Tarkarli-May 2019

“Simla-Manali!” “Spiti valley!” “No, Kinnaur, its easier to get there and back,” “Noooooo, we should see Manali and Rohtang Pass,” “Oh no, Rohtang won’t have opened yet!” argued eight of us back and forth, while planning an impromptu May vacation (in end-April!). “Bali!” cried the husband, and we were enchanted, dreaming of endless sandy beaches and coconut trees and hammocks over clear blue waters, when the kid piped up, “We aren’t going anywhere, don’t you know that I have my boards next year?” “Next year,” I said, “not tomorrow.” “Nope, I am NOT going anywhere,” she insisted.

We kindly offered to leave her with her grandparents as we vacationed, while we furiously researched very different places. Finally it was clear that Bali was off the cards and Himachal Pradesh too crowded.

That’s how the gem of a “mini-Bali” was thought of, Tarkarli, a small beachside village on the Konkan coast, just north of Goa, rapidly becoming the scuba-diving destination of India. The trip was planned swiftly in one evening, hotels booked, drive itinerary planned and payments done before anyone could change their mind.

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That’s how we set off on a sunny weekday at 5 am to drive the 480 km to Tarkarli. On the way back, we planned to halt overnight at Kolhapur to break the journey, but the drive to Tarkarli was covered in 11 hours.

Mumbai-Kolhapur was a stunning drive, via the expressway in the dark, watching the sunrise over Lonavala ghat and breakfasting at the famed Sri Ram vadapav just ahead of Pune. The road continued as a well surfaced, wide dual carriageway ahead of Pune, curving gently and trucks jostled with us for space in the fast lane, making this a much more enjoyable drive than the expressway with it’s straight lanes and an 80-km speed limit. Gulmohar trees in full flower dotted the road, adding beautiful patches of color.

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Of course, it got hotter and hotter as we drove on and it was a relief to see the green sugarcane fields as we approached Kolhapur. Naturally, we slowed down to stop and enjoy a cold glass of sugarcane juice.

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Crossing Kolhapur, we veered off the national highway to a smaller state highway, taking care to take the road that led to the Gaganbawda ghat as it is a wider road with a gentle ghat. On the way, we drove on gorgeous tar-surfaced country roads with tall trees providing a totally canopied road.

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Reminiscent of the dark hedges of Game of Thrones? We drove a good distance on this stunning road before turning off towards villages and then the circuitous ghat.

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By the time we reached Tarkarli, we were terribly tired and sleepy, but keen on visiting the beach. So after a short rest, we scrambled up the steep sand bank opposite our hotel to walk a tiny distance to the beach.

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Our hotel was at a distance from the main beach access, so it was almost as though this section was only for us. We ran and jumped in the water and dug our feet into soft sands as good as any Goa beach with one-tenth the crowds.

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Tarkarli is known for water sports, scuba diving, snorkelling, dolphin sighting, a fort and numerous temples. Oh and for delicious Malwani cuisine. While the hubby thoroughly enjoyed the fish, I loved the ghavan-chatni and alu sabji.

The next day, we merrily headed to the close-by Deobagh beach for the water sports. Deobagh is a small tongue of land sandwiched between the Karli river and the Arabian sea. It certainly is pretty as a picture with a lot of small bungalows and beachfront homestays.

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I could have spent the whole trip lying on this hammock

The water sports here are on a tiny island in the Karli river, a long and narrow bit of sand smack in the middle of the river, to get to which, you need to board a tiny fishing boat.

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At the end of Deobaugh beach is the junction where the river drains into the sea. The still waters of the river meet the turbulent choppy waves of the Arabian sea, a distinction seen even more clearly from high up in the air.

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Note the different colors and the abrupt cessation of the waves

The water activities are an organised business with the touts hurriedly strapping you with life jackets and bundling you off on a series of activities that might not be very safe, but are great fun. The kids in particular loved the jet ski, but I spent most of my time on the ski screaming “slower, slower, please,” while the driver took me over bigger and bigger waves and almost turned me over into the water. It was when I got off, totally shaken and drenched, that he revealed that he had heard “faster, faster!”

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The best thing that we did that day was parasailing. We were taken on a small boat deep out in the choppy sea, where we struggled to get harnessed and then got thrown up into the air and flung down again in the sea and dragged along behind the boat, before being lifted off again into the air. Needless to say that I spent my time screaming loud enough to be heard on the boat. My brother-in-law was even more scared, he was desperate to be let down so he could get back to Mumbai and work!

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I must add that the few minutes that I was up in the air, I actually looked down to see the clear divide or “sangam” between river and sea and wished I had a Gopro to capture this beautiful view. Then they lowered us again, and I was back to screaming.

Exhausted and thrilled, we suddenly realised our hunger and hogged at a small Malwani home-made food restaurant that served the freshest food possible.

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In the evening, we just roamed about the area around our hotel and admired the tiny bungalows and the mango trees.

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charming tarkarli village (11)

Living opposite the beach necessitates dunking oneself in the pristine waters at least once a day, as part of our routine: breakfast, beach, lunch, siesta and an evening out. This evening, we set off to Sindhudurg Fort, Shivaji’s majestic fort off the Malwan coast. We had to park our cars right on the beach, making us hope we could return before the high tide set in!

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The slope and the close proximity of the water had us quite worried

We took a very unstable boat packed with people to the fort, which is entirely surrounded by water. It was very windy and our boat rocked vehemently on the waves and water splashed over us multiple times, prompting lots of Oohs and Aahs.

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Sindhudurg fort in the distance

The fort itself was a solidly built engineering marvel with outstanding views all around. Scuba diving is done in these waters off one edge off the fort.

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I was so entranced by this view that I didn’t notice a tiny step coming up and promptly fell onto the hard stone floor and tore my jeans and the skin beneath. Trust me to be clumsy at ground level! There went all my dreams of scuba diving and snorkelling. After cleaning up the wound, I struggled to walk into the fort and found myself at the base of steep steps leading to the walls of the fort.

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Climb, one must, even if limping and grimacing in pain. Was it worth it? Most certainly!

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India’s own Blackwater bay? Or am I still in a GOT stupor?

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It was very hot and some icecream and a windy rocky ride helped cool us down. I was thrilled to see some souvenir stalls at the exit, that reminded me of toys we’d buy as kids.

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sindudurg fort (32)mm

I would have loved to shop but everyone left me behind when they saw me with the camera!

We proceeded to see the sunset at the nearby rock gardens. While waiting, we found a little ‘tapri’ selling delicious piping-hot chai and pakoras. After the best meal of an already gastronomic trip, we rested on the broad rocks at the edge of the sea. Rather, I rested, others tried stunts.

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Though it was very sunny, a cool breeze blew over the sea.

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Great sun flare, pic courtesy the hubby

But when the sun actually sank into the horizon, it was well worth the wait.

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On our last day, we went back to Deobagh beach, this time to walk along the sandy edge of the meeting point of the river and the sea.

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The man standing at the junction of river and sea

We walked happily in the cool waters, a gentle breeze blowing over us, the coconut trees nodding away in the distance and we felt that this was probably better than even Bali.

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We had had a very relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable mini vacation. We were actually happy that none of the initial plans materialised and would be happy to come back to Tarkarli in the winter season. Fingers crossed!

Germany Austria May 2018: A wonderful last day at Hellabrun zoo and Nymphenburg palace

All good things must come to an end. “But why mama, why?” asked the unhappy kid. “So that we can earn money for the next trip,” I unhelpfully answered. We were on the last day of our holiday and the very thought was depressing the two of us. But I was determined not to let it mar our last day.

The biggest worry for the day was where to go. The contenders were Nymphenburg palace (highest on my list), Munich zoo and Primark for shopping (highest priority for the kid). The hubby flatly refused one more palace, so we set off for the zoo.

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Hellabrun zoo is a long train ride from  Munich central station, so we left as soon as we could, especially because the penguin feeding time was 11 am and I was desperate to see that (it was past 10 am when we left!) We hurriedly walked/ ran to the zoo and then to the penguin enclosure which was at the far end of the zoo, without bothering to look at any of the animals on the way. “Relax Beejal, the penguins aren’t being flown out of Munich after their feeding,” admonished the hubby, but I was charged up.

Fortunately, we made it in time (the keeper was a bit delayed, thank God for the lack of the brilliant German efficiency here), and we could see loads of Emperor, Rockefeller and Humboldt penguins, waddling about on the ice.

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The tall commanding Emperor

I love penguins. They are my favorite birds. I love seeing these ataxic birds jump into the water and swim so gracefully. When the keeper picked up a penguin and cuddled him, I was so jealous and would have happily traded places.

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It was a wonderful experience, like watching ‘Happy feet’ live. We spent the bulk of our day here, and came back once again. Somehow after the penguins, I lost my steam and my interest slowly waned. The hubby was very irritated by my mad rush to the penguins and complained about how we’d not enjoyed the zoo because I was obsessed with seeing the penguins eat fish. “Hmmpphh,” I said, “the other animals aren’t being flown out of the zoo because I didn’t see them.”

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A snowy owl (looked so like Hedwig)

Of course, we patiently roamed about the entire zoo. There was a reasonable cloud cover and we had a good time. We saw a seal show that was in German and we couldn’t understand, but there’s no mistaking the love the trainers and the animals share.

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Awwwww!

Naturally, we were fascinated by the big cats, especially a growling tiger prowling about.

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A pair of lions was fast asleep as we walked by and admired the beautiful cats, when one suddenly woke up and looked us in the eye.

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The zoo had fairly large enclosures for the animals to move about in, but they could be a still larger. Though I do visit zoos, I feel that animals don’t deserve this kind of captivity. We wouldn’t like a world in which we were in some enclosure and a “higher” species was gawking at us.

On a happier note, there was a huge enclosure for the primates with swings and branches for them to enjoy, which they did whole-heartedly.

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Some primates are happy enough on land.

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A tropical rainforest enclosure intrigued us a lot. The atmosphere was hot and humid, and we were very much at home. We enjoyed listening to the chirping of the birds around us.

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By afternoon, I was in a rush to exit quickly as I wanted to see Nymphenburg palace before it closed. So, we rushed through the aquarium, shopped for soft toys and had lunch in a biergarten by the flamingos.

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Brew with a view

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We headed back to the hotel together post-lunch, as our Munich day ticket mandates our travelling together. By this time, stormy rain clouds had gathered and the sky was an ominous gray. The hubby refused to head out so I convinced the kid to come with me to Nymphenburg palace even though she was tired by all the morning walking.

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Much needed dessert on the last day of a great trip

A short tram ride took us to the gates of the summer palace of the Wittelsbach rulers. In the good-old-days, it took 2 hours from Munich by carriage, making it the perfect summer getaway for a ruler. It was raining heavily till then, but amazingly, the rain stopped just before we clambered out and walked the short distance along a canal to the long flat palace with buildings all around it and swans and geese curled up in corners at the sides.

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The stunning Nymphenburg palace on a stormy afternoon

Even as we approached, the sun burst through the dark clouds, momentarily brightening up the landscape.

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Buildings and gardens have been added on to the main palace over the years

It was truly breathtaking. The large green grounds with pretty flowers surrounding large water bodies reflecting the simple buildings made me admire the architect who had designed a home so well harmonized with nature. But this was just the prelude to the show. The magic of Nymphenburg unfolds as you see more of it.

We walked into the palace, put away our bags into lockers and set about seeing the palace interiors first as they would close in half an hour. We weren’t too keen on seeing too much of it as we’d already seen the opulent Residenz but that didn’t stop us from gawking at the beautifully designed stone hall with frescoes on the walls and ceilings featuring nymphs (naturally) and the flower goddess Diana.

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I would happily have lain down on the floor to admire this ceiling 

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My photography skills are too poor to capture this beauty. This hall has got to be seen, and we were happy to feast our eyes on it a second time before leaving. But now, we wanted to walk through a few of the rooms, and most importantly, the gallery of beauties.

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The Gallery of Beauties, with my own little beauty

So, the king made his queen a palace for bearing his heir, and then put up specially commissioned paintings of beautiful women chosen by him, in clothes and embellishments chosen by him. How sadistic can a man be!

 

We wandered through pretty rooms with glamorous chandeliers, liking this palace far more than the Residenz, for its compactness and relative simplicity. It felt like a palace one could live in.

DSC_4919Sure I’d love a canopied bed with a chandelier like that. But that’s not why I’d love to live in Nymphenburg. I fell in love with it for the palace grounds.

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The lawns and canals in the front of Nymphenburg palace, from the terrace of the palace

By the time we got our backpacks and set out to see the extensive park grounds of 200 acres at the back of the palace, the sun was out blazing away and no one could have identified this as the scene of a thunder storm an hour back.

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Geese were more at home here than tourists here as we gazed out at unending fields of green punctuated by canals and lakes. The large expanse in front of us was dotted by statues of Greek Gods and the kid, enlightened by “Percy Jackson”, had a blast running amongst them and naming them.

The amazing Nymphenburg park was increased in size over 200 years, and is now a huge forest-like space that would take an entire day to explore.

Screenshot (1)Sadly, we had barely a few hours and were already tired after a full day of walking at the zoo. Yet, we set off to explore at least one half of the park, intending to walk to the largest lake of the park, the Badenburg lake and then to see the waterfall cascades at the very end of the park. We certainly had taken no scale into account while chalking up this ambitious plan, nor the overpowering evening sun.

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Water bodies are the basis of the park, they fill every nook and corner of it. Small canals crossed by Venetian bridges, long canals you can take a gondola ride on and huge lakes that you can’t see the end of, all fill the park and add to its tremendous allure.

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A Venetian gondola in Germany, with a singing gondolier

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Geese with their goslings swam merrily along

Ever the explorer, the kid chose a path through the forest, instead of walking at the edge of the canal. Beautifully shaded, totally empty, surrounded by trees and the calls of birds, this was the most pleasant of all the walks we took.

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Rambling along, we were a tad concerned about finding the right path to the lake, when we came upon a fork in the road. Since we were on a small path unmarked on the map, we had to choose. Inspired by Frost, we chose the road less travelled and plodded on, to reach a clearing in the woods and a charming bridge over a little canal that opened out onto Badenburg lake.

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Thrilled, we pushed ahead and were delighted to see a few people milling about the periphery of a beautiful lake, with sunbeams dancing off the surface and charming geese for company.

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The monopteros at one edge of the Badenburg lake, that I couldn’t figure out any way to reach

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We sat there for a quite a while, stretching out our tired legs and enjoying our refreshed minds. It was so quiet that there was no need to intrude on the peace by conversation or shutter sound, we took a few pictures for memory and then, just sat quietly together.

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Reluctantly, we left this wonderful place of solace and walked on. By now, the kid was very tired and we couldn’t reach the end of the park. So we decided to cut across the forest and walk back along the central canal on the opposite side, coming upon a statue of Pan and his faithful satyr.

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The God of the wild would love this resting place for sure. As we crossed the central canal, we glanced at the reflection of the palace in the narrow canal and simultaneously went “Oooohhhh!”

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The only thing stopping us staring at this view was the hot sun and our own exhaustion. Truly, Nymphenburg deserves an entire day. We crossed over the canal to the other side to see the Pagodenburg lake, where the setting sun was casting its rays.

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We walked back to the palace halls, thrilled by the evening’s adventure and very glad that we’d stepped out in the storm.

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As we exited the palace and came out to the front lawns, we were struck by how different it looked without the dreary clouds and amazed by how the day had changed. It was as though Munich was giving us a fitting farewell.

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I noticed things I hadn’t seen before like the flowers and the cherubic statues.

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The swans reclaimed their places in the canals, no longer hiding their beaks under their wings, but proudly floating about.

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Tired, but very very happy, the two of us caught the tram back to our hotel and packed for the flight back the next day. We had had a terrific 14 days in Germany and Austria. Every day and every place we visited, we had loved. The hubby’s role in turning down the original plan of Italy must be applauded, as his terrific driving.

While I must credit the hubby the most, there are those who are very important too. The kid was a great companion on this trip, interested in the history of the places, willing to step out and walk and walk, and play lots of Uno. My sister was very accommodating as she didn’t insist on my going to her place to visit her and my adorable niece (my only regret). And I can’t sign off without profusely thanking Yogesh Shenoy for planning my trip to the hilt and being the greatest support system. Nor can I forget the lovely Bavaria and Austria that made my trip so special. I hope to be back someday.

Auf wiedersehen Germany and Austria.

Germany Austria May 2018: Fairytale Hallstatt from above and Hallstatt salt mines

After an exhilarating drive on the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, we retired early in preparation for another day of “heavy sightseeing”, for we were to leave Zell am see and drive to Salzburg via Hallstatt, the beautiful lakeside town. Thanks to some poor planning, we couldn’t stay the night in Hallstatt, which turned out to be a really bad move, because a day trip just doesn’t cover the place well enough.

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We left Zell am see on a very cloudy morning after a hearty breakfast. The drive through Austria was scenic as could be, with lush green meadows and beautiful mountains around us and with clouds as our constant companions.

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The train tracks and a small river ran parallel to us as we drove. I could imagine my friends Neha and Yogesh enjoying the same scenery in their train to Salzburg.

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Our spirits were high, we sang along as we drove through the lovely countryside. For a while, we drove on the autobahn, the best bit for the hubby, wherein we came upon the famous Hohenwerfen castle, picturized in the Bond film “Where eagles dare.”

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It was a beautiful castle, perched high up, but sadly we didn’t have time for it.

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Our drive on the highway was for a short while only, and soon we turned off onto smaller (read: more picturesque) roads. A while later, Google Maps took us off the main road on to a very small and narrow road amidst the forests.

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It was very narrow and I was worried about how we’d manage if another car came from the opposite side, but no one came. The road seemed to exist for us alone. Deeper into the forest we drove, surrounded by the tall conifers. A small stream bubbled besides us and every now and then, we crossed over small wooden bridges over it. A few scattered wooden houses dotted the area, pretty as could be.

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“What a fabulous place to stay!” I exclaimed, picturing myself resting on a hammock with a book. “It’s scary mum, there’s no one around,” said the kid. She was correct. There were areas with just one house and nothing else for the next 5 kilometers. “The solitude would still be worth it,” I thought. Just before we joined the main road, we passed by a series of houses so beautiful that the hubby and I would happily have given up our jobs and migrated there.

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As we drove into Austria’s famed lake district, the Salzkammergut with 76 Alpine lakes, tall mountains, hiking trails and tiny villages, the views got better and better. We drove up and down small hills with trees all around.

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The entire Salzkammergut is stunning as we discovered over the next 3 days. But today was set aside for the “Pearl of the Salzkammergut”, Hallstatt. This tiny village is probably the most photographed place in all of Austria. It’s an old settlement, more than 1000 years old, thanks to the salt found deep in the mountains around it. “Salt? In a land-locked country? Where did the sea reach there?” asked the smart hubby. “For that, we have to visit the salt mines,” I answered.

Hallstatt is hemmed in by the tall Dachstein mountains and the area has enough to offer for at least 3 days worth of sightseeing. Since we had 8 hours, we had to pick and choose. We saw just the town of Hallstatt and the salt mines, whilst my brother-in-law chose to take the cable car up the Dachstein mountains to see the aerial view of Hallstatt.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar: View from the five fingers lookout at Dachstein (2108m), see the tiny town of Hallstat projecting into the lake

He also visited the ice caves that we didn’t see as we’d already seen the stunning karst caves of Slovenia (Postojna Caves, Slovenia), but he really enjoyed the trip and it will be on my radar for the future.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar: Dachstein ice caves

As we approached the town, we first caught a glimmer of Lake Hallstatt through the trees. The lake is huge (as seen in the aerial picture) and we drove parallel to it for quite a distance before reaching the town.

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The main town area is pedestrian only (thankfully) and there are 3 huge parking lots for vehicles. We parked in one near the salt mines, after driving through the tunnel that runs through the Hallstatt mountain.

As soon as we walked outside the parking lot, the magic of Hallstatt seemed to descend. It was a cool and cloudy day, very very pleasant indeed. Beautiful flowers and trees filled the roadside and we didn’t know where to look.

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Beautiful gastehaus (guesthouses) lined the roads. Typically made of dark wood with coloured window shutters and flowers at their window sills, I couldn’t stop taking pictures till the hubby gently nudged me and said, “Leave some camera space for the actual town.”

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We crossed over a tiny stream, wondering where it came from, wishing we had time to follow it upstream.

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We saw that it bubbled away into the lake.

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“Gasp, ooh, ahh!” was our state in Hallstatt from the time we got out of the parking lot, to the time we returned. Hallstatt was such a fairytale town that it just belonged within the pages of an Enid Blyton storybook. But first, we had to figure out how salt was mined in Hallstatt.

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The salt mines are at an elevation from the town so they can be reached by a steep walk through the forest or a quick funicular. No prizes for guessing what we did.

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The funicular was so well designed that we didn’t realise how steep the slope was. And I am so glad that we didn’t walk up or down till the mines as it would have been a crazy long walk, and there was lots more walking up ahead!

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The best part about the mines was the view from the top. Looking down to the newer part of Hallstatt, near the mines and the parking lots and trying to identify our car kept us totally busy.

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The most amazing view was once we got off at the top and looked out from where we stood. It was so beautiful that we couldn’t tear ourselves away and missed most of the people who were on the funicular with us.

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The actual mines were located at a 20 minute walk from the funicular, but we first walked over to the viewing platform “World Heritage View” for the stunning views over the Hallstatt-Dachstein region by crossing over the pretty panorama bridge.

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It led us to Rudolfstrum, a restaurant housed in a defense tower built in ancient times to protect the mines, with the Hallstatt skywalk jutting out below it.

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The steel platform projects out from the cliff 360 meters above sea level, to provide a vantage viewing point over Hallstatt town, the lake and the mountains.

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Unfortunately, it was packed with tourists (as was all of Hallstatt) of a community that believes in clicking 100 selfies at every viewpoint without much concern for others. After waiting patiently in a line with no order and movement, I gave up and walked along the edges of the platform for the same stunning view.

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The sunlight seemed to filter through the clouds on to the small town of Obertraun directly opposite Hallstatt, the access point for the cable car to the Dachstein ice caves and the five fingers look out.

2018-05-04 14.24.06The best view however, was that of the main town of Hallstatt from high above.DSC_3432

 

While I stood there mesmerized, the hubby urged me on, knowing that the entire salt mines tour would take another 3 hours to complete and we needed to reach Salzburg before night. Reluctantly, I left the pretty view for the 20 minute steady uphill climb to the entrance to the mines.

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The long walk to the actual mines, as seen from the panorama bridge

To make the long walk more interesting, there were several boards along the way about the history of the mines and even the body of a mummy preserved in salt. We were mean enough to leave the kid in that scary room and run off, but she’s become smarter now and was expecting it.

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Gorgeous reflection of the panorama bridge and Rudolfstrum

All along were posters of the “miner man” pointing out the way. Finally the hubby grew tired of the man.

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When we reached the entrance to the caves, we had to deposit our belongings and wear very unflattering miner’s clothes to make us feel like miners and to protect us on the slides and then we reached the entrance to the mines.

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Right from the bright sunlight, we entered a dark and narrow tunnel, wide enough for maximum 2 people side by side, with the tracks of the mining wagons below us. The tunnels grew narrower and shorter as we went in deeper and we could only walk in a single file.

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As it grew narrower and darker, the kid grew more and more frightened and wanted to leave. But the only way was onwards, deeper into the mountains. There was no turning back. She was so scared that we had to put on the torch-light, but fortunately, the area widened a little ahead and she could relax and look around.

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We could see the old salt pipelines that carried the brine and the salt. Salt was considered white gold and it’s discovery led to the rise of Hallstatt as an important town. In fact the era 800 to 400 BC is referred to as the Hallstatt period. But that’s not what we were interested in. We were interested in sliding down the long wooden slides that miners used to enter the mines.

DSC_3474It’s really very simple, you sit on a small wooden area and put both your legs on the side, then gravity does the rest. Naturally everyone was apprehensive at the start. There were steps to climb down and I was thinking about taking them when a couple of brave people took the plunge and then, so did the hubby with the kid. He just grabbed her, plonked her in front of him and kicked off, despite her protests. And from the bottom came a very happy squeal, “Mummy it’s awesome!” So, I got on too and reached the bottom, flying down, screaming at the top of my lungs.DSC_3463

 

Now that people understood that no one was going to die, the “selfie community” picked up their guts and dashed down the slides, mobiles in hand. We moved on to see some salt crystals and the history of salt mining in Hallstatt.

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We reached a large area where they beamed a movie which explained how salt reached this town hundreds of miles away from any ocean or sea. Apparently, way back in the prehistoric age, when the continents were forming and the earth plates moving about, some portion of the sea got trapped below the mountain and then rose with the mountain shelf.  

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So apparently, salt was mined here as long back as 7000 years ago. Surprising! They showed us several videos about how they discovered the timeline of the mining and lots of ghastly stories about the loads of people who died, when we came upon the best part of the mines, the 64 meter long wooden slide. The hubby and kid, now seasoned, quickly hopped on and slid away.

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This surely looks steep and scary

There was nothing for it. I got on and slid down, so fast, that I started falling off and dumbly, put out my hand to correct my position (despite clear instructions from the guide NOT to do so) and got a wonderful friction burn.

 

Off the slide, we found ourselves at the edge of a small lake. A lake in the centre of the mountain, with salt at the bottom of it!

 

 

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This show and another where they projected the life and times of a typical miner family were the only two entertaining shows. The rest bored me terribly and I was itching to be out in the daylight in the pretty lanes of Hallstatt, instead of listening to this guy drone on.

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Yet, they took us deeper and deeper inside and showed us the discovery of the world’s oldest staircase, dated to 13th century BC, that is now kept in a museum at Vienna. It’s been perfectly preserved by the salt.

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Finally, the tour ended. I was worried about climbing up lots of stairs as we had descended quite a bit, but luckily, they bundled us onto a miner’s train and took us up and out through narrow tunnels.

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Happy to be back out, we walked down a lot faster than on the way up, passing by these pretty rivulets.

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Riding the funicular down, I couldn’t help but take another picture of the beautiful town of Hallstatt from up above.

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The walk to the car was scenic, but I had to steal a quick look at the lake at the place with the most beautiful view of Hallstatt.

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“Wow,” is all I could think. I couldn’t even speak aloud at this moment because I was too spellbound and dumbstruck. But this view is only a teaser of things to come, both when you walk through Hallstatt and when you read the blog.

 

 

 

 

Germany Austria 2018: The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne. I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life,” said Marilla. “Oh Marilla,” exclaimed Anne, “Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them. I think it’s worse to expect nothing than be disappointed.”

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery

Like the child Anne, I have the bad habit of setting my heart too much on things. On a trip, it is making someplace THE focal point, THE obsession. And like the child, it’s frequently something that might not get realised and hence lead to deep disappointment. This year, the obsession was the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (High Alpine Road), which was a silly obsession as it conventionally opens in early to mid May and we were there on 3rd May. This high altitude road is closed from November to April because it is totally snowed in. The unusual prolonged winter in March 2018 reduced the chances of its opening while we were there. The fear wasn’t allayed by my trip planner Yogesh, who urged me to plan something else on that day.

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The purpose of visiting Zell am see was to drive the Grossglockner High Alpine Road

I had so many alternate plans lined up that it became imperative for the road to open on time! The obsession build up as our trip grew closer, to the extent that I had downloaded the Grossglockner app on my mobile and was checking it twice a day, sometimes three times. And till we left, it kept saying, “opening shortly.” And I kept telling myself, “Be still, my beating heart.”

The flight to Frankfurt and the subsequent travel naturally distracted me adequately, so I only checked the app the day we reached Würzburg (still closed) and then directly on the day we left the lovely Rothenburg ob der Tauber, when it suddenly said, “open”.

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“Joy hath no bounds,” was my state, till the eventful fall of the hubby on the Nördlingen tower the same day (Germany Austria May 2018-The unromantic Romantic Road with the very romantic towns), when I was not sure whether he’d be able to do such a strenuous drive with such a severe injury. But I had underestimated his resolve (and interest) for he kept staring at the webcam the previous evening at Zell am see and chalking out the route.

Finally, the next morning arrived. With great excitement (and staring at the webcam), we finally set off after a hearty breakfast at our lovely hotel Traube. My friends Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy joined us for this drive at our hotel and we set off, hoping for clear skies. (Warning: There is a ridiculous number of images in this post)

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It’s not easy to plot the Grossglockner drive on Maps, but the website has an inbuilt route planner that we followed. We were driving it from North (the Salzburg end) to South (the Corinthia end, where one can drive into Italy). The drive to Bruck, the starting point for the high Alpine road, was scenic as could be and set the ball rolling for the day to come. The day was beautiful, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds, no hint of the rain that was predicted. Happy I was. As we drove through the beautiful alpine scenery, we turned off into a road with pretty meadows with wooden chalet like houses.

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There were very few boards on the way, so naturally the hubby was a tad concerned about being on the right route, but we had to be on the right road with these mountains looming up.

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Of course, we were on the right path when the toll booth came up, but surprisingly, the rate was less than that on the website. I was worried, would we travel only half the road? The man at the booth handed us a map of the best viewing points and the two offshoots to the highest motorable areas and we set off.

The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is a 48km long toll road that drives through Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park with stunning views of tall mountains including Austria’s tallest peak, the Grossglockner.

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This is it,” I thought, “The Grossglockner Road itself. Buckle up, sit back and enjoy the ride.” And then I found myself being pushed backwards into the seat as someone had found the accelerator and was going for it gung-ho.
The initial part of the drive was a steep ascent from the bottom of the valley into the mountains. This portion hugged the side of the mountain, so there were sharp curves and we could see ourselves getting higher and higher very swiftly.

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The gorgeous Austrian Alps beside us as we ascend

There were waterfalls all around, one so huge and close to us that we were tempted to get off and stop. We didn’t stop as we wanted to reach the top before the predicted rain, and thought we would see it on the way back. Bad move.

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We had decided not to stop on the way, but it was irresistible. The road had multiple viewing bays, that were simply too tempting to get off at, and we did give in to temptation. After all, what’s a road trip without the view?

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Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy at our first stop, already 1850 meters ASL

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So many photographers!

We continued to ascend, turn after steep turn and resisted all temptation to stop every two minutes, because that’s how breath taking it really was.

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Even though it was not raining, there was a fair amount of cloud cover, which hung about as blobs of cotton on the mountains beside us. Now, the surroundings began to change, the leaves grew sparser and bits of dirty snow dotted the sides.

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First sighting of snow on the road

We were surprised to see cyclists on this route. “They must be bonkers,” I thought, “and super fit.” Not only were they super fit, they were super fast too. In fact the same cyclist crossed us twice while we were busy stopping for photographs!

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The wheels for the trip, our trusted Volkswagon Golf

 

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The man of the trip, just as trustworthy

A lot of the viewing bays had signboards about elevation, peaks seen and fauna, but we didn’t waste a moment looking at them, we were just so blown away by the views. At this point, maybe midway to the top, we had our first marmot sighting (that I coudn’t see) and saw a treehouse with a view to kill (that we couldn’t climb).

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It was great fun having Neha and Yogesh with us. The kid was totally charmed by Neha and found a new friend. Now I can’t speak to Neha without her butting in!

As we drove higher, the entire scenery changed. The trees and the greenery reduced and were replaced by huge masses of snow.

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We were level with the clouds now.

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Soon, we drove right through them. “I wanna take the clouds home,” said the kid. So did I.

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This bit was scary, but the hubby maneuvered expertly as we ascended higher. Just a little ahead, we stopped at the Haus Alpine Nature Exhibition where we thought marmots could be petted. Marmots are cute large squirrels for whom the European Alps are home. Unfortunately, there were only wild (non-pettable) marmots here, but we had a great time playing in the thick carpet of snow while Yogesh photographed the marmots.

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The mean machines that keep the road motorable

At this point, we could see the huge mountains looming ahead and dense snow all around us. After all, we were already 2260 meters above sea level. But the hubby was looking terribly distressed. “Houston, we have a problem,” he said. We were dangerously low on fuel. I was surprised as we had checked the fuel gauge the previous night and the morning of the drive and there was enough. He thought the indicator might be erroneous because we were on a slope, so we parked on level land and checked again. There wasn’t enough fuel to even complete the journey. “Possibly, the steep ascent used more fuel than we thought,” he said. This was terrible. The only petrol pumps on this road were at the two ends. I had visions of 4 adults pushing the car and the kid steering.

There was just one option, to head back down the way we came and get to the petrol pump before the toll booth. Hopefully being downhill would consume less fuel. We apologised to Neha and Yogesh for being so dumb (we’ve been driving for years and couldn’t even estimate the amount of gas needed) and headed back down.

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One of the 36 switchbacks on the road

The drive down was very different from the drive up. I talked even more than usual because I was so stressed and the kid naturally had to match up. Neha and Yogesh’s eardrums were in for a really rough time! We made it down and out in good time but it was a really long drive to the gas station. “Please make it, please make it,” I prayed desperately till we reached and I think we all were relieved by the refuelling.
Once the “longest pitstop ever” was done, and we were back in buoyant spirits, we continued driving up, this time non stop beyond the point where we’d turned back.

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The road is a true engineering marvel

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More curves

Even though thunderstorms had been predicted by this hour of the noon, they hadn’t yet started. We were now ascending even above the layer of clouds. We drove through a series of switchbacks, but unlike those at Sikkim, these weren’t terribly tight or steep and the road itself was implacable, making this one of the best drives of my life. Suddenly, a very sad voice piped up, “Mommy I’m feeling sick.” “Oh no,” I thought, “the motion sickness is acting up despite all the medication.” We tried distracting her with all sorts of stories when the solution suddenly struck. “You need food,” I cried. in all my excitement, I’d forgotten that she needed to keep being fed on road trips to control the nausea. There was no restaurant for a long while, so we stopped at the nearest parking bay to get food from the boot and my jaw just dropped open. Splayed out beneath us were the switchbacks we had just climbed, like a huge brown anaconda amidst the pure white snow.

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We let the kid keep hogging while we all jumped out and took scores of pictures. A big thank you to the kid and her vestibular apparatus for helping us find this place.

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Now, we ascended towards the lookout post seen in the picture above, Fuscher Torl, at 2428 meters above sea level. It was all too gorgeous for words. The snow was all around us now. Soon we came upon a large parking lot from where 2 roads diverged. One went to the right and one to the left and curved steeply upwards.

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The road that leads to the Fuscher Torl and towards the main mountain passes

We were perplexed by the 2 roads. “It certainly goes onto the right,” said the hubby, “all the cars are going there.” “Then who’s going there?” I asked him, pointing to the road to the left where I could see a few cars descending. “Let’s go and see,” said the enthusiastic hubby.

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What a road! We had unknowingly stumbled onto the narrow cobblestone road that led to the highest viewing point of the drive, the Edelweissspitze at 2571m. The road till there was narrow, just enough for one car, very steep with very tight corners. No wonder very few cars were going there. But the brilliant hubby took us up there. Outstanding bit of motoring that was.

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Once we reached the very top, we ran about the panoramic viewing platform like little kids. We were amazed to see cyclists at this elevation too.

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The marmot point we had turned back from for fuel was a tiny speck with the 200mm lens

We saw crazy people sitting on the railing and clicking selfies. I tried explaining the hazards to the kid while suddenly, we both got pelted hard by snowballs. We turned around but could see no one. Splat blotch bang, some more made their way. That’s when we looked up. The naughty hubby had gone up onto the terrace of the exhibition gallery and was busy pelting us.

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The kid rushed to get there to pay him back and splash, ran straight into a puddle and got all soaked and I had to rush back to the car to change her socks and shoes while the hubby clicked away from his vantage point.

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More than thirty 3000m peaks can be seen from this panorama point, many of which were partly hidden by the clouds. Even more stunning was the series of switchbacks that we’d driven on the way up.

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Contrast this with the same view taken exactly 20 days later by my brother-in-law on a bright and sunny day.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later

Sated by the views, we drove down that scary narrow road, again with excellent maneuvering by the hubby, on past the Fuscher Torl, where a memorial was built to commemorate those workers who died during the construction of this masterpiece of a road, built over 5 years from 1930 to 1934, in order to generate revenues for a cash stripped Austria. Brilliant foresight and engineering!

We drove down towards the Fuscher Lake, opposite the Mankei inn where tame marmots are kept by the innkeeper.

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The lake was almost completely frozen when we went, and I have included my brother-in-law’s pictures simply to point out the difference over just 20 days.

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Us approaching the Fuscher Lake

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Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later. You can see the walking path across the lake that was covered by snow on our trip

The lake itself was barely recognizable as a lake to us when we went.

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The almost completely frozen lake when we went

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Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar; the barely frozen lake 20 days later

Hunger finally overcame our excitement and we were pleased to get a meal at the Mankei inn. The marmots were still hibernating, so there was no chance for the kid to play with them.

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Camera gear for the trip!

We drove on towards the two tunnels that go through the mountains. We crossed the first and came out at a winter wonderland (in May).

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We drove on to cross the Hochtor pass, which at 2504m, was the second highest point on the drive. In olden years, it was the most dangerous part of the road, but now, as safe as any other point.

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Snow ploughs start clearing the road in the end of April from both ends and meet at this summit. Once all the snow is cleared, the road is declared open.

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The kid and the hubby scribbled their names on the tall walls of snow.

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Neha and Yogesh found a viewpoint from where the tallest mountain of Austria, the Glossglockner (3798m) could be seen on a clear day.

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Both the kid and Neha wanted to build a snowman, so that had to be done. We saw a flat glacier like area and got out.

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Neha and the kid had a blast throwing snowballs at each other. Then the hubby joined them and the two adults pelted the kid bigtime!

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While Yogesh and I were busy taking pictures, Neha had a go at us!

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What a gorgeous place this was and what views!

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Happy with the playing, Neha and the kid got down to the serious business of constructing a snowman. They made a small mound of snow for the body and Neha started shaping into a body and a head and the kid promptly flattened it out.

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The process repeated itself till Neha made a separate head and placed it on top. Yogesh rummaged about in the bracken and retrieved pebbles for the eyes and made arms out of sticks, and voila, we had a snowman.

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Having had our fill of snow, we drove onwards towards the next offshoot, the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe point, named after the emperor of Habsburg, who had climbed to this height in the late 19th century, with great views over the glacier.

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We drove through these tall walls, shovelled aside by the snow ploughs as we descended. Unfortunately, the road to the viewpoint was closed because of risk of avalanche, so we continued to drive downwards.

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Frozen waterfalls

As we descended, the snow reduced and the greenery started reappearing.

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By now, the large clouds that we had been seeing for long, rolled in further. It looked as though snow was flying off from the higher parts of the road we had come down from. There didn’t seem to be much point in continuing downwards and we thought we’d seen all that we could of the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse so we took a U-turn.

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The Grossglockner Road continues southwards to the village of Heiligenblut

Of course, the road had more surprises to give us. We weren’t a minute too soon in turning back. Black clouds covered the sky. We sped up and swiftly reached the Hochtor tunnel when snow started falling.

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All the places that we’d stopped at were barely visible now. We could barely merge out the outline of the Fuscher Torl restaurant at the bottom of the curve leaving to the highest point the Edelweissspitze. The highest road leading to it was totally shrouded in clouds.

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Soon visibility dropped to a couple of meters.

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It was actually scary now. We had to be extra careful as the road was slippery and we had to conserve the brakes on the steep descent. But I must say, the hubby drove exceptionally well.

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The rain fell in full force now. It started raining like it rains in Mumbai. We drove down through the rain and the clouds, each turn scarier than the previous one.

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The valley couldn’t be seen at all

The rain continued in full force till we reached our hotel. Neha and Yogesh caught a bus to Kaprun and the hubby, exhausted by now, drove us to the hotel. We had an early dinner (pizza and pasta for the kid’s daily pizza need) and retired early after a wonderful day. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse was one of the best drives I have even been on, and this day, one of the best of my days. And I think all 5 of us would agree on that.

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I must acknowledge a lot of people for this wonderful day. Firstly, the great team at Grossglockner who cleared out the snow on time for us to see it. Secondly, the kid, for conquering her motion sickness enough to manage such a drive. Third, and very importantly, Neha and Yogesh, for telling us about the drive,coming with us and making our day much more special. We had a great time with you both and hope to meet up again.

But most of all, to the man himself, the Schumi Thapar, for agreeing to rent the car despite his reservations and driving so fabulously despite his injury.

Oh! How could I forget! To dreams!

Germany Austria 2018: Zell am see, a sleepy Austrian lake town

This day we were to drive from Germany into Austria. We had already spent a wonderful morning hiking the Leutasch gorge (Germany Austria 2018: The dizzying spirit gorge of Leutaschklamm) and were now safely on our way, surprised though by the lack of any border or passport control between the two countries. This was something I saw time and again on our trip.

The drive from Mittenwald to Zell am see was the most beautiful drives of our trip. Tall mountains, covered with green conifers or capped by snow were our constant companions. Small towns filled the valleys and extended till the base of the mountains.

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There were places on the drive that had very steep slopes. But at one point there was a board that read, “Drive slow, steep gradient ahead.” And naturally, our undaunted Schumi took the curve and the slope at a “not slow at all” rate, and then came to a grinding halt as there was a huge traffic jam ahead. That’s when we realised that the board meant a 16 degree downhill gradient.

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What was even more amazing was that the long line of vehicles in the jam waited patiently behind each other, no honking, no overtaking, no getting on to the opposite side of the road (so unlike India). Once we were on level land, everyone just sped off. Soon we merged onto the highway and the fun began. Despite the speed limit of 100 kmph, the heavy vehicles were at 100 and all cars were overtaking them, so we did the same. So much for speed limits.

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It was a little scary too, as roads kept merging onto the high-speed highway and cars joined our road at great speeds. The hubby had a blast driving, and I had a blast taking pictures.

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Castles along the way

Shortly, we turned off the main 4 lane highway onto a smaller 2 lane one and then a single carriageway road.

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This portion of the road wound through small towns and green meadows and was as charming as could be. Austria is simply designed for road trips. Every turn made us happier.

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The sun was out in all its glory by now and the grey clouds of the morning were gone. There were places where we were totally surrounded by the mountains.

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In the small towns along the way, spring had surely arrived and flowers filled the front yards and window sills of all the houses.

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As we got approached our destination, the Alps loomed up again, surrounding us. It was mesmerising.

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The first view of the lake as we drove by was gorgeous. We never saw this pretty shade of water again though.

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Zell am see is an alpine lake town built along 2 ends of lake Zell. Pleasant weather exists year round, and the proximity to Kitzsteinhorn with year-round skiing, the Grossglockner high alpine road, along with plenty of cable cars, hiking treks and summer luges make this a very popular destination. Perhaps this and my best friend Archana’s strong recommendations hyped up Zell am see for me.

We drove into the pedestrian only town center where our hotel was located (great find by Yogesh again, thanks!) and really struggled with the narrow entry to the hotel and getting to the parking lot. But the room and the views were totally worth it.

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There was a hall with cupboards and a small storage space for suitcases, with a large bedroom and bathroom. It was very spacious and well decorated. Huge windows dominated the rooms, looking out towards the lake, the old town and the church.

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Hungry as we were, we rushed to find lunch. Zell am see is very popular in the Middle East, so there are plenty of Turkish/ Lebanese restaurants and the kid was desperate to find hummus and pita bread, which we got 5 minutes from our hotel.

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After a very satisfying lunch, we had a good afternoon rest and set off in the evening to see the much acclaimed town of Zell am see. A small map in hand, we walked out to see the old town and church that were just behind us.

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St Hippolyte’s church, built in the 11th century

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There was a large square with some important looking buildings but surprisingly it was totally deserted. The cafes were empty and everything seemed shut. We thought it might be because of the late hour, but found the same the next day.

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District Council Office in the main town square

There were a series of fancy shops and souvenir stores around our hotel, but all of these were closed too. The shop windows were very alluring however.

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Maybe it was good that they were shut. I had lots of free time in this town and would most definitely have shopped. From here, we walked till the tiny but cute railway station with lots of empty restaurants and cafes and this board.

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“Damn, they have Maggi here, I needn’t have carried it,” I thought. We had so much Maggi on the trip that I haven’t been able to eat any even three months after getting back. From here, we walked back towards the main town along the lakeside and the railway tracks. The train runs through the town of Zell, providing great scenery and connectivity, but was quite a fright to me at the thought of crossing the tracks. It was a little disconcerting at first, soon it became quite exciting for the kid and me to hop back  and forth.

We made our way down to the lake itself to see a swan and some ducks preening themselves in the water.

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A swan, as lazy as Zell am see

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The lake itself was very beautiful, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with a large walking track around it. It was very cool by now and the hubby and I were enjoying our time together when we saw the kid tottering at the edge of the water, calling out to the swan.

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No wonder this was what followed!

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This was the only time in Zell am see that we saw any other people. Whether it was because all the cable cars in the vicinity and the cruises on the lake were closed for maintenance, or because we had landed up at a time when Zell am see was in between the end of skiing season and the start of the summer season, Zell am see was a ghost town. That’s probably why we just didn’t enjoy it. There was nothing to do here. Yet, in retrospect, it gave us the much-needed chill time on our otherwise packed trip.

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Relaxing on the benches

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View from the bench

We walked along the promenade, admiring the distant mountain peaks, up to the Grand hotel, the grandest hotel of Zell am see. Beautiful carvings surrounded the windows and the kid promptly asked me why we weren’t staying here. 

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“You need this car to stay at this hotel,” I told her!

We walked amidst the hotel gardens, admiring the spring flowers.

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We walked on almost past this side of town, where lots of boats were anchored in the lake and birds flocked about.

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The kid’s great pals, the ducks, waddled along us, fearless of any humans, till she started running after them. Then they squawked and flew off.

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We crossed a park that the kid would have loved if she were younger and she was saddened to realise that all the playthings were too small for her now. So she contented herself with skipping along the little walking track right at the edge of the lake.

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We turned back at this point and crossed over the tracks towards the residential part of the town, where all the apartments were, and where we could see the mountains behind the town, where skiing was the big attraction.

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The houses were very pretty indeed, but the lack of people was disconcerting.

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Walking back towards the main center, we stopped by the only open stores in the area, all owned by migrants from Syria to pick up groceries. It was like walking into a small shop in Dubai. Hungry by now, we stopped for cake at a fancy coffee shop, but sadly chose a chocolate cake with apricot jam that destroyed the taste for us. Deeply disappointed, we peered into more shop windows to salve our souls.

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What a beautiful model of Zell am see at Christmas

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My favorite part of Zell am see, the shop windows. I loved this grumpy elf and beaver

Admired some more flora.

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Saw a few pretty buildings.

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We retired early that day, for want of better things to do, and because the Grossglockner drive was up the next day. We spent our evening looking at webcam images of the road and fell asleep hoping for clear skies.

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View from our room after sunset

All in all, we found Zell am see to be quite a dud. Maybe we were there at the wrong time. My brother-in-law visited in mid May and pretty much loved the place.

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Our last morning at Zell am see saw a very different lake. Gray clouds had moved in, a mist rose from the lake and the gorgeous mountains were totally obscured. The lake was much stiller this morning and the surroundings reflected off it beautifully. Somehow, I preferred this more than the bright clear days.

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Sadly, Zell am see didn’t live up to my expectations. Yet, I am very glad I went there becasue it was the base for our Grossglockner high alpine drive, that turned out to be THE best drive of the trip. We were joined on the drive by two good friends, Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy, whose presence made the day even so much better for us. But that’s a new story, for a brand new day. So, stay tuned.