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Off Beat

Backroad Travel

by Brad Zembic

Our Cozy Cabin © Brad Zembic

Molly has sold her café in Istanbul and is returning to the Great White North, to where people talk with a Toronto accent and think that the Galata Tower is part of a condo complex in Scarborough. She is now saying her farewells to fifteen years of friends – the masses of students she's taught in her English Time days, the hordes of café customers she's provided for and the countless others who have filled her life in one of the world's most exotic cities. No more will I sit with her on her balcony above the sparkling waters of the Bosphorus, imitating lions and hippos; no more will we sip coffees together on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's glitzy market street, listening to people call “Molly, Molly!” from a dozen directions while Turkish men genuflect as they pass. My South African bushveld and Austrian cycle adventures have also ended, though not as permanently as have my visits with this unofficial Queen of Galata.

Butterfly Love © Brad Zembic

It's late summer and my last chance for a good time; soon it's back to work after an extended period in those far-flung places. My vacation choices after my recent return home to Vancouver narrowed to two: I could settle into Yaletown again, with its colourful yet raucous nightlife, or I could relax in a place a little more natural. Travelbc.ca, an online tourist guide to British Columbia, suggested a few interesting destinations – the nearby Sunshine Coast, renowned for its serene ocean coves and red-barked arbutus trees, and the more distant Boundary Country, with its eclectic mix of rangeland, coniferous forest and expanses of silver sage.

“The further the better” is one of my life mottos, so the sparsely populated region beyond Hope, a town at the far end of the Fraser Valley, seemed a fitting choice. In addition, last year's drive through Bridesville, a village about 50 km east of the city of Osoyoos, has been a favourite memory of mine because of the town's decaying appearance and the beer-bellied brute that staggered along its only street looking as if he had just climbed out of a Yaletown dumpster – someone I've since referred to as the Frankenstein of Bridesville. I was curious to see whether I had embellished the memory of what has to be BC's ugliest town.

Once through the Fraser Valley, with its verdant cornfields, Tuscan-looking vineyards and uninspiring shopping malls, friend Cathy's and my route became fringed with rocky outcrops and endless fir trees carpeting the mountain slopes. Rushing streams tumbled past us, and wooden cabins – some so aged they were being sucked into the earth – dotted the landscape. People at gas stations and grocery stores smiled and chatted to us, and I felt that my escape from the urban ant heap of Vancouver was complete. That is until we rolled into Mountain Valley Ranch, a bed and breakfast near Rock Creek that I had booked to soften the blow of my transition from bushveld to concrete forest.

Comes With a Sense of History © Brad Zembic

We've now been nearly a week at this scenic retreat, a homestead run by Franz and Janet Bergendahl situated just off the Crowsnest Highway and the dusty road to Conkle Lake Provincial Park. If it weren't for the pressing call of continued employment I would stay here for a month. Their guest cabin is the sanctuary Cathy and I hoped for, the simplicity we needed to help us face our hectic lives back in the city. In the evenings we carry lawn chairs into the fields and watch the birds roost and the sun set on the distant hills; at night we sit on the cabin's deck and gaze at the silver moonlight as it washes over the valley and lay in bed listening to the piercing yowls of coyotes; in the daytime we simply read and write while the Bergendahl children bike rodeo-style over seesaw planks, or we explore the surrounding countryside.

Cathy's Real Happy © Brad Zembic

What Cathy and I will remember most about our stay at Mountain Valley – aside from Franz's amazing life stories and our easy conversations with the Bergendahl kids – are Janet's lip-smacking and bounteous breakfasts. Each morning she brings from the main house a basket of homemade and hearty German-style bread (Franz's), artisan buns and muffins (Janet's), and buttery croissants taken straight from the oven. She brings servings of meats, jams and cheeses, fruits and berries, and coffee that blows our socks off (Costco's, but made like a New York barista). She puts on our table eggs with yokes as gold as a sunrise, healthy whole-grain cereals and yogurts filled with fruit. Some mornings Janet serves two-inch-thick waffles with fresh whipped cream and maple syrup, and tasty strawberries or blueberries for topping.

Everyday here Cathy and I feel as if we've died and gone to B & B heaven. Maybe after my next overseas trip we'll make a beeline from YVR Airport and head straight for Mountain Valley for more Bergendahl hospitality – with a quick stop at Bridesville, naturally.




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Donau Scenery © Brad Zembic

Day five of cycling one of my favourite sections of the Donauradweg (Danube bicycle path) – between Passau, Germany and Linz, Austria – seeking the perfect plate of kaiser spetzler (Austrian mac 'n' cheese). My palate was spoiled a few years ago at a gas station restaurant somewhere lost in the Austrian interior; it was there I had my first experience of this local comfort food, and I have yet to find anywhere that could match its baked perfection.

This section of the trail winds nearly 100 km through a leafy forest reserve of poplars and maples. From Passau the path becomes, in places, a shared route with cars, but the traffic is so slight it would be redundant to build a separate lane. Further along the Donau, the traffic is even lighter, belonging to the occasional fisher who stalks the marshy banks for a good catch, their tents set up and pit fires ready to cook a meal. After Jochenstein, cyclists pretty much have the trail to themselves, as the path is too narrow to accommodate much more than the odd compact vehicle.

The Donauradweg, reputedly the most popular cycle route in Europe, is best travelled from west to east, mostly because of the prevailing west winds that add an ease to this mother of all bicycle trips – "mother" as it's a nurturing trail with nearly flat terrain and a bounty of hotels, bed & breakfasts, gasthofs, and cafes and restaurants within any cyclist's reach. During last year's cycle along the Donau a tyke on a tricycle passed me, pumping his pedals like a cartoon character trying to catch up with his family.

Draxler Room with a View © Brad Zembic

The number of cyclists leaving Passau for Austria attests to the popularity of the direction. Cyclists traditionally start their journey toward Vienna (a 400-km journey) on Sunday or Monday, according to the information office at Aschach, so it's advisable to plan your night's accommodation early – especially if you are aiming for the wine regions. For a fee of less than a euro, tourist offices along the radweg will offer choices of gasthofs, hotels or bed and breakfasts (private zimmers) and call to reserve a room for you. The ones I have stayed at this year are surveyed below.

Gasthof Draxler, Niederranna, 30 km east of Passau. The gasthof is conveniently located along the radweg and only metres from the Danube. Watch the barges pass as you read in bed. It has clean, quiet rooms, though the Donau side of the gasthof faces the highway on the opposite side of the river. The patio restaurant serves traditional Austrian meals and alcohol. The kaiser spetzler is probably superb, but being vegetarian, I had to painstakingly scratch out the bacon.

Draxler rooms have private washrooms and showers, but it's BYOS (bring your own soap), normal for this type of accommodation. Satellite TV and pay-as-you-go Internet is available. It's a joy when Erich and Monika Draxler, seventh generation owners, are around as the gasthof becomes warm and welcoming. Breakfast includes do-it-yourself eggs. Unless you are desperate, you may want to pass on the coffee. Cost per night is approx. €36 for a single, a little more for a double. About 150 metres east of the gasthof is a no-nonsense radweg café with upright service and cheap, tasty beer and schnitzel. Tel: +43 728 5511

Donau Architecture © Brad Zembic

Gasthof Reisinger, Inzell – This is a very quiet pension on the south side of the Danube River, approximately 5 km east of Schlögen. It's located in a small, out-of-the-way tourist/farming village. It's been Reisinger family-owned since 1997. The entire family seems very affable. The rooms are clean, ample, and come equipped with satellite TV (some English news channels), a sparkly chandelier and a wardrobe. They have private washrooms and showers. BYOS. Breakfast is basic – homemade apricot jam, cheese, cold cuts and hearty, Austrian bread, decent coffee, and tea. Cost is €30 for a single, €52 for a double. Evening meals and alcohol are served indoors or outside on the patio overlooking Danube (closes early). I didn't try their spetzler, but managed an overly soggy plate of it along the way at Pension Sönne in the town of Aschach. More information about the gasthof is at http://www.gasthof-reisinger.at/.

Haus Maria, Inzell – Maria is the sister of Reisinger's wife. Hers is a cozy cottage-style home next to the gasthof. It has various-sized rooms up a near-vertical, curly staircase. The cost is €22 for a single, not much more for a double. There are no great views of the Donau. Maria prepares a typical but adequate breakfast: fleisch, kaiser, bread, coffee, tea. She is super friendly and hospitable – of the "You want cream for coffee, I get you cream" sort. She's lived in the village all her life. Her home has private ablutions of the "Hold everything in your hand while you shower" type. It's perplexing how Austrians don't install soap holders or ledges in shower stalls. Listen to the chickens clucking as you read in bed. Tel: +43 7279 8297.

Privatzimmer Schwendtner, Linzer Strasse 34, Ottensheim – Bed & Breakfast tucked away 300 metres up from the radweg. It's very basic, but clean and inexpensive (€25 for a single). Breakfast, at least on a Monday morning after the shops have been closed for a better part of the weekend, is Spartan. I had to reach into my own cache of food for some satisfaction. There are plenty of cafés a few metres down the road, though, should anyone leave the house hungry. This town is a great alternative to staying in Linz where the cheapest accommodation – the hostel – is twice the price and not nearly as comfortable. It's easy to jump a train for the five-to-ten minute journey to enjoy Linz's myriad restaurants, museums and activities. Tel: +43 7234 83115.

I arrived back at Passau eager for a taste of Simon's Café coffee and a slice of their exquisite hazelnut torte, having fought west winds to make my train back to Munich. The café's décor was modern, its service snippy, the cake sublime and its coffee not as I remembered on my first visit a few years back. As I was sipping and chomping, I noticed kaiser spetzler on the menu, but it was too late. In some ways, dessert before dinner can be a bad idea. Next year.




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mollys cafe
Molly - Dangerous Beauty © Brad Zembic

Stopover at Molly's in Istanbul en route to Kruger National Park. As I sit on her balcony swarms of swifts are soaring and twittering, gulls on rooftops are laughing, air conditioners are humming; the water of the Bosphorus Strait is sparkling as the sun rises, a rose halo above the hills of |Beyoğlu that has quickly become a fiery eye. Minarets everywhere are glinting, and a gigantic Turkish flag – a white sickle moon and star on a blood-coloured background – is draping like a curtain in this breathless dawn.

Great to be here. Molly and I have been friends for over a decade now. I met her when I booked a trip to Johannesburg on Turkish Airlines one year. She was a friend of a friend and since has become an integral figure in my life. In the twelve years I have known her I have only missed her company on two occasions – once when I skipped this usual route to South Africa and travelled on disastrously bad Iberia Airlines through Madrid, and the other when I tried to do the impossible one year and miss Africa all together.

Dragging myself into Molly's café beneath the Genoese tower in Galata yesterday, I felt as if no time had elapsed since my last visit. Molly, famously buxom and with red hair that would make a sunset turn green, was sweating from the heat and busy serving up some of her homemade lemonade. Turks and foreigners alike were wafting in and out, some only to say hello, others set for a hearty Molly meal. After 13 hours of travel time I was just ready to put my feet up and enjoy the lack of movement. In greeting, Molly and I pecked cheeks Europe style as if we had simply been apart for a few weeks. It's great to have friendships like this. And greater to have one that can cook as good as Molly. A few moments later she came out from her kitchen with a plate of her vegetarian lasagne. I can still feel its creamy richness on my palate.

I fell asleep last night at my usual hour – 9 p.m. local time, 11 a.m. back in my home time zone. Molly and I had sat up and caught up on each other's lives and talked about people here in Turkey that we had in common.

“Whatever happened to Sait, your realtor friend? ” I ask of her old flame.

“He got married and is living in Malta. ”

“And Karen? ” I ask of her colleague when Molly was managing an English school.

“Back in Oregon, trying to make a new life. ”

Molly, too, is planning a move. She is lining up her ducks in anticipation of a return to life across the pond. After four years of owning and running a café in a popular part of Istanbul, she is nearly ready to relocate to Toronto. And as I watched her last night at her café I could understand why. Community building and cuisine creating aside, the years of shopping, cooking, serving, cleaning and paying bills has taken a toll on this Betty Crocker of Istanbul.

mollys cafe
Molly's Cafe © Brad Zembic

What's on my menu today? Sitting at Molly's Café, imbibing the atmosphere: the eclectic home-style decor, the colourful street life that passes by her front door. I am also preparing myself for the inevitable lag in energy that has yet to hit me after passing through ten time zones. And, of course, I'll be escaping the Turkish heat, not like the weather I have been experiencing on Canada's west coast. I contemplated a visit to the glitzy Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace, but with eyelids threatening to drop like the Turkish lira, I'm unsure if I could make it far past Molly's door jamb.

Jetlag, clinically known as desynchronosis, a psychological condition that affects people who travel far beyond their home time zones, often requires days or weeks of sleep-rhythm readjustment. For me it's an experience that has caused me to fall asleep in restaurants and to utter the most insanely ridiculous comments. According to ehow.com there are many ways to temper the effects of jetlag. The obvious remedy is to pre-adjust your internal clock by changing your sleeping habits before you embark on a trip. Melatonin, in correct dosages, the website suggests, can help reorganize your body's natural sleep pattern once you have reached your destination. Staying awake is also key to combating the sometimes overwhelming lethargy, headaches and stomach issues that can occur – a difficult feat if you have travelled across the world, but not one if you're on a one-week adventure without time to waste. Jet Lag, a homeopathic concoction containing ingredients such as leopard's bane and camomile, has a good reputation for helping you get a good rest en route.

My strategy to mitigate the effects of jetlag has worked well for me, though websites I've visited suggest healthier ways. First, I check in online and book a seat in which I can comfortably sleep. Then, about four hours into any overnight trans-Atlantic flight I swallow a zopiclone and am literally knocked out for a good part of the nine-hour journey. By the time I wake up it's morning in Europe and I have enjoyed the equivalent of a short-night's sleep, something which I am accustomed to.

On this trip I'm also practicing the art of mind over matter. I'm investing energy in the belief that everything is normal, that I simply went to sleep in my own bed and woke up in a different reality – something less west coast arboreal and more Arabian Nights. I'm trying to trick myself into normalcy by doing regular things, like shopping for grub at the local supermarket and catching up on the political antics of Christy Clark and Adrian Dix in the Vancouver Sun. The one exotic thing I'm doing in my lethargic state – since I have, on previous visits to this sultanic city, already visited the myriad tourist sites – is watching Molly's flame-coloured head bounce above her kitchen counter as she prepares a stack of sesame-oat-cranberry cookies. Now there's something I could never tire of.




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Secret Cove Cottage Copyright Noell Burns
Secret Cove Cottage © Noell Burns

A visit up British Columbia's Sunshine Coast – I suspect a misnomer as it seems to rain here as much as it does anywhere on Canada's west coast. Meandering up and down the small roads that curve among the rocky outcrops and fir trees, my mother, Debby, and I survey the accommodation offerings. It's off-season in this northern playground for Vancouverites and, at least in this beginning of the week, it seems there is plenty of choice and some room for negotiation.

Unlike in my favourite areas of Europe where accommodation in private homes is a fraction of the cost of hotels or gasthofs, space to rest your head can be a pricey deterrent in this part of the world. There also seems to be some caché here about staying with “the folk.” The last time I brought my mother up for a look-see, we were astounded by some of the hospitality pretense we experienced. One B & B host boasted that her “continental breakfast” was of the Costco variety – complete with baseball-sized muffins – after I assumed the $115 price tag for a night included something akin to homemade bread and jams. After all, nuts-and-berries homemaker types are as common along this coast as swordtail ferns. A little granola sprinkled as garnish on a greasy breakfast plate is sometimes all I ask for.

But there are quaint and personable places to stay that won't burn a hole in your wallet and that will leave you with the fuzzy feeling of having touched the soul of coastal British Columbia. My partner and I once stayed at the Pender Harbour Resort just above the rocky shore of Garden Bay, where we heard bald eagles cry and watched sea lions pop their bulbous heads above the inky blue water. The experience cost us a little less than what we would have paid for a hotel room in the city, but for the money we got the run of an entire cabin and a good taste of B.C. coastal life.

This trip my mother and I found lodgings at tidy and serene Secret Cove Cottage, a small, box-shaped wooden house containing a pair of one-bed suites located deep in the Douglas firs and only a short hop to the ocean. Winter was upon us, and although the off-season price was already low the friendly owner generously agreed to rent us both suites at a discount (my mother and I had already inwardly decided that sharing a single queen-sized bed wasn't apropos). And such commercial pragmatism the owner possessed! Without the reduction she would have earned half the revenue in a very quiet period (I would have slept on the sofa in Debby's suite) or she simply may have lost our business all together. I couldn't have been happier at the discount and was relieved at having the luxury of my own space in such idyllic surroundings.

This was a much different experience from what we had when we combed the sublime Ocean Beach Esplanade north of Gibson's Landing looking for accommodation. This stretch of car-navigable coast is one of the most beautiful that is accessible to the public anywhere on the Sechelt Peninsula: Douglas firs tower majestically, paddling trumpeter swans Armstrong by, eagles and gulls soar the dappled sky and the cold Pacific waves smack the gravelly shore with poetic rhythm – all this along a blissful two-kilometre strip of asphalt that ends far too suddenly. As a bonus, down-to-earth locals are ready to chat at the drop of a nod. Nothing like a little indigenous knowledge from fashion-rebellious natives to make you feel part of the culture. At an upmarket B & B at the head of the strip, price negotiation was out of the question, despite the hotel being empty. I didn't mind. The polite yet edgy clerk was enough of a put-off for me to prefer the driftwood-scattered beach for a bed to one of his deluxe suites overlooking the Straight of Georgia. Well, not really. But I did think that a loss of $25 on a $200 room was poor business, considering the lodge's lack of clients. Perhaps the haggling skills I learned in the markets of Central America and Africa are simply not that transferable.

But whatever the cost of a weekend on the Sunshine Coast, you are likely to enjoy the getaway and start planning a return trip even before you jump the ferry back to the Lower Mainland. The region is rustic compared to the sophistication that lies a little south, but there is space to move and fresh air to breathe. The forest and the possibility of seeing wildlife such as bear, wolf, elk, cougar and orca adds to the experience. And it is, during off-peak times, joyously underutilized – from a tourist perspective. Just don't expect it to be cheap, unless you hunt around and sharpen up some of those negotiating skills.




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Who Ever Thought the Church was Baroque?
Who Ever Thought the Church was Baroque? © Brad Zembic

Cycling is the transportation option of choice in many countries around the world and one that I have embraced since my childhood. Last summer I continued my love affair with two-wheeled travel by cycling along the Danube (Donau) River in Western Germany and Northern Austria.

I began my trip in the regal city of Vienna, having just trained up from another brief cycle route along the Mur River in Styria, Austria's second largest province. The journey over the mountains from the verdant city of Graz was spectacular, and I wished that I had had the intrepidness to climb the steep pass that links Styria with Lower Austria, as the lofty landscape was dotted with alpen farmhouses that had me humming Julie Andrews songs and craving the lung rush of a long ascent.

My arrival at Vienna was fraught with confusion on how to access the popular Donauradweg, the cycle trail that links the source of the Danube with the mouth of the Black Sea, a 2875km – mostly asphalt – journey through forests, vineyards, medieval towns with ornate cathedrals, and farmland. My goal was simply to cycle back to Passau, Germany, a 240km trip, to imbibe some of Euro-famous Café Simon's astonishing coffee and elegant pastry.

Austrian Cyclists
Austrian Cyclists © Brad Zembic

In the driving rain, I made for Klosterneuberg, a nearby town famous for its 12th century monastery. A package of sopping wet fabric, I booked into the Hotel Residenz Shrannenhof, a 15th century inn, where Sabine, an enthusiastic manager with a flare for hospitality, treated me as if I had checked in as a Hapsburg. I took a quick look at the monastery the next day after a bountiful breakfast and was on my way, the sunshine beating at my back.

My life has always been about going the wrong way, and cycling the Donau was no different. The best direction to travel is from the west to east– Passau to Vienna, for example. Originating from the west ensures you will have a tailwind and the sun at your back. The two times I have cycled the Donau I managed to begin in Vienna and travel west, pushed back by gusty breezes and sporting a poppy-red sunburn at the end of it all. When will I learn?

Quaint Towns Along The Donau
Quaint Towns Along The Donau © Brad Zembic

The Donau is as tame a cycle tour as anyone could want. If there are any grades at all, they are imperceptible. Villages teeming with cafes and bed and breakfasts are ubiquitous and are well kitted for cyclists, many offering secured cycle parking, lavish meals and generous rates. It's such a friendly ride that near Durnstein, a 12th century town where Richard the Lionhearted had once been imprisoned, a child rode by me on his tricycle, peddling like a cartoon character, trying desperately to catch up to his family. Each village and town, it seems, is equipped with bicycle shops where bicycles can be rented or repaired, and contains an informed and helpful tourist information office from which you can book accommodation for the night. It doesn't get much easier than that.

Essentially, cycling the Donauradweg is like being in cycle tour heaven. All along the trail the mighty Donau flows, carrying with it barges chock with tourists or cargo. Occasionally the radweg meanders through cornfields and placid woodland. It sometimes ambles through vineyards gravid with grapes and orchards rich with apricots that will be fermented into the popular beverage most. The trail wanders through conservation areas that make it easy to imagine Romans in boats exploring for conquest and trade. Ancient castles and monasteries cling to hillsides, and everywhere is so clean, safe and healthy feeling that you will likely start planning your next Donau tour before you have even jumped on the plane to go back home.




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armenia
Yerevan, Armenia © Brad Zembic

Years ago I was sipping chai with a young American woman in a Fez, Morocco souq. I was 20 years old and dressed in a peak-hooded galabiya given to me as a gift by the manager at my hotel. “I've heard of your type,” she said knowingly. “You live like the people.” The image of being “in” with the locals, one who understands their culture, eats their food and drinks their folk brew was romantic. I never attained that stature, though I did crave it. As an outsider anywhere but my own country all I can hope for is some insight into the lives of those that share our planet and some experiences that add some colour to my otherwise ordinary life. Taking small risks and venturing off the beaten trail offers me the opportunity.

armenia
A Tatev Freeway © Brad Zembic

Recently I enjoyed a long-wanted visit to a place I knew I wouldn't have to suffer mobs of tourists. Armenia has fascinated me since I was a child. My attraction is rooted in Armenia's Hollywood ambassador Mike Connors from the 1960s and 1970s TV series “Mannix.” Talk show interviews with Connors stuck in my brain. Perhaps it was what he'd said about the Armenians' flamboyant culture – much more fascinating than the suburban Winnipeg one I grew up in. It may have been all his talk of the Armenian genocide that stirred my interest. After all, my brothers and I were troublesome teenagers at the time, and it seemed obvious that my parents were contemplating a similar fate for us.

Whatever was the foundation for my interest, forty years later I aimed for Armenia. Travel literature on this far-off place described it as land whose crime rate was comparable to that of an uninhabited island somewhere in the South Pacific. That sounded like just the place to do something I have always wanted to do – simply, to walk through mountains Julie Andrews-like, sharing high fives with the yokels and feeling utterly alive.

armenia
Tatev Monastery © Brad Zembic

So, to Istanbul to enjoy my friend Molly's legendary hospitality; then a cheap air ticket to Batumi, Georgia, the least-expensive option for travelling from Turkey to Armenia. Finally a long bus ride through Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia's well-kept capital city. The Georgian terrain on our route was arid, rugged and mountainous, the people dour-looking and suspicious – not at all the image I had of Georgians from what I'd read. My goal was the 9th century Tatev Monastery, a series of churches perched on a lofty ledge of land overlooking the Orotan River in southeast Armenia. I'd spend some time touring the historic site, and then fill my rucksack with provisions and hoof it down the twisting road that runs through a forested valley connecting Tatev village with the city of Karpan.

Trouble is I have always been a tentative adventurer: I want to be off the beaten path seeing the real country, meeting the real people, but when I get to my point of departure, I modify my plan to one that feels less complicated and more safe – and consequently, promises less fun. I felt this trip was going to be different, a breakthrough from years of wimping out.

At Tatev village, I sought out the best bed-and-breakfast and settled into a long sleep after a long journey. In the early hours of the morning, my host fed me a hearty breakfast of homemade bread, local honey, yogurt and farm-fresh eggs (the flavour of which awakened taste buds long thought dead), and then wished me a fond farewell. I stepped into rural Armenia, certain that my intrepid nature would prevail.

armenia
Armenians on Holiday © Brad Zembic

“Be careful,” the woman called from her doorstep. “Some tourists were robbed last week along the road.” My idea of Armenia as a haven from crime had been all but gunned down.

I trundled down the hill, past the monastery and the little café that serves up an emir's bounty of local favourites, beneath the towers of humming electrical wires and past the bleating sheep whose ancestors likely were witnesses to invasions by Selcuks and Mongols. I was as giddy as Marco Polo might have been in anticipation of the discoveries that lay ahead.

The air was breathless and the sky, though clear of cloud cover, was hidden behind a low-lying mist; I could barely see the road beneath my feet. The only sound to disturb the blissful silence was the occasional bird song. As I neared the river, I became alerted to the rhythmic clopping of hooves on gravel. Ghostlike, a donkey cart laden with hay emerged from the mist. It's slow appearance and disappearance added to the morning magic.

I had been negligent about packing water or snacks, since my map of the region indicated a village only five kilometres from Tatev. I was fresh, my pack was light, and should I need civilization, I knew it was only a short hike away. As time flowed, though, my thirst increased and it became evident that I'd missed the village – either it had been too small for eyesight or it had been down a side road somehow concealed. I stopped a passing car, hoping for insight. The driver gestured that Aghvani, the next village, was still a distance off. He then turned outright nasty when I graciously refused his offer of a lift. Perhaps this was the man who had robbed the tourists the previous week. He huffed off, spinning gravel.

armenia
Chamomile Hunt © Brad Zembic

A while later, and far further down the road, I stopped another car. The driver's wife spoke excellent English and cautioned me that any place to buy food was at least a day's walk. Her offer of a lift to the next village I didn't refuse. My hosts were a family of Armenians living in Chechnya who were visiting relatives. And a fine family they were. The two English-speaking daughters in the back seat filled me in about their family history and gave me a verbal tour of the area. Grandma sitting next to them smiled warmly and nodded her head.

“You mustn't walk alone here,” one of the girls warned when I told her I planned to walk the desolate road as far as Kapan. “There are bears!” The light of adventure that had been burning inside me doused like a match in a puddle. Whoever heard of bears in Armenia?

The girls were animated and excited to have picked up someone with whom they could practice their English. On occasion their grandmother tapped her son-in-law's shoulder and ordered him to pull over so she could pick wild chamomile for tea. I was seeing the country from the inside, after all. In such good company my valour returned.

When we arrived at Aghvani, though, my heart sank. It was decrepit and muddy from rain; homes appeared ramshackle, and loose livestock seemed everywhere. In addition, residents were dressed poorly – perhaps because they were poor. The comfort seeker in me didn't protest when the patriarch of the family announced there'd be little food there and continued driving. A few hours later I found myself in Kapan, a week of trekking in rural bliss and brushing shoulders with the locals given up to billboards, angry commuters, exhaust-belching lorries and urban sprawl.

But though I played it safe and jumped a ride at nearly the first opportunity, my few hours with this Armenian family far off the beaten trail gave me all that I'd hoped for in a vacation.


Images edited by Kamer Guzel




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In this day and age it's difficult to have a zero impact on our environment while travelling, unless you walk or cycle (but what about the disintegrating rubber from tires…?). So taken that air travel may be your only choice to get to farflung places, it's prudent to check out airline reviews before you fork out your hard-earned cash for a ticket or put your life on the line.

Surfing the review sites recently after an abysmal journey to South Africa on Spain's Iberia Airlines, I was unsurprised to find that the reputation of my airline of choice soared well below many of its competitors. A Skytrax review of airlines gave the Spanish flag-carrier a low-flying 3.3/10 from over 500 customer reviews. Complaints ranged from surly flight attendants to chronic lates. My own consisted of lack of fresh air (a situation I believe was responsible for the chest infection I contracted) and forever lost baggage (an incident from which the airline exonerated themselves of blame and the responsibility of recompense). Had I done my research and not allowed the saving of a few dollars to cloud my judgement, I may have come out richer in the long run. I may also have enjoyed my travel experience of being deep in the South African veld far more than I was able. That said, on-line research does seem to come with reliability issues.

Cruising through Skytrax, one of the most popular airline review sites, I was able to read customer opinions of everything from seat pitch to airport lounge comfort. Being aware of the commercialization of information, I checked further into the site to find out just how trustworthy they really are. The site reports that their "editorial scrutiny and authenticity checks prevent fake airline reviews and stops 'reputation management' techniques from trying to skew ratings. 1 Not so, say posts on TripAdvisor that suggest Skytrax doctors review submissions and should not be trusted. 2 Posters on a Business Traveller discussion forum imply the same – that Skytrax reviews are sometimes distorted. 3 The British Daily Mail increases review turbulence by reporting the possibility that other major sites had their "fair share of fake reviews." 4

So whom are we supposed to trust when websites give such conflicting information about airline quality, safety and value? There's really nothing like personal experience to keep you flying favourite airlines–or avoiding ones that have treated you poorly. In terms of airline safety, though, you may want something less first-hand.

For those who don't actually know anyone who has suffered an airline accident, Airsafe.com gives up-to-date information on plane crashes and a plethora of other issues related to the air travel industry. These include documentation of airplane near misses, airport security, and even baggage tips. A plus for this site is that you can check events by individual airline. A more comprehensive site is the Aviation Safety Network (aviation-safety.net), a site that describes air traffic incidents down to the type of engine of a fallen aircraft. The site even publishes images and the results of event investigations. Reviews can be viewed in seven different languages. This was all helpful when I was once considering flying Kenya Airways from Europe to South Africa. With a death count of nearly three hundred souls in the past decade, it became my last choice for flying the friendly, or sometimes hostile and dangerous, skies. 5 I wish I'd been more research savvy when I was booking my ticket on Iberia. Next trip.

Sources:


1.http://www.airlinequality.com/news/trustedreviews_05June.htm
2.http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g1-i10702-k3906990-Skytrax_Reviews_do_not_trust_them-Air_Travel.html
3.http://www.businesstraveller.com/discussion/topic/Is-Skytrax-selective-in-its-reviews
4.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1393412/Amazon-TripAdvisor-centre-scandal-companies-post-fake-reviews.html#ixzz1ek1tCf13
5.http://aviation-safety.net/database/operator/airline.php?var=5885


Former Winnipeg boy Brad Zembic just can't seem to sit still, which is probably why he calls so much of the world home. While nourishing his obsession for travel, his forays to places off the tourist trail have given him insight and appreciation of our planet's extraordinary people and places.

I knew a teacher who, everyday after school, drove to a forest trail and did a three-kilometre run. "A challenge is better than a rest to rejuvenate the old batteries," he explained when I asked him where he got the energy to exercise after a hard day working with enthusiastic teenagers. With summer swiftly approaching, our minds may be drifting to vineyards in Tuscany, buffets of French pastry and beaches on Maui. Go ahead, I say. Play it safe. Amble the well-trodden tourist trails that millions walk every year. Or challenge yourself and escape to a place you've always been attracted to but never thought you'd have the opportunity—or the courage—to visit.

Most people who dream of the exotic places are nervous about crime, disease, civil strife or a litany of other factors that could turn a long-awaited holiday into a vacation from hell. Aside from the obvious trouble spots, though—Iraq, for example—most of the world is less dangerous than you might imagine. It's time to break away from the idea of developing nations as being unhygienic disease banks populated with murderers and terrorists, and to see them for what they truly are—magnificent lands with fascinating cultures and, for the most part, amazingly hospitable people.

Case in point: Initially, I'd only been lukewarm to the notion of a four-week sojourn in Egypt, a country where, in 1997, seventy foreign tourists were gunned down by extremists outside the Temple of Hatshepsut, near Luxor. But the land of the pharaohs is an absurdly cheap place in which to travel, and I've always been a sucker for a meal that costs less than a coke here in Canada. I pondered for weeks whether to make the journey. After all, if anti-Western interests didn't get me, I'd be easy picking for the local hawkers, who, I was told, view foreigners as nothing more than wallets with legs. During the beginning of my holiday, I was almost psychotic with worry about being scythed into pieces, ripped off or kidnapped. I didn't realize how much my attitude was preventing me from connecting with everyday Egyptians, many who simply wanted to show the best of their country. Consequently, what was to have been a trip of a lifetime was turning into horror story, but only in my head.

It wasn't until I tried to avoid some overly eager street vendors by slipping into a Luxor juice bar that I allowed the magic of the Nile to flow into me. On entering the bar, I was greeted by a young, angelic-looking man dressed in a flowing, white galabiya. People shouted juice orders, and blenders filled with sliced fruit buzzed like miniature chainsaws. Through the din, I heard a melodic voice emanating from the shop's CD player. I was mesmerized by the singer's deep voice and asked the angel mixing drinks for the artist's name. It was the moment that helped defined my entire experience of Egypt. Mohammed, until then only vaguely interested in the frenzied foreigner who had ducked into his establishment for a 40-cent glass of orange juice, beamed me a smile as broad as a crescent moon. "It is Mohammed Sadik El Minshowi!" he proclaimed proudly, "He is reciting verses of the Holy Qur'an."

My interest in the spiritual life of the juice seller's homeland sparked a heart-felt conversation on Islam and the beauty of religious music. It also instilled in me an awareness that all is not what it seems, that despite the scary newspaper reports and anecdotal stories that make their rounds, even the most precarious countries can be worthwhile visiting. That isn't to say that harm may not befall someone who keeps their billfold in their back pocket, is undiscerning about what and where they eat and drink or doesn't keep an open eye; there will always be misfortune and treachery, even in the most paradisiacal holiday locations. But getting beyond the anxiety can open up a whole new world.

So, when thinking about where to go on vacation this year, consider the alternatives to herd destinations—regions where tourists by the thousands converge. Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, thought unsafe due to the wacky politics, is empty of tourists. Yet those who go there are overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. Istanbul, situated in an earthquake zone—and a favourite dream of many would-be adventurers—offers a intriguing blend of European and Asian cultures; Peru, a country whose cities have crime rates that are among the highest on the planet, promises Inca ruins, steamy jungles and lofty cloud forests.

Despite fears of racial violence, natural calamity and peril, most people who trek off the beaten path return with tales that serve to whet the travel appetite of everyone around them. So when it's time to commit to a holiday, think longer about your options. If, indeed, a challenge is better than a rest, choosing a more exotic destination might be just the ticket you need to actually enhance your life rather than merely help you to relax. Or, you can simply keep on dreaming.