hidden europe 70

Threescore and ten: reflecting on hidden europe

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: If there are mentors for hidden europe, then Ivan Fyodorov is most certainly one of them. The Moscow-born man of letters captures two of our main interests, viz. in allthings Slavonic and in the printed word. He died in Lviv in 1583, and nowadays his statue presides over a weekly openair second-hand book sale. The image is of course a reminder of everyday life in Ukraine in happier times (photo © hidden europe).


Is this perhaps the first time in publishing history that a well received and profitable magazine has carefully planned its own sunset? We always knew hidden europe would not be for ever. We saw it as a project with a start, a middle and an end. Now, with a strong sense of having said the things we wanted to say, we reflect on two decades of work celebrating European cultures and communities, and a remarkable mix of lives and landscapes.

Let this be a celebration, rather than an apologia! Issue 70 of hidden europe marks a definitive stage in a project that has run over two decades. For us, as also for our readers, it is a distinct cæsura, marking a change from the ritual of thrice-yearly publication which culminates with subscribers receiving their print-fresh copies by mail around the middle of March, July and November each year. We are deeply grateful to the very many readers who have contacted us recently to express their appreciation for the work we have done over the years.

In this final print issue of hidden europe, we want to reflect on the development and course of the project. It is a venture in which we — the magazine’s two editors — have been curiously in visible. Beyond the fact that we live in Berlin and love roaming off the beaten track, we have hardly shared anything of ourselves in hidden europe. That applies as much to our social media channels as to the print magazine. Never once in hidden europe have we included images of the editors. Though, in an unprecedented departure from the norm, we are depicted on the back cover of this issue with an image taken on a Danish island. It had, perforce, to be on an island or on a train. We tossed a coin, and the island option won.

Words matter

This matter of editorial stance, and in particular our decision not to put ourselves centre stage, was more than merely a whim. It has underpinned efforts to write about places, landscapes and communities without authorial intrusion. That runs counter to a lot of contemporary travel writing. For us it’s been the words that matter, not the people behind the words — although we have consistently relaxed that approach when publishing work by guest contributors, where it has been only right and proper that they should get full credit for their efforts on our behalf. But, in 70 issues of hidden europe, you’ve never seen a biographical note on the editors, and the great majority of what we’ve written for the pages of the magazine is not tagged to a specific name, but appears anonymously, albeit with a small note on the inside back cover which clarifies the issue of rights in material not credited to a named author. This article, jointly credited to the two of us, really is an exception.

We have always held true to a list of precepts or maxims which underpinned hidden europe. We have consistently avoided tumbling bougainvillea, anything that nestles (and particularly thatched cottages nestling in dells), and we are surely the only travel magazine that never featured infinity pools. Our guiding principle has been to never promise too much. “Under-promise, but over-deliver,” reads the sign on the office wall. Calm restraint has been our signature; we have never bubbled over with enthusiasm for a particular place, yet there has been a quiet passion underpinning essays which conjure up the spirit of landscape and, at their best, communicate a strong sense of place.

A spirit of independence

We were among a flurry of over two dozen Englishlanguage travel magazines launched in the first decade of this century. We watched the progress of those ventures, noting how they quickly picked up awards, because — let’s face it — every travel publication you know is “award-winning”. Except hidden europe. We have simply never played the awards game and never explicitly sought the approval of external agencies. Our contact with tourist boards and PR agencies has been sparse. While inundated with invites from PR agencies to promote this or that hotel, or specific places or events, we have generally politely declined, preferring instead to choose where and when we wished to travel and what themes or places might feature in hidden europe. In running the magazine, we have never applied for or accepted any grants, donations or external funding of any kind.

In keeping with that strong spirit of independence, we have never in the history of hidden europe accepted any paid advertising, whether in the print magazine or on our websites. We noted how other travel magazines ran aground when the flow of advertising funding dried up, whether during the financial crisis of 2008 and thereafter, or at the start of the pandemic in 2020. It brought us no pleasure to see those other publications disappear, and curiously of that cohort of start-up magazines which launched around the same time as us, hidden europe is the sole survivor.

That we choose to stop publication now is not a matter of financial exigency — on the contrary, the magazine makes a modest profit. We are stopping because all good projects have a start, a middle and an end and each phase in that project life cycle brings its own particular rewards. The proverbial threescore and ten, namely seventy issues of the magazine, seems to us to be a good place to stop. We have a strong sense that we have said the things we wanted to say, the things that needed to be said about travel, about travel writing and about Europe’s unsung corners. To understand the end of a project, it is always worth going back to the beginning.

In the beginning

hidden europe was an initiative brought about by a particular nexus of circumstances. Imagine central Europe, the territory that we — the editors of the magazine — call home, in the opening years of this millennium. With Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the three Baltic countries among the many new states gearing up to join the European Union, there was a real sense of new horizons opening up. Places which had seemed far distant were suddenly becoming much easier to reach.

Berliners of all ages were on the move, opting for weekend breaks in Gdańsk, Kraków or Košice. And the new horizons extended to regions that were not candidates for European Union membership. Visa-free access to Ukraine for EU citizens meant Lviv (Љвів) and Odesa (Одеса) were suddenly credible options for short breaks. Living in Berlin, we could take advantage of direct trains to both these Ukrainian cities.

Even Kaliningrad (Kалининград), the principal city of the eponymous Russian oblast, suddenly opened its doors to visitors, although the requirement to secure a Russian visa remained. The direct overnight train to Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave, added further spice to the departure boards in Berlin, which already included such exotica as Astana (Астана) in Kazakhstan, Irkutsk (Иркутск) in Siberia, Simferopol (Сімферопљ) in the Crimea and Sochi (Сочи) on Russia’s Black Sea Riviera.

That sense of emerging new opportunities across central and eastern Europe very powerfully influenced our thinking. But there were two other key factors. One related to a critique of mainstream travel writing and the other was rooted in our very particular approach to travel.

Celebrating spaces and places

We have always had enormous respect for the writers and publishers of traditional guidebooks. Series like those published by Rough Guides, Lonely Planet and most particularly Bradt Travel Guides have been tremendous in encouraging intelligent travel to faraway places. Bradt have been exceptional in really getting off the beaten track. Our limited understanding of Turkmenistan, a country we have never visited, rests mainly on our reading of the Bradt Guide to Turkmenistan, which we purchased in 2005 as a mark of respect for Hilary Bradt’s publishing ingenuity in even considering that there might be a market for an English-language guidebook to Turkmenistan.

It turned out that there was not and sadly Paul Brummell’s excellent guide never went beyond a first edition. But other Bradt Guides to less frequented places have gone to multiple editions. And the authors of many of those guides have contributed over the years to the pages of hidden europe. One of those authors is Rudolf Abraham who early this year wrote to us with these words:

“I’ll always consider hidden europe rather special. It was, as you know, the first magazine that I wrote for, and it has remained the only one where I have consistently been able to tell stories about things I really wanted to, in my own voice. For 15 years. So, thank you for that — it’s been a pleasure.”

The issue is that even the most ambitious guidebooks don’t give authors the opportunity to dwell on a particular moment. Guidebook publishers managing tight budgets usually prefer ‘listlike’ and easy to update factual information at the expense of more reflective writing which explores topics at length. Having space to play with an idea is a rare commodity in modern travel writing, but hidden europe has given writers precisely that privilege.

We still think that this was quite a daring move on our part. Where other publications entertained their readers with articles on Europe’s ten best train journeys, we stepped back from the competitive fray and offered thoughtful essays on what makes a good train journey. With our initiative to give authors freedom and space, we have been handsomely rewarded by beautiful, flowing essays that have captured the texture and detail of European lives and landscapes, of cultures and communities from many countries.

Over the long years of the project we know as hidden europe — of which the print magazine was the most visible but not the only part — we have given space to intelligent and well-informed writing that challenged editorial conventions while also respecting and acknowledging the long historical traditions of English-language travel writing. We wanted readers to see things in their spatial and temporal context and that means having writers who know the terrain and understand how their work is situated within the wider craft of travel writing.

For us, as publishers and editors, a real uncertainty at the outset was whether there really was a cohort of writers out there willing to rise to the challenge. Our worries were unfounded. We were inundated with submissions. Readers may be surprised to discover that over 1000 writers have sent us pitches or articles to consider. And that’s all the more surprising as we set the hurdle for submitting material very high. “The most comprehensive set of submission guidelines you’ll ever find,” commented one US-based website, going on to observe “These editors spell out exactly what they are looking for.”

Actually, what we looked for evolved through time. In the early days of hidden europe, we were a little less picky than later on. With hindsight, we can see how our editorial confidence grew as we discovered just how many people were out there eager to put pen to paper and write for hidden europe. Over 70 issues of the magazine, we feel privileged to have hosted 55 guest contributors. We are especially pleased that a very significant number of those 55 writers had their first-ever magazine article published in the pages of hidden europe. Giving space to new writers was from the outset a central part of our mission.

Creating fine journeys

If our approach to travel writing was slow and unhurried, so too was our approach to journeys. That emphasis on a very conscious approach to travel planning and how we travelled found formal expression in our Manifesto for Slow Travel, published in 2009 in hidden europe 25. That article has been more widely cited than any other in the history of hidden europe . It has been translated into several languages. For many of our readers, that manifesto was a prescient clarion call, imploring them to think carefully about how they travelled. For us, it is more than that. It is about a way of life, an aesthetic which underpins our approach to people, landscape and the environment that finds expression in every page of hidden europe.

We do travel slowly, and when on rare occasions we travel fast then we allow time here and there for our souls to catch up with us. Sometimes in life, one perhaps needs to take a longer break. After seventy issues of hidden europe — that magical threescore and ten of Psalm 90 — we want to plot a different course for the future. Travel and writing have been the lifeblood of our work for two decades. And they will remain important to us. But we have other interests and now’s the moment to give those a chance to flourish. Of one thing you can be sure. Our journeys will be purposeful and forever slow. We shall tread lightly! May you do likewise. And next time you find yourself on a slow train through the Balkans, or on a ferry in the Faroe Islands, look out for us. And, whether or not you spot us, take time to catch the spirit of hidden europe.

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