Visit the land above the clouds

If you’re looking for an extraordinary experience on a trip to Europe, make your way to the shores of the pristine Wolfgangsee lake, in the Austrian Alps.

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Overshadowing the picture-postcard alpine town of Sant Wolfgang am Wolfgangsee is Schafberg Mountain, a towering peak in the Salzkammergut Range.

Schafberg Mountain is rather special because, since 1893, it has been the site of one of the steepest steam-powered cog-railways anywhere in Europe.

Schafbergbahn railway carries visitors to the summit of the mountain 1,783 metres above the surrounding countryside. 

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This is truly one of the world’s great travel experiences: memories of which will live with you forever.

The railway winds out of the quaint village; passes through the treeline; disappears into the clouds; and emerges in the snow zone.  

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Once at the summit, it feels like you are on the top of the world.

Visitors are greeted by incomparable 360 degree views across the majesty of the Alps and their many glacial lakes. 

If you want to soak up more of the views and watch the sun set between rugged mountain peaks, the summit boasts a hotel called Schafbergspitze – commonly known as the ‘hotel in the clouds’ – which has operated through the summer months since 1862.

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Here you can sip wine and watch one of nature’s most stunning shows – the sun setting through the alpine mountain peaks.

Rays of golden light bounce from one snow-capped Alp to another, glinting off the lakes far below and highlighting the birds gliding well down the slopes.

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Hotel  Schafbergspitz boasts a a bar perched high on an adjoining mountaintop and, at the very peak of the area, a wooden cross stands as a reminder of the dangers of venturing too close to the edge.

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Schafberg Mountain with its steam train and hotel is located at Wolfgangsee lake in the Austrian Alps. It is about an hour’s drive from the city of Salzberg.

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There is also ample accommodation in Sant Wolfgang am Wolfgangsee or you can do as we did: stay in another of the small nearby villages, to truly experience Austrian alpine culture and communities.

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Regardless of how you do it, the Schafberg Mountain is an experience of a lifetime that you will never forget or regret.

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You must see Mt Parnassus: a true wonder of the world

Mount Parnassus, a limestone spur in central Greece, north of the Gulf of Corinth, is one of the world’s most significant sites – and a ‘must-see’ for travellers interested in culture and history.

Towering above the ancient sanctuary of Delphi, the mountain plays a big role in Greek mythology.

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In addition to being sacred to the god Apollo, who often visited the nearby Oracle at Delphi, the mountain was thought to be the residence of the Muses and, as a result, the home of poetry and song. 

Even the name Parnassus, effectively means the mountain of the house of the God.

Over the centuries, Mount Parnassus has influenced many poets, writers and singers. For this reason, the name of the mountain (Mont Parnasse) was given to a quarter of Paris, France on the left bank of the Seine, where artists and poets used to gather and recite their poems in public.

Ruins of the ancient city of Delphi, which are visited by huge numbers of people each year, nestle into the south-western slope of the mountain – overlooking the coastal plain. 

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The phenomenal influence of this area in the ancient world – the Greeks called Delphi the centre of the world – resulted in its classification as a World Heritage Site.

Although Delphi is mostly known as the home of the Oracle, the city itself had much to offer. 

Every four years, the Pythian Games were held there and the ancient city also had an amphitheater, gymnasium, and other sanctuaries dedicated to gods and goddesses such as Artemis, Dionysus, and Poseidon.

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Mount Parnassus and Delphi are a comfortable day trip from Athens.

We travelled to the Greek capital courtesy of Scoot, which flies modern Boeing Dreamliners to and from Asia and Australia.

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Sweeping through Normandy to Omaha Beach

Anyone who has explored the beautiful back roads of Normandy will understand why Hitler’s tanks struggled there.

The roads and lanes of this historic area of north-west France are generally pencil-thin; more suited to bicycles than anything else; and bordered by tall, dense and tangled hedgerows.  

As you pass through towns, the roads can sometimes be so narrow it feels almost possible to reach out and touch the buildings on either side.

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Partly shaped by modern warfare, some of Normandy seem monotonously flat, with huge swathes of agricultural and grazing land, broken by church steeples rising above towns and villages.

As the centenary of the end of World War I approaches, we’ve reflected on our sweep through Normandy’s beaches, bunkers and cemeteries.

It was a stunning Spring day and the fields of yellow rapeseed, apple orchards and dairying land were a far cry from the region’s past military role.

Driving from Paris, we stopped first at Armien to check out the city’s famous cathedral, sitting on a ridge overlooking the mighty River Somme.

Built between 1220 and about 1270, the Gothic cathedral is said to be the 19th largest church in the world – and the biggest of its kind in France.

Armien was fought over during both the First and Second World Wars, suffering considerable damage and being occupied several times by both sides.

The 1918 Battle of Amiens was the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive which led directly to the Armistice with Germany that ended the war.

Armien was also heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

From Armien, we pushed through the Normandy countryside to the historic cities of Caen and Rouen, before hitting the famous sands of Omaha Beach.

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Caen has a popular museum dedicated to the World War II D-Day landings, while Rouen boasts prominent quays on the river Seine, an historic city centre, and magnificent gothic cathedral.

Much of the city area south of the cathedral also has its own World War II story – flattened by Allied bombing raids and completely rebuilt.

We wandered through the city centre which was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War and where the French heroine, Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431.

At Omaha Beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (main photo) high on a clifffront facing the British channel.

This is quite a remarkable memorial, featuring the big areas of white crosses so common along the Normandy beaches.

From here, we swung along the shores, heading for the Opal Coast and the channel ferry port of Calais toboard a hovercraft for Britain.

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Anogeia story catches media imagination

One of our most memorable travel moments has been highlighted by a leading Australian publication.

Our visit to the World War II ‘massacre village’ of Anogeia, in Crete and meeting with the Greek musician, Loudovikos ton Anogeion, has been retold across Australia by The Senior newspaper.

The visit, high in the mountains of Crete, was the culmination of many years of interest in Anogeia.

It also could not have occurred without the support of Scoot Airlines, which  operates a great service between Australia and Athens, the Greek capital city.

The reasons for our interest in Anogeia  were well explained by The Senior, which featured an article in its editions that circulate in the Australian States of NSW/ACT; Queensland; Victoria; South Australia; Western Australia; and Tasmania.

The Senior  has a national monthly readership of more than 1.3 million.

Here is its article:

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Where’s Slovenia – and why is Ljubljana so popular?

Slovenia caught our imagination in 2014.

Colleagues spoke of remarkable alpine and forest scenery; of a pristine country with a high standard of living – part of the Balkans but particularly modern and prosperous; and a friendly, multilingual people with amazing traditional food.

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Before then, about all we knew was that Slovenia brushed up against the Alps while also bordering the Mediterranean; had played in the 2010 World Cup; and was home to Lake Bled, regularly named among the most beautiful places on earth.

Our interest was piqued further when we heard that Slovenia’s cobble-stone capital, Ljubljana, was being described as ‘the new Prague’.

And the more we researched, the more Slovenia intriged us.

For a start, it seemed like a cultural melting pot.

Unlike its Balkan neighbours, the area had been largely controlled for much of its history by the Habsburgs of Austria, creating a vastly different heritage.

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However, there’d also been some rule by Bavarian Dukes, while parts of Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast had been part of the Republic of Venice.

Slovenia is the most industrialized and urbanized of all the former Yugoslav republics, despite having a population of only about two-and-a-half-million.

It is also a ‘green capital’ of Europe, with substantial emphasis on environmental protection.

There are large areas of mountains, limestone plateau, dense forest and rural farmland.

Hiking trails criss-cross the country and Slovenia is known for outdoor and extreme sports.

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Our initial visit to this fascinating country started in Ljubljana.

What we found was a fairytale city of rare beauty.

Close to Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, the ancient capital of Slovenia is easy to reach and has an attractive Old Town alongside the pretty Ljubljanica River.

This pedestrian-only city centre boasts strikingly colourful architecture; outdoor cafes and coffee shops; wide public squares; cobblestone streets; museums, a big university; and Baroque fountains, sculptures and monuments.

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And above it all sits the imposing Ljubjiana Castle, an 11th Century fortress that can be reached by glass-sided funicular railway or by several walking trails.

From the castle towers, you can see across the red rooftops of the Old Town and over the suburbs of Ljubjiana to the snow-topped Julian Alps in the distance.

Ljubljana Castle towers are ascended using twisting circular steel ladders.

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Everywhere you look in Central Ljubljana there are superbly preserved Art Nouveau buildings, many housing cultural and artistic institutions, such as museums and art galleries.

Others host shops, banks and businesses.

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The fact that Ljubjiana has less than 300,000 permanent residents gives the city a particularly friendly and laid-back atmosphere

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Ljubjiana University, with 63,000 students, also helps give the city a vibrancy, as well as boosting the strong local art and music scene.

At Ljubljana’s centre is Preseren square, just a short walk from the Old Town across the three-pronged Triple Bridge.

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The square is surrounded by beautiful historic architecture, including the salmon-coloured Franciscan Church of the Annuncian.

This among several eye-catching churches in Ljubljana’s heart.

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Slovenia is a modern country in every sense and its capital city has many trendy bars, including Metelkova Mestre, a former army building that was taken over by squatters and is home to fringe art centres, alternative clubs and music venues.

Other travellers may be more interested in the city’s vibrant cafe scene, stunning architecture and range of museums and galleries.

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And Ljubljana has a growing reputation as a foodies paradise, with many restaurants serving a range of traditional Slovenian fare, including mushroom soup, pork sausages, beef dishes and chicken paprika with dumplings.

Overall, this is a wonderful destination for travellers of any age.

It is particularly accessible because the majority of the city’s wonderful attractions are concentrated within its Old Town and easily reached on foot.

The city well and truly lives up to its reputation as a hidden European jewell.

We suggest you experience Ljubljana and Slovenia in general  before the mass tourist market swoops.

Age-Friendly score:

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9/10 – Ljubiana is flat and easy to get around – even though the central city is largely vehicle-free. The attractions of the old town are close together. Most of the museums and lovely old buildings contains lifts and are wheelchair accessible. The castle can be reached by funicular railway and the city is well served by planes, coaches and trains.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

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Incredible story of the white stallions

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is well known internationally, but only recently did we realise the incredible story behind the Lipizzaner horses.

Travelling in Slovenia, we visited the Lipizzaner Stud at Lipica, said to be the world’s oldest continuously operating facility of its type with a foundation date of 1580.

slovenia-305986__340Apparently, the Lipizzaner’s ancestors can be traced to 800AD – a cross between local Karst breeds beloved by the Romans for chariot racing and Berber horses from Spain.

As we watched these magnificent animals running in the paddocks at Lipica, we were told that the stud and its horses had, in fact, been evacuated in 1796, 1805 and 1809, when it was threatened by Napoleon’s armies

In World War I, the Lipizzaners were moved to a site near Vienna – and during the Second World War the Nazis took them to Germany and then on to a Wehrmacht-controlled stud farm near Hostau in Czechslovakia

From there, the story becomes almost unbelievable.

As the war wound to a close, American troops, apparently with the knowledge of the surrendering Germans, undertook an astonishing mission to secure the horses ahead of the advancing Soviet forces.

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According to some accounts, 350 horses – about 100 of the best Arabs in Europe, top thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and some 250 Lipizzaners – were rounded up by the Americans and moved 130 miles along roads to Mannsbach in central Germany.

This exercise, apparently named ‘Operation Cowboy’ later became the basis of a Disney movie ‘Miracle of the White Stallions’.

Later, a number of Lipizzaners were transported to the Austrian State Stud at Piber for use in the Spanish Riding Schooll.

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Eventually, about 11 horses were given back to Yugoslavia and the stud at Lipica, on the Karst Plateau, began the task of rebuilding its stock.

The breeding farm was renovated; a riding and training school opened; and in the 1960’s the legendary home of the Lipizzaners was opened to visitors.

Lipizzaner foals are always born dark colored, and gradually, with each change of coat, go lighter, until by the age of 4-10 years, they are pure white.

However about one in 200 remain brown or black.

Featured attractions Lipica Slovenia

Romantic destinations

There’s no doubt about it: travel can be romantic.

So, at this time of year when love is in the air, here’s some of our favourite romantic destinations:

1.Venice, Italy – if romance has an ideal backdrop, this is it. Venice seems to emit a romantic energy. No wonder it is known as the City of Honeymoons.

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2. Crete, Greece – what a wonderful island. Rugged scenery, friendly people, wonderful food and an amazing culture.

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3. Lattari Mountain villages, Campania, Italy – within sight of the Amalfi coastline, yet a land lost in time. These villages spell out romance with a capital ‘R’.

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4. Schafberg Mountain, Austria – rising up from the waters of the Wolfgangsee, this mountain takes you to a land above the clouds. In season, catch the Schafbergbahn train to the top and behold the Hotel Schafbergspitze on its snowy peak.

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5. El Maresme costa, Catalonia – Barcelona and the coast to its north are as romantic as anyone could wish

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6. The Gower, southern Wales – a misty and mystic wonderland of green lowlands, rocky peaks, beaches, ancient castles and standing stones, the Gower is good for the soul.

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 7. Lake Bled, Slovenia – commonly described as one of the most beautiful places on earth, Bled has all the ingredients for a romantic stay.  Simply stunning!!

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8. Florence, Italy –  To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature.” – Mark Twain

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9. Athens, Greece – the ancient wonders of this captivating city are matched by the warmth of its people, the superb food and the excitement of the bubbling metropolis.

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10. Rome, Italy – the Eternal City spells romance and excitement at every turn.

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11. Niagara Falls, USA – another honeymoon favourite for a reason. There’s something about Mother Nature at her grandest.

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12. London, United Kingdom – the ‘Capital of Capitals’ has an appeal that must be experienced to be fully understood. We defy anyone to step off the plane at Heathrow and not feel immediately that the city is special indeed.

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13. Prague, Czech Republic – a cobblestone wonder that is as romantic as you will find anywhere.

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14. The Isle of Capri, Italy – every visit to this emerald island will feel like falling in love.

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15. Utah’s national parks – The Coyote Buttes – and who didn’t love cowboy movies?

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16. Scotland, United Kingdom – a rugged landscape, where the air is crisp and the whiskey is smooth.

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17. Paris, France – a perennial favourite with lovers, lose yourself in the boulevards and architecture (but watch the drivers)

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18. Copenhagen, Denmark – the dock of the bay at Nyhaven, one of the many charming highlights of this elegant and friendly city.

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19. The Dolomites, Italy – this limestone mountain range in north-eastern Italy is a favourite with the ski crowd, but its beautiful, rugged landscape is dotted with romantic cabins where solitude comes free of charge.

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20. The North Coast of Cornwall, United Kingdom – scenery to die for.

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Barcelona Features Romance