Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Lunch with Tito: Lake Bled

South of Salzburg you head up into the Tyrolean Alps and cross into Slovenia -  a country that seems quite inordinately blessed with natural beauty.

We're en route to Italy, but a lunch-stop in Slovenia, here at Lake Bled, seems irresistible.

Driving alongside the lake away from the town of Bled, the castle comes into view on the far side (above).

And then we're at the entrance to Vila Bled, once the summer residence of President Tito, now a state-owned hotel.

After Tito's death and the break-up of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was the lucky Balkan state that got Lake Bled and the villa. 

Inside, they've kept the 1950s modernist decor, communist (luxury) style ...

and in a corner of the foyer, above the desk he used, there's a portrait of the man who had a truly remarkable life - the son of poor peasants who became a country president, world statesman and the man who stood up to Stalin.

The terrace is the most perfect lunch spot I can imagine. I didn't notice my salad much, transfixed by the views.

I couldn't wait to take the stone staircase down to the lake afterwards 

to get a closer look at tiny Bled island, the jewel in the lake

with the Church of the Assumption, where ringing the bell, according to legend, guarantees wishes granted and prayers answered.

Everything I'd read about Bled warned that this place swarms in mid-season, so it was a pleasure to find how peaceful and quiet it actually was on a summer's day in early July.

Walking along the shore of the lake from the villa, there was hardly anybody - an occasional walker, a few paddle-boarders and the odd boat passing lazily by. 

A small sign to a 'café' on the lake pathway leads to a steep upward climb through the forest

... to what used to be Tito's private belvedere - a distance away from the villa and completely secluded, perched high above the lake

The interior is pretty uninviting with standard soviet era fittings, and the café is low-key and ordinary - but with the most perfectly stupendous views. I couldn't get over how few people were there and how under-used and little exploited this incredible place is. Perhaps this is its greatest asset, though.

I wondered how many world leaders had retreated to this hideaway to carve up Europe's borders between them, and how many mistresses of Tito (who famously had very many).

Re-purposed grand piano below Vila Bled

As we headed south again, I felt I'd had an overwhelming injection of visual beauty wrapped up in a history lesson.  

Bled, Slovenia, July 2016

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Salzburg by road

I may have mentioned once or twice my love of road travel (see here). No crowded airports, dependence on schedules or faff about luggage and weight restrictions. Just throw all you like in the back of the car and drive to your own tune.

In Schengen Europe sans frontières, country borders tend to whizz past quite frequently, and with nothing more to mark them than a discreet sign on the roadside; blink and you've missed it.
So the week before last, taking in eight countries in eight days was less frantic than it sounds, involving a leisurely, unhurried pace by car.

Remich, Luxembourg, in the wine-making Moselle valley

Leaving London at lunchtime on Saturday, I was in Luxembourg, via France and Belgium, by late afternoon, for a night stop-over in picture-pretty Remich, on the bank of the Moselle river and vineyards.

The next morning we were in Germany in under 5 minutes, driving south-east ... bypassing industrial Karlsrühe and Stuttgart ... taking the ring road around Munich (sadly, it's been on my bucket list for ages) ... to Salzburg - only about 10 kms across the border of Bavaria. We've crossed the Moselle, Saar, Rhine and Danube in one day.

First impressions: entering the city in a summer rain shower through this extraordinary archway cut into the rockface was my first indication that Salzburg would not disappoint.

The setting is rather fairytale: there's the Salzach river (the old transport route for the salt that was the source of the city's wealth) with the domes and spires of the Altstadt ...

View of Salzburg: Altstadt, river and fortress from the Mönchsberg

below a 900 year old fortress, the Hohensalzburg, and a circle of Alps as the backdrop.

 There are the expected tourist icons: Mozart everywhere (fair enough, it's his hometown), fiakers with pretty ponies, baroque palaces and fountains, dirndls in every shade and style in shop windows ...

but no tackiness, an authenticity preserved

The Getreidegasse, smart shopping street, with original shop fronts

leads to the DomQuartier, home of princes and archbishops, where Mozart played some of his first concerts as a child prodigy

and from where you get a birds eye view from the roof

to the Residenzplatz circled by palaces

the Altermarkt with outdoor cafés 

and a fleet of waiting fiakers.

At the cathedral around the corner is the font where baby Mozart was baptised. Later he served as organist here.

Hills and mountains are the backdrop everywhere you look

View to Hohensalzburg fortress from the Grosses Festspielhaus - both concert venues

Love locks on the pedestrian Makartsteg bridge

Fiaker on Residenzplatz

And parts of the city are built theatrically into rockface

as here at the Mönchsberg, where a lift whizzes you way up to the top, to the Museum der Moderne

with the most fantastic views of the city

Back down in the Alter Markt there's Café Tomaselli, supposedly a favoured haunt of Mozart back in the 1700s and von Karajan (also a native Salzburger) some two centuries later  

for coffee and sachertorte.

Following Mozart's haunts definitely gets you brownie points here, one feels. He is after all the city's most famous and favoured son

But don't mention the Sound of Music - 

Warning in a fragment of an installation in the DomQuartier, part of an exhibition exploring Austrian identity (Raum, Zeit, Identität). 

Salzburg, Austria, July 2016

Friday, 24 June 2016

To Europe with love

Because I'm bloody gutted and angry and heartbroken that today my right and privilege to be European has been taken away from me ...

I'm compelled to post on a little city in Europe's heart, and close to its capital.

The fact that it's called Ghent, and also Gent, and Gand, depending on whether you are speaking English or Dutch/Flemish or German or French expresses to me perfectly the whole point and beauty of the European Union - that it is possible to maintain our uniqueness while appreciating and benefiting from our combined value.

As everywhere in Belgium there's no shortage of high-end fine dining here

Vrijmoed Restaurant, Gent

but there's just as much concern with the quality of ordinary, everyday food 

Belgian beer and frites

Belgian waffles, of course

Sole with garnaaltjes (crevettes), the small grey shrimps from the North Sea, with ... frites, obviously

And less traditionally, the new vegan venture of Alain Coumont, founder of the world-wide Le Pain Quotidien - one of my most favourite places in London to stop in for a bowl of decent coffee and good Belgian bread and patisserie.  

It's called Le Botaniste, and the combination of old apothecary interior and delicious organic vegan food has been replicated in a second opening in New York recently. (Will he want to bring it to London now?)

I'm sorry, Europe, that we've forgotten the lessons of history and fractured our union

forested suburb of Gent

that we've allowed a discourse of 'us versus them' to blind us to the fact that we can celebrate what's uniquely ours while enjoying our differences

that mistrust and fear and stupid politicking have prevailed over solidarity and sharing of  resources and languages and culture.

the beach at Ostend

But most of all I'm sorry that we've diminished ourselves.

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