Putting down the travel guide can sometimes lead to pleasant surprises and discoveries on vacation.
Photography by the author
Some people travel for the excitement of an adventure vacation. Whether it’s skiing, surfing or golfing, they’ve calculated the numbers — nothing will be a surprise.
Some have researched the destination: the museums, the shows, the restaurants. They know where they’ll see a famous statue or find the restaurant that’s on everybody’s lists.
Others travel in a state of serendipity prepared to be pleased by whatever they come upon. It’s as if they have their own Discovery Channel. They are on vacation and something unexpected makes it all the better.
I was visiting my cousin in Edinburgh, Scotland when I discovered the death mask of Mary Queen of Scots. She had been executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1587 and an eyewitness account of her death had survived. My cousin told me her death mask was still on display in nearby Linlithgow Castle
so off we went.
I didn’t have to be told the death mask of William Burke was on display at the Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh or that his skeleton in the Medical School’s Anatomy Department. I’d passed both many times as a medical student.
Burke and Hare started digging up graves to supply one of the medical schools with cadavers for dissection but they soon became “the grave robbers too lazy to dig.” They asphyxiated 17 women to obtain bodies. After being arrested Hare escaped to London “where his activities would barely be noticed,” but Burke was hanged in the town square and then his body was publicly dissected by the school’s professor of anatomy. Burke and Hare are Scotland’s most notorious criminals though some Scots take pains to point out both were actually Irish.
The city of Lima in Peru has its history too, and much of it unknown to North Americans although we’re aware of how the Spanish conquistadores destroyed the Incas.
A native guide takes us into the Franciscan Monastery and down into the catacombs where the Inquisition did its grisly work to convert the natives. More than 25,000 skeletons form a gruesome, geometric ossuary.
You’ll need comfortable shoes to walk on cobble-stone streets along Inca-blocked walls in Lima, but to discover one early North American culture you need a small boat. There are no roads in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, now recognized under the name Haida Gwaii.
A Canadian cardiologist and his wife look back on history. See a description of a cruise in this UNESCO World Heritage Site
what some call the American Galapagos
the Sound of Music,
You have to spend some energy getting to the Queen Charlottes, but some things just fall into your lap in Salzburg, where years after the 1959 musical still dominates tourism in Mozart’s birthplace.
Several houses claim a connection with Mozart but there weren’t many signs of his life at Getreidegasse 9 where he was born. The clavicord on which he composed music as a child is on display. Travelers have posted mixed reviews about this paucity of exhibits. One wrote “Couldn’t get a Handel on it, won’t be going Bach!”
At least we know Mozart lived. Switzerland, on the other hand, goes to (one would hope tongue-in-cheek) efforts to show travelers the places associated with William Tell.
It is doubtful the Swiss super hero ever existed although statues, museums, restaurant place mats and stained glass windows all depict the famous event, some showing his weapon as a simple bow and others a more mechanical crossbow.
Far away from the white-covered mountains of Switzerland lies the Red Center of Australia. Tourists arriving at Alice Springs are usually occupied arranging to get to the world’s second largest monolith, Uluru. Others choose to see the famous outback hospital Adelaide House.
It’s a revelation to wander this small hospital, especially for younger physicians who have never practiced as country doctors in rural America.
France has been criticized for its behavior in the Second World War but there is respect for how the French Underground fought Nazi occupation and prepared the north part of the country for D-Day.
A visit to Chartres Cathedral and its stained glass windows brings visitors, by chance, past a memorial. It shows a broken sword raised in defiance, a tribute to the heroic Jean Moulin, the leader of the French resistance in WWII. According to a passerby, “Several members of the Resistance were betrayed by one of the group tortured by the Gestapo’s Klaus Barbie. Seven are commemorated here, including the one who betrayed them. His name is known but the seven families chose to keep his identity private. The seven died for France as others did fighting in the streets of Paris.”
A visit to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, a beautiful but damaged city, produces another flash of discovery. This little country, with a population less than San Diego County in California, has produced great yachtsmen, Antarctic explorers, the Mile Champion of the World and one of the two men who, together, first stood atop the highest mountain in the world.
A glass showcase spans one wall exhibiting the country’s history. Lying over on the right, as if tossed there carelessly, lays the blue and white beekeeper’s hat that Edmund Hillary wore on top of Mount Everest. A flight over New Zealand’s Southern Alps suggests where Sir Edmund might have gotten his climbing experience.
The best discoveries come as a surprise. We were walking around Bucharest, the city at the end of a river cruise we’d made on the Danube. We were enjoying a guided tour of the city arranged by Uniworld River Cruises. Clearly the buildings were centuries old. “How old?” we asked our guide.
She smiled and said, “More than 500 years. We are in the , the Old Princely Court.”
“Who was the prince?” we asked.
Her reply: “You call him Dracula. And here is” (she swept her hand dramatically) “his statue!”
The Statue of Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) is on Franceza Street in front of the ruins of the palace where he ruled in the middle 1500s. Why he has been portrayed in literature as the evil Dracula by the Western World yet seen as a hero against the Ottomans by his country is a fascinating story
maybe for another time.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.