Should you ever find yourself in Batumi, "capital" of the optimistically named Adjara Autonomous Republic well, sorry ‘bout that.
Batumi might be the original gangster’s paradise. A subtropical seaside fiefdom once run by autocrat/gangster Aslan Abashidze, which, like its partner in attempted secessionism, Abkhazia, has been a thorn in the Georgian government’s side since the Rose Revolution. Misha reined Abashidze in with a backhanded bitchslap in 2004 that almost resulted in war, but low-rent bandits still prowl the streets in black Mercedes, clearly having nothing productive to do or steal.
Autonomy has not been kind to Batumi. In fact, I have never been to such a destitute place where probably one in three vehicles are Mercedes so hot flames spew from their tailpipes. These are the kind of stripped down models preferred by those who believe that driving such a car back to their home village communicates its owner’s increasing economic and social stature far better than, say, shoes for the kids or indoor plumbing.
Stalin at home in Batumi
Accordingly, the only commerce that appears to be thriving are sports books, mini-casinos and freestanding automats (like slot machines). The local government has tried hard to spruce up the downtown area, but walk a few blocks from the center and it’s positively third world – crumbling housing; women peddling a few kilos of day-old produce on broken sidewalks; sweaty, idle, unshaven, shirtless men with protruding bellies practicing their craft. I couldn’t wait to leave.
That’s not to say I couldn’t find a diversion. Like every good Georgian town, Batumi has a museum devoted to favorite Georgian son, Iosif Vissarioinovich Dzugashvilli. Iron Joe decamped in the little white wooden house for a couple months in 1901 to do some old-fashioned organizing. Now, lucky visitors get to gaze reverently at the rough framed bed he slept in.
This museum was interesting for two reasons. First of all, Stalin was in Batumi when he was quite young, so the paintings and photographs from that era depicted, in all truthfulness, what could only be called a hottie. Who knew Stalin was a babe?
Stalin at the Batumi Station
Secondly, it’s really rare that you get to see the human side of someone responsible for 20 million deaths and for engineering cultural experiments that are still causing mayhem today. The museum really tries to show a man who, in addition to achieving so very much in the realm of civil society, loved his mother and his two wives. Very touching.
Stalin and Mother at Gori
Stalin and Mother at Gori
Seeing the European flag in places like Sarpi, Georgia always makes me smile at humanity’s unceasing optimism, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to suggest such optimism is, at best, misguided. Our good friend BReed, in a post better entitled "We Were Molested By the Soviets for 70 Years and All We Got Was Electrification and These Stupid Stamps, points to but a few reasons why EU membership is such a distant dream for the Georgians. I have come across a few examples myself in my recent travels.
Now, everyone knows I love Turkey. I recognize that I tend to overlook elements of Turkishness that hold up poorly under close scrutiny. I’m just saying that, having seen Romania and Bulgaria, and spent a fair amount of time in Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Turks are getting the shaft from the EU. Let’s stop pretending that the EU gives a shit about human rights (would that Turkey had oil), buy those pesky generals off (everyone’s got their price) and let ‘em in already. Armed with a firm understanding of the principles of supply and demand, the Turks have got it going on.
Let me give you a comparative example. The Turks have a fantastic nationwide bus system. They know there are people who want to go places and money to be made getting them there. Competition is cutthroat and you can be reasonably certain of getting to your destination in one piece, in a respectable degree of comfort, on time for a fair price.
At one point of my journey, I had doubts. A bus on which I was riding broke down on the coastal highway between Trabzon and Hopa. As clouds of acrid smoke rose from its nether regions, I felt a rising – and too familiar -- sense of despair.
Passengers stood on the narrow, shadeless shoulder as cars and dump trucks filled with boulders roared past the driver and conductor, who were involved in intense negotiations or, possibly, castigations, that involved many hand gestures.
Nothing good happens to your travel plans when your bus catches on fire.
However, in no more than 15 minutes, another bus pulled up. Passengers and baggage boarded and the journey proceeded with no further delay.
That NEVER happens. I fell in love with the Turks all over again.
Contrast this to my mashrutka ride from Batumi, Georgia to Tbilisi. I won’t bother elaborating on the general peril associated with riding in moving vehicles with Georgians, but let’s say just adherence to basic principles of highway safety was par for the course.
But, seriously, how stupid do you have to be to run out of gas on the country’s busiest highway, between its two biggest cities, with petrol stations every two kilometers, after already stopping twice to put no more than three or four liters at a time in the tank? HOW FUCKING STUPID?
I think Europe is pretty stupid sometimes, but this might exceed EU directives for maximum stupidity.
Copydude attributes Russian (and by extension, Ukrainian) women's ability to walk so confidently on their spike heels over varied terrain, not to being taught by their mothers or learning in school, but to their highly defined ass muscles. Good work there, sport!
Here in Trabzon there are lots of Devushkas . They're easy to spot, 'cause they look exactly like they do in Kyiv or Moscow (ok, maybe Yekaterinburg or Kharkiv) but here they really ARE ho's!
I know this since I stayed in a brothel last night. Everyone was very hospitable, as everyone always is in Turkey, and welcomed me with a free coke. Still, İ barricaded the door and slept with the light on.
And discover it's overpriced and there's nowhere good to eat. Newsflash: even Ukrainians go to Turkey now 'cause it's cheaper and a better value than Crimea.
Yah, that's right. Go to Crimea for the sushi.
"Restaurants in Ukraine elicit howls of disgust from Western ex-pats: by New York standards, there exists no first-rate restaurant in this entire France-sized country. A likeness of one is at the Oreanda (35/2 Lenina Street), especially if you seat yourself on the terrace overlooking the merry evening promenade. Another option is Nobu (also 35/2 Lenina Street), a sushi place across the path from the Oreanda that has no relation to the stateside Japanese restaurants of the same name. The fish at Yalta’s Nobu could be from any sushi place anywhere."
I wonder who's doing all this howling anyway?
My top five favorite cities, in order include:
I also have a list of favorite cities I have yet to actually visit:
I hardly know what I am going to do first when I get to Istanbul tomorrow morning; go to the hammam or get a fish sandwich from beneath the Galata bridge.
Since we're on the topic, I have a list of cities I hate:
So it turns out that Plovdiv is the Fresno of Bulgaria.
It sits in the middle of a long valley, bisected by a Highway-99 like strip of pavement that passes car lots, combine repair shops, farm stands and stooped over farmworkers picking tomatoes (I don't think they were Mexican, though, which begs the question of who picks Bulgaria's tomatoes?). All natural features including the horizon are obscured by a smoggy silver haze probably made up of agro-chemicals the US banned in the 60's. It's about 1000 degrees.
That's not to say that Plovdiv (and by extension, Fresno) lack charm. Plovdiv has seven hills and a fine Roman amphitheater (just like Rome! Oh, not so much). One of the main hills has many excellent examples of Bulgarian Revivalist architecture (by Revivalist I think they mean, "hey, now that those filthy Turks are gone, let's rebuild our houses in the old style") from the late 19th century. They are now being re-revived, by which I think they mean "hey, now that those filthy commies are gone, let's rebuild our rebuilt houses in the old style."
revivalism in process
I'll get back to you if I find any more charms in Plovdiv, or if any of Fresno's spring to mind.
What a charmless, inhumane pit. Even people who live there agree.
The highlight was visiting Ceausescu's white marble "Palace" overlooking the city, which, according to Romanians, is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. It now houses the Parliament and a huge conference center. Spend much time in there and you can completely understand why Nikolai and Elena were hunted down like dogs, tried by kangaroos and riddled with bullets by the time they hit the fourth word of the internationale back in 1989.
What's interesting about it is not that an entire residential area of the city was demolished in 1986 for its construction, nor that it's not even done yet, nor that it holds five tons of crystal chandeliers in its 3000 rooms.
It's that the palace is actually done sort of well. So much that's built by commies is half-assed and looks like crap after 10 years, but the woodwork and gold leaf detailing is really fantastic. There is no cracked and peeling paint or decaying walls or water stains or the smell of mold and cat pee mixed with cement that I associate with communist era buildings. It's actually quite...palatial.
No one knows what the total cost of the building will be, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that it's probably too high.
The "dead zone" looking at Plac Unii, from the Palace balcony from which Ceausecu never got to make any speeches
Brasov, Romania has a fine Gothic cathedral at its center, as medieval European cities are wont. Not being a big goer-into-of-churches, I nearly passed it by on my morning stroll, but something called to me, deep in my soul and drew me into its dark nave.
The heavy oak doors opened as if on their own power. The angels cried out! Lightning flashed and thunder crashed! The devil was smitten! I looked heavenward, covering my eyes and lo and behold, was not (as some might expect) rendered into a pillar of salt.
There, hanging from the transoms and altar, were about 100 17th and 18th century Anatolian carpets (CARPETS, not kilims) lovingly, professionally displayed with stern warnings to neither touch nor photograph. They had been brought back to Brasov by wealthy tradesmen who visited the Ottoman empire. Whoever thought to save them was a visionary; it's supposedly one of the best collections in Europe. I'd have to agree with that assessment. For the most part they were in fantastic condition and had patterns I had never seen before!
Finally, a church in which I can worship.
How nice it is to be able to order a salad and be reasonably certain it will contain vegetables, rather than meat and mayonnaise.
Things to like about Romania:
Horse carts are as common as cars in rural Bukovina.
The fact that I don't really like Romania all that much is a function of several things:
Now the map issue is not so big -- I can't really read maps very well anyway so they are usually wasted on me. But the guidebook issue is a big one (Copydude explains how guidebooks are a blessing and a curse for the countries they cover. Personally, there are plenty of reasons to object to Moscow -- issues of good taste and value top the list, far surpassing the potential for drive-by shootings -- but had I known they were so common I would hasten there).
Curse them as you will, but the very existence of Lonely Planet and Rough Guide make it possible to get off a train in a strange city in a foreign country with nothing but The Book, and, within a reasonable margin of error, orient oneself, get a decent place to sleep and prioritize the day's activities. Let me tell you how difficult it is to arrive at a city of a medium size alone with no map, guidebook or any sense of where to find a bed. This is my fault, and it has made my trip much more difficult than it has needed to be and much less enjoyable.
Memo to self: Amazon delivers to Ukraine.
It has also been less enjoyable travelling alone. The Producer and I often comment, with no small amount of smugness, that they would never allow us on The Amazing Race on the grounds that we would kick everyone else's ass. Notwithstanding the fact that we have spectacular, incendiary public disagreements that border on violence, which, I've been told, makes for great TV (who can forget the incident at the Dera Dun bus station in Himachal Pradesh, India, on June 6, 2003? Certainly not the crowd that gathered to watch). There's no question: two heads are better than one when watching baggage or sorting out complicated logistics.
We have very distinct gender roles when travelling. He is in charge of money and maps; I am in charge of negotiations, question-asking, bribing and deciding where we sleep. On my own, I have to deal with all these things. I thought it would be empowering (I haven't travelled alone in 17 years). Instead, it's a pain in the ass.
Last time we travelled, we had 14 months and no itinerary. Now, I have to be somewhere, at a certain date, and I have to cover a lot of ground to get there. It's only been a week and I'm already exhausted and not even halfway there. It's probably time to throw some money at this problem.
If anyone cares, I am in Brasov, which near where the supposed (and largely discredited) Dracula's castle is and will head to Bucharest on Tuesday morning for the day, then take a night train to Sofia, Bulgaria.
The siege of Constantinople,a 16th century fresco on the walls of the Modolvania Monastery, Bukovina