Category Archives: EUROPE

In Belgium: the Ever-alluring Town called Bruges

bruges
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Andrew Hickey, a.k.a The Brooklyn Nomad, is into “Movies That Make You Want To Travel,” and he finds that In Bruges is one such movie. Along with the Matador site, where we found this, Hickey’s travel writing has been published by USA Today and The New York Times, among many others. Here, he unleashes his inner Siskel&Ebert, with an appreciation of a number of movies, based on their alluring backdrops. He names the feature films that made him want to visit Barcelona, Las Vegas, Tuscany, Provence, London, Dublin, Tokyo, and more. So anyway, back to Bruges. Hickey says:

If you can not have a good time in Belgium then something is seriously wrong with you. A place that is known for some of the best chocolate and beer on the planet? Perfect!

Ah yes, the chocolate. It’s said that one of the best places to find it is in the city’s famous Christmas Markets. The staff of Travelbite gives us the locations of Belgium’s four chocolate museums — one in Bruges, of course — along with some fascinating history. Examiner Susan Fogwell delineates the attractions of Belgian confections in what amounts to a lyrical piece of choco-porn. (You must be over 18 to view the page.) The author is a flight attendant and, naturally, a farflung traveler.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin calls this one of the most beautiful little cities in northern Europe, and recommends taking a carriage ride. We hear that the canal boat rides aren’t bad, either. Legend says a German general who was ordered to destroy Bruges in WWII refused to. Now there’s a war hero. Anyway, it’s one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and, some say, a little too well supplied with tourists. Well, how would they know, unless they were tourists, too? Hmmmm?

Kevin’s memoir of Bruges is titled “Les frites de la liberté,” which means Freedom Fries, and that’s what it’s mainly about. In this neck of the woods, the claim to fame made by frites is that they are served with more condiments than you’ve ever heard of.

But wait, there’s more, and no, we’re not talking about beer, although the brews of Belgium are well worth talking about. A traveler known as Velo Swiss says, “Bruges is also known for a soothing tonic called Leffe, which did take the edge off a long day.”

Bonus question: On your desert island, if you could have only one Belgian treat, would it be chocolate, beer, or fried potatoes?

photo courtesy of by Wolfgang Staudt, used under this Creative Commons license

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Extreme Travel: Gypsies and Rubber Tramps

hippie vanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What does a scaler of Everest have in common with a guy sitting on a piece of driftwood on the Oregon shore who hasn’t climbed ten feet above sea level for years? They’re both extreme travelers.

For a lot of people, “extreme” doesn’t necessarily mean going to a remote place, or performing impressive physical deeds, or even seeking a particular kind of thrill. For some, travel is not an occasional luxury, or even a periodic obligation, but a way of life. The “extreme” part is the unending duration of it, and the danger that isn’t sought but that comes anyway.

America has its share of eternally restless wanderers who make their homes in old buses, vans, and even cars. Sooner or later, most of them pass through Venice, California. This piece looks at a few of them, who were featured in Rubber Tramps, a documentary directed by Max Koetter and produced by Kenny Rosen. The film crew started in Venice and worked its way up the California coastline to Oregon, interviewing and immortalizing a fascinating array of road folks such as these:

Ceramic artist Patty has run afoul of the rules governing sales on the boardwalk…During the filming of Rubber Tramps, Patty’s home on wheels was destroyed by fire, and the filmmakers gave her one of their buses. RomTom has spent plenty of time in Venice during his travels, and wrote a good portion of his book Comporting Roadwise in a local cafe.

For a fuller look at the “cast,” the film’s MySpace page shows the whole spectrum: the Vietnam veteran and his son; the Deadhead; the schizophrenic; the Greyhound employee; the aging black bluesman; the various troubadours and philosophers whose words and lives make this such an inspiring chronicle of alternative lifestyles. The film is stitched together with segments of a Ken Kesey interview, as the grand old man tromps around his Oregon farm. It was the last major film project of Kesey’s life. There’s even some antique footage of beat icon Neal Cassady driving the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Furthur.

The ability to be at home anywhere is, nowadays, an extreme life skill. But it used to be the only game in town, back when there was no town. Our roaming hunter-gatherer ancestors knew how to make the whole world their comfort zone. It’s genetic, mostly dormant, but still active in the true Gypsies. The Romany people have been persecuted for centuries, forced into urban ghettos to put an end to their roving, and then persecuted some more. In Europe and the United Kingdom they’re marginalized, and even tolerant Canada is undergoing a wave of Romophobia. In the Czech Republic alone, there have been at least 35 racially motivated murders of Gypsies in the past 20 years. In The Star, Rosie Dimanno, who writes prolifically about the world political scene, provides a summary of the current situation.

At the end of July, 150 Romanian gypsies showed up in Prague because a 17-year-old said to be the “prince” was in the hospital and not expected to live. (It should be noted that one of the gypsy secrets, revealed by a trustworthy source, is that there’s no such thing as Gypsy royalty, it’s just public relations BS to fool the gajos.) They camped someplace, and there were no problems. Then, the public health officials got involved, because to cook out in the open is unsanitary. The Gypsies camped someplace else, but got kicked out of there because it’s a natural heritage site. Then they camped somewhere else…

Well, the young man died. The Gypsies didn’t have enough money to transport the body back to Romania. Not even a third of it. So they hit up the Prague city fathers and the Romanian embassy, which said it would let them know in a couple of weeks. At another campground, the city declined to provide the Gypsies with portable toilets or tanks of drinking water. They might like it too much and decide to stay. They are the archetypal NIMBY triggers. (Somewhat like halfway houses, recycling plants, and various other things that are recognized as good, but to which the average urban dweller is likely to object, saying “not in my back yard.”) Civilized people think the Rom should just get over themselves and settle down. But in some other back yard.

photo courtesy of Dennis Wong , used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing as Symptom

scarred buildingBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

There’s a very special kind of travel writing that involves risking your life, if you’re any good. To do it, you have to go put yourself in the middle of somebody else’s bloody conflict. Nobody, for instance, wrote about Greece like Orianna Fallaci.

One of the grittiest war correspondents is Anthony Loyd, who lately has been reporting from Sangin, Afghanistan, on the sad mess that’s still going on over there. In The Times (UK), he describes the low voter turnout in the recent election as a win for the wrong side. It’s actually pretty harrowing. As a matter of bureaucratic convenience, the fingers of voters are marked with ink, so the citizens can’t sneak back and vote again. Apparently, the Taleban promised to chop off any ink-stained fingers, and they probably wouldn’t stop there. Loyd says:

By the time polls closed and the final echoes of air strikes, artillery and gunfire died away, barely 500 Afghans had managed to vote in a district of 70,000 people, a number signifying victory for the Taleban’s power of fear and intimidation.

Loyd also tells us what the British soldiers write about their prime minister on the latrine walls, and many other details essential to creating a sense of place. Which he surely managed to do when describing Bosnia and other wars he ranges over the globe to experience. Loyd started as a photographer, but found that pictures couldn’t express what he wanted to say. He has written for all kinds of major publications, and his articles draw out serious, informed discussion. Unlike some war correspondents whose contributions range from ineffectual to ridiculous, Loyd is respected by the blokes who are actually fighting the war. And hated by the politicians, as Tory Rascal illustrates with an anecdote.

The thing about Loyd is that he wrote this hellaciously intense book called My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about his heroin habit, and how being in a war zone is the only thing that cures it. The scary part is that by the time you get done reading it, you see exactly what he means by “I feel sane as anything in war… It is peace I have got the problem with.”

Of course, Loyd isn’t the only writer whose dedication is tinged with what might be seen, in some circles, as pathology. There’s always Sebastian Junger. There’s a great publisher called Travelers’ Tales, and one of their books is Testosterone Planet, an anthology of essays by people who go to great lengths and travel great distances to do extreme feats. Junger also put in his Sarajevo time, which is described in “The Lure of Danger.”

Ultimately, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that here is a person who simply thrives on crisis. He is unnaturally good at it — good at finding it, surviving it, swallowing it whole. He interviews others who feel the same way, like a guy named Brown who says, “I’ve always reacted well under intense insane circumstances.” He quotes a friend who places the thrill of battle on a chemical basis, a drug in fact, that gets you “completely amped.” Junger says the high comes from dopamine, a chemical the brain is swimming in after a terrifying encounter with mortality.

Junger issues a disclaimer, warning potential imitators that “the most dangerous circumstances don’t always produce the greatest epiphanies.” This is something you don’t usually find adventure-crazed men admitting. But he too missed his war, saying:

All I wanted was to go back to that strange city where everything I did seemed big and important and was, potentially, the last act of my life.

Scarred building photo courtesy of MuntyPix , used under this Creative Commons license

Taxis of the World: Know Them

taxi from Suvarnabhumi AirportBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

The taxi business seems to be one of those areas of modern life that naturally sorts itself into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The common cab is often a traveler’s first introduction to a new place, and more countries seem to be realizing the importance of that first impression. At the very least, you expect the driver, like the doctor, to “First, do no harm.” With luck, the driver will also know where he or she is going. It helps if they’re friendly, too – or at least minimally surly. You don’t want a driver to turn you down because it’s not enough of a fare to bother with. Sian Powell (who writes for The Australian, mostly about Thai politics and government) reports on the state of taxicabbery in the Chinatown of Singapore, where the meek are not blessed. Rather than tell the driver a destination and risk being spurned, Powell recommends the assertive approach:

I prefer to plump myself in and let the driver argue about it later. That way I have the upper hand, although it is true that I have been forced to retreat many times, when the taxi driver flatly refuses to go where I want to go, and I have to get out in a huff.

Powell evokes the dismal vision of 30 wet pedestrians queued up at a taxi stand. It’s very hard to catch a ride in the rain, because the liability costs for even the smallest accidents are too high for the owners to risk. And of course, in the rain is when you need a cab the most.

Kampala, Uganda, sounds like an absolute purgatory, according to Roger de Budo. Foreign tourists are shocked by the murky clouds of stinky exhaust gases, and the noise! He says the taxis “advertise their services not with a single sharp blast of their horns but with something like five or six long blasts every 200 metres.”

The pseudonymous “bfick,” who took the picture on this page, says,

When a car is purchased new, used or passed onto the next owner in Thailand, it’s common for a Monk to bless the car and the new owners; hence the markings on this taxi driver’s roof for good luck.

Which is all very lovely, but Thailand is also a battleground, say Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison of Phuketwan. “Black-plate” taxis are a very big problem, which instigated a crackdown, and led to an airport blockade and other unpleasant events. Apparently it’s been a pretty much constant battle between airport scam artists and the government, with some dramatic acting-out. And many miles away, in the dignified, ancient capital of the Czech Republic, taxi drivers and police recently had a street brawl, we learn from Dinah Spritzer in The New York Times. And that’s only the latest incident in an animosity at least two decades old. The trouble is the city authorities established the rates, and drivers charge two or three times the set amount. A couple of years ago, the mayor went out disguised as an Italian tourist and was charged five times the going rate. Things are better now, but the tourist must do his or her part, and here are the suggested tactics for transportational survival in Prague: get the concierge to call a reputable taxi for you, or you yourself can text-message the legit firms, and make arrangements. When you’re out and about, catch a cab only at the designated taxi stands. The whole industry is always infected with politics. In an Australian city, there’s trouble because foreign students are allowed taxi-driving licenses while native Queenslanders of the same age are not.

London, England, was recently voted Taxi Paradise of the World, so the British reputation for politeness is accurate. Also quite costly. A polite society is an expensive society, apparently. Maybe London cabbies are so cheery because they are now driving something cooler than those old, clunky black things. We learn this from Cathy Smith, author of Write and Sell Travel Articles, who has been at this game for over twenty years and who also provides a history of the word “taxicab” and the notion that the government took over control of this form of transportation because the drivers, historically, engaged in competition too vigorous for the public health and safety.

Harmeet Shah Singh, who writes regularly for CNN International, tells us that the upcoming Commonwealth Games have inspired Indian authorities to bring the auto-rickshaw industry to new heights of visitor-friendly attitude and service. A number of avenues for complaint are reported to be already in place, and soon, government-sponsored English classes will help auto-rickshaw drivers cope with an expected 100,000 tourists in October of next year. 40,000 vehicles are involved, which seems to imply more than 40,000 drivers, because why let a perfectly good vehicle sit idle for part of the day when a brother or cousin could be out there making money with it? Anyway, a reported 8,000 drivers are said to be booked for schooling in not only English, but first aid and life skills. And yoga.

First, it seems like anyone who ekes out a living as an auto-rickshaw driver in India must already possess an abundance of life skills. Second, doesn’t almost everyone in India speak some English already? There’s a bigger proportion of English speakers in India than there are India speakers in the West, you can bet your bottom rupee. Anyhow, the term “psychometric tests” is mentioned, which hints that New Delhi undertakes to guarantee the sanity of its cab drivers, always a sound practice in any metropolis.

This summer, news came from Tehran that tourism taxi service will be given a new look — orange — though the make of car was not quite chosen yet. But the Iranian drivers (who are, through a quirk of bureaucracy, overseen by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization) are also scheduled to learn English. Fluently.

Is the ubiquity of English a monstrous plot of cultural imperialism? Or is it what Esperanto should have been, a giant step toward a warm fuzzy world where everyone communicates and understands each other? On the other hand, doesn’t a lot of conflict originate between parties who understand each other all too well?

photo courtesy of bfick, used under this Creative Commons license

Corsica, France: Wild, Splendid and Retro

corsicaBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Sure, a lot of the places mentioned in Kevin Dolgin’s book haven’t been covered yet in these pages. On the other hand, Corsica is his real-life Utopia, so why not have another go at the magical island? Especially with the words of George Semler to inspire us. In the pointedly titled “Wild France,” a piece found at Saveur, he praises all that makes Corsica less civilized but more civil than the places people escape to it from. On a good day, from the right spot, you can maybe see the mainland, and that’s how the Corsicans like it. Semler is a professional appreciator of food, who says:

The Corsican specialties that I had been dreaming of since my last visit…get their unmistakable character from the maquis. The scrub also provides ideal grazing for game as well as for free-range pigs, cows, sheep, and goats-all of which forage at their leisure, resulting in especially aromatic and flavorful meats and milks.

According to Semler’s bio, he arrived in Madrid in 1970 from Vietnam, where he’d been an officer in the Marines. He’s published two books about Spain and written about a remarkable variety of subjects. Here, he talks a lot about the maquis, the mixed thatch of fragrant shrubs and herbs that covers much of the land — potpourri on the hoof, some would say — and permeates the fantasies of natives and visitors alike. The vegetation is so fierce thanks to mountain peaks that scrape the rain right out of the clouds.

He visits the wonderfully named Fromagerie Casanova, an establishment where cheese, and we would never have guessed this, is made by shepherds. And reveals more than some might wish to know about a cheese called casgiu merzu. He gives the historical reasons why the Corsicans, strangely for an island people, are not very much into fish. But “chestnuts are another story,” and he details the process for making pulenda, which sounds strenuous. And don’t get him started on Corsican wines. Or rather, do. This stuff is fascinating.

“Corsica is the third wine-producing island in the Mediterranean,” we are told by Marcel Michelson, who has been with Reuters since 1986 and is now Chief Correspondent. Which is why there could be trouble ahead for the island’s vintners, a dire possibility which is explained here in great detail. In The Telegraph, veteran travel writer Sasha Bates follows the Strada degli Artigiani, Artisans’ Route, which sounds like the most fabulous open studio tour of all time. There’s also, inevitably, a wine route.

corsica-erbalungaThere are aspects upon which we have not yet touched. For instance, did you know that Corsica is the home of many nudist colonies, such as Chiappa? Everybody knows Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, but few realize that the mythical character Ulysses lost many of his ships to malicious destruction, and his crew to cannibals, at Bonifacio. Did you know that in 1941, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., made a movie called The Corsican Brothers? Or that there’s a 6,000-year-old castle at Arraghju?

It’s a place where circuses are very popular, and drivers still pick up hitchhikers, and the people are buried in mausoleums. “Corsican cemeteries, therefore, look like little cities,” we learn in The Third Tower Up From the Road, where Kevin also tells a story about spending the night out in the maquis. It’s illegal to sleep in the forest, where the wild boars roam. Why? Some people find out the hard way. Kevin says:

The pigs won’t hurt you, but it can be a traumatic experience to be awakened at 3:00 am by a hairy snout snuffling around your head trying to find the source of that Camembert odor that unfortunately is still on your breath.

By the way, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the something called the Constitutional Project for Corsica, and we would be very grateful to anyone willing to give a paragraph or two on the meaning and implications of that. Please.

ship photo courtesy of gripso_banana_prune , used under this Creative Commons license,
tower photo courtesy of aslakr , used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Travel: Venice, Italy, with Peter Ackroyd

veniceBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Peter Ackroyd is a fellow who recently experienced a dramatic change of focus: after writing many books about London, England, he now anticipates the publication of Venice: Pure City, by the venerable British firm Chatto & Windus. The tale of this book is told to us by Peter Popham, by way of The Independent. Popham is no shabby wordsmith himself. One of the things he tells us about Venice is:

A lot of the magic resides in the silence…to wake in the morning knowing you are in a crowded city, and not to hear a single cough or roar or growl of an internal combustion engine. That alone is the worth the price of the air ticket.

Also, much of the appeal of Venice seems to be in its refusal and/or inability to change. It’s one of the few places on earth where a 16th century time-traveler could wind up and still be able to navigate the streets. Paradoxically, another part of the attraction is the city’s ability to get you good and lost, which has been exploited by several novels and feature films. And in a third aspect of that permanence is the impermanence, the instability, the precariousness of the city’s footings when confronted by the sea. One of the reasons to go to Venice has always been the “last chance” factor, the possibility that next time, it won’t be there.

And, to add a fourth layer of ambiguity, Ackroyd explains in his book how Venice was once as much a token of the shining future as any World’s Fair full of monorails and robot houses. Popham, in his review, says that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Venice was “an avant-garde place which was demonstrating, boldly and with stunning success, entirely new ways of getting rich and flaunting and enjoying the wealth created.” Kind of like the dot.com era.

In a bonanza for the literary travel aficionado, this article lists several writers and artists in other fields who have been inspired by Venice, and exactly what they did about it: Shakespeare, Sir Elton John, Robert Browning, Henry James, John Ruskin, Nicholas Roeg, and of course the notorious Lord Byron. Apparently, Venice recalls its vanquishment by Napoleon in 1797, like the American South remembers the War Between the States. Ackroyd points out that there was a time when a third of its population existed on charity. This was the scene the Romantic poets descended upon, proceeding to romanticize the ruin of a formerly great principality.

The decades rolled on and Venice became a cultural center again, with all its film festivals and Biennales. It’s always been a capital of commercialism, which tourists are quite acclimated to. Reportedly, around 16 million visitors throng to Venice each year. For various reasons. On August 28, counterculture icons and artistic collaborators Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens celebrated their Blue Wedding in Venice. Not their first wedding, but their fifth. There’s a whole high-concept performance art thing going on here, which is worth looking into. Details and great pictures come from Greg Archer (who writes about film, TV, and the arts in general, as well as ecological matters) at HuffPost.

Yes, there’s always the romance of Venice. In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin relates the story of his first visit — long before meeting his wife, it should be noted.

We spent our days walking through the tiny streets, pausing on the bridges, chasing the pigeons, and we spent our evenings riding the vaporetti, strolling through the piazze, eating sparingly in sidewalk cafés and making love in the large soft bed.

Irresistible! As long as there are canals, hotels, and cafés, Venice will never go out of business.

photo courtesy of Chiara Marra, used under this Creative Commons license

Frank Zappa Conquers Europe

Zappa_VilniusBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Eric Slick is a percussionist with the Adrian Belew Power Trio and Crescent Moon, among others. Most recently, he was part of Project Object, the brainchild of Ike Willis and Don Preston, bringing the music of Frank Zappa to European fans — specifically in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany. Eric shares with us the sensations and adventures of a musician on tour:

We’re on the way to one of my favorite places in the whole world. a quaint village called Bad Doberan, the home of Zappanale, a week long festival dedicated to the genius of Frank Zappa: composer, filmmaker, guitarist, politician, iconoclast. It’s as close as I’ve come to some form of heaven.

Indeed this drummer compares Zappanale to such ideal locales as Mecca and Utopia and, having participated at 5 successive yearly recurrences, he ought to know. He admires the efficient organization behind the festival, and is especially enthusiastic over the addition this year of a second stage. He tells us — dare we believe it? — that the last band on the last night played “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in the nude.

No doubt about it, Zappa is alive and well on the Continent. Only last month, at Spiegel Online, journalist Sebastian Knauer interviewed Napoleon Murphy Brock. Brock, who is a vocalist, saxophonist, flautist and comedian, is one of the Zappa friends who ensure that the great one’s work does not fall into oblivion. This apparently brings him into opposition with the widow and guardian of the estate, Gail Zappa. Brock points out here that “her husband collected inspiration from all styles of music and interpreters and was himself a great plagiarist, before making something entirely his own.” He talks about the “Zappa College,” the fresh generation of youth who are discovering and treasuring the music of Frank Zappa, represented by 19 bands at the Bad Doberan event. He especially likes an old-time railway there, called Molli, and says, “Frank would have done a song about that.”

Zappa-vilnius2Vilnius, Lithuania, is another outpost of Zappa-consciousness, as proven by the erection of a statue there in 1995 and visited by Kevin Dolgin, who assures us in The Third Tower Up From the Road that “Zappa never had anything to do with Vilnius, never set foot in Lithuania, and had not a smidgen of Lithuanian heritage.” But who cares? What matters is the power of music to foster international brotherhood, which it surely does in this case. Konstantinas Bogdanas is the sculptor, who must have felt some relief after spending, as Kevin tells us, “something like 50 years sculpting Soviet political leaders.” Earlier this year, a bronze replica of the Kalinausko Square statue in Vilnius was made and given to the American city of Baltimore, Zappa’s home town.

Please send us other evidence of Zappa infiltration into Europe!

In related news, Daniel Cook Johnson enthuses over the new 35MM film release of Zappa’s 1971 classic 200 Motels, which also features Ringo Starr as a dwarf and Keith Moon as a nun. Johnson characterizes the movie as “a mess by design” and reminds us of its historical significance as the first feature-length film shot on videotape.

And at Guba, someone has posted a 1986 episode of the TV talk show “Crossfire” where Zappa appears in short hair and a suit, discussing important matters.

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.