Schwand (Salzkammergut), Austria October 2020

Arrived at a site, Paradiescamping Birkenstrand, at (G)Schwand on the Wolfgangsee (about 3 miles outside of Sankt Gilgen) which is amongst the best we have seen throughout the tour. It sits right on the lake and is clean and modern with everything you could want including a toilet block with underfloor heating… and all for 20 Euros.

Since Gerhard is currently staying in Bad Ischl just 15 kms away (and we hope to see him and Clare over the weekend) we have decided to stay on at Schwand and take in Sankt Gilgen, Bad Ischl and perhaps even Hallstatt. This latter town is reputedly the most beautiful village in Austria.

We arrived at Schwand late in the afternoon and had just enough time to quickly explore the local area before Gerhard joined us and took us to a fine restaurant in Gschwendt where we enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel, the local beer and a nice Gruner Veltliner. We’ll be buying a great deal more of the latter before we leave Austria.

Our view in the other direction

Villach (Carinthia), Austria October 2020

I recall staying near Villach last year, at a place called Ossiach, and making the 10 mile journey to Villach by bus to discover there was some kind of festival going on – the Villacher Kirchtag festival. I recall it was a very gay affair with many people dressed up in the national costume (lederhosen and dirndels) and numerous ‘oompah’ bands playing (almost competing with each other) and lots of beer was being drunk from about 9 o’clock in the morning. That was last August during Europe Tour 2 which I covered on Facebook but didn’t do a daily blog on.

The Villacher Kirchtag has been an event every year since 1936 (except between 1940 and 1947) and it is now a regional attraction that is known across Austria (and parts of Italy too judging by the number of Italian voices I heard last year). I don’t know the significance of the festival or how it came about but it really is a fun affair. Sadly, because of the COVID pandemic and following the Austrian governments directive that no large event take place before the end of August 2020, the 77th Villacher Kirchtag did not take place in 2020. Next year perhaps.

Our visit to Villach this year happened purely and simply because Bled was almost totally closed because of COVID (see previous blog). Rather than search Slovenia for areas that were not categorised as COVID level 2 or 3 (shades of the lockdown which would close the bars) we decided to make the 33 mile drive to Austria knowing that we would at least be able to get out for a drink.

One feature worth mentioning is that police are now manning the borders between Italy, Slovenia and Austria because of COVID. Having said that, we haven’t experienced any problems crossing borders. The Slovenians might have stopped us from entering (because we carry GB plates & passports and COVID is spiking in the UK) but because we have spent the last weeks in Italy we were okay. We were stopped too when crossing from Slovenia into Austria but again were waived through after explaining that we have been in Italy for several weeks and left Trieste that very morning. I trust we’ll have no problems going forward.

We stayed in a basic but clean and pleasant camp site, Seecamping Plorz, overlooking Lake Ossiach. We had the site entirely to ourselves.

Bled (Julian Alps), Slovenia October 2020

Bled was closed!

We arrived mid afternoon and parked the Van on an empty pay car park near where the 209 meets Kidriceva cesta (on the south east side of the lake) and then walked clockwise round the lake towards the town’s centre, seeing very few people on the way.

In the centre we saw even fewer people. With the exception of a small Mercado not far from where we had parked the Van, the casino, a health food store and one small restaurant doing take away food only, everything was closed. We couldn’t get a drink anywhere, even in the local hotels. We walked from one hotel to another but most appeared to be boarded up; the only one showing any light had a sign up advising that only hotel residents would be served food and drink. It was unbelievable.

An elderly woman stopped to ask us about the dogs and I asked her why everything was shut. That started her off. In between slagging off the Croat tourists who had brought COVID to Bled and the Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, for letting them enter the country, she explained that COVID was rife and everywhere was on lockdown. She didn’t stop at that but, to cut a long rant short, she politely suggested we find somewhere else in Slovenia that wasn’t locked down and then apologised for leaving us saying that she had to get home. For what it is worth she wasn’t wearing a face mask.

Having walked the entire 6 km circuit of the lake before meeting the lady, we decided to stock up on stores, pack up the Van and head off to Austria. Shame but Vanya has now been to Slovenia, seen Bled, walked all around the lake and the town (she covered 10 kms today) and taken countless stunning photographs of one of the prettiest places in Europe…Take a look for yourself…

There is more about Bled in the blog I made when I last visited the town in 2017 although in some respects the place has changed quite markedly. Certainly, the town has grown significantly and the lakeside has been further developed to cater for tourists. Indeed, work seems to be continuing in that regard.

Trieste (Friuli Venezia Giulia), Italy October 2020

My last visit to Trieste in the winter of 2017 entailed a great deal of walking, taking in the sites – Miramare Castle, the Grand Canal (and the James Joyce statue), the Trieste Waterfront and the Molo Audace, The Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, the Castle and Cathedral of San Giusto and, of course, the Roman Theatre. This time the stay would simply be about relaxing and celebrating Vanya’s birthday.

We parked the Van up on the promenade almost opposite the Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia and walked the short distance to the Doubletree by Hilton on the Piazza della Republica – one of many impressive buildings in this city.

While Vanya and Beanie rested, I took Nala to check out three restaurants which were recommended by the hotel receptionist as possible places to celebrate Vanya’s birthday in the evening. That done I sat drinking wine outside a cafe on the Piazza della Borsa and simply watched the world go by. That’s always been a favourite pastime of mine.

That evening we dropped the dogs off in the Van (they are used to being in the Van and seem okay being left for a couple of hours) and went for pre-dinner drinks at a small cafe on the Via delle Beccherie Vecchie and then to the nearby L’Etrusco Restaurant for dinner. The service at L’Etrusco was excellent; the food was great and not too badly priced but; my wine, while a very good Chianti, was bloody expensive. Oh well. I enjoyed it.

By the end of the evening I’d had rather a lot to drink and our plans to see Trieste by night had to be curtailed. Sorry Vanya. We collected the dogs from the Van and ambled back across the Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia to our hotel.

Over breakfast the next morning we (i.e. Vanya) decided she would like to see something of Slovenia and so we set off for one of my favourite destinations in Slovenia – Bled.

While loading the Van I paused to watch a local man catch a large fish from the bay with the smallest of rods. I have no idea as to how he managed to land such a huge fish with his small fishing rod but it was exciting to watch and he was as pleased as punch..

And so to Bled…

Burano (Venice), Italy October 2020

Of the 118 islands that form Venice, Burano is my favourite. Venice as a whole is wonderful but it is Burano’s colourful contrast that most complements the city. With some 4,000 inhabitants it is a fair sized island (it actually comprises four separate islands linked by bridges) famous for it’s lace, fishing, leaning bell tower and, most particularly, it’s colourful houses.

Legend has it that the neon coloured houses were first introduced to help fishermen get their bearings. Not sure I believe that – It is more likely to do with tourism since it is the local council which has made it compulsory for Burano residents to paint the facades of their houses every so often and it is the council which stipulates the colour (although residents can make application of the local council for a colour change).

There are a number of private tour operators who will take you to Burano and you can take such a tour from Zattere but we chose to walk across Venice’s principal islands from Zattere to Fondamente Nuovo and get the number 12 water bus (vaporetto). The bus goes every half hour or so with the journey taking about 45 minutes and stopping at Murano (the largest of the islands in the lagoon and famous for it’s glass), Torcello (very quiet with just 10 residents), Mazzorbo (connected to Burano by a long wooden bridge) and, of course, Burano. It goes on to another island but don’t ask me which one.

No more talking. Time for photos…

Unique

Venice (Veneto), Italy October 2020

Vanya had it in mind to visit Venice at the outset and guess what? We arrived at our site, Fusina Camping (one of the best to date), some time after 15.00 and, despite my pleas to take time out and just chill until the next day, she had us sitting on the quay at Fusina in plenty of time to catch the 17.00 vaporetto to Zattere. She can be very persuasive sometimes.

Although I at first resisted, I confess I became quite excited at the prospect of returning to Venice. I have been to the city and some of it’s lagoon settlements many times before (I first visited the place as a teenager in 1969 and, of course, Vanya and I visited during our honeymoon on Jesolo, to name but two visits) but, for all that, I don’t recall ever having seen Venice at night.

During all my previous visits the place has been crowded, especially the better known tourist spots of St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, etc and I wasn’t looking forward to dragging our dogs, Nala and Beanie around the place in such crowds but my fears were groundless. COVID 19 had seen to it that the place was practically deserted. Everything was open but there were so few people! I’m not complaining, believe me.

Venice at night is something else. I loved it and I was so pleased that we made the effort to go in on the 17.00 vaporetto. Well done Van. xx

We didn’t stay too late because, in any event, we had it in mind to catch the vaporetto back into Venice the next morning. I had promised Vanya I would show her Burano (whether she wanted to see it or not). Burano is special. It is another of those quite unique places that Italy is so full of and I am firmly of the mind that you have not really experienced Venice unless or until you have seen it’s island of Burano.

Burano comes next…

Carpegna (Le Marche), Italy October 2020

It was getting on in the afternoon by the time we left Sassocorvaro but, using Google, Vanya had identified three camp sites within an hour’s drive. None were ACSI (In Italy, ACSI sites are thin on the ground away from the coast) and none had telephone numbers so it was a matter of just picking them off one by one until we got lucky. I say that because few camp sites remain open in Italy once summer is gone.

It took us almost an hour to reach our preferred site, Campeggio Pian Dei Prati (which overlooked the small village of Frontino and offered splendid views of Mount Carpegna) and Vanya wasn’t at all happy about the drive which was up, over and around a number of steep hills (well, steep by her standards anyway). In fact she chose to hide under a quilt in the back of the Van for much of the journey. Sod’s law the site was closed. In fact it looked as though it had not been open for some while.

I think the name of the second choice site was Campeggio Marecchia and/but I have totally forgotten the name of the third site. It matters not; they were both closed. Of course we spent at least another hour driving around the hills before discovering this and by then Vanya was a terrified wreck. She hates heights

The Satnav in the Van had us going around in circles. On at least two occasions we drove through places we had been not so long before. The worst instance was when we paused in a small mountain village to try and get our bearings (I think it was called Pennabilli over in the Emilia Romagna Region) and I pointed out a tiny cinema to Vanya. It seemed so incongruous there. A half hour later, after driving on what I thought was the road to Carpegna back in Le Marche, the Satnav brought us back to the cinema!! It was a bit like a Stephen King horror story. We were both unsettled at that point and decided decided to give up on a camp site. Vanya would have stayed anywhere so long as no more driving was involved. Me, I just wanted to get away from Pennabilli.

Eventually we found a small car park opposite a lonely pizzeria on the edge of the Sasso Simone e Simoncello Natural Park. The owners were very welcoming; it was warm and; they served an okay pizza with beer. I suspect the Prosecco was good too but Vanya was beyond caring.

We had a good night’s rest (read I had a good night’s rest) and were away early the next morning, heading for Venice, with me totally ignoring the Satnav and following my map until we were a good 50 miles away.

Having said all that, the countryside in the area is beautiful…

Sassocorvaro (Le Marche), Italy October 2020

Sassocorvaro is a small sleepy town perched 1,030 feet up on a hill overlooking the Mercatale Valley through which the River Foglia flows.

It has little to interest tourists except perhaps for an unusual castle (the Rocca Ubaldinesca) and some fine views across the Mercatale Valley where the river has been dammed to create a sizeable artificial lake. Of equal interest to us however was the sizeable town square car park which nestled under the walls of the Rocca provided us with a perfect parking spot for the night. The car park had been singled out in the “Park4Night” website as being a good, quiet overnight stopping place and; with both a small pizzeria (to grab a bite and enjoy a beer in) and a small supermarket (from which to buy croissants in the morning) nearby, it promised a far better night’s rest than where we had been in the considerably larger, busier, noisier town of Urbino.

It suited us perfectly – and then Vanya read a local sign identifying that there would be a town market on the site the very next morning. The best laid plans of mice and men… ! No matter, there was time left for a brief wander around Sassocorvaro before looking for somewhere else to overnight at and, if worse came to worst, there were three camp sites within striking distance.

The views over the valley, especially those over the lake towards the town of Mercatale, were impressive but we couldn’t get to see much of the Rocca Ubaldinesca because it was closed. Shame. It is a relatively small Renaissance style castle and quite unique because of it’s turtle like layout (but that wasn’t obvious to us from underneath the walls). The castle’s one claim to fame is that it was used during WWII to house works of art from across Italy in order to prevent them being stolen by occupying German forces.

It was time to move on. After checking various sources for camp sites Vanya had identified three camp sites between 20 and 30 miles away to the north east. Two of the three read particularly well… and that was where things started going awry.

Urbino (Le Marche), Italy October 2020

Urbino was picked out by Vanya as somewhere she thought I would like and; I do, except we didn’t stay as long as we perhaps could or should have done to do the place justice. I had picked out another small town, Sassocorvaro, which place also looked worth a visit (and is just down the road a bit) and; because Urbino couldn’t offer decent overnight parking, we elected to do both Urbino and Sassocorvaro and trust that the latter town would offer more in terms of a place to overnight at. Well, that was the plan and; it worked well to start with. We enjoyed a brief stop in both Urbino and Sassocorvaro but then it went all to pot. Sorry, I am running ahead of myself. Let me talk a little about the two places and then I will explain how most everything else went awry.

Urbino is a small brick and sandstone walled hilltop city of just over 15,000 people in the Marche Region. It was both a Roman and Medieval town but it really came to the fore during the 15th century when the Duke Federico da Montefeltro, a real patron of the arts, totally remodelled the place into one of the most important Renaissance sites in Italy. He called some of the world’s most renowned scholars and artists to his court and created a centre of learning that would ultimately lead to the city being recognised in 1998 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is still a centre of learning with the University of Urbino being ranked as one of the oldest (founded in 1506) and most prestigious in Italy and in so many respects it is a proper university town – witness the numerous university book shops, coffee bars and accommodation letting agencies. We arrived near lunchtime and the town’s steep narrow streets were thronged with students, released for the day and crowding the coffee shops and bars. There are more students than native residents and, if what we witnessed is anything to go by, they invoke a lively, buoyant atmosphere. Ordinarily I would have said there was a real buzz about the place but, sadly, Vanya and I have been exposed to too much “lockdown” and “social distancing” as a result of the current COVID pandemic and I think we both felt somewhat uncomfortable by the tumult and general mood of the place (although we were not deterred from joining them in coffee and cakes at one of the local coffee shops).

Good coffee and an outstanding chocolate cake

There was insufficient time for us to visit even one of the city’s many local art galleries or museums but just by walking the city we viewed countless examples of architectural magnificence and the views from the city across the remarkably green, rolling countryside match any I have seen in Tuscany.

The most outstanding building and the centrepiece of the town is the very well preserved Ducal Palace and, alongside that, the Cathedral. The Ducal Palace houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche; one of the best renaissance paintings collections in Europe with Raphael, Titian and Pierro della Francesca predominating. Incidentally, Raphael (or Raffaello Sanzio to give him his proper name) was born in Urbino and the house he was born in is now a museum.

And so it was that by mid afternoon we were heading off to Sassocorvaro…

Lesina (Puglia), Italy October 2020

It was raining heavily in Contursi when we went to bed last night and it was still raining when we awoke this morning. In fact heavy rain is forecast for the next few days in the Salerno area and along almost the whole of the west coast of Italy. There was only one thing to do – move to the east coast where the forecast is much brighter – and so we set off at about 9.30 for a place called Chieti which is on the Adriatic Coast in the Abruzzo Region.

Chieti is about 195 miles from Contursi and I estimated the journey would take between 2.5 and 3.0 hours using the motorways. In the end, we didn’t make it. In fact we are still 87 miles south of Chieti and that is after 5 hours driving! I went totally the wrong way. In fact, we are now in the small fishing town of Lesina on the Puglian coast of the Adriatic. No matter. We’re not in a hurry.

I don’t think there is much to see or do in Lesina but it is a pretty enough place. It is a genuine fishing village on Lake Lesina just to the north of the Gargano National Park (see the Vieste blog earlier this trip). I say ‘genuine’ because you get the impression here that fishing is what it is all about whereas, in a lot of so called ‘fishing villages’ the fishing has long since given way to tourism. We’ll find out for sure later tonight when we check out the restaurants and tomorrow morning when I check out the local fish market.

What’s to look at? Well, there’s an elegant looking (former) cathedral here, the Cattedrale della Santissima Annunziate. Not sure how it is or why a cathedral can revert to being a church?

There is some history here too in that USACE opened an airfield here in 1944 for 325 Fighter Group (317, 318 & 319 Squadrons) with their P51 Mustangs. It closed in 1945.

When arriving in Lesina we chose to stay at the local Aree di Sosta. By any standards the Sosta is a good one, even having a (very) small bar frequented by local fishermen. The proprietor was friendly and enquired as to whether or not we wanted any local fish, offering also to cook it for us in the small kitchen at the back of the bar. It wasn’t a particularly cheap meal by local standards but it was good and he served it with a very nice white wine from the Istria Valley in Puglia and then, to cap it all, presented us with complimentary liqueurs.

Yes, this is very much a genuine fishing village.