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A basic luxury

The tides of fortune ebb and flow. Periods of economic prosperity are often preceded and succeeded by periods of austerity. At any given moment in time, the flow of people in and out of a country will be greater or smaller. And while Hungarians appear to be emigrating at a rapid rate, Georgians are returning home.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 and the two-term president Mikheil Saakashvili elected that year apparently put the country on the road to economic prosperity. But theirs is still a journey. The country has a ways to go before everyone gets to benefit. The signs are there, though. With little by way of natural resources like oil and gas and precious minerals, Georgia’s biggest assets are its scenic beauty, its culture, its traditions, and its people.

IMG_5654 (800x600)In Kutaisi recently, the country’s second city, I got chatting to 37-year-old Zaali. He returned to Georgia in 2015 having spent time Canada and Spain working construction. He speaks four languages and has an innate interest in people that makes him the perfect host. Less than a year ago he opened his business and set about capitalizing on the growth of tourism.

Zaali owns and runs Hostel Luxe, a hostel close to the bus and train stations that has mixed dorm rooms, double rooms with ensuites, family rooms, and apartments. His is one of many hostels to open in the city recently and with competition quite tough, he had to find his edge. And he did. He offers free transport to and from Kutaisi’s international airport, about 20 km outside the city.

For travellers who are used to staying in mid to high-end hotels, free transportation to and from the airport is a given. For those on expense accounts, it hardly matters. For those who are not on a budget, taxis provide a handy option. But for those who are travelling on limited funds, this is a luxury. He told me how one young woman from Ukraine danced a jig when she saw her name on his larger-than-usual placard. She was delighted with her welcome and said she felt special.

It’s been a lifetime or three since I last stayed in a hostel. If I’m travelling on my own dime, my priority is location. I don’t need anything extravagant. But I need clean. And I need free Internet. If I’m travelling to a country where the language is going to be a challenge, I try to schedule flights that get land at a reasonable hour. I avoid early mornings and late nights. I need to find my way around and do so in the light of day. If I can’t manage this, then I take a taxi.

Given all the choice there is for accommodation in Kutaisi, I chose Hostel Luxe because it offers free transport to and from the airport [the flight from Budapest lands around 5 am on a Saturday morning  and departs shortly after the following Tuesday]. With airport transfer available, there was no faffing around with changing currency or finding bus stops. And there’s something to being said for being met in person when you arrive somewhere. It all adds to the experience.

Not being the chattiest of people in the morning, I was dreading the idea of shared space. The room had a TV which I’d gladly have swapped for a desk and a table but I had to make do with working in the common area … and socialising. I met some interesting people, heard some interesting stories, and enjoyed his dad’s fabulous wine. Zaali also offers car rentals and reasonably priced guided tours. He’s thought of it all. This, he says, is his happy job. Budget travellers from Budapest travelling to Kutaisi should check him out. http://carrentkutaisi.com/en/home/

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2016

ABC?

Many moons ago, a priest friend of mine visiting Budapest begged me not to take him on an ABC tour. Him being a priest, Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic came to mind. I was a tad confused until he explained: I don’t want to see Another Bloody Church. I was reminded of this when Zaali suggested (read: stated) that we should visit the Prometheus caves before heading to the monasteries. I thought: not another bloody cave. But it would have been churlish to refuse, even though Sataplia was cave enough for me.

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En route, we passed through the town of Tsalktabo, which once boasted a direct train to Moscow. It was here that Russia’s rich and favoured would flock to the various spas and sanatoriums where they would enjoy the healthy waters and medicinal treatments, not to mention fine food and wine and the excellent Georgian hospitality. Today most of these massive buildings lie empty, slowly falling down. The previous president apparently had plans to turn the town into a mini Vegas by closing all casinos around the country (and there are plenty) and relocating them all here. It would contain the gambling in one spot and rejuvenate the dying town. Plans have since changed. There is one spa currently in operation (from what I saw – there could well be more) and it looks half-built in places. The local park looks like it stopped mid-development, too. It’s for all the world like an abandoned movie set. Had we had time to stop and explore some more, I’d have done  it. But we were on a schedule.

BT Prometheus2 (800x600)In the shadow  of Khvamli Mountain – where Prometheus was allegedly enchained and relentlessly tortured by a raven – lie the caves that have taken his name. Discovered more than 30 years ago by some local students, the Prometheus Caves are now one of Georgia’s top attractions. Apparently quite a number of domestic animals had gone missing in the locale – they’d been falling into the cave network. Eight hundred steps need to be negotiated to see the full beauty of that part of the cave system that is open to the public. Some 25 km long in total, just under 1.5km is traversed by tourists on a daily basis. There’s a constant temperature of 14 degrees Celsius with 97% humidity. The pools are home to blind fish that have no eyes (don’t need to see) and no pigment. Weird.

BT Promethus1 (800x600)As we made our way through the five main halls (Tip: If you take a guided tour, be sure to stay up front or you will miss most of it) I found myself in constant debate – I liked the lights and I didn’t like the lights. I couldn’t decide. But when we got to the main hall, we were treated to a spectacular light show accompanied by music: the score of Yellow leaves, composed by the famous Georgian composer (who knew?) Gia Kancheli. It was mesmerizing.

IMG_5494 (800x600)There are two options to get back to the beginning – take a bus/train (whichever is parked outside when you surface) or take a 300-metre boat ride. I’d boated before through the caves in Tapolca and was still living the experience so we got the train. The cost of the tour? 6 GEL (~ €2.50, 770 huf, $2.75). It was worth it just to hear the music.

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Check this site for better photographs.

 

 

 

First day in the second city

My last attempt to visit Georgia had to be aborted due in part to being refused a visa for Azerbaijan (I wanted to get the midnight train from Baku to Tbilisi) and in part because my eye sorta popped a few blood vessels. This time, I made it (on the midnight plane from Budapest to Kutaisi). Being clueless about the city (the legislative capital and the second-largest city in the country), I had little by way of expectations.

IMG_5173 (800x600)We stayed about a 30-minute walk from the centre, an interesting walk lined with pharmacies and pastry shops, blocks of apartments ala Communist mode, and shops laden with shelves organised by colour. There is no shortage of cleaning materials and washing detergents.

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IMG_5196 (800x600)Cable car (800x735)We knew we’d arrived in the city centre when we hit Rioni River. There’s  a statue of a boy with two hats on what’s known as White Bridge (Tetrikhidi). Legend has it that he stole the hats from two gentlemen and then dove into the river to escape. It is to Kutaisi what the Little Princess is to Budapest.

In need of coffee, we stopped at the White Stone Café which back at the turn of the last century was a haven for poets and writers attempting to move the country forward. We watched the cable car cross over the river and wondered where it was going. We’d find out later.

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IMG_5367 (800x596)There’s a curious mix of old and new with my vote going to the old. The city is definitely getting a facelift of sorts. Not nearly on the scale of the cosmetic treatment Budapest has been undergoing but there are signs. I’m torn between wishing it would stay the same and wanting to see what it would look like cleaned up. The colours of age-old rust and crumbling paint add a texture that a newness misses completely.
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Wandering through the city was quite the experience. Tourists were few and far between (a novelty) and the locals were out and about and enjoying their Saturday afternoons. No one seemed to be tied to time and indeed lots of the local attractions
stay open way past what I’ve come to expect as normal.

Armed with directions and suggestions from the very friendly Giorgio at the tourist office, which included back roads, hidden steps, and windy lanes, we decided that we would spend Saturday in the city, Sunday at the monasteries, and Monday at the beach. We only had three days but already, within the first three hours, we’d agreed that we needed to come back – and come back for longer.  Kutaisi may well be the second city in terms of size and the third perhaps in terms of  tourism, but it promised so much in terms of culture and experience.

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BT House (800x600)The Chain Bridge (Jachvis Khidi) is impressive, given the location. But the metal work everywhere is even more intriguing. Houses are built on two levels, with a wrap around balcony on the first floor with a sweeping staircase. I found a few I could happily live in.

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Every city probably has its signature piece, that one place that appears on calendars and chocolate boxes. Kutaisi is spoiled for choice but the Kolkhida Fountain probably gets top billing. Built in 2011 it has 30 gold-plated statues,  copies of those found in the Kolkhida lowlands archaelogical dig. It is
stunning. We meant to go back and see it at night but that didn’t happen… next time.

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IMG_5391 (600x800)While we weren’t  exactly tripping over bars and restaurants, the ones that were open and running and doing business were doing well. Coffee shops are on the rise (as they are everywhere) but thankfully, the chains like Starbucks and Costa have yet to make an appearance. We stayed in the city to eat that evening and made three attempts to leave Palaty, the restaurant we ended up in. The music was good, the food was great, and the wine was better again. The staff were friendly, helpful, and so welcoming. And sure we were in no rush to go anywhere.

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2016 Grateful 28

Apart from the obvious environmental repercussions, the stress that can accompany airline travel makes me wonder why I persist. Not every flight is stressful but say, on average, 3/10 do mad things to my blood pressure and 1/10 makes me seriously consider never flying again.

There’s the queuing system – or the lack of it – or worse still, the complete disregard for it. I’ve travelled on planes to and from Hungary for too long now to still let this bother me. I have schooled myself to tolerate those who blatantly ignore the fact that others (perhaps in their stupidity) have been standing in line for 30 minutes waiting to board the plane, and just cut in, impervious to the looks of incredulation that turn to muted anger and often end up in loud declamations of ‘The nerve of some people!’ All ignored with an aplomb that varies by nation.

On a recent flight to Georgia, however, it bordered on the ridiculous. The flight leaves at 23.55 pm on a Friday night. Ours was one of two flights still to depart. The airport was empty. People lolled around in seeming indifference. All very
relaxed. And then came the boarding call. We were on time and wondering where everyone was. It seemed like we would have the plane to ourselves – or as good as. And then they came, in their droves, pushing their way to the front without so much as a by your leave. The priority doors opened and we went outside. For a brief moment, I was first and then the group broke around me, pressed to the cordon, like horses in a starting box waiting for the starter’s cry: And they’re off. The attendant knew enough to stand back quickly lest he get caught in the stampede.

I check baggage allowances. I’ve fallen victim too often to the vagaries of airport personnel. I make sure I’m on target. One piece. 15.6 kg max. And if I need more, I pay for it. When the minimum luggage allowance is ignored on some flights and strictly enforced on others, I wonder how many prozac prescriptions could be laid at the door of the likes of WizzAir. Some had three and four bags and not an eyelid was batted. One girl had to have help carrying one of hers, it was that heavy.

air rageI pay for an aisle seat with extra leg room. I pay money. Good money. And when I’m asked to move because the airline sold the window seat in the emergency row to someone who didn’t meet their criteria to sit in that seat … my blood pressure rockets. Why should poor planning on their part constitute inconvenience on mine?
The return flight was worse. Kutaisi airport has been open just six years and has yet to master the basic pleasantries of airline travel.

  • If a flight is delayed two hours, tell the people why. Consider doing the same even if it’s only delayed an hour.
  • If you don’t accept pdf boarding passes, tell your passengers that they have to queue up at check-in even if they are not checking in bags.
  • If you have people being battered and pummeled in the queue, stick in a few ropes.  Ropes work.

It was bedlam. Bedlam. Absolutely NO regard at all for common courtesy. It was every man or woman for themself. Anger that has been a stranger for years returned with a vengence. I could have swung for the woman behind me – and the one to the side of me – and the one in front of me.

Queuing for security, you had to completely finish and go through the metal detector before I could even approach the desk. So we had two queues – the queue for security and the queue for the queue for security. Madness. [Aside: the new system at Dublin airport, with its four bucket stations is great.]

air rage 2On the plane, the same havoc ensued. Some with seats up front, boarded through the rear cabin door, causing major traffic jams. I put this down to them being infrequent flyers. Bags were being piled in the overhead bins anywhich way. Again, perhaps they knew no better. Annoying but it can happen. What cannot be excused is the complete ignorance and lack of common courtesy shown when attempting to retrieve bags from the overhead bins. They simply would not move so I could reach over. All they had to do was to step back into their seat for less than 10 seconds – but no. They stared blankly ahead in muted defiance to the point where exasperation gave way and I screamed: ‘You are the rudest women I have met in years.’ Not loud loud, but with enough projection to blow them back a few paces and let me in to get my bag.

That return flight to Georgia ranks right up there on my WORST ever flight with WizzAir, knocking a trip to Venice some years ago from the top stop.

So what’s to be grateful about, you wonder? Well the flight was going to Kutaisi, Georgia. An absolutely stunning place, with lovely people (who have yet to be corrupted by air travel or perhaps have mastered the niceties thereof), fabulous food, and a wealth of new experiences. More on all that this week.

 

 

 

Invisible

A couple of months ago, I thought Azerbaijan was a country on the other side of Serbia. Geography was never one of my strong subjects. I’m quite famous for my appalling sense of direction, so my faux pas is quite understandable, at least given my peculiar logic.

It was only last week that I realised exactly where it is – nestled close to Georgia and Armenia on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Steeped in history, religions, and rulers, and a former member of the USSR, Azerbaijan is now one of those fascinating places that seem to hover on the brink of that imaginary line between east and west. Fuelled by oil money, the capital, Baku, is undergoing a major facelift. Health and safety is non-existent. At best, you might have a lookout on the scaffolding that checks for pedestrians before his mate empties shards of brick and glass down on to the street, presumably to be swept up later.

Kerbstones are nearly a foot high – you literally climb on and off the footpath – those you can find, because they’re few and far between once you come off the main streets. Walking along the sides of the roads, competing with the traffic for space, is quite the battle, one I’m losing badly. I remember being in Bangalore some years ago and being terrified of the traffic. Lakshminaryana made me walk back and forth across a very wide and busy road six times without running. He told me that no-one would run me over. Pedestrians ruled. Not so in Baku. It’s a constant game of chicken. Quite the adrenalin rush. Current score: Vehicles 27. Mary 1. And that particular showdown left me reeling!

The Lonely Planet has this to say about Azeri mindset: Muslim yet beer-loving, Turkic yet Eurocentric, overwhelmingly hospitable yet plagued by a strong vein of Soviet-era suspicion. mmm…I can only assume that it was written by a man, or else the pendulum has swung towards suspicion rather than hospitality since that particular book was published. The minute I enter a shop, an assistant approaches and sticks to me like velcro. Hovering at my elbow, just looking. Always beside me. My smiles and ‘I’m just looking’ have no effect. I’m obviously not to be trusted or else customer service has been taken just a little too far along the attentive line.

While walking around the city yesterday, I was struck by how many men there are in Baku. And more peculiarly again, the women I did see all seemed to be carbon copies of each other. Ok – it’s bloody cold here and it could well have been that they all shopped in the same place, but there was an unsettling similarity between these heavily made-up, hennaed, long-coated women – a hardness that I’ve not come across before.

I keep thinking of Bangalore… walking down Mahatma Gandhi street one night, I commented to Lakshminaryana about men urinating on the side of the street. He told me that only foreigners notice because no man, while in the act, will make eye contact with anyone, and no self-respecting Indian will look his way, either. So, in effect, the peeing man is invisible. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon. Invisible. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure I was awake and stopped longer than usual looking at my reflection in shop windows to make sure I was actually there. It was most peculiar. No-one made eye contact with me and I soon stopped trying to make eye contact with them. It was quite surreal. In the underground malls, those shop-lined passageways beneath the roads, people walked straight at me. I don’t think I’ve walked a straight line since I arrived in Baku.  This weaving and dodging at least keeps the blood flowing.  Did I mention how cold it is?