Down but not out in Germany

Wednesday 6th June 2007, Gera, Germany
We are back in the euro zone again and somewhere where we can at last understand all the signs and what people are saying to us!

Before leaving Karlovy Vary we went to the supermarket in a shopping complex that rivals the best that France or Germany can offer, where we spent the remainder of our Czech money restocking the fridge and buying baguettes for lunch. Having calculated our shopping to the exact amount we had in our purse we headed for the border with Germany driving through the wooded hills along empty, broken roads. As we reached the border we found ourselves in the middle of an oriental bazaar. The streets of the little Czech village of Potucky were packed with stalls selling clothes, beer and cigarettes to hundreds of Germans who had walked across the border from the town of Johanngeorgenstadt for the express purpose of buying up cheap goods. All the notices and street signs were in Czech and Vietnamese and there were queues of pedestrians waiting to cross the border in either direction. When we arrived however we were told we could not cross with a vehicle and would have to drive 30 kilometres further on, cross into Germany and return along the German side of the border to reach the same road we were travelling on the other side! Czech mate!! You cannot argue with the customs officials. All they needed to do was to glance at our passports and take the chain away from across the road. Traffic was streaming happily along the far side and in thirty seconds we could be continuing our route, but it was not to be. Why couldn't it have been indicated on the map that cars couldn't cross? Aren't we all part of Europe now? What about open borders? We turned around and made our way back into the village where the tourist information office confirmed that we couldn't cross but directed us to another crossing point only 15, rather than 30, kilometres away. There was compensation in that although the roads were rough and pitted, the countryside was deserted and similar to Dartmoor as we drove through hills covered with pine forests beside a mountain stream tumbling over boulders. We stopped for a picnic lunch in a peaceful, grassy meadow and eventually reached the crossing point into Germany where the guards were more than a little surprised to see an English camper van emerging from the deserted woodland along the border.

The non-crossing point at Potucky

Meadow flowers near Potucky

Once into Germany the roads and the road signs improved. Everywhere seemed so clean, neat and tidy after weeks in Eastern Europe and although we are now in the area that used to be East Germany, it has improved beyond measure since reunification. The smell from the intensive farming sheds on the outskirts of some of the Czech villages had been very unpleasant and it was good to see animals in the fields again and to see farming on a more human scale rather than fields of wheat stretching to infinity.

We made our way to the town of Zwickau where we visited the motor museum. Our main interest was to see where the East German Trabant had been produced but it turned out to be an excellent museum on the history of the German car industry with some beautifully preserved early Horch limousines from the 1920s as well as cars used by the German military, state vehicles and early vans and lorries. The star of the exhibition was however the Trabie. One of the guides started talking to Ian and asked if he had lived in East Germany! She said she used to work on the production line in the factory producing the Trabant. This funny vehicle symbolises so much that was wrong about the DDR. Today it appears quaint and functional. It had a two stroke engine, useless suspension, was cramped and uncomfortable and was the regulation "one size fits all" vehicle the state said people could own. They had to wait up to twenty years after placing their order before they could actually buy their car. (Our own friends were on the list for over eleven years!) Many ordered one and then sold their place to someone willing to pay to queue-jump. The basic model didn't really change greatly over the thirty years of its production, which only ceased after reunification when the factory was taken over by Volkswagen. It was rather nostalgic looking around the museum and there were several prototypes that were never mass produced. Trabants are rarely seen in Germany now but we saw hundreds of them on the roads of Hungary where they are nurtured with respect.

They actually had a lot to recommend them and the fact that there are still so many running today proves they had staying power. The bodywork was produced from home grown flax impregnated with a phenol resin compound and compressed between sheets of foil under enormous pressure to produce a preformed resilient shell that unlike metal, would never rust. It also meant there was no need to import expensive raw materials.

We were eventually thrown out when the museum closed for the day but left with our very own miniature Trabant in a little box as a souvenir.

We are making our way towards Weimar to spend a few days with our friend Hubert. We plan to arrive on Friday so tonight we are camping in the countryside outside of the town of Gera which we will visit tomorrow.

Friday 8th June 2007, Weimar, Germany
We are not writing much about the town of Weimar here as we wrote in some detail last time. Our account can be seen here.
We are now safe with Hubert and recovering from the most worrying and stressful day yesterday that we have so far encountered on our travels. We were far too exhausted and preoccupied to even remember about the blog last night. Briefly, our debit card was cloned in a cash machine somewhere in Europe recently, possibly Bratislava, and our account has been hacked into with varying amounts stolen over the past few days from cash machines in and around Rome – rather a long way from where we have been travelling. We only discovered this yesterday afternoon when we logged on to electronic banking in the town of Gera for the first time since 29th May. We have lost over £2,000 in total. Having just arrived in Germany we then had to find out how to buy a phone card and then a phone that would take it. We asked for help in one of the banks but they simply told us they couldn't link to an international line and we'd need to use a call box or our mobile – which we'd left back at the campsite in Modestine. The so called free-phone number cost us almost ten euros because we were calling from abroad and we were terrified it would run out before the music on the helpline, where we were in a queue, finished playing. Ian speaks good German. How would we have coped had we discovered the theft in the Czech Republic? Once our cards were cancelled we were left with very little money as we had not yet had time to get out any euros since we arrived in Germany. We've cashed our emergency traveller's cheques and today have ascertained that our standing orders will still be paid which is fortunate as our car insurance payment is due this week and we'd feared being stranded here unable to drive.

Last night on the campsite we had to prepare a letter to the fraud investigation team and the Visa dispute team to try to get our stolen money replaced. Today we had to search for somewhere to get it printed and then failed to find anywhere in Weimar with a fax machine that worked. Every second of our waking day has been frustrating and we still have only our £200 emergency money to last us indefinitely. As we have no fixed address our current headache is how to get hold of the replacement cards. The bank tells us it cannot send them to us here in Germany at our friend's home and has sent them to our home address despite us saying we would not be there for weeks! We have a credit card which we have never used so will have to discover if and how it works. For those of you who have envied us what we are doing, this shows that there can be horrors as well as delights. The important thing though is that we are both fine and so is Modestine. We are so lucky to have friends scattered around Europe and to be near enough to one of them to get here without needing to buy diesel as this morning we didn't have enough money with us to do so!

Even before we looked at our bank account yesterday the day was being difficult. We used the washing machine on the campsite and were told off for using it after 10am as they wanted to clean the toilets. They told Jill to come back at noon and Jill summoned up enough German to tell them she had no intention of hanging around for two hours and if they didn't like it they shouldn't keep the washing machine in the ladies loo. Next we were told we couldn't buy bus tickets into Gera from the campsite which lies by a lake about 10 KM to the north of the town. On the bus we didn't have the right coins for the vending machine. None of the passengers could change a bank note. Eventually an elderly lady with initiative sold us a couple of her own spare tickets. And so the day continued. Everything we undertook posed a problem and, with the exception of the bus lady, people were not very helpful. We felt very lost and wretched.

During the morning, before things went completely pear-shaped, we visited the caves that had been dug out deep under the hill within the town. This was the best place to be in the great heat we are again experiencing. They were dug to create caves for storing Gera beer which used to be made here. It kept the beer at a cool temperature and for an hour it did the same for us before we came out into the stifling heat again.

Caves beneath the town of Gera

Unfortunately we don't have a clear impression of Gera as we ended up too worried to notice much about the town. It did have an awful lot of exposed, open space without shade on such a hot day, the result of being very badly bombed during WW2. The town square with its market is reputed to be the most beautiful in Thuringia but personally we think Weimar's is far nicer.

Fountain with Samson and the lion, town square, Gera

Entrance to the Town Hall, Gera

This morning we reached Weimar by lunch-time but before bothering Hubert with our worries we went to the Anna Amalia library to check for messages from our bank. We have a library membership card from our last visit but our internet password wouldn't work. The staff told us we'd need to reregister and it would cost us nine euros for a year's membership. Our finances were so dire we dare not spend it and were obliged to walk across the town in the midday heat to find somewhere less expensive. (We were later charged twelve euros commission to cash our traveller's cheques but there was no choice but to pay.)

When we eventually reached Hubert's home we were welcomed with a cold beer. The temperature in the sun on his balcony at 5.30 this afternoon was off the top of the thermometer which goes up to 50 degrees so we were all melting! It was good to see him again and we were made so welcome. Shortly after, his friend Antje joined us from Apolda where she lives. It was a happy reunion over a supper of salad with assorted cheeses and cold meats with white wine. Together we then drove to Hubert's garden allotment to water the wilting seedlings and to watch the sunset over the hillside beside the memorial at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Sunset from Hubert's garden house

Hubert, Ian and Antje in the sunset

Sunday 10th June 2007, Weimar, Germany
We have now ascertained two very important things. Our bank account is no longer blocked so standing orders can be paid and our salary has been paid in –though it is immediately being withdrawn by a thieving Italian who has again removed over £300 from the account since we notified our bank! It must have been already taken but not processed. The second thing is that, having dusted the cobwebs from our credit card, it works and we can get money even if it will be an expensive way of living. So we are not destitute and can move on, leaving Hubert in peace as he shelters in his darkened flat from the unbelievable heat here.

Yesterday we met Hubert after he had finished giving a guided tour of the town - something that since he retired as Weimar's chronicler he does on special request. We then went by train to join Antje in Apolda where she has her flat. The weather was draining and the sunlight unremitting but we braved it all to take a look at a curious salt water spa where enthusiastic Germans dressed up in white robes and stood sniffing piles of twigs through which naturally salty spring water filtered. It's amazing the cranky things they think up here to improve their health but, being charitable, it probably makes them feel good just as a walk along the sea front might do, were it not hundreds of miles away.

In a small village that slept in the afternoon heat we parked in the little shade we could find and foolishly walked a couple of kilometres through meadowland and vines to a Weinstube beside the river Saale. Hot and sticky, we sank into chairs on the terrace overlooking the river, shrinking against the wall for protection from the furnace of sunlight. The next couple of hours were a delight as we shared a bottle of chilled white wine produced from the surrounding vines, along with a couple of bottles of cold spring water. Canoes and rafts with musicians passed us on the river and we all exchanged cheerful waves and greetings. By the time we had struggled back to the car it was a little cooler and we returned to Antje's flat for ice cream, cold showers and beers on the balcony followed by mozzarella salad and pasta. We finished off with strawberries and champagne. (So you see for destitute Eurotramps of no fixed abode we are living rather well!) Hubert gradually developed a splitting headache and staggered off to sleep while we walked back through the deserted town to catch the last train back to Weimar for more cold showers. We have really appreciated the luxury of living under a cool roof these last two days and are hoping the weather will cool before we move on tomorrow.

At the Weinstube, 1

At the Weinstube, 2

A passing raft on the river Saale

This morning Hubert rang from Apolda to cancel our planned meeting this afternoon. Instead we will meet for supper at a restaurant at Tiefurt, by which time he will hopefully be feeling better.

This morning we made our way from patch to patch of shade down to the beautiful cemetery where our friends Sigrid and her mother are buried. Since our last visit they have been joined by Hubert's elderly mother who died in her nineties a few months ago. Their shared headstone beneath the yew trees was a small haven of cool peace with blackbirds singing and hopping in the surrounding undergrowth.

Nearby we passed the Russian Orthodox church with its gold onion dome just behind the tomb housing the bodies of Weimar's literary giants Goethe and Schiller. The nearby Park beside the river Ilm offered us a beautiful and shady walk which took us up to the Anna Amalia library which went up in flames while we were here in 2004. It is amazing how they are restoring it. Already the outside looks perfect, the salvaged books have been returned and many of those damaged by fire and water have also been repaired and returned. How sufficient money has been raised in so short a time we do not know but it is indicative of how important the library is to Germany and to Weimar in particular.

In 1964 Ian was photographed on this spot on a University Summer School

The Anna Amalia Library risen from the ashes

In the market square we sat on a bench with the crowds of tourists to eat a Thuringian sausage with mustard in a roll. They are the epitome of Weimar and Thuringia for us and we look forward to one on every visit. Before returning to the flat to shelter from the afternoon heat of 42 degrees we explore the Ost shop filled with nostalgic memories of the bad old days of the GDR where you now pay capitalist prices for mugs and tea towels with Communist slogans.

This evening we spent a very happy evening with Hubert and Antje at Tiefurt, first taking a walk in the sunset beside the river Ilm as it wound its way through the beautiful parkland that surrounds the little palace where the Duchess Anna Amalia lived and kept one of her literary salons during the 18th century. Goethe, Wieland, Schiller and Herder were regular participants at her Tiefurt soirées.

Hubert and Antje in the park at Tiefurt

The recently restored palace at Tiefurt

After supper at the outdoor restaurant in the evening, where the raking rays of the sun were still too hot and brilliant for comfort, Antje dropped us back at Hubert's flat while they went on to Apolda. It was our final goodbye for this visit. Tomorrow morning we will leave Weimar behind, feeling as always, so much regret to be leaving and frustration at the number of things we still wish to do and see before moving on. It is always hard to leave friends and Hubert has been Ian's good friend now for over forty years.