Five ways to get dirty this summer

Grabbing the railing on the subway? For some of us, it’s a fact of life, but I’m told there are plenty of people out there who liken it to shoving your hand in a toilet. According to a recent TripAdvisor poll of more than 4,000 travelers, around one-third consider themselves to be “germaphobic” since the H1N1 swine flu outbreak.

So, where do germaphobes go? I imagine they hang out in hospitals and Reston, Virginia (you can do surgery off the streets there). More interesting is where these clean freaks won’t go: TripAdvisor’s five “germiest” world attractions.

Pucker up for the Blarney Stone: kiss the Blarney Stone, according to legend, and you’ll be rewarded with the gift of eloquent speech … yours and 400,000 other mouths.

Kiss the dead guy’s memorial: people just can’t keep their lips to themselves … if it’s not the Blarney Stone, then it’s Oscar Wilde‘s tomb in Paris.

Chew on the Wall of Gum: at Seattle‘s Market Theatre in Post Alley: there’s a giant wall of gum. And, travelers have begun to add to it. Try to stick yours on it without feeling anyone else’s contribution (blech).

Run with the pigeons in Venice: vendors in St. Mark’s Square have stopped selling food to tourists who feed the birds, because of the situation – I think Alfred Hitchcock made a movie about it.

Tactile Chinese theater in Hollywood: millions of people grind their fingers into the handprints at the Forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in the film capital of the world.

A hidden church near Oxford

Yesterday I reviewed Michael McCay’s Hidden Treasures of England, a book filled with wonderful places that most people miss. Here’s one McCay missed.

Not far from the popular destination of Oxford is the little hamlet of Binsey and its historic St. Margaret’s Church.

St. Margaret’s is reputedly founded on the spot where St. Frideswide (pictured here) built an oratory in the seventh century. The holy woman fled Oxford to Binsey to escape a local prince who wanted to marry her. As punishment for his lust, the prince was blinded by lightning, but the forgiving yet still chaste St. Frideswide cured him with water from a holy well that miraculously opened up from the ground after she prayed to St. Margaret of Antioch.

The well is still there today and attracts people who pray for help, especially cures to blindness. This tradition may even be older than St. Frideswide, because many holy wells in England were actually pagan holy spots before being taken over by the new faith. In the nineteenth century Lewis Carroll visited the spot and used it as inspiration for his “treacle well” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was making a play on words. In his day treacle was a syrup, but in Saxon times it meant “a healing fluid.”

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The Saxon church of St. Frideswide’s day is long gone, replaced with a modest but beautiful 13th century building. There are some well preserved Gothic features such as the arch and the carved doorway, and a rare trussed rafter roof made with no nails.

Although it’s one of the most historic churches in Oxfordshire, St. Margaret’s is desperately in need of money for repairs and upkeep. The Church of England is feeling the pinch and smaller churches like this one are struggling to keep open. They are taking donations at their website and you can always drop some coins in the donation box at the church. A building with this much history deserves to stay open.

The church and its well make for a fine half-day excursion from Oxford. It’s only about three miles from downtown and much of the walk is through serene countryside. A map is available on the website. As you pass through the village of Binsey, you might want to stop by The Perch, a relaxing pub with a big garden. It’s tradition to stop at a pub during an English country walk, and you wouldn’t want to break with tradition, would you?

Traveler’s Bookshelf: Hidden Treasures of England

I’ve been to 25 countries and I’ve never seen any place with so many overlooked treasures as England. Maybe that’s why I keep making excuses to work here. A wonderful new book by Michael McNay, Hidden Treasures of England, reveals some of England’s lesser-known artistic and historical highlights.

McNay spends much of his time exploring churches in search of rare stonework and fine Medieval stained glass, and he’s had some fun along the way. When he visited Eyam to see a ninth-century cross outside the famous plague church, he relates, “I asked Mrs Furness, the duty parishioner on the church bookstall, how Eyam should be pronounced: Eeyam? Iyam? ‘Eem,’ she said severely, ‘as in redeem.’”

In Durham Cathedral he lavishes praise on the elegant tomb of St. Cuthbert, with its unique Anglo-Saxon wood carvings, and the stunning pectoral cross of the saint himself, now in the cathedral treasury. The omission of the somber and imposing tomb of the Venerable Bede, also in Durham Cathedral, is a bit strange, but highlights the fact that for every jewel McNay shows us, England has several more hidden away.

It’s not all churches. We get the “mildly erotic” tapestries of Newby Hall, Yorkshire, an impressive promenade at Bridlington, Yorkshire, seaside from the days before the easyJet generation, even an old milestone at Brampton, Cambridgeshire, with carved hands pointing the way to London and other towns. Such milestones used to be a common sight in the English countryside but were buried during World War Two to confuse the Nazis in case they invaded. McNay knows just when to throw in an interesting anecdote.

McNay also has an eye for overlooked elements of famous places. The section on Trafalgar Square skips Nelson’s Column in favor of the monument to King Charles I, the first bronze equestrian statue made in England. You can often see it in photos of the square, but it’s rarely the focus of attention.

The book is richly illustrated with color photographs and while its 550 hardcover pages will make you think twice about putting it in your suitcase, it makes an engaging read for armchair travelers and a useful guide for those planning their next trip. Hidden Treasures of England is published by Random House and distributed in England by Guardian Books.

Hostel Trail: Latin America’s hostel network

I think long and hard about what kind of cool, helpful knowledge I might be able to share with Gadling readers, and sometimes the most obvious material escapes me. But it only took me a few months to realize I’ve been keeping my best tips to myself because I don’t see them as suggestions, but rather as experiences.

I stepped foot in the Hostel Trail guesthouse in Popayán, Colombia by default. I hadn’t even intended to pass through the “white city” (it’s known as this because all of the buildings in the historical center of the city are a beautiful, uniform, stark white color). In fact, I only planned on being in Colombia for five weeks — not twice that long, as my stay there turned out to be. My five days in Popayán were so comfortable because Hostel Trail is one of the cleanest and most reasonably-priced guesthouses I’ve stayed in all my travels around Latin America (and, believe me, I’ve seen some pretty decripit places).
Tony and Kim, the Irish owners of Hostel Trail, realized the fantastic potential of Popayán as a travel destination (it was recently named of the gastronomical centers in Latin America — and rightly so!). They quickly made this place (at the edge of the old city) their home and have been sharing it with backpackers for about two years. Using their technological savvy, as well as their connections in Colombia and Latin America, they decided to utilize their innovative web domain as a homepage for not only their hostel but all of the cool hostels in Latin America. Tony and Kim continue to spend long hours networking with other hostels in South and Central America. Once part of the network, a hostel is given a whole page dedicated to information about their lodging. Ultimately, HostelTrail.com is truly the most viable lodging resource for backpackers in Latin America.

There are now hundreds of hostels in the Hostel Trail network, making it that much easier to travel from city to city because you know what to expect when you get to your next hostel. What’s even cooler about Hostel Trail is if you’re on a tight budget and have a way with words and a camera, you can actually write for Hostel Trail and get free lodging wherever it is you stay — so long as it is not a place that is already covered on the site, and you provide a comprehensive overview of the hostel, along with photos of the place for other travelers to see.

How have I waited this long to reveal one of my best kept Latin American secrets? I guess it’s been nearly a year since I stepped foot in Latin America, so I kept my memories tightly locked in the recesses of my mind so as to avoid the painful nostalgia I feel for this part of the world. Regardless, the Hostel Trail guesthouse in Popayán, its hostel network, and the travel writing opportunity with the site makes HostelTrail.com one of the best resources for travel not only in Colombia, but all over Latin America. If you do make it to Popayán, please tell Tony, Kim, and their cute little black dog I say “aloha!”
[Yes, that's me in the photo, enjoying Poker beer and a ride on a Chiva, taking in the Popayán nightlife!]

Destination on the edge: golf on the DMZ

The small golf course in Panmunjom is often called the most dangerous in the world. Nestled between North and South Korea – which are technically still at war – sending a ball off the fairway means that it probably won’t be retrieved.

Welcome to the strangest place on earth. Panmunjom is the heavily militarized “truce” village straddling the Military Demarcation Line that cuts down the middle of the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. The most famous image from this corner of the world, of course, is that of soldiers squaring off across from each other, each rigid and ready for the worst. Not far from this scene of perpetual anxiety, worries turn to backswings and short games.

Camp Bonifas, the U.S. military installation in Panmunjom, is home to a one-hole golf course, mostly for the benefit of service members stationed in this dangerous spot for a year at a time. The 192-yard par three “course” is free to anyone interested in playing but is generally unavailable to outsiders. Once you’re on Camp Bonifas, according to Erica (who prefers to keep her last name private), it’s pretty easy to find “The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course,” as the locals call it. There isn’t much of anything on this army post, and there are only so many places you can go.

“It’s a fairly flat one-hole course,” Erica recalls, “so it serves as a novelty, not as somewhere to play an actual game.” The location, however, is what makes it unusual. “There isn’t anywhere else in the world that one can golf while gazing across the world’s most armed border. It’s surreal to say the least.”

I can see why she feels this way. As you approach the golf course, the sign that welcomes you announces with no equivocation: “DANGER! DO NOT RETRIEVE BALLS FROM THE ROUGH LIVE MINEFIELDS.” Never have the implications of shanking a drive been so severe!

If you’re up in Panmunjom for the DMZ tour, don’t plan to squeeze in a few rounds, however short they may be. But, if you’re getting ready to spend 12 months of your life in the Joint Security Area (well, 11 months, as you’ll have 30 days of leave), bring a putter and a nine iron. That’s all you’ll need.

[Photo via Nagyman on Flickr]

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