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.
If There’s a Story, I Want to Tell It
But the reasons for accepting were compelling in the end and I decided to apply. Although I had written several guidebooks on Romania, I had never been to Moldova and really wanted to go. Besides, I told myself, if there genuinely was something interesting to see there, I wanted to help spread the word. I had heard the typical travel take on Moldova (poor, isolated, not much to see) and felt it had to be unfair and one-sided.
First, the good news: Yes, this typical view of Moldova really is one-sided and unfair. It’s a lovely country, filled with amazing food and wine and incredibly friendly and helpful people. And now the bad news: I simply couldn’t find anyone to listen once I got back.
Before leaving I tried to lay the groundwork for my return by writing to editors I had worked with in the past at top-flight publications I thought might be willing to take a flyer on Moldova. For me, this meant National Geographic Traveler, Wanderlust, Lonely Planet (lp.com) and the BBC (bbc.com). I had written for all them and had a good working relationship with the editors.
Polite Interest But Not Much Buzz
All initially expressed polite interest in a Moldova article and offered well wishes for a good trip. In the world of travel writing, this means little in practice. It’s a big world out there and editors understandably have a sharp eye for commissioning stories that will maximize readership, clicks, buzz, and ad revenue. Moldova gets around 10,000 foreign visitors a year. That’s not much buzz.
The trip itself was eye-opening. We spent the first few days in the capital, Chisinau, exploring a budding restaurant and cafe scene, with enough cultural sights and museums to fill the days and clubs and pubs to round out the evenings. We used the capital as a base to explore the Cricova winery, with its 70 miles of underground limestone caves (seemingly enough storage space to hold every bottle of wine on the planet).
We also made side trips to the Chateau Vartely winery in Orhei and the Purcari winery in the south of the country to sample local vintages made from the indigenous fetească albă grape as well truly excellent stabs at more common European varietals like cabernets, merlots and pinots. Here’s a great overview article on Moldovan wine written by my Lonely Planet colleague Leif Pettersen (who somehow did manage to land a story out of this trip).
To get a flavor of the countryside, we overnighted north of the capital near Orheiul Vechi, with its impossibly scenic overlook over a bend in the Raut river and precious subterranean cave monastery, run by a lone monk who apparently spends his days in solitary prayer.
Folk Music and Mămăligă
We stayed at the remote, wood-beamed Pensiunea Butuceni, where we lounged around to traditional Moldovan folk music in the afternoon and spent the evening making bread and the traditional cornmeal mush, mămăligă. It was exactly the kind of authentic, relaxing, one-of-a-kind rural home stay that increasing numbers of American and European travelers are looking for.
On another day we time-travelled back to the Soviet Union to sample the unique atmosphere and architecture of the separatist enclave of Transnistria, which has yet to embark on any meaningful post-Soviet transformation more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After being warned about the possibility of encountering stern proto-Stalinists and Leninists running around the streets of the capital, Tiraspol, what we found instead was a bright, sunny, Disneyfied version of the old Soviet Union, where surviving Lenin statues provided little more than kitsch backdrops for photos sure to elicit oohs and ahhs from the folks back home.
That sealed it, I reckoned. With the food, wine, friendly faces, dramatic backdrops, monasteries, Lenin and mămăligă, Moldova can’t miss. It’s unlikely to ever rival Paris or Rome as Europe’s biggest tourist draw, but to the right Lonely Planet-toting backpacker, that traveler so valued by National Geographic Traveler, a person with real wanderlust, Moldova would make a perfect destination.
Suffice it to say, I was unprepared for the tepid response I received once I finally gathered up my material and made my formal story pitches. I had decided to focus on the wine, the homestays and Transnistria, and I would help travelers to discover a country they may never have heard of before.
Without going into detail (and removing the names of the publications and editors, which is not the point of this post anyway), this is a sample of the responses:
* “Many thanks for your submission [on Moldova]. After carefully reviewing we regret to tell you that we are unfortunately unable to use it on this occasion. We have a very full year planner and your idea just does not fit in with it.”
* “Sorry about [not being able to run your Moldova stories], and hope you find a home for these pieces as they would definitely have been of interest otherwise.”
* “Brought [your Moldova pitches] up at last week’s edit meeting but some of us had heard an NPR story just this past week on how Moldova has a serious TB epidemic going on right now (is this true?) So we thought we’d hold off on Moldova for now.”
In the end, not one publication expressed a real interest in Moldova.
It’s not that I can’t see their point. Editors and publishers have to make choices in the best interests of their organizations, and often that means simply saying no (even to good ideas). It’s just that every once in a while, I’d love to be surprised to find an editor willing to think outside the box and build interest in a subject or destination that goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. (And no, Moldova does not have a TB epidemic. Here’s a link to the NPR story in question; sadly, the reporter appears to have exaggerated the threat to get his story on the air).
So, to Moldova, my sincerest apologies. You were spoofed by the guidebook parody Molvania, unfairly savaged by the book “The Geography of Bliss” (otherwise a pretty good read), and now tainted with TB by no less than the earnest people at National Public Radio. Getting the word out on how genuinely friendly, pretty and fascinating you are is going to be a tough sell.