Monday, 30 June 2014

Back to Baku, Azerbaijan...

It doesn’t look like much beneath the wing of the plane. A sand coloured shrubless land and a low pale sky, not exactly tourist board porn, if anything it looks like a biblical landscape, old testament.

It’s been 18 months and I’ve truly missed it. Sometimes initial impressions belie the character of the place. Baku is one such place.

I step off the aircraft. There it is, the familiar fragrance of the air, a peculiar sweetly caustic smell of petroleum and the sea.  The city lies low, at sea level which means spectacular ruby sunsets. We used to stay up all night, on the beach, watching the sun rise. Slowly it would turn the sky from black to indigo before shattering through the darkness in a gradiated explosion of vermillion light. I look at the horizon, the sky is a dusty pink, it’s about to happen, the perfect welcome.

What do most Westerners know about Azerbaijan? Firstly, it ends in an –AN, a priori making it a dodgy Borat state; a large toothless peasantry wielding pitchforks and a few oil-i-garchs, and hey, presto, the cinematic vision is complete.

Well, I’m not out to right misconceptions. Nor do I write as a patriot, I’ve lived in London my entire life, so that probably makes me more of a tourist. What that doesn’t make me is unbiased.  I’ve been spoiled. Hospitality, warmth and kindness mean that for every bad word I have to say about the place, I’ve ten good. So I hope you’ll agree that it’s artifice to adopt journalistic objectivity when writing of experience. And besides, isn’t the prism of bias always more interesting? So expect plenty of cheese, cornball that I am.

The car hurtles down the butter smooth road towards the city centre. The family chauffeur  vrooms the engine antagonistically at the spunky 80s Lada trying to overtake us, a black M6 cuts between us and breaks up the petrol-head scuffle. A briney breeze is blowing off the Caspian and although it’s November it’s still warm and gentle.

The pace here is Mediterranean and easy going. Family is important. So is fun. People here don’t get lonely, everyone’s doors are always open. Friendships are intergenerational. When I’m in the city I’ll visit my grandmother’s 80 year old neighbours in their Khrushchev era homes and talk nostalgia, which for them is eerily the Soviet Union circa 1950s, over tea and candied fruit preserves. Likewise, my friends pay impromptu visits to my relatives and no matter your age, you’re never left on the scrap heap, there’ll always be someone who cares.

You don’t need the history books to understand Baku because it’s what your eyes see that tells the more compelling story. The architectural tapestry is diverse spanning the 12th century fortress and palaces at the historical core of the city, all the way through to Islamist, TsaristGrand European, Soviet and Modernist architectural styles. We drive past the Maiden Tower, a 12th century fortress shrouded in legend; a sort of pre-Shakespearian Romeo&Juliet of undying love and death.

Azerbaijan was a key stop and trading centre for the caravan routes of the Silk Road and over the centuries the country has welcomed travelers from far and wide.  It’s perhaps such century old traditions that make the place a paragon of tolerance, regardless of religion, creed or skin colour. Amusingly, the local Rabbi often complains that the Jewish have it ‘too easy’ in Baku and that the absence of any sort of religious tension means that the community is growing a bit complacent.

At night the city is aglow, the splendid 19th Century buildings bathed in a wash of gold, their ornate balustrades and intricate masonry as exquisite as the most Parisian of rues. These scenes are not a modern Disney-esque imitation of grandeur. The  baroque renaissance style buildings were built by the oil-barons during the petroleum boom of the 19th Century when the industry was in its infancy and families like the Nobels, Rothschilds and local millionaires constructed spectacular palaces, residences, theatres and halls.

In the evenings my friends and I stroll along the sea front before settling for a dinner of sushi, pizza or you-name-it. It doesn't matter where you go, there'll be faces you know everywhere; the city is small, the crowd is not anonymous and nor are you. The restaurants are buzzy and the nightlife seasonal like on the Continent: beach clubs, yachts and rooftop parties in the summer.. clubs and house-parties come winter. All the fun happens in beautiful new monuments of steel, glass and impeccable design; happily the noughties era skyline of clouds and cranes has mellowed and development is now focused on prestige projects and improving the tourism infrastructure.

What I most love about Baku is that if you know where to go, you are transported back in time. Wander off the main streets onto the charming higgledy piggledy alleys that are still populated by apartment blocks dating back to the Soviet Empire. Walk through grimy detritus strewn corridors of peeling paint and arches embossed with the hammer and sickle and you are in a different world. Most of the residents, like my granma, are of the old generation. Inside their homes you'll find cabinets of Czech crystal from the 50s, figurines of porcelain and china, kerosene lamps, Marxist knick-knacks, furs in their wardrobes and always a story and a cake in the fridge.  Such scenes leave me sentimental and misty-eyed, but I guess I've always enjoyed having a foot in the past. Maybe that's why I find such magic in Baku; whilst it's a capital like any other, the past has not yet been lost to dusty books and dead museums, its history is still alive and beating. Told you there'd be cheese.

Back in the USSR

"I do"

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Cheval Blanc Randheli - Maldives - Review

By nature, I am not prone to harbouring grudges. However, this is not borne of some saintly forbearance on my part; but like any mercurial person it takes me all of 5 seconds to simmer down. Yet, for the past week there’s been a candle to my wick and it’s finally caught; so please excuse me if this review smacks of #firstworldproblems but I like a good axe-grinding as much as the next woman.

The Maldives is well travelled terrain for many of my friends – but they all seemed to go to the same resort, The One and Only. Maybe it was vanity, but my fiancé and I thought to shirk this citadel of beefy neckless post-Communist charm (his words not mine) in favour of somewhere equally good but with less self-congratulatory smugness round the pool.

The Cheval Blanc Randheli is the recently opened LVMH resort in the Maldives and the first in their hotel portfolio. The photos were full of elan and sophisticated promise.

The Island

On my last visit to the Maldives we stayed at the Anantara resort; a charming natural Island with lush vegetation, tropical flowers the size of dinner plates and a lucent turquoise lagoon. Experience builds expectations. We were crossing the equator goddamit.

I expected fireworks. Being fanned with palm leaves by the pool. Rooms out of architectural digest. Bluer skies. Coral flamingos. A talking monkey here and there.

Not a flamingo in sight. In fact, no birds at all. The only animals at the Cheval Blanc are reptiles; lizards galore and the saurian emaciated clientele. Body-envy of a notorious salad-dodger aside, prior to arrival I couldn't dream that the island would be anything besides a lush tropical paradise. However, there are things that carefully photoshoped images do not betray - and as you will see in my photos, the resort is peculiarly photogenic.

Almost the entirety of the resort is artificial. There are no flowers. The earth is barren but for the smallest driest saplings trying to take root in the imported strata of sand and cement. Without the shelter of vegetation, everywhere you go you're accompanied by the pervasive igneous heat.

Practically all the resort's communal areas are outdoors. I felt like a frankfurter in an Odean hot-dog machine. Apart from your air-conditioned villa, there is nowhere to hide from the swelter and sweat patches.

The design of the resort is minimalistic with the sort of fashionable sterility that simply doesn’t appeal to cluttered minds, lovers of knick-knacks and collectors of kitsch.

The Rooms

The villas looked, and to their credit were, stunning. Cathedralesque proportions, good amenities, subtle design choices.

The Cheval Blanc has three categories of room – beach, lagoon and garden villas. The garden villas are the priciest (£2,300 a night as opposed to £1,200), with the front part built over the lagoon and (supposedly) a lush private garden in the back.

We were promised an absolute smasher of a villa. Yet, we arrived to a villa like all the others. Furthermore, there wasn't a garden in sight but a small dry plot with some shrubs and a hammock outback.

What's worse, there was no sandy azure lagoon - the whole reason we went to the Maldives in the first place. Our villa overlooked a swatch of deep blue water with razor sharp coral, which quickly gave way to a 150 foot abyss. All at an extra £1100 a night.

Here lies the problem - location matters. You want to paddle in crystal water with soft creamy sand underfoot. Instead, my fiancé had to watch as his diminutive fiancée was buffeted by waves against Flintstone-sized underwater boulders - deeply unsexy. Yet, the Cheval Blanc only has six water villas where you can avoid such a fate and which are favourably positioned within the lagoon.

It took four days for us to be downgraded to a cheaper room in a better location. There was no attempt by the management to refund us the difference. No meaningful conciliatory gesture apart from a few petals in the bath-tub.


Some of the staff we encountered were genuinely excellent (the lovely Emmanuelle Seigner lookalike maître d' at the restaurant and the smiley housekeeping who left a towel-monkeys on our bed).

However, more generally the service was indifferent and achingly slow. Even drinks took a minimum of 40 minutes to arrive as we sat there, tongues hanging like Alsatians. Similarly, waiting for a buggy to drive you (the 20 minute walk) to the room, could take 15 minutes of panting in the heat.

The resort boasts Michelin style cuisine. The food was very expensive, working out between £200 and an eye watering £1000 per dinner. And if I'm honest, not that great (although granted, the Maldives generally isn't the best for good cuisine).


The purpose of this review is really to give people a realistic picture of the resort. I've omitted details like construction cranes still working in the water, as these are temporary teething-problems.
I really am a believer in giving praise where praise is due and in the power of honest feedback. Had we read this review before booking we probably would have picked a different hotel.

Finally, I really wouldn't want someone pinning their hopes and savings on the dream holiday only to be disappointed. The Maldives should be relaxing, beautiful, and soothing; but if there's one place that won't leave you a chiller-chinchilla it's the Cheval Blanc.





Monday, 2 June 2014

Hot Teeny Bikinis on Brighton Beach, New York

As far as ethnic enclaves go, New York is a mosaic of communities that represent a variegated montage of nationalities from every conceivable corner of the globe.

Mexicans in Jackson Heights, Koreans in Fresh Meadows, Hispanics in the Bronx, Italians in Nolita, Haitians in Flat Bush… I’m running out of breath here.

My love for ethnic enclaves began in junior school. My parents would take me and my brother for Indian sweets in Thornton Heath where Mr Gupta would serve us plump glistening spheres of gulab jamun and tangerine hued jalebi that bled rosewater syrup.  And thus it began. A lifelong love affair with communities within communities. With the idea of people recreating their homes in trying to bring the best of the places they left behind, as incongruous as the result may be.

We made the 50 minute subway journey across New York, through the depths of Brooklyn to the small neighbourhood of Brighton Beach, lying sleepily on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The sleepiness is the result of seasonal inevitability; a curse that plagues all seaside resorts that flower during the summer months.

Brighton Beach is essentially an episode of The Twilight Zone and one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been. It’s an ageing place of spirited Jewish and Russian retirees who dodder around in floor-length furs, plump ruddy faces and mink hats older than the Rolling Stones.  

The neighborhood was once home to first generation Jewish-Americans and later concentration camp survivors. However, come the 1970s Russian, Ukranian and Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union transformed the ethnic panorama once again into what is now known as Little Odessa. Today, Cyrrilic signs and Russian shops stretch as far as the eye can see. The buttery aroma of pirojki wafts enticingly in the air knitted with the New York smell of scorched coffee.

The poverty of the place is palpable. The main high street lies sadly beneath the rumbling train tracks, but it is not the sort of depressive Eastern European gloom I was told to expect. Instead there is a feeling of fuzzy nostalgia. I feel strangely at home. On the Oceanside broad-walk there are scores of elderly Russians playing chess, muttering moves into their moustaches. You can’t walk ten paces without someone stopping you for a chat. Everyone wants to know where I got my hat from. It feels like meeting long lost friends and roguish distant relations. A group of pensioners approach us for a game of volleyball. Why not. We play. They pose for a commemorative photo. I tell them it’s going on my blog and they all jostle to give me their email addresses.

Comrades, if you are reading this now rest assured that I'll be back. You'll find me on the beach come summer. Warm bottle of Baltika beer in-hand and sunglasses to shield my eyes from the rainbow of geriatric speedos. We'll play Durak and you'll cheat (I know your type). My boyfriend will sit strumming his guitar; you'll wrestle it from him and sing a guttural Russian song of love and loss. Everyone will laugh and then we'll head for shashlik in Baku, leaving behind an empty beach in the dusty waning sunlight.

ps. I'm guessing you clicked the link for a glimpse of some incy wincy dental-floss beachwear? Consider yourself conned. I'm trying out the whole search engine optimisation thing.

Greasy goodness
Bucket of raw fish for sale in the middle of the local sweet shop- that's about as Russian as you get