The Little Global Cities guidebooks represent a new kind of city guide, conceptualised around each featured city’s historical, cultural, and atmospheric charges. The series’ tagline is Streifzüge durch Europas Mitte (wanderings through the middle of Europe) and indeed wandering – either between or within the cities covered – is an appropriate way to couch these books. They’re not really about structured tourism. They’re about discoveries and explorations.
The Little Global Cities project is a series of guides to secondary cities across Central Europe. Seven of these cities (Osijek, Novi Sad, Sarajevo, Shkodra, Skopje, Timişoara and Ioannina) are located in the Balkans by most definitions of the region. The other cities covered are Graz, Szeged, Košice, Ushhorod, and Chişinău. The series is funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Auswärtiges Amt, Germany’s Foreign Office. The books are designed for local and visitor use. Each is trilingual, written in the dominant local language, German, and English.
I bought the Osijek guide* in preparation for my trip last month and mentioned it enthusiastically on Twitter. Kerber then contacted me and asked me if I’d like to review the latest guide in the series, on Sarajevo. And of course I did and here we are.
The Sarajevo guidebook, like others in the series, is organised quite differently than most travel guides. There are short historical essays, poems, photographs, descriptions of important sites, and a brief set of listings, to which I’ll return in a minute. These sections cohere organically but not elegantly; they feel like an unpredictable scrapbook more than anything else. The Sarajevo guidebook doesn’t pursue consistency, either, which I find refreshing.
For example, Hana Stojić cites Sarajevo’s diversity in “When I Went to Bentbaša” here:
All theoretical discourses on the possibility of multiculturalism and multi-confessionalism become pointless once you hear the ezan, a call for the Muslim prayer, merging with the sound of cathedral bells. (58)
Several pages later, Oliver Battini laments the decline of Sarajevo’s diversity in his short essay “The Enigma of Sarajevo”:
…nineteen years after the war, Bosnia’s heart is beating to a different rhythm: most of the Bosnian Croats and Serbs, as well as nearly all the Jews, have left; 80% of the population is now Muslim (compared to 50% in 1991). … Since the war, Sarajevo is no longer a melting pot of different races; it is no longer a multicultural city: the sound of church bells ringing is a reminder of a bygone age. (116)
For Stojić the ringing of the cathedral bells is proof of multiculturalism; for Battini those bells serve as a reminder of a bygone multicultural age. For what it’s worth, the impression I gathered on my last visit to Sarajevo – admittedly a good six years ago now – was of a city that continues to feel, despite some obvious segregations, both gently harmonious and pluralistic. In addition, a one-fifth minority is quite significant; to reverse the terms for a second, a European city with a Muslim minority of 20% would likely be characterised as quite multicultural on that basis alone.
Sarajevo is lots of things. It’s heartbreaking, gorgeous, magical. It's been in the news quite a bit just recently; the city was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which most historians recognise as the First World War’s trigger, and yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the assassination. And the city of course was engulfed in war much more recently than that. The Siege of Sarajevo stretched from 1992 through 1996, and its scars are everywhere. The guidebook embraces these while also highlighting other important social linkages that follow lines of affinity and sensibility, not ethnicity and religion.
I find the anti-consumerist bent of the series refreshing, though I can’t help but wish that there were a touch more guidance within their pages. Why not a recommended hotel or two – or a guesthouse network? Most of the existing “listings” within these books are culturally-driven, that is, they’re museums, locally distinctive restaurants and cafés, and businesses where goods of local provenance can be purchased. Why not extend that impulse to hotel recommendations?
But that quibble aside, I am a huge fan of these books. In a travel publishing field of trying sponsorships and confused loyalties, the Little Global Cities series stands out as remarkable in its mission to highlight historical value and cultural interest in a range of largely overlooked cities across Central Europe.
*Incidentally, the Osijek guide was quite useful. It prepared me for the city’s Viennese atmosphere – the Secessionist buildings in various states, the borderlands feel, the centrality of the river. Many other layers were also well signalled: the vast (and to me at least, appealingly modernist) neighbourhoods of Yugoslav apartment blocks behind those Secessionist buildings; the presence of the Hungarian language; buildings pockmarked by shells fired during the Battle of Osijek (1991-1992) and afterwards; and the flat landscape, which casts its own dramatic emotional resonances so different than the magic of Croatia's Adriatic coast.
Lastly, I would recommend to the Kerber crew that they put a bit more muscle into publicising these guidebooks within each city’s local media. The very plugged-in receptionist at my hotel in Osijek hadn’t heard of the Osijek guidebook. When I showed it to her she was very excited, paging through it and jotting down publication information. Ideally, the manager of a popular and well-networked guesthouse in Osijek would already have a copy of the guidebook in her library.
Cleaning up some files recently I chanced upon this little budget Bermuda piece I wrote in 2004 for a San Francisco publication; this explains the reference to the Richmond, a neighbourhood of San Francisco. That publication didn't take it – can't remember why – and I never managed to sell it, despite my best efforts. I also sent to Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel for consideration.
I like it, almost a decade after it was written. There are references to a shuttered airline, Outkast, and the oddness of US pre-clearance customs stations. I also note that I was projecting the territory's eventual independence from the UK. And that it was in Bermuda that I first ate McVitie's biscuits.
Pink Sands and Pedal Bikes: Bermuda on the Cheap
We came to Bermuda with very little money. Well, to hew more closely to precision, I came to Bermuda with very little money; my traveling partner Melissa is not quite so impoverished. But I set the budget and she became the co-guardian of it. We flew in on the third-ever commercial flight from Newark to Bermuda on USA3000, the airline that sounds like a potential title of an Outkast album. Advertised as a steal at $79 each way, the USA3000 flight cost just under $260 roundtrip once taxes and fees are taken into account. Still, $260 is a steal in comparison to the cost of an average roundtrip (around $800) from the east coast to Bermuda.
Bermuda is expensive, a state that befits a territory whose citizens enjoy high per capita incomes and whose approach to tourism has focused almost exclusively on luring rich Americans to its shores. Bermuda is synonymous with golf, sailing, and a kind of shorts celebrated in the pages of the Preppy Handbook. It’s not designed for the grubby, something Melissa and I discovered as we walked through customs only to be waved over to an inspection table for a series of perfunctory questions about the length of our stay and our touristic intentions.
It’s no surprise that wealthy Americans continue to be drawn to Bermuda. It has a genteel patina and in certain corners resembles an extremely well-heeled US suburb. Bermuda is attractive to those Americans who find antiquated fixtures of Britishness charming as opposed to forced or even embarrassing. Propriety is also highly valued on Bermuda, where strict laws and customs are somewhat behavioralist in intention. Driving a scooter while shirtless will incur police attention and there are regulations for things like appropriate dinner attire.
In actuality, Bermuda isn’t all that British. The proximity of the US and the ubiquity of American products on store shelves both make for an American feel. The Bermuda dollar is pegged one-to-one to the US dollar, and US customs even has a pre-clearance customs station at the airport, which means, oddly enough, that on your return you legally enter the US while still at the airport in Bermuda. Bermuda is only 600 miles from North Carolina, and is much closer to New York than it is to the Caribbean.
Further threatening its image as a subtropical outpost of England is the likelihood that Bermuda will become independent within the near future. You find references to independence in Bermuda’s business magazine and even in a natural history guidebook detailing Bermuda’s flora. It’s completely financially self-sustaining, with a per capita income far higher than that of the UK. The current government is led by the Progressive Labour Party, traditionally the party of black Bermudians (who make up 60% of the population) and which favors independence from Britain. There are some smaller and many much less financially secure nations; Bermuda will certainly thrive as an independent entity.
We stayed at Salt Kettle House, an informal guesthouse in Paget Parish run with doddering intensity by a woman named Hazel Lowe. Salt Kettle’s nightly per person rate, which includes breakfast, is $55. Taking tax and gratuity into account, this works out to about $65 per night per person, which in Bermuda is dirt cheap. Guests at Salt Kettle included a couple who prayed ostentatiously at the communal breakfast table and a woman from San Francisco who didn’t want to talk to us at all. But the rooms were comfy and air-conditioned, the breakfasts were ample, and the price was right. The solicitous Mrs. Lowe was full of advice and questions, clearly a good hostess.
Our problem was that we didn’t really want to be helped. We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do and pretty much knew how to do it. We rented mountain bikes and set off on half-planned journeys, centered on but not confined to the Railway Trail. Running most of the length of Bermuda, the Railway Trail is open to non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians. It passes through jungley thickets of trees and bush as well as farmland, abutting from time to time enormous estates.
We biked through residential neighborhoods, alongside a cricket match, and up and down the coast. The beaches on the south side of Warwick and Southampton Parishes became our favorites. Bermuda’s beaches are pinkish and cool to the touch even at midday. And then there’s the water off Bermuda, just a few degrees cooler than the air temperature. Swimming in such water is delicious and strange. These beaches are idyllic.
We also relied on Bermuda’s bus and ferry network to get around. We used the bus network to check out the Bermuda Botanical Gardens, Bermuda’s largest public garden, with wooded areas, greenhouses, and horticultural collections. We took the long ferry from Hamilton to colonial St. George at the far eastern edge of Bermuda. Founded in 1612 and a UNESCO World Heritage site, St. George left us a bit cold. It felt candied in comparison with the modern hum of Hamilton and the lush foliage found further west. In St. George, St. Peter’s Church is worth a visit, as are the National Trust Museum and the Bermudian Heritage Museum.
We ate well. Twice we frequented the Jamaican Grill on Court Street in Hamilton, a friendly restaurant with spicy entrees. The jerk chicken was especially gorgeous and the zesty ginger-infused fruit drinks and sweet fritters sealed the deal. More than one Bermudian warned us that Court Street was a “bad” neighborhood, but it was about as rough as a quiet commercial street in the Richmond. On a supermarket run, we discovered the genius of the chocolate-caramel McVitie’s Biscuits and Barritts ginger beer, the local soft drink. Another cheap restaurant find was Mr. Chicken, a fried chicken joint on the edge of a supermarket complex in Southampton Parish. Between dinners, our guesthouse breakfasts and supermarket jaunts we spent less than $40 per person per day on food.
Bermuda on the cheap was, in the end, not difficult to orchestrate. Though it often felt as though we were in a parallel universe of our own design, that sensation was a part of the charm of our vacation. Done right and planned cautiously, Bermuda is more than worthwhile as a budget travel destination.
From the outset, this blog has been concerned with various forms of budget travel. Over the years, however, I've drifted. Mostly this shift has had to do with my own personal situation. I have more money for travel now than I did in 2007, when I worked at EuroCheapo and was laser-focused on how to make travel as inexpensive as possible.
My heart remains attached to independent budget travel in all of its creative, dirty, and enmeshed groundedness. I believe that budget travel is where the really important experiences happen, where there are actual exchanges between people of different backgrounds, and where ingenuity generates magic.
All this might be relevant background material for the advice that follows. (And maybe not, but it's fun to reflect on one's professional development in published form, so you're stuck with it.)
Last month Matt and I spent two days at Therme Vals, the hotel and spa facility located in Vals, Switzerland. We'd wanted to visit long before we moved to London in early 2011 but work schedules, travel schedules, and the sheer expense kept us from committing to a visit. Finally we found the right time for a Vals trip and we made plans.
Vals is located in Graubünden, an officially trilingual canton in the southeast of Switzerland. The spa itself was constructed in 1996 under the direction of architect Peter Zumthor. It has been featured all over the place ever since. In 2009, Zumthor won the Pritzker Prize for Therme Vals. Without hyperbole, it is an architectural marvel. From the hillside into which it is nestled the spa facility looks like a giant undifferentiated block; inside, various constituent parts are linked to one another gently, organically. Though the material out of which the facility is built – a dark locally quarried quartzite – is terribly stark, the bathing pools and various small rooms feel warm and intimate.
Add up all the components of this facility (Switzerland, spa, remote location, star architect) and your conclusion might be that this is one pricey excursion. For most visitors it surely is. But it needn't be extremely expensive.
Here is my advice to save money at Therme Vals.
First of all, stay at the hotel. I've come across travel advice urging people not to stay at Hotel Terme Vals but rather to stay at a smaller hotel in town. I strongly disagree with this advice. To fully experience the pools in all of their extraordinary elemental beauty, it's essential to bathe during hours when the spa is more or less empty, that is, when it is restricted to hotel guests only. Don't freak out. This isn't about an aversion to the masses. It's about the space itself.
When we arrived on Saturday afternoon and made our way to the pools they were full. Towels and bathrobes hung on railings. It was impossible to perch along the edges of the outdoor pool because every spot was taken. It was exciting to be in the space but it wasn't magical, and it was impossible to appreciate the beauty of the space itself.
But the next morning, circling between the outdoor pool, the "firebath" and the "icebath," I was able to feel the space I was in, appreciate its stillness and vastness. That hour was easily the most rewarding period of the stay. Note also that access to the pools between 7 am and 11 am is reserved for hotel guests; on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights hotel guests also have access to the pools between 11 pm and 12:30 am.
Book the least expensive rooms in the hotel, located in the ancillary buidlings. These start at 107 CHF per person in a double and at 127 CHF in a single. The rate includes a wonderful breakfast buffet.
If you're a late riser, scratch this advice and book a midweek stay at Hotel Schnyder down the hill on a Wednesday night. On Wednesday nights Therme Vals baths are open to Hotel Schnyder's guests. Rooms start at 68 CHF for a single and 116 CHF for a double (58 CHF per person). The cheapest group rate is 248 CHF for four (62 CHF per person.)
My second piece of advice is not to book half-board, and this despite the kitchen's strong standard. Make your way down the hill to Hotel Schnyder and order the capuns, a regional dish that should stick to your ribs. Dinner for two can easily be had here for 50 CHF, which is far less than you'll spend for dinner at Hotel Therme Vals.
Note that Therme Vals will be closed from the end of March through the end of July. Here's hoping rates won't balloon after its reopening.
Again, it was a weird year. But I had some fun listening to music in 2013. Some of these songs were released prior to 2013, to be fully forthcoming. As always, this list is pure pop, and not exactly packed with underground energies. You will note, however, the return of Modern Talking in Martin Rolinski. And see the effects of my first real exposure to Turkish pop music in Meyra and Soner Sarıkabadayı. Under-the-radar tip: Chilean act quieroStar's beautiful "Mujer soltera."
1. Elevate – St. Lucia
2. Disparate youth – Santigold
3. Tennis court – Lorde
4. Happy – Pharrell Williams
5. My name is Stain – Shaka Ponk
6. Heartless – A*M*E [Fear of Tigers Futurepop remix]
7. Running to the sea – Röyksopp & Susanne Sundfør
8. Mujer soltera – quieroStar
9. Triggerfinger – Donkeyboy
10. Trouble – Neon Jungle
11. In and out of love – Martin Rolinski
12. Locked out of heaven – Bruno Mars
13. Fotokopi – Meyra
14. Applause – Lady Gaga
15. Copacabanana – Sean Banan
16. We can’t stop – Miley Cyrus
17. I was a fool – Tegan and Sara
18. Feel this moment – Pitbull ft. Christina Aguilera
19. Glorious – Cascada
20. Safe and sound – Capital Cities
21. Get lucky – Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams
22. Pompeii – Bastille
23. Kutsal Toprak – Soner Sarıkabadayı
24. Lanzarote – Lindstrøm & Todd Terje
25. Ancora Qui – Elisa Toffoli
I lost my father in early January. I miss him terribly, and 2013 will go down as my most difficult year ever. In the background, I've begun to write a little bit about his life and his death. These pieces of writing have been moving along very slowly. In time I hope I'll be ready to look for places to publish them.
But here and now I want to write about some travel media bright spots in 2013. I'm going abstract and moody here because I literally lost track of business developments over the past 12 months. I'll catch up this coming year, I swear.
1. Candace Rose Rardon’s sketches.
I can’t figure out what I love most about Rardon’s watercolor sketches. They’re beautiful, obviously, but I think what's really interesting about them is how they fit into digital media, not idle drawing books or dusty published picturebooks. (Note that you can buy Rardon’s watercolors in book form as well; I have only encountered them online.) Rardon has taken a classic medium and made it, somewhat improbably, seem as exciting and of the moment as Instagram.
2. The durability of inspiration, however nebulous.
What bits of the travel media inspired me in 2013? AFAR and Wanderlust got me, as did Sunset. I love the travel section of the German newspaper taz for its publicity machine-resistant destination pieces, including this article on Melilla. And I find Hejorama's archive personally inspiring – its collegial spirit is inviting, despite the absence of new content of late. Pinterest is possibly the best site for getting people to think about travel in abstract ways, organised around themes or objects of beauty. Instagram, homespun and awkward, does the same, though less seamlessly. Possibly most successful here is Fathom, to which I’ve contributed, in large part because it publishes quirky and tactile articles that inspire in their originality.
John O'Nolan wrote a very good piece in October about the challenges faced by inspiration-rooted travel start-ups. His argument is tight and I'm not really contesting it. Still, there is a hunger for inspiration – among armchair travelers and contemporary hardcore nomad travellers alike – and, it seems to me, a range of ways to deliver it.
3. Maturation of approaches to social media among travel businesses.
Lastminute.com's spontaneity champion gig is probably the best of these: a year of spontaneous adventures for its winner, with a budget of £50,000. Saga Travel's 50 at 50 initiative was also refreshing, as it extended a sense of excitement to a 50 year-old travel writer on a 50-day round-the-world journey. I wish more companies would think along these lines, and not just because I'd like to compete for the right prize at some point. This is social media being exciting, extending its reach to a broad audience. From a marketing perspective, it strikes me as a relatively cheap way to advertise a product.
4. Editor's letters in Condé Nast Traveller.
Melinda Stevens writes the best editor's letters around. Sometimes they're about things that appear at the outset to have nothing whatsoever to do with travel. They're often panic-stricken and chaotic, saturated in mild, entertaining drama. Things fall apart. Objects get dropped. Huge cocktails are ordered. One paragraph this autumn flirted with science fiction. Sometimes her letters are about the power of travel to force people to slow down. Sometimes they're about a moment of being in love with a friend or her daughters. I don't always buy the magazine but I never miss an editor's letter.
5. New travel networks, routes, and markets.
Every now and then, say in a review of the route maps of Turkish Airlines or Qatar Airways, it becomes possible to glimpse various futures of tourism. Today's business routes may be tomorrow's tourist routes. More certain than that is the likelihood that the number of countries with decent tourist infrastructures will continue to grow. It's not that 2013 marked any specific turning point on this front. It's more that it's clearer than ever that travel markets are widening. I find this very exciting.
I visited North Cyprus two weeks ago. It was pretty great. I spent most of my time in and around Dipkarpaz (Rizokarpaso), trying to soak up a sense of the place. Dipkarpaz is unusual for North Cyprus in that it still has a small Greek population, and there are various community institutions – a functioning church and a coffeehouse – and the occasional bit of Greek signage here and there. Every now and then I heard a few words of Greek fill the air.
I walked and walked, swam in the cool, clear Mediterranean, and ate simple, delicious food. The tourists were mostly from Germany with a subset of British visitors (many of whom were military, stationed south of the Green Line; others part-time residents of Cyprus), and a smattering of Dutch, mainland Turks, and daytripping Greek Cypriots.
I loved the quiet isolation of Karpaz. People were open and talkative and prices were low. The peninsula has seen some development, but relatively speaking very little; the casinos popping up across North Cyprus are thus far absent from this corner of the island.
The Bradt, otherwise excellent, has only the vaguest information about taking the bus across North Cyprus. There is mention of some major bus and dolmuş routes and a general recommendation, phrased strongly, to rent a car. The impression the book gives is that transportation is slow, cumbersome, and unscheduled. But while it isn't whippet-fast, bus transportation is in fact neither cumbersome nor unscheduled. And if you're not in a hurry and don't want to rent a car, it provides a great way to travel down the peninsula.
Here's how you do it if you're coming from the southern part of Nicosia, as I was. Cross the border by foot at Ledra Street and walk along Locmali. Pass the lovely Rüstem's Bookshop and the Venetian column roundabout and continue along Girne Caddesi to exit the walled city at Girne (Kyrenia) Gate. Turn to the right and follow Cemel Gürsel for a short distance. Take the first right. Almost immediately there will be a fork in the road. Take the left fork, Kaymakli Yolu. The Itimat bus station for Gazimağusa is one block down, on the right.
If you're really smooth, you can simply wait just to the right of the Kyrenia Gate and flag down an Itimat bus with a "Mağusa" sign in its front window. Confirm destination with the driver, and keep in mind that the ğ in Mağusa is silent.
Buses leave every 30 minutes starting at 7 am. The bus to Gazimağusa takes about an hour. It is not really a bus, rather a dolmuş, which is like a big van. Passengers are picked up along the way and soon every seat is occupied. I took the 10:30 am bus and got into Gazimağusa at 11:30.
Passengers are let out at the Itimat station adjacent to the Martyrs' Memorial roundabout just outside the city walls. To catch a bus with service on to the Karpaz Peninsula, walk away from the walled city maybe 700 meters along Gazi Mustafa Kemal Bulvari. The main bus terminal will be on your left.
It's a proper bus from Gazimağusa on to Dipkarpaz, with bigger seats and the added benefit of a Turkish pop music soundtrack. The bus doubles as a school bus, and takes a big load of students back to the peninsula from Gazimağusa. It is about an hour and forty minutes to Dipkarpaz. There is a bus at 1 pm heading eastward to Dipkarpaz on weekdays. I'm not sure if it runs on weekends.
The dolmuş from Lefkosia to Gazimağusa costs 8 lira. The bus from Gazimağusa to Dipkarpaz costs 10 lira.
I don't wish to be unkind but this will go down as one of the more random and unhelpful solicitations I've received in some time. Subjects and identities concealed.
I'm writing to let you know that we recently posted an article titled X at Y, that I’m sure will be a perfect match to the content of your blog. It would be great if you could share it with your blog’s visitors and followers.
Thanks again for sparing your valuable time!
Needless to say, it wasn't.
I seem to be on a roll today.
But travel bloggers also have huge problems with each other. These problems range from things that are really quite minor to deeper issues that turn on differences in philosophy and values.
What’s interesting about this will to distinguish is how exercised people get about it. We are a small group of people and we are incredibly keen to differentiate ourselves from one another. It is as if we decided as a group to provide a test illustration of Freud’s concept of the narcissism of small differences. We put inordinate effort into drawing internal distinctions.
I think that this will to differentiate is a good thing. Why shouldn’t we differentiate ourselves from one another? That instinct keeps us buzzing and provides a range of healthy challenges.
What’s not good is the descent of differentiation into sniping. In addition to being parochial, sniping is usually misguided. Simply living your travel philosophy in your work, knowing that not everyone will like your voice or your shtick, is a far better, far more useful approach.
Here are a few examples of internal conflicts that particularly vex travel bloggers.
1. Media support, an issue particularly problematic in the US. Think media support inserts bias? Write about your unsupported trips. Better yet, write about how you fund them. Are you spending your own money? Is a publication supporting you? Do you have sponsorship of any kind? This may be a side point, but wouldn’t it be great if we could start to answer the mystery of funding?
2. Junkets and group blogger trips. Think group junkets aren’t a good way to experience a particular location? Write about why you feel the way that you do in an abstract way. Don’t attack people who do things differently. Show why you believe what you believe.
3. Gossip on Twitter. This one is simple, stupidly so. If you don’t like gossip on Twitter, don’t engage in it.
4. The Depth/Breadth divide. Think it’s better to develop a deep expertise on a place or region rather than a more catholic interest in every place under the sun? Let that conviction guide your work. Show everyone how your approach marks a better way to do things – don’t bully others. The same goes for the opposing position, obviously.
5. Quality concerns. Think that most bloggers add little value to travel media? Keep it to yourself. Write better, think better, research better – and work harder to make your words more compelling.
I believe, possibly naively and certainly against the exigencies of this moment, that good writing will win in the end. So stop yr grandstanding and write better stuff. Now.