Tales of travel and adventure in Central Europe

Sorry Moldova, I Tried. I Really Tried

Working as a freelance travel writer for the past seven years, I’ve found that sometimes things just don’t work out, regardless of how hard you try or how good your intentions are. The following post recounts the problems I’ve had this year in convincing travel magazines and websites to consider an article on the Republic of Moldova. It’s both a peek inside the workings of the travel writing industry and an apologia to the folks at USAID for my having failed (so far) to spread the good word on Moldova.

Earlier this year, I heard through the grapevine about a sponsored trip for travel writers to the Republic of Moldova. The program sounded fantastic. We would visit wineries and monasteries and learn about options for travelers to see areas of scenic beauty and to experience genuine Moldovan hospitality via rural home stays and similar. The sponsor was USAID, working through a friendly and thoroughly professional travel consultant named Jack Delf.

The trip would be fully paid for, an arrangement that made it both hard to pass up and nearly equally hard to accept. I came to travel writing via journalism, where travel junkets are frowned upon. The argument goes that if someone is buying your lunch, it’s hard to be objective about the food. I mostly subscribe to this view and, with only two small exceptions, have never taken a freebie as a travel writer. Read More →

Prague’s Expat Writers II: ‘Unnecessary Errors’

Necessary ErrorsThe publication this week of Caleb Crain’s book “Necessary Errors,” which is set in Prague in the early 1990s, gives me a good excuse to reprise my post last week on the contribution of expat writers to Prague’s literary history. There were several omissions (including Crain’s book), which I’d like to rectify here. As it turns out, post-Velvet Revolution Prague more fertile for literary creation than I thought and much more fertile than it’s been given credit for.

I’ll start with Crain’s book, which I haven’t read yet but have now downloaded to my Kindle (and saving for a trip to Greece later this month). On its face, it seems to be the standard variety “wide-eyed expat comes of age in a foreign land” story, though it’s been widely reviewed (and praised) in the United States (so it might actually be pretty good). Here’s a typical review from Vanity Fair. If it does well, it could pave the way for yet more Prague books. Read More →

Prague Literary History: The Expat Contribution

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 1.19.30 PMWith the Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse turning 20 years old this week, it got my mind thinking about all the hype in the 1990s about Prague serving as some kind of literary crucible from which future classics of English literature would emerge. The text here is from an article I wrote a couple of years back on that subject. My angle was that the author community was much maligned at the time but that more than a fair number of good and very good expat writers lived and worked here at some point in their lives and that their Prague experiences affected their output.

I still feel that way now, and the titles that have come out in print since I originally wrote the article only strengthen my case: Matt Welch’s “Myth of a Maverick” (nonfiction), Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” (also nonfiction) and Brendan McNally’s “Germania,” among others. My apologies to anyone I have overlooked in this article. Please help me fill in the blanks by leaving a comment below. A big thanks to Ken Nash, the author of the cartoon in the upper left. He drew it in 1993, showing that Prague was “over” practically from the moment it began. Read More →

‘The Prague Post’ Calls It Quits In Print

notoveryet“Not Over Yet.” The headline of the last print edition of The Prague Post after 22 years reeks of unintended irony or maybe it’s a bit of an inside gag (it wouldn’t be the first time). At any rate, it’s a sad day for English readers in the Czech capital as well as for former staffers, including the author of this website. I was the paper’s first Business Editor, working from 1991 to 1993 at the Post’s tiny offices at Dlouha trida 2 in the center and then for a time at the paper’s second location on Politickych veznu 9, near Wenceslas Square.

At least on one level, the headline is completely accurate. According to a letter circulated this week by owner Monroe Luther, the paper will continue on as a digital-only publication, so in that sense at least the Post really is “not over yet.” It only feels that way. Read More →

The Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse Turns 20

GlobeOpeningPartyThis photo shows the scene 20 years ago this week, when the Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse first opened its doors in Prague’s Holesovice district. I was one of the five original partners and I can remember the details of that long and agonizing summer as we anticipated the opening as if it were yesterday.

The Prague Post published a story this week on the anniversary and plans in early August (August 2 and 3) to hold parties marking the milestone. Here is a link to another story with more details published in 2006. This week’s Post story is comprehensive and I won’t repeat bits here, other than to say it’s hard to believe so much time has gone by and that I feel very fortunate for having been part of the Globe from the very start. Read More →

Welcome and Hope You Enjoy Your Stay!


Just a short post here to welcome readers to CentralEuropeTraveler.com and to invite you to read the posts and leave comments as you like.

I’ve been working on this website off and on for a few months now and rather than continue to build up phantom content for a launch that may never come, I’ve opted for a soft launch and the good intentions to build up content going forward.

The point of the site is to write about the region I live in (Central Europe broadly defined — please see the FAQ) and to draw on seven years of travel and guidebook writing. The topics here will mostly be ones I cannot get editors to pay me for (usually because the topics are too niche and not commercial enough). I hope you’ll find the subjects engaging and also that you’ll feel inspired to suggest topics for future posts.

Not all of the countries and topics in the drop down menus have content at the moment, but I hope to rectify that in the weeks and months to come.

All best,

Mark Baker

A Word on Prague Food and Quick Eats

parek(The following text was adapted from an article I wrote originally for the UK’s Olive magazine. It appeared in print in 2009).

Four decades of communist rule nearly finished off fine dining in Prague. That’s no exaggeration. Restaurant recipes were standardized to the last gram of flour; innovation in the kitchen was stifled. It’s taken time for the dining scene to recover, but the good news is it’s alive and kicking again. Foreign imports like Italian, Mexican and Thai were the first to arrive, and chefs are now rediscovering classic Czech recipes and giving them a modern twist.

Czechs love pork and it forms the basis of many of their best dishes. Dumplings, usually made from flour but occasionally potatoes, make for a reliable side. Add cabbage and you’ve got the national dish: vepřo-knedlo-zelo – roast pork, dumplings and sauerkraut. But look out too for more exotic entrees like duck, rabbit and venison. These can be delicious. Read More →

A Modest Primer on Polish Film

AshesThe following text was adapted from the “Poland In Depth” section of “Frommer’s Best of Poland,” a guidebook I wrote in 2010. You can find a link to purchase the book from Amazon here.

Film is a great (if arguably insufficient) gateway to understanding a culture. While I’m not an expert on Polish film (and please take everything I write here with a grain of salt), I’ve been a big fan of Polish movies ever since I saw classics like ‘Man of Marble’ and ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ at graduate school in the 1980s.

At that time, Poland was mired deep within the Eastern bloc and Polish filmmakers were considered the most daring among the Eastern European countries at exposing the underlying contradictions within communism. Given the historical context, the films struck me as arty and daring. Read More →

I [Heart] Instagram (But Not The Filters)

IG logoI love Instagram. It’s awesome for quickly taking photos on my trips and building mini-communities on the road. I’ve met more people from IG (and had better interactions with them) than with any other chat or social-media application (including Yahoo Messenger, FB and Foursquare). Photographers love to share images and comments, and are usually keen to grab a coffee or a beer if you happen to be visiting their town. IG interactions are intense … and that’s what I love most about this app.

What I don’t like much (or rather use much) are Instagram’s built-in filters. There are a few that I use now and then (such as Earlybird or Sierra), but I find most of the effects to be too strong (like Nashville or Kelvin) or to give the photos too much of an “Instagram” stamp. Instead, I prefer to use separate photo-editing apps that I’ve downloaded from the IOS apps store. Often I use more than one app to edit a photo.

Here’s a quick list of my favorites and a few words about why I like them: Read More →

Meeting Writer Olen Steinhauer In Budapest

SteinhauerThis interview with Budapest-based American author Olen Steinhauer originally appeared in the ‘Wall Street Journal Europe’ in 2008. At the time, Olen was a modestly successful author of a series of thrillers set at various intervals in the Eastern bloc during the communist period. I discovered a couple of his novels one day by accident while scrounging through a bookstore in Vienna and was instantly hooked. This interview covered those Eastern European thrillers. Since our conversation, he’s gone from strength to strength, and is now better known for his ‘Milo Weaver’ books, including ‘The Tourist,’ which became a New York Times bestseller.

The 1989 Revolutions brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, yet among many a feeling of nostalgia persists for those seemingly simpler times. No one seriously wants to turn back the clock, and former Cold War haunts like Prague and Budapest have never looked better, but there is a lingering romance about those spooky pre-’89 days.

American author Olen Steinhauer’s recent series of spy thrillers—all set in a fictionalized East European country during the Cold War—is a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory lane. As you turn the pages (in the comfort of your armchair), you can almost smell the acrid sharpness of an East European cigarette or hear the rapid retort of a two-stroke Trabant being kick-started in the distance. Read More →