Monday, 31 December 2012

Best Travel Photos of 2012 Twitter Competition: the shortlist

Recently we asked our Twitter followers at @lonelyplanet to share their Best Travel Photos of 2012 with us. We know our followers come from all corners of the world and like to visit the most varied destinations, and this was clearly reflected in the submissions to the contest. We had some truly inspiring entries, ranging from the Himalayan peaks to the backstreet of a South American metropolis. The jury is still deliberating on the winning entry, but we wanted to share the shortlist with you. In no particular order, here are the entries we’ve liked best:

1. @LindaUmar

















We will be announcing the winner very soon, so stay tuned to our Twitter account. Good luck!

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I Heart My City: Persephone’s Gouda

Longtime expat Persephone Abbott was drawn to Gouda because of its beauty and its location in the Green Heart of Holland. Though her trade as a musician takes her all over the Netherlands, she enjoys getting to know the ins and outs of Gouda with her dog and fellow researcher, Fritzi, and writing about what she finds on her blog. In 2011, Persephone teamed up with photographer Vinita Salomé to The Bee’s Tour of Gouda, a walking guidebook that explores Dutch history and culture.

Check out a few of Persephone’s favorite things about the city made famous by cheese, then add your own:

Gouda Is My City

The Gouda Stadhuis decorated for Christmas. (Photograph by Geoff Coupe, Flickr)

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is the market square. After walking through the small and busy shopping streets around or behind Gouda’s market square, the feeling of finding yourself suddenly with a wide open space in front of you is both breathtaking and a bit disorientating. Once you adjust your perspective, you can take in the medieval town hall and cheese weighing station.

December is one of the best times to visit my city because of the famous tradition of Candle Night on the second Tuesday of this winter month. The city hall and all the houses circling the market square are illuminated with candles to create a cheerful and festive sphere for the start of the holiday season.

You can see my city best by foot or bike. You can rent one at the bicycle shop on the back side of the train station.

The best places to buy authentic, local souvenirs (i.e. GOUDA) are Lekker Gouds on the market square or ’t Kaaswinkeltje on the Lange Tiendeweg.  But here’s a secret for big time epicureans: the nearby town of Woerden specializes in the finest of Dutch gourmet cheeses, and the factory of Wijngaard Kaas gives special tours and tasting of their very fine products.

Come to 't Kaaswinkeltje for a wide variety of cheeses. (Photograph by Arjan Almekinders, Flickr)

For an unusual Gouda experience, the gourmet chocolate shop Puur offers cheese and chocolate aficionados a unique “combination” bonbon among other very fine chocolates. Gouda is also known for its caramel biscuits (stroopwafels). Numerous bakeries in town sell them in packages, and behind the five and dime (Hema) you can buy individual ones that can be warmed up for you while you wait.

In the past, notable people like the 15th-century philosopher Erasmus have called my city home. Behind the St. Janskerk church, a statue, produced by a die-hard Dutch communist sculptor, honors the tolerant Catholic intellectual.

Stained glass at St. Janskerk. (Photograph by Rupert Ganzer, Flickr)

My city’s best museum is not a museum in the traditional sense: the glorious stained glass windows of St. Janskerk. Hardly any of these windows remain in Dutch churches because of the wave of iconoclastic fury that came over many parts of Holland. Not only does Gouda still have all of the windows, but the windows themselves are a magnificent pictorial history of the turbulent times of the 16th century that led to the birth of the country that you now know as Holland. The audio tour is excellent. Tip: Don’t go on Sunday, the church is closed to tourists.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is the historic city center. However the lakes surrounding the north of the area (a ten-minute bike ride from the city center) have small and fairly empty roads to bike or walk on, and in one corner you’ll find a bird sanctuary.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they drop the “t’s” on ends of words (in Dutch, that is).

For a fancy night out, I head to one of the restaurants in the city center. De Mallemolen offers traditional Dutch fare with a fantastic gourmet touch and Brunel never fails to please.

The cheese weighing station. (Photograph by Vinita Salomé)

My city is known for being very Protestant and for having a “back water” attitude, but it’s really an evolving melting pot of Holland. (Gouda itself, though, at times has a hard time accepting this fact.)

The best outdoor market in my city is on market square on Saturdays (all day) and Thursdays mornings. And it’s typically Dutch; besides the fish/flower/cheese market stalls, a carillon (or two) plays, and often a large street organ is out to serenade the public.

The Hema is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Kamphuizen (in front of the fish market) or Zalm (on the market square) are the spots for late-night eats.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I take a walk along the dike to the watch the river ebb and flow.

A canal in Gouda.(Photograph by Michelle Herzog, Flickr)

To escape the crowds, I come to Gouda. Friends from abroad who have traveled to the Netherlands with children especially enjoyed their time here. Some have confessed to me even more so than Amsterdam!

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Katharine Hepburn because though Gouda has that air of Puritanism, it also has a whiff of the unconventional and is a real class act.

The spa on Lange Groenendaal Street is my favorite building in town because it’s built by the celebrated Dutch Art Deco architect, Willem Marinus Dudok, and it’s just been renovated!

The most random thing about my city is the free trial products. Gouda often has brand-name companies handing out free mini items to the public, though I often wonder where Gouda sits on the spectrum of testers.

Ignoring the political trends and turning a blind eye to national change could only happen in my city, sometimes to the despair of the local population.

Aerial view of Gouda's old city center. (Photograph by Jeroen Mul, Flickr)

In the spring you should walk the cobblestones of the city center and sample to the ice-cream available on the market square.

In the summer you should bike around the fields and lakes, swatting at the little flies.

In the fall you should drink hot chocolate and eat marzipan in the form of pink sausage slices.

In the winter you should skate on the canals, spinning around the braziers that illuminate the ice.

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Shadow of Your Smile,” because it reminds me of the market square and all the former glory of Gouda still on show for us today.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the carillon on the side of the city hall (it chimes twice an hour), or taking family photos in the museum garden among all the statues and bits of masonry!

The best book about my city is… in English? Well, I might be biased and say our own! It’s called The Bee’s Tour of Gouda, Buzzing Through Vinita’s Lens.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because it’s a very Dutch place, unlike cosmopolitan Amsterdam, yet has all the vestiges of having been a wealthy well-placed city, like Amsterdam.

Learn more about Persephone and Vinita on their blog and on Facebook.

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Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, 20 years (and a child) later

When we bought our 1992 edition of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring to start making travel plans, there was no Internet. No social media, no hostel booking sites, no Thorn Tree, no TripAdvisor. Not even Hotmail.

When we saved enough and packed up that guidebook, my girlfriend and I put everything in storage and hit the road for a year. For that first trip, both our planning and our travels depended heavily on a book that many travellers referred to as ‘the bible’. Travelling through multiple countries without it was extremely difficult.

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring then and now, 1992 and 2012

That original guidebook still included Hong Kong and Macau, but Vang Vieng wasn’t even listed for Laos. The cover was amateurish and inside there’s not a top-10 or ‘best of’ list in sight. A prominent request at the front of the book asks for letters of clarification from travellers, promising a free guidebook for the most helpful ones.

We carried travelers’ checks and lots of $100 bills stashed in hidden places. ATMs were a novelty still in much of Southeast Asia. Our guidebook said, ‘Money sent by telegraphic transfer should reach you in a couple of days.’

Sometimes we scored a terrific deal thanks to our guidebook’s advice. Other times the recommended guesthouse had gone downhill or our shoestring budget led us to a real hovel. With no online feedback, reputations good and bad took time to spread.

After getting warmed up all over Thailand, we traveled by train to eastern Malaysia. After Kota Bharu, we chilled on the blissfully rustic Perhentian Islands back before the word was out, checking in at Abdul’s Chalets, the place our guidebook listed as ‘the quietest and one of the best places to stay.’ We paid $4.80 a night double, with an oceanfront view from our verandah.

We made our way through Malaysia to Singapore and across Indonesia to Lombok before circling back to Thailand and flying west to Nepal. Along the way, our trusty book led us to $3 motorbike rentals, great $1.50 meals, and the occasional travel agency that could be trusted. It also clued us in on how to get a driver for the day for $5 without also getting caught in a gem scam.

The author and then-girlfriend Donna at the top of Mt Merapi, Java (top), and after a batik class, Yogyakarta (bottom), 1994. Photo: Tim Leffel.

In the summer of 2012 we went back to Asia—that girlfriend turned wife and I—but taking along the daughter born 11 years ago. This time we had a vacation budget and a youngster’s attention span to factor in. Twenty years ago our budget was $20 a day for two after flights. This time we were aiming for $150 a day for three. We’d gotten older and a litter wiser. Had we also gotten a bit, well, softer? We would see: for old time’s sake we packed the latest edition of the old standby, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.

Comparing the old book to the new, many things were cheaper then, but not all of them. Back then, it cost a staggering $120 to visit Angkor Wat – if you could manage to make it there. With almost no hotels to choose from in the midst of a civil war, the few budget doubles in Siem Reap were listed from $12 to $30.

Fast forward to 2012 and the world has changed as much as we have. We headed out for a three week trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam packing tools and information that were unthinkable back then. We had apps with maps, booking services in the palm of our hand, and the ability to see what other travelers we’d never met experienced at any hotel we’d want to visit. We could log in from any computer and find train schedules. Now we could, with a few taps and a credit card, book a double room at one of 50 hotels in Siem Reap, Cambodia listed for under $30 a night.

Part of the fun of looking back at that original trip is the differences of course, but it’s kind of comforting to return and recognize the essential elements that haven’t changed. The street food is still as varied, the markets are just as frantic, and the bargains are still as prevalent no matter what your budget may be. And here’s a journal entry from Chiang Mai in 1994 that could have been written yesterday:

‘Sidewalks are not meant for pedestrians. Sidewalks are a place to park your car, leave your motorbike, sell vegetables, set up a food stall, store your merchandise—anything more productive than walking from place to place.’

We appreciated our guidebook’s background info on the Grand Palace of Bangkok, the best parts of Angkor, the royal tombs of Hue, and the old city of Hanoi. We had apps for that, but they always felt more like a brochure than a resource: too brief, too fragmented, with no narrative flow. Like us though, LP guidebooks have changed and grown up too. They have gotten wise to feeding readers what they want (like itineraries and highlights) and have figured out how to appeal to a wider audience, including families.

We used our book daily, especially for maps, but things were different now for us vacationing parents and their child. Looking at accommodation recommendations 20 years later, we felt…old. We’ll pass on that fan-cooled room with a shared cold-water shower for $7 a night, thank you. We’ll take the hotel with air-con and a private bath with nice towels.

Like Lonely Planet, two decades later we’ve grown up, gotten wiser, and yes, perhaps gotten a little softer.

Alina, Donna and Tim Leffel at the Silom Thai Cooking School, 2012. Photo: Tim Leffel.

Tim Leffel is author of ‘The World’s Cheapest Destinations‘ and editor of, home to monthly travel stories from book authors on the move.

Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a shoestring – all grown up but still the definitive guide to budget travel in Southeast Asia.

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One Delicious Reason to Visit San Francisco Now

‘Tis the season…for Dungeness crab in San Francisco!

Many of my friends in the city have told me it isn’t Christmas without crab. When you’re talking local, sustainable seafood, this delicacy tops the list this time of year (Seafood Watch has given the crabs a rating of “Best Choice“).

Crab fishermen taking off for the day. (Photograph by Steve McFarland, Flickr)

The well-trafficked Fisherman’s Wharf area holds an annual crab fest in December and January and February are prime time for all-you-can-eat crab charity dinners and fundraisers.

But the beloved and much-anticipated season almost didn’t happen at all. When fish brokers threatened to cut the price of crab, it set off an eleven-day strike, with boats in the ports of San Francisco, Bodega Bay, and Half Moon Bay refusing to budge. When the opposing parties finally reached a compromise last week, the boats sailed.

Though it was a close call, crab season is back on track and poised to make many people smile this winter.

Here are the best places to take part in the Dungeness crab tradition in San Francisco:

When I polled my friends in Northern California about the best crab spots in the city, Swan Oyster Depot came up time and again (along with a caveat about the long wait). This year marks their 100th year in business, and they’re not going anywhere soon. It’s tiny (they have only 12 bar stools), but the lip-smacking array of fresh-as-can-be oysters, crab, shrimp and chowders on offer makes Swan soooo worth waiting in line.

Nettie’s Crab Shack in the Marina boasts that “local crabs are better than ever,” and is serving a warm Dungeness crab roll and a Cobb Louis salad with Dungeness crab, avocado, beets, and egg. They also serve nostalgic desserts like butterscotch pudding and warm apple and pear crisp.

A heap of Dungeness crabs. (Photograph courtesy San Francisco Travel Association)

At One Market restaurant in the Embarcadero District, Chef Mark Dommen always features Dungeness meat in crab cakes and in a salad, currently one with green papaya, pomelo segments, peanuts, and micro cilantro. To ensure optimal taste and freshness, they purchase live crabs every day and cook and clean them at the restaurant.

Anchor and Hope, another favorite, claims to be an East-Coast-meets-West-Coast fish house. Housed in a turn-of-the-century warehouse — with a little grit on the brick exterior and with a modern studio feel on the inside — its setting is just plain cool.

I don’t ever need convincing to go to San Francisco. But this time of year, I admit I’d just go for the crab.

But while I’m at it, here are a few other festive things on tap around town:

Part of the sugar castle display at the Westin St. Francis.(Photograph by Niall Kennedy, Flickr)

When you think of cities with that quintessential holiday feel, San Francisco doesn’t necessarily come to mind. But the city really does deck itself out.

“You can experience all the joys of the season without the cold weather,” says Bill Sutton, chief concierge at the InterContinental San Francisco. ” We have ice-skating rinks, holiday trees, a Dickens fair, and San Francisco’s own traditional holiday meal of cold cracked Dungeness crab, sourdough bread, and a nice California Chardonnay.”

San Francisco also hosts a few of my theater favorites, like “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “A Christmas Carol,” but you can’t leave the city without paying a visit to the Westin St. Francis to see its annual sugar castle, topping out at 12 feet tall, and decorated with top names we know from 2012, like politicians, celebrities, and athletes.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.

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Free download: Lonely Planet’s new Northern Honshū (Tōhoku) chapter

In the last 18 months, Japan’s enchanting northern Honshu (Tohoku) region has rebounded swiftly from the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Lonely Planet has been back to cover every corner of the region during its revitalization.

As Tokyo-based author Rebecca Milner wrote in her recent article on, Tohoku is very open for travel. And for much of the region, the sudden absence of tourists added insult to injury. In an effort to support the region’s tourism industry and local communities, and to deliver on our ongoing promise to provide quality, up-to-date travel information to Japan, we’re providing the new, post-tsunami-researched and fully updated Tohoku chapter now for free as a digital download (PDF).

This chapter was researched and written by Rebecca Milner in October 2012, and is destined for the 13th edition of our best-selling Japan travel guide, to be published in 2013, but you can download it now:

Get the free Tohoku chapter here.

If you have a copy of Lonely Planet’s current Japan travel guide (12th ed), please print this PDF and fold it inside your book to have the most recent information. Or if you have a competitor’s guidebook or no guidebook at all – well, print it or carry it with you on your e-reader anyway! It’s a gift from us to you.

As with any of our guidebooks, if you find anything with which you disagree, or if there are other Tohoku sights/eateries/hot springs/transport details/etc that you think travelers should know about, we’d love to hear about them! Send us your tips, feedback and updates through our Guidebook Feedback page. Happy travels!

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November 1, 2012, 1:00 PM  |  Comments (91)  |  Permalink

As our final episode of NO RESERVATIONS approaches, I’ve been asked to write a top ten list of personal favorites.  That’s hard to do. It’s been a mixed bag—and deliberately so.  Travel and food shows necessarily tell more or less the same story:  somebody goes someplace, eats and drinks a lot of stuff, comes to some kind of conclusion (rightly or wrongly) then goes home.  My partners and I—a rotating band of cinematographers,  producers, editors and post production people—have worked very hard over the years to mess with, expand,  undermine and subvert that basic narrative and the conventions that go with it.  Sometimes we succeeded.

In a 140 episodes of NO RESERVATIONS, there have certainly been shows that I regard as failures.  Some, like PUERTO RICO, were entirely our fault—where through bad choices, inadequate preparation, sheer lack of understanding of our subject, we ended up giving short shrift to a place that deserved better.  GREECE was a disappointment.  CHARLESTON overlooked the amazing Sean Brock, probably the most important (then still emerging) phenomenon in the South—who was, unforgivably, literally right under our noises during the whole shoot.

The weak SOUTH PACIFIC and MARQUESAS show was the result of pure bad luck. One scene after another went by without anything useful or compelling recorded. One day after another passed with each intended scene turning out to be something other than what we’d hoped. Two full days where nothing worked.  That we were able to cobble together shows at all in cases like these was always a triumph of great camera work and great editing (technique) over content. Sometimes it was a close run thing.

Responsibility for some failures rested entirely on me. They sucked because I sucked. BERLIN should have been a good show: great producer, great shooters, great fixers, great city. But for no good reason at all, I just wasn’t “into it.” And the show reflected my unhappiness and my unwillingness at the time to even try.  The disastrous AT THE TABLE—a lunatic attempt at a one-off talk show format—was an absolute shit-show. I’m obviously no good at a talk show format—and clearly shouldn’t have tried.  Bad idea. Wrong host. Bad show. When you let down a lot of talented people who work their asses off to make you look good—there’s a price. In my case it was appropriately universal revulsion.

Some disastrous shoots, through the sheer weight of misadventure turned out, like SICILY, to be good shows. Though not in the way we intended.  The scenes that were supposed to be “great” ended badly—but the ones for which we had low expectations (the caper farmers in Pantelleria) became magically real, spontaneous and fun.  ICELAND was certainly improved rather than hurt by running into a blinding blizzard—and a general overlay of depression and darkness.  A near life – ending rollover on an ATV in NEW ZEALAND, however uncomfortable for me, became instant comedy gold.

Maybe the best single example of this was the ROMANIA show, where absolutely everything was ****ed up beyond all hope or recognition: wrong fixer (the inexplicably addled Zamir), unfriendly populace,  officials looking for backhanders,  and guides with other agendas who did their best (in the hope of portraying their country in a desirable light) to ensure that absolutely every genuine moment was quickly  smothered under a thick scrim of artificiality, falsehood and staginess.  It was a nightmare to shoot. An utter failure on all our parts—and yet it became a timeless classic of Travel Gone Wrong—unintentionally hilarious. It may have made all of us Public Enemies in Romania (and the subject of scandal and speculation in their national press)—and it may have been terribly unfair to the country and to the many Romanian expats who tuned in, looking to see something beautiful of their beloved homeland…

But it was an accurately gonzo—if unflattering– account of what it’s like to make an utter failure of a show,  a masterpiece of incompetence on our part—and misguided good (and bad) intentions on the part of some of our hosts.  It was at the same time our greatest failure as professional travel and food television producers—and our greatest success as technicians—and absurdists. We might never be able to repay the good  people of Romania for our offenses against their national pride; but no small number of them recognized at least the worst of their country.  I can assure you, by the way, that what we DIDN’T and could NEVER have included in the show, would have been even more painfully hilarious. To this day, in the hours after a shooting day, veteran crew members sit in hotel lobbies around the world, and tell the young ones about what really happened there.

But, of course, there were bright spots too. Shows of which I will always be proud.  Favorites, both personal and professional where everything (or most things) came together.

HONG KONG, particularly the scene where a third generation noodle maker practices his craft, rocking painfully and disfiguringly on his bamboo pole under the faded photos of his parents encompassed everything I believe to be good and true about people  who choose to make food the very best they can.  It was a beautifully shot and edited sequence– one of our very best. If our show is principally in the business of celebrating cooks—wherever they may cook—and in whatever circumstances—then this was as good an example of our work as we could ask for.

VENICE was where we were really hitting a golden period for cinematography I think.  Using film lenses and adhering to a stylebook shamelessly  lifted from works like DON’T LOOK NOW and COMFORT OF STRANGERS, we’d do things like wake up very early in the morning to shoot in Piazza San Marco—intending to make the usually crowded Venice look empty and haunted.  It’s an example of a show that came out just as we’d planned, looked and sounded like we wanted it to , and it also had the advantage of being  filled with great characters and food. A lot of attention was paid to color balances (in scenes like the painter’s studio) and to the music and it  paid off big time.

I’m happy with all our VIET NAM shows—probably because I’m always so ludicrously happy to be there.  I could just watch the B-roll from those shows all day.  Everybody who works on the show seems to feel the same way.  It’s a good place to work, a good place to eat. A good place to be.

MONTANA.  Which opens with the great American author and poet, Jim Harrison reading from his work would have been a proud achievement for that alone: Jim Harrison is in it. That’s enough.  But it’s also where I started to look at those parts of America so different than my own—cowboy country, gun country, red-state, Palin bumper sticker America , with  a genuine  affection I’d previously only felt for Vietnamese and South Americans and Europeans. Like the Asian rice farmers and ex-guerillas I tend to over-romanticize , the cattle ranchers and hunters I met there, though as far from me on the political spectrum as could be, were caring, generous and proud too. I started to feel—and hope I captured—the beauty of their lives –and what a lot of us who live in the bubble of big city, East Coast America are missing—not just about these places, but  the people who live there. .

SARDINIA was a risky show, because it was so personal, and I had a whole new Italian/Sardinian family looking over my shoulder—and more perilously—I had chosen to include my wife. I anticipated some angry blowback from fans. But my wife’s father’s family in the mountain towns of that incredibly beautiful island were the best “fixers” any one could have hoped for. The cinematography was incredible. And the editors, in spite of the fact that I was sitting in their laps for much of the cut and making their lives miserable, responded with a beautiful and heartfelt love letter to what is for most people an unfamiliar culture.  Warm and fuzzy and family friendly  was NOT what fans of the show had been led to expect of me. But I was grateful for the opportunity to be a Dad on camera.  It paid off in a good story and good show—and as an honest reflection of the facts.

ROME Is probably my favorite show of all of them. My proudest achievement. Why” Because it was so suicidally stupid. Because no one wanted it. Because everybody thought it was a bad idea to do a show in Rome—that most beautiful and colorful of cities—in black and white.

As a purely creative enterprise, we did it anyway, shamelessly and very painstakingly doing the exact opposite of what we had established we were good at: Instead of run and gun hand held cameras and fast editing, we shot stationary, with film lenses. Instead of no lighting and barely acceptable sound, we lit as if in a studio, made frequent use of subtitles. Instead of wearing whatever clothes were clean that day, I, for the first and only time,  actually bought wardrobe.  Shamelessly aping films like LA DOLCE VITA and L’AVENTURRA—which we were pretty sure few of our audience had ever seen, we  tried to paint a nostalgic, romantic, heavily stylized ode to another side of Rome. It was the most self indulgent, deliberately reckless venture to date and it looks gorgeous. We fully expected to be pilloried for it. But we didn’t care. In the end, it was shocking to us that so many people ended up appreciating it.  As a hand crafted labor of love, I think it stands alone, a testament to all the incredibly talented people who worked on it.  It all started in a hotel lobby, with cameraman Zach Zamboni suggesting that  he and his colleagues were “so damn good we can make food porn in black and white”.  The question that always hung over the planning of every episode being, “What’s the most ****ed up thing we can do?”

EL BULLI . It was the most important restaurant in the world—in its last days.  And the greatest culinary artist of this or last century, Ferran Adria,  had agreed to open his life and his kitchen to us. So it was important to get it right. We threw everything we had at it. Every camera, every technical innovation—every creative idea we could come up with. We got the right guy—the best guy– Jose Andres—to come along and show us, through personal reminisces, what it all meant—and why it was important. We tried to show where the brothers Adria came from,  give a sense of the relentless wind on the coast of Catalonia—and what effect that might have on a person, day after day, night after night in a (then) mostly empty restaurant in the middle of nowhere. And we captured a precise moment in history that will never happen again.  Everybody who worked on the show felt enormous responsibility to our  subjects—and brought their very best game.  EL BULLI is gone. But the show we made depicts a Ferran, a menu, a never-to-happen-again establishment—as they were.

The pig slaughter and boucherie in the CAJUN COUNTRY show is a personal favorite.  It starts with a prayer. And it’s a scene I’m most grateful to the network for—for leaving it alone.  Pretty disturbing stuff to see a pig shot close-up to the brain. It’s ugly, and painful. But that’s what happens when you take a life for your dinner.  And somebody, somewhere does—every time you order a pork chop.  The beauty AND the ugliness of a meat we all love and take for granted was nicely delineated, I think—a savage slaughter, a lot of blood—and a community coming together, cooperating in an enterprise that was both joyful and a sacrament of sorts.  It showed where dinner comes from—and what it requires—and also, what it can be.  We always work extra hard whenever we shoot in New Orleans or Louisiana—to do right by them—as they have been egregiously failed by so many others. That’s always foremost in our minds when we visit.  Also, we love the place ferociously.

CLEVELAND: Harvey Pekar. Harvey Pekar.  We wanted to celebrate and step inside the life of Cleveland’s greatest chronicler in the style of AMERICAN SPLENDOR.  It took a lot of work and pre-production to do that. But I’m very proud of the result. Not least because I believe so fervently that the late, great Pekar was a uniquely American, wonderful and important man whose life deserves celebrating and remembering.   Ruhlman, Michael Symon, Marky Ramone and the entire extended Pekar family made it a very special hour ,  and in many ways, shows what we did best—cover ground nobody else does with genuine affection and respect for subject.  We worked very closely with Pekar’s longtime artist Gary Dumm to be able to “step inside” frames of a graphic novel—and were lucky enough to arrive in Cleveland in the middle of a snowstorm, a factor that (in spite of what some local boosters may have thought) only highlighted the bittersweet, gorgeousness and faded grandiosity of that most beautiful of cities.  My love for Cleveland is absolute. I may not love it for the reasons some might like—but I love it just the same.  I am honored that Harvey, may he rest in peace, liked the show.

Our last in a series of HOLIDAY SPECIALS was a high watermark of sorts. It has always been my belief that the pursuit of excellence in television is impossible if one does not regularly seek to cause terror and confusion at one’s network. In this respect, the show was a smashing success—setting a new standard for unasked-for weirdness.

You can imagine how happy some at the network were to hear Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman parodying themselves on a flickering television screen, while the network’s sweetheart, Samantha Brown, playing herself as a crazed, vengeful, alcoholic and homicidal shut-in, pumped a bullet into my leg (spraying blood on a stuffed kitten) between pouring schnapps into a bowl of Frooty Pebbles.  Norah Jones sang about poop, the band ****ed Up sang Jingle Bells—the whole show was ugly, squalid and magnificent.  Christopher Walken cooked octopus! We didn’t just bend the rules, we killed them dead—then went to the funeral and shot the mourners.

The notorious “Krampus segment”, censored by the network, went on to become a stand alone YouTube sensation.  Do check it out.

The 2006 BEIRUT show obviously holds a special place in the memories of all who were involved.  Like the war that broke out around us, it happened unexpectedly. Those of us trapped in that heartbreakingly troubled city never expected there to even be a show—but we kept shooting anyway, and the footage that was artfully put together afterwards told a story we are all very proud of.  I learned—in a way I’d never had to learn before—how terrible, terrible things can happen to good people, sweeping up the good and the bad together.  That experience changed those of us who were there. And it changed subsequent shows. We never, from that point on, forgot how arbitrary life and death can be, and how harsh life can be for the people we leave behind when we head safely home with our cameras.   My daughter was conceived the day after I was evacuated from Beirut—a fact that has given me a lifelong love for the US Marine Corps—and connected me to that city (and this episode) in a special and very personal  way.

It could be argued that for the last 8 or 9 years, Travel Channel has allowed me to make 140 wildly self indulgent home movies that only a few very close friends and directors of photography could be reasonably expected to enjoy.  That it’s worked out for all of us remains a mystery for which I’m very grateful and proud.

I’m also grateful to the staggering line-up of chefs and cooks, the famous and the not at all, who’ve been kind enough to appear on the show over the years:  I doubt any show has ever had such a line-up of talent. They all took time they did not have to let us see what it is they do—how—and to the extent that we were capable of explaining it: why.

See you all at the next rodeo.

- Anthony Bourdain

Posted By: Rani Robinson

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April 15, 2012, 1:23 PM  |  Comments (61)  |  Permalink

by Anthony Bourdain

I’ve referred only half jokingly over the years to the early days of my television career when, after two seasons of making shows around the world for A COOK’S TOUR, I was advised that audiences just didn’t respond to all those foreign locations where people talked funny and sometimes (horror of horrors) even had to be subtitled. My cruel masters sat back in their chairs and with dreamy, wistful looks suggested how wonderful it would be if I could just confine my interests to shows about tailgate parties, pony rides and….barbecue. “Exotic” locations were problematic, they suggested. They didn’t fit in with their ” current business model.”

Well, after 8 years of NO RESERVATIONS, in which I have been allowed to travel this world unfettered and largely without constraint, I found myself once again thinking, “What’s the most ****ed up thing I can do on the show?” The answer, it seemed, was to embrace the beast. Go right back and do what would have been unthinkable back then (or at any time since): make a show about a subject that every single travel and food show has done a million times, in a place that has been more than adequately covered (as least as relates to slowly smoked meats). Go right to the heart of core Americana—that uniquely All-American genre of cookery called Kansas City Barbecue. And while I was at it, I thought—why not go all the way—attend my very first tailgate party? What could be more unlike me? I’ve been to Saudi Arabia. Tribal Liberia. China. Why couldn’t I embrace this curious and much loved indigenous practice as I had this—just cause it’s American? The plan? To go to Kansas City—and challenge ourselves to making a single subject show—almost entirely about briskets, ribs, pulled pork, sticky sauce—and yet do it in a way that had never been done before. Meaning, I would challenge the fine ZPZ team of talented cinematographers to make Barbecue Porn so extreme, so hardcore, so enticing that we could bring life to even this tired subject.  And what would I say about all this? What would be my point of view?
It came to me over late night vodka shots in a Croatian parking lot: ZAMIR!

Who better to explore those most American of subjects than my always optimistic Russian friend? What better way to look at my first tailgate experience than through the fresh,  un-jaded eyes of my veteran sidekick for whom America is still a Wonderland of the unfamiliar, strange and fabulous?  Lured by possibly misleading promises that he would be trained and groomed to replace me as a television travel host, Zamir was flown to Kansas City where he would be (he was assured) instructed in the dark arts of hosting a food show.  On Monday night, you will see the results.

And we would need music. Good music. More importantly, we would need cheap good  music. Fortunately, I had recently become aware that the Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of THE BLACK KEYS were very fond of a good meal and were, after many years on the road, susceptible to offers of free food. In return for a lunch of chicken wings and ribs, they quickly agreed to drive their van from their hometown of Akron Ohio, to Kansas City and join me for an afternoon of bourbon and barbecue.

The tailgate party, by the way, turned out to be something of a mystical experience. The Kansas City Chiefs had not been having a good season when we arrived. Even the most enthusiastic KC fans that day, huddled in the cold parking lot outside the stadium, did not give them much chance against the phenomenally streaking Green Bay Packers. But they hadn’t accounted for the Magical Powers of Zamir. He arrived fully decked in Chiefs colors, waving his giant foam hand and screaming “Let’s Pack the Packers” (while consuming Godawful quantities of Jello shots and bourbon). His unbridled, child-like enthusiasm proved contagious, urging the team on to an unexpected upset. Local talk radio the next day suggested that my Russian friend might have in some way, actually been responsible for this victory. Had he given the Packers the “Evil Eye”? Was he some kind of Eastern European Good Luck Charm? Did he have…”Powers?”  The next day, local sports radio spoke in hushed and respectful tones of the bearded Russian who had appeared—supernaturally—in the parking lot prior to the game, spoken in what were described as “tongues” (or possibly gibberish), invoking through some ancient Dark Art, a force that swept across the gridiron that day, and crushed the sons of Lombardi under the Chief’s mighty hooves.

There is a lot more to see—and to eat— in Kansas City than barbecue.  But that’s not what we were there for. We had other business: To go where many had gone before. Only do it better. And weirder.

I think, I hope, we succeeded.

Posted By: anthony bourdain

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August 18, 2011, 3:22 PM  |  Comments (304)  |  Permalink

In the end, we were all fine–as untouched and untroubled as we’d been before Iraq.

If anything changed, if there was a single takeaway from what we saw in Kurdistan and what we learned during three days of “Hazardous Environment Training” in what our British instructors called “Virginiastan”, it was the absolutely jaw-dropping realization of exactly how physically difficult it is for our military personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.And I’m not talking about the fighting. I’m talking about just being there, moving about in regulation gear, training. the day-to-day. Watching on TV and in films, perhaps you realize intellectually that the standard issue body armor, with the ceramic plates weighs around 45 pounds, but until you actually wear the stuff, much less try and help carry the slippery dead weight of an unconscious man across broken ground, you have no idea. Add the additional burden of an M-16, ammunition, pack and gear, Kevlar helmut and you’re already humping about 95 pounds of additional weight through heat that, in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, reaches well over 110 degrees. The body armor doesn’t exactly breath. You’re running sweat within seconds–just standing still. Presumably, you are being trained to–at moment’s notice, hoist a similarly attired buddy over your shoulder and carry his weight as well. It’s damn near superhuman. And that’s before you’ve ever had to fire a shot in anger. In the back of your mind too, I came to find out, is the certain knowledge that none of this heavy armor–not the Kevlar vest, not the ceramic plates—and not the helmut–will protect you in the slightest from an AK-47 round. Nor will a cinderblock wall. A bullet from an AK, the most widely used weapon on the planet, will cut through all of it like cheddar.

The vests we wore in training were decidedly lighter (except Tom, who got standard issue). We were, at all times, properly hydrated. Nobody was shooting real bullets at us–nor was anyone likely to in the wilds of Virginia. While it was uncomfortable in our vests, being asked to treat realistic but still fake sucking chest wounds while being spoken to harshly by our trainers, we knew at all times that we’d be retiring at night to comfortable hotel beds and air conditioned rooms. In the event, our Virginiastan training ended up being a lot harder than Kurdistan in Iraq. And Southeastern Turkey, which judging from recent events, was even more dangerous, couldn’t have been lovelier.

This show is complicated. The Kurds in Iraq are our greatest friends. We have used them (often badly) as our instrument many times-and if there has been any upside to our adventures in Iraq, it has been that the Kurdish people have, at long last, enjoyed a measure of security and autonomy unheard of in this century. Iraqi Kurds are more pro-American–and pro-Bush in particular than just about…anywhere else. And it should be pointed out that since the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, there have been exactly zero coalition deaths or injuries in Kurdish areas off the country. Whatever your feelings about the rightness or wrongness or strategic value of invading Iraq, it is very hard to see present day Kurdistan and not be happy for them.

In Turkey, however, we see the same people as terrorists–and our policies reflect this. Until recently, Kurds in Turkey were not allowed to even refer to themselves by their true ethnicity. They were officially called ” mountain Turks who have forgotten their language”. To even use the word “Kurd” was to invite prison–or worse. Often much worse. The Turkish government has been at various times despicably oppressive in their campaigns against Kurdish attempts at finding a political voice. And, to be fair, Kurdish groups, often armed and trained across the border, have attacked Turks and Kurds seen as too sympathetic to the Turkish authority with lunatic ferocity. In Turkey, the Kurds don’t like us too much. In Iraq, well, you’d hardly realize you’re IN Iraq.

Three British security experts with years of “on the job” experience in some of the nastier conflict zones on earth. Four heavily armed Peshmergas. Body armor. Training. And in the end, we were fine. A few tense moments, perhaps, a misunderstanding here and there. But fine. I’d recommend Iraqi Kurdistan to anyone looking for beautiful scenery and some off-beaten track adventure tourism.

And I have to say I’m pleased with my training. That will last a lifetime. Knowing that I can set a compound fracture, apply a tourniquet, stop a sucking chest wound, tell how long somebody’s got before bleeding out, administer CPR, identify my position and call in a Medevac or an airstrike, pick my way across a mine field, find cover, behave intelligently at hostile roadblocks–surely some of these skills might serve me well someday on location or at the supermarket. My “situational awareness” alone, is much improved. If you find yourself dismembered on the produce aisle at Whole Foods someday and I happen to be nearby? I’m your boy.

Posted By: anthony bourdain

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December 7, 2011, 3:57 PM  |  Comments (187)  |  Permalink

by Anthony Bourdain

What do Norah Jones, Christopher Walken,  the band “ ****edUp”, Vegan Black Metal Chef,  Sam Brown, nightmare of Eastern European folklore Krampus, the Catalonian Pooping Log, Dave Arnold, chefs Lidia Bastianich,  April Bloomfield, Kurt Gutenbrunner, Eder Montero, Alexandra Raij, Carlos Llaguno Morales and the voices of Adam Richman and Andrew Zimmern have in common?

They all foolishly agreed to appear in our scandalous, dark, action-packed fever dream of a Holiday Show which airs this Monday, December 12th at 10PM—when, presumably, the kiddies will be asleep.

Frankly, I think it’s our finest (and most disturbing and deranged) hour yet, a holiday classic. The above artists were—all of them—heroically good humored and generous with their time. And I’d like to give particular thanks to Sam Brown—whose appearance is particularly fearless, frightening  and so far from her “brand” as to make us all look like wussies. Thank you Sam. Never shall I make another snarky remark. You ****in’ rule.  Now wash that mouth out with soap. Your language is appalling! Thanks Norah Jones for learning to sing scatological ditties in Catalan—and for all your work on the show.  Christopher Walken. Now I can scratch a major item off my bucket list. And the rest of you…I am forever grateful.

Do NOT miss this. Christmas has never been stranger.

Posted By: anthony bourdain

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Spend an Evening With Anthony Bourdain

September 21, 2012, 1:09 PM  |  Comments (48)  |  Permalink

Calling all Anthony Bourdain fans in Birmingham, AL, Memphis, TN, San Antonio and Midwest City, OK: Your time has come to see the host of No Reservations and The Layover up close and personal. An Evening With Anthony Bourdain kicks off Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. Find a location near you — and quickly, because tickets are selling out fast.

Tune in for the final season of No Reservations every Monday at 9|8c. And don’t miss the series finale of No Reservations, on Monday, Nov. 5, at 9|8c.

Posted By: Rani Robinson

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