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Fitness Afar: Great Places to Hang Out at the Bar

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Does it get any better than this? Trees, shade, green grass and a pair of horizontal bars beside the Dordogne River, in Souillac, add up to one of the finest outdoor workout stations in France. Photo by Andrew Bland.

Tourists in Paris visit English-language bookstores hunting original Hemingway copies or go underground to wander the long, grim halls of the Catacombs. In Naples, they have espresso standing at the counter, then eat pizza while rooting for Italy on the televised soccer match. In Turkey, travelers pay 2 lira to take a photo of a camel wearing a leather top hat and a skirt, then drink scalding hot tea. Visitors to New Zealand buy packaged bungee jumping and helicopter-biking adventures.

And some tourists, between so many worldly sites and activities, do pull-ups. Recognized around the world, the pull-up is one of the simplest and most effective upper body weight-bearing exercises, and perfect for maintaining fitness while traveling. It requires only some rigid wood or steel and some simple geometry for one to get cranking—and in most places doing a few sets in public won’t draw the perplexed stares that doing, say, a yoga headstand in a village plaza in Morocco surely would. You might even make a few friends across the language barrier if the local village fitness buffs decide to work out with you. But in the far-flung hinterlands of the earth, finding a suitable pull-up structure isn’t always easy. In many cultures, exercise is simply not fashionable, and travelers on long journeys may abandon their workout routines until they return home. Nonetheless, going abroad needn’t mean going flabby—determined globe-trotters can find pull-up bars and other outdoor gymnastics equipment in some of the most unexpected places if they only remain a little vigilant. Following are some pointers toward a few of the world’s better places to hang out.

Republic of Georgia. In a culture strongly laced with cigarettes, distilled liquor and idleness whenever it’s affordable, performing unnecessary exercise on horizontal bars is not a common priority—but in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, somebody in the city planning office apparently once had the strange impetus to suggest, “Hey, let’s put an outdoor gymnastics center on Mount Mtatsminda”—and, lo and behold, they did. Today, hidden on a terrace off to the side of the stairway leading to the top, resides one of the finest exercise courts I’ve known. It offers bars going left, right, up and down, plus benches and poles and gymnastics rings, and is applicable to about every muscle group above the waist. The site offers a smashing view of the city below, as well, and doubles as a fine, shaded picnic site. When I found this place one morning in September 2010, a kid was already there, working the bars while his boombox blasted some cheesy electronic dance tunes. For an hour, I alternated my pull-ups with push-ups. A Georgian born and bred, the boy took cigarette breaks.

Spain. The Spanish may be slim and sporty, but their country’s pull-up infrastructure is weak in rural regions. While even the smallest villages provide road signs to the “instalaciones deportivas,” these athletic centers usually offer just a tennis court and a dusty soccer field swarming with rabbits. A workout can be improvised on the bars of the goal box—but keep your eyes open elsewhere around towns, because proper pull-up bars can be found. Good bets are public parks, especially along walking or cycling trails. In Panes, Asturias, there is a full exercise court by the Cares River, just a quarter-mile from the cider houses of the town’s main street. But the higher of the two bars is so low that an adult's knees will touch the ground even at a dead hang—a particular problem in Spain's outdoor fitness culture. Many bars, too, are sloppily tilted, and pull-up-prone tourists may often wonder just what pencil-pushing bureaucrats designed these structures. Well, the Spaniards seem to be making efforts in the right direction, anyway, but for now your best bet in Spain is to head to the soccer field or improvise on barn rafters or bridges.

A pedestrian bridge over a stream near Pamplona, in northern Spain, provides a fine workout opportunity in a country where public exercise installments are often poorly designed, undersized, old and wobbly, and simply useless. Photo by Alastair Bland.

France. They’ve given us escargot, the illustrious baguette, cheeses that smell like boot-rot and stove-top techniques like deglazing, flambéing and sautéing—but with their heads stuck in the kitchen, the French have often neglected to fit their public places with sufficient horizontal workout bars. Wonderful public parks, lush and vibrant with trees, lawns, lovers and lily ponds, usually lack exercise courts. What a shame. Thus, France—like Spain—is a nation where old buildings and doorways must often serve as pull-up structures. Just brush away the cobwebs and engage those biceps. But I’ll grant that the French, when they do install exercise bars, do it right: A number of jogging trails in small towns lead past well-built, smartly designed workout courts, with sit-up benches and parallel dip bars and rings. Great locations include the public park in the town of Condom (which features not one but two sets of pull-up bars) andjust maybe the best and most comfortable bar set in Western Europe—in Souillac, beside the equestrian park, in the shade of the trees on the bank of the Dordogne River.

Bulgaria. Many Eastern Europeans and members of the former Soviet states take their bar exercises seriously. Russians and Ukrainians often learn the ropes in high school, and their prowess as Olympic gymnasts speaks to their business-like approach to tossing their bodies about the high bars as nimbly as gibbons. Bulgaria is much the same, and in many schoolyards and parks you’ll find triple-tiered bar sets, solidly built, high enough for adults and plainly meant for real business. In Zlatograd, near the Greek border, you'll find a great set of bars by the tennis courts, beside the Varbitza River. And in the Rhodope Mountains, in the town of Sarnitsa, a workout can be had on the bars in the schoolyard. Fear not: Your knees won’t hit the ground here, and unlike nearly anywhere else in rural Europe, you just may be sharing the bar with others—poker-faced, militant men with arms like telephone poles. But they’re friendly, and if you watch closely, you might even learn a few tricks. The pullover is a popular bar exercise in former Communist states (and much easier than it looks, in fact).

Turkey. Though agrarian, traditional and conservative in many parts, Turkey has fitted its promenades and town plazas surprisingly well with exercise equipment. This consists mostly of strange stationary pedaling and rowing machines that I never have been able to make sense of, but a few levelheaded community planners have installed no-nonsense pull-up bars in their public parks. In the beautiful town of Egirdir, for example, on the shores of the lake, a set of bars stands behind some hedges. School had just let out for the day when I found these bars, and the local boys swarmed me before I was done with my first pull-up set. But time your workout on the Egirdir bars for mid-morning, and they’re all yours.

New Zealand. Finally, welcome to pull-up paradise. New Zealand’s pristine wild scenery is its prime attraction for most visitors, but it’s an added bonus that in virtually every town in the country a traveler can locate at least one horizontal bar, seven or so feet off the ground in a field of soft green grass. These may be actual pull-up bars, or they may be monkey bars of a schoolyard playground—but it makes little difference, as long as you can grip, dangle and pull up. Schoolyards are open to the public and usually left unlocked, even on weekends. “Welcome to our playground,” many gates read. Why, thank you. Open, enter and enjoy. Some pull-up friendly structures are also available in city parks and make picture-perfect sites for a workout, some cool-down stretches and a picnic lunch afterward. In Christchurch’s Hagley Park, a jogging trail leads past 17 exercise stations, including a bar set in the woods—but the bars are way too fat to grip. “Jeez—what pencil-pushing bureaucrats—” Oh, never mind. Just move on 30 yards and use the hanging rings. If you get as far south as Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland, visit Milford Sound, cast a fly for a brown trout and cap your epic day on the pull-up bars at the town high-school rugby field.

If you have any idea how to make use of these exercise machines, let us know. Courts of such pedaling and cranking gadgets can be found throughout Europe. Photo by Alastair Bland.

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