Category Archives: Travel

Stuff to take with you…

Dear Japan

Recently, I was looking back at some of my photos, wondering about travel, and thinking of how the globe in my office catastrophically became unglued. Timing is everything! One of my to-do tasks is to get some Gorilla Glue so that my globe can start spinning again. That will be the catalyst for a return to travel. Good old super glue.

I was busy writing down all of the places I have traveled to over the last year or so. Notwithstanding the current war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, I did get to see the great steppes of the Hinterland that stretches all the way to Siberia.

And in between visits to Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, I thought of Japan. A place that to me feels so calm and serene, which I visited twice last year. I thought it was so impressive how their handling of the virus has been. The very positive ways they have dealt with the pandemic so that people can travel responsibly and with confidence inside of its borders.

I was prompted to think of this because our wonderful colleague who organizes our Japan trips sent me a message. Things are looking up in Japan, she told me. It probably will be one of the first places we can re-enter for travel. So I sat, thinking about Japan a lot. Was it the food, the high-speed trains, and the ancient traditions that hang beautifully in the air over Kyoto? I thought of the evening maiko performance in Gion and the chance of being able to run into geishas during the Toka Ebisu festival in January.

I thought of how profound it was to visit Hiroshima and the island of Miyajima with its famous Itsukushima Shrine. And of course, the frisson of Tokyo. I distinctly remember going into Tokyo Station to buy bento boxes and a set of masks. I didn’t even think that the masks, which I bought primarily as a souvenir, would become part of my daily living. In the Asian world, and especially Japan, masks have been commonly worn for many, many years.

So, dear Japan, I miss you and I cannot wait for that daily flight from Boston to Tokyo Narita to come back. I can’t wait to see Godzilla in Shinjuku and taste some of finest ramen noodle dishes in the world. I can’t wait to eat sushi and miso soup for breakfast. I can’t wait to feel like the tallest guy in the elevator, because I was, and I can’t wait for that feeling of being so far away in such a foreign place, that it gave me goosebumps to even imagine that the world is round. I am totally ready to travel.

Observations: How Arriving in Rome Leads to Magic

Let me just say, I miss Italy – the walks, the food, the friends, the light, and the myriad of personalities represented by each tiny kingdom that makes up this crazy country. Whenever I travel to Italy, I find myself in a reoccurring predicament sort of like Groundhog Day…the arrival day. There is a reassuring madness and transition that takes place every time.

In Rome, if you made the mistake of checking your bag, you are often resigned to a long wait by the carousel where I am convinced the baggage handlers gather underneath and watch us poor checkers of bags wait and wilt, teasing us with an early movement of the carousel, encouraging us to jostle to claim the best spot for a smooth departure. Mistake number one. You checked your bag! Rome’s airport is so convinced that it will be a long and possibly fruitless wait, that they have installed a children’s playground and coffee/wine bar to ease the pressure of the moment as the baggage handlers do whatever they need to do to maintain their part in this commedia dell’arte.

And then at some point, if you’re lucky, the bags show up. There is a frantic grab as everyone, except the unlucky ones, retrieve their bags and head to the uscita. And then the next round of fun begins.


Taxi? No grazie.
Metro? Dove? Bus al centro, mi dispiace! Nothing comes easy.

The signs at airports in Italy are always confusing and there are often a couple of exit points so that somebody waiting for you may be in the wrong place. It only adds to the story. By nature, Italians are overly detailed and under sourced in terms of organization. So there are rules that make no sense and rules that are deliberately confusing. And everyone in Italy think they make perfect sense – which they do if you’re Italian.

Confusion, chaos, where is the metro, how do I get a ticket, where is the motolaunch in Venice, which way do I go?! Italians almost revel in that power of perfect and complete orderly chaos. It’s their word after all – caos.

At some point, you survive the airport arrival and end up in your hotel. A little frustrated, but how bad can it be as we are talking about Italy!

Then the arrival moment…the passegiata.

Through the busy piazzas and the bits of Bernini, past the fountains and the Baroque and Roman stone, you stop and take an espresso, or a gelato, or a beer, or a Campari. And you look out onto the movie set walking by and you know something beautiful has happened without your knowledge. You have passed to the other side. You have disappeared into Italy, and have become an observer of all those things that you found frustrating and they have turned into beautiful moments. The transformation is complete.

No need to toss coins in the fountain. The spell is cast and without even a thought, but with a skip in your step, you go about your day secure in the knowledge that you will return.

Observations: How Cameras Capture Our Travel Memories

We just moved our offices and my new office has become a bit messy as I untangle some 20 years of old office life and reorganize it in our new and cool space. In between sorting out my artwork, I also find myself looking back at the photos I have collected over the years. They resonate with me more than ever during these strange times. I discovered a box of slides with a scrawl of countries written on the outside of the box – Africa, Egypt, Italy, Anguilla, The Soviet Union, Morocco – all stacked in dated boxes alongside an old projector and a few carousels. All of those memories stacked into these boxes. Strange. I promise myself every year that I will get these slides developed into a collection that I can store digitally. My kids bought me something one Christmas so that I could do that but it seemed so time consuming that I never got around to it.

Those were the days of my Nikon Nikkormat, my first foray into real photography. I pretty much stayed with Nikon over the course of my SLR career. Lugging the camera wherever I went and loading in ektachrome, kodachrome, or tri-x for black and white. In those days, you couldn’t see what you just shot and you didn’t want to waste too much of your 36 exposures so you became incredibly disciplined when taking photographs.

It’s difficult to recall when the camera got left behind (metaphorically I mean). Although I can still remember losing my Nikon in Morocco in a marketplace. At least I only lost 36 exposures and the camera itself. Then one day, I moved to a tiny, point-and-shoot camera that stored photos digitally. I never really liked it, and I remember it was so slow when you needed it to be fast, but it was easier to travel with. Then in between my Blackberry and the IOS revolution we have today, I got my first iPhone. And that changed my world.

How peculiar to think we no longer travel with a giant camera and a couple of huge lenses. Somehow I miss those days. The precision of changing the ASA or the aperture, loading in a new roll of film, and storing the old. The excitement of developing the images. Some good, some to be tossed, some become framed and hang on the wall in the house. Memories of a holiday and a place in time. A sphinx, a camel, a faraway place captured forever and hanging on the wall by the kitchen.

I was thinking about this because in my office, amidst the rubble and confusion, I have a collection of photos by Robert Doisneau – a French photographer who took more than 325,000 negatives over a career that spanned 60 years. He was based in Paris and most of his photos were of Paris life and its personalities which he often observed as a result of spending hours on a street corner.

His photography hung around a phrase in French: “un pêcheur d’images.” A fisherman of images. He felt this best described what he did. In order to get what he needed, he had to immerse himself in the life of that moment. As he said, “Il fallait que je me mouille.” He had to get wet to feel the moment. It’s the essence of “being there” versus not. If it’s raining, walk out and feel it. It’s the power of travel. Getting wet when it rains.

In these days, it is what I miss the most…Ironically for a Brit, getting wet when it rains! The curiosity that takes me on mysterious journeys, leads me to observations, and like a fly on a wall, enables me to see things differently without getting in the way of the moment. Looking through Doisneau’s collection, I felt like I was almost there. Sort of traveling and sort of time traveling. All from my office in the Fort Point area of Boston.

Reflections on the Pandemic: The Mask

Seven months ago, I went into a tiny store in Kyoto and bought myself a set of three masks because I thought it would be cool to emulate the health and safety protocols that Japan has had for years. Who would have thought that we would all be wearing masks as a matter of protocol on a daily basis?! Whether it is a lightweight bandanna around your neck, a medical mask, or a designer one from a fancy shop, it is standard to wear one now in Massachusetts. And in most countries in the world, it’s impossible to enter a store without a mask. Belarus is definitely an exception but they seem to have more problems with their crazy government than most. Who would have thought that when I saw the intricate masks worn at Venice Carnival back in February, like the long nose masks used to protect against the plague, it would be a premonition of what we’d see around the world on a daily basis? Even leaders of the world wear masks with the exception of the USA and Belarusian Presidents!


Who would have thought that to enter a museum, shop, or restaurant, now means that you must wear a mask. “No mask, no entry” signs are standard everywhere. I have approximately 30 masks now and I keep buying extras from my dry cleaner since he’s selling them to help supplement his decrease in business. Who would have thought?

I am not sure when we will return to our new normal. But one thing I know is that I will continue to wear my mask for the foreseeable future. It may not be 100% safe but it is preventative, protects other people from me and me from other people. And guess what? In my business, you can’t fly without one now. And who would have thought that?

Reflections on the Pandemic: The Office

Some people were born to be remote workers. They wake up, make some coffee, have good Wi-Fi, and then drift off to a room that is all kitted-out for a virtual office. They love the non-existent commute and they’re very self-motivated. They don’t miss the socializing in the office. Type B people…highly focused, not attention seekers. The money and time they save on lunches and travel alone means that they actually make more than all of us. In addition, babysitting becomes less of an issue.

I really had thought of what it would be like to be a remote worker – to not have the buzz of the office, the people smiling as I grab my morning coffee at Flour Bakery, the impromptu meetings, the beer after work, the buzz of the city. I just really couldn’t imagine myself being in that world of the remote workers. But…here I am tapping away, sitting on Zoom, and looking out the window. I am now one of them, a remoter, and it feels weird.

When I closed my office in mid-March, we all became affiliates of the remote club. Little did we know how long it would last. There are some people who never really get comfortable with working from home (literally and metaphorically). And there are some people who just simply find it so easy that they never want to return to the office. In fact, you may have to plead with them to come back.

Over the course of the pandemic calendar, one word gives it away…remote. I feel a bit remote. I miss the buzz and banter. I miss the innovation and creativity that often comes about through this buzz and banter. I miss the faces. I miss the city a little bit – probably because I’m not a rural guy – but I’ve adjusted to the sounds of hearing coyotes in the evening and wondered at the miracle of dragonflies and bats. And I wonder when the world will return to normal. And then I think that this is normal now; dragonflies are beautiful, bats eat mosquitoes, and maybe I’m going mad!

Reflections on the Pandemic: An April to Remember

As I now sit out in Western Massachusetts watching the annual invasion of Japanese beetles balanced by an influx of hummingbirds and crickets and dragonflies, I was thinking how quickly April passed and how Easter came and went. That’s when I realized I had never spent Easter in the USA. I always find myself traveling because that is when our groups travel and it’s one of the busiest times of our year. I find myself jumping on planes and trains and moving between London and Paris, while sometimes catching the processions in Seville or other times listening to the Papal Blessing in St. Peter’s Square. I rarely spend a spring without visiting Versailles. Even Notre Dame under construction would have been a place I would go. After all, I was there last summer when it took fire and I witnessed the scene from the top of the Montparnasse Tower with the fabulous Marie-Helen Hickman, our Frenchie-Alabaman Tour Manager whose whole family of stars have worked with us over the years.

So, this year I had Easter in Western Mass for the first time ever. April in New England is always interesting as we still have the occasional snow storm, the last splurge of winter, in between the mud season getting going. April came and went but at least I got to enjoy Easter egg hunting with Cecilia, my grandchild. And still we thought we would be back in travel mode sooner than later. We still had a bunch of groups who were hanging on for the summer. Although increasingly people began trending towards rolling over their trip to next year.


And then global travel started to really shut down. I would get reports from Jessica, our niece in Rome, who was locked in her apartment with her husband and daughter, Beatrice. Italy was under complete lockdown and masks were already mandatory. You could not leave your apartment without a certificate and you had to prove you were going to either the pharmacy or a grocery store. Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, all came tumbling down too. The UK followed – albeit halfheartedly at the beginning. And the USA finally started to take it seriously. Suddenly I started to delve into my bag of tricks and retrieved as many magnets as I could from all of the trips I had taken. I popped them on my fridge. Every now and again when I go to grab my milk, I stare at a magnet and disappear into whatever takes my fancy and whatever is on the fridge. I will always regret not buying more magnets for times like this.

And the toll of Covid-19 continued to spiral. Fatalities, sickness, it all became very real and very frightening. It was clear that we were going through something that we had never experienced before as individuals, as a company, as families, or as countries. This was huge.

Roman Ways

Beatrice en Vélo

My niece lives in Rome and has been there since 2001.  Due to Covid-19, she has been locked down since the end of February and has only recently been able to leave the apartment to start enjoying again the beautiful city that she lives in with her husband and 9-year-old daughter, Beatrice.  As part and parcel of being on lockdown, she has been tutoring Beatrice and working on all sorts of projects with the French school that her daughter attends.

This latest project was one that I was particularly struck by as it was based around a French poem from Jacques Charpentreau.  The idea behind the original children’s poem, called “Paris en Vélo“, took us by bicycle through the various districts of Paris.  Below is the original poem and assignment.

Beatrice’s project was to replicate the poem using her own words and taking us through her neighborhoods in Rome.  Below is her final poem along with a picture of Beatrice on her bike.

It is extraordinary for me to follow Beatrice and Jessica’s adventures on WhatsApp.  Most of all, it is incredible to watch the creativity of her teachers as they continue to keep the kids engaged while they were literally at home unable to even walk 100 meters outside.  “Rome en Vélo” is wonderful because Beatrice was able to take her bike out for the first time in nearly three months.  While she couldn’t cover all of the neighborhoods, she was able to experience life outside of the apartment en vélo.

For all of the teachers who have been teaching remote over the past 2.5 months, Chapeau Bas!  Thank you on behalf of all of the parents and students.  Whatever country, whatever subject, you have all done quite an amazing job of keeping the knowledge flowing and the creativity blowing our way.  I wanted to share this delightful poem because it says so much about the innovation and importance of education even when things are so difficult.  Of course, grazie Beatrice for being the inspiration.

And I Found Myself in Venice

Today I dreamed of Venice. I had never been to Venice during Carnevale di Venezia but for some reason, some weeks ago, I found myself transiting through this great city and arrived in the middle of the Carnevale spirit.  Venice in the winter is something incredible.  If you fly into Venice on a clear day, you are struck immediately by the silhouette of the fish that is Venice from high above – stretching all the way from the Arsenal to the Piazzale Roma.  Upon arrival, there is a new walkway at the airport that takes you from the terminal building to the ferries and motor boats.  From there, after usually a little bit of chaos, you find your boat and sail across the wide lagoon.  Looking back beyond the airport, the snow capped Dolomites are a stunning sight like the backdrop in a theater.  You pass San Michele Island before entering the small canals that lead into the main artery of the Grand Canal.
Venice never ceases to amaze.  It is like a Hollywood set – the Doge’s Palace, the gondolieri, Santa Maria Della Salute, San Giorgio on the Giudecca, and of course, the jewel in the crown, the Basillica of San Marco and its clock tower looking out across the square.  In this dream, I walked through the streets and into the piazza where I ended up in the middle of the Carnevale.  There were elaborate costumes, people posing at the Quadri, and walking deliberately, slowly, disguised with their Carnevale masks.  Everybody appeared to be on show, with some sitting in the piazzas, where musicians in costume played, while others walked along the Promenade of the lagoon.  It is the most colorful spectacle I have ever experienced.  In my dream, I walked through the centuries in slow motion with all of these characters.  I never thought that three or four days later, the narrow alleyways, the main piazza, and the canals would be empty of the three million people that come to celebrate Carnevale every year.  Venice would then take on an emptiness that it will probably never see again.  I cannot wait to go back.
It is bizarre in this time of COVID-19, to think that the masks that we wear now are strangely derived from this ancient festival where people actually wore the masks to conceal their identity and to have fun.  The masks enabled different classes to mingle together through the festivities and all sorts of debauchery took place.  A lot of people ask about the long nose masks and they are particularly relevant today.  The PesteMaschera were used by doctors to treat people with plague-like symptoms by stuffing the nose with herbs and spices.  The aroma enabled the doctors to work without the stench of the plague around them.  In addition, they believed that the mask would help ward off the plague.
The Venetian mask makers, the mascherari, held a special place in Venetian society and had their own laws and their own guild.  And the masks themselves became a central feature of the Venetian Carnevale.  It began as a Baroque carnival in the 1600’s and was then used in the 1800’s as a form of fun and pleasure.  And as a way to insulate the Venetians as their world slowly changed and alternative trade routes bypassed this great city and left it for the grand tour travelers to enjoy.

And I Found Myself in London and Rome

In my Facebook and Instagram world, I find myself traveling to all of my familiar haunts and daring to step into places that I am not so familiar with.  A friend of mine, who lives in the center of London, keeps me updated with his afternoon walks through the deserted city.  It makes me nostalgic as a Londoner.  I remember my mother telling me stories about the Blitz in World War II.  She lived in London and they would have to take shelter in their houses until they got the “all clear.”  The streets were empty.  I wondered if that emptiness was a little like the emptiness that we see now.
As a traveler, it’s fascinating to see a city like London with all of its craggy alleyways, pubs, and bookstores, its parks and squares, laid out perfectly with not a hint of a car, taxi, bus, or person.  I know that this is a temporary state of affairs, but the magic of my friend Jim’s afternoon walks replenish the soul and makes me smile and reminisce.
Then there are those memories in my photo library that I can plug straight into – like a Roman walk that I do every time I go to Rome.  Pictures from the past that I find myself scanning and then I recount in my mind the history of these walks that accompany me every time I return. And I wonder, how many years it will be again before we see this quietness.  Not a plane in the sky, not a horn on the roads.  It is as if the world has decided to give us a break and show us a “what if” in an attempt to slow down the madness of global warming and self-inflicted climate change.
When I look at the pictures that our beloved Carlotta posts from our Rome office, I walk with her through the empty streets around the Circus Maximus and look at the ancient temples and stroll through the Capitoline Hill, and look down to the Piazza Venezia, and it seems peaceful.  My niece, Jessica, who lives near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, looks down on empty streets that lead to the Spanish Steps.  The beautiful, the Baroque, the Roman, all empty.
https://acis.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/peter-photo-italy2.jpg
Every city almost feeling like a busy museum that was on a lunch break.  Statues and churches that we had barely noticed come out of the woodwork.  Crossing the streets, you now have time to look up rather than trying to avoid the chaos and cacophony of cars and buses and scooters.  There they are and they have always been there.  We just never noticed.
And I wonder, when it all ends, when we return and jump on the planes and populate the places again, whether we have learned anything at all.  We do not have much time to think about it but it’s worth the thought.  These places need to be beautiful for the next 2,000 years.  It’s down to us.  We can have an impact on how we maintain the gardens we live in and how to proceed for the future.

Baku or Bust!

Driving over the Steppes of Georgia

The drive from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan is quite stunning. The mountains are always hovering over you with the snow capped peaks soaring above the plains. To drive from Tbilisi to Baku, we decided to spend an overnight en route and visited a Soviet-era spa hotel. It was quite a treat – dreadful decor and awful food with zero charm but worth every minute of it. To get to the spa resort, we had to negotiate the steppes and switch vans to ride on a four-wheel drive truck that seemed to stay precariously close to the watch towers that are dotted along the Azerbaijan border.

The wild landscape, with the wind whipping across hundreds of miles of barren earth, was stark and unforgiving. The guys in the watch towers had their guns pointed at us, which was not entirely reassuring, but our drivers knew the boundaries and told us not to worry. Yeah right! We just couldn’t take photos! We visited a remote cave monastery in Davit Gareja dating from the 6th century before we headed to the Vashlovani National Park near the Azerbaijan border. The spa scene here was pure Soviet. Rough and ready with bright lights and gangsters. Georgia sits on the precipice of the oil rich Azerbaijan, but the border crossing was yet to come. And there as so far no sign of wealth in the Georgian countryside.

The Border Crossing and Baku

The town where the Georgia-Azerbaijan border sits is called Lagodekhi. It is basically a busy street with traffic and trucks rolling back and forth between the Caspian Sea port of Baku and the Black Sea town of Batuni. We had to get out of our Georgia vehicle and walk the 200 meters with our bags across the border to Azerbaijan. It’s a strange feeling. The crossing can take an hour and if you mention you have visited Armenia, it could take longer. We hadn’t, but if we had, there would have been a much larger hassle as they tend to go through everything. No love lost between the Azerbajanis and the Armenians! We still had to have an interview, showed our visas (necessary for Azerbaijan but not for Georgia), and then were walked across to a new vehicle on the other side. Then the slow descent to the modern and ancient city of Baku begun.

The drive was beautiful and the sweeping vistas down to the Caspian Sea were dramatic. This is the land of oil riches and caviar, if Georgia missed out on the oil, it also didn’t do too well on the caviar side of things. As we arrived in Baku, we were greeted by a skyline of skyscrapers and the iconic Flame Towers. We stayed in one of the pointed skyscrapers covered with LED screens that mimic huge flames throughout the night. It’s quite a sight.

Baku is famed for its medieval walled old city, which contains the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a vast royal complex, and the iconic stone Maiden Tower. We drove past the stadium, a huge complex, as we headed out of the city, driving next to hundreds of oil rigs bobbing up and down like horses at the trough. It became obvious that this was a city of wealth. We saw the Mud Volcanoes and the Fire Temple outside of the city before getting back to Baku in time for a delicious dinner accompanied by….caviar.

Is Baku worth it? Yes, it is. It’s easy to get here too as you can easily connect back to the USA. We flew back on Turkish Airlines, stopping in Istanbul first, and then all the way to Boston. An amazing place to visit.

A Visit to the Stalin Museum

The Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia is very bizarre. There is the train carriage, green and primitive, that used to cart Stalin all over the country. It’s where he slept and had meetings and almost certainly condemned friends and foes after some feel good strategic get together across the Caucuses. There are statues everywhere in the museum. Paintings adorn each room along with incredible photos and depictions of his life.

This guy was a big deal. Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili in 1878) was a Georgian revolutionary and Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–1952) and premier of the Soviet Union (1941-1953), succeeding Lenin. They say he made 25 million people “disappear”. He was the most feared Soviet leader in the history of the Soviet Union. A small guy with huge statues to deceive his diminutive stature.

At the end of his reign and under Krushev’s new Soviet era, they rethought his contributions to the world of Soviet peace and reconciliation. On reflection, they decided he was a jolly bad person. And so the city of Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961. Although to celebrate the huge battle that effectively sealed the Germans fate in the second World War, Stalingrad made a comeback on the anniversary of the battle that claimed 2 million Russian lives. Rehabilitating Stalin has become quite a thing.

The museum shop here is one of the greatest understated museum shops in the world. Nobody cares, there’s nothing to buy, and you are much better going outside to the street sellers to buy your Stalin statue and trinkets. This place is so amazing I wanted to stay longer. However, we had a date at a restaurant to have Georgian dumplings filled with mashed potatoes and who would want to miss that?!

Charm and Wine in Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia is a look back to an era of Soviet rule. Stalin’s birthplace of Gori is not far away. He is celebrated throughout the country and several wineries even carry his face on their wines. Yep! Maybe he was not a perfect human being, but he was a lovely psychopath who every now and then weeded out large swaths of his enemies. A mafia-inspired dictator but absolutely beloved in Georgia.

So, why go to Georgia? The country sits with its western shores on the Black Sea and has holiday resort towns like Batumi. It is in constant awareness of its Russian neighbor. In fact, Russia invaded it once and simply held onto the northwestern piece. It’s called Abkhazia, a closed-off and fairly impossible to enter sovereign state that is barely recognized except for by Russia. But Georgia is an extraordinary country. Medieval castles, beautiful spas, national parks, and tall mountains as high as 20,000 feet. And Tbilisi, its capital, is home to a blend of cultures. The old town, with its cathedral, mineral baths, and delightful cobblestone streets, is quite beautiful in the evening, and the center is a lively scene. Views of the city from the hilltop accessed by the cable car are stunning and the food is really remarkable as well.

Not to mention the wine in Georgia. The ancient tradition of wine making actually began in Georgia. It is highly recommended to get outside Tbilisi and visit a winery. The roots of Georgian viticulture have been traced back by archaeology to when people of the South Caucasus discovered that wild grape juice turned into wine when it was left buried through the winter in a shallow pit. This dates back to 6000 BC. To this day, Georgia still maintains the old tradition of burying the wine underground in clay kvevris for storage. When filled with the fermented juice of the harvest, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to 50 years! I wouldn’t really recommend drinking that stuff!

The wine tastes different to something you might be used to – it’s a little bizarre, almost like sherry if you are drinking the white wine. But you adapt to the taste. It’s sort of historical realignment; an homage to the history of wine making. After a while you get used to it. Nowadays Georgia also boasts modern day wine making techniques. Still, you have to try this stuff. I brought back some bottles but haven’t touched them yet. I need to wait for a proper Georgian feast to accompany the wine.

To get to Tbilsi easily, I suggest having a stopover in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines has great connections to the Georgian capital and why not grab a couple of nights in Turkey at the beginning.

The Lure of Istanbul

I have been to Istanbul quite a few times. I love the buzz of the ancient city and you can feel its history hanging in the air. I always go to Mısır Çarşısı, the spice bazaar, and the Grand Bazaar, which is the main bazaar in the city. What I like about the spice bazaar is that it is right by the ferry terminal and next to the Galata Bridge and Tower. It’s just relaxing and so different from its counterparts in Morocco. The colorful stacks of spices make a wonderful photo opportunity and the smells of saffron and cumin float through the air. It’s never too crowded and there are always bargains and fun to be had here.

From here you can walk to most places and certainly walk across the bridge to the other side of Istanbul. Restaurants near Taksim Square are not bad and the Besiktas Stadium, where the main soccer and basketball clubs play, is only a 10-minute walk away.

Down towards the Bosporus, there are lots of restaurants which liven the waterfront. Everyone that visits Istanbul must do a cruise of the Bosporus. It takes you under the great bridge that connects Istanbul to Asia and all the way to the Black Sea. It’s the best sightseeing tour in Istanbul as it escapes the clogged streets of polluted traffic. It’s cheap to do and you can book directly at the port terminal by the Galeta Bridge.

And in the meantime, go see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, visit the Basilica Cistern, a sunken palace and one of the largest of the ancient cisterns, and of course take some time out to visit the beautiful Topkaki Palace with its stunning views across the Bosporus. Finally, end your visit at the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s most famous souks, comprising of more than 60 streets brim full of anything and everything. So much shopping to do and so little time.

If you are a US citizen, you will need a visa to get into Turkey. It costs $35 and can be purchased on line. The great news now is that the old airport is closed and the new one open which is about a 45 minute taxi ride from the city. The new one is HUGE – so big in fact that it can take 30 minutes to walk to your gate so be aware! Istanbul is a city with so much to see and ancient reminders of old civilizations. The old city of Constantinople is everywhere. Turkey is one of my favorite destinations.

Hiroshima in a Day

From Kyoto, Hiroshima is a must-see day excursion on the shinkansen train. It takes about 1.5 hours on the train and nothing can quite prepare you for how beautiful this city is and how extraordinary the full day excursion including Miyajima Island and the Hatsukaichi Temple are. Hiroshima was the first city, Nagasaki the other, that were obliterated by a nuclear bomb in August 1945 which effectively ended the second World War. 200,000 people were killed.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hiroshima is a vibrant, modern city with wide boulevards and beautiful parks. We took the shuttle bus to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. After a short walk from the stop, we saw the mangled structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Preserved in a sea of rubble and surrounded by the beautiful Peace Memorial Park, it is a melancholic and beautiful place to walk around. The bridge close to the dome carries two pieces of the original bridge. It is then a short walk to the Peace Memorial Museum where the tour of the museum takes 30-40 minutes. It is one of those places that you enter with apprehension, you see the after effects of a nuclear explosion, and you come out understanding why it is called the Peace Memorial Museum.

We then took the train back to the main station and connected to Miyajima – a completely different experience from the heavy heart of Hiroshima. Now we were back to the temples and a beautiful stroll through a town filled with deer freely moving throughout the streets and walkways. There were eateries and food stores that tumbled into the lanes.

Eventually we caught sight of the beautiful torii gate there that sits in the water with a 14th century temple that sits in the background. Sadly for us, the breathtaking torii gate was under wraps as they were sprucing it up for the Olympic games this year. But even so, walking out at low tide and looking at this incredible structure sitting in the sea, was enough. Looking back at the shrine also sitting in the sea, was breathtaking. This place was one of the great highlights of my tour to Japan and it is something that everybody should do.

Frankly, after a couple of hours of weighing the value of nuclear power, it was refreshing to get back to a little bit of Shintoism. We then took the train back to Kyoto in time for sushi and miso in the Gion area.

The Colors of Kyoto

Nothing really prepares you for Kyoto. This is the ancient Japanese capital which then moved to Tokyo in the 19th century. It is by far and away the most unique and amazing slice of Japan that you will ever see. Kyoto is teeming with people dressed in kimonos, and geishas and maikos jumping from house to cab to evening performance. If you happen to see a maiko walking through the streets, you literally stop in your tracks. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of one of the geishas-in-training mingling with the crowds. Kyoto is home to the original royal palace, Nijo Castle, with its beautiful gardens, stunning gates, singing floors, and the replicas of the seated shogun and his gang.

On the surface, Kyoto is a small city dissected by a river that has restaurants and shops alongside. There is a modern area with department stores and an indoor central market that houses the main food market, Nishiki. This is an endless market of delicacies, spices, raw fish, and culinary delights. Nishiki is packed with ramen and sushi bars with lines of people waiting to get in. This is Japan after all where people queue and food stands tend to not have many seats.

Kyoto has more than 1,000 temples. But if you are temple and shrine hopping, you definitely have to visit Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, just outside of the city center. It has spectacular gardens, and yes, a golden temple. It is staggering in all seasons but likely most beautiful in the autumn and winter when it is engulfed in golden leaves or is covered with snow. There is a delightful walking path here and a great souvenir shop where you can buy things that do not even look touristy.

But the area that carries the entire buzz of the city is Gion. It stretches alongside the main city street and is peppered with tiny alleys and houses. This is the geisha area of the city. From the tiny outpost of Gion, you can walk towards the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walk along the street leading up to the temple, and the temple itself, is probably one of the most stunning walks you will do in the world. It is a street lined with colorful kimonos, green tea ice cream, mochi, and fish on a stick.

From there, you can walk all the way down through the narrow and winding streets of Gion, passing possibly the most extraordinary Starbucks you have ever passed; a beautiful, pure ryokan-style shop that you will never see anywhere else in the world. There are beautiful tiny shops lining the street that sell incense, crafts, and Buddhas. You eventually spill out to a main square area with men that sell rickshaw rides and a giant Buddha looming in the background. You can rent colorful kimonos in any number of places here. Eventually you get to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine before heading down the main street in Gion where the geishas and maikos live.

Probably the most famous sight in Kyoto, apart from seeing a geisha, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its kilometers of bright red torii gates winding uphill and downhill. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals and people wearing kimonos walking hand-in-hand to the top of the hill. There are even wild monkeys here. This has to be accessed via metro or car as it is just outside of Kyoto. On a beautiful day, it is one of the great highlights of any trip to Japan.

Kyoto is also a hub city with a huge train station that provides access to all parts of Japan. With the ease of the shinkansen train network, Kyoto is not only beautiful but a great base to “hub and spoke.” I had purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass. From Kyoto, there are short trips to Osaka, Nara, Himeji for the castle, Atami for the hot baths, Mt. Fuji if the weather is good, and Kanazawa for the spectacular food. Hiroshima is an easy day trip. All good as excursions.

There are plenty of steps and lots of walking needs to be done throughout Kyoto. But the walks are breathtaking, the sights are amazing, and if you are lucky enough to catch a geisha, you will have seen it all. But the highlight of Kyoto for me was being there during the New Year festival in the Gion area. I bought a palm leaf that was blessed by a maiko, caught a maiko and geisha at a food stand idly chatting, and played Konpira Fune Fune with a maiko, a drinking game that inevitably requires coordination, talent, and rhythm. Predictably, I lost big time.