A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

Kutaisi - Bagrati - Motsameta - Gelati - Ubisa - Tbilisi

Four Cathedrals and a large lunch

sunny 30 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Checking in on line for our flight back home tomorrow.

Bagrati Cathedral

The 11th century cathedral, now in ruins, is regarded as a masterpiece in the history of medieval Georgian architecture. In 1692, it was devastated in an explosion by the Ottoman troops, who had invaded the then Kingdom of Imereti. The incident caused the cupola and ceiling to collapse. Little is known about how the cathedral originally looked. Recent renovations and the plan to install a modern lift in the church has displeased a great number of people, including UNESCO, who are threatening to remove Bagrati from its Heritage list. I have to say the ultra-modern steel and glass within the ancient relic looked hideously out of place.

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As we exited the church, a small, friendly commotion was going on between the priest an a young usher, with a lot of pushing and giggling, as the usher was so obviously keen to do the bell ringing. The priest graciously let the young helper win, and the happy peel of church bells, ever increasing in speed, rang out over the landscape.

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Kutaisi

A quick driving tour of Kutaisi took in some of the important sights:

The New Parliament – the president decided to moved the parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi this year (2012), and this building has been the functioning seat of government for a couple of months now, despite suffering unexplained damage.

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The Golden Fleece

Kutaisi was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis, and it was here that Jason stole King Aeetes' Golden Fleece when he fell in love with the king’s daughter Medea.
Although a myth, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece has roots in history: sheep fleeces are still used in remote regions today for collecting gold. The fleece is stretched over a wooden frame and submerged in a stream, where it collects gold flakes floating downstream from deposits further up. The fleeces are then be hung in trees to dry before the gold is shaken or combed out.

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The statue symbolising the Golden Fleece.

Motsameta Church

Spectacularly sited on a cliff-edge, a long cobbled path leads down from the road, crossing the railway line. It was extremely windy here this morning. In order to enter the church, all women must cover their heads and wear a skirt/dress – fortunately they rent out wrap-around skirts.

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According to the legend the monastery was constructed on the place where Muslim aggressors executed David and Konstantin Mkheidze, Georgian princes, who refused to accept Islam. A monastery was built on the site in the 11th c by King Bagrat, and the remains of David and Konstantin (who were later canonised) are displayed in the church. The name means Temple of Martyrs. The church is full of beautiful frescoes, repainted using only natural colours made from ground stones mixed with egg yolks.

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The remains of David and Konstantin

Gelati Academy Complex

King David the Builder began constructing the monastery and academy in 1106 as a grand tribute to his victory over the Turks. The academy was one of the first institutions of higher education founded in the Middle Ages, and became a principal cultural centre in Georgia, with over 1000 students at one stage. Although the academy ceased to function in the late Middle Ages—after which it was converted into a refectory—the monastery remains in use. The site is renowned for its collection of 12th to 18th century mosaics and wall paintings with the whole story of the bible depicted on its walls.

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The academy

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Lunch

“I'll just order a small lunch” Salome said. 'A small lunch' in Georgia includes leek with walnuts, home made cheese, marinated tomatoes and pickles, tomatoes with walnut sauce, potato fries, pork BBQ, corn bread and Georgian bread, calf ribs with spicy sauce, mushrooms in clay pot, a local vegetable salad (the vegetable is called agala and is a little like spinach) and plum sauce. All washed down with pear lemonade, grape lemonade and cream lemonade. No wonder I have not been hungry at any time during our trip!

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Ubisa Cathedral

This 9th cent monastery is dedicated to St George, with its walls completely covered with 14th century murals. The whole life of St George is depicted, as well as general scenes from the Bible. It's a really peaceful and beautiful little church, preserved exactly as it was.

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Sweet Bread

On the way back to Tbilisi we stopped to buy some famous 'sweet bread' – a little like a cake or doughnut with a sweet coating. Very nice. The area we passed through is known for this particular bread, and all along the side of the highway, ladies were waving the loafs to passing motorists, hoping they'll stop and buy.

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ZP Hotel

It is almost like coming home, although I don't think I could live with the 84 steps up to our room permanently. It's our last night in Tbilisi and we just had a quiet night in the Old Town with a meal and a couple of beers. It's an early start tomorrow.

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Night out in Tbilisi

Posted by Grete Howard 12:05 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Abastumani - Vardzia - Kutaisi

Cave Towns, crazy drivers and amazing fortifications

sunny 26 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At 03:30 David woke me up to show me a perfectly clear sky full of more stars than I've ever seen. Typical.

Abastumani Village

First stop of today: Abastumani village to take some photos. The village is charming (read: rickety) and rustic (read: run down), and very photogenic.

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Vardzia

The 12th century cave monastery excavated from the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain is one of the highlights of the trip so far (along with the observatory last night). It is very different from the cave town we visited yesterday, and incredibly impressive. What we see today is a mere shadow of what it was like in its heyday – when everything was covered and invisible to would-be invaders. In its time, there were 13 storeys and over 3000 caves, but an earthquake in the 13th century destroyed nearly all the outer walls, exposing the carefully hidden caves. Over 800 monks lived here back then, now only six remain.

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I am everything a visitor to this place should not be – fat, unfit, claustrophobic and with a bad knee. Salome took us through narrow tunnels with steep, narrow, sloping steps, with low ceilings. Oh, and did I mention it was dark? To say I was scared is an understatement – but I am so glad I did it! It really was awesome!

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Fortifications

This whole area and valley in particular is dotted with fortifications, some of which have been beautifully restored, other are completely run-down and very little known about them.

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Suspension Bridges

Not many vehicular bridges cross the river, but there are plenty of gorgeous suspension foot bridges such as this one.

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Once we turned off the road towards Kutaisi, we joined the main highway to Turkey, and it was full of trucks and other vehicles. We saw some really crazy driving and several near-misses; and were very grateful we have such a careful and considerate driver in Temo.

Ceramic Market

Last stop of the day was in the ceramic market at Shrosha – this area is known for its excellent clay and every few hundred yards a market along the side of the road sells pots, jugs and souvenirs made from clay.

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Argo Palace

Tonight's hotel is a small guest house with wonderful views across the town – shame about the other extremely noisy guests. I hope they don't continue their drunken singing and clapping all night.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:07 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Gudauri - Gori - Uplistsikhe - Abastumani

Stalin, Cave Towns and the Moon

all seasons in one day 12 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

My deodorant decided it didn't like the altitude, and exploded on me this morning – the roller ball shot off across the room, spraying sticky, but nice smelling goo all over me, the floor, the settee, the bed, the table..... At least this room won't have a BO problem for the foreseeable future.

We had a very disturbed night, one way or another, what with the dog opposite the hotel who went barking mad every time a car passed and the heavy rain on the metal roof outside our window, the huge hailstones, the thunderstorm, the lightning briefly kicking out the electricity several times in the night (thank goodness for the surge protector plug!) and the seven visits to the loo with diarrhoea. That'll teach me drinking mineral water straight out of the ground!

With all the rain we had, it is not really surprising that there was a landslide in the night. The road to the pass (that we took yesterday) was closed, which meant a long line of traffic (mostly Russian cars and trucks) at the police post.

The new president brought in a police reform in 2003 after the Rose Revolution, and decided all police stations should be made of glass for transparency. Shame the same thing didn't happen in the prisons.

Gori

On the way to Gori we passed very close to the South Ossetia 'border' and the huge refugee camps for displaced Georgians after the August War in 2008. EUMM vehicles can still be seen patrolling the area to monitor the situation.

Joseph Stalin Museum

The museum was built during the Soviet era, and the local guide was quick to point out that there were no displays covering the 'Dark Times' of Georgian history, although the cultural minister is in the process of adding further exhibits to show a more balanced picture to counteract the propaganda and falsification of historical events. The museum is dedicated to the life of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, who was born in Gori. The museum is a fascinating time capsule of Soviet propaganda in similar style to other communist idol-worship museums we've seen (think Kim Jung il).

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The exhibits are divided into six halls in roughly chronological order, and contain many items owned by Stalin, including some of his office furniture, his personal effects and gifts made to him over the years. There is also much illustration by way of documentation, photographs, paintings and newspaper articles. The display concludes with one of twelve copies of the death mask of Stalin taken shortly after his death. The mask is much smaller than natural size, as the size diminished a little with each copy.

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In the grounds is a small wooden hut, in which Stalin was born in 1878 and spent his first four years. Stalin's family only occupied one half of the small house, with his father,a local shoemaker, having a workshop in the basement.

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To one side of the museum is Stalin's personal railway carriage. The green Pullman carriage, which is armour plated and weighs 83 tons, was used by Stalin from 1941 onwards, including his attendances at the Yalta Conference and the Tehran Conference. It was sent to the museum on being recovered from the railway yards at Rostov-on-Don in 1985. From the outside it is very inconspicuous and it was considered much safer for Stalin to travel this way, almost incognito, than to fly. Inside it is really quite comfortable, although not luxurious.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The name literally means "the lord's fortress", this ancient rock-hewn town
contains various structures dating from the 2nd millennia BC and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture. Mostly bare inside, you can still make out the theatre, pagan temple, private houses with gardens etc.

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Scrambling up over smooth rocks dotted with modern staircases, we were really grateful the rain had stopped, although it was still very, very windy.

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Lunch

Another amazing lunch in Gori, where we were able to watch the local stone baked bread being made in huge kilns – fires are lit in clay pots, and when the charcoal is just glowing at the bottom and the sides of the pot are very hot, bread dough is stuck on the inside walls, a lid put on and after 15-20 minutes, delicious fresh bread is brought out.

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Borjomi Park

On the way to Abastumani we stopped in Borjomi Park, part of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park for a walk. The area has long been known for its curative waters, and is full of beautiful old buildings which once housed sanatoria. Now you can buy empty flagons outside for filling with the healthy water, although there is a huge factory producing 561,000 bottles of the stuff annually. The volcanic water comes from 1.5 kilometres under ground, and on its way up passes through soil enriched with many minerals.

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Sanatorium

Still having the runs, I have spent the day testing out the various toilets of the area, and had a very urgent mission to see the inside of the facilities in the park. I could hear the lady door attendant shouting something as I rushed in, but I was in no state to stop and find out what she wanted. Just as I was crouched over the hole in the ground and let rip, I heard the word “madame” and saw a hand appear under the door with toilet paper. Perfect timing!

Political Rally

We'd seen the 41 signs on hillsides, houses and cars, but never understood what it was. 41 is one of the political parties – there is a general election on October 1st – and today there was a major rally. Dozens of cars, from party 41 as well as 5, and they were driving two abreast on the dual carriageway, lights flashing, horns blaring and huge flags displayed. Temo (our excellent driver) took the opposite side of the carriageway to get around the traffic jam – fortunately there is very little traffic about.

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Abastumani

The road to the observatory and 'hotel' where we are staying was a spectacular ascent on a recently resurfaced road with amazing hairpin bends. The lodgings are basic but perfectly adequate, and the fact that we are staying in a working observatory more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Abastumani Observatory

Abastumani Observatory was founded in 1932 on Mount Kanobili, near the spa resort of the same name The altitude of Mt.Kanobili is 1650 to 1700 m. above sea level and the site was selected due to the high transparency of ambient air and clear night sky over 250 days a year. Tonight was not one of those 250, but we went along to the observatory anyway. The telescope is enormous, a 40cm refractor-scope. Nice Mr Scientist showed us how the roof split open – to reveal a sky full of clouds. The floor moves up and down and the telescope swivels. We all looked up at the sky with the naked eye, wishing the clouds to move away. Suddenly Salomeh spotted a star, but by the time Mr Scientist pointed the scope at it, the clouds had covered it. This repeated itself several times until the moon decided to check out what was going on, and peeped out from behind the cloud. WOW WOW WOW Seeing the moon through such a powerful telescope was a breathtaking experience, and a new one for us. Through one of the eye pieces you could see the whole moon (or rather the half a moon that was visible), and through the main scope you could make out individual craters. WOW WOW WOW Thank you nice Mr Scientist.

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There is also a museum on site, highlighting the construction and history of the observatory, which we took a look at before walking through the national park back to the hotel. A barking red fox upset the cows as well as the local dogs who set off it hot pursuit. I hope this doesn't go on all night...

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Meteorite in the museum

Posted by Grete Howard 09:38 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Tbilisi - Jvari - Mtskheta - Ananuri - Gergety

Autumnal colours and moving experiences

all seasons in one day
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

In the building site next to the hotel, are four cute little puppies. Well, they are cute until they start barking at 04:00. Yawn.

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As this is the last two-nighter on our trip, we sent a few items to the laundry in the hotel, and it was all there when we got back last night. Still wet and a different colour from it was at the start of the holiday. Oh well, I didn't like that bra anyway...

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The bra was white, now a blue-charcoal-grey

Jvari Church

On this location in the early 4th century Saint Nino, a female evangelist, erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. The current church is said to be constructed between 590 and 605, the name is translated as the Monastery of the Cross.

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Mtskheta

This is one of the oldest cities of the country of Georgia, and the whole area is under restoration (really?), with lots of souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and even little golf carts to ferry lazy tourists around. The whole old city has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. This is where Christianity in Georgia takes its origin.

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Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The name means literally, "the Living Pillar Cathedral": in the 1st century AD a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elias bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia who upon touching the robe immediately died from the emotions engendered by the sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it. The place where Sidonia is buried with Christ's robe is preserved in the Cathedral.

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Sidonia's Grave

Later, from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. Ordering the cedar chopped down to build the church, St. Nino had seven columns made from it for the church’s foundation. The seventh column, however, had magical properties and rose by itself into the air. It returned to earth after St. Nino prayed the whole night. It was further said that from the magical seventh column a sacred liquid flowed that cured people of all diseases. In Georgian sveti means "pillar" and tskhoveli means "life-giving" or "living", hence the name of the cathedral. The current building is from 1010 AD and is a very sacred place to the Georgians. It has a very special feel about it, and even for an agnostic like me, the place blew me away. Most other churches we have visited on this trip I have been ready to leave and move on; but here I could have stayed for hours. It surprised me greatly that I actually found it quite emotional.

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Georgian Military Highway

From Mtskhete we took the Georgian Military Highway into the mountains. This is a major route through the Caucasus and it follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders throughout the ages . The road runs for 208 kms from Tbilisi in Georgia to Vladigavgas in North Ossetia – it was begun in 1799 and much improved after Georgia was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1801 when Tsar Alexander I ordered improvement of the surfacing of the road (they had restoration even back then!) to facilitate troop movement and communications. The road is said to be one of the most dangerous highways in the world, and I can see how this reputation has been gained.

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Jinvali Reservoir

On the way we stopped at Jinvali, the youngest reservoir in Georgia. Built in 1971, it provides 13.8 million kilowatts of electricity, mainly to Tbilisi. The waters are also used for drinking, as well as being full of trout.

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Ananuri

Ananuri Fort, dating from the 16th - 18th centuries stands in an important and strategic location.

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The Church of the Assumption, built in 1689, has richly decorated façades with the fine relief carvings featuring human, animal and floral images, including a carved north entrance. It also contains the remains of beautiful frescoes, although a vast number of them were whitewashed on the orders of the Russian Emperor in 1779.

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Gudauri and beyond

The area around Gudauri is a popular ski resort, most famous for heli-skiing. The road from here onwards got worse and worse, with more potholes than road at one stage, and enough hairpins for Lady Gadiva.

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The dramatic surroundings are wild and desolate, but beguilingly beautiful. The autumn colours are very much more advanced here than in Armenia, and glowing yellow birches appear to cling to the sheer rock face.

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Many tunnels line this section, all built by German Prisoners of War during WWII. Nearly all of them are currently under restoration. Of course.

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A huge grotesque Soviet memorial stands on a prominent outcrop to commemorate 200 years since the signing of the treaty between Russia and Georgia in 1783. It seems so terribly out of place surrounded by all this pristine and majestic natural beauty.

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Jvari pass marks the highest point on the Highway, at 2395 metres above sea level. Just a small obelisk marks the spot, although the graves of the German POW are nearby.

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The Kazbegi region is rich in minerals, and a sulphur spring near the road side has become quite a tourist attraction. Very close by is an iron rich spring, whose water is said to be very good for you. With a taste that disgusting, it would have to be miraculous!

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Gergety Trinity Cathedral

Our final destination for today, was the 14th century Gergety Trinity Church, impressively situated against the background of the majestic snow-covered Mount Kazbegi. To reach the mountaintop is a 2-3 hour trek or 30 minutes by Jeep. We chose the latter, as it was raining, cold and getting late. Plus we saw how steep is was.

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We are jolly glad we did, as the track (if you can call it that – I have seen smoother dried-up river beds) is extremely steep. The so-called crash barriers amused me – yellow plastic tape with the words POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS written on it. I have absolutely no desire to cross it; although I don't think it would do much good if I was so inclined.

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It is also a stunning drive, with a sheer drop one side, overlooking the village; and the whole hillside covered in bright yellow trees. At one stage we were driving through a yellow 'tunnel of trees' with leaving trailing down like snow flakes. Salomeh likened it to the road to heaven, and I hope she's right.

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At the top the Gergeti Trinity Cathedral greeted us with driving rain (I can't believe we left Tbilisi in sweltering sunshine this morning, and here I was cold in a fleece and rain coat!) and a sign stating NO PHOTO. Our hearts sank. You mean we'd travelled all this way for two-and-a-half bone-rattling hours for this? Our spirits were lifted when we entered and found a baptism taking place – we felt very honoured to be part of such a special event. An extremely frisky dog had us all giggling like school girls as we left. No female was safe from its advances.

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The sun decided to make an appearance when we got back down to the 'lowlands' and the car, making for a beautiful drive back to Gudauri for dinner and overnight in a ski lodge. They cheekily charge (and quite expensive too!), for the wifi, so you are lucky to be reading this!

Posted by Grete Howard 10:59 Archived in Armenia Comments (2)

Tbilisi

Celebrating St Mary and cleansing away our sins - or at least dirt...

sunny 32 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It always takes a day or three to develop a rapport with your guide and driver; and just as I was feeling comfortable with Jenna and Artijom, we changed over. In the car from the border, Salomeh was telling us about the 16 ex-USSR states and I corrected her to 15. She insisted it was 16 until I listed the 15 and asked her to name the 16th. Which of course she couldn't so she suggested she would google it when she got home. Maybe not a good start...

Georgia

Legend has it that at the beginning of time when God was giving out land to the nations of the world the Georgians were too busy drinking to attend. Arriving late, God was angry and asked why they had dishonoured him so; there was now no land left to give them. But the Georgians replied that far from dishonouring God they were late because they were drinking to His health and this took some time. God was pleased by their answer and so gave them the tiny bit of land he had been keeping for himself.

Tbilisi

According to Georgian legends, it was founded in the 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali who, while hunting, shot a pheasant which fell into a warm spring and was healed. The king was inspired to found a city on the site, and the name of the city derives from the Georgian word tbili meaning "warm". Although the city has been destroyed and rebuilt some 29 times, the layout of the Old Town is largely intact with narrow alleys and big crooked houses built around courtyards. It appears that the entire town is “under restoration”, just like “it's closed” was the refrain for Armenia. I think in five years' time this will be the new 'in' place to travel for a weekend. It certainly ought to be.

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The king himself

Metechi Church

Today is the anniversary of the birth of St Mary, and is considered a very special religious holiday, so Metechi (dedicated to St Mary) church was full to bursting with parishioners. 80% of Georgians are practising Orthodox Christians. The church was built between 1278 and 1284. It is a somewhat unusual example of domed Georgian Orthodox church which in the later part of Soviet period was used as a theatre.

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Sulphur Bath Houses

The bath district is called Abanotubani and a long time ago the people not only washed themselves there but also socialised sometimes until dawn; and the city matchmakers arranged presentation of marriageable girls on special days. In the baths they threw parties, made deals. The baths consist of separate booths with individual small pools filled with hydro-sulfuric water. Just sit in such water - and all diseases will be gone. And after the special massage you will feel like you are born again. So Salomeh promises.

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Mosque

Built in 1811, this is the only remaining mosque in the city still functioning. Here, sunni and shiite Muslims pray together. About 400 Muslims still live in Tbilisi.

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Narik Ala Fortress

Not just the first fortress in Tbilisi, but also one of the oldest buildings in town, with its origins dating back to the 4th century BC. In its heyday, the defence walls were 1 kilometre long with 70 watch towers. Somewhat more modest these days, the fortress is certainly still very formidable.

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St Nicholas Church

The church of St Nicholas is only about five years old, and the inside is covered in beautiful frescoes. The previous church on this spot was used as a gunpowder store during Soviet times, but an explosion and subsequent fire completely demolished the church. The current church is one of the most important churches in all of Georgia.

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Armenian Church

The 13th century church looks nothing like any of the churches we saw in Armenia – it is very much more decorated inside and none of the cross beams holdings the domes that we became so used to seeing.

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Synagogue

Georgians have a good friendship with the Jews, up until 1991 there were 21,000 Jews in the country. Now only 3000 remain.

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The walking tour continued through the old town, with Salomeh enthusiastically explaining to us about all the sights we passed, such as the old tram car, the statue of a popular Georgian actress and the 16th century caravanserai.

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Sioni Cathedral

Bears the name of Mount Zion at Jerusalem, which was the place St Mary slept forever. It was initially built in the 6th-7th centuries. Since then, it has been destroyed by foreign invaders and reconstructed several times. Inside you can find a huge chair for the caotholicos patriarch to sit on, as well as graves of several previous caotholicos. Lots of devotees and priests milling around, one who was on his mobile phone – did he have a hotline to God?

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The driver was meant to pick us up and take us to the restaurant for lunch, but for various reasons we ended up walking there instead. I was surprised at how many beggars we have seen in the city.

Lunch

Lunch was very good – their traditional cheese pie (khachapuri) and the khinkali (a very tasty meat dumpling). The driver showed us how to eat the dumplings like a Georgian - with your hands, biting off one bit then sucking the juice out, and leaving the knot at the top.

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State Museum of Fine Arts

The Museum houses more than 38 900 items, fortunately we only visited three sections: the treasury with ancient gold items including jewellery, the occupations museum and a new exhibit of oriental art in Georgia. This is one of the largest museums in the country, and very modern, even though it was of course under renovation. I was really amazed at the intricacy of the 2500 year old jewellery more than anything.

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Bath and massage

Salomeh arranged a private room for us in the sulphur baths this evening – neither of us really knew what to expect, and we were both a little apprehensive. It was a new experience for both of us. The large tub was filled with water that was way too hot for us to enter, I expect it was around 45C or so. I managed half a leg. We'd also ordered a massage, which was in essence a good scrub, all over with plenty of lathering. Any ideas I had about preserving my modesty went out of the window. Women get a female masseuse, men a male. David's butcher, I mean masseur, turned the heat of the water down to around 40-41C which made it bearable to get in. A cold shower then chill out and get get dressed in the very posh anti-room, complete with comfortable arm chairs and A/C. I have never felt so clean in all my life.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:16 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Tbilisi by Night

fabulous lights, overzealous security guards and surly waiting staff

sunny 29 °C
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As daylight was fading and the artificial lights came on, the view from the balcony made us think that it was worth taking a tripod and heading for town. And boy was it worth it! I love, love, love Tbilisi by night. It's such a vibrant city, so much creative use of lights on bridges, buildings and statues. Apart from almost being run over by a police car and being questioned on the bridge by a security guard as I was setting my tripod up, the evening was uneventful.

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Salomeh recommended a restaurant with a couple of nice terraces overlooking one of the squares, so we headed for that. There appeared not to be any free tables on the terrace by the entrance, so we wandered inside and stood around in the lobby looking lost, with at least seven waiters rushing past, totally ignoring us. Eventually we asked one of the waitresses if there were any tables upstairs outside, and she just screwed her face up, shrugged her shoulders and pointed upwards with one finger. “Check for yourself”. That's when we decided to take our custom elsewhere. We found a nice little place with upmarket seating and cute waiters. The food was good, as was the service, and they had free wifi. Result!

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:33 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

Drozaget - Sanahin - Haghpat - Tbilisi

It's that ABC feeling.... (another bloody church!)

semi-overcast 29 °C
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Appropriately, Artijom was playing the song “Georgia on my mind” when we got in the car this morning.
The road followed the river down through the stunning Debet gorge, clinging to the hillside with a sheer drop one side. I have re-named Artijom our 'one armed bandit' because he just uses one hand when driving, usually the left hand at two o'clock on the steering wheel, and my heart misses a beat every time he lets go of the steering wheel to move his hand across as we are hurtling towards a hairpin bend at 80 km/hr.

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Sanahin Monastery

The 10th century structure was probably covered with frescoes inside at one point, though none remain now.
Several grave stones of important noblemen, clergymen and priests can be found in the floor of the church, it was believed that – unlike many places were stepping on top of graves is considered a sacrilege - the more people stepped on their graves, the more their sins will be forgiven.

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Haghpat

ABC. “Another bloody church”. I'm sorry, but the various styles of medieval religious architecture is becoming a little lost on me, and the names of the saints, sinners (or maybe not after we stepped on their graves), kings, priests and architects are dancing around in my brain to different tunes. By the time we visited the last vestibule, it was just another huge, grey stone building..... I'm sorry Jenna.....

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Construction of the main church of the large fortified monastic complex, dedicated to the Holy Cross was completed in 991 and there is a fresco here, although that is of a much later origin (13th century).

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Sanahin and Haghpat were important centres of learning, housing some 500 monks, and bear eloquent testimony to the highest achievement of Armenian architecture. They are both UNESCO Heritage sites and are being lovingly restored as we speak.

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Lunch

Another enjoyable BBQ lunch in a local restaurant (this area is known for its excellent grilled meats), followed by some heavy debates covering areas such as the history of the Jews, the place of the British Royal family in modern society, American politics, the Knights Templar and the afterlife.

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An hour's drive took us to the border with Georgia, where it was time to say goodbye to Jenna and Artijom and take the long, lonely walk across the bridge to the Georgian side. Funnily enough the Armenian side was quite run down, dirty and tatty, whereas the Georgian side was modern, clean and very welcoming.

A new driver, a new guide and a new car. All three are very different: Jenna was 55 going on 75, whereas Salomeh is 24, very petite and pretty; and the driver, whose name I am still not quite sure of, is somewhat rotund and homely, unlike Artijom with his lean physique and cute looks. David's turn for the eye candy.

It seems that one-handed driving and last minute swerving is the driving style around all these parts, but at least this car is very much more modern and comfortable. It even has airconditioning.

The approach to Tbilisi consisted of narrow country lanes with more cows than cars for the first few miles; then wide, fast avenues with huge, grey Soviet housing blocks either side.

Our hotel, the ZP (named after the initials of the local sports star owner) is on a hill within the old city, in the middle of a large area of reconstruction work. We have a large balcony overlooking the old town – it would be awesome but for the dust from the building works and 29C we are currently having.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:29 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Dilijan - Hagartsin - Goshvahank - Dzoraget

More monasteries, praying for Burberry and enjoying the local food and wine

semi-overcast 22 °C
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Haghartsin Monastery

Set in a beautiful wooded valley, Haghartsin Monastery dates from the 12th and 13th century, with various buildings added at different times. Most ancient Armenian Monasteries are sparsely decorated inside, and this one is no exception, although there were some intricate carvings outside the church. Tastefully restored, it was incredibly peaceful with just the four of us there.

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At the back of the cathedral is a 500 year old oak tree, with the centre of the trunk hollowed out. The name Haghartsin means “game of eagle” after an eagle was seen flying round and round over the monastery when it was being built, which was believed to be a sign from heaven.

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On a small hill near the monastery is another prayer-bush – it seems this year's fashion for prayer ties is Burberry, or of course stocking. They have to be skin coloured though.

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The forests around this area are famous for white truffle, apparently Italians come here with sniffer dogs to seek them out (not the usual pigs as they tend to eat too many of the expensive fungi). Most of the truffles end up in restaurants in France or the UK. At 400-500 Euro a kilo, I suppose it is quite a lucrative business.

Half way down the hill, a huge truck had stopped, smack bang in the middle of the road, and the driver was at the side of the road, drinking from a spring. Apparently the water here is known to be very good for you, although not good for the traffic jams.

Goshavank Monastery

We weren't so lucky at Goshavank Monastery, with three large bus loads there when we arrived. It was the noise that first struck me! What a racket! Fortunately they were all just about leaving (with time for shopping – thank goodness we are on a private tour so we don't have to wait for others to shop!)

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The impressive monastery which has remained in relatively good condition also houses one of the world's finest examples of a khachkar – a carved cross stone.

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We got somewhat lost from Goshavank on the way back to Dilijan. Artijom was looking out for signs showing which way to drive, but the only ones we could see were for various PECTAPAH – the Russian for restaurant. Eventually, we stopped and asked someone, and it turned out we'd been driving in the complete opposite direction, heading for Georgia.

Lunch was in a very nice private home complete with a vegetable garden, orchard, chickens and ducks. Lunch was of course chicken, amongst lots of other things. They have certainly fed us well on this trip. We had three different salads, some very tasty deep fried cabbage, aubergine with nuts, stuffed potato, stuffed peppers with rice and cake. And plenty of home made wine and vodka.

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Just an hour's drive took us to Dzoraget for our night stop. A very classy looking hotel on the banks of the river.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:33 Archived in Armenia Comments (1)

Yerevan - Lake Sevan - Dilijan

Books, Lost Stockings and Babushkas

sunny 23 °C
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Matenasaran Manuscript Museum

The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts holds one of the world's richest depositories of a collection of nearly 17,000 manuscripts and 30,000 other medieval documents and books which span a broad range of subjects, including history, philosophy, medicine, literature, art history and cosmography in Armenian and many other languages.

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The English speaking guide did not turn up as promised at 09:30, so Jenna did her best to explain the exhibits to us. Only one room was open to the public, which was just as well, I didn't fancy trawling through 30,000+ books.... A large group of German tourists plus a bus load of French more than filled the room, making it difficult to get to see the exhibits. So glad we're not in a group.

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The oldest book in the museum is from the 5th century, and the oldest printed book from just a mere 30 years after the very first book was printed in Venice. When you think how old those colourful illustrations are, and how painstakingly each had to be produced by hand, it becomes quite overwhelming. I am fascinated with the Armenian alphabet with its 39 characters, some of which may have a slightly different intonations as far as the Armenians are concerned, but sound the same to me. Jenna has been trying to teach me a little every day, but I am struggling to get my tongue around some of their sounds. They also don't have different words for he and she, so Jenna often gets confused, and as a result so do we. Musical notes are also different in Armenian to the ones at home.

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Lake Sevan

The road to Lake Sevan was surprisingly good – wide, smooth and comfortable. Sevan is the second largest mountain lake after Lake Titicaca in South America. At 1,900m above sea level, the air is much cooler than back in Yerevan – which was just as well for climbing the 321 steps to the top of the peninsula.

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Sevanavank Monastery

Originally made from three churches in 874, the monastery was built on an island. Receding waters in the mid-twentieth century created the current peninsula (see explanation below). Two churches remain, St. Arakelots and Astvatsatsin. The island monastery was, used both for worship and pilgrimage, and as a place of exile for Armenian noblemen who had fallen into disgrace as well as sinner monks to cut them off from as many worldly pleasures as possible.

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Further along the peninsula is a couple of Cross Stones at the site of an ancient chapel, with a tree where devotees have tied handkerchiefs and bits of cloth in order to make a prayer and wish for good luck. I have to say the bits of stockings amused me.

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In 1910 one of the civil engineers behind the interventions that caused the Aral Sea disaster, suggested the lowering of Lake Sevan's surface to 45 metres and the use of the water for irrigation and hydroelectricity. The Armenian Supreme Soviet approved the plan without consulting the local people, and major work started in 1933. The water level then began to fall by more than one metre per year to a total of 19m. An ecological disaster like in the Aral Sea was avoided when the Stalinist era ended in 1956 and the project and its consequences were reviewed thoroughly. There are current plans to bring the water level back up by several metres over the next 30 years.

Numerous beaches line the lake shore. The resorts are popular with young Iranian tourists who come here to party – drinking, dancing and generally letting their hair down (literally for the women) without the restrictions of their homeland. Exiled Iranian bands come here too to hold performances for Iranian youth who travel across the border. The Ayatollah regime have gotten wise to this, and occasionally make raids and arrest the 'offending' youths.

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I was really excited to be served the famous Sevan Lake Trout for lunch, and baklava for dessert – another favourite.

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From the vegetation sparse area of Lake Sevan, we made our way through a 2382m long tunnel and came out the other side to a thick forest with rich flora and fauna. It looks like the trees are trying on their autumn fashions, with a few red and yellow dresses here and there.

Dilijan

Spectacular hairpin bends brought us down to the spa resort of Dilijan. Called by locals the "Little Switzerland" of Armenia, the forested town has some great examples of traditional architecture of the region with a street having been preserved and maintained as an "old town Dilijan", complete with craftsmen,s workshops, a gallery and a museum.

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Only the ceramics workshop was open (I think the phrase “It's closed” is the refrain for this trip...). It was run by a mother and her son (or 'his' son as Jenna explained) – the mother was the archetypical Russian babushka, rotund with all her front teeth capped in gold (a sign of wealth in the old days). We bought a mask for our ever-growing collection.

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The Dilijan Resort Hotel is a strange mixture of upmarket luxury, run down shabbiness and retro chic. From the elegant and spacious lobby, you have to take the steps either up or down to reach the lifts on the mezzanine floor. Same when we arrived at 'our' floor, we were half a floor up. Must make it difficult for the porters with all the luggage. The room is large, with a very 60s coffee table and a huge balcony overlooking the forested hillside. Always eager to please, Jenna left us with her and Artijom's telephone number – just in case we decided we wanted to do something or go somewhere this afternoon. We did want to do something – have a drink on the balcony and just chill, enjoying the fresh forest air.

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An 'interesting' coffee table...

Posted by Grete Howard 07:44 Archived in Armenia Comments (2)

Yerevan

Sombre reminders, car running boards, fat bosoms and goats' nipples

sunny 36 °C
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Yerevan

One of the world's oldest cities - founded in 782 BC when Carthage was very young and Rome was out of the question, Yerevan was known as the 'Pink City' during Soviet times due to the colour of the stone used in construction. The city lies at the foot of the mount Ararat forming the shape of a Roman amphitheatre.
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Yerevan with Mount Ararat in the background

==Republic Square==
The oval shaped square (!) has a stone pattern in the centre, meant to look like a traditional Armenian rug from above. We could see it last night from the roof-top restaurant. The statue of Lenin used to be located in the southern end of the square, but when Armenia regained its independence, the statue was brought down and now lies in the grounds of the adjacent museum.
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Republic Square

==Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Museum==
Jenna decided to start this morning's tour of Yerevan at the Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking the town, as it would be unbearably hot later. Good call, as it was already unbearably hot before 10:00.

Stark and austere, the memorial pays tribute to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide that was carried out by Turkey. The 44m stele symbolises national rebirth of Armenians, the circular construction of 12 slabs represent 12 lost provinces with an eternal flame in the centre. A sobering reminder of national tragedy for the Armenian people, Jenna became very aggrieved and emotional when telling us about the atrocities and the impact on her family and the ongoing horrors, even today.
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Construction of the memorial began in 1966 (during Soviet times) in response to the 1965 Yerevan demonstrations during which one million people demonstrated in the city for 24 hours to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Genocide.
Along the park at the memorial there is a 100 meter wall with names of towns and villages where massacres are known to have taken place. On the rear side of the commemoration wall, plates have been attached to honour persons who have committed themselves to relieving the distress of the victims during and after the genocide.

There is also a museum on the site, with many pictures and personal stories (including from Jenna's family), and I don't know whether I was disappointed or relieved when we found out the museum was closed today (it's a public holiday today) – I was already pretty choked up...

The Cascade

An enormous white stairwell built into the hillside, replete with flowing water fountains to mimic a natural cascade, and full of museums, it was of course closed today, There is a nice garden at the bottom, full of modern sculptures; all belonging to one man who's baby this complex is. The statues are so valuable, there are security guards all over the place.
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==Gelato==
Really feeling the heat by now, we stopped for a gelato and an iced tea. I am enjoying the relaxed pace of today after the rushing around we did yesterday. Back in the car, Artijom did not notice I was still trying to get in when he drove off, with me still having one foot on the ground outside. Giant skateboard spring to mind, or maybe the Flintstone car...
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Artijom and his coffe gelato

==Food Market==
After a four course lunch in a traditional Armenian Restaurant, we visited the food market. If we'd known how friendly the stall holders are, we needn't have had lunch – at every stand we were given bits of fruits and nuts to taste. Mostly dried, but also fresh. The most interesting was probably the dried tomato stuffed with walnuts in honey. There were also some intriguing elongated grapes known as 'goat's nipples', and everyone wanted us to try something, insisting even when we said we were full and weren't going to buy anything. Lots of greens – the Armenians are so keen on greens (we saw parsley, sorrel, chives, coriander, celery, basil and more), there is a saying that if the Armenians stopped eating greens, it would grow to waist height all over the country.
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Dried fruit

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Dried tomato stuffed with walnuts and honey

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Armenian greens

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Goats' nipples

==Metro==
Four guards at the entrance to the underground stopped me to ensure that I did not take photo in the station or on the train. They checked my camera bag, but appeared not to notice my large rucksack. I'm not terribly keen on steep escalators, and this one was was much faster that any I have been on before, making me feel very unsteady on my feet when I first got on it. It seemed to go on forever before reaching a long, large tunnel. The stations all have artwork at one end, huge vaulted ceiling and are almost deserted, much like the ones in North Korea.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the very global Cinnabon restaurant, with free wifi for me and lots eye candy on the pedestrianised avenue for David.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:13 Archived in Armenia Comments (5)

Ripsimeh, Ejmiatsin, Zvartnots, Garni, Geghard

Churched out already?

sunny 33 °C
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Armenia

Armenia is not only the first ever Christian state (around 300AD) but also one of the earliest countries on the ea]rth - already in the 9 th – 6 th centuries BC the powerful state of Urartu existed on the territory of Armenia. We always knew this trip would be full of religious architecture, but I hate to admit I am getting a little 'church weary' already after the first day. Today we visited four church complexes (each with a handful of churches) and a pagan temple.

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As we were early for the liturgy at Ejmiatsin, we stopped at another important church – the Ripsimeh Cathedral. Before it became a state religion in Armenia, preaching Christianity was a criminal offence and anyone caught doing so would be tortured and killed. That's exactly what happened to Ripsimeh, who was buried here and after her death was canonised and a cathedral built in her honour in 618AD. Inside the church you can see her grave and the stones which killed her are on display in a niche in the wall.
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Ejmiatsin
Today is a religious holiday (don't ask me which one, as I never did catch what Jenna (our guide) was saying) which meant two things: Ejmiatsin Cathedral was full of worshippers as well as tourists; and the Caotholicos was likely to make an appearance. Ejmiatsin is the holiest of holy for Armenian Christians, and this is where their head of church (Caotholicos - their equivalent of our Archbishop of Canterbury) resides. Although the church is pretty old (the oldest place of worship in Armenia, built in 303), the most interesting part of our visit was meant to be the liturgy (the traditional service performed by a choir) but turned out to be two old men. The church was pretty atmospheric, with devotees of every age and status lighting candles and the monks in black robes with pointed hoods processing through the church.
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There was a rumour that the big man himself was going to make an appearance (that is the Caotholicos, not JC) and so everyone hung around outside the church, including one old chap who was getting more excited than a child at Christmas. He was driving all the officials crazy with his badgering and touching of the monks and robed priests (or whatever they were, I didn't learn to differentiate the different outfits). Eventually the cavalcade of monks, priests and the head honcho appeared and the buzz was electric. The elderly devotee was bouncing off the walls at this stage and when his time came for the Caotholicos to bless him, he grabbed his arm and was kissing his hand. The look of sheer bliss on his face afterwards brought a tear to my eye and totally made my day!
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The look says it all....

Zvartnots Cathedral
Leaving the hustle and bustle (and thousands of tourists) of Ejmiatsin behind we headed to Zvartnots Cathedral, which we had completely to ourselves until two large bus loads of French arrived just as were leaving.

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A UNESCO Heritage Site, Zvartnots was built at a time when much of Armenia was under Byzantine control by the Muslim Arabs between 641 and 653. Zvartnots remained standing until the end of the 10th century but historical sources are silent as to the cause of its collapse. The ruins of Zvartnots remained buried until its remains were uncovered at the start of the 20th century. The setting is stunning with the awesome Mount Ararat in the background (on the slopes of which The Ark (of Noah fame) is said to have come to rest).

Mount Ararat and Charents, the poet.
Mount Ararat has always held a special place in the heart of Armenians, and although historically being in Armenia, the snow-topped peak is now on Turkish soil, much to the sadness of the Armenians (a very sore point in these parts). Charents, a famous poet, had a favourite viewpoint overlooking the mountain from which he would compose many works. An arch stands on the spot now with a few words from one of his poems: “You can walk around the world but you can't find any mountain whiter than Ararat”
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Lunch and Sour Grapes
We took lunch in a leafy courtyard shaded by apple and walnut trees and surrounded by grape vines. There is nothing fresher than picking your own grapes – nice, sweet moscato grapes straight from the vine. Artijom (our driver) prefers white to red grapes, so went searching for some grapes more to his liking. Unfortunately they were not quite ripe - more a case of sour grapes. Quite a spread was laid on for us: lavash (the local thin flat bread), cheese, olives, tabuleh, roasted vegetables, salad, grilled chicken and potatoes and a plate of what we would describe as herby garnish – dill, basil, flat leaf parsley and chives. All followed by a delicious cake called gata and some thyme tea.
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Garni Temple
High above the spectacular Azat River Canyon stands the 1st century Greco-Roman temple made out of basalt and adorned with Ionic columns.
Once part of the summer residence for the Armenia Kings, Garni was the only pagan temple allowed to stand when Christianity was introduced to Armenia. Lovingly restored in 1976, it includes a bath complex with a well-preserved hypocaust and Hellenistic mosaic floors in a locked building which our guide had the key for (good on ya Jenna!).

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Geghard Cave Monastery
This was our fourth UNESCO World Heritage Site today - is that some sort of record. Partially carved from solid rock, the monastery is famed for its incredible acoustics. The complex was founded in the 4th century at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave and the springs are still a site of pilgrimage for a lot of local people.
Built in 1205 , the spear which wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion was kept here (brought to Armenia by Apostle Jude) This made it a popular place of pilgrimage for Armenian Christians over many centuries. Out the back is an area where animal sacrifices are performed to give thanks for various life events. Fortunately not today....

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Singing Fountains
Having read about the sound and light show at the fountains in the main square, I was keen to make sure I was there at the right time. The website said 22:00 for the display whereas Jenna suggested it started at 21:00. We made our way down towards the square as soon as we arrived back from the tour, first having a beer in a pavement café right on the square, then walking around trying to find somewhere to eat, when David spotted a rooftop restaurant with superb views of the fountains. The restaurant sported a 27 page menu, but in the end we went with the recommendations of the waiter – who incidentally spoke next to no English. The food was good (a steak with cheese sauce and a traditional Armenia lamb stew) and at 20:30 (they both got it wrong!), the show started! Like fireworks with water, it was really quite impressive and we had grand circle balcony seats.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:32 Archived in Armenia Comments (1)

Bristol - London - Yerevan

Just arrived....

23 °C
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In all our years of travel, we have never seen Heathrow so quiet: not a soul in the check-in area (other than us and the staff of course), no-one in front or behind for passport control or X-ray. Apparently that is quite normal for a Saturday morning in Terminal 1.

It was our first time with BMI and I can't say I was that impressed – it was probably the most uncomfortably hot flight ever! The first time I asked them to turn the heat down I was told it was because we were in one of the first rows after business class. The second time the attendant said it was as a result of us sitting near the engine. Please staff, don't insult our intelligence!

Another first for us on this trip was an electronic visa. We organised it all on line, and expected to sail through the passport control here in Yerevan; so I was rather surprised when she asked to the hard copy of my e-visa. Oh well, we were still through and out of the airport before the time we were due to land.

The hotel is very centrally located and we have a massive suite. A quick drink in the bar (or it would have been quick if the service had not been so incredibly slow) and then to bed. It's now nearly 01:00 here in Yerevan. Goodnight all.

Posted by Grete Howard 13:42 Archived in Armenia Comments (0)

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