Vardzia

Vardzia is the largest cave city complex in Georgia, dug deep into the Erusheti Mountain. It was built mostly in the 12th century by Queen Tamar, an interesting Georgian historical figure, who was the only queen in Georgia ever to be crowned king as the successor of her father, King Giorgi III. She ushered in the prosperous Georgian Golden age and even today the Georgians will proudly mention “King Tamar” without a hint of sarcasm.

Vardzia as seen from afar.

The cave city was built from preexisting natural caves to protect the medieval people of Georgia from the invading Mongol hordes in the form of a fortress/monastery combo. It is located at about 1300 m above sea level and contained over 600 rooms built in up to 13 levels, including a refectory with a bakery, a forge, a throne room and quarters for King Tamar, a pharmacy and several chapels, as well as 25 wine cellars and over a hundred wine jars sunk in the floor (Georgia is known as the cradle of wine making). There’s also the main Church of the Assumption, complete with a bell tower and a cemetery. The entire complex was excavated within about 50 years, which is quite an impressive feat, and the name supposedly comes from King Tamar as well. According to the local legend, she got lost in the caves and when they went looking for her, she’d shouted back აქ ვარ ძია: ac var dzia or “I am here”, which gave the future city its name.

All of Vardzia is connected with an intricate network of access tunnels and was supplied with clean water via an irrigation system, which also enabled them to grow food on terraces carved into the outside mountain slope. At the height of its power, the city was pretty self-sufficient and had an advanced defence system to complement its strategic position, which made it impenetrable to any attackers. However, in the 13th century, a massive earthquake ripped the mountain apart and destroyed about 2/3 of Vardzia. After it was partially rebuilt, the city served as a monastery until the 16th century, when it was sacked by a Persian Shah. It was mostly abandoned after that, but some of the irrigation pipes still supply drinkable water to this day and there are in fact a couple of monks living there since 1999 and maintaining the site. Apparently they ring the church bells every morning at 7 am.

Inside Vardzia

There are several surviving frescoes from the New Testament inside the Church of Assumption and the chapels, including a portrait of King Tamar and her father. When I visited in 2018 with my boyfriend, most of Vardzia was open to the public (except for the monks’ living quarters) and the entrance fee was rather minimal, but the staff didn’t speak very good English, so I suggest you read about its history online. If you wish to see the church, you need properly respectful attire and there’s a tunnel leading up from the church to the higher levels, which is quite narrow and claustrophobic, but you will be rewarded with beautiful views when you’re out. You can explore all the rooms on your own and the visitor trek is kind of circular, so it will spit you out somewhere on the lower levels when you’ve seen it all.

You can get public transport shuttles from nearby towns about 3 times per day, but the easiest option is to hire a taxi driver to take you to Vardzia and all the nearby sites, as there are quite a few. We hired a driver for a day and a half in Akhaltsikhe, who took us to Vardzia, the Sapara monastery and some other sights on the way and we paid him about 35 euros, including a generous tip, since he was extremely helpful and friendly. Be prepared for nerve wracking driving though, as there were several times I was convinced we were going to die screaming, like when he was overtaking a huge truck on half of a narrow road, between a construction site and the edge of a cliff. Georgians don’t really indicate when they are planning to overtake someone, they just drive up tight beside them and start honking the horn in a “hey, I’m here, now move aside or we’ll both crash” kind of way, but it seems to work, so who am I to say they shouldn’t? I do know I’d never drive a rental car in Georgia though.

The view from Vardzia

As I mentioned, there are also a couple of other points of interest near Vardzia, which are worth checking out if you have the time. We got to see the well-preserved Khertvisi fortress and an interesting hanging bridge next to it, but there are also the smaller Vanis Kvabebi caves about 2 km from Vardzia, the Tmogvi village and fortress, the golden village of Saro and lots of hiking opportunities, if you fancy getting a different view. Unfortunately Georgian tourist attractions are not very well-documented online yet, so your best option is to ask the locals for directions (all the taxi drivers should know) or hire a driver, if you’d like to visit those.

Khertvisi fortress

Akhaltsikhe

Akhaltsikhe is a rather small city in Southern Georgia, with an unpronounceable name and a majestic fortress. The name translates to new fortress, after the imposing Rabati fortress, which used to be the most important landmark in the region. It was originally built in the 9th century as the Lomisa castle and served as the residence of the Jakeli princely family, which controlled the Samtskhe region and also built the Sapara monastery.

Today Akhaltsikhe is still the capital of the Georgian Samtskhe–Javakheti region, but most of the buildings of the Rabati fortress complex are no longer in their original form. It was completely rebuilt by the Ottomans during the 17th and 18th century, when they controlled the territory, and then restored in 2012 by the Georgian government to attract more tourists and make Akhaltsikhe more than a gateway to the cave city of Vardzia. I guess their plan worked, as the castle looked quite pretty when I visited with my boyfriend in May 2018 and the best part is, you get to see most of it for free, but more on that later.

Akhaltsikhe (probably the most Georgian photo I’ve ever taken).

We arrived to Akhaltsikhe with one of those chaotic Georgian public transport minivans called marshrutkas and since we were planning to go to Vardzia the next day, we booked one of the taxi drivers hanging around at the station. He took us to the Sapara monastery the first day, as described in that post, and helped us out with our sleeping situation after coming back from the monastery. We’d booked a room online and since Akaltsikhe is a small city, our driver naturally knew the owner and exactly where to go, which was a blessing, as it turns out. To this day I’m not sure whether the owner was the frail old woman dressed in black, who didn’t speak a word of English or Russian or anything else, or whether she was the owner’s wife, but without our driver I’m not even sure we would’ve been able to get our room or pay for it due to the language barrier. The room itself was quite decent, if you disregard the weird boat-like shower, but there was no sign whatsoever identifying the hotel/homestay and the woman only came out after he called her on the phone.

After we sorted out the mess with the room, we went off to explore the city centre and get some food. Besides the castle and some churches the city is rather unremarkable and, like in most Georgian cities, the streets were surprisingly clean. We managed to find a good restaurant serving the Georgian speciality I’d been dying to try since we came to the country: adjarian khachapuri. Adjarian khachapuri is quite literally art made of cheese, bread and butter, as the bread dough is shaped like a boat from the Black sea and filled with Georgian young cheese, which melts in the oven. Butter and raw egg are added into the molten cheese at the end, when the khachapuri comes out of the oven and the raw egg represents the sun sinking into the sea. The whole thing is then mixed together inside the bread boat and it’s so wonderfully cheesy and creamy you could cry. My boyfriend the grump said there was too much cheese for him, but there’s no such thing, so you should definitely try the khachapuri if you get the chance.

The great adjarian khachapuri.

The next morning it was time to explore the Rabati fortress. Our taxi driver picked us up at our accommodation early in the morning and drove us to the castle. Since he was a local, he knew all the tips and tricks for avoiding payments, so he told us of a way to see most of the fortress for free.

Travel tip: the Rabati fortress consists of two parts, the lower courtyard and the inner castle. Entrance to the lower courtyard is free, you only need to buy a ticket if you’d like to visit the castle museum and the mosque. Since we were on a budget and had seen plenty of other sacral objects while in Georgia, we decided to skip the inner castle part. Beware though, as they will try to sell you the ticket upon walking through the fortress gate, even though you don’t actually need it, so you need to be quite firm in saying no.

Impressions of the Rabati fortress

The fortress inside the walls is beautifully renovated and definitely worth having a look around, particularly early in the morning, when there are no people around. There’s also a cafe in the courtyard, which wasn’t open that early, but looked quite nice. After we were done with our castle exploration, the taxi guy picked us up in front of the castle and we headed towards Vardzia. On the way there he pointed out some of the city sights and, since he was Armenian, he told us all about the local history gossip: which churches were taken from the Armenians by the Russians or the Georgians, which buildings were rebuilt and used by the Russians and everything else about what life used to be like in Akhaltsikhe during the Soviet Union era. Naturally, we took it all with a grain of salt, since political issues are always two-sided, but it was nice to get a local’s perspective and most of it sounded quite similar to what I normally hear from my older relatives about Yugoslavia. Just goes to show that the more you travel, the more you see that everything everywhere is really the same…

Sapara monastery

Sapara is a monastery complex in Southwestern Georgia, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region near Akhaltsikhe. It is considered one of the most important historical sites in the region, but it is sadly often overlooked. Most tourists head straight to the cave city of Vardzia, which I also went to, and disregard Sapara altogether. All 3 of them are marked on the map below and as you can see, the Sapara monastery really is close enough that it’s a shame if you don’t visit.

The name Sapara translates to hidden in Georgian, and the monastery is hidden indeed. It is situated deep within the mountains and perched on a cliff edge. Its orange brown bricks blend perfectly with the surrounding forests and slopes and you almost don’t see it until you drive right up to it. Unfortunately Sapara cannot be reached by public transport, so when I visited in 2018, my boyfriend and I hired one of the taxi drivers to take us there. The guy was quite a character who immediately adopted us after hearing we came from (former) Yugoslavia. He ended up driving us around for two days and kept trying to take care of us in the rather pushy, but friendly Georgian way.

Our first stop was the Sapara monastery and on the way there he decided we were practically kin due to our Balkan origins, so he started to educate us about the local facts and food. He almost killed us by forcibly braking and stopping next to a bakery, where he bought us a huge amount of freshly baked Georgian white bread, shotis puri. He insisted it was the best bread in the world and that we just had to try it, so we did. It was still warm and quite soft inside, a bit like the Balkan lepinja. We knew he wouldn’t take any money back for the bread, so we give him a tip at the end.

We drove further into the mountains, up a narrow winding road, which was suddenly full of cows impersonating cars. I guess that was normal and our driver didn’t even slow down, he just kind of slalomed around the mooing cows.

Cows on the road.

The views of the countryside we were driving through were quite beautiful, so we stopped on top of a hill to take some photos and out came the famous Georgian shots. He brought out the Georgian Chaca, grape pomace liquor and some Russian vodka, as he had several bottles in the trunk. I was really thankful for the bread we ate earlier, since we kept downing shots on an empty stomach and I was getting a bit worried how he was going to drive afterwards.

The beautiful Georgian countryside

Even though I don’t approve of driving under the influence, I turned a blind eye when we continued on towards Sapara, which we could already see in the distance. When we got there he waited for us at the parking lot while we went in to check out the monastery complex and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about leaving all our bags in the car, despite his friendly nature. But I figured our dirty laundry wasn’t particularly valuable and since we agreed to pay at the end of the journey, the promise of money would surely prevent him from leaving, so I went with it.

The Sapara monastery was built in the 10th century by Sarkis Jakeli, a local ruler who later became a monk at the monastery. The complex is composed of many buildings, such as the Church of Assumption, which was built first, many chapels, a fortress with walls and towers, farm buildings and a bell tower, which were added sometime between the 10th and 14th century. The domed church of St. Saba was built last, in the late 13th century, and was considered one of the most architecturally important churches of its time. Its walls are decorated with beautiful carvings and frescoes, which managed to relatively survive the Turkish raids in the 16th and 17th century. The monastery was mostly abandoned then and all of its treasures and paintings were taken to safe places in the surrounding villages. There are records of a single monk living at Sapara in the 18th century, but the monastery was fairly neglected until the 19th century, when service was restored under the Soviets. The Russian Orthodox church established their monastery there until the collapse of the Soviet Union and today Sapara is once again an active monastery, with a few dozen monks and novices of the Georgian Orthodox church.

Impressions of the Sapara monastery

Visiting Sapara

Not all of the buildings are open to the public and the fortress with its walls and farm houses mostly lies in ruins. You can however visit the churches and take a look around the complex. The monks are quite strict regarding the dress code required for entering any of the churches and taking photos, so I didn’t take many. It is free to visit and if you come during any of the services you may get the chance to listen to the men’s choir singing religious songs in Georgian.

Berchtesgaden

Berchtesgaden is both the name of a small Bavarian old town and the name of a whole region (Berchtesgadener Land) in Germany, famous for its beautiful National park. This post is going to be about Berchtesgaden the town, although I did also get to experience some the Berchtesgaden nature while road tripping around Austria with my boyfriend in April 2019.

We were trying to escape the rain in Salzburg by driving across the border to Germany, since Salzburg is located right next to it. Fun fact, the roads in Germany are significantly wider and more driver-friendly than the ones in Austria, which becomes really apparent as soon as you cross over. The beauty of the Berchtesgaden region also strikes you quite soon across the border, although Austria’s mountainous landscapes are equally lovely, so it’s more of a slow change.

One of the first things I noticed on the way to Berchtesgaden was a pale green river flowing along the road and the colour was so beautiful I kept bothering my boyfriend to stop somewhere by the road. We only managed to stop on the way back when it was already raining, but these just might be some of my favourite photos from that trip:

We drove deeper into the region and, although we were primarily headed to Könnigssee, we decided to stop at Berchtesgaden too, because the town looked so pretty from the road. That turned out to be a quite rewarding decision, as Berchtesgaden mainly consists of the old town section and the whole town looks cute as a button. It is one of those Bavarian mountain villages with colourful Rococo houses, disgustingly cute facade paintings, lots of flowers and details and of course, the mandatory tracht (Bavarian traditional dress) and lederhosen. Although it is worth visiting for the vintage Alpine commercial vibe alone, Berchtesgaden and the surrounding area are also historically significant in terms of the Bavarian kings and World War 2, as both Hitler and the royal families liked to vacation there.

Impressions of Berchtesgaden old town

Since we were only there for a short visit, we went for a walk around the town centre and climbed the stairs up to the Christuskirche church on the hill for the view. Berchtesgaden has quite a few churches and apparently there’s a trail connecting all of them – we didn’t really follow it, but I’d say we found most of them while exploring the town. We also found the Schlossplatz, an open square in front of the pink Wittelsbach family residence, who were the Bavarian royal family for quite a while. Both the Berchtesgaden castle and the Stiftkirche church attached to it are open to the public and there are some arcades with shops and interesting WW2 murals on the opposite side of the square as well.

The local kid climbing the Maypole.

While we were wandering around the town, we encountered a wedding and a group of people was cheering on one of the kids, who was climbing the Maypole set up for the 1st of May holiday. Apparently it’s a local tradition to climb the Maypole and bring down a ribbon for your sweetheart and the kid actually made it to the top of the smooth wooden pole due to sheer muscle strength and determination.

Besides the wedding party there were almost no people around. Berchtesgaden and the surrounding area are normally quite popular with tourists, particularly in the summer, so we got extremely lucky with our visit, since it was an April Saturday afternoon with gloomy weather. I can imagine the town is not half as charming when packed with tourists, so try to visit out of season to have the best experience, even if the weather is not picture perfect. You can always go for a beer at the local beer hall (Hofbräuhaus Berchtesgaden) or visit the nearby Berchtesgaden salt mine.

Drachenfest 2019

Drachenfest is an annual LARP festival every July in Northen Germany, in Diemelstadt, near Kassel. The name essentially means the Dragons’ festival and the background story is all about dragons (right up my alley!). It’s organised by Wyvern and has an accompanying sister-festival Zeit der Legenden happening at the end of May.

Disclaimer: this will likely be my longest blog post ever, because Drachenfest is 5 days of pure awesomeness and I wanted to do it justice. If you don’t want to read through so much text, just scroll through to the photos, I promise they’re worth seeing.

Drachenfest lasts for 5 days, with 4 full in-game days of LARPing. What is LARPing you may ask? I wrote a separate in depth post about it here, but in essence, LARP, which stands for live-action-roleplaying, is an activity where you dress up as a made-up character and participate in quests, i.e. play that character during an organised event with a background story frame and an appropriately decorated setting. It is based on improvisation and immersing yourself into an imaginary world, which all players co-create with their actions. Since Drachenfest is such a unique event full of fantastical details, I figured it would be best to tell this story in pictures – I don’t normally have my phone on me during LARP events, but I made an exception in 2019, because I was waiting for an important call. Obviously I cannot fit the whole 5 days into one blog post, but I’ll try to give you a feel for it. If you want suitable musical background, here’s two songs that always bring back the Drachenfest vibe for me: 1 and 2.

There were 4 of us going to the 2019 edition of Drachenfest and we drove overnight about a 1000 kilometers from Slovenia to Germany, with one fully packed car. As you can see in the photos below, we really filled the car and the roof box to the last centimetre with all of our LARP gear and we still had to leave some things at home. I still can’t believe we managed to fit in as much as we did…

Off we go!

The backstory of Drachenfest goes that once a upon a time the dragons created the world and ended up fighting over it to the point of destroying it. So, they created another one and decided to settle their differences by hosting a tournament where the warriors from each dragon camp fight the other camps in order to win the Drachenfest tournament for their chosen dragon. The players get to decide which dragon they feel called to, based on the dragon’s attributes, and join the respective camp.

Each camp has their own colour, an ideal or path (der Weg des Drachens) that the dragon represents and also their own camp words, i.e. a slogan. It’s a bit like the family words from the Game of Thrones and it’s one of the best ways they’ve thought of to unite the players in each camp, since every camp is essentially full of strangers who’ve never met before.

In short, the dragons and their ideals are: Blue (freedom and free will – essentially pirates), Gold (justice and rightness), Silver (grace and courage – essentially paladins), Black (death, power and the end of everything – mostly power-hungry mages, but not officially evil), Green (nature and life cycle – super family friendly camp), White (faith and devotion – the most recently founded camp, in-game religious fanatics), Red (war, relentless fighting – OP fighters), Grey (knowledge – small, scholarly, but fierce camp), Copper (order and discipline – NPC players) + the camp of Alteration/Eternal Change (ex chaos and everything weird) and the Orc camp. It is of course much more complicated than that, since Drachenfest has a whole lot of lore and mythical history to support its backstory and allow for all the quests etc., but you get the idea.

Copper is the dragon boss, fully committed to order and discipline, and the rest of the dragons are her (his?) children. That’s why Copper camp is an NPC camp, where players must follow certain rules and participate in all activities. Players in other camps are free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, within the rules of course. There are GMs (Game Masters, i.e. referees) with red hats present at all times to enforce the rules and help guide the game. The Orc camp is also an NPC camp and is the only one with costume standards. Players who wish to join the Orc camps must pass a strict orc costume check, because trust me, some of those guys could be extras in the Lord of the Rings movies. Here is a video of the orcs marching through the town – encounters with orcs always get your heart pumping, even though you know it’s all a game…

The entire concept of Drachenfest is pretty developed and there are players, mages in particular, who have spent years building upon the lore and untangling all aspects of it, but most of that is in German. Because yes, Drachenfest is a German LARP festival and even though they’ve been trying increasingly hard to accommodate international players in English, the more complex stuff is only accessible in German. To be honest, I think that’s fair, since there’s about 5000 players attending the festival each year and we the internationals are guests there + it adds another aspect to the game.

Every camp also has a dragon representative or an Avatar and the in-game time or in-time (IT) starts with an Opening ceremony (you can see a video here), where each Avatar is summoned into the ritual circle to answer that year’s challenge in the name of their dragon. It also ends with the Closing ritual, where the winner is announced and their year begins.

Anyhow, we chose the Black camp for the second year in a row (we also went in 2017), which officially represents the end of everything and the knowledge found in the shadows (the Black camp description can be found here, but it is of course in German).

Ich rufe in diesen Kreis, um sich dem Streit zu stellen:
Den, der das Ende der Dinge ist. Den, der im Schatten Weisheit erkennt. Den, der immer sucht und vieles weiss.
Ich rufe den Schwarzen Avatar!

I call in this circle to answer the Challenge:
The One who the end of everything is, the One who finds knowledge in the Shadows, the One who always seeks and knows many things.
I call the Black Avatar!

From the Drachenfest Opening ritual, loosely translated.

It may sound evil and shady, but in reality the camp is a bit more scholarly and power hungry. It’s full of mages dabbling in the arcane arts, illusions and mysticism, who are officially not necromancers. Our words were “Alles muss enden! Alles wird enden!” (Everything must end! Everything will end!) and “Für Macht und Sieg!” (For power and victory! yes, rather unfortunate in German, I know). The first year I went to Drachenfest in 2016, we went to the Green camp and although it was also a good experience, the Black camp has one huge advantage: it is small.

Since there aren’t that many people, you can more easily get involved in all the major camp activities, like the Gate watch, the Magic Guild and fighting units etc. You can of course do that in all the camps, but if the camp is bigger, there’s often too many people vying for the same in-game positions and it can take years to worm your way into the community, especially if you are an international player. However, we seemed to fit in quite well with the Blacks, particularly because we had very useful neighbours who kept inviting us to take a guard shift at the Gates or join them in the sieges and battles with other camps. They also kept us informed, which was nice, as I usually act as the translator with my less than adequate German at the camp meetings (Lagerversammlungen) and some things end up flying past us. We also got quite involved with the Magic Guild again (I got to participate in a fancy magic ritual again, this time in a more active role) and one of my friends ended up carrying a dragon egg for the Avatar, which is a huge in-game honour (perks of a small camp, yo!).

Besides the Avatar the camps also have a General, a Diplomat, a Head Mage and a Spy Master. They are regular players, which get elected at the first camp meeting every year and the election method depends on the camp. The Black camp has a rather interesting approach where all candidates for the position must agree on one amongst themselves (the method of last-one-standing-after-killing-all-the-others also counts, since the Blacks value power).

You can see our little campsite in the photos below. We were camped in the first line of the Black camp, quite close to the Gates. Each camp has a huge wooden gate, which is an actual construction with a gatehouse, a tower and the palisades, that awesome volunteers build on site a few days before the festival. In fact, the whole site of Drachenfest is just a giant lawn and everything is built anew every year, which is a very impressive feat. The Gates need to be defended as other camps can attack you and try to steal your banner, which is important for game reasons. Camps can also make alliances with each other.

Our campsite

Now, the goal of the game is not so much to win as to participate and play your character. As already explained in the “What is LARP?” post, all players co-create the game and in events such as Drachenfest, also the environment. Since everything is built from scratch every year, it is important that the players have proper equipment, like medieval tents, cookingware etc., or the camps would not look half as impressive (there’s also an area further back for people without proper tents, but that’s no fun). The same goes for costumes, as it is kind of hard to immerse yourself into a fantasy world, if someone is walking around in jeans and sneakers. So, most of us who spend too much time and money on this LARP stuff bring several outfits for our characters and there’s tons of shops in the in-game town, but more on that later.

My character’s name was Fede and she was a rather cynical illusion mage with slightly flexible morals. Over the course of the festival she also got a bit too into fighting (although the fighters of the Black camp were few in numbers, they were hilarious and actually made all the lengthy battles fun), so she kind of multi-classed into a battle mage. Good thing there’s no such thing as classes in LARP and that your character is only loosely defined by a character sheet specifying their skills, spells etc. Since Drachenfest is such a dynamic event with so much going on, I find it’s better to keep my character a bit fluid, although some of my friends don’t agree and prefer to set themselves more rigid limits regarding their in-game persona.

Outfit of the day

Since the goal is participation and the whole point of going is the actual experience of LARPing, here’s a bit of what you can do at Drachenfest:

  • Battles: you can join a battle unit, train with them, go to countless battles, gate sieges and skirmishes, either because you enjoy fighting, for the glory of the camp or to support your allies. You can also do that if you don’t join a unit and just go whenever you feel like it or your camp needs extra people – always in our case.
  • Magic, alchemy, lore exploration etc.: there are many player groups and actual guilds in each camp who exclusively play characters, which spend their whole time working on magic theory, mixing potions and learning the intricacies of lore. It is all pretty well defined by game mechanics and there are always GMs on site to help out.
  • Quests: every camp has some main quests as given by the Avatar and there are also many less important quests for guilds, town organisations or purely for your own character development and enjoyment. Some quests yield dragon eggs, which are important for the game, as they count towards winning, so eggs are also often traded amongst the camps.
  • New skills: you can take organised fighting/magic/history etc. classes at the schools in town if you want to develop your character, but you can also actually learn new skills, such as blacksmithing, woodworking, calligraphy, cooking etc.

As you can see there’s quite a lot to do and this honestly hasn’t even scratched the surface. Everything is pretty complex in terms of details and can be overwhelming, but the actual out-of-game mechanics of it are quite simple and easy to learn. Even the battles can get quite complex, as people bring functioning siege weapons and golems and get super deep into tactics.

At this point you might be wondering what happens if you die, since the festival does last 5 days. Well, there’s Limbus, a giant shadowy haunted labyrinth, where dead characters’ souls go for a chance to return to the land of the living. All dead fighters neatly line up at the entrance and are given a tiny soul light, which they have to safely bring to the exit. However, there are creatures and other players who have lost their lights prowling the corridors of Limbus, so the whole thing can take a while, if it’s not crowded. You are also given a death quest, which changes every time. The Limbus tent is an oven during the hot summer days though, so it’s worth dying early in the day… The other option is the Gardens of Eternal Twilight, which I haven’t tried yet, or trusting one of the necromancers that lurk around the entrance to Limbus, which may or may not end well.

If your character is killed during a ritual, they stay dead forever. Similarly, in the final battle (die Endschlacht, i.e. the Apocalypse), which takes place at the end of the festival, lasts several hours and is essentially all camps against each other, the dead characters just move to the sides to watch, as the festival is effectively over. Here’s some videos of the Endschlacht to give you a feel for how huge Drachenfest really is: 1, 2, 3.

Battles and sieges

If you’re still here, we’ve finally gotten to what I personally consider the most impressive part of Drachenfest. Every year the German LARP community builds a whole in-game town from scratch and trust me, it’s pretty big. The town is called Aldradach and it has everything a town should have. It features many LARP-related shops (OK, they actually make money from being there, but the rest of the in-game institutions are run and built by volunteers), a Post Office, a Newspaper Office, the Town Hall, the City watch, a Prison, a Casino, a Brothel called Vitalium, the Magic Guild with a Magic school, the Fighter’s Guild with a fighting Arena, the Temple of dragons, the Caravanseray (Arabic-inspired shisa and pillows tea place), the Tribes’ market and camp, the Dwarven quarter, a Bakery, several taverns (the Thirsty Dagger is the pirate one with the best mead), a Blacksmith, the Healer’s guild (complete with experiments on patients), a Scribe, a Goblin photographer, a Bank, a Dating Agency, a general School, a Tea house, a Massage parlour and the Colonies (a community of free artists and craftsmen, which only take in-game money as payment). There are also beggars, who have their own little corner, hot tubs, child care, food vendors with ice cream and a fancy restaurant and probably many other things, which I’ve forgotten to mention. The town changes every year, depending on how many groups manage to attend the festival, so it’s always a new experience. P.S. The hill above Aldradach is where the out-of-game toilets and showers are located, although each camp has their own water source and portable toilets.

The town of Aldradach

As you can imagine, nightlife is a huge part of the experience and the 8 a.m. battles are usually not very numerously attended. There’s a huge field separating all the camps and the town, which is a neutral zone that needs to be navigated, if you want to go out for a beer in the tavern. Orcs and other weird creatures come out at night, when the temperatures are more heavy-costume-friendly, and the paranoid, wild dash into town is one of my favourite parts of the experience. The players that remain out and about late at night are usually the most fun to play with, as they are always up for stupid shenanigans and don’t take themselves too seriously, so I’ve had some very fun encounters out on the field.

There are several taverns serving mead wine and killer cocktails in town and the prices are pretty friendly for Germany + there’s always lots of private parties in the camps or the town that you can end up getting invited to. Since LARP is a creative activity, there are also tons of performers hanging around the taverns and usually there’s live music, dancing and fire shows almost every night, so it’s never boring. The pirates are particularly good at nightlife, as well as the Colonies, which hold a Festival of Lights on one of the nights each year, where they decorate their town camp with thousands of tiny lights and basically hold one massive party.

Nightlife

And so, we’ve made it to the end of this gigantic post! Also, the Red dragon won in 2019, but the Black did quite well too. If you’ve made it this far, you’re either very bored at work/sitting on the toilet or should definitely try LARPing. I hope I’ve managed to give you a glimpse into the fantastical madness that is the Drachenfest LARP festival and I also wrote some more in-game stories here. You can always find more photos and videos online if it caught your interest. Let me know your reactions in the comments. 🙂

Könnigssee

Könnigssee is one of the many beautiful lakes located amidst the mountains of the Berchtesgaden National park in Germany. It is certainly the most royal one, as the Germans have a funny habit of writing all their words smashed together and hoping they will make sense, so the name Könnigssee actually means the King’s lake. It is quite large and boasts a lovely emerald green colour, which is pretty much the defining characteristic of all Alpine lakes, such as lake Hallstatt or Bohinj, and always makes for a beautiful sight.

Könnigssee is a popular vacation spot, particularly during the summer, so there’s a huge parking spot at Schönau am Könnigssee, the town from which you can access the lake. However, as soon as you leave the parking lot and navigate past the myriad of souvenir stalls and random tourists, you’ll discover the most attractive thing about Könnigssee – the silence.

Lazy Schönau am Könnigssee on a rainy afternoon.

Because it is surrounded by steep, impenetrable mountains, Könnigssee can only be accessed through Schönau and there are no roads or large trails around the lake, which means no road traffic and only as much noise as you make it. They even have silent electric boats cruising the lake to preserve the silent charm and you can hear the boatman’s trumpet echo through the mountains even if you are not on the boat.

To be fair, a crowd of tourist during the high season probably makes a lot of noise, but when I visited in the beginning of May 2019 with my boyfriend, the weather was still a bit too chilly for most people and the forecast was rain, so that helped even more. In fact, we were visiting Salzburg and the forecast was buckets of rain for the whole day, so we were looking for an alternative location to escape to. Although Salzburg is a very interesting place with tons of great museums to explore on a rainy day, I was suffering from an acute baroque overload at the time and I really wanted to go somewhere out in nature instead. We chose Könnigssee for a quick afternoon trip and our choice paid off, as it only started to rain when we were already heading back to the car.

Even though Könnigssee is technically in Germany , it is not very far from the northern Austrian border, as it is located in that weirdly shaped part of Germany that is kind of sticking into Austria.

See what I mean? Anyways, the Berchtesgaden area is quite famous for its beautiful scenery and hiking trails, as well as the Eagle’s nest, Hitler’s emergency bunker at the top of the mountain, which was still closed for winter at the time of our visit.

St. Bartholomew’s church zoomed in from across the lake.

From Könnigssee you can hike up 2713 m to Mt. Watzmann, hailed as the most beautiful mountain in the world by the Berchtesgaden tourist board – I’m not sure if I agree, but it is certainly impressive, and no, we were not near crazy enough to hike it. You can also take a cable car up Mt. Jenner, where you can supposedly see wild marmots, but it was too cold and rainy for them to be out, so we didn’t do that either. There’s also a good reason for all those electric cruise boats: St. Bartholomew’s church on the other shore of the lake, which is not easily accessible by foot, unless you’re planning to do some serious hiking. The boat also stops at Salet, from which you can hike up to Obersee, a small glacier lake above Könnigssee. You can take a cruise to either of the stops and back and no, we did not do that either, because it was actually quite expensive and we weren’t planning to waste half our time there on a boat.

Instead we chose to simply enjoy the lake views, walk around the accessible area as much as we could without going too far up the mountain trails and have a picnic on the shore. We found a sign pointing towards Malerwinkel, the Painter’s corner, which is one of the few easily walkable points around the lake. We followed the trail and came across another sign, this time for the Cafe Malerwinkel, but since we had our own food with us, we decided to ignore it and took a smaller forest path to the left of the Cafe. We emerged directly on the lake shore, next to a small island with some kind of ruins on it and it turned out to be the perfect picnic spot.

Judging by some leftover trash we were not the first people who thought the spot was perfect for a picnic, but at least there was not a lot of it and we took some of it back with us and tossed it in the bins. While we were eating, we also made some new friends: a couple of adventurous ducks, who came super close to us after a while, until we accidentally startled them and they flew off.

A rare couple photo of me and my boyfriend at our picnic spot.

After eating we walked up the remaining distance to Malerwinkel, which is actually a perfectly located viewpoint, from which you can see the church of St. Bartholomew if you squint really hard (the view from the cover photo). My phone was much better at zooming into the church than me, so we actually got to see what it looked like after I took a few photos, so if you have a fancy camera bring a tripod and go for it – most people there did. It was starting to drizzle a bit by then, so we quickly left Malerwinkel and speed-walked to the car park. Also, the parking fee was surprisingly not very expensive, as you can buy a one day ticket for 5 €, 1 hour for 1 € or 3 hour for 4 € (as of April 2019).

Impressions of Könnigssee

Čokoljana 2019

Čokoljana is a free 1 day annual chocolate festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, organised by mojačokolada.si, which has been around for quite a few years now. The one in October 2019 was the 7th edition and the first one that I intentionally went to (probably because of all the advertising they had going on everywhere, I guess it paid off).

The festival is held in the centre of Ljubljana, right where the city farmers’ market is happening every weekend, so I’d passed by a couple of times before. Since it is quite popular, it was always too crowded for me to actually stop and take a look. Some of my friends suggested we go this year though, so we went.

Čokoljana is not so much a real festival than a cluster of stalls filled with different chocolate products, with some music and workshops for kids. I do hope the diluted chocolate the kids were using to paint with was expired or something, as making art with food seemed a bit wasteful to me. On the other hand, the chocolate businesses exhibiting on the stalls were more than worth a visit, because most of them were fancy confectioneries with premium chocolate stuff. It’s very convenient to have them all in one place, so I’d say the festival is a must stop for any chocolate lover.

There were all sorts of fantastical chocolate products, such as white chocolate with poppy seeds and honey, dark chocolate with pumpkin seeds and cumin, fancy types of truffles, a huge variety of pralines with exotic fancy fillings, chocolate letters and animals, cakes, pies and other creamy desserts, candy, chocolate covered fruit, chocolate fountains with fruits and marshmallows for dipping, hot chocolates and chocolaty coffees, a chocolate kebab, puffy pancakes, cotton candy, waffles with lavender and white chocolate and even chocolate burgers – the whole mixed grill.

The degustation system was quite good as well, as most of the vendors had small portions available for tastings at each stall, for a small price. We could pay with cash, which was nice, because usually these types of events in Slovenia have some kind of pre-bought token system. Most of the tasting prices ranged around 0.5 € to 2 € for a few pieces of chocolate or a truffle, and a up to 6 € for larger goodies like the chocolate burger (yes, it actually had a patty made of chocolate and the buns were waffles = pure joy). Granted, it is a bit expensive to pay 1 € for a single praline or truffle, but if you choose the ones with fancy filling combinations, it really is value for money and it’s not like you’re going be eating them every day. It was very hard to choose however, because everything looked so tasty! I was lucky that several of us went, so we could try all the different things without dying of acute sugar overdose.

Speaking of which, there was also a healthy chocolate and sugar-free products corner, easily recognisable by the lack of crowds. The products there actually looked quite tasty, but I guess healthy raw vegan chocolate, fruit bars and spreads are just not that interesting compared to the real thing, if you don’t have health or personal conviction restrictions to uphold.

Impressions from Čokoljana 2019

Besides chocolate, Čokoljana had some stalls with sandwiches and wine, as well as one with killer chilli jams and chilli mead, one with Slovenian-made kombucha drinks and one with Slovenian limited edition gin. We bought a bottle of gin with gin truffles and got a good deal for it too.

There was also another, smaller event happening nearby, something about honey, and they had some more stalls featuring local products there. Most of it was honey-related, but there were some vegetables and dairy products as well. So, me and the boyfriend now have a super tasty cheese with black pepper from a local farm in the fridge and I can’t write the word chocolate in a blog post again for a while. 🙂

The non-chocolatey stalls

Salzburg

Salzburg is the fourth largest city in Austria, located at the border with Germany. The name means Salt city in German, as Salzburg prospered on the salt trade due to the three salt mines in the vicinity. The city itself is divided into two parts on each side of the Salzach river, the baroque Altstadt or Oldtown on the left and the 19th century Neustadt or Newtown on the right. It is most famous as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the renowned classical music composer, and it is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The statue of Mozart at Mozartplatz.

The last time I visited Salzburg was for a few days in May 2019 with my boyfriend, but the city has so much to offer that you could stay there for much longer. Besides being the city of Mozart, Salzburg is also famous as the setting for the popular 1965 movie the Sound of Music and there are many tours catering to the fans, as well as a number of interesting museums, castles and palaces.

The Altstadt is known for its beautiful baroque architecture, as Salzburg was the seat of Prince-Archbishops for quite a few centuries and they were all eager to prove their wealth and power by commissioning increasingly lavish buildings. There are so many, that you would have a hard time visiting all of them, as you would end up with an acute case of baroque overload (trust me, I nearly did). The entire Oldtown consists of adorable narrow streets and passageways, historical squares, such as the Cathedral square, Mozartplatz and Residenzplatz, numerous statues, churches and fountaines, so just walking through the city is an experience in itself.

Impressions of Salzburg

As for museums, Salzburg has about 30 museums altogether, so if that is your jam, get the Salzburg card and explore them all. There are two museums dedicated to Mozart, one at the house where he was born and another in the house where he lived. There are also plenty of places where you can buy Mozartkugeln, the chocolate marzipan balls dedicated to Mozart. Personally, I am quite picky with my museums, as there is only so much information my brain can absorb in a given day, so I tend to skip most of them, except the ones I find really interesting.

With that said, we did visit the DomQuartier museum, which is a relatively new attraction and a great value for money. It is essentially 5 museums blended into the same tour, with a visit to the Salzburg Cathedral thrown in. DomQuartier includes the Residenz, i.e. the Prince-Archbishops’ state rooms, St. Peter’s treasury museum, the Cabinet of Curiosities, housing a collection of all the wonders of the world at the time, and two galleries. The tour also takes you across the terrace with lovely views of the Oldtown, which connects the Residenz with the Cathedral loft, so you also get to see the Cathedral from above, along with its impressive organ and museum.

The DomQuartier and the Cathedral

The entire museum complex is very well-organised, with interesting exhibitions, fully translated into English and with lots of information, so I definitely recommended a visit. Fair warning though, walking through the entire DomQuartier takes a while and, if you are anything like me, you will be sick and tired of anything baroque by the end of it, so be mentally prepared.

All the kids loved my tower.

Another museum we visited was the Toy museum, which was essentially a small playroom for kids. It was supposed to have a collection of antique toys, steam trains etc., but we were either in the wrong place or somehow managed to miss it. The entrance was just 2.5 € and there was a play area for kids in the basement, with different constructions for marbles and building blocks, and an exhibition with some toys in the first floor. My boyfriend thought it was a total rip-off, but I happily built a huge tower and all the little kids there were in awe. However, unless you have kids, it really is more a waste of time than not, although marbles are fun to play with, as you can see from the video below.

Among others, Salzburg also has a Stiegl brewery museum and a Christmas museum. If you like beer, you can also visit an outdoor beer garden at the Augustiner brewery, which was originally run by the monks of the Augustine order. We did not, as we run out of time and the weather was not that good, but my uncle recommended it, so I imagine it must be good, since he is usually right about anything to do with eating and drinking.

The Makartsteg bridge.

One place we did pass by was the Makartsteg bridge, which got famous due to the huge number of love locks that people have locked on to it over the years. †Besides that we also visited the three most famous palaces and castles: the Hohensalzburg fortress, the Mirabell palace and the Hellbrunn palace, which are all quite impressive sights by themselves and thus deserved their own separate posts. Another interesting sight in Salzburg is not your typical tourist attraction, but I thought it was pretty special: the Altstadt parking garages, carved into the Mönchsberg mountain itself, with low raw rock ceilings and steep, narrow roads.

A tunnel into the Mönchsberg mountain.

Travel tip: You can visit most of Salzburg on foot, so the Altstadt garages are a great place to park your car, if there is space. Usually parking in the city centre would be quite expensive, but Salzburg offers something called the Altstadttarif, which works for some garages and parking places (make sure to check which, as it might be subject to change). If you buy something in certain shops, cafes or restaurants in the Oldtown, they can stamp your ticket and the price for 8 hours of parking will only be 6 €. Look for the places with an orange sticker with the word Parking in the window and ask them to punch your ticket through for you when you pay. They were happy to do it for us, but beware: the mark on the ticket is just a simple hole with a hole punch, so the parking machines will not recognise it. You need to show your punched ticket to the worker at the counter and there are no people working in the parking garages on weekends, so you will pay full price if you are forced to use the automatic parking machine like we had to. We did get the discounted price the first day we were there though, so it is definitely worth giving it a try to save some time and money.

The details of Salzburg