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Published: June 15th 2010
Motorhome News from Europe 39
3rd - 13th June 2010
Off to pastures new - Eastern Europe - To Slovenia via Bavaria and Austria
.........and a brush with the law in Austria
Dover - Dunkerque, Luxembourg, Neuschwanstein Castle, Berchtesgaden, Oberammagau (above panorama), Grossglockner Pass, Zell am See, Julian Alps, Lake Bohinj, Lake Bled, Ljubljana and Portoroz
Things were a little different back in 2004 when our epic 18 month motorhome journey through Europe started. But Eastern Europe now beckons the tourist; the strife of war has passed into peace and harmony with any luck and adventurous motorhomers like us can now venture into calmer waters with happy hearts. There are now five of us on board our Burstner motrohome, Bertie. There's Janice the navigator, Todd, our well-travelled bear, Suzie, (Todd's blonde floosie), me, David, the driver most of the time - and now yet another back-seat driver, 'Jane', the recently acquired TomTom satnav.
This journey starts with a Norfolkline ferry from Dover to Dunkerque, chasing snail trails of lorries to our first port of call, Luxembourg, a hard six-hour drive. It's not in our nature to book campsites ahead; we never know where the day will end
and have rarely been unable to find a corner to park for the night. But queues of traffic greeted us as we passed through immaculate Luxembourg with its smart pastel houses: cars galore, long lines of roaring motorbikes, cars with trailers, cyclists in full racing regalia - and dozens of cycle-racing support vehicles! It's not the first time that bikes have come between us and our objectives but this one hit us in truly spectacular fashion. The road to our campsite was cordoned off and police barred our way, sending us off northwards totally confused. All further possible turnings to the campsite were closed with barriers and after half an hour of trying, at 6pm we eventually gave up all hope. Janice re-programmed 'Jane' for another campsite at La Rochelle,18 km away in the wrong direction, and one and a half hours later we finally arrived, totally exhausted, our tempers frayed at the edges after ages stuck in rush-hour traffic. Not a good start to a five-week holiday! Our host at La Rochelle told us that this was 'Tour de Luxembourg' week. Now, how were we supposed to know that? She didn't tell us something else we might have already
known; there are no plugs in the handbasins in the toilet blocks in Germany - probably because they get stolen. It used to be like that in France in the 1950's. There were some 'one fits all' plugs in our old kit on board 'Smiley', our previous UK motorhome, but goodness knows where they went. We'll cope.
Careful pre-planning included an array of coloured pins on our cork-board map of Eastern Europe, highlighting points of interest and joined in a wiggly line by pink cotton. Very pretty, but, as ever, nothing in this household is ever written in stone, let alone cotton. Studiously reading the Lonely Planet as we thundered down the autobahn, change of plan number one came into force as Janice moved today's target from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, to Fussen, southwest of Munich. Berchtesgaden could wait another day. On the horizon a thin line of fluffy cloud heralded distant mountains, flat countryside turned to rolling hills, contented milk-chocolate-coloured cows grazed bright green meadows bedecked with buttercups, shallow-roofed alpine houses appeared on mountain slopes, neatly stacked log-piles beside the barn, onion-domed churches atop every village - and fields of new-mown hay signaled the farmer's nose for a few
days of cloudless skies ahead.
So, why the change of plan you might ask? Well, Fussen is a delightful 13C village of neat houses and tasteful shops, street cafes and rippling flags and it's worthy of more notoriety in its own right than the guide books suggest. But its beauty is overshadowed by the nearby tourist attraction discovered by Janice; the iconic fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle we have seen so many times on picture postcards, built for the much-loved King Ludwig II who died somewhat mysteriously in Lake Starnberg, der Starnberger See
, aged just 40. The castle perches serenely on the mountainside overlooking the valley, its spires pointing ever skywards awaiting the arrival of the fairy-tale prince. A short evening drive secured us a few photos as the sun traced its line over the mountaintops. We beat the Germans at their own game at the campsite in Fussen (a car-park style site for campervans only), rising at 6am for our shower and not a single towel in sight. By 8.30 we were in Oberammergau, a few miles down the road.
I guess many of us have heard of Oberammagau, famed for its Passion Plays performed every tenth year since
The Passion Plays - a poster in town.
the plague in the seventeenth-century and I have to say, I have been intrigued to learn a little more about its origins for many years. This is 2010, which might help to explain the crowds of tourists who started to appear out of the woodwork shortly after our arrival before 9am. We did have the town to ourselves for a few brief moments before the Japanese turned up in a coach full of cameras. Despite the raging commercialism it’s a lovely town, graced by classy shops (there’s nothing tacky about anything in Bavaria), wonderful frescoes on every building, the pungent beckoning of coffee shops and colourful umbrellas on every street corner - and shopkeepers busy cleaning windows and sweeping pavements before the rush of tourists hit the tills.
We're learning to cope with 'Jane', the TomTom, after coming off motorways early more than once. She can also be stubborn sometimes, determined to send us somewhere far away or refusing to wake up and get started. Janice, the navigator will occasionally override 'Jane's' instructions when the fancy takes her, to provide an interesting diversion. With Berchtesgaden finally in our sights she concluded we should take an early exit from the
A8 near Salzburg but the driver (who shall remain nameless on this occasion) opted to await instructions from 'Jane'. Alas, we entered Austrian airspace, passed swiftly through Border Control without paying for a 'vignette' (a toll-card) and travelled the 3 miles of Austrian A10 motorway back to the German border - before being stopped by a wand-waving Austrian Border policeman!
'You must pay a toll on all Austrian motorways,' he said, as I wound down the window. 'You must have a valid vignette displayed on the windscreen.'
'Yes,' I replied knowingly, whilst struggling to put the brain into top gear. 'Are we in Austria, then?'
'You are indeed in Austria,' he informed me. ‘And it will be a €100 fine.’
‘We're going to Berchtesgaden in Germany; our TomTom sent us this way. We actually plan to be in Austria in a couple of days; staying for a while,' I replied swiftly.
He looked me straight in the eye and smiled. 'On a good day I might make an exception,' he said. 'And today it's a good day.'
Dead right it is. He let us on our way and in minutes we were back on German soil and camped at Konigssee.
Adolf Hitler at The Eagle's Nest
We declined the boat trip on the lake that evening and hiked a while beside the beautiful lake, set huddled between sharply rising mountains so reminiscent of Norway's fjords.
There is little left in Germany to remind us of the horror of World War II and the millions left in graveyards across all corners of Europe. But a few miles from Berchtesgaden there is a small tearoom known as The Eagle's Nest. Here in this corner of Bavaria, Adolf Hitler had a retreat, of which the tea-house, now a restaurant, is all that remains.
The Eagle's Nest can only be reached by bus these days and we were there for the first of the day at 9am to beat the crowds. The steep, spectacular road, the Kehlsteinstrasse, rises for 6.5km to the bus park from where we walked through a long cold tunnel to a brass-lined elevator, and thence to the terrace, where Hitler once stood with Eva, doing as we did that day; admiring the incredible panorama. It's a very popular tourist destination, but I question its continued existence, for, certainly never in my lifetime, have so many good people died at the hands of that one man.
View over The Eagle's Nest
That afternoon we drove southwards, back into Austria - avoiding motorways and tolls for the moment.
After much debate we finally agreed to take the Grossglockner Pass from where we camped near Zell am See, south across the mountains into Slovenia. Other campers had talked in fearful tones about the steep climbs, bans on caravans, burnt-out brakes, and frightening hair-pin bends. To cap this, cloud came in overnight and early visibility suggested rain over the top. With a €28 toll, the temptation was to find an alternative route, but the weather brightened by mid morning after a drive hunting down Griffon Vultures from our delightful National Park campsite just beyond Rauris and our lust for adventure overrode every possible objection! Despite the cost this drive should not be missed. Much of the route is indeed second gear stuff, the drive is exciting, the scenery outstanding with magnificent snow-topped mountains above and below, but the road is far from frightening when compared to many of our other excursions into the unknown! By early evening we were in Dovje just across the border into Slovenia, camped on a quiet hillside with stunning views of the Julian Alps.
Friendly sources had
suggested things were cheaper in Slovenia, tempting us to arrive with the diesel gauge flashing empty, but our first tank-full came at €1.14/litre, much the same as in Austria. With cupboards full of food from home it might be difficult for us to make direct comparisons, but the message from other travelers suggests this very westernised and friendly country has much to offer the tourist in terms of value for money. Slovenia is a small modern country (pop: 2m) and here, in the Julian Alps in the north-west corner, high mountain peaks and verdant valleys have plenty to offer the active tourist. Skiing hits the top of the list in winter, but the breathtaking mountains provide giant panoramas for those seeking to travel by car or on foot at this time of the year. Driving, we quickly discovered, can be extremely hard work; everything in the Julian Alps is either up there - or down there, and narrow roads and hairpin bends mean any two-hour drive is likely to take at least four. Hiking is not much different as we found from the word go. There are many great walks, most well signposted, but they are rarely suitable for the
The view from our campsite at Dovje
faint-hearted. We surprised ourselves, climbing steeply over long distances, using poles and compass to good effect, across snow-filled gulleys and rocky pastures to windy cols and mighty mountain-tops - all with wondrous spring flowers laid before us like an English garden rockery - and some. There can be no better time to visit this lovely country, the meadows and hillsides are alive with a breathtaking display of wild-flowers: orchids, gentians, hellebores, globeflower, anemones, clovers, clary, oxslips, alpine-snowbell, cranesbill.........the list is truly endless, such a delight and with bird spotting also on the list it will come as no great surprise that our walks also considerably exceed the specified times in the guide-books! It seems there is also a place in the guidebooks for the fishermen of this world - I'm not one of them as you know, but fishermen can be seen casting the magnificent turquoise rivers and crystal-clear lakes, up to their nether-regions in cold water in search of lunch. Our companion as ever, is the Sunflower Guide, with walks and drives across most of Europe for the energetic visitor.
It's quiet here right now too; we saw just three people on a four-hour walk up in the
Julian Alps, but school holidays will swell the campsites to bursting point by the end of June. One of those we met was Ed, a young and very fit teacher from Alaska, who stopped for a chat near the top of Mt Sija (1880m). There were a few campers about on our campsite at Ukanc on Lake Bohinj where we camped for a couple of nights before heading off to Lake Bled and our campsite a short bus ride out of Ljubljana.
They don't have plugs in the handbasins on Slovenian campsites either!
In common with much of Europe we have visited, the local language is not generally a problem in Slovenia. Thinking we might not be able to read some of the road-signs, we uploaded 'Eastern Europe' on to our TomTom, but we have found most signs to be in both Slovenian and English. An early morning visit to a bakery saw us pointing to a tasty-looking rustic loaf.
'One of those, please,' Janice said.
'Anything else?' the young lady replied.
All of those 'under thirty somethings' speak good English.
Farming is important in Slovenia and we're led to believe some 25% of the population grows
some of their own food. At this time of the year it's also clear that every last blade of hay is highly valued and an integral part of social life. Whole families; more often than not three generations, enjoy these early summer days scything, raking and stacking hay to dry, until late in the evening. Many families grow produce on allotment sized plots in the middle of hay-fields and indeed, farm fields are divided into quite narrow strips of onions, beans, potatoes, barley; and further south, corn, vines and hops, suggesting a self-sufficiency mentality.
Our first foray into a supermarket gave us a better insight into prices at last. Much of the merchandise on the shelves is easily recognisable, with many brands we associate with home and at similar prices - but locally grown produce, vegetables in particular, is a little cheaper it seems. A glance in an estate agent's window in Bled suggested house prices there were also similar to the UK in popular areas.
Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital is a truly engaging provincial city, smart and compact, brimming with Baroque architecture: wide paved streets, youths in outdoor cafes along the river, fashionable girls and guys making the most
Mt Vogel -above Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
The intrepid Janice making foot-holds in the snow
of yet another sunny day. For this is indeed a young city; some 20% of the people here are students and until late afternoon when the working day came to an end we imagined all people over 35 were banned from entering the city centre. This is a city of cobbled streets, of market stalls with local produce, of stunning architecture at every turn - as Janice put it so succinctly, 'a most pleasant experience'. We strolled the streets of this lovely city of 300,000 people in sweltering sunshine until our feet ached and the ice-cream dribbled down our arms. This must be a great place to call 'home'.
Before heading off we purchased a €15 seven-day vignette to speed our journey down the motorway. We stopped on our way south for an unexpectedly expensive lunch in Stanjel, a tiny fortified hillside village of white-stone houses in the Karst region of south-west Slovenia near Trieste - somewhat reminiscent of the Alpajarras in Spain. This tiny town right on the Italian border was almost totally destroyed in WWII and much of it remains derelict to this day. It seems the locals have decided to move down the hill into more
..the iconic island church
modern accommodation in the valley. The church with its 'Bishop's-hat' shaped spire is still in use and they are renovating the castle now, but many houses will remain just piles of rubble for years to come it seems.
We pressed on south, to Lipica, home of the Lipizzaner horse stud farm, into, and out of, Italy in five minutes, before reaching the sweltering Slovenian coast. It was 31C, rather above our comfort ceiling as we passed by Piran on the coast, one of the tourist highlights mentioned in all the guidebooks. If you're planning a visit by motorhome, forget it - you must park your vehicle outside of town, but there's a height limit of 2.3m in the Visitor's Car Park! That's Town planning for you.
A little further down the road is the resort of Portoroz on the Adriatic, lined with masses of bright roses as one might imagine, palms, yachts, posh hotels, cypress trees and floral verges in true Italian Riviera style. There's a forest of masts across the path in front of our campsite, some indication that Slovenia is on its way up. Methinks, delightful as it might appear, we'll not be on the coast
for long - we don't do crowds.....but first we must venture into Croatia - our goal for tomorrow.
‘Gute Fahrt’ - have a nice one.
David and Janice
The Grey haired nomads.
A Dutch couple told us they have had four days of rain since leaving Holland on Sunday. It's now ten days since we left the UK and the sun has sailed with us all the way!
* Panorama, courtesy of a poster in Oberammergau
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