Underground driving

During the Soviet times every second bottle of wine sold in the USSR came from Moldova. The resultant need for infrastructure saw an unusual development here. Storage of bottles was a huge issue and until the 1950s crates of wine were stored outdoors subject to the elements. This combined with a shortage of building materials resulted in large scale extraction of subterranean limestone creating a perfect environment for the storage of wine. Now at Cricova winery, north of Chisinau, there is over 100km of underground roads big enough for cars to drive down. These now house most of the winery’s winemaking and storage as well as storing for International clients such as Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, former German chancellor and former vice President , John Kerry. The wine tour lets you see a fraction of their holdings.

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The day ended with a drive up to Old Orhei, in the north of this tiny country. This is a monastic complex that is visible from kilometres away perched high upon a crescentic promontory of land high upon a hilltop. As anything here there are layers of history but what we see left is a 14th century orthodox monastery and caves which now function as chapels.

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Chisinau

The capitol of Moldova looks more like a regional city in this poor outpost of Eastern Europe. It has a population of just over 600,000 people and is relatively compact and easy to walk around. Old boxy style Soviet blocks dominate the outskirts of town. While our accommodation is quite central this airBnB is also an old Soviet era apartment which looks particularly run down from the outside but relatively modern and functional on the inside There are no major attractions nor monuments here but enough slightly quirky lesser monuments and building to allow for a pleasant 1-2 day stopover.

Streetscapes

Streetscapes

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Triumphal arch

Triumphal arch

Parliament

Parliament

Bell tower Nativity Cathedral

Bell tower Nativity Cathedral

Nativity Cathedral

Nativity Cathedral

Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

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Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

Pantaleon church

Pantaleon church

 

Outside the capitol the main attraction is wine. The countryside is flat and unexciting. Unlike other wine areas roadside vineyards are few and far between and autumn fields lie fallow with newly tilled dark soil. We visit a couple of wineries and stay the night at Etcetera winery where we enjoy some tasty traditional dishes and taste wines in the winery out of the barrel before blending and bottling.

Etcetera winery

Etcetera winery

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Transnistra???

If you have never heard of Moldova, which I am betting is the case then you will definitely have no idea of the existence of Transnistra. Transnistra is a thin sliver of land on the eastern border of Moldova sandwiched between the Dneister River and Ukraine. Ethnically these people are a 3 way mixture of Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians. Right at the get go in 1991-92 they resisted attempts to integrate them in Moldova. In 1992 they went to war with Moldova. Three months later a cease fire was negotiated which continues to this day. Transnistra has applied to the UN for recognition as a sovereign nation but was rejected.

What makes this little territory really interesting is their anachronistic continued political and social adherence to the Soviet ideal. This little “would be” nation has its own military, border crossings, currency and legislature. They run 5 yearly elections in much the same style as Russia does. Emblematic of how free and fair the process is a government candidate in 2001 won his electorate with 103% of the vote!

It’s 90 minutes on the bus from Chisinau to the capitol of Transnistra, Tiraspol. The countryside is fairly flat and nondescript. At the border we are given a piece of paper which is a visa valid for 10 hours and fairly soon after cross the Dneister into Tiraspol. My expectations were that this would be a drab grey Soviet style city, a downmarket version of Pyongyang perhaps. My travelling companions Anthony and his good friend James were here 4 years ago and at that time the place looked as I expected. Today it looks like a quiet but pretty little city, much changed from that previous experience. The only nod to the Soviet past is the persistence of Lenin statues and a number of former Russian tanks that have been put on pedestals as monuments. In among this, though are pretty, colourful, Orthodox churches and shrines and pretty parklands running along the river. This place is an enjoyable aberration.

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Unable to secure an appointment at the Kvint winery for a tasting of their world famous cognacs, despite some elaborate attempts and ruses by my travelling companions (nice try boys)

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we spend the afternoon in the town of Bender touring through the immaculately restored 16th century Ottoman fortress. In between it all we stumble into a newly funky restaurant at Tiraspol called BBQ burger bar. The manager there tells us it is his second day being opened and records a testimonial from us to put on Instagram. Crazy place!

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Moldova?

Dusk approaches. There is a fine light misty sprinkling falling from grey skies. All around is light, sound and motion. The massive TV screen set up in the middle of the blocked road is belting out some sort of light pop music with a really Eastern Euro feel. A local guy comes over to us plonks three plastic wine glasses before us and pours red wine. We do not speak each other’s language but he smiles broadly brandishing the wine bottle and its label before us. The wine is a pleasant fruity quaffer and in the spirit of friendship we drink, compliment and thank him for it. He comes back with some white wine and the performance is repeated. People are crowding around the various booths and marquees to taste the major produce and source of what little export wealth there is for this small Easter European backwater that is Moldova, wine. Accidentally we have arrived bang in the middle of the annual 2 day festival and wine expo in the little backwater Moldovan capitol of Chisinau.

Chisinau streetscape

Chisinau streetscape

Moldova was a tiny piece that fell out of the jigsaw puzzle of nations that was the USSR. The fragmentation of the Soviet empire in 1992 left this poor little backwater sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Ethnically these people are Romanian, they speak the same language, and even persist with the Romanian currency. In Soviet times they were a supplier of cheap and nasty tasting wine to Russia. Since independence the little wine industry has struggled to attract the attention of the outside world. It has been a fast learning curve for the vignerons here but they have been hamstrung by their former market’s desire for classic European grapes such as Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The newer generation vignerons are increasing planting the original, indigenous grapes. The result is that the best wines here are those made with the grapes such as Feteasca Alba, Feteasca negra and Rara Negra. The very best of these are absolute knockout wines, different to anything I have ever tasted and the best of them go for the pittance price of $20 Australian. This is a wine lover’s nirvana!

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The three amigos

The three amigos

Starting a tour of the world’s hotspots

It is over a year ago that I paid a deposit for a trip to Iraq. Iraq is the centre piece of my forthcoming 3 week break. I have been asked often about my impending holiday destination.  When the answer was Iraq the responses varied from raised eyebrows to downright dismay. For all of the recent historical conflict in Iraq, not much of significance has actually happened in the southern section where I will be travelling. That is not, of course, until the last 4 days where violent anti government protest has resulted in 60 deaths and many more with serious injuries.

Back when I booked this trip a Hong Kong stopover would not have rated. Fast forward to late 2019 and how times have changed. Less than 18 hours before I arrive the news reporting on the 70th anniversary of the creation of the People Republic of China shows mass protest, tear gas and water cannons and the shooting of a protestor by police. It is at more of a flashpoint than Iraq has been.

On landing it is a rare sunny day in Honkers and, with a long stopover there, we take the opportunity to leave the airport and catch the train into town and up to Victoria Peak. It is a warm, steamy but amazingly well lit sunny morning. We have breakfast there and take our fill of photos looking down over Hong Kong before taking the tourist tram down the mountain and the train back to the airport. Less than 12 hours after we leave the protestors target the train network destroying ticket machines and occupying stations. The government responds by closing down the rail system. The only evidence of the demonstrations we see on our perfectly timed foray is random anti government graffiti.

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Hemingway and Che

Cuba is a funny place. When locals ask us where we are from and we respond with Australia, unlike elsewhere in the world where their response back to us is usually “kangaroo” here we get “Skippy” and often as not a rendition of the theme song of what is a 1960s Aussie TV show. Apparently it has played on and off on local TV for the last 15 years here.

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The other source of amusement is the characterisation of a more shaggy bearded Anthony as Che Guevarra. Over the 4 weeks since I last shaved I have accumulated a luxuriant grey beard and moustache. As an older grey bearded man I am frequently described as Ernest Hemingway the famous American author who spent such a large part of his life in Cuba between WW2 and the beginning of Castro’s rule in 1959. Interestingly despite Hemmingway’s support of Castro’s overthrow of Battista, his Cuban property was taken by Fidel’s regime along with all property owned by non Cubans.

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I feel incredibly sorry for these nice people. While it is good for the tourist to see a nation in a “time warp” where everything looks the same as it would have 50 years ago, albeit decayed, it is the people who suffer from lack of basics. One sees very few old people around is this an indictment of their health care? This is an intrinsically poor country with no mineral or oil wealth and basic agricultural infrastructure. At the height of the cold war all they had to offer the Soviets was the strategic location near USA and human beings. Cuban soldiers fought for and died as Soviet proxies around the world, most notably in Angola in the 1980s. I am not sure what the Cubans received in return but judging by the state of infrastructure it does not look like much.

Revolutionary museum choc full of anti American propaganda

Revolutionary museum choc full of anti American propaganda

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The plaque underneath this tank states that Fidel himself fired a shell from this tank that hit USS Houston while repelling the Bay of Pigs invasion

The plaque underneath this tank states that Fidel himself fired a shell from this tank that hit USS Houston while repelling the Bay of Pigs invasion

These are people who have been subjected to an ongoing 60 year experiment in socialist dictator government. They were introduced to it at gun point and have never had a chance to pass electoral judgement on their political masters. By every indicator the experiment has been an abject failure and there is no end in sight. In time Fidel and his revolutionaries will be despised and not admired by generations to come. The only way to achieve a fair outcome for these people is to relax sanctions and promote trade and contact with the west. That of course, will inexorably change the tourist experience her to be more mainstream and less of an adventure. So, my advice to anyone planning to visit Guba is to do it now before it all changes.

Pictures from across the harbour in the massive fort of San Carlos de la Cabana and looking across to Havana city:

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Revolution square:

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Castillo de San Salvador:

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The Malecon drive:

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Congress building:

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Havan’a good time

The drive in from the airport into a new country’s major city is always revealing and with increasing countries under your belt certain patterns become obvious. Regardless of how tired I am after a flight, all of my senses are heightened on the drive (usually taxi) in and my antennae rarely get it wrong! Cuba has been high on my list of must sees for a long time. When Obama relaxed the restrictions I thought that I had “missed the boat” but Trump’s reimposition of sanctions means that nothing has changed here. The drive in was a major surprise for me. All around is decay and decrepitude, not the worst I have seen but very comparable to some of the middling African nations I have been to. It gets me thinking.

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We are in the heart of the hotel in an Airbnb. As our taxi pulls up alongside a row of run down facades I lower my expectations accordingly and am presently surprised when the interior reveals a modern classy apartment, thanks Anthony for finding this place. Go figure!

View from our apartment

View from our apartment

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We hit the streets and all around the beauty that I expected is everywhere with grand albeit slightly crumbly buildings. Spanish era cathedrals and palaces crop up between narrow atmospheric alleyways and treed squares. Ancient 1950s Chevrolets and other American gas guzzlers cruise the streets as well as rickshaws and horses and carriages.

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This is an absolute gem for tourists which is already showing signs of evolution into the 20th century but still retains its 1960s charm.

Castille de la Real Fuerza

Castille de la Real Fuerza

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Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas

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Plaza Catedrale

Plaza Catedrale

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Views in and from the Cathedral

Views in and from the Cathedral

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Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja

Plaza San Francisco

Plaza San Francisco

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Graffiti and propaganda

Graffiti and propaganda

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Anthony’s fluency in Spanish comes into its own here. We find a restaurant around the corner, one of many serving magnificently cooked lobster tail for the princely sum of $16 US! The waters around Cuba will be significantly depleted of lobster after we have spent a few days here. Bring it on!

Pigs might fly but they can swim

A short 25 minute flight takes us from Miami to Nassau, the capitol of the Bahamas. In keeping with the short distance between them this is a very Americanised Caribbean island group. Sun and sand, resorts and cruise ships, even designer label shops pander to the American “theme park” loving tourists. Nonetheless this chain of over 700 verdant islands sports stunning unspoilt beaches and mesmerising turquoise blue water. It truly is a tropical paradise.

All of the locals are bemused by the tourists’ desire to do one day trip over any other and that is to see the swimming pigs. With a not insignificant price tag of $400 US per person the tours are fully booked such is their popularity. We set out under clear blue skies and the first 90 minutes sees us speeding uncomfortably down to the stunning Exumas Cays. The first stop is at Iguana beach where these fascinating but ugly reptiles scamper around the beach curious rather than afraid of us.

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Another hour takes us past innumerable little islands, many of which have buildings. These islands belong to the ultra rich and famous and our crew point them out. This one belonged to Pablo Escobar, this to the CEO of Louis Vuitton, actor Tyler Perry, Johnny Depp and so the roll call goes on. Finally we reach our destination and yes the beach is home to about 20 porkers of varying sizes up to 250kg. As we pull into shore they start to swim out to us enticed by the free feed. Both human and porcine participants  are well sated by the conclusion of this face to snout encounter.

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Lunch is at the sailing club at Staniel Cay and, for me and and Anthony, this is actually the highlight of our trip. At the edge of the wharf is a staircase leading into the sea. Because of humans feeding fish scraps the water at the bottom step is literally alive with dozens of grey nurse sharks. Wading into the water and having these magnificent pelagics brush up against our legs is an otherworldly experience.

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The day finishes with a long swim at a deserted idyllic white sand beach. The perfect ending to a perfect day.

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I don’t like cricket, I love it!

The little island nation of Barbados is the most south easterly of the Caribbean chain and is the only Caribbean Island to have had only a Britain as the colonial master and it shows. This is a much more orderly little country with a relaxed and less frenetic pace. It is a stark contrast to some of the traffic and people madness of Jamaica. The result is also that this place is the de facto “head” of West Indian cricket. Barbados has the oldest national cricket team here and Kensington cricket stadium in Barbados was the obvious choice for the cricket world cup final in 2007.

Kensington stadium

Kensington stadium

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Driving around little towns on a Saturday afternoon we see local cricket matches played on village greens, the dark skins of the Barbadians contrasting with their dazzling bleached whites. We stop and watch. The nearest fielder engages in conversation and there is a natural rapport present.

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You can drive around the island in 3 hours and it has more than its fair share of golden beaches that invite one to swim and relax. This is not an island with lavish and garish resorts it is much more restrained but no less beautiful for it. Apart from the obvious cricket heritage it also boasts a couple of more quirky attractions. Firstly there is the George Washington house. Sensitively refurbished this house accommodated the 19 year old future first president of the USA who moved here for a short time with his brother Laurence who was suffering from TB. It was thought that the milder climate would be good for him. Sadly Laurence succumbed to the consumption a year later but George of course goes on to become the inaugural POTUS,

George Washington House

George Washington House

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In the heart of Barbados is the beautiful Harrison cave. Now I am a “sucker” for caves, love them. I was a bit put off with the idea that we would be driven around in a tram. Well it worked and the caves are beautiful. Interestingly it is the most active cave I have seen with the walls of a shaft dug 20 years ago already glistening with a limestone coating.

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Great little island, for me as a cricket buff what a shame the decline of the West Indian team means that test matches are rarely played here. I could very easily get used to coming back here!

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Garrison tunnels carved out of the limestone 30 feet deep by soldiers 300 years ago

Garrison tunnels carved out of the limestone 30 feet deep by soldiers 300 years ago

Tasting at Mt Gay Rum distillery

Tasting at Mt Gay Rum distillery

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Spieght town

Spieght town

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Dreadlock holiday

Hey mon! Want some ganja? Want to get high? This is Jamaica. Anywhere we go this is routinely offered, even to an old man like me walking around by myself. Amazingly the stereotypical “Hey mon” greeting is everywhere not just a media myth. These people are actually quite friendly but this country has a reputation for violence and travel advisories advise against tourism here. As we drive in from the airport we hear on the car radio a news article and interview quoting the murder rate as 3 times higher than in other Caribbean countries and government initiatives to reverse this trend. It brings the travel warnings into stark perspective.

The Spanish colonised this island in the 1400s. One hundred and fifty years later when the British replaced the Spanish the local Indian population had been wiped out. The slave trade repopulated Jamaica and it is descendants of those Africans who are today’s Jamaicans. Attaining independence from England in 1947 the country seems to subsist on sugar cane and tourism. Driving around the island the vibe is generally a sleepy tropical one.

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The tourist hub of Jamaica is the second city, Montego Bay. Comprising beaches and flashy expensive resorts it is all sun and sand and margaritas. We opt to stay in the more shambolic town of Ocho Rios where the steep mountainous spine meets the sea. The result is a hinterland of lush tropical rainforest, waterfalls and swimming holes.

There is a Carnival cruise ship in on our first day so we start early and beat most of the tour groups to the most popular Dunns River Falls. Nonetheless we are still greeted by a tacky US amusement park style surround and there is already a conga line of people climbing up the cascades that make up the waterfalls. Nonetheless it is fun and cooling from the intense tropical heat.

Dunn's River Falls

Dunn’s River Falls

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The next such falls we drive to, the Irie Blue Hole lacked the commercialism and crowds and was much more fun.

Irie Blue Hole

Irie Blue Hole

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For me the highlight of the day was dinner at Goldeneye. In 1946 Ian Fleming moved to a little town called Oracabessa in Jamaica and built a clifftop villa with a pristine beach below. From 1952 there he wrote all of the James Bond novels there, which spawned one of the most successful film franchises ever. His actual study and main accommodation is at the core of what is now a luxury resort. You can stay in his room for $8000US per night. Lesser rooms usually go for around $3000US per night. As per everywhere here there is no signposting and the only entry is through a guarded gate in the middle of a high stone wall. The only signage being “Private Access”

Securing a reservation went via a labyrinth of unanswered calls and chains of emails. Ultimately Anthony’s perseverance paid off and we secured a reservation. Photos of Sean Connery and Ursula Anders in the white bikini adorn the walls of the elegant dining space set in jungle overlooking beach pools and cabanas belonging to the individual rooms. Of course the “Vesper martini”” is de riguer. While the meal was surprisingly underwhelming for a luxury resort the ambience more than made up for it. Celebrities such as Beyonce, Johnny Depp and the Obamas among others come here. Sting wrote the song “Every breath you take” at Fleming’s desk. I suppose the barriers to outsiders coming is understandable. My guess is that paparazzi must try what we did all the time. The fact that we got in probably indicates that no celebrities were staying in house. We certainly did not see any.

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Enjoying a vesper martini

Enjoying a vesper martini

Our last day we completed a loop of the east coast of the island. Driving well away from the touristed areas chaotic towns gradually gave way to quiet hamlets and more rural scenery. Sugar cane is the predominant farming pursuit here but our little car had to dodge goats and cattle as well as the occasional sleeping dog.

Church at Port Maria

Church at Port Maria

Blue lagoon

Blue lagoon

Winifred Beach

Winifred Beach

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Jamaican

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Reach Falls

Reach Falls

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My 12 meter jump into the Reach Falls

My 12 meter jump into the Reach Falls

The highlight of this last day was the drive out to the easternmost point of Jamaica to Morant lighthouse. The side road there was a dirt heavily potholed remote track winding between sugar cane fields. Arriving at the light house a large gate bars our way in and we are about to take a couple of pictures and turn back when we see the lighthouse keeper at a distance waving his arms. My initial impression was that he was telling us to go away, but on a second look he was motioning us to come in. Jack the lighthouse keeper greets us with a broad smile and handshakes. He shows us around and takes us to the top of the lighthouse. He has been there 29 years and when asked about it he ironically states he loves the job because he gets to meet people. When we sign the visitor’s book it is obvious that weeks go by without any visitors coming.

Morant lighthouse

Morant lighthouse

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We feel special and have seen a unique side to Jamaica away from the beaches and the luxury resorts.