A Travellerspoint blog

October 2019

Köln

semi-overcast 10 °C
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Ice Hockey Accessories

Ice Hockey Accessories

The Sunday of my F*ck Brexit travels brought an early start to catch the 08.32 DB Bahn ICE to Köln. Getting a hotel near the station in Brussels was a good decision.

In September 1970 I went on an InterRail trip to Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg and France with 5 school friends. We had all left high school that summer. Our first train journey outside the UK was from Ostende to Köln. As we entered Germany there was some discussion about whether we had to change trains in Aachen. When we got there, I was volunteered to get off and ask.

I did. It was a through train.

DB Bahn ICE

DB Bahn ICE

By the time I turned around, it was leaving - with my bag and (useless) friends on it. The station staff were very helpful and put me on the next train via Mönchengladbach. I was reunited with my rucksack and my (useless) friends at the youth hostel in Köln.

October in Krefeld

October in Krefeld

Well, Sunday morning’s train to Köln via Aachen was less eventful. I did think of getting off at Aachen to take a train to Köln via Mönchengladbach just for old times’ sake, but the ICE was too fast and comfortable.

Köln Hbf

Köln Hbf

Just like during my brief stop in Berlin last month, it felt strange to be back in Germany. It was like a second home for 6 years, and I loved it. Of course that was Bavaria. Berlin and Köln are so different. But it is still Germany.

It brought back a lot of memories, but they just have to be tackled head on.

Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln

Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln

Some of the memories are also from that 1970 holiday, and those 5 friends. I still see one of them occasionally. Another lives in South Africa, but we see each other if he is back in Scotland. One emigrated to Canada after he got his medical degree. Another to Kuwait, although I think he lives in England now (probably a Brexit fan). The last one died of lung cancer in his 50s.

As for 2019 Köln, well they are still working on the Dom…

Fog on the Rhein

Fog on the Rhein

No, joking apart, I did not have a lot of time in the city - just enough for a walk around the city centre before heading back to Brussels on a Monday lunchtime Thalys. The Rhein is a major feature obviously, perhaps second to the Dom. It was foggy when I was there.

Krefeld v Ingolstadt

Krefeld v Ingolstadt

Most of my time was taken up by an afternoon trip to Krefeld to see an ice hockey game.

Posted by IainT 19:07 Archived in Germany Tagged trains germany transport ice_hockey köln brexit Comments (0)

Brussels

overcast 12 °C
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Galeries Royales

Galeries Royales

Back at the end of March I took a trip to Dublin and Belfast to celebrate my freedom of movement while I still could, ahead of the UK’s promised crash out of the EU. As an aside, the Brits who drool over a hard or no deal Brexit should be locked up for their own safety.

Well, April arrived without a Brexit. Next deadline - the end of October (but it looks as if that has been postponed as well).

This time I decided on Köln as my destination, via Brussels and - dare I say it - Krefeld.

Revisiting Brussels is always great for me. It is like going to visit an old friend. For several years during the 90s I visited the city regularly. I was on the management board of a multinational joint venture based in Brussels, and also had lobbying to do - mostly at the EU Commission.

Brussels Dawn

Brussels Dawn

The whole journey there was just like an attack of déja vu. Brussels Airlines to Brussels - it used to be Sabena until the 9-11 economic shock killed it off. The SNCB train from the airport to Gare Centrale. The short walk to my hotel.

SNCB Airport (semi) Express

SNCB Airport (semi) Express

Just opposite the station are 4 modern hotels built around a square - Ibis, Hilton, Carrefour de L’Europe and a Novotel. Until now I had stayed in 3 out of 4, and this time I stayed in the Novotel to make up the full set.

Novotel

Novotel

Usually it would have been outside my budget but Brussels hotels are often full all week and then quieter at weekends, so cheaper deals come up. I knew I was unlikely to need their breakfast with an 8.30 train to catch in the morning, and at €22 it was going to be easy to find a sensible alternative.

Fast (Green) Food

Fast (Green) Food

Between getting to the hotel about 8pm and that early morning train, I had little time to do more than eat and sleep, but just being in those familiar places was really enjoyable.

Posted by IainT 10:56 Archived in Belgium Tagged belgium brussels brexit Comments (0)

Tbilisi - New Tips

sunny 23 °C
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Downtown Tbilisi

Downtown Tbilisi

I found my way around quite a lot of Tbilisi when I visited in May, and on my second visit in September I dug a bit deeper.

In terms of accommodation, I went back to the same Airbnb apartment for 3 nights in the city at the start of my visit. Its location is ideal and it is quiet and comfortable. At £26 (€29) per night it is great value too.

Top Floor Apartment

Top Floor Apartment

When I returned to Tbilisi from Yerevan I stayed a night at the 5 Rooms before heading north to Stepantsminda. A hotel is better for a 1 night stay. 5 Rooms arranged a transfer from the airport, which is standard but always helpful.

5 Rooms

5 Rooms

I got a super warm welcome from the owner, who is a former player in Georgia’s national rugby team and has played in and against Scotland. In fact he forced me to have two glasses of his excellent home made wine.

The hotel has a great location in a quiet courtyard just across the Baratashvili Bridge from the main part of the city centre. I would definitely consider it again in the future. It was £42 (€47) for a large room, with breakfast.

The other hotel I used was Ilja’s Hotel. It is located in the 19th century Vera area, and is just a short walk from Rustaveli metro station. I chose it because it is close to where I had to drop off my rented car after returning from Kakheti, and again it was a one night stay before flying home the next day.

It is great too. It cost £42 (€47), again including breakfast. In fact they gave me breakfast at 7am when it would normally start at 8am, because I had to leave before that for my 9.30 flight. Very Georgian.

Ilja's

Ilja's

I took two tours when I was in Tbilisi - a food tour and a wine tour. I recommend them highly. I learned a huge amount as well as enjoying what was on offer and the company of other “students’. They are both operated by Tbilisi Free Walking Tours (they were not free, but their other tours are). Both guides were excellent.

The food tour took us to 3 different restaurants - Cafe Leila, Orshimowine and Shemomechama - and then a wine bar.

Food Talk

Food Talk

The wine “tour” took place entirely in Royal Wine at 8/41 Amaghleba St, but we “toured” Kakheti by means of 7 bottles of wine and a couple of glasses of tchatcha.

Wine Talk

Wine Talk

I ventured into 9Mta a couple of times for a beer. They have a great selection. It is 100m from Liberty Square at 10 Galaktion Tabidze St., and easy to find.

Scottish Beer, Danish Glass, Georgian Pub

Scottish Beer, Danish Glass, Georgian Pub

I used a taxi once - my first such venture in the city. It was ideal. He put the meter on without being asked and found my destination first time. It was cheap.

Metro

Metro

I also used the metro for the first time. It is so cheap and easy - 0.40 lari (£0.13 or €0.12) per trip (the same as buses). You need a buy a pre-pay card and then load it with credit. Both are available at sales desks in the city centre stations I used.

Posted by IainT 23:35 Archived in Georgia Tagged food transport georgia tbilisi Comments (0)

Yerevan - Some Basics

sunny 28 °C
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Apartment Balcony

Apartment Balcony

I arrived on a minibus - marshrutka - from Tbilisi, which I had pre-booked on the internet through Hayreniq. It cost US$ 22 single (£17 or €20). As far as I can see, Hayreniq has nothing to do with the bus service, which is just the normal hourly service between the cities.

They are charging you a good chunk of money to “book” a seat on a public service you can get anyway for half the cost, just by turning up and paying the driver.

It was still cheap, but it is a long (5.5 hours), uncomfortable journey, made worse by our driver stopping twice on “private business” to buy oranges and a car door. Yes, a car door. Then he realised we had no room for it in the van.

Non-Lunch Stop

Non-Lunch Stop

We were fortunate to get through the border quickly - I reckon 20-30 minutes in total. We got to the Armenian immigration check just before a coach arrived, disgorging 45 tourists to swell the queues.

Marshrutkas to Yerevan leave Tbilisi from Avlabari metro station. We arrived at Kilikia bus station in Yerevan.

I was booked to return to Tbilisi the same way, but opted to fly instead. I got a one way ticket with Aircompany Armenia (operating as a franchise of Georgian Airways as far as I could tell) for $162 (€147 or £131). That fare included the cost of a checked in bag. The flight takes 30 minutes.

Zvarnots International is one of the most pleasant airports I have ever used. The difference in price between flying and taking the minibus is matched by the savings in time and comfort.

Waiting

Waiting

I had an excellent Airbnb apartment in Yerevan for 4 nights at £27 per night (€30). It was modern, quiet and very comfortable. A minimarket was located almost next door, which was ideal for buying the basics of domestic life during a brief stay.

Breakfast

Breakfast

I only ate out once, at a street food type place, so I am not able to offer much information on the city’s restaurant scene.

I took one “excursion” while I was in Yerevan, to hike up Mt Aragats. It cost US$120 (€109/£97), which might seem like a lot but it included the services of a local guide and door to door transport. As it happened I was the only one booked for that day, but the price comes down according to how many people have signed up.

Mountain Calling

Mountain Calling

I took a taxi from the apartment to the airport just picking it up on the street. On the meter it cost 2,200 dram (less than £5, so let’s say €5) for a fairly long journey across the city centre and right out the other side.

Posted by IainT 22:33 Archived in Armenia Tagged transport flights georgia airlines tbilisi yerevan armenia aragats Comments (0)

Kakheti

sunny 21 °C
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Top Class

Top Class

Kakheti is in the very east of Georgia, and whilst it is quite a large region, I based myself not far from the border with Azerbaijan. I stayed on a vineyard in a tiny place called Tkhilitstskaro. Try saying that after a couple of glasses…

Ripe

Ripe

Kakheti is the country’s main wine region, but it is also produced in other areas.

It was 10⁰c warmer than in the mountains, and like another planet. I had dinner outside both nights, and breakfast outside both mornings. The foothills of the Greater Caucasus started about 500m from the hotel, so they made a fabulous backdrop, but Tkhilitstskaro is in the plain of the Alazani River.

Dinner Time

Dinner Time

Driving there from Kazbegi mostly it went according to plan, but roadworks on a 20km section made it very slow. I suspect it was also the time for bringing animals down from high pastures. Herds of sheep, cows and horses blocking the road were almost as common as cars. The herders and their dogs are very helpful about clearing the way, but still. There is a technique for getting through.

Anyway, it took 5 hours in the car to cover 150 miles/241 km.

Georgian wine made the traditional way involves fermenting the whole grape in a clay pot which is buried underground up to its neck - a qvevri. It is in there for 6 months. The winemaker does not control the fermentation and nothing is added - it is 100% natural.

For a white wine like the Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane (pictured) the end result is an amber colour and 14% alcohol. The aroma is of honey, but the taste is dry. Although they state what grapes are used they emphasise where the wine has come from just as much. A wine using that combination of grapes from a vineyard a short distance away could be quite different - different soil, different sunshine, different cultivation and production methods.

Just Cut

Just Cut

With only Friday and Saturday nights in the area, and having to drive back to Tbilisi after the second one, my ambitions for exploring were limited. A wet morning on my only full day resulted in plenty enforced relaxation but a bit less exploration.

As Saturday lunchtime approached, I set off to explore the area, heading south to Sighnaghi. By the time I got there an hour later, the rain had stopped and the sun had started to appear. Ideal.

Sighnaghi Skyline

Sighnaghi Skyline

The town was fortified with a wall around it in 1772 by Erekle II, and most of the older buildings are 18th and 19th century. With an eye to future tourism, many were renovated during the time of the Saakashvili government.

The town is a bit of a tourism hot spot, of the day trip kind, as it is only 103 km from Tbilisi. It does look great in spite of that, however.

I enjoyed a gentle wander around but the highlight was a great cup of coffee (with cake) at Art Cafe Qedeli. It is a social enterprise supporting a nearby home for disabled people. They bake the cakes sold in the cafe. I had read about it in my guidebook but when the urge for coffee hit, I just went into the first attractive place I saw and it turned out to be Qedeli.

Qedeli

Qedeli

Sighnaghi lies on a hilltop, but other than that the countryside was totally flat and agricultural.

Sighnaghi Style

Sighnaghi Style

On the Sunday I drove from Tkhilitstskaro to Tbilisi via Kvareli (fuel stop) and Telavi. It was a gentle drive through seemingly endless vineyards, including well known Georgian wine names like Tsinandali and Mukuzani, then across the 1,620m (5,314 ft) Gombori pass.

I could easily have spent more time exploring the Kakheti region and its wines, which seems like a good excuse to go back.

Posted by IainT 13:14 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia tbilisi kakheti sighnaghi tkhilitstskaro Comments (0)

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