Monthly Archives: November 2016

Italian Earthquakes

A few days before I arrived in Italy, the central region was suffering the effects of two significant earthquakes. A 6.1 seismic tremor rocked the town of Visso on the 26th October and another, even stronger, tremor of 6.6 caused serious damage in Norcia just 4 days later. It seems rather coincidental that I find myself in an area which suffered a similar devastating disaster 40 years ago.

dscf2351Historically, Venzone has been an important trading town since Celtic times and later the Romans built the Via Julia Augusta through it, linking Italy with the northern territories. Fortified in the 13th century, using stone from the adjacent riverbed, it weathered many local rebellions and by 1420 became part of the ever expanding Venetian Republic. More recently, in 1965, the town was declared a national monument.


However, the most defining moment in its history came on the 6th May 1976 when an earthquake of magnitude 6.4 struck the region. In the town of Venzone, 47 people died, many more were injured and thousands were left homeless. Local authorities, assisted by the Alpine soldiers, hastily made the town safe but on the 15th September 1976 another tremor of 6.1 hit the region and flattened 90% of the already seriously damaged buildings.

dscf2368Over the next 30 years the Italian government supported the restoration of the town, both financially and spiritually and they have done a wonderful job of re-establishing the medieval character. The magnificent cathedral of St Andrew was reconstructed using a pioneering anastylosis technique and luckily some of the 14th century frescos survived. When I visit, it is evident that work is still ongoing as some restored statues are being positioned within the interior. Outside is a circular chapel which houses some mummified bodies, preserved by a parasitic mould similar to those which I saw in Urbania.



dscf2420Only 8 kms to the south is the town of Gemona del Friuli whose historic centre sits on the slope of Monte Chiampon. I arrive to find a memorial ceremony taking place in the main square to remember the 1918 Armistice of Villa Giusti which ended war between Italy and Austria-Hungary. My Italian is not great but I can tell that they are also remembering those who lost their lives in the 1976 earthquakes and the Alpine soldiers who helped them to rebuild their homes.



dscf2413Seeing the castle and cathedral of Gemona now, it is easy to identify the original features and those that have been restored. A crane looming over the castle implies that there is still some way to go before the town will have completely recovered from the earthquakes and a detailed photographic exhibition on the main street shows that they are not willing to forget their tragic past.


The Italian earthquakes of 1976 and those of 2016 should remind us all that although nature can be a beautiful thing it can also be a destructive force, especially if we don’t respect it.




Welcome to Italy

dscf2342I’ve been to Italy many times but no entry into the country has been quite as dramatic as my arrival from Austria. I first pass through the ski slopes of Tarvisio. There’s no snow at the moment but the rocky peaks gleam white in the sunlight. The motorway through this region incurs a toll so I choose to follow the old road instead. Like the motorway, it weaves its way around the rock faces and through tunnels, plaiting a route with the River Fella and the former railway line, now a cycle path.

dscf2347I stop at a layby near to Chiusaforte to take it all in, entranced by the icy blue of the river and equally mesmerized by a vending machine for water. Following the example of a local who is filling a crate of bottles, I grab some empty plastic bottles from the motorhome and get 2 litres of cold, fresh water for the princely sum of 5 cents.


The Austrian Lakes

I have no particular plans in visiting Austria. It is just a path between the Czech Republic and Italy. However, my chosen route passes along some of the many lakes which dot the country.

dscf2238I start in the town of Gmunden which lies at the northern end of Lake Traunsee. Once through the modern, industrialised area, I find the older centre and park up near to the Land Schloss and Lake Schloss, two castles. The Land Schloss seems to have become a commune with clothes drying from the windows and music wafting out from the apartments. The Lake Schloss is the dramatic partner, built on a small island with a long, narrow, wooden bridge providing access from the mainland. During the summer months it is also possible to arrive by boat and the castle is a popular destination for weddings. It has also been used for the filming of popular Austrian TV series ‘Schlosshotel Orth’ since 1996.

dscf2253A long, lakeside esplanade brings me to the main square, dominated by the town hall and its Meissen ceramic bells, the only ones in Austria. There is supposedly a unique ceramic fountain too, but I fail to locate it. Everyone is out enjoying the fine weather and I’m tempted to join them at one of the expensive restaurant terraces but I end up having a cheap picnic lunch on one of the many lakeside benches instead.

dscf2269Halfway down the lake I stop at Traunkirchen, a tiny village nestled on a promontory. I want to visit the church but there is a service going on, so I follow a path which winds around a tall rocky outcrop to the small chapel perched on the top. I expect to find it closed but someone has already climbed up before me and opened it.



At the southern end of the lake is the town of Ebensee. I think it will be huddled around the lake edge but instead it snakes its way up a valley where a cable car stretches up to the mountain peak. Unfortunately, I’m a day late to ride it but I do find one of the many paths which contour around the slopes, through the forest, and have a pleasant walk back down to the lakeshore.



dscf2297I continue south to Hallstattsee and one of the top sites in Austria, according to Trip Advisor. I already know that parking will be impossible and expensive but I want to see what all the fuss is about so I take the side road which tightly hugs the space between the cliffs and the water. I don’t get to see much of Hallstatt as the road is diverted through a tunnel and, as predicted, there’s no hope of stopping anywhere close. Buses and motorhomes must continue another 2.5 kms along the lake and pay €15 for a muddy, desolate car park. A little further on I find a nice layby with picnic tables and distant views back to the town. Although it looks pretty I expect it is very commercial and very crowded.

dscf2309Further south, the similar sized lake of Millstattersee is a calm and inviting place. I’m able to park in the centre and investigate the abbey. There is a lovely walk, following the way of the cross, up to a small chapel overlooking the lake. The edge of the lake is lined with bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels and spas which are all very tempting. There’s also a very high diving platform, built in 1931 by Christof Benedikt and now a listed structure.

I overnight in a town close to the lake with the unfortunate name of Spittal. In German this actually means hospital and I’m parked quite close to the modern one. The ancient spittal is now a technical college.

dscf2324In the centre of town there is a lovely park and the old Castle Porcia. Next to it a small fresh food market is set up and rather spoiling the scene are several huge TV trucks where ‘Good Morning Austria’ are broadcasting live from the town. The locals seem quite excited about it, having photos taken with the hosts and crowding around the cameras hoping for their five minutes of fame. But I have no time for celebrities as Italy is calling me.



The Stairs of Death – KZ Mauthausen

For some reason I seem to keep passing former Nazi concentration camps and each time I see the sign KZ, I am compelled to go in and try to understand how this sad period in our European history occurred and also learn about the people who suffered and often died within the walls.

dscf2196Mauthausen, like Le Struthof in France, was established above a quarry. Much of the stone was used in building the camp which has more of a fortress structure than either Le Struthof or Dachau. Prisoners were forced to carry the stone up a steep flight of steps called the ‘stairs of death’ due to the number of prisoners who died during this task. Others ended their lives by being pushed off the high cliffs at the so called ‘parachute jump’.




Like the other camps, Mauthausen had a small gas chamber and a crematorium where prisoners were regularly executed and disposed of. 190,000 prisoners from 40 different nations passed through the camp gates and at least 90,000 never left, having been worked to death, fatally tortured or executed. Records are difficult to find as many were destroyed by the Nazi SS before they left and stolen by prisoners as souvenirs or by locals who were embarrassed about the horrors which took place in their town.

dscf2182According to the number of deaths, by nationality, listed on a stone plaque at the entrance gate, there were 17 British prisoners at Mauthausen and I want to learn more about them. There is nothing in the comprehensive museum exhibition but a helpful young man leads me through the ‘Room of Names’ and outside to an area behind the crematorium where a plaque lists the names of 40 Dutch and 7 British prisoners who were captured behind German lines and transferred to Mauthausen where they were executed on the 6th and 7th September 1944. The British men were mostly SOE wireless operators working with the local resistance.


Before I leave, I drive down to the quarry where I find another plaque at the foot of the ‘stairs of death’ dedicated to the 47 murdered men. What a horrible place to die.


dscf2284Further south I come across one of the many satellite camps at Ebensee. Whereas Mauthausen was one of the first concentration camps to be opened to the public as a memorial to the victims in 1949, the camp at Ebensee lies hidden beneath a village which used the foundations of the prisoner huts on which to build houses and apartments. All that remains are the stone entrance gate and a small memorial garden on land that was used for mass graves. It seems strange that anyone would want to live in such a place but next to the memorial garden children are playing on the swings and filling their digger trucks with fallen autumn leaves.

dscf2293Ebensee concentration camp was focussed on building 7.6 kms of tunnels in the adjacent mountains where fuel was produced and the A9/A10 rockets were developed. The camp is quite far from the main town which lies at the bottom of Lake Traunsee. I wonder if the tourists who visit to take boat trips or scale the mountains in the cable car realise what is just down the road.



Curiosities of Cesky Budejovice and Cesky Krumlov

dscf2054Cesky Budejovice is more commonly known as Cesky Budweis, and since 1795 it has been brewing beer. However, don’t confuse the local brew with the American Budweiser as an ongoing court case is dealing with the fight over the trademark. But it’s not the beer that I’ve stopped for. I’m more interested in some of the less well known curiosities to be found in the city.

dscf2074I start my search in the main square which is apparently the 2nd largest in the Czech Republic. It is certainly very square in shape and surrounded by beautiful buildings, the most spectacular being the city hall. Close to the Samson Fountain, in the centre of the cobbled square, I find my first curiosity – the erratic boulder. It is said to mark the site of the old gallows and locals believe that if you step over it after 10pm you will lose your way until morning.

dscf2065Just around the corner is the smaller Piaristic Square, beside the Dominican monastery. It’s not easy to locate, but high up near the roof, next to a drainpipe, is a stone frog. The legend says that during the construction of the church, the walls that were built each day would collapse by the morning. No one understood why this was happening but one day they found a huge frog in the church foundations. Unable to drive the frog away by force, the locals resorted to prayers and the frog finally disappeared allowing the building work to be completed. The stone frog was placed on the church wall to remind people of their faith and it is believed that if the frog ever reaches the top of the wall and falls down, the church will also collapse.

dscf2064Next to the monastery is the old armoury. Built in 1521, it has also served as a granary and a salt house from where it gets the name ‘Solnice’. There is an old story about three robbers who attempted to steal from the church. They were caught by a nun who cleverly locked them in the sacristy and sounded the bell to call for help. They were decapitated for their crime and the images of their faces were carved into the façade of the Salt House as a warning to others.




Cesky Krumlov is an easy day trip from Prague and so it’s not surprising to find lots of coach parties wandering around the UNESCO listed town and large castle complex. I arrive just in time for the English language tour of the castle interiors. Luckily it’s a small group but sadly the guide, whilst very knowledgeable, is completely devoid of any personality and her accent is so thick that it’s quite difficult to understand anything she says.

dscf2155Fortunately the tourist office is able to provide me with some information about the history of the town and castle. Cesky Krumlov (which means ‘crooked meadow’) was established in 1250 by the Vitkovci dynasty who built the castle above the Vltava River and the town on the encircled land below. 50 years later the Rosenberg’s took over, expanding the castle fortifications and creating a coat of arms featuring the five-petalled rose, which is celebrated each year with a popular medieval festival. In order to associate themselves with the influential Orsini family (whose name comes from the Latin ors, meaning bear), The Rosenburgs included the bear in their coat of arms. Later, in 1707, records show the beginning of a tradition of keeping bears at the castle. Sadly the tradition continues in quite appalling conditions, though I cannot verify the bears’ condition as I never saw them.

dscf2116After the Thirty Years War, Cesky Krumlov was given to the Austrian Eggenberg family who gave their name to the very refreshing beer which is still brewed in the town. Then, in 1719, the Schwarzenberk’s came along, expanding the castle further and decorating it in the renaissance style, also adding a beautiful baroque theatre.



I want to learn more about this ancient and complicated town so I join a free walking tour with local Jan as my guide. He’s wearing a bright red waterproof and carrying an equally bright red umbrella which makes him easy to spot in the main square. A lot of his tales seem to revolve around his drunken teenage antics but he does lead us to some great views and manages to shock us with the darker side of Cesky Krumlov’s history.




Ghosts play a big part in his stories. There’s the disgruntled innkeeper who was cursed to wander the main square and scare drunken students, the haunted music school where Jan’s mother works and the spirit of Markéta Pichlerová, mistress of Don Julius, mad bastard son of Emperor Rudolf II. One day he got so upset with her that he threw her out of the castle window. Amazingly, her fall was broken by the accumulation of rubbish beneath the window and she survived. However, she couldn’t escape the rage of her lover who subsequently stabbed her to death.

dscf2165We end our walking tour on the Cloak Bridge which spans a deep cleft in the rock and provides a covered corridor between the castle and the baroque theatre. The views are fabulous but our mood is soured when Jan tells us never to talk when we pass under the bridge for fear of disturbing the spirits of those who have died there. Apparently the Cloak Bridge is a popular suicide spot.




I end my day by returning to the tavern where I’d had lunch for a glass of wine and some sweet dumplings. Na Louzi is a great place frequented by locals and providing inexpensive home cooked food. Strangely, the only curiosity in this place seems to be me!



The Hussite Rebellion

dscf1968Located in the main square of Prague, beneath the tower of the old town hall, is a huge monument. I had no idea who the man in the monument was or why he was honoured in this way until I visited the town of Tabor, 90 kms south of the Czech capital.




In 1402, Jan Hus was appointed rector of Charles University in Prague. A Roman Catholic who was influenced by the teachings of Oxfordshire priest John Wycliffe, he began giving popular sermons that called for the reform of the Catholic Church. He was angered by the power and prosperity that they held and the selling of religious items to fund the papal wars. In 1411 he was excommunicated and fled south to preach to the peasants of southern Bohemia. However, the Catholic Church grew unhappy with his defiance and ordered him to Constance where he was burned at the stake on 6th July 1415.

dscf2044His followers continued their beliefs and the town of Tabor became a centre for their ideology. I learn more about the Hussites and their fight against the Catholic Church in the Hussite Museum, located in the old town hall in the centre of the fortified town. There are a lot of interesting displays and complex models of battles fought. There are also a series of cartoons to appeal to younger visitors and I am aided by an audioguide which translates all of the exhibition panels and is included in the entrance fee.

dscf2029It’s hard to visit the museum or walk around the town without bumping into Jan Zizka, a Hussite and influential military captain who declared himself ‘the Warrior of God’ and led many successful attacks on the troops of Catholic King Sigismund of Bohemia in the early 15th century. He is often depicted riding a horse with a patch over one eye where he lost his sight during a battle and for the last three years of his life he was actually blind. He may have lost his vision but he is well known for never having lost a battle.

dscf2023The Hussites proved to be a formidable force and succeeded in defeating the Catholics in many battles resulting in a change to the laws giving them more religious freedom. During the 30 Years War, at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Czech and Hungarian allied armies retreated and catholic forces executed 27 protestant nobles, displaying their heads along the Charles Bridge in Prague. The resulting 1648 Peace of Westphalia meant that most Bohemian properties were given to catholic families from Austria, Spain, France and Italy and all forms of Protestantism were outlawed. Despite this, opposition to the Catholic Church continued and even today only 10% of Czechs are Roman Catholic.