Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Exploring Belgrade: Serbia's little known capital

Visiting and exploring Belgrade is not a simple undertaking. It is not conventionally beautiful nor immediately obviously laid out; it is scruffy and moves quickly, and has fewer old parts to it than one might have initially thought. It is, however, a city that wears its soul on its sleeve, and with a good tour guide, who can point out those bits that an individual might simply stroll past, the city’s rich and challenging history can come alive.

Belgrade reminded me of one of my favourite editorials. In The Financial Times in March 2006, Nico Colchester wrote “Crunchiness brings wealth. Wealth leads to sogginess. Sogginess brings poverty, Poverty creates crunchiness. From this immutable cycle we know that to hang on to wealth, you must keep things crunchy.”

Belgrade is very crunchy indeed.

It has reason to be so, of course, and to hear its history, potted into a four-hour tour by my guide Vladimir, makes one pause for thought. It is a history of conquer and reconquer; a history of occupation, siege and battle; a past of violence, mayhem and of continuous change. Belgrade’s historical oscillation between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires sounded so frequent in the telling that there seemed scarcely time to clear up before the next army arrived. It quite left me giddy.

It was not quite like that, of course, but the destruction that heralded the arrival of the new landlords left little antiquity in its wake. Destruction, and obliteration of the marks of the Other Religion were the order of the day. A fine mosque remains, sitting coquettishly at an angle to the street’s grid system telling of its existence before the roads were designed; bits of the magnificent fortress have been found dating back to the Romans, a conquering force that lay outside the scope of my four-hour walk. The walls of the castle expanded, contracted, blew up and were modified a dozen different ways before its current peaceful outlook over the two rivers that mark Belgrade’s soul.

The Belgrade Fortress 
I like the fortress; it is grand and open; the parks within and without the walls offer wonderful spaces for families to frolic and lovers to wander. The views are terrific, and lying, as it does, at a reasonable altitude, the views are most pleasing. It is from here that one can see the sprawling “New Belgrade”, built during the communist period, and consequently devoid of much architectural interest or colour. And, tucked in between the endless apartment blocks, the old town of Zemun, absorbed into Belgrade in 1934 but dating from Neolithic times. It seemed like a logical place to visit the next day.

And so, having ascertained that I could reach Zemun by a combination of two buses (the numbers 65 and 15, if you must), I set off from the hotel. Catching buses is relatively simple; buying tickets is not. Public transportation the world over seems to engage purchasing systems designed to mystify. There are individual tickets, day and week passes, group tickets, old peoples’ tickets and many, many more varieties, usually only described in the native language. Then the question of where to buy arises, and usually this is not on the bus itself; in the case of Belgrade it is form one of the many small tobacco and drink kiosks around, as I discovered too late.

A Belgrade bus stop
Boarding the first bus I tried to give money to the disinterested driver. He shook his head, other passengers tutted and I got on hoping that I would not come face to face with an inspector and we took off hastily. Belgrade bus drivers drive very fast indeed, swinging their bendy buses wildly as they race to the next stop. One can only image the first day at their driving school.

Reaching the second stop, and my point to change, in warp speed, I got off and looked around. I then missed the next bus because I hadn’t noticed that the number (15) was in shaded digits on my stop, indicating a night service, while the daytime stop lay twenty feet away. I noticed only when a large, yellow number 15 bus screeched to a halt and then seconds later took off in a cloud of dust. There was another a few minutes later.

Two buses under starter's orders
The directions I had been given were not entirely accurate. “Keep on until the end of the line”, I was told, which I did.  The end of the line, however, was deeply uninspiring. “Zemun Novi Grad” it was, and even my sparse Serbian told me that this was “Zemun New City”, not the quaint old village that I was seeking.

Novi Grad wasn’t even new; it might have been in about 1970, but now wore the dejected air of a place that knows it will never be shiny again. I looked around and saw another bus (a number 46), jumped on and away it roared; I didn’t really know where we were going, but it couldn’t be less inspiring. As it happened, it careened its way through the suburb before tossing me out by the river and in the Zemun that I had wanted to find.

Zemun - waiting for the summer
It was quite lovely. Restaurants, bars, cafes and houseboats; a fine variety of buildings that dated back up to a couple of hundred years, and again the Belgrade sense of soul and vitality. I loved it, even the biting wind. The market was just closing, but as they tore it down for the week, the constant conversation and banter of Belgraders kept me amused. I didn’t understand a word, but laughing and joking around needs little interpretation.

It is the buildings of Belgrade that will stay in my mind. They are a wonderfully confused and eclectic reflection of the city’s history. In the older part of the city there are fine examples of Art Deco, some delightful public buildings from the 1950s and apartments from the 1970s that show the peculiar little flashes of fun that must have lit the otherwise bland life of a communist architect. A fine collection; some crumbling, some restored and some seeming to wonder about their future. Belgrade is a city of motion and of people, and one that will hurtle its way through the next few hundred years of history taking whatever comes its way.

Belgrade is crunchy; and well worth visiting.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Belgrade to Bar Railway: Truly a fine day's rail-riding

A grey morning in Podgorica
Trains are fun. And if the reports on travel sites as disparate as the Guardian and The Daily Telegraph and the “how to” sites like the incomparable Man in Seat 61 who all say that the rail journey from Bar to Belgrade is one of the most scenic in the world, who am I to argue?

Well, I did argue slightly, and in a fit of “proving it to myself” decided to go and see. 
The tricky part seemed to be access to the train. Having found out from my friend and railway guru Andy Brabin that the journey was best approached from the south, and further learned that the Adriatic terminus at Bar was difficult to get to and that the first hour of the journey over the littoral was less than exciting, I decided to start the ride in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica.
The wrong train to Belgrade
Podgorica can hardly be described as beautiful. Having survived countless onslaughts, bombings and razings a staple fate of much of this region, it is now an administrative centre of concrete. More concrete than you could imagine; shabby concrete, flaking concrete, heroic concrete, contemporary concrete, Soviet concrete, concrete in fifty shades of grey. I stayed the night, in the superb Hotel Terminus, and left as the sun tried to rise.

The day dawned sullenly, and the prospect of glimpsing the stunning scenery seemed terribly optimistic. Low clouds set drizzle down everywhere, and the small crowd, huddling under an awning on the platform, seemed somehow resigned.

The wrong train
The train arrived; a touch shabbier that I was expecting, but hey-ho, ten hours on an elderly suburban train couldn’t be that bad. I had hoisted my luggage aboard with, I thought, a rather imaginative hoist, and settled into my seat. I considered the train, and then the other passengers who seemed in no hurry to board. Realising that I had actually boarded an elderly suburban train readying itself to chug off in the opposite direction, I got off, just in time to see the little train that probably could, chug off to the coast. 

Our train arrived, and by comparison, it was luxurious. Few passengers boarded, and it was to my great fortune that I settled in a compartment with Krsto Perovic, a fascinating man, and a specialist in Balkan Security issues, whose company proved to be completely absorbing, and who made the day exceptional.

 The right train to Belgrade

The track rises fast as it leaves Podgorica. The scenery, seen through a prism of drizzle and murky windows hinted at the spectacular. The first section, the 175 kms that run through Montenegro reaches its highest point of 1,032 metres at Kolasin, some 80 kms from Podgorica, requiring some pretty aggressive engineering to haul the train up to this height so quickly. The line was started in the 1950s, but not completed and officially open until May 1976, taking over twenty years to figure out the endless problems that were encountered.

It is a magnificent railway. 254 tunnels and 435 bridges make the route possible, including the incredible Mala Rijeka Viaduct that soars 198 metres above ground level. Krsto and I decided that we, and the rest of the travelling public, were fortunate that we had had nothing to do with the construction.

Our conversation ranged widely, as one would expect. The West Balkans are a serious and complex region, and their intrigues and machinations form an intricate web. Who knew that there were so many kinds of Croats and so many strains of Serbs? Who knew that the embers of idiosyncratic conflicts of the seventeenth century were kept burning so long? Who could have foreseen the evolution of the Yugoslav Republic (less a country that I had always imagined, and more of a confederation of both logical and artificial components) would inevitably lead to the ghastly conflict of the 1990s? Who could image that the Montenegrins would add two new letters to their alphabet while the Croats were losing a couple in a federal attempt to synchronise the transcription of the Latin and Cyrillic scripts?

Alpine meadows, crashing canyons, picturesque villages and vividly blue white-water rivers passed by.

The region is a miracle of diplomacy, military might, ancient tribal instincts, mad geography and an uncaring and bored outside world; it is still a world of Ottomans and Hapsburgs, Russians and Westerners, of fact and fable and of both official and dubious wealth; it is a cauldron of intrigue, and the more nuggets that Krsto let drop, the more fascinated I became. Periodically, like a temporarily lifting mist, I thought that I glimpsed a wide and comprehensive picture of the Balkans, but just as I felt the illumination, the mist dropped back in place, time again became irrelevant, the centuries piled up against one another and I had more questions.

The land flattened as we entered Serbia, and the scenery more pastoral as we hurtled toward Belgrade. The site of substantial towns, now lost without their centrally-planned factories are losing population fast as the young head to Belgrade. One can see this loss in the partially finished buildings, empty playgrounds and shuttered shops.

Heading to the Dining Car
The journey was comfortable; the dining car a delightful throwback to the 1970s, including the complete absence of food (not counting a pair of dried Wonderloaf slices imprisoning a sliver of rather dubious “Cheese Food Product”. The coffee was good, the change of scenery was pleasant, and in any case, forewarned of the train’s culinary deficiency we had brought our own food along.

We reached the Belgrade suburbs on time; ten hours had passed by in the blink of an eye. Ranging conversation with an interesting companion is truly one of life’s treasures, and today I had won that particular lottery. However, as we started to collect our bags, it came as a small surprise to be advised that “the railway has run out of electricity for the moment”. Or at least, that is what I gathered from Krsto’s simultaneous translation.

And thus it was; nighttime, and more importantly dinner time, saw us with two bonus hours on the rails, waiting for sufficient voltage to be generated to push us along the last 10 miles into town. We waited, chatted, ate the last of our curious, man-made picnics, until with a small lurch we started forward. Riding the surge of the fresh energy gushing through the overhead lines, we sped all the way into the Belgrade Central station.

It was a very fine ride indeed, and without doubt the best 23 (20 for the ticket and 3 for the seat reservation) that I have ever spent on a train ticket.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mediterranean and Adriatic Ferries: Sailing with Adria from Trieste to Albania

I like journeys, and I enjoy the feeling of travelling; of actually going somewhere. Airlines are expedient and do their job well, but given the option of a train, ship, car or bus, I will take the surface mode every time.

Edging toward Montenegro and the railway journey between Podgorica and Belgrade, the ferry seemed to be a welcome option, and so it was that I booked passage on the AF Michela on its twenty-seven hour run from Trieste to Durres in Albania.

The Grimaldi Lines ship in Tunis
It comes as some surprise to many just how many working ships ply the waters in and around Europe. These ferry systems offer a lifeline to the huge quantities of freight that moves around, and to passengers seeking a slightly slower and more economical means of travel. The Mediterranean and Adriatic seas are awash with shipping, from the luxurious cruise vessels to tramp steamers plying their trade between secondary and tertiary ports. The ferry lines lie somewhere in the middle.

Curiously for one who lives in The Prairies, this is the third time in the past year that I have used an overnight ferry. Last year I travelled from Palermo to Tunis on the Grimaldi Lines ship, and more recently I used the P & O service from Hull to Rotterdam. Each time I found comfortable surroundings, decent cabins and all in all, a good way to travel. The common denominator was the difficulty of finding the ship in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong; local taxis know well where they depart from, but ships’ sheer bulk and their requirement for water mean that the docks are where you need to go, and as freight is the primary focus of contemporary harbours, passenger services are often tucked away as an afterthought.

Helpful signage

Seeking out and boarding the Adria Ferries' AF Michela bears little resemblance to either catching a train or a plane, and is a far cry from the glory days of ocean liners. Passengers are, basically cargo; cargo that can walk and load and unload itself, but nevertheless cargo, and the siting of the “passenger terminal” among acres of lumber, railway ties, roofing tiles and other bulk construction materials makes the point well.

 The passenger entrance and waiting room in Trieste

I checked-in three hours early. Other than the small difficulty of spotting the Adria Ferry office and a functioning building, I needn’t have done for a couple of reasons. The first was that there were only ten passengers travelling that day from Trieste, and the second was that having received my boarding pass within a minute, I sat in a small room for the next two hours before the remaining nine sauntered in. A car was sent to carry the two foot-passengers, and having completed the passport formalities we boarded the ship. Ten passengers on a one thousand passenger ship leaves considerably room to move around, and having found our allotted spaces and tied down the few vehicles, we left shortly after noon.

The AF Michela
The AF Michela is functional, more reminiscent of the East German ship, the Greifswald on which I had crossed the Black Sea some years ago than the QE2, but it does the job. Nine of us did rattle around a bit, and one can sympathise with the catering staff who served an adequate if dumbed-down selection.
The kitchen is enthusiastic, but more of a canteen then a dining room, but they do offer a very reasonable Pinot Grigio to wash down the pasta and salad.

The cabins are plentiful (offering beds for up to 428 travellers), although I would suspect that it all gets a bit steamy and cantankerous when it is full and the summer sun is beating down. 

An additional 572 passengers can be accommodated as “deck passengers” apparently, but I gave up counting the available chairs. It would be tight.

There is a bar, a small shop and that’s about all. The ship, built in Limassol, Cyprus in 2001 and displacing 24,481 tons of water as it ploughs forward at about 18 knots, has some quirks to it. Its history is a touch murky; the operating certificates in its (Otis) elevators were signed in Shanghai, and here and there are signs written in Chinese and Korean characters. It has served a variety of masters and has been known as the Cartour, the Vinashin Prince, the Hoa Sen and the Stena Egeria before being chartered to Adria Ferries for one year last October. It has done service in The East, offering cheap booze-cruises to a Vietnamese clientele, and it appears, by the architectural plans evident hanging on the walls, that it was refurbished in 2014, but from what and to what, I am unsure.

The Restaurant
The waters are calm. This would be a blessing to many, but I do like a bit of strong water. It seems to be my curse that good weather follows me much of the time, and while I usually appreciate being a small high-pressure zone, from time to time, a little storm would be nice. Today, unfortunately, all is calm.

Shortly the Albanian coastline, just visible on the horizon, will draw closer, and we will disembark and explore Durres. It is only an overnight stop, and the journey continues tomorrow by bus, as I head from here to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and the start of the railway journey to Belgrade.

I know there are a lot of rules on a ship, but this exhibition of fine print was
 really a bit overwhelming. The Eastern scripts tell a tale of the vessel's history. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Trieste: An unexpected delight

Trieste Centre
I only went to Trieste to leave it, and it was not even my first choice of departure points. Bari was, but the ferry to Montenegro has been suspended, and thus access to the train from Bar to Belgrade, one of Europe’s finest, I am led to believe, meant some imaginative preparation was necessary.

Let me explain.

I had read a great deal about the railway that runs from the Serbian capital of Belgrade through spectacular scenery, ancient villages, dramatic rivers with bridges whose impudence leaves one speechless, down to the Adriatic coast at Bar. Or at least that is what I had read, and determined to waste $30 for a ticket on this ten-hour run, I started to plan.

One can, of course, travel in either direction, and the first decision was which way to choose. For this, I consulted my friend and railway guru, Andy Brabin; Andy is deeply eccentric, and most interesting. Currently engaged on a project called “#AllTheLinesEurope”, a quest to travel along each and every one of Europe’s passenger railways, there is little that Andy can’t add to any journey by rail.

“Go north”, he said, “the best scenery lies between Podgorica and the Serbian border, and you want to do this in the daylight.” Sound advice, which I followed. Stymied by the suspension of the Bar/Bari ferry, Durres in Albania seemed to be the next best choice, from where a six-hour bus ride would take me to Podgorica. To reach Durres one could sail from Bari, Ancona or Trieste, and for the simple reason that I wanted the longest ride available, I chose Trieste.

And what an inspired choice.

My introductory break was pure serendipity. Heading to the information booth at the airport, I overheard a traveller ask about the bus to town and be advised that it cost 4 and was leaving in five minutes. Normally I don’t much like airport buses, as they tend to drop me off miles from where I want to be, but I decided there and then to buy a ticket and so found myself not on an “airport bus”, but a “bus that went to the airport”. This subtle difference involves getting a one-hour tour of the small fishing towns that lie on the coast along the 60 km drive that skirts the Adriatic coast on the right and the Slovenian border on the left as one heads to town.

I hadn’t realised the distance, and the ride had the added benefit of saving me a 80 taxi ride.
Arriving at a taxi-less bus station, I chose to push my suitcase over the cobbles for fifteen minutes to my hotel, and along the way, I realised that I had landed somewhere rather special.

The languages, the buildings, the shop signs and the smiles; all of these drew me toward the centre of this remarkable town, still proud of its Hapsburg days, and a clear link between the catholicism of the Austrian empire and that of Rome. And Trieste, proudly and self-confidently sits as it always has, at the epicenter of trade and movement. It lies at the convergence of Slovenia, Italy and Croatia in contemporary terms, and the three cultures are here in abundance.

My hotel, The Hotel Centrale, was delightful, hip (so I fit right in), actually central and very friendly. I still can’t quite grasp the automatic lighting in the bathroom, but I think the concept and operation was aimed at a different generation. So I basically ignored it, even the curious clicking noise that it reproachfully made as I failed to do something or other. It was odd.

The hotel, though, was quite lovely, and to walk, no to stroll along the side streets from one magnificent square to another, past shops offering the most beautiful clothes, jewelry and accessories, past endless cake shops offering pastries so delicately constructed, was a pleasure. The sea front, proud, long and interesting leads for miles, and from it lie endless streets both broad and narrow leading into the heart of this marvellous city.

 The old, Imperial buildings at the heart of the city

As with much of Italy, food is omnipresent. From morning pastries to the seafood specialties of dozens of restaurants, one could happily munch one’s way through Trieste over a nourishing week. I had, unfortunately, one night, and needed to choose carefully. I did so quickly, and headed to the Trattoria daGiovanni, only a few steps from my hotel.

A 100kg mortadella (delicious)
What a find. 

Local, bustling, unrefined, delicious and inspiring da Giovanni was all that I had hoped to find in a local trattoria. The food was basic. The antipasti were fine hams and mortadella carved from enormous joints and served with delicious local peppers; wines, red, white and prosecco poured from barrels above the bar, and a the few main dishes from which to choose were all wonderful and reflected history (schnitzels), culture (goulash) and location (many different fresh fish). Salads and cheeses abounded and I found myself, sitting at the Single Table In The Corner, my usual perch as I travel alone, smiling and feeling content and a not a little smug.

Trieste had overwhelmed me. An accidental stop en route to Albania turned into a delight and yet another city that needs a great deal more exploration.

Trattoria da Giovanni

Monday, March 12, 2018

Berlin's Tegel Airport (TXL) is a complete disgrace.

Berlin’s Tegel Airport (TXL) is a complete disgrace.

It is not that it is old, I am too as are many of my friends and favourite ports, it is that it simply couldn’t care less. Yes, it creaks under the load; yes, it is being replaced by a shiny new airport “BerlinBrandenburg”; and yes, it is past its sell-by date, but these are no reasons for its complete and utter lack of interest in the flying public.

The new airport is a sham too. Built some six or seven years ago it still lies unused. Openings scheduled for October 2011, June 2012, March and October 2013 and June 2017 have come and gone as whimsically as the money that has been spent on it, and meanwhile, Tegel bears the brunt.
And bears it extremely badly. Let me explain.

Tegel has been the site of aerial shenanigans since 1914, and while it would be cruel to say so, it feels like it. Its commercial operations began in the late 1950s, and its architecture, interesting if one’s blood pressure would allow contemplation, dates from that era. There is the aura of escaping spies, and the thought of those many secret journeys that passed through the airport does add a unique atmosphere.

Each gate in the Lufthansa Terminal A has its own check-in space and luggage carousel, which would be wonderful if they actually functioned. The baggage carousel does, but the check-in facility, presumably a victim of Enhanced Security, has moved to a central zone. And herein lies the problem; six check-in desks staffed by three Lufthansa personnel attempting to check-in or take baggage from a couple of thousand passengers is not efficient. Even by non-German standards.

The customer-service protocols were, I would guess, inherited from East Germany’s Interflug when the airlines merged some twenty-five years ago, and have remained the gold standard. Nobody is to blame, staff on-the-move stare at their shoes for fear of being harassed, and the queue edges forward. Questioning the set up, even politely, risks injury from a very prickly stare.

Ninety minutes in line, for a thirty second baggage-transaction. When I finally made the front, and this only because “The Munich Flight” was being called, and we were allowed to jump the line, I smiled, anxious to avoid any retaliation, and the possibility of my bags being directed to China.

No; excuses aside, and there are many, this is a shambles, and Lufthansa, a company for whom I have the greatest respect, should not allow itself to be a part of this parody of customer-service.

If there are six check-in desks and two thousand customers, six check-in staff should be the minimum complement; Tegel or Lufthansa need to invest in a bag-tag printing machine and let people print their tags, drop off the bags and be on their way. There are options, and waiting for Brandenburg Airport to open, is not one of them.

If you have a choice, may I recommend the fine service offered by DB from the Central Station, and if you must fly, check-in on-line and take no baggage.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Day trip from Berlin: Lunching in Poland

Unsurprisingly, there is no tourism office in Rzepin. There are no tourists, and from a brief wander through the town, this is hardly surprising either.

Coming here was a good idea. Dining at a lovely little local Bulgarian restaurant in Berlin last night, in response to a general question about what to do today, I said “Let’s go to Poland for lunch”. The idea took root, the train schedule to the first town across the border was determined, alarm clocks set and away we went.

William and Daisy at ITB
The idea was not entirely random; the major global tourism show, ITB is held annually in Berlin, and as a part of our tourism development work with the Arctic community of Qikiqtarjuaq, we have two delegates from the community in Berlin, learning about the travel industry, the channels of distribution, product development and clients’ expectations. Among other things.

A part of this immersion program is the practical aspect of being a tourist, and thus a random visit to an unknown community in a different place with different money and language formed an integral part of the process.

Rzepin was determined solely by geography. It was only 90 minutes by rail from Berlin, but it could have been a continent away.

Having been brought up in the era of the Cold War, simply taking a train from Berlin Ostbanhof to Poland was an exercise in nostalgia. It was a simple journey today, but only twenty-five years ago, the paperwork alone would have taken a month. The train pulled out of the station and rolled through the forbidden Berlin suburbs toward the border.

Berlin is a most interesting city, and in particular the architectureof The East astonishes. The drab Soviet Blocks have had a lick of paint; new cladding he replaced old concrete in places, and suddenly shiny blocks push their way up from the ground like a bright new tooth implant. Jocular shaped shops interspersed with forbidding facades from the DDR line the streets, and the overall impact is of sudden and manic growth after a period of forty years’ dormancy. Beirut is a little like this; none of the gradual change in architecture on a year on year, or even decade on decade basis, no, it is the leap from 1960s SovConcrete into the jazzy freedom of Berlin in the 2010s.

And so to Poland, and across the border, there was none of the money of Berlin, nor the money of central Poland. Rzepin is not Warsaw, and has none of the charm of rural Southern Poland. No, this is a town of emigrants, the flip side of the complaint of “too many immigrants”; here the problem is of “too many emigrants”.

Information about Rzepin
The first hint of the community's charms was at the railway station. Shiny, new, clearly constructed with reconstruction funds, the station’s information boards were silent and empty. We should have taken the hint and climbed back on the train. We didn’t, and instead, in the manner of clowns filling a circus car, we piled into a taxi whose driver agreed to take us to the “Old Centre”. This sounded promising but wasn’t. We were dropped off in a square that had seen better days, surrounded by buildings that flaked apart around us. Sadness and stoicism filled the air as we set off to have a look.

Old buildings, old people, closed shops, abandoned houses, a large church and a cobbled street. A friendly dog who alone seemed to find joy from the town followed us for a few hundred yards before tiring, and alone again we wandered on. The post office was alive with a couple of counters of cards, boxes and surplus Beanie Babies; the military graveyard was well kept, with the obligatory cannons recently repainted. The local council buildings were smart, reconstructed with reconstruction money and sporting the EU flag, but little sign of any economic development seeping further than the cars parked outside.

Rzepin - the other side of migration 

Lunch was a highlight. The Restauracja Mak was friendly and full of food. Good pizza, great soups and a welcome relief from the attempts at trying to find Rzepin. We might have been wandering through the town for a while (8,306 steps before lunch, to be precise), but we couldn’t find it.
And that was the instructive part of the day.

We were tourists; Rzepin was perfectly located for a “day away” from Berlin, and I have no doubt that many, many individuals do as we did over the course of the year. And I have no doubt that the people of Rzepin are delightful, interesting and have plenty of interesting items for visitors looking to pass a few hours in their town. However, the community seemed silent, almost abandoned.

 Unhelpful, and if a town could do such a thing, it felt as if it was turning its back on us. It is an instructive lesson for anyone starting to build a tourism business in their community.

Visitors know nothing, want to learn everything and need information. And that good food, served in a friendly manner can be the saving grace of a day of mild disappointment.

Back to Berlin!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Visiting Astana, Kazakhstan's Extraordinary Capital City

Tourists in Kazakhstan are, it may surprise you to know, less than common in November, and Canadian tourists are particularly thin on the ground. The early winter winds show their face in Astana, and the ground, dry and brown, is sheltering for the oncoming deep freeze. Astana’s winters are as cold as the Canadian Prairies, but one doesn’t come here for the weather.

It may seem like a curious place to go voluntarily. A simple cartographer’s dot in the centre of the vast Kazakh plains, in the northern reaches of Central Asia might not seem automatically attractive, but for those with an interest in the peculiar, and believe me, in this category Astana excels, there is no other choice.

It is a new city built on a fairly new, by historical standards, settlement. There has been a small community here for about 150 years, and some 20 years ago, the current Kazakh president, and in fact Kazakhstan’s only president, Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to build a capital city worthy of his country and far from the Soviet trappings of Almaty, the former centre some 1,200 kilometres to the south.

And so he did. With the help of a team of global architects led by the Japanese master Kisho Kurokawa, a futuristic city has risen from the plains. It is part Dubai, part Las Vegas and even part Pyongyang; it is a city of symbols that are purported to link to the Illuminati, Freemasonry and even the New World Order. Its buildings are astonishing, and its scope breathtaking. For more detailed observation, one should find Dr. Frank Albo’s superb book, Astana: Architecture, Myth & Destiny.

As a casual visitor, and I highly recommend taking a guided tour, one can’t help to be mesmerised. 

The Presidential Palace with some flamboyant office buildings.
The city is actually fairly small, and the horizon soon becomes a familiar jumble of landmarks drawing one back to the central core, the Presidential Park. This stretches out on the right hand bank of the river, surrounding the Norman Foster pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. In the summer it is a place of fountains, springs, flower gardens and coy lovers; in the nip of autumn it is a place for the odd gawking visitor to wonder at the immensity of the Astana Project.

Mr. Foster's Pyramid
Watching a video of the creation of the city is an eye-opening. To see this fairy-tale city emerge from the dusty plain is a miracle; who knew that there were so many cranes in the world, and such an inventory of coloured glass? Who knew that the architecture of 19th century Central-Europe would prove so inspiring to those charged with creating the hundreds of residential apartments? Who knew that there were so many construction companies capable of such massive work in such an isolated location? Who knew that Astana would appear and capture the imaginations of so many.

Leave aside any thoughts of expense and hubris, this city is a statement and visiting is a delight. 

Kazakh people are delightful, welcoming and fascinated that the outside world has taken an interest in them. Unfailingly polite and proud of their country’s achievements (although it must be said that their attitudes toward Borat are complicated and mixed), visitors are made to feel at home. It is an expensive city by Kazakh standards, but not by those of Europe or North America. There are restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and hotels abound with optimism. Kazakh food itself is oddly uncommon, although the boiled mutton fat & gristle combination was an experiment too far, and a possible reason for its scarcity in the public domain.

Sightseeing is easy and endless. Simply look up, look out and look around.

Astana is simply full of these views ... monumental and built to last.

Start with The Pyramid, designed by Norman Foster as a global centre for peace, this is an interesting start, and indicative of the effort that has been put into the design of each and every monument and building. From there, the Central Mosque (Central Asia’s largest, and host to a 51 metre dome) and the striking monument to those fallen in war (made out of 63 tons of bronze) and a short step away.

I thought this odd, too
Continuing back past the monument and crossing the bridge we reach the Presidential Palace, a predictably dominating feature at the eastern end of Watergreen Boulevard, a series of parks and monuments leading west and slightly north. It passes the imposing Bayterek Tower, a cornucopia of symbolism and the centerpiece of the city’s monuments. Here, if one reaches the summit, there is an opportunity to place your hand in the Ayaly Alakan, a gilded hand print of the head of state, N Nazarbayev, and make a wish.

Further on lies Lover’s Park and just beyond, the Khan Shatyr shopping mall, another of Norman Foster’s creations. And, it must be said, that while I am not generally an aficionado of shopping malls, this one is terrific. Except, perhaps, on the first day of a school holiday.

Astana is a city of unlimited exploration. The bus system is great (30c per ride), taxis and Uber work well, and the local system of standing by the roadside and hailing passers-by for a modestly priced ride seems terribly functional.

Where to stop? There are museums for everything, vast and richly decorated theatres and opera houses, gardens and public spaces. The only thing that does seem missing is the public.

The population is said to be about 1 million, yet the construction and infrastructure could easily hold twice that number; empty shops and apartments abound, and while it is refreshing to have some personal space in a major city, one wonders how another million or so people will be drawn to live their lives in this mystical monument of the Kazakh Steppes.

I can’t wait to return.

The Bayterek Tower

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dakar, Senegal; A West African Introduction

Conakry to Dakar
Travelling in West Africa is complex because West Africa is complex. The last leg of my journey wasGuinea to Dakar. This 450-mile leg is as Dallas to Kansas or San Francisco to San Diego, yet we flew over four international boundaries. Had we been on the ground our language would have passed from French to Portuguese to French to English and finally back to French. It is a mosaic of Victorian Europeans’ ideals overlaying centuries of cultural evolution.
a short one-hour hop from Conakry in

So Dakar really came as no surprise.

Dakar, the capital of Senegal
It is not a city built for tourism. With the exception of Gorée Island, there is really not much to recommend the place. It is hectic, dusty, grasping, chaotic and entirely engrossing; it is a city whose purpose seems to be to part people from their money, and visitors are not exempt from this perpetual game. And, in small and blindingly irritatingly small increments, it is very adept.

It starts at the airport. I always get frustrated at airports’ indifference to their arriving passengers. Surely it would not hurt them to advertise the approximate fares to the town instead of leaving the arriving newbies to fend for themselves? But they
don’t, and the first impression of a country is negotiating a cab fare with no idea of the parameters.

Once in town and wandering around, one never feels alone; a light “Bonjour, how are you?” starts a conversation that inevitably leads to a two hundred metre monologue ending with a plea/demand for money. All day long.

Dakar street scenes - the bus stop and an souvenir shop

However, Dakar is active; each square metre is covered by some activity or other. Folks selling furniture, beads, beating panels and recycling indeterminate objects. Some shops are infernos; some stalls sell charcoal while their neighbours offer an astounding selection of small pieces of mixed hardware. Young boys run between shops, women wander gracefully along the street bearing tall piles of goods on their heads and the cars, yes, the cars …. Everywhere and loud.

Taxis honk at every walker in the hope of stimulating a fare; gridlocked drivers lean on their horns in the hope of their sound creating a magical pathway through the traffic. Elderly, bright buses belch fumes and the Serious International Charity Managers pass by imperiously in their brand new SUVs. Movement is everywhere; piles of mangoes jostle for attention with barrows of spark plugs. Piles and piles of second hand clothes shipped from north America bearing the logos of Mid-Western high schools or offering soppy aphorisms like “Every Tear is a Waterfall”.

And the dust. And the sand. Although we are hundreds of miles from the Sahara, the sand gets in when it can and where it can. Small drifts lie apparently randomly, but the tell tale signs of encroaching desert are all around. The wind brings the sand and with it a sense that one day this city too could be overwhelmed by the relentless desert.

The Dakar Fish Market
The shoreline is punctuated by fishing boats and goats. Litter decorates the trees and fences and the odour of inadequately managed life floats in the breeze. And people move; alert and with purpose, other than those who have given up completely or are taking a short rest who move not a muscle. Dakar runs at either 100mph or at a stop.

It is engrossing. Worthwhile. A city like no other I have visited. It feels like a challenge, and one that I think that I have lost, and would continue to do so. To me it is chaos, but to the millions of Dakarois, in its chaos lies uniformity, comprehension and home.

I am glad I have spent some time here, but I am happy to be moving on.