Looking for nude beach recommendations this summer? You probably wouldn’t think to consult Xinhua, China’s state-controlled press agency, but here comes editor Yang Yi’s list of their “Top Ten Sexy Nudist Bathing Spots Around the World.” I stumbled across the link to the slideshow while checking out an article about their new English language travel website and had a few good laughs reading the photo captions.
According to Yi, Australia’s Lady Bay Beach “is one of the legitimate nudist beaches announced by the Prime Minister in 70s,” and the entire city of Rio de Janeiro is “the most ‘eye-candy’ beach” where visitors will “find many graceful statures and beautiful faces in beach activities.” In “Cape Down” (sic) South Africa, Yi recommends Sandy Bay Beach because it has “inconvenient traffic,” which makes it feel “away from the world.” Other entries included San Gregorio State Beach in California, and beaches in Negril, Jamaica, British Columbia and St. Martin. The entire state of Hawaii also made the list. Aloha!In recommending Paradise Beach in Mykonos, Yi opines, “Europeans are always full of reverence for human body … In other European countries, restrictions on public nudity are very relaxed. Say nothing of other countries like Netherlands, France, and Spain, even England, which is strict and conservative in some people’s eyes, possesses officially-recognized nudist beaches.”
It’s obviously a pretty half-assed list and some of the stock photos they used look like models from cheap ’70s porn sets. But it’s nice to see that state-controlled media in China is letting its hair down and chasing clicks just like every site in the West.
If you’ve ever approached a good-looking stranger on a train, or kicked yourself for not doing so, you probably love Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films – “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” – about a pair of travelers who met on a train bound for Vienna in 1995, rekindled their romance in Paris in 2004, and then re-emerge as lovers on holiday in Greece in 2013. I saw “Before Midnight” on Friday, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two films, I still believe that anyone who is passionate about travel has to see these films.
In the first film, Jesse, a jilted young American backpacker played by Ethan Hawke, convinces Celine, a Frenchwoman who is on her way back to Paris, played by Julie Delpy, to get off the train with him in Vienna. The pair fall in love while walking the streets of Vienna, but rather than exchange contact information when they part, they resolve to meet again in six months. (We learn in the next film that that meeting never happened.)
According to Slate, and a host of other publications, Linklater’s inspiration for “Before Sunrise” came from a stay-up-all-night evening he spent with a young woman he met in Philaelphia, who later died in a motorcycle accident after they lost touch. I saw “Before Sunrise” on the day it came out in 1995 and was deeply affected by the film.
I was 22, a couple years younger than Jesse and Celine, and had just graduated from college. I had no car at the time, and to save on bus fare, I took an hour-long walk from my decrepit $275 per month studio on Walnut Street to the cinema, down on Philadelphia’s waterfront. Jobless and with no plan for what to do with my life, I resolved on the long walk home to scrape together enough money to travel by train across Europe, where I imagined there were plenty of Celines waiting to meet me. It took me two years, but I did just that in 1997.
On that trip, I met a girl from Finland on a train bound for Prague, and we shared a few memorable days together before it was time for me to return to another dingy apartment – this one a $550-a-month, cockroach infested studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Unlike Jesse and Celine, I never saw the lass from Finland again, though I did get an amusing, somewhat incoherent letter from her a year later, clearly written in a state of inebriation.
Just weeks after returning from that trip, I decided to move to Chicago, where I met my future wife on my very first day in town. Leaving New York turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Our relationship has been a lot smoother than Jesse and Celine’s, but we still loved “Before Sunset” when we saw it in 2004. Jesse was stuck in an unhappy marriage and was trying to decide if he should stay with Celine in Paris; I was a diplomat who was depressed about the prospect of spending the next two years in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Before Midnight” for at least a year. It feels a little like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in nine years each time these films come out, and I was particularly excited by the fact that this film was shot in Greece, a country that I love. Linklater’s trilogy is about the big decisions we face in life and how we make them. Jesse always seem to face these crossroads while on trips – first in Vienna, then in Paris and most recently in Greece, where he tries to convince Celine to move to Chicago to be closer to his son.
The fact that the couple faces these major life decisions while on the road rings very true for me. When you’re far from home and removed from your daily routine, you can’t help but examine your life and ponder the big picture questions.
“Before Midnight” has received rave reviews but I wasn’t in love with this film. It had its moments and if you’ve seen the first two, you will want to see it, but I found listening to Celine’s litany of complaints, which are littered throughout the film, exhausting and stressful.
Despite that, I still enjoyed having the opportunity to think back to where I was in 1995 and 2004, and how I’ve changed since I saw the two previous films. Hawke and Delpy are still attractive but seeing how they’ve aged on the big screen is also a reminder of how quickly time flies by. To me, the last 18 years since I saw the first film have gone by in a blur, and the notion that the next 18 will go by just as fast is a little scary, but it’s also a great reminder that life is short, so you’ve got to seize the day.
The other redeeming quality of the new film, for me, is the cinematography. It’s a lush, almost sensual portrait of Greece at its very best – the crumbling ruins, the seaside tavernas and the heartbreaking vistas of the Aegean are all there. According to The Greek Star, the film was shot in the southwest Peloponnese, specifically at the Kalamta airport, and in the villages of Pylos, Koroni and Kardamili in the Messinia region. According to About.com, one of the scenes was shot in the former home of the legendary writer and traveler Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamili. The film is a great advertisement for Greek tourism, and since I’ve never been to this part of Greece, Jesse and Celine have once again given me another great reason to hit the road.
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.
Travel lists get a lot of grief. I’ve overheard many fellow travel writers offer the opinion that lists of various sorts are deeply inferior to any and all narrative travel writing. Others have suggested that lists are slowly crowding out real travel writing entirely.
Let’s agree for a few provisional minutes that the purpose of travel writing is, very generally, to inspire people to think about travel. (Why not? This is a good goal, all things considered.) Few genres of writing are better suited to achieving this goal than travel lists – lists of destinations, hotels, beaches, restaurants and so on. A list written by an expert can feel like an extended secret, like an invitation to experience the world differently.
Lists at their best are efficient. They cover key territory and reduce unnecessary noise. They reveal their writers’ passions directly. Are they the ticket to cross-cultural understanding? Not usually, but then very few traditional travel stories, no matter how drenched they may be in self-importance, ever accomplish this end.
Let’s take this past Saturday’s print edition of Guardian Travel as an example of the value of travel lists. The section was full of inspiring ideas in list form – summer holiday recommendations, adventures in south-west England, and cool accommodations on the Isle of Wight. There’s a more bullet-point-like list of upcoming holiday festivals in the UK as well.
The summer holiday recommendations kick off with some exciting suggestions about corners of France slightly off the beaten path, written by Jacqueline Mirtelli of Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency. Mirtelli suggests Cap Corse, the little-visited peninsula on the northern coast of Corsica, and finishes off her tip list with the inland villages of the Var, a region in Provence. Elsewhere Michael Cullen of i-escape tips the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Simon Wrench of Inntravel suggests the Danish Riviera, and Lucy Kane of Rough Guides lists Tbilisi, Palma and Montenegro as her summer travel recommendations.
In this short round-up piece the excitement of summer travel is infectious and inspiring. There is information here, and more importantly there are multiple jumping-off points for research. Could this sort of generalized excitement be achieved by one longer piece on, say, the Amalfi Coast? I’m doubtful that it could.
Like many absolutist stands that we travel writers get sidetracked into on occasion, the resistance to lists is misplaced. The wholesale replacement of narrative by lists would be a terrible development for sure; shy of that, there’s no need to attack the humble list. There is, however, as always, a need across genres for high-quality versions of all types of writing.
I arrived on the Greek island of Syros on the night ferry from Samos at 2:30 a.m., bleary-eyed and in need of coffee or a bed, maybe both. My sons, then 2 and 4, were still half-asleep, wondering why the hell we’d hustled them out of their tidy bunks in the middle of the night. We stepped over backpackers, most of them heading to Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini, who were still asleep in the corridors of the boat, and alighted in Ermoupolis, the cultural and administrative capital of the Cyclades island group.
I had heard that Ermoupolis was a thriving place, busy year round, but not touristy. But at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday night in early June the place was dead, with just a few cars there to greet the ferry – mostly locals picking up friends and relatives. I had reserved a room at a place called Lila’s Guesthouse and though she had promised to pick us up at no charge, I somehow doubted she’d be there. I booked a swanky looking one-bedroom loft with two balconies in a historic building that had once housed the French consulate for 60 euros. If I was Lila, I would have told me to take a taxi. But there she was with a little sign waiting to take us to our room.The drive up the steep hill above the port was a perfect introduction to our ancient neighborhood. The hotel is less than a mile up the hill from the port, and I could get there easily via a series of staircases, but if you told me to drive there, following Lila’s path in an out of a labyrinth of anorexic alleyways, I don’t think I could do it for a million dollars.
Lila’s turned out to be a revelation and so did Syros. Tourists flock to Mykonos, which is undeniably picturesque but can be a zoo – crowded, expensive and touristy to a fault. But hop on the ferry in Mykonos, fork over 8 euros and in an hour, you’re in Ermoupolis, a fascinating little city that is home to many of Greece’s wealthiest shipping magnates.
It’s a small island that attracts far fewer tourists, but it has pretty much everything you might want on a Greek island: seductive beaches, nightlife, history, old churches, a thriving port, and great food at reasonable prices. There are no large, beachfront resorts but it’s a great place to experience Greek culture and hospitality.
Tourism is manageable enough on Syros that you feel like the locals you meet actually have an interest in meeting you, in sharp contrast to busier islands, like Santorini, Naxos or Mykonos, where you can sometimes feel like the whole point of every interaction is all about buying and selling. We spent just four days on the island but on each day I met people whom I’ll never forget.
Dimitrios, Lila’s husband, was a businessman in Athens before they decided to move to Syros in order to live a quieter life. He was a jack-of-all-trades but what I found most interesting about the way he ran the hotel was how he made the place a magnet for neighborhood kids, who would pop by to talk about the latest soccer match or have a drink. It made me feel as though we were part of the neighborhood rather than just a bunch of transients in a tourist ghetto.
Dimitrios noticed that one of my shirts had a huge hole in it and he said he’d send it to be sewed. The next day it was as good as new for 5 euros. And when I asked him to recommend a laundromat, he said, “Why? I’ll do your laundry for you.” When I protested that we had a huge bag of dirty laundry, he waved me off, and within a few hours, all of our clothing was washed and folded into neat piles in our room. The charge? “No charge,” he insisted.
One afternoon, we were out taking a walk and my sons were fed up with the strong sun and all the hills, so we stood around trying in vain to find a taxi. I saw a woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she could call a cab for us. She got up off her chair, walked into her apartment, emerged moments later on the street where we were standing and then crossed to the other side.
I saw her walk a half block up the street and wondered what was going on until I saw her pull a phone card out of her purse and pop it into a pay phone. After she made the call, she came over to explain that she had no phone in her apartment because she was unemployed and didn’t have much money. She stayed to chat with us while we waited 10-15 minutes for our cab and we learned that she had gone to beauty school to become a hairdresser but had long ago given up trying to find work. I tried to give her a couple euros for the phone call but she wouldn’t take it.
The following night, we went up to Ano Syros, a fascinating 1,000-year-old Catholic neighborhood located high above the port that is filled with vistas and atmospheric tavernas and shops. We met a woman selling hand-painted souvenirs she made herself that seemed absurdly undervalued for how beautiful they were, and as she began to wrap them up in lovely little bowed parcels, she started telling us about what a mess Greece was in. She told us she was still proud to be Greek but started crying recounting all the people she knew who were struggling to get by.
“I don’t know what’s happened to our country,” she said, drying tears from her face.
Our last night in Syros was magic. We visited a tiny, picturesque little village called San Michalis, up above Ano Syros, and had one of the most memorable meals of our lives at a place called To Plakostroto (see photo above). There are only two men still living in San Michalis – Francesco and Giovanni – and we met them both, along with a host of their friends, who had dropped by to play cards.
Francesco played a tune for us on his goatskin tsabouna, we tried some of his homemade wine and as we looked out at a panorama that included six neighboring islands, I couldn’t help but feel as though we’d captured something elusive, a spirit, a feeling, something – that thing we look for on the road that makes a place dear to us. We found Greece in a ruined hilltop village with just two residents but these kinds of undiscovered edens are dotted all over the Aegean. All you have to do is just step off the ferry in the middle of the night, when everyone else is still asleep.