Hidden Europe: five questions, five answers

I first discovered hidden europe in mid-2011, admiring the ethos, voice, and style of the magazine, which touts: “Welcome to hidden europe. We promise a fresh perspective on well trodden trails, and a cool look at undiscovered corners.”

I sent over a few questions by e-mail to the magazine’s founders and editors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, the two Berlin-based women behind the organization.

CF: How did the magazine get started? How do you get the word out?

NG: Looking back a few years, I’d say Susanne and I were struck how the world of travel is all glitz and gloss, too wrapped up in the experience of the traveller. At least, that’s the impression you get from the travel industry and from the majority of travel publications. Our own experience of travel was so very different, much more rooted in communities. It was quieter, gentler. So we launched hidden europe as an antidote to modern mainstream travel writing. And it’s worked. We concentrate on the everyday and fleshes out the life of real people in real places. It is a sad truth that much of the travel pages in magazines are nowadays merely advertisements in disguise.

SK: Often a very feeble disguise, if I may say so. And that is one of the things you will not find in our magazine: advertising. For us it is important to write quietly about a place as opposed to taunting promo slogans. We are a niche publication, but one with an extremely loyal readership in about 30 countries. In our writing, we seek to recover the simplicity that underpinned some of best travel writing of yesteryear. And it is that style together with an eclectic mix of topics that our readers enjoy. I’d say our subscribers are the best PR we have, but we also reach out with our regular e-brief, called ‘Letter from Europe’, and have a modest presence on twitter (@hiddenEurope). And our work is widely quoted.

CF: Are you guys really self-sufficient? What are your day jobs? How much time are you able to devote to the magazine?

SK: We are a small editorial bureau. hidden europe magazine is one part of a portfolio of things we do, though certainly the one for which we are best known. Of course we do a fair amount of travelling both for the magazine and other projects. We rely on a mixed portfolio of work: writing, editing, consultancy. Travel is part of our jobs, but in truth being a successful travel writer is 90 percent writing and 10 percent travel.

NG: We also write for various print and online media. These past twelve months our material has been featured in publications from northern Norway to Ukraine. And we have a good relationship with Thomas Cook Publishing, for whose best-selling guidebook — Europe by Rail — we are responsible. We have also taken other projects on board, like last year’s Bus-Pass Britain title for Bradt Travel Guides. So, yes, we are self-sufficient. But make no mistake. We both work formidably hard. It’s not all fun.

CF: What’s been the most hidden-est place that you’ve been to in 2011?

NG: Well, Karelia was a highlight in 2011. While we were travelling on the trail of Orthodox spirituality on the Finnish side of the Russian-Finnish border we came to a place called Ilomantsi. It is a small town on a lakeshore and we stayed over night in the town’s sanatorium which is a bit like staying in a hospital. Given the preponderance of less healthy inmates, it made us feel virtuously healthy.

SK: But the real gem there was meeting Father Jannis, the Orthodox priest who serves that remote community in Ilomantsi. He is Greek, but had studied in Finland, marrying a local woman and adding Finnish to his impressive portfolio of languages. He was wonderfully welcoming, even to the extent that he spontaneously switched from Finnish to English during the Great Vespers on Saturday evening to make his English-speaking guests feel welcome. I remember that we went to Mendin’s Kebab and Pizzeria later that evening. I guess for Berliners a kebab imparts a feeling of home.

NG: And we had another memorable journey to Tetovo in Macedonia last year, where we met Abdulmuttalip Bekiri, the presiding Dervish in Tetovo. Wherever we go, we really take time to seek out lesser known communities. Tetovo was really a fine moment. It came as a happy antidote to some less memorable episodes as we travelled through Macedonia. I still shiver when I think of the horrendously cold monastery where we stayed on the shores of Lake Ohrid right by the Albanian border.

CF: How can people apply the “hidden” ethos to their own backyard, or wherever they are that’s not Europe?

SK: What a good question. ‘Hidden’ is a state of mind. When travelling, divert from the main road and check out the byways. When arriving at a small place, go to a café, sit down and let the world go by. In a nutshell, adapt what we might call the principles of slow travel. hidden europe magazine is very much about slow travel, about deceleration rather than speed. The key to slow travel is a state of mind — and that can be developed anywhere, even at home. We published our “Manifesto for Slow Travel” three years ago in hidden europe magazine. It has since been picked up more widely, online as well as in other print media. If you are interested, you can read that text online on our website.

CF: What place are you most excited about discovering in 2012?

NG: We are very much looking forward to visiting San Marino next month, a tiny country that strangely enough neither of us has ever been to. It’s a curious relic of Napoleon’s romp through central Italy, a little geopolitical oddity. Just the sort of quirky spot that’s calculated to appeal to hidden europe.

SK: But it is not just about discovering new places. Sometimes there’s real pleasure in revisiting routes and places that have featured on earlier itineraries. In the week before Easter, we are going to take the Bernina railway from Tirano (in Italy) over to St. Moritz in Switzerland. This is a fabulous route. Last time we rode the train from north to south, and that was captured in a feature for hidden europe. This time we shall take the Bernina from south to north: a different direction, and surely a very different experience. On a more adventurous note, we are looking forward to making tracks for Russia again.

One Reply to “Hidden Europe: five questions, five answers”

  1. I didn’t know about magazine before picking the title of my book, which called “The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. However, I’m thrilled that our views are in such agreement, especially:

    a) Their love for going to hidden places in Europe.

    b) Doing it slowly – I spent over 3 years traveling all over Eastern Europe before writing my book on the region.

    I wish them success!

    Francis Tapon

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