The train journey from Salzburg to Villach and then onto Ljubljana is extraordinarily pretty. We travel through the Alps for most of the way, gorgeous velvety green slopes, clumps of fir trees, plunging gorges and towering peaks above these. The villages and ski resorts are immaculate. Hang gliders hovering over the valleys instead of skiers on the slopes at the moment. Though there are patches of snow and glaciers on some of the crags. It’s also extraordinary because of the speed of the train, which is exceedingly slow, partly presumably because we are going slightly, just slightly, uphill and partly because we are stopping at quite a few of the small villages.
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is small, (just 278,853 called Ljubljana home), but painstakingly renovated and beautiful. Another gem of a city, with a castle up top and amazing views. It’s a blend of Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque, with some more colourful twentieth century thrown in for good measure.
In ancient Roman times a city called Emona stood in this area. Ljubljana dates back to the 12th century. It was under Habsburg rule from the Middle Ages until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. After World War II, Ljubljana became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, a region of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This was its status when I last visited. When Slovenia became independent in 1991 Ljubljana became the capital of the newly formed state.
The curving Ljubljanica River, lined with busy eateries, divides the city's old town from its commercial hub. Ljubljana has pleasant green spaces and plenty of museums, It’s also full of beautiful people, parading round in designer clothes and shopping in all the high-end shops that line the cobbled streets. The castle, high above, is reached by a funicular, very similar to Salzburg, though the castle and associated climb are both considerably smaller. The views are less impressive too, but there are red roofed houses, a few winding streets and the peaks of the Julian Alps beckoning in the distance.
Most of the more up market restaurants are to be found alongside the river. Slovenian fare, Michelin plaques and burgers (of course, but often of wagyu status here) marked by square cream umbrellas. There are several plazas with fountains and statues and some fancy new (or newly renovated) bridges. The busy market is an interesting wander. There’s plenty of cheaper food round here from a refined version of an outdoor food hall, advertising all manner of local edibles – fish, pork, stew, sausages and dumplings. And cafes serving up scrumptious looking flaky cakes.
I’ve left one whole day to indulge by the rooftop pool in the Vander Urbani Hotel. The food is excellent and most of the staff extra friendly and helpful. It’s an ultra-stylish establishment with silver furnishings – think the Delano in miniature. And I have a Zen room. It’ a shame there’s nowhere to put my case without disturbing the Zen. And Covid, with subsequent staff reductions means that cleaning and restaurant staff are somewhat disorganised. There’s linen spilling out of the closet adjacent to my room, rather spoiling the elegance of the décor. And service is exceptionally slow….
A day trip out to the coast. Less than an hour's drive from Ljubljana, is a huge karst area with several cave systems and more castles. Predjama Castle is described as ‘A Fairy-tale Castle Embraced by Rock’. Originally constructed in the Middle Ages, but rebuilt in the renaissance style, it's perched right in the middle of a 123-metre-high cliff ,inside a cave mouth in south-central Slovenia, …it’s a great viewpoint. I’ve told driver Martin I want to take some good photos, so he’s taken on the challenge.
Also in the area are the Postojna caves I saw on my first visit, when they were run by the government. They’re now privately owned and exorbitantly expensive. Just down the road the Skocjan Caves, UNESCO listed and more interesting, Martin assures me, as they are ‘more natural’. One of the largest underground canyons in the world and home to four miles of underground passages, vast chambers, and waterfalls, linked by a system of outdoor walkways. We admire it from a platform high above the plunging gorge.
Our third viewpoint is from a peak high above Trieste, on the border with Italy. This has long been the border between Venetian and Austrian dominions, so naturally there's a castle, Socerb, or rather its ruins. It's deserted in the Time of Covid, but it's an excellent place for defence. We are looking south, down Slovenia’s meagre 24 mile length of coastline to the one and only main national port of Kope and the Istrian peninsula. I happen to mention that I’ve never been to Trieste, so Martin decrees he will slide into Italy on our way south. It’s unfortunate that the customs officers have slowed the traffic back into Slovenia to do quick Covid scans. It’s also fortunate that we don’t get stopped, as I don’t have my passport with me.
Along the tiny stretch of Slovenian coast, on the Adriatic corner, edging forward slowly in the weekend traffic, through Kope and along tree lined roads to Portoroz, a glitzy seaside resort with casinos and the venerable Kempinski Palace Hotel. Last time I was here this was all Yugoslavia. Portorož has been described in The Telegraph as Coney Island, Blackpool and Bondi Beach rolled into one. It has a nice wide, beach with wooden piers. This is the country’s only real stretch of sand, so it's packed tight with sunbeds and umbrellas. Martin tells me that the government have offered 200 euro incentives (per person) to visit the coast and maintain business. That’s certainly worked.
The Venetian town of Piran is my main goal. The town walls were constructed to protect the town from Ottoman incursions. In the middle of the town is the Tartini Square, with a monument in memory of composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini. Tartini’s house, first mentioned in 1384, (so well before his time) is one of the oldest in town. There are also the Municipal Palace (city hall on Tartini Square), Loggia and Benečanka, amongst others. On the hill, (up steep narrow steps - it's easy to get lost), above the town is the biggest and most important church, the Saint George's Church, with a Franciscan monastery nearby.
By the sea, it’s reminiscent of Syracuse, a peninsula of pretty houses and bars, ending at a small church with an unusual octagonal tower. The beach is a minimal strip of shingle, below the town walls. The locals have adjusted with stairs direct into the water and the jetty and walkway areas abutting the walkways and the walls are covered with towels and sunbeds. It’s delightfully charming, the tower of the church shooting into the sky above the main square, with its city hall and many cafes dishing up coffee and ice cream. The cool is welcome in the searing heat. especially when I have climbed up the endless steps for the view across town.
After I’ve had a good saunter round (and an ice cream) I join the locals in the sea.
Bled is half an hour’s drive from Ljubljana today. It’s a satisfyingly scenic journey into the Julian Alps. Mount Triglav is elusive again, but the iconic views of Lake Bled, with its little church on the centre of a tear shaped island, framed by mountain peaks are still breath-taking. If you’ve seen a picture of Slovenia you’ve almost certainly seen Lake Bled.
I’m returning to revive my memories. Last time I came here we drove all the way from the United Kingdom, over the border from Austria. Slovenia was then part of Yugoslavia, Communist territory, under Tito’s reign and arguably the only easily visitable country behind the Iron Curtain. It took longer before, to travel the 33 mile distance, on what was then dirt roads - we got a puncture.
It’s a weekend and the Slovenians are out in force, so this time its traffic jams, slowing the pace to painfully slow, approaching the lake area. Martin circumnavigates the water, lying to the officials who are trying to restrict the flow of vehicles. He produces a yellow taxi sign which he clamps to his roof and tells them that he’s taking me to the camp site. Which he does. And that’s when I remember that this is where I stayed last time I was here. The campsite is on the shores of the lake and we ate fish lunches in lakeside restaurants. The uniformed waiters didn’t speak English, but they still had some German, so that’s how we ordered our trout.
Then, I’m deposited to wander alone on the lakeside paths and bask in the sunshine with my book. The water is glacial green, with perfect reflections. The fairyland castle, with its lofty position on a crag above the lake and the church both contribute to the stunning scenes. The church, with its tiny onion dome, has a 52 metre tower and 99 stone steps. Tradition says that if the groom can carry the bride up the steps on the day of their wedding and ring the bell, he may make a wish inside the church. It doesn’t say it will come true.
I've read that mild thermal springs warm the water, but I can't see anyone swimming and I'm not tempted. And now, suddenly, it's raining and this is no passing shower. I hurry back uphill to the little town of Bled and shelter. It seems a good time to sample the local pastry delicacy - a custard slice known as kremsnita. Martin insists I eat it in a traditional family bakery that is renowned for having produced these for many years. My cake is nice enough, but doesn’t get my wholehearted approval. I would rather have cream.
A final stop – the haystack is a Slovenian symbol and there’s a famous wooden hayrick store, Simončič, on our way home
I’ve had a lovely time. But Ljubljana is my last stop on my Covid Tour and now I’m heading home. Read more about Slovenia here.
From Warsaw via Berlin to Salzburg. The scenery increasingly arresting, as we roll south through the Bavarian Alps, past the ski resorts and nip over the German border - Salzburg sits just the other side.
I put 'outdoor pool' into Booking.com’s filters and came up with the Gersberg Alm. It has a lofty position on the alpine meadow (as the name suggests) with incredible views through the trees across Salzburg and to the mountains encircling the city. The old town with its jade green domes is especially prominent, as is the Festung Hohensalzburg fortress, perched on its own formidable crag above the city. This one is a properly ancient and huge castle, the home of the archbishops of Salzburg.
The city, swathed in mist is enticing, but for the first day or so the swimming pool and sunbeds are the stronger attraction. A heatwave has been engulfing Europe for a couple of weeks now. It’s even hot in England. I’m awakened from my slumber by a loud baa. There’s a large floppy eared sheep staring at me. He’s separated from the pool area by an electric fence. I find out it’s electrified the hard way.
The location is great and the hotel itself couldn’t be more atmospheric. A traditional wood chalet with scarlet pelargonium window boxes and an outdoor restaurant that serves up divine food at ridiculously high prices. My room could use some attention from the maintenance department however, – plug, tv, door won’t latch, no towels by the pool and the mattress keeps sliding off the sunbed.
A return visit to Salzburg is not to be missed and I forgo the sunbed for a morning to venture into the sizzling city and explore its ancient heritage. First settlements here date back to Neolithic times. They were followed by a Roman city called Juvavum, though that eventually declined into ruins." Saint Rupert, the 8th-century saint was responsible for the city's rebirth. When appointed archbishop by Theodo, he chose the river for the site of his basilica. Rupert named the city Salzburg, or Salt Castle. This recognised the salt trade that brought the city much of its wealth, via a toll on salt barges. The city state that emerged is now the Altstadt (Old Town), given UNESCO heritage status.
The Hohensalzburg Fortress was built in 1077, as a home for Archbishop Gebhard and expanded and altered over the centuries. There’s a very modern funicular up there (the original was built in the nineteenth century), which whisks me up to another superb panorama of the city. There are more graceful spires than Oxford - maybe. The fortress has umpteen rooms and displays crammed with armour, weapons and medieval furniture. A war games aficionado would love it.
The Old Town (Altstadt), nestling beneath the sprawling medieval castle is magnificently baroque, with its enormous cathedral, numerous churches and curving medieval streets. As Lonely Planet says, 'If it's baroque, don't fix it'....Just below the fortress is Nonnberg, the abbey where Maria failed to become a nun in The Sound of Music. Sound of Music paraphernalia is to be found on every corner of course. Mozart competes with The Von Trapps for mentions. He wins on place names (Mozart Platz ) and concerts (Cosi Fan Tutte and the requiem at the moment). And probably residences. He seems to have lived in about a dozen different places in Vienna. His birthplace, with the musical instruments he played as a child and the clavichord on which he composed The Magic Flute.
The Sound of Music wins on tours. Though no-one is booking at the moment. As everywhere I've been so far this tour, the city is relatively quiet. The squares are empty and not all the fountains are operating. I can saunter through the narrow lanes, with little in the way of opposition.
These cobbled streets are typically Austrian in their stiff elegance, crammed with chic boutiques displaying traditional clothes – lederhosen, dirndls and felt hats with feathers in them – and plate glass restaurants offering frothy coffee and ice cream sundaes. I succumb to one of the latter. It's exceptionally good.
The Old Town and the fortress are roughly south of the suitably rushing River Salzach, the Neustadt to the north. It’s not that new though. There's a Mozart residence cum museum. And the Mirabelle Schloss with its manicured and fountain bedecked gardens. It sports Pegasus above one of the fountains, and the odd unicorn as well. Maria and the von Trapp children sang do-re-mi around them. The palace was built by one of the archbishops in 1606, for his mistress. It’s now mainly used for weddings. There’s a nice irony in that.
Just after the wall came down friend Jenny and I took a flight to Berlin and an overnight train across East Germany to Warsaw, capital of Poland. In 2020, I'm on the train to Warsaw again, continuing on my diagonal line south east through Czechia from Prague to the south of Poland and Katowice. Hills, flat plains and more hills, the fields covered in David Hockney style rolled hay bales. The churches still have tall thin spires, but small onion domes are creeping in below. There’s an area of small lakes.
The train is even more decrepit than the last one, in Germany. And I’m in a carriage with compartments. At the end, a tiled toilet that looks as if it was built in the 1950s. It’s a six hour journey, but there’s no dining car. A guy in the end compartment has a rickety trolley with crisps and wafers and coffee that he pours into containers that people have saved from Starbucks and the like. He also has a few packets of sandwiches he’s enterprisingly picked up at the local supermarket.
Someone is playing a video so loudly that you can hear it through the whole carriage. I go to investigate but it’s a burly security guy with a flak jacket and a gun in a holster, so I retreat quietly.
Over the border into Poland. We have to wait while they change locomotives. I’m the only passenger in the whole carriage at this point. The steward with the food says that this route is very quiet nowadays. The electricity has gone. And so has the Wi-Fi. It takes them over an hour to sort out the transfer. I’m not sure what’s happening - we’re shunted backwards and forwards several times. The steward doesn’t know either – he says the crew all speak Polish and he only understands Czech.
The upshot is that I’m half an hour late into Katowice, but that’s still enough time to find the right platform for the next leg to Warsaw. Surprisingly, this train is in complete contrast to the last one. It’s a smart Pendolino with waitress service and free food - mini buns on china plates. We whizz along – the views outside as far as I can tell through the blur are mainly farmland and birch forest.
Once described as the 'Paris of the North', Warsaw was believed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, until it was ravaged in World War II. Some of the damaged buildings were (contentiously) replaced by Stalinist architecture. Most notable is the towering (237 metre high) Palace of Culture and Science, a 'gift' from Stalin, built in 1955. The Old Town (Stare Miasto or the Starówka) is UNESCO world heritage listed. It's a medieval layout, from the 13th century, with a market square and city walls, but most of the architecture dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries and most of that is restored.
Jenny has booked us a cheap hotel and we go to take a taxi there, so we can dispose of our backpacks. The drivers in the rank gesticulate at one particular car and we clamber in. The vehicle immediately starts to head out of town, the meter spinning at an astonishing rate. A tourist set up. We ask the driver to stop and he does. He is big and burly, and he won't open the boot until we pay up. We trudge back into the city with our rucksacks. It's hard work.
We meet an Australian girl, Karen and have breakfast for three for the equivalent of 40 pence. Bread and jam and red and white checked table cloths. Much of the old town is scuffed or under scaffolding. but there are still pointy castles, stepped gables and pastel houses. The shops are all virtually empty, a few stacks of tins on the wooden shelves.
There are also plenty of churches, mostly Gothic architecture, with a sprinkling of neo-classical. Jenny insists on visiting every one we come across, even though I kept trying to divert her attention. The Church of the Holy Cross next to Czapski/Krasiński Palace, where Frederik Chopin's family lived, was the largest church in Warsaw at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Chopin's heart is buried under his monument here. There’s a commemorative plaque on the wall. His sister smuggled the heart from Paris, in a jar of cognac. The Nazis stole it during the war and banned the playing of Chopin's music.
Warsaw has changed more than Prague. The first sight that greets me as I exit the (relatively) new station is the Soviet monolith - the Palace of Science and Culture. It remains majestically awe-inspiring and still the tallest building in the country. But now it’s surrounded by other skyscrapers, including the Marriott where I’m staying. I’ve got a great view over the palace from my bedroom window. In fact it's better than the view from the bar on the top floor. Though the bar provides better cocktails.
Since I was here they've created the Royal Route (1994) utilising the old communications paths. This road links the old town to the new and is lined with palaces, churches, statues and parks. It’s an interesting affair, mostly grandly baroque, though I would have been happier if it were easier to find on a map. It’s over two miles from the Marriott to the Old Town and I accidentally manage to circumvent the Royal Route entirely, walking parallel with it most of the way. So I have to cover the same distance again, once I’ve found it, on my way back.
The streets are quiet, for the most part. The dusky red roofed Royal Castle above the Vistula River used to be the home of the Dukes of Moravia and the city grew up around it. Then it became the home of the Polish Senate. Now it's a museum. And it's closed. I clamber up the steep, urn bedecked garden paths and peer in the windows. There are panoramic views across the river to the National Stadium beyond and to the parks stretching either side. In normal years they feature fountain displays. There is no-one in those at the moment.
Beyond, leading to the Old Town, is Castle Square, with a tall column and Sigismund II up top. This is where the really interesting buildings start. The Old Town is much the same, but extended and cleaned up. Like Prague it’s now full of tourist cafes and restaurants with outside tables. The narrow streets showcase arches, courtyards and sundry decorative additions. Świętojańska Street is the main thoroughfare, joining the two main squares. Along here are some of Warsaw's oldest churches, including the brick, Gothic Cathdral, where the Dukes were buried. The Market Square, once home of fairs, showcases the most beautiful houses and is empty of visitors when I arrive. The buildings are copies of the original medieval merchants houses, replaced after the Second World War. They've done a good job, restoring them further over the years.
They're arranging the tables under the awnings in the cafes and an organ grinder is setting up in the centre. A surly girl refuses to serve me, but a more kindly young man across the cobbles is amenable and a few other tourists drift in and reward him with more custom. It's the same picture at the pristine four turreted Barbican (redundant almost as soon as it was built).
Here, and at the New Town, (this only dates back to the turn of the 14th century as an independent city), the other side of the Barbican, it’s very sleepy. The new Ol Town was also destroyed in the war and almost completely rebuilt. There are plenty more churches here, including the Military Cathedral with its twin towers. It's closed. There's also a New Market Square, several museums and more gardens.
There are at least 20 palaces in Warsaw, mostly now used as museums, or for state business. After the Royal Castle, the most impressive is probably the Presidential Palace, on the Royal Route, close to the Church of the Holy Cross.
The churches - there are just as many as before and at least three cathedrals - are mainly shut. The Royal Route is lined with them. Though the door to the Church of the Holy Cross, housing Frederic Chopin’s heart is ajar and I slide in. The plaque is still there. and so is his heart. I'm told they exhumed it in 2014 to make sure it was still in good condition, well relatively speaking. There's very good ice cream in a little café opposite. Just up the road is Chopin’s house – a white porticoed museum.
Then there’s the theatre and the opera house and some more museums and more pretty gardens, with fountains. Endless statues of course, especially outside the various palaces – Marie Curie and Copernicus feature heavily, as do various kings and generals.
The mode of transport of choice here is the e scooter; these are rented out like Boris Bikes and zip along the pavement without warning, frequently cutting me up. The riders, it has to be said, are not always fully in control. Nevertheless, it's a rewarding if exhausting day. It's been a very long walk.
Back to Berlin and then Slovenia.
The scenery changes immediately as my train from Cologne via Berlin goes over the border from Germany. Dramatic limestone gorges, red roofed farmhouses with decorated bohemian roofs crumbling plaster and plenty of small turrets, chugging alongside the Elbe River, upstream to the Vltava at Prague. I'm hearing Smetana in my head - his Moldau Symphony is based on this river. There are smoking glass factories - well this is Bohemia. And it's raining. The train has changed too, but that happened at Berlin. It looks quite like an old suburban English train no frills and abundant amounts of plastic.
The Covid rules have also changed at the border. No masks required, unless I go to the doctor or ride the metro. It’s a relief, but it’s also bonkers. These countries are all in the Schengen Zone, so people move freely between them.
Prague, previously the capital of Czechoslovakia, now the capital of Czechia, is known as the 'City of a Hundred Spires'. But it's been an important city in central Europe for a long time. In the Middle Ages it was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, most notably Charles IV. Last time I was in Prague, I was on my ‘When the Wall Came Down’ trip, with friend Jenny. We stayed with some relations of Jenny - they were poor, the economy was stressed, Lech Walesa was newly in power, living in a very small flat to set a good example and everyone was still very Stasi conscious.
I remember Prague, as a gorgeous city, with a lot of tea shops. It is now glorious, beautifully renovated; the embryonic café culture has evolved considerably. The tea shops on the arcades around its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, have expanded, with canopies, umbrellas and outdoor seating. It's very smart.
And in 1992 the old town part of Prague was included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. There are also plenty of museums and numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas, and other historical exhibits. Charles University, here, is the oldest university in Central Europe.
The tourist board are trying to incentivise visitors again, post Covid. I'm not sure why, as it seems pretty busy to me. They have handed out free entrance vouchers to various attractions. There are already numerous tourists admiring the famous medieval Astronomical Clock, just off the Old Town Square, which gives an animated hourly show. They move on to stroll across the pedestrian Charles Bridge, crossing the Vltava, lined with statues of Catholic saints, and ogle the turrets beyond.
I have four points to spend, so I'm heading for Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. It covers an area bigger than seven football fields combined. It's on the other side of the bridge from the Old Town, above what's known as Lesser Town. It's also at the top of a huge number of steps. Prague Castle is also UNESCO recognised. Parts of this onion domed complex date back to the ninth century and it was home to the kings of Bohemia, some Holy Roman Emperors and the presidents of Czechoslovakia. Today, it's the official seat of the President of Czechia. The area round the castle is known as Hradčany.
Needless to say, there is much to admire and several different types of ticket available, depending on the number of attractions: palaces, halls, museums, churches, chapels, towers and gardens you want to visit. My free ticket, is of course the basic one. but that's still a lot of ground to cover. There's even Golden Lane. a street of reconstructed shops and houses, which is free of course. The shelves are crammed with tourist souvenirs for sale.
Prague’s textbook architecture, has been renovated and supplemented. It’s an incredible and eclectic mix:
St George’s Basilica, one of the earliest buildings, inside the castle complex is ornate on the outside, simple inside. The best, but by no means the only example of Romanesque architecture. The round arches, thick walls, groin vaults and rotunda are to be found in several churches. Saint Martin at Vysehrad, has the oldest rotunda in Prague.
Well where do I begin with Gothic architecture? The myriad turrets, and spires on the churches and St Vitus Cathedral are sublime. The cathedral is just down the hill from the castle. It is the biggest church in Prague, home to the tombs of the Bohemian kings and their crown jewels. There's also a statue of Saint Wenceslas (amongst many other sculptures and paintings).
The AltNeuschul (Old-New Synagogue) with its stepped gable, is Europe's oldest active synagogue. Completed in 1270 , it was one of Prague's first gothic buildings. The Charles Bridge with its statues and tower gates is justly famous. And the church of Our Lady Before Tyn in the Old Market Square, with its twin towers, is simply stunning, to my mind the most impressive of them all. There are captivating churches and towers dotted all over the city. Straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales. My free tickets cover scrambles up the bridge towers, for the views.
Renaissance flourishes, (arches , columns and statues) are found on buildings and part buildings, linking the Gothic to the Baroque, especially in the Castle area, and in Lesser town, where there are many Renaissance burghers' houses, mixed in with the baroque palaces, narrow lanes and spacious squares. A gorgeous example in the Old Town is the House at the Minute, part of the Old Town Hall Complex. The facade isdecorated with sgraffito and depicts scenes from biblical and mythological sources, as well as contemporary Renaissance legends. Franz Kafka lived here with his parents lived from 1889 to 1896. And there's even some Neo Renaissance in the form of the Navrodni Palace, built to house the National Museum.
Most of the Old Town is built in baroque style, with scrolls, flowers, frescoes and every embellishment you could imagine. There are several synagogues too, mostly in the Jewish Quarter, and heavily renovated; these straddle Gothic to modern times. There are also, very moving holocaust memorials and other mementos of those times.
There are sprinklings of Art Nouveau in the Old Town, as it wanders into the new Town, with the amazing Municipal Hall the most celebrated example. Cubist, Functionalist and Communist Era architecture are all also to be found.
And then the New town. and to cap it all off Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, referencing Fred (the rokc tower) and Ginger (the glass one). Astonishing. It was designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić in cooperation with Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry on a riverfront plot that had been left vacant after World War II bombing. It was completed in 1996, with the encouragement of the then Czech president, Václav Havel, who had lived next door to the site for decades, in his family home. He had hoped that the building would become a centre for cultural activity. The nickname is now discouraged, as 'American Hollywood kitsch'. That doesn't prevent the stream of tourists stopping on the riverbank to take a picture
After all that walking and navigating I need a rest. Another 14 kilometres and all the signs in Czech. There are little pictures of the sights underneath but these black line drawings all look the same to me. A synagogue looks just like a castle. I retire to a courtyard inn to sample the local food. It’s good to see that this is promoted in all the restaurants rather than international fare. Most of the food items have a y on the end: salaty, steaky; so that's where our penchant for naming sportsmen (Giggsy) came from. The food is very tasty. Caraway features heavily in the cabbage. There are bread and potato dumplings, some smoked goodies. And a lot of pork of course.
The local ice cream comes in coiled pastry ‘chimneys’ rather than cones. They bake the chimneys on rotating spits - there are stalls on most streets with an assortment of fillings - and whipped cream. To drink there are various flavoured lemonades, all home made. The raspberry one is delicious. And plenty of beer naturally. They drink more beer here per capita than any country in the world. The only drawback is that the diet is heavy on the stomach. After I’ve eaten all I want to do is sleep.
Czechia has it's own currency, the koruna. Though they take euros everywhere. If you don’t mind accepting the extortionate exchange rates, as each establishment sets their own rate. It's a euro to use the toilet.
The MeetMe23 upmarket hostel is very funky and very good value. It’s just across the road from the station, in a converted neo-renaissance mansion that’s stepped in history. Its been brought bang up to date with plastic blue man sculptures (you can even print out a miniature 3D one for a keepsake), a Skoda on the wall and individually designed rooms. Mine has about 20 light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and a great view over the city. The cellar restaurant serves up decent Czech food and gin and tonic too.
From Luxembourg to Trier is just an hour on the train, hugging the banks of the River Mosel. We're both rushing to join the Rhine. The scenery green and pleasant enough, the famed vineyards beginning to appear as we near the city, vertical lines up the lower slopes, dark green forests up top. There are no luggage racks and I daren’t let go of my case, as it careers all over the carriage.
Trier claims several records. It is said to be the oldest town in Germany - having been founded by the Romans. There’s a huge relic to prove it - the dark sandstone Porta Nigra - the largest Roman gate north of the Alps. There’s also a Roman bridge, spa and amphitheatre.
In addition, a very old market place, dating from 958 and the oldest basilica in Germany. Here are sets of chiming bells, an ancient stone cross, carved gables and an imposing city hall tower.
I follow the marked tourist trail through the centre of town to a huge UNESCO listed cathedral complex. St Peter’s is the oldest church in the country, having been commissioned by Constantine at the same time as St Peter’s in Rome; the earliest parts date back to the fourth century. It is Romanesque and fortress like; the original cathedral was four times the size of this one, so it must have been truly enormous. It houses (so they say) the seamless or sacred robe that Jesus wore at the crucifixion, brought back to the church by Helena, Constantine’s mother (her palace is under the cathedral). though it’s sealed away in a shrine and you only get to see it every several decades or so. In addition there’s also a nail from the crucifixion, on display in the treasury. The slightly daintier Church of Our Lady adjacent to the main cathedral is the oldest Gothic church in the country. That one was begin in 1230.
I attempt to follow the tourist trail but either I get lost or the signs disappear, so I'm reduced to wandering and looking vainly at my map. But I manage to discover another huge Roman basilica - Aula Palatinata - this one known as Constantine’s basilica, a splendid pink Electoral Palace, set in a park resplendent with fountains and neat flower beds and the house where Karl Marx was born. These are linked by pedestrianised shopping streets - the shops dull mid range chains and cut price stores for the most part.
Plan A, long since buried in the mists of time involved a Rhine cruise which would have terminated here, so I wander down to the river to see where my boat would have docked. A pleasure cruise is about to depart and I hop on. I'm exhausted and it’s scorching hot today, there is virtually no breeze.
It’s possibly the least scenic part of the Mosel, camp sites, cranes and the odd monument. We sail under the old Roman Bridge. It’s only marginally cooler on the water, but at least I'm sitting down.
Romantik Hotel Zur Glocke is the oldest inn in Trier (of course) and thoughtfully serves its guest welcome drinks - sparkling Mosel wine. I also need to mention the Bierkeller – superb schnitzel.
I had been really looking forward to revisiting the Mosel - I have fond memories of goblets of wine sipped in fragrant gasthaus gardens, gazing across the water to the vine laden banks. Sadly, it’s raining today. Dark skies rarely improve the view and that’s definitely the case as we rattle through what is clearly gorgeous river valley scenery, ladders of vines with delightful villages scattered on both sides.
Koblenz has some similarities to Trier, but not the same claims to antiquity. It has a palace, the Kurfurstliches Schloss this time, grey-white and spreading along the banks of the river and a compact old town with churches, more sets of bells and some nice examples of those small curved tile dormer windows that are common round here.
Koblenz also has a lot of shops on pedestrian streets. It makes more of its river though. Much of the town is built along the banks and the palace churches and other monuments form part of the mile long Rhine promenade, which is a UNESCO heritage site. I saunter along here several times, savouring the views. Probably the most well known area is the gargantuan Kaiser Wilhelm monument on the Deutche Eck (corner) at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine. The name Koblenz actually originates from the Latin confluentes. It's just about obligatory to have your photo taken here.
Opposite, is the huge and sprawling but ugly Rhine fortress, the second largest in Europe. You can take a cable car across to the top if you are so inclined. I hope the view from up top is nicer than the one from down here. There’s a smaller version of the fortress above the station, quite close to my hotel. It turns out that this is the prison.
I'm taking a day cruise on the Rhine to replace the week long journey I had originally booked. Even the day cruises are curtailed due to lack of demand. The boat normally seats 600, has currently been limited to 285 and today is carrying under 20 passengers at the start, as far as I can see, though the top outside deck fills up as the day progresses.
The route on offer is Koblenz to St Goar and back, with stops at St Goar and Boppard. It’s overcast but not raining, so I at least get to see the Rhine Gorge and the Lorelei Rock, even if they aren't displayed in their full magnificence.
First up is the Koblenz Brewery (which looks like a castle) , followed by Stolzenfels Castle (once a medieval castle rebuilt as a nineteenth century Gothic palace) on one side and Lahnstein Castle (medieval but heavily restored) on the other.
A glut of castles. Marksburg lording it from the top of one peak is the only genuinely original medieval castle on the middle Rhine and thus is deemed to be the most suitable home for the German castles organisation. Others of note are the so called Hostile Brothers, two adjacent castles south of Boppard. And a little further on Cat Castle, close by Mouse Castle. They should have called them Tom and Jerry.
South into the celebrated Rhine Bend, the slopes of the limestone hills lengthen to vertical crags. Neat villages, whitewashed houses, helmed churches, to the east, vines to the west. It deserves its reputation as a must see.
I've been advised to disembark at St Goar, which is where the boat turns round. There is more to see there than at St Goarhausen on the opposite bank, I'm told. And it has the biggest castle on the Rhine. But I’ve had a sufficiency of castles; Goarhausen offers access to the Lorelei and that's on my bucket list. So I march along the riverbank, to the famous statue, Germany's equivalent of The Little Mermaid, except that this slightly more malevolent person enticed sailors onto the rocks.. The statue of the maiden is on a rock promontory at the end of an extremely uneven path. The rock itself - the story goes that the siren threw herself off this - is a little further upriver. It's the narrowest part of the gorge. Making my way back along the riverbank I wander into Goarhausen's tiny deserted old town. Unexpected and rewarding. I'm very happy with my choice.
A stop at Boppard for a couple of hours. Another extraordinary double steeple church. More gorgeous town houses. And a huge cutlet with mashed potatoes in an inn by the river. This is another country to get fat in. Schnitzel, kartoffelnsalat (potato salad), apfelstrudel, kasekuchen (cheesecake), an ice cream parlours proliferate and schlagsahne (whipped cream) with everything. The fast food of choice is curry wurst with chips. There’s a booth on every corner.
I’ve opted for the train from Koblenz to Cologne, as I’ve read that it’s a very scenic journey. And I’ve duly selected a seat on the right as instructed, as I’m told the train runs along the left bank of the Rhine. Except that there are works on the line and the train has been re-routed, often through industrial, warehouse ridden hinterland and the few bits of river that I do glimpse are on the left hand side. The train is full, so I can’t move. There are only two toilets aboard and they’re both out of order, so I’m relieved, literally when we arrive. It’s just like being at home.
Cologne isn't the prettiest city that I’ve visited. The main land mark is the cathedral. It’s immense, towers over the city and is the first building I see as we arrive at the Hauptbahnhof. I’m not a great fan of the restoration of historical buildings, but this one is in dire need of restoration. It’s filthy and badly eroded. And restoration is indeed underway. The entire building is shrouded in scaffolding. There is even an array of turrets that have been removed for repair, standing on the floor. It must be a mammoth undertaking.
The city hall is also being restored. It stands on the edge of the Altstadt. This is signposted, but is smaller than the old towns in most of the Rhine villages. There are a couple of large squares, more churches and some new houses, mixed in with the older ones, built in roughly the same style. Along the river are walkways with museums housed in brutalist style architecture - it’s a smaller version of the South Bank in London.
Otherwise there are a plethora of mid to low price bars restaurants and shops. As with much of Germany there is plenty of English integrated into the general signage' as well as the announcements. ‘Sandwiches, speed dating, ticket controller, pub, teenagers and shopping.........
I’ve survived the 4.30 a.m. start and reached Carcassonne from Andorra. This is another bucket list tick - I've wanted to go ever since I read Kate Mosse ( and others), on the mysterious history of the city. The main interest is the eleventh century medieval citadel with ‘A veritable anthology of stone: throughout its three kilometres of ramparts, through its 52 towers, two gates, its barbicans, its castle and its basilica, in the labyrinth of its crenellated ramparts, its stairs, chicanes and gates, you can read the whole architecture of the Middle Ages'. Thus runs the promotional blurb.
The citadel was a strategically placed fortress to defend the border with Spain. The earliest signs of settlement date back to 3500. The fortress began life as a Roman hilltop defence. The Romans ceded to the Visigoth king Theodoric, who founded the first St Nazaire basilica,in the fifth century. Over the years the fortifications were strengthened and towers and barbicans added to bring it up to the 52 said to be on site today. The most notable additions were those of Viscount Trencavel, who developed the walls and constructed the castle, the Château Comtal inside. But Carcassonne is probably most well known for acting as a stronghold, for the Huguenot Cathars during the Albigensian Crusades (Read about the city of Albi here). They were defeated by the crusader armies and most of the inhabitants expelled.
When France's border was moved further south, after peace with Spain was negotiated, there was little need for the castle and the citadel fell into disrepair. The government was going to demolish it, but there was an outcry and instead restoration began in the nineteenth century. The architect, Viollet-le-Duc, took a somewhat controversial approach, removing some of the most ancient structures and incorporating grey witches' hats instead of the traditional southern red tiled ones. He argued that this was probably authentic, as the original inhabitants had come from the north. He completed 30% of the restoration. Red hats seem to have prevailed after that.
Carcassonne is named after the original hillfort - Carsac. There's a lovely legend telling of a châtelaine, Lady Carcas. She is said to have ended a siege, when the town was on its knees and starving, by fattening up a pig and letting it escape to the enemy. They naturally became downhearted when they saw how well the besieged were living and they duly departed. The success of the ruse was celebrated by the joyous ringing of bells ("Carcas sona") and so Carcassonne got its name. Sadly, the historians are having none of this tale, but there is a modern statue of Madame Carcas on a column near the Narbonne Gate.
This 'anthology of stone' is approached through a pleasant pedestrianised area in the lower city. The 'ville basse' isn't exactly modern. It dates to the late Middle Ages, founded as a settlement for the expelled inhabitants of the town. a criss- cross of shopping streets, past the Portail des Jacobins (the last of the city gates still standing) and the remains of some of the old walls, which once encircled this part of town. A church or two, and the cathedral. Some pleasant squares lined with museums and civic buildings. Then, I cross over the Aude River.
Le Vieux Pont certainly looks battered enough to be ancient. It's where I get my first glimpse of the lines of turrets atop a hill. Next, a winding stretch of older streets, crammed with restaurants and boutiques, laid out enticingly, to entrap the tourists, as they promenade through. The regional offerings featuring heavily are cassoulet and pigs trotters. And finally, a climb up to the medieval citadel.
I’ve been warned that Carcassonne can be horribly crowded in summer, but I was hoping for a Venice like outcome. The streets are still bustling however and I queue for maybe 15 minutes to buy my ticket. Perhaps that's good compared to a normal summer. Though of course this is the New Normal.
The city in the bailey consists of more winding streets and many more shops and restaurants. All very quaint of course. There are more witch hat topped towers than you can shake a stick at. I'm hoping for a view from the ramparts; you have to buy a ticket for nine euros to see that and the castle - the Chateau Comtal. There are two different rampart walks so I ask to do both, but I'm told I have to choose one. If I want to do the second I can come back and queue again and buy another ticket. I'm not impressed.
As well as the plethora of towers in the castle, there are views of the thirteenth century St Nazaire Basilica (the one that replaced Theodoric's). To my surprise, there's also a sports stadium, the Stade Albert Domec, one of the oldest in France, squeezed in behind the church. The 52 towers are photogenic, the views fair. There are plenty of red tiled roofs below to admire, but it's not as pretty as Verona. And on the way out I discover yet another rampart walk with a view - and it’s free.
Another bridge, the Pont Marengo, crosses the Canal du Midi and provides access to the railway station. And my hotel. The Astoria is cheap, and clean and basic. Not remotely stylish and somewhat awkwardly modelled. But it’s fine for one night and the owner is helpful. I just wish it was better sound proofed.
I’ve had a hankering to return to Munich, ever since my ex-husband Don, missed the autobahn turn off, on our first jaunt through Germany and refused to turn round. He said there was too much traffic. Getting there today from Liechtenstein isn’t going to be easy. Munich from Vaduz and then back down to Andorra before returning, eventually, to Germany isn’t the most obvious routing, but my hotel in Munich is non refundable, so I’m fitting things round those dates. Austria won’t allow the English in at the moment (thanks Boris) so I can’t take the obvious connections, through Kufstein or Innsbruck, and I’m having to travel via Zurich and Stuttgart instead. There’s a bus from Zurich that I was considering, but I discovered that this clips the corner of Austria too, by Lake Konstanz and I don’t want to risk being thrown into quarantine for two weeks.
At Zurich there is a large sign saying ‘Zurich to München in 3.5 hours. In 2021. It’s going to take me just under six hours from here. And we’re travelling at over 200 kilometres an hour for much of the time. But it’s much more comfortable travelling on trains that are half empty. I can swap seats when the train unexpectedly swaps direction, shunting out of a station.
Through pretty spruce covered hills, villages of steep roofed houses with onion domed churches and an intermittent 4G signal. North, towards Stuttgart the land flattens out. Stuttgart is very different from my experiences so far. The station is packed with people crammed sardine-like onto the platforms. They have Rauchen areas where the smokers puff away, masks discarded. The station is scruffy and the train is nine minutes late departing.
Out of Stuttgart it's terraced vines, castles with pointy turrets and a variety of churches in an assortment of colours, all with intricately decorated towers. For a few minutes we follow the Danube as it traverses Germany from its source in the southwest of the country.
I'm following a self guided tour which takes me under a cream arched and crenellated gate and into the Altstadt - old town.
It’s not a great start- the first two items on the list, the St Michael's Church and the famous double towered cathedral, the Frauenkirche, are both under renovation and surrounded by cranes and barricades. But the sun has come out and the several churches, fountain and intricate tracery on the town hall in the nearby Marienplatz are shown off to their best advantage. There’s an ornate glockenspiel on the facade of the Town Hall (Rathaus) and revolving figures appear and play it three times a day.
There are countless huge halls of varying kinds. Museums, old palaces (the Residenz complex is enormous), memorials, theatres and the beer halls of course. Munich is world renowned for its Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest folk (read beer) festival. Despite its name, Oktoberfest actually starts in the last week of September and officially dates back to 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig threw a party to celebrate his wedding to Princess Terese on October 12. There are also long streets of shops with some very swish department stores. Much the best place to go to the toilet.
The English Garden is a large, very pleasant area with some tree filled meadow (think Bushy Park), small hills bearing neoclassical follies, a Japanese tea house, a Chinese pagoda and (yes you're reading right), a channel with a wave machine. Crowds gather here to watch the surf dudes, who do well if they stand up for longer than five seconds – it’s a ferocious current.
Lunch is potato salad with enormous beef ribs in the park Biergarten. When in Munich..... Though I'm abstaining from the huge foaming steins of lager. And I have to scan in using my phone at the restaurant and fill in a form with my contact details.
The park and the beer garden are thronging – more people even than in the town. It’s Saturday, and I think the locals are out in force. So, I have to be careful where I’m walking - I’m not used to this, or to trying to avoid people in the wrong place in my photos. But the biggest menace are the bicycles. Munich is full of them: tricycles, groups of folk on tours, hire bikes and parents pushing their children along in attached to the front cars. There are bicycle lanes alongside some of the roads, but no-one pays much heed to those and they weave all over the park paths, cutting swiftly and scarily around the pedestrians.
Munich is big on its music and there are numerous accordion players with their begging bowls. Though sadly no oompah band playing in the Englischer Garten. Maybe it's because of Covid, but there are plenty of people around, many more than I have seen anywhere else so far. Maybe half do not wear masks, except in the shops where it is compulsory. There’s a street stall on the Marienplatz selling patterned face coverings. I've bought one decorated with glittery diamante.
German people I chat to seem surprised I'm allowed here; I hope I'm correct in thinking I am. Individual states make their own decisions.
I've been upgraded again. The hotel I was going to stay at isn’t open yet. Not enough clientele so now I'm in the sister hotel the Marc Munich just up the road. It's very convenient for the station and it's in a North African / Arab quarter with kebab stands, hookah bars gold shops and African barbers. Just like the Edgware Road in London.
The hotel seems very new. It markets itself as trendy - I would just say modern and stylish rather than innovative. The room is just big enough but not everything works. The air conditioning for example does nothing. Maybe it hasn’t been turned on yet.
A bus tour today. There are three contact details forms to fill in on the bus, one for the bus company and one for each palace I’m visiting. And every alternate seat is blocked off, as well as two rows at the front.
Neuschwanstein Castle has long been on my bucket list, so I'm off to see this as well as another of mad King Ludwig’s creations. Except that, according to our guide, Ludwig has been cruelly mislabelled. This King of Bavaria was officially diagnosed as mentally ill towards the end of his nineteenth century reign, but it is now thought that he was simply eccentric and creative, unusually so for his time. The psychiatrist who wrote the damning report had never met him.
Ludwig also refused to marry and broke off an engagement although he was pressed to marry. No wonder he retreated from reality. Even his death at a relatively early age is surrounded in mystery. He drowned along with his doctor, despite being a very good swimmer, the day after he had been certified as insane.
Ludwig was obsessed with Louis XIV, the Sun King and modelled Linderhof Palace after Versailles. Linderhof is tiny ( for a palace), but is the only one of Ludwig’s palaces that he properly inhabited. Its rooms are lavishly decorated and gilded, the walls almost entirely covered with winding curlicues, the ceilings with painted nymphs and gods. Nooks and pedestals filled with Meissen and Sevres china. There’s even a (small) Hall of Mirrors.
The tour is carried out at a gallop, as groups of no more than ten are allowed and we all have to stand on carefully placed spots on the carpets.
With the beautiful backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, cattle grazing on emerald pasture framed by for covered peaks, Oberammergau is the stereotypical alpine village, though perhaps more immaculate and with more cafes, restaurants and wood carvers’ shops than most. The gasthauser are so neat and beautifully presented that you almost feel compelled to enter. The timber chalets have scarlet geranium filled window boxes and many of the walls bear elaborate frescoes. Some are religious of course, in this village of Passion Play fame. Others have scenes from Grimm’s Fairy stories: Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood painted on the walls. Highly appropriate for this fairy tale land.
Local dress is also traditional. Many of the women wear the dirndl skirts. Our guide says that all the Bavarian women have one at home, for festivals.
The semi open air theatre - it's now got a Wembley stadium type roof, stands at the end of the village. You can only take part in the play, which is performed every ten years (postponed to 2022 this year because of Corona virus) if you have lived here for 20 years..
A highlight of today has been the absolutely stunning alpine scenery and Ludwig put Neuschwanstein in the midst of possibly the best views up the mountain, looking across to the lakes and the Alpsee in particular and down to the village of Hohenschwangau, a resort spot with little beaches, on the lake. And yet another castle. You can wait 20 minutes for a shuttle bus that will take you up to view points and a ten minute downhill walk to the castle. Or you can walk up hill for 40 minutes with no views. It’s not really a contest.
There’s another queue, with a fifty minute waiting time if you want the picture postcard view from the Marienbrucke (Mary Bridge). And if you’re travelling solo don’t try and eat in the Hotel Muller restaurant. Despite me being head of the queue the waiter allowed six couples in ahead of me and then told me there were no free tables outside. He offered me the indoor dining room, which was not in use at that time – not set up and no-one in it.
Renowned for its lofty perch and turrets, Neuschwanstein is the castle that Disney used as the model for his Cinderella castle. Perhaps more importantly, it was inspired by Wagner's Parsifal. Ludwig was an admiring patron and friend of Wagner and the relationship resulted in an increased inclination towards romanticism and an amplification of his tendency to identify with medieval heroes. (Wagner however was ejected from Bavaria by the ruling council, the same people who had Ludwig certified -and possibly murdered - it was a constitutional monarchy).
As our guide points out - we are very privileged to tour the castle in groups of ten. It's usually 60. We're also lucky to have tickets. It's booked out for the entire summer.
The style is very different to Linderhof. Here, the rooms are modelled after medieval halls and chapels with vaulted ceilings and huge crown chandeliers. Several of the rooms are themed around Wagner operas Lohengrin (hence the many swans - Neuschwanstein means New Swan on the Rock), Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser and Parsifal of course.
Sadly, there are awful traffic jams on the autobahn as we return to Munich. The whole city seems to have travelled south for the day.
Tomorrow, I set off for Andorra.
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