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The best and worst of my travels in 2014 – a review

With the year drawing to close, I thought I would sit down and take stock of some of the highlights (and lowlights) I have experienced during my travels this year.

In truth, there are so many inspiring, amazing and interesting things I have seen, so it has been had to hard to pick “winners”. I also have a fairly high threshold for problems when travelling, so you can also be assured that the “worst” section are truly execrable.

I’ve only mentioned places below that were new to me this year; so some old favourites have been overlooked. Fundamentally, though, have just written this for fun – so don’t take it too seriously.


Best landscape – Svaneti, Georgia


Those who know me well won’t be remotely surprised to see Georgia – or rather, a region of the country – occupy this position. When I first visited the country about five years ago, I never could have predicted what a love affair it would turn into. From the narrow lanes of Tbilisi Old Town to the coastline of Abkhazeti to the modern piazzas of Batumi, Georgia has never once disappointed me – and I’m just getting started when it comes to getting to know the country.


The Svaneti region of Georgia has an almost mythical, biblical quality to it. Located more than ten hours by road from Tbilisi (or a far more civilised ninety minutes by prop plane), the region is comprised of soaring peaks, unconquerable glaciers and enough history of chivalrous, warrior-like behaviour to scare off even the most fearsome of invaders. Georgia’s Soviet occupiers were just the latest in a string of wannabe conquerors that has included the Mongols and Tsarist Russians that were unable to fully bring the region under their control.

In many ways, the region is frozen in time – with the same gritty-minded independence and traditional practices held dear by the locals hundreds of years ago remaining the same today. As a case in point, compare the photo of the region’s capital of Mestia in the 1800s to how it looks today. Little has changed.



Enough about the culture, though.

To spend a few days in Svaneti is to expose yourself to some of the world’s most stunning scenery.

Mestia itself is well worth seeing, with its collection of amazing “Svan towers” standing proudly above the town to provide a vantage point to identify and warn off invaders.


A couple of hours walk from Mestia, one reaches Hatsvali where you can take a cable car to the summit of Mount Zuruuld. When you reach the top; stop, relax, order a cold beer and take in the surroundings.


Visiting the Svaneti region, you should also not even consider missing out on a trip to Ushguli – the highest inhabited settlement in Europe. From the village, it is possible to walk for hire guides to take you to the impressive Shkhara Glacier.


I’d like to think I’ve demonstrated why, in 2014, Svaneti was the best landscape I encountered.

Honourable mentions:

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan – Once a prominent Soviet tourist destination, Lake Issyk Kul is now well and truly off the beaten track. Indeed, when I visited at the beginning of July the only other visitors appeared to be late middle-aged Russians and tourists from other parts of Kyrgyzstan. In terms of tourist facilities, the Issyuk Kul region and its main town Cholpon Ata have relatively little to write home about. The restaurants are fairly poor and local hotels haven’t been upgraded since the Brezhnev era. It’s the scenery that makes the place, though, with the ice-blue water of the lake sitting beautifully between the Tian Shan and Ala Too mountain ranges. There’s few places I’ve ever felt more isolated yet relaxed in than Cholpon Ata – and I’d love to go back.


Budva, Montenegro – As a regular Balkans buff, Montenegro has long been a bit of a blind-spot of mine. At the start of the year, I vowed to change that and jumped on a cheap flight there. I’ve written about my experiences in Podgorica, the country’s small, charming and undeniably Yugoslav capital city, yet haven’t had a chance to put any thoughts down on the coastal resort of Budva and its surrounding region. Budva itself is an attractive little town, with a beautifully reconstructed Old Town and picturesque harbour but its real charm lies in the 10km coastline that leads to the island of Sveti Stefan. Even though my entire four day trip to Budva was marked by near-perpetual rain and cloud, the walk was no less stunning. I will be back.

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Kindest gesture – Vice-President’s security detail, Somaliland

Most people thought I was mad to visit Somaliland. I always knew it would be fine (and it was) but nevertheless, as a hat-tip to the concerns of my friends and family, thought I’d better arrange a car to pick me up at Hargeisa International Airport to take me to my hotel. Rather predictably, the car didn’t turn up – and I was left sitting in the arrivals hall wondering how I would manage to make my way the 15km or so to my hotel. As my fears began to mount, I was approached by a gentleman from the Vice-President’s security detail who offered me a lift to town. I was pretty sure he was kosher, so accepted. Minutes later, I found myself in an armoured jeep, accompanied by a rather humourless armed guard, zipping through the dusty, Mosque-lined streets of Hargeisa towards my hotel. I never did get a chance to specifically thank Vice-President Abdirahman Saylici for his team’s help…

Most memorable building – Norovank Monastery, Armenia


There isn’t even a contest for this one. The 13th century Norovank Monastery is the most memorable building – or rather collection of buildings – I have seen this year. Comprised of the Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Karapet Churches and located not far from the city of Yeghegnadzor in Central Armenia, it’s an incredible sight.


Armenians do religious buildings well – and Norovank really does have it all: atmosphere, architecture and poignance. The complex itself is perched on a rocky hillside overlooking a narrow river gorge with spectacular views over red-brick cliffs and lush valleys stretching out into the distance.

If you visit, you’ll have to be virtually pulled away by your guide.

Most moving experience – EuroMaidan, Kiev, Ukraine

This one really needs no further explanation other than to note that, just days after this photo was taken, Viktor Yanukovych’s henchmen launched a wave of indiscriminate sniper attacks against civilians on the square that led to more than 100 deaths and hundreds of injuries.


Yanukovych is, of course, now a figure of the past and much has changed in Ukraine recently with the election of the brave new President Petro Poroshenko and a new, pro-western coalition government. Ukraine will, however, remain a fragile stage for years to come.

Best meal – St George Restaurant, Bucharest

IMG_00000260Back in early January, I headed to the Romanian capital city of Bucharest for work in order to have a couple of meetings. While I my overall impressions of the city were very good, I was a bit disappointed to see that many of the city’s restaurants – particularly in the main business district and tourist areas – appeared to be fairly generic western-style places knocking out pizzas and gourmet burgers rather than traditional Romanian food. Some of these places were downright bizarre; the biggest culprit being a pizzeria with fake palm trees called “Coco Loco” (or something like that). On a beer level, I actually gave up attempting to find a local Romanian brew after inquires at many bars simply resulted in the owners proudly informing me they “only serve premium beers like Stella”. Gah!

IMG_00000262After wandering the streets of Bucharest for an hour or so, looking for somewhere pleasant-looking to eat, I spotted a cosy-looking restaurant on the edge of the Old Town – the St George Restaurant. It was absolutely the right choice – warm, welcoming, intimate and entertaining.

Operated by ethnic Hungarians from the Transylvania region of Romania, the food was simply superb. I started with a serving of chicken-filled “Hortobagy” meat pancakes, which were the perfect fuel to warm me after a protracted period of walking in cold, mid-winter Bucharest. My main course, “Szegedi” mutton stew with strapacska was tender, flavoursome and tasty. Accompanied by a bottle of Romanian red from the Urlati region, it made for the perfect dinner.

I am tempted to go back to Bucharest for the sole purpose of eating in this restaurant. If you’re in town, don’t miss it.

Honourable mentions:


Hajdučki Konak, Zvečan, Kosovo/Serbia – Located about a ten minute drive north of the bridge that divides the ethnic Albanian-populated south of the town of Mitrovica from the Serb-run areas to the north, Hajdučki Konak provides Serbian hospitality at its very best. The food is pretty simple – grilled meats, fresh fish, home-made bread and salads. The building is a half stone-half wood cabin with a riverside garden in which to sit in summer and a cosy dining room with a roaring fire in the winter. Chomping on delicious ćevapčići and sipping on home-brewed Rakija, it’s easy to forget Kosovo’s problems as soon as you walk through its doors.

imageMozaik, Pristina, Kosovo – If I had to pick a “winner” solely on customer service alone, there would be no contest: Mozaik would be the victor. Set on a quiet side street (so quiet taxi drivers usually have no idea where it is), Mozaik is the brainchild of local chef Lorik who honed his English skills in the years following the Kosovo war. Stepping into Mozaik, you are transported from the gray monotony of the streets of Pristina to a cosy, mahogany-panelled dining foom where delicious meat dishes and tasty stews are the order of the day. I have been to the restaurant several times now and have never seen a menu – Lorik recommends, I accept, I eat and I’m happy. I even called ahead one evening when I was arriving in Pristina at 11pm and he specially kept the place open for me and my friends. Not to be missed.

Saba, Hargeisa, Somaliland – Located on the outskirts of Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa, Saba is a real gem. Owned and operated by a family of Yemeni immigrants who moved to Somaliland many years ago, it is an incredibly simple affair based around a shady courtyard filled with white plastic tables. The menu is purposefully small, containing a limited range of traditional Somali and Yemeni dishes – all of which are delicious (my favourite being the incredibly tender lamb stew with the home-made roti-style bread). The flavours are delicious, the mildly chaotic surroundings endearing and staff endlessly pleasant – albeit unable to speak a word of English. The only downside is that Saba, like everywhere else in Somaliland, is dry. At roughly $5 a head, though, it’s hard to complain.

Surprise standout – Dushanbe, Tajikistan


Tajikistan was, if I’m being honest, a bit of a last-minute add on to my trip to Central Asia. It was a country I knew – and still know – relatively little about that I ended up being quite taken with.

There’s no point rehashing what I already wrote about the country’s charming capital city Dushanbe in this blogpost. More broadly, though, my experience of Dushanbe has led me to explore more options for exploring Tajikistan next year – most notably, the mountainous Gorno Badakhshan region on the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Watch this space…



Worst hotel – Nondescript “motel” above a petrol station, Mitrovica, Kosovo

imageWhen I’m in North Mitrovica, I usually stay at the excellent Hotel North City. It’s clean, convenient and secure. Regrettably, it’s also quite popular with the foreign government and NGO community – especially when there’s an election on.

Having exhausted all possible options for accommodation in North Mitrovica, I looked across the other side of the ethnically divided city to the South. As a result of a block booking by the OSCE for their election observers, all the rooms there were gone too. Instead, a local cabbie took me to what appeared to be a petrol station somewhere on the main highway between Mitrovica and Pristina.”

After much fumbling on the part of the petrol station attendant, I was taken down what looked like a bin alley shown to an unmarked door at the top of a set of stairs bearing the word “MOTEL”. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “beggars can’t be choosers”. Well, in a way, they can: they can actively choose to either accept accommodation offered to them or sleep on the streets. On reflection, part of me wishes I’d chosen the latter.

The room I was taken to in the “motel” was lacking in any form of central heating, had threadbare (albeit clean sheets) and a bathroom (cleanliness status: undermined) where the means of both having a shower and flushing the toilet appeared to come in the form of a garden hosepipe hanging out of the wall.

I didn’t change out of my clothes that night. Nor did I shower. I still have no idea what the place is called; nor do I wish to remember. Learn my lesson: book hotels in Kosovo prior to travelling.

Most unpleasant government official – Customs Team, Addis Ababa Bole International Airport

imageWhen I first landed in Addis Ababa from Istanbul, I was incredibly impressed with the speed and efficiency with which I was issued a visa. The whole process; from landing to completing my paperwork to getting in a taxi to my hotel took less than ten minutes. Surely, I thought, it would be just as easy when I returned from Somaliland. No. No, no, no, no, no.

The first sign there may be complications with my visa to re-enter Ethiopia came when my flight from Hargeisa landed at the terminal designed to deal with Ethiopian domestic flights. Clearly, a domestic terminal does not have the ability to issue visas so, upon approaching the counter and enquiring as to how I could obtain one, I expected some solution to be found. Instead, I was told by the surly border guard that I had to head to the international terminal. Given that the two are not connected, this required waiting two hours for the official in question to deign to arrange a minibus to transfer me and the passengers that had arrived from the newly-born Republic of South Sudan (who were in the same boat) to the international arrivals hall.

Easy? Done? No. While the South Sudanese delegation were waved through, I was then subjected to a further five hour wait by customs officials who would only opaquely tell me they needed to “investigate” why I wished to enter Ethiopia. After my fourth hour waiting in the airport, I asked to speak to the British Embassy, only to be told I would be arrested if I asked again. Charming!

Eventually, I was admitted to Ethiopia after an interview (without coffee) with the chief border guard – a woman possessed with the charm of Vladimir Putin and build of Cyril Smith. She never did tell me what concerns they had about me entering the country…

I made my way into Addis Ababa and plonked myself down in the first restaurant I could find. To my dismay, it was a dry restaurant. Defeated; I was too tired to go anywhere else.

Most crooked taxi driver – Astana, Kazakhstan

imageAstana is a strange city. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully appreciate the place unless you have been to Dubai and seen the gaudy, soaring structures that dominate it’s impressive skyline. I have a theory that President Nazarbayev was quite taken with Dubai and decided, in the style of a true, vainglorious dictator, to spend a chunk of his recently-acquired oil money on trying to create a rival version of the place in Central Asia. He hasn’t been successful; I found it to be a city almost entirely devoid of charm.

My first introduction to the place was my taxi driver. Being a man of a certain confidence and a certain build, I don’t generally have too many problems with rip-off merchants overseas – but the incident on my arrival in Astana really takes the biscuit.

To start with, the taxi driver attempted to persuade me that the airport was 120km from Astana. It is in fact – as I knew – roughly 30km. Upon realising I wasn’t entirely clueless, he quickly performed a volte face and declared he knew a “shortcut” that would, ta da, indeed mean the journey would be 30km. (This “shortcut” rather closely resembled a main arterial road).

Having thought I had avoided the worst of the Kazakh cabbie’s gombeenism, I had a treat to look forward to. Pulling up outside my hotel, he attempted to jack up the fare to five times the amount on the meter. As I remonstrated with him, an English-speaking security guard from the hotel came out to find out what the fuss was about. Rather than accept he was not going to get away with ripping me off, he launched an audacious defence. The fare, he claimed while flashing a kindly-looking smile, was so high because he had taken me on a “photo tour” of Astana. In reality, I had wound down the window and taken a couple of blurry photos from the car as we drove along the motorway.

I handed him the fare on the metre and, aided by the hotel security staff who blocked his path towards me, took the lift up to my hotel room. He apparently remained in the lobby waiting for me for a further hour until they forcibly threw him out. Crook.

Defending Moldova: Russia’s latest attempt to derail the Eastern Partnership

moldova_rel93Moldova is one of the least known and understood corners of Europe.  Even amongst those with a strong grasp of geography, attempts to place the small, landlocked country on a map are met with awkward silences and shrugs of the shoulders.

Ironically, it is Moldova’s geographical positioning that lends it such geopolitical significance – at least at the moment.

For the uninitiated, Moldova is located on the European Union’s eastern flank, sandwiched in between Romania and Ukraine.  While the residents of the country speak Romanian – and many of its residents freely describe themselves as “Romanians” – Moldova was a constituent part of the Soviet Union rather than independent, communist Romania.  As a post-Soviet rather than a post-Ceau?escu state, Moldova has naturally maintained close links to Moscow since independence and has a mostly bi-lingual, Russophone population.

As such, while Russia has been powerless to stop Romania’s movement towards the European Union – and “the west” in general” – Moldova has remained Russian satellite state for much of its post-independence history.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government has pursued a policy of exploiting, fomenting and sustaining internal ethnic conflicts in order to frustrate the ability of former Soviet states to pursue a policy course that is genuinely divergent from that of Moscow.

The examples are clear for all to see.

To this day, Russian juntas occupy the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – an area akin to 20 percent of the country’s sovereignty territory. Russian troops are stationed in both territories, forcibly preventing the country’s reunification. Prior to 2004 a third region, Ajara, was also under control of Kremlin-backed stooge Aslan Abashidze.

For more than twenty years, possession of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has been bitterly disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has repeatedly exploited the frozen conflict for its own ends; holding back Armenian wishes for closer links with the EU by threatening Yerevan with increased arms sales to Azerbaijan.

In the case of Moldova, a narrow strip of land on the country’s eastern border with Ukraine, home to roughly 500,000 people, has since 1992 been administered separately from the rest of Moldova as the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic – or Transnistria, as it is more often known.

In terms of ethnic composition, Transnistria has a plurality of Moldovans (or ethnic Romanians) at around 40 percent of the population, yet is a minority compared to the 55 percent or so of the population that are either ethnic Ukrainian or Russian.

In 1992, fears of ethnic-Romanian hegemony in the newly-independent Moldova spilled over into ethnic conflict with remnants of the Russian-aligned Soviet Army’s 14th Guards Battalion siding with ethnic Russians to drive out Moldovan forces.  Since that day, Transnistria has been under the de facto controlled of Moscow. Residents all receive Russian passports and the region is heavily subsidised in terms of low-cost energy and bungs to prop up unreformed Soviet-era industries.

TransnistrianRegionMapOn the face of it, Russia has little to gain from supporting the separatist forces in Transnistria.  The suggestion that the involvement of the Soviet Army in the 1992 conflict – or the continuing presence of more than 1,000 Russian soldiers stationed in the territory – was for peacekeeping reasons or to prevent ethnic conflict is specious to say the least.

In reality, the purpose of the ongoing Russian presence in Transnistria has been twofold; first, to ensure the survival of a military presence in the region and secondly, to frustrate Moldova’s movement towards the west. Until now, the Russian position has been an effective one.

Transnistria’s shelf-life as a potent political pawn is, however, running out.

Recent history is littered with numerous attempts by Moldova to reach an amicable agreement with Russia on the status of Transnistria. Each of these attempts has failed.

Frustrated by the country’s crushing poverty and perturbed at being cut off from the regional development assistance and market access opportunities provided to its sister nation Romania inside the EU, Moldova has opted to pursue a different political course.

In November, the government of Prime Minister Iurie Leancă inked a wide-ranging free trade deal with the European Union that will effectively sever the country’s political ties to Russia. As part of the deal, Transnistria will no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of trade deals that Moldova is a signatory to. Up to now, Russian-owned manufacturing conglomerates in Transnistria have been able to gain preferential access to European markets by labelling their products as having been manufactured in Moldova.

Leancă has taken a gamble.

On one hand, denying the breakaway region access to the privileges associated with trade with the European Union could lead to a popular uprising calling for Transnistrian reintegration into Moldova. On the other, the Russian government may opt to step in and plug the 40 percent gap left in the breakaway territory’s finances by ending preferential trade, leaving it even more dependent on Russia.

It is clear that, while Leancă would prefer the former outcome to the latter, he and the Moldovan people can live with either. Vladimir Putin and the broader government of the Russian Federation now recognise that.

While the Transnistria issue will effectively be left to play itself out, more pressing concerns exist in relation to the 160,000-strong Autonomous Territorial Unit (ATU) of Gagauzia in the south of Moldova.

Scarred by the Transnistria conflict and scared of a repeat of ethnic violence in the country, an agreement was reached in 1994 to give ethnic Turkic (yet Orthodox Christian) citizens of Moldova a degree of independence inside the state. Unlike Transnistria, which forms a cohesive territorial unit that is physically divided from the rest of Moldova by the River Dniestr, Gagauzia is comprised of a series of enclaves that possess the right to pursue its own education, linguistic, social security and justice policies separately from the rest of Moldova. The areas under the control of the Gagauz AUT, which is fully enshrined in the Moldovan constitution, possess one administration yet take the form of effective bantustans surrounded by “ordinary” ethnic Moldovan areas.

gaugaziaThe autonomy granted to Gagauzia is fast becoming a serious problem for Moldova – and a tool to be exploited by a Russian government vehemently opposed to the country’s move towards EU membership.

On February 2nd, a non-binding referendum took place in the territory in Gagauzia in which residents were asked to vote on whether they supported Moldova’s participation in the EU trade deal signed by Leancă or whether they would back participation in a Russian-led Customs Union. Ninety-eight percent voted in favour of the Customs Union, rejecting closer western links.

The reasons for such a strong vote in favour of the Customs Union demand examination.

Historic concerns exist in among ethnic Gagauz regarding the possibility of overwhelmingly ethnically-Romanian Moldova seeking to federate with neighbouring Romania, a move that would see the end to the region’s autonomous status.  Such a situation would see the uniquely Turkic yet Christian Gagauz minority subsumed into a state where they enjoyed no minority privileges.

Such concerns, however, fly in the face of the successful functioning of autonomy for Gagauzia for the past two decades, the Moldovan constitution, explicit denials of the suggestion by Prime Minister Leancă and statements from the EU Enlargement Commission Štefan Füle that unification would not be tolerated by Brussels.

Ethnic politics – whether in the Balkans, Carpatians or Caucasus – is an explosive issue. For that reason, the scale of Moscow-led interference in the Gagauzia is of profound concern.

In recent weeks, a number of members of the Russian State Duma including ultra-nationalist MP Roman Hudiakov have visited the region in order to advocate Gagauzian secession from Moldova.  During his trip to the region, Hudiakov participated in joint rallies with pro-Customs Union Communist MP Igor Dodon in which he called for the outright rejection of the EU trade deal on the basis that it would lead to ethnic Romanian hegemony in the country and membership of the Russian Customs Union.

On January 31st, a team of Russian security service agents were detained and refused entry into Moldova at the Palanca border crossing in the south west of the country following evidence that the agents were working on campaigns to ferment ethnic unrest in Gagauzia.   The referendum that took place on 2nd February, that was judged to be illegal under the terms of the Moldovan constitution, was openly financed by multi-millionaire Yuri Yakubov, a close associate of the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Gagauzja2It is clear that, with the issue of Transnistria lacking the potency and hold over Moldova that it once had, the Russian Federation is pursuing actions designed to ferment ethnic unrest in the very heart of Moldova.  Russia knows that, if Gagauzia was to either unilaterally declare independence or take up arms against the institutions of the central government, the very viability of Moldova as an independent state – let alone a future EU member – would be at risk.

The actions of the Russian government and its allies in the region are intolerable and cannot be met with silence from Western European powers.

If Moldova is to complete its transition from failed Soviet state to market economy, urgent support is needed to bolster the country from external forces adamant it must remain aligned to Moscow.

As a starting step, financial assistance should be provided to Prime Minister Leancă’s government to ensure public services and transport infrastructure in Gagauzia is upgraded in in a show of commitment to the region. If this is not done, the Russian Federation will likely seek to replicate the significant investments already made in Transnistria.

It is also important that the Leancă government take measures to ensure that ethnic Gagauz feel part of the Moldovan state as opposed to an inconvenient addition to it.  A starting point in this regard may be the appointment of members of the community to strategic roles in the country’s Cabinet of key concern to the Gagauz – possibly with responsibility for infrastructure and agricultural concerns.  Such a move would be a powerful confidence-building measure.

Similarly, senior governmental and civil society figures from across the European Union must visit the region in order to directly respond to the burlesque propaganda that has been perpetuated by supporters of Russia’s Customs Union. In particular, specific promises should be made to defend Gagauz autonomy, matched with pledges to ensure preferential markets are found for the region’s agricultural goods and textiles.

The adoption of each of these measures would be a strong start to countering threats to Moldova’s sovereignty and stability.

Across the border from Moldova lies Ukraine. If the experience of the past months has taught us anything, it is that the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin are willing to fight for what they believe is theirs. It’s high time that Western democrats responded in similar terms – by defending Moldova’s independence – and its future.

Travel blog: my first trip to Bucharest

I have spent the past few days in the Romanian capital city of Bucharest for work.  Thankfully, I was able to spend a few hours over the course of the weekend looking around the city; soaking up its atmosphere and exploring some of its landmarks.

While I have passed through Romania before during the course of various travels, this was my first real visit to the country.  I don’t claim to have even scratched the surface of the country – but I have noted down a few initial observations.

* Architecture – some strange clashes


Bucharest is genuinely a city of contrasts.  Historic Orthodox churches sit cheek by jowl with crumbling, communist-era tower blocks.  Ornate museums and theatres are often buttressed by ugly towers with reflective blue glass cladding.  It’s common to see a 1800s terrace in which is half is renovated and housing Swarovski and Armani shops and the other half vacant and crumbling.


As with so many post-communist cities, it’s clear that the concept of obtaining planning permission for major building projects is a relatively new one for Bucharest.  Nevertheless, there are a huge amount of great buildings in the city – from the vast, imposing buildings that line the banks of the Dâmbovița River to the seemingly endless number of theatres, museums, government departments and academic institutions that each tell their own stories.

As a first time visitor to the city, I took a fairly aimless and unscripted attitude to sight-seeing, opting to walk around the Old Town (Lipscani) and city centre exploring as opposed to visiting certain monuments.  There were several buildings that I found particularly interesting including the Stavropoleos Monastery, Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse (Vilacrosse Passage) (see the photo of the arcade and green and yellow roof below) and University of Bucharest.

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* The Palace of Parliament

There is no better known building in Romania than the country’s Parliament.  An enormous Italianate building constructed on the orders of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1984, it’s said that one ninth of buildings in the entire city of Bucharest were pulled down in order to accommodate its grounds.  This apparently included a total of 30,000 private houses and twenty two churches.  For a while, it was the world’s largest building with a floor space of 340,000 m2 (3,700,000 square feet).


I got up very early on Saturday morning walk the mile or so to the Parliament.  I had a quick glance at a map before setting off but figured that if I headed roughly in the right direction, the looming structure would eventually reveal itself to me in some way.  I was right.  No sooner had I crossed the river, I saw a glimpse of one of its wings peeking through in between two tower blocks.

I approached the building from what I later learned was its eastern entrance where visitor groups usually gather for organised tours.  When I arrived at the tourist centre, I found out that I was too early to join any of the formal tour groups but managed to persuade one of the very friendly guards to walk me through to the main parliamentary chamber and through some of the impressive marble-lined rooms surrounding it.

IMG_00000213The rooms were undoubtedly impressive but I found myself unable to move beyond the fact they had been constructed as part of a vanity project for one of the most evil and autocratic dictators of the past century.  Had I not known that, I would likely have been able to just appreciate the architecture for what it was.  Instead, my mind kept looking for hidden meanings in the ways rooms were laid out, examples of dictatorial machismo played out in the way daises were places and so on.

By the time I’d finished my impromptu tour, I was running slightly late but thought I’d have enough time to walk once around the grounds so as to see the building from every angle.  This only exacerbated by lateness as the entire route took close to half an hour to complete. Nevertheless, it was more than worth it to get a sense of this iconic and impressive building.

* Orthodox churches


Until a few years ago, I never gave much thought to visiting churches when I was abroad.  Recently, though, I’ve developed a fascination with the architecture of Orthodox churches in particular – an interest fuelled by visiting the breath-taking Novy Afon monastery in Georgia this summer.  With this in mind, I really enjoyed the opportunity I had to look around several Eastern Orthodox churches while in Bucharest.

Even a short walk through the centre of Bucharest will see you stumble upon scores of churches, all of which are buzzing with people of all ages.  In my opinion, there’s something quite special about Orthodox churches: the pungent smell of incense, the vivid colours of the frescos and excessive gold-covered alters all contributing to the solemn atmosphere.

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While walking to the Parliament, I stumbled upon a tiny church in a side street.  I thought I would have a quick look inside, expecting it to be empty but was instead injected into the middle of a Christening ceremony.  I did think about leaving but, after an elderly lady handed me a warm mug of sweet tea and a prayer card, I felt it only right that I stay until the end of the service.

* Gara de Nord


As if I needed to even further demonstrate my geekery, I’ve developed a passing interest in visiting stations when travelling in former communist countries. My interest has nothing to do with trains but rather because I find it fascinating to soak up the atmosphere in the places that, long before air travel became a viable option, provided the only real link ordinary people had with the outside world.  These stations are usually architectural masterpieces in themselves, with sweeping marble concourses and buzzing markets surrounding them.

Prior to visiting Bucharest, I’d received only one piece of advice relating to my personal safety: avoid Gara de Nord.  Many reasons were given; ranging from the presence of legions of glue-sniffing orphan children roaming the streets to the threats posed by thugs waiting for unsuspecting foreigners to cross their paths.

After all the warnings I’d read and received verbally, Gara de Nord had taken on an almost menacing quality in my mind – a fusion of Dickensian London, 1980s King’s Cross and Jack the Ripper-era Whitechapel.  Logically therefore, I decided that it would make an ideal spot to grab Sunday breakfast…


Rather than walk to Gara de Nord which was a good couple of miles from where I was staying, I took the Metro.  An unlimited day pass cost 6 Lei (about £1.20).  The stations and metro carriages were well maintained, with clear announcements at each stop.

I arrived at the station shortly before 10:00 and found a small café close to the main concourse from where the Sofia-bound train was leaving and spent about half an hour watching people coming and going.  In honesty, it was a fairly dull half an hour.  The station itself wasn’t anything special architecturally and, in terms of basic security, I felt no more at risk of crime than I would at any other Eastern European station.  Still, I’m glad I got to see it…

If you do find yourself at Gara de Nord (and there is genuinely no compelling reason at all to go unless you are getting a train somewhere), there is an interesting market in one of the ticket halls selling a selection of low-end electronic tat and some nice local arts and crafts.


* Food and drink

When I travel to new places, I always do my best to try local food and drinks.  This is an approach that has both broadened my horizons to new and delicious dishes and exposed me to some true culinary horrors.

Sticking to this rule proved surprisingly difficult in Bucharest.  Walking through the Old Town, I was bombarded my by a strange array of pizzerias flying Italian flags yet having incongruous names like ‘Coco Bongo’, Irish theme bars offering out of place “Oktoberfest” promotions and wannabe high-end French brasseries.  It felt as if, in Bucharest’s rush to modernise, the Old Town is trying too hard to be “modern” at the expense of its rich history.


After much searching, though, I did manage to find one genuinely exceptional place.

While walking back from a meeting on Friday evening, I stumbled upon a rather shabby-looking Transylvanian Hungarian restaurant on a down-at-heal side street.  Drawn in my the sound of what can only have been Transylvanian folk music wafting out of a side door, I decided to walk over and take a look at the haphazard chalkboard menu.  The dishes sounded delicious.

Peering through the window at the flock wallpaper and frilly tablecloths, the decor had the distinct look of having not been updated since Ceausescu’s time.  It was late, so the restaurant had clearly largely emptied out but the tables that remained seemed to be having a good time.  Oddly, I became quite hooked on the idea of giving the place a go.

The following evening, I met up with a friend who is working in Bucharest.  After a couple of quasi-diplomatic manoeuvres, I managed to talk her out of the faceless, could-be-anywhere-in-the-world restaurants she wanted to try and round to my way of thinking on the Transylvanian place.

IMG_00000260We were certainly not disappointed.  No sooner had we taken our seats and we were given a masterclass in Romanian wines by our waiter; ultimately opting for a very reasonable locally-produced Merlot.

For a starter, I had “hortobagy” meat pancakes.  The pancakes could have been an entire meal in themselves; filled with juicy chicken and swimming in a tangy sauce.  I don’t want to even consider the calorie count.  As a main, the waiter recommended I try the Szegedi-style mutton stew with strapacska (a type of cheese and bacon gnocchi) served on a red-hot iron dish. Everything about it was delicious. The mutton was extremely tender, the sauce packed with rich paprika flavours and the distinctive taste of the dill in the strapacska added an unexpected zing to the dish.

IMG_00000262The final bill amounted to little more than £30 for the two of us – not including the several free lashings of Transylvanian palinka served to us “on the house”.  If you’d like to give the restaurant – the St George Transylvanian Restaurant – a go, visit www.stgeorge.ro.

One thing I was surprised about was the relative lack of cafe culture in Bucharest.  When travelling in Eastern Europe, I usually find that smoke-filled cafes serving rocket fuel-strong coffee and providing brilliant people-watching opportunities are ten a penny.  Not in Bucharest.  Instead, locals appear to get their coffee fix from the vast number of self-service terminals which are found across the city – which is no fun at all.

After using one such terminal, I plonked myself down with my espresso in the outdoor seating area of a nearby KFC.  As I glanced out across the Dâmbovița, I became aware that looming presence of a security guard paying me excessive attention.  Seconds later, I suffered the indignity of being ejected from the premises for disobeying the house rules about not consuming non-KFC products on their property.  The shame, the shame…

* Would I go back?


Yes.  I’m acutely aware that, having only had limited time to look around the city, I’ve not yet have a chance to get to know Bucharest properly – let alone the rest of Romania.  To a man, everyone I came across during my short time in the country was open, friendly and helpful.

I’ve long thought about travelling to Romania’s “brother country” Moldova, so will give some thought to taking a longer trip to the region – perhaps travelling from Bucharest to Chișinău or from Hungary across to Transylvania.  Yet another place to add to my list of aspirational tourism destinations…!


Ivica Dacic and the art of the possible

There’s an interesting piece on the Balkan Insight website this evening reporting comments made by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic regarding the future status of Kosovo.

Referencing the 1995 Dayton Agreement which brought about an end to conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina by dividing the country up into two functionally autonomous regions linked by only the very loosest central government ties, Dacic argues in favour of a “new Dayton” to resolve the conflict between Serbia and the majority-Albanian government in Pristina about the future of Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion has been dismissed out of hand by the government in Pristina.  After all, why would they feel compelled to accept a sovereignty-sharing arrangement with Belgrade?

Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by the United States and twenty-two of the EU’s twenty-seven member states (those that don’t – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece – have problems with irredentist or secessionist movements and are unwilling to recognise Kosovo for fear of setting an internal precedent).  Furthermore, 93 of the 193 United Nations members recognise Kosovo, just shy of the “magic number” (100) require for them to apply for UN membership.

The charming and urbane former Serbian State Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic, who I have had the pleasure to meet on a number of occasions in his home-town of Mitrovica, offered a withering response to Dacic’s suggestion: “only Serbia thinks that Kosovo’s status has not been resolved, while for the [Kosovo] Albanians and the West the issue is resolved”.

The government in Belgrade increasingly gives the impression of advocating a position on the Kosovo issue that it itself knows is untenable and unrealistic, while at the same time losing out on genuine opportunities to improve the lives of Serbs in the province.  On a diplomatic level, Serbia enjoys a level of confidence and trust akin to that of a Greek covered bond.

Despite the dogged international support it has received, backed up by tens of millions of Euros in US and EU funding, the Ahtisaari Plan which was supposed to ensure the safe return of Serbs to Kosovo and their integration into the country’s political system has, for most part, been a failure.

While a small number of Serbs hold posts in the Kosovan government and in municipal authorities, large tracts of the country remain total “no go” zones for Serbs.  In the past four months alone, two elderly returnees were murdered close Urosevac, two men were shot while driving in Istog while Serb homes near Zac were pelted with stones and daubed with extremist graffiti.

These communities are exactly the ones forgotten by the Dacic government in its almost-daily clamour to announce new and untenable “solutions” to the Kosovo conflict.  Politics is the part of the possible and, try as he might, Dacic will not achieve the impossible: the reunification of Kosovo and Serbia in a unitary state.

It’s time for Dacic to wake up to what he can positively achieve for his people.

In the short-to-medium term the Serbian government should aim to secure two successful outcomes from their EU-led negotiations with Pristina – and avoid any talk of reunification, beyond that of the majority Serb provinces in the north of Kosovo where Pristina’s writ has never run.

Firstly, a clear pledge should be extracted from the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) to refocus its resources on guaranteeing the safety of Serb returnees to an area that is, at least in theory, a “multi-ethnic Republic”. Secondly, the government should push for the security checks and (in some cases spiteful) customs levies being levelled on Kosovo’s northern and western borders with Serbia to be removed in order to allow a free flow of people and goods.

In return, Serbia should promise to continue working with Belgrade on projects such as the sharing of cadastral records, the mutual recognition of educational diplomas and the re-opening of railway links between Pristina and Belgrade – an economic link Kosovo badly needs.

Such a solution would go some way towards achieving a sense of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia that is of benefit to both its peoples – without the word “sovereignty” passing Ivica Dacic’s lips or giving Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci the opportunity to level his usual allegation of Serb “aggression”.