Day 19 – Verditz to Obertraun

There are some days where words just seem so (and now a list of words are running through my head, futile, pointless, unnecessary, unfulfilling… but none of them fit the bill!)I woke up very early this morning, looked out the window at the mist surrounding the Blue Mountain Inn and promptly went back to sleep. I woke up a little later, looked out the window at the gray, grim mist, moved my now freezing arm back under the blanket and, yes, went back to sleep.

My alarm went off fifteen minutes later and I woke up to see beautiful sunshine flooding our side of the mountain, filling the room with light and the mountain with refracted reflections.

We went for a walk in the crisp (read very cold) morning air climbing the mountain to the end of the road. Although the altitude is probably not the highest the air is very thin and clean and fresh. Not something our city lungs are used to! We walked far enough to give us time to get back to the warm bread our hostess promised us for nine o’clock, and met Edu and Simryn in the breakfast room when they came back from their walk.

After a delicious breakfast of muesli and yoghurt, fruit, cold meats, cheese and lovely fresh kings cross buns. (Apparently some king liked having a cross pattern on his bread rolls, so they were made that way for him, and have been made that way ever since!

Although not winter, the ski lift works on good weathered Saturdays, so we paid the E8 to get from ski lift 3 to the top of the mountain. It was such a gorgeous experience. Going up we just had the mountain in front of us, and beautiful as it was, it wasn’t spectacular except for a few parts where we could see lakes and villages over the tops and between the branches of trees. Once we dismounted, gracefully of course (!), we spent about an hour walking around the top of the mountain, first to the Swartsee, a black lake nestled in a dip right at the top, then in the opposite direction to a plateau near the edge. The plateau had strange and beautiful rocks, shining with silver scale like layers that clumped together made the rocks. It’s hard to explain, but yet another thing I’ll be looking up when I’m back in the land of freely available internet. The rocks shone stunningly against the sun and we guessed would do the same under a full moon. We admired the vista for a while, looking up at the blue mountains higher up and further away, and dreaming about the kinds of houses we would build for ourselves high up away from the rest of the world.

The journey back down the mountain was nothing short of spectacular. The view was astounding, crisp and clear and beautiful. We could see for miles up and down mountains and valleys, lakes near and far, villages dotted far as we could see, and some closer ones with their church steeples standing out stark and white against an amazing green backdrop. We reached the bottom of ski lift three (gracefully again, of course) and agreed our exceedingly well spent time.

Back in the car, we drove for Grundlesee.

When we were planning the holiday, we each chose destinations that we wanted included in the holiday. These became known as our non-negotiables. For Simryn it was Lake Como and Florence, Edu’s was Andalucia, Martin’s was the Bernina Express and Oktoberfest and mine were Sintra and Grundlesee, so I was very excited.
The drive through Austria is constantly stunning. There is nothing ugly, nothing dull and any and every conversation can be and was interrupted with jubilant or awestruck cries of ‘look there’ or “wow”! Waterfalls, snow capped mountains, beautiful houses, castles or other structures, valleys, clouds anything you can think of when you imagine Austria.

We arrived in Obertraun around 15:00 and went immediately to the nearest shopping centre, about half an hour away as we were told that everything closes at 18:00 and doesn’t open on Sunday. As we are staying in a self catering place, that would have been a problem! We went to the Spar and ended up spending E55 on 5 meals for 4 people! Not too bad!

We arrived back in Obertraun, the only place close to Grundlesee that we could afford, basically, to a lovely two bedroom apartment with gorgeous mountain views in a quaint and picturesque village. It was raining, the clouds were hanging very low and it was very very cold, so upon discovering a dvd player in our lounge and the owner’s dvd collection, we decided that that would be a good way to spend our Saturday evening: a bottle of wine, a dvd and some popcorn. I cooked a goulash type stew with baked potatoes and we spent our evening watching Charlie Bartlett and The Bucket List before another very quiet, peaceful and thankfully warm night’s sleep!

Day 18 – Venice to Verditz

We spent this morning in and around Venice. Martin and I went to Burano, the fishing village beyond Murano where women (apparently, we were too early to see it) sew lace all day while the men are out fishing. The houses are all painted different colours: bright pinks, blues and greens, a perfect fishing village. It is absolutely beautiful!We left quite early as we had to get back to Venice to check out of the hotel, which was quite unfortunate. We spent the rest of the morning around Venice wandering streets we’d not walked before and seeing buildings and churches not listed under the attractions but beautiful in a more unadulterated ways.

Something that really struck me about Venice was how many churches there are in the squares all around the city. It is amazing. They seem to open them every morning and evening so that the people who live in those squares can pop in for morning and evening prayers, which we did this morning too. There is something so beautiful about a church that is ornate and used as a church, not an attraction. It’s a beauty that can’t be photographed.

Meanwhile, Simryn and Edu went to Murano where they were fortunate enough to be able to see one of the masters create a beautiful glass horse and sign it. They were smarter than us and managed to escape without spending their fortunes!

We took a train from Venice that afternoon to Villach in Austria, where we picked up a rental car and went in search of our accommodation for the evening. The directions were a bit bad from where we were but we eventually found our way there. And “there” was pretty amazing! The Blue Mountain Inn is one of the highest lodges on a beautiful Alp in the Verditz Ski Resort. The apartment had one double room and one four bunk bed room which we were upgraded to from just a normal four bunk

room as we were the only guests in the hotel, so Edu and Simryn got the double bed this time round.

The owner, Michelle Lively (who owns it with her husband Tug who was off with a tour group) cooked us a stunning dinner of goulash soup, chicken schnitzel and a delicious fruit compote in the middle of a donut thing with ice cream. Absolutely delicious!

By the time we’d finished eating and chatting to the Australian Michelle with her twin daughters, it was very late and time for a very quiet, peaceful, thin-aired night’s sleep.

Day 17 – Venice

Venice really took me by surprise. Last time Martin and I were here, we had a relatively dismal time, but I am so pleased we decided to give it a second chance!

It was a bit of a strange day too since we were staying in a hotel and went down for breakfast at different times we ended up not even seeing Edu and Simryn all day!

Our first stop was St.Mark’s square and the Doge’s palace but the square looked like it was covered in ants there were so many people! That didn’t suit us so we walked to the other side of the island from where we caught a river boat to the island of Isola S.Giorgio Maggiore where there is pretty much nothing but a really large church. From there we went to the island of Murano

Murano is famous for the glass they produce. There are large factories with their own furnaces, apprentices and masters as well as their own shops which sell their products. We walked in to one showroom and I’m not sure if the guy thought we were rich dressed down or something, but he took a special interest in us. He took us in to the private showroom where they keep their one of a kind or new items where he showed us pieces by one of their Masters (they have to work for 15 – 20 years before they become masters) Valentina, and explained the perks of purchasing from that selection: You get photographs of the signed item in production, a folder with the biography of the artist and a photo of the artist with the item. Also, you can get up to 55% off the price. also told us some of the history of Murano. Back when they started making the glass they did it on the island of Venice until one of the furnaces exploded destroying a large part of the island. The doge at the time decided to move the furnaces to Murano, which is where the name now comes from. Back then, masters and there apprentices were basically held prisoner on the island, unable to leave because the secrets of blowing the glass were too important to risk it being leaked!

The glass is amazing… They use minerals such as selenium, cobalt, gold and silver to melt in with the glass to colour it. They then melt the rods in to the glass for the different colours. It is pretty amazing. The glass is then melted again in to different things, vases (starting from about E300), bowls and plates (starting from about E300 each) and anything else you could imagine (including the E9800 fish I really wanted to buy!) The gold and silver in the glass have to be pure, otherwise the heat in the furnaces burn the impure gold or silver and make them come out black. It was really an interesting afternoon! We did walk out with a very expensive (but cheaper than the average as it was end of range) vase, which we’ll be treasuring for many years to come!

Leaving the factory shop we walked the wrong way and ended up called back from the ‘wrong way’ and were shown in to a furnaced area where we could watch three different groups of people blowing, heating, knocking and shaping glass. It was really amazing to watch, because it is impossible to imagine these big burly men making things so beautiful and so delicate.

We were very fortunate to find a Spar on the way back to the boat where we found the cheapest food, chocolates and wines on all of the Venetian waters! We bought a lovely bottle of Lemoncella, a local lemon flavoured liquer which we absolutely love for about E7 and a bottle of 12 year old Balsamic vinegar which cost us under E3!

At the boating station there was a market stall where the lady was selling a few of the things we really liked for less than they were in the shops, so we also bought a beautiful wine bottle stopper.

By the time we got back from Murano we were so tired that we stopped in at a cafe on the way back to the hotel for a dinner reminiscent of our first trip to Venice, a rather dismal calzone with tinned mushrooms and cold sandwich ham before going back to the hotel, and soon after, to bed.

Day 16 – Rome to Venice

Well! So much for good rest! Our room is on the corner and has two windows on two walls. As it had been very warm all day, it didn’t occur to any of us to close at least one set of windows. It also didn’t occur to any of us during the night to do so! When we awoke slightly blue around the edges we bemoaned our stupidity loudly before setting off at speed (partly to warm up, partly because we were later than planned!) to the Vatican City and the Vatican museum.By the time we arrived there we already tourbuses full of people cueing up for entry to St. Peter’s, so we decided to chance going to the museum (wherein lies the Cistene Chapel) first. This turned out to be a very good move, as there was no queue and the crowds inside were light.

Having been there before, Martin and I first went to the ‘side’ exhibitions of statues, paintings, friezes and so on before going through all all the passages laid out with different themes that lead eventually to the Chapel. There are passages with Romantic wall hangings, Cartographic (old maps) wall hangings, statues, woodwork, jewellery and much more, but they all have highly ornately done ceilings, many painted by master painters. It truly is an amazing experience, but beware! The price of truly appreciating these great works is a very stiff neck!

Just before we entered the Chapel, there were various galleries with more modern art. Three Dali paintings depicting Jesus were among those in the gallery. I did take photos of them,
but as flash photography is prohibited and that specific gallery had its own guard, they’re not great pictures!

We met up with Edu and Simryn and went into the Chapel where we promptly lost them again, misunderstanding which exit we’d be taking. We communicated by sms (txt) and realised that we had left the building and they had not!

We walked back to the entrance and as Martin says “sometimes it is best to let a frantic looking woman ask”. As it turns out you can only enter once and that’s final! Sending in me with my ‘we’ve lost our friends’ helped and the friendly, Italian guard let us in. As it turned out, our fast walk back towards the Chapel revealed a whole section we had missed, so we went through there before going in to St. Peter’s Basilica.

This is another place Martin and I have been before, so we went in to the crypts rather than the Basilica which provides an amazing view down on to the inside of the church and also the roof which has magnificent views of the square and the Vatican gardens.

The crypts contained many year’s worth of deceased Popes including John Paul II. People were kneeling at and praying at his tomb, which I found a little eerie, but I’m sure it meant a lot to them.

From the crypts we climbed the stairs to the main building. As a work of art, St. Peter’s is an amazing structure, tall, beautifully decorated with angels, crosses, saints and Jesus, ornate and rich in presentation, but it does lack in feeling like a church with people walking around talking, taking photographs and tour guides one speaking louder than the other. It is a magnificent structure though!

We left the Vatican and with it Rome, boarding a plane to Venice. We arrived quite late and after dark so after checking in we went for a quick stroll around to familiarise ourselves with the area.. Tomorrow will be a busy day with an early rise so early to bed for us!

Day 15 – Rome

Rome, the Eternal City, might well be the most exhausting city of any on a European journey. Not helped by an extremely poor night’s sleep on the overnight train between Milan and Rome, we were exhausted on arrival and went straight to our hostel, Hotel Lido, to get rid of our bags. The staff and owners of the hostel were amazing! They sat down with us and tried to find out what we wanted to see and gave us detailed information on how to get there and their advice for best routes. It was really amazing personal service, combined with free internet, a lovely garden, cheap rates and good enough rooms, it is certainly worth going back to again!

Since Martin and I have been to Rome a few times we had other things we wanted to do today. We set off for the old city gates together from where we split up and Edu and Simryn went to the major attractions such as the Coliseum and the Pantheon. Martin and I spent some time wandering the ‘back streets’ and went in to various marked and unmarked churches. We did return to Trevi Fountain to throw our coins in to make sure we return one day and then went for a long walk through Rome passing the Pantheon, various beautiful squares laden with fountains with drinking water which is still carried on the old aqueducts.

We walked all the way the Via Appia again to try to find the spot we sat watching the world go by last time, but it was covered by construction boards. How disappointing!

Having spent most of the day walking, we decided to go back to our hotel and freshen up before deciding what to do wth the evening.

As it turned out, we were so tired that we stayed in sorting out photos, catching up on a few emails and adding pictures to the blog.

Edu and Simryn arrived later and did some of the same, but we all had to repack our bags ready for flying which we did.

Now for a good night’s sleep so we can be well rested for another busy day.

Day 14 – Lake Como

Varenna, where we stayed at Eremo Gaudio, is on Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy. The lake is massive and is fed by melting glaciers, rain and springs from the mountains that surround it.

There are also some famous towns all around the Lake such as Bellagio and Menaggio, among other beautiful, lesser known and less touristy places such as Bellano or Tremezzo. There is a fantastic ferry service between the towns and E10 buys an all day hop on hop off ticket, which we used to maximum effect!

Our first stop was Bellagio (used in filming for Star Wars Episode 2 and Casino Royale) which was very pretty, but seriously over priced! It is not unusual apparently to see a celebrity around there, which is also why everything is so much more expensive!

Next we went to Villa Carlotta, an absolutely stunning Villa near the town of Tremezzo which we later walked to. Villa Carlotta and the gardens are beautiful but at the entry fee required, would need more time than we had to give so we walked on. There was an amazingly beautiful hotel called Grand Hotel Tremezzo, where a small coke cost E5 and a cheese burger E23! We didn’t bother trying to find out room prices!

Martin and I paid a little extra for an additional ticket to take us to Bellano, which is off the major tourist track. We walked to the Orrido, a ravine carved through the mountain over centuries where normally a calm river of aquamarine water flows through town in to Lake Como.

Due to all the rain, however the water was thundering through its stone tracks, being fed in to from multiple sources, slamming against rock as it plummeted and swirled it’s way towards the large opening that leads it quickly but finally peacefully in to the lake.

It was a perfect mixture of tranquality and ferocity that only nature can provide.

Exceedingly pleased that we had made the effort to go out of our way, we returned to the ferry and went on to Menaggio, another pretty town, but not as attractive as it’s more famous sister. As most of town was, by now and by virtue of it being Monday, closed we just had a quick stroll through, discovered a beautiful church called St.Martha, plain on the outside but rich and ornate on the inside and shared a Tiramisu and Bacio gellato while waiting for the last ferry ride which took us back to Varenna.

Once there we enjoyed the sunset from the deck of our hotel, before going for a quick dinner at a fabulous restaurant Martin and I had discovered yesterday, and heading hurriedly for the train station. Our hurry was in vane though as our train was cancelled and we found ourselves hanging around Varenna station in the dark and cold for an hour before finally being able to go to Milan for our overnight train to Rome.

Day 13 – Varenna, Monza, Varenna

What a way to start a day, waking up to this view! Then coffee and pastries on a patio with more view before a quick train ride to Monza for the Formula 1.

Monza as a really strange race track in that we had to walk for ages through a trim park, lined with trees and due to all the rain, covered in sludge before arriving at the stands where our seats were.

We had really nice seats towards the upper half of the grandstand at the first chicane with a brilliant view of the first corner. As the rain came down periodically during the race this provided much excitement as cars slipped, slid and glided through it. We had a few overtaking manoeuvres and even a rather decent spin! Even though we were rained on and had to pay E7 for a sandwich, it was a highly enjoyable race and one I’d highly recommend! (Of course, having a BMW driver on the podium only made it better for me!)

The usual post event exit madness was handled with incredible efficiently by the Italians and we were back in Varenna (an hour by train) a mere three and a half hours after the end of the race!

We spent the evening walking around Varenna taking pictures and just drinking in the magnificence that is Lake Como.

Day 12 – Zurich, Bernina, Varenna (Lake Como)

We arose from an absolutely awesome night’s sleep, where for once we all slept like the dead. We had arranged for an early breakfast, so after raiding the buffet for enough food for breakfast and lunch, we boarded the train for Chur.

There we changed trains to the Bernina Express. The trains used for this roughly four hour journey have large panoramic windows and is the only train that crosses the Alps above ground.
I sometimes wish that I had paid more attention to my ancient Greek class at University because Greek and even Hebrew have so many more descriptive words and are so much richer in their explanations than English is. To say the views were beautiful, awesome or even spectacular would be selling the whole experience short. My grasp of vocabulary is sadly too small to give you a fair retelling of today. Look at the pictures, Google it or look on Youtube, and if ever at all possible, make the trip yourself. If this is only Earth, what could Eden have looked like, or how will Heaven?

As it was overcast and rained a bit Martin and I abandoned our seats early on to stand in the baggage area which had two small openable windows we could lean out of slack jawed and lost for words. When the train stopped to change engine for the steeper climbs, the conductor, who had seen us hanging out the tiny window, came to fetch us and took us to a disused old style carriage, less luxurious but with large opening panoramic windows which we had all to ourselves! We bounced around that carriage like children on Christmas running from side to side taking pictures, video and simply staring awestruck and thrilled at this blessing!

We crossed the border into Italy and soon after changed trains again, this time in the direction of Varenna on the shores of Lake Como. The beautiful mists and ambient clouds in the mountains were of course torrential rain on the flatter surfaces below, so much so that we had to get a taxi to collect us from the station and take us to our hotel.

The Erebo Gaudio sits on the side of a mountain with an amazing view of the lake. The restaurant can be reached by taking two separate vernaculars up the mountain, the result being the most astonishing and breathtaking sunset views, which with the ending of the rain we were finally able to enjoy.

Day 11 – Prague to Zurich

After the Berlin to Prague fiasco, we were ready to leave Prague at 6 am today in anticipation of the 5 hour drive actually being many more. As it turned out, it did take 5 hours to get to Friedrichshafen in Germany, where we left the car and took the ferry over Lake Constance to Romanshorn in Switzerland. We spent an hour in a beautiful harbour front park before taking the one hour train to Zurich.

We spent the evening walking around and were all really surprised by the beauty of Zurich, something none of us had expected as it was only ever meant as a stop off, not a destination. The buildings are all clean and fresh looking and seem to more or less range from the same era.

The only reason that we could see for Zurich not being a major tourist destination was the fact that it is unbelievably expensive! Even travelling on Pounds we had to breathe deep and just pay up. For all its expensiveness though, the bars and restaurants remained busy and poured out on to the streets till late.

Having seen the Grossmunster Church and the riverside path leading to Zurich See it is really unfortunate that we don’t have more time to explore.

Day 10 – Prague

Prague is known as the city of a thousand spires, and for good reason. Just a simple glance around highlights a pointed landscape, crafted in black, gold, stone, tan and hundreds of other colours. It dawned on us that between us we actually had very little knowledge about Prague or what there was to do. Our first stop was the tourist information center to buy a decent map, which was a very good move as it revealed a wealth of sites to visit.

Read more: Day 10 – Prague