Farewell to the city of blinding lights

Ah, beware the kindness of friends… Planning my journey to Paris three years ago for the game which would go down in infamy as the one touched by the ‘Hand Of Gaul’, I cheerfully followed the advice of a colleague and booked into what sounded like a nice, friendly, conveniently located hotel on the left bank of the Seine.

And, indeed, it was all of those things but also much, much more, as became immediately apparent when I opened the door to my room and saw that the bed cover was turned back and the sheet and pillow liberally strewn with red rose petals. Such a welcome, let me assure you, is not the norm for us football-following warriors of the road. It turned out that we had ended up in a boutique hotel which, upon further investigation, unashamedly proclaimed its status as “one of Europe’s premier love nests”. And, yes, thanks for asking, we’re still very happy together and planning to go back for the anniversary.

Then there was our trip to Kiev last December for the Euro finals draw. Again, an enterprising colleague had sourced what sounded like ideal lodgings for our humble needs, but what the official website somehow neglected to inform us – even in the attractive photographs which must have been taken from some very astute, not to say acrobatic, angles — was that the hotel was actually a boat moored on the river, reception accessed by a gangplank and the rooms no more than moderately enhanced versions of ships’ cabins. Ah, the glamour of it all… So, now fast-forward to our voyage to Astana this week, a city located a mere 3,000 miles, an entire continent and five time zones away from our departure point in dear old Dublin — I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Again, a few of us took our lead from a colleague who’d appeared to hit pay-dirt on the internet — a hotel located “just 800 metres” from the football stadium in the Kazakh capital. Bingo! We all piled on.

Cut to Thursday morning, round about 6.30am, as we arrived bleary-eyed after a six-hour overnight flight from our connecting airport of Frankfurt. Making small talk with the helpful woman behind the desk, I ventured to ask for directions to the nearby football ground. She appeared bemused. A football ground? Within walking distance of the hotel? No, she really didn’t think so.

And she wasn’t wrong. But then nor, in a manner of speaking, were we. Because there was indeed a football stadium about 800 metres from our hotel — a homely little place where Second Division side Astana 64 play their games. Whereas what we were looking for was the 30,000 all-seater, spanking new national arena — which, you won’t be surprised to learn, turned out to be across the river Ishim on the other side of town.

In a city where official taxis are rare to non-existent — which would explain the widespread practice of locals flagging downprivate cars and doing on the spot deals for lifts — being “inconveniently located”, as it were, has one upside, because having to pound the pavements can’t help but leave you with an eye-popping, close-up impression of one of the weirdest capital cities in the world.

Actually, your first sense of the uniqueness of the place comes from the air. Flying in at night, you could be travelling over an ocean for all the evidence of human life below, as the vast Eurasian steppes roll by in the endless black. Then, suddenly, a dazzlingly bright patch of illumination looms out of the nothingness — the island universe of Astana.

Designated as the country’s new capital in 1997 and powered by the mighty petrodollar, Astana has been likened to a space station on the steppes, but even the most obvious of sci-fi clichés can scarcely do justice to a city which has undergone the world’s most spectacular architectural makeover, transformed from a crumbling Soviet-era provincial town into a futuristic and wholly idiosyncratic mix of Las Vegas, New York, Hong Kong and the Gulf States. With a bit of Disneyland thrown it for good measure.

All is soaring concrete and steel and glass split by long, wide boulevards, the skyline a Manhattan-lite but with such a profusion of exotic shapes as to make London’s Shard look positively run of the mill. The styles employed are a mish-mash of everything, from the Presidential Palace which apes the White House — but with a gold dome, naturally — to the self-explanatory Pyramid Of Peace, to the Baiterek Town slap bang in the centre of the city, a towering tulip-shaped affair cradling a glass and aluminium ball at its top. Even something as routine as a recently opened shopping mall is housed in a leaning triangular construction designed to echo the famous yurt, the traditional tent-shape dwelling of steppe nomads.We popped in one afternoon for a spot of lunch but didn’t have time to check out the indoor beach housed just beneath the apex of the roof.

If possible, Astana is even more startling by night, artificial trees glowing in the dark and every other building splashed in luminous colours and sparkling lights. You know those houses at home which go all out at Christmas to be gaudier than the rest? As a city, Astana has taken that impulse to its logical conclusion and, depending on the eye of the beholder, the effect is either magical or migraine-inducing. Either way, you don’t forget it in a hurry.

But it’s in the nature of the football writer’s beat to be able only to dip a toe in whatever waters we happen to visit. And our next port of call on the World Cup road could hardly be more different, the world’s newest capital city, Astana, giving way to the world’s smallest, Torshavn.

Needless to say, I’ very much looking forward to our trip to the Faroe Islands, and especially keen to see what our hotel on the Galapagos will be like.

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