Great Comeback Cities For Travel

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

Exploring The Transylvanian Alps In Europe

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.


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

Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Rooms By the Hour In Belgrade And An Insane Taxi Driver from Novi Sad

Have you ever met a taxi driver who was more interested in showing you staged photos of him with his cars than getting you to the airport to catch a flight? No? Well, you’ve probably never met Novica Jurisic, a Serbian taxi driver from Novi Sad, whose most prized possessions are kept in the trunk of his Mercedes Benz taxi.

When I worked at the American Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia in the early aughts, my wife and I took advantage of every long weekend to travel around the region. But Skopje isn’t much of a flight hub, so it’s tricky to see much in a three-day weekend, and flight schedules are inconvenient at best.

Very early one Saturday morning we caught a 6 A.M. flight to Belgrade, on JAT, the old Yugoslav National Airline that, at least at that time, still inexplicably allowed passengers to put large suitcases in empty seats around the cabin. On the way to Belgrade we decided on a whim to spend just one day in the city and then take an overnight train to Budapest.

After a delightful day of exploring Belgrade, we were exhausted, after having gotten up at 4 A.M. for our flight, but we had six hours to kill until our train left at midnight. We came across the Hotel Beograd a place near enough to the station to be convenient, and shabby looking enough to have hourly rates.I had checked out a room at the Beograd before, after arriving in the city late at night, alone, on my 30th birthday. But I could not bring myself to celebrate the auspicious occasion in a room with sloping beds, dirty, velvety bedspreads with miscellaneous stains and rotary telephones, so I cut bait and went elsewhere.

There is never a graceful way to enquire about hourly rates at a hotel, particularly when you arrive with a member of the opposite sex and are encircled by numerous loitering and inquisitive men. The desk clerk, a middle aged man with thick glasses who wore an unfriendly scowl, wanted about $12, but would only let us stay in the room until 20.00. In my rudimentary Serbian/Macedonian I told him that I might need a bit longer, say, until 22.00 or 23.00. He scoffed at the request and the loitering men began to laugh and chatter about us.

Why does he need so much time with her, is what they were probably saying.

We haggled a bit and he eventually agreed to let us stay in our room until 21.00, enough time for us to take a nap, in theory. The clerk asked for our passports and it suddenly dawned on me that I had left my regular tourist passport in Skopje and had only a black diplomatic passport. After our public negotiation over the day rate at this shabby hotel, I was certain that pulling out this passport would cause a stir and sure enough it did, as the men began to howl.

Can you believe the American! He’s a diplomat and he comes here with a woman, doesn’t want to pay for the room for a whole night and then tries to haggle!

Even though our objectives were pure, I felt dirty in our sweaty, cramped and noisy room at the Beograd. My wife was certain that she saw some bloodstains on her twin bed, but mine had nothing worse than a few hairs and some holes in the sheets. The room was so hot, we had to keep the window open, and the traffic outside kept me awake. The lock on the door didn’t work so we barricaded a chair up against the door and I paced around the suffocating, dismal room until check out time, feeling oddly like Robert De Niro in his threadbare apartment in the movie Taxi Driver.

After a day and a half enjoying all of the cultural delights of Budapest, including foot-long meatball subs at Subway, and other treats unavailable in Skopje, it was time to figure out how to get back to Belgrade in time for our 21.00 flight. I assumed we’d have no problem, but both the bus and the train left at 14.00, with the bus arriving in Belgrade after our flight and the train arriving just an hour before departure. We looked into renting a car, but no Hungarian rental car company would allow us to drop off in Serbia.

We decided to take the train and then race into a taxi to the airport and hope for the best. But as we approached Novi Sad, a fellow passenger advised us that we should get out in Novi Sad, and then take a taxi directly to the Belgrade airport to catch our flight. He called a taxi company, we agreed to pay 50€ and a man bearing a sign with our names was there at the train station waiting to pick us up. Perfect! Right?

Our new friend on the train told us that Novi Sad and Belgrade were connected by a four lane highway and advised us that a taxi could get us to the airport in an hour, while the train took 90 minutes just to get to downtown Belgrade. The main introduced himself as Novica, and handed us his business card, which showed him all dressed up in a royal blue suit befitting a rap star attending a baptism posing in front of two Mercedes Benzes. (see photo)

As we approached his car, he pointed to a white Benz that was perhaps 8-10 years old but very nicely polished.

“Mercedez Benz,” he said proudly pointing to the car. “You know it?”

We slowly made our way in and then out of Novi Sad as Novica narrated his Serbian and very rudimentary English. From what I understood, Novi Sad was a great city and we were making a huge mistake by not stopping and spending time in the town. I assured him that we would be back another time, while reminding him that we were in a hurry and had a flight to catch.

About twenty minutes into the ride, my wife and I began to mutter concerns to each other. “Ask him why we aren’t getting on the highway,” Jen instructed me. I tried asking him, but he just kept telling us not to worry and that he knew what he was doing.

We were on a busy, two-lane country road that began to ascend up a mountain. Eventually we saw a sign indicating that we had entered some kind of national park. As our concerns grew, Novica began to banter about the park, and what a great tourist destination it is. I started to look up some words in a Serbian phrasebook and managed to say: “SEGA, NE TOURIST! AVION AERODROM, SEGA!” Which means, “Now, no tourist, flight, airplane, now!”

Novica seemed stung by my scolding. He had taken us on a massive detour in the mistaken belief that we had wanted to take a scenic route to the Belgrade airport.

After another half hour on a sickeningly twisty country road, we eventually came to the entrance to the highway, which pleased us immensely. Right after going through the toll area and getting our ticket, though, Novica inexplicably pulled over and began rummaging around for something in his trunk. I looked at the gas gauge and noticed that he was almost out of gas.

A minute later Novica emerged, smiling and brandishing a few photo albums. The first album was filled with pictures of him in various poses in front of his two taxis. In each photo he was pimped out with his dark glasses along with his royal blue, three-piece suit or a white vest along with white dress shirt and white dress pants. We had to laugh.

The second photo album contained photos from various weddings he had been the driver for. And the final one contained photos of him at various radical Serb political demonstrations. He appeared waving placards denouncing sending Serb war criminals to The Hague. In the photos you could see bunches of scary looking Chetniks with mean faces and long straggly beards. So this is why he is taking us on a scenic route, I thought. It was less then three years after NATO forces bombed Belgrade and this was his revenge.

I asked Novica what all the political photos were about and he seemed a bit embarrassed, saying that these days all he cared about was business, not politics.

Most of the cars on the highway seemed to be zooming past us; the speed limit was 70, but Novica was only going 50. We had no idea how far we were from the Belgrade airport and it was just about an hour before flight time. After a detour to get gas, Jen finally lost her patience and loudly chided him to go faster, while tapping her watch insistently. Probably only a minute later, the airport actually came into sight.

We could hardly believe it, and Novica made a point of telling us that he had told us so all along. Of course the post script to this tale writes itself: we were there 40 minutes before our scheduled departure, but the flight took off two hours late anyways, so we could have stayed on the train and saved ourselves the 50€. But then we wouldn’t have met Novica from Novi Sad.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: A birthday that went up in smoke in Belgrade

There’s nothing like having a sealed train compartment full of Serbian farmers blowing smoke in your face on your 30th birthday. One of the strangest elements of expatriate life is that you sometimes find yourself celebrating major occasions with people you just met, rather than friends and family.

I had just started a tour as an American Foreign Service Officer in Macedonia right before my 30th birthday and my wife, who was completing a graduate degree in Chicago, hadn’t yet arrived at post. So my options were to spend the auspicious occasion with people whom I barely knew, or spend it alone. I told Marija, one of my Macedonian colleagues, that I planned to take the train up to Belgrade, but didn’t mention that the trip would take place on my 30th.

“Nobody takes the train,” she said. “They gas the compartments and then rob everyone.”

I ignored her and turned up at Skopje’s forlorn train station on Saturday morning November 9, for my birthday trip to Belgrade. I love train travel and thought that it would be a pleasant way to spend the day. I had a compartment all to myself for the first hour of the trip, but shortly after we crossed the Serbian border, a group of four boisterous Serbs barged into the compartment.

There was a teenager named Ivan, two haggard, middle aged women whose names I didn’t catch, and a middle aged man named Slavica who wore a garish jacked with the words CHICAGO HAPPY MEMBER CLUB emblazoned in a huge font across his back. I couldn’t help but note the irony: I was spending my 30th birthday with a member of the Chicago Happy Member Club, rather than with my wife in Chicago.

Immediately after sitting down, Slavica slid the compartment door shut, lit up a cigarette, and blew the smoke right in my face. I pointed to the no-smoking sticker on the door. He gave me a puzzled look and a shrug and kept smoking, so I opened our window. In the Balkans, and in other parts of the world, fresh air is seen as a dangerous thing- perhaps akin to spending a holiday at a leper colony or having unprotected sex with an H.I.V. positive prostitute-which causes all sorts of illnesses.Slavica slammed the window shut and when I protested he got up and crouched over me, menacingly hovering with his rancid breath so close to my face that I noticed he had cat-like whiskers growing implausibly up near his eye sockets. He barked at me in Serbian and then stormed out into the corridor to finish his smoke.

The uglier of the two women, who had greasy spiked hair and wore baggy leather pants, went out, grabbed Slavica’s cigarette from him, came back in, took a puff on it and blew the smoke ostentatiously in my face. Happy Birthday.

My new friends spoke no English, and I spoke no Serbian, but I had a trusty phrasebook. The spike-haired woman wanted to see my passport, in order to determine where I was from. After our unpleasant introduction, the last thing I wanted to do was pull out a black, diplomatic passport from the United States, a country that had just bombed the Serbs only three years before.

In order to confuse and repel them I start speaking Albanian but they refused to believe that I was from Albania. Slavica eventually came back in and tried to make nice by riffling through my phrase book in an attempt to get to know me.

After an enormous amount of phrasebook effort, I gathered that neither of the two women were his wives, although he indicated through various crude pelvic thrusts that he was interested in introducing the less homely woman to the HAPPY MEMBER CLUB, should the opportunity arise. They had all just come from a market town and were headed home to Leskovac.

They were paprika farmers, who had been trying to sell their crops at the market. Slavica wanted to know how much a kilo of paprika went for in the U.S., and was disappointed that I did not know. I eventually admitted to them that I was American and this seemed to please everyone, most of all, spike hair, who seemed to be the only person in the compartment who hadn’t warmed to me.

By the time they departed, we were all old friends- doing shots of rakija, singing songs (them, not me), and giggling about dirty words in the phrase book. Before she alighted onto the platform, the slight-less ugly woman handed me a scrap of paper with a hotmail address on it. We shared no common language, but vowed to stay in touch. Sure we would.

A few hours later, I arrived in Belgrade and after only a few minutes of walking around the town center, formulated a snap impression: Belgrade may have the world’s most beautiful women. After eating a dismal plate of General Tsao’s chicken, I repaired to a crowded basement bar, where I was invited to sit with a group of three twentysomethings who spoke English- brothers, Marko and Nikola, and Nikola’s girlfriend, Tanja.

Marko said they had beckoned me to their table because I looked foreign and they wanted to practice their English. When I told them I was American, Tanja said, “don’t worry we won’t talk politics.”

Instead, we talked about cutlery.

“You probably didn’t know that the Serbs were the first people to eat with knives, did you?” Nikola asked.

I admitted that I hadn’t known that, but Marko quickly corrected his younger brother.

“It was spoons, you idiot, not knives!”

A lengthy discussion ensued in Serbian, and Tanja finally concluded, “we were the first to use knives AND spoons.”

“What about forks?” I asked.

After another lengthy Serbian language discussion, Tanja said, “probably forks too, but we’d have to check about that.” After the cutlery claims, Marko boasted that the Serbs had also founded Paris, and had “given the Romans their technology.”

“Really?” I asked. “What were all of your neighbors up to when the Serbs were doing all these things?”

Not much, according to them. Montenegrins were lazy and would cheat you. Macedonians were country bumpkins and really shouldn’t even exist as a nation. Albanians were sub-human and prone to crime. Bulgarians smelled bad and were ugly.

I tried to change the topic, and was encouraged to “study Serbian history, learn the Serbian language, eat Serbian food and take a Serbian wife.” When I mentioned it was my birthday, Nikola said, “Happy birthday, now buy us some drinks!”

Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via Flickr, Velja123.