The Black Forest (not just a cake)

IMG_3518Feeling a little cooped up, James and I decided to take a mini break last week, to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).

Armed with our Baden Wurttemberg pass – a rail pass which allows us to use any of the regional (read: slow) trains in the state, we set off on Thursday evening and within three hours our train was pulling into Triberg station. Triberg, well known for the invention of the cuckoo clock, is a small town surrounded by forest, where Josef Keller first created the Black Forest Gateau, where some of the first tourist hiking trails were set up and home to the highest waterfalls in Germany. IMG_3517Our guest house provided not only breakfast, but a “Schwarzwald Card” which gave us free transport on all networks within the Black Forest as well as admission to a few top spots. This turned out to be fantastic value, as we used about 100 euros worth of trains in the area in two days.

 

On Friday morning we visited the Triberg falls, a series of waterfalls over 163m high. We could hear the chatter of the water as it cascaded playfully over rocks, into deep pools and through crevices, making its way down the hillside. The falls themselves are surrounded by a nature park with various marked trails. We hiked up the steep hill, able to cross the falls twice over purpose built foot bridges. After coming back down we could continue along a trail which brought us out at the edge of Triberg, and had a number of points of interest along the way back in such as ancient churches and of course, Cuckoo Clock shops!

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After browsing the shops we hopped aboard a train which travelled along the Schwarzwald Bahn route – a network of rail with about 35 tunnels and picturesque views of dense forest, towering pines, open meadows and small villages with wooden houses. Our destination was Titisee – a slightly bigger town on a beautiful lake. Nestled in the forest, with quaint shops selling traditional clothing and foods, cafes upon the water just made for whiling away the afternoon and boats for hire to enjoy the lake, Titisee is another gem where we felt miles away from the busy “real world” of central Europe. We took a walk around the edge of the lake, enjoying the view and the fresh air as well as our luck at not getting rained on!

Our afternoon was spent at an amazing pool complex on the outskirts of town. In this indoor complex we found a wave pool and 10 different water slides! The slides were amazing, and we spent hours running up the stairs and flinging ourselves down the various chutes on tubes. One was a speed slide, with a nearly vertical drop (James got up to 37km/h), another where we started off easy, dropped suddenly and were shot up the side of a massive halfpipe, swinging down the other side and out.
Many a time we got ourselves stuck going backwards through twisting chutes and we alternated between doubling and going it alone. When we’d had enough of the slides, we went through to the adjoining wellness area where we floated around in a quiet warm water pool, lay on massage jets and swam through to an outdoor area. The roof and walls here were glass, so I can just imagine how serene it would be when its snowing outside. With loungers, a pool bar, a cafe and an R16 entry criteria it was bliss. Another area had saunas, steam rooms and jacuzzis.. maybe we’ll have to come back in winter!

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We enjoyed a meal of schnitzel and locally caught trout on the water front before taking a train back to Triberg. Here it was too late to catch a bus – luckily a local woman informed us that at this time of night, you have to call the bus an hour ahead so that it will stop at the station. Otherwise we would have waited for its scheduled arrival in 45 minutes time! It wasn’t raining and only a 15 minute walk up the road to our hotel, so we weren’t too put out.

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The main street in Triberg

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

The next morning stiff and sore from hiking, sliding and swimming we gingerly crept into the breakfast room. Abandoning ideas for another days hiking, we instead boarded a train bound for Baden-Baden, near the edge of the Black Forest and on our way home. This spa town is a complete contrast to the rustic feel of the Southern forest, and used to be popular amongst wealthy Russians for its casinos and its healing waters. There are ruins of ancient Roman baths here and two modern baths still offer the traditional experience.

IMG_3544This includes salt scrubbing, saunas and rejuvenating mineral pools. The town itself is quite large, and has a very pretty pedestrian area with boutique and high end shops, fountains and many cafes. The tree lined streets and impressive houses exude affluence, as do the clientele of the famous casino.

We walked through the suburbs to reach the station of the Merkurberg Bahn in the hills – a cable car to the top of the local mount. This is also a base for a hiking trail network through the forest and hills in the area – a day of hiking followed by an evening of hot pool soaking sounds like a good excuse to come back! The steep ride up in the cable car was fun, and I’m always amazed by the feats of engineering and the original thought which lead to their invention with things like this. At the top we stepped out to a magnificent view of the valley, over which were soaring a multitude of paragliders. We sat and watched them launch themselves off the hill for a while, before meandering along the pathways and checking out the view from the other side.

The cable car brought us back down the hillside, and we trained back to Ludwigsburg where exhausted and satisfied we indulged in some takeaways from a new Asian fusion restaurant. A taste of home after months of meat and potatoes was a welcome change and we felt thoroughly refreshed after our little excursion.

 

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Florence and the Cinque Terre

_MG_2858As a last stop on this segment of our trip, and the last few days of our continuous travel segment, we flew into Florence, Italy.

It is hard not to fall in love with Italy, and Florence was no exception. From the moment we arrived dirty and tired at one in the morning, the beauty and relaxed feel of the city was a relief from the heat and chaos of Greece. Although the Italians are not known for their punctuality (argh!) one can only “go with the flow” and take it as part of the experience._MG_2991

Aside from cobbled streets, red brick buildings, scooters and crawling vines the biggest feature of Florence (Firenze) is its Duomo. In the centre of town is the Santa Maria del Fiore, the largest dome in the world that is built from brick and mortar. The cathedral itself is an ornate work of art, and its dome is no exception.

Many other renaissance buildings and churches are nestled into the historic center, and of course the main attraction for many people is the art. The original statue of David by Michealangelo, a room with walls made from semi-precious stones and paintings which are hundreds of years old are just some of the priceless treasures one can see here. Not having time to truly enjoy a museum visit, we wandered the streets instead, taking a walk over the Ponte Vecchio (an ancient bridge line with gold merchants) and up the hill to the Piazzale Michaelangelo. We were rewarded with a stunning view of the city! _MG_2842

When in Italy of course wine, pizza, pasta and gelato must be enjoyed! The Italians didn’t fail to deliver on the gluten free front as usual, and its probably good for our waistlines that we didn’t stay for more than a couple of days…

On our second day, we took part in a magical “alternative” tour of the Cinque Terre with our friend Sarah from New Zealand. Starting early, we boarded a bus for an entertaining two hour drive north, on which our young and enthusiastic guides regaled us with tales of their own lives as well as the history of the region. We drove past the famous Pisa, and past cultivated gardens and fields – a reminder of the skills that the Romans brought when they invaded and took over most of Italy. We cruised past Lucca, the town with city walls so deep people can ride bikes along them and they used to be roads! As we moved North of Tuscany into the Liguria region, we heard about Byron and Shelley who loved to spend time here. drinking, boating and swimming in what is now called “Poet’s Gulf”.

The Cinque Terre, a World Heritage site consists of 5 fishing villages set into the cliffs overlooking the Italian Riviera. The roads are narrow and they aren’t accessible by bus. Traditionally the trek between the villages had to be made by the dirt tracks set high on the cliff, and it was along this unadultered trail we embarked between the second and third villages, Corniglia and Vernassa. There were no handrails, benches or groomed trails and we certainly felt intrepid as we carefully walked along the narrow uneven dirt trail which passed sheer cliffsides, rows and rows of grapes, small houses and twisted at times through the forest. Our guides pointed out the chestnut trees – a lifesaver for people living (and hiding) here during the war, when no supplies were able to be brought in.

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At the third village the sun was already beating down as we sat on a shady terrace to enjoy a lunch of local delicacies. _MG_2983Anchovies are the pride of the region and we had them prepared two different ways as well as an assortment of other seafoods, and delicious risotto. Moving on we caught a short train to the next village, Monterrosso, where we enjoyed some time to wander and take a quick dip.

After waiting for 40 minutes for our delayed train (typical!) we arrived at the fourth village, Levanto. Here we had a generous wine tasting of one white wine from each of the regions – Manorola was my favourite! Atop a hill I found an old nunnery with a graveyard – except there weren’t graves in the ground, rather long narrow tombs in the wall and family mausoleums. It was a peaceful place but also somewhat creepy!

Having cooled off with another swim, we hopped aboard a boat and cruised around the corner, enjoying the crystal sparkling waters beneath us and the warm wind on our faces. We sailed past the villages we had been in, and ended up in village number one – Manorola. Here we climbed up the steep streets and staircases to enjoy a magnificent view, and had time to poke our heads into little delicatessens and shops.

 

_MG_2936 _MG_2978After a final short train ride, we hopped aboard our bus, tired from a day of hiking, exploring, swimming, learning and sunshine and drove back to Florence.

 

One last adventure awaited us on our day of departure. We boarded our tiny, propeller plane to head back to Germany, buckled in and listened to the safety demonstration. The plane picked up speed on the runway, the engines revved and then…. they quietened, the plane slowed and turned around. Once again, it picked up speed, the engines roared and we were… not off. Soon the captain spoke to us informing us that there was a problem, and we would have to disembark. Florence airport is absolutely tiny, so the next 3 hours which we spent inside its single room were torture. With no announcements made, updates or even drink vouchers the plane full of passengers had no choice but to sit tight until finally, a bus came to collect us. We were taken to the same plane! I guess it had been fixed because this time it took off no problem, and thankfully delivered us safely in Stuttgart.

We will definitely be back for more relaxation, romance and red wine in Tuscany someday!

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Glorious Greece

_MG_2662From the moment we arrived in Athens to the night we left Mykonos, Greece has been a whirlwind of adventure. Another early morning flight saw us arrive in Athens to stifling heat and bright sun, with brown landscape greeting us as the bus headed into the city. By the time we were checked into our hotel (a treat, as we had some loyalty points to use) we were already hot, sticky and dusty – a theme which would continue for the next few days!

After cooling off in the pool, we met our friends Carme and John who had just arrived from New Zealand, to enjoy a traditional Greek meal underneath the Acropolis. The next day we took a walking tour of the main historical highlights in Athens. Ever since my first classics class at age 16 I have been dreaming of seeing these monuments and sights, and to see the towering columns of marble and detailed inscriptions on walls which I had only seen in pictures, was magical.

Firstly we visited the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, to watch the changing of the Guards. We had a refresher on the founding history of Athens, including the battle of marathon and its occupation by various empires (Persian, Ottoman etc). The Temple of Zeus, although in ruins and with only a few columns left is still a majestic site. It’s base, standing in the centre of what used to be a sanctuary, once held 104 columns of marble which supported the colossal temple.

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Checking out the Parthenon

As we began our way up the winding road on the Acropolis, we came across an Ascelope sanctuary. Ascelope was once a medicine man, struck down by Zeus for his power to bring people back to life. His legacy lived on however in these sanctuaries, where people came to stay overnight. They would dream of Ascelope’s snake and their dream determined the treatment they would be prescribed.

Further along the path was the theatre of Dionysus – with its marble seats, statues of characters and masks and well designed stage it was easy to imagine the ancient greeks enjoying plays here. Although perhaps not in the August heat! The nearby Odeion; the music hall, still hosts concerts year round, as its amphitheater design provides such good accoustics._MG_2668

Nearly at the top, we saw the temple of Nike – the little godesses of victory. Finally we rounded the corner to enter the Parthenon via the road so many ancient greek travellers, visitors, priests and towns people had entered before us. The Parthenon, although smaller than the Temple of Zeus, is in better condition and was remarkably well maintained until the 17th century when it was bombed by the Venetians. Here we noticed the friezes along the tops of the columns, depicting stories of battles and various important myths. One of these was the birth of Athena – when Zeus learned of a prediction that his mistress was going to give birth to a son who would defeat him, he swallowed the mistress. Nine months later he had a pounding headache, and Hermes split his skull with an axe…. out jumped a fully formed Athena, who had been banging on the inside of his head ready to be “born”!

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The Parthenon has a subtle feature which makes it all the more pleasing to the eye. It has no straight lines. The columns are all built on a slight angle, so that if they reached for 2 km they would meet, and the floor itself has a curvature. This is all purely for aesthetic reasons, and it works! Around the corner from the Parthenon is a smaller temple, where we saw the gifts of Poseidon and Athena to the people of Athens. These two initially fought over the right to rule Athens, and Poseidon struck his staff into the ground to create a spring of water for the people. The god of the sea’s gift was not well received however, since the water was salty. Athena then planted a seed and an olive tree grew – a much better gift, therefore she won the city of Athens.

We were fortunate enough to be staying nearby the Panathenaic stadium – the home of the modern olympics in 1896. Standing on the podium here was pretty cool!

stadium 1 stadium 2Our journey in Greece continued from Athens via ferry. We embarked from the port of Piraeus at 7:30am, and 7.5 hours later berthed at Thira, Santorini. Although we could have taken a local bus, after the early morning, long ride and with the heat and our packs we decided we would take a taxi to our accommodation. We were staying in the quiet village of Imerovigli – a few km away from the main town of Thira.We were ushered into a shared van, paid 20 euro up front and were driven into Thira. Where we were dumped! I checked the name of the hotel and the address with the driver, but he assured us it was “just up the road”. Once we started walking up the congested pedestrian road it was clear we weren’t in the right place. We stopped to ask at a bar, which turned out to be run by a British man. Rolling his eyes when he heard about our driver, he said “welcome to Greece!” after which he gave us a seat, water, charged my phone, connected us to the wifi and rung our hotel for us. They wouldn’t come to collect us, so we had to keep going ourselves. We piled onto a bus which was so full with people we couldn’t move, and sat sweating and trying to breathe as it drove up the hill towards Imerovigli.

Here we got out, and asked at a car rental shop where our hotel was. They hadn’t heard of it they said…. we kept walking, but after seeing no sign of it, finding no street signs and having no cellphone reception, we stopped into a restaurant to ask. Yes, this lady had heard of it… but it was too far away to walk. We could take a taxi or a bus? At this point, hot, tired, flustered and despairing I explained that we had already tried both those options, as well as walking and asking people but we just could not get to this hotel. The kindness of strangers was well and truly in force that day – as she summonsed one of her employees to put our bags in the car and drive us there herself. Once we arrived, the manager was nowhere to be found…. she turned up 5 minutes later, after having driven to Imerovigli to find us since the car rental shop had rung her, telling her to come collect her guests!

Luckily the serene view over the caldera (crater of the volcano) made it all worthwhile. Our studio was exquisite, and away from the bustle of the town we felt completely at peace as we watched the sun set over a glass of wine.

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The next day we met up with Carme and John again – who had just got engaged! This happy news set the mood for the day, and we set off upon the dirt cliff top trail which connects all the villages. We couldn’t walk fast in the heat, but enjoyed the views and plenty of breaks, before arriving in Oia two hours later. From this cute little village with its boutique shops, we headed down about 250 steps, sidestepping donkeys along the way! Just around the corner was Amoudi Bay – a spectacular swimming spot where we sunbathed, lunched, swam and jumped from the cliff into the clear ocean. We thought the water in France was clear! The Aegean is another step above.

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After climbing back up the stairs and catching the bus back to our accommodation, we enjoyed dinner together in Thira, where we were able to check out a few of the shops as well. A lazy last morning was followed by an excursion to Red Beach – created by a landslide and surrounded by red rock, this small beach is novel but not as pristine as Amoudi Bay. That night there was a fireworks display over the volcano, and we had been invited by our new British friend to reserve a table at his cocktail bar. After a delicious meal in Imerovigli, we tried to catch the bus to Thira for the 9pm start. DSC05344The time ticked by and no bus arrived, so we started to flag down cars…. a couple did stop, but they weren’t going in our direction. Many probably weren’t keen to take on 4 disheveled looking kiwis! Luckily a bus finally arrived, and we made it to the bar just on time. People were lining the streets for a view, so we felt privileged to have our front row table, where we enjoyed fabulous cocktails (John and James enjoyed their shared melon ball complete with sparkler, fruit kebabs and pink straws the most!) and watched the half hour display depicting the eruption of Santorini. Because the fireworks were being let off on the volcano a few km away from where we were, the sound took a long time to catch up with the light, so often the fireworks were finished by the time the booming reached our ears!

Santorini was a lovely island, more dusty and desert like than I had imagined, but with alot to offer.

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The next day we caught our ferry to Mykonos, an island of which we had no expectations due to its reputation as a party spot, but we are so glad we made it there. Unlike Santorini, the island is surrounded by proper sand beaches, where people hire loungers and while away the afternoons with drinks in hand. Spoilt for choice, we were able to find a beach which had a good balance of young people, music and a bar, but was not the raving party of the famous Paradise Beach. In the town itself, I was surprised to find that the houses have a completely different look to those on Santorini – although still white and made of stone, instead of the curved dome roofs, these were all square with flat roofs.

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_MG_2801We very appropriately got lost wandering through the tiny streets of Mykonos town – which was designed as a maze in order to confuse and slow down pirates _MG_2810trying to pillage the town.

Just when we thought everything was beginning to go smoothly again, we checked into the airport at Mykonos for our 10:30pm flight only to find it had been delayed by over an hour. By this time we were no longer surprised!

 

 

 

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