After leaving Norway, we had only a few weeks before we needed to be back in France. Due to our particular visa situation, we can spend unlimited time in France but only 90 days in any 180-day period in the rest of the Schengen Zone.
As we drove through Sweden, we immediately fell in love with the forests and lakes – like Norway, it is a wild camping paradise. At our first lunch stop, we plunged from a dock into a sun-warmed lake, enjoying a peaceful end to the summer. We also camped at beautiful Lake Fegen, a site we bookmarked from a photo by Frenchy Le Van when we were only dreaming of visiting Scandinavia. During a few days of rainy weather, we visited Ikea to pick up some cosy new furnishing for the motorhome (during our travels we had read about hygge) and ate some Swedish meatballs and veggie meatballs with delicious lingonberry jam and gravy. As we mentioned in our last blog, Amelia had also been looking forward to eating Swedish banana pizza. We found a highly-rated pizza takeaway and ordered a banana pizza (it also had chicken, peanuts, and curry powder) and a kabab pizza (cooked and then topped with a pile of french fries). The banana pizza was surprisingly good – though Amelia gave it 3 out 10 stars because it “tasted like bananas”. She loved the “french fry pizza” and rated it 10 out of 10! Amelia’s highlight however was Sweden’s unbelievable playgrounds: we wish every country with the resources would follow Sweden’s example. For Gary, we stopped at Öckerö, an island port which he sailed from 24 years ago in the Tall Ships Races. The ship he sailed, Hawila, had been sold but we soon tracked her down near Copenhagen. We decided to continue on to Denmark and promised Amelia more playgrounds.
When we reached Denmark, we able to tour Hawila and learn about the plans for her future. Then we visited Copenhagen and enjoyed the Reffen street food market and its fantastic array of international foods – especially a taste of home with some sweet fried plantains! With some advice from our friend Jane and her sister, we made a circle of Zeeland and some of the surrounding islands, enjoying the quaint thatched cottages and the beautiful late summer light, spotting wild ponies in Dovns Klint, and taking as many opportunities as possible to eat fish with remoulade sauce. We also tried Smørrebrød (Danish open-faced sandwiches) – picking some up for a picnic at a park that Amelia didn’t want to leave. We soon learned that despite being what we would consider “sandwiches” they are not finger food! Nonetheless they were delicious. Denmark also has great playgrounds, though some seem to be aimed at slightly younger children than the playgrounds we visited in Sweden. Amelia’s favourite playground activity was navigating the model traffic circles and roads in Copenhagen parks – important for teaching children traffic rules in a country where they cycle from a young age. She also loved the fabulous playground in Kolding which had a full track with moon cars, free paddle boats, and many play structures. On a playground next to one of our campsites, Amelia heard another child speaking English and Spanish and immediately ran over to meet her. We started chatting to the family and they invited us to visit them. We spent a couple of fun days together – eating delicious Spanish food cooked by Elvira, trying the town children’s sport of crab racing, and marvelling at Kjeld’s Lego collection – before it was time for us to move on.
By that time, our time in the Schengen Zone was nearly done so we headed back through Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium with very few stops – just a few playgrounds, some shopping for international foods in Germany, and one last stop for Belgian ‘frites’.
Our goal was reach Norway without being caught by any border closures or lockdowns (four lockdowns is enough for now) so we rushed north from France. Along the way, we had just a taste of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark.
While we love France, it was exciting to cross the border from France to Belgium and feel that we were on the move at last. We settled in a small paid parking lot by a canal (goodbye to abundant free aires and France Passion sites) and immediately discovered a large park and playground, equipped with water pumps and channels for kids to play with. For dinner, we stopped at a frituur for Belgian beers and piles of frites with ketchup and mayo. The next morning, we went to a bakery and tried a new pastry – it was a hardy dough wrapped around a spiced whole apple – a new favourite. We prefer to drive just 1.5 hours per day (with some days of no driving) but to make our way north we had some longer days. We enjoyed refuelling with delicious Belgian chocolate on long drives.
We visited two interesting cycling attractions in Belgium – Cycling through Water in Bokrijk and Cycle through the Trees in Bosland. The first is a path through a lake that puts cyclists at eye-level with the water; the second is a circling ramp raising up through the treetops. Gary crashed off his bike but fortunately his helmet absorbed the shock of his fall, and aside from a few scrapes and bruises he was OK to keep going.
Next stop, Ghent; thank you to friends for the recommendation. We stayed in a campsite near a lake; Amelia managed many hours of playground time with a new friend (an English speaking seven-year-old with a birthday the day after hers) plus a morning swim (polar plunge style! – she is still our Caribbean baby). Despite cold rain which chased us home early, we enjoyed the historic centre of the city, with its twin cathedrals and bell tower, and a €10 strawberry and cream waffle from a street stand that didn’t have prices on the menu! But Amelia’s bucket list was complete with “waffles and fries” (from a song she learned at school in Cayman).
We then crossed the border into the Netherlands. We had asked where it was possible to see windmills and were told “everywhere”, which was definitely true – old fashioned wooden windmills and modern wind turbines dotted the landscape. We also cycled along the impressive Oosterscheldekering storm surge barrier and spent the night parked the Hoek van Holland (right along the Rotterdam harbour canal with enormous ships passing just outside the window). Guess what – another playground, this time with a zipline – and we counted almost 40 swans in the river! We also made a quick stop at De Maeslantkering and had a tour of the site. Our final night was spent in a grassy field by a canal. Amazing to see so much land that would be underwater (the lowest point in the Netherlands is seven metres below sea level!) if not for incredible feats of engineering and lots of drainage ditches. It felt a bit dystopian considering climate change – and just after we left, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany were hit by tragic floods.
It was raining when we entered Germany. We stopped at a Lidl for groceries and to stock up on pantry items for Norway, where we had heard that groceries would be more expensive. Wanting a hardy hot meal, we cooked Spaetzle and sausage back at the motorhome. We planned to get a new sim card (which would work in Germany and Scandinavia) but could not get it working; this reminded us of all the problems we had when we arrived in France. We decided to increase the (international) data limit on our French sim card but will be somewhat limited on data.
The next day, the weather cleared and we passed many fruit stands; we loaded up on strawberries and cherries. That night, we stopped on a canal near Hamburg. The area had been recommended by our friends John and Kellie; the exact site where they had stayed was full, but we found another one close by with a large playground on one side and a collection of food trucks/stands on the other. We bought a sausage and fries and potato pancakes to share, along with salad (made by Amelia) and fruit from the motorhome, and ate on the sea wall while watching the passing ships.
For each border crossing, we prepared a stack of passports and documents but we were not stopped until we reached Denmark. After a few checks and questions, we were waved across.
Finally, it felt like we had reached the north; we enjoyed the golden afternoon light and pretty fields dotted with flowers. We stayed in a motorhome site with horses and an extremely friendly cat that Amelia nicknamed Mr. Cuddles.
The next day we cycled to Legoland – the busiest place we have been in the past 1.5 years but a lifelong dream for the Redferns 😊 And it was all very well organized and not crowded. We enjoyed the miniature cities and water rides (as there were only very short lines, Amelia was able to ride her favourites as many times as she wanted). She also went on her first roller coaster ride (and then did it 2 more times). And she met some lovely princesses who chatted with us about our travels.
The next morning, we stopped at a bakery for bread, and on impulse Gary picked up a couple of custard pastries. He mentioned something about “Danish Pastries”, which Janice said she had never heard of – then “Wait, these are Danishes?” (they certainly seemed to be). We have not yet learned if they are more Danish than, for example, “French Toast” is French.
We anxiously checked the news many times on our trip north; we wanted to balance having reasonable driving days and seeing a little bit of the countries we were travelling through with the risk of possibly missing out on Norway if restrictions changed. On Saturday, it was announced that France was set to go on Norway’s red list on Monday – one day after our scheduled ferry departure. While we are vaccinated and could still enter from a red country, it appeared that Amelia would have to quarantine and we weren’t sure of the rules for her entry.
For our final night in Denmark, we drove to Hirtshals, which felt like the end of the world. We were glad to stop and have a cosy cup of tea (and a strawberry smoothie for Amelia) in the motorhome without going outside. Sand was blowing so hard in the wind that we couldn’t approach the beach, but in the evening, we walked down to the harbour and ate delicious fish and chips and fish cakes. The next morning, we woke up at 5am because it was already so bright. The motorhome was rocking so much in the wind that Janice felt a bit ‘seasick’. We were worried our ferry being cancelled but as it got later, we saw people going to the beach in bathrobes (to swim?) and walking small dogs, so we realised that the wind must be nothing out of the ordinary.
We were extremely nervous about missing the ferry to Norway on the last day that we might be allowed to enter, but everything went smoothly (except for the rocking of the boat; there were many seasick passengers). Janice immediately stopped feeling motion sick when we were actually on the water; Gary and Amelia felt a bit queasy so spent the crossing on deck while Janice caught up on some internet time – researching Norway, which we had not been able to do previously. Thanks to some very comprehensive motorhome blogs we quickly picked up some important tips (e.g., duty on alcohol, priority right driving, no potatoes!) and some ideas for our itinerary.
And then – we arrived in Norway. Amelia had a covid antigen test at the ferry port (which she said was much better than the long swab for a PCR test) and we were on our way.
So, waffles and fries, chocolate, dikes, windmills, sausages, shipping, greenhouses, LegoLand, fried fish – just a flying glimpse so we will have to go back one day.