December 31, 2009

Packing Light, Packing Just Right - Thursday Thirteen

Since my first solo trip, at the age of fourteen, where I had to pack and carry my own suitcase from start to finish, my goal has been to pack just right rather than just light. Granted my first solo trip was to a city two hours away driving. However for me this trip included a four hour bus ride, a thirty minute subway ride and then walking five city blocks - at fourteen. Cue ABC After School Television Special on runaways for the visual and of everyone who saw me along the way, the friendly and the too-too friendly.

The struggle to manage my bag left me determined to carry only what I knew would be used. No more cursing an overweight bag as it digs into your hands or strains your back every time you lift it. Besides, who needs twenty t-shirts for two weeks, unless you are menopausal and are having night sweats. How many shoes will be worn? Seriously, the average traveler only needs two pairs. My shoe cobbler (we still have them in San Francisco) told me to switch my shoes back and forth daily so each has a day to breath and retain its shape.

After long trips and short hops, here are my favorites that top my recommendations every time:
  1. A warm big scarf, like a Pashmina
  2. Wool gabardine slacks in black
  3. A big silk scarf in a rich pattern
  4. Khaki slacks
  5. White long sleeve fitted cotton blouse
  6. Black flats with cushion inserts
  7. White tee shirt
  8. Cardigan
  9. Casual shoes with a bit more support
  10. Trench coat
  11. Striped blouse with French Cuffs
  12. Tote with zipper closure
  13. Pullover Sweater

Let me explain how we got here. A big oversize warm scarf can be used as a blanket, a pillow and a scarf everywhere on the trip starting with the plane. My idea of wool gabardine for slacks is due to their versatility. They hold up well after you iron them and can be dressed up or down, and black goes with everything.

For me a great investment is a nice heavy silk scarf. It is a light weight version of the warm scarf but this also can go beyond your neck. With a twist, you can wear a silk scarf as a belt or as a really pretty hair tie. These are styles I have pulled off before and with great results for a dressy look.

The rest is about layers for warmth, occasion and wrinkles. When you layer your clothes, it is easier to hide wrinkles that you can’t get out, like using a trench to hide those stubborn pant creases. Also if your shirt is rumpled, folding a cardigan over your shoulders helps and keeps you warm. For a nicer dinner out, using the shirt with French cuffs tucked around the outside of a sweater always looks pretty.

So don’t think you can’t travel light and still have all the right stuff in your bag. And don't forget that a zipper tote will always be a good idea to keep thieves out of your stuff, and to keep your maps and notebooks in. I've had LL Bean canvas totes for years.

Get out there this new year and see the world, it’s worth it.

December 29, 2009

Save money but eat well in San Francisco

Sometimes when we travel we sacrifice a little on the food budget. We take chances and eat from taco trucks. We eat street food. We may skip meals. If you come to San Francisco there are many ways to eat well for less money, more than you may expect.

Some of the best places may be a surprise to visitors, but worth a try I promise. San Francisco enjoys the benefits of having so many citizens who are from other countries and cultures. We have lots of wonderful restaurants and cafes that offer foods from around the world.

You will likely get a better tasting - and inexpensive - meal if you try one of the many burrito shops, taco trucks, ramen shops or steam tables than if you went to a restaurant advertised in the lobby of a hotel.

Here are four of my favorites:

Yank Sing 2 Go - steam table Chinese food
El Gallo Giro Taco Truck - tasty soft tacos
Sapporo-ya - savory ramen shop
La Corneta Taqueria - best burrito

December 26, 2009

Matadors in Ronda, Spain and Plaza de Toros

Driving the road to Ronda in Southern Spain can be treacherous. However if you survive, you are rewarded by a beautiful white washed hill town. Try visiting in November like we did, and you will have fewer cars to battle with on the narrow roads.

Once you arrive, you must visit the Plaza de Toros! This famous bull ring is one of the oldest operation bull rings and is the home to modern bullfighting and worth seeing.

Read through the brochures they give you, and with the additional information posted with the displays, you will definitely get the sense of rivalry between the style out of Ronda and the style of bull fighting in Sevilla. The matadores from Ronda give you the impression that they are all about skill and precision with weapons, while their colleagues in Sevilla are all about flash and dancing around. I’m just saying that is what I picked up from the English translated signage.

We bought tickets which included access to the museum and that made it for me. Besides the detailed history of the sport, the exhibits included stunning displays of the riding gear for both the horses and fighters.

We got to walk freely through the bull ring as well, and experience the thrill of racing for cover behind the false wall, as if a bull was chasing us! Ole! I can’t say I would pay to watch a bull fight, as I do feel for the animals, but after going through this arena and museum, I have a better understanding for those who do.

Random Fact: In 1994, US singer Madonna shot her music video, Take A Bow, in the bull fight arena.

We walked all around, from the entrance to the back stables with its equine residents. It is unique to be able to get such close up access to a working bull ring. It wasn’t difficult to imagine attending a bull fight here, though we read that most still travel to Sevilla these days.

December 22, 2009

Rock of Gibraltar Tunnels and Pillar of Hercules

What stood out on this trip for me was the historical significance of The Rock. This is the first place I have visited with evidence of human habitation going as far back as Neanderthal man! The first inhabitants were the Phoenicians, around 950 BC and one of the Pillars of Hercules is considered the Rock of Gibraltar.

The Pillars of Hercules was the phrase that was applied to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar. When you walk up to it, be sure and look at both sides!

Staying on the Costa del Sol, most of the beach towns are within an easy driving distance to Gibraltar. You could definitely spend the day and enjoy yourself. The area reminded me a bit of Tijuana, Mexico in that there were loads of people who obviously made the daily trek back and forth across the border for work. When we walked across the border it was simple to negotiate directly with a cab driver to take you to see the sights rather than try and walk it alone.

Besides getting to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, you should be sure and go INSIDE the Rock. Truly you can see a side of this area just as significant, by going inside the many tunnels. These are self-guided tours but I suggest you check out the Great Siege Tunnels.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar was an unsuccessful attempt by Spain and France to capture Gibraltar from the British during the American War of Independence. This was the largest action fought during the war in terms of numbers particularly the Grand Assault of the 18 September 1782. It was the longest siege endured by the British Armed Forces, as well as being one of the longest continuous sieges in history.

By the end of World War II, they had carved out over 30 miles of tunnels! I only climbed around a tenth of that but it is worth getting this unique perspective by checking them out during your visit.

And the other cool – literally – historical destination is St. Michael’s Cave. These limestone caves are in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. Be careful because they are very dark inside and there are stairs that can be slippery. However if you go, be prepared to see stalactites that are out of this world!

December 20, 2009

Help Me Ronda, I have Spanish Vertigo

Besides having an amazing meal at Don Miguel Restaurant, my favorite time spent in Ronda, Spain was at its famous bullring and walking along the vista points staring out across the valley.

Ronda, Spain is simply a stunning hill town, one of the many white washed villages in the Andalusia region and not too far from the resort town of Marbella on the Costa del Sol. We drove up one of the narrow roads, in about an hour, with a mixture of motorcycles and bicyclists keeping us company.

It is not for the faint of heart since many of the signs you will pass along the way, warn you of dangers from tailgating motorcyclists.

We took our time and as we entered the town, easily found parking in a lot that was off the main street and had an attendant. Walking through Ronda, you can’t miss the many vantage points to stare out across the valley. We found one at the end of a beautiful park, and a small back street named after the actor and director, Orson Welles.

He apparently loved this town as did Ernest Hemingway, and spent many summers living in the old town quarter. He even had his ashes spread across the bull ring!

If you can handle it, walk along with Orson Welles, past the Plaza de Toros and toward the Parador de Ronda. This Parador built in 1761 is in the former town hall, in the center of the city. You will find it next to the Puente Nuevo and with one of my favorite views.

Having stayed in paradores in the past, I am definitely coming back to stay here! My experiences with them in the north of Spain were wonderful, and I booked them directly online, in English. If you travel to Spain or Portugal, there are paradores that will not only be a great way to experience the area, they are perfect for families. Most of the lodging is not that expensive considering they are historical buildings and they always offer meals with regional menus.

Next: Plaza de Toros

December 8, 2009

Gibraltar: Much more than an Ape Haven

Gibraltar was ceded by Spain to Great Britain in perpetuity, under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Spain wants it back but a majority of Gibraltarians strongly oppose this and Britain will support whatever the Gibraltarians want. In 2002 the government put it to a vote and this unusual relationship continues. During our recent visit, it was clear that everyone looked pretty happy the way things were. We saw loads of people enjoying pubs and shopping along the downtown streets.

When you visit Gibraltar your itinerary must include the Great Siege Tunnels and a tour of the Rock itself. There is a tram that will take you most of the way up the Rock, but to get the true birds-eye view at the very top, you should book a taxi. Depending on the number of people in your group, the taxi will cost the same or less than the tickets for the tram.

Only taxi cabs have permits that allow them to carry you to the very top, the tour buses all stop mid-way, as does the tram. Part of the reason is the steep grade and narrow width of the road, portions of which fit only a single car or van at a time.

On your tour of the upper portion of the Rock, you will be able to see the Apes. They call them the Barbary Apes or Macaque. They caution you around the monkeys because they might bite if you get too close. Look at what happened this summer to American Pie Actor Jason Biggs! The monkeys can "act" friendly (and who doesn't think it is cute to watch a mama carry her baby around) but even the smallest will likely try to grab any food or interesting looking objects if you get too close.

The next time "The Rock" is mentioned on television or in text, my first thought won't be the former wrestler turned actor anymore. Realistically my first thoughts will be tied between Alcatraz Island and now Gibraltar. Since San Francisco is my home it is natural to immediately think of this famous prison that held the likes of Al Capone. However what is even cooler for a traveler, is that now my memory will include this amazing land off the coast of southern Spain.

Next: Great Siege Tunnels

December 6, 2009

Camels! Camels! Camels!

A highlight from my day trip to Tangier in Morocco, North Africa was being close enough to touch the incredibly calm and hardworking camels. Their faces tell a story that I would be interested to read.

I couldn't stop staring at them as they carried someone around on their back. If we had been at a dude ranch or some beach resort, I would expect to see the frustrated nag horse to plod along or the rebellious horse kick up their hooves in surly defiance. It was mesmerizing to watch how serene the camels were as they carried their passenger. No spitting as one might expect from the general stereotype stories, only a bumpy ride for a squealing tourist.

And then there was the baby camel, getting exposed to the foreign visitors. It looked like it might be the baby of one of the working camels. It reminded me of Winged Migration, the documentary that showed how the cameras got so close to film the birds, simply by exposing the sounds that cameras make while the birds were still in their shells and soon after hatching.

Why do camels cross their legs like that? The green rope kept the little guy from going anywhere but what was worse than seeing him tied up for me, was seeing all the flies settle on his face. It is a disturbing image, so I'm including the only photo I could get with just one fly showing.

Boy do I sound like some loony liberal, big-hearted, animal lover or what?! Well, I say so what. Maybe I anthropomorphize animals just a little, but is that so wrong? I consider myself just a little extra empathetic rather than an extreme animal rights liberation type. We could all do with a little more empathy these days. And besides, isn't he cute?! I just love the sleepy eyes and pursed lips, not to mention those crazy long eyelashes!

December 4, 2009

Tangier, Morocco: Day Tripping in Southern Spain

My only reference points before going to Tangier, Morocco were one of my favorite movies, Casablanca and the 1973 song Midnight At The Oasis from my childhood.

Cue Maria Muldaur singing Midnight At The Oasis and you have my first impression as our high speed ferry pulled into port. We went with a tour group out of Tarifa and our ferry got us from Spain across to Africa in 45 minutes. The body of water you cross is where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean. Literally.

There are longer ferry routes from this part of Spain to Northern Africa, but taking the bus south less than an hour from Marbella to hop onto this high speed catamaran is worth it. It was quite enjoyable watching the coast of Spain fade back and as North Africa approached.

As we arrived, the day exploring Tangier was off to a great start by an unscheduled "welcome" from a departing fishing boat. That quick moment of spontaneous warmth from a stranger gave me such a positive feeling that I took about hundred photos or more during our visit. Normally my biggest problem is worrying about making people upset if I attempt to take their photo, and I am notorious for being awkward about asking first, which means I typically take more scenic or inanimate object shots. But not this time!

Next: Camels!
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