Category: Europe

Travel review: Rocky mountain high at Delphi

I had no idea why I was going to Delphi.

To be honest, it just seemed to me like something everyone did when they visited Greece.

But, now that Scoot Airlines had opened a new, cost-effective service between Australia and Athens, a trip to all the wonders of ancient Greece – including Delphi – suddenly became a reality.

cinque-terre-828614__340.jpg

In retrospect, I’m pleased we made the effort to take a bus 180 kilometres from Athens to the foot of Mount Parnassos.

And I understand why Delphi sanctuary and stadium are the second most popular attractions in Greece – behind the Acropolis.

For a start, the location is awesome – a modern town, the ancient ruins and a museum overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and the Phocis valley of olive groves.

The ruins hug the mountainside so tightly that they appear to have been carved into the earth.

A4A7C9E5-4F1D-42B1-9074-E3FBCD07A065 2.jpg

In ancient times, Delphi was considered the centre of the known world; the place where heaven and earth met.

According to mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles from the ends of the universe. The eagles met at Delphi, which therefore became the navel of the world.

As we walked through the sanctuary, the monuments included columns of the ruined Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle of Delphi resided.

This priestess was the most famous fortune-teller of ancient Greece, even though many now say that she was high as a kite on fumes rising from a crack in the earth.

Our path through the ruins wound on past a large theatre, the Athenian Treasury, Sibyl Rock and the Stoa of the Athenians – to name a few of the highlights.

4D150869-7F28-4714-862D-A7EA27887EEC 2.JPG

At the peak of the ruins, there is an ancient stadium, where the Pythian Games were held every four years. These Games were one of four precursors of the modern Olympics.

Male athletes at ancient Greek Games competed naked with their bodies oiled – and I suspect that Sue wanted to check that none had been left behind.

But the rocky path to the stadium had been worn smooth by footsteps over the Centuries – and, after several near-slips, we decided to call it quits and head for the museum.

After lunch and a beer at the nearby tavern, we headed about half a kilometre away to see probably the most photographed of the ruins of Delphi, the Tholos. This is a circular building that was constructed between 360 and 380 BC.

Then it was back to Athens, with a greater understanding of the Pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Delphi, and its significance.

Note: The writer was flown to Athens courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

Travel review: Piran’s unusual history

In Slovenia, there’s a local joke that nothing is more than one hour away.

In a compact country that borders Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Italy and has only 43 kilometres of coastline, it’s fairly easy to move from centre to centre and one geographical feature to another.

In one direction, you’ll encounter stunning snow-capped alps and beautiful Lake Bled; in another is the striking capital city of Ljubljana; Italy is one hour away in yet another direction; or some of the world’s biggest limestone caves.

And, in the country’s south-west is the charming medieval walled town of Piran, on the Adriatic Coast.

Long regarded as a hidden jewell by travellers in the know and the source of acclaimed world class salt, Fleur de Sel, Piran is a remarkably attractive and photogenic old port town with a complex history.  These days, visitors flock to the town to enjoy community events, the culinary offerings and natural attractions

652F57BF-F0B6-454F-9FD3-774C718AF56A 2.jpg

We travelled to Piran because we’d heard so much about its astonishing mixture of architecture that reflects an unusual history – to say the least!

For example:

  • by the 7th Century, Piran was under Byzantine rule
  • in about 952 AD, it became part of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • from 1283 to 1797, Piran was in the Republic of Venice
  • in 1797, it was annexed to the Austrian Empire
  • between 1806 and 1814, it was ceded to the Napoleonic Empire
  • at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century, Piran was Austro-Hungarian
  • after the First World War, the town was ceded to Italy.
  • in 1954, Piran was annexed to Yugoslavia – and much of its population chose to move to Italy or abroard.
  • since 1991, the town has been part of Slovenia.

If that isn’t confusing enough, the town is bilingual, with both Slovene and Italian listed as official languages.

712D10E5-DC45-4161-8E88-A08337225405 2.jpg

And, its municipality borders Croatia to the south and faces Italy across the Gulf of Trieste and the Adriatic Sea.

This melting pot of history gives Piran a distinctive and attractive appearance.

The Venetian influence is strong, with an imposing town square and sweep of red rooftops.

The remains of the town wall have a Roman look, although in reality they have been altered several times through the years.

There are three walls, dating to the 7th Century and a total of seven gates or entrances to the town.

And the medieval feel is also pronounced, with a lot of narrow streets and compact houses.

D56561DA-9529-464A-B69D-A6DE7C77F937 2.jpg

And through its complex history, Piran flourished largely because of its salt pans, which were established in 804 AD. 

We walked to the remains of the third town wall and nearby St George’s Church which dominates the main hill above the town .

Then we strolled along the breakwall to the tip of Piran peninsula, watching young swimmers braving the cold waters of the Adriatic.

After a coffee in one of the many cafes and seafood restaurants along the waterfront, we returned to Tartini Square, named after one of the towns most famous residents – the 17th Century violinist, Giuseppe Tartini

It may be only an hour away from everywhere in Slovenia, but medieval Piran is a stunning Adriatic coastal resort that is a ‘must see’ when visiting Slovenia.

Note: The writer was flown to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

Destination review: See the lost city

If you’re planning to visit Athens, don’t miss the ancient city beneath the ancient city.

Remains of streets, houses, bathhouses and workshops from about the 7th to the 9th centuries AD can be seen below the Acropolis museum in the Makriyianni area of the Greek capital.

The ruins of the ancient settlement were uncovered during initial construction of the museum, which opened in mid-2007 within walking distance of the iconic Acropolis.

 

In what was initially considered a controversial move, the museum was constructed above the ruins in a way that allows visitors to look at the ancient Roman and early Byzantine foundations.

GPTempDownload 2.jpg

We’d already been to the Acropolis, the symbol of ancient Greek civilisation and one of the most visited places in the world – and we then walked down the southeast side of the hill.

We turned off Dionysiou Areopagitou Street onto the glass walkway that leads to the museum entrance.

Looking down through the glass, we could see the start of excavations of an ancient urban settlement.

Then we came to a large viewing hole cut in the walkway to better display well-preserved remains from the 7th century AD.

These included a large circulat foundation of a Byzantiine tower, into which people were throwing coins like a wishing well.

C949F4B7-21B0-46D1-A5D5-98C247217E0B.jpg
The Acropolis Museum, Athens
The glass floor continues into the museum proper to allow visitors to view even more of the excavations.

We checked with staff and were told that, by sitting the museum on pillars, the contemporary building deliberately floated above the Makriyianni foundations.

When excavations are finished, it’s hoped that museum visitors will be able to learn about the history and religious significance of the Acropolis at the same time as understanding the daily lives of people who lived in the shadow of the temples.

GPTempDownload 3.jpg
The Acropolis
The museum itself displays more than four-thousand objects from the Acropolis, covering periods from the Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece.

It is a well-designed modern museum, with an easy ‘flow’ of exhibits, plenty of seating and a video area on the top floor. The interior escalators make the building particularly assessible and the large windows offer an excellent views of the Acropolis.

Because the museum is so centrally-located, it is close to most of the main attractions in Athens and is easy to find.

ee95027464d5f76834292e09bbcbb883.jpg

That area of Athens is named after Ioannis Makrygiannis, a general in the Greek War of Independence, who once owned a house and land nearby.

Note: The writer flew to Greece from Australia courtesy of Scoot Airlines, on its Sydney-Singapore-Athens service.

Slovenia’s magical underground

We were standing in a massive underground canyon, our words lost amid the near-deafening roar of crashing water.

Despite lighting on the walls, the roof was too high to see and in the darkness below us, the River Reka – swollen by recent rain – thundered under our tiny bridge.

It was an awe-inspiring scene in Europe’s biggest known underground canyon – part of the Skocjan Caves in north-eastern Slovenia.

Statistics can’t adequately prepare you

We’d been told the statistics: the cavern is 308 metres long, 89 metres wide on average and 106 metres high, with the tallest point of the ceiling some 146 metres above the Reka River.

0E7D44D6-04A1-4192-BC70-5B1936877620.jpg
Caves entrance

But, this didn’t really prepare for the almost frightening spectacle that confronted us deep beneath the gorges of Slovenia.

The enormous size of the underground canyon is what places Škocjan Caves among the most famous underground features in the world.

Although they have been mentioned since the 2nd Century BC, some of the caves have yet to be fully explored.

Spectacular gorge

The Reka River flows through a scenic four-kilometre gorge before it disappears underground to surge through the limestone caves.

GPTempDownload 2.jpg
River Reka gorge

During a visit to Slovenia, we caught a bus from the capital Ljubljana to visit the Skocjan Caves Regional Park. And we were certainly impressed.

Our party wound its way through the massive chambers of the Skocjan network using stairs and concrete paths that cling to the walls. The bridge over the Reka River was certainly a highlight.

Later, we negotiated a winding stairway out of the caves area and caught a furnicular railway to the top of the gorge, before lunching in the nearby village of Matavun.

GPTempDownload.jpg

Global significance

The Skocjan network is of such importance globally that it has been on the UNESCO list of natural and cultural world heritage sites since 1986.

563C1B7D-DCE3-42E7-998D-6F8335639205.jpg

Although steep, the area is popular with hikers and numerous footpaths, mountain trails and even cycling paths criss-cross the area.

Skocjan Caves are in north-eastern Slovenia, about 47 kilometres from Ljubljana.

zemljevid_svet.jpg

Note: The writer was flown to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

Credit: Main photograph with thanks to the Skocjan Caves Regional Park authority.

Where eagles dare

The first thing you notice about the Kehlsteinhaus, or ‘Eagle’s Nest’ is the approach road that climbs 800 metres up the side of a mountain, without the need for hairpin bends. 

An engineering marvel, the road contains five tunnels in its 6.5 kilometres. It was built in 1937, as part of the Eagle’s Nest – a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler. 

The Kehlsteinhaus is situated on a ridge atop a 1,834 metre mountain above the town of Berchtesgaden, in south-eastern Germany. 

It is one of the busiest tourist attractions in Bavaria and, each year, it is visited by huge numbers of people from around the globe.

The location of the Eagle’s Nest – high in the Alps – is regarded as one of the most striking and picturesque in Germany.

Hall of the mountain king


The intention was that the Eagle’s Nest would be a diplomatic reception house and quiet mountain retreat for Hitler, but he paid only a handful of visits to the summit. 

The Nazi leader apparently had both a fear of heights and was concerned that the elevator to the summit might be hit by lightning. 

We arrived the day after a September snowstorm, amid a lot of low cloud. 

Entrance to the mountain tunnel
 

To reach the Kehisteinhaus, you first need to catch a bus from Obersalzberg on the mountain’s lower reaches, then walk through a 126 metre tunnel into the mountain. 

The Eagle’s Nest Tunnel

Finally, you catch a remarkable elevator that rises about 124 metres to the peak. 

The interior of the elevator is made of polished brass and circular Venetian mirrors to look bigger than it is, as Hitler, apparently, had claustrophobia.  


Photographs are banned in the elevator, but can be taken as it arrives and the doors open. 

These days, the Eagle’s Nest is a restaurant and beer house, but one particular item of interest is a grand fireplace made of expensive reddish Carrara marble. 


A sign says the fireplace was a birthday gift to Hitler from Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. 

It is damaged at one end, allegedly by Allied soldiers who are blamed for chipping off pieces of the marble for mementos. 

Although the beer was good and the Kehisteinhaus has great historical significance, we were particularly impressed with the Document Centre, which is located further down the mountain near where Hitler had his alpine mansion.  


Information at the centre showed that, although bombing the Eagle’s Nest itself was not a high priority for the Allies, the presence of Hitler and many of his senior officials made the Berchestgaden a key target – and the residents suffered severely.

In the last weeks of the war, in particular, there was a massive bombing attack on the Berghof and Obersalzberg.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

Restful and historic Berchtesgaden

Berchtesgaden is good for the soul. 

This picture-postcard region, set amid the Bavarian Alps, in south-eastern Germany, is quiet, historic and scenic.

In the late afternoon, about the only sounds from the quaint villages are faint traces of Bavarian music,the pearling of church bells and the trickle of running streams.

The people are particularly welcoming, considering the World War II devastation suffered by the Berchtesgaden only a generation or so ago.

We wandered to beer halls unannounced to sample the local product – and were accepted warmly. 

A highlight of Berchtesgaden is the emerald-coloured Lake Konigssee, which a spectacular fjord set in the Bavarian Alps.

The eight- kilometre long lake nestles between mighty Alps from which tumble spectacular waterfalls.
Internationally recognised

Partway along the Konigssee sits one of the world’s most-photographed structures, the chapel of St Bartholoma, which has been the site of a church since 1134.

The red-domed chapel, as it currently exists, was built in the 17th Century.


Until the start of the 19th Century, it was the summer seat for the Prince Abbott’s of Berchtesgaden.


Later, the Bavarian kings designated it as their hunting castle.

We’ve always wanted to visit the Konigssee; hear its famous echo-chamber between the Alps; and photograph St Bartholoma.

So, it was a special treat to be taken on an electric boat cruise, where we marvelled at the clear waters, up to 150 metres deep on average.


We also found the view of the church – set against the backdrop of snow-tipped alps – to be as beautiful as anticipated.

As the boat glided across the water between massive cliff faces, its captain paused to play a note on a type of trumpet. 

The sound hit the nearest cliff, known as Echowand and then bounced around the lake like a gunshot. Back in the day, boats apparently did fire a pistol, which echoed up to seven times around the mountains.


On top of one of the Alps at 1843 metres, is the Kehlsteinhaus – or Eagle’s Nest – which was Adolf Hitler’s diplomatic house.


But that’s another story and another destination for us to explore. 

Stay tuned

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

Astonishing Lake Bled

Lake Bled regularly tops lists of the world’s most beautiful place – and it’s easy to see why.

We knew that the lake – in north-western Slovenia – would be something special, but that didn’t fully prepare us for the reality


Picture this : sitting among alpine meadows and pine forests under the snow-capped Julian Alps, is a mirror-like waterway.

At one end of Lake Bled, a medieval castle is perched high above the water on a 130-metre sheer rock cliff.


In the middle, bells regularly peal from a church on a tiny, lush green island.

Gondola-like traditional Pletna boats dot the lake, carrying people from the villas and towns around the shoreline.


Some of the rowing boats carry pilgrims making a visit to the island church of the Assumption of Mary. On arrival, they face a climb of 98 stone steps to reach the chapel on Slovenia’s only island.

The boat ride took us about 15 minutes and the views from the water were breath-taking.

Long believed to have healing properties, the water of Lake Bled glistens emerald-green when the sun shines.

The air is crisp and there are beds of flowers and carefully-tended parks everywhere you turn.


During our visit, in late Autumn, the trees were losing their leaves, but retained their colour.

If you desire, there is a six kilometre walk around the lake and the surrounding alpine areas are popular for kayaking and mountain biking.

The nearby Triglav National Park can easily be reached by bus from Lake Bled.

As we found throughout Slovenia, local wines and food specialties are served at the restaurants in the town of Bled.

This includes the famous Bled cake, the kremna rezina, which consists of a thick layer of cream and an even thicker layer of vanilla custard sandwiched between slices of thin crispy pastry.


It’s hard to look dignified while eating the cake, but we couldn’t fault the taste.

We also enjoyed Kranjska klobasa, a juicy pork sausage that is said to come from the nearby town of Kranj.


The sheer beauty of Lake Bled induces a relaxation that is rare during a hectic travel schedule.

Slovenia is widely being described as the undiscovered jewell of Europe.

We suggest that, for its sheer natural beauty alone, Lake Bled is one of the shiniest parts of that jewell.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines