I have an old, tattered copy of Lonely Planet’s guide Europe on a Shoestring from 2004 and it was my primary travel guide when I went backpacking in the summer of 2005. On the inside jacket there’s a two page color map of Europe on which I have drawn in ball point pen the routes and destinations of my travels for the past five years. Back when I bought the book I looked enviously on the open spaces of the map. I wanted to dive headfirst into the far reaches and open corners of foreign lands. Now when I look at it, I am grateful for how much I have been able to see. At the same time, the wanderlust in me is far from quiet and I often day dream about trips that I would go on if finances and opportunity were to properly align. Some trips are oriented around the desire to see a specific corner of the world; others follow something of a theme from history or literature. Here is the top five.
5. Antarctica – For many people, my wife included, this one is a bit of a head scratcher. Why would a person want to visit the coldest place on earth? I can offer several good reasons. Antarctica is one of the only largely uninhabited places on earth and it’s by far the least densely populated. That makes the southern continent the world’s last frontier. It has mountains, sea shores and rich wildlife diversity. There are also several unique features of Antarctica that come with its location at the South Pole. The air is very dry and clean, which allows you to see for 100 miles or more in any direction. In the Antarctic summer the sun never sets and when it finally does on the autumnal equinox, it stays down for the entire winter. I would love to see that. I’d also like to see the Southern Lights, the South Pole and glaciers calving massive chunks of ice into the ocean.
4. Punic Tours – As a self-professed lover of history, I’ve always been drawn to the ancient world. One of the most compelling stories is the Punic Wars, the life or death struggle that made Rome a world power and literally destroyed Carthage. My Punic Tour would begin in Sicily with the sites of the First Punic War. I would visit Syracuse and Messina and revisit the western cities of Palermo, Trapani and Marsala. I would then take a ferry across the Mediterranean to the North African country of Tunisia. I would visit the ruins of ancient Carthage, which lie outside modern day Utica. I would take a train across the North African coast to Morocco where I would see Casablanca and be disappointed at how it’s nothing like the movie but delighted nonetheless to experience the French/Islamic culture. Also one my best friends lives in Morocco and I’m sure he’d make an ideal guide. I would then cross, like Hannibal’s Carthaginians at Gibraltar into Spain and follow the Mediterranean coast to the Alps where the famed general marched his men and war elephants into Italy. I would then descend into Italy, through Tuscany to the gates of Rome. Come to think of it, this would probably be the most expensive trip.
3. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran – Having lived in Turkey, I have ventured into Central Anatolia to the bizarre and sublime landscape of Kapadokya, where you can literally feel Europe blending into Asia. I have always wanted delve further into the east to see the Caucuses, the finger of land between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. I would first visit Armenia, one of the most remote Christian countries in the world. A land fought over by the Byzantines, Persians and later the Turks and Russians. I’d also like to see Azerbaijan, an obscure little country that boasts mountains, deserts and a sea coasts. Azerbaijan is also one of the few lands that draws from former Soviet and Islamic cultures. As for Iran, I consider it one of the greatest tragedies in tourism that Persia is not more accessible to Americans. I have always wanted to see Persepolis, the Persian capital burnt by Alexander the Great. I would also love to see Shiraz, the city of gardens and poets and visit the tombs of the ancient Achaemenid and Sassanid kings. I would finish my trip on the Caspian coast, where Iranians take their vacations amid a lush landscape of orchards and sand beaches nestled at the foot of the Zagros Mountains.
2. The Western Front – This might be the simplest trip but I’ve always wanted to see the Western Front of World War I. For me, World War I was one of the most formative events of the modern world. The empires of the past were smashed forever along with the illusions of a rational, perfectible world. Four years of shelling, digging and machine gun fire turned a wooded French countryside into a pockmarked landscape of shattered trees and mud. I want to see this crucible of history for its significance and to satisfy my personal fascination with a war that marked a boundary between our era and that of the old world. I would travel from the Belgian coast around Ypres, where the front began and the Germans invaded on a suicide mission to capture Paris in a month. I would like to see the fortifications of Verdun as well as the battlefields and military cemeteries of the Somme and the Marne. I would then venture into Switzerland, retracing (backwards) the flight of Hemingway’s hero from “A Farewell to Arms”, crossing into Italy to visit the Italian front as well as Milan, Venice and the small town where the author himself was wounded, Fossalta di Piave
1. Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm – The allure of this trip is the remoteness of these northern cities and their proximity by ship. Tallinn, Helsinki and St. Petersburg are all within a few hours train or ferry ride of one another. Tallinn has joined Prague as one of the most popular and beautiful old cities in Europe. St. Petersburg is Russia’s “Window on the West,” the gorgeous imperial capital of the 17th Century. Helsinki and Stockholm are Baltic capitals that have been well preserved and also showcase the hard, clean modernity of modern Scandinavia. Perhaps after this seaborne tour of the North I would make a pit stop in Iceland on my way back to the US! I figure, as long as I’m day dreaming, why not throw in thermal baths, glaciers and the midnight sun!