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Road Wear, Vaxjo to Berlin


November 1, 2001

Dear Family and Friends,

At the end of our last episode, we said we were headed for Germany, and so we were. The plan was for a mid-morning Vaxjo departure on Saturday down to a southern Sweden port and an afternoon or overnight ferry ride to Germany. Pretty straightforward. We'd be in Berlin Sunday evening. But then something happened.

We were driving south, considering the fact that we were completely bypassing Denmark, when we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive across the new Malmo-to-Copenhagen Bridge and then just drive to Berlin. We made this joint decision without consulting a map.

In Malmo, we figured it was about lunchtime and now we had Swedish Kroners to spare, since we were not going to use the ferry. A pleasant Sunday lunch shouldn't be a problem, right? We left the understandable highway to look for a downtown restaurant. The center of Malmo looked very cute - and very closed. We parked and walked past a number of closed restaurants before we found a delicatessen-type place open and serving. This place was busy, its prices were a bit high, and the food was pretty ordinary so we asked ourselves why there were no competitors. Is this a Swedish thing?

Now were headed off to the big bridge. It's something like 16 km (10 miles) long, including both bridge and tunnel sections and is a historic land link for Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. We'd heard that it wasn't too popular and on this Sunday that was certainly the case. The approach road was almost empty and there was not a single car visible when we went through one of the dozen or more tollbooths. By the way, that toll was about $28, cheaper than the ferry but not by much. Once on the bridge, we did get a pretty spectacular view of both the Baltic Sea and the bridge itself.

On the Denmark side, we simply took a left and avoided Copenhagen. I think we were still interested in avoiding cities. We also had stopped and looked at the map and discovered that we had about 1,000 kilometers (600+ miles) of driving before we would reach Berlin. We had to get some of that distance behind us, so we violated Rule #1 and drove past dark before we looked for a hotel room.

The road we were on was plain freeway. No roadside hotels. On our trip so far it's been true that hotels are inside towns and cities, not along highways. With that in mind, we went off the freeway into Kolding, Denmark, one of the largest spots on our map. The highway exit even had a "bed sign" so it MUST be easy to find a hotel.

Wrong. We drove for 30 minutes all over Kolding. Finally, we found an "apartment hotel" and Marianne asked if they had a room. They said they did but were not set up for overnight guests. However, they sent us to the Saxildus Hotel by the train station, just a few blocks away.

Now it was late. We were tired, hungry from the mediocre lunch, and frustrated by the surprisingly long distance to Berlin. We really had no choice in hotels so we settled at the Saxildus, despite the fact it was over-priced, over-worn, and without private parking. At least it was quiet, since no more than 10% of the rooms were occupied.

After we checked in, they even admitted that the breakfast dining room would not be available so they would have to deliver breakfast to our room. We have established a ritual: sitting over breakfast, planning our day, and sometimes our lives, so this news was not really what we wanted to hear. All in all, our enthusiasm for this vagabond life was at a near-record low by the time we turned in.

The next morning, the breakfast arrived on time. It arrived in volume too. They brought so much that it had to be carried on a tray and in a big crate. Maybe this was a good sign and we faced the new day more encouraged and more determined than ever to find hotels soon enough in the day to have a choice.

Our first milestone was the German-Danish border. By now, we understood that border formalities were pretty minimal, but in this case, there wasn't a government representative anywhere to be seen and driving past the old, now-abandoned checkpoint was eerie. There really is no border anymore.

Our drive through the flat plains of Schlesgwig-Holstein was uneventful. We had opted for the smaller roads and the driving was pleasant, with small towns every few miles and picture-postcard farms in between. As in Denmark, many of these north German farms now seem to grow windmills. Seeing these giant blades rotate gracefully from the wind, reminded me that this part of the world is now counting on them for new electrical generation. Enough to avoid the risks of nuclear power or the pollution and greenhouse gases of fossil fuel combustion? A nice idea I guess.

At mid-afternoon, we decided to implement Rule #1 and find a hotel early enough to relax and look around a bit. Schwerin was about the right timing and we left the highway again and headed for the center of town. On the way in, there were signs for a Tourist Information (TI) office, the secret weapon to unplanned travel. Our planning was coming together.

In town, there was a wonderful castle - complete with moat. Touring would have to wait because we could not spot the TI office. At some point in our TI/hotel search, we turned into the old center of Schwerin and entered a nightmare. The roads were medieval-narrow with ancient cobblestones. Most were one-way. Many were being torn up. Marianne drove and I navigated but our normally-reliable teamwork failed. We were lost for at least 30 minutes and just couldn't seem to escape the rabbit warren. And now it was almost getting dark. When we escaped the center of Schwerin, we took the first path out, figuring that driving for hours toward Berlin would be preferable to just wandering around helplessly, swearing at Schwerin.

Out into the countryside a few miles, Marianne spotted another "bed sign". We really didn't want to drive much more so we took a chance. The sign led to another that said "hotel 4 km". Oh. Not exactly highwayside and the small road was straight but completely empty. Was this another wild goose chase?

No. At the end of the drive was one of the nicest places we've found so far, the Lewitz-Muhle Hotel. Muhle means windmill and an old structure serves as the anchor for this resort. The room was large and completely modern and the people were very friendly, very friendly indeed.

Now, one thing we've discovered on our journey is that doing laundry becomes a challenge. Vaxjo had had no facilities at all so we'd not cleaned clothes for almost a week. Neighbors were noticing. When we asked the Muhle hotel people for a laundry, they said they'd simply wash and dry everything instead, no charge. For this, for their friendliness, and for their exceptional facility, they won our "hotel-of-the-week" for sure.

The next day, our last leg of the trip to Berlin was mostly uneventful. We drove for part of the time on the back roads and then got tired of passing trucks and tractors on those narrow roads and shifted to the autobahn. Much faster.

We had left plenty of time to get to our Berlin hotel before dark. We had selected a hotel outside the center of town to avoid the worst traffic. We had studied our maps. We had received directions from the Berlin hotel. We took a roadside rest just before hitting the city itself. We were ready for the find-the-hotel hurdle. Almost.

Of course the roads were under construction. Of course they had been renumbered since our maps were printed and apparently renamed without our guides noticing. But, miraculously enough, we made it through almost all the turns and road changes. All but the last turn, I think.

Here the story gets sensitive. Marianne and I solve such problems differently. I want to study maps. She wants to ask people for directions. Today I was driver and she was navigator so it was really her choice. First, there was a call to the hotel. The first lady gave some new streets to try. We tried. Unsuccessful. Next we stopped and asked a shopkeeper. He said he was sure our map was wrong and he added some "clarification" to our earlier instructions. More unsuccessful driving.

Next, we stopped and Marianne asked a lady on a bike for help. They talked and talked, in German. After ten minutes, Marianne got back in the car and said simply, "She had no idea". Now it's time for another call to the hotel. This time a man answered, who clearly had no idea where we were or how to give instructions. His final proposal was for us to park the car where we were and just hail a taxi. Not a good solution in our minds.

Eventually we did go back to the original faxed map, and headed in a promising direction. We ran into road construction that placed a one-way section in our path, but we simply let a car go by in the opposite direction and then started into the single track. A BMW driver from the other direction was having none of that, however. He also headed into the construction until we were head to head. He yelled at me in German and I yelled at him in American, but I also gave way enough for him to pass since I was lost anyway. This was not a good day.

But maybe not all bad. A few hundred yards past the construction, the car behind us pulled up, rolled down a window, and asked if we needed help. We both pulled to the curb and the Good Samaritan got out and started with saying that I had been right and the BMW driver was wrong back in the construction one-way. He described the guy in German but I got the message and agreed. Next, he brought out a detailed Berlin map, found our hotel, and said we just needed to turn right at the next street. We were actually very near. This guy had no idea how much he had raised my impression of Berlin and Berliners.

So our story of Vaxjo to Berlin ends. We did get lost twice more but by now that was just normal and not cause for despair. Two and a half-hours after arriving in Berlin, we rolled into the Belvedere Hotel. Was this hotel worth the agonizing search? No, but that's part of another story.

Take care. Help someone who's lost.

John and Marianne











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Created November 8, 2001

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