Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fortified, we moved on - 24 July 2010

The rain continued most of the night, but cleared in the morning, and we were able to make use of the walk leaflet we were given at the Longwy Tourist Office. About half of the original town and ramparts still remain in this town. It was obviously built on a similar design as Neuf-Brisach. This town has suffered military action more recently though, and we could see hundreds of WWI bullet holes in most of the public buildings.

The final UNESCO Vauban site on our route back to Dunkirk was in Arras. The sat-nav seemed determined to route us there via Belgium. We decided not to argue, until we discovered the state of rural Belgium roads. We had thought British rural roads were in a bad condition after last winter's freeze, but the Belgium minor roads we encountered were shocking, one of them looked like the craters of the moon! We were relieved to cross back into France, and their excellent roads.

Arras is a town worth visiting for it's own sake, which was just as well, as we were unable to enter the Vauban Citadel. The design looked very similar on the outside, but the fortress was locked up tight.

Despite this, we enjoyed walking the town trail. The centre of the city is built around two main squares, which are surrounded by Flemish style houses. The town was heavily bombed in WWI and WWII, and the reconstruction is incredible. There were photos in the cathedral of the destruction and the town today is very well restored.

On the second half of our drive today, we passed many war cemeteries and monuments. At Arras, next to the Citadel, we were able to take in the grandeur of the British War Cemetery. 159,000 Commonwealth soldiers were killed in this area during a period of 39 days. The graves only account for 2,670 soldiers, the names of 35,000 missing men are written around the monument. This area is a stark reminder of the grim history of last century.

Vauban's Forts – 23 July 2010

Model of Neuf-BrisachThe fortified town of Neuf-Brisach is really amazing. Now a UNESCO protected site, it was designed by Vauban, King Louis XIV's military architect. We first encountered Vauban in Briancon, where he was the architect, and the Vauban Museum in Neuf-Brisach gave us an insight into the amazing feats he accomplished. Many of his designs used the star shape design used here, and result is elegant and in its day was the epitome of military architecture.
Governor's Palace
Vauban designed 130 fortified towns all around the borders of France and Neuf-Brisach was his last work commissioned in 1698 and competed five years later. The Tourist Office has a great town trail, which we followed in the intermittent rain, having fortified ourselves with a delicious breakfast in a cheerful cafe, and feeling cheered that we had got our damp tent packed away before more rain arrived!

The Museum gave us the names of two more forts built by Vauban, which could be easily reached on our way back to Dunkirk. So after driving the Wine Route in Alsace (unfortunately in the rain), the sat-nav took us over a very scenic mountain road and off on a direct route to Longwy.

By the time we reached Longwy, a thunder and lightning storm had arrived in earnest, and we got drenched just trying to navigate the main square for coffee and a Tourist Office. The coffee was disappointing and the Tourist Office didn't exist. The whole place looked depressed, and apparently their steel industry closed some time ago, which explains the look of the place. We were surprised there was no mention of this UNESCO site, and finally found the 'high town', complete with Museum, Tourist Office and fortifications. The rain had no intention of easing off, so we found a hotel on the high town square, which had a much more pleasant look than its neighbour (even in the rain). Dinner, once again, was a delicious experience at the only restaurant open in this small town.

Switzerland, Germany to France – 22 July 2010

From Liechtenstein we toured through northern Switzerland, at first following a valley which had an unending series of cute villages, on our way to Appenzell. This is described as being the butt of Swiss jokes, due to their ultra conservative way of life. But as a tourist town, it is irresistible; although small in size, it managed to relieve us of a quantity of “tourist dollars”. We were fascinated by a series of glass windows set into the pavement above a bakery, where we could observe the staff making delicious pies and pastries. Of course we had to buy our lunch there, for a picnic above the Rhine later.

St Gallen is a city, but the heart of the old town is also an irresistible pedestrianised area, full of very handsome buildings, many with oriel windows. In the centre of the town is the Kathedrale, a magnificent church, full of marble and carved wood. Nearby is a more modern church, the man hours that have gone into these buildings is amazing.

From here we headed north to where the Rhine leaves Lake Constance, and followed the river valley to Schaffhausen. This is a lovely drive, through many superb villages, the best of all is Stein am Rhein. This town has to be one of the best we have seen, straight out of my childhood, lavishly illustrated, fairy tale book. The buildings are painted with pictures, obviously telling a story. We lingered as long as our dwindling Euro coin reserves for parking meters let us. It was a challenge to get across Switzerland without buying any Swiss Francs.

The last stop in Switzerland was Schaffhausen and the Rhine Falls. Schaffhausen also has a lovely old town, with the addition of many fountains, and a hilltop fortress. By the time we reached there, we could see the black clouds gathering, and it appeared heavy rain was imminent. So we did a drive through the town and carried on to the falls, the largest in Europe at 23m. They are quite awesome, with the might of the Rhine thundering over this drop at a curve in the river.

Neuf-Brisach was our final destination, and although it was too wet to explore the town, we found one restaurant open, and enjoyed a delicious meal of local specialities.

Liechtenstein – 21 July 2010

Leaving Italy, we drove through two mountain passes in Switzerland to reach Liechtenstein.

During the drive across Switzerland, we saw a sign to a 'World Monument' bridge. This sounded worth a detour, and although the sat-nav said it was 2.9k east, it turned out to be a torturous narrow winding road to a beautiful art-deco bridge from 1930. We were expecting an old historical bridge, and were totally surprised by this beautiful, elegant, modern looking bridge. The roads it serves, does not seem worthy of such a masterpiece. The Salginatobel Bridge is one of the structures awarded 'World Monument' status and shares this honour with such engineering masterpieces as the Eiffel Tower and the Panama Canal.

We carried on through river valleys to reach the most non-border crossing on our trip thus far; two sets of flags, announced we had reached Liechtenstein. We found a very pleasant campsite, then set out to explore the capital – Vaduz.

The look of Vaduz is modern and prosperous. New and old buildings are side by side, with attractive gardens and a general well kept appearance. Obviously being small can be beautiful.

Our meal at the camp that evening was delicious, although expensive compared to France and Italy.

Just as we got back to our tent, the blue sky changed very rapidly to black, and a violent electrical storm moved in. It was so violent, that the tent threatened to leave it's moorings, and the guys ropes we usually ignore were rapidly brought into service. We decided to retire to bed, and when we woke up in the morning, we were greeted with another beautiful day, perhaps this is normal in the Alps.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alpe di Siusi – 20 July 2010

Our campsite is very well placed to be up the top of Alpe de Siusi, before the road is closed at 9am. This is Europe's largest high alpine meadow, 8 miles wide and 20 miles long, separating two of the valleys we had driven – Val di Fassa and Val Gardena.

We took breakfast up with us, only to discover there were no picnic sites so ate it in the car-park. The road stays shut until 5pm, the only access being by cable-car, and we felt sure we could fill in the day with walks. As it turned out, we wondered if we would ever make it back to the car!

The first walk we did was called a Panorama walk for those in a hurry, and was an undemanding walk, that took us close to the reverse side of the peaks we are camping under. Mountain “huts” or “refuges” are encountered on the walks, and these turned out to be actual lodges with full catering facilities, very pleasant during a long walk. The advice on the web had been to visit here in June to mid July to see the spring wild flowers. We realised why mid July was the cut-off point, not the heat of summer, but the mowers were out in force, and about a third of the meadows had been cut. They were obviously 'making hay while the sun shone', and in another week, there would be no wild flowers left. This was our first experience of proper alpine wild flowers, and we found them quite stunning.

After another picnic in the car-park for lunch, we set off on a walk described in the map as more demanding, and a total time of 4.5 hours from the head of the meadow at Saltria. The excellent bus service took us to the far side of the meadow for €1, and as we knew it is 8 miles wide, a walk up to Sasso Piatto and then back to the car at Compaccio, didn't seem unreasonable.

The sun was shining, the peaks cleared of the morning mist, and we were really enjoying the walk; despite the fact that we only had shoes, not boots like everyone else! After coffee at the Zallinger Hut, we encountered a really steep track which took us up to the Sasso Piatto hut at 2300 m. (Our start point had been 1740m) The air up here was considerably colder, and although we felt like a hot drink, a guaranteed amount of liquid seemed a better use of our last money so we settled for ice-tea and a sugar boost.

At this point, we realised how sketchy the instructions were. At this furtherest point on the meadow, it merely said, return to Compaccio. No sign boards indicated which track, the track numbering system didn't help. For some unknown reason, no number 4 tracks were indicated in the direction we felt was the right one.

So at 4pm, we set of on the final leg of the journey. It had taken 3.5 hours so far, including 30 minutes of refreshment breaks. This meant we should be 1.5 hours from our car. But on the stylised map (not drawn to scale), it looked an incredibly long way. So we cranked up the pace, passing everyone we encoutered, came across numbered tracks not on our 'pretty' map obtained at the tourist information centre, and made our own way home as best we could. Some clear indication as to which of the tracks leading back to our Compaccio was the most straightforward, would have been helpful. We asked several walking parties, but they were all novices like us, and none spoke English! The best response we got from one party was where do you want to sleep tonight”, i.e. “which refuge are you heading for on your tramp”! We had no packs and only the lightest of clothing, why they thought we would be staying on the mountain was anybody's guess.

When we finally reached the car at 6.30pm, were were extremely tired, but relieved to be there. A summer jersey and lightweight shoes, didn't seem like adequate preparation for an evening in the mountains!

When we finally got back to the camp-site we were very tired and very happy to take advantage of the camp's excellent restaurant.
We were fortunate enough to secure the last terrace table, with a brilliant view over the camp nestled under the Sciliar Dolomite peak, and see the setting sun turn the peaks a rosy pink colour. It was a great finale to our last night in these mountains.

Bolzano and beyond – 19 July 2010

The road into Bolzano follows a gorge which makes a very dramatic entrance to the city. Bolzano is a lovely old town, full of beautiful buildings, and definitely a tourist mecca. The town was full of shops offering sales – hard to resist!

After walking the town, we set off for a lake depicted in information the London Tourist Office had supplied. In the picture, the lake looked magical, surrounded by vineyards and the reality did not disappoint. We had asked when we first arrived in the area, if there was camping near this lake, and been told, no. Well it is about time the Cesi tourist office had more information for passing tourists, as we found two campsites! But we enjoyed a picnic above the lake, and moved on to San Genesio.

San Genesio is a small town high above Bolzano, reached via an amazing road, with a spiral tunnel and bridge in one place. The drive was amazing in terms of engineering, but the town a sleepy place during siesta, with amazing views over Bolzano and the Dolomites. We found one cafe open, and enjoyed a coffee, looking out over the awesome view.

The London info, also suggested a drive to the Ega Valley. This is another gorge, which in turn leads to the Fassa Valley, and we followed this up to Lake Carezza. The lake perfectly reflects a section of the Dolomites and is an absolutely stunning spot. The trees in this area are much sort after for making excellent violins and guitars as the pine wood is so fine grained