Thursday, April 21, 2016

Touring Georgia: some ideas and observations.

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

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

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

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

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

An evening at Pheasants' Tears in Sighnaghi

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Chechnya; a glimpse of an extraordinary culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our modest luncheon spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Tourism in Barcelona; a tale of love, hate and El Poblenou!

"I love Barcelona", we hear all the time, but here’s the thing.

You travel for a vacation, pick your destinations carefully, research the sights, restaurants, walks and gradually paint a picture of your perfect stay in the world’s most interesting and desirable cities.

And then you arrive, and find that it does not quite resemble the picture on the tin. “Who are all these folks?”, you wonder, “and what on earth are they all doing here?”

For me, Barcelona is the best of the best and the worst of the worst. It is a wonderful, quirky, enchanting and fascinating city, but on the other hand, it is so over-crowded I have often vowed that I would never return.

Too many tourists.

Barcelona is now the sixth biggest cruise port in the world and Europe’s largest with a stunning 2.5 million passengers boarding and disembarking in the city; add to this staggering number the 0.6 million visitors coming for conferences and congresses and you have over 3 million “accidental tourists” every year. Were they to arrive in an absolutely even pattern, this would put 8,219 visitors into town every single day of the year.

Now on the one hand this is good; the visitors spend a great deal of money, and indeed tourism accounts for 10% of Barcelona’s GDP and a large number of jobs. One another hand it is not so good; prices for almost anything are inflated, the number of one-nighters dozily wandering The Ramblas attracts legendary numbers of pickpockets, and the hoards simply clog up the system.

And of course, they don’t all arrive equally; not at all. Barcelona is the home port of the outrageously sized Allure of the Seas (6,452 passengers/2,440 crew when full, this ship has the same water displacement as a Nimitz-Class aircraft carrier), and when she is one of the arriving or departing vessels, the numbers swell. As they do when the annual Mobile World conference steams into town every February with its 94,000+ attendees.

One day they will finish the Sagrada Familia
Yes, ninety-four thousand attendees; all at once.

So with these folks wandering around, trying to “do” Barcelona in a couple of hours, spending their time either acquiring or nursing a hangover and generally wandering aimlessly, tourists who were actually looking forward to visiting Barcelona for its own charms can feel quite out of place. Cramped and squeezed at every turn, lining up for hours to glance at a Gaudi building or the Sagrada Familia, or trying to get in or out of the airport resentment can build. Tourist Rage; it happens.

Barcelona, though, like every other major centre does have some sweet spots. Tourists, particularly the accidental ones, ripping through the city between workshops of before boarding tend to concentrate, and Barcelona is no exception. While The Ramblas, The Sagrada Familia and one or two other places are heaving with visitors, much of the city remains off limits, and Poblenou is one such gem.

A Gracia Square
Previously, I had escaped to Gracia a cool area just to the north of the centre, home of some great bars, restaurants, leafy squares and a great atmosphere, but this was beginning to be found; and so in search of another up and coming area I headed to and stayed in Poblenou

Four Metro stops from the centre, Poblenou was a distant marshland that started to become settled in the seventeenth century; gradually the community grew to become a great industrial centre described my many as “The Catalan Manchester”. The twentieth century brought more growth and a change to a light industrial and residential base, evolving in the mid-century as an overcrowded shantytown with all of the problems associated with overcrowding.

The Tower in Poblneou
The Olympic Games of 1992 were the turning point with a massive infusion of development and this old, industrial sector has evolved into a delightful area now home to artists and others seeking to escape the pressure and prices of the centre.

For visitors it is delightful; offering easy access to Barcelona’s wonderful sights, it is a peaceful home base to return to each evening and enjoy the many local restaurants and vibrant nightlife that Rambla del Poblenou” and its adjacent streets offer.

Barcelona; love it, hate it or do both, it is still one of Europe’s major tourist attractions. It is possible, however, to be cautious in planning your visit. Don’t just look at what you want to see, make sure that you won’t be overwhelmed and ask Google is there is a major event planned when you want to go. And if there is, switch your dates if you can, and if not, head out to one of the city’s many smaller and delightful neighbourhoods.

And I will be back there on May 5th.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Visiting the Scottish Highlands independently.

The road around the Northwest corner of Scotland
Some destinations are boring, some become boring and others have complete tediousness thrust upon them. Sadly, increasing numbers of “tourist destinations” are falling into the spectrum of tedium as vastly increasing numbers of tourists descend upon them with anxious visitors ticking boxes, and completing “bucket lists”.

Ironically, escape is simple; unfortunately, the powerful “web” through which we get so many ideas is driven by extraordinarily powerful forces whose interests are usually and increasingly at odds with our own.

Take, for example, VisitScotland. This governmental marketing body is well respected, does some very fine work in promoting the country, offers a wide variety of opportunities for visitors, but remains completely out of touch with the vast majority of the Scottish industry.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
Majority, of course, because visitors go where they are told; the global idiom of the travel world is simple. Governments tell you why you should visit a place, and the industry tells you how. 

Governments tell you why you should visit by encouraging journalists to visit, designing and executing major marketing campaigns and using a variety of other tools in their chest. Then the industry follows suit; hotels are built in destinations that receive the most marketing, major tour operators design programs that will fill these hotels, and the die is cast; success breeds success and the country is the winner.

And fewer visitors get to see some of the countries' hidden treasures, ticked away as they are in the remote nooks and crannies of the nation. Like St. Magnus Cathedral; founded in 1137, this gorgeous building dominates the Kirkwall skyline, and offers visitors a remarkable timeline of these remarkable islands.

Durness Coastline 
And it is the same the world  over; look around you; Canada’s tourism is very successful, but Manitoba’s is in the tank. The Languedoc in the Southwest of France does not keep up with the “trends” offered by the French tourism folks and, and to Argentinians, tourism is Buenos Aires, Patagonia or the wineries of Mendoza. The world all follow that pattern, and national tourist boards need to do more to realise that they are funded by an entire nation, and not simply the top four attractions.

Thus the bigger operators get bigger and the wealth is concentrated. A familiar theme?

Well, after this long introductory ramble, I need to move to the Scottish Highlands. I have been here now for ten days, on a spectacular journey through the historical millennia of their past, through landscapes that took my breath away, past seascapes that left me staring for hours, into restaurants whose fare would stand out in any of the world’s major centres and stayed in hotels whose charm exuded the overwhelming hospitality and understated charm of the region.

Be Hope on eh remote "Hope Road"
And other tourists? Few and far between. It is, of course, March, but Edinburgh, Loch Lomond and St. Andrews are full up, but too few visitors escape the confines of their “package” and set themselves free and actually explore.

It is worth noting that much of this can be done by public transport and local taxi, if you don't care to drive. Driving, though, is actually pretty straightforward as there is little other traffic to be seen. The train and bus system in Scotland is simple, integrated and fun.

A combination of trains (and the Highland Line from Inverness to Thurso is really delightful), ferries to cross to the Orkney Islands, and further to Shetland if one has the time, are available and easy to work with. Even in the most rural areas, the Royal Mail Post Bus will carry you to the most extreme parts of the country. While deep exploration needs a little planning, it is quite possible, and the pay off is huge.

This view of leaving Stromness has changed little since the days of the Hudson Bay Company 

A journey from arrival at Aberdeen Airport by train to Forres, an historically important town in Moray and a good two-night stay would be a good start. It is a medieval town, with strong reference to the Real Macbeth, and a delightful garden setting. From there, I would continue in to Inverness, only twenty miles away, and spend a day before heading north on The Orkney Bus to the Northern Isles.

 Highland scenes - a novel use for a bus shelter!

There, steeped in the history of the Bronze Age, the Vikings, the Second World War and the mosaic of art and crafts that have woven their past together, I would stay for a three days at on of Kirkwall’s hotels. Northlink Ferries offer a great  schedule to and from the islands, and by taking the 4.30 sailing to Scrabster and spending the night in Thurso (I love the Pentland Hotel), a £5 cab ride from the terminal. Thurso is a solid, quintessentially northern Scottish town, and a testament to “building buildings that are meant to last”.

Kirkwall Harbour
From Thurso, the train south to Brora will leave you in a most attractive town on the east coast. Here one can rent a vehicle for a couple of days from Northern Car Hire, and head inland toward Altnaharra, Hope and the northwest coast. Returning after one overnight in the wilds, and a two-day drive, you can return the car to Brora and continue south on the train to Inverness.

Just writing out this itinerary makes me want to do it again and again. And the folks at VisitScotland? Well, they react to pressure from numbers, pay lip service to the periphery of their country and leave the explorations of The Highlands and other more remote parts of Scotland up to the initiative of the individuals who truly want to get beyond the maddening crowds. 

It is understandable, but as time moves forward at its incessant rate, the relative strength of the central brand destinations will increase, and the margins will become increasingly marginalised. Does this sound familiar?

I love The Highlands.