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

Europhiles Get Defensive

My wonderful staff — the 70 people I work with at Europe Through the Back Door — is filled with specialists…people who are passionate about their favorite slice of Europe. I value that because it gives me, the generalist, experts to collaborate with and do better work. Lately I’ve noticed how my staff is actually jealous…defensive…even touchy…about their favorite regions.

Cameron, who spear-heads our Eastern Europe program and has single-handedly made Slovenia and Croatia an important part of our work, lamented how the book he co-authors doesn’t sell as well as some of my other co-authored guidebooks. And it has nothing to do with royalties. He really is saddened by the fact that Slovenia isn’t appreciated like Ireland or France. I no longer jokingly mix up Slovenia and Slovakia. (I don’t think Cameron thinks it’s funny.)

Cameron recently spent a day showing me the wonders of Istria, a trendy peninsula in Croatia. We were doing primary research — running down leads, driving down tiny dirt dead-ends, hitting and missing as any good guidebook researcher must do. All day long we were missing. It’s the hardest thing about writing a guidebook. Cameron was disappointed, concerned that I was getting a bad impression of Istria, whose fans mention it in the same breath as Tuscany and Provence. Now I know those comparisons are a bit of a stretch. While deep down, I think Cameron accepts this, he’d never actually say so.

Thankfully, the next day we hit Rovinj — a new favorite of mine. Standing on the rampart, overseeing the enchanting scene after an exhilarating day or research and writing, Cameron said triumphantly, “Sir, another back door gem in your domain.”

Steve Smith motors our France program and co-authors our France, Paris, and Provence books. Steve has single-handedly turned me into a Francophile — no easy chore — for which I am profoundly grateful. He taught me to pronounce formidable just like Louis XVI (for-mee-dah-bluh).

Steve also helps out on the TV productions in France. On our recent shoot, I closed the show saying, “The more I understand France, the more I appreciate this complex and fascinating culture.” Steve thought this was pejorative (needlessly repeating a cliché that makes the French sound aloof). I argued, “Complex is good. You want a complex wine, movie, woman…France. It’s good!” Steve, surprising me with his sensitivity on this issue, didn’t really buy it.

Dave Fox, an ace Scandinavia guide for us, is a rare Norway nut. (I am too, as I like the ear-waxy Norwegian goat cheese and three of my grandparents were born there.) The region (both books and tours) is a slow seller. For years we’ve pulled out all the stops to turn people on to the “ya sure ya betcha” wonders of Nordic Europe—and used that clichetic phrase liberally. One day recently, Dave sent me a carefully written email requesting that, out of respect for the Norwegian culture, we take “ya sure ya betcha” out of our marketing vocabulary. At first I thought he must be kidding…but (even though he’s a comedian, see www.davethefox.com) he was dead serious. Respecting Dave more than our miserable Scandinavian bottom line, we agreed. Ya sure ya betcha. It goes on and on. Every time I see tour guide Ian Watson he advocates for a TV episode on Iceland. Tour guide Karoline Vass realized a life’s dream by moving to the city of her wildest fantasies…Berlin. Our first employee, Dave Hoerlein, married his Danish teacher on a Viking holy ground in rural Denmark. And Tooraj Fooladi, another of our tour guides, just sent me a lovingly and laboriously written chapter on Valencia — his hometown — in hopes that I would wake up, smell the paella, and include it in my Spain guidebook.

So what? Well, thanks to the passions of my staff, I’ve learned that while Italy may sell the best, each corner of Europe has a unique and real charm. A destination is worthy simply because it exists with people who proudly call it home. And it’s clear to me (thanks to all our specialists), that the more you understand a region, the more you appreciate and enjoy it. And — not in spite of their sensitivities but because of their sensitivities — I’m thankful to have these travelers on my team.

Europe Gives Me the Shutters

On this trip, I’ve had a wonderful series of heavy wooden shutters on my hotel windows. And I’ve made a point to use them. (Anne and I have an electric louver in our Seattle house…and on this trip I realized why I don’t like it.)

To open and close a classic European shutter, you need to get physical. You reach way out, struggle with the clunky hardware, and pull them one at a time. They lumber slowly around, shutting the outside world away with a prison-door clank. They are painted so many times the louvers no longer work. Hurricane-strength hooks fitted to heavy stone walls batten things down.

With shutters shut, I never know what a new day will bring. I don’t even know the weather. But each morning I enjoy the ritual. I swing the shutters open…and with sunlight filling my room comes promise of another day, carbonated with people and learning.

I guess lots of shutters means I’m staying in the old centers of towns that care about the architectural harmony of their streets.

While the building interiors come with all the modern comforts, the exteriors are loyal to the past — stout, layered with paint, and ornamented in a way too impractical for our efficient world.

From Umbria to Andalusia to the Dordogne to Bosnia, I was opening and closing venerable old shutters. And — even when there were no shutters — each day began with an “open the shutters” ritual. Like a happy yawn and stretch, push open the blinders and embrace a new day.

Rovinj Saves Istria

 

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Rovinj — just a two-hour speed-boat ride from Venice — is the best coastal stop between Venice and Dubrovnik. I absolutely love the place. I’m not sure why. Let me just dig through its charms and maybe you’ll understand.

It’s small — like a little hunk of Venice draped over a hill, surrounded by the Adriatic on three sides. Peering through my camera viewfinder I keep thinking, simply, “romantic.”

Rovinj is a collage of vivid travel memories: shiny stones, boats — laden with kitschy shells for sale — rocking giddily in the harbor, and a bell tower with a rickety staircase that requires a powerful faith in the power of wood. From the top a patron-saint-weathervane boldly faces each menacing cloud front that blows in from sea.

Walking through the market puts me in a good mood. I feel like Marilyn Monroe singing to a bunch of sex-starved GIs. Women push grappa and homemade fruit brandies on me. Their sample walnuts are curiously flavorful. I’ll buy a bag on my way out of town…make someone happy.

The old communist monster hotel stands bold and garish on the horizon. Retro Tito-style cafés vie for your business. The woman who runs the Valentino cocktail bar hands out pillows as you arrive — an invitation to find your own nook in the rocks overlooking the bay.

Ducking away from the affluent Croatian chic on the main drag, I walk a few steps up a back street and step into a smoky time-warp bar that took “untouristy” to scary extremes. In fact, it was too untouristy to recommend in the “untouristy bars” section of our book. The town fishermen and alcoholics (generally, it seemed, one and the same) were smoking, bantering loudly, and getting too drunk on cheap homemade beer to notice the nude pinups plastering the walls. I no longer feel like Marilyn Monroe singing to sex-starved GIs. I feel like a rabbit at the nocturnal house at the zoo.

The guy who runs my hotel is Igor. His sales manager is Natasha. Interviewing them for our guidebook, I feel like I’m talking to cartoon characters. For all they know, I’m Boris. No one here knows me yet….it’s strange not to be taken seriously.

Romantic Rovinj is also humble: the fountain on the main square celebrates the water system arriving in 1959. The main monument on the seafront is a Social Realist block of concrete honoring the victims of “fascism” (read: Hitler and Mussolini).

The town’s tiny Batana Boat Museum celebrates the culture around the town’s beloved batana boat — an underwhelming flat-bottomed wooden craft little bigger than a dinghy. A video shows a time-lapse construction of a boat; another exhibit lets you move a wine glass from stain to stain on an old tablecloth, activating recordings of people speaking the local dialect (which apparently is more Venetian these days than Venetian itself); and a TV with a pair of headphones lets you listen to the local betinada music — a small choral group in which one man sings lead while the others imitate instruments.

On the prettiest corner in town, we spot a charming blond woman meeting two travelers to set them up in her rental apartment. My co-author Cameron and I wait until she’s finished, then ambush her with a request to show us the rental, hoping to add it to our guidebook listings. She says, “But I’m just a single woman with four rooms to rent and no agency.” That’s exactly who we want to partner with as we look for budget accommodations in Rovinj. We take a tour and the rooms are great. She can’t believe she’ll be in a book and pay no fee for the promotion.

Cameron and I high-five happily as Rovinj gets even better: We have a new listing for half the price of the town’s cheapest hotel (Miranda Fabris, at Chiurca 5, Db-€40 or €50 in July-Aug, lots of steep stairs, mobile 091-881-8881, miranda_fabris@yahoo.com).

Ivana’s Istrian Fingers

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I woke up in the dark. I pushed open my lumbering shutters. The heavy rain storm had cleaned the air, and an early-morning light invigorated the colors. Glistening red-tile roofs led to a rustic stone rampart. On the rampart was my co-author, Cameron, pointing his camera at a lush landscape of rolling hills and simple farms. This was Istria.

Feeling overworked, I scheduled a massage for 8:30. When I booked, for some reason I decided I’d enjoy it more if it wasn’t a male Croat working me over. I requested a woman. The receptionist assured me it was a woman…“a young woman.”

So I traded breakfast for a “sport massage” and climbed up to the hotel’s spa room, where Ivana met me. The experience seemed Yugoslavian (even though that country is long gone): No chat…no soft music…no candles…just the radio and hanging neon lights. Still, Ivana’s hands were strong. She did her work dutifully. It was an hour and $40 well spent.

With me in tow, Cameron valiantly tried to unearth some gems in Croatia’s Istrian interior. But either our luck was bad, or (more likely) there are few true gems to be found.

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Compared with the rest of the former Yugoslavia, Istria is charming enough. But a history of poverty leaves it with a disappointingly weak veneer of culture — an ersatz Tuscany. While nice roads lace together a lush green countryside, it’s cinderblocks rather than bricks, broken concrete rather than marble, rust rather than rustic. Istria’s much-flouted truffles may be tasty…but not tasty enough to shape an itinerary. The hill towns are hill towns…but so poor that they inherited nearly no distinctive architecture.

My advice for Istria in a nutshell: Motovun (where we slept…and Ivana works) is a fine hill town, uniquely Croatian with a fun splash of Italy (Mario Andretti was born here). The smaller hill town of note, Groznjan, was too sleepy for my taste on our visit in the shoulder season. The big city of Pula is great for its Roman amphitheater and a walk through work-a-day Croatia. But the saving grace of Istria…and one of my new favorites anywhere in Europe…? I’ll tell you later.

Sarajevo Roses, Croatian Squeegees, and the Worst Meal Yet

 

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I was actually looking forward to the all-day drive that would cover almost the entire length of Croatia. We left Mostar at lunchtime. On the way out of town, we stopped at a tiny grocery store, where a woman I had befriended the day before — a gorgeous person, sad to be living in a frustrating economy, and stiff with a piece of shrapnel in her back that doctors decided was safer left in — made us hearty ham sandwiches. As she sliced, I gathered the rest of what was a fine picnic meal on wheels.

Leaving town, we drove over patched blast holes in the pavement. In Sarajevo, they’ve filled these scars with red concrete as memorials: “Sarajevo roses.” Here they were black like the rest of the street — but knowing what they were, they showed up red in my mind.

My two-month trip was winding up. I’d be flying home in six days, and was now at the point where you start to budget your clothes — how long you’ll need to wear each remaining pair of clean socks to get home without doing laundry. Cameron and I compared packing philosophies. (Five socks and three underpants gets me about 10 days between trips to the laundry.)

It was hot…a bathing suit kind of drive. (I don’t travel with shorts, but resort to my swim trunks if it’s too hot for pants.) With bare feet on the dashboard, I can never relax…I’m always worried about being broke in two if the airbag is set off.

When we stop at the fortified village of Pocitelj, it seems the entire population is employed selling newspaper cones of dried apricots, walnuts, and cherries. Three little girls sit under an arch playing cards. I take a photo, and one grumbles at me, “One euro!” I make her smile. She’s having a bad day…mom thinks making her wear the traditional head covering of Muslim women in this town is good for sales.

First we follow the twisty coastal road north past appealing harbor towns and a chorus line of scrub-brush mountains plunging into the sea. Near Split, we board the perfectly new expressway and pick up speed. Every on-ramp, every sign, every light, every USA-style rest stop is shiny new.

On the expressway — where people spend $8 a gallon for gas and enjoy Western-style snacks in mini-markets — you see there’s a no-nonsense affluence to the former Yugoslavia that’s a long way from its humble but colorful past. It’s a land where dads with new cars teach their children to help squeegee the windows. Next week the Rolling Stones are playing in Montenegro, and all 60,000 tickets at $50 each are sold out. Obviously not everyone is selling paper cones of walnuts.

It’s clear we’ll be very late to our hotel, so we gird ourselves for the worst meal of our trip and have a rest-stop dinner. We walk through the smoke-filled bar — crammed full of angry tattoos and men who look like they could kill you without breaking a sweat. I can’t help but wonder which of these burly, aggressive guys might have been a killer or a rapist in the war that put “ethnic cleansing” into our vocabulary. While the bar is packed, the adjacent restaurant is empty. I ask the boy stuck at the cafeteria line what he’d eat. In his estimation, the mushroom and chicken with potato croquettes or gnocchi was the least of evils. I missed the woman with the shrapnel in her back.

At Rijeka, the ugliest town in Croatia, we run out of super-expressway. We’ve driven virtually its entire length and are about to pay the maximum toll. Cameron warns this will be pricey. We guess. Cameron says 250 kunas. I say 150. It’s 155…but the lady at the booth doesn’t understand my joy when she tells us the bill. (At about 5 kunas per dollar, that’s about $30 for the three-hour drive.)

We’re finally in Istria, Croatia’s trendy peninsula just across the water from Venice and bordering Slovenia. There’s a strong buzz about Istria…but my hunch is it’s a watered-down Tuscany at best. Through a driving rainstorm, we wind and wind through the dark to the summit of a hill town (Motovun). The road gets narrower and narrower. When we run out of road, we park, get out, and walk. Our rooms are ready. Sharing tales of tour guide friends who like to arrive after dark for the theatrics, we’ll have to wait to see what is revealed with the sun tomorrow. Then I’ll learn just how good this Istria is.