Buckthorn. Nothing but buckthorn.

We arrived in Rambin famished so as soon as we’d parked our bikes and dumped our bags, we set out in search of food.

Our holiday cottage was located on Hauptstrasse, or “Main Road.”

Such terms are, of course, relative.

The street did boast a bakery, which was shut when we arrived and appeared to sell little more than herring sandwiches anyway.

The other option was the farmers’ market a few doors down.  LSB and I had been hoping for a hearty meal to round off our day of travel misadventure with Deutsche Bahn.

Housed in an expansive building with traditional roofbeams, and featuring several aisles of attractively packaged products, it would surely satisfy our needs.

But the more we browsed, the more we encountered the same word: Sanddorn.

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

It was printed on jam jars,  bottles, tins and boxes.

“What is Sanddorn?” I asked.

LSB wasn’t sure either but we agreed that we recognised it from a health-food context and that its properties were generally considered benign.

We didn’t have an Internet connection, so it wasn’t until the next day that we learnt that Sanddorn was in fact: buckthorn – a regional specialty which grows on chalk cliffs and promises to cure all kinds of bodily ailments.

We didn’t exactly fancy a meal of over-priced condiments and sauces  anyway so  we decided to find an alternative eatery.

We’d passed a few signs advertising a “Pirate Restaurant” on the way to Rambin.

We weren’t sure whether it served anything vegetarian but figured it’d be a safe bet for a plate of chips.

The signs led us through a  little row of houses somewhat off the beaten track.

Every few hundred meters we’d encounter another large arrow pointing in the direction of the pirate restaurant.

After walking for about 20 minutes though, we began to suspect we’d gone wrong somewhere.

Then, finally, we spotted another sign.

Nailed to a fence it read: “PIRATE RESTAURANT – 6 KILOMETERS.”

Displeased and with our stomachs growling, we made our way back to the farmers’ market.

That evening, safely ensconced in our cottage on Hauptstrasse, we feasted on a meal of bread and buckthorn mustard.

Calling the bicycle hotline: the truth about Ersatzverkehr

A few weeks ago I decided to treat LSB to a weekend away on Rügen (Germany’s largest island) for his birthday. I did a quick Google of accommodation and stumbled upon a nice holiday apartment at an attractive price.

I booked it immediately and told LSB not to worry about a thing; I had this whole trip under control.

Shortly before we were due to leave by train on Friday morning, it occurred to me to bring our bikes.

LSB looked out the rain-splattered window at the black clouds and reminded me that SNOW had been forecast for the weekend.

I told him not to believe everything he saw on TV. (I’m an insider, so he had to listen.)

Next,  he expressed concern about the regulations governing bicycles on trains.

(As you can see, LSB has integrated very well into German society).

Defiant (because I wanted to bring the bikes) and grumpy (because it was morning) I grabbed the phone and called Deutsche Bahn’s Fahrrad (bicycle) hotline.

What – you haven’t heard of it? Rest assured; it exists. An entire service dedicated to urgent enquires about bringing bicycles on German trains.

After waiting on hold for several minutes (evidently they are very busy) I got through to Bicycle Hotline Lady (BHL).

“Where would you like to travel with your bikes?” she asked.20150323_102144[1]


“I’m sorry. Where?”


“Could you spell that?”

“Sure… R-A-M-B-I-N.”

“Um, okay. I haven’t heard of it. Give me a moment please.”                                                                                                                                                                                                At this point, it may be worth pointing out that I do not have a reputation for consulting maps very carefully.

I chose to stay in this town (“town” is, in fact, a  remarkably generous description) because, unlike Bergen (Rügen’s so-called capital) Rambin is by the sea. Also, the charming holiday apartment there may have been one of the first on the list of Google search results.

Anyway, the BHL told me that although she had not heard of my destination, she was sure the same rules applied as to all other places on the island. Taking the bikes on the train would be no problem though we would have to purchase tickets for them.

Feeling considerably more gruntled, I told LSB the bikes were coming with us.

Several hours later, the four of us were safely installed in a  train compartment. Like a model Deutsche Bahn couple, we cast our glances away from our bicycles only to admire the passing northern German scenery.

We were nearing Stralsund, a few stops away from our destination, when an announcement on the intercom told us that we must get out and avail of Ersatzverkehr (replacement transport) for our onward journey.

We disembarked awkwardly and followed the signs pointing to the Ersatzverkehr.

They led us to a bus outside, where a line of passengers from our train had already formed. Seeing us approach with our bikes, a woman in front of us said: “Boah! Are you going to be let on with those?”
“I’d better be!” I reply. “I have a Fahrrad ticket!”

“My best advice is to flirt with the driver,” she said ruefully, living up to the German reputation for practicality.

I approached him tentatively.

“No bikes,” he said.


“Yes. The plans for Ersatzverkehr have been well publicised in the last few weeks.”

“But what about my Fahrrad ticket?” I asked.

“It does not cover Ersatzverkehr. If you would like to complain to Deutsche Bahn for providing insufficient information, you can contact them via these channels,” he said, slipping me a card.

This flirting thing was not going well.

“There is nothing we can do. This is company policy,” he continued, climbing into the driver’s seat and shutting the door.

It was only when the bus drove off and the wind began to howl that it really hit us.

We were stranded.

And headed for a place no one seemed to have heard of.

To be continued 

The Wild West or just a quiet town?

A boy of 15 is standing still; thigh-deep in muggy river water. His pomona green Wellington boots are just visible beneath the surface. It’s about six in the evening. He is alone, and the town about him sleeps. He is fishing.

“That’s a lonely image”, I say as we watch him from a distance.

We are leaning against a stony wall by the riverbank. I am unzipping my camera case gingerly because I want to remember the stillness and his solitude when a blonde-haired man of about thirty staggers, stony-eyed towards us.

“Don’t you dare take my picture”, he yells. “You’ve no right, you sons of bitches. You’ve no fucking right at all”.

Startled, I glide the camera down and wait for him to pass. He is still ranting as he shuffles away. He is alone and mad maybe, if mad is a thing.

This was our first of impression of Sligo and the scene I have just described took place just metres away from the impressive glass structure of our hotel, which is shaped like an enormous boat, and obscures the little twist of the river as it stretches itself into an estuary.

The Glass hotel, Sligo

Later that night, after a walk through the town, Andrew asked, “so what do you think of it?” I paused, because this was our special break away and you’re not really supposed to acknowledge that it’s not perfect until months later, when you joke about it and realise that the other thought it was a bit shit too.

“It’s a bit dead”, I said. That was indisputable. As dusk settled, the town was lifeless but for a line of three drunken old men, smoking outside their local.

You’d have to move, if you were our age, we agreed, unless you were a farmer or wanted to work in a tattoo parlour, of which there were a disproportionate amount in the town.

We spent only three days in Sligo but it was long enough to perceive how fuzzy a boundary divides what is still and unspoilt from what has been forgotten.

One of the first things we noticed in Sligo town, was a page stuck with blu-tac to the door of a bank (of all places!). It was a reminder of what’s been forgotten. A man, a poet, had penned some verses, on the subject of the queen’s visit. In the penultimate verse, he asked simply “Why won’t they let her visit the west?” And indeed the following day, as we climbed Knocknaree and observed the beautiful, rocky wilderness that surrounded us, it was hard to believe that this wild, unspoilt landscape wouldn’t be to Her Majesty’s taste. And yet, the way I had described Sligo town the night before as “dead”, was as if stillness were a sin.

And when on our last day we visited the majestic lake at Glencare (strictly in Leitrim, but whatever) and the waterfall that inspired Yeats in his poetry we were cast under a spell. Beneath gleaming sunshine, the lake water lapped with low sounds by the shore and there was not a soul to be seen. It was beauty unbridled. It didn’t need the Queen’s visit to make it so. It was too beautiful for words or tourist brochures.
And looking back, I am glad that I never did take the fisher boy’s picture. Without that angry, lonely interruption to the peace, his stillness wouldn’t have resonated into prose.

The lake at Glencare