The South of France has always held a special allure. And so it was we decided to combine the rustic glories of Provence with a spin around the gorges of Verdun, the hilltop towns of the Luberon with the Gallo-Roman vestiges of Nimes and Avignon.
And to follow, a visit to a land in creation along the mid-Atlantic ridge. Fire and Ice and the raw beauty of the natural world to be compared with the joys of 'une semaine a Paris'. Come back in late April to follow the journey.
Buses in the Baltics by Lux Express - sign up to their newsletter and you will receive regular coupon codes for discounts
The ferry from Lithuania to Germany - easily booked using the dfds website
The excellent bahn.de for booking trains in Germany
Last but not least, accommodation through airbnb. Better than hotels and half the price. Sign up using this link www.airbnb.com.au/c/krichards13 and we will both get a credit to use in our bookings
The break of journey between Europe and Australia was on this occasion spent in the former foreign concessions of Hong Kong and Macau. These two enclaves, now increasingly assimilated into China offer a fascinating contrast.
Hong Kong is a vertical city, spiking its skyscrapers into the humid air above its harbour. Everything which goes on in Hong Kong seems to be in obeisance to the great God of Commerce. Money is king and the devil take the hindmost. It is not a city for pedestrians, whose passage is obstructed at every turn by new expressways, roadways, stalls on the footpath and the never-ending construction and reconstruction process.
But cross the Pearl River to Macau, on your choice of Red or Blue ferries (or wait for it, a fabulously extravagant bridge), and the focus switches predominantly to vaudeville. Macau is a theme park for the hedonistic pleasures, with, you guessed it, the pursuit of the bargain or a windfall very much a part of the attraction. If one is not shopping for bargains in the narrow alleys of the old Portuguese town, the fantasy worlds of the mega-casinos is on offer as an alternative. It is emblematic of the place that it's major sight is just a facade, whilst the Venetian casino recreates the semblance of La Serenissima in a labyrinthine shopping mall.
There is one constant though, whether you be in Hong Kong or Macau. There is never-ending array of foods to savour and enjoy. Whether it is the one Michelin star blandishments of Tim Ho Wan (meh), or the more satisfying crispiness of Cantonese Roast Goose at the famous Kam's, Hong Kong has much to offer the taste buds. Across the delta, Portuguese Egg tarts are on sale everywhere, whilst the curious pork chop bun is a paradox all in itself.
There is an unnatural fascination with walls and the building thereof about in the world these days. The ignorant buffoon who presently styles himself as US President might usefully look at the example of Berlin, a city which has much wisdom to impart on the subject. He is after all, a man who has great need of wisdom.
At very great cost of course, Berliners learned that walls do not work as proposed by the builders. They fail to keep us free. They fail to defend us from those that we fear. They even mislead us as to the true threat.
Berlin has taken its great big ugly wall down, but has left reminders, to itself, and to posterity of its forty years of tears, madness and sorrow.
It has come together as a vibrant and lively city, celebrating all the pleasures and challenges of civilization. It recognizes the events of the past without overburdening itself with apportioning guilt and blame. There is plenty of that to go around of course. But for those who call Berlin home now, there is a much better future in store.
The Saxony capital has been rebuilt, brick by vitrified brick in the aftermath of the highly questionable bombing raid of February 1945. The best that could be said is that it is possible that the planners of the raids did not anticipate that the destructive firestorm would be the cause of mass civilian casualties. These men however, had much bitter experience of the terrible effects of the cowardly bombing of cities for the purpose of dampening the morale of the enemy. The Luftwaffe had taught them too well.
So now the rebuilt palaces and museums sparkle along the bend of the Elbe. The Frauenkirche has risen from the rubble once more, still overlooked by the glowering visage of Martin Luther. The treasures of Electors and Kings of Saxony are on display to the multitudes who visit the city. From the statuary and fountains of the Zwinger Royal Palace to the treasure troves of the Green Vaults of the Rezidenz Palace all that was lost is now found, and most certainly, the gold glitters.
But nevertheless, a pall of regret and sorrow seems to loom over this recreated city. Kurt Vonnegut said once that he was the only person to benefit from the destruction of Dresden. He survived, told his story and became rich and famous. So it goes.
There are some storied names of the great and good associated with the historic University city of Leipzig. Nowadays, it styles itself as a 'City of Science and Music', and celebrates some very famous sons and daughters indeed.
Philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz is famed for the discovery (at virtually the same time as Isaac Newton) of the calculus. Whist this discovery might have occurred long after his departure for the greener fields of Hanover, the town of his birth commemorates him with statue in the grounds of the University. It would not be fair however, to view the city as a one trick pony. Other scientific luminaries of the city include Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche and Werner Heisenberg.
And of course, Leipzig is likewise famous for its musical pedigree. The Notenspur celebrates the many contributors to this storied heritage. Chief among these is of course the granddaddy of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach, interred in the chapel of Thomaskirche, and thundered over by the pipes of the grand organ in regular recitals. But also part of the trail is the fine Mendelssohn house museum, dedicated to Felix, and his lesser known sister Fanny. Along the way one sees the villa where Gustav Mahler stayed when he lived in Leipzig. Steles bear busts of composers Edward Grieg and Franz Schubert, whilst parklands bear the names of Clara Zetkin and Richard Wagner.
The main commercial centre lies withing a ring road, and contains a plethora of buildings in the local Art Nouveau style known as Jugendstil. Many coffee houses are found filled with patrons, enjoying the lively culture. Outside the Ring Road, the wide tree-lined avenues of the city are lined with modest apartment buildings, each of which contains a central courtyard green space, providing air and space and light for the residents. Along the streets, a fast and effective tram system provides easy access to all parts of the city. A city of science and music indeed, but also a very fine place for people to live and enjoy.
Sitting at the foot of the Hartz mountains, the little town of Quedlinburg punches above its weight as an iconic location. Its marvellously intact Altstadt, is home to hundreds of half-timbered buildings (fachwerk), whilst scattered amongst them in the Neuestadt are a pleasing array of Art Nouveau buildings in the style of the native Jugendstil movement.
Also present in profusion are effigies of witches. They adorn shops, are seen in the windows of many houses and are even plastered over the ubiquitous sausage stalls. These images reflect the pagan pre-Christian heritage of these lands. They are still celebrated come April 30, on Walpurgisnacht, where the ghostly Wild Hunt pursues the goddess Walpurga through hail and snow as winter yields to spring in the mountains. "There is a mountain very high and bare, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis Night," says folklorist Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology about the Brocken, highest peak of the Hartz mountains.
So it is not surprising that Christianity also has a potent place in the melange which makes up Quedlinburg. The town is glowered over by the massive fortress church of St Servatius. It is an austere, plain Romanesque basilica, notable for its wonderfully spare stone carving. Founded by Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich I, it was further finessed and expanded by his successor Otto I. Frescoes once covered the walls, but these are no more, though their ghosts can be seen in the crypts beneath the pseudo-romanesque choir which was built into the church by the Nazis, who used it as a 'sanctuary' for the SS. Heinrich Himmler saw himself as the embodiment of long dead Heinrich, come to return the Germany the glory of the Holy Roman Empire, bringing on the Thousand Year Reich.
Which lasted but 12 ruinous years. The fastidious reconstruction of the town and its monuments can be laid at the feet of the otherwise unlamented GDR, which did fine work in its years of travail in preserving the history of the German peoples. Munching on a bratwurst in the fine Market Square, one can thank them for this service at the least.
Kühlungsborn is a place with long spa traditions. It was one of the first seaside resorts to be founded in Germany, dating back to the 1860s. Its long promenade, facing the Baltic sea is lined with many hotels in typical German spa town architecture, none standing taller than the trees.
Along the long sandy beach, bathers brave the not so cold waters, but typically enclose themselves within a traditional Strandkorb on the beach, a covered chair which protects them from wind and sun.
Kuhlungsborn might be said to be in its third incarnation. First as a grand resort for the well to do of pre-war Germany to take the waters in the newly constructed grand resort and spa hotels and boarding houses.
Secondly, the forcibly nationalised properties were used as cheap holiday and health resorts for regulated holidays for East German citizens. During DDRs standard holiday period of July to August, Kühlungsborn was packed with holidaymakers. The cost of the holiday facilities was very low, normally 60-100 East German marks for 14 days full board.
And lastly, reborn again as a thoroughly renovated holiday destination for citizens of the reunified Germany, huffing and puffing their way to the beach on the century old steam train the Moiilbahn.
Dubbed the 'Queen of the Hanseatic League' and by Charles IV as one of the five glories of the Holy Roman Empire (alongside Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice no less), Lübeck grew fat and rich on trade. It is a treasury of 'Brick Gothic', the grand church towers and the crow stepped gables of its many merchant's houses constucted of glazed and red bricks. It stands readily defensible, surrounded by water and its gates protected by the bulky round towers of The Holstentor and Burgtor.
Amongst it's famous sons was one Dieterich Buxtehude an early master of the baroque organ. As was traditional, he married his predecessor's eldest daughter before taking up his post as organmaster of the Marienkirche. So famous was this composer, that a young Johannes Sebastian Bach walked 250 miles to visit, stayed 3 months, to hear him play and "to comprehend one thing and another about his art".
But as time passed, so did the glory days. The wrong alliances were chosen, the advent of transatlantic trade weakened the Hanseatic League and Lübeck commenced the long decline to the sleepy backwater it is today.
A tortuous history lies in the past of Lithuania's third city and major seaport. In the days of the Teutonic knights and the later Kingdom of Prussia it was the northernmost Geman speaking town 'Von der Maas bis an die Memel'. Lost to Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, it was nonetheless, the last territorial acqusition made by Adolf Hitler before World War II.
Today the reconstructed Old Town of Half-timbered Buildings (Fachwerk) and cobbled streets are thronged with cruise ship passengers, the former warehouses converted to Beer Halls and Galleries.