This time we had with us two New Russians who spent most of time glued to the shop windows and stuffing their caravan with all kinds of Western goods. When it was full, they bought a roof rack and mounted sacks of goodies there. To top it off, they also seem to have jinxed the weather, and that affected the quality of the few pictures we still managed to take in between Russki shopping sprees.
The trip kicked off in the resplendent Vienna - the bon vivant capital of the bygone Austro- Hungarian Empire. Curiously called Bécs by Hungarians - there must be some hidden resentment behind it - it preserves all the trappings of a refined imperial culture that we went to explore and enjoy last year.
Its squares never fail to impress and its public buildings are vast and imposing. People here are clearly into real quality of life. Smartly dressed urbanites laze around in swish coffee-houses enjoying most exquisite cakes well into the wee hours. Manicured lawns in the parks teem with picnickers. The Viennese Opera, grand and steeped in tradition, is one of the best in the world. There are enough youngsters in this city who can dance the waltz to stage such Old World events like the annual Opera Ball.
There is no trace of backwardness in this old-fashioned elegance. Public phones have internet access, trams look out straight out of a (granted, 80s) sci-fi flick, policemen use PDA's as writing pads. Everything is well organized and maintained with a dogged Germanic efficiency. There is no way of blaming Austrian wealth on colonial plundering, these people have worked hard to build their country after their own heart and now they are enjoying it.
To me, Vienna is the Germanic answer to the Italo-Gallic raffinement: no one has come up with a more sophisticated lifestyle east of Paris and Rome. Viennese contributions to the world's haute culture include among others Sachertorte, Strauss' operetta, Vienna Secession architecture, the introduction of coffee-drinking to Europe, waltz and an early gay icon, the tragic Empress Sissy. Even such staples of French culinary pride as croissants and baguette were actually invented in Vienna.
Historically, Vienna was the defender of conservative values in Europe so here you won't find that effervescent la-di-da charm of Paris. However, what it lacks in light-heartedness it makes good in imperial elegance and quality of life. As an original Kulturmacher, Vienna in its heyday reigned over Europe's second largest empire after Russia and extended its influence from the Ukrainian plains to the Adriatic and from the Czech mountains to the forests of Bosnia. It was the gathering point and melting pot for the talented and ambitious of the Central Europe, creating a milieu where arts, literature, sciences and fine living flourished for centuries - as well as making sure that all good burgers were in bed by 10 PM.
That said, there is something unmistakably Mediterranean and festive about Vienna, the kind of enjoyment of life you see only among wine-growing Catholic folks. Even the insides of the cathedrals here are colourful and bright. Austrians are a Germanic people but south-facing ones: their rivers flow into the warm Black and Mediterranean Seas. Better climate, as it goes, warmed their hearts for life's best pleasures and helped develop a mentality very unlike the one of their northerly Teutonic cousins. A good manifestation of that sprightly spirit is sun-kissed genius Mozart who composed his jovial Le Nozze di Figaro nowhere else but in Vienna.
Even more shopping and a long dash down the highway - bypassing all the sights but so happy about the full trunks - and we were in Italy, God bless her balmy shores! The gems of the area between Trieste and Venice that we visited are Udine and Grado.
Udine is known as "Sienna of the North", and rightly so, it is a true eye-candy. It was second largest city of the Venetian republic and it is still evident in its architecture - the town hall on the charming Piazza della Liberta looks like a shrunk yet nonetheless graceful Palazzo dei Dogi (the building that an Afro-American friend of mine lovingly calls "The Dawgs' Cribs"). The city castle on top of a cypress-covered hill dominates the city skyline. As a reminder that Venice was a republic, it houses one of Europe's oldest parliament buildings.
Grado also known as Little Venice or the Sunny Island sits on a group of islands connected to the continent by a long narrow causeway. It started off as a Roman port, whose shiny white ruins you can admire in the nearby Aquileia. Nowadays it is situated quite a way inland as a result of the gradual silting of the lagoon.
In more modern times Grado dragged on for centuries overshadowed by its illustrious big sister Venice. After Austrian annexation in 1815, it was proclaimed the Official Health Resort of the Hapsburg Empire and to this day the majority of visitors speak German with an Austrian accent. The sand on its beaches owes its reputed therapeutic qualities to high iodine and oxygen saturation levels - I could not taste the difference though. The city's two austere Romanesque basilicas dating from the 5th century remind of the town's venerable age but for more mindless fun head to the huge water park, the lovely beaches or the thick brambles in the outskirts where we picked wild blackberries to our heart's content.
On one of our exploration trips we stumbled upon a local cooperative supermarket - the kind where local farmers fruit of the soil is sold on their behalf - and, boy, it was nothing short of revelation!
In Northern Europe we feed on fruit and vegetables that ripe inside the ships and trucks on the memories of the sunshine they saw in their childhood. Fresh produce sections in Amsterdam's supermarkets are full of anaemic edibles that spend their formative months on bed of rockwool sucking on liquid fertilizers. They are perfectly shaped, stay fresh for weeks and are available all the year around but smell and taste only vaguely of what they should.
For my starved palate Italian melons and peaches, even lowly cucumbers and tomatoes, offered veritable explosions of half-forgotten sensations. My Russki friends stayed unfazed though - tomato-tasting tomatoes and strawberry-smelling strawberries are still widely available in Russia, even if supermarket chains are working hard to put an end to that too.
All the shops were closed in Italy so crestfallen we continued straight to the very beginning of the Deutsche Alpenstraße - the route designated in 1927 to showcase all the beautiful spots of the Germans Alps. It can be quite narrow and in parts barely navigable for larger cars like ours but it does accomplish its main task. I would gladly spend weeks and weeks on this road, slowly trudging on, admiring the views, making stopovers every now and then.
The easternmost point of the route lies in the Berchtesgaden National Park - home of the Königssee Lake and Berghof - Hitler's residence given to him by the Nazi Party on the occasion of his 50th anniversary. This rather sinister landmark is situated in arguably one of the most scenic spots in Europe, but we traded it for shopping for a portable diesel electrogenerator in Salzburg, something that city is most famous for.
The Königssee (KUR-NICK-ZAY) is a sheer delight though. It is breath-taking from the top of the nearby mountain, well worth a long cable car ride and a steep climb up. It's just as lovely from below: a lovely ride on an electric powered boat delivers you past magnificent scenery that does not even fit into the camera to the very picturesque red-domed St. Bartholomä Church.
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The flat Chiemsee Lake - perfect for windsurfing and other water sports - is rich in sights such as the unfinished folly of Herrenchiem- see Palace, an onion-domed Benedectine monastery on an island and the cutesy narrow-gauge Bockerl railway - all of which we missed because we were rummaging Munich suburban malls for the car spare parts one just can't find in Moscow.
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The almost unbearably twee Lüftlmalerei village Neubeuern sits on the spot where the Deutsche Alpenstraße suddenly wanders into the steep mountainous areas and becomes precariously narrow and quirky. The nerve-wrecking trip rewards the intrepid traveller with the magnificent sights of the Samerberg, Schliersee and Tegernsee lakes. It was there that Emperors Alexander I of Russia and Franz of Austria met in 1815 on their way to the Congress of Vienna where the fate and borders of Europe were decided for the next 100 years. As you drive on down dozens of hairpin turns, the Alpine lake-apalooza continues with the surreally turquoise Sylvensteinpeicher, the diver's paradise Walchensee and the eerily deserted Kochelsee.
Nothing beats ostrich steaks, lamb chops in Provençal herbs and rainbow trout grilled on charcoal and washed down with delicious Austrian wine under the starry Alpine sky - even if you have to squeeze yourself into a trailer bunk bed afterwards.
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Next morning snubbing the fog, drizzle and heavy clouds we moved on to visit the dignified Baroque Ettal Monastery that is surprisingly unashamed Rococo on the inside, giving the impression of a sexually adventurous coquette wearing priest's garments. Not far away the unfinished folly of the Linderhof Palace (which is more of a pavilion size) was meant to be a piece of French grandeur in heart of Bavaria. Its owner, Bavarian king Ludwig II mysteriously drowned in the Chiemsee Lake before his plan came to fruition.
His fulfilled plan, however - the epitome of histrionic gay kitsch, the Neuschwanstein Castle became the finishing highlight of our trip. The flamboyant Disneyesque extravaganza sits perched on a high wooded outcrop overlooking a breathtaking Alpine lake scenery. It was designed by the same man who designed sets for Wagner's operas. Throngs upon throngs of visitors are rushed through the parlours and dining rooms of the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle. As if by order of the Royal Bavarian family that still owns both properties, thecastles kept hiding from us in the clouds but the Hopfensee on whose shores we put up our camp, rewarded us with a long Technicolor sunset.
The tourist hub of the area, the town of Füssen is the southern terminus of the famed Romantic Road as well as, in a shocking contrast, the former home to a Dachau sub-camp where thousands people were exterminated during WWII. Füssen's major claim for fame is its nice medieval castle covered with trompe-l'œil paintings. As everywhere else in Bavaria, the streets are lined with rows of Lüftlmalerei houses, making you feel inside a gingerbread fairy tale.
On the way back home we dropped by Hanover whereto the current British Royal family traces their origins. Unfortunately, the proud trading city was razed to the ground in WWII bombardments, but some original landmarks like the Neue Rathaus and the Staatsopera have been lovingly restored to their full glory.