iiiiiAugust ii September ii October ii November

October 7 - Aachen, Germany

It has become difficult to locate computers in the small towns and villages that I have been passing through as of late. I am, therefore, way behind on my entries and communiqués.

I am presently in Aachen, Germany, and have covered much ground since I last left details of my whereabouts with Van - who has kept you all posted.

As per my basic plan, I spent the month of September in Britain, working my way south via footpaths and train rails towards Dover, where I had planned to take the ferry to the "continent". I was in Filey, England on my last "official" entry - September 14. I had just finished the coastal leg of the Cleveland Way - a beautiful walk along the coast - and felt I needed a little tourist break. I took off the next day for York, via train, as I wanted to see the beautiful cathedral and the well-preserved city center. I had been to York on a previous journey, and was looking forward to this wonderful city - steeped in history.
While there I also took the opportunity to get my filthy clothes washed, and collect the money that my dear mother wired me at the American Express office. I thought, quite foolishly, that I could simply purchase new travelers cheques at the American Express offices here in Europe, and managed to locate the ones in Britain, as I knew I was bound to run out. Alas, I could buy American Express cheques with a Visa or MasterCard, but not with my American Express card - go figure! After some frantic telephone exchanges, I finally managed to have the money wired via Western Union to the American Express office in York. Crisis number two had been diverted!

While I was aware of the cathedral and city walls of York, there was something else about York that drew me there, but I just could not remember what - it was on the tip of my tongue. Then I remembered - it was those famous peppermint patties! I searched all over town, but could not find a single York peppermint patty. I had the same problem years ago in Vienna, when I looked all over town for those little sausages. Anyway - York is the kind of town you ´have to linger through, so I stayed an extra day just to take in the quaint shops and winding narrow streets. Beautiful town. Two thumbs up.

I knew I would return to Filey, as the next footpath - the Wolds Way - continued right where the Cleveland Way ended. While the Cleveland Way took me along the coast, the Wolds Way would take me over the chalk hills and farmland for 80 miles or so, to the coastal town of Kingston Upon Hull. I set out on the 16th and managed to finish the trail on the 21st. The trip was much more arduous than I had expected, as it took me over several hills (woulds). The weather was, as it has been all along, quite wonderful. It was a bit more lonely than the coastal path, on which I spent at least two hours of each day talking to fellow hikers, but the peace and quiet was more along the lines of why I had come to walk in the first place - simply to be alone with God and contemplate my life and its course. The hikers I had met on both previous trails in England were primarily "day" hikers, who walked single stretches of the trail - from village to village - with a basic daypack, and no intention of walking the entire path all at once. On the Woulds Way I saw probably 10 hikers in the six days, while on the other trails I would meet that many in an hour. So - it was a nice, tranquil venture through the countryside.

Having finished the Woulds Way I was left with an open canvas - where to next. I had initially intended to continue on to the next trail, as I had seen on the internet that the path continued south, but this next leg, and subsequent ones, were not actually recognized by the National Trust, which governs, maintains and establishes the long distance foot paths. As a result, these may not be well marked or documented and they may actually follow the course of roads - more so than the "recognized" trails. So - I decided to make use of my BritRail Pass and venture south via train.

As this was to be a spiritual journey, per se, I thought I'd visit some of the beautiful cathedrals of Britain. I had visited many of the French cathedrals on previous trips, but never managed to seek out the English ones - and they are distinctly different. So I spent the next two days - September 22nd and 23rd - in the cathedral cities of Lincoln, Peterborough and Ely. I was not disappointed. While it rained in Lincoln, I took the grand tour of the cathedral, which included a trip up into the rafters and into the towers. As there were so few of us on this rainy day, the guide gave us the deluxe three-hour cruise. Magnificent - as were all the cathedrals. It was now on to London.

I cannot begin to give all of you a complete recollection of my busy day in London. I visited, in order, the National Gallery, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (from across the Thames), Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral before finally making my way to Piccadilly and the Tower Bridge that night. The next morning I rushed off to the British Library to see some of the illustrated manuscripts - in particular, the Lindisfarne Gospel. I had started my journey in Dublin - viewing the Book of Kells - so this was a natural stop. And it was, alas, my last stop in London. From here I took the train to my next adventure - the 120-mile North Downs Way. From Guildford, just south of London, I would venture for eight days on to Dover, via Canterbury. This is still regarded as a "spiritual" walk, as it follows the course of the old pilgrim’s way, made famous by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I had walked this same route quite some time ago in the opposite direction - from Dover to Oxford - not quite as far as this year.

As noted, the trip took me eight days - September 25 - October 2, most of which was through quiet forests and over still more hills, offering beautiful views of the wonderful landscape. I found it difficult at times to find a place to camp, but somehow managed. In Ireland I walked along the roads and passed by numerous farmhouses, where I could inquire as to where I could camp. Along the footpaths in Britain I was diverted, for the most part, away from the settlements. And the farmhouses were quite a distance away – sometimes nonexistent. As I travel as an ambassador for both my countrymen and fellow hikers, I always seek permission from the landowners before I settle in for the night in my tent. This posed a bit of a problem along the trails in Britain. I would start asking the locals, or people I met along the trail, where camping was allowed/available. Most of the time I sought out “common land”, that was not privately owned – a park, a ball field or a village green. On one day in particular I found myself on a hilltop with a fabulous view, right at the edge of the forest. The locals told me that camping was “tolerated”, as long as it was for a single night and I made no fire. I took heed, and set up camp. I awoke the following morning – 6:30ish - to the distinctive sound of a police radio, as the officer made his way towards my tent. “Camper come out”, he hollered – “Busted”, I thought. Stuck my head out of my tent and explained the situation – he said everything was cool, just wanted to make sure I was alive and O.K. – wished me well and went about his rounds. Friendly folks these Brits.

I did manage to run into quite a bit of rain on the 1st of October, and spent a miserable evening searching for a place to camp in the wet and cold. At a farm I was told that there was an “official” campsite in the neighboring village, and managed to procure a spot for the night in the pouring rain. Made my way into Canterbury the following day – signposts reminding me along the way that I was following the “pilgrims way”. After seven days, the cathedral in Canterbury was a major goal, and I was so looking forward to quiet reflection – Thomas Becket was martyred/murdered by King Henry II´s men in the cathedral. I managed to reach the cathedral about 12:45 and noticed a sign stating that the cathedral would close at 1:00, as the BBC would be recording an evening performance in the church. I had roughly fifteen minutes to take in centuries of history – no lingering on this occasion. Later, outside, I met some people who had arrived by bus - after 1:00 – and realized that while I could not spend quality time in the cathedral – at least I managed to get in – however brief.

I managed to reach Dover, in the rain, on Thursday afternoon, where I took refuge in a bed and breakfast. Bought my ferry ticket at the tourist information office, and after taking a look at the White Cliffs I ventured over to the ferry terminal just to align myself, so as to make sure I knew how to get to and how long it would take to reach the all important ferry port. I had been led to believe all this time that the ferry ventured over to Oostende, Belgium, where I could easily catch a bus/train to Holland, where my aunt from Germany was vacationing these next few days. No such luck. The ferry went to Calais, France. I managed to score a “package” deal, which included the bus ride from Calais to Oostende. Bingo!

On the 2nd of October I took the Hovercraft from Dover to Calais. From here on out I would have to rely on my knowledge of the German language – for the remaining two months. I could only hope and pray that the kind folks in Belgium and Holland spoke either English or German. The ferry crossing itself was quite unspectacular, as I settled into my seat and tuned in to some music on my IPOD. Gathered up my pack on the opposite coast and was loaded into the bus for Oostende. By that afternoon I was trying to figure out how in the world I would reach the tiny village of Zuidzande, Holland, where I was to meet my aunt and cousin. At the train station in Calais I was told – in beautifully broken English – that I would have to venture off to Brugge, Belgium to reach my destination in Holland. So – I took the next rail to the wonderful city of Brugge. I had been to Brugge before – another of those quaint, well preserved old towns, laced (city is world acclaimed for its lace!) with canals and winding narrow streets. In medieval times Brugge was a very busy and vital seaport – the Venice of the north – but the coastline has since changed and the city lies quite a bit inland. This was a very rich and prosperous city in its time, and is now flooded with tourists.

With no map to guide me to the invisible village of Zuidzande in Holland, I made a quick telephone call home to get directions from my mother. In the past week we had finalized this operation with my aunt, so the directions were drawn up beforehand – we just did not know where, exactly, I would arrive via ferry, and when. The nearest “large” town to Zuidzande is Oostburg, so I took the bus there, and managed to get directions in English for the final leg – a short hike of about 2 miles. With the address in hand I soon found my aunt’s holiday home in the oh-so tiny village of Zuidzande. After a restful day in the village – ventured off to visit an old windmill and take a stroll on the beach, about a mile away – I decided to head back to Brugge, as I did not want to impose on them or overstay my welcome, as this is their vacation. I plan to visit them later on in Karlsruhe, Germany, and use this as my “home base” when the weather gets a bit colder.

I made the return trip back to Brugge in the rain, settled into a bed and breakfast (English spoken here), and took off to see the town. I knew there were a couple of beautiful paintings in a gallery here, but the name of which I could not remember. The tourist office was closed – today is Sunday – so I gathered my wits about me and finally discovered the Groeninge Museum. The paintings I sought, by Rogier Van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Gerard David, are incredible, and this alone made my trip worthwhile. I continued on through town for a while, taking in the many churches and market square, before deciding to take a quick jaunt out to Antwerp. I knew that Peter Paul Rubens had a wonderful altarpiece painting “Elevation of the Cross” in the Antwerp Cathedral and I wanted very much to see it. Rushed off to the train station and boarded the next train for Antwerp, only to discover that the cathedral was closed (on a Sunday!). Tough break. Returned to Brugge for a night walk through the town – romantic even for a solo-hiker unattached. I had already purchased my train ticket for the following days journey on to Aachen, Germany, which left at 9:00 a.m., so I thought it best I get to bed early, and returned to the B&B.

I have a cousin in Germany who lives near Aachen, so this was my next destination. Her son actually lives in town, and it is from here that I write. Having called him from the station, we traveled over to my cousin’s home in the tiny village of Flossdorf for a quick hello and a bite to eat. We made plans for me to stay the night with Sebastian, her son, here in Aachen, and I would return the following day – today, October 7 – by train for a more formal visit. Today I will take in the sights in Aachen – most notably the “Kaiser Dom”, the chapel of Charlemagne. It was here, in Aachen, that Charlemagne established his court as Holy Roman Emperor. From the 10th to the 14th century, all German kings were crowned in this chapel. And it is from here, God willing, that I will continue my trek. Today I will seek out, once more, the maps and guide books that will lead me on. Hope to walk along the Rhine and head south towards Switzerland or Austria. We’ll see. All is well. It is getting cold and wet, but I am enjoying my stay. Peace!