Book cover by Jules Bond
The Art of Travel
Leaving the Cocoon
Seeing (North) America first
The Freedom of Traveling Solo
On and Off the Beaten Path
Glories of the Open Road
Feeding the Mind and Spirit
The Spirit of Place
Travel by Rail
What Language Barrier?
Places of the Heart
Mirage and Reality: Travel Wisdom
Airbnbs, Homestays & Family Travel
Great Books on Travel
Great Quotes on Travel
Why Travel? was published by Sojourner Books in paperback and ebook formats on Feb. 28. It is now available locally through Buxton Books (in store or online), through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com and other websites (see my Links page), or by simply sending me a message on this site's Contact Me page or on Facebook. It can be purchased by libraries and companies in paperback or ebook format through IngramSpark. See the Preview below, and thanks!
"Thompson has written a somewhat unique travel book. Although international in scope, it includes plenty of encouragement for Americans to travel in North America first. Not everything has to be “off the beaten path” to be meaningful, writes Thompson, as plenty of intriguing things can be found in the familiar. That said, he also does justice to the well-known and lesser-known wonders of Europe and beyond, tackling the new vibrancy of modern Spain and Greece. There are also chapters that focus on the joys of train and automobile travel while also acknowledging the challenges of both. An offbeat work that will likely provide inspiration to travel again in the future." – Kirkus Reviews
Lillian Smith crystallized a philosophy of travel in a simple phrase, understanding that as we venture out into the world, no journey transports us very far that does not also explore the world within. The why of travel is at least as important as the what or the where.
To that end, this is as much a why-to book as a how-to.
Why do we travel? Why should we? How can we make a journey more rewarding and meaningful? Let's begin with what traits constitute a born traveler, those that come closest to assuring that one's time and money are well spent and the most memorable experience obtained. Flexibility and resilience are indispensable, as are curiosity, intelligence, an open mind, a hunger for new vistas and, in some cases, a certain toughness.
We must also have, or make, the time.
The sad fact is that with much travel, by the time one is getting a feel for the rhythm of a place, it's time to leave. This is particularly true of the average 10-day to two-week excursions cross-country or abroad. Is it better to focus your energies on one place – a great city, say – and explore it to the full, to choose one locale as the hub of a trip and venture out and back along its spokes, or to see as many towns and nations as one can cram into a short period, having a wider (if shallower) experience? That depends on the traveler, of course. At various times, you may utilize all three strategies for a fortnight trip or longer.
It can be argued, persuasively, that slow is better than fast. But not always. You can make a good case for the reverse as well.
Do I advocate travel for its own sake? By all means. But heed the words of the great travel writer Jan Morris, lest it feel like an obligation: “Travel, which was once either a necessity or an adventure, has become very largely a commodity, and from all sides we are persuaded into thinking that it is a social requirement, too.”
Discard that state of mind whenever you sense it surfacing, for the vagaries of fashion and keeping up with the Joneses are not worthy reasons to travel. A traveler's destination is not so much a place, but a new way of seeing things. Travel also is not only about where you go; it's about what you bring back. Human nature being what it is, what a traveler carries back is profoundly influenced by those beliefs and values he or she carries in.
One mentality to cultivate is receptiveness. Leave preconceptions and cultural biases out of your suitcase. A true traveler does not succumb to living in a gated community of the mind, preferring contact only with those of the same economic class, tastes and political outlook, either at home or on the move. You can not help but meet a wider, deeper cross-section of people when away from home – although one hopes you enjoy diversity of acquaintances there as well.
Getting along with people around the country or across the seas means extending to everyone that fundamental global currency: respect. Give it, get it. There is no substitute. You'll be surprised what doors it opens, what helping hands grasp yours.
The sources of information you use can be pivotal. While it is a good idea to stay abreast of the political climate and health concerns or crime in a place you plan to visit, choose up-to-date travel guides and strong magazine or newspaper reportage over what you hear on TV news, notwithstanding such occasionally excellent programs as the late Anthony Bourdain's or Rick Steves' (whose guidebooks also are among the most useful). And don't be overly swayed by U.S. State Department reports, which, though helpful, tend toward the apocalyptic. You'd be apprehensive about going to New York or New Orleans after reading one of these, much less to Bangkok, Quito or Mozambique.
You won't find an abundance of travel websites listed herein, mainly for two reasons: the sheer number of them can be daunting, and because even some of the good ones appear and disappear so quickly than a travel book with a how-to emphasis published one year risks being obsolete in a matter of months.
It is important to bear in mind that while not every trip is going to be sensational – snafus happen, and some experiences are simply unremarkable – even journeys that don't go as planned can be valuable, perhaps even more so. Again, the power of flexibility. Many trips that were not especially memorable at the time remain with me in interesting and useful ways.
A word on technologies. Smart phones and other such devices potentially can be lifesavers, tools for heightened efficiency or getting urgent questions answered quickly and on the fly. More often they are an encumbrance, gadgets that that insulate you from experience, keeping you at arm’s length not only from the people around you but from the immediate stimuli of your surroundings. Forget surfing the Internet. Forget e-mail (unless you're desperately lonely). It's time wasted. How can you be fully in the moment where you are if you're spending so much time wondering what's happening back home? Employ these tools judiciously, not obsessively.
This also applies to cameras of all types. It is embarrassing to admit, but I too have fallen prey to that bane of the age of digital photography (and the SLR before it), the tendency to be a voyeur to one's own experience, so eager to capture images of every facet of your trip (especially landscapes and cityscapes) that you apprehend things second hand by seeing everything through the lens – pardon me, view screen – of a camera. Susan Sontag nailed it when she lamented “Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.” By all means have a photographic record if you wish, but be selective.
Seasoned travelers still will benefit from advance study, networking and planning. And those preparing to set foot on the path for the first time should embrace the excitement of the new. Recall the old adage, trite but true: A journey begins with a single step. Take it.
Chapter 2: The Freedom of Traveling Solo
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” – Henry David Thoreau.
“Alone” and “lonely” need not be synonymous. Never confuse the serenity of solitude with the pangs of loneliness. Experienced solo travelers may get wistful now and again, seeing all those loving couples at candlelit tables or among the tides of passersby on city streets, but they also know the pleasures far exceed the drawbacks.
Solo travel can be amazingly liberating, even when it's more by necessity than design. If you open yourself, it can be a wellspring of personal growth. And, curiously enough, connection.
After all, as Wendell Berry has written, “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”
Going it alone successfully is mainly a matter of approaching things intelligently, knowing your strengths and limitations, doing your homework and, above all, taking advantage of the flexibility this style of travel offers. Yes, the scourge of “single supplement” surcharges has not disappeared, which forces unaccompanied individuals to pay half again (or double) the going rate for the same trip. These extra costs sometimes can be prohibitive on excursions like guided package tours, cruises or photographic safaris.
Which is all the more reason to seek out those companies that have the single traveler's needs (and budget) in mind, or, with a little research, self-reliance and common sense, to craft a personalized itinerary and strike out on your own.
Traveling solo means not being distracted or deflected from observations and perceptions that are wholly your own, unalloyed – the lucidity of loneliness, as Paul Theroux puts it. When you travel solo, there are no compromises. You do or go precisely where you wish, when you wish, and generally have enhanced opportunities for meeting new people. And you simply will not believe how chance encounters, even fleeting ones, can brighten your day. Essayist Willard Spiegelman likens random meetings to “four-minute swirls around a dance floor with different partners, little love affairs without consequences.”
Strangers tend to give couples a wide berth, respecting the impenetrable “bubble” (real or imagined) in which they are encased, though admittedly, couples often have a better chance of striking up conversations with other couples. While it's simply easier to meet people traveling alone, one must still be circumspect. But don't be overly cautious lest you deny yourself some memorable encounters. Be receptive. Give others the benefit of the doubt. That includes fellow travelers, who can be a wonderful source of info as you explore.
Even when aided by a competent travel agent, solo venturing still means shouldering the responsibility for the success of your journey, which can be as empowering as it is challenging. There is also the question of safety, especially for women, though women alone have been indomitable travelers for a great many years, in all corners of the globe. A positive frame of mind, a willingness to explore, and an insatiable curiosity are vital. Remember that the most unlikely places can bear remarkable features of interest, be it the smallest town or village or a superficially unappealing sector of a city that harbors hidden surprises.
In fact, for all the wonders of the major cities of the world, investing time in a small city not only can be less expensive, but easier to manage in terms of getting around. Large cities can be a cosmopolitan hodgepodge – which is both good and potentially misleading – smaller ones embody a specific culture. Although for foreign travel it may be true that not speaking the language makes it harder to converse with the locals in rural areas, simply making an attempt to speak the native tongue usually is all that's needed to elicit a helpful response.
If a large city, make it a point to familiarize yourself with the various neighborhoods before going. Here is found the real character of a place, its day-to-day, ground-level identity and many of the most striking examples of architecture and inviting small parks as well as affordable shops and restaurants.
A note on planning: Free-lancing it, leaving things open to serendipity, can pay off by presenting new avenues. But particularly if time is limited, careful advance planning – with a malleable itinerary – can prevent you spinning wheels and squandering valuable hours.
There is also the advantage of securing the aid of local travel guides, at least for part of your visit. This can be a real eye-opener, another way to maximize time and see those things most tailored to your interests. I found this particularly valuable in places like South Africa, when my journey was to cover a great deal of urban, park and wilderness ground. Do some networking or consider online resources like The Global Greeter Network (http://globalgreeternetwork.info), which has local greeters for hire in more than 100 destinations worldwide.
Of course, all this presupposes clear self-knowledge. It is instrumental. Will you be comfortable traveling alone? Will you genuinely enjoy it? If you are less certain on these scores, consider mixing things up a bit. Just because you arrived somewhere solo doesn't mean you have to spend the whole trip that way. There may be occasions when you'd prefer to share part of your time with a group, maybe obtaining access to places you can't get to unless accompanied by others.
For that there are special interest tours you can pick up midstream, be in hiking in Patagonia, a culinary class in Italy, hot air ballooning over French vineyards, historic walking tours or what have you. People with common interests and compatible sensibilities naturally tend to connect more readily.
Though it's still prudent to avoid the single supplement (double occupancy) charges, some reliable sources for group tour information are the websites for the United States Tour Operators Association (www.ustoa.com), and, for domestic travel, the National Tour Association (www.ntaonline.com). Don't overlook organizations and clubs, especially eco-oriented ones, that organize trips for their members, or groups like Habitat for Humanity International (www.habitat.org) where, if duration is not an overriding issue, you can sign up as a solo volunteer. Volunteer vacations in general can be a great way to go (as long as you're prepared to work). Check out such online sources as VolunteerMatch.org and GlobalVolunteers.org.
Bed-and-breakfast inns not only offer generally less expensive (and often superior) lodgings but always have been a wonderful way to meet other travelers and exchange information. Plus, the owners invariably have a lot of advice to offer. Hostels offer an even more economical alternative if one is hardy enough (or young enough) to overlook their sometimes spartan facilities. Consult Hostelling International (www.hihostels.com).
Many seasoned travelers swear by tours operated by Road Scholar (www.roadscholar.org). Previously known as Elderhostel, but having changed its name for obvious reasons, this respected organization offers learning vacations to more than 90 countries designed chiefly for the over-50 traveler. It isn't always cheap, and double occupancy rates are charged solos, but you can sidestep that by taking advantage of the group's roommate-matching service. A crap shoot, to be sure, but one that veteran Roadies say generally turns out well.
Personally, I find that conventional cruises on mega-ships hardly seem like traveling at all. Greatly preferred would be sail cruises in the tropics, say, or securing a cabin on one of the smaller (and admittedly more expensive) cruise ships that can go deeper into the fjords of Alaska than the big ships, affording the traveler vastly enhanced chances of seeing wildlife and other sights, not to mention more personal attention and better food.
That said, if you insist on going the conventional route, with its round-the-clock slate of activities in the company of hundreds or thousands of your close personal friends, by all means evade the double-occupancy trap by letting singles travel companies like SinglesCruise.com or SinglesTravelInternational.com assist you in finding a cabin mate.
Oh, and as for those “free” cruise promotions you get from time to time, when you start seeing fine print that has a litany of “port fees, non-commissionable fees, taxes, gratuities, transportation to and from port, a reservation processing fee, service charges, incidental expenses or seasonal upgrades, additional peak season charges and fees for booking 7 days either side of all State and Federal holidays,” run for the hills.
The one surefire solo excursion remains hitting the road. For more on that, see the following essay Glories of the Open Road.
Lastly, though websites come and go, do a search for solo-travel blogs. Some are outstanding.
Rambling in Barcelona
BARCELONA, Spain – Thirty years of democracy have not silenced echoes of the Francisco Franco era (1939-75), four dreary decades of dictatorship and a legacy with which Spain still grapples. Especially here in the stronghold of Catalan culture, a city with its own staunchly held identity, so often at odds with the homogenizing powers of Madrid and centuries of rulers.
Yet these ruminations on the dark days generally are reserved for the press. Rarely do they make it to the surface of Barcelona's teeming, colorful streets, save for the occasional riposte overheard in a cafe.
Since 1992, when the city wowed the world with its staging of the Olympic Games, the politics of the past have been swept out to the glistening blue Mediterranean, snatched by the wind. The chief debates one hears these days typically involve what to imbibe, where to dine or the best place to observe a human tide that waxes but never wanes.
On La Rambla, Barcelona's famous pedestrian avenue, a ceaseless promenade moves from dawn to dawn, its broad, tiled walkway flanked by rows of sidewalk cafes, newsstands, vendors and (literally) statuesque street performers.
It is the nexus of this sprawling city, gateway to the narrow Old World streets of the Barri Gotic and La Ribera districts and a straight shot culminating at a revitalized waterfront. It's also but a square (Placa de Catalunya) away from that other vital artery, the Passeig de Gracia, a lane in Spain that's mainly for the vain, given the corridors of designer apparel shops, high-end restaurants and Milan-like contempo-glitz.
Barcelona is a hybrid: fashionable and hip on the one hand, appealingly "ancient" on the other. As the focal point of the province of Catalunya – 6 million residents strong – it is the cultural, commercial and culinary hub of Spain. And none too modest about it.
Long the home of the Spanish avant-garde, its fortuitous geographic position and one-time mercantile dominance did much to establish an individualistic spirit that persists.
Apart from laughter, the most common sounds of Barcelona are those of the rest of urban Spain: a symphony of jackhammers in the morning, stereotypically rapid-fire speech, smoker's cough (accepted with cheerful resignation) and the cacophony of delighted visitors. The flavor is international, by turns exuberant and nonchalant. Catalan (a meld of Castilian Spanish and provincial French) vies with English, Italian, French, Swiss, German, Dutch, Russian and Turkish.
In fall or spring, the weather's magnificent.
On La Rambla
Eventually, all roads lead to La Rambla. It's like South Beach (Miami) with less humidity, richer architecture and (slightly) more clothes. Cars and compact trucks do creep down the two lanes that cordon the walkway, and mopeds dart in and out of traffic like dolphins riding a bow wave. But little impedes the walker from navigating on and off the promenade to explore the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, open-air vegetable and meat markets, niche shops, graceful theaters and cozy restaurants, not to mention the pleasures of the old city next door.
Wander through the wrought-iron and glass-roofed Mercat de la Boqueria (aka Mercat de St. Josep), one of Europe’s finest farmers’ markets. Then stop to admire the renovated Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona's most revered, and the first of the masterpieces of architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), the Palau Guell, standing imperiously just a few steps down Carrer Nou de la Rambla.
Return to the main avenue and follow it to the terminus at the Monument a Colon, which heralds entry to the Port of Barcelona and the splendors of the waterfront, a lively venue for shopping, a sun-splashed lunch or nocturnal tete-a-tete near La Barceloneta (Little Barcelona), with its cutting-edge examples of modernist architecture.
Get thee back on La Rambla, heading away from the harbor. At No. 42, enter the covered passageway to your right to access the pricey but picturesque 19th-century Placa Reial, first stop for a tour of the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, Barcelona's oldest.
Depart the Placa Reial from its northeast corner (on Carrer del Vidre), cross the Carrer de Ferran and Carrer de la Boqueria and swerve right onto Carrer Portaferrissa, which opens into Placa Nova. From here, one enjoys a first glimpse of the Catedral (la Seu) on Carrer del Bisbe. Close by, on Carrer de Montjuic del Bisbe, is the Baroque church of Sant Felip Neri, and the fine Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat, off Carrer del Veguer at the 14th-century Placa del Rei. This city history museum displays Spanish, Jewish and Arab artifacts, as well as a cavernous underground section revealing Roman foundation walls, water channels and sculptures.
A few paces from the back of the Catedral at Placa de Sant Lu is the Museu Frederic Mares. Lodged in a Romanesque-Gothic royal palace, this admirable collection displays Spanish sculpture dating from pre-Roman times to the 19th century. Consider it a prelude to La Ribera.
No avenue in Barcelona, not even La Rambla, is so representative of its district as the atmospheric Carrer de Montcada in La Ribera, a maze of labyrinthine streets in which to get engagingly lost.
Just as Madrid cannot match Barcelona's gloss, neither can Barcelona quite equal the veritable history of art embodied by Madrid's triumvirate of the Prado, Reina Sofia and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. That said, the coast city explodes with art, from its lively commercial galleries to the treasures of such temples as the Museu d'Historia de Catalunya, the Fundacio Joan Miro atop Montjuic ("Mount of the Jews," with a spellbinding panorama of the city at night), the various shrines to native son Antoni Tapies and Carrer de Montcada's own complement of the Museo Tectil i d'Indumentaria (a textile museum), Museu Barbier-Mueller (a superb pre-Colombian collection) and the Museu Picasso, among the most illuminating, if not the most famous, collections devoted to his work. In this country and in this city, to which Picasso's family moved in 1895, it's been a year-long celebration of the genius of an artist who never returned to his native land after the Spanish Civil War.
The museums are must-see landmarks of this residential quarter. But many other streets share Carrer de Montcada's sweep of galleries, stores and cafes. If, at night, some of the less-traveled streets resemble dark alleys down which you'd fear to tread, wait a moment. Soon you will see someone's granny waltz onto the pavement, unconcerned, and young mothers pushing strollers beneath pools of lamplight.
A good 'Eixample'
The upscale district of Eixample is a sophisticated mix of modern and classical enhancing the Passeig de Gracia and its tributaries.
The primary attractions here, other than shopping and people-watching, are Gaudi's imposing Sagrada Familia cathedral – perpetually cocooned by cranes – and his fluid, glazed-tile dwellings: Casa Batllo, Casa Calvet, Casa Vicenc and the remarkable art nouveau creation of La Pedrera (a.k.a., Casa Mila), with its dramatic "courtyard" and inimitable sculptured chimneys.
A mile and a half west of Sagrada Familia at the foot of Mount Carmel is another Gaudi showpiece, Parc Guell, which served as a proving ground for some of Gaudi's organic approaches, seen in the park in the form of viaducts, fountains, benches and others structures.
Food and drink
Though Spain is noted for its excellent wines, especially reds (tinto) such as rioja, it was not (until recently) a temple to cuisine like neighboring France and Italy. Today, it richly rewards the adventurous appetite.
In Barcelona, the other city that never sleeps, eating is a relaxed proposition, as casual (or as refined) as you wish to make it. And at whatever time you wish to indulge.
Lunch often is the day's heartiest repast, customarily starting around 2 p.m. For simplicity's sake, and some savings, request the menu del dia (menu of the day), but know that the freshest ingredients generally come with featured items.
Tapas are the now-familiar appetizers that locals savor with beer or wine at the end of the workday or after an early evening paseo (stroll). Compared to the American variant, usually ordered at a bar or table from a bill of fare, tapas bars in Barcelona are more diverse and often cheaper. Many are arrayed cafeteria style, but you also can order from a menu. Tapas can hold you until dinner, at the civilized hour of 10 or 11 p.m., or they can be dinner. As with helpings of the real national dish, cured ham (jamon), take your tapas in robust raciones or smaller porciones.
Naturally, you must have the obligatory paella at least once, and the closer to the ocean the better.
Take your time. Exhale luxuriantly. Even at bustling outdoor cafes you are never rushed. The staff respects the fact that you are there to take in the people parade, to browse the paper or to share endearments with your amante (love interest). You don't even need to order food. Buy a beer, coffee, half bottle of wine, glass of water, and sit there for an hour, minimum.
Few "no smoking" signs are spied, save for museums and galleries. Ditto for catering to diets. Low fat? Low cholesterol? Low carbs? You must be joking. There are vegetarian bars, but they're like orphans who've wandered, unwanted, into a family reunion.
Night life? Clubs are flecked throughout the city, throbbing from 9 p.m. till you drop from exhaustion. Check out travelpuppy.com for the latest.
Put your personal prohibitions on hold for the nonce. Barcelona's too tantalizing to partake of half-heartedly. Think gusto.
If you go
The Guía del Ocio booklet, available from news agents and newsstands, provides information on cultural and other events throughout Barcelona, as well as contact details for ticket agencies. The free seasonal guide See Barcelona, which is available in hostels and hotels, also is helpful. The Palau de la Virrena on a Rambla has a cultural information desk, and kiosks throughout the city offer information on tour buses and their routes.
The Streets of Buenos Aires
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- The history of this city is written in its telephone directory.
“Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild – five names at random taken from among the R's – tell a story of exile, disillusion, and anxiety behind lace curtains," observed the late travel writer Bruce Chatwin.
Allowing for a measure of literary hyperbole, Chatwin was correct in viewing this sprawling, fascinating port city of 48 barrios (neighborhoods), oft referred to as a European city in South America, as one great "theatrical" staging ground. In his harsh yet penetrating essay, "The Return of Eva Peron," V.S. Naipaul expanded the comment to embrace the entire nation, calling it less a country than a venue for absurdist political upheavals. Again, an exaggeration, but one bearing a portion of truth.
Melodrama aside, Buenos Aires is, undeniably, a masala of influences.
Today, some critics moan that its singular character is being infiltrated by creeping Americanization, especially among the young. Yet for all it has absorbed from abroad and engendered within, Buenos Aires represented an economically and culturally insular society a generation or two ago.
For many, that has changed. For others, the rebirth may be less tangible. The fact is that many Argentines simply cannot afford to indulge in their own capital city's pleasures.
At night, from the air, this urban landscape of 13 million people (3 million in Buenos Aires proper) looks like a gigantic, illuminated circuit board, winking its feverish spectra. At ground level during the day, one is struck by the architectural styles – elegant to elaborate – of upscale districts such as Recoleta, and the contrast between the streets of Retiro or San Telmo (the city's oldest barrio) and the comparatively low-traffic residential enclaves of Palermo, Palermo Viejo (Old Palermo) and Villa Crespo (with its quiet streets and oak canopies) to the north. Each has its charms.
In some areas of the city, however, grinding poverty is just a few blocks removed from opulence. In this, Buenos Aires shares the same sad footprint as other metropoli. A classic example is La Boca, birthplace of the tango, a tattered though colorful working-class barrio originally settled by Italian immigrants. There is much to enjoy here, though it is one of the few districts that visitors are advised to depart before nightfall. The same advice holds, if somewhat less so, for the dockside areas of Puerto Madero.
For the most part, Buenos Aires' neighborhoods are remarkably, refreshingly green, from their innumerable tree-lined avenues and balcony cascades to Palermo's Jardin Botanico and adjacent Jardin Zoologico (Buenos Aires Zoo) on Avenida Las Heras.
Most tourist draws are within walking distance from one another or within short distance of public transportation.
Recoleta beckons with posh international cachet, from the splendid centerpiece of the Alvear Palace Hotel (1891 Avenida Alvear) and famed century-old theater Teatro Colon (621 Libertad) to such museums as Malba and the exemplary Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (1473 Avenidadel Liberador).
Here, too, are Recoleta Cemetery (where Eva Peron is entombed), the ritzier tango emporiums and shrines to conspicuous consumption, most notably the huge Patio Bullrich mall (think: Rodeo Drive in a box).
San Telmo, which just feels venerable, is a particularly rewarding barrio in which to wander, with somewhat less overt snob appeal and a heightened sense of history compared with Recoleta. A bohemian artists' quarter, it is the city's prime repository of cultural riches.
Accessed off Avenida Jorge Luis Borges (at Plaza Italia), the square at Serrano and Honduras in Palermo Viejo is a five-points confluence typical of the neighborhood's numerous public spaces, with flea markets, taverns, compact restaurants, boutiques and a funky, youthful vibe. The tone is decidedly relaxed, but not to say it lacks energy.
While some have derided the district for selling itself as a cheap playground for "well-to-do wastrels" from North America, the barrio's breezy appeal quickly subdues the cynical impulse, even if the boutique-and-bistro segment of Palermo Soho does seem more than a bit derivative.
Nearby is one of the finest steakhouses on the planet, La Cabrera (5099 Cabrera), whose folksy ambiance contrasts with its cross-town rival, the pricier, though impeccable La Cabana (1967 Rodriguez Pena) in Recoleta.
Speaking of steak, sampling (or rather, devouring) Argentina's famous beef is a must for all but the most confirmed vegetarian. But you will not have experienced the real Argentina without trying its simple, delectable empanadas. And by all means sip some mate, the country's traditional herbal tea. On such streets as the arching, barrio-spanning Ave. Santa Fe, cafe culture rules as the most civilized and pleasant way to decompress and take in the human promenade.
Good deals on food can be found, but forget what you may have read about the currency crisis in Argentina, at least with relation to its effect on local restaurants. A few years ago, it was possible to spend $5 (U.S.) on breakfast, $7 on lunch and $10 on dinner with a decent glass of the nation's most seductive red wine, Malbec. No longer. Even the pizzerias sport prices all-too-familiar to Charleston diners.
Like any great city of the world, there are temples to haute cuisine. Yet if you want to experience the culinary soul – and more – of Buenos Aires, it resides in its bodegones, unassuming neighborhood restaurants of individual personality, modest trappings and good value that give "comfort food" the best possible name. Many began their lives as groceries. Some of the most favored, according to locals, are El Sanjuanino and El Cuartito in Recoleta, El Obrero in La Boca, Guido's Bar in Palermo, Pizzeria Guerin in the city center and Cafe Margot in Boedo.
The only things genuinely inexpensive in Buenos Aires are its squadrons of taxis. You don't need to take the subway to save pesos. Choose those cabs clearly marked "Radio Taxi/Remise" and venture all over the place for a pittance.
One fine guide to the pulse of the city is The Buenos Aires Herald, still the largest English-language newspaper on the continent. But you will find that if you make even the slightest effort to speak a few words of Spanish, most citizens (or portenos, as the locals call themselves), will be only too happy to try to accommodate you in English.
Do you tango?
Let's say it from the start. The tango is as overhyped a concept as moonlight, magnolias and Southern graciousness. That said, it's a dynamic art form that can be appreciated as a seasoned dancer, eager neophyte or spectator, and in your choice of fancy dinner theaters such as Retiro's expensive Tango Porteno (on Ave. 9 de Julio, allegedly the widest city street on Earth) or in more authentic local-color tango bars, milongas and dance halls, where all you need to pay for is a drink.
When to go
The Southern Hemisphere's seasons are reversed from ours. Summer runs December to February; fall is March to May; winter is June to August; and spring is September to November. Buenos Aires' climate is generally pleasant, with its changeable spring, humid summer and mild fall closely resembling New York City's seasons. Winter temperatures are much like those of Los Angeles or Cape Town.
Buenos Aires has two airports: Ezeiza (EZE) for most international flights and Aeroparque Jorge (AEP) for domestic and regional travel. Give yourself plenty of time to get there from the city center. Taxis are far less pricey than deluxe buses. And the conversations are better.
Chapter 3: On and Off the Beaten Path
For the longest time, I styled myself a traveler, not a tourist, who I regarded as someone enthralled by the conventional package tour, inescapably encased in his/her own culture and more or less blind to the real world spread out before us. Benumbed. I liked to think I embodied, at least much of the time, that better half of the remark, “A traveler doesn't know where he's going; a tourist doesn't know where he's been.”
To some, not least my best friend, this stance had the whiff of pretension and snobbery. I claimed otherwise, insisting it was all about being discerning, preferring the serendipitous and unexpected – real experience – over the predictable, manufactured and cushy. The backdoor rather than the front, so to speak.
But over time I began to see the preoccupation with tourist-avoidance and off-the-beaten-path travel, however seductive or advantageous, as unnecessarily limiting. (And, to be honest, discomforts and unpleasant surprises are less and less on my agenda as I grow older).
Consider: the “beaten path” becomes that for a reason, and to dismiss that route as too touristy or tacky or superficial is misguided if applied too strenuously. You can deny yourself many arresting moments by rejecting the tried and true, especially in the great cities of the world, which, among other things, tend to present many free options.
One of our more perceptive travel writers, Doug Mack, has called the beaten path “the crossroads of the world,” and I agree, noting that the stereotype of the clueless American tourist singularly lacking in taste or manners or genuine curiosity is just that, a stereotype. You're liable to meet folks on the “tourist track” that are intelligent, sophisticated, amiable and as interested in plumbing the local culture as you are. And there's no reason you can not dig beneath the surface even where the track is worn. There is something to be said for rubbing shoulders with fellow travelers as well as with the locals.
Frankly, unless you're spending the summer in a rented Italian villa where you shop and dine in the neighboring village each day, the reality is that you are not very likely to forge a relationship with members of the the indigenous population overnight. They are too busy going about their own business. Just think of how it would feel if a visitor from a foreign land was eager to establish a connection with you in the middle of your workday. Flattering, yes, but also disruptive. You may not meet as many “colorful” characters as you might in the hinterlands, but you will enjoy the company and observations of those you do meet, many of whom will be visitors from countries other than your own.
This is not to say that a person should not be selective – some tourists are obnoxious, living down to the cliche – but one can tolerate the most claustrophobic crush of people and enjoy even the most prefabricated Disney-esque sights with a sense of humor, a taste for the absurd and an elastic cast of mind.
However, if you insulate yourself at American-style hotels, eat at synthetic burger joints and quaff insipid brews, you might as well stay home and save the airfare. Authenticity, the real thing, is not easily come by – and just as hard to define – but some portion of it can be experienced by the patient, open traveler willing to walk the extra mile. And one of the easiest ways to do it is by attending a small arts or food festival aimed mainly at locals and mingle with them.
A traveler in any age inevitably will hear that this or that place is not what it once was, having sold its soul, as if Paris or Rome or Vienna or Rio have been so corrupted and diminished that they are no longer worth the trouble. An understandable sentiment, perhaps, but also a delusion based on some gauzy memory of past grandeur, more often than not romanticized.
Obviously, no place is what it once was. Change is inexorable. It is true that tourism, particularly mass tourism, alters whatever place it touches, usually not for the better. Even ruins can be ruined, as anyone who has arrived amid a squadron of tourist buses at Chichen Itza or Pompeii can attest. And unrestrained commercialism can be a cancer.
Yet that doesn't mean there remains no compelling reason to see and experience a place. A city is not just its architecture or history or the sum total of its distinctive food and drink. Again, it's the people. It's the rewards of immersing one's self in that living, breathing culture, warts and all.
It would be disingenuous to claim that your chances of having an intensely personal connection with a place are improved by being in the midst of hundreds or thousands of others seeking the same experience. But it is just as mistaken to dismiss the delights of a shared encounter. I recall a Sunday afternoon by Lake Michigan, where it seemed the entirety of Chicago – millions strong – was transfixed by the same event in the same moment, a dazzling air show soaring above the city. Everyone in high spirits. Total strangers behaving like friends. A palpable camaraderie. It can be that way, too. You just have to be open to it.
Prague on the Rise
PRAGUE — The shell craters stand out in low relief, small blemishes in the grand, dark edifice of this city’s national museum.
They are a reminder of the grim times, when the Prague Spring protests of 1968 were quashed by Soviet Union tanks and blood painted the streets below.
Today, they seem relics of a distant era. Rivaling Paris and Venice as the most beautiful city of Europe, Prague, freed of Soviet shackles in 1990, has made a quantum leap to (relative) prosperity in little more than 20 years.
Although its lagging per capita income still prevents the nation from bearing the euro as its legal tender, and such opulent shopping signposts as Prada and Dior can be misleading, signs of vitality are apparent everywhere: in cafes, galleries, shops and along the serpentine sweep of the Vltava river, crossed by 18 elegant bridges.
Chief among them is the renowned Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), festooned with 30 striking statues that seem decorous on a sunny day and ominous on a dreary one. Erected in 1357, it was the city’s only bridge for five centuries.
All in all, the tableau would win the approval of Prague’s most famous literary son, Franz Kafka, though he’d likely be appalled at the invasions of tourist hordes, not to mention the infections of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and, yes, even Hooters, that compete with the graceful Old World architecture that is the city’s trademark.
The beaten path
Tourists have showered Prague with cash, helping restore the glory of its heyday as, variously, capital of the Holy Roman Empire and centerpiece of the Habsburg dynasty. Not even 2002’s extraordinary flood, the worst in 200 years, did much to slow the renovations.
This intensely romantic Central European metropolis of 1.3 million is now a polished gem, somehow blending a millennium’s potpourri of architectural styles — Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Cubist, Art Nouveau, Renaissance — into a seamless panorama.
Where to begin? Wallenstein Palace? The Jewish Quarter (home to Europe’s oldest still-open synagogue and the city’s best jazz clubs)? St. Vitus Cathedral? The ornate Mala Strana (Little Quarter) and its Baroque St. Nicholas Church?
Most first-time visitors gravitate to the huge central square of Stare Mesto (Old Town), whose grandeur is breathtaking (even if it seems to have been conceived by Walt Disney). Nearby is the popular Black Light Theater, featuring an Asian-derived performance style enlivened by intricate illusion, mime and acrobatics, now a Prague specialty.
Just across the river, and offering a splendid overlook of the city, is Prazsky hrad (Prague Castle), the world’s largest ancient castle at seven football fields in size. It is here where the monarchs of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors and the presidents of the former Czechoslovakia and today’s Czech Republic had their offices. The Czech Crown Jewels also reside here.
While such websites as www.prague.net provide useful suggestions, the most fortuitous approach to seeing the sights is to take a local walking tour or simply wander. Get pleasantly lost in the maze of Old Town’s streets and you just may find yourself “transitioning” to Nove Mesto (New Town), which is not “new” at all, dating as it does to 1348.
It is this district that harbors a national landmark, the light-hearted U Fleku brewery and restaurant (11 Kremenocva), believed to be the world’s first brewpub (1499). Even the oompah music is more charming than corny.
Though you won’t find it at U Fleku, which serves its own dark elixir (Flekovsky Lezak), Czechs invented (1842) pilsner beer, and arguably the greatest of all lagers is the country’s still-thriving Pilsner Urquell. The nation’s No. 2 lager, Budweiser Budvar, was once locked in a long trademark dispute with American brewer Anheuser-Busch. But beer lovers worldwide know that Budweiser Budvar is to our familiar Bud what Dom Perignon is to Kool-Aid.
For those brews, try the much-favored literary tavern U Zlateho Tygra (17 Husova) in Old Town.
Czech cuisine is rather more varied than that of neighboring Germany, and if you had to pick one place in Prague to savor a meal, you could do much worse than Cafe Louvre (22 Narodni), across from the National Theater and sporting a fine view of the river.
Off the path
Offering a view every bit as impressive as Prague Castle, and a favorite spot for locals, is Vysehrad, another castle complex. Built in the 10th century on a hill overlooking the Vltava, situated within the fortress’ high walls is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul and the amazing Vysehrad cemetery, resting place of many luminaries from Czech history, among them Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, Karel Capek and Alphonse Mucha.
Local legend holds that Vysehrad was the location of the original settlement that evolved into Prague, though it remains a legend.
Far more concrete is the city’s (and the country’s) tumultuous political and religious history, marked by the protracted Protestant-Catholic strife of the 30 Years War (1618-48) and, by contrast, Prague being one of the few European capitals undamaged by World War II (the Czech Resistance struck an agreement with the Germans).
The city’s once large (120,000-plus) Jewish population was less fortunate, walled into a ghetto by Vatican fiat in the 1200s and later all but annihilated by the Nazis. Only an estimated 4,000 Jews remain in all of the Czech Republic today.
Not far from the city is Terezin, where one may tour the haunting Terezinstadt concentration camp, a sobering experience to say the least.
But Prague will not let you feel melancholy for long. It is a city vibrant and alive — inexpensive by the standards of most European capitals — with diversions aplenty and history around every corner.
A Flurry of Cherry Blossoms
KYOTO, Japan — It is an admirable and inviting capacity, to inhabit past and present so nimbly.
The city is open and international in character, not insular. Yet for all its diversity, its emblems of modern times, Kyoto is rich in ancient mysteries, still the Hana no Miyado (Flowering Capital) of old.
It is a mature but vibrant metropolis, feet planted firmly in the past, though with signposts of the present and future towering above classic machiya houses, two-story structures in which the heart of the city beats.
Kyoto, cultural soul of the nation, is the birthplace of many of the most familiar Japanese traditions: the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, sake brewing, Kabuki and Noh theaters, and more. Major schools of each of these disciplines were first developed here and continue to flourish.
Seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites reside in Kyoto alone. Two thousand Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples lend their gravity, symbols and splendor. In all, 20 percent of the National Treasures of Japan are here, 15 percent of its Cultural Properties. It is an incomparable repository of the nation's artistic, religious and cultural heritage.
Japan's seventh-largest city with 1.5 million citizens, Kyoto lies, as one poet wrote, "within the mountains as though held in a loving father's embrace." Surrounded on three sides by the Kitayama range of hills, the inland city rests in a basin, which makes for steamy summers. The streams that flow south from Kitayama converge in the Kamogawa (Kamo for short) and Takano rivers. It is along their banks that the profusion of cherry blossoms, so revered in this land, herald the spring, followed by a succession of other flowers in early summer through to a burnished autumn.
Though it smacks of hyperbole, one may circle the globe and not encounter a more courteous people, or a people more appreciative of one's efforts to adapt to and enjoy their customs and tastes. To be sure, there is an unmistakably Americanized quality to the high-rise hotels and office buildings, the mini-marts and upscale shopping districts, despite the pictographic language of the signs. But this rather unwelcome sense of familiarity dissipates quickly. Such signposts of Western influence and intrusion are consumed by the vast sweep of what makes urban Japan so singularly Japanese.
Golden statues glow in dark temples, the clip-clop of wooden geta sandals still echoes down narrow side streets, and immaculate restaurants seduce with irresistible aromas, serving as havens of tradition impermeable by time. Kyoto is Japan, a nation of 8 million deities that captivates a single inquisitive mortal.
A history in brief
Recorded Japanese history dates only from the late 6th century, and little is known of the country's evolution before that time. Kyoto's own history stretches back 1,200 years. Founded in the 8th century as Heian-Kyo (literally, Capital of Peace and Tranquility), and modeled after the Tang Chinese capital of Chang-an, a grid of long streets intersected by wide avenues, its name was altered to Kyo (residence of the emperors) to (city or metropolis), in the 11th century.
Kyoto assumed the mantle of capital from predecessors Nara (famed as the terminus of the Silk Road) and Nagaoka in 794, and remained the political center of Japan until the imperial government was restored and moved to Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1868, ending 265 years of dominance by the Tokugawa Shogunate and heralding Japan's emergence on the world stage.
That the ancient capitals of Kyoto and neighboring Nara survived World War II owes much to the efforts of then-U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stinson, who intervened to prevent the bombing of these cities and their cultural treasures.
Under the cherry tree
The Japanese tradition of hanami, or "flower viewing," has its origins in the Heian Period (794 to 1191), when it was popularized by the imperial court. Cherry-blossom viewing may be a national obsession throughout Japan from late March to mid-April, but Kyoto is arguably the exemplar of the annual pageant with its backdrop of strikingly beautiful temples and gardens.
The blossom of the ornamental cherry tree, or "sakura," is the national flower of Japan. Visitor or native, one does not merely enjoy the annual Cherry Blossom Festival here; you contemplate the trees' simplicity and grandeur. It's an annual pilgrimage, if only to one's backyard. The quiet explosion of cherry blossoms, in pale pinks or the dominant milky white, suggests renewal, but also a sense of the ephemeral quality of life.
Don't miss the Miyako Odori, or "Cherry blossom Dance," held by the geisha at Gion Corner theater in the fascinating Gion district, the large area of central Kyoto east of the Kamo River. It is in Gion where one is most likely to encounter the graceful, magnificently garbed maiko, or geisha in training, who are every bit as irresistible to Japanese tourists with a camera as they are to Occidental travelers. Together with the Pontocho district, where maiko also glide through the streets, Gion is the city's chief entertainment district.
During daylight hours, the cascade of color that runs the length of the Philosopher's Path on the banks of the Kamo River is a prime viewing spot, as is bucolic Arashiyama Park (a short train ride away).
The Heian Shrine is famed for its unique "weeping" cherry-blossom trees, and at night, there are concerts held at the shrine featuring a dazzling light show. Adjacent to Yasaka Shrine is Maruyama Park, an ideal spot for sun-dappled or lantern-lit picnics under the cherry trees. But there are also numerous streets in Gion — flanking canals, winding narrowly into the night — whose cherry trees are illuminated from above and below, casting a magical spell.
Reputedly the first three-story building in Japan, the resplendent Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji temple) is nestled in beautiful gardens by a pond at the foot of the Kitayama hills. The second and third stories are covered in gold leaf within and without. In contrast, the Imperial Palace is the embodiment of the Zen aesthetic of Wabi/Sabi (rusticity and elegance).
Much less ostentatious than the palaces of the west, it was the home of the Imperial family until 1868.
Nijo Castle was begun by the warlord Nobunaga Oda in 1568 and completed in 1603 by the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (on whom "Shogun" novelist James Clavell modeled his iron ruler Toranaga). The main court of the castle was destroyed by fire in 1788. All that remains of the original complex is the Ninomanu Palace second court, but what a wonder it is, seeming more like an elaborate residence with its elegant gardens and a sumptuously appointed interior.
Dating from 1164 (rebuilt after a fire in 1249), Sanjusangendo is a Buddhist Temple famed for its phalanx of 1,001 human-sized Kannon, carved statues staggered in 10 rows surrounding the massive figure of the temple's main deity. Around the 124 original statues left untouched by fire stand 28 statues of guardian deities.
Fabled Kiyomizu Temple is one of Kyoto's most popular destinations — and most crowded during the city's many festivals — especially the massive Dancing Stage that provides a panoramic view of the city below.
As for the moss garden at the temple Saiho-ji and the gardens at Kasura Imperial Villa, visits must be arranged weeks or months in advance.
Getting there and around
The JR Haruka Limited express, or bullet train (shinkansen), departs every 30 minutes from Kansai Airport in Osaka en route to Kyoto. Osaka is your introduction to the colossal Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metro area.
Your first sight at journey's end will be Kyoto Station, the futuristic railway nexus that resembles a space ark.
Central Kyoto is ridiculously easy to get around by subway, bus or taxi. Subway and bus stops are clearly marked in Japanese, Chinese and Korean, with stops and connections also announced in English. All bus stops have names. Taxis are plentiful, with the favored company known as MK Taxi. But you will want to spend a good deal of time on foot, especially in Gion. The center city's gridwork, a layout that is very rare in Japan, makes it a snap.
Consider investing at least one day in a guided tour of temples and shrines. Though you may feel a bit rushed, you can always go back to those that most capture your imagination and experience them at your own pace.
Where to stay, dine
Western-style hotels are numerous, but if you can afford the indulgence, reserve a room in a traditional ryokan, handsome inns that are the ultimate in Japanese hospitality. Some are important historical sites in themselves.
As a travel mecca, restaurants simple and first-rate are flecked throughout Kyoto, with a strong concentration in Gion. Kyo-ryori (Kyoto-style cooking) is marked by subtle flavoring and seasonal ingredients with an emphasis on vegetables. While you can spend a king's ransom, you also may dine like a royal and not break the bank. An extraordinary meal (of great culinary artistry) can be had for $40. Be sure to sample Kyo-kaiseki (or kaiseki-ryori), an array of artfully arranged small courses, often served in a lacquered box or tray of multiple compartments and garnished with leaves or miniature flowers to evoke the season or a poetic image.
You can lunch handsomely for as little as $10-$15. There's also the Nishiki market, brimming with fresh fish and local produce.
One main artery, Shijo-Dori, also leads to the fashionable shopping and dining area centered at Kawaramachi Station, where you should take in the malled avenue Teramachi-Dori and the basement of the Takashimaya department store. A shrine to sweets, it holds dizzying displays of colorful Kyo-gashi confections, a prime example of which is yatsuhashi, a folded triangle of dough with varied fillings.
When to go
Venture there in spring, late winter or the equally enchanting late fall. Summer is hot and humid. Say sayonara to it. Why go halfway round the world to suffer more of the same when you can contemplate the cool in comfort?
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