Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Kobarid and Camp Koren

August 22nd

In the morning we set off in search of Camp Koren, a campsite that had been recommended to us by the "Cool Camping" guidebook. Many thanks to Rachel's ladies - a wonderful birthday present! The road to the site was hairy to say the least, so I let Rachel do the driving to avoid any blame should anything bad happen. The weather had become even hotter since Austria and today was no exception. In the glorious sun we wound our way through the mountains to the campsite.
As soon as we arrived we knew we would have a "cool" time here. After checking in we found the ideal spot on the edge of the campsite (and a cliff), overlooking the main river, which set the background noise for the site. After the  awning was set up and we had made camp, we set about the strenuous task of relaxing for the day, and exploring the river a little. We also used the free facilities and washed all our clothes, had showers, used the internet (for which there was a small charge) - all in all the site is great value for money. On top of this, the site staff were really friendly and welcoming which made life really easy for us.

August 23rd

We started today with a walk around Kobarid. Immediately outside the campsite entrance you come across the Napoleon Bridge which has wonderful views on either side. The was initial wooden bridge was destroyed by the Venetians before the French built the first stone bridge over the river to march to Predel Pass (where the monument we saw two days ago stands). It was subsequently destroyed in WWI to be rebuilt by the Italians, and during WWII was the scene of heroic defense from Slovenian partisans against Germany forces who occupied the territory in November 1943. There are monuments to these defenders on the bridge.
During our little walkabout we crossed the stream to get to the waterfall of Kozjak which was stunning. There were minor waterfalls around this too which made for a very pleasant stop. Crossing the river again, we stopped for a quick dip in the river, which was absolutely freezing despite the roasting hot temperatures on land. Up on the Tonocov Grad, a large hill overlooking Kobarid, there is a Roman settlement, dated from the 5th Century with a tremendous view of the town below, and on the way there you pass through the trenches used by the Italians to defend the area against attacks from the Austro-Hungarian and German forces during the Battle of Caporetto, or the 12th Battle of the Isonzo during WWI.
We then arrived in the town, where we went to a cheese museum to see how cheese was made through the centuries in this area. After this we bought some of the local produce and rushed back to the van to make dinner and scoff the lot!

We finished the day with another stroll down to the river and a quick dip (very quick!) before relaxing at the on-site bar.

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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Tarvisio to Bovec

August 21st

The stop in Italy was only a brief one as the next morning we headed into Slovenia, just over the border. Before we left we had a little look around Tarvisio and it was quite a nice border market town. The weather was again glorious and we left Italy looking forward to when we would return and see it properly.

As we drove we passed a little stream and stopped to cool down with a brief splash. It was pretty cold but very refreshing. We then stumbled across this lake in the midst of the mountains and had to pull over for a dip. The water of Lago Del Predil, although crystal clear was very, very cold and although you could see the bottom of the lake through the water easily, diving down the water became so cold that you had to surface pretty much
straight away.

But no sooner had we crossed the border into Slovenia than our chins hit  the floor. We had seen some beautiful scenery up to now but this blew our little heads. We had headed into the Soca valley and immediately came across this castle. The castle was destroyed during the Napoleonic invasion and now stands as a memorial to the fallen Austrian defenders (the area was under Austrian rule until 1908). A wounded lion guards the tombs of the fallen soldiers.
We stopped in the town of Bovec which is the unofficial capital of the Soca region and is surrounded by the Julian Alps. Here we found a real treat. Firstly, they call cheese "sir" which went down very well with Rachel, and next the cheese-makers are happy to sell direct. As we approached a house which had the "Sir" & goat sign a head popped out of a window followed by feet to the front door. Within minutes we had purchased some of the finest tasting cheese we had tasted. Typical for the region, it was mild but so creamy and full of
flavour at the same time. Needless to say this went within hours, but we had discovered the joy of buying cheese straight from source and later we were also told that we should do the same when buying the Slovenian
wine which is also very highly rated apparently. I look forward to verifying this claim.

For the night we settled in at the local motorhome rest spot, the Stellplatz equivalent, cracked open a bottle of beer and watched the sunset. After sundown, we ventured to the on-site pub which was actually a nightclub and the place where the locals from Bovec unwind after a heavy day. Here we met Jernej, who was the Slovenian national kayaking champion, and was on the lash with his kayaking team. He spoke excellent English (as does everyone here), and weirdly it sounded more and more Scottish as the night wore on. We shared quite a few beers and stories before we had to retire for the night as we had an early start the next morning, but it was good fun.

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Climbing Mt Mirnock

August 20th

Today we climbed Mt Mirnock, which stands at 2116ft above sea level and towers above the Millstatter See. We started the climb at Glanz which was pretty high to begin with and climbed for about 2.5 hours up to the peak. On the way we passed some more funky fungus, as well as alpine strawberries and raspberries, which we had to try. The way up was through woodland with mountain streams cascading down occasionally. This was really tasty to drink and we regularly filled out water bottles wherever we found one. The weather was glorious and this made it slightly harder work, but it was absolutely worth it as the views from the peak were incredible. There were some  great places to sit and rest on the way up including these purpose-built chairs and sun loungers near the peak. it was fun to look down at the houses below, and Nailz was not afraid of getting quite close to the edge. In fact Nailz was in bullish mood as he growled at everything in sight, from intimidatingly large horses to the cows that roam around the hillsides.
Mount Mirnock is known as the Mystic Mount by the locals as the peak is crossed by two "energy" or geomantic lines, the Kloster and the Kult lines. Locals say it is possible to feel the energy in various sensations such as heat, cold, tingling etc. I felt a strange sensation in my stomach which only abated after we had passed the peak and had lunch.
It took slightly longer to get down, as I was knackered by now, and we did go a different, and slightly longer way back down. It was nice to view to the lake we had scuba-dived the day before from such a great height, and houses looked tiny.

We finished with a drink at Gasthouse Klammer before we headed away from Austria and, briefly, into Italy to a town called Tarvisio which is where we bedded down for the night.

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Quick update!

I've just logged on and noticed that there was a post missing which covered August 10th to 11th. I've corrected this so please go back and review it if you missed it!

Also I've properly updated google maps to show our path including where we are today!

Scuba Diving in Seeboden!

August 19th

Today we got in our first dive of the trip, and we are well chuffed! After the disappointment of Bodensee due to the weather, we did get to dive at Seeboden! It could have gone horribly wrong though, as when we got down to the dive centre and started kitting up, we very quickly realised that on the continent most countries use the DIN system as opposed to the Yoke that our reg's use. I had known this, but stupidly it hadn't registered, and there we were with two Yoke-system regulators and DIN-fitted tanks. If you don't know your diving terminology this means we were up a certain creek without a paddle, and we may as well go snorkeling instead. To our rescue, Thomas provided his own personal DIN-Yoke adapter and hired me a DIN regulator so we could go diving after all. Hurrah!
The dive was quite extraordinary. Thomas was German and had described the dive area in his best English but when he said that we were to find the first tree by the buoy, I naturally assumed he meant large plant or something similar. Nope, he meant tree. There were quite a few underwater trees which provided a habitat for the sea-life down there which, along with rapidly decreasing visibility made for quite an eerie dive. The "vis" started at about 6-7 meters near the surface and quickly dropped to around 4-5 meters as we got deeper. It was only a shallow dive as we were at 600m above sea-level to begin with, all the life was at less than 10m, and besides that there was an incredible thermocline at 8m which took you from nice and toasty 21 degrees centigrade to a frosty 10 degrees instantly. It was much nicer in the shallow end.
I also tested my underwater camera housing (without the camera in it) for the first time with success, no leakage so later I took it back in (with camera this time) to snap the fish we had seen on the dive. There were groups of 4-5 striped fish which hung about near the surface and the sandy areas of the bottom, massed shoals of tiny fish surrounding the sunken trees, larger black fish swimming independently, and long-nosed green fish which were about a meter long and hiding among the branches of the trees. In fact there seemed to be a heirarchy among the tree-dwelling fish and the big fellows had their own branches and didn't move even when we got close. All in all a fun dive and it was nice to get the first one of the trip under our weight belts.

We spent the rest of the day lazing about in the sun, snorkeling and generally relaxing on the side of the lake before retiring to plan a bit of a walk for tomorrow...

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Seeboden and Lendorf

August 18th

Last night we had driven to the south Austrian town of Seeboden which sat on a large lake nestled in the Millstatter Alps. In the morning Rachel was up bright and early to have a paddle in the Millstatter See (the lake bordering the mountains which, looking in the guides, is 600m above sea level) and the report was that the water was warm and clear. In Seeboden there are all kinds of herbal remedy, health spa, relaxation activities but we didn't feel the need for them. What we wanted to do was go diving in the lake and after a scout of the tourist information centre, we were lucky enough to find a Tauchcentre, or Scuba Diving centre operating out of a hotel in Seeboden itself. After lunch we went to the Dive centre and spoke to a nice fellow called Thomas and we arranged to dive from the centre the next morning. Result.

For the rest of the afternoon we took Nailz for a walk in the mountains by the town of Lendorf. We were looking for a magic flower - a yellow rhododendron which is a "botanical rarity" and only grows in one spot in the whole of Austria. It's Latin name is Rhododendrum Luteum Sweet and only grows in a few places in eastern Europe and the Black Sea. We did find it (it was fenced and signposted!) but it's flowering season runs from mid-May to the start of June so it wasn't hugely exciting. We did have a good walk through some lovely scenery though, and we did see lots of yellow and purple flowers which we were quite happy to gaze at as we made our way round one of the many hiking route in this area, and we also found loads of examples of interesting fungi.

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August 16th

Today we had a mostly slow-paced day and explored some shops on the outskirts of the town of Salzburg. The weather was pretty horrible so we didn't mind avoiding a soaking. The weather did brighten up considerably in the evening so we drove into town, parked up and had a bit of an explore. The shops were closed by this point which was nice because we got to experience the city and the sundown without having to wade through loads of tourists (like us). It also meant we could appreciate the architecture of the old town a little more.
After the walk we decided that we would come back during the day and have a better look round the place.

August 17th

We had a better look around the old town to day, as well as seeing some of the newer parts and hillsides surrounding the town. Some of them were more like mountains to climb but the views were well worth the effort. The Fortress of Hohensalzburg dominates the landscape but we decided not to take the tour round it, instead discovering the more intimate parts of Salzburg.
We started in the Mozartplatz, where a statue of the great composer stands dominating the square. We then moved on to the Altermarkt, or old market where the stalls were doing a brisk trade of Mozartballs, which we politely declined. We did see the smallest house in Salzburg, and it is really small. We then crossed the river and headed towards the Kapuzinerkloster, stopping off to admire the view at the Hettwer-Bastai fortifications over the city and also St Johann am Imburg Kirche, which is the church Mozart attended with his sister as a child. It was re-built by Gandalf, no less, although this was the Archbishop Max Gandalf and his coat of arms is above the door.
We went on to the Kapuzinerkloster which was nice and a bit lower-key than the churches we had been getting used to. We then went on up to the top of the Kapuzinerberg to Franziskischlossl, a castle on top of the 'berg dedicated to St Francis Assisi. The walk to this was great, a real hike up the mountain in deep forest. I really liked the castle too because of it's design and beauty. It was built as an end-point to the fortifications of Salzburg as as such could have been a weak point for attack. Also as it was exposed on the highest point of the Kapuzinerberg (the massive hill we were standing on) it could well have been attacked. However the design of the castle was such that as you approached the castle you would be subject to brutal crossfire on three sides at all times. The platform inside the castle was for artillery to rain fire down on the eastern Salzach valley below. Hence the latin inscription above the gate "may it protect the citizens in eternal peace" was honored, as no attackers even tried to penetrate the castle, such was the deterrent it provided.
We made our way down and into Linzergasse Strasse, into the church of St Sebastion and in particular the cemetery where, among other famous names, Leopold Mozart was laid to rest. We then made our way to the Mirabell gardens which were immaculately kept and pretty  before making our way across the river to the Augustinakloster as I had developed a taste for the beer in Munich. After our pit-stop we then made our way to Mozart's townhouse and birthplace before walking up the famous Getreidegasse which is a road full of designer and boutique goods. I saw a lovely twelve string guitar that I would liked to have had a go on, but I wisely decided to move on. Next we passed the Kollegiankirche before finally heading to the Salzburger Dom. This was most impressive, the artwork inside was simply beautiful. I was also impressed with how many organs it had. I counted five, and one big on at the back. Now that is surround sound!
Two final things of note, the first was a Temperature / Barometer gauge thingy, very similar to the ones we had seen in Germany but more elaborate and also with old-school needle and graphs paper, which was quite cool, and the second was a sculpture dedicated to commemorate the success of Austrian and German civilian protests to the building of a nuclear reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf, Bavaria (Germany), and against a governments aim to railroad the plans through, in particular the fence around the construction site which represented the "arrogance of the Nuclear state".

Pretty exhausted by this time, we got back in the van and set a course for south Austria, to a place called Seeboden (no, not Bodensee!!), pretty much on a whim. The journey there though was great fun, going through massive tunnels through the alps and back into fading daylight to see villages nestled in amongst them. It was truly breathtaking.

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Saturday, 21 August 2010

Munich to Salzburg

August 13th

Ok, so today I turned thirty which was a good excuse to drink beer, and was in the beer capital of the World, but I had nobly decided that before we get on the sauce we should take up one of the tours that were going round Munich to fill us in on what we had been seeing over the last day or two. As we had such a good tour from NewEurope tours yesterday at Dachau, we took them up on their offer of a free tour of the city.
The tour started in the Marienplatz with the Neue Rathaus, the new town hall. The Rathaus has a Glockenspiel in which, twice or maybe three times a day, mechanical puppets come to life and tell tales of local legends in interpretive dance. We would later see the Alter Rathaus, or old town hall, which is newer than the "new" Rathaus due to it being bombed and completely destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt subsequently. In fact the majority of buildings in Munich are replicas re-built after the war as the city was heavily targeted by Allied bombers. This may have had something to do with Munich being known as the "Home of the Movement", i.e. the place where the National Socialist Party, or Nazi for short, began it's rise to power.
During the tour there were several references to the Nazi's and Adolf Hitler, who had fled Austria to avoid national service and gone to live in Munich. However, at the outbreak of the First World War he joined the German Army, was injured in a gas attack and hospitalised for temporary blindness. During this time the war ended in defeat for Germany. After the war he used his army pension to rent a flat in Munich.
It was post-war that he got involved in politics, disliking the newly created Republic of Germany after abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, and joined the German Workers Party, later re-named the National Socialist German Workers Party. It is here in Munich that he gives speeches at beerhalls, like the ones we have been frequenting, and also stages the infamous "Beerhall Putsch" where he tries to stage a coup d'etat, leading to imprisonment in Landsberg am Lech. We went down the street they marched on afterwards before they were intercepted by the police, ending in a gun battle where three or four policement were killed along with fourteen putchists.
Also on this street there are four bavarian lions with golden roses on a shield at their feet. It's tradition when walking down this road that you rub three, but not four lions for good luck, wealth and happiness. Rub a fourth and you are considered greedy.
The St Cajetan church is at the end of this street and it's interior is quite unlike the others seen so far on this trip. While in detail it is as elaborate, there is only white inside this church and it makes for quite an experience.
Elsewhere you have the Church of our Lady, or Frauenkirch which is where the current Pope gave his sermons before taking up his papal office. This was allegedly built by the devil who was tricked by the chief architect and now always has a cool wind surrounding it, but that's another story.
We just had time to go round the market stalls in the Viktualienmarkt which is Munich's oldest market and holds a dazzling array of food and drink, before stopping at a Schneider Weisse inn to sample some more beers.

For the evening we headed back to the Augustina Braukeller, eat some fine Bavarian stodge before and learning some traditional beer songs about being happy and having a good time, which we very much were.

August 14th

Not much happened in the morning due to a significant aching of the bonnet, but in the early afternoon we had a look at the shops in Munich. I can't go on about this too much, but there are a couple of points to make. First is the Viktualienmarkt, mentioned earlier. This is quite amazing and could easily have been a day out in itself. Loads of tasters for cheese, dips and other produce and a mind-boggling array of choice. Second is the sports shops. Quite simply, they are huge (there are two we found in the centre). They have literally everything you need and one even has a rock climbing wall so you can test out your new kit before buying! Also on our gallivant around town we came across the Asamkirche with it's extravagant Rococo interior, which took the biscuit for interior design.
Later we had a drink in the Lowenbraukeller, and I can heartily recommend the Triompheter (strong beer) and Utype beers! This is also one of the Braukellers that Hitler frequented and gave speeches at. The floor plan doesn't seem designed for this though, but it is very grandiose and a fun place to have a beer.

We ended the evening at the Hofbrauhaus, about which many songs have been written, but I know of none. The entertainment was really enjoyable though, an Oompa band playing various classic Bavarian songs, interspersed with whip-cracking percussion (up to five fellows on stage all cracking whips in time with the band) and the occasion drinking song, to which we now knew the words and could sing along (it basically is an invitation to drink). There were other musical entertainments on other floors including this lovely-looking guitar and accordion. It was all great fun, food and company. and a lovely way to round off seeing the folks over the last few days. Cheers Mum and Dad for making the journey to Munich to meet up with us. I had a great birthday and we all had a great time and look forward to seeing you when we get back to Blighty!

August 15th

Sadly, after getting to know it so well, we had to leave Munich and head south to the land of Austria so after a brief pack up we hit the road and headed down to Salzburg. On the way the heavens predictably opened, but as we reached Bad Richenhall something magical happened. First a most complete rainbow appeared on the road ahead, as if to say "Yes, go to Austria!" and secondly the Alps loomed large over us, dark and forboding and very much like something from Tolkein in this weather. Later in Salzburg we managed to take this shot which doesn't show what I mean but still looks pretty cool.

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Dachau Concentration Camp

August 12th


When we were trawling through the tourist guides and tours of Munich, what to see and what not to bother seeing, one thing stood out, head and shoulders above the rest. This was a guided tour of Dachau Concentration Camp, pretty much the only concentration camp in Germany to have been left, as far as possible, as it was when it was in use.  This was the concentration camp by which all other concentration camps were measured. It was the very first, and the only to have been in use throughout the time Hitler was in power. It was the first place they dumped conscientious objectors when they assumed power and it was only freed two days before Hitler committed suicide. As our guide, Marcin said, it wasn't going to be the nicest tour, but I am so, so glad we went.

So you walk up to the gate and see the words "Arbeit Macht Frei", or, "Your work will set you free" in English so it's a pretty nasty start considering the vast majority of people going in will not come out. I don't need to go on about the gruesomeness of the camp's past and I'm sure most of you won't want to read about it - and to be honest I was the same. But actually visiting this place changed the way my brain processed the information. Walking round the camp and seeing the quarters where prisoners were kept, beaten, tortured and murdered allowed me to take onboard what happened in a much more real sense. About the gate, the original was destroyed by the Americans getting in so a new replica was made for the memorial. It is not used as the gate now however, there is a second gate in front of this one so that this one need never be closed again. Also the cell doors in the inner part of Dachau, called the "bunker" have been bolted open so they can never be closed.

There was also an extremely scary efficiency to much that I saw. The camp changed a lot during the war to enable new techniques of torture, control, prisoner storage and disposal to be tried and tested. Dachau was the place to try everything first.

For me, the thing that will stick in my mind most vividly is the gas chamber. I'm not quite sure what I expected before I went, I certainly can't remember now, but the the place was scary in a way nothing else quite is. It was built for purpose. Take the prisoners in one end, there's lockers for them to put their clothes, next door leads to the "shower room", next door is where you pile the bodies, next room you burn the bodies...

Dachau was also the place the SS used to train new recruits and de-humanise them. On the site there are barracks, classrooms and housing for SS recruits (usually about 16-19 years old) and the officers just outside the camp. It's also important to mention that all the key buildings in Germany associated with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party are now occupied by Government organizations to stop Neo-Nazi's from using them as shrines. We found this out when our guide was pointing out some buildings on the way into the concentration camp which used to house new SS recruits but now housed trainee riot police.  As our guide was explaining the historical use of the building, a squad of riot police - on cue and in full riot gear - marched in front of it. It was a strange feeling to say the least!

I'm not going to go on about the experience too much, needless to say that if you get the chance to go to Munich or nearby, go and see Dachau. It is absolutely worthwhile. Each year over one million visitors pass through the gates and around one fifth of these are German school children. The Germans are not hiding away their history but displaying it so that it's and our future generations can take the opportunity to learn from it. This is the best memorial that there can ever be to the millions of people murdered in camps like this all over Europe and western Russia.  It was the prisoners themselves, just after being freed by the Americans, who insisted that the camp be left intact for that very purpose.

There is also a pretty incredible sculpture dedicated to the prisoners of Dachau, you can see that here.

Finally, our guide, Marcin (New Europe Tours), was incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of Dachau and had regularly spoken with survivors of Dachau to ensure he was able to relay the information as authentically and accurately as possibly. He really made the whole tour very accessible and rewarding, so a big thanks to you.

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Starnberg to Munich

August 10th

Today again the weather was great so we had a bit of a chilled one,
window shopping in the town, catching up on e-mail (while sipping
coffee!) and finding out what there is to do in Munich and how to do it.
The afternoon was spent reading on the Lakeside and snorkeling -
there were a surprising amount of fish in the Starnbergersee, massed
shoals of silver streaks of light and larger solo wrasses graced the
blue water. It was really clear considering the amount of water and
therfore mud which had been added to it recently!

After getting ourselves together we made the relatively short hop to Munich (M├╝nchen), the first big city since Strasbourg to meet up with my parents who had flown out for a few days to help celebrate my 30th. Once we had found a suitable parking spot and paid the appropriate fare we met up with the old fogies and had a lovely meal (proper Bavarian stodge to line the stomach before a good drinking session) and sunk a few Augustinas (one of many local brews in Munich) to round a lovely day off.

August 11th

We got up and moved the van to the second campsite or the expedition, Campingplatz Nord-West. We had decided that it would be easier using public transport to get around the sprawling city, and the campsite afforded us showers, washing machines and a place to try out our awning, without the risks associated with driving your home through, and parking in a busy city. The nearest rail link into the city centre, a small satellite suburb called Moosach, was a twenty minute cycle ride through a nice park and on good cycle lanes, so we got a regular bit of exercise each morning an night. Our bikes were safely locked at the station and we knew that as we had the cheapest bikes out of the hundred and fifty or so locked up at the small station, only a tiny blind thief would try to steal our humble transports.
The rail links were excellent, ran frequently, always on time and were also incredibly affordable. We bought a 3-day, 5-person (and 1 dog) ticket which allowed unlimited travel to the "Innerraum" which was basically all of Munich which allowed all of us to scoot around the city at will. Nailz was a bit perturbed by the train at first, but by the end was a seasoned rail-traveling dog.

Once we had met up with Ma unt Pa, we had a leisurely mooch around Munich city centre, working our way up to the Englischer Garten. This is a vast expanse of parkland, in fact the tourist guide says it's the "largest park within city walls" and I can believe it. It is huge and took us all day to amble through part of it. We were distracted a little by the beergarten in the centre of it, but we were soon back walking among the picturesque paths alongside the river. We even came across a waterfall and some surfers riding the waves created by a bridge! The Garten was so big we struggled just made it back to the beergarten where we decided to sink a few more (for strength) and enjoy the "Oompa" band which was playing in the Chinesischer Turm (a big four-level Chinese-style tower). We then staggered back toward the Marienplatz where we hopped on the train, stopping to drop off the Mum and Dad before headed back to Moosach.

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Landberg am Lech, Kloster Andechs and Starnberg

August 9th

Landberg am Lech
We explored Landsberg am Lech during the morning. The market had finished the day before but there was still plenty to see. The river (Lech) was still way higher than normal due to the recent rain, and when it hit the weir (just after the main bridge into the town) it was turned from a powerful, but orderly body of water into a seething, angry mass.
Now Landsberg am Lech has a very interesting reputation as one of two places in Germany which offers the highest quality of life, according to "Stern Magazine" - so the tourist leaflet proudly claims (I'm not making this up!). Avoiding the obvious jokes about what constitutes the high life for our Bavarian friends, Landsberg does have a very interesting (and in part notorious) history. It was here that Adolf Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf" whilst in prison, Hitler Youth groups staged mass demonstrations, and it was also part of the route of the death marches of prisoners from the nearby Dachau concentration camp, and it's subsidiaries, towards the end of the war. Advertising quality of life, given it's murky past, has an unfortunate irony to it. There is a somewhat discreet memorial to the death march (by the main road heading out of town), but "there is nothing to see" as I was told by the young chap in the tourist office of the rest of the war connections. The prison is still a working prison so access is not an option. We did find a bunker (what I think is a bunker anyway) hidden away in the woods during a walk around the city walls.

The town centre is wonderful mix of colourful buildings, angular roofs, and cobbled roads. To get to it you go through a nice archway which is part of an old gateway tower and it has a rather nice clock. On the other side of the tower, nestled in amongst the townhouses is the old town hall, which boasts a stucco facade. Elsewhere in the town you can find the Maiden's Jump tower (Jungfernsprungturm) which got it's name during during the 30 years war.  Also I liked the Lutherun Chrisus Church which was where the market was held the day before and is on the other side of the river from the town. It is very Disney, although dates from 1913. The highlight for me though was the Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, a former Jesuit college church built around 1753 with a modest exterior and the most explosively decorative interior I had seen. Trying to take a good picture of the frescoes, by Christoph Thomas Scheffler, was pretty much impossible.

Kloster Andechs
For the afternoon we headed to Kloster Andechs, which is a monestary between Landsberg and Munich where they brew Andechs beer. We had heard that this was the beer to drink and so headed there at full speed to try and sample the wares. We had a look around the church, which was neatly painted on the outside, including the clock faces. I was astonished to see another such a lavishly decorated place of worship just after we had left Lansdberg. It really is hard to take a good picture of these places with a standard digital camera! On to the main attraction, and in the beer hall we found the first of what would be regular sight in Bavaria, a whole bank of personal tankards locked up ready for their owners to allow them to fulfill their destiny. It was a beautifully sunny afternoon so we sat back in the beergarten and sipped "doppelldunkles" before having a walk round the area to "freshen up".

A good while later that day we found ourselves in the town of Starnberg where this view of the Starnbergersee greeted us. The area had been hit by widespread flooding, notably by the Wasserpark (yep, the waterpark) and the railway Station which was only crossable by using the scaffolding set up to keep pedestrians out of the water, however you had to duck as there was only about 4 foot clearance from the ceiling! As we had arrived late the town was winding down for the day, and we satisfied ourselves with a walk by the lake before winding down ourselves.

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Landsberg am Letch

Click here for the photos (sorry I've not had time to link them up!)
Click here for our route

August 8th
I wish someone had told me that the weather in Germany was much like that of Britain, but wetter! Today started ominously with the patter of rain on the roof but soon lapsed into a pattern of light drizzle, shower, sunshine, drizzle...

Today we were heading east to the town of Landsberg am Letch, just west of Munich (or Munchen). We had read a bit about the town and decided we should allow two days for exploring as there is a bit to see here. After a bit of traveling on the Autobahn, we hit Landsberg and drove through it's cobbled town centre and parked in a Stellplatz (by luck rather than judgment). Today was the last day of a crafts market and we had a good look around. It was predominantly pottery but had garden ornaments, necklaces, bracelets, dangley things and lots more curiosities.

The river ran beside the market and further up toward the town centre the river was broken by a weir. Because of all the rain in this area too, it was a torrent and even when we were back at the van a little way away it was the only sound you could hear. It was pretty cool. We had a brief look around the town before heading back tot he van for supper and to settle down for the night.

Lindau to Bregenz (cycling from Germany to Austria!)

Click here for the photos (sorry I've not had time to link them up!)
Click here for our route

August 7th
This morning we got up early for coffee and showers before leaving the campsite (and neighbouring donkeys) behind in favour of the town of Lindau. We parked close to the railway station, got out our bikes and cycled the small distance to the town.

Lindau is a tiny island in Lake Bodensee, which is joined to the mainland by a bridge for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. The town is a wonder of varied architecture from the 13th century Mang Tower, or "Old Lighthouse", to the New Lighthouse and Bavarian Lion which guard the harbour and where built in the 19th Century. The main street (Maximillianstrasse) we buzzing with stalls and in the air the local Zeppelin floated calmly overhead. Finally the weather was on our side and the bright sunlight brought out all the colour in this vibrant little isle. Even the New Lighthouse had a smiley face!
The main government buildings such as the Old town hall and Railway Station were wonderfully ornate and beautifully decorated, the old town hall in particular, with it's mural paintings based on sketches by Munich painter Josef Wildmann. Even town houses, formerly owned by wealthy merchants, were getting in on the act.
The view from the harbour deserves a mention too as from here you can see Bregenz, in Austria, and it's surrounding forests as well as the Rhine valley in Switzerland. With the sun reflecting off the lake it was spectacular.

We stopped for a picnic on the lake walls before again taking to our bicycles and hitting a cycle route which passed the van. Next we went to go to the nature reserve which was a stone's throw from the van but because of the amount of rain we had had in the area lately Lake Bodensee had risen considerably which meant most of it was now under water!

So, next, we decided to cycle around the lake. It's worth noting at this point that cycling is more than a hobby over here, it's a way of life. Cycling here is like being in the Tour de France. There are cycle lanes to take you anywhere you want to go and the cycle lanes in Belgium, Holland and France, Luxembourg (and beyond I'm sure) all link up. We saw a lot of families with camping equipment on their backs bombing around on slick-looking racers and mountain bikes. We got a lot of smiles and curious expressions as they saw us with Nailz running full tilt alongside them.

During the cycle we came across an interesting feature which was a pillar with all kinds of information on it such as the temperature, humidity, distance to capitols (851Km to London), where it was midday and much more besides. It also showed the height of the lake since 1817, which showed that there had not been much change. No global warming here then.

The cycle route took us into the Austrian town of Bregnez, which we had been looking at from across the water earlier in the day from Lindau, about 8 Km away. Here we found a lovely park over looking the Lake and parked the bikes to have a look around.
The first thing we really noticed was what looked like a large broken sculpture a little way off. We made our way there through the park to find a semi-stadium which surrounded a large stage which was actually on the water. Here, and what we thought to be the broken statue, was an intricate stage for an opera on the water. The set looked like a broken Statue of Liberty with a golden elephant for good measure. We had arrived just as they were performing some tests and we got to see how the stage was going to move during the performance, for instance the torch would rise from and fall back into the water and the face of the statue would split in two and be lifted by two cranes. We were told this was the biggest stage on water in the world, and it did look impressive but we decided to carry on exploring.

As we were looking around the town of Bregenz we spotted the top of a bulbous tower over top of the town houses, so we made our way up a steep slope of cobble streets, under an archway (with portcullis) and into Bregenz-Oberstadt. This was the walled old-town of Bregnez and every street was made up of wonderfully quaint houses, often with detailed murals adorning the walls. We found the church of Martinsturm which, in keeping with the area, was a lovely church with a bulbous tower. Walking back through the new town I spotted this terrible advertisement for health and safety in the workplace.

We got back on our bicycles and with a slightly weary Nailz by our side set off for Germany and the comfort of our van. It had a been a long and tiring, but rewarding day. The sun shining had been a real treat after the rain we had had recently and to be able to cycle to another country on great cycle paths, enjoying the sights along the way was tremendous fun and now our bed was calling.

Friday, 6 August 2010

More Friedrichshafen

August 5th
Just when I thought it couldn't rain any more... more monster deluges today!! To avoid getting drowned, we found ourselves a very welcoming (and just as importantly warm and dry) bar, called Ellis bar which had free Wi-Fi or W-Lan as it's known over here.  Drying out with coffees, which progressed to beers and then cocktails, we set about organising a dive in Lake Bodensee whilst we were here as a treat for Rachel's birthday.  The owner of the bar, Steven, had lived in Southampton and was particularly useful as a translator.  Watching us struggle he kindly got on the phone to a friend of his, and a few e-mails later we looked sorted for diving on Saturday.
Also whilst whiling our day away in the bar we bumped into one of the street performers from the previous day.  All the way from Argentina, Sebastian's set consisted of just himself and a loop station, building phrase after phrase in the manner of a modern one man band.  We got chatting and he gave me details of his web site which is http://www.artealpaso.com.  There is free music on there to download, on the condition that you do something nice for somebody else.

Friday 6th August
Once again atrocious rain.  The local stream, leading to the lake has become a surging brown torrent. Diving on Saturday is looking highly unlikely as the lake which, only two days ago, was crystal clear now appears to be made of coffee! Not only that but the road we needed to cross to reach our dive guys in Austria is now closed due to flooding! Nay mind eh?
We booked ourselves into our first camp site of the entire trip this morning so we could just relax for the day, at Der Landgasthof in Kressbonn. It's a very nice camp with free Wi-Fi, hence the regular updates and although the weather was poor, our spirits were not. Tonight Rachel and I are relaxing over a few bottles (or Flaschen) of German beer and a nice bottle of Cherry Wine! Cheers!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

On to Bodensee

August 4th
From Singen we headed in a south-easterly direction and joined up with the coastal road running around Lake Constance (or Bodensee). The views were spectacular looking down onto the vast expanse of water surrounded by Austrian and Swiss Alps, which were themselves covered in mist giving them a strange other-worldly feel. The lake is the third biggest lake in Central Europe and we drove for almost an hour and a half just to get a quarter of the way round.
We stopped in the town of Friedrichshaffen on the north side of the lake to have a look at a street festival which was going on at the waters edge. There were street performers, face painting (I was tempted), music, bar tents (serving beer in proper flagons!), food and stalls selling all types of gifts, all with the backdrop of the lake and the many boats that harbored up there. It was a lovely day and it was a pleasure just mooching about the stalls and watching the performers.

Erstein, Europapark and the Black Forest

August 1st
Erstein was a nice little town but we didn't explore a lot today other than walking Nailz about for a while. The town did have a McDonalds so we pulled up outside to use the free WiFi and ended up spending most of the day looking up bits and bobs (mostly how and where to find free 'Stellplatz' - the German equivalent of Aires du Reste, some with free loos, electricity and drinking water), and Skyping the parents. We then filled up with Gazole as we had heard it was cheaper in France than in Germany and headed over the border.
We were heading to a theme park called Europapark which is in the town of Rust, barely over the border. We had found a free StellPlatz just up the road from it in the town of Kappel. It was no more than a car park by a lake, but it would do us fine so we pulled up, rustled up some dinner and bedded down for the night amidst another mild thunder storm.

August 2nd
Rachel and I got up like kids before Christmas and headed to Rust, and to Europapark. This place was just awesome and we had an amazing time. I think we went on every ride going and there were some excellent roller-coasters along with loads of other great attractions. It absolutley bucketed down with rain at times which caused rides to be closed for a short period, but this did not put a dampener on our day, even though we were soaked through by the end of it. Another good thing was that it wasn't too busy so we were able to get off one ride and straight onto another almost immediately. They even provided free showers (which was a welcome bonus) and also free electric hookup with the camper parking. As our solar panels were providing all the energy we needed we didn't make use of the electric, but it was good to know it was available. If you are in the area it is well worth the entrance money. After we had showered and got into some dry clothes we set off for the town of Bonndorf in the Black Forest region of Germany, to look for cake. On the way we passed through some incredible countryside with sheer drops on one side of the road, and sheer cliff faces on the other. They were the kind of snake-like roads you see on Top Gear, and Rachel had a lot of fun driving amongst the clouds as we wound our way up the mountains.

August 3rd
Last night we had stayed in another 'recommended' parking spot, also just a car park, but this time by a sports stadium! Bonndorf (im Schwatzwald to give it the full name) is in the heart of the Black Forest so we had to have a look at this ancient forest full of legends. After breakfast we took a walk through the forest and saw loads of types of mushrooms, wild strawberries (which tasted super-sweet) and blueberries amongst other treats. We didn't take any mushrooms as the odds of us getting the wrong ones is probably a punter's nightmare. Rachel has a book to help us identify the right kinds, but for now we were just happy taking a walk through this underworld of dark green. It was a lovely sunny day, a nice contrast from yesterday's deluge, but in under the dense canopy scant patches of light were able to break through.
After exploring the forest for a while we got back to the van and headed toward Lake Constance, or Bodensee to use it's local name. En route the heavens opened again briefly but by now we were used to this weather. When it rains it really rains and when the sun is out it's really hot.
As we neared the next StellPlatz in the town of Singen (not to be confused with Schingen, Luxembourg folks) we passed the ruins of a castle on a high mountain top. We had to have a look. We were looking at the Duke of Alemannia's fortress, Hohentweil which was built in the 10th century on the top of a volcano. Dr Evil eat your heart out. The castle used to be an enclave belonging to the Duchy of W├╝rttemberg in the middle of Austria. The castle withstood five sieges during the 30 years war and as a fortress in the middle of enemy territory it was heavily armed. The view from the castle shows just how difficult it would have been to take by force.
Once we had descended from the castle we made the short journey to our stop for the night, a free Stellplatz in the shadow of the fortress, and made camp.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Haguenau to Strasbourg

July 28th
We woke up in Haguenau by the river, which seems to be our favoured type of location! The weather was absolutley atrocious so we holed up in a friendly bar for the most part of the day. We did venture out during the breaks in the weather to have a look at the town. We found most unusual clock on the side of a museum of folklore (literally meaning historical life in the town), and also found our first Geocache of the trip but the weather soon put a halt to further exploring.

In the afternoon we went for a swim in the local piscine which was a welcome treat. To round the night off we opened a bottle of Pinot Blanch that we had bought from Luxembourg, grown in the town of Reimich in the Moiselle area.

July 29th
Today the weather was very changeable. One minute it was lovely and hot, the next the sky was completely black and rumblings of thunder were heard in the distance. We decided to find the local Aire du Reste to fill up our water supplies so headed to the nearby town of Souflenheim. Here we fould the reste without too much difficulty and were pleased to find free water and electricity provided for weary motor-homers. I wish this were the case in Britain!

The town itself is typical of the towns found in the Alsace region of France, very old-looking heavy-beamed houses, reminiscent of Norman age buildings in England. If this were England the town would be a National Trust Heritage site, but as they are everywhere in this part of France not much notice is taken except by the likes of us who walk round with jaws hanging a little. The town is also famous for it's pottery which is on sale throughout France.

We filled up our water containers and were washing our clothes when a fellow who was working on one the houses adjoining the Reste came up to us for a chat. He had seen the number plate and asked where we were from. He explained that he had worked in Yeovil for a while for Westland Aerospace, which is a stones throw from where I used to live in my younger days!

July 30th
We had stayed the night in Haguenau as we had a good feel for the area, and now that morning was upon us we decided that it was time to move on to Strasbourg, the capital of Europe and Alsace! However, our first impression of the city was not good. Because we had become accustomed to smaller towns and villages and a slower pace of life we were not quite ready for the vastness and 'hecticness' that is the capital of Europe. We had driven into the "business-end" of the city which could be any major town in Europe. Still once we had found a place to put the van we set about finding our feet. We are both very glad we did.

The best part of Strasbourg has to be the "Petite France" area of the city. This is the old-school part of the town and full of bustling coffee shops, bars, street entertainment and music. We spent the afternoon walking among this vibrant landscape and stopped for coffees when we needed a rest. We also came across the Cathedral de Notre Dame, made from pink sandstone and towering above the city. It is an impressive sight with arrays of gargoyles and probably the most intricate and elaborately sculptured architecture on a building we had ever seen. Inside there were impressive windows, a beautifully designed organ and an astrological clock which shows a procession of life-size figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs every day at 12:30pm. Its main features, besides the automata, are a perpetual calendar (including a computus), an orrery (planetary dial), a display of the real position of the Sun and the Moon, and Solar and Lunar Eclipses. The main attraction is the prosession of the life-size figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs every day at 12:30pm, that is at noon clock time.

We headed back to the van to find a place to stop for the night and found a convenient spot by the one of the canals coming from the Rhine and easily within walking distance of the city centre.
In the evening we went back to into the city and to the bars to sample the excellent array of alcoholic beverages before making our way back to the Cathedral to watch the illuminations. Each night the Cathedral is lit by hundreds of coloured lights positioned around and inside the Cathedral, and these lights focus on different areas of the architecture in time with music. The whole cathedral seems to dance with the music and it is quite a spectacle, and if possible made the Cathedral seem even more magical and impressive than before.

July 31st
Today we got up and hit the Markets in town. There were all kinds of markets, from local produce to antiques, crafts, books - pretty much any type of market you cared for was there. In the afternoon I broke my busking duck and took the plunge. Yep, I've never busked anywhere before so guitar and amp on my back I again headed to the Cathedral, which was where all the other buskers and crowds were. I found a nice little spot and played for about 45 mins (which is incredible in itself if you have ever seen me play at open mic nights! Usually I can do two songs at the most!). It was a beautiful place to play and although I did get a bit of change, the fact that I was able to play in such a nice part of the world was a sheer joy. I can't believe I've waited this long to do it!

In the evening Rachel and I headed down the canal to another exhibition called "Dreams over water". This was another free exhibition put on to celebrate summer in Strasbourg, and what a lovely way to celebrate!
It was a perfectly syncronised combination of music, light projections, fountains and lasers creating most elaborate and colourful sculptures in air and water. Each country in Europe was represented for a few minutes and for the UK, the Beatles - All You Need Is Love came on. The result was breathtaking and although this show was held every night and was about a month into the run, the banks of the river were crammed with spectators. Words cannot do it justice.

After the show we headed back to the van and went south, eventually ending up in a town called Erstein where we holed up for the night.

By the way, we are loving reading all the comments that have been left either on the blog or on the Flickr pages, so a big thanks to all that have commented and please keep doing so! And no Dougie, some of the really smelly cheese is just to strong it import it, sorry.

Click here for the route so far
Click here for our Flickr photos