Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]

Azerbaijan’s visa hassles

Prior to mid-October, as Andrew Mueller notes in today’s Monocolumn, visitors entering Azerbaijan without visas at capital Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Airport had to engage in a bizarre hop from booth to booth to obtain their visas. First, they had to stand in a line to get a passport stamp, then stand in another line to apply for a visa, then wait for the visa to be issued, and then stand in line again to have the visa inspected.

Unnecessary hassles like these are reminiscent of Soviet-era bureaucracy. They feel to many travelers like punishment, even when the reciprocal hassles (those faced by citizens of the country in question trying to enter the visitor’s country) are harsher and require greater advance planning.

Then, in the middle of October, Azerbaijan suddenly changed its visa regime, requiring visitors to obtain visas at the country’s embassies in advance. This requirement is not particularly annoying for tourists, who usually have time to drop their passports off at embassies prior to travel, but it’s a huge hassle for business travelers who often need to travel at the drop of a hat.

Mueller instructively contrasts Azerbaijan’s visa regime tightening with neighbor Georgia’s loosening of visa requirements. Georgia now offers visa-free access to the country for citizens of close to half the world’s nations, and the length of stay following entrance has been extended to a year from 90 days.

Here’s the rub: Azerbaijan is perfectly situated to take advantage of new waves of tourism. Interest in the country is growing, air routes from Europe are quite good, facilities for visitors are expanding, and oil money has Baku flush with venues for visitors to spend money.

But if the country makes it harder for people to visit, fewer will show up.

For the record, Monocle’s daily Monocolumn is a fantastic briefing courtesy of the magazine’s correspondents and contributors from around the world.

[Story source: Andrew Mueller, Monocle; photo credit: indigoprime / Flickr]