Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Some places I recommend
One of my most frequently asked questions is, "Where should I go on my next trip?"
Usually, I refuse to answer, except to say that you should make your own choices, according to your own self-awareness of your own tastes, and not rely on my advice or that of anyone else.
Everyone has their own interests and reasons to travel. That's why I devote so much space in The Practical Nomad; How to Travel Around the World to the process of researching and choosing destinations.
But having just spent 13 months travelling 80,000 miles through 28 countries on 6 continents, just this once I'll take the liberty of telling you some of the places I liked best among those I visited for the first time on my most recent trip.
All of these are places not to miss, in my opinion, but in different senses: some are worth making your primary destination for a trip from the USA (or wherever you may call home), while others are worth a detour if you are nearby, or a stopover if you are passing through. All of them are places that aren't as well known, in the USA in particular, and don't get nearly as many foreign visitors, as other nearby places that I skipped or found less rewarding. This isn't intended to be a list of the world's "best" places to visit, but a list of places I hadn't been to before, but greatly enjoyed, on this trip (I've left out some places that were really interesting, but not for me so much fun, as well as some we already knew we like and revisited on this trip) and that you might have overlooked, or never even have heard of.
My top dozen such places from this trip, in the order I visited them (not a ranking):
- The Humahuaca Valley, Jujuy Province, northwestern Argentina: Stunning mountain scenery (as seen in the prize-winning and recommended documentary film Rio Arriba , which has caused a backpacker boomlet in Iruya), and small towns reminiscent of Sante Fe or Taos, where European-Argentine (i.e. white) artists and hippies seem to coexist fairly happily with the indigenous and mestizo majority. For travellers prone to altitude sickness, this is one of the few overland routes up to the high Andes that permits gradual acclimatization, with villages and comfortable lodging every 500 meters (1500 feet) of altitude gain, all the way up the valley from the pampas to La Quiaca at the Bolivian border. If you are coming from Buenos Aires, you can take the train to Tucuman -- less than US$40 per person for a private sleeping compartment -- then continue by road through Cafayate, the center of the Torrontes wine-growing region.
- Potosi, Bolivia: Perhaps eight million people died in the mines of Cerro Rico, the "Rich Mountain" above Potosi that was the center of Spanish colonial wealth in the Americas. From Ecuador to Argentina, Indian conscripts were marched thousands of miles to labor in the mines of Potosi. Those who survived to return home propagated some of the first seeds of a common "Hispanic American" cultural identity. Today, the mines (as deadly as ever, although on a reduced scale) remain the sole reason for the existence of a city in such a location, on an almost unbuildably steep slope in barren desert at an almost uninhabitable altitude. Given that past and present, I thought it important to visit Potosi, but I didn't expect to enjoy it. To my surprise, I did. Potosi is, above all, a living city, warts and all, not a monument to the Holocaust of which it was and is the center. Local people are justifiably proud of what they and their ancestors have so arduously wrought, and of their city's historic importance. Potosi was comfortable, inexpensive (like everywhere we went in Bolivia), visually stunning, and a delight to explore on foot -- at least until the altutude and steepness got to us.
- Portugal: Worth a trip. If you are wondering where you can still afford to travel in Western Europe with devalued U.S. dollars, put Portugal at the top of your list. Friendly people, great food and wine, great scenery, few crowds (even in the summer, most foreign visitors to Portugal stick to the beach resorts of the Algarve, in the far south), and the price sinkhole of the Euro zone. The climate is mild enough to be pleasant even in winter, and gorgeous in "shoulder" season in spring or fall. Like Ireland and perhaps Greece, Portugal combines a proletarian identity (as a country whose main export used to be migrant labor) with modern European infrastructure. Lisbon and Porto are charming cities -- big enough to be exciting, small enough to be accessible.
- Ourense, Spain: Probably not worth a trip, but definitely worth a detour. Despite being the capital of Galicia (don't worry, everyone speaks standard Castilian Spanish as well, although much signage is bilingual in Galician), Ourense is just far enough off the pilgrimmage route to Santiago de Campostelo that it's almost completely untouched by foreign tourism. The most fun part of our visit, other than the food, was the natural open-air public hot spring, in use since Roman times, at the edge of the river in the center of town, walking distance from our hotel.
- Pau, France: Like Ourense, Pau is the sort of place that makes a Eurail pass worthwhile: you find yourself passing through or changing trains, and decide to stay a while. What have you got to lose? If you don't like it, you can get back on the next train. Pau used to be on the main rail line from Paris to Madrid (and may be again in the not to distant future), and with its vista of the high Pyrenees was once quite a fashionable resort. Today it's a quiet but still cosmopolitan place with plenty to keep you busy for a few days. And the rail route across the mountains to Zaragoza, Spain (site of this year's World's Fair, in case you hadn't noticed) remains spectacular despite having to switch to a bus over the pass, where France and Spain have been arguing for decades over the repair of a damaged tunnel.
- Marseille, France: It's hard to find anything except racism and (unwarranted) racialized fear to explain the paucity of tourists in Marseille. It's France's second-largest city, Europe's most African and ethnically diverse major city, and for millennia one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. I've wanted to get to get to Marseille for years, and having been there, I'm eager to return. The Marseillaises have culture and panache, even on the barricades (whether in the French Revolution, in their celebrated leading role in the resistance to Nazism, or in the contemporary labor demonstrations we happened upon). But we encountered none of the snootiness of which Parisians are so often accused. Nor did we find Paris-like crowds at the museums, churches, concerts, restaurants, excursions, and sights. Nothing is really cheap, but the prices are tempered substantially by the general absence of mass or luxury tourism.
- Syria: Worth a journey in its own right, or an overland side trip from Turkey. Damascus and Aleppo were, for me, the high points of more than a year on the road. So much to see, and so few tourists. There are caveats and complications I've written about elsewhere. But nowhere else in the world, ever, have I experienced such a universal, unqualified, generous, and sincere attitude of welcome as I did from almost everyone I met in Syria. And that was especially true when they learned that we were from the USA! Nor have I been anywhere with so much historical importance and so few visitors. No, I never felt the least afraid: Even in the largest cities, foreign women can walk down dark alleys alone in the middle of the night safely -- and not just because it's a police state. Except for accommodations, everything is dirt-cheap, including great food and fine-quality handcrafted souvenirs in the frenzied bazaars.
- Thessaloniki, Greece: Worth a stopover along the rail route between Athens and Istanbul, or a side trip from either. My first taste of big-city life was at college at the Univerity of Chicago, so perhaps it's not surprising that I have a thing for "second cities": big enough to be cosmopolitan and dense enough to get around by foot or public transit, but not so self-important or overwhelming as mega-capitals tend to be. (Come to think of it, Marseille fits much of this same pattern, although with even fewer tourists than Thessaloniki.) Thessaloniki's location and multicultural history tie it as closely to the Balkans and to Turkey (its obvious sister city is Izmir, Turkey) as to Greece, while the present-day character of the city is dominated by the port (as always) and the huge university. Lots of Europeans on weekend "city breaks" mean lots of comfortable and empty hotel rooms on weeknights, with highly negotiable rates. Have I mentioned the superb and reasonably-priced (if not cheap) food?
- Ethiopia: If I could visit only one country in all of Africa, I would probably pick Ethiopia -- provided I was willing either to travel really rough (seriously bad busses and bedbugs) on a backpacker budget, or pay the price for comfortable accommodations (which do exist in the major tourist spots) and internal transportation by air (Ethiopian Airlines is Africa's best by far, with impeccable efficiency and competence even when flying to remote places) or a private car and driver. As the seat of the African Union, Addis Ababa has become in many ways the capital of the the continent, while Axum and Lalibela provide an accessible introduction both to the grandeur of African civilization and to contemporary life in African communities outside the big cities. Extremely safe compared to most of the rest of Africa, much less the USA, with English widely spoken. And of course, the food is a unique delight. (Asmara, Eritrea, gave us a fascinating comparison and contrast with Ethiopia, but isn't on the way to anywhere else, and doesn't have much in the way of tourist-oriented activities or entertainment.)
- Sana'a, Yemen: Even if you don't (and maybe shouldn't) venture out of the city, Sana'a is definitely worth a stopover. Yemen Airways has excellent prices on through routings between Europe, East Africa, and South and East Asia, via Sana's, and gets my "we try harder" award as the best small airline of our trip. At 7,000 feet above sea level in a bowl in the mountains that set Yemen off from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, Sana's has the perfect temperate climate characteristic of equatorial highlands. If you think all Arab countries are alike, think again: people here are Yemenis (and members of a tribe) first, and Arabs only secondarily. Yemen isn't really isolated, but in a world of homogenized globalization, it's its own place in appearance, lifestyle, architecture, and exuberant welcome. (And qat-chewing, but that's another story.)
- Bendigo, Victoria, Australia: Like most foreigners, I thought of Australia mainly in terms of the East Coast cities (especially Sydney) and the Outback. But there's a third Australia in between, which tourists shouldn't miss: the countryside and the "country towns", of which Bendigo was one that happened to stand out in our experience. Nothing spectacular, but comfortable and "pleasant" in the best sense of the word.
- Narita, Chiba Prefecture, Japan: Most people know "Narita" as the name of the international airport serving Tokyo, but Narita is actually a small city worth visiting in its own right -- even if you don't have time, or don't want to deal with the crowds, to take the train to central Tokyo. Narita's best-known attraction, the Naritasan Shinshoji Buddhist temple, draws ten million pilgrims a year from throughout Japan and farther afield, and is surrounded by a pedestrian strip of traditional restaurants and shops catering to these pilgrims, as well as several hotels within walking distance. It's just a few minutes by train from the airport, so a half-day layover can be an opportunity for exploration rather than an enforced waste of time. Japan has never been as expensive as some people would have you believe: you can spend a fortune, but you don't have to spend any more than you would to travel at a similar level in the USA, possibly a little less. With the Japanese yen having appreciated much less against the U.S. dollar than the Euro or many other currencies, that makes Japan a bargain these days compared to almost anywhere else in the First World (except the USA itself, of course).
If you are wondering about the absence from this list of India and China (both big, diverse, interesting, fun, and essential if you really want to be able to say you've seen the world), the reason is that we didn't get to India on this trip (we spent a couple of months -- not enough -- in India and Pakistan on our first trip around the world), and while we did get to China, briefly, the recent changes in China's visa rules preclude independent travel, at least for now.
I say again, your mileage may vary. Please post your recommendations (and the reasons for them) in the comments: What are the places you've been that don't get as many foreign tourists, aren't as well known, or don't have as good a reputation as you think they deserve?Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 24 September 2008, 10:43 (10:43 AM) | TrackBack (0)