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Sunday, 30 August 2009

Flowers in Austria

These photographs are just a few of the many flowers we saw in Austria in August. None of them are rare flowers, just ones that caught our eye. The Cranesbill can be seen almost everywhere, as can the Hemp Nettle.

Flowers in Italy

Here are just a few of the photographs of wild flowers we have taken in Italy.

The broomrape was growing near Cortina in early June.

The Edelweiss was hanging on to the side of a waterfall in the Italian alps.

The rose hips were seen in the alps in late August.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Glaciers melting in the dead of night

Naming your National Park the Gran Paradiso is to raise expectations and ours were very high. Of course, as we were spending the week here in the company of Matthew and Rachel and a bathroom, it was very likely we would have a splendid time. The stone chalet we stayed in was beautiful, on the edge of the picturesque village of Planaval, with a view from the balcony along a green valley to a glacier, you could not ask for more.

Matthew and Rachel were keen to see Marmots and we saw so many they seemed as common as rabbits in England: We watched Marmots eating, collecting grass for their nest, in pairs fighting and grooming and lots of Marmots sitting on rocks being the look-out. Matthew and his expensive camera took plenty of photographs, one of which we have borrowed for the blog.

We spent the week taking alpine walks, playing ping-pong, trying out the local trim trail, gazing at glaciers, watching a promenade play around the lanes of Planaval and catching up on events from the last four months. We enjoyed remembering that with more than one electric ring you can cook the pasta at the same time as the sauce and got used to being able to be in different rooms to each other.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Stopped into a church I passed along the way

As intrepid travellers we have discovered the National Park Dell’Adamello in Lombardy: This isn’t at all true, as the area is busy with Italian tourists. However, it does not feature at all in our Rough Guide, in the way that Preston does not feature in the Rough Guide for England, but then charming as corners of Preston are, it is not a rugged and mountainous area thronged with Italian tourists.

We have found that camping and walking in Italian National Parks is a pot luck activity. There is a lovely campsite here and although there were no walks signed from the top of the cable car, there were signs as we walked and we managed to spend a pleasant few hours hiking. We stopped for lunch at a small church, Santa Giulia, at 1860 m; helpfully provided with a lovely view, a drinking water fountain and plenty of sturdy picnic tables. The simple rustic church was a cool space to sit in and the two elderly ladies in pinafores who were busy in the church kitchen smiled their greetings. Every Italian family group we met stopped and asked us whether they were on the right path for the church and apologised when we struggled to help them; we think they just like to stop and talk.

Monday, 17 August 2009

A bridge over troubled water

Any small town you arrive at in Austria, you soon have a handful of leaflets and maps with details of local walks and cycle trails. We had a marvellous day from Imst, following the Rosengarten gorge, full of a gushing and enthusiastic stream, over bridges and walkways to Hoch Imst and then taking the cable car up to 2,100 metres and walking to the nearest hut for a beer. Carol came back down the cable car with the rucksack, while Anthony took the faster route on the longest Alpine Summer Toboggan run.

The Austrians take hill walking seriously and despite temperatures of 30 C, blue skies and no snow or peat bogs in sight they are out walking in boots and tut in German at our walking sandals. However, while we carry a rucksack with food, waterproofs, compass and whistle and an emergency first aid kit, they carry nothing, relying on the huts for food and shelter from the weather and clearly the English walkers for an emergency eye patch.

The hills are alive

It seems you meet no one from England for weeks and then four come along all at once: The campsite near Innsbruck was more crowded than a festival campsite, with only centimetres between the vans and tents. At 33 Euro a night it was also more expensive than a festival and the facilities were not much better. Not surprisingly we only stayed one night and missed out the delights of Innsbruck, despite enjoying sharing jokes and stories with fellow English travellers and completing an excellent book swap with Kevin and Julie.

The campsite at Imst suits us much better; from our pitch we can see fields of creamy brown cows, bright green meadows, high craggy mountains (all very Sound of Music!) and a McDonalds sign; we like to have the countryside in our sights, but with civilisation (not that Macdonald’s meets that criteria) within reach too. This blog reaches you courtesy of the McDonalds free wi-fi, eating fries was a small price to pay.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

I read the news today, oh boy

Austria does not feel edgy; the scenery would do for any Christmas day jigsaw puzzle, the cafes are lovely and it welcomes visitors warmly. We are aware that politically Austria leans to the right and we are interested in how this fits in with the community action that is in evidence. Although it seems idyllic, if we believe the news all is not well: There are concerns about the state of Vienna's sandpits, they need cleaning up and one in three bicycles in Vienna are stolen. In Preston, when the local cider drinking community took to sitting on a particular bench, the Council's solution was to remove the bench. We notice that the Austrian reaction to the sandpit problem is to improve the clean up of the sandpits and call for better sand. It is taken for granted that certain facilities will be provided.

We are leaving St Johann im Pongau very reluctantly. From here we have cycled, taken walks, visited the Leichtenstein Klamm and the lovely wooden water mills and each time returned to this lovely campsite with good hot showers, fantastic alpine views, space to play frisbee and free wi-fi. However, we are making our way back to northern Italy to meet up with Matthew and Rachel, so we must move on.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

You don't want no money, you don't want no bread

Everywhere we go in Austria we notice communities that have had an idea and made it happen; a new playground, a renovated town square. Pfarrwefen is a wonderful example; local people have worked together to provide a quality local museum from seven water mills that rise in a row from the valley, following a small stream.

These water mills, dating from at least the 18th Century, have been renovated and each contains an exhibition on a different aspect of the story of water milling; types of cereal, bread making, how the mill works and so on, finishing with the top mill which has been designed as a spiritual place complete with ethereal music and a glowing kernel. We found the whole museum entertaining and informative, providing in-depth information about a staple food, making it relevant to our own lives, as well as educational: Museums shouldn't be just about the rich and powerful.

It may be that Austrian's are able to succesfully provide good quality local facilities because of the evident wealth in the country. This is the first country we have visited where the cash machines only dispense 100 Euro and, if you are lucky, 50 Euro notes and notes of these denominations are accepted in cafes and shops without the bat of an Austrian eye-lash: No one shouts across the shop that they have a £20 note or makes you feel like a criminal by placing your note under a scanner.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Can we fix it

We have had a number of things that have broken even in our first three months, but chairs have been our most common problem. The cheap telescopic chairs we bought with us lasted no more than three weeks. After some searching, we purchased expensive La Fuma folding chairs in Italy and when they had lasted for 10 weeks we congratulated ourselves on our excellent choice of chair. Then one of them broke and despite much searching it is now the time of year when no one seriously stocks folding chairs. Anthony pass-me-the-gaffer-tape Kubicki has cleverly turned the broken chair into a stool and as back up we have bought another cheap telescopic chair which is already over one week into its allotted life-span. The saga of chairs will continue.

St Johann, another Austrian town and another town festival; you have to admire the Austrian’s willingness to wear lederhosen despite the ridicule of the world.

It is the evening of the day, I sit and watch the children play

We enjoy exploring new places, but it is also good to spend time on the campsite doing normal things; washing clothes (but never ironing!), cleaning inside the van, emptying the loo, checking oil, tyres, bikes and cooking. This also gives us time to watch our fellow campers.

Campsites are fantastic places to observe people; campers feel uninhibited and free to do as they choose: This may explain some of the behaviour we have seen on the campsite at St Johann im Pongau.

We suspect the couple next door of running a car laundering ring; they have two cars [Latest news, this is now three] and a large campervan, but only two sets of number plates, one German and one Austrian; these number plates are regularly moved between the three vehicles.

A family further along our terrace play lovely elaborate games with their children; one evening Dad and son togged up in walking shoes, trekking poles, bulging rucksacks and a map and together walked briskly along our terrace and the one above, back to their caravan.

This is not to mention the naked outdoor showering. Campers arrive at 09.00, what time did they set off to get here so early? Others arrive in the dark at 22.30, what is the story there? What do they all think of the quiet (except for the rock music, the dulcet tones of the Archers theme tune from the podcast and the harmonica) English couple in the blue van?

Friday, 7 August 2009

The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself

As well as reading the history section of the Rough Guides for Italy, Slovenia, Austria and Hungary, we have also taken the opportunity to read some books appropriate to places we visit. In Slovenia we read Ernest Hemingway’s excellent and moving ‘Farewell to Arms’, which is set in Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland. As we have finished books we have usually swopped them with other campers or in the campsite library, but we were pleased to be able to pass this novel on to a receptionist on a campsite in Slovenia who read English novels when reception was quiet.

We have both also thoroughly enjoyed the history and travel book ‘In Europe’ by Geert Mak, a journalist from the Netherlands. Geert spent 1999 travelling through Europe and through the 20th century and filled many gaps in our knowledge of the last hundred years with his informative and very engaging style. Reading about countries as we travel through them adds another layer to our understanding of these places and enables to appreciate some aspects we may have otherwise missed.

The Wieshof campsite at St Johann im Pongau is another idyllic spot. While preparing our evening meal we have a view of pink tinged craggy mountains and farmers hay-making; later we eat watching Redstarts potter about the meadow above us and swallows flit around overhead. There is also plenty to keep us occupied in this area, with a cable car to take us up to the mountains and cycle ways in the valleys.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

I said do you speak-a my language. He just smiled ...

When we arrive at a campsite, it is Carol who usually visits reception. In Austria, the booking process is fairly straight forward and can be managed in German, if necessary; in Italy too we had learnt just enough Italian to get through the bureaucracy that Italian campsites required, which included photocopying passports. In Slovenia Carol's first question was always, ‘Govirite Anglesko?’ or do you speak English and fortunately this always got a positive response: One receptionist was so impressed by Carol’s five words of Slovenian, she exclaimed, ‘You speak very good Slovenian!’ This may reflect how little Slovenian most visitors speak.

After so many campsites, we have got to know what sort of pitch we prefer and we will spend a little time walking around the campsite looking for one that meets our needs. In the height of summer our priority is shade, followed by trees to fasten a washing line to and some privacy. A level pitch, a view and lush grass are important, but come further down the list. At the campsite in Grein on the banks of the Danube we moved pitches after one night just so that we could get better wi-fi reception.

The photograph shows the Danube at Grein, a pretty small town with an excellent bike shop.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

This means nothing to me ...

The Donau-auen National Park is in the small part of Austria between Vienna and the Slovakian and Hungarian borders. Some of you may remember the fight to save this flood plain from a massive hydroelectric scheme in the 1980s, the legacy of which is an ecologically important area on Vienna’s doorstep. We cycled from the campsite in Vienna into the national park, through lush woodland, broken up by grassy clearings and shallow pools.

It is hot in Vienna and everyone is out enjoying the good weather. Cycling along the Danube out of the city you firstly pass through the BBQ zone, where families have set up a gazebo, a picnic table and a BBQ, watched over by the Grillplatzmeister to ensure nothing gets out of hand. After this comes the busy naturists area, stretching over a couple of kilometres. Cycling in European cities is always fun and from the campsite there are also excellent routes in to the city centre. We joined the throngs in Prater Park, a wonderful green play ground in the city, where a trip on the big wheel you may remember from the film ‘The Third Man’ is a must. … Oh Vienna!

But for now I’m down with ornithology, grab your binoculars, come follow me

The Neusiedler See is the largest steppe lake in Europe, a shallow lake prone to occasional drying out. It is surrounded by reeds and the southern half is a national park, managed jointly by Austria and Hungary.

This is not the Austria of ‘The Sound of Music’, the landscape is mostly flat with many excellent cycle routes that anyone can manage: We covered 70 kms, about half of this in Hungary. Access to the lake shore is very limited, as the reeds are protected for the wildlife. However, there are many large ponds and streams and we saw Avocets, Great White Egrets, Black-winged Stilt, Redshanks and Red-backed Shrike. Although this is a national park, it is also good agricultural land and we cycled past vines, polytunnels of peppers and tomatoes and fields of sunflowers and pumpkins.

We rely on each other aha

We have always delighted in the ability of Austrians and Germans to celebrate: Every time we visit we find ourselves amongst a festival and Rust on the Neusiedler See was no exception. These local celebrations share many of the characteristics of a wedding, with all ages taking part, even the teenagers attend. Alcohol is always in evidence, Rust was having its wine festival and you were able to taste as many as you wished of the 50 local wines; everyone sits at wooden tables and listens to a band bashing out hits from the 60s onwards; that sugary classic ‘Islands in the Stream’ was played by different bands on both Thursday and Friday night, and the dancing is always started by an elderly couple who have clearly taken ballroom dancing lessons and want everyone to know. The food at these events is usually very much wurst based. However, the Neusiedler See is partly in Hungary and we were pleased to be able to once again eat Langos, a fantastic deep-fried bread, about the size of a naan, covered in garlic; we’d not had these since we’d been in Slovakia in 1992.