Looking for a way to avoid the tourist crowds in Paris? You might try looking up. Airship Paris is a new company offering tours of the French countryside around Paris by zeppelin.
Tickets range from 250 euro for a half-hour “first flight” tour of the castles around Vexin (including the Villette Castle from “The Da Vinci Code” movie), to 650 euro for a royal tour of Versailles with Paris in the background. Flights take off from the Pontoise airport about 25 miles from Paris. The 250-foot-long airship carries up to 12 passengers and cruises at an altitude equivalent to the Eiffel Tower.
After takeoff, you are free to take in the views from the panoramic windows, sitting or standing. Unlike a hot-air balloon or blimp, the zeppelin is wind-resistant and heavier than air, with a low level of vibration and noise (the company compares it to that of a dishwasher). Airship Paris is the first commercial airship service in the area in 30 years.
Archaeologists working on a conservation project at Drum Castle near Aberdeen, Scotland, have discovered two secret chambers, one of which includes a medieval toilet complete with its wooden seat.
Drum Castle features a 13th-century castle keep that’s the oldest intact example in Scotland. Besides the hidden toilet, the team found a second secret chamber that’s reputed to have been where one of the men of the clan hid out for three years after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden. The chamber with the toilet was hidden by bookshelves installed in the 19th century, while the second chamber was a real-life safe room for rebellious Scots. Both were found in the medieval keep.
From 1323-1975, Drum Castle was the seat of the Chief of Clan Irvine. In addition to the keep, the property features Jacobean and Victorian additions. It is now open to visitors and is only 10 miles outside Aberdeen. Visitors can see the historic interior and stroll through the surrounding ancient oak woodland, a rare survival of primeval forest that’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.
But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.
The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.
Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).
%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.
While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.
We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.
The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”
The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”
Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.
The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.
That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.
The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?
Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.
The little nation of Slovenia is situated on a crossroads. On the southeastern edge of the Alps and on the way to the rest of the Balkans and to central Europe, it’s seen more than its fair share of invading armies.
No wonder, then, that this country that’s slightly smaller than New Jersey has some 700 castles. Many are in ruins thanks to those invading armies, while others were dismantled during the Communist era as “symbols of feudalism.”
Luckily many survive. The one most visitors see first is Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia’s capital. It dominates the city’s skyline from a high hill. This easily defended position has been fortified since prehistoric times. The present castle dates from the 15th century with extensive expansions and remodeling in later centuries.
For many years the castle was used as a prison, with important prisoners stuck in cramped, dingy cells while the less fortunate were put in a stone pit covered with an iron grille. Some were hauled out of their confinement to work the well pump, which was turned by a big wooden wheel in which the prisoners walked like human hamsters.
Just inside the front gate was another well, this one a fake. A little water at the bottom masked its real purpose, as a secret tunnel to the outside. A small crawlway in the side led to a spot just outside the wall, and just underneath the castle toilet. This wasn’t too pleasant for any messenger sent through there, but it did ensure that enemies wouldn’t happen upon the entrance.
%Slideshow-589%From atop the watchtower you’ll get sweeping views of the city and much of the country too. On a clear day you can see a third of Slovenia, even as far as the Austrian border, marked by a chain of jagged peaks to the north. Also don’t miss the 18th century chapel adorned with the colorful crests of the provincial governors.
One of the best places to see castles in Slovenia is Kamnik, a small town 45 minutes by bus from Ljubljana amid the foothills to the Alps. There you can easily visit three castles in one day and get a taste for some of the hiking Slovenia has to offer, all in an easy day trip from the Ljubljana.
Kamnik was an important town in the Middle Ages and had to be protected. On a hill at the center of town is Mali Grad (“Little Castle”), dating back to the 11th century. One square tower and some crumbled walls remain, as well as an unusual two-story Romanesque chapel with some Renaissance frescoes. On another hill at the edge of town is Zaprice Castle, built in the 16th century and more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Its sentry towers provide a good field of fire into town and during World War Two the Gestapo took it over as their local headquarters. Now it’s an interesting and child-friendly museum of the region’s history. The lawn has an open-air exhibition of old granaries.
Both are worth a visit, but the best of Kamnik’s three castles requires a hike up a steep hill close to town. Climbing a dirt trail through forest, every now and then the foliage breaks to provide views of the town and the Alps beyond. Then, after twenty-minute, moderately strenuous walk and a final switchback, you come across a castle gate nearly covered with greenery.
This is Stari Grad (“Old Castle”). Built in the 13th century, it has crumbled into an overgrown, postcard-perfect place offering the best views in the local area. The Alps take up a large swath of the view and the town and outlying fields are laid out below. It’s a quiet spot, and a perfect place to while away some time admiring the scenery and wondering about the people who once lived in these decayed ruins.
Note: the train is well marked for the entire route except for one fork in the trail, where the directional arrow is misleading. See the photo in the slideshow to know which way to go. If you go the wrong way (50% chance considering how clear the sign is) you’ll end up ascending an even bigger hill. It offers nice views too, but lacks a castle.
Visitors to Italy tend to skip Gorizia. Tucked away at the northeast edge of the country on the border with Slovenia, this small city tends to get bypassed on the way to Trieste or Slovenia.
I would have never gone there myself except that I was a guest author at the city’s annual history and book fair, the èStoria Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival is drawing visitors from all over Italy. International visitors are few because the talks are mostly in Italian; mine was translated by a shockingly intelligent fellow who grew up speaking four languages and went on to learn a dozen more.
When I wasn’t needed at the fair I took some time to slip away and check out what the city has to offer international visitors. I found that this overlooked destination is definitely worth adding to your itinerary.
The city is situated in the verdant Isonzo river valley. Slovenia is just to the east, marked by steep green hills. Heading upriver towards the Julian Alps, mountains rise precipitously from both banks. It was here that the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies fought the dozen Battles of Isonzo in World War I. Several tour operators offer visits to the battlefield and we’ll be looking at it in the next post.
The most obvious attraction within Gorizia can be seen from all across the city. Gorizia Castle sits atop of hill in the center of town and was the residence of the Counts of Gorizia and Tyrol, a powerful dynasty that owned much of the territory hereabouts. The first castle was built in the 11th century and was constantly expanded and updated, most recently to accommodate artillery. The castle got badly knocked about in World War I and was lovingly restored in the 1930s.
%Slideshow-86%From the battlements you get a fine view of the surrounding countryside and the distant snowcapped Alpine peaks. Inside the castle you’ll find the usual arms and armor as well as an excellent little museum on medieval music. Some of the rooms are adorned with faded frescoes showing religious themes. In the hamlet adjoining the castle you’ll find an excellent First World War Museum, the Museum of Fashion and Applied Arts, a picture gallery and the Archaeological Museum.
If the climb up the hill made you hungry, you’re in luck. Gorizia has several fine restaurants serving both Friulian regional cuisine as well as Slovenian dishes. Friuli is the northeastern region of Italy and as such was influenced by the cuisines of Hungary and Austria. Meals tend to be heavier, with more emphasis on meat. There’s plenty of pasta and pizza too, though. Slovenian cuisine has its own distinct style that I’ll get to in a later post as I explore that fascinating little country.
My favorite restaurant in Gorizia is Alla Luna at Via Oberdan 13 with its cozy interior crammed with local arts and crafts and its menu of regional dishes. Tre Soldi at Corso Italia 38 is a more formal affair that also serves regional cuisine. If you want pizza, try La Tarantella at Corso Italia 99/101 with its dozens of varieties. You can even order a “surprise pizza” and see what you get. For something more informal, try La Cicchetteria ai Giardini at Via Petrarca 1/A. It offers salads, paninis and other snacks. It’s a great place to go in good weather because they have outdoor seating right next to a park, where you can see the sun shine through the leaves and listen to the laughter of children at a nearby playground.
So if you’re looking for a quiet, undertouristed Italian destination with some good attractions, consider stopping off at Gorizia for a day or two.