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

Beans for breakfast…it’s Ireland

I just spent a week in Dublin. It was our annual family vacation. Anne and Jackie flew in from Seattle. Andy wrapped up his 70 days in Europe here. And I took a break from researching. I had a hunch Dublin would be great for a week of family fun…and it was brilliant.

The city is safe, thriving, easy, and extremely accessible. Each night we enjoyed fun and affordable entertainment. Andy drank enough beer to tarnish its allure. Both kids connected with their Irish heritage. (In a week Andy will be back as school–Notre Dame…trying out for the “Irish Guard”–the big intimidating guys who precede the marching band at fighting Irish football events.) We were all pretty wide eyed at the thriving late night scene in Temple Bar. In Dublin the girls are wrapped up like party favors. The guys look like they’re on the way home from a hurling match.

And Ireland’s becoming a melting pot. It seemed everywhere we went young Polish people were serving us: bringing breakfast, cleaning our hotel rooms, taking our tickets. Ireland’s a land long famous for exporting its labor, but today the economy is booming and they’re experiencing a population boom–of immigrants. Of the 10% of Ireland’s population that is not Irish, most are Polish (Catholic, kept down by a bully neighbor…they can relate).

Poles are famously hard working here. My friend who runs a youth hostel employs a Pole who unnerves him by almost shouting “I can do dat” every time he’s given a task. It’s disorienting to hear rough Irish types (historically the under-class at home as well as abroad) talking about their Polish housecleaners like a great latest accessory. “I’ve got a wonderful new Pole…very low maintenance…don’t know how I managed without.”

Except for the beans at breakfast…forget “eating Irish” in Dublin. Going local here is going ethnic. I was at a multi-national food court and it was confusing: Chinese were cooking Mexican, Poles were running the Old Time American diner, a Spaniard was serving sushi, and Irish were running the Thai. Save your craving for pub grub for the small towns.

Yesterday, I was at Croke Park with 50,000 Irish football fans (like soccer but you can run with the ball as long as you bounce or kick it every three steps). Each fan paid €30 ($40) for a ticket. I get talking to my friend, telling him I went to the Abbey Theater the night before to see a play by Oscar Wilde. He asked me the cost. I said €30. He said to his wife, “imagine paying €30 to see a play?” I reminded him that, to a playgoer, spending €30 to see the game we were at would be just as strange.

Ireland’s charming rough edge is surviving its new affluence…but it’s becoming a little less rough. We spent €30 outside the stadium so everyone in my family would have a scarf or hat or flag with the correct colors (gold and green–we were rooting for Donegal). I remember twenty years ago–when the “colors” were cheap dye on crepe paper hats for a buck. I was in the humble stadium on this same spot (where Europe’s thunderous third biggest stadium stands today). The rain was causing my colors to run from my hat down my face–gold and green…still for Donegal even back then. I put the hat atop the umbrella next to me…not thinking it would run in eight small rivlets…coloring those around me. Luckily, they were Donegal fans too. Colors hold fast today. With affluence, the Irish no longer bleed on each other.

During that game twenty years ago I’ll never forget the creative cursing. My vocabulary grew like never before. The Irish–even in polite company–have always been loose with the “F word.” The Irish rock star Bono got in trouble on American TV for saying it, but the station avoided the FCC fine–apparently on a technicality: because, in common Irish usage, it’s considered an adjective rather than a verb.

On this current trip I’ve noticed the Irish don’t say the F-word so much. A decade ago it was f-in’ this and f-in’ that. And the air’s cleaner of smoke too. There’s no smoke indoors anywhere. Pubs come with fresh air and a few blokes smoking outside the front door.

Today, I had breakfast with Noel Dempsey, the Irish minister of communication–who, cabbies I interviewed in the last few days figure, is in line to be Ireland’s next prime minister.

(I made friends with Noel in Seattle when I was the Grand Marshal for St. Patrick’s Day and he was the visiting dignitary. Noel explained that each St. Patrick’s day the demand for Irish dignitaries empties their country of politicians as they fan out to St. Paddy’s Day festivals around the world. They post a listing of all the requests each winter and if you don’t choose one, you’ll get assigned a destination. He liked Seattle.)

Noel said Ireland is very pleased with the performance of their economy. In 1987 their per capita income was 65 percent of the European average. Today it’s 130 percent.

AmExCo is a dinosaur

 

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American Express was once the convivial, welcoming home to American travelers abroad. It was a gathering place for adventurers living far from the USA. In the 1970s and 1980s we’d meet here to collect mail from home, sell used VW vans, and reconfirm our flights home. When changing dollars into francs, it felt so good to lose money to that smiling, English-speaking person at American Express. Now with e-mail, ATMs, and the general shrinking of the world, AmExCo is a dinosaur. They are closing down shops right and left. And I realize they no longer merit the special paragraph between laundromats and post offices in my guidebooks. I feel almost guilty when I highlight an American Express listing and press delete.

But enjoying change is fundamental to good travel. Change is accelerated as once poor countries are thriving. Last week, zipping on modern freeway from Madrid to Segovia in a comfy air-con bus during the pre-scorch hours of the day, I was staring with pensive wonder out the window. The modern American-style suburban sprawl of Madrid reaches far beyond where any tourist ventures.

Suddenly, just a few minutes after wild scrub and farms replaced the car dealerships and furniture outlets, a towering concrete cross broke the horizon rising high above the hilly Castillian countryside. It marks the grave of Franco–a memorial church longer than St. Peter’s, carved out of solid rock entirely underground. It’s lined with towering angels glorifying Franco and those countless thousands on both sides of Spain’s Civil War who gave their life for “God and country.” Spaniards explain their “late start” in joining the rest of Europe in the remarkable affluence of this generation because they had to wait until the 1970s for freedom to replace Franco.

Later I met a man who looks like a medieval Kenny Loggins with a big grey beard, a toothy smile, and a battered bike. He didn’t speak a word of English. I tried to interview him but he looked at me as if thawed out of some glacier. He just smiled and pointed to his flag. It’s Latvia. He pulled out a magna-carta-like map with a red line tracing his route. His itinerary looks like the trip of a kid with ADD and a two month Eurailpass–but he did it all on a circa 1960 bike. I feel strangely honored to meet him….before Latvia, too, joins in the affluence.

The pipes and fiddles play on.

A few years ago, I submitted the Madrid chapter of my guidebook and a new TV show we produced on Madrid to the local tourist board for a tourism promotion contest. While I knew I was promoting tourism in Spain far more than any other participant, I also knew I wouldn’t win. That was a few years ago. Just yesterday, my local guide friend told an anecdote about how my writing was ridiculed by the panel of judges as being just “too full of Franco.” (Tourist boards are all about fun in the sun and duty free shopping.)

I don’t think you can tour Spain properly without an understanding of how a brutal civil war followed by half a century of dictatorship impacted the society and leaves it scarred today.

 

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Now I’m in Ireland. I just watched a powerful movie (The Wind that shakes the Barley) in a small town (Dingle) theater filled with local farm kids whose grandparents could have been the stars of the movie showing how a heroic independence was won after a 700 year long battle with the world’s quintessential colonial overlord (Britain) and the battle then morphed almost immediately into a civil war (fighting over how to deal with a Britain-ruled north).

Walking a Dingle street the next day with the retired local police chief, Tim, I worked to bring to life Ireland’s history using insignificant bits of a small town a world away from Dublin as a rack upon which to hang this understanding. A century ago the town’s police station was the Green Zone of English imperialism here, housing the dreaded Black and Tan forces who kept any Irish insurgency under control. It was burned and today only the red brick wall at its gate survives. Across the street a big, white crucifix stands memorializing where local boys were executed (firing squad) by the English “in the glorious struggle for a free Ireland.” This was erected after the Free State was established, but even back then they knew the struggle was on-going. It is dated 1916 to 19__. Ireland remains divided and the date remains poignantly open ended.

I enjoy history–I actually got my history degree accidentally, it was so much fun. And the history that inspires me most is from the last century–heroic figures who people alive today still remember. Churchill, chomping on a cigar in his bunker, keeping England fighting. Ataturk, muscling medieval Turkey from the buffet line of Euro-imperialism into a modern democracy.

Turks still remember the George Washington of their young nation. I have a Turkish friend (Mehlika) who was so dedicated to Ataturk that as a young girl she believed she’d never be able to fall in love with another man. Her father died of a heart attack during a moment of silence at a Rotary Club ceremony to remember what Ataturk did for Turkey. Even today, Turks see Ataturk’s image floating by in the clouds.

The sights and stories of small people (young and old) fighting Hitler, Franco, the USSR, or the Queen carbonate my European sightseeing. And, to any student of history, two things seem very clear: we can learn valuable lessons from history; and the resilience of a people’s cause, while easy for an imperialistic power to underestimate, is an impressive force.

The English burned the harps here in Ireland centuries ago. But the pipes and fiddles play on as today the Irish culture thrives.

A day on the job…

Someone wondered in a previous blog “just how does Rick spend his time and what does he do for fun in Europe?” It’s strange that I would take time out of my sightseeing to respond…but, for some reason, I feel like you are all my travel partners…and it’s fun to share. Here’s my routine (excuse the clipped writing…but I’ll be fast):

Bottom line for me–get eight hours of sleep and stay healthy. Otherwise, virtually every minute while I am researching is dedicated to the mission: make the books more helpful for my readers. While working in Europe, all experiences of the day are dedicated to research. If my readers can’t do it next year…it doesn’t exist. I thrive on local tips, leads, and feedback. Hotel receptionists, who deal with American travelers day in and day out, are hugely helpful. My Madrid hotel doesn’t serve breakfast so I need to find one. If it’s a problem for me…it’s a problem for my readers too. I ask the receptionist’s advice–where’s a good churros place (greasy cigar-shaped doughnuts Spaniards dunk in hot chocolate for breakfast) He says, “Americans want Starbucks…it’s over there.” I need to balance my interest in having people enjoy the old fashioned cliché and the modern reality. I dunk a few churros (it’s a chain cafe…not much local energy) and treat myself to a latte and blueberry muffin (we’re all just human). Next year, it’s in the book.

Over coffee I review my goals for the day. Updating a chapter is like that video game where the little guy bounces through all sorts of pitfalls collecting golden rings. He won’t get them all, but the more the better. There are a million little things to check. If I’m well-organized, I’ll visit nearly all in person and minimize what I call “the phone sweep.” As the books have grown, it is unrealistic to physically visit every place mentioned every year. When my time is just about done in a town, I call it good and finish things off by phone. You’ll see phone numbers in many listings that you might wonder “why have a number for that?” It’s there for me (or another researcher) for updating purposes.

Making a smart schedule is critical. Minimize walking and do things at the smart time. Checking hotels before 10:00 is bad news–people haven’t checked out yet…the staff is still busy with breakfast. It’s hard to get anyone’s time and it’s hard to see a room. Checking late in the afternoon is also bad–everyone’s checked in for the day and many places are reluctant to show rooms.

To save time these days, I often hire a taxi by the hour to hit a series of hotels and sights. This saves time but puts distance between me and the transfer reality of a typical tourist with my guidebook. I need to understand the public transit challenges. I routinely take the subway and bus just to physically do what my readers are doing. For instance, a few days ago I took the new shuttle bus in from the Madrid airport, connected to the subway, and walked and walked and walked between underground trains with what seemed like millions of people with my bags to get to the hotel. This is the experience of my readers and it’s mine too.

A major challenge these days is to find the real price of a hotel…sorting through the ups and downs dictated by new-fangled computer programs that predict the demand and price-sensitivity. These days rack rates are bloated to cover the 20% commissions paid to web booking services (which are becoming the standard system for most hotels in Europe these days). I try to convince hoteliers to appreciate my readers coming direct by giving them a net rate (their rack rate less the commission they assumed they’d lose).

My great advantage over other researchers is that the recent success of my books means I meet people all the time who I can quiz. They think I’m so friendly and gracious to take time to chat…but I truly enjoy it…and it’s practical–very helpful for me because I learn what works and what doesn’t and what are the pitfalls and frustrations people traveling with my book are dealing with.

I wonder when I’ll burn out, but I absolutely love this research work. I guess I’m powered by the proud feeling that no one in America with his name on a guidebook is actually doing this. The sight of my frayed pants and dusty old shoes gives me a tri-athlete’s buzz (I think). I have a knack for finding small business people who love their work in Europe. This gives my books a passion for people-to-people connections. I can understand how President Bush can claim to look into someone’s eyes and see their soul. (But if I’m wrong, it’s just a bad hotel value). I meet someone for a few minutes and factor in their passion and integrity for their work as I decide which of many otherwise similar hotels or restaurants to recommend.

How do I find the good hotels and restaurants that make my books work well for travelers? It’s certainly not me. I feel so clumsy in much of Europe. For twenty years I’ve been pushing doors that say pull and walking into doors that say push. Here in Madrid, to say “where’s the toilet?” I still point my index finger to the ground and say “Psss?” My ability to suss out good places is from carefully compiling and building upon twenty years of local tips, and the advice from guides and European friends who generously share their expertise. That is then combined with my secret weapon: 20 years of experience as a tour guide, seeing for myself the joy, fear, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder in the eyes of my travelers up close and personal.

It’s expensive to spend so much time researching guidebooks. No other publisher invests so much shoe leather in annual updates. There’s never really enough time. Triage is standard operating procedure. The day is divided between hotels, sightseeing, travel practicalities, and eating. I filter out information on temporary exhibits that are gone next year. Festival events that are rare on the calendar are invisible to me. I don’t care if the Queen’s sharing her box at the Royal Albert Hall…if my readers can’t do it next year, it doesn’t exist.

Year after year, I visit the sights and do the walks. Every two years I’m here in Madrid: dropping by the cloistered nuns (just as I propose in the book). I talk into the dark wood of their lazy susan (me in English, them in Spanish), and order their cheapest cookies. This year they spin out lemon short cake. I measure the experience and affirm that it’ll work for my English-speaking readers.

I balance time between three star sights all travelers will do and the obscure and new sights. (Yesterday in Madrid, I dropped by the Egyptian temple given to Franco for helping save antiquities from the rising Nile while building the Aswan Dam. Everyone says it has the best city view in town. My experience: The temple is under rated…the view overrated. A big wide view of Madrid only makes you wonder why anyone would build a city in this non-descript piece of Iberia…so don’t seek a big fat view.) But nowhere else in Europe can you see an actual Egyptian temple standing in a park.

Lately, restaurants have become a big priority for me in my research…perhaps because I like to eat well now more than in the past. There are two hours of prime restaurant review time each evening. You can bet every evening that’s when I’ll be out–checking restaurants. (I call it “blitzing restaurants.”) I get my ducks in a row (take a minute to write out a smart plan on the map), consider all reader feedback received (both for existing places and tips on new places). My reward–just before the kitchens close…eat at my favorite place visited. Each year I try to add a few and drop a few just to keep things fresh. I can’t eat everywhere…but I can talk to people in each place. If I meet a couple with my book who are eating for the second night in a place (for instance), that’s a fine listing.

My challenge is to write up a listing so people can really know which place is best for them when reviewing options back in their hotel room. My image: one traveler is in the shower, their partner is on the bed paging through the guidebook reviewing the options. Listings need to be clear and concise so the right choice is obvious.

Menus and the mechanics of ordering can be frustrating. It’s my challenge to sort this out for people. If a stew is a local must-eat experience and big enough for two, I learn if splitting is allowed. If the place is mobbed after 8:30, I’ll suggest ways to avoid the line. If the ambience is great on the ground floor and lousy downstairs, I’ll make that warning. If it’s dead on hot evenings (as many indoor places are), that will be noted. If the business practices are aggressive, I’ll say so with encouragement to understand an itemized bill before paying.

Like giving the chapter a haircut, I enjoy trimming extraneous info and needless words that sneak into the book by my crew of earnest and talented researchers and editors. When it comes to a good guidebook, less is more. And I’ve found credibility is hard earned and easily lost.

My favorite two comments when on the road researching: local Europeans who marvel at how useful the book is for them when they enjoy a night out; and travelers who pack lots of guidebooks along, but only one leaves the hotel room with them when they’re out and about…mine.

More then ever, these books have become a team effort. We’d never be where we are with these without the help of many great writer/travelers. And I am spending more and more time apprenticing researchers. Still, personally writing and maintaining these guidebooks is the work I enjoy most.

Holy Toledo, the devil’s licking his chops

After a week in central Spain (Madrid, Toledo, Segovia), I’m heading for Ireland.

I like to catch emerging neighborhoods in my guidebooks. Here’s a new listing for my 2007 Spain book: In Madrid, a neighborhood called Lavapies is emerging as a colorful magnet for people looking for the multi-ethnic tapestry of Madrid society enjoying pithy, cheap, seedy yet fun-loving life on the streets. As is the case with most neighborhoods like this, they experience an evolution: so cheap only the immigrants, down-trodden, counter-culture types can live there. The liveliness they bring attracts those with more money who like the diversity and color. Businesses erupt to cater to those bohemian/trendy tastes. Rents go up. Those who gave the area the color in the first place can no longer afford to live there. They move out and here comes Starbucks. For now, Lavapies is edgy, yet comfy enough for most.

This district has almost no tourists. Old ladies with their tired bodies and busy fans hang out on their tiny balconies as they have for 40 years watching the scene. Shady types lurk on side streets.

For food, you’ll find all the various kinds of tapas bars plus great Indian and Moroccan eateries. I list a couple of places that appealed to me…but explore your options. I’d recommend making the entire walk once, then backtrack and eat at the place or places that appeal.

From metro stop “Anton Martin” walk down Calle Ave Maria (on its way to becoming Calle Ave Allah) to Plaza Lavapies (old ladies hang out with the swarthy drunks here while a mosaic of cultures treat this square as a communal living room) and then up Calle Lavapies to Plaza Tirso de Molina (with a metro stop). This newly remodeled square was once plagued by druggies. Now with a playground and flower kiosks, it’s homey and inviting. This is a fine example of the vision for Madrid’s public spaces.

If traveling to Madrid, keep these places in mind: Bar Melos is a thriving dive jammed with a hungry and nubile local crowd famous for its giant patty melts called Zapatillas de Lacon y Queso (because they are the size and shape of a zapatilla or slipper, €7 feeds at least two, Ave Maria 44). Nuevo Cafe Barbieri is a dying breed of smoky mirror cafe with a circa 1940 ambiance playing classical music in afternoon and jazz in the evening and offering its coffee sippers a menu of loaner books (Ave Maria 45). At Calle Lavapies 44, consider a fun cluster of three places: Indian Restaurant Shapla (good €8 menu); Teteria Lakutubia (an atmospheric tea house); and Montes Wine Bar with countless wines open and served by the glass and good tapas (crawl under the bar to get to the WC).

With a good guide, art–even obscure art buried in side chapels–comes to life. In Segovia’s cathedral I found a fun piece in a side chapel. I added this to my guidebook:

The many side chapels are mostly 16th century and come with big locking gates–a reminder that they were the private sacred domain of the rich families and guilds who “owned” them. They could enjoy private Masses here with their names actually in the blessings and a fine burial spot close to the altar. Its many 17th century paintings hang behind a mahogany wood gate imported from colonial America. The center statue is Mary of the Apocalypse (as described in Revelations, standing on a devil and half moon–looks like bull’s horns). Mary’s pregnant and the devil licks his evil chops waiting to devour the baby Messiah.

By the way, only Americans say “Holy Toledo.” Spaniards and the English don’t recognize the phrase. Locals tell me it’s likely from Sephardic Jews (Spanish branch) who emigrated eventually to America. To their American ancestors, Toledo was the most holy Jewish city in Europe…Holy Toledo!

Whenever I find a new eatery with a business plan driven by a chef’s passion, I am one happy guidebook researcher. Here’s my favorite new find for my Toledo chapter:

Adolfo Vinoteca–The highly respected local chef Adolfo who runs a fine restaurant across the street, runs this wine bar in hopes of introducing the young generation to the culture of fine food and wine. The place offers super elegance without the pretension. You can’t go wrong with their short list of gourmet appetizers (€5 each) and fine local wines (€2 to €3 per glass). I’d just throw myself at the mercy of Jonathan, and enjoy the feeling of gourmet slaves in the kitchen bringing you your wildest edible fancies. If the Starship Enterprise had a Spanish wine & tapas bar, this would be it. Wine is sold at shop prices with a €6 cork fee (daily 12:00-24:00, across from the cathedral at Calle Nuncio Viejo 1, tel. 925-224-244).