Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Airbnb; When it goes wrong, it can be made right.

I wrote a piece a couple of days ago that raised some issues about AirBnb, and how to deal with situations that go bad.

Well, firstly, I should say that their help team, having "reached out" to me, did make the situation better, but did leave a couple of issues hanging.

They offered some compensation, which was fine and agreeable, but actually, I hadn't asked for any; I was really asking about what one should do when there is an issue, and there is no wi-fi network with which to communicate, and no local phone numbers. This remains unanswered.

I questioned the write-ups that are posted, and noted that many hosts, not being in the travel business, do not really understand the difference between low and high seasons, wet and dry seasons, and advising their clients of these potential issues. Or having the obvious pricing differential that the industry itself embraces.

No matter; as I said before, Airbnb is a fine organisation. Reading between the lines, getting advice on the actual destination if you are not sure (does it get cold and damp in central Reunion in August?), reading the reviews and writing honest and straightforward reviews yourself.

I like Airbnb and am soon heading to the Gulf and West Africa, and will be using them again. Next time, however, I shall probably do a little more critical reading.

Caveat Emptor!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Airbnb - Great when it works

Here’s the thing; when one looks for commercial accommodation listings, there are a few universal truths that we all know:

1)      The cheapest hotels buy the most expensive photographers
2)      Small rooms are photographed with fish-eye lenses
3)      They don’t exaggerate about “the bones”

If a room is small, its dimensions are given in terribly small writing, and euphemisms like “cozy, snug and homey” are used with abandon. The furnishings, sometimes brought in for the occasion, are pretty and very well matched, and exaggerated to maximum that the owner's imagination can conjour.

When one arrives, the room's decoration may be very different, and indeed rather frayed and the finery somehow downgraded, but the room's size is still "cozy, snug or homey". 

Seduced by the pictures of the accommodations outside, and ignoring the minor detail that one does not actually sleep outside nor enjoy the outside perspective while asleep we are lulled into a false reverie.

On Airbnb, this is different. People with no linkage to the commercial world are let loose to describe their own properties, properties that they apparently love unconditionally.

And so this week, I have stayed in two properties in La Réunion; one perfect, the other imperfect. One warm, friendly and comfortable, the second with the ambiance of an empty hill-top youth hostel in the dead of winter. It was cold, damp and mouldy.

Option "A" and Option "B"

But try and talk to Airbnb about it! Ha …. They have no way to penetrate their technological defences.

Fair enough, but having checked out after one night of a three-night stay, I would have like to be soothed by someone who facilitated the arrangement.

Instead, I have again learned about Buyer Beware; and this is the heart of the matter.

We believe what is written; reviews are great, but with only four or so they are hardly representative; and written in languages that one might not speak and translated by that paragon of twisted speech, Google Translate, they are really difficult to trust.

So buy with an open mind; realise that if you wander into a swamp you have paid for it, and there is nobody to cry to. Equally, should you wander into a palace, and I have stayed in some fabulous Airbnb properties, it was by chance.

The sharing economy is a great idea; it does, however, rely on reviews, and lots of them. You can’t only have the gushers and whiners responding; you need every participant to understand that the key to the success of this amazing opportunity is participation.

But don't get me wring; I love Airbnb, and will use them again and again. They do, however, need a little customer service. By all means, head for Airbnb, Uber, Couch Surfing and any one of these brilliant concepts, but remember; the success of the sharing economy hinges on you writing a review.

And guess what? Just saying that is was “OK” or “Average” is very important. Not everything is brilliant or awful; most of us are average – which is what average means. And knowing this before taking a leap into the unknown is very reassuring.

The good one.




Thursday, August 18, 2016

Réunion Island; What an amazing find !

"Why are you going to La Réunion?", I heard a lot. Well, firstly because it is an amazingly interesting place; Réunion is isolated, volcanic, wildly curious, gorgeous and completely counter to any concept of an-island-in-the-Indian-Ocean. And secondly because it is an astonishingly interesting destination.

This, of course, was a little odd because one’s first impressions are not terribly positive. There are nearly one million people living on the island; yes, that is a one plus six zeros. It covers an area of only 970 square miles (and no, I don’t know how many multiples of a football field or Rhode Island that is – although it is actually (thanks to Wikipedia) four times larger than Rhode Island) …. And there I lose it.

Arriving at the local/international airport one is overwhelmed with life; life is everywhere, and the immediate impression is not of a peaceful, Indian Ocean hideaway, but of being back in France. And, as in France, there are a lot of cars. A very large number of cars, all wanting to be where you want to be at roughly the same moment in time. Few driven well, but few dented terribly badly. It didn't bode well, and it was a holiday Monday.

Traffic, however, gave way to fine roads which in turn gave way to some delightful beaches which in their turn gave way to a degree of tranquility that a fifteen kilometer drive rarely provides.

But the island is odd; imagine, if you will, the slow-motion image we have all seen of a drop dropping into a placid liquid; La Réunion looks a bit like the resulting splash. It is an island that has been torn apart by violent volcanic activity, cut up by agricultural interests, laid low by urbanization with only rudimentary planning in its early stages but left with a most delightful landscape.

The island is roughly circular, and if one feels so inclined, and the traffic permitted, could be driven in about three hours. The population lives mostly within a kilometre or two of the north and west coasts, and driving through the collection of heavily-populated communities (mostly named after Saints – Denis, Paul, Gilles (?), Benoit, Leu and so on) one could easily imagine one was dealing with the Toulouse périphérique on a normal evening rush-hour.

Interestingly, my rudimentary search for Saint Gilles' inclusion in these pious ranks led me not to a noted mystic and miracle worker, but only to an apparently convivial suburb of Brussels. I must be missing something.

 
Reunion's variant beaches with explanation

However, I digress. I flew to Réunion on a whim; I hadn’t been here, I wanted to go somewhere interesting and the Indian Ocean beckoned. Air France, it must be said, offers some very attractive fares from North America to St, Denis, all allowing a stopover in France, so price-of-access is not really an issue. I had no expectations; didn’t bother to buy a guide book, couldn’t find much on-line and wasn’t really concerned – I knew that I could arrive and figure it out.

And I arrived; in the rain. Waited for the car rental to be sorted and headed off to the Airbnb booking that I had made; almost at random, I have to say, but not completely – it was in St Pierre, noted as a drier part of the island.

Stopping briefly at one of the two swimming area of Réunion – basically, the two areas that have been protected from sharks – and looking at the gorgeous beach with the attendant gorgouesnesses that beaches attract was a great start. Sharks are a growing problem, I found, and thus surfing and swimming were becoming less popular. With wind in the sails, I headed south.

Finding Airbnb properties can be challenging; addresses are locally understood, but rarely visible to passers-by; such was mine, but after getting within fifty metres of the house, I was defeated and called the owner. Who could see me … and I checked in. I like Airbnb, and Réunion offers a very wide selection of properties, in addition to the more conventional types of accommodation.

And so to explore.

The island is extraordinary; every inch a different landscape or climate; a new history or geography, and the first order of action was to visit the Piton de la Fournaise, the active volcano that dominates the southeast corner of the island.

With lava flows from various eruptions, chillingly contemporary, it is brilliant; lava from black to mouldy green, thick forest, deep blue sea and the jarring red umbrellas of the souvenir sales folks, this is a great attraction; it is also on the way to the Anse de Cascades (or from if one is travelling the other way), another brilliant attraction.

Basically, the cliffs appear to be made, or at least engineered, in the manner of a Swiss cheese, and the water collected and channeled through its diaspora of rivers, streams and channels spurts out of the cliff face in a most interesting and amusing manner. 


Reunion is unusual, it seemed, and I immediately liked it for that quirk of both geography and expectation. Almost everything about is was slightly eccentric.

Its volcanoes are odd; they are, apparently “active” or “dormant”; the distinction is not really one that is applicable to our personal time scales. When they preen, they destroy; when they are “dormant”, they are photogenic. They are as gentle as their next eruption; which could be shortly. Or not - that is the thing about volcanoes.

The volcano of southeast Réunion is active; very much so. The volcanoes of the three “Circuits” in the centre of the country are dormant. They are, however, only ten miles apart.

Réunion is wonderful; I have been here for three days, and am captivated. I want to explore every inch of the island and will attempt and report exactly that.


Tiggers like Réunion.



Friday, June 3, 2016

St. Helena; a remarkable island in remarkable trouble

St. Helena may not be the most recognised country in the world, but the predicament in which it now finds itself is quite extraordinary, and deserving of thought.

Approaching the Island
It is isolated, and this simple fact is the cause of the islanders’ current sense of complete isolation, even abandonment. It is so far into the Atlantic Ocean, and so far from any other land that until last month when an airport was finally opened it was accessible only with a regular schedule of the Royal Mail ship, the RMS St. Helena. This vessel served both St. Helena, and Ascension Island on a complex itinerary that offered the Saints, as the islanders are called, approximately fourteen sailings off the island each year.

I was fortunate enough to have visited St. Helena with three friends in 2014, and loved every minute of the six-day voyage. Many of our fellow passengers were working on the airport construction project, an extraordinary engineering feat, and one that promised to open the island to the outside world and generate the beginnings of a tourist-based economy.

The RMS St. Helena in Cape Town
We did, however, feel a little perplexed; the generosity of governments is not well known, and to spend well over £250 million on a tourism development project for an island of 4,000 people did seem a touch munificent. “Could it”, we wondered, “have anything to do with the American’s rather robust presence on Ascension Island?”

Jamestown, the island's major centre

Ascension is a volcanic pile of rock with no indigenous population, and its attraction is purely based on its strategic location. The US military built “Wideawake Airfield” there, and although it lies on British soil and is the home of the RAF Ascension base, the Americans are, as is their wont, getting increasingly edgy about who goes there.

St. Helena's defences
This is important because civilian traffic between the UK and the Falkland Islands (remember that war?) use Ascension as a refueling base, and passengers are now subject to an American veto. There is a substantial GCHQ base there, the British equivalent of the American NSA, and civilians working for the BBC, Cable & Wireless and the meteorological services. None of whom the Americans really want anywhere near there airbase.

Well then; thoughts that Washington might become increasingly finicky about visitors to this British island and gradually move to an administrative “occupation”, such as that in Diego Garcia, led us to ponder a simple question. “Were the British, under the guise of an extremely big-hearted approach to tourism and the four thousand islanders, actually shifting their mid-Atlantic base south to St. Helena? Would a new GCHQ base flourish there, and would this become the UK’s and Europe’s new watching base in the South Atlantic?”

Who knows? Well, some obviously do, but we don’t. Six days on a ship in the South Atlantic will do this sort of thing to even reasonable chaps’ minds however, and we had a wonderful time whiling away the six days afloat pondering. 

And also marveling at the engineering masterpiece the airport was.

Everything had to fit through this archway
Imagine, if you will, building an airport on a remote island; the first caveat was that there was no dock suitable for landing any serious equipment, and this necessary facility had to be built from pieces that would fit through the eighteenth century archway on the Jamestown waterfront.
A 450 metre mountain peak had to be chopped up and moved to fill in a 450 metre gully in order to create level space for a runway, and all from original pieces of machinery that could fit through a hole in the wall that was about 15 x 20’ in size. Remarkable.

The problem today, however, is that this astonishing airport doesn’t work. The turbulence and wind shear is so great that it appears to be too dangerous to fly to the airport with any payload at all. There have been two aircraft land, one a Bombardier Challenger jet, and the other an Airbus on a proving flight. In both cases, the pilots reported dramatic and dangerous turbulence, and did not want to fly there again.

Consider the danger; the island is so remote that its alternate airport is Windhoek, 2,000 kilometres away, and aircraft flying to St. Helena will have to carry sufficient fuel for this possible diversion; this means that they will always land “heavy”, and the dangers of an incident on the runway are difficult to comprehend. There would be no way for emergency medevac flights to attend and there is no hospital on the island; such an incident could prove to be extremely grave. Commercial aviation always carries potential dangers, but those specific to St. Helena mean that the airport must be unquestionably and categorically sound.

And it is not. This report by Lord Ashcroft well describes the issues at the airport and is important to read.

The local shops are running low
And what of the islanders? So convinced of the airport’s reliability and the weekly flights that would connect them to the African mainland, the ship has sailed away into the sunset (well, actually north to the UK) to be decommissioned and is three weeks from the island. They are running short of food, there is no plan for the ship to return, although obviously it must do so, and no aircraft in sight.

Local residents who have invested heavily in the tourism boom are facing ruin and the game of finger-pointing is starting. One, the delightful Hazel Wilmot, proprietor of the charming Consulate Hotel and a fellow passenger on the RMS, has invested £2 million in her property. Now, with no guests, no way to get on or off the island and no evident solution for the next few months, her future looks bleak.

It is a delightful island, and with its issues of approach and departure still so testing, it is no wonder that the British used St. Helena to assure Napoleon’s exile

Longwood - Napoleon's final home on St. Helena


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bodega Sommos: A Super Natural Winery

There are wineries, and there is the Bodega Sommos, located in north-central Spain, just south of the Pyrenees in rural Aragon. For those (like me) whose knowledge of Spain is limited to the most iconic locations, exploring Aragon has come as a complete and wonderful surprise.

Rural Aragon
It is a vast and geographically diverse region, and of historical significance to the British because of Catherine and her relationship with King Henry VIII; and that the pomegranate happened to be her symbol. Although betrothed to Prince Arthur (Henry’s brother) at the tender age of three, and married when she reached a more respectable eighteen, her Spanish life was spent with her parents (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (or Aragon)) wandering around the country fighting other kingdoms; not her, obviously, but she would have wandered along with the family. And so she probably had little appreciation of the beauty and diversity of her homeland, Aragon, which is a pity. Because it is a wonderful region of a wonderful country, and the Bodega Sommos is a crowning jewel.

I visited by chance; colleagues from Tbilisi had gone to the winery during a wine tourism conference in Barcelona, and had encouraged me to visit; I was planning a little wander thorough the Pyrenees with my brother, Rik anyhow, and so after contacting Blanca Galino Sanz, the most effervescent and knowledgeable winery representative it has ever been my pleasure to meet, a date and time were set (noon, on May 4th, as it happened), and off we drove through the mountains to keep the engagement.

And my goodness, am I glad that we did. Simply approaching the property is overwhelming. Spanish roads are wonderful, and one turns left by turning right; well, instead of blocking the highway, one is led off to the right and turned to cross the highway from a right angle, and it was at this moment that the full significance of the Bodega Sommos came into view.

Bodega Sommos 

When one is visiting a “natural winery”, there is an image of artisans, pretty frocks billowing in the gentle breezes, a slightly ramshackle but homely winery and a convivial tasting. Well, let me tell you that there is nothing ramshackle about Sommos; it is a fabulous building, designed in 2008 just in time to go bankrupt in the Spanish meltdown, but reignited in 2011 and now running on all cylinders.

My Favourite
They grown a lot of grapes. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as one might expect, but surprisingly, also a Gewurztraminer, one of my favourite grapes, but completely unexpected here. The grape's success was due, we were advised, to the cold and wet winters, and the proximity to the mountains. 

Their reds are the traditional Merlots, Sauvignons and Tempranillos, and all grown with a meticulous eye for detail about every single thing that one could imagine affecting the crops. For this is a “natural winery”, organic, if you like, and uses no pesticides or chemicals in the production of their wines. 

In lieu of pesticides, pheromones are used to so erotically exhaust the pest-bugs, they fall motionless to the ground instead of spreading disease. Wild flowers are grown (or at least they allow wild flowers to flourish), and this melange seem to keep the meticulous vines healthy, happy and ready to please. Which is good, given that the bodega cost somewhere in the region of €120 million to create.

The massive tanks
They harvest gently; large drums of grapes arrive at the winery and are gently jiggled through filters that reject those of the wrong colour, shape or size and allow only the perfect fruit to drop  into the vast fermentation tanks; the tanks, of either 16,000 or 32,000 litres do their thing before they are further mixed.
Not by any crude whisk, but by removing the bottom third of the grapes and dropping them back on top to crush the luckier ones that had been lying at the top of the heap; mixed by gravity, the primary source of force in the bodega.This tactic, using only the pull-of-the-earth certainly seems to work, although gazing down to the depths of the 50 metre tanks one marvels at the sheer quantity of fruit that gets processed; actually, it comes to about 6,000,000 litres of wine each year, the sale of which goes some way to making a dent into the €120 million investment, and the twenty-five year-round staff who keep this wonderful machine ticking over in harmony with the order of things (as St. Augustine would have probably said).

Some oak storage barrels and "Area 51"

My favourite part of the bodega is Area 51; it is the experimental part of the bodega where 51, 100 and 200 litre tanks of secret, experimental creations are furtively fusing in the hope of finding the prefect recepie. Judging by the products that we sampled, these are not wasted efforts.

Blanca with Rik
It is a fine winery; ranked as the “2nd Wonder of the Wine World” by The Drinks Business magazine, a journal of the serious tippler, and as a visitor, overwhelming on many levels. It is architecturally stunning; sympathetic to its environment and although quite dramatically built, it retains the warmth of a more traditional Spanish Bodega. Perhaps it was Blanca, whose care and guidance enthralled us, and whose generosity in the dining room overwhelmed us, but perhaps it is that secret ingredient that all wineries seek.

For making wine is more than science; it is an art. It is always part magic and part sorcery. Fine grapes, perfect science, first-class facilities and ideal weather do their part, but it is the addition of that supernatural supplement that makes a truly great wine.


And the supernatural is at Bodega Sommos in abundance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Muscat and Oman; a most surprising destination


Travelling to Oman seemed so exciting and demanding; careful planning for visas, car insurance, hotels and every other facet of travel was indicated. However, as it turned out, visiting The Sultanate of Oman is a true joy, simple and an experience like no other.
I drove 1,200 kilometres through the country, and wished that I had given it more time to explore.

From the welcoming message as I crossed the UAE border to the universal greetings I received from everybody I met, I was completely mesmerized, and astonished to find out just how little I knew about this surprising country.

Oman is old; very old indeed, and once a great geographical power throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond. Indeed, its last major dependency was the island of Zanzibar which only joined Tanganyika to create Tanzania in the mid 1970s. It was a formidable country.

On the road from Al Ain to Muscat
Yet in 1970, there were only two paved miles of roads in Oman, four schools and consequently little or no development. But there was oil, and in the personage of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Saed, a mind focused completely on developing his country. He spent the decade of the 1970s travelling through the land talking and listening to his people, and in about 1980 embarked on a thirty-five year (so far) development scheme the like of which it is impossible to imagine.

He is a remarkable man; his father ensured that he studied, and in order to properly develop the skills necessary for the task of nation building he saw in it a military parallel, and sent him to Sandhurst for several years. While the transition from father to son was not entirely peaceful, clearly the lessons were well learned, and today his achievements are visible everywhere and his work reaches into every corner of the country.

Unlike the neighbouring Emirates, Oman’s way is to do things unobtrusively. They join no wars, they fight no battles; they are the region’s peacemakers and political deal-makers, and one imagines that its corps of diplomats are kept very busy indeed. Quietly and with dignity is the Omani way.

And unlike its neighbours, Oman was not turned into a Theme Park.

An Omani doorway
Adhering to strict regulations about the style of architecture, the country grew. Massive six-lane highways link the major centres, tremendous ports were built, cities designed and created and infrastructure laid to every corner of the nation. But first, before any of the major construction work, schools and hospitals were spread throughout Oman, because without the basic ingredients of education and health, it would be impossible to develop the nation.

And so today, as this Herculean achievement has been quietly evolving, Oman has become a wonder for visitors. Its cities, while new, are fascinating; the old port towns still retain a strong air of historical continuation, and their souks are fascinating places to explore, haggle and buy. The community of Muttrah, adjacent to Muscat, is delightful, and a fine place to get a feeling of this unique part of the world.

 The Muttrah Corniche, and its Souk 

Muscat itself is a long, long city; stretching about 40 miles from Muscat, the small, old capital to the Seeb International Airport, is evolves from old to new, from craggy hills to flat shoreline. There are fine museums, opera houses, beaches, parks and shops; there are numerous restaurants and magnificent public buildings. No expense has been spared, and a remarkable restraint on eccentricity has been observed.


Central Muscat


 To leave the city and head in to the hills is to be transported to another era; small villages with their characteristic houses, unorthodox collections of shops and imposing mosques are most curious. The weather, sadly, was not the best, and a dust haze obscured the mountains from any distance, but seeing the Al Hajar range from a distance was impressive. As we approached, and headed to Nakhal Fort, the sheer power of the region was quite obvious.

 The fort, built some time between 600 and 700 AD is impressive; there is little visible of the original site, but through lavish application of appropriately coloured plaster, a very reasonable facsimile of the original is there for one to view. I am actually pleased that they have gone for a complete makeover, and the site is most impressive.

It sits, predictably on a Wadi (or river), and close to the site are the springs that feed this vital watershed; they are unusually hot, and pour endlessly from a small opening in the rock, and presumably have been doing this for millennia. There are many forts, many castles, many wadis and oases to visit, and I am already looking forward to returning to Oman to explore much more of this hidden gem.

My guide for the afternoon excursion was Suleiman, a young man with three children, the youngest of whom was three weeks old. I mention this only because as I heard this as we drove hastily through the singular Omani traffic, I hoped that he wouldn’t fall asleep. His knowledge of Omani history was encyclopaedic, and while I can remember little detail from what he told me, I recall enough to make me want to learn more before my inevitable return.

Taking a day tour made the country come alive, and it was the perfect balance to the independence of a self-drive car. Driving in the region is not difficult; road signs, as is the way of the world, are erected by those who live in the area and know where every place is, and this generated the odd frisson as one’s exit whizzes by. However, in general, a car hire in combination with one or two guided tours is a fine way to explore and learn about this remarkable country.


Oman is a little reticent, a quality that has kept this nation strong, and that has allowed it to develop away from the world’s gaze. It has allowed Oman to become a real treasure, and a destination that will only become more popular as time goes by.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Touring Georgia: some ideas and observations.

Travelling to Georgia is a quite astonishing and unique experience, and I have had many requests for more practical information from readers. How, when, where and sometimes why are asked, and perhaps this will help.

Georgia is, as you will have noticed from my blog, a truly remarkable country. It is remarkable on many levels, and offers visitors an extraordinary variety of experiences, and that is just the beginning.

It is possibly easier to start by saying what Georgia is not. It is not a homogeneous destination, and it is not overrun with tourists; yet. It is not in the grip of any political crisis, and is a country that has managed to wend a path neatly between its painful past and its future. This has not been easy, but the country is resilient, educated and optimistic.

It is a country of passion; often the deep, thoughtful type rather than the ebullience of the Mediterranean, and a country of thought. To spend an evening with Georgians, eating, drinking laughing, singing and toasting is to have one’s soul opened; inevitably one makes toasts, revealing remarkably personal ideas, and sharing thoughts with people who until a few hours before, were complete strangers.

And that’s the key really; Georgian hospitality is legendary, and thousands of years of occupation, war and subjugation have failed completely and utterly in the attempts to extinguish the Georgian Soul. A combination of many factors: isolation, language, the alphabet and the Georgian church are just a few of the threads that have kept the identity burning and alive. 

An evening at Pheasants' Tears in Sighnaghi

 And it is an identity that visitors will find on their first day in this wonderful country.

The Alaverdi Monastery
The architecture, the food, the design and the landscapes are unique; the sights and sounds, the smells and stories will enchant and surprise. Geographically, Georgia is richly endowed with such variety that it is hard to believe each region exists. But it does; in a ten-day trip through the country one will pass from remote and ancient villages in the distant Svaneti Valley, to lush agricultural landscapes, to the rich culture of the Georgian church and the quirky design of Tbilisi, the capital city. One will listen to the haunting sounds of polyphonic music and embrace the different cuisines of the various regions of the country; and all the time marvel at just how small Georgia really is.

But now is the time to go. I have been fortunate enough to visit regularly over the past six years, and where two years ago I saw two or three tour groups, now I see five or six; hotels are sprouting up and magazines in Europe and North America are now full of the country’s many charms. There is a long way to go before Georgia is overwhelmed by tourists, but the time will come, and those of us who were privileged to visit before the hoards will be able to smile quietly and be grateful that we did.
  

The Great Caucasus Mountains in Svaneti and Mtskheta, the ancient capital 

And if you think that this is a shameless way to plug my two tours (The Classic Georgia: Food, Wine and Culture and the Soviet Legacy Tour) that will run this September, you are partly correct. They will be fun. However, I am more interested in ensuring that one way or another, you get to experience the Georgia that I have come to love – with me or with others, or simply exploring by yourselves. In the immortal words of Nike, “Just do it”!


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Chechnya; a glimpse of an extraordinary culture

In truth, I didn’t actually get to Chechnya, but I might as well have done so, and I loved the first flake of this remote, North Caucasian culture.

Mamuli Gumashvili
There is a valley in north Georgia called the Pankisi Gorge; sparsely populated for millennia, since the 19th century, 10,000 Chechens, fleeing  one brutal war or other,  settled here as refugees. This convenience has continued to this day, with more fleeing the 1993 war when the Russians so pitilessly bombed this small republic. Today, the vast majority of the Pankisi Valley are of Chechen origin, and here, Islam lives peacefully with the local Orthodox faith.

And it was here that I was told of a man born in 1870 whose son had a mobile phone; I knew it to be true because the son in question (Mamuli Gumashvili, b. 1955) was sitting next to me at lunch and told me himself.

His father, you see, had been seventy-eight years old with only daughters, and no son to carry his name. After his wife died, and leaving a suitable period for mourning, his daughters found him a second wife, some fifty years his junior. She bore him another daughter when he was eighty, and finally a son when he was in his eighty-fifth year.

If this Year Of Great Celebration was 1955 and he was 85, it follows that he was born back in 1870. And I can vouch for the fact that his son has a mobile phone.

And a Dechik Pondur; this three-stringed instrument, related to the Georgian Panduri, is plucked to accompany the haunting music of this remote region, and following the most delicious and over-the-top lunch he played for us.

The northern Pankisi Gorge
We were in an odd place. The community is called Khadori, and it lies beyond the community of Birkiani, the most northerly dot on the normal government maps. It is small, remote, deep in a valley of presumably high, but mist-obscured mountains, and is home to the most optimistic hotel and restaurant I have ever visited. 

There may be a need for a sixty-seat facility here, but I can't really see it; the accommodation on the other hand, a touch rustic but rather pleasant, would be most useful to those few tourists heading to the valley. Tourism here would be for hikers, those interested in anomalies and the co-existence of Islam and Orthodoxy, those interested in the ethnography and culture of the otherwise unknown Chechens and those simply interested in deepening their knowledge of the most fascinating country of Georgia.

Believe me, the food and wine are worth meeting; our lunch, modest I am told (but disbelieve) was served with passion and overflowing sense of hospitality; the meal was spectacular, and once more highlighted what a very fine destination Georgia is for vegetarians. Wild leeks, fresh tarragon and beets, salads and local cheeses, nettle pies and aubergines accompanied the barbecued meats and fortified us for the inevitable toasts.

Our modest luncheon spread

Including a toast, I should add, made by myself. I noted out that these were the first Chechens that I had ever knowingly met, and they were completely unlike the folks portrayed by the media. Their warmth and hospitality were irresistible, their music and cuisine delightful, and I hoped fervently to return and stay a little in one of their cozy cabins.



And so we left, driving past the valley’s communities, noting the mosques and chadors and marvelling at the 150 years of integration that has finally let peace come to the Pankisi Gorge. While it is true that some young men have left the valley to join Daesh, they are not seen locally as representative, and the vast majority of the Chechen population are dismayed by this intrusion. 

Making Khinkali
Not, I should add, that my rose-tinted glasses prevented me from realising that this had also been a lawless frontier, the centre of drug and gun-smuggling, kidnapping and much other anti-social mayhem until the Georgian government of Michael Sakashvili came down in it like a ton of bricks in 2004; but it was neither ethnic nor sectarian mayhem, it was simple villainy. So that’s alright then.

Georgia never fails to surprise and delight me; for such a small country (69,000² kms) there are so many very different and superbly variant places to explore; there are different cuisines, different musical traditions, different languages, and a eye-watering variety of landscapes. 

Today was no exception, and as I sit and write these thoughts, I can’t help but wonder what is in store for tomorrow as we head west to Imereti.


Are you interested in travelling to Georgia? Come and join me on my fourth "Georgia: its wine, food and culture" tour  in September 2016. For full booking details, please contact me!