Saturday, November 30, 2013

Travelling in the Off Season

The first thing to recognise when thinking about travel and the seasonality game is that it is exactly that; a contest between the travel supplier and the consumer. There are often no winners and no losers in this game, only contestants, but there are some very basic rules to follow when mulling over your travel opportunities.
Firstly, and the most important point of all, is that the “Peak Season” is not the best time to travel; it is the time that most people choose to travel, or have to travel, and thus the period that the prices for everything from transportation to accommodation are the highest, and the lines for attractions are the longest.

Nobody ever said that the best time to visit London was in July or August, or that the Mexican Riviera is at its peak of attraction coincidentally during the school holidays. No, the truth of the matter is that seasons are determined above all by school vacations; airlines know when school breaks are and position their inventories accordingly, hotels, resorts and attractions do likewise, and consumers all know as they plough through airports during these seasons that there has to be a better way.

And, of course, there is. For anyone unencumbered by the school calendar, there are nine other months to travel, more economically, and more importantly with space and without the clutter of mass tourism.
There are plenty of destinations to choose from; for those with an inclination to travel independently, Europe, as always, offers many opportunities. Spending time exploring Southern Spain will delight; from the coastal resorts of the Costa del Sol, it is a short drive to the iconic destinations of Granada and Cordoba; Seville, the centre of the flamenco history is a charming city to spend a few days, and pushing even further west, the south coast of Portugal will offer off-season visitors wonderful beaches (if chilly waters), gorgeous countryside coming into blossom from late February, and towns unsullied with the crowds.

The south coast of France, from Barcelona to the Italian border is also a most charming destination. Delightful country hotels will run from €70 - 170 per night for two, and combined with the low season airfares and moderate car rental rates can combine to make a most attractive package.
Rome, the majestic and deeply moving capital of Italy can be yours in the off season to explore with now queues, restaurants that do not hurry you away and private guides to help you explore the nooks and crannies off the beaten track. Why wait for the crowds when you can have the city to yourself?

Off course, the weather won’t be idyllic, but then again you won’t need the sunscreen. Southern Europe in the winter is unpredictable, but expecting daytime highs between 10 and 15˚ and anticipating some rain will stand you in good stead.

If you prefer escorted tours, there are many to choose from; the traditional European coach tours, ranging from the pan-Europe three-weekers to a variety of regional tours are available; the river cruises will start again in March, but the weather in the north, and the subsequent effects on the major river systems should not be underestimated; high waters can force the operators to change schedules and miss ports, and in extreme cases, idle the boats should the water levels rise too high for the locks.

Finally, there is a wonderful selection of small group exploratory tours throughout Europe, all seeking to really get to know a small part of Spain, Italy or even Morocco.

Then again, one needn't travel so far afield; the USA is a huge and fascinating country, and offers such diverse opportunities as the Charleston/Savannah corridor, and the stunning countryside and attractions of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. For those hankering to sample the music and food of the Deep South, March to May is really a fine time to travel, and staying away from the oppressive heat of the summer is a pretty good way to ensure the best possible trip.


There are endless destinations to try, and if you can drag yourself away from the school calendar, and head away in the “off season”, the rewards will be terrific.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Transit through Casablanca

Humphrey Boagart's "friends" had a considerably more interesting time transiting Casablanca than I; no Rick's Bar in the airport transit lounge, and certainly no pianist tickling the ivories to help us pass the time. There was music of a sort, though; it sounded at first like the soundtrack from a rather unimportant military parade, and then morphed into a pretty poor attempt at Gilbert O'Sullivan's lovely number, Alone Again; which is pretty much how most of us felt, I think.

I had thought that the evolution of airport-decoration had passed beyond austere marble floors, a very large copper pip-looking object hanging from the ceiling, forty-eight chairs to accommodate the requirements of five gates, all illuminated by an incredible collection of 40, or possibly 45 watt bulbs of varying age and provenance. But no; public spaces at Casablanca’s international airport are really rather grim. They are all under the watchful eye of the monarch and, I would suspect his son, but I am not sure, who you can bet have never flown domestically in economy in their gilded lives.

There is a coffee “shop”, but with nowhere to exchange money for Moroccan Dirhams, and an unwillingness to accept other currencies even at an exorbitant rate, even a coffee (or heaven forbid a glass of wine) is out of the question.

I am here, of course, to catch a plane. Grumpy because my flight was cancelled, presumably because of a lack of passengers, and the new one is three hours away; Marrakech remains tantalisingly close.

It was a wrench to leave the Languedoc this afternoon; I had only been there for a couple of days, just long enough to see old friends, once more be astonished at the startling and variable beauty of this part of France, and generally start to settle in. However, it was not to be, and duty called, this time in the form of a conference in Marrakech called the “PURE Life Experience”, or something like that.

It is a meeting of many of the world’s top operators, and agents whose clientele demands the extraordinary. For some reason or another, I was invited to apply to attend as a buyer, and having been vetted and accepted, here I almost am. I am partly looking forward to it, and partly not.

Expensive, or as they say in the trade “Up Market” travel really comes in a variety of guises. There are those experiences that are truly extraordinary, and are extremely expensive to assemble; these, ranging from space travel (yes, they have a booth here) to Adventure touring in the High Caucasus are fascinating, and very much out stock-in-trade. Secondly there are some quite extraordinary and luxurious properties, ranging from ranches to spectacular hotels; these are of some interest as our clients will quite often punctuate their trips with a few nights judiciously booked in one of these hotels.

Then there are the frankly, over-priced and rather dull  hotels that spring up all over the world with ever more “features” (and inexplicably expensive internet), on beaches the world over that are becoming indistinguishable. These are of little interest to me at all.

It will be interesting to see how many fall into each category.

There are now considerably more than forty-eight folks waiting for their planes and many are wandering around looking a touch testy. I don’t think I will get up for a walk. Transit lounges are an unavoidable feature of travelling life; they don’t however, get much duller that the Mohammed V airport in Casablanca.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Frequent Flyer Point Dilemma

Frequent flyer points are the crack-cocaine of the travel world; folks do all sorts of peculiar things to maintain status and benefits from their favoured carriers, one friend of mine is flying to Argentina this weekend simply to maintain his top-tier status for next year, but rarely are these devotions reciprocated.
Airlines are getting bigger and bigger, and if one counts Alliances as a carrier itself, they are simply global behemoths, and care little for any individual; as a result, they create targets, measured either in segments flown, or in the actual miles travelled, with attractive benefits for those who reach these levels.
However, their currency, frequent flyer points, are like any other currency; create too many and they will devalue. In the case or airline points, of course, these points, and their concurrent liability to the airline, grow as more people fly, miles are accumulated and not utilised and their “partners”, hotels, credit card companies and the like, issue more and more; more even than the “dollars” issued by the Zimbabwean Central Bank at its zenith.

So there is but one solution for the airlines, and that is their yearly 10 - 15% devaluation; it is true that few of us would actually hold any other investment that shed value so predictably, but we do. In the case of Air Canada, at least some notice is given; others like Delta simply announce that “today” the value of their points has decreased; no chance to book a trip with points accumulated, just back to the airport for a few more flights.

Points too have their blindside; it is rarely worth using Aeroplan points, for example, for a low-season ticket to Europe in economy. A recent look at purchasing a Winnipeg - Dublin / Paris - Winnipeg ticket is a good example. Including taxes, the ticket would cost $1,150; to use Aeroplan points, it would have cost 60,000 points, plus a rather irritating $730 in “taxes and surcharges”; the saving would be a massive $420. Now putting this into perspective, a ticket from Winnipeg to New York, Los Angeles or New Orleans can often cost upwards of $700 these days, yet one can use 50,000 points and $87 (per person) in fees for a reward ticket; a much better value for utilising accumulated Aeroplan points.

Aspirational travel is, of course, the best value of all; travelling in business and first class is beyond the pockets of many of us, and if one has sufficient points, the value can be spectacular. A First Class return ticket, complete with large, flat beds, caviar, luxurious ground facilities and all the fun of the fair, can be yours for a mere $13,000 per ticket, or currently 125,000/145,000 points for a ticket to Europe. Space in these classes can be harder to come by, but persistence or the assistance of a suitable compensated travel professional can be invaluable.

It is also worth subscribing to one of the myriad of frequent-flyer blogs; one I particularly like is “One Mile at a Time”, (www.boardingarea.com/onemileatatime); it is a touch US-centric, but nevertheless interesting.
The best advice now, unfortunately for those who were collecting for their dotage, is to “Earn them and burn them”; similarly, it is worth accruing points in a neutral program such as Diners Club or American Express who allow you to hold points, and then turn them into a variety of different programs.
And be careful of exchange rates! As with any other currency exchange, there are huge variations. It costs fare fewer Alaska Airlines or American Airlines points to travel on British Airways that it does BA points themselves, yet they accrue at the same exchange rate via the credit cards. There are many other such opportunities, and a canny traveller will look at three issues: where do I want to go, who travels there and which points can be turned into this journey.


The answers to that question may surprise you; but on the other hand, they may get you to your preferred destination faster and in more comfort!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Omalo to Paramaribo via Las Vegas

While my journey from Winnipeg to Omalo was an epic of endurance, the return journey, and its continuation into the next two business expeditions, was an epic of intellectual endurance,

Georgia is, as you know, a favourite country of mine; after spending a few delightful and fruitful days in Tusheti we clambered back over the pass and down to the lowlands. Sighanagi, a delightful little town, picturesque and adjacent to some wonderful wine country, was our stop for the next couple of days. Work was discussed, plans made and projects launched - all in the most agreeable surroundings possible.

Among other programs are a Food, Wine and Culture tour and a specialist Wine program to be operated next summer. We are just waiting for the final details to be set in place and then we will start taking reservations.

Then to Tbilisi, and a couple of days in the Big City, and a bizarre day out to Borjomi; Borjomi, the town that has given its name to Georgia’s most famous mineral water has seen better days. It is a remarkable confluence of Soviet kitsch, modern and somewhat opulent construction and some really rather elderly buildings slowly collapsing from decay. The town bustles, however, with apparently happy holidaymakers and others coming to the spa for A Cure.



Among others, we learned, were hundreds of folks from Atkau, a particularly horrible town in Turkmenistan; it is so polluted that the employers arrange for workers to be flown to Georgia to spend ten days having their bowels scoured by some sort of cleansing mud, their lungs puffed clear and their skins brightly polished before sending them back to the inferno for another year.  Very peculiar.

And so with a heavy heart I boarded the plane back to Canada, and a few days of debriefing before I headed to Las Vegas.

Now Las Vegas is about as distant from Tusheti as one can get, and I have to say that it is not my cup of tea. It was far drearier than I had imagined, less Dubai and more Branson, I felt; acres of slot machines with rather melancholy patrons pressing buttons, and empty card table waiting for a victim. I was there, curiously, at the behest of Visit Britain who held their annual North American beano there. There were, I must add, some very interesting UK products on display, and I will get around shortly to designing a comprehensive UK tour program that highlights some of the more obscure and charming parts of my home country.

And so, fortified with tales of Wales, images of the Outer Hebrides and some rather interesting day trips in and around London I flew home for a few days of debriefing; before I headed to Suriname.

Now the trip to Suriname was fascinating, and I headed south with Dick Griffith, our Chicago-based PR agent. The three Guyanas are most interesting and to our clients, who thrive on alternative destinations, the Guyanas match Georgia and the Hebrides in interest, product and hospitality.

Two days in Paramaribo, a day on a canoe in Warrappa Kreek  exploring the abandoned plantations and marvelling at the speed that the jungle can reclaim land were the opening gambit, and lead up to flying deep into the rainforest, and two nights at the Kabalebo resort.



One of the hardships of my work is the requirement to visit distant facilities to ensure that they do indeed match the “picture on the packet” and that clients who we send to them will not be disappointed. Kabalebo is not disappointing in any manner at all.

Thirty years ago or so, the Surinamese government built several airstrips in strategically located part of the jungle to aid exploration for minerals, the construction of dams and other such major infrastructural projects. Kabalebo is one such airstrip, and as no industrial development was warranted, the resort has been built adjacent to the convenient runway.

It is the most pleasant airport motel I have ever stayed in.
 
While the rooms in the main lodge are really a little small, subsequent developments have created some absolutely delightful accommodation in the jungle and adjacent to the river. Walks in the jungle are fine for a the first little while, but suddenly one realises that the walk is not in a botanical garden, and that there are real jaguars, ocelots, monkeys and other jungle-dwellers watching our every move. A rain forest is, it has to be said, natures answer to a teenager’s bedroom; it is a messy place, unfathomable to any but a resident yet full of absolutely fascinating creatures and stories. It seemed to me that the major scenario of the jungle was a long, slow-motion murder/suicide scenario. Massive trees grow; parasitic tubers gradually squeeze the life out of the trees that then die, soon to be followed by the demise of the parasite that has killed its source of refreshment. And so on, and so on …..


Two days at the resort were not enough, but needs must, and business beckoned from Georgetown, so we climbed on board the small Cessna aircraft dispatched to pick us up and we flew back to the Zorg & Hoop airport in Paramaribo, another fine dinner and then the short hop to Georgetown.


Of which more will follow.





Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tusheti - The Great Caucasus Mountains (Part Two)

“Why is Max here?” asked Bishop David Makharadze on the night that we arrived; his questions became ever more pointed, and on the final morning, I heard his voice from behind ask my colleague John “what faith does Max believe in?”

Pondering this question over my morning boiled egg, I decided to take a defensive position. “Ten years at an Anglican boarding school knocked any sense of dogma and religion out of me.” “Ah, he said gently, the Anglicans lost their way.”

An hour and a half later, and by now sitting at his table, I realised that Bishop David was a truly remarkable man. His answers to my questions about the difference between the social binding of the Georgian and Armenian Orthodox churches (well, conversation was slacking, and I wanted to appear to be alert), were met with a unequivocal answer: “The Armenians betrayed their people and their beliefs in the 5th century, so how would one ever trust such a church to hold fast the dogma of the church today?” Well, he had a point, I thought … and he continued, “The church in Georgia today has remained unwavering to the correct and original dogma of the church, it is trusted and it is alive”.

And he is not wrong.

It is, at first glance, difficult to understand how this tiny corner of the world has remained peaceful, intact and culturally strong. There are, of course, many isolated areas of the world that have not managed to do so; indeed, Georgia as a country has faced the last century as an occupied nation and then one in civil war, yet its character has remained defiant and strong.

The Tush survival has been a factor of many elements and among the strongest is the system of land ownership, and its social effect. Dating back to the dawn of time, Tush families own land and simply do not sell it. It gets passed down through generations completely undisturbed by outsiders arriving other than to marry into a family. As a result, there are no businesses from outside; no developers able to buy land and start to chip away at the social and economic fabric. It is also a part of their heritage for those who have left to return at least once a year to the land, and this constant connection has maintained ties that elsewhere have been broken.

I am still unable to really process my impressions of Tusheti; I was only there, of course, for a brief time, and gained insight to only a flake of Tushetian life. I saw in that brief period, I think, a hint of what contentment can be. Happiness, once defined as “living in harmony with the order of things” is nowhere more apparent than here. The respect for social order allows the communities to live harmoniously and the maintenance of ancient traditions, no more evident than in the superb horsemanship of the Tush people, maintain a link from the past to the future.

The roads, on the other hand, are a different matter. From our Near Feast experience in Girevi we crawled back over the ruts and through the grooves to our hotel, the wonderful Guesthouse Shina in Omalo; there, conversation, marvellous food, wine and the gentle rhythm of village life awaited. Dinner, a traditional (and, it has to be said, plentiful) feast each night, washed down with some remarkable wines that our friend John brought from his winery, Pheasant's Tears, in Sighanagi was a treat each night; and let me tell you that John knows a thing or two about wine making.

John specialises in “Natural Wines”. These are basically the juice from stomped grapes poured into a large underground clay pot (a “qvevri”) with some skins and wood, fermented for a couple of weeks and then transferred to another qvevri for a further four to six months.

This process is augmented by the use of a series of most eccentric and ancient wooden tools, the specific uses of I wouldn’t care to ponder. The resulting wines however are simply delicious; and the extraordinary variety of Georgian grapes - some 450 at least - spare the palate a continuation of the overdose of our common Chardonnays, Pinots and Merlots.

They are wonderful wines indeed, and washed down our dinners a treat.

The guesthouse is lovely; it offers accommodation to about twenty travellers in comfortable bedrooms, with a mildly eccentric electrical delivery system adding to the fun. The hosts are delightful, the hospitality unmatched and the views of both the distant mountains and the nearby forts are simply inspiring. It certainly epitomises the ideals of a guesthouse, and I can’t wait to return.

I didn’t actually know I was going to go to Tusheti until about three or four days before I arrived when I received and email from my friend and business colleague Ia. I was travelling to Georgia for a couple of day’s meetings with Ia and John to look at some projects that we are working on, and it was decided (by her or them, I am not quite sure), that Tusheti would be a good place to meet and ponder. This pretty typical of Ia; apart from being the most dazzlingly beautiful woman in the Caucasus, she is an imaginative and very creative travel-type; her persistence in trying to sell Georgia to the outside world was both amusing and successful, and now she is a partner in a terrific local travel company with whom I love to work.


I had a hard timing processing Tusheti; the grandeur, the isolation, the strength of community, the air, the hospitality, the history and architecture, the horsemanship and the serenity. I still have a hard time, but know that I would like to return, and next time stay for longer, and spend more time in the smaller villages, and perhaps even ride a horse.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tusheti - The Great Caucasus Mountains (Part One)

The thing is this; the world is full of remote places, but usually one doesn't want to be in them, and then there are those faux-remote places that are simply odd hybrids. Then there is Tusheti, remote, hospitable, comfortable and (one hopes) unassailable.

Simply driving up the road from the gentle, agricultural Alazani Valley is daunting, and it is easy to realise how such isolated people have remained so; what is harder to comprehend is how the outside world has allowed the world of the high mountains remain so independent. For these are not dumb and insular people; oh no! Each year the population of the mountain villages bring their animals and families down to the lowlands in October before meters of snow render the road impassable for the next seven months.

In May the migration is reversed, and the families take their world back over the Abano Pass and again repopulate the villages of the valley. Some thirty or so families remain in the highlands throughout the year, and in some of the smallest communities, without phone connection or power, the winter will pass slowly, but in constant and absolute communion with their world, the history of the Tush people that both drives and ensures its future.

The region is extraordinary. Surrounded by a circle of high, high mountains, with only one “road” and a few horse tracks scaling the rugged passes accessing the outside world there is a small lowland bowl where the major settlement of Omalo lies. Two rivers pour down between sharp mountain sides, and it is along these river banks that another dozen or so small communities lie.

We drove first to Darklo, a community of about 200 souls, and an important centre on the Pirikitis Alazani River. It is a lovely village; a clutch of fifty or so wooden houses overlooking the river, and its collection of towers standing sentry against invasion from the northwest. We spent a  couple of hours wandering between the  old houses, drinking wild-thyme tea generously provided to us, and enjoyed the curious feeling of timelessness that permeated the village.

And then we continued. The track narrowed as we continued some twenty kilometres upriver to Chesho and eventually to a truly beautiful village called Parsma.

We parked by the river and wandered up to the community; it was a robust walk for a prairie-dweller, and panting embarrassingly at the top, we turned a corner around a large rock and, stepping through a Looking Glass, to the surprise of the community we wandered in. It was a very holy day, and the village was preparing for their feast, in Georgia the Supra is a vital part of community life, and represents the interdependence of family, friend and life. It is also an excuse to drink one’s body weight in local wine, and party long into the night.

Toasting, feasting, laughing, drinking, eating and loving are the strands from which the fabric of Georgia is woven, and the final piece, hosting strangers, was clearly on their minds as we approached.

Immediately four more plates were ordered; the village leader with a sharp knife in one hand, a horn of wine in the other and disconcertingly a United States Postal Service t-shirt, came to us smiling.

“You must join us”, he said, as translated by our friend Ia, “There is no choice in the matter”. With such an uncompromising start we laughed, and explained that as happy as we were to be invited, we really couldn't stay. This answer seemed to lack relevance to our position as stranger in a village that had just slaughtered a sheep, cooked it, set aside a bathtub of wine and wanted external company.

“We are off,” we said, “thank you for your kind offer”; we turned and took a step or two. “Wine or Vodka” was the response, emphasised by a very rustic chap with a poor selection of teeth,but an engaging smile and his wife who sported a rather touching mustache. “Wine”, I said.

We edged back to the table that he had been rustically butchering the late sheep, and with a majestic wipe it was cleaned of the worst detritus. An order was called that in retrospect must have been “If the strangers won’t come to our table to feast, bring the feast to this table”. Cheese, mutton, cucumbers, tomatoes appeared along with the drinking horns that needed to be consumed to ensure both everlasting friendship and a hangover. I drunk horns, chewed mutton (delicious), swallowed some tomato and then, very carefully, taking care to appreciate the marvellous architecture and resilience of the middle-aged forts, we sloped away from this expression of Combat Hospitality and went back to the van.

We continued a further three or four kilometers to Girevi, or almost there as the road finally ran out, and beyond this point, only Tush horsemen, skilled to levels unseen in contemporary life, and outside a circus environment, could proceed.


We had reached a point on the earth that few ever imagine and fewer still ever visit. Three or four miles from the Chechen border we were in a truly special place. For once, I was speechless and still am having difficulty in comprehending where I was and how I felt. Tushetian life is intact, clearly satisfying and as lively and resonant today as it was a thousand years before.

End of Part One

Winnipeg to Omalo - an unusual journey

I like journeys; I like the feeling of movement, the unfolding landscapes and the frisson of excitement that comes with each corner turned. I do, however, have limits, and the forty-hour odyssey that took me from suburban Winnipeg, anodyne and comfortable to Omalo, raw and isolated, was an epic.

A cheery farewell at the Winnipeg airport, a normal flight to Chicago and ample time there to head into town and enjoy lunch and a gawk at the city’s ever-fascinating skyline started the journey well. I rather like Chicago; it is a “crunchy” city, unprepossessing, gorgeous with terrific people and an endless choice of things to do, places to wander and ample to eat and drink.

Thus fortified, I returned to O’Hare for the late evening, Lufthansa departure to Frankfurt. Here the primary benefit of swarms of frequent flyer points came to light as I settled into my bed in the First Class section of the aircraft; there were, in fact, three of us on the upper deck of the 747, none really interested in food, although I think we all prodded at the caviar before retiring for the night, and the eight-hour flight to Europe. Arriving in Frankfurt, I headed to the lounge, showered and prepared to the next three legs of this journey.

Here is the primary drawback of swarms of points; the comfort of the premium cabins is often tempered by the requirement to travel on circuitous routes, and thus I found myself on an early evening flight to Venice, and quick transfer and off to Istanbul before heading to Tbilisi in the middle of the night. Exactly which night it now was, I was not entirely sure.

Landing in Tbilisi at 3.00am is odd; the airport is alive with flights from Munich, Warsaw, Rome, Minsk and all sorts of exotic locales, the place is heaving and the luggage carousels doing sterling service under the weight of the terrific assortment of “stuff” that folks seem to need to travel with.

Onwards. I met my friend Ia and our driver, and off we went on the eight hour run through the plains of Eastern Georgia before turning north toward Tusheti, a remote and inaccessible part of the country, nestled comfortably against the Chechnyan and Dagestani borders.

Now a word here about roads; in particular the vernacular that we attach to descriptions of roads and the comfort of travelling on top of them. Let it be said that Georgian roads are interesting; many well paved and rather pointlessly marked with white lines. Potholes are relatively few in comparison with much of urban Canada, but as one distances oneself from Tbilisi, the surfaces become increasingly variable.

From Tbilisi to Alavani takes a couple of hours, and by this time little green men were starting to jump out at me, and I was happy that I wasn't driving. Ia had thoughtfully brought a pillow for me, and I was wound up on the back seat reasoning that the Mitsubishi Delica that  we were driving was created for Japanese, who are, as a race, considerably smaller (and presumably flexible) than I. It is a fine van, and considerably more robust that first appears; I couldn't help wondering if the water stain on the interior of the roof was a left over from the hundreds of Tsunami-soaked cars, and whether or not I would glow.

Beyond Alavani the road is limited to 4WD vehicles; and apparently bicycles, but they were possibly simply mad. The 70km stretch to Tusheti is an extraordinary road; rutted, potholed, narrow and pushing through some of the most extraordinary scenery one can imagine. By now dawn had sprung, and as the sun came up each corner led to a new sharp intake of breath as the mountains of the Great Caucasus came into view. The road dragged itself up to the AbanoPass, at 3,000 metres, a high point and that morning swirling with mist and sheep. Over the pass, as the road drops into the Chebalaki River Valley, one really starts to understand the beauty of isolation. It becomes quite obvious how the history and anthropology of the region is determined by geography, and it is this very geography that offers protection and possibility has allowed the communities to survive, and indeed thrive.

It has to be noted at this point, that this road was one chosen by the BBC to highlight is a series of the "World's Most Dangerous Roads"!

By now I was confused. The pasteurised world or airports and aeroplanes had within five hours given way to a new century, and an entirely new world; as we dropped into the valley, and the first Tushetian villages of Shtrolta and Khiso came into view.

Attractive clusters of perhaps twenty houses lying together on a distant river bank and accessible only on horseback, they were the epitome of security. Cosy, attractive and utterly timeless the description that I had read about Tusheti “like Switzerland 100 years ago” seemed apt. Communities that have been here since the dark and distant days some thousands of years ago. And, as I was to learn, still very traditional and held together with an interesting fabric woven from strands of religion, respect, strict social mores and a desire to continue a lifestyle that has been lost in so many places.

By now I was a bit tired, and must have lost my presence of mind as I muttered from my (by now) pretzel-shaped position on the back seat about the excitement that riding a horse up here would offer. I was clearly getting a touch hallucinary, and it was with some little relief that we arrive at our wonderful guesthouse in Omalo, and popped like a constrained champagne cork from the van.

This was to be the most moving place that I have ever visited. But that is another story.


Winnipeg to Omalo had taken about forty hours, but is seemed that beyond that temporal measurement I had travelled back in time, and more importantly, I felt that somehow, the earth was moving a little more slowly.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The new and vastly inferioir Canadian Passport offering

The politics of travel are often bewildering, and always incomprehensible, but the latest move by the Canadian government to change the validity and structure of their passport system is simply beyond the pale.

After years of prodding by the industry and the travelling public, Canada has now announced that they will offer passports valid for ten years, and not just the customary five. However, there is a very difficult and significant catch attached to this apparent magnanimity

Passports will only have 32 pages, with no possibility to extend, as most other countries allow, by the addition of extra pages. Currently, there are 48 page passports available for frequent travellers, and as a result, many (of us) who regularly fill these within the five-year period will now have to get new passports every two years or so.
When questioned, an extremely disinterested passport official told me that “there was insufficient demand to warrant the cost of providing the 48 page documents”.

Ridiculous.
There is little additional cost attached to adding twelve blank pages, and in any case, if coast was an issue, charge me $500 for a bumper ten-year passport. The UK offers 98 pagers, and the ability to add additional should one’s travels so determine; American passport-holders can add pages as can most other European and Middle Eastern nations.

Why are Canadian business travellers being so penalised by having these ridiculous toy passports as the only option? Passports adorned with multiple-entry visas that will also now need frequent renewal, should have a viable manner to extend their validity.
Come on Ottawa, think about it, and offer a passport that is suited to the many, many business travellers that are out on the road every single day.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The wonderful face of Natural Wines


Life can be oddly circular. Even for those of us mildly irritated by the overuse of such adages as “what comes around goes around” and “well, life is just a circle”, from time to time it works like that.
Not trying to seek a completion of a six-week sojourn in Europe, sorry, Gruelling Business Travel, that has taken me from Khaketi in Eastern Georgia to Lairg in the Scottish Highlands, and from Stanley Gibbons stamp auction house in London’s Strand to the Pyrenees and finally to the hills of northern Tuscany and the final departure point of Bologna.

And it is of Bologna and Tbilisi that I speak.

The purpose of my trip to Georgia was to join the Second Qvevri Symposium, a fascinating week of education liberally illustrated with an extraordinary supply of these marvellous “natural wines”, made entirely in the Old Fashioned Way.
Stomped grapes, fermentation in an earthenware pot (an Amphora or Qvevri) and finally settlement in another of these pots; it is a technique that is over 10,000 years old and the wine produced thus is marvellous and most eminently drinkable. Unfortunately all too little ever reaches North America, although there are a couple of importers and restaurants that do carry these wines.

The food of Georgia (as you can imagine, we did not only drink), was exceptional; fresh, flavourful and a daily treat. The trip was an insight, a vital lesson and an awe-inspiring insight to the possibilities for food, culture and wine exploration of this mostly unknown corner of the world.
Which leads me to Bologna.

Everybody goes to Florence, and I am sure that it is very pleasant indeed, and is stuffed full of astonishment. It is, however, also stuffed full of tourist in July, and not wanting to line up behind hundreds of yards of earnest folks clutching Let’s Go Europe, I decided to head to Bologna instead.

For years I have heard and believed that Bologna has very much to offer. It is close to Florence, and if one wants the “medieval Italian city experience”, there is little to differentiate the two. Sure Florence has the brand-name sights, and is a little bigger, but Bologna is truly gorgeous and has no queues.
Stunning towers, piazzas, medieval lanes and delightful architecture; museums and galleries, and even for those with a more contemporary bent, the Ferrari factory.

And food; Bologna is a food lovers delight, and for reasons that had something to do with Trip Advisor, and a lot to do with serendipity (there are a lot of restaurants listed in TA), I dined at the unprepossessing Trattoria di via Serra last night.
Frankly, you would not be walking past by chance, and if you were, you would probably not give it a second glance; however, once through the unsightly door, one is transported into a home. The owners, Flavio Benassi and  Tomasso Maio offer a truly superb and simple product.

They learned to cook in the mountain villages between Bologna and Modeno where, Flavio said “You can’t fool people about your pasta”; so from these beginnings to opening their restaurant in Bologna a year ago that have concentrated in preparing simple, local and organic food.
And it is quite simply delicious. From their cheese and ham or local mushrooms on home-style bread antipasti through the most exquisite pasta one can imagine to their secondi of rabbit or other local delicacies, one could taste the care. Tomasso, the chef, prepares wonderfully and is perfectly complemented by Flavio’s terrific personality, so vital for a successful front-of-house.

And the wine; interestingly, they offer only red and white on the menu, although there are other bottles available upon demand.

The house wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and the white Pignoletto are both produced by the Vigneto San Vito, and are completely fresh and natural; and, I have to say, utterly delicious.
I sat, complete after far too much food, contemplating on the concept of “natural wines” and why such an ancient concept seemed so new and fresh. Perhaps it is because we live in a world so dominated by brands that we have lost sight of where the ideas came from in the first place.

However, fortunately for us, vintners in Georgia and Italy, among other places, are beginning to catch on to the fact that there is a market who is keen to embrace the fresh and clean ideas of wines made without resort to chemicals.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

France always surprises

One of the wonders of the world is surely the amount of world-class tourist sites that France hides away in the country. A short drive in almost any direction will lead to UNESCO protected caves, small galleries housing a world-class collection, truffle museums, discreet museums of ancient religious art in a small and little-visited abbey and even camping sites with a fine restaurant.

Guided by our friends Clement and Christel, and their delightful 12-year-old daughter Lucie, we headed off to the Minervois; this wonderful wine region lies to the north of Carcassonne, toward the ominously named Montagnes Noir. And as we drove toward them, they were distinctly noir.

Fortunately, unlike Spain, the rain ventures not to the plain, and stayed in the hills, but among a few drops, we arrived at the Gouffre Geant de Cabrespine. I hadn't either, but no matter, it seems that the site has enough visitors.

It was extraordinary; standing in a massive cavern some one-hundred meters tall, and surrounded by the stalactites and stalagmites of both the most delicate and the most robust, it was impossible not to simply allow one's jaw to drop and stare. A simple, but effective lighting system, designed to both protect and illuminate, highlighted the various growths splendidly. We were told of a possible tour of four to five hours, that would include climbing down eighty metres of ladders to the ground and following into some of the seventeen kilometres of caves, caverns and rivers; tempting, but for next time.

Geology and time make superb partners; this cavern, the result of two massive limestone layers, one Devonian from 250 million years ago and one Silurian from 350 million years ago crashing together and forming the cave. The growth of the concretions formed only in the older Silurian stone, and together with the other extraordinary patterns, growths and frankly eerie shapes and shadows, made for the best science lesson that I can remember.

And what goes best with a couple of hours dabbling in speleology?  Why truffles, of course, and so to the evocatively named Maison de la Truffe some ten kilometres up the road in the charming village of Villeneuve Minervois.

Truffles are mysterious, and although we were too late for the museum, the gift shop was open. As a consequence, we were introduced to an Aperitif Artisanal a la Truffe. Now I had never heard of any alcoholic drink being infused with the jus de truffe (1%), but I can assure you that it is a sound idea. This along with truffle-infused oils (olive, grape seed and others), vinegars (balsamic and white varieties), mustards, pestos and a variety of other condiments. There were truffle knives, truffle graters, truffle inscribed egg-cups too although I couldn't quite make that connection, and of course a variety of wild-boars (4,50 - 25,00, depending on size) and posters.

And, perhaps more importantly, we were told of the Truffle Festival that is taking place all day only 20kms from my house.

So, if you will excuse me, I shall go to the festival, and tell you all about it later.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Llivia; its position in life

Thanks to my astute readers - Llivia is, of course, an Exclave and not an Enclave.

Llivia - A Spanish Enclave in France




The first thing that one notices on the rather short drive to Llivia is that there is a fork in the road; to the right lies the French town of Bourg Madame, a menacing although now inactive border control post and the road into France. The fork to the left aims one at "Llivia", a small sign, and the road, almost parallel to the other leads into a vast acreage of poppies. Not, I suspect, of the recreational Afghan type, but extremely beautiful, and deeply surprising.

The road travels virtually adjacent to the French Fork, and in fact, one is driving across French soil for a couple of miles before entering "Llivia - "The Spanish Enclave within France" as the sign professes. It actually says this in Spanish, but I felt that a translation would be in order.

The enclave's peculiar status derives from the Treaty of the Pyrenees, negotiated in 1649 to determine the border between France and Spain; towns within the region were ceded to France, but as the treaty stipulate that villages were to become French, and Llivia was considered a city, it remained Spanish. The status came not from size, it only has and had a population of about 1,500, but because it was the ancient capital of Cerdanya. Cerdanya, to add a further layer of complication to the administrative quagmire of the region, is the name given to an historical land straddling the Spanish/French border,  and forming one of the counties of Catalunya.

Got it?



Regrettably, I don't know how to rotate pictures here, however you will get the gist of it.


Llivia itself is not mesmerising, but unusual, and quirky; its position within France, gave escaping allied forces an easier target to aim for as they tried to get to Spain, but once in Llivia, they still had the pesky issue of the last three miles of the "international" road, a designation that one imagines was not recognised on a daily basis.

It is, however, well worth a stop, and if one is there at the right time of day, the Cal Cofa restaurant is well worth a visit; so far, I have only managed coffee.

From Llivia, the drive home was beautiful, interesting and not unlike many other drives in this part of the world. The scenery of the Languedoc, and the region of Cerdanya in particular offers exploring  visitors an endless series of small gasps, and images of countryside, village life and history unmatched in most other places.







Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Andorra, SW France and NE Spain, plus Llivia

What a phenomenal day; ten and a half hours, three hundred and fifty kilometres, three and a half countries and absolutely terrific company. Touoring in the Pyrenees is a wonderful pasttime.

In a fine indication of the extraordinary amount there is to do in the South West of France, notably the Languedoc; we decided to drive a circuit that took us high into the Pyrenees before dropping into the Andorran capital of Andorra la Vella, and then returning by driving south into Spain, toward Puigcerda close to the French border. Thence to the rather remarkable Spanish enclave of Llivia before returning through the stunning Gorge de St Georges to Home in Esperaza.

The region never ceases to amaze me with the cornucopia of languages, topography, economies and the presence of simply silly places. Not that Andorra or Llivia are silly in and of themselves, folks in neither roll around laughing helplessly nor engage in silly walks, but neither should really exist in the 21st century, but I am delighted that they both do.

The Pyrenees are an unquestionably thoughtful, and even spiritual place. The region was home for many years to adherents of the Cathar faith, a Christian belief, but one so popular in the early part of the last millennium that the pope (indecently called Pope Innocent) called a crusade. This crusade, the only Christian on Christian such walloping caused the deaths of over two hundred thousand in these parts, and the valleys and villages resonate with ancient memories, and even a still-fomenting belief in their ancient ways.

In any case, the question of reincarnation was a biggie; and assuming (and this is a very long-shot indeed) that after my death the parts of my soul are rearranged into something more than an ocelot or sea-anemone, I would rather fancy being Andorran.

Firstly, one would have the advantage of speaking Catalan officially; one would not be bothered by the European Union and one would live in the most picturesque land in the world; one would also have a great opening gambit at cocktail parties. Balance this against the lack of an airport, the requirement to like mountains, a remarkably large Russian population, and one of those funny economies so loved by dodgy bankers and prone to burst rather spectacularly, and one is left with a pretty good place to live.

Heck, even reasonable football players get to take on the likes of England every so often and play at the Nou Camp in Barcelona.

But I digress. Tourists, and there are plenty of them there, arrive in droves to either ski or shop; in June it is almost all the latter. It is a tax haven, and for a population base of 90,000 offers a eye-watering selection of wrist watches, electrical goods and alcoholic refreshment.

The drive into the principality was easy, but I do remember a few years ago being required to buy tyre-chains before making the long climb up the mountain from Ax les Thermes ... I was fortunate to be travelling with a couple of Icelanders familiar with these wretched devices, and knew how to put them on.

At this time of year, and under a brilliantly sunny sky, the country was simply gorgeous, and although we would have liked to linger for longer, our itinerary forced an onward rush south to the Spanish border.

This is one of the few rather serious land-borders left in Europe; wary of its citizens setting up pipelines of cheap booze and cigarettes (and presumably watches), there is a substantial customs post to navigate before arriving in Spain; actually, Catalonia if one asked an inhabitant, but the point is take.

The southern hills of the Pyrenees offer as wonderful landscapes as their northern cousins, if a touch gentler.  The road to Puigcerda is marvellous, as are most roads in Spain; perfectly cambered, and a delight to drive. Small and ancient villages dot the landscape, horse farms predominate, and as is the case in much of the region, life continues to evolve as it has for eons.

Puigcerda is rather interesting. A major regional market centre of about 9,000 folks, it dominates local commerce; during the Spanish Civil War, it had an elected Anarchist Council, a very peculiar form of government if one thinks it through, and more recently was the birth place of the 2010 World Champion cross-country mountain biker.

This is a lot to ponder over a coffee, amidst a touch of reconstruction and a rather pleasant medieval town centre. But ponder it we did, and came to little conclusion other than is was a rather pleasant place to stop before heading into Llivia.

The next chapter in the day's ride.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lost luggage and shopping


Have you ever seen the peculiar (even by contemporary television’s standards) game show where contestants rush around supermarkets filling their trolleys with the highest value of items in an allotted time period? It is, most certainly odd, but there is a real life example.
Lost baggage is a curse; irritating and somehow unsettling, but the temporary separation of passenger and luggage can have a silver lining. If one is properly insured, and there are many options available, a game-show can ensue.

I have an American Express card, suitably elevated to the point that I am entitled to spend money in the event of a delayed bag; the delay used to be four hours, and has now been inflated to six, but the compensation has also risen, from $400 to $1,000.
Several years ago, flying from Winnipeg via London and Edinburgh to Kirkwall, our bags went astray. It was in the late 1990s and security was less then rigid, so during transit in Edinburgh, when I spotted my bag on a cart that would clearly not make our flight, I grabbed it and boarded. Andrea was less fortunate.

Arriving in Kirkwall at 3.30 on a Saturday afternoon, we phoned the insurance company to alert them to our misfortune and get permission to start shopping. We were advised that we would have to wait until 7.30 before such benediction could be given; we advised them in turn that this was the last flight until Monday morning and the shops would shut in ninety minutes; in turn the insurance advisor in Toronto chose to disbelieve this, indicating that any community that allowed a thirty-six hour gap between flights was beyond his comprehension. We pushed the matter in a strong but forceful tone, and eventually received the OK to shop.
By now it was 4.00, and the town ten minutes away from the airport; we rushed to the high street, and charged aimlessly from shop to shop trying to find clothes appropriate for the weekend, but to little avail. Advised by delightful and conscientious sales people that “Ye really dinna want this one, and can get much finer in Inverness”, but nevertheless snatching the item before continuing, we were able to clothe her in an elementary style, and save the insurance company some $200.

Yesterday, I had a similar experience.
Allowed to spend $1,000, and still having no sight of my luggage, I headed into Limoux.

Now I have to say at this point that not all Frenchmen are slim-line creatures (Gerard Depardieux springs to mind) and although I could happily shed a kilo or two I am hardly a giant, but the shops of Limoux carry a very limited supply of comfortable clothing.
One disappointed shopkeeper, eying this rush bonanza keenly, told me that a certain size, of which he had many shirts, was “tres chic”; he lied, it wasn’t, and instead I had the single shirt available that actually fit. We were both sad, but I ploughed on.

Now I don’t actually know where Gerard Depardieux shops, but I can say with absolute certainty that it is not in Limoux. In addition to the shirt, rather catchy if I do say so myself, I managed to find suitable underwear, socks, a razor and a toothbrush before giving up the ghost.
And now, Friday morning in a rather overcast Esperaza, I wait for JAP Transport Chronopost  to arrive, and hope that my bag remains unrifled and intact.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A word about baggage


I used to lose my luggage with alarming frequency; or to be more precise, airlines used to misplace it at whim. I went through a period of a year or so when (honestly) my bags would go adrift in about one journey in three; including a ridiculous flight from Inverness to Edinburgh one Sunday morning with four of us on board, and nothing else going on at the airport.

Barcelona has also caused me a degree of strife in the past, as I was reunited with a bag checked from New York via Oporto only when I checked in ten days later to return home. So checking in a bag to fly from Inverness to Barcelona (via London) was possibly over-optimistic to begin with.

It absolutely bewilders me how in this security-laden world, bags with ample connecting time go astray, but they do. I will be interested to see if mine has been rifled, as I do believe that these issues are really caused by baggage handlers misappropriating baggage to look through before “finding” it again. The extreme baggage systems in place today with their bewildering array of bar-codes and battery of fail-safe protocols should ensure that bags don't go walkabout, but they do.

The unsung heroes of this world, however, are the poor folks whose job it is to help frustrated travellers fill in the forms, instill them with hope and still smile.

I have a friend whose career with Air Canada was in the murky underworld of lost baggage. Permanently serene, with that look that comes from either a genuine inner-peace or narcotics; Ron has helped me on more than one occasion summoning trackers from his network of bloodhounds, and mysteriously reuniting me with some lost item or other.

I hope my bags come tomorrow; more, I hope that they have not been rifled and even more, I hope that I am in when the van arrives.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Georgian Supra


I am a survivor; only just, I will admit, but tomorrow I will be able to stumble onto an aeroplane and leave the extraordinary Georgian hospitality behind.

Let me explain.

Georgia is all about hospitality; now I realise that may countries make this announcement, but in Georgia it is true. The ordinary, average Georgian is delighted that one is visiting, and will spare no effort to display this.

The differently-enhanced Georgian simply goes all out, and not in a Russian manner to simply impress, but in a Georgian manner, simply to host.

One way to show one’s respect and affection is to host a Supra, the Georgian name for a feast. Now at this point, set aside images of medieval “feasts” held at the drearier type of motorway motel, and think hospitality.

Timing is important; apparently, but not in principle. Tables are laid, the initial offerings are put down and at some juncture within thirty or forty minutes of the “scheduled” start, folks wander to the table. Plates of salad, cheeses, pate, eggplant laced with piquant sauces of the most perfect tomatoes and rich chilies, walnut sauces, cilantro, hummus (with rocket if you are lucky), preserves and bread are served. Then come the katchapouri, leavened bread with cheese and (if one is lucky), beet leaves baked into it; lamb, fish and veal dishes arrives, and the table starts  under the weight of the food. Wine flows in delightful rivers, and he laughter measured both in delights chuckles and heartfelt guffaws is heard everywhere.

And then, they sing; there will be a choir of perhaps six singers who punctuate the evening with the haunting and captivating songs of Georgia. The exquisite and haunting polyphonic music of the region is immediately discordant to western ears, but it takes little time to become aware of a different and exciting musical genre. The songs are old; older than most of our countries and tell of love (requited and unrequited), peace, harmony, life and its interrelationships with the land and God. They are truly delightful, and add yet another dimension to the evening. However, this is not really the point.

The issue and history of the Supra is interaction; between families, business colleagues, warring parties or even sparring government departments (one imagines). It is a meeting place; it is the venue to allow ones feelings to be aired, and hear others by means of toasts, speeches and open emotion. It is a wonderful social leveller, and an environment that has been a key point that has allowed so many disparate, divisive and independent groups to co-exist.

Georgia’s many families, tribes, kingdoms, religious groups and interlopers could have evolved so differently. It could have mirrored the cauldrons that are the Middle East and the Balkans; it could have been pasteurised out of ethnographical existence as we seem to be trying to do in “The West”.

Not for Georgia is a future of lowest common denominators and a drive toward mediocrity; it is a country that takes challenge head on, and then resolves conflict through feast.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Qvevris and other new and useful knowledge

Qvevris are old, practical, magical and contemporary. They are the ancient vessels used for 10,000 years or more in the making of wine; pure, Natural Wine.

I am part of the Second International Qvevri Wine Symposium, and travelling through Georgia with a terrifically engineered group of wine makers, wine writers and one tourism-type, trying to figure out how to design some tourism programs that will incorporate the rather extraordinary Georgian industry.

Firstly, however, a few words about Georgia.

I am not talking about Atlanta; I refer to the Republic of Georgia, tucked away nicely at the eastern end of the Black Sea, due south of some of the more eccentric regions of the Russian Federation and due north of Turkey and Armenia. It is a peaceful and stunning beautiful country of some 4.5 million souls leading their land to a rather new and interesting prosperity. The country has had more than its share of problems with invaders; since the 4th century, and probably before.

The political issues of the Caucasus make the politics of teenage girls seem simple. From invasion to invasion, political and economic alliances, disputes of all manner of shapes and sizes, wine was being made, consumed and keeping the Georgians, an extremely convivial race, content.

And this is where the Qvevri comes in. They are large (300 – 3,500 litre) earthenware vessels that are coated inside with beeswax and buried in the ground. The region is the home of winemaking, a craft that has like so many other artisanal occupations edged ever closer to the chemistry laboratory over the years; but not in Georgia.

Wine is still made in the traditional manner by many producers (some producing up to 5,000 bottles per year and almost every family. It is said that in the basement of some urban apartment blocks there are qvevris available for the tenants. The recipe is straightforward; take the Georgian grapes (and believe me, when one finds that there are in excess of 500 varieties that grow in this country, most with names that defeat most non-Georgian speakers, this choice is not easy), crush them pouring the juice into the qvevri. Add stems to taste, and seal the top of the pot; return after a few weeks or months to remove the skins and wood, or not as the wine maker chooses. After sufficient time, take the lid off the vessel, draw off the liquid, taste, smile and invite as many friends as you can think of, the local singers and prepare a feast.

The Georgian “supra” is a meal to behold; medieval quantities of food piled on itself in an explosion of colour and taste, groaning tables, considerably laughter, polyphonic singing and not an eye on Facebook.

Evenings get late, jokes become more ribald, and perhaps emotions overflow, but usually this is only in the continuous expressions of love, friendship and the other values so encouraged by the consumption of the wine. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

And in the morning, despite the over-refreshment of the night before, heads are memorably clear to head off and sample more of these extraordinary products.

Georgia’s isolation, geographically and geopolitically has had one major benefit; the country in the early 21st century is truly organic, and at a time that the world is demanding more natural products. If the government is able to embrace this, and brand Georgia as a “Natural” country, it has a special and valuable place in the world economy.

However, the future is far in the distance; today it is off to the Alaverdi monastery to see their wine production, and have the monks cook us lunch.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Home in Tbilisi


There are cities one wants to revisit, cities one wants spend time in, cities that one would never want to set foot in again and then there is Tbilisi.

I have visited hundreds of places over the years, and feel comfortable in many places around the world. I am often asked which my favourite country is, and that is a difficult one to answer. Answering which my favourite city is is far easier, it is Tbilisi.

My definition of urban comfort is being able to step on public transport without question, to remember a short cut and to have a favourite restaurant. Even if it has transmogrified from a magnificent Indian joint to a Fusion Afghan specialist place; it is the memories.

It is having a little money left over from the last visit on a transit card or a nearly complete loyalty card from a coffee chain; it is the feeling of being allowed to avoid the major tourist sights because you have already seen them, and a morning spent wandering through a back-water is much more fun.

It is also in one’s mind; the sensation one gets in recognising a minor landmark, perhaps a tyre store on the way from the airport, perhaps anticipating a turn in the road, or perhaps the allure of a particularly garish building. The feeling of security and comfort in a distant land is embracing and unusual.

Tbilisi does it for me. From the road from the airport, past familiar landmarks, the first glimpse of an Orthodox Church stand proudly on the skyline, the first glance of the city’s magnificent river banks and the first wander through the old and crumbling Old Town

Tbilisi is fabulous, and really should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is a bustling centre, flanking the banks of the Kura River, with a cornucopia of designs. Visions of the 19th century are visible throughout the Old Centre, some restored, some flaking slowly into dust; the patina of these old buildings, with magnificent, faded artwork in their lobbies and cracks reminiscent of earthquake damage. Now, earthquakes do hit the Caucuses, most recently in 2012, but the cracks look more due to inattention and gradual slippage; lovely, nonetheless.

Then there are rings of Soviet Concretism, heroic metalwork and apartment blocks so precarious and ugly, one wonders who could possibly have designed them. Interspersed are some of the most delightful contemporary buildings one could wish for.

Miss Haversham meets Renzo Piano.

Wandering, today, through the city was wonderful. The weather bright and warm, the streets bustling, 22 Bestiki Street still forbidding, and the restoration work of the city centre coming along delightfully. Walk back a block from the main drags and you are among crumbling buildings, small parks filled with laughing children, old buildings taken over by modern art and photography galleries, delightful little restaurants, very private offices and many residential apartments; truly a mosaic of people and function that seems to work so well.

No I don’t have such rose-tinted glasses that I can’t see the poverty that some people live in, but I am sure that there is a difference between being poor and living in poverty. There are terrible issues, of course; unemployment, pensions insufficient to provide even a basic living, the growing gulf between the wealthy who have been involved in development and those who have not.

However, there is also a burgeoning middle class; there are shops and other services clearly catering to their needs, and one huge change that I have seen in the eight years since I first visited, is the growth in infrastructure. From roads to railways, the country has invested in the backbone that will support growth, and allow the money in the country to flow more comprehensively than in most post-Soviet economies.

It is also worth remembering that as recently as the mid-1990s Tbilisi residents were burning furniture to provide some heat and some cooking fuel; there was little if any electricity and the country had submerged under the weight of endemic corruption. There was simply nothing here. Their growth has stemmed from a revolution in 2003 (only ten years ago) that brought post-Soviet power to an end. With ample assistance from both the USA and Europe, both to attempt to create a western state on Russia’s southern border, and a government committed to eliminating corruption and building wealth, the country has changed beyond recognition in many, many ways.

However, it is still Georgia, and it is still Tbilisi; coming back feels warm, welcoming and makes me wish that I had visited earlier in my life. I am sure that I would have moved here.