[ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE] — The Atacama Desert. Good lord. Nestled in the upper right corner of Chile — one of the longest and skinniest countries in the world — is this freak of nature, the driest place on our planet. It’s only a few hundred miles from the Pacific, but has some areas with no registered rainfall since they started measuring such things, over 400 years. It’s also the oldest desert on earth, been rainless for close to 3 million years. I love this line from Wikipedia “Studies by a group of British scientists have suggested that some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.” Dry. It’s dry here. I’ve read about it, saw films about it, including this remarkable one, and was just totally
[SINTRA, PORTUGAL] — Sintra is not just a single town, but an entire wooded (unusually so in these arid parts) nature preserve about an hour and a half outside of Lisbon. It’s the perfect daytrip from Lisbon or the perfect day trip from Cascais. Definitely well worth the drive and easy to find — all the roads and signs in Portugal are outstanding. It’s a big riot of color and architecture, surrounded by hundreds of acres of gardens and forests. Plan a half a day, at least, or preferably a whole day, to make the loop through the forest and the half dozen towns and castles and sites within the preserve. It is very busy. Very touristy. But very cool to see. Think of it
[SALTA, ARGENTINA] –You probably haven’t heard much about Salta, in the far northwest quadrant of Argentina and its famed Ruta 40 highway, but word is starting to spread. This is one of the great roadtrips in the world. While everyone knows of Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Patagonia, it seems like Salta has just barely opened up. You take a two hour flight from Buenos Aires to the city of Salta which you can use as a base, driving around the region — there are a number of road tours you can take from there — driving north to Jujuy province and the salt flats of Bolivia or West into the mountains and high altitude altiplano, or South through the red canyons to the Salteño wine town of
[GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY] — I was posting photos from a hike in the Bavarian Alps and an Instagram follower I’ve never communicated with posted “You should go hike around lake Eibsee, the most beautiful lakes around.” And so I did and he was right. Just outside the town of Garmisch in Bavaria is this most perfect mountain lake. The Eibsee, with Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze towering over it. You can walk around in the perfect Red Riding Hood like moss-bedecked trail that loops around it, take a dip or just sit and soak it all in. Then follow up with a brat, red cabbage and a beer at one of the lakeside restaurants. There’ an easy, flat loop trail that leads from the nicely-run parking lot
[RODEO, NEW MEXICO] — A coupla weekends ago, I went on a bird-watching road trip along the southern Arizona and New Mexico border with my best college buddies. Three were into birding, two of us were along for the beer. We flew into Tucson and headed straight south, stopping at popular birding spots along the way to Nogales and the Mexican border. Then we dog-legged left and skirted the border the whole way until we crossed in New Mexico and the dusty town of Rodeo, with watchful Border Patrol hidden around every curve. We stopped in Patagonia, Tombstone, Bixbee and finally crossed the border in New Mexico to stay at the Painted Pony Resort in the dusty town of Rodeo. This time of year, this part of southern
[DOURO VALLEY, PORTUGAL] — I see all these Instagram peeps hitting Porto taking pictures of the big bridge, climbing up its steep hills, drinking some port and then bolting. But really what they’re missing is a day trip (or longer) up the Douro River to visit the incredible, hilly stair step vineyards of the Douro Valley, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. I dunno, I’m over wine tours, once you see a few, they’re all the same to me — “Is that French oak or American? How long in stainless??” — poke me in the eye with a stick…but that’s just me… But the Douro Valley is different. Hilly. Steep. Flinty mounds of luscious green heaven pouring down to a mellow meandering river.
[Caen, France] — The cold morning wind was biting our faces as we walked up to the big bronze plaque. Our incredible guide Mathias Leclère, whom we just met ten minutes ago, pulled us over to chat in the protection of a wall dug into the hill. “Over along that ridge, German troops lined the tree lines, all the way to that bell tower in that village over there. Below us, all of these fields had been flooded by the Germans in anticipation of an invasion.” Mathias calmly shouted amidst the blowing winter wind, a little sleet stinging our faces. “Just behind us, 13,000 U.S. paratroopers had just landed in the middle of the night. It was pitch black, no moon. The ack-ack anti-aircraft fire
[Alentejo, Portugal] — From this hilltop, the highest in the region, you can see forever. That’s why this little town has been important throughout history. And not just history, but pre-history. Monsaraz in Alentejo is the site of one of the oldest settlements in Portugal, going back to neolithic times when people were tilting stones to the sky and calling it home. Or temple. Or tomb. There are some of the best neolithic sites in the world scattered all over this region. This was such a strategic location that it has been fought and won over many many times by the conquering hoards. First, the pagans, then Romans, then the Goths came and slaughtered, then the Arabs, then another collection of Arabs, then Jewish conquerors, Christians
[MARRAKESH] — The first time I came to Morocco a few years ago, I was cranky. And a little scared. My TAP flight from Lisbon had a painful five hour chair-less layover in Casablanca and it was close to midnight by the time I pulled up to the hotel. It was hot. I was sweaty and sticky. The traffic was insane, snarled with scooters and lorries and donkey carts as the driver pulled over, fumes spewing when I opened the car door. I got out, bleary eyed, we were next to a busy gas station, cars lined up, honking out into the street. All the shops were boarded up and men were screaming at a completely jammed bus terminal across the street. A garish fluorescent light
[PIEMONTE, ITALY] — Mid October is a busy season here in Barolo. Most of the grapes have already been picked, but because of recent rains there’s more to go. A couple of hot days of sun and we’re good to go. Laying down for a nap, I can hear gargling tractors drive by on the famous Via Ginestra, their rattling trailers rushing to the crushing. This is also the beginning of truffle season, here in the white truffle capital of the world, everyone securing their stash like drug dealers. I walked into Monforte d’Alba for a quiet lunch in the busy piazza. After shaving luscious white truffle tubers like pencil fines, Alberto, the owner of the wonderfully named Grappolo d’Oro hotel (The Golden Grape) said,
[ALENTEJO, PORTUGAL] — The ancient town of Monsaraz sits high on a hilltop in Portugal’s Alentejo regio, the tallest point for miles around. Just miles from the Spanish border and surrounded by thick castle walls, it overlooks one of the most beautiful parts of inland Portugal, including the giant Alqueva reservoir — the largest manmade lake in Europe. Some consider Monsaraz one of Portugal’s most picturesque villages and it is one of it’s oldest. People have been living in this region since pre-historic times, with ancient monoliths strewn all over the land. Then the Romans came and took over, then Visigoths, the Jews, then Christians, then Muslims again… everyone wanting a piece of this strategic hilltop. Surrounded by thick protective walls, the castle goes back
[ALENTEJO, PORTUGAL] — Driving out of Lisbon airport in your rental is absolutely crazy, with GPS or not. After an overnight flight (or two) you exit the terminal into the bright Portugal sun all bleary eyed, you get your car and just go. The GPS is playing catch up, while the traffic is not, bearing down on your tail like a dog in heat. The roads are like a plate of dropped spaghetti, turning off in every crazy direction, with signs that don’t match what the GPS is telling you. After a couple of roundabout orbit corrections, you finally break free of the tangle and head south for the Tagus River. Suddenly, the bright blue sky opens up, the traffic disappears and you’re back to
[ALTA BADIA, TRENTINO] — After a four hour hike down the mountain, it was finally time for a late lunch. Stanky and sweaty, I rolled into this cute little rifugio out in the woods, accessible only by foot or the brave souls driving up the narrow less-than-one-lane path — so tight the cars forced the hikers to lean their butts and packs over the wood rail fence lining the lane as they passed. I was hangry by then 👹 so hearty venison medallions in a juniper sauce, grilled mushrooms and rustic polenta seemed just perfect. And a couple of glasses of Lagrein to wash it all down. About as good of a meal as it gets, especially in a place so inaccessible. The sun casting
[VAL GARDENA, BOLZANO] — We were on a long gondola ride heading up a long valley of undulating hills outside of the beautiful town of Ortisei, no doubt perfect ski runs in the winter. But it was summer, off season, so everything was super lush and green, hardly anybody around. The lift pauses at one skier drop-off then continues on, up up up and over a steep massive wall of granite, still shaded by the stark morning sun, darkening the interior of the gondola so much that you had to take off your sunglasses. Suddenly, you pop over the ridge and you’re thrust into the bright summer sun. Stammering to get your bearings again. We scrambled off, the hustling gondola nipping at our heels like a
[AL HAJAR, OMAN] — When I first saw a photo of this hotel a couple of years ago I just stopped and went “Wooh, where the hell is this???” Oman. Oman? Where’s Oman? “I gotta go there. And stay riiiiiiight here.” And that’s how this whole trip came to be. Months later I saw another picture of a stunning luxury boutique hotel on a barren sandy beach and the article said you could either drive down the zigzag road… or paraglide down to the hotel Reception and check-in. (You’ll see that in the next post) And I thought: “Wow, where is that?” Oman. Oman? Man, I gotta go to this place. And started a travel file named “OMAN” that included article after article of
[OMAN] — Such a fascinating place, Oman, with the nicest people I’ve run into, across the board. Omanis are known for their gentle souls, peacemaking and equal support of friend and foe. People are so nice that even when I arrived at Passport Control, I walked up to the stern looking passport-checker dude. “From where are you?” “The States” “Really?? We don’t get many Americans here. What is your purpose? Where are you going? And for how long is your visit?” “For tourism. Two weeks, all over. Muscat. Mountains. Beach.” Smiling broadly “Ahhhhh, I hope you will like Oman. You must, simply must, visit Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in Oman. Very beautiful. The car only goes so far, but you must walk to the top.
[HAMBURG] — Ha-Ha-Hamburg. Man, what a city. If you asked me a year ago if Hamburg was on my wishlist of cities to visit. “Ummmmm, no.” But, I didn’t know. I just thought Hamburg was just a big industrial port city in northern Germany. But through the marvels of Instagram, I kept seeing these beautiful shots of this remarkable city, Germany’s second largest and its major business hub, with all of its media, design and shipping headquarters here. Airbus, Unilever, broadcast networks, all here. Like Berlin — which I covered in recent posts — Hamburg has been undergoing a huge Renaissance. Not just updating, but reinventing itself. With massive cool new developments and stunning architecture, sympathetically blending into to its prestigious older parts. Ask a German about
[HAMBURG] — Okay, this was my favorite part of going to Hamburg. Miniatur Wunderland. Hamburg is a great city, but it’s worth a trip here just to see this awesome, quirky museum. An entire world done in miniature: trains, cars, airports, stadiums. But this is way, way cooler than just a big model railroad. Dozens of complete themed dioramas spread out over multiple floors of an old warehouse. This is so much fun. Think: a model railroad on steroids. Russian ones. Sure there are lots of “miniature” places around the world, but this one is different and the best I’ve seen. Of course there are hundreds of model trains spread out all through the place, but not just trains; moving cars, people, ships, boats and airplanes. But
[BERLIN] — It’d been a looong time since I was last in Berlin. So long ago, it’s scary. Back when I was in college in Rome, when the Wall was around. When Checkpoint Charlie was a real checkpoint. The city just seemed to be numb then, both sides. Mostly old people on the streets, not many. Can’t remember anyone young. Everything seemed grey and colorless. Eerie. You could roll a 🎳 down the main strassens and not hit a soul. The only shops around seemed to sell Bavarian beer mugs and cuckoo clocks, not sneakers. Stating the obvious, today is so much more different. Alive. So many kids and cute moms with strollers, everywhere, Third Wave coffee shops and colors in faces now. Everyone smiling. Streets bustling.
[Lagos, Portugal] — The winding two lane highway runs all up and down the western coast, tucked just under a constant high berm of low hills that act like a windbreak from the coast. The car weaves in and out of clumps of wooly cypress trees, their wide trunks like the fuzzy legs of a herd of mammoths, crossing small bridges and dodging farm trucks heaving from the local fields. It’s kind of weird, actually. The sun is bright as can be, yet you’re in shadows most of the time in the early afternoon. You can feel the salty ocean breeze but that long forehead of low hills casts long shadows across the road, it’s hard to even get a view of the beaches you’ve read so