Aug 18th, 2014: It is early morning in the Piltvice Lakes National Park in Croatia and I’m just about to scarf down a very large breakfast in preparation for a hiking and cycling day around the upper and lower lakes in the park. We arrived in Croatia on the 11th of August after a longish road trip, which began with a ferry ride across the English Channel. It was a stormy day when our ferry pulled out of England and the mist hung eerily over the white cliffs of Dover. As we drank our coffee and looked out over the sea, I couldn’t help wondering what this scene looked like on another August day 88 years ago, when Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. I hope it was sunny and calm on August 6th, 1926. On August 9th 2014, the channel did not look swim-able (at least not swim-able for me).
We spent our first night on the road in Metz, France. I chose Metz only because of its position on the map, but my husband suddenly remembered that my man Marc Chagall did some stained glass windows for the Metz Cathedral. So, after an early morning cup of coffee we headed over to take a look. The windows are stunning (duh, its Chagall) and several feature the familiar Chagall blues that became a hallmark of his later paintings. But for me, the yellow series near the cathedral’s nave was the star of the show. Standing underneath it as the sunlight poured through, I remembered something Chagall said about stained glass: “To me, stained glass is the transparent wall between my heart and the world’s…It must come alive through the light it receives. The Bible is light already, and stained glass should make this obvious through grace and simplicity.” How could you not love Marc Chagall?
As we left the cathedral, we ran smack into the middle of the weekend market, which was just coming alive with people and wonderful smells. After a mini quiche, a chocolate croissant and another cup of coffee, we headed down the road into Germany.
The trip across Germany was uneventful and fast. We used our typical road-trip survival strategy of listening to MOOC lectures (we chose some Stanford University courses on the 20th century history in Europe for this leg of the journey). As we passed the sign for Bergen-Belsen on our way out, my husband noted how curious it is that the same species that created that wonderful stained glass in the Metz Cathedral is also capable of concentration camps.
Our next stop on The Len & Nan Road Trip to Croatia was Salzburg, Austria which is probably best known for The Sound of Music. It also happens to be the home town of Mozart. Salzburg is a quintessential Alps town built along the banks of the Salzach river, surrounded by towering mountains (remember the scene where Julie Andrews runs through the meadow singing “the hills are alive…”? It really looks like that). We spent a day hiking around the top of Untersberg, a towering peak that is the subject of an interesting legend: Apparently, Charlemagne sleeps inside the mountain, waking up every hundred years of so to check out the state of the world. He is taken care of by dwarfs called Untersberger Mandln. The views from the top of the mountain are, not surprisingly, stunning. You can see Germany and many miles south and east into Austria.
We took the long way from Austria to Croatia, passing through the pretty little town of Hallein (where the song “Silent Night” was written) and Lake Bled. It was another cloudy day and we passed several castles that appeared quite suddenly and dramatically out of the mist as the clouds parted. After a quick pass through Slovenia, we arrived in the little border town of Varazdin, Croatia. The “little Vienna” of Croatia, Varazdin is a fairy-tale town with its own castle and the best cuttle-fish stew I have ever put in my mouth. We took two nights in Varazdin to rest up before we started on the Croatia chapter.
More on that soon…
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