Saturday, March 25, 2017

Tourism at the Tipping Point; what is too much of a good thing?

Tourism is a wonderful industry, but as with many endeavours, it comes with its own perils. It embodies the ideal of people moving around the world to meet other people, understand other cultures and become more globally aware, an important asset in today’s globalised society. It brings wealth to countries with few natural resources, and in many regions, tourism is a major employer.

What is not to like?

Lisbon is a very desirable place to visit.
Success is a very, very hard key to measure, and for each tourism destination there is a “tipping point” at which the problems start to outweigh the benefits. It is difficult to see that spot, and harder still for societies to protect themselves against Rampant Tourism.

This is only March, and mid-March, at that, yet Lisbon is full, Funchal was full and I could only shudder to think of these cities in the height of the season. Prices rise, and rise for locals as well as visitors, for everything from restaurant meals to property; crowds are relentless, rush hour lasts all day, there seems to be nowhere to escape People, and the destination loses its rhythm. While I have often scoffed at the made-for-tourism resorts like Cancun and much of the Spanish shoreline, I am now seeing these developments as necessary buffers for those folks who actually live there.

The Ice Park in Dubai. Really?
Visiting these man-made destinations makes no pretense at visiting a "real" destination; there are none of the same pressures that come with a gradual transformation of a local town or community into a theme park. Global brands are there, prices are high and everyone knows the score. It is the gradual layering of visitors on top of functioning destinations that leads to problems.

There are places that have, in my humble opinion, passed through the barrier and are now distinctly top-heavy with visitors. Barcelona leads the pack, Dubai, Florence and Edinburgh are not far behind, and for the world’s smaller destinations, there is nary a Caribbean capital nor a Mediterranean town of any size that has not fallen foul of the tourism bug.

Even cities like London have become oppressive. It is difficult to manoeuver even in the “off season”, and come the heat of the summer and the hordes of visitors trying to press their way in every direction, the city will become overwhelming and stressful.

Costa Nova waiting for the tourists to arrive, and Agadir, wishing that they would return

There is, however, a fine balance, and it has been interesting to contrast and compare Funchal and Lisbon. Funchal, with a population of about 110,000 is unquestionably a tourist city; its geography leads toward a concentrated centre, and although one realises that there is a great deal of commercial and administrative activity that have nothing to do with the visitor economy, the life of Funchal has been subsumed by tourism. Lisbon is a considerably larger city, of course, but its population of 520,000 is rather differently spread. There are densely populated, high-rise developments that circle the city, and a central, historical core that is where the tourism activity is concentrated.

Load of tourists! 
Lisbon is one of Europe’s top short-break destinations; the advent of the three-day vacation has been propelled by Europe’s low-cost carriers, and these seem to have become the staple break for millions of people. Walking through the city one can hear dozens of languages spoken; hotel occupancy has grown from 63% to 76% in only five years and this 20% increase in tourists has been hugely positive to the local economy. Restaurants are booming and the local tourism providers are making a good living.

What is not to like?

Nothing at the moment, but it is only March. July and August will be hot, very crowded and the prices for all of the goods and services that tourists use will rise. Pressure on the city’s infrastructure will grow, and at some point in the future a positive, balanced growth will give way to a something more dangerous. Prices will rise fast, for tourists only; pick pockets and petty crime will rise; the tolerance and good humour of the locals whose city has been overrun and transformed will become increasingly distant.

Lot's of things to sell to the visitors!
We start by visiting a city to see how interesting life is in that destination; we engage the local people in this exposition; and finally we turn the destination into a parody of itself. Locals in Barcelona do not like the vast numbers of tourists who now visit; Londoners are fed up with throngs that make their city unlivable in certain months; and most certainly Mexicans, Moroccans and Dominicans resent the fact that their homes have been turned into expensive and unaffordable theme parks.

It is a fact of life that visitors change the places they visit. It always starts well, but as travellers want and demand more and more services, and local residents are priced out of markets for property, food and entertainment, tension will grow. We can help, of course, by being less demanding, by seeking local interaction and not simply observation, by exploring and getting even a mile away from The Hoards. And by visiting countries and parts of countries that are less explored we help spread the wealth and allow a greater interaction with the folks who live in our destination all year round.

We will also be very welcome, and not simply seen as another visiting ATM.

Aveiro, Portugal; off the beaten path, and very welcoming

Monday, March 20, 2017

Terrorism and tourism; when these currents meet.

It is true to say that in general, tourist resorts hold little fascination for me but tourism does. I am intrigued by the ebb and flow of people seeking a brief sojourn in another country or place, and have spent most of my life working in this industry.

My voyage of tourism discovery
Tourism flows are determined by many issues, and the major one is simply the destinations that the major tour companies choose to fly their aircraft; this, in turn, is determined by where there are sufficient hotel rooms. Following these practical considerations, consumer interest, local political circumstance, currency exchange and a host of other issues are contemplated and decisions are made.

It is important, however, to remember that aircraft seats and their matching hotel beds are the primary driver of tourism numbers; for every traveller who books a seat on a plane and their own hotels, there are ten who are purchasing packages. Further, with the increasing power of the on-line sellers to direct one’s search and eventual purchase, the independence of independent travellers is considerably less than one might wish to think.

And when tides turn, they turn fast; following the Tsunami in SE Asia, the tourism momentum immediately went elsewhere leaving the Thai and Malaysian authorities, among others, scrambling to regain their lost market share. It is relatively straightforward with physical disasters; tour operators simply wait until it has all been cleaned up; with terrorist attacks it is considerably harder to regain confidence in a destination.

And so, with this in mind, I set off on a short trip to visit a series of connected but very different destinations in the eastern Mediterranean and Atlantic to gauge the local confidence and perspective of the changing tourism industry, the economic lifeblood of these countries.

 Central Tunis - the Medina

Tunis, the charming capital of Tunisia was my first stop, and it was readily apparent that the numbers of visitors had dropped appreciably. Hotels were offering deeply discounted rates, the souk was empty of tourists and full of merchandise; prices were keen and the street vendors’ tone took on a sharper note. They were concerned and even more, they were worried. “Where have you all gone”, one trader asked me, “and when will you all come back?” The second question was considerably harder to answer than the first.

Following two dreadful attacks in Tunisia, one in the National Museum, the other at a beach resort near the ancient city of Sousse the tourism industry has been halved. The tour operators, ever mindful of clients’ interests, and of the powerful and guiding hand of their insurance companies, took their planes elsewhere, and abandoned Tunisia. The country, economically difficult before the assault, is in financial chaos. There is little work, sales of everything from food to carpets, from ice-creams to guides have tumbled and with this decline the governments’ tax revenues have fallen and employment levels are weak.

I found a similar situation in Agadir, a tourist town on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, and another city bereft of tourists. Even allowing for the fact that this was a low season, the tumbleweed, shuttered shops and insistent attentions of the hawkers was a reminder of the difficulties they were facing. The Moroccan statistics tell a different story, but the drop of only 1 or 2% that is being reported is met with laughter by the bus and hotel operators with whom I spoke, who know exactly how many groups are cancelling, and the airport knows that the shiny charter jets from northern Europe will be pointed in another direction this summer.

And this direction may well be the Canary Islands, and to the south, Cabo Verde. As I flew from Africa the 100kms to Gran Canaria, I could immediately sense the difference in attitude and see the sheer volume of tourists passing through the airport at Las Palmas, a strong indication of where the elusive travellers have gone.

Madeira
Las Palmas

And the Atlantic Islands are really wonderful destinations. The Canary Islands offer a vast inventory off accommodation and sights on several quite different islands. Madeira, some five hundred kilometres north of Gran Canaria is a delightful spot, and once again full of visitors. They are very different destinations, of course, and best described by one man thus: “The Canary Islands are all discos and pubs”, he said, “here in Madeira we are all about gardens and libraries.” Different strokes but two very interesting and, at least for the moment, safe destinations.

Travellers will travel and resorts will fill; the last great downturns in the European markets, in Egypt and Turkey, filled their rooms with Russians until those relationships soured. Perhaps the Tunisian resorts will look east to the Chinese markets who are desperately seeking new destinations for their massive market to visit. We will see.

Tourist seek heat and security; destinations that can offer this, or at least a good pretense at doing so will thrive; there is no shortage of tourists and is no dearth of lovely beaches, blues water and drinks with umbrellas in them. Scratch under the surface a little, and one might disturbed at the realities of the global tourism industry, but for the most part it is about sun, sea and happy faces.


However, the haunting question of “When will you come back” reverberates; asked to me quietly in the early evening at the ancient and beguiling souk in Tunis, I could think of no good answer. “I am here,” I said, but this was of little consequence. They have lost hundreds of thousands of visitors to terror; the terrorists win when we become too terrified to go and enjoy the hospitality and culture of a distant land; and it appears that in North Africa at least, right now, the terrorists have won.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Travels in North Africa - some observations.

North Africa, it is safe to say, is not the tourist industry’s flavour of the month. It is a region whose visitor numbers have dropped dramatically in the past couple of years, in Tunisia and Egypt in reaction to a few dreadful incidents and in Morocco in the fear that terrorists will strike there as well.

Tunis
The fear is real. Although we all try to say that “They won’t make us change our lives”, the reality is different. The major tour companies, whose insurance carriers among others are dissuading them from offering holidays in the region, are building their capacity to Thailand, Mexico and the Caribbean as alternatives, and the tourists will go where there are seats and beds. Our lives are changed.

Wandering through the Tunis souk was a sobering experience.

Tunis is a gracious, friendly, interesting, clean and most civilised place; it is a city of extraordinary cultural and historical depth, of fine architecture, of wonderful shops, of extraordinary sights and a quirky and mesmerising medina. It is also a city of thoughtful and extremely well educated people who wonder what has happened to their lives and their livelihoods. “You are only the third or fourth tourist I have seen today”, one intoned, and even allowing for a salesman’s hyperbole, it was already four o’clock in the afternoon and by now he would normally have seen dozens.

The Tunis Souk

“Will you tourists ever come back?”, he asked me. I don’t know the answer, of course, but to judge from feeling the city the lack of visitors is causing a palpable distress. I didn’t visit the tourist towns in Tunisia, but a few days later did visit Agadir an important tourism destination and indicative of the decline in the Moroccan tourism industry. Although not as bad as Tunisia, the Moroccan industry is way down; officially, it is only off a little, but talking to the restaurateurs, guides and taxi drivers the story was quite different. Agadir was empty, and even given that this is a slow time of the year, the number of shuttered shops, tumbleweed strewn restaurants and clearly decaying hotels was startling and told a vivid tale.

The deserted Agadir front
The street vendors’ persistence was sharp and all around one could feel concern; the deliberation as to whether to fleece the remaining tourists or treat them especially well was an equation that I saw racing across many faces; these are hard times for the tourist industry in a world that has become so finely sensitised to every item of news.

Yet for all of the concerns, the countries of North Africa offer visitors a wonderful experience. I met nothing but kindness, although sometimes tinged with an understandable self-interest, nothing but hospitality and I felt secure and welcome. My brief circuit took me to three distinctly different places; from the cosmopolitan city of Tunis to the unabashed tourist town of Agadir to the quintessentially Saharan community of Laayoune, and in each, I met a profound dignity and warmth.

The Western Sahara is a fascinating place. Although it is an integral part of Morocco on virtually every map one sees, the large presence of UN aircraft at Laayoune airport and their personnel in town tell a slightly different tale.

Laayoune in the Western Sahara


But no matter; the town is interesting in a way. It is not actually very interesting, but its location is, and lying some thirty kilometers inland tells a tale of The Desert. To the Bedouin people, whose complex lives and culture are intricately woven into the land and the sand, the sea is of no importance. 
The Sahara Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean
The water is salty, they cared little for fish, and swimming was not an obvious pastime; they are people of the desert. The sea is the end of the earth as known, and as such, it is best avoided. In consequence, their towns are inland, close to sources of fresh water, and there are hundreds of miles of shoreline where the desert meets the ocean with no signs of established life; a few newly placed tourism towns, and the odd port built to ship out the mineral wealth of the land but few traditional villages for people who had few traditional needs for the ocean.

(a bit of) The Sahara Desert 
The Sand is remarkable; contoured by the wind and constantly moving, this bone-dry landscape has all of the characteristics of the sea. The Sand moves; like a game of grandmother’s footsteps it is impossible to catch it moving, but the shapes, the dimples and fine curves cut into the dunes speak of a relentless motion. As we drove over the desert apparently at random, I was hoping that our driver had been well taught in the mysteries of The Sand by his father and his father’s father; as if to read my mind, Abdullah introduced himself as “Saharois”, a Saharan; simple, and to me (at that moment) comforting and the first time that I had met someone who chose to identify with this vast and demanding environment. My visit to the Western Sahara was moving, and a very special experience.

I love travelling in the Arab world; not, I would hasten to add, to the more severe, austere and stern countries, but to those whose concepts of hospitality are rooted in the ages and practiced to perfection. They offer travellers many, many rewards; their fascinating history, their long culture of art and education, the exquisite contemporary artisan work and the most delectable cuisine (and yes, some very fine wines from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon among others). Visitors are challenged and beguiled by the important and pervasive culture of the Islamic world.


The days punctuated by the calls to prayer, the hustle of the markets, the sounds of music and children playing are everywhere; it is a noisy culture, but it is a defined and understandable cacophony, and one that becomes understandable in very short order. It is remarkable how quickly one blends and adjusts, and it is only when one leaves and the daily momentum of the Arabic world becomes hushed that the rhythm of their life is really appreciated.

Abdullah, A Saharois Man

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Fabulous Hotel Madrid - Las Palmas

I checked into The Hotel Madrid with a little apprehension, although curious as to exactly what 38 per night could possibly buy in Las Palmas, one of the great tourist destinations of Europe, I had booked this property based primarily on reviews and not parsimony. But nevertheless, $45 is not a lot of money to spend on a hotel room.

The Hotel Madrid; First Floor foyer
Well, the answer was actually quite a lot. I was met by an apologetic ex-owner at the door, which also double as the entrance to a fine, period restaurant/bar. He advised that new owners had taken over twelve days before; they were redecorating, and had inadvertently failed to recognise my reservation in a fine front room (an additional 4) and had cut off the hot water.

This may have been an opening volley in some passive/aggressive challenge, but my choice was to stay in the room with a fine view, space but cold water, or shower to my heart’s content in a smaller and, apparently, inferior room. I chose the view.

My room; "original"
It is a quite lovely hotel; in conversation, he described it as an “anti-hotel”. “It is for tourists who don’t like hotels”, he explained, “it doesn’t change.” He expressed concern at the new owner’s enthusiasm for change.

As for now, The Hotel Madrid (what a fine, presumptive name that is) hasn’t really evolved; the place is a warm and embracing time warp; it is from the Franco era, as are a couple of the residents who spend their time drinking red wine and watching pretty well anything that happens to be on television. It is not “retro”, it is simply unchanged.

And I love it.

It is Hemingway, Churchill, the 70s and even the 50s all rolled up into a package and left in a time capsule. The marble is sharp, the plants cared for, the bed covers crackly and of dubious provenance and the bathrooms actually functional. 

It is curious to be here; sitting in the paneled/tiled bar/restaurant watching the world pass by the Plaza de Cairasco, a fine hipster-renovated restaurant (formerly a bank) only fifty feet away, but sitting here, in an oasis. An anti-hotel.

I love the concept; it could, I suppose, be recreated. It would, of course, become a theme park and lose its charm, dissolution and character. I have no idea who the new owners are, but will meet them tomorrow, I think; they will likely treat me with the scorn that I probably richly deserve. “The past is the past”, they are likely to intone, “and you have no idea what the property taxes are like.” I don’t, of course, but I do tire of hearing these dubious volleys at taxation as the justification for change.


The past cannot be recreated; but every so often one stumbles upon it.; and those moments are to be treasured and, one suspects, left behind.



Tuesday, March 7, 2017

European Ferries; a wonderful way to travel.

“I love ships”, I have told myself, “but I don’t like cruises.” It is a subtle difference, and one that I have a hard time explaining.

What I really mean, I suspect, is that I can’t stand the idea of spending a week or more on a floating version of Las Vegas being urged to have more and more “fun” and trying hard to avoid “locals”. This is a more upmarket version of a Butlin’s holiday camp, and the idea of enforced fun has never sat well with me.

But I do like ships; and I have, in the past, chosen to take the Queen Mary II across the Atlantic, all the time decrying the evils of cruising. I like the idea of using these majestic passenger liners as transportation and not solely as a crutch to sightseeing; I like getting on a ship in one port and disembarking in another having used it solely for transportation. It is, to me, a minor accomplishment in these days of Easy Flying.

And so, as I plotted the itinerary for this wander, I wanted to try and use one of the many Mediterranean shipping services that crisscross this vast sea. Palermo to Tunis seemed a reasonable choice, and the Grimaldi Line are a venerable and huge shipping concern; their vessels would exactly suit my needs and my mood, and so I booked passage.

Tunis harbour after our arrival
The Grimaldi Line is a fascinating organisation; owned by a Naples family and sharing the famous name of Monaco's rulers, to whom there is apparently no connection, it operates a major shipping concern throughout the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea; it operates a substantial fleet of cargo ships, “cruise class” ships and commercial ferries, and it was on the latter of these that I sailed on the MV Catania.

She is a workhorse; a 26,000-ton vessel that carries 800 passengers and a cast array of trucks, cars and containers, I boarded shortly before midnight from the Sicilian capital. Boarding was a unique combination of Sicilian organisation and Tunisian order, and as we all stomped through the opening gate to the single elevator that would haul us up to the accommodation decks I was rather excited. The ship was full, and this meant that those without cabins were actually rushing to claim their piece of floor in the lounge area, a pursuit that didn’t actually involve me at all.

The Catania cabin; perfectly cosy with
ensuite facilities. Exactly what one wants
for an overnight journey to Africa.
I was caught up in the spirit, however, and soon found myself bursting into my cabin. I had taken the precaution of booking a cabin for “sole occupancy”; not a terrific extravagance (€135 for the one-way journey), but as it turned out, a wise investment. 

The weather was rough; now, I like a bit of a blow, but this is a sentiment that was obviously not shared by everybody on board. When I rose in the morning for coffee, there was no food (Gordon Lightfoot’s “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya” was running through my mind) and the deck did look a little like the morning-after-a-fine-party. But no matter, I had coffee and repaired to my cabin to wait for Tunisia to appear.

The crossing did, in fact, make me want to do more. Grimaldi’s route is substantial, and very useful to travellers seeking to explore Europe. They offer service between Spain and Italy, and the route from Valencia to Salerno (in southern Italy) looks particularly tempting. 

They sail between Barcelona and the port of Civitavecchia, just to the north of Rome, on a route that is a very viable alternative to flying between these popular points. It leaves from Barcelona at 2245 the voyage to Rome takes about twenty hours, and becomes an integral part of a European vacation. Sardinia, a fascinating addition to any exploration of the Mediterranean and the major Adriatic ports are all part of their route network, and well worth considering. And, of course, Tunis is on their extensive route network, and this is a city worth visiting.

Boarding in Palermo; there is a lot
that you couldn't take on a plane. 
So it wasn’t a cruise and it wasn’t a ferry but it was a journey. And this, the ability to turn a trip into a journey is what I love about travel. Two ports, linked by a regular service, and a ship carrying nearly 1,000 people home, away, between and these countries adds a level of intrigue to the journey, and the simple requirement of getting from A to B becomes exciting!



I love ships.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Best Restaurant in The World

I qualify the statement simply because there are a couple of other extraordinary restaurants that I know and love, and would not want to make a definitive statement like “The Best” without causing opprobrium. Among them are Pheasant's Tears in Sighnaghi, Georgia, and The Creel in St. Margret’s Hope, Orkney (now sadly closed) and the Roca Sao Joao dos Angolares in São Tomé. There are others, wonderful restaurants all of them, but few make it to my top table, and let me tell you why.

To me, a restaurant is a combination of elements. The food, of course, has to be perfect; it also has to be “honest” and straightforward. The ambience must be comfortable and it must fit its surroundings; service needs to be attentive and professional but not overwhelming and finally the whole meal must feel honest; a curious word, I will agree, but one that upon reflection you will understand.

The Trattoria di Via Serra fits all of these requirements and more. Bologna is Italy’s “Food City”, and yet, among this fierce competition, the Trattoria remains (according to TripAdvisor) number 1 or 2 out of over 1,700 restaurants. This is no mean feat with only fifteen tables. It is in a curious location “off-piste”, and has a very challenging menu, one that is determined by the season, by the month, the week and simply the morning’s trip to the market.

The chef, Tommaso Maio, is quite simply a wizard; a category of chef that I have only before bestowed upon Gia Rokashvili at Pheasants’ Tears. His ability to take simple food and create a masterpiece is second to none, and tonight was no exception. Flavio Benassi, the front-of-house “face” of the Trattoria is another masterpiece; his knowledge of the food, its provenance and its culture is second to none, and his welcome is absolute.

And this partnership, of Flavio and Tommaso, is the first key ingredient.

The second is the food. It is, quite simply and without exaggeration, superb. It is fresh, locally sourced, perfectly cooked and exquisitely presented. This evening, I indulged, and had the (almost) complete meal; I fell at the final hurdle and had no dessert.

It started with a delicious pork sausage. The details remain a little unclear, but the meat came from some Hungarian Hairy Pigs who ran free by a volcanic caldera in central Italy. They tasted wonderful, seasoned as they were with fresh thyme and curiously, just a hint of orange, and I let the matter of their birthplace and upbringing slip. Then came the sweetbreads, grilled to perfection and served on a bed of puntarelle Romano, a slightly bitter green vegetable whose tartness was offset by a slightly sweet reduction that obviously included honey.

The pasta was delightful; a light strataccelli (described as the off cuts of pasta disguised as bow ties) with a cunningly simple Parma ham and pea sauce. Just like Flavio’s mother made it, apparently, but not a bit like my own mother’s cooking.

The fine dinner at the Trattoria

Finally, not wishing to appear churlish or full, I embraced the Main Course; the roast rabbit wrapped in yet more Parma ham was the piece de resistance, and darn good it was too. Simple, fresh, tasty and utterly delightful; I simply can’t imagine a better meal; light, elegant, delicious and interesting … all of the above, and boxes ticked in every category.

I could go on, and I will.

The restaurant is brilliant; apparently a solo diner, who I had watched suspiciously from the start, had (after he finished) flourished a Michelin card, and advised that he was “on the look out”, or words to that effect. Flavio was uninterested and a touch nervous; they were full all of the time already and what more could a star do but offer stress?

I agreed, and tucked into a second, or possibly third glass of Nocino; a digestif derived from green walnuts, syrup, patience and magic. What more could the restaurant want? What more could it deliver?

When it is perfect, it is best to keep it that way.


Reservations are, of course, recommended; and they need be made by telephone and no more than thirty days before the required date. To avoid disappointment, I would recommend calling a month before you want to dine there. I do.

Visiting Bologna; Italy's northern gem

Here’s the thing.

Italy is an almost brand-new country; it was unified only in 1861 from a motley collection of Dukedoms controlled by Hapsburgs, the French and other foreign powers, and as such only just beat Canada into the family of nations.

This is not terribly important other than to say that “Italian Food” is a bit of a misnomer, and as I find myself in Bologna, the food capital of Italy, mentioning that one likes “Italian Food” appears to be an insult of some significance. It is the food of Bologna, or Sicily, or Veneto or one of the country’s many regions that counts, and not an agglomeration of them all under one label.

So, with that definition out of the way, and I can assure you that it was an admonition that I bore well, it is time to wax poetic about Bologna, a fine city and home of one of my favourite restaurants of the world.

It is a city of some 385,000 wealthy, well dressed burghers who inhabit one of Europe’s loveliest places. It is old and preserved; the “abominable” urban renewal of the 19th century has now, in the 21st century become quite charming; the miles of colonnades housing shops of long provenance and restaurants that inspire wonder.

The Piazza Maggiore in Bologna 

Bologna is the home of Lasagna, Maserati cars, the Italian Co-op movement, Lamborghinis and Tortellini; it is the birthplace of Scipioni del Ferro, a mathematician who solved the cubic equation in the early 16th century and Pierluigi Collina, one of the best football referees that the world has ever known. Other luminaries were born here as well, but I rather like these two.

It is also the home of the world’s tenth largest cathedral (by volume) at a stunning 258,000 m³. I have absolutely no idea who measures places of worship by the cubic metre, or why, but I couldn’t resist sharing this important detail.

It is also the home to a wonderful city wall, towers (one leaning) and vast piazzas. It is not, however, the sight of the overwhelming number of tourist that have come to blight so many brand name European cities. It is, in short, a magnificent place to visit. It is a walking city as so many European locations are, and a fascinating place in which to discover quiet gardens, medieval towers (one leaning) built in the 12th century, and the traces of Roman urban planning reflected in the street layouts.

A major Roman road, the Via Emilia, the road that stretched from Rome to this northern territory, still forms the main thoroughfare of Bologna, and the largely pedestrianised streets of the city centre still follow the grid pattern laid down some two millennia ago. The colonnades are endless and delightful; one is a winding 666 vault arcade that wends its way some four kilometres linking a major church, the St. Luca to the town centre. The shopping is wonderful, the museums fascinating and the atmosphere of the city is relaxed and confident.

As my regular readers will have noticed, I am a fan of the “second division” destinations. I feel that they offer travellers a quite delightful perspective of a country, and are ideal points of entry, infinitely preferable than landing straight into the jungle that is Rome or Florence. Flying to Bologna is straightforward, its airport is linked to all of the major European hubs, and one can choose to fly directly here, enjoying the pace and beauty of the city before heading off to explore the rest of the country.



Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Travels in Moldova, TransDniester and Ukraine

I have been most remiss; I have, as you will know, not written a piece for some time, and have been rightly chided by some regular readers for this absence.

I have, however, been busy; my last piece was of two very fine restaurants in Bologna and Tbilisi, and there it all ended. But my wanderings have not.

A Ukrainian Railway Station
I spent time travelling through Moldova, the northeast corner of Romania and the southwest tip of Ukraine on a magnificent voyage of discovery, and leaving with a burning desire to return and explore in much more detail. The former Soviet countries of Europe, and perhaps Central Asia although I have yet to visit this part of the world, offer visitors a fine and unpasteurised look at the region. They are not yet subsumed by western brands, life is both simpler and more complex and the people warm and friendly.

The railway carriages in which we trundled around are elderly, in part, but add to the atmosphere of the region, and are a most interesting experience.

Travelling around this region was a great deal of fun, and we also included a side trip to the rather peculiar and unrecognised "breakaway republic" of TransDniester. This was, curiously my second visit to this eccentric country, and I well recall a conversation during the last where I had asked a local inhabitant what she wished for her "country" to become. "Well", she said with a shine in her eyes, " I would love us to become just like Kaliningrad".

I had never heard the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad being held up as the highest national aspiration, but it was, and I was keen to return to this tiny oddity and see if time had edged forward at least an inch. And, my goodness, it had.

The gateway to Tirasopol, and the inevitable "selfie with a tank"

Previously it had been backward, slow and musty; today, in comparison to neighbouring Moldova, it was shiny and sparkling, the beneficiary of billions of Russian Roubles. The tanks were still in sight along the main drag, and a massive statue of Lenin still stood guard over the "parliament" building, and there are still shiny banks, a testament not to the locals' wealth but to the torrent of funny money that flows through this financially myopic neighbourhood. It was a great place to see.

Our Living room in Chisinau
The mailboxes in the apartment
Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, is an odd place. Not very beautiful, and not terribly engaging, it is, however, rather Soviet, and for those who are curious about this very distinct period of Western history, it is a fine place to be.


My cousin and I rented a very pleasant, Soviet-era apartment through Airbnb, and loved what was for us, the retro feel. Delighted that this was only a temporary entertainment, and not a lifestyle, we used it as a base from which we went on day trips to see other parts of the country. It is an interesting place; Soroca in the north is the home of the "King of the Gypsies, and some extraordinary buildings being constructed by gypsies throughout Europe as a place for them to retire; truly bizarre, and proof that entire towns can be built from chintz and baubles.

Gypsy mansions in Soroca, Moldova. 

Continuing from the sublime to the ridiculous, or perhaps it was the other way around, we headed to Iasi in Romania, and thence to Chernivtsi in the Ukraine about which I shall write another piece.

I have also been broadcasting weekly on CBC Manitoba; from far and near. Sadly, my primary host, Terry MacLeod  retired two weeks ago, and here is a copy of the final show. I will continue the Saturday morning spots, but it will be different. 

Neither life nor geography ever stands still.











Friday, September 23, 2016

Bologna and Tbilisi; Two very fine restaurants

I do realise that I have a very fortunate life, and my ability to wander and experience the world is one that I don’t take for granted.

Bologna
There is, for those who wonder, a downside. My friend Cameron once said that I was “hyper-stimulated”, and thus unable to settle to routines any more, and constantly craving excitement. New colours, unseen mountains, interesting people and simply the need to see what is around the next corner. This is, of course, true, and while not exactly a curse, it does have its negative moments. However, in the quest for new and exciting places and experiences, I have found many wonderful places and people; and restaurants.

I have, in the past three days, been to two of the most wonderful restaurants it has been my privilege to experience. And I say this from many decades of hard trying; I have eaten at fine restaurants on each continent; I have had Michelin meals, eye popping fish and chips, spectacular Icelandic lobster and some of the finest meat that South America can provide. I have also had scorpions, sheep’s eye balls and the pride and joy of some lascivious horse, but those meals fade quickly.

This week’s two prizes are Barbarestan in Tbilisi and Trattoria di via Serra in Bologna.

Now both cities are renowned for food, Bologna possibly more simply due to its location, but for foodies seeking new and exciting tastes, Tbilisi offers some dramatic dining.

Neither are Michelin starred, and neither are expensive; neither are fancy and nor are they conceited. They are both family run, in Bologna by Flavio and Tommaso and in Tbilisi by the massive Kurasbediani family with their ten children. They both offer an exquisite balance between bewitching flavours and a completely unpretentious atmosphere. This self-assurance is the key to their success.
Georgian food is exciting; it is a riot of flavour and colour that both delights and amazes. Barbarestan takes this to a new level by fusing the unexpected together. 

Polyphonic singing at Barbarestan

Barbarestan
Their use of traditional herbs is masterful, and in fact, the entire menu is drawn from a cookbook written in the 19th century by a Georgian duchess (Barbara Jorjadze if you must know) found in the Tbilisi flea market; these are recipes unknown to the contemporary kitchen, and most certainly unfamiliar to the modern palate. Balanced with their substantial offering of Georgian wines, their encyclopaedic knowledge of Georgian customs and music and the polyphonic singing that can accompany some mealtimes, this family has got it right.

And so to Bologna I flew; two years ago I had written that the Trattoria di via Serra was “worth stopping over in Europe simply to eat there”. I wanted to see if this was true.

The menu at Trattoria di via Serra

Flavio was, as usual, at the door, letting diners in only after they had rung a bell. One can dine pretty well only by reservation, and the small location is usually full. Its popularity comes, I think, from its attention to detail and the presentation of local, countryside food. Once again, the dishes are not fancy, but drawn from the inspirations of fresh produce artfully combined. Tommaso is a wizard in the kitchen; his skills are evident with every mouthful. His ability to draw the strength of flavour from such simple combinations of ingredients is an inspiration.

Meatballs are not, in fact, a terribly attractive dining options; however, Tommaso's wizardry in combining the apparently basic ingredients is awe inspiring, and takes this simple dish to dizzy heights. 

Two such different restaurants in two such different cities. Their similarities, however, are at the root of their success and attraction. Both run by families, one small and one large, but the intimacy offered by the close collaboration of the owners is evident in their food. The cuisine is simple, artful, thoughtful and utterly delicious.


This is fine dining, and not “Fine Dining”.