There was no avoiding the fact that we were running out of time. We’d enjoyed our time among the Frisian Islands, but we needed to start heading in the direction of home or at least, towards the ferry terminal at Dunkerque. It was Friday and we had a Sunday afternoon crossing booked.
Rosana had mentioned Köln several times and Dan finally took the hint. It looked conveniently located in terms of the route we needed to take but presented a large, umweltzone shaped, problem. Parking didn’t look great and to make matters worse there was a large demonstration taking place in the city on Saturday. We decided to find somewhere to camp outside of the city that was near a train station, that seemed to be the simplest solution. We trawled the Bord Atlas and ACSI guide and eventually found an ACSI campsite on the banks of the Rhine just outside of Düsseldorf that fitted the bill.
It was a bit of a trek, but German trains are pretty efficient even if their ticket machines are a bit baffling, plus the location offered less of a drive on Sunday.
Like Xanten, Köln was initially a Roman town and like many German cities, it’s a mix of old and new, with much post war rebuilding and it’s an easy place to spend a day or more wandering around, getting lost in narrow back streets, enjoying the street art and taking in the beautiful, if crowded, cathedral.
With one last strawberry topped ice cream the sun set on our journey through Germany and we headed for France and our ferry home.
We managed to catch the ferry to Borkum this time and we hardly had to rush at all. Maybe just a little bit. But really, getting to the island of Borkum was quite a stress free affair. It looked lovely in the guide book, with some unusual features and the possibility of seals.
The ferry terminal on Borkum is quite a long way from anywhere else on the island. For foot passengers there is a train service into the main town, but we had our bikes along with no real sense of direction or map to guide us.
So we followed everyone else who was on a bike. The thing with euro bikes is that they all have bells. We don’t have bells. A bell on a mountain bike is an annoyance. Maybe not so much for Rosana who is very sensible, but we have to bear in mind that Dan is an idiot and more so on a bike. As we reached the edge of the town we found a bike shop, so decided it was time to fit bells. Dan got a cool black one with a shark on it. Rosana got a pink one with a princess on it. Rosana was not happy with Dan. Dan giggled to himself quite a bit.
As with most places, our first stop was tourist information. With our shiny new map we headed off. The first thing we wanted to see was the whale bone fence. While we don’t condone whaling, at least every part of a whale was put to use. On Borkum that meant using whale bones for home fencing. It was quite impressive.
From there it was to the huge sandy beaches. Large sandy beaches are not something that you would necessarily associate with Germany, but Borkum has them in abundance. After being reprimanded by the police for cycling where we shouldn’t, we locked up the bikes and went looking for seals. We found them but on a cordoned off section of beach and a very long way away. We considered it mission accomplished and headed off for a ride around the island, taking in the wildlife and eventually stopping for an enormous ice cream with strawberries. It was strawberry season after all and Germans take their seasonal food very seriously.
Dan was quite sure he’d died and gone to heaven. This morning he’d woken up in the campervan and now he was in the engine room of a U-Boat. He pinched himself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Do days get any better than this? Rosana looked unimpressed. It was cramped and hot. She wanted an ice cream.
After our trip to Helgoland it was time to grudgingly accept that we needed to start heading back in the vague direction of France and our ferry home. But the trip wasn’t over yet and the maritime museum in Bremerhaven sounded good. There are two parts to the museum, the bit inside the building which has some fantastic exhibits, then there are a number of old and interesting ships moored in the harbour. One of which was a Type XXI U-Boat. It was a massive step forward in submarine design when it was introduced and it’s a fortunate thing that only two made it into service at the tail end of WWII. If they’d been introduced earlier the outcome could have been very different. As Churchill famously wrote, “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril“. And these were the most perilous of the time.
After and afternoon climbing in and out of various ships’ engine rooms we tracked down some ice cream and had a think about what to do next.
“It’s a shame we didn’t get to Borkum, it looked nice”
“I’m quite sure it’s on the way home. We can get a ferry tomorrow”
Our planning sessions were becoming very effective, but given our recent history of catching ferries we decided it was prudent to go and find the ferry terminal this evening and check that there were actually ferries tomorrow. Not only were we able to find the terminal, but we found the nearest car park as well. We had a plan. All we needed now was somewhere to sleep.
We perused the Bord Atlas. Not to far from the ferry terminal was a restaurant that was offering free camping and showers if you ate and drank there. No discussion was needed really, We parked up, made ourselves clean and ate well.
A group of school children cheered enthusiastically from the decks above as Dan sprinted along the quayside, his hastily packed rucksack swinging wildly behind him, sprinting towards the gangway and the ship’s crew waiting patiently to cast off the ropes.
The van hadn’t been parked so much as abandoned. The car park attendant had seemed rather surprised that we were intending to catch the ship moored at the dock and scheduled to leave in approximately thirty six seconds. Rosana had leapt from the van and hurriedly bought the ferry tickets before convincing to the crew to hang on for one more passenger.
But we were onboard the Atlantis, that was the important thing. The memories of being horribly lost in Cuxhaven now beginning to fade, the Bremen Donkey had kept his promise. We got ourselves some coffee and settled in for the journey to a remote lump of rock in the North Sea known as Helgoland.
The first thing that you notice as you approach the island are colourful buildings. These are now a mixture of shops and homes and holiday lets, but they were once the local fishermen’s cottages. Further up you can see the lighthouse and radio masts.
The island has two distinct personalities. On the one side there are the red cliffs, home to immense numbers of seabirds.
As you follow the cliff top path you eventually arrive at Lange Anna, a precarious looking seastack wearing a hat of seabirds.
As you descend from the cliffs on the walk back towards the harbour the islands beaches present themselves. We’d hoped to find seals here, but no joy – we’d used up our luck today just getting to to the boat on time.
Another Umweltzone to contend with, but a large car park on the outskirts of the zone and next to the train station solved that problem. Bremen is a pretty and lively city full of old buildings, pieces of art and narrow streets surrounding large and open squares. The most famous piece of art is the Town Musicians and it’s good luck to rub the donkey’s nose. We rubbed his nose and hoped for better luck catching ferries in the future.
Over coffee in one of the city’s many cafes we wondered about where to go next. It had to be Helgoland, a lonely rock in the North Sea. When would we get the chance to go there again? There were various ferry options, plus the possibility of flying. The ferry from Cuxhaven looked like the best bet. We found a campsite in Dorum in the ACSI guide which wasn’t too far away, plus had a most unusual lighthouse next to it.