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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Three Of My Favorite Places......Durban, Angouleme, and Fussen

Links: A. Municipality of eThekwini (Durban)
           B. Information about Angouleme, France
           C. Official Website For Fussen, Germany

I have been enormously fortunate in my life to have visited cities on four of the seven continents (Australia, Asia and Antarctica have eluded me), and I enjoy nothing more than to share my experiences.  I have visited north, west, central, east and south Africa.  Cities in the European sense are new to Africa, and they have developed a unique, symbiotic relationship with elements of village life which can't be abandoned.  I have decided to occasionally write about some of the cities I have known, and Durban, South Africa is my first choice.  It's not my most favorite city in the world (Houston, Texas holds that place), but Durban is fresh in my mind and just the right kind of unique to fit in well with this post.
Durban is a busy port city, and during the summer months (November through February), tourists from Johannesburg and Pretoria descend on the beaches in droves.  In reality, the beaches to the north and south of Durban have become more popular recently, but for surfers and fisherman, the city beaches are still the best.  The Durban mile, the area directly adjacent to the city beaches, is indeed occupied by the required skyscraper-type hotels, but it is kept meticulously clean and landscaped.  I enjoy staying at the beach hotels, because I can walk to downtown Durban in ten minutes to visit a museum or go shopping, and then drive in the other direction 15 minutes to Morningside for dinner.  Durban is a friendly city, and compared to Johannesburg and Cape Town, it's where I feel safer.  For international tourists, you can't chose a more ideally located port of entry.  Sure you can fly into Johannesburg and take a combi taxi to Kruger National Park, or you can fly to Cape Town and just visit Cape Town.  However, if you have the time, I recommend flying into Cape Town, and taking a rental car along the Garden Route and up through the Transkei to Durban; It's a drive you will never forget.  Most people don't
Me in Transkei, South Africa, 1991
realize that the Mother City (Cape Town) is geographically, and in numerous other ways, very removed the rest of South Africa.  When friends visiting South Africa ask for advice, I always provide the same itinerary:  Fly into Durban and spend a few days visiting the small, lovely "very British" little seaside villages on the South Coast (Southbroom is bewitching).  Then take a few more days driving north to Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands.  Not much to do but it is a lush, beautiful part of the country to see, and Pietermaritzburg is a very colonial, historic city.  I always spend about a week north of iDurban, visiting the Zulu War Battlefields of Blood River and Isandlwana.  In fact, Zululand (Empangeni, Ubombo, and Mkuze) is my home away from home.  If you want to see wildlife, Mkuze, Umfolozi and Hluhluwe (Sh-shlu-we) will give you your fill.  Returning to Durban, you notice that it is home to the highest percentage of South Africans of Indian heritage.  The latest statistic put the ethnic Indian population of Durban at more than one million.  Their impact is everywhere and they have been instrumental in creating the Durban of today: a unique city that continues to draw me back.

As my second selection for today, I have chosen one of my two hometowns.  Angouleme, France, population roughly fifty thousand, is the seat of the Department de Charente, and a very historic place.  Located in southwest France, northeast of Bordeaux, Angouleme is deeply imbedded in both the Cognac and wine industry.  The Romans are the first recorded residents, although they claimed the site had been inhabited previously.  No surprise; Angouleme is in a very strategic location.  It sits on top of the highest hill within the general area.  The Romans were the first to construct ramparts, and the village began
Angouleme, France
to resemble the nipple on a breast. In medieval times, another set of more elaborate ramparts were built, to protect the local Duke from his feudal enemies.  Before I get ahead of myself, for students of European history, Angouleme is just south of the location in which the Muslim Moors were finally defeated in their effort to extend their reach out of northern Spain.  Angouleme is bisected by the meandering, sleepy Charente River, which still recognizes my mother, who as a small girl learned to swim in its refreshing waters.  Angouleme is not a typical tourist attraction.  It is the kind of town which attracts foreigners searching for less-temporary digs.  In the last few decades, I have been amazed at the number of wealthy English folks who have moved in, purchased run-down farm houses and even barns, and renovated them into the loveliest of homes.  These new residents aren't always friendly.  I recall once walking just outside of a recently renovated home in
Charente River
Sers, just southwest of Angouleme, when an English voice yelled, in broken French, "private property!"  When I answered in English, the still-unobserved woman replied, "a bloody Yank....well that's even worse than one of the stupid locals".  Angouleme is famous worldwide as a center for graphic artists and comic book illustrators.  The town has a long history of paper construction, which led to its eventual designation as the "comic book capital" of Europe.  I don't mind; the young people who are involved in this type of art are very respectful of the enormous amount of historic architecture that exists throughout the old town.  The countryside around Angouleme is full of old castles, and the locale is traditionally vibrant, healthy and green.  A drive to the ocean takes about an hour and a half.  Your seaside choices are endless, including La Rochelle, Ile De Re, Royan, Ile d'Oleron, and Arcachon.  When I was a young boy of seven, eight and nine, we would spend our summers on the Isle of Re (Ile de Re); we had a small camper which stayed empty until bedtime.  I lived in my swimsuit and turned as brown as a chestnut.  My memories of these summers are some of the most valuable I have.

Last on my list for today is the Bavarian village of Fussen.  It is a lovely, typically spotless Bavarian town, which sits at the foot of the famous castle "Neuschwanstein" (New Swan Castle).  Virtually everyone on the planet has seen at least a photo of Neuschwanstein,
which served as the inspiration for Walt Disney's Disneyland and then Disneyworld castle.  Whether it's summer or winter, Fussen is the perfect tourist destination.  It sits next to a beautiful lake, and claims another Bavarian dream-castle as a neighbor: Hohenschwangau (also built by King Ludwig II).  Visiting the castles is an experience like no other.  I go back at every opportunity and become more enchanted.  I find it difficult to describe.  Each room in these two castles has its own identity, its own priceless art, and its own individual "raison d'etre".  You have the option of walking up to Neuschwanstein, or taking the horse-drawn taxi.  For all persons who are able, I strongly recommend taking the journey on foot.  The brilliant German composer Richard Wagner was an intimate of the young, ever-romantic King Ludwig II, and many of the walls of Neuschwanstein are painted with scenes from Wagner's Operas.  I prefer to visit in the winter months, just before Christmas, when the snow is just deep and frequent enough to be welcome.  The small German towns in the vicinity all have their own particular traditions at Christmas time, and the hot chocolate and warm feelings are impossible to avoid. 
Old Town, Fussen, Germany
Fussen has plenty of reasonable accommodations (in fact, I find most German hotels, Bed-n-Breakfasts, and Guesthouses to be surprisingly cheap.....and of course, everything is spotless).  Its easy to get to Fussen.  You can fly into Munich and take the train, or you can get a rental, which is my preference.  I like to be as mobile as possible.  If you want to take in some skiing, Nesselwang is a great spot and only thirty minutes or so from Fussen.  From Fussen you can easily visit Garmisch, Innsbruck, and even Salzburg.  For engaged couples looking for a romantic getaway for their Honeymoon, Fussen is ideal.

So there you have the first installment of Mukhabarat's travel guide.  And ours is so much cheaper than Fodor's, Lonely Planet, or Frommer's.  And I'll let you in on a little secret: if you have any questions about these places, I'd be happy to answer them.  Thanks for visiting my blog.  

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