Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

Daily Secret offers insider intel for Istanbul, Athens, Shanghai and more

insider intelLast month, I went to a designer-clothing pop-up sale in the back of a restaurant, scored an invite to an exclusive party with Champagne and gourmet truffles, and got the manager’s private phone number of a hot new nightlife spot. I’m not famous or especially well-connected, I’m just a subscriber to DailySecret.com. Daily Secret is website and email newsletter that delivers insider intel for twelve cities from Buenos Aires to San Francisco, plus English-language editions for Athens, Istanbul, and Shanghai. Founded in Athens in 2010, Daily Secret spread to Istanbul last March, with over 200 secrets and counting.

The Istanbul secrets are compiled and curated by a team of 15 “scouts,” ranging from a fashion blogger, to a food critic, to a non-profit specialist in new companies who often hears about new ventures before they open. You can register with the site to receive the daily secrets, or search online by category, neighborhood, or date posted. Not all secrets are fancy or expensive, but they tend to be sophisticated and high-end. Daily Secret likes to be the first to write about a new service or business, or provide an added value for readers: an exclusive discount or giveaway, the unlisted phone number, or a spot on the guest list of an event.insider intelI met with Laura Wells, co-founder and editor of Istanbul Daily Secret, to get her best tips and favorites for the Turkish cultural capital. With a background in news journalism, Laura is an American expat with a discerning eye and impeccable tastes, who vets each secret and hopes that if you like the secret’s description, you’ll like the place too.

A year after the Capital of Culture is over, why travel to Istanbul in 2012?
Istanbul is not about trends or time-sensitive titles, though it is ‘hot’ these days. Istanbul has been around for thousands of years, and there’s nowhere else like it. It’s exotic, and yet also very accessible to foreigners, in terms of culture and things to do.

Essence of Daily Secret in one sentence?
We discover the best insider ‘secrets’ of each city for our members (in our case, Istanbul), that most locals don’t even know about!

Favorite museum/culture spot with no tourist buses in sight?
Turkey is now becoming known internationally for its modern art market. The most impressive art museum in Turkey, I think, is actually a private, family-owned museum. Its collection pairs renowned artists from around the world with local Turkish talents, and entrance is free! The Elgiz Museum/Proje 4L often has receptions & exhibits of emerging Turkish artists as well as many panel discussions in English. It’s one of Istanbul’s best-kept secrets, truly!

Where to go for an only-in-Istanbul souvenir, that’s actually made in Turkey?
I love artistic souvenirs that can become heirlooms, and we recently discovered a brand-new company started by the wife of Turkey’s Minister of EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis. His wife Beyhan has worked with local artisans to develop Anatoli, which offers three lines of exquisite pieces for the home ranging from straight traditional to modern based on an old motif. Beyhan Bagis conducted research with a professor of Turkic Studies to resurrect these designs and unusual pieces; for instance, Anatoli carries an incredibly elaborate silver-plated, hand-wrought sculpture that’s actually an Ottoman-style rose water holder to make the room more fragrant. It’s the closest thing to owning an antique (there are many fakes here!). The prices start at 65 TL, so nearly anyone can purchase something, and they’ll all fit in your carry-on. Read more here.

Best new hotel in a hip neighborhood?
For a reasonably-priced (and now very hip) hotel, Georges is a standout! The co-owner & manager Alex Varlik, a Parisian transplant, is very hospitable, and I love that they preserved this historic building’s original details. You’re steps from the Galata Tower, but the entrance’s in on such a quiet, little cobblestone street. Even Istanbul’s glamorous set is now flocking to this “old town” establishment, the intimate restaurant/bar Le Fumoir. Just opened this month across the Golden Horn, HHK Hotel is a charming new property with sauna, pool, and hammam, and we’re giving away a 2-night stay in February. The winner can be from anywhere in the world, you just have to be a Daily Secret member.

Comfy and cool bar you wish was in your neighborhood?
To hang out with the young art crowd & intelligentsia, head to the less-visited Asian side, for your pick of funky hangouts on Kadikoy’s Kadife Street (aka Bar Street). Karga at #16 is an art and performance space in an old building designed by the same architect as the train station. It recently celebrated 15 years and has its own magazine. Hidden above street level, Dunia at #19 is a new 2-story restaurant/bar that prints its schedules so you can hear a performance, watch a movie, and see an exhibit. Arkaoda at #18 is a lounge for music lovers, and the kind of place the owner doesn’t necessarily want you to find – unless you know someone, that is.

Where to splurge on a last-night-in-town dinner?
For a proper Ottoman meal and to try dishes you can almost never find anywhere else, as they did with the former Empire, try Pasha Bebek. Unlike many of the restaurants serving the traditional cuisine here, this is elegant, and in a ‘hot’ neighborhood. The hostess, Anita, is like an encyclopedia about all the dishes and she loves sharing the history behind them. She’s there every night and speaks wonderful English.

Recommended tour guides for more insider intel?
One of Daily Secret’s employees, Resat Erel, is also a long-standing private tour guide, also fluent in English & French. He’s a member of TURSAB, the tourist guide association, and he mainly gives tours to visiting dignitaries. He knows all the ‘secrets’ of Istanbul and is a great asset to us! In return, we have to give him up on certain days. If you want to have a private tour based on your preferences, he’ll work with you to shape your itinerary. His email address is: resaterel@gmail.com, phone +90.532.670.1369. For a culinary tour to try lots of different dishes, in very little time, and get to walk around the city or cross the Bosphorus by boat – Delicious Istanbul is a new company providing cooking classes and tasting tours for 2-6 people.

What’s happening in 2012 for Daily Secret?
Vancouver just launched, and we’re also launching Android & iPhone applications for each city this month (we’ll be announcing them on our sites, and they’ll be available through our sites and in the iTunes store), and people will be able to see the secrets in each neighborhood as they pass through, like a personal tour guide. We’re also working on English versions of all foreign cities.

Sign up and browse the secrets at www.dailysecret.com and find them on Facebook.

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe – While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English – Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport – This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country – While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

Ode to the expat newspaper

expat newspaperOne of my favorite things about traveling, in addition to foreign supermarkets, oddball museums, and miniature toiletries, is the local English-language expat newspaper. When I’m home in New York, I tend to get all my news online, either directly from news websites through specific searches or curated from friends’ links on social media (one of the best sources for news from US newspapers is Canadian NY1 anchorman and New Yorker favorite Pat Kiernan‘s site Pat’s Papers). Sorry US newspapers, I know I’m part of the problem. But while I’m traveling, I love to grab the local newspaper over hotel breakfast or in a coffeeshop and learn about local issues, news, and phenomena.Last month in Malaysia while reading the New Straits Times, I learned about how competitive the Chinese are at a kite flying festival and how southeast Asian children have to be taught to detect sour milk. The travel section reviewed a new hotel in Penang with a first impression of “adequate” and the Niexter insert written by Malaysian teenagers taught me all about malapropisms. A couple at our hotel told me they came to Penang after reading an article on the Hotel Penaga’s renovation from the paper in Kuala Lumpur.

It was from Istanbul’s Today’s Zaman that I learned about the excellent expat community and online forum I’ve become a part of in the last year, and I now have friends who have worked at Zaman and their competitor the Hurriyet Daily News. When I first visited Turkey in 2008, I recall reading an interesting editorial in one of the papers about how stealing things from airplanes like safety cards can cause delays, as the plane can’t take off without enough for everyone. The torn out article is long-gone, but I’ve retained the factoid and it keeps me honest on airplanes (though I’ve been tempted to take a souvenir from some eastern European airlines). When the Hurriyet turned 50 this year, writer Jennifer Hattam wrote a great piece on the particular challenges of not only translating the language of news, but the cultural specifics and background as well.

Expat news doesn’t only come in print form. I tweeted about expat news sources and read how writer Lisa Bergren relies on the BBC for news as well as comfort, and CJGuest recommends Al Jazeera from the Arabic world, the German Deutsche Welle, NHK from Japan, and Russia Today from the Russian Federation. Gadling’s own Grant Martin likes the South China Morning Post and the more western Sydney Morning Herald.The local English-language paper doesn’t always have the freshest content, the most stellar writing, or the coolest layout, but it provides an invaluable look into regional and national issues. Expat news can also provide a lens through which to see world news through local perspectives, and help us keep in touch with the sentiments and opinions in our home countries and cultures.

Gadling readers, do you have any favorite news sources abroad? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ed Yourdon

The perfect English country walk: five ingredients

perfect english country walk

The country walk near or around London is a venerable tradition. Every weekend, in good weather and bad, scores of Londoners descend upon different areas of the Home Counties–the counties surrounding London–to tramp along country roads, walk adjacent to (and sometimes through) cultivated fields, and wander into rural churches.

My first walk transpired this past Saturday. I was lucky enough to do a walk with a group of friends, some of whom have spent many a weekend exploring the countryside. Our meander, a circular walk based on a Surrey town called Guildford, came from Time Out’s Country Walks Volume 2, which was written by a committed group of walkers called the Saturday Walkers’ Club. The Time Out volumes are well-known and very well researched. Most of their walks require only very basic fitness.

Here are five ingredients for the perfect country walk. First up is a tip for making things affordable from the get-go.

1. Take the train to your origination and from your termination points, and take advantage of discounts for groups. Go in a group of three or more. My inaugural walk last weekend required the purchase of a group round trip ticket from London Waterloo to Guildford, a snip at £6.95 ($11.10), considerably less expensive than the lowest normal round trip fare of £13.90 ($22.30).

2. Make sure there is a good restaurant or pub at the midway point as well as at the walk’s conclusion. A filling midday meal, capped with a scone slathered with insanely good clotted cream and jam, is part of the tradition. And a crisp refreshing drink at the close of the walk, alcoholic or otherwise, is also key. There should be a pub close to the termination of your walk.

3. Do your research. Time Out has published two Country Walks volumes, with over 80 walks between them. Take a look at these and examine walk durations, transit times, and level of difficulty. The Time Out volumes certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all of country walks, either. Check out the walks detailed at Urban75 for some additional ideas.

4. Walk with someone with a good sense of direction, or, barring that, good navigational gear. Some of the Time Out walks travel through unmarked territory and will accordingly be made more pleasant by including someone comfortable with a compass.

5. Not to belabor the obvious, but dress appropriately. You’ll need rubber boots or hiking shoes with very good traction for walks during or following rains. For some walks, sneakers will do. Other walks will require shoes with an especially good grip. Pay attention to the difficulty grade and description of your walk beforehand. And layer appropriately.