[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
[FOLEGANDROS, GREECE] — On the quiet island of Folegandros, there are no cruise ships. There’s no airport. No big hotels. No hoards of tourists. They only got electricity a about 30 years ago. At wasn’t until the last 20 years that the island’s one road was paved — all 18 kilometers of it — and the first gas station arrived. There’s only one bus driver. Only a single taxi driver. And only 785 people live on the island. You can only get here by ferry, either from other islands, or Athen’s Piraeus port, or you can fly into over-popular Santorini and get the hell out, taking a quick 45 minute ferry. That’s probably what saved Folegandros. No major developments like the other big Greek islands in
[FOLEGANDROS, GREECE] — A video and music overview of the best beaches, hotels and restaurants of the under-the-radar island of Folegandros. For more details, visit the Folegandros page on my website.
[GORGE DU VERDON, FRANCE] — All along the skinny serpentine road that follows each side of the Gorge due Verdon canyon rim are cool slot canyons to explore. Canyons like this awesome hike below the jaw dropping Point Sublime. I wasn’t planning on this hike. Just stumbled on it and kept going. The path descends to follow along the water, climbing up ladders and disappearing into cool dark tunnels, emerging on the other side. When I say tunnels, I mean pitch black tunnels. “Signs warn you should have a headlamp. “Hahaha, we don’t need no stinking torchiers.” I mumbled to myself as I entered that last and longest tunnel.” Okay, click this video, turn your sound up and then start reading: Well, they were serious.
[SCANDOLA NATURE RESERVE, CORSICA] — Okay, who’s been to the Scandola Nature Reserve in Corsica? Non? Strap in. You’re about to see something really amazing. You gotta gotta go do this. A huge natural preserve in the northwest of Corsica, with the most dramatic rock formations, canyons and wildly shaped rocks you’ve ever seen, plunging right into the sea. Dwarfing everything in their midst, namely you. It’s like being in a one-armed Grand Canyon, with the deep blue Mediterranean sea on the right side, and every color and shape of rock you’ve ever seen. On the northwest corner of Corsica, you can really only see it from a boat, dramatic jagged cliffs of every shape and size and color, changing from cove to cove, none of
[CORSICA, FRANCE] — “Emmm, Monsieur Dan, please be careful. The water is deep enough, but there ees a big rock down there. So you must jump out from the cliff to not hit it, but not too far. Or you will hit the beeg rock.” That was my super-cute young French guide, shouting above the roar. I was canyoning in Corsica for the first time. We were standing on top of a huge stack of elephant rocks, a swift stream was zooming under our feet, funneled into a torrent off the edge of this cliff, crashing twenty feet five below. We were high, high up in the raspy mean mountains of inner Corsica, a lush island in the middle of the Mediterranean, that thrusts out of the