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)

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