I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Base Jumping In Lauterbrunnen

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I’m in for the night. I’m on the valley floor. From my balcony, the view matches the 19th-century etchings I enjoyed earlier today. The bright moon gives the cliffs an edge. New floodlighting sparkles on Staubbach Falls — a waterfall tall as a skyscraper that bursts over the cliff. The arc of water, so riled up from its trip down the mountain to this climax, seems to go in slow motion as it flies gracefully away from the mountain and tumbles to the valley floor. Ever since I was kid, I’ve imagined I could follow an individual drop.

At the foot of the falls, just beyond a smooth cone of land built by centuries of rocks hurled as if the river loses its grip on earth, the only bar in town glows with activity. Its old-school neon sign says “dance.” This is Lauterbrunnen Valley’s only spit-and-sawdust pub. It’s also a gathering point, famous throughout Europe, for the ultimate daredevils — the guys who make Johnny Knoxville look like a pansy: cliff-leaping base jumpers. While farmers slump at the bar, base jumpers from around Europe share stories and lessons learned.

All week I’ve nodded my head sadly in agreement with locals who rail against the crazy base jumpers who come to this valley to own the cliffs. This is beyond thrill-seeking. This is foolhardy playing with death…just asking for a “road kill” joke. It’s a nuisance when they keep dying upon landing in the otherwise peaceful farms (as if it traumatizes the cows).

Realizing I need to get out and experience this base jumpers’ bar, I shut the lid on my laptop, put my clothes back on, and went over for a beer. Angie the wiry bartender drew me a local draft and walked me through the photos around the room showing off the best departure points. Outside, a guy in a “bat suit” (wind suit) spread his arms and legs to demonstrate the aerodynamic webbing that let him actually fly rather than fall.

I met Pauli from Finland. Frank is his base-jumping name, but I wanted his real Finnish name. (He’s a data systems engineer in Tampere, north of Helsinki.) After 25 years of skydiving, now he spends his vacation base jumping. He’s here for a week, and will probably make 20 jumps.

When Pauli said something interesting, I’d pull out my notebook and jot it down. A couple from Oregon interrupted to get my photograph, and Pauli realized I had a following among travelers in the US. He explained about this international fraternity of base jumpers. Their common passion transcends any cultural and language differences. Lauterbrunnen offers about the best jumping in Europe. It’s legal (more and more places are saying no), the access is quick and easy (allowing 3 or 4 jumps per day), and jumpers from all over congregate here at Hotel Horner. Base jumpers respect host communities. Here, in a valley busy with helicopters shuttling material to remote construction sites, they are sure to be in good with the pilots. After all, if you jump into a helicopter…end of vacation.

In the last three years, “tracking” pants and jackets — which fill with air in a way to give the jumper more surface for a slower flight with more control (or “tracking” ability) — have become popular. Pauli plans to learn tracking…but you do your learning from an airplane first before cliff jumping. The bat suits are a completely different skill. He’s not going there.

Pauli was a bit shy. He was pleased I knew about the great ski jumpers of Finland. I didn’t get the bravado I expected in this bar. For many jumpers, it’s a personal thing.

Pauli agreed jumping is never completely safe. “When you are no longer nervous, you should quit. There are uncontrollable risks. It’s a matter of risk management. We say, ‘Shit happens.’ We also say, ‘Angels don’t protect you against stupidity.’”

He shared his log book. Each jump over the years was logged with an assessment (great tracking, rough landing, and so on). As I left, Pauli asked me to sign his log book. He joked that if he survived this adrenalin-seeking stage of his life, this book would be a great conversation piece for his grandchildren. I signed it, hoping he was right. Walking back to my hotel, I was thankful I had left my balcony an hour earlier.

Flying with Fritz

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Swiss people are expert at living with nature. Their land, long a mountain fortress, is now a play round… “for big boys,” my friend Fritz adds. Fritz, a dynamo who runs my favorite little hotel in Interlaken, recently broke his collarbone. For the first time, I can keep up with him. He climbs a mountain on his bike just to see the sunset. I’m forever thankful to Fritz (who’s nearly my age) for alpine mountain-biking my son Andy into the ground — and then taking him “flying.”

Parasailing is Fritz’s passion. He is forever nagging me to “go flying.” Flying with Fritz (tandem parasailing) is his sideline. Andy still talks about his exhausting and exhilarating day with riding and flying with Fritz.

As a hotelier, Fritz is tuned into the phenomenon of Indians coming to the Alps in droves. “We love Indians — but they need to learn manners when staying in European hotels. We rent them a double, you turn your back, and you have seven people in the room — cooking curry on the carpet.” Fritz finds you can get out the smell, but not the stains. On regional buses, Indian tourists are so loud they even drown out the Americans.

Fritz explained that Indians are a huge part of Interlaken’s business. They come to see mountain scenes made famous in their movies. Kashmir is now too dangerous for movie production, and romantic Indian movies need mountain wonderlands for lovers to swoon with the maximum melodrama. (There’s even a restaurant now on top of the Jungfrau called “Bollywood.”)

I was with Fritz when a freak hailstorm pulverized Interlaken. It had been really hot. Locals — like squirrels before a storm — sensed it and were nervous. Something big was clearly coming. It got dark. Then…bam! Typhoon in the Alps. I parked my bike just in time to take refuge in the hotel.

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Standing on my balcony, I watched flower gardens hammered into pulp. The road became a river of flowing hail balls, leaves, and flower petals. Fifteen minutes later, we went out to survey the casualties: Fabric on chairs was ripped, an entire wall of old windows was left jagged, birds were stripped of their feathers and knocked silly. Car rooftops were blanketed in dents, and windshields were alligatored. I helped Fritz shovel the hail out of his basement before it melted. He joked, “A greeting from George W. Bush.” And then said it’s no problem–we Swiss are the most insured people in the world.

Of course GWB didn’t cause the violent weather and this is not the first hail storm to ruin a city’s cars. But, to people living close to the weather here in Europe’s Alps, the strange and changing weather is a troubling reality. There is a growing frustration with people who confuse their short term economic needs with the long term needs of the environment.

The next morning, Fritz and I went on a hike. Riding the lift to Männlichen, high on the ridge above Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, we stepped off and into a visual symphony: Before us towered the mighty Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Fritz, who worked at this mountaintop restaurant as a kid and bikes here for a little fresh air a couple of nights a week, talked of the changes he’s noticed here in the last decade. They’re subtle. Walking by a glacial pond, he recalls how, during his childhood, there would be hundreds of frogs singing. Now there are none.

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We studied a new ski lift being built. Before, they would just build a few towers. Now, a swath is cut right up the mountain as each lift is plumbed with snowmaking gear. Big water pipes stuck out of the concrete foundations seeming to trumpet a new age. You won’t have ski resorts in the future without manmade snow.

Today the Swiss ski industry is in crises: A third of the lifts are losing money, a third are in trouble, and only a third are good business. I pulled out the postcard Fritz gave me. Wiggling it, I saw the glacier come and go. The valley in 1907…filled with ice. The same valley in 2007…dry, with a shrunken glacier hanging like a hot dog’s tongue over the top of the valley high in the distance.

Gazing up at the North Face of the Eiger, Fritz tells me of speed climbers, leaving Interlaken on the early lift, scaling this Everest of rock faces, and getting back to Interlaken in time for a late-afternoon business meeting. Then he gets back onto global warming. As the permafrost thaws, there are more falling rocks, and mountain guides are abandoning once-standard ascents that are no longer safe.

Fritz is typical of Europeans who enjoy Americans enough to be comfortable challenging us with a political discussion. As I send them a good percent of their business through my guidebooks, they are careful not to upset me by angering my readers.

I tell him I believe part of the joy most Americans find in their travels is to be challenged by people who see things differently. I think one thing the Swiss and we Americans have in common is a self-assuredness that can border on arrogance. I asked Fritz how the American guests reacted to his interest in politics and if he saw a change in arrogance. He said there was a spike in arrogance a few years ago but that’s less so now.

Dresden’s Wettins Rule

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At exactly 11:15 in the courtyard of the royal palace in Dresden, forty Meissen porcelain bells began a sweet three-minute melody. I left the shelter of my guide’s umbrella to get a closer look at the bell tower. Squinting into a mist, I could just see the porcelain bells vibrate when hit. I was mesmerized by this little royal trick. Then I wondered why I was so thrilled. Several groups of sturdy Russian tourists who crowded the same square didn’t seem to be that impressed.

Then I realized I was on a Dresden high. In an eastern German town I’ve known for just a few years, I had enjoyed new insights and great new sights — newly restored and newly open to the public.

The Wettin Dynasty ruled Saxony from Dresden for 800 years. Their Louis XIV-style big shot was Augustus the Strong. They say he could break horseshoes with his bare hands and fathered 365 children. He loved being portrayed with the rose of Luther (symbol of the Protestant movement in Germany) being crushed under his horse’s hoof.

The Wettins taught the rest of Europe’s royal courts the art and importance of having their own porcelain works. The Wettins’ Meissen was the first. I thought I knew the best crown jewels…until I saw the Wettin jewels in Dresden’s “Historic Green Vault” — newly opened and requiring an advance reservation to see. They’re absolutely dazzling, and a clear reminder that those Wettins were something in their day.

Then, after pausing to enjoy several street musicians (ever since Romania was admitted to the EU, there has been a flood of street musicians in this part of Europe), I went out to see Volkswagen’s “Transparent Factory,” where visitors are welcome to watch fancy new models actually being assembled. The factory is so politically correct that parts are brought in by “Cargo Trams” — which congest the city’s traffic less than trucks.

Finally, the highlight: the newly restored Frauenkirche. Dresden’s 310-foot-tall Church of Our Lady was destroyed during the massive bombings one night in 1945. With a huge international effort, the heart and soul of the city was put together like a massive jigsaw puzzle — using as much of the original stone as possible. Today it’s open once again. The interior is stunning: pastel to heighten the festive nature of the worship, curvy balconies to enhance the feeling of community, and with seven equal doors — to welcome all equally and send worshippers out symbolically to all corners to share their enthusiasm for their faith.

My Dresden visit started rocky. Riding the express train into town, I figured it would just stop at the main station. The train pulled into Dresden Neustadt — the New City of Dresden. Okay. Most of the passengers got out. So did I. The train took off. I walked and walked with my bag, really sweating, in a confused fog. I must have walked twenty minutes as my denial that I had gotten off on the wrong station slowly faded. After circling the big block and pretty embarrassed at my mistake, I pondered cutting my losses and just taking a taxi to my hotel. But another train was leaving in minutes for what must be the central station. I hopped on. Five minutes later we arrived. I hopped out at Dresden Mitte. The train took off and I stepped outside the station again, and it slowly sunk in: I made the same mistake again. Another train came in a few minutes. I got on it and finally made it to my intended station: Dresden Hauptbahnhof — a block from my hotel. As I tell travelers in lectures: “Many towns have more than one train station.”

One of my best skills — extremely helpful in my line of work — is the ability to make mistakes…with gusto. After a day in Dresden, the frustrating start was a distant memory. And I had a new appreciation of a city that just 60 years ago lay in smoldering rubble, just 20 years ago was in a USSR-imposed economic hole, and today seems to have caught up with Western Germany.

After the masses of Americans I saw in Berlin and Rothenburg, I saw barely one during my entire Dresden visit. Hey, travelers — check out Saxony. Those Wettins rule.

The Characters of Rothenburg

Why do I still love Rothenburg? Everyone in the town makes their living off tourism. The place is stampeded midday with visiting tour groups. The town even created its own traditional pastry — the Schneeball(“snowball”) to compliment all the faux-traditional Christmas ornaments it sells. Yet when I pass through its medieval gates, I feel like a kid who just got a three-day pass for all the rides at Disneyland.

I used to think I liked Rothenburg for the medieval lifestyles on display in Germany’s best-preserved medieval town. The ramparts are intact — complete with arrow slits. The fish tanks next to the water fountains still evoke the days when marauding armies would siege the city, and it would survive on the grain in its lofts and the fish in its tanks. The night watchman stokes his lamp and walks wide-eyed tourists through the back lanes, telling stories of hot oil and great plagues. The monastery garden still has its medicinal herbs. And the crime and punishment museum shows graphically how people were disciplined back when life was nasty, brutish, and short.

But on my last visit, I realized why I like Rothenburg so much (in spite of its Schneeballs, obnoxious tour groups, and Christmas trinkets). It is a community of real characters…and a small enough community that all the characters know each other. And as a return visitor, I’ve learned the social scene.

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Norry — the man whose guesthouse was so creepy and whose moustache was so droopy that I had to sing the “Addams Family” theme song with each visit — invented a cross between a trombone and a saxophone. He calls it the Norryphone, and now with each visit I boogie on his honky-tonk piano while Norry improvises.

“Herman the German” has spent a thousand Wednesdays at Mario’s “Old Franconian Wine Stube” hosting the English Conversation club (where Germans hang out with tourists, sharing slang, “tongue-breakers,” and beer). Mario — a bohemian chef Gene Wilder look-alike — fastidiously checks each plate as it leaves his kitchen.

Marie-Therese sells kitschy German knick-knacks so enthusiastically that when she takes me home for dinner, her house feels like the innards of a cuckoo clock — and it doesn’t surprise me.

Reno the Italian married into the town and runs a great little hotel-restaurant. For a generation his daughter, Henni, has caused travelers to dream in German. Spry Klaus, who runs a B&B above his grocery store, takes travelers jogging with him each evening at 7:30. Every time I walk under her house, I still remember the old woman who lived in the wall who loved showing off her WWII bullet wound. She’s gone now.

George, the night watchman, is the envy of his neighbors for his lucrative gig — taking a hundred English-speaking tourists around each night for $8 a head on a one-hour tour. Then he does it again in German. (He collects for the English tour at the end. But for the German-speaking crowd, he needs to collect at the beginning…since, otherwise, they’d melt away just before collection time.)

On my last evening in town, everyone seemed to be at Mario’s. Herman the German was holding court with his table of American travelers, there for the English Conversation Club. He gave me a tiny business card that said, “If I had some of your business, I could afford a bigger card.” Norry was playing chess with Martin the potter at the next table. I was enjoying a beer with Henni and Klaus. Mario jokes that it’s impolite for me to not have my hands in sight above the table. He sits down, and the four of us make a square with our stretched left hands — thumbs touching little fingers — and he sprinkles a little snuff tobacco in the “anatomical snuff boxes” we make where our thumbs hit our wrists. “For good health,” we sniff together.

After my nose stops wiggling, Henni tries to impress upon me how sick she thinks it is that American tourists are so nervous about their children having to share a double bed. She keeps repeating, “This is sick in head, krank im Kopf.Never would a European family ask for twin beds for brother and sister. Never. Why Americans? Why they insist?”

George, looking like one of the Bee Gees in his flowing hair and billowing white shirt, is done with his tour and joined by his hippie girlfriend. They dream of their next trip to Thailand. He’s chained to the town to do his tours every night for six months…then he’s free to travel.

In a small town, everyone knows everything. People get along impressively well. The only gang universally not liked seems to be the cartel of farm boys who take tourists on horse-and-buggy rides — apparently they are about as charming as their horses.

I told Henni of a wonderful new hotel I found run by Herr Baumann. I tell her he reminds me of the Wizard of Oz enjoying a relaxed retirement. She concurs, and marvels at how I am able to uncover the characters of the town.

I marvel at — in Rothenburg — how easy that is. For travelers, the challenge is to find places where you can be a part of a quirky yet lovable community…and find a way in. As a returning guidebook reseracher I have an advantiage. But I see lots of travelers having the same fun.

Naked Cartoon Characters in Germany

Yesterday, in two hours, I saw more penises than I’ve seen in the last two years. All extremely relaxed…and, I must say, I was struck by the variety.

Since the Roman emperor soaked in the mineral waters of Baden-Baden, the German spa town has welcomed those in need of a good soak. And it’s always naked. In the 19th century, this was Germany’s ultimate spa resort, and even today the name Baden-Baden is synonymous with relaxation in a land where the government still pays its overworked citizens to take a little spa time.

I happened to be here when one of our tour groups was in town. I told the guide what a great opportunity for her group to enjoy the spa. She said, “No one’s going. They can’t handle the nudity.”

It’s long been a frustration with me as a guide — getting Americans into spas with naked Europeans. My first time was with my wife and some German friends — a classy, good-looking young couple. We were swept into the changing area with no explanation. Suddenly they were naked and I felt like Road Runner just beyond the cliff’s edge. Then — we eased up, and got naked. It’s not sexy…simply open and free.

Whether on a Croatian beach, in a Finnish sauna, a Turkish hammam, or a German spa (I can’t come up with an English example), a fun part of travel can be getting naked with strangers. (Am I right here? What travel memories can you share?)

For me, there are delightful road bumps in my intense research schedule–wonderful God-sent detours where I put away the schedule and notes and simply enjoy the moment. The Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden is one of those fine little breaks. And today, I needed it: city after city, still reeling from Berlin, with lots of inputting into my laptop. I don’t care how far behind I am in my writing. Now it was spa time.

Wearing only the locker key strapped around my wrist, I weighed myself — 92 kilos. The attendant led me under the industrial-strength shower — a torrential kickoff pounding my head and shoulders…obliterating the rest of the world. He then gave me slippers and a towel, ushering me into a dry heat room with fine wooden lounges — slats too hot without the towel. Staring up at exotic tiles of herons and palms, I cooked. After more hot rooms punctuated with showers came the massage.

Like someone really drunk, going for one more glass, I climbed gingerly onto the marble slab and lay belly-up. The masseuse held up two brillo-pad mitts and asked, “Hard or soft?” In the spirit of wild abandon, I said “hard,” not even certain what that would mean to my skin. I got the coarse brillo-pad scrub-down.

I was so soaped up, he held my arms like a fisherman holds a salmon so I wouldn’t slip away. As if my body was any different to him than the dozens he rubs down every day, funny thoughts went through my mind. It was still extremely relaxing.

Finished with a Teutonic spank, I was sent off into the pools. Nude, without my glasses, and not speaking the language, I was gawky. On a sliding scale between Mr. Magoo and Woody Allen, I was everywhere. Steam rooms, cold plunges…it all led to the mixed section.

This is where the Americans get uptight. The parallel spa facilities intersect as both men and women share the finest three pools. Here, all are welcome to glide under exquisite domes in perfect silence like aristocratic swans. Germans are nonchalant, tuned into their bodies and focused on solitary relaxation. Tourists are tentative, trying to be cool…but more aware of their nudity. Again, there’s nothing sexy about it…just vivid life in full flower.

A beautiful woman glides in front of me. Like a female flotilla, her peaceful face and buoyant breasts cruise by, creating barely a ripple. It occurs to me that I wouldn’t mind talking to her. But you don’t really just start up a conversation with a naked stranger. What would you say–“Nice domes”? Then she starts walking into the men’s section. Perfect. I whisper to her, “Excuse me, that’s the men’s section.” She was from Texas…and appreciative.

The climax is the cold plunge. I’m not good with cold water — yet I absolutely love this. You must not wimp out on the cold plunge.

Then, the attendant escorted me into the “quiet room” and asked if I’d like to be awoken at any time. I told him at closing time. He wrapped me in hot sheets and a brown blanket. No, I wasn’t wrapped…I was swaddled. Warm, flat on my back, among twenty hospital-type beds — only one other bed was occupied…he seemed dead. I stared up at the ceiling and some time later was jolted awake by my own snore.

Leaving, I weighed myself again: 91 kilos. I had shed 2.2 pounds of sweat. It would have been more if tension had mass. Stepping into the cool evening air, I was thankful my hotel was a level two-block stroll away. Like Gumby, flush and without momentum, I fell…slow motion onto my down comforter, big pillow puffing around my head like the flying nun. Wonderfully naked under my clothes, I could only think, “Ahhhh. Baden-Baden.”