Things I saw while on break

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

For those that have followed this blog during the last years, here is the proof it has not disappeared. Just a small fraction of that time was a break (most of it was quite the opposite…), but it was worth it.

During that time I have seen and thought about some interesting things, either on travel or through other means. Here are some, which can be viewed as a thematic layout of future posts:

  • Vienna: I had never visited Austria. After a recent trip to Germany I was curious to see the other big Germanic country, not so much (or rather no only) for its past as an old empire that imploded almost overnight in 1918, but more as a country in which I thought an interesting version of modernity was happening. The trip has indeed been interesting. My knowledge of German is schematic, and if I told you I have grasped the soul of the country after just a few days you would (for a good reason) think I’m just bragging; but some things have seemed interesting.
  • The evolution of the idea of sustainable development (or its weakening under some points of view). The quarrels surrounding the ministerial reorganization in France during this summer have made me remember news read during the recent municipal and European elections there. Among the promises made by local candidates of the National Front in many cities were the ones about letting again access the city core by car without restrictions, reversing policies adopted years ago to try to reduce pollution and conserve the old cities qualities. The National Front is a particularity in the French political system, but its rise is fuelled by their ability to grasp subjects that galvanize citizens. They raised that idea in many cities, but not in Paris and Lyon, where things cannot be so simplified. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President, who instituted a Ministry for Durable Development, said in 2011 during a visit to the Agricultural Convention of Paris “the environment, it is becoming a bit too much”. On the other side, the relations between socialists and ecologists in France are far from easy (hence the initial mention to the French politics of this summer). The evolution over time of the UK policies on that matter has also been controversial there. Many in Europe will think that this is just peanuts compared to the American scene, forgetting the fact that there the scene is also mixed, as you just have to compare Republicans in the Congress (denial of climate change) to Schwarzeneger or Bloomberg (climate change policies) to see what I talk about. Are we witnessing the end of sustainable development as a somehow blind faith (believing in something presented as good, even if not understood by many that feel it just brings costs or even nuisance to their way of life) that can be used by politicians and marketers alike, to see a more critical conscience emerge, or else? Therein lies the rump….
  • A new rise in the social demand for rules, not as a defence of some economic interests, but of other matters lied to the idea of common good. These days there have been demonstrations in Barcelona against the growing presence of tourists renting apartments in an informal way in the Barceloneta area; they use what to some is a reduced booze price and a perceived image of Spain as a permissive country to behave in ways that perhaps could be subject to prosecution in their own countries. Sure, hotel owners have used that to talk about unlawful competition (a bit like taxi drivers revolts against Uber), but the neighbours asked here for quite simple things: the right to sleep without noise, or to move around their city without seeing gross scenes. I have read on today’s Washington Post a quite similar news concerning Ocean City, Maryland. The fear of squadrons of youth looking for booze and party, ruining the calm of a neighbourhood by renting homes piecemeal has also surfaced, and is also criticized by those saying that as the city lives from tourism, this must be endured. So Barceloneta (a popular neighbourhood with high density) is on the same wavelength as Ocean City (apparently a richer, lower density area). Some will present this as a case of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a resistance to accept externalities related to the inherent complexity of cities. But this seems something more, a symptom of a general evolution of the idea of what can be or not accepted in a society.
  • I have also seen interesting physical landscapes

Maps 2014 (13) Walk NYC

Here is a map that (apparently) can only be consulted in the streets of New York. The classical pedestrian map, that lets you find your way, has been subject to an interesting approach in the American context, as in NYC people walk. From the way maps are oriented (not always with the north up, but taking into account the position of the beholder) to the design of the icons, an elegant work by Pentagram.

Unexpected meetings (7)


To be honest, the title here is not entirely accurate: I knew about the landscape interest of Gata (Cáceres, Spain), and in fact I was in a visit preceded by a quite complete briefing. The unexpected being here to which extent I liked how the different elements fit. And largely, the pines to the right of the church in the first image, just a handful, but clearly leaving a good imprint on that landscape.

gata 2

Biblio (79) The Phototeque of the Spanish Historical Heritage

biblio 79-fototeca patrimonio

The Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports hosts this interesting resource on the internet. It is curious to see on the heading image the “Thorns Crown”, a work by Higueras in the Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid (it has a logic, since it is the HQ of the Spanish Cultural Heritage Institute).


Aerial view of Tórtoles, by Ricardo Melgar on Panoramio. His collection of images of Castille is simply excellent.

Tórtoles de Esgueva is a small village in Ribera del Duero (Burgos province, Spain), which I already blogged about last year. The rural development strategy for the area focuses on wine and the associated tourism, as well as on rural tourism. The Posada- Monasterio in the village is a good example of it, with an interesting architectural rehabilitation and a quality hotel service. Besides, they organize some art-related events which go way beyond what many would think of a small Castilian village.

The village is, as often, on the slope connecting the fertile valley bottom to the upper cereal cultivation grounds, with a south- looking orientation. As in such villages, the interesting architectural elements are the church and the monastery. Vernacular architecture persist, albeit sometimes a bit modified. 

The monastery (left) and the church (right)

The monastery (left) and the church (right)
An art installation at the chappel in 2010, by Carlos León

An art installation at the chappel in 2010, by Carlos León

How many tourists are here today?

Counting umbrellas on the sand is far from being a tested methodology...

Counting umbrellas on the sand is far from being a tested methodology…

Sure, there is a little trap in the question: in statistical terms, in Spain a tourist is a person that moves from his usual home to a different geographical point, is far from home more than 24 hours, and sleeps in a different geographical place. So, a one day trip to go eat some ribs and then coming back home for your siesta is not, technically speaking, tourism (even if some professionals sometimes count it as such).

But visiting your grandmother in her small village in the Yorkshire Moors for some days could be counted as tourism (even if you spend not a penny out of her home).

I remember a speech by a former Barcelona City Councilor, now high executive for a tourism company, in which he explained how they were baffled, in the early 1990s, to see the streets of the city bustling with Japanese tourist, while there were virtually no Japanese staying in city hotels. It seems the City Council played a detective game by following around the clock some groups of Japanese tourists, to finally discover that they were sleeping in southern France (therefore concentrating there most of their tourism expenditure) and commuting each day by bus from there. Since, Barcelona has made everything to foster Asian tourism, to become the Spanish airport with most flights to Asia.

So, as for many other issues, knowing the precise number of tourists, and their expenditure profile, is always complex and there will always be a degree of fuzziness (it is incredible how many grandmas, or friends letting you use their apartment, exist in this world…), but there are attempts. A method is to count, for a given period, the number of beds open to the public in hotels and other kinds of lodging, and to multiply it by the occupation rate. This does not include the “unregulated offer” (grandmas, friends, or house renting by ordinary citizens), but it is an attempt. The tourism expenditure (which has its own statistical niceties) is a more important affair sometimes.

A saturday afternoon in Madrid

The Sky as seen from the A3 (Valencia freeway) looking towards the urban core.

The Sky as seen from the A3 (Valencia freeway) looking towards the urban core.

After some rainy days, yesterday there was a nice afternoon, and the urban core was full of people cellebrating the King’s Coup victory for Athletico de Madrid. As usual, there were also lots of tourists, using those same spaces. To a certain extent, one of the most pleasant tourism experiences (or at least so I think) is not to go to pre-packaged resorts, but to see how a complex city is used by its citizens (somehow, sort of, as in large metropolitan areas citizen is a more vage concept…) and the urban landscape in which they live their lifes.

Calle de Alcalá, an historic axis of the old city.

Calle de Alcalá, an historic axis of the old city.

Details on calle de Alcalá

Details on calle de Alcalá. A former bank headquarters had this bell  spire as an ornamental element

Details on calle de Alcalá. A former bank headquarters

Details on calle de Alcalá. A former bank headquarters. The quadrigas control the intersection with calle Sevilla

Atleti's fans cellebrating around plaza de Neptuno (a change for the usually posh setting of the Ritz hotel and the Thyssen- Bornemisza museum)

Atleti’s fans cellebrating around plaza de Neptuno (a change for the usually posh setting of the Ritz hotel and the Thyssen- Bornemisza museum)

Tourism space (4e)

Experimentando exito

I must acknowledge that for this last week I have somehow forced what some experts would consider experiential tourism. The Spanish Ministry for Industry, Energy and Tourism, in partnership with the Technological Lodging Institute, has published a document on the creation and packaging of recent successful tourism experiences in the country. This trend appears as a transition from a tour-operator and mass marketing approach to a more local experience, relevant for an interior tourism linked to the cultural, natural, enological and gastronomical heritage.

These are often small and mid-sized companies which innovate by differentiation, specialization, market segmentation, technological innovation, public- private partnership and competitive improvement. The 11 studied cases are:

–          Detective weekend

–          Lava and pedals

–          Beauty & Fashion

–          Magical Month

–          Tourism products for the visually impaired

–          “InLove with Wine” and “Hallowine”

–          Driving a Formula


–          Senior Tourism Europa Community

–          Ili Palmir, the quest for dragons

–          Experiential tourism in the Goierri area

Different ways to use the space are presented: rural areas (many have been severely hit by the internal tourism crisis) oriented to cultural experience, wild journeys into high prize urban shopping, and perhaps the less usual, the touristic opening to visual and other handicapped people.

Tourism space (4c)

Being alive is an experience, so keeping alive should also count as such. What is known as medical tourism is something quite different from what is usually thought of as tourism; the destination allows the tourist to access a care that in his country is either to expensive or not available. In Spain, there have been cases of some northern Europeans coming for interventions at the national health service that were not covered by their national systems, benefiting from mutual medical assistance European agreements (with some frauds). There are other countries (such as India) proposing private care at competitive prices, something also underway in Spain. Is MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston a major tourism asset for the city?  maybe, as it is not infrequent to hear from people having visited Houston for that reason.

What is interesting here is that it means an unexpected immersion in the inner experiences of a country; but there are also cases of specialized health compounds. This kind of tourism moved more than 75.000 million dollars in 2009 around the world.