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his website will inspire you to wander & learn. I'm a Harvard MBA who left the tech world in 2006 to pursue a more fulfilling mission: visit every country in the world and share their unique lessons with whoever gives a crap. First-time visitors: start with the best articles!

Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America by Francis Tapon. This is the dust jacket cover of the hardcover book.The Hidden Europe by Francis TaponI've written Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. I've walked across America four times and visited over 80 countries. I'm the first guy to yo-yo the Continental Divide Trail. I also thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail southbound. I've walked across Spain twice. In 2008-2011, I traveled in Eastern Europe and wrote my second book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. I'm currently on a 4-year trip to visit all 54 countries in Africa. Find out where I am now!

 

Francis has been covered on... New York TimesSan Francisco ChronicleThe Washington PostLA Times LogoChicago Tribune LogoTEDxRick Steves radio logoLogo for KQED's Forum with Michael KrasnyBacpacker Magazine The Great OutdoorsKKSR Newstalk 910 LogoPractical BacpackingBacpacking Ligh National Geographic New Mexico magazine BootsnAll MercuryNewsHarvard Buisness School

The Hidden Europe book trailer

 

 

Francis Tapon's "Dream of Traveling the World" video

Slovakia

Where to go in Slovakia

Places I saw and recommend in Slovakia: High Tatras, Bratislava, and Košice.

Bratislava. Photo by Brian Colson on Flickr.

Bratislava

Bratislava is the best border town in the world. That's not saying much, since most border towns are as attractive as a fat, hairy man in a Speedo.

However, Bratislava is grand—it's one of the four elegant European capitals on the Danube River (the others are Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade). From its outskirts, you can easily bike to Austria or Hungary.

Slovakia is such a mountainous country that Bratislava feels out of place, resting on a large, flat plain. Moreover, its rich, sophisticated architecture contrasts sharply with Slovakia's rustic mountain towns.

Founded in 907, Bratislava boomed under Austrian rule, and today it has about half a million residents.

After strolling through the pedestrian zone and admiring the Hodžovo nám (Center Square), you can check out the Bratislavký Hrad (Bratislava's castle) on the west side of the Danube.

Bratislava. Photo by Renata Janosova. Photo modified in Photoshop.
Bratislava with some photoshopping. 

Bratislava with the castle in background. Photo by Antonio Caselli.

This text is an excerpt from The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. Listen to the podcast on Slovakia and read my 2004 blog post on Slovakia about stupidities in Slovakia.

Last Updated on Monday, 24 October 2011 10:05
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Czechia

Where to go in Czechia

St. Moritz Cathedral in Olomouc

Places I saw and recommend in Czech Republic: Prague, České Budějovice, Český Krumlov, Olomouc, and Brno.

The Czech Republic should be called Czechia

Many countries have long, flamboyant names. One the worst offenders is The United States of America. What a mouthful! Fortunately, we have shorter versions (USA or America).

Other countries with long-winded names have a short alternative: The People’s Republic of China (China or PRC), The Russian Federation (Russia), and The Republic of Moldova (Moldova).

Unfortunately, the Czech Republic hasn’t popularized a catchy word to call itself. In an effort to promote one, we’ll use the best candidate: Czechia.

That way, when someone asks, “Where are you going?” or “What country makes the best beer?” you can say, Czechia, instead of the Czech Republic.

Vaclvske Nam in Olomouc

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 October 2011 21:28
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Eastern Germany

Where to go in Eastern Germany

Places I saw and recommend in eastern Germany: Berlin and Dresden.

Exploring Frankfurt an der Oder

Church in Frankfurt on der OderAfter our conversation, I thanked Veit [a stern/formal East German] and stepped away to pack my things. However, before I could leave the McDonald’s, he approached me and said, “Bad veather today. I show you around. I have car. Come.”

What a transformation! He had started so cold and unfriendly, now he’s offering to take me on a tour of the town! When we got into his car, I noticed it was an Opel. That’s a General Motors brand. “You’re German and you’re driving an American car?” I blurted out before being able to censor my thoughts.

Ja, but zis is a joint venture between GM and Germany,” he said, as if that excused him of his transgression.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 October 2013 10:34
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Poland

Emila Los

Where to go in Poland

Places I saw and recommend in Poland: Kraków (including side trips to Oświęcim-Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine), Gdańsk, Poznań, Wrocław, and the High Tatras Mountain Range.

Gdansk, Poland

It was February 19, 2009 and I was freezing my ass off. It was 10 p.m. in the Gdańsk train station and I was scanning all the bundled people trying to recognize my 24-year-old couchsurfing host, Emilia Łoś. I had seen her smiling photo on her couchsurfing profile, but people don't always look like their photos, especially when they're wearing 17 layers.

Suddenly, Emilia appeared with a big, warm smile and she gave me a hug. I'm not sure if she hugged me because she felt comfortable with me or because she was also freezing. Despite all her clothes, it was obvious that she was skinny, so it's probably because she was cold. Emilia exuded simplicity: her clothes were plain, her soft brown eyes had no makeup, and her straight brown hair was short enough to be manageable, yet feminine. She had a gray birthmark on her right cheek that was easy to get accustomed to. Her most obvious feature, however, was her positive spirit. She giggled and bounced around in a pleasant and endearing way. By the time we arrived to her apartment, I had already concluded, "It's impossible not to love Emilia."

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 20:01
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Belarus

Where to go in Belarus

Places I saw and recommend in Belarus: Minsk, Brest, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Entering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Broken doll in Belarus photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro

My Belarusian friends knew that I wanted to inhale radioactive air. Therefore, the next day Mikhail, Dimitri’s father, offered to drive Irina and me into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Although the Chernobyl reactor was in Ukraine, it was just 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Belarus border. Since most of the radioactive plume blew onto Belarus, most of the contaminated Zone is in Belarus. The military was guarding all the entrances. Nobody could enter unless you had family ties in the zone. In 2004, it was illegal for any foreigner to enter the zone (Ukraine opened their side of the zone to tourists in 2011). Therefore, Mikhail was taking a big risk in trying to sneak me in.

As we approached the checkpoint, Mikhail told me not to open my mouth. He will tell the guard that we’re visiting relatives. Since he lives just 40 kilometers from the zone, it’s a believable story. The guard examined Mikhail’s documents. Then he looked at me. I stopped breathing.

The guard barked out a question in Russian. I had no clue what he was asking. My lips began to part, as I thought about something to say in Russian.

Last Updated on Friday, 06 April 2012 23:35
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Outdoor Adventures Index

Those who know me and/or have read Hike Your Own Hike might expect that my latest book, The Hidden Europe, is packed with Eastern European outdoor adventure stories.Francis Tapon hiking in snow-covered Rhodopes Mountains in Bulgaria

It's not.

Although I love the outdoors and I did have many outdoor adventures in Eastern Europe, it's not the main focus of the book. In fact, such tales make up 5% of the book.

What's the other 95%? 

It's filled with stories about the history, people, language, food, and drinking habits of Eastern Europeans. It examines how they see themselves and how they see their neighbors and the world. It captures the culture of 25 Eastern European countries in 25 chapters. It's a travelogue that ends each chapter with some of the best practices of each country. The Hidden Europe is more about people than nature.

But what if you just want to find where all the adventurous, outdoorsy parts of the book are? What if you just want to read about me nearly dying on a mountain or overturning a canoe? Here are your Cliff Notes . . . .

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 12:24
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Reviews and endorsements

This page is dedicated to the kind people who have endorsed and/or reviewed The Hidden Europe. Endorsements are usually short blurbs, while a review is a longer analysis. If you have reviewed the book and would like it to appear here, then  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

Endorsements

"The Hidden Europe is an invigorating narrative packed with useful tips and colorful stories. . . . It's an entertaining summary of his observations on spending time in each of the 25 different countries in the eastern half of the continent. . . . I had so much fun reading through this book. And it covers every country and every corner of Eastern Europe with a beautiful breezy style, with a fun, intimate report on how Francis enjoyed 3 years exploring Eastern Europe." Rick Steves, Travel Expert

“Francis Tapon provides us with a wide-ranging personal and historical travelogue. . . . The result is one of the world's most personal, idiosyncratic, and unorthodox cultural and historical travel guide.  It's really an impressive and ambitious book.” — Michael Krasny, Host on KQED's Forum

The Hidden Europe book cover

“Francis Tapon is a modern incarnate of the spirit of Solon or Pericles: he travels to foreign countries to watch things, for the sake of contemplation. And he does it with an extremely sharp eye and lot of wit. The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is not only the book of the year; it also sets the twenty-first century’s standard for travelogues.” — Flórián Farkas, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Eurasian Studies

The Hidden Europe is a brilliant and insightful book. Francis Tapon travels for years visiting every Eastern European at least twice. What emerges is a travelogue on steroids. It’s profound, but has a light tone. You’ll learn much and laugh often.” — Amar Bhidé, Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

“Francis Tapon analyzes Eastern European economies, politics, and history on the one hand, and then he’ll share his linguistics woes and truly unusual escapades on the other. Somehow it all works, like a carefully (and often funny!) assembled jigsaw puzzle.” — Adrian Mihai Cioroianu, Ph.D., former Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs

“Francis Tapon is the master of taking highly complex issues about Eastern Europe and making them easy to understand and enjoyable to read. The Hidden Europe is a competition between profound insights and devilish humor. Either way, the reader wins.” — Marco Iansiti, Harvard Business School professor

“Francis Tapon is a modern-day Marco Polo, though unlike Marco Polo he has taken a nude sauna with a gorgeous Finnish woman. So maybe even a little better than Marco Polo. His book The Hidden Europe is a great adventure story.” — AJ Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy

"I thoroughly enjoyed the reading The Hidden Europe. I am American-born and have lived in Romania and Eastern Europe for the past 18 years. Throughout my years in Eastern Europe, I have witnessed a variety of hilarious anecdotes that I believed no one back home would ever believe. Francis has put to paper of host stories from his travels that will validate what I have always wanted to write about myself. Eastern Europe remains a misunderstood region, with beautiful tourist destinations and unexplored potential. For those thinking of traveling in the region, this is a must-read book before you board the flight." — Radu Florescu, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi (Romania)

“This is the indispensable book for understanding Eastern Europe today as the area is on the verge of integrating into and perhaps overtaking Western Europe. With wit and perception, Francis Tapon takes you on a wonderful journey.” — Peter Stansky, Professor of History, Stanford University

“They say a book teaches its readers as much about the subject matter as it does about its author, and Francis Tapon turns out to be an outstanding subject well worthy of study. His open minded attitude towards other countries and deep cultural immersions gives him unparalleled insights into each country he visits, making this one of the best travelogues I have ever read. With The Hidden Europe, Francis has earned the right to belly up to the bar with Marco Polo.”  P. Murali Doraiswamy, Professor, Duke University

“In an age where travel books are increasingly about the latest homogenized fads, Francis Tapon reminds us of the stark differences between mere tourism and real travel. Combining sharp wit with casual style, he has produced a charming and insightful portrait of a swath of Europe still defining itself, and brings to life the large identities of small places.” — Parag Khanna, author of The Second World and How to Run the World

The Hidden Europe reveals a side of Europe that few know well. The book is entertaining and instructive. You may think you know Europe, but this book will change your perspective forever.” — Neven Borak, Adviser to the Governor of the Bank of Slovenia and author of How the Yugoslav Economy Worked and How It Collapsed

“Francis Tapon is the next Bill Bryson! Tapon’s WanderLearn Series should be called the LaughLearn Series: it’s funny and educational.” — Lawrence J. Leigh, Visiting Professor at the University of Belgrade

"This a wonderful journey through post-communist Europe and if you feel daunted by the number of countries to cover, you could not wish for a more capable guide to make it worthwhile, enjoyable and fun. With light hearted humour, Tapon introduces salient facts and memorable quirks of politics and culture that you will not only remember but wish to sample and explore for yourself." - Liliana Pop, Author of Democratising Capitalism: The Political Economy of Post-communist Transformations in Romania, 1989-2001

The Hidden Europe combines insightful analysis with a fascinating travelogue. It serves as a supplementary travel book for the serious tourist and it makes the reader think. It is a good read.” — Neil Mitchell, Senior Lawyer for the Center for International Legal Studies in Salzburg, Austria

The Hidden Europe is the kind of book you wish you had in school—it presents facts in a fun and unforgettable way. Learning has never been so entertaining!” — Bruce Ward, President, ChooseOutdoors.org

“Whereas some consider a three-week vacation long, Francis travels for three years! The Hidden Europe cleverly shares the inevitable wisdom and insights that comes with a long voyage.” — Laurie Bagley, Author of Summit!

“Francis Tapon is a rare person. He’s an adventurer who has visited much of the world, a student of history and culture who learns through first-hand experience, and a teacher who finds life lessons everywhere he goes. The countries of Eastern Europe, which I visited in the 1990s, aren’t among the more glamorous travel destinations, but are absolutely fascinating. Francis has brilliantly captured their essence in this highly readable, illuminating, and entertaining book. I enthusiastically recommend it.” — Hal Urban, Author of Life’s Greatest Lessons

Last Updated on Saturday, 31 August 2013 06:12
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Wordles and word clouds

The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us has 330,600 words. That's a lot. It's a 736-page book.

To save you the trouble of reading all 330,600 words, I've selected the 300 most common words and created wordles or word-clouds. The images on this page graphically depict the frequency of words in The Hidden Europe. These wordles ignore common words like a, the, that, and, this. The bigger the word, the more often it appears in the book.

Mouse over each image to enlarge it. Every image depicts the exact same data. The only difference is the formating. The proportion of the words are identical in each word cloud.

Below I'll explain my thoughts about expected and surprising results....

The Hidden Europe wordle 1  The Hidden Europe wordle 2

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 12:25
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Map of Eastern Europe

Right when you open The Hidden Europe book, you'll see the color map below. If you're wondering why certain countries like Finland, Greece, Turkey, and several Central European countries are placed in this map of Eastern Europe, then you need to read how I define Eastern Europe

You can download a medium-resolution version of this map. I'll be selling a high-resolution version at my shop.

Move your mouse over image

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 October 2012 08:55
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Where is Eastern Europe and what countries are in it

Eastern Europe in 1945Asking, “Where is Eastern Europe?” seems as stupid as asking, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” Obviously, Eastern Europe is in the eastern part of Europe. However, where to draw that line is extremely controversial. Indeed, it’s hard to find two people who agree on which countries are in Eastern Europe.

Back in the good old Cold War days, defining Eastern Europe was easy: it was made up of all those losers who were on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain (mouse over the map on the right). Eastern Europe had those backward, communist countries which were frozen in the Stone Age.

Because the world had such a low opinion of Eastern Europe, nowadays nobody wants to admit that they live there. For example, let’s just look at the Baltic countries. I’ve met Estonians who assert that they are in Northern Europe, Latvians who proclaim that they are in Central Europe, and Lithuanians who argue that they are in Western Europe!

If you were to believe everyone you talked to, you would conclude that Eastern Europe just doesn’t exist! When pressed, Eastern Europeans admit that Eastern Europe exists, but they all believe that the region starts just east of whatever country they happen to live in. I like this definition. My father was French, so Eastern Europe, for me, starts in Germany. Sorry, Germans.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 October 2013 08:54
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Latvia

Where to go in Latvia

Places I saw and recommend in Latvia: Rīga, Cēsis, Gauja National Park, Turaida Museum Reserve, and the secluded beaches near Liepaja.

History etched in Rīga’s buildingsRiga's Black Cat

Rīga is one of those towns that give you a sore neck. It’s hard not to spend the whole time craning your neck to scrutinize every intricately sculptured church. In fact, every building is a work of art. If you know where to look, you’ll see Rīga’s famous whimsical melnais kaķis (black cat) on the top of an elegant yellow building. Inviting alleys, cobblestoned streets, and quaint cafés are everywhere. Rīga prides itself as being the jewel of the Baltic. In 2014, it will serve as The European Capital of Culture—a perfect choice.

There’s something to learn from every building. For example, from the mighty Daugava River you can see three steeples dominating the Rīga’s skyline. Built in 1211, the Doma Baznīca (Dome Basilica) is still the biggest cathedral in the Baltic. It had the largest pipe organ in the world in 1884. UNESCO recognized Rīga’s new town (which isn’t that new) as showing off some of the finest examples of Art Nouveau. Gargoyles, goblins, and ghouls seem to watch you wherever you go. St. Peter’s Church is an 800-year-old Gothic masterpiece. The Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square) has the colorful House of the Blackheads, which was built in 1344 and recently had a fresh makeover. It’s seems like an important building, but it’s just where the Blackheads, a guild of unmarried foreign merchants, hooked up with chicks hundreds of years ago.

The Blackheads had another good tradition a few centuries ago that, unfortunately, has gone away. When a Latvian joined a guild, they started out as a tradesman. After spending three to five years as an apprentice, Latvians would travel for three to four years. After those years of wandering, they returned to make a masterpiece in their area of expertise. If the masterpiece was noteworthy, then the apprentice would be accepted into the guild. It’s a pity we don’t do this today. Our educational system underestimates how much young people learn by traveling.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 12:27
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