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

UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Don’t Impress Me Much

On an earlier entry I said “don’t trust UNESCO” for choosing what to visit. Someone pointed out that their list is not for tourists, but to recognize places that are cultural treasures that deserve special care. Yes…I was just tired of people promoting their places with me based on this list.

Someone else asked which UNESCO World Heritage sites I thought were overrated. I couldn’t remember. I went to their website, reviewed the list, and found these, which I feel are not worthy of special praise. They are all important cultural treasures and fine sights…just not particularly better in my estimate than other competing sights for a sightseer’s priorities.

Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world, and my responsibility as a travel writer is not to just rave about everything, but to help overwhelmed travelers sort through the superlatives and smartly allocate their precious and limited vacation time. When someone from the tourist board in one of these places brags, “We are on the UNESCO list,” I sing, “That don’t impress me much”:

Historic center of Telc, Czech Republic (fine, well-preserved ring of buildings, but thin)

Jewish Quarter in Trebíc, Czech Republic (poorly presented compared to other historic Jewish quarters)

Grande île, Strasbourg, France (Colmar beats anything Strasbourg has to offer)

Tokaj Wine Region, Hungary (why?)

San Gimignano, Italy (like Obidos in Portugal, a fine and touristic shell — great towers, after that…expensive ice cream and no parking)

Vicenza, Italy (yes, nice city, but only if you’re into Palladio)

Botanic Garden in Padua (wonderful historic garden…but not likely to connect with travelers)

Villa d’Este, Tivoli, outside of Rome (fine old park, but run-down and doesn’t make the cut for a best week in Rome)

Etruscan Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy (impressive Etruscan tombs but not worth a journey)

Alto Douro Wine Region in Portugal (no better than wine regions in Germany and France)

Old Town of Ývila, Spain (thunderous walls, but the town itself is not unique)

Old Town of Segovia, Spain (not unique…Salamanca is better, with more life)

Ramparts of Bellinzone in Switzerland (I love ramparts, but they’re a dime a dozen)

Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland (impressive geology, but I don’t believe in giants)

Derwent Valley Mills in England (why?)

Having stuck my neck out to say all this, I must add that it is fun to reassess opinions I once held and change them. First impressions can be too powerful. On many occasions I am saddled with a first impression from a generation ago…and with an opportunity to reconsider…I realize I missed a place’s charm at first glance. Still, overall…there are too many superlatives in the travel-writing business.

Barcelona and Spain’s Quebec

In Barcelona, a local told me, “Catalan is Spain’s Quebec.” Traveling here, you see how the people of Catalan have an affinity for other “stateless nations.” Locals don’t like to call their corner of Iberia a “region” of Spain…that’s what Franco called it.

They stress that they are a “nation without a state.” And they have a kinship for other people who didn’t get their independence when they drew the national boundaries. They live in solidarity with other stateless nations — finding Basque or Galician bars a little more appealing than the run-of-the-mill Spanish ones.

Even ATM machines are in solidarity, offering the correct choice of languages: Along with Angles, Frances, Castilla (Spanish), you’ll always find Gallic, Euskara, Catalan. Even though there’s likely not a person a year who would speak only Gallec (from Galicia, in northwest Spain) or Euskera (from Basque country), they give them the linguistic respect they would hope for in a foreign land.

Like many of Europe’s minor languages, Catalan is actually blossoming. It’s the language of the local schools, and these days, children here speak Catalan first…Spanish second.

A recent affluence has elevated the city. There’s barely a hint of danger in Barcelona’s once-frightening Gothic Quarter. I remember the city’s main boulevard, the Ramblas, when it was rich at the top and very rough at the port. Lurid prostitutes would line the street where it finally hit the harbor. Today, it’s rich at the top and rich at the port. And the only thing left of the prostitutes are holes ground by anxious high heels into the stone threshholds of brothel doorways that once faced the boulevard.

The toughest thing surviving on the Ramblas are the roving gangs of thugs who run the high-energy, extremely twitchy shell games. With spotters uphill and downhill and a full team of shills, nervous men scoot their dodgy peas. It’s amazing there are enough fools on the street to keep them in business.

My highlight with this Barcelona visit was less exciting — Pimiento de Padrón (or in Catalan, Pebrots de Padró)…lightly fried peppers salted and served piping hot. They’re a kind of Russian roulette for the taste buds as the eager eater knows that every once in a while, you’ll hit a super-spicy pepper.

The New Tangier Is No Tijuana

I love Morocco. But I’ve always called Tangier the Tijuana of Africa. That has changed. Tangier was a neglected hell hole for a generation. It was an international city — favored by the West and therefore distained by Morocco’s last king. He made a point to divert all national investment away from his country’s fourth city.

The new king, who took the throne in 1999, believes Tangier should be a great city again. The first city he visited after his coronation was Tangier. The difference — as I just learned — is breathtaking. The place is still exotic…but likeably exotic.

Checking into Hotel Continental, flamboyant Jimmy, who runs the shop, met me. Six or seven years ago, I told him I was from Seattle. He said, “206.” Now I test him again saying I’m from Seattle. He says, “206, 360, 425…new area codes.” He knows every telephone area code in the USA.

Hotel Continental has you looking for the English Patient. Gramophones gather dust on dressers under mangy chandeliers. A serene woman paints a figure eight in the loose tiles with her mop, day after day, surrounded by dilapidation that never goes away. As I updated the information in my guidebook, I found a rare and nonchalant incompetence. My guidebook listed the hotel’s phone and email data more accurately than their own printed material. It’s a 70-room hotel with not a sheet of paper in its office.

Roosters and the Muslim call to prayer work together to wake me and the rest of that world. When the sun is high enough to send a rainbow plunging into the harbor amid ferries busily coming and going, I stand on my balcony and survey Tangier kicking into gear. Women in colorful, flowing robes walk to sweat shops adjacent the port, happy to earn $8 a day sewing for big-name European clothing lines. Cabbies jostle at the pier for the chance to rip off arriving tourists.

It’s an exciting time in Morocco. The king is modernizing. His queen was a commoner. Moroccans say she’s the first to be seen in public. They have never seen the king’s mother. They actually don’t know what she even looks like. Walking the streets, you see a modest new affluence, lots of vision and energy, and no compromise with being Arabic.

They don’t emulate or even seem to care about the USA. Al Jazeera blares on teahouse TVs — with stirring images of American atrocities inflicted on fellow Muslims. But people seem numb to the propaganda. I felt not a hint of animosity to me as an American, something I was concerned about. There was no political edge to any graffiti or posters.

My guide, Aziz, explained to me the fundamental difference between Islamic and Islamist, and then said Morocco is Islamic.

Wandering — especially after dark — is entertaining. It’s a rare place where signs are in three languages, and English doesn’t make the cut (it’s Arabic, French and Spanish). Aziz said when he wanted someone’s attention he says, “Hey, Mohammad” (or “Hey, Fatima” for a woman). It’s like our “hey, bub”…but very respectful.

The market scene is a wonderland — of everything but pork. Mountains of brilliant olives, a full palette of spices, children with knives happy to perform for my camera. Each animal is slaughtered in accordance with Halal: in the name of Allah, with a sharp knife, head to Mecca, drained of its blood.

Until now, I’ve recommended that day-trippers from Spain just hold their nose and take the organized tour (with all the groups from Spain’s Costa del Sol). A Tangier guide meets you at the ferry (after the hour-long ride from Spain). They take you on a bus tour of the city, a walk through the old town, lead you to a few staged Kodak moments (camel ride, snake charmer, Atlas mountain tribal musicians) and then you go to a clichéd restaurant where you eat clichéd food with a live band and a belly dancer (which has nothing to do with Moroccan culture, but tourists don’t seem to care). Then you visit a shop.

They must make a healthy commission, because the round-trip ferry ride with the tour cost essentially the same as the round-trip ferry ride without the tour.

During my stay, I met gracious Moroccans eager to talk and share. About the only time I saw other Western tourists was when I crossed paths with one of the many day-tripping tour groups. Those finishing up their tour walk in a tight, single-file formation, clutching their purses and day bags nervously to their bellies like paranoid kangaroos as they bundle past one last spanking line of street merchants, and make it safely back onto the ferry.

I was so comfortable and they were so nervous and embattled. The pathetic scene reminded me of some kind of self-inflicted hostage crisis.

Don’t Trust UNESCO

I spent all day yesterday climbing steps to Barcelona hotels and sorting through tourist propaganda fliers. As I research my guidebooks, it seems nearly everything I read is promotional — designed to get my traveling readers’ money.

Every town has 2,000 years of history. They all want to pump up their off-season charm. And anyone can claim a “vast gastronomy.” I pick up a pack of fliers at the tourist office, sit in the park and sift through it — putting all that advertising through my centrifuge and coming up with straight, descriptive material explaining a traveler’s options. At least that’s my hope.

When it comes to evaluating sights, I disdain the word “UNESCO.” I find that throughout Europe, places desperate to rise above the din of tourist attractions brag that they are on the UNESCO list of cultural treasures. It seems every time I reject a place, proponents of it come at me with the “We’re on the UNESCO list” line. I normally want to like the United Nations (something that really irks my conservative detractors). But in the case of mediocre destinations for travelers, I’m with them — butt out, UN!

Now that I have guidebooks covering all of Western Europe, I can no longer remember everything I’ve seen and reported on. I’m not sure if I should feel good or bad about a strange mental phenomenon that has been reoccurring at an alarming rate to me lately. I think I’ve discovered something new or found a new, clever way to better describe something. I write it up with great satisfaction. Then I turn the page and see that it’s already written up from a previous year’s visit precisely as I just did. At least my thought processes are consistent.

Reviewing 20 to 30 hotels in a day (average of four per hour if I get my ducks in a row smartly — and don’t let friendly proprietors kill my momentum with a drink), I run out of descriptors. With the dollar where it is, Americans need a frank description of their low-end options. There’s an interesting spectrum ranging from charming to characteristic to funky to quirky. Places can be: Old school. A slumber mill. Time warp. Professional-yet-friendly. Thoughtfully appointed. Minimal-yet-comfy. Gaudy in the city of Gaudi. They can have: “a bomb-shelter charm” or “the ambience of a locker room.” Popular with backpackers and dust bunnies. Warmly run by Juan and the man he thinks may be his father. If the starship Enterprise had a Motel 6, this would be it.

Occasionally, I need to defend a description. I called one place “uppity.” The next year, the manager there asked me what that meant. Thinking quick, I said, “elegant and proud.” One place didn’t like to be described as “one floor above the sex shop.” But that’s exactly what it is.

When I find receptionists I think I can trust for leads, I milk them. Many are so wired to sell things that if I ask for advice on the best flamenco show, they respond, “We sell tickets to this one.” “Best restaurants” are generally run by relatives.

Trends are fun to keep up with. In Barcelona, several hotels have replaced the mini-bars in their rooms with a maxi-bar (called tentempié bar) in the lobby. It’s stocked all day with cold drinks and light plates of food and fresh fruit, free for guests. Also, Wi-Fi is on its way to becoming standard as more and more people are traveling with their laptops. I don’t like a hotel that charges $200 a night for a double room and then nicks its guests with a Wi-Fi fee. (In my books, I only list Internet access and Wi-Fi if it’s offered for free.) Many hotels have their website run by a booking service (which takes a cut). They give you a discount only if you send an email direct, skirting their own website.

There are some wonderful, big, new, urban youth hostels — I just visited a great new 400-bed place in Barcelona’s ritziest zone. No membership or age requirements and dorm beds for $25 each…great news for traveling students. (My co-authors and I call these places “Andy beds” — for my son and his college-aged friends slumming through Europe as we used to.)

A decade ago, we had a page in our guidebooks for travelers to rip out and leave in the hotel bathroom if they didn’t want their towels changed. Then it became trendy for hotels to claim, “Help us be green…leave towels on the floor if you want them changed.” Today, I find hotels have dispensed with the token environmentalism and insist on changing your towels each day. We’ll reinstate our “don’t wash my towels today” page next year.

Speaking of washing — people are surprised I still wash my clothes in the sink. It’s faster than hotel service or going out, and hotel shampoo works just great as detergent. If I ring things really tight, they’re dry by morning. (I must be a quite a wimp though, because if I’m not careful, I can actually get blisters on my hands by wringing too hard.)

It’s fun to analyze chapters in my current editions to see what state I was in on my last research round. If I list a masseuse, it’s fair to guess I must have been really exhausted on my last visit.

(P.S.: I hope you can scroll down and enjoy some of the photos we’ve just added to previous entries.)

Married in Gibraltar Near Spain

I can’t resist popping into the British colony of Gibraltar when in Southern Spain. Gibraltar is hardly signposted in Spain, as if Spain wishes the British colony didn’t exist. (You follow signs to La Linea, the last Spanish town.)

Quirky Gibraltar is happily English. Just 30,000 people live along a three-mile lip of land under that famous Prudential Rock, but the people of Gib have an impressive national pride. In a 2002 referendum they voted 99 percent to stay with Britain. If you ask locals what they think of their current governor, now in his third term, they say, “He deals effectively with Spain.”

The colony is part British, part not-Spanish, part Gibraltarian. They have the big three-pronged English plugs, their own currency (the pound sterling — but a Gibraltar version, like Scotland) and their own web domain (gi). Their Anglican church is proudly “headquarters of the Anglican Church in Europe” (not very centrally located for the business of administering that vast parish).

The people have that annoying British correctness — I got chewed out by the woman at the tourist board for not giving them advance notice of my visit. They’ve decided to change the name of what for a thousand years has been known as “the Moorish Castle” to the “Medieval Castle.” (I told them, “Not in my guidebook.”)

An American submarine was in port during my visit, so the colony’s pubs were busy with Yankees on a quest for cold beer. Gibraltar’s economy, once dominated by the military, is now based mostly on tourism. (And that includes quickie weddings — only 48 hours notice is required and it’s legally British. Sean Connery got married here. And, of course Beatle fans remember from “The Ballad of John and Yoko” that they too got “married in Gibraltar near Spain.”)

While the British military presence is now dwarfed by the presence of British sun-seekers, the colony is encrusted with military souvenirs — thick, thick ramparts, war memorials, 30 miles of tunnels drilled into its rock and big rusted iron rings every 20 yards along the military roads that switchback to the top of the rock, designed to enable limeys to hoist up the giant cannons that once helped the Brits seal off the Mediterranean when they wanted.

As we drove high above the port, my taxi driver pointed down to a tiny breakwater and said, “That’s where they pickled Admiral Nelson after the Battle of Trafalgar.” (While he won, he died too. His body was preserved in a barrel of spirits for the trip back to London.)

Gibraltar’s dominant tour company is called Blands. I remember 10 years ago all the buses said “Bland Tours.” Mr. Bland — who speaks perfect English, so there’s no excuse — finally realized that his name just wasn’t ideal from a marketing point of view. But sometimes ego trumps greed. He added an “s.” Now his buses read: Blands Tours.

The Gibraltar business sense is quirky. The hotels are twice as expensive as those across the border in Spain (and not as comfortable). For a decade, I’ve said, “English food is no longer as bad as its reputation.” Now I’ll add: “…except in Gibraltar.”

And the businesses pad their bottom line by gouging anyone who comes in and spends euros. I imagine well over 200,000,000 people spend euros. Only 30,000 spend Gibraltar pounds. And Gib business people say, “Sure, we take euros.” They don’t tell you that it comes with about a 20 percent loss in the exchange rate.

Nevertheless, tourism is booming. Midday, the pedestrian-friendly main street (which locals call “Main Street”) is a virtual human traffic jam. And twice as many planes are landing in the colony every day. While it’s still only four planes, it is more important than ever now that when you walk across the military airstrip that marks the border between Spain and what’s left of the British Empire, you look left, right and up.