Discovering “The Hidden Europe”

Quick, name five countries in Eastern Europe!

Poland. Errm, Romania! Czechoslovakia. Wait, is that still a country? Ljubljana, or is that one a city? And uhh, Russia. Yeah, Russia counts. Right?

Truth is most people are confused about what lies outside of what we loosely refer to as Western Europe – myself included. Though I’ve travelled around Europe several times, I’ve only wandered as far east as Berlin, and between a concert and the Love Parade, my day there was a bit of a blur.

I am currently reading Francis Tapon’s new book The Hidden Europe, and it has introduced me to a side of Europe I’ve overlooked until now.

If you haven’t yet heard of him, Francis is a traveller, backpacker, hiker, writer and encyclopaedia on all things Eastern European. He has walked across America four times, has never owned a bed or a TV, and he once backpacked for 45 days without a shower. Yikes!

Well, back in 2004 Francis set a goal for himself: to visit every country in Eastern Europe in six months and see what he could learn. Of course, six months turned out not be enough, so he returned again in 2009 and spent two and a half years learning, revisiting and seeing how the countries had changed. In all, he covered 25 countries stretching from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea.

His approach: to learn everything there is to know about a country from the locals. And where do you find the locals? Well, approaching strangers at a local coffee shop or a McDonald’s seem like good places to start. Yes, Francis has a knack for walking up to people and interviewing them on the spot. In Germany, he approached a man who reluctantly offered to give him 5 minutes of his time, and this evolved into an hour long conversation with the German man offering to show Francis around the city, and drive him to a train station…which was in another country! Yeah, he certainly seems to have a way with people.

What I marvel at when reading about Francis’ travels is that wherever he goes, he usually shows up with a tent on his back and not much of a plan. More often than not, he develops friendships with people on buses or ferries or street corners, and people just invite him over into their homes! Not just for dinner, I mean invitations to spend the night and even join them at their summer cottages. This has made for some great anecdotes as well as some rather risque encounters!

But aside from being a very entertaining read, you can tell a lot of effort and research has been put into this book. The Hidden Europe is more than a travelogue; it is a crash course on Eastern European history, culture, language, economics, politics, religion and yes, even drinking habits. And of course every nation has a claim to being the true inventors of vodka.

The book is organized into chapters that profile one country at a time. At the end of each chapter Francis summarizes what he learned from each country and also suggests things to do and places to see. So whether you’re looking to start planning your own Eastern European adventure or you simply want to explore this hidden Europe via the comforts of your armchair, this book is a great read.

Be sure to check him out! The Hidden Europe comes out in hardcover on December 12, 2011, but is already available as e-book on major websites including Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. You can download the first three chapters for free to get a taste of it!

The Hidden Europe is Francis’ second book, but certainly won’t be his last. Francis is preparing to venture off to Africa in 2012, where he will spend the next few years discovering what Africa can teach us, and perhaps also getting a tan. So keep an eye out for his adventures.

Twitter: @ftapon
Facebook: Francis Tapon


  • Zhu says:

    I must admit I don’t know much about Eastern Europe (much less the correct spelling of some of these countries’ names!). It’s a shame… as a former European, I should definitely explore this part of the world.

    I like the way this guy travels. Locals unvariably offer the best insights on their city and they beat any travel book!

    • thatbackpacker says:

      It’s so true! I’ve made friends with some locals during my travels and gone out to see the city with them, and it’s such a completely different experience. πŸ˜€ I much prefer it to the ‘tourist’ experience.

  • Francis Tapon says:

    Audrey, thank you so much for this excellent review!

    I don’t think I have a gift with dealing with strangers. I think that when travelers approach strangers with a positive spirit, you’ll soon find the locals reciprocating with their own acts of kindness. No matter where you go, most people are good, generous, and kind.

    I’m sure you’ve experienced it wherever you’ve traveled too. πŸ™‚
    Solo female travelers get help and attention more easily than male travelers. The main advantage that men have is that we often feel more comfortable accepting it. πŸ˜‰

    In fact, some might think that being a guy in Eastern Europe is the ultimate test, since Eastern Europeans are often initially distant and skeptical. Still, even there, as you read, locals were consistently helpful, trusting, and generous.

    So I don’t think I have a secret – just be sincere, positive, and generous, and you’ll find strangers being kind in return. The best part: you’ll enrich your travel experience dramatically. Meeting locals often becomes the most memorable experience. πŸ™‚

    P.S. I know you know all this, Audrey. I’m just writing it more for the sake of others to visit your site. πŸ˜‰

    • Francis,
      One warning that people give me about former Eastern Bloc nations is that they are extremely racist towards black people. In your travels, do you think this is true and is it a strong enough warning that I should avoid certain cities if I am traveling alone?

      • Hart,
        That’s an excellent question. I’ll answer it with a few anecdotes:
        1. In Belarus, I met a Nigerian in Minsk. He told me that every few hours police would stop him and ask him for ID and visa and papers. They held him for hours trying to get a bribe out of him – he refused and they eventually let him go.
        2. I met a guy from Chad in Montenegro. He was a center-forward for the soccer team in Montenegro (and before that for a Serbian team). He said he had hardly any racism. He expected more, but said that nearly everyone treated him super well.
        3. In 2010, Piran, Slovenia elected a black guy from Ghana as their mayor. He was the first black mayor in Eastern Europe. They called him “Europe’s Obama.”
        MY ADVICE: Dive fearlessly in the Balkans. Be cautious the further northeast you go (toward Belarus/Russia). You’ll get MANY looks EVERYWHERE you go. Hell, I’ll even stare at you if I see you in Romania, and I’m from San Francisco! However, staring is different than racism. If I go to Africa, people will stare at me in some places, but most won’t bother me beyond that. Go for it.

        • Fidel says:

          Thanks for the reply.
          I’m definitely use to getting stares throughout Asia, but they are curiosity stares, nothing that makes me nervous.
          That is very interesting about the mayor of Piran. I knew I should have stopped there while I was in Italy last year.
          Got your email by the way and finally replied to it.

  • Tonya says:

    Sold. I think this just might be my next read πŸ™‚

  • I keep getting all these hints that I should go to Eastern Europe. Yesterday, the thought occurred to me to go to Poland and Ukraine (I’ll go to Warsaw, Krakow, Lviv and Kiev) for Euro 12. So I started researching the dates and see how it coincides with my deployment schedule. I could go during the knock out stages and then have two weeks left to explore.
    I think I will order his book. I’m looking for ideas, currently thinking of stopping in Berlin, Brastislava, Prague, Vienna, Budapest and possibly Lithuania and Estonia. I’m definitely interested in reading about different places along the way.

    • All those places are safe for a black guy to go, although I wouldn’t walk around alone late at night in Ukraine, if I were you. In a group or along during the day, you’ll be fine. In all the other countries, they’re quite accepting (though curious). They’re especially tolerant in the westernmost parts of Eastern Europe.
      BTW, two white Americans I know got beat up by 4 Russians in Tallinn, Estonia. The Americans were being somewhat provocative, though, so they were being somewhat stupid. The point is that you don’t need to be black to get your ass kicked in Eastern Europe. πŸ˜‰
      You common sense.

  • Mariella says:

    I have no idea how I could have missed that book for so long… it sounds like my kind of a read. I love Eastern Europe. I haven’t travelled much outside of it to be honest. I’ve been to 30 countries, 16 out of which are what is widely considered Eastern Europe – that is not counting Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, they are geographically Eastern Europe, but people perceive them as Western because they weren’t socialist until 1989. It is a beautiful, rich region with so much to offer and I love everyone who will argue that cause, so thanks, Francis! πŸ™‚ and Audrey for bringing the book to everyone’s attention.
    Mariella recently posted..Vukovar – a lesser known take on the Balkan WarsMy Profile

  • What I like about Eastern Europe is that you can get some great landmarks just for you, even during the high season. Also, I like to call Eastern Europe the exotic part of Europe. And there is so much diversity, so many languages and so many different cultures that traveling around this area is very fun and attractive.
    Covinnus Travel recently posted..Hello Romania!My Profile

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