There is an ever-growing disconnect between what guide books and travel companies are selling and what tourists end up buying. The hardships and harsh realities of our world effect everything, including the wonders of the world at large. Overpopulation and over-tourism have had impacts (both good and bad) on many cultural areas in the world.

The pressure to keep a tourist attractions pristine versus the pressure of the outside world pushing in around them is a hard thing for many countries to content with. If you travel enough, and by travel I mean non-itinerary non-package travel, you can’t help but notice the downward shift in status to many areas in the last several decades. It’s a sad fact of life on a planet with an ever-increasing population.

The way you think it is.

You come up out of the metro, look at your tourist map you acquired from the hotel (or a thousand other places), fix your view uphill at the Parthenon, and start walking. You turn a corner here, and a corner there, and by complete surprise you round another and run into ruins. White columns stand sturdy in the morning sun telling you of a time when Athens was a mighty city-State. You walk briskly down the little street and peer into the gated area, outlining the space that was once Hadrian’s Library. You read the sign, take a few snaps, and sigh.

Ruins in downtown Athens. BROWNELL, May 2019.

Ruins found in downtown Athens. May 2019.

The way it is a lot of the time.

You come out of your hotel in the stark light of day (because you got there in the middle of the night, having taken the cheapest flight you could get) and are greeted by a rundown, graffiti covered alleyway that leads to the Main Street. You push on, swearing softly to yourself that you need to start making better hotel choices, and realize that this street isn’t just the local paint spot. You turn the corner and the breakdown of society continues on, completely robbing the next street of any value. You bust out of of this gauntlet of urban decay, hoping to find the central square by the metro in better states. When you reach the Main Street, the traffic is so congested that you just walk between the car. The locals give you that annoyed tourist look, but you kind of don’t care at this point, because the touts in the square have already seen you and are ready to try and sell you bunches of crap you don’t want. You sigh, realizing you only have three more days of this, and keep trudging toward the graffiti-covered sign arrowing your way toward the Parthenon.

A side street in Athens, Greece. BROWNELL, May 2019

A random street in Athens, Greece. May, 2019.

The idea behind over-tourism.

The idea of over-tourism has been around for a considerable amount of time. Places like Athens, Rome, and Venice have long been complaining about the problems that it brings with it.

To be honest, I don’t think that there’s a fix for it. With ever-increasing populations of people that have the ability and the means to go abroad the situation can really do nothing but get worse. What one can do is adjust to new realities.

The first suggestion is about timing. I mentioned it a couple times in the last post about being at the venue before it opened to get in without crowds. The majority of the tourists these days travel in an organized group; bus trips, cruise ships adventures, day tour groups, and the like. These groups have almost universally predictable schedules. They appear between 9-10 in the morning, and retire about 4 in the afternoon. Working on either side of this time block will help the single or couples traveling independently to have a better experience.

Second suggestion is also about timing. I tend to travel on the shoulder season. This is especially true in Western Europe, as it reduces prices considerably. The mass of the population travels during warm season or cold season (beach or ski season). There are sometimes limited hours or limited options in lodging during the shoulder season, but the lack of crowds more than makes up for that. I’m completely convinced of this.

Below are two pictures to summarize what a difference 2 hours can make at a major attraction. (While in Madrid, I planned wrong and literally left because of the huge lines at the Palace. I returned the next day and had a very nice experience.)

Steps up to the Parthenon at the opening of the day. BROWNELL, May 2019

The steps to the Parthenon just after the 8:00 opening. May, 2019

Steps up to the Parthenon a couple hours after opening. BROWNELL, May 2019.

The steps up to the Parthenon, a couple hours after opening. The crowds did not get less from this point on. May 2019

Things you were told never to do that are now perfectly acceptable.

There is an axiom that I learned many years ago. You never discuss politics or religion while drinking. Truer words have never been spoken. Well, up until a couple years ago, anyway. With the over-population of the tourist world, and the advent of global media, some of the rules have loosened. I’ve had some fabulous political conversations in bars, religious conversations in churches, and tourist conversation with taxi drivers. People in other places aren’t immune to the global situation, and can be genuinely curious about the reality of situations in other parts of the world (as opposed to the distorted views presented by the media).

My suggestion, just go into these conversations gently and honestly. You’ll find them extremely rewarding. (I had a fantastic conversation about Geo-politics with the guy at the front desk of my hotel. It was fact based and timely. He had come to Athens from one of the islands, and had insights that I wasn’t going to hear on any tv network.)

Thoughts.

Okay, I realize that sections of this were an over-dramatization of the realities of life. I also realize that I’ve kind of been picking on Athens, and not spreading the joy around Europe. Most European cities have these problems, to one degree or another. Not only Europe, but north and South America as well.

There’s no real fix for the issues that present themselves, other than limiting the amount of tourism (which some cities and countries are already looking at) or cutting the global population back down to realistic numbers (which probably isn’t going to happen). The days of undiscovered ruins and un-crowded archeological sites are a thing of the past. My best advice is to study the place you want to go, and go when it seems that other people aren’t going. Off-peak traveling, and end of day museums stops may help you have a better travel experience.

*****To be fair*****

I have to say that I loved Athens. Once I looked past all the graffiti and people doing drugs in alleyways, there was a host of things to do and experiences to be had. The food and beer scene was excellent. Their ruins and museums are well-kept, and world-class. And the people, once you stop to talk with them, are warm and engaging. Try and look part the problems, and see the true essence of a place. It will help you have a better time. Just sayin…..

Athens. Athens. Athens.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone knows where Athens is. It’s such an enormous seat of history and myth that it still demands a place among the great stops in the world of travel.

I have personally been wanting to hit up Athens ever since I started reading Greek Mythology. It’s one of those iconic places. It’s sights are (still) world class. It’s food is fantastic. And, it’s people are very, very Greek.

Of Greece, Athens is the place where it all comes to a focus. This last statement is true of all things Greece. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The cultural, and the political. It’s all in Athens for the taking.

Getting to Athens.

Once again, everyone knows where the city is, especially the travel industry. All major airlines have a route there. You can get there by ferry, and by train. You can also drive, if you choose.

I chose to fly in. I caught a flight out of Geneva to the Athens International Airport. The airport is on the outskirts of the city (a trend for major airports in Europe), but is easy enough to transit through. The metro system has a direct connection to the city center, which makes late arrivals manageable. Taxis, and a city bus are also options. I chose the metro train, as it had a stop close by my hotel.

If you’ve never been to Athens before, do some research before just diving in. The nicer tourist parts of the city aren’t necessarily where you think they are. Areas around major tourist attractions (normally a prime hotel area in most European cities) can not be the best areas for unseasoned travelers. I stayed in the seedier part of the city, and though I had a marvelous time, it’s not the spot for first-timers or older, more cautious tourists.

Getting Around the City.

Walk. It’s pretty much that simply. Athens isn’t massive. It’s significant ruins and museums are all congested in and around the middle of the city. The city is quite vertical for Europe, so you will want to pace yourself. It’s not strolling through the countryside here, it’s urban adventuring. You’ll burn off the calories by the end of the day.

For the outlying museums, ferry ports, and other such items, the metro will get you where you want to go. The metro train does have a daily time schedule and doesn’t run continuously. If you have an early connection, set up a pickup from your hotel, just to be safe. I had an early flight, so I had my hotel set up a transfer to the airport. It worked out wonderfully, and without added anxiety.

Street side cafe, Athens. Brownell, May 2019

A street side cafe on the way up the hill to the Acropolis. A great place to stop for a coffee. May, 2019.

The Major Sites.

Athens, like Rome, is replete with stuff to look at. There are layers of history in the city. All of them still vying for space on the world stage.

With too many things to chose from, I chose the pieces I found to be the most interesting to me. Guide books are filled with expansive lists of stops, all of them have their due. These are the ones I enjoyed most.

The Acropolis.

The Parthenon. Brownell, May 2019.

Your obligatory picture of the Parthenon. As seen from the entranceway to the Acropolis. May, 2019

The Acropolis is the preeminent, must-see item in Athens. Fortunately, you can see it from just about anywhere. It sits well above the remainder of the city, so walk in the general direction of the hill and signs will get you the rest of the way.

Two words of caution. It fills up and never empties, so be there before the gates open (to be first in) or you’re going to be lost in a sea of other people. And, the ticket price ain’t cheap! They know you’re gonna pay, so use the multiple attraction pass and save a little cash.

As for the state and stateliness of the ruins overlooking the city. It’s exactly what you’re going to be expecting. Even in its ruined state, it’s awe inspiring.

After you have seen it up close, make sure to hang out in the market square one evening while you’re there. The whole complex gets lit up in multicolored lighting after dark. It’s pretty cool to see.

The Agora.

The Temple of Hephaestus in the Athens Agora. Brownell, May 2019.

The Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora of Athens, as seen from the Acropolis. May, 2019.

When you look down from the Acropolis and wonder what the well-preserved temple below is, that’s the Agora. A cheaper, and (I think) wholly better cultural experience.

More than a single temple, the Agora is a whole complex of temples and buildings. Their state ranges from semi-well preserved to ruins, and there are remnants of every kind to examine. A small exhibit/museum at its middle displays the important pieces.

The Agora is well shaded, and can represent a nice rest from the heat, especially after you have walked down from the Acropolis. It’s well worth your time.

Church of the Holy Apostle.

Dome of the Church of the Holy Apostle, Athens Agora. Brownell, May 2019.

The inside of the dome, Church of the Holy Apostle. Located in the Athens Agora. May, 2019.

Located in a quiet corner of the Agora, the church is a marvelously intact structural. There are many tiled frescos in the 10th century structure, but the inside of the dome is my favorite.

The inside of the church is otherwise sparsely decorated, beholding the Greek Orthodox style, but it is in definite contrast to the older temples that surround it.

The National Archeological Museum

Aphrodite and the Satire. Athens Museum. Brownell, May 2019

Statue of Aphrodite and the Satire. Athens Museum, May 2019

As you would expect, the National Archeological Museum is the one stop for everything old and Greek. The collection is expansive and consumes several floors of a massive building out and away from the major tourist sites. The metro will get you close to the museum, and a short walk will finish it off.

Again, like the Acropolis, plan on being there when the doors open. The museum draws huge crowds and bus tour groups. If you aren’t first in line, you may not necessarily enjoy the experience (as much).

Thoughts.

The city is a great many things. It’s congested, crowded, seriously over-populated, over-touristed, dirty, graffiti covered, and loud. It’s also old, historied, friendly, easy to access, contains minimal travel barriers, has awesome food, and good drinks.

In a city that is as stretched at the seams as Athens is, one needs to look for the good. There is plenty to find. If you make an attempt to avoid the crowds, eat and drink local (think side streets), and turn a blind eye to the obvious crime problems, you’re going to have a good time.

Athens, in a great many ways, is a poster child for what is happening to many old European cities. You can hate it or your can deal with it. In the end, the Greek people will turn the tide of opinion in your mind. They’re great people and are proud of their history. Go see them. You’ll enjoy the experience.

Statue of a Greek soldier at the military museum in Athens. Brownell, May, 2019

Statue of a Greek Soldier protecting the entrance to the Military Museum in Athens, Greece. Circa May, 2019

Now get out there! Go see what the world has to offer.

When I was making plans for the European summer experience, the second place I wrote down was The Matterhorn. I blame this on growing up with Bugs Bunny.

It wasn’t until I started looking at how to get there that I came to learn about the town of Zermatt. A small little mountain town dedicated to the mountain lifestyle, conveniently situated at the foot of the mountain. It seemed the right spot to head toward.

Zermatt turns out to be a fantastic little town. A basically car free collection of hotels and shops, with hiking trails and chair lifts that leave right from town. Though designed around the 365 day a year skiing business, it has many items to offer summer sport seekers. It is also a Mecca for tourists just excited to get a look at the mountain. People like me. There’s a fair amount of upscale options, and a goodly amount of cheaper backpacker options for hotel, bar scene, and shopping.

Getting Into The Mountains.

Unless you have a car and some experience driving in the Alps, you’re taking the train. The shuttle train runs from a connection in Visp up-up-up hill to its termination in Zermatt. Since Zermatt is a car-free Town, if you drive in you’ll need to park your car in Tasch and take the train the remainder of the way. You can also get a taxi out of Tasch, if that’s more to your liking. Just don’t overthink it and take the train.

Entrance to the train station in Zermatt, Switzerland. Brownell, May 2019.

“Taxis” waiting outside the main entrance to the Zermatt train station. May, 2019.

Touring Zermatt.

The charm of a place like Zermatt come in the form of its proposed detachment from society. It’s small. It’s charming. You walk where you want to go. The climate, even in May, is brisk.

The center of the town is a warren of small streets, tightly packed with shops and hotels. A small mountain stream transects the middle of town and allows you to get your bearing, when needed. A church, and two cemeteries also occupy the middle of town, reminding everyone that the Matterhorn is more for climbing than skiing.

A museum that covers Zermatt’s sorted history occupies a subterranean section under the middle of the main town area. For a small town, there is enough to see and do to keep someone pleasantly distracted for a couple days.

Downtown Zermatt, Switzerland, during the slow season. Brownell, May 2019

One of the many bars and restaurants laying in hibernation, waiting for the winter tourist season. Zermatt, Switzerland, May 2019

The surroundings of Zermatt, Switzerland. Brownell, May, 2019

The mountain lodges that dot landscape around the mountain town of Zermatt, Switzerland. Circa May, 2019

Zermatt Church, Zermatt, Switzerland. Brownell, May 2019

The local church located in the middle of the main town of Zermatt, Switzerland. May 2019

The Matterhorn.

The mountain is best viewed from the far end of town. Though the buildings in town are necessarily small, the tight confines of the streets make the best views just outside of town by the chairlifts. That being said, you can see the mountain from almost everywhere in town.

The Matterhorn. Brownell, May 2019

The snow covered face of the Matterhorn, as seen from the edge of Zermatt, Switzerland. Circa May, 2019

Thoughts.

If I get the chance I plan on returning to Zermatt. It’s mountain charm is invasive and the people are quite friendly, considering the tourist levels. If you find yourself traveling through the Swiss Alps, think about giving Zermatt a try. If for no other reason than to get a good picture of the mountain, and an afternoon drink by the fire.

Have fun. Go find new places.

An Evening at the Bullfights.

The bullfights in Madrid happen throughout the warmer months. Festival season (from around May) sees bullfights every day, where the remainder of the summer they are weekly events.

The Bullfights in Spain are very much a cultural event. Attendance ranges from young couples and family, to the older sections of the population. It can be date night, and escape, or a place for a gathering of old friends.

An evening at the Bullring is a formal affair. The locals dress for the occasion. If you rush back to your hotel and drag the best clothes out of your backpack, as I did, you will find yourself underdressed. Fear not, the local may look at you funny, but they accept you nevertheless.

The Venue.

The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, known locally as Las Ventas, is located in the northeastern section of Madrid’s city center. Inaugurated in June, 1931, it is the heart of bullfighting in Madrid. A large, open air venue, it has a capacity of almost 24,000 people.

Consuming all of Plaza 1, it’s a purpose built facility. The venue is serviced by both the local bus routes and the metro system. A metro stop at the plaza provides direct access to the Bullring.

The Bullring has a free flowing feel and numerous access points. There is no real need to arrive in advance to get to your seat. People show up continuously, throughout the experience. The venue empties just as effortlessly.

The exterior of the Las Ventas Bullring in Madrid. Brownell. Madrid, May 2019

The exterior of the Las Ventas Bullring, leaving in the evening, after the bullfights. Madrid, circa May, 2019

Getting Your Tickets

There are several different online sites that provide tickets to the various bullfights. The venue also has an online sales portal available.

If you’re in Madrid, I recommend going straight to the box office at the venue. There are different ticket prices and options, and the people at the box office can give you current information. The tickets for the evening I was there ranged from $20.00 to the mid $200.00s. My ticket ended up costing $42.00.

Spanish is the language of the staff, so if you don’t speak Spanish it gets a little more complicated. Don’t let that trouble you though. Getting tickets ends up being the same as getting dinner or anything else. You smile and go slowly, it’ll work itself out.

The Program

My evening’s program consisted of three matadors. Each matador fight three bulls, resulting in nine actual bullfights.

Much like baseball in the US, or Formula 1 in Europe, the bullfights do come with a program. It gives general information and statistics about each matador, and the statistics of each bull. The program is written in Spanish, but can also just be a nice event souvenir.

A General Idea Of What’s Coming

while the initial crowds are taking their seats, the grounds crew set down the caulk lines in the ring floor and finishes general sand grooming.

The evening’s affairs then start with a entrance procession. All of the matadors, horsemen, and extra all come out and are greeted by the crowd in a parade of individuals.

After the entrance procession is complete, everyone takes their places and readies themselves. The first matador Of the evening will stride to the center of the Bullring and present himself to the crowd. The matador’s charismatic showmanship and bravado is greeted by applause from the crowd. When applause are complete, the first bull of the evening is released into the Bullring and the bullfights begin.

With three main matadors and three rounds of bulls to be fought, the bullfights go into the dark of the evening hours. Starting (pretty promptly) at 7pm, my evening at the bullfights concluded about 9:30pm.

Start of the Madrid bullfights. Brownell. May, 2019

The procession of Matadors and auxiliary players at the beginning of the bullfights. Madrid, circa May, 2019

What To Expect

Blood. Blood in the sand is what you should expect. Lots of blood.

After the bull gets run around the ring by the assistant matadors to get its adrenaline up, the bull is then engaged by two armored horsemen who spear the bull with hardwood long-handled spears. Once speared by the horsemen, a series of small spears from the matador are used to really get the bull’s blood flowing. After a sufficient amount of time, the lead matador skewers the bull with a sword sunk hilt-deep into the bull’s neck.

It should be noted that if the matador misses sinking the sword on the first try or produces a shot to the bull causing excessive pain to the animal, it is met by the crowds with rejecting howls and shouts. The crowds aren’t there to see the bull suffer needlessly due to an unprofessional matador.

Sword in place, the bull is allowed to thrash about until the blood loss topples him. Once he is deemed to be no longer able to attack, another man approaches the bull and give it a coup de grace by cutting the animal’s throat.

Once dispatched, a team of horses comes out and drags the dead bull out of the Bullring. A grounds crew comes in next and rakes the sand to cover the blood and make the ring ready for the next fight. Sometimes, the blood cleanup can take time. There can be a lot of blood.

Madrid bullfights. Brownell. May, 2019

The culminating point of the bullfight. The matador and bull square off for a final showdown. Madrid, circa May, 2019

Thoughts

I’ll start this by saying that I don’t have a gentle heart. Whether it’s human, animal, or oak tree, if it needs killing then kill it. However, if it doesn’t, then you should probably just let it be. (You’ll usually just make it mad.)

I understand the draw of the bullfights. It’s the draw of any pugilistic sport. The application of man against an oppositional force. That being said, if you aren’t accustom to the impact of such events, you’ll find it off-putting. I’m comfortable with combative sports, as most westerners are, and still found it to be excessive. After about the 4th bullfight, I was out rightly rooting for the bull.

The structure of the event overwhelmingly tilts the odds in favor of the matador. The bull stands little chance in being the victor. The best it can hope for is to kill the matador before it’s dispatched.

It’s a natural leap for how a society can slowly transition from the spectacle of the bullfights to the wonder of the colosseum. Even the events of the Roman Colosseum started with animal fights. I’m not equalizing the two. I’m just saying that I can see how you could go from one to the next.

The Bullring is a centerpiece of life in Madrid. It is something that, I think, should be experienced to appreciate all that is Madrid. You are going to have difficulty finding a similar experience in today’s society. I say, go do it. But don’t go into it with preconceived ideas. That will do it, and the people of Madrid, an injustice.

Leave your western notions behind, go have an experience like no other. The most important thing about traveling is to be granted the opportunity to form your own opinions based upon actual experiences, not what someone else told you to believe.

Now, go. Go have new experiences. Expand your boundaries.

The Joys Of Madrid.

Madrid, the capital of Spain, has been one of those places I have wanted to visit for a long time. I’m not sure why it’s hasn’t happened before now. The few times I’ve been to Spain in the past it has always been problematic to add another stop. So when I decided to travel across Europe this summer (2019), it was one of the first places I marked down.

Madrid is a big, vibrant, chaotic city, fully equal to any big-ticket city in Europe. Where the Spanish countryside is sleepy, the capital is awash with people and spectacles. The highlights of the city are many, so you need to decide what you want to do before you head out. Having some sketchy idea of what you want to do will definitely help your planning. It is very easy to stop at a corner bar for a beer and to think about where you want to go next, and spend several hours watching the city crowds come and go. It happened to me in the plazas.

Getting to Madrid.

Getting to Madrid is easy. The international airport hosts all major airlines and is a primary connection point for the country of Spain, and many stops in Europe. It also has a well-connected central rail station that welcomes travels from all over the Iberian peninsula to the city each day.

The rail system around Madrid gets. Crowded with long-haul passengers, so reservations for most trips are a must. Don’t wait to get them the day of your journey, as you probably won’t be able to. This happened to me leaving out. I had grown complacent with the easy rail travel of the Spanish countryside and waited to do my reservation. Needless to say, I didn’t get one. Lesson learned. It didn’t happen on the remainder of the trip. I came into Madrid on rail, and went out on an airplane.

Getting Around the City.

in any European city worth its salt, the word here is Metro.

Catching the metro at the Madrid train station. Circa May, 2019

The metro is the fastest, most reasonably priced way to get around the city. The network is extensive and the trains run on time.

The city also has the usual bus service and taxi industry. They too are prevalent about the city. I tend toward the metro, so I didn’t use these other modes.

Some Highlights From Madrid.

The Palace

The Royal Palace in Madrid, as viewed from the cathedral. Circa May, 2019.

Interior furnishing at the Royal Palace Of Madrid. Circa May, 2019.

The Royal Alcazar Of Madrid was founded in the 9th century. In 1660, it was turned into The Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace is a spectacular structure worthy of the title. It lacks formal grounds, but has an excellent reviewing yard at its main entrance. A remnant Of The Alcazar days, no doubt. The interior is still richly appointed.

The Palace draws large crowds. Look for it’s opening time, the day you choose to visit, and be there early. The line forms before opening. There is also a speed line for those that already have tickets (read bus tours), so they slow your entry as well. Just save the headache and plan accordingly.

The Prado Gallery

From the collection at the Prado Museum. Circa May, 2019

Where there is more than one major gallery in Madrid, the Prado Museum is the one you’re looking for. It is the main Spanish art museum in the country, and houses an outstanding collection. The collection includes, among other things, a real Mona Lisa. (No. They won’t let you take pictures of it.)

Again, the Prado draws large crowds. Plan ahead, be there when the doors open or before.

The bullfights

The Las Ventas Bullring in Madrid, Spain. Circa May, 2019

Many will say that the Las Ventas Bull Ring, in Madrid, is the center of the sport in the country. That statement is hard to argue. I’m not going to say much about it, as the next post will cover it in more detail.

The crypts

The interior of the crypt at the La Almundena Cathedral. Circa May, 2019

Once you realize you’re not getting into the Palace, you turn and take in the massive church behind you. You think, “that must be open, right?” And, it is. And, it’s a good choice.

La Almundena Cathedral is a great and imposing structure. It has a design that masters interior space. The cathedral doesn’t give you a medieval vibe, because it isn’t. The building construction was only started in 1897. This late start gives the cathedral a decidedly modern feel.

Along with the cathedral, the complex also houses a nice museum, and a spectacular crypt under the structure. You enter the crypt from a street-level entrance on the far side of the complex. The crypt is active, and still in-use as a burial place. It is an amazing site to visit. The sculpture of some of the burial placements is simply amazing.

The crypt does get a lot of traffic. Make sure you act appropriately, and be respectful of your surroundings.

The Plaza Mayor

The author having a beer and watching the crowds at Plaza Mayor, in Madrid, Spain. Circa May, 2019

The Plaza Mayor is one of Madrid’s main squares. It is also an excellent place to people watch.

Located in the central city area, the plaza is a huge open area within a warren of twisty streets. The central area is open brickwork, with tightly packed cafes and restaurants ringing three sides. Starting in the later part of the afternoon (say 5pm-ish) stroll in and find a seat where you can see the action. The plaza hosts everything from rock concerts, to outdoor art festivals, to people just gathering to converse. There is always something to see.

The plaza, like any other tourist draw area, can be criticized for being too pricey. It’s true, prices do increase as soon as your feet break the plaza’s threshold. But, the people watching makes up for the price gouging.

Take Time Out For Street Music.

A group of street musicians in Madrid, Spain. Circa May, 2019

I can honestly say that I’ve never really been too big a fan of buskers. I don’t dislike them in any fashion, I just don’t really pay much attention to them. I drop coins to the people jamming in the metro, but the people out on the streets seem to get lost in it all, most of the time.

That being said, Madrid is an excellent place to catch a street performance! The city has lots of little nooks and corner areas that seem to be quiet enough for the musicians to do their thing. There is everything from the standard college-aged kid with a secondhand guitar to five and six piece groups doing classical pieces. The range of music available on the street is fabulous. You should make an effort to seek some of it out while you’re there.

A Shout Out to Our Feathered Friends.

pigeon in Plaza Mayor. Brownell. 2019

Madrid was the first urban center I came to where there was enough of a population to attract the ever city-savvy pigeon. The fellow pictured here joined me for dinner one night in Plaza Mayor. Something about pigeons always makes me contented. Not sure why?

Thoughts.

world class art, world class architecture, easy access, a deep history, easy to get around, plenty of hotel options, and every kind of food are available in Madrid. Why would you not go? Why did I wait so long to go? You should go. I want to go back! It’s just a great city.

Now, get out there. Go explore a great city!

A Couple Days in Burgos, Spain.

The municipality of Burgos is located in the northeastern section of Spain. Burgos is the capital of the Burgos area, within the autonomous area of Castille, and It holds about 180,000 people.

The town is beautifully situated and has a charm equal with other medieval towns in Europe. In summer, when I was visiting, the weather was wonderful.

Getting There.

The city is located in the northern Basque Country of Spain. As near as I can figure, there are three good ways to get there. The first, and probably the most utilized, would be cars. Get yourself a rental and be on down the highway.

The second would be public transport. The city is serviced by both trains and buses that criss-cross the region. Depending upon time of day and starting destination, you’ll probably need a reservation for your train ride. Spanish rail has multiple runs a day that pass through the city. (I came and left on the train.)

Sitting in the Train Station, waiting on a connection to Madrid. Burgos, Spain, circa May 2019

The bus station is located centrally, on the south side of the river. I don’t know much about the bus schedules, but after talking with several people who came in to town that way it appears that there are also multiple bus times as well. You can check with the region bus transit website for more info.

Your third option, also quite popular, is waking. Burgos is another one of those towns with a prominent spot on the Camino Francis pilgrimage route. As such, it sees a large percentage of travelers enter and exit on foot each year.

The Burgos International Airport opened in 2008. I confess I don’t know much about this option either, but information should be available on the city’s webpage.

Getting Around Town.

The city is really two different cities. Like most all ancient tourist places, there’s is a historic old city and a new urban city. Burgo’s new section wraps itself around the eastern and southern sides predominantly. The old city is very walkable, and quite congested. If you coming to/from the train station on the north east side, a taxi would probably be best.

There was no marked bus system that I noticed, but there was a lot of bus traffic, so there very well may be one. This is also a big enough population where Uber or Lyft would do quite well. As I don’t use either, I don’t have any information to pass on.

Things To Do And See.

Here things become a contrast between the old and the new. The old is very old, and the new is very new.

The southern ramparts of the Burgos Castle. Or fortress, depending on how you look at it. Burgos, Spain, circa May 2019.

The Castillo de Burgos, on the north side of the river, is the medieval town fortress. Though today it’s a ruin, with ongoing archeological excavations still taking place, it’s well worth making the steep uphill climb to the top of the fortress mount overlooking the majority of the town. It offers great views, especially of the cathedral.

The Burgos Cathedral taken from the courtyard proceeding up to the fortress. Burgos, Spain, circa May 2019

The Burgos Cathedral is also on the north side of the Arlanzon River. It cannot be understated that the Burgos Cathedral is the spiritual and tourist center of the medieval city section. Legitimately, it should be called a cathedral complex. The area contains the cathedral, something like 5 other major churches, a couple museums, and a monetary. There isn’t a spot where you can take a photo of the whole cathedral area, even from the towers of the Castillo.

Started in 1221, the cathedral took several hundred years to build. The interior of the cathedral is overwhelming in its grandeur. I had seen a lot of ornate churches before getting to Burgos. I was glad I took the time to visit the cathedral. It is quite extraordinary.

The casket of El CID. Or, so the sign says. On display at the cathedral in Burgos, Spain. Circa May, 2019

It is also utterly overrun with tourists. The heavy load of tourists puts a strain on the otherwise nice church people. Plan ahead and get there early. This will help with the crowds of people somewhat.

A human skull. One of the many exhibits at the Museum of Human Evolution, in Burgos. Circa May, 2019

Where the old is very old, and World Heritage level, the new also has its draw. The Museum Of Human Evolution is a fully engaging and well curated modern museum. Along with all of the standard exhibits one would expect for a museum based on the growth of the human condition, it also covers several of the areas own archeological excavations.

Located on the south side of the Arlanzon River, it sits in a modern building built specifically for housing the museum. It gets lots of traffic, so expect lots of other people.

Thoughts.

with world-class attractions, good hotels, good restaurants, and a very cool vibe, Burgos is worth your time. It gets a lot of tourists, so you need to be prepared for that. Especially, if you’re coming off the tranquility of the Camino.

I’m glad I stopped. You will be too. Now … get out there. Go find cool new places and stuff!

Looking At Pamplona A Second Time.

Back in the early 2000s, I took a trip over to Pamplona and ran with the bulls. (I don’t really remember the year without looking it up. Some of it was a bit of a blur.) The San Fermin Festival was a fantastic experience. However, I was drinking for most of it or running away from crazy bovines. I admit that I didn’t spend much time exploring the city.

So when I decided to take a shot at the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage this year, I couldn’t seem to find a better place to start it than Pamplona. The city is old and has a spot directly on the French Way. This starting point would give me a chance to see a city I was once at, but managed to miss out on.

1. Getting There.

Getting to the old city, buried deep in the Basque countryside of Northern Spain, is surprisingly easy. Spain has a well-established public transport system. Airlines, trains, and the bus system all service Pamplona. I caught a flight out of Madrid, for a short hop over to the city.

The city’s regional airport is small, but well maintained, and services several low cost carriers. It’s a two or three room building, with minimal amenities. It’s serviced on the arrivals side by some taxis and the local city bus.

2. Getting Around Town.

There is a central bus service that runs around Pamplona. It has several routes and you can purchase your ride ticket from the driver. After that, you can really walk the main city quite easily. The city is well signed and marked. The old city center isn’t excessively large, and is easy to navigate.

Pamplona city center, May of 2019. The rain in Spain doesn’t slow down the numerous people out walking around the city.

Most all of the must-see historic sights are located in the city’s old town center. Pamplona’s center is a collection of narrow streets connecting squares and plazas.

3. Places To Stay.

Pamplona is replete with good hotel choices. Since it has a university, they are almost a prerequisite. There is everything from hostels to the big chain hotels. I prefer the mom and pop places myself.

All of the major internet hotel sites cover the city. I found a great locally-run hotel with bar, in the middle of the old city center, on Booking.com with no problems.

As far as getting to your new hotel goes, I would say this. If your hotel is outside the city proper, a taxi is going to be a good option. If you’re in the city, the bus system will get you close enough to walk it. Pamplona is a well-established location for starting the Camino pilgrimage. As such, they are used to having big influxes of travelers showing up with baggage, and needing a way to their hotel. The bus is cheap and easy enough to navigate.

4. Things To See And Do.

Exterior of the cloister for the Pamplona Cathedral. Circa May, 2019. The picture was taken from the walkway which runs around the cathedral and city ramparts.

The city Cathedral, and the section of ramparts the secure its backside, are must-see items. There is also a lovely park below the rampart walls that is quite enjoyable, even on a rainy day.

There are numerous museums and old structures in the city that are worth your time. Most all guidebooks cover the must-see items. Even the Camino de Santiago guidebook that I used while there called out the A-list stops.

There are many small squares scattered around the old town center. All of them have some iteration of the outside cafe. They are excellent people watching areas. The squares. are also great places to stop and take a break. The city of Pamplona is built on a slight incline. You will burn some calories walking around all day.

To be honest, I spent a lot of my time walking around the warren of tightly woven street. Drinking in cafes, looking at stuff in shops, and generally absorbing the vibe.

5. Thoughts.

Small city square, located just to the west of the Pamplona Cathedral. A little wet from the rain, but very picturesque. Circa May, 2019.

I highly enjoyed my second run at the city. It has all of the charms you expect from a European city, and a sleepy Attitude that harkens back to its older days as a fortress town. I think you will enjoy a day or two wandering its streets and drinking a beer or a nice glass of the local wine. If you’re up in the Basque corner of Spain, do yourself a favor a check it out.

Now, get out there. Go see someplace new!

Now that I’ve had a little time to decompress from the last European trip, it’s probably time to get back to the blogosphere and continue talking about the wandering around. I’m going to do this first part by a quick discussion of cost. The actual cost vs what I thought it was going to cost when I left America. It can be summed up as “Yes, I spent too much. But, I had a good time!”

The Upfront Cost.

I spent a bunch of money getting ready to take the trip. Most all of the expense proved out to be the usual.

The upfront cost included my intercontinental plane ticket from Austin to London. I chose London simply because it was the cheapest ticket I could find at the time. I purchased two Eurail Passes; both multi-day, multi-country passes. There were two passes needed based upon my initial travel plans. I bought a ticket for the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix, as I planned on attending the race. I also bought a festival ticket for Ultra Europe that was eventually tossed in the trash, as I changed travel plans along the way, but that happens.

The logistics of getting around and where to stay were all figured out on-the-fly. I work best that way. Airfare, train tickets, festival ticket, and race ticket combined cost me $2100.00. It went something like Airfare (Delta) $605.00 for roundtrip ticket, rail passes at $1,175.00, $130.00 for the festival ticket, and $190.00 (with shipping) for the race ticket. I like to remove the upfront costs from the travelling money. It allows me to reduce my daily math (am I running out of money math). Let’s look at that now.

The Travel Money.

The amount of travel money available basically came the remains of the budgeted money minus the upfront costs. I started my travel plan with $19,000.00, which was supposed to last for four months of travel. factoring out the $2,100.00 already spent, the budget planned worked out somewhat like the following.

beginning: $19,000.00

Upfront Costs: $2,100.00

40 Days walking the Camino de Santiago (40×50.00/day): $2,000.00

89 Days backpacking around Europe (89×150.00/day): $13,350.00

Buffer: $1,550.00

Obviously, this was a best-case scenario, based upon my math skills and extremely optimistic sense of humor. Now, let’s continue.

The Achilles Heel.

My optimistic plan was based upon my desire to see and do numerous things while in Europe. It was also based upon the idea that I was going to do what I said I was going to do. (If you’re an active reader of this blog then you already know my plan goes out he window. LOL!!)

The first weak link in my plan is in the planning. I planned to walk the Camino Pilgrimage at the beginning due to weather conditions and its low cost per day. I understood in doing this that, if I did not use all of the Camino days actually on the Camino, this would shorten my overall travel time. It would also mean that the cost per day would go up before I planned on it doing so.

The second weak link was in the travel path and lodging. The path laid out beyond the Camino was based upon getting to where I wanted to go with the lowest possible cost of travel. And, once there, Finding the cheapest lodging available wherever I happened to be. This plan involved extensive use of the rail passes, and limited low-cost air carriers for plane tickets. Lodging was going to be in the form of Air BNB, low budget hotels and some nights on the train. This, if used properly, would allow me to budget my money.

Truth vs Fiction.

I had a well thought-out plan, and a fist full of money. I was ready to be off on a grand adventure. Well, that was what I thought. What I really had was a adequately assembled bad idea, and enough money to get out of the country. Okay, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Let’s just say that things went off-plan.

It took about nine days for things to come apart. It took two days to travel from Austin, to London, to Madrid, to Pamplona, to start the Camino de Santiago. It took seven days of walking the Camino for me to decide that it wasn’t for me. 9 days into 60 days, and the plan had gone astray. (I don’t call this blog the I-Stray-Blog for no reason at all!) Going into the backpacking section of the trip automatically adjusted the path of the remaining section of the trip. It also shortened the total time dramatically.

The next thing that went wide was lodging. Instead of heavily utilizing Air BNB and lowest-cost budget hotels, I booked in at the lowest ‘decent’ hotel on booking.com. This slight change in decision making did a good job of increasing cost. Also, due to the change in travel path brought on by the change in schedule, more legs went from train travel to airline travel. This added unplanned airfare costs to the overall budget. (Yes, I already possessed the rail tickets.)

So, what happened? Well, I used the Austrian Grand Prix as my new end date, and dumped everything that came along afterward. Why? Mainly, I really wanted to go to the race. This changed the end date from 4 September to about 5 July.

The effect? Sixty days on the Camino and 89 days backpacking turned into 9 days on the Camino and 57 days of backpacking. One small change and a few loose money spending decisions changed the plan greatly. The real summer trip around Europe looked something like this:

Beginning: $19,000.00

Upfront Costs: $2,100.00

9 Days on the Camino (9x$50.00/day): $450.00

57 Days of backpacking (57x$231.57/day): $13,200.00

Leftover money: $1,900.00

Thoughts About The Plan.

Now, if you noticed that real per-day number and wondered WTH? So did I.

Did I have a great time? Absolutely! Did I see what I wanted to see? At all of the places I managed to go to, Yes! Was it all worth it? Hell Yes! But, did I waste a bunch of money? Well, that depends on how you define waste. The money spent does line up directly with the amount of fantastic times I had travelling, so I say that it was all money well-spent.

This math experiment did force me to consider how I travel in the future. Knowing that I spent more money per-day than I thought I would is important information. Next time, I’ll plan more money upfront. more money upfront will give more of a buffer when things go sideways. It will also allow me to stay. Because, well, I’m probably going to stray.

Following this, I’m going to get back to travel. We will talk about the trip, the stops, and the times had along the way.

Now, go. Get out there. Have great adventures!

Everyone that spends any real amount of time traveling (well, anyone I’ve run across) comes to an inescapable realization. Traveling makes you want to travel.

I can’t explain why this is. I just know that it’s true. You can travel till you’ve had enough, and yet not long after your return you’ll be thinking about what’s next. Where to go that you’ve never been? What to see? What to do? For the next trip.

In my case, I hadn’t completely decided to cut this trip off officially when the initial idea of the next trip stirred in my subconscious. Exhausted from moving day in and day out, produced two equally strong ideas. First, it was time to head back to the USA. This was enough. I’m tired and broke. Second, where am I going next? What’s the next adventure going to look like?

To answer this question for the curious, it will either be across Africa or across the pacific, from island to island. I’ll figure it out for sure later.

Why such a restless soul? Who can say? I just know that as soon as I’m back in Texas, and sufficiently intoxicated, honest plans will no doubt be afoot.

So, when this happens to you, don’t fight it. When you find yourself traveling; exhausted, poor, and kinda sunburnt, your bag overstuffed with T-shirt’s that just had to be purchased, and your last snatched bottle of hotel body wash all but empty, you start to think about new adventures. This is a turning point. This means you’re no longer a tourist. You’re officially a traveler.

Sitting on the train as it rolls out of Prague, Czech Republic, headed for Krakow, Poland. June, 2019.

You’re a traveler. Now, go travel.

One Good Day in Cluj, Romania.

Normally, I like to be in a town longer than one day. Being in the middle of an extended journey, this was really a side trip. A passed through the region to see what it was like. I decided that I could stop for a day in Cluj on my way from Bucharest to Budapest. I would spend a day in Cluj. Since I got in on the train in late afternoon, I guess you could say I had a day and a quarter.

Getting to CluJ.

The train station in CluJ, Romania, on a sunny June morning.

The city of CluJ is serviced by both trains and planes. There is an airport on the outskirts of town that provides connection to/from numerous European cities.

The train station is centrally located in the northern part of the city center. As with anywhere else in Europe, if it appears on the rail map you can get there. I took the train to Cluj from Bucharest. The 9 hour journey came in an hour late, but it came in. The Rail system in Romania is solid, but maybe still a little Post-communist by Western European standards.

What CluJ Is Not.

One of the many old buildings the city has repurposed for cultural exhibitions.

If you’re headed to the capital of Transylvania in search of vampires and whatnot, you won’t find it. The city isn’t a warren of mid-evil houses enclosing tight cobblestone street and small squares.

Where it may have been a sleepy little hamlet at one point, those times have long past. There is very little middle-ages architecture, no vampires, and not a lot of old world charm.

Sorry. If you’re interested in Vlad the Impaler and all the vampire folklore (I was!), there are numerous day trip options to the various sites. Sadly, none of them are in CluJ.

What CluJ is.

The CluJ Old Town, as seen from the top of Fortress Hill across the river.

The city of CluJ is a very modern feeling city, with busy streets and throngs of people coming and going. With a population of around 320,000, the current city of Cluj is a vibrant and active place.

The city has a young feel to it. The universities, and its draw to younger Romanians makes it a very trendy city. You won’t find any boiled potatoes or buckets of ale in this town. Countless outdoor cafes, and restaurant give it a Western European feel. The populous, for the most part, is outgoing and friendly.

Exploring the Old Town.

The statue of Matthias Corvinus in Central Square. ST Mathews Church sits quietly in the background.

All that being said, you can have a good time in Cluj, once your objectives have been adjusted.

The old city area of CluJ is compact, well-defined, walkable, and holds most of the historically interesting sites. Your best option is to get out early enough to get a table at one of the outdoor cafes around the central square, where you can enjoy a coffee and views of the very old ST Michael’s church or the imposing statue of Matthias Corvinus.

After coffee, head east toward the theater and take in the centuries of varying architecture jumbled together along the various street. From the theater area, and it’s impressive Orthodox Church, make your way back down the river to the museum area. They have numerous museums to chose from. They’re all small and quaint by western standards, but their still nice and get you out of the summer heat.

After the museums, find another street-side café or bar and cool off with a beer. When you’re ready, cross the river and climb the steps up the side of Fortress Hill. From the top you get good views of the Old Town area.

And, don’t forget to hydrate. The summer sun is surprisingly hot at mid-day.

Thoughts.

Where I would say that no one is intentionally going to CluJ, if you’re passing through Transylvania it’s well worth stopping at. Where Bucharest’s post-communist rot will wear on your emotions after a while, you’ll find none of that in CluJ. It’s clean, modern, and tastefully trendy. If you forgo the language difference, you can easily imagine yourself almost anywhere in Europe.

Drink in the cafes. Walk around Old Town. Check out a couple museums. Then, get on the train. It’s a town that’s worth a stop – if you’re already headed that way.

Now, get out there! Go find new places to see! New cafes to drink in.