36 Hours in Paradise: St. Gilgen, Austria

It doesn’t take long to sense the cool, clean air; to see the world stretched like a lawn blanket a thousand meters below; to feel the gust of wind that lifts the spirit and says confidently, “I am alive.” Just thirty-six hours is all it takes — in a paradise-land known for the Sound of Music.

While hoards of visitors to Europe’s midsection see the legendary Alps via the predictable tracks of a train, or the confined perch of a tour bus, the best way to experience Austria’s wonder is to step off the beaten path, and find the way up to a picturesque and authentic land — Saint Gilgen, only forty kilometers east of Salzburg, tucked in between glassy azure lakes and spikes of snow

When you’re in St. Gilgen, here are some things to try:

1) Take the Gondola from the town center onto the mountain above. The ride to the top of the Zwölferhorn summit, 1521 meters, takes about 15 minutes.

2) Eat a hearty Austrian meal at Franzl’s Hütte, steps from the gondola depot — or venture a little farther to one of the many huts along the meandering mountaintop trails. The views, the local food and drink, and the friendly atmosphere are worth the trip to the top alone. 3) Venture on foot or bike from peak to peak on the well-groomed hiking paths. Drink in the unique Alpine color: the greens of meadow-covered slopes, contrasted with the light lavender and striking blues of the surrounding mountains as puffy clouds dance across the Austrian azure sky.

4) Spend a timeless moment watching the billowing chutes lift off into the clouds as paragliders take off from the peak above Franzl’s Hütte.

5) Stay the night in one of the quaint Austrian huts, and marvel at the stillness, the stars, and the view of the night from the top of the world.

6) Board the Gondola and descend into town. Watch as the miniature life below the Alpine peaks becomes once again life size, skirting the grand blue lake.

7) Enjoy decadent ice cream from the village gardens while watching sailboats glide across Wolfgangsee.

Most of all, don’t forget your adventurous spirit and your camera. For the views from and around St. Gilgen, Austria, are ones you’ll never want to forget.

Jennifer Lyn King, a native Texan, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. The photos above are all copyright Jennifer Lyn King.

Czech Republic: From Prague Castle to Česky Krumlov Castle, a land of castles and fairy tales

For hundreds of years, Czech Republic was the land of knights and castles, royalty and moats, and drawbridges. Though the country boasts hundreds of castles and palaces across its hills and mountains, several impressive castles are close enough to Prague to be seen within one vacation. Still depicting the spirit of their peak days as royal medieval fortresses, these five castles are worth a closer look.

Prague Castle
Founded in the 9th century, the Prague Castle is one of the oldest castles in the region. During its long history, the Castle housed Bohemian Kings, Holy Roman Emperors, and Presidents of Czech Republic. Today, the Prague Castle is said to be the biggest ancient castle, and gleams as the jewel glistening above the Vltava River as the centerpiece of Prague.

What to do: Plan to spend a day to tour the soaring Cathedral, extensive gardens, and regal palaces within the Prague Castle.

Karlštein Castle
Founded in 1348 by Czech King and Roman Emporer Charles IV, this castle sits high on a hill overlooking the sleepy Vltava Moldau River. The town below advances up the hill with quaint shops and Czech-style restaurants, making the trek up toward the Karlštein Castle an experience in itself.

What to do: Plan to take the horse-drawn carriage up the steep grade road, from the only parking at the bottom, and enjoy the old-world feel of the village and castle to the sound of the horses’ clip-clop over cobblestones.

Křivoklát Castle
Approaching Křivoklát Castle from the surrounding hills creates a breathtaking experience, every time. Křivoklát looks like the castles born of fairy tales, built in the 12th century and washed a majestic white. Inside, find a Gothic chapel, an extensive library, and a memorable collection of Gothic-era art.

What to do: Take the tour, and see firsthand the notorious dungeons and prison torture instruments.

Loket Castle
This middle ages castle of the 12th century sits near the Czech-German border, and was once thought to be the key to the kingdom of Bohemia. Perched high above a dramatic promontory overlooking the Ohře River, the Loket Castle is a sight worth beholding, especially notable for its complete reconstruction by the townspeople of the village of Loket after its ruins during Communism.

What to do: Visit the charming town of Loket during one of their Festivals, and participate in the glimpse into medieval life.

Česky Krumlov Castle
One of the best preserved medieval towns in the world, ranked Number Two by the UNESCO World Heritage list, second only to Venice, Italy. Česky Krumlov, near the Czech-Austrian border, is the second largest castle in the Czech Republic, after the Prague Castle.

What to do: Tour the extensive gardens above the Castle, see a theater production hosted in the gardens amphitheater, or raft down the moat-like Vltava River below.

Czech Republic, home to hundreds of castles and palaces, is truly a fairy tale world to discover.

Jennifer Lyn King, a native of Texas, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.

Dubrovnik: Pearl of the Adriatic

Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik and see Dubrovnik.
– George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Prize winning writer and playwright

A bright star perched along the Croatian coast of the sparkling Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik looks more like the inspiration for the Disney set for Pirates of the Caribbean than any other real place on earth. Constructed as a series of fortresses to protect against centuries of invasions from pirates and other nations, Dubrovnik is guarded by massive stone walls and hefty cannons butting up against the sea-a sight like no other and a city worth visiting.

The Old Town
Looking out over Dubrovnik’s Old Town, the traveler sees a charming jumble of red-tiled roofs and stunning towers rimmed by two kilometers of thick white walls. The walls have been necessary-though the city of Dubrovnik began in the 7th century as a major cultural and commercial influence, countless enemies have attacked Dubrovnik for its white flag bearing its simple ideal: Libertas (Liberty). For centuries, Dubrovnik’s city and republic fought and thrived despite opposition. Because of Dubrovnik’s significant contribution to world history, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Even since then, Dubrovnik’s legacy was severely threatened when more than two thousand shells hit the city in the 1990’s Yugoslav war. Mortar marks can still be seen today, walking through the city. Despite the scars of war, Dubrovnik’s architecture reflects its rich history of varied influences-Greek, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, German, and Slavic.

The Sea
Formed of a coastline jagged with dark rocks and dotted with sand and pebble beaches, the area around Dubrovnik makes a memorable place for a dip in the green Adriatic Sea. On a rough day, waves crash along the walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, but on a calm day, the shimmering Adriatic beckons travelers out into its natural beauty.Venture out on a day cruise boat for a trip around the nearby islands, or swim out from one of the local beaches. Dine or walk along the shore for an unforgettable sight of the sun setting above the rough-hewn islands and sleepless lighthouses.

Where to Eat
As with every tourist center, Dubrovnik offers its fair hand of tourist-type restaurants. Club Nautika features top views of the city accompanied by an elegant menu at higher prices. But if you venture a bit off the worn cobblestone path, more authentic fare can be found.

My personal favorite, for the intimate setting and long wooden bar: Pizzeria Mea Culpa, only a few alleys from the main Stradun.

What to do
Beginning at Lapad Beach, walk a kilometer along the coast of the Lapad Peninsula to enjoy spectacular views of the Bay and the Adriatic, and three working lighthouses. Venture through the Old Town, and down the wide stone alley called Stradun. Duck into galleries and museums, shops and churches, and envision the 1400 years of existence of the fortress town bordered by mountain and Sea.

Nicknamed “the pearl of the Adriatic,” travelers cannot resist Dubrovnik’s enchantment. Again and again, I return to lasting impressions and vivid memories of the Pearl-like Fortress mounted against the Emerald Sea: Dubrovnik.

Jennifer Lyn King, a native Texan, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.

EAT, STRAY, LOVE: Italy, Tuscany, and the Maremma

With the release of another popular film set in Italy, people worldwide know of the country’s most luscious region: Tuscany. But few realize the Mediterranean Sea skims along the classic wine and olive region, and combines sensational flavors with unforgettable views.

Here, find three ways to enhance the Italian culinary adventure and traveler’s delight, in the unforgettable Maremma region, nestled into the southern coastline of renowned Tuscany.

In Italy, it is impossible to miss the food and drink. Even the least-interested traveler can find a meal to please. But for the food-lover, Tuscany’s southwestern Maremma region borders the Mediterranean Sea and offers wine and olives with an additional alluring treat: fresh seafood.

What to do: Seek out a local olive oil producer (in Canino) and wine producer (Montepulciano and Chianti among others), and venture along the Mediterranean coast, where the blue Sea washes up to greet the Tuscan hills. Stop at one of the coastal restaurants to enjoy the unspoiled coast and its culinary treasures.

What to try: the excellent local Maremma wine, Morellino di Scansano, a local seafood and pasta specialty, spaghetti allo scoglio, accompanied by the local sheep cheese called pecorino.

With cities like Siena, and Florence, and Pisa, Tuscany has its legs rooted in the artistic Renaissance. But venture off the worn path a bit, and you’ll discover the colors of the countryside, the irresistible wandering landscape striped with vineyards, checkered with olive groves, and punctuated with ruins dipped in history.

What to do: Visit the ancient Etruscan ruins in Etruria or Pecorino, or stop at one of the many castle ruins or fortress towns located high on the hills.

What to try: If in Sovano, touring Città del Tufo, plan to eat at nearby La Taverna Etrusca, for its romance and excellent food. The smiles and dialogue in Italian as the owner brings out each savory dish is most memorable.

In Tuscany, every road leads through vast fields of grazing sheep or cattle, or cultivated with olive groves and vineyards. The colors and lines as they play across the landscape mesmerize with unsurpassed beauty. This richness of experience, the slower pace of life found in enjoying the simple pleasures, like a glass of wine or a good coffee … this is the Italy that does not leave even after the traveling is over. Long after the bottles of wine and olive oil have run dry, the irresistible flavors of Tuscany linger, and lure the traveler back again.

What to do: Stay in an Agriturismo villa, for an authentic stay in Tuscany.

This traveler will be returning to Tuscany’s Maremma in autumn, for the olive harvest. My family and I can’t wait to venture back into Italy for another refreshing week savoring the flavors and walking the coast and countryside.

Jennifer Lyn King, a native Texan, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.

What to do in Prague, Europe’s most authentic capital

Visitors flock to Paris for its romance and light, to London for its influence and renown, and to Rome for its ancient roots and history. But Prague, unlike other major European cities, has something even more to offer: authenticity.

Since its beginnings in the 9th century, Prague has survived architecturally for more than 800 years unscathed by the ravages of war. Early-on holding the status of Center to the Holy Roman Empire, and serving for centuries as a European cultural and business hub, Prague has much to offer visitors today.

Thriving in a laid-back atmosphere, Prague straddles the Vltava River in modern day Czech Republic, shrouded in alluring mystique and shining with rich history. What follows is a rundown of five “must-see places” in Prague, and the authentic experiences to go with them.

1.) Old Town Square:
The open cobblestone square began as an 11th century marketplace for merchants from all over Europe. A place of King’s processionals and elaborate palaces, public executions and widespread rallies, every nook and cobblestone in this Great Square has a story to tell. The great Astronomical Clock built in 1410 tells more about the stars than the time of day, and chimes somewhat humorously on the hour with a performance of figurine characters. At Christmas and Easter and other special times of the year, market stalls dot the Square with merchants selling traditional crafts and foods like Trdlo (warm cinnamon pastries) and roast pork pulled from an open-air spit, and drinks like the famously Czech beer and mulled wine.

What to do: Venture up the Old Town Hall belfry for a fantastic rooftop view over Prague’s Old Town.
2.) Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter: Little more than a stone’s throw from Old Town Square, the Old Jewish Quarter stands near the Vltava River as an inseparable part of the city’s fabric. Though the Jewish presence in Prague dates back for more than one thousand years, Hitler’s drive to exterminate the Jews severed much of the thousand-year legacy within four years’ time. Josefov and nearby concentration camp, Terezin, hauntingly depict the epic struggle. The small patch of ground of the Old Jewish Cemetery contains over 12,000 tombs on the surface, with tens of thousands more entombed in countless layers underneath — making the sea of tombs seem to ride on unsteady waves.

What to do: Tour the many Synogogues and the Old Cemetery in the Quarter — especially memorable in the bleak light of winter.

3.) Charles Bridge: For centuries the Charles Bridge served as the only bridge across the Vltava River, and was rebuilt in stone in 1355. Thirty-one statues line up like sentinels on the darkened stone bridge, each carrying a story and a message from thickly religious times gone by. Ironically today, despite the countless crucifixes mounted in their country, the people of Prague claim to be predominantly atheist.

What to do: Walking the Charles Bridge at daybreak or dusk is an experience like no other. Cross the dark cobbles watched over by countless statues and gargoyles and feel the mystery of the others who walked the same path for almost a thousand years. Views of the majestic Prague Castle from Charles Bridge are breathtaking in the evening, as the Castle sparkles on the hill in the fading light.

4.) The Libraries of Strahov Monastery: Experts claim the two libraries of Strahov Monastery to be among Europe’s most beautiful libraries. Both libraries boast countless collections of books filling carved walnut bookcases beneath elaborate ceiling frescoes.

What to do: Meander through the gates along the Monastery’s east wall, and enjoy one of the finest panoramic views over Prague.

5.) Prague-style entertainment: Soaking in centuries of cultural richness, Prague serves opera, symphonic, and performing arts experiences from its wealth of gorgeous theaters at an inexpensive price. As well, dining in Prague is an experience in itself, with many excellent emerging restaurants from which to choose. Reservations and tickets booked ahead-of-time are highly recommended.

What to do: Reserve an evening to dine at Terasa U Zlaté Studně (Terrace at the Golden Well), with a superior view. Laden with Prague mystique, the restaurant is reached via a worn-cobblestone lane tucked into the hillside just below the Castle. Seated on the Terrace, red-tiled rooftops ripple out like waves below the glistening spires of Prague’s skyline. Also, plan to see a ballet in the National Theater, worth the cost of the ticket just to sit in the beauty of the theater. At Christmastime, the National Theater offers a gorgeous rendition of the Nutcracker with a Dickens-style twist.

Jennifer Lyn King, a native Texan, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.