I recently went abroad for the first time in 20 months to film. I had both my jabs back in April, so I was itching to use my get out of jail- I mean, get out of the USA, free card, and Croatia was welcoming vaccinated US travelers. I’d never been. This seemed an opportune time to hit up this over-touristed travel darling before the crowds bounce entirely back. I’m glad I did.
I began my trip in Dubrovnik, staying in the Old Town, which seemed crowded to me. But I was told the crowds were like 40% of 2019 levels. Dubrovnik has been struggling with over-tourism the past decade or so, culminating and untenable crowds in 2019, so 40% is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, the locals catering to tourists would like to make more money, I get that. But the reality on the ground is many of the more touristic local establishments cater to same-day in-and-out cruise crowds. Hence, quality control is not a big deal in many places. It was also expensive. While Dubrovnik tourism is working to come back smarter, not bigger, the Old City is charming and will always be a draw for travelers, pushing locals out. Thus it didn’t feel very punk rock.
But I was told to head over to the Port Gruz (Gruz Harbor) area, and indeed I got a much different vibe. Port towns always seem a bit more bohemian, and I’m not 100% sure why, but probably back in the day they were a little rough around the edges, while also being welcoming point for travelers (unlike the Old Town which had only two entrances and required foreign visitors to quarantine centuries ago… well before Covid).
Port Gruz felt more real, if not exactly punk rock, at least DIY. After stopping in a new vegetarian restaurant I’d heard about called Urban and Veggies, I had one of the most amazing vegetarian meals of my life. Scratch that, one of the most amazing meals ever, vegan or not. Ivo, the talented proprietor, wasn’t expecting me, yet he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a feast fit for King whatever-his-name was from Game of Thrones (GOT was famously filmed on location in Dubrovnik). I was hungry but there was no way I could eat that entire spread myself.
After stuffing myself, I waddled my way to the Dubrovnik Beer Company, where I met the proprietor Dario and his merry band of craft beer mates. The beer was excellent, but the conversation was even better. These smart fellas are doing everything they can to showcase another more authentic side of Dubrovnik away from the tourists-laden old town, and it’s working… or at least it worked for me.
After the sun went down, Dario escorted me down a dark side street to meet Kreso, owner of the Red History Museum. Kreso refused to talk shop until we’d had a few shots of Rakia and no arguments from me. After three or four shots of Rakia, I was ready to relive some communist history.
The Red History Museum is a highly entertaining way to see what the former Yugoslavia was like during communism. For those who don’t know, Yugoslavia had a much different history than the rest of the Soviet Union, thanks to Tito, the enigmatic, Dictator who held the territory together through his reign. Ask a Croatian today about Tito, and you’ll get decidedly mixed reviews. Still, there is no denying he kept the place together as shortly after his death, a power struggle ensued, war broke out. Some of the worst crimes against humanity and mass murder in recent history occurred.
But all that seems blissfully behind Croatia now. You can still see the wounds of war, but not so much on the Dalmation coast where Dubrovnik is located. Though I did stop by the Museum of Martyrs to get an idea of what the town went through. I’d find much more damage and destruction as I wound my way inward toward the Serbian border town of Osijek. However, I still had a few days left on the Dalmatian coast. Next stop, Split. You guessed it, it was time to split for Split but not before bidding a regretful goodbye to the friendly folks of Dubrovnik and especially my new pals in the Port Gruz area.
KILLER CROWS IN ROME, LUCKY SHIRTS IN QUITO, When I was filming Raw Travel Season 1 in Quito, Ecuador, a raptor or some enormous avian creature excreted on me in mid-shoot. Cameras weren’t rolling, and we didn’t have the presence of mind to film a “When Travel Goes Wrong” segment at that point, sadly. I thought someone had thrown something on me, but alas, it was just a big old bird with digestion problems. In Latin America, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck. Hmm, maybe, but the color was obscene (not the typical white), the amount voluminous, the smell was rank, and the look even worse.
I went to a public bathroom, washed off the shirt as best I could, and proceeded to film the rest of the day’s shoot shirtless, in a zipped up hoodie (Quito is high altitude, it’s chilly even during the day), until I could finally replace with a shirt bought off the street. Just in case the “luck” thing is true, I still have the original shirt that was splat upon to this day. I love that shirt and can’t find myself willing to part with it. Not sure of the replacement, probably not since it was likely something cheap and, most importantly, a bird hadn’t shat it upon.
I love Europe, both Western & Eastern. But let’s face it, compared to much of the world it’s not the friendliest continent. I mean there are pockets of Spain (in my limited Spain experience, pretty much the whole pocket outside of Catalan) that are very hospitable… and many other great destinations I’ve yet to hit such as Portugal, Italy, Greece, etc. so granted this judgement is a bit premature.
And like all sweeping generalizations, it is inaccurate on it’s face because of the relative nature of the question and the fact that the answer very much depends on the individual experience.
But both of my experiences in Serbia were absolute treasures in my memory bank. I enjoyed Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic… Bulgaria is awesome, Poland was super and I made great lifelong friends in each of these places, but Serbia.. well Serbia is gritty and full of life and if you are a solo traveler, well, you are in for a treat.
My first time in Serbia I was that solo traveler and upon arrival by train from Budapest, a local but trustworthy looking and semi fluent English speaking gentleman grabbed my too large bag off the arrival platform, jumped on the bus with me and then took a good 1/2 hour of his time to assist me in finding the flat I had rented up a very steep hill.
Of course, I tipped him but I really had the feeling he wasn’t in it for the money. I’ve been hustled all over the world so I know a thing or two about getting hustled and this man was simply super friendly and eager to help this rare American visitor any way he could.
On my last trip in the summer of 2014 with my film crew taping for Raw Travel, I had a rare few moments to myself and I decided to go out and jog the streets of Belgrade. I was lost, winded and had slowed my running to a leisurely stroll to just take the city and it’s people in.
I could viscerally see the struggle on the faces of the Serbian people I met along the way. The families in the parks with young toddlers…. the grandmas and grandpas…It was a surreal but uneventful moment that probably shouldn’t have but brought tears to my eyes nonetheless. I still remember that moment as if it were yesterday.
When the 3rd Balkan War was going on in the 1990s, I was the blissfully ignorant, largely unaware American caught up in my own world of establishing my career and other, largely selfish pursuits like making as much money as I thought I deserved. Oh the folly of youth.
Visiting Serbia several years later made me more aware of the tragedy and long lasting repercussions of this and all tragic wars. Not just for Serbia but for all involved of course, all because a relatively few morally bankrupt, senseless, shameful “leaders” are out to save their sorry asses. What’s a few thousand crimes against humanity compared to that?
Serbia has yet to join the European Union and the economy leaves much to be desired. But its not the economy or even it’s history that defines a people or at least it shouldn’t be. When it comes to the friendliest spot in Europe, Serbia gets my vote. And I can’t wait to return.
First of all a big thank you for making our first season a big success. We exceeded almost every expectation and we couldn’t have done it without our very loyal friends, family, fans, affiliates, advertisers, vendors, staff and wonderful travel peers.
Hopefully we spread a little good, positive energy as well, something TV and we all could always use more of. I sincerely hope our “Give Back” segments struck a chord in a few folks and maybe, just maybe some lives have been improved as a result.
As we expand into Season 2 and 110 cities and almost 100 million homes we hope you’ll enjoy our more diverse locations (North & South America, Eastern Europe & Southeast Asia) and will follow our journey as we hopefully improve production and not only entertain a bigger audience, but impact them as well.
Here is a small taste of what you can expect during our Fall 2014 Season.
Of all the places in the world I’m hoping to visit before I get my passport stamped by that big customs & immigration office in the sky (or below?), Vienna, Austria was never on that list. I don’t know why. It just never occurred to me.
I mean what few times I’d thought of Vienna I think I thought of high culture, classical music, maybe some sausages and well… to be 100% honest… Hitler and the horrors of World War II. It was a casual, cavalier but not a hostile ignorance.
I wasn’t knowingly spreading this ignorance to anyone, because I knew I didn’t know the real Vienna and only had a vague idea of what it might be like planted in my head by however many years of (mostly) U.S. media osmosis. I had not so much as considered a Wikipedia search on the subject and since I wasn’t heading there anytime soon, there was no need to do a quick study of the facts was there now? Wrong.
During our Eastern European shoot for Season 2, we were heading to Bratislava, Slovakia (another place I knew absolutely nothing about before visiting) and Vienna was a mere 50 minutes or so by train or boat away. As you can see, for me at least, ignorance is no excuse for not visiting a place. Otherwise I’d never go anywhere. Point of fact, I submit that it could be one of the best reasons to visit.
“Will I like it? Who knows? I don’t know anything about it. Let’s go!” So we did, if only for a few hours.
Lucky for us our new pal Marek from our earlier shoot at Cafe Finska in Krakow, Poland (our very first stop on this journey) heard we were heading to Vienna. He heartily recommended we reach out to UK ex pat and travel author Duncan J.D. Smith otherwise known as the Urban Explorer.
Duncan is an extremely likable chap and a consummate gentleman. I could tell that when we first met him at the train stop in Vienna. He had graciously and unexpectedly spent his own money for train day passes for the entire crew. Cut my production cost and you have my gratitude. Do so while showing me a genuinely good time and you have a pal for life.
Duncan knows his stuff not only about Vienna but several ports of call in Eastern Europe including Budapest, where we were heading next. He hooked us up with one of his “Only in Budapest” guidebook as a parting gift. I would read it cover to cover on the train ride there. It would almost be like Duncan being there by our sides, whispering little know facts and anecdotes about places and sites we might not otherwise consider.
But back to Vienna, being with Duncan the actual author & guide in Vienna was immensely valuable to us. Duncan took us to those hidden spots right under the tourists’ noses that they almost always miss, even if they have another guide.
From the Tostmann Trachten Shop & Cellar, a traditional Viennese clothing store that offered much more than meets the eye in their basement (watch the show to find out) to Beethoven’s courtyard (I drank water from the same water fountain the great composer did many years ago) to showing us the grittier side of Vienna at the Graffiti walls down by the Danube, I was beginning to sincerely wish we’d allocated an entire episode and 5 days to Vienna.
Duncan was one of those rare fact-filled but funny on camera guest that every travel host hopes for. I could relax and just have fun and hopefully have somewhat witty conversations and question and answers with Duncan on camera and the show just produced itself.. well, almost.
Not to say there weren’t moments when I was like “uh, huh.. this is exactly what I expected in Vienna”. Like when an arrogant prick (no pun intended, as you’ll see) of a Viennese took umbrage at our filming down in the historic, Mens’ Toilette downtown.
1) We had permission
2) The toilette had a unique story.. but I forget what it is at the moment (watch the show)
3) It was completely empty when we began filming
4) Our cameras were respectfully not pointed in anyone’s direction…
but this chap comes down and with a booming and authoritative voice says “that’s quiet enough.. cut the camera… your finished.. this is not Kazakhstan this is Vienna”.. The last part I think is what really pissed me off (no pun intended) and I was ready to go toe to toe with this arrogant ass who had no authority whatsoever on either the toilet or our filming there.
But Duncan, being the gentleman that he is, somehow channeled his anger into something positive (a trick I’m still trying to master) and defused the situation.
We got our shot, the arrogant A^%hole finally left us alone and what’s more, we got the entire thing on camera. Scott, our camera guy told me later “I only cut when the guy who’s writing my check tells me to cut”. Great philosophy Scott and a good move. This toilet shot would have probably never made the cut, but now you can be guaranteed that it will.
Not only was it a blast, but after our toilet incident, this was exactly what the doctor ordered to get me to humanize and like the Viennese people again and to understand, they have families, love their kids and are not just about high culture, history and lecturing to camera crews in toilets about civilized society. They need to shake it and have a good time too.
This amusement park is a feast for the senses. Don’t drink too much caffeine (or do any hallucinogens) before hand or it might just put you over the edge.
When you’ve had enough of “low culture” of serpent headed amusement rides or “freak” shows, I recommend you grab a pork knuckle at the famous Schweizerhaus at the fairgrounds along with a beverage of your choice. After all this I can honestly say, it was a fun, amazing trip to Vienna.
Like almost all first time destinations, I want to now go back, sans camera crew, and maybe explore on my own. But for this first time, I’m sure glad we had Duncan to guide us and show me a side of Vienna I’m 99.9% likely to have never seen had he not agreed to show us around.
Vienna is not an obvious “Raw Travel” destinations. It’s certainly not budget nor off the beaten path but you can see it Raw Travel style and we’ll show you how, when Bratislava / Vienna premieres this November. Stay tuned!
As of this writing, we arrived back from Central & Eastern Europe just over one week ago and already memories are beginning to fade. While so happy and appreciative to be home (and more comfortable), for me at least, there is always a sense of sadness and loss when I return from a trip. The excitement of a daily adventure gives way to the mostly mundane tasks of everyday living.
But I’m fueled by the memories of the people we met along the way, the incredible sights and sounds of experiencing another culture, place and in many places another time. “Another time? It was a few weeks ago” you say? Ah but for perhaps the 1st time in my life I was able to experience what life may have been like centuries ago with castles from mid evil times and Roman ruins from BC times. More recently, World War II was for me mostly something my father had lectured about when I was a kid, but now I feel firmly in charge of at least a few basic facts and a small but better understanding of what actually went on (and the incredible and largely awful impact and implications for many of the destinations we visited).
I also felt just a little how the iron fist of the iron curtain could be so brutal. I couldn’t help but think how but for the luck of geography and just a smidgen of time, I could have been spending my days in an internment camp (I just know I would have never kept my head down and mouth shut). Or maybe, I would have been a different person in that different place and time and I would have dutifully fulfilled my obligation to the State, working to garner my quota as a farmer, miner or dutifully cleaning up the dishes at a Milk Bar, wondering what life would be like if I could simply do, say and be whatever I wanted.
Yes, this trip has forever changed me, but so what? That’s no reason to spend precious money and resources to fly over a camera crew and work 41 of the 42 days we were there producing television is it? Yes, I think it is.
For if travel has changed me (for the better) then it can and will change others. If there is anything we’ve learned from Communism, it should be that more knowledge for more people is a GOOD thing. But let’s face it, showing something on TV or via the web is not the same as going. No matter how good I am at my job of communicating I can’t change this completely.
But maybe, I can give you, the reader and the viewers of the show, a small idea of what it is like. Just like centuries ago when sailors and other travelers came back from a journey and spun tales of far off places and the incredible things they’d seen, I can do the same, but through the magic of video’s sight and sound.
And perhaps more importantly, inspire others to travel themselves. Across the planet if they can but if not, just across town experiencing their lives from a different perspective. If I were to work just one day in a taco truck or a Chinese Laundry or Korean nail salon for example, who is to say I would not be forever changed? Travel can take many forms.
Raw Travel is a Travel AND Lifestyle show. Travel has taught me to LIVE differently when I’m at “home”. Thanks to travel I am an avid recycler. Thanks to travel I have more empathy for people I used to simply shove past on the street. Thanks to travel I appreciate kids more than ever and recognize they don’t need a video game but they MUST have love in order to have hope of a good life. Thanks to travel I view the news and media we consume very differently. Thanks to travel, I am more conscious about what type of food I put into my body, etc, etc.
Thanks to travel I recognize that the TV business needs more life affirming, positive shows and less conflict, competition, or whatever the flavor of the month is and that is why I do this. It’s not easy sharing a small space with a crew or sleeping on couches. I thought those days of sacrifice were over for me. But comfort is not the same as happiness. Just ask some of the happiest people on the planet (and they usually don’t reside in the most advanced economies of our world).
But enough about what travel and the show means to me. It’s what it means to the viewer that is most important.
Each destination will have it’s own blog entry before each episode airs, but before memories fade to quickly, I wanted to recap each destination and to properly thank people who so graciously helped us along the way. I hope I haven’t left anyone out but it’s very likely that I have. There were just too many people helping us to remember and thank everyone.For that, I apologize in advance and ask that if you see an omission, please do not hesitate to let me know.
Wishing you many safe (but not too safe) journeys!
FAVORITE MOMENT: Counter-intuitive perhaps but visiting Auschwitz. It was very reflective and made something intangible very tangible.
WORST MOMENT: Just the overwhelming jet lag. Oh and when our cameraman Scott tumbled down the stairs on day 2 or 3. Very lucky he didn’t break a bone and there goes the entire shoot (yes, always I’m selfishly thinking of the show!).
FAVORITE MOMENT: Visiting the old communist nuclear bunker Bunkr Parukarka and Cafe Potme (Cafe in the Dark) getting a feeling for what it’s like to be completely sightless (and raising money for the sight impaired in Czech Republic in the process)
WORST MOMENT: The overnight train from Krakow to Prague. It was a communism era “sleeper” car with no space and not much sleep going on . As a result we rolled into Prague sleep deprived and subsequently the crew began to get a little snippy with each other. (it wouldn’t last long thankfully).
FAVORITE MOMENT: Visiting Vienna and the Prater Amusement Park and subsequent dining on Pork Knuckle (Deee-licious!) with travel writer Duncan Smith aka the “Urban Explorer and author of “Only In… ” travel guides.
WORST MOMENT: Getting repeatedly ripped off by taxis in Bratislava, getting lost in Bratislava, getting chewed out by a rude, condescending, bigoted, nosy and presumably Austrian in Vienna (for some strange reason he took exception to us shooting in the men’s room, the 1st toilet in Vienna or something another).
FAVORITE MOMENT: Taking a ride on the Children’s Railway, a fun, kitschy train run completely by children. So cool! and the Gypsy Musicians (Gypsy Musicians is how they referred to themselves) hanging out in their home and listening to their tradition, history and music.
WORST MOMENT: I am tempted to say there wasn’t one, but alas, the final day, our final meal at the train station, I think I was ripped off. Still disputing the charge with my credit card company.
SPECIAL THANKS: The Hungarian Tourism Board.. they were simply amazing and the ONLY tourism bureau that attempted to help us out on this trip. Thank you to Maria and the whole gang at GoToHungary.com, Zach Tipton & Diane Librizi and the entire crew at Vinylize , John McPherson and Herby Cobb, Hospital in the Rock,The Children’s Railway, Rocco from Bankrupt Band, Tibor and the Pudor Ruin Pub, Mozaik Thrift Shop, Andy our “Gypsy” tour guide, Kalma & Ewa (Gypsy Musicians)
DESTINATION 5 (Episode 206) – SERBIA (tentatively premieres week of 11/24/14)
FAVORITE MOMENT: The entire city of Novi Saad and the wonderful and hilarious tour with radio DJ Dasko and his tour guide sister Jelena. What a treat? Attention talent agents if you are looking to import some talent, give these two a look when this episode premieres. They are incredible.
WORST MOMENT: Eating way to much meat during the entire trip. We were literally hungover from all the wild game, sausages, etc. Granted, not a bad problem to have.
SPECIAL THANKS: Dask0, Jelen and the Red Union Band, Route 66 in Novi Saad, Milos, Slikar Miscov (Artist), Helena (Belgrade), Katerina (souvenir salesperson), Darko and Kvazimodo Band, Ralph from the Serbia Nightlife Academy and IbikeBelgrade,Belgrade Ethnographic Museumand the people of Serbia fighting to recover from this summer’s devastating floods.
DESTINATION 6 (Episode 203) – Bucharest, Romania (premieres week of 10/12/14)
FAVORITE MOMENT: Visiting the emerging eco-reserve Vacaresti smack in the middle of Bucharest and stumbling upon a taxi driver fishing in his underwear. When he agreed to be on camera we were all ecstatic. His interview was possibly the best of the entire trip and the eco reserve is in such an unlikely spot… it’s wild, wooly and amazing.
WORST MOMENT: When my crew accidentally locked themselves into the apartment and there was no way out. They were stuck inside, no food, no phone, no way out (8 stories up) waiting on my imminent return 3 hours later.
SPECIAL THANKS: Doru and Robert from the Interesting Times Bureau, Ortaku (street artists), my old pal Dan Popuscu who simply wanted us to produce a good show about Bucharest, Gabby from Underworld(thanks for the shoes!), Raizing Hell Band, the brave guys from Casa Jurnalustului (House of Journalism) and all the wonderful people of Bucharest. Jurnalistului
DESTINATION 7 (Episode 203) – Transylvania, Romania (premieres week of 10/26/14)
FAVORITE MOMENT: OK I know I’m not supposed to have favorites but how about the ENTIRE TRIP. Transylvania is amazing and Dracula had very little to do with it. OK, if I’m forced to recall our best moment was hanging out, herding and eventually milking the sheep with some local sheep herders who spoke not a shred of English. They kindly gave us a still warm glass of sheep milk and a big handful of freshly made sheep cheese. Simply surreal, simply amazing.
WORST MOMENT: Getting stood up last minute and very unprofessionally by a British ex pat travel guide. During the entire trip this would be the ONLY time we were stood up by someone. How ironic that he was British (known for their punctuality and professionalism?) not a Romanian (supposedly not known for their punctuality and professionalism). This all worked in our favor however, when we were force to strike out on our own and this led to my Favorite Moment (see above). Several lessons learned here. More on this when the blog post goes up.
SPECIAL THANKS: The sheep herders in Transylvania, the wonderful folks doing wonderful work at Little John’s House, Limui and family at the Scerma Scoala Cornatel Horse Reserve & Rescue Center, Gita & Mihaela of Casa cu ZareleBed & Breakfast just outside of Sighisoara and their Swedish guests, Tudobe (AKA the Spoonman) of Sighisoara, Daniel of Covinnus Travel, House of Vlad Dracula Restaurant, Gabby & Beth from Sibiu.
FAVORITE MOMENT: The Black Sea city of Sozopol. Simply amazing.
WORST MOMENT: Our producer Erica getting pretty sick and visiting a rough looking emergency room in Burgas where they proceeded to misdiagnose her and jab the IV needle in the muscle rather than the vein. This would result in huge swelling of her arm and continued decline in Erica’s condition. We finally made it to the capital Sofia and visited an emergency room at a Japanese run hospital which set her straight on the road to recovery.
SPECIAL THANKS: Katerina and Andre of Koukery Dance School in Rouse, Scroletics Band, Flamingo Entertainment Complex and Dancers in Sozopol, Kristian Mitov in Sofia, International Women’s Club of Sofia and Dimko of Sofia Travel Holidays in Sofia.
ALSO THANKS TO OUR PALS IN THE U.S.A.
From the U.S. I would like to thank Robert Kennedy and his Puritti Water Filters, Pati McGrath of Baggallini Bags and my associates Jon Krobot and Paul Rowen for helping hold down the fort while I was away. I should also shout out the dedicated crew, producer Erica Soto and camera (and writer of bad puns) Scott Gawlik. It was a pleasure traveling with you guys! And thanks to all my friends and family. Of course our over 100 affiliates and our sponsors. Geez, I’m going to shut up now. This is a blog post, not the Academy Awards. You get the point.
Bratislava got off to a relatively bumpy start. We were ripped off almost immediately on arrival by a dishonest taxi driver (gasp!) at the bus station where we arrived from Prague. As it would turn out our hotel was just around the corner. But our taxi driver decided to take a circuitous route in the opposite direction that took about 15 minutes and cost $20 euros (had we done our research we actually could have walked 5-7 minutes or at most paid $3-$4 euros for a taxi).
Now before you wonder how seasoned travelers like the Raw Travel Crew could possibly fall for such a brazen and obvious ploy, please keep the following in mind.
– We were a TV crew of 3 folks with luggage and equipment.
– We were on the run so much with limited internet access, that I am still weeks behind on this posting.
– There was precious little information on the web about Bratislava’s transportation options.
Truth be told, I actually did know better than to trust a taxi driver at the bus station, a notorious trolling ground for “taxi sharks” (so named for their circumventing trains & bus stations in search for fresh “prey”) … but after walking away from the original guy and shopping around to the other waiting taxis a couple of times, we found no other taxi driver willing to drive us for less. They either did not or pretended not to understand us. Indeed it appears they were all in on the scam each waiting on their own victim as opposed to making an honest living.
To add insult to injury the taxi driver in question even went so far as to punch the address of our hotel into his digital radio receiver pretending it was a sophisticated GPS device (we only realized this later).
The driver was no gentleman robber either. He was crude, rude and probably would have charged us more had I not been questioning him about the route as soon as I got suspicious and threatened to get out then and there. He mercifully stopped circling and finally pulled up to the street over from our hotel. No, he would charge us 4x to 5x the going rate but wouldn’t even take us the few feet down the street to our hotel.
Immediately after unpacking we headed down the street to search for food and discovered to our surprise that the bus station was actually less than 1/16th of a mile from our hotel. We realized with a mixture of humor and outrage we’d just been conned.
We considered confronting this “gentleman” on camera but alas, we had precious little time for revenge and each time we happened by the bus station he was nowhere in sight (perhaps his take from us was enough to take a few days off). Oh well, $20 Euros is not the end of the world for sure, but no one likes getting conned.
Our hotel was just about a mile outside the main old town and city center which would also prove to be a mistake for several reasons, mainly the fact that we were lost much of the time. This occurred because the map we were provided with by the hotel only showed the city center (even though they sat outside of it) and it proved to be fairly useless as most of the streets were either unnamed on the map or things were scaled like a coloring book with landmarks way out of proportion to actual distances.
The hotel itself was a somewhat extravagant expense for us (we usually stayed in apartments but there were precious few available in Bratislava for some reason), but it turned to be mostly a false luxury. It reminded me of so much modern art. It looked good upon 1st glance but upon closer inspection was really just a mess.
They advertised air conditioning (it was super hot during our visit) and while our rooms did have a thermostat with a green light on the wall when the AC was switched “on”, as best we could tell there were no vents in the room and nothing happened. When I complained the AC wasn’t working, they simply said, “Oh it’s working”… and that was that. No investigation… nothing. We strongly believe the AC Thermostat was a prop and nothing more.
The staff, however, made up for these inadequacies by trying really, really hard to accommodate their lost and now slightly pissed off English speaking guests. They mostly failed, but I still must give them an “A” for a heck of an effort and I have to admit they were endearing in their incompetence. I really think they tried their best and while this isn’t little league baseball, I have to say that goes a long way in my book.
The fact that we were lost so often was doubly frustrating when you consider how small Bratislava is. Especially in comparison to the capital cities we’d visited so far. But the trams were easy to jump on and off and we ended up using them as often as possible. People were fairly generous with directions, young people in particular. Many of the older folks (even ticket agents at the train station) would simply wave you abruptly away if they didn’t speak English and would not make an effort to communicate. However, this may have been a consequence of 3 travelers with cameras which often puts folks on guard. In the few times I was able to get out on my own, I found almost all Bratislavans eager to help (case in point, when purchasing shampoo in the local grocery store, it was a team effort with lots of help from employees and other customers alike… none of which spoke English), regardless of language ability, which gives me hope to return again someday on my own.
I don’t want people to get the message that Bratislava is bad. To the contrary, it’s actually quiet lovely and after navigating the huge metropolis and throngs of tourists in Prague, it was a welcome break to be off the beaten path just a bit. I found Bratislava’s old town very charming and while the castle was bound to be underwhelming compared to Krakow and Prague (almost are compared to these), we were treated to one heck of a tour with our new pal Brano from Authentic Slovakian Tours. Brano is part of a group of young Slovakians trying desperately to get Bratislava up to speed on their tourism offerings and infrastructure. His tours are first rate and his company is growing as a result.
Another guy doing his part isBratislava Man! No Bratislava man (AKA Tomas) is not a superhero but he is a good guy and even though we hooked up with him towards the end of our journey he did prove really helpful in getting us out of jam when we arrived to interview a local band Kto Chce Co Chce(Do What You Like) on the outskirts of town and were greeted by a screaming, unreasonable, English speaking (but once again pretending not to) security gal.
Evidently the rehearsal space we were directed to was now a non-functioning, old chemical factory from back in the communism days and the security folks must have thought we were spies from the Cold War era. When she saw our cameras she basically flipped out. Eventually, thanks in no small part to Bratislava Man we were able to film and were treated to a great rehearsal from the guys.
Another cool thing about Bratislava is the wine. Just being a few miles from the border of Austria means that if you like Austrian wines, then you’ll probably equally love Slovakian wines for most likely, a fraction of the price. The climate is similar. The only difference being that in Slovakia, the wineries were state owned for many years until the fall of communism in 1989, so there was a blip in time when wine making in Slovakia meant putting out as much of the cheap stuff for the masses as possible. No more, however and the centuries old craft of wine making in Slovakia is back and better than ever. There are wine tasting bars all over Bratislava and we sampled the more modern style Trunk Wine Galleryowned by Vladimir Raiman. Mr. Raiman was as hospitable and knowledgeable as could be about Slovakian wine making.
In a way Bratislava felt like it is still trying to recover from the very heavy hand of Communism. The capitalist edict that the customer (or in this case the traveler) should be treated with respect is a bit foreign concept and left mostly to the younger generation of folks.
Folks like the laid back guys at the Wild Elephant Hostel. The owners and guest at the Wild Elephant were super cool. They allowed us freedom to shoot and interview their guests at will and we hope to offer some insight for some of our viewers just as to what a hostel experience REALLY entails. They even offered us rooms and I kind of wished we had taken them up on it. After the interviews and a great meal (which I was able to “kind of” help them prepare) they were kind enough to take us on a tour of the town.
Ironically, the 2005 horror film “Hostel” was based on a fictional hostel in Bratislava and the owners of Wild Elephant told me that was one of the best things that could have happened to their business and Bratislava tourism in general. Many non regional visitors in particular, come to Bratislava specifically to visit a hostel and I suppose to see if they get chopped up as many of the protagonists in the movie (we did not and to my knowledge everyone we interviewed left Bratislava safe and sound).
I was feeling much better about Bratislava. But once again a dishonest taxi driver would try to ruin the good vibes.
It was time to leave, so on the way out of Bratislava we learned our lesson. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi. We were quoted a rate of $8 Euros. When we arrived to the train station the driver said “$12 Euros”… I of course protested and said it was $8 Euros. He acquiesced.
I gave him a $10 Euro Bill and simple math would dictate he owed me $2 Euros. Instead he returned me a single Euro coin (Both $1 Euro and $2 Euros come in coins) I suppose thinking I wouldn’t notice.
Again, I protested and again, he agreed and quickly gave me my other $1 Euro which I had been intending to use to tip him. Not anymore. This time it’s mostly on camera and if you watch this fall, you’ll see the drama unfold on Raw Travel.
Despite these small annoyances, which by the way are as likely to happen in other parts of Eastern Europe if you don’t plan ahead, I still think Bratislava is a good spot to visit and I encourage you to check it out on your own.
But the tourism folks & governmental leaders of Bratislava need to be aware that until they get a handle on their out of control taxi drivers the travel & tourism industry may very well continue to struggle. It’s not fair for travelers to pay much more simply because they are ignorant upon arrival. Take it from me, they will get clued in quickly and when they do, will see Bratislava from a slightly more cynical point of view, as I have. Which is a shame because Bratislava has a lot to offer.
For the sake of our friends at Authentic Slovakian Tours, Bratislava Man, Wine Trunk & Wild Elephant, I sincerely hope Bratislava’s taxi & tourism industry get their acts together soon.
UP NEXT: One very cool thing about Bratislava is it’s close proximity to Vienna, just 60 miles away and what would prove to be a great day trip for us. I’ll cover that next.
Prague, Czech Republic is magical but overrun with tourists in the summer months. Although it made our lives more difficult in some respects, I was none the less happy that we had booked an apartment in District 10 on the outskirts of town rather than in the heavily trafficked Olde Town. The street our apartment was located on roughly translated to “uranium” street, so named in the cold war, which gives you a tiny hint to the utilitarian, communist past of this now thriving tourists mecca.
We arrived sleep deprived (are you sensing a theme here yet?) from an overnight train from Krakow, Poland. The trip was a “red eye” and we had reserved a sleeping compartment for all three of us. The compartment was tight, the train had no dining or bar car so we promptly flipped the beds down and tried, pretty much in vain, to get some sleep.
I’ve taken several trains in my lifetime and they usually are calm, monotonous things, generating almost a lullaby of white noise (in fact there is a “Train” effect on my white noise app on my i-phone), but not on this train. The clamoring of the tracks felt like it was just below us (perhaps because it was and always is, but usually doesn’t sound thus) and the constant starting, stopping as we pulled into one town after another made sleep upon the narrow, fold out metal bunks with wafer thin mattresses just next to impossible. We all pretty much just catnapped during the 7 or so hour journey from Krakow.
Taxis in Eastern Europe are, by and large, an under-regulated mess resulting in thousands of over charged fares from unsuspecting (and in our case, even suspecting) visitors to airports, bus & train stations on a regular basis. Indeed, travel pros though we may be considered, we were not immune to this scourge of corruption that has been allowed to fester and grow as the former iron curtain countries pursue the capitalist’s dream of ripping off their fellow man.
Luckily, our kindly and hospitable apartment host, Pavel, had arranged for us to be picked up by Tic Tack Taxi, a somewhat respected transportation company that is reportedly trying to help revolutionize the taxi, bus and transportation system in Czech Republic.
Our taxi ride from the train station to Pavel’s was semi-luxurious (a leather seated Audi with an extremely polite English speaking driver with GPS and even free bottled water for each of us) with the fare a fraction (about $10 U.S) of what a taxi hail or worse the taxi line at the railroad station could have run us.
After meeting Pavel, our super gracious host on whom we would all come to rely heavily upon, we all crashed for a couple of hours and decided that it was extremely inefficient from a work POV to take overnight trains. We’ve since sworn them off but we’ll see if this trend sticks the remainder of our journey (as my friend, coordinator and part time travel planner Margarita pointed out, it saves tremendously on the cost of lodging for one night).
We would have slept longer but we had arranged to meet Gaelle, a French expat now living in Prague and author of Zoukside Down. Gaelle is a dance teacher and ardent enthusiast of Brazilian Zouk Dancing, a style of dancing that has recently taken hold in Prague. Gaelle agreed to show us around some of the more basic touristy sites in the old town before we were to head to a Zouk Party to watch her in action. The party was hosted at a lovely hillside restaurant that offered some absolutely amazing views of Prague at the magic hour of sunset.
If you think it’s unusual to feature a French native who dances Brazilian in an Eastern European, well, I must admit I had my reservations as well. But what we’d quickly find out on this trip was that Prague was full of ex-pats from all over the world. It is truly an international city of the highest order.
There were literally bucket loads of Americans, Australians and others living and working in Prague and thus speaking English was almost never a problem with the exception of when we went back to our apartment in the almost 100% non-touristic District 10. By the end of the journey, this would become a fun game with the locals who, while not exactly smiling, warm people were simply wonderfully patient when dealing with us funny speaking foreigners and almost ended every awkward difficult conversation with a smile of some sort.
In District 10 we ended up frequenting a lovely little ice cream parlor (we witnessed ice cream being consumed at most every time of day, even seemingly for breakfast at 8 or 9 am) and café that served the small, exotic handmade sandwiches and desserts. Pointing and holding up the number of each sandwich was the only way to order. It was surprisingly efficient by day 3 or so.
But the highlight of our trip was perhaps meeting Ladi, a local Hungarian who runs the Bunker, a former nuclear bomb shelter designed and built for communist party leaders. Today it’s a really cool government subsidized community & event space and communist museum.
The Bunker hosts concerts and gatherings on a regular basis but the communists’ museum was my personal highlight. Seeing all these relics from the Cold War brought back memories and it occurred to me that it appeared that either I had missed the vast majority of the paranoia of the cold war (I heard that it most likely peaked in the 1950’s and 1960s) or the East was just much more prepared than the West. For example almost all the Metros in Eastern Europe we road had been built very deep underground. In case of nuclear attack, they could serve as an impromptu shelter for hundreds of thousands of members of the “working class” who could not fit into one of the bunkers.
The biggest kind of “what the…..” moment came when we saw the “Baby in a Box” display, which was a wooden box (imagine a small casket with a clear, vinyl see through cover) and a wooden foot pump to pump oxygen). The idea of the Baby Box was that in case of nuclear attack, a baby could be housed in the box and the mother (or father or surviving loved one) must hit the pump every 15 minutes or “no more baby” as our funny and expert guide, Ivan “The Hilarious” so eloquently observed. This s really brought the potential horror of the cold war into focus for me.
Growing up in the fear of total destruction of the 1980s, I’m very appreciative of the fact that we can all have a chuckle about these things now. Back then we felt truly threatened and though the source of the threats may have changed, is mankind any less threatened today?
Ladi & Pavel were like long, lost pals. Ladi had lived in Florida (playing in a rock band there) and Pavel had been a photographer in the former Czechoslovakia prior to the fall of communism and later he worked for the Associated Press as one of the few premiere photographers covering the Velvet Revolution as it unfolded and helping to tell the story of what was happening to the west and the rest of the world.
Both were invaluable to our largely smooth travel through Prague and to both I owe a debt of gratitude.
I like Prague, a lot. And though the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and history of the old town are nothing short of awe inspiring, that’s not why. I like Prague because of people like Ladi, Pavel, and the regular folks like the sales clerk at the local Foto Escoda (a local photography store) who was so helpful to us when we had to replace a lens for the camera. The countless other locals who made us feel at home I can’t thank enough; people like Eleska Mertova of Segrasegraclothing designing some very cool bike clothes out of recycled bicycle inner tubes.
Or the fine folks at the Cafe in the Darkwhere I and my cameraman Scott were able to experience TOTAL darkness and get a feeling for what it was like for the sight impaired folks of Prague while raising money for them. Or Veronica our beautiful and informative guide at theLoreta Museum or Woody from the local band Rocket Dogzwho toured us by the cool cats at Lucky HazzardClothing. I hope to someday be able to return the favor for their generosity of their time and spirit.
It was good that we had Krakow and Prague to begin with because next up were Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria. They were to be our very first real challenge and bump in the road on this journey. Thankfully, we were beginning to gel as a team both in terms of our travel and our production chops.
Stay tuned for our adventures in Bratislava, Slovakia and yes, Vienna, Austria (Raw Travel Style) up next.
For more photos from our travels through Prague, please visit our set on Flikr HERE.
Krakow, Poland was our 1st stop on our current Central & Eastern European tour and it was challenging to say the least, but through no fault of this magical city. No, it was purely a “jet lag / lack of sleep” kind of thing where the entire crew was operating on less than ideal conditions with little to no time for sleep or time change adjustment before we began shooting for Season 2. We had only 5 days to attempt to tell Krakow’s story and we didn’t want to waste one single day.
Other than myself looking exhausted on camera (the bags under my eyes had bags of their own), and our cameraman extraordinaire, Scott taking a wicked tumble down the winding stair case in our apartment (no broken bones and better even yet, no broken cameras) , we came through Krakow not only in tact but feeling we’d documented a pretty sweet episode.
Special thanks to Sara, a U.S. ex-pat, Polish language student & travel writer from Minnesota who now calls Krakow home. Sara helped us out immensely with pre-trip tips and then showed us around the fairytale like Wawel Hill & Castleoverlooking the Olde Town. A fire breathing dragon is the mascot here in Krakow and there is one that actually breathes fire every 3-4 minutes or so guarding the castle from below.
Walking around the castle grounds, perhaps it was the jet lag but I felt almost transported back to my childhood when my imagination could wander free with fantastical thoughts. I remembered fondly my mother reading fairy tales to me about dragons, knights and wicked witches. Yes, Krakow has a very mid-evil feel and for good reason as it gives new meaning to the word old. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569.
For a more recent historical journey, Sara also took us to the now trendy, old Jewish District where prior to World War II tens of thousands of Jews lived and worked. Today travelers the world over visit this area to see the last part of the remaining wall from the old Jewish Ghetto the Nazi’s built to corral the Jewish population before shipping many of them out to their deaths in nearby concentration camps. Sadly, today there are only a handful of Jews left in Krakow.
Reminders of this history and the tragedy that befell so many Jews in WW II was evident throughout Krakow. The friendly folks at Schindler’s Museum took us on a fascinating tour of their new museum set on the grounds of the old and now famous Schindler’s Factory where Oskar Schindler risked his own neck to save over 1,000 Jews from certain death.
A somber bus trip to nearby Auschwitzwas personally fulfilling and helped bring some perspective to an event that has been covered via film & TV so much as to seem almost intangible to me at times. However, seeing 1st hand a Nazi wallet allegedly fashioned from human skin on display at Schindler’s along with the mugshot photos of the many prisoners on the walls of the Auschwitz barracks really brought the surreal horror of what happened home for me. The eyes of the prisoner’s told their story, a sad realization perhaps that they were going to die in horrible fashion.
Man’s inhumanity to man throughout human history never ceases to amaze and dismay me. Auschwitz and Schindler’s were not happy places but they were not overly depressing either. I feel both the museum and Auschwitz hit the proper sober and respectful tone without being remotely exploitative and I recommend all visitors to Krakow please check them out.
On a happier note a trek out to the recently created Cafe Finska help restore my faith in humanity just a bit. The ladies from the all girl punk & rock band “Brains All Gone”accompanied us there after playing an amazing acoustic set for us in the park by the river to a gathering crowd of onlookers. I’ve included a music video of Brains All Gone so you can check them out for yourself. Trust me when I say that they sound even better live and really, who could ask for a better band name?
Cafe Finska has a neat concept in that everything is 100% free and is run purely through donations and volunteers working to keep the cafe open. They hosts events such as musical concerts, poetry readings and on the day we were there, there was a loosely organized Spanish language lesson taught by a cool chap from Chile now living in Krakow. How ironic that just 25 years after the fall of communism in Poland, that a cafe challenging the very premise of capitalism would spring up. The pendulum of human history continues to swing from one side to the next and perhaps will forever be thus but I nevertheless find it fascinating.
Other highlights of the trip was a tour that immersed us via a “miner’s tour” in the famous Wieliczka Salt Mines nearby. Special thanks to our new pals at See Krakowfor lining this up for us. I highly recommend them when visiting Krakow and a tour to the salt mines is a must.
On everyone’s list of favorites was the “Communism Tour” from Crazy Guides in a typical Trabantcar to Nowa Huta, a throwback suburb of Krakow from back in the communist era. This tour was about as a-typical as you can get and we all raved about our lunch in an actual Milk Bar (communist style, government subsidized cafeteria).
We had some authentic, home made Polish & Eastern European specialties such as perogies, cabbage, borsch soup, etc. at simply dirt cheap prices. We all agreed it was by far the best meal we had on the trip, bar none, and the “no frills” no smiling (and almost no talking) service literally felt like we were in 1970s Poland in Iron Curtain times.
Krakow was full of visitors but very few from the U.S. It’s Europe’s darling and I think it will soon be a favorite of the U.S. soon. I know I can’t wait to get back, just hopefully sans all the work obligations and with a bit more sleep under my belt.
To see more photos from our travels to Krakow and Poland visit our set on Flikr HERE.
In the summer of 2012, I spent a wonderful month traveling through Eastern Europe. I began with a week in beautiful Budapest, Hungary then took the train to the surprising Belgrade, Serbia then on to the kind of crazy Bucharest, Romania and ended my journey in historic and lovely Kiev, Ukraine. You can read about some of my journey HERE.
The whole time, “Raw Travel”, then a project without a home, was not far from my mind. I was pre-producing in my head everywhere I went. Making mental and physical notes of ideas for producing shows, showcasing Eastern Europe in ways I’d never seen on U.S. television and maybe even internationally as well. I was making valuable contacts as well.
Now, it’s time to return… but this time, with my crew and this time, pre-production gives way to the art & stress of actual producing. These are going to be our Fall 2014 episodes for Raw Travel’s 2nd season (2014-15). This is not a dress rehearsal friends, this is the real deal and we want to keep striving to produce better and better content.
Unfortunately, with the political situation being what it is in Ukraine, I won’t be able to return there this time, and Serbia, a place I fell in love with, may or may not be on the agenda depending on how the travel agenda works out.
But we’re definitely heading to Hungary and Romania and we’d like to know where YOU would like for us to go in Eastern Europe. Should Serbia be in our plans? How about the Czech Republic or Poland or Bulgaria. The beautiful beaches of Croatia or nearby Slovenia or Slovakia. Got some ideas for us while we’re there.. hit us up.
We’re in the heavy planning stages but we will be nailing things down in the next few weeks as we will be there in June-July 2014 filming. We’re wide open to suggestions, so hit us up on our Facebook,twitter or just send us a good old fashioned email.