Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dinner in Tbilisi

What a fun place this can be.

Issues with the airport notwithstanding, my last day in Tbilisi was brilliant. Once again, it was punctuated with insight and conversation, ideas and debate; it is a really interesting place.

Of all places, I found myself at the Christmas party of AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Far from being the stuffy event that one might have imagined, it once again epitomised the go-ahead attitude of many of their ranks, and I loved it.

I stayed until almost the end, intoxicated (not with the admirable Georgian wine on offer,) but with one of the best ideas that I have come across in a long, long time. Needless to say, I won’t say anything now, but watch this space.

Dinner followed, and a discussion of Georgia, from, it has to be admitted, an expat perspective that was particularly voluble. It was agreed that it is a country of huge opportunity; this is a bit of a conversation deadener in a way because to agree inclines one to emigration (to Georgia) or excuses of why one would not, and disagreement is a touch impolite, and not actually true.

One participant, a fascinating woman involved with the financing of ecological advancements in commercial environments, yes, really, people do this for a living, put it succinctly. "We come to The East because of the intellectual challenge, and the opportunity to “do something”".

I completely understand. Given the appropriate opportunity and circumstance, I would head east myself. There are opportunities, pitfalls, difficulties and rewards in eventually equal or balanced measure. These are folks who are interested in more that eventual pension entitlements, driven by need perhaps, but nevertheless driven. Opportunities for small businesses, for large enterprises abound, and all the time a riding on the frisson of the underlying and motivating risk.

Like the wine industry.

Not my best segway, I will admit, but dinner conversation was lubricated by some interesting, but not overwhelming, wine; Georgian, of course.

The Georgian wine industry has a parallel in Canada. In the 1980s, the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States left the Canadian wine industry in a terrible state. Producing, as Canada used to, pretty toxic stuff by the tankerful, it was realised that in the Dreadful Wine Market (one not to be sneezed at apparently, by volume at least), one could not out-underperform the Americans. Competing with the oceans of Thunderbird, or wine of a similar appellation, was out of the reach of Canadian producers, so they ripped up the vines.

The new plants, now some twenty years on, produce some rather wonderful wines, and so to Georgia. Having lost their market for bulk, weapons-grade red when the Russians closed the border and thus the market of their plentiful and indiscriminate boozers, the Georgian wine industry had a stark choice.

Improve, or die on the vine.

And, I have to say, they improved. Interestingly, the wine that I can drink today, in fact the wine that is within seven inches of my left hand (a Mukuzani from Marani) is eminently drinkable. A child’s portion of the essence of Georgia would not go amiss in any company. Distribution is an issue, but one that will be sorted in due course, I hope. Truly, good Georgian wines are superb, and deserve their place among the wine lists of the world.

Their very fine wines, one of which I have one in my suitcase, are actually truly remarkable; hence my remarks. And once I drink it, I shall remark upon it further.

And so we go on; it is now midnight, the clock is set for 0300 the flight for 0455 and a long day of travel via Munich, Zurich and Montreal before I finally get home to Winnipeg.

Cheers!

Friday, December 3, 2010

A week in Tbilisi

This is Day 5 of a rather fascinating week in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

I am here principally for business, although sneaking in a few minutes of dinner and a child’s portion of the remarkably good Georgian wine has been quite possible. It is, of course, quite different from the summer both climatically and in the sense of the city.

Cities live and breathe, have seasons and moods just as their individual inhabitants. They have characters and idiosyncrasies and change with the relentless passage of the year.

Late autumn in Tbilisi is very pleasant. The weather has been good, the last leaves fluttering around, the traffic as disobedient and manic as ever and the local populous hurrying around in that special way of the underemployed. The metro, deep and mostly Soviet, is full all of the time; full of folks dressed in the apparent national colour of black. Now and again someone dressed in brilliant beige or olive green illuminates like a Christmas decoration. Otherwise there is a sombre tone of dress, possibly reflective of the mood or possibly because they like black.

I decided to go for a ride; having figured out how to buy my ticket (one buys a card at any station and then, in the nstyle of most city transit systems, loads it up with money), and head off. A single ride costs 40t (25 cents) for the first of the day, the second is 30t and the third and subsequent ones 20t.

I headed out to the end, remembering to note where I got on. It was at თავისუფლების მოედანი, and I made careful note so I would be able to find my way home. The end of a metro line is often odd; built originally at the distant end of a city, they now lie in suburbs of little consequence, the city having grown up and beyond them many years since. In this case, the line was built in 1967, and Tbilisi has expanded considerably. It is a 'hood of scruffy shops, sidewalks, apartments and many people wandering around; it is a place of bingo parlours, money changers (US$1 = 1.1752 or thereabouts), flower sellers and shops peddling a motley assortment of things. Worth an hour of anyone's time, but having exhusted avery opportunity for interest or humour, I headed back into the station at ახმეტელის თეატრი and headed back to თავისუფლების მოედანი for a restorative.

Georgia is an astonishing country. For all of its difficulties, it remains a nation with heart, drive and an infectiously positive outlook; barriers rarely exist, development is on track and those willing to join in are welcome. Everything is being reviewed and renewed; the road and transportation infrastructure, agriculture, energy, manufacturing and every sector of business that one can imagine.

I am here for a couple of reasons; we are looking at significantly developing our promotion of the region in the US and Canada, and secondly because we worked over the past couple of months to broker a six-month lease of a Canadian aircraft to come to Georgia.

The plane will be used principally on a route between Tbilisi and Mestia, the major centre of Svaneti. The project began in August, really, when I was visiting Svaneti with my family; having met the folks who had built a new ski resort and spent time discussing access, we were approached in October to help advise on a suitable aircraft.

The result was the delivery on Thursday of a Twin Otter from the Calgary-based Kenn Borek. It is a fine aircraft, and perfectly suited to the difficult mountain terrain; the pilots are resting today after the long ferry-flight, and tomorrow will start exploring the routes across the mountains into Mestia.

I am pretty excited by this whole development; a modest domestic aviation industry, and although a single Twin Otter won’t get the Star Alliance excited, it is a start. Routes between the capital Tbilisi and Batumi on the Black Sea, neighbouring Yerevan and some other regional towns will assist both tourism and local development.

And that, according to many folks here, is the sort of catalyst that they need.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What a fine airline!

Now even I would be the first to admit a certain lack of impartiality. Riding, as I am, well restored by a couple of beakers of the concentrated soul of the Italian sun, in the business class cabin of a bmi plane heading back to Tbilisi, I am extremely comfortable, and prone to offering compliments.

However, bmi, now a part of the Lufthansa Group following the remarkable fiscal foresight of its founder, Sir Maurice Bishop, is a wonderful airline.

I have been flying long enough to remember the days when aviation was not only fun, but glamorous. One dressed up to fly; why I am not quite sure in retrospect, but we did. Aeroplanes made extraordinary things possible; they were pretty odd, too. I remember flying from Southend to somewhere on the Belgian coast in a Carvair; the plane looked disarmingly like a tiny or prototype Boeing 747 and carried cars, allowing my Dad to take us to “The Continent” for a holiday or two.

Bmi might have existed then too, I am not sure; I do remember British Island Airways, Air Anglia, Air Ecosse and all sorts of regional derivatives operating some remarkable flying machines.

I did fly with bmi in the recent past; thirty years ago or so, when they were called British Midland, they flew elderly aircraft on dull routes. A Fokker to Amsterdam, an ageing BAC to Palma, that sort of thing; now it is all about A320s and 321s to Khartoum, Beirut and Tbilisi no less. Bishkek and Freetown show up on their route map as well; no end of oddness that bmi flight crews endure. And good for them; folks need to get to these places, and as established carriers pull out for a variety of reasons, smaller folks dive in.

And it is the crew that is actually remarkable. From an old Aviation Salt like me, prising praise loose from my inherent cynicism is not an easy task; these folks deserve it all. I fly a great deal, and it is an odd way to live. Hurtling from place to place at 500 miles per hour in a metal tube seeking a new idea or contract to keep the family and troops in new shoes takes its toll. Particularly on the liver, but that’s another story.

But, bmi wins out. Yes, they have the most fabulous business class lounge I have been in, and yes, they fly to interesting places, and yes, their food is terrific and the wine list entertaining, but get this, their crew’s eyes are open and thinking!

Just minutes ago a flight attendant, noticing that on the passenger print-out they have, no frequent flyer program was marked, he came to me to solicit membership in the bmi program. Above and beyond, I would say, and indicative of this carrier.

In fairness, I have to admit that the night I spent with United, two nights ago to be precise, flying from Chicago to London was fabulous. First Class should be, of course, but this was a terrific trip. A great crew, absolute comfort, five hours sleep and a jug or two of a rather memorable Chablis made for a terrific trip.

As it should, of course, for those paying for First Class passage from Winnipeg to Tbilisi would be parting with the best part of eighteen grand. I understand why folks would pay this; heading away to conclude billion dollar deals, money to burn through an extremely fortunate genetic quirk or even hard work. However, for most, the practical way to enjoy this level of comfort and pampering is the accumulation of frequent flyer points.

Aeroplan; one has to love it.

And that’s why I had no active frequent flyer designation on display for the ever-vigilant bmi flight attendants; I am travelling on points.

Why they fly to Tbilisi is another question. The final leg from Baku will carry only twenty-seven of us there. It is a pity really, because Georgia is a wonderful place.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Queen Mary: On board in the future

One of the more surreal parts of an endlessly surreal week is officially being somewhere that I am not, and in the future, to boot.

Let me explain.

Cunard think of everything, and to this end have provided a UK immigration officer on board the ship in order to facilitate our arrival in Southampton. During the crossing, at allotted times we present ourselves and passports to her, and are duly admitted into the United Kingdom. I did wonder what would happen to an undesirable alien who she did not wish to admit to the UK, but can only suppose that this eventuality failed to present itself.

However, the odd thing is that she stamped our passports with “October 8, 2010”; I have never had a stamp in my passport six days beyond the present. What if I died before we reached England? Having already been admitted, would this cause a problem? Should, in a James Bond moment, I be whisked away by helicopter to an Alien Foreign Power, could this stamp be considered proof of my admittance to Britain on November 8th, even though I was making mischief elsewhere? You see the point. Were the ship to be taken hostage by Somali pirates, although I will concede that the North Atlantic is somewhat out of their probable range of attack, on November, would we have issues with insurance companies, reluctant to cough up compensation, because of our proof of arrival at Southampton two days later?

Time passes both slowly and quickly on board the ship. There seems to be the luxury of time for thoughts to percolate into ideas, yet the map shows our relentless progress toward Europe. We lie aghast at the knowledge that in an ever decreasing number of hours, we will be ashore and back into the common world.

It is the great strength and attraction of the Queen Mary 2 that we live in a continuously gracious world. It is not simply the flake of grace that we enjoy from an evening at the opera or a fine and distinguished club; not the lingering memory of even a fine weekend at a country hotel. No, this is continuous; it is beautifully mannered and endearingly comfortable. It is days of afternoon tea, paneled libraries, exquisite dining and a sense of engaged formality. It is a glimpse, perhaps, to the rose tinted past, and an opportunity to enjoy a truly relaxing time.

The ship is massive and my walks continue; two laps of the promenade deck (deck 7, if you are that interested) are equivalent to 1.9 kilometres, and three laps equal 1.1 mile. Calculating how far six laps are (in something nautical, like fathom or chains perhaps) illustrates the peak of intellectual activity. And physical activity for that matter; after the bulging buffets, and endless feeding, one needs a walk or two.

Even divine intervention for that matter; and there is evidence of this possibility here on the ship that seems to supply everything. On a routine trip to the washroom, I couldn’t help noticing a cane hanging on a hook on the wall. One doesn’t often see canes lying apart from their owners, and I immediately speculated on this separation. Did the toilet have some Lourdes-like properties, or was the cane some kind of theatrical prop? Was I now to be revealed as being on Candid Camera, or was the cane’s owner beaming enormously and striding confidently down halls proclaiming the miracle?

It is an interesting ship. There are, apparently, some twenty-five “Gentlemen Dancers” employed to engage the over 500 single women (most, of more than a certain age it should be noted) in a quick twirl about the ballroom floor. It has to be said that it is not difficult to distinguish between a member of this gallant fraternity and Fred Astaire, but then again it is the thought that counts.

And so it rolls around to dinner once more; formal tonight, so I am looking forward to Murray sporting the Hero of the Revolution medal once more, and trying to explain to our dining-neighbour, curious at Murray’s role in the war, about its provenance.

What a fine place to be

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Sedate Atlantic

Rarely am I reduced to silence; in particular as I travel. This journey, however, is rather different, and as I find myself hurtling across the Atlantic Ocean at a sedate 25 miles per hour, safely cocooned by the overwhelming comfort of the Queen Mary 2, one’s mind drifts. Not, I have to say to writing, but to observing one’s fellow passengers and thinking.

Thinking firstly about why on earth I am here, and then to why everybody else is. I booked passage during the peak of the Icelandic volcanic crisis earlier in the year; in a fit of pique, and temporarily blinded with an overwhelming distaste of flying, I booked passage to London and the annual World Travel Market on the ship.

I have, of course, calmed down since and flown back and forth a few times, but this booking remained, and here I am; floating at this moment roughly mod way between New York and Southampton. And, I have to say, that I am loving every moment.

The Queen Mary is an Ocean Liner; not, simply a cruise ship. The distinction is quite clear in my mind, and those of many fellow travellers. Cruising, we feel, is a protective activity; sailing from place to place protected from foreign influences, and having aggressive young things making up games and generally disturbing the peace. This liner is a direct descendant of the ships that plied the routes between Europe and the New World in the early decades of the last century.

Simply, we are not on a cruise, we are on a crossing. We have chosen to book passage between two countries in a sedate, unhurried and genteel manner. Pampered, it must be said, with more food than one should really eat, superb wines and tempting cocktails. Superb big-bands, excellent concerts and chats about everything from dead bodies to the crustaceans of the deep sea floor.

And so time passes. Simultaneously slowly and fast; relentlessly watching the sea and gazing periodically at the sky full, in the afternoon, of westbound jets carrying their passengers at six-hundred miles an hour toward America. And believe me, speeds like that simply make no sense from where we look.

The treat of the ocean liner became apparent even at check-in in Brooklyn. The process of dropping off bags, obtaining our boarding passes and ship-card, passing through a cursory security inspection and walking up to the ship took no more than fifteen minutes. Our bags were delivered soon after, and there we were, seeking inspiration at the champagne bar. Well, one has to really.

And so it started; a daily grind of exercise (yes, six brisk rounds of the deck equalled two miles, and passed about thirty minutes), eating, snacking, dozing, being lectured to, dressing for dinner and eating again became normal behaviour all too quickly. Actually, I didn’t dress too much for dinner, taking the easy option of sombre business attire; my friend Murray, however, did bring a dinner jacket, and to show my approval and support of his dress code, gave him a Heroic Worker of the Revolution medal that I had picked up in Moldova a year or so ago, and it looked well on his jacket. He got some odd stares, of course, from military types with failing eyesight, but in my view, really topped off the occasion.

The last ocean voyage that I took was about a year ago, crossing the Black Sea on a rather interesting East German boat, the Greifswald. Needless to say, there are striking differences between the two vessels and their passengers, but I have enjoyed them both. The sea, after all, is the sea, and passage at a relentless but sedate 25 miles per hour beats incarceration in a metal tube, and hurtling across the oceans at speeds approaching that of a sound wave.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The New Air Canada Crew(ing)

Far be it from me to whinge or complain about anything, but I do have a question.

I have just flown from Winnipeg to Toronto, a two-hour flight in the late morning, and witnessed a rather circumstance, that hearkens back to the Old Days of Air Canada.

Air Canada today, I have to say is pretty darned good. Much improved, both in equipment but mostly in attitude. Gone, fortunately for both their customers and shareholders, are the evil days of predominantly gnarly flight attendants glaring and challenging the slightest whim that a fare-paying passenger might have; gone are the days that none regard as Good-Old, where passengers were to be seen and not heard, and the imperious glance of a “stewardess”, for that is what they were then called, had one apologising before the crime could be committed.

Until today.

I was fortunate to be sitting in business class (AC 264 / 11 Oct for anyone who cares) among the crème of the airline’s passengers. A grand each way is the cost of this cosseting, and judging by the full cabin, there were several who paid their way; some were like me, travelling on points, some upgraded through their continuous use of the airline and some presumably company employees squeezed in at the last moment. However, all in all, we were a pretty valuable bunch to Air Canada.

The flight time is a shade under two hours, and for the first hour and a bit all went swimmingly. Then, our two attendants decided that it was their lunchtime, and service stopped. Not only stopped, but should a passenger happen to venture past their curtain and return leaving it possible to glance at the attendants eating and reading, the curtain was slammed shut.

As soon as the aircraft started its descent, they came to life. When I asked what they had been doing, and why I/we had not been offered a further sample of their delectable Malbec, I was advised in absolutely no uncertain terms that they had no lunch break scheduled on the ground, and so this was it.

And so I ask, perhaps rhetorically, but perhaps an Air Canada or union executive might care to enlighten me, why on a two-hour flight, it seems reasonable to take a thirty-minute break? Should we, the paying passengers have got a discount because of the abandonment caused by the crews' inability to make the two-hour journey without sustenance? And what of the pilots? Were they, too, forced to work on growling tummies, needing to abandon their duties for a feed?

Really, this is not good enough. I have sympathy for hungry flight attendants, but they should simply not abandon their charges, and whether I drink too much or not is hardly the question here, I might have wanted water for a life-saving pill. Yes, we could have rung the bell, but being well-trained to expect the withering look this action elicits so perfected by flight crews over the years, nobody dared.

It is a pity, because just as we started to revel in the New Air Canada Caring Mode, out popped a glimpse of the old cloven hoof. The situation is by no means irreparable! A single abandonment among hundreds of Caring Moments does not indicate a complete relapse.

It is, however, worrying that on a two-hour flight, a thirty-minute lunch-break can be scheduled.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

London in the Fall

Of course, the best, or most intriguing, reason to visit London in mid-September is to find out how the current year’s surprise team is managing to survive in the world’s most competitive, not to mention lucrative, football league. And this year, the buzz is Blackpool; rank no-hopers, they won promotion to the financial nirvana of professional sports against all odds, and rather than playing obscure teams in front of 3,800 fans, they are playing in the same sand pit as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. And doing surprisingly well.

Not, of course, that football is often on my mind, or was a motivator in booking this trip way back in February; sheer serendipity.

I am here for to work on my Dad’s estate, and thanks to our brilliant lawyer who has guided me through the arcane process of probate with ease and a frightening efficiency, we have now reached the happy moment of giving money away. Or so we thought, but the imposition of “new” identification regulations to combat the ever present money launderers, and no doubt terrorists mean that his will’s benefactors will have to exercise patience.

I did so by meeting friends; one in particular is a curious chap called Joseph who I met on a train in Slovakia some time ago. He writes, successfully and rather humorously I have to add, novels, biographies, travel articles and restaurant reviews. It was in this last role that he sent ma an email a couple of weeks ago asking when I might be free to dine in London next. He had been invited to the opening of a rather unusual restaurant in Camden Town of African persuasion, he intoned, and wanted to go back and review it properly; my input would be valued.

And so it was that we headed to simply the most peculiar restaurants that I have ever patronised. It has to be admitted that Camden Town in odd in and of itself, but Shaka Zulu takes the cake. A single, smiling but rather lonely bongo player was placed outside to keep the crowds under control and lure folks in to dine. There was nobody around, and we were going in anyway; he did show up later in the restaurant performing some folk-tunes that appeared to involve large, used baking bowls and Homburg hats; I am still confused.

However, we went in through a massive shell-encrusted entrance and down an escalator into the top floor of a two-level bar/restaurant/curio extravaganza/club/museum. In the manner, it has to be said, of a gloriously decorated underground station; not one of the more subdued suburban stations, but Bond Street in its heyday. The escalators probably prompted this comparison, but really it was huge, decorated beyond overkill, lit dramatically and it made us smile.

Dinner was disappointing. Kudu, a type of antelope, I can assure you is not worth eating. Unless, perhaps, you are a natural predator of antelopes; for the rest of us it looks pretty on the plate but disappoints. Virtually flavourless, it also has a disturbing characteristic of simply disappearing after a couple of chews. And it doesn’t taste of much either. Joseph’s Ostrich was a much better bet, but all in all we were rather underwhelmed, and frankly astonished at the £160 bill that his newspaper will have to foot.

Expensive, amusing, bizarre and entertaining, but not good value. So there you are; for a professional review, I will refer you to Joseph’s article in due course, but my rank-amateur conclusion is far from encouraging.

Blackpool lost, by the way, 4 - 0 to Chelsea, the game being the reason that my cousin’s husband was late for dinner on Sunday; it was a good game, he reported, (as actually they all are), but started late on Sunday.

He, John, is a season-ticket holder at Chelsea and came offering a ticket for Wednesday’s game against Chelsea; the very next day a great friend Clive, of whom I have spoken before, offered me a ticket to watch the final match in a five-game cricket series between England and Pakistan on Wednesday evening.

Spoilt for choice I had to decline both, as I was to be in Munich dithering between Oktoberfest and Nymphenburg Castle. What a life.

Munich in September

It is, perhaps, a sign of age that I would prefer to spend an afternoon exploring the gorgeous grounds of Munich’s Nymphenburg Castle instead of sidling up to the conviviality of Oktoberfest.

I had no idea that I would be in Munich for Oktoberfest, no really, I had not a clue, when I booked this tail-end trip, but so it was.

I realised as soon as I got off the flight from London that something was amiss. Torrents of men wearing leather shorts, some disgracefully small, and more women wearing costumes created in the style, shall we say of “Bistro Chic”. Many, I have to admit to in fairness, alluringly small. Something was amiss; I have travelled to Munich many times over the past decades, and its usual Bavarian decorum was clearly out of season.

It is a great festival. I understand from a friend here that the “tents” that serve eye-watering rivers of beer, thousands of bland sausages and pretzels by the ton can make about €1.5 million in the two-week extravaganza. Even allowing for a few weeks of preparation, a few strained moments dealing with overly indulgent staff, one can imagine that their houses have a Happy Christmas indeed.

And so it was that I flew to Munich for a day or so to catch up with an old friend and found myself with this dilemma. I realised that without a reassuringly tight pair of leather shorts, a frilly shirt with a pope-grade brooch, I would stick out like the tourist that I was; added to this that I am, at least by the standards of Munich beer tents, old, I would be targeted as an outsider, tourist and easy mark. Which, of course, would be completely fair, so I went to Nymphenburg instead.

Attracted, at least in part, by its evocative name, I headed out to this glorious 17th century castle. It is not overly crenulated, one has to say, and barely castle-like at all in the conventional manner of moats, keeps and damsels in distress. Think, rather, of a dramatic chateau of the French style, a magnificent building in overwhelming and micro-managed gardens. Imagine a long road leading to the chateau either side of a perfect canal, the gardens opening to show the full, symmetrical facade of the building, and as one passes through one of many arches a short gasp at the profusion of colour from the thousands of perfect marigolds lining the immaculate lawns.

Lovely; really lovely. And should you think that I had made a special trip here, to prove my cultural integrity, I didn’t. The friend that I was staying with lives on the northern path of the canal, so waking with a bit of a headache, and little inclination to fill myself up with beer and oompah bands, I took the high road and wandered to the Schloss.

Munich is really lovely; I have been fortunate to visit many times, and on each return I wonder at its prosperity, beauty and its situation. Lying as it does so close to the Alps, surrounded by lakes and gentle countryside, perfectly manicured villages and more micro-breweries than a chap can take, it is, in my humble opinion, an almost perfect city.

And so I found myself there, after a few days in London, about which I shall report in reverse order. I was in London to deal with my father’s estate, and despite days learning fast about English probate laws, trust obligations, the professional delineation between lawyers and accountants and trying to remember where I had put an important piece of paper, I did manage to have some fun.

Including a completely bizarre dinner at an African restaurant in Camden Town with my friend Joseph, a rush-hour whizz around the M25, an extraordinary curry with Ann, a mystifying but terrific breakfast at Euston and the everlasting bewilderment at how the Heathrow Express can get away with charging £18 for a fifteen-minute ride into London.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

22, Besiki Street, Tbilisi

Mundane, daily chores are actually quite fun to do when one is not at home, but simply playing house.

We have rented a small house in Tbilisi for five nights, partly for the space, and partly to be able to get under the skin of the city, at least a very little bit.

Our little grocery store is a case in point; having been in now for three days in a row, this morning when I went to buy some eggs and bread I was pondering the selection in the cooler to see if there was something that resembled butter, or perhaps a spreadable cheese. After about a two-minute ponder, the owner came over, wrapped in a big smile, and advised me to get the small package, wrapped in a reddish cover with pictures of what appeared to be a collection of empty puff-pastry cases.

Now, I bought it because it was cheap, she was enthusiastic and although the thought that she had had this for a year or more and could finally rid her shop of it crossed my mind, I didn’t think that she was going to be that sinister. I am back home now, and wondering who actually buys this rather dusty and overly sweet pineapple curd.

Home is temporarily 22, Besiki Street, Tbilisi. It is a two storey house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an equipped kitchen and a large living room. There is air conditioning in the main bedroom, quickly and emphatically claimed by the parents. We are a three or four minute walk to Rustaveli, a main street, where there are cafes, shops and life.

The house costs $80 per day, a very fair price, and the neighbourhood is lovely. In common with so many older places, books can’t be judged by their covers. Dusty and partly crumbling streets belie the small courtyards with well-kept homes behind. Life is played out in the small cafes, the door steps and courtyards of the street; the language is, of course, a dreadful barrier, but we are coming to grips with some simple words, and do seem to be a source of some amusement to the residents.

Taking out the garbage, scouring the neighbourhood in search of some unguent to clean the fridge and even doing the dishes become interesting. Not interesting enough to encourage our daughters to join in perhaps, but there you go.

The house is, it has to be said, on the brown side; “like a Granny’s house”, one girl said helpfully. Seat coverings are a heavy brown, rope-mesh, the sort that is sold by the ten-metre swath at fishing-supply emporia. I do love it though, all the fun of playing house; sharing a flake of intimacy with Tbilisi and almost being a part of this fabulous city.

It is funny too, how fast people recognise you, but then again, I am sure that if a Georgian family moved into our neighbourhood, they would be spotted fast too. But it matters not; folks are friendly, although it has to be said that a surprising number of people stay up very late, and one in particular has a penchant for enjoying the more obtrusive crooners of the 1980s in the small hours. This, of course, reflects unemployment, a fact of life that passes hotel-dwellers by, but determines the rhythms of the residential areas.

In Georgia one is never far away from the legacies of the 1990s and the destruction wrought by the civil wars of the Caucuses. In 1993 alone, following the Russian occupation, some 200,000 Abkhazian refugees came to Tbilisi swelling the city’s numbers and introducing a large number of rural folk to an urban environment. Many came to the Mtatsminda district of the city where we stayed, and clearly changed the fabric of the area. For us it didn’t matter one bit, as we had no sensitivity to rural accents, but there are certainly hundreds of thousands of un- and under-employed in Tbilisi, and they don’t’ seem the feel an urge to get to bed early.

And so life ticks on by; I rather wish that we were here for a couple of weeks, and really get to understand the community better, but we are not. I will be back, though, and look forward to coming home to number 22, Besiki Street, my new home away from home.

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.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The South of France

Owning a house in the South of France conjures up images of whitewashed walls punctuating endless fields of lavender; the distant glimmer of the sea with, perhaps, two or three yachts lying at anchor, their owners frolicking in the waves. And, of course, endless al fresco lunches of good wholesome country foods washed down with copious vats of a local wine or two.

Well, the part about country foods and copious wines is quite true; the rest a touch poetic. Not that it doesn’t exist, of course, just that not all of France’s southern departments are scenically thus. And a good thing too, I think, as we have come to love the Languedoc, its quirky ways, stunning scenery and hospitable people.

The village that we have ended up in is Esperaza, in the Aude Valley. We are here for no particular reason, and really didn’t mean to buy a house at all. Let alone the old butcher’s shop that we now inhabit. It was one of those things; a drizzly Sunday morning a couple of Octobers ago, the magic of the local market, a couple of glasses of the local rosé and this intoxicating mix led us directly to the estate agents and lawyer’s offices.

So here we are. Here for three weeks or so, and although we arrived only yesterday already immersed in the minutiae of village life.

We are in the middle of the most interesting Festival de Folklore International en Pyrénées Audoise. The festival is, according to the brochure an “open window on the world”, and really they are not exaggerating. There are folklore groups from, and I kid you not, Colombia, Moldova, Uganda, Slovenia, Chutkotka, Uruguay and Venezuela playing this cultural world cup among a group eight or nine towns, some with populations of barely 300, over a one week span.
This got me thinking. I had never really contemplated the fourth and fifth divisions off global culture, and wondered just who was the promoter putting together this band of global folklorists, packaging their road show, selling it to a band of disparate local communities, getting their visas and organising the whole thing. And it is really well organised; Moldovans and Uruguayans showing up at their appointed gigs, playing to a pretty mystified crowd and heading off to the next. And let’s face it, local cultural understanding of Chukotkan folks dance is probably pretty Spartan.

If this cultural extravaganza is not enough, a calendar in our mail box tells us of the Manefestations et Découveries planned by the local tourist office for the month of August. Movies in the town square, local festivals, discussions about Catharism, moto-cross and orchestral concerts (from Bratislava, no less) are all part of the fare.

It’s all go, really.

And so, we are here for three weeks before heading off to Azerbaijan and Georgia for a couple of weeks of exploration. We thought that we were here for a bit of a rest, but the unflinching social life has started, invitations to parties, drinks and dinners abound; friends from Vancouver arriving tomorrow and little rest in sight.

Moderation in moderation, we say.

Friday, July 9, 2010

In Search of British Airway's Logic

Now I know that rule number 1 in the travel business states that "there is no correlation between airfares and logic", but BA in their inimitable fashion have managed to confuse even this truism.

Let me explain.

In their enthusiasm to fool passengers into believing that they might actually fly somewhere for $99, airlines have taken to extracting costs from the fare and adding "surcharges" to make up the difference; these, we are told, are necessary as they are "temporary" and directly linked to the additional costs in transporting a passenger in these difficult times. Fine.

However, when one cancels a non-refundable ticket, something odd happens. The "fare" which is not returned to one is also now linked to the "fuel surcharge" part of the tax cost, which is also withheld from refund. Very odd.

The surcharge for hauling one's body into the air is most assuredly not part of the fare when advertised, but a surcharge; yet when refunds are made, it migrates into the fare.

Let us look quickly at the concept of a "surcharge". These are (or should be) levies made due to unexpected and unabsorbable rises in costs. The current enthusiasm for fuel surcharges were implemented a couple of years ago when the price of oil reached $140/ barrel, and the airlines faced extreme uncertainty. They could not have forecasted this degree of volatility in their fare structure and believed the necessity for the "surcharge" would be temporary.

No regulatory body, however, asked them what benchmark they used; or at what point they would be removed. Now, a few years later, one would think that the carriers' fuel purchasers would have this figured out, removed the volatility from the market and adjusted their "fares" to accommodate a contracted and known price for fuel.

There is no reason to have a fuel surcharge in a market that is both balanced and manageable through the use of future-pricing contracts.

British Airways, by the way, are the only major carrier to hold onto this ill-appropriated cash. Air Canada, Lufthansa to name only a couple do not. They simply keep the "fare", fair enough in the case of deeply discounted seat sales, but return the rest of the unused incidentals.

Why, British Airways, do you not refund this levy? Obviously you don't need the fuel surcharge if you don't actually have to lift me off the ground, so why keep it? Or is the answer self-evident to the grasping and unapproachable airline that you have sadly become?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

United Baggage Mishandling

I don’t know what is it about baggage handling that seems to be so difficult for United Airlines, but there is something that they just don’t get.

This is the recognition that passengers like to travel with their bags, and can get a touch shirty if they are separated; particularly if the separation is utterly and completely inexplicable.

Like last week.

My bag was checked from Frankfurt to Winnipeg, travelling via Chicago. It arrived in Chicago, and I gave it to the tender care of a disinterested United employee to transfer. Now I know that I had an overnight stop (arriving on June 23rd at 2100, departing on June 24th at 0940), but the bag was tagged, and there appeared to be no issue when I handed in my bag.

We were finally reunited on June 27th late in the evening, some seventy-two hours since we parted company.

Seventy-two hours.

Needless to say, while my bag was AWOL I got a touch excited from time to time about the issue, and tried phoning to find some update. A silky-smooth computer tried in vain to answer my questions, but after a while I just said “agent” to everything, as I needed to talk to a human. Which I did, and very kind and soothing they were too. Clearly their scripts had a number of Soothing The Client options, and Ahmed (“I am in India, Sir”) was particularly adept at their use.

They were, however, completely and utterly useless at explaining how, in this post-Talibanic world of completely-over-the-top security, a bag can remain “lost” for four days in a major international airport.

I was advised that “There is a huge backlog in Chicago”; well, that’s all right then; who knows what will happen by the time that the summer really starts. “There are seven miles of conveyor belts between the international terminal and the domestic flights, Sir”; fascinating, but a bit irrelevant. “The weather in Chicago is terrible”; so what?

The question is a simple one. What on earth happens to bags that go astray? Do United’s employees simply gaze at them with periodic malevolent chuckles? Do they enter some parallel yet invisible universe? We all know what they do to musical instruments, but does this sense of institutional mischief extend to the more dull and mundane suitcase? Are the rings around Saturn really composed of errant Samsonite luggage?

Or is the problem simpler and more worrisome. Has United, in its potentially futile efforts to balance its books and make a profit, spent its energy on increasing sales and passengers while simultaneously cutting back on its staff thus ensuring that there are too few employees to handle the business? I don’t think that this is a million miles from the truth.

I remember one airline CEO explaining to a meeting of their significant agents that they knew exactly the size of an airline that would make sense in today’s market; their route structure, aircraft size, staffing levels and revenue requirements were relatively simple. However, this business model would fail to generate sufficient revenue for their current and future pension liabilities.

The airline, a major player in North America was stuck. They could not shrink to the size that the market demanded and were forced to reach for unsustainable revenues. Needless to say, they eventually had to merge with another, and today their historical issues have been moved further along the chain.

And this is the truth about the airline industry today. The past liabilities, accrued during two decades of unbridled expansion fuelled by cheap money, cheap oil and an environment of Growth has left big, big headaches. Until the carriers can sort out these major problems, and the American airlines are not alone in this dilemma, there will never be a logical aviation industry.

Deregulation did bring some major benefits to many, but it is sobering to note that at the time that President Carter unleashed this demon, seven airlines carried 72% of the country’s travellers. In 2010, four airlines carry over 85% of North American travellers. And with the merger of United and Continental, this relentless concentration of airlines (or "rationalisation" as some of the apologists for this rampant behaviour would say) will simply continue.

I do think though, that despite their issues, looking at resolving the simplest of tasks, keeping passengers and their bags together, should be a priority. I know bags go astray, but in my case, with United it is roughly 10% of the time, and that is not funny.

Employees like Ahmed (”I am still being holding, Sir”) do not resolve anything. They only increase the frustration of those who truly believe that United doesn’t give a damn about customer service.