Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Into Slovenia

It was a quick hop back onto the autobahn and heading south towards Slovenia. There were numerous tunnels along this stretch of highway, some of them quite short and others over 6 kms in length. The longest one was just over 7 kms, entering it in Austria and coming out in Slovenia. Border crossings are so much easier between countries under the Shengen agreement, no more stopping and having to show your passports. Having said that, it is much easier for Pete travelling on his British passport - they just wave him aside. As for me, they go through every page of my Australian passport, pausing at the page with the black cross indicating refusal into the UK, then give me the appropriate stamp. This is just the way it is going to be until it expires in 2023 😩😩😩!!! 
With driving, we just have to remember to purchase the vignette for the particular country before you enter - apparently the authorities are ready at hand to catch and fine anyone caught travelling without one and the penalties are steep.

Our destination for the next 2 nights was Lake Bled - in the NW corner of Slovenia. Anywhere on a lake is pretty, and Bled was no exception.  With its emerald-green lake, a picture-postcard church on an islet in the middle, a medieval castle clinging to a rocky cliff and all nestled amongst the Julian Alps, Bled has it all. Our small B and B was only a 5 mins walk from the lake, yet we were right in the middle of orchards and huge cherry trees laden with ripe fruit. As the sun was shining, and the afternoon still ahead of us, we decided to walk our first 6 km circuit of the lake, everywhere with views back onto the islet and many spots where you could hire a row boat and make your own way over. That was definitely on the agenda for tomorrow. After 2 weeks of not hearing much English spoken around us, we were suddenly amidst Australian accents everywhere. When ever we sat down for a meal, either side of us were either English, American and often Aussie.


        Cherry tree at our accomodation at Lake Bled - laden with ripe fruit. Every garden grows one.

Next morning after breakfast, we thought we would tackle the hike up to Bled Castle, perched high on the cliff. It was a steep slog up the steps and path but well worth the views from the top. We wandered in and out of alcoves, courtyards, the wine cellar and the forge all offering spectacular views across the lake to the surrounding area. An hour later, we made our way back down and into a row boat for the short trip across to the small church on the islet. Calm water, no breeze and a blue skies made for a lovely trip around and over the island. After lunch we headed up to Vintgar Gorge - quite different from the rugged rocky gorge in Germany, more lush with large shady trees and vegetation but just as stunning. The thunder and power of the surging water just breathtaking, definitely worth the visit. In the afternoon, we took a drive up through the forestry roads and down to Lake Bohinj - a very pretty part of the country.


                                           The church on the island in Lake Bled - Slovenia

    Pete outside the wine cellar - Bled Castle.         View from the top with the island in the background                            


                                             Vintgar Gorge near Lake Bled, Slovenia 

                                     Pete at stunning Lake Bohinj - a short drive from Bled.

From Bled we had a short trip across to the capital of Slovenia - Ljubljana. We checked in to our hotel/sports centre - very new and modern, the hotel section being only a small part of the complex.With the weather tending to drizzle, we jumped on a local bus and made our way into the city, though in reality it is more like a large town. Like most of the places we have visited, the town centres around a square and usually has a castle perched high on a hill - this particular one being protected by a might dragon. The river runs right through the centre of town, with cobbled streets of pavers shining in the sun and worn smooth with centuries of tred. Small store holders sellers their wares adorn either side of the river along with great fresh fruit, vegetable and flower markets and endless restaurants and cafes everywhere. After our obligatory climb to the top and back down, we sat for a cool beer and to watch the world go by for a while. Right next to us was a statue of a kangaroo - a water fountain forged by a local artist ....... not sure what the significance was, if any.


                                             The dragon that guards Ljubijana Castle 

                  Our kangaroo water fountain                         Ljubijana street with castle up above

We changed our plans to visit the Soca Valley as the weather was still inclement, deciding to head directly down into Croatia where the sun was shining. Having read about some caves on the way, we planned a stop at Postojna. On arrival we could see the main caves had a car park the size of a soccer ground and already packed with tourist buses wall to wall. So we opted for some smaller, yet worthwhile caves built under a castle -  Predjama castle. Donning helmets with headlamps, we joined a group for a guided tour of the caves (bit underwhelming) and then followed with a self audio tour of the castle - excellent. It was a really great stop and glad we didn't miss it. 

                                                In front of Predjama Castle and caves.

Apart from the inclement weather, we have had fun in Slovenia - loved the places we have visited, enjoyed the mountains and lakes, spectacular gorges and lush forestry countryside but are now ready for a seaside change, beaches and sun. Istria here we come!

Friday, 12 June 2015

Schladming - Austria

Jumping off the autobahn and following the road towards Schladming, the countryside was much like the alpine area of Germany that we had just left. Small villages, each seeming to have a church as their centre point were nestled in the valleys between tall mountains either side. Again the countryside was lush and green, forestry everywhere and snow still evident on the top of the alps. We had chosen Scladming as a base for a week because it offered numerous hiking trails for all levels of fitness, as well as a multitude of other sports. And you couldn't ask for a prettier place to be.

We had arrived early at our hotel, not expecting our room to be available, but it was. With a view from the balcony looking skywards to the mountains, the sun shining on the remnants of the winter snow and a river rushing past out front, we were very happy to think this was it for a week. With our booking we were given the SummerCard - introduced to entice tourists here through the summer months. Amongst many other things, it gave us a free round trip daily on any of the working cable cars to the top of the alps. So not wasting any time, we dropped our bags and walked the 5 mins into town to catch a ride to the top of the Planai.

The ride takes you up to a height of 1825mts, it's a long ride with 30 support pylons along the way. There are numerous ski runs of all levels leading down from the peak, but at the moment they are all lush grassy slopes covered with wild flowers - buttercups, forget-me-nots and dandelions. As we made our ascent, we crossed over mountain bike riders tearing down the hill on specifically designed tracks and hikers on designated trails making their descent back into Schladming. At the top the views were amazing in every direction.


                      The view from half way up the cable car to the Planai - Schladming below


                                At the top of the Planai - with wonderful views across the Alps

After doing the Panorama Circuit around the top, we headed down the hill along the hikers trail, taking us 2 hours to make it back down into town. We had booked half board at our Hotel Zirngast, so dinner each evening was included. Nice to shower and change at the end of the day and walk into the restaurant for a lovely 4 course meal.

Next day we headed back up to the Planai, then hiked further up to the summit of the Krahbergzinken to a height of 2134 kts. Back down to the Planai, then taking a different trail than yesterday, back down into towards town. Unfortunately this track proved to be much more difficult, in places no more than 12" wide and more like a goat track down the side of a steep slope. In total, it was 6 hours of trekking for the day and the result was a huge blister on my big toe, so that's my hiking done for a few days.


                     Just short of the top of the Krahbergzinken. It was a hard climb but worth it.


                   This was as close to the edge as Pete was game to get - a long drop below !!

                            Looking down to the valley below on our descent from the Planai

Day 3 was much more sedate due to my foot. The skies were cloudless, so we decided to spend the day at the Dachstein glacier. It was a short drive, meandering our way up the mountain to the cable car station where we caught the gondola up to the glacier. It was spectacular ride and not for the faint hearted, the ride very close to the cliff face and reaching a height of 2700 mts. There is even a platform for the adventurous ones to ride up on top of the car in the open air. There is enough snow at the top for skiing all through summer and the slopes were dotted with skiers and snow boarders alike. Another attraction is a glass floor viewing platform (sky walk) which looks down the cliff face, but neither of us could bring ourselves to actually try it. We were content with a walk in the snow and a seat in the sun, real t-shirt and shorts weather.

                    One of the viewing platforms hanging out over the cliff - Dachstein Glacier


                        That's Pete on the Skywalk .......... ?   Not a chance of that happening !!

                                  Any one for a snow ball fight ? Glorious weather at the glacier 


                                 The gondola to the top of the glacier - indoor or outdoor ride 


      The getting off point at the top of the glacier. Gives some perspective as to the sheer cliff face.

After a couple of hours at the top, it was time to return down and Pete surprised me by opting to ride on top of the gondola in the open air section. Not me, I much preferred the security of walls around me.

Next stop was at an area named 'Wilde Wasser' where the Wild Waters alpine path takes you up to the Riesach waterfall, the highest waterfall in the region. It's  a steep though wide path with lots of steps, but the reward at the top is worth it. The waterfall plunges 140 meters over 2 ledges down to the Untertal valley below, the spray of your face a welcome relieve from the heat and the sheer noise of the powerful flow is deafening.


                                              Reisach waterfall at Wilde Wasser in Austria

Continuing along the trail, we came to the 200' high, 50 meter long steel rope suspension bridge across the gorge. This was seriously going to test both of us! Thankfully there was only one other couple about to cross - had there been hordes of people on the bridge, I don't think I could have done it. So with gritted teeth (and without looking down), we slowly edged our way across to the other side. It was a very solid structure but nothing feels as good as terra firma. Interestingly, the bottle screws were made by Ronstan of Australia. 
A little higher up the mountain is the Riesachsee, a beautiful lake nestled against a spectacular backdrop, but we will return tomorrow to do that. So it was back across the bridge AGAIN for and heading for home.


                             Testing us both - having to cross the suspension bridge TWICE !!


                            Proving a point                                   Just another beautiful view of Austria

Day 4 was trying another of the cable cars taking us up to the Hochwurzen - the same altitude as the Planai. More stunning scenery at the top, and only a gentle walk for us today, choosing instead to sit in the sunshine with a cold beer and chill out. In winter the Hochwurzen is famous for its toboggan run down the 4.5 mile forest road. In summer you can take a mountain go-kart and go zooming down instead. I opted for the cable car and left Pete with a group of enthusiastic 'downhillers' all eager to try their skills on the winding gravel road. 


                                              The view from the top of the Hochwurzen


                                   Our stop for a sit in the sun and a cold Austrian beer


                 Pete checking that the brakes work before starting the long road down

Day 5 was back to the Wilde Wasser and our hike up to the lake. We have had the last 4 days of beautiful weather but the forecast says things are about to change. It took us about 50 mins to walk up the road with a fairly constant slope of about 30 degrees, not plateauing out until we had reached the top. Being Sunday, there were a lot of families there having picnics in the sun by the lake edge, though I am guessing many of them had driven up. The sunshine was fast disappearing and a definite change in the air so after only following the path a short way around the lake, we decided to head back down the hill to the car. It only took us about 30 minutes to come back down, and the first of the rain just starting.

                                           After a long slog up the hill to the Riesachsee


                                                  Pete talking to some of the local girls 


                                 How's this for a weekender - just takes a week to get here !

Leaving me in the hotel room to get the blog up to date, Pete headed back to the Planai cable car with the intent of taking it up to the middle station then hiking to the top. However, because the winds had increased so much, they had suspended the ride and so he hiked up to it (1350 meters). Just short of getting there, the heavens opened so he arrived drenched with sweat and rain. Thankfully by then, the winds had dropped and they had reopened the ride, so he was able to cable car back down. 



                                                They look like Forget-me-nots and Buttercups

                       A sample of the beautiful flowers that grow wild on the road side

The last 2 days of our weeks stay saw the weather change and the rain/drizzle set in. It wasn't worth even going for a ride on the cable cars as the top half of the mountains never came out of cloud all day long. We did some driving around the surrounding area, back up into the alps and discovering small lakes everywhere - it was still stunningly beautiful even though visibility wasn't the best. One of the nearby villages needed to be investigated, just for a photo shot.


                                                            "Not a bad Aussie"


                              Typical little Austrian home on a lake - beautiful any weather

Our stay at Schladming had come to an end and it was time to hit the road and head for Slovenia, hopefully chasing the sun. We have enjoyed the use of the SummerCard and it's free passes on the cable cars, as well as our beautiful walks and hikes through the forestry, mountains and alpine villages. We have been entertained with the 2015 Alpen Tour event going on for 4 days, with road races and mountain bike races down the hill from the Planai with hundreds of competitors. 

                          The road race for the Alpen Tour 2015 going right past our hotel 

Zirngast has been an great place to stay. Nice facilities, friendly staff and lovely meals. We did however need to have them translated each morning at breakfast so we knew what we are choosing as a main for that evening. These were some of our choices:-
                                          Kraftige Rindsuppe mit Tirolerknodel
               Geschmorte Kalbsbackerl mit Pastinackenmousseline und Kohlsprossen
                                Hausgemachte Palatschinke mit Erdbeermarlmelade

We have been very impressed with the tidiness of the country. In all the places we have stayed, we have not seen any rubbish or litter around the place, and often shopkeepers are out sweeping the path and road In front of their premises each morning before opening. The locals have been friendly and often stopping to chat. On realising we didn't speak German, they would break into broken English for us. Those who had none would just smile and walk on. All in all, a great week.

Thanks Austria, it has been a memorable stay.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Europe by car

After a few hectic days of selling the furniture and sorting what we would need for the trip and what would stay in storage until we finally leave the UK, we we're ready to start our journey. Having had the final inspection for vacating the apartment, we headed off for the evening to stay with AD and Danielle. Stopping to purchase some last minute things - a dash camera for the car and a GB sticker required for the continent, our little car was loaded to the hilt looking more like we were travelling for a year, not 8 weeks. Arriving at Hindhead, we then took on camping chairs, air pump and Cooley bag and had to draw the line there.

                        Nothing left in the apartment, just waiting for the inspection

Before sunrise the following morning, we crept out of their house and headed for Dover, allowing ourselves plenty of time for traffic delays. A really good run had us down to Folkestone in 2 hours and plenty of time to stop for a leisurely breakfast. From there, it was only 10 minutes up the coast to Dover and a very easy check in for our departure. From number plate recognition as we approached the office, an offer of an earlier ferry, follow the road until we reach lane 210 (a massive complex), join the queue for a couple of minutes then we were boarding and on our way. After locking the car below, we headed up onto the back deck to watch the White cliffs of Dover fade away, and already France was clearly visible ahead.

                                    Leaving the UK - the White cliffs of Dover

                                   The car in its lane of the ferry across to Calais

After just 2 hours, we arrived in Calais, and remembering to drive on the right, we followed the queues of cars ashore. Our first impressions were of all the refugees waiting on the side of the road to stowaway on a vehicle heading back to the UK. For every one of them was a police officer making sure it didn't happen - what a sad situation.

Soon we were out of the port area and onto the highway heading for the Belgium border, a first nights destination the small village of Ochamps. On the way we stopped at the Euro Space Centre where we saw, amongst other things the Europa 2 rocket which was an expendable launch system for the Space Agency. It made 11 missions - only 4 of them successful.


                           Pete in front of the Europa 2 rocket - Euro Space Centre, Belgium

Ochamps was a delightful little village nestled amidst plantations of forestry and paddocks of cattle - the strangest we had ever seen. They had the shortest legs and biggest rumps we had ever seen and it turned out they were BBB - Blanc Blue Belge found only in Belgium. The huge rump appearance is known as double-muscling and the breed has an increased ability to convert food into muscle which also means the meat has a reduced fat content. You definitely wouldn't say they were a pretty cow. Dinner that evening was with our hosts and their family, a enjoyable night, and with their broken English and our school French, we managed to keep the conversation going.

Off the next morning to Baden-Baden, Germany - the foothills of the Black Forest. As we left Belgium, we could see the terrain starting to change from the flatness of the area surrounding Ochamps to the German mountains appearing in the distance. We made good time along the autobahn, sitting in the right lane - the slow lane. At times it looked like we were standing still as we were passed by Audis and BMWs that came up behind us out of nowhere and were gone before we could blink. No speed limits is a little scary but their lane discipline is amazing.

Baden-Baden is a spectacularly beautiful town with immaculate gardens, old buildings that are so carefully maintained and not a speck of rubbish to be seen. We felt when we arrived we probably did lower the average age considerably, not very many younger people seen at all. We checked in at our hotel and headed for their famous Frederick Baths. As the temperature outside was over 30 degrees, we were more than happy to spend the next few hours inside.

                        Just one of the beautiful buildings in Baden-Baden, Germany

                                                  Frederick Spa in Baden-Baden

                                   Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Bath in Badeb-Baden

Next morning we took the Merkurbergbahn to the top of Mount Merkur. It is Europe's steepest funicular railway and the views from the top were amazing. We then opted to walk back down the mountain into Baden-Baden, thankfully most of the route was shaded by forestry and gardens. Back down, and wanting a break from the heat again, we headed to the Caracalla Spa and kept ourselves cool for the afternoon. We are definitely struggling with the heat after 12 months in the UK.

Next day we headed south to the bottom end of the Black Forest stopping at Mummelsee, a picturesque alpine lake set amidst forestry and after a pleasant stroll around the lake to stretch our legs, we were on the move. Next stop was another lake - Titisee, a popular tourist stop where holiday makers were out in force on the lake in every type of craft imaginable. In the village, we purchased punnets of fresh strawberries, cherries and apricots - the sweetest, most flavoursome fruit we have ever had. Our destination that evening was Todtnauberg and a small B & B we had read about on Trip Advisor. 

                                           A pretty painted cow at Lake Mummelsee.

Hotel Sonnenalm was such a lovely spot. They had been fully booked up until our arrival, 12 rooms vacating that morning so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Our room and the communal sunroom had views down across the valley which were breathtaking. We took a walk up through the forestry tracks, climbing higher and higher amongst paddocks of wild flowers - yellow buttercups and purple lupine. They encourage locals and visitors alike to use these tracks, with play areas for the children along the paths. 

                 Looking through some wild lupine back into the village of Todtenauberg

                     Trying our hand at Skittles - only managed to ever hit 4 out of 10

          Peter trying to balance on the moving log in the kids play area - Todtenauberg 

                           An 'Insektenhotel' - teaching children how different insects live

             Enjoying the view from the sunroom at the Hotel Sonneralm - Todtenauberg

Tomorrow we start on the Deutsche Alpenstrasse - one of the most anticipated parts of our journey driving throu the German Alps.