Sunday, August 29, 2010

Overland Travel

I have an explanation to offer.

I like travelling overland for a variety of reasons. I can see people; I can actually feel the earth beneath me and know that we are all connected; I can meet people, and perhaps the most important point of all is that it is the only way I have of cocking a snoot at the ghastly intrusions of airport security.

Of course, these intrusions are new, and I have been wandering around for decades, but they area current bête-noire of mine, and the very thought of the scowling and shrill battalions of “security officers” that prowl through Chicago airport (in particular) will keep me driving for some miles to come.

And then I realised that over the past forty years or so, my wanderings had suddenly and finally linked a long and rather interesting journey. I have travelled overland from the remote Orkney island of Westray to Baku in a series of unlinked journeys. In November I will sail from New York to Southampton and extend the journey to Baku all the way to Tofino on Vancouver Island’s gorgeous west coast.

And at that point, I shall write a book. Journeys from 1975 link seamlessly with those take thirty-five years later; rail journeys, sea crossings and long journeys hitch-hiked in the past all weave together to create a fascinating, at least to me, fabric. Cathartic, I hope, self-centered I am sure, but I am looking forward to setting fingers to word processor (thank God for the ability to save and edit) and drawing the strands of my wanderings together.

So now the secret is out; my family were poured onto the Baku to Tbilisi train to satisfy another of my whims. They are only lucky that the ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, lying temptingly in Baku harbour, wasn’t the missing link.

Svaneti; the magical ceiling of Georgia

Every time I finish an overland journey, I decide that it was the last one that I would make. It comes as a complete surprise every so often to realise that I am neither getting younger, nor is my age staying still. Not, I have to emphasise that I am ancient, but simply that the virtues of Marriott Hotels and airlines are more pronounced than they used to be.

But then I look at an atlas, spot a curious journey and start thinking about it. I have two or three on the go at the moment actually, fomenting in my somewhat overactive brain.

And a combination my trusty National Geographic atlas and my Georgian friend Ia’s urging led us to book passage to Svaneti. Well, to be fairer, I booked it and then let my wife and two daughters know where we would be going for a summer vacation. They smiled, much in the sympathetic fashion of the nice, young men in crisp, white shirts who work in a rather specific type of hospital.

However, we went; back now in Tbilisi, I am once again drawing a moratorium on this kind of travel, but I am sure to break it when I finally get to go to the Guianas, one of the three current ideas. The journey is not easy, from Tbilisi it is an eleven-hour drive, and the last four (or first four on the return) are taken up traversing an extraordinary 160km road through gob-smacking scenery over a surface of loosely graded boulders deep into the high valleys of this remote region.

The scenery, it must be said, and has been by many others, is astonishing. This is a land that has never been invaded successfully and has a vibrant history, so well exhibited in the national museum in Mestia, for many, many centuries. The region is defined by its towers; these towers, defensive for both protection against aggressors, usually neighbours, and nature, in the form of avalanches punctuate the landscape. A traditional Svanetian house is large and capable of housing an extended family of people and animals - the winters are long and the snow too deep for the cows, sheep and horses. Attached to the house, but accessible often only to those who know the secret passage is a tower, some three or four stories tall.

And they are truly magnificent; statuesque and proud, they dominate the landscape of each of the villages that line the river valleys as the road climbed ever deeper toward the peaks of the Caucuses Mountains.

We stayed in Mestia which was, I have to say, a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a pastoral, gentle town (population 2,500) with a traditional feel, and a slow pace. What we found was a town transforming itself rapidly from such an idyllic spot into, and I hope I am wrong here, a parody of itself. Construction was everywhere; from the road, which I would welcome a smooth surface and a reduction of a couple of hours in the drive, the main square, new hotels, ski resorts and the whole nine yards of tourism development.

They, those whose jobs it is to make such decisions, must take care.

There is a terrific new hotel, The Tetnuldi, as well as the rather dreadful Hotel Svaneti where we stayed, whose owners are developing into a ski resort. I spent a couple of hours discussing the project with them, and can see how torn they are between the necessity for a commercial enterprise to have a certain business volume with the desire to retain the characteristics of the place that make it desirable in the first place.

The views, however, were outstanding, and almost impossibly beautiful. In the evening the towers in the town were lit (a balance between authenticity and tourists’ interests), the surrounding mountains were always dramatic and the community braced for change.

And so, in search of an even more difficult drive to an even more remote place we headed off to Ushguli, reputed to be the highest permanently populated village in Europe, lying up at 2,700 metres, and only 45 kms (two and a half hours for heaven’s sake) of a bouldery and lumpy drive further from Mestia.

It was really pretty interesting though, and certainly came closer to my expectation of Svaneti. I had forgotten, of course, that part of living a life that shares flakes of a medieval existence involves “roads” and “paths” that are ill graded, and more animal waste than my urban sensibilities enjoyed. I was very happy that I wasn’t spending a week here, although I would love to have spent at least one night, rather than only a few hours.

Without a car it is tough to get two; as over 90% of the folks who live there have a car, there are only two marshrutkas (small, tight communal taxis) go each week, and the journey is rough.

It is, however, a paradise for experienced hikers, and there are two-day and longer treks marked through these mountains from Mestia, an expedition that would be a highlight of any seasoned walkers’ bucket-list.

As the day wore on, I became increasingly consumed by a simple but important question. In this remote destination, with appalling access and a very limited local market, do they deliver actual toilets? Who would do this? Would the community’s facilities have moved noticeably forward from the fourteenth century? Do they have bath tubs? I didn’t actually need a bath, but once the mind starts off on a track like this, it is difficult to rein it in.

Oddly, and to my great relief, there has been at least one delivery of solid porcelain toilets, installed well and perfectly functional. It is a minor point, but I have to say and important one. Whether this was the only one in Ushguli, or if the sales rep that made the trip there had a bonanza day I can’t say, but the pricey but very welcome cafe in town came as a welcome relief.

So intestinally fortified, it was sadly time to retrace our footsteps; Ushguli is lovely in a slightly ruined sort of way. Ruined enough to excite UNESCO who have designated it as a world heritage site, and isolated and quirky enough to satisfy the needs of most, if not all, travellers who actually make it to the end of this road.

The ride back seemed, as is always the way, faster than the way up. The bumps seemed smoother, the bends in the road less vigorous and the scenery now lying under the soft light of evening was possibly the most dramatic that I have ever seen.

I fear that Svaneti will change, but then again, I am not a Svan, and have no say in their ideas of development. With the bulk of the building out of the way, and the extraordinary detritus of heavy construction removed, though who knows to where, it will be lovely. More accessible, but still hard enough to deter many and keep the region’s unique balance of dramatic scenery, ancient tradition and fresh, fresh air firmly together.

Georgia

I love Georgia, and was pleased to get off the train and speed toward Tbilisi, its fascinating capital. We were only stopping there for an hour to meet friends, pick up their daughter and three of her friends and head off to Svaneti, a distant and remote part of the country that we were looking forward to exploring. So after a reviving cappuccino in the city we headed west first to Gori, some 65kms from the city.

Stalin might not be everyone’s choice for the focus of a museum, but Gori, in central Georgia, was his home.

When the young Josep Jugashvili grew up in Gori in the late 19th century it was a brutal place. Simon Sebag Montifiore’s fascinating book “Young Stalin” tells of a local tradition where on an annual basis the men of the town all went out for a sanctioned street brawl. There were boy’s events too, and one can only wonder at the organisation and potential rankings. These brawls, however, were part of life, and as history tells, Stalin lost little of his love for violence.

I have visited the Stalin Museum before, and confess to a macabre interest in the giant, mausoleum-like building housing a significant trove of interesting images and other material. He is certainly, at least to a significant few in Gori a “local boy made good”, and although the rest of the world may feel somewhat differently, the museum stands. Certainly my friends in Tbilisi would rather that we didn’t go, but I feel that as despicable as he most certainly was, the museum is important.

The souvenir shop, however, was completely over the top; even by my liberal standards. Ash trays, cigarette lighters fashioned as three bullets, Uncle Joe pipes and even bottles of Stalin labelled red wine and champagne. Stalin champagne? The woman serving at the kiosk told me that she had never sampled the bubbly, but the red wine, which she and her colleagues had apparently tasted the day previously, had, she said “a wery nice flavour”. One can only wonder.

So after an interesting hour or so, we stepped back into the cleansing sunshine and headed off to the mountains.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back in Tbilisi

It is now late on Saturday evening, August 28th, and we have just returned after spending three days in Svaneti, a remote and rather interesting region of Georgia. Needless to say, I had no access to an internet connection, and will get to posting the stories of the journey, and our time in Mestia and Ushguli soon.

Today marked our 34th wedding anniversary, and I am sure it is testament to Andrea's patience with me that it was spent on an eleven-hour drive, including four hours to cover 130 kms of various sized boulders.

More soon when I have slept!

Baku to Tbilisi: The Overnight Train to Georgia

Robust is a word that springs to mind when one ponders the rolling-stock of the Azerbaijan State railway.


It comprises of good solid East German stock of a mid 1960s vintage; good in its day, no doubt, even attractive in its Prussian way, but today it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. The train is an exercise in functionality, offering overnight passage between these two Caucasian capitals in either 1st or 2nd class. Each carriage is completely identical, but the 1st Class offering has only two lower berths, while four passengers prise themselves into two layers of bunks in 2nd Class.

First Class Sleeper

The compartments are actually spacious enough, particularly if one actually lifts up the bed to reveal a large luggage locker underneath; travelling as we, and many other westerners do, with far too much luggage makes a bit of a squeeze, but it was the carpet that really did it. I knew when it was bought up in the mountains that(a) it was a fabulous carpet at a terrific price and (b) it would be a pain to lug around for the next two weeks.

I was correct on both counts.

Boarding the train is a ritual. Only passengers are allowed on, so there would be no help with luggage from anyone else, and this was when I was advised that carpets had to have their own ticket. Or something like that. A draconian Azeri conductor was determined to prevent access to the train without some additional payment that turned out to be 2½ Manat (about $3) to carry carpets. Without the assistance of our guide, this could have proved to be a show stopper as I had no clue what was going on.

Departure from Baku

So a word of warning to those of you planning to take a carpet on the overnight express from Baku to Tbilisi: remember the 2½ Manat fee.

Once on board, the conductor, in a slightly more approachable manner, dispensed sets of clean sheets to each passenger, and then we all made up our beds. At 2200 on the dot, the train pulled out of the station, and away we went. There were only the sleeping cars, no other facilities, but it mattered not. We swayed and creaked our way west at a reasonable tick, and before I knew it we had arrived at the border at The Red Bridge.

Now here’s the thing; I might have a peculiar sense of fun, but I actually like crossing land borders. Not the antiseptic borders that define European nations or the US / Canada border, but real borders that separate distinct countries. I like the drama that is always played out, although one imagines that life as an Azeri border guard, posted to The Red Bridge cannot be full of excitement. And so the pantomime begins. First the passport brigade, scrutinising passports with an intense scrut; ensuring that one hasn’t overstayed one’s visa, or silently crept across the Armenian border. Once stamped, then the customs guys follow, the final arm of the Azeri government, and one dedicated to saving the export of prohibited items. Like antique carpets.

The Azeri border station

Now the carpet that I had bought was not antique, but was exciting for them because it might have been. Regardless of the certificate that proved its age as about nine months, this could be the tip of an Antique Carpet Export Ring. Why else would four Canadians seek to leave the country by this backdoor?

The carpet specialist duly arrived and prodded, poked and rubbed bits of it between his sensitive and knowing fingers. Another opinion was sought, and finally someone said (although as they said it in Azeri, I can’t be sure of the actual words), “Leave it alone, it’s only nine months old you idiots!”

And so we slid out of Azerbaijan and into Georgia.

A fine overnight run, and worth every penny; passage on the train costs €23, and €46 if you want the privacy of a two-berth cabin. Admittedly one can fly in about an hour, and the train takes fourteen, but who wants to fly when the romance of the rails is on offer?

Not I.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Baku is a pretty odd place!

Baku is really rather strange; a very pleasant place, to be sure, but distinctly odd.

It is a city of great contrast. Battered old Ladas jostling in traffic alongside shiny new BMWs; gorgeous, statuesque buildings stand next to blocks of rotting Soviet-era concrete; wide and perfectly constructed eight-lane highways intersect with rutted and gravelly streets; exquisitely laid out parks and central areas co-exist with dusty neighbourhoods strewn with garbage.

Above all, it is a city of construction. I have never seen so many buildings growing from the dust; museums, hotels, offices and apartments all shooting up at speeds that make you giddy!

It is not that Baku is alone with these contrasts, it is just that there has been so much rapid development, fuelled in the past ten to fifteen years by a massive influx of oil and gas money, that the pace of development is tripping over itself in its haste to erase the past.

I am, I have to add, fascinated by the ghastly destruction that the Soviets left behind. The acres and acres of dead factories that frankly never really worked at all; rusting piles, rotting pipelines, grim and filthy oil installations, crumbling apartment blocks and squadrons of brutally solid trucks and buses belching their way around. All mixed together with a permeating sense of industrial gloom that is difficult to explain.

From Estonia, not the Tallinn of tourists that has been brightly polished, but the small rural towns with their long-dead industries, to the Ukraine and of course the Caucuses, I have been mesmerised by the detritus of a failed economic system, and watching the old being swept away and their replacements splutter into action. But it is in Baku that I now sit, and it is Azerbaijan that has the money and will power to eliminate the old, replace with new and move forward as fast as possible.

This is the surprise of the place.

Baku is not what one would call lovely. For sure, there are many delightful places, including the UNESCO recognised Old City, where I am now sitting. Adjacent to the Old City lies Fountain Square, a gorgeous pedestrian precinct of manicured gardens, fountains and wide boulevards; a five square kilometre part of the sea shore has been designated a national park, and offers a delightfully shady place to wander by day or night. There are wide leafy boulevards that would make the original oil barons envious, lined by shops of the world’s great designer brands.

There are magnificent government buildings, art galleries, museums and the restored mansions of the late 19th century oil barons are gorgeous. But there is something missing.

Baku was not the traditional capital of Azerbaijan, that was the town of Samaxi, some 100 kilometres inland and virtually destroyed by an earthquake in 1191. The complex politics of the Caucuses as countries, khanates and caliphates struggled for power continued for centuries with the major seat of power evolving in Ganca in the west of the country. However, by the mid-seventeenth century, Baku’s prominence was growing, despite its dry, dusty location, and brutal weather. Oil was known to be in the vicinity and finally by the late 1800s the oil industry was opened up, and money flooded in. The city grew from a population of about 10,000 to 1,000,000 in a few short decades, and exploded beyond the walled city and its graceful surrounds to overcome the surrounding hills.

Its development is, of course, in almost complete contrast to the countryside, but that is the way of the world. It will spread, but for now we watch Baku’s growth with a mixture of awe and bewilderment. As a city, it is a fascinating and important destination; easy to get to, simple to get around and an abundance of great sights to see and fine food to eat!

And tonight, it is off on the overnight train to Georgia. Tbilisi to be accurate, and a completely different country in the mosaic that comprise the Caucuses.

Qobustan

I could, of course, ask the same question as yesterday, but I won’t.

It was a distinctly odd day. Waking up in Quba in the north of the country, I was still full of the peculiarities and wonders of Xinalic; the hotel I was in could not have been more of a contrast, however.

It was an “Olympic Complex”, incorporating a massive sports training centre as well as a hotel; I idly wondered if it was a remnant of the 1908 games in Moscow when Azerbaijan was still a part of the Soviet Empire to be told, rather sharply I thought, that it had been built in 2005. Oh well, it was still pretty “Soviety”, with decaying bathrooms, very eccentrically placed lights (perhaps athletes-in-training don’t want to read in bed) and a generally slow feeling about the place.

The food was great, though, as, to my astonishment, was the wine. Well, it wasn’t great, but a bloody site better than the Moldavian stuff I had to endure on my last visit to the region.

And so, off we toddled through a rainy day, can’t complain though, because it had been dry for two months, south to and past Baku to the ancient rock carvings at Qobustan.



And what a site they were; sadly, the rain was a bit of a disincentive to hanging outside for too long, but the carvings that we saw were extraordinary. Up to 10,000 years old, they included a fascinating image of a boat, so similar to the Viking long-boats that Thor Heyerdahl believed there to be a connection between the ancient folks of the Caspian and the Vikings. Stunning stuff, particularly considering the Caspian Sea is land-locked, but there you are. The resemblance is uncanny.



One of the major differences between travelling in “The East” and Europe/North America is the level of protection offered to antiquities. Here, one could, with a bit of a stretch actually touch the carvings; there are few tourists, and really a feeling of actually belonging to the rock artists. It was wonderful, and another reason to return.

Close by are some large pools of bubbling mud, but with the rain intensifying, we thought that watching a thick stew at home might be a reasonable substitute, so we headed back to the city.

An interesting ride it was too ... there are beaches here, with resort hotels, umbrellas on the sand and the disarming sight of frolicking bathers with a back drop of giant oil rigs in the bay. There is, at one end of the beach, what can only be described as a parking lot for oil rigs; about eight of the buggers tied up together, waiting for action or repair. And then glancing in the other direction there are half a dozen resorts. Not exactly the Riviera, but then again, needs must ...



And so to dinner, and a fabulous Azeri repast at L’Aperte, recommended by the Lonely Planet book, Dinner, including a couple of bottles of the fine, local beer and another acceptable Azeri wine, with soups, salads, kebabs and all sports was a princely €39 for the two of us . And of that, €20 was for the drink! Good food, good prices, extremely friendly service, and after a stroll through the Fountain Square area and the gorgeously lit and restored buildings dating from the late 1800s, all was well with the world.

Tomorrow, Zoroastrian temples, hills of everlasting fire and a visit to the National Museum.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Xinalic; A jewel in northern Azerbaijan

What do you immediately think of when I say “Xinalic”? Not much, probably, but that is a shame. Xinalic is actually a most remarkable town in a most remarkable country.

I am back in Azerbaijan, having been here in November at the end of a bit of an ordeal on the Black Sea; the sailing from the Ukraine actually took four days longer than planned, and as a result, my planned stay in Baku was significantly curtailed.

So taken was I on that first whirl-wind tour that I determined to come back this summer; with the family to enjoy a faintly peculiar summer vacation. And Baku is the second stop, after a few days in France and the day to Andorra.

We headed north from Baku this morning heading to Xinalic, high in the Caucuses Mountains and only a few kilometres short of Dagestan, just over the Russian border. The road from Baku north to Quba was fairly uninteresting at first as we headed through the dry and dusty plains that surround Baku; soon enough though, the vegetation turned toward green, the road started to climb and soon enough we passed through Quba, a major and rather attractive town.

From there the road passed through a miscellany of tourist attractions ranging from stunning mansions built by Azerbaijan’s elite, to some rather down-at-heel ex-Soviet fun parks; tea under the tree, nature walks, astonishing looking camper-vans, sad and overgrown swings; that sort of thing.

But we continued to climb, and left the vast majority of folks behind; and climb we did. Higher and higher, the road twisting and falling, following a river-bed that told of torrential spring run-off. Higher and higher, then swooping back down into the valley before climbing back to 3,000m for the final run to Xinalic.



Xinalic lies on the top of a hill, and offer s 360⁰ views of the surrounding peaks, soaring thousands of metres higher in each direction. Clouds skid off the peaks revealing stunning, raw heights and deep valleys that are home to so many of the various nations, ethnic groups and races that make up the mosaic of Caucasian peoples.

Inviting us to join them for lunch
The community of Xinalic has been isolated; the road was only completed in 2006, and prior to that only accessible by horse. Yet it boasts a population of about 1,700 in the summer, and 800 year round; all, or at least almost all, living from the land. Herding thousands of sheep and cattle, and harvesting some herbs from the high mountain plateau; local cheese is ubiquitous, with a deliciously sharp and salty flavour; a sour-cream cheese is wonderful on their homemade bread, and accompanied by tea, some tomatoes and cucumbers imported from Quba we lunched well with a local family who asked us in.


Our Azeri hosts
 Lovely people; their house was spacious with three separate bedrooms, a dining room and a small entry room that doubled as a kitchen. Three generations of the Oriçug family lived there now; a strikingly handsome patriarch with his beautiful smiling wife, their sons, daughters-in-law and grand children; we asked how long the community had been there, and were told for perhaps ten-thousand years; we asked how long their family had lived in the village and were told, after they looked at each other, possibly puzzled at the question, that they had been there all along. Probably for ten thousand years.

The community’s craggy perch means that it is impossible to build roads within it as they tend to get swept away by the melting spring run-off; spring here is in late June, and the first snows can be expected by the end of August. Although, they mused, global warming has meant that the first snows may now not come until September, for them, a welcome relief. Xinalic is a community so remote that they have their own language, unrelated to Azeri; they dress differently, and colourfully, and all seem to smile contentedly and with a quite genuine friendship.

Xinalic

In ways, Xinalic is the quintessential Caucasian community, and represents exactly why I am so enamoured by the region; it is home to tradition, kindness, and a travel destination unpasteurised by the relentless tide of consolidation and growth.




Although, I have to add, we did watch news of the Australian general election on television!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Andorra (and Azerbaijan)

Well, Andorra is truly a really rather silly place.

It lies perched high in the Pyrenees, accessible from either France or Spain by a single road that runs through the country, and for much of the year, one needs snow chains to do so. I know of no other sovereign state (although Bhutan perhaps qualifies) that is so remote from its neighbours.

It is not a member of the European Union, although it is a full member of the United Nations; it has 60,000 inhabitants of whom roughly 10,000 are “Andorrans”, the others being guest workers and rich ex-patriate hide-aways. A remarkable amount of Portuguese is spoken, and Sagres, a popular Portuguese beer is readily available on tap.

The three primary industries are money, skiing and duty-free sales; wit prices for many items up to 70% cheaper than in France (a carton of cigarettes in the mountain kingdom €19, compared with about €50 in France, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker will only set you back about €9), it is not hard to see why there are long snakes of cars hauling themselves up the main road into Andorra in the morning, and equally long lines heading back at night. Not to mention the customs traps that the Gendarmerie set up up to thirty kilometres into the country.

It is a great place to shop, my daughters tell me; huge department stores, all the electronic and fashion names that one may want, and apparently well priced. An attraction, no doubt, for the wealthy who choose this odd little cranny to sock away their ill-gotten gains. One hears more Russian spoken that one might expect.

It is, for these poor souls squirreling bazillions of dollars, hard to reach. There is no airport, and as transiting through Barcelona, and thus the European Union might lead to awkward questions, not to mention the reassuring snap of a latex glove, it is not unknown for a helicopter to fly directly from a tycoon’s yacht lying in international waters to the Principality.

All very mysterious; in addition to these types of fiscal shenanigans, skiing is quite obviously the sporting king. This one can tell as soon as one crosses the border from the north. The pass is at about 2000 metres, and within a kilometre lies the most unlovely ski resort one could imagine. Painted in dramatic pinks and apparently built from huge concrete blocks, the “chalets” are simply ghastly. It has to be said that there are one or two well developed ski-towns, but in general, it has been a case of unbridled and unregulated development. Which is a shame, because Andorra itself is extremely beautiful.

One English newspaper reporter described Andorra as “a cross between Shangri-La and Heathrow’s Duty-Free shops”; an observation that is not too far from the truth.

However, we love going up there, and despite the drive, which can be a bit much in one day (we keep saying that we will overnight, and get to experience their wonderful spa, Caldea but we never do), it is well worth it.

This time, however, we had to get back sharpishly to pack. Time and Lufthansa wait for no man, and we were booked to fly to Azerbaijan, and more adventure.

I was there. Briefly, in November, and liked it so much that I wanted to bring my girls back to explore some of Azerbaijan and Georgia, so contacted my friends and colleagues in Baku and Tbilisi, and off we headed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Of Rivers and Mountains!

The Languedoc and the fabulous Pyrenees have a vast and exciting water system. I am not, I hasten to add, talking about domestic plumbing here, although that does have its eccentricities here in rural France, but the system of rivers and lakes that carry away the vast quantities of water generated by both normal rain and the annual run-off from the mountains.

Not thirty kilometres from here is a pass that represents the east/west divide; rivers and tributaries from one side eventually find their way to the Atlantic, from the other into the Mediterranean. It is a division that lies considerably further east than I would have thought, but short of pouring dye into the water and waiting patiently for it to emerge, or spending weeks wandering the mountains with pegs and string, I have no way of disputing the claim.

However, one aspect of the water that I do know about is how much the rivers, and The Aude in particular, are used for all manner of sporting endeavours; one of which is odd in the extreme.

The activity is one that I would call "Escaping Plane Crash Survivor". Driving along a gorge, glancing down into the bubbling river beneath and watching a dozen or so bodies, clearly obediently clinging on to their seat cushions and being washed toward the sea is an odd sight. Countless flight attendants have advised to do this in the case of a landing on water, but I have neither considered it practical advice nor believed it possible until watching these poor sods churning down the river, presumably to be deposited with a thud on a crowded and surprised beach on the Mediterranean shore.

As a sport, however, it looks like fun, and carries slightly less danger than “canyoning”; this rather rash pastime involves dressing in a wetsuit and helmet, jumping into the small river at the top of a particularly steep ravine and bouncing along it until one is expectorated by the seriously babbling brook at the other end. Along with the more mundane rafting rides, or simply finding a gentle spot along the river to swim and picnic, it is astonishing how much pleasure the rivers give.

High up in the mountains, perched almost where the sky touches the land lies a truly odd country, Andorra, and that is where we are going today. It is independent; until 1993 ruled jointly, and feudally, by the Bishops of Urguell in Spain and the counts of Foix, in France the country is now a constitutional democracy and lies, despite its position, outside the European Union. The population is about 60,000, with only about 10,000 native Andorrans, and their booming economy is based on tourism, with skiing leading the pack by a wide margin, and money. Lots of money; Russian accents are not uncommon there, and the shops in La Vella are clearly not of the Dollarama genre.

It is pretty interesting, though, and well worth a trip; certainly the duty-free shopping, and unlike airports around the world, it truly is so, is fun, but also wondering how a whole country can be prised into a Valley, and just how the buildings are actually stuck to the side of the mountain. There is really only one road through the country with a few spurs leading into, but not over, the mountains, with one smaller road joining the towns of Canillo and La Massana.

For those interested in long-thin town planning it is a paradise, as it is for those with a passion for high mountain scenery, fresh air, and the relentless feeling that one is in a really rather odd place; and on the way in, should one stop at the police station in Pas de la Casa, they will stamp your passport!

More when we get back tomorrow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Resorts in the Rain

There is something a bit odd about rain and the beach. Not that there is any sand at Collioure, a gorgeous little town on the Mediterranean coast just to the south of Perpignan, like most of France’s coastline, the water laps up on to stones.

Lovely stones, but stones, nonetheless.

Don’t get me wrong, this is no complaint; it is a gorgeous town, replete with all of the accoutrements of beach resorts that combine to give one a warm sense of well-being; among other more guttural feelings that is. It is a charming place, other than the parking, which I have to say was bizarre. In an increasingly frantic quest to rid myself of the car, I found myself driving along a dry (at that time) river bank, grumbling, narrowly missing cars on either side, and feeling disturbingly pleased that Hertz’s car might have another injury. Bouncing over stones, wheels in the air, I decided that the final possible parking-place, at the top of the river bed, was too much even for me.

Which may well have been a wise decision given the afternoon thunderstorms. But I am getting ahead of myself somewhat.

Having parked, we wandered into town; wandering is not as simple in a place heaving as Collioure does with visitors. Thousands are there, just like us, because it is lovely, and there is an odd thing about tourists wandering around; they find a rhythm of pace, they gaze skywards, speed-read menus, and inspect other diners’ meals, all without tripping anyone up. At least 95% do; the remainder don’t. They wander at their very own pace, rather like the one or two people in a concert crowd whose clapping is off beat, and not being equipped with brake-lights, cause minor pile ups whenever they spot something nice.

So lurching along to some syncopated beat behind one such ill-timed family, we lunched at a lovely restaurant, gazing past the stoney beach, past hordes of sun-worshippers, many clothed only in dental-floss, to the glistening blue of the sea. Wonderful seafood, fine local white wine, all was extremely well with the world. And so, having been suitably softened-up, my daughter took me shopping. And then the thunder started, the rain came down and in an instant, the town took on a completely different aspect.

The proportions were all wrong; where previously there had been a natural balance of oglers, shoppers and those involved with the beach, now there were simply hundreds of wanderers in the narrow streets anxiously looking for something to interest them. They sought trinkets that they could want and then build a need for; they craved some sort of kleptomaniacal stimulation. The natural attractions of the beach suddenly off-limits sent families wheeling small children where small children should never be wheeled, at least at those speeds, and ever greater hordes into the tiny shops discussing the variable attractions of art, clothing and tattoos.

And then we thought about our luck at being unable to park on a dry river bed.

Collioure is a really rather special place. I had been previously, but only in the off-season; circumstance dictated that we should be there in the height of the tourist season this time, and so we were. There are, in addition to it lying in a most picturesque setting some wonderful art galleries, pleasant restaurants and delightful shops. And, do you know, there is not a single, overbearing global-brand advertisement to be seen.

Well worth the trip!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why I (sort of) like Ryanair

Folks love to ridicule Ryanair, but by the millions squeeze themselves into their seats and endure a flight chock-full of sales pitches for lottery tickets, smokeless cigarettes and truly disgusting sandwiches.

However, and here is the rub, they carry tons of folks around; more than British Airways, many more than Air Canada and for remarkably low fares. We flew from Carcassonne to London and back a couple of days ago for $140 each, including $10 for priority boarding, a very well-spent tenner.

Nobody could ever describe Ryanair as being customer-friendly, but then again London Transport isn’t either, the CTA in Chicago most certainly is not. And in either case, one can spend as much time in the process of getting from A to B, with no pretence at comfort, style or ambience. Actually, I have spent more on a tube journey in London than a Ryanair flight; it costs £4.15 for a one-way ticket from Heathrow to London (unless one gets an Oyster Card), and last September I flew from Carcassonne to Bournemouth for €5, all-in.

Ryanair make no pretence at meeting images of air travel conjured up by the improbable advertising of the major airlines; they are efficient, to a point of brutality. They pay airports pretty well the absolute minimum revenue required to operate, and certainly insufficient for any expenditure on comfy seats for their passengers to use; these small Ryanairports (sic) are reminiscent of aging public swimming pools, with instituitonal paint, spartan seating and elderly vending machines offering dizzying weak coffee or tea. Upon return from London, the incoming aircraft in London, and I was amazed to see them turn it around, disembarking 180 passengers, boarding another 180 (without seat selection or jetway-boarding) in 30 minutes, and away we went.

180 passengers to Carcassonne! And three hours later, there would be another 180. Where on earth do 360 passengers each day come from who want to travel to Carcassonne? Beats me, but they do. As they do on every other route that this remarkable airline serves at rock-bottom prices.

And it is the prices that do it; low, low low they are, but are they too low? They really are a perfect mirror of society’s contemporary problem of wanting salaries and lifestyles on a personal level that are impossible without relying on Chinese or Ryanair labour rates.

Ryanair staff, with few exceptions, can’t buy houses, cars and an increasing lifestyle on the salaries that are paid, and without those salary levels, fares would rise to a point that the seats would empty. It really doesn’t bode well for the future. British Airways current dispute centres on this paradox; the desire to be paid a living wage in terms of the country in which one lives, being pressured by salaries and operating costs from the world’s lowest-cost regions.

And one other thing; I thought that Ryanair’s seats were disgracefully small, and decided to grumble about this, but accept that it was part of the cost of the low price; however, a quick look at the comprehensive seat-chart-web-site Seat Guru tells that Ryanair’s seats are 17” wide with a 30” pitch. Tight, but EasyJet are 18”/29”, WestJet offer 17”/32”, Delta’s are configured at 17”/32” and by way of contrast, the much vaunted Malaysia Airlines offer identical space on their B737 fleet of 17”/30”.

Size does matter.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Car rentals and the South of France

I rent a lot of cars, but I have to say that the vehicle that I was given by Hertz in Toulouse is the most disgraceful vehicle any car rental company has tried to fob off on me; and this is a long list including rentals in Turkey, Belarus and even Armenia.

The car is basically a long and intricate weave of scratches, with a large dent, possibly caused by a rapidly descending bowling-ball, in the middle of the hood. It was also filthy, but a rain shower got rid of the worst of that. The upside is that unable to offer a replacement (Hertz seem to be very busy) they scrawled all over the diagram that indicates pre-rental wear, effectively giving me carte blanche to do what I want to the bugger.

And so, I have been trolling through the Languedoc’s unmatchably gorgeous countryside in a beat-up tank. However, the mileage is amazing; diesel engines really do the job, and allow 1000 kms or more on a single tank of gas; amazing, and simply adds to the joy of driving.

Since we first found our house here, and began encouraging friends and clients to visit, we have had a steady stream of delighted folks revelling in the joys of travel in an uncluttered and simpler world. This is not, in any way, to indicate a simplicity in the people here, although folks some of the more remote Pyrenean villages do seem to have a rather vacant disposition, but to the landscape, village life and the lack of techno-props for tourists and locals alike.

Carcassonne is the big city, and it certainly isn’t. There is an airport (where I am going in about an hour to fly to London for a couple of days), a collection of big-box stores, a railway station, a rather down-at-heel residential grid and a stunning, absolutely stunning Old City. It is a UNESCO heritage site, although the designation was awarded by a single vote due mostly to the rather broad poetic licence the restoration incorporated. But that is splitting hairs; it is wonderful in a medieval-theme-park way, lots of vendors selling plastic Templar swords, overpriced food and bags and bags of the smells of rural France, cobbled streets, jugglers and jousters, and a lot of very happy families wandering around.

And there is a fantastic outdoor concert space, wedged between a turret and a dungeon, where a couple of nights ago we saw Paolo Conte, one of my favourite musicians give an astonishing concert. Terrific music, a sort of Italian/Klesmer/Jazz fusion with a phenomenal band - you can tell that those boys practice hard. It started late, at 9.30 after the sun had gone down, and the music, atmosphere and general sense of well-being that one absorbs in this part of the world was a heady combination.

And, not unsurprisingly, no one stole my car, so we got home easily.

And so the time passes wandering through the hills, finding ancient villages, listening to itinerant Kamchatkan folk groups, eating wonderful food, enjoying the odd glass of the local wine, and generally feeling at peace with the world.

And so off to London for a day to meet lawyers and finish the work on my Dad’s estate; Ryanair, while the butt of many jokes and dismissive comments, they really do a wonderful job of shuttling thousands of folks around Europe for all manner of reasons.

Although we worry extensively about having baggage that might be a gram too heavy, or venting frustration at yet another €1.25 fee just when we thought that we were done, the bottom line is that they work. We will fly to London (about an hour and a half or so) and back for about $100 each. Who cares about an in-flight meal? The flights are short, usually on time, clean and reasonably friendly once on board.

There is much to marvel at here in terms of access, flexibility and simplicity, and I for one, am delighted that one rainy day in October three years ago, we rocked on up to Esperaza and bought our old butcher’s shop.