Jul 092017
 

After enjoying our Starbucks at Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport it was off to the gate for our flight to the Azores. There was a great rooftop cafe where you could watch the planes taking off – which was quite fun on the narrow runway. Do a search on wikipedia for the Funchal airport – it’s considered one of the most difficult landings in the world.

I briefly stopped to check out the SATA lounge which was partnered with priority pass, but while it had a few serve yourself drinks and cookies, that was about it. I had a quick cookie and a Diet Coke before heading back out to join Ian – I would have been better off getting a custard tart from the cafe with the good view!

The gate area was rather packed considering it was a turboprop flight only holding about 70 people, but it looked like most of them were connecting in Ponta Delgada to flights to the US and Canada. Seemed like such a strange place for a connection, but I would be taking that flight myself in a few days.

SATA flight 161
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC) to Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time: 2:05
De Havilland Q400, Registration CS-TRG, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,410
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,440,387

Quick taxi and takeoff, and despite the flight time under two hours we were serve a box snack with a sandwich and some cookies. Take note: I actually not only ate the sandwich this time, but it was tasty and I didn’t get sick!

Nothing else really to say about the flight. It was full, but on time and comfortable enough – about all you can ask for on a short route like this.

Our rental car was a bit strange here, as the agency met us in the arrivals hall, and dropped off the car for us. They told us which spaces to park it in when we returned. It seems the agencies don’t have big lots at this airport, so they just bring the cars in as needed. You actually sit down with the agent in the arrivals hall and fill up the contract while sitting there.

Drive to our hotel was pretty short, but the strange thing is that we couldn’t really figure out where we were supposed to park. Street metered spots we found out were free on weekends, so we would be fine until 7a on our day of departure. We were staying at the Hotel Talisman, and check in was pretty quick and we were on our way to our rooms. Not too much to say about the hotel. Initial impressions were that it was a bit odd in that the rooms had no desk, but the AC was freezing cold and the bed seemed comfortable, so overall I was pretty happy with it on first impression.

It was mid-afternoon at this point, and we decided to go for a short walk around the downtown area and just get a feel for the city the first day. The next full day would be for driving around the island of São Miguel and actually seeing things.

First stop near our hotel was the Church of Sebastian:

As we walked along the coast, lots of locals were out sunning themselves on the concrete “beach.” Did I mention the temp was only about 18C/65F? Maybe that’s warm in Ponta Delgada or something?

Posing for a photo near the water:

The city gates, right by the Church of St. Sebastian:

Huge old tree in the courtyard outside the church of Sao Jose. Does anyone know what kind of a tree this is? It was so big that it actually had support beams holding up several of its limbs:

Not too sure about this statue outside the military museum….

We headed to the Taberna Açor Restaurant for dinner, and didn’t have a reservation, so they didn’t think they would be able to seat us. We asked if we could wait, and after about 45 minutes they did find a table for us. Incidentally, we tried to come back the next night and there was absolutely no way we would get a table. Reservations are essential here.

The wait turned out to be a good thing, as a small local wine producer was tasting his wares outside the restaurant. He had a small winery on the Ilha do Pico, and the wine was actually quite reasonable. It was good enough that we actually ordered a bottle when we got back to the hotel after dinner.

Speaking of dinner, the amazing local sausages and cheese plate. Super tasty with local honey and condiments. It was huge, and more than enough to make a dinner for two people.

Next morning we were up to enjoy what TripAdvisor reviews described as the incredibly generous breakfast buffet at the Hotel Talisman. It was ok, but honestly nothing super impressive. The usual fare, but what struck me were the people going back for plate after plate. I got the sense this was a bit of a group tour budget destination, and people were stocking up on the free food to keep costs under control.

We headed out in the car, and finally we figured out where all the people were hiding. See, other than the restaurant, the whole island felt eerily quiet. No people anywhere. All the stores were “fechado” – closed. It just seemed weird and empty. But the Sete Cidades “twin lakes” had tonnes of cars parked at it and lots of tourists.

The name of the lake is actually a misnomer, because it’s really one lake with a road that divides it into parts. The different colours are because of different depths, so when the sun hits it it reflects are green on one half and blue in the other:

There was an old abandoned five star hotel next to the lakes, which was a great vantage point for taking pictures of the lakes from a higher perspective. Apparently the hotel opened about 25 years ago, and was in business for less than a year before closing. Seems it was just close enough to the city that nobody wanted to stay out there and be isolated, so it didn’t have enough business to keep going. They kept guards around for a couple of years, hoping to reopen it, but even that was given up on. The place was complete abandoned and looted now.

Except for Pokemon:

We only saw the one above, but the walls made sure to let us know we should be on the lookout for more:

View from the roof of the abandoned hotel:

From the top floor, looking down into the atrium lobby:

Couldn’t get enough of the view from the roof:

King of the Sete Cidades!

Standing in a heap of rubbish in the atrium of the hotel, looking up:

The lifts had long since been looted, and decaying concrete towers were all that remained:

We kept driving across the lakes to the northern part of the island and the Ponta da Costa vantage point. I’ll admit I planned most of our stops based on where google maps indicated there seemed to be vantage points, and this one was pretty awesome. View from the top of the long winding path down to the ocean:

We walked about halfway down, and this was the view looking west across the northern part of the island:

Just me and the North Atlantic Ocean:

After driving a bit more we stopped in the town of Ribeira Grande for lunch. We chose the Restaurante O Silva which was said to be very popular with locals, and was packed with families having a sunday lunch together. I don’t remember what kind of fish I ordered, but it was absolutely delicious:

We headed back inland after lunch to stop at the Caldeira Velha – which actually turned out to be hot springs. There was a nominal fee to go into the park, and it seemed the thing to do was to bring your bathing suits and sit in the various hot springs and relax. This one had such a high mineral content it was an orange colour…and so hot that it was actually boiling in places:

We drove on to the next Miradouro (I told you that word would keep coming back over and over on this trip) – the Miradouro do Lagoa do Fogo – the lake of fire. Another great view:

Climbed halfway up the steep path overlooking the lake. We were pretty high up on the island at this point, and there was a light mist we were so close to the clouds:

View from up high:

I should note there was also a cycling race going on on the island, and despite them reaching impressive speeds of over 40 kph most of the time, we found ourselves in a line of cars behind the racers at several points which had slowed us down. We were making good time, however, so weren’t too concerned about making it all the way around the island.

As we worked our way around to the eastern side of the island, I found a lighthouse on google maps which looked neat to see. Nobody else was parked there, but we decided to see it. I found it strange that it was a lighthouse, yet we were very high up on a cliff at this point, but still had to park at the top. Where could the lighthouse be?

This sign should have been a warning. Walk down to the lighthouse, don’t drive….35% incline down…

Yup, it was a pretty steep road…we did see one or two locals in pickup trucks doing it, but they clearly knew how to drive this road from experience:

We were rewarded with great views:

Finally, at the bottom, we were rewarded with the lighthouse:

Starting back up the 35% incline, I instantly regretted coming down to see it:

Walking almost straight uphill:

Amazing views.

Back to Ponta Delgada, parked the car, and as it was almost 8pm at this point we headed back to the same restaurant to have dinner. No luck tonight as I mentioned above, and almost everything else was, yes, closed:

It was odd. The only place in the city you saw people were at restaurants, otherwise the streets felt absolutely empty. Pretty much every restaurant, however, was either closed or packed full on a Monday night. It was the strangest thing. We eventually ate at the Calçada do Cais around the corner. Despite being out of several things on their menu it was a reasonably tasty dinner al fresco, which was perfect for the last night of the trip.

It would be up relatively early the next morning to start the trek home, and to enjoy a new aircraft type I had never flown before!

Jul 082017
 

Up way too early, and check out at the AC Hotel was just as inefficient as the check in had been. Overall, given the price and quality of the room I would stay here again, but for a major chain hotel it was one of the least welcoming and service-oriented I have stayed in in a long time.

To that point that when we tried to take the airport shuttle to the airport (which we had confirmed the day before) the driver refused to take us, saying there were no reservations. Only by complaining to the front desk (who also had no record of our reservation from the day before) did they begrudgingly agree to take us. Oh, and on the way, we stopped at the other AC hotel and picked up several people. Were they just planning to not go at all? It made no sense.

We got to the airport, and check-in was an equally unpleasant experience. The checkin agent from Binter Canarias made a dramatic point of telling us it was a very small plane, and no, you can’t carry your bags on with you. Lots of sighing and unhappiness, but no requests for money, and our larger bags were checked. We were off to security which was quick and efficient, and then I was on a mission: find the Starbucks allegedly located somewhere in this airport.

It wasn’t too hard to find at the far end of the terminal from where our gate was, although they clearly had spelling issues. Also, not too sure why there’s Hebrew writing on my Evian bottle off the western coast of Africa, but it is what it is. I had caffeine, and I was a happy camper.

By the time we made our way to the gate it was almost time to board, which was via a bus, but all in all pretty quick and efficient. No complaints at all.

Binter Canarias flight 912
Las Palmas, Islas Canarias, Spain (LPA) to Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 1:30
ATR 72-500, Registration EC-JQL, Manufactured 2006, Seat 11C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 62,798
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,439,775

Nice short flight in a relatively newish ATR-72, and to Binter’s credit, they served a sandwich and choice of drink on this short flight. I never feel like juice, but decided to order a pineapple juice. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to show that I knew the Spanish word for pineapple – who knows. Overall, given the flight length, aircraft, and route, I was pretty impressed overall with Binter (minus the salty checkin agent, of course).

After landing, I waited for our bags while Ian went and got the rental car sorted. He was driving this time, due to the lack of affordable automatic transitions, so it was up to him how and in what we got around. We got a relatively tiny car, which in the end would turn out to be somewhat of a blessing on the compact roads of Madeira.

Thanks to google maps, we had no problem at all finding the “hotel” we had reserved on booking.com, which in reality was really more of an AirBnB type situation. It was someone’s apartment which they had found a way to list, and honestly, it was my first AirBnB type stay. The owner was super good with communication in advance, and had directed us to a local parking garage which was perfect for us – about five minutes walk from the flat.

When we got there, the housekeeping lady was waiting for us, and gave us the keys without saying much at all. I got the impression she thought we wouldn’t speak/understand Portuguese at all, and that was fine. The flat was absolutely huge, about 100 square meters, with three bedrooms – way more than we needed. Yes, there was no air conditioning, which wasn’t great as it was quite warm, but for a couple of nights we dealt with it.

After grabbing a quick lunch near the flat, we decided to take the cable car up to the top of the mountains to see Madeira from above. The view just after leaving the cable car station:

Crossing over a highway on the way to the top:

View from the top:

We grabbed a small snack at the top (there’s a local liquor called “poncha” which is basically a strong fruit-based liquor with a pretty high alcohol content) so I had a mandarin one and a delicious Portuguese tart before walking around a bit. After walking around, it was time for the long cable car ride back to sea level. Pic on the way down with another car crossing behind:

Nearing the coast again. Nothing but Atlantic Ocean in the distance:

We relaxed for a bit in the flat and had a couple of glasses of wine, before heading out to find some dinner. We walked along the water to a place that looked interesting called Beerhouse. Even if the food wouldn’t be great, the view of all the boats on the water plus the hills of Madeira made for a great view:

After dinner we walked down the busy street near the flat (the Rua de Santa Maria) which was full of restaurants and bars. We stopped at a place called the Mercearia da Poncha which had just about every kind of poncha imaginable on the menu. I forget what Ian had, but I was brave and tried the absinthe poncha. It was definitely a good nightcap, and despite the warm temperatures in the flat I slept reasonably well.

Up early the next morning to begin our driving adventure around Madeira. We had slept in a bit and gotten a reasonably late start, so grabbed brunch near the flat which did reasonable coffees and sandwiches. Shortly before noon, we were finally ready to head out and explore the island.

We headed west out of town, to what was flagged as a great viewpoint – a “miradouro” which would become a term we would be familiar with over the next few days. The drive to the top was pretty terrifying as someone who doesn’t do great with heights, but when we got to the top of the Cabo Girão viewpoint we were rewarded with a great view:

Steep cliffs, 600 meter drop straight into the Atlantic:

After a small snack and a poncha to deal with the winding roads, we headed west to turn inland towards the north coast of Madeira on the VE4 road. Great views in the valley between two mountains/hills:

Looking down into the valley. Winding roads and hills everywhere:

Looking back towards the southern coast of Madeira. Gorgeous views:

After we reached the northern shore we turned east on the VE1. For some reason, google maps didn’t think this was a great way to the eastern coast (it wanted to send is all the way back south and east instead of along the northern shore) but with views like this, they must be wrong:

As we continued east, the road got progressively worse, until it was like this….hundreds of feet in elevation from the shore, and look at that tiny tunnel ahead:

Yes, this was taken from the car on the tiny road we were on. The northern shore almost reminded me of the Road from Hana on Maui, which has some similarly narrow and high up scary roads:

But the views made it so worth it:

I mean, look at this. Worth every minute of the relatively terrifying drive:

Eventually we got close to the eastern tip of the island, and the roads majorly improved. After stopping at a gas station for some Red Bull and snacks, we continued to the eastern tip of the island. The Ponta do Buraco looked to be a pretty major viewpoint (again, miradouro in Portuguese) on google maps, and it lived up to it when we got there:

I mean, look at the panorama of the bay:

Posing for a pic against beautiful nature:

After driving back to the city it was already evening, and a quick shower saw us off to dinner. We decided to stay near the flat since we had an early morning coming up, and ate at Restaurant Mozart. The Maitre D (dressed as Salieri) was an absolute hoot, and stopped by our table repeatedly during dinner to check up on us. Personally, I think he just had a thing for Ian 😉  Bottle of wine and tasting menu ordered, and away we go. Amuse bouche…with a Dorito. Very nouvelle cuisine of them:

For a starter, I went with the Beethoven, which was a delicious octopus carpaccio:

Next up was the Pedro de Cristo, parrot fish with baked tomato and brie cheese. Also excellent.

Selfie against the restaurant sign. We might have had a bit of wine at this point.

a small pre-dessert. As I mentioned, the service was excellent:

Desert was the Handel – honey cake pudding with crunchy topping and ice cream. Amazing.

The whole dinner was superb, and for the price I can’t recommend Mozart highly enough. Al fresco dining, super service, and a super tasty meal. Overall, much much more than I expected to find on the dining scene in Funchal!

After a good night of sleep, we picked a random cafe near the car park for breakfast the next morning. Espresso and pasteis de nata (portuguese custard tarts) for breakfast – can’t beat it for three euro!

After breakfast we left the flat (just leave the keys inside) and parked the car to check out the Christian Renaldo (aka CR7) museum. It was the biggest egopiece of a museum I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to North Korea) – the trophy room:

Vanity paintings all over the walls:

Even the staircase to the lower level was nothing but vanity:

Someone loves himself:

All in all, we crammed a lot into 1.5 days in Madeira. I could see spending more time there, but only if you wanted a really relaxing trip – or wanted to take things slowly. The driving is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I was super impressed by the quality of the food and the nature on the island.

Next, it was off to the airport and onto another Portuguese Island group, the Azores!

Jul 072017
 

Dropping off the car with Hertz was nice and easy, and we had already checked in online with the Vueling app, and they were happy to check my extra luggage and we were soon on our way through security. Security was really quick and maybe five minutes, and we still had over an hour to kill before boarding.

No lounge access with Vueling, but there are several Priority Pass lounges in the Barcelona Airport, so we decided to stop in one for some snacks and beverages. The self-serve beer, wine, and liquor was plentiful, but just like my visit a couple of years prior the food selection was rather poor. Oh well, still beats sitting around the terminal for an hour.

Next, off to the gate, where I would see if the excitement of my previous trip on Vueling (also with the purpose of going to Andorra) would be a repeat for excitement.

Vueling flight 3000
Barcelona, Spain (BCN) to Las Palmas, Islas Canarias, Spain (LPA)
Depart 21:40, Arrive 00:15 next day, Flight Time: 3:35
Airbus A321, Registration EC-MLD, Manufactured 2016, Seat 28D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 62,459
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,439,436

Boarding was a rather disorganized scrum, but we soon found our way back to 28D and 28E, our exit row seats. I know we paid a bit extra for this, but for 3.5 hours it was totally worth it. Look at this legroom!

Can’t say too much about this flight. Unlike my last Vueling flight, it was a very quiet three or so hours down to Las Palmas in the dark. The crew spoke very little English, but there was plenty of buy on board available, although I had to repeat my requests in Spanish several times to get what I wanted. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know if they weren’t comfortable in Spanish, or they were amused by my Spanish, or my requests for another beer were strange, but regardless it was a very young and friendly crew.

Perhaps the most excitement came with about 45 minutes in flight when there was an urgent page for a doctor. None was found, but we continued to our destination nonetheless. Couldn’t have been too bad, I guess!

Since it was a domestic flight all we had to do was collect our luggage (which took about five minutes) and find our driver. We had used KiwiTaxi again (which we found out about on a previous trip to Russia) and they were fantastic with having a driver meet us. I’ll stress it again: I love this website so far in multiple countries, and will continue using them. Stay tuned to see how they do for me next month in St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Minsk!

Driver was waiting and super pleasant, and soon we were at our hotel, the AC Hotel Gran Canaria. First off, let me say a few things: our rooms were nowhere near as modern as those in the pics. I didn’t see any evidence of the lounge or rooftop pool (although we didn’t look hard) and all the staff we encountered seemed incredibly disinterested and annoyed with any questions we asked.

The room was very comfortable and clean, the AC very cool, but the service was absolutely terrible. For the price, I was still happy with it as a choice – especially given the facilities – but the staff attitudes need a serious makeover!

After a great sleep, we went for a wander to find coffee. The first two places we tried were “closed for holidays” which seemed strange in late May, but we eventually found a little hole in the wall place with terrible coffee and great views:

It was almost noon by this point, so we wandered the beach for a bit more than an hour before giving up and decamping for some proper food. We found a little italian joint with good food, and more importantly…local beer:

The beach views were pretty good I’m not going to lie:

After eating, we walked the beach for another hour or so, but it was really just more of the same:

By this point we were tired again, and retired to the Café Caracas for some espresso…and tasty alfajores:

Odd statue in the lovely park outside the café:

We had noticed the El Muelle Shopping Mall near our hotel, so decided to wander over and check it out. It was pretty sad and anticlimactic, but several stories high and had a great view to the port:

There was also a nice patio bar on ground level, which afforded great views with a beer:

Based on online research, we had been recommended to try Tasca Galileo for dinner. Reviews cast it as a little hole in the wall with just a few tables, but amazing food. It didn’t open until 8pm, but we were advised to be there early to grab one of the few tables. We camped at a nearby place before for a beer, and were there 10 minutes before opening, and I think we grabbed the last table. The whole restaurant seats maybe 20 people, but has amazing food.

I think we ordered six tapas over the next couple of hours between us, and several were delicious. Most memorable were the fried cheese with melon sauce, some great ham, and a wonderful liver dish. The wine selection was also really good and cheap, and the whole experience was amazing. Reviews said they spoke good English, but our “decent” Spanish was enough to not have to try in English. That said, there were some English folks there who seemed to be trying (and managing) in English, so it’s a very tourist friendly place. Can’t recommend it enough!

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a tiny craft beer pub called The Situation. It had an absolutely amazing craft beer list that I totally didn’t expect, and I only wish we’d been there earlier in the day and had room for more than one beer. That said, the one I did have was amazing:

It had been an interesting day of walking on the beach and exploring, but if you’re the type who constantly needs to “do things” I can see how Las Palmas could be a bit boring. It definitely caters to the beach crowd, although we were clearly there the wrong time of year.

Relatively early to bed, because we had to be up early the next morning for our onward travels…

Jul 032017
 

We parked the car in front of our hotel, the A Casa Canut, where it was nice and simple to walk inside, hand the keys to the guy at the front desk, and he took it away to be parked for a very reasonable fee. The room I received was a bit on the strange side, in that it didn’t have a desk or anywhere to sit in the room. It was, however, considerably larger and less expensive than the previous time I had stayed here. I guess being there in June as opposed to August made a huge difference.

After dropping our things off, we headed out into the city of Andorra la Vella to walk around and explore. After grabbing a coffee at the new Starbucks, we came upon this bridge which required a photo. If there wasn’t going to be a passport stamp to document our visit to Andorra, a picture with this bridge would do:

Yes, I should have worn sunglasses…

Salvador Dali artwork near the bridge:

We continued our walk, taking in the sites of this quaint, yet very busy city nestled in the Pyrenees:

Looking out at the mountains:

All the walking had made us hungry, and it was already late afternoon, so retiring to a nice sunny square for some tapas and sangria seemed to be the logical thing to do:

Because octopus as a tapas in the middle of the mountains seemed so logical at the time…

We wandered for a couple more hours, and took part in some great duty free shopping deals, and ended up calling it a relatively early night so that we would be able to get up and enjoy the long drive back to Barcelona the next day the “long way.”

After getting up and grabbing some Starbucks for breakfast (since we weren’t hungry enough to pay 20+ euro each for the hotel buffet – even though I remember it being fantastic from the previous visit, we eventually checked out and headed out on our drive.

We had entered Andorra from the southern side which is the Spanish border, and would be heading out via the eastern French border. As with my previous trip to Andorra in 2014 the first stop would be  Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route that we took into Andorra from Spain.

We were planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. On my previous trip I found this border of Andorra to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive. Views on the windy road leaving the city:

Snow-capped Pyrenees:

Unfortunately, since my previous visit, the big windy roads and switchbacks had been replaced with a giant toll tunnel, and we missed the turnoff to be able to take the windy road instead. Oh well, it made for a bit of a quicker driver, and given the fog and light drizzle it was definitely a safer drive as well.

Soon after entering France (where we couldn’t find anywhere to stop for a passport stamp either) we came to right back into the Spanish enclave of Llívia:

The strangest thing happened after we parked in Llívia and started to walk around: the entire town seemed completely empty and there was nobody at all on the streets. We tried three or four restaurants to get a late lunch, and not a single one of them was open. It was the strangest thing.

We eventually did find one small restaurant and hostel open for lunch, and it was a three course meal. The proprietor spoke no english or french at all, and even his Spanish was a bit challenging. It was starting to feel like real Catalonia, until this strange noodle dish showed up:

There wasn’t really anything more to see in Llívia since everything appeared closed, and we were well ahead of schedule to make it back to Barcelona in time for our evening flight, so I convinced Ian to go ahead and detour to Perpignan, France for an afternoon coffee. I think I just wanted to cross the Spanish, French, and Andorran borders as many times as I could in one day, but there were some super windy mountain roads on the way towards Perpignan:

Note how it winds all the way down into the valley:

Train trains for the Ligne de Cerdagne, otherwise known as the Train Jaune:

For perspective, leaning on a rock and you can see just how far of a drop is by how tiny the road right behind me looks in comparison:

Our good luck, we happened to be there right as the Train Jaune was passing over the bridge. Not a ride for those with a fear of heights!

We entered Perpignan, but had real trouble finding somewhere to park the rather large Mercedes on the small town streets. We eventually spied an underground carpark next to a square, and decided to head in. It was extremely narrow, and would have been much better-suited to a small car, but I did manage to park it and we headed back up to the square for a coffee.

The coffee was served complete with ashtray on the table, because…France. Also, the espresso was delicious, again, because…France! Unfortunately there were no crepes or other food to be had, because the kitchen was “on a break” and “who can say” when they will be back. Repeat with me….France!

After walking around I did manage to extract the car from the parking garage, and the highway back to Barcelona was in fantastic condition (and full of tolls) and we made it in just a couple hours, in plenty of time to catch our onward flight. It was time to get on island time now…

Jun 232017
 

It had been a few years since I’d been to Barcelona, and even then I had just rented a car at the airport and headed straight for Andorra. This time we would have a full long evening/morning in Barcelona before heading to Andorra to check it off for Ian as well as do a bit of shopping.

I had picked our hotel based on a combo of location, reviews, and cost. It was located about halfway between the airport and the city, and looked to have great transportation options to both. We made the mistake of hopping on the bus to get there, which while not a mistake wasn’t quite as easy and fast as the subway would have been. Both are a straight shot with no transfers and roughly the same price.

Our hotel was the Renaissance Barcelona Fira Hotel, which I’m pretty sure was the most uniquely designed hotel I’ve ever stayed in – and that’s saying quite a lot after going to every country. Check-in was good, Marriott status was recognized and we were offered upgraded rooms on a high floor with complimentary wine and cheese delivered to the room. Nice touch! English skills of the staff were also quite good, and they were extremely friendly and helpful.

Elevators up to the room, and this is what greeted us coming off the elevators:

The hotel is build in a basically as two long/slim corridors with a series of open-air walkways connecting them:

View from my room across the open atrium to the other “tier” of rooms on the floor. You can see elevators to the left and a staircase to the right:

After checking in and enjoying the small bottle of wine and cheese plate which was quite generous, we hopped on the subway to enjoy the long daylight in Barcelona. Sunset was after 9pm, so we had plenty of time to do some wandering before grabbing a bite to eat. First, mandatory shot of La Sagrada Familia:

We wandered a bit more, but it was already 8pm and we were getting hungry. Unfortunately, the first two places were closed because it was Sunday, and we eventually ended up at CocoVail Beer Hall, which had an amazing selection of local craft beers to explore:

Look at that selection of local meets and cheeses!

After a delicious dinner, we decided to wander the city a bit more, and ended up at Kælderkold, another pub with an amazing list of (mostly imported) craft beers. Unfortunately, it was about 30 degrees inside and packed with obnoxious drunk american college students drinking with their parents, but the bartenders and selection of beers was fantastic.

Got back to the hotel around 1am, and the rooftop pool bar was still going strong, so we enjoyed one last drink before calling it a night. A surprisingly “early” night for Spain, but hey, it was a Sunday…

Slept in a bit the next morning, walked for a bit, and got this picture of the hotel which more clearly shows the two sides where the rooms are, and the walkways that connect them:

View from the entrance. I loved the hotel and it’s funky architecture, but probably not to be recommended to those with a serious fear of heights, as it was rather open:

View from the rooftop pool and bar:

I could seriously see just spending a day lounging around at the rooftop pool and enjoying the sun:

One last shot of the open-air atrium:

We checked out around noon, headed to the airport, where Hertz apparently didn’t know which terminal to expect us at, so our car was at the other terminal. They unfortunately had no automatic transmissions at the terminal we were at, but the friendly agent assured us it would be worth the wait to drive it over to us. 15 minutes later, a fantastic E-Class Mercedes showed up – what a fantastic upgrade! This was going to make the drive to Andorra lots of fun!

This is probably old news for those who do a lot of driving in Europe, but in the couple of years since I had gone to Andorra the number of tolls on the route had multiplied massively. I remember one or two in each direction on my previous trip, but this time we had at least 6-8 different tolls. The tolls are fantastic, however, because you can just pull up, put your credit card in, and away you go. Nice and convenient, and the only downside is that you don’t get a receipt.

After about two hours of driving it was definitely time for some food, and we stopped off at a small gas station/restaurant and took our chance. It was a set menu with three choices of starter, main, and dessert – all for something like 12 euro if I remember correctly.

I chose the amazing gazpacho to start – which was super tasty:

Sorry Peter Rabbit, but you were delicious…although a lot of work for very little meat…which isn’t unusual for rabbit.

…and a delicious flan and espresso to finish it off. Great value!

Rest of the drive to Andorra was uneventful. Unfortunately, for the second time, I couldn’t find the place to pull over and ask Andorran officials for a passport stamp, so missed out on that once again. Not the end of the world, and like my previous visit I remember thinking “I can at least can an exit stamp on the way out of the country” so completely missed out.

Fortunately, this was my second trip and we were staying in the same hotel, so it was relatively easy to get there. I neglected to mention that the Mercedes also came with navigation which made it much easier to find our hotel. I remember wandering the one-way streets of Andorra la Vella last time and having a hard time. This time was comparatively super easy.

Now, time to head out and enjoy Andorra!

May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

May 112017
 

Woke up around 8am, since we wanted to be at breakfast at 830 right when it opened. We had asked our driver to meet us at 9am, and hoped he would be on time. Well, when we got to breakfast he was already there, and it was the same driver who brought us from Sochi two days prior. I guess he changed his mind and decided to make the trip after all! I never did ask him why he changed his mind, as he’d likely had to leave Sochi very early in order to come get us.

Quick breakfast with him waiting, and I noticed he was chatting with the lady at the front desk. She had kindly already explained to him we needed to make a quick stop at the Ministry of Repatriation on the way out of town to get the visa, and he was ok with that. On the way, I think we almost got hit two or three times, which launched him into a long tirade about the quality of drivers in Abkhazia. Found the ministry by 905a, and luckily they were already open.

Found the room where visas were issued, and there was no wait. We were invited in, the good bureaucrat started writing down all of our information, asked if we would pay together, and then asked for a credit card – never telling us the amount. Based on information I found online, they usually keep your passport, tell you how much the visa is, and then you have to go a couple blocks away to the bank to pay for it. Seems now, as long as you pay with credit card, you can pay on the spot. One problem, I told him, American credit cards won’t work in Abkhazia. He insisted on trying, and it went through no problem on the first try. All told, we were maybe there five minutes, and left with shiny new Abkhazia visas (which incidentally, were never checked after all.)

Not much to say about the drive to the border. We’d made most of the drive twice already, and it was completely uneventful this morning as well.

Got to the border, and were sent out of Abkhazia without much more than a 5 second glance at our passports. Same routine as before on the Russia side. Driver takes the car through, and we walk over to the passenger processing building and queue in line. I went first, and after a few questions from the junior-looking FSB agent (clearly stated on his uniform) he asked me to go have a seat and wait. A few minutes later, Ian got the same treatment. Now, entering Russia from an unrecognized country on a US passport probably isn’t something they see every day, so I figured we were just waiting for a more senior agent to check his work. This was confirmed 10 minutes later when a guy with more stars on his uniform came in, handed us our passports, and said thank you for waiting. Just like that, we were in.

One note: Russia does not stamp you in or out at this border, so there is no documentation of your visit to Abkhazia. Similarly, Abkhazia does not paste the visa in your passport, and they do not stamp your passport. Thus, no problems with getting into Georgia later.

Back in Sochi, and a minute later we drove past some of the Olympics stadiums:

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Made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and check-in was a relative breeze as well. Unfortunately, the Aeroflot agent was having absolutely none of me, and insisted my rolling bag was going to be checked today. Decided not to fight it too hard, and just go with it. After grabbing my first decent coffee in a couple of days, we decided to sit down for some lunch before the flight. Delicious borshch with fresh garlic cloves and meat and a dark russian beer:

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After that, it was through security, where they had the best giftshop ever. I wish I’d been thinking a bit clearer, because I definitely would have bought a few more things. I mean, check out these t-shirts:

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Shapkas, magnets, and even strangely Philadelphia Flyers magnets for some reason. Because…Russia!

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I picked up a couple of magnets for my fridge:

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Unfortunately, Ian got the last one of these:

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We got to the gate just as they were boarding the buses to our plane. For some reason, they had subbed in a 777 on this route a week before this flight, and based on the seatmap online and the buses, it didn’t look like it was even close to a full flight today!

Aeroflot flight 6552 operated by Rossiya
Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER) to Moscow Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration EI-UNP, Manufactured 1998, Seat 61A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,412,030

The plane was parked at an international gate, which is apparently why we had to take a bus to it. When we got there, Putin’s leopard friend was smiling at us:

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Last row of the plane! I had no idea row numbers even went up this high!

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Yup, it was definitely a light load today, way under half full, and in the back there was pretty much nobody except us!

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Goodbye Sochi!

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Good view of the Olympic venues as we flew out over the Black Sea:

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Only water and a “snack” were offered. Still not sure what this was – one was some sort of chocolate meringue thing, and the other was vanilla.

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Uneventful flight, and with all the space it was almost a pleasant flight as well.

Meow, our plane saying goodbye to us in Moscow:

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After retrieving my bag (which thanks to the elite bagtag actually did come off the plane first) I found the best cafe ever. Coffee and Beer House! My two favourite things (excluding champagne) in one place! We had to stop while waiting on the next Aeroexpress train to the city to arrive.

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After a quick espresso and beer, it was off on the train to enjoy our one night in Moscow!

May 072017
 

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?

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We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…

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After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:

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One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:

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Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.

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The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:

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Panoramic of the area:

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Cat on a hot monastery ledge:

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The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:

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Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:

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Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:

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Water rushing down from above:

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I am king of the waterfall!

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After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:

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…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol

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We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!

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We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.

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Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:

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She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.

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We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:

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The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:

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Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.

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We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?

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After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:

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Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:

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Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.

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The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:

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Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:

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One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:

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It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with kiwitaxi.com again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.

May 062017
 

Our driver had a bit of a difficult time locating our hotel, but after a couple minutes of searching we found it. We had booked the Leon Boutique Hotel based on TripAdvisor reviews and when we arrived it was quiet – and almost deserted looking. However, the lady working the reception desk was super pleasant, spoke excellent English, and had us quickly on the way to our rooms. Unfortunately, the bar and restaurant were closed because of Easter, but other than that no problems.

My room was a short walk up the staircase from reception, which I thought might make it a bit noisy, but that was never a problem…since breakfast didn’t start until 8:30 anyways and the bar closed down quite early. Room was rather small, but very comfortable with everything needed, and had excellent air conditioning. All in all, a great value for the price.

We headed out for a walk and to get a bit to eat, but first asked the helpful lady at the front desk about finding a driver for the next day to see some sites outside of the city. She of course had a friend who was a driver, and she would call him and check while we were out. Super helpful.

Short walk along the Black Sea waterfront, trying to find a cafe which had been recommended called Cafe Penguin. First attraction was a waterfront statue called “Nika and the Record Player.” Supposedly it is about a girl whose lover is out to see, and she frequently gets records that remind her of him…

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Pier jutting out into the Black Sea:

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We finally found Cafe Penguin, but it was closed for Easter. Ian had to have a conversation with the penguin statue to make sure it really was closed….

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If only I spoke Abkhaz, I might know who this was on the side of a building with the Abkhaz flag…it doesn’t LOOK like the President Raul Khajimba

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yes Sukhum! Posing with the name of the city on the waterfront.

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We finally found a place that was open called Barrista Coffee which made a pretty decent iced latte and rather tasty cheese varenyky:

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After sitting and having lunch, we wandered through the super quiet city, trying to find the office where we had to go and purchase the Abkhazia visa before leaving the country. We figured it wouldn’t be open on Easter Sunday, but best to know where it was so we could find it on Monday. On the walk, this place encouraged us to just take some coffee. I think they mean takeaway…

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Another political poster…not sure who this guy is either…

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We did manage to find the visa office…I mean the “Ministry of Repatriation” and then walked towards what looked like a large burned out building on the edge of the city centre. This was formerly the Council of Ministers for the Abkhaz Autonomous SSR in Soviet Times, and after independence was taken over by Georgia. After war broke out (over fears by Abkhazia that under a Georgian state they would lose their autonomy and be treated harshly by the Georgians) in 1992 the local Abkhazis were largely supported by Russia and other autonomous groups in the Caucuses against the Georgians.

Long story short, after multiple violated ceasefires by both sides, the last battle of Sukhumi was fought in September 1993. Eduard Shevardnadze was even still in town, and barely managed to escape. The Georgian forces/government retreated to this government building and after a campaign and hundreds were killed by the separatists when they arrived. The building still stands, burned out and scarred:

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Flag of Abkhazia flies atop the building…

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After nearly 25 years, lots of vegetation is growing inside the first floor.

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Staircase to the second floor that has seen better days. Of course we went up.

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Nothing left on the second floor except lots of rubble and graffiti.

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Bullet holes in the staircase.

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Posing on the second floor.

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Pro-Moscow graffiti.

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Outside of the building. There were some kids on the roof, but no idea how they got up there. The staircases from the second floor were all welded shut, and the lifts had long ago been looted.

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After exploring for a bit, we headed back to the hotel the long way. The Nefertiti beauty salon was also closed…

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After a quick rest up at the hotel, we headed out to try and find dinner. First, the helpful lady at reception informed us her driver could take us on a group tour, but we would only see what was on the itinerary, for about $30. For $60 for the whole day, we could have a car to ourselves, and the driver would take us anywhere we wanted. Easy decision! Plus, this meant not leaving on a schedule, and being able to head out at 10am when we wanted – sleeping in and having breakfast.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the restaurant at 730, we were informed that the kitchen was closed because it was Easter. Seeing how bummed we were, she offered that “the khatchapuri oven is still open. You can have that.” After a bit of back and forth (do you want an egg on it maybe?) we also asked if we could get some Abkhaz wine…since we have heard how good it is. That seemed to please her, and after asking “dry or sweet” we got a respectable bottle of dry red wine, and delicious khatchapuri with egg. Yes, they were as big as they look, and enough for a meal.

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After eating, the guy at the next table and his companion started chatting us up in very broken English. In a mixture of English and Russian we had a nearly hour long chat with them. Seems she was Russian, and has a visa to visit the US, but doesn’t know now if she wants to come because of Trump. Him? Supposedly he’s a big-deal Abkhaz filmmaker, but can’t leave Abkhazia because there are no jobs. The whole conversation was surreal…until he started telling us what a big fan of Omar Bradley he was. It was definitely one of those unique travel experiences. Back to the hotel and crash, big day of driving the next day!

Apr 292017
 

Airport in Sochi was relatively modern, no doubt a beneficiary of the recent Winter Olympics. Since it was already nearing sunset and we were exhausted from a long day of travel, we decided to go with the taxi desk in the arrivals area as opposed to negotiating with the taxi mafia to potentially save a couple dollars each. Nice quick ride with a polite driver who coincidentally enough had Abkhazia plates on his car.

10 minute ride to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Resort and Conference Centre, where check-in was a polite but disorganized affair. First they sent us to our rooms…which we realized when we got there we’d both been given the same room number. Back to the front desk, and apparently they had screwed up, and oh btw, we charged you the wrong amount. Your room requires you to pay this much more. Was somewhat odd that they expected the room to be paid upon check-in, but eventually everything was sorted, and the view of the Olympic venues from the room was fantastic:

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With the sun having set, and the stories of stray dogs around the area (which we never actually saw) there was really no point in trying to see the Olympics sites in the evening, so we decided to head into Sochi for some dinner. See, the airport and the Olympics venues are in a suburb called Adler, which actually sits right on the Abkhazia border. We called an Uber, which was really quick and reliable in Sochi, and made the 30 minute drive to the Morye Mall located in Sochi.

What was the first thing you see at the main entrance to the mall? Yup, it’s like they knew I was coming…AND Sochi managed to get my name right. Bonus points for them!

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We wandered around the mall a bit, walking off the jetlag, and the mall was majorly modern with lots of international stores – likely a beneficiary of the Olympics as well. We were getting a bit hungry, so stopped into a pelmeni restaurant for some dinner. Dozens of varieties of pelmeni on the menu, and I don’t remember what we ordered in the end but they were seriously delicious.

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After a bite to eat, a little more walking around the mall and exploring, and we found another odd vending machine to pair with the caviar vending machine in Moscow. I mean, don’t you always go to the mall and realize “damn, I forgot my contact lenses, I better hit up the vending machine!”

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There was also a huge grocery store in the mall, so explored that a bit as well. I find grocery stores fascinating places when abroad, and a good insight to how at least some segment of the local population lives. Nothing terribly unusual about this one, except for multiple aisles with nothing but alcohol.

Called an Uber which had no trouble locating us at the mall, and after a short ride we were back at the hotel where we promptly passed out for the night. Despite all the confusion over the room rate at the hotel, they did decide that breakfast was included, and it was a reasonable spread for Easter Sunday. The breakfast was seriously empty, but there was still a huge amount of choice at the buffet, both hot and cold options, plus some local sparkling wine. Not bad at all!

…and seriously, how can you resist taking a pic when the hotel has something like this set up?

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It was a nice clear morning, and unfortunately sleep won out over an early morning walk around the Olympic sites. Most of them were well behind fences anyways, so it wasn’t like I was going to get an early morning tour of them. This view from my room would have to do:

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We hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into getting to Abkhazia, but knew that there were essentially two options: take a taxi to the border, cross over, and then wait for a minibus to Sukhumi, or find a driver/taxi who was willing to make the full trip. Given it was Easter, and we didn’t know how much traffic there would be, we opted to skip the public transport option and arrange for a driver. My first thought was to hire our driver from the airport since he had Abkhaz plates, but he he no interest in making the trip.

Our second try was to see if they hotel could find us a driver. Yes, they could, but their driver wanted to leave at 6am to avoid traffic at the border, and wanted 9,000 rubles ($180) for the one-way trip. We definitely weren’t going to pay that much to get up early.

So, google to the rescue and I found kiwitaxi.com which seemed to be too good to be true. A global transfer booking company that could arrange transfers anywhere in the world? They only wanted about 5,500 rubles for the trip ($100) and only 20% in advance with the rest to the driver (I imagine the 20% is their commission) so I figured I would give it a go. Only took about 30 minutes, and I had confirmation that our driver was booked, and would pick us up at 11am as we requested.

Our driver Dima showed up right on time, and had a perfectly comfortable and modern SUV for the trip. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was extremely friendly and easy to communicate with. We set off right at 11am, and were at the border in just over 15 minutes. He made sure to tell us that if anyone at the border asks, we are “friends” since trying to explain a taxi might open him up to bribes. When we got close to the Russian side of the border he let us get out, and go walk through passport control. Exiting Russia was pretty straightforward, with just a couple simple questions “how long will you be in Abkhazia? When will you come back to Russia? Where do you live? Why do you speak Russian?” and we were through.

Dima was just getting the car cleared when we exited, and we were ready to head to the Abkhaz border post about 100 meters down the road. Here we just pulled up to the officers, said hi, showed them passports, and they waved us through without a single question. Way too easy! The whole border had taken about 30-40 minutes due to the passport control line on the Russian side, but overall really easy.

From here, it was about a two hour easy drive to Sukhumi, where we had little trouble finding our hotel. I asked Dima if he would be interested in picking us up in two days, but when we told him we needed to leave at 9am he wasn’t interested since it would mean leaving Sochi super early. No problem, we had two days to sort out transport or use kiwitaxi again, so figured we were set.

Now, time to explore Abkhazia!