A Brief History of Georgia

  • Georgia has a long history. During the classical era it was divided into two main kingdoms, Colchis, in the east and Iberia, to the west. This is exciting. Colchis was where Jason ventured, with his Argonauts, to fetch the Golden Fleece. Apparently, fleeces were used to sift gold dust from rivers at that time. The people here were known as "Gurj". They were devotees of St George. Theory has it that the crusaders made the connection and named the country Georgia. The flag definitely represents St George too.
  • Georgie emerged from the World Wars, as a Soviet republic, and then an independent republic, under Soviet style leadership. President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in 2003, in the (bloodless) so called Rose Revolution. Since then Georgia has strongly pursued a pro-Western foreign policy, aimed at membership of NATO and integration into the European Union. Unsurprisingly, this led to worsening relations with Russia and, at one point, a brief war. It's all peaceful now, I hope.

What Continent Does Georgia Belong To?

  • Georgia is positioned between both Asia and Europe, but is often considered to be more European in its politics.

Facts and Factoids

  • Georgia on my Mind, though not the American state, which is what Google overwhelmingly throws at you, if you type Georgia into the search engine. But the country of Georgia sits right at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is a part of the Caucasus region, bounded to the west by the Black Sea. Debatably - in Europe. In Asia, if you count the Caucasus as the boundary. Ask the Georgians? They want to be European. Well, the ones in capital, Tbilisi, do.
  • The Georgians don't call their country Georgia - that's the western name - see above. They call their country Sakartvelo.
  • Joseph Stalin was born here and there are a multiplicity of portraits of him around. The people aren't sure whether to be proud or ashamed.
  • This is a religious country. Most of the people say they belong to the Orthodox Church of Armenia. And there are plenty of churches.
  • The Georgian language is very different. Georgians have their own alphabet, possibly (like the Armenian one) based on the Ethiopian. Mama means daddy and dadi means mummy. (Honestly.)

What To See in Georgia?

Read about my train trip here.

NomadMania

I’m Over the Moon (I never thought I would actually utilise this overdone idiom, but in this case it’s almost true), as I’ve been asked to tour Nagorno Karabakh this week. In fact, it’s doubly exciting. My invitation has come from Harry Mitsidis, arguably the best travelled person in the world, and founder of NomadMania, the website that serves the most well-travelled folk in the world. To my mind, this is elite company. And Nagorno Karabakh is, currently, a decidedly off limits travel destination. No-one is allowed in, except the military, supply vehicles and construction workers.

Day 1 - Baku - Briefings and Celebrations

So, I’ve travelled via Istanbul and now I'm back in the plate glass and steel of Baku, the oil backed capital of Azerbaijan. Twenty five travellers (including me), mostly bloggers and You-tubers are converging on the Sunday Hotel in the labyrinthine old town, which my taxi driver can't find, without half an hours' worth of conversations with locals.

They all look so energetic and fit (in both senses of the word). Tall, blond Viking Gustav (@gus1thego), from Denmark has a following of nearly a quarter of a million on You-tube. There are only five women, including me. Very Hungry Nomads, Rach and Marty, who have done one less country (187) and have a following of 20,000, Milana, who manages the NomadMania office from Warsaw, and Hungarian Ildiko, who has visited every country in the world. I’m in awe.

Aygun and The Birthday of a Lifetime

First off, a welcome dinner and trip briefing in a Baku restaurant. The food keeps coming and coming. Mezze with salads and a variety of breads, roast salmon with plaited potatoes, tender liver and succulent kebabs, barbecued  lamb. And my favourite, crispy rice pots with apricots and sweet chestnuts.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s Harry’s fiftieth birthday (or it was yesterday). The Nomads have created a video wishing him well. Naturally, some far flung areas of the world are represented. Harry is visibly touched and grateful. But the celebrations don’t end there, or with the sticky chocolate cake decorated with flares and the NomadMania logo. Harry has, aspirationally, requested that Aygun attends to provide the entertainment. And, to his astonishment, she does.

Aygun Kazimova

Wikipedia says that Aygun Kazimova is a well known singer in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. (Actually, I’m told, she is the most famous and successful female singer in Azerbaijan). She’s also an actor and songwriter and has dueted with Snoop Dogg. Whatever, she is a consummate professional, interacting wholeheartedly with her audience. The singing is fabulous and everyone is soon dancing and partying. Harry is, literally, having the time of his life.

Back to the hotel at midnight.

Day 2 – Come in Rubber Duck

We convene at 5.45 in the morning. A convoy of 11 land cruisers, headed by a police car, complete with blue flashing warning lights. There’s an accompanying clicking of amber indicators to indicate our importance to bemused motorists, as we stream out of Baku, parallel to the Caspian Sea and through the plain of oil fields to the south. Most of the drivers take no notice, though one or two tuck in between us, sneakily taking advantage of our clear road.

Then west and into Karabakh. President Aliyev has already built a new six-lane 100-kilometre highway, from Fizuli (where there’s a spanking brand new international airport) part-way to the town of Shusha. Then we wind up into the mountains. It’s immediately apparent that this a hauntingly beautiful land. Hilltops laced with delicate icing sugar coated trees, giving way to snow blanketed slopes.

The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the longest-running in post-Soviet Eurasia, dating back over thirty years. This is a very brief summary of my online reading. I don’t have the knowledge, or the temerity, to make judgements about who is/has been in the wrong. Both sides concerned, Karabakh (supported by Armenia) and Azerbaijan, have been criticised at times, with reports of ethnic cleansing, genocide and cultural desecration. There’s seldom a real winner when it comes to war.

History of the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

For centuries, different powers in the region - both Christian and Muslim - have vied for control of Karabakh, which lies in a strategically important area, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains.

Karabakh was located in modern day Azerbaijan, which was absorbed into the Soviet Union when it formed in the 1920s. In 1988, the ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, held a referendum and demanded the transfer of what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) from Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. The situation became more tense, as the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to outright war between the inhabitants of Karabakh and the newly independent Azerbaijan.

When the fighting ceased, in 1994, Nagorno- Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, in Azerbaijan, were wholly or partially controlled by Armenian forces. Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but governed by a separatist, self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians, who called it Artsakh, and were backed by the Armenian government. More than a million people, on both sides, had been forced from their homes.

The ceasefire was not an easy one. It was punctuated by deadly incidents, incursions and drone strikes. Most notably, four days of intense fighting took place in April 2016, killing hundreds on both sides. Fully-fledged war resumed in September 2020. This time, for the most part, the Azeri forces prevailed. Though not before over 7,000 military and about 170 civilians were killed and many more wounded.

Geopolitics

Geopolitics, as is so often the case, have continued to play their part. Turkey has historically poor relations with Armenia and has supported Azerbaijan throughout. Russia has ostensibly supported Armenia, but also maintained an amicable partnership with Azerbaijan. And it was Russia, as before, that brokered the current ceasefire. It has been hailed as an end to the conflict, but it remains an uneasy one.

The Nagorno Karabakh Ceasefire

It was agreed that Azerbaijan should regain control over the seven districts (originally part of Azerbaijan) that Armenian forces had held since the previous war. Azerbaijan has also been handed back a substantial part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A force of almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers has been deployed to both Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor, between Karabakh and Armenia, for an initial five years, with the possibility of renewal.

Potentially, this provides the opportunity for at least half a million Azerbaijanis to return home, after being displaced for more than twenty-five years. More than 30,000  Armenians have been forced to flee from their homes in the one-third of Nagorno Karabakh itself, (including the town of Shusha), which has now been returned to Azeri control.

That's the background. Emotions are still riding high on both sides. There are ongoing arguments over captives still held and dead bodies not returned. Both parties continue to revisit the horrors of the war, atrocities and devastation via various forms of media. And here I am in Shusha, to see for myself.

Shusha

Shusha nestles at over 1500 metres. Between May 1992 and November 2020, Shusha was under the de facto control of Artsakh and administered as the centre of its Shushi Province. It is now a bleak, almost ghost town. The displaced peoples of the war have left devastation behind. Ruined buildings, poking through the trees, like mini Roman amphitheatres. We are told that, here and elsewhere, ejected Armenians looted the houses, removed the roofs and doors and sold them. In some areas, the buildings have been levelled.

Ownership of the town of Shusha has been hugely significant, as it has religious, cultural and strategic importance for both groups. It is usually considered to be the cradle of Azerbaijani culture- especially music and poetry. The old fortress walls and gate remain, but elsewhere busts are riddled with bullet holes. Bart, from the Netherlands (@offbeattravelling) points out the indentations. The cultural significance of Shusha is reinforced by a visit to the home of Murtuza Bulbul, a famous Azerbaijani and Soviet opera tenor.

 Renowned Iranian photographer Reza gives a fascinating presentation, which explains how the main square in Shusha once looked. The Azeris complain bitterly about the destruction of their cultural hall and damage to mosques. These are boarded off, for renovation. However, Shusha also contains several Armenian Apostolic churches, and there are concerns that these, in their turn, have also been desecrated.

The Media

It transpires that our convoy is larger than I had imagined. We’re being accompanied by a media bus and journalists, representing  all the major Azeri TV channels. We’ve hardly alighted from our 4WDs before being marched off to answer questions about our impressions of Shusha. I repeat my speech three times in front of different microphones. I hardly know what to say. I’ve only been here five minutes and I don’t feel fully informed. The vloggers are more adept. They've leapt out, waving their cellphones. It's Selfie Central.

Agdam

Back in the land cruisers, we gain further height and the carpets of snow thicken. But it’s already been a long day.  Stops by the roadside and more interviews consume the hours. There's a longer halt at Hunot Gorge, where we peer over the edge, alongside camouflaged sentries. It’s dusk when we arrive at Agdam and our city tour has to be abandoned. We gather at the under renovation mosque, the only building left standing in the town, which was once home to 30,000. Another explanation from Reza. He has horrifying and exceptionally moving images of shocked civilians and the Armenian atrocities.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Agdam:

'HRW (Human Rights Watch) considered these actions serious violations of the rules of war, but noted that given the tit-for-tat nature of the conflict, it considered the actions of Agdam Armenian forces a revenge for the Azeri destruction of Mardakert, which, according to Thomas Goltz, who was in Mardakert in September 1992, became a "a pile of rubble", noting "more intimate detritus of destroyed private lives: pots and pans, suitcases leaking sullied clothes, crushed baby strollers and even family portraits, still in shattered frames'.

Also:

BBC journalist Roy Parsons reported that "every single Azeri house in the town was blown up to discourage return" as during the war, the Azeris used Agdam as a base from which to shell Karabakh and the Armenians could not trust them not to do it again.

Bed for the night is in a cottage, in the grounds of a hotel, another three hours further on, in Toghana. We arrive for dinner at 10.15. Another update and I’m trying to sleep, by just after midnight. It’s not easy. I don’t think the room has been occupied for many weeks and the bedding is icy cold. Milana and boyfriend Daniel, ensconced in the master bedroom next door, have kindly given me the only fan heater in the building. It’s waging a futile battle against the draughts.

Day 3 Kalbajar, Nagorno Karabakh

Today, into Karabakh proper and the district of Kalbajar. An ongoing procession of ruins. And a mixture of frustration and delight. Long stops whilst vehicles are refuelled - they have to summon a tanker and wait in line, a flat tyre (from shrapnel it’s alleged) and the requirements (and whims) of security. The scenery, however, as we chug up to the top of a pass, is spectacular. We've climbed to a height of  3350 metres, the temperature an eye watering minus 12 and a switchback of hairpin bends down the other side. The Murov Mountains are the highest in the Caucasus.

Through an automobile tunnel hewn out of the rock. No concessions to artistic merit here. And a military camp stop for tea in the refectory. We queue up to use the bathroom in some poor soldier's room . I don't think he's been asked. The troops are very nervous of the cameras and slide out of sight if they see one. Harry reminds us, firmly, that we must not publish images that enable servicemen to be recognised. It's a shame. They have very impressive Dr Zhivago style fur hats. Some of the drivers oblige by lining up for a picture instead.

And another delight: gurgling hot springs in a river valley at Istisu. This was, historically, a resort town, and during the Soviet period, it attracted people from all over the USSR to be treated at the mineral-springs baths. There were even plans to bottle the water. It's a welcome steaming fountain ringed by emerald patterned rocks, a flattened dinosaur. (The picture of me here was taken by Boris Kester @boris_traveladventures - he's visited every country in the world. And thank you Boris, for the editing.)

The Lachin Corridor

And into the Lachin Corridor where, as agreed in the peace settlement, the Russians preside over a long wide valley. Russian and Azeri flags flutter, there are tanks and personnel carriers under camouflage netting. and we are (even more strongly) forbidden to take photographs. Straight faced and grave, the Russian soldiers search our bags and cars thoroughly. It’s a long interlude. Alongside the road, scarlet signs warn of mines. And I desperately want to go to the toilet. Boris and Max, from Vienna (@maxlayerer, scarf artistically draped round his head), do the honours and bravely check the (too) steep scrub is safe.

There are mixed views on the Russian peace keeping mission. After the 2020 war, the front line has become longer and more volatile than before. Opposing military positions are separated from one another by only 30 -100 metres. So, this is an important job. Russia of course, enjoys this foot hold. However, its justification relies on a well-functioning territory, with a large civilian population. At the moment, what remains of Karabakh in Armenian hands struggles for economic viability, as most of its routes to Armenia have disappeared.

The Lachin Corridor (five kilometres wide) currently provides the only connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia - we cross the dusty road to Armenia, wiggling away into the distance. It’s an impressive valley drive and there are caves on the further side. My driver politely forbids me, still, from taking any pictures. We are being tailed by a Russian vehicle, flag waving as the convoy moves through their jurisdiction. Every two minutes tense Russian guards at different checkpoints count the number of cars and mark us all present on their forms.

There are unconfirmed reports that Moscow is considering giving the Karabakh Armenians Russian passports, as it has, for example, to the residents of Transnistria, in Moldova.

Toghana

Its late again, by the time we arrive at our lodging. The lights of Iran are twinkling in the distance. Tonight, it’s the military barracks at Toghana. It takes half an hour to find it. The police car obviously doesn’t have GPS here and it’s comic watching 11 cars reverse and do U turns several times in unison.  Dinner is at 10.45.

I’ve done well with room allocations; the barracks is surprisingly modern and warm. I’m sharing with just  one Azeri lady, a travel agent. Though she does set her alarm for five a.m.

Day 4 Redeveloping Nagorno Karabakh

As dawn breaks, we’re being interviewed by journalists once again. Parked above a newly built 'smart city' we were supposed to see yesterday. Smart villages are intended to introduce agriculture based on 'modern technologies and joint management and control,' but, the concept goes beyond simply farming methods. It also includes ‘smart’ street lighting, cold- and heat-resistant homes, management of household waste, the installation of hydro and solar power stations and biogas energy. The idea has had a mixed reaction. There are concerns around ownership and corruption. And  these urban-type settlements, may not be popular with returnees who hanker for their old houses.

Down here, in the south, east of the Zangezur mountains, the Azeris and Turks are most excited about the opening of the so called Zangezur Corridor. Road and rail links will establish a direct link between Azerbaijan and the Azeri enclave of Nakchivan, currently divided by Armenian land. The possibilities of enhanced links with Turkey and with Europe beckon.

We stop on the newly built railway line for a final exposition from Reza, who is pursued along the track by his drone.

Bilasuvar

Exiting Karabakh, finally, we halt at Bilasuvar, a small Azeri town. There’s a square, with a monument to Heydar Aliyev, who’s often known as the 'father of the Azeri nation’. He’s also the father of the current president, Ilham Aliyev.

This is what it’s like to be a celebrity. I’ve been doing some royal family style waving as we have proceeded and Azeri guards have all saluted to acknowledge us, as we speed past. Here, most of the town comes to halt. Small boys giggle excitedly and stare as they pose with Gustav. The mayor emerges from the municipal buildings to greet us, his eyes widening, as he realises that we are those people who have been on the TV news this week. We’re all invited to welcome refreshments in a café on the edge of the square.

The Way Forward for Nagorno Karabakh –  A Meeting With Hikmat Hajiyev.

Back in Baku. In the late afternoon, a meeting with Hikmat Hajiyev, the high profile Assistant of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration. This is what appears on Twitter:

'Very pleased to meet with NomadMania travellers and bloggers group who visited the all liberated territories within 3 days long intense schedule. We talked about post-conflict developments in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan's agenda of peace and prospects of normalization with Armenia'

For my part, I’m happy to hear talk about ways forward, rather than dwelling on the past. Mr. Hajiyev brings up the challenges of reconstruction and returning Azeris comfortably and safely, 'in a dignified manner'. The government are building on a previous official seventy-two-page programme from 2008, entitled “Big Recovery” which makes it clear how big the challenge is. It documents plans to rebuild 751 settlements over 11,500 square kilometres and resettle up to 570,000 people. Extensive refurbishment of utilities, and reconstruction is needed before former residents can return, something that could take several years. Mr Hajiyev mentions employment, education and universities which provide courses that focus on the needs of the area. (Like oil studies in Texas.). There is mineral wealth in Karabakh and opportunities for green energy. Plans also include the building of more smart cities.

Mines are a huge issue. There are millions of them and maps are unreliable. Energy and other resources are problematic. The capital of Artsakh, Stepanakert (which Azerbaijanis call Khankendi) and Shusha, which used to rely on one another for water and electricity, are now in rival hands. The biggest challenge, however, is probably finance. Azerbaijan is in a difficult economic climate, with  falling oil production and the global pandemic. The conflict has also weakened Nagorno Karabakh’s economy.

Nevertheless, Mr Hajiyev is upbeat, as he addresses concerns that Azeris may not wish to return to Karabakh. Displaced peoples have, for nearly thirty years carved out a new urban style existence, which might be comfortable and habituated. Mr Hajiyev believes that the peoples remain attached to their land, even if they have been away some time. Reza joins in: ‘They were displaced against their will and without their possessions, but they took their key’.

Baku Press Conference

These points are reiterated at a press conference in the Trend News Agency building – we are described as ‘famous travellers’ in the ensuing news bulletins. I’m very grateful and feel privileged to have been included in such a trip. We fervently hope that both sides can put the horrors of the war behind them and move on. There are challenging, but huge possibilities and opening up, internationally, both physically and diplomatically, will hopefully lead to the necessary support required.

'When we visit these regions in 10 years, we hope to see big hotels, smart villages, and developed economic spaces. I expect Karabakh to become a new bridge between Azerbaijan and Europe. More people should visit and discover Azerbaijan,' says Harry.

Read more about Azerbaijan here.

A (Very Brief) History of Malta

  • Malta has an ancient and complex history, strategically located in the centre of the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe. It has been inhabited since approximately 5900 BC and is home to some of the oldest man-made structures in the world. These include ancient Megalithic Temples and the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean complex of halls and burial chambers dating to circa 4000 B.C.
  • A succession of powers have contested and ruled the islands, including the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans (as part of the kingdom of Sicily) , Aragonese, Knights of St. John (a present form Charles V after they were thrown out of Rhodes by the Ottomans), French, and finally, the British, who ousted Napoleon and then were requested to stay.
  • Malta became a British colony in 1813, serving as a way station for ships and the headquarters for the British Mediterranean Fleet. It was an important base during World War II and so was awarded the George Cross in 1942 as a recognition of the country's bravery when it came under heavy attack by Axis Power bombers.
  • Malta became independent from the UK on 21st September 1964, but the Maltese flag still features the George Cross in its top left hand corner.

Facts and Factoids

  • Malta is one of the world's smallest countries; it is the smallest country in the European Union. However, it is the eighth most densely populated country in the world.
  • The Republic of Malta is a group of seven islands: Malta itself, Gozo, the tiny island of Comino in between Malta and Gozo, and four uninhabited islands.
  • A citizen of Malta is a Maltese, not a Malteser!
  • Malta has two official languages: Maltese and English. Most of the population also speaks Italian, which is historically an official language.
  • Malta has been famous for producing honey, since ancient times. It even has its own bee species. Malta and Gozo are home to around 2,200 colonies and 220 beekeepers. And the word Malta derives from the Greek word for the Land of Honey 'melito'.

Is Malta Part of the EU?

Malta became a member country of the EU on May 1, 2004. It's currency is the Euro. Malta is the most densely populated country in the EU and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It has about 1,265 inhabitants per square kilometre (3,000 per square mile.)

Is Malta Expensive?

Malta is expensive compared to other southern European destinations. There is relatively little agriculture ( only about 4 square miles of land is under irrigation) and much food has to be imported. Most of the farms that do exist are small and privately owned. The main livestock export is fish.

However, I discovered it's possible to have a relatively cheap holiday there. Malta - A Sizzling Budget Holiday

Is Malta Safe to Visit?

Malta is considered to be very safe to visit - amongst the safest countries in the EU to travel to. The most common type of crime is petty theft.

What is There to Do in Malta?

Perhaps surprisingly, Malta is more of a sightseeing destination, than a beach holiday. Because of its complex history there is plenty to see, from Neolithic temples to amazing baroque cities. There are a few sandy beaches, but most swimming is in rocky pools. The sea is gorgeously blue and warm - and in summer it can be very, very hot!

Read Malta - A Sizzling Budget Holiday to see where I went.

Malta

From the air, Malta is a sea of white cubes on a cocoa coloured background. The green of winter has been scorched away. It hasn’t rained for months. This is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The coast is a series of peninsulas lined with buildings. Cities spill into each other. Some of them are grand and baroque. Competition for Venice – or Sicily. There are few sandy beaches and these are covered in lines of towels and prone bodies. otherwise, the tourists laze on limestone pavements or concrete ramps with staircases set into them. Swimming access is essential. It’s roasting hot and the sea is a clear, warm bath. The bays are crammed with bobbing boats. I'm told that there are more boats than people.

I'm visiting as I'm desperate for some travel abroad and Malta is on the green list. It's also on my I Must Revisit As I Don't Have Any Photos list. My last trip here, with my husband Don, was grim. We didn't have any money and were on a very cheap package trip. It was August, baking hot and Don refused to go anywhere. I decided I hated Malta.

I'm also on a budget this time - Covid has wiped me out. And the forecast is for 35 degree plus heat. Perhaps I'm doomed. But I am on my own...And the Easyjet flights were only £100 return.

St Julian’s

My accommodation is in a charmingly unspoilt area of St Julian’s. Steep streets, old town houses, covered jutting balconies, and faded paint leading down to the waterfront and Balluta Bay. There is a teeny squidge of sand overlooked by a huge cathedral and some overwater restaurants. It’s buzzing. St Julian’s is more vibrant than neighbouring Sliema. There are more interesting looking bistros and bars, as well as the smart cafes that line the rectangle that is Spinola Bay ( still more bobbing boats ) on the edge of Paceville the upmarket nightclub area. This is a (relatively) tasteful blend of English/British signboards and shopping chains (there’s even an area called Pembroke) and European style. There are supermarkets and fruit stalls to buy food (my accommodation has a kitchen) and some of the smaller restaurants aren't too expensive. There's McDonalds and KFC if I get desperate.

Giljana

I can’t fault my lodging, called Giljana. For fifty euros a night I have a big air conditioned room with a balcony decorated as ‘The Music Room’ with drums for shelves and a saxophone on the wall. It's ultra clean and the owner Josie is superbly helpful, WhatsApping me bus numbers and routes and advising me on what to see. She’s even washed my own towels for me, without being asked. It’s in an apartment in the quiet part of town, just behind the waterfront. My only complaint is that it is up a steep hill. But then everywhere in Malta is up a steep hill.

Sliema

I follow the waterfront pavement with ever changing views of a sapphire sea dotted with turquoise, round to Sliema, the other main tourist hub. More hotels and restaurants and plenty of rockpools. There’s even an old fort that has become an eating place.
Then I cut through the inland shopping areas. I’m glad of the shade. Its slow going in the thirty degree heat. Now it’s mostly downhill. And there are numerous familiar names. Next, Boots, Monsoon, Accessorize. All the chains we used to have in England before Covid and online shopping closed them. Now I’m on the other side of the Sliema peninsula and on the quay. There are lines of booths, with men loudly selling boat trips. But I’m after the ferry across to Valletta. That’s only one and half euros.

The History of Valletta, The Capital of Malta

I’m already losing count of all the harbours and marinas in Malta. I'm crossing Marsamxett Harbour now, is one of the most important and there are views across to a citadel - Fort Manoel on Manoel Island - and to the centre of Valletta, marked by a domed church. This is the Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Valletta, is the smallest national capital in the European Union by area. It rises steeply from the ferry port, ending in a lofty sheer drop at the edge of what is now Grand Harbour. This magnificent hill top city was the result of the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottomans in 1565. The Knights of Malta, led by Frenchman Jean Parisot de Valette, Grand Master of the Order, (with the help of Spanish and Maltese forces), were victorious and repelled the attack.

After the siege, they felt it prudent to increase Malta's fortifications, particularly in the inner-harbour area, where the new city of Valletta, named in honour of Valette, was built. I've never seen so many castles, batteries and fortifications bundled together like this, within enormous city walls with huge gates and watchtowers. Malta is indeed supremely well defended. The new main city gate is the fifth to be constructed. It is an elaborate affair, which integrates Greek style pillars, open air stands and a parliament building designed by Renzo Piano, reached by a bridge over a massive trench.

The knights also constructed watchtowers along the coasts – the Wignacourt, Lascaris and De Redin towers – and named them after the Grand Masters who ordered the work. Situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Malta has needed its fortifications. Most notably in the Second World War, when it was the base for the British Navy. Today, war room exhibits and war museums proliferate.

Exploring Valletta

Over time, however, the population has decreased to only 6000 and the parts of Valletta that aren't citadels or churches have been given over to boutique hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions. A five euro train ride is a welcome way to escape the climb from the ferry and see a few of the sights.

My tour takes me past the narrow winding streets, festooned with balconies, a few of the churches, (including the Anglican Cathedral of St Paul), past St Elmo’s Fort, defending the Grand Harbour entrance and alongside the Grand Harbour itself, with views across to the so called Three Cities of Malta. The opposite side to St Elmo’s defending the harbour entrance is Fort Ricasoli, built by the Order of Saint John in the late seventeenth century. The fort occupies a promontory known as Gallows' Point and is not only the largest fort in Malta, but also the largest in Europe.

The centre of Valletta overflows with majestic buildings, the presidential palace, museums, fountains, towers and aqueducts, the pillars of the Law Courts and St John’s Co Cathedral, with its Caravaggio Wing. Perhaps the most impressive building is The Auberge de Castille, originally built to house the Knights of St John and now, suitably remodelled. the home of the Prime Minister. The city is bustling and the cafes full, though I’m told that Valletta is very quiet at the moment, because of Covid. It must be horribly crowded normally then. Now I’m exhausted and over heated. Ice cream and the bus back. I’ve bought a 21 Euro bus pass which will last me a week.

On The Bus in Malta

This isn't Japan and the bus timetable is a work of fiction. I thought I would beat the heat, get up early and catch a bus into Valletta to continue with my exploration of the Three Cities from the capital. But two buses sweep past me as I race to the stop and there isn't another one for an aeon. When I'm finally on it's crowded, but a teenager immediately vacates her seat for me. This is new an welcome. If seats are not available elderly passengers demand one and the younger occupants oblige instantly.

The Three Cities of Malta

Back into Floriana, at Valletta, and across the Barakka Gardens to a lift that plummets in parallel with the huge fortifications. The views across to the Three Cities are enticing. I have a long time to enjoy them. The ferry only goes every half an hour.

There are no signs or maps, like in Valletta when I arrive so I’m struggling to orientate myself. The Three Cities of Malta are separately known as Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, or Il Birgu, L-Isla and Bormla respectively. You can see why I might be confused.

Finally, I deduce that I'm in Cospicua at the bottom of this finger of harbour with Vittoriosa to the right and Senglea to the right. The cities date back to Phoenician times and are far older than Valetta, the first home of the Knights Hospitallers. Hence, more, generally older fortifications and churches. A feast of domes scarlet, white and yellow flags and baroque architecture. And infinitely quieter than Valletta. It’s mostly locals sitting on benches in the shade.

Vittorioso

Most of the main sights appear to be in Vittorioso, so I head that way. The view back to the bastions of Valetta is glorious. Thousands of expensive motor boats are moored on the newly renovated waterfronts and in rows on the shimmering sea. They are interspersed with the small wooden craft used by the locals - mainly for tourist trips nowadays. They mask chic cafes on the newly renovated quayside. There are definitely more church towers in Vittorioso. Their bells all peal in unison on the hour.

The largest of the citadels here, St Angelo’s Fort, guards the entrance to this inlet, the couvre port. The fort is now a formidable back up to Fort Risouli. There's yet another war museum with advertising boards artfully arranged so as to almost force you to enter. I slip round them. One of the last things I spot is the tourist information office. It seems to be closed, but a tousle haired woman pops her head out. It is closed she confirms. Covid. Where can I get a map? I ask. So she brings me one. And explains with a huge smile that there isn't much to see except churches and those are all closed. Nevertheless, IMHO, the views in every direction are amazing. Especially the scenes across various harbours from near the fort.

I ask some roadworkers to take my photo. The young Albanian pursues me up the street. 'Facebook address please', he begs.' I don’t use Facebook or WhatsApp' I lie. 'Coffee then', he pleads. I'm walking on fast. Virtually the very last place I pass in Vittorioso is the starting point for all the sightseeing tours - bus and boat. Ah!

Back through Cospicua and into Senglea. Another huge domed church. Another citadel and a raised garden with more of those astonishing views. And no shade over this side of the marina either. Time to head back.

The Haq Quim Temples

A bus to Valletta again and this time changing to the 74 out and south. The bus only goes once an hour so there's a long queue. The outlook is still dry and dusty. Much of this journey involves navigating round the airport runway and numerous hangars. I have to disembark at Hagar. I was going to do the Blue Grotto first, but it’s down a steep hill and I may have to walk. Better up than down….

There are two 'temples' here, one known as Hagar Quim, on top of a ridge and, 500 metres down the slope, are the three buildings that constitute the Mnajdra Temples. are either a heap of limestone or a fascinating insight into Neolithic life, depending on your viewpoint. Whatever they are ancient dated to 5000 BC and contemporaries of the henges of the UK. They seem larger and more elaborate but have circular chambers and stone lintels (in this case megalithic ones) and have been modified and enlarged over time, like the ruins at Skara Brae. The oldest chamber at Mnajdra was constructed around 3600 years BC. And so, is one of the world's oldest free-standing structure. As with its twin in Gozo, it’s called the Gganytija Temple, because the stones are so big they could only have been moved by giants.

Like Stonehenge, there are associations with the solstice at both sites. The south temple at Mnajdra is built so that its main doorway aligns with the sun during the spring and autumn equinoxes. During the winter and summer solstices, the beams of the rising sun alight on two decorated slabs in the first chamber. There’s some suggestion they were constructed by the Phoenicians who were great navigators. It’s also a superb choice of location. There are incredible views from their lofty sites, facing out to the southern Mediterranean.

The sea breeze takes the edge off the searing heat, but it’s still arduous clambering around and then making my way down the hairpin roads to the quay for the Blue Grotto.

The Blue Grotto

Here the local fishermen relieve you of eight euros to take you along the coast to the limestone caverns. They are worth the trip. There is an arch. several caves, a little window that kayaks now float through ( it used to be a proper window) purple quartz formations and plenty of gleaming sapphire and jade swirls, where the light hits the water. Its not as blue as the Blue Lagoon though.

Rabat and Mdina

Then the bus again to Rabat. This is as rural as Malta gets, with high stone walls enclosing narrow roads. But there are still plenty of buildings. And even the smallest of towns has a magnificent church at the centre. We wobble along a cliff top road past the viewpoints at Dingli - the highest coastal area in Malta.

Rabat sits on a hill and has more churches and winding streets and a view across to the north coast. But the main attraction here is the old capital, Mdina.

Mdina is a fortified city in the Northern Region of Malta, which served as the island's capital from antiquity until 1530. The city, confined within its formidable walls, has a population of just under 300 (mainly affluent) people, merging into Rabat, which takes its name from the Arabic word for suburb, and has a population of over 11,000.

Mdina is beautifully restored, with a cathedral (dedicated to St Paul, the patron saint of Malta) and some surprisingly delicate tracery on other buildings close by - much of the important architecture in Malta is heavy baroque. The streets are quiet and not too oppressive. They cleverly funnel a breeze around. The nobility still own most of the houses here, passed on through inheritance, but it is no longer of any importance and is known by the Maltese as ‘the Silent City’.

Perhaps the most impressive sight is the citadel gate -it doubled as the entrance to Kings Landing in Game of Thrones - one of several sites around Malta to be used in the series when southern climes were required. Fort St Angelo also featured. Malta has provided backdrops to many other movies as well, most notably Count of Monte Cristo and Gladiator. Oliver Reed actually died in a pub in Valletta (called The Pub), whilst filming Gladiator, there’s a plaque on the wall.

Mosta

The small, but densely populated city of Mosta has yet another basilica. The Rotunda has a huge dome, that I saw as we came into land. It was built by volunteer labour. This is one of the world's largest unsupported domes. Also on display is a replica of the World War II bombshell that famously crashed through the dome but did not detonate upon impact.

Marsaslokk

Marsaslokk is a huge disappointment. It’s billed as a charming fishing village with a harbour full of traditional fishing boats called luzzu. What they don't tell you is that the far side of the harbour is given over to a power station. And to the southern side is a huge commercial quay - the container ship free port lined with derricks. Apparently it’s called Pretty Bay.

You can see plenty of the traditional boats as long as you look steadfastly in the other direction. You can only do that from the tourist market which occupies the whole of the town side of the quay. The north side is bring torn up for renovation work. All the guides exhort you to visit on a Sunday as that's when they have the fish market. There are a few crowded fish stalls in the centre selling nothing out of the ordinary. The only other sight is another ornate church with a small dome. It’s dedicated to the Madonna of Pompeii and there are banners erected for annual religious celebrated on the first Sunday in August, which is today. The uplifting sounds of sung mass waft out of the door.

It’s even hotter today, positively sizzling. And its nine o'clock in the morning. They are offering harbour cruises - I don’t think so - or boat trips to St Peter’s Pool, which is a natural pool in the rock further up the coast. The guidebooks tell me that it's popular with young people who spend their time jumping into the water. It's not tempting.

To add insult to injury I can’t get a 3G signal here so I can't find the bus stop back to Valletta. I'm directed up a very steep hill and find I have to wait 20 minutes with no shade. It’s not my best outing.

North Malta

Today, Comino on the 222 bus. It takes over an hour to get to the very northern tip of Malta island. The journey passes quickly as I'm entertained by a Danish guy who lives in Luxembourg at the moment. Most of the vegetation is succulents or cacti - prickly pears and rows of gently waving aloes. We wend over some parched hills, terraced with dry stone walls and through the various coastal conurbations. St Paul's Bay. Bugibba.

This is where I stayed on my last visit. We found out that our cheap deal was indeed too good to be true. The apartment was tiny, concrete (painted white a long time ago), looked to be in need of a good clean and the cooker didn't work. Maybe the location would compensate? Well no, it seemed we were in the middle of a giant building site. There was no beach, just rocks and very little shade. The August sun was blistering.

I suggested we request to move to another hotel, but Don didn’t want the hassle. He was training for the marathon and he declared it was much too hot to run during the day (he was not wrong). So, we spent nearly all our time sitting round a tiny crammed pool in another ugly and decrepit complex that was called the sister hotel. He went out to run when it was a little cooler, about seven. Then, off in search of dinner, when he returned, which was usually about nine.

I realised that the guy I’d been chatting to, on the sunbed next to me, was Eric Richard, who played the desk sergeant on The Bill. (He can't have been paid much). And that was the highlight of that trip.

More inlets chock full of bobbing boats. Il Mellieha has the largest sandy beach on Malta. Or so I’m told. I can't see any sand for the sea of umbrellas.

Comino

Malta is shaped like an upside down fish. Journey's end is at the tail, where there's a large modern ferry terminal with a large modern Gozo ferry alongside it. But I'm taking the much smaller sister ferry to the island of Comino. The boat is run by an enterprising cooperative who get away with overcharging for the half hour trip - 13 euros return - by throwing in a close up of the rock pillars and caves guarding the island en route.

The main attraction is the gorgeously turquoise Blue Lagoon. I've already seen it from the air - when I couldn't get my camera out quickly enough - and its just as fabulous close up. Perfectly scenic surrounded by artistically placed diminutive cliffs, etched with nooks and crannies, complemented by an azure sky.

At The Blue Lagoon

The problem is that half the tourists on Malta think so too. I've attempted to get here early, but it’s ten o'clock when I finally arrive and several large tour boats have already beaten me to it. The iridescent lagoon is soon nose to tail with an assortment of craft and the bay dotted with swimmers and snorkellers. At least there's an area sectioned off for bathing.

Deckchairs and umbrellas are crammed into every last square inch of rock and too loud music blares from the bars and kiosks above. Vendors tout vociferously for these and various water sports. Though I'm not sure where there is space for all these jet ski and paragliding trips. The cocktail of choice seems to be a mojito served in a pineapple. I’m not sure why. I'm pretty certain they don't grow pineapples in Malta.

More and more tourists are decanted onto the minuscule quay. The two 'sandy beaches' are tinier than a smidge. But its still worth the trip. The sea is super clear over the shimmering sand and there's just enough room to navigate round the bodies in the water, so swimming is delightful.

Gozo

Josie, my landlady, and her husband Mark are travelling to Gozo for a couple of days so, they give me a lift back to the ferry port, take me on the ferry in their car, and ( well beyond the call of duty) deliver me to Marsalforn in the North. Gozo is the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago and is depicted as a rural counterpart to its big sister island. It’s not quite what I expect a rural idyll to be. It is slightly greener, (but it hasn't rained here for ages either) and is slightly less urbanised. I can see signs of agriculture. There are rows of vines. But there is still a great deal of building and plenty of huge churches , again in the smallest of villages.

Josie tells me that the Gozitans (say it Goz -i- tans) are very friendly and helpful in the event that I get lost. But they tend to disappear into their homes in the afternoons. Let’s hope I don’t need any assistance on my adventures.

Marsalforn

Here at Xwejni Bay there are salt pans dug out of the limestone. The saltwater is left to evaporate all summer and then dug out to be sold. It’s also a scenic spot with little bays and rock formations. Wandering along the promenade into Marsalforn proper is a rewarding, if perspiration inducing, endeavour. Marsalforn is one of the most popular resorts on Gozo and the bay here is lined with hotels, guest houses, restaurants and bars. There is one teeny sandy beach in Marsalforn. However, all along the rocky coastline there are pools in a variety of gorgeous hues. The thermometer is touching 40 degrees today. A swim in one of the pool areas is a necessity to cool down.

Rabat (Victoria)

Then it’s a bus to Gozo’s Rabat ( also known as Victoria from British times ) which is the capital of Gozo and home to Gozo’s Cittadella. The hill top fort here was re-constructed under the Knights of St. John, after the Ottomans invaded the city in 1551. The massive stone walls of the fortifications were a defence to protect against pirates attempting to take slaves, as well as against any Moslem invasion.

Like at Mdina, there is a cathedral, The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (with the same architect as the one at Mdina), several churches and narrow streets. But here you can walk nearly all the way round the walls. And you can see almost the whole of Gozo in the process. There's a café on the ramparts selling what it calls Maltese delicacies. I sample the Maltese drink kinnie, which is like a bitter orange tonic. It’s delicious. Sadly, I can't say the same for the calamari stuffed with tuna that the owner persuades me to try. It’s stewed in tomato and is disgusting; the squid is like rubber. Fortunately, he throws in a huge basket of chips.

Covid Testing in Malta

Josie and I have worked out that I can get the required Fit to Fly test at St James Hospital in Sliema, where they have a walk in swabbing tent. It’s almost impossible to cut through the jargon and work out which test is required for re-entry to the UK but we think that the rapid antigen test at 35 euros will be ok. The PCR costs 140 euros in comparison. They're running an early morning Sunday service at 7.30 a.m. What they don't tell you in advance is that it's 60 euros - almost double - as it’s 'a special day'.

Booking in is chaotic. You have to scan a form, fill it in online, submit it and wait for your name to be called. Simple. Except that most of the folk who have turned up don't understand the system. certainly don't understand how to fill in the form, don't know their passport numbers and crowd the entrance, thinking they will get seen sooner if they just push in. The medic on duty is spending more time filling in forms for angry frustrated tourists than he is administering tests. My test is exactly the same as the free lateral flow tests we get at home. And he only does one nostril.

Malta Revisited

I'm glad to report that my second visit to Malta was a much happier experience. There's loads to see and the Maltese are very friendly. It's definitely worth a trip. For more information on Malta see Malta - In A Nutshell.

Azerbaijan - Facts and Factoids

  • Azerbaijan is bounded by the Caspian Sea, to the east; and the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north. Indeed, 40% of the country is mountainous, but there are extensive plains at the country's centre.
  • The name Azerbaijan is thought to come from the Persian, meaning Land of Fire. It's an apt name. The first known fireplace in human history, ( 700,000 to 500,000 years old), was discovered here, in the Azikh Cave. They’ve been leftover from the nation’s Zoroastrian days when fire worship was common. In addition, Azerbaijan is known for its combustible natural resources, oil and gas. Gases at the bottom of volcanoes like Yanur Dag have burned for many years.
  • Azerbaijan is home to half of the world’s population of mud volcanoes, over 400 in fact.
  • The national animal of Azerbaijan is the Karabakh Horse. They have been bred for many hundreds of years, but are now threatened with extinction as Azeris like to eat horse meat.

What Continent Does Azerbaijan Belong To?

  • Azerbaijan is positioned between both Asia and Europe, but is often considered to be more European in its politics.

A Brief History of Azerbaijan

  • Azerbaijan came into being as an independent country in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian empire. before that the peoples of this region were known as Caucasian Turks.
  • It was a short lived existence. The Soviet Union invaded in 1920 and Azerbaijan was part of the USSR, until the country declared independence in 1991.
  • Previously, the area now known as Azerbaijan was conquered by the Arabs in 642 AD. who converted the people to Islam.
  • After several hundred years, the Arab empire fell and the Mongols invaded.
  • Azerbaijan had a strategic location because of its ports on the Caspian Sea and the trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. As a result, it was fought over by major empires including the Ottomans, Russia, and the Persians. The area ended up under Persian rule, but in 1828, the Russians and the Persians agreed to divide the area up between them.

What to See in Azerbaijan?

The mountains are stunning, there're the volcanoes (and fire) and some ancient history thrown in. Hop across to Nakchivan, a landlocked exclave.

Baku, the capital is a must. And if you can't get to Nagorno Karabakh, read about the trip I was lucky enough to make here.

A Very Short History of Ireland

Gaelic Ireland had emerged by the 1st century AD. The island was Christianised from the fifth century onwards. Following the 12th century Anglo-Norman invasion, England claimed sovereignty. From then on, the politics of Ireland are extremely complex and I'm not even going to attempt to explain them. Read Wikipedia - which may or may not give accurate information.

Ireland was partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, creating the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (the six northeastern counties), which became part of the United Kingdom with a devolved government.

Some 'Irish' Facts and Factoids

  • Ériu (today more commonly known as Éire) is the Irish name for Ireland – it's the name of a powerful female goddess, a modern day personification of the country.
  • Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, because of its parks and agricultural heritage. The term was probably coined by William Drennan in his 1795 poem When Erin First Rose, (Erin is a Hiberno-English word for Ireland originating from the Irish word "Éirinn". Erin was often used, in English, as a romantic name for Ireland.(Erin's Isle).
  • 88% of Irish citizens are nominally Roman Catholic. The Republic of Ireland has one of the highest rates of church attendance in the Western World.
  • The ancestral language of the Irish people is Irish Gaelic.
  • Many Irish family names start with "Mac" or "O'...", which means respectively "son of ..." and "grandson of ..." in Gaelic.
  • The three most famous symbols of Ireland are the green shamrock, the harp, and the Celtic cross. The official symbol is the harp. The one found on Irish passports points in the opposite direction to the harp on a Guinness glass.
  • Ireland ranks sixth worldwide in the average consumption of beer per person - and third for the consumption of tea!
  • 10 million pints of Guinness are produced in Dublin every day. (But more Guinness is sold in Nigeria than in Ireland.)
  • Ireland's Patron Saint St. Patrick was probably Welsh, but at least he lived in Ireland
  • Halloween was derived from an Irish festival called Samhain
  • The longest place name in Ireland is Muckanaghederdauhaulia (a small town in county Galway)
  • Irish traditional sports – Hurling and Gaelic Football - go back 3000 years
  • Ireland has won the Eurovision Song Contest more often than any other country - seven times.

Where to Go in Ireland?

Ireland is all gorgeous. The first time I went, I was on a circular tour with Don:

  • Ireland almost doesn’t happen. It was, in any case a last minute replacement for Tibet, which, was cancelled: too much rain and too many avalanches on the road from Nepal. And it takes far longer to drive to the port of Holyhead on Anglesey than I could possibly have imagined. I fondly imagined that the drive through Wales would be scenic. It probably is, but it’s very busy and winding and I’m too busy panicking to notice. We’re practically  doing one of those French Connection car chase leaps up the ramp to get onto the ferry.
  • Dublin, at the mouth of the Liffey has some quaint houses, a cathedral and lots of pubs. Don feels he has an obligation to try the Guinness in all of them.
  • We wander west and round the edge of Northern Ireland to Donegal. Back south to Sligo, the mossy crags of Ben Bulben Rock filling the horizon and W.B. Yeats' tranquil Lake Isle of Innisfree. The scenery everywhere stunning, the roads peaceful, the breakfasts huge, tweed shops ubiquitous. Its almost obligatory to buy a cloth cap and walking stick.
  • Next, County Mayo. Coincidentally, I’m reading Year of the French, which is hugely evocative in terms of scenery and atmosphere. Now, the loden green peak of Croagh Patrick towers above us.
  • South, along the west coast through Connemara. For me the best part of the journey – wild and wonderful, even if Don does nothing but sit and fish.
  • The coastal route continues to be glorious, moving south. County Clare and the towering Cliffs of Moher. Through Limerick and onto County Kerry with the Dingle Peninsula and its wide sandy beaches- Ryan’s Daughter was filmed here. Emerald (naturally), pasture filled with brown and white cattle. (It is where the butter comes from after all). It’s gorgeous in a pretty-pretty kind of way, but others think so too. The roads are throttled by tourists in ‘gypsy’ caravans.
  • Now east again., along the south coast Cork is the second largest city in Ireland and has one of the largest natural harbours in the world. It was originally a monastic settlement expanded by the Vikings. The remnants of the medieval city walls are still to be found.
  • Blarney is about 5 miles from Cork and the Blarney Stone is a block of carboniferous limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle, According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of the gab. I decide not to kiss The Stone. I might live to regret it, passing up on the gift of eloquence,  but I shudder to think how many bugs are residing on that bit of rock. And you have to be a contortionist to get your head to the right place anyway.
  • Continuing our circular tour, now north up the east coast. Waterford, has a lovely harbour, but its famous for its glass making and is unsurprisingly jammed with crystal shops. Waterford is also known as the starting point for Ryanair's first flight, a 14-seat Embraer that went to Gatwick.
  • Back to Dublin. And home.

My last trip to Ireland was to Dublin.

Two Days In Dublin – With a Companion

I'm back in Dublin. after many years, with a companion. Last time, it was the start of my circular tour. It's the capital of Ireland, on the mouth of the River Liffey. The Dublin Bay area has been inhabited since prehistoric time. There was first an early Christian ecclesiastical settlement, succeeded by a ninth century Viking town. The town remained prosperous but relatively small, making money mostly through the export of wool and linen. until the Georgian era, when, for a short while it was the second largest city in the British Empire.

The city's importance declined during the years of Union with the British. Dublin was not an industrial hub, like Belfast. Once again the capital of Ireland, it has increased in size and prominence. The name Dublin comes from early Irish for 'black pool.', but all the Irish counties have nicknames and this one is often called The Pale, after the fence and ditch that surrounded the area.

Guinness Galore

Our first stop in Dublin sets the tone for the remainder of the visit; we have lunch in a beautifully authentic Victorian pub. Ryan’s is replete with wood panelling, carriage clocks, globe lights, framed prints and mirrors. There are delightful nooks and crannies and the friendly barman serves us in our own tiny snug. Companion, of course, samples the Guinness, The vast and sprawling brewery is just across the river. It was founded in 1759, and grew to become the largest brewery in the world. It's also the largest employer in Dublin. The pub food is good too. It's an excellent way to begin.

Phoenix Park

Phoenix Park is just a little further up the road, the entrance tucked in behind the law courts. Once a hunting park, it’s claimed by some sources as the largest walled city park in Europe. It certainly stretches prettily away into the distance, dipping down to lakes and streams, autumn colours gleaming in the sunshine. There's even a zoo.

The park has more than its fair share of impressive memorials, but we can’t find the more ignominious shabby cross on the ground that I’ve read commemorates the murders of Cavendish and Burke in 1882. Lord Frederick Cavendish was The Chief Secretary for Ireland and Thomas Henry Burke was the Under-Secretary. They were stabbed to death with surgical knives while walking from Dublin Castle. A small insurgent group called the Irish National Invincibles were responsible.

Churches in Dublin

We wander along the Liffey, towards the city centre and the castle. It’s not the prettiest part of town, but the reflections of the red brick buildings and stone steeples in the water are lovely and we’re pleased in any case, to be enjoying sunshine. This is Ireland, after all. It's green for a reason.

A charmingly garrulous clergyman gives us a special guided tour in St Audoen’s, the oldest church in Dublin. The tour threatens to take up rather too much of the afternoon, however, so after stroking the Lucky Stone, (it’s not quite the Blarney), we escape to find the street closed and the garda whizzing around in blue flashing cars. There’s a bomb disposal squad out in front of Christchurch Cathedral (there are a lot of churches round here). It turns out to be a storm in a tea cup - or rather a firework in a rubbish bin incident.

Dublin Castle

Next, Dublin Castle, with round towers and early English style turrets and a memorial garden on the site of the black lake that gave its name to the whole city.

Statues and Government Buildings

The Molly Malone statue is a must. I’m all geared up to sing the song, much to Companion’s consternation, but I am diverted as she is being assaulted by a group of uncouth Italians who insist on being photographed fondling her amply displayed bosom. She is ignominiously referred to as 'the tart with the cart' by the locals.

Stephen Green Park has a huge plate glass mall close by, another lake and an arch. There are hosts of other grand neoclassical civic buildings, especially the Leinster Building, where the Irish parliament, the Dail meets, the Irish Bank and a plethora of galleries and museums. The largest dome belongs to Government Buildings, the home of the Department of the Taoiseach. Companion insists on referring to it as the Teashop. I’m hushing and looking round in the hope that no-one has overheard.

Trinity College

Trinity College Dublin is by far the most important university in Ireland, a sister college to St John's College, Cambridge and Oriel College, Oxford. A graduate of Dublin, Oxford or Cambridge can be conferred the equivalent degree at either of the other two without further examination. The ninthth-century Book of Kells and other illustrated manuscripts are on show in the College Library. And the list of notable alumni is exhaustive. I'm pondering it as I wander the quadrangle.

The Pubs of Dublin

There are more pubs than any other type of building in Dublin and they all sell Guinness. We eat a very good Irish steak dinner, the meat supplied by a butcher referred to in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

An EPIC Museum

There’s a glorious sunrise over the Guinness brewery, heralding a cloudy day.

West, to the most recently developed area of Dublin, the docklands. The award winning EPIC Museum of Irish emigration here is mainly videos of a lot of people who have decided that they don’t want to live in Ireland, whining about their tough lives when they leave. The rest of it is devoted to videos of famous people who are claimed as being of national importance, as they have obscure Irish roots, such as one great grandfather who was born in Sligo. In the tennis section of the sports department, for example, John McEnroe and Pat Cash are both claimed as Irish. There are notably several US presidents claimed too. Kennedy is an obvious one, but Ulysses Grant is a more surprising addition. Ditto Margaret Mitchell whose maternal great grandfather came from Ireland.

It’s a little astonishing - these many tenuous claims to fame and (as far as we can see) numerous omissions of genuinely Irish celebrities. Maybe these are only well known in the UK? We opt for laughter, instead of succumbing to bewilderment. We decide that everyone must be Irish if you look hard enough. A statue of Batman has been placed above a door to a bar by the river. We assume he must be Irish too.

Temple Bar

A last wander past Abbey Street, the statues (each resplendent with seagull on his head) and needle spire of Connell Street, across the white arched Halfpenny Bridge, through the fake and real traditional pubs of Temple Bar. They both charge exorbitant prices in this most touristy part of town. Up to 30 euros for Irish stew, beef and Guinness pie or Dublin Bay prawns. We finish our visit with a meal in the genuine article, just off the main drag.

Read some quirky facts about Ireland here

A (Very Brief) History of Slovakia

  • The Slavic tribes settled in the territory of present-day Slovakia in the fifth century.
  •  Following the disintegration of the Great Moravian Empire at the turn of the tenth century, the Hungarians annexed the territory comprising modern Slovakia.
  • In 1918, Slovakia and the regions of Bohemia, Moravia, Czech Silesia and Carpathian Ruthenia formed a common state, Czechoslovakia.
  • German intervention in Sudetenland led to  the dissolution of the country, and a separate Slovakian state, a German puppet regime.
  • After World War Two Czechoslovakia re-emerged as a communist state.
  • The end of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, in 1989, during the peaceful Velvet Revolution, was followed once again by the country’s dissolution, this time, eventually, into two successor states, Czechia and Slovakia (the Velvet Divorce).

Is Slovakia in the EU?

Slovakia has been a member of the European Union since May 1, 2004. It's part of the Eurozone (the currency is the Euro) and the Schengen Visa region. It also belongs to NATO.

Is Slovakia a Rich Country?

Slovakia is ranked as a high-income advanced economy. It has a low poverty rate in comparison to other countries, though the poor are disproportionately found in minority groups.

Is Slovakia a Safe Country to Visit?

Slovakia is said to be a safe country to visit. Violent crime is almost non-existent and crime rates are low, even by European standards. As in many cities pickpockets are definitely a problem, though again, much less so than in other European countries.

Facts and Factoids

  • The official language is Slovakian.
  • In Slovakia you get a birthday and a name day. Every day of the year is assigned one or two names to celebrate.
  • Slovakia has a lot of rivers - that means a lot of bridges. More than 10,000.
  • Slovakia has the world’s highest number of castles and chateaux per capita: 180 castles and 425 chateaux, in a country with the entire population far smaller than the city of New York.
  • Slovakia calls itself the Heart of Europe - though there's furious debate about that claim.

What to See and Do In Slovakia?

  • The terrain is primarily mountainous, with the Carpathian Mountains occupying much of the central and northern parts of the country. (skiing and hiking) and there are national parks, like the High and Low Tatras. Over half the country is covered with forest. More than six thousand caves have been discovered in Slovakia so far and there are over 1300 mineral springs.
  • The capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, lies on the borders with Austria and Hungary. That makes the city the only capital in the world that borders two other independent countries.
  • Bratislava is an ideal place for a weekend break, easily combined with Austria/Vienna. I stayed in Bratislava and travelled to Vienna, for the day, on a Danube ferry. You could easily do it the other way round.
  • It was a relaxing and enjoyable break, apart from dealing with Ryanair’s rules and regulations and delayed plane. It’s the only airline that serves Bratislava from the UK - unless you count WizzAir.

On the Danube

I'm on a weekend break in Bratislava. But somehow, I’ve ended up on a trip up the Danube to Vienna. That’s what the lady on the desk suggested. It seems there isn’t much to see in the city of Bratislava. She says I can easily do that tomorrow. Bratislava at first sight seems ultra-modern, so I’m surprised to find that the boat is still being repaired and men in overalls are running around with welding irons. And then our speedy catamaran turns up and moors alongside my 'ship', which is actually just a glorified pontoon.

Once out of the urban area, and away from Bratislava Castle, an unmissable landmark dominating the city. Then more ruined castles. After all, there are more castles in Slovakia, by square metre than anywhere else in the world. The river passes through undulating wooded countryside, interspersed with the odd quarry. It’s a shame they’re not playing the Strauss waltz over the PA system. (Not for the quarries of course). And then another castle, impressive Devin, towering above a little red roofed town. It’s very pretty, despite the rain. I’m popping up on deck with my camera to brave a drenching every time I spot anything interesting from my (you have to pay extra) window seat. The waiters are getting us into the Viennese cafe spirit, bearing sachertorte and whipped cream to passengers too sensible to venture outside.

Vodafone informs me when we’ve crossed the border and we’re passing the eastern most town in Austria, Hainburg. This also has red roofed houses and a church with an onion steeple, as well as some famous walled fortifications and a crumbling castle on a mound behind it.

Danube National Park

Next, the Danube National Park and then through the Danube Canal to the city. The narrow canal stretch is a bumpy ride and we are exhorted to stay in our seats while we lurch along.

This Means Nothing To Me
Oh, Vienna

Vienna, the subject of a haunting song by Ultravox and the setting for Graham Greene's most famous spy novel The Third Man. At one point Midge Ure pretended that his lyrics were influenced by The Third Man. Later, he admitted that he made that up. The song is supposed to be about a romance in an ominous dark place, which doesn't say much for Midge Ure's view of Vienna. Billy Currie wanted to write the accompanying music to be evocative of a late nineteenth century romantic composer. According to Currie, Ure wasn't a fan of the classical romantic approach, and actually said: "This means nothing to me," So that's what he sang.

Oh and Vienna is also the capital of Austria with a long imperial legacy. It's a city of some two million inhabitants, home to a third of the country's population. Vienna's history goes back to Roman times when it was a military camp called Vindobona. It was an important trading centre in the 11th century, then the capital of the Babenberg dynasty and subsequently of the Austrian Habsburgs . It reached its peak in the 19th century as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Harry Lime's Vienna

Vienna is just as Graham Greene describes. We're still on the Danube. Harry Lime still lurks on the Ferris wheel, in the Prater Park. (It was built in 1897). But I’d forgotten (sorry Midge) how gorgeous Vienna is. And Vienna is consistently rated high on those Most Liveable City in the World lists. I was last here, on my After the Berlin Wall Came Down Tour, a very long time ago. The baroque architecture is ridiculously grandiose, but at its best in the sun (which has gratifyingly appeared).

I catch trams around the Ringstrasse. as its name suggests, it circles the historic old city. And I spend most of the day marching through elegant gardens, past ornate palaces, sparkling fountains and churches with intricate spires and patterned tiled roofs. The best roof has to be the one on the unmissable St Stephen's Cathedral. Vienna is famous for its imperial palaces, especially the Schönbrunn, on the edge of the city, in Hietzing. It was the Habsburg's summer residence (the name means beautiful spring) and has 1441 rooms to marvel at. though they won't let you see all of them. Culture abounds. Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud have all made the city their home and influenced its development. In the MuseumsQuartier district, buildings ancient and modern feature Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and other notable Austrian artists.

There's a statue of a man on horseback on nearly every square or corner. The city centre is mainly pedestrianised, the ways lined with elegant street konditorei, offering torte and strudel. Or Schnitzel restaurants. Vienna is thronging with tourists - many of them Japanese. So, I'm going into competition and trying out my selfie stick again. I'm not very successful - I've left my hands - and the stick - in the shots...

Highlights of Vienna

My revisit continues with the museum area and the Hofburg Palace (the Hapsburg winter residence and principal palace). the Spanish Riding School, round the back of the Hofburg. Here, in possibly the most famous horse training academy in the world, the famous white Lippizaner horses (they're born black, but the white grows over the black coat) perform classical dressage for tourists. Well, sometimes. Last time I was here, the horses were on their annual holiday. Every summer they are transported to paddocks elsewhere in Austria for a break. And this time, nothing is running because of Covid.

More ornamental greenery, (like the Volksgarten), linked gilded squares (look up to the pediments for the most interesting decorative features) and the parliament buildings. The other must see is the Hundertwasser House. I love his whacky glittery architecture.

Exhausted, I search for the Cafe Central, planning a return torte extravaganza. But first I get lost, as my phone dies, taking my Google map along with it. I forgot how quickly its battery charge diminishes, when it’s been plugged to a European socket and I didn’t bring my power bank. So, I happily set off in totally the wrong direction, till I’m put right by a kind woman at a bus stop. Fortunately, nearly everyone speaks some English.

The Café Central is probably the most famous of Vienna's eateries. Slap bang in the middle of Vienna, it was the haunt of Trotsky, Freud, Loos (an architect) and several writers and poets (including Polgar, Zweig and Altenberg). Apparently, Peter Altenburg always used to walk out without paying, so he's commemorated with a statue. When I eventually track the Café Central down, there’s a queue snaking down the street. I’ve no inclination to stand in that, so I sneak past the line, to take a photo of Altenburg (he’s still waiting just inside the door), for old times’ sake, and settle for tea by the river.

Bratislava, the Capital of Slovakia

So, today it really is an exploration of Bratislava and yes, the lady on the desk was right. You can see the main sights very quickly. Even the tourist board promotes it as the 72 hour city (or see it in a day). I think the 72 hours includes trips out of the city. This capital of Slovakia nestles right in the south west corner of the country, backed by the Little Carpathian Mountains (sweet name). It is very close to both Austria and Hungary and so, is the only national capital that borders two other sovereign states.

Bratislava has a long and complex history. For many centuries it was part of the Hapsburg, and Austro-Hungarian empires, known as Pressburg (Slovak name Prešporok). For some time, due to Ottoman incursions into Hungary, it was designated the capital of the Hungarian empire. but even Pressburg almost succumbed to the Turks at one point. As its relevance to the Empire diminished, Vienna and Budapest grew in importance and national Slavic movements developed. In 1919, the name Bratislava was officially adopted. However, Bratislava, amidst fierce resistance, was incorporated into Czechoslovakia. It became the capital of the newly formed Slovak Republic, following the Velvet Divorce from the Czech Republic, in 1993.

Exploring Bratislava - A Compact Vienna

Bratislava is a more compact version of Vienna. It has a central historic centre that’s pedestrianised and lined with bustling cafes, and an outer ring served by trams. There are onion steepled churches galore, a string of bars (several stag parties looking worse for wear) plenty of fountains and bronze statues and a plethora of pastel coloured baroque houses and shops. There’s even a blue and white church that looks just like a huge iced cake.

Prices are modest and most of what is on offer seems modern and up to date - except for the public toilets. Some of the clothes and stationery on offer are a little shoddy. But then the offerings, at times, at home are too. Bratislava (the city rather then the country) is known for having a very high standard of living.

A Panorama City Tour of Bratislava

After I’ve walked as far as my legs will allow (I’m stiff from yesterday’s exertions), I take a ‘Panorama City tour’ on a scarlet mini bus. Here, I pal up with Terence, an affable student lawyer from Chicago, who's working in Prague. This works very well, as it takes me to the sights and viewpoints that are out of Bratislava centre. Most notably the World War II Soviet Slavin monument (great views over the city and castle).

Bratislava Castle

And then Bratislava Castle itself. Due to its strategic location, above the river, there has been a castle here for thousands of years. This stone fortress was begun in the tenth century, having been expanded over the years. Today, it houses the National Museum and is sometimes used for formal state occasions. It’s pouring with rain by now, so I run round the maze like gardens and back to the bus.

Houdini Restaurant

There's a tasting menu at the Houdini restaurant, next to my hotel, in the evening. Five courses with an Austro-Hungarian flavour and some liquid carbon dioxide wafting around. The raspberry and chocolate dessert is the best.

Read more about Slovakia here.

Read more about Austria here.

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