Into Austria

Sunday 21st May 2006, Gemona del Friuli, North East Italy
Today we moved on after four pleasant days on the campsite near Venice. The weather was fortunately cooler than it has been and we travelled mainly across country, avoiding major towns. Being Sunday there was not a great deal of traffic and we passed through some very pleasant countryside. Around lunch time we stopped at a roadside bar on the edge of one of the small towns we passed through. Here we had coffees and pieces of pizza piled with mushrooms served on wooden boards at one of the tables. It was served by a very cheerful young lady who chatted happily to us in Italian and although we didn't necessarily understand the words, the meaning was perfectly clear.

Refreshed by our break we continued through the flat countryside of orchards, vines and maize. There was an air of prosperity in the little towns we passed through and everywhere seemed clean, tidy and cared for. It may be different further south but in this part of Italy we have been impressed with how well kept everywhere is. There do not seem to be very many flats and most houses have carefully tended gardens, many filled with blooming roses or tubs of geraniums.

We have been driving towards the Austrian border, making for one of the very few campsites we have found listed in the area. During the day the weather has become very overcast with dark skies until eventually we ran into rain. Consequently we only realised we had reached the mountains when they loomed up large, dark and pointed around us. This little town is apparently in a picturesque setting but as yet we have seen little but the dim outline of mountains surrounding our campsite.

The site is attached to a bar on the edge of the town and is quiet and friendly with just a few other vehicles, mainly from the Czech Republic. As we arrived around 3.30pm the rain started in earnest. After the heat of the last few days and the drive here today we felt very tired. Surrounded by trees and birdsong with the sound of rain pattering heavily on the roof we both fell sound asleep on the benches inside Modestine. It was lovely to experience cool damp air again. The atmosphere here is very different from the culture spots we have been visiting over the past two weeks and already there is an Austrian feel to the nearby town. This evening we went for a damp walk once the rain eased, searching for the town centre. We were quite unable to find it although we seemed to walk permanently through its suburbs. It is supposed to have a cathedral and a castle. We'll have to search them out with Modestine tomorrow.

This evening we decided to eat in the bar here as a treat. There is no menu. You have what you are offered. Tonight it was spaghetti. But it was really nice, smothered in cheese and very copious. With a couple of glasses of red wine it cost us 11 euros for the two of us! It's certainly not worth our while cooking in a wet field at that price and into the bargain we joined the other customers watching the adventures of Mr. Bean on the bar's TV. The Italians love it! We could all enjoy it together as it is quite international. So that's Britain's contribution to the European Union. International, toe-curling embarrassment with Rowan Atkinson!

Back in Modestine with the rain still falling we found our tiny collection of DVDs and sat drinking mugs of tea while we watched sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus - including the sketch about the Hungarian phrase book where everything had been translated into obscenities in the opposite language. As Ian is currently thumbing his way through our own Hungarian phrase book we are now panicking, hoping the translation is rather more accurate!

Monday 22nd May 2006, Klagenfurt, Austria
We've become international travellers today making our way across three different countries! Breakfast in Italy, lunch in Slovenia and supper in Austria!

This morning the rain had gone and the mountains surrounding the little town of Gemona del Friuli rose bright into a clear blue sky. Having enjoyed last night so much we treated ourselves to breakfast in the bar. This was really pleasant with coffee, toast and assorted jams and butter. It was a busy place with local residents popping in for newspapers and coffee with a dash of something stronger. In the corner sat the Italian version of "Last of the Summer Wine" with four wizened old gentlemen around a table with their wine glasses already filled at 8.30am. Ian asked for a map of the town and ended up in an involved discussion in Italian with the landlord about the difference between kilometres and miles and how the British are not subject to Napoleonic measurements! If we stayed much longer he's really be starting to pick up the language!

With a map we finally found the town centre, in a picturesque setting on the side of the mountain with views out to the plain we'd crossed yesterday. We knew nothing about Gemona del Friuli, coming here only because it had a campsite and was vaguely on our way towards Hungary. It turned out to be a very interesting morning.

Until now we have appreciated Italy primarily for its man-made splendours. The wonders of Ravenna, Pisa, Florence and Venice with their buildings, paintings, sculptures and mosaics. Today we have been overcome by the natural beauties of the country with its lakes, forests, meadows of flowers and its stark bare jagged mountains still heavily packed with snow.

At Gemona, nestling amidst the mountain peaks, these two worlds met, came into conflict and the man-made wonders were crushed and destroyed by one of Italy's most dangerous natural forces - an earthquake! In 1976 the town was twice subjected to earthquakes which destroyed medieval houses, severely damaged the 13th century romansque/gothic cathedral together with beautiful frescos and many other buildings around the town. Today much has been carefully restored and at first glance the damage is not noticeable. The pillars in the cathedral and its walls are very uneven however and photos placed around the town show just how much damage was done to the entire side of the cathedral and to the arcaded fronts in the main street. Up behind the town is a little path the sides of which are piled high with rubble that has been there for 30 years providing a haven for lizards and probably snakes. Outside the main front of the cathedral stands an enormous statue of St. Christopher. Photos show it after the earthquake, still standing but badly damaged. The rose window above the entrance was also severely damaged but has now been restored.

Cathedral at Gemona di Friui

St. Christopher with Jill – and Jesus of course! Gemona di Friui

Cathedral after the earthquake in 1976, Gemona di Friui

Cathedral thirty years on, Gemona di Friui

Earthquake rubble still beside the path, Gemona di Friui

Town hall before and after the earthquake, Gemona di Friui

Town hall today, Gemona di Friui

We left the town deep in thought and made our way towards Austria and Slovenia along an almost deserted road that threaded its way along the valley floor. Here the river Tagliamento meandered across its wide stony bed, between the sharp snowy peaks that gradually closed in on either side. Near the point where all three countries converge we turned up a steep narrow road through pine forests to visit the Laghi di Fusine, a couple of lakes of stunning beauty lying more than 900 metres high. Crystal clear, azure blue water, their grassy edges a riot of wild spring flowers, surrounded by pine forests where the bright new green contrasted with the darker colours of last year's growth. Behind rose 1,500 metres of jagged grey mountains where packed snow filled the shaded crevasses right down to the lakes. Despite the warm sunny weather there were few people around. We walked the shoreline of the first lake, gazing in awe at such beauty. At a wooden chalet on the water's edge we sat in the sunshine for a cold drink, gazing down through the clear waters of the lake at the waving fronds of weed below.

Lower of the lakes, Laghi di Fusine

Azure waters indeed! Laghi di Fusine

Lakeside wooden café. Laghi di Fusine

A stroll around the lake, Laghi di Fusine

Retirement! Laghi di Fusine

Later we continued to the equally beautiful upper lake, even more deserted, where we discovered mountain gentians growing amidst the violets and edelweiss.

Modestine at Laghi di Fusine

Wild flowers bluer than the waters of the lake! Laghi di Fusine

Upper lake, Laghi di Fusine

Modestine centre stage, Laghi di Fusine

A few kilometres further on, we crossed the border from Italy into Slovenia. We had no maps and no money – we don't even know what currency they use in Slovenia or what language is spoken there! But could you have resisted the temptation? We are so delighted that we went and have fallen very much in love with what we have seen. The tiny corner we explored is stunningly beautiful with green flowery meadows, a kaleidoscope of colour stretching right up to the bare mountains. We stopped at Podkoren, steeply built on the hillside, a small village of large wooden houses with balconies hung with sweetcorn, many offering rooms to let for winter sports. There was a bar, an hotel and a smart little church. Around the village were cattle in the meadows and racks presumably used for drying something but we have not worked out what. Every house had its own pile of logs left from the winter and pots of geraniums at the windows.

Village church with apple blossoms, Podkoren, Slovenia

View from the top of the village, Podkoren, Slovenia

Mountain pastures, Podkoren, Slovenia
(Does anyone know what the racks are used for?)

We turned off before long to cross the Wurzenpass (1050 metres) into Austria. This is not one of the main crossing points and we had the road to ourselves as we twisted our way up through the pine forests to the top. At times the gradient was 18 per cent (1 in 5.5) but Modestine coped well. Passing through the frontier point out of Slovenia at the summit we were waved through, but entering Austria caused a few questions. What were we doing coming in this way and what did we have on board? Where had we been and why hadn't we got our headlights on, didn't we know it was the law in Austria to always have them on? (We didn't.) Quite friendly though and soon we were crawling down the really steep descent on the Austrian side.

From here we drove through clean, tidy villages of immaculate houses and orchards filled with apple blossom. Eventually we arrived at Klagenfurt where we knew there was a campsite. Time for Hinge and Bracket to do some work! The campsite is beside a large lake and a 5 kilometre cycle track along beside a pretty river carried us right into the heart of this smart Austrian town with its baroque buildings, so very different is style from Italy yet less than 300 kilometres from Venice! The feel of the two countries is so very different. Each has their charm and this is enhanced for us by having moved so abruptly from one to the other over a couple of days.

Landhaus, Klagenfurt

Baroque architecture, Klagenfurt

Baroque houses in the Alter Platz, Klagenfurt

Having acquired a map and a preliminary feel for the town we returned for supper at a little café converted from a disused railway carriage that we'd passed earlier near the lake. As the sun set and candles were placed on each table we joined walkers, cyclists and roller-bladers at wooden benches for Austrian beer, sausages, chips and mustard. Sheer delight! We cannot remember the last time we even saw a chip! Pasta, pizza, polenta, paté, poulet, paella and pescados are the basic foods of Europe, not the humble chip.

Café near the lake, Klagenfurt

A final thought for the day. We have received several requests from friends to put up more pictures of us on the blogsite. Ian does most of the photography and his comments were "why waste a good photo on us when you can have a sarcophagus or a Romanesque church?" Occasionally Jill and Modestine are allowed into the pictures but usually only as an indication of scale – as today. Jill has always teased Ian for trying to get too much into every picture rather than concentrating on detail. In Venice she joked that he'd have St. Mark's and the Eiffel Tower in the same picture if he could. Last night he achieved this seemingly impossible feat! This is not trick photography! We're not clever enough for that!

St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice together with the Eiffel Tower, Paris

Tuesday 23nd May 2006, Klagenfurt, Austria
This morning we discovered that the campsite has a free internet point! So we were able to spend an hour sorting out emails and loading on over fifty photos and a new blog. This really is an excellent campsite. It's the first time we have ever camped in Austria and we are most impressed with the facilities provided and the peaceful, attractive nature of the site. At 20 euros a night including wonderful showers and electricity it is considerably cheaper than Italy – though dearer than France.

We cycled back into Klagenfurt and explored the town, finding it very pleasant, clean and attractive. In the centre of the town we discovered a column originally erected in the early1680s as a thanksgiving for the town being spared from the plague. After Vienna was delivered from the Turks in 1683 a crescent moon with a cross were added to the top of the column. On each face were chronograms, one of which is illustrated here to be puzzled out.

Dreifaltigkeitsäule, Klagenfurt

Chronogram on the Dreifaltigkeitsäule, Klagenfurt

The date in Roman numerals can be worked out from the larger letters.

At lunch-time we used one of the little cafes surrounding the market. These are very basic, just benches under a shade from the scorching sunshine. We had a mixed salad with Leberkäse, fried egg and potato puree.

Each country has its national and regional dishes which, when travelling around as we are, makes for an interesting and varied diet! When people return to Britain after a couple of weeks abroad they rave about the wonderful food. In all honesty, if you stay anywhere long enough you start to realise that it can become rather monotonous eating the same small range of dishes all the time. Shopping is not easy either when you are cooking in a very confined space and fancy something other than frankfurters, couscous, ravioli or fondu. France definitely has our vote for simple, varied meals that are tasty and easily prepared with minimal cooking and washing-up. Italian pasta is easy but is really the same meal in different guises all the time. In Spain and Portugal we found very little that was easy to prepare or particularly interesting to eat. Here in Austria it is still a problem but eating out is much cheaper than either France or Italy so the temptation is not to bother to cook at all. A lot of meat seems to be eaten here but most meals are accompanied with a salad, something sadly lacking in Italy which had surprised us. We do find the meals in Austria rather salt. The beer though is excellent!

We needed maps and guide books for Hungary and Austria so Ian spent a happy afternoon choosing a couple of road atlases and travel guides – in German. After shopping for essentials to restock Modestine's fridge – a great boon in this hot weather where today it has been up around 30 degrees – we cycled back and sat in the shade for a treat of coffee, apple strudel – filled with cinnamon and raisins – and cream.

Once the worst of the heat had gone from the day we went out for another bike ride along specially designated paths through cool woodland around the Wörthersee – the nearby lake - along little lanes with wooden houses and tiny gardens, across hump-back bridges over the canal and out into the countryside further round the lake. Here Ian announced we had to make a pilgrimage to the little woodland house where Gustav Mahler had lived and worked. It turned out to be a good mile into the woods above the lake with no proper path or indication of distance, lots of mosquitoes and tree roots to lug the bikes over and to crown it all, when we got there it was shut for the day! It was an ugly building anyway and as Jill knows almost nothing about the composer or his works she didn't think it had been worth six mosquito bites and lots of sticky, sweaty biking when she could have been swimming in the lake!

Gustav Mahler's woodland retreat, Klagenfurt

Back down beside the lake again we watched a little paddle steamer as it plied back and forth across the lake, stopping to drop off passengers at tiny hamlets and restaurants.

Evening on the Wörthersee, Klagenfurt

Finally, that picture showing buildings from two different countries…
Between the campsite and the town centre is Minimundus, the world in miniature where scale models of some of the world's most famous buildings are laid out in parkland. There are 170 models from 53 different countries. We discovered it by chance and as it was 12 euros each to go round inside we achieved Ian's dream picture by climbing up on our bikes to sneak a picture over the high hedge, designed to prevent persons of average height from doing just that!