A traveller’s defence of social media

Before I start, I’d just like to make it clear that this isn’t going to be some Chris Crocker-style advocacy on behalf of social media. To be honest, despite the fact that I am a regular user of various social media platforms, I’m really not much of a fan. I use ‘em, but I really don’t like ‘em all that much.

At best, they’re a distraction, but at worst they actively work to reduce the quality of people’s personal relationships and their lives more broadly. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that many’s the time that I’ve sat down to a day’s work and before starting, opening up my browser for a quick check of Facebook before getting stuck into writing, only to crawl out some time later, wondering where the hell the morning went.

There’s been a lot of attention lately on the negative influence social media has had on the way people engage with each other. Its detractors claim, quite justifiably in my opinion, that social media supplants genuine, meaningful communication with simplistic, superficial interactions. It’s also accused of leaching our lives of meaning by encouraging an endless, unfulfilling pursuit of ephemeral affirmation, in the form of positive feedback loops, echo chambers, ‘follows’ and ’likes’. Don’t even get me started on “fake news”!

Hell, even some of the people responsible for creating the complex, interconnected environment in which nearly all of us are now embedded are seriously conflicted by how it’s unfolding. Consider, for example, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who is one of the more prominent people to come out in recent times expressing regret for their role in the ongoing degradation of the fabric of society, which he attributed to the inherent, deliberate design and continuing rise of social media platforms such as the one he helped create and refine.

So yeah, social media is just another modern-day symptom of humanity’s tendency to deflect from the real, substantial issues of the day and instead focus on transient and unsatisfactory gratification and the justification of one’s own opinions. But despite all that, it does actually have some good points and can even be quite useful, as we have recently discovered during the latest leg of our family vagabonding adventure around the Iberian Peninsula.

Nomad Family AndorraFor the past eight months we’ve been a nomadic family, having sold most of our possessions, rented out our house in South Australia and taken up a transient lifestyle exploring Europe. In an effort to fund this slightly utopian lifestyle, we started a blog. It’s both a tool to communicate our adventures to remote friends and relatives, and a tool by which we’re hoping to make some small income and extend our adventures a little bit longer than our original savings would allow. With this goal in mind, we’ve also developed a social media presence as a means to disseminate our efforts to as broad an audience as possible. We selected Twitter and Instagram as our channels of choice (please feel free to visit, like and/or follow both, while I go and wash my hands). In today’s hyper-networked world, this is just a necessary evil and it’s one that we’ve embraced both consciously and cautiously, knowing full well that it’s basically mostly bullshit.

I guess at this point I should start my defence, even if it does make me feel just a little bit dirty…

Three recent events have shone a light for us on some of the positive aspects of social media, which have made me feel just a little bit better about our participation in this labyrinthine and often dystopian modern digital landscape.


1] Back in our pre-nomadic lives, we subscribed to and paid a considerable amount for a wide range of sedentary services, including healthcare, Internet and phone connections, and our local automobile club. We suspended or cancelled the majority of these services when we hit the road, but after a few months we discovered that one of them had continued to withdraw a regular monthly fee, despite the suspension of our membership.

That was money we needed, to pay for essentials like tapas, Airbnb accommodation and surfboard hire, so we immediately went online to find out how we could a) stop the payments, and b) organise a refund of the money that had already been erroneously withdrawn. This particular organisation still hadn’t even enabled online payments by the time we left Australia, so it was no real surprise when we discovered that the only way to contact them was via phone – they didn’t even have a generic email address. Remember, we’re on the other side of the globe, so given the amount of time we’d have to spend on hold during a typical phone call to this organisation, we’d end up spending the equivalent of what had already been withdrawn just waiting to speak to someone.

But hold on, do they have a Facebook account? Of course they do – everyone does these days.

A quick message to their page and within four hours the payments had been cancelled and the wheels were in motion for the payments to be refunded. Hashtag-winning!

Cobbled laneway Spain

2] Not long ago, a week in fact, we were returning home through the dark, winding alleyways of Lisbon after a day of exploration, when I looked down and spied a wallet on the cobblestones.

 

 

“Bugger,” I thought. “Someone’s going to be annoyed that they lost that.”

A quick scan of the contents revealed an array of credit cards, ID and around €90 in cash. Thankfully, I’m an honest kind of guy. I determined that the best course of action would be giving the wallet to the first policeman we bumped into or, failing that, going to the station first thing the next morning and handing it in there. We didn’t encounter any police on the rest of our walk, but when we arrived home I took another look at the owner’s ID – a Californian driver’s licence with an LA address. “What the hell,” I thought. “Let’s do a quick Facebook search.”

I kid you not, within 30 seconds I’d found the owner’s profile and sent him a message. Within 10 minutes we were talking to each other via the phone function in Messenger. And within 45 minutes I was in a nearby plaça shaking hands and returning a wallet to a very relived Californian. He was leaving Portugal for the UK the next day, but hadn’t realised he’d lost the wallet until he got my message. He hadn’t even had time to cancel any of the cards! This was a genuine good news story with a happy outcome that would have been virtually impossible to accomplish in the days before social media.

3] The day after this happened we suffered every traveller’s nightmare by being pickpocketed. One of Lisbon’s light-fingered low-lifes managed to undo two zips on my wife’s handbag and remove €20 and one of her credit cards without her even noticing. It wasn’t until a concerned citizen drew her attention to it that she realised she’d been robbed.

Panoramic view of Lisbon

Lisbon – a beautiful city, but keep a close eye on your belongings.

Thankfully it was only a small amount of cash and the card was one we hadn’t used even once while travelling, but we still needed to cancel it post-haste before the Artful Dodger had a chance to rack up a debt that we’d have to chase through our travel insurance – an experience that nobody looks forward to.

Once again we jumped on the laptop, only to discover that while we could put a temporary block on the card through the bank’s online portal, we couldn’t cancel it without speaking to someone in person. Sigh.

There was a reverse charges number that we could call, but not relishing the prospect of sitting around on hold – time during which the thief could be using the card – as well as the very real possibility of being charged for the call by our Spanish mobile provider (who really reads the T&Cs when they sign up?), we once again turned to social media for an alternative solution.

About one hour after we’d sent the first message through Facebook, my wife’s phone rang and we discovered a representative of the bank, calling to help her through the cancellation process. It took about 10 minutes, during which the rep was very helpful, expressing both sympathy for our circumstances and envy at our adventures outside of this one unfortunate event.

By lunchtime we were back out the door with a renewed caution of petty criminals and a grudging sense gratitude and respect, both for our bank (a much more sophisticated breed of criminal, I’m sure you’ll agree) and social media – two entities for whom we’d previously only felt contempt and a lingering resentment at having to engage with them at all.


So there it is. Despite its countless failings and ongoing role in the erosion of of individual lives, personal relationships and the very structures that bind our modern society together, social media – specifically Facebook in this instance – does have some benefits, particularly for international travellers.

The scoresheet is still heavily weighted in the negative, but these three examples offer a fragment of redemption, at least in our eyes. In the end, however, no digital conversation can or will ever beat genuine, face-to-face interaction, a fact that is reinforced for us daily as our vagabonding adventure continues.

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A craft beer pilgrimage in the heart of London

It’s been said that there are three sure signs that you’re a hipster – 1) Denying that you’re a hipster, (so basically you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t), 2) claiming to have done all the cool stuff before it became cool, and 3) having a beard, apparently.

Now, I have a beard, I grew it years before all those would-be-lumberjack, sculpted-facial-hair-and-excessive-tattoo-sporting inner-urban fashionistas made it cool, and I’m definitely not a hipster. But I don’t mind a bit of craft beer…

Which is why I found myself, one weekend in August, meandering along an alleyway in Sarf Lundun with a group of fearless companions on the trail of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. The accepted wisdom is that you start the Mile from the southern end, near South Bermondsey Railway Station, and work your way in a vaguely northward direction in an ever-increasing state of inebriation until you fall into the Thames.

No, hang on, that was just me. .. most people who do The Mile are far more responsible and genuinely interested in sampling the diverse array of beer styles and varieties available from the microbreweries found along this informal but increasingly popular trail. From fruity hops-laden IPAs, to rusty malt-heavy porters, or dense whole-meal-in-a-glass stouts, anyone who’s ever enjoyed a quiet ale will be able to find something to their taste somewhere along the route.

We started our odyssey not far from South Bermondsey Station at Fourpure Brewing Co. It’s worth noting that this area the heartland of one of England’s most notorious football clubs – Millwall – and Fourpure is just around the corner from the club’s home ground. Over several decades Millwall fans have built a reputation for brute violence and general hoodlum-ery. We were advised by our intrepid guide to tread carefully while in the area because it was a match day at The Den. The local pubs were overflowing and most patrons had the club coat of arms permanently inked onto their bodies somewhere.

I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Millwalleans, despite their thuggish reputation, ever since one of their number confronted three knife-wielding terrorists with only his fists during the Borough Market attack in June this year, with a cry of “Eff you, I’m effing Millwall!” (censored for the benefit of sensitive readers). This show of foolish bravery in the face of mindless violence saved the lives of several people at the scene, but did little, perhaps, to soften Millwall’s reputation. It did, however, make me feel much more well-inclined towards them as I passed through their sovereign territory, although it didn’t mean that our host’s advice went unheeded as we tip-toed our way past The Blue Anchor under the watchful eyes of 50 or more tattooed Lines loyalists, who were in the process of getting lagered up before the big game.

But I digress…

Over the course of the next five hours our journey took us on a circuitous route shadowing the elevated rail line through the light industrial laneways of London’s inner-south. I won’t bore you with detailed descriptions of the premises, or wax lyrical with masturbatory tasting notes. To be honest, the details get a bit blurry after the second stop (must have been a bit of a virus or something). Suffice to say that I didn’t taste a bad lager, ale or stout during the whole adventure, and I tasted more than a few.

Apart from Fourpure, which was a great start that really set a positive tone for the day, highlights from an afternoon dedicated to the appreciation of the brewer’s art include:
Brew by Numbers, whose unique method of categorising their brews through a combination of numbered codes to designate the individual batches – e.g. 08(style)|05 (recipe) = Stout|Oyster – was rendered completely incomprehensible by the several hours of alcoholic consumption that preceded our visit. Their coffee porter, however, was probably my favourite beer of the whole outing.
EeBria – Not actually a brewery, but rather a distributor of fine ales etc. But their taproom is definitely worth a visit, both for the friendly experts manning the taps and the table games, which kept our little ones occupied while we got down to the serious business of beer tasting.
Partizan Brewing – Don’t actually remember anything specific about them, but I’m sure they were great. Does that still qualify as a highlight? Probably not. Onwards!
Anspach & Hobday – By the time we arrived at A&H the Beer Mile was in full swing and there were folk spilling out onto the street. Luckily we were able to snag a table inside and thoroughly enjoyed both the atmosphere and the booze on offer.

We finished our run across the road at the Marquis of Wellington, where we filled our bellies with pizza and delicious Greek street food and tapped our feet along to the seriously talented duo playing inside. Live music was just what we needed to wind up what was a genuinely entertaining trek.

We came seeking beer, and this we found by the gallon, but the thing that struck me most profoundly during our excursion was how effectively the small businesses of London have taken up residence in this corridor and many others like it across inner-city London. A zone that in other cities would remain a sterile, under-utilised transport corridor has been turned by a growing community of entrepreneurs into a thriving artery of commercial and creative enterprise. I’m guessing that the rents for these spaces are relatively low compared to other areas of London, given the wide array of small, independent, outside-the-box outfits that inhabit them.

Apart from the various micro-breweries we came to the area to visit, we also discovered a number of awesome little food producers, distributors and/or importers that made our day on the Beer Mile even more of a fully-fledged culinary experience. Our favourites among these were:
Crown & Queue cured meats, whose Hoghton Loin and consummately prepared scotch eggs were the perfect complement to our liquid diet.
Käse Swiss – Their well-stocked counter of odiferous imported Swiss cheeses drew us to them on wing-ed feet from half a block away.
The Little Bread Pedlar, where we were able to grab a couple of incredibly crusty & delicious baguettes just before they closed up for the day, enabling us to both line our stomaches and reinforce our collective belief that life’s just too short to eat mediocre bread.
The Ice Cream Union – Seriously delicious, small batch frozen delights that had the sweet-toothed among us groaning with satisfaction.

All up it was a really fun day out – good company, great beer and some excellent little surprise finds that made it the perfect way to spend a warm sunny English summer afternoon. One of three that we experienced in the six weeks we spent in the UK.

 

On Your Bike

It was always our intention to stay overseas as long as possible, to make the most of this opportunity to travel and show our kids just how big and interesting this world of ours is. Our funds were limited, but we’d come up with a few strategies to reduce our costs and make our Dollar/Euro/Pound stretch a bit further.

One of these was to try our hand at housesitting – looking after strangers’ houses and/or pets while they take a break and do some travelling themselves. There are many platforms out there, but after doing a bit of research, we elected to join up to two – Nomador and Trusted Housesitters (TH). About a month before we left Australia, a sit came up on TH in rural Somerset, England. We’d always planned to jump across the channel the UK while we were on this side of the globe, to visit friends and see some of the places our ancestors came from.

To my surprise, they accepted our application and we had dates locked in – UK in August, right in the middle of summer. It was a double win because it’s supposed to be about the only time the weather in Somerset is bearable, but also it would give us a chance to escape the searing Iberian summer heat, when Spain is traditionally at its least bearable.

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There are many hills in Somerset. This was just one of them.

So August came and we landed at Stanstead. As the date for the housesit approached another idea started forming in my mind. Another of our travel objectives is to minimise our environmental impact while passing through the landscape – admittedly not easy when you’re flying to the other side of the world – but we’ve been trying to achieve this goal by using public transport or walking whenever possible. The property we’d signed up to sit was about 25km outside the main regional centre, Taunton. What if, I thought, we were to hire or buy second hand bikes and ride there?

Now Mem’s written a separate article on our growing love affair with bicycles, so I won’t go into too much detail about the ride itself. But in researching the idea I discovered a really fantastic organisation from whom we ended up hiring four bikes and a trailer for our Somerset adventure.

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Riding’s not all about movement. Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses – or pick the blackberries like El Chico here.

On Your Bike is a local charity based in Taunton. The founding principle of this social enterprise is that they accept donations of old bikes, which they then repair and resell, while at the same time offering the chance for disadvantaged people, ex-services personnel and the long term unemployed to learn the mystical art of bicycle maintenance. this gives them the opportunity to develop valuable skills, while at the same time enhancing their self belief and employability. On Your Bike’s graduates receive industry-recognised qualifications and are more than capable of servicing bikes and repairing just about any bike-related fault.

When I contacted the charity about our plans, I received a reply shortly afterwards from Lucy Workman. Lucy, having grown up 15 miles from Taunton, describes herself as “a proper Somerset girl”. She started out at the charity as a volunteer and eventually worked her way up to the the role of Manager, which she’s held now for three years.

Lucy Workman from On Your Bike

Mem & the kids with Lucy Workman, Manager at On Your Bike

When we arrived in Taunton on a train from Swindon, we realised that it was even easier than we’d anticipated, as On Your Bike has a shopfront literally right next to the station! Lucy was about as helpful as a person can get, and in short order she’d sorted through our plans, located four excellent work-horse bikes and even dug up a trailer from somewhere. She gave us an excellent deal on the hire, delivered the bikes to the station for us and was even kind enough to sit down for a quick interview once the details had been finalised.

Within half an hour we’d picked up the bikes and gear and were humming our way along the banks of a canal through Taunton (completely the wrong direction, but that was our fault – another story for another time), the kids riding through every puddle they could find.

For anyone thinking of a riding tour of or through Somerset, we can’t recommend On Your Bike highly enough as a source for everything you might need to get and/or keep you on the road.

Footnote: If you visit Somerset and are looking for somewhere to eat, Lucy recommends The Halfway House in Pitney, which has been voted one of the 20 best in the British countryside, or The Scrumper in Taunton itself.

Surfing the Severn Bore

In August 2017 my family and a group of complete strangers helped me to fulfilled a childhood dream and rode the Severn Bore. A huge thank you goes out to Stuart Matthews for his excellent and detailed advice on surfing the Bore, and to Matt Hammersley, who generously lent me his Bore-log and booties and gave me all the information I’d need to successfully achieve this bucket-list item. Thanks also to Josh and Ollie at Phrenix Surfboards in Somerset.

To read more about this adventure, check out my article on Swellnet: To ride a tidal wave.

Reflections on Barcelona

I originally wrote this piece on Barcelona following our most recent visit in July 2017. I felt compelled to write it because of the genuine internal conflict that this visit, and our previous journey there in May, provoked in me. I loved visiting Barcelona, but by visiting, am I perpetuating a cycle that is slowly destroying the city and the quality of life of its residents?

I was in the process of trying to sell this article to various publications when events in Barcelona overtook my efforts, making the issues touched on in my piece less immediately relevant and, therefore, the article less newsworthy. However, they’re issues that are still very much affecting the city and will continue to do so when the news cycle rolls on and the attacks in Las Ramblas join the ever-growing archive of terrorist acts. 

Our hearts go out to the people of Barcelona and anyone else who was caught up in, or affected by this senseless act of violence. We know that the city, accustomed as it is to turmoil, political unrest and the occasional outbreak of violence, will bounce back. For now, we add our voices to the multitude calling for peace, love and understanding to be prioritised above greed, violence and retribution. 

T’enviem el nostre amor Barcelona!


Now that my family and I have finished our second stint in Barcelona, I think we are in agreement that its reputation as one of the world’s great cities is indeed well-deserved. There’s an vibrancy about the town, particularly in neighbourhoods like El Born or Vila de Gràcia, that fairly oozes possibility and an attitude of industry and creativity that leaves one energised, inspired and grasping for more at every turn.

But the capital of Catalunya is also a city that is fundamentally conflicted about its popularity and is in many ways is struggling, both conceptually and physically, to find a balance between opening itself up to the world, while retaining the strength and character and unique cultural identity that is so compelling to both its residents and the millions of transient visitors who fill its streets every year.

As a travelling family, we were captivated by everything this wonderful city had to offer. There was something – a multitude of things really – to delight, intrigue and ignite the imagination in each of us. We loved the adventure of exploring the various neighbourhoods, never knowing what to expect around the next corner. Even the obvious attractions – Gaudi’s remarkable architectural creations, Las Ramblas, La Mercat de la Boqueria, for example – are of such undeniable quality and international significance that even the most cynical “anti-tourist” traveller would be forced to concede that they’re worth visiting (even if clandestinely, to avoid losing their hardcore traveller’s credentials).

But to describe Barcelona as a single, homogenous entity would be misleading and overlooks a fundamental contributing factor as to why it is universally recognised as being one of the world’s great cities. In actuality it is the agglomeration of a number of discrete towns, districts and neighbourhoods barris, each with their own unique character, history and traditions, brought together into one sprawling urban metropolis by the industrialisation and inexorable population increases throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

On our first visit we stayed in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, which in theory is a separate city with its own municipal identity and administrative structures. However, other than the wording and colours of official street signage, there are now few physical identifiers to separate it from greater Barcelona – the urban sprawl continues unimpeded from one street to the next. The second time around our digs were at the opposite end of town in el Clot, a fiercely proud tight-knit working class barri in the Santi Marti District, which has a history dating back to mediaeval times and a reputation for artistic production and strongly held political beliefs, which has more than once in its history resulted in violent uprising and revolution.

 

Each of these districts, and all those between and further afield, has its own distinct personality, proud history and secret corners waiting to be discovered by the adventurous visitor. When out exploring the city on foot, we instinctively recognised when we’d moved into the next barri, simply because between one block and the next everything around us changed – the shops, housing and even the people. It wasn’t overt, but we crossed a street and the polished modern storefronts, linen tablewear and neatly dressed denizens of Eixample were traded in for the small neighbourhood fruterías, plastic chairs and tracksuits of Ciutat Vella. The atmosphere became somehow more relaxed too, as if a layer of formality and pretension had been stripped away.

And each barri has its own set of crusted-on local communities whose sense of identity is as solid and self-assured as the very bricks of the buildings that form their few thousand square metres of real estate. Indeed, the residents’ fealty to their barri often seems stronger than their loyalty to Catalunya, and much, much more so than any allegiance they may have to the greater Spanish state.

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The Catalans are a fiercely proud people with a considerable legacy of achievement – intellectual, artistic, commercial and industrial. They have, for generations, argued, struggled and often taken up arms to assert their independence from external rule, whether from Spain or other powers to the north. Many times throughout their history they have tasted self-determination on some level, only to have it snatched away violently by whomever happens to be seeking dominion over them at the time, be it the Bourbon kings of Castilla, the armies of Napoleon or the fascist junta of General Francisco Franco.

Today this struggle continues, with a debate currently underway to instigate a referendum process which could, in theory, see Catalunya become an autonomous member of the European community. Signs of support for autonomy can be seen all over Barcelona – the Catalunyan flag hangs from countless balconies in every neighbourhood, alongside banners simply stating “Si!”. Pro-Spanish flags can also be seen, but they are very much in the minority. There is considerable cynicism in the community about the likelihood for success, due in large part, perhaps, to the region’s interdependent, yet chequered historic relationship with the rest of Spain.

It is a testament to the inclusive atmosphere that currently pervades Barcelona that these dissenting views can be openly displayed. Past experience shows that people with differing viewpoints have not always coexisted peacefully within the city limits (read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for an example). Given the parlous state of the Spanish economy, rising unemployment and external pressures such as immigration and an increasingly unpredictable climate, it is not inconceivable that tensions could rise again as the current march towards autonomy progresses.

Barcelona is an incredible place to visit, but despite the overwhelmingly positive reports you’ll read all across the internet, I would issue a word of caution about wandering blithely into town without recognising that it’s a city feeling the pressure of this reputation. The sheer weight of numbers of people visiting the city, while fuelling the economy, is having some significant and increasingly negative consequences, both physically and socially, that were obvious even to the first (and second) time visitor. Barcelona’s civic infrastructure is ageing and, if the regular whiffs of raw sewage are any indication, struggling to cope with the load being forced upon them by the estimated 30+ million annual visitors. And in a great many of the traditionally working class inner-city barris, el Clot included, you can find evidence that the residents’ patience is thinning.

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The share economy, particularly in the realm of accommodation, has fundamentally changed the nature of tourism and travelling. Platforms like Airbnb allow travellers like us to have access to a much wider variety of accommodation options and, to a certain extent, the opportunity to embed ourselves within the communities that we’re visiting. Since we started our adventure we have sourced the vast majority of our stays through Airbnb and for the most part they’ve been excellent experiences.

However, there is a flip side to this, one that is having increasingly negative consequences on local communities in Barcelona and other tourist-heavy European cities. Low cost housing is becoming increasingly difficult to find for the inhabitants of Barcelona. People who have historically rented cheap housing and whose families may have lived in the same neighbourhood for generations, are being priced out of their homes by the demand from affluent short-term visitors. In 2017 the government of Catalunya introduced laws seeking to impose restrictions on short term rentals in an effort to stem the tide, but they’re fighting an uphill battle as more and more people have chosen this route to supplement their income. Realistically, what choice would the owner of an apartment make when the opportunity is placed before them to make in a night through Airbnb what they would normally get from rent in a week?

I was aware that there were problems the first time we visited Barcelona, but we were only there for a couple of days and it didn’t really impact on our stay at all. But this time, perhaps because we were staying in el Clot, where this has had a greater impact (or the local community is more politically active), there were signs everywhere that resistance to both rampant tourism and real estate speculation was building. In many places I noted graffiti opposing development at the expense of local communities. On many balconies, alongside the ubiquitous Catalunyan flags, hung banners with a clear warning for wealthy real estate speculators (either foreign or domestic), and in one or two places I saw painted slogans with a direct suggestion for us and other visitors to the city, the words of which I won’t publish here – I’m sure you can guess the gist of the message.

I love Barcelona. It’s a beacon of intellectual, artistic, political and philosophical experimentation and it’s just erupting with creativity. More so than just about any other place we’ve visited, I feel like creative, socially-progressive folk have a strong influence and are carving out a space where this kind of activity can continue to flourish. I felt like it’s the kind of city where, if you had a creative idea and the will and means to turn it into something tangible, you’d be able to carve out a space and be accepted within one of Barcelona’s many thriving neighbourhoods. It was a compelling and energising sensation and I must admit that I was very attracted by it. But as a visitor and an increasingly intensive user of Airbnb and other share accommodation platforms, I’m forced to recognise that I’m actually part of the problem, and this left me feeling seriously conflicted during our stay in Barcelona.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile these two opposing drivers. On the one hand, I could recognise my role in perpetuating the cycle that’s destabilising this wonderful city and choose to stay away. Selfishly, I don’t feel that I’m ready to adopt this course of action, because then my family and I would miss out on visiting one of Europe’s and the world’s great cities, thereby diminishing our own travelling experience and depriving our children of an opportunity to engage with this spirit of creativity and industry, and limiting their development as active, thinking human beings. Besides, it’s too late for that now – we’ve already visited. Twice.

Another alternative, and one that sits more comfortably with me, is to find a way to give something back to the city; some kind of positive, meaningful contribution to reinforce one or more of the elements that make Barcelona such an amazing place, and that helps to support the local community in some way. Then maybe, just maybe, we can offset the harm caused by us and the millions like us who, day in, day out, continue to flock to this marvellous, embattled city.

Five things to do with your kids in Burgos

It was not without regret that we boarded our train this morning and left Burgos. The ancient capital of the kingdom of Castille fairly oozes history – from being home to one of Spain’s most popular folk heroes, El Cid, to more recently having the dubious honour of being the capital for General Franco’s ultimately successful 20th century fascist rebellion. It’s a wonderful city and, for a variety of reasons, a fantastic place to visit with kids.

We found the people of Burgos to be overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, and lightheartedly tolerant of our bumbling attempts to communicate in their mother tongue (Castellano, better known outside of Spain as “Spanish”, originated in the lands of Castilla – Leon and La Mancha). Eating out in Burgos was a particularly pleasant experience, and there were plenty of things we could do with the kids that kept them engaged, enthusiastic and wanting to see, do and know more.

Because of this positive experience, we thought we’d share some of our highlights from Burgos for those of you who might consider bringing your children to visit this wonderful city in the future.


1. Museums
It might sound like I’m taking the easy option by mentioning museums, but there are a couple of truly exceptional ones in Burgos that more than justify their inclusion at the top of this list.

The first one we visited was El Museo del Libro (The Museum of the Book). This small, unassuming institution, laid out over four levels just off the Plaza Mayor, ambitiously seeks to chart the entire history of writing and books – although I noted that there was little mention of anywhere east of Mesopotamia or west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Following the story from Sumerian clay tablets through to the 21st Century and the Kindle, you’ll find a range of examples of how humanity has recorded its thoughts and the influence that books have had on the rise and reformation of western civilisation throughout history. The Museo uses a variety of multimedia and multilingual resources to inform and engage visitors of all ages.

To be honest, I was surprised by just how interesting the kids found the Museo Del Libro, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been, given La Chica’s obsession with reading. We were the only people in the Museo the day we visited, which was both a shame – because it would be great to see such an important subject more well recognised – but also great, because it meant we were able to take our time and discuss the exhibits as loudly and for as long as we wanted. We recommend this museum to anyone wanting to fill an hour or so in Burgos

Museo del Libro Fadrique de Basilea
Travesía del Mercado 3, Burgos
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday,10:00-14:00 & 16:30-20:00
Entry: Adults: 3€, Children <14: Free

The Second museum we visited was a definite highlight – not just of our time in Burgos, but of our trip to Europe so far. El Museo de la Evolucíon Humana (The Museum of Human Evolution) is one of the best natural history museums that we have ever visited, anywhere. Using a range of innovative and highly engaging technologies and storytelling devices, the museum’s installations guide the visitor through the galleries and display spaces outlining the scientific disciplines and techniques used over the years to trace the evolution of the human species.

We all loved it, but it was particularly engaging for the kids, who literally sprinted from one display to the next, impatient to find out more about this fascinating area of scientific investigation.

The Museum was built to underpin the incredible archaeological work done at the nearby World Heritage Listed dig in the Atapuerca Mountains. This is one of the world’s most important sites, in terms of an archaeological record of ancient humans, and it has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolution of ours and other closely related hominid species. But the museum covers much more than just this one site, with sections on Darwin, the role of fire and much much more to engage and fascinate visitors of all ages.

No trip to Burgos is complete without a visit to this museum. Full. Stop.

Hint: we arrived at 6.45pm and discovered that entry was free after 7pm. Because the museum closes at 8, this only left us an hour to explore the entire institution, which was nowhere near enough time. If you’re thinking of taking advantage of this little work-around, we’d advise you to plan to come to the museum on two, or even better, three consecutive days, so you can take in everything that this incredible place has to offer.

El Museo de la Evolución Humana
Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos
Opening Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:00-14:30 PM & 16:30-20:00. Saturdays, Sundays, public holidays & July, August & September 10:00-20:00
Entry: General Admission: 6 €
Children <8: free. Other benefits and concessions are available for a range of visitors – see website for more details.

2. Eating out
We had some great eating experiences in Burgos. The city is renowned in particular for its soft, white sheeps’ milk cheese and morcilla (rice-filled blood pudding), but there’s so much more to this city to justify its title as Spain’s gastronomic capital for 2013. Here are just two suggestions for places to eat:

Acuarium – We discovered this awesome little bar quite by accident one evening while enjoying a paseo through the city centre. Located down a laneway just off the Plaza Mayor, Acuarium drew us in with its sign promising “Free Tapas”. The croquetas that came with our first round of drinks were pretty good, but a couple of minutes later a delivery of food to a neighbouring table really caught our attention. On enquiry, we discovered that they were having piparra en tempura, crispy tempura baby peppers, and we couldn’t resist ordering a plate for ourselves. The tapa was huge, and mouthwateringly delicious, but unfortunately it didn’t suit our kids’ frustratingly conventional tastes. Thankfully, the alitas de pollo (chicken wings), that came soon afterwards brought about a minor miracle, at least in our little circle – zero complaints, even effusive praise, for a meal ordered out in Spain!

Acuarium

This might not sound like much, but we’ve had an incredibly frustrating time with food here in Spain – well, the food hasn’t been frustrating, it’s our children’s unwillingness to try new or “different” foods that’s been doing our heads in. But since Acuarium, we’ve found that they’re beginning to demonstrate a bit more enthusiasm for trying new things (even if chicken wings aren’t all that new).

The service here was also really friendly and professional, and their willingness to tolerate our poorly framed questions about the food was greatly appreciated.

Acuarium
Travesia del Mercado, 9, Burgos (right opposite the entrance to El Museo del Libro, coincidentally)

Another of our memorable eating experiences was had at Viva la Pepa. Mem led us to this cool little bar//cafe, having found it on the vegetarian/vegan search portal Happy Cow. As a non-meat-eater most of the time, she’s been finding eating out in Spain particularly difficult, given this country’s strong focus on the cooking of flesh of every conceivable variety. We’ve found Happy Cow indispensable in finding places that offer a less meat-heavy menu, particularly in larger towns and cities. Viva la Pepa, which backs onto the Plaza outside the Catedral de Burgos, was one of these finds. Mem’s falafel burger was a winner, while they also satisfied my carnivorous inclinations with a meatier offering, and were able to keep the kids happy with their menu infantil and a pair of generous fruit smoothies.

Viva la Pepa
Paseo del Espolón, Nº4 Plaza del Rey San Fernando, Nº6
Burgos

3. Exploring & playing outdoors
If we were to write a book about our current nomadic adventure (and we may well do just that at some point), it could quite justifiably be titled “A Guide to the Parks and Playgrounds of Europe”. If we were to do that, Burgos would warrant almost a whole chapter to itself.

One activity we all thoroughly enjoyed was the walk up to El Castillo (the castle), which sits atop a knoll overlooking the old city. The ridge behind the Castillo is interlaced with a network of paths winding in and out of the pine forests and undergrowth, which proved a real adventure land for the kids. When we got there, the Castillo was unfortunately closed, despite opening hours which would seem to state otherwise. However, just nearby we discovered – wait for it – a playground, next to which was a bar that served cold beer and patatas bravas (amongst other things), so everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Also great fun for these visiting Antipodeans was discovering the numerous storks’ nests – massive structures built on many of the city’s highest towers with no respect for history or eminence.

Storks

Another highlight, from an outdoors perspective, was the Parque de la Isla, which we discovered by following the Camino de Santiago markers along the river, and which also had an “awesome” playground.

4. Eating in
Eating out and discovering new and interesting dishes is one of the most exciting and energising things about travelling. But sometimes, whether it’s because you want to save a few euros, or you can’t face another plate of fried whatevers, you just want to cook something for yourself and have complete control of what’s going into your body, and those of your family.

Up until Burgos, we’d been pretty underwhelmed by the quality of produce available in Spain, particularly in the south. It was all just a bit tired looking and there wasn’t a great deal of variety. Paris, by comparison, was awash with beautiful fruit, vegetables and a thousand other high quality ingredients (the wine, the cheese, the… well, you get the point) – but that’s another story for another time.

Thankfully, in Burgos we rented an Airbnb flat with a functional kitchen (and good knives – the owners also owned a restaurant) and we were able to find some excellent quality ingredients. This meant that Burgos now also carries the title of “Best Homecooked Meal by the Selwoods”. The benefits, for both your physical and mental wellbeing, gained from good quality, fresh vegetables should never be underestimated, and their availability definitely influenced how much we enjoyed our time in Burgos.

One place we chanced upon and which we recommend to anyone visiting Burgos and looking for good quality organic produce (amongst other ingredients) was:
La Tienda Organica (the organic shop)
C/ Antonio Valdés y Basan 1

5. El Camino de Santiago
No post on Burgos would be complete without a mention of the Camino de Santiago. This pilgrim trail, which winds its way from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, dominates Burgos, which is one of the major towns along the route. One gets the impression that the bulk of Burgos’ tourism trade is centred on catering for the needs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who attempt the Camino every year, and it gives the town much more of a cosmopolitan, international feel than many of its counterparts in other regions of Spain. Shops are filled with paraphernalia, including walking sticks, clothing and other souvenirs marked with scallop shells (the symbol of Santiago – St James the Apostle), while restaurants and hostels advertise special rates for peregrinos (pilgrims).

The camino itself splits into two as it passes through Burgos, and we had a great time looking out for the trail markers – tiles with the scallop shell insignia – that lead the pilgrim through town. Although we’ve only done very small sections so far, the Camino is high on our bucket list of things we want to do before leaving Spain. While you’re in Burgos, however, we recommend a day’s walk out and back along the Camino. You’ll soon find yourself out in the beautiful countryside that surrounds the city, sharing the route with people from every corner of the globe. There’s a real collegial feel to the Camino and you and the kids are bound to meet some interesting characters along the way.

Check out the Wise Pilgrim Guides for some more really good information on the Camino and Burgos.


So that’s just about all we have to say about Burgos. The city treated us incredibly well – we felt welcomed, entertained and well fed, and came away wanting to return to finish off some experiences and find time to check out a number of things we’d wanted to do, but just didn’t get time to this time around.

Logistics

Getting there: Burgos is 2.5 hours from Madrid and 3 hours from San Sebastian by train. If you book far enough in advance it’s a surprisingly cheap journey. Our favourite portal for booking trains in Spain is Trainline.

You can try it through the Renfe website, but we’ve had no luck on that front because they don’t accept payment via Australian (and possibly other nationalities) credit cards, not even our travel money cards (WTF Renfe, I mean seriously!?)

Accommodation: We stayed in a terrific little family apartment sourced through Airbnb.


Have you travelled to Burgos with your family? Have any other hints, tips or general comments on travelling with kids? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s have a conversation.

For more details on the area see the Lonely Planet guide below (affiliate link):
Spain travel guide - Castilla Y Leon (2.936Mb), 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet
Digital version of Spain travel guide – Castilla Y Leon, 11th Edn Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

Photo Essay #2 – Animals

So when Aunty Lucy heard we were composing photo essays on a certain theme as a means to get the kids to engage in the world around them, she made a request that we spend one day looking for and photographing animals. She’s a zoologist, so it wasn’t out of character at all for her to make such a request which, incidentally, the kids loved.

Ever since, whenever they see something that’s even vaguely animate and has a pulse, they ask if they can take a photo for Aunty Lucy. It’s taken about three weeks, six stops and two international border crossings, but we’ve finally taken a moment to put together our (heavily curated) animalian photo essay, with shots from Cadiz, San Fernando, Barcelona, Paris, Saint-Jean de Luz and Porrua. This is for you Tia Lucia!

Saving Nature – a guest post by La Chica

We live in a beautiful world but we are endangering all the animals and plants. Every day millions of people contribute to global warming by driving cars, riding motorbikes and many more. All this makes the polar ice caps melt more which means polar bears and Arctic and Antarctic animals will have no where to live.

If the animals die out there will be no plants, no insects, no us, and no more lovely planet Earth. There are so many more reasons that I cannot write about them all.

The Sierra Nevada from Guadix

But we need to look after our planet because our lives depend on it.

Thank you for reading.

I hope you all think this through very carefully because our environment is our life.

Cave House with eroded hills

Creative Fun for the Engaged Junior Traveller

One of our great motivators in planning this adventure was that we knew it would open doors for our children and show them that the world is full of opportunities, if they only have the courage and confidence to step up and grasp them.

But travelling with children, while full of unexpected moments of joy and wonder, is also not without its challenges. As we expected, being in a country full of unfamiliar sights, smells, sounds and speech has at times been quite overwhelming for the kids. We’ve had days where they’re beating down the door to get out into the world and soak up the novel experiences, and others where they just want to hunker down in the safety of their own little world and shelter in the familiarity of each other’s company.

This was not unexpected, and we understand that this is a necessary part of the process of familiarising themselves with their new circumstances. Thankfully, our schedule has been flexible enough to accommodate these periods of withdrawal, which we ourselves also crave at times.

However, we also know that it won’t be doing us or the kids any good if we shut ourselves off from the outside for too long. Life is there to be lived and there’s a world of experience to be had just out the front door. So despite their protestations, some days we browbeat the children into getting dressed and we drive them out the door to see what surprises the world has for us.

We’re always thinking of new ways to encourage them to engage with the world around them; to help them gain confidence and be more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. I’d like to share one game that I came up with, which we trialled a couple of days ago and which worked quite well.

At the start of the day, one of the children chooses a theme. It can be anything – a colour, an animal, a shape – anything they can think of. Then throughout our adventures that day, whenever they encounter an example of that theme, we photograph it and at the end of the day we sit down together and compile a photo essay on the theme. While we do this, there are many opportunities to dig deeper into the world around them, opening the door to lessons on history, architecture, language and a myriad other subjects. If Mem and I don’t know the answer immediately, well there’s an opportunity for further research.

So we kicked off the first of these days with La Chica selecting the colour Red as our theme. Below are the photos we took as we trekked our way through the ancient town of Guadix, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Andalucía, in southern Spain. You’ll note that we even managed to find an Australian native plant to include in the day’s photo gallery – a bright red bottlebrush we found poking its way through a wrought-iron fence in one of the more affluent barrios that we passed through.

Maps

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a thing about maps. They fascinate me. I’ve been hooked from the first time I ever opened an atlas as a youngster and saw all those lines and dots and names of exotic faraway places. It was an almost overwhelming introduction to a world of possibilities that fired my imagination and lit my desire to find out what was in those places with the strange, evocative names.

My new favourite cafe, the Owl and the Elephant in Uraidla, South Australia, has earned this title because it is filled with tables upon which maps from across the world have been affixed. I call in there more than I should (we are saving money for an overseas adventure, after all) and paw over the tables, imagining myself on a ferry between Denmark and Norway, or once again standing atop the gorge bisecting Ronda in the midddle of the night, while a lone borracho wails plaintive flamenco tunes into the abyss.

Perhaps it’s the unknown quantity that I find so compelling; the mysterious pull of the unfamiliar and a curiosity to find out what lies around the next corner, over the next ridge or beyond The Horizon. But there’s also a strong compulsion to use maps to gain greater insight into the familiar. I have spent hours plotting my movements across a high resolution map that charts the landscape of my childhood, topography that I know almost as well as the features of my own children’s faces.

When I was younger, maps were objects of paper, the best of which expanded in a complex puzzle of folds to reveal their secrets. Early on I learned the value of deciphering this puzzle – the maps lasted longer and I avoided both the wrath of my parents and the scorn of my older brother, who was always a couple of steps ahead, cognitively. The legacy of these days can still be found at my house, where book shelves and car glove boxes are stuffed to capacity with dog-eared charts from past adventures and times from my youth spent dreaming of distant lands.

These days, with the advent of the Internet, smart phones, apps and platforms like Google Earth, Open Street Map and Galileo, access to maps has never been easier, and you don’t need a Masters in Origami to get your geographic fix.

For our upcoming adventure we will be relying in part on these digital options. We have our iPhones, for which we’ll purchase European SIM cards with data allowances to enable access to whichever online resource best suits our needs. To date, Google Maps has proven far more reliable than the proprietary Apple Maps app, other than that one journey I took, back when the Google Maps app was still in beta testing, when I ended up on a remote back-woods road in rural South Australia, banjos ringing in my ears as I passed rundown farmhouses with fox carcasses hanging from the fence. But that’s another story for another time…

Back in 2000 I spent three days walking one of the northern routes of the Camino de Santiago, el Camino Primitivo. I’m really keen to retrace at least part of that adventure, and to show my loved ones some of the places and sights that I remember with such clarity and fondness. Because el Camino goes well off-piste in some places, mobile reception will inevitably get a bit sketchy along the way, so to ensure we don’t get lost (well, not too lost, anyway), I’ve downloaded the Galileo app and a number of camino-specific maps. Galileo is “a map browsing app you can use offline. It makes life easier, when traveling (sic) without any Internet connection, because you can use previously saved offline maps on your mobile iOS device”.

I’m no expert when it comes to technical details and anything I tell you would most likely be at best innacurate, and at worst completely misleading, you’re much better off visiting their site and getting the good oil straight from the source. But suffice to say, with the .gpx maps I’ve downloaded, I’ll be able to keep us on the path when we venture beyond the reach of modern mobile communications. And the sooner we do that, the better, as far as Mem and I are concerned. Because, really, this whole journey is in part about freeing ourselves from the routines and habits that bind us to our current conventional lives. And a big part of that will include disconnecting our online IV tubes.

But when it comes to charting our adventures, we’re not going to be completely reliant on technology. In a burst of nostalgic inspiration, last week Mem and I visited our local map shop and bought the kids an old-school paper map each for Christmas. One was a world map, the other a chart of Spain. The idea is that this will both hone their origami skills, and also provide them with a fun way to keep track of our unfolding journey.

In reality, they’ll probably either completely dismiss the idea, or embrace it for a couple of days then leave the maps folded shut in the bottom of their packs for the rest of the trip. But hey, it excited us and made us feel like we were doing something fun and “out of the box” to prepare them for the massive change that this adventure represents.