Sunday 30th May 2010, Strassen, Austria
Last night we arrived here in the mountains of the Dolomites. We've now crossed the border into Austria though long before that we felt we were already here. Road signs were bilingual but surprisingly, as we were still in Italy, the German came before the Italian. The Alps are a region that unites its inhabitants more closely than their country of origin. The scenery and life style is similar right across the borders, be it France, Switzerland, Austria or Italy. Wars and treaties mean that boundaries have changed, sometimes many times, leaving pockets of one nation to be absorbed by their neighbours. These people continue to live and speak their original language, so the "buffer zones" (of the Dolomites for example), are a mixture of languages and cultures. Here they even speak Ladine, a language that is an independent descendant of Latin rather like Romansh in Switzerland.
Gone is the soft landscape and level plain around Venice, gone too are the beautiful, dignified old palaces with their faded stucco and crumbling frescoes. They have both been replaced by the jagged peaks and bare, flesh pink mountains of the Dolomites, and wooden chalets with carved balconies clustered high on the bright green pastures that stretch up from the valley floor to meet the dark pine forests, the damp clouds wreathing around them in wisps. As the clouds gently flow and part we have momentary glimpses of the jagged summits, still with snow in their crevices. It has been mizzling with rain since before we arrived and temperatures varied by over 20 degrees as we journeyed north yesterday. The Austrian news, which we can now receive on Modestine's radio, announces snow at 1200 metres, way below the level at which we have been travelling! What a contrast from Sardinia and Italy!
It's good to see cattle and sheep out on the steep grassy hillsides. We've seen very few animals in the fields in Italy, mainly donkeys and horses. We feel a sense of great pleasure being back in Austria, though we have enjoyed Italy immensely. This though is a familiar, natural landscape with cooler weather and it's fun being able to understand and express ourselves again without being mistaken for total idiots set loose for the day. One of the great delights is leaving Italian officialdom behind. When we arrived in the rain last night the cheery campsite owner waved us away, telling us to find a pitch and get settled and dry, we could sort out when we left. No need for passports or documentation! And the facilities! Comfortable, adjustable hot showers that stay on for as long as you want and a sliding screen to ensure your clothes and the floor stay dry! Hot water at the hand basins, potted plants in the loos and a choice of rolled or interleaved toilet paper!! We rushed around exploring and squeaking with delight! Who cares if it's raining? With luxuries like that and views of steep meadows and cuckoo clock houses from Modestine's window, we're well content. Maybe the bar even sells chips, beer and fresh bread! No more pizza! Heaven!
Yesterday we continued north stopping at Feltre, a very pleasant Italian town of around 22,000 people. Such small towns are the greatest charm of Italy. They are not usually large enough to feature on the tourist trails and what you see tends to be everyday life being lived out by the residents amidst the crumbling heritage of their ancestors. Thus Feltre has a lower town with smart shops and businesses, crowded with cafes and ice cream shops. It being Saturday lots of people were about and there was a very good atmosphere. Through an old stone gateway with heavy wooden doors still capable of withholding attack, we found ourselves in the old town. It clambers steeply up the little streets, the ancient walls of the houses bearing evidence of early frescoes and sgrafitti work. Roses were in bloom in all the garden corners, around doorways and climbing the walls.
From the piazza at the top we could look down onto the old tiled roofs of the town where we noticed the curious chimneys so familiar to the Veneto. They made useful perches for the many swallows skimming the roofs.
Feltre even boasts a small university housed within its mellow walls. On the Piazza Maggiore, with its column surmounted by the symbol of the Veneto, the lion of St. Mark, we were intrigued to find a statue of Panfilo Castaldi, claimed by the town to have been the original inventor of printing by moveable type, rather than Johann Gutenburg. It is claimed that Johann Faust, Gutenburg's partner, knew Castaldi and learned of the process from him!
Outside the 18th century theatre, we were intrigued and puzzled to note that plaques had been deliberately defaced. Why or when we don't know but presume it has something to do with disputed territories between Italy and Austria or possibly states within Italy. Later, in another town, Belluno, a bas-relief carving of the lion of St. Mark had also been almost totally erased so perhaps Feltre was caught up in conflicts with Venice.
We next stopped at Belluno, nearly twice as large as Feltre, but still a pleasant size to explore. It is built high on the hillside and cars are generally not permitted into the centre. Parking was provided below and flights of escalators carried us up to the summit where we exited through the doors of an old palace to find ourselves in the heart of the flower market! With so few vehicles we could wander the streets in comfort. In the centre we found a large, well laid out flower garden with seats beneath shady trees while surrounding it on all sides were old buildings with arcades to shelter from extremes of temperature and rain. There really is a very strong cafe culture in Italy and almost every shop seemed to have crowded tables beneath the arcades. Surely all Italians cannot spent the weekend with their cappuchinos?
Thunder rumbled and the first spots of rain began. The Cathedral was mercifully closed, so without that to delay Ian we rushed back to Modestine just before the rain began in earnest.
Road signs were confusing and, kicking and screaming, we were forced onto the motorway in the very worst of the downpour. Fortunately it was not for long and we followed the mountain road up to Cortina, just short of the Austrian border. The route was excellent - far better than we imagined from our map, though much of it was underground. Every few kilometres we were swept into a tunnel, usually several kilometres long, to emerge into yet more rain on the far side. Gradually though we were rising and soon we saw patches of snow in the hollows of the lowering mountainsides with their scree slopes of decayed pink limestone. Our route then wound up through pine forests. At one point, far below amidst the deep green trees, we could see the bright, blue water of a river running over its clear bed of flesh-tinted limestone.
Our final stop was at Cortina, usually cited in the Italian weather forecast as the coldest place in Italy. At 8 degrees we were only too keen to find our jumpers, unused for so long, before setting off to see why Michelin awarded the town three stars. It's a pleasant place but in the rain with the mist blotting out the surrounding views it failed to charm us greatly. We imagine the stars are awarded for the beauty of its setting. It was clean and smart, full of chalet-style wooden buildings, frequently with decorated facades. Here we saw our first, typically baroque church. A wedding happily prevented us going inside this one. I fear there will be plenty more to see later!
Here though, I discovered the first department store I can remember seeing since we left England! Inside was an Aladdin's cave of all the things we've puzzled about not finding in Italy. Not only did it sell thermos flasks, it sold thermal undies as well! There were displays of Portmerion china as well as Tyrolean hats with feathers and in the food department they actually sold fresh meat in addition to the usual dried sausages and pasta!
It was getting late and we still had to drive along winding roads to find our campsite in the hills. So we continued, at first coming down and down, crossing the border into Austria, where we discovered diesel is 20 cents a litre cheaper than in Italy, (grrrr! I'd filled up in Feltre.) Passing through typical mountain villages, all smart, clean and well cared for, we eventually arrived here, too weary to do more than watch a dvd last night and listen to the rain.
By the way, we passed into Austria from Italy in June 2006.That time stopping to explore Trento and Brixen and their surroundings in warm sunshine, entering Austria via the Brenner Pass. It is only a valley away from the route we have taken this time and gives a wider impression of this region of the Alps.
Sunday 30th May 2010 continued, Maltatal, Tirol
It has been an interesting but very different day today. When we arrived in Lienz it was teeming with rain and the streets were full of puddles. We found our hiking boots, the only footwear guaranteed watertight, and resurrected our rainwear from the bottom of the wardrobe. Soon we found the silent streets of the Altstadt. It was all so perfect it was difficult to tell which buildings were 17th century and which late 20th - the Austrians have gone a bit too far in restoring their old buildings. Around the town were pointed spires and onion domes attached to little whitewashed baroque churches. Spires are a definite sign that we are back in northern Europe again.
The streets were silent but passing a restaurant we noticed most of the tables were full and the waiters busy. The displayed menu looked very appealing on a wet Sunday in a small town, when Austria, a very religious country, shuts itself down until Monday morning.
Because we are travelling continuously, rather than taking a holiday, we almost never eat anything but snacks when we use cafes and restaurants, so this was for us a real treat. We both opted for the special dish of the day, starting with minestrone soup followed by venison steak in a red wine sauce with wild wood mushrooms accompanied by a slice of orange decorated with cranberries and parsley and served with potato croquettes. A damask cloth, serviettes and shining cutlery were all part of the pleasure. It's not something we can do too often but after Italy it was a joy to have real food again. By the time we left, the rain had stopped, the clouds lifted and the peaks of the mountains all around were visible from the end of every street.
Lienz is a very pleasant town at the confluence of two fast flowing rivers. Crossing the Drau we found ourselves in a pleasant, formally laid out wooded area where the sun had already brought out eager joggers and couples taking a stroll after lunch. On the main square the cafe terraces were gathering customers. Unlike Italy, where coffee is served very strong in thimbles, here it is more likely to be served filtered and drunk with cake. Strudel of course is the favourite but Torte runs it a close second. Ian chose a large slice of Truffeltorte which we took back to share later in Modestine with a picnic coffee.
Still making our way northwards towards the high Tyrol we passed along the pretty valley of the Drau, full of flowering meadows. Timber is the chief industry and we passed numerous saw-mills, piled high with logs and sawn timber stacked in sheds to season. Houses in the villages were clean and smart with neatly trimmed gardens. Everywhere was just so perfectly manicured. The chalet-style houses were large with wooden cladding to the upper floors. They each had huge piles of logs in the attached barn or under the overhang of the surrounding wooden balcony. Everywhere looked prosperous, prim and very proper.
Approaching the town of Spittal and der Drau, a couple of men in a lay-by with the bonnet of their car up waved to us to stop and help. Looking very worried one of them asked us if we spoke French. Naively and instinctively wishing to help we said we did. He then told us his bank card had been blocked leaving him with no money for fuel to continue his journey to Budapest where he claimed he lived. Could we assist him with money? He showed us a ring which he offered, but did not hand over, as a pledge of good faith. Alarm bells began to ring. We've been scammed before in Sri Lanka, but supposing his tale were true? We questioned him a little. How could he get fuel even if we gave him money, stuck out here in the countryside? He said he had just enough for a few kilometres to get him to the nearest garage. After further questioning he told us his mother lived in Vienna and would help him. Tomorrow the banks would be open and he could sort out his credit card. Meanwhile we could hold his ring as surety. We were now 90% sure it was a scam but it's difficult to just drive away, particularly without running the person over. Ian offered his small change – about 6 euros, to help. He asked for more. We said we didn't have more as we also needed to go to the bank in the morning. Thus we left him, mulling over together whether he could remotely have been telling the truth. Ever since our own bank card was blocked after our account was hacked into in Venice on our last visit we have been terrified of ending up in exactly that situation. Soon we decided he was a fraud and felt angry that he was trading on people's good will. If you see somebody in need of help it's normal to offer assistance. How many other people had given him money this afternoon? Ian is convinced he was from North Africa, I though from Romania. His complexion was very dark and French was obviously not his first language – ours was better. Ian regretted not speaking to him in Hungarian to test his reaction. We both felt annoyed we'd not noted the origin of the vehicle. Still, it was only a few euros. We should have offered to notify the police in Spittal so they could send out assistance. That might have shown us how genuine they were. Why don't we think of these things at the right time?
Spittal an der Drau was rather a disappointment. Pleasant, with several picturesque buildings and an imposing castle by a park in the middle of the town that now serves as a museum, library and concert hall, but after the splendours of Italian towns of similar size it has little to offer. Austria's charms are chiefly in its landscape, the settings of its towns and its clean and affluent appearance.
Leaving the town we headed along the Maltatal, a valley that peters out higher up in the mountains. Up here we'd read of a campsite that sounded a delightful place to spend the night. As we turned a bend in the road we saw a car with its bonnet up in a lay-by with a desperately anxious looking man pleading at the window of a car that had obviously been flagged down, just as we had been. The driver was about to hand over some money! Thumb on horn we roared into the lay-by, skidding to a halt beside them and shouting "tu mentes" –"you're lying" at the startled trickster who stepped back from the vehicle, astonished at our interference. The car driver seized his opportunity and drove off, still clutching his money. We followed on behind him and were rewarded with him turning on his blinker lights to acknowledge our assistance. Unfortunately the next person along won't be so lucky. Be warned; don't stop to help anyone in distress on European roads. It's hard but it could end up being far more serious than losing a few euros. Tomorrow we need to return down the valley so may stop at the police station in town and file a complaint.
This campsite seems just as good as we expected. Again it is wonderfully clean and smart with facilities that really are luxury. It is green and rural with a little farm of goats, rabbits and chickens. In the morning the campsite owner offers free rides in his tractor trailer around the immediate environs and to visit a waterfall. Children can help with the animals and there is a large swimming pool. All this is included in our book of 15 euro campsites. So far, the quality of the sites is infinitely better in Austria than in Italy. Inside the huge wooden chalet that is also the home of the owners, is a bar and an excellent restaurant that might have tempted us if we'd not already indulged at lunchtime. Surrounding the site is nothing but grassy meadows and towering mountain peaks where snow still lingers. Unfortunately it's rather chilly and wet this evening so once again we are confined to Modestine.
Monday 31st May 2010, Hallstatt, near Salzberg
Last night's campsite has knocked Estartit in Spain off the top of the list for the best campsite of our five years of travelling. Terrassen Camping, Maltatal has pretty well everything the perfect site should have. Not only do the showers have proper walls, they are attractively tiled. Your face is reflected in the smart mixer taps of the gleaming wash basin and the place does not have a Turkish loo anywhere! There was even central heating, for which we were grateful as the surrounding mountains had received a coating of snow overnight. This morning, after pampering ourselves with hot showers, Ian collected fresh rolls from the little shop – we were hallucinating about Austrian bread rolls down in Italy. The rain had stopped and the sun smiled meekly at us from behind the mountaintops. The wind was whipping around and temperatures no more than 6 degrees. Nothing daunted we clambered up into the trailer of the farmer's tractor and set off for a ride around this so pretty valley, taking hilly side routes that wound through tiny hamlets of ancient wooden houses, across flowery meadows where healthy looking cattle roamed free, along to a 200 metre high waterfall and past a smokehouse, where meat has been cured in the valley since the 16th century!
We were freezing by the time we got back to the campsite but it had been a superb introduction to this beautiful area of the Tirol. Next we watched as the farmer saddled up three of his little ponies and took some of the visiting children for a ride around the farm. We contented ourselves with patting them, playing with the goats and rabbits and watching the little chickens wandering around.
All this was completely free! In summer there is a lovely swimming pool where you can float on your back and look up at the wonderful Austrian mountains. This is a site where even we could relax - swimming, reading, taking mountain walks or strolling through the green pastures of the valley. However, it was far too cold today, so we returned down the valley, stopping to explore the village of Gmünd
Set behind its defensive walls, overlooked by its fortress castle, we found a few streets of pretty houses with decorated and painted facades and a residential castle dating from the 17th century. There were coffee shops and bakers, everything to make for a happy holiday except warmth. We climbed up to the old castle, clambered around on steep wooden staircases inside its ruined walls, and enjoyed the snowy vistas of the mountains. We discovered that it was in Gmünd that the Porsche car was first manufactured, from 1944 to 1950, and there is a museum in the tiny town tracing the history of the company. We'd never realised it was an Austrian car.
Near the museum we discovered an exhibition by Fritz Russ of iron sculptures created using recycled gardening implements, old cutlery, outmoded cooking equipment, horse shoes, nuts and bolts, even old typewriters, anything metal in fact. It was all displayed in the artist's garden and we were bowled over by its ingenuity and humour. He is certainly very skilled with an excellent eye for seeing the end result from a pile of scrap metal.
Much of the rest of today has been spent climbing up one side of mountains and going down the other. The route has been beautiful except that most of the time the views have been hidden in the mists or we have been peering through a rain soaked windscreen with the wiper blades slashing back and forth. Until today I've never really felt we needed a turbo charged engine. We've been up and down mountains all over Europe, crossing passes far higher than the 1,665 metre high ones we've coped with today. Usually though the gradient has been carefully engineered and although we may have puffed and huffed a bit, we've always reached the top without needing to go right down to bottom gear. Not so today! We struggled up in first for much of the winding route with gradients of 15% rising for several kilometers, only to discover ski resorts at the top of all three passes we've coped with. For once we were glad it was so chilly or we may well have overheated.
Up here the snow was swirling directly at us, piling up on the windscreen, trickling down as it melted. As we descended the far side of each col the snow gradually turned to rain which became heavier as we followed the mountain road northwards towards Salzberg.
Austria does not have many sites on the Unesco World Heritage list. One though is here in Hallstatt which lies beside the Hallstatter See, a finger lake over 125 metres deep hemmed in by mountains. The delights of the area will have to wait until tomorrow though as we arrived in pouring rain to discover we needed to use official car parks well outside the little town and walk back in. Most of the sights are at the top of the mountain, reached by cable car. Late on a soaking wet afternoon with the rain pouring down we decided it was wiser to check in early at a campsite we chanced upon within walking distance of the town centre and pray the weather improves tomorrow. The campsite lady told Ian she is desperate for good weather. She'd had the central heating on in the showers and lounge area since last October and it's still not warm enough to turn it off. This site had a heated lounge with a television and comfortable tables and chairs. So while our supper cooks in Modestine, parked just outside, we have spread ourselves out in the otherwise deserted lounge with space to swing invisible cats, sort photos, write blogs and drink a glass of wine. It's 2 degrees and still raining outside but maybe tomorrow will be better. Temperatures have dropped by 33 degrees since I went swimming in the sea in Sardinia!