Wednesday, July 23, 2014

AUSTRIA

Austrian countryside
Rainy days and cloudy skies overshadowed our first few stops in Austria but could not hide the beauty of this country --- magnificent mountains, sheer cliffs, hills lined with green velvet grass and dotted with alpine houses. 


View from chairlift
Ron and Rainer at the grill 
Fortunately, we had been forewarned that Austria (like Slovenia) requires a highway pass that must be pre-purchased, so we arrived in a small town on Lake Millstatt without mishap. Our hotel had a spa and offered breakfast and dinner so we did not have to venture out in bad weather.  Between rainfalls, we were able to get in a little biking and walking.  


Traditional Austrian music
Sampling local cheese


Taking the boat around Wolfgangsee
The heart of  Mozart Square in St. Gilgen


St. Johann in Tirol







Our next stop was a small town 45 minutes south of Salzburg and one of the highlights of this trip.  A friend I had known in Florida moved back to Europe 25 years ago. For the past 12 years, Rainer and his wife have lived in Muhlbach am Hochk√∂nig.  Formerly a copper mining site, the town is part of an idyllic area known for its magnificent scenery, hiking and skiing.



There is nothing like seeing a country through the eyes of a native.  We got to tour a replica of the copper mines, hear traditional music, meet a local cheese maker and ride a chairlift to the top of a ski mountain. From there, we could see countless miles of ski runs.  Thanks to cooperation between various ski centers, you can spend the day skiing from one mountain to another  All in all, it was a wonderful few days. Rainer and his wife could not have been kinder, more gracious hosts.  

The weather was gradually improving as we continued on to St. Gilgen on Wolfgangsee, a beautiful lake created long ago by the erosion of a glacier.  The lake was named after Wolgang Amadeus Mozart's patron saint.  Though Mozart never visited St. Gilgen, his mother was born here and his sister lived in St. Gilgen after she married. 

We took one of the boats that circle the lake and stops at various towns along the way.  We also enjoyed pleasant walks along both sides of the lake. 

Driving past Salzburg and west into ever higher mountains, we came to St. Johann in Tirol. From 1540 until the 18th century, the economy thrived thanks to copper and silver mines.  Today it depends on tourism --- skiers in winter; hikers, bikers and paragliders in summer. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse again and we had rain and cloudy skies during our stay. Fortunately, we had a little apartment with a kitchen so Chef Ron was able to whip up some nice, healthy meals.  
    
Austria was once part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Today it is a member of the European Union and an independent democracy.  Lying within the Alps, Austria is bordered by Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Italy.  


  




Sunday, July 6, 2014

SLOVENIA

Our lovely residence in Bled
Town of Bled at the foot of the mountains

Bled Castle
Pathway around the lake 
Slovenia is a beautiful country but we did not have a beatific entrance to it. One must buy a pass to use the  highways before entering the country.  We, along with countless others, did not see the sign just before the border stating that.  (I've since read that it is very small). Consequently we were pulled over and issued a ticket for 150 euros ($205).  It is literally highway robbery. Fortunately, the beauty of Bled eased our pain.
Island in Lake Bled
  

Vintgar Gorge 
Vintgar Gorge
Bled is in northwest Slovenia on a small glacial lake. Bled Castle sits atop a rocky cliff overlooking the lake and town. Traces of prehistoric humans have been found on the small island in the lake (the only island in the whole country). There are 99 steps up to the church that now occupies it and local tradition calls for a groom to carry his bride all the way up those steps. And the bride is not to say a word the entire time.  I would think that results in men choosing very petite brides.  Possibly petite and silent.  

Vintgar Gorge

There is a lovely pathway around Bled Lake that made for a nice 3 mile long hike. We also took a short drive to Vintgar Gorge.  A 1,600 meter (1 mile) long, narrow pathway is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs that range from 160 to 330 feet high.  The Radovna River winds through them. 
Vintgar Gorge

This was our only stop in Slovenia, a short layover before we head into Austria.   It is a small country, just over 2 million people, bordered by Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary and a small area along the Adriatic Sea. The mountains and architecture give it an Austrian flavor.  In 1991, Slovenia split from Yugoslavia and became independent.  It is presently a member of the European Union. 










   


  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

CROATIA: INLAND

Our residence during our visit to Krka National Park 
Our apartment opened onto the pool
Krka National Park 
Croatia has 8 national parks - quite a lot for a country slightly smaller than West Virginia. We visited two of them.  The first, Krka National Park, runs along the Krka River and is home to the largest travertine cascade system in Europe.  A boardwalk winds around some of the 17 waterfalls and pools. After walking that, we took a boat ride to another waterfall farther up the river.  It also 
Krka National Park

stopped at an island in the middle of the river that has been the site of a Franciscan monastery since 1445. 

Our residence was a short drive from the entrance to the park in the midst of olive trees and vineyards.  It seemed more more like a country estate than a commercial property.  
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park

Continuing eastward, we came to Croatia's most famous national park, Plitvice Lakes.  No easy boat ride here.  Over the course of 2 days we walked many miles up, down and around 16 green and turquoise lakes linked by countless waterfalls. 114 square miles in size and considered one of the most beautiful natural sites in Europe, Plitvice is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 


Plitvice Lakes National Park
Our final stop in Croatia was Krapinske Toplice, a small town in an area known for green rolling hills, medieval castles and thermal springs.  We had a package deal here that included 5 relaxing days in a spacious apartment, use of the hotel’s spa facilities, massages and superb 5 course dinners. 
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park

For a small nation, Croatia seems to have it all.  Majestic mountains, historic cities, charming villages, about 1,200 islands and 1,100 miles of coastline. The people are very kind and most helpful.  Yet, like most of Europe, the country faces economic problems. Taxes are high and the birth rate is well below replacement level.  The median age of the population is 41.4.  

After 39 days and 11 stops, we say farewell to Croatia and head into Slovenia and then Austria.
Krapinske Toplice one evening
                                                               
Now that we know how beautiful this country is and how many nice places there are to stay, we hope to return. We certainly wish Croatia and its people well as we had a wonderful experience here.


Farewell to Croatia