A Year Past

There stand in my mind, mountains and monuments whose names I cannot recall, but friends made along the way remain.

Nearly a year has come and gone since we first set sail. April of 2011 brought with it the embarkation of a great journey, one that would take my wife and me across much of Europe and beyond. It seems odd now, a year past, how 76 days can change so much.

I find happiness in having a home, a place to call your own, but a strange yearning persists after the long flight back and months of daily routine. The itinerary is fresh in my mind and logic won’t serve to explain why my backpack has yet to be emptied.

We landed in Barcelona, spent Easter in Rome, toured Tuscany, sailed again to Athens, Jerusalem and Turkey. Back on dry ground we traveled by rail first to the cliff-side villages of Cinque Terre then to the canals of Venice before venturing north into Switzerland.

The Lauterbrunnen Valley greeted us with its fairytale beauty and from the heights of Jungfrau we descended to the sun-drenched shores of Zürichsee. Grossmüenster bid us farewell as we made way to Bavaria and the castles of Fussen chasing spring and warmer weather to Berlin. Cologne and a daytrip down the Rhine bid us adieu from Germany before landing in Amsterdam and the windmills of Holland.

Our journeys turned south toward Paris for a dose of culture before sipping champagne in Reims. A jaunt to the hallowed ground of Normandy rounded out our time on continental Europe sailing across the channel to celebrate the queen’s birthday in London and ending our journey after a few nights in Edinburgh’s old town.

Though part of us has returned another never will.

Downtown Lauterbrunen

Downtown Lauterbrenen

Eiffel Tower at night

Eiffel Tower at night

Riomagiorre, Cinque Terre, Italy

Riomagiorre, Cinque Terre, Italy

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A Royal Journey

England, Britain, Great Britain, United Kingdom … oh there’s a difference. Despite the obvious historical connection to America, those of us on this side of the pond often use these names interchangeably – even when they’re not.

Royal Flyover

Royal Flyover

The all-encompassing United Kingdom, however, is a safe bet when struggling with locations within the British Isles. Including England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the UK boasts a world of treasures for hungry visitors all found in our native tongue (sort of).

Through Welsh, Cornish and Scottish accents, among a myriad of other regional variations, English is the spoken language, and a sweet sound it is to travelers of foreign lands weary of charades and countless language barriers.

Many choose to begin their journey in this land in which America’s forefathers called home. It is a good choice for transitioning into European vacations and adjusting to surroundings in a new culture. It is, however, a fine way to end a journey as well. Strangers can easily be addressed and conversations stuck up at any pub, hotel lobby or street-side market.

Beyond the convenience of language, there are the sights which adorn history books and popular culture. London, of course, is also home to the English throne, and for now the Royal Family is larger than life, especially in a time where international media plays upon the romance of a fairy tale wedding and the welcoming of a new duchess. Palaces, chariots and pageantry easily fascinate those unaccustomed to such occurrences.

Royal Family

Royal Family

Speaking of unexpected events, check the local happenings when traveling to London, or any city for that matter. Upon our arrival in London, we stumbled upon the Royal Family celebrating the Queen’s birthday with the Trooping of the Colours. This annual ceremony sees selected regiments from throughout the kingdom marching past Buckingham Palace to salute the queen before a fly-over by the Royal Air Force.

Also to our surprise, we happened upon a parade of bicyclists traversing the downtown area in their birthday suits. Naked as Jaybirds, some 300 cyclists paraded down the main streets and thoroughfares of London wearing nothing but their sneakers, some did don helmets for safety’s sake of course, while others wore masks and body paint to hide their true identity.

No matter the hullabaloo thrust upon the city during your stay, descend upon the streets with a good pair of shoes and see the numerous sites making London famous. Most notably are of course Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the reconstructed Globe Theatre, just to name a few. So, find a good map and set out on foot to conquer this city dissected by the Thames River, but budget wisely as the U.S. dollar stands weak against the British Pound Sterling.

Imperial War Museum

Imperial War Museum

Not far from Westminster Bridge, lies a museum slightly off the beaten path, popular but not to the level of other sites. Dedicated to the memory of those who have served the British Empire and the Allied Forces throughout various conflicts, The Imperial War Museum gives visitors a look at how war is waged. Catering to the senses of a predominately male audience, the brutality and horror of war is not glossed over in these exhibits as history is presented in living color.

Entrance to this spectacular display is free and don’t expect to find any replicas here, the lobby is filled with tanks, submarines, trucks and artillery pieces while fighter planes from both World Wars hang from the ceiling. All pieces in display are the real deal and most saw combat action. Service records are available for many pieces along with technical specifications. Further inside the museum are detailed records of World War I and II including interactive sections to give guests a feel of trench life or a London air raid.

Other halls include a graphic chronology of the Holocaust followed by the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition, a continually growing collection of British gallantry medals telling the stories of Great Britain’s greatest heroes. Give yourself plenty of time for this museum as it can easily take an entire day for history buffs to comb through the massive collection.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

After exploring the city, head north toward Scotland, technically part of Great Britain, but stubbornly proud of its own national heritage. Traveling along the East Coast Railway, the English Channel glistens in the distance for nearly five hours occasionally revealing sleepy seaside towns and villages. Arriving in Edinburgh, this walkable city is a welcome relief to the pace and size of London. A daunting castle, monuments and spires crown the skyline of Scotland’s capital.

Two major cities make the itineraries of most tourists, Edinburgh to the east or Glasgow to the west. Edinburgh is full of old world charm, dark stone exteriors and narrow closes (alleys), where as Glasgow is said to be a center of culture and arts appealing often to a younger crowd with plenty of plays, shows and concerts to be had. A mutual disdain for the other can be found in residents of either city, always vying for attention and tourist dollars. If you have the time, try them both on for size and decide for yourself.

With only a few days to spend in Scotland, be sure to catch an excursion into the Highlands from either city. Moving by bus or motor coach into the gently rolling landscape, the medieval ruins of castles nestled among lochs and glens is a captivating sight. Along the way a distinctive breed of Highland Cow with long horns and flowing ginger hair mingles with sheep between villages.

Highland Cow

Highland Cow

In this land of fairy tales, the original Gaelic leaves its mark where lochs are lakes and glens are valleys. The people here seem genuine and during the summer, they’re just happy it’s not winter. The food is hearty with menus consisting of meat and potatoes including the traditional haggis, a sausage of ground sheep intestines, which is a surprising delight to the senses. In the highlands, whiskey is king and here Scotch was born, so tour a distillery and sample the local product.

The UK is full of history and legend, once the seat of a mighty empire spanning across the globe. Today, an experience of refined airs can be felt among London’s royalty as well as still wild landscapes in the Highlands of Scotland. Whether the beginning or the end of a European Adventure, or somewhere in between, take time to see some of this island nation’s many offerings.

 

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Finding France … In a Flash

With only a week to see an entire country, start by finding what interests you and your travel companions to design a trip tailored to suit individual needs and desires.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower lights up at night

For us, France was the goal, a tall order for only seven days. From the Mediteranean Riviera in the South to the Atlantic coast in the West and mountains in the East, there’s more than enough to fill itineraries of any length.

There was but one place for us to begin, the City of Lights, Paris. Brimming with culture, art and cuisine, the capital city could keep visitors busy for weeks simply touring museums and art galleries. Must see sites including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph, Cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris and the Louvre are always packed through June and July.

Worthy of the wait, however, is a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower as the sun sets, arriving at the pinnacle far a dazzling light show of a twinkling cityscape. If the opportunity presents itself don’t forget that all state run museums, including the Louvre, are free to the public on the first Sunday of every month; but get in line early to avoid spending all day in queue.

A sprawling city, Paris boasts an effective and easy to use public transportation system dominated by an extensive subway system aided by a suburban rail network reaching outlying neighborhoods. Several international rail stations lie on each side of the city dispatching trains in every direction. In less than an hour, train travelers can arrive in Reims, capital of the famed Champagne region.

Surrounded by vineyards in villages throughout the region, the city of Reims is home to several Champagne houses and cellars, many within walking distance of city center and others just a short drive by private car. Large and small producers can be found including headquarters of the world renowned G.H. Mumm.

Champagne Caves

Champagne caves of Reims

Known locally as Champagne ‘caves,’ chalk lined wine cellars rest in the cool darkness of tunnels more than 40 feet below ground.  The largest of Reims’ producers, Mumm houses 25 million bottles of champagne dating back to the 1860s in an astonishing 16 miles of subterranean cellars. Each tour ends with a tasting of the local product.

Between tours and tasting, be sure to stop by the hidden treasure of General Dwight Eisenhower’s ‘war room’ and home to the German capitulation signing. Tucked away in a side street with little signage and even less commercial marketing, this museum tells how Eisenhower’s headquarters came to be the site of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Outer rooms have been transformed into exhibits displaying war relics and showing Reims’ role in the war while the war room remains untouched from the day it came into fame. Maps wallpaper the room marking troop advancements throughout Europe while smaller charts kept the war cabinet up to date on movement in the Pacific theater.

Trains from Reims traveling west will almost always pass through Paris but be prepared for a complicated connection. With several stations surrounding the city, to go from east to west through Paris, travelers must walk to the subway and grab a ride toward another train station before finding their connection.

Once on the right track, a few hours westward brings us closer to the Atlantic into the region of Normandy. A beautiful land flourishing in agriculture, Normandy offers a respite from busy cities; but for American citizens and others from Allied nations, Normandy serves as a somber pilgrimage to honor the sacrifices of an entire generation.

June 6, 1944 came to be known as D-Day, a gloomy morning coming on the heels of a raging storm saw nearly 1,000 warships descend upon a 30-mile stretch of beach for a foothold in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. A museum in Caen offers a historical look at war torn Europe along with a special exhibit dedicated to the largest invasion force in history.

Normandy American Cemetery

Normandy American Cemetery

Public transportation to the landing beaches is nearly non-existent with buses reaching only one beachhead. A guided tour, easily arranged by the local tourist information office, provides guests with a detailed account of the historic battle against a tyrannical empire. The heroic acts of Allied invasion forces resulted in the successful capture of German occupied territory at the cost of nearly 10,000 Allied casualties.

A journey to the American Cemetery at Normandy is a poignant reminder of freedom’s staggering price tag. On 172 acres, the graves of 9,387 American soldiers lie atop a bluff in sight of the beaches they once fought for. Soldiers lost in combat throughout the European campaign rest on this site, most of who were involved in the landing operation. Among the slain are three recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, four women and 307 unknowns.

Interred in the peace and serenity of this site are residents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Side-by-side can be found one father and son and 33 pairs of brothers. To experience the magnitude of this memorial, wandering the grounds and overlooking the white headstones, is a moving testament inspiring gratitude for sacrifices made by others.

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A Taste of Germany

At half the size of Texas, Germany covers a generous portion of northern Europe from Alps in the south to low plains in the north. A six hour train ride from Munich will land travelers in Germany’s capital and largest city, Berlin.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

In a state of near ruins after World War II, Berlin suffered a tumultuous and dark period resulting in what is now a burgeoning city coming into its own after years of direct international influence.

Home to 3.5 million and sprawling some eight times the size of Paris, Berlin can pose an intimidating task for wary visitors. A thorough and straightforward public transportation system aids in sightseeing while saving feet from long hours and demanding streets.

Various tours operate in and around Berlin including the ever popular hop-on hop-off bus tours. Combining convenience and ease, these busses can be found in many major cities throughout Europe and offer all day tickets picking up and dropping off visitors at major attractions. Live or recorded messages give a detailed history and understanding of the surrounding area. Opt for live guides and open air double-decker busses if given the chance, tickets often run from €10 to €20 a person depending on the city and level of service.

A long history as a trading empire and home to Prussian royalty is overshadowed by Berlin’s recent history. For 28 years, the Berlin Wall separated East and West, during that time 192 people were killed trying to cross the border while Communist rule infringed upon basic human rights within Soviet controlled East Germany.

Today, Check Point Charlie, a notable border crossing of the Berlin Wall, is trivialized through flamboyant tourist traps. Germans in surplus American and Soviet uniforms pose for pictures with guests while street hawkers sale passport stamps from the former divided city. A poignant timeline of the political and personal trials of the past is on display just beyond the reconstructed checkpoint, but for a good view of repurposed wall, walk along the East Side Gallery, a mile of artwork from international artists covering the largest remaining portion of the wall.

Museum Island

Museum Island

Far from the grief caused by a divided Germany, lies an impressive collection of museums large enough to fill the treasury of an entire country, all found on a single island. In the middle of the Spree River is found a congregation of internationally acclaimed museums. The island is such an assemblage of historical works that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Stop by the Pergamon Museum to see an ancient altar from modern day Turkey, transported and reassembled at the turn of the 20th century. Or drop by the Old National Gallery to see a brilliant collection of German and European masterpieces including Rodin’s original Thinker – much smaller than the 1902 original cast seen in Paris.

Although many sites are spread throughout the sprawling distance of Berlin, some of the city’s biggest attractions are found at one end of the Tiergarten, a massive city park once used as hunting grounds for Prussian Kings. Here, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag hold down the seat of governmental affairs.

Next to the Brandenburg Gate is the remarkable Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Opened in 2005, the memorial consists of 2,711 concrete pillars of varying height on rolling terrain creating a maze of stone rising like trees out of the ground. Below the monument is an underground museum not to be missed. This moving depiction of unimaginable horrors goes to great lengths to connect names and faces with the 6 million Jews who were murdered. One exhibit describes events and conditions through personal words taken from journal entries, postcards and letters.

Rhine River Cruise

Rhine River Cruise

From Berlin, a multitude of German cities and towns can be reached within a couple hours. One of these is Cologne, or Köln, home to an impressive cathedral and a mighty river. Drawing visitors is often the wide Rhine River which offers river cruises lasting a couple hours, all day or even multiple day sailings. Those with a rail pass valid in Germany can board the KD German Rhine Line here and take a day trip up stream.

After heading up the river for five hours, the village of Linz appears along the shore. Linz is a popular excursion for visitors and locals alike with quaint narrow streets and half-timbered houses. Smaller communities such as those found along the river were for the most part in tact after the war, which cannot be said for Germany’s larger cities. After an hour and a half, the river boat returns and guests climb back onboard for another relaxing journey back to Cologne.

Also in Cologne is the dangerously tempting Chocolate Museum. For any chocoholic, this museum will surely delight the senses. An enlightening surprise, the presentation is extremely thorough beginning with cultivation and production including a greenhouse rainforest, temperature and humidity controlled to sustain the growth of cocoa trees and other tropic plants. Walking through the muggy air will quickly work up a sweat and an appetite.

Exhibits continue with market and futures information, consumption rates by country and finally the production of finished products. At this stage, Lindt Chocolate sponsors a live production line where chocolatiers make chocolate bars and chocolate truffles before your very eyes. Also, here you will find a delightful sample of rich, velvety milk chocolate flowing from an endless fountain.

The tour continues with a history of cocoa use in ancient civilizations and chocolate’s evolution after being brought back to Europe by explorers. As with all museums, you must exit through the gift shop, but for once the experience is joyful as every chocolate confection imaginable, and some unexplainable, is displayed before you.

Germany holds an array of treasures found in history, culture and landscape. Its people are a pleasure, the countryside is breathtaking and the cuisine is delightful. For all of the trauma endured in recent history, this country has rebounded beautifully with plenty to offer the curious traveler.

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Past and Present Bavaria

In the south of Germany, a wooded, rural area exists bordered in part by the Alps and the Black Forest.

This Bavarian countryside is dominated by agriculture and the ever increasing wind and solar farms. Towns and villages dot the green hills while cosmopolitan Munich lies in the uppermost reaches of the region. Once under the rule of kings and queens, Bavaria’s Royal Family resided in Munich, the region’s capital.

Neuschwanstein

Neuschwanstein

In the south, a stone’s throw from Austria, lies what was the Royal Family’s summer residence in Fussen at the foot of the Romantic Road, a stretch of picturesque Bavarian villages. Often seen only as a day-trip from Munich, Fussen, or any of the “Romantic” villages, serve well as a base for discovering rural Bavaria.

Slightly more touristy than other options, although convenient for popular sites, Fussen is a charming city trying to retain much of its own character. Here, one can find the castles Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, the latter, an older palace built by patriarchs of the Royal Family. Neuschwanstein , however, has gained fame for its extravagance and a link to Walt Disney who was inspired by the unfinished home of King Ludwig II for his design of the Cinderella Castle.

Only a third of the rooms in this massive estate were completed due to Ludwig’s curious and untimely demise. In short order, the ruling king was declared mentally insane, stripped of his official power, removed from his home and days later, found dead in a lake outside Munich.

Still unknown is the validity of his insanity, but Ludwig did exhibit eccentric behavior in his construction of Neuschwanstein. This included an artificial cave, or grotto, inside his home complete with stalagmites and stalactites. Also, in his bed chambers, 14 woodcarvers were kept busy for four years completing ornate designs including a canopy over the bed depicting the steeples of gothic cathedrals.

Two hours away by train, Munich, like most German cities, exhibits all the characteristics of a modern city after suffering extensive damage in the Second World War. Despite its size, Munich has succeeded in planning a city of international prominence that still retains a sense of community. This is accomplished, in part, through the use of green space most notably the English Garden. One of the world’s largest urban parks at 920 acres, the English Garden contains wooded trails, running water, swimming holes, lakes, open fields and an artificial wave used for surfing.

English Garden

English Garden

A vibrant social and welcoming atmosphere adds to the culture found in numerous museums and art galleries. Chiefly among these is the Deutches, a renowned science museum, and the BMW Museum located at BMW headquarters in Munich.

However quaint the countryside or enjoyable the city, Bavaria is also home to some of Germany and the world’s darkest history. Thirty minutes by public transportation will carry Munich’s guests to the Dachau Concentration Camp. Used predominately as a place for political prisoners, often either Jewish or Soviet, Dachau carries the title of work camp rather than the death camp distinction of Auschwitz and other Nazi sites.

No matter the name given, Dachau was the scene of more than 43,000 murders during the Holocaust. The only concentration camp in existence during all 12 years of Nazi rule, Dachau casts a somber pale on all those entering the camp gate branded with a searing lie, “work will set you free.”

Housed in hellacious environments, forced to work through grueling labor with little to no nourishment under the relentless harassment and torture of SS soldiers, prisoners of Dachau suffered indescribable cruelties. The experience of walking through this house of death is all-together life changing and wholly unforgettable.

Dachau

Dachau

Unforgettable is, in fact, the exact aim of curators and all those associated with the site. In an effort to increase accessibility, the site is free of charge and guided tours are offered at just €3 (check online for times). Tour guides at Dachau are often times not merely students of history, this is after all modern history, a far cry from civil war impersonators and colonial exhibits.

Many guides are intimately familiar with this tragedy, our guide not excluded. Her grandfather, a veteran of the Nazi forces, passed away 10 years ago in his eighties proud until his death of his work in the war effort. This indoctrination, witnessed by his granddaughter, is for her unimaginable and therefore she strives to teach others what happened so that it may never occur again.

As Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levy said, “It has happened, therefore it can happen again.”

 

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Adventures in Switzerland

In Switzerland’s Jungfrau , snow-capped peaks caress the sky as clouds hide their lofty summits. Valleys separated by a single ridge of mountains seem worlds apart offering distinctly different views and experiences within a few minutes travel.

Downtown Lauterbrunnen

Downtown Lauterbrunnen

The well-known, tourist laden Interlaken, complete with the American bred Hooters franchise, acts as a gateway to this area known for breathtaking sights, adventure sports and unending beauty. Hiking, skiing, paragliding and base jumping are all common practice within the Jungfrau , named for one of the Alps’ highest points.

Jungfrau stands at 13,642 foot, high above the valley floors below. To one side is the more popular ski resort town of Grindelwald, on the other is the lesser known Lauterbrunnen Valley.

Often seen as only a day trip from the commercialized areas of Interlaken and Grindelwald, the Lauterbrunnen valley leaves visitors slack jawed in amazement and rushing to catch their breath for the next glorious sight.

Carved long ago by glaciers, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is a lush, green agriculture land, half a mile wide at its largest point. Dominating the landscape and distracting from the carpet of spring wildflowers are the valley walls rising nearly 1,000 feet on both sides as dozens of waterfalls rage down the sheer face along the three mile deep valley. From glacial and snow melt, waterfalls are fed at varying degrees of volume, some roaring down the cliff face while others pour off the lip turning to mist before reaching the valley floor in a cascading rainbow.

The town of Lauterbrunnen lies at the only entrance to this canyon valley with small hamlets of a dozen buildings each resting on the floor strictly tending their livestock of cattle, sheep, goats and horses as haste is made in collecting hay before spring rains roll through the valley.

Other villages along the Lauterbrunnen Valley are only accessible by cable cars ascending at an alarmingly steep angle of attack reaching the top in three to five minutes. For children, these gondolas act as school buses and grocery laden locals regularly accompany tourists and base jumpers to the top.

The largest of these villages along the Lauterbrunnen’s sharp lip is the town of Mürren, a small collection of homes, shops and restaurants overlooking the long narrow valley below glowing green with life while the intimidating peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau soar above adorned in gleaming white.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

Lauterbrunnen Valley

Further into the valley, just before a descent into a pristine and wild nature preserve crisscrossed with hiking trails, lies Gimmelwald, home to only a couple dozen residents and even fewer tourists. Here, livestock outnumber people and eateries are few.

Although views and memories from this valley are priceless, take into account a steep price for public transportation. Discounts can be garnered on most lines for Eurail pass holders but the cost for busses, trains and cable cars can still amount to a princely figure for a multi-day trip. If lingering in the Jungfrau , be sure to ask about the regional transportation pass priced at CHF 200. (Swiss Francs)

Cable cars such as those reaching Gimmerwald and Mürren, are available across the region for access to ski lifts in the winter and stunning hiking trails in the spring and summer. Taking a five-minute gondola can often save hikers between two and three hours of uphill struggle leaving only the most scenic and enjoyable sections of trail to be traversed.

From the other side of the valley, Grindelwald and its surrounding villages offer a separate experience. Large supermarkets replace closet size markets and outfitters line the streets hawking brand name apparel. Feeling immensely similar to a ski town anywhere else in the world, Grindelwald may not possess the same alpine charm as villages in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, but a new network of trails and slopes await the outdoor enthusiast. Outside of city limits, the countryside is undoubtedly Swiss and the views are wholly irreplaceable.

In the spring, hiking options may be slightly repressed as some cable cars remain shuttered for the winter, but from late May and early June, all trails are open and regularly utilized. Take a gondola to Pfinstegg for a hike to the Obrer glacier at which point you’re asked to pay CHF 5 for the agony of climbing 900 crude wooden stairs. At the end of the grueling trek, make your way across the swinging bridge to see the top of the glacier in the distance. A decade ago, no bridge was needed and the glacier loomed some 30 feet away, but today, after crossing the concessionary bridge, the glacier remains nearly a quarter-mile out.

Years could be spent scouring the spring and summer trails of this region, but no trip would be complete without a ride to Jungfraujoc, the highest train station in Europe. Located on a ridge just below the Jungfrau summit, the station is reached by a slow moving train at a steep grade ascending from either Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen and all points in between. Be sure to budget for this ticket, though, as normal fare is CHF 180. A Eurail pass brings the total to CHF 125 or the regional pass will cut the normal ticket price in half.

The view from Jungfraujoc

The view from Jungfraujoc

The ascent alone is remarkable in itself as an engineering feat, completed in 1912, boring straight through the mountain. An elevator brings guests to the highest viewing point at 11,760 feet. The observatory is shared by scientists at an important and world renowned monitoring station for astrology and environmental research. Elsewhere amid the train station is a ski and snow tubing slope open year round. Beneath the station lies an ice cavern made accessible to visitors complete with ornate carvings. On the way down from the top, make sure to grab a seat facing the summit in order to more easily keep your seat on the steep journey down.

Time spent in the Jungfrau region seems to pass all too quickly as days are filled with sensory overload from the sights and sounds of a magical alpine landscape. For the first time on this grand adventure, in leaving I felt a genuine sense of regret, contemplating a lengthened stay and reminded of the classic western song – Red River Valley. “From this valley, they say you are leaving. … Do not hasten to bid me adieu.”

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A Rainy Day in Venice

There’s a lot to be said for hitting the ground running and as we approach our 60th day on the road, there’s been a lot of running.

Our time in Venice was effectively cut in half by a day-long deluge of cold, soaking rain. Without knowing in advance the fate of our Venetian vacation, we made the most of our short time between the canals by aggressively seeing much of the city in our first hours.

Grand Canal

Grand Canal

Straight off the train we made reservations at the tourist information office, got settled into a conveniently located closet-of-a-room complete with a matchbox-like bathroom whose shower, absent of doors or curtains, sprayed directly in the floor. From this economy wash room, one could easily shower while on the toilet or at the sink, certainly an invaluable asset for the on-the-go multitasker.

More to the point however, after dumping our bags, we began our siege of the city by crossing the Grand Canal opposite the train station and sauntering along the waterway. Distracted at once by the first gondolier we passed, we listened earnestly to an expert pitchman in his late twenties.

As Adam, the gondolier, described routes and options, all the time pointing to a map of the city, he informed us of the coming storm. Tomorrow, our last and only day in Venice, would be a rainy one, he said. We feigned disinterest and began to walk away garnering at last a small discount on his medium tour of the old and new city.

Although we gave in to a well spoken gondolier with a knack for persuasion, gondola rides – or anything else in Venice, closet sized rooms included – don’t come cheap. Despite research, we were left without a clue and given no example of price, though warned that harsh negotiation would result in a shortened trip. So, for future Venetian travelers, take note that we paid €100 for two people for a 45 minute ride. Remember that this price may increase in the months of June and July or at sunset.

Despite the steep price, an extravagance which led to several days of ham and cheese sandwiches, you may very well be in Venice only once and a gondola ride with someone special is worth the cost.

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

After winding through narrow canals, navigating under low bridges, maneuvering around water bound traffic and passing by the home of Casanova,we arrived back on the Grand Canal where it all began. Back on land and lost in a romance induced stupor, we strolled through the city of water making turns as we pleased and taking bridges simply for their view ignorant of their direction with nary a glance at maps.

It’s a rite of passage, I suppose, to be lost in Venice and for our initiation, we pulled out all the stops. We were brought back to reality by intensifying hunger pains. To remedy this, we would seek out a market, as we so often do, for a cheaper meal. Without asking directions, we began to follow the flow of passersby in possession of grocery bags. In many cities this strategy works well tracking down Co-ops, Billas and Nettos (dependent on the country) with sufficient ease.

In Venice however, this plan did not prevail. After nearly an hour of wandering, taking unknown paths and countless bridges, we eventually emerged on the other side of the island facing an even larger swath of the Grand Canal. Turning along the coast, heading into the setting sun and, in theory, toward our hotel, we noticed once again a procession of Billa bags before sliding glass doors and hand baskets welcomed us to a world of affordable food.

Upon gathering our sandwich supplies, we headed back toward the sun, guessing wildly at each intersection and dead end before reaching our shoebox-of-a-room an hour later with weighty groceries in tow.

The next morning proved Adam correct and rain continued for the rest of day. We lazily put ourselves together that dreary day in May before seeking out the Rialto Bridge and San Marco Plaza. Bracing ourselves against the cold, we gleefully consumed melon gelato in fond farewell of Italy.

So, when visiting Venice, remember to take a map – or don’t – you’ll get lost either way; look at the weather because gondoliers won’t work in the rain; and most of all take full advantage of your time, rain or shine, in this unique Italian city.

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Captivated by Cinque Terre

Like lichens clinging to rock, the five cliff-side villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre lie harmoniously between sea and slate in a land much forgotten by modern man.

Today, trains link these sleepy villages bringing a flow of tourist dollars to the hardworking hands of local farmers and fishermen. Not long ago, one’s livelihood was directly tied to the backbreaking labor that comes with life on the edge of the earth.

Vernazza

Vernazza

Perched precipitously on sheer rock faces, the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso still bring to life a brilliant example of an ingenious and persistent people carving a living out of rock. Men still pull fish from the sea in small row boats navigating narrow harbors and women continue to tend cliff-side gardens while vineyards grow on frightening slopes.

Connecting this row of towns is a winding hiking trail often no bigger than a goat path. Climbing and descending rapidly in altitude, the paths linking each town attract adventurous tourists awarding them with magnificent views and lush landscape. Be sure to pick up a hiking pass from park offices at train stations in Cinque Terre. After the four to five hours it takes to hike from one end to the other, plus time exploring each town, the €1.80 train ticket fits well into any budget at the end of a long day.

Along the trail between towns we met a newlywed couple on their honeymoon. Few places on Earth can match the romantic qualities of the Italian Riviera. The sun sets over the Mediterranean casting golden rays and melting hues on the plaster homes. The light show is adequately accompanied by a soundtrack orchestrated upon the rocky coastline.

Below the heights ascended by passersby, waves crash upon the craggy shoreline. Only the largest of the five towns, Monterosso, can claim an actual beach by definition; however others offer flat rocks covered in sunbathers and calm waters for swimming. At the southern end of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore is home to an atypical beach covered in large rocks and even larger boulders but the hard surface is not enough to deter the scantily clad from catching rays at the water’s edge.

Corniglia

Corniglia

Each town has its own distinctive characteristics and flavor, yet each town is similar in the sense which connects the villagers through a rich and difficult history. Now protected as a national park, Cinque Terre also lies on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its harsh beauty and unique development in an otherwise uninhabitable landscape.

Located two hours north of Pisa, who’s tower is worthy of a quick day trip, Cinque Terre is a certifiable Italian jewel; although it doesn’t make everyone’s European itinerary. Only personal recommendations carried us to Cinque Terre which easily holds its own with the continent’s top destinations.

After being lured to the intrigue of these towns by the glowing reviews of others, no expectations were left unmet by the fusion of civilization and nature as entire villages seemed to flow into the sea. Although Cinque Terre is quickly gaining in popularity amongst tourists, there is still an unmistakable charm found where only train and foot traffic can go.

There are no McDonalds in Cinque Terre, no strip malls or department stores. Doorways are short, hallways are narrow and stairwells are steep. There was little to no thought placed upon convenience in the design and construction of these towns, only survival. As the area undergoes its birth pains from swelling tourist traffic, guests can benefit from the gradual adjustments.

There are no Marriotts or Hiltons and only Monterosso can boast seaside resorts. Opt instead for an apartment and get a feel for local life. Often tucked away in hidden streets away from the main drag, apartments can be rented from management companies or directly from the owner. Aided to find budget accommodations by the tourist information office, we found ourselves sharing a two bedroom apartment with an elderly Italian woman speaking no English. Our conversations consisted mainly of charades and check-in was a bit dicey, but breakfast, served each morning on the balcony, certainly made up for any inconvenience.

Riomagiorre

Riomagiorre

A distinct lack of vehicles may remind travelers of a distant time, where hotels can’t be found and supermarkets are rare. While enjoying these subtleties of Cinque Terre life, pick up some locally produced pesto from any roadside food market, wine shop or vegetable stand. The distinctly Italian sauce, pesto takes a turn from the typical in Cinque Terre. A simple concoction of basil, olive oil, pine nuts and salt, the green culinary staple finds a regional addition of fine cheeses including a blend of pecorino and parmesan.

This additive creates a unique and creamy pesto sauce with savory cheesy undertones masked by the strong basil and earthy pine nuts. All of it blended with the freshest, high-quality olive oil straight from the source makes for a delicious additive to pasta dishes or slathered on some bread.

There’s no shortage of picturesque scenery or memorable moments on the road from Riomagiorre to Monterosso, but the real treasure lies in the essence of each village, a feeling that can’t be captured in photos. As tourists gain knowledge of this tucked away paradise, traffic will surely increase. Be sure to make your way to Cinque Terre before it becomes just another stop along the way.

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On Sacred Ground

From Easter to Israel, a trip designed to explore Europe quickly turned into so much more. Itineraries changed and destinations were added landing us on another continent exploring lands only read about and seeing sights only dreamed of.

With the addition of unexpected religious experiences, a backpacking adventure morphed into a journey of personal growth and fulfillment. Exploring the Holy Land brings with it a weight of enormous magnitude begging that each morsel of knowledge be retained along with minute details of how biblical locations look, feel and smell.

Holy Sepulcher

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

In truth, time allotted, whatever it may be, will never be enough. History, legacy and sanctity are not carried home in souvenirs or photos. A magic is felt on the Mount of Beatitudes where scholars believe Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount; that feeling is not captured in words or images nor is the sight of pilgrims at the Wailing Wall or the aroma of flowers and olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In two days, the sights and sounds of cities and villages common to Sunday school lessons flew by at a whirring pace as tours guided us through Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, his ministry in Galilee, Mary’s home in Nazareth and the city of Jerusalem where the judgment was cast and crucifixion carried out. With each stop along the way comes new perspective on the events of biblical importance.

At Golgotha, once a hilltop outside the city walls, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands within Jerusalem. Inside the walls are the final Stations of the Cross where Christian denominations lay claim to altars at each point of interest. Up a winding narrow staircase candles burn and crowds gather around the spot believed to have once held the cross while below, a rock holds the fervent prayer of pilgrims where Christ’s body was anointed with oil and spices before being wrapped in grave clothes. Just steps away, beneath the same roof, a small chapel within the church holds the altar of the tomb once loaned by Joseph of Arimathea for a brief burial before the first Easter morning some 2000 years ago.

Even outside the sites and monuments, the land holds a history too old to remember. By simply driving through the country of Israel, the imagination can place Abraham walking with Isaac or Elijah calling down fire on Mount Carmel. For Israelis, every stone is precious and each acre truly is Holy Land.

Although the experience of touring the Holy Land is indescribable, there is also a side of me quite disappointed with what has happened. Sites once home to miracles are now souvenir shops and atop each dwelling of Christ and station of the cross is a church. Nothing against churches, but despite their beauty I feel they serve only to mar the landscape in comparison to unbroken earth once tread upon by Christ.

Garden of Gethsemane

Garden of Gethsemane

Many of the churches found in sacred places throughout Israel were erected long ago by Helena, wife of the Roman Emperor Constantine, they are exquisite landmarks and ardent places of worship but Christ did not ask for cathedrals. The great commission does not demand a building but instead a body.

The Church is and should be first and foremost a body of believers and each monument crowded with tourists only deepened the yearning for my church family, my Sunday school class and sermons I can understand.

Further sea explorations on our sailing left us amid the wonderfully preserved ruins of Ephesus, Turkey where Paul spoke out against Paganism before being run out of town. Another port of call in Athens, Greece found us on a rock outcropping beneath the Acropolis where Paul again preached against polytheism in the shadow of the Parthenon.

Each location serves to shed light on the studies of scripture creating a reference point for future reading and meditation. Leaving the ship with a slightly larger waistline and a lovely tan, I must admit that despite all its conveniences in travel I feel it is a rare occasion in which a cruise may serve to deliver a proper pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Israel alone deserves much more time than a cruise will allow, time at each site was brief and often rushed. Only if already in Europe, as was our case, or in conjunction with further travels would I recommend the fast paced Holy Land tour experienced in a cruise itinerary.

We find that the unexpected experiences are often the most appreciated. Those moments making lasting impressions are not only life altering pilgrimages but daily surprises, whether it’s meeting a fellow traveler or trying to converse with locals through charades and broken languages. These memories last a lifetime and remind us to take notice of what is happening each moment despite the hectic pace and frantic lifestyles we lead.

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Uncovering Pompeii

Rain fell from the sky as we explored the stone streets of Pompeii, a far cry from the August day thousands of years prior when a cloud of ash and fire consumed the small coastal retreat.

Pompeii victims

Pompeii victims

Entombed in hardened pumice and covered in ages of debris, Pompeii brings to sight the life and culture of 79 AD. Eerily frozen in contorted poses of desperation, the inhabitants of this Roman city fell prey to the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the ominous peak overshadowing Pompeii to the north.

From Naples, tourists hurry to the train station for a quick escape from mounding filth lining the streets and garbage heaps rising waist high at each corner. A half hour ride removes travelers from the city into green coastline stretching toward Amalfi and Sorrento.

Stopping at Pompeii Scavi, acres of millennia old city streets await just steps from the station at the park’s entrance. Tour guides bark their sales pitch in front of the ticket counter, although a decent option for traveling groups, independent travelers should be aware that like most European sites very few plaques and descriptions are available for self discovery.

The surest way to see the sprawling open-air exhibit on your own is with the purchase of an audioguide, as intended by the lack of written explanation inside. A safe bet for an educated journey, audioguides are a common sight at European museums and monuments typically costing around 5€. For couples and small families, don’t forget to pack a pair of ear splitters and at least one pair of headphones to cut down on costs.

Temples, governmental buildings, markets and shops tell the story of how life was lived nearly 2000 years ago. Some of the most telling locales are the public bath houses, a place of communal gathering and functional use. Hot and cold baths, dressing rooms, a latrine and a swimming pool all housed in a single building played a large part of life in the Roman Empire.

Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius

Homes and public buildings alike still retain some of the original décor including vivid frescos and elaborate tile mosaics. A single mosaic, uncovered in the House of the Fawn, depicts a great battle using more than a million tiny pieces of tile.

On the outskirts of residential life in Pompeii, vineyards are still kept in the area originally used for such purposes. Further down the path lay two theatres for plays, musicals, monologues and public gatherings of different sizes. In the Great Theatre, once holding some 5,000 spectators, be sure to stand center stage and take notice of the phenomenal acoustics still found in the stone structure.

Pompeii is also home to another notable place of public assemblies, the amphitheatre, one of the oldest and best preserved in the world. Seating 20,000, the amphitheatre was the site of gladiator matches and battle reenactments.

Impressive as the entire site is, with its ancient ruins and high level of preservation, there is one sight not to be missed. Only the faces and bodies of its victims are able to so vividly depict the destruction and sorrow of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption. By a method discovered in 1875, archaeologists are able to pour plaster into voids created by the decomposition of human remains forming a cast of that person as they were encapsulated in ash.

Several examples of this technique are found throughout the site. Many rest along the forum including a dog and a man known as the Mule Man as he was found with his mule, presumably trying to escape the disaster.

Expect to spend a full day exploring the wonders of Pompeii. Leave the history books at home and wear your walking shoes in preparation for an immersion into how things were in 79 AD.

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