Posts tagged culture

Fabulous Firenze

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Firenze's cityscape is beautiful

Firenze, the beautiful heart of Tuscany. A city steeped in art, culture and beauty. And tourists. Hoards of tourists, fresh off cruise ships, even in low season.

My forward planning had been somewhat sketchy (some exhibits need to be booked weeks in advance) and with the added complication of Odie, who often barks if left alone for more than a few minutes, our gallery and museum options were limited. However, there is much to see on foot; the architecture and stunning squares with their replica sculptures are truly impressive.

The main cathedral is covered in gorgeous detail

In typical adventurous spirit David decided that the best way to avoid the throng of people was to cycle next to the river. A steep muddy path led us down the river bank, and was followed with much bumping and cursing (on my part) as we muddled our way along a narrow concrete walkway. It wasn’t long before I was rather too skeptical about our route to continue, and sent David scouting ahead to check that we might actually reach our destination without needing to swim. He returned shortly, with shoes and wheels caked in mud, to report that most of the river had flooded and in any case we didn’t have enough climbing rope to scale the massive wall at the end of the path.

A highlight for us was the hilltop view point overlooking Florence as it gave us a chance to appreciate the stunning architecture from above. The Duomo is particularly beautiful; every inch of it covered in stone inlays and carvings. What a magnificent sight.

Feasting Festivals

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And step, and step, and scowl at partner ...

Our festival luck is improving! Hungry for lunch we were on the look out for somewhere to stop for a bite and noticed a sign advertising a ‘Sommerfest’. The local village square was closed to traffic as benches had been laid out for hearty lunches accompanied by the sound of Bavarian folk music. The band members were fully kitted out in Leiderhosen and many villagers had also donned traditional dress. The best bit was when the children from the village did a traditional bavarian folk dance with much leaping and twirling and pouting and picking of noses.

Away with the Faeries

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Fussen is most famous for its castles but there is a lot more to it than fairytale architecture. The town is full of quaint shops and has much to offer the visiting tourist. There is a beautiful alpine blue river running through the town, with its own beach if you dare brave the freezing water! A fabulous cycle network leads you to Lake Forgensee where there are various watersports on offer. You can also cycle to both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles.

We decided to scout out the parking situation for the castles. Arriving at 12pm we discovered hordes of tourists milling around and realised we needed to arrive as close to the opening time (8am) as possible, to avoid queuing for hours for a ticket. There is a beautiful lake near the castles which is virtually tourist free. Swimming is permitted at a designated spot where you can hire deck chairs and make the most of the crystal clear lake waters. Having no swimming costumes with us we opted to cycle up the mountain. What started off as a reasonable road soon turned into a perilous path with near vertical drops and numerous rockfalls. Our ride very quickly became a bicycle-carrying hike to the Mariebrucke. This bridge gives a great view of the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle.

The following day we booked ourselves on the castle tour. There are tours in German and English, or audio tours for the rest. We managed to get onto the first English tour which thankfully had substantially less than the standard 50 people per group. The tour lasts only 30 minutes and felt rather rushed but is nevertheless well worth taking. King Ludwig II was clearly away with the faeries. The castle is built more for artistic value than architectural sense, but is in some ways all the better for it.

Up to now we have missed out on many of the local festivals as we seem to leave the towns a few days before they take place. When we found out that there was a reggae festival happening in Fussen we jumped at the chance to attend, especially when we read that they were a South African band and we could get a little taste of home. However we are not convinced that they are actually from South Africa as the mike was passed to David at one point and he sung ‘Ishe Komborera Africa’ to a very puzzled looking lead singer.

Like Clockwork

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The bizarre crucifixion clock

As if we hadn’t had enough of clocks already our trip today was to the German Clock Museum in Furtwangen. This was absolutely fascinating, starting with a cuckoo clock that morbidly depicts the crucifixion scene every hour on the hour. That’s a lot of stabbing and nailing! We learned a lot, especially about the history of time keeping.

Apparently it was common practise for neighbouring towns to have different time measurements (10 hours to a day here, 12 there etc), and some even changed the length of hours as the seasons changed. The museum provides a free booklet in English with all the information you need for a visit.

On our way to Blumberg we made a spontaneous stop at the Rothaus brewery. Unfortunately it was closed, being Sunday, apart from the shop where we bought our very first keg of German beer. 5 delicious litres of weissbier for the bargain price of €10! Be sure to read the instructions (or little pictures for us non-German speakers) before using it as you may end up, like us, spraying the inside of your van with a coating of white foam!

Cuckoomania

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Clocks for sale

Our morning adventure was a spontaneous trip to the Vogtsbauernhof (Black Forest Open Air Museum), a charming village of sorts containing local houses from different periods, some of them relocated many miles, brick by brick, to the site. Inside you learn how people lived in those days, and can also watch as craftsmen (and women) create products from the times. We almost bought a little whistle which had a dancing couple that spun when you blew it, until we realised that it would be pretty useless except for attracting randy ducks.

There are quite a number of houses on the site, and you have to have a good attention span to take everything in. I started to get bored after the eighth one, especially when so many of them are based on the same working model. There are only so many farming implements in the loft one can see before the novelty wears off!

The hotel Pfaff is beautiful

On our way towards Triberg we stopped to see a giant cuckoo clock, one of several in the area. This is cuckoo clock country. Every few miles you see signs for “the house of 1000 cuckoo clocks”, though I doubt anybody has bothered to count them. They range from cheap and tacky clocks for a few euros to several thousand for gorgeous hand carved versions. Triberg is famed for its waterfall, but was far too touristy for our liking hence we only stopped for a very short visit.

Schweet Schiltach

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Another day, another picturesque village in the Black Forest, this time Schiltach. An abundance of historical museums dot the town. The timber museum is free (for dogs too) and gives an interesting insight into how the area accumulated its wealth by bringing trees down the river from the surrounding hills. They have ample information in English available and a very friendly English-speaking guide on site ,who was ever so keen to tell me all about his 10 years of living in London in the 60’s. The apothecary museum costs €2 per person (but no dogs allowed). It has several rooms full of torturous looking devices and evil medicines. It is astonishing to think that DDT was once used as a human delousing hairspray! The museum is on the site of a pharmacy built in the 1800s and is neatly preserved in its original state. The sweet little old lady that takes your entrance fee directed me from one contraption filled room to another with much gusto, even when I was clearly yawning with disinterest after five rooms of objects had been closely scrutinized.

There are many culinary delights to try in the Black Forest. We picked up some lardons made from Black Forest pigs in the local metzgerei (butcher) and used them in a couple of dishes. Mmm, tasty! They also make delicious beersticks (smoked sausages) which David is always trying to buy in large quantities.  I have to watch him closely! We have found that meat is very cheap in Germany, especially pork products. They also have a huge range of interesting breads. At long last, after so many white baguettes, our digestive systems are enjoying the health benefits of unrefined foods. Sadly we weren’t so enamoured with Black Forest Gateau which proved to be very sugary and sadly lacking in cherries and chocolate. You can never have too many cherries and chocolate!

Deutscheland

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Frieburg has wonderful architecture

Deutscheland! Quite often we’re not sure when we have crossed the border from one European country into another as there are no border posts. It became blindingly obvious though when our TomTom stopped showing a speed limit and BMWs flew past us at 200km/h – we were on the autobahn!

German efficiency was apparent to us right from the start. We arrived at the Stellplatz (the German version of camperstops), parked the van and walked across to the office. A minute later, as we were trying to work out what to do, the official arrived and asked us if we were the English owners of the van parked across the way. He had left a note on our windscreen asking us to come to the office to sort out payment!

Freiburg is Germany’s southern most city (apparently the most sunny too) and has excellent green credentials. It is famous for its Munster church, worth a visit as well as the square it sits, in which has a market every week day. We had our first Bratwurst, mine a hectic curry flavour and David’s a traditional grilled version.

Many buildings retain their original character

We visited a wine festival in the main square and tried a Rielsing (heaven) and a very potent red which left a salty encrustation on the glass. Speaking to the wine buff we were told that very good red wines produce this calcium deposit. Clearly we have not been drinking enough very expensive wines then! Another worthwhile excursion in Freiburg is climbing the hill with the Schlossberg tower which gives a fine view of the excellent architecture in Freiburg.

Medieval Estaing

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Needing to recover from a week of socialising (and almost constant drinking) we went in search of some quiet time, north of the Lot region, on our way towards Germany. By chance we ended up in a very picturesque medieval village called Estaing, perched on the side of a hill with a river running through it. The local municipal campsite charges only €8 per night which we happily took advantage of. Moments after setting up camp a thunderstorm came down, forcing us to stay in the van and catch up on some much needed sleep.

Wine collecting

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As my 30th birthday was fast approaching we needed to source a large number of bottles of sparkling wine in order to celebrate the event properly.  We had visited Limoux previously and it is well known for producing sparkling wines that rival champagne in taste and quality.  A very rapid tour of 5 different caves ensued and we finished our visit armed with 30 shiny new bottles.  The rosés are the most delicious (and proved to be the most popular) whilst the Cremant is made with the same grape combination as champagne.  The Blanquette de Limoux is made with a particular grape of the same name only grown in the Limoux area.

The town itself is quaint, straddled across a river with a beautiful square and some fantastic restaurants.  I tried the local dish, Cassoulet; a bean stew with duck and sausage. Superb for the palette, not so great for the waistline ; )

Carcassonne is a town straight out of a fairy tale. The fortified city stands high over the town and is a tremendous sight when lit up at night.  Inside the high walls are shops, restaurants and bars.  On a summer evening the atmosphere was fabulous, full of the vie de France. We took a boat trip down the Canal du Midi. There are two options, one going into the city and one going outwards. We chose the latter though with hindsight the city trip would probably have been more interesting.

Morphing

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We have been camping in a municipal camp site, surrounded by thousands of cicadas serenading at full volume. The noise reached a crescendo last night and then stopped abruptly. This morning Chris went to unlock our bikes and let out an unholy shriek. “There’s a creature on my bike, it’s like a praying mantis crossed with a spider!” Close inspection of said beastie showed no more than the empty shell of a cicada. Last night they all morphed into their adult forms, leaving behind a littering of empty skins on the trees, like discarded beer cans after a heavy drinking session. It must have been quite a party!

Once again we cycled into the old town (swerving carefully to avoid the slightly more swollen form of Mr Cane Rat) and attempted to get into the amphitheater. No such luck, another celebrity (this time a name we didn’t recognise) had monopolised the place.

Jeudis (Thursdays) in Nimes is market day and every square is fully kitted out with stall holders and musicians of varying abilities. We watched a few minutes of a crazy saxophone player who seemed more like a man wrestling a python (and failing miserably) than an artist. We tried Vietnamese food for the first time – an unusual choice perhaps given the setting, but  an excellent one.  Luckily the food was a lot better than our attempt to understand a Vietnamese-French accent.

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