The Livable Capitals: Santiago, Bern and Berlin

Santiago, Andes, snow, winter, skiiing, Cihle

As I listed the capital cities I have visited, I kept thinking which would could be the “most livable.”  Livable, for me, means not an intense place, not one with millions of tourists ruining summer months, with character, and some great redeeming feature (the ocean, the mountains, a great river running through it, an amazing spot in history, etc.).  There were several candidates (and some definite ‘nevers’…) but the top three I landed on were:  Santiago, Bern, and Berlin.

Santiago (Chile)

This may be cheating a little but I have lived in Santiago already.  Twice.  Sort of.  I lived there for 3 months over 20 years ago staying at an apartment in the area called Providencia near Tobalaba.  Then I spent a whole year traveling back and forth, spending 60-65% of the year down there (though this second time I stayed at a hotel, the awesome Marriott on Ave. Kennedy).

And I would happily do it again because Santiago is such a livable place.  Traffic aside, it has everything I would want in a place to live.  Quiet enough for a city, arts and culture, great food, neat things to do on day trips (beaches, skiing, wineries, hiking, etc.), friendly locals, interesting architecture and neighborhoods, and the magnificent Andes as a backdrop – my favorite feature of this city.

Andes, cordillera, Santiago, Chile, view, Marriott hotel, photo

A wonderful view to wake up to every day!

I would likely live in Vitacura or Las Condes: not too far from the city center towards the mountains but near the river, a nice mall, and close to many of my favorite eateries.  I used to go running along Americo Vespucio towards the river then meander through neighborhoods.

Santiago, Andes, snow, winter, skiiing, Cihle

Granted, that was not the prettiest of winter days but imagine the great skiing further up in the Andes!

Hopefully, my job would be towards that part of town to avoid the pretty nasty traffic though – I commuted from that area to “el Centro” and that was, on a very good day, a 45-min commute each way.

Bern (Switzerland)

I am not as familiar with the next two cities as I am with Santiago as I have only spent all of a day in each – severely limiting knowing, for example, in what of town I would want to live in.  In my one day visit to Bern its compactness and its location struck me.  Bern is hugged by the Aar River (I wonder if so named to make sure it sorted first in lists of rivers….) and surrounded by hills that look down upon it.  Its old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this capital city of around 200,000 inhabitants has been included in the top ten best quality of life cities as recently as 2010 (do I choose them well or what??).

Aar River, Bern, Switzerland, old town, architecture, charm, capital

The Aar River along the old historic center of Bern

I think Bern would be a great place to spend a year or two, anchored in central Switzerland.  It may not be an easy place to fly in and out of which would be a drawback for getting back to the States but nothing that a good connection in Zurich, Munich, or –heaven forbid- Charles de Gaulle in Paris wouldn’t fix.

I enjoyed walking its old streets, enjoying the architecture and its details, and sitting at an outdoor café sipping some good beer!Bern, Switzerland, old town, architecture, charm, capital,

Perhaps the compactness of the town would get to me after some months but I think I could get used to it quite easily – plus there would be so many places to spend time visiting in a radius of less than half a day’s drive.  A little more ambitiously, it would not be much of stretch to launch weekend trips elsewhere to places like Bavaria, Austria, northern Italy, and –for sure- the rest of Switzerland itself!

Berlin

Berlin is clearly a major city and those can be a little too much in terms of livability but, in my short visit there, I got a sense for the variety of neighborhoods and cosmopolitan vibe of the place.  That, coupled with the deep and painful history this city has had, would draw me in as a place I could live in.

Berlin, Germany, history, architecture, Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate – one of the many reminders of the city’s deep history

There seems to be a lot of turning over old areas into new districts to draw people in (I presume, a younger generation) and it would be interesting to see how Berlin continues to morph over the next 20 years.

Berlin, Germany, river, beach chairs

Berliners seeking some sun by the river – OK, it isn’t the Caribbean but let ‘em enjoy!

Berlin, Germany, dark sky, architecture

Newer and older residential buildings

Living in Berlin would give me ample time to explore its arts scene while also geeking out on its Cold War, WW II, WW I, and imperial history.  Of course, German beer and food would not be far behind but that I could find anywhere in Germany too.  I just hope I don’t become “ein Berliner” after eating all that food!  (Thanks, JFK, for the idea.)

Photo of the Week – Mainz, Germany

Mainz, Germany, square, plaza, architecture, platz, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

After taking a boat cruise down the Rhine to return to Frankfurt from Dusseldorf, we got off the boat at Mainz from where we would take a train into Frankfurt.  We had no idea that Mainz was going to be so charming and beautiful.  So we took a little longer strolling around (with our luggage!) until we finally made it to the Bahnhof.  Here is a snapshot of the beautiful square we hit along the way with colorful architecture.  This is a town I plan to return to and explore more in depth!  Auf wiedersehen, Mainz!

Mainz, Germany, square, plaza, architecture, platz, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

Square in Mainz

Crawling around Heidelberg

sunset, Heidelberg Castle, ruins, architecture, Heidelberg, Germany, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

I have visited Heidelberg a couple of times and I have to say:  it is a fun town.  The second time I went, an expat living nearby took us into town to see the sights but also to sample all the beer styles on offer.  A pub crawl for sure!  I was invited by my friends Troy and Cybil to join them on this trip and I could not say “no” to go a second time (by the way, check out Cybil’s awesome photography at www.acybiloriginal.com).

Heidelberg sits on the Neckar River (which later connects to the Rhine) and its most famous sight is the Heidelberg Castle that overlooks the town and the river.  Day or night, it is an impressive sight.  But I like it the most at sunset. It is really in ruins since the 17th and 18th centuries (wars, fires and, yes, even lighting!) but it still is impressive in size and presence.

Heidelberg Castle, ruins, architecture, Heidelberg, Germany, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Heidelberg Castle close-up, notice the tower on the right in ruins

sunset, Heidelberg Castle, ruins, architecture, Heidelberg, Germany, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Heidelberg Castle in great sunset light

The town can be traced back a long way but it can mostly closely be tied to a 12th century monastery built in the area.  Heidelberg University is quite old and its early 15-th century library is the oldest public library in Germany.

Catholic Church, Jesuit, Heidelberg, Germany, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Details of the Catholic Jesuit Church

The old town is mainly baroque and is quite lively due to the town being quite appealing to tourists.  We first walked around town and made our way to the river proper passing the Old Bridge Gate.  At the start of the bridge, we saw the famous mandrill (like a baboon) guarding it and took the obligatory picture… (tou-ristssssssssss!).

Old Bridge Gate, Heidelberg, Germany, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The Old Bridge’s Gate as seen from the bridge

Old Brige, mandrill, monkey, Heidelberg, Germany, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Me with the mandrill guarding the Old Bridge

But all that was just interesting… the real fun began when our host started the pub crawl.  He was a friend of one of my friends’ parents but he wanted to show us German beer.  He did not call it a pub crawl but we visited pubs and restaurants and we almost had to crawl…  After a large lunch of wurst and sauerkraut (the REAL stuff!) and a beer, he started taking us to places that offered different types of beers. By the early evening, I was so stuffed with beer that when we went to a Thai restaurant for dinner (!), I did not eat a bite.

photo, beer, Heidelberg, tourists, travelers

Cybil, Troy and I. And some of the damage along the way. The day was still young here.

But the night was not over.  As the final spot, he took us to some bar that fencing groups hung out at – except they were nowhere to be seen that night.  The other group there that night was a group of local ladies in their 50s and 60s clearly on a night out on the town, drinking and doing shots of I-don’t-know-what.  They would look at us four and raise their glass in “cheers” mode, and drink away.  It was a fun experience.  To cap it all off, our friend ordered an Italian after-dinner potion called Averna which he claimed would help settle our stomach after all the eating and drinking.  He was right, that stuff really helped soothe our busy stomachs, so much so, that when we returned to the U.S. months later, we hunted the stuff down!

A final note is that when it came time to leave, our host could not figure what the way out of town was.  One of my friends and I had had a bit more to drink so we could not really tell anything.  It was my other friend, the one that was pregnant and 100% sober, who first noticed we were going past the same spots over and over…  We made it out of Heidelberg safely to our host’s house and I, for one, slept fitfully!

So don’t miss out on Heidelberg if you go to Germany just make sure you have a designated we-are-lost spotter in the group!

Great Drive Series – Frankfurt to Maastricht

Germany, drive, church, mountain, river, photo, Canon EOS Rebel,

Among the many ways to travel and explore, few things beat driving around yourself, whether it be Tuscany, New Zealand or across the U.S., there is a freedom that comes with being on your own, able to stop at will for a photo, to rest or… to relief yourself (yes, I said it …).

I have done some great drives and I thought I’d start a short series on these drives and, hopefully, hear back from you on your own favorite drives along the way.

Today, I share my drive to/from Maastricht, The Netherlands and Frankfurt, Germany over a dozen years ago.  I was in Frankfurt for business for a few weeks and decided to visit a college friend who was an ex-pat in Maastricht.  I rented my car in Frankfurt and made my way, in about 3 hrs, to Maastricht on the famous autobahn.  The autobahn between some cities in Germany fails to meet the wild expectations we have in the U.S. about fast speeds as there is too much vehicular traffic on some of the routes.  But some parts of the route I took where free and clear just for me.  That and along the Mercedes-Benz upgrade they gave me were the perfect pairing for a FUN drive.  On the outbound leg of the trip, I drove northwest towards Bonn and Cologne (Köln) on the A3 and then west on the A4 past Aachen straight into Maastricht.  I wish I had had time to explore Aachen, having been a residence of Charlemagne and where many Holy Roman Emperors were crowned back in the day.  For that matter also Cologne and Bonn.  So much too see and so little time…

Maastricht, Frankfurt, drive, map, A3, A4, autobahn, Germany, travel

The outbound route I took

On the way back I took a different route based on my friend’s suggestion as the landscape would be much more rewarding.  It was indeed!  I don’t recall the details of the route (which cut at some point across the incredible Mosel River) but maybe someone will recognize some of the locales from the photos and let me know more precisely where I went through!

Germany, drive, church, mountain, river, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, Germany, drive, mountain, river, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, Germany, drive, mountain, river, photo, Canon EOS Rebel,

I highly recommend taking the “road less traveled”.  In this case, not the A3!   Western Germany, near the border with Luxembourg and France, is simply a beautiful place to visit, explore and drive.  Get lost, take your time, and sample this area!

 

Photos of the Week – Action in Munich’s Airport

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In my recent trip from Rome to Dubrovnik, I had to connect through the excellent Munich airport.  I had chosen a 3+ hr layover so I wouldn’t be worried about a tight connection.  It was the right airport choice for a 3 hr layover!

Munich, as other airports in Europe, has a lot more going on than the average U.S. airport.  Munich is one of the airports in Europe with the best setup for connecting through it.  They say you can easily make very short connections.  Though coming from Italy and going to Croatia, I had to go through immigration which had a line so I am not sure I would risk a 45 min. connection!

Soon after arriving I spotted a massage place offering from manicures to full-body massages.  I decided I would take a back and neck massage for 30 mins to help me relax from an early start to my day (woke up around 530 AM!) and also since I was still sick with a cold.  I figured anything that helped my body was a good thing – and it was.

After the massage, I sat down for lunch at a place offering typical German fare.  I enjoyed wursts, sauerkraut, a pretzel with mustard, and, of course, a beer!  Mmm!

Num-num

Goodness…

Then, with still some time to kill, and with no real sense of purpose, I snapped a few odd shots with my mobile phone camera (which I admit is not the best).  But I sort of like the shots as they do give a sense of the airport movement or activity .  Looking at these, I wish I HAD taken them with the real camera!  I love the reflections on the shiny floor!

  

An Imperfect Baltic Cruise Was Perfect for the Family…

Tallinn, Estonia, Baltic, cruise, visit, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, skyline

A couple of years ago, I embarked on a family trip with my mother and stepdad, my sister with her husband and teenaged kids, and my aunt and uncle.  The reasons for the trip were many but we more than anything wanted a grand trip all together to give my niece and nephew a great memory of their first trip to Europe and for the rest of us to get some R&R.  We chose a cruise as it facilitated a group of 9 people traveling together since the cruise ship offers many options for at-sea days and there is no moving from place to place every few days carrying or rolling luggage around, something the older ones in the group would not have been able to easily do.  We have done cruises before together and knew the cruise dynamic works well for us giving everyone things to do and space when needed.  Much as I may have enjoyed driving around one or more European countries, it would not have made sense with a group like this one.

We decided on a Baltic route as it was new to most of us and because if we were ever to do it, this time of the year was perfect.  I personally had a goal of getting to sample a few of the countries in the region to know where to focus future trips.  The destinations involved were Copenhagen, Tallinn, Warnemunde (but really, Berlin was the target), St. Petersburg, and Stockholm.  I had been to none of these cities though I have been to Germany a few times.  I will write separately about my impressions about these places but St. Petersburg, in particular, was top of my list of places I have not seen in Europe.

Copenhagen is where the cruise departed from so we planned to spend a couple of days there before and after the trip.  We wanted to arrive early in case there were issues with the flight over – so we would have a couple of days of “cushion” especially given the size of the group.

Nyhavn harbor in Copenhagen, Denmark

The cruise line (Costa) was supposed to be very decent and we got cabins with blocked views (by the lifeboats) which were cheaper -obviously- than the ones with a view.  But we chose them as it allowed us to get some sunlight in the room for the little time we spent there and not feel like we were in a box.  That was a good choice.  My cabin was even better as it faced the space between two lifeboats so we could actually look out!  The ship was no different in design and options as past cruise ships I have been in which was good and bad.  Good because I had liked them but bad because there was nothing new to discover.  It may have lacked a little in activities on at-sea days which was surprising.

The biggest shock of this cruise vs. all the other ones we had been on was the food.  My past experiences have been that I look at the dinner menu and I want EVERYTHING on the menu.  This time, I generally struggled to find a main entree that I REALLY wanted .  I was surprised at that (others in the group felt the same way).  I cannot quite put my finger on what was off with the menu but it proved true every night.  However, the pasta served as first dish was outstanding every night and that was the most enjoyable part of my nightly dinner.  Desserts were generally OK except that the first night’s creme brulee was almost egg soup.  After hours or in between meals, the choices were extremely limited (mostly to pizza) and the ice cream machine was off!!! (Contrary to past cruise experiences.)  So overall, the dining experience was not up to snuff for me.  On the bright side, I only gained one pound!

The onboarding and disembarkation processes were very efficiently run though perhaps that assisted by the fact that there were 2 embarkation ports which meant the load was split.  However, organization of the cruise tours was equally efficiently run so perhaps this is a strength for this line.

Tallinn, Estonia, Baltic, cruise, visit, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, skyline

Tallinn – a city we all found charming

The drawback for me of taking a cruise is the limited time at port.  I wish, for example, the visit to St. Petersburg has been split over two days as my Mom experienced on a past cruise there.  Seeing these towns in two days even is not enough but I sure wish we could have spent one overnight in any of these towns.  Given the limited time, we left the boat as early as we could which meant we had an early wake-up time every day.  We had 3 days in a row visiting ports so by the 3rd day we were fairly exhausted as we also did a lot of walking in the cities visited.  However, I do not regret it as there is no way I would have missed seeing as much as I could but so much for the “rest” part of R&R!

So even if it was not the perfect cruise experience, I can tell you that the memories still live on. Sadly, the rhythm of life moves on and the health of one of the group does not allow this type of long trip anymore.  Believe me when I say I would gladly suffer a poor creme brulee (and more) for another opportunity to be with this group doing something like this…  It sure puts it all in perspective…

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