Eurovision 2013: All Of Europe Under One Roof

eurovision
Alex Robertson Textor

Launched in 1956, Eurovision is a Europe-wide music competition held every May under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participating countries select their representative songs over the course of the preceding winter and spring. Some countries – like Sweden – make their selections via televised heats held over several consecutive weeks. Others – like the U.K. (this year, at least) – make their selections by internal committee.

Eurovision is a major event in Europe, with a remarkable 125 million viewers.

Nowadays, Eurovision lasts for almost an entire week. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are now so many participating countries – 39 this year; even more in recent years – that two semi-finals are required to winnow down contestants to a manageable tally for the grand final. After semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday, this year’s final will be held later today in Malmö, Sweden. (Sweden won Eurovision last year, and with its win came the right to host this year’s contest.)Eurovision is not generally considered to be a showcase for serious music, and few global stars emerge from it. One very notable exception is ABBA, who turned their 1974 win with “Waterloo” into enormous international success. In lieu of musical seriousness, the event unleashes a kind low-impact skirmish of muted patriotisms and a massive gay following.

For many countries, participation in Eurovision is a rite of passage, a sign of progress. An Israeli friend once told me that in the late 1970s her family would dress up to watch Eurovision in their living room. This symbolic appeal of Eurovision remains especially strong in some Eastern European countries and the Caucasus today.

All members of the European Broadcasting Union can participate in Eurovision. This fact explains Israel‘s participation. Other EBU members beyond the borders of Europe include Morocco (who participated just once, in 1980) and several countries that have never participated: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. True Eurovision nerds will tell you that Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Liechtenstein have all submitted applications for EBU membership.

So right, tonight. The odds have Denmark‘s Emmelie de Forest, Norway‘s Margaret Berger (with likely the strongest straight-up pop song, a little piece of driven magic titled “I Feed You My Love”), Ukraine‘s Zlata Ognevich, Azerbaijan‘s Farid Mammadov and Russia‘s Dina Garipova at the top of the pile.

In addition to these, Hungary, Romania and Greece have emerged as fan favorites. ByeAlex, the Hungarian entrant, sings a lush, quietly earnest song called “Kedvesem.” The singer looks like a quiet, earnest Mission District hipster; he distinguished himself in the press conference for the second semi-final winners on Thursday night by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Romania’s entry, sung by a countertenor opera singer named Cezar, is an instant Eurovision dance classic with a particularly over-the-top choreography. The Greek entry, by Koza Mostra featuring rebetiko singer Agathonas Iakovidis, combines folk, punk and rebetiko themes.

For those who follow Eurovision obsessively, the event itself is a kind of quasi-religious experience. The line between fandom and evangelism is imprecise for this tribe, many of whom attend Eurovision regularly. This week in Malmö, the Eurovision tribe is everywhere, sharing the gospel of playful but somehow meaningful pop music. The photo above, taken yesterday, gets at some of the gospel’s magic. It’s simple and interpersonal. Koza Mostra’s lead singer, Elias Kozas, has swapped flags with a German Eurovision fan. No negotiations. No conflict. No international frustrations. Just a snapshot of a moment within which flags don’t matter much.

Photo Of The Day: Proud To Be Romanian

Photo of the Day - Romanian men
Today is Independence Day in Romania, a country most known for the Transylvania region and its implied ties to the legend of Dracula. It’s often overlooked in a traveler’s typical European Grand Tour, even among eastern European countries. If you have the time to explore, you’ll find absolutely gorgeous country villages, cheap and good-quality wine and beer, and evidently, bad ass old men. From the Flickr archives, today’s Photo of the Day by Jon Rawlinson captures five cool Romanians, just shooting the breeze on a park bench. Some commenters have noted the men look like they could be in organized crime, but I’d prefer to just say they are proud to be Romanian and it shows.

If you want to learn more about Romania, you can read the excellent My Bloody Romania series with Lonely Planet author and Romania expert Leif Pettersen.

Add your travel photos to the Gadling Flickr pool to be chosen for a Photo of the Day, or share with us on Instagram using #gadling AND mentioning @gadlingtravel.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Jon Rawlinson]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Guys Road Trip To Transylvania

transylvaniaIn the Foreign Service, it’s easy to calculate who your best friends are. They’re the people who will come visit you in places like Khartoum, Yekaterinburg or Bujumbura. Diplomats who get posted to London, Paris, Rome and a handful of other cushy places find themselves running informal bed and breakfast operations, as marginal friends and distant relatives come out of the woodwork to claim a free place to stay.

We had several friends tell us that they planned to visit us in Macedonia but none made the trip. I expected an uptick in business when we moved to Budapest, but my first visitor wasn’t interested in the typical grand tour of Central Europe.
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“I was thinking we should go to Romania,” said Ian, a good friend from St. Louis who had never been to Prague, Germany and a host of other far more celebrated European destinations.

“Why Romania?” I asked, more than a little surprised.Ian’s logic was that he could easily visit Prague or Vienna with his wife and perhaps even their three small children, but Romania would be a tougher sell. So we made a vague plan to spend a weekend in Budapest and then take a four- or five-day road trip to Transylvania and Ian was on our doorstep weeks later.

As we motored through the grubby, Americanized suburbs of Budapest on a Monday morning in March, heading east toward Transylvania with no set itinerary, we both realized what a rare treat it was to have a men’s getaway.

“It’s Monday morning and instead of being on my way to work in St. Louis, I’m here driving through Budapest on my way to Transylvania,” Ian remarked. “I like it!”

Our progress east was slow, on a two-lane road clogged with slow moving trucks, passing through forlorn little towns with homes built seemingly right on the road with no setback. As we neared the Romanian border, we passed ramshackle gypsy settlements and saw a few haggard looking prostitutes working the side of the road. I felt lucky that our greatest concern in life at that moment was who the Cubs would choose as their fifth starter for the upcoming season.

We were two married American men in a Toyota with diplomatic plates slowing down to get a better look at roadside prostitutes near the Romanian border on a Monday afternoon. Good times.

Romania had just joined the European Union less than three months before our visit and it was still a matter of speculation whether hordes of Romanians would vote with their feet. We saw many of the same major European chains present in Hungary, but the roads were dicier, there were a lot more farmers poking around on horse drawn carriages and there were plenty of old Dacia’s left over from the communist era sharing the road with souped-up Mercedes’s and BMW’s piloted by kamikazes who thought nothing of passing on blind curves, shoulders or simply right into oncoming traffic.

The roadside villages en route to Oradea defined unremitting rural poverty, but the soul crushing Soviet era apartment blocks that dominated the gloomy outskirts of Oradea seemed even worse.

The center of Oradea looked more promising, but even the colorful baroque buildings all seemed to be in need of a coat of paint. Oradea had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the conclusion of World War I, when Hungary lost a massive chunk of its territory, and as recently as the 1960’s, there were more ethnic Hungarians than Romanians in Oradea. But on this day, I didn’t hear any Hungarian speakers.

We had lunch at a garish looking Italian restaurant and on our way out of town, a gypsy gave me the finger after I took a photo of him hollering at his recalcitrant son.

Romanian womanIt was dark by the time we reached Cluj-Napoca, a thriving metropolis once known as the Hungarian capital of Transylvania. We stopped at a shady looking hotel and a short young man in a vest showed us a cold, depressing room that was outfitted with what looked like prison furniture. According to our guidebook, the place featured an “erotic show” in the basement.

“What time does the show start?” I asked, even though we had no intention of checking it out.

The young man appeared confused so I re-phrased the question.

“What time do the girls start dancing?”

“No, no,” he said, “We don’t have girls here any more.”

A second hotel seemed even worse and they wanted 80 euros – a princely sum for a dump in Transylvania. We finally landed at a surprisingly posh hotel in a residential neighborhood that also provided some sort of vague “business solutions” and “consulting.”

“Where can we find the boyhood home of Gheorghe Muresan?” Ian asked the pretty girl at the front desk. “You know the basketball player, I think he’s from Cluj, Gheorghe Muresan!”

She eventually registered that Ian was referring to the bizarre looking, 7-foot-7-inch Romanian giant, who is one of the tallest and least talented players in NBA history.

“I think he lives in New Jersey,” she said.

We had read that Cluj was a happening town with 70,000 students and a thriving club scene; but we didn’t expect much on a Monday night. The first bar we hit was a stylish place that would not have looked out of place in Berlin or New York. It was about nine o’clock and the place had a smattering of customers.

“What time do you close?” I asked the barkeep.
“Six,” he said.
“Six?” I repeated, “As in six in the morning?”
He nodded his head.
“And does it get busy on a Monday?”
“It is getting busy all of the days,” he remarked.




We hit a stylish basement bar on the recommendation of a group of young women we met on the street and as Ian and I were chatting about our respective lives in St. Louis and Budapest, a woman came over to the booth and, before I knew what was happening, kissed us both on both cheeks, greeting us as though we were long lost friends. It took me a moment to register that it was one of the young ladies who had recommended the place to us.

The most outgoing of the group, named Adriana, wanted to know why we were in Cluj. It was a good question that I had no coherent answer for.

“In America hardly anyone parties on Monday nights,” I said. “So we had to come to Cluj.”

Adriana looked puzzled.

“I would think in the States you could party every night,” she said. “People have more money there than here, so why not?”

“Well, we could go out every night, but we just don’t,” I said before entering into a rambling discourse about how many channels most Americans get and the high cost of beer.

Ian and I hit another bar and somehow managed to stay out until almost 4 a.m. The place was still going strong when we left and I’m quite sure that the students danced until sunrise, if not later. An ordinary Monday night in Cluj is a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, without the beads and flashing.

In the light of day, Cluj seemed like a city in transition. Sidewalks were being torn up, students and beefy gangsters in matching sweat suits hung out in trendy looking cafés, and we felt that it probably wouldn’t be long before the city became a popular spot for backpackers. Yet just minutes outside of town, there was no escaping the Old Romania and the generation that still made its living off of the earth, plying their trade with ancient looking farming instruments and horse drawn carts.

We had no reservations for Sibiu, our next stop, and were shocked that the first two hotels we tried were both sold out. We finally found a motel on the outskirts of the old town but had to park the car several blocks away, after trying in vain to navigate the city’s ancient street plan.

Sibiu is a strikingly beautiful town that is set right in the heart of some incredible Alpine scenery. It had just been named a European cultural capital and much of the town’s historic center had received an impressive face-lift.

sibiu romaniaThe atmospheric streets all seemed to radiate out from a colossal square that was dotted with colorful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style buildings in keeping with the town’s Saxon heritage. Unlike Cluj, Sibiu was dead at night. Each night we ended up at the only place that seemed to be open late, a little street side kiosk that sold cold drinks and phone cards.

An enterprising young college student named Elena, who sat bundled up in the cold booth, worked the overnight shift.

“I work here at night because I’m saving up to buy a computer,” she explained.

“But when do you sleep?” I asked.

“I go straight from here to class in the morning, and then, if I can, I try to sleep after classes, if I don’t have too much work to do,” she said.

Ian and I were taken aback. In our culture, if you want something, you just go out and buy it. We pledged to return the following evening with a small contribution toward her computer purchase, but we returned the following night to find that she had the night off. The older woman who was there in her place seemed suspicious when we asked how we could contact her.

We thought about leaving the cash with her but decided not to because we didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about why two American guys were leaving cash for a young woman.

As we left town the next day, we talked about Elena and I felt like her willingness to stay up all night in a freezing cold kiosk was a reminder of how lucky we were to be American men on the loose in Transylvania with no reservations or responsibilities.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, CamilG on Flickr (Sibiu)]

Read More From “A Traveler In The Foreign Service

Tim Leffel On The World’s 21 Cheapest Countries

tim leffel author of world's cheapest travel destinationsTim Leffel’s mission is to help skinflints like me find travel destinations they can afford. He traveled around the world on a shoestring with his wife three times and decided to write a book about the world’s cheapest countries after realizing that there was no single resource out there for travelers looking for bargain destinations. The fourth edition of his book, “The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune,” is due to be released in January and Leffel maintains a blog devoted to the cheapest travel destinations on the planet.

I had a chance to check out the forthcoming edition of Tim’s book and it’s packed with data on how much you’ll spend in the 21 destinations he profiles, along with insightful and sometimes hilarious advice on where to go and how to travel. (“I have a daughter and I have taken her abroad to eight countries now, but I am not yet ready to take her on crappy third-world buses, pumping her full of malaria pills, exposing her to aggressive deformed beggars, or trying to ward off touts while simultaneously keeping her occupied.”)
%Gallery-173113%For example, he informs readers that a beer in Nepal costs the same as an ounce or two of marijuana or a finger of hash; double rooms or suites in private homes in Bulgaria go for $5-20 per person; and a full three-course meal in Bolivia can be had for as little as $2. I caught up with Leffel at his home in Tampa this week to talk about the world’s cheapest travel destinations.

boliviaYou just returned from Bolivia. A lot of people consider that to be one of the cheapest countries in the world. Do you agree?

I agree. It’s probably the best deal in South America. In the Americas, Nicaragua might be a bit cheaper, but they’re neck and neck. But it’s hard to compare, it depends on what you’re doing, where you’re staying. And for Americans, Bolivians have reciprocal visa fees, so you have to cough up $130 at the airport just for the pleasure of walking out of the airport.

Do the costs in Bolivia vary from region to region? A lot of people don’t like to stay in La Paz because of the altitude.

Not really, but the altitude in La Paz hit me hard because I was coming from Florida – sea level. I felt like crap when I landed at the airport in La Paz, but then I got on a connecting flight to Sucre, which is lower and felt better. But then I went to Potosi, which is more than 13,000 feet, and had a pretty rough headache for a day or two.

Coming from the U.S. can you avoid La Paz?

No, but you can get out of there cheaply. My flight to Sucre was only $67.

What makes Bolivia so cheap?

Meals are cheap. Accommodations are reasonable and transportation costs are very low because Venezuela subsidizes their fuel. Buses cost $1.50-$2 per hour depending on the class of the bus. A set meal of a few courses, a soup and a main dish and a drink or dessert is a couple dollars. Two to three dollars in a basic place, or more if you are in a nice restaurant, but even in those places the prices aren’t bad at all. Alcohol is cheap. It’s a cheap place to party.

Give me an idea for what mid-range accommodation goes for in Bolivia?

I had a pretty nice room with private bath and hot water for $8.50 that was quite comfortable. Then I paid $32 for a full-blown hotel. For $20-35 you can usually get a decent mid-range hotel room pretty much anywhere. Bolivia is a poor country and there isn’t much domestic tourism so there isn’t much competition. In Potosi, the most expensive hotel in town was about $70 but most were in the $20-40 range.

Sucre is especially nice. It’s a beautiful old colonial city like you see in a lot of Latin American countries but much cheaper than a lot of other places.

Do you consider Nicaragua to be the cheapest country in Central America?

Yes, but Guatemala isn’t very expensive either. Honduras is quite cheap on the mainland but most people are there to visit the islands, which are more expensive.

nicaraguaBut Nicaragua’s become quite a trendy destination. Aren’t the prices going up there?

Really only in Granada. That’s where people with money go. But even there, you can go out and get a really great meal for $4 and you don’t have to look hard for deals like that – they’re right there in the center. It’s also one of the cheapest places to drink I’ve ever seen. As long as you drink rum or beer they make domestically.

Ometepe is a really good deal; almost any of the small towns are very cheap. It’s a wide-open blank slate. There isn’t much tourism besides Granada and San Juan Del Sur. But that’s still mostly a surfer/backpacker hangout too. There are a few nice hotels, but the bulk are hostels and cheap guesthouses. It’s a cheap place to eat, surf and party. The drawback is that it isn’t real comfortable to get around – you’re mostly on chicken buses.

You mention cheap drinking. Bulgaria has very cheap beer and wine. It’s on your list of cheap destinations as well, right?

Yes, I was just there for the first time in April. I loved it. It was gorgeous and there were very few tourists. It’s incredibly cheap to eat and drink there and the food there is very fresh and good.

rila monastery in bulgariaI love Bulgaria but I haven’t been there in a while. How are the prices now?

I think it’s the cheapest country in Europe. Accommodation may be a little cheaper in Romania and maybe even Hungary because there isn’t as much competition in Bulgaria. A lot more people have opened budget-oriented places to stay in Romania in recent years. But I think overall Bulgaria is still cheaper.

Other than Romania and Bulgaria any other cheap countries you like to visit in Europe?

The other two I have in the book are Hungary and Slovakia. I used to have Turkey in the book but it’s gotten too expensive.

I lived in Hungary five years ago when the forint was much stronger and it didn’t seem cheap then, but now it’s reasonable?

Yes, I was there four years ago and it seemed much cheaper on my recent visit. Part of that is more competition among hotels but the forint is also much weaker.

Any other countries like Hungary where the currency has gone down, giving travelers a bargain opportunity?

The euro has gone down and a lot of the non-euro countries in Europe have currencies that have gone down as well. The dollar is also doing well against the currencies in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. But countries like Brazil and Chile have become much more expensive for Americans, because of the strong economies in those countries.

Before we leave Europe, I found some great bargains in the Greek islands this year too. Is Greece in your book?

No, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that prices have gone down there but maybe not as much as they expected, given what’s happened to the economy there. But it’s still a better deal than most of Western Europe and that goes for Portugal too, which also has good prices.

Let’s move on to Asia. Lots of cheap countries there but are there any that stand out?

Most of the countries I surveyed stayed about the same since the last edition of the book came out in 2009 except Thailand, which got a little bit more expensive. Their currency has gotten a bit stronger and stayed there. But I still think that Thailand is a terrific value.

cambodiaOf those three countries, which is the cheapest?

Cambodia is the cheapest and Laos is pretty close. Cambodia is a little easier to get around but I couldn’t believe how crowded Angkor Wat was.

When you travel with your wife and 12-year-old daughter in Southeast Asia, do you stay in very cheap places?

We are more mid-range travelers when I travel with my family. Our budget was $150 per day for the three of us, including everything. It was just a three-week trip and we stayed in hotels, most of them very nice ones, for $40-50 per night. You can get a fantastic room that is like the equivalent of a Hilton or Marriott here for that price. A lot of times that was also for a family suite or a place with three beds. In Cambodia, we paid $44 per night for two connecting rooms. And that was for a very nice hotel with breakfast included, hot showers, and maid service every day.

Any other countries in the region that you like?

Malaysia is a great value too. You get a lot for your money and the food is great. It’s more expensive than those countries but the infrastructure is better too. Indonesia is a great value as well, depending on where you are.

Even in Bali?

Even in Bali. It isn’t as cheap as it used to be but you can still get very reasonably priced hotels. But it’s getting polluted and crowded there.

How about the Middle East?

I just have Jordan and Egypt in the book. The region is such a powder keg. Jordan is a great deal. Egypt – who knows what’s going to happen there, but it’s certainly cheap. And it’s probably going to get cheaper too because they are so desperate for tourists to return. You can find a four-star hotel in Luxor or Aswan for $50-60 per night. There are deals galore if you want to go to Egypt.

How about Africa?

I just have Morocco and Egypt in the book. There’s a backpacker route along the east coast of Africa that is fairly reasonable if you stick to that path but the real trouble is that it’s hard to get around both comfortably and cheaply.

moroccoWhat about Morocco?

Prices have gone up there but it’s still a good country to visit on a budget. The prices are comparable to Eastern Europe. You can get a good deal on a hotel, and good food too.

What would you spend if you went to Morocco with your family?

Probably about $150 per day to be pretty comfortable. If you want a beautiful, atmospheric hotel though, you’d pay about $60-80 per night – you don’t find the same screaming bargains there that you would in Southeast Asia. Backpackers can find places to stay for $10-15 per night, but they might find cold showers and squat toilets too.

So for Americans, it’s pretty expensive to get to a lot of the cheapest countries. Of those that we can fly to cheaply, what are the best options?

Latin America. I have Mexico in the book as an honorable mention because the coastal resort areas aren’t that cheap but the interior is. Central America is pretty reasonable and you can find pretty good deals to Ecuador as well. My last flight there cost about $600 round trip.

How did you decide to write this book?

I went around the world with my wife three times. We were teaching English and I was writing stories as well. There was no good guide to figure out what countries were the cheapest; we just figured it out by trial and error. There was nothing out there, so I started working on it when we had our daughter because we were staying home and not traveling. I put it out and it did well, and then we put out a second edition and that did even better, so we’ve kept it going and we started a blog too. I also run a few other websites like Perceptive Travel, and Practical Travel Gear.

nepalWhat other very cheap countries do you write about in the book?

Nepal and India. Nepal is probably the cheapest place in the world. And India is pretty close. Indians are seen as wealthy by the Nepalis, so that shows you that it’s all relative.

Do you think these countries want to appear in your guidebook or are they not that keen to attract budget travelers?

I don’t think most of them are that thrilled to be in the book. No one wants to be perceived as a cheap destination. But some of these countries are smarter about it than others. Thailand did a study a few years back and found that backpackers spend more in aggregate than other travelers but just over a longer time period, so once they crunched those numbers they realized they did need to attract those people.

And it’s not just young backpackers looking for cheap places to stay. I’m married with two kids and I’m still looking for cheap places to visit!

I know! I’m in my 40s and I meet all kinds of people who want to get the most out of their vacation time so they go where they can afford.

[Photo credits: Tim Leffel, Cavallotkd, globalmultiplelisting, Mike Behnken, and Ahron de Leeuw on Flickr]

Exploring The Transylvanian Alps In Europe

transylvanian alps While many travelers know about the alps in Switzerland, Italy and France, less are aware of the beautiful Transylvanian Alps in Central and Southeastern Europe. Like an open-air museum, this area showcases an untouched area of the continent, with natural landscapes and locals living an archaic lifestyle in unity with nature.

Officially called the Southern Carpathians, the Transylvanian Alps are a group of mountain ranges dividing southern and central Romania on one side and Serbia on the other. It includes the Bucegi Mountains group, Fagaras Mountains group, Parang Mountains group and the Retezat-Godeanu Mountains group.

Although not as tall as the Swiss Alps, the Southern Carpathians do feature an alpine landscape. The highest peaks are Moldoveanu Peak at 8,347 feet and Negoiu at 8,317 feet. Furthermore, you’ll explore over 150 glacial lakes, lush grasslands, dense forests, crystalline massifs, unworldly rock formations, sections of the old Roman Way and an ancient network of trans-Carpathian roads. A diverse selection of terrains allows hikers of all skill levels to enjoy the Southern Carpathians. For those who want something more unusual, Heliskiing is also an option.

For a more visual idea of the Transylvanian Alps, check out the gallery below.

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[Image above via Shutterstock; Gallery images via Shutterstock, Dezidor, Thalpha]