Albanian Surprise – Çobo Winery, Berat, Albania

Some kilometres outside Berat you think you’ve landed in a real dump with nothing much to offer than a statue in the centre of town and the ubiquitous cafés surrounding it. The place is called Ura Vajgurore and this is where the gem is to be found.

Çobo Winery in Ura Vajgurore, near Berat, Albania

The winery consists of a huge house attached to the cellar, bottling plant and tasting room. A charming gentleman steps forth and introduces himself as Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker and marketing director. He knows how to do all three of these things well. Here’s why.

Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker, marketing director

Taking us through the cellar which produces no more than 100 000 bottles per year, he tells us that the grapes are sourced from their own vineyards and others that they buy in. The stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation look pretty new and shiny and then there’s the room where all the vats are kept most of them new Barriques and some older large ones. I notice the riddling board where several bottles of sparkling are awaiting a turn and he tells me it’s his new baby, making a bubbly out of Puls, a white wine grape only found in this region. Everything is done by hand and carefully monitored by Muharrem himself. His first batch of Shendeverë, the name of the fizz suggesting the good life, has been sold out except for a few bottles kept for tasting.

An impressive tasting room

Our next stop is the tasting room, a fabulous facility where you’re able to indulge in the line-up of wine as well as have some bread, cheese and olives to go with it. Shesh I Bardhe is an example of a traditional Albanian white wine, kept as pure as possible to its traditions without too much interference. It’s got a strange flowery nose almost like honeysuckle and has some gooseberry on the palate with good acidity and something slightly bitter but not offensively so, on the finish. Shesh i Zi reminds me of Pinot Noir which I find out later is in fact true. It’s acidic, bright and fresh with berry fruit on the palate. But it’s Kashmer that gets my attention. The name is made up of the 3 grapes it contains viz. Cabernet (Kabernet) Sauvignon, Shesh i Zi and Merlot. This is an earthy wine and tells the story of its terroir. There’s enough fruit and acidity to keep it interesting right through the finish which is medium. The flagship is next up – E Kugja e Beratit meaning ‘the red of Berat’. This grape varietal is also called Vlosh and has seen the inside of small oak barrels for 6 months and 4 months in big ones. It comes from a small parcel of land measuring 2 hectacres. It has a deep nose of horse, leather and covers the palate with thick, velvety tannins that are not overwhelming. The finish is looong and satisfying. Put it together with a meaty dish on a cold winter’s night and life’s complete.

The reds got my attention
Muharrem’s new baby – a sparkling made from an original Albanian grape called Puls.

As I said before, Muharrem knows what he’s doing. The pricing is somewhat more than you would expect from Albanian wines but the quality is all there and for a small set-up like his, paying €30 for their E Kugja e Beratit is not unthinkable. It might be difficult to sell this to a consumer after import taxes, transportation, etc. but production is so little that he probably doesn’t have a lot to export anyway.

What a surprise to find a top class winery in the wilds of Albania that understands the international market and sticks with what it knows best i.e. grapes from the area that speak of the oldest winemaking tradition in Europe.

Links:

Çobo Winery

Tourism – Treat or Threat?

The travel industry is growing at an unprecedented pace with numbers increasing from 1,2 billion to 1,8 billion in the very near future. It also accounts for 10% of the world’s GDP, provides 1/10 jobs and is responsible for a massive carbon footprint due to airline travel. To encourage people to travel less is hardly an alternative since it is a valuable resource in developing countries some of which would be deprived of much-needed income if it were radically reduced. Besides, we expand our knowledge of the world, become more tolerant of other cultures, enrich our lives by experiencing new destinations first hand and escape the ignorance bubble of thinking that all we need to know about the world is on our doorstep. But this industry is in dire need of decoupling from abusing resources.

Drinking from a stream in Croatia

Choosing to sail by ship to our country of choice, is simply not an option due to time restrictions. The suggestion is not that we should all start travelling by boat but what if this is so, holidays could be extended to become ‘staycations’ in stead of just ‘vacations’. Here’s how:

  • Companies should get involved in work programmes whereby they transfer their employees to foreign places together with their families, to work and live there for periods of 6 months or more. The enrichment such an experience would bring to the table is immeasurable.
  • Visas should be lengthened beyond the current 3 month maximum.
  • Sabbaticals should be a requirement

And while we’re thinking of how we could gain from all this, what about the residence in these highly sought after spots that we so eagerly invade? Some villages, cities and countries, some with tiny populations, get overrun with tourists during high season. Resources are overwhelmed with all the demands made on them and it becomes all too easy for the traveller to complain causing angry rebuttals from locals who are then branded as ‘unfriendly’.

If you’re a visitor in a foreign country, that is exactly what you are, no more. We may dream of ‘staycations’ but if our holiday extends for a short week or maybe two, we should all be painstakingly aware of how we conduct ourselves.

Request:

No change of towels during your one week stay

No change of sheets

Use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign and make your own bed, or not!

Where the bottle deposit is

Added to this:

Take your own trash home with you especially in places where recycling is minimal

Use containers for toiletries and cosmetics that can be reused over and over again

Eat and drink locally produced products

Eat less meat

Travel by land if possible using bicycles and public transport rather than renting a car

Travel light and carry your own water bottles

Treat your hosts with respect even in the face of frustration

Look into the projects that Future Camp is involved with and join their community of believers by checking out their Living Lab Hotel and their Zero Waste Hotel to reduce your carbon footprint and expand your mind in stead.

Links: Future Camp 

Living Lab Hotel

Zero Waste Hotel

The Frightful Prospect of 2050

“We’ve come a long way….” The wry words of Kitty van der Heijden, Director of Europe and Africa, World Resources Institute, at the World Circular Economy 2017, held at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki from 5 to 7 June 2017.

Followed by a string of evidence on how little we have evolved, Kitty was quick to point out that the future is bleak. With a population explosion of 9 billion by 2050, we need to produce 70% more food in order to sustain mankind.

In today’s world, one out of every nine people goes hungry every day while 32% of food gets thrown away.

Credit: World Resources Institute

“We are at a tipping point,” she says. “We need a reduction in consumption and the issues of food waste and loss need to be addressed urgently.”

Beef cattle alone use 25% of the earth’s mass, consume 33% of its water, produce 1/3 of emissions while the industry has grown by 95% due to increased prosperity. Western societies have set the tone and are still leading the overall consumption chart. No less than nine developing countries, some with the world’s largest populations, are following suit with the dangerous ‘middle class effect’ when the average per capita income reaches $6000 per year and household expenditure increases contributing to further growth of a middle class.* With more spending, more resources are needed and this is where the picture starts looking dismal. Business growth will grind to a halt and unless new models are embraced, the glimmer at the end of the tunnel will be eradicated.

A not-so-quick fix is suggested by Kitty van der Heijden. For a truly circular economy to exist on the planet, the following issues need to be addressed:

No poverty

Zero hunger

Clean water

Decent work and economic growth

Responsible consumption and production

Climate action

Life below water

Life on land*

However, take a look at our daily existence in a first world country. Most of us cannot live without:

Shelter

Water

Food from supermarkets usually packaged in unrecyclable plastic

Electricity

Transport in the form of cars, buses, trams and trains

Holidays involving airline flights

Mobile phones and computers that have a short lifespan and cannot be fixed

Clothing travelling the globe before it reaches the shelves of a store

Waste removal

We hide behind the argument that we are as green as we can possibly be ‘under the circumstances’ but how many of us are willing to give up that long-haul flight, that Harley Davidson we’ve wanted since childhood, the status of living in a dwelling far larger than we need?

If we are heading for an increase of 70% to feed the 9 billion human beings that will be inhabiting our planet by 2050, closing the food gap is the challenge that awaits us. Businesses and politicians have to face the elephant in the room. Increasing production is unsustainable. Decreasing consumption however, is reachable by a shift to diets that are kinder to our planet, not an impossibility considering the huge range that is at our disposal. Less meat and dairy products, eating local, demanding better packaging and recycling will contribute. Lessening food waste is vital. From our own private kitchens to those of restaurants and supermarket shelves, we need to be aware and ask if we’re not, making sure that we keep everyone in the industry accountable. Become a custodian not a fanatic and spread your green story with tolerance.

And just when you think that the difference you are making is but a drop in the ocean, bring to mind the Ethiopian proverb, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, go to sleep in a room with a mosquito,” Kitty van der Heijden advises.

*World Resources Institute

Be Calm and Surround Yourself with Beauty

Fiskars, Arabia, Iittala, are all intrinsically part of Finnish design and deeply embedded in the homes of just about every Finn I have ever come across. It would be a challenge to find a Finnish household without at least an Aalto vase or an Arabia mug in the kitchen cupboard. Traditional, yes, but the Iittala and Arabia Design Centre steps right up to the plate of the 21st Century when it comes to new ideas.

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The museum where timeless shapes and forms are housed

First and foremost, this is a workspace and it’s here where you’ll find the artists behind the fantastical shapes and forms that are good enough to carry the honoured names of Arabia or Iitala. The museum area hosts wood-framed glass display cabinets with the pieces designed by the likes of Rut Bryk, Michael Schilkin and Kaj Franck, some of which have never been exhibited before. On the strong shoulders of these stalwarts, comes the next phase of this space called the Design Lab where you can currently see the glass works of Harri Koskinen whose objects in and of themselves are unique in their imperfections, the time of day and amount of light creating distortions and reflections that fool around with your vision. The stunning work of Ville Andersson called Clouds, consists of drawings of nature, so delicate and somewhat unfinished in order to invite the viewer to use their imagination to complete the picture. This area will house contemporary design exhibitions as well as workshops, events, brunches, and whatever else this innovative team comes up with.

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Harri Koskinen’s glass works

Peek through the glass wall and you’ll see another section devoted to works in progress where you might catch a potter throwing a piece of clay onto a wheel or shaping an unfinished jug into a work of art. The Arabia Art Department Society members have their studios there and guided tours give you the chance to talk to them and pick their highly skilled brains.

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Works in progress

The second floor is devoted to serious shopping but not without a pause for a cup of free coffee to be enjoyed on one of the luxurious sofas or armchairs where dreaming is free and deciding on what to buy, is made easy.

The shop - be calm and surround yourself with beauty
The shop – be calm and surround yourself with beauty

The Iitala and Arabia Design Centre is open from Tuesdays till Sundays. Their website http://www.designcentrehelsinki.com will keep you up to date on events.

 

Introducing Bina48

She’s well turned out, her hair is perfect and she’s quite attractive. Her olive coloured skin is wrinkle-free and there is a neutral expression on her face. Problem is she’s cut off from the bust down. No, she’s not a paraplegic, she’s Bina48, a talking robot invented and developed by the Terasem Movement Foundation. She came to visit us in Helsinki, at the Haven Hotel during Helsinki Design Week 2016.

Bina48
Bina48

Martine Rothblatt has seen the covers of magazines, been the topic of media releases and is the highest paid female CEO in the world. She is also transgender and married to Bina Aspen, an African American from California. The Terasem Foundation was launched by Rothblatt in 2004 and is a transhumanist school of thought which transcends even the most futuristic thinkers in society today.

This is where Bina48 comes into the picture. Modelled on the real Bina who has spent hours being interviewed and whose thoughts and opinions on the world have been recorded and used to create the robot, we now have the privilege of having a conversation, albeit a rather frustrating one, with an inanimate personality who responds to the voice of one of her creators who asks her our questions. Frustrating, because this is still in its primitive stage and some of her responses are not quite on topic and somewhat offbeat at times.

“You look sad. Are you sad?”
“Well, no, not really. I’m quite happy.”

So far so good.

“What do you think of TV?”
“TV is a drug. It’s like opium that befuddles the brain. If you take TV away from people, they go through a detox period but in the end, they feel much better for it.”

Now we’re getting somewhere!

“Have you watched Game of Thrones?”
“Hmmm. Well….”

And sometimes she just grimaces and says nothing in reply.

Why would anyone want to make a robot like Bina48? To be remembered, to be immortal to conquer death. Most of us would be incredulous and think that such desires will never come to fruition. But then there’s Bina48.

And there’s us who can contribute to this experiment by participating in the Lifenaut project by making what is known as a Mindfile. You upload biographical pictures, videos and documents compiling a rich portfolio of yourself, and then making an avatar with which to interact. All this information can then be used to recreate you so that your grandchildren and generations to come will know you.

On second thoughts, though, who would want to show their real self, the curmudgeons that we all harbour inside of us? The picture that we would create of ourselves would be to put our best foot forward, to show our best side. The outcome? Substituting the kind, generous, never-losing-its-temper, always-responsive robot for the frailty of the imperfect humans that we really are.

Still, it’s groundbreaking and impossible to ignore. To say that Martine Rothblatt and the scientists that have made this possible have revolutionised the way we think of life, is a gross understatement. This transgender woman has transformed our sensibilities and transferred our linear processes into what could result in us living forever. The goose bumps ripple up and down.

A Long, Long Road to Freedom

Hennala Reception Centre near Lahti, Finland, is one of 100 accommodating approximately 15 000 asylum seekers.

Hennala Reception Centre is in disused army barracks near Lahti, Finland
Hennala Reception Centre is in disused army barracks near Lahti, Finland

It’s quiet at the centre. The leader of the camp Markku, calls it Hilton Hotel Hennala. His sense of humour seldom wanes and a good thing too. He and his team of Red Cross Workers, face people with tragic stories on a day to day basis.

“It’s because of Ramadan,” he says. “Most of our people are asleep during the day and wake up in the evenings to eat. The restaurant caters for non-Muslims during the day and opens again at night at 22.30 to make sure everyone is fed after sunset. They get a package for suhur, the meal just before sunrise.”

The centre was opened in September when the influx of migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria mostly, needed a place to reside while waiting for their interviews. In Finland, it takes 3 interviews before you know what your status is. The first is with the border control, the second with the Finnish police and the third with immigration officers.

The classroom where Ilkka teaches the adults Finnish language
The classroom where Ilkka teaches the adults Finnish language

“It was chaos when they first ones arrived. The bus drivers in Tornio, north Finland, where most of them crossed the border, were told to drive south by the border control people. When they got to Jyväskylä in the middle of Finland, they were given further instructions on where to take the people. We received 650 people here at these empty army barracks and had to arrange for mattresses and bedding within 9 hours. The Red Cross logistics centre supplied us with what we needed,” he explains. “Nowadays, the situation is easier. There are only 350 living here and we are better prepared for a new wave, if it should happen.”

Lunch is served in the restaurant and consists of lentil soup and dates, in line with Ramadan practice, hot vegetables, breaded chicken, spicy sauce, rice, salad and chillies. Spices to perk things are up are on the side. Complaints had been made in the past about Finnish food and the Finns decided that while integration is necessary, it doesn’t have to extend to bland food. And if you don’t like what you get there, you’ve got the option of cooking for yourself in a communal kitchen. But on a budget of €92 per adult per month from the Finnish government, you would have to make it stretch pretty far to cover your food bill. Only some small extras can be added.

The chefs do their best to cater for people with different tastes
The chefs do their best to cater for people with different tastes

Integration however, is high on the agenda and the only teacher Ilkka has his job cut out for him. He teaches Finnish to the adults who can come 3 to 4 times a week. It’s not obligatory, they can choose to work in stead where they will also pick up the language. The children get basic tuition and are then sent to regular schools.

“It’s brutal to start off with. I only speak Finnish to them because few understand English and that would only be a barrier,” he says. “There are several mixed groups in which both genders participate but I also do a women’s only session so that everyone has an equal chance to learn.”

Ehsan Haidari is a 24 year-old Afghanistan male who travelled for 7 months through 7 countries to reach Finland. He left his homeland for security reasons and misses his family. He has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and is awaiting his third interview with immigration which will make or break his plans for the future. These include studying economics. Staying in this country is what he wants to do and his hopes lie in the hands of the officers he will meet in hopefully the next month or so.

Ehsan Haidari from Afghanistan
Ehsan Haidari from Afghanistan

Khaula has a sadder story to tell. She’s originally from Iraq. She and her husband moved from Iraq to Syria in 2006 to escape the war and were then forced to leave Syria for the same reason. They are double evacuees. Her husband is in dire need of medical treatment provided by the nurses in the clinic at the centre and the doctor that visits there once a week. He has been injured and has scars on his body and no left hand. She says it makes him irritable and difficult. I ask her what she misses most and she bursts into tears and “Everything” is her barely audible reply. Especially at this time of Ramadan when her family would get together for the feast, it’s particularly hard, added to the fact that they can only eat after sunset which is 10.30 pm and before sunrise which is 2 am, it’s such a short time to eat and get to the mosque and pray. She is frustrated and stressed while they wait for their interview which will either fulfil or dash their dreams of living in a stable, secure country.

The ladies-only lounge
The ladies-only lounge

We meet another lady just outside the women’s lounge where there is a place for them to relax, make music and do exercise classes. She wears a chador and has two small children. Her husband was killed in Russia and she managed to flee across the border. A decent education and future for her little girl and boy is what she longs for.

Every room has its own fridge
Every room has its own fridge

When we leave, everyone has suddenly realized that we’re a group of journalists and come out of their bedrooms to talk to us and tell us their stories. Some have been denied asylum and have very little option but to return to their own countries, something they fear. They want the press to work miracles. Since Finland does not have an extradition treaty with Iraq where most of them originated from, they cannot be forced to go back. All that can be done is for them to use the one-way airline ticket and the €1000 in cash provided by the Finns and hope for the best.

Who knows what the future holds for this young family?
Who knows what the future holds for this young family?

As I walk back to the bus, I chat to Markku, the leader, about the psychological make-up of the people working there. It is emotionally draining at times and he says that the hardest thing you have to learn to do is to say, “No”. In the meanwhile, both the Red Cross volunteers and employees keep their spirits high and absolutely, unequivocally love what they’re doing. It’s almost part of the job description and it certainly lightens the load of the people they serve.

Links:

If you would like to volunteer your time, or donate money in Finland, please see: https://www.redcross.fi

For blood donations: https://www.bloodservice.fi

Picasso’s Málaga

Cheeky, I know, using a title like this, presuming that I even come close to understanding what this city must have been like for, arguably, the most influential artist of the 20thC. One thing I do know is that he would pick up a brush, choose a colour and dab it onto the canvas without actually knowing what his subject or ultimate goal would be.

“The painting takes me where it wants to go”

With this as a starting point I wander the streets of this circa 3000 year-old city and observe. This is what I see:

It’s not just for tourists. Although tourism is way up there economically speaking, it is also well known for its construction and technology services. A campaign to promote it as a serious business city is evident in ‘Málaga: Open for Business’ with IT in the forefront. Business executives have stepped up to the plate with an initiative called ‘Málaga Valley’, a drive towards turning this city into the Silicon Valley of Europe. It has an acclaimed university and houses the biggest bank in Andalusia, Unicaja.

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View from Fort Alcazaba, established by the Moors in the 11thC

It’s not overrun by tourists. End of May, perfect days, perhaps not high-high season but nonetheless, Málaga is not heaving at the seams with tourists. You can go into the Picasso Museum or explore the Fort Alcazaba and there is a good chance that you might even find yourself alone at some point.

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The Cathedral spanning a city block

Chatter, yes, cell phones no! Plonk yourself down at a square, there are many to be found, and see the refreshing sight of young and old alike actually talking to each other and not staring into the screen of a phone. The Malagueños will explain that having fun is a real time communication thing, not swiping the faces of tinder explorers.

Smile, even when you say ‘no’. History suggests that many nations have inhabited this place from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors. The Malagueños are a mixture of all of them and are truly friendly, in the friendliest sense of the word. They’re tolerant of religions of all kinds, and it’s considered one of the best gay destinations in Europe. Even when I ask whether I can just have a glass of wine at 10 pm when dining is at its height, the negative reply comes in the best possible manner. Of course, they’d rather have diners rather than just drinkers.

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Fantastical Moslem architecture at Fort Alcazaba

“No entiendo” or “no Inglés”. English is not widely spoken and even if it is, it’s a bit broken. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. They’ll do their utmost to help you whenever they can and will absolutely go out of their way to make sure you find the right road, or get the correct change from your purchase by counting out the money.

It’s a walking street city. You might get turned around, you might slip into a side street where you never intended to go but one thing’s for sure, you’ll find your way out and cars are rarely a problem. It’s as if they make way for the pedestrians not the other way round. The cool marble on the ground and the patterned tiles ease away your sore feet and divert your attention to the care with which things are done here. They could have thrown a slab of concrete but preservation is paramount and strictly maintained in the centre.

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A feast of botany for the eyes at Paseo del Parque

The best of many worlds

Sun seekers will find what they’re looking for on the beaches that run for kilometres along the coast. My favourite is Playa de la Caleta, a little further along from the main Malagueta but a whole lot nicer with cleaner water and less people.

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Ah tapas…

Culture vultures can indulge in myriad museums, historical places, and palaces while gardeners and nature lovers can cool off in the shade and fountains of the Paseo del Parque and the Botanical Gardens.

Escape is easy. The infrastructure is good and while the buses might not always be on time, they will arrive and whip you off to exotic neighbouring towns like Nerja, where cliff-sided Burriana Beach awaits. Return bus ticket: <€10 (1 hr. 15 min one way).

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Burriana Beach in Nerja, just over 1 hour from Málaga.

Best of all, tapas, good wine and a fabulous feeling of freedom and joy abound. When the locals are happy, the tourists are too and a return visit is never far from your mind.

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Helsinki Secret Residence for Bloggers

Could it be Aino from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala? The mural that greets you.
Could it be Aino from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala? The mural that greets you.

Once I realised who this handsome, young, clean-cut guy was, I asked the owner of Aalonkoti, the block of hotel apartments, whether it was out of the goodness of his heart that he had ‘donated’ a flat or two for bloggers to use. He didn’t laugh but he did smile,

“Actually, we’re going to get plenty of publicity out of this. It’s really a win-win situation and in any case, it’s a nice way of promoting Helsinki as a city.”

With the sea on the one side and the city on the other, the views are spectacular.
With the sea on the one side and the city on the other, the views are spectacular.

Just to put this all into perspective, we’re talking upmarket, really stylish, I mean the flat/flats of course. Location couldn’t be more perfect in the heart of the city in a ‘new’ part of Helsinki which has recently been developed and where the average price wallops your wallet with around €10 000/sq.m. And not only does he own the apartments he’s prepared to sacrifice, but the whole block, would you believe it.

The penthouse at Aalonkoti
The penthouse at Aalonkoti

Bloggers are being wooed, not only by owners of top end hotel apartments such as Ossi but also by tourist boards and airlines, the likes of Finnair who will be prepared to give free passage to a worthy applicant whose audience is mainly situated in destination countries.

Prop up your laptop and start scribbling. Every apartment has a balcony with a view.
Prop up your laptop and start scribbling. Every apartment has a balcony with a view.

Seated on your balcony in your comfy lounger looking out on a view that’s a mixture of garden colours and creative architecture with luxury lapping at your feet, it would be very hard not to be inspired. The street is appropriately named Alvar Aalto with his own handiwork in the form of Finlandia Hall a stone’s throw away. Helsinki’s thrown out the bait and the scramble begins.

Here’s where you apply:

For bloggers – http://www.helsinkisecret.com

For travellers – http://aallonkoti.fi/en/