Nova Bystrica, Slovakia

The view
Just as you enter Nova Bystrica, this must be one of the best views I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Nova Bystrica was a lucky find like Breza. I was simply driving through Slovakia from Poland, heading roughly to Brno to see what it was like.

There was a brand new car park at the edge of the village with spaces for buses so I parked up just to see what was there.

Truth is there’s nothing there really, except the local shop which I took advantage of for some fresh salad, and a beautiful view of mountains and forests. Oh and the river Bystrica flowing through. Pretty much the basic stuff of life. I found out later that there’s also a post office and a department store there too. But sometimes less is more…

Across from the car park is what’s listed on the map as a local government office. A couple of times a day what sounded like a radio was playing from the large speakers on top of this office, and a little song was played each time which was very jaunty. The following day I also noticed a large group of youngsters doing some kind of physical exercises on the lawn in front. They were led by a tracksuit wearing ‘coach’ and after about 20 minutes of simple exercises on the lawn, in the 27 degree heat, they all went back inside.

Maybe there’s a school attached?

Anyway, another very peaceful night was had as there was not a sound after about 8pm so after work it was straight to bed and another sound night of sleep. Sometimes when you’re travelling it’s not famous sites that you want, nor culture or meeting odd characters. It’s just a beautiful location with some peace and quiet. Travelling is in my blood and I can’t imagine not doing it but sometimes you just need a physical and mental rest. It’s places like Nova Bystrica that offer that. 

Slovakia is good to me 🙂

Breza, Slovakia

High Tatras
As you leave Poland and enter Slovakia you’re treated to this view of the High Tatras mountains in the distance.

Breza was a stop I hadn’t intended to make. I was simply tired and spotted a new view so pulled into a layby for a cuppa and to enjoy that view. Of course whenever I stop no matter how long it is since Jack had a walk, he has to get out also and explore the new land. So I took my cup of tea with me and we went for a walk along the river.

We’d only gone about 400 yards when I spotted a building through the trees and that building turned out to be a pub of all things.

So I left my cup by a fence and we set off to investigate and it was actually a nice little town.

Firstly, it’s in the nicest location at the foot of mountains with forest all around and a river flowing past. It’s got a supermarket, a cafe, a pub and a post office. That pretty much sums up most peoples’ main needs?

Well OK given what my van is like, a garage would not have come amiss…

I’d seen a church from the main road so I set off to find it cos it looked nice. However I followed two likely routes both of which led to a very steep and deep gorge separating the village from the hill the church was on.

It seemed if I wanted to get to the church I would probably need to leave the village by road and come back a different way, there simply was no access I could find to get over the gorge.

I decided to leave it and just enjoy the village.

Coffee bar
Mid day the village is deserted. I wondered if this was the hub of the village at night time.

Being followed

Anyway I had a walk around and had stopped to take a photo of the large building that was the coffee cafe and a little girl maybe 8 years old came out of the cafe and walked over and spoke to me.

I have no idea what language she was speaking, Slovak? But I knew from her gaze that she was talking about Jack. I gestured to him so she immediately knelt down and had a little stroke of his head and murmured something to him. Most likely the Slovak equivalent of “Oh you’re a lovely little puppy and I love you.” cos that’s the kind of things kids say to him.

Jack of course licked her mouth and hands cos he knows that that’s where all the nicest tastes are on humans, especially little humans who always taste of sugar and other exciting flavours.

She said something else to me that I could not guess so I had to say I didn’t speak her language. Her face was a picture when I spoke, as clearly she’d not been expecting a foreign voice. She said something else which sounded like “Bloody hell I nearly shit myself when you started speaking that weird language!” and then had another stroke of the dog.

I’m sure she didn’t really say that, but just like anthropomorphising animals, we tend to adultify kids don’t we. (Did I just make a word up!) You tend to imbue kids with attributes they probably don’t have cos they’re too young and yet they often to seem so wise for their years.

After their little pat and lick session was over I wandered on to finish my short tour of the village and she stayed with us the whole way, keeping about 20 feet away but always looking at Jack. I felt like going and buying her a puppy!

Anyway, I spent the night in the layby and it was incredibly peaceful with no passing traffic after about 8pm until the next morning. It was also pitch black so I had a very restful night and woke to bright sunshine, so I went down to the river with my coffee and furry face.

Time to move on, but what a nice little village Breza is.

Revolut…money revolution?

I applied for a Revolut card when I came out this time. The Revolut card is a Mastercard and you can use it almost anywhere for purchases and ATM withdrawals and top it up from your bank account via an app on your phone.

Revolut card
Revolut card

It’s partly for security, as you need a pin to get into the app, and I only to it up £100 at a time so if it was ever stolen and they managed to get the pin I’d not lose much. The bank account linked to it is a second one that I don’t keep much cash in. 

I love the way it works, you top it up however much you like and if you wish to convert to say…euros, you get the best rate going at that moment in time. The way I tend to use it though is I leave it in £’s, and when I pay for things it automatically converts enough £’s into that currency at the best rates. 

I found it great for being in Poland because while some places do accept euros, they make up the conversion rate in their head so you can end up losing out. I also used it in Amsterdam to pay for the camp site as it was machine access out of hours.

You can also use the Revolut card in ATM’s for local currency and whichever way you use it you don’t pay any fees. You can pay micro fees such as for a coffee, it’s contactless and you can even pay other people who have a Revolut account using their mobile number! Definitely the card for a modern world.

If you lose it, you simply log into the app and disable the card, sorted. I have a backup phone that I use too if I am somewhere I’m unused to where there’s a lot of crime. I’m going to find out if you can have the app installed on more than one phone. 

I dislike having to carry loads of cash in the van, and I like the security aspect of the Revolut card. it’s definitely my choice for use abroad even if you only ever go to countries with $’s or €’s. 

 

Krakow

I had parked in Wieliczka to see the salt mine and a friendly lady in an art gallery told me the train station was not far and it was quick to get into Krakow. It cost me about 400 Zloty in her place for things to take home for a friend so the info wasn’t cheap.

However I found the station easily and it was only a few euros into Krakow on a train that ran regularly. Happily I could not get lost either as Wieliczka is the last stop on that line. I decided to go in the next day but would leave Jack in the van if it wasn’t too hot. 

And indeed it was only about 15 minutes into Krakow, and it’s a very pleasant and modern station with lots of terminals that were very fast and easy to use so I grabbed my return ticket while there. 

Painted wall
It doesn’t seem to matter where you go in the world there is always graffiti. Krakow

Sadly the first thing I saw when I left the station proper was the graffiti. Europe seems plagued by it, I’ve even seen commercial vans covered in it and I know it costs councils millions a year to deal with. Such gross vandalism ought to attract heftier penalties I think, but the likes of Banksy doesn’t help. 

I remember the streets of Rome being like this, and Paris, and Prague. Many of them are political comments but many are simply tags, the name these vandals put to the stylised nickname they use. 

It’s one of my pet hates because it can so alter the look and feel of an environment and why should we all suffer because of a few selfish vandals?

The old town

Anyway, putting that aside the walk into the old town was short and pleasant. The streets are wide and clean, the crossings plentiful and well responded to, and a lovely young lady stopped me for a chat on my way asking if I was a tourist. I was on my belly taking a photo of a tram and felt slightly foolish! Her English was great and we chatted for 5 minutes and then she went her way. I thought what a pleasant place this is but I also checked that my wallet was still there…

Browsing in the market
The Cloth hall has dozens of small stalls inside and is a major draw for tourists.

The old town is beautiful. No doubt about it. Clean, free from clutter and mostly free from traffic. Beautifully clean carriages pulled by lovely well kept horses, and lots of colour around in street cafes, performers and tourists.

The main Cloth market is amazing and even though I’m not really a shopper, I had to have a wander through it. There’s dozens of little stalls inside all selling trinkets and scarves and all sorts of touristy type things. 

Some had quite expensive jewellery and some had the normal tacky stuff you see everywhere but they were all doing great business. It was nice to walk through just to feel part of the hustle and bustle of it all. 

Tourist trap

There were lots of horse drawn carriages and they were far from simple traps, they were very elaborate and attractive carriages that could easily grace a wedding. I found out that there is no set price, you haggled with each driver but none of them gave you a commentary on your 35 minute tour. 

I suspect they need to add that as part of the tour!

St Mary’s is a beautiful sight and has the mouth boggling name of Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven. Apparently most people call it St Mary’s church. 

Wawel Royal Castle

It’s a 10 minute walk out of town to get to the castle, but very well worth it. The walk up was fairly steep as the sun had come out and it was swelteringly hot. The views were great from the castle walls though and the place itself is quite impressive. 

Vistula river from Wawel hill
The Vistula river goes through the heart of Krakow and is a large draw for people wanting to escape the heat of the day.

Apparently it now houses one of the largest collections of Flemish tapestries in it’s museum. Right. 

From the walls I could see a lovely grassed promenade along the banks of the Vistula river below me so to escape the heat a little and to rest my hot feet I walked back down there and sat on the grass with an ice cream. 

I must point out that the amarena cherry ice cream easily matched the quality of the ones in Linz and even Venice! Great price at €1.50 as well, nice to see they’re not ripping anyone off. 

After my ice cream I decided to go back through town and head back to the van. I have air conditioning so I knew Jack would be fine. However I know that people get on their high horse and act emotionally if they see an animal in a vehicle on a hot day. I remember visiting a friend and the friends neighbour threatened to smash a window to get my dog out!

Everyone wants a drama, led by emotion, and to feel a ‘hero’ so they have a story to tell their friends. So despite he’s the most loved and well cared for dog I went back for him and took him over the park. 

On a last note, there’s a large piece of grassed waste ground near the rail station so when I got back and got Jack we were playing on this land when a young man came over and told me I should have a ‘line’ on the dog because it’s not safe. I don’t know what it is about me and Jack but I looked pointedly at the other dogs running around with their owners off-leash, and looked back at him and he said he was scared of dogs and walked off!

Bizarre. I really am a fool magnet lol

Anyway, fantastic day in Krakow it’s a beautiful city and 2 days would have done it more justice. Here’s a few photos to whet your appetite. 

Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow

I’d heard of the salt mine on a Facebook group but could not think how seeing a salt mine could be entertaining. Well how wrong I was. 

After leaving Auschwitz I found Wieliczka easily enough and a car park where campers were allowed overnight. So bright and early the next morning I set off for the mine. It took a little to find the ticket office as the signs are unclear and once there none of the tape barriers were open, but they expected you to go through them. All very odd. 

It opens on bang on 7:30 and not a second before and then you pay your Zloty which means about €20 which is in fact a very reasonable price for the 3 hour or so visit. 

Wait in line for other English speakers to come along and then a guide introduced herself and took us into the mine. She absolutely failed to make a connection with the group at the start which showed very clearly later, and as she’s very experienced I was quite surprised. However we set off after establishing that there were people in the group from all over the world. 

Stairway to heaven
The staircase drops a dizzying 80 meters and this gap goes all the way from the top to the bottom. It’s quite disorienting looking down and it’s very narrow.

The big drop

Getting down into the mine was a heck of a walk down steep wood stairs that led down about 80 metres. This was a hell of a descent as the stairway is only wide enough for single file and there were 2 other groups ahead of us and they kept stopping and starting in order to allow time for slower people. Really the guide ought to have paced it differently so we went slower but without stopping but hey…it wasn’t my shout. 

We got to the bottom anyway and were told a few facts about the mine. I was surprised to learn that it was first used in the 11th century. No wonder it has 350 kms of tunnels. Apparently there are only a few people living who know every corner of the mine. 

It was apparent from the start that this was going to be a whirlwind trip. I guess there’s so much to see and we only see a small fraction of the mine. There are other groups you can join if you book such as the Miners group and the Pilgrims group. They both sound fascinating and are over 3 hours also. However I’d have loved an extra hour and would have paid more for that as it was very rushed. 

Wood support
Because of the corrosive environment all of the supports are made of wood, which is not affected by salt.

What was apparent from early on and in contrast to the tiny staircase was the huge scale of the mine. Tunnels were quite large and very airy and lined and shored exclusively with wood as the salty environment is no good for steel. Some of the wood shoring has been there since the mine first opened in the 13th century although salt has been gathered from about the 11th century. 

Copernicus
One of the most famous sons of Poland, Copernicus is revered and that’s reflected in this statue of him which has been carved out of salt.

The salt deposits are almost 14 million years old and caused by a sea evaporating and leaving behind it’s salt and the mine is considered so important that Copernicus even visited. They carved a statue of him entirely from a salt block in honour of his visit.

The photos may not be what you are used to from me but firstly, we were very rushed. There were literally seconds to stand and take in sights such as Copernicus before we were moved on. Also there was no tripod allowed so everything was handheld and it was very dark mostly. 

I’d love to go back with some lights or a tripod but I’d have to pay for a private tour for that and that’s mega bucks.

Salty characters
The level of detail in some of the sculptures is amazing. The raw salt is very hard but easy to work with.

Some of the scenes they had set up were really nicely thought out and well lit. However in the most interesting places we were hard on the heels of the group in front, in fact our guide was constantly berating them shouting “Ladies and gentlemen please rejoin your own group!”

Pushy family

Also because we had so little time -there were groups hard on our heels too- it was difficult to get photos in. One family insisted on each individual having their photo taken in front of the sculptures, first the 2 kids, then Mam and Dad, then everyone together. Several people spoke to them about monopolising the scenes and even the guide asked them to move along but they simply ignored everything said to them. 

Stairs
Some areas of the mine have decorative entrances for no other reason than it can be done.

The carvings were nothing short of amazing. There were numerous niches with religious figurines in, lots of scenes depicting miners at work and even the entrance to a tunnel seen at left, all carved from salt. The detail was beautiful and the finish was polished and almost like marble. But it was all salt. 

Our guide stopped us at one place while we waited for the group in front to continue and said we were all allowed 2 kilos of salt to take from the mine for free. However we must take it by licking it from the walls! No-one took the bait but she repeated her joke later, perhaps some groups found it amusing? 

Chapel of salt
This amazing chapel is constructed entirely from salt. The Polish are mostly Roman Catholics, about 90% apparently, so religious idolatry is everywhere.

I did but as I said she failed to connect with the group at the start and it showed for the whole duration of the tour which was marked by her becoming impatient and shouting at people to catch up. 

Some of the chapels were extraordinary. Everything carved from salt. Even the chandeliers such as you see in this photo to the right, carved from salt. 

It’s a truly amazing place and to think there are 350 kms of tunnels grabs your imagination. 

The guide wasn’t that bad really

I seem to be a little negative about the guide and I am slightly, but also I guess she has time restrictions placed on her so she had little to work with. It’s only about €20 euros for the tour, I would much rather pay even as much as €10 more for the visit but get longer. There was very little information offered either, only the odd snippet here and there. I guess they want you to buy the books in the shop. 

However, a fabulous visit, I’m so glad I’ve been and I would definitely return again. It’s a lot to take in and needs much more than just one visit. I’d love to try the other routes too, one of which allows you to work as a miner would have using their technologies etc. 

Here’s some more photos of what proved to be a fantastic visit. 

Birkenau death camp – Auschwitz 2

Entrance to Birkenau
This famous view was long thought to be of Auschwitz 1. However it is the entrance to Auschwitz 2, Birkenau which was built in 1944.

Birkenau was begun in 1941 because Auschwitz 1 simply could not cope with the influx of prisoners. It was begun for political prisoners but by 1942 Hitler had decided to exterminate the Jews so Birkenau was refocussed to the efforts of a labour camp and extermination camp. 

4 crematoria were built as gas chambers and incinerators to kill as many people as was possible. The first one, Bunker 1, was called Red house. The second a little later Bunker 2, was called White house. 

Crematorium 2 had been designed as a mortuary, but by installing gas tight doors and ventilation to remove the gas afterwards it was turned into a gas chamber. It already had ground level incinerators which were to become useful. Crematorium 3 was the same but 4 and 5 were built from the start as gassing chambers.

The Nazis chose Zyklon B as it was very fast acting and should have killed the prisoners in seconds. However that’s only in set circumstances and in some cases people took over a half hour to die. 

There is a story about how several hundred gypsies -another ethnic group targeted by the Germans- had a rebellion and attacked the soldiers with makeshift weapons. 3 soldiers were killed but the rebellion was quashed and all involved later gassed. 

Birkenau saw World War Two’s largest ever death march. The Germans fearing the advance of the allies set off from Birkenau in January 1945 headed for Loslau. The SS killed large numbers of prisoners by starvation before the marches, and shot many more dead both during and after for not being able to keep up with the pace.

Here’s some more photos of Birkenau

Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps – Auschwitz 1

We arrived in Oswiecim which is the village where Auschwitz museum is located about 2am Saturday morning. I found a car park and it was slightly confusing about the prices but eventually I sussed that the museum itself opens at 4am so I could park in there. It was €5 less than the tourist office car park too so as I was not staying for the evening it was better value to park at Auschwitz.

Early sunrise at Auschwitz
It wasn’t even 5am but the sun shone magnificently through the trees at the edge of Auschwitz

By the time me and the dog had stretched our legs a bit it was open so we had a chat with a really friendly security guard and parked up, then went for a wander in the grounds. The sun was coming up nicely but it was about 8am before I finally got in to the museum itself. This photo was taken before 5am so that shows what the sun was like.

Even looking through the fence before you enter you do get a small sense of foreboding. There are fences now to keep people out rather than in, and clearly there’s a need. The famous Arbeit macht frei sign was stolen some time ago but happily recovered.

Aging buildings
The buildings of Auschwitz are now more than 80 years old, it’s accepted that they are going to show major signs of ageing and wear.

We were forced to wait til just after 7:30 am for the ticket office to open. It’s free entry but they have to manage visitor flow and numbers of course. I would very, very much have liked to have had an audio guide available. I’d have paid more money for that. You can pay to join a  group with what they call an educator, but tbh it’s not clear what you can do and how much it costs at first. Slick does not describe the management of the museum. 

It is ironic to think I’d come so far to get into the place so many tried to get out of. More than 1 million lives were taken at this one place, most of them brutally, some in indescribably horrifying ways. It’s almost difficult to take in until you see the faces of the people and the place where they were tortured, the photographs that the

Work makes you free
Even as they were brought into the camp the Nazis pretended they would be given jobs and cared for. They were however worked and tortured to death.

Germans themselves took and the accounts of the few who survived. 

They’d come to this gate. Told they would be looked after well and fed and housed, put to work to keep them occupied. Some say that many knew what was going to happen but could not escape it. 

Auschwitz was a former Polish army camp and so while austere, the place does have an attractiveness about it if you can see only the buildings. However you soon notice the watch towers, and the endless barbed wire which was electrified for part of the time. 

Chain link security
Chain link fencing keeps people from getting into Auschwitz now, rather than for keeping them from escaping.

The booted Gestapo who were based here took every opportunity to inflict misery and brutality on people for no good reason other than they enjoyed brutalising.

You’re pretty much left to your own devices when you enter the museum, so instead of heading through the main gates I decided to head left and go straight down.

The final escape

The first building I came to was the gas chamber where they gassed the helpless people who thought they were there to be showered. 

They were using a poison called Zyklon B and dropped it through roof vents into the chamber below.

Ceiling vents
The vent in the ceiling was there the gas was dropped into the chambers. The scratches on the far walls are allegedly those of the prisoners trying to escape in their agony.

You can see on the wall the many scratches where desperate and agonised people tried to claw their way through solid concrete to escape the pain and suffering.

It’s difficult to think of how these people must have felt. In their dozens, some with family and other loved ones, others alone and afraid. 

It’s an awful room because you can hear in your head the voices and the cries and the anguished wails of dying humans and the tearing of fingers as they scrabbled desperately at the walls. it’s an awful place and the point of the museum is that we never forget what humans did to fellow humans here. 

Production line of death
Two of the four incinerators used to burn the dead. The Germans almost had a ‘production line’ mentality to killing and disposal.

The final ignominy of course was being loaded one by one into what were called the ovens. They weren’t ovens though, they were incinerators, designed to burn many bodies as quickly as possible. 

I can’t imagine the mentality of the people who were tasked to work these infernal devices. 

 

Block 11

Through the spyhole
Below ground, these cells would be filled with people who were simply locked away to die of starvation.

Block 11 is just indescribably sad. It was the base of the Gestapo and the centre of their cruel operations. 

People would be brought to Block 11 for minor infractions of rules, or if they were thought to be plotting escape, or for a whole variety of reasons many of which might have been made up on the spot.

Some were locked in cells where they were simply left to starve to death. Some were placed in rooms that were so small they could not even sit down. Access was a small hatch at the bottom of the space. This must have been suffocating and claustrophobic for anyone and such a cruel and unusual way of causing misery and suffering.

A favourite punishment of the Gestapo was to tie the hands of a prisoner behind their backs, then suspend them by the wrists from poles in the ground. They were then simply left to die. 

Others were summarily shot at the ‘shooting wall’. 

It’s a very sobering experience coming to Auschwitz. I’ve read about it for years and seen stuff on the TV and watched movies but you can’t get the feel for the human cruelty and misery until you’re here. It’s a testament to human nature, a monument to the dead and an awful reminder that this could so easily happen again. 

Bleak sunshine at Auschwitz
The bright sunshine belies the bleak and dark history this death camp had for millions of souls

The site at Birkenau was opened when they found they could not cope with the sheer numbers at Auschwitz, so they opened a new camp to help kill more people. The camps are called Auschwitz 1 and 2 as Birkenau was opened as an annexe to Auschwitz, although they’re more popularly known as Auschwitz and Birkenau.

There’s a free bus every 10 minutes or so starting at about 10am from Auschwitz so I took that and spent an hour and a half at that camp. Here’s my feelings on Birkenau

As ever here’s a few more photos of my visit. 

Oh what a tangled web we weave…

Tree covered in websThe bard said that. That’s what you’re all thinking isn’t it? But…he didn’t. For once it wasn’t Shakespear it was in fact Sir Walter Scott who said it. Anyway, this post isn’t about bards or poets it’s about caterpillars! I spotted this bush covered in what I thought at first were spider webs. On looking closer I could see tiny caterpillars, about an inch long and they were very active.

There were thousands of the little critters and I could not help thinking some bird was going to have a scrumptious breakfast for the next month or so.

Caterpillar harvesting?

I don’t know what they grow into, if indeed they grow into anything. It struck me that these tiny little creatures could produce such an enormous amount of web to cover a whole tree and the web was strong enough to not only hold their weight, but also resist the moving of the branches in the wind so that it didn’t tear. 

That’s a purely organic process too as the caterpillars produced that web from their own bodies and they’re only tiny so can’t eat that much. It got me to thinking how come we can’t copy that organic process to make things for ourselves? Caterpillars can only eat other insects or plant material so all we have to do is figure out how they turn that into web and replicate the process. 

Here’s some more photos of the industrious little creatures. 

Vlaardingen, Netherlands

I left Keukenhof and randomly chose what some of us call aires, or stellplatz, or sostas. They’re dedicated parking areas for motorhomes all over the continent, Sometimes they have water and toilet emptying facilities, sometimes with electric, sometimes with absolutely nothing just a parking spot.

Some charge €2 and some charge up to €20, I never pay more than €5 because I mostly use them for water and emptying my toilet and I can fill my tanks pretty much anywhere, so a fiver is worth it to empty the toilet. Any more than that and I may as well pay for a full site.

The one I chose was only a few miles away and was a bare parking space in a town called Vlaardingen. It turned out to be a good choice as it’s a gorgeous little town with every amenity you could wish for. The parking spot was right next to the canal and there was some lovely boats on the water, many that people live in. It had a 48 hour limit on it which was fine and day 2 was 31 degrees!

Is this a giant! Or am I being Quixotic.

A windmill
The first windmill I’ve seen since I come to the Netherlands.

After work we went out for a good walk around and I spotted my very first windmill since coming to the Netherlands. I was a teeny bit excited and it was much bigger than I imagined them to be. It had been turned into a museum and was slap bang in the middle of a housing estate. 

One thing I’ve noticed about the Netherlands is that pretty much everywhere you go is clean. The Dutch clearly take pride in where they live and they look after their own homes and the areas around them. It’s very nice to see.

On my last night in Vlaardingen I heard a loud bang and looked outside to see a blazing car. The bang must have been one of the tyres exploding. It was very well ablaze and right next to another car and a building. 

Call the fire brigade!

I called the emergency services (113 in Europe) and was pleased to note they spoke English on request. They passed me through to the fire service who also spoke good English. A car on fire

Another tyre exploded before they arrived but it was dealt with within 2 minutes. Nice to see services in another country in action just to see how they compare. They were very swift and competent. 

Anyway that was the excitement over with and I’m leaving Vlaardingen tomorrow. It’s been a lovely visit but I’m moving off to Germany methinks.

This should be fun because there are many, many cities in Germany that disallow access to any vehicle below Euro 4. Mine’s Euro 3. I’m hoping there are plenty of Park and Rides around. 

Environmentally friendly

The Dutch fire service dealing with a burning carI am very much in support of controlling polluting vehicles but the simple act of banning them from cities and/or charging extra money to use them isn’t I think a great response. It’s a big swindle in fact if you ask me. 

Develop better engines and cleaner fuels if you want to move on.

Here’s a few photos from the town of Vlaardingen.

 

 

 

 

 

A1 clutches part 2a

It’s been preying on my mind about A1 clutches. They can’t simply waste an entire day by saying “Come and get your van and take it away we don’t want to work on it.” Besides that I’ve got a 2 year warranty and I don’t want to feel crap about going in if I need to. 

So I rang them and spoke to the owner Rick. I went through everything briefly with him and he was good about it, but sort of standing up for his staff, as you’d expect. We agreed that on return to the UK we’d meet up and talk about how to  move forward. 

Keukenhof…the disaster

Keukenhof gardens
Keukenhof gardens

Keukenhof Tulip Gardens, Lisse, Netherlands

Well after all this time of looking forward to Keukenhof tulip gardens, I get here to find I’ve made a horrible mistake. 

The car park was easy enough to find but it was of course locked at 1am. So I found somewhere random to park for the night and set about cleaning lenses, charging batteries, formatting memory cards etc. I was all ready!

6:30am UK time (I live on UK time when abroad due to work) I was at the gates and got straight in, the first person in the car park. I had to wait for the gates opening but the sun was out by the time they did and it was a gorgeous day. I picked up a free map of the gardens and set off wandering. 

Red tulips at Keukenhof gardens
Red tulips at Keukenhof gardens

At first all I could find was numerous flowerbeds with colourful flowers in. Lovely to look at but not the fields of tulips I’d come for. I can’t remember the exact moment that it dawned on me that when Keukenhof told me that yes, the tulips were still blooming, they actually meant the gardens, NOT the fields where they are all grown. 

I found a viewpoint and saw all of the fields where the millions of tulips are grown…empty. Harvested. Dead til next year. I was totally dismayed. 

Moving on…

White flowers at Keukenhof
White flowers at Keukenhof

You have to get over things quickly though. It was some fun just watching the mostly Asian tourists taking their selfies with great enthusiasm: hiding behind displays and popping up with a wild grin to get ‘that shot’, or standing by a display and pointing to it to ensure viewers see the huge flowers, or even posing as if to hug the whole bed of flowers. Total but simple enthusiasm and they were all at it and it was nice to watch. It matters not what you get pleasure from, only that you get pleasure. 

Later I was to be seen running madly over the wooden stepping stones that allow you to cross the shallow lake. I was trying to see how fast I could go and not put a foot wrong or end up n the lake. Maybe the tourists might have looked at me and wondered why I wasn’t simply posing by the flower beds. 

I call it a disaster but really it wasn’t, it was just a misunderstanding by me and it’s not the end of the world. There’s always next year and the gardens were pretty even though that’s not my thing. little setbacks happen constantly when you’re travelling, especially to new places that are unfamiliar and I’m used to it to some degree so I mostly put it down to experience and enjoy what I did get anyway. 

Here’s a few more pictures I shot in the short time I was in Keukenhof:

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Ahh I’ve so long wanted to come to Amsterdam. I remember when I was young enough to think it was the capital of Holland and that Holland was a country. Now I know better of course but the excitement still hasn’t left me. 

 Amsterdam City CampI stayed at what could be called a campsite, Amsterdam City Camp, but really it’s just a decent parking ground for campers. Secure, and you can see from the photo just how secure the gates are, with water and toilet emptying facilities and something I’ve never seen before: the ability to pay per 24 hours.

Most sites allow you to arrive anywhere from 12 pm onwards and expect you to depart before 11 am the next day. However that means on arrival day and departure day you lose a large part of that day, which kind of goes against the grain of a holiday. With this one you pay at the electronic terminal, and you are allowed to stay for 24 hours from that time. It’s a smooth and seamless process and your ticket allows you entry and exit through the pedestrian gate, and exit form the site when you leave.

Amsterdam City CampThis without doubt is the way forward for campsites. It’s much better value, it doesn’t take any profit from the owner and it maximises the time you can enjoy your holiday. I mostly enjoy my days sight seeing and travel in the evenings as I’m less likely to be doing anything at that time so for me that method of charging is perfect.

You can see from the second photo just how large this space is. And when you come out it is about 5-10 minutes walk to a free ferry that takes about 10-15 minutes to dock at the amazing central station of Amsterdam. Bicycle parking

The ubiquitous bicycles are very apparent everywhere you go. There’s literally thousands of them parked on the streets, in storage racks, in bays, and sometimes just left right by the side of the road. Considering some of these bikes sell for about €2000 I’m surprised people don’t take more care. 

There are about 6 rows of these dual story cycle parks on the wharf at Amsterdam central station. These cycle parking stations appeared in several locations, thousands of cycles all safely stored. Some had clearly not been moved for years.

David's hatThe 2014 movie The Fault in our Stars was about a couple named Hazel and Gus who are both cancer sufferers. A scene from the movie has them sitting on this exact bench in Amsterdam which has since become a shrine for lovers from all over the world. In the picture the young man is holding a leather hat, you can read about this if you follow the link David’s hat

The canals are as beautiful as they always appear on TV and in photos. I was lucky in that the day I went was a scorcher of a day so I think I saw it at it’s best. you can find more photos in the album but they are only small size for the blog. 

Help the Irish

Currently in a service area just south of Amsterdam having some lunch and got a knock on the door. A young boy asks if I can help his family then gets back in the car. I go out and the man driving says he is Irish and disabled and has just now been robbed of everything from his car. He is trying to get back home to Ireland and can I help him out in some way. He has no money to get home.

I checked the car which was indeed Irish registered but said he ought to contact the police and the embassy as he was the third Irishman to tell me that story in the last 2 days. That was a fib, but his response was epic as he glibly replied “I think someone must hate the Irish and I don’t know why we’re all great people. “

As I went to get back into my van he spotted the slightly dented door lock which from 10 feet away was a superhuman feat, and said “Oh looks like someone tried to steal your van?” In other words he was checking my locks out.

BEWARE of these kinds of scams!! A handful of kids in the back and a fake disabled badge should not elicit sympathy from these people. Have a reply ready that you’re comfortable with but don’t be tempted to be aggressive because it’s likely there are more of them around.

France here I come

Finished work, I can see the ferry from here, I will be on it at 10pm to sail to France. I can’t wait!

I get so excited like a big kid lol then I get to French passport control and I start to smile a lot. Then I reach British passport control and I start to laugh. Then we board and I start to calm down because I feel like I’m coming home. There is clearly something wrong with me cos I don’t hate the UK, quite the contrary. But there’s just something about roaming the continent and exploring new places. 

Hopefully this visit I’ll get to do Amsterdam finally, and Auschwitz. That’s my two main things. I’d love to go back to Neuschwanstein too but it’s OK if I don’t manage it. The way I’ve worked it out I’ve got until about the end of June before I need to return, and that means I can make another 2 month trip toward the end of the year. 

Happy days. 

PC World…worst store ever

Well there’s a leading title statement. However it’s true in my experience. And if you dislike rants stop reading now and go and watch Tele tubbies or something. 

The All-in-one Lenovo C20 computer bought from PCworld/CurrysI bought a computer from PC World / Currys back in mid February. It was always designed as a backup PC after the carry on I had in Venice a couple of years ago. It’s a Lenovo C20 which has a 19.5 inch screen, Pentium processor and only 4 gig of RAM despite running Windows 10. It was a relatively cheap machine at £350 but the thing I liked was that instead of the 6 amps that my monster machine uses, this one only uses about 3 amps. For the time I spend at work I don’t need the big one cos I am just in the work interface, so it will save me loads of power over time. 

The screen isn’t fantastic but the sound is very good and the machine is very light in weight, so all is well and I am chuffed to bits. Until that is the DVD stops working. 

Uh oh…

I’ve actually only used the DVD twice, to copy some DVD’s to the hard drive and now it’s stopped working. Windows doesn’t even recognise it at boot stage so something is terminal about the player. I’m going off to the continent soon so I take it back to PC World at Gateshead’s Team Valley who have a KnowHow desk, where all their tech types work. 

Except they don’t, because far from simply replacing the DVD it has to be sent off to someone who will do it. It won’t be back til Friday grr Never mind as long as I get it back on time that’s fine. Typical though…the backup fails lol

Anyway Friday comes and goes, so does Saturday, and I have an itinerary to keep so I rang them and said “I’m on my way to Cumbria, can the computer be rerouted?”

“Yes of course.” they say “It will arrive by Sunday at the latest.”

Excellent stuff so I set off to see my friend in Cumbria which I always do when I’m heading south. Sunday came and went and no PC. Monday came and went and no PC. I rang them and said “I have to be in Birmingham tomorrow because the van is booked into a garage. Can you re-route it a second time to the store I bought it from in Birmingham?”

“Yes of course.” they replied, “We’ll send you a text when it’s due to be delivered.”

No problem I thought. That’s what I get for thinking…

Know how…know nothing

So I get a text to say the computer has been delivered can I come and pick it up. I go there and it hasn’t been delivered at all. Many phone calls later it turns out it never did turn up at Cumbria, but was re-routed to Newark as that’s the main distribution centre. So someone ‘thought’ it should have been in Birmingham by now but it was probably en-route from Newark still. 

I go away and wait a while and get another text a couple of days later: come and pick your PC up. So I go again and again it isn’t there. Lots of telephone calls by staff and I was on my phone for a couple of hours and it turns out it was never at Newark, it had gone back to Durham distribution centre and was waiting to be delivered down top Birmingham. I was bemused. But apparently the texts are sent by a machine and the machine doesn’t know what’s going on. Or something. But then neither do the staff it seems because at this point neither the store, nor customer services, nor KnowHow know exactly where the computer is.

I was quite irritated and a manager had come down to help deal with it and he said to me “If you would stop jetting around the country and wait for it to catch up with you all this could be avoided.”

I was stunned and explained that I’d waited for it now 3 times and waited at least one day over the date I was given to pick it up in each place. so this could hardly be my fault. I asked then for a refund and he said he was not authorised to give one out, I had to contact customer services. I gave him a piece of my mind and stormed out angry that I was wasting so much time for the sake of a faulty DVD.

It turns out that he lied because refunds are always handled at store level I was told later by customer services.

Leave this store!

Never mind, KnowHow machine knows where it is because it texted me again 2 days later saying it was there, at the same store. So I returned and thankfully the manager wasn’t there (it turns out he wasn’t a manager anyway he was a deputy manager) and I spoke to another deputy manager who said the computer was not there. I started looking around for a video camera in case I was being pranked for Youtube. But no, he was serious.

One of the staff gets on the phone, he gets on the phone, I get on the phone. A half hour later no-one knows where the PC is. I say right, it’s time to re-route it yet again down to Folkstone, which is the nearest store to Dover, as I am catching a ferry in 2 days. 

“No it will be delivered tomorrow I am sure of it.” the deputy manager recites yet again. I am flustered with him and yet again show him all the texts I now have on my phone over the last 2 weeks saying that the computer had been delivered and was ready for pickup. 

“Why should this time be any different?” I asked. Also, I haven’t got time now anyway. I’m getting on a ferry in 2 days. We end up in a row and I call him an incompetent which he is because he refuses to call the store manager to authorise a refund and he is adamant that the delivery will be tomorrow when I’ve been told it will be delivered ‘tomorrow’ for over 2 weeks. He told me to leave the store hahha

I was so angry I faced him squarely and told him I’d leave when I was good and fucking ready to leave. My Ire was high, I was not in proper control, and I saw in his face that he had not a clue what to do so I left the store. 

Customer empowerment

I was so angry, at the fact it was only a damned DVD drive that failed, no-one knew what was going on, staff just weren’t helpful, and KnowHow is clearly atrociously badly organised. I decided to calm down and set off for Dover in the morning. I had no idea what my next step could be. As it happened I telephoned again later that evening and told the whole sorry tale for about the 5th time to another member of customer services who promised to call back. 

Indeed he did call back an hour later and said they had something called Customer Empowerment. It was a scheme devised to help out customers who had experienced service far below the level they should. So, I would be in Dover tomorrow, I could pop into the Folkestone store and pick up a brand new computer to take to the continent with me. It won’t be exactly the same machine as they don’t have any but it will be similar spec and similar money but even if it’s slightly more expensive they’ll let me have it. The manager there has been briefed so it should be a smooth transaction.

Oh and by the way we’re going to refund you £10 for your distress and the diesel you’ve spent driving around shops and the hours of calls you’ve made. I told them to stuff their paltry £10 right up as far as it will go because that’s just insulting, but I was pleased that finally we had a resolution. As if…

Folkestone

So, I pop into the Folkestone store and speak to the manager who knows absolutely nothing about it lol No surprise there really…

He telephones someone about it and gets the details because he said he’d only ever dealt with maybe 3 customer empowerments in his long career with PC World. Sure enough he does not have the Lenovo C20 in, but he does have a few other all-in-ones. The HP was mentioned as being a candidate when the customer service rep spoke to me yesterday. However I can’t have that one I was told as it’s £150 more than the one I’d had.

“What if I pay a little extra? Or maybe we go halfies on the difference?”

“No sorry, I can’t do that, we can’t give discount at store level, there’s so little markup on PC’s as it is.”

I looked at him a little stunned and said “What about customer empowerment???”

He simply stared at the desk and said all he could do was refund me the original purchase price and that despite customer empowerment the store retained authority to make their own decision about what to do. (The deputy manager of Birmingham WAS lying then!) He wasn’t going to budge on this, so I gave my card and got my money back. First thing in the morning I go away still without a backup computer, but not for the want of trying.

You might recall when I had trouble with PC World in Inverness, quite what possessed me to go back again I don’t know but  PC World and Currys are now anathema to me and I will not even look through their windows let alone buy from them.

A1 clutches part 2

Well what a tale I’ve got for you today!

I got to the garage and dropped the van off and me and Jack set off down that lovely canal again. Canals are fab places because there’s water which we’re all drawn to, straight walks away from traffic which most of us enjoy, and of course nature. Bizarrely as we walked a large heron decided to land on the opposite side to us and wait for fish. I know it was 15 feet away across the water but I never though for one minute they were bold enough to be that close to a dog. 

Grey heronJack was pretty stunned too, he simply stopped and stared at it for ages, maybe waiting for it to do something? Maybe wondering what it would taste like? He’s taken on a herring gull and a goose before so he’s not afraid of large birds, but it sat there nonchalant so we walked on.

I found the same cafe as last time and got a nice cuppa and sat outside with it in the sunshine. When the weather is nice it makes so much difference. We continued our walk and as I randomly walked streets I found my van parked in a garage! Not A1 clutches, a random MOT centre, tucked right away in the side. Just sitting there. I was shocked and wondered if it had been stolen?

I went in and asked about it and apparently the MOT centre is part of the same group as A1 clutches and they had taken the van over their to work on it as it had a free bay. Grr I wish garages would tell you when they do this. This was about 11:30 am and I’d dropped the van off at 8 am so I asked if it had been looked at yet and the guy said he thought so. 

Anyway I carried on and 15 minutes later received a phone call from Jaz who was the manager. He said they could not hear the clunking from the front wheel that I had mentioned, so could I come down and show them. I said if you can’t hear it driving then simply test the ball joint as I am convinced that’s what’s at fault. They said that’s not their way to test the ball joint with a lever. I was surprised as that’s how all garages test them because they’re simulating the joint being under load. But anyway he referred to the gas leak I’d mentioned and said the EGR valve was leaking. I replied it was a brand new EGR valve and I’d just had a new EGR tube fitted to the manifold too, but you can see that it’s not the EGR valve leaking, as the soot marks point upwards from below the EGR valve. When you rev the engine you can even see the soot blowing up from down the back of the engine. 

So I moved it on and asked if the rear box of the exhaust had been done. he explained not but that it would be better if I attended and as the guys were going on lunch from 1 pm til 2 pm, 2 pm would be a good time.  I pointed out that I’d dropped the van off at 8 am, so that would be 6 hours they’d had it by that time and nothing achieved, and I needed it back at 3 pm anyway for work.

At this point Jaz said “Mr Finnigan I resent you saying that we have done nothing to your van all day. Come and get your van. Pick it up and take it away we don’t want to work on it. You can get the work done elsewhere.” I was stunned! I was so stunned I simply said OK and hung up.

The truth is they had done nothing all day. They might have driven it forwards and backwards in what they apparently call a pendulum to recreate the noise I was hearing, but they’d not done the simple, definitive test that every single garage in the UK does, which is apply pressure to the ball joint to test for movement that indicates wear.
They may have decided that the gas leak was from the EGR valve, but if they had looked at the valve and revved the engine they would have instantly seen the soot that spurts up from below the valve, probably from a faulty manifold gasket, or a hole in the exhaust or something.

They may have done something, but it wasn’t much and it wasn’t right either. I did as asked and simply went and got the van and drove it away. An entire day completely wasted. I was too angry to say anything so I left it til another day.

New clutch – yet again.

Yes clutches, we’re back to that old chestnut. I need a new clutch yet again.

There’s a ‘fluttering’ noise coming from the clutch when I am in neutral and stationary. It’s not every time and when I depress the clutch the noise goes away. So I asked in one of the forums I’m in for recommendations and A1 Clutches came up. I called them on the phone and they seemed fine so I booked in for a visit. 

We found Nemo.When I got there it turns out they have a tropical fish tank in reception. I know from Swingbridge autos who also have one that Jack is fascinated by fish tanks. Perhaps he just wants to eat them? Yeah I think that’s it…he just wants to eat them. He wants to eat everything. Including vomit. I think I may do a post one day about nothing other than the things Jack eats.

Anyway, here’s Jack Finding Nemo. or more accurately, trying to eat Nemo. Please,if you have kids don’t let them read! (Disclaimer: no Nemo’s were hurt in the Jack and Nemomaking of this post, I didn’t let Jack eat the fish.

A1 clutches are right next to a canal so I left the van and Jack and I had a lovely day walking along the canal. The sun was shining and there was a little breeze and we hadn’t had proper exercise for a few days so it was nice to look forward to a good walk. I even remembered my sun block!

 

A1 rang me and said the clutch was done but the clutch fork was very worn so they needed to replace that. The total cost would be about £450 so I said go ahead thinking that might explain why new clutches don’t seem to make much difference.

The job was done fairly quickly and I had the van back at about 1 pm. Interestingly they had added some advisories which I thought was a nice touch. They noted the gear selector was worn, (don’t even start me off about rip off Keldine Autos, or Ford Parts as he calls himself!) the handbrake was slightly high which I knew about and that’s something I’d fix myself later. 

Slight engine and gearbox leaks and the gearbox oil was low so they topped that up, well, both leaks go back to shoddy work done by Premier engines when the engine was rebuilt and the gearbox when that was rebuilt by Ford parts/Keldine autos. 

They also noted the exhaust was blowing and the rear box needed replacing again I was aware of that so that’s the next job. Crikey, it’s never ending! As I left I noted that the clutch juddered slightly as I let it out, and the bite was quite ferocious. Cross fingers it’s just cos it’s new and I have to get used to it. I’ve booked it in for same time next week to have that exhaust looked at and a couple of other things.