Wednesday, September 3, 2014

August 27th & 28th – Mainz Weinfest

When we got to our riverside campsite at Mainz, the site looked like the WW1 battlefields of France, it was that muddy – strangely enough, it was actually reassuring to know that Zell hadn't been the only place covered by a big rain cloud. Actually, our visit combined with the end of the rain, and it was beautifully sunny for the couple of days we were there.

Like most of these major towns in Germany, Mainz is a combination of those medieval buildings that survived the war (or were rebuilt after the war), some less-than-attractive post-war buildings that had to be put up quickly, and now sparkling modern buildings that attest to Germany's economic strength. It seems a nice, relaxed and prosperous town with enough sights to keep you busy for a couple of days.

But, we weren't hanging around in the city for too long, because we were meeting up with our friends Bernd and Gisela who live nearby. They took us on a wonderful daytrip to see a few sights around the area. We went first to Darmstadt, to visit the artist colony that was set up there in the idealistic years leading up to the First World War. There was a beautiful collection of Jugendstil architecture and furniture on show there, as you could see the flourishes of Art Nouveau morphing into the streamlined designs and technological advances of Art Deco.

We next moved back in time, onto the little wine producing town of Oppenheim – a picture postcard village of medieval buildings dominated by an unfeasibly large church. But, what was above ground hadn't prepared us for the town's most interesting feature – a labyrinthine network of tunnels cut into the limestone that Oppenheim's built on. These honeycomb tunnels run for miles under the town, and were originally built as cool storage units under the houses and buildings, and then were developed into emergency shelters for the populace during the many conflicts that have affected this area. To see them properly, you need to don a safety helmet and go on a subterranean tour around the caves and tunnels – our excellent guide made what could have been a little dull, incredibly interesting.

On returning to Mainz and saying goodbye to our generous hosts, the temptation was just to chill out at the campsite. But, our visit just happened to co-incide with the opening of the Mainz Weinfest, which meant that we just had to go to the showground to do a little tasting. We were there on a Thursday, and the big nights were going to be Friday and Saturday, but it was still lively enough – there was live music and good people-watching to be done, in between quaffing some pretty good wine, of course.

August 19th – 26th – Moseying Down The Mosel

When the sun shines in the Mosel Valley, this can be one of the most beautiful parts of the world. And, even when the sun doesn't shine (which it didn't for most of our stay), it's still an incredibly peaceful and relaxed part of the world.

We were joined by our friend Anita, and stayed in the little wine town of Zell, on a site overlooking the river, with amazing views of the steep Mosel Valley, the slopes covered in a green blanket of neat vines – it was enough to inspire us to sample a few drops of the delicious local Riesling. In between rain showers, we did plenty of cycling along the river, took a train trip to Cochem (with its fairy-tale Gothic castle), and to Bernkastel-Kues (the centre of the wine land region).

On one particularly rainy day, we went to the local swimming pool to stay dry; and, ignoring the rules on the water slide, Tracy and I attempted to go down the slide together. As any parent knows, rules are there for a reason, as a resulting sickening clash of heads left me with a bump on the back of my head, and Tracy with a very nasty black eye. Ooops!

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?