Travel writers versus travel bloggers – does anyone really care?
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — For some time now, travel writers and bloggers have been debating about the relative merits of their chosen platforms. Bloggers claim that the immediacy of their posts, often written from the road, give readers a sense that they’re traveling along.
Some traditional travel scribes — and by that I mean writers who go on a trip, take notes and pictures, do research, then go home and write a story that appears in a magazine or newspaper a few months later — apparently feel that at least some travel blogs are under-reported, in the sense that they lack context. In some of these online debates, I’ve also seen some travel editors claim that some of the most popular travel bloggers don’t convey a sense of place, that they make they make the story all about themselves.
Although I’ve dabbled in travel blogging, I’d have to agree with at least part of that argument. At least a few of the bloggers who bill themselves as successfully making a career from their travel postings seem to think that the whole world revolves around them. The writing is pedestrian at best, sometimes includes egregious mistakes, and the photography often is somewhere around the level of what you might find in a family snapshot album, or worse.
In defense, bloggers have responded that personality is everything, and that their readers expect them to inject themselves and their subjective opinions into the story; whether they back up those opinions with any other views or facts seems irrelevant to them. And — who knows — judging by the number of people following their blogs and tweets they may be right.
To me, the discussion has become tiresome. It would be better if some of the writers involved expended as much time and energy on actually traveling and writing good stories as they do on this debate, because I really don’t think readers care all that much. They’re just looking for good stories that give a bit of inspiration or some useful travel advice.
As I see it, the two forms aren’t really that different. Because of the downsizing in the magazine and newspaper industry, some travel writers and editors have become, by necessity, travel bloggers. Many of the best travel writers pursue both forms, using blogs as online journals and then mining those entries for feature story material later. That’s the direction I think things are going, and I believe that both the writers and readers will ultimately benefit.
Here’s a list of a few travel writers and bloggers I check in with from time to time. Read some of them and make up your own mind.
Chris Gray Faust was, until recently, the travel editor for USA Today. Now she maintains a travel blog at Chris Around The World.
Spud Hilton is the travel editor of the San Franciso Chronicle and also writes the Bad Latitude travel blog.
Matt Kepnes, recently interviewed in the New York Times, finances his round-the-world travels with his travel blog, NomadicMatt.com.
Robert Fitzsimmons is Englishman who is also traveling around the world and providing travel information via his blog, AdventureRob.com.
Blogging from the road
I delved into the world of real-time travel blogging during a recent trip through France, Italy Greece and Albania. As Leigh and rode trains, buses and ferries in the region, I enjoyed writing short posts about what we were seeing and doing, sometimes typed on the tiny keypad of my Blackberry while squeezed into the lower berth of six-passenger sleeper car on a train, or in the back of leaky Albanian bus.
I definitely used the blog posts as an electronic diary and later went back through some of them as seed material for longer stories with a bit added research and context.
Here are a few examples.
In Corfu, Greece, we ended wandering off the tourist path and into a local’s shopping district. Sitting at a cafe, I quickly typed the following:
Somehow, a small miracle happened in downtown Corfu. Thousands of sparrows flocked to the shelter of the trees along the main street. I’d tell you the name but I haven’t yet found the Greek characters on my smart phone. Not smart enough.
But we have learned to say please – parakolo – and think you – efkharisto – and that the frothy milk drink we crave is a Nescafe frappe, in other words, an instant coffee milkshake.
As we order up at the sidewalk cafe, the birds all start to sing at once. They manage to drown out the incessant roar and beeping for a few minutes in a triumphant symphony of chirps.
Wandering up along the ramparts of Corfu’s new fortress at dusk, we’re alone with few bats that fly out of a dark cleft in the old stone walls. Our footsteps echo in the tunnel and I turn around, half expecting to see the ghost of a Venetian soldier or merchant, slightly disappointed that it’s only my own shadow. Back in town, down the alley, the shop windows are full salted fish, vacuum cleaner, hair dryers and toys. I think we wandered off the tourist path and into something approaching the “real” Corfu.
During our flight back from Europe, we spiffed up an airline salad with some leftovers from our travels. It ended up looking so good that I snapped a quick shot with my camera phone and wrote this:
On the flight home from our most recent trek through France, Italy, Greece and Albania, we decide to spruce up the on-board meal with a few bits and pieces left over from the trip.
When the flight crew brings the cellophane-covered tray, we break out the picnic: Olives from southern France and Albania, hard feta cheese from Corfu and hard-boiled eggs that were part of picnic lunch packed by the kind innkeepers at Kelemi House hotel in Gjirokastra.
One of the flight attendants walks by later to pick up the trays, but we’re still savoring the flavors of the Mediterranean.
“Hey, that’s not a United salad. It looks a lot better,” she says with a smile.
We nod in agreement. Nothing against airline food per se, but the astringent olives, the pungent cheese and creamy, farm-fresh yolk of the egg are powerful reminders of all we’ve seen and done along the way.
Now, if we can only figure out a way to smuggle that pomegranate through customs!
On the way from Milano to Munich, our train stopped at the Brenner Pass in the Alps, the former border between Italy and Austria. I had just finished reading a German newspaper story about a former French soccer star who wants to use sports as a tool for diplomacy:
At Europe’s continental divide at the crest of the Alps, the old signs marking the border between Italy and Austria seem almost quaint in the “new Europe.”
This particular border was disputed for centuries. In the 1800s, Tyrolian patriot and folk hero Andreas Hofer assembled an army of mountain farmers and defeated an advancing Napoleon near the Bergisel, site of Olympic ski jumping contests in 1964 and 1976.
During WWI, Austrian and Italian mountain troops used artillery to trigger avalanches, killing thousands of soldiers.
But today, the old border crossing station has been turned into a shopping center and gas station. Under a pan-Eyropean security umbrella, the South Tyrol region enjoys a semi-autonomous status as part of the Italian republic and local mountain culture is flourishing.
Most European competition these days takes place on sport fields and even in that arena, cooperation is the norm.
Just this past week, former French football star Michel Platini (now head of UEFA, the European football federation) attended a match with leaders of Armenia and Turkey, a clear symbol that he believes sport can help transcend ancient animosities.
And Platini also wants to address some European soccer’s economic inequities by limiting the amount of money clubs can spend on buying players.
The recent trend has been for multi-billionaire owners to buy star players at any cost. Platini wants clubs to cap their spending. They shouldn’t be allowed to spend more than they can earn through ticket sales and TV contracts, Platini argues, trying to level the playing field for larger and smaller teams.
The croissant legend
And shortly after enjoying a creamy espresso and chocolate-filled croissant, I tried to add a little flavor to this blog by speculating on the history of the crescent-shaped pasty:
Coffee, espresso and cappuccinos are done well all around the Mediterranean and the Balkans, sit was no surprise to get this delicious combo in a spiffy coffee shop in the middle of the slightly seedy harbor district in Vlore.
Not seedy as in dangerous – in fact all of Albania felt as safe as could be – but seedy in the sense of scamming taxi drivers and vendors selling tickets for phantom boats at inflated prices.
Our slight brush with this came as we carried our backpacks toward customs. A guy in an official-looking bright orange vest steered toward the maze and then gestured to us that we should put our packs down on a bench while the border guards examined our passports. He seemed to be suggesting that he would guard them for us while we dealt with the formalities, kind of like those guys on some tropical beaches who offer to watch your stuff while you swim, with the implication that they’ll steal it if you don’t hire them. Our man in Albania wanted a couple of Euro for his troubles.
Vlore is seedy in a good way, as all harbor towns should be, and it’s definitely a crossroads for Southeastern Europe. Our Italian-style cappuccino and croissant represented that intermingling of cultures. As a certified coffee freak, I love a country where most cafes offer both Italian-style espresso-based drinks and thick-brewed Turkish coffee.
Legend has it the famed pastry was invented by a baker in Budapest to commemorate a victory over Ottoman invaders — thus the crescent shape. Food historians say they can conclusively disprove this story based on painstaking research of historic recipes, but it’s a fun tale nonetheless.
The dark, chocolate-filled croissants in Vlore didn’t have much of that classic crescent shape that symbolizes the near-eastern Orient (think Turkish flag), but they were so good that we bought a couple of extras to go for the long ferry ride, munching them on deck as we watched the forested mountains of Albania’s western shoreline fade into the hazy ocean mists.