Hotel Titanic, Nagorno-Karabakh

With only the forthcoming Jubilympics stealing more media thunder so far this year, it has been nigh on impossible to ignore the fact that April 2012 marks the centenary of the sinking of a certain trans-Atlantic passenger liner. One hundred years ago this month, RMS Titanic, a vessel considered virtually unsinkable, disappeared beneath the North Atlantic’s icy waters on its maiden voyage, along with most of its crew and lower class passengers. The cause of this tragic event was seemingly the combined effect of hubris and a sneaky, yet massive, iceberg.

What does this have to do with a little-known corner of the Caucasus? Well, it is partly connected with the sense of irony so readily displayed in the post-Soviet territories of the Caucasus region. I remember spotting a restaurant on my first visit to Baku that was called, of all things, ‘Lady Diana’ (smallish helpings presumably) but even this pales into insignificance when compared to a hotel I once stayed at in the unrecognised territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh, formerly part of Azerbaijan, now a de facto independent state (but only recognised by three fellow non-UN states – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria), is a very odd place – and a sad place too, with visible traces of war damage almost everywhere. Given the state’s poverty, isolation and lack of infrastructure it might seem surprising to come across a hotel of any description in a small village, let alone one called ‘The Titanic’, but the small lumber village of Vank in northern Nagorno-Karabakh not only has a guest house that answers that description but also one that is actually built in the form of a ship.

The Titanic Hotel – officially Hotel Eclectica but everyone seems to calls it ‘Titanik’ and that is what it said on my restaurant receipt – is a striking edifice built in the form of a ship. This brick-built simulacrum even goes as far as having port-holes for some of its windows. In front of it stands a small swimming pool (no icebergs!) that must, almost certainly, be the only one in all of northern Nagorno-Karabakh. The hotel must be a thoroughly disturbing phenomenon to come across out here in the boondocks if you were not expecting to find it; it’s an arresting enough sight even when anticipated.

The Hotel Eclectica/Titanic is one of the most surreal sites you are ever likely to see but the village is the oddest of places too. Vank is the birthplace of a Moscow millionaire lumber baron called Levon Hayrapetyan who as well as asphalting the 12km-long road to the village has ploughed plenty of money back into his home village, building a school, a lumber mill and this highly incongruous hotel. Part of Hayrapetyan’s vision for the village of his birth is to develop tourism in the area, hence the hotel. It seems a long shot considering its isolation and the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is the remnant of a frozen conflict and officially does not even exist. Technically speaking, Nagorno-Karabakh still belongs to Azerbaijan, although virtually all ethnic Azeris have left since the bloody conflict of the 1990s.

I spent a few days in Nagorno-Karabakh back in 2008, having first obtained a visa in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. The colourful ‘visa’, which I took the precaution of not sticking into my passport, was hardly glanced at when I arrived at the border post in the crowded marshrutka that plies daily between Yerevan and the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert.  After a couple of days in Stepanakert – a bit of a threadbare Soviet theme park without really trying to be – I took another marshrutka to Vank for an overnight stay.

The village lies deep in a wooded valley with wispy strands of low clouds kissing the nearby hills, atop one of which stands the mysterious Gandzasar Monastery. I managed to get a room at the Titanic, although they didn’t really seem very keen on having a lone foreigner like me stay, perhaps disbelieving that I might seriously want to spend the night there. After paying 7,000 Armenian drams ($20) and leaving my bag I walked up the neatly tarmaced road to the monastery on the hill, which was swathed in mist so thick that it was impossible to see the church until the very last minute of ascent. In the monastery grounds I encountered a friendly trio of chain-smoking Armenian men but, after we had posed for group photographs together and they had sped off down the hill in their Lada, I was completely alone once more – the resident monks were either absent or keeping a very low profile. Not quite alone though. Mooching around, I noticed a small curved-beaked bird poking around on the stone of the gable. A sparrow? No, a wallcreeper – an exotic-looking mountain bird more at home on isolated cliff faces than the stone walls of churches. Perhaps, like me, it had become disoriented by the swirling mist that flanked the monastery like the overenthusiastic use of dry ice in a Hammer Horror production?

Later, walking up out of the village through lovely wooded countryside along a section of the long-distance Janapar Trail I came across a few more locals: friendly Armenian women at a village kiosk who wanted me to take their photograph and another villager who beckoned me into his garden to drink vodka with him. Less welcoming though, was the policeman who gruffly insisted on seeing my dokumenti. As he was dressed in civilian clothes I countered by asking to see his identification, which pissed him off a bit but made his friend roar out loud with laughter. I stood my ground and soon the policeman just walked off in a huff trailed by his still giggling accomplice.

By the time I got back to the hotel late afternoon the place had been virtually taken over by a wedding party and so things had become pretty chaotic. Nevertheless, I was hungry. The hotel’s ‘Van Gogh’ restaurant had a Chinese couple working there (who knows how they found their way here to Vank?), which might have been a good sign, although it seemed they were only capable of providing food for themselves and pre-ordered wedding feasts. Eventually, after much negotiation and shaking of heads, I managed to order an overpriced plate of barbecued mutton, which arrived after a full hour’s wait accompanied by a huge dish of fresh coriander.

One night was enough. I caught the early morning marshrutka back to Stepanakert the next day. Among the suspicious faces that turned my way when I took my seat was the policeman from the previous day. This time he was in uniform – quite high-ranking it would seem judging by the pips on his lapel. He didn’t bother asking for my passport this time.

Postscript: I am aware that Vank is not the only place in the world with a Titanic Hotel. There’s also a luxury beach hotel resort called Titanic in Antalya in Turkey, another beach resort in Hurghada, Egypt, a business hotel in Istanbul and others in Albania, Vietnam and Poland. You would be hard pushed to find this particular one on TripAdvisor though. The Hotel Titanic, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh is not only a very odd place to stay, it is the Caucasus region’s very own Fawlty Towers.

For those interested in finding out more about the long-distance Janapar Trail you can look at my feature for Walk magazine here – the title Global Walk: Azerbaijan was not my idea.

Dacha

Reading a recent article on the excellent Earthlines blog about Gerry Loose, and then finding out more about the Scottish hutting movement and specifically the Carbeth hutters community in Stirlingshire, I have come to the conclusion that I am probably something of a closet hutter at heart. The best that I can ever probably hope for though is to have my own shed one day.

It is a common enough passion – indeed, books have been written about British (predominantly male) shed culture. But, with no rear garden and a backyard too small to comfortably squeeze a shed into, the closest I currently get to fulfilling my fantasy is my city allotment where I have inherited a tumbledown structure without door or window glass that is filled with garden tools and grumpy secretive spiders. Too small and decrepit to serve as a comfortable retreat, this shed is clearly no place to linger but at least I have a plastic chair en plein air for whenever I need a rest from wrenching couch grass out of the ground. 

In northern Europe, and especially in Scandinavia and Russia where even the middle classes live in apartment blocks,  the situation is quite different. Here, many city dwellers have a wooden hut and a patch of ground to call their own – a simple rural haven where they can enjoy a little R&R and temporary respite from urban life. No nation embraces this tradition more than Russia, where a country dacha is seen not only as a place to grow vegetables but something akin to a holiday home: a base for collecting berries and mushrooms in autumn, for fishing, for sunbathing; a place for friends and family to gather around food, to drink vodka, play games and sing. A dacha is a place to spend summer weekends al fresco, a place where city children can learn about nature. In Russian society, a dacha serves a function that is a combination of allotment garden, beach hut and social club. To have a dacha is not a Walden-like solitary pursuit but, rather, something that proudly shouts out ‘community!’

I was lucky enough to visit a dacha a couple of years ago on a long, late-summer Russian journey from Pskov, close to the Estonian border, to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. At Krasnoyarsk, 18 hours west of Irkutsk on the the Trans-Siberian railway, I had arranged to stay in the family apartment of a local tour guide and political science lecturer called Anatoliy. After picking me up at the station and meticulously showing me all the permutations of the city bus route to and from his identikit Khrushchevki apartment block (the very last stop, thankfully) he took me out to show me his country dacha that, coincidentally, was close to the railway tracks that I had just travelled along. 

There is more to Siberia than gulags and permafrost but life is hard nonetheless. In the few months of the year when the ground is not snow-covered there are plenty of other things to contend with, notably predatory mosquitoes and nasty infective ticks everywhere in the grass. Given such limitations, I was hugely impressed by the size and vigour of Anatoliy’s cabbages and also by the efforts he took to tend them given that we had driven for more than an hour to reach the dacha. Even more  impressive was the air of autumnal tranquility that seemed to hang over the place like a healing balm. In Siberia, autumn may be just a brief golden precursor to a long dark winter but  September is the most glorious of months.

A River Wensum Walk

Early April in Norwich. It’s cool but the sky is blue and daffodils are glistening in Wordsworthian tribute to the bright spring sunshine. What better then than a morning stroll through the city along the banks of the River Wensum?

Like many cities – even London – these days, Norwich has largely turned its back on the river that runs through its centre. Once essential for transport and industry, the River Wensum that meanders through the city now seems to have little use other than as a backdrop for attractive new riverside apartments. Look a little closer though and you will still find plenty of reminders of Norwich’s medieval past along its course.

Hard to imagine now, but Norwich once held second city status in England and the banks of the River Wensum that dissect the city are still littered with traces of that period – medieval churches, priories, old bridges and defensive walls – as well as reminders of the city’s half-hearted dabble with Victorian industrialisation.

We begin our walk on St Benedict’s Street at St Lawrence’s Church. From the alley at the side of the church’s western gable you can see a little stone plaque set in the flint that depicts St Lawrence strapped to a grid iron, the means of his subsequent martyrdom. Understandably, he doesn’t look too happy about this but is blissfully unaware (well, perhaps not blissfully) that he will go on to become one of the earliest Christian martyr saints; indeed, the patron saint of comedians and chefs no less (and butchers and librarians too, apparently).

Descending the steps to cross Westlegate we pass the swish apartment block that in a previous incarnation used to be the Anchor Brewery. An enormous brick chimney once scraped the sky here – I still have a black and white photograph of it somewhere. As recently as thirty years ago Norwich used to be redolent of malt and hops (and chocolate too, from Rowntree’s, now Chapefield Shopping Centre) but its source did not originate from here as the Bullards brewery closed back in the 1960s.

We cross Coslany Bridge over the Wensum and  follow the pedestrian access along the river’s north bank. Across the water stands the disused warehouse where the entire text of Thomas Moore’s Utopia is scrawled in white paint across the brickwork as if it were the work of a hyperactive 16th-century graffitti artist with a taste for political philosophy.

Crossing Duke Street by means of Dukes Palace Bridge, a brief detour via Colegate is necessary in order to reach Blackfriars Bridge by the Norwich School of Art before we arrive at Fye Bridge and Fishergate. Whitefriars Bridge comes next and the eponymous friary once stood on the site of the large edifice that looms before us: the Jarrolds Printing Works, built n 1834 and formerly a mill owned by the Norwich Yarn Company – a tall stately bulding with brickwork elegantly draped with Virginia Creeper and wisteria. Looking back, the clocktower on Norwich City Hall, which to my mind resembles a cut-price Marrakech minaret, rises into view beyond the weeping willows, newly in leaf, that sway dreamily over the torpid water beneath.

Beyond the printing works, a renga – a word map created by means of an ancient Japanese tradition of shared writing – strings a snake of words and phrases along green hoardings beside the river. A Renga for St James was created here on site in 2009 and utilises the local Norwich vernacular and reference points. Someone – a well-educated graffitist, who clearly understands the renga ethos – has scrawled ‘Perfidious’ above the word ‘Albion’, which in this instance refers to one of the few remaining wherries that used to ply East Anglia’s rivers.

Continuing east the new bridge soon comes into sight. Peter’s Bridge, named after a former Jarrold’s chairman, has only been open a few months and, surprisingly, not a lot of people seem to know about it. Most of the Wensum’s bridges are so ancient that they are firmly embedded in the city’s psyche but there have been three new footbridges so far this millennium: this one, the 2009 Lady Julian Bridge close to the railway station, and the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge, opened by the Yugoslav ambassador in 2001, near Carrow Bridge (ironic, then, that NATO bombed and destroyed the far more substantial and economically important bridges of Norwich’s twinned Serbian city just two years earlier).

 Walking across this graceful, J (for Jarrold’s)-shaped footbridge, our riverside walk continues past Cow Tower towards Pull’s Ferry but before reaching this we pass what looks like a sluice leading into the river. This is, in fact, a rare 18th-century example of a swan pit, a tidal pool in which wild cygnets were kept and fattened for the table after having their wings clipped and beaks marked by their owners.

At Bishops Bridge, we leave the river behind to head for Cathedral Close and Tombland. A place called ‘Tombland’ next to a great church might reasonably be expected to be a place of the dead. But no, Tombland is Old English for ’empty land’ and this was the site of Norwich’s Anglo-Saxon market before the Normans came and shifted it to its present position next to St Peter Mancroft Church. Norwich Market has been operating there for over 900 years now and is still going strong, six days a week. Mind you, it did have a bit of an overhaul a few years back.