Unexpected New Year Driving Tour Around Europe – 2016/17

Circumstances transpired that we had no commitments or plans over the New Year period or the following week which meant we had some free time on our hands.  I have a New Year birthday and we were planning to do a overnight ferry trip to France/Belgium however given the extra time we had we thought.. lets get on a ferry and see where we end up in 8 days… and that’s precisely what we did!

We booked online at http://www.ferrysavers.co.uk for £39 single (as we had no idea when we were coming back) and off we went on the 12 noon DFDS ferry from Dover to Dunkirk.

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We arrived in Dunkirk at 3pm and had already decided being New Year’s Eve a good place to head for would be to Amsterdam! Although we had packed a quilt and pillows in the car ‘just in case’ we had the forethought to at least book our first hotel in Leiden which was approximately 25 mins away from Amsterdam by train (and the only accommodation available in the vicinity that we could remotely afford!).  We drove the 303km which took us 3 and a half hours with a service station stop; finally arriving at   Bastion Hotel Voorschoten at 7pm.  The hotel itself was really nice and we were given bright orange comfy socks on arrival! After a couple of beers in the bar we decided to head off in search of the train station to get to Amsterdam Central; taking in a few sights on the way.

 

It was really cold and had rained a bit coming into Leiden so it wasn’t clear whether it was foggy or not but it became apparent that it was smoke from fireworks.  The Dutch are only allowed to buy and set off fireworks for 3 days of the year leading up to New Years Eve so we had timed it just right! We made it to the train station only to find out they had stopped the trains for the night (it was 9pm) so rather disappointed we decided to grab a bite to eat.  We walked into the centre of Leiden and struggled to find anything open at all which was a bit sad.  We managed to find one restaurant which was actually very nice and at least open on New Years Eve.

 Argentinian GrillAfter speaking to the waiter he informed us that very few places are open on NYE and most people stay at home and have parties.  We sat and had a meal and a few drinks deciding what we could do to liven up our New Year after coming so far…but ran out of options!  We decided at about 10.30 to wander the main square in the hope that we may at least find one bar open …..and we did ….a turkish bar! Lol! we decided to sit it out in there until Midnight wish the locals a Happy New Year and then head back to our hotel but were feeling very deflated at missing out on Amsterdam and the lack of any life in Leiden.

Nige had a tinker with the playlist (he put on Holly Valance Kiss Kiss which went down well with the locals) and we chatted to the barman for a bit.  There were a few people in there but certainly not the buzz we were expecting.  Just before midnight we heard what sounded like really heavy rain and headed outside to a cloud of smoke and firecrackers! To our amazement the entire town square had come alive with people setting off fireworks all over the place!  We weren’t expecting that! It was a little scary and very loud but was great to see the local community gathering together and being there as part of it.  Our New Year had been redeemed!  Feeling a lot happier and that we had done something special we headed back to our hotel for a well earned sleep.

Due to the fact we didn’t actually get to see Amsterdam as planned we decided to head into the Dam for our second day.  We were impressed by the Bastion Hotel we stayed in; it was clean, comfortable and had free socks what more could you ask for! It cost £61 for New Years Eve which compared to anywhere else was a bargain.  A prior bit of internet research brought up the traditional New Year Swim in a place called Zandvoort just outside Amsterdam so we booked our bed at the Bastion Amsterdam Noord through booking.com (£54) and headed to see the nutters swimming in -1 temperatures!

Zandvoort3When we arrived we saw random people with orange bobble hats dotted about but weren’t sure if they were linked to the swim or whether there was another event happening.  After sitting by a fire in -1 temperatures sipping gluhwein we did a bit of investigating and found out that it was happening but we were just a little early as it was going ahead in a couple of hours.  In the meantime more and more people started arriving and Nigel was seriously considering joining in the fun….but chickened out! I had no thoughts of ever doing anything so crazy! as more and more bobble hats arrived and more and more drinks were consumed the atmosphere became very lively with lots of singing and dancing.  It transpired that those with the bobble hats were actually doing the dip.  We decided the dutch were crazy mad but knew how to have fun!   Time then came for the bobble hats to get ready to do their crazy dash into the sea!

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We watched them warm up by dancing to music and then strip down to underwear/swimwear before finally making the manic dash to the sea! BRRRR!  If you want more information about this activity or are mad enough to want to join in you can find more information here:  http://www.vvvzandvoort.com/new-years-swim/ – I guess that’s one way to shake of that New Year hangover and watching in the cold certainly cleared our heads!

We headed into Amsterdam to our hotel after here and then into Amsterdam itself via train.  We had been to Amsterdam before so decided to just spend the evening there which was very nice eating Waffles having some dinner and checking out the sights!

 

We headed back to our hotel by train and considered our next day plan.  We decided to head to Hamburg!

The drive from Amsterdam to Hamburg was 466km and was predicted to take just over five hours.    hamburgAfter a very pleasant drive with no traffic hold ups and a little fun on our first experiences of driving on the Autobahn we diverted to Hotel Sullberg which was recommended by a gentleman in Leiden due to the nice views.  The Hotel sits on the River Elbe and we stopped for a rather expensive cup of tea and cake before having a wander down by the river.

 

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We then quickly booked our Hotel in Hamburg and headed off to find it! Hotel Beefang was cheap (£31) so we weren’t expecting too much.  We arrived after dark at 5.30pm and it was probably not the best accommodation; very dated with no tea and coffee but it would do for the night! The one thing in its favour was that we were very near to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Central train station) and therefore after a short rest we got the train into Reeperbahn which is the main street and entertainment district (and also the red light district).

 

The Beatles played in Hamburg for 48 night in 1960 at the Indra Club and this association was highlighted all around the main Grosse Freiheit street in the St Pauli district.

 

We also came across some of the red light district and some of the shops and bars that were in the area.

 

After such a long day we headed back to our Hotel and got some sleep before our next exciting destination (and my birthday!) – Berlin

We left around 10 the next morning.   The drive from Hamburg to Berlin was approximately 3 hours and 288 kilometres.  This particular drive was a little tricky due to the strong wind but nevertheless still no traffic and uneventful.  We arrived at Meininger Hotel Hauptbahnhof (booked on the way again in the car!) at 2pm.  The hotel was quite quirky but popular with all types of travellers including backpackers although was the most expensive hotel at £86.  It was in an ideal location however next to the central train station.

After settling in our room we headed off out in the rain to the Reichstag Building which was home to the Berlin Diet from 1894-1933 before it was damaged by fire.  Now restored tours are available round the building and the dome.

 

We then visited the Brandenburg Gate; one of the best known landmarks in Germany. The gate served as a viewing platform for those who wanted to view the other side of the Iron Curtain which separated East and West Germany during the Cold War.  Now the gate is a symbol of peace and unity following the tearing down of the Berlin wall in 1987.

 

After a short break for a Starbucks we next headed on to the Berlin Mall before heading towards Checkpoint Charlie.  We saw a few interesting things on the way including some of the remaining parts of the Berlin wall at the Topography of Terrors.

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The Topography of Terrors is not so much a museum but documentation of the atrocities that occurred under the Third Reich.  It is based on the site of the former headquarters of the Secret State Police, SS and the Reich Security Main office on Wilhelm-and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße.  We stumbled across this and both thought it was a very honest account of what happened under the Third Reich depicted in audio, word and pictures.  If you are in the area you should make this part of your visit and it was free to enter.

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Next on our whistlestop tour of Berlin was Checkpoint Charlie, the remaining part of the gate which served as a crossing point between East and West Germany during the Cold War.  In all honesty there isn’t all that much to see here but we did go in and it was free to enter.

 

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This gate was the only one which allowed Allied Personnel, military diplomats and Foreign Tourists through.  The United States, Britain and France stationed some of their military personnel at the border in order to ensure the smooth transit of these individuals into the Soviet Sector.  Due to the huge number of tourists visiting the area, history has been depicted by actors and ‘Guards’ are seen around the checkpoint.

 

After the history tour we decided it was time to do some fun things for my birthday so we headed to the Beliner Fernsehturm otherwise known as the TV tower.  The tower is 1,207.45ft tall with an observation deck and a bar at the top.   It cost 15,50 euros each to go up to the deck some 203m above Berlin.  In order to toast my birthday we ordered a Berliner Weisse in one of each varierty at 3,80 euros each.  It is a cloudy sour beer flavoured with either raspberry or woodruff and certainly an acquired taste.

 

After enjoying (!) our drinks and the views we headed back down to Alexanderplatz and looked for somewhere to have some dinner.  It was a cold and wet night with limited options however we settled on the Escados Steakhouse and we enjoyed a lovely meal with some extra birthday touches.

 

We headed back to our hotel after some fun and games trying to find the right tram and settled in our hotel for a good nights sleep.

The next day we decided to head to the Czech Republic.  We had already been to Prague previously so decided we would bypass Prague and head from Brno, somewhere neither of us had been before.  We left Berlin the next morning for the 553km journey (5 hours 47) journey which took us through Prague on the way.

From our journey so far we hadn’t needed to pay any tolls or charges along the way; Germany is free to drive through with no tolls at all but from our online reading we became aware that all drivers travelling into Prague needed a Vignette at the border to cover the cost of driving on the motorways or you face a hefty fine.  When entering the Czech Republic you need to purchase one at the border  (it cost 310 CZK, approx £10) and present your vehicle registration document.   As we drove toward the Czech Republic we hit some snow but were able to easily find the vignette kiosk prior to the border crossing.

 

 After a couple of comfort stops we arrived in Brno at 3:45pm and found our Hotel which overlooks the Brno reservoir.  We headed straight down to the reservoir which we saw to our glee was frozen over and covered with people.  Treading extremely carefully we reached the reservoir where we watched people ice skating, playing ice hockey and children playing with sleds

 

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After enjoying watching everyone having fun on the ice we headed back our accommodation for the night.  Hotel Santon is a Spa hotel and was very reasonable for the night (£30 with free spa facilities and onsite restaurant).  We made use of the spa facilities (unfortunately no foresight to think we would need swimwear so we improvised) and had a massage, swim, and used the sauna and steam room – bliss!  we were surprised however that there was some naked yoga going on in the sauna and didn’t know where to look! We had dinner at the restaurant which was also reasonable and settled down for the night .

 

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic and we did only see a small snippet of it but what we saw we really liked.   It would certainly be somewhere to consider coming back to.

The next morning after consulting our maps we decided that Bratislava, was only an hour away (130km) and therefore we would head there.  Again we required a vignette to drive on the main motorways in Slovakia.  This cost 10 euros for 10 days and we were able to gain this with ease.  Unlike Czech Republic they do not give you a windscreen sticker but keep your registration number on file.  We arrived in Bratislava at 12pm for a spot of lunch and a quick look around.

 

The weather was getting more and more wintry the further we travelled and up to this point we had clear roads and had only just started to experience snow.  What anyone should be aware of when driving in Europe is that it is illegal to drive without winter tyres in some countries.   Many do not set specific months but say you must drive with snow tyres under icy or wintry conditions.  We were planning on heading on to Austria next and became aware you have to legally have winter tyres between November – April or face a hefty fine; the weather conditions were going to be a lot worse in Austria and we wanted to be safe so we did some research and found a tyre shop.  After a rather pricey but necessary expense at  291 euros (£250) we were even more laden in the car with 4 extra tyres but headed our next decided destination…Vienna!

It was a two hour drive from Bratislava to Vienna (79 kilometres) so we set off at just after 2pm arriving just after 4pm.  Austria is another country that requires a vignette and on this occasion at the border it wasn’t quite so clear exactly where the office was.  We eventually found it after a few circuits, paid the 8,90 euros and headed towards Vienna. Having never been to Vienna we were quite disappointed to see how industrial it seemed driving in; we were expecting something different but never the less headed to our just booked hotel Arnes.  It was cheap (£35) and the outside looked like a building site however inside was ok.  We got the tram on the road outside and headed to Stephenplatz which took 45 mins.

The temperature had reached -10 and we were very glad we packed our thermals! when we arrived at Stephensplatz we reached for the gluwein and rum punch!

 

Being a little bit hungry now we managed to find a lovely little restaurant just off the main square called Ilona Stuberl.  It was a small family run restaurant and we had lovely a lovely meal in here.  It is highly recommended if you are in the area; however be warned there are only limited seats so you may have to wait.

 

After our meal we visited St Stephen’s church and took the lift up to the top to get views of the city.  It was 8 euros each and bloomin’ cold but was a good view point.

 

After a walk round the area and a quick drink on the way back we headed back to the hotel on the tram arriving back at about 9 for some well earned sleep.

The next morning we felt it wouldn’t be right to come to Vienna and not have any Viennese pasties so we headed out for some breakfast and pastries whilst contemplating our next route.

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We decided our next stop would be Salzburg and according to the satnav it would take just under 3 hours (296km) so we left at 10 and set off for our next adventure.  The further we went the deeper the snow seemed.

 

We stopped at a very lovely service station (AustriaCamp Mondsee) and were amazed by how deep the snow was.  As was compulsory we had a little fun!

 

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We got to Salzburg and were amazed how beautiful it was! from arriving to the town and the river it was breathtaking! unfortunately we had decided not to stop here the night but to head on further; this was more due to the fact we were running out of time to head back home. We did however spent a few hours here taking in the sights. By this point the temperature had reached -18 but despite the chilliness we were really impressed and definitely a place on our list to come back to for longer.

 

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After a non alcoholic gluwein and a pretzel we decided to make tracks and head to our next destination for the night…Munich.  It was pretty darn cold in Salzburg and I had a feeling it wasn’t going to get much warmer tonight…

 

It was -13 upon our arrival in Munich and it wasn’t much of a fun drive.  At one point the windscreen was completely iced up from the spray and the washers were frozen.  After driving 135 kilometres which took 4 hours we arrived at our accommodation Hotel Montree.  There was an advantage of an underground car park at this hotel and although you had to pay (i think about 12 euros for the night) it would save defrosting the car in the morning!  It cost £44 pound and was located very close to the Lowenbrau Brewery or Löwenbräukeller as it is known locally.  We headed straight there for a well earned beer!

 

We hopped on the tram from outside the Brewery and decided to head to Karlsplatz which is near the centre of Munich.  Due to the time of year we visited there were still Christmas markets and the ice rink still set up in the town .  We saw Karlstor, a 14th century gate which is one of the only remaining three western gates preserved following the order of the destruction of the old city walls and bastions by Karl Theodor in 1791.

 

By this time Nigel was wanting a real taste of Bavaria; buxom barmaids serving steins of beer.  This was easier said than done! We headed to Marienplatz but struggled to find much in the way of bars.  We did however see the rather impressive New Town Hall.

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We found a bar  in one of the backstreets but weren’t too impressed as it was more like a wine bar so we headed back out looking for something a little more traditional.  We came across the Zum Augustiner Bierhalle which also served a range of bavarian dishes. It was a fun experience and we did order some bavarian dishes (still not sure  exactly what they were but they were edible) and a couple of bigggg beers 🙂

 

By this time of night temperatures had hit -19 and we were a little cold so we headed back via the tram to our hotel in preparation for tomorrows adventures.

The next morning we headed over the road to Lidl’s to get some more stocks; our water was running low and we needed some snacks for our journey and headed off at 10.30am for our long trek to Luxembourg.   The estimated route was 539 kilometres and just under 6 hours.  Nigel being the football fan he is wanted to visit the Allianz Arena, home of Bayern Munch so his wish was granted!

 

We headed off on our long long trek and I can honestly say this was the worst journey yet.  We seemed to hit traffic in so many places on the route and it felt like we were never going to get there.  We did amuse ourselves somewhat on the journey at the sign in the services.

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After a mammoth 8 hour journey we finally made it to Luxembourg.  The only problem was we hadn’t booked a hotel and therefore it was trial and error trying to find somewhere central.  We eventually settled for the City Hotel on Rue de Strasbourg and found some street parking.  This was not a cheap hotel at £80 but we were so tired we were glad to have found somewhere.  Despite our weariness we knew we were running out of time so headed into Luxembourg to see what it had to offer.   We headed for the Old Town.

 

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We found a lovely little Christmas Market in Place Guillaume II where we stopped by the fire for some warming Gluwein and a bratwurst! We were really impressed with Luxembourg City; it was really pretty and had a lot to offer despite the rainy weather.

 

We headed back to our hotel exhausted and sad that tomorrow we would be heading back to Dunkirk to get the ferry home.

The next morning we woke up to a lovely morning and decided we would try and visit Barrio Grund; we had found a leaflet in the reception and decided we had time to check it out before heading back.  This is a quarter of Luxembourg city set in a valley below the centre on the banks of the Alzette River.  We were blown away by how amazing it was there.  Although it was quite early in the morning and not much was open I can imagine it being very popular.

 

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Finally it was time to leave this lovely city and make our way back home.  We decided however to detour to Brussels on the way home.  We hadn’t prebooked a ferry so decided we would have time to head to the Atonium as it only added a short bit of time to our journey.  The return journey to the ferry was predicted at 4 hours and 375 kilometres. We made it to Brussels at 1.30pm only to be greeted by thick fog!  It did clear however the nearer we got to it.   The Atomium was created in 1958 for the the World’s Fair by André Waterkeyn.   There is a panoramic view at the top and a restaurant as well as a variety of exhibitions both permanent and temporary.  Due to the fog obscuring the views and the fact we were running out of time we didn’t go in.

 

It was time to do our last leg of our trip…..back to the ferry to England.  We left Belgium at got back to Dunkirk at 4pm and stopped at McDonalds where we booked for the 5pm ferry.  Unfortunately it was a little difficult to find the ferry port from the town centre and we nearly missed it but were able to get on the 5pm arriving back in Dover at 7pm and home at 9pm!

So our impromptu trip totalled 2359 miles (3796 kilometres) and more hours of driving than we care to think of;  we visited 8 countries many of which we hadn’t visited before and enjoyed nearly every minute (besides being stuck in traffic).  We would be lying if we said we weren’t tired and I think that is obvious from some of the pictures but it was well worth it.   I think the pace in which we did the trip would be too much for some people and there were places where we would have liked to have spent more time such as Salzburg but all the more reason to go back!

Driving in Europe was actually fine; even in the really cold weather.  At some points we were driving in -18 degrees with the screenwash frozen so a recommendation would definitely be pay more for antifreeze down to -40.  Also the winter tyres were an expensive unforseen extra but more than necessary and we were grateful for them in the snowier/icier parts that’s for sure.   The vignette system was easy once we knew what we were doing and it is definitely worth researching before hand to see which countries require them.  There are also varying rules around snow chains which are compulsory on some road in Austria which we avoided.  All in all an amazing trip and highly recommended if you have no plans, a decent car and a bit of wanderlust!

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