Turkey to Georgia Day 1

Thursday 6th December 2012

It’s far too long since I wrote anything, so once again I’m writing some memories of a recent trip before they fade away for ever. A quick weeks travelling before Christmas, roughly based on Turkey, was the plan but a little research from our favourite website, www.seat61.com, opened up a whole new possibility – how about crossing from Turkey into the Caucasus and discover another country, or indeed two, as Georgia and Armenia both share borders with Turkey, even though only one is currently open.

So tonight, Thursday 6th December, we started the week of travel with a night flight to Istanbul from Stansted, and once again set off with a bundle of railway timetables and little other information about the destination.

It was only because of this that we discovered Pegasus Airlines, www.flypgs.com, who I guess are the Turkish version of Ryanair. They were actually very good indeed, just like Ryanair with lots of options to make you spend more and more during the booking, but seemingly a bit more customer friendly, quite happy to accept our passports as proof of checking in online, and printing out a new boarding pass to include the checked baggage. Even better, at Stansted the flight to Istanbul at 23:30 was the last of the day, so the airport was totally deserted, the flight was only half full and we we actually encouraged to carry our bags onboard instead of going ahead with checking in!

Sitting in an empty airport is quite disconcerting and as the shops and bars were almost all closed, we sat in Wetherspoons, ensuring we kept the other two customers in sight at all times, and that we were close to a departures screen. The others drank up and so we followed and off to the Gate we went, allowing Wetherspons to close up and go home while we quite excitedly sat in our prebooked emergency exit seats (£22 each!) and thanked ourselves for having a nightcap before the flight and therefore saving on the seemingly quite expensive bar prices.

Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen airport for breakfast
This was to be the first of five nights onboard planes and trains so it was essential to get some sleep, so lights out and hoping for the best, I actually think I stayed awake but there again it all seemed over very quickly and before we knew it we were desending in the first light of dawn catching a marvellous view of Istanbul as we landed at the cities second airport Sabiha Gökçen, which turned out to be brand new (2009) and winner of the Worlds Best Airport 2010 as voted by Budget Carriers.

With bags in hand we purchased our ‘visas’ at the Visa desk just before passport control for a hefty £10 each, but at least got a nice coloured sticker in our passports. We then looked at the vast line of passport desks all of which said ‘Air Crew’, ‘Diplomats’ or ‘Turkish Citizens only’. A minutes wait proved that any desk will do – welcome to the slightly disorganised world of Turkey! Passing by the deserted baggage halls and enormous Duty Free Arrival shops we walked upto the automatic glass doors which slid open and a new country beckoned.

There was a considerable choice of very attractive catering outlets, which wouldn’t be amiss in a western high street and we enjoyed late and croissants while trying to work out how expensive things were going to be in Turkey, since airport prices are hardly the best way to judge a country, but were very pleased to get almost the bank rate of 2.9 Turkish Lire to the pound, and no commission payable anywhere which itself was very uplifting and over breakfast we pondered just how much money travellers are conned out of during the process of exchanging their currency for another. As it happens, we were to find Georgia and Armenia just as good with very little difference in the buying and selling rate and with a huge choice of money changers in every city, the rates were themselves most competitive.

It was hard to remember that we had gone through a five hour flight, two hour time difference from the UK and the first night of the trip was already over.

A day in the snow

Friday 19th – Monday 22nd March 2010

A quick holiday report but not canal related – sorry. The only link I can think of is snow, as for the last 4 days I have been in and around the Austrian and German Alps, while the UK is recovering from the most snowy winter in memory.

From the top of the Zugspitze - Germany's highest mountain
From the top of the Zugspitze - Germany's highest mountain

I have always wanted to fly into Innsbruck as it has a mountainous approach which requires the pilot to undergo specific training before operating there.  Friday’s weather was absolutely amazing and our Easyjet flight from Gatwick touched down perfectly out of the blue sky – the approach is certainly spectacular.  Innsbruck is a lovely little airport with a regular local bus service to town, although at a pinch it could even be walked.

Zugspitze Cogwheel Railway
Zugspitze Cogwheel Railway

The highlight of the trip was a ride up the Zugspitze railway from Garmisch Partenkirchen, just over the Austrian border with Germany.  The cogwheel train is ultra modern, and powers its way up the steep gradient to within a short cable car ride from the summit of Germany’s highest mountain (2962m).  Suddenly we were amongst skiers and snow boarders and with a view across the hundreds of snow covered peaks stretching for miles and miles.  We had lunch in Austria by walking across the border on the top of the mountain, then took a different cable car straight down the mountain side to Eibsee in the steepest and longest single span I have ever ridden on.  With a third cable car down the Austrian side of the mountain to Erfurt, and the original lodge, the Munchner Haus still standing beside the weather station, this is undoubtedly one of the world’s engineering marvels – all in the aid of tourism and one I will remember for a long time – I hope.  The biggest regret was not being prepared in advance or we could have booked a night in the Iglu Ice Hotel close to the summit.  Sleeping in a room made entirely of snow, including the bed and toilet is one thing, but I can only try to imagine what it is like at night once all the tourists go home.

We also visited the incredible Bergisel ski jump in Innsbruck and the resort of Kandahar near Garmisch (not the other Kandahar which makes the news too often!), which will be the venue for the 2011 FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, and this weekend was very busy with skiers of all ages, but there weren’t any beginners in sight so we didn’t try to join in.

The second highlight was Munich Hofbrauhaus, which allegedly can seat 5,000 drinkers, and whilst it is 100% tourist trap the general atmosphere was brilliant, serving beer by the litre (no halves!) and piles of excellent filling food to soak it up, all at inflated prices but what the hell… with the accompaniment of the Oompah band it was great fun!

Flying back to Gatwick from Munich, again with Easyjet, completed the round trip.  Its strange to be back in the UK where a pound buys a pounds worth of goods instead of buying a Euro’s worth.   Whatever happened to the exchange rate!

Marko Polo – an extraordinary tale of how this car ferry crashed into an island just after we got off

Marko Polo at Rijeka
Marko Polo at Rijeka 19 Oct 09

Last month we took the elegant 1970’s car ferry, Marko Polo, down the Croatian Coast from Rijeka, via Split, Hvar and Korcula to Dubrovnic, and I was just looking through my photographs thinking what a marvellous trip this was.  Michael Palin used the exact same ship when making his “New Europe” series but it was never shown on TV – perhaps it wasn’t exciting enough – but he does comment “We leave Rijeka on the night ferry to Split. It’s called the ‘Marko Polo’, which sounds like a good omen at the start of a very long journey”.

There was something most satisfying about travelling this well trodden route which stopped at three intermediate ports on the 20 hour journey and I was filled with admiration as Captain Radic made the most perfect manoeuvre to reverse the ferry stern-on to the tiny quayside at postcard perfect Korcula Town without even the slightest bump.  I would never have believed it possible to reverse a 128m ship towards a quay in this way, and to watch how it was done with anchors and ropes was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Captain Radic on the bridge of Marko Polo
Captain Radic on the bridge of Marko Polo

After this we sat on the next table to Captain Radic and his wife in the ship’s restaurant at lunch, he looked quite captain-like as he unfolded his swan sculpture napkin (we got paper ones) and only the restaurant manager was allowed to attend to the table.  I felt quite honoured to be so close to such an important person and even remarked that he must be one of the most experienced mariners to be operating in the Adriatic, in command of one of the largest vessels in the Jadrolinija fleet.

How wrong I was.  We didn’t know at the time but under his command, this was to be possibly one of the last trips Marko Polo would ever make.

Newspaper cutting - thanks to Find-Croatia.com
Newspaper cutting - thanks to Find-Croatia.com
 

On the very next trip of 24th October 2009, four days after we travelled, Marko Polo crashed into  rocky Sit island near Sibenik Port, and Captain Radic is in extremely serious trouble, likely to lose his command and facing a hefty fine and total disgrace in my eyes.

http://www.vecernji.hr/vijesti/odsukavanje-marka-pola-moglo-bi-trajati-danima-clanak-40142

The Sibenik Port Authority, has reported:
Commander Zdenko Radic is responsible for the boat when passing through Rivanj Channel before Nasukavanja and not personally managing the ship, which was his obligation in accordance with the Maritime Code. Another pilot Zeljko Cheung is responsible because he was not on the bridge, although he was in office and therefore obliged to observe the proper course of navigation, and on reports of officers on duty.”

It seems from all accounts I can find online that the accident happened due to human error. Somehow nobody on the bridge realised that the autopilot course had not been changed from the previous day and quite simply they drove it into the land at 25 knots.  I haven’t even heard of this happening before, apart from the fictional “Speed 2-Cruise Control” .  I simply cannot believe that in 21st Century Europe none of the crew noticed that the ship was pointing straight at an island with sufficient speed to drive it 15 metres up the rocky shore after first bouncing off another island.   Fortunately and amazingly none of the passengers or crew was injured otherwise I hate to think what the charges against the Captain would have been. 

Does the navigation system on a ship not scream warnings at the crew, the same as an aircraft which goes off course?  Aparently not.

It turns out that Zdenko Radic wasn’t even the regular captain, but a relief covering while the permanent master was receiving an award for his contribution to Croatian tourism.   Very sadly the damage to the ship has been enormous, sufficient to hole her underwater, severely damage the bow, part of which had to be removed before refloating, and even knocking the propellors off.  The impact must have been terrifying. 

I only noticed this story after seeing it in the news today, as after 28 days aground she has finally been refloated (on 20th November, according to the Croatian Times and Croatia’s Find-Croatia.com website).

Initial reports say the refloating has cost 1.15 million USD so far, and there is a still a chance the lovely Marko Polo will be scrapped, although the latest news is she may be repairable and could be back in service next year.  I very much hope this is the case. 

Thanks to Cargo Law, the Croatian Times, Vecernji.hr,  Google’s Croatian to English translator for the various pieces of this ongoing story.

And no thanks to Captain Radic; I am no longer one of your fans.

Holiday report – no canals this time!

Riga
Riga

What an anticlimax coming home to lashing rain and colder temperatures this morning than we had in a week of travelling through Latvia, Estonia and Finland.

Looking outside at the rain I can’t get inspired to write anything about canals today so here’s a few jottings about our holiday instead.  Personally I can’t see the attraction of sitting on the same beach for a week, so we tend to do the opposite and sit on buses and trains instead, which I can understand will not appeal to many especially those who prefer to relax on hols!

However we had the most marvellous time, starting in Riga, thanks to Ryanair.  I find Ryaniar’s use of technology to be superb and rather than complain about being charged extra for using their automatic check-in terminals at Stansted (as opposed to free online check-in)  I will actually praise them for thinking out a radical new solution to preventing check-in queues.  It took no more than 2 minutes to find a free terminal, collect our boarding passes and hand a bag in to the baggage drop desk.

Riga was wonderful but surprisingly desserted.  There was no traffic, no noise, no pedestrians in many streets – altogether a little bit eerie.   The old town centre is very attractive with a mixture of quaint and very grand buildings.  Every corner has a coffee shop – no queues – and free wifi is the norm.  The cheaper restaurants offer self service menus till late  into the night and we especially liked the Pelmeni – self service bowls of different flavoured ravioli style dumplings – a great feed for a couple of quid.  You are charged by weight, which is a very common feature in Latvia – pile it onto the plate and pay only for what you take, weighed at the till.

The day’s highlight for total relaxation turned out to be a tea shop with hundreds of teas to choose from and a first floor piled with cushions to lie on with a view of the park, all within a couple of minutes of the town centre.

The river Daugava was perhaps 400 yards wide through Riga and with at least a three foot swell I was pleased to be visiting by land and not arriving by boat on a river with breaking waves.  A narrowboat here would have no chance of staying upright but boat trips do exist, although like so much aimed at tourists here, the operating season will only be May to September.  Continue reading “Holiday report – no canals this time!”

Wifi in Finland and Estonia

Helsinki trams - wifi enabled
Helsinki trams - wifi enabled

Changing the subject from life on board slightly, this week I have been on holiday.  Not quite as exciting as our last trip to Moldova and Ukraine, but still off the beaten tourist track.  We flew last week to Riga, capital of Latvia, travelled overland to Tallin in Estonia and flew back yesterday from Helsinki, Finland.

When WiFi was in its infancy in 1994, Estonia was reported by the BBC as being the most advanced nation in the provision of wireless hotspots for everyone. WiFi.ee still maintains a huge wireless network for public access, and absolutely everywhere we travelled almost every bar, restaurant and even shops also provided completely free wifi access to the public. 

WiFi.ee currenly runs 1164 hotspots covering 45,000 square kilometers and almost all of them are free.   Using my iPhone I was able to connect within a few yards of first trying without any problems at all.

So it was actually even more refreshing to discover that, after taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki (free WiFi on board of course) , virtually the whole city is WiFi enabled.  Hotels try to make their money by charging but over most of the city is a combination of official free WiFi hotspots, an even bigger network of shops and bars providing access and best of all, the number 4 tram from the ferry port to the city centre also provides free WiFi.  Other tram and bus routes may also be covered, under a trial scheme. 

How cool to be able to log on for an email check on the way to town on the tram, but it doesn’t stop there.  Trams are fitted with GPS devices which as well as updating the “next tram” signs at the tram stops, even show their location on Google Maps.