Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, an unassuming name on France’s map that looks like any other of its neighbours. Yet this innocuous village bears deep scars that speak a thousand words of horror.  It is a story that needs to continually be told so that memories of Oradour’s families can be kept alive and honoured.

On our pilgrimage to connect with Europe’s World War history, we have travelled east to Treblinka in Poland, south to Bovec in Slovenia and Kalavrita in Greece and west to the harrowing region of Ypres, Verdun and the cemeteries of northern France. So when Myles said he wanted to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, it made perfect sense. I have heard others talk about their visits to this village, ravaged by war, although had no idea about its history or what we could expect there.  One thing was for sure, our experience would undoubtedly be moving if our other commemorative visitations were anything to go by. 

From memorial stones and razed killing fields to the profound and stark images created by the Birkenau railway just west of Krakow. What would our souls be called to learn at this little-known village in central France?  Check out our memorial visits on this interactive map.

 

 

Our visit to Oradour-sur-Glane

It seemed fitting that our visit to Oradour coincided with All Saint’s Day –  1 November. An important day on the Religious calendar when the dead are remembered and celebrated. What a symbolic day to be visiting a memorial site where a village fell to its knees, at the mercy of an army set on retribution and annihilation.  

As we drove into the village of Oradour-sur-Glane just north west of Limoges, it was clear from the map that there were a large number of cemeteries around the outskirts. Nothing necessarily unusual about that per se. They were sheltered from the road by trees to create some privacy for those buried there. Yet the grim reality soon stood out, as this village turned from a name on Google Maps to a village martyr.  Separated from the new village by a road and underground walkway, the ruins of an entire community lay bare as we drove past in mesmerised silence. Only one expletive uttered from our mouths, which was one of incredulity. Oh my god! 

Parked up opposite the ghost village, images went through my mind about what unfolded here and, more importantly why. A story that would not really become any clearer as we entered the commemorative arena, built by its modern day citizens. 

The first thing that struck us as we walked to the entrance was a 100ft statue. A monument of a woman being engulfed by flames. Engraved words triggered the beginning of a story that we knew would not have a happy ending. The events that unfolded on 10th June 1944, told simply by this statue, began our Oradour journey. 

‘Ici des hommes firent a leurs meres et a toutes les femmes, les plus grave injure. 

Ils n’epargnerent pas les enfants.’

‘Here men made to their mothers and all women the most serious insult  – they did not spare the children.’

As we walked across a flat tarmac pavement towards the Oradour village plaque, we were taken down some steps generating a surreal feeling of going into another world.  Underneath the ground a shop, a ticket desk and a museum greet you giving you options. Turn right into the museum where upon you pay 2€. Or go straight on towards the ruined village, which is free to enter. As we had been travelling all day we only had time to do one or another, so we chose to visit the village, where we knew we would feel the soul of the place.

Through a dark tunnel, adding to the atmosphere of Oradour’s tale, we were presented with a photographic project that the community is still working on. Their aim is to collect pictures of every single inhabitant of this tortured village and honour them on this Remembrance Wall. And so like our experiences at Auschwitz, seeing the faces of young and old made the whole experience more real and poignant. This was no longer a story, or movie to immerse ourselves in – this was real life. This was a moment in time of people’s lives, captured by these images.

I felt my heart skip a beat as I saw families; generations of mothers, brothers, fathers, aunts and grandparents, dads and sons all lined up on both sides of the tunnel. The eldest I saw was 81 and the youngest just 2 months old. This truly set the scene for what were about to witness. 

Returning to the surface, the cleverly created tunnel that protects the village, really transports you from the new to the old. Streets in tact with pavements and electric cables for the tram that travelled through the beating heart of this place. Yet then the stark reality dawned on us as we saw the fire torn buildings, with chard rubble strewn where the rugs would have lain. Rusted shutters at the windows that now just let the wind course its way through. Signs for the garage, the café, the boulangerie, the sabot maker and the coiffure.  And the faint yet distinct smell of smoke still hung in the air making the massacre all the more real. The walls vibrating with the sobs of scared children looking to their mothers for answers. Fear trodden into the dust that has settled between the buildings holding secrets of their death. 

So what events unfolded here to create such a travesty?

 

Oradour’s Massacre – the why’s

There is some ambiguity about the reason for this insane massacre on a peaceful village where children played on their bicycles and cafés bustled with war-time stories. Because only 6 people survived and the commander who order the attack died days after, the real justification for this attack has many shades of truth. The definitive reason may remain buried beneath the rubble with the muffled screams of those who perished.

One of the suggestions was that it was retribution for the capture of a German officer. Another that it was because of Resistance activity centred at the village. Or that it was simply German frustration over the D-Day landings that occurred just four days earlier.

The why’s are tough for us as we try to get our heads around such atrocities. Yet however you look at it, the reason for this act of terror can never be settled in any sane mind. What seems more poignant is the unfolding of events on that day in June 1944. A mere 74 years ago, where 24 hours saw terror run through this community leaving only the echo of the victims’ screams for mercy.

200 Nazis stormed the village on 10th June where upon they rounded up the community. Women and children were taken to the church and men and boys over 15 were gathered, ostensibly for the purpose of an identity check and a  search for explosives and weapons. Those held captive in the church, after a failed attempt to gas them, were shot and then set alight. The men were separated into 6 groups and taken to different barns, where upon they were shot from the knees down. Only intending to wound and prevent escape, the Nazis then covered them in straw and wood and set them on fire, left to die the most horrific death. 

Then they burnt the whole village, looted homes and businesses and left without any explanation. The Nazi troops  headed up to Normandy to join the fight against Allied troops from the D-Day landings. In Devine retribution, many of those soldiers and the Nazi commander Diekmann, who ordered the massacre were killed and in a cruel twist of fate never brought to justice. 

 

Oradour’s memory

Some time after the massacre and whilst the smoke still rose to the sky, French President, Charles de Gaulle ordered the village remains to be left as a memorial. To honour one of the biggest massacres on French soil, Oradour would serve as a reminder of the atrocities, the victims and the horror. Only 6 people survived; 642 were brutally murdered, including 205 children and each and every one will be remembered by generations to come. To walk in the footsteps of their terrified souls as they were led to their deaths is a surreal and sobering act. And if you are in the area, a visit to this village martyr to pay your respects is a must.

Whilst it seems the world has not learned its lesson, we can only hope that memorial sites like Oradour serve to remind us of the importance of kindness, love and respect. 

Check out our Gallery of photos from our current World War visit by clicking the image below.

 

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Other War Memorial posts you might like to read….

New Zealand – The trip that Changed our Lives

New Zealand – The trip that Changed our Lives

New Zealand 2015 – a trip that unwittingly shaped our lives into one we never need to escape from.

 

New Zealand – Our ‘where it all began’ story

The years have treated us well and we often look in the mirror and gasp at where the years have gone – nearly 30 years married – really? Where did that time go?  In October 2014, we started to plan a celebratory trip for our 25th Wedding Anniversary and decided it was a significant milestone to tick something from our Bucket List. And New Zealand was on both of our lists. After some deliberation, we agreed that the best way to experience it was to hire a motorhome, enabling us to get into the real heart of the place.

We splashed out on a six week tour and hired our van from Iconic Motorhomes. After years of running three businesses, having 12 hour days and working 7 days a week for far too many years, we agreed we were worth it.  With my love for organisation we had ourselves a rough route and highlights. One of these were tickets for ICC Cricket World Cup in Wellington and, high on the list was a White Water Rafting adventure somewhere along the line.  What a great trip this was going to be.  One of my dear friends, the wise old bird that she is, said that New Zealand would have a profound impact on us – although we were not expecting her prophecy to evolve as it did.

Our Business Class Flight to New Zealand

Prior to us leaving for our trip, I shared some concerns about how we would cope for such a long time in a 7 metre van. We had 25 years together as a couple yet with a certain amount of independence thanks to our careers – and now, suddenly we’d be in each other’s space – how would we fare? Would my high maintenance tendencies be all too much to bear?

After our 24hr flight to Auckland and then onto Christchurch, we were ready to collect our temporary home – Baz we called him.  We loved the idea of travelling with our home, allowing us to explore every nook and cranny. A bit of wild camping was on the agenda too and thanks to a great freebie app CamperMate we were able to source some incredible spots along the way.

That sense of freedom was as potent as the fields of lavender in Provence; powerful, heady and very here and now. A real sense of the canary released from its cage as it flew with wild abandon and joy. That was how we felt in our early days as we chalked up our experiences.

And some of those experiences are now priceless memories, sunk deep into our subconscious photo album. I will never forget my first sight of Lake Tekapo en route to Queenstown. The colour of the water was indescribably blue, a blue that I’d never set eyes on before. And it was one of the first times I remember crying, feeling so overwhelmed at the beauty of it. Now I use my tears as a true measure of how a place feels to me and how its beauty gets caught underneath my skin.

 

Our Business Class Flight to New Zealand
Our Business Class Flight to New Zealand

As we sat in comfort in our motorhome, we were amazed by the eclectic mix of campers. Motorhomes like ours, vans, trucks and cars – each with their own home-from-home touches, albeit sometimes a bit rustic. Camping is just a way of life here for locals and visitors alike and it was starting to stir something deep within us. I loved the wildness of everyone ‘getting away from it all’ and how we all shared a love of our natural environment. And sometimes those campers had a real influence on our journey because of their stories. And sometimes they became life-long friends. 

Seeing how people travelled in New Zealand was a complete eye-opener. Sheltered from the opportunity to travel by our corporate hamster-wheel, we learnt how life outside package tours really thrives. And more importantly travel provides an authentic connection with life, nature and culture. Don’t get me wrong we had some very nice short breaks although nothing with a genuine submersion into a country’s customs. And our motorhome journey exposed us to this connection and we were hooked. I knew that our holidays, from this point forward, would change beyond all recognition.  

My other profound insight was how nourishing I found the transience of our travels. Whilst I love people and their experiences, as an introvert I also love my own company.  I remember when Myles asked me how I found our NZ trip – for me it was the freedom to move I enjoyed most. And bear in mind that this comes from the woman who always needed roots and direction. Yet this trip taught me about my love for exploration, how much I adored going to a new spot every day and the fluidity that our lives were richly abundant with.  I relished the space we found in between our connections with other travellers and, paradoxically enjoyed the distance we could create if we needed it. What a joyous realisation this was about life on the road.

Our Business Class Flight to New Zealand

And what of the ‘living in a box’ concern, I hear you ask?  Well I had no reason to worry as we soon found our groove. When you have a deep relationship, it matters not a jot whether you are in the same room or apart, you have a thread that binds you as fine as silk and as strong as metal. And whilst it wasn’t all plain sailing, our ability to work out our niggles brought us closer together. I wasn’t a nightmare and I surprised myself how easily I adapted to the small space. 

By the end though we were both ready to go home. Our six weeks had been amazing although we felt it was time to return. We often reflect back on our highlights and experiences and really do feel that we celebrated our 25 years together in style and honoured our marriage – without doubt.

 

Our Business Class Flight to New Zealand

So how did this trip change our lives?

In isolation it was easy to put our New Zealand trip into a ‘bucket list’ box and see it for what it was. Super memories and incredible experiences. Although when two weeks later, your introvert husband who had clearly been mulling things over said, “How do you fancy going travelling for a year”, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

Until that moment, life had resumed its normal rhythm.  I returned to the school where I was teaching meditation and my weekly volunteering job at the Donkey Sanctuary. Myles took to his office and had the odd game of golf. And I got back to my healthy regimes.  

It was a defining moment. The world stood still as I took in Myles’ question and contemplated the enormity of what he was suggesting. You see we had got ourselves caught up in a new hamster wheel. Whilst our move from the stress of our corporate days had to some extent ceased, we had created a new norm with a new wheel in Somerset. Whilst many of our routines were nourishing ones, we both still felt the chasm that our New Zealand trip had filled. We didn’t feel complete and we found ourselves drawn back into the Matrix of conformity, where Sundays were set aside for roast dinners and Monday-Friday norms were honoured for fear of failing our peer group expectations.

And it was New Zealand that showed us how travel could enrich our lives; its simplicity, choice and freedom all filling that gap which had crept into our lives.  New Zealand suddenly became a profound event and not the extended holiday we had imagined.

So what did we do with this realisation that our missing jigsaw piece was travel? Well our circumstances supported Myles’ ‘gap year’ plan giving us the budget to travel and get our ‘house’ in order. Then after our year we could come back to truly settle down with travel being the centre-piece of our lives. 

From that point our search began for a motorhome that would suit our needs. Yet a weird mix of excitement and fear crept into my mind as I battled with the shadow of doubt and anxiety. It felt like such a big change; letting go of so much. Was I ready to be a nomad – albeit for a year? 

My fear played havoc as ‘What if’s’ clouded my mind and storms of anxiety brewed in my heart at the prospect of leaving everything behind. Although the turning point was my mum saying how she had regretted not doing something similar with my dad years back. Her need for security and roots were so strong that she couldn’t leave. “Life is too short not to,” she said supportively.  So the decision was made in that moment – we were going to make this happen.

Within four months the van was ordered, delivered, insured and all our material ties severed. Plans were in place with military precision and checklists in every room. And on 4th March 2016, we said our goodbyes and set off for the European sunset with a year of adventure. Although neither of us said it, we wondered how we would feel after six weeks, given our New Zealand wall?

In fact it was a positive milestone, a moment of realisation. The awakening you get when suddenly you find a rhythm that you have been searching for all your life. An ease, a simplicity and a sense of happiness that filled every cell in our body.  I knew that I had found my missing jigsaw piece and that this was going to be so much more than just a gap year. In the same way that New Zealand was always more than just a holiday.

I fell in love with the simplicity of life on the road. I woke up to the notion that material things don’t define life or happiness. I connected with all the things that really brought out the best in me; like writing, photography, nature, learning about different cultures and quite simply being! Watching sunrises and sunsets, feeling grateful for each day that graced my life, gaining a new sense of purpose. We found digital work that embraced our talents and the world became brighter, lighter and multi-dimensional. Sounds became deeper and life’s experiences more meaningful as we delved into languages that were alien to us and cultures that offered us an alternative perspective.

Lots of people have called us lucky to live the life we do and for sure we feel incredibly blessed, although we have not arrived here by luck. As the famous quote from golfer Arnold Palmer says,

 The more I practise the luckier I get.

Over the years we have worked our fingers to the bone to reach a position of comfort which by its very nature has been difficult and often painful. Although our commitment to our long-term future has paid off and despite a nervous break down or two between us, we have rallied through, become stronger and more determined to be in that state of happiness and contentment. So luck is not the driver of our chariot – we are and continue to be so.

With travel as our teacher and the world as our classroom, we look back at New Zealand and all that it showed us and realise how pertinent that experience was to the rest of our lives. And however long we are blessed to do this, we will always be thankful to The Land of the Long White Cloud for creating a fire in our bellies for exploration and the inspiration to change our lives to one that we no longer need to escape from.

Change is possible, fear can be overcome and life can be the happy place that we all desire if you have vision, work hard and have the determination to turn your dreams into reality.

 

Dreams come a size too big so that we can grow into them.

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If you love New Zealand, you might like these…

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

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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