TBEX, cruises, The Globe, Romania, Bulgaria ... Prague!

A Look Back at 2018 in Travel

The start of the year found me in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. I was visiting family and had some time to kill. I decided to write a blog post -- "Let's Go: Youngstown" as if my hometown were a highlight in a guidebook. It got some local media attention and turned out to be the most-read post of the year. This photo shows the city's landmark, The Old Mill (Lanterman's Mill), in the middle of Mill Creek Park. Photo by Mark Baker.
While I was home in January, I popped over to Washington D.C. to visit my dear friends Colin and Deborah and see their beautiful home, near Dupont Circle. This photo is from their neighborhood -- people walking and jogging on one of the iciest and slickest days of the year. Photo by Mark Baker.
February is normally dark and cold in Prague, but on this particular day, the temps warmed up and the sun came out. I spent the day wandering around with my camera, and made my annual trek up to the top of the Old Town Bridge tower. This photo was taken from the tower and shows Charles Bridge, with Prague Castle on the upper right. Photo by Mark Baker.
That's me -- a typical photo from 2018. I believe this was taken in Sofia. Bulgaria, toward the end of the year.
February didn't stay warm, of course. I traveled to the Moravian-Silesian city of Ostrava during a frozen stretch to prepare for the TBEX travel-bloggers' conference that would be held there in July and to finally get to know the city I'd been studiously avoiding all these years. This is the fabled Dolni Vitkovice steelworks, which has been reworked into a hipsterish conference center. I wrote about the journey in the blog post: "Ostravaganza 2018!!!". Photo by Mark Baker.
While in Ostrava I took a short side trip to Havířov, to check in on the town's fabulous retro-60s' train station that had been threatened by demolition. As you can see, it's still standing and looks like it's won a reprieve from the wrecking ball. I covered the station's fate and posted more photos under the blog post "A Piece of 'Brussels' in Silesia." Photo by Mark Baker.
Things started getting serious in March. I had signed a contract to update travel content on Slovenia for Lonely Planet and traveled to Slovenia twice during the year -- the first time here in March to Ljubljana and then later (June) to the Alpine region in the north. This funny teepee covers a statue in Ljubljana's Old Town. Photo by Mark Baker.
While I was in Ljubljana in March I paid a visit to the city's scruffy "ROG" squat -- a lesser-known but arguably more authentic squat than the famous Metelkova Mesto. I seem to love these kinds of places and tried to sort out some of the reasons why in the blog post "The Underlying Beauty of Ugliness." Photo by Mark Baker.
After the first round of Slovenia, I returned to Prague, wrote up my notes, and then flew across the pond to Sarasota, Florida, to celebrate a big birthday for my mother (a round number but we won't say which). Here is the pool to their condo on a purplish evening in May. Photo by Mark Baker.
After Florida, it was back to Prague and then once again to Slovenia for pretty much the entire month of June. I was driving and had my bicycle with me on this trip -- and the weather was glorious. This is from a cycling journey just outside the town of Skofja Loka, north of Ljubljana. Photo by Mark Baker.
I spent three days here in June at Slovenia's Lake Bled -- after having just spent three days at Bled's rival lake, Bohinj. I like them both -- but the two lakes couldn't be more different. In case you're curious, I wrote about their differences in the blog post: "Bled vs Bohinj." Photo by Mark Baker.
In future posts, I've decided to take a more critical look at hotels ... including some of the very questionable design choices they make. This pic, from my hotel in Kranj, Slovenia, sums up the problems pretty well. For some reason, the owners plunked down for gold-embossed, red-velvet thrones (which they then parked in the corridors beside the fire extinguishers!). Photo by Mark Baker.
Midsummer found me back in Prague to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse. This is me (on the left) giving a talk about life in Prague in those early days. I wrote about The Globe twice during the year: "When the Globe Came To Prague" (Parts 1 and 2). Photo by Mark Baker.
Toward the end of July, during an insufferable heat wave, the TBEX travel bloggers' conference got rolling in Ostrava. It was my first TBEX and my first time as a speaker there, so I had more than a few butterflies in my stomach. This is an overhead view of the audience for my presentation. I wrote about the TBEX Ostrava experience and my talk in the post "Seven Life Hacks for Travel Writers."
I paired my visit to Ostrava in July with some research on the Czech Republic for Lonely Planet, visiting both nearby Olomouc and (pictured here) Brno. This is the lobby of the 1960s retro-futuristic Hotel Continental. I loved hanging around Brno for this assignment and used the time to gather material for a kind of love letter to the city: "Learning Moravian Folk Songs." Photo by Mark Baker.
I spent the month of August divided between the Czech Republic and Romania -- on assignment to update Lonely Planet's country material on Central & Eastern Europe. I used a visit to Karlovy Vary to take a closer look at the Brutalist landmark Hotel Thermal in the blog post "Beauty and The Beast." Photo by Mark Baker.
While in the Czech Republic in August, I spent a couple of days in the sizzling heat in Plzeň. The city was alive with festivals, and I spent hours during the day exploring the town by bike. I found this grotty bike path by the river that I never knew existed. Photo by Mark Baker.
By the time August rolled around we'd already had two months of sunshine and baking heat. Little did we know then, the heat wave-drought was just getting started and I'd be paying a price for all this sunshine in September. Turns out that the river levels in Europe were too low to support a cruise boat. This is central Plzeň on a typically hot August day in 2018. Photo by Mark Baker.
I made the jump in mid-August from the Czech Republic to Romania, connecting the dots via a long day's drive from Český Krumlov to Arad, Romania. Once in Romania, I bounced around the country like a pinball. Here's one of my favorite cities, Brașov. I wrote a bit about the craziness of that trip in a story about the Black Sea port of Constanța: "Abandoned on the Furthest Shores of the World." Photo by Mark Baker.
In August, while in Romania, I made a trip to the derelict Baths of Hercules (Băile Herculane), which I'd first read about in Patrick Leigh Fermor's "Between the Woods & the Water." My blog post, "The Ruins of Hercules" caught the attention of a group promoting the reconstruction of the baths, though the place was still in pretty poor shape during my visit. Photo by Mark Baker.
Late August in Bucharest and paying my annual visit to the long-closed, legendary backpacker flophouse, Hotel Banat. On this visit, it looks like the hotel is still searching for a buyer to restore it to its decadent glory. Photo by Mark Baker.
In September, I took the first of two river cruises for the year up and down the Danube, working as a destination expert for National Geographic. The first cruise, 15 days, ran from Budapest to Amsterdam, via the Main and Rhine rivers. It was a learning experience for me in nearly every conceivable way -- something I wrote about in "Part 1: A Scenic Cruise on the Danube." This picture is from the Rhine in Germany. Photo by Mark Baker.
Amsterdam's riverboat harbor in early October, on the last day of the 15-day cruise from Budapest. This photo was taken on the sundeck of the boat at about 7:30am -- the passengers were still having breakfast and I'd come up top to get some air and find some peace. Photo by Mark Baker.
From the riverboat dock in Amsterdam, I hopped a train down to Luxembourg for a college re-union. This is the view from the window of my hotel, the Cravat, in the center of town. We had a blast at the reunion and Luxembourg will always remain one of my all-time favorite places anywhere. Photo by Mark Baker.
From Luxembourg, I flew back to Prague for a weekend to wash my clothes. A couple of days later I was on a plane for Sofia, Bulgaria, for Lonely Planet. The weather held through the month of October and into early November. This is Sofia's famous Nevsky Cathedral surrounded by the yellow leaves of autumn. Photo by Mark Baker.
From Sofia, I rented a car and drove all around Bulgaria. From the city of Ruse, I went to Varna, Burgas, and then here, the medieval Bulgarian capital of Veliko Târnovo. This is was the view over the river and town from my hotel window. Photo by Mark Baker.
By the time November rolled around, my trip to Bulgaria was winding to a close. One of the last stops was the Bulgarian wine metropolis of Melnik, near the Greek border. It was a little slow this time of year, but it's a pretty place and the wine is excellent. Photo by Mark Baker.
The year of travel was not quite over. From December 2 to December 9, I river-cruised once again with Scenic and National Geographic along the Danube. This was a "Christmas Markets" cruise, though we didn't actually visit that many markets. This is the town of Dürnstein, along the banks of Austria's Wachau Valley. We docked here and hiked to the castle at the top of this photo. Photo by Mark Baker.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker