Toledo, La Ciudad Imperial

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We are here in Toledo because John once owned a Triumph Herald in the 70’s, but secretly lusted after a Triumph Toledo and because our friends who have travelled extensively in Spain have told us it’s their favourite Spanish city. Toledo, ‘La Ciudad Imperial’, the strategic and geographical crossroads of the Iberian peninsula, a melting pot of Roman, Visigothic, Jewish, and Muslim history and the heart of Catholic Spain, glows on the distant hill top beyond the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, as we share una botella de vino tinto and a lovely meal at Camping El Greco.

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Sunset view of Toledo from our campsite

Toledo’s history is rich and dates to when Toletum became an important way station in Roman Hispania. By the 6th century the Visiogoths, (I had to look them up…they were a Germanic tribe who were key in the sacking of Rome and later established kingdoms across Spain and Gaul) moved the capital of Spain from Seville to Toledo, but in 711 the Moors conquered the city after crossing the straits of Gibraltar. Toledo rapidly became the most important city of Central Muslim Spain, unrivalled by any other at that time as a centre of learning and arts. The reign of the Moors in Toledo was overturned in 1085 when Alfonso the VI marched on the city during the Reconquista.  Not long after Toledo became the seat of the Vatican in Spain and the residence of the Spanish monarchy. During this early Christian era the city’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities coexisted and tolerated each other well. However, after the final victory of Spain over the Moors in 1492, tragedy ensued, and Toledo’s Jewish and Muslim communities were forced to convert to Christianity or flee.

Toledo’s historic centre today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where its glorious past greets you at every turn. The old city is a cross-fertilisation of Jewish, Islamic and Christian cultures and bursts with an intriguing mosaic of architecture. There is an essence here of The Medina of Damascus grafted onto Gothic Catholic Spain.

We have a few days to scratch the surface of this amazing city. Below are a few of the places we decide to visit.

Plaza de Zocodover

A bustle of activity and the meeting place for the city’s Walking tours (sadly there were none available in English on the days we visited), Zocodover has been the city’s nerve centre for many centuries. In Moorish times there was a horse market and later a general market right up to the mid-20th century. The plaza has a dark side too as the Auto-da-fé (the burning of a heretic) was enacted here during the inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. I try not to imagine the horrors as I sip my tea.

As we didn’t manage to tag along on a walking tour, we take the Zocotren, a 50-minute train trip around the city with a multilingual audio guide. On our way we stop at the Mirador del Valle, which hugs the rim of the bluffs above the River Tagus, showcasing a fabulous vista of the city in all its glory.

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Plaza de Zocodover

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Mirador del Valle

Next, we visit the

Cathedral de Toledo

Experts will tell you that the Cathedral is the best example of High Gothic architecture in Spain, non-experts, like me, will tell you that it’s a must see in the city. Like many other Christian buildings across Spain it was originally built (1226 – 1493) on the site of a Mosque, which itself had been built on a 6th-century Visiogothic church. What goes around comes around as they say! The Nave of the Cathedral is huge reminds me of Meenaskshi Amman Temple in Madurai, southern India, in scale and atmosphere. There are 15 chapels tucked into the transepts, each themselves works of art. The Sacristy contains a valuable collection of paintings by Luca Giordano, Van Dyck, Goya and El Greco, the most famous of which is El Greco’s masterpiece, El Expolio (The disrobing of Christ) …. wow! The choir stalls are a banquet of Renaissance and Gothic sculpture and wooden carvings and behind the main alter lies the mesmerising Transparente,

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Transparente,Cathedral de Toledo

a Spanish Baroque masterpiece with 18th century embellishment……amazing. It took my breath away.

 The Nave, Chapel alter and El Expolio, Cathedral de Toledo

After the Cathedral, I was interested in seeing more of El Greco’s work. We are staying at his campsite after all.

El Greco House Museum

The fabled 16th-century artist El Greco, was Cretan, not Spanish, but spent most of his adult life in Toledo and remains one of the city’s most important historical residents. Although El Greco never actually lived in the house, the museum accommodates many paintings by the master who developed his own unique style of elongated figures, most often of Christ and the Apostles, with dream like pigmentation.

On our second day we first visit;

Santa Cruz Museum

Originally a hospital founded by Cardinal Mendoza (the first Cardinal of Toledo Cathedral), it houses major archaeological finds and fine arts depicting the history of Toledo and Spain through the 16th and 17th century. So many Kings, so many wars, so many throne overthrowings!

So, for some peace and quiet we visit;

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

I loved this Isabelline style monastery which was commissioned by the first Catholic Monarchs of united Spain. Light filled cloisters, amazing granite stonework and a beautiful inner garden filled me with peace and tranquillity…. the choral cello music also helped. Isabella I and Ferdinand II had the monastery built to celebrate the birth of their son, commemorate winning the Battle of Toro and to serve as their Dynastic Mausoleum. They later changed their minds and were buried in the Capilla Real de Granada.

                      Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

We continue walking through what was once The Jewish quarter of the city, narrow alleyways, small artisan shops and cool cosy cafes. There’s a ‘lost in’ feel here. We decide to visit one of the city’s old synagogues.

Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Built in the early 13th century the architecture is a blend of Mudejar and Nazari styles (a meeting of Christian and Islam) and is characterised by horseshoe arches delineating its 5 naves. The Synagogue is the oldest still standing in Spain, but no longer used for worship and is incredibly beautiful. Built with white walls and golden detail, it is one of the best examples of the cooperation between 3 cultures that exist in Toledo. It was built for the Jewish, by Islamic architects, under the agreement of the Christian Kingdom. The way the light fell on its walls and ceilings was beautiful. Another must see.

                      Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Before I leave, I am keen to visit a Mosque to complete the triad of Abrahamic religions of Toledo. I set off to the old Muslim neighbourhood of Arrabal de Francos to visit the Mosque of the Tornerias. Desacralized by the Catholic Monarchs in 1505 is now used as the ‘Center Foundation of Promotion of the Crafts’. I didn’t know this at the time so on arrival there was no obvious Mosque on show, although I’m pretty sure I was standing over the spot!

20190927_174630 The site of the old Mosque of the Tornerias  

Spending time in Toledo immersed in its complex history has got me thinking about how so many countries across the world have been conquered and divided, come and gone, borders drawn and redrawn, cultures and religions integrated and segregated, following centuries of war. According to Yuval Noah Harari (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind in The history of Homo sapiens) we are now living in the most peaceful era in history. International wars have dropped to an all-time low and with a few exceptions of course, since 1945 countries have no longer invaded and conquered each other on a regular basis. The time of the empire has gone, and Harari suggests that this is because war has become more implausible – it costs too much and its profits are down!

I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 where ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Inner Party’ use war to perpetuate a state of subservience in its citizens. It’s certainly a grim place to be. I prefer Harari’s vision, but as he has also said “It takes a lot of wise people in order to make peace. But it is sometimes enough to have just one fool in order to start a war.” (Yuval Noah Harari).

All the people we have met over this past year (without exception) from different nations, cultures and religions have been friendly, helpful and good. After all people are people, wherever they are. We are all living together on this planet, which is threatened by our own actions, whether it be war or climate change. So, although our national identities define where we come from, I believe that now more than ever we need global cooperation to make a difference (and possibly to save) our planet. My knowledge of world history was patchy at best before starting this trip, but I have tried to understand more about the history and culture of the countries we have visited to widen my horizons. Now I see that our future is not inevitable, and there are many possibilities before us. We just have to try and stay wise and look out for the fools……if only it was that simple!

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Dithering and Dawdling in the Dordogne: Chateaux, Gardens and Crepes

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To be honest, by the time we arrive in the Dordogne I’ve become just a little disenchanted with France. I’d forgotten about their ‘extra-long lunch’ and ‘half day closing on Sunday’ shop hours and the ‘no toilet seats’ and ‘mixed shower blocks’ in campsites, which is the norm. The motorway tolls are extortionate, as is the price of diesel and a coffee, and the weather has turned cool as we head from Switzerland to Annecy. We stay a couple of nights in Annecy (very pretty and I will remember my first banana and chocolate crepe), and then we head north to visit friends in the Burgundy region, where the daytime temperature dips to a cool 11 degrees.

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Annecy

It’s lovely to have some company and we spend a very pleasant evening in their beautifully restored house in the rural village of Recey-sur- Ource (sounds rude, I know). The next day we travel south again stopping over near Clermont-Ferrand.  Our next stop is near Sarlat-le-Canéda in the Dordogne Valley. We are on our way to Spain, but as we settle into the campsite, the sun comes out and the pretty countryside reveals itself. The weather forecast here is surprisingly good for the next 10 days, but we’re meant to be heading to south. So, here’s my dilemma….do we stay, or do we go? I dither. The more I explore the area, the more I’m tempted to stay. But if we don’t go now, we will have less time to spend in Spain. I know this sounds like a lovely dilemma to be in, and I do realise how privileged I am to be in this position, but it’s these type of decisions (where it doesn’t really matter, but it feels like it does – remember the spice jar dilemma I had when packing up the house), that I struggle with. John’s “this is your year, I don’t care where we go, so you choose”, isn’t helping and of course I know, there is no right or wrong decision in these circumstances. So that makes the dithering worse. And then I realise that staying in the Dordogne feels like I’m not making a decision and sometimes the most difficult decisions are to do nothing (or very little). But when I let go of the ‘you don’t have to be travelling like mad to have an adventure’ logic, I realise it makes perfect sense to stay. So, we stay, and I unwind from travelling and let myself dawdle in the Dordogne for just a little bit longer.

Over the next 10 days we stay at 2 campsites, only 10 miles apart. We walk, cycle, paddle and swim visiting pretty Les Plus Beaux villages (small rural villages with a rich cultural heritage), towering Chateaux and beautiful gardens. Our first campsite is within walking distance of Sarlat-La-Canéda, the capital of Périgord Noir, which is home to a plethora of gastronomic duck-based products (the contentious Foie Gras, Canard Terrine and smoked duck breast to name but a few) and boasts the regions best-preserved medieval architecture. We start our exploration of Sarlat with a…. yes, you guessed it, a crepe and a cup of tea. Savoury for John and banana and chocolate for me.

                      The Medieval streets of Sarlat-La-Canéda

There’s a busker singing medieval folk tunes with his Hurdy Gurdy in front of the Cathedral St-Sacerdos, and I’m reminded of this area’s intertwined history with England. The city of Sarlat fell into the hand of the English for 10 years during the 100 Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries. John finds a spot in the shade while I explore this small city with its twisting alleyways and back streets, full of shops selling local produce and handicrafts.

                     Sarlat-La-Canéda

I get the bike out and explore the country roads and John manages a few flattish miles. It’s the first time on a bike since he broke his collarbone, and another step forward in his recovery. It has been a long hot summer in central and southern France and the earth is dry here. Dust bellows from the tractor as the farmer ploughs his parched fields. Plump purple grapes drape from the roadside vines, blackened sunflowers hang their heads ready to be harvested and golden corn stretches towards the blue skies. Fig, plum, pear and walnut trees line the country roads. A bandy-legged old lady wearing a straw hat and carrying a basket of vegetables beams at me as I cycle past her, “Bonjour” she says. This is the rural France I love……simple, slow paced, picturesque.

                     Roadside vines and golden corn

I cycle to Domme, and La Roque-Gageac (also Les Plus Beaux villages). Domme, situated on an outcrop above the Dordogne has one of the area’s best preserved Bastides, and retains its original 13th century ramparts. The lonely planet guide describes the approach road ‘as a tortuous switchback’, so I opt to walk the last kilometre up a forest path with my bike. The panoramic views across the Dordogne valley, when I finally get to the top (very sweaty and pink faced) are stunning.

                     The picturesque streets of Domme and views from the top

La Roque-Gageac, Domme’s alter ego, is crammed into a limestone cliff face and the river meanders alongside its picturesque main street.

                     La Roque-Gageac

Later in the week we hire a canoe from the village, which is another test of John’s recovery. I’m in the driving seat but after managing to paddle the canoe several 360s, in both directions, John takes over pole position and we enjoy the rest of our paddle up and down this idyllic river.

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Canoeing on the Dordogne

Either side of the Dordogne the hilltops are studded with defensive chateaux, their strategic positions being greatly coveted by both the French and the English in the 100 Years War.  At our 2nd campsite we are gifted with an amazing view of Château de Beynac, a 12th century fortress. Early morning balloon rides glide gracefully across the idyllic scene.

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Château de Beynac, view from the campsite

We visit Château de Beynac, protected by 200m cliffs (quiet a climb), double walls and a moat. This impressive castle was a key defensive position for the French and once the home of Richard “The Lion Heart”, Lords of Beynac and Baronies of the Périgord. Just below the castle the charming village of Beynac-et-Cazenac nestles amongst the steep cliffside and I am rewarded with a honey and walnut crepe and an iced tea after my steep climb up.

Less than 6km away Beynac’s neighbouring rival, Château de Castelnaud, loyal to the English in the 100 Years war, looms impressively on the southern banks of the Dordogne. Despite these 2 Chateaux being close rivals, they never fought head to head. The Chateau houses The Museum of Medieval Warfare, an important collection of weapons and armour. Along the bastion, the most powerful siege machine from the Middle ages, the Trebuchet, has been recreated and looms on the skyline. Les Plus Beaux Village of Castlenaud-la-Chapelle sits below, and another crepe awaits. If there was a battle of the Crepes, I’m afraid Beynac would win hands down!

                      Château de Castelnaud        

The Aquitaine region of France is famous for its gardens and I visit 2 during our time here. The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, the most visited in the region, are but a short walk away from our campsite. Famous for its terraces of 150,000 boxwoods, carefully hand-sheared to creating a spectacular topiary display above the Dordogne countryside. Beyond the boxwoods, on Marqueyssac’s rocky spur, ‘the Belvedere’, an exposed cliff 180 m above the Dordogne, awards some extraordinary views. Oaks, Maples and Hornbeams make for a lovely return woodland walk. And for those who like their tea (that’s me), the gardens ‘salon de thé’ serves a homemade iced tea and a Tarte aux noix de Périgueux (walnut tart), a speciality of the region. A definite must not miss!

The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, view from The Belvedere

Les Jardin D’eau, near Carsac- Aillac, also on the banks of the river Dordogne was created in 1999 and displays a rare collection of aquatic plants on what was once an old Gallo-Roman site. Filled with basins, pools, ponds, streams and waterfalls, the flowers and plants on display here are exquisite. I dawdle around the gardens for a couple of hours and take lots of photographs. I spot a few very handsome green frogs hopping across the lily pads. I do like a nice garden.

                      Aquatic plants of Les Jardin D’eau

On our last day a westerly wind whips curled brown oak leaves and the acorns still donned in their bowler hats across our paths. Autumn is coming and it is time for us to move to sunnier climes. I have so enjoyed my Dawdling in the Dordogne and for now the Dithering has gone.

 

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‘Off the beaten track’ in Italy (Bergamo, Lago D’Orta) and Switzerland (Raron)- so Hipster?

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“The gate is shut and there’s no way of getting in!”, I exclaim as we arrive back at our camper stop site in Bergamo, well after midnight, following a long weekend in Scotland. John was having a check-up for his clavicle and I had managed some extra cuddles with my grandson. There’s a code for the gate, but of course neither of us thought to take a note of it before we left. The site has excellent security (one of the reasons we left the van there) and is surrounded by a 7ft metal fence and cameras. For a moment I consider where the nearest hotel might be or do, we just sit it out till the gates open at 6am? John scours the perimeter and notices a small concrete wall near the recycling station. With the help of a plastic plant pot, we manage to use the wall to get a leg over the fence. We’re in…. Hallelujah! I just hope we’ve not been caught on camera. Thankfully the next day there is no mention of our midnight frolics.

We take the tram into Bergamo. We’ve been in this city before, when Ryanair flew from Prestwick, and it’s a hidden gem. We walk up to La Città Alta. Perched on a hill above the modern city of Bergamo, surrounded by 16th century venetian walls, in La Città Alta one steps back in time. We stroll along the narrow, cobbled streets into attractive piazzas with lovely shops, cafes and authentic Italian restaurants. We visit the Basilica of Maria Maggiore and the Cappella Colleoni, just stunning, before getting the San Vigillio funicular up to the top where castle ruins and spectacular views of the city and plains beyond, await. Back in La Città Alta we catch an early dinner. I order the Bergamo-style ravioli – amaretti cookies combined in a meat filling, creating a play on sweet and savoury, served in a sauce of butter, pancetta and sage – yum, yum.

Basilica of Maria Maggiore, views from La  Città Alta, Bergamo

From Bergamo we go to Lago D’Otra, one of the lesser known of the Northern Italian Lakes. In fact, the locals have nicknamed it La Cenerntola (Cinderella). It’s just as beautiful as its bold neighbours but is often overlooked. After our time at Lake Garda, beautiful but incredibly busy, bursting with tourists, Lago D’Orta feels rustic, laid back and ‘off the beaten track’…. just my scene. When I tell my daughter this later, she says, “You’re so Hipster Mum” Hipster, that’s a new one on me. I’ll need to look that one up!

We stay at a campsite near Orta San Giulio, which sits on a small peninsula on the eastern side of the lake. On a hill above the town stand the ancient chapels of the Sacro Monte, a UNESCO World heritage site. The Sacro Monte site dates from the Middle Ages and eighteen chapels extend across the hillside in an enchanting landscape. Each of the chapels contain Baroque and Neo-classical fresco’s and terracotta sculptures celebrating the life of St Francis of Assisi. It is quite extraordinary; unlike anything I have seen before.

The chapels and fresco’s of Sacro Monte, Orta san Guilio

Next we take a boat across the lake to the peaceful island monastery of San Giulio. With only a handful of nuns living on the entire island to take care of the Basilica, and many houses now abandoned, the island feels like a step back in time. Around the church we walk ‘the way of silence’ (walk in an anti-clockwise direction for ‘the way of meditation’) and inspirational quotes provide snippets of wisdom.

The Island, Basilica and The way of silence, Lago D’Orta

Back on the boat Orta’s beautiful waterfront villas, with their faded pastel shades and peeling paint are reflected in the deep blue water behind misty mountains – picture perfect.

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Lago D’Orta’s waterfront villas 

In San Giulio we grab a gelato at Pino Vino, the best gelato shop in town, and enjoy artisan Sicilian lemon and strawberry ice cream whilst sitting on one of the waterfront benches.

Piazza, Pino Vino and narrow streets of San Giulio

On our last evening we have a meal at the campsite. A simple Lasagne (for John), Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni (for me), salad and una caraffa di vino rosso. This family run campsite, with its home cooking is very chilled and is definitely one of my favourites.

I am sorry to leave Lago D’Orta, but we are very near Switzerland, and I’m keen to visit having never been before. We plan a short trip and book a campsite near the town of Raron in the canton of Valais, very near to 2 cable cars (I am working on desensitising Johns fear of heights!). We are lucky; we have 2 days of glorious sunshine, blue skies and hardly a cloud in sight. We get the cable car o Unterbach, 1,200m above sea level, where we look down into the valley below. Beautiful green meadows and forests stretch out in front of us and wooden chalets dot the hillsides, just like a scene from the Sound of Music.

Views from Unterbach

Cow bells tinkle in the distance and we hardly meet a soul as we walk the trails. The sun glints on pockets of snow in the granite mountains on the other side of the valley and right at the top a small blue glacier sculpts the mountain in its path.

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View from Unterbach

As we step out of the trees into a meadow full of wildflowers we are greeted with a crescendo of stridulating (that’s the noise crickets make) crickets which leap around our feet…. how amazing. A sight and sound I will defiantly remember. We stop at a mountain hotel for a coffee and I try an Apfelpunsch ……what a view.

Walking in Valais, switzerland

We stay for 3 nights and on our last night John’s keen for me to experience Swiss cuisine (he’s been on many school trips to Switzerland before), so we have a meal at the campsite. But as our waiter offers us the menu of the day “Chips or Cheese, as much as you want for 30 francs” (equivalent to abound £30), I’m astonished and John’s laughing. I will remember Switzerland for its wonderful meadows and mountains, but defiantly not for its food. At least the larger was good!

This trip has given me the privilege of journeying across many countries, and travelling as I have I have had the time to observe, to reflect, to think and to journey more into who and what I am. To work out my likes and dislikes, what I value and what type of person I really am. And so, it got me thinking about my daughters’ comments. Am I really ‘so hipster’? I look up the definition. Hipster – “a person who follows the latest trends and fashions” (definitely not me), “especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream” (possibly me). The original Hipsters’ of the 1940s emerged with the bebop jazz movement and were described as a subculture ‘adopting a carefree, spontaneous cool lifestyle’(something a lot of us aspire to). Hipster’s of today are perhaps different again and are often referred to as ‘people who want to know things (yes), who are eager to learn (yes), to see and do things apart from culture as a whole (maybe), whilst still remaining within the culture’. I take a test, for a laugh, ( https://quizdoo.com/are-you-more-hippie-or-hipster/ ) and it turns out that I’m 50% Hipster and 50% Hippie…so maybe I’m a Hipsy. Those who know me well know that I am most definitely Ditsy, so I think Hipsy might be just about right. However, I believe more in the individual than subcultures and as an individual the reason I travel is to experience new things, to find both the familiarity and unusualness in the world around me and to connect the strange dots that make it so unique. I travel to discover more about the world we live in, to get lost and find myself in the process and to push boundaries which allow me to imagine the kind of life I want to lead. And so not only have I discovered some of the most beautiful “off the beaten track” places on my travels, I have also had the opportunity to get to myself just a little bit better…. a travelling ditsy, hippie, hipster…or am I, perhaps the journey continues!

20190904_151115.jpg   Toadstool, forest near Unterbach

Lederhosen, cable cars and star dust in Austria’s Tyrol

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“I’m surprised by just how many people wear Lederhosen in Austria?” I remark, as we sit in a café tucking into a delicious apple strudel, in that well-known town called Worgl in Austria’s Tyrol (we took the train there to buy a kettle!). I thought that Lederhosen, much like the Kilt in Scotland, would be restricted to local gatherings and special events (weddings, birthdays and rugby matches), but it seems that men (and women) grab every opportunity to wear these strange leather shorts; walking around the town of an afternoon, waiting tables in restaurants and even strolling up a mountain! Along with the Dirndl (the traditional Austrian pinafore dress, with low cut blouse with puff sleeves), they are readily available to buy (at a price) in the high street. Influenced by the costumes of farmers and rural peasants and characterised by high quality linen, leather and loden (felt), the Tirolean costume is worn with national pride and has recently inspired a new fashion style called Landhausmode (Country House Style). There is certainly more to this country than meets the eye.

Being in Austria, I am keen to get into the mountains and at our campsite near Hopfgarten a cable car entices hikers and skiers to the top of Hohe Salve. This mountain, 1829m above sea level, is surrounded by more than 70, 3000-meter peaks, and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding Kitzbühel Alps. We arrive at the campsite in glorious sunshine, but the next day low cloud and rain are threatening. We take the cable car up to the midway station planning to climb the rest of the way to the top, but mist, rain and a wrong turn on the path forces us back to where we started.

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Mist and cloud rolling in on Hohe Salve

On a day trip to Innsbruck from our next campsite near the village of Weer, we try again.

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Innsbruck, the Hafelekar in the background 

The Nordkette (the North Chain) cable car leaves from the city centre up to Austria’s largest nature park, Karwendel. There are 3 stops, the first of which (Hungerburgbahn, 860m) can be reached by a modern funicular. John stops here but I decide to take the further 2 gondola lifts to the top (Hafelekarbahn, 2256m). It seems expensive (£36.50 Euros return…. yes, you can go one way and walk the return journey), but for the sake of my knees it’s worth every penny. It has been an overcast day so far but as I reach the top, the clouds lift, the sun comes out and the views take my breath away. I take my time, breathe in the fresh, cool mountain air and enjoy the 360-degree views all the way to Italy in the South and Germany in the North.

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Views from the top of Hafelekar

At the top, the Hafelekarrinne, one of the steepest downhill ski routes in Europe (a gradient of 70%), is reserved for expert skier’s only……I look down in awe. Many other activities are also available. There’s the Geothe- a geology walking trail providing a fascinating insight into the Karwendel’s reef limestone formations, a panoramic circular hiking route, a downhill mountain bike trail and 40 single-rope access climbing routes. If that’s not enough to get the adrenalin going, you could always paraglide from the top. I vote for the gentle climb a further 78 meters to the summit where a flock of ominous black birds circle the mountains crags and crannies.

View down to Innsbruck from the summit

For many here, young children, grandparents and those with disabilities, it may be the only summit they will ever reach, but with this extraordinary cable car trip everyone gets to experience the majesty of the mountains. This has been the highlight of our trip to Austria and the Nordkette mountain range has left a powerful lasting impression.

Views from the top

Austria welcomes tourism with open arms and like in Lake Bled we are gifted with local access cards during our stay, which provide free local transport, reductions in entry fees to local attractions and a daily activity programme. From Hopfgarten we take the train to Kitzbühel, a small Alpine town and fashionable winter resort, famous for its annual Hahnenkamm downhill ski race.  Boutique shops (selling plenty of lederhosen and dirndl) and cafes line its medieval centre and rooftop terraces provide sweeping views of the valley.

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Kitzbühel’s Medieval centre

In Weer we take a local bus to Schwaz where our Silber card (https://silberregion-karwendel.com/en/silbercard-summer) gives free access to Schwazer Silbergwerk (https://www.silberbergwerk.at/en),‘The mother of all silver mines’. At its peak of production (in 1500) Schwaz was the largest mining city in the world, with 12,000 miners producing 85% of the world’s silver. The profits fuelled the Habsburg Empire signalling the beginning of early capitalism and the basis of power and politics in contemporary Europe. The nearby coining site in Hall used the silver and copper from Schwaz to produce the Haller Taler, which remained Europe’s dominating currency for 300 years.  Hans Loffler’s casting mill in Innsbruck developed the formula for converting Schwaz copper into Bronze. It was this discovery which led the Emperor Maximillian to cast copper cannons, providing light, mobile escort artillery, and aiding the ascent of the Houses of Austria to world power.

Before entering the mine, we don a silver cape (it’s a cool 12 degrees, wet and humid 800 meters below) and hard hat. A tiny train arrives and zips through the 1.5km of tunnels which took the miners 26 years to dig. The tunnels are tight (and dark). This ride is not for the claustrophobic. The rest of the tour is on foot and our guide Manu, directs us through the tunnels along with an excellent audio guide. We learn of the miner’s hardships extracting the Fahlerz ore (containing the silver and Copper) from Dolomite rock, and their endless battle with water filling the mine shafts. The Schwaz mine was at the forefront of technical advancement and a huge water wheel, moving 1.2 million litres of water a day (a job previously done by the miners themselves) was a welcome development. The difficult and expensive mining techniques and cheaper silver imports from the New World however saw to the eventual demise of the Silver industry in Schwaz.

20190816_123657.jpg In our silver cape and hard hat, Schwazer Silbergwerk

Manu reminds us that silver is star dust and its formation is older than Earth itself. More than 5 thousand million years ago a stellar inferno shook our Milky way, exploding an enormous star and showering dust and gas throughout outer space. Temperatures of 950 million degrees created by this violent explosion led to the formation of silver in the rocks of our planet.

And so, as we leave Austria, it has left a lasting impression. The country may be small but is a giant in tourism. It has a fascinating history, winning scenery (summer and winter alike), friendly and helpful people, lots to do (both inside and out) and to top it off…. great apple strudel. A visit in Winter, with its snowy peaks and valleys would be beautiful……. but maybe just not in the motor home!

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A night at the Opera; Verona’s Aida

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We are in the heart of the city of Verona and as dusk settles, the excitement around the Arena is palpable. We climb uneven stone steps radiating the heat of the day and enter through one of the many openings that dot its circumference, finding ourselves on the threshold of another world. The cheap seats (the original stone steps of the Roman Amphitheatre) are full and we just manage to squeeze on the end of a row. This stunning intact amphitheatre built around 30 AD is still very much in use today and is internationally renowned for its large-scale opera performances. These stones have seen everything from gladiator games to One Direction concerts, medieval jousts to Puccini operas. With its colourful palimpsest of history, to visit the Arena and experience one of Verdi’s epic Opera’s, Aida, with our dear friends Elaine and Phil (who are in Verona for a weeks holiday), is a real privilege, ‘a once in a lifetime experience’ and something which has been on my ‘Bucket List’ for quite some time.

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Waiting for Aida to begin 

The Arena, made from pink and white stone from nearby Valpolicella, originally had three tiers of arches running along its border and its elliptical shape provides for excellent acoustics. Entertaining more than 20,000 people in its heyday, it was a complex and demanding entertainment industry. Powered by the labour of hundreds of slaves in underground tunnels, grandiose stage sets would have been erected in the central space, just like tonight. Roman citizens teemed through its gates to witness processions, circus acts, dancing and music, but their favourite was blood sports. Fierce wild animals from faraway places were brought to be hunted, condemned prisoners were executed in bloody and inventive ways, but the gladiator show, where two trained combatants would fight one another to the death, was the feature presentation of the evening.

Tonight, we are here to see Aida, Giuseppe Verdi’s epic (4 hour long) Opera. Aida first debuted at the Cairo Opera House, in 1886, and since then has been performed well over 100 times around the world. The production in Verona’s Arena hails to be the most dramatic and atmospheric. The first act is set in Egypt, the Arena shimmers and glows and the yellow moon rises in the night sky. To alert the audience of the impending Opera a gong is struck on three occasions by one of the cast members. The anticipation builds. As the orchestra tunes up, the conductor is greeted with typical Italian enthusiasm, ‘bravo maestro’ filling the air, and then it begins…

The set of Aida, excited and on the cheap seat with our friends

The Egyptians are at war with Ethiopia. Aida, an Ethiopian princess has been captured and made slave to Amneris, the King of Egypt’s daughter. But Aida and Radames, a young Egyptian soldier, have fallen in love. The relationship is doomed from the start, as Amneris also has her eye on Radames. The love triangle ends badly for Radames, who is buried alive in a tomb beneath the temple as punishment for treason. Radames last thoughts are for Aida, who suddenly appears in the grave, having slipped in earlier to share his fate. An Egyptian Romeo and Juliet ensues and let’s just say it doesn’t end well for them both.  Listening with my eyes shut as the Bel Canto vibrato resonates around the Arena I am transported into the tragic story of Aida and her love for Radames. One must pause to consider that there is no amplification – no microphones, no sound system – just the singers and the orchestra…. simply stunning.

If you do get the opportunity to experience Verona’s Opera, don’t forget to pick up and light your free candle, a celebration of times when the Arena had no electricity and the candles lit up the scenery. And if you are in the cheap seats (starting at 25 Euros up to 195 for the ‘defiantly not cheap seats’), cushions are available to rent (we missed that treat), or better still bring your own.

As we exit its past midnight, the black starry sky frames the Arena and the night is still warm. Beyond lies the beautiful, historic city of Verona, where Romeo and Juliet loved and lost. The spectacle and music of Verdi’s opera, the atmosphere in the arena and the connection to those who sat where I sat almost 2,00 years before me…… this has been a truly enchanting evening and a night I will remember for many, many years to come.

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Mozart, the Sound of Music and Fun in Salzburg

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Shop in the village of Hallstatt, near Salzburg 

Salzburg, Austria’s 4th largest city, although small in stature, is packed with fun things to do and see. Famous as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and backdrop for much of the filming of sound of Music, its origins go back much further. From the 9th century up to 1816 (when it became part of the Hapsburg empire) Salzburg was a proud independent state, separate from the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was ruled by Prince-Archbishops who lavished the city with great wealth. Its breath-taking Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and artistry were built from the plunders of nearby salt mines. In its day salt known as ‘white gold’ was a valuable commodity, its monetary worth being similar to gold, ounce per ounce. Today the old town has UNESCO status and one can easily see why many centuries ago it aspired to be the ‘Rome of the North’.

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Mirabell Palace and Gardens

We have 3 days in Salzburg and stay at a basic motorhome stop campsite, with excellent transport links. Its action packed and I thought I would share some tips to get the most out of a short stay in the city. We bought a Salzburg card (https://www.salzburg.info/en/hotels-offers/salzburg-card, 24 Euros for 24 hours, 32 for 48hrs and 37 for 72hrs), which gives free entry to all the attractions in Salzburg (and there are a lot), free travel on public transport and discounts on some tours and excursions.

Day 1, we make our way to the Mirabell Palace and Gardens.

Mirabell Gardens 

Perhaps the most famous of the many Pleasure Palaces erected by the Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg is Mirabell. Erected by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau in 1606 for his mistress (hang on…I thought Archbishop’s were meant to be men of the church?), the gardens are a must visit location for any sound of music fan. It’s where ‘Do-Re-Mi’ was filmed and as I take a stroll around the fountain, I find myself skipping and humming……” Do-a-deer, a female deer, Ray a drop of golden sun……” Next we visit;

Hohensalzburg Fortress

Hohensalzburg Fortress, view of Salzburg from the Fortress

An imposing landmark on the city’s skyline, it’s central Europe’s largest intact fortress and one of the best places for a panoramic view of the city. The fortress dates to 1077 and was built to protect the archbishops from hostile troops. We took the funicular to the top and strolled amongst the courtyards and fortress walls. Also, for those interested in Salzburg’s history don’t miss its many museums; the Marrionette Museum, Museums of the Rainer Regiment and the Princes’ Chambers.

A visit to at least one of Mozart’s museums in the city is a must. We visited both;

Mozart’s Birthplace Museum

At No. 9 Getreidegasse, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 and today it houses one of the most visited museums in Austria. Mozart spent his childhood and much of his youth here and original family portraits, certificates, letters and memorabilia documenting his life in Salzburg are on display. The museum casts light on the man and musical genius from many different perspectives; his childhood, the long years of traveling with his family, and his mysterious death.

Mozart’s Residence

Mozart moved to the ‘Dance Master’s House’ with his family, aged 17 where he lived for 7 years, before settling in Vienna. This museum is dedicated to Mozart’s father, himself a famous composer, violin teacher and author of one of the most important Violin textbooks ever written. We learn that Leopold Mozart was a very modern guy, a marketing genius, with progressive ideas who dedicated his life to further his son (and daughter’s) musical careers. The family travelled extensively across Europe, even making it to London. Admission includes an audio guide which is beautifully illustrated with Mozart’s wonderful music.

Next we head to Salzburg Cathedral.

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The dome of Salzburg Cathedral

It is here in this seventeenth-century Baroque cathedral that Mozart was baptized and later regularly played some of his most popular tunes on the “Hoforgel,” one of five organs in the Cathedral. Salzburg Cathedral has survived more than 10 fires and was completely rebuilt three times in its 1200-year history. The dome, at 71 meters high, is impressive and the 16 frescos, each depicting a scene from the Old Testament, painted by Italian artists, Donato Mascagni and Ignazio Solari, are quite remarkable.

Our final visit of the day is to St Peters Abbey and Monastery.

Although the abbey itself is worth a peak, the most notable part of the church is its cemetery. The Christian cemetery, the oldest in Austria, is the final resting place of the wealthiest and most notable families in Salzburg’s history. The cemetery was also a backdrop for the scene from the Sound of Music when Maria and the Von Trapp’s hid from the Nazis. Along with the monthly rent for each of the plots comes a florist who will create perfectly manicured flower boxes in front of your loved one’s tombs. While a cemetery tour might seem a bit macabre, a wander around this garden-like little corner of Salzburg is worth checking out.

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St Peters Cemetery

Day 2, We start our 2nd day in Salzburg with Dom Quartier museum.

View from the Cathedral’s Organ Loft and the Residenceplatz 

This architectural complex comprising the Cathedral, Residenz (the centre of the Prince-Archbishops power) and the Benedictine St Peters Abbey, houses 5 separate museums, so give yourself plenty of time to wander through and soak up Salzburg’s Baroque history and culture. The highlight for me was the Cathedral’s Organ Loft, which gives a unique perspective of the Cathedral itself. Our brains are frazzled with facts by the time we leave the museum so a coffee and apple strudel in the impressive Residenceplatz, the historic centre of the city, is well overdue. There is a young musician on a piano in the square, treating us to some Mozart as we watch the horse drawn tourist carriages gracefully trot round the square. Being Austria, very clean and efficient, somebody is left to clear up the whoopsies after the horses have done their business. And so, there are many “Municipal Equine Cleansing Operators” on bicycle also frequenting the square. In Glasgow they would be better known as “the pedalling shit shovellers”.

Next we jump on a Salzach river cruise

The panoramic speedboat “Amadeus Salzburg” offers its guests extraordinary views of the city and its scenic surroundings on the journey along the Salzach river. This specially built boat negotiates the currents of the shallow, fast flowing river. Our captain and skipper are 2 cheery Londoners who seamlessly slip from German to English informing us of more fun Salzburg facts. Our river cruise finishes with a waltz and I’m revived and ready for our next attraction.

Hellbrunn Palace & Trick Fountains

Hellbrunn’s trick fountains

We didn’t plan to visit Hellbrunn Palace. We’re on the bus to Untersberg cable car, about 20km south of the city, when I spot a Chinese family, obviously tourists, who radiate a sense of ‘we are very organised and know where we are going’ (as the Chinese often do). I guess that they too are on their way to the cable car, so when they jump up to get off the bus, we do too. We follow them and instead of ending up at the cable car we arrive at Hellbrunn Palace….an unexpected delight. Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus of Hohenems, commissioned the Italian architect Santino Solari to build Hellbrunn in 1612, a place for celebration, pleasure and recuperation, a kind of huge holiday home with a park and cool ‘trick’ fountains. Sittikus installed water automats, grottos and fountains in the beautiful gardens which astonished, entertained and befuddled his guests. Little has changed in over 400 years and Hellbrunn’s visitors today are still amused and enchanted by the water acrobatics on display. By the way, we did see the Chinese family later at the cable car, so my hunch was right.

Untersberg cable car

Views from the top of Untersberg cable car 

I’m not sure why John suggested a trip on the Untersberg cable car which carries you to the top of Geiereck mountain (1,776 m), as has an intense fear of heights. It’s been a while since he was last up a cable car (school trips to Switzerland) …. so I guess he just forgot. By the time we had scaled the face of the mountain in the cable car to reach the top, shaking and hyper ventilating he swiftly turned around to take the next car back down, before he lost his nerve completely. When I stepped out of the car, I was greeted by magnificent views that stretch out as far as the horizon. This is what I’d imagined Austria to be. There are many hiking routes which begin close to the cable car station, but I take a gentle stroll and take in the views of Berchtesgadener Land (Germany) and the Rosittental deep below, before heading back down on the last cable car of the evening. John was waiting at the bottom in a café……on his third Macchiato, nerves finally calmed, but hyper with caffeine.

Day 3, trip to Hallstatt

The village of Hallstatt

Recommended as a must visit by a friend, I take a Panorama tour  (https://www.panoramatours.com/en/salzburg/) to Halstatt, an ancient salt mine village (population 780) around 60km from the Salzburg. Halstatt is considered the pearl of Salzkammergut (lake area) and salt mining has been part of its heritage for over 7000 years. The mines, and subterranean Salt Lake are still open for the public to visit today. Our guide tells us that Halstatt is really an island, originally washed down the mountain creek, which attached to the mountain base on the lake. It was cut off from the mainland for many years, until a tunnel was built in !966, providing access to the outside world. Now a major tourist destination, visited by 800,00 tourists yearly, it is busy, but the quirky colourful wooden houses still exude Austrian charm.

From the village a trip on the funicular 360 meters above its rooftops there is a spectacular viewing platform, the ‘Skywalk’ ……… what a view.

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View of Halsttatt lake form the Skywalk

We’ve packed a lot into our visit to Salzburg and I hope you have enjoyed this whistle stop tour. If you’re planning a visit anytime soon, I have a few final recommendations. Stay for more than 3 days, buy a Salzburg card if you plan to visit the attractions, and finally….don’t follow any efficient looking Chinese tourists as they know where they are going and it’s probably not where you are planning to go…unless of course you are up for a bit of an adventure.

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Welcome to the world baby Myles

 

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I’m travelling……time travelling, back almost 31 years and 7 months to the day, to holding my son not long after he was born. And now fast forward all those years and I am holding my son’s son, my first grandson. His tiny hand is in my hand and I am speaking softly to him, just as I did to my own son, as he peers back at me through his tiny blue eyes. I first meet him when he is only 6 hours old and it is magical.

We are home for 10 days at the end of July, to touch base with family and friends and catch up on appointments, but most importantly we are here for the arrival of our new grandson. Our flight lands in Glasgow 3 days after his due date, but he’s just too comfortable and there’s no persuading him to arrive any time soon. So, by the following Monday when he’s still not here and his mum is given a date to be induced, I decide that if he’s not arrived by the day before our flight back to Austria, I’m cancelling it. After all I’m here to meet my grandson and I’m not leaving without a cuddle.  We wait and wait and then we wait some more. And then on the morning of Thursday 1st August I get a text from my son…mum is in labour. I spend the morning with my Dad helping him as planned with his weekly shopping routine, anxious to here more news, but not wanting to intrude at such a special time. And then I finally get the call. He’s arrived (at 13.13pm), weighing 8 lb 11oz, baby and mum both good, no name yet.

I’m so relieved all is well and overjoyed for my son who now also has a son, and I’m reminded of the miracle of a new life. When I left on this trip, he wasn’t even a twinkle in his Daddy’s eye and now he’s here. My friends are already calling me Granny Linda, but just like with my step grandchildren Joe and Annie…. I will be Oma and John will be Papa John. It’s the start of a new chapter, a new adventure.

I see him again a few times before we go and have lovely long cuddles. He’s adorable and very handsome (of course). Dark hair, blue eyes and a winning gumsy smile. And just before we leave, he finally has a name…. Myles Kennedy Miller. Welcome to the world little Myles, for you, the fun has just begun, and I wish you all the adventures your heart desires.

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