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]

Your Kickstarter Vacation. My Money. No.

When we ran out of money, we were on a beach in Corfu. My boyfriend trawled the construction sites until he found a job hauling cement. I checked in at restaurants and hotels, but failed to turn anything up. I gave up after about a week; there was no work to be had. I spent the days reading on the beach. My boyfriend would come back to our campsite in the shell of an unfinished holiday cottage with his hands raw. We would buy bread and cheese and olives with the cash he’d been paid on that day. This went on for about two weeks, and when the gypsies started giving us food we knew it was over.

We swallowed our pride, called our parents and asked them to wire us money so we could get off the island and go somewhere that we could find work. We ended up farming in Israel where we got housing and three squares and a paltry salary that we saved because there was little to spend it on and beer was very cheap.

Today, there’s a better way than sucking it up and calling Mom and Dad. You can avoid the dirt and damage of manual labor. You need an Internet connection, maybe a blog and nerve. You’ll need to offer up something as incentive – a $5 donation receives a postcard from your exotic locale, a $10 donation gets a download code for a copy of your, as of yet unwritten, essay about your travels, a $25 donation gets a print of a photo you took that you think is pretty good – come on, it’s totally National Geographic quality, right? Plus, anyone who donates get this pleasure, no, let’s be realistic, honor, of supporting your travels. Open a Kickstarter fund for your travels and ask total strangers to pay for them. You’re doing them a favor, really.

My parents did not react with the gratitude I was hoping for when I called from my crash pad on a London sofa, broke again, to ask for airfare and spending money. The roommates in the London flat where I awaited the arrival of wired funds weren’t thrilled either. They were gracious, they knew I was on hard times, but they weren’t so into my before its time “Occupy the Living Room” movement. Nobody saw the benefit in their role of making it possible for me continue my travels abroad, no matter how many postcards and photos and essay length letters I sent home, or how many dishes I washed, or how many rounds I pitched in for when it was my turn to buy.When did it become acceptable to ask total strangers for money so we can go on vacation? When did we start assuming that of course people will back our vanity travel publishing project, after all, we are just that special? This couple from Arizona thinks you should give them money to cross China.

“…we received a quote for the total cost of entering China twice to complete our proposed route. The expected cost is over $20,000. We will continue to pay for all other travel related expenses; our Kickstarter project will only fund our ability to cross China.

This falls outside of our budget, but the ability to cross China will enable us to have a once in a lifetime driving experience along an ancient trade route. A journey worthy of being written into a book.”

Of course, funding their once in a lifetime trip makes more sense than funding my own, right? And they are not that unusual. Here’s a young man from Florida who wants you to pay for his documentary about his cycling trip around Iceland.

“What are my qualifications for making this documentary? I have a lot of experience getting things done. For example, here is a book I wrote called ‘Start Importing from China’ and here is a website I launched called Wiki Cancel. Second, I have a lot of travel experience, which makes me comfortable in foreign countries. Third, I am not afraid of trying things or approaching new people, which means you will see a lot of interesting things on the documentary.”

I, too, am unafraid of trying things, but instead of doing so myself, perhaps I should fund this group of guys who want to share their style of travel with us.

“…the backpacker’s life; the life that depends on the road and the bag, the warmth and affordability of hostels/BNBs, and the unique people who you meet and learn from along the way.”

Perhaps these four admittedly very appealing young men are unfamiliar with a company called Lonely Planet – the company that documented the backpacker’s life for decades. For about $17, I can get a book that tells me not about a random stranger’s travels, but how to plan my own.

I would like to remodel my kitchen, have my garden landscaped and buy a tiny studio apartment somewhere in Hawaii. These are things that would be great fun for me, and I could invite you over for a meal in my new kitchen, or perhaps you would like a photo of my garden. I could write a book about my part-time life in Hawaii and if you pay for my apartment, I will give you a code so you can download the manuscript for free. Is this not appealing to you? How are the pitches to fund my travel any different?

These Kickstarter plans seem like grand adventures for the travelers. God speed. May they travel safely, meet kind strangers, and never have to pack away a wet tent. But I am not paying for it, no way, no how. Here’s the thing: I, too, would like to travel the Silk Road. I too would like to ride a bicycle around an island nation. I would like to share stories of how my adventures transpire in an insightful and interesting manner. This fall, I hope to do a big camping trip with my husband around the American Southwest. To do this, we will work, save our money and then, go travel.

Perhaps I am making a mistake and I should be asking you to pay for it. But I cannot think of one good reason why you should.

[Image by bradleygee via Flickr]

A Personal Lament To The Death Of Guidebooks

Death of guidebooks - Frommer's bookshelfIt was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.

The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.

Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?

Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.

During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.

Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.

After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.

Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.

[Photo credit: Gluten Free Mrs. D via Twitter]

Baku To The Future: The Empty Capital Of Azerbaijan Really Wants You To Visit

In September 2010, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, a plus-sized Azerbaijani flag was raised on a very tall flagpole. With an international audience looking on, Azerbaijani officials proudly made a proclamation: that in Baku, the capital of the country, the world’s largest flagpole at 531 feet now stood, thus besting South Korea and Turkmenistan. Sadly, the odd global flagpole war was not over: a year later, in Tajikistan a 541-foot pole went up and Azerbaijan had to move on to other things.

And that they did. There’s a lot more rising in Baku these days than flagpoles. The city is going through its second oil boom in a century and a half and is suddenly flush with cash. And lots of it. I spent a few days here recently rendezvousing with a friend and traversing a country that few people seem to know exists.

Friends and family members, people I meet at cocktail parties, always ask the same question: where are you going next? Azerbaijan, I’d say in the run-up to my trip here. I received a lot of blank stares in return or sometimes an “Azerbai what?” When I called my cell phone company to get on an international roaming plan, the woman with the southern accent on the other end of the line asked me where I was headed. Her response to hearing Azerbaijan was this: “Now is that in the Paris, France area?”Azerbaijan is in an odd geographical position, wedged between Iran to the south and Russia to the north, it’s a bridge between east and west, Europe and the Middle East. It’s a predominantly Muslim culture but one where its citizens are prone to pounding vodka from time to time. I didn’t bother to tell the woman at my phone company this info. But I could have told her about the rapid changes that are going on here: that in the last year and a half six luxury hotels have opened up. I’m staying at one of them: the Four Seasons. And the only reason I can afford to is because it’s, well, affordable. In fact, the most affordable in the hotel company’s portfolio.

The reason: Baku looks like a place one would want to go. There’s a walled medieval town in the center and block-long Parisian-like buildings outside the walls where the streets are flanked by palm trees and designer shops. There’s a long handsomely designed and landscaped beachside promenade called Bulvar. Yet, no one is really coming to Baku yet. They poured in for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest but that was it. Getting a visa is difficult. And the price of things, save for the hotels where there is a lot of supply but no demand, is high, on par with Western Europe.

Baku is no stranger to sudden surges of wealth. In the second half o the 19th century, black gold was discovered. People rushed in from all over the place, including the London-based Rothschild family as well as the Nobel brothers from Sweden, who made so much money on oil here that said money is still partly funding the annual prizes that are given out under the Nobel name. The oil barons (both foreign and Azeri) built huge palaces just outside the old city walls. In 1920, the Soviets took over the country and the oil barons fled. The oil industry then fell into disrepair.

And then, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was back. After a short skirmish with its neighbor and sworn enemy, Armenia, the country began selling the rights to suck up its oil. In 2006 it opened up a pipeline that goes through neighboring Georgia to Turkey. As a result, according to a New York Times article, from 2006 to 2008, Azerbaijan had the fastest growing economy in the world, at an astounding 28 percent (For comparison’s sake, the United States’ economy during that time grew about 2.2 percent).

If Paris and Dubai had a lovechild it would certainly be Baku. In addition to the Beaux Arts buildings that were a product of the last oil boom, the Baku skyline is now rife with color and avant-garde design: The Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center looks like a spaceship covered with a humungous billowy blanket and is the first building to really wow me in a very long time; then there are the Flame Towers (pictured), a reference to the country’s fire-loving Zoroastrian past: these three tongue-shaped towers dominate the skyline at night by broadcasting through 10,000 L.E.D.s images of flames (starting in June, one of the towers will be a Fairmont hotel). There’s also a Trump building that looks like it was plucked from the Abu Dhabi skyline and a 1,000-foot TV tower, the tallest structure in the country.

But not for long. An Azeri gazillionaire is building a few manmade islands in the Caspian that will apparently be home to the world’s tallest building. That is, until a country like Tajikistan builds one tall a year later.

The leader of this nation is Ilyam Aliyev, who may be president for some time. Voters in a 2009 referendum decided by an apparent 92 percent of the vote to scrap presidential term limits. Photos of President Aliyev’s father, Heydar, who was president before him, are ubiquitous: his face graces large billboards in and around Baku and well as throughout the countryside, giving the impression that “dear leader,” alive or dead, is always on the watch.

During the time I was here I was often asked what I thought of Azerbaijan, in general, and Baku, in particular. I didn’t really know what to think of it, at first. It seemed Baku had changed so much and so rapidly that there were societal and cultural aspects that haven’t caught up. The nightlife, for example, was forgettable, even though Lonely Planet recently proclaimed it to be one of the best spots on the planet to party (note to LP: did any of you actually come here?).

If they let me back in to Azerbaijan (don’t forget that getting a visa is a pain), I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the country has developed in a few years. By that time, the famous flagpole might have dropped to fifth or sixth tallest in the world. And maybe I’ll see a few tourists here. Enough, anyway, that the only place I’ll be able to stay is a hostel.

[Photo by David Farley]

Meet The Reclusive American Billionaire Who Bought Lonely Planet

Last year, the Wall Street Journal called Brad Kelley “the man with a million acres.” Now the American billionaire and land addict has expanded his kingdom to include the world’s biggest travel-guide publisher. Kelley’s NC2 Media bought Lonely Planet from BBC Worldwide in a deal announced yesterday.

Most of the headlines focused on the huge loss BBC is taking by selling the company for about $78 million. It paid double that to buy the Melbourne-based publisher a few years ago. Some travel insiders are wondering if NC2, a small firm based in Nashville, Tenn. and specializing in digital development, will continue to publish the familiar blue-covered guides while devoting energy to digital expansion. NC2’s chief operating office, Daniel Houghton, made some routinely vague comments about being committed to the brand’s roots in publishing in a Q&A with Skift Travel. NC2 also produces “Outwild TV,” a story-rich Web series on adventure travel:

A fair amount of the chatter surrounding the news questions whether NC2 will have any more luck than the BBC did with the brand, which was portrayed as struggling financially and with digital innovation. But Kelley surely knows what he’s doing. He didn’t become a billionaire by making bad deals. (Actually, he earned his fortune in the cigarette business.)

Kelley, who’s on the Forbes 400 list of the world’s richest people, must know a promising brand when he sees one. Lonely Planet is the world’s largest travel-guide publisher with 40 years under its belt and 120 million books sold. The BBC grew it from the third most-popular guidebook series in the U.S. to the first.

Kelley, though, is the anti-Trump, with about as much flash as the Amish. The Wall Street Journal called him “deeply private” and claimed he doesn’t use Twitter or email (as of last fall). His hobbies, according to the article, include making bourbon and raising exotic animals; he’s also passionate about conservation. Most of his land – which is concentrated in Florida, Texas and New Mexico and in total outsizes Rhode Island – is devoted to ranches, and his holdings make him one of the top three or four land owners in the country, right up there with Ted Turner.

According to the WSJ, Kelley grew up as the son of a tobacco farmer in Kentucky and bought his first piece of land at 17. He maintains his primary residence in Franklin, Tenn., a town with about 65,000 residents.

That description might seem to cut against the image of an innovative digital firm and the exotic locations on which Lonely Planet is an authority, but in the WSJ Kelley talked about his land habit in financial terms, not romantic ones: “It’s a nonperishable commodity and it’s as good a place as any to put my money,” Mr. Kelley says. “It’s better than derivatives.” The article reported that “the national average value of U.S. ranchland rose 12% compared with five years earlier; in Texas, it is up 30% compared with five years ago.”

Lonely Planet is now based in a state that doesn’t warrant a blue-spined guidebook of its own, but it may well be in better hands.

[Photo credit: Joshua Alan Davis via Flickr]