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The “Dangers” of Travel – Liquids, Scanners, Pat-Downs, and Planes

November 23, 2010

It’s all over the news these days: Americans are up in arms about the security crackdown at airports, involving extremely invasive body scanners (aka “porno scans”) and, failing that, full-body “pat-downs” that make even the most unabashed blush.  Shouts of “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested” abound.  Everyone and their dog south of the border seems to be weighing in on the issue, so I thought that I would as well, for the sake of “Canadian Content”.

True, this is not quintessential Burnt-out Traveller discourse.  My blog is not typically a forum for social and political commentary, nor a place where one vents his or her anxieties with the status quo.  Nonetheless, this issue is very relevant to burnt-out travellers everywhere.  Why?  Because these security measures, just the latest in a long line of reactionary protocols, strive to circumvent the relaxing and rejuvenating aspects of travel that I espouse amongst burnt-out souls everywhere.

For most, the duress caused by the inevitable and constant lines, violations of personal privacy (and arguably civil rights), and fears of a potential health hazard is far more significant than that resulting from the fear of being on a plane that is hijacked, especially since the chances of that happening are so remote.  Depending on the variables of the equation (and the numbers do vary), your chances of being hijacked are between 10-19 million to 1!  To put that number into perspective, you are more likely to be sainted by the Catholic Church, and far, far more likely die on the way to the airport.  The chance of dying from heart disease in Canada is better than 1 in 4 (see link #1 below)!  Perhaps we should be rethinking our fears.

“But,” some (especially the Authorities) will sternly argue, “these security measures are preventing the hijacking of planes.”  I beg to differ, and I implore travellers not to simply believe what our governments are telling us, but to actually think about it.  These protocols are reactionary, and are simply meant to give us a false sense of security.

Take, for example, the reaction to the failed 2006 liquid bombing, which restricted our carry-on allowance for liquids to individual containers of less than 100mL.  First off, was the decision on 100mL simply an arbitrary one?  Second, what is the difference between 90mL of a substance and 110mL?  Will those extra 20mL mean the difference between an explosion that cripples a plane and one that is innocuous?  Authorities, such as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, are quick to post the regulations, but never seem to actually specify the supposed reasoning behind them (see link #2).  Regardless, one could, if one wanted, simply subvert the supposed reasoning behind that decision by taking 2 (or 3, or 4) separate containers with the substance and combining them on board.  Or, a group of “terrorists” could conceivably each bring 100mL of the substance on board with the same effect.  Basic logic, not the stuff of genius.

To add insult to injury, a representative of a British firm that actually manufactures the scanners is on record saying that it is quite unlikely that the scanners would actually detect many of the explosives used by “terrorists”, including both those of the 2006 liquid bombers and the 2009 Christmas bomber (see link #3).

The bottom line: if someone really wanted to take a plane down, they could fairly easily find a way to supplant any of the existing security measures.  Someone has already invented “scan-proof undies”, though I cannot imagine authorities condoning these given the exploits of the “Christmas bomber” (see link #4).  For the most part, those measures simply exist to make us feel safe.  The reality is that every time we make the decision to get on a plane, we are taking a risk (however small) that it may go down.  Thankfully, as I mentioned, that risk is infinitesimally smaller than most that we take in or everyday lives.

Concomitant to the logical arguments that completely refute the necessity for these security measures is the fact that our governments (specifically the Canadian and American ones) have not even been truthful with us about some fundamental factors regarding the body scanners.  Curious, I don’t hear any gasps of surprise.

First, there are some health concerns, specifically radiological, since about half of the devices in use in the USA right now (those using backscatter technology) use ionizing radiation.  The US Transport Security Administration stated that the amount of radiation emitted from one use is completely negligible, equating about 1/1000 of an invasive chest x-ray.  However, some scientists assert that although the dosage is low, it is much higher than the TSA claims.  They add that frequent use could actually lead to health concerns (including skin and other cancers), especially for frequent fliers, pilots, and children, since young people are more sensitive to radiation (see link #5).

Second, the US and Canadian governments have stated that the scanners cut down on security times, and the TSA has even said that the scans take 20-40 seconds as opposed to 2-4 minutes for “pat-downs”.  If that is true, it is in curious contradiction to the Italian decision in September to stop using the scanners completely.  Vito Riggio, the president of Italy’s aviation authority, found that Italian authorities “didn’t get good results from body scanners during testing”, and actually found that the scanners took longer to examine a person than the manual “pat-down” procedure (see link #6).  Couple that with the fact that the American scanners, at least, were a product of the stimulus spending bill, and it’s not hard to discern a bit of a conflict of interest on the part of the US Government.

Third, as we all know, the images taken by the scanners are graphic, depicting us in an essentially naked state.  If you have yet to see an example, just google “airport body scan images”, and make sure your kids are out of the room.  This is an issue in and of itself for most people, and the weak justification that the security employees are viewing the images in a separate room does little to help ease tension.  The Canadian and American governments have repeatedly sworn that our images will not be saved.  However, in at least one incident so far a US federal government agency has, with likely illegality, stored thousands of images, some of which have been leaked and can be found all over the internet (see link #7).  Given such incidents, how can we be certain that our Canadian security officials (or their American counterparts if we travel there) are staying true to their word?

Finally, decisions on the screening process here in Canada simply defy logic, and perhaps civil rights.  People will be singled out by an “airport watch system” to identify “suspicious passengers” for screening in the scanners.  So, what are the criteria?  Is this not the basis of profiling, racial or otherwise?  If I have long shaggy hair, brown skin, a headdress, or a behavioural condition that causes me to act “suspiciously”, will I be targeted?  Furthermore, apparently people under the age of 18 will not be scanned.  Do those making the decisions seriously think that “terrorists” are all at or above the legal voting age?  Ridiculous.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the Americans have sparked a high-profile dialogue on this issue.  I wonder, why have we Canadians not followed suit, as we usually do when it comes to American policy?  Why aren’t we fighting for our own constitutional rights and speaking out on this issue, either for or against it?  Has everyone forgotten the fact that at the beginning of 2010 our Conservative Government fairly quietly implemented a policy of using body scanners in several Canadian airports (see link #8)?  Sure, we have a reputation of being “nice” and “non-confrontational”.  However, a problem arises when the line between “non-confrontational” and “complacent” becomes blurred.

A certain group of Americans has, via the internet, now organized a national protest for the upcoming Wednesday, November 24th, expeditiously entitled “National Opt-Out Day”, where they hope to disrupt the one of the busiest travel days of the year by encouraging passengers to refuse a body scan and necessitate a “pat-down” (see link #9).

Government officials argue that it will only disrupt peoples’ attempts to get home to see their loved ones: a tired, typically institutional response and attempt to appeal to emotion to curtail a threat to their authority (and possibly a lie, given the Italian findings).  Alas, sometimes exercising our constitutional right to protest does cause some inconvenience.  But, if the Suffragette’s didn’t delay daily life by blocking the streets, damaging property and chaining themselves to railings, would women have ever won the right to vote?

I am not proposing that we Canadians take to the streets in protest, or even that we disrupt airport traffic just yet.  Such is not the purview or the purpose of the Burnt-out Traveller.  Rather, I simply posit that perhaps we should develop a dialogue on this issue in our own country.

Happy Travels!

The Burnt-out Traveller

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Grobki (Parent’s Day): A New Perspective on Cemeteries

November 8, 2010

Hello Fellow Travellers,

I prefer not to dwell for too long on one particular subject in my blog but, in the joint spirit of my recent posting on cemeteries and the approaching time of remembrance in North American society, I felt compelled to briefly mention this.

Soon after posting my most recent article on cemeteries, I coincidentally came across a wonderfully unique practice common in the Ukraine and many other countries of the former Soviet Union, and one about which I had never heard before.  In Ukrainian, it is called “Grobki” (sometimes directly translated as “graves”, but usually meaning “Parents Day”).  Unfortunately, very little information about this Slavic holiday exists online, at least in English.  However, that which does exist paints a picture of an ancient tradition of family celebration, respect for elders and ancestors and, of course, food and vodka.

The essence of Grobki is the celebration of loved ones, both alive and deceased.  And, according to Ukrainians at least, what better place to hold such a celebration than in the cemeteries, alongside those loved ones that can no longer celebrate with them in person.

On the 10th day after Easter (still considered part of the Easter celebrations in their country), often dressed in traditional garb, Ukrainian families gather in cemeteries near the final resting places of their ancestors.  They picnic near the graves of their family members, honouring their memory by eating good food and drinking good vodka.  Families show respect for their elders, and honour the dead further by cleaning their graves, planting new flowers that will blossom over the summer, and decorate them with rushnyky (traditional hand embroidered cloths) and colored garlands.  People chat, reminisce about days gone by, and silently remember loved ones no longer with them.  At the end of the picnic, as a final gift and show of love and respect, the picnickers leave Easter cakes and glasses of vodka on the graves or tombstones.

Travel can be an amazing perspective-widening experience, especially if travellers allow it to be.  Personally, I am always looking to expand my perspective through the search for and discovery of uniquely local experiences.  This can provide one of the ultimate remedies for the burnt-out traveller, and can actually change your life for the better.  Grobki is a prime example of a practice that is completely foreign to a North American and unique to a particular part of the world.  Regardless of their nationality, humans invariably have practices to remember loved ones and celebrate family.  The beauty of travel is that it allows a person to experience the vast variety of such practices, and how they are all coloured by and a product of local history, tradition, and life.

It is one of my greatest hopes that I never cease to uncover cultural experiences like this that are entirely new to me.  And, I hope that all burnt-out travellers out there start and continue search them out as well, for they will enrich their lives in the process.

Happy travels,

The Burnt-out Traveller


Cemeteries: An Underground Highlight of Europe

November 3, 2010

The elevated cemetery of Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Hello Fellow Travellers,

In the spirit of Halloween, I couldn’t resist writing about cemeteries.  Not in the traditionally spooky, mist-shrouded, zombie-infested sense, though, but rather in terms of their significance to burnt-out travellers in Europe.

Cemeteries are to Europe as beer steins and pretzels are to Oktoberfest and football hooligans are to a Manchester United match: they are plentiful, they are visible, and they can be an important part of a traveller’s European experience.  Often traditionally seen in an inimical light, I contrarily consider cemeteries to be a quiet, relaxing respite from tourist lines and town-wandering (well, during the day, at least).

Admittedly, this wasn’t my prevailing opinion while planning my more recent trips to Europe.  To be honest, graveyards were not even on my radar, and who can blame me?  With the possible exception of Napleon’s tomb in Les Invalides, those resting in peace simply aren’t as high on the sightseeing list for visitors to Paris as the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, or Versailles.

However, whether you are bustling about the busy streets of the big cities and towns, or sauntering through the quiet country hamlets, if you are paying attention, you cannot miss the cemeteries of Europe.

Main cemetery outside of town, Cortona, Italy

Literally, you can’t miss them, they’re all over the place.  Unlike the majority of graveyards in North America, which are (relatively) newer, commercially run, and situated outside of the town and city centres, European cemeteries are generally more visible to tourists.  Being typically associated with the Church, you’ll most often find them in the centre of town, in the churchyard (the holiness of the ground being desirable until more recent times).   This means that they are usually smaller, and older.  There are exceptions to this, especially in France and Italy due to Napoleon’s 1804 decree regarding health issues (i.e. plague) posed by cemeteries, which inspired the expulsion of graveyards from town centres.  However, for the most part in Europe, sometimes even in those countries, just head to the church in the centre of town and you’ll find the cemetery.

Cemetery of St. Peter's Church, Salzburg town centre, Austria

Couple their location with the fact that Europe’s population density (134 people per square mile or 52 per square km) is substantially higher than North America’s (32 people per square mile or 12 per square km), and it’s easy to see why European cemeteries are so visible and numerous.  More people plus less space plus smaller cemeteries equals a heck of a lot more of them within walking distance of your hotel.

Ok, so what?  There are lots of small old cemeteries in Europe.  “Why should I bother with them” you ask?  First, they are easily accessible and usually open to the public, and, believe it or not, they can provide a very interesting (and usually free) sightseeing opportunity.

The small, rentable Catholic cemetery of Hallstatt, Austria

The Catholic cemetery of the sleepy Austrian lake country town of Hallstatt is a perfect example.  Hallstatt is an ancient small town.  It was built on a thin strip of usable land, bullied up against a steep mountain by a deep, cold lake.  Space is at a premium, and the cemetery is very small.  The charming rows of handmade wooden and iron tombstones and the lovingly tended graves are unnaturally cramped, illustrating how limited space really is.

However,  it is not until one visits the adjacent bone chapel of St. Michael that one truly understands the brevity of the situation.  For centuries, Austrians have had to rent their exceedingly limited grave space, and once loved ones or estates stop paying the rent, the space opens up, literally.  In the Hallstatt cemetery, until recently the remains of such individuals were actually exhumed and transferred to the bone chapel (dating from the 1100s AD).  The bones were stacked under tables while the skulls were decorated with paint, named for the deceased, dated with the dates of their death, and carefully arranged on the tables.  For a small fee, you can peak in for an eery, yet fascinating experience.

Other cemeteries can be a wonderful place for a break, a picnic, or to just rest and contemplate your trip, or even your life.  While rambling through the Cotswolds, to avoid picnicking in a local pub and purchasing the obligatory pints, we would sometimes stop for a spell in a graveyard.  They often even provide convenient benches.  Careful to respect those resting there permanently (and especially to remove all of our garbage), we could munch on our cold pork pies with a certain relaxed tempo, enjoying the scenery provided by the old church, faded monuments, and ancient trees.

But, those reasons aside, I personally think that the cemeteries’ greatest value rests in their age.  Europe’s history is ancient.  Simply put, people have lived and died there for millennia longer than in North America.  Even though the Christian practice of burial in identified graves is a relatively new one, beginning around 1400 AD and for a while a privilege only afforded to royalty and important Church figures, it was fairly widespread by the 1500s AD.  It is not hard to find graves that are half a millennium old.

The history emanating from these cemeteries is tangible.  It’s real, and waiting to be explored.  Serenaded by sparrows and finches and shaded by centuries-old oak and lime trees, wander down the silent rows of a small church cemetery.  Read the faded inscriptions and realize that these were real people who lived real lives that were certainly very different from your own.

Try to imagine the life of “Thomas J. Wilbur, Town Notary, b. August 3rd, 1758, d. Dec.12th, 1812”, and remember that he actually lived to a healthy old age for that time.  Through the course of his life, he would have seen (or at least heard about) the American Revolution, French Revolution, the battle of Trafalgar, and Napoleon’s fateful march into Russia.  Notice the almost alarming number of children under the age of 10 years buried here, a product of archaic medicine and a poignant fact of life until more recent times.

Ancient, faded tombstones in the church cemetery of the village of Broadwell, Cotswolds, England

One can’t help but appreciate a propinquity to those buried there.  It can be a very humbling experience, as well as one that can inspire a traveller to add a bit of perspective to their own life.  However, personally, my most powerful and profound experiences are courtesy of the tombstones that I can no longer read.  I find a tombstone whose writing has faded over the centuries to the point that I cannot make out the name.  This person lived, died, existed on for a time in the memory of loved ones, and even left a legacy in the form of a tombstone.

However, their tombstone is proof that life is finite and that, eventually, time wins out.  Their attempt to live on after death proved futile in the end.  After two or three centuries the wind and rain has washed their name away, and no more loved ones exist to remember them.  Tombstones like this inspire a realization in me: in the greater scheme of things, life is short and there is no better time then now to live it.  Without exception, it reminds me how lucky I am to be healthy, happy, and enriching my life through travel.

Happy Travels!

The Burnt out Traveller

The Night Watchman: Guardian of Rothenburg

October 19, 2010


The Night Watchman Beckons His Crowd

Hello Fellow Travellers,

The small town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, is one of the most exquisitely preserved and authentic medieval towns in all of Western Europe.  However, as an inevitable byproduct, it’s a premium stop for most tourists visiting Germany.

The historic (and touristed) town centre of Rothenburg

Almost every building within the covered city walls is centuries older than the colonization of North America.  And let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy the prospect of a time-warp back into the days of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel?  The endless lines of tour buses emptying into the town and the incessant beeping of hundreds of digital cameras snapping shots all day along the narrow medieval alleys can burn a traveller out, let alone make it difficult to enjoy the quaint charm and history of this beautiful town.

However, in the evening as the summer sun nears the horizon, the noisy, smelly tour buses roar off to their next destination on the Romantic Road.  The profuse touristy stores close their doors for the night, but the tasty restaurants and historic pubs are just starting to liven up.  At 5 minutes to 8 pm, a black-cloaked figure steps out of a pub and into the main town square.  Tall, scruffy, but beaming with an endearing, almost comical grin, the Night Watchman waves his huge medieval axe and beckons toward him the eager group of travellers who are lucky—or smart—enough to be staying the night in Rothenburg.

The Watchman provides the perfect reprieve for the burnt-out traveller.  He never gets above an easy after-dinner stroll speed, which is always appreciated by tourists who have been braving the lines, crowds and cobbles of daytime Rothenburg.  But, even if their feet are hurting, most will likely not even notice.  They will be entirely distracted by his performance.  Not only does the Watchmen enthusiastically educate his enthralled group of followers about the medieval history of the town, while walking them past a number of the most interesting sites, he could very easily hold a day job as a stand-up comedian.  His charisma and witty banter will have every single person in the group laughing by the end of the tour.

He begins the tour by pointing to the Town Hall (perhaps even comedically called Rathaus in German), and the Councillors’ Tavern and clock tower (built in 1466 AD) next door.  Regaling the crowd with a tale of traditional medieval German drinking prowess, he announces that the clock, updated in 1910 AD, would soon open and wooden figures would reenact the Meistertrunk (“Master Drink”).

The Councillor's Tavern and Clock Tower

Sure enough, at the stroke of 8pm (it also happens numerous times earlier in the day), the clock erupts into action and the Watchman explains that in 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, the Protestant town of Rothenburg found itself at the mercy of a massive Catholic army bent on destroying the town.  Rothenburg’s mayor followed protocol and offered the conquering general a large jug of local wine as a drink of welcome.  The Catholic general downed the jug and, perhaps slightly inebriated, challenged the mayor to chug the entire 3-litre jug of wine without stopping, stating that if he could do it the army would not destroy the town.  Amazingly, the mayor met the challenge and saved his city.

Having piqued the crowd’s interest in the local wine, the Watchman leads his flock past the oldest house in Rothenburg (called Trinkstube zur Höll, or the “To Hell Tap Room”, circa 900 AD), which also happens to have one of the best wine lists and medieval wine-drinking atmospheres in town.  Roars of laughter erupt when he suggests that the crowd all “go to Hell.”

View of Southern Rothenburg from Castle Garden

Burgtor and Gate

From there, it’s off to the Castle Garden, just outside of the historic covered medieval town walls (the best preserved in Germany).  With a picturesque view of the Tauber River Valley behind him and a sunset behind that, the Watchman explains that the town’s red castle (roten burg) once stood there but was destroyed in the 1300s.  He then beckons the crowd back into the town through the large gate of the Burgtor (“castle tower”), pointing out the small door set into the massive gate and explaining that it was the origin of the term “manhole”.  It is up to him, the Night Watchman, to decide whether or not a person caught outside the gate after curfew was worthy of entrance through the manhole into the town for the night, and since he is considered second only to the grave-digger at the bottom of the town’s hierarchy, he could be slightly bitter at times.  The crowd heeds his warning.

He continues the tour down Herrengasse street, where the wealthiest medieval Rothenburgers lived.  Almost all of the mansions dated from the 1600s or before, and essentially nothing had changed since then.  The Watchman muses that although this is appealing to tourists today, it was actually due to the fact that Rothenburg was sacked during the 17th Century religious wars and simply could not recover from it.  The town was too poor to update its buildings but, ironically, this destitution now contributes to a thriving tourism economy.

From Herrengasse, the Watchman swings past St. Jakob’s Church, Rothenburg’s largest, built in the 14th Century AD.  He draws the crowd’s attention to the Gothic exterior and refurbished Neo-Gothic interior, and explained that in the loft at the back of the church lies the Alter of the Holy Blood, which is considered one of the greatest wood carvings in Germany.  Carved by Tilman Reimenchneider over 500 years ago, the rock crystal capsule set in the gold cross is said to contain 3 drops of Christ’s blood.

St. Jakob's Church

From the church, a few steps east and a quick right-turn and the crowd finds itself back in the town centre with a tinge of regret; the tour has ended.  At this point, the humble Watchman does not even charge a mandatory fee for his services.  He simply asks for a donation, whatever amount you can afford, and only if you believe the tour is deserving of it.  Not a single member of the substantial crowd fails to approach him and drop some Euros in his over-sized, 3-pointed hat, thanking him for a wonderful evening.

In today’s fast-paced, hi-tech and shrinking world it can be very difficult, even while travelling, to escape the bustle of buses and the clamor of crowds to truly appreciate what a destination has to offer.  However, the Night Watchman of Rothenburg gladly provides travellers with their tickets to authentic history, legend, fantasy…and some comedy on the side.

Happy Travels!

The Burnt-out Traveller

P.S.  Please feel free to pass the link to this article on to your friends.  Also, you are welcome to subscribe to this blog by clicking the link on the right hand sidebar near the top.  Doing this would send you an email alert every time I post a new article, but your personal information would remain safe.

The Goods on Guidebooks, Part 2

October 5, 2010

Hello Fellow Travellers,


Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring

“What about Lonely Planet?” you ask.  Many travellers do favour the best-selling guidebook series in the world, and it certainly provides good coverage of Europe.  Its “Europe on a Shoestring” (EOS) speaks to more countries than any other guide on Europe, and budget travellers and backpackers worldwide rely on its insight.  Some argue that the quality of the research contributing to its updates has perhaps declined slightly in recent years.  Personally, I would be more inclined to suggest Lonely Planet (LP) for its bread-and-butter location, Southeast Asia.  Still, EOS it is popular and helpful, and LP’s country-specific guides cover a broad range of accommodations, from very “budget” to moderately expensive.

Let's Go Europe: The Student Travel Guide

Consider yourself a shoestring traveller?  If so, and especially if you are a student backpacker, you should also consider Let’s Go Europe, the definitive budget guide to Europe.  In 1960, the Harvard Student Agencies published the 1st edition of Let’s Go: The Student Guide to Europe on the floor of Oliver Koppell’s dorm room.  Now in it’s 50th edition, it specializes in hosteling and camping (though also suggests hotels, etc.) and its highlights include recommendations for nightlife and some off-the-beaten-track adventure.  If you favour peace and quiet, or quality writing (it is updated entirely by students), perhaps this guide is not for you.  But, if you are in search of fun, it will provide you with basic travel essentials and set you off on the right foot.  Like Lonely Planet, Let’s Go covers more than just Europe, and its guides on Central and South America, and Asia, are a good bet for budget backpacking on those regions.

Foodies do not set foot on European soil without  Michelin’s Red Guides.  Especially good in their native country of France but providing quality recommendations for several countries, these guides provide qualified and complex reviews of restaurants and hotels.  They take a while to get used to as their coding system is complex and unique (their website actually provides a “guide for the guide” in pdf format).  However, if your travel priorities include fine dining and up-scale accommodations, be sure to take a look at these books.

Moon Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos Handbook

As I have mentioned, LP’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is the best bet for most travellers heading to the Far East.  35 years ago it sprouted up as one of the first saplings in what would become the lush forest that is Lonely Planet. It is the only book that incorporates all of the southeast asian countries, making it very appealing for anyone looking to travel to more than a couple of countries in the region. That said, the Moon Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook is quite possibly superior to LP for the former French Indochina, but the current edition is 4 years old.  Author Michael Buckley is currently in Asia but Moon has not yet announced a new edition.

In Africa, Bradt Guides rules.  Living by the motto “We get there first,” Bradt is far from a hand-holder, but provides some of the best (if not the only) coverage for off-the-beaten-track destinations for the budget traveller.  It is the only series that covers several African countries, and its Southern African Wildlife and East African Wildlife guides are a must for any traveller looking to go on safari.

Moon Argentina Handbook

A number of guidebook series provide decent coverage of the Americas, but Moon Handbooks takes the cake.  It’s an American series, providing the only coverage for a number of US states.  It also covers Canada well and is considered one of the best series for Central and South America, and the South Pacific.  Moon’s seasoned and experienced writers have not just “passed through” the locations they write about.  Many have lived in their areas of expertise, or at least have travelled there extensively.  They provide exhaustive background information on history, politics, and even flora & fauna, yet they do not sacrifice suggestions for things to do.  Wayne Bernhardson’s Moon Argentina is considered to be one of the best and most respected guidebooks for that South American destination.

Although Moon is exceptional, Footprint Handbooks deserves mention.  The famed “South American Handbook” will be in its 87th edition, and is considered the best overall guidebook for South America.  Footprint guides are some of the most detailed available and are fairly unique in that they rely on their readership, to an extent, for information.  Readers are encouraged to write to Footprint if they find any out-of-date information, and are rewarded with credit to purchase any Footprint guide that they like.  For this reason, they are quite reliable.

Footprint South American Handbook

Although it is not a continent, Hawaii is such a popular destination for North Americans and East Asians that I feel compelled to mention it.  A number of series (Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Lonely Planet included) cover Hawaii, but the best are the Ultimate Guides.  They only cover the Hawaiian Islands and their authors tend to be local.  As such, the books are rich with local insight and out-of-the way hidden gems that no other guides cover.  With distinctive blue covers, this series prints individual books for Maui, the Big Island, Oahu, and Kauai.

Rough Guide Britain

One other series worth mentioning is Rough Guide.  Published in Britain, it targets disenchanted former Lonely Planet users, and covers many of the same destinations.  It is an opinionated, well-written, and usually quite accurate and detailed guide for sophisticated yet budget-conscious travellers.  Although they typically release new editions every 2-4 years (as opposed to LP’s every 1-3 years), they do not date as quickly because they use a price range feature.  Rough Guide’s best coverage includes Europe, especially Britain, and Africa, though many use them with satisfaction worldwide.

Obviously, I have based these suggestions on my own opinions, and opinions vary.  Many will likely disagree with some of what I have said, and so it should be.  Travel is very personal, and each individual should find and use the guidebook that fits best with their own travel priorities and desires.  I personally take at least two different guidebooks on a trip of a decent length (i.e. over a week), so as to cover off a few different perspectives.

Although I have only really scratched the surface here, I hope that I have provided a helpful outline that may start you down your own road to finding the perfect guidebook, or guidebooks, for your travels.

Happy Travels!

The Burnt-out Traveller

P.S.  Please feel free to pass the link to this article on to your friends.  Also, you are welcome to subscribe to this blog by clicking the link on the right hand sidebar near the top.  Doing this would send you an email alert every time I post a new article, but your personal information would remain safe.

The Goods on Guidebooks, Part 1

October 2, 2010

Consulting a trusted guidebook after getting only slightly lost between Blockley and Stow-on-the-Wold, Cotswolds, England

A great western philosopher and Humanist once proclaimed, “When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.”   If Erasmus were around today, living in the First World during the era of “electronification”, he would likely have no problem affording sustenance.  Blackberries, iPhones, iPads and laptops appear to be rendering printed books, for centuries the primary purveyors of knowledge, information and culture, obsolete.  Of course, the travel industry is not immune to such a preeminent trend.  Many of the companies that pioneered travel guidebooks are now offering electronic alternatives, in the form of ebooks, podcasts, and “apps” for PDAs.

Thankfully, though, travel guidebooks have not yet met their demise.  Enough people still see value in feeling the weight of a proven guidebook in their hands while trying to find that perfect local cafe in the back allies of Venice, hunting down the most pristine beach in Thailand, or spotting a Black Rhino while on safari in Kruger National Park.  For these travellers, their guidebook is their primary information source and arguably their most valuable possession while on their adventure.  I am proudly  one of these people.

Conversely, there are those who argue that guidebooks are a hinderance.  “Guidebooks are extra weight,” they declare, “and they tie you down.”   It’s hard to argue with the former point.  However, the latter perception apparently assumes that guidebooks encourage the use of itineraries, often associated with rigidness, and discourage travellers from “flying by the seat of their pants.”  These folks are more inclined to leave books at home and travel purely via an ostensibly hazardous combination of memory and the suggestions of fellow travellers that they meet while on their trip.

Not to be mis-understood, I am incontrovertibly a proponent of avoiding the “over-organization” of travel.  Leaving a certain amount of flexibility in one’s itinerary is essential, especially for a burnt-out traveller.  I have uncovered some of my most cherished travel experiences this way.  They involve purely local (sometimes synonymous with “untouristed”) sites that I have never seen mentioned in any guidebook, stumbled upon due to the word of other vagabonders.  Travellers must leave room in their itineraries, a few days here and there at least, to allow for such experiences.

But, this by no means renders guidebooks irrelevant.  Nor does it mean that itineraries are inherently rigid.  Without delving deeply into a debate on this topic (deserving of another post), I posit that itineraries are, for many people, an essential component of an enjoyable travel experience.  And, guidebooks can be the perfect tool for developing an organized yet flexible itinerary.

Beyond this, they represent a wealth of practical information about a destination.  A good guidebook addresses everything from transportation and health concerns, visas, consulate and embassy addresses, currency, security issues, to even electricity adaptors.

Of course, they will also illuminate all of the key sights to see, places to grab a bite, and accommodation for the night.  A relatively clean and safe place to spend the night is one of my highest priorities while travelling.  If I arrive in a new town late in the evening, instead of taking a chance on a place or following a suggestion from someone I do not know, I consult my guidebook to find a proven place to bed down.  Far more often than not, I get a good night’s sleep and feel fresh for another day of travel.  They may be far from perfect, but for most people a good guidebook is a ticket to a less stressful, well-organized, more affordable, safer, and generally enjoyable travel experience.

Erasmus would be astounded with the variety of travel guidebooks today.  Actually, he’d probably be astounded that they exist in the first place, given that in his time the extent of contemporary Western literature barely extended beyond the Bible.  Dozens of guidebook brands covering hundreds of countries, regions, and cities compete for readership, so it is impossible for me to cover all of them in detail.  However, I can discuss a few of them based on my experience, and suggest some quality choices for popular travel destinations.

Rick Steves' Best of Europe

Being a scholar of European history by trade, I should start with my favourite travel destination: Europe.  A number of companies compete for favour among the massive numbers that flock to this popular continent each year. However, one authority transcends all others.  Rick Steves has travelled to Europe every year for over 30 years, and he infuses his guidebooks with his experience, connections, and quirky style.  I have travelled with his books for close to 10 years, at first purely because I respected his “back door” philosophy (ok, chuckle if you must).  Although far more people carry them now than back then, I still think that his books provide readers with the best chance for an enjoyable European excursion.

His company is smaller than the worldwide “giants”, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Dorling Kindersley (i.e. Eyewitness Guides), and to a lesser extent Rough Guides, so he does not provide blanket coverage of every country.  Instead, his books tend to cover places that he deems offer the most to a traveller, while staying in line with his professed philosophy.  His suggestions include all the main sights, and some out-of-the-way places that he has uncovered over the years.

Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

The “Rick Steves’ Best of Europe” guide is updated annually, and highlights his favourite spots, outlining numerous suggestions for itineraries varying from a week to multiple months.  Many travellers also consider Rick’s “Europe Through the Back Door” as their planning doctrine.  I also like some of his city guides (i.e. Rome, London and Paris) for their clearly outlined practical advice, such as on transit passes, and their no-nonsense and candid reviews of accommodation.  If he says that a place is “dingy but easy on your pocket”, it is just that, no more, no less.



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Riddle Me This!

September 27, 2010

Hamlet surrounding the early 14th Century Doppelbrucke ("Double Bridge"), just outside Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Hello Fellow Travellers!

I want you!  Or, rather, I want your questions!  One of the most exciting, fulfilling, and inspiring things about travel is talking about it with fellow travellers.  Discourse and communication is an important part of my ever-evolving “Burnt-out Traveller” philosophy.  Thus, after a few months of posting articles and writing down my thoughts, it seems the perfect time to open my blog up a little bit more to participation by my readers.  To me, there seems no better way than to encourage questions from my readers.  So, by all means, please ask away!

I figure that the best way to do this is if you ask your questions (or make other comments) by commenting on this post.    I will attempt to answer your questions to the best of my ability in future posts, though it may take me a little while.  If the questions require and short-but-sweet answers, and especially if you need the answers quickly (i.e. if you are heading on a trip and just want a few accommodation recommendations), I may simply post them in the form of a response to your comment.

One wrong step could be a doozy on Skyline II trail, Manning Park, BC

If you could keep questions somewhat related to the theme of the Burnt-out Traveller (open to your own interpretation, of course), it would be much appreciated.

More articles to come, and I hope to hear from fellow travellers soon!

Happy travels!

The Burnt-out Traveller

P.S.  Please feel free to pass the link to this article on to your friends.  Also, you are welcome to subscribe to this blog by clicking the link on the right hand sidebar near the top.  Doing this would send you an email alert every time I post a new article, but your personal information would remain safe.

Riding and Rädler on the Rhine, Part 2

September 24, 2010

Bacharach from a wall tower, with ruined cathedral on right, Rhineland

Hello fellow travellers,

We decided to head north toward the next few towns, peddling slowly to warm our legs up, since neither of us had cycled much in the previous 2 months of our trip.  Only 3 km out of Bacharach, we caught sight of the boat-shaped Pfalzgrafenstein castle in Kaub. Situated on a small island in the middle of the river, it was used as a toll station from when it was constructed in 1327 by Ludwig the Bavarian until 1866.

Pfalzgrafenstein castle (complete with small white outhouse on left) and village of Kaub, Rhineland

I marveled at how the impressive (and often underrated) medieval engineers had managed to construct such an innovative fortress 700 years ago, and had managed to allow me the pleasure of seeing my first medieval outhouse.  It consisted of a small shack-sized outgrowth jutting over the river from the side of the castle, containing a hole in the bottom that emptied directly into the river, which rushed by right up to the walls of the castle itself.

We peddled north for several kilometres until we reached the town of St. Goar, just past the fabled Loreley rock outcrop that had spelled doom for countless medieval boatmen who were unable to handle the current around her.  One could not help but gape at the size of the massive Castle Rheinfels, looming above the town much as it had since 1245 AD.  As we sat under the shade of the Rhineland’s largest castle, we

Ruins of Castle Rheinfels, towering above the town of St. Goar

watched how the Rhine cruise ship captains maneuvered their boats with expert precision, using the current to swing their massive boats into 180 degrees turns to dock at St. Goar’s pier.

Cycling long distances eventually results in a substantial appetite.  Luckily, on that day every town along the river had set up big beer and food tents in their river-side parks, and some of the larger towns even had live music, often in the form of traditional “oompa” bands complete with period costumes.

We stopped in the small town of Fellen and enjoyed a delectable lunch of bread, sausages, roast lamb and salad, prepared by local shop owners and volunteers.  Then, of course, we felt compelled to follow the example of the locals and visit the beer tent.  This is an absolute must when visiting any town in Germany, especially on special occasions like this.

Rhine river barges chugging slowly up river, seen from Castle Rheinfels

However, given the occasion, we did not drink regular beer but instead imbibed large mugs of RädlerRädler (meaning “rider” or “cyclist”) is a popular thirst quencher in Germany.  As you may have guessed, it was originally created for cyclists, presumably so that they could still drink beer on bike trips while avoiding the dehydration that typically comes with it.

Rädler normally contains 60% beer and 40% “lemonade”, the latter being a lemon soda similar to our 7-Up but more “lemony”.  The beer is most often a light lager, although one can also find Rädler made with weissbier (unfiltered wheat beer), which is called a “Russ’n” (meaning “Russian”).

So, over one (or perhaps it was two) 1 litre steins of Rädler, we sat and watched the river barges fight the Rhine’s substantial current very slowly up river to the Main river and Frankfurt, or quickly ride it down river to Germany’s industrial heartland and eventually the North Sea.  We also reveled at the fact that the small ferries that normally moved cars across the river were instead crammed full of cyclists and actually had DJs on large black stages that had the crowds dancing and singing like a Berlin techno club.

Ferry-turned-dance floor for cyclists

Beer and food "pit stop" in the small town of Fellen, Rhineland

Feeling comfortably mellow but not quite dehydrated, we turned south and cycled through several more towns.  By this time it was quite hot, which explained our lack of disdain for the local townsfolk who mercifully sprayed us with their hoses as we passed by.  In all, we cycled over 70 km, and came through the experience thoroughly invigorated, if not with slightly sore bottoms.

The next day at breakfast, Imgrid came in and explained that, according to the newspaper, over 75,000 people had turned out for what was the 17th annual Rhine Valley bicycle and rollerblade festival, called “Tal Total” in German (meaning “Total Valley”).  The festival occurs on the last Sunday of June every year from 7am to 7pm, she explained, and stretches about 70 km from Bingen to Koblenz.  I thanked her again for introducing us to a wonderful and uniquely local experience, one which we surely would have missed out on has I not made the initial effort to learn a few words of German.

Happy travels!

The Burnt-out Traveller

P.S.  Please feel free to pass the link to this article on to your friends.  Also, you are welcome to subscribe to this blog by clicking the link on the right hand sidebar near the top.  Doing this would send you an email alert every time I post a new article, but your personal information would remain safe.

Riding and Rädler on the Rhine, Part 1

September 22, 2010

13th Century Castle Stahleck, now a youth hostel, above the town of Bacharach with Riesling vines behind, Rhineland

Hello fellow travellers!

English is so widely spoken in the world today that many North Americans think that it is overkill to even bother gaining a rudimentary knowledge of the language of the country they’re visiting.  However, from my experience, such travelers are denying themselves untold pleasures.

"Downtown" Bacharach, with the "Altes Haus" ("Old House") in the centre, built in 1368

If one is able to speak with the locals, even at the level of a 5-year-old, it will not only illustrate a respect of their culture, it will also open doors to wonderful and uniquely “local” experiences.  These tend to be, of course, the perfect antidotes to life- and travel-related burn-outs.  I would rather avoid sounding preachy, but I can testify that it is very rewarding when this practice pays off with dividends in my own travels, as it did during a recent trip that my travel partner and I took to Germany’s vibrant and historic Rhine river valley.

Bacharach's Market Tower, one of 10 towers remaining from the old town wall

The late afternoon sun shone a golden warmth on the skin of my cheeks as we hopped off the small milk-run train in the town of Bacharach (think Burt Bacharach).  Rays of intense light still baked the Riesling-grape-covered hills that surrounded this walled medieval town, snuggled on the bank of the Rhine river.  We had aspirations of staying in the 13th Century castle-turned-hostel that capped the hill above the town but, by what turned out to be a sheer stroke of luck, it was full.  Instead, we managed to procure a room in the home of a wonderful elderly German lady named Imgrid.

Over breakfast the next morning, which consisted of the usual hearty German fare (bread, cheese, cold meats and sausage, boiled eggs, yogurt, and Imgrid’s own homemade honey), Imgrid came to chat.  She knew almost no English, but I knew rudimentary German and was able to converse with her.  Well, perhaps at about the level of a kindergartener, anyway.

The town of Bacharach from the River Rhine

She asked if we were going to go cycling along the river: “Werden Sie entlang dem Fluss radfahren?” We had been to Bacharach before and had cycled along the Rhine, so we had not planned on it during this trip.  I answered, “Nein”, and the conversation moved on to the weather.  However, Imgrid was persistent; a few minutes later she asked again “Gehen sie Radfahren?”

She could see that we were puzzled as to why she would ask again, so she went on to explain (in simple German so that I could understand) that all of the roads in the towns along the river would be closed to traffic today, and open only to cyclists.  At least, that is what I thought she said.  She added that it would be a good day for cycling, and it should be sunny.

Not entirely understanding what was in store for us, we acquiesced and strolled to the only place in town that rented out bicycles, essentially a glorified hole in a 15th Century wall.  We swung our legs over two of the last bikes in the place and slowly wound our way down through the narrow medieval streets to the river.  It took a few minutes to acclimate to the awkward bumping and sliding that accompanied riding on centuries-old cobblestones.

Lots of cyclists, no cars (and a Roman tower, crowned with a "newer" medieval addition) in the town of Oberwesel

Once we got to the river, we saw that I had slightly misunderstood Imgrid, thanks to my very basic German comprehension.  Not only the main street of the town was traffic free; the highways on both sides of “the River” were devoid of cars, and instead hundreds of cyclists and rollerbladers of all ages glided freely along the wide, smooth surface, paying no heed to the street lines.

Couples, families, and people of all ages were enjoying a gorgeous sunny day of being active.  Many had decorated their bicycles; some competitive rollerblading groups rapidly snaked along in single-file lines, drafting in each-others’ wind tunnels; one rollerblader even wore modified speakers and a battery pack on his back that boomed energetic German techno music for the benefit of everyone.

(To Be Concluded….)

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Beauty is in the Hands of the Beer-holder in Andechs Monastery

September 15, 2010

View from Andechs Monestary Terrace, Bavaria, Germany

Hello fellow travellers,

“It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile.”  So proclaims an old German proverb, one of many dedicated to the delicious drink that is synonymous with the country generally credited with developing its modern form that we drink today.  Thus, it is of no surprise that the nation and culture so devoted to the frothy brew also plays host to the largest beer festival in the world, Oktoberfest.

During the sixteen or seventeen days leading up to and including the first Sunday in October, the Bavarian city of Munich erupts into a beer-fueled frenzy.  Six million inebriated locals and visitors make new friends at long tables crammed under circus-sized tents on Theresienwiese (the field of Therese), guzzling beer from 1 litre steins, and munching on prodigious portions of hearty traditional Bavarian fare.

Oktoberfest is undoubtedly one of the greatest parties in the world and is a must for every beer enthusiast’s bucket list.  However, after a few days of merriment, many imbibers feel the need for a break (however temporary) from the claustrophobia-inducing crowds, hectic lines, and inflated beer prices of the city.  Luckily, a place exists, hidden away from the majority of tourists in the rolling green countryside south of Munich.  This is a place where, in view of the towering Alps, a true beer-lover will experience rich Bavarian history, local charm, and arguably the best beer in Germany: the Andechs Monastery.

The quest for this thousand-year-old “holy grail” of German beer begins right in the centre of Munich, at either Marienplatz, Karlsplatz, or the Hauptbahnhof (main train station).  Beer crusaders hop onto the S-bahn (regional train) #S5 in the direction of Herrsching, and take it for 50 minutes all the way to the last stop of the same name.

Walk through the forest up to Andechs monastery

They may cover the roughly 3 km from the train station to the monastery by taxi or shuttle, but if the weather is decent, the most enjoyable way is by foot.  Walkers simply follow the signs for “Kloster Andechs” or “Fußweg nach Andechs” (“footpath to Andechs”) through the town of Herrsching and into the serene forest.  The easy walk up the gentle hill, shaded by thick trees, encourages the walkers to imagine that they are actually medieval Benedictine monks trudging through a 12th Century forest back up to their humble home.  That is, until they come across a group of locals walking their dogs.

Main altar of Andechs Church

When they finally summit the hill, the beer pilgrims come face-to-face with the monastery’s impressive church.  Originally built in 1270 AD and re-constructed from 1751 AD to 1755 AD, this church radiates Rococo splendor and contains a surprising number of important sacred relics, thanks to the legendary Count Rasso, who brought them from the Holy Land in the 10th Century.    The church is definitely worth a look, though it’s probably best to do so before indulging in a few litres of beer. (1 hour group tours in English are given Monday to Friday, 62.00 Euro for groups up to 12 people or 3.50 Euro per person).

To the right of the church and slightly downhill lies, for beer enthusiasts at least, the true gem of Andechs, the brewery pub (Bräustüberl).  Established in 1455 AD and still run by Benedictine monks, it brews what many germans, especially Bavarians, argue is the best beer in Germany.  The monks, who have cultivated and refined their craft in this same location for almost 700 years, continue to share their bounty with visitors through traditional Benedictine hospitality and a relaxed, typically Bavarian atmosphere.

It is possible to take a tour of the brewery (1 hour group tours in English are given Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 9.00 a.m., 10.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m., 62.00 Euro for groups up to 12 people or 3.50 Euro per person).  However, most visitors are concerned more with tasting the finished product than seeing how it is created.

Walking through the relatively nondescript door crowned with the word Bräustüberl, beer crusaders find themselves in a hive of activity.  The beer hall has three separate rooms, filled with long, wooden communal tables playing host to groups of friends and strangers getting to know each other between long sips of holy nectar.  But, if the weather is decent, travellers will find a more profound experience out back on the massive 1200-seat outdoor terrace.  Large umbrellas protect many of the patrons from the hot sun (or rain) as they eat, drink, and gaze south-east over the rolling farmers’ fields and woods toward the alpine peaks, visible in the distance on a clear day.

Visitors first head for the food vendor just inside the beer hall from the terrace, grab a tray, and place their order to an employee standing behind the glass display case.  Rollbraten (roast pork with sauce), Wammerl (grilled pork belly), wurstl (sausages), bretzn (very large pretzels), cheeses, sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), and massive haxn (grilled knuckle of pork) are among the traditional hearty Bavarian food selections.

An oversized plateful of such appetite-demolishing fare, much of it quite salty, works up an immense thirst in most visitors, quenchable only with large mugs of the true pride and joy of Andechs, the beer.  Visitors simply follow the lead of the locals and walk up to the beer vendor’s cashier, who sits patiently under the large beer menu posted on the wall.

Spezial Hell beer, Spezial Dunkel beer, haxn, bretzn and sauerkraut on the terrace of Andechs

Typically, visitors have the choice of six different types of beer: Spezial Hell (a light, golden lager); Spezial Dunkel (a dark, reddish-brown malty lager); Weißbier Hell (a light, unfiltered wheat beer); or, for those looking for a refreshing drink that will not dehydrate them too much on a hot day, Radler Hell (a mixture of 60% lager and 40% lemon soda, named after the cyclists who first began to drink it); Radler Bock (60% lager and 40% sweet malty Bock), or Russ’n Hell (literally meaning “Russian”, 60% Weißbier and 40% lemon soda).  The beer typically comes in giant 1 litre masse steins, but it is possible to order a 1/2 litre stein, although one must specify “Ein Halbe, bitte” (“A half, please”).

After wrapping their heads around the menu and making a decision, visitors simply place an order at the cashier, pay, and take their receipt to the beer-pourers, who stand next to massive kegs and fill an unending line of steins.  Thirsty patrons grab their full steins, all astoundingly poured with the perfect amount of head (3 fingers tall, or else locals will often take it back for another one), and race to their tables to commence merriment.

Now comes the best part: enjoying the food, savoring the spectacular beer, and, best of all, making new friends of the strangers sharing the long table.  Most of the Germans that visitors meet will speak at least a bit of English (except perhaps the older ones), but it is always respectful and even quite fun to try to spark a conversation in German.  A phrasebook is infinitely handy in such a case.

Soon, visitors will be laughing amongst friends, shouting “Prost!” (cheers!), clanking their massive steins together while simultaneously trying to stare everyone in the eyes, clunking them on the table for good luck, and then swigging mighty draughts of pure pleasure.  The may even manage to get an offer of a ride back to Munich from a local, if luck follows them.  And, if they are truly aware of their luck, they will marvel at the unique melding of ancient tradition with modern culture that permeates the atmosphere of this gem, still relatively hidden from those tourists that comprise the massive crowds and lines of Oktoberfest.

Happy travels!

The Burnt-out Traveller

Andechs Bräustüberl – open 10am to last call at 8pm, though guests are allowed to remain at their table for a while after last call.

P.S.  Please feel free to pass the link to this article on to your friends.  Also, you are welcome to subscribe to this blog by clicking the link on the right hand sidebar near the top.  Doing this would send you an email alert every time I post a new article, but your personal information would remain safe.