Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August 15th-18th – Free Time in Freiburg

After we sat in a 2-hour queue to get through the Gothard Tunnel in Switzerland, and the weather closed in as soon as we passed north of the Alps, it began to seem like it wasn't a good idea to head away from the sun of Italy, into cloud covered Germany. However, a few fun-packed days in the southern German city of Freiburg has restored our faith.

The town is mainly famous for its lively atmosphere and for its stunning location on the edge of the Black Forest; and, during our 3 days here, we got to appreciate the best of both. We picked up our friend Nicky from the "Euroairport", which sits at the corner of Switzerland, France and Germany, enabling us to cross the borders of three different countries in the space of 10 minutes, and then we headed up to Freiburg.

The city was badly damaged by Allied bombs in the Second World War, but fortunately its centrepiece, its stunning Munster (Cathedral) somehow managed to survive the devastation. Seeing as its steeple has been described as "the most beautiful in Christendom", we had a breathless climb up its vertiginous steps and enjoyed the panoramic views over the town and across to the Black Forest and the mountains beyond.

We also couldn't help but notice the huge black clouds that were now heading our way, so we ducked into the wonderful Markt Halle which is packed with bars, restaurants and people. After a couple of glasses of local Riesling, the rain had stopped and we did a bit more exploring of town – a mix of modern buildings, historic medieval and baroque buildings, and busy shopping streets.

That evening, we'd noticed that there was a Spanish band on at the Markt Halle, so we headed back there for more wine, beer, food, music and superb people watching. The atmosphere was excellent and the people crammed in there covered all ages – I don't think you'd find such a mix of ages all enjoying the same experience in many places in the UK.

The next day we took a train out to the Black Forest to visit a town (and lake) enigmatically called "Titisee". It was very popular with tourists, but you could see why – it was just gorgeous. The weather wasn't great, but we kept ourselves warm with a walk around the beautiful lake enjoying the views.

Our final day here saw us take the cable car up to Schauinsland, the tall mountain behind Freiburg. The cable car is 3.6km long, and takes you up to a height of 1,286 metres above sea level, which meant that the views were amazing, and the air super fresh (so fresh that some of the gusts were absolutely freezing – is it really mid-August?). We followed some walking trails and had a lovely lunch in a ski-lodge hotel.

Even though we'd never known about Freiburg's attractions before, it's a great place to visit – heartily recommended. If we liked it this much when it was cold and cloudy, imagine how good it is when it's hot and sunny?

August 4th – 14th – Mothering in Stresa

After our drenching on Lake Como, we were praying for good weather for the visit of both our Mothers to Stresa, where again we were lucky enough to be staying at our friends' apartment again. By and large the weather held for us, although there were a couple of almighty downpours that put paid to various activities.

Even though it was all about quality time with our long-suffering mothers, we managed to pack quite a lot in – we took the cable car up to the top of Monte Mottarone where we got spectacular views over 6 lakes in the distance, we took lots of boat trips (the highlight to see the palace on Isola Bella), we visited the amazingly colourful gardens at Villa Taranto, we visited lively markets, and once more, I ate A LOT of pizza.

Time with family, visiting wonderful sights, and eating gorgeous food – isn't that what holidays are all about?

July 27th– August 3rd – No Sign of George in Rainy Como

Maybe it was the dodgy weather, but we were disappointed to find that there was no sign of George Clooney during our week in Lake Como. It may have been that we were staying in the unfashionable town of Abbadia Larianna, which was on the other side of the Lake from George's pad, or that he didn't want to venture out because it was almost constantly raining or looking like it was about to rain – but Lake Como's most famous resident was conspicuous by his absence.

The locals professed that they'd never know such bad weather in the summer (don't they always say that?), but in between the showers the place did look absolutely gorgeous in the sun. Whenever the sun did come out, the beach in front of the campsite would immediately get chock-a-block with holidaymakers – considering that we were staying in a one-horse town, it was difficult to see where they all came from.

We had an entertaining visit from our friend Sally, who refused to be daunted by the miserable weather, we did a day trip to Milan to walk on the roof of its remarkable duomo, we went to the fancy resort town of Varenna to see how the other half lived, and we played a lot of cards with the rain hammering on the roof of the van, scarcely able to hear each other.

We certainly saw enough of Como to want to come back (in better weather) – every time we planned a boat trip, the weather closed in, so we definitely need to come back, if only to see if Bellagio is as nice as everyone says it is.

July 19th-27th – De-stressing in Stresa

After a week of stifling heat in Spain, it was lovely to come to the fresh air of Lake Maggiore and the quaint resort town of Stresa. With a cable car taking you up into the mountains, fast train links to Milan, ferries to take you all around the lake, and scores of restaurants, it's perfectly set up for being adventurous or just lazing around the lake.

As camping spaces are like gold dust (and similarly priced) at this time of year, we were lucky to be able to stay with our very generous friends, Ade and Lucie, in their beautiful apartment on a hill overlooking the town and the lake. From the vantage point of their huge terrace, we were able to watch the weather change over the distant mountains and the lake (changing its colour hour by hour), or just chill out in the sun.

In between some world class lazing, we did some mammoth cycle rides, a bit of swimming, and A LOT of eating pizzas – I think I must have had a (very adventurous) prosciutto e funghi in pretty much every restaurant in town. What a great place to relax!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 12th-19th – Family Reunion in Andalucia

When you have as big and spread out a family as I have (my Mum is one of seven), then we rarely get everyone together under one roof, and when we do, it has to be a pretty big roof. So every 5 years, the Mildner clan get together – this time the 28 of gathered in the Andalucian countryside between Granada, Malaga and Cordoba.

Anyone who knows southern Spain at this time of year, knows that it's phenomenally hot, but our lovely villas were blessed with cool swimming pools, lots of shade, and plenty of cool beer (ok, we provided this). We had a great time catching up with long lost cousins, uncles and aunts, plus day trips to the most amazing monuments of Moorish Andaluz, the Mezquita at Cordoba, and the Alhambra at Granada.

I wonder where we'll all meet up again in 2019?

July 11th – Carmen at Verona’s Amphitheatre

There can't be many more stirring places to watch an opera than open-air in the ancient Roman amphitheatre of Verona. We've been quite a few times before and it's always been swelteringly hot, but today was refreshingly (and surprisingly cool).

Other than not having sweat dripping down the back of our legs, what made the performance even better was that it was one of my favourite operas – Carmen (ok, I don't know many operas, but Carmen is one that I've seen a few times). Actually, it was the best staging of it that I've ever seen, with a cast of hundreds of singers and dancers on the huge stage, joined by plenty of children, donkeys and horses.

The only downside of having such amazing sets was that every set change (there were four) took over 20 minutes, which meant that it took almost 4 hours to complete. We took our seats on the stone steps around 8ish, and left just before 1am, scarcely able to feel our backsides!

Numb bum or not, it was a great experience.

July 8th – The White Horses of Lipica

We stood there full of anticipation by the side of the road to the stables. 100 metres up ahead of us a gate was opened, and suddenly, 50 beautiful white Lipizzaner horses came thundering past us at full gallop through the dappled sunlight, like a tide of equine power breaking over us, their manes flapping in the wind behind them and the ground shaking under the weight of their feet as they sprinted past. It was utterly exhilarating being so close to these phenomenal creatures, powerful and graceful at the same time.

This was the perfect end to one of my most enjoyable days in 10 years of campervanning, as we visited the legendary stables of Lipica (pronounced "Lipizza"), to see the original home of the amazing white horses that are used in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Lipica was home to the imperial stables since the 16th century, but after the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, most of the stables' horses were taken off to Austria. However, since the Second World War the stables here have been thoroughly revamped and today demonstrated that the Slovenian branch of the Lippizaner family is in excellent health.

First we went to a perfectly choreographed show of horsemanship just like the Spanish Riding School, with the horses putting on a graceful show of skipping, prancing, pirouetting and high kicking to waltzes and classical tunes (some to a disco beat). The rider and the horse were in perfect unison, making these incredibly complicated manoeuvres look utterly effortless – it was wonderful to watch (sadly you're not allowed to take photos inside as it spooks the horses, so the pictures of the show are from their website).

Then we were taken to the stables to meet some of the horses that are in training – they take years of training, normally reaching performance standard between 10 and 20 years old, before going into a blissful retirement (they live to about 30). Normally I'm a bit wary of horses close up, because I find them a bit unpredictably skittish, but the ones we met were so incredibly calm and serene. It was like meeting horse royalty – I couldn't stop stroking them.

But, the best was saved till last, as we watched that joyful gallop of the mares and the foals (who, surprisingly enough, start off brown and turn white as they reach adulthood). As they galloped past, it felt like we were on the set for the Guinness add, or for a fantasy film.

Slovenia has been a joy from start to finish, but today was surely the best day of the lot.