Georgia – a new edition

This is just to let you know that the sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia is published today – I’m very happy with it, I was able to add all the new material I wanted and generally bring the book up to date (the previous edition felt just a little twentieth century – in a Georgian context – when I used it in the field). The editorial process went remarkably smoothly – I assumed that the fact that tourism was increasing by no less than 20% a year meant that sales of the 5th edition were also up by 20% and that Bradt were happy to cover the cost of extra pages – in fact they used thinner paper which doesn’t look great, but it’s not too awful.

 

The most annoying thing, in fact, was using booking.com, with the meaningless slogan ‘We speak your language!’ and the constant repetition that the most basic guesthouses have a 24-hour front desk and luggage can be left there, not to mention ‘Couples particularly like the location — they rated it 9.7 for a two-person trip’ – all made-up nonsense.

As for recent news – in November 2017 a fire at the Leogrand Hotel and Casino in Batumi (not listed in the book) killed eleven people and shone a powerful light on the downside of the free-for-all policies behind the city’s tourism boom, hinted at on p.286 of the book. It’s obvious that safety standards were ignored by both businesses and local government, and I hope that has changed now!

There are serious proposals from the government to build roads into the mountains of the High Caucasus, past Juta and (via a tunnel) into Tusheti, which everyone who knows anything about sustainable tourism is totally opposed to – on the surface, of course, better access is good for residents trying to get to hospital or the shops, but it will destroy the tranquility of this beautiful area which is becoming more and more popular for long-distance hiking and horse-riding. It reminds me of the sad decline of the Annapurna Circuit, which was one of the world’s great hikes but has now been largely replaced by roads – there’s far more of a population in the Nepali mountains, so there’s more need for roads there, but the Georgian mountains are much emptier.

Finally, having written in the new edition about the liberalisation of social attitudes in Tbilisi, led in particular by nightclubs such as Bassiani (p.124), it’s sad to see that there’s recently been a backlash against these changes, with police raids and public marches. This is also in part a backlash against the increasing numbers of foreigners living in and visiting Tbilisi, which fits into wider narratives about over-tourism and populism. I hope this will calm down quickly, as tourism and western influences have generally brought positive change in Tbilisi.

PS at the moment I’m reading The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (a bit dated in style, but still a classic), which is set in the part of Turkey right by the border with Georgia – which she refers to throughout as Russia. Grrrrr!

PPS As of today, 22 June 2018, Georgia has a new prime minister, after Giorgi Kvirikashvili was pushed to resign due to disagreements with Bidzina Ivanishvili – there had been protests in Tbilisi for a couple of weeks about a poor investigation into a schoolyard fight that left two sixteen-year-olds dead, along with the death of a Pankisi man in an anti-terror raid, both in December 2017. The new man is Mamuka Bakhtadze, who was in charge of Georgian Railways and then Minister of Finance; born in 1982, he’s apparently a friend of Ivanishvili’s son and had been groomed for high office. However the norm is for Ivanishvili’s picks to lose favour and be removed from politics within a couple of years.

Uruguay updated

The brand-new third edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay has just landed on my desk, and it looks great! This is one of the four guidebooks I’m still actively involved with (Uruguay and Georgia for Bradt, Romania and Wales for the Rough Guides), and as all four of them are in theory on a three-year updating cycle it’s clear that I can’t just do one update per year. This year I did Wales in the spring (well, two chapters of it – see here) and am off now in the autumn to do Georgia – but I decided that I didn’t want to go to Uruguay as well, so Bradt found the estimable Sean Connolly to step in for this edition. he’s added an interesting new box on border disputes (p.355) and new material on nature reserves in the far north-west. I’m grateful to him for doing such a thorough job, as updaters can sometime be a bit shy.

Looking at the proofs a couple of months ago, I was amazed by how well I could visualise almost everywhere – it was like a tour of the country in three days. No need for virtual reality headsets! And it is a lovely country, I really enjoyed my virtual visit. It was also interesting how many typos there were in the previous edition – clearly it was finished in a bit of a rush. This one is much better.

So what’s new? The world’s only 3D meat museum, it seems (in Montevideo, page 141). And on the same page, the Museo Andes 1972, telling the story of the October 1972 plane crash high in the Andes and the 72-day struggle to survive of the Uruguayan rugby players and others on board. There are also lots of new hostels – the Hostel Punta Ballena Bar (p.214) seems particularly good, while the marijuana-themed THC Hostel (p.234) may be of interest to some – Uruguay has legalised marijuana for residents, but is keen not to encourage marijuana tourism. In the Colonia area, just across the estuary from Buenos Aires, La Posadita de la Plaza (p.288) seems very interesting, and there are lots of niche gourmet places outside Colonia such as Le Moment Posada Boutique (p.290). There are also new nature reserves in the far northwest of the country, a new bus terminal in Paysandú and one under construction in Tacuarembó.

A few things have come up since we finished editing – from next year Norwegian will be flying from London to Buenos Aires – this will probably become the cheapest route to Uruguay. And, less importantly, in the world of soccer, Manchester United defender Guillermo Varela has rejoined Peñarol in Montevideo, and Gus Poyet resigned a few weeks ago as manager of Shanghai Shenhua. Edinson Cavani, until now the star striker at Paris St-Germain, is having to adjust to playing alongside Brazilian superstar Neymar.

And it seems that I have written an e-book (my first!) on Montevideo – actually it’s just the Montevideo text (and a bit more) from the previous edition of Uruguay, but it may be useful to somebody. It actually came out in 2014, so I assume a new edition will be out before too long.

Rough Times in Romania

The first place I went to research a guidebook was Romania, in the spring of 1991, and after writing two editions of the Bradt Hiking Guide I continued as author of the Rough Guide to Romania, still somehow trundling along with new editions to this day.

My first professional contact with the Rough Guides was when I went to Portugal in 1992 with a second-hand copy of the guide and sent back detailed notes, which they found useful enough to offer me a free book for my next trip – so when I went to Morocco at the end of 1992 I sent in a good load of information on Marrakech and hiking in the Anti-Atlas. When I returned to Morocco in March 2016 I took that 1993 4th edition (we also took a 2013 Footprint Dream Trip guide which was quite adequate for current info), and I was reminded how very good the RGs were in those days. My notes from that first Morocco trip led to my working on the RG to Romania, a satisfying experience at first as the country transformed itself (with countless detours and delays) from a post-communist mess into a more modern mess, but an experience that became depressing as each edition was cut, cut, cut – just as the tourist offer was expanding in volume and variety. The Morocco book had a particularly good Contexts section at the rear with extracts from literature by Moroccans and about Morocco – the sort of thing that’s ideal for long bus rides, but long since lost from guidebooks. For the most recent (7th) edition of Romania, researched in late 2015 and published in 2016, we had to endure a re-design of the text, breaking it up with extra headings so that – suprise surprise! – more information had to be cut (while finding space for all the new URLs, more detailed opening hours, both English and Romanian names for all museums etc). Hard and tedious work – and it was quite a shock to return to the 1993 Morocco guide, and then a month later the 1997 RG to Tuscany & Umbria, to see how much information and added insight they were able to give – even if we couldn’t really see the difference between the zellig designs in the various medersas, it was good to know about it.

To give a bit more detail, the text has been broken up into app-friendly nuggets – each given its own heading, followed by a line with practical details (often just a two-word street address) – then the name is repeated (in English and Romanian) in the text below. So on the one hand there’s pointless repetition, and on the other any nugget that doesn’t reach about 30 words has to be either puffed up with flannel or cut. Likewise, hotel and restaurant/café listings have to be 30 words, or be cut – passing mentions in running text are now banned. The upshot is that the redesign – which we were promised would actually save space – actually needs more space, and leads to the text being cut ruthlessly. Of course, as always in this image-hungry world, there are lots of glossy photos. And this is a book that has been trimmed in all the preceding editions – there was no fat left to lose, while there was lots of new material, especially in Transylvania. Space could be saved by using single instead of double quotation marks, by writing eg p.154-5 and 1946-7 instead of p.154-55 and 1946-47 etc (that adds up over the length of a book), but the design is sacrosanct. The Rough Guides have always taken a much more mechanistic and formulaic approach than other publishers I’ve worked with, but this time there really was almost no wiggle room.

The official view was that the redesign would actually save space, but there would also be ‘counterbalancing cuts’, though I have no idea what these were: ‘To achieve the desired extent in other titles, we’ve depended on the counterbalancing cuts mentioned in synopses, in tandem with the slight shrinkage naturally brought about by the redesign’.

I hate this not simply because valuable information is being lost, but because it’s a shift towards a more metropolitan style of tourism where people rush from one honeypot to another in search of third-wave coffee. The redesign did seem to work for Wales, but the thing about Maramureş and Transylvania is that it’s all about the villages, and often there isn’t a single specific sight. If we have to delete every place that doesn’t have the requisite number of cappuccino outlets it ends up like every other guide to towns and other tourist hotspots. Now we can’t even write ‘the road from A to B passes through C, where there’s a nice church and a couple of guesthouses, and a lovely unrushed rural lifestyle.’ – now it all has to be pumped up into full listings, or cut. So people’s livelihoods in sustainable, community-based businesses are jeopardised, and the tourist experience just gets duller.

Rough Guides (now part of Penguin-Random House) is progressively buying out authors’ copyrights, so that we now receive a fee rather than royalties. This shouldn’t have changed our status, but increasingly the payments department in particular is treating authors on a level with suppliers of office toilet paper, in a faceless bureaucratic maze where we’re threatened with non-payment if we don’t use exactly the right format for our invoices – and I was sent just one copy of the finished book until I demanded a second (an oversight, apparently). Authors are no longer expected to check the proofs – but thank goodness I did see them for indexing, as there were quite a few errors still in the text, given the last-minute rush after the lengthy to-and-fro trying to decide what really had to be cut. The fact that the layout and cartography are now done in Delhi didn’t help.

Given the general atmosphere of doom and gloom in guidebook publishing since the 2008 crash and the rise of smartphone apps to replace dead-tree guidebooks, we were a bit surprised that a new edition of Romania was commissioned at all, and there was never much chance of getting space for all the new tourism developments in the country – so I may have been unreasonable in trying so desperately to fit all the new stuff in while not hacking out too much existing text. No-one is as dedicated as me to going through text word by word (several times) to make it as tight as possible, but it was never going to work.

Anyway – the upshot of a process in which each edition looks prettier but contains less useful information is that over 80 villages were cut from this latest edition. From the Transylvania chapter these are: Moeciu, Fundata, Cloaşterf, Sâmbata Monastery, Cisnădioara, Răşinari, Săcel, Miercurea Sibiului, Slimnic, Ocna Sibiului, Sebeş (actually a fairly significant town), Lăzarea, Brâncoveneşti, Hodac and Gurghiu, Cernat de Jos, Zalánpatak, Băile Homorod, Vlăhiţa, Stejărişu, Buru, Ocoliş, Bucium Poieni, Beliş, Călata, Călăţele, Mănăstireni, Fildu de Sus, Hida, Cizer, Leşu, Beclean, Coşbuc, Năsăud and the whole of the Someş Mare valley (Sângeorz-Bai, Rodna and Şanţ) and the Bârgău valley  (Livezele, Josenii Bârgăului, Prundu Bârgăului, Tiha Bârgăului and the Tihuţa Pass). But we’ve added the delightful villages of Richiş, Moşna and Alma Vii.

Now I’m not saying that some of these places didn’t need to make way for newer ones, or in a general process of streamlining, but I do want to make the information available in the somewhat more elastic space of the internet. I’m posting a selection of accounts of Transylvanian villages in this post – some updated, some not, and all shorn of their context. I’ll come to the rest of Romania in another post.