In Praise Of Travel Lists

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.

C’mon now.

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.

[Image of Cap Corse: Flickr | cremona daniel]

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.

Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Montenegro loses its only hippo

The only hippopotamus in Montenegro escaped from the zoo on Wednesday. So if you took your trip to Podgorica specifically to see the two-ton animal, named Nikica, pack up and go home. Maybe you can catch a train to Greece instead. Whatever you choose to do, just know that the damned hippo isn’t there any more. She broke free from her cage and swam away after seasonal floods reached the zoo.

Davor Mujovic, the zoo’s manager, told Reuters, “She remains at large, but one of the guards is keeping an eye on her and is feeding her daily.” Nikica found a dry spot about a mile from the zoo, which is sufficient for now. Mujovic and the zoo guards are going to wait until the water pulls back more before trying to lure the hippo back to the zoo.

The hippo is already charming the locals, according to the zoo’s owner, Nikola Pejovic. “People like her,” Pejovic said, “villagers are bringing her fresh hay.”

[Photo by marfis75 via Flickr]

Letter from Montenegro: See the coast, while you can

I am writing this from a balcony in Petrovac, Montenegro. It’s 9 a.m., the Adriatic Sea below me is refulgent in the sun and although it early there are already sunbathers out. Some have skin so brown it’s difficult to tell where their bodies end and the sand begins.

From this perch I also hear the din of construction.

If Montenegro had a soundtrack, it would be the steady sound of hammer, drill and saw. Nowhere is this more true than along Montenegro’s coast.

Since February I’ve been living in Montenegro, and during months of traveling in a country smaller than Connecticut I’ve had a pretty good vantage point from which to consider what is happening to the country’s coastline.

A lot of what you read about Montenegro’s coast is true. It is still relatively undiscovered, if you compare it to, say, Croatia, which is probably now past its peak as the place to go in the Mediterranean. It is cheap, again relatively speaking. It is stunningly beautiful in spots, too. But a lot of people arrive here expecting mile after mile of unspoiled coastline and soon realize, probably when sitting in traffic in Budva, inching along behind so many cement mixers and dump trucks, that this isn’t so.

The Montenegrins are rushing to develop their riviera in an alarmingly determined way, all with the aim of fueling the engines of tourism that are keeping this country afloat. From Herceg Novi in the north to Ulcinj in the south, new hotels are going up and huge condo developments are underway. Even here, in a small town that hugs a cove below a steep bowl of green mountain, men are working around the clock to renovate the old stone buildings along the waterfront and turn them into apartments. In the summer, this town of 1,400 swells to 20,000.

“It really is unbelievable,” says Pat Oates, who owns “The Old Stone House on the Adriatic,” where I am writing this. The house is really just a floor that he and his wife, also named Pat, have converted into a guest apartment. Oates has performed all of the renovation himself, a small job when considered against the backdrop of the dozen or so large scale projects he says are ongoing now in Petrovac. “And there’s another 20 or so smaller projects.”Petrovac is still a tiny place. Elsewhere along the coastline the development is happening on a much larger scale. You can easily imagine, say in five years, mile after mile of soulless hotels standing sentry where you once were able to pull off at the side of the road, walk down among pine and olive trees along a narrow dirt path, and find yourself alone at the sea. Montenegro has a while to go before becoming another Costa del Sol, but it’s getting there.

What’s interesting is that Montenegrins are having a direct hand in the coastline’s transformation. Russians have been buying up much of the local property simply by dangling small amounts of money in front of private land owners, who are poor. Those Russians are building elaborate seaside dachas and resorts. The Montenegrins are cashing the checks.

Young Montenegrins are especially concerned about this. Theirs is the first generation to really have to confront the double edge sword of tourism. They are fiercely proud of their country’s natural offerings – so many quote the country’s official slogan, “Wild Beauty,” you’d think they were all on the payroll of the Montenegro Tourism Board – and love the fact that foreigners want to visit. But they are upset at what they see as a land grab and of the growing geographical gap in the country. The coastline is what gets the visitors, so the government is investing heavily on infrastructure improvements; the north, no less dramatic in its scenery, does not get the visitors and thus communities there go without. “The south is very rich and the north is very poor. The government just pays attention to the south. It’s a big problem,” says Marko Latkovic, a student from Ulcinj.

I realize that I am painting the coast out to be one long construction zone. It isn’t that dramatic; there are still significant stretches of impressive, unmolested scenery. But it’s just that one feels it is only a matter of time till those stretches shrink in length and number.

It strikes me that Montenegro is folding its best hand. Tourists, bored with the overdeveloped and cruise ship-heavy Croatian coast, are heading farther south to escape the crowds and get something a little more natural. Montenegro in turn is rushing to cash in on that tourism, but by developing the coastline in a way that will one day resemble what tourists were trying to escape by arriving in the first place. Of course, the country needs some infrastructure to meet the demands of tourists. But shouldn’t planners be focusing on making Montenegro’s coast different than its neighbor to the north? I mentioned all this recently to a Montenegrin friend, Stevan Ulama, who lives in the coastal town of Sutomore. I said I was concerned. “Me too,” he said.

“You know, we are a new state, and we don’t yet have that many smart people in [tourism] and in the government. What we need is to have rules for this development. We don’t really have them,” he said.

Maybe Montenegro’s motto should really be “Wild Beauty – for now.”