I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

More Questions from Curious Blog-Reading Travelers

Question: After spending so much time in Europe for so many years, how do you keep things fresh, once you’ve been to a place and already seen all the sights?
Answer: I sometimes ponder dedicating an entire year of travels to all new places. But then, when I return to a city I think I know, I learn so much and am able to improve an existing guidebook chapter. This year so far virtually new destinations for me have been: Cordoba, Tangier, Zagreb, Bosnia, and Montenegro. And I’m really quite high on each of these places. But I’m just as excited about how I’ve spiffed up my Barcelona, Sevilla, and Italy material. And there’s no thrill for a tour guide like producing a dynamite new TV show (which we just did covering Barcelona and the Dordogne). Fresh? Everything’s still wiggling.

Question: I’m worried about taking a camera due to European pickpockets. Will it be safe packed in my day bag? I’m especially worried about the “packed-in” situations at train stations, on busses, and so on.
Answer: As Europe gets more affluent, I no longer hear about the brazen “break the car window and grab your purse while at a stop light” kind of theft. Throughout Europe’s rough spots, I feel much safer now than a decade ago. You still need to exercise caution and assume thieves will target American tourists. But the least of my concerns is a thief grabbing my camera. The real risk is a mental lapse on my part and just forgetting something when out and about.

Question: Any useful phrases to say in Europe, like vada via (“go away”)?
Answer: I enjoyed saying complimenti a lot when wanting to give Italians my complements for something well done or served.

Question: Do you have any tips on how to get around Venice and Dubrovnik with mobility issues?
Answer: Bring a sedan chair with two strong boys. These places (along with the Cinque Terre villages and Italian hill towns) are about a miserable as can be for anyone who has trouble with steps. Go off-season to avoid the heat and crowds. I think choosing places where “car touring” works (West Ireland, England’s Cotswolds, France’s Dordogne, Danish countryside) would be easier and more enjoyable.

Question: Do you still lead tours for your tour company? Also, is there any way to select one of your tours based on the tour guide before committing to a tour?
Answer: I led our tours for 25 years (until 2002). I have 60 guides that do our tours now…and I can promise you most of them (specialists in their regions) do a better job then I (the generalist) could do. I personally am thrilled to be trusting my wife’s and my two-week vacation this September in Greece to one of our Greek guides. Sure, our guides vary in degrees of excellence. But I have complete faith in each of our guide’s ability to exceed the high expectations of our tour customers. There are always some tour members who don’t click personally with a guide. In these cases, while I empathize with the tour member…I support our guide. But if a guide can’t exceed expectations for the majority of the people on their tour, they don’t work for us.

Question: How do you keep from losing the perspective of the inexperienced traveler who needs to pack lightly and spend frugally? It seems the fact you have a production staff in tow would prevent that possibility.
Answer: This is a great question…and challenge. I make a point to be befuddled, to be stressed by the high cost, to be wide-eyed and green. (It seems to come naturally.) It is critical for me not to loose the mind-set of the less-experienced travelers who use my material, but then to draw on my experience to distill and design all the data and information into a helpful little package. Because I’m the generalist on my staff (who doesn’t speak another language), I can remind my researchers who specialize in a particular country what it’s like to be overwhelmed, tentative, and frustrated by the challenges presented by a new city. I still don’t know the words for “push” or “pull” in any language other than my own…and look forward to walking into doors all over Europe for a long time to come.

Questions from Curious Blog-Reading Travelers

Question: With airlines asking you to put carry-ons on the scale to make sure they’re under 8 kg, do you find your packing list still works the same?
Answer: I pack the same as always. I find, in practice, it’s the dimensions, not the weight, that are the determining factor. I do carry on all my luggage whenever I can. If necessary I wear my coat and sweater and put my heavy electronic gear (laptop, camera, etc.) in my day pack. That leaves my “one piece of luggage” quite light and tight. If I fail the test, I’ll check my bags. I pack light not just to “carry it on” but to be mobile while in Europe.

Question: If the overhead compartments are full, will airlines make you check your bag? (British Air made me check a carry-on bag, as Heathrow now has a one-item rule.)
Answer: Yes, but I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t find a place to fit my bag. I used to hurry onto the plane fearing there would be no room in the overhead lockers. Now I relax at the gate until the very end. This lets me stroll on board without a long line and sit wherever I like, knowing definitively which seats are available. About Heathrow’s one-bag rule: My last time through London they actually told me to cram my day bag into my other bag, just to get past the check-in person. They admitted, after that…no one cares.

Question: What’s a “post 9/11-sized Swiss Army Knife” you mentioned? I can’t even get a little 1 1/4-inch Swiss Army pen knife through security.
Answer: I bury my 2.5-inch knife in my toiletries kit and they have never noticed it. If they do, I’m ready to loose it. I think the USA is realizing “zero tolerance” may get you elected…but in practice it’s pretty silly.

Question: As opposed to bad traits, are there any particular American attributes that Europeans find charming or refreshing?
Answer: Europeans are charmed by the casual friendliness that comes naturally to us Americans. My French friends can’t believe how friendly perfect strangers are to me and vice versa when I meet fans of my books or TV shows on the streets of Europe. I think they are charmed by (and a bit envious of) this.

Question: What brand of shirts do you wear in your travels? They never seem wrinkled.
Answer: No special secrets here. I don’t buy special gear from travel catalogs or travel stores…just Nordstroms, REI, and Eddie Bauer. I just checked — and all my shirts are 100% cotton except for one which is 60% cotton/40% polyester.

Question: Has Jackie ever been anywhere in Europe by herself, like her brother Andy? Does she plan to do the same trip that you and Andy took with one of her friends when she graduates from high school?
Answer: Seventeen-year-old Jackie just finished 11th grade. Next week she flies to Morocco with a program from her high school. After a week in Rabat, she’ll live in a humble village (no iPod, cell phone, laptop, or communication with home) for three weeks. She’ll be immersed in Moroccan village life (with no indoor plumbing, she stresses), putting her French to work, and learning how to live without all the material comforts rich suburban teens take for granted. She, her mom, and I are all excited about this personal challenge for her. She’s scheming to take a trip to Southeast Asia with a girlfriend after high school graduation next year. Meanwhile, Andy is well into his second year as an assistant tour guide for us in Europe.

Thanks for the questions.

Cetinje: Monks, Track Suits, and Europe’s Worst Piano

 

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Montenegro means “Black Mountain.” The place evokes the fratricidal chaos of an age when fathers taught their sons “your neighbor’s neighbor is your friend” in anticipation of future demographic struggles. When so-and-so-ovich was pounding on so-and-so-ovich (in Slavic names, “ovich” means “son,” like Johnson), a mountain stronghold was worth the misery.

From the idyllic Adriatic, I love to drive up the 26 switchbacks — someone painted numbers on each one — which take you from the Montenegrin coast into another world. At switchback #4, you pass a Gypsy encampment. At #18, you pull out for a grand view of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, marveling at how the vegetation, climate, and ambience is completely different up here.

At #24, you notice the “old road” — little more than an overgrown donkey path — that was once the kingdom’s umbilical cord to the Adriatic. The most vivid thing I remember about my last visit — decades ago — was that a grand piano was literally carried up the mountain so some big-shot nobleman could let it go out of tune in his palace.

As we crest the peak, the sea disappears and before us stretches a basin defined by a ring of black mountains — the heartland of Crna Gora (as the locals call Montenegro). And just down the road was Cetinje, the “Old Royal Capital” as the road sign proclaimed.

Every hundred yards or so, the local towing company had spray-painted on a rock “Auto Slep 067-838-555.” You had a feeling they were in the bushes praying for a mishap. We pulled out for a photo and noticed a plaque marking where Tito’s trade minister was killed in a 1948 ambush.

This is brutal country. And it’s poor. Desolate farmhouses claim to sell smoked ham, mountain cheese, and medovina (honey brandy) — but we didn’t see a soul. Up here, the Cyrillic alphabet survives better than on the coast.

Then came Cetinje. I’m nostalgic about this town — a classic mountain kingdom (with that grotesquely out-of-tune grand piano). Established as capital in 15th century, it’s the historic heart of the kingdom of Montenegro.

The capital was taken by the Turks several times. The hedonistic Turks would generally move in and enjoy a little RP&P. Quickly realizing there was little hedonism to enjoy here, they basically just destroyed the place and moved out. The people — I envision short men with long white beards — rebuilt.

Today Cetinje is a workaday, two-story town with barely a hint of its old status. The museums are generally closed. The economy is flat. A shoe factory and a refrigerator factory were abandoned with Yugoslavia’s break-up. (They were part of Tito’s ultimately unworkable economic vision for Yugoslavia — where, in the name of efficiency, things were made en masse for the entire country is one place.) Kids on bikes roll like tumbleweeds down the main street past old timers with hard memories.

At the edge of town is the St. Peter of Cetinje Orthodox monastery — the still-beating spiritual heart of the country. I stepped in. An Orthodox monk — black robe and beard halfway to his waist — nodded a welcome.

A classic old woman in black was at a candlelit basin. I photographed her. She snarled at me like a mad cat. I recalled hearing stories of how — just two decades ago — Serbs were raping old women in Catholic churches and Croats were raping old women in Orthodox churches; and realized I couldn’t imagine the scars that these people lived with (even in places like Cetinje, which saw no actual fighting).

A service was in progress. I stepped in and stood (as everyone does in an Orthodox liturgy) in the back. The action was amazing. People — mostly teenagers in sporty track suits — were trickling in…kissing everything in sight. Seeing these rough and casual teens bending respectfully at the waist as they kissed icons, bibles, and the hands of monks was mesmerizing.

And for the first time I understood what the iconostasis (called a “rood screen” in Western European sightseeing) is all about. Used long ago in Catholic churches, and still today in Orthodox churches, the screen separates the common worshippers from the priests and holy magic. Here, with flames flickering on gilded icons, incense creating an otherworldly ambience, and almost hypnotic chanting, I stood on the commoner’s side of the screen.

Behind the screen — which, like a holy lattice, provides privacy but still lets you peek through — I could see busy priests in fancy robes, and above it all the arms of Jesus. I knew he was on the cross, but I only saw his arms. As the candlelight flickered, I felt they were happy arms…wanting and eager to give a big Slavic bear hug.

Montenegro: Let the Experience Breathe

 

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Driving south from Dubrovnik, we hit a border in less than an hour. In the next week, my punch-drunk passport will be stamped and stamped and stamped. While the unification of Europe has made most border crossings feel archaic, the break-up of Yugoslavia has kept them in vogue here. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia just a year ago. Presto! Another border. The poorer the country, it seems, the more ornate the border formalities.

By European standards, Montenegro is about as poor as it gets. They don’t even have their own coins. With just 620,000 people, they decided, heck, let’s just use euros. (And since it’s such a tiny place, the official Eurozone countries are willing to look the other way.)

Montenegro is pretty light on sights. But along its humble Adriatic coastline is the Bay of Kotor, with its delightful main town of Kotor. People love to call it “fjord-like.” (Too many people who say “fjord-like” have never really seen a fjord. If you’ve been to Norway, you know it’s rare that something routinely described as “fjord-like” is actually fjord-like. The Bay of Kotor, however, is worthy of the description.)

At the humble town of Perast, young Montenegrin swim-trunk-clad hunks riding little dinghies jockey to motor tourists out to the island in the middle of the bay. According to legend, fishermen saw Mary in the reef and began a ritual of dropping a stone on the spot every time they sailed by. Eventually the island we see today was created, and upon that island was built a fine little church.

Cameron and I hired a hunk, cruised out, and were met by an English-speaking young woman. (The language barrier is minimal here, as English is taught from first grade in school.) She gave us a fascinating tour.

In the sacristy hung a piece of embroidery — a 25-year-long labor of love made by a local parishioner. It was as exquisite as possible, lovingly made with silk and the woman’s own hair. We could trace her laborious progress through the cherubs that ornamented the border. As the years went by, both the hair of the angels and the hair of the devout artist turned from dark brown to white. Humble and anonymous as she was, she had faith that her work was worthwhile and would be appreciated — as it was today, two centuries later, by travelers from around the world.

I’ve been at my work for 25 years — hair’s doing fine so far. I also have a faith that it (my work, if not my hair) will be appreciated. That’s perhaps less humble than the woman, but, in that way…she reminded me of me.

I didn’t take a photograph of the embroidery. For some reason, I didn’t even take notes. At the moment, I didn’t recognize I was experiencing the highlight of my day. The impression of the woman’s loving embroidery needed — like a good red wine — to breathe. That was a lesson for me. I was already, mentally onto the next thing. When the power of the impression opened up, it was rich and full-bodied…but I was long gone. Hmmm.

Back in the town, I had a bijela kava (“white coffee,” as a latte is called here) and watched kids coming home from school. Two girls walked by happily spinning the same batons my sisters spun when I was a tyke. And then a sweet girl walked by all alone — lost in thought, carrying a tattered violin case.

Even in a country without its own currency, in a land where humble is everything’s middle name, parents can find an old violin and manage to give their little girls grace and culture. Letting that impression breathe, it made me happier than I imagined it would.

Hold the Mortar and Say Dubrovnik

 

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Pero Carević (a Dubrovnik B&B owner) and Cameron Hewitt (co-author of my Croatia and Slovenia guidebook — just out in its first edition) met me at the Dubrovnik airport. Coming in from France, I suffered a little culture shock. Life here had the same energetic metabolism…but cheaper jeans, smaller cars, more broken concrete, and almost no fat people. Pale meat, pale pickles, and pale “juice drink” — all part of a tentative stability and affluence following their devastating civil war.

Within a few minutes’ drive, we were parked at the towering base of Dubrovnik’s mammoth and floodlit walls. Pero walked me to his boutique guest house on a steep, tourist-free lane in Europe’s finest fortified port city.

Offering me some orakojvica (the local grappa-like firewater), Pero explained that he was wounded in the war but was bored and didn’t want to live on the tiny government pension — so he rebuilt his Old Town home as a guest house. Hoping to write tonight with a clear head, I tried to refuse the drink. But this is a Slavic land. Remembering times when I was force-fed vodka in Russia by new friends, I knew it was hopeless. Pero made it himself…with green walnuts. Giving me the glass, he said, “Walnut grappa — it recovers your energy.”

Pero described — holding the mangled tail of a mortar shell he pulled out from under the counter — how the gorgeous stone and knotty-wood building we were in suffered a direct hit in the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik. I didn’t enjoy touching it. The bedroom Pero grew up in was destroyed. His injury will be with him for the rest of his days. In spite of how those towering and mammoth walls were impotent against an aerial bombardment, life here was, once again, very good.

I took Pero’s photograph. He held the mortar…and smiled. I didn’t want him to hold the mortar and smile…but that’s what he did.