A Very Weird Country: Turkmenistan

Türkmenistan is, in my opinion, one of the strangest countries I have ever visited and I have been to over 100, although not to North Korea to which it invites comparisons. For example, North Korea has an authoritarian regime led by Kim Jong-un while Turkmenistan has Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, a dictator “elected” in 2006 with 98% of the vote following the death of Turkmenistan’s first president for life, a former communist in the USSR who embraced a form of socialist/nationalism upon Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991. Both the North Korean and Turkmenistan dictators demand excessive personal portraits be displayed, embark on ostentatious building schemes and starve their populace. Another similarity: North Korea attracted 10,000 tourists in 2016, many from China while Turkmenistan had just 7,000, half Iranians.

Like North Korea, Turkmenistan is a secretive society where government misinformation is rife and criticism of the government or Mr. Berdimuhamedow is not tolerated. According to Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org/worldreport/2019/country-chapters/Turkmenistan), dissidents are quickly arrested, summarily imprisoned and disappear. Religious and sexual freedom are non-existent. Foreign media is denied access. Arbitrary laws, like no black cars, exist.

There are, however, differences. While North Korea marches forth on the path towards nuclear armament in its war with South Korea and the rest of the world, Turkmenistan has no such weapons (to my knowledge) or ambitions. It maintains a policy of strict neutrality, rejecting overtures by the US, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia (it is a Muslim country) for assistance, requests to use its lands or accepting foreign aid. It did, however, have a tense relationship with its neighbor Uzbekistan, stemming from a botched assassination attempt of the former Turkmenistan president in 2002 and disputes over border boundaries. A visit by Mr. Berdimuhamedow in 2017 to Uzbekistan seems to have improved relations, at least according to an Uzbek government release (http://uza.uz/en/politics/Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-a-new-stage-of-cooperation-24-04-2018).

Despite trying to tightly control information in and about the country and enforce draconian laws, there are plenty of holes and leakage. Google is acceptable while Facebook is blocked but everyone seems to know the workaround (use a VPN) and it is tolerated. Smoking and alcohol are officially illegal, yet the government sells cigarettes in state-run stores to anyone over 18. Wine from Italy, France and Georgia are for sale in the hotel bar, although at astronomical prices ($10 per glass) and a number of beer breweries are in the country. Attempts to limit foreign criticism about Mr. Berdimuhamedow have been largely unsuccessful; one of the most flagrant international diatribes against him is by John Oliver, the US late night comedian, whose scathing 22 minute monologue contains very unflattering footage of Mr. Berdimuhamedow (https://Youtu.be/-9QYu8LtH2E), highlighted by repeated showings of him falling off a horse.

I had to go. Thus, I made the trek  in September, 2019, with the tour group Adventures Abroad, and emerged completely fascinated, but also saddened, by the country.

The Entry:

Part of the reason Turkmenistan has so few visitors is that getting into the country is no easy task. A tourist visa is needed for citizens of every country and to acquire one requires maneuvering though a bureaucratic nightmare ultimately involving getting a letter of invitation from the government, in our case obtained via the local travel agency. A transit visa is theoretically possible, but varies in length from 3-7 days depending on the vagaries of the government bureaucrat whose desk it lands upon. Visas are generally denied for certain holidays, specifically September 27, Independence Day, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, ours included September 27.

A travel agent is also needed as tourists cannot wander the country unattended, just like North Korea’s minders, but a tad more liberal. We could walk unchaperoned on the main city streets and into the malls, but with strict instructions as to photography prohibitions, no smoking in public as it is banned and not saying anything negative about Mr. Berdimuhamedow or his policies. Despite being in the country on Independence Day, we could not (and did not) watch the parades of soldiers, musical bands and dancing children as that can only be done by special invitation and from a designated viewing zone.

Our first glimpse of Türkmenistan was from the Uzbek border crossing near the Türkmenistan town of Daşoguz. After clearing the efficient Uzbek departure procedures, we were met at a 14 foot high fence. At the gate, a Turkmen guard checked our passports against a pre-approved list. Satisfied the 18 members of our group had the appropriate clearance, we were ushered to the side. A mile and a half of no man’s land awaited over which our luggage might be dragged (no porters exist), but today we were lucky. A decrepit white bus with torn upholstery and cracked windows covered in filthy clothes ferried us to the distant border building.

A guard clutching a thermometer greeted us, checking our temperature as we again showed our passports. A long table held custom forms only in Turkmen to be completed by everyone. Our Turkmen guide, Jabor, joined us at the table and following his instructions, we filled in our names, nationalities, dates of birth, hotel and checked “no” to a long list of untranslated and, therefore, incomprehensible, questions. Forms filled out, we went to another door where our passports were checked for the 3rd time. A 15 minute wait ensued, during which a large Korean tour group came into the small room and squished everyone against the door.

One by one, we were called to the single working immigration officer, sitting behind a wooden cage-like barred counter resembling a 1920’s bank. As my turn came, he asked  for my passport and instructed me to press first my right thumb onto a fingerprint machine, then the left. Fingerprinting completed, he handed me back my passport, now sporting a bright green full page size visa and said “welcome to Türkmenistan.”

Scanning machines, one for people and another for luggage, were next. We were all directed to walk around the human scanning machine and our luggage went through unchallenged. A guard on the other side took the forms we had filled out. Unfortunately, one of our group had used an unacceptable green pen. He was sent to the side and made to do the form again, this time using a blue pen. Another was asked whether he had any medications. When he replied “yes”, the guard waived him on without further question or inspection. Before exiting the building, standing at the doors, another guard did the 5th passport check. Finally, a short walk to the exit gate, where we underwent the 6th and final passport check and we were officially and legally in Turkmenistan.

Our entry had taken only an hour and a half, the shortest time ever according to our Canadian guide, Chris.

Stupid Soviet Engineering Stories: The Darvaza Gas Crater/Gates to Hell

From Daşoguz, a convoy of Toyota 4 by 4’s drove us into the desert. Not your average Corollas, but $100,000 Land Cruiser Prado’s. The “highway” was asphalt but washboard bumpy most of the way. The 4 by 4’s weren’t really needed until 300 kilometers later, when we turned off the highway and onto a half gravel/half sand road for 10 minutes. Ahead, we could see the crater.

Supposedly in 1971 (the date is not certain due to Soviet and Turkmenistan secrecy – it may have happened 10 years before or 10 years after), the Soviets constructed an oil rig on top of a natural gas crater to determine the possible extent of oil and gas below the Karakum desert. The rig collapsed into the ground causing a giant sinkhole to open. Soviet scientists, concerned that the methane gas spewing into the air might be harmful to nearby villagers, deliberately set it afire, expecting it to burn out within weeks.

Forty-eight years later, the fire is still burning.The Soviets forgot to figure out how much methane existed or didn’t think that mattered when they set the crater ablaze. The crater’s current diameter measures about 70 meters or the size of a football field and no one knows if, or when, it will burn itself out.

We visited, first just before sunset, then after dark where the flames lit up the night sky. A fence stands around the crater, presumably to stop idiots like the one we saw from getting too close. As I approached, the heat from the flames below burned my eyes and the hot air distorted into visible waves of heat.

Aptly named The Gates to Hell, the fire mesmerized and unnerved me. Fascinating as the flames were to watch, I couldn’t help thinking I had joined the ranks of the dark tourist – macabre individuals who chase after disaster zones and human catastrophes in search of mankind’s worst moments. Beautiful, and certainly deserving of its nickname, I couldn’t think of any good reason why I was there.

Marbleouse Ashvegas Ashgabat:

Following a 4 hour drive in the dark, forbidding Karakum desert, our arrival at midnight into Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city reminded my of Dorthy leaving Kansas and entering Oz, except whiter. A few years ago, the original President decreed that all new government buildings would henceforth be constructed from white Carreras marble, both because the colour reflected and cooled the harsh summer sun (temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees Celcius) and because white is considered good luck. One doesn’t wish a Turkmen “a good holiday” but rather “a white holiday.”

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In the new city center, the white buildings are blinding. Offices, high rise apartments, hotels, shopping malls, theatres, museums, water fountains, government buildings, etc. all display extensive white marble, lots of neon lights just slightly more subdued than Las Vegas and soaring white marble columns, many topped with domes in marble, glass and gold. In fact, gold seems to be the decorative colour of choice. Styles run the gamut – a library shaped like a book, Greek Pantheon lookalikes, imaginative spaceships, a mosque shaped like the Dome of the Rock and a stadium sporting the giant head of a horse, mimicking the country and president’s obsessions with the much beloved Ahal-Teke breed.

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The pictures are far more descriptive than I can ever be:

 

The roads are broad, sparkling silver grey with boulevards sporting trees and well tended flowers, and wide sidewalks with nary a crack or tile out of place. Statues and structures serving no apparent purpose other than decoration abound. The streets are pristine, with garbage kept at bay by an army of street cleaners who diligently worked from before dawn to dusk.

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Our hotel was The Ashgabat Sport Hotel, clad in Carreras marble, with a cavernous lobby replete with pillars wrapped in gold vines and a curving staircase. My room was luxurious, bordering on gaudy, foot-tall moldings, a wall lined with closets, heavy curtains, a chandelier, a chaise lounge and a bathroom with a bathtub and separate shower stall. Everything worked well, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was staying in a parody, someone’s idea of a bad joke of opulence.

 

All is not as perfect as initial impressions would leave one to believe. Many of the newly built marble office buildings and storefronts are empty. The impressive sports complex, built for the 2017 Asian Games, stands abandoned except for the stadium and the monorail has not been used for a few years. Outside of the center are occupied ugly Soviet style rectangular apartment buildings surrounded further out by one and two story brick houses where the roads show cracks and sidewalks do not exist. Rusty, banged up Ladas are more common than Toyotas. Our buses always raced past these areas, as though we weren’t supposed to see this side of Ashgabat.

Fifteen kilometers from Ashgabat are the ruins of Nisa, which translates to forgotten valley. Begun in the 3rd century BC by the Parthians, it enjoyed success as an early Silk Road city, where it taxed silk coming from China, earning the wrath of the Romans who  tried to capture the city in 53 BC. Failing, they left it alone until the 3rd century AD when the Persians, all Zoroastrians, took the city, settled there, built a fire temple and used Roman prisoners of war to learn the art of building arches.

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Remains of arches at Nisa

Back in Ashgabat, we witnessed yet another Mr. Berdimuhamedow obsession, Guinness Book of World Record accomplishments. Amongst them, the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel, the world’s largest indoor swimming pool and the world’s largest carpet, located in the Ashgabat Carpet Museum beside the omnipresent portrait of Mr. Berdimuhamedow:

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World’s largest indoor ferris wheel

 

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President’s portrait in the center; world’s largest carpet on the left

Not surprisingly, Ashgabat also holds the record for most white marble buildings, 543 as of 2013.

Across the hotel was a giant shopping mall, where we were allowed to go. I braved crossing the street, where aggressive drivers, all men, totally ignored the zebra crossings in their haste to get somewhere a few seconds quicker and walked into a four story atrium in the mall’s centre. All around, stores offered women’s dresses, children’s toys and perfume for sale. No familiar name brands shouted out except a Nine West shoe store which was likely a knock-off.

I went up to the escalators to the food fair behind the children’s playground in search of a quick dinner. Six or 7 restaurants provided both sit-in and takeaway service, although fast food would be a misnomer. Lamb ribs would take 25 minutes and shish kebab 20 minutes, so I settled for a tasty 10 minute hamburger costing $5.00.

As a foreigner, I was lucky to be able to afford the non-subsidized prices. Many locals rely on heavily subsidized staples like flour, rice and milk. According to a recent report, queues for food are long and commonplace (https://www.refl.org/a/food-shortages-Ashgabat-Türkmenistan/30187280.html). Apparently the country underwent a severe economic crisis in 2018, resulting in the government embarking on its usual remedy – providing just enough of whatever triggered the dissatisfaction to quell discourse – but failing to make any real change.

All of the population are provided with free education and health care and heavily subsidized electricity, water, gas and food if they can find it. Seventy percent of the people work for the government and thus receive free housing which, after 10 years of employment, they own. Oddly, most of the Carreras marble high rise apartments we saw showed no signs of habitation. Jabor suggested they were not yet occupied as they had just been recently completed.

This is all paid for by gas – Turkmenistan has the 2nd largest natural gas field and reserves (behind Iran) and is, by most accounts, very wealthy. Sadly, much of the wealth goes toward grandiose building projects and buying Guinness World records. 

Mary/Merv

A 40 minute flight from Ashgabat lies the modern town of Mary, situated close to the ancient site of Merv, the largest Silk Road city in the 11th and 12th centuries. Ruins of Merv 1 date from the 6th century BC. One of Alexander the Great’s generals founded Merv 2 nearby, desiring a fancier city and a Hellenistic city existed there until the Seljuks, a Muslim empire, appropriated the region and constructed Merv 3 in the 8th century. It was famous for its 12 libraries, all of which were destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Led by one of Ghengis Khan’s sons, the Mongols razed the city and massacred its 500,000 inhabitants. It never regained its former glory.

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Ruins at Merv

This much of Turkmenistan’s history is clear, but the origin of the Turkmen is murky. The government traces their beginnings to Turkic speaking Oghuz tribes from Mongolia in the 8th century AD, Jabor said they came from near the Attai mountains in Siberia in the 9th century and our more cynical guide in Uzbekistan attributed their arrival only in the 16th century, suggesting that the longer lineage is merely a ploy to establish a better claim to the lands.

What is certain is the Russians captured the area in 1881 and annexed it into the Russian Empire where it remained until 1991. Russia was attracted to the area for several reasons: cotton, competitiveness with Britain during the Great Game and potential access to India, a spiritual connection to the river Oxus, said to contain a God, revenge for the 1717 killing of 2000 Russian soldiers led by Prince Bekovitch who had tried to capture Khiva and stopping the abduction of Russians for sale as slaves by the Turkmen.

It is equally apparent Turkmenistan does not look back to its Soviet days fondly. Stalin, worried a large, coherent central Asian republic might be a challenging force to quash, employed a strategy of conquer and divide, setting up 5 central Asian republics and encouraging differences between each. Turkmen felt particularly hard done by- claiming excessive oppression by Stalin and the worst healthcare in the USSR. The near complete destruction of Ashgabat in 1948 by an earthquake with the death of over 100,000 inhabitants followed by slow reconstruction by the Soviets did little to endear the Russians to the Turkmens. Jabor had a bevy of anti-Brezhnev jokes with which he regaled us on the bus rides to the different sites. My favourite had an aide running up to Brezhnev:

“Very bad news,” he said, “the Americans have launched a rocket and put a man on the moon.”

“That is not good. Us Russians must do something better to prove our superiority,” replied Brezhnev.

“But what?” Asked the aid.

“I know, “ said Brezhnev, “we can put a man on the sun!”

“Problem,” retorted the aid, “but the sun is too hot.”

“No problem,” said Brezhnev, “he can land there at night.”

We toured the ancient ruins, then the 12th century mausoleum of Sultan Sandzhar or maybe that of a famous Sufi religious figure, Abu-Said Mitkhene – no one is quite sure who is buried beneath the tomb – but it is definitely a popular pilgrimage site. All visitors are invited to partake in a free meal (provided by the government), cooked in giant vats by women eager to share their food. We indulged in bowls of steaming hot rice pudding and freshly baked bread.

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Our final stop in Mary was the Mary Museum. Although closed for Independence Day, we were allowed in but without the local museum guide. This was probably a godsend as most of the museum was filled with Turkmenistan crafts – carpets, dress, weapons – and we had already been subjected to a rather dry recitation on how carpets are made, their regional distinctions, their uses, etc. in Ashgabat.

What we missed, according to Chris who had previously attended, was the guide walking around the initial room, dedicated to Mr. Berdimuhamedow. Pictures of his sporting prowess prevailed – the exalted leader playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, doing judo, riding a horse – thankfully all with his shirt on unlike Putin. Portraits indicate Mr. Berdimuhamedow also loves driving a SUV and standing in front of yachts, but it is not all fun and games. There is Mr. Berdimuhamedow beside a yurt, in a cotton field, in a textile factory, at a university, with children, lots of children. In every photo and portrait, his perfect white teeth sparkle; he was, after all a dentist by training although hints the pictures were photoshopped exist. Mr. Berdimuhamedow talents are not limited to being in a lot of photos. He also writes books on various subjects: horses and 2 on display about carpets and Turkmen food and hospitality. Obviously, a very talented individual whose picture rightly deserves to be everywhere – outside mosques, on the main train station, in restaurants and in the lobbies of museums:

Final Thoughts:

My initial reaction to Turkmenistan was positive. I loved the quirkiness of the crater and the craziness of all the marble buildings in the cities. Despite their over-the-top decor, the hotels were the best I have stayed in to date during my travels on the Silk Road. The people, even the border guards, have been uniformly friendly, welcoming and eager participants in photo ops. Except for the madcap drivers, I felt completely safe.

But leaving the country to read on the internet about the oppression, the hunger and the human rights abuses dampens my enthusiasm. Signs all was not as rosy as the government would have us believe existed in the country, but the depth of the dichotomy between what we saw and were told and the reality is disturbing. I suspect North Korea would be about the same.

 

 

 

Carcassonne: The Medieval City

Continuing my futile quest to remain in Provence during July, I again found myself leaving Provence for the region of Occitanie, the southern most area of France, destination Carcassonne, a fixture on everybody’s prettiest towns in France list. Less than 4 hours and more than 40 Euros in tolls from Lyon, I arrived there in the midst of France’s second heat wave of the summer. Thankfully, both my car and hotel had air conditioning.

Geography:

Carcassonne is located in the plains beside the river Aude, where the 16th century Canal du Midi links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. Two hour boat rides on the canal by far more modern vessels are offered starting at 10 Euros. Occitanie has its own language (Occitan), a Romance language closely related to Catalan, and a history replete with attempts by Spain to conquer it, and vice versa. Barcelona is only 300 kilometers away.

It is also the region where grapes have grown forever, or at least since the 5th century BC by the Greeks. Sparkling wine was developed here 150 years before Don Perignon figured it out and it is home to Cassoulet, a dish made with white haricot beans, pork fat and duck in a slow cooker called a cassole. I had one for dinner in Carcassonne; delicious yes, but no one could explain to me how a dish heavy with white beans, which were first brought to Europe in the 15th century from America, became synonymous with France.

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Cassoulet

History:

Carcassonne is really two cities, the “medieval” city perched on the hill and the modern city (mostly 18th century) below, beside the canal. The medieval city has been around since Neolithic times. The Romans built a fortress on the hill; their walls are still visible. It was captured by the Visigoths in the 5th century, the same Visigoths who also sacked Rome in 410AD.

In the 10th century, Carcassonne became a favourite stopping point for crusaders off to the Holy Land. Also during this period, the count of Trenceval built the chateau that still stands and ruled the area for a while. Early heretics of the Catholic Church, the Cathars, were headquartered in Carcassonne, causing it to become the center of the French Inquisition in the 13th century. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, various armies tried to penetrate the city, but failed due to its constantly updated fortifications.

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Carcassonne’s double walls

Finally, Napoleon decommissioned it as a military base and it fell into disrepair, its stones used for buildings in the new Carcassonne below. It was even ordered to be demolished in 1849. An uproar ensued and Eugene Viollet-le-duc, an architect who also installed the recently collapsed spire on Norte Dame in Paris, took up the fight to save the city and renovate it.

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Medieval Cacassonne from a nearby bridge

The Medieval City:

In 1853, restoration began. Two rows of walls; the interior Roman ones and the exterior medieval ones ring the city, along with 52 towers. Inside, a labyrinth of cobblestone roads and meandering alleyways are flanked by “15th century” houses and shops, their telltale second floors overhanging the streets in order to reduce the tax burden calculated on the ground floor space. A now clean and dry open sewer runs down the street centers, previously used to steer refuse and other undesirable stuff away from the city.

The Trencevals built the cities largest house- the Chateau Comtal – currently a museum with guided tours. A large, decommissioned  church, the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus ,is believed to have been begun in the 6th century, renovated by the Carolingians, blessed with Cathedral status in the 11th century and took its Gothic shape in the 13th century. It, too, was renovated by Mr. Violet-le-duc.

His restoration is not without controversy. Slate tiles dominate the roofs, even though slate is not quarried anywhere in the vicinity. Many of the towers are pointed, another feature not found in medieval architecture. The city does not advertise itself as an authentic reproduction, but as a re-imagined medieval city with a few idiocyncracies. It’s a fair enough description, with the 15th century houses now home mostly to souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. Fifty residents still inhabit the old town, but with running water, proper sewage and electricity. As an UNESCO heritage site, it has no (visible to me) air conditioning and it is closed to traffic after 9:00AM.

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Re-imagined entrance with pointed towers

It is also the second most visited monument outside of Paris in France, with Mont. St. Michel in first place. Tons of visitors, mostly French, braved the 40+ degree weather to wander the city during the 3 days I spent there, their kids running around in full length medieval dresses brandishing plastic swords and shields, and everyone drinking from the fountains and wells. Ice-cream was the bestseller.

My walking tour offered by the Tourism Centre was underwhelming, with the guide showing up 20 minutes late, then racing through the old town to ensure she still finished at the specified hour. She spent  an inordinate amount of time explaining Cathar religious philosophy and how it differed from that of the Catholic Church. I won’t bore you with the details, a courtesy I wish the guide had also extended. Suffice to say, the Cathars were the main targets of the French Inquisition and were effectively extinguished through conversion, torture and execution. Their lasting legacy is, oddly, their repression by military means, which eventually led to the unification of the Carcassonne region with France rather than Spain.

Final Thoughts:

Carcassonne is striking, from the first view of the ramparts in the distance, to its interior buildings, roads and squares. Yes, it evokes the sense that one is wandering through a medieval city, although the hoards of tourists did much to dampen my enthusiasm for it and I was a tad disappointed to learn much of the renovations dated from the 19th century. But on my final day, I rose at 6:00AM and went into the old city, without the crowds and just meandered about for an hour, trying to take myself back 500 years. Aside from the occasional delivery truck driver, it mostly worked and made it worth the visit.

Bulgaria: Monasteries, Roses and Grannies

Although traveling through the Balkans solo had been easy, after 6 weeks I was ready to surrender myself to the ease of a tour group, where everything would be organized and all I would have to do is show up at the appointed place at the appointed time and hop on the bus.

Thus, on Saturday I attended at the lobby of the Budapest Hotel, in Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia, at 6:00PM to meet my group.

The Tour:

The organizer was Explore, a UK based travel company specializing in small group tours, which I have used before in Central America and the Baltics. This 8 day tour is called Best of Bulgaria, led by Toma, a Bulgarian national with over 25 years experience as a tour guide. Joining me were 2 Australians (Nick and Sybil) and 6 Brits (Mary, Tony, Dolcy, David, Allison and Judith), comprising 3 lawyers, 2 patent officers, 2 chemical engineers and a TV and film producer, but Nick turned out to have the most stories to tell. Born and raised in Bulgaria, he escaped in 1969 by walking (unauthorized) into Italy, staying in a detention camp there before being accepted as an immigrant to Australia. His Bulgarian was still pretty good and proved invaluable in interpreting Bulgarian menus and dealing with waitresses.

Our route was designed to showcase the best of Bulgaria (hence its title),  historical gems, exquisite beaches, monasteries, and, to my delight, the Rose Valley. We started in Sofia, then drove to the Rila Monastery and, from there, to Bansko. Next was the European city of culture for 2019, Plovdiv, before heading to see the Neolithic ruins, Thracian tombs and the heart of the Rose Valley in Kazablak. We went to the Black Sea coast before returning inland to the capital of the 2nd Bulgarian kingdom in Nesebar. The route made no sense from an historical chronology, but covered most of the major periods in Bulgarian history.

Geography:

Bulgaria’s history, culture and economy is tied up in its geography. Split into Northern and Southern Bulgaria by the Balkan Mountains, it is blessed by the Black Sea on its Eastern Coast. To the south lies Greece and Turkey; in the North is Romania. Serbia and North Macedonia are to its west. The country is small; twice the size of Ireland. Its capital, Sofia, is home to about 1.25 million of the country’s 7.25 million people.

History:

Bulgaria is old. Evidence of Neolithic settlements dating to 6000 BC have been found, excavated and preserved in a museum in the town of Stara Zagora.

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Remains of a neolithic house; difficult to photograph

Highly sophisticated towns and colonies of the Thracian plain from the 2nd millennium are referenced in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Thracian tribes battled with and against Alexander the Great, ancient Greece and eventually became a Roman colony. Bulgaria’s most famous burial site, a Thracian tomb at Kazanlak, has been closed to the public but, like the Lascaux caves in France, a perfect reproduction open to visitors is nearby:

Rome colonized the area and Roman ruins are frequent, including the amphitheatre in Plovdiv, the mosaics from a wealthy house in Stara Zagora and one end of a stadium, discovered digging  a metro in Sofia and currently under glass beside the subway station.

Constantine brought Christianity to the region; it was further enhanced when the Slavs from the Russian steppes arrived in the 7th century. Also arriving were the Bulgar tribes from Eastern Europe or Asia. In 681AD, they displaced the ruling Byzantines and established the first Bulgarian empire, which lasted until 1018. During this period, the Bulgars, Slavs and Thracians assimilated, emerging with a common language, religion and alphabet which forms the basis for the Bulgarian heritage. Nesebar, a major city during this period, still retains over 40 churches, displaying Byzantine, Bulgar and Ottoman styles, none of which I entered, but I did photograph a few:

The Byzantines reconquered and ruled modern Bulgaria until 1185, when a local uprising overthrew the Byzantines and established the second Bulgarian empire. This empire lasted until the Ottomans arrived in 1396 and stayed for 500 years. Tarnovo,  the capital of the second Bulgar empire, contains more churches and a fortress high atop the city, a difficult climb in the heat wave sweeping the country:

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Fortress at Tarnovo

Revolts against the Ottomans started as early as the 17th century, but gathered steam in the 19th century, culminating in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1888. The effects of the extended Ottoman rule meant that Bulgaria was quite backwards. It had no railroads, little industry, no universities, widespread poverty and illiteracy. Cultural pursuits were also limited during this period. No great Bulgarian literature, art (other than religious iconography), composers or architecture emerged; a combination of Ottoman oppression, poverty and non-existent educational opportunities. Only folkloric items: dancing, singing, embroidery which could be passed down orally through the generations, kept alive the Bulgarian spirit.

The late 19th century saw the beginning of the 3rd Bulgarian Kingdom and  the start of the Bulgarian revival period. Fashions from France were imported, universities established, dancing balls were held. Houses built in Plovdiv revel in the new architectural style, with elaborate paintwork the defining mark:

Western ideas and goods soon arrived, electricity, ballrooms, public transit. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, long submissive to the whims of the Muslim Ottomans, thrived with a flurry of new church buildings. War was not unknown; Bulgaria fought in the Balkan Wars in 1912, seeking to obtain lands in Macedonia from Serbia and Thessaloniki from Greece. During WW1, it declared war on Serbia, resulting in France, Britain and Italy declaring war on it.

Bulgaria allied itself with the Nazi’s during WW2, but in a rare example of church opposition to Nazi policies, managed to avoid the wholesale slaughter of its Jewish population. Although it enacted anti-Semitic laws restricting the movement and employment of Jews, when the Nazis ordered the Tsar to transport 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps, protests erupted, led by the Orthodox Christian bishop of Plovdiv. The Tsar backed down and refused to deport Bulgarian Jews., saving most of them. However, few Jews remain in Bulgaria today, most emigrating to Israel after the war. The Central Synagogue, completed in 1909, is Moorish revival in style and the third largest in Europe. I was only in Sofia on Saturday, when it is closed to visitors.

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Central Synagogue, Sofia

Bulgaria was “liberated” by the Russians in 1944. Following the end of the war, it became part of the Warsaw Pact and was closely allied with its communist brethren, suffering Soviet style economic planning, collective farms, 100% employment of people doing nothing etc. Most high rise apartments and government offices bear the trademark Soviet Realism architectural style, unattractive rectangular blocks with grey, rotting stucco facades. Central Sofia suffers from a glut of these buildings, like its current Parliament, but it is moving soon:

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Economy:  

Bulgaria is one of Europe’s poorest countries. Its lack of industrialization during the Ottoman period left it playing catch-up, but then it immediately endured what Toma referred to as “the messy period”, the time between independence, the Balkan Wars, WW1 and WW2, followed by 45 years of communism. Today, abandoned Soviet style factories litter cities and countryside, socialist style apartments are decaying, sidewalks, where they exist, are little more than rickety pieces of concrete between trees, lampposts and garbage.

Small farms, light manufacturing, forestry and tourism are the biggest industries. Education and medical care is free, but the latter is funded through a tax system paid only by those who are employed. Tax is a flat 10% and there is a 20% VAT, leaving the government woefully underfunded, limited infrastructure improvements and inadequate social programs.

One of the biggest problems facing the economy is widespread corruption amongst government figures. A recent article in The Economist exposed a story where high ranking government officials were being sold luxury apartments at ridiculously low prices then reselling them very quickly at their fair market value. The article also noted the recently appointed anti-corruption minister is being investigated for corruption.

But the largest issue, according to Toma, is Bulgaria’s complete dependence on Russian oil & gas for its energy needs. In January, 2009, Russia stopped imports to Bulgaria during the Russia/Ukraine conflict. For 2 weeks, Bulgaria was without power to heat or light its schools, hospitals and factories and completely powerless (sorry for the pun) to do anything about it. Despite some advances in obtaining resources from elsewhere, Bulgaria still relies on Russia for 75% of its energy needs.

The Monasteries:

During the Ottoman period, severe limitations were placed on churches if they hadn’t been converted to mosques or destroyed . When construction was permitted, they had to be lower than the lowest minaret, so no towering steeples or soaring cupolas topped with onion shaped domes. In order not to attract the attention of Muslims, the exteriors had to be plain, which explains both the lack of outdoor decoration and the plethora of colourful icon paintings inside. No photos are allowed inside Bulgarian churches, but the refractory at the Rila Monastery didn’t count as a church and photos were allowed, as were photos of the outside paintings:

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Outside paintings at Rila

Rila Monastery is the country’s most famous and deservedly so. Its courtyard contains an ornately decorated (inside) church and is surrounded by former monks’ dormitories but  today primarily house pilgrims as the monk population is rapidly dwindling.

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Rila Monastery

Flowers:

Bulgaria is awash in flowers, a pleasant surprise to me, although if I had read the tour’s trip notes beforehand, I would have learned that Bulgaria’s Rose Valley, is responsible for 70% of the world’s rose oil. As is becoming an annoying habit, we were a week late for the best blooms (just like the tulips in Holland) which occur in mid-June, but a few fields still had roses on the vines. Stores selling rose oil related products – lotions, soap, liqueurs – proliferate as do demonstrations on how to extract the oil (pour petals in a vat with steaming water, press, take the resulting liquid and separate the water from the oil). There’s a Rose Museum in Kazanlak and a weird ethnological village nearby with roses and a grotesque Statue of Liberty (the owner’s take on capitalism):

Bulgaria was not only about the roses. Throughout the country, fields of sunflowers stretched towards the sun. And just in case I arrive a week too late for the lavenders in Provence (even with a 6 week window), Bulgaria has those as well, in full bloom.

The Grannies:

In Plovdiv and again in Kazanlak, we attended folk shows at dinner. Excellent as both were, the highlight of the trip was our “brunch with the grannies,” some ladies of grandparent age who invite tourists into their restaurant/museum/gift shop and entertain them first, with the Bulgarian drink, rakija. Made from grapes (in other countries rakija can be made from plums), it is between 40 and 50% proof, sipped slowly from a shot glass with food and a bit hard to take at 10:00AM. But not for the grannies, who managed 3-4 shots each over the 2 hours we spent there.

We began with the grannies showing us how to roll the dough for the traditional bread, Tutmanik (it has other names), to which eggs and cheese are added, baked and comes out delicious. As it was baking, the grannies dressed some of our tour group in traditional Bulgarian costumes (I declined), serenaded us, acapella, with folk songs, then invited us  to dance their dances with them (I declined again). They were gracious hosts, despite not speaking a word of English, the food delicious and it was a welcome reprieve from all the ruins and churches. I suspect the rakija contributed to my enjoyment.

Etcetera

We did and saw a lot more: the Black Sea resorts of Varna and Burgas with their overdeveloped coastlines and all-inclusive guests, mostly Brits, Germans and Scandinavians, seeking cheap holidays, rode on a narrow gauge railway, visited the Russian Orthodox Church and memorial at Shipka, saw what is considered to be the most exquisitely painted church at Arbanasi and ate lots of good Bulgarian food.

Final Thoughts:

I thoroughly enjoyed our tour; Toma was a good guide, our group “jelled” and Bulgaria proved interesting, but maybe a few too many churches and monasteries for my liking. There were pleasant surprises: the flowers, the fresh vegetables, the good, cheap local wine, but these virtues could not mask the poverty in the country. While everywhere I went had roads, air conditioning, reliable electricity and wifi, it was hard to ignore the potholes, the beggars, the Roma problem (10% of the population) and the lack of historical art and literature.  Nowhere have I been has brought home so forcefully the negative effects of 500 years of Ottoman and then communist rule. Bulgaria is doing its best to overcome its history, but it has a long way to go.

 

 

 

 

Biking and Barging in Belgium and Holland

My endeavors to cycle independently through France had met with mixed success; I had made it to St. Malo and Roscoff on my bike, however my overarching success had been to figure out how to use the French train system toting a bicycle. It turned out to be fairly easy – just find a train and a train car with a bicycle symbol and wheel one aboard, pushing aside all those baby carriages and wheelchairs who deigned to park their apparatuses in the exclusive bicycle section.

Unwilling to concede defeat to the bicycle and buoyed by the beautiful photos posted on Facebook by two of my colleagues who were cycling independently through The Netherlands and Belgium, I signed up for a week long Bike and Barge tour offered by tripsite.com, going from Bruges to Amsterdam during the tulip season. We would cycle the flat bike paths in Belgium and The Netherlands during the day and meet up with our barge/floating hotel each evening. It sounded like a very civilized way to tour a country and get some exercise.

My first hint that things might not go smoothly was upon receiving the joining instructions – the group was to meet at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to be transported to the barge moored in Ghent. I had wrongly presumed a trip titled “from Bruges to Amsterdam” would start in Bruges and had booked a hotel there for the preceding 3 days, thus requiring me to take a train to meet the boat in Ghent.

The barge, named the Clair de Lune could not be described as luxurious; perhaps functional is a better label. The top part contains the bridge, with the steering wheel, a large interior dining area/lounge and a sun deck with a box containing life vests should they be needed. Below deck were 9 single and double cabins. My cabin was bigger than the couchette I had on the Australian Ghan train, but that’s not saying much. A single bed, a tiny sink, a toilet that used river water and a shower that was smaller than a breadboard. As I said, functional not luxurious.

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The Clair de Lune

Age (pronounced aghher) , a 65 year old former IBM project manager and our tour guide, met me at the boat and helped me aboard. I was introduced to Michael, the skipper, and Chris, the cook and second (and only) mate. In the next few hours, I met my fellow 16 travelers, 4 Australians, 2 South Africans, 2 Germans, 8 Brazilians and me. Between us, there were 2 doctors, a dentist, a pathologist, a leukemia researcher, 2 lawyers, a nurse, an engineer, a teacher, a pharmaceutical consultant, some housewives and 2 businessmen. The youngest was 44; the oldest 72. It was a congenial group although the Brazilians were not the best at being punctual, which drove the Australians crazy. Best of all, not a single smoker.

After Chris served us the first of many hearty meals, Age fitted us on our bikes and we rode 5 kilometers to the center of Ghent, where we had a brief guided tour. As was becoming the custom in the Belgian cities visited, there was a marvelous belfry near the town square, a Cathedral, too many churches to count and 2 old castles, all nestled between ancient canals and cobblestone roads.

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Ghent by night

Most of the group took the train to Bruges the first day, but since I had just spent 4 days there, I chose instead to walk around Ghent. I visited Grovensteen castle, where the audio guide seemed focused on its builder’s (Phillip of Alsace) inability to procreate and the various means of torture and execution preferred in medieval times. An entire room was devoted to medieval torture instruments, making current interrogation techniques seem kind and gentle.

As Ghent is a canal town, a canal boat tour seemed in order. Five minutes after embarking, the skies opened up and the rain cascaded upon us. The boat operator/tour guide spent most of the time racing under one bridge to the next, but did provide a good history of Ghent’s golden age. Like Bruges before it and Antwerp later on, its fame in the Middle Ages came from its strategic location on a river that led inland from the North Atlantic, becoming a trading centre as its multitude of still existing warehouses attest, and wealthy from the tolls collected from the use of the canals.

The next day was our first real cycling day – 50 kilometres to the city of Dendermonde – alongside lazy canals with lovely, secluded bike paths running on each side and the occasional pasture where sheep or cows grazed. Age led the way, wearing a yellow vest, with one of us appointed the sweeper each day whose job was to also don a yellow vest but always be last. If Age could see the sweeper, we were good. If not, we stopped until the last joined up. The Brazilians were intent on documenting every second of their trip, so they made frequent photo stops, took pictures while cycling, raced ahead to film the cyclists coming forward and after a while, even the ever patient Age asked them to reduce their photo stops. Once that was sorted out, the group cycled at a reasonable pace, only about 10 kilometers an hour with a 45 minute coffee break, lunch and small pit stops near interesting things where Age would share some aspect of Belgian history or lifestyle with us. No one tried to race and everyone kept up the pace.

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Me, the bike and lots of sheep

Dendermonde was a pretty, medieval town like the other Belgian ones we toured without the name recognition of Bruges or Ghent. The next morning, we set out for Antwerp, arriving there after 5 hours on our bike at 3:00PM, much earlier than our barge which had been held up at a lock which refused to fill with water, then by rush hour traffic in Antwerp during which the harbour master wouldn’t open the drawbridge to let the boats through. It was a good opportunity to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine and watch all the Hasidim walk by – the only clue to Antwerp’s position as a diamond industry giant.

On day 5, we cycled across the border into Holland, with only a small concrete post marking the boundary and began our trek in search of windmills. Soon enough, we arrived at Kinderdijk, the place of 18 windmills and a bustling tourist attraction, with busloads of Asians doing their European highlights tour and river cruise excursions bringing scores of Americans to the Visitor Center, both likely part of a concerted effort to get tourists out of the overly crowded Amsterdam. The mills themselves were beautiful against a backdrop of cloudy skies and the video, which explained the purpose of the windmills (water level management) and their mechanics, informative.

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The Windmills at Kinderdijk

From Kinderdijk, we cycled to Gouda, home to Gouda cheese. The barge was moored close to the main square, which again was charming, with a town hall and medieval hall which weighed the cheese and other goods for tax purposes. I located a cheese store and sampled all their different varieties of Gouda- green pesto, black lemon, almonds – before settling on a medium, an aged and a spicy red pepper one and posing for the obligatory picture holding a (plastic and hollow) round of cheese.

Day 5 had been all about windmills and Gouda cheese; day 6 was devoted to tulips. Our trip had been advertised as a tulip tour; unfortunately Mother Nature had the final say. Thanks to a prior week of glorious sunshine and hot weather, most of the tulips had blossomed early and the farmers had cropped their fields already. We were able to locate a few still carpeted with flowers, where everyone sang Tiptoeing through the Tulips and took pictures, but the best display was at the Keukenhof, botanical gardens outside of Amsterdam ablaze with tulips of all colours and varieties. The tulips there are planted sequentially, ensuring a longer bloom. The gardens are massive; I spent 3 hours there and wished I had more time.

We cycled to Amsterdam and met the barge for one last city stroll, dinner and an evening of drinking and exchanging email addresses. We had cycled about 250 kilometers, endured 2 flat tires, 1 bike falling into the canal (but fished out again) and 2 falls where the worst damage was some scraped knees. The bike and barge had been a nice way to see Belgium and The Netherlands. People were uniformly friendly along the route, the pace relaxed and I felt that I was able to see some of the “real” country.

I was reluctant to do much touring in Amsterdam. I’ve been here before and the crowds are unreal, but I couldn’t resist a canal boat ride, some pancakes, some brownies and stopping in at the Rijksmuseum to see the All Rembrandt show, featuring all of Rembrandt’s paintings and most of his sketches. I enjoyed it so much I abandoned my pledge not to visit any more art galleries and went across the road to the Van Gogh museum. It exhibits his early paintings in Amsterdam followed by his Impressionist period in Paris through to his madness and ultimate suicide in the south of France. The gallery does an excellent job of explaining Van Gogh’s paintings through his interests – whether about religion, nature or the peasant lifestyle – and his influence on his art friends and later painters.

After 5 weeks in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, where it seemed to rain for all but a few days, I am off in search of sunshine in Croatia.

Beautiful Bali

Bali Hai, the song made famous in the musical South Pacific, doesn’t really have anything to do with Bali. The novel by James Michener, upon which the musical was based, was inspired by the Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu, some 7,000 miles away, where Michener was stationed during WWII. Similarly, the movie was shot on the Hawaii island of Kauai, about 6,300 miles east. But because of its association with Bali Hai, Bali is forever regarded as the epitome of the Pacific island paradise, with white sand beaches, pure blue water, palm trees swaying in the breeze and beautiful women in grass skirts and bikini tops made of coconuts swaying to ukulele music.

In fact, Bali’s topography does match its reputation, although there are no native women in grass skirts. As one of between 17,500 and 18,300 islands (no one can quite agree on the figure) making up the archipelago of Indonesia, its shoreline is fringed by spectacular beaches with both white and black sand, clear turquoise waters replete with crashing waves beloved by surfers and a green interior, home to palm trees, coffee plantations, orchids and rice paddies. At 5,800 square kilometres, the island supports a population of about 5 million and has over 5000 hotels with close to 60,000 beds. An attempt to add land to Bali via reclamation was defeated, but threats to resurrect the scheme abound.

Indonesia’s population is primarily Muslim, but Bali is the exception. Its inhabitants adopted Hinduism between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD after coming into contact with Indian traders. Java, the larger island  to the east and home to the capital, Jakarta,  was eventually conquered by Muslim invaders, after which the Hindus and Buddhists decamped to Bali and have stayed since, resisting all attempts to be converted by Muslims and Christians.

Thus, Bali adopted Hindu gods, traditions and architecture, but not the caste system. Walking around today, offerings are placed at every entrance way each morning, made of betel leaves holding betel nuts, lime, tobacco and gambier overlaid by flowers. Hindu temples, with their interior sanctums housing shrines with images of deities, multi-level roof towers and ornate carvings, are ubiquitous; estimates indicate there are over 20,000 temples in Bali and seemingly on every corner.

I had arrived just before the Balinese New Year’s celebration, Nyepi, or day of silence. During the week preceding it, Balinese roads are filled with processions of Bhuta (demons), accompanied by white clad gentlemen and bands banging on pots and pans and bamboo tubes. I was lucky enough to run into one and took pictures while traffic stood still; the driver was less enamoured of the 30 minute delay.

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The night before Nyepi, Ogoh Ogohs – bamboo statues of demons or negative spirits – are paraded through the streets before being burned in cemeteries. I attended at one parade, but so many people were straining for views and making it difficult for me to see much.

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During Nyepi, four rituals are performed: no light or electricity, no work, no travelling and no revelry. It is a day of reflection, forgiveness and looking forward to the new year., reminding me of a Balinese Yom Kippur. In practical terms, it means the airport shuts down, TV stations go blank, mobile networks are off-line, special police patrol the streets ensuring no one is about and meals, if one is not fasting, must be consumed by sundown. Fortunately for me, tourists and pregnant women (not applicable) are excepted from the prohibition on lights and revelry, but not the travel ban. My hotel had power and food before 6PM, but we were not allowed out and had to draw our drapes after dark. The internet did work and I noticed a large number of Indonesian guests who came for the day and left the next, after Nyepi and travel was once again permitted.

I engaged the services of a guide/driver to do some sightseeing. First up was the famous Lempuyang temple, whose gates frame the volcano Gunung Agung. Much beloved by Instagramers, the temple imposes strict rules on visitors, including the compulsory donning of a sarong, a ban on menstrating women (how they check I do not know), no kissing and forbidding yoga poses at the gates. If one looks at Instagram, the reason for the last rule is apparent. Hundreds of tourists decided that yoga postures (mostly disrespecting the Buddhist/Hindu restriction of having feet pointing to the gods) would best show themselves off. The first one or two photos may have been beguiling but after a few, they just become cliches.

After climbing a steep roadway to the temple’s entrance, I passed through a gate and into the courtyard, where a line of tourists waited patiently for their turn to have a picture with the volcano behind. “It wasn’t too busy”, a guide told me, “the wait will only be 20 minutes. Sometimes, it is hours”. A gentleman, probably a combination photographer and rule enforcer, chastised a lady when she started raising her leg in a prelude to a tree pose. When my turn came, I gave him my I-phone and a tip and he snapped a few photos while directing me how to stand – both feet firmly on the ground.

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We went to Tirtagangga, a water palace built by the king of Bali. Yes, Bali was a kingdom (or 9 of them, depending on the century) from 914 to 1908, when the Dutch overlords finally had enough. The royal family still exists, and while administration has been ceded to the central government in Jakarta, the family still regards itself as the guardian of the Hindu faith on the island.

The grounds today are preserved primarily as a tourist site and wedding destination venue. The pools are the highlights, with stepping stones allowing visitors to get up close and personal with the richly carved statues:

Another water palace is Taman Soekasada Ujung, a pretty place featuring ponds, bridges, gardens and pictures of the king:

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Lastly, we stopped at the Tibumana Waterfall. Bali is blessed with many lovely waterfalls, surrounded by the verdant rainforest with cooling watering holes fed by the clean water. Unfortunately, as I entered the water, two idiot Italian girls followed me in with cigarettes dangling from their lips, blowing smoke in my direction and totally oblivious to the hypocrisy of enjoying nature while smoking.

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This is my second time in Bali and so far, it is as enjoyable as the first. It is far more built up than in 1996, but the Balinese are kind and welcoming hosts. Tourists proliferate, mostly Australians; think suntanned blonds with tattoos and surfboards riding on scooters. Bali has decent infrastructure, first world amenities and enough cultural attractions and differences to enchant a visitor like me. It’s the perfect place to relax, de-stress and wait out winter.

Broome: Swept away?

When I first visited Australia in 1994, mention of Broome conjured up visions of a secluded tropical paradise, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, nestled between the Indian Ocean and desert outback that dominates much of central and northern Australia. Flights were irregular and expensive and tourist infrastructure was just beginning. But progress it did, and its best known attraction, Cable Beach, began to regularly appear on top 10 beach lists. I didn’t make it there in 1994, but never gave up the idea of visiting it.

Thus, fast forward to my current Australian sojourn, where I am trying to see Australia’s west coast. Daily flights to Broome from Perth were reasonably priced, wide open and just two and a half hours away. I looked at hotel prices and they seemed inexpensive for beach resorts, then looked at potential tours on Trip Advisor and things began to make sense. None of the tours were available in January. As it was the wet season, it was also the low season. Fearful of battering storms, tropical cyclones and other weather undesirables, most tourists give Broome a wide berth in January.

But not me. If I can survive a Winnipeg winter, a bit of rain and some hot weather would be a walk in the park. As I later discovered, Broome has no actual parks (but there is a golf course). I booked a flight and 7 nights at the Mantra Frangipani hotel, located just a 15 minute walk to Cable Beach.

Arriving at 2:00PM, I stepped outside onto the airplane stairs and was smacked with “the wet”. Not rain, but extreme heat combined with high humidity making me feel like I had just walked into a furnace. By the time I had walked the 30 feet to the terminal building, I was drenched in sweat and welcomed the air conditioned area by the baggage carousel. It was the start of my new mission in Broome – finding air conditioned spaces.

First, some history. Broome’s roots are found in the pearling industry, when in 1879 the then governor proposed creating a port close to the pearl grounds. Pearls formed the economic basis for the town, but led to sordid historic episodes involving slavery, imported labour and indentured servants. The pearl divers were all of the above and exempt from Australia’s white only immigration policy that was finally abandoned in 1973. Malays, Chinese and Japanese were all imported, but prized above all for their diving prowess were pregnant Aboriginal women. The overseers and exploiters were white, leading to various degrees of apartheid well into the 1970’s.

Today, pearls are still important, but farmed rather than wild oysters more prevalent. The main streets (there are 3) are lined with pearl stores and pearl museums. The oil and gas industry also contributes to the economy. Although the rigs are off-shore, Broome serves as the equipment and transport hub, with large helicopters ferrying workers back and forth to the rigs. Tourism is also big business. Cable Beach is renowned for its pristine sand and turquoise waters. It received its name when it became the Australian end point for a telegraph cable from Java in 1889. Aside from the beaches, Broome advertises itself as the gateway to the Kimberley, Australia’s outback.

The internet promotes numerous day tours around Broome in the Kimberley – to Horizon Falls, Cape Levesque, the Bungle Bungle Range, Windjana Gorge but only a few scenic and expensive (in excess of $1500) flights were operating. It was the wet, and the lack of tourists combined with the real possibility of flash floods wiping out the roads, meant most tour providers were enjoying the off season far away from Broome.

It wasn’t, however, particularly wet. The temperature regularly rose past 40 degrees by 9:00AM and cooled down only to the mid-30’s in the nights. But rain showed itself only twice during my week, once in a midnight storm and another time in an evening sprinkle, neither of which reduced the heat or cut through the humidity.

So I made the best of it. Cable Beach is beautiful, the Indian Ocean waters warm, the sand white but packed enough that walking along parts of its 22 kilometres in the mornings before the heat was pleasant. I avoided the nude part for plenty of good reasons, not the least of which involved the perceived extreme effort and contortionist maneuvers to get sunscreen all over my body. Staying clothed in calf length capri pants with a wide brim hat and giant sunglasses clearly reduced the area sunscreen was required.

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Cable Beach

Broome, with a population of about 16,000, isn’t big enough to have a public bus but a private service stopped outside the hotel once an hour between 9 and 6 (11 and 5 on Saturdays and Sundays) to take me 5 kilometres into town. I went to the grocery store (Broome has 2) and to its central business district or misnamed Chinatown. There’s only 1 Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, but a host of other ethnic restaurants. Unfortunately, most were closed for the season. The Saturday Market, run in the courthouse square, had barely a dozen stalls and all were selling either local arts and crafts or food. Sun Pictures Theatre, the oldest and longest running outdoor cinema in the world, would show films in the evening, but as they started after the bus service ended, I passed.

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Sun Pictures cinema (with road construction)

Feeling obliged to do something touristy, I signed up for the only thing I could find that was running: Broome Trike Tours. Its owner, my driver and tour guide was Roger, a transplanted New Zealander who had first tried his hand at ostrich farming near the Perth area. When the ostrich market tanked, he drove up north to Broome, constructed a trike costing about $50,000, and started offering tours. I was lucky, I would get an exclusive since no one else had signed up.

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Roger greeted me, gave me a helmet and instructed me to straddle the back of the bike and off we went. It was my first time on a trike, but sitting on the raised seat at the back, I had a glorious view of the surrounds. I also got the wind full on in my face, making my lips quiver as Roger sped to 100 kilometres an hour. We started at the golf course, where a few wallabies were bouncing around chasing golf balls but were very unco-operative photo subjects. Next we drove to the sights of Broome, , through the downtown, stopping at Roeback Beach in the center of Broome, and finally to Gantheaume Pointe, to see dinosaur imprints and the sunset over Cable Beach.

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I made one more trip into Broome proper, trying to see more than just the grocery store and the outdoor market. However, with the temperature above 45 and high humidity, it was not easy to walk around. Most of the streets were deserted,  most restaurants and shops closed for the season. After an hour, I had gone through my liter of water, needed a clean t-shirt and gave up. The heat had beaten me. I took the bus back to the hotel, changed into a bathing suit and jumped into the pool.

It was a relaxing, lazy week. With so little to do, and the heat so oppressive, leaving the coolness of the hotel’s pool was a task not undertaken lightly. As for Cable Beach, was it a top 10 beach in the world? I don’t know as I haven’t visited most of the others. It is gorgeous and I loved my walks along the beach, but the high temperatures bordered on oppressive in January. I am embarrassed to admit I missed having umbrella vendors and tiki bars and people walking up and down the beach selling ice cream and massages and sand buckets. I understand that part of Cable Beach’s charm is its isolation, but for me, that is also one of its downfalls. I suspect at my next beach, I will be decrying the lack of privacy and the endless hawkers, but that is a few weeks away.

Notes: I travelled to Broome from Perth on Qantas, then onward to Darwin, also on Qantas. Both were daily, regularly scheduled flights. Daily rate for a 1 bedroom apartment hotel at the Mantra Frangipini in the low season is $100 per night. The Trike tour (broometriketours.com.au) cost $150 for a single rider, reduced to $135 for 2 or more.

Estonian Escapades

My 3 country Baltic tour began in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I was touring with a British based tour company called Explore, which focuses on small group travel for the over 30’s crowd. My tour mates included an American, 2 other Canadians and 12 Brits, along with our Estonian tour leader, Tounal. Aside from Tounal, our average age was about 65, contained 2 smokers, a rocket engineer, 2 Toronto lawyers, a bunch of teachers, a former banker and a lot of IT people, none of whom were able to explain how to use the Fongo phone app. which theoretically allows you to keep your local phone number.

We started our tour in the wonderfully preserved medieval city of Tallinn, with its imposing walls and watch towers which both provided protection from foreign invaders and divided the city into the High Town and the Low Town. Some history is needed to appreciate the significance of High vs. Low in Tallinn, so let me give an abbreviated version:

After the Ice Age (circa 10,000 BC), the ice receded, leaving the Baltics fertile and inhabitable by early hunters/farmers. These people enjoyed a happy, pagan life until 1227 when  German crusaders invaded, forced Christianity on the locals, grabbed the best land and made themselves nobles. These Germans occupied the high land in Tallinn; the locals had the low land. Hence the need for walls. The Germans and the Estonians, who were reduced to serfdom, lived more or less together until Estonia declared Independence in 1917 (from Russia) and took back the land held by the German nobles. In 1939, the last of the Germans were expelled.

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Tallinn City Wall and Tower

Of course, plenty of others invaded Estonia. It occupies a strategically important place in the Baltics, bridging east and west, its lands are fertile (rye, flax and wheat) and forested and its seas swarming with fish. It was, at various times, overrun by Swedes, Danes, Poles, more Germans and Russians. Russia seized control of Estonia from Sweden during the Great Northern War between 1700 and 1721 and retained it until the events of the Russian Revolution allowed Estonia to declare independence in August, 1917, whereupon it was promptly invaded by Germany. Following WWI, it was granted independence until the Nazis invaded. The Russians “liberated” it from the Nazis, annexed it into the Soviet Union and didn’t leave until 1991.

The attitude of Estonians to their former Russian occupiers (as they are always referred to) is extremely negative. Notwithstanding the dislike of the Russians, of the 1.3 million people in Estonia, nearly 1/3 are “the Russian minority.” When Russia departed, it left Estonia without social services, insurance, pensions or a currency. It banned all fish from Estonia, since the fish had, overnight, gone bad. Estonians need visas to go to Russia, even though a river dissects the city of eastern Estonian city of Narva from Russia.

Against this backdrop, in Tallinn, we saw the medieval walls of the city (built by Germans), Lutheran churches, Orthodox churches ( for the Russian minority) and a Guild Hall, the 14th century equivalent of an old boys club/community center where important matters were decided and significant events performed, all under the watchful eyes of the married, male nobility. It is perfectly preserved and currently a museum of Estonian history.

Adorning the old market square are buildings of various centuries, numerous restaurants and souvenir shops. When I asked what the famous Estonian dishes are, the response was “rustic.” Most restaurants featured schnitzel, burgers, salmon and dark rye bread. Creamy mushroom sauces and butter grilled fish were ubiquitous, but nothing particularly Estonian. My two significant finds were September raspberries in the fruit market and a decent selection of not too expensive wines in the supermarkets from Europe, Australia and Chile. None from the USA and the 3 vineyards in Estonia did not produce wine in commercial quantities.

Estonia is famous for other things, notably folk singing festivals in every town, every season and marking every event (declare independence? let’s sing about it…). There is also a plethora of kooky statues, honouring everything from poets, scientists, the pig and fisher people:

From the main city of Tallinn, our tour proceeded to the Baltic island of Saaremaa, where we explored the well preserved/reconstructed Bishop’s Palace. It was built as early as 1380 by the German crusaders seeking to consolidate power, but Danes, Swedes and Russians occupied it over the centuries. As medieval castles go, it is fine, but the more offbeat exhibit is one of Soviet life in Estonia during the most recent occupation. The kitchen is miniscule, food is rare, the single bedroom has multiple beds, the bathroom has a toilet and a bucket to heat the water. On the stairs, were different jokes about the Soviets (Lenin was good, Stalin was bad, Gorbachov? We will get to know when he dies….). The exhibit was not a tongue in cheek look back at the Soviet occupation; it was a stark reminder of how difficult those times were.

We visited a fishing village on the island, learned the timetable of the airport (two flights weekly from Tallinn and charter flights from Finland) and other fascinating facts about the area. It was basically a former fishing area which could no longer sustain itself from fishing, so it promoted itself as a tourist destination –the lake country of Estonia. It boasted that hallmark of capitalism, the first golf course in Estonia, naturally constructed after the Russians departed. As a bit of trivia, the first golf course in Russia was not constructed until 1993.

After two days in Saaramaa we returned to the mainland. We looked at the remains of another medieval castle at Viljander and some churches (Lutheran and Orthodox). Our last stop was in the second largest city in Estonia, Turtu, which has the remains of a medieval cathedral, some Lutheran churches and a pub in the old gun armory of the medieval castle, which hosts a weekly beerpong tournament. Naturally, there was a pretty market square, food markets and its symbol, the Fountain of the Kissing Students, reflecting its large student population.

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After a week in Estonia, I had my fill of medieval Castles, Orthodox churches, the former Russian occupation and schnitzel. It is a wonderful country- very clean (it is famous for its garbage clean-up campaigns) and lots of historical buildings, and a gentleness or naivete, depending on your point of view, from having true independence for less than 30 years. Time to move on.