Friday, October 26, 2007

Germany in Small Bites

(As always, you can click on each photo to enlarge it. )

It's been interesting getting to see Germany again as an adult and on my own. It's also been interesting to be there without the primary goal of being a tourist, which led me to see all sorts of places that I wouldn't have gone otherwise. Also interesting is the discussion that inevitably comes up about Germany's past - some people are uncomfortable even visiting the country, others ask what would happen if the opportunity arose for me to live there. So as I walked around, those questions were rattling around in my head, and I feel confident saying that Germany now is not Germany then -- it's a lovely country with a lot of charm, and perhaps most importantly, they seem to be doing their best not to let anything be forgotten or swept under the rug.

I don't think I've ever visited a country that tried so hard to acknowledge its shameful history. Everywhere you look there is a monument, a museum, a memorial... they are putting their past on the table, reminding Germans of what happened so that history wont repeat itself, and trying to do some good by the memories of those that died. I was moved by the effort that they are making, and although every once in a while an eerie wave of heavy history would wash over me as I walked down a street where something terrible happened, I can safely say I wouldn't hesitate to visit or even live in Germany today.

I spent a whole week in Berlin, but because I was there "on business" I didn't actually see as much as you may have come to expect from me. I saw the famous sights - the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden, the KaDeWe department store. I went (how could I not) to the zoo, where baby polar bear Knut is still attracting large crowds, even though he's not quite a baby anymore and even has been labeled "overweight". I was moved by the exhibit that has been set up on the former site of the SS headquarters, which served as a prison and torture center for sensitive political prisoners during the Second World War. They did a great job of exposing what happened there and who was responsible, and they had a fairly thorough memorial to many of the victims and the people who worked in the resistance.

From Berlin I flew to Dusseldorf, which I learned is known for some quite avant garde architecture. Other than that, it's a charming little German town, but a bit cold and rainy while I was there.

The next trip took me to Munich, which is one of my favorite cities in Europe. I was sick, so I had to skip my audition, but as a result I ended up at Oktoberfest. I never thought I would be caught dead there, but it turned out to be a fun experience. First of all, everyone in Munich is dressed in dirndls and lederhosen, which is adorable on the older folks and kind of funny on the younger ones, as the girls do their best to make their dirndls as hot and sexy as possible, much as young women are doing with Halloween costumes in the US these days. There is lots of public drunkenness and lots of pretzels and sausages, and actually the Oktoberfest itself is a gigantic fairground, which during the day has cute rides for kids, haunted houses, and your usual state fair stuff. I hear if you stay after dark, it gets a little crazy, but I didn't stick around to find out.

From Munich I went to Cologne, which is home to the biggest cathedral in Germany, where you find the remains of the three magi (the ones who visited Jesus when he was born). On another visit a week later, I was able to climb up the stairs to the top of the bell tower, where you get a great view of the city and also get to see the largest working bell in the world. Cologne is also the home of the original Eau de Cologne, and they have a very happening shopping street.

For me the most interesting was the El-De House, a museum made from a former detention center for WWII prisoners who came from all over Europe. You can walk around and see the cells downstairs, and despite all odds, the incredible amounts of graffiti written by prisoners over the years is well preserved on the walls of the cells. Some of the more poignant notes, including letters to children and parents never to be seen again, have been translated for viewers to read. Upstairs is a very thorough exhibit about the rise of the Nazis (and the rise of the resistance) in Cologne, which was very nicely done.

After that I had just an afternoon in Hamburg, which is nice enough, but I had seen all the major sights last Christmas, so I took a tour of the rather exaggerated interior of the Rathaus (town hall) and then called it a day.

All in all, it's been fun getting to see more bits and pieces of Germany, and I plan to try to get back there some more. In the meantime, I had better go pack, because we are leaving for Brazil in the morning!

Hope you all are well. Keep in touch!


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Roughing it in Sardinia

Oops, I'm a couple months behind in getting out an update, but I've only just now finally taken a look at my pictures. It was great to see many of you in New York - as for the rest of you, I hope you'll come to Brussels sometime.

I wrote you last from Rome, where I promised you a picture of the blue tongues of the water buffaloes...

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After I signed off, I met up with Laura in the Roma Termini station, and we almost missed our train, and then almost missed our ferry, and after much running and sweating, made it to Sardinia (which, as I mentioned before, is that big island off the west coast of Italy). Our ferry took us to Olbia, in the northeast portion of the island, which we quickly found out was deserving of its terrible reputation.

After a night's sleep, we took the bus to Nuoro, capital of what we had heard was the least touristy, beachy province of Sardinia. We then found out that Sardinia is in many ways still a developing country, as we sat in the bus station for hours waiting for a promised bus that never seemed to show up. Finally we made it to Olgosoro, a tiny town famous for its political murals. The town is a gorgeous mountain town, and it's absolutely covered with murals, many with commentary about Italian and Sardinian politics and social movements, but several that commented on issues from other regions. Most people over 30 in this region are still dressed traditionally. The men mostly look like these guys, who were playing bocce ball in the square.

We stuck around till the next day for the Festival of the Assumption, in which there is a town-wide parade of women dressed in traditional regional costumes and men on totally out-of-control horses who do everything they can to avoid trampling the onlookers, but don't entirely succeed. It was possibly the scariest parade I have ever attended, including the one where oranges were thrown at us with baseball pitcher speed. Coincidentally, Laura was there for that one, too. This is followed by dancing and music and traditional song, sung by groups of three men in chorus with one soloist, which I have to admit sounded a bit like human didgeridoos.

Next we went to Oliena, which we used as a base to walk to Tiscali, the ruins of an ancient Nuragic settlement high up on a mountain, built inside a natural hollow in the rock. Supposedly the town was in use thousands of years ago, mainly as a refuge when nearby cities were under siege. The ruins themselves were unimpressive, although it was amazing to think whole families made it all the way up there, goats and all, and the hike itself was breathtaking.

After this it was time for a little R&R on the beach in Cala Gonone, as beautiful as had been promised. The water around Sardinia is still crystal clear and clean... let's hope it stays that way. We spent one day in Cala Gonone, and then did a one day boat tour along the coast to a number of grottoes that can be reached only on a boat or by foot.

After visiting from the boat, we went on foot. Although we were walking from beach to beach, there is a steep cliff above each beach, so you have to climb up that and walk along the top and then descend to the next one. The walk was gorgeous, through alternately sandy and rocky terrain. We camped along the way, and the first night we camped in a spot overlooking the beach, affording us with a beautiful view of the pink sunset sky over the water and then an amazing view of every star in the sky. When it's that clear, you see the Milky Way and lots of shooting stars, which made the anxiety from all the random rustlings in the forest totally worth it.

Three days into our hike, the sky clouded over and it started to pour, so we changed our plans and overnighted indoors, and then detoured to Santa Maria Navarrese, where we visited the beach and stayed in a campsite full of Germans riding bikes in bathrobes. Once the sun had returned, we did one more hike, to the gorge of Gola Su Gorroppu, which they claim is the deepest gorge in the world. We hiked down to the bottom, wandered around amongst the immense boulders, and then climbed back up to the top, where we made camp in the bushes. Little did we realize, however, that this was grazing ground for a herd of cattle, so we spent the first half of the night throwing rocks to scare the cows away so they wouldn't squash our heads in the night.

After this, sadly, our time in Sardinia had come to an end, so we found our way back to Olbia to take the ferry back to the mainland. On the whole, I had a very positive impression of Sardinia. Although it is a tourist resort at many places on the coast, we saw very few tourists in the inland regions where we traveled, or even really at the beaches we chose, and, perhaps as a result, the people were some of the friendliest I've met anywhere. We soon realized that public transportation was not a viable option, so we hitched the whole time, finding that people not only were super friendly, but sometimes drove miles out of their way to take us where we were going, even though we didn't ask them to. The language was fascinating - supposedly it's very close to Latin - and it changes by region. And the scenery was beautiful. Someday soon I hope to go back and see the rest of the island, since we only covered a tiny portion of it. And you should, too, because Sardinia is exceedinly charming and offers something for every kind of traveller.

Well, I think that's enough for now. I'll write again soon with an update on my trips to Germany, and then I'm off to South America for a while. Hope you all had a great summer!


Adventure map for 2009...