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Category Archives: Europe
My paternal grandmother was born in Schwaz, not far from Innsbruck, and I’ve always been proud of the fact that I am one-fourth Austrian. In fact, it was from my grandparents, both of whom spoke German, that I was inspired to learn languages and ultimately to travel. I first visited Schwaz as a college student while studying in Erlangen and met my father’s cousin, Otto. In subsequent years I returned often, bringing along my mother, boyfriend, sister Kristin, and my two sons. Luckily, my work updating Austria for Frommer’s Europe on $$ a Day and then Frommer’s Europe by Rail brought me often to the country of my grandmother; ironically, that work included the Swarovski Kristallwelten just outside Schwaz. When I was a little girl listening to my grandmother talk about Austria, neither of us could have imagined that I would grow up writing about a place so near where she was born.
Otto died some years back and I haven’t been to Schwaz for more than five years, but I will always return to Austria every chance I get, especially to Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck where I have friends.
I wrote two articles about Austria for the website Independent Traveler, one covering various transportation modes throughout the country and the other about different kinds of lodging, from rustic mountain huts to chalets and hostels. You can see them here:
But even though I’ve traveled to Austria more times than I can remember since my college days, there is so much I’d still like to explore. It’s that urge, that curiosity, that makes life worth living.
Before I became absorbed with the relentlessly hard work of researching and writing guide books, I wrote travel articles that were published in newspapers across the country. Most of them appeared during the dark ages of print only, lost over time with the disintegration of newsprint. Recently I’ve discovered that some of them are now online, making them a nostalgic trip to the past for me and a history lesson, perhaps, for others. Here are a few.
The Past Lives on in Shirakawa-go, about a small Japanese village before it was “discovered” and declared a World Heritage Site, published in the Baltimore Sun on July 7, 1991
Imbibing at Bremen’s Medieval Wine Cellar, published in the Los Angeles Times on May 10, 1987
Merida is the First Stop on the Yucatan, published in the Toledo Blade on January 24, 1982
Worpswede’s transition from rugged moorland to a place of art, about a town in northern Germany, published in The Christian Science Monitor on March 24, 1980. Note, however, that there’s a typo, with a date that reads 1985 instead of 1895. The mistake is undoubtedly (!) that of the travel editor or poor soul whose job it was to typeset everything. Back in those days, all my submissions were typed pages, mailed by post from Germany. Of course, it was so long ago, I was only a mere child….
Every first-time visitor in Madrid dutifully hits the tourist hot spots, so I, too, made my way to El Prado with its treasures of the old masters, including Spanish greats Goya, Greco and Velásquez; the Reina Sofía with its chronology of art since the 1900s; the Thyssen-Bornemisza with its contemporary art collection (including a retrospective of Gauguin when I was there); the royal palace; refined Retiro Parque, former playground of the aristocracy; and the amazing expanses and greenery of Casa de Campo.
I wandered the winding streets and crowded plazas of el Centro and the various neighborhoods, and dined on everything from garlic shrimp and Manchego cheese to more kinds of olives than I ever thought possible. Highlights for me were the fantastic El Rastro Sunday market with its endless stalls selling everything from Desigual knockoffs to used books, and tapas bars–what a concept! You stop by a bar or restaurant early in the evening (around 8), order a drink, and voilà! The waiter also brings a plate of olives or other appetizer free of charge, meant to tide you over until the dinner hour.
But this wasn’t my first visit to Madrid. It’s just that the first time was so long ago–during Franco’s regime–that I saw it with virgin eyes. So what stands out for me are two impressions that are seemingly contradictions. First of all, I was struck by how many people there are working the streets, trying to earn money.
There are musicians playing accordions, guitars, violins. There are opera singers, folk singers, flamenco singers. There are people selling toys, trinkets, pens, jewelry, offered to passersby or laid out on blankets on the ground. There are magicians, reciters of poetry, people dressed in bizarre costumes. And then there are simply beggars asking for money.
Unemployment in Spain now exceeds 25%. Although Germany and the rest of the EU demand stricter austerity measures in return for a bailout, most Spaniards already feel that cuts to their livelihood have far exceeded tolerance, that government has mismanaged virtually everything, and that lowering the minimum wage or unemployment benefits would bring riots to the streets. And then, of course, there’s Catalonia, whose desire for separatism has only grown stronger.
An employee of Círculo de Bellas Artes, a cultural center in Madrid with a wide-ranging program of exhibitions, cinema, theater and music, told me that his office had been told to cut the budget 70%, which makes you wonder what would be left except for a skeletal shell, yet the center had just put out a magazine with thick expensive paper stock and glossy photographs.
Which brings me to my second impression: shoe stores. I have never seen a city with more shoe stores, though perhaps the area where I am staying, Calle de Fuencarral and Chueca, is the shoe capital of the capital. Does Spain have a shoe fetish? Who is buying all these shoes in times of austerity and such high unemployment?
Tourism accounts for one-tenth of Spain’s economy, and I’m amazed to find them seemingly everywhere, even in October, bolstering the economy, visiting museums, eating tapas and gambas, handing out coins to street buskers, and buying, perhaps, all those shoes.
Beggars and a plethora of shoes. Somehow that seems to explain Spain in a nutshell.