Rome Video

Roma Italia from Cameron Moll on Vimeo.

36 Hours in Madrid

Finally free of construction, the Spanish capital is once again a welcome destination for walkers who want to explore its many sights.

Read the New York Times article


The State Department on Facebook and Twitter

The US State Department wants to equip backpackers with travel info. Check out their group page on Facebook and get updates on Twitter. Not bad for government work.


Photo: Eiffel Tower

Here's a photo from my trip to Paris.
Posted by Picasa


Review on Backpackers.com

We’re off to Europe this summer, and what better way to get some travel inspiration than by reading the stories of backpackers who’ve been there themselves.

Europe From A Backpack is a series of books containing the real stories of backpackers who’ve had plenty of adventures (good and bad) around Europe.
Check out Backpackers.com


Video: Eiffel Tower, Paris

Time-lapsed video

On the Canals, a Woman Paddles Against the Tide

VENICE — For more than a thousand years, Venice has had gondolas but never a female gondolier. But now there is Alexandra Hai.
Read the New York Times article

Video: Budapest Baths (Gellert)

Video: Hofbrauhaus


Video: Blue Grotto, Capri

Take a trip inside the blue grotto on the island of Capri.

Ligabue Music Video in Venice

Interview with Budget Travel Magazine

Mark Pearson, co-editor of the Europe From a Backpack series, answered questions online from Budget Travel Magazine readers about backpacking in Europe.
Read the transcript


Meet Abel Peña

Abel G. Peña is a contributor to the Europe From A Backpack series. His story, “Between Naples and Memphis” appears in Italy From a Backpack. He’s best known for his features, fictions, and essays written for Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise. His most recent story “Eloquence,” a humorous short about road rage, was just published by Amazon.com.

Growing up in Southern California, Abel was exposed very early on to a witches’ brew of cultures and was drawn to friends of all manner of diverse ethnic background. His Mexican-born parents were entrepreneurs and intellectuals, resulting in Abel learning the value of a dollar and becoming one of those kids who always wanted to know how or why. His fondness for travel began when he was chosen as part of a journalism expedition to visit Poland, Bulgaria, and Israel in 2002. Head over heels, he went on to live in Italy in 2003, where he learned to speak the language while living with native Italians and traveled far and wide across the European continent. Since returning to the United States, he has focused on his writing, telling tales about alien lands real and imagined.
A word from Abel about his story:

If there was one European country I always wanted to visit, it was Italy. The way I saw it, France was too lovey-dovey, Spain was too loosey-goosey, but Italy was just right. I blame my affection for the country on The Godfather movies, Italian food, and Dante’s Inferno. And of course, on the country’s language, that sublime sound I knew wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up thanks to my fluency in Spanish. But I wasn’t going to take any chances. Even though I’d be taking Italian classes, I decided to take the plunge and move in with an Italian family for a few months. It turned out to be a momentous decision. I had a few romantic flings while abroad, but only one lasting love. The bond that I developed with my nonna, or “grandma” as I called the sweet elderly woman I lived with, was a unique relationship that transcended continents, languages, and age. She was such a charming and adorable lady that I wanted to share my experience with her. Enjoy the story!


Video: Sevilla

Photo Contest

Win copies of the Europe From a Backpack series by uploading your best backpacking photos at mytravelbackpack.com

Running of the Nudes

Note: PETA sent us this story after reading Billy Anderson's account of the Running of the Bulls in Europe From a Backpack. You can also read about the festival in Spain From a Backpack, which features Rachel Sarah's, "Running for the Boy."

We Ran in Pamplona – but Not With the Bulls.
Some people’s idea of an ultimate adrenaline-pumping holiday is to travel to Pamplona to run with the bulls. We’re hooked on adrenaline like any other young, red-blooded Brits, which is why we travelled to Pamplona to take part in an even more exciting event that takes place the day before the first bull runs start: the “Running of the Nudes”.

Every July, there are news articles describing how some drunken idiot got trampled or gored in the “Running of the Bulls”. Sure, it’s a raw deal to get stamped or skewered on holiday, but the people do have a choice. They decided to put their safety at risk. But the bulls don’t have that choice. The Running of the Nudes is the alternative event held each July to protest the way the bulls are treated before, during and after their run (they are tortured and killed by matadors in the bullring later in the afternoon).

No one has ever asked the bulls how they like being fed laxatives to weaken them, having their sensitive horns shaved (imagine having your fingernails cut down until your skin was exposed) and being prodded into running through a gauntlet of crazy people. But it’s probably safe to say that being butchered at the end of the day is not a bull’s idea of a good time.

The thing is, television stations always show people running, falling, and avoiding the terrified, stampeding bulls, but they never show what happens after the run. If they showed the bulls being stabbed to death in the bullfight arena, the world would know what really happens at the finish line. That’s why PETA started the Running of the Nudes – to draw attention to the bulls’ plight and show that people can still have fun without bringing cruelty into the equation.

On the day of the Running of the Nudes last year, everyone assembled near the street where we would soon march (the “run” is more of a walk). We looked at each other and sort of silently acknowledged that we felt a tiny bit self-conscious. Still, you could feel the buzz in the air. As soon as the first brave person started removing clothes, it was like a dam burst – everyone starting stripping off! Most of us wore only the accessories the event organisers gave us – red scarves around our necks and plastic bull horns on our heads.

When we set off through the streets of Pamplona, locals and tourists came out in droves to watch. It seemed like every person with a mobile-phone camera had it pointed in our direction. Everybody quickly got caught up in the energy. Many onlookers cheered, whistled and catcalled as we passed. It was pretty exhilarating. Some people joined the march when they realised we were protesting against cruelty to animals – and many spontaneously shed their clothes too.
We met people from all around the world, and although we could often only use hand gestures and smiles to communicate, the message was crystal-clear, no matter what the language was: Stop torturing bulls.

The streets that were flooded with sunlight and scantily clad people that morning were later overflowing with revellers looking to party the night away at the bars. We spent the night on the town with some new friends – nothing brings you closer than taking off your clothes together! Since the Running of the Nudes has been generating news all over the world for the past several years, many people we met said they came to Pamplona specifically to see or participate in the event. The “alternative” run is quickly becoming a phenomenon in its own right. Out with the old – in with the nudes!
--Nick Plant, U.K.
Running of the Nudes


MSN's Top 10 Summer Party Spots

Once summer begins backpackers from around the Globe are looking for fun, entertaining party spots to travel to. MSN has written an article on the top 10 summer hotspots encompassing music, art fests and loads of partying for you to be at this summer. Amongst one of these tantalizing top 10 is the island of Ibiza. “Listed as the "entertainment island of the world" by the Guinness Book of World Records, Ibiza, one of the three main Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain.
Check out the MSN article, for more great European Party spots of summer: http://travel.msn.com/Guides/article.aspx?cp-documentid=347038
One of the many Clubs in Ibiza is club Space

Ibiza not only offers great nightlife, but also provides breathtaking, serene beaches for those who want to relax and catch some sun.


Review of Italy Book: A Backpackers Guide to Reality

The Star-Telagram recently reviewed our book, Italy From a Backpack.

Travel guidebooks tend to start looking the same after a while: mini-reviews of places to eat and stay, must-see sights, a few suggested itineraries.

Pearson Venture Group of Seattle has come up with a line of books with a different and refreshing take on the genre. Each book in the "Europe From a Backpack" series is a collection of real, first-person accounts by young travelers. Their exploits tell you what really happens on the road.
Read the full review


Photo Contest

Post your best backpacking photos at Mytravelbackpack.com and you could win a copy of Europe From a Backpack, Italy From a Backpack, and Spain From a Backpack.
Post Your Picts


The best things in life are FREE!

I find when I travel that the most memorable sights and experiences usually involve no admission charge. Find them and enjoy!

1) A Free and Spectacular View of Paris
Many visitors to Paris are discouraged to find out the trip to the top of Eiffel Tower involves not only a lengthy line, but also a hefty price. But there is a better view of Paris available at no charge at the base of Sacre Coeur atop Montmartre. You'll pay a small fee to ascend the basilica (by foot), but the views from the top of the steps leading into the cathedral are breathtaking.

2) London's Changing of the Guard
The Queen's Guard in London changes in the Forecourt inside the gates of Buckingham Palace at 11.30 a.m. every day during the summer months and on alternating days in the winter. Although it's free to view, you might want to invest some time to get there early enough for a good vantage point. This might be Europe's most popular free attraction, and the crowds can be huge.

3) A Tour of the Rijksmuseum Gardens in Amsterdam
Many visitors to Amsterdam are disappointed to learn the famous Rijksmuseum is closed for extensive renovations. The work should be finished by 2008, but while it continues, you can visit the museum's gardens. A free printed guide will point out some art treasures that cannot be seen elsewhere at any price, let alone for free. Please note that the garden is not open on weekends.

4) The Roman Forum
You grew up seeing it in your history textbooks, but in Rome it comes alive at no cost. This was the central marketplace in ancient times, and it is well worth the time to wander the area and imagine what life was like in those days.

5) London's Tate Modern and Borough Food Markets
These two attractions are located alongside one another. Tate Modern offers interesting (some say outrageous) art, while the markets are a fun place to browse on Fridays and Saturdays. Why not pick up an inexpensive picnic lunch in the markets and make a budget day of it?

6) Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral
You don't have to be a student of architecture to appreciate this magnificent structure, generally regarded among the most beautiful on earth. You don't need money to enter and walk the inside unless you decide to climb the towers or visit the museum. It is a wonderful Paris experience. One warning: In summer, you might have to invest a lot of time waiting in line to get inside Notre Dame.

7) Westminster Abbey in London
There are admission fees for Westminster Abbey, but those who choose to worship here can see the inside for free. Evensong is at 5pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, plus at 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays. These are your opportunities to hear the Abbey Choir perform.

8) A Free Ferry ride in Amsterdam harbor
Boat tours in Amsterdam can be quite pricey. But one of the more revealing trips can be yours at no cost. You can traverse the older part of the Amsterdam port on a free ferry available behind the Centraal rail station. It's a short ride, but it might be a nice change of pace after a day of walking through the sites.

9) Scandinavia's Natural Phenomena
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, the Midnight Sun and the Polar Nights are three things you won't want to miss in Scandinavia, depending upon the timing of your visit. Although getting to Scandinavia countries can be expensive, consider these three natural treasures handsome dividends on your investment.

10) Fashion Gawking in Paris
Paris fashions hardly fit into a directory of free or inexpensive things to see, but remember that looking never costs you anything. Rue de Faubourg St. Honore or the nearby Avenue Montaigne are places to see the latest fashions and the best shoppers in action.


Review of Spain From a Backpack

Spain From a Backpack was recently reviewed in the Chicago Tribune.

There are guidebooks and then there are stories. This series (other books in the series include "Italy From a Backpack" and "Europe From a Backpack") offers first-person accounts from mostly twenty- to thirty-somethings about their experiences--both good and bad--while living, working, studying or traveling through Spain. Some follow in the footsteps of Hemingway (running with the bulls in Pamplona); others participate in a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. The stories here are, for the most part, modest descriptions of life in Spain. In "Life as a Metro Musician," an American sings classic rock songs and plays guitar in the Madrid metro. Anyone with memories of backpacking on the continent is sure to find moments of inspiration in this humble collection.
-- Chicago Tribue


Who Loves Chocolate??

The annual Eurochocolate festival of Perugia has earned itself the name as the most popular festival of the chocolate and the most followed by Italians, making of Perugia the European capital of the chocolate. For nine days the Umbrian chief town transforms itself for the occasion in a huge open-air pastry-shop for the delight of all the greedy persons and the slaves of cacao.

For all the tourists the occasion is without any doubt a good one to discover the most remote corners of this antique medieval center and to enjoy the famous Umbrian hospitality.

Dates of Chocolate Festival 2007, From October 13th to October 21st.

rotating gelato dispenser Rotating Gelato Spencer!
chocolate bricks... Chocolate Bricks
note the sculpted hairdo Thats one big piece of chocolate!

Eurochocolate was hailed in few years from his first edition as one of the most important event in Perugia. Started in 1994, this festival has extended with the editions of Turin and Rome. Eurochocolate, begun thanks to the support of Perugina (now belonging to Nestlé), one of major chocolate producer in Italy and in the world, is the festival that gluttons love most. The event takes place in the central streets and squares of Perugia, and for eight days the historic centre of the city changes thanks to the chocolate expositions, the open air laboratories, and the chocolate tasting. During the week, in some stands, wise confectionery artisans create enormous chocolate sculptures, which are destroyed in last festival days and the pieces distributed to all the people. Confectioners and chef display in the creation of chocolate dishes, experimenting new flavours: today the cacao is also used for the preparation of main and second courses. Chocolates and tastes are given for free everywhere. Eurochocolate has been also defined the gluttons festival, unique and various as the most prestigious Italian and foreign confectionery reality that here expose their products. Lindt, Nestlé, Caffarel, are some of the brand participating to this festival. Here in 2003, ten confectionery masters have created the biggest chocolate of the world (a bacio perugina), that entered the Guinness book. It was more than 7 meters large, two meters high and made with 3500 kilograms of dark chocolate, thousands of hazelnuts, for a global weight of 5980 kilograms.

During Eurochocolate the city of Perugia is populated by thousands of Italian and foreign tourists, so its better to book in advance your hotel, bed and breakfast, country house or holiday house in Perugia.
Visit the official site www.eurochocolate.com


Video: Italy Study Abroad

Video: Man Draws Rome from Memory

This is amazing. Stephen Wiltshire, a savant, draws Rome from memory.

Video: Salzburg

Video: Where the Hell is Matt?

Matt is a 30-year-old from Connecticut who used to think that all he ever wanted to do in life was make and play videogames. He achieved this goal pretty early and enjoyed it for a while, but eventually realized there might be other stuff he was missing out on. In February of 2003, he quit his job in Brisbane, Australia and used the money he'd saved to wander around the planet until it ran out. He managed to visit 39 countries on all 7 continents.

Meet Ben Bachelder

Ben Bachelder is a contributor to the Europe From a Backpack series. His most recent story, "Looking for Lava," appears in Italy From a Backpack. Prior to that he wrote, "The Other Side," about his trip to Morocco. You can find that story in Europe From a Backpack.

Ben was born and raised in San Francisco's Bay Area and called Berkeley his home for his university years. His hippie-ish parents (they won't admit to it) raised him to be a free thinker and Berkeley reinforced that. At the age of 17 he discovered electronic music and the rave scene and became a DJ, which helped put him through school and boosted his ego much more than he really needed. It was after graduation that he finally left the US and experienced Europe and the glory of hitchhiking. He also fell in love with volcanoes, and parked himself in Hawaii to commune with the goddess Pele. However, the song of the road beckoned and drew him as far as India on a fourteen month bare-bones journey. By that time, his girlfriend back in Hawaii threatened to disown him, so he reluctantly returned. That lasted for a mere twelve months, until the shores of Southeast Asia drew him in. A few months bouncing around there gave him a good feel for the region, to which he vowed to return as soon as possible. Now, after crisscrossing the US numerous times and poking around in Central America, he's made his way to Antarctica and will be in New Zealand and Oceania soon after. He has committed himself to experiencing all seven continents by age thirty, when that happens he'll reassess his life and figure out what to do from there.

A word from Ben about his story:

I chose Italy for my first first stop outside of the United States because I was already in love with its volcanoes. Little did I know that I would have such an intimate experience with one! I compiled a geologic history of Mt. Vesuvius for one of my college classes and went to Naples to see the mountain "in the flesh". While hanging out in the hostel, I read about the Isole Eolie, the island group near Sicily that Stromboli is a part of, and decided to head down for a visit.

My experience atop Stromboli convinced me that I wanted to learn all I could about volcanoes. When I got back to the US from my European trip, I headed to Hawaii to enroll in a Master's program studying volcanology. I ended up dropping out before I even started because all I really wanted to do was hang out on the Big Island, poking around the lava flows that Kilauea has been producing for the last twenty-odd years.

These days I'm in the shadow of yet another volcano, Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. I'll be in the Andes soon, and out to Africa's Rift Zone before too many years pass. Hope to see you on the road!
View Ben's Travel and Hitchiking Photos on Flickr
Read more of his stories at Digihitch.com


Venitian Glass on Murano Island

Want to see first hand how Venitian Glass is made? Check out Murano island, just a 30 min boat ferry away from the main city of Venice!

What made Murano's glassmakers so special? For one thing, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make a mirror. They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass, glass with threads of gold, multicolored glass, milk glass, and imitation gemstones made of glass. Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions around the same time that colonists were emigrating to the New World.
If you are even remotely interested in Glass Blowing, visit the Museo Vetrario, or Glass Museum, which is located in the Palazzo Giustinian near the island's center. The museum holds samples of glass from Egyptian times through the present day, and the displays show how the art and manufacture of glass developed over the centuries. (It's open every day except Wednesday, and admission is free to holders of the Venice Card.)


Interview: Traveling to Italy Podcast

Mark and Martin were recently interviewed on the Traveling to Italy podcast (Episode 36) on Talkshoe. The host, Jules, packs his program full of travel info, stories, and suggestions from his many trips to Italy. It's a great way to get ready for your next trip to Italy.


Interview: Amateur Traveler Podcast

The Amateur Traveler talks with Mark Pearson and Martin Westerman the authors of the “Europe from a Backpack” series. These first-person accounts paint vivid pictures of a traveler’s experience in Europe. Hear stories about running with the bulls, why you should not drink 3 franc wine, finding a job serendipitously, being a pilgrim or just being a pain to your fellow travelers.
Amateur Traveler Podcast #75


Video: Feria de Sevilla

The Feria de Sevilla is April 24-29, 2007. Hostels fill up fast so book ahead at the Oasis Backpackers' Hostel in Sevilla

Video: Il Palio in Siena

The Il Palio takes place in Siena, Italy, every July 2 and Aug 16.
New York Times article on Il Palio

Video: Bach on Glass in Madrid

If you're in Madrid, be on the lookout for this guy playing Bach on wine glasses.


Review of Italy From a Backpack

Travel is something some people do to rest. Some use it as a mere diversion. Others do it to learn. Others do it as a spiritual thing, a calling if you will. For them travel offers a connection to others like (and unlike) themselves. Finding those connections - the ones that don't divide us - is an inspiration.

Italy from a Backpack is a book - actually part of a series of books - intended for those who are looking for more than a great hotel or a fine place to dine or even for some untrodden back roads. It is a book about connecting with other cultures in special and unusual ways. Because of that, it is also a book for those who don't travel but would like to make similar connections, however secondhand they might be.

Editors Mark Pearson and Martin Waterman have put together an anthology of travelers' experiences. Their demands were high. They chose stories beyond the glorious museum moment or the smell of baking scones (however delightful experiences like these might be).
Read the full review at MyShelf.com


Italy Story: Hostage of the Hostile Hostel

Siena, Italy
By Bill Fink

This story appears in the new book, Italy From a Backpack.

I ran the two miles to the hostel outside Siena, my backpack bouncing painfully on my shoulders. The manager had told me they had only one space remaining. It was all I could afford in the area—I had to get that spot.

When I arrived, panting, at the three-story brick-and-steel building, I was dismayed to see a mob of backpackers crowded around the front desk. Two surly staff members were shouting at them in Italian, grabbing crumpled piles of money, and stuffing registration forms, one each, into the hundred cubby holes in the wall behind them. Each nook denoted one available bed. As I made my way to the counter, I heard one of the clerks answer the phone.

“No! No reservations! One space only. You come now. Immediately!” He slammed down the phone.

I looked at the wall behind him; at least two dozen cubby holes were empty.
As I exchanged my money for bed #42, the clerk pointed an accusing finger at me and spouted the rules in heavily accented English: “No drinking! No food! No noise at night! Lights out at midnight! Curfew eleven-thirty—absolutely no entry after then, doors locked! Doors locked ten in morning to three in afternoon. Everyone must go. Absolutely no entry! Doors locked until seven in morning. No entry, no exit!”

This rigid set of commands seemed better suited to the countries I’d just left, famously uptight Switzerland and Germany. Italy was supposed to be the home of the sun-drenched, relaxed attitude of the Mediterranean. Surely they wouldn’t mind if I needed the rules to be altered just a bit.

“Signore, per favore, I have to catch a bus at seven in the morning, so I need to leave a little earlier, maybe six-thirty. Hope it’s not a problem.”


I guessed he thought it would be impossible for me, if I left at 6:30, to walk the two miles back to town in time to make the Rome bus departure. It was nice of him to be concerned.

“No, no, six-thirty OK.” I made a running motion with my arms.

He looked at me with what appeared to be pure hatred.

“Maybe six-fifteen?”

“IMMM-POSSIBLE!” He waved his raised hands vigorously, as if he were trying to keep an airplane from landing on the counter between us.

“No, really.” I tried to explain myself slowly and simply. “I must catch bus. Only one morning bus. Seven in the morning. I must get to Rome tomorrow afternoon. So I must leave hostel by six-thirty.”

“No. Impossible. Im-possible.” He waved his hand to the side, dismissing me like a serf.
I stood there, stupefied, until anxious backpackers jostling for the hostel’s “one last space” bumped me away from the counter.

I hoped it was just a linguistic misunderstanding. He must have meant that the doors were locked to keep people from entering before the desk was open. They couldn’t possibly lock people inside the hostel, could they?

At 6 a.m., I crept down the stairs to the lobby, figuring that if I was quiet enough, I could unlock the front door and nobody would be the wiser.

But I couldn’t even get to the front door. A set of interior glass doors divided the stairwell from the entrance. Not only were these doors locked, but a couch had been moved across them as a barricade. And on the couch slept a guard dog. It raised its head, starting to snarl before its eyes were even open. I fled up the stairs, hoping the dog wouldn’t bark and wake up the manager—who, apparently, would throw me into some Medici-inspired torture chamber in a dungeon beneath the building.

I returned to my room, where 10 backpackers lay half-awake on rickety iron bunk beds.

“What, doors locked, really?” asked one German teen to whom I had told my problem. “It is like prison, ya?”

“Ya. And now I need to escape.” I opened our second-story window and looked down to the asphalt below.

“No jumping. This I think is bad,” said a pimply Danish high-schooler, sitting up in his bunk. I had teased him the night before about the high suicide rate in Denmark, and I think he still felt obligated to point out living solutions in our daily lives.

I started to strip the sheets off of my bed and knot them into a rope of sorts. The German and Dane jumped out of bed to do the same, waking their friends with their laughter.

We formed three sets of sheets into a 20-foot strand so I could lower my backpack, full of breakable souvenirs and my camera, to the pavement. I held the knotted end of another sheet and stepped out the window onto a small ledge. My backpacking escape team held the other end, anchoring against one of the bed frames.

I inched along the ledge until I could grasp a drain pipe bolted onto the side of the building. It was large enough that I was able to shimmy down the building without incident. I hopped onto the street.

The worried faces poking out my window burst into cheers until I quickly silenced them with a finger to my lips. I glanced toward the front doors, expecting them to burst open with the desk clerks and rabid dog leaping out to drag me back inside. I unknotted the sheets from my backpack and, after a couple of tries, tossed them back through the window.

It was already 6:40. I strapped on my backpack and started my jog into town, worried about missing the bus. As I hustled up the road, a few people working in the fields looked at me with alarm. I imagined their thoughts: The only people who ran in Italy were thieves and soccer players, and I wasn’t wearing a jersey.

I arrived at the bus terminal, drenched in sweat, at 7:05. There wasn’t a single person in the waiting area. The bus must have left! I gnashed my teeth and cursed the hostel loudly. A sleepy head poked out from behind the ticket window. “Che?”

“The bus, the seven o’clock Rome bus, is it gone? Can I still catch it at another station in town?”
The ticket clerk recoiled at my wide-eyed, sweaty countenance. Then he laughed.

“No, no, no, seven o’clock bus, she never come at seven.” He wagged his finger. “Seven o’clock bus always come after nine.” He slammed the shutter closed behind the window. I heard it click.
Reflexively, I looked for an exit, worried they had locked me inside again.

Bill Fink was a comparative-literature major at the University of Michigan. He spent the summer after graduation hitchhiking across Europe, getting rides with everyone from cheerful soccer hooligans to grumpy prison guards. Years later, the hostel in this story still gets crappy reviews from backpackers. Bring rope.

Read this story and 30 others in the new book, Italy From a Backpack.


Spain Story: What I Learned About Coleoptera By Having a Few Climb Up My Shorts

Castiñeiras, Spain
By Mike Riley

This story appears in the new book, Spain From a Backpack.

We pulled off of the cobblestone road near Castiñeiras, and drove between the sand dunes onto a wood-chip road that cut through a field of knee-high weeds down to the beach. As Alberto drove, I planned out how I’d shoot my photographs. “The sun is setting fast and I want some good shots from the top of the dunes,” I told him. “We gotta hurry. Real rapido like.”

Alberto grunted, more concerned about not breaking the two chilled bottles of wine clinking against each other in the back. Tins of anchovies, crumbly cheese and a long loaf of bread would complete our dinner, which we planned to enjoy on the beach. They filled the car with a dry and peasant-like odor.

“As soon as we stop, I’m gonna run up the dunes, take some shots. I’ll meet you at the beach. You bring the food.”

The car slowed. I jumped out before it stopped and ran through the field of weeds toward the dunes. Clods of sand and wood chips flipped up and hit me on the back and chest.
“Oiiii!” I heard Alberto yell behind me. I ignored him, which I usually do whenever he talks. “Aiiii!!!” Alberto yelled. His voice was faint through the loud waves and humid air.

I ignored him again as I reached the dunes, huffing and puffing. I draped my shirt on my back and began climbing on all fours. The sun slid behind the sand mountain; I started to panic and climbed harder. My muscles yelled, my lungs stretched, my heart pounded. I slipped, got a mouthful of sand, continued climbing. Sand scraped between my teeth as I tried to breathe. It coated my tongue and irritated my mouth. My girlfriend came to mind. “I gotta get rid of her,” I thought.

Heaving and gasping, I reached the top of the dune. The sun was dim, beautiful, imposing. I pulled my camera from my sweaty side and shot my photographs as the sun dropped. I took some photos of the Atlantic with the sun in the right corner of the frame, then turned to shoot more and stopped. “What the…?” I mumbled.

Fact #1: Absurdity of cursing is directly proportional to the number of Coleoptera up your shorts.

I lowered my camera and watched Alberto. He was by the car, at the bottom of the dunes, running in tight circles in the middle of the wood-chip lane, his arms flailing like a Michael Jackson video in fast-forward, ripping his shirt off and swinging it over his head like a poorly trained stripper. He cursed—partly censored by the wind and waves—in Spanish: “… Crap on you and the milk of the mother of all dogs … !”

“Odd!” I thought.

I lifted the camera and continued snapping. I heard more cursing and looked down; Alberto was rolling on the ground frantically, kicking up tufts of sand, swatting at something.
“Holy virgin and thirty muddied hosts!” Alberto yelled.
“Strange!” I thought.

I decided I had taken enough pictures, so I turned and ran down the dunes in long, careless bounds.

Alberto yelled. He was running through the knee-high weeds, the sun setting over the dunes, casting a red glow over the beach toward me. If Alberto were a girl, it would have seemed romantic, but it was Alberto, and he was sweaty and chunky and cursing like a Folsom Prison inmate in a foul mood—and so it was, frankly, a bit gross.

“¡¿Qué pasa?!” I yelled. “What’s up?!”

Alberto ran, his face turning left and right frantically, his eyes terror-wide, his arms swinging high. He reached the edge of the weeds and ran off the wood-chip path onto the beach. His gaze changed from terror to confusion. He looked back at where the reeds ended and the sand began. Then he walked toward me, shaking out his shirt. He put his shirt back on, then reached up his shorts and began feeling around his underwear.

“Yikes! Pervert!” I mumbled. I noticed he had not brought the food, and it angered me. The sun was low, and if we wanted to eat on the beach, we did not have much time. “Where’s the food?!” I yelled.

“O, just-a sut up! Just-a sut up!” he yelled back, obviously distressed.

“¿Qué pasa?” I asked. Alberto shook his head and clarified in Spanish. “¡Plaga!”


“Back dere!” Alberto pointed to the car.

“What’s back there?!”


I stomped off to let Alberto know what I thought of his plague, of his love handles, of his not bringing the wine so I could wash the sand out of my mouth.

“I tell you!” Alberto warned.

I grunted and stepped off the beach, onto the wood chips and into the weeds. Then I heard them. It started as a light hum, gentle like a harmonica. The hum grew into a buzz—louder, angrier, edgier—as black dots shot up from the sand, darting left and right.

Fact #2: Intensity of yelling is directly proportional to the number of Coleoptera on your body.

“I tell you!” Alberto yelled. “That just-a them!”

We were surrounded. One of the dots zigged left and zagged right, fumbled in the air, and crash-landed on my arm with a small thud.

“What the—!” I yelled. A shiny black beetle, an inch long, with thick pincers and thin legs pushed its way up my arm. I tried to say something witty and memorable, like, “Alberto, your girlfriend just dropped in!” but managed only, “Uhhh…”

Alberto gasped and screamed, “Uuuuu-aaah, one in my shirt!” He cursed in Spanish, “Confound the mind of the mother of everything born in this holy town!”

I turned, pointed and began laughing at Alberto’s predicament: “Ha, ha! You got a beetle crawling into your love handles! You better watch it isn’t crushed by your…uh, ah, oh. …” A beetle crawling into my shirt interrupted me. “Ah … aaaaah … AAAAAH!” I yelled.

The swarm of beetles thickened into a cloud, then a billow, then a plague. They buzzed around us, curiously landing, exploring. They flew erratically, colliding into us constantly, irritated we had stepped on their breeding ground.

Fact #3: Coleoptera live and breed among wood chips. Side facts: Coleoptera do not mind sweaty underwear. Also, they are perverts.

“Whoa, whoa, wait! Hey, don’t go there!” I yelled at the beetle crawling up my leg. He went there. I felt tickling and crawling where there should be no tickling and crawling. My yelling reached notes higher than I knew existed. The beetle and his friends scampered, romped, scuttled in my shorts.

“Ai! Ai! Ai!” Alberto yelled. “AIIIII!!!!” He screamed like a plaid-skirted schoolgirl.
We ran. Running kept them out of our shorts; we ran as fast as we could. Alberto ripped his shirt off and swiped it above his head as he ran. I did the same. We yelled more.

“Aaagh!” Alberto cursed in Spanish. “May your insect mothers find out their husbands are virgins!”

We weighed our options; running kept the bugs off, but running away from the car seemed counterproductive. So we ran around the car. Our legs burned and our lungs stretched. Our love handles jiggled, our man-boobs bounced; sweat drops dangled from our noses. We slowed. The beetles landed on our heads and chests. They rappelled into our shorts.

“What we do?!” Alberto yelled.

“I don’t know!” I yelled back, scraping a beetle off my head. “What’s the car like?”
“¡Muchos! ¡Muchisimos!”

I looked in the window. A large group of disoriented beetles had flown in through the open passenger-side window and were bouncing into glass and seats, unable to find their way back out. I groaned.

“Open door!” Alberto yelled.

“Good idea!” I said. More beetles, attracted to the dome light, swarmed in.

“Holy Mother of Spain and hater of all beetles!” Alberto yelled in Spanish.

I slammed the door shut before more could get in and looked at Alberto. We were tired, and our distress was obvious on our faces. The beetles grew bolder as we slowed down.
“We gotta get out of here!” I wheezed. “¡Vamonos!”

Alberto nodded his head emphatically. We opened the car doors and jumped in, onto seats crawling with beetles, shuddering as Alberto jammed the key toward the ignition, missed, missed, and missed again.

“Come on!” I yelled.

I felt the beetles crawling underneath me and in my shorts; I pinched my butt cheeks. Alberto yelled and grew a sudden inch in height; I guessed an exceptionally curious Coleoptera had found a new path.

“¡Vamos!” I yelled again.

Alberto found the ignition, slammed the gears into reverse, backed up, slammed on the brakes, shot forward. We sped down the wood-chip road, swatting at beetles, digging them out of our shorts and chest hair, yelling and shivering.

We rolled down the front windows and watched the whipping wind toss the beetles in its current, twirling them until they hit the rear windshield of the hatchback, where they were pinned against the glass.

Fact #4: Coleoptera in your shorts will drive you to violence and unexplained crying.

Alberto and I recognized our chance. I bunched up my shirt and threw it behind me so it hit the back window. “Ha! Ha!” I laughed a crazed and evil laugh, like a villain in a B movie. Alberto caught on and his eyes narrowed. “Killem!” he shouted, his voice laced with insanity and excitement.

I pulled off a shoe and threw it against the pinned beetles. It felt good. I pulled off the second shoe and threw it, too.

“Ha! Ha!” Alberto laughed. He handed me more to throw: CD cases, a book, his shirt. “Ha ha!” he screeched.

I lunged back over the passenger seat, reached over the backseat and pushed open the hatchback; the wind drew through the car and cleansed the back window of the beetles—disappeared, gone, adios.

The next few days of our Spanish road trip were nervous ones. Whenever we saw a leftover beetle in the car, we slammed it with a shoe until it became pulp. The back seat was a beetle battlefield. We shivered at odd times, for no reason. Whenever we saw the other shiver, we reached into our pants and made sure Coleoptera had not nested in a new warm and cozy home.
One time, I reached behind Alberto’s driver seat, and my sleeve accidentally brushed his ear. He jumped, yelled, swatted at me and insulted me. I thought he was going to cry, shake and crawl into the fetal position.

He should have. I would have. It happens to people who know too much about Coleoptera.

Mike Riley is a magnet for awkward situations. Do not travel with him. He now lives in Central Asia, where awkward situations have become a part of daily life. He is busy learning the local languages and hopes to study a bit of the literature. Mike loves international soccer, hiking and literature. However, he loves his wife more. Isn’t he a great guy?

This story appears in Spain From a Backpack.

Photos: Spain

Check out this collection of Spain photos on Flickr. Hey, you can even add picts from your own trip. The photos are compiled by Ben Curtis, who along with his Spanish wife Marina, have podcasts about all things related to Spain.
Notes from Spain

Video: Scenes from a Europe trip set to U2's "Beautiful Day"


Photos: Barcelona

This slide show takes you on a whirlwind tour of Barcelona.
Flickr slide show


Video: Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a series of 5 coastal villages on the Italian Riviera. Check out the video and you'll see why it's one of the top destinations in Italy.

Italy From a Backpack features stories from Cinque Terre by Julie Vick, Ryan Daniels, Ryan Forsythe, and Jeffrey James Keyes.

To learn more, Read Rick Steves' intro to Cinque Terre

Video: Granada Sunset

There's nothing quite like a sunset in Granada. You'll only appreciate this video if you've been there.


Ciao Italia

Italy From a Backpack is now in stores. Here's a sneak preview from the introduction.

Ask any traveler to Europe’s “Boot” (lo Stivale), “Why Italy?” and he or she responds with the almost inarticulate bemusement of someone in the infatuation phase of a love affair. Italy is irresistible. We return again and again for the cuisines, the wines, the festivals, the unique regions and attitudes—all rooted in the very soil under the traveler’s feet.

If you live in the West or speak any Romance or Germanic language, you can trace roots back to here, in the Roman and Greek Empires, even if you’re not Italian. Your diet probably depends in part—or entirely—on Italian cuisine: pizza, spaghetti and meatballs with parmesan and crusty garlic bread, minestrone, mineral water, Caesar salad (invented in Florida, actually, but since it’s named after Caesar…) and gelato. You may have salivated over Ferraris and Lamborghinis; perhaps you appreciate Italian style and the composure with which Italians approach life. They may promptly finish their midday espressos standing at narrow, high-top tables, but Italians will take three or four hours to enjoy a dinner that doesn’t begin until at least 8 p.m. Ah, simple pleasures.

Italy From a Backpack is full of pleasures, too—stories of young people whose discoveries make delightful, even surprising reading. My co-editor, Mark Pearson, hatched this idea for books about youthful European travels when he returned home from studying art history in Rome and backpacking around Europe. He found that people weren’t so interested in viewing his 2,200 digital photos. Instead, they wanted to hear great stories.
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Spain Introduction

Here is the introduction to our new book, Spain From a Backpack.

Welcome to Spain, the Iberian Peninsula, the 12th-century western border of the Moorish Empire, jump-off point to mysterious Africa. You hold the gateway in your hands: By opening Spain From a Backpack, you are transporting yourself for the next marvelous moments to the España of blocky Basque castles, intricate Moorish designs and fanciful Gaudi creations. And welcome to a different pace of life—a pace informed by centuries of artful and bloody history, where we rise and start work early, siesta in the afternoon, and stay up late. We shop for our food every few days in open-air markets, for olives and tapenade, crusty breads, cheeses, meats, fresh tomatoes and garlic, and we cook for the joy of it. We go out for tapas in the evening, then dine in leisure, never bothered by waiters repeatedly asking, “May I take your plate?”

This is how our book series started: My co-editor, Mark Pearson, observed lots of Europe guidebooks on the market, all explaining where to go and what to do, but few books that tell what it’s like to actually be in Europe; and virtually none written by and for backpackers. These twenty- or thirty-somethings carry their worldly possessions on their backs, traveling on a shoestring budget. Backpackers decide each day where they will go and what they will do, and, often, they experience marvels that elude people who carry suitcases and make reservations. Every year, nearly two million American, and hundreds of thousands of British, Canadian and Australian, backpackers are drawn to Europe for travel, study and work.
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Interview with the Editors

Travel Hub Radio interviewed Mark Pearson and Martin Westerman, the co-editors of the Europe From a Backpack series. The 40-minute interview is on segments 1 and 2.
Listen to the interview

Photos: Turkey, Greece, and Italy

There are some great photos from Cinque Terre in this Flickr slide show

Video: Some funny scenes from EuroTrip

Video: My European Backpacking Trip

We will be posting videos and slideshows from Italy, Spain, and Europe. Keep checking back...

This blog is for readers of the Europe From a Backpack series travel books, which now includes Italy From a Backpack, Spain From a Backpack, and Europe From a Backpack.
Europe From a Backpack