A Travellerspoint blog

Yasawa Islands

Fiji photos

The Yasawa Islands are the definition of the “tropical paradise” fantasy that travellers pursue when visiting the South Pacific. Powdery white sand beaches, pristine turquoise water, colourful coral reefs just offshore, coconut trees, jungly interiors, hammocks, cocktails and restrained development. Why would anyone ever want to leave? Well, Wifi access is pretty rubbish – so watching the second episode of Game of Thrones Season 8 was truly a nightmare. And I certainly didn’t lay eyes on hummus in the Yasawas. Complaints aside (despite their legitimacy), I had a brilliant, relaxing, though somewhat energetic week in the island group. Isolated from fast or functioning internet connections, I was remarkably productive in writing 3 (rambling) blog entries and finishing a book – which I never do in Melbourne! Michael Palin’s Full Circle around the Pacific Rim is a superb read and inspired me to dream up another long, ambitious global trek… or 10!

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The Yasawas are easily accessed from Nadi by ferry, which weaves between a string of a dozen or so islands from south to north. Accommodation choices range from homestays in small villages to resorts with varying standard levels, though a commonality is that they’re normally quite small (less than 50 guests). The islands generally consist of just one resort, so the beaches are sparsely crowded. I hopped between three islands in the Yasawas, with each providing quite different experiences.

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My first destination was Barefoot Manta Island Resort on Daraqawa Island. Upon disembarking the motorboat taking passengers to the shore, we were welcomed with a lovely song by the staff and ample expressions of “BULA!” The staff have successful cultivated a personable environment at Barefoot Manta, as they all seemed to know my name instantly after I checked-in (I only endeavoured to remember “Ann”, because her name was super easy). The resort (which has a capacity for only around 40 guests) and attached staffing quarters constitute the only settlement on the island. The resort occupies the only flat section on the island, a peninsula in the north, and as such has access to three beaches. The thatch “bures” (small, detached, beachside rooms), outdoor bathroom facilities and open-air, wooden communal building are set within lush grounds of coconut trees and hibiscus bushes. I stayed in a 4-bed dorm in one of the thatch bures overlooking the eastern beach, which was regularly pummelled by wind. I actually rather enjoyed the simplicity of the bure, with its “back to nature” vibe. I swam at least twice a day in the clear water, admiring the coral and fish (although it wasn’t particularly abundant). I also kayaked around most of the island and discovered snorkelling areas with coral more vivid than the reefs fronting the resort. I joined a trio of Fijian vacationers and Brazilian Lili scaling the island’s hills for fantastic views of the surrounding islands. Lili determinedly brought Latino dancing to the Yasawas, teaching Swedish Amanda and I the Samba: her “best students ever!”

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I next caught a boat to Nanuya Lailai in the north of the island group. The island is famous for the Blue Lagoon, supposedly the prettiest stretch of coast in the island chain. I actually lodged on the opposite side of the island at Sunrise Homestay for a slightly different accommodation option to the resorts. A Fijian family have converted their spacious property into effectively a hostel, with two small buildings consisting of dormitories to allow for nearly 20 guests to stay. It was certainly a comparatively rugged experience, with electricity available for just 3 hours in the evenings, no Wifi, simple showers and toilets and very muddy tracks between the buildings. But it provided all that was needed while staying in tropical paradise - the lack of electricity encouraging you to disconnect from the web, wake or sleep in accordance with the sun's movements and embrace "Fiji Time". Sunrise Homestay i located on an unspoiled stretch of beach buffeted by wind and with views to neighbouring islands. At low tide, it is possible to circumnavigate the island, crossing rocky beaches, sauntering past the calm waters of the Blue Lagoon and eventually trudging through deep mud in the mangroves. The homestay family were rather quirky, especially the septuagenarian patriarch who would sit with guests in the communal dining area at meals to announce the day's activities, tell stories and play Uno (Sunrise Homestay rules), or on a platform during the day to watch over the guests on the beach.

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Octopus Resort on Waya Island was my final abode in the Yasawas. While not strictly a luxury resort, Octopus definitely felt as such in comparison to my previous lodgings. The dormitory is among the most comfortable I have ever stayed in and even featured air-conditioning! The sleek, concrete buildings pivot around a glittering pool. The expansive decking, with various forms of chairs, lounges, beanbags and hammocks, would be the envy of any home-owning Aussie bloke. The food served was rather decadent: for example, my first dinner was a five-course meal. After initially being wowed by the comparative comfort, I eventually decide that Octopus isn’t really my scene. The resort lacked authenticity and the vibe of living on a remote tropical island - it was more like a "Western bubble" experience. Nevertheless, Waya Island is the most beautiful island I visited in Fiji. Octopus Resort is located on a long, pristine, coconut fringed beach with turquoise water in the foreground and verdant hills in the background. The snorkelling is excellent, with large schools of fish and coral emitting an almost neon-white glow. I hiked to the top of one of the island's hills through very thick foliage and along a tremendously muddy trail for panoramic views of the area. Overall, a fantastic location, but I was satisfied with spending less time at Octopus than Barefoot Manta and the homestay.

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On the islands, you are essentially entrapped into eating food at your accommodation. The resorts even enforce overly expensive and unnecessary meal plans ($80 a day), which typically include a buffet breakfast, lunch item off a menu and a three course dinner or lovo buffet. Lovo is the traditional feasting style of the Fijian people, with food wrapped in banana leaves (often weaved into the shape of baskets) and cooked for many hours in underground ovens. Pork, chicken and large specimens of fish are typically cooked in the lovo, along with myriad root vegetables (potato, sweet potato, taro, cassava) and eggplant. The feasts are complete with salads, rice and fruit. Conversely, food at the homestay was rather limited and unsatisfying. Breakfasts of banana cake, bread and fruit (no protein!) and lunches of rice, fried taro and either fish or stewed sausages (mass produced, hot dog-like sausages are very popular in Fiji). Desserts in Fiji are mostly Western dishes, although they do prepare a very tasty variation of cassava cake, sometimes flavoured with banana or pineapple.

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While it might lack the remote solitude and mesmerising reefs of Kadavu and Taveuni, if you’re after easily accessible tropical paradise in Fiji with the country’s driest weather, then the Yasawa Islands are an excellent option. I was very pleased with my choices of accommodation because they were each situated in beautiful locations and provided quite different insights. Barefoot Manta was certainly my favourite, as it offers an appealing balance of sufficient resort-style comfort while clearly maintaining the sense of residing on a tropical island within nature. Overall, Fiji was an excellent destination for my two-week Easter break and reinvigorated my interest to visit other South Pacific Islands countries.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Fiji photos

Posted by Liamps 13:53 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Viti Levu

Fiji photos

My insatiable passion for travelling actually started in the South Pacific. My first quasi-international trip was in 1998 with Peter, Mum and adolescent Sean to Norfolk Island, where my 7 year old mind was utterly blown away by the magical underwater world of coral reefs. Further trips to eclectic destinations in the South Pacific (Tonga, 2005 and Samoa, 2008) with an eclectic tour group (Mother Teresa, Aunty Jo and Cousin Max) entrenched my desire to see the whole world, famed or otherwise. Yet despite gallivanting around the globe several times over since then, I neglected to return to the tropical islands of the South Pacific in adulthood. This needed to change. Like many office workers in Australia, I decide to exploit the quirk of ANZAC Day falling close to Easter and take a 16 day break at the expense of just 7 days leave. A perfect duration for a trip to the South Pacific. With a dozen island countries to choose from, I eventually settled on Fiji, the most accessible from Melbourne. And what a brilliant destination for a short break! However, as I write this on my final afternoon in Fiji, I could easily spend twice as long in the country hopping between the islands and exploring different reef systems. Perpetually hot weather (the forecasted fortnight of thunderstorms never eventuated), beautiful palm fringed beaches, warm waters with lovely coral reefs, exceptionally friendly locals and delicious Fijian and Indo-Fijian cuisines; what more could you want?!

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Fiji’s international airport is located in the small town of Nadi on the west coast of Viti Levu, strangely 4 hours from the capital, Suva. Nadi isn’t a particularly interesting town, but tourists are essentially required to spent their first and last night in Fiji there to access the airport. The strip of backpacker hostels is located at Wailoaloa Beach on Nadi Bay. The sand is firm and dark brown, the water murky and the palm trees few and far between, creating fairly unexceptional first impressions of Fiji. Wailoaloa Beach is irritatingly isolated from Nadi Town, a 20 minute bus ride away. Nadi Town was the only urban centre I briefly explored in Fiji; I would have liked a little more time (perhaps with a visit to Suva) to better appreciate Fijian society. The central market is definitely the highlight, full of Fijian women with their tightly cropped curly hair and colourful, floral garb selling myriad tropical produce. Bananas of innumerable varieties and kava roots were particularly prevalent. The people of the South Pacific concoct a ceremonial drink out of kava root, which they grind into a powder and mix with water. A kava ceremony will often precede a meal and involve participants sharing a half coconut shell to drink the kava from. It usually takes a few swigs to feel any sensation (a little relaxed – Fijian kava is apparently weaker than neighbouring countries; or at least that’s what they give to the tourists!). Nadi Town is also full of Indian vendors and a large Dravidian Hindu temple, owing to the large population of Indo-Fijians on the west coast.

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Fiji is very much a multi-cultural society, with nearly 60% of the population Fijian and 40% of Indian descent. Ethnic Fijians are believed to be descendants of both Polynesian and Melanesian migrants that settled on the islands in waves between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. Consequently, Fiji occupies the crossroads between the two cultural spheres of the South Pacific. Pre-colonial society in Fiji entirely revolved around village life, with political power controlled by the hereditary village chiefs. Village life and the influence of the chiefs remains integral to ethnic Fijians, even while the country increasingly urbanises (ethnic Fijians will usually return to their traditional villages for major celebrations). Early European arrivals in the 18th century brought Christianity, international commerce and a form of slavery called blackbirding (basically kidnapping locals from Fiji or nearby islands to work on sugar cane plantations) to the islands. Ethnic Fijians remain devoutly religious, with meals and meetings usually preceded by a prayer and weekly church services attracting capacity crowds. Fiji was absorbed into the British Empire in 1873, ostensibly to end the rampant blackbirding. But plantation owners demand for cheap labour resulted in the British instituting an indenture system where Indians migrated to the islands with the obligation of working for 5 years. The Indian labourers were then granted the option of returning to India or staying. Hundreds of thousands opted to stay, resulting in Fiji’s contemporary demographics. Indo-Fijians are unable to own property in Fiji as land ownership is the domain exclusively of the ethnic Fijian villages (collective group ownership). Consequently, the Indo-Fijian population have focused on commerce in the urban areas and now dominate the country’s economy. This reality has caused significant social tensions between Fijians and Indo-Fijians since independence was achieved in 1970. However, after decades of political upheaval and a series of military coups, Fijian society now enjoys relative stability under the questionably democratic leadership of Frank Bainimarama.

The Coral Coast in the south of Viti Levu is renowned for having the best beaches on the main island and accessibility to its jungly interior. The coast is roughly equidistant to Nadi and Suva on the scenic highway that circumnavigates the island. I caught a local bus from Nadi to my first destination, the Beachhouse, passing numerous villages and lush forested slopes en route. The Beachhouse seems to have a reputation as an obligatory stop for backpackers in Fiji, although in retrospect I think it’s a little unwarranted. The beach itself isn’t particularly spectacular, at least not in comparison to the beaches of Fiji’s smaller islands. The snorkelling is hardly riveting with mainly just seagrass to see, and the surf isn’t really safe to access without a board. Nevertheless, the tropical gardens and open-air communal areas are tranquil and pleasant to hang-out in; it’s the perfect setting for backpackers that have a primary objective of socialising (I prefer that to be a subsidiary benefit). Immediately after arriving at the Beachhouse, I met Canadians Rhea and Julianna, who introduced me to a rather excellent card game Rhea’s family invented (I think), replete with a travel-sized board. My highlight at the Beachhouse though was going for an early morning run through the neighbouring village, where many schoolchildren and locals waved gleefully and called out, “BULA!!!” (welcome / hello / cheers / many other uses in Fijian).

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I next travelled further east to Pacific Harbour, just shy of Fiji’s capital of Suva. Pacific Harbour is a town that sprawls along the highway; its not unpleasant, but it also lacks a soul. I stayed in a cavernous but very amiable dormitory in a beachside resort. In Fiji, many of the resorts consists of a dormitory targeted at backpackers. I thought this was rather sound business practice to cater for different travel markets and to increase expenditure at the restaurant and bar. While I mostly ate at the restaurant and enjoyed the innocent voices of “The Serenades” as entertainment, I did venture to a smaller burger restaurant nearby that reminded me of previous trips to the South Pacific. The small-scale enterprise, with only a few menu items, occupies an airy Californian bungalow, with verandahs overlooking spacious lawns and a tropical garden. The quirky owner, very enthusiastic about her burgers, is a grandmother and oozing with Fijian hospitality. The palm fringed, golden sand beach of Pacific Harbour was the forum for many of my forays into holiday exercise, with timed swims (cut short due to the murkiness of the water) runs (cut short due to the boringness of the endeavour), kayaking (cut short due to real or imagined lower back pain) and bodyweight exercises during a thunderstorm, Tarzan-like (cut short due to, well, not being Tarzan).

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Undoubtedly the highlight experience of my trip to Fiji was the Shark Encounter in Beqa Lagoon, one of the most famous sites in the world to dive with man-eating predators cage free. Admittedly, the experience is somewhat controversial because the sharks are fed, which ultimately affects their behaviour in the long-term as they become dependent on effort-free food. The diving company argues that the revenue from the Shark Encounter, which has operated for tourism since the 1990s, has effectively created a marine reserve in an area that would have otherwise been decimated by fisheries. In Fiji, the waters near a coast are owned by the closest village, and they determine how reefs are used and obtain any associated fees. Revenue from the tourist trade easily exceeds fishing permits, thus incentivising preservation. Sufficiently justified morally, I happily signed up for the two-tank tour to placate my burning desire for a rush of adrenaline.

About 15 minutes boat ride off-shore, we descended immediately to the seabed (19m) and knelt along a purpose built stone wall. With considerable time elapsing since my last dive, I failed to implement the appropriate techniques to equalise, eventually resulting in blood noses after both dives. Despite this unpleasantness, both dives were absolutely incredible. Eight different species of sharks regularly appear at the dive site and apparently all were present for the feeding frenzies. But with hundreds of sharks in the water, my attention was reserved for the big fish: lemon sharks (about 2-3m long with a flat head, exposed teeth and yellowish complexion to camouflage in shallow waters), bull sharks (third most dangerous shark species in the world) and the tiger shark (second most dangerous). Dozens of lemon and bull sharks circled the feeding area, with the bulkier bulls passing right in front of us (just an arm’s length away): it was similar to being in an aquarium. The entrance of the tiger shark named Joyce was truly breathtaking. Tiger sharks are solitary predators that roam from reef to reef, as their prey would simply disappear if they loitered in the same location too long. As such, a tiger shark doesn’t always appear, although Joyce is a reliable customer every 6 weeks. When the 3.5m shark glided into the area, the other sharks made way; sharks have a clear hierarchical system based on size. On our second dive, Joyce came over to check us out. She swam less than a metre above our heads, as the 20 of us were protected only by metal rods used by the 4 guides to push her away. Joyce definitely showed more than a passing curiosity for us, and since I wasn’t expecting this type of interaction, I was beginning to wonder if this was the dive it would all go wrong for Shark Encounter. Back at the surface though, I discovered this was merely a routine inspection; the guides were surprised she didn’t go for us on the first dive too!

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Fiji, somewhat surprisingly, can absolutely be treated as a foodie destination, so long as travellers avoid the temptation of plunging head first into the Western dishes at the resort buffets. Two cuisines dominate the culinary scene in Fiji: Fijian and Indo-Fijian. The ingredients that define the Fijian kitchen are, predictably, fish, coconut, root vegetables and spinach. Moca is classic Fijian soup that celebrates the local variety of spinach. A vivid dark green puree is flavoured coconut milk, lemon juice and spices to create a decadent starter. Fish (usually firm, white fillets) is served in many guises including grilled, deep fried in spiced batter and shallow fried in coconut crumbs. Accompanying the fish is usually coconut sauce, a pile of thickly cut chips of varying roots, such as potatoes (boring), taros or cassavas, and occasionally grilled eggplant (the skinny, light purple eggplants are very popular). The national dish is undoubtedly kokoda, which consists of cubes of cooked or raw fish marinated in lemon juice, coconut milk, sliced onions and spices (similar to ceviche). The best dish I ate in Fiji was also my last, a gargantuan plate of rourou balls (balls of taro leaves, onion and spices) in a buttery coconut cream sauce with grilled fish, cassava chips and miti, a thin local coconut sauce. With migrants to Fiji coming from throughout the Subcontinent, Indo-Fijian is inspired by the cooking traditions from numerous Indian states, though tropical ingredients are often employed. Dahl soups, roti wraps (fleshy protein with salad) and thali sets (fish or meat curry with dhal, vegetable curry, rice, roti, pickles and pappadums) are probably the most common dishes. I thought the thali meals I ate at Indo-Fijian restaurants would have been satisfying even in India, mostly because they were very generous with the fish portions. Tropical fruits are of course abundantly available in Fiji. When I visited, bananas, pineapples, papayas and watermelons were in season.

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I spent the first 6 nights of my trip to Fiji on Viti Levu. Although I would have liked to have visited Suva, the north coast and hiked in the hinterland (the weather wasn’t conducive), I also desperately wanted to experience the proper island paradise we all envisage when dreaming of the South Pacific. So I next travelled off the west coast of Viti Levu to the alluring Yasawa Islands.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Fiji photos

Posted by Liamps 22:15 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan photos

Few names of sovereign nations conjure such romantic appeals of exoticism as that of Azerbaijan. But personally, I think the name is a con job. Sure, Azerbaijan is a rather intriguing mixture of Western, Russian and Turkish influences, but the name creates false fantasies of a mythical land of unimaginable curiosities. Aside from its underrated cuisine though, Azerbaijan is actually quite a bland country to visit. The history and culture is not particularly unique or compelling and places of interest are few and far between, with the exception of a bunch of fire related attractions (hence the country’s exaggerated moniker of “the Land of Fire”). The capital city, Baku, is a metropolis of hyper, oil-funded development; the Dubai of the Caspian Sea. Baku (specifically the central areas) is usually the only destination tourists are exposed to in Azerbaijan, which creates inaccurate impressions of the country’s prosperity. While the revenue derived from exporting black gold is invested into vanity projects on Baku’s foreshore, the suburbs and regional communities still very much lack the living standards expected in developed societies. Nevertheless, Baku is a somewhat interesting city to visit with its numerous layers of urban forms, from the slightly over-restored old town of the khanates to the post-modernist edifices representative of Azerbaijan’s destiny. Despite a reputation for coldness, I actually found the Azerbaijanis were generally very welcoming and helpful. Overall, I definitely wouldn’t recommend a trip exclusively to Azerbaijan, but its worth a stop on a broader trip in the South Caucasus or on the Silk Road.

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Azerbaijan is grouped with Georgia and Armenia as the countries forming the South Caucasus. Yet the country has few historical and cultural similarities with its western neighbours, other than the shared legacy of Soviet influence. While the Georgian and Armenian people have inhabited the region for millennia, the Azeri presence is much more recent. In antiquity, the modern-day lands of Azerbaijan were populated by the mysterious Caucasian Albanians (not associated with the Balkan Albanians), who were Zoroastrians under the Persian Empire and later became Christians. The Armenians contend that the Caucasian Albanians were actually just Armenians, but the Azerbaijanis hotly contest this as it threatens their sovereign claims over areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh. Muslim Turkic tribes from Central Asia, believed to be the ancestors of the Azeri people, arrived in the 10th century and came to dominate the grasslands south of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range, pushing the Albanians into the foothills. However, unlike the Georgians and Armenians of antiquity, the Azeris failed to ever form a unified and distinctly “Azeri” ethnic state. The Azeris were instead divided into khanates, which were mostly controlled by the various incarnations of the Persian Empire. The Safavid dynasty was originally Azeri. In the early 19th century however, the expansionist Russian Empire seized the northern khanates, dividing “South Azerbaijan” and “North Azerbaijan”. The long-term outcome has been the permanent separation of the Azeri people: while 10 million live in the modern-day and independent Republic of Azerbaijan (more than Georgia and Armenia combined), 20 million live within the northwestern provinces of Iran.

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The Azerbaijanis briefly achieved an independent and progressive (first democratic country in the Islamic world) republic after the Russian Revolution, but it was quickly swept into the Soviet sphere. When independence was again established in 1991, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bitter war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite a much larger population and economy, the Azerbaijanis were defeated humiliatingly and lost additional lands outside the contested region. The war never officially concluded, so the national psyche (at least at a governmental level) is very much geared towards utter hatred of the Armenians (the evil arbiters of any misfortune befalling the nation) – and potential reconquest. The borders are closed and the Azerbaijanis have enlisted their Turkish brothers (the Azerbaijani language is basically just a dialect of Turkish) to enforce further pressure and isolate the Armenians. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is very much ambitiously planning for the future, inspired more so by their intended destiny than traditions of the past. Azerbaijan, a Shia Muslim nation, has not experienced a post-Soviet religious revival like Georgia and Armenia, and ranks among the 10 least religious countries in the world. The government wants to position Azerbaijan as the critical frontier between Europe and Asia, although competing in UEFA and Eurovision isn’t fooling me: Azerbaijan is definitively part of West Asia. The authoritarian regime of the Aliyev dynasty has controlled Azerbaijan for nearly 3 decades, curtailing freedom of the press and instituting corruption – certainly analogous of West Asian republics than European democracies.

“Border crossing day” is always a dreaded experience when developing countries are involved. Excluding air arrivals and tour groups, I’ve crossed international borders outside of Europe only 9 times; and each one of those days was highly stressful and unenjoyable. Crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan was certainly no exception. The problem was that I was attempting to travel between two small cities, Telavi and Sheki. Although both are relatively close to the border, the transport systems in the Caucasus are so heavily anchored around the three capitals that such an endeavour was bound to be complicated and irritating. I departed the guesthouse at 7:30am, anticipating that I may struggle to arrive before sunset for what could have been just a three hour drive. I was lucky to board a marshrutka (shared taxi) immediately upon arrival at the bus terminal and surprisingly avoid the to need to change marshrutka to access the Georgian border. Aside from some stressfully long and unexplained breaks, this component of the journey went ahead of schedule. I caught a taxi to the border and walked to Azerbaijan, where I was greeted by some very welcoming border guards – perhaps a little surprised to encounter a solo traveller with no onward transport! Once past customs, I was swarmed by taxi drivers, all attempting to rip the helpless Western man off. I insisted not to be driven directly to Sheki and instead be deposited at the nearest town, where I expected I would need to take a bus to another town for a marshrutka to Sheki. At the bus terminal though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover from the locals, in their broken English, that a Sheki minivan should be leaving in the afternoon. So I waited. And waited. With no actual awareness for when this promised minivan would arrive. The Azerbaijani men at the bus terminal were clearly unused to Westerners and I think they found my agitation to leave befuddling. Since one of them, quite a large man with a maniacal glint in his eye, kept showing me videos of President Putin and of Russians or Azerbaijanis defeating supposedly famous Westerner pro fighters of some sort (as if I was expected to be so intellectually and culturally baseless to follow the “sport” and know who they were), I wouldn’t say I was in a mood to relax. They did provide me with free tea though, so perhaps I was just paranoid. When the Sheki minivan arrived (which I was beginning to think didn’t exist) and finally departed at 2:00pm, I was very much relieved.

Sheki is regarded as Azerbaijan’s prettiest and most historic town, which was a rather sad indication that the country didn’t have a lot to offer. Its not that Sheki isn’t attractive and interesting, perhaps even quaint, is just that I would attach “mildly” to each descriptor. When I arrived in Sheki, I was a little perplexed why residents of a town touted as a “tourist destination” seemed to exhibit surprise at the presence of a Westerner backpacker. Perhaps they were admiring my striking handsomeness (or unkemptness after 3 months of backpacking), because I never ascertained an explanation – other tourists were present, though few and far between. Sheki was once the capital of a northern Azeri khanate and functioned as an important trading centre between Baku, Tbilisi and Dagestan in southern Russia. The historic area of Sheki feels like it is just a sleepy, forgotten suburb of an otherwise bustling town, surround by hills of deciduous trees on two sides. The crumbling walls of the fortress enclose an unusually sparse precinct of wide cobblestone streets, lawns and occasional buildings. The only structure of interest is the Xan Sarayi, the administrative building of the Sheki Khans. The palace is intricately decorated externally and internally, although it only consists of a small collection of rooms. Just outside the fortress is an excellently preserved caravansarai with its courtyard of arcades, where traders would stay overnight with theirs horses or camels. A stream cascades from the historic area to the modern commercial centre, passing brick souvenir and halva shops en route. The characterful and lush central square thrives with locals sipping tea on outdoor stools. One particular teahouse in the square seems to be the sanctuary for Westerners in Sheki, a grandiose building with plenty of outdoor tables in the garden. I spent many hours dining on Azerbaijani specialties, indulging in full tea sets, reading about Azerbaijani history and culture and writing damn Globo Trip entries there; it was where I gradually became endeared to the provincial town atmosphere of Sheki.

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The gleaming capital of Azerbaijan, easily the largest city in the Caucasus, is a totally different beast to Sheki. Clearly, the government is using oil money to convey that Baku is anything but “provincial”. It even feels like they’re trying to re-write history, as Baku’s old town is over-restored and over-hyped, as if it were formerly the capital of a great empire. However, Baku was merely the capital of an Azeri khanate (so, provincial) that was mostly controlled by Central Asian, Persian or Russian empires since its founding. The old town is certainly pleasant to meander through though, albeit briefly, with its crenellated walls, sandstone mansions, domes of the Palace of Shirvanshahs (I decided they were probably overrating the architecture of the complex with a hefty entrance price, so I didn’t bother visiting) and boutique attractions (museum of the world’s largest collection of miniature books!).

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The old town is surrounded by squares and pedestrianised boulevards of beautiful 19th century French-style apartment buildings, mimicking the streets of Paris. When new uses for crude oil were discovered and extraction was deregulated by the Russian Empire in 1872, Baku boomed economically as it came to supply half the world’s oil supply; forever changing the identity of this former Caspian backwater. The city’s population exploded beyond the city walls, and the wave of migrants and oil barons desired the creation of a sophisticated, modern European-style city. The arrival of communism halted all such commercial development, although Baku remained the key supplier of oil for the Soviet Union until after World War II. Aside from Moscow and defeating communism, Baku was of course Hitler’s primary target in the invasion of the Soviet Union to secure a reliable source of oil for the Third Reich. But the Nazis were famously halted at the bloodiest battle in history: the Battle of Stalingrad.

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The reopening of foreign investment after independence and the contemporary boom are essentially conjuring the same demands of decadence as the initial boom. The 19th century buildings are now the abode of every mainstream Western brand imaginable, from high-street to high-end. The drab Soviet-era blocks are gradually being replaced by comfortable apartment buildings. Baku’s promenade on the Caspian Sea brilliantly exhibits the extravagant wealth generated by the boom, with astonishing post-modernist edifices such as the Flame Towers. The structures of a trio of sinuous steel-and-glass literally resemble flames and can be easily viewed from anywhere along the expansive waterfront. At night, the towers are transformed by a dynamic light show, transitioning the facades from yellow and orange flames to trickling water to the Azerbaijani flag. Very impressive – but just don’t look in the opposite direction. The Caspian Sea itself is probably the most disturbing body of water I have ever witnessed, other than lavatories in Chinese train stations. The murky grey water glistens with rainbows, indicative of leaked oil. Indeed, not far from the centre of Baku are fields of 19th century oil drills, a bizarre sight to see. Massive operational oil rigs are not far offshore.

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Despite the rapid modernisation and race to the future, traces of traditional Middle Eastern culture still exist in Baku, particularly the further you are from the centre. Underground and rooftop teahouses with shisha pipes abound throughout the city. A large produce market exists where apparently the presence of a Westerner is usually due to interest in purchasing caviar (apparently a specialty of the Caspian Sea). I was much more content with buying raspberries from a characterfully wrinkly old lady (who duped me into buying 1 kilo!).

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A number of “must-see” tourist attractions are located on the outskirts of Baku’s metropolitan area, so I hopped on a day tour to scoop them up in one go. I was joined notably by several Filipino tourists, surprisingly numerous in Baku (I wouldn’t say Filipino is a nationality I typically encounter on the road). Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos work in the hospitality industry in the Gulf States, high in demand due to their English language skills and generally amiable nature. And I can certainly vouch for how incredibly friendly Filipinos are; Filipino friends Fye and Vince even invited me to the Four Seasons where they were staying to check out the pool, spa and sauna! We departed south from Baku in the early morning, bound south for a rather intriguing natural phenomenon. In a dusty wasteland off the highway, we approached a bizarre mound of gurgling mud volcanoes. The volcanoes ooze greyish mud and “fart” every few minutes. Next to the World Heritage listed petroglyph reserve at Qobustan. Granite boulders on a hilltop overlooking the Caspian Sea feature numerous scratchings of animals and people dating back 12,000 years. After an enormous Azerbaijani buffet for lunch, we travelled to the Suraxani Fire Temple on the Abseron Peninsula, the site of both Zoroastrian and Hindu Shiva devotees (fire is sacred to both). Zoroastrianism is monotheistic and one of oldest surviving religions in the world (Freddie Mercury was a Zoroastrian), which possibly inspired the creation of the Abrahamic religions. It was the state religion of the Persian empires prior to Islam. Suruxani is located on the site of an ancient Zoroastrian temple, though the modern stone compound was built by Hindu pilgrims in the 18th century. The temple consists of a flaming hearth at the centre. In the early evening, we travelled to Yanar Dag, where a 10m strip of flames on a slope have burned since the 1950s, when a farmer dropped his cigarette butt into a gas leak.

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Azerbaijani cuisine is stymied as the worst in the South Caucasus, but actually I thought it was the best! Azerbaijan is essentially a melting pot of Persian, Turkish, Central Asian, Georgian and Russian culinary traditions, so there are ample dishes to sample. After my exhausting border crossing day, I dined on a three-course meal at the aforementioned teahouse in Sheki. I started with piti, the local specialty. Piti consists of a bowl of lamb broth and a chunk of fat, which is mashed together with torn pieces of bread (similar to Turkish bread) and sprinkled with sumac, the tangy seasoning of choice in Azerbaijan. For main I had lulya kebab, which is skewers of spiced lamb mince (basically the same as lule kebab for aficionados of Armenian cuisine) and coban salad (tomatoes, cucumber, sheep’s cheese, common in the Balkans). For dessert, I tried Sheki halva, unique to this mountainous area. Sheki halva is basically compressed and crushed nuts soaking in honey and topped with crispy vermicelli noodles. Returning to the teahouse the following day, I overloaded my body with sugar with another helping of Sheki halva and a full tea set. In Azerbaijan, a tea set usually includes black tea, a basket of bread and a huge bowl of jam. Azerbaijani jams are magnificent, with whole pieces of fruit (i.e. cherry, plum) submerged in a sweet jelly. In Baku, many of the traditional restaurants are located underground, which was where I typically dined as I worked my way through a list of Azerbaijani dishes to sample. My favourite dish was certainly susha gulasi, a sweet and tangy stew of lamb, pomegranate, plums and chestnuts (Persian flavours). Azerbaijan has a plethora of superb soups, including dograma (cold yoghurt and cucumber soup, super refreshing and just like Bulgarian tarator. Not to be confused with dovga, which would be almost the same if not for the ruinous addition of coriander), kufta bozbash (lamb broth with a mega meatball, potatoes, chickpeas and a dried plum – Central Asian), arishta (small meatballs and noodles in a clear broth) and dushbara (petite dumplings swimming in a clear broth – Russian). Qutab is a dirt cheap street-food, with savoury pancakes cooked on a hotplate and stuffed with spinach or meat (like Turkish gozlëmë). The Azerbaijani variant of dolma, popular throughout the Middle East, is the most common main dish in the country, with a trio of vegetables (capsicum, eggplant and tomato typically) stuffed with a rice and meat mixture (somewhat overrated). Saj is another very popular main and is usually shared (which I did not). A high standing hot plate is ornamentally placed at the centre of a table with slices of potatoes, chunks of lamb, tomatoes and vegetables bubbling in oil. Pilaf (South Asian and Persian influence) is venerated as the national dish for celebrations and comes in many guises, though it generally consists of saffron spiced rice with vegetables, dried fruits and meat on the bone. I order king’s pilaf, which is pilaf wrapped and baked in a thin bread. In my exploration of Baku away from the tourist centre, I visited a bustling all-male Uzbek restaurant for very cheap plov (Uzbek pilaf of spiced and oily long-grain rice, carrot and onion) and aryan (yoghurt drink popular in Turkic countries). Gurul khingal is a guiltily delicious, heart-attack on a plate type of meal, with square shaped noodles smothered in yoghurt and spiced fried mince meat.

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My one month trip through the South Caucasus concluded in Baku, as I flew to Hong Kong for a couple of days of feasting on Cantonese delights before returning to Melbourne. In many ways, the South Caucasus reminded me of the Balkans: a region of small countries liberated after the fall of European communism in the early 1990’s, with severe ethno-religious rivalries and deep scars in the national consciousnesses formed by recent warfare. For a traveller interested in history, politics and cultural complexities, the South Caucasus region is definitely worth visiting. Georgia is certainly the highlight country to travel to with the extraordinary landscapes of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range and its dynamic capital of Tbilisi. I would next recommend Armenia, which oozes history (ancient, medieval and recent) and boasts monasteries scattered throughout the pretty countryside. Unfortunately Azerbaijan is considerably less interesting, although Baku should be included on a South Caucasian itinerary to observe the ambition of this oil rich state.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Azerbaijan photos

Posted by Liamps 19:18 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (0)

Armenia

Armenia photos

What immediately comes to mind when Westerners think of Armenia? “The Kardashians!” Inseparable association with an indomitable, but utterly useless, family brand is an egregious affront to the Armenian people, custodians of one of the world’s most remarkable civilisations. Armenians laugh openly at this inevitable connection, but surely weep internally at the lack of awareness and respect for their society. To most, the modern Republic of Armenia is nothing more than a blip on the global map, sandwiched between nations of greater geopolitical significance. Yet the Armenian nation, at least conceptually if not independently, predates almost every other, with a unique assemblage of historic achievements its people are rightly proud of. And it’s the people of Armenia that are today the country’s best assets; warm, welcoming, inquisitive and humorous (all characteristics often lacking in neighbouring Georgia), desperate to be acknowledged and engaged by the outside world. They speak passionately about the history of their people: from the existence of an Armenian Empire in antiquity, to surviving the Armenian Genocide and continued hostile relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. While beautiful vestiges of the country’s heritage have been preserved, it’s discovering the story of the Armenian people that is the constituent appeal of travelling to Armenia, reminding me somewhat of Israel / Palestine and Bosnia in that way.

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Armenia was a late addition to my itinerary, as I realised I would be highly unlikely to ever be in the vicinity again due to the isolation and obscurity of the South Caucasus region. I was very pleased with my decision to reduce my allocated time in Azerbaijan to accommodate 6 days in Armenia – and I’m sure the Armenians would be pleased too considering the economic victim. I opted to travel from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia on one of the much vaunted tours of Envoy Hostels, my accommodation of choice in both cities. I don’t typically engage in sightseeing tours, but I was so impressed by the affordability, convenience and professionalism that I opted to partake in an additional three tours with Envoy. Since Armenia’s primary attractions are Yerevan (the capital) and a collection of historical sites (monasteries) scattered throughout the countryside, I decided the tours would be the easiest method for me to sample Armenia. The guides are a particularly appealing attribute of the tours: young (usually university students), jocular (typically at the expense of Georgians) and passionate about sharing the culture and history of their people. I was intrigued by how relatable they were, even though the circumstances of their homeland are so different to placid realities of the West; they don’t exactly boast neighbourly relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, who would prefer to erase the existence of Armenia (and its people) from the face of the Earth.

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The history of the Armenian people stretches back thousands of years, biblically to the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. Mount Ararat thus defines the identity of the Armenian people, and every second business in the country seems to be named after the sacred landscape. The mountain, easily visible from the hills of Yerevan on a clear day, is truly a stunning sight, with twin, snow-capped massifs (5,165m and 3,925m) of the dormant volcano rising from a flat, arid environment. Mount Ararat is the centre of the traditional lands of the Armenian people, but it is today controlled by the Republic of Turkey, agonisingly just a couple dozen kilometres from the Armenian border. The Republic of Armenia’s contemporary extent, just a slither of the South Caucasuses, belies the historic scale of Armenian society. The modern nation is claimed to represent just Eastern Armenia; the highlands of Western Armenia (including key sites and cities such as Mount Ararat, Lake Van, Ani, Erzurum and Diyarbakir) are now within Turkey and referred to as Eastern Anatolia. The Armenian Empire in the 1st century BC actually extended from the Mediterranean to the Black and Caspian Seas. The subsequent millennia though saw the gradual diminishing of Armenia’s lands and eventual independence with invasions by the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians. Similar to the Jews, the Armenian people thus spread throughout Europe, the Middle East and even India to establish communities wherever they could survive. Again like the Jews, the tragic events of the 20th century resulted in mass migration to Russia and North America. The diaspora is almost twice as large the Republic’s population of 3 million, although the overall number of Armenians (9 million) would probably have been closer to 15 million if not for the Armenian Genocide.

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Aside from Mount Ararat, the three other characteristics fundamental to Armenian identity are language, Christianity and wine; similar to its “friendly” rival Georgia. Armenian is an ancient branch of the Indo-European language family, completely unrelated to other regional languages including Georgian, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Russian. The script is also unique and incomparable to any other major language. Armenians and Georgians equally venerate their mother tongues, though differentiate on their approaches to second languages. While the younger generations of Georgians shun Russian for English due to their disdain for their former communist overlords, Armenians still learn Russian alongside English due to the pragmatic acknowledgement that their country’s continual existence depends very much on the heavy Russian garrisons stationed on the Turkish border. Identical to the Georgians, the Armenians recognise their independent branch of Christianity as essentially analogous to Armenian culture. The Armenian Apostolic Church was established in 301 when the contemporaneous kingdom of Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion (beating the Georgians by 2 decades). The church is separate to Eastern Orthodoxy and part of the Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity, along with the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches (due to some disagreement over whether Jesus’ divine and natural qualities were one and the same or not… so trivial semantics). While a major post-Soviet religious revival has certainly occurred, I did not develop the impression that spiritual motivations caused this (as with the Georgians) as religion doesn’t seem pervasive in the modern lifestyle. I think instead the inferred synonymity of Church and Armenian nationhood is purely to reassert identity. While Armenians do not consume wine as abundantly as Georgians, it still represents an important pillar of Armenian culture. This is especially true since the Armenians contend they invited viticulture, with the oldest traces of wine anywhere in the world found near the wine producing village of Areni. Armenians produce wine from a variety of fruits including pomegranates, which is delicious and recommended (quince wine, however, is not!).

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Almost all historic sites in Armenia are Christian churches, monasteries and cemeteries. Christian architecture in Armenia was heavily influenced by the Byzantine traditions. However, the interiors of Armenian churches are notably austere compared to the gaudily colourful churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. They are also characterised by the prevalence of “umbrella” style domes, rather than onion-shaped domes. The most distinctive element of Armenian Christian architecture are khachkars, listed as intangible cultural heritage by Unesco. Khachkars are stele carved from stone that depict the cross and various decorative motifs (flowers, saints, animals). They are used as gravestones and thus no two khachkars are the same. I visited a field of khachkars in Noratus, near the shores of Lake Sevan. The eerie, windswept cemetery was certainly impressive with hundreds of medieval, metre high khachkars, but too creepy for me to loiter.

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Monasteries are to Armenia what Buddhist temples are to Thailand. Needless to say, one very quickly develops “monastery fatigue” in Armenia (similar to “reading Liam’s blog fatigue”). Nevertheless, the medieval Armenians had a penchant to construct monasteries in spectacular natural settings, so visiting them is an opportunity to admire the country’s landscapes. All up, I visited eight monasteries in six days, most between 800 and 1,100 years old: Haghpat, Sanahin, Geghard, Echmiadzin, Khor Virap, Noravank, Sevanavank and Hayravank. Haghpat and Sanahin are both compounds of pretty stone buildings perched at the top of Debed Canyon with magnificent views of the lush green landscape. Geghard Monastery, the most famous in Armenia, is entirely carved out of rock within a gorge and features astonishing detail considering the required effort. Echmiadzin, a sprawling compound located on the outskirts of Yerevan, is the only still fully functioning monastery I visited and has been the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church (equivalent of the pope) for six centuries. Khor Virap is a petite monastery occupying a hillock within starkly arid plains. The view of Khor Virap with Mount Ararat 25km in the background is probably the most iconic scene in Armenia. Noravank is constructed of a reddish material and surrounded by dramatic ochre red cliffs that create tremendous effects in the late afternoon shadow, similar to the landscapes of Central Australia. Noravank was my favourite monastery in Armenia, despite my visit coinciding with the impending repercussions of food poisoning (regretfully I still participated in the wine and cognac tastings immediately after Noravank). Sevanavank and Hayravank, situated on narrow peninsulas, were the least interesting monasteries I visited (though also the last), but they did provide pleasant views of Lake Sevan.

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Yerevan is one of the oldest capital cities in the world and home to nearly half of Armenia’s population. Since almost the entire country can be accessed on long day-trips from Yerevan, most tourists opt for the simplicity of basing themselves in the city for the duration of their stay. And Yerevan is certainly an amiable city to loiter in, easily my favourite of the three Caucasian capitals. While Yerevan lacks the charming historic architecture of Tbilisi and the modern comforts of Baku, it is also absent of the traffic and general disorderliness of the former and the phoney glitziness of the later. The city isn’t particularly beautiful, as the grid-like urban layout and architecture of the central area predominately date to the Soviet era (few vestiges survive of the 27 centuries of existence prior to the communist dictatorship). Yet Yerevan is a green city of parks, treelined boulevards and spacious civic squares that provide respite from the hustle and bustle. The city feels very much Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, rather than Eastern European, with teahouses, outdoor dining areas and shisha bars ubiquitous.

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Scant “must-see” attractions exist in Yerevan, yet the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum is absolutely unmissable. The site, similar to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, commemorates the victims of the Ottoman atrocities and details the horrific story of the Western Armenians. In the 19th century, the Armenian provinces were split between the empires of Tsarist Russia (east) and Ottoman Turkey (west), bitter adversaries. Armenians accounted for approximately 20% of the Ottoman population of 17 million in 1900. While most lived in the Armenian highlands, a sizeable community of 300,000 resided in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. Ottoman Armenians were a particularly educated demographic of society and successful at business, and as such constituted a significant portion of the Ottoman bureaucracy. However, the Ottomans became increasingly paranoid of collaboration between their Armenian subjects and the Russians because of their shared Christianity, and gradually eroded their status and rights.

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The authorities responded to protests in 1896 by massacring 300,000 Armenians. During World War One, the “Young Turks”, a political party that had seized power in the Ottoman Empire, utilised the Armenians as scapegoats for a failing war effort. Between 1915 – 1922, at least 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or deported to the Syrian desert to die, in an effort to rid the empire of Armenians. Western observers reported the most heinous of crimes being committed by the Ottomans. Many military officers of the German Empire, allies of the Ottoman Empire, visited Armenian concentration camps and later became leading Nazis that instituted the Holocaust. Even with the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the consequent security of their eastern front, the Ottomans maliciously pursued the annihilation of the Armenian race. The newly independent Republic of Armenia, formed from the provinces controlled by the Russian Empire, was the next target. After utterly decimating towns and villages of Western Armenia, the Ottomans surged towards Yerevan. Miraculously, the Armenians defended their new capital. US President Woodrow Wilson was responsible for establishing the final demarcation lines, yet failed to provide international military support. Ataturk, leader of post-imperial Turkey, offered peace to Lenin in exchange for the Soviet Union to allow the seizure of half the Republic of Armenia’s lands. Western Armenia was thus lost: the permanent tragedy for the Armenian people.

What happened to the Armenians undoubtedly constituted the first genocide of the 20th century. Yet the term “Armenian Genocide” is controversial as the Turkish strenuously deny that Ottoman authorities issued official decrees for extermination, with some even suggesting the massacres did not occur. Due to the geopolitical significance of the Republic of Turkey, only a couple dozen countries recognise the term Armenian Genocide; the United States, Russia, United Kingdom and Australia have failed to do so. Political leaders who have used the term Armenian Genocide are honoured with a pine tree planted in front of the Memorial. Quite rightfully, the Holocaust is remembered internationally as one of the most barbarous acts ever perpetrated in human history. But how can the suffering of the Armenian people be swept under the (Turkish) carpet? The lamentably inadequate awareness and knowledge for the Armenian Genocide, particularly in the West, is a gross miscarriage of justice. Even today, Armenians live with the fear that if the prevailing international order collapsed, the Turkish would unflinchingly eviscerate their people and country.

The hard-fought independence of Armenia in 1918 lasted only 3 years as the Bolsheviks rolled in, established the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and commenced 7 decades of oppressive rule. Armenia became a key research, technology and manufacturing centre of the Soviet empire, which is evident in the innumerable derelict industrial sites scattered throughout the countryside. On my journey from Tbilisi to Yerevan through the Debed Canyon, we passed by a particularly offensive visual site of a partially decommissioned copper smelting plant dominating one side of the valley. Aside from a few operating smelters that exhaust vile smoke into the canyon, the precinct is mostly abandoned, crumbling and emanating a post-apocalyptic appearance. It reminded me somewhat of a location used in the film Skyfall, when James Bond travels to an abandoned industrial island in the ocean to confront the baddies. While life under the communist regime was harsh and restrictive, the enormous distance from Moscow perhaps allowed the Armenians to maintain a sense of independent identity and freedom of expression. During the latter decades of Soviet rule, an anonymous radio broadcast would poke fun at the communist regime, to the immense delight of Armenian listeners.

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The best tour conducted by Envoy Hostel is the Soviet Tour of Yerevan, notably not offered by the more commercialised travel agencies. Our enthusiastic guide channelled the comrade spirit as we were transported around the city in a Lada, a classic Soviet-era van of questionable quality. We commenced the tour in Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square), perhaps one of the few aesthetically pleasing contributions the Soviets made to the urban fabric of Yerevan. The square is surrounded by pink stone Stalinist-style (neoclassical and monumental) buildings, decorated with Armenian motifs. The most grandiose of the Stalinist-era structures is the Yerevan Train Station, which features a beautiful marble interior and and a huge spire, replete with the communist sickle and hammer (apparently too high to dismantle). We travelled from central Yerevan to the outer areas via the Yerevan Metro. In the Soviet Union, when the populations of cities reached 1 million, they were granted funding by central government to construct metro systems. In the 1970s, Caucasian rivals Tbilisi and Baku achieved the criteria, instilling jealousy in the Armenians. The leader of Soviet Armenia decided to play a trick on Leonid Brezhnov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, when he visited the city. He secretly arranged for Armenians in the countryside to drive into Yerevan for the day to create artificially appalling traffic congestion. Brezhnov, disgusted by the traffic, immediately authorised the construction of a metro system. Or at least that’s how Armenians like to recount it, out-fooling the Soviets. The outer suburbs of Yerevan are littered with abandoned Soviet industrial installations and dilapidated block towers, that reek of a general disregard for human liveability. However, the locals have converted a disused warehouse into a thriving produce market, trading staples of Armenian agriculture out of the trunks of their cars and vans including pomegranates, plums, walnuts, grapes and dried fruits– especially beloved apricots (the Republic’s flag is red, blue and orange: red for the enormous bloodshed suffered by the Armenian people; blue for the perpetually clear skies they live under; and orange for the apricots). We visited a cluster of apartment buildings that were designed to read as “CCCP” (equivalent acronym for the USSR in Cyrillic) from the air. However, the Soviets failed to complete their project, with one “C” missing and another unfinished; representative perhaps of the shoddiness of the communist system.

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Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) resulted in Armenians demanding independence, which achieved in 1991. While liberation and freedom for the Armenian people had finally been obtained, the new republic faced immediate threats in the early 1990s. The Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought a bitter war for Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that had been within Soviet Azerbaijan but with a majority ethnic Armenian population. Borders and relations with neighbouring Turkey were closed, Georgia remained neutral and without direct geographical contact with Russia, Armenia was essentially isolated and facing dwindling resources ( gas shortages were frequent throughout the decade). Furthermore, the economy was in free-fall. Yet despite numerical and financial disadvantages, the Armenians successfully pushed the Azerbaijanis out of the region and formed a de facto independent state, the Republic of Artsakh. Armenia obtained the critical support of Iran, who were threatened by their fellow Shia Islam republic’s suspected aspirations to create a “Greater Azerbaijan” and cleave away the north-western Iranian provinces. The modern-day Republic of Armenia thus enjoys the rare diplomatic distinction of excellent relations with Iran, Russia (their traditional protectors against the Turks) and the United States, keen to assist countries with transitions from command to market oriented economies in strategic regions. The war never officially concluded (like Korea), so animosity with the Azerbaijanis and Turks still define the national psyche. Yet Armenia’s most troublesome days seem to be over, as the country rebuilds and embraces the cosmopolitanism (particularly Yerevan) of the twenty-first century.

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The modern-day Republic of Armenia essentially consists of two cuisines: Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian (due to immigration). Their unfortunate commonality is the ruination of all dishes with coriander garnishes. Eastern Armenian is influenced by Russian, Georgian and Central Asian kitchens. Khoravats is venerated as undoubtedly the national dish and speciality of Eastern Armenian, forming the cornerstone of all gatherings and celebrations. Khorovats is essentially a unique form of barbecuing copious amounts of meat, which is typically pork. Soups are an integral component of Eastern Armenian, with borsht and bozbash especially popular. Armenian borscht is served hot and cooked with beef stock, cabbage, vegetables and occasionally beetroots. Bozbash is a thick, fatty and sour soup of lamb lard, chickpeas, potatoes and dried fruits - surprisingly very tasty! On the countryside tours with Envoy Hostels, we were privileged to enjoy traditional Armenian feasts at local households, rather than the cavernous restaurants catering for tourist buses. We enjoyed enormous spreads of salads (oily eggplant salads were notably delicious), grilled vegetables (eggplant!), Armenian cheeses, khorovats, harissa and lavash. Harissa is basically a savoury porridge consisting of korkot (cracked wheat) and a fatty meat such as chicken, which takes an enormous amount if time to cook but is a cherished component of an Armenian spread. Lavash is the traditional bread of Armenia, a thin unleavened bread cooked in an oven similar to a tandoor. Western Armenian cuisine delightfully resembles the food of Anatolia and the Levant. Think hummus (!), babaganouj, tabbouleh, dolma (stuffed vine leaves, usually with meat), grilled meats (kebabs), lahmajoon (thin pizzas with mince meat and spices) and baklava. Particular specialties of Western Armenian cuisine include a spiced kofta known as lule kebab and mante, which are small dumplings topped in a rich tomato sauce and garlic yoghurt - belissimo!

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Travelling to Armenia was a stark reminder of the incredible privilege of being born white Australian. In just the past century, the Armenian people have suffered through ethnic Genocide, unsolicited incorporation into a regressive communist empire, severe economic stagnation, warfare to liberate historical territories and hostile neighbourly relations; none of which Australians of Anglo heritage can have any appreciation of. Yet despite their somber past, the Armenians are genuinely bubbly and hospitable people, making any trip to the country highly educational and enjoyable.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Armenia photos

Posted by Liamps 19:06 Archived in Armenia Comments (0)

Kazbegi and Kakheti

Georgia photos

The final few days of my time in Georgia were spent in Kazbegi and Telavi pursuing two radically contrasting activities. I returned to the Great Caucasus Mountain Range to hike on the slopes of Mount Kazbek, a dormant volcano famed for its snow-capped cone and picturesque church perched on top of a hillock. I intended to complete an exhausting though technically straightforward 8-hour return hike to a spectacular viewpoint below the summit of Mount Kazbek and adjacent one of its glacial tongues. “Spectacular” views were certainly in order, though “perilous”, “off-the-beaten-track” (literally) and “lucky” equally defined my (mis)adventure. Spooked to the core by the ordeal on Mount Kazbek, I was relieved to descend to the lowlands and indulge in the hedonistic pleasures of Georgia’s Wine Country. Staying in Telavi was a peaceful end to my journey in Georgia, as I was educated about the nation’s most prized product.

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Kazbegi is located on the unnervingly named Georgian Military Highway, which is the primary thoroughfare that slices through the Great Caucasus Mountain Range connecting Georgia to the Russian Federation. Until I journeyed to Kazbegi by shared taxi, I was yet to experience the almost cherished reputation Georgians have as some of the worst drivers in the world. My driver, evidently, wanted to rectify that situation. With a level of absolute reckless abandonment I had never previously witnessed behind a wheel, my driver nonchalantly clocked 150km/hr on windy, mountainous roads. His deluded and selfishly risky overtaking manoeuvres routinely occurred at locations with insufficient sightlines, on a road plied by flotillas of heavy vehicles bound for Tbilisi or Moscow. Nevertheless and somewhat surprisingly, we arrived safely in Kazbegi in the early afternoon. Kazbegi is visited by many tourists on very long day trips from Tbilisi, intent on photographing Georgia’s most iconic image of Tsminda Sameba Church in the foreground of the megalithic Mount Kazbek. After the tourist hordes leave in the afternoon, Kazbegi is a quaint Georgian village utterly humbled by the dramatic, barren cliffs it is surrounded by. With excellent hiking in the area, I opted to check-in to a local hostel to stay for a couple of nights. I met a bunch of interesting characters at the hostel, including German friends Ida, Inga and Marina, who I travelled with for a few days.

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With the threat of unsavoury weather and mindful of the early evening darkness, I departed my hostel at 9:00am in order to safely complete an up-and-back hike to a viewpoint of Mount Kazbek’s icy peak. The first section was along a steep and rocky but very well-trodden trail to Tsminda Sameba Church in the cold, early morning shadow of Mount Kazbek. The church is pretty enough, but grossly overrun predominately by Eastern Orthodox religious tourists, so I didn’t loiter. I continued up the gruellingly steep trail past grazing horses and straggling hikers, satisfied with my pace but surprised by the seemingly slow progress. At 1:00pm, I arrived at a plateau with phenomenal views of the cone and a glacial tongue, replete with a pretty waterfall.

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After luncheoning in this spot, I continued on the trail… or at least what I thought was the correct trail as I followed two hikers ahead of me. I was surprised and a little uneasy that I was thrice required to leap over gaps in the rock (I still shudder to write about this!), but I persevered; driven by a relentless desire to achieve ever more spectacular views of the landscape. The trail mostly disappeared, as I was confronted by an imposing slope of scree. Yet the hikers ahead of me showed no signs of abating, and with intermittent cairns loosely marking the route, I foolishly scrambled further up. Eventually, the two hikers stopped and waited for me to catch up. They explained how their GPS suggested that we had somehow gone off trail, and that we actually should have been close to the glacier we were now high above. We hiked a little further up to a vantage point to survey the situation. We were surprised to find our ascent blocked by a tuft of slippery ice jutting out of the scree. It was at this point that we finally turned around and noticed innumerable ice faces glistening in the sunlight.

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For 45 minutes, I had unwittingly hiked on a glacier completely obscured by scree – at least in one direction. Looking downwards, it was much clearer that I found myself in a totally inappropriate environment for me to be scrambling over. The gaps I had previously jumped over were obviously ice crevices. After a long summer on a blazing summer day, any footstep I took on the scree could easily have been on a gap in the ice. I’ve experienced plenty of prickly encounters while travelling, but this was the first time I felt like I was in a genuinely dangerous situation. The other two hikers decided to tread across to the exposed glacier and descend directly on the ice. Choosing between two appalling options, I preferred to utilise the route I had just taken. The cairns became much more difficult to spot though, as they were no longer against the blue sky. I definitely lost the “trail” I had taken on the ascent, but miraculously made it off the glacier and onto the much more sturdy main trail after an absolutely harrowing 45 minute ordeal. If there are any deities in existence, I was most certainly grateful in that moment. Since I only had 2.5 hours left of daylight, I hiked down the mountain in frenetic style and jogged where possible, desperate to pack away my boots permanently for this trip. I returned to the hostel at 6:30pm, where an experienced French trekker informed me that a couple of Polish tourists had died on the slopes recently. He said that in Western Europe, such an environment would definitely be closed to hikers after the summer heat. Quite a stressful adventure… worth the story though?

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I cut my time in the mountains understandably short and travelled with Germans Ida, Iva and Marina (I did have some difficulties at first differentiating their names!) to Telavi, the beating heart of Kakheti. Kakheti is one of the historic regions of Georgia, fabled as the nation’s most important wine-producing territory. Since wine is utterly synonymous with Georgian culture (viticulture originated in the Caucasuses… the age old debate though is whether the Georgians or Armenians invented it), I decided that Kakheti was an obligatory destination of an extended visit to the country.

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Although only 200km apart, the journey from Kazbegi to Telavi was frustratingly arduous and convoluted as we needed to transfer through Tbilisi. After arriving in Telavi in the late afternoon, we spent an hour attempting to locate our remarkably cheap Airbnb apartment. Once the apartment was finally located through employing the assistance of a cavalcade of locals, it was debatable whether there was any “value” in the basement level prices. At risk of sounding pretentious, the newly opened Airbnb was clearly established with minimal understanding of Western expectations. Hidden within a ground level corner of a forlorn building, the narrow apartment consisted of 2 steel bunks with remarkably springy bases, walls of papier-mâché and a tiny bathroom with a squat-toilet and a cold water shower head literally above it. Needless to say, no one in the group was terribly impressed, although there were varying degrees of dejection. We took solace at least in our prominent view of the courtyard – strewn with weeds, rubbish and disused furniture. We resolved to drink so much of the local nectar that night that our standards would be completely numbed! Many bottles of wine and shots of chacha later, our objective was achieved.

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We visited Shumi, a small winery just outside of Telavi, to learn about and sample Georgia’s foremost passion. The winery features old relics of Georgian wine production, displays for Georgia’s unique production method, and very quirky, almost whimsical garden to taste the offerings. The Georgians claim vociferously that their ancestors were the first people to produce wine, and indeed traces have been found in Georgia that date back at least 8,000 years. Today, a quarter of the world’s 2,000 species of grapes are Georgian. The traditional method of production has remained essentially unchanged throughout this period. Georgians ferment the grape juice along with the skins, pips and even stalks in large clay urns called qvevri, which are buried in the ground. Due to the presence of skins, “white” wines tend to take on an amber colour. Puritans favour qvevri wine, as it does not contain the additives common in wines today (such as yeast or sugar). While qvevri wine is still produced by thousands of families (many households, including the guesthouse we stayed at on our second night in Telavi, produce their own wine in their backyards and sheds), European-style wines now dominate the market because of the method required is more conducive to mass production. Consequently, qvevri wines are not generally exported, so it is a real privilege to be able to sample them in Georgia. I am no wine aficionado, but they certainly taste very different to European-style wines. Semi-sweet red wines made from saperavi grapes were my drink of choice in Georgia; typically, fruity and robustly flavourful. With white wine drinking Germans Ida, Iva and Marina, we generally stuck to drinking Tsinandali, a white speciality of the Telavi region.

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Georgian cuisine continued to impress in Kazbegi and Telavi, as I focused on sampling traditional specialties I had yet to tick off. I particularly enjoyed ojakhuri, a favourite of any animal flesh aficionado, which consists of veal, potatoes and tomatoes served on a sizzling plate bathed in oil. Georgia also boasts a plethora of delicious stews, including shkmeruli, chakapuli and ostri. Shkmeruli is basically chicken swimming in garlic. Chakapuli consists of veal in a tomato, plum and tarragon sauce, although mine was unfortunately spoiled by the presence of coriander. Ostri, a rich and spicy tomato based beef stew, certainly hit the spot after my frightful episode on the mountain; pure comfort food. Spicy fried potatoes are ubiquitously popular throughout Georgia. They are best accompanied by tqmeli, a deletable and chunky plum sauce (more like a chutney) that comes either green (tangy) or red (sweetish). So much better than fries with tomato sauce. On my final night in Georgia, I finally located a dish I desperately wanted to try: grilled trout pomegranate sauce. The trout itself was rather average, but the tangy sauce was really spectacular.

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While the other countries of the South Caucasus have their appeals, Georgia is clearly the premium destination in the region. I spent 17 days in Georgia, more than half my time in the Caucasuses, yet I was still forced to skip many intriguing sites. Georgia boasts some of the most incredible mountain landscapes I have ever seen, a fascinating and underrated capital city, a rich cultural heritage and unique cuisine. Georgia definitely has the flavour of being the next “it” destination like Sri Lanka or Cuba, so be quick!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Georgia photos

Posted by Liamps 21:43 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Svaneti

Georgia photos

Undoubtedly the highlight experience of my 1 month travels in the Caucasus countries was trekking in Svaneti. The isolated region is located in northwestern Georgia within the Great Caucasus Mountain Range, which extends from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and forms an almost impenetrable barrier between Russia (Europe) and the Middle East (Asia). The peaks in the Great Caucasus easily exceed the Alps, with Mt Elbrus in southern Russia the highest in Europe (5,642m). Georgia’s identity is inextricably linked with the mountains, which dominate the entire northern length of the country. This is particularly relevant for Svaneti, as the mountainous landscape has instigated the development and preservation of a unique culture, architecture and unwritten language that is unintelligible with Georgian. While tourism in the region is relatively new, Svaneti is no longer off the beaten track: after Tbilisi and day-trips from the capital, the four-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli is the next most obvious destination for travellers to Georgia. The trek is relatively easy, as you stay and eat at guesthouses (considerably lightening the load required to carry) and only spend 3-6 hours on the trail each day (if you possess a modicum of fitness). It was probably my favourite multi-day trek I have ever done, because of the phenomenal scenery and social atmosphere.

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I caught an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi for time efficiency, meeting Israeli Inbal and Australian Alicia en route to the station. Coincidentally, Inbal and I were allocated adjacent upper berths in a 4-person compartment, which was fortunate because our Georgian roommates were unable to communicate in English. While the family of 4 slept on the lower berths and had various relatives visiting throughout, Inbal and I discussed our life stories and complained about the ailments of the Soviet-era train. We rendezvoused with Alicia when we arrived at Zugdidi in the early morning and caught a mashrutka (shared minivans – the constituent form of public transport in the Caucasus) to Mestia. Meeting Alicia was a touch nostalgic, as she has taken a gap year between her Bachelor and Master degrees at the University of Melbourne to travel the world at the age of 21 – which is exactly what I did in 2013!

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Mestia is the de facto capital of Svaneti and is surprisingly brimming with guesthouses and restaurants. Its incredible location surrounded by pine forested mountains and the presence of Svaneti’s idiosyncratic stone towers throughout the town has ensured that Mestia retains its charms despite the development boom. The stone towers, some of which are up to 6 storeys high, were originally constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries as a defence mechanism for the local population. Hundreds remarkably survive and are scattered throughout Svaneti’s villages and valleys, representing the most fascinating vernacular architecture I’ve ever seen in a rural setting. After a bombastic museum guide conducted a bizarre explanatory session of the elements and purposes of a traditional Svan household by manically spitting English phrases at the group, I climbed to the top of one of the towers, albeit with some difficulty due to the constrained heights.

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To warm up for the 4-day trek, I hiked up a slope adjacent Mestia along a route cleared for a cable-car installation (catering for wintertime skiers) as the lady at the tourist information centre promised magnificent views at the top. After traversing the steep terrain for over 2 hours, I reached the end of the cable-car… only to notice another cable-car to a higher summit. I realised then that the unhelpful lady had neglected to mention that I needed to catch a taxi to the start of the second cable-car and then hike up. Since I was still below the treeline, I wasn’t able to enjoy totally unobstructed views of Mestia, but in the fading hours of the day I needed to descend. I decided to take a different trail to back to Mestia, as the trail below the cable-car was treacherously steep and the road for vehicular traffic was too convoluted. However, my trail abruptly ended in the forest, forcing me scramble through the bush, follow farm fences, jump said fences and generally travel in a downward direction. Although I incurred numerous scratches, I successfully returned to Mestia before darkness and thankfully without inciting the wrath of any guard dogs. When darkness did arrive in Mestia, I was very satisfied to have booked one of the only guesthouses with an electricity generator. The power was out in Mestia all night, ruining many travellers’ preparations for the trek to Ushguli (but importantly not me!).

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I commenced the trek in brilliant sunshine, the first of several consecutive days of astonishingly dry weather (storms were forecasted). I departed Mestia in the late morning a couple of hours after Inbal and Alicia, so the plan was for me to hike at a rambunctious pace and catch up in the afternoon. That objective was immediately thwarted as I met a lovely, though slowish Israeli couple and was obliged to hike with them for most of the day to avoid appearing rude. I was amazed by how many Israelis were trekking from Mestia to Ushguli; more than every other nationality combined. It was Israel’s summer holiday season (late September, strangely) and apparently Georgia is firmly on the country’s travel destination list. The trail started with a minor ascent through pleasant grasslands and deciduous forest. When we reached a clearing, we enjoyed fantastic views of snow-capped mountains, including the twin peaks of Ushba. Most of the afternoon was spent hiking at a consistent level with clear views of the farms and tiny villages in the valley below. We stopped at a small household on the trail and drank beer (well, just me) in a cute garden below a stone tower. With the imminent threat of rain, I powered on from the Israeli couple when we descended to the valley floor (never to speak with them again). I eventually arrived in what I thought was Zhabeshi, the typical endpoint of day 1, and was ushered into a guesthouse. The household consisted of 3 generations of non-English speakers, including the family patriarch who was very enthusiastic about my arrival. I was treated to khachapuri for afternoon tea, which is bread baked with a humungous amount of salty white cheese. The patriarch decided that it was an opportune time to whip out his homemade cha-cha, which is Georgia’s beloved liquor produced from grapes and with 40-70% alcohol. After 4 shots were imposed on me (as a 6’3 young male, it would be rude culturally if I didn’t accept these offers, annoyingly), I stumbled out of the household in search of Inbal and Alicia, quickly realising I was drunk by 5:00pm. A young kid cycled up to me and began chatting in decent English, as we walked past his school, apple orchards and small paddocks. He led me to Inbal and Alicia’s guesthouse in the next village… which was actually the he real Zhabeshi! Inbal announced that she would be returning to Mestia the following day, so the plan became for me to met up with just Alicia in the morning and hike with 2 other Israelis (!) staying at their guesthouse. I returned to my guesthouse for dinner… even more khachapuri with tomato, cucumber, buckwheat and plain bread. The patriarch exploited my presence in the dining room by pouring us another 3 shots… I was completely blotto by 7:30pm, giving me no choice but to retire to bed!

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After struggling to stomach yet another enormous khachapuri in the morning, with cucumber, tomato, buckwheat and plain bread on the side (hmmm haven’t we been here before?), I departed the guesthouse much later than intended. The patriarch insisted that I take a shortcut up the mountain and skip Zhabeshi, which in the absence of a common language I had to comply with in order to avoid offence. I reasoned that Alicia would’ve already left and I’d catch up to her on the trail. The route for day 2 to Adishi was very short at just over 10km, although it was predominately uphill. Since rain was expected, I decided to hike very quickly and dispense of all politeness when I inevitably caught people on the ascent – no time for chit-chat. The scenery was splendid as the forests I hiked through, at higher altitude than the previous day, radiated autumnal colours in the morning dew. Within short time, I was overtaking people on the trail, including a trio of Israeli navy operators who failed to demonstrate hiking etiquette by neglecting to stop on the side to let me pass (and thus became my enemies through to Ushguli). I decided to start counting the number of people I passed for the day and clocked off at 18*.

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However, Number 17 and 18 admirably caught back up, perhaps motivated to listen to my tunes playing on Spotify or recognising that I’d be a top bloke to hang out with for the rest of the week. Since we were approaching Adishi, I decided to let Number 17 and 18, otherwise known as British Helen and British Joe, enjoy their achievement as we hiked into the village together. Helen and Jo were on the second leg of a 5 month trip, which would later impressively include a 5 country swing through West Africa. We arrived at an astonishingly early time of 12:15pm, driven by our shared desire to avoid the afternoon rain (which never came). Fortunately, the discovery of a “bar” (essentially just a shack with a table and chairs on the lawn outside) above the village placated our fears of boredom for the afternoon. Adishi clings to the slope of a high valley and is inaccessible by road. The tiny village has suffered numerous natural disasters in its history (landslides), resulting in its abandonment. Families only returned to the village in the last 5 years to cater for the sudden boom in tourism. The villagers mostly leave Adishi in the winter months for the lowlands, although some stay to protect the structures from the enormous snowfall that occurs. The village features numerous crumbling stone towers, creating superb views of Adishi with forest on the opposite slope. We aboded in a guesthouse with lovely views of the valley, hosts that spoke English, hot showers and Wifi! We met Israeli Ada, another inspiring youth on the trail who at 19 was travelling through Georgia for a month solo and had already completed a couple much tougher treks. His 2 hour conquest of the Zhabeshi to Adishi section made our effort seem glacial. Alicia soon wandered into our guesthouse (we strangely didn’t cross paths), completing our crew for the next 4 days. The Israeli sailors eventually dawdled in too and commented to me, in a somewhat condescending tone, that I appeared to be “in a hurry” on the trail and that they were just enjoying “taking their time”. No doubt they were trying to save face, since they’re supposed to be elite physical specimens after 10 years in the military; but the truth is I just absolutely obliterated them. Despite the tension (they provided lousy company), the crew enjoyed a sumptuous vegetarian spread, the highlights of which included Russian salad (diced vegetables and eggs in a peppery mayonnaise and dill sauce) and oily eggplant salads. We retired to bed embarrassingly early again at 9:00pm, hibernating from the near 0 degrees temperature.

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After boasting of my exploits on the trail at dinner, perhaps a little excessively, it was decided that I would depart later than the crew in the morning and try to catch up during the day. It was the only moderately difficult day of the trek, taking 5-6 hours from Adishi to Iprari depending on detours. I eventually left the guesthouse approximately 1 hour later at 9:24am, allowing enough time for Adishi to empty of tourists and increase my opportunities for prey. I was delighted to pass an enormous group of oldies (read: 40+) close to Adishi and within 30 minutes I had already exceeded to previous day’s count. The first section was spent hiking parallel to the valley’s river, and then descending briefly to the valley floor where it widened significantly with marshland and exposed rockbed. The scenery was superb, with the valley’s slopes covered in tapestries of golds, oranges and reds. But the landscape became truly epic when the trail rounded a bend to reveal an enormous glacier directly before us – definitely a WOW factor moment! When I reached the river crossing, I encountered an enormous conglomerate of trekkers – I was amazed by how many people there were because Adishi had seemed quiet. While most people paid a fee to local entrepreneurs to ride a horse over ($6), I saw the Israeli sailors slightly upstream of the crowd and on the other side – they had crossed the river on foot. I’d been indecisive about what my approach would be, but needless to say that was quickly resolved when I spotted them. I hiked way further upstream than necessary, trying to find a span that would require minimal contact with the (literally) glacial water in terms of both depth and duration. I was eventually satisfied and went staggered through, barefoot. While I suffered intense pain (I really hate cold water), I successfully made it across without slipping (saving my passport and electronics in the process).

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Immediately after the river crossing was the only genuinely tough section of the trek: a steep and unrelenting ascent to Chkhutnieri pass (2,700m). Perfect terrain to reel in stragglers. I knew I’d catch the Israeli sailors quickly, but even I was surprised they’d barely progressed 20m higher in altitude before flopping down in exhaustion. The count became a little flawed, because I re-passed at least a dozen people who had caught up to me at the crossing by taking the horse. Nevertheless, I loosely counted “new faces”. At the pass, I left other trekkers, wallowing pathetically in their depletion, as I detoured to a lookout with unobstructed views of the glaciers on both sides of the ridge. I lunched completely alone in this unbelievable position, humbled by the scale of nature. I returned to the trail and began the long descent to the next valley, apprehensive of catching up to the crew on the decline, even with occasional bursts of jogging. I arrived in what I thought was Iprari at around 3:50pm, only to message Alicia and discovered I’d marched straight past it! Inspiringly, I sculled my premature celebratory beer, strapped my backpack back on and faced the near 90-degree angle slope to return to Iprari. I was reunited with the crew 20 minutes later on the terrace of our guesthouse, with panoramic views of the valley. Overall, I had overtaken a whopping 52** people for the day (and I was never overtaken myself of course), but failed dismally in my objective, with the crew having arrived in Iprari approximately 20-30 minutes earlier than when I stormed through (the first time). They even had time to stop for mushroom soup – seriously talented trekkers. The crew informed me that the Israeli sailors had been spotted in a vehicle and were abandoning the trek – dejected, defeated and utterly humiliated. We laughed away the day’s drama with beer and delicious Georgian wine on the terrace and over another fantastic banquet (with flesh!).

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We hiked together for the first time on the fourth morning of our trek and we were blessed with outstanding weather: clear blue skies and warm temperatures. The three hour trail to Ushguli was relatively easy, although the inevitable onset of soreness began to commence. The trail through deciduous forest was along the side of a slope, providing beautiful views of the river valley below. After descending to the dirt access road, we passed through a series of tower strewn villages before arriving in Ushguli, which is truly one of the most spectacularly located villages imaginable. Ushguli is nestled between grassy mountains and has a backdrop of an imperious glacier and snow capped peaks. The village is composed of a multitude of stone towers, quaint guesthouses and innumerable cows. Tempted by the glorious weather, Ada, Jo and I decided to continue our trekking endeavours to the top of a mountain beside Ushguli. We completed the agonisingly steep 800m ascent in 90 minutes and flopped onto the summit, recuperating with stunning views of glaciers and mountaintops. In the evening, we celebrated our achievements with beer on our guesthouse’s front lawn, followed by the best meal of the hike and more Georgian wine.

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We returned to Mestia the next morning by jeep through muddy conditions, passing many unfortunate trekkers completing their trip in the rain and cold. We had a somewhat lazy day recovering from the trek, although we did watch a remarkable movie called Dede. The film was released in 2017 and received recognition at festivals all over the world, so it is now shown several times a day at a hotel in Mestia for tourists. The film depicts ancient Svan customs and was predominantly filmed in Ushguli with locals. We didn’t really have an appreciation for the content of the film prior to arriving ans were rather surprised by its very bleak depiction of life in contemporary times for women in this ultra paternalistic culture. The film basically suggests that village Svan women are essentially modern-day slaves required to satisfy the expectations of their fathers and then husbands. Excellent film and very informative of the local culture, but a little confusing as to why such a crifical reflection of Svan society is so heavily promoted to foreigners. Highly recommend.

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Aside from the mostly superb homestay food, I also enjoyed some rather delicious Georgian and Svanetian specialties in Mestia. On my first night, I ate probably my favourite meal in the country: bbq chicken smothered in ajika sauce (spicy paste made from chillies, garlic and spices) and tashmijabi, a stodgy Svanetian specialty. Tashmijabi is basically mashed potatoes mixed with an enormous amount of Sulgani cheese, which creates a stretchy tangle of indulgence. Another starchy favourite of the Svanetian highlands is chvishtari, which are cheesy fried cornbreads and are eaten with breakfast. Kubdari is probably the region’s most famous dish, flakey meat pies with chunks of beef and spiced with coriander seeds and fenugreek seeds.

The mountains and villages of Svaneti are an absolute must-see for any trip to the Caucasus. In fact, from my experiences, I would say it’s the only totally unmissable destination in the region. The trek from Mestia to Ushguli is surely one of the few places in the world that boasts unbelievably impressive scenery and beautiful, unique architecture. It was clearly a very special place to visit, and I was lucky enough to spend it with a great bunch of people.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Georgia photos

Posted by Liamps 22:00 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Tbilisi

Georgia photos

I decided to spend the final month of my 2018 European adventure in the South Caucasus, a strategically important region wedged between the Black and Caspian Seas and Russia, Iran and Turkey. Located south of its namesake mountain range (the largest in Europe), the South Caucasus could very simply be described as consisting of three modern-day countries: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the history, cultural identities and contemporary geopolitics of the South Caucasus are anything but “simply” put. For millennia, the South Caucasus has forever served as a frontier between civilisations (Greek, Persian, Arab, Turkic, Slavic and Western worlds), religions (Orthodox Christians, Oriental Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims), political convictions (religious conservatism, fascism, communism and liberalism) and ethnic groups (the three dominant languages (Georgian, Armenian and North Azerbaijani) are part of separate language families and are mutually unintelligible). Consequently, the South Caucasus is one of the most complex regions in the world, with breakaway territories (South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh), contrasting international relations (Armenia and the “brotherhood” of Azerbaijan and Turkey hate each other, while Georgia serves as the mediator; Armenia boasts the rare distinction of friendly bilateral relations with Russia, Iran and the United States; Georgia loathes Russian influence and aspires to join NATO and the EU; and Azerbaijan distrusts fellow Shi’a Muslim state Iran due to Iranian support for Armenia!) and confused destinies (European or Asian?). Above all else, contemporary life for South Caucasians, from the local bakery to the chambers of government, is intrinsically linked with the legacies from the relatively recent fall of their former occupiers and masters, the Soviets. Aside from a weekend sojourn in the virtually Western city of Riga, visiting the South Caucasus was the first time I had travelled through the republics of the former Soviet Union. Needless to say, it was a very educational month!

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While an independent and unified Georgian state is a relatively recent concept (1991), the republic is the successor of one of the world’s oldest continuous societies. Cultural identity is thus cherished by Georgians, and intrinsically linked with language, religion, history… and viticulture. Georgians speak a language indigenous to the Caucasus, which employs a unique script and is unrelated to any other language. The Georgian Orthodox Church was established as one of the first organised churches of Christendom, when a Georgian kingdom in the 4th century became the second nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Due to the religion’s enduring and fundamental connection to Georgian identity, the country has experienced a religious revival since the fall of the atheist Soviet Union. Georgia is in fact a very rare example of where younger generations (i.e. educated after the Soviet Union’s collapse) are more religious than older generations. The sovereign flag of Georgia is festooned with Byzantine crosses, emblematic of the Church’s psychological and literal power in the contemporary political and social discourse of the country (Georgia is thus very conservative for a European country). Georgians are immensely proud of their historic heroes and the preservation of their culture throughout the millennia despite the countless invasions. But perhaps the constituent tenet of Georgian identity is their obsession with wine, and pride for inventing the liquor (contested by the Armenians). Traces of wine have been identified within Georgian territory that date back to 6,000BC, and wine is still produced (and consumed) abundantly in the country’s lowlands stretching from the Black Sea to the Azerbaijani border (more discussion on Georgian wine in subsequent entries).

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I started my journey through the South Caucasus in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which I pivoted through repeatedly in the next four weeks (“all roads lead to Tbilisi”). Tbilisi has everything an intrepid traveller could want from visiting a capital city in a somewhat obscure country. It has served as the cradle and bastion of a unique culture for millennia. It features a remarkable history of invasions and conquests by innumerable empires, including most recently the Soviets. The city is a strangle confusion of communist legacies, re-emergent traditional values and customs, and Western aspirations. The architecture is intriguing, the food and wine exciting, and the people are, well, let’s say perplexing. Despite its inconspicuous contemporary reputation, Tbilisi also boasts excellent tourism infrastructure and attracts an increasingly large number of backpackers.

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The Old Town of Tbilisi is located adjacent a historically important bend in the Mtkvari River. The layout is a confusing web of narrow streets that wind up steep slopes to the 1,300 year old ruins of the Narikala Fortress, which provides spectacular views of the capital. The structure is a reminder of Tbilisi’s extraordinary past, which extends to at least 6,000 years ago. Nevertheless, contemporary Tbilisi dates to the 5th century when it was established by a fabled ancient Georgian kingdom. In the subsequent millennia, the city served as the capital of independent Georgian states but was mostly conquered and occupied by foreign aggressors including the Arab Caliphates, the Mongols, Timur the Great, various Persian empires and the Russians. The destructiveness of repeated invasions has resulted in a somewhat “young” Old Town of traditional Caucasian terrace houses dating from the 19th century. The buildings are distinguished by their expansive and colourful balconies, which are supposedly a cornerstone facilitator of communal Georgian life. Aside from a handful of glamorised buildings on the main square, most of the houses appear to be neglected and severely dilapidated, which adds to the charm and authenticity of the backstreets. The Old Town abounds with grape vines (emblematic of the nation’s treasured invention) and slender pine trees, which hint at the Mediterranean. The Old Town is scattered with ancient Georgian Orthodox churches, some of which are over 1,400 years old, as well as Armenian Apostolic churches, Russian Orthodox churches, a synagogue, a mosque and Turkish bathhouses, demonstrative of the diverse influences on Tbilisi’s formation.

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Russian influence in Tbilisi commenced earlier in the nineteenth century, when the Tsarist regime implemented a contemporary Western European-style rectilinear centre of wide boulevards and grand, neoclassical buildings adjacent the Old Town. The area remains the principle civic centre of Tbilisi and home to the country’s constituent cultural institutions, though it lacks the traditional atmosphere and intrigue of the Old Town. After a brief period of independence, the Soviet invasion of the early 1920s utterly transformed the demographics of the city. Armenians, renowned for their artisanal work and business acumen, had constituted the largest ethnic group in the city since the 12th century, but were quickly outnumbered. The industrialisation of Tbilisi caused a population boom with rural Georgians immigrating to their capital, thus resulting in sprawl along the river valley.

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One of Tbilisi’s select few positive outcomes of enduring communist hegemony was the implementation of a metro-system (more like a metro-“spine”), which still functions remarkably efficiently with Soviet-era infrastructure and rolling stock. Each time I travelled by metro, I felt like I escaped the slightly sanitised touristy enclaves and was afforded a glimpse into Georgian life. It was an opportunity to study these befuddling and somewhat forgotten people: neither rich nor poor, unfriendly but also unthreatening, appearances somewhere between Slavic, Mediterranean and Persian. Their generally dour demeanour and preference to speak Russian to tourists (rather than English) is suggestive to the visitor that perhaps you are in Georgia’s colossal northern neighbour. But the innumerable NATO and EU flags fluttering in Tbilisi’s sky (Georgia is not formally a member of either organisation) is a reminder of the unreserved detestation Georgians have for Russia, due to historic suppression of Georgian culture and Russia’s contemporary attitude that the Caucasus falls within their rightful “sphere of influence”.

I travelled by metro to Desertirebis Bazari, a conglomeration of hundreds of ramshackle market stalls at the city’s centre, where I was properly isolated from foreigners, travel agencies and scammers. The locals appeared to be either bemused, disinterested or slightly irritated by my presence (and photographing), offering little more than brief, judgemental glances. Their cheerless characters contrasted with the remarkable bounty of produce on display, exhibiting Georgia’s rich agricultural output. The stalls were pilled high with fruits and vegetables synonymous with the Caucasus, including grapes, figs, plums, pomegranates and walnuts. Hanging from many fruit stalls were churchkelas, Georgia’s idiosyncratic naturally flavoured sweets. Sausage shaped, churchkelas consist of either walnuts or hazelnuts coated in grape syrup or honey and come in a multitude of colours (but the flavours are surprisingly underwhelming).

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I visited the ancient capital of Mtskheta as a daytrip from Tbilisi, although it is essentially just an outer suburb of the contemporary capital now. Mtskheta is located adjacent the confluence of two rivers, which allowed it to develop into a wealthy trading centre in ancient times. The city has functioned as the spiritual centre of Georgia since Christianity’s adoption in 327, with the imposing Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (1,000 years old) remaining the most important church in the country. The Jvari Church overlooks the town on a hilltop on the opposite side of the Mtkvari River, providing a spectacular backdrop to the town and unique perspective of the town and the surrounding topography. Mtskheta’s two World Heritage sites are quintessential examples of Georgian Orthodox architecture. Georgian Orthodox churches are consistent with the standard cross-formation of churches throughout Christendom, although the nave is typically smaller and less elongated. The churches are visually defined by their monumental domes, which is customary of Eastern Orthodoxy. The interiors are covered with magnificent Byzantine-style murals and alit by innumerable candles. Since Georgians are incredibly religious (Georgia is one of the few countries where religion is more popular among younger generations), their churches are definitely more atmospheric than their Catholic equivalents – yet once you’ve visited one, you’ve seen them all. Aside from religious structures, the town’s pleasant cobblestone streets of terracotta roofed houses and grape vines radiate from the cathedral’s enormous compound. Numerous touristic stalls, predominately catering to fat-wallet Russians surround the compound selling kitsch merchandise and traditional Georgian snacks. I was obliged to sample wine ice-cream – which was lip-smacking!

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While Georgians are seemingly very pro-Western and detest the Russians, the contemporary country still has a strange relationship with Stalin, which is evident at his namesake museum in Gori. In his capacity as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin instigated more barbarism than almost any other tyrant in history. He was responsible for the deaths of literally tens of millions of people, as he purged his empire of dissidents, possible future dissidents (i.e. intelligentsia, clergy) and undesirable minorities. Although Nikita Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinise the Soviet Union after his death in 1953, pockets of adulation remained. In the 1950’s, a huge museum venerating the life of Stalin was constructed in the unassuming town of Gori – the birthplace of Josef Jugashvilli. The museum has survived the modernisation and Westernisation of Georgia, and remains essentially a monument that celebrates his rise to power and subsequent rule with innumerable portraits, photographs, gifts and even his personal train carriages on display. Most of the exhibits provide accounts of the Russian Revolution, rapid industrialisation of the USSR and success in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. Only one cabinet exists, perhaps stubbornly, hinting at the murders he authorised against Georgian political, cultural and temporal leaders – while no mention is made of literally tens of millions of people that perished from his direct orders or policies. Visiting the museum was certainly one of the strangest experiences of the trip, and I kind of regret attending.

For those of you who have absolutely no idea of what constitutes Georgian cuisine (presumably everyone), I will succinctly describe it as consisting of: dumplings, cheesy breads, cheese, bread (often as a side to the cheesy bread), stews, red kidney beans, eggplants, walnuts, pomegranates, cucumbers, tomatoes and, above all else (even perhaps Christianity), wine. With such an intriguing mix of dishes and ingredients, I naturally had very high expectations that Georgian, famed throughout the former Soviet countries, could rival Tunisian as my favourite “off the beaten track” cuisine. In retrospect, it was probably my least favourite of the Caucasian cuisines, but I was certainly impressed by its uniqueness, complexity and cultural importance.

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Bread is the cornerstone of the Georgian diet and is served at every meal. Georgian breads are cooked in traditional round ovens (similar to tandoors), are fluffy like Turkish bread and can be either disk or canoe-shaped. Georgian cheeses, especially a brined, salty and sour white variety known as sulgani, are almost just as ubiquitously eaten throughout a typical Georgian day. Combined, bread and cheese form Georgia’s most beloved and idiosyncratic dish: khachapuri. Despite consisting of just two essential ingredients, khachupuri comes in numerous guises. Imerali khachapuri is the most common, a round cheese pie with pizza-like dough and an oozy cheesy filling. Megrali khachapuri is essentially the same, but with sulgani on top of the crust. The absolute king of khachupuri though is Adjaruli khachapuri, which consists of a crust shaped into a boat and filled to the brim with cheese. Once baked, the molten insides are topped with a raw egg and butter, creating one of the most indulgent dishes in the world – which even I couldn’t finish (the sizes are ridiculously big). Khachapuri are so insanely overloaded with cheese that I guarantee that, unlike pizza, no Westerner has ever complained that their khachapuri does not have enough cheese (absolutely NEVER!!!). Fortunately, a delicious non-cheese baked alternative exists to khachapuri. Lobiani consists of the same dough as khachapuri but is stuffed with a spiced red kidney bean mixture; a much less intense meal.

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The other beloved Georgian dish, which also seemed to be the most popular dish among travellers, is khinkali, a form of dumplings. Khinkali are very big dumplings (about the size of a small hand) consisting of a thick dough enclosing most commonly either spiced beef or mushrooms. The khinkali are assembled to create a handle at the top, which is used to hold the khinkali while eating and are then discarded of. Five khinkalis is typically considered adequate for a meal. Personally, I thought khinkali is hugely overrated – they have nothing on Polish pierogi. Unfortunately, the dumplings were also frequently rendered inedible by the unexpected presence of coriander inside – who would have thought a random cuisine like Georgian would be so toxically infected by coriander (an ongoing issue for me in the Caucasus). I can’t speak for God, but coriander is definitive proof that Satan certainly exists. My personal favourite dish though was badridzhani nigvsit, a salad consisting of fried slices of eggplant rolled and stuffed with a rich walnut paste and topped with pomegranate seeds – delectable! Another sensational salad, exemplifying Russian historic influence in the country, is Georgian chicken salad. The salad features shredded chicken with diced vegetables, parsley and a heavy mayonnaise dressing. The most typical salad, present at every meal, is the tomato and cucumber combination, occasionally flavoured with walnuts and herbs.

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Tbilisi was a brilliant introduction to the exoticisms and complexities of the Caucasus. While it is geographically distant, I concluded that the city is indisputably European, with minimal traces of Middle Eastern influence. Tbilisi is definitely a city I would recommend visiting, to learn about an extraordinary yet ignored history, admire the decayed architecture of the Old Town and sample a unique cuisine.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Georgia photos

Posted by Liamps 14:36 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Malta

Malta photos.

Malta’s diminutive size as one of the smallest countries on the planet (visiting such places has become somewhat of a theme this trip) belies its intriguing complexity and appeal. The Maltese Islands (consisting of Malta, Gozo and a handful of uninhabited islands) are located between Sicily (north), Tunisia (west) and Libya (south), effectively at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Due to their strategic position, the islands have been settled and occupied by innumerable nationalities, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Knights Hospitaller, French and British. The Axis Powers attempted to be added to that list, yet Malta survived the intense carnage (as the base of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet, Malta was the most bombed place on Earth during World War II) and became critical to the Allied invasion of Italy. The Islands became independent in 1964, yet they remain a melting pot of cultural influences. This reality surprised me, as I expected Malta would feel somewhat like an extension of Southern Italy. Indeed, the Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Catholic religion and tomato-based cuisine certainly hint at the geographic proximity. However, when I arrived at the airport, I was shocked to hear the locals conversing in a language drastically different to Italian and sounding very similar to Arabic. I would later discover that Maltese is actually a derivative of Old Arabic, 40% mutually intelligible with the modern Tunisian dialect. Curious vestiges of British colonialism are also evident on the Islands, as English is spoken surprisingly well for Southern Europe, Maltese people drive on the left, red phone boxes are present and mushy peas are employed in an otherwise outstanding cuisine. I spent one week in Malta (dominated by attending Claire and David’s wedding), which proved to be grossly insufficient to explore its coastal landscapes, architecture and culture.

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While you can never really escape human habitation in Malta, the population is predominately concentrated to a network of interconnected “cities” (essentially just neighbourhoods of one metropolitan area) around a series of bays on the northern coast. The buildings throughout are almost exclusively constructed of sandstone, characterising the metropolitan area with a distinctive golden hue, although the architectural richness varies between cities. While commuting between cities is relatively easy through the utilisation of the intuitive bus network, travel times can be excessive for the short distances traversed because of the frequent traffic jams on the narrow, windy streets. The streets are so tight in sections that the presence of footpaths is often sacrificed, resulting in rather treacherous routes for pedestrians. Consequently, I would find Malta to be an incredibly frustrating place to live, despite its unique beauty.

Most tourists stay in the heavily developed and commercialised neighbourhoods of Paceville, St Julians and Sliema, adjacent small, sandy beaches. Paceville is a grotesque mixture of international restaurants, generic bars and nightclubs catering to the type of vacationers that revel in drunken antics and masquerading their supposed coolness. St Julian’s is a mellower, though still heavily touristic, alternative. I stayed just near St Julian’s in an old mansion that had been converted into a lovely hostel (I was the only wedding guest aboding in dormitory accommodation in Malta). Hidden away from the coastal road within the residential area between St Julian’s and Sliema are incredibly beautiful streets where all the buildings feature the idiosyncratic Maltese balconies. The enclosed, wooden balconies are composed of identical structural designs throughout the streets, but their vivid paintwork gradually shift hue and colour from building to building, often forming coordinated rainbows. Sliema is the commercial centre of the metropolitan area and the key maritime transport hub. The city is situated on the northwestern edge of Marsamxett Harbour and has magnificent views of Valetta on the opposite side.

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Valletta is the microscopic capital of Malta, situated at the tip of a peninsula between Marsamxett Harbour and the Grand Harbour. The city is World Heritage listed and possesses Malta’s most impressive architectural ensemble. The city was established in the 16th century by the Knights Hospitaller, who invested heavily in the construction of immense fortifications, oppulent Baroque churches and expansive palazzos in the formation of one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. Despite the confined geography, the Knights developed a city with a logical grid-like layout interspersed with piazzas and small gardens. Valetta is a thus a magnificent urban environment to amble through, especially in the near absence of traffic. The ramparts offer spectacular views of the harbours and neighbourhoods on either side of the peninsula. Natural rocky platforms are located below the fortification walls, allowing for locals and visitors to swim in turquoise bodies of water surrounded by ancient monuments. Probably the impressive vista in Malta is of the sandstone city of Valletta from Sliema, with the Neoclassical St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral dominating the skyline.

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In a somewhat hazy state the day after the wedding, I went on a day trip to the ancient capital of Mdina in the south of Malta. Despite being located just 9km from my accommodation, the bus trip via Valletta (effectively the interchange for all routes on the island) took well over an hour – slower than if I just jogged the route! The journey through the hinterland provided an appreciation for Malta’s arid environment; Malta is essentially just a cluster of desert islands, with minimal vegetation, no water sources (the water supply is obtained from desalination) and complete dependence on imported food. Mdina is situated on the highest point on Malta, providing visually arresting views of the surrounding landscape and coast in the distance. Mdina was established by the Phoenicians and served as the Roman Empire’s base on the islands, but the existing town and its thick fortifications mostly dates to the Norman and Knights period. The town consists of narrow, winding and atmospheric medieval streets, plain, block-shaped sandstone buildings, a smattering of Baroque churches and tiny plazas with cute fountains and sprawling agapanthus bushes. With only 600 residents living the fortified walls, most of the population now live in adjacent Rabat (Arabic for suburb), a pretty area of townhouses with the characteristic Maltese balconies.

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I accompanied Australian Matt and British Chris, who I met at the wedding, on an excursion to the Blue Grotto in Malta’s south. We arrived early in the morning and went for a swim in the crystalline water in an amiable location off the rocks with recreational fisherman nearby. The amiability was ruined somewhat by one of the fisherman pissing behind one of the rocks very close to my bag. We caught a small boat around the cove to marvel at various limestone caves and travel through the cavernous Blue Grotto itself. The best perspective though was obtained from a roadside viewpoint above the Grotto.

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On my last day in Malta, I visited the famed Sunday market in Marsaxlokk on Malta’s east coast. Marsaxlokk is basically the ultimate representation of a paradisiacal Mediterranean fishing village. Sandstone buildings sprawl around an aqua blue bay, with large outdoor dining areas overlooking the waterfront aligned with palm trees. Just the pebbly beach are numerous wooden boats painted in a myriad of colours. On Sundays, hundreds of stalls materialise in the village selling fish, cheeses, deli goods, pastries and the usual paraphernalia. I walked around 30 minutes from the village through arid and exposed landscape to St. Peter’s Pool. The area consists of a series of small coves with strange rock platforms overlooking mesmerising turquoise water, perfect for swimming.

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Prior to travelling to Malta, I had been exposed to rather negative reviews of the country’s cuisine. Clearly they had absolutely no idea what they were talking, because as I somewhat expected, Malta is a culinary gem (its not really possible to border the Mediterranean and produce mediocre dishes). While the Maltese kitchen is similar to Southern Italy’s, the notable distinction is the veneration of obscure proteins like rabbit, quail and octopus. The non-tourist trap restaurants (I was “trapped” on one occasion) are very generous with their portions and generally provide customers with a free appetiser plate of Maltese bread (sourdough), sweet tomato paste and bigilla, a spread made from mashed broad beans. Spaghetti is the most typical pasta to eat in Malta, which constituted my entrée for several meals. I ate spaghetti with octopus sauce, spaghetti with rabbit sauce and spaghetti with Maltese sausage (distinctive with its seasoning of coriander seeds) sauce, all of which consisted of rich tomato bases and were delicious. Malta’s national dish of fenek moqli is rabbit panfried in white wine and garlic, an absolutely delectable dish definitely worth the annoyance of dealing with bunny bones. My favourite form of eating rabbit though was in staffat tal-fenek, a rich tomato and red wine based stew with olives and herbs. Another classic Maltese main is bragioli, or “beef olives”, which consists of spiced balls of beef stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and served in a tomato and pea sauce (unexceptional). I indulged in several naturally tantalising seafood dishes, including octopus panfried in white wine (I find octopus a real hit or miss protein - this was outstanding) and fried calamari with salad. I also tried pieces of lampuka (dolphin fish), Malta’s favourite sea critters, on ftira, which is similar to foccacia and topped with tomatoes, cheese and other ingredients. Maltese towns and villages and dotted with tiny fastfood outlets that sell the country’s beloved, calorific and flabbagastingly cheap treats. Particularly popular and moorish are pastizzi, which are diamond shaped filo pastries stuffed with ricotta, mushy peas or creamy chicken (30 euro cents each!). Their larger cousins, qassatats, are made with shortcrust pastry instead and feature the same fillings. Also very common are oven-baked containers of macaroni or rice in tomato sauces and covered in mozzarella and pastry. Maltese sweets are surprisingly lacklustre, with inferior versions of Sicilian cannolis and North African makroud. Malta’s favourite beverage is not coca-cola but rather kinnie, a bittersweet soft drink made from blood oranges (moderately nice but very strong).

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Malta is surrounded by mindbogglingly clear water, possesses a remarkable wealth of attractions and boasts a delectably extensive cuisine for such a small country. I spent the duration of my one week exploring the main island of Malta and attending wedding-related events, so I never had time to visit Gozo or scuba-dive (Malta is apparently the best location in the Mediterranean to dive). Malta definitely exceeded my expectations and I definitely intend to return!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Malta photos

Posted by Liamps 20:29 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Claire and David’s Wedding in Malta

Malta photos

My 3 month backpacking trip through Europe was briefly interrupted by a rather more sophisticated endeavour: my attendance at a wedding in a Maltese castle. No doubt readers are pondering the identity of my Maltese friends or relatives, but contrary to logical assumption, I have absolutely no Maltese associations. Nor do the bride and groom actually, Irish Claire and British David, both of whom are Australian residents and now citizens. Consequently, the exact reason why the wedding occurred in Malta was a somewhat mysterious discussion point for invitees. Informants advised me that Claire decided to minimise the stress of wedding planning and effectively mimic the Maltese wedding of an Irish friend – also someone with no Maltese connections. So in early September, the bride and groom and over 50 other guests from throughout the Anglophile World journeyed to an infinitesimal Mediterranean island nation, somewhere between Libya and Sicily, to partake in the sacred celebration. Not that I complained about the slight inconvenience of travelling 15,000km for the event. The invitation provided me with a unique opportunity to bag yet another new country for my ever increasing tally… I mean to explore a fascinating new frontier and culture I had limited knowledge or experience of (country #65 for the statistically inclined). And it was quite appropriate for our relationship that I attended her wedding in a totally random locale; Claire and I have travelled in 8 countries on 3 continents together since meeting nearly 6 years ago on the Southern Africa tour.

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Prior to the wedding day, Claire and David arranged for the guests to enjoy a scenic cruise from Sliema to the Blue Lagoon. The all-day excursion was an excellent way for the potpourri of attendees to become acquainted. Yet the boat quickly divided into three distinct and nationalistic groupings. The Brits, predictably struggling with the adventurism, sought refuge at the boat’s rear to fend off seasickness, eventually abandoning the trip altogether by catching a speed boat home. The Irish flocked to the boat’s open deck to enjoy the novelty of sunlight, with some even taking a dip in the crystalline water – though never too far from the comfort and convenience of the boat. The Australians, meanwhile, spent the duration of the voyage near the bow of the boat to be fully immersed in the bumpiness of the ride, and were the first to bomb into the water at the Blue Lagoon.

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Malta’s Blue Lagoon (doesn’t every coastal country have one?) is located between the small islands of Comino and Cominotto, which are themselves between the islands of Malta and Gozo. As the name denotes, the water is indeed a sublime turquoise blue colour, contrasting with the barrenness of the desert island landscape. The scenery is somewhat blighted by the hordes of European tourists, who failed to demonstrate a propensity for physical activity – such as swimming. But an easy 2km swim circumnavigating Cominotto allowed me to totally escape the crowds and marvel at the sheer ochre cliffs plunging into the Mediterranean. I spotted numerous monochromatic fish, including a handful of jellyfish, one of which decided to wrap its tentacles around my shoulders and leave a lasting and painful impression. When I returned to the boat, I decided that my swim was sufficient justification to offset the ignominy of being the only person onboard to return to the lunch buffet for a second enormous serving. In the blazing afternoon heat, I ventured onto Comino with Australian Matt, a former colleague of Claire, and his husband British Chris. We scrambled across the rocky terrain for a spectacular view of a medieval fortress about 100m above the turquoise water. After returning to the boat, our voyage back to Sliema was characterised by a degree of tipsiness and a dance party orchestrated by Claire’s cute three nieces.

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Deciding upon a wedding outfit is an incredibly stressful ordeal in normal circumstances, but attempting to do so while backpacking for several months is an absolute nightmare. In the weeks preceding my arrival in Malta, I must have visited over 100 shops in Europe to find garments that would satisfy the event’s formal dress code and be suitable to stuff into a rucksack. I acquired my shirt and pants in Hamburg, but regrettably thought it would easier to purchase my shoes in Malta. While I was correct in assuming a limited range of international brands would exist, I failed to consider the typical stature of Maltese men. In store after store, shop assistants could barely contain their bemusement when I requested the equivalent of Australian size 12 shoes, as though I were some gargantuan freak. On the morning of the wedding, I was resigned to the probability I would have to wear my decrepit and very dusty grey Nikes. Thankfully, with only a few hours to spare, I located a pair of white Ralph Lauren sneakers - slightly too small, but tolerable with minimal walking.

In the mid-afternoon, guests carefully avoided the production of excessive sweat on their respective journeys to the departure point for the wedding. We congregated at a hotel in St. Julian’s and were shocked by everyone’s transformative appearances from the general unkemptness of the boat trip on the previous day. We were transported to the wedding venue in the Maltese village of Mgarr by coach, with Irish Louise and Sharon, childhood friends of Claire, successfully living up to their country’s reputation by smuggling traveller glasses of wine onboard. Half an hour later, we were greeted by David and his parents at a stout sandstone castle, which very much resembled the corresponding chessboard piece. The wedding ceremony and reception areas were set up in a stunning rear patio space replete with Mediterranean landscaping. After pouncing for the bar, guests waited in suspense for the bride to arrive…

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Claire arrived at the castle’s terrace and descended the stairwell in her magnificent dress, as if from a fairytale. After the paparazzi concluded their requisite photography capturing the tearful procession, the secular ceremony commenced. The celebrant focused surprisingly heavily on Maltese legal jargon (according to Act XXX…), which was thankfully lightened by a poetic reading by Claire’s siblings Irish Helena and Stephen. Claire and David then exchanged the internationally standardised vowels, confirming their matrimony and allowing guests to promptly return to the bar.

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The reception was a formal four-course sit-down dinner, with interluding speeches and performances. I was seated with Sharon, Louise, Australian Marnie (another friend from Claire’s travels), Irish Barbara (Claire’s friend she met in Australia) and her partner, and Australian Rodney (David’s work friend). My position was advantageous from a culinary perspective, as I scored second helpings of elements too eclectic for the Irish diners. For appetiser, we had a pasta dish similar to a ricotta ravioli. For entrée, we sampled beef two ways, including a delectable portion (or in my case, portions) of steak tartare. For main, we had a roasted chicken dish and dessert was something with chocolate, although my mind was more focused on alcohol at that point. The entertainment took on a slightly androcentric tone in the conspicuous absence of female presenters. Both fathers and David provided heartfelt speeches, while Matt performed a lovely rendition of Michael Bublé’s Dream a Little Dream of Me. David’s father recounted an intriguingly coincidental story from his wedding day decades earlier, of how the car that was supposed to transport the newlyweds away after the ceremony broke down – which is exactly what occurred for Claire and David. An extraordinary firework display concluded the formal component of the reception, signalling to guests it was the opportune time to engage in drunken dancing (cheekily captured by Claire’s bemused nieces).

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After Claire and David departed from the night’s festivities, guests returned to St Julian’s on a noticeably less sedate coach journey than the arrival. Guests dropped all decorum and sang rousing, if not pleasant, renditions of international classics or national favourites. Thanks to excessive self-promotion, at the stroke of midnight guests immediately forgot the wedding had even transpired and focused on the next event – my 27th birthday! Several happy birthday tunes, which I certainly had no part in instigating, were sung with gusto as the night continued at a beachside bar in St Julian’s.

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Since most guests stayed in Malta for the week and made a holiday out of the event (or in my case a 3 month trip), we rendezvoused in subsequent days for further celebrations. However, differences again emerged between nationalities in terms of chosen activities and preferred venues. While Matt, Chris and I admired Maltese architectural history (Mdina and Valetta), explored a natural wonder of the island (Blue Grotto), attended a cultural event (Gay Pride), sampled traditional food (rabbit and quail) and frequented a suave cocktail bar, the Irish demonstrated utter intransigence at delving beyond the comfortable confines of St Julian’s. In fact, once an Irish pub was discovered on the rather hideous main strip of touristy bars and clubs, they virtually became immovable objects. The Irish are an incredibly resourceful nationality in their openness to migrate to all corners of the globe in the pursuit of opportunities, yet they still exhibit a befuddling lack of adventurism in other pursuits.

Claire and David’s wedding was a truly beautiful and unique experience for everyone in attendance, which successfully revealed the virtues of having a “destination wedding”. So thank you Claire and David for including me in your special day… and providing me with an unmissable opportunity to travel to a new country!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Malta photos

Posted by Liamps 03:02 Archived in Malta Comments (2)

Aarhus

After a gruelling 6 weeks of holidaying in Western Europe, I was desperately in need of another holiday. I therefore temporarily abandoned the itinerant lifestyle for a spot of homeliness, as I visited Australian Anne and Danish Niels and lounged in their cosy Aarhus apartment perhaps a little excessively across 5 days. Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, is a beautiful mixture of traditional and contemporary Nordic architecture and urban planning. While it lacks an exhaustive list of compelling attractions for tourists to visit, Aarhus is a delightfully liveable small city; clean, compact, navigable by active transport, free from congestion, sophisticated, lively and abundant in open spaces. Aside from exploiting the comfort of my gracious hosts’ abode, I spent most of my time wandering aimlessly along pleasant streets or brunching in canal-side cafes, pondering how the Danes are uniformly so fashionable when their shops are so damn expensive.

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Anne relocated from Melbourne to Aarhus nearly a year ago for professional development and love. She has since experienced the full gamut of Danish weather (and associated emotional responses), from the interminable depressiveness of winter to observing the incontrollable compulsions of euphoria Danes unleash when the first summer sunrays break through. Denmark does not enjoy a particularly long season of (relative) warmth: my presence in early September signified a changing of seasons, as amiable sunny days transformed quickly into dreariness and rain. During my first couple of days, outdoor dining scenes and pop-up beer tents characterised Aarhus. But this thriving culture disappeared and was replaced by boulevards and palpable despondency for the impending 8 months of gloom. Exactly my cue to depart for the Mediterranean.

Aarhus is a port city located on the eastern coast of the Jutland Peninsula. The centre consists of a tangle of streets, mostly reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, which are bisected by ornamental canals. Despite its rather small size, the centre is surprisingly difficult to navigate - I never quite established my bearings. While the centre lacks iconic attractions, it is a rather a pleasant mixture of brick Gothic churches, restrained modernist architecture and thoughtful squares and shopping boulevards. Adjacent to the centre is the city’s waterfront, an expansive area of postmodernist architecture and open spaces that are designed to celebrate (commendably) the monotonous greyness of the North Sea and the maritime legacy of the city. I was able to traverse Aarhus entirely on foot, due to the city’s compactness and amenable layout for active transport users.

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Denmark is hardly an inspiring destination on the culinary front, although the food is still tasty and filling if heinously overpriced (although Aarhus is much more affordable than Copenhagen). Presumably, the Danes’ favourite meal is the brunch buffet, as every cafe worthy of its name offers a daily spread. Since I am also a purveyor of brunch buffets (and cost-effective consumption), I indulged in multiple renditions. One of the most traditional items ubiquitously included is leverpostej, an absolutely putrid and dense mash of pork liver and lard. The rye bread and frikadeller (Danish meatballs) were much more palatable options. My search for Denmark’s most iconic dish, smorrebrød ("open sandwich" consisting of one slice of rye bread topped with egg, meat or fish with flavourings), brought me to a local corner butcher in suburban Aarhus. I ordered 4 delicious varieties: shrimp and egg (very Danish combination), frikadeller and potato salad, roast pork and crackling, and bacon and pickled cucumber. To celebrate for a non-specified reason, Anne and I splurged on a seafood dinner with lobster, crayfish, crab, prawns, oysters and mussels sourced from various pockets of Northern Europe. The homemade bread and accompanying aioli (Danish obsession) were the highlights of the feast. For Sunday brunch, we attended the city’s very popular Melbournian owned (and distinctly Melbournian) cafe for naturally perfectly poached eggs.

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While Aarhus is a little too small and homogeneous for my taste, I can certainly appreciate the city’s appeal for an expatriate’s life. Thanks again to Anne and Neils for hosting me for five days as I prepared for the second half of my trip in Malta and the Caucasuses.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 14:10 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

Hamburg

Germany photos

After the stifling sterility and expensiveness of Switzerland’s cities, travelling to Hamburg came as an enormous relief. Upon arrival at the central station from my overnight train, I immediately knew I would enjoy my time in Germany’s second largest city. The station was bursting with activity in the morning rush hour, with buskers on the outdoor terraces and commuters queuing at the innumerable food outlets selling cheap but tantalising pretzels, rolls, sausages and cakes. Sure, the station entrance areas and the metro system were more dilapidated than the perfection of Swiss infrastructure, but that’s simply the consequences of humanity. I found the station immensely appealing because it evoked life and vitality, indicating that Hamburg did also. It was inevitable though that I would like Hamburg; I’ve travelled to Germany on 7 separate occasions (albeit once in transit – though I did enjoy a memorable first European meal at Frankfurt Airport!) and always felt a special connection with the country. I think its because of the respect I have for the German people and culture. They work hard and successfully, but they’re unpretentious and value time to socialise, travel and explore the great outdoors. They expect services to operate efficiently and products to be of high quality, but also demand affordability. Basically, they just want to live productive, happy lives and have no time for bullshit. Lets hope the country maintains this enviably mainstream ethos.

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Often described as “Germany’s Gateway to the World”, Hamburg’s very existence and identity has forever been defined by its enormous port, still the second largest in Europe. The Port of Hamburg is actually located more than 100km from the North Sea, but its favourably positioned on the Elbe River where it branches into tributaries. The port’s establishment in the 12th century and the city’s designation as a “free imperial city” within the Holy Roman Empire enabled Hamburg to develop into one of the richest cities on the continent and one of the leading members of the medieval trading organisation, the Hanseatic League. Although technically within the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg was essentially a independent city-state throughout most of its history and was ruled by a senate composed of its richest citizens. It maintained its status as a city-state within the German Empire, Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany and the contemporary Federal Republic of Germany, one of just 3 in the modern country. The pride Hamburgers have for their continuing independence is reflected in the official title, the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

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The maritime heritage of Hamburg is enshrined physically in the urban layout, with its innumerable waterways defining the contemporary city. The Alstadt (old town) is concentrated around the Alster River and its two associated lakes, with canals slicing through the area and forming interesting focal points. The old town isn’t particularly old, as most of Hamburg was destroyed by the RAAF during Operation Gomorrah in World War II. Operation Gomorrah was one of the most devastating sustained bombing attacks of the war, gutting the city’s capacity for industrial production, killing 40,000 people and creating an apocalyptic wasteland. Consequently, most of the buildings in the Aldstadt are imitations of historic architecture or modernist buildings. The 147m spire of St. Nicholas’ Church survived the bombing and is now a forlorn reminder of the city’s past, with the nave of the church obliterated. The neo-Gothic Rathaus, Hamburg’s city hall, was also a survivor of the war and is the Aldstadt’s most impressive structure with its oxidised copper roof. The Aldstadt is now mostly an atmospheric shopping and dining precinct with most of its streets pedestrianised.

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Unlike most metropolitan areas, the fundamental spirit of Hamburg derives not from its city centre, but rather its waterfront and port. Although Hamburg is a riverside city, the width of the Elbe is so vast and teeming with container ships that the urban interface with the river feels distinctly coastal. Hamburg uniquely embraces the aesthetics of its port and associated industry, with a bustling waterfront of restaurants, bars and public spaces that are intentionally positioned and designed to view the area. The port boasts the world’s largest contiguous warehouse district, the Speicherstadt, which was completed in the early twentieth century and is now a World Heritage site. The rows of neo-gothic red brick warehouses immediately front canals, creating the iconic scenery of Hamburg. Canals are ubiquitous in Hamburg, especially in the port area. Hamburg has more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined and more bridges than any other city on earth. Hafen City is currently being developed adjacent the Speicherstadt and consists of post-modernist steel-and-glass structures overlooking the Elbe. The recently completed Elbphilharmonie is both geographically and architecturally a juncture point between the districts. The building consists of a glass structure mimicking waves or sails on top of a red brick warehouse. Controversially at a cost of over $1.2 billion, the Elbphilharmonie is one of the most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world, the tallest building in Hamburg (fantastic views from the free balcony) and is intended to become the key landmark of the city.

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Immediately west of the city centre are Hamburg’s hipster neighbourhoods, an area very similar to the inner north of Melbourne. I stayed in a suburb called Schanviertel, which again was just like Fitzroy (although still busy late on weeknights), with thriving nightlife, backstreet pubs and boutique shops. St Pauli is famous throughout Europe as one of the best nightlife areas on the continent, especially in the Reperbaum. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to properly experience St Pauli, leaving me with a compelling reason to return to Hamburg.

German cuisine is essentially analogous with your favourite local pub. You’ll never experience the glorious heights of gastronomy, but you will reliably be served a substantial, wholesome, tasty and inexpensive meal. Germany was thus the perfect antidote to my constrained diet in Switzerland. I dined on German classics like schnitzel with creamy mushroom sauce and fried potatoes (big portion, delicious and just 6 euros!! I’m always amazed by how cheap food in Germany is), brotchën sandwiches (small German bread roll sandwiches, available at bakeries (the best in the world) everywhere) and pretzels. But what I love about Germany is that every city and region proudly boasts distinct culinary specialties. Naturally in Hamburg, the bounty of the sea differentiates the local food from elsewhere in the country. At a restaurant overlooking the harbour, I enjoyed finkenwerder scholle, the city’s sophisticated equivalent to fish and chips. Plaice, a depleting white fish from the North Sea, is panfried with bacon and served with creamy potato salad and pickled cucumber. I sampled perhaps Hamburg’s most iconic dish, labskaus, which is a slightly bizarre combination of mashed corned beef, potato and onions served hot with pickled herring, fried egg and gherkin pickles. Yes I agree, it sounds absolutely repulsive, but it was actually rather nice due to the saltiness. Nevertheless, I refreshed my palate with rote grütze, a Northern German and Danish dessert consisting of berries cooked in sugar and a starch to form a pudding and served with vanilla custard. Obviously, every meal I ate in Hamburg was accompanied by a lager or wheat beer – I had to make the most of my presence in Germany.

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I wouldn’t describe Hamburg as a particularly beautiful city, at least not in the same league as Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona or Prague. But Hamburg oozes character and culture and would clearly be a pleasant city to live in aside from the unreliable weather – so in many ways its like Melbourne! I’ve now visited all of the de facto cultural centres of Germany’s north, east, south and west: Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Cologne respectively, which each boast very different identities. Hamburg is defined by its maritime heritage, which is particularly distinctive in a country with an inland focused culture like Germany. Berlin is characterised by its Soviet past and modern-day internationalism. Munich is evocative of quintessentially Bavarian traditions; while Cologne is a stylish city with numerous major events and is influenced by its proximity to France and the Low Countries. While Berlin is the definitely the most interesting from a purely touristic perspective, I’ve really enjoyed each city and its difficult for me to pinpoint which is my favourite overall.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Germany photos

Posted by Liamps 22:05 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Lucerne, Vaduz and Zürich

Switzerland photos

While I loved exploring the Jungfrau region in the Swiss Alps, the same cannot be said for the subsequent cities I visited. Lucerne, Vaduz and Zürich were undoubtedly the most boring succession of destinations I have ever travelled to. The magnificent landscapes of the alpine mountains had offset my internalised pain of the cost of travelling in Switzerland, but in the Swiss cities it was difficult not to be preoccupied with thinking, “what a total waste of money”. Cramped dormitory accommodation for $75 a night, basic meat-and-stodge meals for $30-$40, bread for $6-$10 (in neighbouring France, its enshrined in law that traditional baguettes must be sold for no more than 1 euro)... utilisation of a public lavatory for $2.50! The exorbitant expenses required to survive as a tourist in these cities was definitely not worth it, as they were uniformly sterile, grey, soulless and not particularly beautiful. My mood was further soured by 5 days of overcast and rainy weather, ruining my adherence to a European summer wardrobe and obscuring the views of nearby mountains. For those after an amiable read, best wait for the next entry… but for the integrity of Globo Trip, I must report both the good and the bad!

Lucerne is often described as “Switzerland’s most beautiful city”, no doubt because the competition is rather lacking (and actually I think Berne is nicer). Misguided by Lucerne’s reputation, I allocated 2 days to visit a city where 2 hours would have been more than sufficient. I’m probably being unjustifiably negative, because ideally Lucerne should be used as a base to explore the villages and mountains surrounding its namesake lake. But unfortunately I was not blessed with the privilege of clear weather, and besides, I’m never enthralled by the scenery of a lake anyway. Once you’ve seen one tepid body of water, you’ve seen them all. The colours may vary, but my emotional response is always the same: underwhelmed and desiring movement (I’m writing this from the edge of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake and also rainbow coloured (oil extraction)). My experience at Lake Lucerne was no exception. I ambled through Lucerne’s lush, lakeside parkland which was obviously pleasant, but more from a residential perspective than a tourist that has just travelled from the awesome heights of the Jungfrau region.

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Lucerne is located at the northwestern corner of the lake, with the Ruess River bisecting the city. The old town consists of buildings preserved from the Middle Ages and onwards, with impressive murals on many of the facades. But the area is incredibly small, commercialised and not uniquely enamouring on a continent littered with historic cores. The only genuinely interesting site is the Kapellbrücke, a wooden footbridge that spans the Ruess. Originally constructed in the 14th century, the Kapellbrücke is the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world and consists of panels of 17th century paintings depicting the city’s history within the roof structure. The bridge, spanning the Ruess from the old town to the central station area, and its octagonal water tower form the only truly majestic scene in Lucerne.

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For readers who are totally oblivious to the identity of Liechtenstein, a country that would absolutely never make the evening news, a brief synopsis as followed. Liechtenstein is essentially a valley of the Alps sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria. As I learnt from the two-room national history museum (discounting the perennially mundane ancient pottery and Christian iconography exhibitions), the formation of the Principality of Liechtenstein in 1718 was the conclusion of a rather complicated, centuries-long scheme of acquisitions of neighbouring estates by the House of Liechtenstein to improve their social status within the Holy Roman Empire. The country’s existence is thus derived from the political expediency of 18th century aristocracy, exemplified by the Princes failing to even visit Liechtenstein for the first 100 years. Liechtenstein became completely independent with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and has strangely remained a sovereign nation ever since, a quirk of historical geopolitics. Contemporary Liechtenstein, formerly an infamous tax haven, is the second richest country in the world (narrowly behind Monaco) and home to just 38,000 people. Liechtenstein is a constitutional monarchy, yet the Prince still wields considerable power in the governance of the country.

I opportunistically travelled to Liechtenstein for the solitary purpose of “bagging” a new country. With such an inept, vain and ultimately baseless purpose, my visit to the world’s sixth smallest sovereign nation was destined to disappoint. The height of my excitement was when I crossed the Switzerland – Liechtenstein border by bus and thought to myself, “63!” If only that number reflected the seconds I spent there. My impressions were obviously blighted by the worst weather of my trip during the 24 hours I stayed within the country’s borders: interminable drizzle and clouds. Hiking through the country’s Oberland (alpine slopes) was therefore not appropriate for my visit – I was restricted to the Unterland (flat lands between the Rhine (Swiss border) and the slopes). I stayed in a characterless youth hostel roughly equidistance between Vaduz, the nation’s capital, and Schaan, the largest municipality. Unfortunately, this resulted in cold, 45 minute walks in the rain, which was most unwelcome as I had limited cleans clothes available at that point (I was holding out for departing Switzerland to avoid the obscene prices for laundry). Vaduz is more of a village, than a sovereign capital, with a population of just 5,000 and vineyards within the urban boundary. I spent an afternoon attempting to entertain myself in the centre of Vaduz, which makes Puckle Street seem comparatively riveting. The area is composed of one pedestrian thoroughfare with modernist buildings, an uninspiring 19th century church and innumerable Chinese tourists noticeably more excited than I was. The Prince’s rather petite fortress castle is located in a commanding position on the steep slope above Vaduz, providing the solitary trace of intrigue in Liechtenstein’s capital.

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Zürich is often cited as one of the capitals of global commerce, an extraordinary reputation for a city of less than 400,000. Yet while the city might be a deserved magnet for bankers and purveyors of luxury brands, Zürich holds minimal interest for a traveller and ranks at rock bottom of my “favourite cities in Europe” list. With geographic similarities to Lucerne, Zürich has formed along the Limmat River where it connects to the northwestern corner of Lake Zürich. The utterly uncultured old town straddles both sides of the river, a drab collection of grey stone churches and pale buildings filled with expensive chocolate and watch shops. The only enjoyable aspect of my time in Zürich was the city’s free walking tour, where I learnt that the Swiss have the third highest rate of gun ownership in the world (after the US and Yemen) and every Swiss citizen is assigned a place in a bunker in case of a nuclear attack or natural catastrophe (the country has developed a complex network of underground shelters for such scenarios).

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Unfortunately the cost of dining in Switzerland was a serious barrier in developing a thorough appreciation of Swiss cuisine. Consequently, I never sampled the country’s most famous dish, cheese fondue, which needs to be shared by at least 2 persons. I was at least able to try raclette, finally discovering an affordable and single-serve option just before departing Zürich. The dish consists of a block of cheese (raclette) melted in a specific contraption, which is then scrapped over boiled potatoes and pickles. Indulgently delicious, gloriously and calorifically rich… but somewhat simple and unsophisticated for a nationally venerated dish. Aside from a good value but rather bizarre and slightly sickly buffet I had at the (not so) youth hostel in Vaduz, the only other dish I ate of note was panfried pork fillet with creamy mushroom sauce and rösti at a beerhall where no one spoke English.

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Been there, done that! My advice for developing an itinerary through Western Europe is that while the nature in Switzerland is definitely worth exploring, the country’s cities should be avoided; they’re not architecturally or culturally intriguing and grossly expensive. The only exception from the destinations I visited is Berne, a little gem of a city – as its World Heritage listing indicates. Meanwhile Liechtenstein is literally the only country on Earth I have absolutely no interest of returning to. Obviously if you were to visit friends it would be a totally different experience, but for the solo traveller, Lucerne, Vaduz and Zürich are absolute no-go zones.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Switzerland photos

Posted by Liamps 22:38 Archived in Switzerland Comments (2)

Berner Oberland

Switzerland photos

Switzerland was the only major country in Western Europe I had failed to visit on previous Euro travels, for the obvious reason of its preposterous expense. With my financial capacity somewhat increasing since full-time employment, and the unique experience of receiving an income while abroad, I concluded that it was an appropriate time to rectify this gap on my travel map. I was accompanied by Australian Paul, otherwise known as Princess Paul, who decided that after months of lazily lounging around on a couch in the Netherlands, he needed to endure some hardcore alpine training under the command of the infamously ruthless but effective instructor, The Hummus Emperor. Furthermore, Paul’s girlfriend Dutch Karin requested that he return from the Switzerland with abdominal muscles, so I knew I had to implement a truly rigorous program if the impossible were to be achieved. Paul’s transformation throughout the week was truly remarkable, perhaps even inspiring, as his athletic prowess, strikingly similar to a sloth, evolved into something more akin to a barbery sheep (personally I’m more of a gazelle). Unfortunately, I was less successful in my attempts to improve his sophistication in manners, language and general decorum. Paul and I rendezvoused in Berne, before spending 5 days in Switzerland’s most famous and accessible mountainous region, the Berner Oberland.

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Contrary to popular assumption, the capital of Switzerland is not Geneva or Zürich, but the quaint town of Berne, smaller even than Geelong. When the Swiss Confederation was formed, it was determined that the capital should be located roughly equidistance between Geneva and Zürich to placate concerns of French speaking or German speaking dominance. Hence Berne obtained its coveted status in a similar manner to Canberra (between Melbourne and Sydney) and Ottawa (Toronto and Montréal). The World Heritage listed old town occupies a peninsula surrounded by the aqua blue River Aare and features large, Germanic buildings with terracotta roofs and a surprisingly logical grid of cobblestone streets. Numerous church spires and clocktowers break through the mostly uniform architecture, including the 13th century Zytglogge. The Zytglogge with its astronomical clock is the city’s landmark attraction and occupies a commanding position blocking part of a major thoroughfare. Intriguing water fountains are interspersed throughout the old town, providing pedestrians with free crisp alpine water. The relatively flat peninsula is juxtaposed by the steep terrain of the districts on the opposite sides of the Aare, which provide magnificent views of both the old town’s compactness and paddocks located surprisingly close to the city centre (an unusual view in a sovereign capital). Berne is an incredibly green city with botanical gardens, parkland and clusters of huge trees encircling the old town. The city’s famed bear pits, which house the unofficial mascots of the canton (a growling brown bear features on the Bernese flag) has evolved into a proper exhibit freely accessible to the public.

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While Paul and I only spent one afternoon in Berne, I really enjoyed the city’s beauty and summer atmosphere. In the humid weather, my favourite activity was joining hundreds of locals swimming in the River Aare just near the old town. We walked approximately 2km upstream of the main bathing area and jumped into the fast-flowing water, which carried us back to our starting point. As we ambled upstream, we were caught on camera by a local film-crew who naturally burst into hysterics at my witty observation about our brush with fame. We again entertained the film-crew when we floated past them, as I demonstrated perfect butterfly technique while Paul demonstrated anything but. For those unfamiliar with Paul’s professional history, he briefly worked as a swimming instructor – a curious place of employment for someone with a rather dubious ability to swim (fortunately, “teaching” early primary school students in the shallow end of the pool meant that he was always able to stand up during classes).

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The Jungfrau region in the Berner Oberland is one of the world’s great alpine wildernesses. Although highly developed and touristic, the associated infrastructure is actually part of the appeal of travelling through the region. The public transport network is truly phenomenal, a combination of trains, cable-cars and furnicular trams connecting tourists with every village and key viewpoint in the mountainous landscape. Consequently, despite its immense popularity, the Jungfrau region is delightfully absent of cars between Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. While the region is relatively small and can be easily traversed in a day, the innumerable hiking possibilities demand a longer stay. Paul and I looped through the region by catching trains from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg, Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and Grindelwald to Interlaken; all ridiculously scenic and relatively short journeys that naturally departed and arrived at stations to the published minute (everything works in Switzerland). We used Lauterbrunnen, Kleine Scheidegg and Grindelwald as bases for exploring the region and stayed at hostels that would have been acceptable had our beds been made (I really hate paying for a dormitory bed at check-in and then being handed a pile of sheets to labour over – just build an extra 5% into the cost!).

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The village of Lauterbrunnen is located at the bottom of its namesake valley amid unfathomably beautiful scenery. Very steep slopes, even sheer rock faces, rise dramatically on either side of the village just 500m apart. The valley floor is a rich emerald green of lush grazing pastures, with waterfalls cascading to clear streams. The village consists of large, wooden buildings scattered haphazardly on either side of the railway and major thoroughfare, which is festooned with the canton’s flag. On the edge of the village is an incredibly pretty cemetery decorated with roses and with unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape. We were based at the youth hostel in Lauterbrunnen for 3 nights, which featured an outdoor terrace to watch trains chug up the mountain to Wengen.

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Paul’s fat-busting training officially commenced the following day as we hiked to the village of Mürren, which is approximately 800m above Lauterbrunnen and inaccessible by road transport. I intended to ease Paul into the program with a relatively simple trail, and lulled him into a false sense of security by hiking beside him for the duration. It would prove to be a learning experience for me also, as I discovered the immense difficulty in hiking (or should I say dawdling?) at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, our endeavours were certainly more adventurous than most tourists, who opted to invest their life savings in catching a cable-car and tram combination to access Mürren without raising a sweat. After some difficulty in locating the starting point to the trail (such is its infrequent use), we ascended the mountain on an access road through thick coniferous forest and eventually lush pastures, discussing myriad topics including extraterrestrial life and genealogy (Paul’s is far more interesting – no offence Gregory and Stevens families). We were completely alone for the first section of the hike, aside from a farmer who kept driving past and neglecting to offer us a lift. However, we encountered hordes of tourists at the cable-car station that would choose to complete the final section (flattish terrain) on foot, as if they were making an impressive physical output. Unsurprisingly, they were even slower than Paul, so we strode past them effortlessly into Mürren. The village sprawls on the side of the slope and consists of huge wooden alpine dwellings with lovely gardens. We lunched on a bench overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley and were fortuitous the overcast weather briefly cleared, allowing us to enjoy astonishing views of the region’s famed 3 peaks (Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau) and the dramatic sheer cliffs of the valley. We hiked at roughly the same level to Gimmelwald,, another car-less village, and then descended a steep trail. Shamefully, we were overtaken on the descent by a school group (Paul’s fault). It started to rain when we return to the valley floor in Stechelberg, so Paul suggested we switch to his preferred form of hiking, hitchhiking, and quickly secured us a ride back to Lauterbrunnen from a generous Swiss man (not a descriptor I typically associate with Switzerland).

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We tackled the other side of the valley the next day by hiking to Männlichen, renowned for its panoramic views of the contrasting Lauterbrunnen (steep and narrow) and Grindelwald (gradual and expansive) valleys. Even though Paul was commendably ready at a respectable hour, we were still time restricted and decided to catch the train to the car-less village of Wengen first before proceeding. Needless to say, we failed to spot any of the hundred-odd passengers that disembarked with us at Wengen on the trail to Männlichen. For the second instalment of Paul’s training program, I instigated a relentless pace on the steep and unforgiving trail upwards to shock his body into some tough work. Since the weather was overcast and dreary, there was essentially no purpose in breaking. While Paul persevered, he eventually had to conclude that he was unable to handle the intensity and stopped mid-way (for a slightly excessive time period). We hiked through the cloud for the final stretch of the trail, as Paul valiantly conquered the trail without the need for more rest (although he straggled behind considerably). The reward for our arduous climb? Rain, coldness and absolutely no view. We weren’t even afforded kindness, as a grumpy Swiss woman kicked us out of the cavernous and completely empty cafeteria on the mountaintop for “making a picnic”. The Swiss, with all their filthy wealth, won’t even provide tourists with a free shelter to hide from the elements to eat their lunch at. An utter disgrace. On the descent, since we realised there would be absolutely no possibility of enjoying a view, we broke the natural serenity by listening to the last quarter of Hawthorn’s brilliant end-of-season victory over Sydney in Sydney (tantamount to a premiership). Paul then imposed us to listen to outdated heavy metal tunes, which he was thankfully too self-conscious to play when we returned to Wengen.

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The train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg was probably the most spectacular stretch of rail I have ever had the privilege of enjoying. Strangely, Paul’s mood was inexplicably sour that morning, although I suppose 3 full days of exposure to The Hummus Emperor will have that effect! As the train travelled higher into the Berner Oberland, the mountainous scenery became ever more breathtaking. We were extremely lucky to enjoy sunny weather, allowing us to view the snow covered profiles of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau as we eventually skirted their bases. Kleine Scheidegg is not actually a town, but rather a railway junction at a mountain pass with a connection to Jungfraujoch. Nevertheless, you can stay at a handful of hotels at Kleine Scheidegg and explore the numerous trails sprouting from the station. The area is characteristically Swiss, with herds of cows with their (somewhat irritating) bells grazing on the slopes below sublime icy peaks. We didn’t hike on any specific trail, but rather scrambled over the bare terrain to find the best views of the triple peaks and the Eiger Glacier. This was an intentional ploy for the third stage of Paul’s training, in order to encourage him to take the lead by establishing our direction and pace (I only stepped in on occasion to avert potentially critical issues). We even dabbled in a spot of rock-climbing and abseiling, though abandoned that endeavour when the ropes began to ascend waterfalls.

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The Jungfrau Railway operates from Kleine Scheidegg (2,061m) to the highest railway station in Europe at Jungfraujoch (3,454m), traversing through a 9km tunnel within the Eiger and Monch mountains. This touristic railway, an incredible testament to Swiss engineering, was completed nearly a century ago after decades of planning, construction and many deaths. At $150-$300 for a return journey, it is surely one of the most expensive forms of transport per kilometre in the world. I decided to consider a trip to the “Top of Europe” as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and paid for a ticket, while Paul engaged in the final lesson of his alpine training program before the examination – hiking alone. Jungfraujoch is connected to a series of tunnels leading to a tourist complex and an outdoor observatory station. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning was rather overcast, so when I arrived at the observatory station, the views were almost completely obscured by cloud. But as I shivered in the 1 degree temperature, the cloud conditions gradually parted to reveal a full perspective of the Aletsch Glacier sprawling below us, the largest glacier in the Alps with a length of 23km. On the opposite side of the station, I could view the green mountains of the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys and the mountain pass of Kleine Scheidegg. A 30 minute hiking trail through the snow to another viewing area is also provided to allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the setting. Needless to say, the views were absolutely stupefying.

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Paul and I caught another train down from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald, easily the most accessible village in the Jungfrau region and therefore the busiest and my least favourite. Its location is still tremendously captivating, as the village is spread out on the slopes of a bowl-like valley with the icy peak of Eiger on one side and green peaks on the other. On our fifth day in the region, we caught a cable-car to the minor summit of First and commenced hiking to Faulhorn under the blazing sun. It would prove to be Paul’s day, as he hiked at an impressive clip and I beamed proudly at the strides my protégé had come. The relatively flat trail, high above the treeline and affording constantly magnificent views, was littered with slow-pokes and targets for us to overtake. The final 45 minutes to Faulhorn however was up a gruellingly steep slope, which was the ultimate test for Paul’s progress. Similar to our hike to Männlichen, I refused us the luxury of breaking and set an aggressive pace. Miraculously, Paul not only handled the pace with aplomb, he even pushed further. He was so bursting with energy and determined to beat his mentor that he sprinted the final section to the top. It was undoubtedly Paul’s greatest athletic achievement, as I have been overtaken only 3 times while hiking uphill in the past 6 years, and a true testament to my inspirational coaching abilities. At Faulhorn, we had fantastic views of the mountains surrounding the Grindelwald Valley on one side of the ridge and Lake Brienz on the other. We then spent a leisurely 4 hours descending through pastures and forest to Grindelwald, encountering far less foot traffic on the way.

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Alpine cuisine in Switzerland is probably delicious and entirely appropriate for the environs, but it was grossly unaffordable for me to conduct a thorough diagnostic. The only dish with a remotely acceptable price is the carb rich Swiss specialty of rösti. Rösti consists of shredded potato clumped together in a paddy like formation and deep fried (similar to an oversized hash brown). I sampled rösti in Lauterbrunnen as a main dish, covered in ham and mushroom on one side and cheese on the other, and in Kleine Schidegg as a side dish to sausage. Nice, but nothing special. We otherwise depended on cheese, salami and bread for lunch and pasta and lentils for dinner, which had a most unfortunate impact on Paul’s digestive system. It was quickly apparent on the first evening that I would need to be on cooking duties, as Paul spent 10 minutes dicing an onion (unfinished) on a steel hot plate he had mistaken for a chopping board.

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Despite our extensive and often simultaneous overseas jaunts, Paul and I had never properly travelled together – just met up briefly in the Netherlands and Belgium. So our trip through the Berner Oberland was a new and very successful chapter in a two decade friendship. Hiking in the Alps on my own would have been a spectacular experience (and generally more efficient), but so much less fun than laughing hysterically with Paul at our nutty jokes. Thanks to Paul for joining me in Switzerland and providing an easy target for this entry – it was all too short!

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Switzerland photos

Posted by Liamps 00:08 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Savoy

France photos

Despite my extensive travels through Europe and passion for mountainous hiking, I had never previously explored the Alps, the proverbial “top” of the continent. So I decided to prioritise visiting the region and spent nearly two weeks in the French and Swiss Alps. The highest mountains in France are located in Savoy, a historical region in the southeast of the country bordering Switzerland and Italy. The region was formerly incorporated into the French state in only 1860, having previously been ruled by the Counts, Dukes and eventually Kings of the House of Savoy for nearly 900 years (Europe’s longest reigning dynasty became the royal household of the Kingdom of Italy, but were dethroned after World War II). While the local population speaks French, Savoyard culture and identity remains strong, reflected in the alpine architecture and cuisine. I stayed for two nights each in the lakeside town of Annecy and the skiing resort village of Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc - the European Union’s highest peak.

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Annecy is quite possibly the most beautiful small town in Europe. Colloquially referred to as the “Venice of the Alps”, Annecy’s pedestrianised old town is interspersed with several aqua blue canals connecting to the northwestern corner of Lake Annecy. The canals are traversed by pretty stone bridges and aligned with innumerable flower pots. Like in Venice, many of the buildings directly front the canals and display picturesque signs of decay. The architecture appears to be somewhat of a hybrid of influences, with the bulbous volume and structural form of alpine buildings and the pastel colours, terracotta roofs and stonework symptomatic of the Mediterranean. The old town’s commercialism is entirely devoted to the tourism industry, yet the successful preservation of its aesthetic character has ensured it remains a pleasant area to amble through. Thrice weekly a produce market takes over the cobblestone streets of the old town, cramming them with patrons eager to purchase Savoyard fruit, vegetables, cheese, charcuterie and sweets.

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Annecy boasts a sublime location adjacent a pristine lake and surrounded by alpine mountains and forests, establishing the town as a prime centre for physical endeavour. In the winter months, Annecy is used as a base for snow and ice sports and previously submitted a bid for the 2018 Olympic Games. In the summer months, canoeing on the lake or cycling in the nearby countryside are exceedingly popular. I chose to dabble in a day of hiking in my first non-urban activity in nearly a month of travel. I walked east through the beautiful parkland on the northern side of the lake to access a slightly inconspicuous entrance point for the trail leading to Mont Veyreir. The relatively easy climb passed through pristine deciduous forest and eventually coniferous forest at higher altitude. At the summit, I was treated to outstanding views of Lake Annecy and its environs under the blazing sun. I found the descent somewhat more difficult, as I struggled to rediscover the correct path back to Annecy due to insufficient signage on the maze of trails crisscrossing the slopes. At the base, I concluded the day with a brief swim in cool water of the lake.

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Upon arriving in Chamonix, I immediately suffered through a deluge for the first time this trip, signifying an abrupt conclusion to shorts and T-shirt weather. I travelled to Chamonix specifically to see Mont Blanc, but the chances of this occurring seemed grim in the thick, cloudy conditions of the afternoon. I had originally considered partaking in Tour du Mont Blanc, a famous 10 day trek around the base of the mountain through France, Italy and Switzerland. But I didn’t particularly like the idea of spending half that time trudging through the rain, so I instead delayed my arrival in the region to further my exploration of cuisine française in the sunny cities of the South. Unlike Annecy, Chamonix is an archetypal alpine village, with stone and timber dwellings situated on spacious grassy blocks spread throughout a valley. The town centre consists wide streets and large stone buildings with prominent sloping rooftops (for the snow), and is decorated with innumerable flags and colourful flowerpots.

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I was fortuitous to wake up in the morning to moderately clear weather, allowing me to view snow-capped peaks and glaciers on one side of the valley. I’m not entirely sure if I actually viewed Mont Blanc, or if the surrounding massifs blocked the view from the bottom of the valley, but nevertheless the scenery was quite epic. A cable car operates from the town centre to the top of one of the massifs for panoramic views of the Alps. Since the ticket was exceedingly expensive, I decide to pay half price – and disembark at a station half way up. This allowed me to hike along a very popular route for approximately 4 hours to Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France. I hiked well above the treeline, which allowed for continuously spectacular views of the valley and surrounding peaks. I lunched on a rocky outcrop dramatically located above the glacier and below spiky, shard-like peaks. When I descended to the train station servicing the viewpoint of the glacier, I was surprised to discover my ticket included access to a man-made ice cave carved from the glacier. The cave features numerous ice sculptures and has to be carved out annually as the glacier moves 70m every year. I caught the famed Montveners train back to Chamonix, which descends nearly 900m in just 5km.

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Travelling from Provence to Savoy was a demonstration of the extraordinary culinary variety between France’s regions. While Provençal cuisine is defined by its Mediterranean influences, with the abundant use of tomatoes, fresh vegetables and olive oil and its relative lightness, Savoyard cuisine is more closely related to the rich, dairy-dominated comfort food of neighbouring alpine countries. Cheese is king in the Alps and features as the prominent ingredient in most dishes – even throughout three course meals! The carb and dairy excess of Savoy is epitomised in the delectable calorie bonanza of tartiflette. Despite its ubiquitous presence in traditional Savoyard restaurants, the recipe was actually invented in the 1980s to promote the sales of reblochon cheese. The dish consists of sliced potatoes, onions, bacon and reblochon cheese baked in a ceramic dish, with the richness typically offset (slightly) by a garden salad. While in Savoy, other cheesy concoctions I sampled included ravioli smothered in reblochon cheese sauce, pork smothered in reblochon cheese sauce and served with potatoes au gratin, and onion soup with gruyère. In Annecy, I picnicked on a huge range of products purchased at the market: pepper saucisson (French equivalent of salami with countless varieties), rotisserie chicken and lard-soaked potatoes, a semi-soft cheese with a blue vein through the middle, ever so sweet cherry tomatoes, magnificent figs, baguette and a decadent chocolate slice.

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My time in Savoy concluded an absolutely brilliant 3 week stay in France, which I’ve definitely elevated to one of my favourite countries in the world. And I’ve only scratched the surface with France, with so many other regions yet to be explored...

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That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 22:53 Archived in France Comments (1)

Provence

France photos

Since researching my inaugural trip to Europe, I have always wanted to visit Provence in the South of France. Unfortunately, Provence was a victim of itinerary adjustments on 2013’s excessively planned Globo Trip as I reduced the time allocated to France (Zambia and Malawi were the alternative destinations!). I finally rectified that outcome by prioritising a visitation to Provence after the Games in Paris and spent 5 days exploring the region. I based myself in the medieval papal city of Avignon and visited nearby towns and attractions on day-trips, which was easily managed with efficient train and bus connections. Provence successfully lived up to pre-conceived expectations I had of the region, with beautiful sandstone old towns, Mediterranean gardens, rolling hills of vineyards, magnificent produce, delicious regional cuisine and near constant sunlight.

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Avignon is a small city of approximately 100,000, yet its historical significance is monumental. The city was founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers and quickly became a strategically important regional centre due to its fortifiable location on a rock and adjacent the Rhône. Avignon was absorbed into the Roman Empire and become part of the first transalpine province. After dozens of changes to rulership in the early middle ages, Avignon became the Pontifical seat and capital of Western Christianity in 1309. Five successive popes resided in the city, with each adding to the gargantuan Palais de Popes (as opposed to, say, helping the poor. You have to admire the blatant hypocrisy of the Catholic hierarchy). The building, considered to be one of the best examples of Gothic palatial architecture in the world, utterly dominates the skyline of the modern-day city. The popes also constructed the medieval walls that encircle the old town of Avignon, an evocative reminder and unique vestige of the city’s past. The Papacy returned to Rome in 1377, although Avignon remained an enclave of the Holy See until 1791 when it was formerly incorporated into France. The vast old town now consists predominately of 19th century buildings, a smattering of Romanesque churches, narrow winding streets and charming hidden squares with fountains and trees.

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The Rhône briefly splits into two branches near Avignon, the Petit Rhône and Grand Rhône, with the largest inland island in France located in between. Extending from Avignon’s old town is the remaining 4 arches of Pont Saint-Bénézet, a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhône and consisted of 22 arches. On the opposite side of the river is Villenevue-les-Avignon, an even prettier sandstone town than Avignon. A monumental fortress occupies the hilltop above the town, which formerly housed a large French garrison when Avignon was still a papal enclave. The area inside the walls now consists of a beautiful Mediterranean garden with tremendous views over Avignon and the surrounding countryside.

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The South of France is scattered with Roman ruins, as the region was one of the earliest conquests of the Roman Republic. The most glorious vestige of Roman rule is Pont du Gard, a remarkable aqueduct bridge spanning a scenic valley. Aqueducts were constructed in Roman provinces for both functional and symbolic purposes, as they were an explicit demonstration to local populations of the technology, wealth and power the Roman state possessed. Pont du Gard was constructed in the first century AD as part of an aqueduct system carrying water 50km to the Roman colony of Nîmes. Pont du Gard is the tallest Roman aqueduct at nearly 50m in height and has a gradient of just 1 in 18,241, a phenomenal testament to the precision of Roman engineering! The three-tier aqueduct bridge, traversing a beautiful river used for swimming and canoeing, is idyllically located amid Mediterranean scrub and is definitely one of the most impressive ancient monuments I have visited.

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I caught a train about 45 minutes south of Avignon to the historic city of Arles; an important centre during Roman times and the subject of innumerable Van Gogh paintings. The narrow, winding and mostly pedestrianised streets of the World Heritage listed old town are stupefyingly beautiful, with pastel buildings framed by brilliantly coloured doors and windows and verdant vinery. Seemingly around every corner in Arles is another streetscape begging to be photographed. The compact urban fabric opens up in patches to reveal a Baroque square, the ruins of a Roman theatre and, brilliantly, a massive Roman colosseum. Unfortunately I did not enter the extraordinary edifice because it was being used to host bull racing, a sport from the Camargue region of Provence with an ethically questionable reputation.

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The French adoration and respect for la terain, “the land”, is explicitly demonstrated at street markets, which occur in each Provençal town once per week. I visited the Friday market in Carpentras, which completely takes over the streets of the town centre with over 500 stalls displaying the incredible bounty of Provence. The market bursts with colour from the fresh produce of the fruit and vegetable stalls selling piles of peaches, apricots, grapes, pears, berries, cantaloupes, lettuces, aubergines, capsicums and superb tomatoes. Fromagerie stalls offer a myriad of Provence’s famed and mouthwatering goat’s cheeses, from fresh to aged and natural to marinated. Charcuterie stalls abound with local speciality hams, saucissons, terrines and pates. Other prized ingredients abundant at the market include lavender, honey, extra virgin olive oil, olives, garlic, nougat and rosé. Permeating throughout the streets are the intoxicating aromas of the rotisseries, which originate in Provence. Chickens basted in a tomato sauce slowly rotate on spits, with potatoes and stuffed vegetables cooked in the resultant dripping on a hot plate at the bottom. Visiting a street market is an unmissable aspect of Provence to observe how the French rightfully celebrate the food from their lands.

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Provençal cuisine is essentially a fusion of French and Italian influences, creating one of the greatest regional cuisines in the world. The diet is noticeably lighter than elsewhere in France, with the prolific use of olive oil (instead of butter) and vegetables. Nevertheless, my opening
Provençal meal was an artery clogging 3 cheese tartine (open faced grilled sandwich), offset at least my a walnut and butternut lettuce salad. In Avignon, I enjoyed 2 superb multi-course dinners. The first started with a goat’s cheese and herbs cheesecake with smoked salmon and tomato salad, followed by quail with a creamy barley side and a lemon curd to conclude. The second dinner consisted of Provençal stuffed vegetables (highlight dish- tomatoes and zucchinis stuffed with a spiced pork mixture and served with red wine sauce and salad), fried white fish with ratatouille and a citrusy cake. In Arles, I had the opportunity to enjoy one of my favourite French dishes: steak tartare. The ground raw beef topped with a raw egg yolk was flavoured with capers and finely chopped cornichons and red onion and served with fried potatoes and salad with a mustard vinaigrette. In Avignon, I feasted on a lunch tasting plate of Provençal specialties, which included zucchini gaspacho (very refreshing), salmon and rocket cream wrap (rich), carrot and turmeric pudding (strangely pleasant) and Serrano ham with cantaloupe (easily the best melons I have ever eaten were in Provence). This was followed by a decadent chocolate and pistachio fondant with strawberries and red currants. One of my favourite experiences in Provence was to picnic on local specialties on the balcony of my Airbnb, watching the sky colour gradually change At sunset above the terracotta roofs.

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Provence was yet another French destination I absolutely loved for the climate, history, architecture, food and lifestyle. I only scratched the surface in my fleeting visit of Provence; for example, I never even managed to explore the region’s picturesque villages and varying landscapes. Doubtless I will be returning to this wonderful pocket of the world in the future.

That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 23:16 Archived in France Comments (1)

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