Dear fellow travellers
When did you last read anything good about Abkhazia? The Black Sea territory is regularly in the news as Russia tussles with Georgia and the European Union over quite what should be the future status of Abkhazia. Although still shown on most maps as part of Georgia, Abkhazia operates to all intents and purposes as an independent state, albeit one hugely reliant on neighbouring Russia.
If Abkhazia were more secure and better promoted, it would surely be a holiday paradise to match anywhere in the Mediterranean. It was a favourite with Soviet leaders. The area is spectacular with serene beaches backed by meadows, orchards and vineyards with - just a little further inland - wild mountain landscapes. At this time of year, the mountains are still draped in snow, but that does not deter locals heading up into the hills to go fishing in mountain lakes. The spring fish are the best, they say.
For most of us, Abkhazia is probably out of bounds these days, either out of apprehension for our own safety or because of the difficulties in getting a visa. That has not stopped hidden europe reporting from Abkhazia - regular readers of the magazine will recall that Karlos Zurutuza wrote vividly for us about the territory after he visited in 2006.
But there is another way to experience Abkhazia, and that is through the writings of Abkhaz author Fazil Iskander. His Sandro of Chegem is a brilliantly insightful and amusing text that nicely evokes the spirit of small town and village life in Abkhazia during the Soviet period, subversively poking fun at anyone in authority.
It happens that Iskander, who nowadays lives in Moscow, celebrates his eightieth birthday on Friday. So we wish many happy returns to Fazil Iskander.
The Adler connection
Berlin is blessed with all manner of tempting train services, but one of the very best is the weekly through train to Abkhazia. Well, not quite. The train leaves Berlin's main station every Saturday afternoon and three days later rolls into Adler, the very last station in Russia before the border with Abkhazia.
Adler is an odd sort of place, nowadays busily anticipating the arrival of the Winter Olympics in 2014, which will be based in nearby Sochi. So the hinterland of the coast between Adler and Sochi is now being rapidly developed in anticipation of crowds of visitors. Yet there is still a hint of old Adler, where the Mzymta river, tumbling down from the Greater Caucasus Mountains, runs through the middle of the town before decanting into the Black Sea.
Heading east from Adler, it is just a few kilometres to the border with Abkhazia, marked by the Psou river. Abkhaz communities near the border still have high hopes of benefitting from an Olympic dividend, but the reality is that few sports fans are likely to venture over the border into Abkhazia. Yet there is talk of Chinese guest workers now flying into Sochi-Adler airport to find employment in the pre-Olympic boom years being billeted in Abkhazia. If this really comes to pass in the months ahead, then those Chinese workers will daily cross one of Europe's most unusual frontiers. Abkhazia, it should be mentioned, has a surfeit of hotel accommodation, so Chinese guests could well find themselves staying in decaying resorts that were once prime holiday spots for Moscow's elite.
Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries
(editors hidden europe magazine)