Last month I enjoyed my first visit to Cirencester’s twin town – Itzehoe, in Schleswig-Holstein, Northern Germany – in almost four years.
The last time I was in Itzehoe was in 2018 when I stopped there for night on the way to Norway. Prior to that in May 2018 I drove to Itzehoe for the town’s Weinfest, then drove back via Wernigerode (Sachsen-Anhalt), Erfurt (Thüringen) and Cochem (Rheinland-Pfalz). 2019 was taken up by driving to Greece so I didn’t get to Northern Germany….and then the pandemic struck!
Taking 3 days off work and driving all the way there meant it was only a flying visit, but enough to catch up with people I’ve not seen in years.
Overnight In Calais
Calais itself is not actually a bad place – It’s just round the port where it’s all high fences and tight security where it seems quite grim. But the town these days is pleasant enough. I stayed overnight in the Premiere Classe Hotel, opposite the railway station right in the centre of Calais.
Arriving at 2am reception was shut, but a machine outside allowed me to type in my booking reference and get my key card to get in to my room. The hotel room was basic (it’s a budget hotel) but for somewhere to crash overnight I was quite happy.
A buffet breakfast was available in the breakfast room – croissants, cerial, a yoghurt, some bread and jam, ham and cheese. Eventually I also got a hot chocolate – after my first two attempts to use their automatic drinks machine resulted in just hot water. Well the menu was all in French! My French doesn’t really go beyond “Bonjour” and “Danke” (yes, I did say Danke instead of Merci a few times – I think they’re used to people getting mixed up with their languages).
It was a lovely sunny morning and the hotel was right next to the canals of Calais which lead straight down to the beach. I’ve always loved the way the beach looks from the ferries, so I took a walk down along the canal to the beach – then back through the town centre. It was a nice walk, the only downside was it meant I didn’t get in the car until a lot later than I should have done.
The Drive to Itzehoe: Approx. 11 Hours
It was mid morning by the time I set off from Calais for the long journey ahead. At almost 500 miles, the drive from Calais to Itzehoe is about the limit of what I’m capable of driving in one day – although in my current car a 500 mile drive is much more pleasant than the equivilant journey in my old car which wasn’t really designed for long distance driving.
There are several routes you can use to access the Northern part of Germany when driving from France/Belgium. There’s a Northern route which crosses the border at Enschede. There’s a Southern route which goes past Brussels and Liege to cross the border near Aachen (avoiding the Netherlands). I took the middle route which goes across the Southern part of the Netherlands, passing close to Eindhoven and crossing the border at Venlo. The downside of the “middle” and “Southern” routes is that you have to go through the Ruhrgebiet.
The Ruhrgebiet is the busy, densely populated Rhein-Ruhr Industrial Region. The cities of Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Köln (Cologne) and Bonn put together form Germany’s largest metropolitan region. Negotiating the Ruhrgebiet is something I always find challenging. Unfortunately for me, having set off from Calais at 11, I hit the Ruhrgebiet at rush hour. For British readers – That is a bit like being on the M25 at rush hour: I was driving through the Ruhrgebiet at completely the wrong time of day.
I actually came off the Autobahn and drove cross-country through the Ruhrgebiet. I went up through Wesel. I came off the A40 and didn’t get on the Autobahn again until the A1. In total it must have taken the best part of 3 hours to negotiate the area.
Once on the A1 it was basically a case of follow the motorway until Hamburg. In places traffic was heavy but for the most part it was clear, and when conditions allowed I generally drove at 140 (km/h). Once past Bremen traffic was light enough that I was able to get my foot down properly – Indicated speed of 180 (which in mph is almost 112). It made the Bremen – Hamburg stretch of Autobahn very fast and very quick!
Traffic slowed as I passed Hamburg: The notorious Elbtunnel where the roadworks they were doing 4 years ago still have not been completed! There was a bit of traffic on the approaches to the tunnel but the tunnel itself was clear and once past the tunnel, I quickly turned off on to the A23 for the final push to my destination.
At 22:30 I arrived in Itzehoe. In all the years of driving to Germany, this was actually one of the first times I’ve driven in Germany at night (with the majority of my travel being in the Summer, by the time it gets dark I’m home and dry at my destination) – and certainly the first time experiencing the Autobahn during the hours of darkness (it is a lot faster at night than it is during the day!) I’ve driven in France, Belgium and Greece at night plenty of times before….just not in Germany.
Brünsbuttel & Open Air Museum
During the 2 full days I had in Itzehoe I went on 2 separate excursions. The first, to Brunsbüttel, the town on the Western entrance of the Kiel Canal (Nord-Ostsee-Kanal) which links the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, meaning ships don’t have to travel around the tip of Denmark.
It was great fun to watch large container ships up close and personal. I was amused at the sight of a ship displaying the Luxembourg merchant flag. Luxembourg is a landlocked country (although it does have the Mosel river)….It has no navy (even landlocked Switzerland has a navy, patrolling the Rhine), yet it is the registered country of large container ships! The biggest ship I saw was the Astrosprinter, registered in Cyprus.
On Friday we went to Molfsee, near the state capital Kiel. In Molfsee there is an open air museum (Freilichtmuseum Molfsee); There is an exhibition all about life in Schleswig-Holstein. The exhibition is a new addition to the museum, entitled JAHR 100 in Schleswig-Holstein. Country. People. Life. In a display about Covid, the every day mask of Daniel Günther, Minister-President of Schleswig-Holstein is on display along with hand sanitiser, in a display all about Covid! There is a room all about the cold war, and the division of Germany (SH bordering the Eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern).
Outside there is a 40 hectare area with more than 60 buildings – farmhouses, cottages, barns, an apothecary, a dairy….showcasing life in SH from the 16th-20th century. I was particularly interested in the houses from Angeln: The region of Germany where the name of England comes from. After the Romans left, the Angles, from Angeln, came to England. Just remember that when you hear people complaining about immigration! The English are actually German.
We probably only saw about 70% of the buildings there – The site was massive and I enjoyed going inside all the old houses. The dairy was very interesting too!
Silbersee and Gladbeck
On Saturday it was time to leave. As much as I would have liked to have stayed longer, my trip had come to an end. I managed to drive all the way back home to Gloucestershire without Sat Nav! From Itzehoe I took the A23 towards Hamburg, joined the A7, drove through the Elbtunnel, and then followed signs for Hannover. I did an overnight trip to Hannover a few years ago – lovely city in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony).
Just outside Hannover, in the Langenhagen district near the Airport, is the Silbersee lake which I saw on the map when I was looking for places to stop (beyond motorway services). It was a good place to have lunch and a short walk.
Then it was back in to the car to push on back towards Calais. My next stopping point was at Gladbeck, near the cities of Essen and Gelsenkirchen. There’s a castle on a lake there (Schloss Writtingen) which was a lovely place for a walk, and something to eat as the Sun started setting.
After leaving Gladbeck I pushed on to the Dutch border, entering the Netherlands at about 9. I decided to stop overnight at a hotel near the Dutch town of Bladel, not far from the Belgian border.
Gent and De Panne
On Sunday I continued my drive home. I was up early, not wanting to repeat the incident last year where I missed the ferry and had to pay again!
By Breakfast time I had reached the city of Gent (Ghent) – I’ve driven past the city on the motorway multiple times, driven round it to access the Zeeland region of the Netherlands before as well, but have never visited it. On this bright Sunny Sunday morning, it made sense to stop there for breakfast. Ghent, like Bruges, has canals and bridges, making it a nice place for a morning walk.
From Ghent I was on the home straight: Just follow the motorway all the way to Calais – But I did have time for one last stop. The town of De Panne is the last town on the Belgian coast before the French border, and when I am heading to or from Calais is usually my first stop before or after the ferry. I love the Belgian coast and De Panne is a favourite of mine – particularly when the Sun is shining and locals and tourists are all at the beach.
Then it was time to get the ferry. A smooth crossing in the calmest English Channel I’ve ever seen, we got in to Dover at 5pm, and I got home at 8:45pm.
Next holiday for me will be to Greece, at the end of June.