Georgia, the South Caucasus nation, is hardly on the radar of western mass tourism and isn’t really part of the beaten backpacker track either. In fact, the country’s existence and location is regrettably ignored by most people. For sure Georgia’s past as a somewhat obscure republic of the Soviet Union still feeds suspicion to the minds of those who remember the Cold War and know who Joseph Stalin, a very prominent Georgian, was. Also, Georgia’s recent ruinous 2008 conflict with Russia has done nothing to promote the country as a tourist destination.
So, it was with a bit of apprehension that I reached Georgia on a Black Sea ferry from Ukraine, not sure what to expect and totally ignorant about what I might find. However, my doubts disappeared pretty quickly. Infact, within a couple of days of my arrival my doubts were replaced by surprise and keen curiosity.
Georgia has it all. There are stunning mountains on its northern border soaring above 5000m, sunny beaches and resorts on its Black Sea coast, green valleys and plains where good wine is made. People are generally friendly, proud and hospitable and there is a wealth of history in this geographical crossroads between Christianity and Islam that it’s mysteriously puzzling. Of course there’s also good cuisine to try and buzzing night life especially in Batumi and Tbilisi. Most of all though the country feels safe, genuine and is unspoiled by masses of tourists.
Riding through Georgia from East to West gave me the opportunity to notice some of the paradoxes this nation faces. Two frozen conflicts within its borders (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is the price the country pays for antagonising the interests of Russia, its dominant neighbour. Equally, aid from the West is obvious. The police for example wear American style uniforms and roam the roads in Ford patrol vehicles that would not look out of place in a cop movie based in New York or Los Angeles. Furthermore, The people I came across in Tibilisi, in the guest houses and bars, included journalists from known media organisations, NGO workers and even British aristocracy. Un unusual mix and a certainly different to the back packer hostels you generally get in any major city in the world.
Georgia is also a stunning place for some motorcycle adventure. There’s an abundance of white top (un tarred) roads that carve their way for hundreds of kilometres through amazing mountain scenery in the Caucasus and lead to remote border hamlets reachable only during the summer months. The routes can take days to ride and are a thrill to explore on a capable, machine. I enjoyed the green lanes in Georgia so much that I can confidently say they offered some of the most satisfying off road experiences I have ever enjoyed.
But where to go to get at a taste of the trails in Georgia? One route in particular will not fail to satisfy. It’s the road that leads through the Stori valley to the village of Omalo in the Tusheti region north west of Tbilisi. This route is fairly recent, opened up in the late seventies and maintained every year with bulldozers and gravel. It takes the better part of a day to complete a one way ride to Omalo from Tbilisi and three days for a return trip is plenty. This road has been featured as one of the most dangerous roads in the world in a BBC television series from 2012.
You need to pack light for the track, so leave heavy excess items at whatever guest house you’re leaving from in Tbilisi before heading off for the hills. Camping gear is not required. Make an early start to avoid the rush hour traffic and then head east, away from the capital city’s centre along the Kakheti Highway. Pass the intersection to the airport and continue along S5 all the way to the junction with Route 38. Make a turn north and follow the signs for the town of Telavi.
The ride to Telavi starts off a bit bland but once you reach the village of Sasadilo there’s plenty of rural farmland to stare at. Animals are free to roam here and it’s not unusual to find cattle, dogs and the occasional pig in the middle of road. Beware!
Respect the speed limits and do not cross the solid lines that divide the the carriageways. Georgian police are unforgiving and the fines are steep as I painfully discovered at my own cost.
Telavi is a small town with plenty of affordable guest houses. It’s a good place to spend a night especially on the return route from Tusheti and Omalo if necessary.
Just north of Telavi the route turns west and follows the Alazani river valley. Fields and arable land surround the road here all the way to Pshaveli where the Stori Valley commences with wooded forest all around. Make sure to fill your tank in Pshaveli as there are no other fuel stops from here onwards. The hard tar surfaced road disappears soon after the village and now the real fun begins. Jagged twists and loose gravel along cliff edges, tricky mud, knee deep fords, slippery rock and snow are the hurdles ahead on the trail. You need momentum and a minimum of off road negotiating skills especially where the mud gets over ankle deep. There are roadside waterfalls, roaming cattle and the occasional 4×4 truck to overtake while keeping an eye out for the drops at the side of the road. It’s fun and the adrenaline pump, constant.
Knobbly tyres are an advantage and hard suspension is a plus as well but there is nothing too extreme about the road to Omalo and calling it one of the most dangerous roads in the world is an outrageous exaggeration. Do it all at your own pace and it’s fine.
The maximum elevation is around 2850m so temperatures can drop noticeably especially at the Torha Pass where snow can be found even during the warmer months of the year. Take extra care here when crossing the fords swollen by melting snow. Probe the depth of the running water with a stick if necessary and do not underestimate the force of a gushing stream. I was caught out at one point and risked drowning my bike.
It can take the better part of four hours to ride the 80 km circa from Pshaveli to Omalo and every second will have your pulse racing. Once you reach Omalo the Tsasne guest house is the place to stay. It has warm, clean dorm style rooms and typical local food. I spent a couple of nights there with other guests. Safe parking was provided too!
The village of Keselo is just a short ride from Omalo and there are some recently restored iconic stone dwellings here worth a visit. The fortified houses were used by local villagers as a refuge when hoarding Daghestani tribes from across the border ransacked the area repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages.
The road to Omalo is sure to impress and will create a lasting memory for whoever ventures up its muddy path. There is stunning scenery, hospitality good food, history and plenty of photo opportunities. The ride is simply enormous fun both there and back to Tbilisi. Don’t miss out if you’re ever in Georgia, on an enduro machine between May and October. Enjoy!
Think Norway and images of expensive beer, amazing fjords and blue eyed blond Viking folk generally come to mind. Though not far from wrong, stereotyping Norway this way and Oslo in particular can lead to srprises.
Norway has long left it’s past as a predominantly agricultural and fishing nation and emerged over the last three decades as an oil producing economic power house, known for it’s socially progressive laws, marine engineering, high taxes and newly found status as one of the richest nations in the world. With an increasingly cosmopolitan population of less than six million, its vast territory and coastline, its wealth in minerals (titanium, copper) and magnificently preserved forests, one can be easily led to believe that this is a land of countless opportunities. Oslo is the capital of Norway and a good place to start exploring.
Positioned at the furthest end of the narrow Oslofjorden bay that feeds from the Skagerrak Strait, Oslo is home to around six hundred thousand people and can be reached by ferry from Denmark and Germany or buy road and rail passing through Sweden. Flying of course, is the easiest way to reach the Norwegian capital and a Scandinavian Airways flight will get you there from any major city in European and from beyond.
Gardermoen Airport is welcoming, cosy and pleasant with wooden floors and paneling that are typical reflection of local decor. It’s a an interesting place to hang in and there’s an efficient rail link to down town Oslo (less than thirty minutes).
What makes an immediate impression on arrival though are the prices advertised at the airport’s eateries. A simple croissant is sold for the better part of 5€, a cappuccino for over 4€. Sandwiches for 10€ and a slice of cold pizza for around 15€. Dare I mention beer for over 12€? A chilling welcome to Scandinavia for sure and just a taste of things to come.
What to do if you’re stuck in Oslo for a couple of days during the cold Winter months? What’s not to be missed? Where to stay and where to hang out? Here are some suggestions.
Where to stay
With limited time to explore Oslo it makes sense to find accommodation as close to the town centre as possible. Anywhere around Karl Johans Gate is a good choice for easy access to public transport, shops, bars and restaurants. It’s also at a convenient five minute walk from the harbour which is the starting point of cruises and ferries rides to the Oslofjorden islands and beyond. Options for accommodation around Johannes Gate include pricy hotels, affordable Air B&Bs and cheaper “Pensjonat” guest houses. Unfortunately I found no youth hostels available as of 2018.
I chose to stay at the mid tier Bondeheimen Hotel based mostly on the encouraging reviews I read about the breakfast buffet served here in the mornings. I was not disappointed. My room was clean, with underfloor heating, quiet and comfortable. The hotel’s location was great, the service friendly and of course breakfast totally to my satisfaction.
What not to miss
Gustav Vigeland is perhaps Norway’s most prominent artist of recent times. Known as an exceptionally prolific sculptor Vigeland is also responsible for the design of the Nobel peace prize medal which has remained unchanged since it was first minted in 1902.
Frogner Park is an open air display of some of Vigeland’s work. It’s free, always open, well maintained and can be reached easily by metro or tram from the town centre.
The granite and bronze figures exposed in the Park date back to the early years of the last century and have an essential, minimalist style to them which I found quite appealing. The statues are all part of a common theme i.e. the transition we all go through during our lives, from infancy to adolescence and then from adulthood to old age. Our joys and our struggles are masterfully and entertainingly told by the artist’s full size human figures and their emotionally charged poses. It’s hard not recognise yourself in some of the statues on show.
Centrepiece in the park is Vigeland’s granite monolith that towers around some fifteen meters tall. The carvings on the rock once again tell the story of life’s cycle: birth, family, love, work, struggle, joy… it’s all in there.
Considered by most Oslovians as their back yard, Holmenkollen is just a small hill (340m) on the north western fringes of the Norwegian capital. Come the winter snow however, and the festive season too, Holmenkollen transforms into a hotspot for winter sport enthusiasts from near and far.
There are over two thousand kilometres of cross country skiing tracks around Oslo, ninety kilometres of which are lit for late night skiing with cabins to cater for food and overnight stays. Some of these make Holmenkollen part of their route and easy starting point. Cross country skiing is Norway’s national sport, a speciality in which the country excels at and generally dominates the Winter Olympics with over 120 gold medals to the nation’s credit.
Holmenkollen is easily reached from Oslo town centre by metro ( line 1 ) and it’s not unusual during the colder months to find masses of Oslo folk commuting by rail to this place with skiing suits and skis in hand ready enjoy the outdoors. It’s also tradition for the Norwegian Royal Family to spend Christmas at Holmenkollen at their “Royal Villa” and sometimes mingle with the crowds as well.
However, the most prominent feature to be found at Holmenkollen is the “Holmenkollbakken”, a massive ski jump that dominates the skyline at the summit of the hill.
There has always been a Holmenkollbakken since 1892 with new designs (19 so far) successively replacing older ones throughout the years. The current version was completed in 2010, towers at 134m above ground and has enough space for over sixty thousand spectators. Ski jumpers come here to train from all over Europe and beyond and some have achieved leaps over 140m in length.
But if skiing is not your thing then just the views from Holmenkollen are worth the trip to the hill alone. Beautiful vistas of Oslo and the Oslofjorden at sunset can be admired from here while slowly sipping a mug of hot Glögg, the local mulled wine sold for no less than 10€ a cup.
-Olso City Hall
Definitely an odd looking building, the Oslo City Hall is of course the seat of city’s administration. However, it deserves a mention for its stunning inside decor and also for being the venue of the Nobel prize award ceremony that takes place here every year. There’s plenty of marble to admire and the decorative paintings by artists Sørensen and Rolfsen in the huge Main Hall, contain some interesting highlights of Norway’s twentieth century history.
-Oslo Opera House
Angular and deceptively small looking the opera house is a prize winning architectural marvel that can be found at eastern end of Oslo harbour, no more than a twenty minute walk from the City Hall.
Beautifully clad in steel and Italian Carrara marble the building hosts the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet organisation. The interior of the structure has plenty of wood on display on floors, walls and ceilings as well as some inspiring use of metal and plastic decor. It’s an interesting piece of architecture worth exploring.
-Viking Ship Museum
There are some extraordinary, beautifully restored viking vessels that date back to around 800 AD on display at the Oslo Ship Museum. The boats were recovered from old burial sights after being used as tombs for what are believed to have been people of rank within the old viking communities. The precision with which the boats were crafted is extraordinary and the work put into restoring them for public display is superb.
What to eat
Reindeer burger might not appeal to everyone but to the carnivores out there (including myself) it’s a definite must. Tasty, tender and nutritious one of these bad boys in a bun fills you up with satisfaction for hours. Reindeer burgers are particularly popular around Christmas time and are easily found at the open air Christmas Market just in front of the Grand Hotel along Karl Johans Gate. Be prepared to spend around 15€ for the privilege though (drink included).
Where to chill
An easy stroll heading east along Karl Johans Gate towards Oslo central rail station takes you through the town’s main shopping district with the usual display of glitzy high end fashion boutiques. There are also at least a couple venues worth exploring here. The Scotsman Pub has character and buzzes in the evenings with a healthy mix of locals and tourists. There a shuffleboards (which seem to be a favourite amongst Norwegians), and a band or a DJ on some nights along with English speaking staff. Drinks, as usual, are extortionately expensive. Anything with alcohol will set you back by at least 10€ if not more.
Just around the corner from the Scotsman’s there’s “The Club” the aptly named venue for those in the mood for a bit of a boogie. Queues here can be long but the music continues all night til 3am.
Another great spot worth checking out is Andy’s Pub ( Stortingsgata 8,) close to the Grand Hotel. Live music from a grand piano and singing pianist, some keen wannabe vocalists make this place ideal for a late night laugh. Drinks still way above 10€.
So, to sum it up:
If you can put the steep prices for food and alcohol aside, Oslo makes a great city break. There’s an international feel and people are generally friendly and welcoming. The city is clean and public transport efficient.
In December however, temperatures are constantly below freezing and the streets are caked with ice and snow. You need to be careful if you want to avoid slips and trips. Contrary to popular belief, there’s enough sun light during the day (five to six hours) to enjoy the outdoor sights. If you’re into skiing then you can also enjoy the Holmenkollen pistes even after dark with plenty of like minded folk, too.
The Dolomites are without doubt one of the most picturesque and exciting mountain ranges in Europe. They belong to the Italian Alps, and are set in north east corner of “the boot” between the border with Austria (North) and the Sugana valley (south).
The entire area offers inspiring vistas and heaps of outdoor fun. Above all, there are rocky peaks to climb, endless trails to hike and cool lakes to relax by. The Dolomites also offer extraordinary switchback roads to ride with countless mountain passes to reach and enjoy.
This part of Italy, with its Sud Tirolese culture, also offers excellent cuisine, beer and wine. As a result, with all the above going for it, it’s no wonder the Dolomites are a favorite destination for bikers and holiday makers from all over the continent.
What are the most iconic sites of the Dolomites? Here are five that should be on everyone’s list on a bike tour:
1. The Three Peaks of Lavaredo (Tre Cime di Lavaredo)
Placed at the northern most part of the Sexten Dolomite complex, just south of Val Pusteria, the Peaks of Lavaredo consist three craggy pinnacles, that tower at three thousand meters each. They offer some great climbing thrills and the area is also a haven for hikers as well.
The foot of the western most peak (Cima Ovest) can be reached from lake Misurina the “strada panoramica” (toll road). Rifugio Auronzo next to the car park serves hot meals and provides lodging for overnight stays. The big rifugio is also the starting point for hikers that come to explore the trails around the peaks. Consequently, it can get crowded here, especially during the warmer months of the year.
The views around the Lavaredo peaks are amazing and the photo opportunities are not to be missed.
2. Lake Braies
If you’ve browsed Instagram in search of mountain landscape scenery then Lake Braies is probably a familiar site. This idyllic little lake is one of the best known tarns of the Dolomites and hundreds of keen photographers come here to capture its alure. Braies’s green water creates is in stunning contrast with the pale surrounding dolomite outcrops. As a result, beautiful pictures are easy to frame on clear days with blue skies
At dusk the cliffs around the lake bounce the crimson sunlight in soft tonalities of pink and yellow. The warm light is perfect for romance or deep thought by the water’s edge. There are old style wooden rowing boats available for hire and there’s also a lovely lake side walk that takes the better part of two hours to finish. Lake Braies is a definite must.
3. The Gardena and Sella Passes
The Sella and Gardena passes are within a short ride of each other and are extremely popular with bikers and cyclists alike. Jaw dropping views, steep inclines and challenging twisty roads offer heaps of motorcycle entertainment. Of course there are great food stops at the rifugios on the way. Plenty of hiking on offer for those equipped and fit for the task, too.
At the peak of the tourist season, between July and August, there are traffic restrictions to Passo Sella. On some week days only a couple of hundred vehicles per hour are allowed beyond the road side check points. However, the curb on traffic isn’t enforced onweekends and the restrictions are unpopular with locals who thrive on tourism. It’s unclear for how long traffic limitations will hold. As of 2018, access to the pass involves buying a permit online here.
4. Passo Giau (Giau Pass)
Possibly the most inspiring of all Dolomite passes, Passo Giau has it all. At the top of there pass there are awesome views of mountain massifs and valleys near and far to admire. Time spent at the local rifugio is usually a memorable experience as well. The food is good and there are bikers from all over Europe to befriend.
Perched on the hills around the pass it’s not unusual to see photographers with cameras and tripods. Likewise these days, there are drones humming and hovering, as well.
5. Lake Levico
Lake Levico is on the southern most fringes of the Dolomites in Val Sugana, just a few kilometers from Trento. On a hot summer’s day the banks of the small lake offer highly sought after shade. Well manicured lawns provide perfect bedding for a beach towel and the mountain scenery around the water offers plenty to admire.
The lake’s water is fresh all the year round and ideal to cool off from the harsh Italian sun. Camping is available for an overnight stay and of course restaurants are abundant in the area with Levico Terme, the local village, at a twenty minute walk from the water’s edge.