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.
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.