A colonial stay in the Nilgiris – Sinnadorai’s bungalow, Mangorange

It is the end of April. Although intermittent rains bring some respite from the summer heat in Bangalore, the heart longs for the solitude and bliss of the hills. Especially the Nilgiris, for I haven’t been there in 4 years. Thus, when the chance of spending a weekend in the lower reaches of the Nilgiris presents itself, I do not waste a moment. This bungalow, approaching it’s 100th birthday, is the oldest of the Murugappa group’s lovingly restored colonial heritage stays. It dates back to a time when tea first came to these hills, and in it’s heydays, housed the deputy manager of the estate.

Bangalore to Sinnadorai’s bungalow, Mangorange

We start off on the right note. An early morning drive from Bangalore eschewing the traffic laden Mysore highway in favor of the Kanakapura highway means peaceful driving, as also an absence of good eateries. The recent rains have turned the foliage green. The fiery red gulmohar and the yellow golden shower tree add refreshing pops of color throughout the highway.

Bandipur is greener and far more denser. Post Bandipur, we drive onwards, on roads canopied by thick, dense bamboo groves. Closer to the exit at Bandipur and near Theppekadu, we see a fork. The left turn means climbing up 36 nerve wracking hairpins towards Ooty. Our destination lies in the other direction, so we turn right towards Gudalur. The town of Gudalur is it’s usual touristy self, becoming a pitstop for state transport buses and an antidote for stomachs revolting from the curves of the forest road.

Bamboo groves in Gudalur
Canopied by thick bamboo groves just after we cross Gudalur !

Post Gudalur, and a few kilometers of uphill tarmac, the forest bushes give way to tea estates. Entire hills full of them. Villages with lovely names appear – Nadugani, Devala and finally Pandalur. Personally, we can’t shake off the feeling that these villages are still colonies of tea growers. Small enough that everybody still knows everybody else.

Just after Pandalur, on the left of the highway, lies the Carolyn tea factory. Even from outside, the smell of freshly crushed tea leaves hangs thick in the air. Just after the factory, we leave the highway and take the road on the right, towards the estate bungalow situated on top of a hill. We pass by a small playground where kids are making the most of their summer vacations. Tea estate factory worker’s accommodations, provision stores and acres of tea estate follow before we hit the final curves leading to the bungalow.

Sinnadorai’s bungalow, Mangorange

Sinnadorai's bungalow Mangorange Pandalur
The bungalow that must have some tales to tell !

After the long drive, our host Mudassir is quick to brief us about the estate. This estate was claimed from forest land and the original inhabitants still drop by. Especially elephants, the occasional leopard and sometimes, even a wild dog pack. Taking an unaccompanied walk in the estate during twilight hours therefore, is dissuaded.

We dig into the hearty aloo-subzi and the delectable chicken curry that the cooks have prepared. In the evenings, sipping a tea on our own verandah overlooking the lawns and the estate, promises immense flaunt value in this age of instagram, but we choose to glance through the books and magazine instead.

Tea in a tea estate
Multiple cups of chai and potato fritters, just as the evening seems to set in.

The bungalow and it’s rooms have been tastefully restored. The flooring is still made of red oxide tiles. Old books on the history of the nilgiris, including memoirs and detailed records of the erstwhile colonial managers of the estate dot the reading room. The mantle displays a vintage radio that amid other features, has stations named Burma and Ceylon. Mudassir tells us that even the (massive) sofas in the living room have been lovingly restored and re-upholstered and true to her word, they do retain the charm. Every room seems to be done up with heavy teak furniture.

Not long after, we take a walk around. Frangipani and a few other flowers dot the paths outside the bungalow. The lush greenery of the tea bushes is mesmerizing and at dawn and dusk, they are colored a  yellowish green. You have to hand it over to the colonial owners. They had a knack of choosing the right places.

Evening at Sinnadorai's bungalow Mangorange
The evening sun casts a mellow glow on the tea estate during our evening walk.

As it grows darker, the sirens warn off all the tea leaf pickers. It grows darker still. Before long, a guest points out fireflies in the trees. I muster my thoughts but I can barely remember the last time I’ve seen a firefly.

A morning walk in a tea plantation
Taking a morning walk in a tea plantation ranks right up there as one of the fondest memories of the little time that I’ve spent in the Nilgiris.

Scouting for gold in abandoned gold mines

The late 19th century witnessed a gold rush in most parts of Wayanad and in some of the hills near us. Fascinating accounts of the period found a mention in some of the bungalow’s books and if you be interested, in this blog post.

So on the second day, we decide to scout for gold in an abandoned gold mine, a few miles from the bungalow. Past Pandalur, we climb the escarpment of another hilly tea estate. After a few minutes, we stare at a pitch black opening carved into the hillside, which is one of the numerous entrances to the labyrinth carved centuries ago into the hill. We walk inside and come across what seems to be a dead end.

Unbelievably, Chandran, our guide from the bungalow, says we have to go down what looks like a rabbit hole. I balk. There is no turning back now, so crawl we do. Inside, it is pitch dark but a few degrees cooler than the afternoon sun. In spite of that, we sweat, mostly from the exertion and a little from the anxious thoughts swirling around in our brains. A whoosh around my head makes me realize there are bats, but our torches ward them off.

Chandran, leads us deeper in to the mine and warns us to look out for sharp, low hanging rocks above that can, in his words, ‘split your head with just one bump‘. Point taken, I walk with one hand groping the roof while the other looks for purchase on the walls, as the floor is slippery. At one point, we have to crawl on all fours to descend deeper in to the mine. This is no place for the claustrophobic.

What if we don’t remember our way back ? What if we some part of the cave collapses and we are trapped inside ? Chandran pooh-poohs the idea and walks ahead with just his slippers on. It is just another day at the office for him.

Abandoned mines in the Nilgiris
Chandran points to the next rabbit hole we must crawl into and we look on with apprehension.

At one point, he points to a section where water dripping from the roof has accumulated. My torchlight bounces off the roof of the cave. The reflected light deludes me into believing that the water runs deep. In reality, it is scarcely a feet in depth. But the water feels refreshing though, small victory to savor after our unsuccessful little gold mine expedition.

We hasten back and it feels blessed to be back in sunlight. The things we take for granted, I tell myself ! Chandran hands me a makeshift towel made out of wild fronds, to wipe down the mud on my clothes.

Fronds
The cheapest towel I’ve ever used in my life. Pretty effective, now that I come to think of it.

Golden hour that evening at the Sinnadorai’s bungalow, we are standing just outside the gates of the bungalow. The sun and the numerous silver oak trees cast long shadows across the tea bushes. The tea leaves flutter in the gentle breeze while bird songs ring out one last time that day. For a moment, it seems as if everything is all right with this world.

 


The Stay: All details about the stay, meals, tariff and activities in and around the Sinnadorai’s bungalow in the Nilgiris are here. You can’t book the stay from any other online travel aggregator. They own 3 properties in different locations, I have also written about their Sakleshpur estate here. Room fares start from 6000 per night, full board.

The food is strictly south Indian fare, so folks expecting other cuisines may be disappointed. But the property and the hosts more than make up for it. There are 3 rooms in the bungalow. Try asking if the rooms facing the driveway are available when you make the booking. Our preference would have been the first room as you enter the bungalow’s gates. 

How to reach there: Mangorange, Pandalur is an 8 hour leisurely drive from Bangalore. You could shorten the journey by booking a cab from Coimbatore as well. Google maps could point you in the wrong direction, so it is preferable to use the first map linked in the post above.

Do: You can explore the neighboring tea estates of Devala, Pandalur or even take a long detour to Devarshola. There is a fantastic view point named ‘Needle Rock’ on the Gudalur-Ooty road. Beware though, elephants have been known to inhabit the area and when we were there, the path to the viewpoint was cordoned off. In Gudalur, do not forget to shop for spices, dry fruits, oils and essences from Indian Spices and Dry Fruits.


 

Italy’s restaurants and cafes – A photo essay

A short photo essay on the sights we saw on Italy’s streets.

 

“If your mother cooks Italian food, why should you go to a restaurant?” -Martin Scorcese

 

Cafes in San Marco Venice
The concept of a coffee house, or cafe, was born in Venice, here in San Marco

 

Grand Canal restaurant Venice
Dining by Venice’s canal is a lovely, albeit expensive affair

 


Also read, my experience spending a day in Venice


 

Ponte Vecchio Florence
Jewelry shops and luxury watch brands line the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, as also musicians and artists come evening time.

 

Montepulciano
Artsy souvenirs in the form of painted ceramic plates and paintings of the Tuscan countryside adorn the steep streets of the hilly town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. These looked authentic compared to the (cheaper) ones we had seen in Florence’s Mercato Centrale.

 

Pienza PEcorino cheese
Pienza in Tuscany is famous all over Italy for it’s Pecorino cheese, a hard variant of cheese made from sheep’s milk.

 


Also read, a whirlwind tour of Tuscany’s countryside towns


 

Cafe in Rome
Europe has numerous cafes and in Italy, we found evenings to be a time when cafes would come alive with patrons sauntering in for their fill of ‘aperitivo‘ – drinks hour where the drinks were accompanied by finger food that was usually free.

 

Pizza in Rome
How can you not have your fill of it, in the place that gave birth to the pizza ?

 

Coffee in Italy
..Or come away without sharing the Italians’ enthusiasm for coffee ?

 

Pies and sweetmeats in Italy
..Or resist falling prey to their pies, muffins and delicacies ?

 

Vintage cars Trastavere Rome
A vintage car used by one of the restaurants attracts every eyeball that walks past.

 

Rome restaurants
A restaurant gets ready to welcome patrons as the sun sets in Rome

 

Night in Rome
Once dusk sets in, the cafes and restaurants come alive with good food, fine wine, a general good cheer and most memorably for us, musicians serenading the dining crowd with mellifluous music.

 

Restaurants and cafes in Trastavere
In Trastavere, we had a jolly good walk along almost every street observing the crowd enjoying their food and drinks, before picking our own establishment to sit down to.

A walk through the touristy sights of Rome

Rome is the last city on our European travel ticket. We have saved the best for the last, the grandest of all the sights and the most ancient of all the historical places we’ve visited so far.

We alight from the notorious Bus no 64 with our pockets intact and start walking. Our trolley bags make quite the racket as we drag them towards our hotel on Via Giulia, the cobbled roads proving to be the most difficult surfaces that we’ve faced till now. These square stones are quarried from volcanic mountains and our luggage wheels going down and up the gaps between adjacent stones, emanate sounds that remind me of the clatter of horse-drawn carriages.

Looking around, the streets seem empty at noon and the sunlight reflecting off the pastel colored buildings seems to add a tinge of sepia. Every other lane seems to contain a structure that looks like it has seen history, if not been a part of it.

Our walk to our hotel is almost like taking a walk back in time. We realize that day, why Rome is called the Eternal City.

She had always been fond of history, and here [in Rome] was history in the stones of the street and the atoms of the sunshine.
― Henry James

Sights to see in Rome

Check-in is a breeze at our hotel at Maison Giulia, located just a Roman stone’s throw away from the campy neighborhood of Trastavere. Our receptionist pulls out a huge map of Rome and starts marking attractions when my eyes roll over. There are hundreds of sights to see, how are we to see everything within 3 days ? In the end, we decide to entrust things to our trusty Rick Steve’s audio guides.

Ancient Rome – Largo di Torre Argentina

Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome
As evening sets in on this piazza, we side-step buses and trams to stumble on to our first view of ancient Rome – the Largo di Torre Argentina. Discovered during an excavation in 1929, this site sits below street level and contains Roman temples. Stirring with cats everywhere (once we spotted the first one, we couldn’t stop spotting countless others), this is *actually* the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

We walk past bustling tramways, huge piazzas and lots of traffic. Soon, we see a cylindrical bricked structure in front of us. To me, it resembles a gigantic cookie jar. There is a roar coming from beyond, almost like a huge gathering of people. The moment we cross the corridor, we realize that we were looking at the posterior of the Pantheon all along. What a magnificent sight it makes from the Piazza ! What a gathering of crowds it has pulled in !

The Pantheon

Pantheon in Rome
The Pantheon in Rome. Symbolic. On a Sunday, the line stretching in front of the Pantheon is long, but moves quickly and within 15 minutes, we are inside. Outside the crowds are having a gala time. They’re cheering on musicians, daredevil stunt-men playing with fire, pantomime artistes, haggling with souvenir sellers or indulging themselves in a gelato on a hot day.

The sheer scale and size of the Pantheon is astounding. Stepping into it’s portico, we are surrounded by gigantic granite pillars that were brought in all the way from Misr, modern day Egypt.

Pantheon in Rome
This piazza in front of the Pantheon is the Piazza Rotunda, from the Latin Rotundus – meaning any building with a circular ground plan. This fountain is fairly modern compared to it’s surroundings, but the obelisk in it is anything but. Farther in the distance, the lettering on the Pantheon translates from Latin into “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.” (Courtesy Wikipedia) – Imagine your name in a lettering that stands for close to 2000 years ! That, is literally writing your name in the history books for posterity !
Inside the Pantheon in Rome
How many inspirations did the Pantheon spawn ? It’s dome inspired Michelangelo’s design of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, Brunelleschi’s design of the Duomo’s cupola in Florence and countless others, most notably in the modern day, the white house dome in Washington DC.

It is difficult to suppress your excitement beneath the cavernous dome of the Pantheon. Entombed in this ancient Roman temple turned church, are Raphael  whose work we witnessed at the Uffizzi in Florence and Victor Emmanuel II who created and ruled over a united Italy.

The woman his son married, was the Margherita of Savoy, whose favorite colors of green, white and red adorned the medieval and present day modern flag of Italy. Along with their son, she also gave birth to a legend. Apparently, from a variety of pizzas created to commemorate her visit, she chose the ones with her favorite colors – those of basil, mozzarella and tomato. This is the eponymous Margherita pizza.

Piazza Navona

Famous for it’s Fountain of Four Rivers, the Piazza Navona in the evening is occupied by tourists, painters and faux painters selling Chinese artwork disguised as Italian, jugglers, musicians and people-watchers. It’s numerous cafes look a tad expensive though.

In one of the shops enroute to Piazza Navone, we find folders filled with lithographs of every size. The kind old gentleman at the shop indulges us, pointing out the difference in the original water color paintings that cost a little over 100 euros, to copies that look the same but are way cheaper.

The Spanish Steps

From Piazza Navona, we walk towards the iconic Spanish steps, so named due to the presence of the Spanish embassy nearby. We take a different route, walking through the shopping street that our receptionist has told us, we’ll love, Via Condotti. This street is lined with the whos-who of Italian and foreign luxury retail outlets, so we indulge in the the only thing we can afford to – window shopping. The street is also choc-a-bloc with human traffic and from afar, we can already spot the Spanish steps.

The Spanish Steps Rome
The setting sun has painted the steps a shade of golden. First made famous in A Roman Holiday, the steps have also served as a backdrop in The Talented Mr Ripley, To Rome with Love; Eat, Pray and many more. We can hardly find a spare step on the lower tier on a Sunday and thus, we miss out on the pale Orange building, where the poet John Keats looked out on to the steps every day before succumbing to tuberculosis.

The top of the Spanish steps houses a lot of souvenir shops and painters and caricature artists parading their wares. Folks hunting for good paintings can try their luck here or at the Piazza Navona.

Rome is also considerably warmer and all the walking around has meant a craving for something cold. This, we are quick to indulge in, as we walk away from the Spanish steps. Containing lesser air as compared to ice-cream, we find Gelatos decidedly smoother in texture and denser in the flavors it packs, the bigger ones quite filling indeed.

With Gelato in hand, onward we move, to the next popular attraction, the Trevi fountain.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi fountain in Rome
Built as an ode to the water gods, this place has seen fountains since ancient times. Every moment, there is a coin tossing mania going around here, which also serves as a secondary source of income for the city.

It is maniacal around the Trevi fountain where tourists want to ensure that the opportunity of coin tossing and ensuring a return to Rome doesn’t go abegging. So amidst much crowds and with barely any elbow room, we toss a miserly few cents into the fountain. There are ample opportunities of getting pickpocketed here, so we move on and call it a day.

But not before we tuck into an Italian pizza.

The Colosseum

The next day dawns bright and sunny again and we take a leisurely stroll to that icon of Roman architecture, the Colosseum. Our tickets have already been booked, but we are nevertheless accosted by guides who greet us with a ‘Namaste‘. Undeterred by our refusal, they still wave us on to the correct skip the line queue, which is admittedly long at 10 in the morning.

You see, there are 3 entrances if you’ve booked tickets for the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine hill, with the last one being the shortest. But we want to spend the most time at the Colosseum, since the light and the sun will be gentle this time in the morning, as compared to later in the afternoon.

Our queue moves quickly and we climb up the stairs to the first level of the Colosseum. Grand as they come. Our tickets provide entrance to a few restricted areas only and you need to book separate tickets or guides for the other areas.

But even from here, the grandstands of the arena make for a breathtaking sight. We imagine the horns, the cheers and boos of a bygone civilization as they watch from the stands, the roars of animals and the war cries of gladiators as we circumnavigate the Colosseum.

Rick Steves, our personal guide, paints an evocative scene with his voice in our ears, as he drills into the circumspect ability of the Colosseum to be flooded and drained, to enable a grand spectacle of naval victories and losses. The roars of wild animals as their leashes barely restrain them.  The popular thumbs down that marked the end of a gladiator’s life.

Rome Colosseum
Queues stretch around the block in the morning at the Colosseum. So make sure to be there early, or use the other entrances – the Roman Forum or the Palatine Hill to avoic the queues
Inside the Colosseum
Built around 80 AD, not much of the Colosseum still remains, but even of them, the views are staggering. It is clear that this amphitheater-like setting, was one of the earliest stadiums that mankind built, just that the sport was of a violent kind.
Rome Colosseum
Time has eaten away the arena itself, but you can make out the basement hiding pathways that could have served various mechanisms to introduce gladiators, animals and other props that were an intrinsic part of the spectacle inside the Colosseum. The floor was covered with sand, and in fact the Latin for sand is, guess what, ‘arena’.
The Arch of Constantine viewed from the Colosseum
From a viewpoint inside the Colosseum, is visible the beautiful Arch of Constantine. Built by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, this arch also coincided with the rise and unchecked spread of Christianity, deviating from the pagan origins of Rome.
Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
And turning right, from the same viewpoint also has this view of the Roman Forum, our next destination for the day.

The Roman Forum

A quick check-in against the turnstiles of the Roman Forum’s entrance, we are staring at the Arch of Titus. From here, as in the last picture, we can glimpse the Palatine hill on our left. Shaded by numerous trees and peaceful, with a musician playing a strange drum that seems to induce sopor.

On the right, we can see numerous arches, a bell tower, huge white pillars and various ruins. This is ancient Rome, the Roman Forum. We begin our walk on the ‘Via Sacra’, the Sacred Road which is barely wide enough for 4 or 5 people. As we walk along the cobbled path, our audio guides paint a picture of a triumphant emperor returning from a successful campaign, with crowds thronging the Via Sacra and cheering the army on.

Basilica of Constantine at the Roman Forum
To think that one would have been looking at a colossal (yes, that’s the word) basilica here, were it to be still standing, takes my breath away.

We walk back on the Via Sacra again. The same stones on which Caesar, Marc Antony, Titus, Constantine and other famous Romans once walked.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
Romans had thousands of gods. So much so that, people had their beloved, deceased ones also declared as a god or goddess, before dedicating a temple like this one, to them. The temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
House of the Vestal Virgins Rome
The Vestal Virgins, whose duty it was to tend to the sacred flame in a temple dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of home and hearth.

Back on the Via Sacra again, we walk past the Temple of Julius Caesar. This was the same street where after Caesar’s funeral, Marc Antony, commemorating the death of a great emperor, called out to the citizens with his famous words that are repeated to this day, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..

All of this history and walking around in the hot afternoon sun has taken it’s toll on us, and we move on from the Forum, looking for lunch. But not before sighting the famous Piazza Venezia and it’s famous palace, the Palazzo Venezia, the embassy of the Republic of Venice in Rome.

Grand Palazzo Venezia in Rome
A grand piece of architecture is this palace, from where the famous dictator Mussolini gave public speeches to his supporters.

St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican

The next day is another grand day, with a tour of the magnificent St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The astounding collection of art inside is enough to explore for more than a life time.

Our guide, Roberta (Rroberrrta she calls herself) weaves us in 2.5 hours around the grand columns of the square. We take in the wonderful tapestries and gleaming, golden ceiling in the Vatican museums, the gloriously frescoed Raffael’s rooms, the famous ceilings of Sistine Chapel and the exquisitely architect-ed St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter's basilica Vatican city
St Peter’s Basilica is a beautiful place to be in, in the early hours of the morning. With few people in sight, it is a sharp contrast to the bustling square it turns into after we are done with our guided tour.
Vatican museums
It is guaranteed that you’ll be gaping up in astonishment, most of the time inside the museums of the Vatican.

We’re tired at the end of the tour but nothing that a gelato can’t fix. And then, we dig into another Pizza for lunch.

Ponte Umberto 1 overlooking the Vatican

On the last evening, we decide to take it slow and skip the remaining touristy sights. We grab a cup of coffee and sip it as we walk slowly to a view of the Vatican and the Tiber from one of the bridges, we look back on what has been a splendid 3 days in Rome.

What a splendid collection of art and history line every street, every corner and every building in sight. In a contrast from the intimate crowds, the city feels huge and open.

Lining the Tiber, across the Castel St Angelo, are a line of stalls offering second hand books, imitation paintings, lithographs, music records, tacky souvenirs and curios. We buy a couple of lithographs that at 6 euros, will offer us memories of the beautiful days we spent in Rome.

Memories that will hopefully, be eternal for us.

Ponte 1 Umberto Rome
Last evening and one last loving look at the photo I first saw of Rome that led us to plan the trip in the first place. Ciao Roma !

Tips

Stay: Although most tourists opt to stay near Rome Termini, and they offer quite a lot of stay options, we decided to opt for a lovely little place situated on Via Giulia, the Maison Giulia. They offer hotel rooms as well as a choice of apartments situated on the same street. Quiet and just a short walk away from the budget friendly neighborhood of Trastavere. 

What is more, the hotel is also a 20 minute walk away from Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, as well as the Vatican. Rome can and should be explored on foot. If you can, also plan to take in the sights at night. The lit Colosseum looks brilliant when it glitters at night. 

Helpful Links:

  1. 40 free things to do in Rome – courtesy Lonely Planet
  2. A PHOTOGRAPHER’S GUIDE TO ROME AT NIGHT
  3. DAILY COSTS TO VISIT ROME
  4. 10 of the best open spaces in Rome
  5. Where to Shop for Gifts in Rome

 

30 photos to make you want to visit Venice, Florence and Rome

Here is a photo essay on Italy’s famous troika of Venice, Florence and Rome that is sure to incite travel pangs in people who already have or are yet to visit Italy.

Venice

Speedboats in Venice
How can any memory of Venice be complete without it’s canals and boats ?
Gondoliers in Venice
..Or without it’s yodeling gondoliers, in their romantic gondola rides
Canals in Venice
Wandering narrow ‘alleyways’ in Venice was a favorite pastime of ours..
Grand canal in Venice
..as was standing atop the Rialto and enjoying this view of the Grand Canal
Grand Canal in Venice
Everybody learns a new concept when they’re in Venice, traffic jams on water
Rialto in Venice
And everybody jostles with the crowds in Rialto for that one perfect photo.
Masks in Venice
Nobody comes away from Venice without shopping for one of these Venetian masks
St Mark's Square Venice
Or without sipping a coffee, maybe even an expensive one at the square that gave birth to the cafe, while orchestras serenade the crowds
Bridge of Sighs
This sight at the iconic Bridge of sighs will have you bidding adieu to Venice

Read more about what to do when you have only 1 day to spend in Venice


Florence

Evening at Florence
The Florence experience is incomplete if you haven’t watched the sun go down from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Duomo in Florence
Waking up early in the morning for a crowd free square near the Duomo is a good thing to do
Duomo cupola in Florence
..As is gazing up at Brunelleschi’s lovely brick-red cupola of the Duomo
Uffizzi in Florence
Nobody comes away without walking alongside the works of the rockstars from the Renaissance era
Ponte Vecchio in Florence
Licking a gelato with this view of the colorful Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful memory to take back
Florence and the Vespa
As is spotting uniquely Florentians slights like these
Piazza della Republica Florence
Gelato licking and crowd watching is a wonderful activity to indulge in at it’s famous squares, like the Piazza della Repubblica
Montepulciano in Italy
While you’re in Florence, it pays to take a day off to visit the hill towns in Tuscany
Val D'Orcia in Tuscany
And open your hearts to the beauty of the Tuscan countryside with its cypress lined roads and rolling hills..
Pienza in Tuscany
..Amble about in unknown lanes, stop by to sip some wine and taste the cheese, in ideal towns built during the Renaissance..
Montalcino in Tuscany
..And while you’re at it, savour wood fired pizza while church bells toll in the background

Also read, Exploring Florence in 3 days and Making a day trip to the Tuscan countryside from Florence


Rome

Pantheon in Rome
Visit the pantheon of architecture, the Pantheon in Rome was one of our favorite memories
Inside the Pantheon in Rome
Do not forget to pick your jaw up from the floor, when you’re inside the Pantheon
Piazza Navona in Rome
Indulge in crowd watching at the Piazza Navona and Bernini’s 5 rivers fountain in Rome while sipping a coffee at one of the numerous cafes lining the Piazza
Spanish steps in Rome
Watch the sun go down, if you can find empty steps at the Spanish steps
Trevi fountain in Rome
And toss a coin at the Trevi fountain, to ensure another visit to Rome
Rome collisseum
Marvel at the gigantic, iconic pieces of architecture in Rome
Roman Forum
..And wander among ruins that are a 1000 years old
St Peter's basilica Vatican city
Cross into the smallest country in the world
Vatican museums
And gape at the astonishing pieces of art inside
St Peters Basilica Vatican city
But do make a promise to yourself that you’ll come back .. one day

A whirlwind tour of Tuscany – Montepulciano, Pienza and Montalcino

Tuscany ! The mere mention of the name conjures up images of gently rolling hills, acres upon acres of vineyards, with tiny beige and yellow settlements clinging to the top of the hills. So it is no surprise at all that out of one of our days spent visiting Florence, we make a day trip to the countryside to visit the Tuscan hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza and Montalcino.

How to get to the Tuscan countryside

The Tuscan countryside can be a little difficult to get to as there are no major train stations in the region. So the easiest, and the laziest option is to book one of the numerous operators that offer guided day trips to various towns and villages in Tuscany. The options are most often limited to a packed itinerary that involves Siena-San Gimignano-Chianti and sometimes even Pisa. Seasoned travelers usually frown upon such an arrangement but these day trips have a thriving market.

Travelers who have the luxury of time, catch a bus or drive a rented car down to one of the villages and stay there for a couple of days, experiencing the true sun-soaked Tuscan way of life. Bus options, in Italian, can be checked here and here.

We on the other hand, have also opted for a day trip. This one involves a tour of the picturesque Val D’Orcia in Tuscany, which is the sight that you see online most often. Fortunately for us, this is a region that most tourists opting for the Siena leg will never come close to, which is virtually a guarantee of lesser crowds.

Onward to Montepulciano

We have had an early start to the day and Francesco, our B&B host has just bid us “Ciao” after a hearty breakfast. A van picks us up and escorts us to a meeting point near the railway station where tourists on the same itinerary are marked with colored pin-it stickers. Ours is a deep green, but we are not jealous of the packed buses that are departing for Siena and Cinque Terre.

An hour later, our bus heads south of Florence, crossing uncrowded roads, with the Duomo’s red bricked cupola bidding us “buon giorno” for the day. It drizzles and we sleep, hoping for some sunshine up ahead.

Silvia, our Spanish tour guide jolts us out of our reverie when she announces in English that we are nearing Montepulciano and might as well accompany her for a tour of the wine cellar that makes the famous Montepulciano wine. As we gape outside, miles of vineyards laden with big round grapes greet us, the famous and eponymous Montepulciano variety.

Once the claustrophobic wine tour is finished, we strike off on our own to explore the little town.

Montepulciano
All of these Tuscan towns are situated on hills, meaning, Montepulciano will have steep upward sloping roads and alleyways.
Montepulciano
..with pricey souvenirs in the form of painted ceramic plates and artwork of the Tuscan countryside. But these do look authentic in contrast to the ones we have seen in Florence’s Mercato Centrale.
Santa Maria della Grazia at Montepulciano
Up the top of the hill is a piazza, the Piazza Grande with a medieval looking church and a palace that resembles the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
View from Montepulciano
View from the top of Montepulciano

Pienza

Next on the whirlwind tour, announces Silvia, is the charming little town of Pienza. As the bus speeds towards Pienza, she tells us that the settlement is usually referred to as the ‘ideal city’ here in Tuscany. But it is so small that you can finish sight-seeing within half an hour. Pienza is also famous for it’s pecorino cheese, a hard, salty variety that is made from sheep’s milk.

Personally for us, we are agog with excitement. Pienza also lays claim to courtyards that offer sweeping views of the famous Tuscan landscape. Famous movies like The English Patient, Romeo & Juliet as well as Gladiator were filmed here. And true to it’s fame, Pienza does not disappoint.

Rolling hills of Tuscany in Pienza
Rolling hills of Tuscany in Pienza

 

Rolling hills of Tuscany in Pienza
Cypress tree lined sinewy roads dot the picturesque landscape of Tuscany

Thankfully, the foreboding clouds have receded and we are blessed to see sunlight baking the Val D’Orcia from balconies in Pienza. The brick and stone structures in Pienza are a mishmash of red, yellow and orange and they seem to bask proudly in the day.

Pienza's alleys - romantic and full of Tuscan character
One of the alleys in Pienza, bursting with typical Tuscan character and so quaint and charming.
The main street in Pienza
We could walk from end of Pienza to the other in about 15-20 minutes. The dreamy ambience of the town makes you feel like it is a lot lesser than that. Along with movies, even a video game called ‘Assassin’s Creed’ had Pienza as a setting.

Soon, it is time to depart Pienza and we move on to our next destination for the trip, the biggest town we’re to see during our day – Montalcino. On the way, our bus passes through the Val D’Orcia.

The scenes are stunning though. The landscape has countless gently sloping hills that have been ploughed through, and are all muddy brown in the shadows, but gleam golden when the sun breaks through. If we were not fully awake, this dreamy landscape would have felt alien, as if Tuscany hid another planet within itself. Bales of hay and patches of shrubs and cypress trees break the monotony of yellow and brown. It is no surprise therefore that UNESCO has chosen this valley as a proud member of it’s world heritage sites.

The landscape is not totally isolated though. In between, we catch big, solitary houses, their entrances guarded by cypress trees planted in perfect alignment with the curvature of the roads.

Quintessential Tuscan countryside
These Italian cypress trees added so much symmetry and beauty to the otherwise austere landscape in summer. One wonders how glorious the landscape would appear in spring.

Montalcino

Montalcino feels surprisingly large after Pienza. We are a little famished as well and hunt around for a pizza. A pizzeria in the town square, the piazza del popolo is just closing down and we ask the lady for a slice of delicious pizza with a bottle of coke and it amounts to just 4 euros ! That is the cheapest lunch we’ll ever have in all of Europe, and it makes for some very happy tummies.

Montalcino is famous for another of Tuscany’s wines, the Brunello di Montalcino. We also sight shops selling exquisite Fedora hats made of felt and leather, along with leather handbags and purses that seem far better in quality to the ones we’ve seen so far in Florence.

The fortress at Montalcino
Montalcino boasts of a 13th century fortress that to my eyes, somehow embodies the term ‘medieval’. The view that you get from it’s ramparts is phenomenal. And if you get tired of climbing and walking, there is even a cafe within it’s walls.

As the church bell rings, it signals the end of our trip to the countryside and we stroll back leisurely through the streets toward our bus. The sun is almost saying goodbye and it manages to color the Tuscan skies a tinge of purple and rich orange, visible through the windows of our bus as we speed back north towards Florence.

This landscape, as I am sure history also agrees, is itself a work of art that doesn’t need museums or closed doors. And today, it continues to astound us as travelers, as it once inspired Renaissance era artists. “Que bella“, as they say here in Tuscany.


Tips on visiting Montepulciano, Pienza and Montalcino.

As always, it is recommended that one plan for Tuscany and let the experience seep in gradually instead of a rushed day trip to the countryside. Siena and it’s adjacent towns of San Gimignano are crowded and the Val D’Orcia route is usually a little less popular. 

It is also a pretty straightforward bet to hire your own car or bike (of a vintage make hopefully), to make for a slow (read leisurely) drive into the hills of Tuscany.

Montalcino is the biggest of the 3 towns however stay options, with some really fantastic agriturismos, can be found in all the 3 towns.

Helpful links here:


 

Exploring Florence in 3 days

Florence hits the top spot in most travel listicles with amazing regularity. Not only is it’s reputation as the Italian cultural center-piece and as the birthplace of the Renaissance reason enough for the faithful hordes, it’s proximity to the unique topography of Tuscany’s rolling hills and the Tyrrhenian sea makes it the perfect spot for a lot of countryside and seaside getaways.

“This is the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon, the most satisfying to the eye and the spirit. To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature, and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.”
Mark Twain Mark Twain’s Autobiography  1892

Reaching Florence from Venice

After our brief stay in Venice, we catch a train to Florence and arrive by late afternoon. It takes us some time to get our bearings. After dragging our luggage around the city for a good 20 – 30 minutes, or as the mayor of another Italian city would put it, making a major nuisance of ourselves, we arrive at our stay on the grandiose sounding Via Lorenzo il Magnifico. Our stay is an immaculate one, the Opera B&B, run by an affectionate and caring Italian named Francesco.

The B&B has a dark stairwell and we are at first perplexed to find no one at attendance. Thankfully, there is a note taped to the door for us by Francesco, and we follow the instructions to finally find for ourselves the tallest and most spacious room we’ve every stayed in. This is a place that does not have a 24 hour front desk, but assuredly, Francesco is only a call or email away.

Sights to see in Florence

After settling in, we set out for an evening where the singular aim is to view the sun set over Florence from an extraordinary vantage point, in the southern Oltrarno district. We ask a local for directions, and are bemused to be met with a barrage of well-intentioned directions, all of it in incomprehensible Italian. Sign language and lame attempts to italianize English words later, I give up, only able to convey Piazzale Michelangelo and Bus, and he responds with a finger pointing me to a bus stop. Sure enough, that is the intended bus stop and we hop on Bus No 13 for our destination.

Piazzale Michelangelo and Basilica di San Miniato al Monte

The bus trip takes about 40 minutes through a mostly beige and yellow colored city, glowing a slight golden in the hours leading up to sun set. From the windows, we can make out cobbled streets and concrete pavements. The roads are canopied by tall trees on both sides – Via Michaelangelo is the road we learn later, and can sense the Italian way of life already – respect for pedestrians but a little disregard for traffic rules otherwise. Most of the vehicles proudly bear the Fiat logo.

Soon, we arrive at Piazzale Michaelangelo. Entrance is free here and there is a noticeable buzz about the place, almost similar to a fair. Tourists are licking gelatos, getting selfies taken, haggling for souvenirs or otherwise, milling about excitedly. The steps at the piazza are mostly occupied, but the crowds are quiet, perhaps in admiration of the beautiful panorama on offer. There are restaurants near the courtyard from which emanate lilting music, providing food and drinks to accompany the grand view. It is 6 in the evening, the light is a brilliant golden and it only promises to get better.

Bronze replica David, Piazzale Michaelangelo Florence
A bronze replica of the famous David sculpture, basks in the evening light at Piazzale Michaelangelo. Designed by Gieuseppe Poggi in the 19th century as a testament to Michaelangelo, this Piazza holds one of the 2 replicas of David, of the original one at the Accademia museum. But tourists flock here every evening for the stunning views over Florence this place offers, from the courtyard. You can reach this piazza by a long walk up the Piazza Poggi or choose a cheap (read, 1 euro) bus ride up till Piazzale Michaelangelo, from Firenze Santa Maria Novella.

 

Up the road from Piazzale Michaelangelo, stands the relatively less crowded and undoubtedly one of the finest architectural structures in Florence, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte.

Entrance to the basilica is free and open until 7 pm. Around 7, the friendly guard starts closing the gate to visitors and we take a quick peek inside the basilica, dark due to the faded sun light, but our eyes gradually adjust to the dim white, golden and grey interiors of the basilica. The exterior facade reminds us of the Santa Maria del Fiore or the famous Duomo. In the days to come, we are going to run into this characteristic exterior in a lot of the basilicas throughout Florence, Santa Croce included.

 

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte
The view from the courtyard of the 11th cerntury Basilica di San Miniato al Monte is not inferior to that from Piazzale Michaelangelo by any means. Here, we see the distant sky getting burnt a crisp golden orange from the setting sun, but the skies behind the basilica still remain blue.

It gets quite crowded at sunset though, we see a long queue of cars waiting at the traffic signals. I can also sense the exasperation on the face of a few locals as they wait for so many tourists to cross the road near the Piazza. We later catch Bus No. 12, feeling quite at home inside the packed bus, to get back to our B&B.

Uffizzi and it’s Renaissance era paintings

Next morning, Florence wakes up a little damp and cloudy. On this day, we intend to visit the Uffizzi which is perhaps, the only place that we intend to splurge on in Florence. We have already booked a guided tour of the gallery with Walks of Italy, and Francesco provides us directions to the Uffizzi, along with a quick Italian breakfast and a deliciously sweet muffin, encrusted with sugar crystals. “Baked by my mom“, he proclaims proudly !

We arrive at the Piazza della Signoria on what is turning out to be a slightly humid morning to find that we’re the only ones booked on the tour, turning it into a private tour of sorts. Angelo, our guide, wastes no time in getting us started with the history of the Renaissance, a history lesson spanning 2 centuries condensed into 2 hours filled with famous paintings.

About the Renaissance

Angelo explains that the Uffizzi, or “the offices”, began it’s early days, as the administrative offices of the Medici era. The Medici family, the most influential and powerful one of it’s times, founded it’s fortunes in banking during the pre-Renaissance era. Their habit of hobnobbing with the city’s elites and their general wealth on display, were usually despised by some of the elitists of the era. But that did not stop the Medici from ascending the power centers of the Florentine state, not being rulers themselves but making sure that their wishes were adhered to.

In the 14th and 15th century, patrons of the fine arts that they were (partly, in order to appease the gods for the unholy business of banking or making money they were in), the Medici began to sponsor artistes and commission works of arts. This sponsorship was an arena where the Papacy enjoyed absolute freedom till then.

The Papacy had therefore, hitherto, exercised a stranglehold on the themes and the scenes their commissioned art could ehibit. Their paintings depicted a few, mostly repetitive scenes from Biblical times, with depictions that displayed no respect for structure, depth or anatomy.

Don’t they look like aliens ?“, Angelo points out Giotto’s Madonna and Duccio’s Madonna, almost seeming annoyed with the artists of those times.

Throttled by the free hand that they enjoyed with the Medici patronage, the Renaissance artists began to deviate from the hitherto 2 dimensional, disciplined and often gilded, art style. Artists like Boticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello and host of others set about eschewing the traditional rules and dogma related to art, and embracing a more natural and lifelike expression of the human anatomy, giving rise to what is known as the Humanist style. Blasphemous for the traditionalists but liberating for the modern, progressive thinkers of the era.

Their ideas soon developed roots in painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture and philosophy. This spread to all parts of the Italian country-states and from there, to all parts of Europe, thus marking a true revolution in the ideas and culture of the era, and ringing in the transition from medieval to modern times for Europe. They also succeeded in eventually casting a profound influence on the Papal states.

Famous architect Giorgio Vasari named this period, the ‘Rebirth’ and that in turn, led to the term ‘Renaissance’. The private art collection of the Medicis, was collated in the modern era in the offices of the Florentine state, or the Uffizi. Along with a host of other art pieces collected from various eras, the Uffizzi now houses one of the largest, richest collections of art on the entire planet.

Uffizzi corridor Florence
The Uffizzi houses it’s wealth of art over 2 levels and it is worthwhile engaging a guide to walk you through, or at the very least, using a self-guided audio tour. Famous works of art like Boticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus‘ and ‘Primavera‘, Michelangelo’s ‘Doni Tonda‘, Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Prato‘, Da Vinci’s ‘Annunciation‘ , his unfinished ‘Adoration of the Magi‘ and my personal favorite, the Baroque era works of Caravaggio’s ‘Bacchus‘, ‘Medusa‘ among thousands of others are housed here. At any point, a lot of ancient works of art are continually being restored at the Uffizzi, so you’ll see a couple of new entrants if you are back after a few years !
Uffizzi gallery corridor Florence
The corridor at the Uffizzi gallery in Florence, with larger than life sculptures of the luminaries whose works of art are displayed here, look over modern day artists who give tourists some art work of their own. It is advisable to visit Uffizzi at the earliest hour with a ‘skip-the-line’ ticket to make the most of your time in the Uffizzi.

Piazza Della Signoria

After the guided tour, Angelo bids us goodbye. Left to strike out on our own, we take a leisurely stroll through the Piazza della Signoria and are amazed at how crowded it has turned out to be. The opportunity is apt for some people watching and gelato licking. The Palazzo Vecchio, the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Vasari corridor beckon, but we have probably spent our bucks wisely in choosing the Uffizzi tour and for now, it is mostly the free sights that we pick.

Equestrian statue of Cosimo I de Medici at Piazza della Signoria
Cosimo watches over the crowds that have come to learn more about the history of his times. The Uffizzi was commissioned by Cosimo in the second half of the 16th century. This statue also acts as the meeting point for a lot of guided tours to the Uffizzi, the Palazzo Vecchio or the Medici palace.
Loggia dei Lanzi at Piazza della Signoria, Florence
The wide open arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi beside the Uffizzi provide a window to many Renaissance-era sculptures, a sharp contrast to the imposingly fort like Palazzo Vecchio standing opposite . Day time also sees many musicians occupy the space in front of it, regaling tourists with great covers of popular musical hits.
Other replica of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
Another replica of the famous David, outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza Della Signoria

Ponte Vecchio

From the Uffizzi and the Palazzo Vecchio, we move on to the Ponte Vecchio. Angelo informs us during the tour that the Medici had a corridor built so that they could move from their residence on the south of the Arno (the Palazzo Pitti beside the Boboli gardens – also a museum now) to the Uffizi and to the Palazzo Vecchio, without stepping foot outside. This corridor, named the Vasari corridor after it’s designer Giorgio Vasari, winds it’s way over the Ponte Vecchio.

Ponte Vecchio Florence
The Ponte Vecchio is one of the earliest travel destinations that I know of, having read about it first in a Lonely Planet contest. We enjoy our time here, strolling slowly along it’s corridors and enjoying a gelato while it rains, watching the colorful blocks and windows that make up the famous bridge.

With great difficulty, we find a free spot on the Ponte Vecchio. Evenings see musicians, magicians and other artistes displaying their skills and regaling locals and tourists alike here, but afternoons are usually filled with selfie-seekers.

At some point, the Medici also had the fish stall and meat stall hawkers and street owners, distasteful to them, evicted from the Ponte Vecchio. Their place were taken by gold and jewelry shops, befitting the economic status of the Medici.

Ponte Vecchio Florence
Jewelry shops and luxury watch brands line the Ponte Vecchio, as also musicians and artists come evening time.

Mercato Centrale

The shopping center for most tourists, done to death in most blogs, is our next destination. Everywhere we turn, there are leather and faux leather handbags in tan, bronze, blue, black and green. Chinese souvenirs and curios, miniature duomos and collisseums, magnets and keychains abound. Leather shoes, messenger bags, belts, hats and football jerseys of every European club are on display. We manage to evade the Bangladeshis parading their stocks and stumble into the heart of the crowded eatery inside Mercato Centrale.

Inside, there is probably something to cater to every taste. We manage to track a stall that is offering grilled chicken, roasted potatoes and pomodoro – juicy tomatoes that just burst in your mouth. The Italian manning the establishment asks us where we are from and upon hearing India, breaks into a wide welcoming smile.

I’ve been there. Delhi, Bangalore, Kera.. Keraala” he manages between gushes. So we ask him to make the chicken a little spicy and he flashes an understanding thumbs-up.

Il Duomo

The Duomo also doubles up as a gigantic anchor point, a beacon for all first-timers to the city, apart from being the face of Florence. From narrow alleyways and city streets, it’s cupola peeks at us and immediately guides us on our path.

At first however, nothing prepares us for the sheer size of the Duomo (Italian for cathedral, not for dome). It is massive and we can already see tourists bending into grotesque shapes to accommodate the structure in their photo frames. Walking around it’s alley ways presents sneak peeks with a narrow slice of the cathedral. Whenever we get lost, we look at the Duomo as our point of reference in Florence.

It is the octagonal Baptistery that is the older place of worship though. Entrance here, is not free however and we balk at the crowds, so we just look at the fantastic gilded doors to this basilica before we move to the centerpiece of Florence, the Duomo.

Baptistery and Duomo Campanile
The Baptistery, the Duomo and the Campanile during morning rush hour

The Duomo’s facade with it’s green, white ad pink marble, inlaid with tiled frescoes matches that of the baptistery and we spend some moments trying to make out the frescoes without stepping on the toes of camera-wielding tourists thronging the courtyards.

Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Viewed lengthwise from above, the cathedral is constructed in the form of a cross.

Entrance is free to a limited section of the Duomo and the queues move surprisingly quickly. So we step through one of the doors. Inside, the cavernous hallways dwarf everything else in comparison. That is until we walk along, gazing upwards at the tall frescoes and stained-glass windows, stopping finally beneath Bruneleschi’s massive cupola.

The Duomo Florence
Work on the cathedral was started in the 11th century, but the Florentians did not have the technical wherewithal to build a dome of such massive proportions, without it collapsing under it’s own weight. So the cathedral was without a dome because they knew, some day, somebody would get it done. Along came Filippo Bruneleschi in the 14th century, and in a span of 14 years, gave the cathedral it’s symbolic, much beloved, red brick cupola that still stands today.
Duomo's Cupola, Florence
Brunelleschi’s plan was to have the cupola’s interiors gleaming with gold. But the plans were shelved after his death and with the sponsorship of Cosimo de Medici, who wanted the Last Judgement to be painted there, Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zucchari gave the cupola the frescoes we see today.

Entrance to the long-winded 400-odd stairs to the cupola as well as the Campanile outside the Duomo require tickets and seeing the long queues, we make a decision to reserve it for another time, if there is one. Given a choice between the two though, the view from the Campanile overlooking the Duomo would definitely be my pick.

But, even after exiting the Duomo, we cannot help gazing at it every now and then, upwards to it’s lovely brick-red cupola. Emblematic of Firenze, we hope to make it back one day and catch the city’s red tiled roofs, this time from above.


Note: We arrived at Florence by train from Venice. The trains in Italy do not have much space to carry luggage for everybody, so traveling light is a golden rule.

See: We spent 3 nights and days in Florence, 2 days taking in the sights and 1 making a day trip to the Tuscan countryside. Within Florence, if you are a little short on budget, be sure to check out the ticket prices for the Uffizzi and the Accademia and budget for either one – my recommendation is the Uffizzi. However, if budget is not a constraint, I’d recommend both, in addition to the Palazzo Vecchio.

An evening at the Piazza Michelangelo is definitely recommended. Watch the sun go down and the city start lighting up, it is a magical sight.

If time permits, visit the Basilica di Santa Croce, where most of the luminaries of the Renaissance including Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo have been laid to rest.

Stay: Our stay at Opera B&B was fantastic and you’d be hard pressed to find such a great stay at the same rates. Although the vicinity of Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station may have some budget stays, nothing beats staying closer to the Duomo and exploring the neighborhood on foot. Some additional resources and pointers here:

Day trips from FlorenceOn introspection, we feel it is better to spend at least 4 nights in Florence so that you can accommodate a few more sights in the city and additionally, day trips to the seaside – either Pisa or Cinque Terre or both.

Tuscany’s countryside is not to be missed at any cost. If you have the time, I’d recommend spending at least a night in Tuscany and waking up to the gorgeous sight of fog rolling in the rounded hills of the countryside. In April – May, spring will have just departed and Tuscany’s hills will be lush green everywhere, like in it’s beautiful photographs. August – September sees the hills turning brown and yellow with patchwork green, but still makes for a stunning view. What is more, September – Oct is harvest season, so Tuscany’s vineyards will be bursting with grapes, readying to produce it’s famed wine. Pointers on other day trips here:


 

Exploring Venice in a day

Venice, the city of canals, romantic gondola rides and ballad singing gondoliers, James Bond movie sequences and a playground for the rich and famous is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.

Prestigious events from the art, architecture, music and film fraternity, like the Venice Biennale (a part of which, is the Venice Film festival that awards the ‘Golden Lion’ – we’ll revisit this later) are conducted here. No wonder then, that this is a place where the rich and famous often hobnob. The seducer Casanova had Venice as his playground. Ernest Hemingway was fond of the place, so was Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, and a whole horde of A-listers from the illustrious art fraternity. So if we only have a day to spare, where do we begin with, in a place as “magical” as our receptionist put it, in Venice ?

A short history of Venice

History is always a good place to start. We learn on our tours of Rome and Florence, that Venice was first inhabited by citizens from the nearby cities of Padua and from the empire of Rome, almost all of who were fleeing the barbarian invasions of their now declining states.

Over the next millennium, with it’s strategic position on the Adriatic coast, it developed into a flourishing maritime republic, with trading outposts across the Adriatic and Dalmatian coasts that allowed it to establish trade with Western Europe, Constantinople and Central Asia. Merchants made a killing and the grand structures that still line the canal, embody the riches that they brought to Venice’s shores.

Owing to this rich fraternizing and patronization of the trading community, Venice grew into one of the most prosperous cities in Europe from the 11th – 15th century, a place of great wealth and ostentation, a reputation that it still enjoys to this day.

Where to stay in Venice on a Budget

Then, is it possible to visit Venice on a budget ? Absolutely. If you do not fit the criteria for some of the famous names mentioned above, it is still possible to fit in a sightseeing trip to Venice for a day or two. Any more and you’d be stretching your budget a bit because this is a city and an island, a sinking one, built on pylons erected into the sea waters of the Adriatic. Therefore, everything from water to wine, brought from outside, has to be expensive, just as in similar tourist destinations like the Maldives.

Some guides would point you to Mestre, but that robs some of the glamour and glitz of the Venetian experience. As this listing puts it, monasteries are a great place to stay on a tight budget in Venice. We find Cannaregio to have some good deals on stays. There are affordable options near the Venezia St Lucia railway station and our place, the Il Mercante De Venezia provides a clean, reasonably big room by Venetian standards. Most importantly, it is an affordable place to crash just a few minutes by walk. Even otherwise, Venice is an easy place to explore on foot.

Even on a budget, there is a way to do something out of the ordinary – stay in a yacht docked on the canal. Here are some links to get you started, and some of them are quite affordable.

Things to do in Venice

Cruise down the grand canal

We land in Venice post noon and a quick siesta later, are up to tour Venice by dusk. The usually crowded terminal 1, doesn’t look crowded any more. There is only 1 gentleman ahead of us in the booking queue and the operator hands us our vaporetto ticket quickly, before shutting down his counter. Gingerly, we move on to the vaporetto, the Venetian equivalent of the public bus, which is not as crowded as the ones that are returning back, and off we go.

We have the free Rick Steve’s audio guide to Venice, that accompanies the vaporetto stop by stop, pointing out esoteric information about banks, famous casinos, playgrounds of celebrities, museums, churches and bridges on the way to San Marco. At dusk, Venice really puts on a beautiful light show as restaurants, cafes, markets and street vendors, all start lighting up.

On the vaporetto, we can smell the sea all right, on the waters of the canal, but there is no stink as a lot of guides mention. The waters are deep green and opaque, hiding many secrets beneath.

We have ignored the pricey 120 euro Gondola ride, that most tourists tell us, are hyped. The vaporetto departs from outside the Venezia Santa Lucia and for a sum of 7.5 euros, we watch the waters of the canal speed by as we move towards St Mark’s square or, San Marco. Another option available is the traghetto, which moves at a more leisurely pace, but could also require one to take the sights standing up.

En route to San Marco, we see the geto, for the Jewish population that used to reside near the copper foundry, that resulted in the term ‘ghetto’. We also crane our necks to sight the Rialto bridge, albeit unsuccessfully. We catch a great view of the beautiful architecture of the eponymous Peggy Guggenheim museum started by the art connoisseur who hobnobbed with every famous artiste of her time – Brando, Capote, Lennon and Yoko Ono to name a few. We also pass by the Harry’s Bar, birthplace of the Bellini cocktail and the favorite of esteemed patrons like Sir Ernest Hemingway, who used to reside in the luxurious Gritti Palace hotel nearby.

La Salute on the Grand Canal Venice
Evening colors paint the white dome of the La Salute, a church built to thank Saint Mary of Good Health (Santa Maria della Salute), apparently for saving Venetians from the plague of 1630.

Explore St Marks Square or San Marco

Napoleon once called the now 900-year-old piazza, Europe’s finest living room. Today it is home to numerous cafes and restaurants, some of which began with coffee that was first imported from Turkey. The name of the square comes from the Basilica that Mark Twain imaginatively described as “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk.

St Marks Basilica, Venice
Mark Twain’s description wasn’t far off. At night, the St Mark’s Basilica looks fit to star within a fairy tale and is far less crowded too. If you observe closely, the golden lion at the steeple formed by the onion shaped dome at the center of the Basilica’s facade, is the same as the one handed over to the winners of the best film, at the Venice film festival.
Campanile at St Mark's Square, Venice
The 300 feet tall Campanile (or church bell) towers over one of the most famous squares in Europe, the Piazza San Marco. Behind it, is the St Mark’s Basilica and to it’s right, the pale Doge’s Palace. To the left and right, we can see the erstwhile government offices that governed Venice’s trading outposts. In 1902, this bell tower apparently cracked and the green top came crashing down, necessitating a rebuild of the entire tower, a beautiful replica of the original. Even now, corrosive floodwaters threaten to gnaw at the foundations of these architectural masterpieces.

There is a cool breeze flowing in September, which is more comforting than chilling. The cafes and open-air restaurants at the square, air beautiful renditions of popular pieces of music through their own orchestras. We can immediately point out the theme from the movie Titanic, the end of which has the sparse crowd breaking out into an applause. Another cafe farther ahead in the square, has it’s own orchestra rendering an even more beautiful work by Beethoven, almost as if in a duel to attract more crowds. We move on.

San Giorgio Maggiore Venice
Looking out across the canal and bobbing gondolas to the white church of San Giorgio Maggiore and it’s strikingly resemblance to the San Marco Campanile (bell tower). Turns out, that the vaporetto also gets there, only if we do not wish to disembark at San Marco. The view from that bell tower overlooking San Marco and the grand canal is priceless ! Tiny piece of trivia for Hollywood fans, the hotel Ciprani, situated on the island of Giudecca, to the right of the church, served as the venue for George Clooney’s wedding.

Get lost in the alleys of Venice

The next day, as dawn strikes, we see a cloudy sky but it is warm and I should add, a little humid as well. We end up gobbling a saccharine sweet Italian breakfast, downed with some cappuccino.

Here, the prices advertised are only for a 100 gm of each item, and since we don’t read the fine print thoroughly, end up paying for our carelessness with a sizable 14 euros for breakfast. A better option for us would have been breakfast from the hotel where we were staying.

We decide to walk now, towards San Marco, a good complement to the water way that we’ve taken last evening. After all, getting lost in the narrow alleyways of Venice is also an experience that should not be missed. Another good option would be to take a boat ride to the islands of Murano-Burano that most tourists do. But we decide against it, since there is just so much to see in Venice itself, for a day.

Fish sellers at Venice
Fresh fish for sale in the morning, with the locals bargaining for a good cut. These fish are possibly from the inshore waters of the Adriatic, although there is a bigger fish market where you could get a wider variety and some from the lagoon as well
Caricature artist Venice
Hand drawn sketch and paintings, fresh off the streets of Venice, Florence and Rome are a great deal for a lot of tourists. These artists, sitting in one of the squares, also provide a great idea to just indulge in people watching.
A gondola lies waiting for customers in Venice
Gondolas are expensive if you haven’t got the willingness to splurge. From 80 to 120 euros for around 30 minutes for a gondola, plus an extra tip if you need the gondolier to sing for you, go with a trusted gondolier and a decent idea of the route you want them to take.

If there is an official color for Venice, it has to be gold. There are numerous shops and stalls open, selling Venetian marks in red, blue, white, pink but tinged liberally with fake gold dust or gold paint. There are also busts, figurines, miniature ships, daggers, mirrors and a dozen other curios on sale.

Venetian masks and crafts, Venice
These Venetian masks are a throwback to the times when the rich and the famous landed in Venice, with their faces and identities concealed by masks so that they could break free of the class hierarchies.

Rialto

Rialto, the hub of commercialism in Venice is connected to the religious and governmental hub of San Marco by the Via Mercerie (street). On this route, we pass by gelato licking, window shopping tourists and get stuck in the occasional tourist traffic jam. The glass walled shops dotting one of the lanes deal exclusively in hats, or the choicest goods made of the finest Italian leather or showrooms full of Venetian masks, mirrors and other paraphernalia.

Fashionably dressed folks walk side by side with drunken, shouting sailors. While we are waiting for people to give way, a woman’s face loses color as her hand goes to her back pocket and she realizes her wallet is no longer there. Venice infamously, also has it’s share of pick pockets. But in spite of the petty crimes, it still is one of the safest cities to roam around, even in the middle of the night.

It is not long before we reach the selfie stick-wielding tourists posing in front the famous Rialto bridge. In it’s hey day, Rialto oversaw the trading of pepper, silks from Asia, coffee and rugs from Constantinople and Persia and jute, salt and iron from Europe.

During the day, boats dock in and out of the Rialto, loading and unloading boxes filled with imports. We are lucky to find a secluded moment with no activity, but a fine photograph of the Rialto deserves the discipline of an early morning or the patience of a late night.

Rialto bridge in Venice
The oldest and most famous bridge in Venice, the Rialto. Built at one point, out of wood, to allow raising the central portion to allow ships to pass, the bridge has collapsed and been rebuilt multiple times over the centuries. It’s latest and most lasting incarnation is built out of stone and is a replica of the original, with it’s underbridge passage providing some great acoustics for yodeling gondoliers.
View from the Rialto bridge, Venice
A famous view from the Rialto, is that of the grand canal, with boats, shops and drifting gondolas sitting cheek by jowl. Early September in Venice also sees the famous Regatta which is a rowing competition between Venice’s rowing clubs. June sees a competition, the Palio of the Maritime republics of Venice, Pisa, Genoa and Amalfi, on these waters of the Grand Canal.

Say goodbye at the bridge of sighs

Bridge of Sighs Venice
The bridge of sighs, apparently named due to the sigh that escaped the lips of the convicted criminals, as they took one last look at Venice through those two little stone grilled windows, before being led to their imprisonment chambers where they awaited execution.

We shake off the elbow-to-elbow crowds at the bridge of sighs, the serpentine queues at the Doge’s palace, the Campanile and the Basilica. It is time to catch our train out of here. Venice is too crowded for us, we have to admit, but for the memories, we are content to smile at a replica of a blue and gold Venetian mask, snugly packed in our luggage bag, that will continue to smile back at us for years to come once it finds a place on the walls of our home.

Hallstatt – The picture perfect village of Austria

Hallstatt’s reputation as a UNESCO world heritage site and as a contender to the prettiest village in Europe. It’s trademark pastel and wood houses built on the steep hillsides, overlooking the crystal clear lake are now a famous tourist destination. But Hallstatt first gained fame in prehistoric times for it’s salt. Salt, a natural preservative for meat, was quite valuable then and Hallstatt’s mines brought it considerable trade and fortune. Even as late as the 20th century, it’s salt mines continued to be active.

How to get to Hallstatt

Hallstatt is perfect for a day trip from Salzburg. It is about 2 – 2.5 hours depending on the mode of transport that you select.

We are staying at St Gilgen, which is some way from Salzburg, but on the road to Hallstatt. Read more about why you must take a day off to explore St Gilgen and St Wolfgang on my blog post here.

There are 2 ways to get to Hallstatt, if you use public transport.

  1. By Road: If you are traveling from Salzburg, catch Bus 150 to Bad Ischl. Ask the bus conductor for a direct ticket to Hallstatt. It cost us 19.60 EUR each, in Sep of 2017 from St Gilgen to Hallstatt. From Bad Ischl, catch Bus 542 to Hallstatt Gosaumuhle and from there, Bus 543 to Hallstatt Lahn which is the last stop on the line. Check out bus timings and book tickets on the useful Salzburg Verkehr app here.If opting for travel by road, make that perfect pitstop at Halstatt Gosaumuhle and watch the placid waters of the Hallstattersee reflect the scenery of the surrounding mountains. There are tables, benches just behind the bus stop which makes it a perfect spot to enjoy a picnic.
  2. By Rail and Ferry: The more picturesque way of getting to Hallstatt if you ask me. You need to get to Bad Ischl first, preferaby by Bus 150. By train, you’ll have to get down at Attnang-Puchheim and from there, get on a train to Bad Ischl. The bus stop at Bad Ischl is adjacent to the railway station and you can catch the train to Hallstatt Bahnst. Be sure to ask if the rail tickets also include the price of the ferry, which will transport you to the village of Hallstatt in 20 minutes.
Gosaumuhle
Open that picnic hamper and spend some time at the Gosaumuhle bus stop overlooking the tranquil, idyllic Hallstattersee.

Things to do in Hallstatt

Hallstatt is a small village to explore, although a charming one at that. We felt that the village would be even more endearing, once the tourist crowds had left for the day. Although accommodation is expensive, the sight of the early morning sun bathing the hillsides in warm, golden sunshine or the sight of the village twinkling with lights as dusk sets in, will be one to behold.

The entire village can be explored on foot in an hour and a half. You can also pay and take a tour of the salt mines that Hallstatt is famous for. Alternatively, there is a viewing deck that presents a bird’s eye view of the entire lake and the village dotting it’s banks.

An eerie way of spending time, is at the Beinhaus (Bone house) in Michael’s Chapel, bedecked with a thousand odd painted skulls, belonging to the deceased who could not find a lasting spot at the cemetery, due to space constraints.

The market square of Hallstatt has the holy trinity at it’s center and is dotted with pretty buildings running cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Market square in Hallstatt
The pastel colored market square in Hallstatt market square – full of cafes, restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. And the church bells tolling in the background.

However, if you do not have a lot of time, do what we did.

  • Take a leisurely stroll on the promenade lining the banks of the lake.
  • Stop a while to sip a piping hot coffee in one of the cafes or if you are up for it, grab a lunch of delicious fish and potatoes at the Braughastof restaurant.
  • Climb up quaint staircases and explore the rundown houses overlooking the street below, as a nonchalant cat jumps up out of nowhere and startles you.
  • Try to find the waterfall that most tourists usually miss.
Quaint houses in Hallstatt
Climbing up the staircase and on to a lane on the hillside overlooking the promenade and the lake below
Waterfall in Hallstatt
We could hear a waterfall somewhere near the market square and it took some exploring to be able to view it.
  • Go up to the famous vantage point on the road beyond the church tower and jostle for space with the hundreds of Asian tourists vying for a selfie. Maybe offer to take a photo for them, in spite of their selfie sticks.
  • Try to spend some time there and watch the ferry gradually arrive at the pier, at the opposite end of the village.
Ferry to Hallstatt
The famous vantage point from where many of the famous photographs of Hallstatt are shot. Nothing probably seems to have changed over the years.
  • Or even better, make your way down to the pier when the ferry arrives, disgorging its horde of tourists and taking on some more. Indulge in idle chitchat with some of the tourists who are content to enjoy everything from a bench beside the pier.
  • After the ferry leaves, watch quacking ducks and a few graceful swans paddling across the lake just as they have for thousands of years. They make for a stark, calm and peaceful contrast to the commotion of the crowds a few moments ago.
Hallstatt Lahn the ferry terminal
Awaiting the ferry that will disgorge hundreds of tourists at the terminal in Hallstatt
Hallstatt
Throwback to the years gone by, as swans and ducks replace ferries and boats
  • If you truly must get away from the crowds, take to the lake ! Rent an electric boat for around 20 euros and power it across the lake. For believe me, Hallstatt is picturesque from every angle and it is a memory for the ages.

Hallstatt, one of the prettiest villages in Austria and in all of Europe, is a memory of a lifetime

    • Hallstatt, one of the prettiest villages in Austria and in all of Europe, is a memory of a lifetime

Tips

  • Accommodation in Hallstatt can generally be expensive. Most tourists make a day trip to Hallstatt and that is why you must opt for a stay right in Hallstatt itself. Enjoy the evening as the lights begin to twinkle and light up the village. Or enjoy the sunrise as the morning sun envelops the village in a warm, golden glow.
  • If traveling from Salzburg, set aside at least 4-5 just for making the trip to Hallstatt and back. This is an experience that you should not rush into.
  • The fish is delectable. Try it at one of the restaurants in Hallstatt. Our pick is the Braug hastof.
  • Just rent that electric boat and go into the lake on your own !

 

Exploring Gosau and Gosausee in Austria’s Salzkammergut

Gosausee is one among numerous lakes dotting the Salzkammergut landscape in Austria and arguably, one of the prettiest. Fed by melt water from the Dachstein glacier, these are actually 3 lakes, the most famous of which is the Front Gosausee. On a clear sunny day, if the waters of the lake are placid and calm, it reflects the Dachstein glacier on the massif above. This is a photo op that has been captured for posterity a lot of times, but tourists can seldom imagine the colors reflected in the Gosausee. And coming from somebody who has been to extremely pretty Himalayan lakes as well, this shade of green, surrounded by alpine forests, seems to be the outcome of a different brush stroke.

How to reach Gosausee

The ride to Gosausee passes through forests and through the wide open Alpine vistas of Gosau village. Self drive is one way of doing it. But if you are using public transport, there is an easy way of doing it.

From Salzburg, catch bus 150 till Bad Ischl. From Bad Ischl, catch Bus 542 that will drop you right to the lake head of Gosausee in about 30 minutes.

If on the other hand, you are arriving from Hallstatt, catch Bus 543 till Hallstatt Gosaumuhle. From there, catch Bus 542 to Gosausee. Do the reverse if you plan to visit Hallstatt from Gosausee.

Sights to see in Gosau and Gosausee

From Hallstatt Gosaumuhle, bus 543 takes us through winding narrow roads surrounded by hills and forests. There is even a mini traffic jam created due to a fallen tree branch. A few minutes later, the forests open up into a valley that is the village of Gosau, even prettier than what we have witnessed in St Gilgen and St Wolfgang so far. Imagine wide open pastures, merry brooks, grazing cows, sheep and ponies and pretty houses with smoke billowing out of their chimneys.

We almost have our noses stuck to the tall glass windows of the bus in amazement at the beautiful scenery. And we realize all the other tourists are doing the same. Close to half an hour since we board the bus, we reach Gosausee and being the last stop on the line, the bus empties. Parking is free here, for those taking the effort to drive.

We have caught a glimpse of the gondola on the way and the Gosausee bus stop sits right beside the ticket booth to the gondola cars. Since we don’t have much time, we choose to skip but reckon that it must definitely be worth the effort and the price at around 19.50 euros each.

Gosausee Inn
At the entrance to the lakehead, the Gosausee Inn and it’s pretty flowerbox windows provide a picturesque retreat. It is also one of the most obvious stay options in the lake’s vicinity.

We catch the first sight of Gosausee and it is stunningly green, without a doubt, the result of crystal clear waters reflecting the greenery of the forests and the hills that have created this little nestling valley and the lake.

Gosausee
Boats for hire, not bobbing at all but lying still, at the entrance to the Gosausee lake head. In the distance, the Dachstein glacier is obscured by clouds and we imagine what a sight it must be on a bright sunny day.
Hills overlooking Gosausee
Pretty houses, grazing cows and lush green pastures overlooking the Gosausee
Hut beside Gosausee
We start to walk up and spot this tiny little hut overlooking the Gosausee
Walk around Gosausee
We catch multiple hikers around the lake trail, but mostly, it is isolated and tranquil. We are not oblivious to the varying shades of emerald and green that the lake presents. There is also a warning sign that cautions hikers to watch out for boulders falling from the hill above.

The trail is a gentle 9 km walk that will probably take us 3 hours. The woods are really, as Frost put it, lovely, dark and deep. At some places, the trail poses an incline that looks down into the lake at a steep precipice. At a few other spots, the lake is just a few steps down the trail. But who in their right mind would want to disturb the placid waters of the lake ?

Near Gosausee
Souvenir shops, food stalls and icecream vendors dot the head of the lake
Peaceful Gosausee
Benches dot the stretch of the Gosausee trail and it is really soothing to spend a moment lost in silence, watching the colors of the gentle lake and those of the hills that watch over it with love, from the front seats. A privilege if you ask me.
Dandelions at Gosausee
If only ! those clouds didn’t hide the Dachstein glacier ! Then we could have had the privilege of watching a most pristine sight in the Salzkammergut

Pretty soon, it is time for the bus back to St Gilgen and with a heavy heart, we turn our backs to one of the most beautiful places that we’ve witnessed on this charming little blue dot that we call home. Yes, without a doubt, we recur, every time we look at these photos.


Gosau and it’s lake Gosausee make for an easy day trip if you are in the vicinity of Salzburg. St Gilgen, Bad Ischl and Hallstatt are closer to the lake than Salzburg. You can also combine Hallstatt and Gosausee if you are making a day trip, these are not really that far apart. The only hitch is the bus timings that you can check up on excellent Salzburg Verkehr app before you plan your trip.

Some great photos here: https://tomforstersmith.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/in-the-austrian-alps-sept-2009/

 

 

What to expect on a ride up the Schafberg Mountain Railway

The Scahfbergbahn or the Schafberg mountain railway first caught my attention in one of Michael Palin’s travel documentaries and ever since, I’ve harbored an ardent desire to get on that chugging train up the scenic railway built on the Schafberg mountain. This wish finally came true in September 2017, when I visited the famous Salzkammergut region in Austria.

The Schafberg mountain railway first came about in the 1890s, as a result of the desire to replace the use of mules and palanquins to transport nobles and citizenry up the Schafberg that rises from the shore of the Wolfgangsee lake. Evolving over the century to follow, the Bahn used coal powered locomotives and towards the end of the 20th century, replaced them with oil powered steam as well as diesel locomotives.

Once you reach the summit of the Schafberg is where the real magic lies. From the summit, the eyes dart between a panoramic, bird’s eye view of 3 of the biggest lakes in the region – the Wolfgangsee, the Mondsee and the largest, the Attersee.

Of all the railways I rode, though, the most memorable was in Austria: with lakes and mountains of astonishing beauty. From St Wolfgang I took the steam-powered rack railway up to Schafberg (‘Sheep Mountain’). The locomotive is a strange-looking beast, and in 40 minutes it travels just over three-and-a-half miles, but climbs 3,930ft! There’s another surprise at the top. I stood on a sheer cliff, 5,870ft above St Wolfgang. You feel as though you’ve come to the edge of the world – (BBC Michael Portillo’s Railway Journeys)

How to get to the Schafbergbahn

From Salzburg, you can catch Bus 150 and alight at St Gilgen Hollweger, cross the road and walk down to the ferry terminal (map link) where an all-inclusive 48 euro ticket for a ferry will transport you across the Wolfgangsee to a waiting train in exactly 35 minutes. You can use this ticket any time on the same day, for the return ferry as well, but you might have to consider waiting times if you are running short on time. Timetables and prices here.

By road, you can also drive directly to St Wolfgang and hunt for parking space near the Schafbergbahn terminal.

From other locations, you can refer the respective piers to catch the ferry to the Schafbergbahn.

Reserve around half a day to visit the summit and enjoy the views from the top.

Also, read my blog on why St Gilgen deserves a few days on your Salzkammergut trip.

Our day at the Schafberg

Since we are already staying at St Gilgen, we get up in time for the second ferry ride on a Saturday. The weather forecast for the day is sunny and bright in the morning but predicts rain showers post-afternoon and therefore, we quickly make our way to the ferry counter to purchase our combination tickets.

After waiting for half an hour, we soon sight the ferry making it’s way to the St Gilgen pier, right on time. Soon, a queue forms on the pier. We get our tickets checked and board the ferry. Coffee, hot chocolate and drinks are available onboard, but for us, the warm morning sunshine is more than enough, so the upper deck it is. Not long after, the captain blows the horn and we are on our way.

Schafberg Ferry
Majestic sights of the mountains around the lake await us on the ferry. This bright pastel colored building is actually a non-profit that organizes summer camps for kids.
Schafberg mountain railway
Can you spot the bright red mountain train making its way up the Schafberg ?

Pretty soon, we spot the bright red signage of the Wolfgangsee ferry terminal and the adjoining Schafbergbahn terminal. People queue up right away, but we make a mistake joining a queue, as there are apparently entire groups booked for a train ride. We do a course-correct and join the right queue.

Pretty soon, the trains are filled up and we make our way up. For almost the first half an hour, we don’t see much scenery as the mountains are full of forests close to the railway track. The jerking, chugging train incites much mirth among my neighbors, most of whom seem to be above 60 years of age.

As soon as we’ve covered a considerable distance out of the 1200 meters long climb, the left side throws open stunning views of the Wolfgangsee and passengers stick their noses to the windows, our train compartment resounds with the repetitive clicks of cameras and smartphones.

Schafberg mountain railway at the summit
Not long after, we are at the summit and everybody has disembarked. We make our way up the ticket counter and ask for a 2 pm return slot. This is a necessary task, otherwise, we may not be guaranteed a return slot at the time of our choosing, at the last minute.

 

Wolfgangsee from atop Schafberg
From atop, the Wolfgangsee looks even more alluring than from up close. We can see para-gliders prepping to jump off the mountain slopes, as other para-gliders fly past.
Schafberg panoramic view
Climb up a few steps and this time to the North, awaits a panoramic view of the other two major lakes. Seen here is the Mondsee. A lady standing beside us, starts hyperventilating at the mere sight of all this.
Schafberg Attersee
And on the eastern side, a view of the biggest lake in the vicinity, the Attersee.
Schafberg mountain
We walk over gingerly on cowdung bombed paths (yes, cows and dogs are reared here) and see a cross down below, at an edge of the Schafberg, overlooking one of the lakes
Atop the Schafberg
A lot of trekkers use an alternate path up the Schafberg from the Wolfgangsee side, avoiding the railway entirely. Resting and recuperating here, before making their way down.

Eating options atop the Schafberg

There are multiple restaurants and cafes offering all kinds of snacks, drinks, chocolate bars and meals at the top. We decide to lunch at the SchafbergSpitze restaurant atop the Schafberg. Here, the outdoor seating area gets filled up far too quickly. Inside though, there are still a few tables empty and we settle down for a leisurely lunch of Bolognese spaghetti and some drinks. Outside, the smaller shops also have patrons grabbing up the beer and some, the chocolates and ice creams, with a lot of gusto.

Afterwards, we watch an entire crowd cheer a para-glider as he unwraps his parachute and runs off and away down one of the sides.

The Descent

Be sure to have booked your descent train time booked as the descending train also tends to fill quite quickly.

Schafberg mountain railway
Pretty soon, the railway train has made it’s way and transferred to a siding so that departing and awaiting trains wait side-by-side up the summit.
Schafberg mountain railway
Waiting for the doors to open is a test of patience. As it can be too cool in the shadows , and too hot for overalls outside of the shadows.
Schafberg at St Wolfgang
Once we make the trip down, a long winded, pleasant walk on the promenade beside the Wolfgangsee is ours to enjoy, before catching the next ferry back to St Gilgen.

Tips to make the most of the Schafberg

  • Visit the official website to make reservations or look out for untimely closure of the railway line due to maintenance. It remains open from May till the end of September. You can also make a trip in winters, if you’re lucky and the railway line is operational.
  • Be sure to monitor the weather forecast at least one day in advance, as you do not want your views marred by cloud and grey skies.
  • Also, weekdays might be a better day to visit as the place is touristy and tends to get crowded with the weekend crowd in the summers. If visiting on a weekend, you can also try to catch the first train up to avoid the crowds.
  • If you are up for it, hike up the mountain. It is an arduous 3 hour+ hike but most hikers up the mountain seemed to love it.
  • Layered clothing is advisable as the windchill made shaded places a bit uncomfortable
  • Washrooms are available at the Schafbergspitze !

A great video from InspiringWorld on what to expect on the train ride uphill.