My Travels

  • Antwerp
  • Barbados
  • Berlin
  • Berlin II
  • Cardiff
  • Copenhagen
  • Diyarbakir
  • Düsseldorf
  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Istanbul's Golden Horn
  • The Josephov, Prague’s Jewish Quarter
  • Kawagoe
  • Kosovo I
  • Lyon
  • Maharashtra
  • Madrid
  • Oslo
  • Padua and the Veneto
  • Paris
  • St. Petersburg
  • Samos and Ephesus
  • Sophiatown (Johnannesburg)
  • Southwest England
  • Stockholm
  • Weimar

Antwerp is one of those towns I’d like to spend more time in. A one-time Renaissance business capital, it underwent a cultural renaissance and became one of Europe’s “hip” cities for art, music and fashion.

Antwerp is a town that nearly everybody has heard of, but few have visited. Europe is better at promoting cathedral tours than pub crawls.

Nights in Antwerp feature an awful lot of youth out on the streets who are dressed in the counter couture threads of the urban hipster. The fact that these crowds are juxtaposed against antique industrial space such as old warehouses just makes it that much more interesting.

            In the 1960s and 70s, the city’s Southern District was abandoned by the shipping business. The ships moved further up the Schelde River to be closer to the North Sea. This left many warehouses and other “industrial-esque” structures available for transition. A visit to the restaurants and nightclubs in Antwerp today, is reminiscent of the transformation of New York’s Soho district in the late 1970s and early 80s.

As in Soho, these industrial spaces were ideal for painters’ studios, trendy restaurants, discos, galleries and other modern cultural outlets. A pub such as the Pakhuis exemplifies the kind of scene your clients can find in Antwerp these days. This old warehouse, dating at least back to the 1850s, makes its patrons feel like they’re drinking inside a Rembrandt painting. It’s also a great place to try the local beer, which is called Bolleke (pronounced Bollacker).

            The pubs of the city have that hip, but antique, ambiance and they serve the 450 plus beers produced in Belgium as well as a nice selection of New Geneva and Bokma, the grand daddies of modern gin.

Food in Antwerp adapted to the sorts of spices and exotic foods that came on the ships returning from the four corners of the world during the city’s Golden Age. In 1560, some 500 ships a day were docking on the Schelde. French is the cuisine of choice in Antwerp, but Belgian food (and Belgium itself) has its own character, a character that usually begins with larger, less precious, portions than one finds in Parisian eateries.

            Much of the city’s modernity derives from the important role fashion plays in the life of Antwerp. The area around Nationalstraatis is loaded with chic shops and boutiques. Fashion is a major curriculum at Antwerp’s Academy of Arts and the Momu Fashion Museum puts it all in a historic perspective.

The Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Arts feature a healthy collection of paintings and Antwerp Cathedral features four by Rubens. The star of the art museums of Antwerp is Pieter Paul Rubens. There are about 50 works by Rubens scattered throughout the city. The Rubens House Museum preserves the home that Rubens built in 1610. Rubens (1577-1640) saw much of the city’s Golden Age.

            This was a huge port during the Renaissance. Maybe Europe’s greatest economic historian, Fernand Braudel called Antwerp, in its 16th century prime, “the center of the entire international economy…”

The Golden Age of Antwerp began when the far prettier Bruges began its descent as a trading center when its connections to the sea silted up. The merchants that had made Bruges such a center, moved to Antwerp in the 15th century and today the city remains Europe’s second largest port after Rotterdam.

Ships still sail up the River Schelde from the North Sea some 35 miles away.  Those ships that set sail during the Renaissance to the New World, to Asia’ Spice Islands, to China and the Philippines were bringing those goods back to warehouses in Antwerp.

            With traders and merchants from so many parts of the world bringing their business to Antwerp, an atmosphere of tolerance prevailed, and that tolerance made it popular with emigrating Hasidic Jews, who were heavily involved in a thriving diamond market.

Eighty percent of the world’s diamond business moves through Antwerp. The Diamond Museum tells the story of this city’s role as a capital in that trade The Navigation Museum, located in Steen Castle, also tells the city’s story as a Renaissance trade center. The castle itself was built in 1520 by the Spanish Hapsburg Emperor Carlos V.

            In many ways, Antwerp laid the groundwork for what Belgium is today, a place where traders and other professionals from throughout the world can come and work in a genuinely international setting. Brussels, with all its EU edifices, is only following in the footsteps of Antwerp.

On maps of the Caribbean, the island of Barbados is so far to the east that it edges out of the blue sea and into the map’s margins, where the latitude numbers congregate. This distinctive positioning on sea charts, made it the first island that British mariners would see on their New World voyages. For the British Empire, Barbados played the same role in the Western Hemisphere that Hong Kong played in their Chinese incursions.

Its very existence stems from its location on the seam between the Atlantic and Caribbean tectonic plates whose grinding against each other spawned the volcanic activity that created Barbados. No volcanoes today, just white sand coves, shallow valleys, soft swelling hills and broad stretches of cultivated plantation lands that give it a look unlike any other island in the Caribbean.

On Friday nights the great Oistens Fish Fry stretches over about 10 blocks on the Christ Church waterfront, with dozens of the tiniest little bare-bone kitchens frying fish, popping beers and hawking crafts. In one section there’s a big open square where older people dance to oldies ranging from Elvis to Marley and a few blocks away there’s a large stage where younger crowds swarm around a hip-hop playing DJ. The scene is about four to one, residents to visitors, but there’s little to separate groups as people are dancing, talking, drinking and eating together.

An Oistens fresh grilled fish with a side of baked macaroni may not stand up to the sort of plate presentations you’ll find in Barbados more upscale eateries, but you won’t find anything more delicious. Many destinations call themselves gourmet destinations because their best restaurants feature high octane chefs, but on Barbados good eating is island wide from roadside stands to elegant dining rooms.

In the mid- to late 1800s, Barbadian sugar, molasses and rum created more than a third of the revenues of the entire British Empire. Its value far exceeded the combined worth of the English colonies in North America. Consider that: An island roughly 20 miles by 30 miles was worth infinitely more than the 13 colonies plus Canada.

Eighteenth century English literature is filled with characters that made their fortunes as planters in Barbados. Dressed in broad straw hats, talking of the wonderful opportunities of the tropics; the new English planter class moves boisterously through the pages of Boswell to bend elbows and stretch truths with Samuel Johnson in London’s smoky pubs.

Barbados offered the Georgian English adventurer a chance to make his fortune, and huge, huge fortunes were made on sugar (the petroleum of that time), largely at the expense of the African slaves that formed the essential component in the “golden triangle” of 18th century global economics; rum, molasses and slaves.

            To the credit of Barbados today, they’ve put this history out front. They never sweep it under the rug as is done in much of the Caribbean. For many islands, the thinking goes, “How can we sell a destination as sun and fun if we allow all of that ugly history to pollute the sand and the brand?” Authentic history gives Barbados an edge that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in this region.

Take St. John’s Parish Church, a haunting Gothic church situated dramatically at a cliff’s edge overlooking the Atlantic surrounded by a historic graveyard. The original church was built here in 1645 and the current structure, its third incarnation, hails from 1836, about three years after the British abolished slavery. This mysterious old Anglican outpost with its yard full of founding planters and slave owners is typical of the way Barbados wears a history that is simply too big and dramatic to be hidden behind a water park.

A preservation of the lives of those planters can be found at St. Nicholas Abbey, which is not an abbey at all, but a plantation great house built in 1658. It is one of only three surviving Jacobean-style houses in the Western Hemisphere. The house presides over a 400-acre spread of sugar cane, mahogany forest and formal garden.

In 1751, the future president George Washington accompanied his older brother Lawrence, who suffered from tuberculosis, on a curative trip to Barbados. Washington used his time to study the island’s military formations as well as its plantation systems, which were then considered models of management. The house he stayed in is a museum today chronicling life at the time, not only for the planter class, but also for their slaves. Next to the 18th century dining and bedroom sets are the spiked neck rings and manacles of the slaves.

Plantations, sugar mills, cane fields and Bajan society all depended on the production of rum and the oldest written record of rum hails from a 1688 Bajan document whose writer described a quantity of “rumbullion.” Bullion indeed, as in gold bullion.

In 1703, the distillery that would become Mount Gay Rum opened on Barbados. The distillery offers an informative and entertaining tour and tasting to the many visitors who make it part of their vacation. It tells more than the Mount Gay story; it tells the story of rum on the island and throughout the Caribbean.

From the grounds of The Crane, which at 132 years is the oldest living hotel in the Caribbean, you can look out from the eastern shores of Barbados over the Atlantic. The hotel’s location on the far more turbulent side of the island sits at a distance from the island’s other hotels.  The manicured lawn that runs from its Mediterranean pool is thick as carpet and runs all the way to the edge of a rugged cliff face overlooking the feisty Atlantic. The rough stone walls used in The Crane’s interiors carry that Bajan air of history into the rooms. The wood fixtures including the louvered window shutters are made from heavy mahogany, while the exposed stone of the wall is as rough and textured as the side of an old courthouse.

I’m always amazed at the ability of cities to remake themselves. Nothing symbolizes the new China more powerfully than the miraculous transformations of Shanghai and Beijing, from dreary towns with noble histories, into what they are today, global capitals that vibrate by day and hum softly, even lyrically, by night.

The most dramatic urban renaissance of our time belongs to Berlin. Berlin has gone from being the battle line between superpowers to Central Europe’s unchallenged global metropolis.

Berlin’s global position is demonstrated by its thriving travel show, the ITB. This year ITB celebrated its 40th anniversary. Some 10,500 exhibitors from 180 countries and territories displayed their attractions and their travel products across what seems like a few dozen halls.  At the end of a day at ITB, you feel that you’ve taken a small smorgasbord tour of the entire world.

            Besides the sheer breadth of information at the show, ITB also benefits from being in Berlin. With the ITB held in mid-March, the city is always either displaying its last few days of winter, or like last year, the first few days of spring. No city wears spring any better. A walk up the Unter den Linden toward Brandenburg Gate on a beautiful night is a magical experience.

Magic only lasts so long in Berlin, where history lurks around almost every corner. As you pass through the gate off to the left are a row of crosses on the edge of Tiergarten Ebert Street with the names of people murdered by East German border guards as they tried to scale the Wall in the days when this city was the front line of the Cold War.

A band of bricks in the sidewalk, a few feet from the new Ritz Carlton on Potsdamer Platz marks the path of the Berlin Wall. The Wall went up in 1961 through the very heart of the city, creating two large cities with their backs to each other. Thus, as the two Berlins grew, the Potsdamer Platz became a No Man’s Land between them.

Even when these two large cities joined again, with the fall of the Wall in 1989, the Potsdamer Platz area remained desolate for years, a frontier separating city centers with Alexanderplatz in East Berlin and the trendy shopping area around Kurfurstendam in the high-tone Western sector.

Today a unified Berlin is a vast city at almost 900 square kilometers (about nine times larger than Paris). And Potsdamer Platz has been renewed by a series of bold new architectural works that outrage some and delight others. Put me down among the latter.

Works such as the new Sony Center restore that lyrical irreverence that was a huge part of Berlin before the War. The cultural tradition of this Prussian capital has been characterized by a dialogue between an extremely conservative establishment and a wild counter culture.

In the 1930s the balance tipped to Germany’s military industrial establishment, who, for all their sacrosanct propriety and conservatism, led their country, and much of the world into Hell.

The old gray proper Berlin is still there and it has magnificent monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag (with its modern glass dome).  The new Berlin is represented by the Sony Center with its glittering rooftop perpetually changing colors, the Kulturforum and the DaimlerChrysler Center, to name a few. And, of course, the destroyed steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church left as it was after the War to serve as a witness over the vibrant area around the Zoo of  how devastating the bombing raids were.

In her last film, Just a Gigolo (1978), Marlene Dietrich says to David Bowie, “Dancing, music, champagne: the best ways to forget until you find something you want to remember.” In that beautiful line she summarized the wry wisdom that flows through the streets of Berlin. The budding linden trees, the elegant statuary in the Tiergarten, the easy gate of walkers on the broad store-lined avenues so powerfully bring you into the here and now of such a beautiful present, that it’s easy to forget all that this city has been through.

Even the Wall, now 30 years a memory, seems more like a garnish when you stumble onto the bits of it that appear here and there, always sporting a triumphant and colorful splash of graffiti. But along Ebertstrasse, the avenue that runs between the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate, no one paints the small crosses that line the sidewalk. People do leave flowers because they remember the ones who were murdered as they tried to escape from East Berlin.

Berlin and other German cities, notably Leipzig, celebrate the anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall with festivals, exhibitions and events. On Nov. 9, the actual date of the fall, concerts and street festivals take place in locations throughout Berlin. The history of the old East Germany is remembered at several locations in the city, such as the Checkpoint Charlie Museum which tells the whole story of the Berlin Wall and the GDR Museum which describes life under the old East German flag.

            The Berlin Wall Trail covers around 90 miles of the former border, including the one kilometer stretch of wall on Mühlenstrasse, the longest that still stands. Artists from around the world covered the Mühlenstrasse stretch of wall with murals, and today it’s called the East Side Gallery. You will find the image of Leonid Brezhnev and Eric Honecker, the former premiers of the Soviet Union and of the East German Democratic Republic respectively, embraced in a passionate kiss, on t-shirts and coffee mugs in every souvenir shop. That image, something of an icon now, was first painted on the East Side Gallery.

For most of its former path, the Wall is represented by a band of bricks in the sidewalk. It’s easy to glide over those markings as your eyes are naturally drawn to the grandeur of monuments like the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag (with its modern glass dome). The monuments of the past are barely holding their own these days with Berlin now having one of Europe’s finest inventories of new architecture. The Sony Center, the Kulturforum and the DaimlerChrysler Center are only a few of the stunning new monuments.

In the Hitler years, some 1,000 bunkers were built beneath the city and many of them remain in an eerie state of preservation. In 1997, a group of local historians founded, the “Berlin Underworlds’ Association”, which locates, and documents hidden underground installations from World War II and from Berlin’s Cold War period. There are even tours of the so-called “Berlin Underground.” Beneath the sidewalks of the city are “cemeteries, secret air raid shelters, sewers and even an aircraft factory. A lot of these structures still exist.

Several different types of tours run from 90 minutes to three hours. On a Cold War underground tour, we walked by the chilling details about all that the East German police (the Stasi) did to forbid people from escaping through the sewers or the underground rail tunnels. It also explored civil defense facilities that were built to shelter a small fraction of the city’s population in case of a nuclear attack.

Along the way period posters, medical supplies, canned foods and uniforms invoke the flavor of those times. The information is far more brutal. For instance, some 218 people who were caught literally swimming through sewage to escape from East Germany were put to death by guillotine. Stories like this, the stories that spill out of the Jewish Memorial and the small crosses on Ebertstrasse always add plenty of bitter to the sweet on a visit to Berlin. Still, these experiences, while not “fun,” are extremely valuable.

            The most visited of Berlin’s many museums in order are the Pergamon Museum, the Altes Museum (Old Museum) with the Egyptian Museum and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum and the GDR Museum make ideal compliments to the underground tours.

No one should ever go to Berlin without visiting the Pergamon Museum, the flagship museum on Berlin’s Museum Island. The museum’s Ishtar Gate, excavated from the ruins of ancient Babylon, would be worth seeing just for what it is historically, the blue tile beauty of it makes it irresistible. Only something as grand as the Ishtar Gate, could relegate the Pergamon Altar to secondary status in a museum. The grandeur of the altar almost fills a vast gallery and the beauty of the Hellenic sculptures (though they’re badly damaged) make the altar another must see when in Berlin.

As always in Berlin, it’s hard to imagine that this glittering urban jewelry box is the same place that was absolutely leveled in World War II. The memory of that destruction is preserved by the war-ravaged steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Kurfurstendamm. The steeple, left as it was after the war, serves as a witness to the real spoils of war.

North of Cardiff, each new hilltop gives way onto a valley even more breathtaking than the last. Tourism officials in South Wales like to say that while the Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand, it was imagined in one of these sun-dappled valleys. And yet, photos from as recently as 1979, show these same valleys covered in coal soot and under a perpetual thick haze of oily smoke.

While Romans, druids, monks and Vikings haunt this land’s memory; the ghosts of coal miners linger on and they’re legacy has as much of an impact on how we live our lives in this modern world as any of those more romantic figures of Culture with a capital C. I visited the Big Pit National Mining Museum in the autumn of 2006, just before the news of the mining disaster in West Virginia broke out at the Sago Mine.

The miners who dug deep in the Welsh hills found the fuel that fired the engines of the first industrial revolution. In 1851 the Welsh census showed that two-thirds of the people in Wales made their living from industrial labor rather than agriculture, making it the world’s first industrial society.  It is to the great credit of Wales and its tourism that they are not allowing this history to disappear.

The mine owners that made this the top coal producing region in the world between the early 18th century and 1980, saw the rivers of South Wales as conveyors of coal and iron, to such ports as Swansea (home of Dylan Thomas), Newport and Cardiff.

Big Pit was a working coal mine until 1980. The museum allows visitors, each topped with a miner’s helmet and its mounted head lamp, to descend a 300-foot shaft for a 45-minute tour.

An entire society existed in this dark lamp-lit world. Though the miners were mostly men, there were many children and some women that also toiled in the darkness. Horses also pulled the various coal wagons and there were plenty of rats. The miners wore iron rings around their trouser ankles to prevent rats from running up their legs.

            In 2006, former miners led the Big Pit tours and often spoke nostalgically about their days working in the mines. They missed the comradery of the mines, and they said it was good pay too. The Big Pit National Mining Museum attracted more than 140,000 visitors per year in 2006, which shows that people are interested in a brand of sightseeing which is not focused exclusively on art museums, cathedrals, marble ruins and other touchstones of traditional cultural itineraries. 

Said Claire Goold, director USA of the Wales Tourist Board, “Just as we are richer for having the art, the literature, the architecture, and the music of so-called high culture, we are also enriched from less pleasant aspects of our history. Travelers today (2006) are seeking authentic experiences, and so much of what we are, was formed outside of what you might call the honey-pot historic places. Anything that contributes to what it is to be Welsh is Welsh culture.”

The Big Pit is one of several legacy sites among the National Museums & Galleries of Wales collection. The Welsh government maintains them and keeps them open to visitors so that the Welsh people can have access to their roots. The Big Pit is the focal point of the South Wales Blaenafon Industrial Landscape World Heritage Site, recognized by UNESCO for its pivotal role in fueling the Industrial Revolution.

In the Big Pit, the miner guides told of the dangers of gasses in the mines which could explode if not properly monitored. In 2006, when this story was first written, we watched the tragedy in West Virginia’s Sago Mine, we were all joined by our humanity to the people stuck in that horrible situation.

Mining disasters are an essential part of Welsh history also.  As tourists we tend to follow our guides along the footsteps of the saints and the caesars, but at Big Pit tourists turned their heads from the dazzling exploits of the Few and found that the Many lived equally historic lives.

Copenhagen is one of those towns that often makes magazine lists of best cities to live in. Visitors crowd the waterfront to gaze at the statue of the Little Mermaid, who looks longingly from her otherworldly perch for her human lover. Sometimes it seems as it’s the ones on the shore who’d rather be mermaids, or better yet, cartoon characters. The statue of the Little Mermaid embodies the city’s most essential trait, the ability to keep one foot in childhood as you negotiate the steps of adult urban life.

A child like wonder can be found all over this city where the omnipresent spirit of Hans Christian Andersen seems to turn up at every corner, a spirit that recognizes that children have as much to teach adults as they do to learn from them. It’s no wonder then that in 1964 Walt Disney said of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, “Now this is what an amusement place should be!”

Though Tivoli Gardens opened in 1843 just outside the city gate, today it’s as fully integrated into the heart of the city as Times Square is in Manhattan. And it’s just as integrated into the lives of the city’s people who use it as one of the top meeting places in town.

            The fact that people of all ages, with and without their children, enjoy Tivoli Gardens so well is due in part to its 19th century atmosphere, part amusement park and part beer garden, but it’s also due to the way Tivoli has continually added modern elements along the way.

Andersen joined the crowd at Tivoli’s opening night, an experience that inspired his Emperor and the Nightingale tale. Like Tivoli, Andersen’s best tales speak as eloquently to adults as they do to children. People of all ages still repair to Tivoli Gardens where a full schedule of music, ballet and opera as well as 38 restaurants are integrated seamlessly into a landscape out of a childhood dream.

            In Tivoli rides, duck ponds, shooting galleries, band stands, gardens and glowing lanterns mingle comfortably among gourmet markets, restaurants and taverns. Tivoli’s Concert Hall attracts a steady stream of international artists. Its Friday night Rock series, “Fredagsrock” has featured such luminaries as the Smashing Pumpkins, Sting, the Beach Boys and the Pet Shop Boys.

            From the Pirate Ship and the Chinese Pagoda to the ballets and the gourmet restaurants, Tivoli gives Copenhagen a place where you can pursue grown up pursuits within a context that recalls the way the wider world looked to us as children. From the outside, the palatial Nimb building with its fountain and its onion domes conjures up our first wonder of Islam as a fantastical culture of magic carpets, magic lamps and jolly pashas. Inside the building, it’s a gourmet’s wonderland with the Michelin-starred The Paul restaurant and the Restaurant NIMB where the kitchen is the restaurant itself and where diners sit next to working chefs who prepare their meals in front of them.

            The Chinese Pantomime Theater, with its mechanical peacock curtain, recalls childhood images of China. One summer Denmark’s Queen Margrethe created scenery for the Pantomime Theatre’s production of Andersen’s The Tinder Box and many in attendance that night didn’t realize that the woman bowing to their applause at the end of the show was a monarch from the oldest of royal European lines, one that stretches back more then a 1,000 years.

How like a kingdom out of Andersen, in which the Queen performs incognito before her subjects and bows to their applause.

            Many of Tivoli’s rides are as familiar as bumper cars and merry-go-rounds, but the Rutsjebanen, one of the park’s four roller coasters, is a historic gem. Built in 1914, the Rutsjebanen is a historic wooden roller coaster. The Rutsjebanen earned 7.5 out of 10 from Coaster Grotto which rates roller coasters all around the world. Each of the Rutsjebanen’s cars has an operator working the brakes.

            Andersen is well represented at Tivoli with the Hans Christian Andersen Castle, the Hans Christian Andersen Shop and The Flying Trunk ride which depicts 32 scenes from his tales. Just across the street from Tivoli you can pay homage at Andersen’s statue. Andersen (1805-1875) moved to Copenhagen in 1819 when he was 14 and the city’s very walk-able old town looks much as it did in his day. The houses he lived in are all still there as are many of his favorite cafes.

            The Royal Theatre, where he played in chorus roles and which he wrote plays for, is still Denmark's top venue for theater, opera and ballet. Cycling tours of Andersen’s Copenhagen and walking tours still follow the paths of his life. The Wonderful World of Hans Christian Andersen Museum is located right in City Hall Square.

A busy weekday in downtown Diyarbakir clattered with the sound of horse carts clacking above the overall muffle of moving people. They were coming and going. Horses pulled flatbeds, their jaws lifting big teeth high chewing bits. Men snapped long sticks ending with sharply snapping whips to move them on. It had the feel of the old west, a town in the middle of nowhere, a busy town.

            The guidebook, Let’s Go Europe, didn’t have much to say, but then, you’ve got to credit them for saying anything at all about Diyarbakir. It was home to the oldest mosque in Anatolia. A place where the tumbling of fountain water pulled dry and road dusty traders in and helped establish Islam. The city’s black basalt castle walls, the book said, could be seen from outer space. The name, “Diyarbakir” meant “place of the tribes.”

            There busy streets paraded a roll of peoples who had, generation by generation, contributed to the building of this place. The book listed Arab raiders, Roman centurions, Urartrians and others. One man we met, Percy, originally came from Rhodesia. Unabashedly bigoted, he once worked for the World Bank, called the trousers of the Kurds, with their big pouch swinging between their legs, “seven-day shitters.”

Percy said that although the local people appeared to be white men, they were no different than the black people he recalled from Rhodesia. Percy seemed to be too bright for this kind of idiocy, but he was in the mold of Cecil Rhodes. He considered himself a frontiersman and he considered his whiteness the mark of the civil society he was bringing with him.

From that perspective he probably confused all his hatred for the courage to look down the barrel of an unforgiving world’s gun. Like many fools, Percy was determined to never be fooled by higher expectations. 

            In Diyarbakir, one afternoon I ate a bad roast chicken and thus began the most intense hallucinations of my life with high fever. We went back to the hotel room. I lay on the bed imagining that Turkish military were kicking down the door. Sharon took my temperature at 106. I fell in the bathroom and cracked my head on the sink. The tile floor felt cool on my skin. Percy made me drink straight vodka to kill the bugs and he stayed the night taking turns with Sharon sponging me down with cool water.

In time it passed.

            We went back several times to Diyarbakir. The power of the Tigris stayed with me. In a place where almost everything had the look of being worn down by years, the Tigris ran colors as if it was a fire. It seemed a great landscape splitting fuse of life. This was where civilization started, along this river.

It felt as if we’d gone as far as we could go in this world. From here every step took you closer to home. Now decades later, after a couple of hundred trips abroad in more than a hundred countries it still feels that way even though it’s geographically closer to New Jersey than many other places I’ve been.

It's difficult to even say the word, “Tigris,” without thinking, “Euphrates.” This place went back to the very beginnings of the world I knew. The earliest chapters in fat grade school history books told of this. Animals were first domesticated here and in this neck of the woods, Sumerians experimented with clay cylinders marked with the first symbols for objects.

I thought of my earliest childhood memories in Englewood, New Jersey, realizing that letters stood for sounds, spoken sounds.

            So mysterious, yet Eastern Turkey felt more real than where I was from. Diyarbakir was just one facet to a region that included Urfa, Mardin, the Tur Abidin, the heads of Antiochus and Antioch. I kept trying to get myself back there. I took an assignment from Penguin Books to write two chapters in their now defunct guide to Turkey. My chapters were Southeastern Turkey and the Hatay.

            The Penguin money was awful, and the work was demanding. At one point, I found myself looking at a mosque which supposedly contained a basement where Job himself had endured some captivity. The radio on my rental car was telling tales about five ‘westerners’ (three Germans and two Americans as I recall) who were taken captive by Kurds from the terrorist group known as the PKK.

I didn’t like the way that themes of captivity and hostage taking and Job himself were combining in my life. So, I pointed my rental car toward Antalya and drove until I got to a place where hostages were less likely to be taken.

            I haven’t been back in years, I’d love to go back there, but I’m told that changes, big changes, have essentially taken those places as I knew them away. For one thing they were building the Ataturk Dam, a series off 22 dams, that promised to corral the waters of the Tigris, return the Fertile Crescent to fertility and make Eastern Turkey’s agricultural output equal to that of France’s.

There are many reasons for Düsseldorf’s high ranking among Europe’s best places to live, but I’d like to think the big flock of sheep across the Rhine River, opposite the city’s famous promenade, the so-called “longest bar in the world” deserves a share of the credit. There amidst a raucous party scene, you look across the rushing river to a placid green swath daubed with munching balls of white fluff. Somehow it goes to the heart of the city, this intersection of the dynamic and the placid.

Düsseldorf was founded where the languid waters of the River Düssel collide with the turgid Rhine and it’s exactly this collision of tranquility and adrenalin that gives the city its character. Away from the Rhine, especially in the Karlstadt neighborhood, the city lies tranquilly on either side of the Düssel, which almost feels more like a canal than a river.

In Düsseldorf they’re hoping to elevate the city’s profile with American travelers in order to take advantage of the city’s status as a hub for the swiftly growing Air Berlin and Düsseldorf International, Germany’s third largest airport. In 2007, Air Berlin tied its fortunes to Düsseldorf when it acquired LTU International Airlines. Now the largest airline in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany with a catchment area around Düsseldorf of approximately 18 million inhabitants, Air Berlin, despite its name, is heavily relying on the former LTU’s hub city on the Rhine.

Dusseldorf may be small in scale, but it packs a diverse charm. It’s home to Europe’s largest Japanese Town, the largest fashion fair in Europe, and is the media center of Germany.

Altstadt (Old Town) pours its signature Altbier (Old Beer) through the spigots of 250 different inns, restaurants and bars. The Old Town ends at the Rhine Embankment and its mile-long promenade of bars and restaurants. Back in the warren of Old Town streets is the Brauerie Zum Schiffchen, open since 1628, it was a good enough restaurant for Napoleon and his staff to celebrate their victory over the Rhineland and it’s easy to see why. The sauerbraten here with an Altbier has been worth stopping for, for about 400 years.

            The Ko-Gallerie is the center of a very active fashion presence in Düsseldorf. Twice a year, Düsseldorf hosts the cpd, a major trade fair focused on women’s fashions. The city has some 700 showrooms displaying the latest ideas from leading designers.

            The city’s museums are highlighted by the so-called K20K21, which are really two museums, the K20 collects 20th century art with works by Picasso, Klee, Mondrian and others, while the K21 presents the latest in 21st century works. The Kunst im Tunnel presents contemporary art in a former DPW tunnel right along the Rhine waterfront. Art has a long distinguished history in the city that began with the marriage of city father Jan Wellem (his fine equestrian statue sits in the center of the city’s central plaza) and Anna Maria Luiza de’ Medici, a great collector of fine art.

Unfortunately for Düsseldorf, their fine collection ended up in Munich’s Pinakothek Museum. Bert Gerresheim’s grim unsentimental 1988 sculpture for the 700th anniversary of the city in Old Town is worth a long look.

Modernity takes its tallest turn in the city on MediaHarbour, a virtual sculpture park of modern architecture arrayed around the city’s old historic harbor. The harbor itself took off in 1898 as the port city for all the iron and coal produced by the Ruhr Region. Among the modern buildings Frank Gehry’s three-building ensemble and the Parliament Building with its internal gate are the standouts.

The Benrath Palace and Gardens, located outside of town, is a summer home, completed in 1770, which preserves the lost craftsmanship of another age with wood-inlay, embroidered silk wallpaper, and plaster sculpting par excellence. The palace’s sprawling gardens with their long reflecting pool, manicured hedges and classical statuaries are the perfect setting for a Sunday stroll.

The top luxury hotel in town, the Breidenbacher Hof. It has been a landmark in the city since 1812.

If you were listening to the radio back in 1960, you can probably still hear Connie Francis’ plaintive Where the Boys Are echoing somewhere in the back of your mind. The song was the theme of the hit movie by the same name. That movie enshrined the ritual migration by college kids known as Spring Break.

Florida’s Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach became the classic spring Meccas of the newly emerging baby boom traveler who was still in his or her late teens or early twenties. The break they were seeking was more than a vacation but a break from the projected life of drudgery that society had planned for them.

It all may seem silly now, but the sight of Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux, Frank Gorshin (the Riddler) and Jim Hutton snapping their fingers to hip jazz, eating live gold fish, slapping bongos and swimming in the Yankee Clipper Hotel bar’s live mermaid tank probably seemed a lot more exciting than having your life planned out by either Ozzie or Harriet.

It’s also worth noting that the film was something of a travelogue and the generation it targeted and “portrayed” have been the most prodigious world travelers in world history. I bet a lot of those people on Danube river boats; jungle trekking in Costa Rica or on safari in Africa, once dreamed of making the scene at Daytona.

            At its peak in 1985, Fort Lauderdale attracted about 335,000 Spring Breakers. It probably wasn’t a lot of fun for the people who lived there. Ten annual days of watching youth discover the wonders of alcohol can drive a sober man to drink.

Said Nicki Grossman, the former president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, “they spent about $19 a night on lodging in those days.”

When I did it in 1970, I ended up sleeping in a movie house that showed Rock & Roll movies all night from Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock to Janis Joplin at Monterrey Pop. With tourists like me, it’s no wonder Fort Lauderdale happily ceded its role as the number one Spring Break site, a designation probably worn by Cancun these days.

            These days, you’re not going to see 12 freshmen stuffed in a phone booth on Los Olas Boulevard. Now known as the “millionaire’s mile,” palm-lined Los Olas is a haven of cafes, restaurants and art galleries. The city’s network of inland waterways gives it 30 miles of navigable canals. The water taxis plying these canals have led to such creative products as water taxi dine-around programs in which visitors go course by course and restaurant by restaurant all in water taxis. There’s also a Venetian style gondola service complete with gondolier tenors.

            Travelers still gravitate toward the city’s 23 miles of beach. About a million acres of the Everglades can be found in Fort Lauderdale’s Broward County. It’s about 35 minutes from the beach to the Everglades’ Alligator Alley.  

            A lot of the old Spring Break icons have gone the way of broken springs. Fort Lauderdale’s a luxury hotel now sits on the site of the Candy Store Lounge where in 1980 the wet t-shirt contest was invented and over at the Parrot Lounge on Sunrise Lane, the owners have taken down the photos of Spring Break partiers that used to hang there. Some things die hard. In 1991, then Palm Springs Mayor Sonny “I got you babe” Bono banned the thong on public beaches. And that was all she wrote.

The 20th century was the first century in 1,700 years that didn’t have Istanbul (including Constantinople) as the capital of an empire. First it was the second coming of Rome, then the capital of Byzantium and until 1923, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Over the last several decades, since I’ve been coming to this city on a regular and irregular basis, the city has gone through an enormous, if incremental, evolution that has transformed it into a dynamic metropolis.

The cafes are full of educated, forward looking young people; the Istanbul Modern, a wonderful modern art museum opened on the Karakoy waterfront; and the Taksim Square area is now a thriving beehive of culture and commerce.

For new visitors the center of the city is Sultanahmet, where the history of the city is most densely concentrated. The icon of the neighborhood is Emperor Justinian’s Church of the Divine Wisdom or Hagia Sofia. A mosque under the Ottoman Turks, today it’s technically a museum. Back in 537, when his builders had completed the Hagia Sophia, Justinian proclaimed, “Solomon I have outdone, thee!” Leave it to a Roman to use an engineering marvel to try and wrestle Jehovah’s devotion to Jerusalem to his city, Constantinople.

From its inception, Hagia Sophia was designed to supplant Solomon’s Temple as the locus of where man and the divine would participate in joint ritual. The great dome, once covered in four acres of gold leaf, was said by one ancient visitor to appear “suspended from heaven by a golden thread.”

And though the interior of the great church was stripped of most of its gilding, its jewels and the mosaics that covered its walls, it still takes your breath away when you enter its hallowed zone. For Greek Orthodox Christians it is their lost Vatican, the navel of their faith. Though the Ottoman Turks took it in 1453, it was the Christians of the Venetian-led Fourth Crusade in 1204 that desecrated Hagia Sofia and brought it down. Their brutal sack of Constantinople was, until the German Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s, called by historians, “the greatest crime in history.”

Today Hagia Sophia faces the Blue Mosque, completed in 1616. Throughout Istanbul, the architects who built mosques (including Sinan who is the acknowledged master) took the idea of the dome from Hagia Sofia and evolved a signature style which gives the city its distinctive dome and spire sprouting skyline today. As the Byzantines were masters of the mosaic, the Ottomans mastered the ceramic tile. When Sultan Ahmed I built the Blue Mosque over the ruins of the Byzantine Palace, he covered the interior with glorious Iznik tiles.

Nearby Topkapi Palace is a 183-acre compound that was home to 24 Ottoman sultans between 1453 and 1850 as well as 4,000 political and military advisors, cooks, musicians, eunuchs and harem girls. One of Istanbul’s most popular attractions (millions of visitors per year), the palace grounds with their elaborate kiosks and courts, galleries and harem salons take at least a few hours to explore.

The kaftans, the jeweled thrones and the enthroned jewels of the sultans are all on display as well as several religious relics including the sword of Mohammed, the staff of Moses, the arm bone of John the Baptists and the swords of the Caliphs. As with all such relics, while the veracity of their origins is questioned, no one questions the fact that people revered them as being such things.

As you leave this area and walk up past the grounds of the old Hippodrome, whose bronze horses, pilfered during the Fourth Crusade, now sit on top of St. Mark’s in Venice, you’ll notice a large, not altogether attractive column. It is Constantine’s Column and it’s worth mentioning because it was erected at the precise moment that the Roman Empire became a Christian Empire, thus it’s arguably the most important mile post in Europe. Local legend holds that the original cross of Jesus is buried beneath it.

A few blocks away is the world’s largest covered bazaar. The Kapali Carsi, in business since 1461, is a maze of nearly 4,000 shops, crowding around nearly 40 streets, which if lined up end to end would stretch 40 miles. It has police stations, a hospital, a multitude of restaurants and 18 separate gated entrances. Entrance #1 is a fine place to begin wandering.

A smaller, and in my view, more beautiful bazaar, is the Spice Bazaar, the legendary final stop on the Silk Road that stretched all the way to the Tang Court in Xian, China. Mixed among the ceramics and carpets and souvenirs, you still see and smell the burlap bags of cumin and cloves, nutmeg and mace. The bazaar sits next to the Yeni Cami, or New Mosque in Eminonu on the Bosphorus waterfront in a neighborhood rife with peddlers, shopkeepers and sailors. From there you can catch a ferry for a very relaxing ride on the strait.

If you look closely at the old walls of Istanbul, where the plaster’s crumbled away, you’ll notice a masonry of red brick, field stone and old bits of marble from the churches and palaces of Old Constantinople. And that’s the beauty of Istanbul, it has few sharp angles and little in the way of polished steel, but 2,400 years of urban living have made it as comfortable as your favorite pair of jeans.

When the Iron Curtain lifted on the Velvet Revolution in 1989, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities returned. In Prague, the shops display marionettes as prominently as spring fashions and somehow that goes to the heart of what makes the city tick. In Czech culture and art, the elegant, the playful, the mundane and the macabre seem to take turns gazing from the windows just as the Apostles do on Prague’s celebrated Astronomical Clock.        

There’s a lot to see in the city from the Charles Bridge and the Castle to the Mucha Museum and the Town Square but a visit to Prague is incomplete without a visit to the Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter. Franz Kafka’s once noted that Prague’s Jewish Quarter still lived in “us all…”, “the dark corners, the secret alleys, the shuttered windows, the squalid courtyards, the rowdy pubs, the sinister inns.”

The earliest evidence of Jews in Prague dates all the way back to the 9th century. Originally, Jews in Prague settled just outside the Castle, but in the 13th century, the Josefov emerged on the right bank of the Vltava River as the Jewish quarter. A city within a city, it had its own town hall and surrounding walls. That community began gathering around the Old New Synagogue, the oldest surviving European synagogue, when it opened in 1270. From its beginnings, the synagogue cast a legendary aura over the ghetto. Local legend held that angels had brought stones from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem to buttress its foundation.

The most famous legend surrounding the Old New Synagogue involves its most famous rabbi, Judah Ben Bezarel, also known as Rabbi Loew. Loew is the man who made the Golem from Vltova River mud. The Golem was a terrifying monster, the story goes, who was created by Loew in the 16th century to defend the Prague Ghetto from the Anti-Semitism of the Hapsburgs. The Golem did terrify the persecutors, but then he went on to terrify the Jewish community as well and the good rabbi ended up having to destroy his Golem. The legend persists, as some say remains of the monster still lie somewhere in the synagogue.

A very different kind of monster terrorized the Jewish Quarter during the Nazi era. Inside the Pynkas Synagogue, the second oldest in Prague, the names of the 80,000 Jewish victims of the Nazi regime in the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia are inscribed on the walls. Those names, in combination with the gravestones of the Old Jewish Cemetery, reveal both the fragility of the community and its power to endure. 

The Old Jewish Cemetery feels something like an inner-city Stonehenge with some 12,000 stones tilting jaggedly this way and that over the remains of more than 100,000 people in an area about the size of a football field. Interred between 1439 and 1787, the multitude in the graveyard had to be packed in with each plot reaching down vertically through as many as 12 separate graves. The caretakers of the cemetery claim that the Star of David was first used as a symbol of Judaism on a grave in this cemetery. No monument, in any city that I know of, so powerfully connects European modernity to its medieval roots.   

You access the cemetery and other Jewish Quarter attractions with the purchase of a ticket to the Jewish Museum. The museum’s collection of Jewish art and artifacts includes a cycle of 18th century paintings of the Burial Society that offers a glimpse into Jewish funereal rites. The museum ticket allows access to the Old Jewish Cemetery, Ceremonial Hall, Old-New Synagogue, Meisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue and the Klausen Synagogue.

Though pogroms and persecutions against the ghetto were regular occurrences, as well as fires and diseases, Prague’s Jewish community is trying to revive from both Nazi and Communist persecution. Prague’s Museum of Communism tells the story of life under that regime from 1948 to 1989, with exhibits that show propaganda, artifacts and an interrogation room.

A short train ride from downtown Tokyo, Kawagoe feels like it lies centuries away. A quiet country town, known as Japan’s sweet potato capital, it embodies that essential Japanese spirit that we recognize in the tea ceremony, a razor-sharp haiku or in a woodblock print. Art, literature, food, architecture, even Japanese Buddhism are as distinct from the rest of the world as a fully armored samurai is from one of King Arthur’s knights.

Kawagoe became prominent when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, perhaps the most towering figure in the country’s history, made it the northern military bulwark and gateway into his new national capital of Edo, which we now call Tokyo. It was here that goods were compiled into cargo and shipped on the Shingashi River into the city.

            That required storage and the builders of what came to be known as “Little Edo” built the town’s signature architectural form, the Kurazukuri warehouse. These stout 19th century structures, feature clay walls a foot thick, designed to be more fire resistant than the wood and paper used by traditional Japanese construction. Two stories tall, they weigh more than most 10-story buildings.

Earthquakes, and yes, fires have taken their toll on most of them, but almost 30 of them remain, the best examples lining the city’s pre-eminent shopping drag, Ichiban Gai.

            Several of these buildings house workshops of such traditional crafts as ceramics and swords as well as antiques. One whole area of town is dedicated to selling Japanese candies. Forging traditional samurai swords is the passion of the craftsmen at the Machikan shop, but if you’re more interested in precision cutting in the kitchen than taking on a troublesome warlord you can purchase the sharpest kitchen knives that I’ve ever come across.

You can take one of their blades and just rest its edge on a cucumber and it will make its way through without any help from you. It was that kind of blade that helped Takugawa Ieyasu transform Japan from a chaos of warring kingdoms into a unified country.

            Originally built in 830, fire destroyed Kitain Temple in 1638; the third Tokugawa Shogun ordered the rebuilding of the temple. To do that he shipped entire sections of the original Edo Castle in Tokyo to be part of the rebuilding. One room in the temple is the only piece of Tokyo’s original Edo Castle still surviving because the original was largely destroyed by earthquake and bombs during World War II. Tokugawa Shogun Iemetsu didn’t give just any room for the building. He gave the room he was born in.

            One of the most revered shrines in all of Japan, the Toshogu Shrine, was built in 1633 to commemorate the life Tokugawa Ieyasu. Located on the grounds of Kitain Temple it remembers the figure who towered over Japan’s most towering historic period, the Edo. Be sure to visit the 538 stone statues at Kitain. Each of these figures depicts a disciple of the Buddha. Each of them personifies a distinct approach to enlightenment. There are many ways to approach life and be true to Buddhism. Some of these figures are laughing, some somber, others in deep contemplation.

            Kawagoe Castle was built in 1457 at roughly the same time that Edo Castle was being built in Tokyo. Inside the castle grounds, the Honmaru Goten, or the private quarters of the lord, offers an intimate look into the life of an Edo-era noble. Another Edo highlight is the Bell Tower (Takino Kane) which rises more than 50 feet above the town. Originally built in 1624, the structure was rebuilt after an 1893 fire destroyed the original. The bell still tolls four times a day.

            The Hikawa Shrine (514 A.D.) began the town’s most famous event some 350 years ago. The Kawagoe Festival held every year on the third weekend of October draws nearly a million visitors. They come to witness the huge multi-storied dashi (floats) some of which date back more than a hundred years.

The craftsmanship in the building of the dashi; the folk tale characters dressed in outlandish masks; and the haunting music played as they move about the streets of town all combine to make this one of Japan’s finest festivals. Each neighborhood has its own float that it maintains at its own expense. As the different dashis, representing different neighborhoods, collide during the festival there are challenges by drummers and musicians designed to knock the other float’s musicians off tempo.

In many ways Kawagoe gives Tokyo the same kind of experiential supplement that Sienna gives Florence. As Sienna has its famous Palio race, so Kawagoe has its festival. Both festivals and both towns preserve and hearken back to watershed moments in the cultural and political history of their respective nations.

Like Italy, Japan emerged as a unified nation out of a bloody whirlwind of battles waged under the tenacious battle flags of feudal fiefdoms. It would take centuries before that carnage led to Garibaldi and his army of red shirts. In Japan that chaos gave birth to the Edo period, which is beautifully preserved in Kawagoe.

In The Balkans, historian Misha Glenny deconstructs Tony Blair’s observation that “Kosovo is on the doorstep of Europe” and wonders if they’re not in Europe, then where are they? Asia? She concludes that Blair, like most Westerners see the Balkans more as a mythological zone characterized by tribal feudalism, blood feuds and banditry than as a geographical region, a mountain chain actually.

The Balkans that Blair referred to, Glenny points out, were the Balkans described by Bram Stoker in his classic horror novel, Dracula. I arrived in Kosovo a day before the American Tourism Society (ATS) began its annual conference in Pristina, Kosovo. On a drive through the countryside, I finally saw the geographical Balkans instead of the mythological version. It was October, they were in their best fiery autumnal dress. Not so jagged and towering as the Rockies, but higher and more rugged than the Appalachians.

Kosovo would be a highlight on a multi-country tour along with Albania, maybe Montenegro, Dubrovnick and other former Yugoslav destinations.” The volatile situation simmering between its ethnic Albanians (93 percent of the population) and its ethnic Serbs (7 percent) led to an ugly invasion by Serbia in the 1990s.  

Still, the Balkans are beautiful mountains with deep valleys and hidden villages (there’s even some ski resorts). Towns like Prizren and Gjakova preserve the sort of Turkish outpost city that existed throughout the Balkans in the days of the Ottoman Empire. The traditional culture represented by the country’s signature Krulla homes is rich in folk arts. According to local authorities there are several hundred listed heritage monuments, and couple of thousand more worthy of consideration.

The jewels in the crown are the country’s monasteries. But because religion is politics in Kosovo, these types of structures come under the gun as representatives of Serb culture whenever sparks fly. In 2004, after a particularly volatile 2003, UNESCO placed Kosovo’s monasteries on their World Heritage List.

The Ascension of Our Lord Church at the Vesoki Decani Monastery, for instance, is a Romanesque masterpiece built in 1321 that would look more at home in Provence, France, than in the Balkans. It’s a completely Orthodox Church in practice that was built by architects from Western Europe and whose interiors were illuminated by painters influenced by Italians.

The interior is covered with Italian style frescos with more than 10,000 human figures represented, in an iconic Byzantine artistic manner. Visitors to the monasteries in Kosovo may find UN Troops protecting them. For Serbs, as far away as Belgrade, these monasteries are fortresses of their Christianity just as the “Field of the Blackbirds” is the wellspring of Serb Nationalism. Thus, former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević called Kosovo the “pure center” of Serb history, culture and memory. “Every nation has one love that warms its heart. For Serbia it is Kosovo." About 93 percent of Kosovo sees Serbia as a different country.

A cheerful statue of former President Bill Clinton can be seen waving on Bill Clinton Boulevard in the Kosovar capital of Pristina. While most of the city is a tangle of muddy overburdened streets, the neighborhoods surrounding the mosques have an undeniable charm. The city doesn’t have a lot to commend it to traditional travelers except for a fine Ethnographic Museum.

Younger travelers will relish in of Europe’s most memorable night life scenes. The clubs of Pristina mix a hip local crowd with a pelagic parade of UN workers, government officials, investors and other foreign hard partiers. The youthful energy of the city’s young is best symbolized in the NEWBORN sculpture that went up on February 17, 2008.

The most popular localities of Prishtina are Kurrizi (The Spine) in the Dardania quarter and Qafa (The Neck) near the center of the city, which feature many shops, cafés and hangouts, opened in tunnels built within residential buildings.

Just north of Pristina is the 1389 battlefield known as the “Field of the Blackbirds”. Odds are, if your clients are interested in Kosovo, they know the essential significance of a spot that the Serbs trace their roots to and where Milosevic made the speech that started the horrors of war on Bosnia Herzegovina and on Kosovo.

The battlefield includes the Turbe of Ottoman Sultan Murad 1, as well as the house and the family that has been tending the Sultan’s remains for more than 500 years. The house is located exactly where the Sultan’s battle tent was located and where an assassin brought him down.

Prizren, in southern Kosovo, has the look and feel of the old Ottoman town that it is (looking similar to Trabzon), with a honeycomb of narrow lanes sided by Ottoman style homes, mosques and a few churches all topped by a mountain-top castle. Before the communist government made Pristina capital, Prizren held that title.  In a season of rioting in 2003, the churches of Prizren, including the Episcopal Church of St. George, were seriously damaged by angry mobs. A few miles beyond Prizren will bring you to the ski resort of Brezovica on Šar Mountain reaching as high as 8,000 feet.

Gjakova is a pretty shopping town with one of the country’s best hotels. Though not evident now, the town was also the scene of some of the worst atrocities in the Kosovo war as well as in WWI.

The Decani Monastery lies on the road between Peja and Gjakova. Peja, a town that was 90 percent destroyed during the war, is a gateway town to one of Kosovo’s most beautiful natural highlights, Rugova Canyon. Hikers will find a completely untouched mountain area lined with paths forged by shepherds in the southern tip of the country known as Dragasch. 

In Dranoc, a group of women who were widowed by the war, restored a 200-year-old traditional Albanian Kulla home into a living museum. A traditional Kulla, is part home/part fortress for extended families that lived under a strict patriarchal code known as the Kanuni, which was forged by a legendary 15th century warrior prince named Lekë Dukagjini. Some of these three story Kulla homes will no doubt evolve into villas or other forms of lodging as agritourism takes root.

Like Western Ireland, Kosovo is a place where the stories outstrip everything else. As Ireland has its comfy conversational pubs, Kosovo’s restaurants have, by in large, a comfortable worn in feeling, where people talk to each other table to table, in a polite, relaxing and friendly way.

Lyon earns its money mainly in pharmaceuticals and other light industries. Central Lyon sits high on a hill that’s been continuously inhabited since before Caesar came here to subdue the Gallic tribes and their legendary leader Vercengetrix. On summer nights, the largest Roman amphitheater in Gaul, hosts live music and theater on a spot commanding a view of the entire city below.

In 1998, the city center achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status as a place where heading west to east from the Roman amphitheater you’ll find a continuous evolution of European architecture from the Classical through the Renaissance and beyond. That’s only part of the story in Lyon.

            UNESCO might just as easily have chosen the antique chateaux and the adjoining cinema at the Rue du Premier-Film. Inside that cinema’s building, the first ever film was shot using the Cinematograph, invented by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. Their 1902 home, rich in Art Nouveaux elements including an airy winter garden, is now the Lumiere Museum. Visitors to this museum are pulled back and forth between admiration of this charming home and the evolutionary stages of invention that culminated in the development of moving pictures. The adjoining theater runs retrospectives on major film auteurs from Fritz Lang and John Ford to Billy Wilder and Jean Luc Godard.

            During the German occupation of France, the Gestapo placed its main headquarters in Lyon. The Museum of the French Resistance, located in the former Gestapo headquarters, tells the story of how ordinary people, many of them schoolteachers, became the courageous front that perpetually sabotaged the Nazi occupation and helped prepare the way for the Allied Liberation of France.

From here, the infamous Klaus Barbi ruled as Gestapo Chief. The unspeakable brutalities that were visited on the Resistance heroes underscores their determination to liberate their country. Names like Marie-Madeleine Fourcade and Jean Moulin may not be household names, but they should be.

Lyon’s most famous native sons are Antoine de Saint-Exubery, the aviator who wrote the children’s classic, The Little Prince, and the Roman Emperor Claudius, who became the central character in Robert Graves’ popular novels and the subsequent TV series I Claudius.

The fountain with its glorious runaway horses on the Place des Terreaux, behind the City Hall was designed by Frederic Bartholdi, a few years after he built the Statue of Liberty.

            The Romans chose Lyon as their capital of Cisalpine Gaul because it was strategically located at the confluence of the Saone and the Rhone rivers. Lyon is laid out between two hills, which are divided by the rivers and the land that separates them. The first hill is Fourviere, the “hill of prayer” where the Basilica de Fourviere sits, and the second hill, the Croix-Rousses is the “hill of work,” where the silk workers, known as Canuts, lived and worked.

Their shops, which had enormously high ceilings in order to accommodate their Jacquard looms, are highly sought after today as living spaces. La Maison des Canuts is a museum that tells the story of silk production in Lyon.  In this area you’ll also come across the architectural presence of the traboules, which are covered alleyways and semi-secret passageways. This network of passages made Lyon a veritable warren for the French Resistance to operate in, much as the casbah system in Algeria created problems for the French Foreign Legion.

            And like everywhere in France, the eating is like eating nowhere else. While the local farms produce fresh produce and fresh meat, the local kitchens produce great chefs and cooks. Lyon is located just outside of two major wine regions: the Cotes du Rhone and the Beaujolais.

The nearby Rhone Alps are famous for their dairy and cheeses. A walk through the city’s markets at Saint Antoine or in the Croix Rousses showcases the bounty of fresh food and the ritual beauty of watching butchers taking the time to carefully explain to customers how a particular cut should be cooked just goes to the heart of why this is such a humane and wonderful country.

They’re both keys: the Madonna and Child is essential in Italy and Mandalas are essential in India. Coming from my biases, the tendency is to see Mandalas as abstract, but an exasperated docent at New York City’s Ruben Museum once explained to me that they were complex circular representations of the entire universe are designed to help someone meditating to locate where they are centered in the cosmos.

From a distance, a viewer will think that he can see the entirety of a Mandala, she said, but the closer you get the more obvious and interesting those details you missed become. You can say the same thing about India itself.

From a distance, one admires the Taj Mahal, the tiger-haunted forests of Rudyard Kipling stories, the epic of Gandhi. Those strong symbols are usually enough to attract a new visitor on what most of them probably think of as their “one trip-of-a-lifetime to India,” as if India were that easy a page to turn. Most first time travelers in India begin and end in Delhi, having traveled through the desert majesty of Rajasthan and climaxed in Agra at the Taj Mahal.

            There’s no reason to argue with that choice. It’s a wonderful journey, full of sites that are rightly described as epic. It’s great when you go somewhere and it lives up to your anticipation of it, but India catches almost every visitor by surprise, because the majesty of the Rajasthani forts, temples and palaces, not to mention the Taj Mahal itself, simply overpower and dwarf that place that you’d imagined you’d be going to.

            Having seen all that it becomes evident that you have only glimpsed India. The 29 states that make-up India are so diverse geographically, historically and culturally that they each pack the punch of the average country. And few countries can match those states in population, ethnic and religious diversity, arts and literature and history.

Truth is; India is more than a country; it’s a hybrid of time ripened religions and civilizations. To paraphrase Faulkner, it’s a place where the past flows so abundantly into the present that you can’t even say that it’s past.

            The state of Maharashtra exemplifies the details that emerge when you step closer to the Mandala that is India. At about 75 percent the size of California, Maharashtra is home to about 100 million people. It is also home to tropical forests, tiger reserves, mountain ranges, about 450 miles of Arabian Sea shore, such UNESCO World Heritage Sites as the mind-boggling Ajanta and Ellora Cave complexes and Mumbai, that happens to be where the world’s largest film industry operates.      

            The Deccan Odyssey, a luxury train, was designed to do for Maharashtra, what the Palace on Wheels does for Rajasthan. Trains are deeply rooted into Western visions of India. The Deccan Odyssey takes visitors on an eight-day/seven-night journey departing from and returning to Mumbai and visiting Ganapatipule, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Tarkali, Sawantwadi, Goa, Kholapur, Pune, Aurangabad, Ellora Caves, Ajanta Caves and Nasik

             On its 450 miles of coast alone, Maharashtra has long beaches protected by haunted old forts. Old British hill stations haunt its mountains. The south of India more closely corresponds to the India that we grew up imagining in Kipling’s Jungle Book, a world where the jungle’s secret temple treasures are overlooked by resident spirits in the form of tigers and other wild guardians. The Ajanta and Ellora Cave complexes, by themselves, rival the greatest artistic and spiritual monuments ever made.

            Consider the circumstances of the discovery of the Ajanta Caves in 1819. A group of British officers out on a hunt, tracked a tiger to the top of a cliff deep in the jungle. It wasn’t long before they noticed the face of the cliff was covered with about 30 caves that had been the home of a community of Buddhist monks between 200BC and the year 650. These monks left a treasury of murals and paintings detailing moments in the awakening of the Buddha, throughout many different incarnations.

Think of that, British officers hunting, track a tiger to a lost civilization still brimming with treasure. Now how like a Kipling tale is that? And how like a Mandala, the closer you look at India, the more the frontiers expand.

Though Barcelona has been the most talked about city in Spain, these last few years, Madrid has a relaxed charm, that seems to flow into its streets from out of its great park, the Retiro, where people stroll its shaded lanes, watch street performers and rent row boats in order to take in the imaginative statuary along the shore, including a sea nymph riding a shrimp.

How often do you get to see heroic sculpture depicting shrimp?

While there’s no pervasive style that dominates Spanish art, there are consistencies that link the whole. What’s new here in art is rooted in the old and what’s old here seems to have always had a clear eye on the future. Painters like Velazquez and Picasso broke ground into the future precisely because they knew their traditions so well.

            And so, if you’re interested in painting, you need more than just a few days in Madrid. Guernica stands out, for me anyway, as the city’s greatest treasure. I have a long history with this painting. Guernica returned to Spain from its exile in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). When I was a lot younger, I worked as a bar tender in Rockefeller Center and on Tuesdays, when MOMA was open for free, I often spent my lunch hour gazing at this giant painting that seemed to understand our time better than any other work of art I knew.

War remains as healthy and vital a business now as it was then.  It was wonderful to see it again in its real home in Madrid. Guernica is especially important in Spain’s understanding of its own history because it tells the story of the bombing of the small Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

            The Guernica ended up in New York because Picasso allowed MOMA to house the painting until the day that Generalissimo Francisco Franco died. Once the dictator was dead, Picasso insisted, the painting was to be returned to Spain. Franco died in 1975 and six years later Guernica was headed home.

Picasso, who passed away in 1973, died too early to see his eventual triumph. According to Spanish friends of mine, when the painting came home in 1981 it was almost like a religious festival. All of Spain seemed to hold its breath as the painting entered Madrid, as if the country’s soul had been returned after years in exile under the Franco dictatorship.

            The top tier of Spanish artists and writers; Lorca, Picasso, Cervantes, Velazquez and Goya are revered in this country as founders and keepers of what it is to be Spanish.

Flamenco is as thriving an art form today as when it began in Andalucia centuries ago. Traditional flamenco performances are put on from the most amateur levels all the way to the master level.  Javier Ruibal uses flamenco inspirations to create a rousing hybrid of jazz, folk and African rhythm that is popular throughout Spain and Latin America.

            Traditional flamenco traces its roots to Spain’s gypsy population. When the performance has heart; the dance, the guitar and the singing all combine in an ecstatic motion of defiant seduction. It’s not merely beautiful women seducing their more powerful male counterparts, as it is in the case of belly dancing.

Flamenco seems to set the battle of the sexes to an appropriate music of turbulence, with floor stomping dance and a plaintive blues-esque singing that is elevated by intricate riffs on Spanish guitars. Throughout Andalucia, flamenco can be seen in small clubs, outdoors at festivals or in auditoriums.

One June, I found myself at Oslo’s Holmenkollen Nordic Skiing Arena just a few days after the news came that Jim McKay had died. As the creator of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, McKay brought more than sports into our living rooms throughout the 1960s; he also brought all that Wide World that the show’s title promised.

Whether McKay was bringing you logging competitions from Alaska or surfing from Hawaii, the show always treated sport as a cultural expression of whatever destination McKay happened to be in. And boy, did he get around!

McKay’s endless journey through the Wide World of Sports played no small role in the American Baby Boomers’ fascination with the outside world, a fascination that made them the most lucrative travel market in history.

The Holmenkollen ski jump on a mountain on the outskirts of Oslo is where so many of us watched spellbound as young skiers sped down its long ramp and took to the air in what seemed like death defying leaps into either the “thrill of victory” or “the agony of defeat.”

            The old ski jump, which was soon to be razed in the year 2000 and replaced by a more modern facility, was a major venue during Oslo’s 1952 Winter Olympics and became a major attraction in the city’s inventory of attractions. Some how the ski jump expresses the inherent daring-do of Norwegians, a people whose bold and age-old willingness to throw themselves into the unknown made them the first Europeans to land on North America, the first to reach the South Pole and which shone brightly on the epic voyages of Thor Heyerdahl.

Three separate Oslo museums pay homage to this spirit: The Viking Ships Museum, The Kon Tiki Museum and The FRAM Museum are all varieties on that Star Trek theme that seeks to go “where no man has gone before.”

            At the FRAM Museum visitors explore the wooden ice breaker ship that went further north and south than any other surface ship in history. The ship made three epic polar expeditions including Amundsen’s 1912 expedition to the South Pole. Amundsen proudly called himself the “last of the Vikings.”

As for the historic Vikings, their exquisite vessels can be seen in the nearby Viking Ships Museum. The elegant lines of those ships would fit just as well in the design wing of an art museum as they do in an archeological museum. The Kon Tiki Museum also puts that bold spirit on display with its displays of artifacts from the amazing voyages of Thor Heyerdahl, who proved Amundsen was not the “last Viking” when he set out on ships made of papyrus to demonstrate the possibility of trans-continental voyages in prehistory.

            The city’s most famous artist Edvard Munch, painter of The Scream, has his own museum, but my favorite Oslo artist was sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Oslo’s Vigeland Park displays 212 of his sculptures. In 1924, the city council essentially gave this driven artist a park to design and to populate with life-sized statues, groups and reliefs depicting an almost complete inventory of the various stages, struggles and epiphanies of the human condition.

He worked on the project until his death in 1943 leaving behind what feels like an almost complete catalogue of stations in the journey of life.

            Oslo’s Opera House overlooks the Oslo Fjord. The Opera House, Oslo’s invites people to climb all over it, to treat its snow-bright roof as a park land, which they do. Home to the largest solar panel in Europe, the museum’s iconic shape and glaring whiteness evokes an iceberg.

            History in Oslo begins at the Akershus Fortress. The 700-year-old fortress contains the Norwegian Resistance Museum, which tells the story of one of World War II’s most ferocious and effective insurgencies against Nazi Occupation. It’s also home to Akershus Castle and Church and the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum.

            When Alfred Nobel created his prizes back in 1901, he directed the Prizes for literature, physics, chemistry and medicine to be awarded in Stockholm, but the Peace Prize was to be given in Oslo. The museum doesn’t warehouse artifacts from the personal effects of the winners, but instead chronicles their significance in interactive presentations and through conceptual art installations that make the points that the Nobelists were addressing in their various struggles.

            Conceptually, the Nobel Field gallery represents all the Peace Prize winners with electronic books each at the end of a long stem amid a field of a 1,000 grass-like optic lights. As you approach any one of them motion sensors detect your nearness and light up the LCD screen that tells each story. From Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter to Lech Walesa and Mother Theresa, the center celebrates compassion, vision, courage and yes, the audacity of hope.

At first glance you would mistake it for some little boy’s tree fort, an unsightly hodgepodge of boards crudely banged together. I like to think that Galileo mounted this rough-hewn lectern, now sitting discordantly in Padua University, with the same sense of wonder that little boys climb up to their tree forts with.

For 18 years as a professor here, Galileo mounted these crude boards and brought down the house (and the medieval cosmos) with his endorsement of Copernicus’ view that the world revolved around the sun. American travelers in this part of Italy seem to think that the world revolves around Venice; a 30-minute train ride from Padua, but there’s a lot more to the Veneto than the canals and gondolas that orbit St. Mark’s Square.

            Galileo’s crude lectern doesn’t seem to fit at all, yet there it is in a university gallery surrounded by full length portraits of some of Europe’s greatest minds from Oliver Goldsmith (a father of Irish poetry) to William Harvey (who pioneered our knowledge of vascular circulation). These geniuses, and hundreds more, studied in liberal Padua at the university which was founded in 1222.

Here in Padua, Galileo invented his telescope, and brought the central intellectual conflict of his time (and ours), between theology and science, into heated battle. Padua was something of a haven from religious authority in its hay day.

            In Paris, the anatomists of William Harvey’s time were only allowed to dissect two corpses per week. Throughout most of Europe, dissecting humans was forbidden altogether because the church considered it a violation of the sanctity of the human body, and its soul.

In Padua, authorities were more sympathetic to science. The father of modern anatomy was able to convince the municipal police to simply hang their prisoners so that their cadavers could be used for scientific inquiry. The normal practice, drawing and quartering, didn’t leave much for an anatomist to work with.

It wasn’t all prisoners that were stretched out for dissection in the university’s Anatomical Theater. A wooden case containing the skulls of seven university professors who’d left their earthly remains for study, testifies that these academic heroes were no hypocrites.

            Visitors to the university still go to the Anatomical Theater where scholars like Harvey discovered the mechanical secrets of the human body. Harvey’s human dissections showed that some blood vessels seem to open out towards the heart while others flow from the heart. And from this observation he was able to make his signature contribution to science on the circulation of blood through the body.

Visitors to the Theater, look up from where the cadavers were dissected to six rows of circular balconies.  

            It’s not all about the body in Padua. Not at all. It’s believed Dante Alighieri came to Scrovegni Chapel to watch Giotto work his frescos into the chapel’s wet plaster. When you walk into the chapel, after passing through an area where your body can cool and dry off in order to protect the frescos from the humidity generated by human perspiration, you are overwhelmed by the infusion of blue that almost mists off the walls and the ceiling.           

Along these walls, more than 100 fresco panels detail scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary, and the Judgment Day. For my money, it out-Sistines Michelangelo.

            Giotto’s detailed visual descriptions of the punishments of Hell as they are depicted on the walls of the chapel probably inspired Dante in his own descriptive catalogues of punishment and redemption. In other words, these Paduan walls inspired the poet that gave us the picture and paradigm of Hell that has been the paradigm of sin and punishment for the Christian world ever since the Divine Comedy was first published.

Not far from the chapel is the Palazzo della Ragione, where Giotto painted more fresco panels; this time detailing the world of the zodiac. What remains today are copies of the originals because a fire destroyed the palace interior in 1420.

            Though what remains lacks Giotto’s painterly touch, we do see the ideas he laid down in what survives. Though belief in astrology goes back at least to ancient Greece, it is these frescoes which give us that medieval lexicon of zodiacal icons that survive down to this day.

Giotto, a master architect as well, was an artistic innovator with few equals in history. He has been credited with developing psychological portraiture, the beginnings of perspective in painting, and even developing the sense of narrative that would one day evolve into the methods of narrative that filmmakers use today.

            Nearby, Arqua preserves another jewel of Veneto, the last home of Francesco Petrarch. This pioneer of poetry, who also taught at the University of Padua, was a major contributor to the development of English poetry. His most beautiful poems describe his unfulfilled ecstasy for the love of his life, Laura (who he immortalized). Chaucer, who may have met with Petrarch and the Florentine literary genius Boccaccio on his trip to Italy, opened the eyes of English poets and writers to Italian writing.

            His own Canterbury Tales were heavily inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron. The relationship between Italian and English poetry gets going with Chaucer and he joins English writing to what was going on, on the Continent and that opened the way to the full flowering of English verse in the sonnets of the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare paid homage to the Veneto (which he may have visited) by setting seven of his plays there. So, Padua was not only a center of scientific revolution and discovery, it was also a wellspring of artistic, theological and cultural innovation.

            A well-spring of art, a well-spring of literature and a well-spring of science, Veneto is also a well-spring of water. The thermal waters that emerge in the plains surrounding the picturesque Euganean Hills pop up in some 150 spots. According to local authorities that gushing of hot waters has created about 150 hotel spas. The tradition of hot mud treatments and soaking in the mineral rich waters of these parts goes back before the days when Roman proconsuls would come here to soak their weary bureaucratic bones and cleanse their skin in hot mud treatments.

            Padua is most famous to visitors because of its patron, Saint Anthony. This is the saint who can, they say, if approached in the right spirit, help you find what’s been lost. In a way, the city of Padua and the Veneto has been lost to a generation of travelers who are in a sense blinded by the dazzling beauty of Venice, whereas one official put it, “the pigeons walk and the lions fly.

In 2006, Maison de la France (the French Tourist Office) hosted tourism conference in Paris. The country’s tourism minister then, Leon Bertrand, who was engaged in cabinet level meetings centered around a youth labor crisis, appeared only long enough to make a short speech. He noted the important economic role that tourism plays in France. “Tourism in 2005,” he said, “earned France 34 billion euros in direct revenue, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2004.”   

            France was the world leader in international visitor arrivals with some 75 million, a full 3 million of them American. Not too bad when you consider the kind of press that France was getting in the U.S. at that time when George Bush was beating up on them.

Remember: Freedom Fries, Islamic riots, the French opposition to the Iraq War and all those stock stories about the unfriendliness of Paris. French President Jacques Chirac referred to the “Anglo-Saxon media’s” biased coverage of France’s difficulties.  The oft-televised image of the burning car in the foreground and the rock throwing youth on the streets of Paris was a television staple.

Within the narrow confines of the screen, it looked like an unpleasant place to spend your vacation, but I spent three days in the heart of Paris that week in the very center of the cyclone.

What I saw were the throngs of people filling the boulevards on a great spring day, indeed an April in Paris day. They sat on the steps of the Opera House; they strolled through the Jardin des Tuilleries and posed for pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. The trees were blossoming, the book sellers along the Seine were reading their newspapers, the cafes were full, and the groups of tourists followed their guides into Notre Dame. It was the kind of Paris day where you heard accordion music even if no one was playing an accordion.

            I don’t dispute that young workers in Paris held demonstrations. Nor do I believe it’s a story that should be suppressed, but does it really command such an important place in world affairs that it got coverage alongside the anarchy in Baghdad and the suppression of liberty in Byelorussia? Aren’t demonstrations a consequence of a democratic society? And why should street barricades drive us away from France, when their image is used night after night to attract people to theatrical productions of Les Misérables?

            On Tuesday, the day I left for New York, a general strike was called. I was kind of hoping the resulting chaos might force me to spend another few days in that troubled city. Prospects were good, after all, my transfer took me through the heart of town past the Place de la Concorde, the Invalides and the Tuilleries.

Unfortunately, I encountered no strife, no angry torch bearing mobs, no guillotines, alas no barricades.  It was just another sunny day in the City of Lights. I began to realize, if I was going to catch a glimpse of this revolution, I was going to have to hurry home and turn on the TV.

On a day when the sun shined and the skies were blue over St. Petersburg, it was a place where life seemed so care free the people lined up along the waterfront to watch sailboats race. That’s probably what Peter the Great was hoping for in 1703, when he drained the marshes and built his new capital along the neoclassical architectural lines of the European Enlightenment that he so wanted to bring to Russia.

From Peter’s point of view, Moscow was too tied to the past. The Dukes of Muscovy that carved Moscow out of the Russian forest were not cut from that liberally-educated cloth that the great leaders of Europe were then.

From those origins, St. Petersburg earned its reputation as Russia’s outward looking city. Conventional thinking says that from Moscow, Russia’s leaders survey Russia, but from St. Petersburg they survey the world.  Maybe that’s true, but it’s a mistake to think of St. Petersburg as less Russian than Moscow.  

            The cascading fountains and gilt statues at Peterhof Palace were inspired by Peter the Great’s visit to Versailles in 1697. Peterhof overlooks the Baltic Sea where Peter saw Russia’s future.

Vladimir Putin, who is from St. Petersburg, believes the Baltic waterfront can re-establish the city as the financial center of Russia. In 2006 the city hosted the G8 meeting that brought together the leaders of the world’s top eight economies at the Konstantinovsky Palace which looks out on the Baltic from the same shores as the Peterhof and the redevelopment project known as New Holland Island.

            The project will turn a 20-acre island into a major recreation area designed by architect Norman Foster with an amphitheater, a concert hall, a cruise terminal, nearly 50,000 square meters of retail space; a five-star and two four-star hotels. The development lies along the road to the Peterhof and Konstantinovsky palaces.

            The Hermitage is so rich in art treasures and palatial grandeur that in many ways it has cast the rest of the city in its shadow. If you go there and just see the Hermitage, you have missed out on much of the nitty-gritty of modern Russian history, which took place here.

The streets of St. Petersburg can tell so many stories that it’s no wonder that it gave birth to the world’s greatest storyteller, Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s easy to imagine him pacing along the canals imagining plot lines on one side of his brain as the other worries about his gambling debts.

The ironies that fire his story lines are everywhere here. It’s in the tale of Rasputin’s murder. The story is well known. A desperate Alexandra, the last Tsarina, ends up trusting the charismatic mystic/peasant to heal her son’s hemophilia.

            Rasputin’s outrageous rise to power in the last tottering days of the empire compels a cadre of military men and aristocrats to murder him. Nothing would kill him, not beating, stabbing, shooting or enough arsenic to kill a horse. Rasputin fought on, and was found beneath the ice of the river having drowned.

Most of this bad behavior happened in Yusupov Palace, which is now home to a 150-seat theater. Among the luminaries to perform in the historic theater are Tchaikovsky and ballerina Anna Pavlova. The Dostoevsky Museum is housed in his last home, a most humble abode.

This is also Alexander Pushkin’s town, and you can also visit his home. Pushkin’s classic Eugene Onegin describes the stylish side of St. Petersburg circa early 19th century.

            In a suite in the city’s great heritage hotel, the Grand Hotel European, Tchaikovsky had his honeymoon. On one night, Prokofiev is supposed to have played for Tchaikovsky. Just a few year’s ago Elton John got up from his brunch table in the hotel’s Europe Restaurant to perform a few songs on the room’s piano.

            As his troops laid siege to St. Petersburg, from September 1941 to January 1944, Adolph Hitler made plans to celebrate his inevitable victory at the Hotel Astoria.  For 900 days the city was starved and shelled, without fuel, electricity, heat, and with a per person ratio of four ounces of bread per day killing about 1.2 million people and still Hitler never had his party.

In 2006, at the Astoria’s Davidov restaurant, I watched from the next table as a gathering of Romanov family members dined together, having re-interred the remains of the dowager empress Maria Fyodorovna that day.

            As the Russian capital from 1712 until 1922 St. Petersburg was the setting for much of the Russian Revolution; the intrigues of the Tsars and World War II. Pushkin described Peter’s vision as a drive, “to cut a wide door to Europe.”

It would be hard to imagine two buildings that look more different than Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial and St. Petersburg’s Church of the Spilled Blood. And yet the two buildings have a lot in common.

The onion domes of the Church make it a favorite of tourist photographers. Look closely at its multi-colored exterior and you’ll see tiles depicting scenes from the life of Tsar Alexander II.  Alexander is known as the “great liberator” by many Russians, much as Lincoln is known to us as the “great emancipator.”

Lincoln emancipated American slaves in 1863 and the Tsar ended Russian serfdom in 1861. Lincoln and Alexander formed an alliance during our Civil War that led to the Tsar sending Russian naval ships to defend northern ports. Both men were killed by assassins: Lincoln in 1865 and the Tsar in 1881.

Though it’s not a very long drive from the beach up to the Monastery of Sarantaskaliotisa on the Greek Island of Samos, the atmosphere couldn’t be more different. In place of the sunny beach with its paddleball players and prostrate sun bathers, a thick quietude presides on the grounds surrounded by pine and cypress trees.   Beyond a small chapel with its votive candles and icons, a footpath leads to a deep cave where local legend has it that the philosopher Pythagoras hid from the tyrant Polycrates some 2,600 years ago. In this region the sacred and the sublime coexist almost casually with beaches, tavernas and tourists.

Once a crossroads of goods and ideas from nearby Ionia (now Turkey), Egypt and Babylon and a key religious site as the birthplace of Hera, the wife of Zeus, Samos today lives off the patronage of those tourists who avoid the more popular Greek islands such as Mykonos and Santorini. Not nearly as preserved as Athena’s site on the Acropolis in Athens or Diana’s sanctuary at Ephesus, Hera’s sanctuary, the Heraion, was a vital station on the Hellenic world’s divine places.

In 2010, my family and I went to Samos in order to get to Ikaria. Working with the slimmest of budgets we stayed in pensiones, rode busses and ferries and had as fine a vacation as I’ve ever had. In many ways, Vathi is typical of a Greek island port city with cafes, clubs and restaurants lining the quay. Travel services in the town, from hotels and rental cars to ferries and tours, tend to feature sites in Samos as well as the ferry service to Patmos and Kusadasi, Turkey.

A pod of racing dolphins brightened our two-hour ferry to Kusadasi where we road a minibus (dolmus) to the modern town of Selçuk, which surrounds the ancient Roman capital of Asia, Ephesus. As Samos was sacred to Hera, so Ephesus was to Artemis, a far more frightening goddess with roots deep in Near Eastern mystery cults.

Her city was the western terminus of a flourishing Silk Road trade that reached all the way to the then capital of Tang Dynasty China at Xian. Ephesus was also the setting of St. Paul’s imprisonment and the place from whence he wrote his Epistles to the Ephesians. Many also believe that a house on nearby Solmissos Mountain was the final home of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle.

The sprawling breadth of Ephesus is comparable to the ruins of Pompei. The site’s Celsus Library, its amphitheater and the remains of an upscale Roman brothel are all in excellent condition. A recent excavation shows the homes of some of its wealthiest residents.

In Selçuk, the Efes Museum houses the smaller artifacts unearthed in Ephesus. While Kusadasi has become a large and elegant port city, Selçuk has the air of an attractive country town intersected by a fine Roman aqueduct and centered by a large plaza with a tea garden and the museum.

The lands along the roads on this coast careens between the Taurus Mountains and the Aegean Sea. Many ruins along the way are scattered among olive groves and flocks of grazing sheep. The roads are easy to drive and lead to some of the finest archeology in Europe. This region was the birthplace of Homer, the Greek alphabet and the first Greek philosopher (Thales). We visited Didyma and Priene on a daytrip with a rental car.

The temple at Didyma, started by Alexander and completed by the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula, was second only to the Delphic Oracle as a revered sanctuary for prophecy in the ancient world. The massive size of its columns almost suggests a temple on the grand scale of those at Luxor. Priene, by contrast, is smaller and more elegant in feel.

Whatever Priene lacks in ancient significance it more than makes up for in beauty, set as it is on a high mountain above the Meander Valley. We caught Priene just before evening as a mussein was singing out the Muslim call to prayer, a beautiful chant that echoed across the old farming valley.

            We stopped in Athens on our return. For all the money that was spent to improve the city for the 2004 Summer Olympics (a new airport, a subway, roads and more), the most outstanding structure in the city remains the Parthenon especially when it’s floodlit at night and it glows from its rooftop aerie over the city.

Athens opened the Acropolis Museum to replace the old one and to provide a proper home hopefully for the exiled “Elgin Marbles” that are still, inexplicably in London’s British Museum. Though the marbles remain in London, the museum still has the sort of masterworks that justify the museum building including the Moschophoros or the calf-bearer, a sculpture of a man in his prime emanating the full happiness of country life, carrying a calf over his shoulders.

Big events transform cities. The Americas Cup of 2000 turned Auckland, New Zealand from a charming, but somewhat sleepy town, into a vibrant Pacific capital. The 1992 Summer Olympics transformed Barcelona from a city more known for crime and drugs, into the city their calling the “new Paris,” today.  South Africa would have loved for the 2010 FIFA World Cup of soccer to turn the trick for their cities. There’s not much South Africa would like to turn back the clock for in its mostly horrible modern history, but they love to have Sophiatown back.

For all that it offers tourists, and it offers plenty, South Africa’s appeal will be multiplied, when its cities restore their evolution, especially its greatest city, Johannesburg or “Joburg,” the country’s urban flagship.

            Today, most outsiders see Cape Town, as the great South African city. It’s easy to see why. Set at the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific, in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town is special. Vineyards, cafes and a thriving waterfront development make it South Africa’s showcase of the good life.

It’s also home to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison. Johannesburg is the financial driver of the country, the gateway and the urban soul of this country. In many ways, Johannesburg is still struggling socially to lift itself out from the evils of Apartheid.

A drive through Joburg, leaves most outsiders feeling a little cold and tentative. A reputation for street crime is only bolstered by the sight of wealthy residential neighborhoods surrounded by high walls often topped with barbed wire. Enclaves like this circle the downtown.  This makes the downtown look something like a no man’s land, a place reminiscent of New York’s Times Square in the 1970s.

            Times Square today is a thriving zone for tourists and other out-of-towners  thanks to the kind of public/private investment that was made when it was one of New York’s worst neighborhoods.

Joburg embarked on a similar renovation of its downtown. They’re calling the area, Newtown, in time for the 2010 World Cup.        

City planners wanted a home for art and music. There was one once in downtown Joburg, but it was razed during the days of Apartheid.  That spirit was bulldozed down into the ground more than 60 years ago when the legendary neighborhood known as Sophiatown was destroyed by the Apartheid government.  

The area got its old name back about 15 years ago and the name Sophiatown is with us again. Until 1955, Sophiatown, the one-time Harlem of Africa, was home to a thriving arts scene with headliners such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeeba. An active political scene led by a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela, and more.

Sophiatown was a jive culture, a bebop culture, a café culture and like Harlem, it had an active underworld that sported zoot suits, listened to jazz and sought the sporting life. It was also a place for writers, street speakers, revolutionaries and some of the greatest music of our time. And to the leaders of Apartheid, the sheer exuberance of it cast a defiant threat to their supremacy.

            This joyful defiance presented those Apartheid leaders with something they really couldn’t tolerate, the ability of Africans of different ethnic strains to come together and produce a joyously defiant cultural flower. And so, on one of the darkest days in Apartheid’s dark history, the South African military invaded Sophiatown at dawn, loaded everybody that lived there into trucks and shipped them off to areas like the South Western Townships, “Soweto,” for short.

They bulldozed the homes, the restaurants, the clubs the theaters and in their place built a 1950s suburb, much in the manner of Levitt Town and named it “Triumph.”

            South Africa’s landscape ranges from game preserves and sunny vineyards to rocky sea coasts and white sand beaches. The country’s game preserves feature all of the icons of African wildlife; visitors can watch lion prides in Kruger National Park from range rovers or ride small planes above lifting flocks of flamingo in the St Lucia Wetland Park. Today, Cape Town presents its version of the good life, but once there was this place called Sophiatown that was brought down by Victory.

A short train ride from downtown Tokyo, Kawagoe feels like it lies centuries away. A quiet country town, known as Japan’s sweet potato capital, it embodies that essential Japanese spirit that we recognize in the tea ceremony, a razor-sharp haiku or in a woodblock print. Art, literature, food, architecture, even Japanese Buddhism are as distinct from the rest of the world as a fully armored samurai is from one of King Arthur’s knights.

Kawagoe became prominent when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, perhaps the most towering figure in the country’s history, made it the northern military bulwark and gateway into his new national capital of Edo, which we now call Tokyo. It was here that goods were compiled into cargo and shipped on the Shingashi River into the city.

            That required storage and the builders of what came to be known as “Little Edo” built the town’s signature architectural form, the Kurazukuri warehouse. These stout 19th century structures, feature clay walls a foot thick, designed to be more fire resistant than the wood and paper used by traditional Japanese construction. Two stories tall, they weigh more than most 10-story buildings.

Earthquakes, and yes, fires have taken their toll on most of them, but almost 30 of them remain, the best examples lining the city’s pre-eminent shopping drag, Ichiban Gai.

            Several of these buildings house workshops of such traditional crafts as ceramics and swords as well as antiques. One whole area of town is dedicated to selling Japanese candies. Forging traditional samurai swords is the passion of the craftsmen at the Machikan shop, but if you’re more interested in precision cutting in the kitchen than taking on a troublesome warlord you can purchase the sharpest kitchen knives that I’ve ever come across.

You can take one of their blades and just rest its edge on a cucumber and it will make its way through without any help from you. It was that kind of blade that helped Takugawa Ieyasu transform Japan from a chaos of warring kingdoms into a unified country.

            Originally built in 830, fire destroyed Kitain Temple in 1638; the third Tokugawa Shogun ordered the rebuilding of the temple. To do that he shipped entire sections of the original Edo Castle in Tokyo to be part of the rebuilding. One room in the temple is the only piece of Tokyo’s original Edo Castle still surviving because the original was largely destroyed by earthquake and bombs during World War II. Tokugawa Shogun Iemetsu didn’t give just any room for the building. He gave the room he was born in.

            One of the most revered shrines in all of Japan, the Toshogu Shrine, was built in 1633 to commemorate the life Tokugawa Ieyasu. Located on the grounds of Kitain Temple it remembers the figure who towered over Japan’s most towering historic period, the Edo. Be sure to visit the 538 stone statues at Kitain. Each of these figures depicts a disciple of the Buddha. Each of them personifies a distinct approach to enlightenment. There are many ways to approach life and be true to Buddhism. Some of these figures are laughing, some somber, others in deep contemplation.

            Kawagoe Castle was built in 1457 at roughly the same time that Edo Castle was being built in Tokyo. Inside the castle grounds, the Honmaru Goten, or the private quarters of the lord, offers an intimate look into the life of an Edo-era noble. Another Edo highlight is the Bell Tower (Takino Kane) which rises more than 50 feet above the town. Originally built in 1624, the structure was rebuilt after an 1893 fire destroyed the original. The bell still tolls four times a day.

            The Hikawa Shrine (514 A.D.) began the town’s most famous event some 350 years ago. The Kawagoe Festival held every year on the third weekend of October draws nearly a million visitors. They come to witness the huge multi-storied dashi (floats) some of which date back more than a hundred years.

The craftsmanship in the building of the dashi; the folk tale characters dressed in outlandish masks; and the haunting music played as they move about the streets of town all combine to make this one of Japan’s finest festivals. Each neighborhood has its own float that it maintains at its own expense. As the different dashis, representing different neighborhoods, collide during the festival there are challenges by drummers and musicians designed to knock the other float’s musicians off tempo.

In many ways Kawagoe gives Tokyo the same kind of experiential supplement that Sienna gives Florence. As Sienna has its famous Palio race, so Kawagoe has its festival. Both festivals and both towns preserve and hearken back to watershed moments in the cultural and political history of their respective nations.

Like Italy, Japan emerged as a unified nation out of a bloody whirlwind of battles waged under the tenacious battle flags of feudal fiefdoms. It would take centuries before that carnage led to Garibaldi and his army of red shirts. In Japan that chaos gave birth to the Edo period, which is beautifully preserved in Kawagoe.

Stockholm's Old Town is a warren of cobbled lanes sided by the bright facades of medieval and Georgian shopfronts trailing off from the back of Sweden’s Royal Palace. It’s here where many wander off cruise ships to shop, take lunch and people watch.  On the corner of Kakbrinken and Prastgatan streets, the remnant of a cannon barrel is cemented into the corner of a wall in order to protect a mysterious runic inscription from being worn away by passing carts.

The rune resembles a complex seafarer's knot made of chords ending in serpents' heads. It’s a fitting symbol for a city where the sea wraps narrow lanes within its watery chords; a sort of runic interlacing of city streets and sea lanes. The 14 islands that comprise inner Stockholm are entwined together by a series of bridges over the waters where the fresh waters of Lake Malaren flow into the Baltic Sea.

Beyond this setting more than 30,000 islands and islets are scattered all the way out onto the broader sea that has so captivated Stockholm’s people since it was little more than a wooden stockade a thousand years ago. For visitors today, Stockholm offers a modern capital that exudes the mysteries of its Viking and medieval origins.

            The story of Sweden’s ascendance is told in a mosaic mural in the city hall’s Golden Hall. Artist Einar Forseth used 18.5 million gold tiles to present his chronology of Sweden, from the Vikings to the 20th century, in a style suggesting the interior of a Byzantine basilica but done with an Art Deco flair that is modern enough to include an image of the Statue of Liberty that pays homage to the emigration of Swedes to the United States.

The world turns its attention to this city hall annually when the winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, physics, chemistry and medicine are feted in the building’s Blue Hall.  The humble lectern by the sweeping staircase of the Blue Hall has hosted too many giants, from Einstein to Hemingway, to even begin to name. From that same lectern Nobelist William Faulkner defined literature as the “human heart in conflict with itself…” That’s a theme that was as dear to the Viking authors of the Sagas and the Eddas, as it is today.             Vikings explored North America and laid the groundwork for cities throughout the rivers of Europe.

It’s ironic, that Stockholm’s most compelling museum commemorates an epic nautical failure. The Vasa Museum houses the 64-cannon warship that had just commenced its first voyage in 1628. It was designed to bring Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus’ might to bear on the Thirty Years War. Its mission was to gain control of the Baltic ports in Germany and Poland and make the Baltic Sea into a Swedish lake.

As the crowds gathered on that August afternoon almost 400 years ago to wish the mighty new vessel luck on its maiden voyage it capsized right in the harbor. In 1961, the ship was brought up from the bottom of the sea, beginning the process that turned it into the museum it is today.  Some 20 skeletons were exhumed, and forensic archeologists were able to reconstruct the faces of several that died that day. Looking into their very life-like faces has the quality of a séance; a spellbinding eye to eye with figures out of the past that seem to look right back at you.

            It would be easy to describe Skansen as a Swedish version of Colonial Williamsburg, but Skansen’s presentation of Sweden’s past is not nearly as polished and that gives it a little more authenticity. Since 1833, Skansen has carefully gone about moving and installing old buildings that enshrine various lifestyles from the country’s past.

Among them a tavern from 1801, a Stockholm savings bank from 1700, a vicar’s summerhouse from 1704 and many basic farmhouses that feel like the stage sets from one of Ingmar Bergman’s medieval period films. Potters, engravers, glassblowers and other traditional trades have workshops and the guides, who wear clothing from various periods, tell their stories with a scholarly passion.

            Florence has Sienna, Tokyo has Kawagoe and Stockholm has Sigtuna to provide visitors a chance to explore a small town just outside of the big city that more perfectly preserves history but remains a living town. This town captures the spirit of a country that somehow combines a sailor’s urge to explore the wide world and the provincial hearth and home soul of the woodland villager, as in the waters of Stockholm where the fresh water runs into the salty sea.

Sigtuna lies about 30 minutes from the city and is literally the oldest living town in Sweden. It began at the end of the Viking era when it was a stop along the way to the pagan religious center that was Uppsala. As you look out on Lake Maleren it’s easy to imagine the processions of pre-Christian pilgrims going to pay homage to temples and shrines dedicated to Odin. Sigtuna, founded in the year 980, is the oldest living town in Sweden and it marks the exact point in time that the country Christianized.

            Thomas Mann said that to enter Venice by land is the same as entering a magnificent palace through its kitchen. The same can be said of Stockholm. One of the advantages to cruising into this city as hundreds of thousands cruise passengers do every year, is the beauty of sailing past all of those thousands of islands, many of them the sites of summer homes and parklands and then coming into this utterly modern city whose past is still present.

Known as the city inside a park, it’s difficult to imagine Weimar with all its pretty town squares, neo-classical homes and narrow lanes as a center of intellectual revolution. With a population of about 60,000, it seems too small, too conservative and too quiet a country town to have spawned the changes it spawned.

The list of names associated with the city speaks volumes about the radical spirit inherent in this bastion of high art and German cultural glory: Goethe, Schiller, Luther, Bach, Nietzsche, Liszt, Cranach (father and son) and Thomas Mann are only some of the figures that walked its walks and studied in its famous Duchess Anna Amalia Library.

In 2004, the library caught fire and lost 62,000 volumes from its 900,000-volume collection of rare books and manuscripts. In 2005, the library re-opened and is once again at the heart of the study of German literature and philosophy.

For many in Weimar, and in Germany, the burning books of the library fire served up a bitter irony. Burning books have symbolized political turmoil here since Martin Luther and his followers gathered to burn the pamphlets that Pope Leo X issued against them.

            Weimar, located in the German state of Thuringia, doesn’t attract the number of tourists that the beer halls of Munich; the castles along the Rhine and the broad avenues of Berlin do. Those places only tell a part of Germany’s complex story, for a fuller understand of Germany must include Weimar.

Goethe wrote almost all his books here, Bach revitalized the cantata here, Schiller staged William Tell here and it was here that Walter Gropius opened the first Bauhaus School.

            Weimar is also the place where the first attempt at German Democracy was born, when the Weimar Republic had its national parliament in the city’s National Theatre beginning in 1919. The bitter truth of that experiment was that Weimar was among the first to elect Nazi party members into their government.

Part of the Nazi appeal to the conservatives of the time was in their promise to restore a more traditional, high minded appreciation of German art and culture. The Nazis saw the Bauhaus as a brand of sneaking communism that was eroding German idealism.

            The Bauhaus artists believed that the new century required a new more practical art. In an age of factories and industrialization, the arts had to look to industry to be relevant and vital. The arts and architecture were stuck in an ivory tower of 19th century romantic stone, divorced from how modern people lived and labored.

Nonsense! Said the Nazis, and in 1925 Gropius and his colleagues were banished to Dessau where the Bauhaus thrived until 1933. After that most of them went into exile, many to the U.S. Gropius himself became a seminal force at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and produced a new wave of American architects including I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson.

            As Gropius and the Bauhaus erected New York’s Seagram’s Building, Chicago’s Tribune Tower and Detroit’s Lafayette Park, the Nazis back in Weimar built the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Its gray tower can be seen from most parts of Weimar. After the Nazis were done murdering thousands of people there, Buchenwald continued as an East German political prison until 1950.

Even if you don’t know any particular work of Bauhaus architecture or design, the aesthetic vision of Gropius guided Western art and architecture into what we call modernism. His insistence on an art that was relevant to modern life breathed new life into an art world that hid in a sentimental illusion of the past in order to avoid the present and the future.

            On the serene lanes of Weimar, you can see the homes of Goethe and Schiller; sit in a church where Martin Luther preached the Protestant revolution; walk the ring of parks and old palace grounds that ring the city; and confront the brutalities of Buchenwald. And then there are the reading rooms of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, where students are still studying German writers.