Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso

Its time for January date weekend with hubby, and this time we are heading to Tromso, optimistically hoping to view the northern lights. Hubby is an avid photographer and is all prepped with 10kg of camera gear including a tripod and a remote shutter. I have done some googling, and my expectations are managed, in that I am expecting to see absolutley nothing. Duncan Craig from the Times has managed my expectations well….

The northern lights isn’t really a holiday. It’s a bucket-list impostor, a low-season-filling, opportunistic marketing exercise propped up by a million calendars and screensavers and a swanky Latin name — “Behold the aurora borealis and its mystical wallet-emptying powers.” Your chances of seeing that? Vanishingly small. It’s a £2 scratchcard of a holiday. Which costs £2,000.

Norwegian Air conveniently has direct flights from Gatwick to Tromso, which is one of the many places where you can see the lights (there are so many articles to be honest, it was all a bit of a crap shoot but I had narrowed target locations down to Tromso and Ivalo, and only Tromso had easy flights). After a wonderful quiet three hours on the plane getting work done (i love planes for working), we arrived in Tromso at 7pm, in the pitch black and took a quick taxi to town using the extensive network of tunnels

Tromso Harbour

Gastronomy in Tromso – Hubby had done his homework and we headed out for an outstanding meal at SMAK – run by a delightful husband and wife team, the service was wonderfully friendly, and the food would have held its own next to Noma, but was truly extraordinary to find in a tiny town like Tromso. Everything was locally sourced but the highlights were the wild lamb hot dogs, the cod tongues, the local veal with mushrooms, a yogurt sorbet with toffee and an amazing blackcurrant souffle.

Escaping the city to Malangen – Waking up the next morning, I was surprised that there was some light in the sky at 8am. After a sturdy Scandinavian breakfast we wandered around town and then took the shuttle bus out to the Malangen Resort with Steve the worlds friendliest driver. Malangen is a c 90 minute drive from Tromso across islands and around fjords. The weather was clear and the views were stunning, with the sun tantalisingly just below the horizon.

View through the trees at 1pm
View of the cabins
Malangen Fjord

10 minutes of sunshine – We arrived at 12.30 and the sun was peeking above the mountain, apparently, it surfaces for ten minutes every day at this time of the year. We went for a stroll and by 1.30 it was already getting dark. It was a balmy minus five degrees. Our cabin was a lovely typical red scandinavian cabin, so we ended up having a very very lazy afternoon doing not much with the log fire roaring and the sky getting darker and darker outside.

Lake front cabins (ours was one of the further cabins)

Dinner was an uninspiring arctic char for me, and a very dry reindeer shank for Stephane. But we were happy to have full stomachs to keep us warm for our evening activity of waiting for the Northern Lights.

A man fishing
Morning on the fjord

The northern lights – We rugged up, (the resort lends you very fetching onesies and boots) and headed up the hill to Camp Nikka which is secluded spot facing North which has the best local viewing and no light pollution. We got lucky and the lights came straight away. I was expecting extraordinary dancing green lights, and that wasn’t actually what I got. With the naked eye, it was more like looking at standard city light pollution, but when viewed through the lens of a camera photo (with a long slow shutter), you have the terrific green effect. Hubby had a ball playing with all his camera gear, the highlight being an intervalometer so he could leave the camera running while popping back to the fire for a hot chocolate. It was brisk (minus 15 degrees), but quite lovely to wander around in the dark enjoying the stars. It was a late night, getting back to the resort around 2am.

The Sami Lavuu with fire pit to warm up while watching

Cross country skiing virgins – Up bright and early (at 9am), we headed out to go cross country skiing. I haven’t alpine skied for over twenty years, as I am not a fan of cold and am rubbish at balancing so have never really figured it out. I had never kind the cross country version before, and I loved it! We had a guide and we had a wonderful time, apparently we went further than the guide normally gets to go, and the highlight of the morning was having a cup of tea looking over the fjord from the top of the hill. The lowlight (well it was fun) was trying to figure out how to get my butt out of the powder after taking a tumble. Skis don’t quite feel like an extension of my feet. At the beginning my hands were numb and I couldn’t feel my fingers, but we soon warmed up scooting along the snow tracks. by the end I was zipping along pretty happily and quite warm in spite of it being minus 20 degrees, although my eyelashes and nostril hairs had icicles in them. We saw the dog teams taking other people out, and that would have been much colder – sitting on a sledge in the wind at minus 20 would have been too cold for me.

Looking uber fetching in my onesie
Dog sledders going by

More lazing – we got back in time for the 10 minutes of sun and then headed back for more relaxing in our cabin. I can see how locals struggle with the darkness. It is pretty challenging to get motivated to do much when it is minus 20 degrees and pitch black outside. We were mildly social in the afternoon and had a couple of hilarious women we had met on the bus over for a cup of tea and then had dinner together – more char and halibut, but better cooking skills this evening.

Running in the snow hmmmmm so my plan for our last day was to have a sleep in and then go for a lovely arctic run. I woke up with the roof shaking from the wind and the meteo registering minus 20 degrees….. the wind was howling across the fjord and the waves looked fantastic…., but totally put me off going outisde. So instead we walked to the restaurant for a substantial Scandinavian breakfast (and in the two minute walk my face froze). We then lounged around for the day enjoying the entertainment put on by the weather outside of our windows. After a leisurely afternoon, we headed back to the airport for a late flight back to London.

Malangen, January 27, 2019

Additional info

Stayed first night at Tromso Thon, and then two nights at Malangen resort. Activities were organised through the resort and they weren’t cheap. It is worth looking for a package as it might be cheaper.

Direct flights to Tromso with air Norwegian were pretty cheap, just as well as everything else is eye-wateringly expensive

Take warm clothes, lots of them. Definitely take a few buffs to cover the face and heavy winter gloves. Any ski gear you have would work

Gr131 and the Caldera on La Palma

This is the first winter in years where I haven’t retreated to the Southern Hemisphere to go hiking and I desperately needed some long days walking and some tent time. I did my homework and decided to give the Canary Islands a go. They have never been high on my holiday list (although I have been previously for work), as I imagined them to be overrun with package tourists. However there are some epic trail races on the islands and the weather should be great as the islands are only a few hundred miles off the coast of Africa.

I am headed to La Palma, which has the most rugged terrain. The plan is to do the volcano route from Fuencaliente to Tazacorte (about 70Km), and a few routes in the national park of Caldera de Taburiente (about 40km) over a total of four days. I have my tent and a permit to sleep in Taburiente for one of the nights and will make up a plan for the other nights on the fly

I came to La Palma via Gran Canaria airport (which was candidly my idea of hell, heaving with package tourists) and I hoped like hell La Palma wouldn’t be the same. Arriving at La Palma the excellent taxi la Palma were there to pick me up and had bought me a bombona (gas canister for my stove), as it is the one thing you can’t fly with. He dropped me at the hostel in Fuencaliente, a bargain 30 euros per night for a private room with bath, albeit not much in the way of soundproofing, and I grabbed some supplies from the shop and hit the sack.

Day 1 Fuencaliente to Puenta de las roques (32km, 2200m of climbing 17kg pack)

I got up at six-ish and finally left at 7 in the pitch black with a head torch on. The sun doesn’t come up until 8, but I knew it would be a long day and the early bit wasn’t that scenic on the map.

It’s been so long since I hiked with 17 kg on my back that I have forgotten how hard it is!!!! All my gear is very light but I was unsure what conditions would be like on the tops so had bought a winter tent (1.8kg vs my normal O.4kg), and spikes for the snow (0.3kg), but nothing can make water ultra light and I wasn’t sure there would be water for the whole route so I took 6 litres with me! It was bloody heavy hauling it up the hill (and unsurprisingly I was over prepared but better to have than not have)

Heading up from Fuencaliente
First volcano through the trees

With the sun on my back I eventually got in a rhythm, albeit a really slow one as I slogged up the hills. I had the first three hours in blissful solitude. I had succumbed to putting some music on and was singing away happily to myself really enjoying the views when I passed the first of the many day hikers I would see coming the other way. I lost count at 60, by the speeds they were going I didn’t expect them all to make farocaliente before dark. The landscape is surreal and alternates between pine forest and pitted volcanic craters and pointy mountains. The nicest peak was The Volcan of Deseado which I could see for most of my day, it’s a distinctive point on the southern part of the islands spine

The volcanic rock paths were really well marked
One of the craters

I made it to El Pilar (after about 18km and 1400m of climbing or 450 flights of stairs according to the Garmin and 500m of descent) just after lunch where it turns out there is a tap so I carried an extra 4 kg for 18 km for nada. But I still need it for the next leg. Even better there was a snack truck! Two Aquarius (an excellent nonfizzy Spanish soft drink) , a cafe con leche, a hot dog and half a packet of biscuits later and I was a new woman!

After snoozing in the sun for a bit I strolled the 6km rolling path to reventon which was nice and easy as it was all in the forest. I stopped for a break and some food again when I got there (it took me an hour and a half, I swear I have never walked so slowly!). Apparently there is a good natural fountain at Reventon but I didn’t see it

After that it was a slow grunt up the final 700m climb over 6km to the punta de Los roques, punctuated by many breaks ostensibly to check my email, but really cos I was knackered. I saw the refugio de Los Roques peeking through the trees with the setting sun shining on it and I tried not to be too hopeful it was empty or not crowded. I was happy to tent but it was going to be cold at 2000m and I hadn’t seen too many flat spots. I eventually made it up the hill and the refuge looked delightful and was happily inhabited by a solo danish guy. So more than enough room for me (it probably sleeps 16 or 20 at a push).

Can finally see the refuge on the hill
The refuge well disguised

I set about hydrating, soup, decaf coffee, hydration fluids, cooking and eating in front of the refugio watching the amazing view. The sun went down and the light was breathtaking on the caldera. A bit more food and a good gossip with Soren (environmental law professor from Copenhagen) and we retired to bed at 8pm after checking out the stars (which are quite famous here as there is limited light pollution)

Sun going down from the refuge
The view down the island to Deseado from the refuge balcony

I had a mild fright at 10.30 when I woke up with someone crashing through the door of the refugio. Two spanish guys who had had a long day, they were suitably quiet while they ate and went to sleep so I managed to get back to sleep for awhile until one of them started making the weirdest snoring noises I have ever heard. I thought he was going to die as he kept stopping breathing. I gave up trying to sleep at 6am and got up to have a leisurely breakfast.

Luxury refuge – yes that’s all my gear, it explodes out of my pack
There was even solar power

Day 2 Refugio to Mirador El Time and then a shower (29km, 900m ascent, 2400m descent, 15kg pack)

The sun started to peak through the darkness around 7.15 so I went outside with my coffee for an epic sunrise with a stunning view of Tiede summit on neighbouring Tenerife.

The summit of Tiede on neighbouring Tenerife peaking through the clouds

I strolled out slowly at 7.30 less weighed down than yesterday but it was slow going. The route was stunning, for the first two hours I saw no one and the views out to the caldera with the sun hitting them were amazing. The walk meanders up and down the spine of the island though in most places the ridge isn’t narrow enough to give any cause for concern but I wouldn’t want to be up here in the fog.

The pine trees persist until about 2100m of elevation, and are lovely
Narrow path on the ridge

At some point after Pico de la Nieve the route comes close to the road and car parks, so I started running into ill equipped tourists skidding on the trails which were a tricky blend of sand, volcanic rubble and scree and rocks. I was already tired, so found a quiet spot to take a break and cooked up an early lunch.

It took me quite a while to hit the summit of Roque de los muchachos at 2430m, every summit was a false one, and I was low on water and thirsty. And I took a lot of breaks! When I did get there I didn’t stay long as there were about 500 tourists. There was a water tap next to the information booth marked ‘agua non potable’ which technically means it’s not drinkable but I was desperate. I had a litre and then saw the ranger and asked him if itnwas drinkable. He said they mark it that way to deter the tourists from drinking it, but the hikers ‘should know’ it’s ok as they block the tap if there is a problem (hmmmm not sure how I would have ‘known’, but was grateful nonetheless).

Part of the extensive observatory complex at Los Rocas

I left the summit at 13.30. My original plan had been to hike all the way down to the coast and then back up into the caldera. Checking out the map, the section from el time to Los llanos was entirely urban and not pretty and the route up from los llanos looked long and hot. So I decided to hike down to el time, bus to Los llanos and sleep in a hostel for the night for a shower and then head up to the caldera the next night.

That plan though did mean I had to book it down the hill to get the bus. It wasn’t far – 16km, but it was a 2200m drop. The path was rocky and while it eventually dropped under the tree line and had shade, the shade came with very slippery pine needles. The views on the first 8k were epic though, and there were very few people

Steep cliffs dropping down to the caldera with the trees holding on

The last 4km down (with 450m of descent) from the Torres to El time was interminable and without redemption. Rocky, steep, no shade, no view, and just the type of gradient where your toes get slammed into the front of your shoes (I’m pretty sure both big toe nails will be dropping off in a month). The only positive I could find about this interminable section was that at least I wasn’t walking up it. I had a mild sense of humour failure about 1km before the end as am sunburnt (forgot sunscreen and a hat) and was thirsty, so I stopped and downed my last litre of water and hoped like hell there was water at EL Time. Better than that, there was a bar with homemade cake. Two more Aquarius and an awesome slice of the owners banana caramel cake, and I whiled away 45 mins waiting for the bus to Los Llanos (and yes I know I can afford a taxi but I like buses)

Ok the bus was late, but I did get chatted up by a retired Swiss farmer on the bus who rents a room down here for six months in the summer. He was worried about me so walked me to the hostel. The hostel Vagamundo was all I needed, not as good value as Fuencaliente as it is shared bath and I had to rent a towel for €2, but €30 is fine. Then off to the important business of getting some fluid and calories in – off to the Argentinian steak house!

Day 3/4 into the caldera

After the gr131 the most recommended hiking on the island is in the caldera de Taburiente, you can hike into the crater and then take different routes up the sides. I had a campsite booked (free, see below) and had a plan for different hikes). After a leisurely 6km stroll into the camping from the mirador los brecitos, I was checking in and the ranger told me all the routes were closed due to landslides. I feel like this is the universe’s way of telling me to have a day off, so I pitched my tent, made some lunch and spent the afternoon reading and intermittently admiring the views

View from my tent up to Los Roques de muchachos
View from the playa de Taburiente
My new akto hilleberg getting its first outing

When I arrived this morning there was a loud party of Spanish people leaving – around ten of them with shiny gear, and I was hopeful they wouldn’t be replaced. Fortunately the campsite is vast and I pitched at the remotest end with the best view. I did go for a late afternoon stroll to check out the hills in the afternoon light and there was one other couple camping about 200m away, but still blissfully peaceful

Same view, different light

After an excellent and quiet sleep I extricated myself from my tent to watch the sun come up, had a coffee and slowly packed up. It was a delightful walk back to Los brecitos, though I passed about 20 people on their way in, and on the way back to Los Llanos I passed ten heaving van loads of tourists on their way to the trail so I had made a good choice on what day to visit (apparently Sunday is always quiet as the tourists go to the market)

Sun coming up hitting the top of the peaks
Same view in the morning

Day 4 afternoon chilling in Los Llanos

I spent the afternoon strolling around the lovely town of Los Llanos, stopping from time to time to have some tapas and a drink! There isn’t much to do but it’s quite lovely. I will be back as the hiking here is excellent and the infrastructure works quite well (taxis will drop off and pick off easily at trail heads and the buses work well).

Los Llanos de Aridane, December 30, 2019

Additional info

  • Water is the most problematic part of La Palma at least on the volcano route, so plan accordingly
  • Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide to walking on La Palma is a good one, but is more set up for day walkers than long distance, and it doesn’t helpfully outline water sources
  • Senderosdelapalma.es was an excellent resource and had most of the gpx trails to download
  • Buying gas for my stove was my one issue that I couldn’t figure out, so I asked the taxi company to buy me some and bring it with them to my airport pick up, and tipped them generously as it saved me a lot of hassle. ww.taxilapalma.com. (Note it turns out cooking of any kind is illegal in the national parks.). They also provide drop offs to trail heads, or if you have more time and less money the island bus service (guaguas) is excellent https://www.tilp.es/regular/
  • It’s easy to book a campsite in the caldera de Taburiente for free, and bookings open 15 days in advance https://www.reservasparquesnacionales.es/real/ParquesNac/usu/html/inicio-reserva-paso2-oapn.aspx?cen=4&act=%202
  • Mountain weather forecast for the high route here (I was worried about snow when I went, as it has happened in December before)
  • Stayed at the hostel pension in Fuencaliente and the hostel vagamundo and hotel benohoare in los llanos

Monkeying around in Gibraltar

Time for December date night with hubby, and this time we were headed for Gibraltar. Gibraltar has the benefit of being a new territory to tick off, only a 2.5 hour flight from the UK, as well as having an interesting history.  Population c. 35,000, it has been in British hands since 1704, and the Gibraltans are proudly British.  The airport was wee, and it was a mere 3km from the airport to the hotel.  We were lucky, no flights were landing, so the road from the airport (which crosses the runway) was open.  

Wandering about Town
We had planned to head up to the rock straight away, but the cable car was closed ‘due to wind’, and there was an army of touts offering us bargain tours of the nature reserve.  Uninspired, we decided to stroll for a few hours through Main Street, Irish town and the lovely casement square.   We popped in and out of a few churches, much amused by the novel approach to candles in the churches…. Here you pop a coin in to light a plastic electric candle.   

An odd melange
Its an odd place, a mix of Spanish workers (50% of the employees come over daily from Spain), daytrippers from Spain coming for VAT free goods, brits enjoying fish and chips and plenty of Moroccans (unsurprising, given you can see Morocco from here).   The architecture is equally confusing, some lovely historical buildings with beautiful shutters, and some utterly hideous new buildings.   The shops are a mix of British implants and Spanish high street brands interspersed with obligatory tat shops selling Gibraltar monkeys. 

Chip fat, casinos and ugly apartment blocks
Adjacent to the old town is a hideous over-developed marina, complete with a monstrous ship/hotel permanently moored and with a huge casino, surrounded by oversized apartment blocks.  We had intended to stop somewhere for a snack, but neither of us could get our noses past the pervasive odor of old chip fat which seemed to be pumping out of all the air vents.  

Bottom of Europe
Meandering back to casement square, we had a slice of pepperoni pizza and a coffee, before taking the bus to Europa point.  This marks the southernmost tip of Gibraltar and has excellent views over the straights to Jebel Musa and Ceuta.   The sun was going down and the lighthouse and the ocean looked spectacular.  There is also a well-located mosque at the point, with the rock towering over it.  

Two soups?  
Strolling back to the hotel, we dodged traffic (pavements were absent for sections of the route), and enjoyed an amusing three-course date night dinner at our hotel – it was pretty bad.   Amusingly our most recent date night in Albania was cheaper and more delicious.  Our hotel restaurant was a little like Fawlty towers meets two soups.  

Yay sleep! After an epic 8 hours sleep (I have been averaging five), we dragged ourselves out of bed for a classic English buffet breakfast.  Excellent sausages and they even had carrot cake on the buffet (no comment as to whether I ate it).  After an epic 8 hours sleep (I have been averaging five), we dragged ourselves out of bed for a classic English buffet breakfast.  Excellent sausages and they even had carrot cake on the buffet (no comment as to whether I ate it).  

Monkeying around
We took a dodgy taxi to the top of the rock and then had a delightful three hours strolling around the sites.   The Macaques are completely impervious to the human observers apart from the one who cheekily made a grab for the camera.  We sat and watched them amuse themselves eating bugs off each other. 

Ridges and views
Climbing back up the hill, the views from  Douglas lookout and O’Hara’s battery were stunning, and the geological formation of the rock with its narrow ridgeline looks amazing from the top.  

Batteries and Spurs
We strolled back, stopping off to see the Spur Battery, the Windsor suspension bridge and the Moorish castle.  The views from the siege tunnels were lovely, and it is hilarious to look out at the airport runway with a road going through the middle.

Views across the runway
Time for a quick cup of tea and some scones enjoying the view from our hotel and then back to the airport.   An entertaining date weekend.  We had epic views of the rock across the runway for the three hours our flight was delayed (photo below)

Additional information

  • Easy flights to Gibraltar from London
  • Stayed at the rock hotel, walls were thin, views were nice, food was edible, and it was £100 a night for a sea view
  • The buses were pretty frequent and an easy way to get around (£1.80 for a single), and we had no choice as the two times we tried to take a cab at the rank, there were taxis but no drivers.
  • Taxi to the airport and back cost c. £10

Gibraltar, 15 December 2019

Date night in Tirana

The joys of Wizz and Luton

I have recently changed jobs which means my best weekend egress airport is now Luton, and given I am the chief holiday booker in my house, Luton airport it was, on Wizz air to head to Tirana. I arrived after a seamless 25 minute taxi ride from the office, cruised through security in ten minutes and then got some work done at Benugo. Hubby was less impressed with the airport choice, after a train, a shuttle (which they now charge for) and a rather less seamless transition through security. He was less than amused on arrival, with his mood somewhat restored by a hot salami sandwich. Mood was swiftly deflated again in the Wizz boarding queue, which was an example of budget airlines demonstrating their finest customer service, with a lot of shouting and tears as customers were ‘invited’ to contribute to airline revenues by paying an additional €25 for oversized baggage. Oh well, we got on the plane in the end

We were off to Albania as part of our commitment to a monthly date night somewhere interesting. We arrived in Tirana around 9pm and got a taxi to town (mercifully they are all fixed fares these days, as the Albanian cabbies are legendary), to the remarkable plaza hotel, a modernist tower in downtown Tirana. It’s been a long time since I have seen a black toilet and bidet! After a late supper and some tea we retired for the evening

The old town and old men

Woken by the clock tower chiming 7am, even though it was 6am, and eventually managed to surface around 10am to a glorious sunny day. We went for an extended stroll around downtown hitting off the major ‘sites’, Skanderberg square, the National Gallery, the Opera house, the Orthodox Church, the Friendship monument and Et hem Bej mosque (being renovated).

Crossing the river to see Hoxha’s pyramid – originally a museum about the legacy of the long-time leader of Communist Albania (41 years), who had died three years before it was built. The structure was co-designed by Hoxha’s daughter Pranvera Hoxha, an architect and when built, the Pyramid was said to be the most expensive individual structure ever constructed in Albania

Recrossing the river to see the Cathedral and the enormous Namazgjah mosque (under construction, and it will be the biggest mosque in the Balkans when built), before grabbing a coffee in a cafe populated by ancient Albanian men in excellent hats, right next to parliament. Hubby was sure they were mafioso. 

Bunk’art – totally bunkers

Taxied to Bunkart – an extraordinary museum complex housed in a bunker that was built to protect Hoxha from the Russians and Americans. Apparently during his rein he built over 110,000 bunkers, one for every 11 Albanians. It is now a wonderfully restored museum to the era, and we had it almost to ourselves. It is pretty eerie wandering through Hoxha’s bunker apartment, the filtering mechanisms for tear gas and long concrete hallways.

Dajtit express to the hills

Next stop the hills, which surround Tirana majestically. The Dajtit express is located right next door to Bunk’art, so we took the cable car 15 minutes up the mountain for a late lunch at the Ballkoni Dajtit – excellent bean stew, burek and lamb chops. The view was amazing and the evidence of autumn becomes more apparent with altitude, the leaves were lovely, like the side of the range was on fire. 

We meandered around the hilltops and then took the cable car back to town, for another stroll around town.

Traditional Albanian fare

We then went to the famous Oda for dinner – for lambs intestines (hubby only), Fergese (cheese and peppers), Stuffed eggplant, yogurt, pickled vegetables, Lakror (spinach pie), and excellent scone like bread. We probably had enough food for four people for the princely sum of €20

More bunkers

Next morning, a slow Sunday start and a reprise with Bunk’art 2, the second installation of bunkart but in the central city. It was ok, but the first one was better. It was a useful insight into the secret police and how they ruled with absolute fear during Hoxha’s reign. 

Arty farty at the National Art Gallery
Onwards to the National Art gallery where we had been hoping to see the permanent collection which has some spectacular examples of communist propaganda. Unfortunately, the collection was closed for refurbishment, so instead, we saw a mixed media installation by Adrian Paci. I normally don’t like video installations, but there was a surprisingly hypnotic video about a marble pillar being made on a ship that was utterly transfixing and hubby and I watched it for 20 minutes.

Blloku – the communist posh quarter
Art satiated we strolled around the Blloku, the historical residences of the communist party leaders, admiring the unique graffiti, and saw Hoxha’s original residence, which was very similar to a Californian bungalow. 

Communist architecture
Strolling further past the National Congress, and the presidential palace, further past mother Theresa square. Mother Theresa is an Albanian hero (the airport is named after her), but I am not a huge fan given her views on contraception. 


Albanian Gastronomy at Mullixhui !

We eventually ended up at our lunch destination, an Albanian gastronomical experience – Mullixhiu, opened by a local who had trained at Le Gavroche and Noma. The restaurant was a study in rustic chic. Hubby valiantly over-ordered, and we had a very robust lunch of soup, dark bread so hard it would knock you out if someone threw it at you, trout, baby goat and coffee. The service was simultaneously ‘two soups’ haphazard, but also the best we had in Tirana. Gastronomy isn’t expensive in Albania, a seriously large lunch cost is €40.

More strolling ensued, and then a cheeky afternoon nap before the 6.20pm flight back to Gatwick.

Additional notes

  • Cheap easy flights with Wizz and BA from London
  • Stay at the plaza – a steal at €110 per night
  • We didn’t eat anywhere amazing, but everyone recommends Oda, Ballkoni Dajtit and Mullixhui
  • Fixed price taxis from the airport €20 to town

Wandering in the Faroes

Its a long bank holiday weekend and I am getting more of a danish fix with a visit to Faroe Islands. The Faroes are a self ruled territory of Denmark, with a bustling population of around 55,000 (the same as Greenland but on a lot less space). Subsidised by Denmark, the Faroese have had self rule since 1948, and they have rigorously preserved their culture and their language. They are apparently pretty conservative, alcohol was only allowed to be imported from the 1990s, and even now you can only buy alcohol in six shops in the whole country.
There are no direct flights from London, so we got a bonus breakfast of herrings and cinnamon rolls in Copenhagen airport after our crack of dawn flight from Gatwick. We boarded a ram-packed flight to the islands, which have apparently had a huge uptick in tourism in recent times. Flying in was stunning with views of vertiginous cliffs, improbably waterfalls and luminescent green hills. It’s only about 8 degrees when we land, and yes it’s August, so I suspect it is pretty chilly here in winter.


The bustling capital of Tórshavn (Thor’s harbour)

Driving to Torshavn we admired the amazing waterfalls on every corner – both for their almost perfect form, like well graded steps, – but also as we couldn’t figure out where the water was coming from…. it wasn’t raining and none of the hills are that high or snow covered….hmmm a mystery to be solved on other days. (So it turns out that the soil retains the rain water for a long time, so the waterfalls will run for several days without new rainfall, albeit less energetically than when it is raining)

Parliament buildings


We found our hotel in town… a run down and pretty shabby affair that had seen better days, but still came with an outrageous price tag. We headed out to investigate town. It’s tiny and lovely and takes about three minutes to walk anywhere. We strolled around parliament Tinganes (some red wooden houses with grass on the roof), checked out the black wooden houses that locals still live in, and the lovely harbour at Vagsboten. By this time it was 4pm and we were hungry so we made a beeline to Emilias fast food for one of our favourite Nordic treats – a hot dog with all the fixings! There is nothing quite like fried crunchy onions.

An excellent hot dog
Torshavn Cathedral
Torshavn Harbour

  
An unsuccessful outing to photograph a road 

I’m travelling with the hubby**, which means we have a tripod and a bunch of camera gear. He had done his homework and had four photos he wants to take in the four days we are here. The first is of a particular piece of winding road (really not kidding). The light was lovely at 5.30 so we hopped in the car and went to see it. Half way there the fog rolled in and the rain started, so we made it to the spot and ended up sitting in the car for half an hour waiting unsuccessfully for the fog to clear…. oh, well better luck tomorrow.

Road attempt 1


The oldest cathedral in the Faroes 

We backtracked down to the south of the island and back at sea level there was some visibility, so we went to Kikjubour, to see the Magnus cathedral, which was apparently never completed as it never had a roof. We also visited the cute Olavskirkjan church which was open and had a lovely altar with a row boat. We gave some Romanian hikers a ride back to Torshavn as they weren’t convinced the bus was coming (and it’s good hiker karma as I hitch often when I come off the mountain, so that’s one in the bank). They did tell us they had been here for a week and it had been bucketing every day, but for 15 minutes every day they normally got some visibility, and in those moments the islands were stunning – I guess we better be ready for that 15 minutes. The rain had been pelting down in Kirkjubour, it was cold and we were jet lagged so we beat a retreat for some dinner (in a hilarious restaurant that didn’t have most of the menu available) and an early night


Trying to see the sea stacks through the sheets of rain 

After a robust Nordic breakfast we were off in the pelting rain to explore the islands.  I had planned a bunch of hikes, which neither of us were super enthused about as the rain was coming down in sheets and visibility was poor.  We optimistically headed up to Eioi to see if we could see the sea stacks at Risin and Kellingin off the north of Esturoy island.  The sea stacks are apparently the remains of a couple of Icelandic giants who had come to drag the island away but got turned to stone when the sun came up.  There’s no risk of that today as I doubt the sun will make an appearance.  Hubby is in full photo mode so we sloshed down through the boggy fields with the tripod for a better view.

All the tourists in Gjogv 

We rolled onto Gjogv, with what seemed like every other tourist on the island, the tiny car park packed with well branded rental cars.   The village is named for the natural gorge which is used for a harbour, and the views from the cliffs are quite lovely, probably even lovelier if there is a bit of sun.  After a gentle stroll up a steep cliff with the wind pushing us sideways…. we retreated sensibly to head down to Funningur to see what I think was one of my favourite churches of the trip

Funningur church


A light snack in Klaksvik

Still bucketing down, so we decided to abandon our plan to walk along the ridge of Vidoy to the sea cliffs at Enniberg, which is apparently a bit sketchy on a good day, so we headed over to Klaksvik for food.  We stopped at Fridas for a ‘light snack’ knowing we had a Michelin dinner to eat that night….but both of us were too cheap to turn down the half price offer on the brunch offer so we ended up having a huge lunch! Oops


Tunnels and villages on Kunoy and Bordoy

Then off to Kunoy, traversing another of the Faroes bonkers tunnels, this one 3km and single lane with passing spots.  The Faroes has 18 onshore and two sub sea tunnels.  A third one is being build to connect Stremoy and Esturoy at a different point than the causeway, and another one is being build to Sandoy.  Apparently these will cost Euro 50,000 per inhabitant.  

Kunoy church


For a few brief moments the sun pierced the clouds and we had brief glimpses of the stunning ridge line on the neighbouring island. It really is improbable landscape….. crazy cliffs plunging into the sea, waterfalls galore and a green so bright it almost hurts your eyes. The grass clings to the tiny bit of soil that is on top of the steep black volcanic rock slopes. It’s like the effort of holding on so tightly to the ground makes the grass glow. And there are no trees, unless lovingly cultivated by tenacious human hands. It is also improbable that people eked out an existence here for so long, and continue to do so….its August and it is cold, rainy and windy, you would have to be pretty hardy to survive the winters here.
Not all the villages survive – Muli is now deserted but it was once home to 30 people. The last two elderly couples in their 80s and 90s survived until the road was built and then they moved away. We went to see it and were rewarded with stunning views over neighbouring Vidoy when the sun came out.

Road to Muli


20 amazing courses of blubber and hearts at Koks 

After a quick change at the hotel we headed up to Koks, a two Michelin starred restaurant in the middle of the island. The directions were a bit cryptic, and we were told to park our car and meet at the fermenting house after which we would be driven to the restaurant. The fermenting house was a lovely sauna smelling room where a friendly young local gave us a Kombucha, and then we were bundled into 4wds and driven across the foreshore of a lake, veering well into the water and then up a lively river bed to a beautiful wooden house with a turf roof where all the staff were waiting outside for us. Dinner was an exceptional 20 courses which ranged from whale blubber and local roots, raw sea urchin, raw clams with herbs, raw langoustine brains accompanied by steamed langoustine tails, tartar of halibut with cavier, fried gills with cod liver mousse, and bacalao with parsley sauce and smoked mussels with a sandwich made with fried cod skin and a terrine of cod brains. Then onto the fermented part of the menu with dried cured lamb, crackers and lamb stomach fat, roasted fermented lamb with onion mousse and pickled onions, chopped pilot whale heart on sheep’s blood cracker (pilot whales are not endangered and are caught in the Faroes in traditional whale drives), and lambs brains and tail with celery. Then we ended with sorbet and rosehip gel, thyme mousse with caramel and frozen blueberries, salad of foraged flowers with compressed rhubarb and charcoal cream, and then waffles with rhubarb jam, whipped cream and chocolates! Yup we will be waddling tomorrow


Seeing the bird cliffs of Vestmanna

I am not a huge fan of group tours, but the only way to get to Vestmanna is on a boat, so we hopped on board and chuntedout into sea.  It’s quite a sedate trip, and the photos don’t do it justice, but watching the birds dive bomb from the 350m seacliffs is fabulous, and it was almost equally amusing to see all the sheep blithely going about their lives on the sides of the improbably slopes.  Some of the farmers come and get them from the top of the cliff sides, others get dropped off by boat and climb up to get them.  It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.


Bour and Gasadalur

We headed back to the island of Vagar (home of the airport) to go check out Mulafossur waterfall, and stopped for an eye wateringly expensive lunch £35 for two coffees out of a thermos, one meat platter and a tiny piece of cake.  And then we meandered around the sweet village of Bour taking photos.  

Mulafossur


Refusing to pay to hike 

We had planned to hike around the lake at Sorvagsvatn to the Bosdalafossur waterfall, but the local farmer had recently started charging people about €25 for the privilege, and neither hubby or I could fathom that, so instead we headed out to see the houses at Saksun. It was obvious too in Saksun that there is some tension between the locals and the tourists. A hike in Saksun which was previously free on the info board has had an €8 charge instituted. Elsewhere, there was an angry note telling tourists not to trespass (It sounds like there is quite a backstory, check it out here). It feels like there should be a happy medium. Charging a reasonable fee for a one hour hike of €5 makes sense to me, but these prices seem exorbitant. I am perhaps biased coming from a country richly endowed with national parks


The road revisited

On our way back to Tórshavn we thought we would give hubby’s road another go. Today was the only day that there was no rain forecast, so of course it was worth a shot. And unsurprisingly the heavens opened up about ten minutes before we got there and it was a total white out. Perhaps third time lucky tomorrow. We headed out for another huge, delicious and eye-waveringly expensive meal at Futastova…., and had an early night

And one more go

We awoke in Tórshavn to yet more rain, and after a final wander around the shops, we optimistically went back to the road for one more look en route to the airport. Still a total white out. For those of you wondering what the fuss was about, here is someone else’s picture of the road. images.app.goo.gl/egZcZAM2zT6UEG9h6. Hubby is still quite keen on the photo so perhaps will come again, but his plan is to wait to book a ticket until he sees a rock solid weather forecast.

Net, the Faroes are quite lovely, but also quite pricey….. I made the foolish error of totting up the bill for a long weekend and I could have bought a very nice new racing bike for the same amount. It just doesn’t seem great value for money, so while I am glad I went, I wouldn’t go back, ironically Greenland was a better deal in terms of joy per £.

Sørvágur, August 26, 2019

Additional notes

  • stayed at the Hotel Torshavn, which was pricey and not super clean. I would try somewhere else
  • booked months in advance to get a table at Koks, which had a Michelin star. Honestly you need to book all your dinners in advance if you want to eat anywhere decent. The day we arrived we were surprised by how few places had a table. We also ate at Futustova. Failing that emilias fast food in Tórshavn makes an exceptional hot dog
  • we rented a car from 62N, it was expensive (£100 a day), but worth it
  • fly to CPH or Edinburgh with any low cost carrier and then buy separate flights with Atlantic Airways – it will work out cheaper
  • book the boat tour here
  • bring lots of warm and wet weather gear (hat and gloves even in August
  • EU roaming plans don’t work in the Faroes (as it isn’t in the EU), but you can buy a SIM card with 2gb of data and 25 mins of calls for 89 kr
  • and an amusing blog here

** for new readers, ‘hubby’ does have a name, and he is pretty lovely, but he has no social media presence and doesn’t want any, so he is always incognito on the blog, but at least he allows the odd photo of him. Also note he takes brilliant photos, but he takes an age to edit them to his perfecting standards, so when he is happy with them, I will post a link (in about 18 months I reckon :-))

Abandoned towers and villages in Ingushetia and Dagestan (Breakaway Russian Republics part 3)

The stunning towers of Ingushetia and the Georgian Military Highway

After an astounding breakfast buffet – astounding both in its profusion of choices, but also in the uniformity of taste of the food (like the detergent the plates were washed in), we headed out for a long back track to Vladikavkaz to visit the Georgian military highway and the famous towers of Ingushetia.   The Caucasus are like the alps and the road was cut in a river valley for much of the way with steep peaks on either side.   Turning off the road to Georgia to run along the side of the mountains we were held for an hour while the FSB quadruple checked our permits.  I understand why people rebel here, it’s suffocating to live under constant intervention.  

In pictures of the region you tend to see the same two groups of towers at egikal, but what I didn’t know in advance is that there were hundreds of towers in various states of repair along the road.  We stopped at all the big ones and they were quite lovely.  A couple, our guide had never seen up close as none of his tourists had wanted to climb up the hill to get to them.   The best was probably Egikal and the two towers at Bashenny near the army base. 

The landscape and towers were really wonderful and I spent a lot of the day dreaming about hiking from tower to tower along the route of the Caucasus mountains, but I suspect that won’t be feasible while putin and the FSB have a hold on the territory.  

A long drive to Kezenoy Am – the highest lake in the Caucas

It was a long drive back through the mountains to get to the border of Dagestan where we spent the night at Kezenoyam- the highest lake in the Caucasus – it used to be where the Russian rowing team trained   A late dinner of shashlik and salad and to bed.  

Waking up to a stunning day, I managed a half hearted 20 minute jog along the lakeside…. stunning.   And then we had a very ottoman breakfast of tomatoes cheese and cucumber before heading to republic no. 5 – Dagestan

Dagestan – the wild west

A quick trip to neighbouring Makazhoy – an abandoned village perched on a river gorge.  The village was emptied when Stalin deported the Chechens in 1944.   15 years later the returnees where not allowed to resettle here.   Now people are allowed to live here but few want to as they worry that the Russians are more likely to commit war crimes in remote places with no witnesses. 

Entering Dagestan the roads became gravel and were winding up and down sheer mountains.  We stopped often, partly because of the FSB checkpoints, but also because of the frequent cow roadblocks.  The whole family would be out herding the cows.  Mums and grandmas in skirts and headscarfs, the men in baseball caps and rip-off Armani t shirts.   The drive was stunning – sheer dusty red cliffs on either side of narrow river valleys which are lush green with fruit trees.  It isn’t all lovely though, environmental issues don’t appear to be front of mind here – the outdoor toilets in riverside villages are effectively long drops perched above the river with human waste going straight into the river.   Rubbish is burnt, but plastic is chucked off the side of the mountain.  The rivers were frequently damned, no doubt for electricity, creating some quite lovely lakes – like at Irganay.  The mountains were phenomenal – a mix of Utah, Arizona, NZ and Morocco – with thick slabs of rock thrust out of the ground with the lines running vertically.   The roads were winding and mad men in ladas would come hurtling around the corner on the wrong side of the road.  Cows used the road for perambulation and more than once we almost hit a mad kid riding a horse on the median strip.  It was a bit like being in the Russian wild west.

The abandoned village and towers of Kakhib

Our goal for the day was Kakhib – an abandoned village about 2 hours from Gunib.    It is a stunning abandoned village that appears to be utterly disguised in the cliffside.  The rock houses and watch towers are well camouflaged and my photos don’t do it justice.  Our guide had never actually walked through the ruins as none of his tourists to this point were willing to do the walk – it was only 15 minutes strolling.  Tourists do make me laugh.  To fly to a country, drive for hours off road to get somewhere and then not be willing to actually walk a few minutes to see it properly.  We saw lower Kakhib, and then the neighbouring higher Kakhib – which was stunning in the afternoon light, though you did have to watch your feet to avoid all the cow poop.

Kakhib lower
Kakhib upper

After weaving our way back down the mountain on a track made for 4wd Ladas, we also stopped by the Karadakhskaya Tesnina – a nice hour round trip walk to see the narrow gorge.   And then to Gunib.  We were invited to Iftar half way to Gunib, but decided to keep going.  We made it 20 minutes after Iftar and went to a restaurant with world class crap service.  We asked for a menu and were told we didn’t need one.  We eventually got one, and we asked for a few dishes, and then the waiters told us we could have pizza or nothing.  Hilarious!  The pizza wasn’t bad, but it did take 40 minutes.  Stephane and I were fine, but poor Abdylla had been fasting since 3am

Karadakhskaya Tesnina

Gamsutl – the Macchu Picchu of Dagestan

Another day, another abandoned village at the top of a mountain.  Gamsutl is probably the most famous of the abandoned vilalges in the region and is a gentle stroll up through the forest.  It was actually pretty popular and we met quite a few Russian tourists hiking up.   I had assumed Russians were not that welcome in this part of the country, but as Abdylla rightly pointed out, he was much happier to see Russian tourists than Russian soldiers.   It was a lovely hike, and I got my morning jog in on the way back down. 

Gamsutl

Local sports competition

When we reached the bottom there were crowds of locals and it turns out they were having a sports competition between local schools.  Things are pretty basic here, so there wasn’t much in the way of equipment!  The long jump was actually a standing jump – the longest about 2.5 metres.  There was no shotput, so they threw a 16kg kettle bell instead, swinging from the legs.  The girls could do the jump but not the weighted throw, so instead they did dancing. And this was all done on a patch of field covered with rocks and cowpats.  We were like local celebraties, and a few of the ladies took photos with us, and the local English teacher came and had a long chat to practice her English – which was remarkably good.

Sports day at Gamsutl
Sports day at Gamsutl

We had a restful afternoon and another huge dinner.  Some locals were eating cake at the next table and I mentioned it looked good, so they gave me some (weirdly they had bought the cake from elsewhere). The next morning, we farewelled the lovely old lady who owned the rest house and headed to Derbent.

Dodgy Derbent – Derbent is an interesting town. On the edge of the Caspian Sea its an absolute no go on the FCO list, avoid visits at all costs, but we had a lovely time. The fortress is amazing and with the old town formed a narrow wedge between the sea and the Caucasus range.

We wandered around the edge of the Fortress, avoiding most of the Russian tourists as none of them were willing to walk around the steep walls. After a stonkingly good lunch we then wandered around the old town and the Shia Mosque. It is the oldest mosque in the country. It was interesting with our guide who was a Sunni, who told us all the differences between Sunni and Shia….., but stopped when I asked if they were sufficient reasons for them wanting to kill each other.

Fortress
Fortress
Lunch
Gateway to the old town
Old town Friday mosque
Headrests for praying

We then went down to the Armenian church, which has bullet holes and shrapnel in the walls. It is no longer a consecrated church, it is now a carpet museum, as the christians were run out of town years ago.

Armenian church

After checking out the Lenin statue, we found the public gym….. and amused the local girls by practising our pull ups and leg lifts. I don’t think most old ladies swing around on the playground equipment.

Next up, the synagogue, which was closed for shabbat. But the cafe next door was a thriving hub of jews and muslims drinking tea (those not fasting) and playing aggressive dominos. We were like local celebrities so were forced to stop for tea!!!  

Friendly chaps who bought us tea
Synagogue

We went to check out the town cemeteries – they were quite extraordinary. We then had a wander to the beach, which ended the journey from sea to sea (black to the Caspian)

Iftar was an amazing half a side of lamb cooked in a tandoor, with exceptional seabuckthorn tea, The food has been surprisingly good. We are heading home from Makhachkala tomorrow, but we are already planning our next trip back

Makhachkhala, May 12, 2019

Additional notes

Books recommended to me on the region – Let our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough; Caucasus – Mountain Men and Holy Wars by Nicholas Griffin; Cry Wolf by Vanora Bennett; The shoemaker and his daughter by Conor o’Clery

We booked through a UK agent, who outsourced to Caucasus Explorer, who outsourced to Caucasus Odyssey for the non Abkhazia portion. I am sure this meant there was a lot of extra margin in there. You can book direct with Abdylla through his Instagram, or with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer


Men visiting the tombs of those who had completed the Haj
the Caspian Sea


Onwards to Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya (Russian breakaway republics part 2)

Leaving Sochi we took an amazing overnight train to Mineralnye Voda.  £55 for first class, comfy bed, nice duvet, free chocolate, free tea, and a well dressed lady who was in charge of the carriage.  Amazingly they also had excellent onboard WiFi with free movies and an amazing app.  I am contemplating travelling across Russia now by train as I enjoyed it so much.  

Deporting an entire population 

Abdylla, our Chechen guide was there to meet us, and we headed off to Nalchik – the capital of Kabardino Balkar.  It was an unremarkable but lovely town with lots of trees.  We visited a  monument commemorating the deportation of the local Balkar population.  It was to be a theme for the next few days.  At the tail end of WW2, the Russians deported the whole Balkar population of 40000, ostensibly for supporting the Germans.  

 At the same time they ‘cleansed’ the entire populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia in operation lentil. (C.500,000 people).  This was to clear the region of Muslims so Russia could attack Muslim Turkey if they wished.  Most of the deportees were women and children whose husbands were conscripts fighting in the Russian army.   60% of the deportees didn’t survive the transit and the first year.  When they were eventually allowed to return 15 years later they had to buy their land back from the Russians and Ossetians  Sobering!

We went for an excellent sour cream laden lunch, though felt somewhat guilty eating in front of Abdylla who was on his  first day of Ramadan fasting.  (We did tell him he could ditch us and come back but he wouldn’t).   Then we strolled around town, saw a few monuments to Lenin and then hit the road. 

Drunk russians, a swift escape and a lot of check points

As we were driving to Ossetia, we made Abdylla stop to take a photo of a mt Rushmore-esque monument.  There was a coach tour of Russian military retirees drinking vodka who forcibly invited us for some shots.  We chatted for a while and then had to scarper as we made the mistake of answering one of the Russians who spoke to us in Pashto.  Purely because we knew the words ‘thank you’ and ‘how are you’, meant we must of been spies.   

Escape made, we still had to endure regular check points, as the FSB have a strong presence in these ethnic republics.   We also had to endure endless billboards of Putin in various glamorous poses.  

Horrifying Beslan – 400 deaths in a high school hostage siege

We stopped at Beslan to see the memorial of the school siege in 2004.   More than 1000 people were held hostage by Chechen terrorists for three days in a high school gymnasium, Russian ended the siege by firing rocket launchers into the building.  400 people were killed.

The memorial was beautiful but harrowing with all the faces of those killed.  We went after to the town cemetery which had a section for the graves, the saddest was a block of six graves of children all from the same family.   I always find it shameful to think about these conflicts happening in our lifetime….., and it reminded me that even today there are 1.5 million Uighur Muslims being forceably detained and ‘cleansed’ in China right now.   

Vladikavkaz – capital of Ossetia today but once the capital of Ingushetia

We rolled into Vladikavkaz, a peaceful soviet town watched over by Fatima and the mountains in the distance, with a lovely mosque.  We had iftar with Abdylla, waiting until 7.03 to eat – excellent khinkhali, chebusara, and fish and then headed to bed.

After a wonderful breakfast of cottage cheese pie, sausages, beetroot, cottage cheese pancakes and cherries (they like cheese here), we left the pretty town of Vladikavkaz and drove from Ossetia to Ingushetia.  

Visiting Magas – the artificial capital of Ingushetia, and waiting for the FSB

The border shifted 50 years ago.  When the entire Ingushetian population was deported in 1944, the ossetians extended their territory.  When the Ingushetians came back the Russians reset the historical borders.  Its not a dumb idea from Moscow, as the more the regions infight amongst each other, the less they fight with the Russian government.   Today Ingushetia is an autonomous region with its own government.  The border shift though, left Ingushetia without a capital, so the new town of Magas was created.  It’s a bit like Milton Keynes or Canberra.    

We visited the Magas museum which is a faithful reconstruction of an Ingushetia tower.   Abdylla said it would take 40 minutes to climb to the top so we decided to jog the sloping ramps around the castle walls to see how long it would take.  Abdylla stopped half way, wisely recognising that trying to race while fasting probably wasn’t that sensible….. it took me 8 minutes.  Hubby did a creditable effort only walking and made it in 13.  At the top is a glass balcony with a glass floor showing the 100m drop which was a bit vomit inducing.  

We then had to go see the FSB (formerly named the KGB).  We needed permission to visit the famous ingushetian towers on the Georgian military highway.  After a frustrating hour for Abdylla, permits were secured but only for tomorrow so we would have to make an extra four hour round trip – oh well, at the mercy of the FSB. 

Monument to deportation, whitewashed by the Russian government

Before leaving Magas, we visited a monument to the Ingushetian deportations.   First built by the locals, the Russians intervened with a re-characterisation of the monument, by making it also about when the ingushetians ‘ceded’ their territory, and a monument to the wars in Germany and Afghanistan.   The Ingushetians haven’t fully accepted the whitewash and there is a harrowing museum under part of the memorial showing the Russian deportations.  

The most shocking thing were gravestones that were purposefully pillaged from Ingushetian cemeteries and used to build roads and farm sheds, a collection of these had been recovered and installed in the museum.  It’s amazing to me that I hadn’t ever heard of this before, but I guess I hadn’t studied Russian history and the victor normally writes the history in any case.  (Again, my normal caveats apply, I don’t profess to have an actual clue on the history and who was right or wrong).  We also managed to find some food, not always straightforward during Ramadan. Lunch was an excellent Chechen pasta (like spätzle) with broth, onions, and chicken.  

We meandered our way to Grozny in the secondary roads.  Abdylla was playing Crowded house in the car and with the endless flat fertile fields it felt like being home in the Waikato. Well, except for the women in their traditional clothing and the streams of tanks going by.  We were not sure if they are mobilising troops or preparing for victory day on the 9th of May, either was possible. My favourite stop was the Achkhoy Martan mosque, which was incredible.

Grozny – capital of Chechnya, about which I had only heard bad things….

We arrived in Grozny, with its obligatory ‘I love Grozny’ sign (every Russian town has one).   Grozny can feel like a monument to Kadyrov – the Russian appointed leader who is wildly unpopular with Chechens.  His house, visible from the observation deck of the tallest building in town is ridiculous!   We couldn’t take photos though, as you are banned – apparently too many people were posting photos and the comments were vicious about how hopeless he is.

Wandering around was lovely, checking out the archangel Michael church, the flower park with the AstroTurf animals and of course ‘the heart of Chechnya mosque’.  Strolling for an hour before dinner, the locals here are extremely traditional – most of the women have their heads covered and are in long dresses.  Beards and hats are de riguer for men.   We bumped into lots of Abdylla’s friends in the street and of course none of the men would shake my hand. Its an interesting town, and a thriving recruitment ground for ISIS after years of Muslims being mistreated by the Russian government .   

Iftar was at a very traditional Chechen restaurant – haggis, dumplings, broth, pumpkin pancakes and sea buckthorn tea.  The pumpkin pancakes were amazing…. I was less thrilled by the haggis.    

Strolling home we popped into the mosque.  Clearly my long skirt and headscarf weren’t sufficiently Islamic, so I was loaned a stunning tablecloth ensemble and directed to the women’s prayer area.  The mosque was lovely by night, and amusingly set against the ‘high rises’ of Grozny with their neon signs.  Off to bed, tomorrow to Ingushetia 

Grozny, May 8, 2019

Bus stops and abandoned stations in Abkhazia (Breakaway Russian Republics part 1)

A complicated history, and now a breakaway state

Abkhazia (population 240,000) is wedged between the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains, and neighboured by Georgia and Russia.  Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in a bloody war between 1992-93, shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart. In 2008, after a five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia, Moscow officially recognised the republic as independent.  It is a complicated conflict, and I won’t profess to have a clue about who is right or wrong (in all of these situations there tends to be right and wrong on both sides in any case). Georgians represented more than 50% of the population prior to independence and abkhazians less than 30%.  The population is now 40% of what it was. Today the UN still consider Abkhazia to be part of Georgia. Abhkazia is only officially recognised by Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela.   The economy is largely held up by the million or so Russian tourists who come every summer for a cheap Black Sea experience (it feels like the British equivalent of going to Benidorm).   

Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre


The lottery of life 

Many Abkhazians only have Abkhazian passports (unless they are lucky enough to have a Russian parent). Technically they can get a Georgian passport, but apparently that isn’t really allowed as ‘the security services will come after you’.  I had never really contemplated what life was like as a ‘citizen’ of a largely unrecognised state.  Officially this means that they can only go to the countries that recognise them.  Practically this means they can only go to Russia, as there are no direct flights from Russia to any of the other places that recognise them, and it isn’t obvious that airlines would even recognise an Abkhazian passport as an official ID.    I have always felt grateful for having passport(s) that allow me relative freedom of movement, but even with passports from less popular countries it is still feasible to get a visa to go to many places.  I can’t imagine not being free to travel – such is the lottery of birth!  I am grateful every time I travel that I was born when and where I was. 


Sochi,Gagra and Russian tourists 

We arrived in Abkhazia via Sochi – a Black Sea resort for working class Russians, now famous for the Winter Olympics.   It took an hour to get through Russian passport control, we were apparently the fifth (non Russian) tourists the border chief had seen that year, so he had to ask us a few questions.   On the Abkhazian side, they waved us through but I made our guide stop so I could get a passport stamp.  They tried to talk me out of it, as they were worried I would have problems in Georgia, but we eventually persuaded them. 

Abandoned house
Abandoned house


Our first stop was Gagra, a soviet beach resort, starting with a visit to the Tsereteli playground.   Zurab Tsereteli is a famous Georgian artist, still alive today and with a whole museum in Tbilisi dedicated to his work.  He is famous for his use of mosaics and curves and as well as the playground he was responsible for some of the finest bus stops in Abkhazia.  We had a stroll along the beach, stopping for an excellent Turkish coffee.  We visited the abandoned cinema and an excellent abandoned villa (formerly home to the princes masseuse).

Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground


Ritsa national park

We headed up the gagra valley to the Ritsa national park.  The valley becomes a stunning gorge carved out over centuries by a fast flowing snow fed river.   The road culminates at Stalin’s dacha, a place he only visited five times, on the banks of crystal blue lake Ritsa.  It was nice but was somewhat marred by the presence of a road (I am a kiwi and prefer to walk in the mountains than go by road), and somewhat marred by the presence of a lot of Russian tourists, but probably mostly marred by the animals tied up on the side of the road for tourists to take photos with.  Eagles, peacocks and monkeys on leashes less than 20cm long.   It was awful, and the practice would die out pretty quickly if the Russian tourists weren’t paying 100 rubles to have a photo taken with the peacock.

Ritsa
Ritsa
Ritsa

 
Dinner and finding a husband

On the way back we stopped at the abandoned train station in Gagra – the architecture is amazing.   And we checked out the old abandoned soviet market and the beach.  

Gagra train station
Gagra train station

Black Sea in Gagra

Dinner was shashlik and kachapuri (excellent Georgian cheese bread), followed by strudel.   Service wasn’t brilliant, but was typically Russian, with the food taking an hour to arrive and it was delivered by a grumpy looking waitress.  They drove us out of the restaurant eventually by pumping up the volume on bad Russian pop. 
Dinner conversation was amusing.  Our guide, Diana, is fiercely proud of being Abkhazian, with every sight being introduced with ‘isn’t it amazing?  Isn’t it the best thing you have ever seen?’.   The sights weren’t normally that amazing, but her enthusiasm was commendable.    Somewhat incongruently, she wasn’t a great cultural fit with the locals.  By her account, abkhazians are still very conservative, especially in villages.    Women are apparently not allowed to work outside the home, date any man they aren’t going to marry, speak too much to their husbands in public, divorce or generally bring shame to their husbands or fathers.   And as a thank you, the men do nothing to contribute to the house.  It sounds fantastic.   But Diana is stuck here and can’t travel as she doesn’t have a Russian passport.  We did spend some of our time figuring out how she could get one, marrying one of her more trustworthy cousins who already has a Russian passport is apparently the best idea. 


Donuts and bus stops

The next morning, we had an excellent Russian breakfast, eggs, bread, and cottage cheese donut things which were amazing and a few Turkish coffees each and then headed out for a meandering journey to Sukhumi. Sergei our driver had gone home last night and had bought his lovely daughter Katia back with him, she was trying to improve her English, but was as shy as you would expect a 12 year old to be.
The morning started with some incredible bus stops by Tsereveli – the Whale/dolphin, the Spaceship, the Fish, the Cock, and the Creature of the sea.

For more bus stop photos see here and here

Pitsunda and soviet beach resorts 

We then strolled along the coast at Pitsunda, it was like being transported back to how I imagine 70s Russia might have been.  Incredible architecture!  

Pitsunda architecture
Black Sea in Pitsunda
Pitsunda playground
Pitsunda playground


We also visited an incredibly cool cathedral with a mildly interesting exterior but a very groovy interior with an incredible Art Deco organ and seats that looked like they were stolen from a 1950s cinema. 

Pitsunda cathedral
Pitsunda cathedral


We passed by the ruined church in Miusera, which was a bustling picnic spot.  The church was surrounded by platforms of Georgian houses that had been destroyed during the war, it was eerie.  The area has now been turned into a national park.

Miusera church
Miusera church


Lunch cooked over the fire with the hunters 

Our lunch stop was with a family in the village of Achandara.  We couldn’t find their house so the matriarch despatched her son in a battered Lada to come and find us.   We ate in a wooden cabin adorned with bear and wolf skins shot by her sons, and she cooked us a kind of polenta above a wood fire which we ate with spicy beans, pork knuckle and homemade cheese.   We finished it off with feijoa jam and bread (she made everything herself).

Homecooked lunch


Stuffed to the gills, Sergei took us to the cosmopolitan Sukhumi.  We visited two abandoned railway station (Sukhumi and Baratashvali) and the botanical gardens.  

Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Baratashvali station
Baratashvali station

We also saw the main square which is famous for the abandoned Georgian government building which the Abkhazians burnt from the inside and have vowed to leave as a monument.  It was been covered with hoardings commemorating 25 years of independence.

Georgian government building (hoarding celebrating 25 years of independence)
Georgian government building

Glitterati in Sukhumi

Dinner was a surreal experience in the ‘top’ hotel in Abkhazia.  We had borscht, kebab and local honey cake.  Everyone around us was ordering off the extensive sushi menu.  I have never quite seen sushi like it – oversized, elaborately decorated with mayonnaise and lurid sprinkles…. I am not sure what the Japanese would have made of it.  Our fellow diners were clearly the glitterati of Abkhazia with Chanel bags and very high heels!  


Morning run along the seafront

I woke up early enough for a run and headed out along the seafront.  In the distance I spied what looked like several men in black shell suits loitering around a kids playground…. it all looked quite dodgy and I was contemplating turning back.   As I got closer I realised it was an outdoor gym area and the blokes were all doing press ups!  The promenade was busy with (mostly) men strolling and a few more doing squats and push ups.  A great way to start the day.  

Black Sea cafe in Sukhumi
Sukhumi market


The benefit of the run was quickly destroyed by breakfast, a ridiculously large spread with porridge, sausages, eggs, vegetables and more of the incredible cottage cheese pancakes with a couple of cups of coffee.   Fortified we headed to the bazaar for a wander around.  Apparently the opening of a big supermarket nearby is ruining trade, and the bazaar is largely run by Armenians.  There was a spectacular array of merchandise, my favourites being the camouflage gumboot shoe and the nut sugar strings. 


Setting an FKT on Anakopia

The tourist highlight of Abkhazia (for those who are less obsessed with soviet bus stops) is the Anakopia fortress and the new Athos monastery.  Diana, our 25 year old guide assured me it was a 40 minute hike to the fortress, I took the challenge and made it in 12 (somewhat miffed as I had taken one wrong turn and lost a minute or so, I was even more miffed on the way down as I found all the shortcuts so reckon I could do it in 8 now).   The view over the Black Sea is stunning, and I lay in the sun like a lizard on a rock for 20 minutes waiting for Diana :-).  

Anakopia fortress
Anakopia chapel

We climbed the tower, took a photo with the Abkhazian flag that Diana had carried up for the purpose – it is the hand of peace, seven stars for seven districts and green and white stripes to demonstrate Christian and Muslim harmony.   We also visited the tiny and mostly ruined Orthodox Church along with a few smartly dressed elderly local ladies who had made the climb.  The downhill took 7 minutes (and I still missed a few shortcuts).

Anakopia chapel

Soviet tourism in the cave of New Athos


After that we went to see the ‘famous amazing cave of new athos’.  It was large!  Sadly, it was a tourist production where the tourists are put on a train, and then we had to walk very slowly for an hour and a half through the caves, in a big crowd.  I put a podcast on and stayed at the back…. waiting until the lady who was responsible for turning out the lights came behind me to move to the next spot.  On the bright side it was an anthropological exercise in Russian tourist watching.

We also had the pleasure of visiting another abandoned station – Psirtskha – beautifully located on the river.

Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station

Lunch followed with more kachapuri, stew, grilled pork and a nut and cabbage dish and more Turkish coffee.   From there we wandered to perhaps my favourite abandoned train station –  Psirtskha station – it was more like a posh gazebo, and was beautifully located on the river.   
Then we headed up to the old Monastery.   It was more stunning  from a distance when you could see all the gold cupolas reflecting the sunlight.   There was an old man painting icons for the tourists.  We had a chat, and he asked where I was from.  I said NZ, and he asked if I was Maori.   I asked him if he knew New Zealander’s, he said I was the first one he had met but was curious about polynesians as he was a fan of Gauguin.   Is a stunning monastery, with incredible paintings inside.

New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery


Back to Russia

After that we meandered back to Russia by way of a bonus palace and church on the way and one final bus stop.   Exiting was slightly tricky as I had to rustle up the guard to get my exit stamp, he was very impressed with my greeting and thanks in Abkhazian. Entering russian took a bit longer, as my passport seem to raise a few red flags!   
I would recommend Abkhazia for 3-4 days purely for the bus stops and the train stations.  The monastery was lovely also.   We didn’t see everything and next time I would quite like to do a lot of hiking in the high mountains.  

Stephs’ photos are here


Gagra, 5 May, 2019

Other notes

  • For the kiwis they have feijoas here – it’s amazing, feijoa juice, jam, it was amazing…. that’s a reason to visit 
  • It’s very cheap here.  Abkhazia is deceptively poor.  The average teachers salary $250 per month, a flat in Sukhumi cost $65k to buy, which means property is very unaffordable.  For foreigners, everything seems cheap.  
  • We booked this as part of a bigger holiday through native eye in the UK, but you could probably book direct with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer.  If you wanted to go off-roading, you could also contact Sergei at off-roading Abkhazia.
  • We stayed at Hotel Abaat in Gagra and Hotel Leon in Sukhum and both were good 
  • I would suggest learning a few words in Abkhazian, the locals were always thrilled when I said thank you very much (itabob idootsana) and very good (dar ibzyo) 

Date night in Oslo

My husband has visited over 80 countries in the world without really trying.  He accompanies me sometimes, when he has time and appetite.  As a result, he has been to Afghanistan, Angola, Sao Tome, Mauritania – some pretty obscure travel destinations.   However, as we met after I had travelled extensively in Europe, he has never been to Scotland, Ireland, Germany or Norway or any number of ‘normal’ countries in Europe..

So, I have decided to take my husband on monthly date nights to European cities that he hasn’t been to before.  I am also secretly trying to get him to visit 100 countries.   This month, its Oslo!

Its not a detailed post, (really its just an excuse to publish our photos), but here are our tips for how to have a date night/weekend in Oslo

After a delayed flight from London, we only got to downtown Oslo at 2pm, so we checked into our hotel (right next to the station) and headed out ….

 

Take the ferry to the Bydog peninsular

The peninsular of bydog reminds me of cape cod – enormous white wooden villas, trees and lots of yachts.  It is also home to a handful of excellent museums.  To get there, take the ferry included in the oslo pass from Aker Brugge

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Ships in the harbour

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Choppy water for sailing

Visit the Norwegian Folk Museum

I mostly went to this museum  to see this for the beautiful old stave church, and it was worth it.  For the more down-home among you, you can see them working the traditional farm on the weekends

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Old stave church

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traditional Deli

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solo sign

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Check out the viking ship museum – just like amazonprime

okay, this was purely for entertainment, inspired by watching vikings on prime.  the ships are quite beautiful

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And then wander over to the Kontiki Museum

I found this museum oddly irritating as it was about six white guys who built a raft to prove you could get from Peru to easter island on a small vessel. Given my ancestors were canoeing around the pacific a millennium ago, i am not sure why we should celebrate that some white guys can do it.

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Kontiki museum

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Kontiki raft

Cross the road to Norways most famous museum – the Fram museum

This was the boat with which the norwegians conquered the south pole before anyone else figured out how to deal with the ice.  It was great to visit, you actually get to wander around the ship interior.

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Prow of the fram

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Wander around the peninsular

The peninsular is lovely, especially on a September day, with the sun shining and the harbour full of yachts

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Wander around downtown

After taking the ferry back to town, we spent a couple of hours meandering around town before dinner.  There were lots of nice buildings, but it was these loos donated from france (with the national motto of Liberte, egalite and fraternity) which caught my eye.  They were donated to celebrate 200 years of the Norwegian constitution, which was to some extent based on the french constitution

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Have dinner date at a Michelin starred restaurant

We went to Galt.  It wasn’t cheap but it was amazing.  The highlights were a cured lamb flat bread snack, and halibut with griddled cabbage.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  10 courses, and then we had to walk back to the hotel to digest.

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Check out the Vigeland installation at Frogner Park

We got up relatively early and had a huge Nordic breakfast (mackerel, eggs, rye bread, bacon, sausage and fruit).  Then we headed up to Frogner park to see the sculptures.  Mr Vigeland was a man before his time, most of his works were completed in the early 1900s.  Frogner park has over 200 of his sculptures and they were extraordinaryIMG_3454.jpgIMG_3457.jpgIMG_3462.jpgIMG_3465.jpgIMG_3468.jpgIMG_3470.jpgIMG_3475-3648655052-1537711245655.jpg

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Don’t pee on the walls

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Check out the Astrup Fearnley Modern art museum

Its a lovely museum on the harbour.  Small but perfectly formed with an excellent cafe.  Also check out the sculpture garden next door

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Wander around grunerlokka

Grunerlokka is a hip and happening neighbourhood with some spectacular graffiti.  There is a small but love sunday market at bla.  And after a wander you can head to mathallen for lunch (its an upmarket foodhall).  From Mathallen it is an easy half hour stroll along a stream back to town

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Walk on the roof of the opera house and check out the interior

The opera house is a lovely structure, but the highlight was walking up the sloping roof to check out the views of the harbour.  We were fortunate that there was performance going on when we visited so we heard some of it

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It was an excellent weekend, where we ended up walking about 15km each day.  Also is delightful, really lovely, wonderful food, and easy to stroll around.  Though bring your wallet, as everything is eye-wateringly expensive (average salaries in Oslo are almost double what they are in London, and so are the prices)

Oslo, September 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Opera Thon – right next to Oslo Central Station (Oslo S).  
  • Definitely use the Oslo Pass – its 400 NOK for 24 hours for free entry to most museums and free public transport.  Given most museums were 120 NOK, it was a good deal, and included the ferry to the bydog peninsular
  • Flights are super cheap with Norwegian
  • Take the NSB/local train to town – its only 23 minutes, a couple minutes slower than the private express train which is double the price

A weekend in Kiev

Kiev – not just famous for the awesome deepfried breadcrumbed chicken with garlic and butter, also a destination to visit for the amazing orthodox architecture and for the more adventurous, the opportunity to visit Chernobyl. I loved Kiev and can’t wait to go again, provided you have a European passport, it is a cheap, lovely and easy place to go for a fabulous long weekend.

Kiev is a wonderfully walkable city which is safe and lovely. The highlights of our weekend were

Walk around town and see the amazing architecture

Wander up Andriivs’kyi Uzviz (Andrew’s descent). This is a lovely old street with nice shops, albeit some of them are a bit touristy. At the top there is the lovely St Andrews church, designed by an Italian architect.

St Andrews
St Andrews

Then head down to the sky blue St Michaels Monastery which is quite lovely, and cross over to see St Sofias – Kiev’s oldest standing church. You can easily see the highlights of Kiev old town in a 30 minute walk, but I would stretch it out to a couple of hours to see everything. Ladies – don’t forget to cover your head when you visit the churches (either a scarf or a hoody works)

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St Michaels

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St Sofias

You can also wander a bit further and see St Volodymyrs cathedral and then walk down to Independence Square through the modern bit of town. Less lovely, but still interesting

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Volodymyrs

Walk/Bus out to Lavra to see the monastery

Kiev Pechersk Lavra is a monastery based on a 900 year old underground cave system which still has mummified remains of the founding monks. Visiting the caves is a pilgrimage for many who walk the tunnels with lighted candles. Behave appropriately. Outside of the tunnels the orthodox church architecture above ground are beautiful

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Lavra

Head up to Chernobyl

I didn’t actually visit Chernobyl as had concussion and wasn’t up for the drive, but my darling hubby did and found it pretty interesting (photo’s are his). There are multiple tour options to head out there, all of which involve a bus, tour guide and a meal of some sorts. Interestingly, darling hubby did think that the Chernobyl experience was somewhat ‘curated’ as there were a few places where oxygen masks were artfully displayed alongside kids tours.

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Eat Chicken Kiev

We had intended to try a couple of different restaurants in Kiev, but after the first meal at Kanapa we just kept going back. It is expensive for Ukraine, but the food was astoundingly good. I would be tempted to go back to Kiev just to eat their Chicken Kiev. In addition to Kanapa, there were plenty of good cafes serving great fruit pie.

Additional Info
  • We were in luxe mode this weekend and we stayed at the Fairmont Grand Hotel Kyiv, which was pricy but cheaper than the Radisson or the Hyatt It was nice enough, but the breakfast was a bit pants. Hotels were expensive here!
  • the town is very easy to walk around, don’t bother with cabs
    • The free in your pocket guides are pretty good and can be downloaded here

 

Visited May 2015

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