Category Archives: Europe

Europe

Why Serbia Gets My Vote For Friendliest Place in Europe

I love Europe, both Western & Eastern. But let’s face it, compared to much of the world it’s not the friendliest continent. I mean there are pockets of Spain (in my limited Spain experience, pretty much the whole pocket outside of Catalan) that are very hospitable… and many other great destinations I’ve yet to hit such as Portugal, Italy, Greece, etc. so granted this judgement is a bit premature.

RT 206 SERBIA STILL 16

And like all sweeping generalizations, it is inaccurate on it’s face because of the relative  nature of the question and the fact that the answer  very much depends on the individual experience.

But both of my experiences in Serbia were absolute treasures in my memory bank. I enjoyed Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic… Bulgaria is awesome, Poland was super and I made great lifelong friends in each of these places, but Serbia.. well Serbia is gritty and full of life and if you are a solo traveler, well, you are in for a treat.

My first time in Serbia I was that solo traveler and upon arrival by train from Budapest, a local but trustworthy looking and semi fluent English speaking gentleman grabbed my too large bag off the arrival platform, jumped on the bus with me and then took a good 1/2 hour of his time to assist me in finding the flat I had rented up a very steep hill.

RT 206 SERBIA STILL 31

Of course, I tipped him but I really had the feeling he wasn’t in it for the money. I’ve been hustled all over the world so I know a thing or two about getting hustled and this man was simply super friendly and eager to help this rare American visitor any way he could.

On my last trip in the summer of 2014 with my film crew taping for Raw Travel, I had a rare few moments to myself and I decided to go out and jog the streets of Belgrade. I was lost, winded and had slowed my running to a leisurely stroll to just take the city and it’s people in.

I could viscerally see the struggle on the faces of the Serbian people I met along the way. The families in the parks with young toddlers…. the grandmas and grandpas…It was a surreal but uneventful moment that probably shouldn’t have but brought tears to my eyes nonetheless. I still remember that moment as if it were yesterday.

When the 3rd Balkan War was going on in the 1990s, I was the blissfully ignorant, largely unaware American caught up in my own world of establishing my career and other, largely selfish pursuits like making as much money as I thought I deserved. Oh the folly of youth.

RT 206 SERBIA STILL 12

Visiting Serbia several years later made me more aware of the tragedy and long lasting repercussions of this and all tragic wars. Not just for Serbia but for all involved of course, all because a relatively few morally bankrupt, senseless, shameful “leaders” are out to save their sorry asses. What’s a few thousand crimes against humanity compared to that?

Serbia has yet to join the European Union and the economy leaves much to be desired. But its not the economy or even it’s history that defines a people or at least it shouldn’t be. When it comes to the friendliest spot in Europe, Serbia gets my vote. And I can’t wait to return.

Raw Travel Season 2 – Sneak Preview

First of all a big thank you for making our first season a big success. We exceeded almost every expectation and we couldn’t have done it without our very loyal friends, family, fans, affiliates, advertisers, vendors, staff and wonderful travel peers.

Hopefully we spread a little good, positive energy as well, something TV and we all could always use more of. I sincerely hope our “Give Back” segments struck a chord in a few folks and maybe, just maybe some lives have been improved as a result.

As we expand into Season 2 and 110 cities and almost 100 million homes we hope you’ll enjoy our more diverse locations (North & South America, Eastern Europe & Southeast Asia) and will follow our journey as we hopefully improve production and not only entertain a bigger audience, but impact them as well.

Here is a small taste of what you can expect during our Fall 2014 Season.

Daytrip to Vienna

Of all the places in the world I’m hoping to visit before I get my passport stamped by that big customs & immigration office in the sky (or below?),  Vienna, Austria was never on that list. I don’t know why. It just never occurred to me.

I mean what few times I’d thought of Vienna I think I thought of high culture, classical music, maybe some sausages and well… to be 100% honest… Hitler and the horrors of World War II. It was a casual, cavalier but not a hostile ignorance.

IMG_7268
Prater Amusement Park – Vienna with Duncan

I wasn’t knowingly spreading this ignorance to anyone, because I knew I didn’t know the real Vienna and only had a vague idea of what it might be like planted in my head by however many years of (mostly) U.S. media osmosis. I had not so much as considered a Wikipedia search on the subject and since I wasn’t heading there anytime soon, there was no need to do a quick study of the facts was there now? Wrong.

During our Eastern European shoot for Season 2, we were heading to Bratislava, Slovakia (another place I knew absolutely nothing about before visiting) and Vienna was a mere 50 minutes or so by train or boat away. As you can see, for me at least, ignorance is no excuse for not visiting a place. Otherwise I’d never go anywhere. Point of fact, I submit that it could be one of the best reasons to visit.

“Will I like it? Who knows? I don’t know anything about it. Let’s go!” So we did, if only for a few hours.

Lucky for us our new pal Marek from our earlier shoot at Cafe Finska in Krakow, Poland (our very first stop on this journey) heard we were heading to Vienna. He heartily recommended we  reach out to UK ex pat and travel author Duncan J.D. Smith otherwise known as the Urban Explorer.

IMG_7225Duncan is  an extremely likable chap and a consummate gentleman. I could tell that when we first met him at the train stop in Vienna. He had graciously and unexpectedly spent his own money for train day passes for the entire crew. Cut my production cost and you have my gratitude. Do so while showing me a genuinely good time and you have a pal for life.

Duncan knows his stuff not only about Vienna but several ports of call in Eastern Europe including Budapest, where we were heading next. He hooked us up with one of his “Only in Budapest” guidebook as a parting gift. I would read it cover to cover on the train ride there. It would almost be like Duncan being there by our sides, whispering little know facts and anecdotes about places and sites we might not otherwise consider.

But back to Vienna, being with Duncan the actual author & guide in Vienna was immensely valuable to us. Duncan took us to those hidden spots right under the tourists’ noses that they almost always miss, even if they have another guide.

From the Tostmann Trachten Shop & Cellar, a traditional Viennese clothing store that offered much more than meets the eye in their basement (watch the show to find out) to Beethoven’s courtyard (I drank water from the same water fountain the great composer did many years ago) to showing us the grittier side of Vienna at the Graffiti walls down by the Danube, I was beginning to sincerely wish we’d allocated an entire episode and 5 days to Vienna.

IMG_7224

Duncan was one of those rare fact-filled but funny on camera guest that every travel host hopes for. I could relax and just have fun and hopefully have somewhat witty conversations and question and answers with Duncan on camera and the show just produced itself.. well, almost.

Not to say there weren’t moments when I was like “uh, huh.. this is exactly what I expected in Vienna”. Like when an arrogant prick (no pun intended, as you’ll see) of a Viennese took umbrage at our filming down in the historic, Mens’ Toilette downtown.

1) We had permission

2) The toilette had a unique story.. but I forget what it is at the moment (watch the show)

3) It was completely empty when we began filming

4) Our cameras were respectfully not pointed in anyone’s direction…

but this chap comes down and with a booming and authoritative voice says “that’s quiet enough.. cut the camera… your finished.. this is not Kazakhstan this is Vienna”.. The last part I think is what really pissed me off (no pun intended) and I was ready to go toe to toe with this arrogant ass who had no authority whatsoever on either the toilet or our filming there.

Interesting Graffiti acknowledging Austria's past.
Interesting Graffiti acknowledging Austria’s past.

But Duncan, being the gentleman that he is, somehow channeled his anger into something positive (a trick I’m still trying to master) and defused the situation.

We got our shot, the arrogant A^%hole finally left us alone and what’s more, we got the entire thing on camera. Scott, our camera guy told me later “I only cut when the guy who’s writing my check tells me to cut”. Great philosophy Scott and a good move. This toilet shot would have probably never made the cut, but now you can be guaranteed that it will.

But, for me at least, the most unexpected pleasure in Vienna came with a visit to the Prater Amusement Park .

IMG_1165

Not only was it a blast, but after our toilet incident, this was exactly what the doctor ordered to get me to humanize and like the Viennese people again and to understand, they have families, love their kids and are not just about high culture, history and lecturing to camera crews in toilets about civilized society. They need to shake it and have a good time too.

This amusement park is a feast for the senses. Don’t drink too much caffeine (or do any hallucinogens) before hand or it might just put you over the edge.

When you’ve had enough of “low culture” of serpent headed amusement rides or “freak” shows, I recommend you grab a pork knuckle at the famous Schweizerhaus at the fairgrounds along with a beverage of your choice. After all this I can honestly say, it was a fun, amazing trip to Vienna.

Pork Knuckle in Vienna
Pork Knuckle in Vienna

Like almost all first time destinations, I want to now go back, sans camera crew, and maybe explore on my own. But for this first time, I’m sure glad we had Duncan to guide us and show me a side of Vienna I’m 99.9% likely to have never seen had he not agreed to show us around.

Vienna is not an obvious “Raw Travel” destinations. It’s certainly not budget nor off the beaten path but you can see it Raw Travel style and we’ll show you how, when Bratislava / Vienna premieres this November. Stay tuned!

 

 

Raw Travel Season 2 – Central & Eastern Europe Recap

IMG_1406
How they still do it in Transylvania, Romania

As of this writing, we arrived back from Central & Eastern Europe just over one week ago and already memories are beginning to fade. While so happy and appreciative to be home (and more comfortable), for me at least, there is always a sense of sadness and loss when I return from a trip. The excitement of a daily adventure gives way to the mostly mundane tasks of  everyday living.

But I’m fueled by the memories of the people we met along the way, the incredible sights and sounds of experiencing another culture, place and in many places another time. “Another time? It was a few weeks ago” you say?   Ah but for perhaps the 1st time in my life I was able to experience what life may have been like centuries ago with castles from mid evil times and Roman ruins from BC times.  More recently, World War II was for me mostly something my father had lectured about when I was a kid, but now I feel firmly in charge of at least a few basic facts and a small but better understanding of what actually went on (and the incredible and largely awful impact and implications for many of the destinations we visited).

IMG_6065
Mining salt in Krakow, Poland

I also felt just a little how the iron fist of the iron curtain could be so brutal. I couldn’t help but think how but for the luck of geography and just a smidgen of time, I could have been spending my days in an internment camp (I just know I would have never kept my head down and mouth shut). Or maybe, I would have been a different person in that different place and time and I would have dutifully fulfilled my obligation to the State, working to garner my quota as  a farmer, miner or dutifully cleaning up the dishes at a Milk Bar, wondering what life would be like if I could simply do, say and be whatever I wanted.

Yes, this trip has forever changed me, but so what? That’s no reason to spend precious money and resources to fly over a camera crew and work 41 of the 42 days we were there producing television is it? Yes, I think it is.

For if travel has changed me (for the better) then it can and will change others. If there is anything we’ve learned from Communism, it should be that more knowledge for more people is a GOOD thing.  But let’s face it, showing something on TV or via the web is not the same as going. No matter how good I am at my job of communicating I can’t change this completely.

IMG_1619
Massive sunflower fields in Bulgaria

But maybe, I can give you, the reader and the viewers of the show, a small idea of what it is like. Just like centuries ago when sailors and other travelers came back from a journey and spun tales of far off places and the incredible things they’d seen, I can do the same, but through the magic of video’s sight and sound.

And perhaps more importantly, inspire others to travel themselves. Across the planet if they can but if not, just across town experiencing their lives from a different perspective.  If I were to work just one day in a taco truck or a Chinese Laundry or Korean nail salon for example, who is to say I would not be forever changed? Travel can take many forms.

Raw Travel is a Travel AND Lifestyle show. Travel has taught me to LIVE differently when I’m at “home”. Thanks to travel I am an avid recycler. Thanks to travel I have more empathy for people I used to simply shove past on the street. Thanks to travel I appreciate kids more than ever and recognize they don’t need a video game but they MUST have love in order to have hope of a good life. Thanks to travel I view the news and media we consume very differently. Thanks to travel, I am more conscious about what type of food I put into my body, etc, etc.

IMG_8785
Charming in Romania

Thanks to travel I recognize that the TV business needs more life affirming, positive shows and less conflict, competition, or whatever the flavor of the month is and that is why I do this. It’s not easy sharing a small space with a crew or sleeping on couches. I thought those days of sacrifice were over for me. But comfort is not the same as happiness. Just ask some of the happiest people on the planet (and they usually don’t reside in the most advanced economies of our world).

But enough about what travel and the show means to me. It’s what it means to the viewer that is most important.

Each destination will have it’s own blog entry before each episode airs, but before memories fade to quickly, I wanted to recap each destination and to properly thank people who so graciously helped us along the way. I hope I haven’t left anyone out but it’s very likely that I have. There were just too many people helping us to remember and thank everyone.For that, I apologize in advance and ask that if you see an omission, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Wishing you many safe (but not too safe) journeys!

Entry to Auschwitz
Entry to Auschwitz – Outside of Krakow, Poland

DESTINATION 1 (Episode 201) – KRAKOW, POLAND (Premieres week of 9/29/14)

BLOG:  HERE.

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: Counter-intuitive perhaps but visiting Auschwitz. It was very reflective and made something intangible very tangible.

WORST MOMENT: Just the overwhelming jet lag. Oh and when our cameraman Scott tumbled down the stairs on day 2 or 3. Very lucky he didn’t break a bone and there goes the entire shoot (yes, always I’m selfishly thinking of the show!).

SPECIAL THANKS: Sara Egan, Brains All Gone, Schindler’s Museum, Pawel Zleba and See Krakow, Marek Pryjmko and Cafe Finska, Jerzy Elster & Crazy Guides,

IMG_1142
After the shoot in Bunkr Parakarku, Prague CR

DESTINATION 2 (Episode 202) – PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC  (Premieres week of 10/5/14)

BLOG:  HERE

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: Visiting the old communist nuclear bunker Bunkr Parukarka and Cafe Potme (Cafe in the Dark) getting a feeling for what it’s like to be completely sightless (and raising money for the sight impaired in Czech Republic in the process)

WORST MOMENT: The overnight train from Krakow to Prague. It was a communism era “sleeper” car with no space and not much sleep going on . As a result we rolled into Prague sleep deprived and subsequently the crew began to get a little snippy with each other. (it wouldn’t last long thankfully).

SPECIAL THANKS: Gaell La Vu of Zouk Side Down, Eliska Mertova & Segra Segra, Loreta Museum, Woody & Rocket Dogz, Lucky Hazzard, Pavel Horejsi, Honza Hegre & Cafe Potme, Foto Eskoda

Pork Knuckle in Vienna
Ready to eat Pork Knuckle in Vienna

DESTINATION 3 (Episode 207) – BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA & VIENNA, AUSTRIA (Premieres week of 11/17/14)

BLOG:  HERE

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: Visiting Vienna and the Prater Amusement Park and subsequent dining on Pork Knuckle (Deee-licious!) with travel writer Duncan Smith aka the “Urban Explorer and author of “Only In… ” travel guides.

WORST MOMENT: Getting repeatedly ripped off by taxis in Bratislava, getting lost in Bratislava, getting chewed out by a rude, condescending, bigoted, nosy and presumably Austrian in Vienna (for some strange reason he took exception to us shooting in the men’s room, the 1st toilet in Vienna or something another).

SPECIAL THANKS: Duncan JD Smith, Wild Elephant Hostel owners and guests, Tomas & Bratislava Man Tours, Brano & Authentic Slovakian Tours, Kto Chce Co Chce Band (Do What You Like), Vladimir Raiman of Trunk & Wine Gallery in Bratislava, Tostaman Tracher (Vienna).

IMG_1221
Crew tries on “Souvenirs” at Hospital in the Rocks – Budapest

DESTINATION 4 (Episode 208) – BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (tentatively premieres week of 11/24/14)

BLOG:  COMING SOON

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: Taking a ride on the Children’s Railway, a fun, kitschy train run completely by children. So cool! and the Gypsy Musicians (Gypsy Musicians is how they referred to themselves) hanging out in their home and listening to their tradition, history and music.

WORST MOMENT: I am tempted to say there wasn’t one, but alas, the final day, our final meal at the train station, I think I was ripped off. Still disputing the charge with my credit card company.

SPECIAL THANKS: The Hungarian Tourism Board.. they were simply amazing and the ONLY tourism bureau that attempted to help us out on this trip. Thank you to Maria and the whole gang at GoToHungary.com , Zach Tipton & Diane Librizi and the entire crew at Vinylize , John McPherson and Herby Cobb, Hospital in the Rock, The Children’s Railway, Rocco from Bankrupt Band, Tibor and the Pudor Ruin Pub, Mozaik Thrift Shop,  Andy our “Gypsy” tour guide, Kalma & Ewa (Gypsy Musicians)

 

Novi Saad, Serbia
Balkan Folk Musician in Novi Saad, Serbia

DESTINATION 5 (Episode 206) – SERBIA (tentatively premieres week of 11/24/14)

BLOG:  COMING SOON

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: The entire city of Novi Saad and the wonderful and hilarious tour with radio DJ Dasko and his tour guide sister Jelena. What a treat? Attention talent agents if you are looking to import some talent, give these two a look when this episode premieres. They are incredible.

WORST MOMENT: Eating way to much meat during the entire trip. We were literally hungover from all the wild game, sausages, etc. Granted, not a bad problem to have.

SPECIAL THANKS: Dask0, Jelen and the Red Union Band, Route 66 in Novi Saad, Milos, Slikar Miscov (Artist), Helena (Belgrade), Katerina (souvenir salesperson), Darko and Kvazimodo Band, Ralph from the Serbia Nightlife Academy and IbikeBelgrade, Belgrade Ethnographic Museum and the people of Serbia fighting to recover from this summer’s devastating floods.

IMG_8381
Doru talks about the “Bleeding Potato” in Bucharest

DESTINATION 6 (Episode 203) – Bucharest, Romania (premieres week of 10/12/14)

BLOG:  COMING SOON

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: Visiting the emerging eco-reserve Vacaresti smack in the middle of Bucharest and stumbling upon a taxi driver fishing in his underwear. When he agreed to be on camera we were all ecstatic. His interview was possibly the best of the entire trip and the eco reserve is in such an unlikely spot… it’s wild, wooly and amazing.

WORST MOMENT: When my crew accidentally locked themselves into the apartment and there was no way out. They were stuck inside, no food, no phone, no way out (8 stories up) waiting on my imminent return 3 hours later.

SPECIAL THANKS: Doru and Robert from the Interesting Times Bureau, Ortaku (street artists), my old pal Dan Popuscu who simply wanted us to produce a good show about Bucharest, Gabby from Underworld (thanks for the shoes!), Raizing Hell Band, the brave guys from  Casa Jurnalustului (House of Journalism) and all the wonderful people of Bucharest. Jurnalistului

IMG_1585
Milking sheep in Transylvania

DESTINATION 7 (Episode 203) – Transylvania, Romania (premieres week of 10/26/14)

BLOG:  COMING SOON

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: OK I know I’m not supposed to have favorites but how about the ENTIRE TRIP. Transylvania is amazing and Dracula had very little to do with it. OK, if I’m forced to recall our best moment was hanging out, herding and eventually milking the sheep with some local sheep herders who spoke not a shred of English. They kindly gave us a still warm glass of sheep milk and a big handful of freshly made sheep cheese. Simply surreal, simply amazing.

WORST MOMENT: Getting stood up last minute and very unprofessionally by a British ex pat travel guide. During the entire trip this would be the ONLY time we were stood up by someone. How ironic that he was British (known for their punctuality and professionalism?) not a Romanian (supposedly not known for their punctuality and professionalism). This all worked in our favor however, when we were force to strike out on our own and this led to my Favorite Moment (see above). Several lessons learned here. More on this when the blog post goes up.

SPECIAL THANKS: The sheep herders in Transylvania, the wonderful folks doing wonderful work at Little John’s House,  Limui and family at the Scerma Scoala Cornatel Horse Reserve & Rescue Center, Gita & Mihaela of Casa cu Zarele Bed & Breakfast just outside of Sighisoara and their Swedish guests, Tudobe (AKA the Spoonman) of Sighisoara, Daniel of Covinnus Travel, House of Vlad Dracula Restaurant, Gabby & Beth from Sibiu.

IMG_9240
With Karina of Koukery in Rouse, Bulgaria

DESTINATION 8 (Episode 209) – Bulgaria (premieres TBA)

BLOG:  COMING SOON

PHOTOS: HERE

FAVORITE MOMENT: The Black Sea city of Sozopol. Simply amazing.

WORST MOMENT: Our producer Erica getting pretty sick and visiting a rough looking emergency room in Burgas where they proceeded to misdiagnose her and jab the IV needle in the muscle rather than the vein. This would result in huge swelling of her arm and continued decline in Erica’s condition. We finally made it to the capital Sofia and visited an emergency room at a Japanese run hospital which set her straight on the road to recovery.

SPECIAL THANKS:  Katerina and Andre of Koukery Dance School in Rouse, Scroletics Band, Flamingo Entertainment Complex and Dancers in Sozopol, Kristian Mitov in Sofia, International Women’s Club of Sofia and Dimko of Sofia Travel Holidays in Sofia.

 ALSO THANKS TO OUR PALS IN THE U.S.A.

From the U.S. I would like to thank Robert Kennedy and his Puritti Water Filters, Pati McGrath of Baggallini Bags and my associates Jon Krobot and Paul Rowen for helping hold down the fort while I was away. I should also shout out the dedicated crew, producer Erica Soto and camera (and writer of bad puns) Scott Gawlik. It was a pleasure traveling with you guys! And thanks to all my friends and family. Of course our over 100 affiliates and our sponsors. Geez, I’m going to shut up now. This is a blog post, not the Academy Awards. You get the point.

Bratislava Man…. Save Us Please!

logo bielePNG
Bratislava Man

Bratislava got off to a relatively bumpy start. We were ripped off almost immediately on arrival by a dishonest taxi driver (gasp!) at the bus station where we arrived from Prague. As it would turn out our hotel was just around the corner. But our taxi driver decided to take a circuitous route in the opposite direction that took about 15 minutes and cost $20 euros (had we done our research we actually could have walked 5-7 minutes or at most paid $3-$4 euros for a taxi).

imageNow before you wonder how seasoned travelers like the Raw Travel Crew could possibly fall for such a brazen and obvious ploy, please keep the following in mind.

–          We were a TV crew of 3 folks with luggage and equipment.

–          We were on the run so much with limited internet access, that I am still weeks behind on this posting.

–          There was precious little information on the web about Bratislava’s transportation options.

Truth be told, I actually did know better than to trust a taxi driver at the bus station, a notorious trolling ground for “taxi sharks” (so named for their circumventing trains & bus stations in search for fresh “prey”) … but after walking away from the original guy and shopping around to the other waiting taxis a couple of times, we found no other taxi driver willing to drive us for less. They either did not or pretended not to understand us. Indeed it appears they were all in on the scam each waiting on their own victim as opposed to making an honest living.

To add insult to injury the taxi driver in question even went so far as to punch the address of our hotel into his digital radio receiver pretending it was a sophisticated GPS device (we only realized this later).

The driver was no gentleman robber either. He was crude, rude and probably would have charged us more had I not been questioning him about the route as soon as I got suspicious and threatened to get out then and there. He mercifully stopped circling and finally pulled up to the street over from our hotel. No, he would charge us 4x to 5x the going rate but wouldn’t even take us the few feet down the street to our hotel.

Bratislava
The famous “Sewer Man” statue of Bratislava

Immediately after unpacking we headed down the street to search for food and discovered to our surprise that the bus station was actually less than 1/16th of a mile from our hotel. We realized with a mixture of humor and outrage we’d just been conned.

We considered confronting this “gentleman” on camera but alas, we had precious little time for revenge and each time we happened by the bus station he was nowhere in sight (perhaps his take from us was enough to take a few days off). Oh well, $20 Euros is not the end of the world for sure, but no one likes getting conned.

Our hotel was just about a mile outside the main old town and city center which would also prove to be a mistake for several reasons, mainly the fact that we were lost much of the time. This occurred because the map we were provided with by the hotel only showed the city center (even though they sat outside of it) and it proved to be fairly useless as most of the streets were either unnamed on the map or things were scaled like a coloring book with landmarks way out of proportion to actual distances.

Bratislava 2
Old Town Bratislava is simply lovely

The hotel itself was a somewhat extravagant expense for us (we usually stayed in apartments but there were precious few available in Bratislava for some reason), but it turned to be mostly a false luxury. It reminded me of so much modern art. It looked good upon 1st glance but upon closer inspection was really just a mess.

They advertised air conditioning (it was super hot during our visit) and while our rooms did have a thermostat with a green light on the wall when the AC was switched “on”, as best we could tell there were no vents in the room and nothing happened. When I complained the AC wasn’t working, they simply said, “Oh it’s working”… and that was that. No investigation… nothing. We strongly believe the AC Thermostat was a prop and nothing more.

The staff, however, made up for these inadequacies by trying really, really hard to accommodate their lost and now slightly pissed off English speaking guests. They mostly failed, but I still must give them an “A” for a heck of an effort and I have to admit they were endearing in their incompetence. I really think they tried their best and while this isn’t little league baseball, I have to say that goes a long way in my book.

Blue Church Bratislava
The beautiful “Blue Church” in Bratislava

The fact that we were lost so often was doubly frustrating when you consider how small Bratislava is. Especially in comparison to the capital cities we’d visited so far. But the trams were easy to jump on and off and we ended up using them as often as possible. People were fairly generous with directions, young people in particular. Many of the older folks (even ticket agents at the train station) would simply wave you abruptly away if they didn’t speak English and would not make an effort to communicate. However, this may have been a consequence of 3 travelers with cameras which often puts folks on guard. In the few times I was able to get out on my own, I found almost all Bratislavans eager to help (case in point, when purchasing shampoo in the local grocery store, it was a team effort with lots of help from employees and other customers alike… none of which spoke English), regardless of language ability, which gives me hope to return again someday on my own.

With Brano of Authentic Slovakia Tours
With Brano from Authentic Slovakia Tours

I don’t want people to get the message that Bratislava is bad. To the contrary, it’s actually quiet lovely and after navigating the huge metropolis and throngs of tourists in Prague, it was a welcome break to be off the beaten path just a bit. I found Bratislava’s old town very charming and while the castle was bound to be underwhelming compared to Krakow and Prague (almost are compared to these), we were treated to one heck of a tour with our new pal Brano from Authentic Slovakian Tours. Brano is part of a group of young Slovakians trying desperately to get Bratislava up to speed on their tourism offerings and infrastructure. His tours are first rate and his company is growing as a result.

Another guy doing his part is Bratislava Man! No Bratislava man (AKA Tomas) is not a superhero but he is a good guy and even though we hooked up with him towards the end of our journey he did prove really helpful in getting us out of jam when we arrived to interview a local band Kto Chce Co Chce (Do What You Like)  on the outskirts of town and were greeted by a screaming, unreasonable, English speaking (but once again pretending not to) security gal.

Evidently the rehearsal space we were directed to was now a non-functioning, old chemical factory from back in the communism days and the security folks must have thought we were spies from the Cold War era. When she saw our cameras she basically flipped out. Eventually, thanks in no small part to Bratislava Man we were able to film and were treated to a great rehearsal from the guys.

With the real Bratislava Man
With the real Bratislava Man

Another cool thing about Bratislava is the wine. Just being a few miles from the border of Austria means that if you like Austrian wines, then you’ll probably equally love Slovakian wines for most likely, a fraction of the price. The climate is similar. The only difference being that in Slovakia, the wineries were state owned for many years until the fall of communism in 1989, so there was a blip in time when wine making in Slovakia meant putting out as much of the cheap stuff for the masses as possible. No more, however and the centuries old craft of wine making in Slovakia is back and better than ever. There are wine tasting bars all over Bratislava and we sampled the more modern style Trunk Wine Gallery owned by Vladimir Raiman. Mr. Raiman was as hospitable and knowledgeable as could be about Slovakian wine making.

In a way Bratislava felt like it is still trying to recover from the very heavy hand of Communism. The capitalist edict that the customer (or in this case the traveler) should be treated with respect is a bit foreign concept and left mostly to the younger generation of folks.

Folks like the laid back guys at the Wild Elephant Hostel. The owners and guest at the Wild Elephant were super cool. They allowed us freedom to shoot and interview their guests at will and we hope to offer some insight for some of our viewers just as to what a hostel experience REALLY entails. They even offered us rooms and I kind of wished we had taken them up on it.  After the interviews and a great meal (which I was able to “kind of” help them prepare) they were kind enough to take us on a tour of the town.

Bratislava Band Kto Chci Co Chce (Do What You Like)
Bratislava Band Kto Chci Co Chce (Do What You Like)

Ironically, the 2005 horror film “Hostel” was based on a fictional hostel in Bratislava and the owners of Wild Elephant told me that was one of the best things that could have happened to their business and Bratislava tourism in general. Many non regional visitors in particular, come to Bratislava specifically to visit a hostel and I suppose to see if they get chopped up as many of the protagonists in the movie (we did not and to my knowledge everyone we interviewed left Bratislava safe and sound).

I was feeling much better about Bratislava. But once again a dishonest taxi driver would try to ruin the good vibes.

It was time to leave, so on the way out of Bratislava we learned our lesson. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi. We were quoted a rate of $8 Euros. When we arrived to the train station the driver said “$12 Euros”… I of course protested and said it was $8 Euros. He acquiesced.

I gave him a $10 Euro Bill and simple math would dictate he owed me $2 Euros. Instead he returned me a single Euro coin (Both $1 Euro and $2 Euros come in coins) I suppose thinking I wouldn’t notice.

Guest from the Wild Elephant
Guest from the Wild Elephant

Again, I protested and again, he agreed and quickly gave me my other $1 Euro which I had been intending to use to tip him. Not anymore. This time it’s mostly on camera and if you watch this fall, you’ll see the drama unfold on Raw Travel.

Despite these small annoyances,  which by the way are as likely to happen in other parts of Eastern Europe if you don’t plan ahead, I still think Bratislava is a good spot to visit and I encourage you to check it out on your own.

But the tourism folks & governmental leaders of Bratislava need to be aware that until they get a handle on their out of control taxi drivers the travel & tourism industry may very well continue to struggle. It’s not fair for travelers to pay much more simply because they are ignorant upon arrival. Take it from me, they will get clued in quickly and when they do, will see Bratislava from a slightly more cynical point of view, as I have. Which is a shame because Bratislava has a lot to offer.

For the sake of our friends at Authentic Slovakian Tours, Bratislava Man, Wine Trunk & Wild Elephant, I sincerely hope Bratislava’s taxi & tourism industry get their acts together soon.

UP NEXT: One very cool thing about Bratislava is it’s close proximity to Vienna, just 60 miles away and  what would prove to be a great day trip for us. I’ll cover that next.

 

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic is magical but overrun with tourists in the summer months. Although it made our lives more difficult in some respects, I was none the less happy that we had booked an apartment in District 10 on the outskirts of town rather than in the heavily trafficked Olde Town.  The street our apartment was located on roughly translated to “uranium” street, so named in the cold war, which gives you a tiny hint to the utilitarian, communist past of this now thriving tourists mecca.

IMG_6348

We arrived sleep deprived (are you sensing a theme here yet?) from an overnight train from Krakow, Poland. The trip was a “red eye” and we had reserved a sleeping compartment for all three of us. The compartment was tight, the train had no dining or bar car so we promptly flipped the beds down and tried, pretty much in vain, to get some sleep.

I’ve taken several trains in my lifetime and they usually are calm, monotonous things, generating almost a lullaby of white noise (in fact there is a “Train” effect on my white noise app on my i-phone), but not on this train. The clamoring of the tracks felt like it was just below us (perhaps because it was and always is, but usually doesn’t sound thus) and the constant starting, stopping as we pulled into one town after another made sleep upon the narrow, fold out metal bunks with wafer thin mattresses just next to impossible. We all pretty much just catnapped during the 7 or so hour journey from Krakow.

Taxis in Eastern Europe are, by and large, an under-regulated mess resulting in thousands of over charged fares from unsuspecting (and in our case, even suspecting) visitors to airports, bus & train stations on a regular basis. Indeed, travel pros though we may be considered, we were not immune to this scourge of corruption that has been allowed to fester and grow as the former iron curtain countries pursue the capitalist’s dream of ripping off their fellow man.

With Gaelle in front of the old clock tower.
With Gaelle in front of the old clock tower.

Luckily, our kindly and hospitable apartment host, Pavel, had arranged for us to be picked up by Tic Tack Taxi, a somewhat respected transportation company that is reportedly trying to help revolutionize the taxi, bus and transportation system in Czech Republic.

Our taxi ride from the train station to Pavel’s was semi-luxurious (a leather seated Audi with an extremely polite English speaking driver with GPS and even free bottled water for each of us) with the fare a fraction (about $10 U.S) of what a taxi hail or worse the taxi line at the railroad station could have run us.

Loreta Museum and Church
Loreta Museum and Church

After meeting Pavel, our super gracious host on whom we would all come to rely heavily upon, we all crashed for a couple of hours and decided that it was extremely inefficient from a work POV to take overnight trains. We’ve since sworn them off but we’ll see if this trend sticks the remainder of our journey (as my friend, coordinator and part time travel planner Margarita pointed out, it saves tremendously on the cost of lodging for one night).

We would have slept longer but we had arranged to meet Gaelle, a French expat now living in Prague and author of Zoukside Down. Gaelle is a dance teacher and  ardent enthusiast of Brazilian Zouk Dancing, a style of dancing that has recently taken hold in Prague. Gaelle agreed to show us around some of the more basic touristy sites in the old town before we were to head to a Zouk Party to watch her in action. The party was hosted at a lovely hillside restaurant that offered some absolutely amazing views of Prague at the magic hour of sunset.

On the Charles Bridge with cameraman Scott.
On the Charles Bridge with cameraman Scott.

If you think it’s unusual to feature a French native who dances Brazilian in an Eastern European, well, I must admit I had my reservations as well. But what we’d quickly find out on this trip was that Prague was full of ex-pats from all over the world. It is truly an international city of the highest order.

There were literally bucket loads of Americans, Australians and others living and working in Prague and thus speaking English was almost never a problem with the exception of when we went back to our apartment in the almost 100% non-touristic District 10. By the end of the journey, this would become a fun game with the locals who, while not exactly smiling, warm people were simply wonderfully patient when dealing with us funny speaking foreigners and almost ended every awkward difficult conversation with a smile of some sort.

Baby in a Box at the Communist Museum
Baby in a Box at the Communist Museum

In District 10 we ended up frequenting a lovely little ice cream parlor (we witnessed ice cream being consumed at most every time of day, even seemingly for breakfast at 8 or 9 am) and café that served the small, exotic handmade sandwiches and desserts.  Pointing and holding up the number of each sandwich was the only way to order. It was surprisingly efficient by day 3 or so.

But the highlight of our trip was perhaps meeting Ladi, a local Hungarian who runs the Bunker, a former nuclear bomb shelter designed and built for communist party leaders. Today it’s a really cool government subsidized community & event space and communist museum.

The Bunker hosts concerts and gatherings on a regular basis but the communists’ museum was my personal highlight. Seeing all these relics from the Cold War brought back memories and it occurred to me that it appeared that either I had missed the vast majority of the paranoia of the cold war (I heard that it most likely peaked in the 1950’s and 1960s) or the East was just much more prepared than the West. For example almost all the Metros in Eastern Europe we road had been built very deep underground. In case of nuclear attack, they could serve as an impromptu shelter for hundreds of thousands of members of the “working class” who could not fit into one of the bunkers.

Trying to fit in at the Bunker
Trying to fit in at the Bunker

The biggest kind of “what the…..” moment came when we saw the “Baby in a Box” display, which was a wooden box (imagine a small casket with a clear, vinyl see through cover) and a wooden foot pump to pump oxygen). The idea of the Baby Box was that in case of nuclear attack, a baby could be housed in the box and the mother (or father or surviving loved one) must hit the pump every 15 minutes or “no more baby” as our funny and expert guide, Ivan “The Hilarious” so eloquently observed. This s really brought the potential horror of the cold war into focus for me.

Growing up in the fear of total destruction of the 1980s, I’m very appreciative of the fact that we can all have a chuckle about these things now. Back then we felt truly threatened and though the source of the threats may have changed, is mankind any less threatened today?

Ladi & Pavel were like long, lost pals. Ladi had lived in Florida (playing in a rock band there) and Pavel had been a photographer in the former Czechoslovakia prior to the fall of communism and later he worked for the Associated Press as one of the few premiere photographers covering the Velvet Revolution as it unfolded and helping to tell the story of what was happening to the west and the rest of the world.

IMG_6797
Outside “Cafe in the Dark”

Both were invaluable to our largely smooth travel through Prague and to both I owe a debt of gratitude.

I like Prague, a lot. And though the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and history of the old town are nothing short of awe inspiring, that’s not why. I like Prague because of people like Ladi, Pavel, and the regular folks like the sales clerk at the local Foto Escoda (a local photography store) who was so helpful to us when we had to replace a lens for the camera. The countless other locals who made us feel at home I can’t thank enough; people like Eleska Mertova of Segrasegra clothing designing some very cool bike clothes out of recycled bicycle inner tubes.

Trying on the designs of SegreSegre clothing
Trying on the designs of SegreSegre clothing

Or the fine folks at the Cafe in the Dark where I and my cameraman Scott were able to experience TOTAL darkness and get a feeling for what it was like for the sight impaired folks of Prague while raising money for them. Or Veronica our beautiful and informative guide at the Loreta Museum or Woody from the local band Rocket Dogz who toured us by the cool cats at Lucky HazzardClothing.  I hope to someday be able to return the favor for their generosity of their time and spirit.

Prague before the Velvet Revolution - Courtesy of Pavel Horejsi
Prague 1980’s – Courtesy of Pavel Horejsi

It was good that we had Krakow and Prague to begin with because next up were Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria. They were to be our very first real challenge and bump in the road on this journey. Thankfully, we were beginning to gel as a team both in terms of our travel and our production chops.

IMG_6643
With Woody and pal at Lucky Hazzard

Stay tuned for our adventures in Bratislava, Slovakia and yes, Vienna, Austria (Raw Travel Style) up next.

For more photos from our travels through Prague, please visit our set on Flikr HERE.

 

 

 

 

Krakow… A Modern Day (If Sleep Deprived) Fairy Tale

 

With Krakow Local & U.S. Expat Sara at Wawel Castle
With Krakow Local & U.S. Expat Sara at Wawel Castle

Krakow, Poland was our 1st stop on our current Central & Eastern European tour and it was challenging to say the least, but through no fault of this magical city. No, it was purely a “jet lag / lack of sleep” kind of thing where the entire crew was operating on less than ideal conditions with little to no time for sleep or time change adjustment before we began shooting for Season 2.  We had only 5 days to attempt to tell Krakow’s story  and we didn’t want to waste one single day.

Other than myself looking exhausted on camera (the bags under my eyes had bags of their own), and our cameraman extraordinaire, Scott taking a wicked tumble down the winding stair case in our apartment (no broken bones and better even yet, no broken cameras) , we came through Krakow not only in tact but feeling we’d documented a pretty sweet episode.

Centuries Old Wall in Krakow's Olde City
Centuries Old Wall in Krakow’s Olde City

Special thanks to Sara, a U.S. ex-pat, Polish language student & travel writer from Minnesota who now calls Krakow home. Sara helped us out immensely with pre-trip tips and then showed us around the fairytale like Wawel Hill & Castle overlooking the Olde Town. A fire breathing dragon is the mascot here in Krakow and there is one that actually breathes fire every 3-4 minutes or so guarding the castle from below.

Walking around the castle grounds, perhaps it was the jet lag but I felt almost transported back to my childhood when my imagination could wander free with fantastical thoughts. I remembered fondly my mother reading fairy tales to me about dragons, knights and wicked witches. Yes, Krakow has a very mid-evil feel and for good reason as it gives new meaning to the word old. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569.

IMG_5905
Schindler’s Factory & Museum Tour

For a more recent historical journey, Sara also took us to the now trendy, old Jewish District where prior to World War II tens of thousands of Jews lived and worked. Today travelers the world over visit this area to see the last part of the remaining wall from the old Jewish Ghetto the Nazi’s built to corral the Jewish population before shipping many of them out to their deaths in nearby concentration camps. Sadly, today there are only a handful of Jews left in Krakow.

Reminders of this history and the tragedy that befell so many Jews in WW II was evident throughout Krakow. The friendly folks at Schindler’s Museum took us on a fascinating tour of their new museum set on the grounds of the old and now famous Schindler’s Factory where Oskar Schindler risked his own neck to save over 1,000 Jews from certain death.

Entrance to Auschwitz
Entrance to Auschwitz

A somber bus trip to nearby Auschwitz was personally fulfilling and helped bring some perspective to an event that has been covered via film & TV so much as to seem almost intangible to me at times. However, seeing 1st hand a Nazi wallet allegedly fashioned from human skin on display at Schindler’s along with the mugshot photos of the many prisoners on the walls of the Auschwitz barracks really brought the surreal horror of what happened home for me. The eyes of the prisoner’s told their story, a sad realization perhaps that they were going to die in horrible fashion.

Man’s inhumanity to man throughout human history never ceases to amaze and dismay me. Auschwitz and Schindler’s were not happy places but they were not overly depressing either. I feel both the museum and Auschwitz hit the proper sober and respectful tone without being remotely exploitative and I recommend all visitors to Krakow please check them out.

With the lovely ladies of "Brains All Gone"
With the lovely ladies of “Brains All Gone”

On a happier note a trek out to the recently created Cafe Finska help restore my faith in humanity just a bit. The ladies from the all girl punk & rock band “Brains All Gone” accompanied us there after playing an amazing acoustic set for us in the park by the river to a gathering crowd of onlookers. I’ve included a music video of Brains All Gone so you can check them out for yourself. Trust me when I say that they sound even better live and really, who could ask for a better band name?

Cafe Finska has a neat concept in that everything is 100% free and is run purely through donations and volunteers working to keep the cafe open. They hosts events such as musical concerts, poetry readings and on the day we were there, there was a loosely organized Spanish language lesson taught by a cool chap from Chile now living in Krakow. How ironic that just 25 years after the fall of communism in Poland, that a cafe challenging the very premise of capitalism would spring up. The pendulum of human history continues to swing from one side to the next and perhaps will forever be thus but I nevertheless find it fascinating.

Other highlights of the trip was a tour that immersed us via a “miner’s tour” in the famous Wieliczka Salt Mines nearby. Special thanks to our new pals at See Krakow for lining this up for us.  I highly recommend them when visiting Krakow and a tour to the salt mines is a must.

Miner's Tour with SeeKrakow.com
Miner’s Tour with SeeKrakow.com

On everyone’s list of favorites was the “Communism Tour” from Crazy Guides in a typical Trabant car to Nowa Huta, a throwback suburb of Krakow from back in the communist era. This tour was about as a-typical as you can get and we all raved about our lunch in an actual Milk Bar (communist style, government subsidized cafeteria).

We had some authentic, home made Polish & Eastern European specialties such as perogies, cabbage, borsch soup, etc. at simply dirt cheap prices. We all agreed it was by far the best meal we had on the trip, bar none, and the “no frills” no smiling (and almost no talking) service literally felt like we were in 1970s Poland in Iron Curtain times.

IMG_6226
Touring Nowa Huta in a Trabant car with the Crazy Guides!

Krakow was full of visitors but very few from the U.S. It’s Europe’s darling and I think it will soon be a favorite of the U.S. soon. I know I can’t wait to get back, just hopefully sans all the work obligations and with a bit more sleep under my belt.

To see more photos from our travels to Krakow and Poland visit our set on Flikr HERE.

 

Eastern Europe – This Time, It’s Personal

In the summer of 2012, I spent a wonderful month traveling through Eastern Europe. I began with a week in beautiful Budapest, Hungary then took the train to the surprising Belgrade, Serbia then on to the kind of crazy Bucharest, Romania and ended my journey in historic and lovely Kiev, Ukraine. You can read about some of my journey HERE.

IMGP0425 - Small

The whole time, “Raw Travel”, then a project without a home, was not far from my mind.  I was pre-producing in my head everywhere I went. Making mental and physical notes of ideas for producing shows, showcasing Eastern Europe in ways I’d never seen on U.S. television and maybe even internationally as well. I was making valuable contacts as well.

Now, it’s time to return… but this time, with my crew and this time, pre-production gives way to the art & stress of actual producing. These are going to be our Fall 2014 episodes for Raw Travel’s 2nd season (2014-15). This is not a dress rehearsal friends, this is the real deal and we want to keep striving to produce better and better content.

IMG_9906

Unfortunately, with the political situation being what it is in Ukraine, I won’t be able to return there this time, and Serbia, a place I fell in love with, may or may not be on the agenda depending on how the travel agenda works out.

But we’re definitely heading to Hungary and Romania and we’d like to know where YOU would like for us to go in Eastern Europe. Should Serbia be in our plans? How about the Czech Republic or Poland or Bulgaria. The beautiful beaches of Croatia or nearby Slovenia or Slovakia. Got some ideas for us while we’re there.. hit us up.

We’re in the heavy planning stages but we will be nailing things down in the next few weeks as we will be there in June-July 2014 filming. We’re wide open to suggestions, so hit us up on our Facebook, twitter or just send us a good old fashioned email.

 

 

France – On a Budget

My journey would take me to the south of France, on the French Riviera, in the town of Cannes about ½ hour drive from Nice. My mission was dual focused, on the one hand, I was working, attending the MIPCOM convention, a bi-annual television market where producers, distributors and networks come from all over the world to buy and sell television programming and content. My goal was to pitch the series and documentaries that I represent to domestic (U.S.) and international networks and buyers, a pretty challenging task for an independent entrepreneur.

My secondary mission was just as challenging and possibly more intriguing; I was going to travel to Cannes and Paris, two fabled & legendary travel destinations (and not exactly on many “travel experts’” lists of budget destinations), on a relatively modest budget. I am happy to report that without too much effort or discomfort, I was able to keep my spending in check and stick to a relatively modest budget. Below are a few tips that I can recommend if you’d like to taste the good life, without taking an inordinate bite out of your travel budget.

GETTING THERE:

First, I was using my frequent flyer miles on this trip but only had enough for the flight back. So on the flight over, I had to choose the cheapest airfare I could find with a reasonable schedule. I used Kayak to check different airfares and ended up booking the Russian airline Aeroflot which had the most competitive price to Nice, the main airport just outside of Cannes.

I had a brief layover in Moscow’s big Sheremetyevo (SVO) airport. Having slept very little on the nearly 10 hour plane ride from NYC to Moscow I was exhausted. Just 3 days prior I had flown red eye from LA to NYC as well, so I desperately needed some caffeine to get through the rest of my trip.

After wandering the airport for a bit, I finally found a restaurant that accepted U.S. dollars. By the time the rubles to U.S. dollar conversation had taken place, I had ordered an $8 cup of coffee. It was served just above espresso size and was likely the most expensive coffee per fluid ounce, or otherwise, I’ve ever had. These are firsts I could live without if I was going to be sticking to my budget.

TIP # 1 – Skip the Moscow beverage.

If flying to or through Moscow’s SVO airport, one of the most expensive airports in one of the world’s most expensive cities, skip the coffee or any beverage, food or other purchase for that matter. Suck it up and do without. Your wallet will thank you. The good news is that the airports in other parts of Western Europe are much more reasonable, even more so than many U.S. Airports. On the way out of Los Angeles at LAX, one of the worst airports I’ve ever seen for food selection, some dinky sandwich kiosk near my gate tried to charge me $12 for a mostly bread sandwich!

FRANCE:

Once I arrived at the Nice airport, a small and easily manageable airport, I opted out of the reportedly $60-$120 Euro (depends on time of day and your negotiation clout) taxi ride and instead purchased a bus ticket for just $17 Euros one way (about $22 U.S.). The buses are easily identifiable, run every ½ hour or so and take about the same amount of time as a taxi. The bus was packed with MIPCOM attendees but not uncomfortable and dropped us off in the center of all the action in Cannes.

TIP # 2 – Take the Bus instead of a Taxi

The bus to Cannes is a relaxed, more economical alternative to and from the Nice Airport and you will get there almost as quickly as taxi. However, if you arrive very early in the morning or very late at night, buses may not be running. In that case, be prepared to pay whatever the market will allow for a taxi unless you are able to make prior arrangements.

LODGING:

I had reserved a private, studio apartment through AIRBNB.com, a service I often utilize because I feel I often get better space for less money than a hotel. This was somewhat off season for Cannes so I had no problems securing an apartment for less than $100 U.S. per day that was literally just five minutes walking distance to the Palais, where the TV conference was held. Now if you go for the Cannes Film Festival, this may or may not be the case, so I have to believe it’s best to book early for the best deals.

TIP #3 – Research and utilize websites like AIRBNB.com, Roomorama.com and Sublet.com

Compare these and other apartment rental sites to online hotel sites to get the best price for a place to stay. Beware that by using an apartment you probably won’t have daily maid service or the benefit of asking a “front desk” for things like electric outlet converters (be sure and bring with you), wake up calls (use your phone’s alarm feature) or tips about the city (do your research before you arrive). If you want to save even more money and don’t mind a slight loss of privacy, you can rent rooms in homes or apartments.

MISTAKES: They happen to us all

Once the bus had dropped me off, I realized I’d made a rookie mistake. While I had the address and contact name and phone number for the apartment along with assurances that the apartment was just a 5 minute walk from the bus stop, I had not pre-mapped my way ahead of time or printed any maps.

I was super tired by now having been almost 24 hours without sleep and I found myself wandering around Cannes asking person after person if they knew where this tiny, apparently little known street where my apartment was located.

I kept getting conflicting information (a worldwide phenomenon I’ve found) with very nice, well-meaning folks pointing me in opposite directions. Also surprisingly, on this day, contrary to the entire rest of my trip, it seemed hardly anyone spoke English (my French consisted of a few basic phrases including the phrase “Je ne parle pas Français” which basically means “I don’t speak French”).

At this point, a taxi might have come in handy but I never got the hang of hailing a taxi in Cannes. I tried at this point but the New York City style of raising your hand and barking “Taxi!” didn’t seem to work so well in Cannes. In fact, I didn’t use a taxi my entire trip, NYC & Spain included.

A mere 45 minutes later, I found the apartment through the kind efforts of a kind young, immigrant girl from Madagascar and a Best Western Hotel front desk clerk who took pity on me and gave me a map, despite the fact that I wasn’t staying there.

TIP #4 – Map out directions to you destination beforehand

At a minimum, print a google map with your destination clearly marked so you can use it to communicate with people and get a bearing on where your apartment or hotel will be. While Cannes is not very large, especially in the tourist area, and is very walkable, when wandering around town luggage in tow exhausted from the flight (and cellular is not in service yet plus I had no idea how to use the strange looking and sounding phone booths), it can put a damper on the beginning of a trip.

Finally, by the time I found my apartment, got unpacked and all set up, it was around 8pm Cannes time (or about 12 Noon LA time which my body was still responding to). I had meetings scheduled early the next day so I wanted to get to bed early and crash for as many hours as possible since I was essentially replacing two nights of sleep with one, hopefully very long one.

Despite the fact that in Los Angeles, it was lunchtime, I felt tired enough to crash, but I was also hungry so I set off to find some cheap eats for lunch (Los Angeles) / dinner (Cannes).

On the bus I’d noticed a crowded Chinese restaurant that appeared to serve cafeteria style where diners were able to pick and choose the food like at a mall or airport dining area. I decided to check it out.

WHEN IN FRANCE, EAT CHINESE?

I like Chinese, but I don’t love it and I certainly didn’t come all the way to France to sample it, but I knew there would be plenty of opportunity to have “good” French meals in the days ahead. Did I mention I was exhausted? I opted for the quick, economical route and retraced my steps past the main street, the big Blvd. de la Ferrage and train tracks. Not surprisingly, in general, I would later find that the further I walked away from the beach, the more I saw prices for food and almost everything drop as I made my way to where more of the everyday citizens of Cannes work and live.

I’m happy to say that the Chinese food I had was some of the best I’ve ever tasted in all my travels (sadly, none to Asia just yet). So much so that I’d return a couple more times during my six day stay in Cannes. Not only was it good, it was fairly economical. I’d spend around $8 Euros (around $10 U.S.) each meal (less if I opted to only drink tap water which is perfectly safe in Cannes). The owner was a very nice and English speaking Cambodian gentleman and we chatted about politics, culture and travel each time.

Later on, to save even more money (and time), I’d eat at one of the many food kiosks set along the famous beach walk, Blvd. De La Croisette, where you could try more typical French fare like Quiche Lorraine, Crepes or a chicken, ham & cheese Baguette for less than $5 Euros while taking in the sights at the topless beach. Oops, did I just say that out loud?

I also located a small café/coffee shop that was teeming with locals that had wonderful fresh baked items including little pizzettes, crepes, baguettes, etc. that while within the tourist zone was just off the beaten path a bit down a small side street.

Hit the kiosks for inexpensive eats

Tip #5 – To eat cheaply explore outside of the tourist zone, off the beaten path streets and kiosks

It’s easy to eat cheaply in Cannes. Just head away from the tourist area to where the locals eat or for something quick and satisfying hit a kiosk for a sandwich, pizza or crepe.

Now I didn’t come all the way to Cannes to eat as cheaply or quickly as possible. I had made some time and budgeted for some pretty good sit down meals and probably my favorite was a place that a client took me called “La Salon des Independants” which is located at the top of the old town, as you head up the winding walkway to the Eglasia de Notre Dame, the old church & castle overlooking the marina in the central part of what is called “Old Town”.

La Salon des Independants is a French, Mediterranean & Spanish themed restaurant run by Andrea and Mario, a lovely Spanish couple living in Cannes. When you arrive you will be warmly greeted with a glass of champagne and a few plates of appetizers including olives, pickles, hams and some delicious pate and bread. You can literally fill up on the appetizers alone, but don’t. Next they are bringing you a shot of Vodka and offering you a choice from a list of 4 or 5 delicious main entrees.

I chose the quail my first night (I liked it so much I ate there again the next night) and it was incredible. Just before the main course (and after your champagne and vodka), they bring a bottle of Red or White wine (your choice) with your meal and top it off with a complimentary desert.

During the meal, Mario pulled out his guitar and many of the wait staff, Andrea included would take turns gathering around him to sing Flamenco or old, classic French and Spanish folk tunes, with the whole restaurant joining in. By the time the champagne, vodka and wine have had their effect, you’ll be joining in too. It’s a blast and a great way to have both a good meal and a great time on a relatively low budget. Dinner for two including all this alcohol, entertainment and gratuity (tips are included in the bill in France), 80 odd Euros (around $100 U.S.), a good deal for this kind of experience in almost any town.

La Salon des Independants

TIP #6 –Buy a local SIM Card and bring or buy a cheap, unlocked international phone

Depending on your purpose in Cannes, you may not need a cell phone, but I did. I needed to be able to communicate with people in Cannes, setting up and confirming appointments, many with people I’d never met before. So a cell phone was essential.

My iPhone 4 doesn’t work internationally but even if it did, I wouldn’t use it much. Instead, I have a spare, old blackberry that is unlocked for international use that I keep specifically for this purpose. First thing, I buy a local SIM Card, get assigned a local phone number and voila, I’m connected locally and able to make and receive phone calls at a fraction of the cost of international roaming charges. I’m also able to email the number back home in case there are emergencies and I need to be reached

For this particular trip, I stumbled into a small cellular store that specializes in iPhone cases (I’ve never seen such a wide, fun variety) appropriately named “Phone Case” located at 8, Rue Marechal Joffre, very near all the action in Cannes. The wonderfully nice ladies at Phone Case spoke some English and guided me through the setup of a Lebara phone SIM card $7.50 Euro (about $10 U.S.) which came with several minutes included and would allow me to make and receive international calls.

I ended up having problems with my old blackberry which was on its last legs so I purchased a cheap phone from Phone Case for about $40 Euros (about $50 U.S.). Had I had more time and shopped around, I probably could have gotten one for around $25 Euros but this one has slots for 2 different SIM cards at the same time. I thought this might come in handy in future travels.

Plus the kind ladies at Phone Case were like my personal cellular communications consultants and translators. Through the next week, they’d see me almost daily and patiently guide me through the process of setting up the phone in English, checking voice mail, refilling my SIM card, etc. At the end I began to feel guilty every time I walked in there but they and their resident French Poodle were as kind as could be. If you visit Cannes and need cellular service, you really should stop by and see them.

Eglasia de Notre Dame

PARIS… ON A BUDGET?

How could you go to France and not visit Paris? It wasn’t in my original agenda, which called for a Cannes to Spain back to the U.S. itinerary. I only had about 12 days total for all this travel, but I decided I wanted to check out the City of Love in person anyway so I allocated a couple of days to get my feet wet. My rationale is that I could get a taste of Paris and if I hated it, then I could say I’ve been there and never return. And if liked it, I would be back to spend more time. The verdict? Loved it!

I flew from Cannes to Paris on Easyjet, one of Europe’s ultra-cheap airlines. Beware these airlines are infamous for charging for every little extra bit of comfort. But since we’d only be in the air an hour or so, I thought “how bad could it be?” and I was right.

I did my research ahead of time and calculated the cost of airfare plus checking my carry on (you can only have 1 carry on via Easyjet and this includes what is traditionally considered a personal item such as purse, backpack or laptop) and it was still very cheap to fly one way from Nice to Paris. Since I was pressed for time in Paris, train or bus was not really an option in this instance.

TIP #7 – Check the European budget airlines directly

The ultra-cheap European airlines that fly within the Eurozone are not typically listed on popular websites like Kayak or other airfare aggregators. A partial list of budget European airlines includes the aforementioned Easyjet, Vueling and Ryan Air.

Google “Discount European Airlines” for more options. Be sure to read the fine print and to check in online (one airline charges $10 extra Euros just for printing your boarding pass), pay to check your baggage on online, etc., etc. These “hidden” fees are how these small airlines make their money so you have to try and outfox them. To me this is bad business, almost tricking people into spending money, but when in Rome..or Paris, bla, bla… To keep my dignity in check, I try to look at the whole thing like a game where I don’t want to get penalized for my ignorance. Travel cheaply without any extra penalties on your trip and congratulations, you win the game!

TIP #8 – Pack as light as possible

This advice goes for almost any trip but especially in Western Europe. I’ve learned through my travels the value of packing light. Not only is it easier on you when you are on the move, it’s much less expensive. While it didn’t save me with baggage fees on Easyjet, I did save money on other airlines while flying within the U.S. (i.e. I flew from Los Angeles to New York City on Virgin America and was able to carry on).

Also, just as importantly, it saves you money by giving you the option of taking buses and trains instead of expensive taxis. In some areas, taxis are so inexpensive (Southeast Asia, Latin America, etc.) that it doesn’t make sense not to take them. However, this is not the case in Western Europe and in parts of the U.S. (JFK to NYC is +$60 U.S. now). By packing light you have the option of things like taking Airtrain then subway from JFK to NYC, which brings us to our next tip for saving money while visiting Paris.

TIP #9 – Fly into Orly airport and take the Orlybus or Orlytrain

Orly is the smaller, more manageable airport in Paris and where many of the discount airlines fly. It also is the airport with direct connections to OrlyVal / Orly Train or Orlybus (though both airports offer good mass transit options). Either the OrlyTrain or the OrlyBus are simple to use and will drop you off close to a metro stop which can almost always get you close to your destination. I recommend once again, downloading a bus or train map from the internet and mapping out your route before you go. Even if you have to hail a cab from your closest metro stop, your fare will be a fraction of the price of using taxi service to and from the airport.

TIP # 10 – Learn a few basic French phrases before you go

I’ve had enough of the stereotype of the snooty French who don’t like Americans. I’m kicking that to the curb from now on. Though I’m sure, like most stereotypes, it’s based on some kernel of truth, in over a week in France, I never, not even once experienced this attitude.

That said, I will tell you that I think it pays to learn a few basic phrases before you go. The French, like any proud citizenry, like to see that you are making an effort to learn and appreciate their culture and not just using them by rudely asking for directions or help right off the bat.
It helps if you say things like “Bonjour” (good day), “Bonsoir” (good afternoon), “s’il vous plait” (please) and “merci” (thank you). Also, you might ask them politely “Parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English?) prior to conversing with them in English.

The reality is that most people in Cannes and many Parisians do speak and understand some English. Just ask nicely. I prefer to learn a few phrases and show respect for a culture than to be at the mercy of a foreign taxi driver with $ signs in his eyes at the sight of a non-French speaking foreign tourists. Learning a few French phrases will not only make you a better traveler and add to the positive emotions from the trip, it can actually, if indirectly, save you money in the process.

TIP #11 – Stay on the outskirts of the “Tourist Bubble”

I lived in New York for 14 years and I almost never went to Times Square or Midtown for meals. It was partly because it was so crowded and full of tourists and partly because I knew I was sure to overpay (as a direct result of being filled with unsuspecting tourists).

Most New Yorkers will tell you that neighborhoods like the East Village, Lower East Side or even Williamsburg or Greenpoint, Brooklyn are where many locals go to eat, drink and be merry without such high prices attached. Counting myself a traveler rather than a tourist, I always try to seek out the areas of town that are far enough away from the main tourist areas to live a bit like a local. Not only is it cheaper, it’s more fulfilling.

Just as in Cannes, I again used AIRBNB to secure a small studio apartment on the outskirts of Paris. I was still very much inside Paris (District 18 or Montmartre) and most importantly reachable by the metro (it was by the 2nd to last stop). I paid less than $65 Euros a night (about $84 U.S.) and had internet access, TV, a kitchen and washer. One thing to remember that by packing light on a long trip you will most likely need to do laundry at some point.

I was able to take the metro to see places like the Eiffel Tower but had my meals in my neighborhood and had some excellent cuisine from the local restaurants. With their authentic immigrant cuisine it was like visiting the United Nations’ cafeteria of the world with great Asian, Middle Eastern and French food. I was also able to shop at the local market and fix a meal and live like a true Parisian, something I consider a chore at home is an enjoyable travel activity abroad. Even doing laundry abroad felt like an adventure!

Yes, you can visit France on a budget

These are just a few tips for saving money while visiting France and I’m certain I’m not the first or best person to try and show how you can visit these classic France destinations on a limited budget. Of course, students and young people do it all the time by staying in hostels and traveling via Eurail throughout Europe.

But for those adults who’d like to travel without shacking up with 6-8 other strangers and would like a modicum of comfort, some of these very basic tips may come in handy.

For years I had put off traveling to parts of Western Europe because of a variety of reasons including the severe jet lag (5-8 hours ahead), false media stereotypes (the French don’t like Americans or people who don’t speak French, etc.), and money. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford France it was that I felt spending so much money on a vacation with culture so similar to my own would somehow decrease the joy.

I was wrong on many fronts and there are several valid reasons people have been raving about France as a travel destination for decades. It’s worth the jet lag and the money. I can’t wait to get back and explore Paris more and the other wonderful towns and villages France has to offer a respectful traveler.

If you can think of other tips I haven’t included here, please email them or include them in your comment so we all can benefit from each others’ shared travel experiences.

Merci!

Budapested in Hungary

Buda Castle

I arrived in Budapest, Hungary in a sleep deprived haze. As if to match my mood, it was gloomy, overcast and drizzling slightly, the only time it would rain my entire week there. Despite the lack of sleep, the adrenaline of the trip kicked in when I arrived at the apartment I had rented on Utca O (O Street) right in the heart of the action on the Pest side of Budapast. The city is divided into two parts by the Danube River, Buda and Pest. Buda is where the Buda Castle and beautiful cobblestone streets lie. It’s a more tranquil relaxed pace. Pest is the commercial center where most of the hotels, restaurants, cafes and nightlife take place.

On the Danube River

My first clue about Budapest came when I was walking around the City Centre. It felt a little like a holiday to be quiet honest without the chaotic traffic, horn blowing and the like that plagues so many urban environments. I remember distinctly that traffic was so light that my NYC urban instincts took over. I brazenly jay walked through the “don’t walk” sign. After crossing, I felt alone suddenly and looked back and noticed I was the only one out of a crowd of 20 or so people who had done so. All the Budapest citizens and other tourists waited patiently for the “walk” sign before crossing the deserted street. Hmmm, this was not my typical travel experience. Budapest, it seems is a law and order place.

Unless you like getting ripped off, avoid Taxis at all cost in Budapest…the tram is fast & cheap

Indeed it is. Oh you have a plenty of debauchery with pubs everywhere, wine drinking in the streets, gambling at casinos and I did get ripped off by almost every taxi I took. But overall it was relaxed, in control, with even the partying to the wee hours feeling sedate, relaxed and orderly. I never saw any drunk and disorderly people spilling out into the street. It was a no drama kind of place.

Perhaps it’s Hungary’s history as a the most westernized of all the old Iron Curtain countries. Before 1989, Budapest was the tourist destination for those from other more repressed countries in the Eastern Block like Romania or Yugoslavia came when they wanted to taste of the evil West.  Here they could eat at Western fast food at places like McDonald’s or even buy some coveted blue jeans! (though in many countries like Romania, it was outlawed to wear them).  Hungary still had communism and repression, but it was a special, more relaxed version of communism that they were somehow able to live with.

And of course, the fact that I was in the City Centre tourist zone most of the time had a lot to do with it as well, I’m sure. Yes, I of course ventured out of City Centre and certainly crossed the Danube to give Buda a go. But I never made it to the “Gypsy Quarter” or the 8th District where I really wanted to go and witness the nitty gritty side of Budapest. I had met a friend who promised to take me by bus (she didn’t trust me to go alone stating flatly that I would “definitely get robbed”) but in the end she canceled on me and by then I hadn’t any more time to reschedule.

I doubt very seriously her statement about “definitely getting robbed” in the 8th District being true. A little research online uncovers nothing but rave reviews for the so called “Gypsy Tour” and nary a report of robberies. Missing the reportedly wild and wooly 8th District was the one regret I had when I had to bid adieu to Budapest and continue on my journey by train to Serbia and then late Romania and Ukraine. Yet I was heartened by the fact that I plan on making many, many returns to Eastern Europe and Budapest in particular. It’s just too lovely a city to resist. But this time, no jaywalking… at least until I get to the 8th District.