Sunday, January 10, 2016

Venezuela to Brazil; of roads, towns and shakedowns

By the time that I was finally faced with an armed man demanding money, I laughed; it had been that kind of day.

Up early to drive 650kms south from Puerto Ordaz to the border town of Santa Elena de Uairen, we set off in a reasonably jolly mood, tempered slightly by the effects a lovely bar in which beer costs 50c per bottle.

Las Cristas
The drive south was interesting, to a point, and from time to time. Latin America is not ridden with historical towns and monuments; rural Venezuela is a pretty hard scrabble place, with low-lying towns busy with nail shops, automotive repairs, tattoo parlours, coffee hang-outs and the other necessities of day-to-day life. The countryside is beautiful; the towns are functional.

We passed south through town after town, passing El Callão, a gold mining town famous only as the supposed residence of Henri Charrière, or Papillon, after his escape from the French penal system.

From there we headed into the Canaima National Park, although it has to be said that roads through jungles offer little idea of what they have to offer beyond the first ten feet of deep and myriad greens. We did see, however, dozens of muddy 4WD vehicles, a testament to the parks attractions, and an indication of much to be explored, but we drove on.

Stopping only to fill with gas, and this proved a little more difficult than one might have thought. Long lines at gas stations, and some with no fuel for sale was a little odd for this oil-rich country. However, when we found out that to fill our Hyundai Santa Fe with 60 litres of fuel cost 5 Bolivars, we realized why.  

The Gas Stop
Dick and Alfonso
Bear in mind that there are 600 Bolivars to the dollar; 5 of them represents less than one cent. To fill a tank; yes, this is not a misprint. A bottle of wine, however, costs about 13,000 bolivars, and even a litre of water set me back 250 of these peculiar Venezuelan Bolivars.

And so we continued; all the while cognizant of the dangers of travelling through the “Wild and Lawless Venezuelan Savannah”; well, it was a bit of a let down on that side, and perhaps the fifteen military checkpoints that we passed through had something to do with it. It seemed safe, and unless one ran out of gas, very interesting indeed. We were expecting to see clusters of young women walking delicately after surgery, a new specialisation apparently of the doctors of Puerto Ordaz is the reshaping of Brazilian bottoms, but to no avail, perhaps because it was Sunday

It was, in fact, the last of these military checks that proved difficult. We were singled out to empty our suitcases in the sun, and then replace our non-sinister clothes and “personal effects”.  Clearly not satisfied, our young soldier called another young soldier who led me quietly into a dark room. On the wooden table lay about seventy tubes of Colgate toothpaste and an equal number of bottles of powder; I could see what these chaps were up against.

The Savannah, with a Tepuy in the background
I emptied my pockets; he counted my money; he looked at my passports and credit cards and told me to put them all back in my pocket. And it was at this moment, that the young, gun-toting Private C. Jiminez indicated that my expedient departure would be eased with a payment of "say, one dollar".

Gun or no gun, I couldn’t help laughing, and gave the poor bugger five. I have been shaken down by professionals at borders, the TransDniestran / Ukrainian border still brings me to a shudder, but this poor lad was clearly in the preliminary learning stages. Still giggling, I told my compadre Dick about the soldiers’ form, and sent him in. In a fit if remorse, possibly prompted by my writing down his name and that of the battalion, the novice Jiminez came quickly out and pressed the fiver back in my hand, waving us away to the border, and our next adventure.

We bought our driver, a fine chap called Alfonso lunch before we parted, and paid our bill to him; fortunately the 90,000 Bolivars (remember, 5 for 60 litres of gas) could be paid in dollars at a rather advantageous rate; given that the largest denomination of Bolivars is 100, 90,000 would have required a brick of the things.

The choice is yours
The Venezuelan / Brazilian border is OK. I like land borders; I like the no-man’s land between the frontier posts and the sense of thrill as one passes through. It has to be said, though, that while the Venezuelans seem to have been building infrastructure at a whopping rate while they were flush with oil money and revolutionary fervor, this construction stopped at the immigration booth which is a trailer that allows three folks at a time to be processed.

Never mind, we were, and plodded up the hill to the Brazilians; by now, adept at jumping queues through wither linguistic challenge or otherwise, we found ourselves tumbling out of the Brazilian building and into Brazil. Obviously.

The soon-to-be-late taxi

Finding a cab to take us on the rest of the journey, the next 230 kms to Boa Vista proved to be a little harder than we thought, and eventually we settled on a rather old vehicle that in the end didn’t quite make it.

Forty minutes from Boa Vista the alternator died, and we were stopped at the side of a dark but moderately busy highway. Fortunately, he could find some patchy cell coverage some two hundred metres from the van, and within an hour, another car came and finished of the journey.

A long day, but really rather interesting.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Of Panama, Bolivars and COPA: Days one and two of the Gondwanaland Redux expedition

Here’s the thing.

When one is a points junkie like me, travel routings become secondary to the availability of the elusive redemption seats. Coupled with my interests in travelling to some rather unusual places, this has put me on an odd route or two.

I wanted to go to the Rupununi savannah in southern Guyana. Doesn’t everybody? It is a pristine land, well off the beaten track, and awkward to reach. Deciding against the obvious, flying to Georgetown and then flying south, I opted to fly first to Caracas, then to Puerto Ordaz (where I sit at this very moment), and tomorrow continuing by road to the Brazilian border (nine bumpy hours), and into Boa Vista, the capital of Brazil’s remote province of Roraima. From there, it is only a few hours up the river to the Guyaneseborder at Lethem.

The first stage was to get to Caracas.

I chose to use COPA, the airline of Panama, who fly from Chicago (among several other north American gateways) to their hub at Panama and thence to Caracas. And what a pleasant surprise the flight was; a brand new Boeing 737-800, with ample legroom in both business and economy, terrific flight crew and good in-flight service. It is amazing how low our expectations of airline service have become, and how little it takes to have us marveling.

Their hub, Tocumen Airport in Panama City, was an eye-opener. COPA operates 105 aircraft to seventy-one destinations in thirty-one countries; who knew. Their hub is a terrific transit point, and their fleet and scheduling allows one-stop connectivity between North, South, Central Americas and the Caribbean.

Our layover, seven hours, a function of reward seat availability rather than choice, was too long. Not really long enough to go into the city, as we were warned that the traffic on the return journey could have us gridlocked for a couple of hours; so we hung around, tired of the shops and eventually headed to Caracas.

We had prepaid a room at the curiously named, but very good Eurobuilding Hotel through our travel agency; however, when we arrived at 0100, we were advised that the payment of $80 had not gone through and that we would have to pay $149. Clearly, this displeased me, and at my most truculent, said “No”; I tried to call the reservation company who handled the booking, but being the middle of the night, I was on hold for an hour. Eventually, the poor girl at the check-in gave us rooms and said we should figure out payment in the morning; this was good, because once one gives in and pays, the money is gone.

In the morning, a delightful manager said that if the prepayment had been made that was good, but she didn’t see any reason to charge us again. So, I shall scour my credit card bills and see what happened. If anything.

But the story doesn’t end there.

She asked where we were going, and once I had outlined the itinerary she seemed to be genuinely worried. Suggestions like keeping money in my shoe, and hiding my iPhone as I wandered through the local bus stations seemed both sensible and unnerving.

Within an hour or so, she called to say that she had arranged for a car and driver from their sister property in Puerto Ordaz to drive us to the border; the nine-hour run would cost us 90,000 Bolivars, a good introduction to the Black Market.

Officially this would have been US$750. Unofficially, buying Bolivars "On the Black", the cost was US$150. An introduction to currency madness unseen (by me) since the Fall of the Wall. Taking her advice to heart, we were met by the driver at the airport, and advised that it was too late to set off tonight, but that we could stay at the Eurobuilding Hotel. We were driven there; far from town the hotel rose like a phoenix from the scrub, and delightful it is; a five-star property, all marble and fountains, and priced accordingly.

Well, remembering the advice about changing money, the 25,000 Bolivar per night room dropped immediately from $150 to $40/night, with a rather pleasant chap who was also checking in providing the exchange.

Needless to say, the restaurant and bar prices look attractive. The fact that the largest Venezuelan banknote is for 100 Bolivars is inconvenient, and the wad we have to pay off the driver’s 90,000 tomorrow will be spectacular.

Hopefully, the drive will be as well.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hertz: Too Big to Care

Here’s the story.

In October last year, I rented a car from Hertz in Toulouse for a couple of weeks. I have done this several times over the past seven years, and it has always been smooth.

When the vehicle was returned to the airport, completely unscathed, full of diesel and with only a further 900 or so kms on its clock, all seemed well. The return was registered at 5.02pm, and the automatic invoice generated at 5.04pm.

The invoice, however, contained a charge for €221 for “24/24 Assistance”; this is odd, as my profile (and I am a Gold Five-Star Member”) clearly indicates that I wish for no insurance or supplementary protections at all; none, whatsoever, and to date, these instructions have been followed.

Now, however, the game was on.

First, I assumed that a quick phone call to the Gold Line would suffice; silly me. After being transferred four times, with each concomitant wait, I was advised that it was a “French Matter”, and that my query would be forwarded to them. This was followed by a blizzard of helpful emails, many of which sought my impression of their service to be offered through the completion of an “on-line survey”.

To no avail.

I disputed the amount through American Express, and they took the offending payment off my bill. And we waited.

I was then advised by Amex that Hertz had advised that the charge was for “cleaning”, and apparently I had put the wrong sort of fuel in the car, and they were replacing the charge and would I now cough up.

Well, the problems with this scenario are three-fold:
  1. Had I put ordinary fuel into a diesel car, I would not have made it back to the airport
  2. They would have been hard pressed to make this determination within the two-minute window between returning the car and dispatching the bill, and
  3. I had a receipt proving that diesel had been poured (lavishly) into their vehicle.
Not even close.

I submitted another hold on the Amex account and set off to round two. This has culminated in a letter from the Hertz collections folks in the UK (“How did the UK get into it”, I hear you ask) who are actually, it turns out, in the Republic of Ireland.

This missive tells me in no uncertain terms that:
  1. This is all my fault
  2. I should pay immediately or face the wrath of collection agencies
  3. I will be prevented from renting from Hertz in the future
  4. My immediate attention to this matter is “required”

Well, faced with this wall, I again phoned. Not that the phone number they gave me was any good; they advised me to call a number in the UK using the international prefix “00”; this is, in fact, the prefix used by people in the UK (and presumably the Irish Republic) to call out. North Americans calling to the UK use a prefix “011”; a minor point, but if one writes snotty and heavy handed letters demanding “immediate attention”, the least they would do is get their own phone number right.

And so to chatting with the lovely Rachel. I don’t know about you, but those poor folks who work for collection agencies, airline lost-luggage departments or those whose job it is to rebook passengers stranded in the eye of a storm always seem to be medicated.

We have a conversation; I reiterate the issues and my most reasonable position; she sympathizes and says that I must have put the wrong sort of fuel in the car; I explain the different size nozzles that are attached to fuel pumps to prevent this sort of accident; she sympathizes and once again suggests that the wrong type of fuel has been used. I supply the image of the receipt for the correct type of fuel and she thinks that they may have to refer this matter to France.

I hang up, in a growly but jovial mood, and am immediately faced with cheery new emails from Hertz thanking me for contacting their customer service people and asking how I “felt about the experience”.

Hertz; please, just sort this out. I have been a loyal customer for years, but honestly, there is really little difference between your vehicles and those belonging to AVIS or Sixt.

Companies like Hertz have become too big. They are, as we all know, also Dollar and Thrifty, and big enough to feature such powerful role models as O. J. Simpson as their barkers. They have, however, lost touch with indivuduals during this growth. And they are not alone.

There are now only 3.5 airlines in the US (American (1,494 aircraft), Delta (1,280), United (1,264) and Southwest (683)), and as they have grown, so has their tolerance for irritated passengers. If one assumes that 1/2% of each airlines’ passengers are grumpy and “never want to travel with them again”, it is a large number, but these gruntleless passengers have only two alternatives. And each carrier will receive as many passengers who have lost their gruntle with a competitor as they lose.

So why bother to calm the waters? Much more economical to let them squeal and run to the competitors; a sound business decision, and an attitude that we see more and more often in the surviving corporate behemoths that dominate the serevice sector.

The triumph of capitalism in the service industry seems to be the attainment of the pinnacle from which one can simply be Too Big to Care.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Overnight trains; Lisbon to Madrid on "The Lusitania"

It would help to be very small, which I most certainly am not, but I still like travelling overnight by train. 

Sleeping compartments are a little like dolls’ houses for grown-ups; they store a remarkable amount of stuff in a terribly compact space. They offer secret compartments, hidden staircases, cunningly designed bunks and an atmosphere of intrigue; although that might be a little too much Agatha Christie.  

They also offer insufficient pillows, no room to turn around; a night spent wondering which direction you are travelling in and a cacophony of rattles and squeals as the train hurtles towards its destination.

The compartment before I filled it up.

It is a toss-up. One that, I will admit, I usually come down on the side of travelling by train, but as my eyes shake about in their sockets at three o’clock in the morning, I wonder. Principally what on earth I am doing here when there are perfectly good aeroplanes that will cover this distance in an hour or so. And then, of course, I remember the hassles of getting to the airport, the loss of a reservation code and the concomitant shrug from an airline employee; I recall the joys of security as they ponderously determine if my shoe-horn violates some unspecified regulation, the delays of the flight, the endless elbow-jousting until we land. Then, of course, the joys of describing your suitcase to a luggage agent who promises that it will be returned soon ….. ah, the joys of flying.

I travelled last night from Lisbon to Madrid on the RENFE Trenhotel; for reference, a one way single-cabin in Gran Class costs €177, a double €240 and a simple reclining seat €35).

The RENFE TrenHotel

I should, of course, have taken the hint. When the conductor asked if I wanted the top or bottom bunk made up into my bed, I chose the top, a choice that seemed to fleetingly surprise him. It was, of course, as it always is, a flash back to boyhood, excitement and derring do. It was also a mistake; the sort of error that parents always allow their boys to make because as everyone who thinks knows, the top bunk will sway around far more. It is marginally better insulated from the shattering noise as the train careers through a set of points, but this is only marginally comforting as one hangs on for dear life as we take corners at suspiciously large speeds. Suspicious only because it is a Spanish train, and I have a good memory.

The Dining Car
“Never mind”, I tell myself, “This is a great way to travel”. I wonder again which way I am going, but can’t quite figure it out without reference to the window (actually, to add to my confusion, when I awoke, we were travelling in the opposite direction to the one that we were engaged in when I fell asleep).

I must have slept, thought, because before I knew it the conductor was banging on the door and advising that Madrid was only thirty minutes into our future; time to figure out the shower.

I was travelling is a very nice cabin - the top of RENFE’s line; it had seen better days, but then again, so has quite a bit of Spain, so I won’t be churlish. I will say, however, that a good scrubbing would do a power of good, as would new seat covers; or even, in this age of austerity, the application of a darning mushroom.

The shower, took some figuring out, and only by a process of elimination of what knobs and other protuberances could (or even might) do what, I found out the secret of the water supply.

And so, refreshed, still a little confused, I tumbled onto the platform at Madrid’s Charmatin station at 8.30 on a Saturday morning, never a time to visit a normally busy fifteen-platform station, wondering where on earth I might find my car. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bucharest, Romania - Another post-Soviet destination!

Cable cars still in use: Chiatura, Georgia
I am not quite sure why I find the post-Soviet countries so fascinating, but I do. Over the past ten years, I have visited all of those in Europe, except Montenegro, and it is quite remarkable how each has evolved since the end of the Soviet era.

Of particular interest to me have been the nastiest. Four weeks ago I visited Albania, and today, I am in Romania. So, accompanied by the interesting and knowledgeable Cristina Iosif of Unknown Bucharest, I set off for a primer on the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator here from 1965 until the revolution of 1989.

 Soviet Street Artt from  Tirasapol,Trans Dneistra and Minsk, Belarus

I had read fairly widely about the country, although it must be said that there is less available in English than one might want, and I was aware of Romania’s reputation for utter brutality, and its decades-long attempt to deceive the west into believing somehow that Romania was a “reasonable” country. And whatever else Romania might have been, reasonable it was not.

A notice indicating that the building is
likely to collapse at any time! 
Memories of the period were obviously painful for Cristina, and more than once, her eyes shone red as she talked about one aspect of life or another; yet she, herself, led a “normal” life during Those Years. A serious chess player of international standard, the daughter of two working parents and self-described as “just an ordinary person”, Cristina’s insight was fascinating; not only in the detail, but more in the relaying and exposure of how people thought and survived under the megalomaniacal regime, and the reflections of ordinary life.

Surprising, in a way, but instantly understandable is that people simply lived their lives. To most, the working of their government was as distant as it is elsewhere, and because they knew no other way, their lives were normal. They went to school, played games, fell in love, built a life and went to work. That this was all some terrible façade was simply not thought about, and as such, life was tolerable.

There are actually remarkably few relics of the era, unless one includes the monstrous "Peoples' Palace" and some of the other grandiose developments that saw the city of Bucharest lose its soul and heritage to provide space for these hideous, but fascinating buildings.

The Parliamentary Palace in Bucharest
When asked about the lasting legacies, Cristine described the effect of the philosophy so intrinsic in the communist system of “Creating a New Man”, a phrase heard with minor variations throughout the socialist countries. In Romania, however, she explained how the legacy of this thinking was the creation of a society that is malleable and easily led to this day. As she described the transition of power 1989, it seemed more like an explanation of a coup, and the emerging leadership coming directly from the entrenched security services still retain power today; it was difficult not to feel a chill. 

Malta, Latvia - not much hard currency here.
A simple look at the city as one drives in from the airport or around the town shares a characteristic with so many developing countries, and belies any attempt to accurately seek statistical answers to economic questions. And it is simply this; for economic purposes the population is divided into two separate and parallel sets: those with access to hard currencies and those without. It is almost as simple as that. As goods flood into the now open markets from The West, they need to be purchased with hard currencies, or at least their nominal equivalent. Those fortunate enough, for example those in the tourist industry or involved with exports have Euros and Dollars and can play the global game. Those who don’t have access cannot do so.

Minsk - a local market
So superficially, the capitals look like thriving cities, but dig only a little deeper, travel only a little way from the hub of government and a completely different picture will emerge. It is one of poverty and pain, and it will take generations to erase.

It is quite fascinating to see the legacies of the soviet era; the construction, the utilitarian nature of life, the public art  (a disclaimer here; I am fascinated by Soviet bus-stops, and am planning a photo safari to capture some of the best in thie region at some point!) and the general ambience are so different from those of the west. Distinguished by the vast economic and social difference between the nomenclature, intellectuals and high government and the rest of the population, it is a sobering perspective of how imbalanced communities can become if the unequal access to resources and incomes is allowed to grown unchecked.

An old public phone
Romania is a captivating place, and a country that deserves extensive exploration. It is a country more than many that despite outward appearances is still locked in the past, and is finding it harder to shake off the discipline of the past than one might imagine, but as only a casual visitor I was fascinated and look forward to returning and exploring in depth. Explroing the deep countryside as well as the cities would make a most interesting expedition.

The extreme of thought-control: Pyonyang

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The North Pole; A Traveller's Final Frontier

Quite why tourist would want to visit the North Pole is open to debate, but each year a few hundred hardy souls reach this point of some geographically importance, but little social value. They arrive by foot, well actually on skis, by dog team, on ice-breaking ships, by helicopter and aircraft and even drop out of the sky under parachutes.

The lure of landmark destinations is strong, witness the curious crocodile-lines of climbers conquering Mt Everest, and the North Pole is a marquee destination; a very significant tick on one’s bucket list.

The choices, however, are diminishing fast. One of the Canadian airlines that used to offer  complex and difficult flights to the Pole have announced that they will no longer fly tourists, blaming warming weather and increasingly slushy landing surfaces. This claim seems to be repudiated by the Russians who offer a spectacular operation from Camp Borneo, supporting a significant number of polar assaults.

The Russian ice-breakers that have carried tourists on two or three sailings each year are now being brought back to serve in their original capacity of breaking ice, and within two seasons, there is like to be only one option for the intrepid, and well-heeled who what to drop into 90°N.

Reaching the pole seems to be a goal for the obsessed; while obviously money is a very significant factor, those who reach the top of the world do come from all walks of life. The wealthy rub shoulders with the obsessed at Camp Barneo (so named, it was confusingly explained, to distinguish it somehow from Borneo), as several dedicated skiers launch out on their challenge to reach the pole by their own power.

The Mess Tent at Barneo
At the North Pole
The journey is amazingly variable; although the camp starts at roughly 89°N and 100°E, it is floating, and during the 24-day season, it can move from 60 miles from the pole to over 150 miles. The skiers and those attacking the route with dog-teams need to know that they don’t know just how far they will have to travel. The general idea is to travel the “last degree”, or sixty miles, under one’s own power, but one simply never knows.

The Pole brings out the truly eccentric in its visitors. Some choose to dive under the ice, some jump out of helicopters and gently float to the ground; the games and activities that visitors dream up and enact certainly cover the spectrum of imagination.

 Arrive at the Pole any way that you want!

Why on earth anyone would want to run such an operation is also a very good question, and when I met the director, Victor Boyarshy in St. Petersburg last week, he was equally perplexed. “We have run this camp since 1993”, he said, “and it seems to be interesting”. It is an extraordinary achievement; everything has to be flown in and flown out using the rather extraordinary Ukrainian aircraft, the AN-74 and flexing this versatile machine to its maximum. Starting with the initial survey-helicopters who each year seek out a suitable area for the camp, the initial runway-clearing equipment is brought in and the strip, 1000m x 60m established.

The amazing Antonov 74 - inside and out!

The landing strip is certified by the Russian aviation authorities as suitable for use by commercial passengers, and this certification allows insurance, the first of the many tumblers to fall into position, to be obtained. Then the camp is erected, the generators installed, jet fuel imported, food and bedding brought up and all of this for twenty-four days of frenetic activity, and to accommodate about one hundred hardy adventurers.
Capm Barneo; 89N 110E
The camp opens in early April, before that it is dark and too cold, and by the end of the month, the leads in the ice make any sort of structure unfeasible. It is a very short window, and one that seems to be increasing in interest every year. Travelers need to book well in advance, and with prices starting at around US$20,000 plus flights, it probably requires some pre-planning for most.

The camp is exciting; new connections are being discussed, more visitors are expected and as peculiar as it sounds, the North Pole is starting to make it off many folks bucket lists!

If you are interested in visiting this amazing outpost, feel free to contact me ( and I will be happy to put you in touch with the right people.

All photographs provided by Company VICAAR / Camp Barneo

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Baltics; Nine Interesting countries surrounding a fascinating sea!

I have not written much about The Baltics, and it is a sad omission. The Baltic Sea covers a vast area of northern Europe, with the Scandinavian countries forming its northern and western extremities, and Germany and a handful of small and rather fascinating countries its southern shores.

Riga, Latvia and the harbour in Stocholm

St. Petersburg
For most of the Cold War period, the region was the purview of a variety of elaborate Swedish and Finnish ferries, a few fishing boats and hundreds of miles of formidable borders. All this, of course, has changed completely, and now the nine countries that border the region, plus the peculiar Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are absolutely worth exploring.

The article is prompted in a way but my being in St. Petersburg as I write, and realizing that I was in Hamburg only three weeks ago. The similarities between the two cities, at least superficially, is more than simply a coincidence.

The region was, back in the fifteenth century dominated by a commercial organization called the Hanseatic League; this vast confederation stretched from eastern Britain to the eastern reaches of the Baltic, and during its peak, controlled commercial traffic and also offered a forceful and reliable legal framework for the citizens of the countries over whom it held influence. Now most of the period’s visible artifacts are long gone, but there is a similarity in architecture, town structure and atmosphere in all of the great cities of this rather interesting period.

Malta, Latvia
While there are few remaining practical features, it should be noted that “Lufthansa”, the German airline as “Air Hansa”, and the ancient “Hansabank” now operates from Sweden as the “Swedbank”. There are, however, fascinating similarities that dominate this coastline. It takes little imagination as one wanders through the tottering back streets of Klaipeda in Lithuania, or the vast systems of docks and canals that comprise the Hamburg waterfront to imagine the power and strength, and indeed the supreme confidence that the Hanseatic League must have inspired.

Contemporary travelers, however, have considerably greater comfort and options for movement. It is most certainly possible to circumnavigate the Sea using a combination of public transportation and rented cars. From Hamburg one can travel along the coast through Poland and then, bypassing Kaliningrad and its visa issues, into the three countries known as The Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Street Art, majestic in size, is everywhere

And these three countries are marvellous. Beautiful, compact, friendly, and (it must be said in the context of Scandinavia) eminently affordable, they offer visitors a fine chance to explore. Renting a car for a few days is the best way to do so, and by plotting a circuit one can enjoy the quirkiness of the region at one’s one pace.

Each country is different; linguistically, geographically and by temperament. As the Cold War ended, the Danish government took Lithuania under its wing, the Swedes “adopted” Latvia and the Finns deepened their ancient ties with the equally linguistically-challenged Estonians. These ties most certainly helped the three former soviet countries’transition into western Europe and the EU, and while they have had some bumps in the road, their position as growing economies and a part of the west is (fairly) secure.

For visitors, they are wonderful. Vilnius’ Old Town is a delight; ancient curly streets, small cafes, delightful arts shops and finely restored buildings, interesting seaside towns and villages in the countryside that time has simply forgotten. Riga’s rather imperial visage is beautifully counterbalanced by a unique display of hundreds of soviet-era aircraft in an eccentrically curated museum adjacent to the city’s airport. Inland towns are vivid, forgotten and really rather nice.

 The air museum at Riga Airport

And so to the north, and if one wants to go through the expense and hassle of obtaining a Russian visa, the city is really rather splendid. Its history is rich, its buildings lavish and the waterways that dominate the layout of St. Petersburg are delightful. But then again, there is the visa, and at a cost of approximately $300 + courier fees, and now the requirement to visit a consulate to have one’s finger prints taken, many will simply not bother, and take the ferry from Tallinnto Helsinki instead.

And so to the Finnish capital, and perhaps Europe’s most forgotten destination; “A poor second to Belgium when going abroad” as Monty Python once intoned. It is, notwithstanding, charming; heavy weatherproof buildings dominate an active waterline, and inland, Finland continues for miles and miles of Canadian Shield-type countryside, protected from foreigners by an impenetrable language, strange protocols involving plunging naked into lakes in the winter, and a culinary admiration for the more peculiar, and dare I say it “economical” parts of large fish.

Finally, to Stockholm, the jewel of the Baltics; there are overnight “ferries” that ply between the Finnish and Swedish capitals, and it is really the only way to travel. Vegas-like entertainment, blingy shopping and fine dining punctuate the 18 hour journey, and as you wake the ship will be meandering through the islands that make up the archipelago upon which Stockholm, my favourite European capital, is located.

The fqascinating "Vasa", to be seen at the "Vasa Museum
Eye-wateringly expensive, and equally gorgeous, it is a city to savour. Its grandeur, its location and topography and above all, it people are truly delightful, and offer visitors a glimpse into the richness that a progressive, historical and secure country can reach. There are some wonderfully quirky museums, terrific public spaces, a fine waterfront and endless diversions that can happily see many days pass by. 

One can travel easily through the region independently, or, of course, enjoy one of the many cruise lines that are offering a wide range of ports and combinations. 

An independent trip, would possibly start in Hamburg, travel to Gdansk and on to Warsaw by train for an onward flight to Tallinn. In Tallinn, one could rent a car and spend some days in a circuit of the three "Baltic States", and once back in Tallinn either continue to St. Petersburg and Helsinki by train, or directly on a farry. The ferry connection to Stockholm is simple, and from there to Copenhagen there are several daily trains. The final leg back to Hamburg could take advantage of the unique train-on-a-ferry option to complete this epic circumnavigation. Allow 16 - 20 days! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

European Trains; I love 'em ...

I have, for the past ten days, been travelling in Europe to a tight schedule. Although nominally “retired”, but we shall explore that term at a later time, I have some interesting projects that require me to present myself at a variety of European locations within a relatively short timeframe.

My travel is not always glamorous.
For this, I have chosen a Eurail Pass. These formerly simply accessories now require the patience of a saint to decipher, there being so many options;  the options, of course, being (one feels) the reaction to so many “emerging” partners like Romania with whom Germany and France do not care to share the revenue on a simple, geographically proportionally basis. Or, frankly, any other; I digress.

I love German trains; clean, efficient and quick, they epitomize travel in 21st and possibly the 22nd century, and have the ability to whizz one around the continent at a dizzying rate. However, it must be said, they don’t always work so well, and with the emotional spark of a lactose-intolerant stevedore, they are known to become sluggish. 

Clean, efficient and devoid of passengers. 
Three trains out of three yesterday were late, and I don’t mean by two minutes. They were tardy by an hour or so, and each an independent journey. No need here to muddy the waters with obsolete references to railway-punctuality in bygone eras, but one wonders what happened and just who could get the trains moving on time.

Then, there are, astonishingly, trains in Germany and France that are designed to be slow. I was a touch confused as to the purpose of three lines of immobile traffic at the Hamburg Altona station. Well, it turned out, by acute observation on my part, that they were lines for the overnight car-transporter trains to Lörrach, a town that nobody has ever heard of, but lies across the border with Switzerland from Basel. One loads one’s car, one sleeps (perhaps) and one wakes up eleven hours (and three minutes, but I wouldn’t be too sure about that precision) to the south ready for a triangular chocolate bar.

 Loading the night train in Hamburg 

It is brilliant; there are several of these “motorail” options in Europe, and I have often wondered why this option does not readily exist in Canada. To the extent that some years ago I wanted to partner with the fine Winnipeg-based forwarding company TransX to provide exactly this service; ship your car to Halifax and drive it back … a simple and potentially rewarding concept. It went nowhere, but that was my fault, and like most great ideas it lurks somewhere in my imagination.

However, I digress. Germany is a large country. Not really large enough for a domestic train to take eleven hours without some pretty nifty signaling, but big enough that I shall fly to Munich tomorrow rather than enjoy the panoramic view of trees that line the railway track to the south.

I like train travel though; it clears one’s mind, it avoids all manner of bizarre and predatory “security features” that are so redolent of air travel today, and it offers the mind a fertile and evolving playing-field for the imagination to exercise.

And believe me, my mind needs space in which to operate.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Chicago - My Favourite US City

I think that it is pretty hard not to like Chicago, and I try to visit as often as I can. Frequently, travelling to from Europe, I will route my journey through the Windy City, named for their politicians ability to talk rather then the weather, spend a night or two, from most Canadian cities, it is an easy weekend escape.

 Chicago' s Skyline (and The Bean) are endlessly fascinating!

For about ten years I had an office in Chicago at the corner of Michigan and Wacker, and got to spend a large amount of time in the city. I came quickly to realise that far from a jumble of tall buildings, the city have a pace and a smile that was inherently mid-western. It is a city that is comfortable in ints own shoes, and offers visitors a pretty clear vision of how it feels. There is none of teh challenge that has always characterised New York, or the quizically laid-back atmosphere of the west coast ... in Chicago, you get what you see.

Lincoln Park with Downtown in the distance
Which is a heck of a lot! The city is the beneficiary of some most inspired urban planning; after Great Fire of 1871, the city was rebuilt, and rebuilt with vision. Its location, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan is delightful, and the insistance of the planners to leave a vast area of land adjacent to the water as public space, inspired. One cannot imagine the pressure that the local barons applied to allow them to rebuild their mansions on the coast, but this was not to be, and today's city offers some of the finest urban planning legacies in North America today.

The city's buildings are alive; the justaposition of ages first jar the senses and then delight; one can hardly wander through the central core without gasping at some of the design inspirations, and truly, this is a city whose simple physical presence is to be inhaled. It is buzzy, with street performers, the usual urban collection of hopefuls trying to prise a dollaw or two out of you, and endless people wandering and scurrying through the city's streets, shops and parks.

It is a delight to get around; the public transportation systemn is efficient and straightforward, and cabs are plentiful and reasonably priced. And, of course, one can always rent bikes or walk.

The Magnificent Mile
Frankly, I am not altogether sure why so few (relatively) Canadians visit. From Winnipeg, New York is the US city of choice, even though it takes at least six hours each way to fly via one connecting city or other. Chicago is two hours away on a non-stop flight and offers everything that one may want. Its architecture is legendary, the blues music iconic, and the restaurants superb. The museums and galleries are of the first order, and the whole ambience of the city is buzzy and exciting. There are accommodations to suit everyone, shopping to sate the most jaded palate and frankly, I don’t know why I don’t just move here.

I love the city; from the simple, if a touch bouncy and raw, metro ride from O’Hare (or Midway) airport to the city centre to the first class public transportation system, it is easy to get around. There is the added glee of passing the swells riding in their airport limousines stuck in the freeway (there’s a misnomer) traffic, as you whizz into the city. It is really accessible for accommodation in the Loop (I love the Palmer House), is easy, and if you are on the Magnificent Mile, a short cab ride from the Clarke and Lake will get you to the property in under an hour.

The Architecture Cruise
Then the decisions are tough; where to eat, what to do and where to spend your time. Whatever you choose, if you are a fan of the blues, and don’t have to get up too early, be sure head to Kingston Mines (after about 10pm) for the best in town; another place worth mentioning, although there are really too many from which to choose, is the fabulous Rosa's Lounge. Rosa's might be a little out of theway, but it is well worth the effort; close to it is La Bomba, a great Puerto Rican restaurant, and the two make a perfect combination.

Walk in Lincoln Park, visit the Field Museum and the Art Institute and above all, wander. While the Loop and Mag Mile are entertaining and absorbing, it is also worth jumping on the bus or CTA and heading to one of the near suburbs like Adison where you will find some great restaurants and shops.

And then, of course, there are the fabulous buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Only a thirty minute ride on the CTA to the west of the city lies Oak Park, home of many homes designed by this iconic architect; some are open to the public, some can only be gazed at from outside, but a trip to the area is well worth the ride. 

 Two of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings in Oak Park

And if you get thirsty, you can just Stop and Drink.

I am already looking forward to coming back in December!