Monday, June 30, 2014

June 21st-27th – BeLOVEd Bled

Slovenia's Tourist Board use the slogan "I FEEL sLOVEnia", and after a week spent in the impossibly beautiful surroundings of Lake Bled, we're feeling the love too. We love the super-friendly people (almost everyone speaks English, and they're very happy to), we love how clean it all is, we love how well organised it is, we love how reasonable the prices are – we love it all! Actually, we didn't love absolutely everything – we were hit by a couple of days of rain to remind us that we hadn't hit heaven on earth.

But, what's most easy to love about Bled is just how unbelievably picturesque it all is. Every time we went out, we had to take yet more pictures of it – depending on the time of day, the lake's limpid waters were green, blue, or almost black, while the church on the tiny island in the middle of the lake never looked less than impressive and the medieval castle on the cliffs overlooking the lake always looked on imperiously.

This is a place to enjoy the great outdoors and the freshest of fresh air, for cycling and strolling around the lake, hiking up into the pine-clad hills that surround it, or for swimming in its warm waters (there's a hot spring in there, to take the chill off the mountain waters). Plus, there's day trips by bus to the pleasant medieval town of Radovljica (who'd have thought a museum on beekeeping would be so interesting?), and to Skofja Loka with its towering castle. You could even catch the train to the capital Ljubljana in an hour, but that's our next stop.

The town is gearing up for a month-long film festival next week, so it's a shame to move on, but Tracy is already planning summers spent renting an apartment here in the future. We will be back – we've fallen in love with Bled.

Monday, June 23, 2014

June 20th – Ice, Ice Baby in Werfen

I've never been to an ice cave before, in fact I'd never even heard of one before. But seeing as we were breaking up the journey to Slovenia by stopping off in Werfen, Austria (just south of Salzburg), which just happens to be home to the world's largest accessible ice caves, it was time to get acquainted.

Werfen's already over 500 metres above sea level up in the Austrian mountains, but these caves are hidden deep in the mountain, over 1,600 metres up, so the trip to see them involves a steeply winding bus ride, a steep walk to the cable car, an almost vertical cable car ride, and then another very steep walk to the cave entrance – the only good things are that you get some great views down to Werfen with its spectacular castle, and that all that climbing gets you pretty warm before you enter the freezing cave.

Because, as we've packed for a warm summer in Southern Europe, rather than for exploring a sub-zero mountain cave, I was wearing pretty much everything I had with me, like I was wearing a fat suit –a T-shirt, a long sleeve T-shirt, another T-shirt, a shirt, a jumper and a pac-a-mac, but still the icy chill from the cave entrance took my breath away. However, the sights inside were even more breathtaking – it was amazing to think that it was warm and sunny down at the campsite at the bottom of the green valley below, yet up here inside these cavernous ice-boxes it was a deep-chilled winter wonderland and the ice in here is up to 25-metres thick in places.

These huge limestone caves get super-cold over the winter, and then over the summer the melting snow from the mountain-top drips through a few small openings, gets frozen again, and forms giant rivers of ice and bizarre-looking natural ice sculptures that need to be seen to be believed. The atmosphere builds as we were given a steaming gas lamp to light our way, and we began to climb the 700 steps up through this huge cathedral of ice – the breath of 40 people panting away up the steps being lit up atmospherically by the bright magnesium flares of our guide.

There was such an other-worldly atmosphere in these eerie caves that it felt like the set from a science-fiction film – like those scenes from Logan's Run, or from Alien. This was one of the weirdest environments I've been to – a great experience (if a little bit on the expensive side).

Having ticked off ice caves from our list of must-dos, hopefully, we're now going to leave the cold behind us, and find some sun south of the Alps in Slovenia.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

June 18th – Seeking Albrecht Durer in Nuremburg

Getting held up on a shut-down autobahn for 3 hours and then being caught in a rainstorm just as we got to the campsite was perhaps not the best introduction to Nuremburg; but, after waking up to blue skies and warm weather the next day, the city proved to be a really lovely place, full of restored historic buildings, open-air cafes, and traditional bierhauses.

Of course, as the place where the Nuremburg Rallies and then the Nuremburg Trials took place, the city has become synonymous with the rise of Nazism and the Second World, but the city has bounced back really well since the war, and much of its historic old town has been carefully rebuilt after the devastation of the Allied bombs.

So, instead of exploring Nuremburg's darker past, we decided to use our visit to find out more about the city's most famous citizen, the 15th century painter, Albrecht Durer. On her history of art course, Tracy has spent quite a bit of time studying northern Europe's first "Renaissance Man", and the more we've seen of him and his works, the more you realise just what a genius he was – way ahead of anything else being produced at the time north of the alps.

We first went up to admire the view above the roof tops from the city's imposing castle – built during the Middle Ages when Nuremburg was growing wealthy as one of the main crossroads of European trade. Just below the castle (close enough for Durer to regularly keep up with his patron the Holy Roman Emperor), was Durer's 4-storey house – as this was one of the few buildings to survive the Second World War intact, our visit here also gave us an insight into daily life in the Middle Ages.

Having got a better idea of Durer's life, his inspirations and his techniques, it was time to see some of his works at the city's excellent art museum. It must have been the good weather outside, but we were virtually the only visitors admiring a great collection of Durers, Cranachs and other German artists (most of whom I hadn't heard of before, but still enjoyed).

Unfortunately, because of our 6-week break from sightseeing, we seem to have lost some of our "tourist stamina", which meant that we had to stop a couple of times for a drink, but luckily Nuremburg is a great place to do just that. One day wasn't enough to see all that Nuremburg had to offer – we'll have to come back some time soon.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 16th - DOM-iciled in Cologne

After a long drive through France, Belgium and Germany, we finally reached the first stop of this summer's tour - Cologne. Our campsite was in a grassy spot by the Rhine about 8 kms out of town, so the cycle ride in was the perfect way to start our new "lose the flab" fitness regime.

Cologne's cityscape reflects its past - odd bits of ancient wall and road from Roman times,gothic and romanesque buildings from its medieval heyday, and unimaginative 1950s buildings put up quickly after the devastation of WW2. Of course, the whole city is Dom-inated by the enormous Kolner Dom, the city's magnificently soaring Cathedral.

As we were in town on a Monday, all the museums were shut, so the Cathedral was even more the thing to see. This was the tallest building in Europe prior to the construction of the Eiffel Tower, so we climbed the thigh-busting 503 steps up the bell tower for the best views in town.

We're not great lovers of German (meat-focused) cuisine, so for lunch we headed to the more gritty student quarter for a delicious Lebanese felafel lunch - one of the best, and cheapest lunches we've had for a while.

Finally, we just meandered round the prosperous shopping streets where all the locals seemed fairly jolly - obviously confident of a victory against Portugal later that evening.

A good start to this year's European Odyssey.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On The Road Again

After a few weeks back in the UK we've started to get itchy feet again. We're back in the campervan and ready to drive to Germany tomorrow, before heading down to Slovenia. Can't wait!