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Peregrine Adventures spent a year putting together the 17-day itinerary and we are on the maiden tour. It’s a group of 13, including two spirited women in their 70s, and we represent seven different countries between us, not including Bob, our Russian guide, proving curiosity has no barriers.

The capital of Baku is the base for most of our four days in Azerbaijan, where the expedition begins. It’s a city dripping in oil wealth, with a mishmash of architectural styles that’s oddly compelling.

Peasant woman sitting on road with dog in Georgia. Photo: Getty Images

There are the majestic buildings dating from Azerbaijan’s days under the Russian tsars, just blocks away from drab Soviet towers awaiting “beautification”. The inventive approach is to dress their facades in stone, attach ornate balconies – et voila, as good as old.

Wandering around the cobbled streets of Baku’s mediaeval walled centre, taking in the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and other historic sites, the Dubai-like glass Flame Towers beyond the walls lend the perspective a science-fiction quality.

The newly completed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre is a showstopper, an astounding piece of modern architecture designed by famous Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid. It’s like a white serpent rising from a grassy knoll that suddenly livens up the trip in from the airport.

Tsminda Sameba Church. Photo: iStock

Life on the streets of Baku feels similar to a modern city anywhere. Islamic Azerbaijan is a historically tolerant society. Cafes, restaurants and shops are buzzing, and in the boulevards and parks by the waterfront, adjoining the Caspian Sea, the world’s biggest salt lake, burqa-clad women can be seen strolling alongside young things in the latest fashion. At night, the city is beautifully lit, reminiscent at times of strolling around Paris. Hence its name, Paris of the East.

Well, not quite.

We take the hour’s trip to Qobustan, past endless oil rigs, and clamber up a rocky path in the heat to inspect ancient rock engravings in nooks and crannies everywhere.

Vardzia cave city, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Georgia. Photo: Getty Images

Civilisation in this UNESCO-protected region has been traced back 40,000 years, and the fascinating on-site museum captures slabs of it in highly informative and interactive displays. At the foot of the hill, I stop at a fenced-off rock engraving made by a passing Roman officer. It dates from AD90. Graffiti spans all the centuries.

On the road north-west to Georgia, as we watch the amazing transition from dry, salty plains to the first few sprigs of green inland, to the incredibly lush countryside that abruptly springs from nowhere all in a matter of hours, we stop in Sheki, visiting the 18th-century Shaki Khan Palace.

It’s a marked departure from the elaborate mosques and stone tombs seen earlier. This was the summer palace of the local ruling Shaki Khans. Its intricate, timber-framed stained-glass windows, still hand-crafted locally, are apparently popular with wealthy sheiks. Inside, every room is lined with vibrantly coloured frescoes.

Mtkvari River as it runs through Tbilisi. Photo: Getty Images

The palace and Baku’s mediaeval city are Azerbaijan’s historical highlights for me.

In our seven days in Georgia, it seems as if we have criss-crossed its entire 70,000 square kilometres in our little minibus, when in reality we have managed a select grab bag of highlights, including half a dozen or so UNESCO World Heritage sites. Georgians adopted Christianity in the early 4th century, so historic churches and monasteries are regular stops.

The whole country feels freshly renovated, from cities, to roads, to hotels, to tourist attractions. Scaffolding and road works are as etched in my memory as the mountains, rivers, fields of wild flowers and endless green vistas that have accompanied our travels.

Gobustan mud volcanoes. Photo: Getty Images

The 10-year presidency of pro-western Mikheil Saakashvili, which ended with the elections last November, has marked the country’s economic rejuvenation after a decade of chaos.

We have driven through winemaking regions in Georgia’s south and had our first introduction to chacha, the local rocket fuel, courtesy of farmer Simon and his family entourage.

In their purpose-built stone cellar in the small town of Sighnaghi, a stone’s throw from the Azerbaijan border, we are shown a contraption that looks positively mediaeval. It’s the chacha maker, the “grape vodka” found everywhere. It’s wincingly potent and sets the mood for a lively cellar feast. That lunch was our first introduction to khachapuri, the devilishly moreish flat cheese bread that’s on every menu.

Wine lovers should note: Georgia’s winemaking tradition goes back 8000 years. An official wine map reveals snaking trails everywhere and a baffling 437 different grape varieties. If in doubt, the ever-popular Saperavi reds and Rkatsiteli whites are sound bets.

We have gone north and climbed into the heart of Europe’s highest mountain range – the snow-capped Greater Caucasus. It stretches for 1200 kilometres, forming the border with Russia to the north.

Our destination for two nights is the remote ski resort of Gudauri, heaving with skiiers in winter apparently, but a desolate spot in summer: a scattering of buildings on austere, grassy slopes. The lone supermarket proves the main social hub on our visit.

At 2196 metres, Gudauri is the highest village on the famous Georgian Military Highway, an ancient north-south trading route that has been recently upgraded into a flawless stretch of road.

It’s the launch pad for a day trip to nearby Kazbegi, where a one-hour hike up the steep, rocky foothills (jeep optional) is rewarded with hauntingly beautiful views from the remote 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church. No invader was going to take this prize easily.

The clouds clear to offer a perfect view of Mount Kazbeg, at 5047 metres, one of the higher glaciers in the Caucasus.

We have gone west as far as Kutaisi, the country’s second largest city, stopping on the way at Stalin’s birthplace in Gori. His humble family home lies in the grounds of the Stalin Museum, where rooms of black-and-white photographs, news clippings and memorabilia document not just the rise of a dictator, but graphic examples of hardships and horrors.

And, of course, we have spent time in the charming capital of Tbilisi, an easily walkable city of 1.2 million divided by the Mtkvari River. It’s in the final throes of an extensive renovation.

The UNESCO-protected old district has had most of the buildings’ crumbling facades replaced. They contrast with contemporary structures nearby.

It’s a laid-back city, where most of the action centres around the main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue and the lively network of streets in the old town.

The pace has been fast and furious, with a couple of 10-hour days on the road. Framed by the bus window are watchtowers and forts, crumbling stone houses and defunct old factories, new buildings with shiny tin roofs, and the drab, grey apartment blocks that dot the landscape everywhere in this part of the world, legacies of the Soviet era.

I’m still prizing the grit out of my hair from a visit to the 12th-century cave city of Vardzia, in the south-west. I conclude that tunnels, perilously steep steps, low rock ceilings and a power blackout are not a good combination. The city was carved into a mountain, stretching across 500 metres, a feat of human endeavour.

Nino, our bubbly Georgian guide, succinctly sums up her country’s history: “So many times, occupied, destroyed, rebuilt . . . occupied, destroyed, rebuilt”. She may as well have been talking about any of the countries we visit. Preserving their architecture against the constant onslaught has been challenging. Mongols, Persians, Russians and Ottomans have all fancied their chance in this strategic crossroads of Europe and Asia. Many of the historic sites we visit have been rebuilt from ruins.

I have seen so many monasteries and churches that they have merged into a glorious pastiche of soaring stone structures, frescoes, brightly coloured icons and priests in black robes going about their business, seemingly impervious to the coachloads of tourists.

Mostly I tend to remember them by their locations: behind protective walls, such as the magnificent Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the centre of historic Mtskheta, where Christ’s robe is allegedly buried; on remote hilltops, such as the 6th century Jvari Church peering down over Mtskheta; and in Kutaisi, the collection of beautiful stone buildings that make up Gelati Monastery, where of one of the greatest Georgian kings, David the Builder, has his tomb.

The trio of countries was part of the Soviet Union up until their independence in 1991. The itinerary has been carefully mapped to avoid any potential hot spots (see trip notes). For us, everywhere we travel feels safe and welcoming.

Russian is the de-facto second language and English can be patchy outside the capitals, so although independent travel is possible, I imagine it could be tricky, once the complication of visas and long border crossings are taken into account.

On day 11, Armenia greets us across the Bavra border crossing from Georgia late afternoon with rough roads, thunderous black clouds and the bleak, barely habitable landscape of this northern region. It’s a fittingly atmospheric entry to a country that lies in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest after the flood.

En route to the capital, we stop at Gyumri, the country’s second-largest city, which was devastated by an earthquake in 1988 and is still struggling to get rebuilt. We park in the main square and wander through the back streets, past half-crumbling stone buildings that are still beautiful, but just skeletons now. Some have been rebuilt, but there’s a long way to go.

The gritty capital of Yerevan, on the other hand, is bristling with energy and artistic life, with signs of progress everywhere. The transition from the relative stability of the Soviet period to now has been rocky. The country isn’t flush with funds, but the large Armenian diaspora is generous.

The Armenian Genocide Museum is closed until April 2015 for an extensive renovation. A new mall in the city centre is almost finished. There are sculptures and statues everywhere, many recent, that salute famous Armenians.

Edgy bars and restaurants all over the city are packed with chatty, locals fluent in English, eager to exchange stories.

We take the 20-kikometre trip to see Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Armenia’s answer to Vatican city. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301AD, and this is its expansive headquarters: clipped lawns, trees and newly laid paths leading to an assortment of buildings. The central Mother Cathedral is covered with scaffolding on our June visit.

Inside, through an arch, we visit the small museum, which houses sacred relics, including the lance that supposedly pierced the side of Christ and a petrified splinter of Noah’s Ark. Whether myth or fact, I’m again enthralled by random fragments of history.

For me, the trip ended in Yerevan, leaving the posse to take the overnight trip to the mediaeval town of Goris. I would have loved to explore Armenia more, but this trip has been an absorbing introduction to a trio of countries geographically close but unique, and all embracing the tourist wave. I felt lucky to beat the hordes.

The writer was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.



A short drive along the Absheron Peninsula, this recently restored open temple, complete with mannequins recreating temple life, sheds light on how the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians lived. An English-speaking guide is essential, as there’s little information on site.


Nor far from the fire temple is this intriguing natural phenomenon. Even when the snow falls, natural gases from the earth keep these flickering flames alive.


A series of caves cut into a mountain are what remain of this small 3000-year-old complex. It’s interesting to scramble around and picture life as it was then. The museum below is well worth visiting for its archaeological finds and information.


The Treasury section of this small museum holds one of the finest collections of Georgian icons and crosses, retrieved from churches and monasteries everywhere.


This ancient manuscripts museum contains room after room of sublimely intricate and richly coloured manuscripts, including a whopper weighing in at 27 kilograms. There’s also maps and other historical documents to inspect.



From Australia, one option is to fly Emirates to Dubai from where it’s under three hours to Baku or Yerevan, the start/end points of the featured trip. Azerbaijan Airlines has regular flights to Dubai-Baku. Fly Dubai has regular flights to Yerevan-Dubai.

See emirates.com; azal.az.


Peregrine Adventures has five departures for the 17-day Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia tour in 2015, the first is on May 10. Tours start from $3575 a person including a local tour leader, arrival transfer, transportation, accommodation, some meals and activities.

Phone 1300 854 445; see peregrineadventures.com.


Australians require visas for Armenia and Azerbaijan, which can be applied for online. As there are ongoing tensions in the border region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Australian government advises travellers to avoid Nagorno-Karabakh and the military occupied area surrounding it. In Georgia, the government cautions against visiting the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Pankisi Gorge north of Akhmeta.

See smartraveller.gov.au.





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President Obama and the European Union said Tuesday that tougher new sanctions will further cripple Russia’s economy, hopefully forcing President Vladimir Putin to end his support of armed rebels in Ukraine and to seek peace.

New economic penalties “will continue to ratchet up the pressure on Russia, including the cronies and companies that are supporting Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine,” Obama said at the White House.

While previous sanctions have focused on specific businesses and individuals, the new set is designed to hit major pillars of the Russian economy, including oil and gas supplies and technology, banking and finance, and arms sales. Close associates of Putin are also targeted.

Earlier sanctions were more symbolic in nature, and “were sort of the bare minimum the EU had to do in order to pass the laugh test,” said Mark Dubowitz, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “These start moving into sectors of the Russian economy.”

The Treasury Department released a list of large Russian banks that are blocked from transactions with Americans, including the Bank of Moscow, the Russian Agricultural Bank and VTB Bank.

Obama made his announcement shortly after the European Union unveiled its new sanctions package, one that “will limit access to EU capital markets for Russian State-owned financial institutions, (and) impose an embargo on trade in arms,” according to a statement.

While previous sanctions have focused on specific businesses and individuals, the new set is designed to hit sectors that are foundations of the Russian economy, including oil and gas supplies and technology, banking and finance, and arms sales. Close associates of Putin are also targeted.

The EU also said new penalties would “establish an export ban for dual use goods for military end users, and curtail Russian access to sensitive technologies particularly in the field of the oil sector.”

The question is whether they will hit the Russian economy hard enough for Putin to change course in Ukraine, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Obama and allies want Putin stop supplying separatists in Ukraine, pull back Russian troops from near the border, and seek an agreement with Ukraine’s leaders.

“Does he look for a way out?” said Pifer, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We’ll just have to see.”

The new sanctions mark a sharp spike in long-term tension between the United States and Russia, perhaps the worst since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago.

Recent disputes include Russian political asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Russia occupation and annexation of Crimea, ongoing violence by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the recent shoot down of a commercial airliner that killed nearly 300 passengers.

The new sanctions also come as the Obama administration accuses the Russians of violating a 1987 arms control treaty by testing new long-range missiles.

“Today, Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community, setting back decades of genuine progress,” Obama said at the White House.

If Putin does not accept a diplomatic solution, “the cost on Russia will continue to grow,” Obama said.

Asked about the prospect of a new “Cold War,” Obama rejected the idea. He said this is a distinct case of the United States and allies seeking to block Russia from trying to dominate Ukraine.

Obama said the United States and allies will continue to seek access to the crash site and remains of the plane, and force a criminal investigation in order to “make sure justice is done.”

Nile Gardiner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the EU sanctions are a change for officials who had been loath to punish Russia because of economic ties. “Attitudes toward Moscow have dramatically hardened following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine,” he said.

But Putin will need to feel stronger pressure before he modifies his behavior, Gardiner said. The West will need to take a broader approach “aimed at isolating Russia internationally,” including a strengthening the NATO alliance and “bolder, stronger American leadership.”

Global financial firms have warned their clients about the possible financial impacts of new sanctions, which included restrictions on bond sales and other activities by Russian-owned banks.

In announcing new sanctions, the EU cited what it called ongoing Russian support for violent separatists in neighboring Ukraine. They also cited the recent missile strike against the jetliner.

“When the violence created spirals out of control and leads to the killing of almost 300 innocent civilians in their flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia, the situation requires urgent and determined response,” said the EU statement.

The sanctions will add to long term pressure on Russia, but will probably not have any immediate impact on Putin’s behavior, said Olga Oliker, an analyst at the Rand Corp.

“We don’t really have a lot of tools that work in the near term,” she said.

STORY: Obama’s phone calls show urgency of world crises

Meanwhile, Obama has written Putin a letter saying that tests of a new cruise missile violate the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

The INF treaty of 1987 forbids production or testing of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (about 310 to 3,400 miles).

The INF complaint and the new sanctions are the latest moves in U.S.-Russian battles that center largely on violence in Ukraine. Obama and allies say that Russia is improperly aiding pro-Russian separatists operating in eastern Ukraine.

In recent days, the United States and its allies have accused Russia of actually firing weapons into Ukraine. They have also called on Putin to demand that separatists provide access to the remains of the doomed passenger jet.

The U.S. and European allies began sanctioning Russia after it seized and annexed the Crimea region of Russia earlier this year.

Those sanctions “have made a weak Russian economy even weaker,” Obama said, as he and he aides cited a decline in the value of the ruble, a flight of investment in the country, and growth rate projections that are nearly zero.

The new sanctions “will have an even bigger bite,” Obama said.

Obama discussed possible sanctions in a Monday video conference with the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Analysts said the new sanctions will make it harder for Russia to raise capital or get credit for European banks. That will add to borrowing costs for Russian firms. “That will be hard on the Russian economy,” Oliker said.

Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said new sanctions could damage the Russian economy. He also said that Putin and Russia appear to have a vested interest in a pro-Russian Ukraine.

“I don’t know how Putin backs down and admits defeat,” said Mankoff, deputy director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. “It’s a really dangerous situation.”

Contributing: John Bacon

Article source: http://www.king5.com/news/world/US-Europe-hit-Russia-with-new-sanctions-269122111.html

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FILMING BEGINS TODAY on scenes from the new Star Wars film on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry.

However, concerns have been raised about the potential impact that the film crews will have on the site, with Birdwatch Ireland particularly concerned that the filming is coming in the middle of breeding season for puffins and other birds.

The Unesco World Heritage Centre has confirmed to TheJournal.ie that it has asked for information on the granting of filming rights at the sixth century monastic site, but a spokesperson said that they could not speculate what would happen.

Roni Amelan, a spokesperson for the World Heritage Centre, told TheJournal.ie that the lightsabers and droids may cause damage, but that doesn’t automatically mean a loss of Skellig Michael’s status.

“The issue not with filming, it’s with what effect that filming will have.

“We can speculate but don’t know yet. If you look at the site and the features for which it was inscribed, you have to look at the effect it will have.

“It’s very rare that a pristine site will be inscribed.

“It’s about getting all of the information.”

In the original decision, the committee outlined why Skellig Michael was chosen and no mention of wildlife or scenery is made.

Only two sites have ever been removed from the Unesco World Heritage List; the first a sanctuary for oryx (a type of antelope) in Oman, the second the Dresden Elbe Valley.

In the Oman case, the size of the sanctuary was decreased by 90%, meaning that the oryx were forced to live in captivity. In Dresden, the construction of a four-lane road bridge was found to have altered the valley sufficiently to warrant its removal from the list.

In both cases, Amelan says, the sites were “fundamentally changed”.

Read: Star Wars filming begins on Skellig Michael as exciting footage emerges

Article source: http://www.thejournal.ie/star-wars-skellig-michael-filming-unesco-1594314-Jul2014/

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In her six years at the helm, this 5ft dynamo has won praise for her
championing of Britain’s diverse heritage – although it has been too diverse
for some. Last year, the HLF was branded “absolutely disgraceful” by one
Tory MP for turning down the Royal British Legion while handing out £95,800
to the Peace Pledge Union, which honours conscientious objectors.

With facts at the ready – she strikes you as a woman who is seldom unprepared
– Dame Jenny puts forward a robust defence.

The HLF has given £57 million to 711 First World War projects, she says,
including a £6.5 million grant to the newly reopened Imperial War Museum.
“On that score, I think we have a very good story to tell,” she says firmly.

Dame Jenny, 67, is standing down next month. Her one sadness is the number of
worthy applications the HLF has to turn down. Eight years ago, it funded 70
per cent of applications. Now the figure is 35 per cent. “Sadly we’re having
meetings where we have 10 projects that meet all the criteria and we only
have the money for four. And we’re probably the only game in town now.”

In her swansong public speech, she warned this is “a pivotal moment for the
heritage sector”, which has seen government and other cuts of £2 billion
since 2010. Dame Jenny has dealt with five culture secretaries since taking
over, and is reluctant to criticise them – even the hapless Maria Miller –
but she believes other countries place greater value on their national
heritages than we do.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, she reminds us, was formerly the
Department of National Heritage until Tony Blair changed it in 1997. This
gets her exercised. “I wish the word ‘heritage’ was still in the DCMS’s
title,” she says. “It was dropped under a real mistaken belief that heritage
was defined in a very narrow way. But it isn’t just about stately homes.

“You just go across Europe and see how recognised heritage is. I want a public
recognition that it has a broad definition. Government has a role in
protecting heritage.”

Asked to name the biggest threat currently facing Britain’s heritage, she
says: “The area I’m most concerned about is planning. It’s something people
do need to keep a very wary eye on. It’s really important and I worry.

“Local communities need to be aware that they have rights, and they need to be
able to get involved in developing strategic plans and visions for their

“This is not about listed buildings. Actually, there are huge swathes of towns
and villages where the buildings aren’t listed and they make up a sense of
what the community is. And they don’t want to lose it.

“We do not want to go back to that era where everybody believed the new was
more important than the old. I say that town planning in the Sixties and
Seventies did more damage to the towns and cities of the UK than the
Luftwaffe. Let’s not go back to that.”

A day after our meeting, the Government’s planning minister Brandon Lewis
claims there has been a huge rise in community support for new housing
developments in their area. One wonders what Dame Jenny would say to him
about that.

Warm though she is, she does not strike you as a woman to be trifled with.
During her 40-year career at the BBC before joining the HLF, she became the
first woman editor of the Today programme, then launched Five Live during a
decade as head of radio. Greg Dyke called her an “infuriating person” to
deal with, but former colleagues sing her praises as a woman who got things
done and created, in Five Live, a place for entertaining and intelligent

So what does she make of recent changes at the station, where Victoria
Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty are departing and their timeslots being taken
over by male presenters, such as Adrian Chiles, who have mastered the art of
football banter?

When she launched Five Live, she says “people immediately said: ‘Oh, it’s
going to be Radio Bloke,’ and I was determined that it wasn’t going to be
Radio Bloke.

“I was also determined that we were going to have women all across the
network. Jane Garvey was the first voice. I do think people like Shelagh
Fogarty and Victoria Derbyshire are fantastic broadcasters. I would be very
sad to see that lost. It’s very important when you think about how you cast
your voices across a network – particularly one dealing with news and sport
– that you make sure both sets of voices are equally dominant.” She sits
back in her seat. “That’s probably where I should leave it – being

Dame Jenny remains “a BBC person through and through”. It has been said that
she would be director-general of the BBC by now if she had been a man (she
applied, but claims her heart wasn’t in it). She can’t suppress a smile when
I mention this, and is diplomatic once more. “I think they’ve got a very
good director-general, who is a very good friend,” she says of Lord Hall of
Birkenhead. “And I think it’s an almost impossible job.” She doesn’t mind
passing on a few suggestions, though, such as the BBC upping its science
programming. “This country doesn’t do enough science and the BBC has a
responsibility there.”

With a £4 million pension pot from the corporation – said to be the biggest
ever awarded in the public sector – Dame Jenny could see out her days in
splendid retirement. She recently became a grandmother and looks forward to
babysitting duties. But instead she is moving on to a new post as chair of
the Royal Academy of Music.

“I had a father who did not stop working until his eighties, and I think it
kept him young,” she says. “I’m not saying I’m going to be working like I
did at the BBC, because I’m not. But I do believe in carrying on.”

Article source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/architecture/10992657/Jenny-Abramsky-Heritage-isnt-just-about-stately-homes.html

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Ministers will give the go-ahead on Monday for a big expansion of fracking across Britain that will allow drilling in national parks and other protected areas in “exceptional circumstances”.

The government will invite firms to bid for onshore oil and gas licences for the first time in six years, with about half of the country advertised for exploration. Ministers are also clarifying the rules on when drilling can take place in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and world heritage sites, following calls by environmental campaigners for an outright ban on drilling in them.

In a tightening of the guidance, the government will ask energy firms to submit an environmental statement that is “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near protected countryside, forcing them to demonstrate their understanding of local sensitivities. It will make clear that the applications “should be refused in these areas other than in exceptional circumstances and in the public interest”.

In addition, Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, is likely to make a final decision on more appeals related to protected areas over the next 12 months, instead of leaving it to the planning watchdog.

The competition for licences is likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves, particularly in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. It is the first time the government has offered up areas of the UK for onshore exploration since experts confirmed the scale of the UK’s shale resources and protests erupted in places from Blackpool to Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a Tory communities minister, will present the licensing round in the House of Lords , as MPs have broken up for their summer break.”We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons,” Lord Ahmad will say. “Proposals for such development must recognise the importance of these sites.”

The licences are the first step towards exploration but firms will also have to obtain planning consent, permits from the Environment Agency and a sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive.

Over the weekend, Matthew Hancock, the Conservative energy minister, said he wanted to speed up the process so companies are able to start drilling within six months of putting in applications. He also said the guidance published on Monday would “protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes”.

This promise is likely to face one of its first tests in Sussex, where a planning decision on a prospective Celtique Energie fracking site in the South Downs National Park is due within weeks. The county council has rejected a separate application from Celtique in nearby Wisborough Green, just outside the national park, because of traffic concerns, which may now be appealed against by the company and end up in the hands of Pickles.

The Conservatives in particular are facing unrest on the backbenches about the prospect of fracking in rural constituencies. The government will hope that its tightening of the rules on national parks will placate local residents, MPs and green campaigners concerned about the impact of fracking on the landscape, drinking water and environment.

But the announcement met with mixed reactions. Louise Hutchins, a Greenpeace energy campaigner, said millions of homeowners have been stripped of their right to stop companies drilling under their property and now communities will face a “fracking postcode lottery”.

“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside, including in sensitive areas such as those covering major aquifers. Eric Pickles’s supposed veto power over drilling in national parks will do nothing to quell the disquiet of fracking opponents across Britain,” she said.

Hutchins also criticised the timing of the announcement, saying ministers “waited until the parliamentary recess to make their move, no doubt aware of the political headache this will cause to MPs whose constituencies will be affected”.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton, who was arrested for protesting against fracking in Balcombe last year, also raised concerns that there is no outright ban on fracking in protected areas.

“If this still leaves the door open to fracking in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, it completely undermines the protective status that those areas have been given and renders it meaningless,” she said. “Many campaigners have campaigned for decades to get national park status, and they are given for a reason. The idea that they could be offered up to the fracking firms is a scandal.”

But Shaun Spiers, the chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said the government’s change in rhetoric on protecting the countryside would be welcomed. “The government has previously stoked opposition by giving the impression that it is committed to fracking whatever the consequence and however sensitive the location,” he said. “If fracking is to happen, we need to proceed with great caution and with the highest possible safeguards.”

The National Trust, which has previously campaigned for an outright ban, also had a positive reaction, saying it was “right that the government have recognised the concerns about fracking in special places like national parks and AONBs”. However, it called for the new rules to be extended to other special places such as nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest.

Industry groups were pleased the government is finally licensing more areas for onshore oil and gas exploration, after ministers have repeatedly promised a fracking “revolution” that they claim could reduce energy bills and boost economic activity. While there has been a huge amount of controversy about fracking, little has actually taken place on British soil beyond exploratory drilling.

The British Geological Survey last year estimated that deposits that could supply the country with gas for up to 40 years, although it is still unclear whether the cost of extracting it from the ground will be worth it.

Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said the announcement marks “another step forward on the road towards a dynamic, productive and well regulated shale industry in the UK”.

“There’s still a way to go before the industry really takes off, but opening up a new licensing round while increasing safeguards for the natural environment is welcome evidence of the government’s commitment to maximising the benefits of a British shale industry,” he said.

Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Operators Group, said it should be seen as a positive sign for investors that the industry was “one of the heaviest regulated industries in the UK and acts as an exemplar for the rest of Europe.” Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner, Tony Bosworth, said: “Today the risk of fracking has spread. This threat to the environment and public health could now affect millions more people.

“Those who thought that fracking would only happen in other places will now worry about it happening on their doorstep.

“Fracking is increasingly politically toxic and is far from being seen as the holy grail of energy policy by those local to proposed drilling sites.”

Article source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/28/fracking-expansion-uk-drilling-national-parks-safeguards

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In March, voters in Paris elected Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, to be their mayor, making her the first woman to hold the prestigious post.

Hidalgo, 55, was born in Andalusia, but became a French citizen as a teenager after her family moved across the Spanish-French border. She is a member of France’s Socialist Party and comes from a long line of left-wing republicans, including her paternal grandfather, Antonio Hidalgo, who fled Franco’s Fascist zone in Spain in 1937 by crossing the Pyrenees with his family on a donkey.

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Homesick, Antonio returned two years later, widowed and with four children. He was promptly thrown in jail and given a double death sentence, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.

His children, including Anne’s father, were outcasts in their hometown. The family moved to the French town of Lyon in 1961.

Anne Hidalgo’s parents have since returned to Spain. Her older sister, Marie, manages a company in Los Angeles.

Hidalgo spoke to The Times recently in her office overlooking the Seine.

Does it make a difference having a female mayor?

Paris was ready to have a woman mayor because it is a progressive city that likes to invent and innovate. It’s a mental progression that Parisians have made perhaps in advance of the country as a whole…. I have the impression that the Parisians I meet are happy to have a woman mayor and proud to live in a city where this happened.

Your father and mother came to France as immigrants from Spain when you and your older sister were children and you lived in a housing project. You have said this has given you a unique insight and approach to city problems. How?

I grew up on a working-class housing estate. It had a bad reputation, which it deserved. The flats were run-down and there were no bathrooms or elevators, but it was a happy Tower of Babel. The neighbors were Armenian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, North African. French was the common language that united us. The flats on the estates were like rabbit cages that you just wanted to escape from. It taught me a valuable lesson in town planning and social housing.

There are very rich and very poor areas of Paris. How do you intend to address the inequalities?

There is a worrying lack of housing at a price that is affordable. I will continue building social homes and even secure private funding to create housing at prices people can afford. This was a campaign promise and I have made it my objective…. The social mix comes through housing. It’s the beginning and end of equality.

You took French nationality when you were 14. Do you now feel Spanish or French?

I feel European. I grew up in France, but at home we spoke Spanish to our parents and were raised with Spanish culture, dance, literature, music, all of which I treasure. I go back to Spain often…. The mix of these two can only be positive because the influences bring something new. My success is a little bit like a French version of the American dream. I think of France as a country that has allowed me to integrate, and this is an example for the world. This is the French republican model.

What is the global attraction of Paris? Positives and negatives?

Paris is a historic city with a great heritage. Having said that, the beauty of yesterday should not stop us developing the beauty of tomorrow. It’s a sensitive subject, but there has to be a balance between history and the future, especially when it comes to architecture. Paris has to move forward; it cannot be a museum.

What are your priorities for Paris?

My absolute priority is housing, without which all the wonderful opportunities that Paris has to offer its residents means nothing. I’m also determined to use the city’s capacity for innovation to become more ecological. And lastly, we need to have solidarity with the most vulnerable residents of our city, which in my opinion is the only way we will make any progress.

You went to New York and immediately hit it off with Bill de Blasio. Your sister lives in California. Do you have a special relationship with the United States? What can Paris learn from New York and Los Angeles?

My meeting with the mayor of New York was particularly rich and constructive. Our two leading cities are facing the same problems and have to rise to the same challenges. We are doing so in our own ways, but we have an enormous amount to learn from one another, not just in terms of innovation, but also in wide and various fields, including ecology, transport and even education. If the world’s major cities confront the challenges we all face together, we will send a vital signal to our governments of the way forward.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Article source: http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-france-paris-hidalgo-q-a-20140727-story.html

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For decades, Winston Churchill dazzled the world with his statecraft, military mind and oratory.

Then there was his painting.

For Churchill, art was a passionate hobby. Along with whiskey and cigars, it helped him handle the stress of leadership and cope with the rough-and-tumble of British politics and the crisis of global war.

Article source: http://online.wsj.com/articles/winston-churchill-paintings-to-make-public-debut-in-georgia-1406315524

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