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.
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.
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.
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.
Before I get into this one, I want to make a statement. Travel isn’t about places or things. Travel isn’t about crap you read in guide books and magazines. or, on blogs on the internet, for that matter. travel is about experiences that stay with you, after you leave a place. It’s about understanding the way people in other places understand things. Okay, that being said, go …
I was sitting on the couch the other day, thinking about stuff that should end up on Pinterest. Somewhere in looking through external hard drives, USB drives, and random flash cards at pictures from the various travels, I noticed that I have taken a pile of pictures of beer. Most of the beer seemed to be Guinness. I think this is because the brand is so widely dispersed. In countries that have regional beers, I will go out of my way to drink those beers. For example, in Thailand I drank a lot of Chang. But, it seemed to keep coming up Guinness, so I decided to build a Pinterest board of the different Guinness pints I’ve ingested around the world.
Let face it, if you’re from the United States or Western Europe, you like a glass of beer. (For the purposes of this blog post we will forgo the wine and whiskey categories.) I certainly like several glasses of beer at any one sitting, but that might be one of the things that explain my current western-sized BMI. So I decided to put up a blog post a couple of my favorite pints from here-and-there. These are all Guinness stops, because I was collecting photos for the Pinterest board. I think they are accurate representations of one of the small pieces of travel that adult travelers enjoy so much. I hope this at least makes you chuckle.
When you make it to Dublin, Ireland, one of the things you are going to want to do is take the tour of the Guinness Brewery, at ST. James’ Gate. The brewery tour is quite enjoyable, and the gift shop on the third floor is HUGE! (I even came out with golf tees.)After your tour of the brewery and its beer-making process, but before your attack on the gift shop, you are ushered up to The Sky Bar, Located above the brewery, for a free pint of beer. The Sky Bar only gives out Guinness Draught, but that’s quite alright.
The barmen and women at The Sky Bar pour soo-many pints a day, that it’s all but guaranteed you will get a quality draft. The draft tastes excellent and the views from the high elevation above the city are outstanding. take the time to take the tour. It really is worth your time.
Part Two, the Brazen Head.
The Brazen Head is a nice little bar, in Central Dublin, just south side of the river. Dating back to somewhere around 1198, it is officially recognized as the oldest pub in the country of Ireland.
Now, because the pub is a landmark, and because the pub is totally stamped on the tourist map, and because the pub is easy to get to with a quiet walk through the city, it can be a disappointment if you go at it the wrong way. It is a major tourist draw. Most tourists looking to get a picture and a story will make it no farther than the hostess person standing at the little front door stand. The tourists are shown to a seat, normally outside because the place isn’t very big, and provided with a perfectly adequate time. If you require a more-genuine experience, smile and push past the hostess and grab a seat at the bar with the locals. They are quite welcoming, and you can have great conversations while you enjoy a pint.
If you’re looking at adding a stop at the Brazen Head while you’re in Dublin, do yourself a favor and make it to a barstool where the locals hangout. You will remember the conversation long after you leave.
If you work in the Middle East for any amount of time, you WILL end up in Dubai. It’s almost a Guarantee. If you work in a dry country, like I did in Kuwait, A stop in Dubai will probably be one of your first forays out of the country. Why? Simple, they have beer. Not only do they have beer, but they require you to walk through the duty free shop when exiting customs at the airport. They know why you’re there.
Just south of the airport, between the airport and the river that separates the north older part of Dubai from the south newer sections of the city, sits the Dubai Tennis Stadium. All along one side of the stadium is The Irish Village. trust me when I say, these people know why they’re there. It’s a wonderful place to sit, listen to a little music, and drink several pints. I stopped there everyday that I was in Dubai.
The Irish Village is easy to find on Google maps while you are there, and easy to get to. There is a metro stop several blocks to the north and a following easy walk from the metro to the village. The people are friendly, and the food-drink is quite good. I was really there for the beer. Dubai has a fairly large British ex-pat community, and the locals are quite comfortable with the consumption of alcohol. That being said, you can’t drink while in public (unless you are at a restaurant or other business that serves alcohol), and they DO NOT appreciate westerners being drunk in public.
Number Three, U2 360 Tour, Chicago, Illinois, 2009.
Back in 2009, when U2 brought the 360 Tour through Chicago, Illinois, for the first time (The tour went on for so long that they came two years in a row. I went both years.), they brought an inflatable Irish Pub with them. I believe the tour was at least partially underwritten by Guinness, though I don’t know this to be fact.
Out on the lawn section of Soldier Field, A full-sized inflatable Irish Pub was installed to serve Guinness 250th Anniversary beer to the concert goers. This stop is being added specifically because of the beer. The 250th Anniversary special was one of the best pints of beer that I’ve had. It was creamy and smooth, yet thick and filling. They produced it for a short time and then stopped. I was somewhat upset when I couldn’t get it anymore. Oh, the concert was outstanding as well.
One Honorable Mention. Mainly, because I don’t have or couldn’t find a picture of it.
The Green Dragon, Boston, Massachusetts.
In the middle of Boston, directly across the street from the oldest bar known in the United States, The Bell in Hand Tavern, is an absolute Historical Landmark, The Green Dragon. The Green Dragon is the place where the revolution was said to have been planned. And, if you’ve been there, you believe it. It has been kept as accurate as time will allow, and you can literally picture Ben Franklin passing out at the bar.
I stop at The Green Dragon every time I’m in Boston, and time will allow. The beer is always good, the food is very good, and the company is excellent. If you can make a trip in the summer, when the doors are open and the streets are full of people, you’ll enjoy it that much more. And yes, when at The Green Dragon, I drink Guinness.
I really wrote this post because It made me happy to do it. It’s the interactions with people and places that stick in your mind the longest. It’s why we travel. So, next time you’re out exploring, stop at a good looking establishment and have a beer with the locals. It will be worth your time, and produce memories that will last. Now that I’ve just written that last statement, I have an odd sensation there will be an upcoming post specifically about time spend at O’Neill’s in Kings cross, London.
Is there more to life than Europe? I guess the answer to that depends who you ask. I say, absolutely. Others say, probably not. There was a time when, if someone said to me that I needed to go abroad, I thought of Europe. No, not just Europe, but Western Europe. Now days, I’ve managed to expand by horizons a bit, but Europe still has a powerful draw to it.
I have some friends that travel exclusively in Europe. I consider them tourists, not travelers. Tourists get packages and then go out and see what they have been told is not-to-be-missed. They are most likely itinerary driven people. I hate itineraries! All of the things that you will remember about a trip ten years later will not be in the itinerary.
If this is your lifestyle, that’s cool. Go, and enjoy. There are an INFINITE number of tour packages that cover Europe. And, there are a large variety of travel shows that cover Europe. It is easy to travel in Europe. The network of auto routes and trains is almost all-encompassing. More importantly, Europe has all the stuff people expect when they go somewhere that isn’t there home. It has deep, deep history. It has world class museums. It has excellent food. It has the sun-washed beaches and snow covered mountains. There is little that you can look for that isn’t there, somewhere.
It can also be easy to go to Europe and then just keep going to Europe. That’s what happened when I started travelling again. I had lived in Germany for several years when I was just out of high school. It was those in-between school and college years. Germany was a wonderful place. It was magical. It had mountains, and snow, great beer, and awesome food. The discos were loud and awash with people. There were festivals in every little town. Is was just a great experience. SO, when I decided to get back out on the road it seemed like the place to go. Quickly however, I decided that as much as I liked Germany, I also wanted to see other places. So I went to England. Then, I went wondering all over France. Then, I set down in Portugal, took the train across country to the channel, a train across England, and a ferry to Ireland. Needing a change, I spent weekend in Rome one winter, and Walked around Monte Carlo during the Grand Prix one spring.
I had settled into Europe. Why? Simple, it was easy. A quick flight from the east coast of America to anywhere in Europe isn’t hard to find. Hotels are on some lame similar standard with the States, and you can normally drink the water. It’s just easy. It was at his point that I went, what am I doing? Isn’t there more to life than Europe? Isn’t there a whole other planet out there?
The answer is yes. Yes there is a whole other planet out there to adventure around. Peru is fascinating. Australia is large and wonderful, sun-washed and hectic. Egypt is lost in time and antique. Costa Rica is jungles and surf. It’s all out there somewhere. All you have to do is go looking for it. Personally, I’m happy that I went to see other places.
Now, one could say that you can also find all of those things in Europe, if you look. That would be absolutely true. You can find pretty much everything above, save the jungle. That’s okay too, they really don’t need any jungle. But, back to the question: Is there more to life than Europe? I guess the answer is: do you want there to be? I would say that if you are happy doing the European shuffle, then do it. If you long for foreign lands and mysterious tongues, then do that. I like the second option, but I’ve already done the first one. Think about the way you travel. Think about the things that make you happy. Think about the types of activities you like to do and the excitement that drives you. Then, when you’re done thinking about it, go do it. If wondering the beaches of Europe makes you happy, do it. If wondering the bazaars of Cairo makes you happy, then go do that. I’ve done both. One experience isn’t better than another. They are individual experiences that I enjoyed completely.
So, I guess the answer to the question is – maybe?
Now, go on. Get out there.
The old fortress in Lisbon, Portugal. Taken from the rooftop terrace of my hotel, somewhere around 2009.
I guess we’ll address one of the great internet myths regarding travel. Well, maybe not a myth but definitely a miscommunication. This would be the statements that you see saying “travel for 50$ a day” or “you can travel for 30$ a day anywhere”. These things drive me just a little crazy. Why? Simple. They apply to a specific type of traveller, but are always given as generalizations.
(What I’m about to say applies to Western Europe.)
If you are an 18-25 year old backpacker, bumming around the globe, YES, you can PROBABLY survive on 50$ a day. Will you have a great time? Hard to say. That would depend upon your idea of a great time. If you consider walking tours, hanging out in the park, and free exhibits a great time then you will make it okay. If you plan on couch surfing, doing the group bunk room at the hostile, or the rare house sitting gig, you can probably get by on 50$ a day.
If you have managed to make it to adulthood and have matured out of the Hostile crowd, making your way through Europe for 50$ a day will be much more problematic. Why? Simple. Hotels cost money. Decent meals cost money. Good museums cost money. AND, let’s face it, decent booze of your country of travel costs money. As you get older, and your tastes become more refined, living on the cheap becomes an issue.
I firmly remember my younger days, bumming around Western Europe while in the military. Living out of a vending machine at the train station. Buying whatever beer was on special at the local bar in town. Staying at the seedy hotels because they were cheap and I wanted more money for booze. They were good times! Do I travel like that now? Of course not. Well, of course not, all the time. I still have the random meal out of a train station vending machine just because it’s easy. I still buy the local beer at times just to try something different. These days I do so because I choose to, not because it is a necessity.
The main reason for this is because I have gotten older and my style of travel has changed. I like a good hotel. I like good meals. You can learn a great deal about a country by its food. I love great museums, and cathedrals. Therefore, I budget more money when I travel now. When you’re younger, I think that you’re expectations about a country are different from when you are older. That. Or you are looking for different experiences from your travel choices. The difference usually always costs more.
Okay, now that I’ve complained about the low-budget, what is my opinion? For Western Europe (Definitely any country in the EU zone, yes I mean add England) a realistic number for a middle-aged traveler who is looking to have a good experience and be On-The-Cheap is probably 150$ a day. Now, stop the freaking out. That number has a real world value behind it. Your standard Western European hotel is going to run you just shy of 90$ a night. (In my opinion, the difference between the 15$ Hostile bed and the 90$ ** Hotel room is worth every cent you pay for it, but I’m not 20 anymore either.) Now, you have 60$ left. Running around a European city that has a decent metro system will set you back 8-10$ a day. Okay, we’re at 50-52$ left for the day. A good meal, at a local restaurant will bang you about 20-25$ per meal. So, one good meal, one breakfast at the hotel, and a quick snack stand stop somewhere throughout the day, and you have spent another 25-30$. This leaves you with 20-25$ to spend throughout the day (Museum entrance tickets, t-shirts, and the like). It’s not a lot of extra cash.
That is what I consider the baseline. If I’m only going to be traveling for 10-14 days, I usually budget 1000$ on top of hotel costs, and subdivide it by the number of days I need to survive. Yes, this isn’t budget travel. This is real world travel. Now, do I actually spend the whole 1000$? Almost always, no. But, running out of cash sucks! I don’t like that. I would rather take a hit on exchanging my Euros back into dollars than running out of cash. By the way, almost all exchanger companies will give you a receipt stating the original exchange rate and exchange unused currency back for the same rate upon your return. The rate is usually always bad, but still better than whatever their posted “Buying Rate” is.
Like I said earlier, that piece is specifically for the Euro-Zone, and England. There are a great many places on the planet that a middle-aged traveler can do quite well for 50$ a day. It requires research and investigation, but it is definitely doable. South East Asia, Indonesia, chunks of India, chunks of Central America, parts of South America can all be done well for 50$ a day. I would caveat that the price is minus airfare. Airfare these days is a topic all its own, and is usually always considered an item outside of the standard expenses. At least in my world. Airfare can be reasonable and it can be expensive, but it is seldom cheap these days. Cheap flights are accidentally finds, or heavy research items. Again, I’ll jump off that bridge later.
The nugget of advice being parted out here? Not really sure, probably it would be stop and evaluate what type of traveler you really are. If you are young and carefree, you probably read this and thought I was crazy. If you’re older, you may be looking at my thoughts differently. Once you understand how you like to travel and the experiences that you want to have, you can budget accordingly. Some people travel very well on very little. I like to have a little more comfort at this point in my life. I say do what works for you. Whatever you chose to do, make sure it fits who you are and what you want to do. Do not just head out based on what somebody told you on the internet. That includes me! Your best experiences are the ones where you are happy and comfortable. You can’t be happy and comfortable if you are constantly worrying about cash. Just sayin…..
No go. Get out there!
The view from my hotel room in Bruges, Belgium. 90$ a night. Circa 2015.