I’ve just reread the last post. What a week that was. Venice. The Dolomites. The leaky roof. Repairs. Back to the Dolomites and finishing at the immaculate Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Cortina is most certainly the playground of the rich, yet it’s not intimidating in the way of some such places.
There are brand stores on the high street that most of us only see in magazines. Dior. Woolrich. YSL. More I didn’t recognise.
A beer on the Corso Italia is several times as expensive as it is in a village down the road, but it’s still cheaper than most of France.
We sat, we drank, we watched. We loved how interesting this most different place is. We loved the current wave of blue mirror shades, the clothes that cost more than a few months of our life on the road. The Ferraris. The mushrooms for sale at hundreds of pounds a pound – just like the ones we were given in Serbia. The perfumes so exclusive I’d never heard of them. A cycle shop displayed an off-the-shelf Pinnarello road bike for an eye watering €18,400.
We loved the parade of silly little dogs. In contrast there was a surprising number of people with wolf like hounds. These beautiful creatures drive Polly wild with anger. I guess the threat is innate.
All this surrounded by 3000m+ mountains, pristine forests, cascading water.
Too many Ferraris? In Italy no matter how flash someone’s car, it’ll be balanced by five Fiat Pandas.
Over the Passo Tre Croci where motorhomes fill every parking bay, their owners out hiking the high peaks of The Dolomites National Park, then down for half an hour before climbing again to Sappada at 1250m.
When I was a boy, perhaps 14, I had the incredible privilege of going on a school ski trip. Dad’s business wasn’t thriving. It was the 1970s, it wasn’t a good time to be a barber, I have no idea how my parents managed to fund me. The fact that I’d be going to the Dolomites near where Jack lived in the 1940s sealed it for me.
That trip was to Sappada.
When we pulled into the Sosta (dedicated van rest area) and I glimpsed the nursery ski slopes I was transported. I knew that I’d be able to find the hotel we stayed at more than 40 years ago.
I walked towards the village on my own, bubbling with excitement.
I saw a particular building, still a hotel, and said to myself “If there’s a small skating rink just beyond it on the other side of the road then that’s our hotel.” There wasn’t.
But there was a hockey pitch. In the exact right place. Which of course would be frozen in winter.
That trip is imprinted on my mind like nothing else from my youth. I absolutely loved it. My first flight. My first hotel stay (it was a huge dormitory really, but it was called a hotel and that was good enough for me). I bought a drink at a bar for the first time – a Martini Rosso (stereotype masculinity never sat well with me). And of course, my first skiing. As a young cyclist I was fit as a butcher’s. I skied all day long, until the slopes closed at dusk. Every day.
Walking up Sappada’s main street it all came flooding back.
This time it rained. And rained. The mountains generally hid, but that made them all the more exciting when they showed a face.
We need to move on.
We needed to spend at least ten days in Italy (easy, we could have spent months) to offset Croatia. Then we planned to take it slow through beautiful Austria.
Fortunately something clicked in my mind last night and we checked Britain’s quarantine list. Austria is on it. Bugger. Than means we have to spend two weeks in Germany to be able to transit to England and not need to isolate. We’re running out of time.
Border Crossing. Of sorts. Austria.
After leaving the Dolomites only the serene, yet still mountainous, Sud Tyrol lies between us and Austria. Here you’re as likely to be greeted by a “grüss Gott” as a “boungiorno”. The Tyrol, and indeed much of the Dolomites, was part of Austria until WW1 and much of the area is bi-lingual.
We expected long queues as the Austrians checked the busy route for travellers from their red countries.
The border came and went. We hardly noticed.
We did notice that the lawns were neater.
We noticed far more cars.
We noticed the price of fuel.
Diesel is at least 35p a litre cheaper. I knew it would be a bit cheaper so I’d been eeking out our diesel by driving even more gently than usual. The difference is mad. That’s £21 on a tank!
Just before the ridiculously long Tyrol tunnel.
Just off the busy 108 highway.
Right between two utterly ginormous mountains.
We swung into the hamlet of Tauernhaus, a hamlet dominated by Matreier Tauernhaus, this huge, delightful, hotel, bar, restaurant, haven for hikers and lovers of the outdoors.
After a two hour stank into the hills we retreated back to the hotel. Tired. Hungry. Thirsty. We’d come to the right place.
We were first in, but within half an hour the place was full.
Everyone else bravely fought their way through three monster courses.
We only had a main course each but that was ample. Fantastic schnitzel, dumplings, great chips, even the salad hit the spot. The beers evaporated. Schnapps finished the evening. Deep sleep.
Walking the hills through the drizzle I knew that this is my happy time. The weather, not raining, not dry. The temperature was cool enough for long trousers for the first time since January. Given where we’re headed that’s a damn good job.
I think of Austria as a calmer Germany. It’s not so flash. The cars are smart, but not silly. The houses are huge (often comprising several great apartments), but they don’t shout, rather they’re achingly pretty with cascades of flowers from every balcony. No matter how it’s constructed most houses are finished to resemble timber chalets. And this bit is important – the parking will be underground, there’s no slew of cars to spoil the perfect scene. There’s space. Acres and acres of space. Oh, and they’re extremely good at growing grass. The greenest, healthiest, most flower dotted grass you’re likely to see anywhere.
There are times when it’s all too ordered for me.
In pretty Zell am See there were hordes of people, yet it was so hushed.
In Maria Alm it’s too perfect to be real. Do people actually live here?
Maria Alm. Brauer. The bakery.
A bakery this good on a street in my home town would send my cholesterol through the roof and break my bank, although the hills to be climbed around here might just work off the calories.
On a whim we went to that tempting bakery for breakfast. What a treat.
A cake tower was delivered laden not with gateaux but meats, cheeses, crudities and three breads. The coffee was spot on. Minty’s pain au raisin was enough to feed us both. Thank you Brauer.
I’ve commented several times on the explosion in numbers of electric bikes. Here that phenomenon reached a new peak. In this small town there were hundreds of riders. Early baby boomers with a new toy, finding again the freedom that their muscles can no longer offer. I love it. I love to see people getting out and enjoying the world way beyond the car park.
Border crossing – Germany.
The Austrians won’t like it, but much of the world sees Germany and Austria as the same country. In my mind they retain two governments, two constitutions, so that the more laid back Austrians don’t feel the need to compete with the supercar obsession of their northern neighbour.
They didn’t bother with a border at all.
Not even a line across the road.
Or perhaps there was a line but I was so blinded by the incredible beauty of the Saalach River’s gorge that I missed it.
There are differences.
There were a huge number of cars in Austria, but that jumped even higher once over the border.
In Germany we sat in our first traffic jam since leaving England last year. Really.
And at the stunning Konigsee we saw as many cars in one single place as we’ve seen in all the last 9 months.
Konigsee is utterly beautiful. Steep wooded hills drop into a crystal lake that shimmered in low autumn sunlight. This scene has entranced painters for centuries. Nothing could dampen its impact. Not the thousands of visitors. Not even the tat stalls, the McDonald’s or the Burger King.
Unfortunately for the town Hitler loved it too, his henchmen bought (stole) much of the surrounding Obersalzberg landscape and created his Berghof retreat. That was flattened by the Allies, but the mountaintop Kehlsteinhaus (we call it the Eagles Nest) remains. This eerie perched at 1834m, at the edge of a 700m drop, was built for his 50th birthday at insane expense and human cost – and here’s the rub, it was built for a man who was scared of heights! Now the site is a museum and restaurant, but it’s closed until next year.
Covid. What Covid?
Konigsee. Thousands of visitors. Not a mask in sight. That was a big surprise in this the most disciplined nation I know. It is the first time we have felt Covid nervous since the first Crete lockdown. There seemed no awareness of the need for distance. And the most masks we saw (OK there were a few) were the fancy ones for sale on the many stalls that line the route to the lake.
The Germans do castles very well.
OK. The Germans do most things very well, but particularly castles.
After a night in a restaurant car park (a cunning plan on the restaurant’s part, there were 20 or more vans, they probably spent at least £50 each. It’s worth being known for free parking) we swung into Burghausen, site of the world’s longest castle.
The world’s longest castle? It sounds a tenuous record, but the site makes sense. 1051m long Burghausen is built on a narrow ridge high above the river Salzach and Lake Wöhrsee. With the lake on one side, and the river forming the border with Austria its position seemed unassailable, unless you wander down the pretty path from the market car park.
Germany, and in particular Bavaria, delivers such wonders as the everyday. While the lake was heaving with people, at Burghausen it felt as though the modest numbers in the cafes of the beautiful painted town were residents rather than tourists. Those buildings house a surprising number of galleries and alternative independents. Glassblowers next to tattoo artists, interesting antiques, vinyl, challenging art.
50 miles up the road Passau raised the beauty bar still higher.
A friendly motorhomer recommended that we ignore the official motorhome parking as it’s too crowded, too expensive and too near the main road.
Instead we climbed a cobbled 1:5 wall of a road for a mile or so to park at another incredible castle giving us the perfect vantage point from which to gaze over the town and its three rivers, the mighty Danube, the fast flowing Inn, and the more modest Ilz.
After a huge blaze in 1662 the town was rebuilt under the guidance of Italian architects and now displays an impressive baroque flair.
It’s cathedral, St Stephen’s, has the world’s largest cathedral organ. There’s a concert tomorrow night…
In the morning the ultimate treat was to walk the dog along the high ridge as the town slowly revealed itself from the mist rising above the Danube.
All these wonderful sights have left me longing to return to the woods to rest awhile.
A few nights under the trees of the Bavarian Forest should help.
We may be there by the time you read this.