Random travel is our favorite mode of vacationing. We particularly like the Space-A aspect of this. Frequently, we don’t know where we are going, but that doesn’t worry us at all. Additionally, low-cost flights provided by so many discount airlines make it easy and economical to “jump” from one end of Europe and Asia to the other.
The entire month of May had been cleared for us to go wherever the wind blew our sails. Fortunately, in less than 24 hours after arriving at Charleston AFB from Jacksonville, we were on a C-17 en route to Spain. And within three hours of landing at Naval Base Rota, we were on a C-5A for the 2.5 hour flight to NAS Sigonella, on the island of Sicily, with gorgeous snow-capped Mt. Etna giving us a picturesque arrival!
TWO ITALIAN ISLANDS
We had traveled extensively in Sicily on our previous three visits there so while looking for the road less traveled and a “destination unknown” to us, we saw a perfect opportunity to go to Italy’s other big island – Sardinia.
After relaxing at Sigonella, long enough to mostly recover from our jet lag, we were off on Alitalia (from Catania via Rome) to Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital and largest city. The ITT travel agency, Shell Travel, on Sigonella’s NAS I helped us get these last-minute flights.
Cagliari – Our first impressions told us we made the right decision in coming here. Very warm, friendly and helpful locals, boutiques selling unusual cork and wicker handicrafts, tasty and unique island food and drink – this was Old World Italy at its finest!
Our first full day here was in-depth exploration and discovery in “shabby chic” Cagliari. We climbed hundreds of stairs, walked endlessly (taking a little train up and down when we could not go further), popped into several ornate churches and the cathedral. We also visited the Ghetto Museum in Cagliari’s former Jewish Quarter, where Italy openly exhibits the 1492 expulsion and the Fascist/Nazi removal of Jews from here in World War II.
We rested occasionally and drank lots of cappuccinos. Marv even fortified himself with a Sardinian specialty, cream of limoncello, at the island’s oldest bar. A great city and a great experience!
Sassari – After a wonderful introduction to Sardinia by exploring the capital city of Cagliari, it was time to travel further afield. Next stop was Sassari, a comfortable four hour bus ride to the northern part of the island. What a magnificent journey it was as the landscape changed from rolling green hills and scenic valleys, with sheep everywhere, to more rugged, drier landscape.
We had never heard of Sassari, Sardinia’s second largest city, but what a jewel it is. The home of the island’s most prestigious university (founded in the 16th Century), its students give vitality to the city. Elegant buildings and piazzas, gorgeous shops, fine restaurants serving local delicacies, and fashionably dressed residents abound in the compact old city center. We enjoyed meeting many locals, exploring with no agenda and discovering the delights of Sassari. Its excellent National Museum had a superb collection of Sardinian ethnic period fashion as well as archaeological findings thousands of years old. Fortunately, our selection of a “budget” hotel (Hotel Vittorio Emanuele) turned out to be one of the best places in which we have stayed (April is still low season). Our lovely room and lavish breakfast buffet (the best in Italy!) were a bargain.
Alghero – Simply traveling an hour west of inland Sassari to coastal Alghero, felt like we were in a different world. This is a “classic” Mediterranean seaside destination, with more tourists here than we had seen in Sardinia so far. We were not so much impressed by the beach here, instead by the high walls and towers surrounding Alghero’s magnificent historical center.
Actually, the city goes back to well before the Middle Ages. Meandering throughout the narrow streets and alleys, relaxing in cafes, window shopping, and tasting delicious traditional local cuisine is what we came to see and most of all enjoy. Yet, we could not resist walking and dining on the walls and viewing the spectacular Mediterranean turquoise waters.
Olbia/Costa Smeralda – After a very relaxing and most enjoyable stay in historic Alghero, on Sardinia’s west coast, we rambled across the island’s “wild” north, via a bone-shaking train, to Olbia, on Sardinia’s northeast coast.
On a hot summer-like afternoon, under clear blue skies, we arrived in Olbia which, for us, has the most stunning setting we saw in Sardinia. While Olbia itself is not a well-known tourist destination, it is a lovely small city. Our modest, centrally-located hotel (rather unusually named Hotel For You) was a perfect base for exploration of the magnificent Costa Smeralda region. No wonder the Phoenicians, Romans and others have inhabited this special area for thousands of years. In the 1960’s, it was “discovered” and developed into the playground for the rich and famous.
We traveled north by bus from Olbia along the stunning Costa Smeralda, through medieval mountain towns hidden among unusual rock formations, to the quaint port of Palau. We then boarded a ferry for the 20 minute trip to the little town of La Maddalena, in the archipelago of that name. Here, there used to be a U.S. Navy submarine base and, on a little spit of land connected to La Maddalena Island, the father of modern-day Italy, Garibaldi, was born.
The next day, our second excursion in the area took us by train to nearby Golfo Aranci. Set on a sparkling bay, Golfo Aranci provided us with a relaxing day and a fantastic al fresco lunch spot, right on its little sandy beach.
Having explored areas outside Olbia, it was time to check out local city attractions, including a morning produce market, the 11th Century Romanesque St. Simplicio Basilica, Roman walls and, best of all, its impressive Archaeological Museum. Not long ago, dozens of wooden ships from ancient Roman times were found here and two of them are on display. It was amazing to stand inches from these boats which were thousands of years old! We also learned that over the history of this city, the name has changed several times. From the 14th Century until 1939, the city was called Terra Nova until Mussolini reverted its name to its Greek original of Olbia (the Greek word for “happy”).
Berlin – While Sardinia was a most delightful “destination unknown” to us, we were attracted by further opportunities and selected Berlin as our next stop. We took a two hour non-stop flight on Air Berlin from Olbia and looked over rugged Corsica and the snowy Italian Alps.
Why Berlin? When were last there, during the Cold War, it was a divided city, with heavily armed Russian and American soldiers eyeing each other at Check Point Charlie. However, the “New” unified Berlin to us, is a “destination unknown!”
Friendly locals guided us from Tegel Airport to our hotel (Ibis Berlin West), using a public transport bus and U-Bahn. Our first outing was to Ka De We, Berlin’s famous and fabulous 100+ year old department store. Foodie Carole was like the kid in the candy store at the store’s incredible, enormous food hall, as she darted from one display to another, dubbing it the “Mother of all Food Halls”. The joy on her face made Berlin well worth the effort of coming here. There we had our first German meal (dinner) of delicious goulash soup followed by roast veal with red cabbage – wunderbar!
(Jewish) Berlin – Our stay here coincided with the 70th anniversary of VE Day (the end of World War II in Europe) so it was very appropriate that our first sightseeing visit in Berlin should be at the solemn Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Germany’s Holocaust Memorial. While there are still Holocaust deniers around the world (e.g. Iran), Germany has done a very good job at acknowledging the horrors of its Nazi past. The vast Field of Stelae (2,711 concrete slabs), over the underground museum, set the tone. Written and oral testimonies from the living and the dead (letters, postcards and photographs) were so powerful that we were emotionally drained afterwards.
Continuing our exploration of Jewish Berlin, we toured the magnificently restored New Synagogue, now a museum, which was destroyed during World War II by both Nazis and Allied bombs. We also visited one of several functioning Jewish synagogues, the stunning Pestalozzi Street Synagogue. This was the only synagogue in Berlin not burned down by the Nazis on Kristallnacht “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938, saved because it was sandwiched between two residences. Closed immediately after this terrible event, it re-opened in 1947.
Although well-promoted in tourist brochures, the monolithic Jewish Museum Berlin, in an enormous zig-zag “cutting edge” design building, disappointed us. We found it cold and confusing. Today, a vibrant Jewish community of over 11,000 (and growing) shows it is abundantly clear that the Nazis did not succeed in eliminating Jewish life in Berlin.
To rejuvenate our spirits after looking face-to-face at the Holocaust, we took a lovely tour by boat as we listened to soothing classical music on the River Spree. This afforded us the chance to see both elegant historical and sleek modern architecture, superb gardens, fascinating new sculptures and even a demonstration by people waving banners saying “Nazism – no thank you” on the river bank.
On Berlin’s “Museum Island” are several extraordinary, enormous museums. We chose to spend several hours in the Pergamon Museum where are displayed massive re-creations (originals!) of ancient monumental treasures, taken piece by piece from the Near East, all of which miraculously survived World War II.
Everywhere we looked in Berlin, we saw a beautiful, high energy, well-organized city. What a change from our previous visits so long ago. At that time, West Berlin was attractive and vibrant while East Berlin was stark and dismal, its best street art being Communist billboards! Today, Berlin is one of the world’s great capital cities and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay here. After nearly a week in Berlin, it was time to explore other places in the eastern part of Germany (formerly known as “East Germany” or DDR/GDR).
FORMER EAST GERMANY
Neither of us had visited the former East Germany so it was logical for us to head to two “destinations unknown” – Leipzig and Dresden.
Leipzig – For centuries, this city (which Marv pronounced as “lipstick”) has made its mark on the world. Gutenberg invented the letter (printing) press here in 1450, world-famous musicians lived here (e.g., Wagner) and died here (e.g., Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann) and German writers joined the musicians who frequented the centuries-old coffee houses here, as we did! It was a cultural center of the first order. And, in 1813, Napoleon had his first major military defeat in Leipzig.
For nearly 40 years after World War II, East Germany’s feared STASI (Secret Police) had its headquarters (which we toured) in Leipzig, striking terror in the populace. As we strolled the elegant streets and “Passages” (shopping arcades) of today, we admired lovely fountains and elaborate gilded buildings. Leipzig, refined and reborn (the city was heavily damaged during the War), is the old and new coming together, a city well-worth our visit. Tourist information describes Leipzig as the “hippest city” in Germany to where many young people move for rewarding careers.
Dresden – With its numerous grand, gilded, figure-adorned Baroque buildings (churches, palaces, museums), Dresden has been described as “Florence on the Elbe.” Almost the entire city was destroyed in World War II and what we saw are post-War reproductions. So many buildings are black with grime and in the suburbs, ugly Soviet era buildings lie empty, awaiting demolition. Like Leipzig, Dresden attracted musicians and artists in the past, and even KGB agent, Major Vladimir Putin, was “stationed” here in the late 1980’s.
On a summery afternoon, we joined throngs gathered in outdoor cafés and walked the high bluff promenade overlooking the Elbe. This was a magnificent city.
SPAIN – BASQUE COUNTRY
In our continuing quest for “destinations unknown,” we put together a marathon one-day journey from one side of eastern Germany (Dresden) to northeast Spain (Bilbao), using buses, trains, metro systems and two flights (german wings).
Bilbao – While we have traveled extensively in other parts of Spain (mostly Andalucia), we had never explored the Basque Country. The largest city, Bilbao, provided an excellent and comfortable base for this.
Once a grimy industrial city, bypassed on the tourist route, it is now a sparkling and beautiful metropolis in its own right, filled with elegant parks, majestic buildings and modern architecture, not the least of which is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, the catalyst for the city’s rebirth. Although we did not appreciate all of its art, it is an extraordinary edifice, not to be missed.
Spain’s Basque Country is unique with its own culture, language and food. As we toured, we encountered thousands of people out devouring the delicious food and having fun in the bars and narrow streets of atmospheric Casco Viejo (Old Town) on Saturday night. What an introduction!
It is no surprise that everything is green and lush in the Basque Country, as it rains a lot! Using Bilbao as our base of exploration, we stayed at the luxurious, but low cost Holiday Inn and focused on two neighboring Basque destinations.
San Sebastian – Early on a cold, drizzly morning, we ventured out of Bilbao by bus through the countryside to the seaside gem of San Sebastian (or Donostia, as the Basques call it), just 20 km from the French border. Fortunately, as the day progressed, the temperature warmed up and out came the sun, highlighting the city in all its beauty and glory.
Our first stop on a Sunday morning was at a 16th Century church where little girls were dressed in white for their Holy Communion, and proud, large extended families, adorned in their finest fashions, looked on.
In the late 19th Century, San Sebastian became the favorite resort of Spanish royalty, resulting in magnificent buildings (theaters, opera houses, palaces, etc.) being constructed and today these Belle Epoque edices glow. We also enjoyed grazing on tasty Basque pintxos, the local food fare, and imbibing local wine at several bars which line the narrow cobblestone streets of its Parte Vieja (Old Town). But the Bay of La Concha, with its wide, sandy beach and endless promenade, was a highlight. It led us to a funicular which ascended high up Monte Urgull, affording us a “bird’s eye view” of the spectacular panorama below.
And, as we often do, we left the main streets, and randomly found for lunch a delightful family restaurant which turned out to be the oldest in the region and which has played host to Hollywood and European celebrities who come here for the annual Film Festival.
Vitoria – Another excursion by bus from Bilbao took us inland, through the scenic green rolling hills of the countryside to Vitoria, the capital of Spain’s Basque Country and seat of the Basque Parliament. The first and most striking impression we had as we arrived in Vitoria (Gasteiz as it is known in Basque), was that all signs were no longer written in Spanish but only written in Basque. It was no longer “gracias” (Spanish for “thank you”) but “eskerrik asko”!
A small city, well over 1,000 years old, Vitoria has a compact Casco Antiguo (Old Town) with narrow cobblestone streets laid out concentrically, around the Cathedral of Santa Maria. A second huge Cathedral, the neo-Gothic St. Mary Immaculate, appears very old but only dates back to 1909. Medieval inns (one dating back to the 15th Century), churches and palaces abound in the Old Town and made for enjoyable discoveries, together with a lunch of local dishes and wine.
When we approached the Old Town’s main plaza, we were pushed back by heavily armed riot police, as two opposing political groups staged a “manifestation” (demonstration), hurling loud insults at each other. Not wanting to be caught up in any trouble, we veered away from the action and headed to more quiet areas.
While this may have sounded very dangerous, it was all quite civilized as just a few hours later, we saw many of the demonstrators at sidewalk cafes, sipping wine and enjoying lunch with each other! The city sanitation department swept up the debris, hosed down the plaza, businesses reopened and all was soon clean and tranquil. Democracy in action!
After being away from Jacksonville for over a month, it was time to return to Florida. As is typical with these Space-A travel adventures, returning home can be an adventure in itself!
Up before dawn and pushing through chilly and rainy weather, we began a complex, all-day itinerary of two buses and the AVE (high speed) train to bring us from the Basque Country in far northeast Spain to Rota, Andalucia, in the far southwest of Spain. Walking through Naval Base Rota’s front gate was like walking from Spain to the USA! By 10 PM, our heads were on soft, American style pillows at the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites. Now for the adventure of finding a military flight back to the USA!
After a few days of relaxing and enjoying Rota, the Navy offered us a comfortable eight-hour Patriot Express flight to Norfolk. There, we picked up a rental car, and headed to Charleston to pick up our own car (which we left there over a month ago), completing the drive home to Jacksonville.
We love the excitement of traveling to “Destinations Unknown”. When we left Jacksonville, we did not know we would end up in Sardinia, then touring the former East Germany and discovering northern Spain’s Basque Country!
* Sardinia is “off the radar” for most travelers, yet is rich with natural beauty, kind people, interesting and tasty foods and a well-preserved old world classical culture.
* Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden have sprung into vibrant life after the Soviet-supported East German government fell nearly 30 years ago. Now there are dazzling modern glass and steel buildings and countless reconstructed magnificent buildings. The streets are full of well-dressed young people, enjoying a whole new world.
* The Basque Country is also “off the radar” for most travelers, yet a unique part of northern Spain with its own culture, language and history. We had been to other parts of Spain countless times, but this was totally different – spectacular!
In all three European countries we visited, we left the crowded central tourist areas, ventured down back streets and found small, family-run restaurants. There, the owners warmly welcomed and treated us to local cuisine, just as if they were putting a family dinner on their own kitchen table, providing us with authentic and quality dishes.
We are often asked, “Where to next?” Our answer, “Wherever the wind blows our sails!”
If any of the R&R Travel News® readers would like to see our Shutterfly slideshow of this trip, send us an email and we will be happy to share it with you.
Col. Marv and Carole Feldman
Reprint from January–February 2016 • Volume 46, No. 1