The Traveling Begins

I've made two trips thus far and, though I've been procrastinating on writing about each of them, I've finally written up a little bit about my visits to both places:

Berlin and Cinque Terre. 


The Holocaust Memorial

     When I arrived Berlin, I soon realized that I was a bit in over my head when it came to the weather. The best I could do was some running shoes, thermal underwear, and a big scarf. But it was worth braving the cold to see the city, and seeing snow was pretty cool for someone who spends about 8 months a year in South Carolina. 
     Berlin itself was an interesting city, mostly because of how surprisingly new it was; the city is still being rebuilt as it recovers from years of warfare, both hot and cold. I didn’t realize until we were in the middle of the capital city exactly how young the united Germany is. However, it was immediately apparent that Berlin was not going to have the same romantic antiquity that Rome has. What really struck me was how much space there was: the streets were wide, the squares were large, and buildings weren’t stacked on top of each other like you would expect. The city really is being built into modernity because of the destruction from WWII and the Cold War occupation. 
     Just like the buildings, the culture of the city was very modern - it’s by all accounts a place where you can be who you want to be and find other people who are just as strange. It was actually really cool, but also unusual. People were really great and welcoming, and we met some real characters in the city, which was really nice. But when we left for the airport at around 4 am (wooo 30 euro RyanAir flights!), there were still people out partying. A lot of the locals don’t even go out before midnight, which made nightlife feel a little bit odd. I did like the food, though. I would get some schnitzel again in a heartbeat. 
     The monuments of the city were beautiful. We saw the Reichstag and got to go up to the top, where there were beautiful panoramic views of the city. We visited Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp just outside of the city - a sobering experience that made all my previous history lessons a lot more meaningful, and the history itself very tangible. We saw all the famous buildings and visited all the famous squares. 
    However, my favorite place we visited had to be the Holocaust memorial in the middle of the city. The memorial itself is simple: over 1,000 concrete blocks of varying sizes set together on a sloping terrain. Interpreting the monument, however, was the much more meaningful part. The artist who created the memorial, Peter Eisenman, will never say what he meant by the design, which I thought made it more impactful; you get your own take-home message from the memorial. The position itself, in the middle of the city and in clear view of the Reichstag, was a real testament to the importance of the monument not only to history, but also to the Germans who commissioned it. 
    Overall, I liked Berlin a lot. I think I’ll travel back there before I head home, because I didn’t even get to scratch the surface of the art in the city. I think my next visit will be a tour of the art museums on Museum Island and probably a tour of the “alternative” parts of the city. The city has a lot more to offer, and even though I couldn’t live there, I would definitely spend more time in Berlin. We’ll see if it happens!

Cinque Terre

A view of almost all the towns we visited, from the final stop - Monterosso al Mare. That final mountain was our first stop: Riomaggiore. 

     On the northwest coast of Italy in the Italian province of Liguria lies a series of 5 coastal towns built into, and separated by, the mountains along the coast of the Mediterranean. These five towns - Riomaggiore, Manorola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare - are connected by both rails and hiking trails, forming a circuit famously referred to as Cinque Terre. Customarily, you start on one end of the 5 cities and hike your way from town-to-town, spending a little time in each of the cities and traveling back home at the final stop. 
     My friends and I did exactly that: starting in Riomaggiore and hiking to Monterosso al Mare over the course of two days. While we planned to take the easier coastal route, we soon discovered that the simple path from city to city (which would only have taken around 6 hours to complete, total) would be closed for the majority of the trip. So, we hiked the “advanced” trails, and it was amazing. 
     We climbed hundreds of steps to hike across these mountains - traveling up one face and down the other. We went so far up the mountains that we were in the clouds at some points (which, I’ll admit, were pretty low that day). It was hard and definitely tiring, but it was worth it. I couldn’t help but stop and enjoy the scenery every few steps, even if it was a little bit overcast. The paths we hiked were small, and often right up against the face of a cliff on one side and a drop-off on the other. They weren’t joking when they said that these trails between towns were for advanced hikers. 
     We traveled on those paths through these sleepy little fishing villages in the offseason, which meant that we were the only ones on the trail most of the time. The views were incredible, and the towns were so small that we only had one or two options for eating and drinking until 8 pm when they closed down. The word quaint doesn’t even begin to do them justice. The center of each of these towns was typically a small piazza with a few restaurants and a supermarket or two: just enough to help the few villagers we saw get through the Winter. Just like in Small Town, U.S.A., everyone seemed to know each other, and left their houses only for the daily dose of human contact needed to stay sane. 
     One thing that struck me was how integrated into the mountains each of these towns was. The Cinque Terre were not built on the mountains; they were built into the mountains. There were small farms on every inch of accessible mountain, and a small track for a produce transport cart cut across the hiking trail often. I assume this transport system is necessary, given the height of the mountain and the number of farms that must be harvested during as the seasons change. Interestingly, many of the houses of the villages were built right into the mountain, while others were precariously perched on small sheets of rock on the mountainside - only accessible by a small set of stars big enough for only one foot at a time. Judging from the average age of these villagers, I don’t know how they do it. It was really crazy to imagine living that lifestyle. 
     By the end of the trip, it was pretty clear to all of us that we loved it. The hike really was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I think it would be nice to go back around the first week of March, when the weather is still pretty cool but the restaurants are reopened and the town is a little bit fuller. I’m sure I’ll end up coming back sometime. 

Jonathan KeefeComment