Our Liebster Award Nomination

Our Liebster Award Nomination

Our Blogging Nomination

For me, blogging is a passion; no actually, writing and photography are my passions – blogging is a platform where I can express my creativity in a safe and reasonably anonymous way. After years of having a very public presence in the corporate world, being able to retreat to the wings and nurture my introvert whilst connecting to my writing passion is a joy. For the first time ever I am doing work that is wholesome, nourishes me and works with my strengths without compromise. Thank goodness for blogging!

So when, earlier this year I was nominated for the Liebster Award, an award for bloggers, by bloggers, it was a huge honour. It was recognition that someone from my writing peer group loved what I was writing and valued it enough to put me forward for this award, in a world where there are so many fabulous writers.  I’m so grateful, thank you Karolina Patry for the nomination.

 

Getting to know The Motoroamers 

Part of the rules of the Award is to answer 11 questions that your nominator has put to you, so that you can tell your story and share a bit of yourself to the blogging world.

These were the questions posed by Karolina:

 

1. What do you like the most about travelling?

Travelling gives us a freedom and simplicity that has enriched our lives beyond recognition. Being released from the Matrix has allowed us to follow the beat of our own drum and be the people we were destined to be. We feel whole, happy and US for the first time in our lives and travel has and continues to be our greatest teacher. Oh if only this were a lesson in school…

2. How do you fund your travels?

We have created a financial base for our lifestyle on the road that includes rental property and income from a share portfolio. In addition to that we still work digitally, both as a Happiness Coach for me and an Investor for Myles. We are currently building our travel blog community that is growing organically and slowly beginning to cover some blogging expenses, although our writing is for love, first and foremost and money appears well down the list.

3. What is your favourite destination?

We avoid having favourites, as in truth all places have their own unique characters and personalities. And we feel that to commit to anyone as a favourite would be to undermine all others we have visited and connected with in a different way. That said we love Poland for its depth of soul, Slovakia and Slovenia for their beauty and Romania just stole our hearts. So I think it is fair to say that we love Eastern Europe and what it offers our cultural sponge.

4. What destination is on the top of your bucket list?

We don’t really have bucket list places, as our full time travels are taking us to the most amazing places. Although I would love to see Japan with the cherry blossom and Peru has always been a place that has called me since a teenager. Aside of those, Canada’s Rocky Mountains are a must do for us, so we have plenty to be going on with, whether with our camper or some other trusty steed.

5. What is your best travel story?

I think our journey to become full time travellers is the best story. How we chose to swap corporate stress for happiness and live life beyond our fears. The story about how we faced and overcame those fears and created a transformational, nomadic lifestyle that belies the ‘traditional masks’ we wore in our old lives. The remaining chapters of our tale are being written as we speak.

6. What is the worst place you have ever visited?

We have come to learn that at some point there are going to be places that we are disappointed in, that somehow don’t match our expectations or have, quite honestly scared the bejesus out of us. There haven’t been many  although just a few. Travel and discovery are not always a bed of roses, sometimes the thorns are there for a reason.

Southern Italy was hairy with their lack of respect for the road and crazy driving, Cinque Terre was a definite disappointment and Vienna didn’t live up to my expectations. They are not what I would call ‘worst’, although definitely are places that we have liked least.

7. What nationality are you?

We are British with European hearts!

8. What kind of blogger are you? What do you like to write about on your blog?

What an interesting question. I am a creative storyteller; I love to write and am passionate about sharing experiences through colourful stories. I love nothing more than creating an engaging tale of our adventures and the countries or regions we are fortunate enough to visit. For me blogging is all about the love for writing and if I can engage my reader in our footsteps, then what a joy and a bonus that is.

9. What cuisine is your favourite?

I love all food, and my expanding waistline is evidence of this. Although my favourite – now that’s hard… it has to be the simplicity of French food – bread, cheese and a nice wine or Spanish tapas. Now that really gets my taste buds soaring.

10. What is your favourite Social Media and why?

I love both Facebook because of our interactions and connections and Instagram because it’s a showcase for my photography.

11. Have you ever lived abroad?

I guess if you can call Isle of Man abroad from UK, then the answer is yes. We were privileged to live there for 18 years, so for all intents and purposes we were Manx residents. And today we can definitely class ourselves as living abroad, as we are full timing in our camper travelling, for now, across Europe. The rest of the world is waiting for us in the wings.

What great questions, thank you Karolina.

 

Pay it Forward

In return for my nomination, it falls to me, in my acceptance, to ‘Pay it Forward’. There are a lot of people who are sceptical about awards like this that have a chain letter feel to them. Although I think in today’s modern world driven by success, the Liebster actually isn’t about getting a badge. It is about how bloggers around the world support each other, encourage us to write and share our stories and promote each other in a vastly competitive arena. And in truth, there is no competition – only stories, learning and shared experiences.

This is why I decided to accept the nomination, because I loved the idea that I could pay it forward – that I could promote other bloggers in my genre who have the courage, like me to put words on paper for the world to scrutinise. It’s not easy to blog, especially, if like me you are a perfectionist. It takes time, patience, being in the right space and a whole heap of technicalities. So to every blogger, I honour you and what you do.

I am therefore delighted to nominate the following five very special bloggers for this award, in the true and ethical Pay it Forward philosophy.

 

 

 

 

 

Our Questions for our Nominees

If our nominees decide to accept this award nomination, then they must create their own blog, like this one and answer the following questions that we have posed. So if you are ready guys, here are your 11 Questions;

  1. What was the journey that brought you to travelling?
  2. How has travel changed you and how does it enrich your life?
  3. If Travel was a teacher at school, what would be included in their lessons?
  4. If there was one piece of advice you could give travel dreamers, what would it be?
  5. If you could give a gift to a newbie traveller, what would it be and why?
  6. What type of place or places do you feel the greatest peace?
  7. What have been your biggest challenges?
  8. If you could choose three words that sum up what travel means to you, what would they be?
  9. If your travels were represented by a jigsaw, what would this look like; the corners, the straight edges and the middle pieces?
  10. What has been the most meaningful experience you have had?
  11. What one memory stands out most to you from your travels that makes you smile?

 

The Liebster Award Rules

To keep this positive and encouraging system going, there need to be a few rules. There is a comprehensive blog from The Global Aussie that you can follow here who shares all the steps you need to follow should you be nominated, accept and reciprocate. Here is the essence of the steps to take:

  • Create a blog like this, that acknowledges and links to your nominee (that’s me). In it share your passion for blogging.
  • Then answer the questions I have given to you above.
  • Look for your own 5-11 personal blog recommendations that you wish to nominate and include those in your blog as I have done with links to their websites.
  • Create 11 unique and creative questions for your nominees to answer
  • Go to The Global Aussie website where, should you decide to accept, you add your own Liebster Award blog directly to the commentary section at the bottom of the page which registers your nomination.
  • Add a comment to my blog below, to say if you wish to accept the nomination.
  • Then finally, drop an email to your nominees, and the person who nominated you, with a link to the blog you have written.

Entries end on 25th Dec 2018 and the winner will be picked on the 31st of December.

Thanks again to Karolina for your nomination and good fortune to us all come the end of December. For more information about our blogs and our adventures just check out our website

A Parley With France

A Parley With France

France what a delight you are. Just when I think you can’t amaze me any more, you throw us a surprise that just endears you to my heart even more. How is it you get underneath my skin so well?

From our voyage through the Chartreuse, Vercors and Cevennes Natural Parks to the Haut-Garonne region, little treasures keep emerging that bowl me over and create just a little flutter in my stomach. After all, who cannot love the gorgeous Les Plus Beaux Villages that hide in your countryside with tales to tell those looking beyond the castle walls?

Of course I love the iconic French destinations; Avignon is to die for, Provence Lavender just so sensual and Annecy is beyond adjectives. And yet this week, France you have thrown up so many joyful routes, villages and compelling stories that I find myself reengaged with you and your diverse characterful landscape. You are a joy to behold.

In search for a place to rest our travel weary heads, we found ourselves in Soreze in the Midi-Pyrenees region of the south west, nestled within the Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castres triangle. Seemingly inconspicuous and just one of many towns embedded into your map and yet, like an unexpected Christmas gift, we opened up your present which had me melting like putty in your hands. 

 

 

Soreze, famous for three things. Its 754AD Abbey School, the source of the UNESCO Canal du Midi and is a well-known resting point for the Saint-Jacques de Compestela pilgrimage path – what more could you ask from a name on a map?

With maisons à encorbellement – (buildings with upper storeys protruding over the lower portion) and their half-timbered frontage, we felt like you had transported us back into the Middle Ages. The atmosphere here was amazing and with all the plaques around the town that tell you about the famous people who lived here once upon a time, I felt like you were drawing us into an intricate tale that made us just pure bystanders. The view down the narrow streets was like something out of a Dicken’s novel and with the image of Saint Martin’s tower looming at the end of the vision, we were compelled to check out its dominant features. It was a bit of a shock when, impressed by its sovereignty, all that remains of this 15 century church is this bell-tower. No regal interiors, no crafted alters, no stain-glassed windows. Just a shadow of its former glory. How sad and yet perversely how amazing that you have salvaged this historical monument and continue to protect its legacy. 

The narrow, paved streets hold the footprints of man and beast, and I was left wondering what their contribution to the historical tale might be.  And somewhere in the whisper of the wind I am sure I could hear voices from a distant past; perhaps it was the Benedictine monks or the philosophical and military scholars who studied at this prestigious college. May be it was the sound of the horses who carried their loads or the chatter from the artists who made this sumptuous town home. Either way there was plenty to feel in the walls of this ancient yet modest and humble place.

 

Soreze’s neighbour, Revel that was no more than 5km away offered us a slightly different feel; one that had a modern edge to it on the outskirts of its Market Square. With fountains and murals, you have brought Revel into a contemporary world where history holds on tightly with a fingertip grasp on the past. Evidence of that space in time is still clear in the town’s centre, where one of your finest examples of a medieval market square can be seen here. And it is here, each Saturday that a traditional market is held which is reputedly over 600 years old. Surrounding the square are arched walkways with cafés and your traditional stores enticing us with smells and tastes of the local French cuisine. The chocolate box facades of your medieval buildings are part and parcel of the past that the modern world cannot erase and it feels as though it holds a mysterious legacy that only the walls can confess. Revel you were a delightful interlude that we were glad not to have missed.

Check out our Gallery by clicking on the image below

France you delight and surprise us around every corner. When we take your off-the-beaten track routes, we find our eyes filled with ancient splendour and our hearts bursting with a gentle respect for these out of the way places. May you always lead us to your quiet treasures and continue to remind us of your grace, simplicity and ubiquitous splendour and charm.

 

If you wish to camp in this amazing region, then there is a great spot, Camping Saint Martin (43.45473, 2.06960) or there is an Aire around the other side of the village close to the supermarket with service facilities, (43.4505, 2.06567)

 

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3 Natural Parks in France not to miss

3 Natural Parks in France not to miss

France is one of Europe’s most popular destinations and with just under 250,000 sq miles, you could be forgiven for not seeing it all. We’ve been visiting France for a couple of decades, made easier by my parents who had a house in Brittany going back 10 years ago. It’s a beautiful yet vast country that is so diverse we never tire of it. With more than 150 Les Plus Beaux Villages dotted around the country that ooze character, France will charm you. And away from the obvious main sights of Paris, the lavender fields of Provence and the southern resorts and beaches, this country has some incredible hidden secrets. Three of which we were about to discover as we travelled from Chambéry, south of Annecy to Beziers on the south coast. Check out the three Natural Park treasures that we passed through in a bid to head for the coast.

Chartreuse Natural Park

Our route; Les Manches, Chambéry to Grenoble, 65km (about 40 miles).

Having nestled ourselves at a lovely campsite just outside Chambéry to do some much needed repairs to our van, our feet started itching on day 4 as though they had been tickled by a feather. So we headed south and looking at the map, the motorway was not an option, it rarely is for us. We love the road less travelled and when the map shows us a bit of greenery, all the better. It can get us into trouble at times, although on the whole the secrets we’ve uncovered have been amazing.

Chartreuse Natural Park was one of those amazing secrets, even though for most of our passage it was shrouded in low cloud. Sometimes whilst the sun certainly enhances a vista, we could just sense that there was beauty here. With Chambéry at the northern end and Grenoble in the south, the route is actually doable in a couple of hours.

Our path took us up into the misty shroud, sadly leaving the warmth of the autumn sunshine behind, and wound up the mountain road to the Col du Grenier. With a left turn we entered what I would class as rural France. Hillside and valley hamlets with one bar, one church, a boulangerie and a clutch of houses. The feel of the place was heart-warming as a sense of authenticity grows the deeper you drive into the mountain shadows. Lush green pastures are home to cows with Swiss-style bells around their necks and the promise of devine diary produce. Rich meadows provide sanctuary to rare plants and the skies, I’m sure if we could have seen them, would be littered with swallows, buzzards and other raptors looking for their prey.

Sainte-Pierre d’Entremont is a gorgeous stone village that begs you to stop and explore. With walks galore up into the natural park and, if it is your thing, why not take the ‘Route de Savoire Faire’ which takes you on an artisanal journey offering you an insight into craftsman’s trade typical of the region.

As you wiggle and wind up, then down like a rollercoaster, you slowly fall in love with this Park and after driving through Le Sappy, a quaint ski resort, you start to make your descent into Grenoble. Capital town of the Alps, France can be proud of this winter sport’s hub with its University, river, chateaux and cable cars. Grenoble marks the end of Chartreuse and offers a gentle introduction into the second of our trio of natural parks that we entice you to explore.

Check out our Gallery below to get a feel for this gentle giant with its pine clad snaking roads.

Vercors Natural Park – Balcony Road-trip Extraordinaire  

Our route; Grenoble to Chateau Julien near Villards de Lans then onto Die;  105km (about 70 miles).

I love venturing into new land with little or no knowledge and then exiting feeling richer for the experience. This was certainly true of the Vercors region. Whilst we didn’t have time to explore, what we found and researched in and around our route, was enough to have us rushing back in a heart-beat. For now we had to be satisfied with this little taster of what is a limestone kingdom that will have you mesmerised by its massive character. A protected environment from 1970 you immediately feel the Park’s prowess as you leave Grenoble and climb up into the unforgiving route south.

This Park is a huge contrast to the gentle curves of the Chartreuse. The luscious Alpine valleys suddenly give way to towering gorges, steep rock faces and twisting roads that look like a serpentine.  Huge plateaus of rock rise from the earth in some regal dominance that has expletives rushing from your mouth as you turn each corner. Caves hidden deep within the rocks make this a fabulous region for climbing and potholing, France’s Vercors mountains are a thing of beauty. This fringe of the Alps is home to World War 2 history with museums and memorials dotted throughout the region and yet their biggest secret and greatest challenge are the balcony roads. These are routes of stunning vistas and little passageways that are barely wide enough to fit two vehicles side by side. With cliff overhangs that are mouse-holes for giants, the unassuming and unprepared of us in 2.50m tall vehicles may need nerves of steel to even attempt them. After a lot of research and reading Our Tour’s blog on the area, we decided that to attempt any of these roads with our camper would be fool-hardy, and that a bicycle or motorbike were the only real options for exploration. So this was for another day.

Still after a couple of nights wilding at the Chateau Julien plateau, just west of Villards de Lans, where autumn’s grip was already obvious, we vowed to return for a closer inspection. Until then our path south must continue and so we headed for Die.

Secluded by mammoth pines that would give Sequoia National Park in US a run for its money, we coursed our way downhill to the alluring valley below. Classically glacial, this valley on the D518 was beautiful, passing through rural villages and farmer’s fields basking in the seasonal sun. Then suddenly we approached the tunnel that I had seen on the map – would this be doable? Well we were about to find out.

I love tunnels; you enter with one perspective and then you enter and you wait; like a child at Christmas, waiting for the view to open up, like that present you’ve been poking for the last two weeks. A new vision awaits at the other end and I always feel just a little excited. Well we were not expecting this vista. Our route up until then had been straight as a die (excusing the Die pun!!), that was until we reached the Col de Rousset and that tunnel. Coming out into the light, we were greeted by the most magnificent view – yes I nearly cried! What a dreamboat of a view that was. Suddenly it was like being back on the Stelvio Pass in Italy, which we had mastered only a few weeks earlier. Twists, turns, corners and switch backs where our challenge and a descent of 700m in a matter of minutes. And it was like there was an invisible curtain that, once through the tunnel, drew back to show this new landscape, which rugged design was home to hundreds of vultures. They soared in their flocks above us, enjoying the thermals that kept their lofty view of the dots beneath them. Oh wow, I was in heaven. With rock faces that had more layers than a Christmas cake, you could see clearly how geology and history had played their part in this amazing region of France. Imagine the ancient legacy held within those stratum.

Die gave us a lovely stopover for lunch where, with a serviced, free Aire, it offered us the perfect opportunity to have a quick skeet at this surprisingly authentic and non-commercial town. We’d not seen anything industrial since Grenoble – what a joy that was.  Yet the most interesting landscape change was that we had noticeably entered into northern Provence, evidenced by the abundant lavender fields that were beginning to grace the land.  And even though they had been harvested months ago, there was still a purple and mint hew that draped over the valley. Oh how I love Provence and we know in our hearts that we only skimmed the surface of this region of France although return we surely shall.

Check out our Gallery below to get a feel for this regal limestone region that will test your driving skills should you choose to do the balcony roads.

Cevennes National Park – The many faces of Cevennes 

Our route; Gumiane to Portes, Mont Aiguoal and La Couvertoirade;  345km (about 200 miles).

The third of our Parks held a mystery and a diversity that we had not seen in our other two Parks.  The Cevennes fall in the catchment area of three different French regions; Rhône-Alps to the east, Languedoc-Rousillon to the south and Auvergne to the north and it is almost as if each area brings its own unique character to the party. With part of its personality coming from the Massif Central in the north and the limestone Causses to the south, this area is impressive.

As we left our wild overnight spot at Portes’ castle, it felt like were entering Narnia – the deeper we drove the more wild it became, with seemingly one road in and one road out. We wound gently around the mountains with horsechesnut trees as our cheerleaders – wow this is seriously conker heaven. Thousands of them in their spiky cases just waiting to drop their loads. Autumn is just such a fab time to visit this region as the oak, chestnut and beach trees start to dress in their golden colours. 

Our destination, after leaving our castle retreat was Pont de Montvert, which is at the foot of the highest mountain in the Park, Mont Lozère that reaches a moderate 1700m. Hiking is good in this area and so is simply enjoying the village’s quiet, rural vibe. It’s certainly worth a stop and there is an 80 place car parking area suitable for campers on the hill which is easy enough to get to.  Famous for receiving the 2018 Tour de France and also being a stopping point for Robert Louis Stevenson who travelled this route with his donkey. This village is worth checking out. 

The one thing about the Cevennes that struck us most is how the landscape changed every 30 minutes. Around one mountain you have tightly forested routes with the occasional glimpse of the mountain’s sumptuous curves. And then around the next corner, suddenly everything opens up and you find yourself in a granite gorge carved by the Tarn river. Purple heather dots the ground offering a break from the relentless, yet beautiful greenery and white outcrops of solid limestone rock dominantly rise up through the earth creating a punctured vista that is definitely not man-made.

The roads course through the terrain with just the odd rural village hanging in the middle of nowhere with its obligatory and oversized. church. Vultures soar way up on the thermals looking down at the tiny images beneath them and goats and cattle treat the roads as if they are their very own.

Heading up to Mont Aiguoal and the France Meteo Observatory for our next overnight stop was a total joy. The vista was a 360 degree panorama with sunsets and sunrises to die for. With a blend of Yorkshire Moors and the Grand Canyon, it feeds all your senses and for us felt like a magical experience.

To top it all off, the Cevennes stakes claim to no less than seven Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Although some might argue that a number of them are not truly in the heart of the Park, let’s not get into the semantics of geography. We managed to squeeze in two of the villages whilst on our passage through the region; Aigueze on the eastern fringes and La Couvertoirade on the south west tip of the Park. Both are, as always, steeped in history and in particular La Couvertoirade is unique because of its windmill and its tale of the Knights Templar who built the 12th century castle which now protects this little maze of cobbled streets within its citadel walls. This is on our top 10 of our 32 visited so far.

So the Cevennes Natural Park has something for everyone; ornithologists, outdoor lovers, geologists and photographers. Simply just driving around the mountains and through the gorges will seriously entertain you over a couple of days.

Check out our gallery of images of this lovely area.

So three very different and yet beautiful Natural Parks that are just calling out to be explored. With few tourists and the most rural perspective of France imaginable, taking the road less travelled will enrich your experiences beyond doubt.

 

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10 Secrets of Slovakia

10 Secrets of Slovakia

After the joys of 7 weeks in Poland, we entered Slovakia with curiosity – our second country this year that we knew so little about. We were looking forward to the secrets we would uncover about this off-our-radar country. And after Poland, would it live up to our profound experiences there? We have come to learn though that we never judge one country against another, as this is such a futile exercise. Each place has its own treasures, character and identity and as responsible travellers, it is important that we honour their uniqueness and not compare them, as somehow in that comparison we loose the real joys of the place we are discovering. “Seek and you shall receive”, I think is how the quote goes.

So with intrigue as our driver we looked forward to what Slovakia would teach us, share with us and how it would enrich us. We knew that three weeks was too little time to do it justice, although not every country can be a road-trip like Poland has been. So what greater surprise than to have day upon day of beautiful gifts from this very special little country.

Divorced formed from the former Czechoslovakia on 1 January 1993, Slovakia enters the book for one of the youngest countries in the world. Unlike some other countries we have visited, who seem to make it a primary goal to create a unique identity and demand a place on the world’s stage, Slovakia seems very different. There is a very gentle energy about this place that seems to float on by regardless of what they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. Speaking to the locals, there are political frustrations just like anywhere else, although as a visitor we glided over these issues and succumbed to its natural charms.

One village after another drew us in – to their churches, their old town icons and their castles. I never seen so many castles, churches and chapel as we have here. Every sight on Slovakia’s horizon seems to be shaped by a spire, partnered in harmony by the romance of gently rolling hills, mountains and secret gateways that reveal something significant about the country’s legacy.  Here we share some of our finds, that undoubtedly will have us returning to this fabulous land for many more adventures. We hope we can whet your appetite to the secrets that Slovakia holds close to her chest.

Check out our Interactive route map below.

 

Secret 1 – Slovakia’s High Tatras – cycling and hiking paradise

Forming the highest point of the Carpathian Mountains that stretch from Czech Republic to Romania, Slovakia’s High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) are magnificent creatures. Creating a natural border between Slovakia and neighbouring Poland, these impressive peaks reach a whopping 2,655m at Gerlach Peak and have been part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1993. One of Slovakia’s iconic symbols is Mount Kriváň which, due to its angular shape, has been voted the favourite by nature lovers and is said to be a mountain that every Slovak should climb at least once in his life.

If you love the outdoors, then the High Tatra National Park will sink firmly into your affections; with its crystal mountain lakes, abundant hiking and cycle routes, rare flora and fauna, waterfalls and general majestic beauty. Whether you choose to put on your walking boots or take a cable car to the Lomincky štít at a mere 2,534m, you will gasp at this beautiful landscape which must have been designed by one hell of an artist given its texture, colours, shapes and subtle mountain melodies. We found two very special places; one was a bit more touristy although the second we had pretty much all to ourselves.

Lomicky štít Cable Car    

Parking at Tatranská Lomnica where there is a massive free car park (suitable for overnight parking if you have a camper) you can get access to the three stations that take you up to Lomnica Peak. Now there are a couple of options; either ascend energetically with one of the most challenging hikes we have undertaken, or enjoy the view and give your lungs a good rest by riding in the somewhat expensive cable car.

We chose to hike up to the first level – Lomnicky Štart and then took a one-way cable car to Skalnaté Pleso which reaches 1751m, with an eye watering €12pp price tag (there is also a €2pp deposit on your GoPass card, which is refunded on its return to the ticket desk.) This is a stunning spot just to grab a coffee or beer, hike around for a bit or take the next cable car up to the Lomincky peak itself.  This has the reputation of being the steepest cable car in Europe and rewards you with stunning views. Sadly it was too windy the day we visited and if we’re truly honest, Myles’ vertigo put paid to this adventure.

Crazy fools that we are, we decided to walk down the 1300m descent over three miles!!!! NEVER again. My toe nails are still bruised. It was a really tough descent even with decent walking boots, so needless to say we took the cable cable car back along the final section to the finish line. Albeit another €24 worse off our feet were eternally grateful.  This area is a fabulous place to explore with some terrific hiking and even better skiing if you love winter sports. Here’s a useful link to help you make the most of your trip here.

Podbanksé – Heaven in Slovakia

Just a mere 40 minutes drive away as we flirted with the Tatra’s skirt tails, we reached Podbankse, which after the tourist crowds of the other resorts we passed along the way, is a fine treat. The only visitors here are those who are keen on serious hiking and cycling. The car park is another great spot for overnighting – we had two nights here and filled up with water from the mountain stream.  It is an outdoor pursuits Mecca with peace and tranquility as your only companions. We would love to have reported sights of bears or chamois although alas not on this trip.

Podbanksé is the farthest west settlement of these Tatra treasures and in itself has plenty of history; from 15th century mining to partisan activity during the Slovak Uprising in 1944. Although people com here to enjoy the natural beauty of this area, as the river Balá courses its way down from the mountains offering, in spring rafting opportunities we’re sure. In the height of summer, boulders and water combine to make for a picturesque vision of mountain loveliness. And here you have the wonderful view of Slovakia’s iconic, angular mountain Krivan, which is a symbol of Slovakia freedom. It is said that every Slovak must climb this iconic giant at least once in his life.  

Gallery of Tatra images

Click on any one of the images below to see what we captured of these amazing mountains.

 

Secret 2 – Kezmarok

Driven by a primal need for food supplies and in truth a bit of the red stuff, we googled our nearest supermarket. Kezmarkok jumped up on our search with a Tescos and Lidl and only 15. minutes drive away from Tatranksy Lomnicka. Happy days. It just so happened to have a UNESCO wooden church, so had to be worth a wander.

Shopping done and a coffee calling, we took a walk through this charming town, which with its cobbled streets, ancient Stone Age history and Renaissance merchant houses that create a picturesque alleyway, we were convinced that there were a few tales to tell here. One of which is its flax weaving and linen manufacture which is said to have attracted customers as far south as Greece and Albania. The castle dating back to 1400s is a beautiful sight and rounds off a well-deserved diversion to this charming village as you continue your Slovak travels.

Secret 3 – Spisske Podhradie – castles, chapels and geysers

With a short hop, skip and jump on a deserted motorway, we headed east towards the region of Spiš famed for its 10 acre fortress castle, picturesque town and chapel monuments. We started off with a lunch stop over at a UNESCO church at Žehra and then when the crowds had left the popular Spišsky Castle, we tootled up there for an overnight stay. The castle is known to be the largest compound in Europe and is on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. As we approached this regal, travertine rock, we could see it rise from the earth in some sort of geological phenomenon, offering the viewer so many different faces depending upon the position of the sun. Come the darkness, it provides a completely different view with its night lights shining as a beacon to the local neighbourhood reminding them of its prominent stature.

Dating back to 12th century, Spišsky Castle was originally a fort that was used as defence against a Hungarian feud at the time. After a fire in 1700s nearly destroyed its structure, it has taken serious preservation works since 1970 to conserve its legacy. It stands as a reminder of history, yet today whilst tales of the past play a part in its modern identity, concerts and plays are the greatest centrepiece of these fine ramparts.  You can enter the castle €8pp.

Spišsky Podhradie

One of the nicest perspectives of the castle is from the town bearing its name ‘Below the castle’. This colourful, tree-lined town creates an atmospheric foreground to the castle and frames this whole scene beautifully, making it, for me, an iconic image of Slovakia.

 

Just a short drive up through the town there is an almost missable vista. The church walls invited us in to its protective embrace and we found yet another magnificent portal to the castle and town below. The street with its kaleidoscope buildings gave us a real ‘back in time’ feel and it was mesmerising to just stand and contemplate the conversations from generations gone by.

 

And if you think that this Spišsky treat is complete, then continue driving not more than 10 minutes through the winding roads westbound and you will come across another geological wonder at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The Siva Brada geyser and the chapel are an unexpected surprise and although the chapel itself is rarely open, seeing the thermal activity on the top of the hill creates a whole new story. As you climb down the hill, there is a mini geyser with its calcium surroundings and travertine rock that tell a tale of natural springs and thermal activity that I never expected to see in Slovakia. In fact since Slovakia joined the Schengen Zone, it has put the country on the SPA map and now there are over 20 resorts around the country that optimise the healing and mineral properties that lurk beneath the surface of this magnificent landscape.

Gallery

Check out our photo gallery by clicking on the image below and scrolling through.

Secret 4 – Levoča UNESCO village

After the joys of the Spiš region, we stumbled upon the delights of yet another UNESCO site – Levoča. Slovakia is simply teeming with ancient sites worthy of this honourable badge. Parked up outside the castle walls, we found ourselves drawn into the heart of the citadel protecting its residents from the enemy looking to penetrate its fortress. And as we strolled around this charming town, we were treated to what has become a symbol of Slovak culture, colour! Every building a different shade almost as if their communist suppression has driven them to stand firm against the conformity of greyness and shout out from the rooftops about their uniqueness and individuality. It feels like such a trademark of these eastern European countries and we love it.

 

In addition to its colour, Levoča is known for its renaissance buildings and in the Gothic church you will find the tallest wooden alter in Europe. With a colourful history to match its building facades, Levoča lays claim to fires, Papal visits and a resurgence in interest in its historical artefacts. Today it is a loved and honoured as part of the UNESCO family and is very worthy of a visit.

 

 

Secret 5 – Paradise National Park – Hikes and Adventure

After some research we found a bit of gorgeous greenery on the map and when we delved a bit further it became apparent that this was a hiker’s paradise. Both in name and spirit, the Paradise National Park just south of Poprad was going to offer us a stunning couple of days and the most challenging walk we have ever done.

Entering the Park gates, we felt an air of anticipation fuelled by friends who had confirmed that this was indeed an area of outstanding beautiful and treks through the gorges that would seriously test Myles’ vertigo. Based in Camping Podlesok right in the heart of the Park, we had walks directly from the campsite and looking at the number of vehicles in the car park, we knew the popularity of this place must say something about its splendour. We had been advised to do the Prielom Hornádu walk, which by all accounts was the easiest of the gorge walks. The pictures we saw on the internet showed us images of wooden ladders scaling tall waterfalls and metals steps spiralling around  rock faces. The easy route would be much appreciated for us to cut our teeth. After a €2 Park entrance fee, which gave you Emergency numbers and contributed to Rescue Insurance, we were a little perturbed, although never shy of a challenge, we forged ahead.

The walk was nothing less than stunning although it took us to the edge of our comfort zone and in truth, probably a little on the other side of fear. With sheer rock faces that had to be navigated by rickety iron steps and chains we knew that we would be tested both physically and mentally. After four miles of following the gorge we arrived at the cafe bar at the end exhausted and yet exhilarated in some perverse way. And we had another four miles to return home, although at least this was through a meadow that was flat and dry. This was an experience that defied the term walk – it was a trek that from a health and safety point of view, in England would never have been allowed without hard hat, harnesses and ropes. Still it was a thrill and an achievement. Check out this gallery of pictures to get a sense of what we accomplished. I can only imagine what the other walks were like. The one was enough for us, for now!

At the southern end of the Park we found Dedinky, which lives up to its cutesy name. Mountains, lakes and relaxation it was just a delight in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This had our name on it for sure and with a wild spot for two nights, we were very reluctant to leave. We had the chance of visiting the Dobšinksá Ice Cave, which was about 15 minutes away and is one of a number of caves in the area. Although we chose not to visit; we hear that it is a bit of a hike to reach the entrance and you pay 8€ per person to enter the cave and a further €10 if you want to take any photos.

 

 

Secret 6 – Thermal Activity

We had already stumbled upon a little geyser to the north east of the country, so it intrigued us to find out whether there were more geological finds – and we were not disappointed.  Just a little way into the Low Tatras, we found Liptovsky Jan where we were in hot pursuit of natural thermal springs that were open to the public. Now we have a little experience of some of the best thermals in Tuscany, Italy when we visited the White Whale in San Filippo Bagnoni, so our expectations weren’t huge. Parked up at a very noisy Aquapark we were disappointed that perhaps we had got this completely wrong. Although with a little bit of help from Google Translate, the lady on the desk gave us directions to the natural pool just a five minute walk towards the village. And it was very sweet and indeed not quite  Tuscany, although with the backdrop of the village and the Gothic church in the background, we were glad to have seen it.

 

 

 

Secret 7 – Vlkolinec UNESCO village

If you want to jump back in time, then Vokolinec is the place to go. Devoid of tourists, this central Slovakian village has around 50 buildings that date back over 700 years. It is the most in-tact settlement of the region and is typical of this mountain area. The village is still a thriving community and for a mere €2 each we wandered around the cobbled streets marvelling at these liquorice all-sort buildings. With stone bottoms and wood tops, these characterful buildings became protected in 1977 by the Slovak government and then in 1993 they came under the UNESCO umbrella, holding the reserve’s integrity as a folk museum. Today it also preserves the reputation for being one of the 30 most beautiful villages in Europe.

Life continues to buzz in this gorgeous mountain village that is surrounded by forested mountains. The terraced hill-sides are still farmed and with so much wood around, you can understand why this material is such an important part of their legacy. Carvings can be found all around the village from figurines to full sized bears. Their handiwork is incredible. This is a must visit place and shows a very traditional side of Slovakia.

 

 

Secret 8 – Špania Dolina for its mineral mines

Heading south from Vlkolinec towards Banksa Bystrica, it would be easy to miss a little cluster of houses that form an old mining village way up in the mountains. Špania Dolina is most definitely not on the tourist trail and if you visit this hamlet, you will be rubbing shoulders only with the locals who still go about their mountain lives with the dedication that history has passed down through the decades. The origins of Špania are not completely known, although it is thought that copper was mined here as far back as 2000BC. In fact in years gone by, this tiny, seemingly insignificant community was renowned as the Copper Metropolis of Europe. Although after centuries of mineral extraction by the 800 miners, the area closed its doors in 1888.
Reminders of their mining past are dotted around in memorials and it is clear to see the mining influence in the houses that are built around the main square and up the mountain valley. Hikes around the slag heaps create a great view of the village that is hidden amongst the mountain undulations and a couple of hours will easily be filled as you take on the ghosts of Špania’s sons, fathers and uncles.
If you take a walk through the summer season, you will be struck by the number of plum trees that border the streets, hills and valleys. Špania might well be on the map for its rich minerals although today’s gold is in their plum jam. And its easy to see why.
Check out our Gallery by clicking the image below.

 

Secret 9 – Banksa Štiavnica and a collapsed volcano

Driven by a desire to 1) leave the rather commercial looking Banksa Bystrica and 2) head for the mountains that lured us towards their lofty appeal, Banksa Štiavnica was our next magnetising factor. Little known and little visited, this is yet another wealthy mining town that has evidence of settlement dating back to the 3rd century BC. More recently though, this now Slovak town used to be nestled underneath the Kingdom of Hungary’s wing and in 1838 it held royal status.  Banksa Štiavnica was ahead of its time on the European mining stage as it was one of the first to use gunpowder to extract its sliver ore.
This medieval town is unique in its personality and design as it sits in the basin of a collapsed and ancient volcano from the Stiavnica Mountains. It’s not until you walk up to the top of the town that you get a sense of its volcanic status. The town carved around its sides, hugging the mineral rich walls that created its silver ore mining industry.
Walking up the atmospheric main street there is an elegance to the buildings that line the cobbled street and we found ourselves drawn towards the old town square with its monument and ancient castle casting a shadow over its subjects. With giant church spires, protective  castle walls and monuments erected to honour those who died with the plague, you would underestimate this town at your peril. Time to wander is essential in this charming town, that for us felt far more authentic that its neighbouring rival, Banksa Bystrica further north.
Check out our Gallery below.

 

Secret 10 – Bratislava capital of culture

Calling Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia a secret may sound a bit odd, although to us, it really belied its capital status and was a delightful surprise. With competition across the border in Vienna to the west and Bucharest to the south east, it is easy to miss this gorgeous and characterful city. It certainly deserves a day to wander around its atmospheric streets, to climb to the castle and watch in awe as the hotel boats navigate the fast running waters of the Danube. This city demands a little bit of respect and whilst perhaps not yet on the European stage, Bratislava will charm you. It will challenge to you think differently about capital cities and will capture a little of your heart whilst you drink its cheap beer and soak up its architectural magnificence. Check out our full blog on the city here.
And if you travel 20 minutes north you will find Devín Castle, a 13th Century beauty that whilst only ruins now, certainly gives you a flavour of its grandeur. In addition to this, you will also find the area steeped in Cold War history with memorials around the riverbank that honour the 400 people who were said to have perished here as they tried to escape the communist suppression to the freedom of Austria. It is well worth the diversion and there was a lovely spot to stay overnight just before the entrance to the car park.

 

10 Secrets to Slovakia 

So there we have it, just 10 gorgeous secrets to this incredible country that we were privileged to call home for a mere three weeks. There is so much more that we have yet to discover and we will, without doubt, return to uncover more of its simple yet wonderful treasures. In the meantime we hope that perhaps we have whetted your appetite just a little with our Slovak revelations and that it entices you to find your own secrets and put Slovakia firmly on your favourite’s list.

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Stelvio Pass – Bucket List Drive

Stelvio Pass – Bucket List Drive

Stelvio Pass, Italy – are you game for the ride of your life that gets your heart pumping, your legs wobbling and your eyes bulging with all the incredible scenery? A ride that takes you from the edge of your seat to the edge of fear – and back again.

We had the Stelvio Pass in our sights from the outset of our ‘life on the road’, as we were driven by living beyond our fear. Although for all sorts of reasons, it didn’t happen. Then we had the chance to drive the Transfagarasan Pass, which was soon followed up by the outstanding TransAlpin Route, both in Romania. And what a thrill they both were. So what could beat that experience, especially when the Transfag has been voted ‘the best’ by UK’s ultimate petrol-heads from the Top Gear team?

After crossing through Austria and having to by-pass the Großglockner route because of the threat of 15cm of white stuff, we found ourselves in the Dolomites in Italy. We’ve seen these majestic peaks, with their angular spikes towering over the Venetian region, many a time, so to actually be driving within them was just magical. With scenery looking akin to a Canadian tourist brochure, we were totally wowed by the whole region. Although yet again the weather dampened our spirits, quite literally – low cloud and drizzle meant that any exploration had to be in our dreams – for now it just wasn’t meant to be.

That was until we woke up to clear blue skies after a fabulous wild spot at Cinque Torri cable car, (46.51894, 12.03837). In a flash we had changed our plans and in a fit of child-like giddiness, decided to hit the road and head to Stelvio Pass. It was only four hours away after all! A piece of cake.

Click on the image below to see some of our favourite pictures…

After plenty of ooh’s and ahh’s around every corner, we wondered how on earth we could beat this drive on the Falzarego and Gardena Passes. Although Stelvio is one of those Bucket List places, especially if you seek memorable and adrenalin pumping experience. So onward we drove, past Bolzano – famous for its capital status of the southern Tyrol region and home to the infamous ‘Iceman’ Ötzi – a Neolithic mummy. Heading north, the valley transforms; its angular construction morphs into a more undulating spectacle, with the mountains crocheted with acres of vineyards and patchwork apple orchards. In September to see the fruit literally dripping from the tiny trees is almost as iconic as the Tuscan grape vineyards further south. Every 100m we found a road-side seller enticing us to stop and take the ‘red apple’. Tempting as it was, it was not food we craved – it was the secret hidden within the heart of those towering giants who beckoned us.

Within only 90 minutes and around 50 miles from Bolzano we soon started to see the famous brown signs that told us all we needed to know – Stelvio was coming!

With thirty thousand devices at the ready to record our adventure, we entered the Stelvio Park. At first we were greeted by pine clad forests, sweeping roads and alpine villages that perch over the ice-blue river, which courses its way from the upper glaciers. Little did we know what lay ahead. Slowly we climbed and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves – until the wiggles began. They were gentle at first and then they became steeper, tighter and more heart-pumping. 48 switchback bends awaited us for our uphill trek and for the first 10 or so it was exhilarating. Yet soon they became more challenging and our strings became tighter and the air a little more blue as expletives of disbelief became common-place. Our fear, for now was being silenced by the adrenaline rush of the adventure.

The picture-postcard perfection filled our windscreen – snow capped mountains looming large in front of us, so close we could almost touch them and feel their chill. For a moment the Dolomites became a distant memory as we became hypnotised by Stelvio’s beauty.  At bend 31 (which at the time we hadn’t actually clocked meant there were still another 30 to go) we stopped for some lunch. With legs a little like jelly after navigating 19, 180 degree bends, we took a breather and enjoyed the scenery.  This spot would have made a fantastic place to overnight with our camper and whilst the view was seriously winning the battle to make us stay, Myles was keen to get towards the top – which, after all was only 5 miles away. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing that motivated us to continue was a German outfit that parked up next to us whilst we were having lunch. A guy poised with his camera stood as if in wait for someone or something – and of all the things we could have anticipated – UNICYCLES would not have been one of them. Really? Yes seriously, two guys were in training and cycled all the way up the top of the Stelvio Pass, all 50 odd switch backs on UNICYCLES. Are they mad?  I couldn’t imagine doing that on a bicycle let alone a Unicycle. All praise to them.

With just a bit of fuel inside our bellies we carried on and it didn’t take very many more bends to reveal the truth behind the mere 5 mile challenge. The stark realisation was that the snake-like bends ahead of us formed the vertical route we HAD to drive up. For a second we did think about turning around, as we had already had a little scrape on the back skirt, although we had come this far – we were not about to stop.

One bend at a time. Me craning my neck to see descending traffic and Myles, with the strength of an ox and steely determination, driving wide; first gear, slowly does it, pathway clear, gentle acceleration – another bend successfully completed.

I’ll be honest, at this point, our experiences of Romania’s Transfagarasan Pass seemed like child’s play – this was so much more of a stretching and challenging drive. Not that we like to compare, although this road was more technical. So, sorry Top Gear boys – we think Stelvio beats Transfag hands down for pure driving skill.

Whilst neither of us said it out loud, I think our fear took over our excitement at this point and whilst it was thrilling, the switchbacks are relentless and they test you as driver and a navigator. I think above all it is the traffic that causes as much of an issue as anything; cyclists, buses, sports cars, motorbikes all buzzing around you and with a rig that is 7.5m long, our need to take a wide course was imperative. Still we did it and we would not have missed the experience – it really made us feel alive.

Reaching our summit spot for the night was both a relief and a highlight as we gazed in disbelief down the valley to see the path we travelled.  It is a vision that made me feel proud; proud of Myles’ skill, proud of my calmness, and proud of sticking with it. It was one of our greatest accomplishments since we took to the road. And the reward was heart-filling. With glaciers at eye-line level, chunky marmots playing in the late afternoon sun and choughs flying past our window, we forgave ourselves for feeling just a little smug. It took an hour or so to calm down, although with a ‘home’ like this we soon relaxed into it.

Check out our video footage of this crazy experience by clicking the video below….

 

Given the ascent, we knew we still had to get down! Would that be as hairy we wondered? To be on the safe side, we decided to head out early, yet despite this there was still plenty of traffic around. I had read that the ‘other side’ was grey and boring in comparison – well take it from me – do not listen to that crazy notion. It is different that is for sure although boring, NO WAY.

The roads are more sweeping and the bends much easier to handle with plenty of places to stop for pictures. As we flirted with the Swiss border, we did, for a moment consider turning right into the Swiss National Park, although we wanted to say that we had ‘done’ Stelvio, in all its glory. We were treated to the most amazing waterfalls, the sight of marmots up close and tunnels that were, at times, just a little challenging. We loved the trip down and for us both it was a much more relaxed affair, where we could enjoy the scenery without such an intense feeling. After an hour we found ourselves in Bormio and we were soon on our way towards to the Italian lakes. And whilst our experience of Stelvio was now officially complete, the van was intact, as were our nerves, I felt just a little sad. I was sad because Stelvio is an onslaught of the senses and with 60 or so switchbacks, often our need to concentrate overtook our ability to absorb our surroundings. So I would love to do it again to really soak up the experience.  Still we have done it – I’m so thrilled that we did it and would definitely recommend it.

Here are some facts and tips for making your Stelvio memorable, for all the right reasons.

Did you know…

  • The Stelvio Pass is almost 200 years old?
  • It was constructed by an Austrian Emperor who wanted to join the valley to his homeland.
  • It is pretty much unchanged since that time.
  • It reaches over 2,700m high and is 31 miles long – 49km.
  • There are around 60 hairpin bends and 6 tunnels (although we lost count of the switchbacks after 20 as we were concentrating too much.)
  • For 2 days at the end of August/beginning of September the route is closed to the public, allowing only cyclist to use the road. Do check the exact dates before heading this way.
  • Even Sterling Moss, the greatest driver in the world, got into difficulties’ whilst travelling Stelvio.
  • Stelvio may not be the most dangerous, although it is the highest paved road in the Eastern Alps.
  • Unlike the Großglockner Pass in Austria’s Tyrol mountains, there is no toll road fee. Enjoy it free of charge – except for the energy you will expend in concentration and the petrol you will consume!

 

Tips for making your own Bucket List trip…

  • We suggest to be kind to your breaks that you do the route from the northern edge from Balzano south to Bormio. It is far easier to navigate the switchbacks uphill.
  • Whilst the route is open from May to September, always check the weather before undertaking the journey as unseasonal conditions can affect the area.
  • The 31 miles will take you around 3 hours to negotiate, so time it right if you need to do it in one day.
  • We recommend if travelling with a camper that you take two days and find one of the amazing wild spots to stay overnight. The light of the sunset and sunrise is magical.
  • Avoid the road during the high season; July and August, especially the  weekends as the volume of traffic will undoubtedly impact on the whole experience.
  • Travel early or late if you want to minimise the traffic element of your drive. Whilst there are still plenty of people on the road, we certainly encountered less buses in the morning run.
  • For more information check this website out.
  • It might sound strange, although it is worth checking your brake pads especially if you are travelling in a camper and intend to go south to north from Bormio. No harm in checking all is well. You do not want to be half way down and finding your pads are thinning.
  • If you are taking a camper whilst small buses do bomb up and down, we agreed that anything over 8m would be more of a stretch on this road and if you have a trailer, we suggest finding a campsite and leaving it behind.

We totally loved this road, as we look back. Whilst we were in the moment it was one of the most difficult drives we have ever done, the thrill and aliveness you feel whilst doing it make it completely worth it.  Safe travels for your bucket list ride.

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