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Travel is all about surprises, about serendipitous discoveries and transcending expectations. And, yes, we’ve been surprised in 2011.
We were startled to move so quickly from serene and sunny spring back to deep midwinter when in March we traveled by train from the shores of the North Italian lakes to eastern Switzerland. The little train of the narrow-gauge Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn fought its way through virgin snow over the Oberalp Pass in a wave of spindrift.
And then just a week or two later we were struck by the warm hospitality we encountered in Macedonia, most conspicuously in Tetovo, where we met Abdulmuttalip Bekiri, a Bektashi Dervish who can tell a tale of two of Tetovo life.
Traveling through Karelia
Spring comes late to northern Europe, so we did not venture to Karelia until May. And the big surprise there was that a landscape which many might judge to be unremittingly monotonous was in fact evocatively beautiful. We drove for hours through deeply melancholic scenery. The last of the winter snow lingered in forest dells, the waves of forest blended into the heavens, and the saving grace were the distance signs that punctuated our dusty progress.
We spent a weekend at Ilomantsi, a lakeshore community in Finnish Karelia, where it was a privilege to join Father Ioannis Lampropoulos, Ilomantsi’s Greek priest, and his Orthodox community for Great Vespers on Saturday and for the Divine Liturgy the following morning. Drenched with grace, we then drove on through sunny Karelia.
Surprises closer to home
There were surprises closer to home. The summit of the Brocken, highest point of the Harz Mountains in Germany, is an easy day trip from Berlin. We take things slowly and so spent a few days in the Harz region in September. Everyone had told us that the top of the Brocken is always foggy. We traveled thrice to the summit during our Harzreise, each of our trinity of ascents blessed with clear weather.
We were also surprised by the enthusiasm of the British public, who responded magnificently to a request to nominate their favorite bus routes in Britain. We had the privilege of working with forty of these folk this year as they wrote accounts of those journeys for a book that was published in October by Bradt Travel Guides. Many of these people had never before written anything for publication, but they came up trumps.
The greatest reward: Fellow travelers
And perhaps the best thing of the entire year were those chance encounters, the casual swapping of smiles with strangers on a train and the little moments of quiet shared with fellow travelers. That was 2011. We were surprised by strange spaces and peculiar places, and end the year with many memories of friendly faces. We hope that 2012 is just the same.
We wish you all a very happy New Year.