France – South West and middle bits

Not sure how or where but we arrived in France! We pulled off the main road and saw road-signs saying France was in 1km but nothing really happened, no border signs, nothing we were just suddenly there. We were on the coast looking back at San Sebastian – seemed very built up so we gave the coast a miss – probably not the best thing to do but we can always come again.

We fancied visiting Lourdes, somewhat surprised to find nearly 5 hours drive (it was only 6 hours from our starting point at Navarre in Spain?). Putting hands in pockets we paid the tolls and €18 and 2 and half hours later arrived in Lourdes. First thing, where were all the people? so quiet we could not believe it. We visited the grotto, literally us and five other people there. Inside the Basilicas it was very much the same, a few people milling around but no crowds anywhere.

Lourdes France (4)We thought we would try our luck and see what the queues were like for the baths. Iain was straight in – no queue for men. I waited 40 minutes which wasn’t too bad. We were both totally unaware of what this was going to entail. Basically, it’s skinny dipping with several other people you have never met, whilst praying, in the coldest water you can imagine.                                                                                    

 (not our photo – pinched from internet

You go into a bath area which looks like a hospital ward, strip off, whilst an assistant stands holding a cloak behind you. As you are called into the actual bath they wrap a wet sheet around you to preserve your modesty as they whip off your cloak. Two assistants walk you to the bath, you step in and walk forward, then as they say prayers they pull you backwards so you are sitting down up to your neck in water than less then 11 degrees i.e.. absolutely freezing.  So much so it took my breathe away, I couldn’t breathe or speak, I honestly thought I was going to be the first person who died in the baths instead of being cured 😦 :(.  The two assistants seemed to notice my inability to breathe or join in with the St Bernadette prayers and whisked me out fairly pronto. Once you are out they hold up a sheet and tell you to get dressed – no towels, only wimps get dried first – just pop on all your clothes whilst you are soaking wet – awesome.

It is an fascinating place to visit, the various churches and basilicas are in the main incredible to see, although the underground St. Pius did, to us, resemble a concrete car-park with seating for 25,000. There are more shops selling religious artifacts than you could ever imagine. Bernadette graces everything from pens to candles to jackets to jewellery, with prices from a few cents to upwards of thousands of Euro.  And to cap it off there is a castle dating from the 11th century right in the centre of town, perched high on a hill it gives wonderful views over the town and the Sanctuary.

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Lourdes – taken from  the castle

Winding our way up through France we happened upon Condom. It would be easy to be immature, I cannot believe there is a Brit who visits who doesn’t have a school-child snigger!! Ok, that aside, its actually a lovely place. It doesn’t seem to have a major claim to fame and therefore is low on the tourist trail rankings. The main street is the usual cobbled affair with shops dedicated to the local specialities of Armagnac and Foie Gras, alongside some tres chic boutiques and cafes. At the lower end of town the Baise river runs out through several miles of parkland, we found a beautiful free aire a few miles along and called that home.

 

The only other main claim to fame for Condom is its connection to D’Artagnan and his Three Musketeers.  He was born in a castle nearby and hence the town has a very large reminder of him placed firmly in the town square.

We were unaware of the number of Bastide towns in the South West of France, again our ignorance meant we thought there were one or two fortified medieval towns, and yet it seems there must be many more (we found out later over 500) as we passed one every few miles. Those we visited, including our favourite Vianne, were very un-touristy, just a few shops and a cafe or two in a small square, considering they date back to between 1200 and 1400 the walls are astonishingly complete.

Traversing the Midi Pyrenees we were aiming to find a decent canal path for a good bike ride. Our best bet looked to be the Canal Garonne, miles of towpath and not a road in sight.  We had a night at the start of the canal but decided to move on to an aire 15 km up the road to cycle from. As we neared the aire, literally 3 km away we hit a diversion. My French is way to poor too understand what it was about other than we were too wide and only 1 cm under the height restriction. Therefore we followed the yellow divertion signs, and followed them and followed them. We stopped at Tonneins for a lunch break and re-stock of the cupboards, then we got on the diversion trail again.

Tonneins

We finally arived, an hour later and over 35 km detoured. At this stage Iain convisgated my Sat Nav for a look.  Lets just say he wasn’t the most pleased he has ever been. The low bridge was about 1 km after the aire we were heading for – so we really didn’t need to take the detour at all! From my view adds to the trip – from his – adds to the fuel 🙂

The canal cycle ride was worth the minor skirmishes, mile after mile – all off road and not another soul to be seen barring our good selves. We planned for a stop for coffee and something cakey at the first cafe, not a great plan as we didn’t see an open cafe in over 40 miles of cycling. 

This region of France is challenging for campsites at this time of year. Open ones do not appear to exist. Sure we have found websites showing campsite, we arrive they aren’t open. It drives me mad. We went to Duras, purely to get a campsite and do some washing. The kindly British owner told us he wasn’t going to open for a few more weeks – then why advertise including a hoarding on the nearest roundabout saying open? On the upside Duras threw up a quick visit to the chateau and the lady on the information offered us a free night parking around the back!

Chateau Duras

It was then time for us to sample the delights on the famous Dordogne. We followed the river across and came across beautiful village after beautiful village. It does get a bit confusing though, some villages are “one of the most beautiful” others “one of the plus most” etc. etc. Suffice to say its all a bit over-whelming. Just when we thought we had seen the best of something, another one pops up ahead and its even better than the last.

The Dordogne

We ‘happened’ across Limeuil (wrong turn, not mine), apparently this one comes in the “Plus Beau” category, easy to see why to be fair. A steep walk up to the top of the village where every house would have looked perfect on next years kitchen calendar. We missed the one where  the exit of the latrine falls straight out to the path right below! It is hard to miss that so many of the voices your hear are English, in a small village I heard several people in gardens and around the lanes speaking English, a few German and even a couple of French :).  We have met several Brits living in France, at least half of whom tell us they don’t really speak French as they don’t need to. Must have badges if you live here then as we find most of the French want us to speak in French, although we are pretty sure its just for their own amusement.

Limeuil – Dordogne

After a final night in St. Cyprien we left the chocolate box land and headed into Limousin. Still any number of cutesy villages but it much less touristy.  We did stop off at Brantome, an island village totally surrounded by a river, unlucky for us we arrived on a Monday and nothing at all was open, so we had a quick scoot around and moved on. Driving around we saw more and more empty and derelict buildings, we were told its one of the cheapest areas in France to buy property, obviously we then visited a few estate agents 🙂 yup we can just about afford a shed and that would need some renovation.

 

For us we had two reasons to visit Limousin, first to ride the Voie Vert cycle path at Chalus, yet another old railway line, as it our addiction. Yet more perfect piste for cycling used by no-one other than us. The cyclist here seem to prefer the roads, although quiet they are mainly hills – whereas railway lines are fairly flat so we will stick with them.  Lucky for us the chateau at Chalus was closed, if not then I as an Englishwoman (Iain wouldn’t have felt obligated as a Welshman) would have needed to visit the place where Richard the Lionheart died – and more importantly where his entrails are still held – how yuck is that? (other parts are scattered around France).

The other reason was to visit Oradour Sur Glane, where 642 men, women and children were slaughtered by the SS in June 1944, the town was then pretty much destroyed.  A new town was built after the war but the original town was left as was as a memorial. The entrance is underground and leads through some exhibitions from where you are free to walk through to the memorial village. It really speaks for itself, buildings and cars left as they were after the massacre. Plaques on the remains of many of the houses just show the family name and the profession of the occupants.  At the church where the women and children were killed there are some very simple plaques and prayers, and along the streets are plaques that tell of people being tortured or bodies found in certain places, you cannot fail to be touched by the horrors that took place.

As usual we were lucky with the time of year we are visiting as very few people around. Although we had been told that taking photographs was prohibited at one time there was no restriction as the few people there were wandering around with cameras mainly observing the requests for silence.  We both felt very privileged to have been able to visit Oradour, I think it will stay with us for a long time to come.

Eleven more days for us before its time to head for the high seas. Forecast of storms tomorrow then good weather to see us through to the ferry – here’s hoping 🙂 🙂

 

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The Last Post (but not quite ours)

When we left home 11 months ago we said our destination was Belgium and we would take the longest route we could to get there. Just over 11 1/2 months, 17000 miles and 600 gallons of diesel later – we have arrived :).

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Belgium held out on us slightly on the weather front as 10 miles over the border we hit pea soup fog.  We agreed it was pointless to carry on driving as we weren’t seeing anything. I had noted down details of a little camperstop outside a castle, sounded like the best plan to sit out and wait for the sunshine to come back (misplaced optimism there!)

We arrived at Wegimont Chateau and it wasn’t quite as expected,  eight spots for motorhomes but also about 200 permanent pitches where the owners stretch out to the limits of their space, a bit like a canvas city.  Showers were only allowed at set times and bingo took place each afternoon in the community tent – not somewhere we were going to be staying too long at all!

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Wegimont Chateau

On the upside there was a castle on the site – or Chateau –  a Louis XIV style building that was the only Lebensborn maternity home in Belgium. During WWII, these homes were state approved associations with the goal of raising the birth rate of Aryan children via extramarital relations of German men classed as racially pure and healthy with unmarried women. Known locally as an ‘Ayran Stud Farms’, the resultant children were then adopted by likewise “racially pure and healthy” parents, particularly SS members and their families.

A cold, wet and dull day we walked around the park – full winter gear out of the cupboards including gloves for the first time in nearly a year, we managed a full sweep of the arboretum and then a quick hike around town to stock up on a few bits then back to the van for a warm up. Each time it gets a bit colder I have used this as evidence to convince Iain we should head for Portugal for some winter sun – alas so far he is holding out for heading home.

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We had planned for a few days around the Liege area, however waking to sleet on Wednesday scuppered that one. Instead we aimed West and left the sleet behind, instead we hit snow! Proper white flakes of the stuff, falling fairly rapidly but luckily not sticking enough to make driving a problem.

By the time we had arrived in Tournai all signs of snow had gone, replaced with rain and a promise of sunshine later.  Tournai is the oldest town in Belgium, we had never heard of it, not sure why as its very impressive. One of Belgium’s most culturally import towns, it is chock full of magnificent buildings, including the oldest cathedral in Belgium.

As is usual for us the cathedral was shrouded in scaffolding undergoing restoration. The ‘Grand Place’ town square is a mix of trendy shops, bars and several museums set around cobbled streets with a series of water fountains – all in all a great place to spend an afternoon – unless its freezing and damp which it was so we made do with a couple of hours whistle stop tour.

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As we  started off last November with a visit to the Etaples military cemetery in France so decided our penultimate stop off point would be Ypres. I have never been before, for whatever reason I thought it was a village with the famous Menin Gate.

Somewhat surprised then to find a fairly substantial city, rebuilt post WWII with German reparation money. The main buildings in the city centre have been reconstructed as close to the original as possible, it is nearly impossible to believe these building were raised to the ground so recently.  The Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages in Europe,  the new structure is the exact copy of the original medieval building.

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the Cloth Hall

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the best roof ever – anywhere

The main reason for visiting Ypres, for us as for many others, was to see the Menin Gate Memorial for the Missing. Over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers from WWI that have no final resting place are commemorated here (with a further 35,000 names that wouldn’t fit on this memorial inscribed at the nearby Tyne Cot memorial).  We were told by a lady from the British Legion in town to be at the gate just after 7pm, even though the service is at 8pm.

We were amazed, when we arrived there were close on 1,000 people, and we were told this is the same every night of the week, every week of the year since 1928 (with a short break during WWII when Ypres was occupied). We stood with a group of Blackwatch Cadets who had travelled there for the weekend, the next night they were forming a guard of honour (the youngsters had all funded their own trips in order to stand for 10 minutes in honour of the dead).

When the three buglers from the local fire brigade sounded the Last Post, it was one of the most simple and moving events either of us have had the honour to attend.

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The Menin Gate

Quiet but not peaceful

After 20 countries we have to admit that sometimes places merge and we have to stop and think where we are. This week being in the “Little Switzerland” region of Luxembourg has been a tad confusing, as we never made Switzerland we will take it as a taster version.

We are both surprised at Luxembourg, it has been nothing that we expected. We thought such a small country would be very cramped with little outdoor space. We couldn’t have been further wrong, it’s like driving around one big parkland with the odd small village or town slotted in.  Whilst we have seen more than our fair share of forests in the last year we have never seen so many broad leaf woods. Hardly a pine or conifer in sight and being autumn the trees are magnificent it really felt as remote as Scandinavia as we drove up the German border.

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The benches come in big sizes here

As we drove through we were passing walking trails all the way, the forecast was for sunshine so we stopped for two nights at Kohnenhof so we could get out and do some walking.  Of course it rained fairly solidly all day, despite that we followed a trail up through the forests and then back down along the river. It pleases our sense of the adventure that we crossed over and back from Germany on the river footbridges twice, not even a sign that its a new country.

Language gets more confusing here all the time, we go into a shop and speak French, they respond in German – so we try a bit of German and they go to French! It seems natural to the people here to talk in both languages, we are now encountering more Dutch mixed in too. There is also a language called Luxembourgish, a French version of German but it seems not many people use that one – thankfully.

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He stayed dry

Our last stop in Luxembourg has been Clervaux another postcard setting with a castle, historic church and even an Abbey on the hill. We rolled in Saturday morning looking for the crowds, nope just us then. Car-parks empty, hardly a soul around, Luxembourg feels deserted, it may be out of season but even so we have not seen a country this quiet before. The town centre consists of several shops, four good sized hotels and river running through. Anywhere else this would be a tourist magnet but for some reason not here.

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Clervaux

The castle, as with pretty much everything in Luxembourg, was destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge, now fully restored it houses the museum of the Battle of the Bulge, more a collection of thousands of war artifacts from guns and uniforms to cigarette tins and pieces of old crates. As with most of the country they have a U.S. Sherman tank that participated in WWII and a German 88 anti-aircraft gun, both  outside the castle walls.

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The combined ticket also took us into the model castle exhibition. A 1:100 model of every one of the 15 castles in Luxembourg including the surrounding villages,  they are well done but have to say after the third or fourth it felt like groundhog day.

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Every town and village has a tank they are rightly proud of

The castle towers house the world famous “Family of Man” photographic exhibition. First shown in 1955 in New York, it then toured the world for eight years, having shows in 37 countries and being seen by more than 9 million people.  The photographs focus on the shared  features of mankind and humanism, with over 500 photos it is a lot to take in, some sad, some funny and many thought provoking. We spent an hour walking through but could easily have spent a day to really see every photograph properly.

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from The Family of Man – one of my favourites

This morning dawned bright blue skies so we set off to for the Benedictine Abbey of St. Maurice on the hill above the town. The Neo-Romanesque structure was built in 1910 but looks much older, a footpath winds it way up through the trees and after half an hour we were at the gates. We arrived just as one of their services was finishing, from outside the church we could just hear the gentle singing of the monks, perfect voices in a perfect setting.

There was a small exhibition area we were allowed to visit which showed photographs of how the monks live such as one on a tractor, another on a computer etc. Other than that there was no admittance to the abbey as the monks live a very secluded life. They do make a slight exception from their retiring lives and open their gift shops for an hour a day 🙂 commerce doesn’t stop for even a Benedictine Monk.

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Church Saints Cosmas and Damian

As we are being blessed with a few days of Indian summer we have stayed put for the weekend, on an amazing little campsite just on the edge of town. Everything we need plus a pitch the size of our garden and joy of joys a washing machine and dryer – never realised how much I would miss our washing machine. Most weeks we do a hand-wash but as the budget looks good went mad and did two loads in the machine – woohoo.

We have spent the rest afternoon sat in the sunshine listening to the hundreds of motorbikes roaring around the country lanes vying for attention with the constant bell ringing every 15 minutes at the town church and the Abbey getting in on the act every half hour.  Sunshine forecast well into next week so the plan is to work out a plan to see as much as Belgium as we can before we head home.

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Relaxing reading for the final push North 🙂

In search of the quiche

When we were leaving Alsace on route to Lorraine all we needed to do was re-trace our steps then take a left instead of a right over the Alsage – simples then. Oh no, Iain had seen a tunnel on the map, over 5 miles of tunnel so as tunnels appeal to him we needed to take that route.  Mile after mile of dead straight road under a mountain, no other vehicles in either direction – uh how much is this costing? Iain guessed at around €4, I was sure nearer €6. Oh how well we were fooled € 17.20 to drive through a dark hole! Iain is no longer allowed to choose routes.

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More of this – less of tunnels

We are in no rush at all  as we have covered pretty much all we want to (Luxembourg is yet to come but on route). We know we can be in the channel ports in a day at a push so we intend to meander around and take longer breaks for the next few weeks. In the spirit of being on a holiday from travelling we found a small campsite  on the edge of the small village of Raon L’Etape to sit in the sunshine for a few days.

It probably isn’t  visited by too many tourists, all the more mundane shops essential to daily life, just the one cafe and a rather plush outdoor swimming pool. One thing they have got a monopoly on is fountains – we counted at least six, elaborate Victorian type structures in the town centre. We stopped off at a small local shop to stock up with fruit, not sure how well our French translated as we seem to have bought shares in the shop rather than just pay for a bag of fruit!

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Raon L’Etape

Driving through the region it’s nearly impossible to go more than a few miles without reaching a war memorial or a military cemetery.  Every village or town has it’s own battle story, in most they have two – one for each war. At Raon L’Etape there was a simple plaque dedicated to the memory of 1500 soldiers of the US 100th Infantry who died, were injured or captured during a 14 day battle for the town in 1944, then in the cemetery on the way out of town were the graves of hundreds of French soldiers who died in in WWI.

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Literally a few miles up the road we came across Chipotte memorial and cemetery. The site marks the place where a WWI battle took place over 15 days, the cemetery has 1,006 individual graves and two ossuaries holding the remains of 1,899 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. Whether it be in military cemeteries or those included in town and village graveyards the crosses are all similar in that they show just a name, date of death and the words “Mort pour La France”.

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Col De La Chipotte

We have have an interest in recent history so visiting these places is always an honour, whilst it’s without a doubt often a very bleak and sad experience it seems wrong not to visit where so many have died to enable us to do what we do, travel freely around Europe.

Therefore having read about the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp being close by we both agreed to take a slight detour to visit. It is the only concentration camp that was established on French soil, mainly housing political prisoners and members of the Resistance, together with lesser numbers of Jews, gypsies etc. The camp held over 8000 at its fullest and also had 70 sub camps in the immediate region holding a further 19,000 prisoners.

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The stories remain as unbelievable as those of any other camp including medical experiments, tortures and gas chambers.  As with other camps the prisoners knew the Allies were approaching in 1944 and believed liberation and freedom was imminent. In a matter of days before the Allies arrived at the camp that hope was sadly crushed as the German’s decided to evacuate the camp and march over 7000 prisoners with them to Dachau concentration camp where most were subsequently murdered – as the memorial there says “Freedom – so near and yet so far”.

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 Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration camp

From Natzweiler we took a scenic route through Lorraine towards the Moselle River and the town of Charmes. Very few other vehicles on the roads so a peaceful afternoon to appreciate the beautiful scenery, whilst none of the villages we passed would be classed as a tourist must see they all had their own charm. In lots of ways its the older houses with plaster falling off, paint fading on the shutters and geraniums hiding much of the building that, for us, are the spirit of France (no cyclist with onions round his neck and a black and white t.shirt yet but we live in hope).

Charmes is a small village, pretty well destroyed in WWI, rebuilt and then it suffered the same fate again in WWII. On the positive side the Moselle River and the Canal De L’Est ru through the centre, and on an even better note the aire is next to the canal so we pitched up with a pretty perfect view for a few nights. Seemingly a popular stop with the French moho’s, a good number parked up with picnic tables out and a couple of petanqe tournaments taking place on the roadway.

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Canal-side home for a couple of nights

Nothing much we enjoy more than the bikes off for a cycle on a good flat canal tow-path, it is perfect cycling country here. We rode over 25 miles on tarmac paths and saw three other cyclists – not sure the French appreciate how good their velo network is.  The canal is decidedly quiet, we passed one quarry that had a few barges filling up but other than that no boats, not even a holiday barge cruising. There are plenty of locks but it seems all are now automated, there are signs for the boats to use some sort of remote key card, as they do the locks are automatically filled / emptied and the gates opened and closed, clever but not as good to watch as the old fashioned way.

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The Canal De L’Est

Buses, trams, funicular and cable cars

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Just because….

The second half of this week has been all about Freiburg and transport. It’s a small city full of trams :), an eclectic mix of old and modern shuffling through all the small city centre streets and outwards to the suburbs.  A university town so plenty of young people, trendy shops, bars and restaurants mixed with a good sprinkling of things for the tourists.

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Freiburg Old Town

One of the things the city is known for are the Bächle, small water-filled runnels,  supplied with water by the River Dreisam. These run along the edges of most roads and streets in the old city, originally used for carrying drinking water around the city back in the 15th century, now popular with tourists and with children who sail boats along them.

When large parts of the city were destroyed by 300 bombers from the British RAF Bomber Command in 1944 most bächle were badly damaged.  Since being rebuilt two people have tried to sue the own when they have driven into or tripped on a bächle – in both cases the courts found against the claimants and made them pay costs as they felt it impossible not to visit the city and know they were there.

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Sailing your boat down a Bächle

On the cobble streets there are small brass plaques inset, called ‘stolperstein (stumbling blocks), each one commemorates a German who lived in there and was affected by Nazi persecution, concentration camps, death, emigration and even suicide.  As of last year 48,000 of these plaques had been placed throughout Europe – the sight of them is another stark reminder that war touches so many.

Stolperstein

For a small city its certainly noisy, every 100 yards there are accordion players belting out Bavarian music, many very good, some not so good but taking the chance on a few coins, add to them a mobile funky jazz band touring and it was anything but peaceful.

All the regular city attractions are in the old town within 15 minutes walk of each other, a massive Gothic Cathedral cathedral dominates and around it there is a cracking ‘Munster Market’ open five days a week. Plenty of “ye olde German wooden toys” etc but it has numerous flower, fruit and bakery stalls too. The city tours take a walk around many of the oldest buildings including several red stone 16th century Historisches Kaufhaus  – former merchants houses.

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Kaufhaus

We were already mightily impressed with the amount to see and do, then we came across the pièce de résistance – a “floating woman” illusion. Iain  wasn’t fussed and felt he could explain it all away – I on the other hand love it, I could have stood there for an hour. I adore people who get off their bums to make a fee euro rather than rob old ladies and if they do sitting on a platform pretending they are floating then they get my couple of Euro everytime.

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At the edge of the old town is a large town park, which in turn leads up to The Schlossberg, a 1500 ft tree covered hill.  There are several footpaths up to the hill from the town, or there is a funicular railway – we took the lazy option.  There have been fortfied structures on the hill for over 900 years and more are being uncovered to attract visitors.  For us the most attractive thing about it was the sheer peace and quiet, despite there being plenty of other walkers it is high enough that there is no traffic noise (and no accordions either!)

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Schlossberg funicular

For a small city we found so much to do, despite poor weather, for most of the four days we have been here. The one thing we hadn’t done was visit Schauinsland, for a few reasons : its over 4200 ft high and to get to the top you take the longest loop cable car in Germany for just over 2 1/2 miles – the ride in the cable car takes 20 minutes. 

This morning it was reasonably sunny and we had nothing better to do, so a bus and a tram later we were at the base station. No matter how brave I thought I was after a few chair lifts nothing had me ready for this.  It was horrendous, this little glass bubble trundling up into the sky on a bit of wire, however as there were another four people in our bubble, sorry car, then I had to put a brave face on.

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that is the “brave” face

Twenty minutes is a long, long time – 1200 seconds and every one of them felt like an age. On the plus side, as a loop cable car you don’t get the horrendous shake and judder as it passes over the pylons, also when its thick with cloud you can’t see too far which for me is a bonus! It was built in the 1930’s but closed down in 1987 when the a safety permit wasn’t granted – only to be re-opened again in 1989 after updating of the cable cars and cable stations.

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A long way in any direction

At the top there are several cafes, restaurants,play areas – oh and a massive car-park as there is a road all the way to the top, in my new found cocky braveness though roads are for wimps :). We were expecting amazing views but the low cloud looked set in on the mountain and we made do with a sit on the deckchairs looking at the grey mist.

We did plan to walk back down, but as it was cold and a bit damp at the top we came down on the cable car back into the sunshine. We spent the afternoon riding the trams around the city as we had an 24 hour pass and decided to get our money worth. Much quieter everywhere on a Sunday and a pleasant enough way to see the whole city, especially with a stop off for coffee and cake at Starbucks ending the week perfectly.

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The only views were of clouds

 

Beautiful Bavaria

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On leaving the Alps our aim was to cross into Italy,  as always things don’t pan out as we thought and instead we crossed in the opposite direction into Germany. Looking forward to no more vignettes, tolls and charges – second road we hit was a private road and had a toll. Not the end of the world at €8.50 and worth every cent as we drove along the side of the Sylvenstein river towards the dam and our first taste of Bavaria. As with many rivers in the area the water takes on a chalky white appearance from the rocks – it looks more like milk than water.

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Sylvenstein

First intended stop was to be the lake at Tefernsee, we drove round it in a couple of directions (minor driver / navigator scrap!) and in the end agreed there wasn’t really anywhere worth staying. Instead we went to Bad Tolz, a small spa town just a few miles to the West.  A typical Bavarian town, a wide river running though the centre and tall buildings all painted with ornate frescos. The main street was pedestrianised, pavement cafes  and various museums and gift shops all busy with the coach tours in for the afternoon.

As with Austria we were surprised at how many shops sell traditional Austrian costumes for men and women. Without exaggeration every other shop had several costumes for men and rack after rack of ye olde German dresses for women. We see plenty of people if cafes and restaurants wearing the costumes but not enough to warrant the amount on sale. Before the question comes, at this moment lederhosen have not been purchased – but you never know :).

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Bad Tolz

We took a couple of days driving around the lakes to the South of Munich, Starnberger and Ammersee and an overnight in Diessen.  Again the houses and shops were similar to Austria but in the main they lack the flowing window boxes, relying more on the paintings and woodwork for decoration. We had a wander around the shops but resisted spending on cow bells and cuckoo clocks – so far anyway but there are so many its becoming more difficult by the day.

Diessen

Our mid-week aim was for the dual splendor of Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenschwanstein, the former being most famous as the castle Disney modeled their fairy-tale castle on. We expected a few tourists so we arrived early, well before 10am. It felt like actually being in Disney, the most people we have encountered anywhere we have been. It is very well organised, there are loads of shops, cafes and even horses and carts to take you up to the castles but more people than you want to meet in one go anywhere.

Our plan was a quick trek up to the bridge to take some photos and get out of there. We were scuppered as the bridge was closed for repairs, so no choice other than to follow the hoards up to the top. We had to question how on earth the bridge can ever be open, would hate to stand on it with a few thousand tourists pushing and shoving for a selfie shot.

The best we could capture on ‘film’

Both castles were built at the end of the 19th century, more folly than castle, seemingly with an eye too future tourists.  We knew there were two castles but we were surprised just how close they were, within minutes walk. Without a doubt Newschwanstein is the star attractions – Hohenschwanstein gets a passing glance but no more. We lasted an hour at the site and that was enough, plenty more castles in Germany so hopefully find a few less popular ones.

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On the right day, from the right viewpoint – a bit of Disney in Germany

We booked on to a campsite down the road and got the bikes down for a trip around the lakes, very much up Alp and down dale. The following morning we decided to do the same route but to hire electric bikes from the campsite.  Despite fairly rubbish old electric bikes it was more fun than should be possible on a bike. The views had gone – lost to freezing fog – loved it so much though we got back to camp, packed butties and a flask and set off again to do the route in reverse – best bike rides ever :).

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Rest stop

Following the ‘Deutsche Alpine Tourist Route’  it was onwards to Friedrichshafen and Iain’s second nirvana after Skoda – the home of the Zepplin. The only trip on offer was the 45 minute €350 trip, one place left for the last flight of the day. Ah well, only one seat of course I let Iain have it!  We were there at lunchtime so whiled away the afternoon sat in the sun outside the hangar bar, Iain filling his face with struddle whilst I was astounded people want to go up in a box hanging off a balloon.

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Five o’clock came, Iain was off for his safety brief (which consists of “ be careful climbing up the steps to get on as it moves” and “it’s ok to take off the seat-belt and wander around once airborne”.).  I think its possibly more terrifying watching someone else go up, six or seven guys holding the ropes to stop it floating off whilst they do “two on – two off” to keep the weight even. The  they let go of the ropes and its gone, very little noise it just floats off. When it comes back it nose dives down to land, literally head down and the guys on the grass run around grabbing ropes.

zepplin friedrichshafen

After the excitement of Zepplin flight we were planning a quiet weekend around the Bodensee lake, looking over at Switzerland. We pulled onto a campsite and found ourselves shoe horned in between a couple of large German vans. One of the German ladies spent most of the evening stood by our door smoking and glaring in at us, quit honestly she scasred us both! We got up and 7am and she was there again (or maybe had spent the night there). We decided to make a quick exit and leave the hoards around the lake.

With a few miles of leaving Bodensee we found a small Stellplatz next to a set of fishing lakes and parked up for the weekend. Nothing much to do but walk and cycle, suits us perfectly for the weekend.

Crystals – snow and glass varieties

Austria seems to have a few quirks – one of which is the road systems. It seems on a two lane road if the speed drops to below 50 miles per hour then the traffic immediately filters to either the outside lane or the hard-shoulder. This leaves the inside lane free for emergency vehicles but also stops all the lane jumping you usually getting in slower traffic. As soon as things speed up everyone filters back out – sad but true that we are mega impressed, so much so we love seeing a bit of a hold up ahead!

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Roads and views in Austria take some beating

Despite some low cloud we followed Gerlos Alpine Road over the mountains, passing the Krimml waterfalls — the highest in Europe and 5th highest in the world.  The road only opened in 1964 and closes in November due to snow, until then its motorcycle heaven with all the cafes, guest houses and car-parks trying their best to attract some of the hundreds of bikers who visit each day.

At the top of the pass we reached over 5000 ft, turned a corner and we reached a toll booth! As we have a vignette we were a bit surprised and agreed if it was too expensive we were going back – well maybe not as it would have been about about a 60 mile diversion. It was only €8.50 so we paid up and took the downward slope and into Gerlos, a very traditional looking ski village with plenty of expensive shops and bars.

Gerlos

It’s not blue skies every day

Iain has a yearning to go on a bob-sleigh run, we have yet to find a dry run but we did find roller-coaster type run at Zell am Ziller, worth a few Euro to see his smiley little face, and another few Euro for the photo. According to Frans Klammer-Baxter he reached speeds of over 70 kph -evidence below 🙂

bobsled

With more rain on the horizon we were looking for something to do that didn’t involved a castle or museum but kept us dry -Swarovski Crystal World in Wattens was a perfect fit.  Built 20 years ago to celebrate 100 years of the Swarovski company, describing it as a museum would be wrong, there is only one room with old artifacts and really nothing about the history.  It is called an experience – you enter under the waterfall that runs from the mouth of the giant and inside there are 15 unique “Chambers of Wonder”  – a very apt description of what is there.swarovski (71)

Enter under the giant

Each chamber has been designed by different artists and use crystals and glass in some very unique and mind blowing manners. My favourite was the Crystal Dome, 595 mirrors in a geodesic dome that creates such a feeling of depth it feels (and sounds) as if you are inside a crystal. Music composed by Brian Eno plays in the background and as the colours in the glass change from time to time hidden art objects appears behind some of the mirrors. One of the most amazing man-made objects ever – worth the entrance fee on it’s own.

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impossible to photograph  – borrowed from the Swarovski website

Every installation is very different, classical sculptures in crystal, clouds containing crystal rain drops, forests made from crystal and glass where you feel trapped in a 3D world and so many others it would take the whole blog to describe it.  There is of course a large Swavorski outlet shop, nothing cheap there but a massive selection for those with big purses. Outside there are further sculptures along with a giant maze and a pool that you walk into by way of a pathway giving the impression to onlookers you are walking through the water. Despite it costing €19 to get in it is without a doubt one of the most fabulous places we have been to.

more of the chambers and the outside clouds

Our plan was to visit Innsbruck, we drove in and drove out. We expected a ski town, it was just like any other very large town and not what we were after. We remembered a comment on here about Seefeld so set off there instead. Up in the mountains a small ski village that is just perfect for us at this time of year; plenty of quirky little shops, quaint hotels, cuckoo clocks galore, horse and carriage rides and cafes with oodles of struddles .

A lovely campsite on the edge of the village, the most expensive site since we started out 10 months ago. That said we both think its great, Iain has been making regular use of the sauna, the restaurant serves very, very good food (on a wet day the best comfort food ever – Tiroler Grostl) – its all so good we have been here for four days.

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Seefeld

Continuing the theme of “I hate heights so why are we in the mountains?” we went up in the ski lift to 5000 ft. My nerves were shot to you know what, I believe clinging on to the hand-rail will save me if the cable snaps – I did do no hands for a split second to take a photograph, just the one :).  Seefeld is a very popular resort with British walkers, we met a couple who have been coming for 11 years, they were surprised we were using the lifts and not walking – we were surprised you would walk that far up a steep hill if you didn’t have to. The sun popped out for half an hour whilst we were in the mountain restaurant having lunch – the views absolutely made up for the terror trip up there.

skilift

On the way down

Made it both ways 🙂      We went how high ??

It’s been our first few days of poor weather for months, the sun has peeped out now and again but the first snows of the season fell on the slopes above us during the night.  We did venture out today for a decent walk, following one of the many Nordic walking trails down the valley and back. Back of camp now planning on moving on tomorrow before we take root here.