On the Border

You can drive to one of the most historically significant memorials in Europe in under an hour from where we are staying in Eastern Austria. And yet most of us will be unfamiliar with the name – Sopron, a small Hungarian town just a few kilometres from the Austrian border.
In 1989 the Soviet Union was in trouble. The failing economies of Russia and its satellite countries were leading to the rapid collapse of state socialism. Former satellite nations Poland and Hungary were leading agents of change in East and Central Europe. President Gorbachev was a fresh face in the Kremlin who refused to continue funding the satellite nations. The entire USSR was bankrupt.
The communist leaders in Berlin became prisoners of their own policies and their citizens whom they had held hostage. More and more East Germans were attempting to escape to the West and were gathering in large numbers in Hungary. Their hopes had been raised by discussions between Hungary and Austria on dismantling the Iron Curtain. There were rumours that Austria could be reached by a short walk. But illegal border traffic continued to be stopped by border patrols. The opposition in Sopron promoted the idea of a Pan European Picnic and spread the word that it would commence at 3pm on the 19th August 1989. Large numbers of refugees from East Germany appeared, walking and driving little Trabants, and before the official start spontaneously broke through the border. The Hungarian border guards whose superiors had left them, did not try to stop the refugees. Hundreds of people forced their way across the border and freedom. Later the border guards once again imposed border controls and the crossing stopped. But the damage was done.
The news was instantly relayed around the world. Chancellor Helmut Kohl said, “The Hungarians have removed the first stone from the Berlin wall”. And it was just a few months later that East Berliners made their own first steps to break down the Berlin wall and paved the way for German reunification, which formally took place on 3 October 1990.
Today the site of the Pan-European Picnic is a memorial park right next to the border crossing. The park must be hundreds of acres in size and includes pictorial records, a reconstruction of part of the old wall, walking trails and statues. Every year there are commemoration picnic events. The largest in 2009 was attended by Angela Merkel who thanked the Hungarians for their courage saying, “Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement… and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans’ desire for freedom.”
Yet as we walked around the park we pondered on how today as the world embraces nationalism there are walls appearing in many places including the USA, UK, Israel and even Hungary to name just a few. Some are physical, some are virtual, but they are a manifestation of the desire to reverse the trend for international cooperation. And the events of 1989 are almost forgotten!
We drove across the border back into Austria remembering that for now we were crossing between two EU countries with no hindrance. The same can be said for the nine borders that we crossed, some of them multiple times during our travels – Ireland, Wales, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein and Hungary.

Coda from the Eagles:
Cruisin’ down the centre of a two way street, Wondering who is really in the driver’s seat
Mindin’ my business along comes big brother, Says, “Son you better get on one side or the other”. Oh oh, I’m out on the border, I’m walkin’ the line, Don’t you tell me ’bout your law and order. I’m try’n’ to change this water to wine,
Never mind your name, just give us your number, Never mind your face, just show us your card, And we want to know whose wing are you under, You better step to the right or we can make it hard, Oh ooh, I’m stuck on the border, All I wanted was some peace of mind, Don’t you tell me ’bout your law and order, I’m try’n’ to change this water to wine

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Return to the Wienerwalt

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The drive from Lake Simssee to the Vienna Woods is quite short, about four hours. We make a good stop at a Landzeit service area for lunch. The quality is superb, and we reflect on the sorry state of particularly the UK motorway service stations that seem to have sunk to extraordinary lows. The Landzeit stops offer top quality food, service and surroundings for very reasonable prices.
We are excited, it’s the 3rd of August and we are now in our third month of our “gap summer” and are looking forward to returning to Cork at the end of the month and our new home hopefully a month later. However, we still have three weeks in the Vienna Woods and this area is a favourite. The woods are a huge area of forest surrounding the west and south of the city providing a highly accessible recreational facility for city dwellers and tourists alike. The woods are at the end of the Alpine chain that dominates Austria and are relatively low-level hills. We are staying in a 200+ year old forester’s house right beside the huge forest area, at about 450m above sea level, with lots of walks right from the house or nearby. We are also about 60 minutes from Vienna, maybe 90 minutes from Bratislava (Slovakia), 60 minutes from Soprom (Hungary), so we have lots to do. The first few days are with family and friends which is lovely.


We walk in the woods and note with interest the differences from our own West Cork. There are pines, but many woods are deciduous. Because it’s so much drier here the Pines are cut after around 80 – 100 years, compared with Cork’s 30 – 40. The quality is clearly much higher, and the wood is used for different purposes. However, the woods have been devastated by snow and ice some two years ago and there are many bare areas or new plantings. With the mixed woodland the flora and fauna are much in evidence, with Alpine flowers and lots of beautiful butterflies.
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The Klein Mariazell monastery is quite close by and a Via Sacra winds through the woodlands and over the hills. Religious icons are seen frequently in the woods in beautiful condition. The Sacred Way circuit takes about 3 ½ hours; wonderful walking with some serious climbs and descents. The larger Heiligenkreuz Cistercian Abbey nearby is connected with Klein Mariazell via the linear sacred way. We also visit Heurige events which are very popular – offering good food washed down by some wines from last year’s harvest. The village of Sooss is one of many doing this for wines and in the nearby village of Hafnerberg we sampled the (apple based) Most.


We revisited Baden, the famous spa town where a Love Africa Festival in progress. With our deep interest in all things African, we plan to return and spend serious time there. We also visited Beethoven’s house in the town centre which is a very thoughtful museum and then had a simple lunch in the covered market. This latter facility is amazing; a permanent structure for stall holders all year round. We wondered why Skibbereen couldn’t do similar on the Fairfield. We are conveniently situated for Vienna; a drive to the outskirts of the city, park and ride using the U-Bahn takes about 60 minutes door to door. Lots of museums and galleries to explore. We have booked for the Lipizzaner horse show event. Sadly, the only live classical musical events are canned performances for tourists at extortionate prices. Regular live classical music events don’t happen in August as Vienna goes on holiday.


We are doing a lot of walking. Being right on the edge of the forest is incredibly useful and there are excellent trails right from the door. Hocheck – the highest point for miles around at 1037m, is a very good climb; not quite high Alpine steepness but still a good workout at 3.5 hours excluding stops. There is a guest house on the top and there is welcome cold beer and good Austrian food with Apfel Strudel and Goulash. Lots of local trails to explore which, fortunately with the intense heat, are mostly under tree cover. Stopfl at 893 provides a great circuit of 2.5 hours from 589, with amazing views to the north, again with a good restaurant at the top. The walking is either on trails or forest tracks. Occasionally on roads, but most of the time we can keep this to the absolute minimum. Trail signing is excellent and reliable. On occasions we go off trail and follow the map or our noses and the sun and haven’t got lost yet. We realize the quality of the trails has much to do with the level of usage – not just the popularity of summer hiking but also year-round usage because skiing is probably even more popular than hiking.


Being on the edge of the forest we are in a perfect location to spot wildlife. Unusually the deer are grazing in the meadow right in front of the house, and we often make a point of being in position 30 minutes before dusk. Even more unusual, one morning they made an appearance around 7am. However, the number of hides and hunters in jeeps are frequent reminders of the commercial reality.

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Holidaying with the Germans et al

Leaving the Toggenburg we take the most amazing highway from the Voralberg to Innsbruck which is deep in a valley between high mountains and much of the road is through tunnels with short glimpses of the high points between. From Innsbruck we cross the border again into Germany. The terrain changes to the rolling low Bavarian hills with the perfectly organized German countryside. We head for Lake Simssee, a small lake just outside the city of Rosenheim. The weather is incredibly hot but the lake is wonderful. We are not usually beach people, but here we swim early morning and later in the day, every day. The walking is really not good; one experience of badly signed trails in the open burning sun was more than sufficient. However, the campsite is very good, full of friendly Germans, Austrians, Dutch, Slovakians and almost no Brits. Everyone is very interested to talk about Ireland. Many have already visited or are planning to visit. Some have relatives there. Passing Dutchmen call “Good Morning Ireland” as they pass, and we have many conversations where we swap experiences. With the Dutch always in English. With others in a mix of German and English. Young people invariably have excellent English language skills. We make numerous invites to visit us in Ireland and encourage lots more blog followers.
As I was sitting in the car just outside the site, a local policeman popped his head through the car window and in perfect English said, “Good morning, I see you are from Ireland. What brings you here?” My immediate thought is, “Oh my God, what have I done now?” But it turns out he noticed the IRL plate on the car and told me that this is a very rare sight in southern Bavaria. He tells me he has relatives in Ireland, has visited more than once and is a big fan. We have a great chat about our journey, Ireland and Bavaria. A lovely young man.
A young man from Dussledorf joins us for tea, and we swap experiences. He is heading for Salzburg and we are able to advise him on concerts, the Mozart Museum and also the Bishops Palace which is our favourite memory. Conversations about weather are normal. The Dutch tell us that Holland is a great place to visit in August because everyone has left for the sun and lakes in southern Germany. From the number of Dutch on the site, it certainly seems that way. One Dutchman is at pains to point out that the astonishing heat is simply the result of long term climatic change cycles and nothing to do with human production of CO2. I am too hot to debate. In fact, I do recall 98% of climate scientists believe the current extreme temperatures are directly connected to emissions.
We spend a day in Rosenheim, a quiet Bavarian town with beautifully restored buildings and essential shady coffee shops and restaurants on the streets. Sadly, the town museum is purely German language oriented and the receptionist sensibly advises against visiting. Similarly, the town gallery was simply shut, contrary to advertised opening signs. I guess this is not a tourist focused place. However, on a positive note we have numerous chance encounters including the ladies in a speciality cheese shop who give us good advice on Bavarian cheeses and are very interested to hear about the great cheese makers in West Cork. We give them contact details for Gubbeen.
After five days we are pleased to move on to our last stop – four weeks in the Vienna Woods.

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Flowers in the Lower Swiss Alps

Down the years we walked in the Swiss, French, Italian, Austrian and German Alps, and always admired the alpine flowers. Magnificent colours in frequently exquisite plants. But we have never experienced such a profusion of species as we found on top of the Chaserrugg. As discussed this summit is 2262m and this is clearly an optimal altitude and orientation for many alpine species, and a Blumenweg (flower walk) has been created to great effect. I will say no more, the photos speak for themselves.

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Walking in the Lower Swiss Alps 2

Continuing on, we have walked pretty much every day we have been here in the Toggenburg Valley. Even on rest days we will have done an easy walk. For example, today we did 13 kms in 4 hours in the valley beside the fast flowing, falling river, then steeply uphill on the other side of the valley for 300 m then returning down to Nesslau, our local town and the car. It was even hotter than normal – 35C and we sank a couple of lagers very fast at the first Gasthaus we encountered. The hardest walk we have done was earlier this week. Walking from the house at 700m up to the nearest high point at 1110 – Wolxenalp. Then steep down through forest to the Steintaler River at about 800m, then very steeply up again through forests to the peak Tanxboden at 1443m which just happens to have a restaurant. Returning the same route, the overall walk was 5.5 hours excluding lunch stop and approx. height gain of 1000m.
The high point, in all respects was the summit Chaserrugg at 2262m. However, we admit we cheated and took the funicular and cable car. While there are perfectly good options to ride say half way and then walk, we decided that we wanted more time at the top because there are amazing walks right from the summit. There are three summit walks, 1) the Blumenweg a flower walk, 2) the rundweg, an extension of the flower walk that goes right out to high points and 3) the summit walk going up to the highest point of the peak. In all we spent several hours at the summit and had the energy to do justice to the high walks, particularly the blumenweg, which I will cover in a separate post.
Another highlight for us was meeting the lady from the local ski club, who was acting volunteer chef for the ski lift operator. We met as we returned from one of our very long, high walks and she invited us to join her on the deck area for a cold drink, and then proceeded to invite us to stay for dinner. We had great fun and returned the following day, by request for morning coffee and to provide an entry for the ski clubs journal, which amazingly has been running since 1975. Needless to say she has been invited to Cork!
I mentioned the highly organized approach to walking there is in the Alps generally which makes it very easy to plan appropriate routes and find your way. Here in the Toggenburg we are located at the western end of the popular walking area and we found it easy to locate walks of the right grade with minimum travel to and from the start and finish. In general we selected lower level walks starting in the valley or from the house between 650 and 750m and as focused on routes with a maximum of around 1400m. There are numerous cable cars a little further up the valley and it would have been very easy to drive, take a cable car up to say 1200m and then walk a contour path and return via another cable car. And indeed we have done this previously in Austria, where we used the bus to return to our startpoint. But this visit we found more than enough walks often without using the car, and with the exception of Chaserrugg always without using a lift. The advantage is that you get to “climb” the mountains with lower cost. And this is not an incidental – cable cars and the like are not cheap!

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Birds Have the Last Word

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I mentioned we have several birds of prey on the Toggenburg property; buzzards of some sort seemingly nesting in the tall mature trees in front of the old house. The activity in the early morning and evening is considerable and the traffic to and from the trees, together with much mewing suggested one or more nests.
Last weekend we drove over to see my brother and his family, just the other side of Litchenstein and in a valley about 500m altitude in the Voralberg area of western Austria. They mentioned they are plagued with small rodents, mice, voles etc. The general opinion is that the unusually warm winter resulted in the rodents continuing to breed right through the winter and the population has exploded. And sure enough, we tripped across half a mouse right on the doorstep that a neighbour’s cat had caught.
Unusually, and presumably as a direct consequence, birds of prey have taken up residence in the valley. And across the day, whenever we looked up there were the birds circling, and also frequently diving from height to snatch yet another unsuspecting mammal. My brother thinks the birds are buzzards or kites, or a combination of both. As ever it’s quite hard to make positive identification with birds on the wing, often at a great height.
Back at Toggenburg we had become pretty sure that our birds were Honey Buzzards. The yellow rear beak, plus honey coloured top colouring plus the distinctive white flashes under the ends of the wings were pretty conclusive. A German bird book in our house library also indicated Raufbussard or Rough Buzzard as a possibility to be considered. The following evening we noticed great activity in the trees. A great deal of flapping, mewing and birds flying in and out of the trees, often two or three at a time, seemingly playing together, and then disappearing into the trees again. The noise level increased and then we saw perhaps three or four adults flying together followed by six or seven small seemingly black birds. Initially we thought, hey what are the crows doing with the buzzards? But quickly we realized we had a couple of families here. The smaller birds were clearly fledgings with the signature light colour over wing. Their flight was similar to learner drivers; they knew what to do but putting it into practice was difficult. Over flapping was a common problem. One minute the sky was almost black; then they continued on down the valley and disappeared.
From cacophony to quiet in just two minutes. We scratched our heads. What had we just seen? Our guess, but it’s only that, is that there was a small colony in the trees. After the fledgings flew the nest the adults felt the need to move quickly to higher, safer altitude in the high meadows or forests. We have seen solitary buzzards since then, but certainly not the numbers in the colony. Even more interesting is that the regular, smaller bird population has returned. We had remarked that the level of bird life on the property was low, and clearly this is what happened. Birds of prey scare away the smaller species, but as soon as the bigger birds leave, normality returns very quickly.
There’s a salutary lesson here – the bird population lives in parallel to our society. Like us they are impacted by issues such as climate change or security threats; but they are clearly more than able to adjust to changing circumstances as the need arises.

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Hiking in the Lower Swiss Alps

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We are now in eastern Switzerland. From Lake Constance and Bregenz we drove due south west for about 90 minutes to the Toggenburg – a steep sided valley some 30 kms east of Zurich. This is the mid-level Alps; peaks around us are about 2500m, and although much lower than the core Alpine areas, still offer intrinsically the same walking experience.
Through Guest2Guest we have use of an old farmhouse for a couple of weeks, situated above the valley floor at 750m. It took some finding; it’s off a rough track and then down a steep grassy slope – 4X4 vehicles only. The house is completely constructed from wood over 200 years ago and has been sympathetically modernized inside with all mod cons, but in a highly environmentally friendly manner. It’s quiet, no WiFi, no TV. About 10 minute’s drive from the nearest town in the valley floor.
But the walking is right on the doorstep! Yesterday we did an exploratory walk, picking up a Wanderweg just metres from our door and following to a restaurant at about 1000m. We walked around a nature reserve close by then descending by the same route. An easy walk, overall time 3 hours, approx. height gain 300m.
Today we followed the same wanderweg to 1000m and then picked up a circuit (rundweg) which provided access to a higher ridge, which we took to 1575m part of a longer distance path. A more difficult walk, overall time 5.5 hours, approx. height gain 900m, distance 17kms.
It’s a while since we did alpine walking. The first thing we remember is the incredible steepness of the hills. The “in your face” and “never ending” effort required, particularly in the typical Alpine summer temperatures. And crucially the great care needed to descend safely. But the benefits of Alpine walking haven’t changed. Wherever you walk, the routes are incredibly well organized and signed. The maps are excellent and available both as ordinance survey quality (1km = 3cm) as well as tourist information level leaflets that provide guidance on timing, difficulty etc which are very helpful in route planning. And the hills and mountains are literally covered in walks, together with huts, restaurants and cafés. And there are no expensive information boards or similar. There are three types of walk defined in the OS maps and shown with different legends. The Wanderweg is a hiking route. Intended for all walkers they do not place particular requirements on users. The Mountain Hiking Trail is intended for experienced users who are sure footed, unafraid of heights, physically fit and experienced mountain hikers. The Alpine Hiking Trail in addition to the Mountain Trail category requires users to be physically very fit, Alpine experienced with adequate gear.
On a practical level the signage approach hasn’t changed in years. Colour coding which seems to be a European wide standard, is implemented as sign posting and repeater flashes along the route. Like the UK the paths give access across farmland; however, it’s noticeable that there’s great cooperation in place. There are almost no stiles – we have only seen one so far. Instead farmers use an insulated handle with a hooked end to allow the walker to open and close electric fences. No maintenance, dead easy for all parties. Also, we note farmers are good at communicating risks – one sign we saw today said (in German), Beware, Mother Cows Suckling – keep your distance because mothers will protect their calves.
But in the end the Alpine experience is the majesty of the towering mountains which provide the backdrop for the extraordinary neatness of the high-level meadows and the profusion of flora and fauna. The meadows are a profusion of classic Alpine flowers which bring so much colour to the hills. And the birds of prey are amazing in their ordinariness. They are everywhere. Buzzards and I think Red Kites glide, climb and dive everywhere. To either side of the old house we have two rows of high trees, some very old pines and deciduous species. We see the great birds sitting in the tree tops, then flopping in and out of the trees with such regularity that suggests they have nests there. And from time to time there are several of the birds in the air together, swooping low above and around us. The garden surrounding the house has been left in a natural state, just long grasses with a few shrubs, and the butterflies are prolific.
It’s noticeable the hills at least around here are not very busy. Whilst there’s lots of people around the heads of the ski lifts and restaurants, as you head out onto the paths it’s very quiet. And yet July is the peak summer tourist season. And from our previous experience in the French, Italian and German Alps, we know that the real tourist season is in winter and the higher level Ski Lifts are closed in summer. Walking is clearly important, but very much second priority to the winter tourist business. What’s not to like? As walkers we get privileged access to amazing walking routes that are not over crowded, at no charge.
Having established a basic understanding of the available walking in the Toggenburg we plan to walk a good few routes over the next week and will report in due course.

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