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.

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Built between 1220 and about 1270, the Gothic cathedral is said to be the 19th largest church in the world.

From Armien, we pushed through the Normandy countryside to the 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.

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

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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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Anogeia

Where’s Slovenia – and why go there?

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.

Slovenia

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.

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Apparently, 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

Was Santorini really Atlantis?

“The great Egyptian Age was but a remnant of the Atlantian culture,
The antediluvian kings colonised the world,
All the Gods who play in the mythological dramas
In all legends, from all lands, were from fair Atlantis”.

That song from 1968 and a handful of movies over the years were all we really knew about the myth of Atlantis – until Scoot Airlines took us to Greece – and we visited the magical island of Santorini.

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As we now know, the Atlantis legend dates to about 360 BC, describing a prosperous land that disappeared into the sea.

So where does Santorini come into it?

There is a school of thought that Santorini – the famed isle of white buildings, blue rooftops and glorious sunsets – was once Atlantis, until a volcanic eruption wiped out the Minoan culture.

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The Atlantis theory centres on the former Minoan settlement at Akrotiri, destroyed by a volcano about 1450 BC – and now partially excavated.

All this talk of a mythical land beneath the sea adds plenty of spice to one of Santorini’s most popular attractions, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, which displays ancient artefacts unearthed at Akrotiri and similar sites.

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Although relatively small and housed on the site of a former church at Fira, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira covers Santorini’s history from the late Neolithic period to late Cycladic times.

There’s decorative ceramics; religious and ritual objects; stone and ceramic vases; bronze tools; and complex wall paintings.

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The museum has four specific sections containing findings dating from the 5th millennium B.C. (late neolithic era) to the 17th century B.C.

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We were particularly impressed by the glowing gold ibex goat figurine, measuring around 10cm in length, dating from the 17th century B.C. which was discovered in mint condition in 1999.

There were also some remarkable fossilized olive tree leaves that dated to 60,000 B.C.

Age-Friendly rating

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9/10: From our experience, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira is well suited to visitors of any age and mobility.

Because it is located on the ridge at Fira, the museum does have about 12 steps on its main approach. However, a level alternative entrance is provided.

When we visited, the cost of admission was a modest three Euros. There was a reduction for senior visitors from within the European Union and free admission for children under 18 and students from the EU.

Once inside, the layout of the museum is simple and easy to follow. The exhibits are clearly labelled in relatively large writing – and all explanations and direction signs are in both Greek and English.

The floors are level; there are public conveniences; and a shop – again all on the same level.

The Museum of Prehistoric Thira could be viewed in a little over an hour, but a thorough visit would take a little longer.

The building is air conditioned; staff are multi-lingual; and the attraction is open year-round.

So, why only 9/10?

Because of its central location in Fira, visiting the museum may require navigating the narrow village streets, which are often extremely busy – particularly in summer. This can be a real effort for anyone- regardless of fitness or mobility.

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In Slovenia, don’t miss our oldest musical instrument?

If you visit the charming city of Ljubljana, in Central Europe, make sure you see ‘the flute’.

With a long history, the capital of Slovenia on the Ljubljanica River, is rich in cultural attractions, including the country’s National Museum.

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The National Museum of Slovenia, Ljubljana

And one of the most interesting exhibits in the museum is thought to be possibly the world’s oldest musical instrument.

The ‘Divje Babe Flute’ is a piece of bone from a cave bear with neatly spaced holes pierced down one side.

Discovered in 1995 at the Divje Babe archeological park in northwestern Slovenia, the bone is thought to be as much as 43,100 years old.

There are apparently three schools of thought about the origin of the ‘flute’.

Some say it was made made by Neanderthals as a musical instrument.

Others argue that it was probably fashioned by Cro-Magnons – and yet others speculate that the aligned holes may have been caused by the teeth of an animal.

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When we visited Ljubljana, the ‘flute’ was advertised as possibly the country’s leading cultural attraction and seemed to be regarded as a source of national pride.

The National Museum of Slovenia (above) is housed in a neo-Renaissance palace built between 1883 and 1885.

As well as the Neanderthal flute, the museum’s exhibitions include the ‘Vače Situla’, a famous early Iron Age ritual vessel found in the village of Vače, along with many archaeological finds from Ancient Roman occupation, when Ljubljana was known as Emona.

The museum received our top marks for being ‘age-friendly’.  It provides access for wheelchair and baby strollers – and has a lift to move between the floors.

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Oozing with charm, Ljubljana is also fast gaining a reputation as a city of romance, spurred by its beautiful views, inspiring stories, old world architecture and abundant greenery.

Slovenia

The famous Bartholoma on its remarkable see.

You’ve undoubtedly seen its onion domed roof on many websites or magazines – the 11th Century church of St Bartholoma is one of the world’s most photographed buildings.

The church itself is striking enough, with its contrasting red and white colours. But the location is breath-taking!

St Bartholoma sits on the western shore of the Konigssee, a natural, clear-water lake among the Berchtesgaden Alps in far south-eastern Germany.

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The mirrored surface of Konigssee

The east face of the Wartzmann – Germany’s third-highest mountain – rises in its snow-capped glory behind the site.

Officially known as a pilgrimage church, Sankt Bartholoma can only be reached by ship or a long hike across the mountains.

We decided to review the attraction to see how well it catered for visitors of all ages.

Here’s what we found:

Age-Friendly Review

Sankt Bartholoma adjoins a former palace founded by the Prince-Provosts of Berchtesgaden in 1134.

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The current Baroque design of the church – named after the Apostle Saint Bartholomew – is said to date to 1697 and the adjoining palace became a hunting lodge for the kings of Bavaria in about 1810.

Today the former palace and hunting lodge is an inn – and we thoroughly recommend the beer.

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As well as photography, Sankt Bartholoma has long been known world-wide as an inspiration for landscape painters.

Each August, a pilgrimage is held over the mountains to the church from the Austrian municipality of Maria Alm.

However, unless you are extremely fit and versed in steep mountains, the best way to see the famous church in its alpine setting is by catching a boat across the Konigssee.

The 7.7 kilometre long Konigssee is known for its clean, deep waters – and only electric boats are allowed on the waterway.

It is an easy and comfortable way to travel – and is accessible to just about everyone.

This is how we journeyed to Sankt Bartholoma and, on the way, the driver of the boat played a small flugelhorn (trumpet) to display the remarkable echo from the surrounding alps.

Back in the day, they apparently fired a gun instead – and the acoustics were even better.

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Sue prepares to board an electric boat at Konigssee.

We also passed the tiny island of Christlieger, with its distinctive marble statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, who is said to protect from flooding and drowning.

The famous Bartholoma is located on a peninsula along the shore of the Konigssee lake in the Berchtesgaden area of south-eastern Germany.

Konigssee is close to the Austrian border and can easily be reached from Salzberg.

Although we didn’t try it, visitors to Bartholoma are about an hour’s walk from another of the area’s natural attractions – the Eiskapelle, or ‘Ice Chapel’.

This is a permanent snow and icefield created by avalanches down the east face of the Waltzmann in Spring. The snow accumulates an angled area of the mountain.

Once at the church, the ground is flat and level – and it is easy to move about the area.

See the inside of the church; stroll along the level concrete pathway that runs by the water’s edge; try a beer at the tavern; and then join a queue to board a boat for the return journey.

Based on our experience, people of any ages should be able to visit this famous landmark and enjoy the stunning scenery.

Berchtesgaden Featured attractions