Love was a factor, as it often is, but after my first visit I fell in love with the place, too. The constant proximity of wilderness, even in its biggest city, Bratislava, excited me as a nature lover — and the presence within that wilderness of animals that, coming from the UK, seem pretty exciting: bears, wolves, bison…
How does the common image of Slovakia differ from the reality?
I think the problem Slovakia has at the moment is that no one really thinks of it very much at all. Unlike with other, bigger countries, there is no perception, at least not in Western Europe, of what the country is really like. Most of the time people think I'm talking about Slovenia! Part of the reason behind setting up Englishman in Slovakia was to try and promote — or at least inform people about — the real Slovakia. Something of its soul — its history, its wonderful nature, its formidable ruined castles, its rich folklore — was what I wanted to convey to outsiders and first-timers.
How is Slovakia changing?
I have a lot of faith in Slovakia's young people. They are heading up many of Slovakia's most promising, adventurous, entrepreneurial businesses, they are going away from that communist mentality entrenched in the generation above them, drawing on experiences from their own foreign travels. When, in a few years' time, this new generation is in charge of the country I believe it will be an even better place.
As a travel writer, I find my readers are always interested in food. How’s the Slovakian cuisine?
Traditional Slovak food is hearty mountain food — dumplings, sheep's cheese, a lot of meat. But in the cities and even the smaller towns the afore-mentioned young people are spearheading a lot of cool new restaurants specialising in everything from French and British to Middle-Eastern and Asian food. Particularly of note is Slovakia's cool cafe culture: it's not a well-known fact but Bratislava's cafes are now the equal, in terms of the quality of the coffee and even the atmosphere in which you drink it, of anything Vienna can offer.
Having authored and contributed to many guide books, you clearly have a feel for what people are looking for in a great travel experience. What is it?
Authenticity, for me. To have at least one experience on their holiday (and ideally several) that make for great stories — that only they have done. Experiences that perhaps challenge them slightly at the time, but then have a myriad benefits later — because they have come away with something profound and esoteric from their travels. Of course, some (maybe most!) people prefer beaches and big resorts. I don't normally aim my writing at these people, though — because they don't require it. But to truly go off the beaten track, sometimes a helping hand in terms of reliable written information is a great thing.
What’s the single most common mistake people make in planning a trip abroad?
To try and create a bucket list of must-see sights. People try to cram in too much and rush — and each thing they do is watered down in terms of their enjoyment of it as a result.
How has travel changed you?
In a lot of ways. If nothing else, perspective is important. A perspective on the life you left behind to travel. It makes you appreciate all the good things in your life a thousand times more. And makes you aware of ways in which you can make the bad ones better… as a novelist, it has also made my vocabulary wider, and the palette on which I can draw in my writing infinitely more colourful.
What projects are you working on now?
Besides being a travel writer I am a novelist. My first novel, Roebuck, set in 16th-century Brazil, was published in December 2015 and I am now working on my second novel, Song Castle, set in 12th-century Wales. It will be published early in 2018 — watch this space!
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