I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
Every year, I sign up for a Rick Steves tour under a pseudonym. (It’s fun — I get letters from myself.) And then, I surprise the group at our welcome meeting on the first day. This year, I signed up for a Heart of Portugal in 12 Days Tour — and I’m so glad that I did. We’re about halfway through the tour now, and for six days our guide, Fatima, has been filling us with Portuguese experiences, lessons, and memories — from the highest culture to the grittiest market scenes.
Here in Alcobaça, the market is entirely local. With our “Whisper System,” we have Fatima’s voice in our ears. And with her intimate narration of each little market kiss, ritual, and tradition, our visit is filled with meaning and insights. I love how a good guide can turn an impromptu stroll through a market into a fascinating peek into the local culture and an unforgettable travel memory. Thanks, Fatima!
For a part of each of my trips, I generally pick up a rental car through my favorite consolidator, Auto Europe, and enjoy the freedom of having my own wheels.
I don’t use a car in big cities if I can avoid it. (You’d never drive your own car to sightsee in a European city—and it’s an expensive waste to pay for the rental and the parking.) But a rental car empowers you when exploring the small towns and countryside. On this trip, I picked a car up as I left Granada and dropped it upon arrival in Lisbon. While there is occasionally a small extra fee to pick a car up at the airport rather than downtown, I like the ease of taking the cheap public transit to and from the airport and avoiding inner-city driving.
This spring, my great little car put me in the driver’s seat for exploring the white-washed hill towns of Andalucía and the remote beach towns and beaches of the Algarve — both areas where having your own car is a real help. I was stung with a pretty steep drop-off fee to leave the car in a different country — something that I’d work to avoid if traveling on a tight budget. For me, the efficiency was worth the fee.
Driving in foreign lands can come with a little language barrier and a stint on the learning curve. For example, signs in Granada make it really clear that anyone who drives into restricted zones during high-traffic times without authorization will be ticketed. (Ignore that and a bill for $100 will be awaiting you when you get home.) If you’re staying at a hotel within one of these zones, you’re legal…but only if your hotel files your license plate with the local police.
I connected the bigger dots on my spring trip with excellent freeways in both Spain and Portugal. I always feel toll freeways are a good value (in terms of time saved, mileage improved, and relative safety enjoyed) compared to using toll-free national highways. In Spain, you just pay at each booth. In Portugal, the system was very slick. At the border, I popped my credit card into the machine, and it printed out a receipt explaining that periodically, as I drove through the country on the freeways, sensors would click on me and my card would be charged for that stretch of super freeway. The freeways cost me a little but getting around took hours less than it had on earlier trips.
Good news! Last week, I invited our traveling community to join me in supporting Bread for the World, an advocacy organization that’s devoted to giving hungry people a voice in Washington, DC. I offered to send a copy of “Travel as a Political Act” to those who gave $50 or more — and I pledged to match all contributions (up to $50,000) with my own gift to Bread. More than 1,200 of you donated on Bread’s website, contributing more than $80,000. Thank you!
I realize that for some, it feels better to simply support a food bank or some other good charity. But the impact of money raised for advocacy is literally hundreds of times more helpful for hungry people. In Congress, guns have a voice, coal has a voice, and truckers have a voice. Even travel agents have a voice. Thanks to Bread for the World, the hungry have a voice, too. And when the cause is one that a Congressperson knows is good and just, that voice is a blessing…and it’s heard.
I’m so energized by this response and the good we can do together to empower Bread’s work, that I’ve decided to increase my match to $100,000! That means that, so far, because of your $80,000, I’m donating $80,000 and, together, we’ve raised $160,000. Let’s hit $200,000. Please join in now.
As our nation is struggling to establish a course true to our values, our gifts and our actions have never been more important. Thanks so much for joining me in this exciting initiative.
Ronda is the birthplace of modern bullfighting, and its bullring — the oldest in Spain — comes with a fine little museum about the bloody ritual. Local aficionados would never call bullfighting a “sport” — you’ll read newspaper coverage of fights not in the sports pages, but in the culture section. Lovers of the “art” of bullfighting will explain that the event is much more than the actual killing of the bull. It celebrates a noble heritage and Andalusian horse culture.
Locals tell me the tradition of bullfighting is still going strong, with or without tourist money. What are your thoughts on bullfighting in Spain? Let me know in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.
Exploring Europe, you see the big sights — and you also see the little ones. Here are a few little things I noticed along the way in Spain.
While I was very comfortable during my visit earlier this spring (temperatures were in the 60s and 70s each day and evening), in a few weeks it’ll be cracking 100, and there will be a lot of wall-crawling shrimps. (The brutal summer sun in Spain turns pedestrians into what are now called “wall crawlers” — people walking right up against the walls, catching whatever shade they can. And tourists not used to the sun who get burned are called “shrimps.”)
More and more, tourists are enjoying the delights of Andalucía and, more and more, English is the language of travel. Rather than the old-school menus with five languages, menus are now generally in two (or maybe three) languages, including English.
Spain loves its festivals, and Sevilla takes it to extremes. My favorite Triana bar includes the dates of the major festivals on its business card — for the next several years.
(What about you? I’d love to hear about some of the little sights you saw on your last trip. Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.)