Day 36-38: 44 hours in no man’s land!!

After an amazing visit to the ice caves we started the slow decent down the mountain and onto the motorway towards Slovenia. We took the steep, hairpin road slowly as whilst the BFG looks tough she’s getting on a bit and is well loaded with everything from surfboards, bikes, food, wine, books, clothes and toiletries! We were both relieved to get to the bottom with only a few squeaks from the brakes, however once we’d got onto the motorway she let us know how hard that had been as she started playing up. With things not feeling right we decided to pull over at the next services; unsure of what the problem was and deciding another few hours drive to Slovenia was a bad idea we found the nearest IVECO garage and headed in that direction. As it was a Saturday afternoon the garage was closed, so we have no choice but to hang around until it opened again on Monday morning.

Cue 40 plus hours in a little campsite nearby, in the Austrian village of St Johann im Pongau. It was a nice little town, with plenty of shops, restaurants and walking route to follow but as it did not stop raining for the whole time we were there we spent a lot of time blogging and catching up on life in the special TV/internet room. To call it special was an understatement; this room was home to two stuffed beavers, wonky paintings, framed embroidery, weird christmasequse decorations and a musky smell as it was located in the basement. It will be forever known as the ‘beaver room’.

On Monday we woke early and headed to the garage, where luckily they spoke perfect english. The friendly mechanic checked over the brakes and wheel bearings, however he couldn’t find anything wrong and put it down to the steep decent from the ice caves. Feeling mainly relieved – and now even more cautious of mountain passes – we headed back to the campsite ready to head off and were soon whizzing along the motorway towards Slovenia.

Unlucky for us to final road into the Soca valley is via a very windy (and sometime steep) mountain pass, so we took it as slowly as we could and made it in one piece to an idyllic campsite where we were the only ones in our field and overlooking beautiful, snow-capped mountains. It was the perfect setting and made all the better as the sun started peeking out after several days of grey clouds and rain!

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Day 36: Ice, ice baby!

Today was a short drive to Eisriesenwelt, the largest ice caves in the world. It began with a slow drive up a very big hill, with a gradient of up to 21%, forgetting about the park-and-ride bus service that could have done the hard work for us!

There are two options for getting up to the cave entrance; the easy way via a three minute cable car and the hard way being a 90 minute hike covering a 600m height gain. We originally planned on hiking up, however getting advice from the info desk and seeing photos of a particularly exposed trail with a (near) sheer drop on one side we decided to swallow our pride and join the ‘larger’ tourists in the cable car – I know we sound prejudiced, however one particular lady complained about being out of breath having only taken a dozen steps from the cable car down (!!) to the path!

Out of the cable car we were greeted with an amazing view of the valley below and snow-topped mountains above, but at this point we still couldn’t see the entrance to the cave. Ten minutes later up a gravel trail we arrived at the entrance and began layering up, having read the cave temperature is below freezing.

Our tour guide – a young, dread-locked Austrian who was clearly waiting for the snowboarding season to start again – handed out lanterns and told us to prepare to be amazed! Cynical as we are we didn’t know what to expect, as other ‘must see’ tourist attractions haven’t lived up to the hype, however on entering the cave we weren’t let down!

The caves are 42km long, fortunately we were only walking the first (and most icy) kilometre! To describe the caves themselves is quite hard, as you really need to experience them yourself, however from the moment we entered we were greeted by amazing ice columns, stalactites and formations that had a magical quality to them. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos in the caves to protect them (and prevent the selfie brigade slowing down the tours), however here are a few photos from their website.

This is one tourist attraction that we think is most definitely worth the visit!

Day 35: Salzberg, Austria

As we’re British we should mention the weather and sadly now common theme of biblical rain storms! Yet more fell overnight leaving the campsite a little lakey, however we did our best to block it out (and dodge puddles) as we grabbed the bus into town!

Our first stop was the fortress, standing proud on the edge of the old town. We wandered up, had a look around the outer perimeter and admired the views over the city before heading down to the Dom Cathedral and St Peter’s Catacombs. We paid a colossal €4 entry to the catacombs and walked up the steep narrow staircase, revealing a series of caves complete with alter, tombs and baroque murals. Unlike the ones we’d visited in Paris, for us anyway, these seemed unusual as they were carved out of the Mönchsberg rock rather than being underground.

After emerging into the sunshine we had a walk around the surrounding streets and squares, dodging tour guides, horse drawn carriages, pavement painters, souvenir stands and beggars before grabbing a bite to eat in a pretty garden behind the Colligiate church.

After food we popped into the church to find a wonderful, bright space with amazing light and beautiful sculptures. It was a refreshing change from other more traditional and darker churches that we have seen recently and really showed off the building’s structure.

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We had a quick detour via St Blaise’s church before heading over to Mirabell Gardens, but not before learning about the Austrian-Yugoslavian labour agreement which lead to thousands of migrates coming from Yugoslavia to help support the dwindling Austrian workforce. Quite topical considering this Thursday’s vote!!

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Day 33-34: Terrific Tirol!

We headed back up into the mountains today, this time to explore the Hall valley and its salt mining heritage. On the advice of the tourist board we decided to try the historical mining route, taking us up 800 vertical metres of steep mountain road. Initially the route was on well marked paths, with boards dotted along the way providing information on the history of salt mining in the area. It was good to be able to learn a little more and they also provided a little respite from the tough gradient!! About two-thirds of the way up the path veers left towards an old mining church and is also home to a lovely looking cafe! We ploughed on upwards, but vowed to return on the way back for coffee and cake!

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After another kilometre or so we reached the end of the trail, where we found the officer’s headquarters but no salt mine! We’d seen several closed mines along the way, however the gem of the walk was meant to be an illuminated open mine you could see 100m or so down. Sadly we couldn’t find it anywhere, but we did come across an honesty bar hidden away in one of the outbuilding in the officer’s headquarters!

Mine-less we decided to head a little higher to make the most of the views and on walking another half an hour or so we can across a beautiful valley full of wild flowers. Luckily the path back to St Magdalena took us though the meadow and allowed us to enjoy amazing alpine vistas.

After a slightly wet and slippy decent we reached the cafe – having seen two ibex in the woods on the way!! – and had a well earned break with coffee, apple strudel and baked cheese cake! Luckily it was all downhill on the way back and we managed to get back to the van just before the rain arrived to spend another night in sheltering from the downpour!

The next day we headed back into Hall to enjoy a cooking class with Petra’s Kitchen, that was organised by the lovely people at the tourist board. Here we learnt to make kärntner nudeln, a hybrid between italian ravioli and wheat dumplings. They were very tasty, with a rich dough and creamy cheese, leek and herb filling. Definitely something we could try to make in the van and rolling out the dough would be a good upperbody workout! Petra was a great teacher and it was lovely to spend time with a local who, like us, also has a keen interest in travel, photography and food!!

It was finally time to leave Hall and head east to Salzberg, having spent a wonderful few days here. We’d highly recommend it as an area to visit, as the town and surrounding areas have a lot to offer, and your first port of call should definitely be the tourist office!

Day 31-32: Hall-o Austria!!

Leaving our campsite on the German/Austrian border we headed east to Innsbruck, with the plan to explore the city in the afternoon. We decided on a campsite on the outskirts, however on arriving we discovered that Hall in Tirol was actually a lovely town in its own right and decided to spend the afternoon exploring here rather than heading into Innsbruck.

We wandered around the charming old town, with its sunny square and beautiful churches, stopping at the tourist office to get a little more information on the wider area. They were very helpful, offering advice of walking routes, transport into Innsbruck and letting us know about the free activities they ran as part of a wider Hall-Wattens programme. We immediately signed up yoga the next morning and set about planning our next few days (over a cheeky few beers in the town square!).

Up early the next day we headed down for our 8am yoga session only to find we were the only guests there and everyone else worked for the tourist board! It was a great start to the day, with an instructor who spoke perfect english and afterwards we were invited for coffee and cake! We had a good chat with one of the ladies from the tourist board who filled us in on the history of Hall and what else there was to do in the area, before we talked about the EU, migration and politics. From there we headed into Innsbruck, but not before booking ourselves into a cooking lesson with the tourist board later that week.

Getting off the train at Innsbruck we headed in the general direction of their tourist information, through pretty streets and squares, but as with parts of Norway and Germany we were soon engulfed by tourist masses so headed over the river and up to the botanical gardens. They weren’t on the same scale as the ones in Copenhagen, but very nice none-the-less.

After admiring the gardens we headed to the Foto Forum to see what it was about, however it was still closed so we grabbed a cheeky slice of pizza instead and found a sunny spot in a park to scoff it. Suitably stuffed we headed in the direction of the ski jump which felt a little like the walk to Grenen – it must be close because we can see it, even though it never seemed to get closer! After a rather steep hill we emerged at the ski jump and were in luck, the German national team were there to practice! It was awesome seeing them soaring through the air; from the bottom it looked impressive, but from the top it was even better – both amazing and terrifying!!

Having spent an hour or so at the jump – watching the team practice, learning more about the history of ski jumping, admiring the olympic rings and torch and taking in the views – we felt a change in the air and headed back in the direction of the station before the heavens opened. We nearly made it to the train, running the past five minutes or so in the heavy rain, before heading back to Hall for a very wet evening in the van!