Last year we decided we wanted to return to Samoens to do some more hiking ( limited last year by me having a nasty cold). Unbelievably I came down with a cold again. I am not tempting fate by returning next year. We managed some smaller walks, some good restaurant meals and not much else.
We were due to head south to our last stop near Alès to clean up the van before putting it into storage near Arles. But temperatures had climbed to around 40 degrees in the south and we felt it was better to stay put in Samoens for an extra day where the temperature was a more tolerable 29-30 degrees.
When we did drive down south, we could only sort out and clean up the van for a few hours in the early morning before it was too hot and we retreated to the swimming pool alternated with sitting in as much shade as we could find.
With the van in storage we drove the 200 km in Twiggy to our friends Guy and Sue who were staying in the hills north of Saint Tropez. And enjoyed several days of a total contrast in lifestyle.
Dinner at the local small town of Grimaud on festival night was a lot of fun. I had a very close encounter with these scary individuals. At one point I disappeared from sight completely!
We spent a relaxing day on the water including a good lunch at Club Tahiti one of about 36 beach clubs along Pempelonne Beach near Saint Tropez. So many super yachts anchored along the beach, doing what one guesses that people on super yachts do a lot of, drinking and eating. You get picked up and taken ashore on a tender associated with the beach club you are going to.
Our travels in Europe this year are now finished, sadly – after a few days in London to see Anna and a short mother/daughter break in Biarritz, it is time to head home. Next year our plans include Spain and we don’t know what else yet – but that is half the fun of travelling in a camper van. Plans change and you can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves along the way. We have loved the time we have spent in the mountains and I am sure they will figure prominently in next year’s trip – they are also a good place to retreat to when the temperatures climb and the popular holiday areas get crowded.
We had never been to Zermatt but it has a reputation for being one of the most expensive Swiss resorts and Switzerland is expensive anyway. As there is no car access to Zermatt we stayed at a campground at Tasch not far from the last train station before Zermatt. We set up camp including the little tent for Pamela to sleep in. Little did she know what was in store for her with 4-5 degree temperatures at night for the first few days – we had coincided our arrival with an extreme cold snap which happens a few times each summer.
The next morning we set off to meet Dominic, one of the AFS students that Pamela had hosted and whom we had got to know well, who lives in a small alpine village 1000m above the valley floor and down the valley from Zermatt. The road up was scary to say the least. It was great to see Dom again and to see his village.
The village of Torbel where Dominic lives has a very quaint old part that is maintained by a local group and is not touristy at all – it has one small hotel.
First stop after meeting Dom was the well regarded restaurant at the top of the road – at 2048m altitude – where Dom is working during the university holidays. And outside was a sign pointing to Auckland NZ and the distance (which Dom had never noticed!)
The raclette was done the traditional way by melting the cheese next to an open fire and was delicious- surprisingly not too rich.
After lunch we set off for Dom’s family’s mountain cabin – our accommodation for the night. No road access! We had to carry our bags over the meadows where the family was haymaking.
Front door of cabin
It was a wonderful experience- waking up to the sound of cow bells and having our breakfast outside in the clear mountain air.
That day we did a panorama hike at the top of the pass – passing some of Dom’s family’s cows on the way. The black ones are fighting cows and are quite docile towards people. But the shepherd, who looks after the cows from several families, warned us to keep clear if they started locking horns.
Zermatt is at the head of a large valley with a huge array of gondolas leading up to different areas- it must be an amazing ski area. The next day we took the gondola up one area and hiked past several small lakes before walking back down to Zermatt. It actually started snowing when we got off the gondola.
Another day we did a trip to Furi to see the suspension bridge
And then up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise by gondola and cable car. It’s a bit like the L’Aiguille de Midi, perched on a rocky peak at 3883m altitude, with the cable car crossing across glaciers to get there.
Surprisingly the far side is relatively flat with T bars for skiing – summer and winter – leading down into the Cervinia skifield in Italy.
The ice sculpture cave was worth a visit
And we had some almost clear views of the Matterhorn on the way back down
On our return we found a herd of goats being driven down the Main Street of Zermatt much to everyone’s amusement.
We could easily have spent more time in Zermatt. It has managed to keep a mainly traditional style of architecture but we found the large numbers of electric carts a little annoying- you might think you are in a car free town but you constantly have to get out of the way of the electric carts which hurtle at speed on the roads filled with pedestrians.
After leaving Bad Waldsee, we were going to drive as far as Meiringen in Switzerland and spend a couple of days hiking there before we had to be in Zermatt but ended up driving to Lauterbrunnen – closer to our next destination and one of our favourite places in Switzerland. The valley there is so striking – with huge cliffs of about 1000m straight up from the valley floor.
It was our third time there- once with the girls in 2001 and then in 2012 when we were doing the Alpine Passes hike over about 12 days. We have vivid memories of the day in mid late August when we were walking down from the pass at Kleine Scheinedegg towards Wengen and it started snowing – heavily. By the next morning there was 30 cm of snow on the ground in Lauterbrunnen and much more at Murren where we supposed to start the next day’s hike. We ended up missing out the next 3 mountain passes on the hike due to the amount of snow.
Our first day on this visit we headed up from Stechelberg at the end of the valley by gondola to Murren and did a hike along the high pastures then back to Murren by cog train.
There were lots of wildflowers and some good interpretative material at the start of the hike. I had never realised that Arnica grew only on high alpine pastures.
But before long we had our usual thunderstorms chasing us.
We finished the hike in the rain and retreated to a hotel opposite the train station for afternoon tea in Murren. Which turned into dinner, resplendent in our hiking gear, as it was such a comfortable place to spend a few hours – it turned out to be the best hotel/restaurant in Murren (very traditional) which made us feel a little awkward …
The next day we embarked on a more major hike from Stechelberg up the valley. And met these super friendly goats who ended up staying with us for some distance.
Which was fine until we got to a bridge and they wouldn’t move. Shades of Billy Goats Gruff?
We wished we could have spent longer here (maybe next year) but after 2 days we had to move on to Zermatt to meet our friend Pamela. To get there we had to take a car train from Kandersteg under the mountains to the valley near Visp. An interesting experience!
The train was 3.0 metres high and 2.5 m wide – we are 2.95m high and 2.35 m wide so very little tolerance. We had to drive what seemed like a few hundred metres down the wagons on the train with only 7.5cm clearance on each side – ended up folding in the wing mirrors. The camping van in front of us is narrower than our van.
We needed to fill in a day while the van was being sorted and had heard from other people camping out at the Hymer factory that Frederickshaven was worth a trip. Our first port of call was the Zeppelin museum – the Zeppelin flying machines were developed and built here. I had never realised just how extensively they were flown and the length of the journeys they made.
We found a traditional local festival was on in town with beer halls set up along the lakeside and bands and small orchestras playing in each. Like a mini Oktoberfest! Some great music, lots of beer and some traditional German food – what more do you need to have a great day.
We particularly liked the children’s raft competition
Next stop – Switzerland and revisiting Lauterbrunnen
We visited Innsbruck nearly 30 years ago in the middle of winter as part of a skiing trip to Europe – the worst season in 50 years- and loved it. This time, in the middle of summer, it was the lure of hiking in the mountains that made us return.
With a campground just a few kilometres from the town centre we were in a good position for exploring the area.
The first day we took a cable car up high ( cheating I know) and did a beautiful hike along a high trail for a few hours before lunch at a mountain auberge and an ancient single seater chairlift back down.
Innsbruck has a stunning location in the valley between two high mountain ranges. As expected at this time of year, it was full of tourists but the old town was still well worth visiting.
Most days there we managed to get out hiking for a few hours although the weather was quite changeable.
One day we took the funicular up to Hoadl at 2340m with some misgivings because of the cloud. It was about 4-5 degrees at the top and not so inviting so we fortified ourselves with a hot gluwein before deciding to walk down regardless.
We ended up having a fabulous walk down dropping 1000 metres of altitude and some great views of the mountains on the way.
Couldn’t resist photographing these pigs on the way down but did wonder about eating even free range pork after seeing them.
Innsbruck is a great area for hiking – if the weather had been better we would have done longer hikes but …..
We had to move on to Bad Waldee in southern Germany where we had an appointment at Hymer to get some things fixed on the van.
We found a campground on the shores of Wolfgangsee. With high temperatures forecast again, I wanted to make sure I could have a swim.
St Wolfgang on the opposite side of the lake was picture postcard pretty and a great place for an aperitif beside the lake.
Salzburg was about 30 minutes drive away so we made sure we left early to beat the crowds – peak holiday season now. Our first stop was the imposing Festung Hohensalzburg, a 900 year old cliff top fortress with great views of the old city centre below.
The old city centre or Altstadt was a delight with loads of beautiful buildings and narrow lanes but the tourist crowds built up quickly and by lunchtime the place was seething with people.
Salzburg is definitely geared up for the tourists – everywhere you look are shops like these selling local traditional dress. And you see quite a few people wearing it too, not just people serving in restaurants!
In the afternoon we took a gondola up to a local peak with great views over Wolfgangsee.
The next day was a really early start so that we could be at Eisriesenwelt, the world’s largest ice cave near Werfen, over an hour’s drive away,when the ticket office opened so that we could avoid the queues. It was a fascinating tour involving 700 stairs up and the same down using carbide lamps for light. No photography was permitted but many of us tried to sneak a few photos when the guide wasn’t looking (hard to get a good photo in the dark)-
View looking down from near the entrance to the cave
We then drove to the start of the Glossglockner road, reputedly one of Europe’s most scenic mountain drives with lots of tight hairpin bends climbing up to a high pass with incredible views of glaciers and down into deep valleys. After lunch we went on to Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Hope – from there we hiked up along side a glacier with others feeding into it. Amazing scenery – especially with yet another thunderstorm looming over the mountains. Lots of marmots along the way to entertain us with their antics but difficult to get close enough for a good photo.
We had a big drive back to the van – about 230 km – through thunderstorms and torrential rain but we were really glad we had made the effort to do the Glossglockner drive. Definitely recommended if you are visiting this part of Austria.
A short drive and we were at Lake Bled with a slow crawl the last few kilometres. Lake Bled is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Slovenia and during high season is literally seething with people. But – it is still incredibly beautiful! Our campground was about 4 km out of town, across the road from a reserve and beach that was packed with people as you can only find in Europe. But the water is really clear and warm so why not join them. With temperatures well over 30 degrees some days the water was so good.
Lake Bled is the scene for some of the most iconic photos of Slovenia as it has a magnificent castle high on a cliff overlooking the town and lake and a pretty church and other buildings on the only island on the lake – near where we were staying.
The lake is quite small – we walked around it with a detour up to the castle the first evening, about 7km total.
It was aperitif time by the time we reached the town of Bled (under half way unfortunately ) and we were lucky enough to find some musicians playing violin and keyboard at the place we stopped at. They were great and played all the old favourites, classical and more recent. The violinist reminded us of the stereotype of a crazy professor. They were playing as part of a music festival in the town.
The next day we felt we needed some serious exercise so headed to a plateau up some seriously windy narrow roads from where we hiked up to a pass at nearly 2000m from which we had some great views.
Our way back down led to this high valley where we spied a summer cabin where we saw some people eating. The owner provides freshly made traditional foods based around the milk from the small cow herd. You can buy yoghurt and cheese too.
So different from NZ’s move to mass production methods. Bet this wouldn’t meet Health and Safety standards in NZ.
The people eating there spoke good English and convinced us to try skutini struklji- a type of rolled soft cheese strudel but made with thin dough and served sweet with local honey or savoury with more cheese. Apparently the owner is well known for it. We opted for the sweet one – it was so good, freshly made for us and hot from the oven that even Richard liked it (no chocolate options).
By the time we left the farmhouse it was 5.30 and we still had a long walk ahead of us- thankfully the couple we met showed us a short cut through the forest back to our car. As it was we didn’t finish our hike until nearly 7pm and then had a 45 minute drive back.
Another day we visited Lake Bohinj which competes with Lake Bled on the ‘beautiful’ stakes. We took the Vogel gondola up to a high point with wonderful views of the lake and valley.
Most of the hikes from the gondola involved rough gravel roads used in winter as ski trails so we decided not to do any major hiking. Instead we did a hike up along a gorge just out of Bohinj – very pretty.
We have been pleasantly surprised at some of the restaurants we have found in Slovenia and this one in Bled was no exception – a beautiful garden setting with live music and excellent food at reasonable prices.
Another place tried a little bit too hard with its decorative touches.
We also visited the Vintgar Gorge – supposed to be one of ‘the’ things to see around Bled. It is a classic case of a place that has been spoilt by its own popularity. We had to walk along the narrow trail and boardwalks in a constant queue of people most of the time – while it was pretty we have seen gorges that are far more impressive. Definitely not a place to visit in high season.
We can highly recommend Slovenia for a visit. The west is the most interesting area from our point of view. We found the people really friendly and open – perhaps something to do with being a small country with a small population. Prices were very reasonable especially for food and restaurants. Our only negative was the cost of motorway tolls for our motorhome with trailer – I worked out it was costing us about 1 Euro per kilometre!! Lucky the distances were short. And the roads were good. Much cheaper for a car or smaller motor home though – you can buy a prepaid vignette. We had to pay truck rates being over 3.5 tonnes.
We would have stayed in Slovenia longer but wanted spend time in Austria before we had to be in southern Germany at the Hymer factory.