Norway – All Things Wow

Norway – All Things Wow

Simon Cowell may well have the X Factor nailed, although Norway seriously wins the Wow Factor. As the sixth largest country in Europe (although technically not in the EU) and the second longest coastline in the world, opportunity for wowing is pretty hot. In this third of our All Things Norway series, we focus our energy on sharing some of the wows we experienced on our seven week tour in 2019.  Come with us as we take you on a sensory journey that will have you reaching for the road-map.

 

Our Interactive Route Map

As we launch into what might be an overwhelming onslaught of oohs and ahhs, we thought we would initiate this blog with our Interactive Route Map. A massive map that shows every little nook and cranny we drove on, the off-the-beaten track routes we followed to avoid the masses and every single wild spot and campsite we stayed on during our seven weeks. Click below for a comprehensive and intimate peak into of every inch of our tour. 

 

I know it seems a bit crazy that in an art gallery as incredible as Norway that we only have 10 Wows. Although when, around every bend, you will have a sharp intake of breath and perhaps even have a leaky eye moment or two, then narrowing it down to 10 feels somehow appropriate. So here they are our best bits:

 

1. Abisko entry to Norway

After nearly five weeks in the sumptuous Sweden, climbing right up through its central spine, we entered into Norway from the Abisko National Park. After Sweden’s forested kingdom, Abisko gave us a gentle introduction to what we were about to experience. Imagine it being like the warm-up routine for a Michael Jackson concert. It’s a tough gig although someone has to do it right? 

After the plentiful border crossings we have navigated since we left England in March 2016, this is by far the most dramatic and stunning drive EVER. With glacial blue waters of the Torneträsk Lake to the magnificent mountains that interlace the valley like a group of giants lining up for a caber tossing competition. If you have the chance to enter Norway at this northern point, we highly  recommend it. 

By taking this route, you also get to experience Narvik’s World War 2 memorials. Just over the border crossing is one of Narvik’s 6 remembrance sites which, if you value enhancing your World War knowledge are worth visiting.  

Check out our gallery by clicking below.

 

2. Northern territory – Tromsø

Whilst we decided against going to Norway’s most northerly point at Nordkapp, a personal situation back in England graced us with the opportunity to explore the area around Tromsø. Troms is an area of mountain beauty and coastal brilliance as fjords weave their way up to Norway’s northern most city. This region is fabulous to explore both during the summer and winter. Summer with its Midnight Sun and the winter with its Northern Lights. Mountains still sprinkled with snow as the everlasting days slowly melts the white crystals. Fjords full of dolphins elegantly gliding in its waters and an outdoor playground that gives you a chance to hike, paraglide and cycle to your heart’s content. 

Tromsø is a wonderful city – and despite being compact and bijou, it’s perfect for learning about the world of Artic exploration over the centuries. 

Taking the back roads rather than the arterial E6, you wind your way around endless peninsula that hug the sides of mountains like a limpet. Places to wild camp, with Norway’s Freedom to Roam policy are  limitless, as you see quiet pull-ins for a peaceful night’s sleep. Views to take your breath away and miles of scenery that leaves you speechless. 

​Check out our gallery by clicking below.

 

3. Senja – Norway’s second largest island

Now this might sound like a secondary position although when you realise that Norway has 50,000 islands, being the second largest is not to be sneezed at. We knew nothing about Senja and had done absolutely no research. So our virginal eyes just drank in the rugged beauty that this jewel in Norway’s crown had to offer. 

Known as Norway in Miniature, Senja is a complete delight that will have you running out of adjectives. With one of Norway’s 18 Most Scenic Routes  threading itself on the western fringes of the island, this alone is good reason to visit. The Route 87 is a stunning way to take in the joys of Senja as you snake around its pathway, taking in Troll museums, staggeringly beautiful views and Viewing Platforms that leave you standing in awe. Our visit coincided with orchid season; I have never seen so many pink, purple and white blossoms lining the roads like daisies. They grow with the freedom gifted to them by this alpine-like air. Authentic fishing villages survive thanks to their community spirit as they cling to the summer’s abundance before the winter’s harsh conditions arrive. And the Ånderdalen National Park offers trekking in abundance as pathways over the mountain give you mountain goat status. Tramping through the snow-covered glaciers, you can loose yourself in an area that is as close to heaven as it is to the sea and you share it with no-one.

If you asked us to choose between the iconic Lofoten Islands and Senja, we would choose the latter with ease. Senja has all the beauty without the crowds and commerciality. Just natural beauty tucked away in a corner of Norway that is unexposed to tourists. And let’s hope it stays that way. For Senja inspirations just check out this gallery. If you’re not wow’d, then I have failed as a photographer. Check out the gallery below and let me know what you think. 

 

4. Andøya and Puffin Island

As we finally headed our way south, we decided to follow another one of Norway’s Most Scenic routes. Andøya is an odd island compared to it siblings. It has a ridge of mountains and then a plateau of flat land that, in comparison could almost be described, dare I say it as boring! Not a word you might expect to use in the same sentence as Norway, although there we go, I said it! Catching the ferry from Grylleford on Senja, we arrived at this slightly desolate island with doubts. The fishing industry at Andenes has an almost imperial feel to it with its factories waiting to welcome you. Stilted Fishermans’ huts define the town that is like the outback. I expected to see tumbleweed blowing down the deserted yet characterful colonial buildings. The Artic Terns, who have made this rich haven their home, nest in the waste ground opposite and you walk by at your peril. At least wear a hat  if you want to photograph these high pitched screechers. 

Although you come to Andøya for two reasons. One is to travel the 30 mile (51km) Scenic Route that takes you from the barren land of the north, around the mountains to the cloudberry landscape of the south. Passing by the Space Centre from where 1,2000 rockets have been launched for scientific purposes, your interested will be piqued to explore this northern facility that has been involved with NASA missions. 

The second reason is for a 158m tall island called Bleiksøya. This conical shaped isle has surfaced the water’s ceiling from deep beneath the sea on the edge of a sea abyss. This deep trench of water, so close to the land, gives rich pickings for fisherman, nature lovers and wildlife. Each working together to protect this region of abundance. As a result Andøya is THE place to come for Safari’s to get up close and personal to 80,000 puffins, sea eagles and a plethora of whales. For a mere 450NOK you can take a rib out with Sea Safari Andenes and get so close to these amazing birds and watch as the eagles swoop for their next meal. It is one of the most memorable moments of our Norway tour. 

Check out our Safari video footage.

 

5. Lofoten Isles

If researching this iconic destination doesn’t have you reaching for your route planning app, then nothing will. The marketing behind Norway’s quintessential archipelago is pitch perfect. Classic photos and dreamy descriptions will without doubt stir the excitement deep in your belly. And although I am pleased we explored the islands, our seven days was, generally speaking, an underwhelming experience. It is beautiful, with its traditional fishermens’ robus, islands connected by architecturally beautiful bridges that defy gravity and an inspiring palate of fjord colours. Although for us, with its relentless crowds (in July – what were we thinking,) and the commercial hue, coloured our experience. Too many people meant no parking for the iconic walks. Too many vehicles made narrow roads busy and difficult to navigate and an infrastructure, that for campers is solely lacking. We absolutely recommend visiting, although time it carefully to optimise your experience. For your FREE copy of our Lofoten Ebook, just click the image below.  

 

6. Engabreen Glacier – west coast

​We tend not to do too much planning when we go to a place as this just feeds our – or should I say my insatiable greed for experiencing every pin I have saved. So it wasn’t until the last moment  that we decided to take a fellow traveller’s recommendation and drive the Scenic Route Fv17 from Bodø south. Hugging the coast this road is beyond beautiful and armed with your Autopass Ferry Discount card taking the ferries that link the fingers of this rugged fjord designed coastline is an adventure all by itself. In fact so beautiful was it, that we had to turn off the road as we felt emotionally drained by the almost incessant beauty. I know, it’s a pretty good problem to have right? Although we were a bit wowed out at this point. Not before though we had visited Norway’s second largest glacier.  Did you know that Norway has around 1,600 glaciers? So second place, like Senja isn’t a bad position to hold. 

The Engabreen, an arm of Svartisen Glacier is pretty spectacular. In part because it is one of the most easily accessible glaciers in Norway and can be seen from the road. And because it is the lowest lying glacier on the European continent with its close proximity to sea-level. Parking up at the Holand Tourist Information office, a short cycle down hill brings you to a ferry that takes you across the Holandfjord to the low lying shores in front of Engabreen. A walk or cycle then gives you the option of looking lovingly at this frozen beauty from a distance, or parking up your bikes and hiking through the boulder debris. This puts you almost in spitting distance of the icy fingers that are ever inching towards to the sea. This is an incredible experience and highly recommended activity. The ferry is just 200NOK per person (£18 return) and an additional 80NOK (£8) for bicycles. 

Check out our gallery below

 

7. Atlantic Ocean Highway and Bud

I mentioned this route more out of necessity than for desire. We have always been great believers in presenting our travels as they are and not sugar coating our experiences. That does no-one any good. 

So here’s the thing! Myles had wanted to visit the Atlantic Ocean Highway since we decided to hit the road in 2016. So anticipation and expectations were high. Although we are sad to report that like a Tour de France cycle race it was over in a flash. Yet again, we found Norway’s marketing to have excelled itself and we were left seriously wanting. 

After paying the only Toll Booth fee in Norway just outside Kristiansund, we followed the Highway signs  like excited children. And we were soon there. The architectural brilliance of the bridge that writhes like a snake was there. Arching in all its magnificence. We stopped off at a couple of viewing points which allowed us to see the Highway from the northern side although it was not  the drive we anticipated. Just one bridge makes up this experience and we felt sorely let down by the 3 mile iconic drive. No thrill, no awestruck state that we were promised 

So our deflated souls floated further south into the nurturing arms of the gorgeous coastal fishing village of Bud. Now this was a wow. 20 minutes drive away we sought solace from this wonderful place that gave us authentic Norwegian life, WW2 memorials and an archipelago vibe. No disappointment here and without doubt the best bit of this underwhelming scenic highway ‘hot spot.’ Well done Bud, you get our vote. Perversely we are incredibly thankful to the Atlantic Highway, as had we not set our course for this point, we would have missed BUD.  

Check out our gallery below.

 

8. Trollstigen Pass and Geiranger fjord

After disappointment hung around us like a bad smell, we hoped that our sixth Scenic Highway route would restore our faith in Norwegian beauty. Surely the Trollstigen Pass would bring us back home to the thrill and love for travel that we have developed. And we are pleased to say that is it a big fat YES. We were surprisingly nervous about doing the trip – and not because of the road itself as after all we have driven Stelvio in our camper! Our nervousness was born out of our disappointment of the Lofoten Isles the Atlantic Ocean Highway. I am always reminded about the role disappointment has in our happiness and yet we had fallen foul of its destructive ways.

The Trollstigen was a joy. And not just because of its driving challenge. It is so much more than just a road – the whole Route 63 is a driving experience that stretches for 56 miles from Andalsnes to Langvatnet. The route takes you up through the Trollstigen switchbacks, across a ferry and then across to Geiranger, one of the most famous and longest fjord in Norway. The whole stretch is an incredible experience with plenty to see and do along the way.   

The Trollstigen was built in 1936 and has 11 switchbacks, carved up through a collection of mountain giants reaching heights of 1600m. With waterfalls and viewing points, this is just one part of the Trollstigen to Geiranger Scenic Route that will take you on a diverse driving experience over the course of 2 hours. Or, if like us you would prefer to savour both experiences with an overnight stay, then why not wild camp at a whole host of areas, sheltered by the shadows of the mountains.

The viewing platforms that overhang the valley are a must to breathe in the full perspective of this road as you see it snake up through the granite giants. Test your nerve as you look out with only fresh air beneath your feet. And then repeat the journey as you head towards Geiranger after the short ferry ride that transports you to part two of your road-trip.  A further 11 switchbacks that take you down to one of the most visited places in Norway – certainly by cruise liners. Your vehicle will complain – not in voice, although in smell. That tell-tale sign of overworked brakes will remind you that a steady pace and a cautious drive will reward you with the best experience. As you see the cruise ships in the harbour, you realise you have arrived at an iconic destination. Resisting a stop to admire the view is futile. Head for the Norsk Fjordsenter where you can climb down alongside the Storefossen and be enveloped in the thundering sound of the crashing waterfall as it makes its rendezvous with the fjord.  Salt meets snow-melt. A truly magnificent combination where Mother Nature’s forces collide in some gentle yet poignant battle. 

The views further up as you climb like a rollercoaster ride are just amazing. More snaking roads that constantly give you sneaky peaks over the fjord way below you. And the upside is that fewer tourists drive this section of the road, so your course is easier than the caravan of coaches on the northern side.  Your final destination will be at the junction with Route 15 at Langvatnet.  You will breathe a sigh, not out of relief that you made it; a sigh of complete satisfaction. A road that is a challenge for sure, although very, very doable. Having driven the Transfagarasan and Transalpin in Romania and Italy’s Stelvio Pass, we have to say that Norway’s Route 63 was much easier and far less challenging. So you have to put this on your Norway Road-trip list. And is definitely on our Wow List.

 

9. Gamle Strynefjellsvegen route 258 

I love looking a maps and searching out the off the beaten track routes. And after a restful night’s sleep and en route to rendezvous with friends, I navigated us on a back road that avoided the main road – as is my want. Little did I realised that this was yet another of Norway’s Most Scenic Routes – the Old Strynefjellsvegen.

Now this road comes with its own challenges as 75% is not tarmac, although we have driven worse major roads in Italy, if we’re honest. There is no driving fast on this road – not just because you can’t, more importantly because you won’t want to. For me this was THE most spectacular road we drove in Norway. It was like being in a completely different Universe. 

Trying to find the right words to describe this land is really tough. Again despite the weather, which was dull and overcast, this road was actually enhanced by the conditions. The grey mountains sombre in their majesty whilst the unbelievably ice-blue waters were set off against the shadows making this road all the more dramatic. It’s the same blue that we saw when we visited the Ice Hotel in Sweden. Almost from another world and a colour that seems almost impossible to create on an artist’s palette.

And then there was the rainbow. Oh wow this was just so magical. I was stunned into silence and that takes a lot. This road, in all its rawness and simplicity was beyond beautiful, for me. It had a ‘The world that time forgot’ feel to it and I half expected to see dinosaurs roaming the glaciers it was that primal. We saw no more than half a dozen vehicles on this road and I would definitely come back here to wild camp – as it was out of this world for sure. 

Check out our gallery below

 

10. Sognefjord Glacier – Jostedalsbreen National Park

Our final wow for this 2019 trip is the drive up to Sognefjord Glacier. The largest of all the ice maidens in Norway.

Although before we talk about that, let me tempt you with the approach road to Sognefjord, which is magnificent in itself. The 724 Route up through the Oldevatnet valley to Briksdalen, with iconic and moody mountain views will take your breath away. Although this no-through road is a little narrow, there are passing places as you navigate the plethora of coaches that bomb up and down this idyllic valley.

And as you hug the edge of the fjord, with its crystal clear waters, the sight ahead is captivating. The sharp lines of the mountain edges pierce the sky whilst it cradles the blue-white glacier which draws you towards it as if on autopilot. 

There’s both a campsite at Briksdalen and plenty of parking areas for day visitors. At 250NOK per night for a camper plus two people (which equates to around £26), you have unbridled access to this giant of all glaciers. There’s a fabulous walk for about 1.5 miles which whilst marginally uphill, can be mastered thanks to the tourist tram. If walking isn’t great for you or you have a disability, then for a mere 230NOK (£20) return or 115NOK one way (£11) the Troll’s Tram takes your weary bones closer to the glacier viewing point so that you too can enjoy its glacial glory. Otherwise the walk is a sensory delight. First up you have the Kleivafossen waterfall, which full of glacial melt thunders over the edge releasing 100 litres of water per second. Can you imagine the sound? It’s so loud you can not talk nor hear your heart beat. And whether it is a rainy day or sunny, it matters not a jot, as you will get wet as the spray from this thunderous beast unleashes its full power to the rocks below. It’s Norway’s version of Niagra Falls and you can stand right in front of it and get a free and pure shower. 

The glacier, some 10 minutes on, is not quite touchable, although certainly is spitting distance. And if you listen clearly, perhaps you can hear the sound as it creaks and groans with its miniscule movement. It’s a magnificent moment that somehow is difficult to capture in words alone and is a place that I could have stayed for hours just sat quietly in the heart of Mother Nature’s storybook and art gallery. This is most definitely a Norway WOW factor and must go on your list to visit.

 

Practical Tips for Norway Exploration

Before we leave you, I feel it is important to share our tips for making Norway a memorable experience, for all the right reasons. With its distance and expense many people are put off venturing to this northern land, although with the right strategy, it is more than doable. 

  1. As you plan for your trip, be clear what time you have available and what is achievable. If you only have a short time for your visit, then stick to the southern and central regions. The distances, both to get to and around Norway are vast and so being realistic is important.
  2. Access to Norway depends a great deal on the time you have. If you have an unlimited length of time, then accessing the northern regions is well worth the travel time, entering at Abisko. If time is limited then a ferry from Denmark makes Norway more accessible. For more information on routes to Norway check out our comprehensive All Things Travel blog here.
  3. Ferries are a major lifeline for Norway and avoiding them is futile. So you will need to consider an Autopass Ferry Discount Card. This will save you up to 50% on your ferries which is not to be sneezed at.
  4. Toll roads are everywhere and the system is quite complicated as each toll road is owned by a different company. There is only one Toll Booth, the rest are payable electronically. So you will need to register with EPC or Autopass who collect the toll fees. Registration is easy, although your notification for payment will take approximately 2 months to come through, so don’t be alarmed.
  5. Think carefully about the time of year you visit. Norway has a short summer season from June to September. Whilst it does offer you long days and the Midnight sun up above the Artic Circle, it is the major tourist season. From the beginning of July for six weeks, the local schools are on holiday so beware of the crowds at tourist hotspots.
  6. Any time from September to May the weather will be unpredictable – and we’re talking snow here. In 2019 the weather closed in early with snow in many areas mid September. So if you are travelling with your camper/RV or a car, it will need to have winter tyres, snow chains or snow socks.
  7. Norway’s summers are an interesting beast. Whilst it has been known to have heatwaves like in 2018, the weather patterns are generally not quite so hot and sunny. It can be cold, murky and inclement although if you get clear days, the scenery is absolutely magnificent. So come with the right mindset – this is not a beach-hot destination.
  8. Norway has a reputation for being expensive. Our experience was a pleasant surprise. Whilst certainly one of the most expensive countries we have been to, it wasn’t as bad as we expected. And there are ways around food expenses – check out our All things Shopping blog here where we share some tip shopping tips to keep your bills low.
  9. If travelling by camper and you want to bring some supplies with you (especially alcohol) be careful about Customs checks on the southern borders and ferry ports from Denmark. They are known to strip search incoming vans. So either ration your drinking to the EU Duty Free limits, take the Sweden route at Svinesundbrua or pay Norway’s extortionate prices. 

 

From its northern territories to the heart of the central glacier giants, Norway will tease you like a tantalising temptress and will leave you wanting more. And more we shall demand, on another spellbinding trip in the next five years. Until then, we leave you with the images and story that makes Norway such a unique European experience, filling you with an expectation of a sensory explosion should you make your way to this magnificent land.

 

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Our two other blogs in the All Things Norway Series

9 Surprises of Slovenia

9 Surprises of Slovenia

Slovenia may be a relatively new country that has emerged from the rubble of the Yugoslavia Federation although as a tourist destination it packs a serious punch. 

In June 1991, Slovenia became the first republic to make the split and become an independent sovereign state. In 2004 it entered Nato and the EU, and from this point, this gentle and endearing country has grown as a serious contender for tourists’ affections. 

Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia stands out amongst its neigbours. Dominated by the Julian Alps it competes admirably when it comes to winter sports, alpine scenery and dramatic gorges cut by the ice blue waters of the Soča river.  And then there are its iconic views; the unforgettable Lake Bled with its island church, the Postojna Caves with its unique underground train ride and ancient Predjama, the largest cave castle in the world. And that’s before we mention is exquisite wine producing vineyards and charming coastline along the Adriatic Sea. 

And yet it is Slovenia’s hidden gems that makes it so memorable for us and why we felt compelled to write this blog and share our little discoveries.  Follow our visual tour will give you incentive to come visit this subtle powerhouse destination and seek out the magnificence of this gentle giant, soaring its way up through the world tourist ranks. Check  out our Interactive Route Map below to see our routes, POI and overnight stopovers from our last two visits. 

Surprise 1 – Kranjska Gora

I have never thought of Slovenia as a winter sport nation and yet on its northerly fringes you will find their ski-resort Mecca. Kranjska is a charming alpine village at the foot of the Julian Alps that tower above you. With ski-slopes, ski-jumps and toboggan runs this really is a resort that is putting Slovenia on the winter sport’s map. Even during the summer, the resort is used as a training ground for countries around the world. The sporting season aside, Kranjska with its mountain range offers hikers fabulous walks that will stretch the calves and cycle rides along the old railway that takes you across the border into Italy. If a less active set up is more your scene, then you can use Kranjska as a base for exploring Lubljana, Lake Bled, the Vrsic Pass and Bovec, all reachable by bus. 

Travel Tips

  • For more bus information click here.
  • For camping stay at the Aire alongside the ski resort for €15 payable with the Easypark App
  • For a great meal go to Gostilna Viktor Pizzeria.

Check out our Gallery by clicking below.

Surprise 2 – Soca Valley

With its source deep in the throat of the Julian Alps, the Soca river with its ice blue water courses its way creatively through the valley. Carving deep crevices and gorges, the Soca Valley will delight those looking for a secret summer swim or perhaps even provide the thrill of some serious white water rafting in the spring season. The photographer in you will cry in delight as the valley navigates and snakes its way to Gulf of Trieste in Italy’s north east corner. If you toodle just down the valley to Kanal ob Soči, during steamy summer days you will see the young children jumping off the cliff into the inviting river below. It has so many different faces that driving from the Vrsic Pass following the river’s flow will give you such a great experience all on its own.

Travel Tips

  • Travel across the Vrsic Pass, route 206 from Kranjska which picks up the Soča river at Bovec. 
  • Stop off at the Russian Chapel that commemorates those Russian soldiers who died building the Pass.
  • Catch the bus if you don’t want to drive the pass in your car or camper.

Check out our Video and Photo Gallery by clicking below.

Surprise 3 – Bovec

Ljubljana and Lake Bled are obvious choices for a trip to Slovenia. And whilst they are undeniably beautiful they are tourist traps. The off-the-beaten-track alternative is to visit Bovec. This charming mountain village is nestled in the Alps and is the gateway to the Soča Valley. It can shout proudly about its own ski resort although it is its war memorials that are the greatest surprise. At the Tourist Office in the characterful old town, you can pick up a map with all the Great War references in the area. Most notable are the Ravelnik outdoor museum which you can wander around as if the war ended yesterday, almost smelling the gunshots and sweat from the men in the trenches. The War Cemetery is a sobering visit and seeing the Fortress that played an important role in the Austro-Hungarian arm of the war, will fill in your War education jigsaw. 

And if nature is your thing, then a hike to the Slap Virje waterfall will appeal to all your senses or a cycle down to the valley floor where the Soča masters its way through the rocks and pebbles. Bovec is a super place to explore. 

Travel Tips

  • There are a number of basic campsites in Bovec or the Aire at the Ski Resort has full services and facilities and a stunning backdrop. 
  • Visit the Tourist Info for a map of the War Memorials in the area.
  • Book your kayak and rafting experience from the many companies in the town.

Check out our Gallery by clicking below.

Surprise 4 – Bohinj

Lake Bled with its iconic island church and castle are understandable draws when visiting Slovenia, although for a more authentic and more intimate exploration, head 30 minutes into the mountains to Bohinj. Here you will find fewer tourists and earthy campsites that give you full permission to soak up the silence of Mother Nature. This is a true haven and a delight to visit as an alternative to Bled.

Travel Tips

  • We stayed at Camp Bohinj, which is an earthy and rustic site hidden in the forest with lakeside access. 
  • Bring your camera and your kayak.

Surprise 5 – Vintgar Gorge

Tick off Bled for sure although don’t leave without visiting the Vintgar Gorge, just under 2 miles away (3km). A bus shuttle will take you there for 5€ or you can cycle the route if you have a bit of power! Vintgar is a return trip of 3 miles (5km) and for a 10€ entrance fee you will wind your way through the deeply carved gorge on well built and safe boardwalks. The twists and turns of the river finally crescendo over the each in a spectacular waterfall making this a charming walk if you’re in the area.

Travel Tips

Surprise 6 – Postojna Caves

My surprise of the caves were two-fold. Firstly as caves go this is one of the most spectacular we have ever seen. For sheer wow, it’s a must visit. With the train that takes you deep into the mountains and then a two mile walk through chambers created by Mother Nature in an artistic masterpiece. Stalagtites dripping from the ceiling and stalagmites rising from the floor with a texture like marble. Van Gough would have, I’m sure, been proud of the artistic talent displayed down here without any single intervention by man nor beast. This is one place that absolutely needs to be experienced and the train itself that carries into the heart of the mountains is an event all of its own. Resembling a Ghost Train at a Fun Fair, you trundle through the mountains by a living gallery of underground sculptures. 

The second surprise of the caves were the crowds. Wow, we were part of a colony of ants, or so it seemed. Despite getting there for the fist train of the day, there were hundreds of people already gathered, jostling for position at the entrance as if they were about to miss the January sales. More and more we realise that the whole ‘shoulder season’ really is diluted these days as on our misty  and murky  October visit, at least 30 coaches were already in the car park lined up  in wait for the return of their charges.

Travel tips

  • Get to the caves for the 1000am train and arrive at the entrance so that you can get as far forward on the train as a possible. This way there is less crowd management required. 
  • Booking tickets on line is not necessary – so don’t worry if it says there are no tickets available. You can purchase at the Ticket Office just before the train entrance. It costs €25.80 per person for just the caves or €35.70 for a combination ticket for the castle’s inclusion.
  • Take layers and warm clothing as it is very cool down in the belly of the caves. Also sturdy shoes are necessary as it is quite damp on the walk ways. There’s little danger of slipping, although decent footwear is appropriate.
  • And whilst you are in the area, why not drive just just over 5 miles (9km) to see the world’s largest cave Castle of Predjama. Not a huge amount of parking available, although if you go early or later in the day it is doable with a camper.

Check out our Video and Gallery by clicking below.

Surprise 7 – Ljubljana

We’re not great city people on the whole, although always visit because all sides of travel need to be explored. And we are so glad, on this occasion that we pushed past our city prejudice. Ljubljana is a clean, compact and charming city that oozes a chill-out command. With its castle views across the northern landscape to its Triple Bridge linking the medieval old town with its new suburbs, we adored this city. We only had a couple of hours here as we were meeting friends although we saw enough to be endeared to the cityscape. From that point on  we vowed to give all cities a chance because they may surprise you.

Travel Tips

  • If you are travelling in a camper, stay outside of the city and travel in by bus. We stayed 20 mins  north of the city at a pub camperstop – Gostilna Pri Kovaču (46.031321 14.604002). There is a bus right outside the pub that takes you into the city. 
  • 3-5 hours is enough to get a good feel for Ljubljana.

Check out our Video and city Gallery by clicking below.

Surprise 8 – Slovene Riviera

We have never given any thought to Slovenia’s coastline. With it giant competition either side, Croatia and Italy often seem to be far more of an attraction. Although what an incredible visit for the week it was. With Slovenia’s major port Koper at one end and Piran on the southern edge, you have a delightful coastline with nooks, crannies and rugged shoreline to play with. Harbours and street cafés, cycle and walking paths and nature reserves, this region is sublime. And Piran and Izola are just incredible medieval towns that has history and iconic Venetian beauty carved into their mortar. Back in from the coastline, the mountains are dominated by vineyards and olive groves and well worth a little diversion. It was such a delight and one place I would happily return for a bit of RnR. For our full post about the area with detailed Trip Guides, click here

Travel tips

  • Out of season is great in the Riviera, although even in October, when the weather is typically gorgeous, locals will all come out for the weekend. So bear this in mind.
  • For camping options, there is nothing at all in Piran. So we recommend staying in Izola which is halfway  between Piran and Koper and then use the cycle path that takes you from north to south effortlessly, to explore. We stayed at a Parking Area run by EasyParking and cost €11.30 per night payable with the app. Or you can pay €10 at the machine as long as you have coins. 

Check out our Gallery by clicking below.

Surprise  9 – Slovenia’s wine

Who would have thought that Slovenia would be a great wine producer. Well the vineyards may be new to the global wine stage, they are definitely worth trying. With fabulous soil and karst landscape it makes for outstanding wineries, which in the south particularly are seriously beginning to compete with established brands with their Italian neighbours. We particularly enjoyed the family run vineyard Saksida in Nova Goricia which has a fabulous selection of wines at reasonable prices.  They also offer a wonderful campsite and 5* restaurant open at weekends.

Also further south in the Slovene Riviera there is a fabulous wine tasting experience at Marezige Vinska Fontana. Up in the hills behind the coast you can, for €8 buy a glass (that you keep) and 3 tokens that allow you to choose from four wine fountains. It is home to the Refošk Wine, well known in this region.

 

Practicalities of visiting Slovenia

  • The diversity of the country is enormous and deserves plenty of time exploring. Be mindful of the season you visit. Early spring and late autumn the weather becomes unpredictable and, in the mountains you will often see plummeting temperatures and snow. This may impact on some of the mountain passes and you may need winter tyres or snow socks at the very least. 
  • The currency of Slovenia is Euro.
  • There is generally very good English spoken in the main resorts, although as with every country a few phrases of Slovene will be appreciated. Try these; Havla – thank you. Dober dan – a formal hello.  Govoriš angleško – do you speak English? Lahko dobim račun, prosim – can I have the bill please? Bye – Adijo 
  • Although travelling around the country without going on the motorways is doable, sometimes it’s just easier to hop on for a quicker journey – especially if your time is short. So you will need a vignette which you can buy at most Petrol Stations. It costs just €15 for 7 days. 
  • Take cash, as whilst credit cards are accepted, many restaurants will only take payment in cash. 
  • Download the app EasyPark so you can easily pay your parking charges for either car or camper. 
  • If you are travelling in your camper, please respect their no wild camping rules. There are plenty of campsites and Aire options and although they may be more basic than western Europe, they make perfectly good bases for exploration. 
  • If you are flying, Lubljana’s Joze Pucnik Airport is your main hub which is accessible from all over Europe, many destinations of which offer cheap fares. It is 16 miles (26km) north west of the capital so transportation will be required. A taxi to the city starts from €20.

 

Final thoughts

Slovenia is an undiscovered marvel and we realise that we haven’t even scratched the surface. Although if you love nature, outdoor life, World War History, wines, coastline and stunning mountain scenery then Slovenia will not disappoint. For a gentle nation with a diverse landscape that packs a powerful punch, Slovenia will delight and surprise in equal measure. 

 

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Travel’s Lessons – Joys and Shadows

Travel’s Lessons – Joys and Shadows

The effects of traumatic events last much longer than the headlines

Travel is the greatest educator, inspirer and leveller. There is nothing I have experienced in my fifty years on planet Earth that has given me so much in such little time.

Travel is like a bag of Pick and Mix sweets that someone might select for you; so many different varieties from the melty fudge candy and sweet marshmallow to the dreaded coffee-centred chocolate and chewy toffee crunch that threatens to break your teeth.

After a year of magnificent travel experiences which gifted us exploration in five new European countries, our wanderlust has been satisfied beyond expectation. From the far west of Portugal’s beautiful beaches that caressed our faces with salty breezes, to the charm of Denmark’s surprising hidden depths. Sweden’s sumptuous authentic character had us engaged in a love affair of extreme passion and Norway’s majestic masterpiece blew our tiny little minds. And what of Czechia with its plethora of castles and softly curvaceous landscape?

Amongst our exploratory joys, we have hit travel walls, suffered from blogging burn out and harboured physical injuries. We have navigated a return to UK from Europe’s most northerly junction for a family funeral and had battles with tennants who are not paying their rent. I say this not out of any need for sympathy, just by way of offering a balanced perspective of this life on the road, seen as the dream and yet just the glorious mixture that is life.

And in this mixture of all sorts, we’ve learnt to travel to please ourselves, to rest when we need it and to increasingly find our stillness within a life dominated by movement. We have become aware of travel’s infectious magnetism that fuels our desires and entices us to do more. Yet we are more mindful of heeding our inner-selves’ need for reflection and stillness rather than feeding our insatiable and needy egos. 

In ego’s midst, our hunger paled into insignificance this week, as travel revealed its true face beyond the mask of pretty vistas and cascading waterfalls. A humbling lesson that teaches us about life – beyond the dream of ticking one country off at a time. A peek into the shadows of reality – a perspective of people’s lives that may pique the interest of the world’s media for a nanosecond then fades into global obscurity. A glimpse into real life, one breath at a time.

On 24t August 2016, a small village in Lazio, Italy became the epicentre for a 6.2 magnitude earthquake; tectonic plates rubbing together in a frenzied attack beneath the surface of the earth. Amatrice surrendered to the full force of Mother Nature’s wrath and surrounding regions within a 50 mile radius suffered a matching fate. At 3.36am clocks stopped, cars halted and life was held in suspended animation as earth took over the reigns. Homes crumbled, around 300 lives were lost and 4000 people were made instantly homeless. Within a heart-beat the future fell apart from that moment in time. Italy was in mourning.

Communities rallied to rescue and salvage, whilst red zones warned of impending doom. Homes razed to the floor with rubble and exposed wires the only evidence of their postal address.  Quintessential regions of Italy stripped of their identity in the blink of an eye.

And how cruel fate is, that just three months later, a second 6.5 magnitude quake shook the area with additional force, attempting to battle with the communities’ resolve; a secondary blow to assert domination over our fragile lives. This was the largest seismic event in over thirty years. Oct 30th 2016, we felt the ripples of the 6.40am earth rumblings 100 miles west on the Tuscany coast, above Rome. little did we know the story that preloaded this chapter in Italy’s fragile tale.

In some bizarre twist of fortune, no one died. Perversely, thanks to the impact of August’s quake, many people in vulnerable property had already been made homeless and saved from a more traumatic conclusion. Yet the impact of this second shake of Mother Nature’s dice had actually a more severe affect on the hope that still lingered from August. Whole villages devastated by the twin quake effect, communities looking like war zones and road links severed leaving farms and towns isolated from each other.

Our brush with this drama initiated when we felt the disconcerting rumbles in our camper. Everyone rushing out to seek answers to the mysterious movement of the earth. Even the Italians were bemused. And then the local news uncovered the truth about this massive giant beneath the earth that had made its presence felt.

It wasn’t until our fourth visit to Italy to meet up with friends affected by the quake themselves in the Marche region, just north of the epicentre, that the full picture became clear. Buildings shored up with struts and barriers. Homes impounded and still uninhabitable. Lives transgressed into flight and fight, a far cry from the luxurious destination of blissful happiness often promoted by the glossy magazines.

As our explorations took us around the beauty of the Sibillini National Park, our eyes were opened and hearts severely tugged at. We drove around villages south of the region that would have looked more at home in a war zone than the stunning countryside of Italy’s Apennine beauty hotspot. This backbone mountain range is where we find our earth tremor answers and yet to look at them, you would struggle to see how history played out.

Yet the villages soon made up for the gaps in the story. Our path constantly affected by road closures even now, three years on. Houses that look like a giant has ripped off their walls in a fit of spite, demolished walls looking like an archeological dig and restaurant signs indicating how life used to be.

On our journey painted with frustration, as one road closure after another diverted our route, irritation washing our egos, we drove to our home for the night. An idyllic spot in the foothills of Monte Vittore surrounded by a kaleidoscope of autumnal colours. Yet the stark reality was to reveal in the morning light as I visited Pretare, one of the devastated villages. To wander around this once thriving community, now just a ghost town, was sobering. A wreath still in place honouring the Great War paradoxically made me think about the battle with nature that we all face in different ways. Why oh why we battle against each other when there is tragedy enough from the natural world is beyond me.

I spoke to a lady with the help of my friend Google, who hadn’t been evacuated from her home. She was the only resident left in this ghost town. So whilst on the one hand may be you could class her as lucky; the reality is that she lives life in isolation, without a community and with the suspense of what another tremor might do to her home. The gentle smile on her traumatised face did not hide her sadness that her village would never be rebuilt – there was a strange acceptance to her fate.

Homes here show how that earthquake moment must have struck, as precarious ceiling beams, becoming balancing acts for chairs, suitcases and personal possessions. All left behind in the salvation for life. Cupboards torn apart from their walls revealing crockery and bathroom taps still sitting on tiled splashbacks as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

In our gallery below, I have chosen to distort the pictures out of respect for those whose homes I have captured.

And yet, something incredible has been born from the tragic events of 2016. Evidence of how communities have rallied to support their people. New homes have been built for the locals, once homeless, now safe. Identical prefab-style bungalows in small estates offer protection and hope. Wooden huts for businesses have been constructed to make sure livelihoods can continue and the needs of the locals still served. Tree-lined avenues and parks now holding makeshift sheds for Pizzerias and Post offices give a glimpse into the life that carries on, in spite of the rubble.

Animals were rescued by kind souls like our friends who, despite their red zone property, poured their energy into rescuing the vulnerable and keeping their B&B accommodation going. Communities are pulling together and are determined to promote that Le Marche is still very much open for business. They are ready to welcome lovers of nature, wilderness and spectacular mountain scenery. Le Marche is one of the most beautiful regions of Italy, that surpasses the iconic landscape of Tuscany. Yet it fights for its survival and preservation of dignity and history.

After our time spent exploring this magnificent region, with its historic landmarks, hilltop villages and mountain spectacle, we have been served up with a dose of humility. An important journey that has given us a glimpse into life on the edge. A life that, three years after the tragedy, the media is no longer interested in and yet people still struggle to survive, making the best of all that they have.

Check out our Gallery of how Le Marche looks, compelling visitors to come!

What a humbling experience travel revealed to us. A poignant reminder that life is fragile, often precarious and never static. Whilst a dream lifestyle travelling the world, may well look catwalk perfect, if you just open your heart to see beyond the facade, travel has an amazing story to reveal. And more importantly it will take you on a journey of more than miles, it takes you on a profound journey into yourself and will change you forever.

 

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The Four Faces of Venice

The Four Faces of Venice

If Hollywood is the land of dreams, then Venice is the land of love. With its unique landscape of buildings submerged in the salty waters that brought its wealth and its network of canals, Venice will have you falling head over heels. Each visit leaves me breathless and after trip three in twelve years, a new face was revealed to me that resurged my passion for this aqueous city.

 

As the dawn broke, I could hear the faint rumble of life as it stirred with the morning sun. Ships starting their engines. Ferries gearing up for the passengers they would carry. And the general hum of life that breaks the nighttime silence.  With them all, my anticipation started to awaken as my awareness tuned into the reality of the day ahead. A visit to my favourite city, a new exploration and a rekindled travel romance. Venice! Ah the city of love! 

We first visited Venice in 2011 to honour my Dad’s first anniversary of passing. All three of us decided to celebrate his life doing something he loved – exploring new places. And from that point, my love for Venice has grown as fast as a fledging tadpole. Our second visit was a nighttime excursion as this was a city perspective we had missed on our Venice initiation. And boy that was something else. So surely a third trip could not give me anything more! Well we had only ever seen Murano – the island of glass and I had heard so much about Burano, the island of colour. And so our promise was to rectify this missing piece of our Venezia jigsaw. 

​As I reflect, the three visits were all so different. Each one offering a different face and a new personality that just adds to my love for this iconic archipelago. And hence this post that aims to offer a glimpse into a famous city from four aspects. So many people have written about Venice, there seems no space for any more adjectives or creativity. Yet I hope our Four Faces of Venice might just give you a completely different feel for this quintessential travel destination. For our latest video, check this out!

 

Face 1 – Venice by Day

The most obvious choice for visiting Venice has to be during the day. This is how a large majority of people will experience their trip to the city. Any why not? With its maze of intricate and narrow alleyways, canals, bridges of all shapes and sizes you would be hard pressed to cover the same ground twice given its 257 miles² (414 km²).

Venice, with its history dating back to 7th century, built its wealth on salt, silk, grains and spice. And with its coastal position it became a commercial powerhouse in medieval times. Whilst its relationship with water is at times precarious, Venice has managed to somehow create a balance between the forces of man and nature. Although it is a delicate interaction! 

Buildings anchored to the lagoon below have been masterfully crafted in Gothic and Renaissance architecture which gives Venice a living art museum stature. Venice with its interlacing canals, the building facades and their towering beauty reaching to the skies, give this city a real 3D affect. These magnificent structures really do seem to reach out and touch you as you walk or sail by. 

With the morning’s waking light, the 50,000 inhabitants of old town Venice come to life. Washing gets hung from the balconies with a disregard for the crowds below. Boats fill up with their their daily loads of everything you can imagine. And the streets ready themselves for the tourist footsteps about to tread their paths.

The iconic St Mark’s Square eases your soul as its subtle violin serenades float into the air. Doge’s Palace fills any empty space with its impressive architecture, and the Grand Canal’s serpentine navigation takes you to the edge of wonder. And yet Venice by day is as much about the hidden streets that are so easy to bypass. The tiny canals that throb with gondolas and resident’s boats that bob gently against their fragile pontoons. Secret hotels reachable only by water craft and ancient iron bridges that carry your curiosity into the intricate map of Venice’s beating heart. This is its magic. The obvious and the hidden working in unison – it demands your respect and your adventurous spirit, calling you to explore the maze of streets with child-like enthusiasm. 

Intimate tree-lined squares tempt you with cafés and cakes as you rest your weary feet and escape the crowds. Alleyways that lead you to yet another canal, all with the sound of water lapping against the walls. Shops selling Venetian masks remind you of the city’s elegance in days gone by and restaurants offering you the ultimate mastery of their pasta creation. 

Venice by day will have you in awe and fill your wanderlust desires within an instant. The colours, sounds and sensations of this vibrant citadel will appease you and from this point – the love affair will begin. 

 

Top Tips for visiting Venice by day

  • Arrive early before many of the coaches arrive 
  • Take time to wander, stop for coffee and wander some more 
  • Make lunch an experience and not just an event 
  • Pace yourself as you will walk miles
  • Take extra batteries for your camera as they will be as worn out as the soles of your feet.

 

Check out our Venice by Day Gallery by clicking below. 

 

Face 2 – Venice by Night

Our second visit some eight years later was born out of a deep desire for me. Our three day visit to honour my dad in 2008 certainly satiated my appetite. Although my greed for this sensory destination had me wanting more. I was disappointed not to experience Venice by night. Everywhere changes its personality as the sun dips below the horizon, the artificial light revealing a new perspective. And I really wanted to complete my Venice education with this view.

We timed our nocturnal exploration with the arrival of late afternoon. This time of the day meant that the crowds had started to thin as coaches returned their loads to their hotels. And as we reconnected with the city, we discovered a whole new side of our watery Utopia. We stumbled upon streets that we had never seen before and squares that were filled with giggling children as they returned from school.  This felt like authentic Venice. The quarters where the locals sheltered from the millions of fascinated visitors, searching for their own unique experience of this city landscape masterpiece.

We found a quiet bar and sat watching the afternoon’s exploits as the autumn sun started to fade. With the leaves falling, surrendering to their seasonal fate, a welcomed coolness washed over us after the heat of the day.

We had researched that one of the best places to catch the city’s sunset was at the Academia bridge. So with camera poised and anticipation through the roof, the photographer in me dashed with a purposeful pace towards said vantage point. I was fascinated to notice how the vibe of the city started to change as the sun set. The human profile changed. There were more locals wandering the streets mingling with the discerning tourist intent on capturing that picture perfect sunset shot armed with their tripods. It felt so less frenetic somehow. Calmer, more tranquil and almost as if the real Venice could emerge from the facade that the tourists crave. 

The Venice sunset was everything I had imaged and hoped for. And more. The view from Academia down the Grand Canal towards the Basilica of St Maria della Salute was incredible as it donned a pinky hew. The canal looked as if it was on fire, the buildings tinged with a beautiful light that did not come from this world. Dipping deeper, the sun called us photographer hunger shooters towards the southern seaboard Venice.  And it was here that the ultimate shot of the autumn setting sun was at its best. Despite the vista being speckled with Venice’s port, the vision of the golden ball sinking below the industrial armour it made it look quite majestic. My Venice sunset was complete. 

And yet my Venice by Night experience was not. As we reluctantly left the golden light of the sunset sky, we headed back into the city to search out a restaurant. And the night personality started to become clear. Lovers walked entwined and street corner musicians played for anyone who chose to listen.  Natural light was replaced by atmospheric Victorian-style lamps that somehow transported us to a historical haven from another universe – it seemed.

Late autumn warmth was in battle with the cooler night air and yet a meal outside along the canal seemed a fitting. Boats still motored the waterways, yet with a less frantic energy. The night seeming to calm their intentions of getting somewhere. The crowds had reduced by 80% and suddenly Venice became an intimate liaison, shared by just a few. 

Our nighttime experience of Venice was so totally different that is swept us away with its nocturnal melody. A unique experience and a privileged perspective of one of the most popular cities on the globe. 

 

Top Tips for Venice by Night

  1. Either stay inside the Venetian walls so that your night experience becomes a natural extension of your day. Although if you have the luxury of more than a one-day visit, do the night the following day. Otherwise your senses will no longer absorb its special qualities
  2. If you are with your camper, stay in the city walls at the sosta. It’s neither pretty nor tranquil, although it does have the train that takes you into the city hub which runs late into the night. Ferries stop running around 8.00pm and although there are buses, it may not be easy to navigate back to your ‘home’   (45.44008  12.30486)
  3. Whilst it is tempting to come in earlier, head into Venice late afternoon so you can enjoy the quieter vibe, whilst not leaving you too exhausted to enjoy the sunset and nocturnal events.

 

Check out our Gallery By Night below

 

Face 3 – Venice by Water

It’s not difficult to experience Venice from the perspective of its watery master. It encompasses so much of the city, dangerously so at times. And no visit is complete without some sort of ferry or boat ride. 

On our third visit to this beautiful destination, we decided our experience needed to be different. And in truth we had planned on just going to the islands and not revisiting the city itself. Although Venice has such an alluring draw that resisting the temptation was futile. I did however promise to find a new angle to our previous visits. So planting ourselves over on the Jesolo di Lido gave us the perfect opportunity to see Venice from the waterside. 

Picking up Ferry 14, with the excitement of a puppy, I hung on the port edge of the ferry looking for my ‘first’ view of the skyline. In the meantime, the vessels buzzing all around us held my attention. Dredgers, ferries, speed boats, cruisers – you name it, it was there. Each one making waves that had everyone bouncing on the choppy waters in the absence of wind. It didn’t take long before the iconic buildings of the Venice cityscape rose from aqua Adriatic Sea. St Mark’s Campanile the first of the most noticeable shapes. As we edged nearer, more and more of Venice’s Gothic buildings came into view and my anticipation was undeniable. Disembarking our ferry, the reconnection with this place from eight years ago soon had my heart beating faster, although we had our sights set firmly on ferry 2. 

Our visit three strategy was all about seeing Venice from the water. And so it was a natural progression to gravitate towards the Grand Canal, given our ferry had dropped us off close to St Mark’s Square. So we darted between the already building crowds towards the number 1 Ferry that takes you all the way along the 2.5 mile (4km) waterway. 

With water sloshing up against the hull, you could tell the tourists from the locals just going about their business. We were the ones clung to the sides to get the best view.  Everyone else merely sat and waited patiently for their ‘stop’. Water taxis sped past us with the same intensity as a road vehicle in any large city. And gondolas gracefully steered their way in between the plethora of vessels. What a buzz this experience was and so different to our day and night time perspectives. 

We could really get a bird’s eyes view of the waterside houses that seem to just be floating on top of the surface in suspended animation. How these houses have lasted through the centuries beggars belief. Each visit, we see some sort of restoration work going on that constantly focuses the community on reclamation from the wrath of Mother Nature’s forces. It is a staggering feat of engineering, only appreciated from the water. 

As we sailed underneath the iconic bridges of Academia and Rialto a whole new perspective was available as we looked left, right, up and down. So many aspects to capture in such a short time, our eyes trying to soak it all up. We got a sense of the authentic life that makes Venice so unique. 

Alas after 30 short minutes we arrived at Ca’ d’Oro, our station stop. It was from here that we peppered our watery perspective by zig-zagging through the streets of Venice. Armed with a map from the campsite, my navigator guided us over bridges, quiet communities I had never seen before and churches that towered above my head. In just ten minutes we had reached the other side of Venice and yet another ferry hub that resembled a bus station for boats. F.te Nove is the main Venezian hub for the ferries that transport you to the myriad of islands that litter this angelic lagoon. 

Seeking out Ferry 12 that would be our chariot to Murano, Burano and Torcello, we fulfilled another part of our watery journey. Saying a sad farewell to Venice’s skyline, we headed past the Cemetery and on into the vast lagoon that signals entry into the Venezian suburbs. The ride took on a new persona as we saw first hand Venice’s attempt to keep the silted waters at bay with huge dredging projects. Massive pylons, driven deep into the sea bed offered our course through the deeper channels into a space that felt like no-man’s land. 

The islands form a respite from the ferry journey giving you the chance to drop off at any one of the main communities that make up this municipality region of Venice. Which is another story all together. 

 

Top Tips for Water Travel in Venice 

  1. If you intend to catch a number of ferries to get a complete Venezian experience, then we suggest you buy a One Day Ticket. For €20 per person you are entitled to take an unlimited number of ferries, anywhere, all day. If you add up the single fares which can be up to €7 each, your €20 investment soon becomes a worthwhile outlay 
  2. If you are lucky enough to be staying in Venice for a couple of days, then there are two and three day passes that you can buy, that are also worth considering
  3. Remember before embarking on any ferry, to validate your ticket at the machine at the entrance to each docking area
  4. Gondala’s are iconic and a major tourist draw. Although if you are on a budget just be cautious of the costs which can be as much as €80 per hour
  5. Water taxis are a quick and fun way to get around the city and out to the islands. They are great for a more personalised view and perhaps you’ll be lucky to get a James Dean lookalike driver to complete your experience. 

 

Check our Watery Gallery below

 

Face 4 – Venice’s Municipal Islands

Venice, the city is of course tourist central. Although seeing Venice through the eyes of the islands is such an important part of the Venezian jigsaw. Given that this whole area is a significant archipelago, you could spend a couple of days just exploring these important communities, aside of the city. Each one has a different character, speciality and draw for the tourist. Some are carbon copies of Venice, with their interlacing canals and characterful bridges. Whilst others are flatter landscapes with important churches that have provided historical sanctuary. 

We visited three islands over the course of our visits:

Murano was our island initiation on our first Venice visit. It somehow felt important to ‘do’ an island whilst we were here, given that we are not generally travellers who like to go back to places. So with that at the forefront of our minds, we chose the closest island to Venice, just to get a feel.

Murano is a mini-Venice although it stakes out its own personality very clearly. And a significant part of that personality is its glass. Small factories and workshops speckle the island and you can watch the glass being blown into its multi-coloured forms. Murano’s assertion to be different and separate to Venice seems significant and mastered beautifully. 

Mazzorbo is a small parcel of land you can drop off at from the ferry and walk to Burano. There’s only a couple of houses and a walled-garden that houses a very plush restaurant. Breathing the air alone feels like it would cost a fortune, although in fairness we chose not to look at the prices, so I may be judging it inappropriately. Although you know instinctively when there’s a fine dinning experience to be had. The tiny estate was quite eclectic, as aside of the restaurant there was a campanile and a vineyard. Yet most bizarre of all was an outdoor art exhibition with the theme of  ‘Suspended Animals’. All very obscure, although a pleasant way to reach the small bridge that joins it to Burano.

Burano is an island that almost defies description. And whilst on a map you can see its relationship with Venice distinctively with its canal sliced formation. Yet this is really the only likeness. Burano is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever had the privilege to visit. It makes a rainbow look pallid such is its vibrance. Every house has a different shade, giving full credence to the spectrum of colour available. It made our eyes pop. 

The ‘high street’ buzzes like a bee-hive with its shops of lace and beautiful Italian clothing. Cafés, bars and restaurants compete for your cash and yet you never feel cajoled. Yet surprisingly it’s not difficult to find your own space in Burano as the alleyways happily offer you a retreat from the crowded centre where you will stumble upon yet more colour, shapes and sizes. None more impressive than Bepi’s house. Hidden away in a side street, Bepi’s house is known for its geometric patterns and is by far the most colourful contribution to the island’s fame.   

We found a small bar for a beer and Prosecco and whiled away an hour watching the water taxis and boats dock for their next set of passengers. And whilst the visitors gawped in awe at the magnificence of this place, washing lines hung across the streets just reminded you that normal life goes on here in spite of us. It gave the island an endearing feel that melted our hearts in an instant. After a couple of hours wandering, it was time to head off and it was, I must admit with a tinge of sadness. Such is the energy of Burano. Charm personified, colour captured and spelling casting magic. 

 

Top Tips for Island Hopping

  1. If you don’t want to visit Torcello, then drop off at Mazzorbo, where you can walk through to Burano and shorten your journey time. Otherwise the ferry continues on to Torcello. It’s not a long journey although if time is short for your island visit, this is a way to maximise your time. 
  2. If time really is short, then Murano is a good option as it is the closest island to experience.
  3. If your visit starts from Lido di Jesolo, as ours did, then you can take Ferry 12 and visit just the islands. Stopping at Burano, Torcello and Murano and then return on the same Ferry to your starting point at Punta Sabionni. 
  4. Or you can take Ferry 14 direct to Venice, St Mark’s Square and explore here first before then catching Ferry 12 over to to the islands from F.te Nove. 
  5. Ideally to get a full ‘Island Experience’ you need a whole day, as trying to fit them all in and fully appreciate Venice is far too overwhelming. 
  6. We stayed at Agricampeggio Scarpa, a lovely farm campsite that for €26 per night gave us the security we needed to visit the city worry-free. It’s only 20 minutes walk to the Punta Sabbioni on the Jesolo di Lido. It’s a perfect place for island exploring. (45.443494 12.439969).

 

Check out our gallery below. 

 

Closing Thoughts

Venice is an icon, there’s no doubt and for sure there is an increasing tourist volume problem.  So visiting this city responsibly feels really important; respecting that this is not a museum, it is a living and breathing home to thousands of people. Its precarious balance with Mother Nature needs to be acknowledged and, therefore, support for its protection seems right in whatever way we can.

Venice may be a Global Tourist Institution yet its history, art and cultural depth needs to be appreciated through its many faces. And with so many different ways to appreciate its beauty, a trip here will only fill your wanderlusting souls with joy and fulfilment. If your visit or visits can capture just a bit of all her personalities, then you will be richer for it.

 

 

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A Guide to exploring Slovenia’s Riviera

A Guide to exploring Slovenia’s Riviera

SLOVEnia is a beautiful country with a gentle vibe that draws you into its graceful culture and laid back way of life. Yet when I think about Slovenia, its coastline is the last thing that comes to my mind.  Perhaps understandably as it only accounts for 1% of the county’s landscape. Mountains, winter sports, lakes, and evocative gorge valleys, oh yes without a doubt – coastline no! And yet Slovenia’s Riviera is a very special region that offers a very unique experience for the weary traveller looking for a bit of respite and a seaside fix.

Slovenia is a million miles away from its iconic riviera cousins in Italy and France. It has a very different feel to the cosmopolitan crowd magnets to the west. No sandy beaches, no ostentatious towns with bling as their middle names, no marble style promenades with cruising chicks rollerblading in skimpy thongs.

 

Just like with everything in Slovenia, its Riviera coastline is charming and alluring. Nestled between Croatia to the south and Italy to the north, this Istria region offers a trip to the seaside with a difference. It’s a subtle cultural experience that graces you with softness and authenticity and it will have you returning for more of its tantalising caress.

Less than 30 miles long, the rugged coastline washed by the Adriatic Sea, fuses perfectly with the mountain backdrop where olive groves and vineyards compete for the summer sunshine. Whilst there are fourteen settlements along the coast, there are five main villages that draw you into their distinctive Venetian style. Strewn with marinas, red-roofed buildings and church towers whose bells toll for anyone inclined to listen, you can while away an hour or two and feel the heart beat of the Slovene coast. 

 

Much like many places in the arc of this Adriatic shoreline, salt has been a major player in the region’s wealth, with production dating back to 9th century. And today, you will still find active salt pans using traditional methods of extraction.  And on top of that, the province is a thriving wine producing area and offers some unique tasting olive oil that has a slightly acidic taste to it, although worthy of a little purchase.  

Whilst just skirting around Slovenia’s Riveria is possible, as with most destinations, this place seriously deserves your time and attention.  Take more than a few days to explore, soak up its atmosphere and get off the beaten track. This is just what we did October 2019. Let us take you on a journey that might inspire you to head south and have your own seaside adventure. 

 

Slovenia’s coastal jewel – Piran and Portorož

As a starting point, I feel the need to draw you to the south edge of the Riviera. It is here where sights of Croatia attempt to lure you south. Yet Piran and its more touristy seaside neighbour Portorož (Port of Roses), easily hold your focus. 

On the southern side of the Piran peninsular, Portorož is the archetypal seaside town with its pristine promenades, palm trees and posh hotels. Although turning a blind-eye, we felt ourselves passing by this more touristy end of the Riviera with our sights set firmly on Piran.

What can we say about Piran? Out of every coastal town that we have had the privilege to visit, this has been the prettiest, most charming and least tourist-infected of them all. When you think that Venice is only just across the Adriatic Sea, it’s a wonder that more coach loads have yet to gravitate in this direction.

Piran has a couple of highlights. First is the view of the marina with the backdrop of the monastery and bell tower behind. The Tartini Square (dedicated to the violin virtuoso and composer Guiseppi Tartini) is magnificent and you can twirl 360º and get a different perspective of the town. With its subtle shades and seemingly wonky buildings, this is a great place to begin your Piran journey.

Walking further along, there’s the iconic view as you gaze along the coastline towards the lighthouse and church. A health warning though! The aromas seeping out from the promenade restaurants will tease you and surely have you trying their mariner’s fare. 

Wandering through the cobbled streets, you could loose yourself in the Salt empire of medieval times. Buildings scarred with maritime history and the narrow alleyways telling their own stories from ancient eons. Hidden in their midst you have to visit the Monastery and the Church of St Francis, which dates back to 1301.  Look out here for the 500 year old root of a native Olive Tree called Piran Buga.

The other great view point that will give you a breathtaking perspective of the peninsular is the bell tower. For a mere 2€ you can climb the 400 year old tower with its 140 steps and get a bird’s eye view from 47m up. Just be warned – don’t do it on the hour, unless you have ear plugs!

And finally, take the climb up to the old town walls. Adorning the town’s perimeter, these walls date back to 14th century where they protected the town from Turkish invaders.  With its magnificently restored towers that crane their necks far above the town, you can an even better view from here, across the town and on towards Venice.  The sunsets from here must just be incredible.

Top Tips for Piran

  • You will not be disappointed by a visit to Piran.  Although we suggest you cycle from Izola along the Parenzana Cycle Trail and then walk around the town.  Parking is prohibited inside the town and there are only a few parking areas anywhere close and they are not suitable for motorhomes. There are regular buses operated by Arriva that run every day from Izola every 30 minutes and the journey is just half an hour.
  • Piran Town Walls cost 2€ to climb for the view and are open from 8.00am until dusk.
  • Piran’s Bell Tower is open from April to October from 10.00am and costs 2€.
  • If you come in April you can experience Piran’s Salt Making Festival where they celebrate their salty heritage.
  • Head to Caffe Teater where you can sit and watch the waves whilst languishing in coffee and the most delicious raw cakes. If you have never tried one, then this place is a must.
  • For a fabulous lunch try Pavel’s Restaurant along the southern edge of the peninsular where most of the tourist restaurants are. Their fish platters are amazing to share. Arrive early around 12noon or after 2.00pm for a guaranteed table with coastal views. 
  • Allow at least 3-5 hours to wander as this place has a timeless feel about it. 

 

We have put together a massive gallery of images. Piran is so picturesque it was far too hard to select just a few. So you have them all! Click the image below for a full view of this magnificent place.

 

 

Strunjan and its Nature Reserve

Slovenia’s Riviera is a beautiful blend of rugged coastline and curvaceous uplands that cry out for exploration. Just 10 minutes outside of Izola towards Piran you have the quaint little settlement of Strunjan. Still a Salt-pan region, although more geared for visitors now. With its pebble beaches, cafe and Reserve, you can cycle reasonably easily (if you have electric) to check out this classy Spa seaside town. The Nature Reserve has a plethora of hikes along the cliff tops, with vistas out across the sparking blue Adriatic Sea towards Venice. So get your rucksack, hiking boots and a packed lunch and head out for a day of fresh sea air tramping through the countryside. 

Top Tips for Strunjan

  • If heading to the Riviera in summer, remember temperatures can be very warm. So make sure you have plenty of water.
  • There are marked cycle paths everywhere, although just bear in mind that some of them are not tarmac and can be tricky to navigate, as we found out. These paths need mountain bikes and steely nerves to manage the rough and rocky path.
  • If you cycle to Strunjan on the road, via the Nature Reserve, then it is a windy and steep route down.  Rather than cycle it back up, take the Parenzana Cycle Trail which will take you back to Izola with a lot more comfort. 
  • Secure your bikes in Strunjan and walk up around the coast to the view points. We didn’t do this as we were carrying a couple of injuries, although with fitness, this would have been our route. 
  • Buy an ice cream from the sea-side cafe. They are to die for. €4 for four scoops! Yum.
  • If you can, head here for the sunset, the view of which takes in the Piran peninsula and the iconic Bell Tower.

 

Check out our slightly smaller gallery of three below!

 

Izola –  the marina town 

Slap bang in the middle of this seaside paradise is the delightful village of Izola. Whilst we are not interested in going back to a house at this point in our lives, if we did, Izola is somewhere I could live quite happily. 

An arial view would probably give you your best vision of Izola, taking in the different boat-harbouring alcoves. There must be over 500 vessels harbouring in its calm waters. It has a quiet demeanour compared to its Koper neighbour and yet a gentle buzz of people that is never invasive. We had five days in the Slovene Riviera with our base in Izola overlooking the marina. This curved bay sheltering from the often vicious Bora winds, creates a safe haven for water sport lovers.  With a promenade that is shaped in tune with the crescent bay, you can take a gentle walk, indulge in a 2 mile run (which I dabbled in to stave off the ever expanding waistline) and cycling. The walk into Izola is just five minutes along the marina with echoes of clinking boats that takes me right back to my childhood. 

Within minutes the street cafe bars and restaurants present their offerings. One of which is the traditional Izolanka cake. Well it would have been rude not too. Digging into a friend’s ample portion, we had images of an ancient tale behind this local, multilayered chunky masterpiece. Alas the story of its creation is not so old. It was designed by a village baker in 2011 and named by the schoolchildren. Its creation symbolises the town’s relationship with its environment, melding the taste of the sea, the wind and the sun with its nutty chocolate, orange and vanilla cream combo. Sweet although lovely and worth a nibble. 

Walking around Izola’s inner harbour and small town square, there is a real intimate feel about the place. Venetian buildings tower over you with their slatted wooden shutters whilst vibrant green pine trees line the coastal pathway.  In the maze of narrow cobbled streets, the chances of cats crossing your path is far more likely than people and yet when you emerge back out to the harbour you are reconnected with the marina’s vibe. You can climb the village’s tallest building – its clock tower, for free which gives you an amazing panoramic view of the townscape. Just avoid going up at mid-day as the gonging of the bells will deafen you.

Top Tips for Izola

  • There are plenty of areas to camp up if you re travelling in a motorhome. Some of the areas you pay €10 and that includes services and electricity.
  • We stayed at Argo Parking, which is operated by the app EasyPark, which with transaction fees is €11.50 without services, although this has the best view and location for the village centre. You can pay with cash, although you need coins. It does get very busy though at weekends with locals. You can get services at the car park on the north edge of town for free. See the interactive map for details.
  • For a great meal with lovely service visit Morski Val opposite the small inner harbour and next to the fountain.  
  • Use Izola as your base as it is perfectly situated between the two main towns of the Riviera and offers you the best place for water sports and swimming.  

 

Yet another picturesque village with a gallery full of beautiful images. Check it out by clicking on the image below.

 

Koper Port 

Koper is the main port of the area, which has to compete with Italy’s Trieste just to the north.  So this has a more industrial feel to it and is the fifth largest city in Slovenia. Cruise ships sometimes dock here and you will often see larger freight tankers gliding on the outer limits of the harbour waiting to berth. Subsequently, the old town, we felt was slightly engulfed by the commerciality that has naturally sprung up because of the port traffic. As a result this was our least favourite part of the Riviera, although explore into the heart of the medieval town and there are some treasures to be found. As friends said, who used Koper as their base to explore, ‘It grows on you the more you wander its streets.’

Koper has some seriously old history to its name, going back as far as at least 6th century when Romans fled here from nearby Trieste. Since then, the town has grown from settlement to major trading post with Venice, to today’s modern port offering a significant contribution to Slovenia’s economy.

Seeking beyond Koper’s commercial hub, you can find a lovely marina and pedestrian area which offers a very chic cafe culture and a nicely landscaped park with sculptures and fountains. And in the heart of the historical centre a couple of landmarks will gratify the history seeker. Mostly centred around the Titov trg, Koper’s key points of interest are the 15th century Praetorian Palace, which now houses the local government offices, the Cathedral of the Assumption and its towering campanile. Aside of this, Koper is the starting point of the Parenzana Cycle Trail, which we talk more about below.

Top Tips for Koper

  • Good place for all your shopping needs.
  • A good starting point for the cycle route to Piran.
  • Has coloured fountains that start at 5.00pm.

 

The Parenzana Cycle Trail 

If you want to get around Slovenia’s Riviera, then renting or bringing your own bicycle is a perfect option to explore the coastline. For no better reason than it has a dedicated cycle path running along its entire length. Constructed in 2002, the track takes the route of an old narrow-gauge railway line that was built by the Austrian’s in 1902. It was a vital link for the transporting of salt, wine and olives between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. The 75 mile (123km) route actually starts in Trieste and goes all the way through to Poreč from which the trail takes its name. 

A reasonably easy track to cycle, the Parenzana hugs the coast at Koper through to Izola and then weaves north of the town through the vineyards and olive groves. Avoiding the nasty steep and busy main road, the cycle route passes through two tunnels en route to Piran and offers toilets and rest areas along the way. It is a perfect way to see the main sights of this beautiful and sedate coastline. 

 

Check out our gallery below.

 

 

Off the beaten track – Vinka Fontana Marezige 

We love to get away from the main tourist spots and forge paths less travelled. Sometimes it gets us into some bother when village streets narrow and the walls seem to move in to tickle our wing mirrors. Still it’s all part of the adventure. At least our experiences can forewarn you if such crazy thoughts of going off piste cross your mind too.

Up in the mountains shielding the coastal towns you enter a world of wine producers and olive oil groves. The shapely and undulating foothills offer great views to the sparkling Adriatic Sea which seem to entice you home. Although these small settlements give you a really authentic look at Slovenia’s Istria region, making sure you stick with these mountain routes. Famous for the Refošk wine, this area is lovely to explore and we stumbled across one of the most unique places we’ve seen for a while. Marezige, a vineyard Mecca just 20 minutes from Koper that has a wine fountain. For a mere €8 you buy a glass, which you take home with you and, together with three tokens, allows you to sample three of four wine taps. With stunning views across to the coast, you can sip your way through a choice of two Refošk reds and two whites. If you have never considered Slovenia as a wine connoisseur, then think again. It may be a young industry although have no doubts about it, Slovenia is an up-and-coming wine producing country that is demanding the world’s attention. 

Top Tips for visiting Marezige

  • Coords are 45.507527 13.799384
  • Avoid taking the mountain road through Korte. There’s a 6m limit and makes Stelvio’s Pass seem pretty wide and straight. 
  • Follow your SatNav that will take you on the main road from Koper.
  • If there are two of you who enjoy a tipple, either share a glass to limit the impact of drinking and driving which has a low tolerance in Slovenia or get a taxi from Koper.
  • In the summer months, take the tourist bus that takes you around the local vineyards.

 

Check out our gallery of images below – just a small handful this time.

 

Final Thoughts on the Slovene Riviera 

If Slovenia is on your list then you will be in for a treat.  Whilst our path through this delicious country has not covered all corners, the parts we  have seen have endeared us to this gentle nation. And to now have added the coastline, all 1% of it, to our route map, gives us a more rounded perspective of their heritage and geography. We can’t recommend Slovenia and its Riviera highly enough and implore you to put it on your Wish List. 

Top Tips for a visit to Slovenia

  • If you want winter sports – then Kransjka Gora is a great place to go. With excellent ski runs, jumps and cross-country activities  this is a great base for snow sports.
  • Kransjka Gora is also amazing outside of winter, with plenty of hiking and cycling opportunities. Don’t miss Lago Superiore, just 20 minutes west towards the Italian Border – it’s a stunning location in the mountains.
  • The Soča Valley is just sensation with its deep gorges and ice-blue waters, it lends itself to hiking, swimming and kayaking.
  • If WW1  is an interest of yours then Bovec is a great base; Ravelnik is the site of an Austro/Hungarian outpost against the Italians and is free to walk around. There are also Fortresses and War Cemetries to pay your respects. 
  • As capital cities go, Ljubljana is a compact and bijou city-break and we loved it. Half-a-day, will have you navigating its main sights with ease.
  • Lake Bled is an iconic must, although whilst here, don’t miss out on Vintgar Gorge and  Lake Bohinj as super additions or alternatives. 
  • If you intend to visit Slovenia for more than five days and want to travel around, whilst we are not motorway lovers, getting around Ljubljana and going south is far easier on the toll roads. So you’ll need a vignette that you can buy from any major garage. 7 days costs €15.
  • The Slovene language is a tough one to get your tongue around, although the basics of Dobry dan (hello), Prosim (please) and Hvala (thank you) will get you a long way to earning their respect.
  • Slovenia’s currency is Euros and although many garages, supermarkets and main shopping centres will take cards, make sure you have enough cash on you for cafés, bars and restaurants. 
  • Many of the car parks, some of which allow you to stay overnight if with your camper, are payable with the app EasyPark.
  • Slovenia does not allow wild camping, so do so at your own risk. 

 

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7 Czechia Beauties outside Prague

7 Czechia Beauties outside Prague

The Czech Republic, severed from its old Slovak half, sits in apparent landlocked contentment, inside the European Union but outside the troubled Euro Zone, set into the new Continental mosaic like one of the small sturdy paving stones, just a few inches square, that form the sidewalks under the visitor’s ambling feet.    Thomas Mallon

 

During our 43 months full-time travel adventures, we’ve been blessed to visit some incredible European countries. Each destination having a space in our hearts; some taking more room than others. Our excitement at the beginning of  2019 however, exceeded anything we’d experienced up to this point. A Summer in Scandinavia – we had been waiting for this since we left UK shores. Our anticipation of visit Denmark, Sweden and Norway was as high as the heavens. And what a dream four months it was. Sights and experiences that surpassed our experiences. The memory book and my camera’s SD card were seriously full.

So how on earth would we beat those experiences? Well we have come to learn with our life on the road that there is no ‘beating’, just unique and individual cultural experiences. Each country is special in its own right. That said, we wanted to continue our travels with the same curiosity as we always have. So en route south for some much needed sun, we decided to check out the Czech Republic or Czechia as it is more commonly known.  This would be new country five for 2019. 

After the imposing scenery that Scandinavia offers in bucket-loads, we entered Czechia with a little trepidation. Although we didn’t need to worry. Within a couple of hours of crossing the Poland/Czech border at Boboszów we felt the country’s charm instantly touch us. It felt easy on the eye after the overwhelming magnificence of Scandinavia’s trio. Gently rolling hills, winding roads through farmland, forest and castles! Hundreds of them; up to 1000 depending on your definition of ‘castle’. Our two weeks here were going to be a very lovely excursion and our fears faded away into a sink of dishwater. Let us share with you our journey through this green and pleasant land, not even scratching the surface of its offerings, although with enough evidence to make us return – except to Česky Krumlov – although more on that in a moment.  Check out our fully interactive map below that lists all our overnight stops and country highlights. 

 

Our 7 Czechia Beauties

1. Czechia’s Castles

Ok, so castles are not everyone’s cup of tea, although there’s no denying their prowess when it comes to design and historical significance. I love to examine the intricacies of their architrave, the phallic extensions of their towers that preside over the lands below and the ghosts that glide through the walls with a story to tell. I enjoy imagining the footprints that have been left behind by the Dukes and soldiers and the war tales that are undoubtedly etched amongst the plaster. 

Of the 1000 odd castles you can see around the Czechia countryside, 12 caught our eye. If we’re honest we did get a bit castled out, although if you’re going to overindulge in these historic beauties, I can’t think of a better place. With history dating back to 12th century, Czechia’s castles offer us legend, intrigue and romance in equal measure. They invite you to shut your eyes and step back into the past seeing maidens with flowing veils and knights clad in armour on horseback, fighting for their maiden’s protection. I’m sure there is plenty of distasteful activity to add to the mix, although every one of these incredible buildings evoke waves of history as you gaze around their amazing construction. 

From the Rock Castle ruins of the Bohemian Paradise such as Vranov, Frydštejn, Kost and Valdstejn to the pristine presence of Boucov and Litomysl. Castles in town centres, like Jičín and peninsula fortresses of Orlik and Zvikov keeping guard over the magnificence of the Vitava river, south of Prague. And two pièce de resistance giants of Česky Krumlov and Hluboká and Vltavou. Czechia has a veritable feast of chateau brilliance and you’ll not go wanting. Here is a selection of images from the 12 castles we visited. And to think there’s hundreds more to satiate our historical appetite. 

 

 

2. Česky ráj – Bohemian Paradise

Czechia is a modern predecessor of the Imperial State of the Kingdom of Bohemia which was established in medieval times. And although the Czech Republic has reinvented itself more than Madonna, Bohemia still has a presence in the country. Whilst the Kingdom status dissolved in 1918, Bohemia is interwoven throughout their culture and is recognised as more than just a modern regional name. So when you come visit the Bohemian Paradise of the north east you are stepping into a historical storybook that has Bohemian culture embedded into its fibres.  

Although the Bohemian Paradise is so much more than medieval history. It’s a 100 metre square area of geological genius. With its sandstone rock pillars that hide themselves amidst the pine and beech forests, you walk amongst 60 million year old giants. Tiny dots compared to these brilliantly crafted pillars, hikers, rock climbers and adventure seekers love the Česky ráj. After four days exploring its rich variety, we fell in love with this place, just a mere 90 minutes from Prague. For a more detailed look at the area, click here.

 

3. Kutná Hora – Old Town

Czechia is blessed with 12 UNESCO sites, one of which is Kutná Hora. A 12th century settlement founded with the country’s first Cistercian church at Sedlec Abbey. In the 13th century, the town’s fortunes took a massive shift when German settlers started to mine for silver. This gave Kutná Hora greater financial and cultural status than even Prague, such was its importance. Since 1995, the old town has been given the UNESCO badge; protecting its Gothic church, Royal Mint palace and Museum. It’s a great place to wander and feel the historical significance of the area. Less than 90 minutes from the centre of Czechia’s capital and just 45 miles (77km) you will be in this fabulous place.  Check out our gallery below. 

 

4. Kutná Hora – UNESCO Cathedral of our Lady and Sedlec Ossuary

Our entry in at number four is worthy of its own listing and not hidden behind Kutná Hora’s mask. Just outside the Old Town hub and close, bizarrely to the commercial centre, you will unearth a UNESCO church and the macabre Chapel of Bones.

The Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption and St John the Baptist (to quote its full title) has seen its fair share of history in its eight hundred year history. Originally part of the Cistercian monastery, it was the first cathedral-style building in Bohemia and the largest sacred building at the time. However the Hussite army plundered and burnt down the Cathedral in 1421 and it remained in ruins until the 18th century. It was at this point that architect Jan Blažej Santini began investing much needed love into the building combining both Gothic and Baroque styles, giving it a unique design not found anywhere else in Europe. The monastery which was seriously in debt at the time, was transformed into a Tobacco factory, which remains today, albeit more as a museum. Eighty years after the beautifully crafted Cathedral stood as a symbol of prosperity and grandeur, the area fell victim to greed and as a result the monastery was sold and the Cathedral became a flour-store. In 1995 it was ceremonially consecrated and honoured as a UNESCO property. 

Just across the road you start your path towards one of the those unique travel experiences that feel somehow inappropriate and yet   you are drawn towards it nonetheless – as if free-will no longer exists. The Sedlec Ossuary is a chapel decorated with the bones of 60,000 people. Like its cousin in Evora Portugal, this ossuary has the most incredible decor, which is fascinating and macabre in equal measure. Its history originates, according to legend from 1278.  T,he sprinkling of Holy soil brought back from Jerusalem made the Sedlec cemetery the oldest Holy Field in Central Europe and a popular place to be buried. After a period of famine, war and plague, the cemetery became over-run and in an attempt to reduce the size of the graveyard, 60,000 bones were exhumed and dumped in the Chapel’s cellar.  It is thought that the bones were decoratively placed into six pyramids by a partially blind monk during 16th century.  Then in 18th century the Cathedral’s designer Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel was tasked with reconstructing the chapel, inside and out. Further designs were created following the dissolution of the Cathedral, monastery and chapel in 18th century when the Ossuary was purchased by the Schwarzenberg family. They commissioned carver František Rint to renovate the designs and add further decorative elements, such as their Coat of Arms. 

A visit to the Ossuary is more than an admiration of the placement of bones into a design. It is a symbolic reminder that death will visit us all and that ‘What we are, you will become, and what you are, we once were.’ It’s a strangely moving experience when you grasp the history and presence of each one of these bones and how death visited each of them.  It costs 90czk per person and tickets are available from the ticket office located just across the road from the Cathedral – and not at the Chapel itself. 

 

5. UNESCO beauties

Czechia has twelve UNESCO sites across the county and you could shape your entire visit just around these beauties. We managed to see five, if you exclude the Geopark status of the Bohemian Paradise and Kutná Hora, which I have already mentioned.

With the delightful town of Litomysl with its unique motif exterior and cobbled street town, you can easily while away an afternoon checking out this delightful community. (A note for travellers with campers; parking is not easy here as there’s nowhere dedicated for motorhomes. We were lucky to park in the town although it may require staying in a campsite and travelling in, to fully appreciate the town.) 

Just down the road you will find the hilltop homage to St John Nepomuk. Another building crafted by the architect of his time Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel. My he was a busy boy. The site is currently being renovated by UNESCO so it’s a bit unkempt  and there is little parking up at the church. Although it is still worth a quick visit if you are passing through. With its five sided star-shape and its resident pair of peregrine falcons, the source of this church is a bit of a mystery. After a bit of research I found that Jan was commissioned to build it in 1719, following the discovery of preserved tissue of Saint John that had been found in his tomb. I’m sure when work is complete touring the renovated interior will be more information and interesting. 

Holašovice is a delightful village that is certainly off-the-beaten-track. It has history going back to the 13th century and in the five years between 1520-25 all bar two of the population were killed by the plague. A repopulation of the village began with settlers from Austria and Bavaria. After World War 2 the Germans were displaced, leaving the village to fall into disrepair. It was only in 1990 that it was restored back to its full glory and is protected by UNESCO given that it is the best example of the South Bohemian Baroque Folk architecture in the area. Many of the buildings are dated between 1840 and early 1900s, whilst the Chapel was built in 1755. The village is only small, housing just 120 buildings and 140 people, although its typical South Boheniam features make it a very lovely visit for an hour.

The most southerly UNESCO we visited is the much talked about Česky Krumlov. Aside of Prague, it is said to be the most visited place in Czechia and for good reason. Everyone insists a visit here will make your travels to the Czech Republic complete. These are indeed very compelling words and without doubt the setting of this fairytale town is to die for. The Allsorts mixture of houses, colours and textures make this visually appealing. The vistas from the magnificent castle across the town’s roof-tops and ox-bow river give it real camera click-ability and Instagram desirability.

Although there is a black side to Česky Krumlov that I believe needs sharing and which put a huge dampener on our visit. So strongly we felt about this shadow that we are actually not recommending a visit here, despite it being on our Czechia highlight review. We have added so that we can reveal the dark truth about this UNESCO supported destination. Captive Bears! That is the darkness that I talk about. 

We were shocked and disgusted to see two female bears being held like zoo animals in the ‘Bear Moat’. Tour Guides proudly say that these bears are cared for by a bear-keeper who feeds them three times a day and that are part of a family heritage practice that has been in place for hundreds of years. Signs on the railings invite you not to feed the animals, instead to contribute money for ‘a varied diet and delicacies’. Suggesting that this is not funded by the Castle management currently.  I was so unsettled by this sight that the rest of the town passed by in a bit of an angry fog. On further investigation I found that the bears are part of a couple of Festivals to celebrate their Birthdays and Christmas Eve, in the name of education! 

This abhorrent practice has led me to campaign for their release to a Sanctuary that can give them the respect and care they deserve. With letters written to UNESCO’s Ethics Committee, Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Romania, Four-paws and the Born-Free Foundation, I wait to see what will happen. I have written to the Castle Manager although I understand that this practice is deemed legal and so little can be done other than to change the law. If, like me you value animal welfare, then please feel free to add your signature to the petition to change this law and put an end to animals being used as tourist attractions. So our verdict of Česky Krumlov, pretty although with too many Insta-posers, clouds of tourists and animal welfare issues that make it far too unpalatable, for us! 

 

6. National Park Šumava – Bohemian Forest

In the south west corner, hugging the border with Germany’s Bavaria, you stumble across the peaceful haven of the Bohemian Forest. A UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1990, also known as the Šumava National Park, is a heavenly place for hikers and cyclists. The mountain range here has the most extensive covering of forest in central Europe with huge pines that look like ballerinas. With deserted roads that weave amongst the cheerleading trees, alongside lush green pastures and through remote villages, you feel like you have the place to yourself.  The odd ski resort offers a plethora of winter sport activities and forest tracks take you into the heart of the Park with miles and miles of walking opportunities to please outdoor lovers. The Park also supports a healthy population of lynx.  If you want peace and tranquility away from Czechia’s hotspots, then this has your name written all over it.  

 

7. České Budějovice – home of Budeweiser

Who would have known that Czechia is the greatest beer consumers in the world, per capita? And why not, they are prolific beer producers, brewing up a feast with some very famous names. They even have a claim to fame for having the oldest beer in the world – Černá Hora, first brewed in the 13th century. So you could be forgiven for wanting to head to Czechia to sample one of these fine brews. And what better destination than České Budějovice in South Bohemia?

Whilst its commercial exterior is much like any other town in Europe, when you navigate into its centre it reveals its nectar. Not only will every bar in town sell you the original Budweiser (until the Americans stole the label) the town square is one of the largest in Europe. So you kill two impressive travel experiences in one shot. The Old Town is lovely, with its colourful houses, towering church  spires and cobbled streets – and for a couple of hours why not soak up the atmosphere of this beer making king. 

 

Practicalities

Czechia is an up and coming European country that has been on the fringes of the European stage. Although with travel options opening up to so many more people around the world, it is starting to see an increase in tourism. In 2018 alone, 21 million people arrived into the Czech Republic, with almost 2 million from Germany alone. So come soon if you don’t want to be consumed by crowds. Here are some practicalities that you need to consider if travelling to Czechia. 

  1. Understandably with their germanic neighbours, you’ll find more people speaking German than English. Whilst in large cities and towns, many people will speak English, out in the country less so. So come armed with a few phrases that will help and Google Translate as it’s a tough language to get your tongue around. Dobry den (formal hello), Dêkuju (pronounced jequi, thank you) and Prosím (please).
  2. If you have a pre-paid credit card, check that Czech Krone is available. On our Caxton card, we were unable to load Krone so had to withdraw enough money to last us for our two week tour and suck up the commission from our credit card.
  3. Cost of living is cheap in Czechia and remember it is a cash-society, so make sure you have plenty of coins and notes as you enter the country. Car parks for example are all cash, so be prepared.
  4. For those travelling in campers, access from Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia makes exploring this budding country easy. Although in our experience, facilities for motorhomes is still in its infancy. There are very few Aire style stopovers and we found no Service Areas for filling up and emptying. So during our two weeks, we speckled our wild camping stopovers with a couple of campsites to empty and fill up.
  5. Wild camping in Czechia is allowed as long as the rules of respect are applied.
  6. Diesel and LPG is cheap around the country. You find prices closer to Prague are slightly more expensive although expect between 30.50 – 32.00czk (£1.05 –  £1.07). For LPG you will pay, on average 13.50czk (0.46p per litre).
  7. Road quality is pretty good although some off-piste country roads can be more narrow. Although generally we found the roads fairly quiet unless it is an arterial road to Prague.
  8. To travel on some roads and motorways in Czechia, you will need a vignette. These are available at most garages and you can buy as a 10 day, 1 month or 1 year. For our 10 day vignette, we paid 328czk (£11.34). Whilst we don’t often  travel on motorways, we generally always buy vignettes as there are some roads that suddenly become tolls and having the right vignette takes away any stress, given the small cost. 

 

Final thoughts

Czechia is becoming an increasingly popular destination, although as we found out in just a short two-week tour, there is so much more to explore than the capital Prague. Outdoor and nature lovers, thrill seekers and history buffs will all adore what the Czech Republic has to offer. Just off the beaten track, you will find a country that will charm, enchant and delight you and leave you wanting more. Aside of the animal welfare issue we found in Česky Krumlov, we were impressed with what Czechia had to offer and would, without doubt, return to explore some more. 

 

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