Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Central Europe (July 22 – Aug 6)   1 comment

Central Europe

Our trip to Switzerland took us through central Europe where we visited some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and some of the best landscape we have seen on our entire trip.

Austria

Vienna

Through Austria we stopped in Vienna, an often overlooked capital that rivals London, Paris and Rome. The former rulers, the Hapsburgs, created an opulant capital for their empire with beautiful buildings, museums and concert halls. One of the highlights of the city was the Hapsburg summer palace. The palace itself is quite large, but it is the grounds where the palace is situated that awes its visitors.


The large manicured flower gardens and shaded walkways stretching from the palace are flanked by shaded trails and hedge mazes. Half way from the palace to the top of a large hill overlooking the city is an enormous water fountain of Neptune and his entourage.

Salzburg

The city of Salzburg is a beautiful, albeit small, city full of baroque architecture in northern Austria. The best thing in this region is not the city itself, but the surrounding sights.


In the nearby town of Werfen, 1600 meters up on the side of a mountain, sits the largest ice caves in Europe. Equipped with lanterns we entered the sub-zero caves where the floor is completely covered by a thick layer of ice. Through the cave there are large columns of ice, walls covered in ice as well as ice stalagmites and stalactites (or ice cicles). There were also large ice formations that our guide would illuminate by burning strips of magnesium. This trip also gave us a great view of the surrounding mountains and taste of what was to come in Switzerland.

Another trip took us deep into the German Alps where we visited Hitler’s private get away, the Eagles Nest. Now a tourist trap restaurant, this building gives you a great view of the surrounding area and tourists are still allowed to use the original bronze elevator that takes you up 124 meters through the center of the mountain.

Germany

Munich

Munich was a great city. I suppose it is touristy to say that the best thing about Munich is the beer-halls and beer-gardens, but we are tourists and those are the best things. Magan, Matthew and I jumped from beer-hall to beer-hall drinking the delicious German elixir that comes in 1 liter glasses. One particular beer garden was even kind enough to give us a few of their large 1 liter glasses as souvenirs.  The city itself was nice and had a particularly nice clock tower with a 10 minute show at 5pm complete with jousting knights and spinning dancers.

Just outside the city is the large Neuschwanstein Castle that was the inspiration for the Disney castle. Even though it was under construction at the time, it was still a magnificent sight to behold.

Swiss Alps

Interlaken

As our train winds deeper into the Alps we are surrounded by steep green mountains and azul lakes which Magan, Matthew and I move from one side of the cabin to the other trying to get a better view of the magnificent scenery. Our train pulls into the Interlaken station in the center of the Jungfrau region, a contender for the best scenery in the world. Our tent hostel is situated in a valley surrounded with towering alps including one massive snow-covered peak known as Jungfrau.


Our first adventure was canyoning in Chli Chilere canyon. **(Click here for a video of the canyoning)** This six-hour trip took us down a river that has cut through the mountain to create a unique environment perfect for rappelling and jumping into pools of water. Through the trip we had slides, rappels and jumps up to 10 meters high. After our adrenaline filled, but exhausting day in the canyon we headed out for a hike through the large snow-covered Alps.


For this hike we took a train to Lauterbrunen then a cable car and another train to Murren where our hike towards Shilthorn began. This 4 hr hike may have been one of the steepest I have ever done, but it was certainly the most beautiful. We were surrounded by dark green mountains with towering peaks in the distance. At the top we watched paragliders take off and enjoyed an awe-inspiring view seldom rivaled.

Words cannot do this region justice, so enjoy the pictures:

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Western Yugoslavia (July 13 – 22)   Leave a comment

Croatia

Arriving in Zagreb Magan and I met up with John, Sharon, Mary Grey and Matthew. While it seems John has a habit of meting us in every continent, we hadn’t seen the others since January. It was great getting the family together and spending some time with everyone. While in Zagreb we climbed one of the nearby mountains which was a nice day-trip and good way to get some exercise near the city. The next day we took off in our Hyundai Santa Fe for the Plitvice Lakes.

These lakes are one of the top spots of natural beauty in all of Europe. They are surrounded by lush green forest and filled with clear blue water creating a unique landscape. The park has easy hiking trails and wooden plank walkways crossing over the lakes and through the wooded areas. Every direction we looked we saw immaculate natural beauty. Every waterfall or lagoon seemed to have distinct features making it different from every other location, but still flowing seamlessly to form an incredible hike. This landscape is certainly in the top 5 ‘best natural beauty’ category.

After the lakes we headed south to the Dalmatian coast where we spent time in Dubrovnik and Split. Dubrovnik is a true tourist town, but rightly so. It is the quintessential medieval Mediterranean town. Sitting with a steep mountain to its back and the deep blue Mediterranean to its front Dubrovnik has a postcard appearance no matter where you view it. The high walls surrounding the city provide a great walk with views from every angle. Walking through the city we felt as though we were seeing the city as it looked hundreds of years ago, except for the fact that the city was heavily damaged in the 1991 Croatian war of independence.

Returning to Split we spent out last day on the coast relaxing at the beach. The Mediterranean was a nice respite from the hot sun and gave everyone a chance to rest from the constant traveling that plagued our short trip. That night we finally met up with Robert, completing our family reunion, who joined us in an already packed car back to Zagreb the next day. The reunion, even though rushed, was a great time. We were able to see some amazing scenery at Plitvice Lakes and enjoy each other’s company at the walled port city of Dubrovnik. From Zagreb the Johnson clan once again scattered to the winds. Me, Magan and Matthew headed to Slovenia; Sharon headed for Barcelona to meet up with the Davies clan and Jenny White for a booze cruise on the Mediterranean; Mary Grey and John headed back to Estados Unidos for Wilmington and Dunn respectively; and Robert headed to England since he can no longer go to Germany because he was kicked out for running through Alexanderplatz with a “damn jew cap“ no doubt ranting about Nazis or Zionists.

Slovenia

Magan, Matthew and I arrived in Ljubljana (you’re saying it wrong), Slovenia the next day and went to one of the largest caves in Europe: Skocjan. This cave complex in the karst region of Slovenia stretches for 3.5 kilometers and is between 10 – 60 meters wide and 140 meters tall. One chamber in the cave is the largest underground chamber in Europe and one of the largest in the world. As we began our descent we noticed the dropping temperature that settled around 18 degrees C. Farther into the caves we noticed the giant stalagmites and stalactites that decorate the initial part of the cave system. As we wound downward we came to a large open area that led us to a large room called the cathedral, decorated by gigantic columns and stalactites\stalagmites. This room makes you wonder how you can be hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth and in a room that has a floor to ceiling open area of 140 meters.

Farther we traveled into the labyrinth, through other impressive rooms filled with decorative structures formed over hundreds of thousands of years (the cave itself is over 5 million years old) until we reached the most impressive room in the cave. About the same size as the cathedral this room has a large chasm that is crossed by a narrow foot-bridge elevated hundreds of feet above the cave floor yet still hundreds of feet below the cave ceiling. This room is truly awe-inspiring and gives you the feeling of being in another world or on an Indiana Jones excursion. Exiting the cave the temperature began to warm and we saw a few more interesting formations before passing the hordes of bats near the exit. The final portion of the trail wound through a partially collapsed section of the cave leading us over, around and through parts of the remaining cave.

Back in Ljubljana Magan and I bid Matthew farewell as he headed to Rome via Venice while we headed toward the small picturesque town of Bled in the Julian Alps. Bled is an area not often heard of, but seems to have been created for post cards. The town sits on the edge of a clear blue-green lake with a small island in the middle adorned by a lone church. Across the lake, atop a cliff, sits Bled castle. In the background the Alps jut up surrounding the town giving it what Magan calls an ‘enchanting fairy-tale vibe’. The 6 km trail around the lake gives you a view placing Bled in a category for most scenic town in the world; one that rivals Cinque Terre and Fjaerland. Since we happened to come during a festival we were treated to an air show over the lake and a laser show on the cliff below the castle. Around the lake the locals had set up stands selling handy-crafts and food. Our second night we saw the culmination of the festival where, according to our host, 30,000 candles were released into the lake creating a beautiful scene. Later an amazing fireworks show signaled the end of Bled-days.

Eastern Bloc (June 23 – July 13)   Leave a comment

East Germany

Berlin

Finally away from the chaos of Africa and the Middle East we arrived in Berlin to meet up with Robert and his Nazi girl-friend, Nadine. Europe is a glorious place where people understand order and reason; principles that elude most of Africa. The first few days of our European holiday were spent relaxing and seeing the sights, such as the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Berlin Wall. Toward our final days in Germany we attended a large (70,000+ people) music festival called Fusion north of Berlin. Even though it claims to be a “communist holiday“ and was full of hippies, we had a great time. It was located on an old Russian airfield where everyone camps out and dozens of stages play an eclectic variety of music. When we weren’t taking part in the festivities the dancing hippies kept us entertained.

Berlin is a wonderful city and we had a great time hanging out with Nadine and Robert, but it was time to move on toward the full family reunion.

Czechoslovakia

Prague, Czech Republic

Continuing through the former Eastern Bloc we headed for the beautiful city of Prague. There isn’t much to do in Prague other than enjoy the city, but that is well worth the trip alone. The architecture is beautiful, especially in the main square with the easily recognizable Church of Our Lady Tyn dominates the skyline. Across one of Europe’s most exquisite bridges, on a hill overlooking the Danube and city of Prague, sits Prague Castle. More than a stunning vista, this complex contains a cathedral with some of the best stained glass we have ever seen.

Just outside the castle, near the US embassy, is a KGB museum. The eccentric owner took us through the exhibits with fervent enthusiasm showing us things such as Lenin’s death mask, Stalin’s scarf and many KGB tools and gadgets. We also learned that for a brief period Vodka was illegal in Russia, but was legalized again after the entire country got addicted to cocaine. He also showed us the “Angels of Revolution“ who would put counter-revolutionaries back in line, or in the gulag.

 

 

 

 

Czechoslovakia

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is a small quaint town with little to offer in terms of architecture, but maintains the charm of a nice European city with street-side cafés and nice boulevards lined with shops. The castle of Bratislava gives you a great view of the city, but doesn’t offer much else since it was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1811 and renovations didn’t start until the 1950s (still ongoing).

A few kilometers outside of town sits Devin castle, which is a proper medieval castle on a cliff faced mountain. Although it was mostly destroyed by Napoleon’s army, it is still a great place to walk around and has a nice museum explaining medieval warfare and displaying various weapons used at that time. The view you get from the top overlooking the Danube is superb.

Hungary

Budapest

Continuing south we stopped for a visit in Vienna then continued on to Budapest where we met up with Justin and later Robert and Csapo. The city doesn’t offer much in terms of grand European architecture, apart from the parliament building, but once you immerse yourself into the city you find there is more to do than just looking for a pretty building.

A few kilometers outside the city is a monument park with statues from the era of Soviet control. The park includes monuments to Lenin, Marx and Stalin among others as well as structures honoring the people of Hungary in all their revolutionary glory. During our trip out to the statue park we were also lucky enough to witness a bum fight, one of Hungary’s national pastimes – along with gypsy bashing.

Our next stop was the House of Terror which is a building in central Budapest where the secret police would interrogate, torture and execute people who were declared enemies of the party or counter revolutionaries. This building is now a museum and shows Hungarian history from WWII through the Communist takeover, the attempted 1956 revolution and the Soviet intervention and finally the fall of the Iron Curtain. The bottom floor, or basement, shows the small dark cells that the prisoners were kept in before execution. One room had a wooden post where the prisoners would stand on a box, noose around their neck, while the executioner would hold the rope and the assistant would kick the box out from under the prisoners feet.

Across the river, on the Buda side of town, sits the citadel and castle. Inside the castle grounds is a nice cathedral, but it is the view of this area at night from the Pest side of the river that gives this city its beauty. The houses, churches and castle all lit up and reflecting off the Danube is an enchanting sight. Our last night in town was spent enjoying Hungarian beer and goulash. After a long night of making party we headed back for a couple of hours of sleep before the early train ride to Croatia where we would meet the rest of the family.

From here Justin took off for Austria then to Italy to meet Isabelle, Csapo needed to take his Hungarian citizenship test (which started off right by getting drunk the night before) and Robert headed to bed only to be seen our last night in Croatia.