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If you really took the time to read it properly, it might take three days just to digest the new Lonely Planet guidebook to Germany’s capital city. We had given ourselves that amount of time to see the place, and it simply wasn’t enough. So. we now have one monumental reason to return as well as 174 unseen museums and any number of other attractions. I had planned to see the Reichstag, but sometimes our best-laid plans need to take a back seat to simple exhaustion.

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Berlin is a place that has resonance for many of us, having been a dramatic backdrop to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, followed by its pivotal role as a pawn and flashpoint in the Cold War.  On the evening of October 2, 1961, ten American and the same number of Russian tanks went face-to-face, literally a stone’s throw from one another, revved-up and loaded, their crews awaiting orders from their commanding officers, who were in voice contact with Kennedy and Krushchev. Some five hundred bystanders and news men waited in the rain, hoping someone would blink. 

That night we may have come closer to nuclear war than we did a year later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The building of the wall, the airlift, the shootings of escapees and the dismantling of the wall in 1989– all images from Berlin that kept us glued to our TV sets.

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If you are a member of my generation, you see Berlin in black and white, thanks to the early days of television. For three short few months following my birth, there was only one Germany– the Third Reich under Hitler. This was followed by the end of the European war and the seismic split into East and West Germany. The separation seemed to grow in size and strength for nearly forty years until the wall became more than a barrier, it became a symbolic representation of two distinct forces– capitalism versus communism. A battle of powerful ideologies.

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Then, in one miraculous year, 1989, the two halves joined again. Bonn took a back seat to the vibrant new center– Berlin. It is astonishing that the current leader of Germany is a female chemist who was born in Hamburg, the daughter of a pastor who took a post in what became East Germany. Angela Merkel has been thrust into the limelight by recent events; she seems to be the most forceful politician in Europe today.

We began with museums, of course, since I’m a museum junkie. The Neus Museum on Museum Island has had a makeover by a British architect named David Chipperfield. It is home to a collection of Egyptian artifacts, including a stunning bust of Nerfertiti that the museum authorities prefer not to have photographed. In the presence of such ancient celebrities, you feel less a papparazo and more like the photographer.

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To really see Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque castle that was the creation and the summer residence of Electress Sophie Charlotte, takes a good half day, and should not be rushed. It is Berlin’s version of Versailles, and is all the more astonishing since much of it has been rebuilt from rubble to its former palatial splendor.

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Sophie had a colorful history for a lady who died at the age of thirty-six. She studied under Leibniz, spoke German, Italian, English and French, and lived an entirely independent life from her husband, Frederich I. He was so enchanted with Sophie that he never took advantage of the services of his mistress (who seemed to have been engaged because French kings maintained mistresses). Frederick was only allowed to visit Schloss Charlottenburg at Sophie’s invitation.

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We arrived at the tail end of the Berlin Film Festival, so we could have seen Angelina Jolie if we had been staying at the right hotel or been invited to the right party, but I was quite happy keeping company with such glamorous creatures as Sophie Charlotte, Duchess Luise (who lived for at time at Schloss Charlottenburg and really was a beauty), and my wife, who puts up admirably well with my inveterate museum going and picture taking.

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We did manage to visit the Pergamon, yet another museum of antiquities, as well as the Brandenburg Gate, the Hakeseche Hofe and the Holocaust Memorial. This is a deceptively simple square of some 2700 large, stylized concrete plinths of different heights, criss-crossed by thirteen undulating pathways, enabling visitors to traverse and recross the giant grid. It is an odd, haunting installation.

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We may not have done the city justice, but we have made her acquaintance and paid our respects. There is plenty left to see and do on a return journey.

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Aside from my wife’s penchant for Alpen cereal, her Swatch watch and Victorinox luggage, I can’t say either of us has much connection to the small, alpine country with secretive banks, citizen soldiers, and a recently-discovered dislike of minarets.  Switzerland is a country that we have both managed to miss during our hopscotch explorations of European countries.  Until last week.

An invitation to a conference in Lausanne seemed too good to pass up.  Google Lausanne and picture yourself there in mid September and you’ll see why the idea was attractive.  The city is located on the shores of Lake Geneva, (Lac Leman en francais), a beautiful, glacier-gouged bend in the Rhone river.

Lausanne is touted in my guidebook as the Swiss San Francisco, perched as it is on steep inclines, with the lake in the foreground and the mountains beyond.  The chief drawback to the trip was the necessity of dove-tailing the visit with my wife’s teaching schedule.  The entire adventure would all have to be packed into six quick days.

Since the first two days were dedicated to the conference, I was on my own to explore the city and check out the art exhibits.  There was a subway stop just outside our hotel, so it was quick and easy to get up to the “old” part of the city. The sleek, automated subway line was very popular, connecting the city center and the train station to the lakefront below, an area of Lausanne known as Ouchy.

The contrast of the two most popular art exhibits couldn’t have been more stark.  There was an engaging Edward Hopper show in a lovely chateau set discretely in a park.  Even though there are surreal aspects to Hopper’s work, the “Art Brut” collection, initiated by Jean Dubuffet from the work of mentally-ill, marginalized eccentrics, loners and outcasts, blew the lid off Hopper’s most challenging works.  Unimpressed by artistic traditions or social norms, much of the work was disturbing and the brief bios of the artists were depressing. I was glad to get out into the sunshine.

At one time, the city must have been dominated by Notre Dame, a magnificent gothic cathedral, but the grace of the setting has now been lost. The beautiful interior makes up for it.  At almost every turn, one plaque or another lets you know that Lausanne has been a favorite stopping place for centuries.  “[From] the terrace of the cathedral, I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains, and the stars above the clouds….” – Victor Hugo.

In two short days I threaded my way through the old city and snapped hundreds of photos, trying to capture the place with pixels so my spouse could get a sense of where she had been.  It was hardly fair to drag her away from Lausanne on her first free day, but she didn’t protest too much.  I wanted to see what Switzerland has always meant to me– mountains.

It may be a cliche, but it does seem like you can set your watch by the trains once you figure out the schedule. It is all  synchronized so that connections are simply there.  My idea was to catch a train along the lake to Montreux, then change for the Golden Pass train heading into the mountains towards Interlaken.  I thought we would get off at Gstadt.  It was the only town I had heard of and the guidebook said there were hikes in the area that were serviced by ski lifts.

The town is two stops beyond French-speaking Switzerland, however, and my silver tongue suddenly turned to lead. We strolled through the glitzy village feeling like backpackers hiking through Paris.  Our goal was the lift of Wispile, which would whisk us up to 1911 meters (6,270 feet), paragliding heaven.

With an inadequate map, a lack of information and time, we decided to hike halfway down the mountain along a gravel road, then take the lift back down to the base.   We just might make the next train to Montreux.  It turned into a jog at the end with seconds to spare.

Sunday morning was glorious.  We headed down to Ouchy to catch the boat for the Chateau de Chillon, a medieval castle made famous by Byron, who had the appalling audacity to carve his name in one of the pillars in the dungeon.   The castle is built on an island, a strategic spot that provided the Savoy family with a lucrative tax on trade.

Like the previous day, the timing of our exit was impeccable.  We emerged just in time to herald the arrival of the hundred year-old paddle steamer, “La Suisse.”  We clambered aboard, settled back, and watched the vineyards of Lavaux pass us by.  I could easily imagine a return visit, one day spent walking from vineyard to vineyard.  Another day hiking from pass to pass in the mountains.  A long night in a cosy bed covered by a down duvet, waking to the sound of cow bells.  And a long lunch at that Michelin-starred restaurant.  Check out the rest of pics by clicking on any one running alongside the post.


On my recent trip to the Kimberley area in the northwest of Australia, I got a conversational comeuppance.  It is useful to get those every once in awhile as it helps put things in perspective.  I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel a fair amount in my life so far, but there were three Australian teachers on the eight-day Outback trip who made me feel like a nomadic neophyte.  One afternoon they sat under a tree comparing notes about their hikes along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Not only have I never been to Machu Picchu, I have never been to South America.  There are two entire continents I missed in my wandering.  It occurred to me then that Australian teachers may be the best travelers in the planet.  Lonely Planet was founded by an  Australian couple, after all.  It is still based in Melbourne.

Teachers may not have deep pockets, but they have time, curiosity, and the inclination to explore.  Australia is far from everyplace except Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, and it is fairly homogeneous. Every Aussie student who has managed to accumulate any sort of nest egg will build a “gap” year into his life plan, setting aside time to see some of the world before settling down.  Getting away for a good, long time seems to be in their genetic code.  Since getting anywhere from here seems to take forever, you may as well set aside as much time as you can to enjoy it.  I asked Lynne and Bronwyn, two of the teachers on the trip, to send me a list of countries they had visited.

” I try to take any opportunity to have a new adventure or see something new. This weekend I am heading up to Sydney to visit my daughter who has just shifted up there. I am claiming the saying– ‘I’m always travelling, I love being free’. Not sure if you are aware but this is a line from the Qantas ad. Very appropriate as we stood on the rocks at the Bungles where the latest version was filmed.  Lynne.”    The following is Lynne’s country list.  She put it in alphabetical order.  She is a teacher, after all.  Lynne was the first to tell me I was misspelling the place we visited.  I had failed to place the second “e” in Kimberley.

Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, England, Fiji, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, San Marino, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, The Netherlands, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City, Vietnam, Wales, Zambia, Zimbabwe

This came from Bronwyn just the other day.  “It is the last class before holidays. I am in the computer room letting them (the students) do what they wish so I am ending as a hero. Going to Noosa for a week (a town north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast in south Queensland) and then? Jannis (daughter)  is doing a road trip up the east coast with another Gap boy. They are living in the car for 6 weeks. They are going to try surfing….

“Well, I have been to Europe including Russia but never the UK. Most of Asia- China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Fiji, New Zealand, BC Canada, Mexico, most of Australia. Have driven Florida to New York and Vancouver to San Diego. It seemed like a lot at the time but now looking at it not much.  Bronwyn.”
Listening to the three teachers talk about their travels was a treat.  I had the sense that they were always learning and challenging themselves.  I’m astonished when I meet people who have traveled a great deal and fail to appreciate differences in language and landscape, traditions and customs.   Especially those who fail to see that other people do certain things better.  Lynne and Bronwyn seem to possess boundless curiosity and a willingness to get out of the comfort zone.  Their students are lucky to have them around to infect them with the travel bug.  Let the infection spread.

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