A Travellerspoint blog

Week 19: Rain and big walks in Switzerland

Cream, cheese and chocolate

Switzerland has been a wet week, but has slowly grown on us over time. We started the week driving over a big mountain pass from Austria. It was a beautiful drive, lots of windy corners, spectacular mountains and valleys. The only downside is that there was a local cycle race going on at the same time, and the roads at times were very narrow. We arrived in a place called Zug (after nearly killing a few dozen cyclists), on the side of a small lake to camp the night.
The first thing we noticed about Switzerland was that everything is so expensive compared to the rest of Europe! The campground we stayed in cost us 48 Swiss Francs (about 60 NZD) per night, way over the cost of Austrian accommodation. Beer is much more expensive here, and so are groceries, especially meat and vegetables. On arriving in Zug we were met with some pretty wet weather, so we hunkered down at the camp and got all the boring domestic stuff like about 3 loads of washing sorted. The following day was also pouring with rain, but we ventured over to Cham, a town about 3km away from Zug for a look around and also had a look around the pretty village of Zug. Like the towns in Austria, Swiss towns seem to be well kept and really flash. Lots of the country reminds us of Queenstown, very resort-y and prices to match!
We’ve covered about 15000 miles so far on our journey, and we figured the Sundancer was in need of a bit of TLC so with some help from the camp owners, we managed to find a garage that would service the van for us (harder than we thought it would be, lots of garages couldn’t physically fit the van inside to have a look at it). We had an early start to drop the vehicle off in a small town called Sins, and took the train to Lucerne for the day.
Switzerland has an amazing network of trains, and they are all really new and fancy, but again seem to cost a lot more than they did in other countries we have been to.
We thought Lucerne was a really pretty town, right on the shores of a beautiful alpine lake. We spent the day wandering the streets in the old part of town, had a picnic lunch on the lakefront and a beer at a local brewery. The rain which seemed to be plaguing our visit to Switzerland so far managed to stay away too which was great!
The van did need a bit of love, namely 4 new tyres and some thing that goes on the front axle needed replacing. The guy quoted us around $1500 NZD for all of this work, but it actually came in under quote, so we were happy enough with that. To treat the van, we also bought a vignette in Switzerland, which is a sticker that you put on the windscreen and lets you go on all of the toll roads. Most of the country is mountainous, and we figured it would be pretty slow going if we didn’t take the motorways. The only downside of this is that to avoid all of the mountains you end up going through massive tunnels, and miss out on the beautiful views.
After we picked up the van again, we headed south to Interlaken for a look around. We had heard that this was a really beautiful town, and although it was pretty rainy there too it didn’t disappoint. We stayed in a freedom camp just out of town, and the next day had a look around town then headed for the Jungfrau region, famous for its beauty. We got there too late to catch a train up into the mountains, but had a really nice (but rainy) walk around the village of Gimmelwald then camped there the night.
We were pretty keen to do a big hike in the Swiss Alps, and on Friday the weather finally pulled through for us. We did some googling, and found a good loop to walk in the Lautermann valley, apparently one of the largest glacial valleys in the world, famous for having over 72 waterfalls. It was a gorgeous setting for a walk, high snow-topped peaks, steep valleys and LOTS of waterfalls – all that rain was good for something!
The guide we read said you could choose to take the steep rail or cable car to the top of the mountain then walk along the top, or take the path. We decided that we would take on the path….a climb of over 1000m, which took us nearly 2 hours! It was really steep, but beautiful. We were not impressed with the people looking down on us as they coasted up the hill in the cable cars as we battled on. The climb took us through forest and farmland, to a soundtrack of cow bells. Across the valley, we could see snow and glaciers, and of course the beautiful falls. We wandered along the top of the hill through an alpine car-free village called Murren, and then back down the hill to the valley floor before catching a bus back to the carpark. It was an exhausting but unforgettable day.
The following day, we awoke stiff and sore, and drove south to a small town called Gruyeres, which is famous for its Gruyere cheese, fondue and meringues served with gruyere double cream. We stopped at the cheese factory and did a tour which showed us the traditional cheesemaking process, and of course gave us some tastings, then wandered in the rain around the beautiful village and around the countryside for a couple of hours. They advertised a “cheese walk” up to another village which also still made the cheese in the traditional way, so attacked that the following morning. Our tired muscles didn’t really love us pushing them through another 500m ascent (4 hour walk), but the cheese and the views were pretty good at the top, and on the way back down we came across heaps of wild raspberries which were a nice reward for our slog.
When we arrived at the campervan, disaster struck. “We” had left the lights on in the van, and the battery was completely gone. We were parked in a packed carpark, with no easy way to jumpstart the van, and no tools to change the back battery in the van for the engine battery. The local garage was shut, and the people in the cheese factory didn’t have tools that they would lend us. Andrew’s stress levels were through the roof! After about an hour of trying different things as tools, and several impressive sparks from the inside battery, a lovely French couple came to our rescue and jumpstarted the van for us, so we kept on trucking south towards Geneva.
Sunday we went into Geneva town for a look around. It is again post-card worthy, on the edge of the lake (seems to be a winning recipe for a good Swiss town), and with majestic mountains nearby. The country must be absolutely gorgeous in the winter, when all of those cable cars take skiiers up into the snow, and the place is blanketed in white. Geneva was most impressive for its “Jet d’eau” – a massive fountain in the middle of the lake spurting a massive spout of water into the air, nice old buildings, and the market where we had a delicious lunch of rotisserie chicken, falafel and ratatouille.
Switzerland has been an interesting country to visit. We have been a bit let down by the weather, but it has had some absolutely spectacular moments. Lots of the really touristy things like the cable cars, train trips up into the mountains, and boat rides, mean it would have been even more amazing if we had more money, but even on a budget we were able to enjoy the mountains and soak up the best parts. We would love to come back in the winter just to see how spectacular the place is covered in snow.

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Posted by Andrew and Lisa 12:44 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Week 18: The hills are alive...

There's no Kangaroos in Austria

From Hungary we crossed the border into Austria, first stop Vienna. Vienna is a beautiful city - so clean, green and well maintained. The people seem happier and wealthier than in Hungary – everything seems so modern and well looked after even in the suburbs. On Saturday night we watched Mozart 's requiem in the city at St. Charles Church. The show was fantastic and was a stunning setting. The next day we explored the town, doing a lap of the CBD in the tram and then climbing the church bell tower before exploring the vast and beautiful gardens of the ‘Hofburg’ imperial palace. It seemed like every single blade of grass and rose had been taken care of and there was not a weed in sight. We had a great lunch of crisp Apple Strudel and Weiner Schnitzel (but not with noodles). We left Vienna already in love with Austria. The next day we drove to Sound of Music Country (Salzkammergut), we spent the day at the beautiful Hallstatt. Hallstat is a prehistoric town and the oldest settled town in Europe. It is famous for its 7000 year old salt mine in the mountain and its beauty, it’s truly postcard worthy. It’s a small town, nestled at the base of a steep mountain and on the edge of a crystal clear lake. We did a tour of the salt mine, which involved a jaw dropping funicular ride up the side of the mountain before going 300 metres in to the mountain itself. The tour was really well run, after suiting up in jump suits we entered the caves and were treated to awesome audiovisual presentations, 2 big old wooden slides (originally designed to transport the miners between levels in the mine) and a death defying train ride out through an impossibly narrow tunnel. The only let down was that at 30.4km/h we were only the 3rd fastest down the big slide (out of roughly 70 people on the tour). After the mines we wandered the streets of Hallstat, Lisa bought her token magnet and we caught the boat back across the lake to the Sundance.
That night we slept at the base of the mountain in a random carpark along with about 10 other campers. The next morning we ventured in to Salzburg, home of Mozart! The city is incredibly beautiful, particularly the old town. As with the rest of Austria we were amazed with how clean and well maintained everything is – it really seems like people care about looking after their country. We don’t think we’ve seen a drop of graffiti or rubbish on the street since crossing the border from Hungary. On Tuesday night we went to the Sound of Music marionette concert, this was a real highlight. The puppeteers were exceptional and we think the singing was OK but it was tough to hear over Lisa belting out each tune. Julie Andrews eat your heart out! Salzburg has had an interesting history, being so close to the German border (in fact we stayed over the river in Germany while visiting).
On Wednesday we left Salzburg and headed for Hohenwerfen castle in the Salzach Valley. We’ve visited a lot of castles on our trip, but this was certainly up there with one of the best. After watching a fairly polished falconry show we did a tour of the main castle. Highlights of the tour were visiting the armoury, the dungeon area complete with original torture paraphernalia and climbing the clock tower for fantastic views over the valley. The castle is below the spectacular Salzburg mountains, which were a beautiful backdrop.
On Thursday we did the Grossglockner Road, one of the great alpine drives. The road wound up to 3000m above sea level, poor old sundancer needed a few stops on the way up to cool down. The road a multiple rest areas with walks, museums, cafes and gift shops. The views were stunning although the mountains and glaciers were covered in cloud from time to time. The highlight of the day was seeing wild Marmots on the mountain prairies. Lisa was disappointed that we didn’t see (and still haven’t seen) any Edelweiss. On Thursday we headed Innsbruck, an Alpine town surrounded in mountains. The drive was once again spectacular with the famous Dolomite range surrounding us. The route took us through northern Italy (where they strangely all spoke German) so naturally we stocked up on Italian supplies from the supermarket and Andrew stocked up on caffeine from the local café. We arrived in Innsbruck with the goal of finding someone to service the camper van. We figured after 15,000 miles she might need a bit of a tune up. Unfortunately we drove back and forward across town for several hours and couldn’t find anyone that could fit us in – hopefully we’ll find a service centre in Switzerland.
We stayed just north of Innsbruck in a small town called Seefield and the next morning took the train in to the city. Like all Austrian cities the streets were clean and buildings well maintained, many with beautiful paintings on the buildings outside. We visited the local market, ate delicious salmon cooked over a wood fire, did some clothes shopping and ate delicious tiramisu at a local Italian café. We considered taking the funicular to one of the peaks surrounding the city but the weather closed in and we made a dash for the railway station in the rain. After arriving back to a puddle in the van (we had left the top vent open) we headed west towards the Swiss border. This was yet another breath taking drive, over a mountain pass and down into a lush green valley. We drove through stunning little alpine towns each house having a meticulously stacked woodpile outside; firewood is obviously a serious business around here! Austria has been a real revelation for us and we will definitely be back. Switzerland has got a lot to live up to next week!

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Posted by Andrew and Lisa 23:51 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Week 17: Hearty Hungary

Goulash, Graffiti and Strudel

The past week has flown by in a haze of water – lakes, rivers and a decent amount of rain. We started out in Split, armed with 2L of wine, a bottle of sherry and a huge bottle of olive oil from the camp lady we were staying with (most of which is now gone!). She made her own alcohol from the grapes that she and her husband grow, and plied us with about 5 shots each as tasters of her different liqueurs and a huge glass of wine. I think she was hoping that if we got drunk enough we’d buy up large, and I guess it worked! Andrew would like to mention that most of the tasting involved Lisa sticking her tongue in each large shot and then passing it off to Andrew to finish. By the end of the tasting Andrew was well past ‘aperitifs’ and was in need of some 'digestives'. The olive oil is also delicious, and she sells this on behalf of a friend. So we said goodbye to the coast and headed inland towards Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. We made a stop for a day trip at the national park of Plitvice Lakes, a group of about 20 lakes, which are interconnected with heaps of beautiful waterfalls. The national park again was nothing like a New Zealand national park. It cost us about $30 NZ each to go in, but included an electric train ride to the top of the park, an electric boat ride across one of the lakes, and miles of amazing hand built board walks. There were also several cafes and restaurants in case people needed to put up their feet for a while. The whole park was packed, but still managed to wow us. The water was crystal clear and packed with fish; the waterfalls and caves were quite incredible! We spent that night about 50km out of Zagreb, in the midst of yet another thunderstorm, but were thankful the rain held out until just as we left the walk.
Sunday was still rainy, so we went shopping in Zagreb and shouted ourselves some more shoes. The next day, we went into Zagreb. We weren’t that impressed with Zagreb overall, mostly because the coast of Croatia is so spectacular, but we did enjoy the central market. We also went to the Museum of Broken Relationships, which we had read about in the Lonely Planet. It is a museum where people send in relics from their failed relationships as a way to let go and celebrate that part of their lives. There seemed to be a certain amount of irony in the fact that most of the people visiting the museum were young couples…
That afternoon we left Croatia and drove to Pecs, a university town in southeast Hungary. We spent the next morning exploring. Our first impressions of Hungary were a country with a long history, but people seemed hard up, the town needed some love and the people were somehow downcast. The ruins from the medieval university situated there were probably the highlight.
That afternoon we headed to Budapest. It wasn’t originally on our list of places to see but we thought we weren’t really giving Hungary a fair chance without going. We stayed just out of the capital, in a place called Szentendre, a beautiful little town. We had a delicious cheese platter for dinner at a little local wine bar that night.
Budapest is on the Danube river, and is actually made of two cities, Buda and Pest, on each side of the river. We got day transport passes and made the most of them, exploring the place on foot, but also on on trams, buses, trains and boats. It was a great way to see the city! We loved the architecture of the old part of the city, the parliament building is particularly beautiful on the riverbank. We walked up the castle hill for a stunning view of the city (although Lisa protested the walk and was hoping to use the cable car!), went to the market hall, and ate traditional goulash soup. We also saw a poignant statue on the bank of the Danube of 60 pairs of iron shoes. We later learned that this is to remember the Jewish people that were forced to take off their shoes, then line up on the bank and shot so that they would fall into the river.
The next morning we drove to Balaton Lake, Hungary’s biggest lake and since they are landlocked, their version of the Mediterranean. We stayed at a nice place on the lake and had a swim, which was pretty but not spectacular, and packed with chubby/obese Hungarians.
Overall we thought Hungary was an interesting place to visit. It has a really interesting history, and some beautiful buildings, but doesn’t seem as cared for as other places we have visited. The Hungarian people outside of the tourist places don’t speak any English either, which makes it tough. Budapest has thermal baths, which would have been cool to check out, and apparently is home to some amazing music concerts, which bring heaps of young people to the area. It would be interesting to visit again in a few years when times aren’t so hard and see the difference in the people in the rural areas. We left Hungary to head towards Austria, home of the Sound of Music.

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Posted by Andrew and Lisa 12:16 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

Week 16: Crystal clear Croatia

The country with seeminly more crouts than croats

We started the week with an 8 hour overnight ferry trip from Bari to Dubrovnik. It was a long one, but we managed to find a quiet bit of floor to put the duvet down on for a little sleep. Just out of town, we found a cool little family run campsite among 200 year old olive trees. Guy who ran the camp gave us good insight into the history of the place, he and his mother and sister were refugees during the Croatian war in 1991 while his dad stayed behind to help defend the area. While we were at the camp he even found us a unique souvenir – a used AK47 shell. Apparently the area was occupied by the Serb army during the war and the camp was used for target practice. Dubrovnik is a fascinating city. The main attraction is the old walled city. Apparently the walls were first built in the 1400s then had to be rebuilt after a huge earthquake flattened the city in the 17th century. The city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site, but that didn’t stop the Serbian people from bombing it extensively during the occupation of Dubrovnik in 1991. The locals tell stories of grenades, having children living in basements for years, people having to covertly boat to Split under cover of darkness to bring food and weapons back for the locals. Almost all of the buildings in the area are old, but have had extensive renovations, and they all have brand new orange tiled roofs. We spent 2 days here exploring the city, highlights for us were our first swim in the beautiful Croatian sea, a kayaking trip around the island near Dubrovnik, and walking around the city walls. We also went to see the war photo exhibition, which I wouldn’t say was a highlight, but was really interesting and poignant. The photos were from a war photojournalist, who had been in Syria, documenting the conflict there, as well as other photos from the Croatian war with the Serbian people. It was a sad reminder of how recent the war is around these parts, and an eye opener to the struggles the locals have faced.
The Southern part of Croatia is all coastal, it is a thin strip of land probably less than 2km wide. The landscape is bush covered hills which come down quite steeply into the ocean, with rocky beaches. The sea drops away pretty quickly, and is a beautiful clear blue-green, and about 25 degrees. It reminds us a little of Stewart Island, but without the cold and sharks!
At the recommendation of our campsite owner, we spent the day after we left Dubrovnik heading north then detouring to a town called Ston, which is famous for its salt production, and also having a wall which is the oldest in the world after China’s Great Wall. It is a pretty little town, and walking the wall was a great workout. We also saw probably the world’s best BBQ – about 7 whole mutton on a spit trailer. We spent the night in Papratna, a port village, then caught the early ferry the next day to Mjlet.
Mljet is one of Croatia’s 1200 islands, and is famous for its beautiful national park. After a bit of confusion about how to actually get to the park, we had to catch another ferry around the island then a minivan up to the park itself. National parks here aren’t quite the wilderness we are used to, this one had a couple of salt lakes which were stunning, and a nice walk around the outside. There are little shops and cafes dotted around the park, and on a small island in the middle of the lake was an old monastery, which has been converted into a restaurant now. There are boats to take you across the lake if you want, and you can hire bikes, but we went with the walking and swimming options. The area is big enough that we were able to find our own secluded part of paradise for a swim, and had a magical day. A minivan ride and two ferry trips later, we were back on the mainland and heading north again. This time we stayed at a camp en route to Split, the second biggest city in Croatia. Our van insurance doesn't cover us for travelling through Bosnia but there is no other way (by land) to get to Northern Croatia. The 20km of Bosnian coastline were quite beautiful but strangely nerve wracking.
We reached Split the next day at about lunchtime, and ventured into town to check the place out. It has a big port area, with hundreds of Aussies, Brits and Kiwis milling around about to start their Sail Croatia adventures. We risked life and limb climbing up the cathedral’s bell tower in the old part of the town, Andrew thinks the views were worth it but I’m not so sure.
We spent the next morning cruising around the town, then the afternoon relaxing on the beach at our campsite, which is basically in a lady’s backyard, but the people are lovely and it is right on the water. They sell their own liqueurs and olive oil, and fresh grapes and tomatoes.
So far, we have found the people in Croatia to be really friendly and welcoming to tourists. We have eaten some delicious fresh seafood, and local produce, and have loved every minute of the beautiful scenery and the amazing swims. We will be sad to leave the coast and head inland in the next couple of days.

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Posted by Andrew and Lisa 09:41 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Week 15: The best things in life aren't things

To be a pilgrim!

It has been a full on week in Italy this week! We started with a second day in Verona. Thankfully the weather picked up a bit, and we made the most of it with lots of sightseeing around the city. We had a good look around the main piazza, saw the Arena, and countless beautiful small streets. We also joined the hoardes of people to see Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet)’s house. There is a statue there of Juliet, and legend has it if you touch her right breast you will have luck in love. Andrew was too scared to get his photo taken with all of the people around, so Lisa had to take a hit for the team and get the token squeeze. Juliet’s house is also famous for its graffiti – thousands of people write on the walls asking Juliet for love advice, an ancient agony aunt. We also had a big walk up the hill to a lookout, before heading back to the van for an early dinner in preparation for the big final. We ended up watching the game surrounded by Germans at a restaurant in the main Piazza, and their celebrations with the win didn’t let us down!
After a cup of coffee at Andrew’s favourite café in Verona, we began the drive south to Tuscany. We stayed at Monteriggioni, a medieval walled commune village near Siena on a hilltop. It is a spectacular place, with beautiful old buildings and Piazzas. We enjoyed a hugely overpriced artesan beer in the square, and learned that the town was on the San Francigena pilgrimage route. We had seen lots of people walking a pilgrimage route in Spain heading towards Santiagp Del Composta so thought we would see what the fuss was all about. The next day, armed with lots of water and leftover pizza, we set off on a 20km walk towards Siena. It turned out to be a master stroke move, the Tuscan countryside is absolutely beautiful. Most of the path was off the main road, and we walked through olive groves, past castles and some beautiful churches, and through villages that we would never have seen from the campervan windows. We were amazed how green it was in Tuscany, and how much of the time we were walking through forest. While walking we saw some great grafitti 'The best things in life aren't things' was our favourite (Andrew intends to remind Lis of this in regards to future jewellery purchases). After about 4 hours of walking we were pretty stoked to arrive in Siena, and sat down in the main square to enjoy a well deserved gelato, feeling like very good pilgrims. It wasn’t until the next night when we looked up Siena on google that we realised we had missed seeing the cathedral in Siena, which apart from St Peters in Rome is meant to be the most popular and beautiful church in Italy! There’s always next time I guesss….. We caught the bus back to the campervan and headed back towards Florence. We were planning on stopping to see San Gimignano, which is also meant to be a spectacular medieval village with 14 ancient towers. But the parking gods were against us, and we weren’t overly keen to walk another 10km round trip, so we put that on the list for our next trip too and kept on towards Florence.
Google really paid off for us in Florence, we managed to park in a guarded park complete with fresh water and waste disposal for the van for just 12 euros per day. We really ate and walked our way around the city – on the first day we ate Panini with a glass of Chianti for lunch, had a stop at a delicious wine bar, ate pizza on the steps of a church. In between eating and drinking we also explored the food and leather markets in the streets, spent some time at the Ponte Vecchia, an old bridge which is lined with lots of jewellery shops. That night, we went to a choral concert and listened to Brahms and Beethoven in a grotto in the gardens of a palace. It was magical. Not so great, however, was getting completely lost on the way home. Our phone had run out of battery, and we ended up turning a 30min stroll into a nearly 4 hour mission. Our feet were very happy to make it to bed at 2am when we finally got back.
The next morning we were up early(ish) the next day, to see the main cathedral. Things had changed a bit since we were last there, and we didn’t realise we had to buy tickets outside the church. We also lined up in the wrong line! Not a great start to the morning. Instead of walking up inside the huge dome and then getting an amazing view of the city from the top, we had a nice look around the inside of the church itself. A little annoyed with ourselves, we gave up on the duomo for a while and had a delicious lunch of bruschetta, home made pasta, chocolate torta. Rejuvenated, we ventured back to the duomo. The correct line was massive, and it was a hot day. After over an hour in a queue, we made the 463 step journey up to the top. It was worth the wait and the climb, we were rewarded with spectacular views over the city. Andrew liked the view so much he made us walk up the bell tower as well, which was about 50 steps less but equally tough. We managed to not get lost walking home, and did a mountain of washing before jumping in the van again and heading south.
Andrew found us a gem to camp the night at. We stayed in a town called Bagno Vignoni, which is famous for its hot springs. We found a swimming hole, which was fed by a warm waterfall for a swim the next morning. Sounds and looks idyllic right? Until Lisa was innocently sitting in the pool and saw a snake swimming towards her. She made a very quick and probably not very graceful exit from the water, and it was toes in only after that.
We stopped for gelato in a pretty town in Umbria called Spello during the drive the next day, and stocked up on local pecorino cheese, some super concentrated jam, porcini mushrooms and walnut olive oil biscuits. We stayed the night at Lago di Scanno, a beautiful place by a lake in the mountains. In the morning went ran around the lake and went for a swim, no snakes this time! The drive to Bari was long and hot, while heading south the people and drivers got progressively more crazy. By the time we hit Bari there was complete disregard for any kind of road rules, even red lights. We made it to the ferry in one piece. Tomorrow Croatia! We are on the overnight ferry tonight, heres hoping for a smooth crossing and some sleep, we can't wait to hit the beaches.

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Posted by Andrew and Lisa 10:53 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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