Travel News

Not in Kansas

From Albania to Afghanistan, some of the world’s most unlikely travel destinations offer unique and unforgettable experiences, writes Andrew Mueller.

The modern tourism industry profits from a strange irony. When people go on holiday, they do so ostensibly to have a break from their normal routine. But the reality is that going on holiday is generally the most predictable and regimented activity we can undertake.
I'd rather eat my own laptop than visit a "holiday destination", and work often takes me to places most people wouldn't dream of going. Surprisingly, I almost always come home and tell anyone who'll listen that they should go where I've just been (the "almost" is an indicator I wouldn't recommend such obviously dangerous places as Baghdad or Gaza to anyone, with the possible exceptions of Alan Jones, Sting and everybody who has ever auditioned for Big Brother).
People should visit the unvisited places for reasons both selfish (they tend to be cheap, you get them all to yourself, you'll learn more and you'll have way more interesting yarns to spin on your return) and otherwise. It is no exaggeration to suggest the future safety of the world depends on people with apparently different beliefs realising they have more in common than they thought.
What follows is a short list of seemingly unlikely destinations I am personally able - indeed, pleased - to endorse as your next travel spot. All are fascinating, fun and, despite their reputation, only dangerous if you are ill-prepared (which you can fix, with books and newspapers) or unlucky (which you can't do anything about, anywhere).
Lebanon Nobody who grew up in Australia should need to be persuaded of the splendours of Lebanon's food and wine, or the eye-crossing beauty of its women. So if its virtues can be enjoyed without leaving safe, comfortable Australia, why would one brave visiting Lebanon itself?
The answer, perverse as it may seem, is reassurance. Most people's knowledge of Lebanon, and the entire Middle East for that matter, is based on what they see on the news - chaos, sectarianism, violence. Spend some time with the Lebanese, however - as urbane and courteous a bunch as you'll find anywhere - and you'll realise that the Middle East heaves with people who don't dislike Westerners in the slightest. Even in the Hezbollah fiefdoms of southern Beirut, where the streetscape is a neocon's nightmare of portraits of bearded bogeymen, any foreigners who park themselves in a café will be guaranteed an afternoon's good-natured conversation with people who would infinitely rather shout you an espresso than chain you up in a basement. And when you're done with that, you can be back in downtown Beirut by the time the city's architecturally imaginative and splendidly decadent bars open.
This under-appreciated Adriatic redoubt could teach failed states a lesson or two in how to make lemonade from the bitterest imaginable harvest of historical lemons.
Albania spent most of the 20th century walled off from the world, under the paranoid leadership of dingbat dictator Enver Hoxha. His death in 1985 brought no respite, as the country staggered through crises wrought by corruption, incompetence, financial meltdown and the war in neighbouring Yugoslavia.
However, as the 21st century dawned, an amazing thing happened. Instead of decamping to the prosperous, peaceful West, some of Albania's youngest and brightest saw in their wreck of a country the rare chance to build a European nation from the ground up.
Residents of the decrepit capital, Tirana, elected as their mayor a conceptual artist called Edi Rama, whose first move was to order that every building in the city be painted in an eye-watering palette of bright colours. A renaissance took root as Albanians realised they could make a virtue of their nation's isolation.
Beyond Tirana you'll find glorious beaches and mountains; the latter, in my recent experience, offer a certain degree of old-school adventure in the form of car chases with armed bandits.
Holidays in Kosovo aren't an easy sell. The young republic has no beaches, little infrastructure and most of its "historical" ruins are less than a decade old.
The place has its charms, though - it just requires a certain cock-eyed sensibility to spot them. The capital, Pristina, is ugly to a degree that is actually interesting. Its university library, a monstrosity that resembles the bad guy's citadel from a late '70s Dr Who episode, as reimagined by Stalin's architects, is the ugliest building in the entire world.
A short drive from Pristina are compelling sites pertaining to recent history. To the south is Prizren, Kosovo's primary (well, only) architectural jewel until 2004, when the citizenry had the idea of burning down most of it to frighten off the few remaining Serbs. North of Pristina lies Prekaz, where a vast shrine commemorates Kosovo Liberation Army martyr Adem Jashari, who perished alongside dozens of his legendarily ornery clan while battling Serbian soldiers in 1998. Australian visitors will consider the statues, posters and souvenirs celebrating the bearded warrior-saint and be reminded unmistakably of Glenrowan.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises Australians to "exercise a high degree of caution" if travelling to Syria. Its Smart Traveller website warns of a "high threat of terrorist attack" and an "unpredictable security environment". One hopes this is gaining Australia useful diplomatic leverage somewhere because, on its own merits, in my personal experience, it is nonsense.
The threat of a terrorist attack in Syria is rather smaller than in the US or the UK (yes, Syria's unlovely government sponsors terrorism, but it does so elsewhere). And while police states are lousy places to live, they tend to be extremely safe places to visit. On my most recent Syrian sojourn about 18 months ago, the only threat I perceived was a potential overdose of sweet tea, which was pressed upon me in uncountable tulip-shaped glasses.
Everybody should visit Damascus. It's the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, a place where addresses mentioned in the New Testament remain current. It's also beautiful and charming and it's impossible to have a bad meal there. A few hours north, Syria's second city, Aleppo, is even better, hosting a souk straight out of Lawrence Of Arabia, and the legendary Baron Hotel, which was a frequent residence of Lawrence himself.
The West Bank News coverage of the Palestinian Territories is not calculated to entice the visitor. The Palestinians have become caricatured as self-immolating fanatics, and though this is the least of the crimes for which the self-immolating fanatics (they exist) are responsible, it's a great shame. Palestinians are missing out on much-needed revenue and contact with the world, and would-be travellers are missing a heck of a trip.
It would be naïve to pretend there are no hazards. The Israeli checkpoints in particular can be fraught; I was once shunted painfully in the ribs with an Israel Defense Forces rifle butt for no greater offence than boarding a minibus. And demonstrations should be avoided - they can escalate suddenly into full-scale battles, which are no fun. Those caveats aside, Bethlehem's holy retail tat, unparalleled outside the Vatican, is almost as impressive as its biblical heritage; Ramallah is a lovely, bustling metropolis containing Yasser Arafat's curiously moving tomb and some rocking bars; and the priests at the Cremisan winery, 5km from Bethlehem at Holyland, do an especially good carignano.
This restive patch of Black Sea coast with pretensions to statehood is not easy to visit. Its border with Russia is usually only open to Russian tourists on their way to Abkhazia's crumbling Soviet-built beachfront hotels. Its border with Georgia - the country of which Abkhazia remains officially, though reluctantly, a part - is subject to closures and most foreigners who visit do so on a UN helicopter, as I did in 2005, but seats on that are only dispensed to those with plausible documentation.
Still, if you have the luck and ingenuity to get across the Inguri River, which separates Abkhazia from Georgia, a treat awaits. The palm-fronded capital, Sukhumi, is a delectably sleepy beach town. Its resorts at Gagra and Pitsunda are evocative of Australia's coastal settlements - and made even more so by forests of eucalypts, planted a century ago to drain the country's swamps.
The rigidly observed behavioural code known as apsuara (core principle: "who pays, wins") makes it difficult to pay for a meal, and your own car and driver can be hired for less than $100 a day - though it would be prudent to first learn Abkhazian for "Slow down, you maniac, you'll kill us both!"
Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, countless denizens of free and prosperous nations - spies, aid workers, adventurers - have visited and fallen in love with Afghanistan.
It's not just the scenery that appeals; for any cosseted, middle-class milquetoast from the First World, there is something inescapably seductive about a place where a man is still judged by how tall he rides and how straight he shoots. The tricky bit for foreigners, of course, with things being as they are, arises when said men direct said straight-shooting in your direction, even if you are armed with nothing more than a camera. Much of Afghanistan is - as it has always been - beset by a war which you'd be well-advised to steer clear of, but visitors can move relatively freely around most major cities in the north, so long as due caution is exercised.
And while Kabul is periodically plagued by violence, much the same could be said of many European cities - and these do not offer the compensations of the jagged, snow-capped mountains that fortify the Afghan capital, or the hilarity of souvenir shopping on Chicken Street, where picturesque hustlers will cheerfully sell you replica Lee-Enfield rifles and rugs embroidered with images of B-52s.