Monday, 16 February 2015

Five unsung gems of Europe - Part 2

Moving around the countries of Europe by train and bus or ferry, we arrived at many destinations by the back door! My next gems are in Slovenia, which we approached by a magnificent train trip through the Alps from Salzburg. The first snow was dusting the peaks as we went by and many people complete with long poles and gear were setting off at various stations to walk the mountain trails. Slovenia has to be one of the most scenic countries, with its untouched beauty and splendid vistas from mountain lakes to medieval cities.

First snow of the season on the Austrian alps enroute to Slovenia.

Ljubljana: Every expectation I had of Ljubljana was met when we rolled into the station and commenced our short walk downtown to our accommodation in the central area. Foot friendly and welcoming, Lubljiana is famous for its 3 bridges, one of which the Dragon Bridge, was one of  the first arched concrete construction bridge in Europe during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It has many sheeted copper dragons along it and 4 above, the dragon being the symbol of Slovenia. The Triple bridge is also nearby. There are many beautiful churches including the cathedral to visit together with Ljubljana castle overlooking the medieval layout of the city. A funicular serves as a shortcut to the 12th century castle and Outlook tower, with a museum to visit and outdoor cafĂ© to enjoy. While we were there, we enjoyed romantic dinners by the river serenaded by violins. There was also a festival with unusually tall human figures on stilts processing through the city. Art shops and bookshops delighted me as well! Ljubljana, truly a gem of modern Europe!

The mighty dragon symbol of Slovenia on Dragon Bridge.

Stilt walkers in downtown Ljubljana.

Triple Bridge, Ljubljana.

Looking across Lake Bled to the monastery.

Rowboats on Lake Bled.
From the monastery steps looking across the lake.
Lake Bled: We travelled the short distance by bus to Lake Bled for a day trip from Ljubljana. Words fail me here as there is nothing to compare with the untouched beauty of the lake which was revealed before us!  It is a tourist magnet that lives up to its reputation as powered boats are prohibited from using the lake environs. In fact, the European rowing championships are held here. The water is crystal clear and full of mirror images. To get to the monastery in the middle of the lake you can row yourself or like us be punted across by a willing  young man! We met up with many young people who come to pay their respects to their heritage in this way as the monastery is a significant site for them. There is a small museum and an eating area and  the whole island can be circled in fifteen minutes before returning. A magnificent castle that overlooks the lake can be visited too, or you can stroll like us around the lake enjoying the sunshine or having a cappuccino or vino or two at one of the many restaurants! Lake Bled, another true gem of Eastern Europe!


Sunday, 1 February 2015

Five unsung gems of Europe - Part 1

I don't profess to be the most knowledgeable world traveller, but over the past ten years, I have managed to pick up and learn of a few smaller and less well known  places that have delighted us! In keeping with our usual do our own thing itinerary using buses and trains throughout Europe, we have discovered the best tips come from locals and young people travelling cheaply, many a good time also had in passing - especially on "eat streets" and open air eating places!

Kayakers on the Vitava River

My first selection is Czechy Krumlov, a beautifully preserved medieval city on the Vitava River about an hour's train ride from Prague in the Czech Republic. It has a very large castle complex that dates back to the 13th century, overlooking the narrow alleyways of the village itself. The ornate ceilings and decorations take your breath away as you process through a chapel and onto large rooms typical of the biggest castles in Europe. It has a working stage machinery in a theatre that is one of the few operating still in the world. From here, you proceed down to the plentiful restaurants, cafes, even the Eggenberg brewery below and wander through the many interesting book and art shops.

View from the castle walls of the city.

After  a wonderful lunch in a very medieval, that is, suitably candle-lit!- restaurant, we were able to wander around before catching the bus and train back to Prague. You can watch from the bank, the kayakers fording the small rapids on the river that winds through the city, and investigate the churches and shops further. There are many festivals held here each year and the medieval tournaments , opera and summer music festivities would be well worth checking out!

Beside the Vitava River.

My tip: my advice is to stay the night, as we didn't and have regretted it ever since!