Category Archives: Cultural Travel

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Guide Book Vagabond – Tom Brosnahan

I was excited this week to get a chance to interview Tom Brosnahan. I was introduced to Tom’s work through his book Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea  (if you haven’t read it, I recommend it – fun, informative and a great travel read) – his book led me to find his incredible website Turkey Travel Planner (which, by the way is the most important resource you will find if you plan on taking a trip to Turkey).

Tom is an old school travel writer, guide book author – the kind that went to the destination, walked all the streets, drew the map if there wasn’t one, learned the language, and checked all the prices – and what is incredibly cool, is that he is also a pioneer of the new school of travel writing and online guides.

Here are some excerpts from his bio at the site :

Tom Brosnahan is a veteran guidebook author, travel writer and photographer, and consultant on travel information to companies and government agencies. He has written over 40 guidebooks for Berlitz, Frommer’s and Lonely Planet covering Belize, Canada, Egypt, England, France, Guatemala, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New England, Tunisia and Turkey, with nearly four million copies in print worldwide in more than 10 languages. He’s also written a memoir about Turkey, travel, and travel writing: Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea.

He has been a Contributing Editor to Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine, and has had many articles and photographs published in leading periodicals including Travel and Leisure, The New York Times, theDaily Telegraph (London), Chicago Tribune, New YorkDaily News, BBC World, Journeys, Odyssey, Travel Life, and TWA Ambassador.

He is the founder of the Travel Info Exchange andTurkey Travel Planner websites, and many more travel resource sites. Tom has appeared on Good Morning America, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Anthem, The Connection, and on the Travel Channel and has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, the American Turkish Council, and other organizations.

He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and a co-founder and faculty member emeritus of the SATW Institute for Travel Writing and Photography. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with his wife Jane A Fisher.

Vagobond: You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in travel, in your opinion, what are some of the major pitfalls that lurk waiting for a travel writer?

Tom Brosnahan: The biggest is not judging a project accurately. Too many travel writers end up losing money and subsidizing publishers because they aren’t careful estimating the time and work in a project, and determining if it will be profitable.

Vagobond: In Bright Sun, Strong Tea, I remember laughing out loud when the neighbor giril in Izmir tried to corner you for a smooch – what other dangers have you narrowly avoided in your travels?

Tom Brosnahan: I play it safe—I’m not a war correspondent! But I’ve been chased by suspected terrorists in eastern Turkey, had rocks thrown at my car in Palestine, heard bombs go off in Jerusalem, been shaken down by guerillas in Chiapas, been in traffic accidents in Istanbul and Bangkok. But really, most travel is safe. Scary headlines rarely portray the situation each traveler will encounter, so I go in slow, and decide how far I can go safely.

Vagobond: There’s no arguing that travel has changed dramatically since the dawn of the information age – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed, both for the positive and for the negative?

Tom Brosnahan: Guidebooks have been used—and useful—since Roman times, but it can take up to a year to publish and distribute a paper guidebook, and with the Internet I can publish my work immediately, to the entire world, for next to nothing, forever! It’s apotheosis for a travel writer. Travelers now have far more, and better information than ever before, and that’s good for everyone. If there’s a negative, it’s that there’s simply too much information. Finding what you want can be tedious.

Vagobond: You and I share a love of Turkey – at the moment there are some pretty big changes going on in Turkish society – where do you think those changes will lead?

Tom Brosnahan:Turkey’s modern history is amazing: a torpid medieval empire remade into a vibrant modern free-enterprise democracy in less than a century. Turkey is now the economic powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean, and a living example of democracy for other countries in the region. Especially in the past 20 years the change has been bewildering for many Turks. A young woman whose grandmother may have been in a harem can now pilot a jetliner. Hardscrabble life on the farm has yielded to glitzy ultramodern shopping malls. Such rapid change is difficult for people to absorb, but greater education, information and prosperity are forces for peace.

Vagobond: Like you, Istanbul feels like my second home, but you’ve spent a lot more time there than I have – can you toss some hidden destinations/experiences my way that I may have missed?

Tom Brosnahan: Visit the imperial ‘kasr’s, tiny palaces built for the sultan’s excursions. Get yourself invited to the “sema” (religious observance) of a dervish order (and not just the Mevlevi, or whirling, dervishes). Seek out the Roman aqueducts in the forests west and north of Istanbul. Witness the opening of the Galata Bridge in the middle of the night. Climb to the top of a minaret for the view.

Vagobond: Some of my Turkish friends in Istanbul have this particular form of national profiling – when they look at an American – they tend to just see the carpet they expect them to buy. What are some other ‘profiles’ you’ve encountered of both Americans on one side and Turks on the other?

Tom Brosnahan:Some years ago, Turkish tourist guides were asked by a major newspaper to describe each national type. It was hilarious:

Americans: friendly, interested, big tippers
Arab: three good meals daily and nothing else matters
British: scorpions in their pockets—you’ll never get a tip
German: so well informed, they’ll have to show you they know more than you do. And if there’s no beer there, don’t even stop the bus.
Israeli: always drama, dispute, tempest in a teacup

Vagobond: You’ve traveled to a lot of other places than Turkey – could you share some highlights with our readers?

Tom Brosnahan: I wrote for decades on Mexico & Central America. I’d drive from Boston and put 11,000 miles on the car. Mexico alone has the topographic, ethnic and linguistic diversity of all of Europe. Egypt: I hadn’t planned to go there, then I was asked by Berlitz to write a guide, now I believe every traveler must see Egypt. Norway: beautiful, friendly, peaceful. Expensive but worth it. If the world ever needs a capital city, it had better be Paris. As for France, it’s actually a whole bunch of little countries sharing a common border. Finally, I love New England. Did you know we have dozens of wineries here?

Vagobond: What are three pieces of advice for travelers that are often overlooked?

Tom Brosnahan:1. Cheap or expensive? Whether it’s a hotel, a meal, a guided tour, or a souvenir, the devil is in the details. Be sure you’re comparing the same things. A $100 hotel room in Istanbul includes all taxes and service charges, and a big buffet breakfast. A $100 hotel room in New York includes none of these, and taxes can add 17% to your bill. A $35 meal in Boston will be subject to 5.5% tax and 15% to 20& tip. A $35 meal in Paris costs exactly that.

  1. Safe or deangerous? Look more closely, and judge accordingly. The most horrendous terrorist attacks in recent times took place not in Kabul or Beirut or Cairo, but in New York City, London and Madrid.

  2. Concentrate on transportation: it may not be what you’re used to. It may be better to take a bus than a flight or rental car. It may be much farther than you think. Transport could be one of your greatest costs, overall.

Vagobond: It seems that you’ve adopted the web as your primary ‘publisher’ – as a geek who primarily does the same – I just love that. What were some of the factors that led to this? Was it a positive move? Do you think there is a future in writing for print?

Tom Brosnahan: I did well with guidebooks for 35 years, but then the pay went down while the work and responsibility went up. It was clear those trends would continue. It was also clear the Web was the information medium of the future: immediate publication, worldwide, virtually for free.

It has worked far better than I imagined. Instead of 75,000 readers in dozen countries per year I have nearly 7 million readers in 235 countries. And I’m earning far more than I ever did with print.
The paper codex (“book”) has been a useful medium since Gutenberg and will continue to be useful in a smaller way. But writing for print has little future. The publishers think they need to keep all the money.

Vagobond: What’s the best way for a travel writer to figure out what their audience is looking for?

Tom Brosnahan: Be in contact with them. Ask for comments. Set up an online forum. Talk to them on the road. Explore the statistics from your Web presence. There will be surprisess.

Find more of Tom’s work and guides at Travel Info Exchange and Turkey Travel Planner

Fortress in Nis, Serbia

Nis Fortress – 2000 Year Old Fortifications

Before I leave Serbia (actaully, I already have) I want to give a quick impression of Nis which is the first stop from Sofia, Bulgaria when you enter Serbia by bus and in my case, was also the last stop before I left for Skopje, Macedonia (also by bus).

Fortress in NisAs the bus pulled into Nis the first time, I was surprised and pleased to see that there were Vietnamese Pho restaurants, when I came back to Nis and went to get some Pho, what I found was that it’s a type of Serbian restaurant. So, don’t go looking for Vietnamese food in Serbia!

It is one of the oldest cities in the Balkans, and has from ancient times been considered a gateway between the East and the West. The Paleo-Balkan Thracians were formed in the Iron Age, of which the Triballians dwelled in this region with a Celtic invasion in 279 BC that resulted in the forming of the Scordisci tribe.

Fortress in Nis, SerbiaI stayed at a pretty decent little hostel in Nis. One thing I learned while I was in Serbia was that hostel and hotel owners are required to write reports on their guests each day and then encrypt them and send them to the police. The obsession with spying in Serbia comes from being guilty of spying on each other. I had one Serbian friend tell me that in his opinion more than half of all Serbs were police informants! In general, Serbs go through life either under surveillance or thinking they are under surveillance and when it comes down to it, there isn’t much difference. This bit of information helps to explain why many Serbs automatically assume any American or Brit is probably a spy…because apparently half of all Serbs are!

Anyway, back to the hostel. I will be writing about some of the hostels I’ve stayed at and recommend in the coming months (including this one).

The owner suggested that in addition to visiting the Tower of Skulls and the Red Cross Concentration Camp that I also pay a visit ot the Nis Fortress. I took a stroll around the fortress and got a few nice pictures but the most beautiful thing there was the Turkish Mosque which was obviously out of commission since Serbia in my experience is not exactly Muslim friendly.

Nis River in SerbiaNiš is the birthplace of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor and the founder of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

I didn’t visit the log cabin Constantine was born in or see the cherry tree he cut down as a boy. Niš is also the possible location of Nysa, a mythical place in Greek mythology where the young god Dionysus was raised but I didn’t go out to the clubs with the French guy who stayed at the hostel, probably because he said “You should come with me, Serbian girls give you sex just because they like your passport.” I imagined how my wife would view me going out after that and decided to pass on the opportunity. Instead, I went out and ate a traditional Nis meal of ribs and cold potatoes. Not really the same thing, but I think the wife will be happy to know it.

During the day there were plenty of young people in the park who seemed to be ditching school and a few old timers walking around with canes, presumable to protect themselves from the idle youngsters.

As usual, wikipedia does a nice job of presenting the historical background of the Nis Fortress.

Niš Fortress is a fortress in the city of Niš, Serbia. It is a complex and very important cultural and historical monument. It rises on the right bank of the Nišava River, and is over two millennia old.

The extant fortification is of Turkish origin, dating from the first decades of the 18th century (1719–1723). It is well-known as one of the most significant and best preserved monuments of this kind in the mid-Balkans. The Fortress was erected on the site of earlier fortifications – the ancient Roman, Byzantine, and later yet Mediaeval forts.

Turkish Mosque in Nis Serbia
The mosque is inside the Nis Fortress

The Fortress has a polygonal ground plan, eight bastion terraces and four massive gates. It stretches over 22 ha of land. The rampart walls are 2,100 m long, 8 m high and 3 m thick on the average. The building stone, brought from the nearby quarries, was hewn into rather evenly-shaped blocks. The inside ofhe rampart wall was additionally fortified by a wooden construction, santra?, and an additional bulwark, trpanac. On the outside, the Fortress was surrounded by a wide moat, whose northern part has been preserved to our days. Beside the massive stone rampart walls, the southern Stambol gate and the western Belgrade gate are pretty well preserved. Partly preserved are the water gates, while there are only remains of the northern Vidin gate and the south-east Jagodina gate. With a complete reconstruction of all the gates, Niš Fortress would once again become, architecturally and functionally, a closed fortification system. Far into the fortress, there is a weather station, that provides forecasts for the city of Niš.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”