Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Georgetown, Guyana and Tbilisi, Georgia

At first glance, there is little in common between these two wonderful, yet disparate places. Each location offers tourists and visitors a unique and memorable experience; each conjures up quizzical looks when announced as destinations, and each if often confused with a better known, but eponymous location.

The Georgia to which I refer lies in the western end of the Caucuses; a spit of land separating Russia to the north from Turkey and Iran in the south; it is land that has seen its fair share and more of conquest, invasion and occupation, but now revels in its independence, and shift to the mainstream of nations in both and economic and political sense.

It does, however, get terribly confused with the American state of the same name.

Georgetown, for this piece, refers to the capital of Guyana; the most western of the three Guyanas, and a most delightful and interesting city. It is a city of intrigue, wonderful architecture, rather obscure and enchanting museums and a hotbed of social and political activity.

It is neither a suburb of Washington DC, nor the capital of the Malay island of Penang.

I make this rather obtuse point because each country manufactures and exports, and it is perhaps the relative unfamiliarity of each place that places a distinct and rather iniquitous burden upon manufacturers, and makes selling their products in a broader market so difficult.

ALthough this will come as a ssurprise to many, rice is exported from Guyana. Its rice industry is interesting, operates below capacity and offers tremendous growth opportunities; the main commercial variety grown in Guyana is the Rustic, an extra-long grain product that has found much favour in its traditional markets. As tastes change, so do rice fashions, and the newly emerging markets are seeking shorter varieties of rice, and research continues. It is interesting to note that for the newer markets, particularly in Latin America, paddy (unprocessed rice) is exported, thus denying the Georgetown economy the benefits of the value-added conversion of paddy into other rice products.

There is, it must be said, an almost complete lack of awareness of Guyanese rice. Consumers do not demand it and nor does it command high prices, although justified, in the boutique world of Fashion Groceries. It is perhaps this invisibility that prevents the investment required to bring the industry to its next level; consumer-driven demand with the concomitant raising of prices for the industry.

Eerily similarly, Georgia’s wine industry languishes in almost complete obscurity; although producing wine now for 8,000 years, and believe me, during that period they have learned a thing or two, it is remarkably difficult to find Georgian wine outside Georgia, and the former Soviet countries. It is true that they export over 11 million bottles, but as 10 million of them go to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, it is improbable that you will have run into one.

Some are, of course, exported to the US, Canada and western Europe, but nowhere close to the quantity that its quality deserves.

Which is a great shame; the wine, while its pedigree is long, it is not unbroken, has only recently come to include some marvellous and delicate varieties. The primary varieties are Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white), each producing some fine wines. Winemakers are both artisanal small-holders and modern wineries, and production is most certainly geared to serving a broader western market.

In concert with Guyana, without public knowledge of and demand for Georgian wines, building the next step to becoming a recognised source of fine wines will remain difficult; and for no other reason than the geographical ineptitude of the market.

Georgia and Georgetown are indeed delightful places for tourists, but more that that; each sits on a product and industry that offers increasing demand; its ever more complex distribution systems offering ever more opportunity should make Georgian vintners and Guyanese rice farmers smile.

The market, however, needs more geography lessons.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Guyanas: Of Rum and Armadillo

Food and drink are important, and it is equally important to keep one’s mind open to new and exciting taste treats; the Guyanas are no stranger to eclectic meats, and there are several restaurants around happy to serve the unsuspecting Cochou-bwa, Pakira, Tatou and the suchlike. So clutching what was left of my taste buds, I ordered a combination dish and, it being in St. Laurent du Moroni, and thus France, could wash it all down with a most agreeable bottle of Bordeaux. 

Cochou-bwa seems to refer to a smallish wild boar; Pakira I was reliably informed was “Pakira” leaving considerable doubt about its provenance, and Tatou was translated simply as Armadillo.

Not that I needed a great deal of explanation as its rather tough exterior was a dead giveaway; however an armadillo roasted, opened with care and accompanied by some jungle greenery, it proved to be a highlight. I shall try and instruct my local butcher in Winnipeg, but I doubt that I will succeed.

Armadillo oddly, does not taste like chicken. Odd only because folks routinely describe any sort of unknown foods as tasting “rather like chicken”. I have heard this of a wide variety of mammals, some slightly fowl-like fish, insects and the more select parts of otherwise normal animal foods. Armadillo, however, belongs firmly in the pork family. 

Its flavour, sweet, rich and extremely tender, was delightful, surprising and interrupted only by the waiter’s insistence that my bottle of claret was insufficient to bring out the true succulence of the armadillo.

Rum was required for this.

Now rum is a catch-all phrase, in much the same way that “vodka” is a word that covers all manner of ghastly distilling experiments as well as some rather nice stuff. French Guyanan rum comes often in a rather mean looking bottle, made by the local “rhum co-operative”, and sold for very few euros indeed. Usually poured over a couple of pulverised limes, and a touch of fresh cane sugar, the concoction, a “ti punch” is really rather pleasant if not sophisticated. 

But as a dinner tipple to wash down the roasted armadillo, I was not sure. I thought long and hard about the inevitable headache, and finally took the plunge; it has to be said that the sweetness of the meat did balance the sugary character of rum; the volumes required to be a dinner tipple, however, were beyond even me. 

However, the rums available throughout the region are of rather high standards. In particular the El Dorado family of Guyanan rums offer some spectacular single distillate products, aged in small batches and offering a very distinctive flavour. They use original stills, some as old as 200 years, which may not sounds extreme in the world of old-world spirits, but for the Caribbean, these stills are unique.  

Suriname too offers some fine sipping rum. In particular, I believe, the Borgoe 82, blended and sold by Suriname Alcoholic Beverages NV is the finest. It is smooth, almost too smooth for those who enjoy a little bite from their rum, but a marvellous long and slightly caramel impression will bring a smile to the most jaded face.
However, I would still to rum before (and after dinner) and a gentle Bordeaux to wash down the armadillo.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Paramaribo, Suriname's wonderful capital.

Well, needless to say, after such a good introduction to the region, I had no choice but to return, and look a little more deeply. So armed with two friends, strong-armed to head off for ten days, we flew to Paramaribo and started the expedition.

Paramaribo is a wonderful place; vibrant, unusual architecture, activity and a fine local beer called Parbo. We stayed not at one of the larger tourist hotels in town, but at the Guesthouse Amice, a twenty minute walk, or five-minute cab ride, from the centre, and a fine choice it was.

The property is small, with only ten or so rooms, friendly beyond belief, clean and most comfortable. It has a swimming pool that falls well short of Olympic proportion, but is ideal to cool off after exploring the town. And there is much to explore.

The centre of Paramaribo is delightful; dating back to the late 1700s, it is a mix of British and Dutch colonial imaginations, some of which were apparently quite fertile, contemporary adaptation, tons of colourful mini-buses, a huge river incorporating among other flotsam and jetsam a scuttled German naval ship, and beyond all, people.

The Surinamese, like their cousins in Guyana and French Guyana are of six or seven races; the indigenous Amerindians, Europeans (mostly British, Dutch, French and Portuguese), Africans brought as slaves, Indians and Javanese brought as indentured labour and the Chinese. In Paramaribo the central mosque lies adjacent to the main synagogue, a symbol of the regions astonishing lack of cultural friction. The communities live together, and offer the rest of the world an image of tolerance that seems to be in very short supply elsewhere.

Our hosts on the second morning, Oswald and Marjorie, are a delightful couple involved with the tourism board among other interests. They picked us up early and drove us first to their delightful house, tranquilly located by a river close to town, and then to two wonderful local markets.

Markets are terrific; colourful, bustling, wonderful smells and smiley people surround one, and the spirit of the local community becomes vividly evident. And so it was at the local affair where a myriad of food waited to be prodded, admired and finally taken home for food. We went next to a big central market, and there, in addition to hundreds of stalls were several small restaurants serving a variety of astonishing foods. From very peculiarly coloured pastries, of a particularly sticky demeanour to the most interesting bowls of Javanese soup, everything was available. And, it must be said, in conditions that can only be described as scrupulously clean. Not a fly to be seen, a great injector of confidence when buying any food at a market.

Then to explore this remarkable town; we drove to Fort Nieuwe Amsterdam, an eighteenth-century fort on the far side of the Suriname River; it is a fine place to wander, cogitate, ponder and generally imagine the life of both the settlers and their slaves. It would have been a very, very hard life, and in its way as unforgiving as life was in the Arctic for their contemporary explorers.

Heat, humidity, disease and hardship were rife; the jungle, a vast and untamed region to be hacked away with primitive instruments, and being Dutch, hundreds of kilometres of drainage ditches, polders, dykes and sluices to be designed and built. Lives by the thousands were lost in this extraordinary quest, and it is easy to wonder why.

Contemporary Suriname, after centuries of colonial life, a revolution, a massively destructive civil war has now settled into a most positive rhythm. Everywhere is construction and activity; the city is growing and concurrently the distant rainforests are beginning to surrender their trove of mineral riches. Money is flowing into the country, and positive investments, we are told, are starting in education and health.

It is a country of extreme natural beauty, and one that has a fine opportunity to develop along its own path. There is much to be positive about Suriname.

Monday, January 28, 2013

French Guyana; my first visit.

Fortunately, I get bored. Not the grinding boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon of childhood, but the boredom of repetition. And so it was, in August last year, that I found myself daydreaming more frequently than ever about The Guyanas.

Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the book Papillon, the tale of the French penal colonies of Guyana written by Henri Charriere. It is a fine, rip-roaring book; tales of adventure, escape, cruelty, jungles, lust and eventual redemption. But how were these institutions? Did they still exist?

So I bought a ticket and flew a couple of weeks later to Cayenne, the capital of this remote outpost of France. Still an integral part of the French Republic, Guyane lies on the north-east coast of South America nestled between Suriname and Brazil. It is a country whose economy relies on the largesse of the French population and the space industry in roughly equal parts; tourism is not a big business here; yet.

My original plan was to spend a week moseying along the coast from Cayenne to Georgetown in Guyana (formerly British Guyana), travelling through Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana) in my Guyanas-a-Plenty tour of the Wild Coast. I thought that a couple of days looking at the island penal colonies would suffice, and otherwise I would spend my time in local taxis (canoes as it turned out) observing and collecting anecdotes. A mile and gentle journey.

Well, it didn’t turn out quite like that.

During the flight from Pointe a Pitre to Cayenne, my seatmate, a French man who had lived in Cayenne for twenty years, offered me a ride to town. I accepted, and despite the peculiar look that his friend shot as he picked us up, and squeezed the three of us into a small Toyota truck designed for two small Japanese, off we went; I beamed, happy to finally be somewhere new and exciting.
There is a major roundabout half way to town at which we should turn left, a cursory glance at a map had shown me, but we turned right, heading away from the city. This is the moment that one instinctively thinks of jumping from the moving vehicle, afraid that these two strangers had marked me to perform some unspeakable acts in the jungle that would inescapably end with fire-breathing ants slowly chewing away at my torso. I had read too much of Papillon’s punishments.

Fortunately I stayed in the car, and once in town, having stopped at Francois’ house to drop his luggage, he pulled up outside an Algerian cous cous restaurant, picked up a meal and drove to his friends’ house where we ate, drank a marvellous bottle (or two) of Bordeaux – for it is France – and whiled away the afternoon.

I realised than just how much more that the region offered besides the lonely echoes of long-empty prison cells. Guyane, and in fact the Guyanas in whole, are what Costa Rica thinks it is and wants to be. It is a region of unimaginable vastness, with deep rain forest and a few fabulous and fascinating eco-lodges. It is a region of three and four-day pirogue journeys staying overnight in Amerindian villages deep in the forest. It is a region of unspeakably cruel colonial administrations, and it is a region of enormous goodwill, friendliness and a most remarkable social cohesion. It is, in short, a region to be explored.

I wondered why nobody had ventured there in any numbers, and particularly few from Canada and the USA; and then I realised that it didn’t matter. I had stumbled on a new and exciting destination, and one that for a few years at least will offer those seeking a true adventure, with a piché of rosé at lunch, for it is France, Guyane was the place.

My journey was marvellous. I rented a car in Cayenne and headed west to Kourou, the centre of the European space program. Set in Guyane for its proximity to the equator and relatively clement weather, the site launches 12 – 15 rockets per year, bringing well-needed revenue and jobs to the region. The space centre is also open to visitors, but I had too little time. I was off to Devil’s Island, and the other two centres of the penal administration comprising the oddly named Iles de Salut. Not much salvation there, I have to say.

But an extraordinary place to be, and to wander; one of the islands is now a small inn, located in the original administrative buildings. Rooms are available, as are spaces to sling a hammock, and visitors spending the night, after the day trippers have returned to the mainland, will have a unique perspective of life on these mildly sinister and evocative islands. The second island, Royale, was the location of the isolation cells, made famous by Steve McQueen in the movie version of Palillon, and now the ruined cells and the fabulous undergrowth reclaiming the island, offer visitors a remarkable glimpse into the atmosphere of these ghastly punishment cells.

I loved the islands! Devil’s Island is impossible to visit as it is deemed too dangerous to land, but sailing around it one can view the small building that was built for Alfred Dreyfuss, a wrongly accused French spy in the 1800s; unsatisfied with building a cell on an isolated island off and isolated coast, the penal authorities built a wall around the house preventing him from seeing out, and forbade the twelve guards assigned to watch him from speaking to him. He suffered here for years before having his conviction overturned, and returned to France.

I spent the day wandering, sweating and taking photographs, and determined to return again, this time with more purpose and time.After spending the night in Kourou, I motored east toward the Surinamese border.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Portugal Once Again

It’s curious, but I haven’t been to Portugal for an embarrassing five years.

Embarrassing because I have spent a couple of years, on and off, in Portugal; many years (actually, decades ago)I had a Portuguese girlfriend for eighteen months, speak enough of the language to stave off starvation or thirst, and am generally a Lusophile.

Landing in Lisbon from a short and slightly odd flight from La Coruna the decision was to rent a car or take a taxi to Sesimbra, one of my favourite places in the world, and thirty kilometres south of Lisbon. Quoted €87 for a taxi ride, the decision was simple; head to get the economy car that I had reserved with Hertz.

Now, formerly an Avis fan, I now LOVE Hertz! A fine Saab 93 convertible, complete with perfect weather was waiting for me; a thirty-mile journey grew to a two-hundred kilometre deviation along perfect highways (designed to test such an automobile) and picture perfect back roads and twisty hill climbs until we got to our destination.

It is difficult to adequately describe a place that has captured one’s heart; Sesimbra is such a place. I first travelled there in 1963 with my parents; it was a fishing village and for the next ten years or so we had an apartment there for August each year; I was fortunate, I know, but it was a wonderful way to spend my formative summers. I learned some Portuguese, but I have to say that when I confidently spoke to my then-girlfriend’s family, they howled with a rather scornful derision; they were one of the country’s old families, ruling elites and of the diplomatic corps; my Portuguese was that of the fishermen of Sesimbra.

I digress; it is a town that has grown up, faster than I in many respects. It has seen the massive boom of property development that has reversed itself abruptly in recent years, and its rather lopsided growth is only now balancing itself. One can, as in northern Spain, see the difference between credit-fuelled growth and growth from an organically expanding business; fortunately, my friend Caetano falls into the latter group.

I met Caetano in 1964. He was fourteen, and just starting to work at a small café, while I was an eight year-old brat from London. Why we like each other was never really sure, and indeed if we did think of each other between summers was never clear. I was very aware, however, of his absence in 1969 when he went to Africa to fight in Mozambique. It was Europe’s war in those days, and an absolute parallel to the American’s adventures in Vietnam. Portugal fought brutal and eventually futile wars in Angola and Mozambique to protect some image of the past, and perhaps to justify the country’s future; who knows. In any event, Caetano went, and did his bit for his country. Fortunately he came back.

I remember the summer of 1971 when he returned. Trying to tell me of the horrors that I didn’t understand; sitting in darkened rooms looking at photographs of a war that the world ignored; talking about peace, rights, colonies and the confused discussions of friends that seemed to share more ideas than language. It branded an image that I have never shaken, nor wanted to shake.

The years passed (as they must, (tra la), and I have returned to Sesimbra often; taking our girls there when they were little, seeing Caetano buy and build his café, then restaurant and each year wishing that our language skills were such that we could speak more of our lives, and our influences; we both know, I think, but it would have been better to share. When our oldest daughter travelled through Europe, Caetano looked after her, arranging for her to stay at his aunt’s house, and every year or so we dropped by.

And then, in 2007, we bought a house in France, and Portugal took second place. No visits, no weekends and no lazy weeks enjoying its beach and reminiscing about the past; just France.

And so, five years later, coasting unwittingly but happily in our Saab 93 (did I mention that it was a convertible) we stopped by for a night. A stopover en route from La Coruna to Munich and home was all we could manage, but it was important. As we walked up to is Restaurante Maré, I spotted him; “that’s Caetano” I said to Andrea, “I could recognise him anywhere!” It was actually Pedro, his son, identical stance and smile to his father, and when we saw him, then then moments later his Dad, five years disappeared into a weekend.

Sesimbra is a wonderful place; it is, of course, the classic example of a place being the sum of its people, and for me, the memories of forty-nine years add up to a quite remarkable village; do I see it through rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps, but isn’t that what memories are for?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Second Leg

Actually it was the third, but the final stretch from Ribadeo to La Coruna was in many respects the most interesting. Attuned by now to the gentle clacking rhythm of Spain passing under our feet, the scenery and topography now relegated to occasional expressions of marvel, we could simply enjoy the passing countryside; to enjoy the privilege of watching Spain, mile by mile, passing by.

Spain is, of course, and ancient and resilient country; it has weathered storms far worse that the current economic crisis, and will weather this too. It is inconceivable that visitors to Iberia in, say, two hundred years will face a cultural and economic wasteland. No, the current mess is contemporary, and simply watching folks climbing on and off our succession of country trains, to watch their communities pass by and to imagine actually being a Galician or Cantabrian gave cause for optimism.

It is probably worth starting this story in Santander; home to a large and basically uninspiring city, it is home to one of the world’s largest banking conglomerates. The Santander group has its tentacles in every nook and cranny of the globe’s economy. Its headquarters, at least the substantial and economically sound looking building in Santander offers an image of substance, soundness and above all, judgement. We know, because we read the papers, that Europe’s banks have been having a rough time explaining their curiously immodest gambles of the past decade that are now coming home to roost. Every banking ration that banking-ration aficionados reveal offer optimism, yet watching Spain passing by, a different story unfolds.

It is a story of two worlds; fantastic developments unfinished and the stoicism of a people working to live a normal and uninflated life alongside. It is a picture of coffees that now cost an hour’s wages that used to be a staple of life; it is a story of people working for the past thirty post-Generalissimo decades and the past twenty Euro decades to keep their families, their lives and their cultures intact.

And by and large they seem to have succeeded, although it remains to see the price that average Spaniards will have to pay for the dreams of Santander bankers and their high-flying colleagues’ pursuits.

The ability to be a three-day expert is the province of a wanderer; I like the freedom it gives to make sweeping observations, and to offer wide opinions to anything that I might see.  It is clear, however, that the financial world looks after itself - the Greek bail-out is not actually a bail out for the Greeks, but for the banks foolish enough to lend them such large amounts of money - and the Spanish bail-out, be it in one or ten years, will be a soft landing for the financial institutions who so recklessly lent money in sole pursuit of their own profit.

However, that was not all that we saw from the train.  We saw laughter, communities, contemporary building that mirrored village-styles of millennia past. We saw resilience, landscapes that left us breathless, a life that continued with the rhythm of the seasons and the punctuation of the daily railway trains; we saw a life that I envied for its continuity, and above all a landscape that was whole; people, geography, buildings and a freedom from the massive infrastructural projects that punctuated the eastern part of the journey.

Our connection in Ferrol was tight, or so we thought; only twenty minutes to transfer to the periodic train that ran to La Corunna, the regional centre. As it turned out, twenty minutes were sufficient to buy tickets, read a newspaper, buy sandwiches and nearly strand Dick who was deputised to buy food, and nearly spent more of his retirement in Galicia that was originally planned. He did make the train.

And so to La Coruna. Home of the Spanish navy, and a good place to hide their Armada it is; a wild bay, miles across with deep, protected harbours, fine access to the sea and enough bars and restaurants to warm the sea-hardened cockles of any seaman’s heart.

I liked the place; again, based on a quick overnight stop and exploration for evening sustenance. It is, however, a place of some splendour; it is a city that has solidity, encompassing both a past and a future. It is a place of substance, not, perhaps, the most attractive tourist destination in Spain, but worth a couple of anyone’s days. It offers grand squares, grand private buildings redolent of the rough and tumble of nineteenth and twentieth century economic victories. It offers magnificent public buildings built with the confidence the is bred by success; grand streets, magnificent façades of buildings, if slightly down-at-heel, rim the harbour, and all around the feeling of security.

It is the security that comes with distance from Madrid and the Spanish mainstream; a unique climate that breeds stoicism and the knowledge that whatever happens to the country’s economy, life will inevitably continue; a very reassuring place.

I like Galicia.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Northwestern Spain; Basque country to Gallicia in Thirty-Nine Stops

Well, eighty-eight actually since boarding the little railways of northern Spain at Hendaye, but the past days have proved to be most instructive. Firstly, it has to be said, was the instruction that these trains were not designed to travel great distances. Most of the clientele are travelling for relatively short journeys, but putting that aside, they are comfortable, clean and as cheap as chips.
To date the journey from Hendaye to San Sebastian (12 stops/1.70) was short but a very necessary way to cross the border. While borders no longer exist in any practical form for most travellers within Europe, they exist in the past. Huge and slightly forbidding customs buildings crumbling aside the main roads; offices of long-forgotten customs brokers and currency exchangers offer testament to a previous existence. No more, however, for the European voyager, now the simplicity of the EuskoTren service, thoughtfully extended the one stop across the bridge for those of us needing to enter Spain.

San Sebastian is absolutely wonderful. Originally scheduled to be a thirty-six hour stop before the railway marathon, it was cut short to ensure the adequate cleaning of the French house. And so we were restricted to a single night to graze the city’s many pintxo bars, enjoy copious amounts of Basque cider and sample foods as diverse as pig’s ears to strange, unnamed but delicious vegetables.
And then the journey began. From San Sebastian to Santander (36 stops/5.25) was, frankly dull in the most part. It is one of Spain’s few economically active regions, and as such, full of factories, chemical plants, new and extremely uninspiring apartments, and the weeping concrete of thirty-year-old crumbling buildings. With nothing quite finished, and drizzle to boot it was a touch dreary It must be said, however, that behind the industrial foreground, the backdrop of rugged peaks, wild woodlands and painted from a deep-green palate, it did trigger the odd sharp-intake of breath. The varied trainscape did, however, an instrumental exhibition of Spain’s recent past.

Only released from The Generalissimo’s iron grasp in 1975, there was a housing boom in the eighties that corresponded to the newly kick-started economy, and the natural desire for families to live in less crowded circumstances. Sadly, the building boom was uncontrolled by any effective town planning or building codes, and while a step up from  the housing stock of, say, Vilnius or Tbilisi, it was pretty drab. It was also funded in Pesetas, a currency that was at least locally controlled.
Then came the Euro and the binge of credit that we see collapsing today, and here it is evidenced by the endless construction of both housing stock, with a large number of “For Sale” signs in evidence and massive infrastructure projects; interesting, but barely scenic.

And thus to Bilbao, a frankly dreary city with a few nice monuments and a well-known museum; but our interests were of the railway, and from the delightful Victorian station of the “CF de Santander e Bilbao”, we launched toward Santander, some 33 stops and 8.25 further east. The train, now of FEVE rather than the EuskoTren of the Basque country was again suburban in nature, comfortable but without diversion. Other than the scenery which started to give hints of the wonder that is northern Spain. Now interspersed with industry, the landscapes offered a green usually restricted to Ireland, some delightful old villages, and in the distance, occasional glimpses of the mountains. The train’s passengers got on and off with only us soldiering on to Santander at the end of the line.
Frankly uninspiring, at least from our cursory, overnight glance, Santander is a major centre of banking, fishing and a regional distribution centre. After San Sebastian, its nightlife, although late as is the tradition in these parts, was dull. The tapas were boring, the cider unremarkable and more cafes than the more convivial bars that we sought. We did, however, have the first bottle (and second, one has to admit) of Albario, the delicious white wine of northern Spain.

And so now, as we bounce along on a simply fantastic day, on the 50 stop/15 leg from Santander, we climbed between the sea and the mountains far from industry, many of our fellow passengers being hikers with varying degrees of equipment on their backs seeking the obvious charms of the Picos De Europa.
Truly stunning; verdant greens, rugged peaks, crashing rivers and tidy, solid villages offering an obviously warm welcome to the tourists who come to explore this region. It was the scenery that I had wanted; the luxury of sitting in a train, watching the world pass by and simply having time to think is precious to me, and today is proving to be wonderful.

In a few minutes we will pull into Oviedo, with time for lunch and probably a bottle of Albariῆo before the next train to the seaside town of Ribadeo. I have no knowledge of the town at all, it was simply picked due to (a) it being adjacent to the sea and (b) fitting well into the timetable, arriving there at 1730 and not heading out on the last day’s riding until 1130 in the morning.
More than time, I would imagine, to find some suitable sustenance and a decent place to sleep.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Airport Security

Now I like, it must be said, secure aeroplanes. The thought of being hijacked is an anathema to me, and to that end, I am happy to undergo airport screening.

To a point.
And it is this very level of screening that always bewilders me, and in particular, I would love it if the airport screeners actually seemed to be singing from the same page.

There is a subtle difference between airport security in Europe and in the USA; simply put, the security folks in the major European airports seem competent and professional, those in the USA seem to be the cheapest folks available; Canada, as always, lies somewhere in between.
It must be said that working for CATSA must be the most boring career imaginable; perhaps new recruits believe that they will be the ones to stop another airline massacre, but the odds of spotting anything more dramatic than an errant can of shaving cream or half a bottle of forgotten water are remote. Year after year, the prospect of this future must loom larger, and only those who make it to management or those of a particularly authoritative bent remain. And so turn-over is a problem, and one is confronted all too regularly with those keeners, actually believing that they are doing the world’s security a service.

So yesterday, having cleared security in Torshavn, Copenhagen and Amsterdam with no issue, I arrived back in Canada. And sure enough, the two newbies on duty at Pearson airport in Toronto became terrifically overexcited by a glimpse of something in my bag. It turned out that the objects of their fascination were glass bracelets; unable to distinguish between glass and liquids - and yes, I know that glass is technically a liquid, but this is not the point - even after feeling the items, I had to unwrap them and present them to the scanners.
Petty, futile and unutterably irritating;  the wrapping torn - yes I know that I am not supposed to have presents wrapped at security - mine, and eveyone behind me in the queue's time wasted; two young women on their first week on the job saving Air Canada from disaster and an incandescent Max.

I do get annoyed at the sheer stupidity of the system; do I feel any more secure now all travellers are harassed to bits? Of course not; if one wants to get nasty stuff on to aircraft it seems that disguising it as cocaine would do the trick; there seems to be no abatement in the movement of the stuff anywhere. Before September 11th one flew around the world with little interference and an infinitesimal chance of disaster; now we fly around the world with varying degrees of hassle and an infinitesimal chance of disaster. Relying on airport security to deter terrorists from smuggling weapons on board also requires one to believe that anyone trying to massacre hundreds of people by bringing down an airliner would draw the line at being arrested by a CATSA security agent.
And real progress, like programming these full-body scanners to detonate any explosives they actually detect seems like a distant dream. In the meantime, however, I would urge both the Canadian and particularly American security organisations to figure out how to retain their employees, and help them distinguish between petty harassment and professional security process.

At that point, the travelling public might take the process more genially.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Day Near Copenhagen

I’ll tell you what’s fun; using Faroese bank notes in Denmark. Which is, I hasten to add, perfectly legal, but apparantly uncommon.

The thing is this. Faroese weather has a reputation for being capricious, and unsure of the Vagar/Copenhagen flight I decided to spend an additional day in Copenhagen before heading back to Canada. Uninterested in spending the day in the city itself, frankly, I have pretty much had it with anodyne European cities, I booked a couple of nights in the resort town of Dragǿr, a rather lovely village nestled snuggly against the southern perimeter of the airport.

I rather like resort towns in the off season. They often show their true colours, relieved of thousands of tourists plunging into the sea, hustling for ice-creams, waving, laughing and generally having fun. No, the off season with its slightly bemused patina is the season for me.
And as a stopover option for those transiting Copenhagen airport, it is absolutely terrific.

The Dragǿr Badehotel is just fine. A modest three-star property that has clearly seen days of grandeur, does the job. The rooms are all smallish but clean and comfortable, and fitted with a most eccentric showering system that requires imagination and agility to extract the maximum benefit. It is currently being refurbished, a touch annoying for us, but given the count at breakfast this morning, four - including my colleague and I, it was probably a good time to have the artisans in.
The town is really lovely. Founded over seven hundred years ago during the Great Herring Years, the town has always traded and provided pilots and seafarers to the rich maritime heritage of the Baltic coast. Today Dragǿr still exudes history and prosperity in equal measures, and the old part of the town, and its unique environment, is simply a delight. The community is quite obviously a resort, with many summer homes and prosperous retirees balancing its permanent residents, yet there are few of the obvious trappings of many seaside towns. The community offers small and apparently local shops, museums (although they are closed in the off-season), galleries, restaurants and a wonderful environment to explore.

Its old quarter is simply lovely. The traditional yellow houses dot small twisting roads, back lanes and lovely open squares, and tell of a history that still connects the past with their present. The town has not become a caricature of itself, a fate so often befalling lovely coastal villages, and has retained an earthy charm. It is a fine place to wander, explore and wait for a plane.
It is quite clear to even an untrained observer that beer is a rather popular drink in this neighbourhood. Gallons of the stuff seem to be consumed with men and women sitting and enjoying buckets of the stuff for quite protracted period of time. This I know not because I stayed to watch, but when I returned to a cafe for a restorative after a walk in the somewhat bracing weather, time had stood still. Their earlier clientele remained in place, smiles fixed on their faces, and so I joined in.

And it was at this moment that I realised that Faroese banknotes are not regularly proffered at Dragǿr cafes, particularly by English speaking tourists in December. It caused consternation at first, it did strike me as a particularly good counterfeiting strategy, and finally merriment and the owner was summoned and confirmed that odd as it was, it was legal tender. This reaction was duplicated by a taxi driver, who was unlikely to have actually heard of the Faroe Islands as he grew up in Somalia, and finally by a delightful young lady who finally exchanged our last banknote for a couple of cappuccinos; admittedly, as we had finished the coffees by this point, she really had little option. We wondered later whether any of the recipients would join the fun, and palm them off as change to their regular customers, and how long they might whizz around the town before finally ending up in the bank, and back on an Atlantic Airways flight to Torshavn.
Dragǿr is lovely, and well worth considering as a Copenhagen stop-over town. Accessible from the airport by taxi ($30) or by a simple, twelve-minute bus ride ($5) it makes a fine alternative to the city centre. Hotels start at around $60 for a single room, and there is a variety of properties to choose from; all in all, a convivial, interesting and very convenient place to be.

Thorshavn, Faroe Islands

Suffice it to say that the Faroe Islands, wonderful in the summer and fall, have a charm throughout the winter, even when the weather may be at its more dramatic, and the days draw short. By December, the sun will rise above the horizon at about nine o’clock, and dip back down before half past three; and this burst of sunshine visible only at sea level, as behind the mountains, the sun will penetrate only briefly as it reaches its peak.

But despite this drawback, the islands are cosy, welcoming and endlessly fascinating.
In the course of a couple of days, it is possible to drive to most of the northern islands, connected as they are by an intricate system of tunnels and bridges. While the difference between the islands might appear academic at first glance, it is their very distinctions that make the country such a pleasure to explore.

The fourteen or so islands lie roughly northwest to south east, and rise to over 3,000’ although only a mile or so wide. The land plunges down into the sea, to unfathomable depths before rising up a few hundred yards further to create another magnificent, rocky and spectacular island. Nestled along the shoreline are the ancient communities clinging to the land, their past and future firmly determined by the sea. The islands are indeed ancient, and their language reminiscent to Old Norse. It is a language that nearly died in the late 1800s, and it is said that only the interest of Danish lexicographers sent to the islands to record the remaining fragments of language, spurred the islanders to a linguistic revival. Now the Faroese language, spoken by a maximum of 70,000 folks, is indeed thriving. 140 bookes were published in 2010/11 in the language, and its own literature is rich and growing.
The culture of the islands is strong, and obvious everywhere. Communities are proud and welcoming, the traditional Faroese sweaters and jackets are worn regularly and their old foods are common. Possibly too common for many as the appearance of puffins, dried salt-cod, whale blubber and mutton head-cheese on otherwise conventional buffets can be a surprise.

Having tried a piece of the cured whale blubber (which I had incorrectly identified as cod) and decided that it was not a flavour that I was likely to acquire, I was admonished for eating it incorrectly. Advised that the correct and delicious way to enjoy this delicacy was to compose a trifecta of dried salt-cod, speck (the harmless name they give to whale blubber) topped with a boiled potato. This combination was the only way to enjoy these delicacies, and as the Faroese did it this way, so should we all.
Popping it into my mouth and chewing was the gustatory equivalent of a right hook. There is a very good reason that the delicacy has not spread, and while the alarm on my face may have registered my true feelings, I managed to chew and swallow it, and rapidly poured a shot of local fire-water in to douse the experience.

This proved to be an error, as I had not realised quite how strongly the aquavit was flavoured with aniseed, and the ensemble thus created was memorable.
Fond memories, though, as it has to be said that the rest of the feast was wonderful, and the experience only went to reinforce how closely this wonderful country has kept its culture.

To drive through the islands is to gasp at the endless perfect scenery, to wonder at the picturesque communities, to marvel at the engineering that has built the infrastructure to keep the community together yet living in their traditional villages; it is a country of ever-changing weather, cloud formations that inspire and light that seems to make the country smile.
It is, perhaps, one of the most difficult countries in the world to imagine carving out a living among the high and craggy islands way out in the North Sea, but the Faroese do, and do with a smile that reflects their pride in maintaining their culture and pride.

For a visitor, the Faroe Islands offer peace and excitement, they foster tranquillity and curiosity, and thay always leave one eager to return.