In Praise Of Travel Lists

Travel lists get a lot of grief. I’ve overheard many fellow travel writers offer the opinion that lists of various sorts are deeply inferior to any and all narrative travel writing. Others have suggested that lists are slowly crowding out real travel writing entirely.

C’mon now.

Let’s agree for a few provisional minutes that the purpose of travel writing is, very generally, to inspire people to think about travel. (Why not? This is a good goal, all things considered.) Few genres of writing are better suited to achieving this goal than travel lists – lists of destinations, hotels, beaches, restaurants and so on. A list written by an expert can feel like an extended secret, like an invitation to experience the world differently.

Lists at their best are efficient. They cover key territory and reduce unnecessary noise. They reveal their writers’ passions directly. Are they the ticket to cross-cultural understanding? Not usually, but then very few traditional travel stories, no matter how drenched they may be in self-importance, ever accomplish this end.

Let’s take this past Saturday’s print edition of Guardian Travel as an example of the value of travel lists. The section was full of inspiring ideas in list form – summer holiday recommendations, adventures in south-west England, and cool accommodations on the Isle of Wight. There’s a more bullet-point-like list of upcoming holiday festivals in the UK as well.

The summer holiday recommendations kick off with some exciting suggestions about corners of France slightly off the beaten path, written by Jacqueline Mirtelli of Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency. Mirtelli suggests Cap Corse, the little-visited peninsula on the northern coast of Corsica, and finishes off her tip list with the inland villages of the Var, a region in Provence. Elsewhere Michael Cullen of i-escape tips the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Simon Wrench of Inntravel suggests the Danish Riviera, and Lucy Kane of Rough Guides lists Tbilisi, Palma and Montenegro as her summer travel recommendations.

In this short round-up piece the excitement of summer travel is infectious and inspiring. There is information here, and more importantly there are multiple jumping-off points for research. Could this sort of generalized excitement be achieved by one longer piece on, say, the Amalfi Coast? I’m doubtful that it could.

Like many absolutist stands that we travel writers get sidetracked into on occasion, the resistance to lists is misplaced. The wholesale replacement of narrative by lists would be a terrible development for sure; shy of that, there’s no need to attack the humble list. There is, however, as always, a need across genres for high-quality versions of all types of writing.

[Image of Cap Corse: Flickr | cremona daniel]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Tbilisi insider Q&A: Nina Andjaparidze

To walk around central Tbilisi with Nina Andjaparidze is to feel as if you’ve been invited into the exciting beating heart of the local social scene. Andjaparidze, the Director of the Tbilisi International Film Festival, seems to know everyone in town; moreover, she seems to know everything there is to know about the artistic heritage as well as the contemporary state of culture in Tbilisi. An afternoon wandering with Andjaparidze was one of the highlights of my Tbilisi visit.

Q: Define your occupation.
A: I started working for the Tbilisi International Film Festival in 2000 and became Director in 2002. I love my job. The festival aims to introduce the general public to new, highly artistic cinema production. It is one of the most significant events in Tbilisi’s cultural life and is highly regarded by both Georgian and foreign cinema experts. I’m very proud that festival has hosted world-famous stars as well as Georgian film directors and actors currently working abroad.

Q: What are the most magnificent things about Tbilisi in your view?
A: The medieval town has been preserved in the very structure of the streets in the Old Town. There’s also the ancient fortress and the city’s religious architecture. I can feel the Old Town when I walk in its streets, and each time I wander through familiar places look new to me. This, I think, is the most remarkable feature of this town.

Q: What would you most want to share with visitors about Tbilisi?
A: Visitors should find the way of life in Tbilisi very attractive. Tbilisi represents a mix of eastern and western traditions. Folklore, various traditions, songs and dances all embody this mixture. Taking a steam bath is one of the traditional attractions and should also be interesting for visitors.Q: Tell us about your neighborhood, Vere. It’s known for being home to artists and intellectuals.
A: Many visitors comment on the relationships between neighbors in Tbilisi. Houses in Tbilisi are structured around balconies and galleries facing a patio. This provides an open environment for communication between neighbors, an opportunity to share common joys and sorrows. This social atmosphere is what I like best about Vere.

Q: Where do you like to travel within Georgia?
A: Within Tbilisi, there are many places with beautiful views of the Old Town, like Narikhala Fortress. One of the best views is from the plateau of Mount Mtatsminda, the highest point in Tbilisi. Beyond, I like the mountain districts with their old villages. Some regions like Svaneti and Khevsureti haven’t changed much in centuries.

Q: How do you see tourism in Georgia developing?
A: I think that our numerous pre-Christian and Christian monuments should be at the core of the development of cultural tourism in Georgia.

Q: Lastly, how about a Tbilisi secret?
A: There are some strange places in Tbilisi, like the city’s underground tunnels. The tunnels were used to drain storm waters and also to serve as secret passageways leading away from the city’s fortresses. Reportedly there were also some secret tunnels connecting the state agencies during Communist rule. It is possible to walk the full length of the neighborhood of Sololaki underground, though this activity is more or less inaccessible for visitors.

Check out other Far Europe and Beyond series articles.

Tbilisi: Orbeliani Baths

Some cities have an isolated public bathhouse here or there, in a remote corner; others, like Budapest, have public baths strewn throughout. Tbilisi has its own bathhouse district called Abanotubani, with several bathing venues on offer. I’d been looking forward to experiencing one of these baths for weeks. I went with the bathhouse with the most beautiful exterior, Orbeliani Baths, both because it’s fun to judge a book by its cover and because I’d been told that it was particularly worthwhile.

The ornate blue-tiled exterior mosaic of the Orbeliani Baths (see above) is hard to miss. As I approached, a group of backpackers were exiting. “Well, maybe tonight we’ll come back,” one said, something just shy of anxiety behind his careful intonations. Coward, I thought. You won’t be back. You’ll do it now or you won’t ever do it. I handed over a measly three lari ($1.80) to the cashier and walked upstairs to the men’s baths.

What follows is a description of the men’s side of the bathhouse. I can’t speak with authority as to what transpires on the women’s side. I’ve heard rumors, though, and I think it’s safe to say that the female masseurs, like their male counterparts, don’t believe in coddling their charges. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Visitors first enter a locker room. The three lari covers admission plus a sheet-like towel. Your possessions go in a locker, which the attendant shuts with a key. You’ll be naked except for a pair of flip-flops and your towel. (Some guests also brought in little scraping devices and razors for skin care.)

Entering the enormous bathing room, a masseur will approach and ask if you’d like to book a bath (5 lari; $3) and/or massage (also 5 lari). The masseurs are built like tanks, something I found reassuring. At least I’ll get clean, I thought. I opted for both a bath and a massage. My masseur gestured toward the showers, two different pools, and a sauna. I was off.

Twenty minutes of bathing bliss followed. I showered, sweated in the sauna, cooled off in a pool, and repeated. Just as I was starting to feel clean and incredibly relaxed, my masseur bellowed my way. I’d almost forgotten. Almost.The washing and massaging session started off pleasantly enough. My attendant dragged me to the edge of a slippery tiled surface and began to wash me. Then came a massage, firm and intense. At first, his method was unobjectionable. Then he upped the intensity level with broad and very firm strokes, his hands moving outward from my spine to the edges of my back. Still fine, though I felt fear for the first time.

He motioned for me to turn around. He repeated the action on my chest and belly, long horizontal movements. Um, ouch. Were there knives attached to his hands? Was he reaching into my torso and rearranging my organs?

Christ on a tricycle it hurt.

The pressure was unlike any other I’ve experienced in my many years of receiving massages. I began to reason with myself. On the one hand, this sort of thing had to be good for my lymphatic system; on the other, it was easy to suspect that I was in the process of being murdered. Still, I was loathe to request a lighter touch, thinking that the pressure was simply part of the experience. Then, suddenly, he deposited an enormous bubble of soap in my lap and gestured toward the showers. It was over, and I was alive. Was it worth it? Actually yes, absolutely, even with the shockingly intense pain.

I was later told by a Georgian friend that masseurs offer massages in a range of intensities and that what happened to me was not typical. I could have just asked the masseur to modulate the pressure; that’s what my friend would have done. But I didn’t, and huge bruises materialized two days later. But at least I hadn’t been a coward.

Beware of a requoting of massage and bathing combination price at the exit. You should pay no more than 10 lari ($6) for both.

Be sure to check out previous installments of Far Europe and Beyond.

Far Europe and Beyond: Introducing Tbilisi

“The Soviets always had a difficult time with Georgia. They were never able to turn Tbilisi into a Soviet city,” says Revi. I’ve just met Revi, the cousin of a friend, and he’s introducing me to Tbilisi. He’s just picked me up at the airport and is giving an impromptu nighttime tour. We’re driving down the major artery of Shota Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi. The city is sparkling. Revi points to the national Parliament, to hotels, theaters, and cafes. The street is bright and shiny and looks terribly prosperous. For a second I think I could be in any European city.

Over the next several days, Revi’s words would ring in my ears. The knots of unruly, twisting streets in Tbilisi’s Old Town are enchanting, and unlike Shota Rustaveli Avenue, they are delightfully hardscrabble. There’s no Soviet triumphalism there; nor is there much modern Soviet architectural bombast in the center of the city. Granted, there are plenty of large anonymous apartment blocks in Tbilisi, and a smattering of Soviet architectural masterpieces as well–the Roads Ministry Building is perhaps the most obvious example–but Tbilisi is a city that has resisted bulldozing and reprogramming.

I came into Tbilisi with a huge advantage: I knew some Georgians. For the last several months, I’d had the good fortune to be exposed to Georgian food and culture at Little Georgia, a restaurant in my London neighborhood. I’d enjoyed Georgian food previously, but Little Georgia’s inexpensive lunches and dinners made me a fan.

And when it came time to take off for Tbilisi, the staff of Little Georgia kindly provided direction. Tiko Tuskadze, the owner of Little Georgia, gave me the phone numbers of her friends. A waiter at Little Georgia, the increasingly well-known photographer Beso Uznadze, overlapped with me in Tbilisi. His friends really extended themselves to me. One rescued me from a grubby hostel by offering me his reasonably priced, beautiful apartment. Two gave me informal tours of various parts of Tbilisi. I was invited to drinks, dinner, and get-togethers. And I was toasted over vodka by people I’d just met–and perceptively and kindly, I might add.

As lovely as these overtures were, it’s not at all clear to me that I wouldn’t have made friends along the way on my own. Tourism may be picking up in Tbilisi but outsiders are not all that common and are consequently of genuine interest. At Shavi Lomi, a delightful restaurant in the neighborhood of Sololaki–don’t worry, I’ll return to Shavi Lomi later this week–the waitress told me she was very happy to see me return. People asked questions: taxi drivers, waitresses, shopkeepers. Given language barriers, communication was often quite superficial and partial, but it was always a pleasure.

Georgia is developing at breakneck speed. Among the major recent improvements mentioned by locals are road quality and police behavior: The roads in and around Tbilisi are quite good, and corrupt cops no longer pull cars over to shake down drivers for a few lari. More evidence: Many cafes and restaurants offer free wi-fi to their customers; this feature is considerably more prevalent than it is in most big cities across Europe.

The tourism infrastructure is also improving rapidly, and costs are generally low. Restaurants, public transportation and taxis are all very reasonable. On the downside, hotels in Tbilisi are overpriced for the quality on offer. This is a legacy in part, no doubt, of the fact that previous visitors have come from the worlds of business and NGOs.

Tbilisi is a default base for people traveling around Georgia, but it’s also a place that should justify a visit by itself. Culinary pursuits alone could form the basis of a week’s stay. Beyond the range of restaurants on offer, highlights include the Old Town’s gravity-defying old houses and narrow streets, museums, churches that date to the 6th Century, striking Neoclassical buildings, public baths, parks, and grand neighborhoods like Vere, Sololaki, and Vake. My bet is that Tbilisi, atmospheric and enchanting at so many turns, will develop far more deeply as a tourist destinations in the coming years.