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.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Travelling with a Bunion

Now I don’t’ want to whine, but bunions are deeply evil afflictions. For weeks, even months, one’s disfigured toe joint will cause merriment (in the right circles), but cause little or no irritation. Suddenly, however, the malevolent digit will spring into action and cause the sufferer intense anguish.

I think that bunions have both personalities and foresight. They rarely hurt at bedtime, for example, but the day before one dons one's boots and heads out for a 9,000 km journey to Tbilisi they stretch, shake themselves to life and irritate badly. They make wandering from gate to gate difficult, and one assumes a rather dreary shuffle.

Which leads me to wonder about those folks who whizz around airports in Club Carts and get pushed past long security lines in wheelchairs. Are they really sick? Do they all have certificates from their doctors? Could the Handicap Marshalls at O’Hare read an Iranian or Armenian sick-note anyway?

I remember a trip from Beirut to Frankfurt. I was travelling with a friend who (a) had not bought a ticket and (b) had a dreadful attack of Bad Foot rendering him incapable of walking more than 20 yards without yelping. I had a ticket to Germany via Istanbul, and he (who I shall call Murray, because that is his name) decided that he would fly with Alitalia via Milan to save a few hundred (or possibly dozen) dollars. His feet were dreadful, and we consequently booked a wheelchair for him to assist his transit in Italy and arrival in Frankfurt.

Well, oddly, but in fact, we arrived in Frankfurt within ten minutes of each other, and as I waited for my baggage he appeared, pushed by a presumably new-recruit of Alitalia, a big grin on his face, at the carousel adjacent to mine. We picked up our baggage and retired to an airport hotel where he told his tale.

Wheelchairs, it seems, have priority over ambulances, pilots and even security chiefs. Milan airport was huge, but having access to assistance made the connection a breeze; tales of young chaps pushing his chair down long slopes while riding on the axle seemed a touch farfetched. However, the joys of unimpeded passage through airports resonated.

Curiously, some months later I had a severe foot problem. I ordered a wheelchair in London, and fortunately it was there to whisk me away to my connecting flight. I couldn’t have walked.

However, on the return, my foot now mended, the request for assistance was still on the file; because our connection on Vienna was tight, the flight attendant, even after I had protested my new-found health and well-being, advised that I should accept the chair, because “it would be a faster way to transit Vienna airport”. It certainly was, and did involve long slopes, discreet doorways and a family rushing to keep up. We missed the plane any way.

I did, however, feel an obligation to present a visible reason for the assistance, and so assumed an exaggerated limp. I was advised that this was unnecessary, as my affliction might be invisible, a heart problem for example.

Which made me think.

How many folks whizzing unimpeded through airports are in fact masquerading as handicapped, where in fact that are as capable of skipping as I. Which is not terribly, I will admit, but you get the point.

And so to sick-notes in Georgian or Ethiopian script; as the temptation to avoid immigration and security lines increases, and more folks request “assistance”, how will airlines and airports determine eligibility.

Who knows, but my bunion is really giving me problems ….