Visiting the Berlin Wall: Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz

Berlin is a city that captures the imagination of anyone who grew up in the Cold War, or at least who read any spy novel. The fall of the Berlin Wall is the first major news story I can remember, as I was six at the time it came down.

I got the chance to visit Berlin last summer, and I was happy to stay a few blocks off Potsdamer Platz. That particular plaza has fascinated me since I first saw its 20th-century evolution in a history class in college.

In the 1930s, it was a thriving spot in the heart of the city.

Berlin Potsdamer Platz 1930s

As with much of the rest of Berlin, it was rubble by 1945, and in the years after the war, it lay mostly in ruins. Berlin was a divided city that mirrored the divided Germany following the surrender of the Nazis in 1945. The country was divided into four sectors of occupation, being administered by American, British, French and Soviet forces. Berlin lay entirely in the Soviet sector, but as the capital and most symbolic city, it, too, was divided into four occupation sectors.

While the Soviets “tried” to administer a communist workers’ paradise (they didn’t really), the Germans didn’t see a future in East Berlin, and with the savagery visited upon the civilian populace by the Red Army during the war, many sought to leave. That’s bad PR for a world power that’s supposedly appealing to the masses, so the Soviets decided to take the totally rational step of building a huge wall to keep everyone in.

Initially, the Soviets’ border fortifications along the East German/West German frontier cut the city off and threatened to starve the citizens of West Berlin. The Americans and their western allies refused to be pushed around, and for about a year, they flew cargo planes nonstop from the West to land at airstrips in West Berlin and keep the city supplied. Finally, the Soviets relented and opened heavily guarded travel corridors that connected West Berlin to West Germany.

As we all know, however, the wall around West Berlin cut right through neighborhoods, walled off streets and split the city overnight. People of course tried to escape, and many were successful in the beginning, but the wall kept getting more sophisticated, with rows of barbed wire, guard towers, dog patrols and plenty of guards with guns.

It was intense as hell, and Potsdamer Platz looked like this in the 1960s. If you were walking there, you were dead.

Berlin Potsdamer Plats 1960s

In 1989, after a whole lot of politics and doomed economic policies and luck I won’t go into here, an East German politician read a statement on a late-night news channel that essentially announced that travel restrictions were being relaxed, and travel between the communist German Democratic Republic and the free Federal Republic of Germany would be allowed immediately. This was a mistake, and was not agreed-upon policy, and the ramifications of his remarks would change the world.

A few East Germans began showing up at the Berlin Wall looking to cross, and then those few turned to hundreds, then thousands. Confused Stasi guards didn’t know what to do, and at isolated checkpoints along the wall that were originally intended to allow tightly controlled passage between the Germanies, they decided to let a few of the most vociferous people pass through, hoping the rest would quiet down and go home. Their other option was to massacre the crowds.

Predictably, after seeing people crossing the wall, there was no way to stop the flood as thousands pushed through the wall, and in the course of one night, the East German government totally lost control, and people began tearing the wall down with sledgehammers, saws and any tool at hand.

What resulted is one of the most iconic scenes in the 20th century, and an example of hope for the oppressed that they can overcome authoritarian regimes.

That’s a long way of saying that you should take the opportunity to visit the wall if you ever get the chance.

So what is life like in Potsdamer Platz today?

Berlin Potsdamer Platz Present Day

It’s a showcase of contemporary German architecture with a bustling train station, shopping mall, plenty of restaurants and vast numbers of people driving through and walking the streets. The only overt reminder of the wall is the line of bricks that show the where the wall once stood.

A few blocks away, toward Unter den Linden – one of the iconic streets in Berlin – sits the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate. Also along the path of the wall, it was just inside East Germany, and the area in front of the wall on the western side was the site of many speeches by German and American leaders in the Cold War, including Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” line.

Constructed as a triumphal arch, the Brandenburg Gate has seen its share of strife, and it bears the marks of Nazi Germany’s ultimate defeat, with patched bullet holes and shrapnel scars from the Soviet conquest of Berlin still very much evident today.

But visiting the Brandenburg gate on a summer evening, it’s easy to forget that it’s the site of some of the worst fighting the world has ever seen, and easier to think of it as a place people come together in admiration of an iconic landmark. Tourists take pictures as musicians play for pocket change and locals pass through it toward the Tiergarten for a refreshing jog through the park.

Berlin Brandenburg Gate on a Summer EveningIt’s also hard to believe that the Berlin wall ran right in front of it, and seeing it as an adult brought back the early childhood memories of seeing Germans standing on the wall, tearing it down, once again giving the Brandenburg Gate a reason to be triumphant.

In Berlin today, most of the evidence of the wall is relegated to the twin rows of bricks on the ground, a few preserved pieces that stand as small monuments, and the “pieces of the wall” hawked to tourists in various shops, and whose legitimacy seems doubtful.

But there is one stretch of the wall in particular that still stands, giving an imposing reminder of what was once reality for Berlin as well as an explanation for how it came to be erected.

At Niederkirchnerstrasse 8, you will find the Topography of Terror. Once the site of the Stasi (secret police) headquarters, it was, during the Nazi era, the offices of the SS (Hitler’s true believers). It is now a free museum that documents Nazi atrocities during the war, and the outdoor section, which is also free, contains a stretch of the Berlin wall. Start at the bottom, where the site has been excavated, and read the comprehensive placards and boards that discuss the events that led to the Nazi rise to power, and then take the stairs upward to the street level and follow the path of the wall, which includes informational boards in various languages about the construction of the wall, escape attempts and, finally, its destruction.

Berlin Wall Topography of Terror Section

As I mentioned earlier, there were places where the wall was pierced by heavily guarded checkpoints. Probably the most famous of those is Checkpoint Charlie, which separated East Berlin from part of the American Sector of West Berlin. The guardhouse for the American side has been preserved, and if you look past the kitschy souvenirs and the “American” guards who pose for pictures with tourists, you can still get a sense of what it must have been like to peer at the checkpoint through the Iron Curtain. In an ultimate display of how much capitalism won the Cold War, you can also grab a burger at the adjacent McDonald’s.

Berlin Checkpoint Charlie and McDonalds

The Berlin wall stood from Aug. 13, 1961 until November of 1989. It was a symbol of the Cold War, a crossing point for spies, the scene of a tense standoff between the world’s superpowers, and the site of numerous escape attempts by people who sought to be free. An estimated 136 people died trying to cross the wall, mostly shot by border guards.

If you’re in Berlin and only have time to explore one aspect of the city, visit the Berlin Wall. But plan on staying a while. The city is full of museums including everything from pieces of antiquity like a preserved Roman Gate to more modern collections like the interactive museum of the GDR. Beyond the museums and history, Berlin is a great city to visit and immerse yourself in German culture, with a vibrant cafe scene, plenty of street food and great pubs serving beer from a country that is rightly proud of its brewing heritage.

How to Spend 36 Hours in Gdansk, Poland

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Polish City Gdansk Poland Waterfront with Medieval Crane in Danzig

Poland was never on my short list of countries to visit, and when it comes to places the majority of Americans tend to visit, it’s just not really on the radar.

Which is exactly why you should go.

Gdansk is a port city on the Baltic coast that many Americans will know as Danzig, its name from a former life when it was part of Prussia, one of the German states.

Poland has a pretty depressing history, with the height of Polish power being when a multinational force led by the Poles relieved the city of Vienna, Austria, when it was besieged by the Ottoman Turks in 1529. And the Austrians took credit for the victory. Since then, it has been repeatedly invaded and conquered. Aside from a brief stint between the world wars, the 20th century was a pretty awful time for Poland, being occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union.

That history, however, has also been full of some truly inspiring moments, and the most famous one in recent memory took place in Gdansk – the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa that was a major contributor to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Gdansk stands today as a quaint small town that is proud of its culture and heritage. Most of the buildings you will see when you visit are reconstructed, because when the Soviets “liberated” Poland from Nazi Germany in 1945, Gdansk/Danzig was almost completely destroyed. It has, however, been reconstructed according to archival photos, and it boasts some of the most pleasant streets to stroll in Europe. And it hasn’t yet been overrun with tourists.

Polish City Gdansk Destroyed in World War II Danzig in Poland

Gdansk in 1945. Archival photo on display at town hall museum.

English speakers will not have too much trouble navigating the city. Like most of Europe, English is taught in Polish schools, and the mainstream restaurants will have English menus.

When I landed in Gdansk, I got a taxi into the city. One enterprising person stood at the exit to the airport and was trying to get three times the fare into the city, so be sure to read up on what the going rate is so you can come to an agreement beforehand and not get scammed.

On the note of scamming – that was the only time I encountered it in a week in Poland, and I felt totally safe in Gdansk at all times.

I stayed in a hotel a few buildings down from Gdansk’s iconic sight – a medieval crane. This hulking structure along the canal that gives Gdansk a lot of its charm is a reconstruction, but it’s been faithfully rebuilt and can be toured. It’s fun to see the human hampster wheels that served as the power for the crane in the Middle Ages.

Gdansk Medieval Crane Lifting Mechanism

The first sightseeing stop I made wasn’t in Gdansk at all. I hopped on the local commuter train to the largest medieval building built of bricks in the world – Malbork Castle (formerly known as Schloss Marienburg). It was built y the Teutonic Knights when they ran things in the area, and is definitely worth a trip to tour the grounds, see the amber artwork the region is famous for and get into more rural Poland. But that’s a subject for another post.

Returning to Gdansk, I went for a walk at random, which I think is the best way to immerse yourself in unfamiliar cities.

Strolling down the streets, I was struck by how Gdansk felt like a cross between Amsterdam and small-town Germany. I was also struck by the music.

It was a cool summer evening, and it seemed that there were local musicians on every major street – and they were quite good. Poland is the country that gave the world Chopin, and while I didn’t hear any piano music in my time there, it’s clear that the country has a rich musical culture, and it’s definitely worth stopping to listen and tossing a few zloty into the occasional guitar case.

As I continued to wander, I found my way to the canal, which is a beautiful waterfront, and I joined the happy-hour crowd of locals out for a walk past the square-rigged sailing ships (one is a dinner cruise/bar), a docked cargo ship that is part of the maritime museum, and plenty of restaurants and bars with patios shaded by umbrellas bearing the names of Poland’s leading beers – Zywiec and Tyskie.

I had to try the beer, so I sat down for a half-liter at one bar and watched the people pass by as I drank the refreshing pilsner.

Polish City Gdansk Waterfront with Ships in Poland

As sun began to set, I sat down at a restaurant near the crane and looked forward to my first true foray into Polish cuisine. In California, my experience with Polish food was pretty much limited to kielbasa and knowing that something called pierogi exists.

The Chateaubriand steak was definitely more French than Polish, but it was delicious.

Chateaubriand Steak in Gdansk Poland

Once dinner was over and I was sufficiently stuffed, I continued wandering until I found my way to a section of canal that served as a marina and had plenty of ships docked along one side of the walkway, with lively bars on the ground floors of apartment buildings. Looking forward to kicking off a full day in the morning, I went back to the hotel and caught some sleep.

Polish City Gdansk Waterfront with Ships in Poland at Night

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I headed to the town hall, where there is a museum of the city’s history and a tall belfry with great views of the city.

Polish City Gdansk Poland City Hall Clock Tower

Polish City Gdansk Aerial View Taken from Belfry.JPG

Following a walking tour in the “Rick Steves’ Poland” guidebook, I visited the old jail, checked out the facade of one of the city’s original buildings that wasn’t destroyed in World War II, and took a tour of a restored and fully furnished nobleman’s house.

Polish House in Gdansk Poland Nobleman City Mansion.JPG

By then it was time for lunch, and I stopped at an outdoor restaurant on one of the main streets and had potato pancakes, which are another staple in Poland’s excellent cuisine.

Polish food -  Potato Pancakes in Gdansk Poland.JPG

Next up was a stop to tour the medieval crane, which was well worth the time for a history geek like me, and also for anyone interested in machines or fun local experiences.

I’d saved the star attraction of the city for the end – the shipyard.

Taking a walk outside the old city to the shipyard takes you through a portion of workaday Gdansk and is definitely more fun than taking a taxi. Arriving at the shipyard almost felt like I was at the wrong place, because the gateway is small and has no obvious signage (at least in English) hinting at the site’s importance.

 

Gdansk Shipyard Gate Lech Walesa used to go to Work in Poland

It wasn’t until a little later that I learned the reason is that it’s the same gateway Lech Walesa and the other shipyard workers walked through every day as they went to work.

Once through the gate, my eyes were drawn to the three tall anchors that compose the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970. Constructed in 1980, the monument honors the 45 people killed in the violence that followed their protesting of the communist regime. It’s notable that this is the first monument ever allowed by the Soviet Union to be erected to honor people killed by the government.

Polish Gdansk Anchor Monument Solidarity Museum

After viewing the monument, it was time to head to the recently built museum in the rusty-looking building behind it.

The Solidarity Museum is a must-see. It tells the story of a group of common shipyard workers who dared take a stand against the mighty Soviet Union and, through protest, strikes and negotiations, served as a catalyst to the Soviets’ relaxing of their authoritarian regime, which ultimately sounded the death knell of communism in Europe.

Inside, you’ll learn the background of the movement, see heart-wrenching artifacts like the bullet-riddled leather jacket of a 20-something worker, and uncover the inspiring story of people who stood up for themselves, discovered they had power, and wielded it in a way that set their country free.

Many exhibits are interactive, and it’s full of artifacts from the shipyard and video displays (subtitled in English) of interviews with workers, government officials and other people who lived through the times.

 

Gdansk Solidarity Museum Exhibit in Poland

I could have spent even more time in the museum (I think I was in there for close to two hours), but it was reaching closing time, and also dinnertime.

Back in the old city, I had a dinner of pierogi – in this case the pasta was stuffed with cheese and beef and topped with parmesan cheese – salad and a Tyskie lager. It was excellent, and pretty friendly on the wallet, as the same caliber meal in France, Italy or the United States would run about twice as much.

Polish Pierogi with Parmesan cheese in Gdansk Poland

Once again, I spent the evening walking around the old city, soaking in the atmosphere and truly enjoying myself. The breeze off the Baltic Sea kept things cool even though Europe was at the time experiencing a pretty intense heat wave.

 

Gdansk Poland Street Scene at Night

Gdansk was my first exposure to Poland, and even though I feel like I’ve seen it, I would go back in a heartbeat just to soak it all in again. If you’re considering a trip to Gdansk, do it, and do it soon. The city has a lot of charm, and I’m glad I got to see it before everyone realizes what a gem it is, and the tour companies start pushing it.

Go to Rothenburg, and Go to Hell

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When is being told to go to Hell a good thing? Whenever you’re in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.

The medieval city is one of Germany’s best sights, and despite being one of the most-frequented stops on the Romantic Road, the tourists don’t detract from the experience of visiting.

Once a free imperial city, Rothenburg was ravaged by the Thirty Years’ War in the 1630s, and the ensuing poverty ironically preserved the city’s charm, as there was never any money to knock down the old structures and rebuild new ones. So now the walls encircling the city, the half-timbered buildings and cobblestoned streets make nearly any iPhone shot worthy of a postcard.

How does that relate to going to Hell?

Hell 01

Hell, it turns out, is a restaurant and bar in the city, and an anomaly among the original buildings. Most were built in the 1500s and 1600s, but the foundations of Hell were laid in 980 – more than a century before the First Crusade. The date of the walls is “nothing impressive” according to the resident night watchman, who makes the old building a stop on his tour, since they were only erected in the 1500s.

Aside from just being the oldest building in one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world, a metal sign with a cut-out of Satan hangs near the door – thus the name Hell.

It’s unclear how the name and sign came about, but the restaurant and bar is a well-established business now, and a popular stop for both locals and tourists alike.

When I went to Hell, I was accompanied by my sister and another traveler we’d met earlier in the day.

It was a cold night, and we hustled over the cobblestone streets to reach Hell. It was warm inside, and we grabbed a table in one corner. The building’s age was immediately apparent. The floor was on several different levels, and a small spiral staircase led to the building’s bowels.

We ordered beers from the server and toasted to “dining in Hell,” with the obligatory references to the movie “300.”

We only had time for two rounds of beer, since it was pushing 1 a.m., and Hell was closing, but we got a good feel for the restaurant and the fare as we watched the food being served to a few late diners. It looked like the excellent Bavarian food I love – lots of meat, potatoes, vegetables and beer.

When Hell finally closed its doors and we had to leave or be kicked out, we paid the (very reasonable) bill and hurried down the deserted streets to our hotel.

Having a few beers in Hell was one of those traveling novelties I just had to do. The name is really the only thing that sets the building apart – the foundations aren’t really visible, so the fact that they were laid in 980 isn’t overawing.

Hell is, however open somewhat later than most of the other restaurants and bars, and like the night watchman says, if you’re out in Rothenburg at night, you can walk along the city’s wall, or you can go to Hell.

Visiting Paris for Bastille Day and Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower

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Eiffel Tower Fireworks on Bastille Day

Bastille Day in Paris is one of the best French travel experiences you can have. Like Americans, the French are proud of their celebration of independence from a monarchy, and from the Bastille Day parade down the Champse Elysées to the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower and everything in between, it’s worth a trip.

Getting to the Parade

Paris’ Bastille Day parade kicked off at about 10:30 a.m. when I was there in 2014. Getting to the Champs Elysées, however, required getting a much earlier start. I figured the Metro stop at Charles de Gaulle/Étoile would be closed, and it was. (As were the other ones on the Champs Elysées). I was able to eventually get off the Metro at Madeleine, which is not too far, but it probably took 20-30 minutes of walking before we were in place.

If you go – don’t worry about getting lost. Plenty of Gendarmes and police were present to guide the significant crowd down a maze of blocked streets to the viewing area.

We came to the parade route near Concorde, which is at the end of the Champs Elysés where it meets the gardens in front of the Louvre (the opposite end being the Arc de Triomphe, where the parade starts). After quite a bit of maneuvering and fighting crowds, we were able to get to the middle of the Champs Elysées on the north side (which I definitely preferred to seeing it from the south side, or the side closest to the river).

The Parade Begins

Bastille Day French Air Force Fly By

The Paris Bastille Day Parade began as all parades should – with a flyover of nine fighter jets trailing smoke in the Tricolor’s blue white and red. But the flights didn’t stop there. Seemingly every plane and helicopter the French Armée de l’Air flies was on display, flying low and slow directly overhead. The plane geek in me was loving it.

As the planes flew overhead, the soldiers marched past on foot in their medley of uniforms. Everything from the French Foreign Legion to infantry and even canine units passed on foot.

Bastille Day Parade French Infantry on Champs Elysees

Bastille Day Parade French Canine Unit March

After that came the various vehicles. High-tech articulating all-terrain tracked vehicles rumbled past, as did trucks towing artillery pieces, antiaircraft vehicles and armored personnel carriers.

Bastille Day Parade French Tank on Champs Elysees

Then came the tanks, gleaming after what I imagined was a pretty arduous cleaning job to get them all fancy for the parade.

No American parade is complete without one fire engine, and they made their appearance in the French Bastille Day Parade, too. Paris’ firefighters are actually part of the military, and they drove their gleaming red vehicles by wearing their polished metal helmets and, yes, carrying their assault rifles.

Bastille Day Parade French Firefighters on Champs Elysees

After the Parade

When the last plane, tank and soldier had passed, the Champs Elysées opened up again, but not before a couple of tanks took high-speed loops through the famous Étoile roundabout on their way to various displays throughout the city.

Various vehicles were parked all over the area, and in a scene that would give any American lawyer a heart attack, they were open for kids to climb around on, pose with the soldiers and touch and prod the various pieces of equipment.

And, of course, no French national celebration would be complete without some guys tooling around in a Citröen 2CV in striped shirts waving Tricolors.

Bastille Day Parade French Citroen 2CV

Celebrations Throughout the Day

After the parade, I headed to the Chateau de Vincennes to explore some medieval history and wandered through the Parc Floral since I was in the area.

Making my way back to the city, I stopped at the Nation metro stop, where a few fighter jets and plenty of vehicles were on display under a banner that said the local arrondissement welcomes its soldiers.

Surprisingly, all the vehicles were opened up, so of course I took the opportunity to crawl around inside a few, try on the famous French kepi and, yes, play with the machine guns (the kids really loved that part).

The Main Event — Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower

Bastille Day Eiffel Tower Fireworks 01

France does not skimp on celebrating Bastille Day, and the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower were the best I’ve ever seen.

I arrived at the Champ de Mars — the field in front of the Eiffel Tower — about three hours before the fireworks started. If you’re planning on going, it’s worth it. Know that the Trocadero area across the river from the Eiffel Tower is closed (fallout zone) as is the bridge leading to it and much of the area around the tower itself.

An orchestra played as the sun set, finishing with the Marseillaise. Once they were out of the way, the fireworks kicked off.

Choreographed to music, the beginning was a tribute to France’s 20th century history. The numbers 1914, 1918, 1939 and 1944 were traced in fire on the Eiffel Tower, followed by Vive la Paix (long live peace), then rockets fired off the sides of the tower and low-powered red fireworks were launched off behind it to somber music.

Bastille Day Eiffel Tower Fireworks 02

As the more-than-30-minute show progressed, the music progressed, ratcheting up the excitement. Lights illuminated the tower in everything from the Tricolor to rainbows, and the music went from the opening piece to pop songs to an instrumental version of the Marseillaise.

Bastille Day Eiffel Tower Fireworks 03

My personal favorite moment was when everything went dark for a moment followed by the opening chords of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The crowd got into it, singing along, and, well, just watch the video.

After the show ended, I headed back to the nearby Rue Cler area where I was staying and stopped at one of the restaurants for some wine, cheese and Champagne.

Bastille Day Cafe CentralFor more information on visiting Paris, check out the official tourism website.

Vernazza: Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Settled between the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea and sharply rising hills, Vernazza, with its small harbor, old fortification and army of staircases, evokes the very essence of small-town Italy. Lazing about at a restaurant, knocking back a few  glasses of chianti and nibbling on thin-crusted pizza as the sun sets over the water is the perfect way to relax on a European vacation.

Emerging from the darkness of the train tunnel, it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the harsh light from the afternoon sun over the Mediterranean. To my left was a steep hillside, slipping by as the train crawled along. To my right was the sparkling water of the sea. I grinned, knowing I was about to be taking in the sun and exploring one of Italy’s most scenic areas – the Cinque Terre.

I’d never heard of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre before planning for the trip in 2004. It was to be my first exposure to Italy, and it didn’t disappoint.

I stepped off the train, hoping to inhale the aromas of pesto and baking focaccia bread, but it turned out that it would have to wait until I was out of the train station.

Finding a hotel took just a few minutes, and then my family and I were headed down a cobblestone street to the main square by the harbor to meet the owner, who would show us to our rooms.
Vernazza stairs on Italian Riviera
Suitcases clacking over the uneven stones, we made our way to the town, walking past multistory buildings with their shutters open, laundry hanging in the breeze to dry, and the din of conversation as locals and tourists alike sat at outside tables, eating lunch and passing the time.

Under a roof of brightly colored umbrellas at a corner restaurant on the square, we met the hotel owner. She smiled, then led us up a series of narrow alleys, with stairs just about every step, to our hotel. Lugging our suitcases up four floors made us all happy we’d packed light, and we got settled in our rooms, which had views overlooking the greater part of the tiny town and the sea.

Vernazza, Italy
The woman didn’t bother taking our money, checking our passports or holding a credit card.

“You can pay when you leave,” she said. “If I’m not downstairs, I will be at the restaurant I met you at.”

I guess we didn’t look like a pack of thieves.

Down we went to the beach, to take advantage of the last hours of sunlight. Unlike the beaches of Nice, where we had just spent a few days, the beach at Vernazza was sandy, not rocky. It was crowded with a mix of locals and tourists, who either swam out into the harbor or sprawled out on the sand. A few local kids started a game of soccer nearby.

Vernazza Italy Cinque Terre
Wanting to get a better view of the town before it got too dark, we set out for the trails that link all five towns of the Cinque Terre.

Hiking Italy: Cinque Terre - Vernazza

Winding through terraced farms along the hills, the trails are a perfect place to hike and see some breathtaking views. Unfortunately, with only one night in the area, hiking for several hours wasn’t really an option. A train that runs inland of the towns is, however, a good alternative to the hiking if time or physical abilities don’t allow for the walk.

We ate dinner at a restaurant on one of the harbor terraces, enjoying our first sampling of real Italian food. Unlike the fare served in places like The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, true Italian food is not loaded up with heavy sauces and meatballs. It’s typically simpler, but made with fresh ingredients and no less savory.

At night, I spent the time wandering the town’s streets with my sister before rejoining my parents and hitting the sack.

The following day, we bought fresh focaccia bread infused with olives, cheese and garlic, as well as pesto and panini. The pesto made there is, in a word, delicious. I haven’t really found a comparable pesto in the States, but that might have something to do with the fact that eating it over there just makes it taste better.

It was with mixed emotions that I got on the train a short while later. 2004 was the first time I visited Italy, and Vernazza was the first town I came to. I enjoyed the slow pace of life there, the relaxed attitude of the hotel owner and the charm of the picturesque buildings and boats bobbing in the harbor. I really wanted to spend a week hiking between the towns, roaming the vineyards on the hills and eating everything I could lay my hands on. The flip side of that was that I really, really wanted to get to Rome.

Rome turned out to be a fantastic place. No trip to Italy would be complete without visiting the Eternal City, but it would likewise be incomplete without taking the time to savor life in one of the small towns, be it a Tuscan hill town or one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre.

Rockport Massachusetts: Picturesque New England Fishing Village

Rockport Massachusetts

Rockport, Massachusetts, is one of those storybook New England fishing villages, and it’s just a little ways north of Boston. Lobster is one of the main catches, and I’d heard from a friend that it’s one of the best places in the country to get a lobster roll.

Pulling up to Rockport, I drove straight to the harbor and parked in the large lot. A red building at the breakwater was adorned with buoys, and it really set the feel for the village.

Rockport Massachusetts New England Harbor

Lots of boats lay at anchor in the harbor, and lobster traps were stacked on one end. Up the coast from the harbor (a quick walk) is a sandy section of beach along another inlet full of sailing vessels.

Much of the town extends out on a point called Bear Skin Neck, and it’s full of homes, restaurants and shops selling everything from taffy to tourist trinkets, art and more.

Rockport Massachusetts Bear Skin Neck

Bear Skin Neck got its name from a bear that was caught by the tide and killed in 1700. For 150 years, it was the commercial and shipbuilding center of Rockport, with the first dock being built on it in 1743. It was also the site of a stone fort and barracks that were taken by the British in the War of 1812.

New England Lighthouse in Rockport

After walking out to the tip of Bear Skin Neck and looking across the harbor area at a lighthouse on the opposite point, it was time for dinner.

We headed to a local place that served whole lobsters for $12 and lobster rolls for $14 with chips and a drink. Each lobster roll had more than one full lobster on it, and while lobster isn’t really my thing, they were pretty good.

Lobster Roll in New England

Lobster is nothing new to the region. During colonial and early American times, it was so prevalent that it was considered cheap, and it was served to prisoners. Some prisoners in Boston threatened to riot if they had to eat lobster another day.

 

Snowboarding at Lake Tahoe

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Snowboarding at Lake Tahoe

One of the great things about living in Northern California is the proximity to San Francisco, wine country, gold country and the gorgeous Sierra Nevadas – with Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe is, in my experience, only rivaled by the Swiss Alps, Yosemite and Lake Bled, Slovenia, when it comes to sheer natural beauty. And it’s less than two hours by car from my home in Sacramento.

Snowboarding at Lake Tahoe 02

These shots are from the Sierra at Tahoe ski resort when I was snowboarding with a friend a few years back.

Lake Tahoe is a blast in the winter or in the summer, whether for skiing and snowboarding, hiking, boating, gambling, or just relaxing on the beach and eating at one of the many amazing restaurants. When people ask me what to do in California, a visit to Lake Tahoe is always at the top of my list.

A Sherman Tank in Dijon, France – a Reminder of World War II

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Free French Sherman Tank Memorial in Dijon, France

It was a gorgeous fall day as I drove through France from Luxembourg on my way to Burgundy – home of wines, beautiful towns and castles built by the dukes who played an important role in the Hundred Years’ War. On my route was the town of Dijon – yes, like the mustard. And how could I not stop for at least an hour?

The thing about Europe, and eastern France in particular, is that as beautiful as it is, you don’t have to look far to find reminders of darker times. I already mentioned the Hundred Years’ War, which we tend to glamorize with talk of knights and chivalry (the reality was hellish), but a lot of those reminders are, unfortunately, more recent.

One of those was a Sherman tank parked in a street in Dijon. During World War II, Dijon was occupied by the Germans, and the Allied forces had to take it back. It’s a story told all over France, and it always strikes me to think of the now-peaceful land locked in a struggle to the death (I’d started this particular trip partying with Germans at Oktoberfest).

I walked to the Sherman, an American-built tank, and inspected the plaque. Seeing the French writing on the side of the tank, I figured it was one of the ones used by the Free French, and I was right, but not as I’d imagined.

This tank was used by the Second Cuirassier Regiment (2eme Regiment de Cuirassier), which references the types of horsemen who in the Napoleonic era wore armored breastplates into battle.

The unit was something of a rarity in World War II, as it was composed of Africans from Oran, in the French colony of Algeria. Reinforced by white members of the French Army who had escaped the fall of France in 1940, the regiment was instrumental in liberating Dijon on Sept. 6, 1944.

Unfortunately, the Sherman that now serves as a monument to the sacrifice of the people who died in World War II was struck by German antitank rounds, which killed three of its five-man crew.

Battle Damage to a Free French Sherman Tank in Dijon, France

The three men killed in the Sherman in Dijon are representative of the 40,000 Africans who died in World War II fighting for the French, from battles in Tunisia, Italy, France and Germany.

Bacalhau – Eating Salted Cod in Lisbon, Portugal

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Bacalhau salted cod in Lisbon - example of Portuguese cuisine

Portuguese cuisine was something I had never experienced before going to Lisbon in 2010 with my sister as we traveled through Spain and Portugal. One of the icons of Portuguese food is bacalhau – salted cod – so of course I had to try it.

The dish became prevalent about 500 years ago when Portuguese explorers sailed to distant locales, finding cod to be plentiful in the seas off Newfoundland. They salted it for preservation, and the fish-loving nation has consumed it ever since.

I wandered around Lisbon on the day I arrived, checking out the Bairro Alto district before hopping on Tram 28 – one of the trolleys that makes Lisbon feel a lot like San Francisco.

Lisbon tram 28 - excellent public transportation in Europe

Tram 28 does a great circuit of the old part of the city, and at one stop near the waterfront, my sister and I hopped off at a restaurant for some bacalhau.

We stepped inside a dimly lit restaurant packed with locals and were seated by the door. The bacalhau we both ordered came on the bone with a buttery sauce with olives and potatoes.

The fish was excellent, and the salt was not at all overpowering. Despite being preserved, there was no fishy taste, and it paired well with the sauce.

If you find yourself in Portugal, or even some of the former colonies, give it a try.

Kaysersberg, France: French Country Living in the Alsace Route de Vin

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Small-town France - canal in Keysersberg, Alsace

Kaysersberg is a town on the Route de Vin in Alsace, France, barely rates a paragraph in most guide books. Like Colmar and Riquewihr, it’s a great stop to see small-town France and the wine country.

The fact that it’s like a host of other small towns in Alsace is the draw for me. Located just a short distance from Colmar on the eastern edge of France, Kaysersberg is a quick drive to a place that is largely away from the tourist crowds – at least when I was there in December.

Surrounded by vineyards, Kaysersberg is dominated by a ruined castle on a hill. The buildings themselves looked medieval, and I like to think someone transported from 400 years ago would recognize the town.

French canal and rainbow in Alsace Route de Vin

The first thing I saw when I approached the canal was a rainbow. After taking a few pictures, I walked through the old streets with my family, crossed stone bridges and headed toward the castle, which was flying the Tricolor, giving me the hope that I could climb its tower.

French castle in Keysersberg, Alsace

The hill on which the castle stood was blocked by a wall, and I hoped it was possible to reach the ruin. I stepped into a shop and, in my halting French, asked if it was possible to get up to the building. The problem with knowing just enough of a language to ask directions is that it’s impossible to understand the response, but after quite a bit of pointing, I got the message.

Two paths actually led up to the castle, and we followed the nearest one as it wound through a copse of trees and past vineyards before finally ending at the castle walls.

Once inside, I immediately headed for the tower, expecting a closed and locked door, but was happily surprised to find it open. It’s the kind of thing that would probably never happen in the United States, and I climbed to the top for a great view of Kaysersberg and the surrounding lands.

The castle was built starting around 1220 for Albin Woelflin, who was a bailiff for the Holy Roman Empire. It helkped close off one of the routes through the Vosges Mountains to Lorraine. Updated over the years, it has a triangular wall that encloses the circular tower, and it fell under siege in the German Peasants War in the 1500s. It was eventually abandoned at the end of the century and then declared a national asset after the French Revolution.

Alsace Route de Vin - French vineyards seen from Keysersberg Castle, Alsace

Kaysersberg probably won’t ever be a tourist attraction like Rothenburg, Germany, simply because there isn’t much to do once you’re done wandering the handful of streets and seeing the castle, but it’s definitely worth a trip if you’re looking for small-town charm. I still find it hard to believe that people live in these sorts of places, since they’re what you see in fairy tale books when you’re growing up, but for the inhabitants of Kaysersberg and the many villages like it, it’s just life.