The Favourites of Bart van Poll
Ever since I was young, I took full advantage of the very cheap airline tickets my parents could get me because they worked for KLM airlines. The discounted ticket deal sadly stopped when I was 21. I had the fortune to live and work in The Netherlands, the US, South Korea, Greece and Suriname (South America), and travel a lot from there.
From 2008, my trips abroad accelerated. That year, frustrated by the un-original, impersonal and outdated recommendations found in touristy travel guides and online, my wife Sanne and I launched Spotted by Locals – a series of apps and blogs with up-to-date tips by locals (or “Spotters”) in 80+ cities around Europe, The Middle East & North America.
My job consists of meeting all our Spotters in person in their city. I can’t think of a better job! I’m based in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Athens (Greece) and travel about six months a year.
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
All 4 of my grandparents lived in Suriname when it was a colony of The Netherlands (until 1975). They told me the most amazing stories. I lived and worked there for a while, and I lost count of the number of times I’ve visited. I’m totally in love with the country and its people. The people are the most relaxed I’ve ever met, and it’s an amazingly diverse mix of cultures, living quite peacefully together. In Suriname’s sleepy but very charming capital, the main synagogue and mosque are built right next to each other. The Amazon Rainforest covers about 80% of the country, and it’s really amazing to visit.
Thailand has always put me off a little, as “everyone” is visiting it, and part of the country is sadly spoiled by too much tourism. But the people of Thailand are so sweet and welcoming, and the food is amazing. And Thailand is huge – there’s plenty of places few tourists visit! One of my favourite trips was travelling around the villages on the Mekong River bordering Laos in The North-East.
I’ve been visiting India regularly since I was young. Altogether, I spent about a year in the country, and I feel I’ve just scratched the surface. India has everything – I love the proud people, the colours, the rituals, and the food. My most recent discovery was Ahmedabad (Gujarat), a city of 10 million people, where we worked for three months in 2020. We walked around the tiny streets around the ancient old walled centre every day and were amazed and got lost every single day. It should be visited before it totally falls apart from traffic and pollution (“thick enough to chew” according to Lonely Planet. And it’s true).
Are there any countries you don’t like visiting?
No, there’s always something to discover. I do favour countries that don’t have a tourist infrastructure and therefore also not a lot of tourists. Mauretania is a lot higher on my “would love to visit” list than The Maldives. And I really don’t like having to be being guided around. Restricted countries like Turkmenistan and North Korea fascinate me a lot, but I don’t think I’d go there soon.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
The vibe of this city is unlike any capital. Totally relaxed and very friendly. It is the perfect place to do nothing or to write a book. And their beer (Parbo beer) only comes in 1-litre bottles! The centre of Paramaribo has unique and beautiful wooden houses. I’m very happy it’s a designated UNESCO world heritage site now, as they started to fall apart.
My new adopted (part-time) home city, since 2015. I like Athens, because it’s not as polished and “perfect” as my other home city Amsterdam. It’s polluted, there are ugly high-rise apartment 1970s buildings as far as the eye can see, but I think it’s beautiful! The climate is perfect – I reckon you can have a coffee on a terrace in a t-shirt at least 300 days a year. And the deep crisis has turned the cultural scene among the most exciting I know. Low rents attract lots of artists. Squats are turned into cultural centres and tiny outdoor cinemas everywhere.
Yerevan is usually overlooked by tourists, but I have wanted to go there forever. It’s one of the most ancient capitals (older than Rome!) and the perfect place to learn about the amazing Armenian culture – perhaps the most resilient culture in the world. I loved the vibe and the mysterious spots and stories, like alien artefacts, the bloody Madonna, and a Lenin statue that isn’t there. And there’s the Children’s railway – one of the few surviving miniature-yet-fully-functioning railways in the former Soviet Union. Sounds touristy? Absolutely a hidden spot!
What are three of the worst places you’ve stayed?
In China, I saw the cleaners clean our room with a mop they had just used to clean the filthy toilets in the hallway. Under the bed, we found a woman’s panty, enough hair to make a wig, and a condom.
On our first road trip to start up Spotted by Locals, we stayed in a London hostel with bedbugs which kept us awake all night. When we went to the reception to complain, the receptionist told us (and a few others complaining about the same thing) “what do you expect from a £10 = room?”. And he was right.
A 3-week road trip in the US with my brother and his friend when I was 21. We slept in tents in the wild. Sometimes we were too lazy (or stoned) to set up the tents, so we slept on a plastic tarp without a mattress or bedsheets. When it rained at night, we woke up wrapped up under the tarp. It wasn’t comfortable, but definitely memorable!
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
Kritiko Steki, Athens (Greece)
This is the one tavern we always choose when we return from a trip abroad or have something to celebrate. Kritikos Steki is a typical Greek tavern, but one where all the unhealthy dishes (burgers with cheese IN the meat, liver, tzatziki so thick you can stick a spoon in at any angle and it stays that way) are especially good. It’s dirt cheap (20 Euro for two persons, including drinks), always busy, and it’s impossible not to drink too much. If you order just a little bit of wine or tsipouro, the owner will give you free refills that you absolutely can’t refuse.
Pata Negra, Amsterdam (The Netherlands)
Pata Negra is an authentic tapas restaurant that hasn’t changed a bit since I started coming there as a student in 1997. They have a red wine that just tastes so good, I just can’t stop nipping. And the patatas bravas are divine. After almost 25 years, it’s just as popular and affordable. And I think the Spanish owners still hardly speak any Dutch, or perhaps they pretend!
Roopram Roti, Paramaribo (Suriname)
Roti – a dish with flatbread curry, potatoes, vegetables, and chicken – is my favourite Surinamese food. Although there almost as many Surinamese people in The Netherlands as there are in the entire country of Suriname, Paramaribo is the place to get the very best roti. Roopram’s is the king of roti, in my opinion.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Visiting MZ Bistro in Zagreb (Croatia)
The first year when we were starting up Spotted by Locals of our meat-loving Spotters in Zagreb, Croatia recommended us a cheap restaurant with glorious meat dishes. He gave us instructions to find the place (Bistro MK), and a piece of paper with tips on what to order. As we were walking in circles to find the place, we asked for directions at a place that looked like a sports canteen.
That place turned out the be the meat mecca of Zagreb. All local customers were looking at us in disbelief: what are these tourists doing here? The waiters were astonished when we ordered only dishes that were not on the menu, but our local friend Krunoslav’s favourites. It was an experience that confirmed we were on the right track with our concept.
Driving on an unknown road between Lisbon and Madrid
When my wife and I started up Spotted by Locals in 2008, we did a road trip to find people in 20 cities in 20 countries in Europe who wanted to join our project. The first few cities were really hard, but we were starting to get the hang of the process of finding and meeting Spotters the more we got south.
I remember that we had a moment where we felt ultimately happy about our choice to start our travelling life. It was when we were driving on a secondary highway somewhere in the middle of nowhere on a very hot day between Lisbon and Madrid, with all the windows of our old car open (no air conditioning), my feet out the window and Belle and Sebastian on the speakers.
I had 24 hours to explore Tokyo alone, and I have never been so excited to visit a city. Of the 24 hours, I slept one hour in a cube bed, and just walked and walked to take as many impressions and different foods in as possible. This city is absolutely crazy, and I want to visit Japan again badly.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Two days, two tourist traps in Vietnam
Visiting tourist traps is something I try to avoid at all times, but sometimes you just can’t. In Vietnam, we were on a “party boat” package trip in Halong bay for a full day, and I was so unhappy and ashamed of my fellow tourists that I felt like swimming back ashore and finding a local bus to take us away. The next day, the tourist ahead of us got lost in the “Củ Chi tunnels” (the tunnel network where the Vietcong used to hide in the war), and we had to be rescued. I learned a lot from that trip, and something like this hasn’t happened to me since 2004!
Our honeymoon in The Gambia
I don’t often fall for “tourist rip off / robbery” schemes, but on my honeymoon to Senegal and The Gambia, I guess I was so over the moon that I believed the story of a guy who said he worked at our hotel (but of course didn’t) and invited us over to meet his “fiancee”. He led us to a side street and extorted money from us. I have been robbed a couple of times, but this time it was definitely due to my own stupidity.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Never rent a car, but travel by public transport. It usually takes a lot longer to get where you want to go, but it’s where you meet the locals and often have the most meaningful conversations and learn about the culture of the country you visit.
Order that thing from the menu that you don’t recognize or know, or if you can’t read the menu at all: don’t ask the waiter (who will often give you what other tourists like, or what he thinks tourists like) but just pick blindly.
Learn a few words in the language of the country you visit. Even if you only know 2 or 3 words, it helps you connect with the locals, and they will appreciate it!
You can follow Bart at Spotted by Locals, Instagram and Twitter.