Vagabond in a Donut – Barbara Weibel

Barbara Weibel is one of my favorite travel bloggers. Barbara puts the focus on writing incredible posts with sometimes startling insights into the world of travel and culture. On top of that, she is one of the most positive people out there. Read on to see why this is one of my favorites and Barbara will soon be one of your favorites as well.

Barbara Weibel - Hole in the DonutVagobond: Barbara – I love your blog. Everything from the symbolism of the name (full on the outside, empty in the middle in reference to your former careers – “solid on the outside, empty on the inside”) to your amazing photography and insights into the people and places you travel. All of this made me wonder – did you have a background in anthropology?

Barbara Weibel: Interesting that you should ask that. The short answer is no, however I’ve always thought that if I could do life over and choose another career, I’d go into a science field. I’ve been a rockhound ever since I was old enough to pick up stones and still comb through mine tailings whenever possible, so I consider myself an amateur geologist. I’m also fascinated by culture and could easily have been an anthropologist or archeologist. Frankly, I’ve got enough knowledge to be dangerous but I also have an insatiable curiosity; it’s a great combination for a writer.

Vagobond:  You travel to a lot of off the beaten path places as a solo female traveler. What kind of challenges do you face in that regard?

Barbara Weibel: To date, I really haven’t faced any major challenges that specifically have to do with being female. I suspect that my age may be a factor in that regard, as these days I seem to garner more respect than I did as a young female traveler (when I was younger I had to fend off unwanted attention from men, but that’s not much of a problem any more). Of course, I haven’t traveled to any of the countries where women are severely oppressed, such as not being allowed to drive or go out in public alone. It’s probably a good thing I haven’t; I have little patience for that kind of thing and I’d probably push the boundaries and end up in trouble. I also think that being an experienced traveler makes a big difference. With years of perpetual travel under my belt, I have certain routines that serve me well and I’ve learned to never ignore my gut. If I feel like I’m in danger or need to leave a place, I do so; if I feel a certain person is not trustworthy, I extract myself from the situation immediately, even if it means being rude. But having said that, I also don’t travel in fear. Most people are good and will bend over backwards to help, and I’ve learned to trust my instincts.

Vagobond:  You stay a minimum of a month in your chosen destinations. Can you explain why?

Barbara Weibel: When I originally fled corporate life to pursue my passions for travel, writing, and photography, I’d just recovered from a serious illness. I thought I might die without getting to do all the things I’d always dreamed about. I promised myself that, if I recovered, I’d walk away from corporate life and backpack around the world. I did eventually recover and set out on a six-month round-the-world trip, determined to see as many places on my travel wish list as possible; as a result, I crammed 16 countries into six months. Gradually, I realized that I was fascinated by culture and by the fact that, despite differences in dress, traditions, food and religion, people all over the world are all more similar than we are different. As my writing delved more deeply into cultural issues, I found myself staying longer in each place in order to immerse in the local scene. At the same time, I discovered that I enjoyed my travels much more when I formed a local connection.

Vagobond:  I remember when you wrote about holding the Dalai Lama’s hand – are you a Buddhist? How did you become Buddist?

Barbara Weibel: I’ve been a “seeker” all my life and have read fairly extensively about most religious and spiritual traditions, but my first real contact with Buddhism came during a trip to Thailand in 2002. That trip confirmed that Buddhism was the spiritual philosophy that resonated most strongly with me. However, it took me a number of years and much more study to choose a particular Buddhist tradition. Theravadan Buddhism, which is practiced in Thailand and most other Southeast Asian countries, is considerably different from Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism practiced in Japan, and Tibetan Buddhism. During my first trip to Nepal, about two years ago, I finally had the opportunity to study Tibetan Buddhism with the Tibetan refugee community and quickly realized it was what I’d been looking for all along. The day last summer when the Dalai Lama held my hand and looked directly into my eyes was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had and I will treasure it always.

Vagobond:  Your travels are intimately connected with the people in the places you go – can you share how you go about making these connections?

Hole in the Donut - Barbara WeibelBarbara Weibel: I don’t really know how they happen, they just do. Sometimes, it’s like an invisible force is making my travel plans. I cannot count the number of times I have arrived someplace on a whim, with no reservations and no idea what is happening, only to find that a major celebration of some sort is underway. Of course, my innate curiosity is partially responsible, as I will talk to absolutely anyone and am constantly asking questions. But I can’t explain, for instance, why the city fathers of Alausi, Ecuador, climbed out of the bed of a pickup truck that happened to stop in front of me and subsequently invited me to be their honored guest at an Independence Day celebration of the indigenous Quichua community. Things like that happen to me repeatedly, in every corner of the world. I really think the key is being open and following my instincts.

Vagobond:  How do you feel that technology and the internet in particular have changed travel? Do you have any predictions for the future of travel?

Barbara Weibel: I believe that technology and the Internet have had the most significant effect on travel since the days of the early explorers. We can literally learn about any corner of the earth sitting in our living rooms. The drawback is that there are very few, if any, undiscovered places left on the face of the earth, which is one of the reasons I believe cultural travel is gaining in popularity. With no new places to discover, modern day explorers are turning to the peoples of the earth for new experiences. Frankly, I believe that only good can come from this. I am passionately committed to the idea that travel has a huge potential for effecting world peace. I have always believed that the better we know one another, the less likely we’ll want to kill one another.

Vagobond:  Nepal has been on my list of future destinations for a long time. I sometimes worry that by the time I get there, it will have been eaten up by modernity…you’ve spent a lot of time there – is Nepal changing? Is that a good or bad thing?

Barbara Weibel: Nepal is changing, but very, very slowly. Unfortunately, the caste system is still a very real part of the social structure. Add to this the political instability that the country has experienced in recent years and the rampant corruption, and you begin to see why the wheels of change grind so slowly. My fervent hope is that Nepal can move toward modernity without abandoning their rich cultural heritage and strong family values, as these are two of the things that I most treasure about the country that I consider my adopted second home.

Vagobond:  Can you share three travel tips that Vagobond readers may not have heard?

Barbara Weibel: 1) Forget about Travelers Checques; they are virtually useless as they are extremely hard to cash in many places. Instead, use your ATM card once you arrive in a country. Not only will you avoid having to carry large amounts of cash but you will also avoid currency exchange fees, and your bank will give you a better exchange fee than any money changer.

2) If you travel to a country where you don’t speak the language, be sure to pick up a few business cards from the hotel when you check in. Then, when you’ve been out sightseeing all day, you need only hand a card to a taxi driver, rather than try to find someone who speaks English. And in that same vein, use only legal taxis in foreign countries. The front desk clerk at your hotel should be able to tell you how to identify legal taxis and can call one for you; when returning to your hotel, if you are in doubt, use a taxi waiting in front of any large hotel, as they will undoubtedly be legal operators.

3) If you are on a budget, consider hostels as an option for accommodations. Most now offer private rooms in addition to dorms, and hostels are a wonderful way to connect with other travelers who are only too happy to share tips about the best local places.

Vagobond:  We were both part of Lonely Planet’s ‘Around the World with 40 Bloggers’ – are there other books in your future? What about other places where readers can find more of your writing? Any compilations?

Barbara Weibel: I have been working on a memoir off and on for the past 5 years, but haven’t been able to complete it because I’ve been consumed with perpetual travel and building my blog. However, one of my goals this year is to finish the book and, hopefully, get a publishing contract. I’m headed back to Nepal in early April for two months, and I’ve carved out that time to focus on the memoir. I also have plans to publish an anthology in ebook form about my favorite travel experiences, but don’t have a time frame for that just yet.

Vagobond:  Do you earn your living from Hole in the Donut? What has been the most challenging part of becoming a successful travel writer/blogger?

Barbara Weibel: Though I earn a bit from the occasional freelance article or photograph sold for publication, Hole In The Donut is my primary source of income. I earn enough from advertising to keep me on the road full time, although not in luxury digs by any means. Without a doubt, the most challenging part of becoming a successful travel blogger is the time versus money issue. In order to sell advertising, I have to be highly ranked by Google, which brings traffic to the site. Good Google ranking comes from producing high quality, original narrative writing, but also demands a concerted social media campaign, good search engine optimization techniques, and staying in touch with my peers in the travel blogging community, all of which takes time. And that doesn’t even begin to address the more than 100 emails I receive and answer each day and the hours it takes to download, categorize, label, and review the 200+ photos I take each day. By the time I dig through the business end of blogging, I sometimes find it difficult to flip into right-brain mode and write creatively.

Vagobond:  Barbara – what is a question that I should have asked you? And more importantly – what is the answer?

Barbara Weibel: Having given up almost all material comforts in your life, after five and a half years of travel, do you have any regrets?

I absolutely love what I do and don’t have a single regret. Despite the constant need to be frugal, I still wake up every morning and can’t wait to talk to the next person, ferret out the next story, and snap the next incredible photo. I spent 35 years in corporate life, earning tons of money and hating every day of my life. Now I have very little in the way of material possessions but I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m living proof that it’s never too late to pursue your true passions.

Guide Book Vagabond – Tom Brosnahan

I was excited to get a chance to interview Tom Brosnahan. I was introduced to Tom’s work through his book Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea  (if you haven’t read it, I recommend it – fun, informative and a great travel read) – his book led me to find his incredible website Turkey Travel Planner (which, by the way is the most important resource you will find if you plan on taking a trip to Turkey).

Tom is an old school travel writer, guide book author – the kind that went to the destination, walked all the streets, drew the map if there wasn’t one, learned the language, and checked all the prices – and what is incredibly cool, is that he is also a pioneer of the new school of travel writing and online guides.

Here are some excerpts from his bio at the site :

Tom Brosnahan is a veteran guidebook author, travel writer and photographer, and consultant on travel information to companies and government agencies. He has written over 40 guidebooks for Berlitz, Frommer’s and Lonely Planet covering Belize, Canada, Egypt, England, France, Guatemala, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New England, Tunisia and Turkey, with nearly four million copies in print worldwide in more than 10 languages. He’s also written a memoir about Turkey, travel, and travel writing: Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea.

He has been a Contributing Editor to Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine, and has had many articles and photographs published in leading periodicals including Travel and Leisure, The New York Times, theDaily Telegraph (London), Chicago Tribune, New YorkDaily News, BBC World, Journeys, Odyssey, Travel Life, and TWA Ambassador.

He is the founder of the Travel Info Exchange andTurkey Travel Planner websites, and many more travel resource sites. Tom has appeared on Good Morning America, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Anthem, The Connection, and on the Travel Channel and has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, the American Turkish Council, and other organizations.

He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and a co-founder and faculty member emeritus of the SATW Institute for Travel Writing and Photography. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with his wife Jane A Fisher.

Vagobond: You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in travel, in your opinion, what are some of the major pitfalls that lurk waiting for a travel writer?

Tom Brosnahan: The biggest is not judging a project accurately. Too many travel writers end up losing money and subsidizing publishers because they aren’t careful estimating the time and work in a project, and determining if it will be profitable.

Vagobond: In Bright Sun, Strong Tea, I remember laughing out loud when the neighbor giril in Izmir tried to corner you for a smooch – what other dangers have you narrowly avoided in your travels?

Tom Brosnahan: I play it safe—I’m not a war correspondent! But I’ve been chased by suspected terrorists in eastern Turkey, had rocks thrown at my car in Palestine, heard bombs go off in Jerusalem, been shaken down by guerillas in Chiapas, been in traffic accidents in Istanbul and Bangkok. But really, most travel is safe. Scary headlines rarely portray the situation each traveler will encounter, so I go in slow, and decide how far I can go safely.

Vagobond: There’s no arguing that travel has changed dramatically since the dawn of the information age – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed, both for the positive and for the negative?

Tom Brosnahan: Guidebooks have been used—and useful—since Roman times, but it can take up to a year to publish and distribute a paper guidebook, and with the Internet I can publish my work immediately, to the entire world, for next to nothing, forever! It’s apotheosis for a travel writer. Travelers now have far more, and better information than ever before, and that’s good for everyone. If there’s a negative, it’s that there’s simply too much information. Finding what you want can be tedious.

Vagobond: You and I share a love of Turkey – at the moment there are some pretty big changes going on in Turkish society – where do you think those changes will lead?

Tom Brosnahan:Turkey’s modern history is amazing: a torpid medieval empire remade into a vibrant modern free-enterprise democracy in less than a century. Turkey is now the economic powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean, and a living example of democracy for other countries in the region. Especially in the past 20 years the change has been bewildering for many Turks. A young woman whose grandmother may have been in a harem can now pilot a jetliner. Hardscrabble life on the farm has yielded to glitzy ultramodern shopping malls. Such rapid change is difficult for people to absorb, but greater education, information and prosperity are forces for peace.

Vagobond: Like you, Istanbul feels like my second home, but you’ve spent a lot more time there than I have – can you toss some hidden destinations/experiences my way that I may have missed?

Tom Brosnahan: Visit the imperial ‘kasr’s, tiny palaces built for the sultan’s excursions. Get yourself invited to the “sema” (religious observance) of a dervish order (and not just the Mevlevi, or whirling, dervishes). Seek out the Roman aqueducts in the forests west and north of Istanbul. Witness the opening of the Galata Bridge in the middle of the night. Climb to the top of a minaret for the view.

Vagobond: Some of my Turkish friends in Istanbul have this particular form of national profiling – when they look at an American – they tend to just see the carpet they expect them to buy. What are some other ‘profiles’ you’ve encountered of both Americans on one side and Turks on the other?

Tom Brosnahan:Some years ago, Turkish tourist guides were asked by a major newspaper to describe each national type. It was hilarious:

Americans: friendly, interested, big tippers
Arab: three good meals daily and nothing else matters
British: scorpions in their pockets—you’ll never get a tip
German: so well informed, they’ll have to show you they know more than you do. And if there’s no beer there, don’t even stop the bus.
Israeli: always drama, dispute, tempest in a teacup

Vagobond: You’ve traveled to a lot of other places than Turkey – could you share some highlights with our readers?

Tom Brosnahan: I wrote for decades on Mexico & Central America. I’d drive from Boston and put 11,000 miles on the car. Mexico alone has the topographic, ethnic and linguistic diversity of all of Europe. Egypt: I hadn’t planned to go there, then I was asked by Berlitz to write a guide, now I believe every traveler must see Egypt. Norway: beautiful, friendly, peaceful. Expensive but worth it. If the world ever needs a capital city, it had better be Paris. As for France, it’s actually a whole bunch of little countries sharing a common border. Finally, I love New England. Did you know we have dozens of wineries here?

Vagobond: What are three pieces of advice for travelers that are often overlooked?

Tom Brosnahan:1. Cheap or expensive? Whether it’s a hotel, a meal, a guided tour, or a souvenir, the devil is in the details. Be sure you’re comparing the same things. A $100 hotel room in Istanbul includes all taxes and service charges, and a big buffet breakfast. A $100 hotel room in New York includes none of these, and taxes can add 17% to your bill. A $35 meal in Boston will be subject to 5.5% tax and 15% to 20& tip. A $35 meal in Paris costs exactly that.

  1. Safe or deangerous? Look more closely, and judge accordingly. The most horrendous terrorist attacks in recent times took place not in Kabul or Beirut or Cairo, but in New York City, London and Madrid.
  2. Concentrate on transportation: it may not be what you’re used to. It may be better to take a bus than a flight or rental car. It may be much farther than you think. Transport could be one of your greatest costs, overall.

Vagobond: It seems that you’ve adopted the web as your primary ‘publisher’ – as a geek who primarily does the same – I just love that. What were some of the factors that led to this? Was it a positive move? Do you think there is a future in writing for print?

Tom Brosnahan: I did well with guidebooks for 35 years, but then the pay went down while the work and responsibility went up. It was clear those trends would continue. It was also clear the Web was the information medium of the future: immediate publication, worldwide, virtually for free.

It has worked far better than I imagined. Instead of 75,000 readers in dozen countries per year I have nearly 7 million readers in 235 countries. And I’m earning far more than I ever did with print.
The paper codex (“book”) has been a useful medium since Gutenberg and will continue to be useful in a smaller way. But writing for print has little future. The publishers think they need to keep all the money.

Vagobond: What’s the best way for a travel writer to figure out what their audience is looking for?

Tom Brosnahan: Be in contact with them. Ask for comments. Set up an online forum. Talk to them on the road. Explore the statistics from your Web presence. There will be surprisess.

Find more of Tom’s work and guides at Travel Info Exchange and Turkey Travel Planner

Vagabonding Vagabond Blogger – Our Interview with Rolf Potts

If you’ve done or thought about doing any long term travel in the age of the internet, chances are you’ve heard of Rolf Potts.

Rolf was blogging about travel for Salon at the dawn of the 2000’s, but he is best known for the publication of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long Term Travel in December of 2002. The book struck a chord with the internet generation and became a runaway hit amongst those who had missed the days of the hippie trail. The book is about taking serious time off from your normal life to discover and experience the world on your own terms. With sections on  financing your travel time,  determining your destination,  adjusting to life on the road and handling travel adversity, the book addresses travel as inner development tool rather than travel as something that you simply do.

In the spirit of Ed Buryn‘s Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa, Potts book captured the imagination of a generation that was finding its way on the internet and wandering what the meaning of life truly was.  Coming right after the dot com bust and on the eve of the financial crisis in the US and Europe, the book fit the bill for filling the gap between living to work and working to live and offered the opportunity to turn your life into your work through travel.

Since then Potts has piloted a fishing boat 900 miles down the Laotian Mekong, hitchhiked across Eastern Europe, traversed Israel on foot, bicycled across Burma, drove a Land Rover across South America, and travelled around the world for six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind. He has also published a second book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer and continues to travel around the world between rest stops at his farmhouse in Kansas. Rumor has it that Rolf has something new in the works for 2012 but he is keeping mum about it for now. I caught up with the vagabonding vagabond blogger via email and he kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions for Vagobond readers about life, travel, authenticity and himself.

Vagobond: What were you doing career wise before you started blogging for Salon (before the publication of Vagabonding)?

Rolf Potts: My last job before I transitioned into a full-time writing was teaching English in Korea. It was a key job for me, since in addition to earning me a decent amount of money for travel, it allowed me to live in and get to know an unfamiliar culture for a couple of years. My two years in Busan wasn’t always easy, but it was an essential experience that made me a better traveler down the line.
Before that teaching gig I hadn’t been following a single career path — I worked as a landscaper in Seattle for awhile, and I worked at an outdoor store, selling backpacks and fly-rods, in Kansas. This was all building up to what I really wanted to do — writing — and eventually that happened for me.

Vagobond: My first book was all about living in a van and enjoying time instead of money. I understand your first travels were in a van too. What were some lessons you picked up from living in a van?

Rolf Potts:I think traveling and living out of a van during my first vagabonding trip taught me some essential lessons about minimalism and keeping things simple. Since I was sleeping in the van most nights, I didn’t have a lot of room for extra “stuff”, so all I brought were some clothes and camping gear in a couple of laundry baskets. And even the gear I had in those laundry baskets wasn’t always necessary — I quickly learned that the American road provided me with most everything I needed experientially; my gear played a fairly minor role in my most interesting experiences. This was a lesson I applied while packing for my later backpacking trips across Asia, and even my no-baggage journey around the world in 2010.

Vagobond: In Vagabonding, you wrote about the philosophy of long-term travel – has that changed in the decade since then? How has technology changed your philosophy?

Rolf Potts:I don’t think my philosophy of vagabonding has changed — and in fact I wrote it in such a way that technological and other changes wouldn’t ever alter its core message, which is about keeping things simple and seeking one’s wealth in time and life-xperiences. Those are values that would apply in the 19th century as easily at the 21st. So regardless of what new tools and gadgets arrive to make travel easier, the core principles of vagabonding won’t change much.

One interesting thing about new technology — like social media and smart phones — is that it is making independent travel a lot easier.

More people are doing it now, I think, because it feels a lot safer and easier and more accessible than it used to. The flipside of this is that the conveniences of travel are more and more making travel and extension of home. In many ways we don’t have to psychically leave home” when we travel — we can keep in such close contact with our friends, family, and social networks — and this can diminish the experience of travel to an extent. So much of what is transformative about travel comes from confronting — and working through — being lonely and bored and lost. The less we’re forced to encounter those little challenges as travelers, the more travel tends to become a consumer experience.

Vagobond: Do you see any problems with the massive growth of independent and long-term travel? What about the huge growth of tourism?

Rolf Potts:There will invariably be problems with the growth of any industry, and travel is no exception. There will also be benefits. Indie travelers spend a lot of money in the “mom and pop” economies of faraway places — which is a good thing — but the presence of so many travelers can also strain the local culture and environment. Islands are particularly vulnerable to large influxes of tourists, since scarce resources like water get diverted to tourist needs instead of local ones. I don’t think this means travel should be curtailed to these places — its an important cultural and economic force — but it does mean that destinations should take care in planning tourist

facilities, and travelers should be cognizant of the impacts they bring. In a way I think indie travelers are better equipped than standard vacation tourists to wander in a mindful way, since a vagabonding-style traveler emphasizes going slow and keeping  informed.

Vagobond: I realize I’m supposed to ask you about the best destination, your favorite country or something like that – but instead, what’s your favorite tourist area?

Rolf Potts:Tourist areas tend to disappoint some travelers — at least early on in their vagabonding careers — since the presence of so many tourists at these sites can be depressing and feel less authentic. But over time I’ve come to appreciate the dynamic of these places, each of which are unique to their own culture, even as they host a crush of visitors during high season. New Yorkers may complain about Times Square, but I think it has a great energy, even after having visited it dozens of times. The Champ de Mars area around the Eiffel Tower is always swarming with tourists and trinket vendors, but you’d have to be a pretty cynical soul not to enjoy a bottle of wine and a picnic there on a summer day with friends. Similarly, I found Machu Picchu in Peru to be utterly amazing, despite all the tourists there. So as much as I like getting off the beaten path when I travel, I still like to cultivate appreciation for these tourist areas.

Vagobond: What do you miss when you are on the road?

Rolf Potts:Ever since I got my home in Kansas, one thing I miss most frequently is the view of the prairie from my front deck. I know this might sound like a strange thing to miss, but over the years I’ve found that part of my enjoyment of faraway places extends from my affection for a single place that I know better than any others. When you find a way to attach yourself to a small part of the world, it can energize the way you see and appreciate other parts of the world. I have literally spent years away from my home in Kansas, but having that home gives me perspective and helps me appreciate all the other places I discover and experience in more far-flung parts of the world.

Vagobond: Do you think ‘staged authenticity’ is destroying the authentic travel experience? Is the world being Disneyfied?

Rolf Potts:Interestingly enough, I think there’s something weirdly authentic and satisfying in “staged authenticity,” when local cultures “perform” a more colorful version of their own identity for visiting tourists. Even though it’s this absurd fake charade, it says a lot about how Westerners long for a kind of authenticity they feel they have lost, while at the same time reminding host cultures about certain aspects of their own traditions. Staged authenticity will always exist, to some extent (I’d wager it existed in some form when the ancient Romans visited Egypt), but it transforms in different ways in different places. Some cultures, like the Embera in Panama, have managed to use staged authenticity in the face of tourists not just to empower themselves economically, but to redefine their own sense of identity and pride. It’s a dynamic process, like all aspects of global culture, and no sooner do you mock a thing like “staged authenticity” than you’ll begin to see it in surprising new ways.

Vagobond: Speaking of authentic, how would you recommend that today’s travelers find a more authentic experience in their travels?

Rolf Potts:The world is chock full of authenticity; it is literally everywhere, if one would just slow down and endeavor to experience it. It’s also a phenomenon that has a lot of nuance, and what at first might seem to be inauthentic — an Ethiopian Mursi tribesman wearing Nikes, for example — might end up being a very authentic part of how that culture is living today. So the best advice I can give to travelers is to simply be where you are. Turn off your smart phone, stop chattering with your companions, leave your digital camera in your pack: Stop, look, wait, breathe in; don’t overanalyze. It’s all authentic in its own way.

Vagabond Hiker Scholar – Francis Tapon

If there is a modern day heir to the great traveler/scholar Ibn Batutta – I would say that Francis Tapon is the guy. His latest book is a masterpiece of travel and will surely be quoted and referenced for the next decade- especially as the Eastern Europe that he has spent so much time coming to know, slowly goes away. The Hidden Europe:What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is more than just a travelogue- it is a cultural and historical guidebook which is both intensely personal and incredibly helpful in coming to understand the places he has visited.

This is not a small book – it is a massive tome filled with economic, historical, and political data that somehow manages to come across as entertaining and at times even light reading – don’t expect to read even a single chapter in one session – in fact, I would say that this book is something that you will reference again and again – especially if you have an interest in Eastern Europe or if you are traveling in Eastern Europe.

Francis not only spent three years cris-crossing through Eastern Europe, hiking, making friends and coming to understand the people and the cultures – he has also walked across America four times, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and in 2007, became the first to do a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail. He is the author of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Lessons from Backpacking Across America and The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. I can hearily recommend both – start with this interview and then get his books at WanderLearn with Francis Tapon – just cruise his site for a few minutes and you’ll be hooked.

Vagobond: I was introduced to you when I was doing research on the great vagabonds of the past. A librarian I met in Portland, Oregon told me – “Never mind the dead vagabonds – you should interview Francis Tapon.” Francis, when I looked at your site and started reading your adventures, I was simply blown away. At that time I think you were sleeping in a tent outside of Venice….Can you perhaps tell my readers how you started traveling? Was it always in this (pardon this) completely awesome style you travel in now?

Francis Tapon: I started traveling since I was born. Because I had a Chilean mom and a French father, my family would have to fly 10 hours to see a relative. My first independent trip was right after I graduated from college. It was a standard rite of passage: 75 days in Western Europe with my best high-school friend. Although we went to Prague and Budapest (which was somewhat unusual in 1992), most of the trip was pretty typical for college grads. We stayed in hostels or cheap hotels most of the way. My travel style didn’t change until after I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001. Once I learned to camp in the wilderness for months, getting a bed/shower/roof seemed optional. And once couchsurfing.org took off, it added another dimension that helped me meet locals more easily than ever.

Vagobond: One of the things that always hits me about your writing, both on the web and in your books is the academic nature of it. I always feel like I’m there with you, but at the same time, I feel like I’m attending a lecture at the explorers club because of the history, culture, and texture that you bring to your travels. Do you have an academic background? Also, in terms of reading, what writers/authors influenced you the most?

Francis Tapon:Although I went to Harvard Business School, I don’t have an academic background (I have no PhD). In fact, I dislike how academia writes, which is why my style of writing is extremely casual. Michael Krasny called it “idiosyncratic” and “unorthodox.” While I like to tackle intellectual subjects, I try to do it in an entertaining way. Academic writing is usually boring and long-winded. I prefer a punchy style that still remains informative and profound. Whether I achieve that is for the reader to judge.
Bill Bryson has influenced me the most. I love his books. The biggest difference between us is that I tend to get more dirty than he does and I take bigger risks when I travel. His style of writing is refined than mine too–I can be more crass and controversial than him.

Vagobond: Did you always know you wanted to be an explorer and adventurer? Did you ever get blown off track? How did you find your way back?

Francis Tapon:Until I hiked the Appalachian Trail (age 31), I lived a pretty standard life. That journey transformed me. I did get blown off track twice. First was after the AT, when I consulted for Hitachi for 2.5 years. Then again after my first trip to Eastern Europe (2004), when I consulted for Microsoft for 18 months. Those four years of work weren’t wasted though: I’ve been living off the money I earned in those two jobs ever since. I always knew those would be temporary gigs, but it still takes discipline to leave a job that pays well. Income is addictive.

Vagobond: In reading The Hidden Europe, I was particularly blown away by the sections on Serbia and Russia. Russia, I kind of expected to be incredible, but with Serbia, I learned more about the country from reading your book than from traveling there myself! I had terrible experiences in Serbia, but reading The Hidden Europe made me want to go back and re-experience it. Can you perhaps explain why the Serbs are so completely misunderstood by the world? I ask because after reading your book, I certainly feel like I misunderstood many things.

Francis Tapon:Whenever we fight a war, we nearly always demonize the people we are fighting. It makes it easier to justify attacking a nation when you tell yourself that rotten things are going on there. The Western media demonized Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars instead of trying to understand them or to explain their point of view. This doesn’t mean Serbia was flawless, but I sought to understand the Serbs.

At the same time, as travelers we have to be careful about drawing broad conclusions based on a few encounters (or many encounters in a small region of the country). Perhaps I was lucky and met a bunch of wonderful Serbs while you met a bunch of jerks. I lived 18 months in the ex-Yugoslav countries so I feel that my assessment is pretty accurate, but I could have been lucky.

Vagobond: As a writer and traveler, there are a few destinations I keep to myself. I don’t want the world to know about them. Sometimes, though, I let people know about a hidden gem here or there. In all your travels in Eastern Europe, did you come across any of these gems you might be able to tell us about?

Francis Tapon:I loved Kotor, Montenegro. It’s a magical place for me.

Vagobond: Narrow escapes. Anyone who has traveled a bit has had more than a few of these, or else, they probably wouldn’t be travelling any longer. What about you? In your travels, can you tell us about one narrow escape?

Francis Tapon:I went for a 16-mile day hike in Olympic National Park, but ended up getting lost for 3 days. I had no sleeping bag, no shelter, no light, no food. It snowed. I saved my partner’s life twice. We both got frostbite and infections.

Vagobond: The subtitle of The Hidden Europe is ‘What Eastern Europeans can teach us.” – First of all- when you say ‘us’ who are you talking about? Secondly – while I found the entire book to be thought provoking, can you perhaps point to three of the most important lessons of it?

Francis Tapon:“Us” is mainly “us Americans,” but Western Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe either. Even Eastern Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe! So ultimately “us” is “everyone.”

Three lessons:
1. Communism doesn’t work. For over 40 years, many countries throughout the world experimented with various flavors of a tightly controlled state – none of them worked. Let’s not forget that when people declare that we need a revolution that delivers us a paternalistic government.
2. A simplified tax policy. Most Eastern Europeans have flat taxes. I never met an Estonian who took more than 10 minutes to do their taxes. This helped fuel their growth in the last 20 years.
3. Celebrate depopulation. Eastern Europe is depopulating faster than any other region on Earth. Although many countries are fighting it (by giving incentives to reproduce), a few are accepting it and seeing the benefits: more resources per capita.

Vagobond: I love that you created a section about ‘Eastern Germany’ – today it’s very easy to forget that it was just twenty years ago that Germany was two different countries. There were a few moments in this section where I actually guffawed (Evil Santa and the smell chair in the disco era) – can you tell me your funniest moment in the former East Germany?

Francis Tapon:When I asked a East German if I could interview him, he agreed to give me 5 minutes and was not pleasant at first. However, in the end, he talked with me an hour, toured me around his city, took me into a church, and dropped me off at a train station in Poland! It’s funny how much he changed.

Vagobond: Turkey – I love it. It probably comes from going to the police and being offered a cup of tea and baklava even though I was in the wrong office – but anyway, I’m curious about your thoughts on the idea that Turkey is forming a sort of ‘New Ottoman Empire’ and the perception that the Turks are becoming more Islamicized? Also, what’s your favorite Turkish destination?

Francis Tapon:Turkey is just doing what most countries have been doing after WWII: extending its influence through economics and diplomacy rather than brute military and political expansion. If someone wants to call such policies the “New Ottoman Empire,” that’s fine, but don’t expect Turkey to militarily invade other countries–certainly not Europe. However, just like Latinos have been “invading” the USA, Turks will continue to “invade” Europe through immigration. European xenophobes will continue to resist the Turks, most of whom are not Islam fundamentalists. Most Turks are continuing down the path of secularism–a journey that started nearly 100 years ago. I’ve only seen western Turkey, but my favorite destination is Istanbul–it’s the third biggest city in the world.

Vagobond: I had an incredible experience in Pernik, Bulgaria where I got to get drunk with a retired communist coal miner who regaled me with stories of the glory of the communist days. You’ve traveled much more in Bulgaria than I have, do you think there is a danger of nostalgia moving Bulgaria backwards? Also, just curious – what, in your opinion is the best thing in Bulgaria?

Francis Tapon:Yes, there’s a danger that Bulgaria (and Eastern Europe) will move backwards. However, I don’t think that will happen. Change must happen to Bulgaria, but few Bulgarians think the solution is to go back to communism or heavy government control. The best thing about Bulgaria is how they shake their head from side-to-side to say “yes” and nod to mean “no.”

Vagobond: What about family? How can you travel for three years? Vagobond readers want to know things like where do you get the funds? Do you suffer from travel fatigue? Do you get lonely?

Francis Tapon: I worked for four years at Microsoft and Hitachi, lived like a monk, and saved up enough money to travel for years. I describe my travel secrets more in my article about how to travel for years. I don’t get fatigued because I take breaks whenever I get tired of traveling. For example, I parked it for 4 months in Tallinn, Estonia and several months in Slovenia and Croatia.

Vagobond: Finally….how about three solid travel tips that people may not have heard before.

Francis Tapon:

1. Always carry a tarp and a sleeping bag/pad. It weighs just 2 kg (4.4 pounds), and it liberates you from the pressure and worry of finding a hostel/hotel. It allows you to be spontaneous when you travel.

2. Consider discreet urban camping. Camp in a city park or in the city’s outskirts right at sunset and leave no trace by sunrise.

3. Always offer cash after you hitchhike. Most drivers won’t accept it, but it shows that you’re not a freeloader and that you appreciate their help. It’s better than a “thank you.” Also, when you’re a guest at someone’s house, shower them with gifts and generous actions. You’ll always be invited back.

Vagobond: Okay, one last question. If you disappear, what country should I come looking for you in so we can go drink a few bottles of wine together?

Francis Tapon:Montenegro. But here’s the catch: I’ve never drunk any alcohol in my life. So let’s get guzzle sparkling water instead. 🙂

Vagobond: Thanks Francis. Absolutely love the book – still have been jumping around with it, but it’s seriously awe-some.  Hope it sells millions of copies.

Francis Tapon:Thank you Vago!

You can purchase Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Lessons from Backpacking Across America and The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us at WanderLearn with Francis Tapon – where you can learn a lot more about this incredible modern Ibn Battuta.

Vagabond Explorer – Sir Richard Francis Burton

Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.

As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.

Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.

He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Richard F. Burton Nomad

Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.

In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).

To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Muslim Richard Burton
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.

To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.

Greedy Vagabond – Conquistador Hernando Cortez

Vagabonds travel the world, not conquer it. Sure, I hear you. The fact is though, vagabonds would conquer the world if they could and Cortez did it. He conquered an entire empire. Sure, it was shitty for Montezuma, but for Cortez? It must have been cool.

Hernando Cortez was a Spanish conqueror, he led a journey which caused the decline of the Aztec Empire. We can also call him world traveler. He brought a major part of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the 16th century. Hernando Cortez was a part of the Spanish colonizers generation which started the first stage of the Americas’ Spanish colonization.

Vagabond in Mexico Hernando Cortez sailed to the Americas with a family companion and a faraway relative, the new governor of Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando. Hispaniola is the present Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Cortez had been injured while escaping in a hurry from the bedroom of a married woman from Medellin. This incident stopped him from continuing the journey. He spent the next year as a nomad in the country, he spent most of his time in southern ports of Spain, Cadiz, Palos and Seville, he became a vagabond. During that time he used to listen to the stories from those who returned from Indies. They told him about the discovery, the gold, and the Indians. Cortez left for Hispaniola soon and he became a colonist there. He suffered from syphilis for some years later, no report if he got it from the married chick, but probably.

More about Hernando Cortez and the Aztecs

Hernando Cortez
Conquistador: Hernan Cortez, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs
Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

Lonely Planet Mexico
The People’s Guide to Mexico
Colonial Mexico Guide

Cortez recovered from the disease in 1511 and joined Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, in his journey to conquer Cuba. Cortez was appointed as a clerk to the treasurer at the age of 26, he was given the responsibility of making sure that the Crown received one fifth of the profits from the journey.

When Juan de Grijalva reported his discovery of Mexico in 1518, Velasquez picked Cortez to build a colony there. Velasquez soon suspected Cortez would go beyond his orders and cancelled the expedition. Unfortunately for Velasquez, Cortez had already assembled men and equipment and set sail. He rounded the peninsula at Yucatan and touched Mexico on the coast of what is now the state of Tabasco. During the battle with Indians there, he took many captives including a young Aztec princess. She became his interpreter and advisor.

Cortez continued up the coast. On April 21,1519, he landed near the site of Veracruz. There, to prevent all thought of retreat, he burned his ships. Leaving a small force on the coast, Cortez led the rest of his men into the interior. The Indians outnumbered the Spaniards 300 to 1.

On November 8, 1519, Cortez reached Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) and was graciously received by Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. Soon after Cortez established headquarters in the capital, he learned that the Aztecs had plundered Veracruz. He seized Montezuma and forced him to surrender the attackers. Then he had them executed.

Meanwhile Velasquez had sent 1,400 soldiers to arrest Cortez and bring him back to Cuba. Cortez defeated this army and most of the survivors joined Cortez.

He returned to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. As Cortez and his men reached the heart of the city, they were attacked by thousands of Aztec warriors. Montezuma was brought out to pacify his people, but they stoned him, and later he died of his wounds. Cortez’ army was surrounded and apparently doomed, but he and three others managed to get to the chieftain of the Aztecs and killed him. Confused by this apparent “miracle,” the Aztecs retreated. With fewer than 500 of his men left alive, Cortez, in July of 1520, made his way back to his Indian allies.

Cortez attacked Tenochtitlan again by ship the following May. On August 13, 1521, Guatemoc, the new Aztec emperor, surrendered. This was the end of the great empire of the Aztecs.

Later Cortez spent his life in establishing peace between the Indians of Mexico and developing farmlands and mines. He returned home in 1528 and Charles V received him with a great honor, but he missed the experience of the New World. Cortez came home as a military commander and explored Lower California. He passed away in Seville in 1547.

Papa Vagabond- Ernest Hemingway

When it comes to famous vagabonds, people often forget that respected writers now often had their roots as shiftless vagabonds. Ernest Hemingway is no exception. He was a man of action and an extraordinary vagabond.

Perhaps the most famous vagabond of them all, Vagabond Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway , was a well-known American writer, he was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. He began his career as a news writer in a newspaper office in Kansas City. He joined a volunteer ambulance group in Italian army during First World War. He was wounded while serving at the front and spent his ample time in hospitals. After some time he returned to United States and became a reporter for American and Canadian newspapers. He was sent to Europe again to cover events such as the Greek Revolution.

Hemingway became a member of the group of expelled Americans in Paris, he explained about this in his work The Sun Also Rises
. Another important work of Hemingway which was very successful was A Farewell to Arms
, this was a study about the depression of an American ambulance officer in the war and his performance as a deserter. He traveled to many places like a vagabond for his work and like many other authors he was also considered a world traveler. For the background of his most aggressive novel “The Old Man and The Sea”, he used his experiences as a reporter at the time of civil war in Spain. This is the story about a journey of an old fisherman and his struggle with a fish and sea.

Vagabond HemingwayAlong with traveling, writing Hemingway was a great sportsman, he liked to portray hunters, soldiers and bullfighters. He became deeply involved in the culture of all the places he visited and wrote very clearly about what he saw and experienced. Due to this Hemingway’s history became increasingly associated with the places that he traveled. From the beginning of his life Hemingway traveled more than many people during that time. He traveled like a nomad and this gave him an opportunity to show the aggressive image which he had created for himself. He visited Kenya and Tanganyika in 1933 with his second wife Pauline for the first time. He visited Africa again in 1953 with his last and fourth wife Mary, where he enjoyed another safari. Much of this time can be read about in his short story collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Hemingway in Paris
Personally, I enjoy all of his work, but it is some of his lesser known works such as To Have and Have Not or On Paris that I find to be the best indication of his vagabondness.

Written for the Toronto Star between 1920 and 1924, in On Paris, Hemingway focuses his gaze on Paris. Writing with characteristic verve, he tackles cultural topics in chapters such as Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris, American Bohemians in Paris, and Parisian Boorishness. “The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café Rotonde. New scum, of course, has risen to take the place of the old, but the oldest scum, the thickest scum and the scummiest scum,” Hemingway wryly observes, “has come across the ocean, somehow, and with its afternoon and evening levees has made the Rotonde the leading Latin Quarter showplace for tourists in search of atmosphere.”

Hemingway ended his life with a shotgun in a log cabin. Some say it was alcoholism, others that he couldn’t stand a life of being older and debilitated. Personally, I think he simply wanted to know what adventures waited on the other side either that or he saw what global tourism was going to become and decided to get out before it fully manifested itself.

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Silk Road Vagabond – Marco Polo

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

 

Going around the world hasn’t always been as easy as it is today. In fact, the great explorers of the past often suffered great hardships to see distant lands. One such extraordinary vagabond was Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was the famous world traveler who traveled on the Silk Road. He mastered his travels through his writing, influence and his determination. He traveled throughout Asia and the journey lasted for 24 years! Now that is some slow travel! He reached more destinations than any of his European predecessors, he traveled further into Mongolia to China. Though he was not a round the world traveler, he was a vagabond who traveled the whole of China. He returned to tell the story, and it became the greatest boost for travel that had ever been written.
travels of Marco Polo
Marco Polo is well-known for his travels all over Asia. And he was the first European to travel to Mongolia and China. He became famous for his book where he explained the story of his travels to China on Silk Road. He traveled the whole of China like a nomad even though he was the son of a Venice merchant.

Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, Italy. He traveled to Asia along with his father when he was seventeen years old. On this journey, he became the favorite companion of Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor.

He wandered all over Mongolia and China for 17 years and traveled to more distant places in China than any other European traveler. He became a well-known story teller when he returned to Venice. People came to his home to hear his travel stories about the East.
vagabond Marco Polo
There was a clash between Venice and Genoa in 1298, and Polo was captured and imprisoned by Genoese. Marco Polo read out his stories when he was in jail to a writer and later the writer published. The book was named “The Travels of Marco Polo”.

This book created interest in Europeans to trade with China, and inspired the explorations of Columbus and others who were in search of a quick way to travel to China and India. Marco Polo was truly an extraordinary vagabond.

Nomad Vagabond – Genghis Khan

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

 

Traveling round the world doesn’t usually involve conquest of foreign lands but for Temujin, also known as Genghis Khan, conquest was probably just a means of travel. Starting with nothing as an exile and prisoner means he was certainly an extraordinary vagabond.

Genghis Khan was a nomad, in other words he was a world traveler of sort. Genghis Khan’s real name in his childhood was Temujin. When his brother poisoned his father Temujin killed his brother and in punishment he was thrown into forest, he was held in prison by his former friends after that. vagobond genghis khanAfter few years, Temujin rose up as a powerful leader and united the tribes of the Mongol people. With this goal accomplished, he and his Mongol hordes targeted many and far lands. From the time of his unification of the Mongol tribes, the Mongols called him Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan first attacked the Tangut tribes to the west of the Mongol homeland. His first important foreign venture was not an easy one, but he brought the tribes of Tangut to their knees by 1209, which was the beginning of his empire. Genghis targeted east and south after that, this was the land ruled by Jin Dynasty of China. Genghis Khan captured Beijing, bringing the pressure to the Jin emperor and managing to restrain the complete northern half of the kingdom.

Kara-Khitan which is called “Xinjiang” today by the Chinese government was the next battleground of Genghis Khan. With just 20,000 soldiers, the Mongols brought the surrender of Kara-Khitan by 1218. Now Genghis Khan’s empire extended from shores of China in the east to Kazakhstan in west.

genghis khan mapThis was not enough and Genghis Khan desired more. He set his eyes on his new neighbor, the Khwarezmid Empire. It stretched from Kazakhstan to the banks of Persian Gulf, surrounding most of Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and half of Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. At first Genghis Khan tried to establish a booming trade partnership with Khwarezmids, but the leader of Khwarezmid attacked his 500 man caravan. After this, he foolishly refused to pay compensation for his act. Genghis Khan later sent his group of ambassadors to the Shah of Khwarezmid in a hope to have some kind of political trade relationship. But the Shah refused his proposal, Genghis Khan invaded Khwarezmid and executed the Shah. After this horrible conquest of Khwarezmid Empire, he headed across Afghanistan and northern India.

By the end of his life, Temujin had conquered everything from Asia all the way to Europe’s doorstep. Most of modern Turkey, parts of Greece, and even portions of Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia were his domain.

As a world traveler, he spilled a lot more blood than most, but the fact is he controlled the largest contiguous empire in history and saw more of the world than most people ever will.

Islamic Aesthetics Unleashed – Asilah, Morocco

Asilah, Morocco
Asilah, Morocco is a great little funky town that hosts a mural festival each year. It’s a gorgeous little town on the Atlantic Coast of Africa. I was going to share about 30 photos of the gorgeous artistic town of Asilah, Morocco when I realized it would be better and allow me to fulfill one of my New Year’s Resolutions (make more videos) if I put them in a video slideshow for you. I hope you enjoy it.

Just 31 km from Tangier. Its ramparts and gateworks remain fully intact. Its history dates back to 1500 B.C., when the Phoenicians used it as a base for trade. The Portuguese conquered the city in 1471, but John III later decided to abandon it because of an economic crisis in 1549. In 1692, the town was taken by the Moroccans under the leadership of Moulay Ismail. Asilah served then as a base for pirates in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 1912-1956 it was part of Spanish Morocco.

 

Fritz, Glitz, and Spritz in Potsdam, Germany

Story and Photos by Katherine Rodeghier

Prussia’s King Frederick the Great was one conflicted character, and the Germans honor him, especially in Potsdam where his summer palace ranks as the top tourist site.

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Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci is the centerpiece of 800-acre Sanssouci Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

“Old Fritz” despised women, talked philosophy with Voltaire for hours on end, loved playing his flute and adored his pet dogs so much he was buried with them. On tours of the “Prussian Versailles,” his lifestyle always comes up, says guide Oliver Gondring. Was he gay? Impotent? Or did he simply prefer intellectual pursuits to pleasures of the flesh?

Certainly, he was no wishy-washy monarch. The boy who was afraid of guns became a ruler known for military prowess, expanding his small kingdom into one of the great powers of Europe in the 18th century.

Born 300 years ago, Frederick and his kin remain much alive for visitors to Potsdam, as do the remnants of the Cold War and the city’s current status as the “Hollywood of Germany.”

Don’t miss:

Sanssouci: For such a flamboyant character, Frederick the Great built a rather small summer palace. Just one story, you’ll nevertheless find it filled with rococo excesses of the king’s own design. Women were never allowed here. The rooms of varying décor—Chinese, Italian, French—were for men’s enjoyment only, especially the Marble Hall where a meal with the monarch could last five or six hours. Since Frederick thought religion a mockery, the palace has no chapel—a scandal in his day.

For all its 18 -century gilt and glamour, the most expensive work of art in the palace dates from the 20 century. Look for the portrait of Frederick the Great by Andy Warhol hanging in a small gallery just before you exit.

Sanssouci, French for “without care,” is the centerpiece of 800-acre Sanssouci Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site well worth a stroll. Be sure to tour the New Palace, built from 1763-1769 as a showpiece of more than 200 rooms designed to impress visiting dignitaries. Germany’s last kaiser, Wilhelm II, lived here before abdicating at the end of World War I.

Cold War sites: If you’re a fan of spy novels and tales of international espionage, tour the “Forbidden City.” When the Red Army invaded Potsdam during World War II, the Soviets gave residents of this neighborhood just two hours to clear out before they took over their homes and walled off the neighborhood from outsiders. The KGB moved into a private school for girls that still stands with the KGB prison, now a museum, next door.

The Berlin Wall ran through Potsdam and a critical point in this well-guarded border was the Glienicke Bridge spanning the Havel River. Diplomatic negotiations came to a head here where Americans and Soviets met at a barricade at the center of the bridge to trade spies and political prisoners. Now you can drive or bike across the bridge en route to central Berlin, 15 miles away.

Cecilienhof: The last royal palace built in Germany is an English-Tudor-style residence that was the home of Germany’s crown prince and his wife Cecilie, for whom it is named. Unlike much of central Potsdam, destroyed in the last bombing raid of World War II, the palace survived and became the setting for one of the most important meetings of world powers at the time.

During the Potsdam Conference, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill met to divide up postwar Europe, setting the stage for the beginning of the Cold War. Take a tour inside the palace to see the room where the three sat at a round table for days of give and take. Stalin had the advantage, though. He had Truman’s and Churchill’s villas bugged so he knew what they were up to before negotiations began each day.

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