Colombia has a lot to offer for travelers

The beaches of Cartagena are some of Colombia's many highlights.

The beaches of Cartagena are some of Colombia’s many highlights.


(I’ve never been to Colombia but this guest blog by Gabe Campbell makes me want to go there.)

There aren’t too many countries around the world that have been stigmatized as much as Colombia. Closely associated with a violent cocaine trade for decades – an association no doubt made worse by Hollywood – it was avoided and even put on travel advisory lists for years.

Things have changed, though. While there are still some areas of Colombia that are best avoided, and kidnapping can be an issue, there are plenty of safe areas. So long as you use proper precautions and you’re aware of risks in certain areas, you can make a vacation out of this fascinating South American country.

For those who are intrigued by this idea, we’d note that Colombia isn’t just OK. It actually has a lot to offer the modern tourist, including some of the following highlights.

The Colombian Coffee Region, also known as the Coffee Triangle, is a part of the Colombian Paisa Region in the rural area of Colombia.

The Colombian Coffee Region, also known as the Coffee Triangle, is a part of the Colombian Paisa Region in the rural area of Colombia.



Coffee Plantations

As you may be aware, Colombia produces some of the finest coffee in the world, and you don’t have to be a connoisseur to appreciate this as a sort of attraction. While you can certainly spend time learning how coffee is made and sampling some of the best there is, “coffee tourism” will also take you to some of the more beautiful parts of the country. The coffee region of Colombia, which some refer to as the Coffee Axis, happens to include lush hills, some national park land and incredibly charming venues from which the plantations are run (and shown off).

San Andreas Scuba Diving

While not technically in the Caribbean, Colombia is one of the closer mainland countries to the famously beautiful sea, and as such it has some similar diving and snorkeling opportunities. That is to say, there are places on the coast of Colombia where you can enjoy translucent turquoise water, high visibility, warm temperatures and an all around terrific diving experience. Cartagena is a popular starting point for a lot of people looking to go on diving expeditions, though we’d also point out San Andreas because it actually is in the Caribbean. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a beautiful archipelago located a fair distance offshore, in the Caribbean Sea between Colombia and Nicaragua. You can stay on the islands, and the scuba and snorkel opportunities are wonderful.

Casino Activity

Here again, Colombia doesn’t get quite as much attention as some of its Caribbean neighbors to the north. That is to say, you don’t hear about casino destinations in Colombia the way you might hear about the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas or the Hard Rock Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, there is a thriving gambling industry in Colombia. In fact, it’s doing the country quite a bit of good. A U.S.-based site posting the latest stories and updates about casino culture in the Americas pointed out that Colombia gambling revenue has raised $2.5 billion for healthcare. That implies a thriving industry, and if this is your sort of thing to do on vacation, destinations like CASINO Cosmopolitan, Casino Rio, and Casino Rock’n Jazz are just a few of the venues where you might be able to take a break and enjoy yourself.

Mud Baths

The idea of a mud bath might not typically be on your list of things to look for in a fun or relaxing vacation, unless you have your eye on a specific spa. But in Colombia this is one of the more unique and memorable things you can do. Basically, in the country surrounding Cartagena, there is a very small volcano called El Totumo. And the inside of the volcano (which is in fact an active one) is filled with mud, rather than boiling lava. The mud is naturally heated, and while it’s not piping hot, it’s said to make for a relaxing time. According to some Colombian lore, the volcano used to be far more dangerous before it was blessed by a priest and — perhaps more plausibly — the muddy consistency of the heated pool within carries some mineral health benefits.

Múcura Island is a stunning choral island offering beautiful beaches and sights of stunning mangrove trees.

Múcura Island is a stunning choral island offering beautiful beaches and sights of stunning mangrove trees.



Isla Mucura Swimming

Given what we said before about Colombia resembling a Caribbean paradise in some areas, it follows that there are plenty of great swimming spots around the country. Southwest of Cartagena however, and just a short distance offshore, lies Isla Mucura – which was actually singled out by CNN as one of the top highlights of Colombia, and a particularly nice place to swim. ”Otherworldly bioluminescent plankton” are among the highlights mentioned in the CNN piece, which certainly makes it sound like a charming place to swim to us.

(Gabe Campbell is a photographer, blogger, and artist in Raleigh, North Carolina. He travels whenever he gets the opportunity to, and hopes to combine those interests into an original online travel magazine in the near future.)

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.


FOR MEN

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.

FOR WOMEN

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.

khikhlinko

khikhlinko


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.


THE CROSS PEAK

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.


TRUSO VALLEY

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.


TSMINDA SAMEBA 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.

Georgian wine: An 8,000-year-old tradition is popping corks around the world

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union's top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union’s top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.


TELAVI, Republic of Georgia — I’m standing in a room with six holes dug deep in the ground like time capsules, places you put deep secrets and store for thousands of years. In a way they are.

About 8,000 years ago, not far from where I’m standing, these same types of holes were scattered around this blessed land, this intoxicating bridge between Europe and Asia. The holes back then weren’t time capsules but they did contain secrets. They were secrets to producing a gift to mankind that I hope keeps giving until man’s extinction.

Wine.

Yes, wine’s birthplace was 8,000 years ago, right here. Not in Italy. Not in France. Not in Ancient Greece. But here in this former Soviet republic, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin who had a few sips of Saperavi red while killing 20 million people. Last year, archaeologists discovered clay fragments about 30 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and about 50 miles from where I’m standing with a glass in my hand. The fragments, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were dated to 6,000 BC and parts of large vases where inhabitants stored wine, underground, in the same type of holes where Giogi Dakishvili is showing me where he stores his.

Keep in mind, 8,000 years ago man was just recovering from the last Ice Age and agricultural techniques were spreading throughout what is now Europe. Thanks to receding ice leading to warmer temperatures, the conditions for growing grapes and making wine were similar to what they are today.

During a recent two-week trip to Georgia, I saw those conditions and understand why this country of 3.7 million people the size of West Virginia has one of the trendiest wine scenes in the world. With a latitude similar to Tuscany and Bordeaux, it has mild winters and 2,300 hours of sun a year (Remember, nighttime hours are part of the cycle.). Natural springs come from the nearby Caucasus mountains which are covered in snow all year round. The humid air coming from the Black Sea to the west allows the growth of 530 unique grape varieties. Georgia is the top grape-producing region of the 15 former Soviet republics behind Moldova.

Combine 8,000 years of history with ideal conditions and Georgians’ fierce independence after centuries of oppression, and you have a wine culture as important to the population as the mountain air they breathe.

“Wine is not only a gastro product for me,” said Irakli Rostomashvili who runs a small family winery out of his home. “It is everything. It is our culture. It is our history. It is our religion.”

***

To pop the cork on Georgian wine [link], I took a marshutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of long-distance travel, an hour and 45 minutes east from Tbilisi to the town of Telavi. The bilingual street signs are handy as the Georgian alphabet, all swirls and lines, looks like spaghetti after being thrown on the floor. The four-lane highway has no lines, potentially problematic as we zigzagged our way into the highlands. Soon, dilapidated, rusted factories and buildings with aluminum roofs gave way to beautiful green meadows and fields lined with grape vines, all outlined with snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Kakhuri Winery's vineyard

Kakhuri Winery’s vineyard


Telavi is the capital of Kakheti, the region that hugs Georgia’s southeast corner and has 60 percent of the country’s vineyards. It’s a pleasant, clean town where its 20,000 people wake up to see the Caucasus to the northeast and the Gombori mountains to the southwest. Rolling green hills and valleys provide the foreground. You constantly walk around with a curious urge for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.

I organized my tour through the Kakheti Wine Guild which occupies a large corner office lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with Kakheti wine bottles. Three young, energetic, knowledgeable Georgian women man the phones and greet visitors. They set me up with five winery tours over two days and even arranged for a taxi to shepherd me around for a reasonable fee.

The women are too young to have experienced communism which ended here in 1991. But they heard stories from their parents and studied Georgia’s wine history. It’s a fascinating tale intertwining politics and culture, told best with a glass of ruby red Georgian wine in hand.

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo


Georgian families have been making wine for centuries. That all ended in 1921 when the communists took over and grabbed all the vines for themselves. They nationalized the wine industry, meaning when the Politburo sat around discussing new ways to oppress its population they drank the semi-sweet wine from Georgia.

The fall of communism in ‘91 kick started Georgia’s wine industry. It began modestly. Georgia’s handle as “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union” was met with more smirks than sales. In 2006, Russia, which made up 80 percent of Georgia’s exporting wine market, announced an embargo on Georgian wine, claiming they didn’t meet sanity requirements. Georgia defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, displaying unusual honesty and an insight into the, ahem, loving nature between the two countries, admitted that “many (Georgian) wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is a market where you can sell even turds.”

Without its chief market, Georgian wine makers had to adjust or die on the vine. They upgraded their production methods. They improved the quality. They expanded the variety. And they looked for other markets. Then it exploded. Last year, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency, 76.7 million Georgian wines were sold to 53 countries.

But to understand Georgian wine, one must understand Georgia culture. It’s a land that has been overrun by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Seljuks, the Russians and the Russians again.

And that was just Friday.

Oh, and did I mention the Black Death? That came in the 14th century and wiped out about half of Europe’s population. Throughout their tumultuous history, Georgians turned to the one thing they always had in abundance. It was not soldiers. It was wine.

“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” said Giogi Dakishvili, who runs his family’s Vita Vinea Winery. “Persian invasion, the Turkish, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”

Georgian toasts, called "Supra," are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo

Georgian toasts, called “Supra,” are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo


They’d forget their troubles around the table, raise glasses and toast to what they did have. Family. Friends. And, of course, wine. Toasts have become so important to the Georgian wine culture that it has its own word: supra. The supra is even a profession. Georgia has professional toastmasters, known as tamadas, who attends parties or family gatherings and leads toasts.

Toasts in Georgia are art form. Some toasts are so moving, grown men cry. Some laugh. And everyone takes part. The toasts go around the table, and you’d better have something to toast or will be the subject of that night’s scorn.

Usually the first three toasts are to God, thanking Him for the food and wine which, despite Soviet times, always seemed in big supply here. Other toasts are more specific, ranging from the love of a woman to a new appliance. Under the Soviet Union, the supra was the one time Georgians could express themselves. And today at a table of 20 people, after 20 toasts, the Georgians don’t express themselves all that well.

“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, one of Georgia’s biggest wine dealers. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”

How’d this become a cultural spectacle rather than a simple “clink” between two friends? The story goes that when God told the world’s people to gather when he gave away the land, the Georgians showed up late. He asked why. They said they were toasting him. God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”

And this is where I spent two weeks drinking wine.

***

I spent two days in Telavi bouncing around five wineries like a thirsty sailor. The Telavi area has 20 commercial wineries, not counting the small family operations. Reservations aren’t needed. Visitors are welcome and tasting fees aren’t much. Mine ranged from 7 to 10 euros. Add in taxi fees that were 10 euros the first day and 27 the next and it amounts to a pretty cheap weekend.

The winemakers all spoke English but be careful. The tastings aren’t like they are in Italy, France and California where you get just a “taste.” Many poured about half a glass. This is where taking taxis is advantageous over renting a car.

Here’s a look at the five wineries I visited. Contact the Kakheti Wine Guild (www.kwg.ge, 350-279-090) for more information:

Kakhuri Winery

Kakhuri Winery


KAKHURI WINERY.
This is where Georgia’s communist past puts on its gray trenchcoat. Kakhuri’s winery is a big, gray stone block. If it had raised letters instead of small windows it would look like a tomb. Until 2000 it was a silk factory. Today, it houses one of the leading commercial wineries in Georgia.

The woman who gave me a private tour took me into a scruffy warehouse with dirty white walls but they were lined forever with French oak barrels. Here is where they store their wine for six months.

Georgia has three main types of wine: semi-sweet, still the favorite of their main Russian market; dry reds, which have grown in popularity and I’ll compare favorably with many of their Italian counterparts; and sparkling wines which have been around since the late 1800s but are now starting to win awards.

Kakhuri's tasting room.

Kakhuri’s tasting room.


Another room is filled with five-liter plastic jugs filled with white wine. They look like giant bottles of honey. On the tasting room wall are nine mini bottles of different flavored chacha, the Georgian vodka they make from grape residue.

My favorite of the five wines I tasted was the Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red wine made with 100 percent Saperavi grapes, the most common red grape in Georgia.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.


ROSTOMAANT MARANI

This little family winery goes back to the 1920s. It all ended in 1921 when communism settled in for its long stay and the Soviets took over all wine production in major factories. Nicolas Rostomashvili had to give up the one thing he loved to do. Five years ago his great-grandson, Irakli, restarted the winery in the family home. The Rostomaant, named after his great grandfather, is just one of many small family wineries sprinkled around Kakheti.

With Georgian families, wine is more than a business. Rostomashvili sells about 1,000 bottles a year.

“Wine must be deep,” said Irakli, 38. “It must say something. It has so many vitamins, I don’t want to eat anything. When I have a headache, I drink two glasses of wine and it helps me.”

I walked along a path under a huge tree and past a pile of firewood to his modest, brick tasting room where a woman has laid out plates of Georgian cheese, bread and walnuts. Next door, he showed me a room with five holes that are the trademark of Georgian wineries. While modern wine-making methods are being used in all wineries, many winemakers, from the big commercial dealers to guys like Irakli, make wine the same way the inventors did 8,000 years ago.

When he makes wine, Irakli includes the skin, stems and everything else and places it in clay pots, known as qvevris, lined with beeswax. They’re placed in these holes for six months to two years, depending on the wine. After two months, he examines the qvevri. The end result is the most natural wine you’ll ever taste. He uses five times fewer sulfites than the full-sulfite wine you find in the U.S. His five qvevris produce 3,500 liters of wine.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.


This ancient method is now being used in some wineries in Italy, France and the U.S.

“I can’t say it’s better or worse,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s hard. You need a lot of work, cleaning, patience.”

His wines are no worse than the large commercial wines I tried. My favorite was his Saperavi 2017, a rich, deep red to which he adds no sulfites. The best part? It retails for about $12;.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.


TELAVI WINE CELLAR

Ramazashvili looks tired. The owner of Telavi Wine Cellar and Georgia’s famous Merani wine is the antithesis of the wine people I’ve met over the years. They’re happy, bubbly, energetic. Ramazashvili looks like an overworked, underappreciated factory drone from the USSR, circa 1978.

“I’m never happy,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m always thinking of ways to get better.”

He’s done quite well so far. His winery has won more than 600 awards which cover an entire wall of his large, corporate-looking tasting room. Telavi makes 70 different wines, ranging from table wine to wines coming from a single vineyard. They sell 5 million bottles a year.

Telavi began in 1915 but also fell victim to Soviet nationalization. Ramazashvili took over in 1997 after a stint as a professor of medicine an d then a doctor, who under communism, received just slightly better pay than some of the better lab rats.

“I changed my life,” he said. “I go into business. If you’re a private doctor you get paid but people had no money.”

Ramazashvili rarely drinks and doesn’t do traditional toastings.

“I have so many opportunities to drink outside,” he said. “I’m too tired.”

The Telavi plant is huge. One warehouse is lined with hundreds of oak barrels. Another room has 40 qvevris, all lined up like miniature missile shelters. Here the reds ferment for six months and the whites 12-18 months.

My favorite was the semisweet Tvishi white made from 100 percent Tsolikouri grape from the west part of Georgia. It’s pleasant, soft with a mix of fruits.

Vita Vinea's family vintage bottle.

Vita Vinea’s family vintage bottle.


VITA VINEA WINERY

Dakishvili’s tasting room looks like a dining room of a hunting lodge. Inside the big, beautiful brick room are three overstuffed black chairs and a moosehead over a fireplace. On a long tasting table made of stained wood, Dakishvili, 47, talked about being the son of one of the USSR’s top oenologist, which is basically a wine scientist.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not only a business. Every family member is in wine production.”

It brought a good income, even under communism. The family compound is a large yet homey complex on the outskirts of Telavi. The snow-covered mountains can be seen from their front yard. He remembers under the USSR how the shops had so little. The meat and poultry were always frozen.

“But we had a lot of wine,” he said.

He started the business in 2008 and produces most of his wine in his eight qvervis. His white wines are so amber they almost look orange. The business is taking off. He produces 50,000 bottles a year and exports to the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Japan.

“Maybe in the past we didn’t promote,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to promote our wine in a good manner. Now it’s a totally different reality in Georgia. The wines are high quality and well promoted.”

My favorite was his First Vintage 2007, a gorgeous red from the family’s first batch of grapes.

Me in Vaziani Company.

Me in Vaziani Company.


VAZIANI COMPANY
Frankly, my notes from this winery are a bit blurry. My tasting room host, Tamara Meskhishvili, engaged me in an intense conversation about the pluses and minuses of Stalin while she poured me, not four, not five, but 12 tastings, each one about half a glass.

I do recall her pointing outside the tasting room to a huge baobab tree she claimed was 2,000 years old. She also gave me good looks at qvevri, explaining that each one weighs 2 ½ tons and men, specifically trained to make them, take six months to make one.

After the 12 tastings, Meskhishvili told me I had something in common with Stalin. My favorite wine was a Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet wine that’s the No. 2 seller in Russia today.

It was also Stalin’s favorite.