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Report 582: An Independent Driving Tour of Europe - 2001

By JaniceB from Ontario, Canada, Spring 2001

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Page 12 of 15: Gimmelwald, Switzerland, Unterpinswang, Austria & Venezia, Italy

Jun 04, 2001 18:30

We're back! We're in a smoky internet cafe in the Campo San Stefano in the heart of Venice, just a few minutes walk from our hotel on the Grand Canal. However, before we tell you about Venice, let us bring you up to date on our adventures of the last week.

We did find our way home from the internet cafe in Rothenberg that dark night after the concert ... much to Mom's relief. The next morning we went back to St. Jacob's Church for the morning church service. It was a beautiful service, although it was all in German. We didn't understand a word except "Luther" and "Hallelujah." They don't seem to have any trouble with music styles there; all we heard were very staid, old-style hymns. Not a chorus in sight. However, neither did they seem to sing with much enthusiasm. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed this experience.

Right after the church service, we headed south through more rolling hills and farmland that gradually gave way to much higher hills and deep forests. It reminded us of the New England mountains. We were really impressed with the beautiful homes and cleanliness of the entire countryside. I think maybe they have gremlins come out at night to clean everything up! One thing we noticed is that the farmers all seem to live in tiny villages, rather than on their actual farm land. In one valley you can see several different villages simultaneously. Also, we thought the villages on the hillsides looked much like the villages we all see on the news -- the ones being bombed in Kosovo and Bosnia, etc. It helps us visualize those events more clearly.

Eventually, we found our hotel in the village of Haslach. It turned out to be one of the most creatively decorated places we've ever seen. My room was very romantically decorated with a small canopy. Mom & Dad's looked like a barn! Actually it looked better than that, it's just that there were animals painted on the walls, barn rafters on the ceiling, holes painted on the walls so you could see the farm fields ... it was most creative. Fortunately, this room did not come with aromas and sound effects.

The next morning we continued again south until we reached the border of Germany and Switzerland, at Basel. We had to stop there -- we thought, with excitement, that we'd have to show our passports! -- but, no, they just wanted us to pay a toll in order to use their highways.

At this point in Switzerland, the land is quite level, but soon we were able to see the hills growing higher and before long we were gasping at every turn. Our destination was Gimmelwald, a tiny village on an Alp, high above the valley level in one of the most mountainous parts of Swizerland -- the Berner Oberland.

Gimmelwald is not far from Interlaken, but is so small and remote it's not on most maps. From Interlaken, we drove deeper into the mountains and parked near the end of the valley road in Stechelberg. From there we took a cable car five minutes up the mountain, but it seemed many years back in time. The homes of Gimmelwald cling to the Alp and there's nothing but air between them and the mountain face across the valley. From the lift, we walked slowly up the hillside on the the only "street" Gimmelwald has (it's a switchback and really only has people, cows and a few small-scale motorized farm vehicles using it -- cars are not permitted on this mountain). We were tired, I didn't really know where our B&B was located, and Mom was traumatized by the cable car. You can imagine how pleased we were to find the B&B, just where it was supposed to be, on the hillside facing the other mountain, with waterfalls tumbling down before us, eagles floating above us, and multitudes of wildflowers below us. What a place!

Our hosts are the school teachers for the village of Gimmelwald. Olle teaches a one-room school of about 17 students. He and his family have lived here about 15 years. That evening he invited us up on the deck behind the chalet to look through his telescope at sheep and wild ibex that were climbing about on the opposite mountain. We could all see the sheep (their white coats stood out against the grass and rocks), but I only think I could see the ibex (they're brown). Dad says he could. Anyway, it was a great experience. We could however clearly see a farmer's summer hut on the mountain with the sheep.

The next morning, after sleeping with the sound of cowbells in our ears, we headed further up the mountain on three different cable cars. Mom was not amused! The second two lifts were across high spurs of the mountain -- lots of air beneath us. It was very, very scary for people afraid of heights, like me! However, we did arrive safely to Piz Gloria, the mountain peak restaurant on the top of the peak called Schilthorn. This is the location of a segment of an early James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. We arrived early, in time for the James Bond Champagne Breakfast (although Mom had a delayed reaction from the ride up to the peak -- she was very wobbly). It was terrific, munching away and watching the spectacular peaks rotate around us. Of course, we were the ones actually rotating. It made me a little carsick and it was hard to find my land legs after we left the restaurant.

The day was really worthwhile in terms of weather. We had perfect blue skies the whole time we were at Schilthorn and in Gimmelwald. I'd started praying about this weather months ago. The Lord has really blessed us on this trip. On most of the important sightseeing days, we've had perfect weather. Most of the downpours we've been in have been on driving days.

After our sky-high breakfast, we returned to another village on the way down. We were hoping to buy some food supplies in Murren since our room at the B&B was actually equipped with a small kitchen. It was amazing; as we walked through town, the stores just closed up in front of us, and it was only 11:30 am. Although this is only a tourist town (no other businesses), we were there during off-season for tourists. We headed back to Gimmelwald and planned to have supper at the local Pension restaurant where we'd eaten the night before.

Mom had had enough walking, so she took the cable car back by herself. Dad and I walked down the Alp, back to Gimmelwald. It was beautiful -- wildflowers and cows! They say it's a 30-minute walk. That's 30 minutes without a camera. For us -- with cameras -- we took about 90 minutes.

Well, for supper we headed down to the pension, only to be told they were booked up and wouldn't be able to feed us until 8:30 pm. This was way too late for us, so we decided to go back and make cheese sandwiches out of the last of our food supplies (we'd brought them with us from the valley). But, wait! We discovered that the lady across the "road" sold bread and eggs. We got one of her last loaves and half a dozen eggs. What a supper we had!

The next morning we went back to the pension for their all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. We met a fellow-Canadian that morning (he lives in Thornhill, just north of Toronto). He was originally from Germany and shared with us some of his war experiences as a child there. It was just fascinating to hear about his recollections. (Thanks, Armin!)

After three nights with the Heidi on the Alps, we descended to the valley with regret. It was starting to rain! We turned our car east and headed out of Switzerland and into Lichtenstein. This country is so tiny that we had passed through it and were actually stopped by Austrian customs before we even realized it. However, the Austrian customs agent asked us for our passports. With delight we started rummaging around for them -- we thought we'd finally get to show our passports! He must have thought we were French because of our French car license plate but, when he heard our accents he said, "Americans?" "No, Canadian." And he waved us through. I didn't even manage to get my passport out. Great to be Canadian, but such disappointment! Sometimes we wonder if we're just in another part of Canada we haven't heard about, rather than another continent.

We travelled through many, many mountain valleys and passes. We drove through so many tunnels, we gave up counting them. We guess we passed through at least 30 to 40 tunnels on that one day. One in Switzerland was 5.8 km long. We thought that was something until we drove through one that was just short of 14 km long! Marvelous engineering feats -- each of them.

Our hotel in Austria was in Unterpinswang, a village in the Tirol mountains along the German border. The hotel itself is the biggest we've stayed in so far (65 rooms). It's an old manor house that was stayed in by King Ludwig II of Bavaria himself. This hotel had the best breakfast with everything from cereal and yoghurt to boiled eggs to fresh fruit to breads, cheese, meat, juice and coffee. It was great.

The primary reason for staying in this region was to visit the castles associated with Ludwig. His is a sad story. After his father died in the mid-1800s, Ludwig became king of Bavaria at the age of 19. He seems to have been very much an idealist and a dreamer. Instead of ruling his kingdom, he chose to promote the arts and build castles. The castle Walt Disney used as a model for Cinderella's castle, is Ludwig's greatest accomplishment. The sad part of Ludwig's story is that his advisors had him declared insane when he was in his early 40's and removed him from power. The next day, he drowned in the lake. Suicide or murder? No one's quite sure.

The night we arrived, we went to a sold-out musical on the life of Ludwig. It was very creatively staged. We really enjoyed that aspect of it. Because it was in German, we only knew what was going on by reading the super-titles (short segments of dialogue on screens above the stage). Maybe you have to be German. We just didn't find the musical as gripping as the Germans and Austrians around us did. They hardly stirred in their seats during this long production, but gave a great ovation afterward.

The next morning we headed to Fussen, Germany (just a few minutes away) to tour the castle of Hohenschwangau where Ludwig grew up and Neuschwanstein, his nearby fairytale castle. These were just spectacular, but difficult to reach. You have to park in the valley and climb or take local shuttle bus or horse and carriage transport up the hillsides (more like mountains). Your only other option is to walk/climb. We ended up climbing to Hohenschwangau, the lower of the two. Yeah, Mom! I didn't think she'd make it but she beat off all the mountain hikers with her cane. We took the shuttle bus up to the other castle, which is much higher. However, then you have quite a climb from the bus stop to reach the castle doors, not to mention the 300 steps up and down inside the castle.

The castles themselves were spectacular, although we only saw portions of them. They were very luxurious, filled with beautiful furniture and spectacular paintings. The paintings were not separately hung on the walls, they were the walls. Every available square inch of wall space was painted with leaves and flowers and illustrated themes of German folktales. In Neuschwanstein, Ludwig focused on themes that illustrated the works of his buddy, Richard Wagner. Overall, it was overwhelming. We highly recommend these two castles.

Our second day in Unterpinswang (another cold, rainy day), we drove again into Germany and visited the famous town of Oberammergau. This is the village that has been putting on a massive passion play (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) once every ten years. Several hundred years ago, they promised the Lord they would do this if He kept the plague away from their village. The plague didn't arrive, but the tourists have. Fortunately for us, this was not one of the "ten" years, so we had no crowds. But we still enjoyed the town; the buildings are covered in paintings. It's quite beautiful. The stores are full of outrageously priced wood carvings. We enjoyed the whole experience immensely, but once is quite enough.

We also visited the nearby Wieskirche, a famous church built in the rococo style. The church is at the end of a road and stands in a meadow full of wildflowers. Although beautiful on the outside, no one can be prepared for the extraordinary interior. The church is full of gilt and pastel-coloured paintings on every surface. Rococo is a style that goes beyond baroque is and chock-full of curlicues and extreme decorations. This church is a perfect example. It is a stunningly beautiful creation. Breathtaking. I'd imagine, though, that it would take one's mind off the morning's sermon. There are some drawbacks to such beauty!

After three nights in Unterpinswang, Austria we headed south to Italy. Pouring rain. Buckets of rain. Heavy wind. Snow! We had it!

We've more to tell you about our trip into Italy and Venice itself, but it's going to have to wait. I'm fading and my stomach is growling. We found a restaurant that's open on Mondays (apparently they don't like to feed tourists on Mondays) and I sure don't want to find it's booked up!

We'll write again as soon as we can.

Love to all. Ciao!

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