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- Places to Go (Bulgaria): Rila and Rodopi Mountains, Plovdiv, Tracian Tombs, Vratsa, Velika Tarnovo.
- Places to Go (Romania): Rural villages.
- Places to Go (Slovakia): Bratislava and the High Tatras.
- Places to Go (Poland): Krakow and Gdansk, Baltic sea coast.
- Getting Around (Bulgaria/Romania): Bulgaria/Romania -- Hire a driver/translator.
- Getting Around (Poland): Take the trains.
- Getting Around (Slovenia): Drive yourself.
- Expectations: Don't expect friendly service in urban centers.
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David Lytle: Hi my name is David Lytle. I'm the editorial director for Frommers.com Today we are going to be discussing our upcoming edition, first edition of our Eastern European Guide and we have a few of the authors with us. We've got Pippa de Bruyn who is in Cape Town, South Africa. We've got Mark Baker who is in Prague currently and we've got Dr. Keith Bain just outside of Johannesburg. Is that right, Keith?
Dr. Keith Bain: In Johannesburg.
David: In Johannesburg, sorry, Melvin, which it's a neighborhood of. So everybody welcome.
[greetings from all]
David: It's kind of nice because we have a real international flavor to this today, connecting from all over. Really I'd like to get into this because this is a big fat guide that is coming out in April. We cover a lot of countries. Some of the countries we've covered in previous guidebooks by Frommer's but we are introducing a lot of new content as well. So we are going to be focusing today on the countries of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in a little more detail than the rest. The first thing I'd like to say though is it fair to call this Eastern Europe?
Keith: I think Eastern Europe is concept that has evolved into something that exists in the western mind and I'm not sure if its necessarily valid, even in terms of geography anymore.
Pippa de Bruyn: It's all one region, historically, with a marked difference in terms of being a tourist going to these regions. And from that point of view, it's useful because it's completely different than going to Western Europe.
David: How is it different, Pippa?
Pippa: Well, firstly you are unlikely to come across hordes of English speaking tourists running around the streets. It's relatively uncharted territory. Going to Italy last year, as marvelous as it was, it became quite trying to find yourself surrounded by so many foreigners. You find yourself wondering where the Italians are. I was in Italy and that was particularly the case. You just don't find that in Bulgaria which is particularly where I was as I was virtually alone in many of the areas no matter how beautiful or unusual and that's really exciting. You do feel like you are in a foreign country for the first time.
David: Oh, that is exciting. For this part of Europe they really are growing incredibly compared to Western Europe. Nearly five percent a year for some of the countries, that's some pretty astounding numbers. But you are saying you are still not going to encounter the crowds that you would in Italy or France?
Pippa: No the base level is so small that five percent on the base level is nothing. I don't really know numbers to compare with more popular Western Europe, but it's a fraction, a tiny fraction no matter how much the growth is. But that is going to change. That's all the more reason to get out there in the next couple of years.
Mark Baker: I'd say that for the most part that is probably true, but there are some destinations, at least in the guidebooks that I covered, in Poland that were actually pretty crowded. So I wouldn't want to leave the people on the Podcast thinking that it's going to be empty spaces, particularly Krakow. I think Krakow in midsummer would be just as crowded as Amsterdam or Paris or London in a sense.
Pippa: That's true. I suppose it would be the same with Croatia. I think Bulgaria particularly. I don't know how Keith feels about Romania. And that is true, Croatia is, of course, huge already. The Black Sea coast and the ski resorts, neither of which I particularly enjoyed, that's not where the focus of the book is for me. So it depends on where you go, but good point.
Keith: I might say in Romania there were still wonderful places that were completely devoid of tourists. Occasionally the odd bus would come in and leave just as soon. One had entire villages to one's self as a foreigner and that tends to create this wonderful rapport between yourself and the local people. I would say that this is still a corner of Europe, Romania at least, that one can find a village to one's self.
David: Wow. Keith how's the infrastructure in Romania for the tourism business?
Keith: Well, I think its improving very steadily. Especially with accession into the European Union, but I think somebody who is used to a very good Western concept of infrastructure might pull back a little bit. Train delays or trains that completely get canceled. But as far as tourist companies are concerned and flights, these sorts of things are well geared to look after anyone who is up for a getaway holiday.
David: Oh good.
Pippa: I must say that that's not the case in Bulgaria, which is probably another reason why it's probably not highly visited. The service industries are virtually non-existent and Bulgarians who work in the service industry are incredibly unfriendly. Where as Bulgarians you meet on the street are perfectly nice. So there's not much infrastructure and it's really worthwhile getting a driver's truck translator and doing it that way.
Mark: You know I think the situation in Poland is so different maybe from Bulgaria and Romania because what the Poles have done, and I think it's a really good thing for a country, is that they have really financed or encouraged the development of very good tourist information centers. So for instance, in Gdansk, even in Warsaw, in Krakow you find very, very well staffed, very helpful tourist information centers that can more or less smooth over any difficulties you might have going there. That's just one thing.
Keith: Well this is pretty much the same situation in Slovenia where I think I encountered the best tourist infrastructure I've ever encountered anywhere in the world. They are so open to anyone coming in and asking for the directions that they are about to get into the car and drive you there, they so much want you to enjoy it.
Mark: I think you are right about Slovenia. I've been there too and it's fantastic.
David: There are some varying degrees of what a tourist is going to encounter. I guess if you are going to Bulgaria you better have a pretty stiff spine.
Pippa: Yes, a thick spine and a thick skin because you literally go into... Obviously it's a fear that there will be a handful of five star hotels and a few good restaurants. But if you are here on a budget or probably the reason why one is in Bulgaria in the first place or leave the capital you will find service labels are just unbelievable. I was shocked, the people are rude and they are doing a job and they don't like it. Being there after a while, my skin thickened and I didn't actually mind. I thought it was quite honest. [laugh]
And of course, in the small villages it's a completely different story, the people are charming. The small sort of regional towns, I really have never been treated like that, the people are just not friendly in the service industries specifically. And the people are amazing because I think people in the service industry thus far anywhere, I mean I was there last year, haven't really traveled. So they don't really know what it means. Even working and trying to find out information, there was suspicion that perhaps I was spying for another hotel group. It was really very tricky and as I say you do need a bit of a tough skin and don't expect it to be an easy ride. But the upside of it is that at the moment, I'm not talking about the Black Sea coast and the ski resorts neither of which are particularly I liked, I'm talking about getting off the beaten track.
Pippa: And also the very good town is the Velika Tarnovo is medieval capital, and Vratsa is another beautiful, its sort of the cultural capital. Definitely, definitely have to go there. And don't expect people to bend over backwards.
David: What was your favorite part of Bulgaria?
Pippa: I think probably the Rila and Rodopi mountains, which are to the southwest of Sofia. If you drive, if you get a driver, it's just empty roads, sometimes not so well maintained. It's absolutely beautiful, villages and monasteries and charging rivers, huge forests. It's just so gorgeous. And the food!
David: Sounds beautiful.
Pippa: The villages are sort of living in untouched time. It's wonderful.
David: So basically, if you get out of the urban centers, you're going to have a better time in Bulgaria?
Pippa: Definitely. But again, if you don't have a driver, you're going to get lost because the Cyrillic script, it takes a while, and if you need directions or speak to anybody, you're going to get into trouble. I definitely would recommend having a driver and translator.
Keith: I would recommend the same for anywhere in Romania, simply because of the nature of the roads, and the fact that occasionally road signs become unnecessary, it seems. People seem to drive quite aggressively all over Romania. I find that if you don't have a driver you're sort of taking a chance with oncoming traffic on a regular basis.
Keith: In Slovenia, it's a pleasure to have a car and just be able to pop into every little roadside village or farm, or take a diversion at every opportunity.
David: So in Slovenia you can be more in control of your destiny?
Keith: Yes, absolutely.
Mark Baker: The situation in Poland, in terms of getting around, I don't think I would recommend very strongly that somebody travel by car, simply because right now a lot of the roads are under construction. Traffic is very, very heavy on the two-lane roads. And the distances you have to cover in European standards are pretty extreme: two and three hundred kilometers between cities. And when I was doing the book, I was actually driving from town to town. I would figure that for every one hundred kilometers to leave myself at least two hours behind the wheel. That's fifty kilometers an hour.
David: Yeah, that's slow.
Mark: And really, any more than two hundred kilometers in one day and you're toast by the end of the day. It's no fun.
Pippa: If you're driving, you need to have beautiful scenery. It can't just be about getting from A to B if you've got busy roads.
Mark: Yeah, you're right.
Pippa: With infrastructure you can get around by train, so.
Mark: You know, they've made great strides in Poland with trains. It's been unbelievable in the past ten years. The intercity train network is pretty good now and you can get from Warsaw to Gdansk, or Warsaw to Krakow, or Krakow to Wroclaw, wherever you want to go, in a couple of hours usually by the trains.
David: Trains are always nice. You can look out the window, and read if you need to, or take a nap.
Mark: It wasn't always that way, at least in Poland, and then now it's much better.
David: And Mark, how did you find Slovakia?
Mark: Slovakia is kind of a middle ground place. I describe it to people as not a destination in its own right, but a country that you can very easily tack on to a visit to another country, like the Czech Republic or Poland or Hungary. All of those countries have had historic ties, and the infrastructure between those, the getting to Slovakia from one of those countries, is very good. If you like mountains and you're going to be in southern Poland, why not go to the High Tatras in Slovakia? I think they're much prettier, and they're much less touristy. If you're in Prague, why not take the new bullet train down to Bratislava and see what that's like a little bit? I wouldn't necessarily encourage people--probably no one would do this--just to plan a Slovak trip, but it's a very nice diversion from one of these other countries.
David: A way to see something in transition as well.
Mark: It's a little bit in transition. It's much more rural than any of the countries that it borders. I think it's even more rural in its own way than Poland. It's mountainous; it's something a little bit different. It's a really nice country. I don't know how better to describe it.
David: Yeah, I think you've done a good job. Historically, hasn't Slovakia sort of been in a position where it's been pulled back and forth between Western European influences and Russia?
Mark: Historically it's been under Hungarian domination for a long, long time. And for Hungarians it was considered more or less farmland, where the peasantry sort of resided. It was always called upper Hungary, it never really developed its own country. I don't want to insult Slovaks, but it didn't for a long time. Now it has a very strong sense of its own identity and it's developing in a positive way. What that means for visitors is that we don't have a good idea in our minds when we think "Slovakia". What is that?
David: Right. So in a sense I would say, that's sounds like you're describing a place that is perfect for a traveler that wants to discover the undiscovered.
Mark: Oh, for sure, the very, very few. I wrote in the book--and it's really true--when you're traveling through Slovakia, and people are really friendly and you just talk about where you're coming from and you say, "I'm from the United States" or "I'm from Chicago" or something like that, people are genuinely happy that you've come such a long way to take an interest in their country somehow. They can scarcely believe it in some sense, "You've come all this way to see our country?" Yes, well, not really, but yes I did and I'm interested in it.
David: I'm only saying this because I'm from the Midwest: so it's sort of like the Midwest of Europe?
Mark: In some ways it's like the West Virginia of Europe, I don't know, in that it's relatively rural, it's mountainous, it has a lot of enduring charm about it and yet at the same time it's close to other countries that are more developed, more industrialized, that kind of thing.
David: Right, I completely understand that. Keith, what really stood out for you in researching this book? What was one thing that you just really marveled at?
Keith: A number of things. In Slovenia, it's the absolute beauty of this tiny country and these people that for a thousand years have been trying to achieve some sort of independence. The post-communist era achieved that and now they're so humble in their self-congratulation that one feels that you are in the best place on the planet, because the people keep on reminding you that that's how they feel about their country. Slovenia has this wonderful pride of nationhood and they have the beauty of the landscape to back it up. In Romania, it's the rural, isolated villages that seem stuck in an almost medieval sensibility but with a beautiful, carefree approach to life, which I haven't encountered anywhere else, even in places like India, where they are remote and got what one might call rural villages. In Romania the people are clinging to a way of life which is centuries old, and it's very humbling, because they just seem so happy and proud of that sort of long-lost traditional way of life.
David: Is it almost like innocence, they don't know about the world around them because they haven't had contact with it? I don't mean that to be insulting.
Pippa: In Bulgaria you take a digital photo of someone and they're completely amazed. And they're so amazed and they want the photograph and ask how they can. You answer with email, Internet, they have no idea what you're talking about. It's a tiny country, in half an hour you drive to the coast and it's like Miami Vice bars, pools, the beach, it's quite bizarre. Obviously it won't last very long but in Bulgaria there is a real innocence which I assume will disappear.
David: Is it Bulgarians who are going to the Bulgarian coast?
Pippa: Yes, Sofians. It gets hot and they go in droves. But a lot of Russians, Germans, of course a lot of English people. It's a mixture, but it's really developed now. I went all the way down as far south, and there are a few pockets at the very bottom. It's very hard to find anything that's pristine. You sort of have to keep your eyes out looking at the sea. The coast is gone, I think, if you're a nature lover. Although the sea is wonderful to swim in, architecturally it's been ruined.
David: That's too bad.
Pippa: The mountain villages are the treasures, though. They are just unbelievably beautiful. And the monasteries. The monks knew how to choose absolutely beautiful locations and they built these beautiful monasteries on rivers and in forests, beautiful views. But there are other places to go for beach holidays.
Mark: I was going to suggest Poland for a beach holiday. And actually I was surprised, the Baltic sea coast is pretty nice in Poland. It's nothing like Croatia or Greece or something like that, but if you're in Poland, in Gdansk for instance.
Pippa: Does it get hot enough to go to the beach? I would always have thought that it gets very cold up there.
Mark: Well, you know, last summer when we did this research it was the craziest summer in Europe for the first half of summer until the end of July. It was absolutely scorching hot, at least in Poland. And then for the entire month of August, it basically rained. But up until the end of July, yes, it was a beautiful summer and there were thousands of people swimming in the Baltic.
Pippa: That's good to know. Another undiscovered part you don't really know.
Mark: I got the feeling about Poland in general that it is basically an undiscovered thing, because it's still like planning a trip, I don't know where, to a country you would never dream of going to on vacation. But actually going there and finding out that it's actually a nice place to go for vacation.
Pippa: You mentioned in fact that some of the same stock are really quite full.
Mark: Oh, yes, a lot of Poles actually vacation within their own country. Krakow's very popular among Poles, I think it's their number one destination. Gdansk is number two.
Pippa: What was your favorite place? Was Krakow the most beautiful, or what was yours?
Mark: That's the natural beauty, that's the Prague of Poland in a sense, you know. Everyone goes there. But there are a lot of little hidden gems. And I wouldn't want to say Gdansk is a hidden gem, but we all remember it from Lech Walesa days and the black and white Solidarity, and it looked a little bit like a dirty, grotty seaport. But when you actually get there, you see what they've done with it. It's been really nicely and carefully restored. It's a beautiful city, a beautiful seaport city, you just can't say it enough. So I would suggest anyone going to Poland, certainly spend some time in Gdansk. You won't regret it. It's really a nice place.
David: Did you find that these countries were doing a good job of restoration?
Mark: No, not always. The city I live in is probably a bad example of how to restore, because they've been going nuts in Prague trying to restore things. I found that in Krakow and Gdansk they've done a really nice job, though.
Keith: In Romania there seems to be a general lack of understanding around how to actually go about restoring great architectural triumphs. And there are a lot of foreigners who are now buying properties and restoring them to use them as sort of heritage accommodation; all of the returned royalty who are trying to buy land and property that once belonged to their families and trying to restore these. But most of these people complain that there's a lack of know-how. So it takes years and years to get a result that is usable and feasible.
David: Right. So I imagine that even if you personally would have the know-how, the resources are even there locally, the skill set that you would need to repair a wall--
Keith: And it seems that some of the historical architecture is really complex, and some of the decay that has set in during the Ceausescu era is so overwhelming that to find where the foundations of a property are causes a major difficulty. And there there's destruction that has been visited upon the property by the army or whatever. It makes it fundamentally almost verging on impossible to restore, but they are making a effort.
Pippa: I would like to add here, I must say one thing I haven't mentioned about Bulgaria is that it has these ancient Thracian tombs which just were fascinating. I really didn't expect that. Between three and five thousand years old, and the Thracians, I know, were in Romania as well. But there seemed to be more tombs, with a lot of gold and sort of interesting paintings. In Bulgaria, it's the tip of the iceberg, they've uncovered a few of them. And unfortunately, because there's a huge mafia at work in Bulgaria, it's a sort of latter-day Indiana Jones situation, they're raiding these tombs. In fact, the opposite has happened in Bulgaria. They're treading water, they don't have enough money to protect ancient things.
David: I'm actually surprised at that wasn't looted during communism.
Pippa: I get the feeling that it's really rampant now, almost as if they kept it under wraps during communism. But now, they have more knowledge about what's out there.
David: Yeah, that's unfortunate.
Keith: One of the ironies in Bucharest is that the parliamentary palace--this abominable, massive structure that Ceausescu built in the center of Bucharest, tearing down churches and monasteries to make way for his civic center--construction is still continuing on that monolith. I find that absolutely ridiculous, and they're now talking about how the 20% that remains is now 16%, and the tour guides that take one around the parliamentary palace actually can't understand there's something wrong with the ongoing construction. But there are workers building, on a daily basis.
David: They don't understand that it's a bad idea poorly executed?
Mark: One city that I didn't mention for one of my countries that is actually a pretty good example of restoration, I think, is Bratislava. That's a city that, again, no one would think of any amount of vacation time there. But they took their historic core--it's about fifty acres, some hectares, it's a fairly large site, it's not very large--but they have restored it and it's all pedestrianized. And it's a really fun place because basically the entire city congregates there in the evening. It's where most of the restaurants are, where most of the hotels are, where most of the good bars and cafes are. And every night in the summer, it takes on kind of a block party atmosphere.
Pippa: The Bulgarian equivalent would be Plovdiv, which also has an old center which has been restored, thanks to the efforts of what they now call the mayor of Plovdiv. In the 60s there was a huge revival. It's a wonderful area, because it's called Bulgarian baroque, it's very unique to this one city. And it's beautiful restored, and also wonderful in the evenings in the summer.
David: I hate to draw this to a close, but we're coming up on our time limit now. I really do want to say thanks to all of you, this has been a great conversation. Keith, Mark, and Pippa, thank you. We didn't get to a lot of stuff we could have talked about. People should know that in this book you have great recommendations, on accommodations, for example. I think each of you have written about monasteries that people can actually stay in and each of these countries, some more spartan than others, some beautiful restored. There are a lot of cheap European airlines now that make it easier now to get from almost any major Western European city over to some of these smaller areas in Eastern Europe as well.
Pippa: Yeah, in fact they need to look at the online update, because there's more.
David: Constantly growing, the amount. It's almost like a bus line now.
Mark: It's not just new flights, it's new airlines coming on almost every week.
David: These are areas that are actually fairly easily accessible now for somebody who might be going over to Frankfurt or Amsterdam. They can consider any of these to be a three-day trip over to check out at least one of these cities.
Mark: That's very true.
David: OK, thanks a lot. Hopefully we'll talk about this guidebook again with you.
Mark: OK, that would be a pleasure.
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