Category Archives: Travel Advice

Greece–To Go or Not To Go?

Lately I’ve been asked if the current turmoil in Greece will ruin their impending trip to this beautiful and historic place. They ask, “Will I be safe?” “Will the whole country collapse, leaving me stranded in a foreign place?” They’re contemplating changing their destination. So, if you’re in that boat, I say: Don’t worry. Here’s my advice:

First, the Bad News:

-Historical/cultural sites may run on shorter schedules due to inability to pay the staff because of budget cutbacks. This could affect your sightseeing plans drastically.

-Small, family-run restaurants and hotels could go under due to local business dropping off in the wake of inflation and instability. If you have a favorite little seafood restaurant or waterfront café, don’t count on it still being open.

-Transport troubles: The bad news: There will likely be interruptions of public transport because of budget cutbacks and strikes. No major deal for most Greeks, but if you’re on a tight itinerary, you may experience some logistical headaches. The good news is that since many transport services are privately owned and cater to tourists, they will be happy to serve their customers.

-Don’t count on ATM’s or even credit cards in Greece right now. Bring cash and play it safe. Stash it in your money belt, especially in a crowded place or in a city (see below).

Now, the Good News:

-Despite the social and economic turmoil the country is about to go through, security should not be an issue. The Greeks will be angry at the Germans, the bankers, and their own inept leaders, not tourists wishing to spend money there. Use a money belt if you’re in a city or some other crowded place to guard against pickpockets and you should be fine. Athens will see some unrest, but these events will be isolated and blown out of proportion in the media. In the country, things will be mellow no matter what’s happening in the city.

-Tourism is Greece’s main industry and its biggest employer, so local businesses will likely be thrilled to see you spending some money (stable currency) with them.

-Inflation may soon rise to Weimar-esque levels, leading to much misery for the average Greek, but the US dollar or the Euro, both stable currencies, will go very far. The tourist will get great value.

-Goods might be in short supply in local shops, given inflationary fears and transport strikes. But the larger stores and (and especially hotels) will be fine.

-The severity of the coming economic misery in Greece will largely depend on how the EU handles the issue in the next couple of weeks. Most likely Greece will be made to exit the Euro in a breakup that will make Henry VIII’s divorces look amicable.

Regardless, private transport operators will continue to operate, stable currency will be very widely accepted (making the tourist the real winner in this mess), and the country will still be gorgeous.

Bottom line: It’s a good time to be a traveler, a very bad time to be a Greek. Go and make some memories there and remember, the best souvenirs are always the connections you make with the locals.

Finding New Perspectives on Familiar Places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Go deeper; don't settle for the surface.
Go deeper; don’t settle for the surface.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941
The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind was the hero who smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his activities were discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

Tour Guiding

Originally published on Vagablogging. Direct link here.

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

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Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind.

It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too.

But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.
I adore this French village in Alsace region.

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.

The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.

So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.

 

An airline you might want to think twice about

We’ve all heard horror stories from our friends—and have many of our own—about certain airline experiences. With the sheer volume of flights scheduled around the world on any given day, it is a statistical certainty that there will be the occasion snafu, and sometimes it’s your flight’s turn to have the bad day, and sometimes it isn’t. So, generally wise to not let one friend’s horror story or isolated incident inform your opinion of an airline.

Let me off here.
Let me off here.

That’s what I thought when I head of a friend’s troubles with Air Berlin the other day. Living in Copenhagen, she was scheduled to fly to Miami for a short vacation to see family. Due to an epic screw-up on the airline’s part, she has found that the soonest she could reach her destination would be in two days, thus destroying her much-anticipated visit. This was compounded by the fact that they were reportedly rude and unhelpful. She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt—until I read this: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/09/air_berlin_lost_luggage_the_german_airline_melts_down_on_social_media.html

When a major magazine runs a story about an airline’s slow-motion meltdown and includes the line, “Germany’s second-largest airline has become a mesmerizing spectacle of shaming and apology” in the first paragraph, there is definitely grounds for warning my fellow travelers to think twice before booking.

Has It All Been Done?

Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for an article. Specifically ideas for a Western European locale of historic importance that hadn’t been covered too widely. Not an easy task, it turns out. While scouring the map the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.

The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was always really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”

“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.

“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”

Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.

And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.

Scars from Scotland and Bills from Budapest

A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the moment that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.

For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”

All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.

Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks pretty cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.

Beautiful Little Beaune, the Heart of Burgundy

The picturesque little city of Beaune, nestled in the fertile green vineyards of Burgundy, is a handy home base for exploring the region. While the surrounding area holds tiny hamlets and ruined abbeys, I’ve found Beaune to be a good option when in need of a historic place to stop, wander, and spend a few nights between forays into the countryside. It just feels comfortable. But even if you’re just passing through, it’s worth a wander in and of itself.

Pulling into town you’ll see signs for the Hotel Dieux, but don’t show up with your luggage and try to check in. The stunning six hundred-year-old building is not a hotel at all; it’s a medieval charity hospital. A wealthy local funded the construction in the wake of the plagues that ravaged Europe in the fifteenth century. Entire families were killed off, and many of the region’s surviving inhabitants were left destitute.

Notice the intriguing woodwork patterns in the Gothic structure; it remains in incredibly good condition. There are several well-preserved rooms that offer a glimpse into how the medieval sick were cared for in a prosperous town. There is also some priceless art work and an interesting exhibit on its former life. Many of the area’s poor residents checked in; few checked out.

It’s hard to appreciate Beaune’s history and culture without appreciating the role of its wine trade. As Burgundy rivals Bordeaux in terms of production of top-quality wine, there is of course plenty of good wine to be had in and around town. The Museum of the Wine of Burgundy is a requisite stop, boasting a model of the medieval town and exhibits on the town’s long and varied history. It’s a good opportunity to understand why the vino trade was so much a part of the region’s heritage. After all, wine was the lifeblood of the city’s prosperity. It paid for the elegant medieval homes and churches surrounding you and the cobbles under your feet.

No French town would be complete without an ancient church, and the seven hundred-year-old Collégiale Notre Dame fills the bill beautifully with exquisite stained glass windows. I’ve always found old churches to be ideal spaces for escaping crowds, late afternoon heat, and the rush of modernity. Take the opportunity to sit down in the Romanesque landmark and contemplate as the sunlight filters through the colorful stained glass, causing a kaleidoscope to dance on the soaring stone columns.

If you’re in town on a Wednesday or Saturday, enjoy the colorful market happening on the place Carnot, just as it has for centuries. It’s hard to miss—most of the Beaune’s roads lead to it.

After a fine dinner and a restful night’s sleep, venture into the country lanes again, maybe heading to picture-perfect Château de la Rochepot, historic Cluny Abbey, or just joyriding past sleepy, I-could-retire-here villages that have no name. Beaune is well-situated at the intersection of some of the area’s main roads, so with a car and a good map you’ll be able to get out of town and amongst the vineyards in no time (just don’t get stuck on the ring road).

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the neighborhood, consider exploring this fun little city in the heart of Burgundy.

The Royal Geographical Society: Still a treasure in its third century

Located in a classy but nondescript building in the Kensington neighborhood of London, the Royal Geographical Society is not your normal tourist attraction—but it should hold a special place in every traveler’s heart. Founded in 1830 as a dinner club hosting lectures from hearty travelers, the Society (or RGS as it’s often called) became a world-class institution for the advancement of knowledge about the planet.

With generous endowments, the RGS evolved into a training hub and planning headquarters for several famous Victorian and Edwardian explorers such as Livingstone, Darwin, Shackleton and Burton. They and other like-minded adventurers—all partially financed, trained by and associated with the RGS—mapped rivers in Africa, measured mountains in Asia, reached the North and South poles, discovered islands in the South Pacific, and carried out zoological studies everywhere. The official creed of the RGS was that no corner of the planet was too remote, too obscure, or too dangerous.

The rich heritage of the RGS earned it a role in my new novel, “Dangerous Latitudes”, about an adventurous travel writer on an extraordinary expedition. As the lead character Matthew Hunt explains to a colleague, “The RGS was the NASA of its time, training explorers and then sending them off on expeditions to learn about the world and return with new insights. Think Dr. Livingston and Darwin. Guys like that were the astronauts to the RGS’ NASA. And the places they went seemed just as remote to them as other worlds seem to us.”

The explorers who survived their journeys brought back amazing tales of new lands, new cultures, and new ways of looking at the world. The well-maintained RGS archives are an array of sextants, telescopes, compasses, charts and diaries comprising a breathtaking chronicle of human exploration—and almost all of them were from expeditions done when the telegraph was new, and airplanes and antibiotics were still just a dream.

Today the RGS promotes research and education as it transitions into the new millennium, and its archives are considered a treasure to historians and scientists alike. The next time you’re in London, get off at the South Kensington tube stop and drop by their headquarters (near Royal Albert Hall) to peruse the collections of hand-scrawled maps, drawings, and field notes made by the astronauts of another era.

I dare you not to be inspired.

Historical Plays Coming To A Battlefield Near You

There seems to be an interesting trend starting in the theatre world, one which has history lovers and travel addicts like me very, very intrigued.

Theatrical companies are facing declining audiences as many now flock to the more realistic experiences of the modern digitally-enhanced blockbuster, and they have been forced to get creative in their choice of staging. This has prompted some to do away with the stage altogether; catering to people’s interest in a more, shall we say, “immersive” theatre experience. As a result, some highly respected British drama companies are beginning to hold performances of historically-based plays on the very sites where those stories actually took place.

The latest—and largest—to follow this new trend is none other than Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The revered drama company recently announced plans to spend its new season performing the Bard’s three Henry VI plays, which cover the tumultuous and violent reign of Henry VI and the medieval War of the Roses, on the sites where the plays’ historic battles took place. The drenched-in-history surroundings of Tewkesbury, St Albans, Barnet, and Towton (no, NOT Downton) will see productions of the classic works set where the fifteenth-century king and his knights duked it out with his rivals for the crown.

A similar performance was also held at the Bosworth battlefield in a production of Shakespeare’s epic Richard III, the main character of which has recently gained new fame after his remains were unearthed in a car park near the site of his death in combat. Across the Channel, a performance of Henry V—famous for his victory over the French and his “Band of Brothers” speech riling up his hopelessly outnumbered troops—will take place in Agincourt, the site of his unlikely triumph.

So, if you find yourself near any of these historic and serene locales this year, you might just be able to experience a world-class performance of a historic play—on the soil upon which it all happened.

Suddenly, a night at the theatre doesn’t sound so boring, does it?