Sunday, 18 October 2015

Trolls in the Alps

High in the Italian Alps a chairlift is an altogether different experience outside of the skiing season. 

Having already taken a cable-car to a dizzying height (below) to reach the base point of the sessellift, it seems incredible to be going higher still.

But the views from above the tree-tops are pretty spectacular and I much prefer this mode of fresh-air transport to being in an enclosed bubble.

Some odd things start to happen as I float gently upwards suspended from a wire. The pure silence you get on mountain peaks is penetrated by the sounds of eerie music, 

while down below, some not quite normal-looking people appear, dotted around in the forest under the chairlift's path.

They turn out to be trolls. A fact that surprises me but not the Alpine cows who seem unmoved by the sight of these strange folks.

Some are playing traditional instruments

and soon they begin to seem perfectly natural in these surroundings.

Even some of my fellow-travellers-in-space are trolls, friendly types who smile without speaking

(this one hanging precariously from a tree; I worried about her)

Our trolls turn out to be a Norwegian (what else!) group of travelling artists, bringing the traditional music of the area alive, in an unusual and unforgettable performance.

Hopping off at the top, there are hiking trails to be followed in crisp, cold (and thin at nearly 2000 metres) mountain air ... Alpine donkeys

and a tiny church perched at the highest point (whoever comes here? I wondered).

Then some hours later the ride back down

past a picture-perfect chalet.

From the cable car going further down still, the lush valleys of the South Tyrol filled with vineyards and fruit orchards extend behind the window reflections

And then it was time to hit the road north to Innsbruck ...

Vigiljoch, near Merano, Italian Alps, September 2015

Monday, 5 October 2015

Alpine passes and some goats

The Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road connects the Austrian and Italian Tyrol, starting not far from Innsbruck and leading down on the south side to Merano in Italy.

It's Austria's highest border, open only for a few months of the year between June and October, and breathtaking to experience.

At hairpin bend no. 5 (there are twelve, it turns out) you are already at a seemingly dizzying height

Even the bikers who love this route (and how I envied them experiencing it en plein air) stopped to gawk at the incredible views.

 At the summit of 2500 metres there was a posse of Porsches parked outside the café and viewing hut.

I discovered later that this is a well known Thing (see here) that Porsche drivers do. But when this lone cyclist emerged puffing and weary at the summit ... well, that was impressive.

I loved the strange colours and textures of the mountainsides high above the treeline

From the summit the views across peaks and glaciers are spectacular.

Winding down on the south side towards the Italian border I had to jump out to say hello to these friendly Alpine goats.

This curious chap was an absolute pro at posing for pictures. I just wish I could send it to him!

Timmelsjoch Hochalpenstrasse, Austria, September 2015

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Schloss Neuschwanstein

King Ludwig II of Bavaria's fantastical folly appears suddenly on the approach road, perched on forested mountain-tops 

but the image is so inescapably etched in my mind as a Disney castle that the real thing has lost some of its impact.

Photochrom print c 1900 of front facade of Neuschwanstein (photo source)

The dramatic setting is undeniable though. Young Ludwig, obsessed with his friend Wagner's operas, designed it as an extravagant stage-set - complete with private grotto with artificial lake, waterfall, stalactites, swan boats and special lighting effects where operas were performed for an audience of one. 

What else was a young gay king forced into conventional roles to do with his fantasies?

The opera house in nearby Fussen trades on the Wagner connection. Poster at foot of Neuschwanstein.

Even (just) out of season, the crowds were there. The access road is steep, and we joined a queue for a horse-drawn carriage (why not go the full touristy shebang?).

I felt for the horses, powerful though they looked, dragging heavy carriages upwards, but was entranced by the surroundings

plodding past pristine ravines and waterfalls in the forests of German mythology

Close up, the fairytale references become legion

I didn't join the tours of operatic-themed lavish interiors but admired the 360 views loved by Ludwig before taking a slow walk down through the lush wald.

Neuschwanstein, Germany, September 2015

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Snapshots from Bavaria

Passing through the pretty provincial town of Memmingen in southern Bavaria on overcast, rainy days of early autumn

... in search of a place for dinner, of which there were plenty to choose from.

I passed on the bratwurst and Knödel (dumplings) but did sample some good local Bayerische beer.
A perfect rainbow over the central town square

In nearby Ottobeuren the next morning, the landscape was typical of towns in this prosperous region, A-framed houses and well-kept farmlands

 the main attraction being the grand Benedictine abbey of Ottobeuren 
founded in 764 by the sweetly-named Blessed Toto, but rebuilt in its current form by Bavaria's King Ludwig I in the 1800s 

whose extraordinary interior could be described as baroque-over-the-top
 with no fewer than three grand organs (one below). 

All was empty, quiet and clean and neat as a pin. You had the clear impression that every ornate rococo curlicue, taper, garland and petal is kept minutely cleaned and the chairs lined up with a ruler. 

If all was serious here, it was about to get a little crazy. We were headed further south to this Ludwig's much quirkier grandson's place in the mountains ...

Bavaria September 2015

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Pyrenees and pilgrims

I have a photo of myself aged 21 walking down a station platform in Irun in mid-winter (in standard jeans, parka and backpack of Eurail student) taken by the boyfriend I was travelling with from Lisbon to London (the trip a birthday present from my parents) - my expression reflecting some dismaying news about non-arriving trains at the same time as a clear delight at the adventure we were having - and in the background is a wall covered in colourful graffiti, proclaiming Basque separatist ideology (those were radical times for the ETA). The political stuff was interesting  enough, but that weird language intrigued me just as much. I knew back then that it has no modern language relatives and its origins are a linguistic enigma. 

which is why on this trip I was compulsively snapping signs in Basque on the drive out of Pamplona towards the Pyrenees and France. 

We were firmly back in Camino territory and the road was dotted with pilgrims heading in the opposite direction towards Compostela. Several sections of the route are on motorways (not much fun for walkers?), so pilgrims take detours through the forest and mountain paths whenever they can.

Pretty soon we were climbing high into the Pyrenees, where Hannibal marched with his elephants en route to the Alps and Italy.

First stop was Roncesvalles, where Roland famously blew his horn in vain according to legend, defending Charlemagne against the Basques.

Memorials to Roland in the centre of Roncesvalles

The views are just stunning in these mountains, and just as beautiful in summer as I remembered them under deep snow from my winter train trip at 21 and from childhood journeys en route to skiing. But on these narrow winding roads there are very few places where one can safely stop to photograph all this beauty

At some point one crosses the border imperceptibly, the only indication being that the language of road signs becomes French.

And we wind down to the pretty town of St Jean Pied de Port.

This is the starting point for many Camino walkers and shops do a roaring trade in kitting them out for this now highly commercialised walk. Sitting across the road from this place I watched many a hopeful pilgrim walking out with bulging bags containing the full kit ...

while the baguette and French beer suddenly assumed a significance, marking our exit from the Iberian peninsula to this side of the Pyrenees and the end of our trip.

That evening in Saint Front de Pradoux, near Bergerac, there was a pool to take the edge off the heat, a friendly house labrador, and dinner in a garden where the sun set after 10, before the long drive the next day of 1000 kms back to London.

 Pyrenees, Spain and France, June 2015
Day 13-14, Iberian road trip

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