fan of Art Nouveau! We also went back into Groningen and had a coffee at the café next to the Martinitoren; M had a Chocomel. It was really nice weather, hot and sunny and there was a bike race ending in the main square. Before the race started we ducked into Hema (which was open this Sunday, as were many other shops – this surprised me as I thought shops were mostly closed on a Sunday), and bought bread rolls and sandwich fillings.

We then set off in our car: based on some of the literature from the VVV we decided to visit a fortress (open air museum) nearby, which is on the Dutch-German border. This was probably the highlight of our trip. The village, Bourtange, was turned into a fortress in the 16th century, and is in the shape of a star, with moats (canals) all around. It is hard to explain without a picture, and the English Wikipedia site doesn’t do it justice either; here are a couple of links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourtange , http://toerisme.groningen.nl/english/hoofdmenu/groningen-province/see---do/culture/bourtange-fortress . When modern warfare methods meant that the notion of fortresses was outmoded, they gradually filled in the moats and had a road built through the middle. In the 1950s and 60s the village started to become deserted (alas, the story of many a border region before Schengen), and so the council came up with the notion of reconstruction so as to attract tourists. It was a 30-year project and is largely finished, but is still being worked on in my understanding. You don’t need to pay admission unless you are visiting the museums, which I can’t comment on as we decided to skip them (babies and museums aren’t such a winning combination for us). You have to walk quite a way around the outside on a cobbled road, before a central road leads you over a bridge and into the centre of the village. There are many houses inhabited by private citizens, as well as small tourist shops lining the inside of the square (actually a hexagon, if you’re picky). One of the points of the star has a windmill, another has a building where weddings can be held.

The only thing I will say is that once we left the highway we went through a series of small towns, and although we were never actually lost, the path we took to Bourtange was circuitous. I don’t think the signposting was fantastic (nor was our map). We drove through Oude Pekela, Nieuwe Pekela and Boven Pekela (summed up on the road signage as “Pekela’s” – the apostrophe is correct for Dutch), and drove along an incredibly long canal flanked by dozens of immaculate farmhouses, which I really enjoyed. Initially we did not realise that there were small road signs for cyclists and big ones for vehicles, and that threw us, as we did drive down some of the routes meant for cyclists and got confused as the signage dried up. Even when we got close to Bourtange, there wasn’t much promoting it, and it is apparent that visitors are mostly Dutch; there were maybe two German tour buses, but it seems to be a well-kept secret. Even the tourist literature in the shop at the entry to the village is predominantly Dutch. So do seek out this village, it’s quite special and probably not crowded with tourists from your country!

Cuxhaven / Wingst / Bad Bederkesa
On our second weekend we went to see the North Sea. It was a cold day (16 degrees), but we decided to go anyway. We drove to Cuxhaven, and we had lunch here at a café in the main street of the pedestrian zone (sorry, I didn’t note the name). I ordered Flammkuchen, which is an Alsatian specialty – a kind of thin-crust pizza without cheese, but with a base of crème fraîche, Speck and onions. Yum! Then we went exploring the shops and found the castle, Schloss Cuxhaven. We had a coffee there. We also saw in the main street a sculpture of a large solid marble ball. It was rolling freely in its mounting, and had water flowing all over it (hard to describe). If you wanted to get your hands wet you could roll it any way you wanted. I visited a tea shop (a great thing to do in North Germany, as the locals drink tea), and bought myself a small packet of a tea flavoured with rum (a traditional tea additive in Germany), chocolate pieces and vanilla (Cuxhafener Leuchtfeuer). When I tried it later I found that it was pleasant and just quite sweet, without much of the rum taste (fine by me, I don’t like rum). A nice souvenir.

Then to the seaside resort of Duhnen. Although it was sunny, it was windy and quite bracing for summer, and on the beach itself sand was blowing through the air. There were brush fences erected every few metres up the beach to provide a windbreak, and dotted in between these were yellow Strandkörbe (beach baskets?) – partly enclosed wicker booths to shelter you from the elements. There were a few brave fully-clad souls lying on the sand behind the brush fences, but no-one in the Strandkörbe. DH and M went down to touch the sea, after which we explored the shops. It was very touristy, with a nautical theme, as you might imagine, and lots of visitors in spite of the cooler weather.

We stayed the night at Hotel Peter in nearby Wingst (http://www.flairhotel.com/Hotels/Flair-Hotel-Peter-Wingst.aspx). We like the Flair chain as they are usually in rural settings near big towns and represent good value, although most you probably need a car to reach. Our map showed Wingst off the main highway, but in fact, this hotel was on the highway. We were not quite the only guests, but it was quiet, because it was in a rural setting. The area around Wingst has some forest too – North Germany isn’t just a flat expanse of fields and plains, at least not in this area. We loved the accommodation – the room was clad in pine, with beautiful pine furnishings, separated from a seating area by a kind of wall made of turned wooden balusters. There were drinks in the room and the beds were comfortable. Dinner in the hotel was lovely – accompanying our venison was a traditional dish of potatoes in a caramelised sugar crust (tasty) and a large bowl of zucchini cut in small diamond shapes with chanterelle mushrooms. By now M was tired and grouchy and I didn’t think I could face dessert with her so we retired early. I couldn’t blame her – she was well-behaved on her diet of teddy bear Wurst and small toys, but enough was enough and she needed quiet play, milk, TV, cuddles, sleep.

The next day we had an early start and had planned to see the small zoo in Wingst but were out and about before the 10am opening. Instead we stumbled on a fenced field of spotted deer and mountain goats and stopped to take photos and show M, and found a forest path leading right around the field, which we walked. It was spontaneous and lovely and we didn’t need the zoo. Instead, we knew M would soon be asleep for her morning nap in the car, so we set off for Bad Bederkesa (between Wingst and Bremerhaven). After M woke up, we decided to visit Schloss Bederkesa, which she tolerated until the end. There was a small museum there that was dedicated to the archaeological sites in the Cuxhaven area. There was a pretty neat film showing the digs and explaining about the museum and its works. M loved the film as we were by ourselves in the room and she was able to run around the seats without disturbing anyone else. We tried looking at the displays but soon gathered that it was time to go have lunch. We then took M to lunch at Café Dobbendeel. She was much better when she discovered the noodles at lunch, and with a full stomach she was actually pretty nice! This Café was on the edge of the Bedakesaer See, and I had pike dumplings, quenelles of delicate poached fish mousse in a creamy sauce on aforesaid noodles. The fish were from the lake. Delicious!

On the way home M fell asleep again so we had a peaceful and restful ride, going through all the small villages, and had a chance to compare with the Dutch villages near the German border – although neat and tidy, not as clipped and immaculate as the Dutch, perhaps with a bit more character; still all charming. Then back to Bremen and a settled and quiet time for another few days.

After our trip to Bremen we went to Göttingen (again for my work interests), and although there are a few historical buildings here, I doubt most people would consider it a tourist town. We did, however, have time to visit nearby Duderstadt. This town is really pretty and there are many half-timbered houses here. There is a restored medieval city wall around the town, and a very spectacular town hall. There is also a steeple which has a twist in the spire (the Westerturm), something we’ve never seen before. Duderstadt is on the Deutsche Fachwerk Strasse, which is a route leading through the best cities with half-timbered houses. I would consider Duderstadt at least comparable with Goslar, and if we ever get an opportunity to get more free time here we’d consider doing this route in more detail.

At the end of our journey we left via Frankfurt but had a free day to get from Göttingen to Frankfurt, so went to visit a friend in Wiesbaden. On advice from this forum (thanks Mainhattengirl), we also visited Hoechst on the way. Hoechst is a suburb of Frankfurt. Because we arrived by car we reached the more modern part first and missed the old part of the town. If this happens to you, don’t be put off! The modern part is definitely less attractive, but we persisted, kept looking and what we found was lovely. There were several streets with old houses, and eventually we happened onto a square flanked by two old restaurants and a castle (Schloss Höchst). If you’re in the area anyway it’s worth a visit, and if you arrived by train you possibly wouldn’t get as lost as we did!

Phone / Internet Access
We bought local SIM cards and a wireless prepaid USB internet stick. We opted for Tchibo internet and one Tchibo SIM (that’s just how it worked out – after we’d bought the internet stick, because my husband’s phone from home was locked we ended up having to buy a phone which just came with a SIM), but if you get their internet it actually comes with a SIM that can also be used in a GSM phone (normally you put this in the USB stick). You can also send and receive SMS on the internet with this mobile broadband (don’t laugh if you are familiar with this already from your home, I’d never encountered this before and it was very handy until we got the second phone). We were able to get a phone plus SIM for €19,95, on special. Tchibo is not especially cheap – I think calls were about 15¢ a minute when you can get SIMs that are much cheaper.

We did research other wireless sticks before we left for Germany but in our neighbourhood the available businesses (PennyMarkt, REWE) did not stock them, even though they were forced to advertise that they had them. The wireless stick turned out to be partly useful, partly a fiddle, as there were difficulties in making connections, which we resolved in most cases by removing the stick, counting to 10 and reinserting, then reconnecting. Not sure if the problem was the stick or our Windows 7. If you are confident with technology, and confident with reading error messages in a foreign language, you will be OK – if not, there are alternatives. For instance, we bought our second SIM from an internet and international phone call shop and if you just wanted to make the odd call or check emails periodically, this would have been a more convenient and cheap way of doing it – I think I made a reasonably long call to Australia that cost 30¢, likewise internet cost a pittance.

Our other SIM, which was a really good find, was Lebara (www.lebara-mobile.de), which is a small company which has launched in several countries (including the UK and Australia). I can recommend it highly because they have very cheap rates to overseas destinations. I paid €10 for the SIM, which came with €10 in calls, plus on the second recharge for €10 you get €10 of calls plus another €5. Some examples of fees charged (the first figure is to a landline, the second to a mobile): Australia 9¢, 29¢, Great Britain 5¢, 29¢, Hong Kong 9¢, 9¢, India 5¢, 5¢, Canada 5¢, 5¢, USA 5¢, 5¢. And they have English-speaking operators, so you can validate your SIM easily.

Hope you enjoyed our trip report – thanks for reading!

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