Saturday, November 24, 2018

Georgia (the country) and Armenia - Part II Turkey (the country), Food and Summing Up


We added Turkey to the itinerary primarily because there was supposed to be a new train line running from Tbilisi, Georgia to Kars, Turkey.  The plan was to visit the "ghost city" of Ani in eastern Turkey and then ride the famous Doğu Express train to Kayseri (Cappadocia).  Once I realized the new train was not going to be operating any time soon, I set out to find a bus.  Two different guides told me there was a bus every day between Tbilisi and Kars and after several visits to the tourist information office and the bus station, we finally found the elusive daily bus to Kars.  It turns out that the bus runs from Tbilisi to Tehran and happens to make a dinner stop near Kars.  We had a long but comfortable ride and an easy border crossing.

Ani, the ancient capital of Armenia, was spectacular and the Doğu Express definitely lived up to its reputation.  The views were amazing and the train was very comfortable - our compartment had a free non-alcoholic mini bar and slippers.  Luckily the hour I spent on the phone with US Bank trying to straighten out an issue with my house sale occurred at night so I didn't miss any of the scenery.  Our hotel was nice enough to send someone to pick us up at 2:30 am and the next day we set off for Goreme and the very special Kelebek Special Cave Hotel.

Ani - former capital of Armenia

Scenery from the Doğu Express

I had been to Goreme in 2015 so I hung out in town, did some walking, spent an afternoon hanging out at the pool and had another long conversation with US Bank. We spent a wonderful morning having breakfast at an organic farm owned by our hotel - some of the best food we had the entire trip.

Me on my way to the organic farm - I did not take this picture

From Cappadocia it was off to Istanbul for two and a half days highlighted by breakfast with our cousins and even more amazing food.

Seen on the streets of Istanbul:


The food was outstanding everywhere.  In Georgia we ate lots of khachapuri (cheese pie), khinkali dumplings, sour plum sauce, beans in a pot, ajika (chili paste), amazing bread and all sorts of eggplant dishes with walnuts.  The food in Armenia was also good, especially at our guesthouse, and Turkish meze (best described as small dishes, kind of like tapas) is my absolute favorite thing to eat.  I had a list of food I wanted to try and I was able to find almost everything.

Sulguni -- a seemingly never-ending cheese dish in Georgia

Tashmujabi - mashed potatoes with cheese from the Svaneti region of Georgia

Jengyalov Hats - flatbread with herbs and vegetables from Armenia

Breakfast jams - from the Casanova Inn, Dilijan, Armenia

Fermented watermelon salad with basil and walnuts - Poliphonia Restaurant, Tbilisi

Tavuk Göğsü Tatlısı -- chicken breast milk pudding

Summing Up

  • Great idea -- these kiosks are found pretty much everywhere in Georgia.  You can pay utility bills, purchase bus tickets, buy lottery tickets and place bets all in one convenient location.

  • I would visit all three countries again.  
  • Even though the tourist infrastructure is not great in Georgia and Armenia, we had no trouble finding someone who could find someone to take us where we needed to go.
  • My favorite mode of transportation -- 1975 Russian Volga with 621,000 miles.
  • Most often heard phrases:
                    During Soviet times
                    UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list
                    We were the first country to (insert accomplishment here)                 

  • Read this for an explanation of chicken breast milk pudding: Chicken pudding

Friday, November 2, 2018

Georgia (the Country) and Armenia


I had heard all sorts of wonderful things about Georgia - food, scenery, wine, relative cheapness, etc. so I decided I had to visit.  Azerbaijan and Armenia are close so after consultation with the Internet and my sister, we decided to go to Georgia and Armenia and then take the fabulous new train to Turkey that was (after several delays) due to open in mid-2018.

Pretty much everything in Georgia is no more than two and a half hours from the capital so it made sense to base ourselves in Tbilisi and travel from there.  We spent a couple of days in Tbilisi getting acclimated.  The highlight was a day-long Culinary Backstreets walking tour (they have tours all over the world -  We sampled all sorts of Georgian food and wine, visited a major market, and had an amazing dinner at one of Tbilisi's best restaurants - a perfect introduction to our trip.

Our host on the walking tour looked extremely worried when we told her we planned to take a shared minivan to the mountains so we decided to ask our hotel to find us a driver to take us to Kazbegi.  The main attractions of this part of the country are the scenery, hiking, Gergeti Trinity Church and Rooms Hotel.  I had a problem with altitude sickness several years ago in Colorado I decided to take it easy, stay hydrated, take my altitude sickness prevention medicine, and avoid alcohol. My plan was to sit in Rooms Hotel and look out the window.  That is pretty much what I did.

View of our balcony and our view

We did visit Gergeti Trinity Church and on our last day, we hiked up to a smaller church near our hotel.

Gergeti Trinity Church

Ioane Natlismcemeli

The same driver took us back to Tbilisi for two more nights before our departure for Armenia.  We did a day tour of three attractions outside of Tbilisi, attended Yom Kippur services at the Great Synagogue, and continued to eat.

Mtskheta - Spiritual Capital of Georgia


The night train to Armenia was supposed to be good but it wasn't.  The car attendant yelled at us (and everybody else in our car) more than once but we did get to see Mount Ararat as we approached Yerevan.

Armenia was wonderful and I wish we had spent more time there.  Yerevan is much less hectic than Tbilisi.  We saw amazing illuminated manuscripts at Matenadaran Library and then took a short taxi ride to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum - a very powerful experience.

Armenian Genocide Memorial

Our last day in Yerevan was spent on a day tour to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery.  It was Armenian Independence Day and we spent the evening in Republic Square enjoying the festivities.  There were lots of food vendors and activities for kids as well as music.  Apparently there was a very short fireworks display at 11:00 - I was sound asleep.

Geghard Monastary

Vendor at Independence Day Celebration

Our hostel in Yerevan won the award for worst accommodation so it was a relief to arrive at the Casanova Inn in Dilijan.  Unfortunately, we arrived about ten days too early for peak color season but our accommodations were very nice.  Our host happens to be a talented chef and the meals were amazing (I am doing a separate post on food).  We spent our one day there visiting another monastery, walking half way around a lake, exploring the town, shopping, and relaxing.  There were a lot of cows.

Haghartsin Monastery

I bought Bagratuni Elixir at the monastery which according to the literature "heals the heart and makes the spirit happy."  It is also recommended for elderly people.  I'll let you know how it works but based on what I have read, I am pretty sure it was a bargain at $5.

We hired a car to take us back to Tbilisi for one night where we had yet another fantastic meal.  The next day we set off for Telavi and the wine country.  Our guest house arranged two great day trips.  Our first day we visited three wineries (and two monasteries).  We sampled some really great wine and bought a couple of bottles to take home.  The wine is fermented in clay vessels which are buried in the ground and we learned all sorts of things about the process - the amount of time the wine is in contact with skins/seeds is very important - but overall, I preferred the wine made "European-style."

Wine fermenting in a qveri (clay vessel) buried in the ground

Not even Google Lens can figure out what this is

The next day, we went to Sighnaghi where we had our only day of bad weather.  We couldn't get a reservation at a restaurant we really wanted to try but we did visit the excellent local museum which had a wonderful exhibit of paintings by Niko Pirosmani.   We also went to Bodbe Monastery which was beautiful even through the fog.

Bodbe Monastery - according to our guide, the weather was "not transparent"

We then made our way back to Tbilisi for another fabulous meal and one more day trip - this time to the Davit Gareja cave monasteries.  The roads were terrible and it was too hard for me to climb to the second monastery but it was beautiful and there was a gift shop.  A great ending to our stay in Georgia.

Lavra Monastery

Things I Learned:

  • Georgians and Armenians are extremely proud of their respective countries.
  • Police stations in Georgia have glass walls to symbolize transparency.
  • Police cars in Georgia always have their lights and flashers on so everyone will know the police are there. 
  • If someone hands you a wallet on a public bus, it is not an example of Georgian hospitality.  You are supposed to touch the wallet to the fare box to register payment and then return the wallet.
  • I thought my Coke Zero had been poisoned but then the Internet told me that altitude sickness prevention medicine causes carbonated drinks to taste "unpleasant."

Bonus Pictures:

Gabriadze Puppet Theater - Tbilisi

Sunrise over Mt. Kazbek (picture taken from our hotel room)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Random Thoughts and Summing Up

  • Sometimes a bus, sometimes a minivan. Each bus has stickers on the back window showing which amenities are on the bus - television, movies, bathrooms, WiFi, etc. - none of those things are ever on the bus.
  • Buses in Albania and Kosovo have a conductor in addition to the driver.  The conductor's job is to collect the fare, to let the driver know when to pull off the highway to pick up passengers and to make sure every one gets off at the correct stop - every conductor we had took his job very seriously.  In Kosovo, the conductor had the additional responsibility of passing out delicious hard candy.
  • Sometimes there is only one bus station in a city (usually next to the train station) and sometimes there are several stations in one city - buses from the north station go north, buses from the south station go south, etc. Sometimes the bus stations are very nice with plenty of places to eat (Ruse, Bulgaria) and sometimes there are no bathrooms or ticket agents (Sibiu, Romania). Sometimes there are no stations - you are told to stand in front of a hotel and wait until someone calls out the name of the city you are traveling to. Sometimes the name of a bus station is helpful - south bus station - and sometimes the names are not helpful - Station Q7 in Sibiu and Stations Alpha and Beta in Cluj-Napoca.
  • Border crossings can be very long, especially if your bus has to go into a shed (complete with a German Shepard on a leash that is way too long) so the guards can check underneath the bus and inspect everyone's luggage. To make things even more difficult, there usually are no bathrooms available at border crossings.
  • It is good practice to ask the drivers if they are going to stop for a bathroom break before you board the bus.

7:30 am disco-themed minivan to Romania

Bus Station Q7, Sibiu, Romania

  • I am not a fan of pensions. I would much rather stay in a hotel or hostel with a reception desk. Pensions usually don't have breakfast and you have to set up a time to meet the owner to get your key. Then you are pretty much on your own; it is hard to meet other travelers. There are some exceptions - we stayed in a wonderful apartment in Lake Ohrid. The owners lived in the building and were available to answer questions and fix the WiFi.
  • I love staying in restored hotels, especially when the rooms have not been overly modernized (its OK if the bathroom has been overly modernized).
Jovanovic Guest House

Great Ideas (all from Romania)

Book vending machine

Egg vending machine

Some sort of machine that disinfects bathroom door handles

  • Places - I absolutely loved Albania and I am making plans to return to Shkodra to take the boat ride we missed due to the weather. I would also like to see more of southern Macedonia. I am looking forward to my third visit to Bulgaria and Romania.
  • Hotels - Jovanovic Guest House, Tradita G&T (also has my favorite restaurant), Hotel Evmolpia, Gurko Hotel 
  • Food - burek, now and forever

Victims of Communism Memorial - Bunk'Art 2, Tirana, Albania

Biggest Disappointments
  • Plum dumplings in Brasov.  I was looking forward to having these again but they were horrible.
  • The Holocaust Museum in Skopje and the Holocaust Museum, Jewish Museum and Great Synagogue in Bucharest were all closed for various reasons.
  • When we crossed a border, all the passports were collected by the bus driver who took them to the border agent.  When we were cleared, the driver would choose one passenger to return the passports to the other passengers.  Despite my best efforts to look like a responsible bus rider, I was never picked. 
What I Learned
  • If you are in a city with a US Embassy or consulate, you can get a new passport in 24 hours or less.
  • People in Albania are really nice. We got a free taxi ride in Berat and the city bus in Tirana made an unscheduled stop for us so we wouldn't have to find our way to a museum. 
  • Most people in Kosovo love Americans. A store owner in Pristina refused to let me pay for a couple of apples when he found out I was from the USA.
  • My new favorite adjective/noun combination is "lobby bar."
  • Never go hiking without hiking poles.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Romania Part 2

During the last week of the trip I revisited Sibiu, Sighisoara, Brasov, Bucharest, and Csíkszentsimon, the village where I volunteered as a teacher in 2015. It was sunny and around 72 degrees every day so we did some hiking and really enjoyed each city. Sibiu, Sighisoara and Brasov are great towns to just walk around and explore; there are not many must-see sights, just charming streets, great shops, and amazing food.

Sibiu is beautiful and we stayed in yet another 14th Century guest house. Unfortunately the interior had been renovated with vinyl flooring, generic furniture and an almost unworkable lock - the location was great, however.

Lots of cabbage at the Sibiu Market

Sighisoara, also known the cutest town in the world, requires a lot of climbing to get anywhere.  I think the best way to describe the city is "atmospheric" (Lonely Planet calls it "fairytale-like"). In addition to wandering around (uphill) and visiting the sites, we hiked up to the Breite Ancient Oak Forest. I wimped out on going all the way to the top so I am not sure we saw any actual ancient oaks. Sighisoara also has my favorite gift shop and cafe.

Sighisoara watchtower

Atmospheric Sighisoara street

Breite Forest - halfway up
We took our last bus ride to Brasov. While Susie did the Transylvania castle tour, I took the train up to Miercurea Ciuc and had a wonderful meal with one of the teachers at the village school and her family. I spent the next day visiting the school, helping in a couple of classrooms and walking around the village trying to take pictures through the fog. I also got to meet Ivan, a very cute baby. After a mad scramble across the railroad tracks, I caught the train back to Brasov -- beautiful scenery both ways.

Wooden gate in the village
Brasov was as fun as I remembered and it was nice to be in a real hotel after spending so many days in guesthouses. Our last hike involved taking the telecabina (cable car) up Mt. Tampa and then walking back down on the "serpentine path" which took forever. The views and scenery made it all worthwhile.
Black Church

View from the top of Mt. Tampa.

Halfway down Mt. Tampa

Our last stop was Bucharest, a city I didn't love on my last visit, probably because the weather was awful and I hated my hotel and its location. This time we stayed in a great place in Old Town. It was warm enough to sit outside and eat and we had two full days to walk around. We visited a wonderful gift shop at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, tried to visit a Jewish cemetery (it was closed), went to one last outdoor market, and hung out in a beautiful park. On our last day we were able to see the Choral Temple which has been recently restored and is absolutely beautiful. The Jewish Museum, Holocaust Museum, and Great Synagogue were all closed for a special event -- my second visit to Bucharest and I still have not been able visit them because they were also closed last time. We visited the surprisingly wonderful Kitsch Museum and spent time sampling craft beer and wine.

Fabrica de Bere Buna (Romanian Craft Brew Bar)
What I Learned:
  • That white cheese on the breakfast platter could actually be lard.  It is used as a substitute for butter and it tastes awful. Fortunately, I didn't swallow it.
  • I could live in Bucharest, Brasov, or Miercurea Ciuc.
  • There is a lot of great beer and wine in Romania and we brought back a couple of nice bottles of wine.
  • I once again proved I could live on gogosi (doughnuts with fruit or cheese) and covrigi (pretzels).
  • Romania is a beautiful country and there are a lot more places I need to visit.
Chisignu Park - there is a place for me on that bench

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Romania - Part One

Our last two weeks were spent in Romania and after a very early bus to Ruse, Bulgaria and a very long layover at the Ruse bus station, we arrived in Bucharest.  After an evening wandering around Old Town and we caught the train the next day for Suceava in northern Romania.  We spent three days touring Bucovina and Maramures  - this was the only part of the trip that was a structured tour. Andre was our wonderful guide/driver and because we stayed at one of the tour company's apartments, he picked us up at the train station (getting from train or bus stations to hotels is not always easy so this was a real treat).

Bucovina is famous for its painted monasteries, each distinguished by a representative color. We visited four and they were incredible. The frescoes were painted to teach bible stories to the illiterate peasants and Andre was a wonderful guide - by the time we left, we could interpret the frescoes all by ourselves.

Sucevita Monastery - representative color is green

Voronet Monastery - detail from the Last Judgement

Voronet Monastery - look carefully and you will see 
a soul leaving the body. Representative color is blue.

Moldovita Monastery - look carefully and
 you will see Moses receiving the Ten
 Commandments. I am in the picture too. 
Representative color is yellow.
We had a wonderful two days in Maramures which is known for its wooden churches and according to Lonely Planet, this part of Romania is the home of the last peasant culture in Europe. We arrived towards the end of the peak fall color season and the scenery was amazing.

Making palinka (brandy)

Wooden church

Washing a rug in a river with a stick
We also visited

The Merry Cemetery - famous for colorful tombstones with
illustrated life stories of the deceased, Sapanta

Home of  Elie Wiesel, which has been
turned into a museum of
Jewish culture, Sighetu Marmatiei

Things I Learned:
  • This dessert is really good

Chestnut puree from Cafe Bulgakov, Cluj-Napoca
  • This dessert is really good
Papanasi- fried pastry with sweetened cheese and cherries

  • This is an idea for my tombstone

Georgia (the country) and Armenia - Part II Turkey (the country), Food and Summing Up

Turkey We added Turkey to the itinerary primarily because there was supposed to be a new train line running from Tbilisi, Georgia...