Published: August 31st 2009August 31st 2009
The last few weeks to me have been about beauty, both what´s natural and unspoilt and also what humanity at its best can achieve. I have certainly felt more like a tourist and haven't felt that I've gained much of an understanding of the nations people ... not that this can always happen with a visit, certainly as brief as ours. Sometimes though beauty speaks for itself - although with the length of this blog you may think otherwise! With that in mind you probably wouldn´t anticipate the journey starting at a campsite we´ve lovingly named "Hell Camp"
Hell camp wasn´t very far from Ostrava in the east of Czech Republic - the drive from Poland was too long to make it straight to Prague. It was clearly somewhere that people did used to go in their droves, its huge size, plentiful but tattered facilities and stunning location were all testimony to this. Sadly its visitors weren´t the considerate souls we´ve got used to during this journey and in brief summary we were up all night to assorted techno that I´m now able to show my age in saying "Just sounded like noise!"
We left in a dash the
following morning and enjoyed the pretty drive to Prague while I dozed at the wheel! When we landed at the site in Prague it couldn´t have been a greater constrast, small and city based but with great facilities and some of the loveliest people that we have met through the journey so far. We got on with our now well rehearsed routine of putting up the tent (now taking an impressive 10.5 mins), having a shower and getting out for some food and an evening sense of our new environment.
Jo had been to Prague several years ago and had a momentary concern that it wouldn´t be everything that she remembered - well all I can say is that she needn't have wasted that moment of concern! Prague was everything that you could wish for in a city. Every street had beautiful architecture and showed what a people unencumbered with politics could achieve and so turned their attentions to other pursuits (the Czechs were prevented from political activity when under Hasburg rule a few centuries ago).
Our day time journey through the city was no less impressive although when it took a good 30mins to walk the 200m
of the Charles Bridge in the middle of the day we certainly felt the pressure of how this is the most touristic city in Europe (seriously, one woman fainted, and you thought our life was easy!!)
So Prague, great views and a great camp and even a good boogie in a bar one night, it was certainly a wrench to leave but I was assured that Cesky Kumlov, in the south of the country, would be beautiful.
We stayed by a beautiful lake in a place just outside Cesky Kumlow called Horni Plana (yes, we sniggered too). An impressive hour of Jo rowing a boat wherever I directed on the lake provided us with lush views and it so dark later that we could just gaze at the stars all night whilst enjoying a 50p Czech beer! When I woke up the following morning I had the beautiful scene and stillness to myself of the mist clearing across the lake by the morning sun, the boats moored slightly out providing perspective and focus to the numerous photos I took ... It was just beautiful.
All too soon though it was time to leave Czech Republic to move
on to one of the few cities we thought could rival Prague - Vienna.
Without doubt to enter Austria is to enter a visually stunning country - we even had to comment that the tarmac appeared to have been freshly rolled and painted just for us! There were beautiful hills and distant mountains, numerous chalets with flower boxes brimming with plentiful red blooms. As we approached Vienna itself, and to get to our campsite, we had to cross the fantastically aqua Danube river and were relieved that we didn't have to sell a kidney to afford the campsite.
In the evening we headed in to town on yet another clean and efficient transport system and as we popped our heads out of the subway into the centre of Vienna we thought
"Ewwww! This isn't quite as pretty as Prague!"
The subway station had brought us up by what happened to be one of the cities few vagrants, there were lots of little fast food huts and the perfect view of the evening sky was obscured by numerous tram wires.
What I discovered later though was that this place was actually right next to paradise. There
was simply the best ice cream place ever here! Constantly busy, this stall that served so many flavours I couldn't count of creamy loveliness that would make everything that I've ever had before hang its head in shame! Anyway, I digress into another type of beauty!
Our walk around the city certainly improved our impression. Vienna isn't like Prague in that every street is lovely but what they have is simply spectacular!! The buildings that were hundreds of years old looked like the tools had only been put down yesterday! It was amazing and our day time tour of the city enhanced this view. Vienna also, not so much for tourist numbers, but for the type of people around us, made us feel like tourists. It is quite simply people with an entirely different bank balance to mine that "holiday" in Vienna.
So, as we ate spectacular ice cream and watched the temperature soar into the high 30's we decided we needed a break and headed for the waterpark right next to our campsite - Happyland! A little water volleyball later and a little lying in the sun just charged us up for an evening in a gay
bar listening to classical music (a little bit of culture of the camp variety before we left for Salzburg).
Our campsite was fantastic in Salzburg. New bathrooms had just been fitted and made what facitilities we have at home look shabby ... could Austria just keep wowing us? It also had a fantastic restaurant and we oggled lots of people having a large roast joint of meat on our first evening with envy as it had sold out by the time we got there. We made sure ours was reserved for the following evening!
Feeling a little "citied out" we headed out for some natural beauty and went for a walk through the beautiful Kitzlochklamm gorge. Jo even suggested we make the walk longer and we followed well signed tracks through lots of gorgeous scenery and at least a few times felt the urge to sing Sound of Music. We were both so excited though to be moving on to our next destination ... sLOVEnia!
It really is going to be hard not to gush over how much I thought of this part of the trip. Slovenia (sort of pronounced by us as if singing the song
"Cecilia") is stunning. We crossed the border from Austria in a tunnel though the mountains so as we popped out the other side you immediately had a feeling of being somewhere else. The first thing we saw though were a few blocks of flats in the fantastic mountains that would never have even got planning permission in Austria and I was immediately worried that the journey through beauty had ended ... how wrong!
This was a minor blip! We drove on and the very shortly over the border arrived at our destination - Bled. This beautiful town skirts around the most perfectly clear waters of its lake in the middle of which sits an idylic church. Overlooking the lake and clinging to the rock face is a castle and its bordered by beautiful trees. I had seen pictures in Michael Palins "New Europe" book that has accompanied me through this part of the journey, but neither they or the photos we took will do it justice.
Jo had a much better boat to row me in this time and by the end of the day we had set up camp and she had rowed us out to the
church in the lake. We'd decided we were going to go for white water rafting whilst in Slovenia so got it booked and I tried to sleep!
We'd been given a map by the rafting guy and directions of nice places to stop along the way. One was a nice view point and the other the source of the Soča river on which we'd be later rafting. He said that the source of the river was at 49. I had asked whether that was exit 49. "No, hairpin turn 49, they're all numbered, it's quite funny, you'll see!" He told us the drive would take about 2.5hrs so we set off with about 4 hours before the start time to be able to take our time.
The drive itself was overwhelming, through the hairpin turns we gained about 500m from a starting altitude just under 1000m as we skirted the highest peak in Slovenia - Triglav. There were clearly mad people even cycling this route! We stopped at the source of the river and it was a fun scramble to see where the river emitted from its limestone hideaway. Given all this gawping we had a fairly tense
last 30mins of the journey as, in fine Craig style, we arrived at the activity centre 3mins before the start time!
The rafting itself was fantastic. We were a little nervous that our guide looked about 12 years old but in short we rafted on water that was so pure and clean you could drink it! We swam in it and on going over one of the drops Jo popped off her side and just landed face first on the other side of the inflatable raft! It was the funniest splat! We all laughed and she was uninjured (stop worrying now Pat!)
We returned to the car in the bright sunshine and huge grins to find a picture message from my cousins of their beautiful new twin girls. I think they were the only people in our world that day experiencing more joy than us!
On recommendation from the adventure centre guy, and not really wanting to do the return drive! We headed for the "car train". This 45 min journey for about 20 cars was great fun, through loads of dark tunnels and I kept pratting about like it was a ghost train and telling scary
stories to the point that I scared myself ... a great end to the day!
To keep with the adventuring theme I swam to the island the following morning. A deceptively long swim and later hired a bike to cycle round it and a sneaky return to the activity shop later I'd booked a canyoning adventure for the following day!
Canyoning is one of the best things I've ever done and definitely up there with the silliest. Our guide "canyoning Bob" took our group of 8 - a few Aussies, Kiwis a British couple and me out up into the woods, got us kitted out in wet suit, wet suit coat, socks, gloves, shoes and helmet and then said "I hope you like cold water" as we set off after him!
We got to the point where we were starting when Bob ducked under the safety rope at the edge of the gorge just past a bridge and said "Here you jump". Even the mad Aussie blokes looked twice! Ten minutes later though we'd all screamed and thrown ourselves off the edge the 15ft or so into the icy waters below! That was just the start. By
the end of the trip I couldn't count how many times I'd jumped or dived (as I got braver) into the waters and the rest of the time we were generally allowing ourselves to be carried along by the current down natural slides and the like. It was awesome and gave me a chance to appreciate the natural beauty in a whole new way!
It was little surprise that the following day, as we packed up, I was pretty emotional about leaving Bled. Probably the first place on this trip that I know I want to return to.
Our drive onwards was to the south of the country down the coast to the old town of Piran, minutes away from both the borders of Italy and Croatia. On our way we stopped at the UNESCO site of the Skocjan caves. These ancient caves contain one of the worlds largest known underground chambers and are an impressive 6km long.
We thought we got there, there was a coach party just landed and we asked them for directions. A cheery bloke said in German to follow them, so we did, a short way down the path in the car.
Jo jumped out to find out what was happening and I saw her in the rear view mirror being introduced to lots of people and shaking hands ... I was in tucks of laughter by the time she came to my door and said "just c'mon, we're going with them!"
It turned out that we had happened upon a group of school teachers who were having a day out together before the start of term to some of the local caves and scenery. One of the English teachers - the impeccably sounding, exceptionally fluent - Sandy had already been appointed to be our translator! Sandy took us along with the group and the hospitality of everyone was tremendous. They invited us to continue the day with them but after a walk down into a beautiful gorge with them we bade our farewells, sadly without a photo of Sandy for our records!
The caves when we did finally find them were spectacular and looked like the set of a film so used are we to them being recreated at theme parks and the like. Finally we set off in the right direction - to Piran.
We arrived on
the last weekend of August and therefore the last weekend of most peoples holidays and certainly the long Italian summer holiday so the place was rammed. We managed to find the smallest pitch in the last corner of the campsite. We couldn't even expand the tent to its full size! It was worth it though for the beautiful old town, all higgledy piggledy streets and stunning clear sea. A deserved sunbathe later and in the evening what Jo described as one of her best pizzas ever!
We have now travelled over 4000miles and since we set our sail south from Poland both the temperature and the beauty have soared. Its created some awful problems of the tent being too hot for an afternoon nap, tan lines or the glue holding our books together melting, but we're soldiering through - and all in the pursuit of beauty!
There are more photos below