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The best travel experiences of my life: 10-6

I'm finally getting to the best part of the series of blogs that began here. Of course this started out as a ten best idea, but the more I thought about it the more experiences got pushed out of the top ten until eventually I had a list of seventy. Even through the process of writing this blog I've thought of enough experiences that should have been included to round the list out to an even one hundred. Before I do that, though, it's time to get to the real point of making this list. What are the ten places in the world I would want to make other travelers aware of? The places that I would most appreciate having been told about if I had never stumbled upon them on my own? After much deliberation, here are numbers ten through six on my list.

10. Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain
I'm probably the one hundred millionth tourist to run with the bulls in Pamplona since Hemingway published "The Sun Also Rises" in 1926, so I wasn't exactly pushing the envelope of travel here. However, it was still a remarkable and memorable experience. I went to Pamplona for the weekend of the Festival of San Fermin with several friends from my Spanish immersion course in Barcelona. The first task was arranging accommodations using the rudimentary internet tools of 2001. When we arrived I realized we would be sleeping on mattresses in a barber shop with the chairs removed. The partying was legendary. All night long revelers in the traditional white outfits with red scarves stumbled through the streets drinking streams of wine from traditional porrons. Between inebriation and lack of experience, many drinkers had shirts that were more crimson than white as darkness fell. I turned in early for the morning bull run but the clamor outside kept me awake for hours.

In the morning none of my companions who had planned to run allowed themselves to be aroused. I walked out alone into the bright sun and saw that hundreds of people were sleeping in the streets, either due to intoxication or lack of accommodation. Many of them had chosen to use the curb as a pillow, with their bodies stretched lengthwise towards the middle of the street. I found a crowd in the main square and pushed my way through it to find the starting point of the run. People pushed back and I cried out in Spanish that I needed to get through, I was there to run. They replied that they were as well. There were several thousand people clustered together at the starting point. After what seemed an interminable wait a bell rang and the mass of people started to surge in one direction. I followed the crowd but soon realized if I kept running that I would reach the stadium at the end of the course without having seen a single bull. That wasn't the experience I wanted, so I backed up against a wall and waited. Soon enough I saw a group of what were clearly experienced runners carrying newspapers and behind them several charging bulls. The runners teased the bulls with the newspapers but always seemed to stay a foot or two ahead of them. Other people were pressed against the building and the barricades like I was. When the bulls got turned around and started running in every direction we were sitting ducks. At that point I had no choice but to freeze motionless and hope that none of the bulls would notice me. Whenever I didn't see a bull facing me I tried to inch a few meters further down the course. At one point I caught a blur of motion and realized that a bull had charged someone about fifty meters away from me and had flipped him up into the air. The bull moved on and I rushed over to where the person lay crumpled on the pavement. It was a girl with blonde hair and a backpack, a tourist. Her head was bleeding and she was unconscious with slow, deep breathing. I had nothing to press against her scalp so I waited by her side to start CPR in case her breathing stopped. Soon enough an ambulance pulled up and they waved me off and I watched them put a cervical collar on her and load her into an ambulance. I never found out what happened to her but it looked bad. By this time they were taking down the barricades on the cross streets so I never did make it to the stadium. I walked back to our accommodation somewhat stunned by the experience. I noticed some people gave me strange looks on the way back, and when I opened the door of the barber shop one of my friends inside looked at me and screamed. It wasn't until then that I realized my white outfit was covered with the girl's blood.

I know that nobody died at the festival that year, but many more than usual were gored and otherwise injured. Later we came across booths where photos were being sold of the day's action including many gorings. Huge photos of grisly gorings were on the front pages of the newspapers as well. I bought some and kept them for years before finally discarding them with our last move. I hadn't brought my own camera with me to the bull run, wisely realizing that I would be endangering myself by taking photos of the action from the middle of the action. I did have some photos from the festivities but those prints disappeared long before I had a scanner to preserve them. It's still the closest I've come to serious injury or death in all my years of traveling.
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9. Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo, Italy
Our best European road trip to date was the time we circled the Adriatic Sea in 2014. Our last day started out extremely well with a rooftop breakfast in the town of Sulmona. After we left Sulmona we spent a couple of hours clambering around an ancient and largely deserted town called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. We still had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to be back in Rome for dinner. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet on the iPad and realized we were close to a ruined mountaintop fort called Rocca Calascio that was briefly mentioned in passing. We decided we would make that our last stop and then head back towards Rome and Fiumicino.

Rocca Calascio was just a few kilometers back on the mountain road we had taken to Santo Stefano, a turnoff just after the small town of Calascio. I had actually passed the fork earlier without taking note of the sign for the fort. We made our way up a steep winding road and past a few hairpin turns until the road eventually terminated in a small parking lot. From here, a pedestrian street led up into another deserted-looking medieval town. We stepped up onto a grassy platform just above the parking lot which was only occupied by a short segment of crumbling stone wall, and could see rolling valleys for miles around. In the distance were peaks and ridges of the Apennines. Behind us was a steep hill on top of which we could see more ruins. A cobblestone path led into the remains of a town that clearly had no permanent inhabitants. Grass and trees were growing over the buildings and paths. After a couple of turns, the path turned into a dirt road and the walk up the hill started to feel more like a climb.

A little further up we encountered the abandoned 17th century church of Santa Maria della Pietà. Although beautiful, its forsaken appearance on that desolate mountainside made it an intimidating sight. I don't think you could have paid me enough to spend a night in that place. At this point, there was no path left at all and rocky outcroppings impeded our view of the top. After a couple of false starts we eventually rediscovered the upward route and proceeded to the fort, which was absolutely spectacular. At the lower level of the ruin, we had the best views yet of the Apennine mountains and valleys extending for miles in every direction. The wind was forceful and would have chilled us to the bone in a cooler climate. As it was, I was grateful that Ian was kept snug by the carrier and my own body heat. We picked our way up the rocky slope to the main fort which was better preserved, with continuous walls and corner turrets. Cleo insisted on walking across the short wooden bridge into the fort by herself, although I was afraid the wind would blow her off her feet.

Rocca Calascio was one of the best experiences of the entire journey, and it came right at the end when we were practically ready to pack it in and head to our airport motel. It's very hard to find the words to describe the isolated beauty of the mountain fort, which felt like walking on the surface of another planet despite being only an hour away from Rome. As we descended the winding roads towards the highway, I wistfully looked at all the other hilltop towns and wondered what other Apennine secrets would remain hidden from us forever.
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8. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
This is another experience from way back that remains engraved in my memory. I had a week vacation during my residency in Boston and there were cheap flights to Iceland that only lasted five hours. Why not? I really enjoyed my short stay in Iceland although I spent most of my time in Reykjavik due to time constraints. I only ventured out of the capital for a two day solo excursion to Vestmannaeyjar, a small archipelago off the southern coast that are called the Westman Islands in English. I stayed at a homestay in the only town of Heimaey, the only inhabited island. Vestmannaeyjabær was a picture-perfect Icelandic village with less than four thousand inhabitants. At the time of my visit it didn't seem like much of a tourist destination except for a few hikers.

There wasn't much to do in the village and Heimaey is quite small so I set out on my one full day to explore the entire island. I mounted Eldfell, the 200 meter volcanic cone outside of town that formed during an eruption in 1973, without much difficulty. The views of the town from the summit and the rolling green landscape and coastline on the opposite side were breathtaking. I didn't have enough time to tackle Helgafell, the slightly taller of the two volcanoes, so I took the only road out of town that passed by the airport towards the southern end of the island. Along the way the road passed by imposing sheer cliffs which were the nesting ground for thousands of puffins. After the scattered birdwatchers here I didn't see another human until I returned to town in the early evening. Soon afterward I saw one of the most remarkable events I've ever witnessed. Inside a fenced enclosure were two magnificent black horses that I assume were stallions. At the very moment I set eyes on them one suddenly reared up and attacked the other with his front hooves. The other immediately rose up to defend himself and instantaneously both were standing on their hind legs and facing off against each other like two boxers. Within seconds it was over and the horses were pacing around a few meters from each other. I watched a little while longer as my heart pounded in my chest, but they left each other alone after that. The southern end of the island was a short round peninsula which was mainly composed of a steep, terraced hill covered with thick grass. The only living creatures besides me were a sizable number of woolly sheep that gazed at me phlegmatically as I picked my way around their droppings to the top of the hill.

I made my way back to town suffused with the enjoyment of having explored the entire island and having seen such a diversity of landscapes and lifeforms. In the evening I ate at a restaurant that served grilled puffin which proved to be delicious, with red meat more like a game animal than a fowl. It was another unique aspect of Heimaey that made me feel like I had stumbled upon an undiscovered paradise. Perhaps their are many remote islands in the North Atlantic just as beautiful and fascinating as Vestmannaeyjar, but there's no question that I will return there with my family once the kids are old enough to deal with all the rigors of a road trip around the entire circumference of the country. Hopefully puffin will still be on the menu!
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7. Notting Hill Carnival, London
I've come to my best travel experience in London, my favorite city in Europe and second only to New York City in my heart. One of the ways in which London beats NYC is the sheer beauty of many of its residential neighborhoods, and none of them is more magnificent than Notting Hill. In August 2014 we were incredibly lucky to get an Airbnb in one of the immaculate white townhouses that line many of the streets in the neighborhood. The rows of Neoclassical columns, ornate windowsills, and wrought-iron balconies made a walk through the neighborhood seem like an encounter with an impossible fantasy land. But we hadn't come just to admire the architecture, we were there to party. One weekend a year that exquisite neighborhood is home to the greatest celebration of Caribbean culture outside of the islands themselves, the Notting Hill Carnival. We had been warned that it was dangerous but we've heard that kind of overcautious advice enough times to know that it was likely bred from unfamiliarity. In fact the atmosphere of the festival was extremely warm and welcoming even at the most crowded points. Unfortunately the kids were still a little too young to appreciate what was going on and slept through most of it, but Mei Ling and I still had a blast even with the kids passed out on our backs. There was great Caribbean food, music, and unbelievable energy all around us. The Notting Hill Carnival will certainly be a cornerstone of our visit when we finally return to the British Isles to give them to full and lengthy attention they deserve.
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6. Iguazú Falls, Argentina and Brazil
I can't think of any natural phenomenon I've ever seen that is as magnificent as Iguazú Falls. The best part is that the falls can be seen from two completely different perspectives at the base and at the plateau. The base of the falls on the Argentinian side is incredibly lush with colorful butterflies the size of pie plates and a plethora of rainbows in the omnipresent spray from the waterfalls. The Brazilian side is just as incredible in its own way with a walkway and viewing platform that puts one right at the edge of the keyhole shaped chasm into which the water plunges. Our group splurged on a helicopter ride which gave us the best possible perspective of the majestic Paraná Plateau and the falls. I didn't take any photos because I didn't want my camera to be damaged by the spray but I'm confident that one day I'll return with my family and make up for that deficiency.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:00

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