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Monthly Archives: June 2017

Walking the Alpe-Adria Trail

The Alpe-Adria Trail is Europe’s newest long distance hiking route and runs for 750km from the foot of the Grossglockner (at 3,798m Austria’s highest mountain), into Slovenia and ends in Italy, near Trieste on the Adriatic coast.
Alpe Adria – Signpost at the Pasterze Glacier, Austria (c) Rupert Parker

It’s divided into 37 daily stages, each around 20 km, although it’s possible to do the whole lot in a month it is better to do it in sections – Austria has 22 stages, Slovenia has five and the last ten mix Slovenia and Italy. There’s also a Circular Route which connects Austria, Italy and Slovenia in seven days.

I’ve only got eight days, so decide to sample the most interesting bits. I start at the beginning in Carinthia, Austria and catch the post bus from Heiligenblut up to Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe, a short 30 minute journey. There had been thunderstorms overnight and dusted the Grossglockner with a covering of snow.

Pasterze Glacier, Austria

The Pasterze Glacier, the longest in the Eastern Alps, gleams in the morning sunlight and my first steps on the trail are down a steep path to the Sandersee, filled with meltwater. The path is well marked and, after crossing another lake, the Margaritze Stausee, I’m back in the valley approaching Heiligenblut, my starting point. It’s taken me around five hours and has been a pleasant morning’s walk.

I’m now transferred by taxi to Mallnitz from where I tackle Stage 7 next day.

Groppensteinschlucht gorge, Austria

The trail follows the Mallnitzbach stream as it plunges through the Rabischschlucht gorge in a series of waterfalls. It’s pleasant underfoot and I have the trail all to myself. That changes as I enter the adjacent Groppensteinschlucht gorge, a popular route for day trippers. There’s an entrance fee, and I’m going in the opposite direction to most people. They’re certainly not friendly and don’t return my greetings. One person even tries to tell me it’s one way only.

The walls of this gorge are much steeper than the previous one and a system of walkways has been grafted onto the rock so you’re suspended in mid-air for most of the journey. You don’t really need a head for heights but two old men tell me at the top that it’s too dangerous to proceed. I think they’re rather over estimating the danger and there are stunning views of the various waterfalls.

Danielsberg Hill, Austria

The stage ends in the village of Obervellach, but I plough on, climbing up the side of the Möll valley to an almost perfectly conical hill, the Danielsberg. It’s been a sacred site for over 6000 years, first for the Celts, then the Romans and the Catholic Church of St. George dates back to the 12th century. My pilgrimage ends in the Herkuleshof, originally a 19th century hunting lodge but now a charming inn with excellent food.

Valbruna, Italy

That’s the end of my time in Austria, a shame since there are a total of 22 stages. Instead I’m whisked to Valbruna in Italy where I tackle Stage 4 of the Circular Route. This a major ski centre and, indeed I could just take the cable car up. Instead I climb gradually on a stony 4×4 track, gaining over 1000m, to the village of Monte Lussari. The chapel here is a major pilgrimage destination as a 14th century shepherd discovered a statue of the Madonna when he was searching for his sheep. Most people just come for lunch and enjoy the spectacular views.

Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

Next day, I hop over the border into Slovenia and start Stage 23 in Kranjska Gora. It’s Saturday and the town is packed with cyclist and hikers, all keen to get a taste of the Triglav National park, the only one in Slovenia and one of the largest in Europe.

Vršič Pass, Slovenia

I’m going to be tackling the Vršič Pass, at 1611m the highest pass in the Julian Alps, and the road up to it was built by Russian POW’s during WW1. Many were killed in an avalanche and there’s an Orthodox Chapel halfway up, built in their memory.
Russian Chapel, Vršič Pass, Slovenia (c) Rupert Parker

The trail criss-crosses the road before reaching the summit of the Vršič at 1688m, still guarded by the remains of gun emplacements. I descend to the pass and eat my sandwiches, watching the day trippers.

Soča Trail, Slovenia

From here it’s all downhill to the River Soča, and I follow it from its source to Trenta which consists of a handful of houses and an information centre. I’m surrounded by mountains including Mt Triglav, at 2864m the Slovenia’s highest peak and I watch the sun set as I munch pizza outside. The Soča trail continues and the emerald blue waters of the river are an effective way to cool off. There’s rafting here and attractive campsites line both sides of the river, as I make my way to the town of Bovec. This was the location of fierce fighting between the Italians and the Austrians during WW1 and they’ve restored a complex of bunkers and trenches on a hill just outside the town.

Brda region, Slovenia
Slovenian Vineyards (c) Rupert Parker

There’s another change of scenery as I’m transferred to the Brda region, Slovenia’s wine centre, all gently rolling hills terraced with vines and topped by church spires. I walk Stage 30, stopping for a wine tasting at the old renaissance castle in Dobrovo, before reaching Šmartno.
Šmartno, Slovenia (c) Rupert Parker

Its attractive narrow cobbled streets are enclosed by defensive walls and towers but I stay in the Hotel San Martin, just outside. Here I’m treated to a delightful dinner with matching wine pairings and it’s one of the best meals on the trail.

Walk into Romania’s Retezat Mountains.

 The start of a three day walk into Romania’s Retezat Mountains. Nik, my son-in-law, and I were going with Iulian Panescu, a mountain guide and photographer. Instinctively I’m not keen on being guided in the mountains, preferring to do my own thing. However, I began to consider the advantages of being with somebody with local know-how after learning of the aggressive Romanian sheep dogs. Iulian knows what to say and do with such creatures like a Transylvanian Crocodile Dundee. Also, local maps are not always reliable.

The Retezat Mountains are one of the highest massifs in Romania, being part of the Southern Carpathians. The highest peak is Peleaga, at an altitude of 2509 metres.

For some time we had been wanting to visit these mountains whose 80 lakes seem to mirror the sky. The Retezat region was Romania’s first national park and has over twenty peaks higher than 2000 metres (over 6,500 feet). It is strictly protected both nationally and internationally.
One of the Retezat ‘blue eyed lakes which mirror the sky’ (c) Iulian Panescu

We strode upwards on a path into an autumnal mountain forest. Leaves, like free-fall butterflies, fluttered downward as we zig-zagged between tangled roots, colourful fungi and scattered rocks. We settled into our stride.

After six kilometres of walking, we spotted Gentiana Cabin, our temporary abode. I regard all mountain huts as places of undeniable charm, simply because of their very location. This cabin was more than able to wear that mantle with its attractive wooden construction and cosy situation amid the trees. Inside, a huge shiny Transylvanian terracotta stove provided the majestic centre piece for the interior along with solid wooden bunks, chairs, tables and solar powered light. Petre, the hut guardian, brought us all large mugs of mountain tea and so we ate a little, enjoyed some chatter, laughter and then crawled into our sleeping bags but not before a meditative moment staring at myriad of stars that shone from every corner of the crystal clear sky.

Outside Gentiana Cabin (c) Iulian Panescu

The following morning Iulian led the way up the Valea Pietrele through thinning trees, onto a stony path and into a zone of one metre high dwarf pines. We came across the paw-print of a bear; its claw marks were easily discernible where it had tried to steady itself over the mud. There are estimated to be around 6,000 bears in the Romanian forests, one of the largest populations in Europe that roam around the park fauna along with chamois, wolves, lynx, otters and marmoEventually we arrived at Pietrele Lake, the first of many ‘blue eyes’, born like all the other Retezat lakes, at a time when glaciers were receding. Higher, we entered a vast world of pure rock. Facing us was a ridge of pinnacles and sculptured rock faces.

Valeu Pietrele translates as the Valley of the Stones”, explained Iulian.
The Valley of the Stones (c) Iulian Panescu

Now, as a professional guitarist, such imagery provided Nik with much to muse upon as he began seeing the features of his ‘Stones’ heroes, Jagger, Richards and Watts, within each weathered slab of rock. As the path zig-zagged to the saddle of Curmãtura Buccurei we could now see over into the next valley and a further four tarns. Even on an overcast day such as ours, these glacial lakes possessed a turquoise and mystical gaze. Iulian pointed to a scrambly route ascending Bucura Peak at 2433 metres (7982 feet). From a summit of stacked rocks the panorama revealed numerous peaks with draping ridge lines and yet more glacial lakes.

We began clambering downward and then along a ridge towards our next peak. Peering into the valley below us, we counted over a dozen chamois grazing on patches of grass, no doubt stocking up before the inevitable onset of winter.

We reached the final scramble which would take us to the very top of Peleaga Peak, the highest of the Retezat mountains at 2509 metres (8231 feet). Snow and ice had gathered beneath a Romanian flag fluttering in the wind. Standing at the top we enjoyed a spectacular view of the entire Retezat mountain area with its peaks, ridges, valleys and shimmering lakes. A truly breathtaking scene. Luckily the weather remained clear but the cloud-base was gradually sinking.

Roat to Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.

Carpathian Mountains
Carpathian Mountains (c) Rupert Parker

The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.

Carpathian Orthodox Church (c) Rupert Parker

Kolomyia
Kolomyia Easter Egg Museum (c) Rupert Parker

It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.

Yaremche
River Prut Yaremche (c) Rupert Parker

The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.

Bukovel

Bukovel (c) Rupert Parker

Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.

Verkhovyna

I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.

Chernivtsi

Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. Also a part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna because of its architecture is similar. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was part of that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kamyanets Podilsky (c) Rupert Parker

Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the bridge connecting the medieval city, built on an island, with the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, its steep cliffs forming a natural moat. It originally had as many as twelve towers but only a few remain today. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.

Kiev

I catch the overnight train to Kiev, the carriages built in former East Germany and full of communist charm. It’s slow but comfortable, although all the windows seem to have been nailed shut.

Night Train to Kiev (c) Rupert Parker

Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.

Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator.

Climbing in Merapi

Known to locals as Fire Mountain, Gunung Merapi sits on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. There have been regular eruptions since 1548, with the most recent in 2010 where 30 people died.

Our walk was to start at 4:30am, under night at Desa Deles, the ranger’s hut at 1,300 metres. By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi.
By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi (c) Oliver Jarvis

The smell of sulfur was in the air, and our torches pierced through a feint haze that slid up the cliffside, our visibility was low and we had to mind shrub, after fern when making our way up the gentle incline.

Our three Javanese guides were trekking without torchlight, one was even in sandals, they used the moon and the stars to guide

When the sun rose the air felt cold and we had our first rest break. Looking back down our path we could see the vast settlement that bowed down by the foot of Merapi. It’s hard to believe that so many people still choose to live there, but locals have their reasons; ideal farming soil and religious beliefs. Many believe that the previous eruptions are a result of spirits being angered by not receiving gifts, which they offer them at the summit annually.

The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees and the hike was about to get harder, as the gentle slalom route suddenly inclined along the cliff face.

The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees (c) Oliver Jarvis

We had to wrestle with branches, and grab what we could to pull ourselves higher. We’d sometimes encounter clearings in the jungle where we could peer out, always seeing Merapi to our left.

The group of 15 people was now dwindling, as experienced hikers thought they had met their match. Even the hike leader, German Carl had suspiciously caught a chesty cough when the path started to get steeper around 2,000 metres up. In the end five of us remained, with the guide in sandals who had now fashioned a ragged towel into a head scarf that made him look like Little Bo Peep.
We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain (c) Oliver Jarvis

Those that remained were determined to conquer Merapi whether our blisters bled, our water ran out or Bo Peep lost his sandals. The steep incline under thick forest meant that we would gain altitude at a faster pace, and gradually the hills, and rice paddys below shrunk and cold streams of air came and went as we entered different air pockets. We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain, no sign of Indonesian settlements in the distance, or anybody on the mountain top.

The ash was becoming difficult to grip with my shoes, and I found myself bouldering, up vines and branches just to follow the path. It was then that I misplaced my foot and the side of the path that I was on collapsed. Dangling off a cliff face isn’t like they show it in the Mission Impossible films; I wasn’t coolly gripping the edge of the cliff with my fingers, nor was I suspended up in mid-air like a character from Looney Toons, instead I was holding onto a fern root for dear life as Khalid grabbed my arm and yanked me back up.

Shortly after our stop at around 2,500 metres (10:30 am), we reached the dusty, dead plain of Devil’s Bazaar. This is where the locals gather every year to place their offerings to calm the spirits of Merapi. The volcano has erupted every 5 – 10 years without fail, yet the locals still make the treacherous climb to hopefully bring peace between themselves and the mountain.

With every step a rock would tumble down and ash would be kicked up into our shoes and mouth. We passed weather stations that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the Seventies, and yellowing shrubs trying to survive as we continued our walk through what felt like the world’s most depressing desert getaway. We were now face-to-face with the clouds that wrapped around our ankles and passed along the cliff tops.

We were now face-to-face with the clouds (c) Oliver Jarvis

The head of Merapi stood above us and the surrounding wasteland with the white haze of sulfur circling it like a halo, we had reached the final stretch.

With smoke rising from the peak we began our ascent. The remaining point was like an old pub fireplace covered in ash and dust which covered our faces as we tried to scramble up the cliffside on all fours.

 Oliver Jarvis

It was slippery. Every step we took we fell two steps down. Even Bo Peep in sandals seemed to tire, as more dust kicked up into our faces and the wind blew the clouds and ash into our sides. But I had to see the top, and so I pushed up the cliff face, hopping from rock to rock.

Standing on the shoulder of a giant, when I broke through the clouds I was surrounded by a deep blue and the air felt clearer. Finally I had reached the summit. I clambered up to the peak, which was an uneven rock around the width of a boardwalk and surrounded by a 200 metre crater drop which was covered by eery sulfurous fumes that seemed to escape from every rock crack. I was an ant on a pen nib, anxiously looking around, watching my step. The others joined me, and we waited a while in silence as the clouds sifted through our hair, and the monster of Merapi quietly slept.