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!

Driving? Is it really necessary?

I’ve been driving in the Middle East for about a week now, and I can testify that it is not what I remember the driving in Europe to be like in the late 80s. In a word, its awful.

I would say that it’s been almost 30 years since I have driven in a country other than the USA. I have driven in Canada several times, but growing up in a border town, I don’t view that to be a different experience from American driving. Sorry Canada.

I do remember it taking a while to find a comfort level with driving when I started driving around Germany. Getting used to the traffic on the Autobahn as a teenager took a few days. Everything in Germany either moved fast or slow. But, as all things do, soon enough it was old hat. I was driving everyday just said it was home. 

That being said, I’m pretty sure the same thing will come of the hellish traffic over here in the Middle East. They say, if you can drive in NYC or L.A. you can drive anywhere. I’d say that’s about half right. Having driven in both cities, I would put the difficulty factor at about 2x NYC. Its either okay or its REALLY not okay. 

Which I guess, brings me to my question of the day. Do you feel that you need to drive when you’re traveling or do you use local means of transport? How do you get around?

Personally, I normally use local transport to get from A to B. I have found that it is usually not difficult to get where you’re going without driving. 

In Europe its particularly easy to get around without a car. Trains and taxis will get you almost anywhere you want. Those to are supported by the occasional bus trip to get to the very few places the trains don’t go. Its really super easy. 

In Central American I have used a car service to get off the beaten track. Trust me, there’s not much beaten track in Central America. In South American, planes, trains, and taxi cabs got me anywhere I wanted to go. That included all the way up to Macchu Picchu. Getting to the mountain city was as simple as a train ride and a short bus ride. It was a harrowing bus ride on a switchback dirt road straight up the side of a mountain, but it was short. 

I did resort to renting a bicycle in Ireland so I could get around the site on the southern side of Galway Bay, but that’s probably as extreme as my travel needs have been. The train and the bus got my across Ireland in fine fashion, and the bike ride through the countryside was actually very nice. 

My current need to drive is promoted by my work. Having a vehicle is necessary. That being said, there does seem to be a reasonable bus system in place, and countless taxis cruising the streets. Movement options are available in the area. The closer I get to a city, the more numerous the transport options become. There doesn’t seem to be a commuter train system in the Middle East, or at least not in the area that I am in. Still, if one wanted to venture out into the dunes, I’m sure local guide services are available for day trip options. I haven’t been in the area long enough to seek those out, but I may later on. I spent enough time in traffic now.

So do you feel the need to drive when you’re traveling? Most American naturally answer yes. Its just part of our culture. But, when abroad to you search out easier or alternate means to get around? I definitely do. Local transport options can be useful, and can save you money. European rental prices are a lot if you don’t use the vehicle every day. And many cities require that you pay to park as well. 

Whichever way you choose to get around, it should be enjoyable and as easy as possible. I’m hoping that I get used to the awful traffic soon, and things become a little more enjoyable. And wherever you travel, be safe when doing so. It can be a mad, mad world at times.

Enjoy, and get out there!

Sunrise over the Persian Gulf. Taken today. 

Getting Around Town.

This stream of conscience is more about internal travel than it is external travel. We will cover getting from country to country in another episode. Today let’s talk about how to get around a place once you have already made it there.

For the sake of good conversation, let’s start with Europe. It really doesn’t matter if it’s western or eastern Europe, I find the go-to answer to be the train. When I was younger, and lived in Germany, I drove almost everywhere. It was just a matter of get up and go. Now that I’m not embedded in the culture anymore, I find the train to be the best option. The train system in Europe literally goes everywhere. Seriously, I mean it goes everywhere. The small little town in the middle of nowhere will have a train station. I may only get one train a day, or a week, but it is still accessible. The other good note about Europe is – It ain’t big. I don’t mean that as a statement about the continent, but more about the cities in it. Most all the cities in Europe have one of two qualities. Either they aren’t very large or they have a metro system to get around. Any city of any size in Europe will have a metro (subway) system.

You can walk out of your hotel in London, get the tube to the train station, catch a train across the channel to Paris, and take the metro to your next hotel. No rental cars or cabs required. After hitting up Paris, you’re on the high-speed train south to Barcelona or Nice. Maybe, you head east to Frankfurt. Maybe it’s farther on to Rome. Wherever you’re headed in Europe, I personally think the train is the answer.

Now, the rail system does have some downfalls. The real downfall of the rail system is that you’re going wherever the train is going. If you like to do the random stops and check out the unmarked roads, then the train is not going to be your first choice. It’s cool, you have to travel the way you like to travel. Getting off the beaten track with a rental car in Europe is pretty easy. All of the major rental companies that operate in North America also operate in Europe. There are different requirements for insurance and such, but the process is basically the same. You may be required to possess an International Driver’s Permit, and should definitely check the requirements of the country you plan to visit. If you are required to possess an International Driver’s Permit, you can pick one up at your local AAA Car Club office where you live. Most major car rental companies will also offer deals to vacationing travelers. Check with the car company you intend to use or the booking agency you get your plane/hotel through as they may have incentives and saving plans available that can lower your cost.

If the train is for you, then there are options here as well. Both Rail Europe and EURail offer multiple day/multiple country train ticket options through their websites. The ticket packages need to be purchased before you leave North America, but can be bought in advance and activated when you arrive. Depending upon your ideas about what you want to do, buying single use tickets at the train station can be a cheaper option, as the rail passes are fairly expensive. If you plan to visit several parts of a country or multiple countries, the rail pass is definitely a money saver.

Moving on to Africa, Sadly here I’m not much help. The one time I was in Africa I used a travel company. Which one? Contiki. They were excellent. They also provided all of the logistics. Frankly, the traffic in Cairo was something I had never seen before. I didn’t know traffic and action sports could be blended together until I made it to Cairo. I’m sure there are good ways to get around, I just haven’t scouted them out yet.

South America. South America doesn’t have the infrastructure that North America has. It lacks any of the serious between city/country services, except for buses. Buses and planes are the between country services in the lower part of the Americas. The flights across country are also reasonably priced. The bus is the cheapest, but is also definitely sketchier. You can catch an internal of to-country flight quiet reasonably. Once you land, its cabs and buses around the city. The rental car option is also available in most major South American cities, but with a cab service it probably isn’t necessary. At least, that’s me. Some people like more independence of travel. If you’re looking for on-the-cheap, then a rental is probably a good option. You can burn up a little money running from one side of a city to the other. I just tend to find cabs easier.

South America is much more based on buses and cabs in the cities, and buses or private drivers from city to city. When I was in Costa Rica, I used the private driver option. Travelling up into the cloud forests, it pays to have a driver who knows where he’s going. It’s also nice to be able to talk to a local for a while, about whatever.

My time in the Caribbean has been a mix of cabs and rental cars. Seriously, beaching it is easy in a rental car. And, like North America, the car companies are everywhere. If you’re headed out for the night to party, leave the rental at the hotel and cab it. You will be happy you did on the way home.

I have utilized trains, cabs, buses, horse and carriage, and private drivers while traveling abroad. It really depends on how you want to get around. If you are the typical North American traveler, you want freedom of movement. That is easy enough to find, depending on your definition of freedom. If it’s I-want-to-go-right-now, then it’s rental cars probably. If its lets-go-and-see then it’s the train, or a bus, or a cab. Most cities and city to city connections in most parts of the world have a bus service. I recommend that if you plan to use the local bus service, you research it before you go. The ideas of safe and prompt vary wildly across the globe. If you’re thinking that you’re going from Lima, Peru, down the coast to Nazca, Peru, and that you’re going to be taking the Greyhound, you’re probably going to be sadly mistaken. You’re also going to have a bad travel experience.

I tend to think that have a good travel experience has as much to do with travelling like the locals as it does with interacting with the local society. If you’re in a place where everyone travels by bus, then get out and travel by bus. If you’re in an area of the world with good trains, then take the train. Believe it or not, moving around is actually part of the travel experience. Personally, I can’t wait to get to India or South East Asia and take my first ricksha ride!

The train station in Monte Carlo, spring of 2013. I was in town for the Monaco Grand Prix. It was a really nice train station.