A Very Wet Return to Germany

We spent a week travelling along Southern Germany. It was not the most direct route from Czech Republic to Belgium, but since leaving Austria we had been craving some mountains again so decided to go and see the Bavarian Alps. Unfortunately, the weather gods weren’t playing ball. It rained every day and during our 3 days in the Alps we didn’t see a single mountain. Sometimes you could barely see 30 meters in front of you, but still we got out and explored.

Our Route:

Regensburg – Munich – Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Neuschwanstein castle – Lindau on Lake Constance – Black Forest –  Heidelberg – Mainz – Bonn – Cologne

Nature

Partnach Gorge – We visited on a pretty miserable day. But there were plenty of other mad people out in the rain and cold trying to make the most of it. With the mountains in thick cloud, hiding in the gorge seemed like the best option. Unfortunately to walk alongside the river you have to pay, so we walked along just up above it and had a lovely view looking down for free.

Lake Constance – Its huge. 63 km long in fact, and borders Austria to the east and Switzerland to the south. Felt like being at the seaside, the lake was so clear and endless (maybe on a sunny day it would seem less endless).

Black Forest – Another wet and cloudy day, which meant we couldn’t get a feel for the scale of the forests from driving through it as we could hardly see the road in front of us. Thankfully our walk started off ok with just some drizzle, which meant we had nice views out over rolling forests. We weren’t enthralled by our day exploring. Most of the paths were wide and open and lacked a feeling of being in the wild. We didn’t spot or hear much wildlife and there was clear evidence of logging and plantations. 

Neuschwanstein castle

We went because it is listed as the castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – one of my all time favourite films. Maybe my expectations were too high. I was hoping for the tour to be very c.c.b.b. focused, but they didn’t mention it once! Turns out it’s just the castle they flew over. None of the film was actually shot there. Once I got over my initial disappointment I was able to enjoy the castle for what it was.

Built over several years from 1868 for Ludwig 2nd, who sounded like a right eccentric. Unfortunately, he only lived there for 172 days before he died in 1886 and six weeks after his death it was turned into a museum. This means the very impressive original interior is incredibly well preserved with detailed paintings and dark woodwork. The castle even has a small room on the top floor which is made to look like a cave (complete with stalactites and stalagmites)! Told you he was an eccentric.

No photos of the inside were allowed. So instead, here’s two cloudy photos of the castle and lack of view.

Towns

Germany know how to do a good historic town. We are always impressed by the beautiful old architecture; and by how busy and lively a lot of the towns are. The high street certainly doesn’t feel dead in Germany. So many independent shops that all seem to be alive and well; plus some great looking bakeries, cafes and always lively beer halls.

Regensburg – Lovely old town which apparently has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Germany. Great cathedral with stunning stained glass, old town hall, cute cobbled streets, very nice vibe, and on the edge of the Danube.

Munich – Not one of our favourite city’s we have visited. It lacked a main hub of old buildings to wander around for the budget traveller. Don’t get me wrong it is a nice city and worth a day trip. There are plenty of nice buildings but they are just dotted around. The main centre is very shopping focused and full of high street shops. The town hall is definitely the highlight.

Lindau – Its essentially a small island on Lake Constance. We walked all the way around and wandered the cobbled streets in the main town. Probably a nightmare in the height of summer but really lovely in autumn. Its old harbour is guarded by a giant lion dating from 1856 and a little lighthouse made it feel like it was beside the seaside.

Heidelberg – Essentially one long main shopping street with a couple of squares and some nice side streets. There’s also a castle with lovely views and a nice old bridge. Not a huge amount to see as a tourist but a nice town to wander around for half a day.

Mainz – Wasn’t really worth the effort. Emission zones, as wonderful as they are, do make visiting some places a bit trickier with a big van – with finding somewhere to park out of the city and finding transport in. The best thing about Mainz was the main square and the small collection of old timber houses.

Bonn – We were lucky enough to have a tour guide in Bonn as we met up with one ofGraham’s Uni friends, Rachael. Such a busy lively place, already gearing up for Christmas. Negatives were that most of the nice buildings; cathedral, uni buildings and palace all had scaffolding up. Positives were the food and drink. We drank Kolsch a local beer made 30 minutes away in Cologne; Rachael made us a veganised German pasta dish called Spatzle for dinner and she brought this amazing bottle of Roter Sauser (a popular autumn drink in Germany made from fermented freshly pressed grapes; it has a slight fizz to it and is essentially a very light wine. The one we drank had a max alcohol content of 9%.)

The following day we had a lovely cycle along the river Rhine, got the ferry across the river and walked up to Drachenburg castle.  

Cologne – The old town had a slight Plymouth feel to it. Mix of nice old buildings and some more functional, less aesthetically pleasing buildings. The cathedral is the main reason to go to cologne. Other than that, the next reason seems to be to shop! The city centre is essentially just focused on shopping.

Hopefully the next we visit Germany it will be a little drier.

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Czech Republic

Unfortunately just a short seven days but we managed to cram in 3 towns, 2 castles and 3 days walking in nature on top of quite a bit of driving. 

Our Route: Brno – Olomouc – Bouzov – Krkonose National Park – Cesky raj – Bohemian Switzerland – Prague – Karlstejn castle – Pilsen

Nature

Krkonose – Translates to ‘Giant Mountains’. This (I would say hilly) national park borders Poland, so much so we walked into Poland without realising, as the border runs along the mountain ridge. We walked from Pecpod Snezkou up to Sniezka which is Czechs highest peak at 1603 meters. The day started with very low cloud and equally low energy levels but somehow we managed to lug ourselves up the hill. Just before the top we stopped for lunch in very thick cloud and strong wind, but over the course of eating our hummus wraps the wind blew the clouds away and revealed the peak. Once we climbed the last 100 meters to the top we were rewarded with a great view. On one side of the ridge we looked down through clear skies onto Poland. On the other side Czech Republic was hidden by a blanket of fluffy clouds. It was a totally awesome feeling to have walked above the clouds.

Casky Raj – A very fun place to go walking. We spent the day exploring the tall sandstone pillars which they call ‘rock cities’. The hiking path started by scrambling over rocks, we then squeezed in between large rock columns, and ducked underneath rock tunnels. The path travelled down steeply to the base of a small “canyon”. After walking at the base of the pillars we travelled back up the other side to look down onto the crazy rock city.

Bohemian Switzerland – ‘Bohemian’, because it is situated in an area called Bohemia. ‘Switzerland’, because back in the 18th century it reminded some Swiss artists of their homeland. There are two main attractions here, Kamenice Gorge and Pravcicka Archway. We did a nice big loop walk covering both. The gorge was really nice with a path running alongside for the most part, with one section where you have to get a boat (which only cost €3 and was really fun). The archway was disappointing. One of those things that looks so much more impressive in a photo from a drone.  As a geographer I should have been more inspired by this natural rock arch but really it wasn’t a patch on Durdle Door.

Towns

Brno, Olomouc & Pilsen – All three were nice towns with some interesting old buildings, town squares and churches. Brno & Olomouc are both university towns and had really nice vibes, lots of quirky shops and cafes. Pilsen is the home of Pilsner, and it smelt like brewing which isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea, but I like it as it reminds me of my home town. The vibe in Pilsner when we went, was mainly lots and lots of football fans and some riot police.

Prague – We had a great day in sunny Prague sampling the food, well mainly drink on offer. We started our day on the quieter west side of the river; fuelling the day ahead by seeking out a vegan chimney cake, which was delicious! We wandered around the cathedral, palace and monastery areas before stopping for our first beer in a craft beer place. We manged a whole 20 meters before stopping again to enjoy an incredible view of Prague while sipping a beer made at the monastery. We then hit the hoards of tourist on the chain bridge. Wow a lot of people visit Prague! We slowly made it to the very pretty town hall square and wandered around the old town. Once away from the tourist pinch points it wasn’t too busy and you can easily be distracted from the amount of people by the lovely architecture. Our legs needed a rest so we stopped for a Pilsner before wandering around the new town. We had a dinner of sides (Czech food isn’t very vegetable heavy) and sampled a beer tasting menu in a great beer hall that had 10 different themed rooms. Our final stop of the day was in a traditional beer hall. They served one type of dark beer and two short drinks (a mead and a herby shot). No bars and no menus; waiters wander around with trays of the 3 options and keep a running tab at the end of your table. It was a great place full of atmosphere, lots of people, live music and tasty booze.

Going to Prague in October might have been key to our enjoyment; the sun was out, it wasn’t as busy as it could be, and we only experienced 5 stag-dos.

Lithuania

Our route: Vilnius – Trakai – Neries Regional Park – Lithuania Folk Museum – Kaunas – Krekenva Regional Park – Hill of Crosses – Palanga – Klaipeda – Curonian spit – Birstonas – Zuvinto Nature Reserve

Vilnius

We had our second set of visitors (Graham’s dad and step mum) join us for the first half of Lithuania, which was lovely. And this meant we had a relaxing 2 days and 2 nights in Vilnius rather than our normal rush around a city in one day. Vilnius has everything – an old town with narrow cobbled streets, a new town that doesn’t look new and is filled with cafes and shops, so many incredibly elaborate churches, an independent arty district, lots of museums and history, a nice river and some lovely parks. I would have quite happily spent a third day there, which for me to say about a city means it must be good.

Apart from the usual wandering around taking far too many photos we visited the Dukes Palace which was incredibly good value for money; enough to keep you busy for a day for around £2. We also visited the very sobering Museum of Occupation. It’s hard to believe that Lithuania along with the other Baltic countries only had their independence back in 1991, that’s after I was born! In the Cathedral square there is a very small plaque which marks the spot where, in 1989, around 2 million people formed a human chain holding hands across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a peaceful demonstration showing huge support for independence.

Kaunas

It’s the second biggest city in Lithuania. The most well-known building in the city is the castle, which has all your standard castle fun; gallows, armour, good tower and people fencing. Across the city there’s plenty of churches and town squares, a very long pedestrianised shopping and café street, lots of great street art and a lovely lake with lots of beaches and water sports.  We also had the best bagel of our lives (all the humous) from Holy donut – it’s a chain around Lithuania – I highly recommend it (they do vegan donuts too).

We visited Christ Resurrection Church, which is an enormous modern church standing out on the skyline and has good views of the city.  The idea of the church was born after Lithuanian’s initial independence in 1918 to thank god for their freedom. The donations were largely made by the public. Unfortunately during occupation, the church was badly damaged. When Lithuania finally gained independence again in 1991 work began to restore the church and it eventually opened in 2010.

Hill of Crosses

Does what the name suggest, but more of a small mound. Although there have been numerous attempts to destroy the monument through the many historical occupations, pilgrims have been putting crosses here since the 1800s. There is now an estimated 100,000 plus crosses. This number grows everyday as tourist buy their wooden crosses from the souvenir stands and squeeze them in somehow. No one really knows why this trend started but it is now a place known as a symbol of endurance of the Catholic religion through its rather rocky Lithuanian history. Currently around 70% of the population are Catholics.

Palanga

The Magaluf of Lithuania. A lovely beach that’s sometimes too rough to swim in, backed by lots of hotels and strip of tackiness…. all the tackiness – arcades, 9D (how is that possible) cinemas, candy floss, trampolines in restaurants and entertainers “signing” in restaurants (basically doing karaoke but badly). However, everyone was having lots of fun! And unlike Magaluf there were less teenagers vomiting in the street.  

10 minutes up the road, however, and you’re on a lovely stretch of beach backed by pine forests and just a few walkers for company.

Curonian Spit

Huge spit, that I would say geographically speaking is more of a bar that has had some holes punched in for maintaining human access to the sea. Anywayyyy. A huge ‘spit’ that connects Lithuania to Kaliningrad and Poland. Its largely a very strict nature reserve consisting of sand dunes, beaches, pine forest and a couple of resort towns in between. It was very expensive to go!  €28 for a 500 meter return ferry crossing!! €30 access to the island (totally unaware we had to pay it, but it would have been pointless ferry journey if we had turned around without paying. And ‘technically’ you were only allowed to camp in the one official payed campsite. We decided to stay for 2 days to get our monies worth. On the first day we went to see ‘Witches Hill’ – a nice forest walk with loads of wooden sculptures mainly of witches and devils. Spent the rest of the day cycling, which is THE activity of choice on the spit; it is very well set up with lots of nice cycling paths. Second day, after another cycle, we spent relaxing on the beach. It was our last day by the sea for a couple of months (hopefully we won’t go insane without our salty friend).

Zuvinto Biosphere Reserve

Our Lithuania trip ended very peacefully at Zuvinto. A huge shallow lake amazing for bird watching, with a vast expanse of reeds surrounded by forests and fields. Summer is not the best bird watching season but there were still huge amounts of cranes, geese, ducks, egrets, swallows and starlings.  I would definitely recommend it. I was very impressed, and it made me miss Cley.  (I wish I could share videos here, as photos don’t do it justice, but I don’t have a fancy enough word press account to do that)

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Tallinn

Song Festival

We accidentally ended up visiting Tallinn on one of the busiest weekends of the year. The country was celebrating the Estonia song festival – held every five years in Tallinn. It’s a celebration of national pride and linked with the singing revolution (I encourage you to read about this. The history of the Baltic country’s is very tragic but the determination of the people living here to fight for their independence is inspiring). There was an amazing atmosphere all over the city with so many people there to celebrate. On Saturday we watched the parade of the choirs all in national dress, Sunday morning we were treated to mass dancing at freedom square and Sunday evening we went to the main event. An impressive choir of 32,000 people (made up of over 1000 different choirs) and an audience of 80,000. It was a pretty memorable experience but a warning not to go if you don’t like crowds.

With Guests

Graham’s Mum and Stepdad joined us for 4 days of exploring in Tallinn and around. After 3 months with just ourselves for conversation and spending near enough 24 hours a day with each other, it was a nice change to have conversations with other minds. Having guests was a great excuse to have a ‘holiday’. Spending 6 months travelling van style, we are pretty strict with our money and have rarely been out for drinks and food, but this was a great excuse to treat ourselves and to be treated to some great food and drink.

Vegan Food

Tallinn is an absolute dream for vegans! Couldn’t recommend it enough as a vegan city break destination. We ate out at three vegan restaurants V, Vegan Inspiratsioon, and Plant. And they were all amazing, serving interesting creative food for plant and non-plant lovers. We also got treats from a vegan bakery and the highlight was a vegan chocolate shop – I was speechless when I went in and found that everything was plant-based!!!

City

We didn’t just eat the whole time, we did wonder between eateries. The old town is gorgeous, everything you want from a historic city break; cobbled streets, narrow lanes, lively cafes and bars, wide town square, interesting architecture, old city walls, churches after churches and a castle. Staying in the van means we often park out of town and cycle into cities which means you get to explore the more non touristy areas. I also enjoyed my morning runs around the various parks in the city and along the waterfront. Another interesting area to visit is the waterfront, via old industrial buildings, creative hubs, the communist prison and an old boat yard. We didn’t have time to visit museums but there were lots of them. Basically in summary, if you haven’t been go, its great!