European Event of the Year – Flims

Flims_20If you are reading along with us then please excuse this last long entry. This was our final fling for 2018 and, although long, it is mainly pictures! Of MGs! But this, driving Goldie and the MG family, are what takes us on these adventures.

We went to Flims in the Swiss Alps for the MG European Event of the Year (EEOTY), an annual gathering of MG folk from different parts of Europe and beyond. This event moves all over Europe, this year it was in Switzerland.

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Flims is a lovely town full of beautiful old buildings.

Is is set high above a small lake which is accessed via a funicular. The lake is a popular swimming area during summer, with food and drinks delivered to your patch of grass by a waiter, just as if it was a 5 star hotel. The surrounding mountains are beautiful and I would love to go back in winter and ski these lovely mountains.

The event this year was hosted by the MG Car Club of Switzerland to coincide with the club’s 70th anniversary. The Swiss club is strong, with over 700 members. Switzerland, post war, was the 5th largest market in the world for MGs (after UK, USA, Australia and South Africa). Interestingly the importer of MG TCs transported the cars to Switzerland by rounding up some friends and driving to the UK and driving the cars back to Switzerland!

Attending the event were 173 cars from across Europe. There were:

  • 52 from Switzerland
  • 40 from the UK
  • 19 from the Netherlands
  • 14 from Germany

Others from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Spain, Sweden, one from the USA and one from Australia!

Flims is an established ski resort and hence has many old traditional hotels. The one we are staying in was built in 1903 and is very graceful: a drink in the garden or a meal on the veranda or even in the cosy bar. Very helpful staff who seem to be excited to see a collection of MGs arrive on their front lawn.

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Upon arrival in Flims (one road in / one road out) we were directed to the registration and were fortunate to meet Werner and Ruth who were staying at the same hotel. They then introduced us to Ruedi and Verena, all four are from Zurich and they have been delightful company over dinners and drives. They each have a TC, but boy do they drive fast! We have trouble keeping up with them on the windy mountain roads.

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John, Ruth, Ros, Ruedi, Verena and Werner – thank you for your friendship

Our first night was a cocktail party at the Hotel Waldhaus where we were welcomed (in three languages), on a balmy evening on the hotel lawn, with drinks and nibbles. A few of the organisers’ cars were parked on the lawn, including Martin’s, the OC leader, TD: black with white polka dots, apparently (or so we were told) inspired by a picture of Marilyn Munroe in a similar car in a matching dress!

The hotel was built around 1870 with the main hotel built in 1889. It now has three buildings of the same era. Originally each stood separately, however they are now connected by underground passages and include a modern pool and ski access area! The hotel also houses a museum including various artefacts associated with the hotel over its years of operation.

A walk down the hill to a BBQ and a great evening meeting new MG friends from across Europe. Everyone has a story and they are all interesting.

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The following three days involved a number of runs of varying lengths. We opted for the short run on Day 1 (we have just clocked up 16,000kms so didn’t need to clock up kms) and we were eternally grateful to Rolf and Daniella who led the way in their beautiful red MGB, as the road directions left us a little perplexed at times.

From top left: On the road; Daniella and Rolf lead the way; MGs parked at the restaurant; Ros and Daniella with their MGs

The run ended up at a restaurant just below the village where the Heidi books/movies were set. The men out there might not remember the Heidi stories, I am pretty sure most of the ladies who grew up in the 1950s – 70s will. This was a fascinating visit if you had read the books when you were growing up, as the grandfather’s cottage is there, perched in a grassy field on the edge of a mountain, and complete with goats.

The next day we headed off with our Zurich friends for a leisurely drive through the surrounding countryside with stops for coffee and lunch in local villages. The drive took us through the Rhine Gorge, quite spectacular scenery and a fun road to drive.

We did enjoy our day out with Werner and Ruth and Ruedi and Verena as it was pleasant to travel with just two cars rather than a large contingent and these two couples extended the hand of friendship to us in a very generous manner. Werner drives a beautiful white TC and Ruedi and Immaculate black one. Thank you all!

And of course, there were some beautiful and exotic MGs present at this event!

And of course there were the inevitable breakdowns, including one car from Monaco which luckily came to Switzerland in a trailer. It refused to start on day two despite the attention of amny and various MG mechanics.

The dinners staged by the Swiss Club were fabulous, though one did rather tax the MGs. The second night dinner was served in a huge and rustic barn. The food was very traditional and interesting. Night two tested all the MGs as it was held at the top of one of the ski lifts. All 150 cars gathered at one departure point and then processed through the town and then up a very steep winding and narrow road which passed by snow guns and lift pylons before reaching the lift station restaurant at the top. This road, driven in convoy, proved a little too much for some drivers and their cars. However, once committed there was no room to turn back so onwards and ever upwards was the go. All cars eventually made it but there were a few stoppages and blockages on the way up! The view at the top should have been fantastic, however the mist descended obscuring all. The dinner was fantastic! The drive home a little less dramatic.

The Gala dinner on the last night was again at the top of a ski lift, though a different restaurant at the top of a different lift. The views were magnificent, the restaurant pretty classy, the food excellent and the whole event went off in a very polished and professional manner.

From Top left: Ros and John with organisers Tina, EEOTY organiser, and (husband) Martin, President of the Swiss Club (and owner of the polka dot MG!); Dave (Godwin of previous trips with us) and Dave, two other Aussies; Ruedi and Stroupy (who went everywhere) and Verena; Werner and John toasting a fabulous event; Martin receiving a gift from Pierro from the Italian MGCC.

Our hats are off to the Swiss MGCC for a magnificent and exceptionally well organised event. If you are in Europe around the time of the European Event of the Year and with access to an MG then this is an event not to be missed. But, you do need to book early to ensure you get a place. Next year EEOTY is in Barcelona.

Finally, thanks again to our Zurich friends: Werner and Ruth, Ruedi and Verena (and Stroupy!).

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We did think that this would be our final European jaunt. However …..! There appears to be a MG event, organised by Pierro from Italy, to Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro in 2019 and it appears there is just enough room for 1 MG and 2 Aussies!

So, we will be back in Goldie next year for another MG adventure! Thanks for travelling with us, we love having you all along for the ride.

Italy – Day 2

Day two was a bit more ambitious: about 100 miles travelling through mountain peaks including five mountain passes at over 2,100 meters: Ofenpass (2149), Forcola di Livgno (2315), Passo d’Eira (2209), Passo di Foscagno (2291) and Umbrailpass (2503). That is the height of Kosciusko five times in the day. Countless hairpin bends, numerous gear changes and amazing vistas across valleys and mountain peaks. Unfortunately, the drive was longer than planned as the La Schere tunnel was closed (due to we believe to a rock fall) so we ended up adding 20 miles and returning (almost) to the top of Stelvio again!

All in all we travelled from Italy to Switzerland (a visit to St Moritz), back into Italy, then Switzerland and finally Italy again. All quite seamless with only occasionally a border patrol waving us through. Most borders just have the closed down customs buildings gradually disintegrating in the extreme weather. Where there is someone at the border checking cars they are apparently looking for refugees hidden in cars, however, as the MGB is too small to hide anything in, let alone a person, we just get waved through. The scenery we travelled through was varied and beautiful.

Many of the towns we travelled through had ski lifts, indeed we probably passed about 20 towns that would be thriving in winter: not to say they were not thriving now with the hikers and cyclists. Throughout the two days we were amazed at the number of people out and about either cycling or walking. Everywhere we went there were paths with hikers or cyclists on them, up and down mountains, along valleys and into the trees. It seemed that every lay-by on the road had a car tucked into it as healthy Europeans set out for their days exercise. Then, of course, all these people out burning up calories need feeding, so there are restaurants everywhere, particularly at the top of the passes. Often the roads are covered with partially open tunnels, obviously to keep them free of snow in winter. Some are one way and controlled by traffic lights.

The valleys here are full of fruit trees, grown in very tight formation and trimmed to a narrow width, not growing naturally and spreading as they do in Australia.

We also drove through fields of crops, often being watered extensively, while cows graze the hillsides. And, yes, they do wear cow bells! They are also pretty contented, there is plenty of feed here.

We are staying at a great hotel set high up on the hill above Mals with views over the valley. As the location is quite isolated dinner is included as well. This makes decisions about what to have easier, as the five courses only have two choices each. The menu is interesting and the food is excellent,both delicious and creative. It was a pleasure to eat in the hotel each night.

After a few nights we got to know our neighbours (you have set tables) and we enjoyed our discussions so much that on our third night we had dinner with Christiana, Peter and their son, Oola. A most enjoyable evening and, again, we learnt so much about living in Germany as a result of our conversations.

Another highlight of this hotel is the car and motor scooter collection owned by the hotel owner, Georg. The collection is housed in one of the lower levels of the hotel and on one particular night dessert was served as a buffet ‘in the garage’. This is a fascinating small collection mainly consisting of motor scooters and three wheelers, mainly Italian Isos, BMW Isettas and German Messerschmitts as well as a beautifully preserved 1959 Mercedes 190 SL

A fabulous night and a terrific hotel where the guest is well looked after. Every morning on your breakfast table there is a list of recommended hikes or places to visit that day. Ours always came printed in English. Each night, the waiter assigned to our table spoke good English. (Not every member of the hotel staff spoke English.) A reflection of how well run this hotel is.

The South Tyrol is a beautiful area and one well worth visiting, especially if you like driving twisty, challenging mountain roads.

Italy – Day 1

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Italy you say, how did you get there? Well, we are only just in Italy, in the top left corner minutes from the borders of both Switzerland and Austria, in the town of Mals in the South Tyrol.

The drive this day was very scenic (as is the norm) including passing a lake which was a hive of summer activity. The lake was created by a dam and this left the village church under water. This day there were many kite surfers out on the lake and many people sunbathing and swimming in the lake.

We were very surprised when we arrived at the Watles Hotel to discover that the language of the hotel is German: apparently this part of Italy was once in Austria but was transferred to Italy after WW1. Along with this history, they have also kept the German language. It does not really make a big difference, my school boy German is not much help!

Last year, two of the adventures from our African trip, RIP and Blue B travelled to this area, the Dolomites or South Tyrol (the location seems to accept both) and had such a great drive in the area that we decided to copy them. Fortunately we have their driving instructions (turn left out of the hotel etc) and so I had booked us into the Hotel Watles as this is where they had also stayed. The hotel is perched 500 or so metres up from the valley floor with a schools and a castle sitting just below it and with amazing views to the Alps. A ski lift outside the door gives a clue to who stays here in winter, but now, in summer, the hotel is full of hikers and bike riders.

Our first day was a drive to a destination, the Stelvio Pass. From the town of Trafoi there are 48 hairpin bends to ascend the 14 kilometres to the actual pass at the top. We only realised the switchbacks were numbered when we got to 46, so we do not have a photo of the very first hairpin! The first section of the road climbs through trees, with corners hotly contested: cyclists, cars and motorcyclists all vying for room.

Up the pass we were in second gear at best, often first around the corners and with numerous stops to allow downhill traffic to pass. And motorbikes galore, as you can imagine, PLUS an amazing number of cyclists peddling to the top. We must have passed / overtaken 300 on the way up. I guess that, a bit like us driving this pass specifically to say we have DRIVEN the Stelvio Pass, for a cyclist it is the ability to say he/she has actually cycled to the top is a must do.

Not only is the road spectacular, so to is the scenery. The question arises, watch the road or watch the scenery. There are not too many opportunities on the way up for stopping and scenery gazing.

At the top, where there was a restaurant or three, it was lycra and leather heaven: we felt a little out of it, but at least being in a convertible car meant we got many thumbs up from the motorcyclists. Have you heard of the ‘foot wave’? I made a point of slowing to allow the motorcyclists to pass as often as possible and as they usually have two hands full they give a quick ‘thanks’ wave with their right leg!

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From the top we rolled over into Switzerland and stopped to read an interesting display about the activities of the Swiss army in WW1: at this point the Italy / Swiss / Austria borders (used to) meet and as Italy was on one side and Austria was with Germany and Switzerland was neutral the area was a hive of activity as each country sought to get higher up the mountains than the other in order to attack (Austrians) or defend (Italians and Swiss). As we are at over 2,000 meters up, the pictures depicted a very cold and snowy scene for much of the year, including dragging a canon up to the mountain peaks even higher up. Tunnels were dug into the snow and ice as a means of both sheltering from the icy winds and building defensive positions.

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While John drove up the Stelvio pass I drove down the other side. I had perhaps envied him the drive up, a great way to exercise the arms and shoulders when you are driving a car without power steering. However, down the other side into a beautiful valley was equally exciting with 45 hairpins to negotiate, although over a slightly longer number of kms. Then, of course we had to head back to the hotel and this drive contributed a few more hair pins to the total. Then, of course there were the six more just prior to the hotel! I have always loved driving mountain roads with hairpin bends, however these roads surpass all imagining!

A great and enjoyable day.

Rottach-Egern, Bavaria

Another generous invitation from a friend to visit him in his house in Rottach-Egern, Bavaria.

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The house was built originally in the early 60s however Alex has recently renovated it into a very comfortable home.

Our highlights were having dinner with Alex and friends in a rustic restaurant in the forest, with specialities obatzda and suckling pig plus, of course, numerous types of beer. Meeting and speaking with a family from Hamburg and learning about how they live and work was enhancing and really helped to further understand German culture and heritage.

On the following day Alex scored top marks, we went to the Rottach-Egern beer festival! By bicycle., this being the traditional way to travel to these events.

Set under trees with benches and tables for probably over 800 people, an ompapa band, beer by the litre, pretzels, sausages, chicken and sweets like never before, it was an eye opener.

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Most of the males wore lederhosen and the women, dirndls: the pictures will help explain these amazing outfits.

During the afternoon a procession of horse drawn carts arrived with 200 finely dressed children and adults representing nearby villages.

The girls dirndls are unique to each village and with as many as 20 from each village the procession was amazing.

We were then treated to 80 children (of ages from 10 to 15) from one village on the stage preforming traditional dances to the band’s accompaniment.

 

The whole afternoon (well actually from 10am to midnight) was organised by local groups, be they the football club etc and, I understand, everyone was a volunteer on the day. Alex explained that the whole affair was local: not for the tourists, but for the people living in the villages. And ,at this time of year, you will find one or two or more happening somewhere in Germany every weekend. Alex was popping off to another one at his sister’s in law after we left!

The event clearly explained why Alex spent so much of his youth at these festivals.

 

Southern Germany

We rejoined the end of the Romantic Road in the town of Fussen, specifically to see the Schloss Neuschwanstein (you know it, it’s the one on all the jigsaws and the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle)

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and Schloss Hohenschwangau.

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King Maximilain II built Hohenschwangau on top of the castle destroyed by Napoleon (which was itself built on the ruins of…and so history goes on) and it retains much of the original furniture as it was occupied up until 1912. No photos inside but delightfully presented: you get the normal king’s bedroom, king’s dressing room, king’s reception room, king’s writing room, king’s dining room and then on the other side the queen’s rooms!

King Ludwig II grew up in Schloss Hohenschwangau but commissioned Schloss Neuschwanstein as well (he seemed to collect castles as he inherited Hohenschwangau, living mostly in Schloss Linderhof and planning a few others.

However, he is remembered for Schloss Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle built between 1869 and 1886 when he died, and any further work on the castle stopped. The tour included the parts of the castle that were completed with some sumptuous decorations and extravagant mosaics, artwork and statutory.

Visiting the castles is only possible on a tour and I had booked our tours days before, and I glad I did as I was able to collect the tickets in 20 minutes while the queue for unbooked tickets looked to be hours long: not that it mattered much as at 10am the earliest entrance for the day was 4pm! It’s about an hour walk between the castles and the entrance time at each castle allows sufficient time for an amble plus ice cream.

Ros again scored highly on the hotel, a smallish guest house set in a garden offering outdoor seating for breakfast and dinner. We admit to being lazy: we stopped for dinner at the guesthouse both nights as we could not see any reason to go down to the old town and face the crowds of Chinese tourists.

Our lethargy could also be due to the amazing weather we have had over the past 2 weeks: each day in the 30s with a slight breeze, but it does somewhat suck the energy out of us when driving long distances.

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Footnote: on our drive the next day we visited Schloss Linderhof as well: much smaller and set out with a pond in front with a gold fountain.

Bulle Switzerland

Switz_36We were fortunate to be invited to visit friends in Bulle on the west side of Switzerland between Lausanne and Bern.

Our first afternoon was delightful, a trip down to Lac de Geneve and a walk along the water front in Montreal with its castle on an island commanding a great view of the lake.

The lake edge was beautifully laid out with gardens of flowers and trees (we noticed lantana as one of the shrubs!) and with many large hotels taking full benefit of the views over the lake.  Ice creams were called for and we felt very ‘European’ promenading along the water’s edge savouring our fast melting ice cream. There is a statue of Freddie Mercury on the lake edge as he lived here for a time.

The journey home took us up alongside the lake into the vineyards stretching up the very steep hills. We stopped at our hosts’ favourite spot: a roadside cabin selling the local wine. Here you could buy a bottle, and they supplied the glasses so we could sit on the cliff top overlooking the vineyards and the lake while enjoying a glass or two. The wine was from Chasselas grapes, grown in the Laulax AOC region of Switzerland and in particular the St-Saphorin township.

The wine was fresh and fruity while still being delightfully dry. A most enjoyable way to finish a lakeside drive. John was amazed by how close the rows of vines are here.

That night we enjoyed a unique dining experience, one very local to the region and Switzerland. Out came a portable griller which had 6 small trays with handles. Into the small trays you put thick slices of cheese which you put under the griller to melt. Once the cheese was liquid you tipped it onto your plate and ate it with potatoes and a variety of meats, pickles, condiments and etc etc. Absolutely delicious!

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We went for a longer excursion the next day which took us up into the Alps just north of Chamonix.  At one point on the drive we had a 3 way intersection: ahead to Italy, right to France or hard right to stay in Switzerland.

Our destination was Lac d’-Emosson and its higher sibling, Lac de Vieux Emosson.  Both lakes were created by dams to store water for hydo generation. Of particular interest, these lakes were specifically designed to pump water up hill, utilising excess electricity from coal and wind generated power to effetely ‘store’ the power.

I estimated the walk was about 6 kms, climbing about 800 metres with the elevation at the top of 2,220: about the same height as Kosciusko!

The views along the way were spectacular and included a view of cloud topped Mount Blanc.

 

As well, the wild flowers were out and they were simply beautiful. Most importantly at the top there is a restaurant, so we were able to rehydrate with beer and coffee!

That evening we went to a nearby restaurant, Le Gruyerien, for Ros’ birthday and enjoyed even more local wine (a Gamay) with delicious local food. This particular day is also Swiss National Day so the evening was topped off by watching the fireworks, on our return from dinner, from the garden.

Our drive back across Switzerland was slower as we picked a route across the mountains via Jaun (only 1,509 metres!) and then down along Thuner See  (the lake at the western side of Interlaken). Plenty of cutesy photos of Swiss scenery along the way including numerous farms both on the valley flats and on precipitous mountainsides and a beautiful old covered bridge.

We stopped by a lovely lake for morning tea and then lunch in Liechtenstein because we had never been to Liechtenstein and this was a one off opportunity to do so!

 

 

Lindau

After four days driving the Romantic Road and being constantly on your feet walking the cobbled streets of these beautiful old towns, it was time for some down time. So, we headed for Lindau on Lake Constance.

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This is really a resort town, though it is in itself an old and rather pretty town with some beautiful old buildings and winding streets.

The big attraction here is, however, the lake and all it has to offer which includes lake cruises and just about any type of water sport you could name. You did have to pay to use the lake side baths.

Many of the hotels are set along the lake front and as we were going to enjoy the lake position we did book a hotel which faced the lake. It also had a swimming pool! And the weather was very hot, so the swimming pool was going to be well used.

The first afternoon was pretty slow, around the pool and do not move. Then we headed out for a walk. There were lots of buskers along the waterfront which was terrific. There seems to be music in whatever town you visit which add to the ambience considerably.

Day 2 was a little shopping and a little more sitting around the pool. And dinner was on the waterfront watching the sun go down and the lights of the harbour come up. All in all, very relaxing.

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Romantic Strasse – Part 2

Onwards on our drive, to Donauworth via Dinkelsbuhl, Wallerstein and Nordlingen! The weather is fine and sunny and allows for some beautiful top down driving.

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The Romantic Strasse essentially follows river valleys with the villages dotted along the route. This is a very agricultural area with sweeping vistas of crops, all pretty much ready for, or being harvested. Often there is a crop of sunflowers bordering the grain crop.

The villages are set amidst this landscape and can often be seen in the distance quite some time before you reach them. Also along the roads you will see religious icons, usually of a crucified Crist or Mary, and these are quite a common sight.

Perhaps my favourite memory of summer in the German countryside is the fields of golden crops stretching into the distance. On one corner, the harvest has been immortalised in these huge rolls which had been put to quite an artistic use!

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Dinkelsbuhl is another exceptionally well preserved town. We arrived and parked (it’s easy, most towns allow cars close to the centre and there are plenty of spots). First up a coffee and then wander around the town looking at the beautiful old merchant houses which line the main street and square. Many of the houses are highly decorated and others have lovely flower boxes full of, generally, geraniums.

The town is set right on the river and when you walk through the wall in one area the river stretches out before you with a beautifully shaded walk between the town wall and the river. Should you wish to, you can take a tour of the town in a lovely old cart drawn by beautiful horses.

The town has numerous gates which allowed us to take pictures of Goldie driving down a picturesque street and then driving through one of the town gates.

Next, Nordlingen which is built inside a crater formed by a meteorite thousands of years ago. Consequently it has an almost circular city wall and the centre is quite well preserved. We arrived and parked (these towns seem very relaxed about parking where ever but perhaps I don’t read the signs too well) and it was incredibly quiet. We set off and walked along a few streets and suddenly it was not so quiet any more: an ompapa band was playing to a crowded street which was set up with tables and chairs along with food stalls and the local Rotary group selling beer (E3 for half litre!).

The church here was again huge, with clear glass windows allowing a light flooded interior. The choir stalls were fascinating as the pew ends had the most extraordinary collection of figures on their ends and each individual ‘chair’ in the stall had a skull carved into it. My favourite has to be the elderly gentleman who has definitely been put to sleep by the sermon!

As the exterior wall of Nordlingen is completely intact, though parts have been restored, we then went for a walk along the wall. Built as a fortified town, there was little view from the wall as only arrow/gun slits can be peered through and many of these had been cemented over.

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Donauworth, which is on the confluence of the Danube and the Wornitz, was not quite so interesting and much of it appeared to be either new or significantly rebuilt. Perhaps we had seen too many beautiful old towns by this time!

And still another day, visiting only Rain and Landsberg am Lech before diverting off the Romantic Road to Lindau.

In Rain we happened upon a local Sunday market which was quite fascinating as it was clearly a totally local market bringing to this town household goods which otherwise people may well have had to drive miles to a much bigger town to buy. As well as the usual fish, cheese and deli stores, there was the brush man where Ros could not resist buying a bottle brush and John would have liked to buy an extendable spider web brush. It would not unfortunately, have fitted in Goldie, even in the unextended position! Also for sale were vacuum cleaners, paving, a variety of kitchen gadgets being enthusiastically demonstrated by their sellers, socks, dresses (too old for me says Ros), haberdashery, shoes and much more. Not a tourist stall in sight. Just a little train, in front of the town Hall,  for the littlies to enjoy while Mum and dad shopped.

Landsberg am Lech, our last stop on the Romantic Road (for now) is on the Lech (funny that) with the river beside the town and canals running through it. It was a warm Sunday and so many kids and adults were out enjoying the river and ice creams (as we have done often as the temperature has been in the 30s for the whole last 2 weeks).

Unfortunately, Landsberg was pretty much destroyed and hence the town, while old in in its reconstructed style, was all straight and clean. It paled a bit by comparison to the original towns. However one survivor was this beautiful old tower, the Mother Tower which was commissioned by the artist Hubert von Herkomer to honour his mother.

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Romantische Strasse: Part 1

The Romantic Road is one of Germany’s noted routes, extending 401 kms from Wurzburg in the north to Fussen in Bavaria, visiting about 30 medieval villages and historic sites along the way.

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But first, on our way from Berlin, we had a lunch stop at Bamberg to see an amazing old town which straddled rivers and canals (the town hall was built on an island: and covers the whole island) with a great cathedral and bishop’s residence on top of the hill.

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The city dates back to the time of bishop controlled towns and is still in pretty good order with winding streets and cafes selling the local ‘smoked’ beer. I’ll stick to pilsner! The old market square was extremely pretty with planter boxes of massed red geraniums hanging from all the balconies.

The cathedral was a highlight. It was consecrated in 1012, hence we missed the millennium celebrations by a few years.  We particularly liked the Bamberg Horseman, a statue from 1235 of a high ranking official arriving in town and looking towards the alter. Outside the entrance doorway has, in carved relief, on one side the saved (laughing) and on the other the damned (distorted faces) in chains: including a bishop, a king, a merchant and a pope!

Our first stop on the Romantic Road was Wurzburg where Ros had found a hotel just across the river from the town. We didn’t get very far that night as the restaurant next to the bridge had a bar opening onto the bridge and as a result about 100 people (including us!) stood on the bridge drinking the local wine, Franconian Sylvaner. I recall having Silvana in Australia in the late 1970s but it seems to have disappeared since then. However the wine is very recognisable (even form that long ago) and hit the spot on a warm evening standing on an old stone bridge looking at the River Main rushing by!

We met a couple and their doggy – a very spoilt doggy at that – and had a chat.

We wandered the town for a while and had dinner in a German Beer Garden where Ros had ‘Lard with pork scratchings’ (R. perhaps I will not order that again!) and I decided that although the weiners are very good, I would in future select a cut of meat that I recognise! We met a local couple, Peter and Ursula, over dinner and learnt much about the local area and its history.

There was the possibility of five towns to visit the next day – we managed three and that was tiring enough.

Tauberbischofsheim was our first town on the road.  A neatly presented village with a main square of cafes, a large castle with a park in the middle and some impressive buildings.

We arrived in Wiekersheim and it was almost empty: were we in the wrong town, as the bus loads of tourists had been with us on all our visits so far.  We were glad we stopped: a delightful market square leading to the Schloss Wiekersheim with an amazing garden that reminded me a bit of Blenheim Palace and with the Schloss overlooking the neatly laid out gardens and water features.

We tried to visit the Schloss itself and could only do so by tagging onto a German tour; not quite as helpful even if we were given English notes: the guide must have outlined 10 times as much as was written. However my understanding of Germany improved: German knights and their castles with many renovations over the centuries. The 1600s knights hall was amazing with animals in relief on the walls (only the tusks / antlers were real) plus paintings on ceiling and walls and a huge fireplace.

Our overnight stop was surely the best town on the road, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, as it is 80% original.  Most of the towns we visited had been bombed by the Allies and hence (like Gdansk and Berlin) there has been a lot of historical rebuilding.  Rothenburg o d T had a different history.  Although allied orders had been issued to use artillery to shell the town, into submission, the then US defence secretary had grown up with a picture of the town on his wall, as his mother had visited the town before the (first world) war. He knew of the beauty of the town and asked the commander of the allied forces to offer the Germans the option of leaving the town. Although Hitler had ordered that there was to be no surrender or negotiations, the Nazi commander was not in town when the offer was made and his 2IC accepted and evacuated the town allowing the allies to enter the town without having to extensively damage it through shelling.

And so today, Rothenburg is an exceptionally well preserved medieval town which exists as it had centuries ago.  Consequently the highlights of the town, the gates, walls, crooked houses (the most notable at the Plonlein gate), town hall, well/fountain, and main square are all there for the tourist, to experience and see exactly as it was when the US secretary’s mother visited 100 years ago!

Ros scored highly on the hotel selection again, an old hotel with creaking and sloping floors, a terraced restaurant overlooking a garden, a garage for Goldie and delightful staff who recognised a good car when they saw one!

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We joined the ‘Nightwatchman’s’ tour (the hotel was so good we were able to split our dinner and have appetisers before and mains after the tour) lead by a very eloquent and amusingly laconical nightwatchman. Fortunately the tour was in English. He took us around the town for an hour, stopping 5 or 6 times to point out a highlight such as the manhole in the city gates for any late returning citizens while providing a potted history of the town (hence my great knowledge about the retreat of the Germans!).

The town was, reputedly, saved once before, much earlier in history, during the Thirty Years War. Invaders were at the gates and had captured the Mayor and other town dignitaries and sentenced them to death. The town council appease the invading general by presenting him with a 3 litre pitcher of wine. The general, after taking a few sips, offered the town council a challenge; ‘drink the wine in one gulp and he would spare the town and their lives. The story goes that the Mayor stepped forward to accept the challenge, and succeeded and so the town was spared. This event, fantasy or not, is still celebrated and reenacted as a play to this day!

We spent time wandering through the town the next morning: we found the walls.

The manhole in the town gate (to allow late arrivals into the city)  and a house still occupied by the same family after a few centuries.

 

Berlin

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In 1974 I visited Berlin: a train for 100 miles from West Germany through East Germany with passports checks at each end plus East German soldiers all along the route.

In Berlin I visited West Berlin, looked at a wall and saw the top of the back of the Brandenburger Tor over the wall. I visited East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie, had lunch using some of my East German aluminium coins and headed back west.

And, I now realise, there was so much of Berlin’s history and beauty hidden behind that wall. The 1800s were a time of great building with Karl Friedrich Schinkel responsible for so many of the glorious buildings that line Unter den Linden and Museum Island. Plus, there are many new buildings and memorials, since the wall came down, that make the city is a must see.

We started with some history and then walked to Museum Island. Here, some of the most beautiful buildings in Berlin can be seen (some survived the allied bombing during the battle of Berlin, some have been restored), including the Berliner Dom and the Altes Museum. However, evidence of the war is present on the façade of the Neues Museum, which did survive; bullet holes in the pillars and façade from the Russia soldiers as they took Berlin.

Berliner Dom and the Altes Museum

The figures in front of the Altes Museum

Then walking along Unter den Linden we passed an evocative memorial to all soldiers lost in wars: hard to see in the picture but a mother holding a dead son.

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The two churches on Gendarmenmarkt, reflecting the arrival in Berlin of Huguenots from France and the friendship extended to them.

At the end of Unter den Linden is the Brandenburger Tor, now visible in all its glory from the front!

Off to the side we went past the recreated Checkpoint Charlie: I must look to see if I have a picture of it from 44 years ago!

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The history of the Third Reich and WWII and the Nazi regime, followed by the domination of the East by communism under the DDR with help from the USSR following the war does dominate this city, understandably though perhaps unfortunately as there is so much else to see.

Certainly we are not going to recount the history of the war or the events leading up to the building then tearing down of the berlin Wall! While John visited Berlin in 1975, I had never been here before, though I did study modern History both at school and uni and so the history surrounding the city was familiar. I suspect I may well have answered exam questions with far greater understanding if I had visited the city prior to studying modern history!

Trying to retell everything we saw and did in Berlin is impossible so I want to reflect on two particular visits. The architectural sculpture to the murdered Jews of Europe by the Nazi regime is compelling, eerily evocative and incredibly moving.

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It has its origins in a citizens‘ initiative that was facilitated by journalist Lea Rosh and historian Eberhard Jäckel at the end of the 1980s. On 25 June 1999, the German Federal Parliament took the decision to build the memorial according to a design by Peter Eisenman and to establish a federal foundation to run it. The memorial was opened to the public on 12 May 2005.

The memorial consists of a Field of Stele covering an area of 19,000 undulating square metres and containing 2,711 concrete stele in rows, 54 of them running north–south, and 87 east–west. Each of the stele is unique. The passageways between the stele are only wide enough for one person at a time. You catch glimpses of people walking another passage but they a there one second and gone the next, a very thought provoking image. The undulating nature of the ground on which the monument is built is also interesting as you are constantly gently climbing or descending which makes the monument very interactive. A very different monument but one which makes an extraordinarily immediate impact.

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There is an Information Centre here also which documents the lives of the ordinary Jews and their families who got caught up in the Holocaust and what happened to them. We hear so much about the numbers of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis but this centre makes you aware of the very personal lives of every person who lost their life because of the Nazi ‘solution to the Jewish question’. There is an extraordinarily detailed and professional audio guide for this centre which takes you through the centre. For example we learned that of the 6mil killed, around 3mil came from Poland. No so many from Germany (300,000) as many had already fled the country. And one amazing piece of information: at the end of the war there were still about 7,000 Jews in Germany.

No pictures here, it was quite overwhelming  

However it is the complete silence in here which is so revealing. Although over 100 people in each room, no one speaks, not even to the person they entered with, all is sombre and eerily quiet but incredibly fitting to the location and the stories of lives lost. There is no attempt to play up the atrocities committed by the Nazis, this is a very factual account and more commanding and devastating as a result.

The other information centre we visited was the which was also exceptional was the one next to the remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This explains in some detail the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich and the whole Nazi movement and is also exceptionally commanding and interesting.

It covered from 1933 to 1939. The rise of Hitler is explained and the terrorist activities of the Third Reich as a means of suppressing all opposition are made abundantly clear. The remnant of the Wall is sobering.

The other depressing / sobering visit was to the Topographie des Terrors which outlined the approach of the Nazis, via the Gestapo and the SS to exterminate all people not acceptable to Hitler: not only Jews, but Gypsies, homosexuals, non party members who did not conform.

One thing which Barnaby told me was that all German high school students around the age of 13 study the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich and Nazism, all to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten and that this particular aspect of German history is not repeated.

The remaining bit of wall.  the location of Hitler’s bunker, now a car park.  A good choice.

We also visited the Reichstag building and climbed the dome. Around the base of the dome is an explanation of the German parliamentary system, before during and after the war. There is a fabulous view of the city from the dome.

 

In the old east side some of the traffic lights still have the original pedestrian lights

 

And we are glad to be out of Poland: there were too mud roadworks for out liking: it was great to use the German motorways!

Ostorowo on the Baltic coast of Poland

Leaving Gdansk we set out for , a summer beach resort. This area was referred to in a guide book as a ‘hidden gem’ Baltic seaside resort!!!!!

2 beach best When we arrived in the area we were greeted by throngs of beach goers lining the streets of the small towns we drove through. When we hit the beach we joined 40,000 other people on a 5 mile beach with everyone setting up their wind breaks, sunning themselves and enjoying the ‘warm’ Baltic sea.

We have, however, finally found a beach you could call a beach, though the small waves were merely wind driven. Everyone had their ‘wind break’ staked and spread out, even though there was only a light breeze.

It seems these are used as much to mark out territory as they are to stop the wind. The small resort we are staying in had thoughtfully provided one for visitors and so we duly set ours up also!

The small complex of cabins we found to stay in is quite delightful. Lovely ‘cabins’, each with a great deck for relaxing on, set amongst green lawns and gardens with a sparkling pool. An absolutely great place to enjoy a little down time and see what a Baltic summer beach resort was really like. Interestingly, there is no development on the beaches themselves. All the development is over the road and the beaches themselves are accessed via paths through lightly forested areas. The walk is only about 4 – 5 minutes long but as a result the beaches themselves are kept quite separate from housing, shops and other infrastructure.

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A delightful dinner in a very local restaurant where the menu was in Polish and only one of the staff had a little English. However we provided the night’s entertainment of everyone ordering as best we could and enjoying every mouthful.

The best I can describe the place is to compare it to the Bowlo at Smiths Lake in summer school holidays: lots of kids, order at the bar and hope its all good!

Gdansk, Poland

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Is this the prettiest / best street I have ever walked along? These are my thoughts as I walk along Ul Dhaga and Dlugi Targ in Gdansk?

From Vilnius to Gdansk was a 10 hour drive: 3 sets of road works sometimes sending us off down a side street never to be returned to the main road, then 40 kms of road works from Elblag to Gdansk where the highway is being duplicated. Plus we made regular stops to check the oil level to make sure that the slow oozing of oil from the oil cooler is remaining ‘slow’.

We walked into Gdansk in the early evening and were immediately won over by the town. Ul Dhaga and Dlugi Targ (Long Market and Long Lane respectively, the old market square and the street leading into it) are amazing. On each side are the Gothic buildings of the rich merchants who once made Gdansk the major Baltic trading centre. Such beautiful buildings painstakingly painted and with amazing ornamentation are spectacular to look at.

Plus, at each end of this amazing street there is an archway: the Golden Gate at one end and the Green Gate at the other. This street is sometimes called the Royal Way, as the kings of Poland would enter through the Golden Gate and proceed along the way stopping at the town hall to be greeted by dignitaries and then being greeted by the merchants along the rest of the way. A royal visit was an important time for the city as the merchants were able to impress the king and seek new ways to make money.

And it’s all a facade! The street was completely bombed out by the Russians at the end of WWII as they advanced into a major German naval town. Pictures along the way show the devastation of the buildings: only parts of the facades of some of the buildings remained. Piles of masonry lined the street and the town hall is only a few storeys high, the remainder of the building has disappeared.

Above: Top left – view of bombed out town hall, with restored town hall below. Bottom left and right, three houses in bombed out state and now restored.

We were told that the Polish Government decided to rebuild the area: and to explain why we needed a bit of history. Although fully independent at times, or part of Sweden, Germany, Denmark and part of Poland at various other times, Gdansk was always autonomous; even when part of Poland, it was still a German speaking Hanseatic port.

So after WWI when Eastern Europe was divided up, Gdansk city remained an independent region within Poland. It was the main port into Poland and the Germans also retained some rights. This wasn’t working, and on September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland including sending a battleship to Gdansk to attack the city.

So, I think I have this right, after the war, in order to embrace Gdansk into Poland and remove its independence, all the residents of Gdansk were removed and new residents moved in. PLUS the decision to rebuild the city as a Polish city was made (we got there at last). And remembering that Poland was communist at the time, the government made a decision and implemented it: there was no private ownership of property. Well they restored the streetscape, apparently behind the façades there are cement, previously communist, apartments!

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We attached ourselves to a walking tour the next day and learnt most of what I have written above! The guide was both very knowledgeable but also very personable and had a collection of interesting tales to tell about the city, as well as giving us the history. One fascinating detail related to the above picture. The lengths of steel on the right are the official city measurements, so if you were concerned that you weren’t getting a fair deal in terms of length you just had to come here and get whatever officially measured. One of the fascinating buildings on the riverfront is the old crane that used convicts to work the big wheels to raise goods from the ships in the river. The convicts were placed in these enormous wheels and had to continually run to keep the wheels turning; like mice in the wheels in their cages.

The last stop on the tour was outside the pre war Polish Post Office (yes, although Gdansk was a separate country, Poland had a PO there) which was where the Germans first attacked Poland / Gdansk on 9 September 1939 along with the Blitzkrieg across the whole of Poland’s border on the same day. A memorial has been built outside the building where 6 of the employees were killed defending the building the rest captured and then then killed, except for 2 that escaped.

On the streets, interestingly, originally the houses had balconies in front of them but these were removed to widen many of the streets for cars and trams. Also, the old grain storehouses along the riverfront are now being converted to apartments.

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We also saw Neptune’s fountain which was designed and built to reflect the seafaring basis of the city’s wealth. The metal parts of the fountain survived the bombing of WWII, the rest of the fountain has had to be rebuilt. Also in the main street was a monument to Fahrenheit, the gent who determined the Fahrenheit scale of temperature. Myth has it he tried to put 100oF as the temperature of the human body, but whoever he choose on the day must have had a temperature as he was out by be a few degrees. And why is zero where it is? Maybe because salt water of some consistency freezes at that point.

While Ros sat in the shade and had coffee, I climbed the 406 steps to the top of the Church of St Marys steeple to enjoy the view down onto the city. On the way up (about 250 steps) I passed two very big bells!

We also visited the European Solidarity Museum. This documents the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, beginning with the peaceful but determined strike by the Gdansk dock yard workers. The museum takes you through the entire solidarity movement and its development to the point at which Poland breaks the stranglehold of the USSR and becomes, once again, a totally independent nation. The Solidarity movement in Poland was a defining development in European history and eventually propelled the USSR towards dissolution. The museum has been fabulously developed and is a must see. One of, if not the best, museum I have ever visited. We will not describe all it had in it here as there was so much and so well presented we just encourage everyone to visit. This museum enmeshes you in the life of the solidarity movement and its members. It reminded us of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

The photos below are of the building, the monument to the fallen shipyard works, the Three Crosses Monument, the ceiling of the museum and one of the boards with the original shipyard workers demands which were posted on the fence of the Gdansk shipyards during the strike.

Gdansk is a beautiful city as well as being historically fascinating. One of the most interesting cities we have ever visited. Absolutely a must if you are in Poland.

Kaunas and Vilnius, Lithuania

Our drive across Lithuania saw us having a break at Kaunas, the sometimes capital of the country (for the interwar period when Vilnius was part of Poland). We stopped north of town to visit the Museum of the IX Fort, a combination of historical pre WWI Russian defences, memorial to the Lithuanians who were deported by the Soviets in both pre WWII and post WWII AND the thousands of Lithuanians murdered by the Nazis. Unsurprisingly we walked away a bit shaken and morbid!

The Museum has a display of the deportation by the Soviets of 130,000 Lithuanians to the Gulags over the time of Soviet occupation. Surprisingly some 60,000 managed to return after years away. In respect to the Nazis it was not so good, with something like 10,000 people killed on site.

There was extensive details about the life of Romas Kalanta who doused himself in petrol in 1972 to protest the Soviet regime: one of the starting points for independence from Russia.

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Outside the museum was the actual fort, with the various cells turned into spaces concentrating of the various events that have taken place in the fort. From Soviet actual fortifications (in the early 1900s these were too old fashioned) to places of internment of Lithuanians by the invaders. One interesting piece was about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Kaunas, who saved 6,000 stranded Polish Jews by issuing transit visas for them to leave the country before the Nazis could detain them. When ordered to return to Japan he stayed for a further two weeks, issuing visas, before handing the official stamp to a Jew to continue the process.

On top of the hill was a memorial to the thousands of Lithuanians deported: it is very large: can you see me in a red shirt standing underneath it?

Lunch in the town square was a bit of a relief after being confronted by the devastatingly cruel reality of the museum.

Onwards to Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania and, unsurprisingly, a UNESCO old town! We walked around in the evening and settled on a very upmarket restaurant (though the prices did not reflect this) where the wine was decanted into a very smart decanter by a waiter who was very knowledgeable and serious about his wine!

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Next day we did the tourist walk, a coffee in cathedral Square, and attempting to walk to the top of Gediminas Hill (the central hill in the town) which was, however, closed for repairs!

Seeing the cathedral and arriving in time for an organ recital of Lithuanian music, a walk along Pilies Gatve, the main cobbled street (of restaurants) up to the town hall and finally to Gates of Dawn with The Chapel of Mary above it.

The Chapel of Mary is a pilgrimage destination with untold number of plaques on the walls presented by pilgrims asking for help, be it for sickness or success, with many of the plaques 100s of years old.

Next, another church (well after all the town did build one church next to another) St Ann’s church, which has the distinction of being built in brick with many different colours and types of brick.

Our final stop for the day was the Uzupis Republic, a section of Vilnius which has set itself up an independent state, with a constitution (written along a wall in 25 different languages) with 41 key points including: one has the right to be happy; or sad; a dog has the right to be a dog; and other similar thoughts. Not much else, we tried to get our passport stamped but the immigration office was at lunch!

Klaipeda

From Riga we headed to Klaipeda, the third largest city in Lithuania. However, along the way we stopped at The Hill of Crosses, one of the most unusual sites we have visited. It is perhaps a bit of a stretch to call this bump in the landscape a hill, however it has become a major pilgrimage site and also tourist attraction. Really, what makes this a hill is the plethora of crosses rising into and silhouetted against the sky on this slight rise.

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The Hill of Crosses is a site of pilgrimage north of the village of Šiauliai. The precise origin of the practice of leaving crosses on the hill is uncertain, but it is believed that the first crosses were placed on the former Domantai hill fort after the 1831 Uprising. Over the generations, not only crosses and crucifixes, but statues of the Virgin Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots and thousands of tiny effigies and rosaries have been brought here by pilgrims. The exact number of crosses is unknown, but estimates put it at about 55,000 in 1990 and 100,000 in 2006, and our guess would be that this has more than doubled again. On one cross I counted 62 other crosses (the practice of hanging extra, smaller crosses from larger crosses is exceptionally common) and this was a cross which was not exceptionally heavily ‘decorated’. The overall effect is mind blowing, sobering, silencing.

Again, where there is a major tourist attraction, facilities have been built, however these are respectfully remote on the opposite side of the road and about 500 metres distant to the hill itself. Buses fill the carpark and streams of tourists stream across through the underground tunnel and across the meadow to visit the hill.

Then on to Klaipėda, a port city situated where the Baltic Sea meets the Danė River. Arriving in Klaipeda we met our apartment host, Mindaugas, who gave us a potted history of the town while we looked at the panoramic view from the apartment. The city has a complex recorded history, partially due to the combined regional importance of the usually ice-free Port of Klaipėda at the mouth of the Akmena-Danė River. It was controlled by successive German states until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. As a result of the 1923 Klaipėda Revolt it was added to Lithuania and has remained with Lithuania to this day, except for the period between 1939 and 1945 when it returned to Germany!

The apartment was in a building just across the river from the Old Town, with fabulous views across the city.

That afternoon we went for a walk from the apartment, across the river and through the streets of the Old Town. There are some pretty buildings here, including old wooden buildings. On our walk we did find the magical mouse which we patted for good luck. There are a number of statues, such as the magical mouse, dotted throughout the town, though more, apparently, than we could find.

Dinner was in a restaurant with very traditional Lithuanian food. We both ordered soup, one a cold beetroot soup and the other a pickled vegetable and bacon soup which was served in a pot made from a hollowed out loaf of dark, incredibly dense and tasty rye bread. Both were very good. This was followed by a traditional fried calf’s liver dish and a meat seven ways dish with pork two ways, sausages, lamb etc etc. The food was interesting and good, though the liver came with enough pearl barley to feed an army.

The next day we headed off to the Curonian Spit which stretches from the Sambian Peninsula in the south, in Russia, to its northern tip next to a narrow strait, across which is the city of Klaipėda. The northern 52 km long stretch of the Curonian Spit peninsula belongs to Lithuania, while the rest is part of the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia. The width of the spit varies from a minimum of 400 m in Russia to a maximum of 3,800 m in Lithuania, just north of Nida, the most southern of the Lithuanian villages on the spit.

The spit is a UNESCO World Heritage site and much is being done to preserve the natural environment and habitats here. The spit is entirely sand, with huge dunes and, of course, miles of sandy beaches. It is also a beach resort with four main settlements which cater for beach going holiday makers.

Kleipeda_28We wandered through each of the villages, stopping in one for coffee and in Nida for lunch. John had read about one of the restaurants which smoked their own fish and was dead keen to try these, so he did. Not being a lover of smoked anything, I opted for a crepe filled with tomato, cheese and spinach.

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Nida is the gateway to the shifting Parnidis sand dune, one of the highest sand dunes in Europe.

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Also while in Nida we learnt about the Curonian Lagoon weathercocks. These came into being on fishing boats. There were very carefully regulated areas in which boats from a particular village could legally fish. These areas were patrolled, and so that the boats were easily identifiable, each carried a weathercock. A particular village weathercock not only had to be particular colours, they also had to carry particular shapes. Over the years fishermen made their weather cocks more and more decorative and they became part of the fishing culture of the area.

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In Juodkrantė we first discovered a small lake full of sculptures made from reeds. These are sculptured in spring by artists invited to take part and then, as part of the Autums festival, they are set alight.

Also in Juodkrantė is the Hill of Witches, a large collection of wooden sculptures by various artists displayed on a forest walk which winds up a hill. The sculpture park was started in 1979 and now has more than 70 wooden objects. Most of the figures are based on Lithuanian legends or folk tales. Some are carved into seats. At the ned of the walk a family was busking, the music appropriate to the setting.

There are huge heron and cormorant colonies near Juodkrantė, with approximately 3,000 pairs of large great cormorants and 500 pairs of grey herons. It is believed that the herons have nested near Juodkrantė since 17th century, but the cormorants arrived only at the beginning of 19th century. The large cormorant colony has damaged the old and fragile forest because the birds’ excrement burns tree roots. During last 15 years about 10 ha (25 acres) of forest has died. Both the grey heron and great cormorant are protected species in Lithuania, however the colony of cormorants here is now controlled.

Half this spit of land belongs to Russia, and although we had no intention of crossing the border we did drive to within metres of it and take these photos!

Before leaving the spit we decided to head to the beach for a swim in the Baltic. Our record for swimming in the Baltic is not good, every time we head for the beach a storm breaks, as it did again this day! As these photos attest. We did both get wet, just!

Back to the ferry and back to Klaipeda for a light dinner in the apartment watching the view while the lights of the city came on.

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Leaving the next day I had a chance to get up close for a pat with a beautiful Goldie.

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Riga, Latvia

 

Heading south out of Estonia we crossed into our second Baltic country, Latvia (Lithuania will be our third) to be met by a Morgan tour!

Latvia has an amazing history of belonging to other countries: the German Crusades stayed a while (1200 ->), then the Swedes in 1621, with a bit going to Poland at the time, the Russians in the 1800s (Riga was once the second largest Swedish city and then the third largest Russian city!) followed by independence in 1918. However the Russians arrived back in 1940 (when Russia and Germany divided up northern Europe), the Germans 1941-44, then the Russians again until the second (or is it third) independence in 1989 with the break-up of the USSR.

On to Riga. Set on the Daugava River, which allowed it to trade and become a Hanseatic City, Riga grew into a wealthy, walled, medieval city. And guess what, it’s a UNESCO heritage town. We are seeing a few of these; and enjoying them.

Ros found a great hotel right in the old city. Arranging parking was a hoot: “the parking is off site and an attendant will come around and drive your car to the parking lot”. Well…. we weren’t too keen on that and nor was the parking attendant who took six photos of the car and then ran away! Fortunately the hotel had a small court yard and could fit two cars in there and offered this to us.

We walked out and straight into a display of two meter tall bears, over 140 of them, each painted by a respected painter from the different countries represented (Ken Done for Australia). The bears were United Buddy Bears that travel around the world to raise money for children to ensure they have ‘better lives’. Starting in Berlin in 2002, the Exhibition travels around the world promoting “peace, international understanding and tolerance among the nations, cultures and religions of this world”. The bears were in Sydney in 2006, at the Opera House.

Sights on the streets included the town hall and the Blackheads House. Not heard of Blackheads? A Hanseatic guild for unmarried German men (as they were not allowed to mix with the locals). These boys went one further than everyone else: they dragged a pine tree inside for Christmas and decorated it. They started a bit of a tradition! These old cities have many churches (these medieval towns sure do churches well – they are often cheek by jowl) and 3 or 4 cathedrals (one for each brand). across the river the new town has a library that (sort of) reflects the Balckheads house!

Our hotel had a roof top restaurant so we dined there the first night, looking out over numerous spirals and decorated roof tops. The food was excellent and our waiter encouraged us to sample the local firewater, Black Balsam, made from a concoction of herbs such as wormwood, ginger, balsamic oil etc. It came in different varieties (we had a few too many) with different flavourings to add to the taste! (Ros: For those of you familiar with Waterbury’s Compound, the original was very reminiscent of this childhood medicine, but about four times the strength! The one flavoured with blackcurrent was palatable, but a bit like vegemite – an acquired taste!)

As Riga was originally built on islands (as it seems are all the cities we have visited) it still has a canal running off the river and around the city so we took a boat trip. This is an interesting and relaxing way to see the city, docks etc.

We also ventured outside the old city to visit the most amazing collection of art nouveau buildings, constructed between approximately 1890 to 1912. Look up and see the amazing decorations on the over 700 buildings (we are told – we certainly saw a lot): there are geometric designs, mystical beasts, screaming masks, flora, goddesses (often with long braids of hair strategically placed) and numerous different external materials (often on the same building).

 

As part of the attraction, one building’s apartment has been redecorated in 1910s style. We noticed that some of the features were similar to our ‘Edwardian’ or Federation style house at home.

An advantage of travelling in Europe at this time of year is sport! Watching the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Open and World Cup semi finals and finals live while having dinner and a beer is great. (Did you hear about the Englishman and Frenchie who met in a bar before the semi finals. The pom said to the frog: we are playing Croatia on Wednesday. The frog says: that’s funny we are playing them on Sunday! And the French did in fact play [and beat] the Croatians on Sunday!).

Overall a great time in Riga, enjoying days of no driving and wandering interesting, cobbled streets and alleyways while stopping in outdoor restaurants for coffee and beer in the warm 25oC plus temperatures.

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An Estonian Summer Holiday

We picked for our next few nights the places that Estonians visit for their summer holidays and followed them south west to the Baltic Sea.

Leaving Tallinn I tried to capture a few photos of the Soviet / more recent buildings.

First stop across on the ferry were the two islands of Muhu and Saaremaa off the coast with ideal Roadster driving on tree lined roads, along coast lined with beaches, some even with sand!

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Ros booked a great hotel located in an ancient manor dating from the 15thcentury Danish times with parks and gardens overlooking the reed covered shore of the Baltic. In the 19thcentury, Baron Axel von Buxhoeveden of the Russian court improved the manor and the park, however in 1919 be was assassinated and his wife fled. It fell into disrepair and has recently been restored as a fancy hotel and restaurant.

We spent the afternoon driving around the island of Saaremaa, stopping at some windmills, a meteorite site (big hole in ground with a ridge around it),

visited the castle in Kuressaare

and then drove to the beach at Tuhkana, accessed along a track through a forest. Unfortunately no waves, and indeed it was still ankle deep 100 yards out, however, as it was very cold, this was not too much of a problem.

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Oh, and a familiar sign to Australians!  Apparently a local has started a zoo and one of his big features is, you guessed it, kangaroos!

The final tourist spot for the day was the Orissaare football pitch: Why? Because it has an oak tree in the middle of the pitch that the tractors in 1951 could not remove, so it was left there. Players simply play around it!

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A drink beside the sea under the umbrellas watching the world boat by, followed by a delightful dinner in the manor overlooking gardens bathed in the evening twilight.

A late start and back onto the ferry for our one hour drive to Parnu, Estonia’s premier sea side resort. Long sandy beaches running away into the distance greeted us, with bars, floaties, many children, sailboard hire and mud baths to attract the locals.  However, a point here: who is a local? In one car park we sighted cars with number plates from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Germany and France (and Australia!).

The centre of Parnu has a pleasant ‘old town’ with lots of old wooden buildings. Also, we came across a small park where a brass ensemble were playing when we arrived. The ensemble was comprised of all saxophones, including one altosax.

Down then to the Baltic playground of sand (cold) water and (no) waves, but plenty of bars along the beach. I actually found a beer that I could not drink: matured in oak foeders which allow oxygen to be added to the process resulted (unsurprisingly) in an oxidised flavour that was unpleasant. The very kind barmaid when I returned to the counter and said I just could not drink the beer gave me a new (pilsner) for no cost.  Just shows you want a good looking guy can do!

Dinner was a bit of a surprise: we still don’t know what the sausages Ros bought were, but they sure tasted good as we watch an amazing Wimbledon match: Anderson and Isner 26:24 games in the fifth set!

We did a bit of a back track the next day as we had been told about a car museum and decided to visit it as it has a display of Soviet vehicles.  We were not disappointed. The stories beside some of the cars where most interesting:

  1. The M14 limousine used by very important people which Gorbochov decided was too proletariat and so he decided to insist production ceased, destroy all plans and dies and even destroy all the scale models which were for sale!
  2. The Soviet army decided that the BMW R71 model bike was just right for their purposes so they arranged to buy six, via a Swedish intermediary, and had them shipped to Russia where they stripped them down and reverse engineered the design and built their own.
  3. The Lada 4WD that we know in Australia was also known in New Zealand, mainly because the Soviets did not have enough cash to pay for the dairy and meat purchased so they sent Ladas instead.
  4. Then we had the adds on the wall and the real thing:
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Tallinn

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A two hour ferry ride took us from Helsinki in Finland, to Tallinn in Estonia. The ferries in this part of the world are incredibly efficient. They arrive, unload and reload in record time. This particular ferry leaves Helsinki at 10.30am and we had been advised by Ann and Ranou that booking breakfast on the ferry was a good idea. So we did. Not only did this ferry unload around 400 cars and reload around 400 cars in 1 hour, they also boarded some hundreds of foot passengers. They also cleaned the ferry and set out a buffet for 250 people! On board was also a cafeteria, for those who did not book the buffet, plus a Burger King! And I am not sure what else.

Arriving in Tallinn we headed straight for the hotel to drop bags before setting off to explore the Old Town. As cars are not allowed into the centre of the Old Town we were grateful to Jonathon, the hotel General Manager, who came and collected bags for us then went back and directed John to the secure parking not too far from the hotel. Then, he had one of his reception staff track down a tyre place (yes, a second flat tyre) and John spent some of the afternoon getting the tyre fixed. I spent most of the afternoon outside a coffee shop, in the sun, blogging!

When John arrived back we wandered around the narrow, winding, cobbled streets of the Old Town with its lovely pastel coloured buildings before heading to a restaurant recommended by the hotel for dinner. Great food. We have had some seriously good food on this trip!

The highlight of any stay in Tallinn must be the beautiful Old Town which survived WWII virtually intact. This is a very rare occurrence, as any town which got in the way of either the Germans or Russians pretty much ended up flattened.

The cobbled central square, originally the town market place, (and still used as one today) is always bustling with people, many of whom are dressed in period costume. Many of the buildings date back to the medieval period and are today beautifully maintained. The Old Town is yet another UNESCO heritage listed site.

One building on the square, dating back to the Medieval period, has always been a pharmacy. By 1442 the pharmacy was onto its third owner, no one is entirely sure when it first opened its doors. In 1583  Johann Burchardt bought the store and a descendant with the same name ran the shop up until 1913 – ten generations all. Today it is still a pharmacy and many of the fittings date back hundreds of years. The more exotic, old world medicines of frogs legs etc are, however, not for sale.

We visited the Town Hall which has gone through an extensive and rigorous restoration and this is carefully documented and on display in the attic. The building itself and its history are fascinating.

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There were beautiful replica tapestries on display which had been specially commissioned for the building. The originals are carefully preserved elsewhere.

Atop the Town Hall, the weathervane is a replica of this little fellow who was installed in 1530. He now resides in the museum, out of the weather!

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The town walls are an imposing presence and are being carefully rebuilt or restored wherever appropriate. The defensive towers are still very much in evidence.

On one excursion outside the old city walls we came across about two dozen flower sellers and the roses came from Ecuador! As we learnt on our South America journey Ecuador exports millions of flowers, particularly roses, each year.

The Old Town is dominated by Toompea Hill where originally the German nobles lived when Tallinn was a Hanseatic City.  From here you will find excellent views looking back over the old town (where the Estonian artisans lived) as well as to the church spires which dominate the town. Toompea Hill hosts two of the city’s churches, the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral, with its onion domed roof, and St Mary’s Lutheran Cathedral.

We visited the basement of the town’s KGB headquarters where the basement cells are open and document the atrocities committed by the KGB during Russia’s occupation of Estonia. The pursuit of power by some nations, their need to control every aspect of people’s lives and their inhumanity to anyone who dared looked askance at their regime continues to appal me. There are simply no words.

We had dinner on the second night in a restaurant where the wine cellar was as important as the food. The young waitress’s knowledge of wine and the care with which she decanted it and served it were exemplary. The wine and food and service were all excellent and we had a fabulous dinner sitting under an archway in the sun watching the world go by.

Tallinn was a deliberately slow visit as we needed to get our heads around some forward planning and we also needed some down time to catch up on the blog and some admin! This city is really a ‘must visit’ if you are wandering through the Baltic countries.

We enjoyed the old town so much that every time we thought that we should venture out and see come of the ‘city’ we only ever got as far as 100 mts beyond the gates and decided that was enough and turned back.  It was so peaceful inside (albeit the cruise ships of people following the tour leaders’ banner did take some of the tranquillity away at times) wandering down windy lanes, pocking into courtyard restaurants or just sitting in one of the many restaurants on the town hall square having a beer, or rubbing the nose of this statue, for luck, of course.

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Helsinki: Part 2

We ventured out to Suomenlinna the next day: it is a fortress built over 6 islands started by the Swedes in 1748 when they occupied Finland and were in control of much of the Baltic (Denmark etc) and concerned about the proximity of Russia to their eastern capital of Helsinki. So much for doing the job, while the guns pointed to the sea, the Russians arrived by land and in 1808 the fort surrendered to the Russians after 2 days (was the Commandant bribed by the Russians?) and then it became a Russian Fortress. And today it’s another UNESCO site – we are seeing a lot of these!.

The Russians ran it for a while. However in 1855 the British (with the French – they were on the same side at this point) bombed it because of the Crimea war. Yes the Crimea war, where Russia exerted its influence over the crumbling Ottoman Empire and this gave enough concern to the British to give Russia the heads up in the Baltic. I have previously said that through our trips I learn so much geography (where countries are) and history. So this nicely ties into our Silk Road trip with the Russia / British stands offs during the Great Game in Central Asia: Britain wanted to ensure that Russia did not impose itself on its jewel of India, while Russia wanted to increase its influence south.

And hence the Crimea war, as Britain was supporting the Ottomans to keep Russia away. And now we have the endgame: the bombing of Suomenlinna!

The British didn’t move the Russians out, allowing the Russians to enhance the defences of the islands, however no action has been seen since. Finland obtained control at independence in 1918 and then used it as a prison. (Finland had a civil war for a year: the whites -v- the reds with the whites winning and hence quite a few reds ended up on the island).

After the military left in 1973 it became a major recreation area of 80 hectares with 800,000 visitors a year who enjoy the history, the open grass land (locals with picnic rugs were prevalent) and the mixture of museums.

We joined a guided tour, well worth it as the guide was a university history student and a great source of information who filled in a lot of gaps for us. He pointed out the various fortifications built over the 300 years of use, from 5 meter thick stone bastions around the edge, further inner and outer walls, the cement reinforced soil mounds built by the Russians and the differing cannons used over the ages.

Our guide informed us about Augustin Ehrensvard who was the original builder of the fortress.  not only was he a builder but also dealt with the politicians to ensure a supply of money (and soldiers to build).  he is honoured with a big tomb in the middle of the islands.

Ros and I then split up before catching the ferry back to Helsinki, she went to a toy museum while I wandered for a while and ended up at the Vesikko, a WWII submarine now on land and set up as it was when last used with a crew of 20.

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[Ros: the toy museum was absolutely fascinating as you could wander around at your own pace with a 24 X A4 page document which told you what you were looking at, which manufacturer made the toy, where the toy fitted into the history of toys and how it fitted into the society of the time.

Often, the toys had been donated and came with stories of their own. One in particular I remember. The tiny teddy just to the left of the number 37 in the bottom of this picture was the ‘very special’ toy belonging to a little girl. When travelling by train she accidentally dropped him in the spittoon (this in an age of tuberculosis). Mother, however, grabbed the little bear and immediately wrapped it in newspaper and then a shawl till they got home. Once home the bear was thoroughly washed and disinfected. He survived the ordeal, however he did lose some of his lovely hair in the process. The granddaughter of the little owner donated the bear to the museum.

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Another donated bear came with all the accessories, all of which had been made by the mother and grandmother throughout the years, and these included not only clothes but things such as a suitcase for travelling, a potty and a clock etc.

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Beautiful dolls house rooms featured in the museum and I particularly liked the two rooms where the family dog can be seen eyeing off the food on the table.

One fascinating exhibit was of ‘poor dolls’. These were basically bought dolls heads (often only made from papermache) which were then given home made bodies and clothes. These dolls tended to disappear just before Christmas to turn up again on Christmas day with a new dress!

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A really fascinating toy was the Finnish Posti game. This was a boxed set, in miniature, of everything the post office then sold. It enables children to play at being a Postmaster!

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I would dearly have liked to buy the information booklet as the wealth of information in it was fascinating and threw light on not just the toys, but also the social mores of the era in which they were produced and when I emailed and asked for a copy I was generously sent one.]

That evening we were invited to Rauno and Ann’s house, 20 minutes out of Helsinki, for a BBQ with members of the MG Car Club of Finland. Although first we had to change another flat tyre!

Ann and Rauno have a fleet of MGs: a TB MkII (not many made) a couple of Bs, a Midget and a modern TF. (Rauno also has a beautiful 1929 Chevrolet). Due to his interest, Rauno has a pit in his garage and we were able to give Goldie a grease and oil change and general check over.

A delightful night in the evening sun with outstanding smoked salmon, reindeer sausages and to finish, the Finnish Easter special: Mammi, made of water, rye flour, powdered malted rye, seasoned salt, and dried powdered Seville orange zest. As they say, a vegemite moment, however with sugar and cream it was amazing. We were again to be grateful for the fellowship of the MG family. A thoroughly pleasant and enjoyable evening. Thank you Rauno and Ann.

A drive in the evening twilight back along the coast to our accommodation, ready for tomorrow’s ferry trip across the Baltic to the next leg of our journey, Estonia and the Baltic States.

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Helsinki: Part 1

A sad farewell to Mike and Kay as they left early to drive to Helsinki to catch a ferry back to Holland and Shiraz’s garage before returning home for the arrival of grandchild #2.

Without the driving force of another MG couple, we had a slow start, including dropping a box at the post office to be sent home: hopefully we will not need the mittens and long johns any longer.

A delightful drive to the nearby Kerimaki to see its ‘giant’ church which is capable of holding 5,000 people (claim: largest wooden church in the world). Built in 1847 when the town’s population was 12,000, the Reverend felt that half the town’s residents should be able to attend church at the same time. It’s big, with over 1.6 km of pews!

Next a cup of coffee by a lake with flowers nearby.

Off then to Punkaharju both a town as well as, and more importantly, a road built on sand dunes (now covered in pine trees) that crosses numerous lakes and was historically one of the roads used by the Russians to travel to Savonlinna. Did I mentioned that we are now closer to St Petersburg than to Helsinki? And that Russia controlled this part of Finland on and off over the centuries. The road is not long, but it crosses from island to island and winds its way through and across the lakes.

A last stop on the way to Helsinki, Porvoo, an old wooden town on a river with delightful cobbled streets and wobbly alleyways.

Why make a decision when you can have both an ice cream and a beer.

Helsinki is a great and easy to town to visit. Ros arranged a BNB just north of the city, a close 15 minute walk or an even closer tram ride. The first day there we were a bit slow to start: a walk through the market

Followed by a look at a few churches.

The Lutheran cathedral and the Orthodox cathedral 

And then really only managed the harbour cruise around the islands that surround Helsinki. Two hours in the warm sun hearing about the history of Helsinki and the fort of Suomenlinna (more on this in next post), plus the yacht club (on an island), the embassy district and the zoo (with wallabies!).  Plus the pier where locals can come and wash their carpets and leave out to dry!

Again, Helsinki is a city of islands, waterways and boats. The most impressive of the boats are the ice breakers used during winter to keep the ports open. Look closely at the photo and you can see that the back of the boats has a V shape with fenders: this is to allow the following ship to get right up close so that it can follow the ice breaker before the ice closes up!  And at the other end of the scale: the swimming pool.

A goof-off afternoon with Ros shopping (Ros says – ‘it was just so good to do something very untouristy and pretty normal!’) and coffee drinking while I watch England beat Sweden in the quarter final. I asked the locals next to me if they supported Sweden as it’s a neighbour, however the response was that Sweden controlled Finland for 200 years and so maybe not!

Dinner in a bit of a touristy restaurant, however delightful food (selection of fish and a good size hunk of lamb for mains)!

Savonlinna

From Hiekkasakrat we set out in the direction of Savonlinna, our next stop. The sun is shining and we stopped along the way for a picnic lunch with one of the most beautiful views to keep us entertained.

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Since arriving in Finland, John has worked at getting us off the major roads which are often single lane and filled with traffic. It is easy to get stuck in a queue. The secondary roads, which often closely parallel the major roads, carry much less traffic and are far more scenic.

Finland is a land of lakes and forests. The trees are felled in spring, trimmed and left beside the road for continuous collection throughout summer. So, piles of logs are a common sight along the roadside.

These roads abound with piles of logs awaiting collection as well as trucks, stopped on the roadside collecting them or on the roads transporting them. The countryside is very green and old, red barns dot the landscape.

Arriving in Savonlinna we found our accommodation, a townhouse a little out of the city centre but in a very relaxed neighbourhood. After settling in (and putting on a load of washing!) we headed off to town for a reconnaissance walk so we could make decisions about what to do the next day. Walking along the lake shore it was impossible not to stop and take photographs of the beautiful peoples in the park gardens.