Lunch with Doctor Wine: One of world’s top wine experts, Daniele Cernilli uncorks his knowledge

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

There are few things better in life than sitting in an historic Roman trattoria and drinking good wine and eating good food all afternoon. One thing that is better is doing it with one of the leading wine authorities in the world.

Daniele Cernilli is to Italian wine what Tom Brady is to American football. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Known as Doctor Wine (, he has authored five books, including his most recent, “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” a massive 615-page tome that breaks down every wine and winery in all 21 regions of Italy.

In 1986 he co-founded Gambero Rosso, the bible of Italian restaurants which adorned every kitchen of every Italy resident who cares about food. A philosophy graduate and former journalist and teacher of history and literature, the 63-year-old Rome native has traveled all over the world and is an international wine judge. He has been to the U.S. 30 times.

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

We met for lunch at Checchino dal 1887 in my old neighborhood of Testaccio. Checchino sits near Monte Testaccio where in Ancient Rome they piled broken shards of terracotta pots used to store wine, olive oil and grain in the nearby warehouse, the ruins of which still stand. Started in, yes, 1887, Checchino has been in the Mariani family for six generations and once received a Michelin star.

It’s tastefully decorated with white tablecloths and drawings of old Rome on the walls. Sharp-dressed waiters bring out all the famous Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinava (oxtail), rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with sheep intestine) and trippa alla romana (interior of a cow’s stomach). Yes, real Romans, such as Cernilli, still eat this stuff.

I wimped out and had the bucatini alla gricia (long pasta with pig’s cheek and pecorino romano cheese). Cernilli ordered us bottles of 2015 Chianti Classico from Brolio-Bettino and a Frascati Superiore from Vigneto Filonardi just down the road about 20 miles.

The food and wine were superb and so was the conversation. I sat down with Cernilli and Robert Della Vedova, my Australian friend and Cernilli’s English instructor:

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Me:: How does a wine expert from Italy get started in the wine business? Do you remember the first time wine became special to you?

Cernelli: Yes, of course. Imagine I was passionate for geography when I was a baby and I discovered that wine is a geography of taste. Every place, every wine region, has a particular taste, a particular scent. The wine is the marker of that. It’s very interesting. When I discovered this I was very interested in discovering more and more. Probably the first wine I had in my life that I remember was the wine that my father bought for the family. It was from Castelli Romani. It was a Frascati, probably. But also a Chianti Classico I remember from Carpineto, a very famous estate. I remember, for example, the ‘64 of Caponetto, I was 10 years old, probably 12, the wine was on the market two years later. Probably I had a little touch of wine when I was 12. I remember during the New Year’s Eve celebration, I remember some champagne, Cardon Rouge, with the label of the red cotton inside. I remember I was 10 or 12 years old but just to try because
it’s not good for a 12-year-old person to drink alcohol but the times were different then.

Me: So you’re 10 or 12 when you first got interested?

Cernilli: Just a touch. But the idea of the wine for an Italian family is like bread and olive oil. It’s not a great shape, especially 50 years ago, to have 12 years old person to drink a little bit of wine. Nowadays it’s normal.

Me: So your first wine was from Lazio. How’d that get you interested in geography?

Cernilli: It’s a good region for some wines like this but it’s not Piemonte. It’s not Tuscany. It’s not Burgundy. It’s not Napa Valley. It’s a region for wine that comes simply and for fragrant wines. It’s wine to be drunk not to be philosophered.

Me: But how’d that get you into geography?

Cernilli's last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli’s last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli: Then I discovered that the wine is very good. I attended the sommelier school and I became a teacher of sommelier after two years. In 1983 when I was 29 years old. I became a professional, then journalist. I founded a magazine that became very famous in Italy, the title was Gambero Rosso.

Me: What inspired you to do the magazine?

Cernilli: I was one of two founders. The other founder passed away, unfortunately, Stefano Bonilli. He was a professional journalist before me and had the idea. I wrote a lot for wine magazines. We started as an insert of The Manifesto, a communist newspaper. I was not a communist. I am not communist. The Gambero Rosso is the name of the osteria where Pinocchio was robbed by the cat and the fox. It’s a masonic history. Carlo Collodi was the first writer who invented Pinocchio and was a master mason. Walt Disney the same. The story of a piece of wood becoming a human person is a masonic story. This is the reason Walt Disney made the Pinocchio pictures.

Me: Has your appreciation of wine changed over the years now that you know it better?

Cernilli: You probably don’t listen to the same music. You don’t read the same books. You don’t watch the same films. It’s the same with the wine. Wine is something that’s a live drink. The wine is also a marker of the moment of the history of the technique of the spirit of the world. The technique is incredibly improved over the last 20 years. But there are other topics. For example, ecology, the sustainability of the production. Not to use sulfites of natural wine. Many people are very interested in that. A lot of people don’t care. Some people have great sensibility in this topic. It’s a new technique. Sustainability is very important. There are many ways to reach these kinds of results. There is no doubt it’s important to respect the nature and make wine with the least preservatives possible.

Me: Just philosophically, what do you like about wine?

Cernilli: Because it’s a great tradition of our Mediterranean area. Wine was born in this area, Greece, Middle East.

Me: Actually Georgia. I was just there.

My bucatini alla gricia.

My bucatini alla gricia.

Cernilli: There’s another birthplace that is Greece. It’s not just Georgia. It’s Armenia. Modern Turkey. Sicily and Greece. It’s something we drink for 3,000 years. This is important for us. It’s a great tradition. I feel in this my roots. The roots of the Mediterranean person is in the wine. It’s in the olive oil. It’s in the pizza.

Me: What makes Italian wine special?

Cernelli: Italian wines we have 500 denominations. We have about 5,000 wineries in Italy. No, 50,000 wineries. We have 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of vineyards. So that means 6,000 square kilometers. All the Italian vineyards if you put together, are the coast. Every little town, little situations can change. You can have the same grapes and very different wines because of the soil, because of the weather, because of the vintage. This year is a very wet vintage. Last year was a very dry vintage. If you tried a 2017 of this wine in the future and 2018 of this wine in the future it would be different. One more bigger, more alcoholic; the other more acid, lighter. So it’s a functional concept.

Me: French wine is the same.

Cernilli: The only difference is the French have less varieties, 20-25 main varieties. We have 1,000 varieties. Every region, every little area has a local variety. France does not have that. They abandoned a lot of local wines to make more modern-style wines. Bordeaux influenced the style of the wine all over the world. All the world from the New World, from California, from Australia, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc come from Bordeaux. The Burgundy wines are part of the New World: Oregon, some parts of South Africa. The French dominated, colonized the world of wine for many years. Now there are the Italians. And Italians are only in Italy. If you take the Nebbiolo or Sangiovese and put them in Napa Valley it’s not the same. It’s very different. There is not stability in the expression of the wines. So Nebbiolo can only be made in the part of Piedmont. If you put Nebbiolo in a different part you won’t recognize it. This is the particularity of the Italian wine.

Cernilli's coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Cernilli’s coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Me: My favorite wine in the world is Barolo. Give me your opinion of Barolo.

Cernilli: Barolo is the best wine in Italy. Barolo is fantastic. But Barbaresco is not very far from Barolo. They are made from Nebbiolo so they are in the region and are very close. Barbaresco is a little lighter, normally. It depends on the producer.

Me: I always tell people, Americans, because you can rarely get a Barolo for under $50 in the U.S., get a Barbaresco because it’s released a year earlier and it’s about half the price. It’s not as good but close enough to fake it.

Cernilli: From Castello di Grinzane Cavour, inside the area of Barolo, you can see the bell tower of Barbaresco. It’s only 20 kilometers.

Me: I see you teach wine tasting. How long does it take to develop your palate to where you can determine the fruits in a wine?

Cernilli: There is a technique approach to the tasting, a sommelier approach. They want to let us dream about the wine but not explain technically what’s in the wine. If you tell me that you feel the smell of the running horse in the wine, it is not possible.

Me: I went to a wine tasting once and some clown said he could taste the mushrooms of Toscana. We were in suburban Denver. Come on!

Cernilli: You look at the color of the red wine. You can compare the color of the wine with the color of some berries. It’s very simple. The wine takes from the wood spices and vanilla or pepper or cinnamon or something like that. Not more. Then you check the balance of the wine between the tannins, the stringents and the acidity that make you salivate. The matching is very important for the Italians. Matching for the food is very important for us because we drink to eat. Less for the French. Less for the British. For the British they want to drink then to eat. Or they eat then they drink.

Me: It’s interesting you say that because when I have aperitivos, if I just have wine, the Italians need food with it.

Cernilli: For example, you can’t have a Cabernet with an aperitivo. That’s incredible for us to have a big red wine for an aperitivo. It is not possible. I can have spaghetti amatriciana with a Cabernet, not an aperitivo. An aperitivo is a Frascati. Or a sparkling or a light wine, a Riesling, or a light red. Not a Cabernet, not a Brunello, not a Barolo. We have to have to some meat with a Barolo.

Me: I like Barolo with amatriciana. It’s a heavy taste and Barolo has big flavor.

Cernilli: When you have fat added during the cooking, you need tannins so the Barolo is very good. If you have fat inside like the cotechino or a very fat salami, you need acidity. You can choose a sparkling or a big white wine with good acidity. Gorgonzola with a sweet wine.

Me: What do you think of this Chianti?

Cernilli: In this wine you can taste wild cherries and probably some smokiness because of the barrels.

Me: Are you getting that from looking at it or tasting it?

Cernilli: Both. After 40 years of tasting wine, I can understand something when I see something into the glass. Because I can hear the noise and how the wine goes into the glass. I can understand the alcoholic level. Because the more alcohol you have, the more grisarol you have. The grisarol is like the oil. You can see. If you put a Palo Cortado, a big sweet wine from the Sherry region, it’s like an oil in the glass because there are so many sugars inside that it’s solid.

This is a real Chianti Classico. This is the most Chianti Classico you can have. In order to make the barrels, you must work with the fire and toast the inside the wood because you have to curve the wood in order to make the barrel. You have to burn inside. The smell of burning is in the wine.

Della Vedova: When I was growing up, we’re talking 50 years ago, Chianti was considered the cheap wine.

Cernilli: Chianti is a wine. Chianti Classico is atop the list of the Chiantis. There’s the Chianti Reserva. Now they have the great selection that is more than the Chianti Reserva. It’s like a Brunello.

Me: I noticed you wrote a book called “Memories of a Wine Taster.” Give me your best anecdote.

Cernilli: If you know the wine producer, they are characters. There was a lot of memories. For example, in Burgundy, Dugat Py, a very famous producer, it’s a farmer, it’s a simple person. We were 3-4 people to visit the estate, a very, very little estate in Burgundy. We asked for a taste of a very important wine. Chambertin, a very important wine. Very expensive. But he disappeared and came back with a tuxedo. Because to open a Chambertin he changed his dress for the respect he had for the wine.

I wrote about a Champagne producer, Ricotan. It was a man so he went in a nightclub, a lap dance and strip tease. The girl in the strip tease was not so involved in the strip tease. He said, “You don’t know your work. Now I will show you what you have to do.” He began to make a strip tease.

Me: Ever think Gambero Rosso would get this popular? It’s kind of the bible now.

Cernilli: No. It was the bible. Now they lose a lot of power. Not only power but, I don’t know, respect. In the last year they are very commercial. They are a big company and they need money to pay. They are in the stock exchange. They have to sustain the level of the value and options. The change was a big change. Because Stefano Bonilli passed away. I left the company (in 2011). A lot of people left after us. Now I don’t recognize it. It’s different. Very different. I don’t want to criticize. Probably they must do that but I don’t agree. So I went another direction. I do this new wine guide which has a lot of information and honesty, intellectual honesty.

Me: I find people in the wine industry — in enotecas, vineyards, wine journalists — very happy. You seem very happy. Are there any negatives about your job?

Cernilli: Two things: Corruption of some people and the alcoholism. Many people involved in wine drink too much. There are some people that destroyed themselves by the wine. It’s like a gynecologist who becomes a sexual maniac. People that eat in restaurant or go around the world, in order to sell the wine, to present the wine every day if you are not very secure of yourself and rational, the risk is very, very high. Because this could be a nice thing or can destroy you. It’s a soft drug.

Me: With whisky it’s more the feeling. With wine it’s the taste. If I get addicted it would be to the taste.

Cernilli: Yes, but the level of alcohol is very different. Whisky is 43, 44 and more. Wine is 14 or one third. I don’t drink any liquor. For me it’s too much.

Me: Beer?

Cernilli: I drink beer if I’m thirsty. It’s not something to think about.

Me: I drink white wine when I’m thirsty.

Cernilli: I drink white wine or water with lemon.

John: I have a very important question. Tell me why you get more headaches when you drink wine in the U.S. than you do in Italy? I say there are fewer sulfites and preservatives here.

Cernilli: I don’t think so. The Italian wine making is more safe wine making and more ecological.

Me: It’s more natural?

Cernilli: Natural is a strange word. Wine is not natural. Wine is human. Winemaking in Italy respects the nature because we don’t need, for example, irrigation. If you want to make wine in the States, you have to irrigate. Because you don’t have rain enough.

Me: There’s more rain in Tuscany than Napa Valley?

Cernilli: Yes. Much more. For us it’s impossible, it’s not legal to irrigate if there is not a big drought. This is one of the main topics. The second, the system of wine growing there are many changes in Italy. The use of pesticides is incredibly less in the last 10 years. Consider that 15 percent of the wine growing in Italy is organic. Fifteen percent is a lot compared to other parts of the world. Then probably we are auto criticism. We think to be worse than others. The image is probably not so positive. I’m very sure now, I saw a lot of vineyards in the States, Napa Valley, Central Coast, Columbia Valley in Washington state — and they are not so organic.

Me: Here’s the key question. I ask all wine experts this and I love the answers. I’ve had such a variety. Pretend you’re going to be executed in the morning. What bottle of wine do you drink tonight?

Cernilli: Probably the Monfortino ‘61, a Barolo. It’s one of the best wines I ever had. I don’t find now a ‘61 Monfortino.

Me: What makes it better?

Cernilli: It’s the emotion. It makes you remember. I remember when I had my Monfortino ‘61. I remember where I was. I know I can’t have another time with this wine because they finished the bottles. It’s not possible to buy. There were very few in production and it’s very famous. Now you can have the 2001, not the ‘61.

Me: How much was it retail?

Cernilli: I don’t know. Maybe 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 euro.

Me: It’s interesting because I ask a lot of sommeliers this and they often say very simple wines.

Cernilli: Simple wines are very important.

Scambios are ideal way to learn Italian — but careful how you say it

(I’m traveling. Below is a reprint from 2015)

At Eataly with Maria Angela, one of an estimated 50 (language) scambio partners I've had over the years.

At Eataly with Maria Angela, one of an estimated 50 (language) scambio partners I’ve had over the years.

The sun had long since set in Rome and that dark, crisp period right before dinner time settles into the most romantic city on earth. It’s the time when Romans sit in cozy enotecas, known in North America as wine bars, and warm themselves with good wine and conversation. I was sitting with a gorgeous Italian woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren in her early 30s. Long, curly, coal black hair, olive complexion and eyes right off a new-born doe. We were sitting in Del Frate, a dim enoteca near the Vatican so romantic you could fall in love with a mannequin. We were talking Italian and she was asking me about my former job as a sportswriter. She asked me if I played sports when I was younger. I tried to say, in Italian, “I was a lousy athlete.” But, instead, I screwed up the noun and the tense and instead of saying, “I was a lousy athlete” I said …

… “I’m lousy in bed.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t a date. It’s why I didn’t take offense to her — and every other beautiful woman within earshot of our table — laughing so hard. I kind of wondered how Italian women knew I hit only .236 my senior year in high school, but I wondered more how I messed up the sentence. Athlete in Italian is “atleta.” Bed is “letto.” Atleta. Letto. It’s an easy mistake to make, I lied to myself. (Oh, and to answer your next inevitable question, I did not get a chance to prove to her otherwise.)

I was having a scambio. It is great way to learn a language. It’s educational, fun and free. Scambio is Italian for “exchange.” I meet an Italian who wants to learn English. We talk Italian for an hour and then English for an hour and correct each other along the way. However, one of my first language lessons in Rome was how to ask for said language lesson. Technically, scambio in Italian vernacular usually refers to a sexual swap. I tried calling it a scambio di lingua but while lingua means “language,” it also means “tongue.” That became problematic — and a bit dangerous — when asking Italian women. While I still had my front teeth, I was told the accurate term is scambio linguistica.

When you move to a foreign country, you best learn a language three ways: You live with a family, you work for a local business or you get a girlfriend or boyfriend. You either live it, work it or sleep it. However, when I moved to Rome in January 2014, I did none of those things. I was a retired, unattached journalist whose lone baggage was a roller bag and a backpack.

Language classes? Ha! When I first lived in Rome from 2001-03, I followed the crowd and enrolled in language school. I liked Biology of Blood Clots more. I took two intensive one-month courses. It was awful. It was frustrating. It was humiliating. Navy SEALS training would’ve been less challenging. I was 45 years old taking my first foreign language lesson with 20-something Scandinavians and Latins working on their fourth or fifth language. They became fluent in, oh, about 90 minutes. After two months I still struggled conjugating “To have.” I remember once walking out of class so upset, so hopeless, I ordered a pizza that night in English. I order in the local language even in rural China.

Fabio and me at Bar Genny, south east of Termini train station.

Fabio and me at Bar Genny, south east of Termini train station.

But someone tipped me off to a fantastic website called It lists languages from French to Hmong. You list your native language, put in what language you want your partner to speak and fill out a brief bio. You peruse the list of potential partners and send them a message on the website. My bio receives about a dozen requests a week. It helps that I am an American journalist with an alleged solid command of English grammar. It also helps that the Italian economy is in its biggest recession on record and Italians see learning English as a ticket off this sinking peninsula.

The bio is important. But folks, this is not a dating sight. doesn’t even include photos. I made it clear that I am not looking for a relationship other than one for conversation. Many female scambio partners tell me they meet men for a scambio and the men steer the conversation from conjugations of past conditional to sexual fantasies in St. Peter’s Square. Or the men end the first scambio with, “Let’s do this again. How about my place? Say, midnight?” One Italian man left a note on our language school bulletin board requesting scambio partners. He ended it with, “Women only.” I don’t go there. Learning Italian is hard enough not to add a big dose of sexual tension.

Me and Stefania at the Sicilian cafe, Mizzica. I'm eating a granita, a traditional Sicilian dessert.

Me and Stefania at the Sicilian cafe, Mizzica. I’m eating a granita, a traditional Sicilian dessert.

In the process, I’ve made numerous friends. In two stints in Rome covering about three years, I have had probably 50 scambio partners. An actor. An economics professor. A cell phone executive. A movie producer. A journalist. An English teacher. A cafe owner. A tour guide. Old. Young. Male. Female. It doesn’t matter. As long as they have a desire to learn English and I have the time, I meet them.

The level isn’t important. I’ve had Italians who can’t put an English sentence together. With them, I’m very basic and speak slowly. I’ve had Italians who are so fluent I wonder why then need help. They say they’re working on pronunciation, slang and finer grammar points.

My Italian is probably intermediate. My comprehension is awful but I can speak it, read it and write it OK, with the expected number of mistakes. And some of the mistakes are legendary. Besides the one above, which I enjoy repeating to expats who are embarrassed by their Italian, there was also the time a partner and I discussed Rome’s current economic crisis. She said she was really stressed and miserable over trying to make ends meet. I tried to say, “Ma sembri molto molto felice.” (“But you seem very, very happy.”) Instead, I said, “Ma sembri molto molto facile.” Facile means “Easy.” Fortunately, she laughed. I did not.

This used to say "Italian-English Dizionario" and was blue. Yes, I've used it a lot.

This used to say “Italian-English Dizionario” and was blue. Yes, I’ve used it a lot.

It may seem redundant to do scambios when I’m already living in Italy and surrounded by the Italian language in a city where English is pretty much confined to the larcenously priced International New York Times. It isn’t. Scambios force me out of my apartment and into conversations with people from different backgrounds, accents and interests. People from Tuscany speak a more pure form of Italian than Romans. Sicilians, when they speak Italian instead of Sicilian, are essentially speaking a second language and are easier to understand. Some Romans teach me Romanaccio, the cruder side of the Romano dialect. I have scored points from waiters and restaurant owners all over Rome for declaring after a meal, “AMAZZA CHE BONO!” That’s Romano for “VERY GOOD!”

Scambios also get me to neighborhoods and places I would never see otherwise. Sicilian diners. Cozy enotecas. Outdoor cafes. Dive bars. I do what we call in the American sports world, a “home and home.” We do one scambio in their neighborhood, then another at Linari, the local cafe in my neighborhood of Testaccio, about a mile south of the Colosseum.

Learning a foreign language is like growing a tree. It takes a long time. It’s real slow. It’s hard to see growth. However, if you’re patient and keep watering your interest, you can eventually branch out to the rest of your adopted country. Scambios are a good tool, but remember one thing.

It isn’t facile.

Going solo: Traveling alone doesn’t have to be lonely or scary if you take these tips

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.

“When you travel alone it’s never crowded.”

I left off the source of that great quote because it didn’t come from Mark Twain or Paul Theroux or any other great travel writer. It came from a guy I had a beer with at my guesthouse in Jamaica way back in 1982. I can’t remember his name or even his country but I found that comment so astute.

Just four years before, I had traveled around the world alone for a year and what he said hit home. I remembered. No matter how crowded a bus was, a street, a museum, a bar, when I was alone I never felt confined. I never felt trapped. I could always break away. The idea of traveling to find freedom and then locking yourself into an itinerary, let alone a tour bus, seemed a complete defeat of purpose. It’s like flying in an airplane and never looking out the window. Traveling with another person means you’re never truly away from home. Home is right next to you. The purpose of solo travel is to find yourself, not your friends.

This is my 40th year of international travel and I’ve traveled alone to most of my 102 countries. I traveled with girlfriends a few times. I traveled once with a platonic female friend and that turned into a travel tale from the Third Circle of Hades. I have never traveled with a guy, nor would I. Why?

I also have professional reasons to travel alone. As a travel writer, I want to write my own views, not those of someone else who browbeats me into veering away from my first impressions. I keep a journal everywhere I go. Try telling a travel partner to wait 90 minutes while you pound out an essay about your ride through an Indonesian jungle the day before.

There are drawbacks, of course. Traveling to beautiful places, inevitably you’ll find yourself in romantic places. Alone. I’ve never felt so lonely than one night on the isle of Crete when every traveler I drank with in the beach bar that night had a girlfriend. I was the 21st wheel.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.

I was once on assignment on Hawaii’s Big Island and walked out to my hotel’s beach-side restaurant for dinner. It was Valentine’s Day. I totally forgot. Every table was filled with cooing couples sipping wine under torchlight while I was speed dialing every friend with no benefits I knew, just so the others didn’t think I was a complete loser. Bringing a girlfriend, you not only never feel lonely but you take your relationship to romantic heights not possible back home.

It’s cheaper to share rooms. Another set of eyes is good for directions. Another brain is good for ideas.

But to travel alone and relying solely on your own eyes, brain and instincts shapes you as an adult. It steels you for future roadblocks in life. It builds confidence you can’t get from how-to books or jobs. I’m terrible with directions. I can get lost in an elevator. But I know I traversed Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range, drove around Iceland, traveled the length of Laos and hitchhiked behind the Iron Curtain. All alone.

With the high tourist season upon us, I thought I’d give some handy tips on solo travel. I hope they all make sense and don’t impede your own personal freedom. Some may not make sense. Use it as a guide, not as a bible. I’ve written 10 for men and 10 for women, based on surfing other websites and talking to female travelers who don’t need company to eat out in the Third World.

Clip it. Put it on your refrigerator while packing and safe travels.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.


1. Money belt. This is for anybody, even those on an American Express tour bus but it’s even more important for solo travelers as you don’t have a partner or group to watch out for you. It’s a long, wide, thin cotton pouch with two zippers where you put all the things you can’t afford to lose: passport, second credit card, ATM card, large amounts of cash. In the old days I put plane tickets in there. It clips around your waist inside the waistline of your pants. The only way you can get robbed is if they knock you out and strip you. Through 40 years, I have yet to be ripped off.

2. Don’t engage people who approach you. Every person who tries starting a conversation with me, especially in poor countries, wants something at the end of the conversation. It’s almost always money. The longer you talk to them, the more they think you’re indebted. However, if you approach a local, no matter where, you’ll likely wind up with a friend. People all over the world love talking about their country, their culture. Once in the Seychelles Islands, I asked a local in a bar about the best beach. He turned out to be one of the island’s top chefs. Shortly into the conversation, a raggedy man asked if he could talk to me. He mumbled something in French then I heard “money” in English. I returned to the chef and we wound up exchanging postcards for years.

3. Sports bars. It’s easier to meet locals when you’re alone. For some reason they take pity on you, mainly because they’d never do it. Every major city has a sports bar where you can catch locals watching local sports they can’t watch in person. Ask them about their sports, their town, whatever. They’ll engage you. Many sports bars are pubs filled almost entirely of expats. Still, it’s not a bad place to get Westerners’ views of the country you’re traveling through. One Brit who’d lived in Mongolia for two years told me in a bar in Ulaanbaatar that domestic violence is so bad there, if you take out a woman and just don’t hit her, she’ll go out with you again.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana's Savor Tropical.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana’s Savor Tropical.

4. Dating sites. I’m not a fan of these. Women lie about their weight; men, women tell me, lie about their age and height. (How do you lie about your height, guys?) But I did it once. Before the 2012 London Olympics, I joined a site and targeted London women telling them I was a traveling food columnist for my Denver Post newspaper and wanted a local guide to find London’s best gastropubs, a big trend at the time. If they wanted a free meal in exchange for some gastronomic insight, write me back. I made a point to say I wasn’t looking to hook up. I wound up meeting three wonderful women, two were sisters (Sorry. Not twins.) and I not only had great meals and wrote a good column but made a couple friends along the way. You don’t have to be a food columnist. Just tell them you want insight into local cuisine. You want food, not romance.

5. Do not ask taxi drivers where to meet local women. That’s a disaster. I did it twice: In 1983 in Mexico City a guy dropped me off at a brothel. And it wasn’t just any brothel. It was a brothel specializing in obese women. Yes, it was targeting chubby chasers. In 1997 a guy in Rio took me to a massage parlor. I was wondering why all these guys were sitting around the lobby in bathrobes. I bolted both times.

6. Don’t read during meals, not even your cell phone. I went to Sri Lanka three years ago and was devastated when my aging cellphone conked out after I landed. I couldn’t text friends. I couldn’t post on Facebook. However, with nothing to engage me, I was able to engage locals. I was in the cool, green hill town of Ella when a Sri Lankan sitting nearby filled me in on the Cricket World Cup playing on the TV above us. Meanwhile, at the next table, I couldn’t help noticing two couples didn’t even exchange words with each other. They were all looking at their cellphones.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.

7. Drink. Yes, drink. You’re not driving, or, you’re probably not. Get shitfaced a couple nights. Let the inhibitions fall and clink glasses with locals. As a travel writer, it’s easy for me. The best place to get a pulse on a city is a bar. I often talk to bartenders, people who talk to lots of locals. If you ask one question about a country to a group of people at the bar, you’ll usually start a lively conversation or maybe a debate. The best travel quote I got all last year was in a bar in Reykjavik. Poleaxed by the larcenous prices I’d seen everywhere in Iceland, I asked them, “With fish 35 euros, beer 13 and cocktails 20, how the hell do you guys take out women here?” They all raised their glasses, laughed and simultaneously said, “We don’t!”

8. Sit with a foot or arm around a strap of your bag or backpack. Without another set of eyes, you’re a target for thieves. Stay awake. If you do nod off while sitting in an airport or train station, you should be able to feel someone removing your arm or foot to steal your bag.

9. Don’t swim at empty beaches before asking locals about it. The south coast of Sri Lanka has really underrated beaches. After a couple of days in Goyambokka, with one of the most idyllic beaches I’ve seen in Asia, I decided to explore. I cut through the jungle to the west for 15 minutes and found myself on a deserted, perfectly shaped half-moon beach. I was alone. Why? I found a man working on a house and he said the beach has a bad riptide. He said, “But if you get past that first wave, you won’t feel the current. Then when you return, swim sideways a few hundred meters and …” If I’d gone in alone without asking, I might not be writing this.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

10. If you’re hiking, tell the hotel or guesthouse or a friend at home where you’re going. If you don’t come back, they’ll at least know where you went. I lived in Colorado from 1990-2014 and one day in 1994 a Colorado outdoorsman named Aron Ralston went hiking in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon. A dislodged 800-pound boulder pinned his arm against the wall. He couldn’t get out. He had told no one where he went. He sat there for six days. What did he do? He cut off his own arm. What he wound up with was a well-received book called (what else?) “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and an appreciation of the before-mentioned rule.


1. Carry a whistle. Of all the self-defense devices, this seems the most popular. Mace and pepper spray, in many countries where they’re most needed, are considered concealed weapons and illegal.

2. Dress like an expat. That’s a fine balance. Don’t dress like a tourist. No white fedoras. No Nikes. No souvenir T-shirts. But don’t dress completely like a local, either. Don’t dress head to toe in native garb. You’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Dress conservatively and comfortably, like what you’d wear at home. Thieves and men look for naivete. Expats who’ve lived abroad awhile are street smart.

3. Don’t get drunk. This sounds obvious but living in Rome, I’ve seen some cases where a woman gets too drunk and some “kindly Italian” offers to walk them home. He’s not interested in discussing Dante’s “Inferno” once he gets you there.

4. Day tours. If you want to meet other solo travelers, take a day tour that attracts them. Many major cities have free walking tours, a great way to introduce yourself to a place and make friends. I even take them.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

Even I tried yoga, in Varkala, Kerala state, India.

5. Take a yoga class. Yoga is booming all over the world. If you do yoga, or have ever been interested in yoga, find a class where you’re visiting. You’ll find local women who might put you under their wing and show you where the good places to go.

6. Have a Plan B for accommodations. I’ve read stories of women who get to an AirBnB or a CouchSurfing spot and the owner wants to show them more than the city. If you feel uncomfortable, have a second accommodation’s phone number handy to call for a quick change.

7. Cut back on the jewelry. Jewelry is a big fence item. Don’t draw attention to yourself with anything flashy. If you’re rich, don’t show it. This is especially true in Brazil where armed hold-ups are done in broad daylight.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.

8. Hide extra cash. I read this and didn’t quite understand it, nor did I want to understand it but I’ll trust women will understand it: Put extra cash in a tampon applicator and put it back in its wrapper. I do understand that will definitely hide the money.

9. No earplugs. While walking the streets, don’t wear earplugs. You need to be more aware of your surroundings, of people approaching you from behind. You must hear everything. The U2 tape can wait.

10. Doorstop. Many women carry cheap little doorstops and wedge them under their hotel room door for extra security. Some hotels are so cheap, a well-trained cocker spaniel could break in.

Oslo in July: Gay times where the sun never sets on freedom

Oslo Pride's Gay Pride parade attracted 40,000 marchers and 200,000 spectators. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Oslo Pride’s Gay Pride parade attracted 40,000 marchers and 200,000 spectators. Photo by Marina Pascucci

OSLO — The two couples in matching black-leather police uniforms, complete with vests and leather caps, walked hand in hand in front of us, none of them planning to arrest anyone. A man with a hairy chest and heels that would break a gymnast’s ankle talked with three stunning blonde women. My girlfriend, Marina, wondered where he bought his shoes.

From San Diego to Sydney, Gay Pride weekends are lavish, outlandish affairs that are as much shock value as celebration. But the 10-day Gay Pride in Oslo adds a different element. The public acceptance mirrors the tolerance of one of the planet’s most open societies, one that even surprises my knee-jerk liberal mores.

It wasn’t just gays celebrating. It was moms, dads, children, straight couples, teens. I looked up at the Royal Palace just to see if Norway’s red, blue and white flag had been replaced by rainbow colors.

Photos by Marina Pascucci

Photos by Marina Pascucci

For my latest gift in Marina’s endless birthday celebration, I took her to Oslo for a long weekend. As I’ve written before, July is the worst month of the year, one when travel should be avoided like burning gas stations. But Scandinavia is one of the few places in the world worth visiting in July. The entire weekend was in the low 70s, dry with brilliant sunshine in a turquoise sky seemingly never touched by pollution.
Oslo was nearly void of traffic despite one of the busiest weekends of the year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Oslo was nearly void of traffic despite one of the busiest weekends of the year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Despite being the peak of its tourism season, an Oslo Pride celebration that attracted 200,000 spectators to its parade and immigration that made it Europe’s fastest growing city in the early 2000s, Oslo’s traffic was nil. We could jaywalk unimpeded. The noise level reminded me of small towns in Kansas.

Among international travel insiders, Oslo has become notoriously hip. Its restaurant scene has exploded onto the Michelin list. Microbrews have provided an endless nightlife — and not just because being at the 60th parallel gave us sunlight until 1 a.m.

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded here with a beautiful museum honoring all the winners. Given the saber rattling by our infantile president who’s always waving his other rattle, its presence looms even larger. Speaking of hated world leaders, an Oslo store even features anti-Trump refrigerator magnets.

This was a gift to Marina but I had to admit. Oslo is in my wheelhouse.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

I always viewed Gay Pride parades with hidden nausea. I find men in drag repulsive, even if they are in the minority. Denver’s Gay Pride parade marched by my newspaper office downtown. I barely went to the window. In Key West, I stayed indoors. I accept gays as equals. I’m all for gay marriage. I’ve worked for gays. I’ve competed against gays. I’ve had gay friends. I just don’t want to look at men in women’s clothes.

But what impressed me about Oslo was the reaction. We woke on a Saturday morning and walked along Karl Johans gate, the long walking mall lined with pulsating bars and restaurants. TGI Fridays emblazoned its name on a rainbow flag. Outside the Hard Rock Cafe was a rainbow balloon over a rainbow sign reading “HAPPY PRIDE.” Written on the green facade was “LOVE ALL SERVE ALL.”

As the beginning of the parade approached, I saw couples with children waiting along the street all holding rainbow flags. Young male and female lovers walking arm in arm engaged in conversation with groups of gays in matching outfits. Beautiful women who looked like ski pants models chatted with women who looked like men. For American gays appalled by Trump’s attempt to ban transgenders from the military and appoint people with a history of anti-LGBT stances, Oslo must be heaven, with a rainbow constantly overhead.

Then again, this is Scandinavia. Last year I went to Iceland, a country with only 300,000 people. About 50,000 go to the Gay Pride parade every year. Do the math.

One of the gay-friendly pieces of art on display in the weekend's art exhibit.

One of the gay-friendly pieces of art on display in the weekend’s art exhibit.

For our first meal we went to Fishtirik, a fish market restaurant where you can buy a whole fish to take home or eat a fish burger at high wooden tables. It was in a large square that had converted a building into a gay-friendly art museum. Featured are two women made up of what looked like papier-mache magazine ads engaging in oral sex in a chair. Over dinner next door we chatted with a young couple about the gays taking over the city for a weekend.

“We’re very accepting,” the man said. “Most of Europe is.”

Prime minister Erna Solberg opened her official residence to celebrate Oslo Pride and lambasted 20 percent of the men in a recent survey saying they were uncomfortable standing next to a gay person.

“We can’t have that,” she said, “so we still have a ways to go in this country.”

Like me, the only people most Norwegians aren’t tolerant of are people who aren’t tolerant. Across the street from the National Gallery is Tronsmo, a tremendous English- and Norwegian-language bookstore featuring Norway’s trendy internationally renowned authors. Near the register stands a bank of refrigerator magnets, one featuring a long-haired orange guinea pig with the words, “DONALD TRUMP’S HAIR FINALLY RUNS OFF TO SEEK A BETTER LIFE.” Another showed a flower and read, “TRUMP IS NOT HEALTHY FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS.” In the spirit of the weekend, one pictured a kitten screaming, his mouth and eyes wide open, under the line, “LESBIANS EAT WHAT?!”

That’s not all the bad Trump news for those pandering lap dogs at Fox News. I have more: Shocking as it may be to Trumpettes, Oslo has not set aside a space in its Nobel museum for Trump. Instead, the Nobels Fredssenter on the clean, pretty harbor celebrates all the winners with real accomplishments such as defeating apartheid (Nelson Mandela), banning anti-personnel mines (Jody Williams) and creating a new climate of international relations with the Muslim world (Barack Obama).

Turns out for Trump, shaking Kim Jong-un’s hand in Singapore didn’t quite qualify him.

The Barack Obama display at the Nobel Fredssenter. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Barack Obama display at the Nobel Fredssenter. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s a beautiful museum with each winner featured next to a long description of the accomplishments that got them there. As I walked slowly through this remarkable hall of peace, the loudspeaker issued quotes from the winners, ranging from Martin Luther King to Jimmy Carter.

When I walked out in late afternoon, the brilliant sunshine blinded me. In the summer, Oslo shines like a crown jewel. The colors are as brilliant as in its art galleries. The blues of the harbor. The greens of its lawns. The yellows and pinks and greens of its pastel-colored buildings. The silvers of its glistening harbor-side, glass-walled Opera House. I’ve been here in the winter and in snow it doesn’t lose any luster. It just loses light.

Oslo is experiencing a record heat wave this summer but it was in the comfy 70s during our weekend. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Oslo is experiencing a record heat wave this summer but it was in the comfy 70s during our weekend. Photo by Marina Pascucci

(Bonus bad news for the Trump Administration: Contrary to Trump’s neanderthal mindset, Norway is experiencing a record heat wave and Norwegian officials are blaming global warming. Norway had its hottest May in 100 years, hitting 33 degrees (91 fahrenheit), including 20 (72) at the Arctic Circle. Some weather forecasters say Norway could someday hit 40 (104). On our weekend it never topped the high 70s, but I never once wore a coat.)
The Oslo Opera House was built in 2007 for 500 million euros. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Oslo Opera House was built in 2007 for 500 million euros. Photo by Marina Pascucci

With its endless summer days and long winter nights, Oslo is the perfect place for indoor and outdoor art galleries. As an art maven attracted to anything odd after four years of Rome’s staid religious art, I found the weirdest art display in the world in a western Oslo residential neighborhood called Frogner. Home to the most expensive real estate in the city, where each home looks like a summer palace, Frogner is also home to Vigelandsanlegget. As impossible to miss as it is to pronounce, Vigelandsanlegget is the largest sculpture park in the world. The 80-acre park features 200 sculptures, all done by one Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s cherished sculptor who chipped away at granite, bronze and iron in this ‘hood back in the 1930s.
Marina and I at the Wheel of Life.

Marina and I at the Wheel of Life.

They were all placed on a huge green expanse featuring a man-made lake, bridges and countless fountains. Attracted to anything free in Oslo after crippling daily costs, we entered from the north end, opposite the grand entrance in the south. Greeting us was The Wheel of Life, a block of granite topped by a circle of entwined humans meant to symbolize, as one description put it, the “never-ending momentum where we both push eternally forward and cling to each other in support.”

It mirrored the park’s theme which spoke to Vigeland’s — and Norway’s — quest for peace, harmony and respect for our fellow man. Statues were everywhere. Each one stranger than the next. A woman seemingly suspended, diving through a cluster of trees. The 14-meter Monolith, a giant granite tower made up entirely of sinuously naked men and women. Little Angry Boy, a solitary, fat child in the midst of a full-force tantrum. A man and woman entwined in what could be bipedal intercourse or domestic assault, depending on your mood while viewing it. A naked man holding a naked baby with his outstretched arms, leaving unanswered the question of whether he’s saving the child or throwing him into a ravine.

The Monolith. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Monolith. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Gustav Vigeland tried to promote the goodness of mankind.

Gustav Vigeland tried to promote the goodness of mankind.

As we strolled through the park, a rock group performed a concert on a big stage in front of an entire fleet of old American automobile classics. Couples, both gay and straight, sunbathed by the lake. Near the entrance, a granite and wrought-iron gate with beautiful curved railings, a young man in a green helmet pogo sticked his way out the park. The whole experience was entirely weird. The only things normal were the massive throngs of snap-happy Asian tourists and the fat American with the New York Giants shirt and Yankees cap drinking a beer at the larcenously priced snack bar.
Me and The Scream.

Me and The Scream.

Oslo is also home to arguably the most famous painting in the world not called Mona Lisa. The Scream, Edvard Munch’s 1893 tribute to human dread, is in the Nasjonalgalleriet, the national gallery. It has become the subject of countless Facebook postings for anyone dreading a job review or reviewing their latest Internet date. Munch, one of the pioneers of Early Modernism, worked out of Oslo and Berlin and was fascinated by anxiety in the late 19th century when Oslo started urbanizing and life became brutally hard for families. In The Scream he painted a light bulb-headed unisex figure with his head in his hands, his mouth and eyes wide open in panic mode under a blood-red sky. Later in his career his works became more friendly and peaceful. But it’s clear what his message was and still is, considering the current state of the world.

Mankind is fucked.

Speaking of which, in Oslo, so is your wallet. The prices here are as high as the summer sky. It’s like the whole city is Rodeo Drive. They are insulting. And they’re relentless. Just like in Iceland, every time I paid for something I felt like bending over. Every bill in Oslo should come with lubricant.

At simple Fishtirik my salmon burger was $22. A glass of Spanish wine was $14. At Kafe Celcius, on a picturesque square near the harbor, a piece of salmon was $30. I wondered what it would cost if we actually had table service and didn’t have to order at the bar. At Vigelandsanlegget, a bottle of water was $4. Using the public bathroom cost $2.

Me trying to find an affordable beer at The Scotsman. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me trying to find an affordable beer at The Scotsman. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Beer, which is experiencing record sales during Norway’s heat wave, averaged about $12. At the Scotsman, my hangout for World Cup games, one craft beer cost 298 kroner. That’s $37 a glass. I asked the woman bartender simply, “How?”

“I believe they have beer that expensive in the States,” she said.

“No, they don’t,” I replied.

“You don’t have to buy that one, sir.”

“I won’t.”

How do men date in Scandinavia? I remember interviewing four men in a Reykjavik bar and asking them, “With fish costing $35 and beer $13, cocktails $20, how can you take out a woman?”

They all raised their glasses and with big smiles said simultaneously, “We don’t!”

Salmon at Kafe Celcius

Salmon at Kafe Celcius

Verdens Best at Cafe Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Verdens Best at Cafe Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

At least Oslo’s food is good. The salmon is fresh and is caught a short boat ride from your table. Cafe Cathedral’s Verdens Best (World’s Best), Norway’s national dessert made up of sponge cake, almonds and heavy cream, was one of the best treats I’ve had in Europe. Our breakfast buffet at the First Hotel Millennium in the center featured everything from smoked salmon to lean Norwegian sausage. The chevre salad at Jensens Bofhus near the Parliament rivaled any I’ve had in France.

As one right-wing columnist at my old Denver Post wrote about Pres. Bush’s reluctance to nationalize healthcare, “Utopia ain’t cheap, folks.” It applies better to Norway than the U.S. Oslo is not a cheap getaway. I don’t remember seeing any budget travel backpackers. But there’s a price to pay to visit a society so open, happy, healthy, peaceful and friendly. And the best part about Oslo’s best qualities?

They’re all free.

Hiking the Caucasus: Georgia’s white mountain wall an unbeaten path into snowy heaven

Mt. Kazbek (elevation 5,033 meters) hovers over Holy Trinity Church and the town of Kazbegi.

Mt. Kazbek (elevation 5,033 meters) hovers over Holy Trinity Church and the town of Kazbegi.

MESTIA, Republic of Georgia — Flying isn’t fun anymore. Security takes longer than some Netflix series. The shrinking seats are comfortable only for gymnasts. Nothing on board is free except for the anguish hoping the bag you paid $50 to check actually arrives when you do.

Then there are the flights that make you never want to come down.

From the time we took off to the time we landed, the mountains stretched like a white-frosted layer cake. For 50 minutes I got an up-close-and-personal look at real-life topography. I had to peer up from under the airplane wing to see the tops of the mountains they were so tall. The snow piled high on the jagged peaks, cascading down until melting into green forests spliced by long, silvery creeks.

In a short time I’d be walking into the heart of those mountains.

View from the airplane of the Caucasus on flight to Mestia.

View from the airplane of the Caucasus on flight to Mestia.

Except for a special Nepal Airlines flight that took me past the peak of Mt. Everest in 1987, no flight in my life matched the regularly scheduled Vanilla Sky journey from Tbilisi to Mestia, into the heart of the Great Caucasus mountains. On a planet with the Himalayas, Andes and Alps, the Caucasus don’t get much hype, like the Republic of Georgia in which it sits. But they have many unbeaten paths worth beating.

The Caucasus, which stretch 1,200 kilometers from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, separate Georgia from old mother Russia like a long line of security sentries. Conflicts between the two countries, as recently as 2008, left Georgia with bad public relations and the crude hiking trails void of the parades that stamp through the Alps, Himalayas and Rockies.

But oh, look what they’re missing.

“I’ve never seen these mountains this clear.”

The voice came from the seat behind me, from the man who put Georgia hiking, literally on a map. Many maps, as it turns out. I believe man determines his own fate but sometimes luck just falls upon people, like a travel writer venturing into a land he knows little about. I happened to be sitting one row in front of one Peter Nasmyth. He’s an Englishman who is the godfather of Georgia hiking. He wrote two editions of “Walking in the Caucasus: Georgia,” the first and, apparently, only hiking guide to the country.

A village in a valley at the foot of the Caucasus.

A village in a valley at the foot of the Caucasus.

Nasmyth has bounced between London and Georgia for the last 30 years, first arriving when it was under the oppressive yoke of communism, when protests in the capital of Tbilisi were handled with a swift stroke of the Soviet sword. He sought peace in the Georgian countryside and over the years bushwhacked and tramped all over the country. I found his excellent book, complete with color photos and detailed maps of 53 hikes, in his equally lovely Tbilisi English-language bookshop, Prospero’s Books.

Short, chunky and balding, Nasmyth doesn’t look like your prototype hiking guide, a stereotype he quickly dashed with “People often think they’re fit because they do three sessions a week in the gym, but I often find reality very different.”

We got on well. He worked as a journalist for many years and views Georgia not through the prism of a PR man trying to protect his adopted country but as a crusty insider who can carve up the country with his tongue when needed. If I could’ve picked the perfect source to land on the same plane, it would be him.

The weather was spectacular. It was high 60s, dry and clear. My plan to kick back and re-charge the first day went south with Nasmyth’s rising enthusiasm.

Peter Nasmyth wrote the book "Walking in the Caucasus: Georgia."

Peter Nasmyth wrote the book “Walking in the Caucasus: Georgia.”

“I have to take advantage of this great weather,” he said as the plane maneuvered into the narrow valley that held Mestia’s tiny airstrip.

He kindly agreed to let me tag along and after checking into the charming Roza’s Guest House on the edge of town, I met Nasmyth at Leila’s, Mestia’s legendary restaurant/bar/dancehall/town pulse in the leafy piazza. It was nearing 1 p.m. and we didn’t have time for one of his legendary hikes so we did a short recon mission toward what is called the TV Tower.

We saw it on the flight in. On a high green plateau, covered in forest and topped by a chairlift, was a long green clearing that led to a high TV tower at the end of the plateau. We walked through Mestia and past these large stone towers that dotted the entire town like giant matchsticks. Mestia is the capital of the Svenati region, home of the Svans, a Georgian ethnic group once famous for their blood feuds. These 175 towers, known as koshkebi, were built between the 9th and 13th centuries to house the Svans in case of foreign attack. The Svenati was never conquered, maybe not so much because of the koshkebi but because Mestia is so damn hard to reach.

A Svan on the road to the TV tower above Mestia.

A Svan on the road to the TV tower above Mestia.

This is home to the Greater Caucasus, the highest section of a range with six mountains topping 5,000 meters. In fact, 40 percent of Georgia is over 900 meters, making Georgia one of the few countries in the world comfortable to travel in July.

As we reached the edge of town, we turned onto a narrow paved road that snaked up the mountain to the ski lift.

“Two and a half years ago, there was no road here,” Nasmyth said. “In the ‘90s there were no tourists. You’d hike three hours and suddenly you’d come to a shelter. The Soviets tried hiking across the Caucasus when there were no borders.”

Walking with Nasmyth was like walking with Lewis or Clark along the Oregon Trail. He knew every trail in Svenati and knew there were so many other trails to uncover.

“I wasn’t the first person to hike here,” he said, “but it feels like it.”

He talked about how his ventures into the wild flabbergasted his Georgian friends, who, like New Yorkers and the Empire State Building, never bothered to enjoy their mountains. “They’d ask me, ‘Why walk when you can drive?’” he said.

Nasmyth doesn’t just hike the Caucasus. He records them. No flower was too small to photograph, no trail to hidden to explore. His book has some shocking statistics. In a country the size of Ireland:

* Georgia has 2,000 glaciers.

* It has 4,000-4,500 species of vascular plants, or plants that contain minerals and water. Fifteen percent are endemic to the Caucasus.

* Until the Soviets invaded in 1921, more than 50 percent of Georgia’s population lived in the mountains.

* Even with so much land at elevation, its sea coasts, subtropical wetlands, semi-desert and volcanic plateaus landed Georgia on list of the world’s top 12 most diverse landscapes.

Like myself, Nasmyth has hiked all over the world, most notably the Himalayas and the Alps. But he keeps returning to Georgia, not just because there are enough uncharted trails to write more books but for the sheer solitude of it. I can confirm.

In five days hiking, I never saw more than 10 other hikers on a trail.

“I prefer it here because there is less people,” he said. “It’s difficult. It’s hard. There are big walks of 1,000 meters in elevation. Serious landscapes and a bridge won’t be there when it was before. There are times I’ve waded across rivers.”

As we climbed in elevation, with each turn of the road we saw a new, better view of the Caucasus on the other side of Mestia. We saw few cars and only two other hikers, both coming down. With each turn in the road we got a higher view of the long landscape of snow-covered peaks. It became a bit overcast and clouds had covered Mt. Ushba, one of the highest peaks at 4,710 meters, but it was still a magnificent scene, standing on a road and seeing all this snow high above you in June.

Nasmyth, after all these years, has yet to be jaded. He stood on the road, opened his arms wide to the scenery and said, “Even this simple hike, this is gorgeous!”

I asked him how he would describe hiking in Georgia.

“It’s like a beautiful woman who walks past and she keeps walking past,” he said.

I love interviewing the English. They all sound as if they just emerged from an MBA in English literature. I’m not into plants much, but after stopping and sniffing a bright yellow azalea and a bright magenta marsh orchid, I could see why Nasmyth spent so much time photographing flowers.

“It’s like walking into a perfumery,” he said.

The hike wasn’t terribly steep but, as I would find in Georgia, it was relentless. It never leveled. I’m fit for a 62-year-old. I go to the gym regularly. Nasmyth was a damn mountain goat. If he didn’t stop to photograph flowers, he would’ve left me in the concrete a long time ago.

He guides many hikes and privately chuckles when he hears about travelers who train by walking around their towns.

“You have to hike uphill,” he snapped. “Along flat, it’s crap.”

We reached one stop on the chairlift and decided to turn back, saving the rest for the next day. Two slacker dudes in hoodies listening to rock music that could be heard in Russia put me on a chair and sent me down about 400 meters. Peter, meanwhile, hiked through head-high brush under the lift to get back into town. This guy was out there.



The next day we met at Leila’s where I dug into khikhlinko, a Svan dish made from bread fried in scrambled eggs that could get you to the top of any mountain in the Caucasus. I wondered why cafes near American ski resorts haven’t picked up the recipe.

Nasmyth and I gave ourselves a break and met at the base of the ski lift to take it up past where we hiked the day before. We were met by a group of middle-aged Latvians. It was by far the biggest group I’d see all week. And few of the hikers I met were Georgian.

“Georgia is just discovering that just as many people come here during hiking season as ski season,” Nasmyth said. “They think it’s so strange. I don’t mind. I’m the best promotion Georgia ever had for hiking. My book sells much better outside Georgia than inside Georgia.”

Georgia tourism is booming and people from all over the world come for its wine, as I wrote two weeks ago and food. So did I. But the hiking lags behind, both in promotion and assistance. Until 2 ½ years ago, the chairlift only worked in winter. The signage on the trails ranges between non-existent and Wherethehelldowego? Nasmyth has a Norwegian friend living in the mountains and is constantly out on the trail working on the markings.

“There are good markings, but they can’t maintain it,” Nasmyth said.

Fortunately for the directionally challenged hiker, such as myself who could get lost in an elevator, many hikes in Georgia are straight up and straight down. Some trails don’t have a lot of options.

The view from the restaurant atop the chairlift.

The view from the restaurant atop the chairlift.

The TV Tower hike, however, is easy with the chair lift. It dropped us off at a cafe with an incredible panoramic view of snow-capped mountains. Huge jagged mountains to our right; emerald green meadows leading to another string of mountains to our left. In breaks in the trees fell little waterfalls. It was absolutely breathtaking and we hadn’t taken our first step.

The only sounds we heard, unfortunately, was the strains of rock music played by slacker dudes below.

The hike, past ruins of a discarded Soviet-era chairlift, is easy with little altitude gain but the views improved as we walked. To our left, the clouds had parted to get a good view of Ushba, its peak of 4,710 meters. Down below to our right stood a little village so far down its buildings looked like pinpricks dotting a meadow.

“At the bottom of Annapurna (in Nepal) there’s a village called Dhampus,” Nasmyth said. “It’s comparable. Only the view in the Himalayas is like this.”

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.

The TV tower hovering over the edge of the plateau is a good place to rest with views of Mestia to our left, the other village to our right and mountains bordering it all. It was like being inside a giant snow globe.

As I was getting up to return, Nasmyth made a disturbing sound. “Hmmm,” he said, like a guy who was considering something crazy. “I wonder how we could get down there.”

He pointed 1,000 meters below. A trail, as thin as a knife carving, led from the bottom of our plateau to a seemingly endless forest. I saw no trail down. He tried cutting through brush down the hill. He quickly came back.

“It’s a fake path,” he said. “If I slip, it’s a sheer drop all the way down.”

“OK,” I said, quietly relieved. “Too bad. Let’s go.”

“Wait. I see another path.”

He inched his way down about 15 meters while I sat looking at the view, wondering how good a beer at Leila’s would be.

“IT’S GOOD!” he yelled. “COME ON DOWN!”

I gingerly inched my way down about 50 feet of mud where I saw Nasmyth pointing down, straight down, into what seemed virgin jungle, the kind of landscape you see in science fiction movies about monsters eating children.

“See that trail there?” he pointed way below to the meadow. “If we can get down, we can get to that path, into the forest and to a village.”

Funny, I saw a path going into the forest but not out. I saw no path down where we stood. Knowing I had to write a travel article for mainstream readers, I decided a beer sounded better than scribbling my obituary as I’m lost forever.

Later that night, as I watched a Svan dance team swirl like dervishes at Leila’s, I saw Nasmyth. He said it took him eight hours from the time I left him to get down, into the forest, out of the forest, into a village and back to Mestia.

My hikes weren’t nearly that insane. Here are summaries of the three other hikes I took, all highly recommended, two of which require a good amount of fitness — and all requiring a damn good camera.

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.


Above the town of Mestia, on a high peak behind my guesthouse, rests a legendary cross. It’s 900 meters above the town and is the quintessential hike for anyone who visits Svaneti. You can see the cross from all over town and the peak is so high the cross looks like something that hangs from a necklace. In reality, it’s nearly 20 feet tall.

The signage for this hike is awful, which is why I spent 30 minutes with Nasmyth on my cell phone in a complete frenzy trying to find the trailhead. It’s a simple small road off the main drag and leads up — again, STRAIGHT up — under a stone arch and up a stone path. Not that this was rural, but I passed a cow resting next to someone’s home.

I continued up a gravel path where another unmarked fork led to one more phone call to Nasmyth, showing remarkable patience by not telling me to jump off a cliff and hanging up. Avoiding a shorter, but much steeper, path I veered right. What the path lost in grade it gained in views. A huge forest leading to distant mountains covered in snow dominated the horizon. Wildflowers of pink and yellow in fields of green. The only humanity I saw were two farmers tending to their horses.

A paraglider flies above Cross Peak.

A paraglider flies above Cross Peak.

It’s very steep, maybe a 20-degree grade. Leaving at 9 a.m. it was only about 70 degrees, yet sweat poured off my brow. I stopped every 50 or 100 meters to catch my breath. My words from my tape recorder come in heavy heaves.

But like most hikes, views give you energy and the Caucasus is one long adrenaline injection. At one point the trail breaks off about 15 feet around a tree. It stops there, offering a fantastic perch of Mestia, snow-capped peaks in the background. I bathed myself in a cool breeze. I heard the birds chirping. I kicked myself for not bringing a cooler full of beer. To hell with the cross. This was the highlight of the hike.

I was so wrong.

About a third of the way up, the path turns onto a service road from which you get your first glimpse of the cross since you left town. It’s still not that big, meaning I had a ways to go. But as the road started evening out, I came to a bend where I saw the massive white pyramid of snow-covered, 4,858-meter Mt. Tetnuldi towering above the trees, the cross, me, Mestia. It was absolutely mesmerizing.

Atop Cross Peak

Atop Cross Peak

Then came a series of switchbacks, slowly inching my way up the cross and with each turn I saw a better view of the mountains. At 11:15 a.m., after two hours and 15 minutes, I arrived at the cross, sitting atop a huge flat grassy viewpoint, complete with a covered wooden platform for even better views. Some Asians, who’d taken buses up the service road, were paragliding all around me.

I couldn’t stop looking down, through the forest I just ascended into the meadows, the town of Mestia and the series of glaciers knifing through the giant snow-covered mountains. Behind me, with Ushda peeking through the occasional clouds, stood a little shelter hut that looked so small and insignificant in front of Ushda it could’ve been a matchbox.

A hut is dwarfed by Mt. Ushba (4,710 meters).

A hut is dwarfed by Mt. Ushba (4,710 meters).

After a quick picnic lunch, I continued toward the hut until the path ended but not before I photographed it with Ushda in the background. I celebrated with a toast of fresh, ice-cold water that came straight from the mountains through a pipe near the trail. Who needed beer?

I had the freshest, tastiest, most refreshing water of my life.

The Truso Valley is along the Georgian Military Highway and home to many Georgian Orthodox churches.

The Truso Valley is along the Georgian Military Highway and home to many Georgian Orthodox churches.


The town of Kazbegi is 150 kilometers and three hours directly north of Tbilisi. If you miss your marshrutka stop, you’ll be in Russia. Kazbegi is Georgia’s poster girl. Every publicity shot you see shows this pleasant town in a valley under towering, majestic 5,033-meter Mt. Kazbek with Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) church, looking so minuscule, on a hill in front of it 900 meters above Kazbegi.

To reach Kazbegi, I went to one of Tbilisi’s six marshrutka stations, known as moedani. They are Georgia’s equivalent of Times Square during a tsunami. It’s absolute chaos. I had to weave through a frantic, loud, crowded public market selling everything from cheap toys to industrial ice cream to find a row of marshrutky, a Georgian minivan, none of which had signs indicating destinations. I said, “Kazbegi” and an old man directed me to the back of a marshrutka where we waited 30 minutes to fill up its 22 seats and leave. It took an hour. Then again, the total ride cost all of 3 euros.

An abandoned Ossetian village in the Truso Valley.

An abandoned Ossetian village in the Truso Valley.

With Georgian pop music playing on the loudspeaker, we proceeded north on a beautiful journey. We passed long streams of water pouring down from mountains, green hills speckled with chalet-type hotels and restaurants, freshly planted trees protected by barriers. Near the town of Nadibani, a guy on horseback herded sheep in the thousands up the road, blocking our path. Two shepherds with curved canes plodded the sheep along while our driver patiently inched forward. Just another day in the Georgian countryside.

We soon approached the mountain range with snow packed on the side of the road. When we arrived in Kazbegi, I cursed myself for leaving my stocking cap at home in Rome, trying to lighten my backpack. Kazbegi was freezing. Forecasts called for the temperatures in the 30s. I bought a stocking cap at a souvenir stand for 20 lari (about 3 euro) and ate a wonderful juicy sawaha, a flatbread filled with meat, onions and sauce, huddled in my rain jacket.

The next day, however, caps weren’t needed. The sun broke out and temperatures were in the high 60s. The local tour company, Mountain Freaks, organized a van to take a group of travelers into the Truso Valley, 17 kilometers south of Kabegi, for 10 euros. The Truso Valley is just off the Georgian Military Highway, built by the Russians in the 19th century during its occupation of the Caucasus. It also is near South Ossetia, the mysterious breakaway republic that is Russian controlled and forbids Georgians, or anyone else but Russians, to enter.

The Truso Valley hike is flat, long and fascinating. Its 20-kilometer round-trip trail starts at a babbling brook with spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains. I wasn’t five minutes into the hike when I saw a man in all black smoking a black cigarette walking out of his stone house with a young boy in tow. He’s one of the few Ossetians who still live in abandoned villages and never resettled after South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in 2008.

Keeping my camera under wraps, we exchanged friendly, knowing nods,

The first hour was flat, following a pretty river with the mountains providing the perfect backdrop. But it is 2,175 meters and despite the easy terrain, I could feel the elevation.

A river runs through the Truso Valley.

A river runs through the Truso Valley.

Later I saw small herds of cattle tended by grim-faced Ossetians who come over to keep after their flock. Some cattle still roam the abandoned villages with stone shelters long gone empty. A small yellow shelter in a cluster of tall trees with the mountain background made for a pretty picture of calm in this star-crossed land.

Large stone Georgian Orthodox churches emerged from nowhere with tall, bearded priests dressed in all black standing outside with nothing to do. After a quick picnic lunch on a grassy knoll above the creek, I continued walking to the remains of Zakagori Fortress on a hill manned by Georgian soldiers sitting at their post. Before I even reached it, a Georgian soldier met me well before his post and told me to turn back. South Ossetia was just beyond the marker.

Yes, I might be able to get in but I might not get out.

The view of Kazbegi from Holy Trinity Church.

The view of Kazbegi from Holy Trinity Church.


John Meyer, an old Denver Post newspaper colleague and mountain climber, told me once he likes climbing mountains he sees all the time. You can see 5,033-meter Mt. Kazbek from anywhere in Kazbegi. It looms over the valley like the Matterhorn over Disneyland. For two days I walked past and under the mountain in my wanderings around Kazbegi until I filled my daypack with goodies and took off.

Kazbegi is a tough, technical, dangerous climb. The hike toward it is the lure and there are two routes: One, a road winds up from Kazbegi to the church at 2,200 meters, offering one of the best views in all of Georgia; two, hike to the church.

Crossing a river, I climbed through the village of Gargheta where I passed a small cafe and a ruined tower. That point leads to a trail that goes nearly straight up. You don’t need hand holds but the narrow, rocky path is steep. Fortunately, few people take this route in June and I never had to press against rock to let a family pass.

It took about an hour to reach the church. That’s where my solitude ended. In a grass makeshift parking lot sat six buses, all unloading hordes of Asians sprinting to the church and its viewpoints. I stumbled up, exhausted and took long draws of cold water as I saw the Asians not even look at the views. They only looked at the views through their cameras’ and cell phones’ viewfinders. One woman posed in about 10 spots on the church grounds, all with her hands out and her head rolled back, like some porcelain doll.

Holy Trinity Church from above

Holy Trinity Church from above

It is a breathtaking view. Along the church railing, I saw the sprinkled buildings of Kazbegi below and the snow-capped mountains stretching forever behind it. What a place for worship.

The church, lined with frescoes and carvings of dinosaurs, was built in the 14th century and used as a hiding place for treasures during foreign invasions. The Soviets built a cable car in 1988 to wing people to the church. But when communism fell in 1991, with no statues of Stalin to topple, the locals destroyed the cable car instead.

Tired of hearing Japanese and getting bumped by lenses and elbows, I continued up the hill toward Kazbek. I entered a huge forest and when I emerged at the top I looked back. A startling view was in front of me: the church, perfectly framed by huge mountains on the other side of the valley. The tour buses were thankfully far enough away to not enter my picture frame.

Two hikers resting above Holy Trinity.

Two hikers resting above Holy Trinity.

I continued past a herd of sheep, the views improving as I ascended. I finally saw another hiker, a young German woman who woke at dawn to hike to the Kazbek Base Camp another four hours away. I asked her how’s the view up above. She looked to the sky.

“The clouds have come,” she said. “You won’t see much in a few minutes. But the views this morning were wonderful.”

It was a good sign to return and at the bottom of the hike, I stopped at the little cafe right before the skies opened and rain pelted the trail I had just left. I had a long Natakhtari beer while four young Georgian men cooked chicken on small makeshift grills.

A well-earned Georgian beer at the end of a long hike high above Holy Trinity Church.

A well-earned Georgian beer at the end of a long hike high above Holy Trinity Church.

I raised my beer bottle: “Gagvimarjas!” I said. Cheers to the Caucasus and their trails that lead to corners of the earth so many will never know.