What an awesome 24 hours.

With apologies to my Dad who hates the word awesome, but in actual fact I find the incredible efficiency, energy and power of this place truly awe-inspiring. I warn you now, this post is filled with admiration for big heavy machinery, so if that’s not your thing, feel free to skip.

We chugged up the river Elbe in almost zero visibility – very thick fog, so that when we arrived it felt like we emerged straight out of the fog into the centre of the city.

Check out these videos of the arrival and docking, which was done efficiently with great precision as this enormous beast of a ship turned 360 degrees and then reverse parked neatly behind its Grimaldi sister, the Grande Nigeria.

I had to downgrade the video quality to be able to post it over a mobile network, but hopefully its watchable.

Arriving and Docking:

The Ramp coming down:

All night and this morning loading has been going on, containers being brought on the back of lorries and lifted straight up by enormous fixed cranes that are operated with extreme precision to stack the containers on the front of the ship as if they were lego. They load a container every couple of minutes.

Container loading:

While this is going on at the front, the ramp is down at the back and streams of brand new Audis, BMWs and other cars, covered in plastic, are being driven into the RORO part of the ship.

There is also quite a contingent of other vehicles, such as fire engines and construction vehicles. While they are going in, trucks are constantly back and forth unloading containers destined for Hamburg. It all works at very high speed, and being down in the lower decks with it all happening is actually quite scary.


We decided to venture out into Hamburg this morning – as much for the experience of finding out way through port as for anything we particularly needed. I figured of all the ports we will visit, you could count on Hamburg to be organized, efficient and safety conscious. This turned out to be true.

We made our way down to Deck 3, which is the deck level with the top of the main ramp, and found our friend Jake the safety officer (I think he is actually the 2nd mate, but we know him as the guy who terrified us with the safety briefing and one of the few crew we have had a prolonged conversation with). He told us how to get out, which involved risking life and limb on the ramp, crossing to a portacabin and pressing a red button which summoned a port shuttle. This turned up in a few minutes and took us to the gate at high speed. Everyone from truck drivers to brand-new-audi-drivers to the guys driving the loading machines move at top speed and its obvious why just wandering around port is forbidden.

The guy at the reception of the port called us a taxi and gave Lauren an apple, which she was polite enough to feign delight over and swiftly hide in her pocket. I made sure to get both the reception guy and the taxi driver to write down directions and address in German for our return – the ship will not wait if passengers are late.

Hamburg was just waking up at 9 and the shops weren’t yet open, so we were forced to take refuge from the cold in a coffee shop, where we pigged out on cake.

We then did some shopping – some chocolates for Christmas day for everyone, but also some ‘supplies’ such as Weetabix and ginger marmalade to  make breakfast more interesting, some dried mango and some fresh veggies, and some tins of sweetcorn. We are both craving vegetables as they have not played a big part on the menu so far.

We also managed to get a compass for Lauren as this module she starts geometry, and some tracing paper for her art project this week, as well as a nice big mug for me as I am sick of drinking tea out of tiny cups. So all in all, a successful trip.


We wandered around the centre, including the very pleasant Christmas market which I had said I wasn’t bothered about visiting but which was actually lovely, with a much more relaxed vibe than Christmas shopping in the UK. Music playing, stalls selling food and crafts, kids hanging out and families doing bits of shopping, Christmas lights and decorations up. A nice taster of the city.

We soon had to make our way back as we had been told to be on board for 1pm. The taxi driver didn’t know exactly how to find it, but with the help of google maps and the bits of paper the previous taxi driver and reception had given us we had a relatively stress-free return journey, even having time for the Afghan driver to update us on how living in Germany is for Afghan refugees…. He couldn’t find the vehicle entrance so we ended up dodging under a barrier and walking through a massive truck park towards the gate.

We called the shuttle again and sped back to the GH, where I spent some time up on deck watching the loading and unloading. We should be off within the hour, and I want to get this posted, as its possibly our last good signal for a few days or weeks, depending on whether we catch one in Vigo.

This journey is absolutely awesome  (sorry Dad!), and the GH already feels like coming home – going into the city was lovely but we were just as happy to get back here to our cabin and our lounge. It was expensive and a huge risk if it hadn’t worked out, but so far so good!!!

Oh, and someone had cleaned our room!!! Life is good.


Mad Dash Across Europe

Train number 1 – Split to Zagreb

I must admit, I was equally looking forward to, and anxious, about this trip. Four different trains, a bus replacement, some short connection times, an overnight train where we most likely wouldn’t be lucky enough to get a compartment to ourselves, two bags, and an 8-year-old to entertain for a day and a half.

We had lots of maths and English planned and all devices fully charged.

The first train was from Split to Zagreb – a two-carriage fairly modern affair, airconditioned and tilting. At times, as we tilted our way around mountain sides and sheer drops, I missed the bulky and solid, non-tilting Macedonian and Serbian trains. The lack of cigarette smoke was a huge relief though.

The views were spectacular, and gave a completely different view of Croatia compared to the coast. Small villages with houses made from local stone, seemingly with only the railway or unpaved tracks as access, craggy mountains and rolling green foothills, some of the trees starting to turn lovely shades of yellow and red, we ate our breakfast (surprisingly good pain au chocolat and takeaway coffee) while gazing out the window.

Somewhere north of Split

In a way, this felt like the end of one phase of our journey – the bumbling about with little sense of urgency, direction or a plan part – as we now had definite dates and purpose. We needed to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes expired.

I was a little sad to stop the bumbling, but also excited to head north, where worse weather would be made up for by friends and home comforts. In fact, as if to mark this point, the heavens opened about an hour out of Split, and suddenly we were in ‘English weather’ – cool, grey, drizzly and dull.

For the first part of the journey Lauren worked on her maths – some fairly difficult stuff involving calculating the area and perimeters of things.  She likes maths and has an instinctive grasp of many of the concepts, but gets easily discouraged when she doesn’t ‘get it’ immediately. Of course, as she progresses she won’t be able to ‘get it’ immediately and she needs to learn to deal with this. We are working on it.


We transferred to a bus replacement about halfway to Zagreb, which actually got in 45 minutes before the time scheduled for the train to have arrived, despite having been told it’d be an hour later.

We faffed about sorting out onward tickets and Eurostar reservations with a very helpful if somewhat technologically challenged lady at Zagreb station, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure the bit of paper we had would be recognised as a reservation in Brussels.

Once that was sorted, we stuck our bags in a left luggage locker and headed out to explore. I took an immediate liking to Zagreb – there seemed to be an energy and vibrancy to it that felt more real than the touristy places we’d been, and more sophisticated and quirky than some of the non-touristy places we’d been.

One odd example of the ‘quirkiness’ of this town is the Museum of Broken Relationships. A strangely compelling little place with ‘mementoes’ and write ups from people after relationships had ended. Some were very funny, some were very sad, and some made you think. A few were not child suitable, but luckily, I’m a fast reader and managed to head Lauren off onto more promising territory.

One exhibit at the ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’ simply said: “Squeaky toy: his dog left more behind than he did”.
An axe a jealous ex used to good effect on some left behind furniture…

After being somewhat bemused by the Museum, we wandered through beautiful back streets – largely pedestrianised – among elegant old buildings and some ornate churches. There was a smattering of tourists but certainly not the hordes encountered elsewhere.

It was the first time the weather felt really cold and ‘northern europeany’ and I was glad I had packed warm clothes for us both.

After some grocery shopping in a massive department store, a snack of (yet more) roasted sweetcorn, and a pricey but delicious dinner in one of the vibey, busy, techno-blasting restaurants in one of the main squares, it was soon time to return to the station for the overnight train to Munich. It was Friday night, and Zagreb felt like it was just getting going.

We, however, would be crammed into a 6-person compartment with two middle aged German ladies and a lovely (if rather, ahem, gassy) Croatian guy who took on the role of protector and insisted on hauling everyone’s bags about and ‘shielding’ Lauren from a rather drunk/stoned woman who barged down the corridor in a right state.

Train number 2: Munich to Frankfurt

In a whole carriage, only two of the 6-bed compartments were occupied, but while on Balkan trains this simply allowed everyone a compartment to themselves as the train company spread you out, the perhaps more profit-minded German company that ran this train decided to cram all 11 passengers into two 6-bed compartments… I guess otherwise, people would never pay for the 2 bed compartments, which are significantly more expensive. Lauren and I had been allocated the very top bunks, but as there were only 5 of us in the compartment, I negotiated the middle bunk. Lauren was delighted to finally be on top.

After the border checks with Slovenia we all settled down and got some sleep; the train was certainly smoother and cleaner than the previous ones we had been on, but somewhat less ‘characterful’. The upper and middle beds had two vertical straps on the ‘outer’ edge which were designed to stop you falling off. At one point I woke up and Lauren was curled up into a tiny ball, with half of her body halfway off the bed; she would have easily fallen between the straps if she’d rolled over. I edged her back on without her waking and got a kick in the face as a reward as she stretched out.

A full hour before arrival the overly cheery attendant woke us all up, but all was forgiven as this time I did actually get the promised coffee, and even a bottle of water and a pain au chocolat, courtesy of the train company. Living the high life now we were in Western Europe! A very quick change at Munich went as smoothly as might be expected, and then after a few hours, an even smoother change at Frankfurt (they have diagrams of every train that runs from each platform, with a colour-coded guide to where to stand for each carriage!) saw us arriving exactly on time, exhausted but happy to be in Brussels, where we were excited to catch up with friends from Mozambique.

Train number 3: Frankfurt to Brussels at a good speed.

Next: Red light districts and Reunions in Brussels.