13 January 2014

Our 10 Most Popular Posts

Here's the travel blogging catch-22.  Most people are looking for information about places they plan to visit.  So, millions of people search for things about Tuscany, Paris or Amsterdam's canals.  The most amazing place on earth won't receive much traffic if nobody knows about it.  The problem is, the more popular a place is, the more bloggers there are writing about it.  The chance that someone reads your post about the Acropolis? Slim.

Predicting which of our 700 (plus) posts would get read was almost impossible.  Some of the best things we wrote didn't even get read by our own parents.  Some of our silliest or worst-written bits have became enormously (and embarrassingly) popular.

Our 10 most popular posts (based on Google analytics data and Blogger.com traffic reports) are a mixed bag.  Some are good (number one, thankfully), some began their online life as throwaways (see number nine), some are just weird (number five).  Only one of these posts was specifically designed to attract traffic (number two).
Sometimes we just hit upon something. Cihangir is a hip, young Istanbul neighborhood.  It reminded us of a Turkish Williamsburg and confirmed our belief that renting an apartment is the best way to see a city.  The best neighborhoods are often the best because they don't have any hotels.  Don't get us wrong, the center of Istanbul is as gobsmacking is you'd expect and we never tired of tooling around in search of balik ekmek or The Mussel Man (who we wind up finding in Cihangir anyway).  But the best cities are great because of their ever-changing qualities, their momentum and the neighborhoods defined by the young people there at a given time. 
As bloggers, we found ourselves in a jam.  Here we were in Vatican City, two whole weeks of posting about a very, very small microstate and the pièce de résistance was off limits.  No photos in the Sistine Chapel.  Seriously?  If this were a rule decreed by the pope, the security guards would probably have worked a little harder - or at all - to enforce it.  As it turns out, a Japanese TV company owns the exclusive rights to some of the art world's most famous images because they funded its restoration. (This is after NBC turned down the deal.  Probably because they were too busy fine-tuning  Joey, the Friends spin-off).  Anyway, the whole thing was ridiculous, made only more so by the fact that everyone. was. taking. pictures.  So, we decided to half break the rules and snap some shots, too.  Just not of the ceiling.  We're sure this gets traffic because people are searching to see if photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel.  Not that finding out is going to stop them.  
8. Georgian Food
We can vouch for the fact that it is very difficult to search for anything about Georgia, in English, without being directed to the state instead of the country.  Using the word "Georgian" helps matters a lot.  This one makes us happy because Georgian food really did feel like a revelation.  The textures and flavors were consistently surprising and delicious.  Pomegranate seeds, crushed walnuts, cilantro,  the best bread of our lives.  And then there were khinkali, the soup dumpling like concoctions pictured above.  In the tiny town of Mestia, at the time the most remote place we'd been, the only restaurant in town basically only served khinkali   We discovered, quickly, that they are so delicious you don't need anything more.
Amazingly, this is only our second most-popular Albanian post (see below!)  
Sometimes we know exactly why people are reading a specific post.  After a TED Blog writer used our photos of Tirana's painted buildings we got a sudden surge of visitors.
The story of Edi Rama (painter turned Minister of Culture turned mayor) and his brilliant idea to transform ugly communist-era cement blocks into bold, bright works of art is a great one.  It's no wonder it's garnered some attention.  We're just happy that our own piece focuses more on the story of the city today and of Malvin, a young man who served us dinner one night and was showing us around the next.  Maybe he'll stumble upon the post himself and shoot us an email.  We wonder if he ever made it to that bioengineering school in Canada.
6. Castle Hunting: Trakai Castle
Island castles are a little bit of a trend (see number 4).
We remember this castle most for the speeding ticket we got nearby.  Lithuanian police take road safety very seriously.  For the record, if you should ever find yourself stopped by an officer in Lithuania, be prepared to pay your fine in cash on the spot.  If you don't have the money, he/she will drive you to the nearest bank to withdraw the amount.  Don't be scared.  This is absolutely normal.  Well, you can still be scared.  As we were.
5. Sleeping In Soviet Style
This little Belarusian piece has always baffled us.  For almost a year it was our number two most-viewed post, second only to this, about Belarusian tractors (which now ranks about 12th).  It would make sense if people were only landing here while looking for lodging in Belarus - which is hard to find - but that didn't seem to be the case.  Inexplicably, thousands of people showed up after searching for "armenian elevator buttons."  The internet is a weird, weird place.
(Thanks to one visitor, we learned that what we thought was a very cool smoke detector was actually an even cooler single-channel radio from the Soviet age).
We were never even supposed to be there in Kizkalesi, but we were finding it a little difficult to catch a boat to northern Cyprus, and we needed a place to stay.  For a Turkish seaside town, it's a little drab.  People visit for the "floating" castle (and visit our blog for pictures of it).  We stayed in an empty hotel, run by a very nice Kurdish man who took us to the nearby Caves of Heaven and Hell and invited us to watch a televised NBA game with him in the evening. 
3. Lithuanian Food
For a long time, Lithuanian Food was the most viewed post on the blog.  It features grainy, unappealing photos of cepelinai, blyneliai and various other cheesy, gloppy dishes.  This is a poorly-lit shot of kiaulės audis, which is smoked pig's ear.  We had no idea - as we crunched cartilage on that dark night in the Žemaitija National Park - that so many people would find this stuff interesting.  Then, again, we may not have ordered the smoked pig's ear if we didn't at least hope they would.
2. Montenegro's Best Beaches
Some day soon, this will be the most read merlinandrebecca.com post.  It's been popular since day one, and it does really well around every vacation time.  Montenegro is newly independent and popular, so there isn't as much written about it as, say, Croatia.  We think that's why readers end up on our site.  This one feels a little bittersweet, though, because we created it while thinking "this will get so much traffic!"  But, hey, the hope is that then you stumble upon something like this.  The other hope is that more people will look beyond the big resorts that are threatening to destroy the coastline and find those little places that remain untouched… for now.
While it's not too surprising that 3 of our 10 most popular posts are about food, Albania sneaking in for the win is a bit of a shock.  Here's our theory:  there's simply not much information available online about Albanian food.  So, unlike a search for "Italian food," you're more likely to stumble upon us.  In fact, googling those two words right now, we're right there behind wikipedia, food.com, ask.com and pinterest (which may or may not have even existed when we published this post).  If the title had been "Frogs Legs and Lamb's Head" - as I'm sure at least one of us wanted it to be - there's no way this would be our number one.  But… hey… we learned a few traffic tips along the way.  Now, add the fact that Albania was named Lonely Planet's Top Destination for 2011 and you've got yourself a winner!

12 January 2014

CRF: The Best of Slovenia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been more than a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Slovenia - truly one of our favorite countries.
Slovenia held a special place in our heart years before this trip and we were a little worried about tarnishing it.  You see,  it was the first "weird" place we had ever travelled together.  Our former trips included the post-collegiate trifecta of France, India and Amsterdam.  One of us had read an article about Slovenia in a magazine and the idea of the place stuck (along with Lake Baikal in Siberia, which seemed a little less doable).  We went, in 2006, without knowing how to pronounce the name of its capital and came back its biggest ambassadors, dubbing it "The Vermont of Europe" and encouraging everyone we knew to visit.
It was both more "European" than we'd expected (what does that word mean anyway?) and quirkier than we could have imagined (a doormouse museum?).  It felt like a discovery, a magical place.  One day we were driving through foliage that could rival New England, the next we were eating shellfish on a blip of Mediterranean coast.  There were gorges and caves, castleshorse burgers.  Our farm stay had a pet bear, the capital had parking spots dedicated to electric cars ("way back" in 2006) and a Sunday flea market that finally served up that slice of Slav we were expecting.  Revisiting the country, after traveling to places even further afield, we worried it would feel…. predictable.  Or, dare I say, average.  And then, this happened...
The water caves of Križna Jama are special.  They really are.  They are that solitary, unknowable, ancient thing that lurks at the edges of human existence.  There are human remains in the entryway that date back ten millennia.  One travels for hours by headlight, in blowup rafts, past the oldest of earth's rocky bones.  There are creatures there, in those depths, that exist literally nowhere else in the universe.  No more than eight people a day are allowed in.  All of this, accessed through a rock in the deep Slovenian forest.  By some wonderful twist of fate, our guide was a photographer himself and the photos he prompted us to take are some of our favorites of the trip, inextricably linked to the memory of snapping them.
When we're asked that inevitable question - "what country did you like best?" - we have no idea what to say.  Phrased: "what was the most memorable experience you had?" the answer would be easier.  Križna Jama is the experience we call up when we mean "unbelievable."
The Slovenian karst is full of caves - there's the theme-park-like Postojnska jama and the outlandish cave-castle of Grad Predjama, with hundreds of other caverns in between - but there is none to match the grandeur of Škocjanske jame.  We've been twice, but photos aren't allowed in the main caverns, so we never blogged about it.  This is a picture of the exit, which actually feels small at the end of the tour.  Notice the full-grown trees being dwarfed by the archway.
The main cavern in Škocjanske jame is so large that standing inside, with the lights off, feels like standing outside on a dark night.  You can hear a river flowing, a hundred feet below the walkway.  You feel damp cave-breezes and gusts.  It's the largest enclosed space you can imagine.  A friend brought along on our second visit was nervous.  "I'm claustrophobic," she explained, logically reasoning that this would make spelunking unpleasant.  Škocjanske jame conjures the exact opposite feeling.  All you feel is the expanse, your own smallness.  You feel anything but trapped.  You feel like you're on the edge of something that is somehow even bigger.  
At the very top of Rogla Ski Resort, in the Zreče region, we came across this funny group of schoolchildren filing onto a down-slope chairlift.  Even though it was midsummer, it was cold and blustery in the Julian Alps.
We had hiked up from the endearing, bizarre deer farm that we were staying at, Tourist Farm Arbajter.  Our hosts cooked us venison dinners and gave us homemade borovnica (blueberry schnapps).  We loved it there and promised to return with our family one day.
Slovenia's glamor spot is lake Bled.  It's the Slovenian stuff of postcards.  The rolley-bags outnumber backpacks and footwear gets noticeably less clunky.  It's easy to see how one could be content dropping in on Bled and being whisked back away without ever setting foot in the more rugged landscape surrounding it.  Retirees rent rowboats by the hour.  Young, fashionable people sunbathe on the grassy shores.
Slovenia is very much a tale of two lakes, Bled and Bohinj.  Both are beautiful, but we actually prefer Bohinj, nearby, which has zero luxury hotels.
At some point in our trip, we began taking photos of local candy.  It's the little things.  These were a cross between Necco wafers and hole-less life savers.  We just liked the packaging, really.
We considered doing a post about the unusual and emblematic Slovenian roofed hayracks (called toplarji), but never got all the pictures we wanted.  Here's an old toplar surrounded by modern digging equipment.  It's not easy to find prime examples of the old Slovene way of life, because the country doesn't dwell on its past.  History in Slovenia has been relegated to the national parks, culinary tradition, a few quaint castles and their excellent museums.  Everyone looks forward.
Despite its diminutive size, Ljubljana (pronounced "loob-lee-yah-na") easily feels the most modern of the former Yugoslavian capitals.  It's demeanor mirrors the national spirit: lighthearted, friendly, unpretentious.
Slovenia was the first republic to gain independence from post-Tito Yugoslavia, and there wasn't much violence during the breakaway.  Compared to Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia or even Croatia, the country has few scars and better memories.
We love this red picture of a tiny, communist-era Zastava (nicknamed "Fičo" in Slovenia and "Fikjo" in Macedonia, where we posted about them) against a high-tech construction site. About a block from here, we saw a tractor pulling bales of hay through downtown Ljubljana.
Like Slovenian food, Slovenian wine is pretty basic.  It's also cheap, tasty and plentiful.  For a while, we were working on a vini-post that didn't get finished.  It was going to be about the vineyards of the Vipava and Štájerska regions, but we never got the cornerstone picture or experience that a good piece needs.  It was still fun to try.
We took this picture at a  courtyard "vinotok" in the colorful wine town of Slovenska Konjice. Underripe grapes hung from an arbor over our heads.  If it had been September instead of July, we probably would have had a great, boozy post.
We're still crazy about Slovenia.  Comparing it objectively to its neighbors, it might seem a little boring.  It has nothing to rival the history and cuisine of Italy.  It's mountains aren't as impressive as Austria's.  Ljubljana doesn't hold a candle to Hungary's Budapest, and it's tiny bit of coast is barely a blip next to Croatia's sprawling seafront.
But Slovenia has a bit of everything, and also possesses maybe the most pleasant vibe of any European country.  It's always at the top of our list of recommendations - especially because of all those caves
To see all our posts from Slovenia, just click here.
To see all the Cutting Room Floor posts, with great pictures from the other 49 countries, just click here.