Soča River II

Soca river Slovenia

Sad as we were to be leaving our wooden hut in Ukanc and Lake Bohinj, the mighty Soča River was calling – and when it calls, you respond.

Before we reached the call of the Soča river, we stumbled upon an incredible find. Scattered all around the Soča region are open war museums. I like to call them ‘boy-museums’ as they don’t have any laborious placards of information, yet instead you are allowed to roam a space and experience what it would have been like for a soldier during the War. It is littered with secret underground tunnels, trenches, ditches, rusted metal pieces and it has even been rumoured that if you search for long enough you might just find a ‘shell casing’ from one of the guns used during warfare. It really brought home the reality of war and how close the combat was up in the hills. The trenches were all connected and at times Lauren, Susan and I would lose each other and have to call out to locate one another.

Now, you will never guess what they were mainly fighting over in this region? Yep, the mighty Soča river. The Soča valley was the stage of major military operations including the twelve battles of the Isonzo on the Italian front in World War I between May 1915 and November 1917, in which over 300,000 Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers lost their lives. At the top of this mountain pass you can see over into Italy as you are literally a stone’s throw away from the border. Everyone marvelled at the history that we had just experienced and collectively we decided to make a bee-line for what these countries were all fighting over. Continue reading “Soča River II”

Bled & Bohinj II

Bled and Bohinj Slovenia With so many places to explore in Europe you would think it is crazy that within the space of a calendar year we were treading over the same ground. However, if you believe that, you have obviously never stepped foot in Slovenia. Lauren’s mum Susan was yet to encounter this little natural gem and we were both keen to revisit.

It is all about the lakes in this region – Bohinjsko Jezero and Bled. It would be fair to say that Susan was chomping at the bit to see this part of the world for her own eyes as it has been on her radar since the very first Instagram we posted around a year ago.

Bled is well known for its small island in the middle; an inviting medieval turret perched on a leafy mound and only accessible via row boat. As time was running out and our stop for the night (Bohinj) was calling our name, Susan opted for a rich verbal description of the island and we set off to walk a section of the lake on foot. Bled was just a stop off on the way to the main course – Bohinj. This is a special special part of the world. If Bled and Bohinj are lake cousins, then Bohinj is the better looking one. We couldn’t wait to get there. Continue reading “Bled & Bohinj II”

Zakopané

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I love Google.

I bet you have never heard of Zakopane. Neither had I.

We have discovered so many off-the-beaten-track local treats a la Google. I often wonder at the ingenuity of the travellers in previous generations. No internet bookings, every flight locked in at an office, letters sent home across the seas, no idea what your friends and family were up to, and equally little idea of what remains hidden around the next corner of your global meandering. I suppose the benefit must have been that travelling was much more social. We rely so much on the internet these days, that you literally wouldn’t have to meet a single local or pop into any tourist office whatsoever. (Actually I wouldn’t mind avoiding the tourist centres. I always feel like such an outcast exiting with my head bowed low, eyes to the ground, studying my gigantic map, hoping the locals won’t notice my lack of direction and bulging pockets trying to conceal my camera). The shame!

Where was I? Oh yes, google. I love it, as it can land you smack bang amongst the locals if you allow it to do so. Zakopane was one of these times. Continue reading “Zakopané”

Chamonix

Lunch stop on the slopes

It was a French white Christmas, well, in 2011 that was. Yeah, we’re definitely playing catch-ups on the blog. Catch-ups or not, Chamonix is worth writing about.

We left an elephant-grey London behind and started our pursuit of ‘powder’. Now, both Lauren and I were wishing for ‘fresh powder’, but really, we had no idea what this actually was! It was just the thing to say when going skiing. Little did we know that our hopes of a ‘powder pursuit’ would very much come true.

On arrival, we jumped on a transfer bus and after gawking at the mountains for an hour or so, we arrived at our home for the next week; Chamonix (to save anyone the embarrassment now, it is a silent ‘x’, so now you can at least say it correctly in your head). We quickly dumped our bags in the most amazing chalet (I will come back to that later) and went exploring in the town as the sun began to set. What a privilege it was to stay right in the midst of the action in a ski-town. It was buzzing with the click-clack sound of hundreds of ski-boots as people were coming down from the last runs of the day. There were more headbands that you could poke a stick at, fresh baguettes under most peoples arms and the excitement was definitely building for Lauren and I to hit the slopes the next day.

Day One at Brévent/Flégère was Continue reading “Chamonix”

Salzburg & Berchtesgaden

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Salzburg…. a changing of the guards! Salzburg marked the place where Joel was due to take off for London overnight for a job interview (which he was successful at obtaining against all odds – go Joel!). It was also the marked meeting point of my mum joining us on our onward travels. So it was for me, both sad and happy…and I was left to my own devices for two days to explore this Austrian city in full!

Blessed as we were with the weather during our Austrian National Park adventures, I was not so lucky in Salzburg! I soon discovered that my canvas shoes were a sponge, and my accommodation wanted to charge me to borrow a falling apart umbrella! Despite this, I took on the challenge of solo-explorer with gusto! It was certainly a different experience travelling by myself as I had two full days to do as I pleased.

So after dropping Joel off at the airport in Salzburg, I had to find our accommodation ‘solo’. I think my hands were shaking at the wheel as I drove the highway and navigated the exit by myself. When I arrived I said an audible “thank God!” and checked in, wondering how to travel alone. When I accepted Joel was actually gone I hired a bike and berated the receptionist for information (who didn’t seem to know much about her city at all!). Inspired by Maria & the Von Trap family singers, I thought I would follow in their footsteps! Continue reading “Salzburg & Berchtesgaden”

Innsbruck

Riverside mansions

So inspired by the mountains and in pursuit of more we set out for a town called Innsbruck. We knew that this place was surrounded from every corner with mountains however once we arrived we were quite in awe with the size and magnitude of these colossal towers that held guard over the city. They certainly cast an early shadow over the town and its people as we found out later that day.

The car ride there was quite magical as we both couldn’t stop imagining all the mountains at winter time strewn with snow. We imagined the locals skiing down through the trees and at one point even becoming locals here. So beautiful you would want to stay. It was with these sights and our imagination full that we vowed to return to Austria during the winter. However it was summer this time.

Upon arriving at Innsbruck the first thing we noticed was that down each alley way you could always catch a glimpse of the mountains that surrounded the city. It gave you both a feeling of security and feeling lost in some recluse town. Our first port of call was ‘the golden roof’ which is quite famous and equally impressive. It is a roof that is made entirely of gold. It had some massive historical story behind it but um, can’t remember. Something about a family fighting against another and then a victory to someone.. Continue reading “Innsbruck”

Hohe Tauern National Park

moooooo!!

Our arrival at Hohe Tauern National Park signalled the ‘pinnacle’ of our European travels so far (for us!). We absolutely milked every second from this beautiful place on planet Earth, and hit the pillow with an almighty thud at night! It would definitely not top the list of most travellers headed up through Austria, but it caught our eye on the map and we duly afforded it some research. What ensued was an enthusiastic professed passion from Joel to extend the itinerary in this region. As Joel is not the most vocal of travel planners (if you could call him a travel planner) I knew it must be important and booked 4 days in the area staying in a little chalet in the village of Kaprun.

Kaprun was beautiful, a small winter ski village with a towering mountain which had enough snow on the glacier to ski year round! What was truly the icing on the cake, was the free access to the Zell am See/Kaprun spa complex, which was unlike anything we had ever seen before. We actually spent most of the first visit with our mouths agape, wrapped in our lavish robes, soaking in the salt infused outdoor heated pool staring up at the mountains. After long days hiking in the alps, this was a sacred haven, and probably the first time in our lives that we have ever felt rich and expensive! Continue reading “Hohe Tauern National Park”

Oberdrauburg & the Drau Cycle Path

Drau cycle path

The next place that we stayed certainly can’t be rhymed with any English word that I am aware of; Oberdrauburg, Austria.

Yet again, it must be stated that our journey to this town was a highlight in itself. It is hard to count the amount of times that Lauren & I have been left speechless and crossing the border into Austria was no exception. The hills turned to mountains that then gave way to snow-capped giants that towered over the towns below. I could feel an Austrian mountain yodel rising up within me as I have longed to see the famous Dolomite mountain range in all its glory. Thousands of hectares of untouched, uninhabitable ranges that leave you in awe as to how they have spiked their way up through the earth trying to compete for the highest honours. Our eyes were treated to this magnificent beauty and it felt almost too much to absorb and take in at once.

Which such beautiful company at my right (Lauren) and left (mountains) it made the drive not only feel short but most enjoyable. Like many of the quaint towns that dotted our journey Oberdrauburg had its own church spire to make clear its town centre.  The Big O as we affectionately nicknamed it, is a town of very few residents and was chosen to act as our home-base to launch from for the next day’s cycling tour that would almost tip us over the border and into Italy! We had seen ads all about for the upcoming tour-de-france and thus we were feeling as though we could embrace the European cycling culture and knock over our 55km goal the next day on the Drau Cycle path.

We were staying at Gastof Post and they happened to have two brilliant bicycles that we borrowed for the day gratis. Thanks Gastof! We jumped on the train at Oberdrauburg (with a special cabin to transport bikes) and journeyed up to Sillian with the hundreds of others who would take up the challenge to travel back to their respective hostels to rest their weary bodies. Sillian is a small town that is only 5.5km from the Italian boarder, so we were a little tempted to skip the cycling back into the heart of Austria and go the other direction 20minutes into Italy for a lunch time pizza. That temptation was quickly put to bed when we saw the numerous others who were all out enjoying themselves and cycling their hearts out along the Drau cycle path. Were were passed along the path by big pelotons of serious cycling fanatics, European families who were obviously fitter than us and those who seemed to have one track mind to get to the end. We were a little more leisurely by taking in the views of the Dolomites that towered above us, watching locals pick fresh strawberries from their farms, frequent snack stops to enjoy a twix and also stopping at an unexpected car-show out the front of the Loacker chocolate factory. Although I would love to paint the picture of Lauren and I cycling 55km’s over enormous mountain ranges and finishing with complete six-packs from the fitness, this was not quite the case. The cycle was mostly flat with a few challenging hills and many adrenaline rushing moments flying downhill! So, with the many stops to gawk at the scenary factored in we still completed it in a respectable time of just over 6hours. As we arrived back to the Big O we felt very satisfied with our efforts and felt at one with the Austrian Alps. There was even a few moments where the yodel that I felt rise up in me the day before escaped and I expressed my satisfaction to the mountains for their beauty.

Something unique about traveling that you don’t usually get the opportunity to do in everyday life is change your plans at the last minute. We happened to be driving along (again on the way to Oberdrauburg) and we saw perched up on a mountain a formidable and impressive Castle. It simply needed to be checked out. We took a swift turn off the Auto-Bahn (which our TomTom did not agree with at all) and followed some signs to the Landskron Castle. What an impressive structure. We walked around it’s walls and learnt a little about the history of the castle that dated back to the 9th Century (I won’t bore you with those details here though). We enjoyed the view from the top of the castle and had our first Austrian culinary experience by ordering some soups which we weren’t entirely sure what it included. We are still not to sure, however all that needs to be said is that it was delicious! We said farewell to the falcons (yes, they have a massive caged area full of flesh-eating falcons) and the ancient walls and continued our journey to Oberdrauburg.

Many more highlights were had in our time around the Big O including a delicious dinner in Lienz (schnitzel of course) and seeing many Austrians at a local beer garden in their traditional clothing dancing and chinging big half-litre glasses of their finest Ale. It was so how you would expect the Austrians to act and for once the cliche was actually true. We were also entertained by the local Oberdrauburg orchestra that put on an open air performace in the square one night. The Austrians love a good tune and beer, that is for sure. Well done Oberdrauburg. Thank you for the memories, we must now move in to Kaprun, a small ski-village that is be our base for hikes through the Hohe Tauern National Park.

Castle views
Castle views
First Austian beer at the Castle
First Austian beer at the Castle
The mighty Landskron Castle
The mighty Landskron Castle
The beginning of the Drau cycle path
The beginning of the Drau cycle path
Local farms and their hay stacks
Local farms and their hay stacks
Car show out the front of the chocolate factory
Car show out the front of the chocolate factory
Mountain huts
Mountain huts
Riding along the Drau II
Riding along the Drau II
No hands. Very clever babe!
No hands. Very clever babe!
Passing through a small village
Passing through a small village
My beautiful wife!
My beautiful wife!
On of the many bridge crossings
On of the many bridge crossings
Riding through the streets of Lienz
Riding through the streets of Lienz
Riding along the Drau I
Riding along the Drau I
Taking a rest with the Dolomites behind
Taking a rest with the Dolomites behind
Sculpture celebrating the cycle path
Sculpture celebrating the cycle path
The might Gastof Post!
The might Gastof Post!
Open air orchestra performance
Open air orchestra performance
First Austrian Schnitzel. What a winner!
First Austrian Schnitzel. What a winner!

Bled

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Bled, funny name for a place. Funny name or not, it was our next stop as we ventured through Slovenia. Bled was to be our last taste of Slovenia before we crossed its boundaries and ventured into Austria.

The two hour drive through the incredible countryside to get to Bled was filled with rare viewings of small towns that each had their own character and appeal. None of them were on any tourist route or have ever been reviewed by Lonely Planet, but provided us with the special moments that you are only likely to see on a MILK card or a coffee table book. We saw the locals harvesting their fields, hay stacks that would rival some small skyscrapers – and all done using traditional methods. The old tractors, the ancient rickety barns and the wild-flowers covering the rolling hills in a beautiful blanket of colour were all unique in their own way. We hoped that Bled itself would provide some equally beautiful moments as on the drive to get there. Scattered amongst this beautiful countryside were placards, banners and posters for one key thing that defined Bled; the cream cake. It was something that we later divulged in and it certainly lived up to its famous reputation. More about the cream cake later.

Like so many of the places we have stayed thus far, this was also within someone’s home and we certainly met our most hospitable host yet. Her name was Andrea and she was almost aggressive in her hospitality. We arrived and within moments we were seated around a table with a map of the city getting all the local hints and tricks. I do mean ALL. It was very thorough indeed. Thanks Andrea!

Loaded with more information than our Frommer’s guide, the rest of our first day in Bled was filled with exploring and getting a feel for what the locals are all into. We visited the local bakeries and saw the much advertised cream cakes, however at this point we restrained and thought we would wait for the next day as not to spoil our dinner. I must at this point make a shameful confession that although there were many local delicacies on offer, our bodies couldn’t take another ‘seafood dish’ and we opted for the local Chinese place!! Haha. I have to admit, although not Slovenian at all, it was a refreshing change. Chicken and cashew nuts! Ahhh, we miss the quasi Chinese-Australian cuisine. So much variety in Aus!

The next day we had our sights set on hiring a row boat and making our own way out to the Island with the famous church planted on the middle of it. There was however another option that could have been taken, which was to be taken out on a traditional boat with a guide – but we thought better of it as we felt up for the challenge of mastering the rowing technique ourselves. So, the row boat was sourced, hired and off we set. I must say that my rowing technique was a little shaky for the first minute but after that I feel like I could have represented Australia in the upcoming London Olympics. You have never seen such style. Lauren enjoyed being rowed out without having to lift a finger. The island was quite magical, however it was swamped by tourists, which we were included. Apparently, as local legend has it, it is suggested that if you ring the bell in the clock tower on the island it will guarantee you good luck for years. For us it was just a silly tourist attraction that it seemed Asian tourists couldn’t get enough of. We did not go and ring the bell tower. We just wished good luck upon ourselves and did a quick tour of the island. We did encounter a special moment whereby we saw a swan go up against a Labrador. Not much needs to be said except that the swan did a more than adequate job of defendeding itself against the dog. The swan was the absolute unanimous winner! We kept our distance from the swans from that point onwards.

So the time had come, once we were back on dry land to try the most advertised delight in the town; the cream cake. There were many a vendor trying to flog off their fake version of the cake but little did they know that our host, Andrea, had given us the hottest tip in town of where to buy the cream cake where they still used the traditional methods and recipe. It was delicious. After finishing it we were most tempted to return and go back for another. Now, so that all of you don’t go wild with your imagination I will give a short description of it for you, as it was regrettably not captured on camera. Picture a vanilla slice and double the thickness of the base crust and also add a thick layer of fresh cream above the vanilla goodness. Really it is a vanilla slice made with the greatest of care that is steeped in history. Great combination! Well done Bled!

Thanks to our hostess with the mostest, we also checked out Vintgar gorge. It was a series of wooden bridges that cris-crossed over the white-water falls which eventuated in a huge slap (waterfall) called Pod Slap at the end. It was a great little couple of hour hike through this untouched wilderness which at points rivaled moments of Plitvice Lakes (view previous blog if you haven’t read yet). Well, thank you Bled for your great moments and your delicious cream cakes. Our next move was to cross the Slovenian boarder and arrive for a big bike-ride in Oberdrauburg, Austria; the land of the schnitzel.

J&L

The Soča Valley

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Cut my heart open at present, and part of the Soča river would flow from it. It was an all-too-short love affair, but the Soča Valley and it’s mighty river is top of the list along with Vancouver as my favourite place in the world. This gem is tucked away between the alps dividing Italy and Slovenia (literally, ski over a mountain in Slovenia and you are in an Italian ski resort). The Soča River snakes its way in a brilliant aqua blue path over pristine white rocks as it makes a trail through the valley. Dotted along the way are small farming towns, and jovial locals who are pleased to welcome you to the banks of the Soča. They look like they have something to be proud of, and after three short days, I wholeheartedly agree with them.

Our departure from Bohinj was via the car train, which is a railway through the depths of the alps, emerging in the valley. As it was torrential weather, we opted for this safer option, as driving a mountain pass in blinding rain was not considered an idea that was good for our marriage. I am a bit of a skittish passenger in the best of conditions. At the end of the railway, I knew it had been a hit, as Joel had dubbed himself ‘Indiana Jones’ and couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. Sometimes I wonder if boys ever truly grow into men…

We took refuge in a small cafe in Tolmin and watched church and called the family. We always treasure these moments. Normality is a great gift you jump at when on the road. The Soča River was spilling at the sides and clearly not in the mood for some rafting action. Instead we took the opportunity to become cultured travelers and to educate ourselves on a sampling of history from the area. The Soča valley was one of the pivitol regions of both WW1 and WW2, home of the Isonzo Font between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarians. Many of the battle sites and trenches still exist today and have become open air museums. We visited the indoor war museum in Kobarid and it was an astonishing collection of artifacts and photographs. We were the youngest patrons by about 50 years, but found it to be a worthwhile experience. Joel spent the majority of the time at the gun cabinets whilst I tried to understand the finer details. Whilst driving through the Soča Valley, you cannot help but become besieged by history, as most everything had something to do with the war. You can see walking paths and switchbacks on the mountains that the soldiers used in battle, and you marvel at how anyone survived fighting in such extreme conditions.

We spent the night in the picturesque town of Bovec and pondered how to buy our ‘next’ holiday home in the vicinity. The following day we hiked to an open air museum and it was very sobering to tread the ground that had claimed so many lives. There were spectacular views over Bovec and I thought to myself that if any land was worth fighting over, this would be it. The whole area is just stunningly beautiful. Then we were off to Camp Adrenaline to get our teeth sunk into some action sports! The camp ground is nestled in between two mountain ranges that stand as sentries over it’s precious river. The guys that ran the campsite were Slovenian but spoke excellent English, and they were so cruisy that we instantly felt like the world had stopped in time. The river runs through the camp, and is the local refrigerator (at 8 degrees, “perfect for chilling a beer in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette”).

We hit the river running with our guide ‘Ali’ (his name is more complex than that in Slovenian, but we had to exercise our Aussie skills at nicknames, so Ali he had become). Ali was nuts. He has been kayaking all his life and you could tell. White water rafting with him had a permanent pleased smile plastered across Joel’s face, which had me in stitches the whole 10km. Within five minutes Ali had pushed us out of the raft into the river, and I got instant hypothermia (not really, but I did get a brain freeze!). Never have I been more fond of a wetsuit. I’m undecided if I enjoyed the scenery or the rapids more, to me they were both equally appealing. I felt like I was having an outer-body experience because I was unsure how anything was permitted to be so beautiful, it was quite overwhelming. I was deeply thankful, and grateful to be able to feel the full force of appreciation that was stirring around on the inside of me. I am not sure if that makes sense, but I don’t care, it was a sacred moment.

Back to camp life it was, and we cherished every second as we both adore camping and would have spent a great deal of our trip doing so if only we had the gear. The highlight was the arrival of ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Texans’ (love how Texas is just a state, but it’s also a definition!). A night by the campfire, a combination of cultures, and a delicious moussaka cooked by Sebastian were all a welcome melody to our travel experience. The news that our German friends Till & Suzanna decided to join us for our morning canyoning trip was the perfect end to the night. It was agreed that we would leave at ‘a quarter past’ the next morning. Purposely ‘quarter past’ was not allocated a number, in true camp adrenaline chilled out style! “Quarter past what?” was the question that alluded an answer.

Canyoning. Oh my! Those two hours were probably two of the most enjoyable hours of our whole trip. It was a riot! Slipping and sliding down waterfalls, hurling ourselves down rock slides and jumping into freezing pools was a bag of laughs a minute, and Till & Suzanna were amazing company. In our 5mm wetsuits we were completely insulated, and personally I felt like an invincible walking gumby. I jumped over a jutting ledge down 10m which was as far as the nerves would take me. We all opted out of the 12m vertical rock slide at the end after being given a lengthy lecture from Sebastian about people who have broken bones and damaged backs and necks etc on that slide!! No thanks!

We whiled away the afternoons lazing by the crystal blue river, Joel playing guitar, and myself…well…staring in awe at the Soča the majority of the time. That, or imagining I was Susan from Narnia-Prince Caspian (which was filmed by the Soča river to give it that magical colour in the film). I was a mighty warrior, a skilled archer of the river! I still stand by this!

When it was time for us to depart we were all disappointed. We could easily have stayed a few more nights but we had accommodation booked in Bled. The perils of planning ahead! The guys from camp decided to jump off their van roof from the bridge into the river, and with those frivolities over, we were off. We drove up the mountain pass silent, we had both really connected with this place and had enjoyed the company. The enchanting scenery had cast a spell on us and we vowed to bring anyone who cared to make the voyage to Europe to this hidden oasis!

All our love….

J&L xxx