Shades and Notes of Autumn and Wine [Georgia]

Travel

October 21, 2018 – The Heart of Tbilisi

The third leg of this trip, after time in Azerbaijan and Armenia, ended in Georgia. We had originally flown through Georgia from Azerbaijan to get to Armenia but returned to actually spend time and explore the former Soviet republic. To no one’s surprise, many assumed I was headed to the U.S. State of Georgia to spend a weekend in Atlanta, however, I was halfway across the globe A bit of fun history, the country of Georgia is rumored to be named after St. George, whereas the American State of Georgia is named after King George II.

We had an early morning flight from Yerevan, Armenia, to Tbilisi, Georgia. We had a pleasant experience at Yerevan’s airport, however, after lifting off on the flight, the door to the cockpit flung open and kept flapping back and forth – not too many people seemed concerned. The 30 minute flight had us in Tbilisi in no time, a taxi took us to our Airbnb near the city center and Liberty Square, and my travel partner Robyn and I spent time researching Tbilisi before setting out. Liberty Square is a roundabout with a fountain and a monument with a gold bust of St. George slaying a dragon.

Liberty Square & Monument

Out we went to explore the city of Tbilisi. We passed by Old Parliament, where there was a demonstration outside with posters depicting the EU and US flags – not sure what was going on? Anyway, we kept going to 9th of April park. Eerily enough, my exact birth date is a nationally-known day of importance and sadness in Tbilisi. On April 9, 1989, an anti-Soviet demonstration was gruesomely dispersed by the Soviet Army, and 21 Georgians lost their lives. The day was seen as fuel of opposition to Soviet power, which led to Georgia’s declaration of independence two years later on April 9, 1991. It’s now a public holiday called The Day of National Unity. The memorial park itself is serene, with several bust statues and greenspace.

After spending some peaceful moments in the park, we came across the Dry Bridge Market, a collection of vendors selling antiques, artwork, knickknacks and old Soviet paraphernalia. Across the city, you’ll see steeples poking out through the skyline, a real indication of Georgia’s 80%+ Orthodox Christian following. Walking alongside the Mtkvari River, we reached Rike Park, a public park that includes elements of a modern city, including modern art and a performing arts center. Just across The Bridge of Peace is a stark contrast, the Old City of Tbilisi. There are local sentiments regarding the modern bridge and park, but I see it as a nice balance between the history and future of the country. On this busy Sunday in the park, we crossed the bridge to a walk back in time.

Hanging on long strings in nearly every local food shop is one of Georgia’s most unique and mysterious icons, churchkhela. The main ingredients are grape mash, nuts and flour, and locals make these by dipping a string of walnuts into thickened grape juice and then drying it in the sun. At the end, they look like sausages on a string, a strange sight for tourists who don’t know what they actually are! Robyn and I tried a bit of one, and were concerned about the need for a dentist, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Near our Airbnb was the Galleria Mall, where we bought some winter clothes for really cheap, which would come in handy in Chicago. I bought a winter coat, three sweaters and a winter hat for under $100 USD! Most items are really cheap in Georgia, even compared to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Also in the mall was a grocery store, where Robyn and I bought a medley of vegetables and some local wine, all for $14. At our Airbnb, we made a lovely dinner of fresh roasted vegetables and toasted to the first night in Tbilisi.

October 22, 2018 – The Height of Autumn

After sleeping in well beyond normal, Robyn and I headed back toward the Bridge of Peace to the cable station, where we would take a cable car ride ($2 lari) to the top of Narikala Fortress. The views from the top of the city were incredible, where you’re able to see both the modern and old parts of the city, the Mtkvari River and beyond. I highly recommend spending time to do this in Tbilisi.

Also at the top of the city is the Mother of Georgia statue – she holds a bowl of wine to welcome but also holds a sword to fend off enemies. On the opposite side of the fortress is the botanical gardens, an incredible view of the October autumn colors that had a variety of conifer, deciduous, flowers, streams and waterfalls. The views and crisp weather reminded me of a beautiful autumn day in the Midwest.

We started to descend down from the mount, and reached the Tbilisi Central Mosque (Juma), a rare mosque in which Shia and Sunni Muslims pray side by side. A beautiful bright blue mosaic facade with intricate patterns was a key reason to visit this site.

Just a few hundred feet away from the mosque was the Orbeliani Baths, a series of communal baths that pulls its waters from natural sulfur springs – smells like rotten eggs but many people swear by its natural healing abilities. We did not attend and instead treated ourselves to a fruity frappe at a nearby ice cream shop.

It soon started to rain quite steadily, so we made our way through some side streets back to the grocery store to grab more vegetables, cheese and wine to enjoy a nice rainy evening inside with music. Throughout the day, I remember telling myself how nice, welcoming and helpful the Georgian people were. It felt wonderful to be in a place where we knew no one but felt all the familiar autumn feels.

October 23, 2018 – Leave the Road, Take the Trails

What was next? Well, Georgia is a decently-sized country, so we wanted to explore the breadth of what it had to offer. Early in the morning we transferred to the airport to pick up our rental car, a silver Toyota Corolla with a few evident scrapes and dings (which I don’t mind because the bar has not been set high!). After switching the GPS from French to English, I took the wheel and exited the airport to the main road. It’s always a crapshoot how driving customs and norms will be when Robyn and I get behind the wheel in a foreign country. I soon found out that passing is so nonchalant, as drivers will turn a two-way highway into a three lane situation. Like most foreign countries, we passed through several roundabouts and were overtaken by many speed demons. We headed east to the far east border of Georgia, alongside the northwesternmost part of Azerbaijan. The roads were nicely maintained, and we passed through the towns of Sartichala, Bakurtsikhe, Anaga, Sakobo and then to our destination, Lagodekhi. We arrived around noon and stopped in the town to get snacks (almonds, chips, water, fruit). The local clerks were really confused to see foreigners.

Robyn and I are not avid hikers, climbers or athletes, however, we do enjoy walking and exploring. This day, we went to the Lagodekhi Nature Reserve to do some nature walking. First, we went to the info center, where the guides were really helpful in choosing a trail. We decided to take the “Black Grouse Waterfall Trail Hike,” which had yellow marks to guide us along the way and assumed to be a 4.5 hour excursion.

The first part of the walk was quite flat, extremely quiet and peaceful except for the crunch of autumn leaves as we passed. The trail changed from dirt to rocks from time to time, testing our ankles and balance. Nearby was the Shromiskhevi River – as we reached an area without any more yellow marks, we contemplated, “Do we keep going on the hill, or are we supposed to ford THAT river?” Well, we found out it was the latter. Parts of the river were dry enough to easily climb over the boulders, however, there as an area of fast-flowing river with only a few peeking stones to make it across. With lots of communication and courage, we both managed to make it to the other side (luckily there was virtually no one at the park to see this!).

From there, the trail became harder and harder. (Revert back to when I said Robyn and I are not avid hikers). As I alluded to, we only saw around 10 people at the nature reserve the entire day. After making it across the river, the demands of the trail were often unrealistic for us: steep hikes, full of timber, branches, vines. There were many moments when the trail only allowed for the width of one foot, with a steep fall in our peripherals. What kept me going was the fact that there was a “prize” at the end – the waterfall. The trails going up steep inclines continued, and often I had to hold on to roots and vines to allow me to overcome a step. Two friendly dogs randomly met us and lifted our spirits. Robyn, who is not a fan of heights, stopped and waited near the peak of the difficulties, and I asked a random hiker passing by how long until the waterfall. She answered, “Only 10-15 more minutes.” In my head, I adjusted that to allow for about 30 minutes given my mental state. I continued, as Robyn waited back with the company of the dogs. The last 10 minutes were the most difficult, but I started to hear the crashing of water, the adrenaline kicked in, and I made it to the waterfall with jubilation. The beautiful fall colors and refreshing mist made it all worth it. There was one guy sitting at the waterfall, so I asked him to take photos of me to document this achievement, and I returned the favor to him.

I quickly made it back to Robyn, and we both were ready to retrace the trail, which was much easier this time. We made it back at 5:12 p.m., which means we did the trail in 3 hours, 57 minutes, faster than the estimated 4.5 hours! Maybe we are eligible to be avid hikers after all?! Honestly, I was really proud of Robyn for doing such a challenging trek, which is not easy for someone uneasy of heights.

Only five minutes away was our Airbnb, one of the most unique Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. It’s situated right near the nature reserve in a rural area. As we approached, chickens and dogs roamed free in the garden, where the host grew fruits and vegetables. The host, Ketevan, made us some tea, and we chatted with her lovely neighbors. The Airbnb had small rooms with rough showers, but after a long hike, it was enough.

Airbnb at Lagodekhi

October 24, 2018 – To Western Georgia

Roosters and dogs. Not the ideal alarm clock for me, but it was effective. The springy beds popped us right up for a fresh breakfast made by the host, including an omelet, fruits, vegetables and tea. We packed up our things in the Corolla, and I took the wheel again back the same route, which was easier this time with a bit of familiarity. Georgian roads have cameras everywhere, so I was always conscious of speeding, even though everyone else was clearly raging the roads. Similar to our hike, we retraced the trail back through Tbilisi and headed west this time through the towns of Norio, Mtskheta, Samtavisi, Agarebi, Zestafoni, then to our destination, Kutaisi. The highways were nearly perfect, so smooth, and we were able to drive a higher speed on them. Robyn and I swapped spots near Gori, which was in-between Samtavisi and Agarebi.

There’s something about being behind the wheel on an open highway with incredible views. Robyn and I didn’t have cars in our home country, so this was a rare occurrence for us to experience the feeling. From time to time, we’d see vendors alongside the road, who strangely all coordinated by category. We’d see a bunch of bread vendors, then a few miles later we would see ceramic vendors, and then basket vendors, and so forth.

Upon arriving in Kutaisi, it was noticeably smaller than Tbilsi, which only a fraction of the population (150k). It had started to rain, and we were looking for our Airbnb, which took some time to find. We finally found it, parked and then brought our things inside. Well, I know I just wrote that the Airbnb in Lagodekhi was the most unique one yet, but this one in Kutaisi may take the cake. It was a spacious Airbnb with several connected rooms (great), however, it may be one of the creepiest places I’ve been. In each room there were old hospital beds that had been converted into cribs with creepy old dolls. The lighting and wallpaper were dim enough to make it seem like the set of an 80’s horror film. The doors creaked when you moved them, but they also slightly creaked with the movement of air.

Eager to get out, Robyn and I researched places to eat in the town and found a lovely restaurant, Sapere. It made dim lighting well more romantic than our Airbnb and specialized in local Georgian wine. We tried the Imereti wine; Imereti is a region in western Georgia. For the meal, I enthusiastically tried a local cornbread called “mchadi” with cheese – perfect for my gluten free diet. Also in my selection were pumpkin soup and potatoes tossed in dill, one of the most delicious meals I’ve had.

Everything was a bit dim from then on. We walked back to the Airbnb in the dark of the poorly-lit city. Trying to open the gate in the dark with the key trembling in my hand would have made for a great rising action segment of a film. No interesting part to this movie, however, but we made it inside and locked and closed all the doors and curtains. It’s funny how darkness itself can cause the mind to stress, even though we were in one of the safest countries in the world.

October 25, 2018 – A Bazaar, Gloomy Day

Well, we survived night 1. Daylight was welcomed, and we started to get ready, but unfortunately the water heater was not working, so we waited a while until the repair man came. We set out to see the town of Kutaisi under an overcast, rainy sky. The city center had lots of renovation projects, but the Rioni River was a beautiful sight to see in autumn. The biggest energy of the town is the Green Bazaar, where vendors of all types sell local goods, foods and products. We stopped by Tea House Foe-Foe for a morning meal and tea before exploring the small Kutaisi Park and Fountain. The Opera House was also nearby, but we did not go in. We went back to the Green Bazaar to check out some more shops, and we were near the end of our tour when we heard commotion in a small side street that the vendors used. To our shock, we saw a man on the ground not moving and people surrounded him. It was hard for us to tell what was going on because women were shrieking in desperation and men yelled in Georgian. In the surroundings were fruit carts along the cobblestone street with vegetables all over the ground – it looked like medieval times. People put cardboard underneath the man to support his body until the ambulance came. Watching reenactments from the locals, we derived that the man slipped on the wet street and hit the back of his head on the stone. What a scene.

Inspired by our cablecar trip in Tbilisi, we decided to take the 1960’s cablecar to the top of the hill in Kutaisi, Besik Gabashvili Park. After arriving, you enter Besik Park, a park full of amusement rides that had no visitors that day. It again had an eerie feeling – dark, wet, run down rides with no people in sight. From there, we walked about 15 minutes through local neighborhoods to Bagrati Cathedral, an 11th-century cathedral at the top of Ukimerioni Hill. The view from there was incredible, overlooking the town and beyond.

Nearby, we stopped at a bar/restaurant and had some afternoon wine. They were out of most things, and we kept the pour going until they ran out! You could see the young servers going to find a new pitcher of wine from somewhere to keep business going. Rain started to come down heavily, so we spent more hours there until the rain dropped off (and so did we!). We traced our steps back to the cable car park to take a ride back, but there were no workers and it was closed, so we had to find an alternative route, to walk down to the city.

For dinner, we ate at Papavero, where I had some more mchadi and a pork chop. Nightfall began to set in and we walked back home in light rain. About three blocks until our Airbnb, the heavens opened and buckets of rain fell on the town. We started to awkwardly run through the drainless streets, and because it was so dim, it was hard to see the potholes in the road before submerging our feet in them. This time, my hand shook again when trying to open the gate with the key, rushing to get inside as quickly as possible. We sighed heavily as we got inside, completely soaked to the core.

But, the power was out. Yes, the power was out in our creepy Airbnb while we were completely soaked. I stripped down to my underwear (also wet) and sat with Robyn hoping that the lights (not even sure I would designate them as “lights”) would return. We called the Airbnb owner, and she said the rest of the city had power. Well, not us. We waited a while until people came to check the situation. And in my horror movie fantasy, the knock on the door in complete darkness was perfect for the movie set. Our phones were nearly empty of battery, and luckily the power came on just in time for bed.

October 26, 2018 – Free-Spirited in the Final Day

I’m still here writing this, so the horror movie wasn’t successful. We were excited to leave the creepy place, so we got ready and jumped in the rental car as soon as possible. Several of our clothes were still soaked, so we laid them out in the rental car as if it was a clothes line. The ride back east to Tbilisi was refreshing, town by town passing, each alongside the valley of a river. We stopped in Zestafoni (interesting name that sounds more Italian than Georgian) to grab a coffee alongside the road. The drive back to Tbilisi was easy, but once we got into the capital, that all changed.

We unfortunately arrived on a Friday at rush hour. People were always merging lanes, honking and throwing their arms out the window to signal displeasure or self-direct traffic. I could feel the stress from Robyn as we tried to navigate the traffic together to get back to the airport. We got back to the airport to return the car, which was no problem. Remember those speed cameras all over the place? Well, we were caught one time, which was a 50 lari fine ($19 USD) – not bad, so we’ll take the ticket as a souvenir and memory.

Our final Airbnb host picked us up at the airport and took us to the place near the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi, the other side of the city compared to where we stayed at initially. We walked back to the Old City for some souvenirs and got some wild blackberry and saperavi jam. For dinner, we ate at g.Vino, a lovely wine bar near the Bridge of Peace. I of course had the mchadi again and fkhali, a mashup of beetroot, nuts and other leafy vegetables – very delicious! For the main course, I had veal in curry walnut sauce with polenta. To no surprise, we maxed out on another bottle of affordable Georgian wine.

Inspired by our drinking, Robyn wanted to get some wine to take back to the U.S., so we stopped at a wine shop and sampled a few that the drunk owner suggested. He asked where we were from, and he raved about Chicago. After Robyn purchased her wine, the owner said something about hooking us up with some “chacha,” so the clerk got out a few shot glasses and filled them with a clear spirit. Apparently “chacha” is a 70-proof pomace brandy made during the winemaking process. I could smell the alcohol from afar and both of us were hesitant to partake, but we said, “Oh well, it’s our last night in Georgia, let’s do it.” It burned like vodka on the way down, like breathing fire. The owner then said, “Oh wait, you’re not finished. We always take two shots.”

Needless to say, we felt quite warm when leaving that place. Robyn turned to me, “What the hell just happened?!” Laughing in unison during the walk back to the Airbnb, we enjoyed our final moments in autumn Georgia.

October 27, 2018 – Nachvamdis!

We left really early for the airport the next morning. Because it was sunny, I realized I left my nice sunglasses in the rental car we had returned yesterday. I hurried to the rental car place and called the guy (who was not working) to see if he could call to see if my sunglasses were still in the car. In true Georgian fashion, he drove from the city to the airport to help me find them at the rental car cleaning facility. It was so nice of him to do this – all to help me get a pair of sunglasses. (True Georgian spirit!) Robyn and I waited a while and jumped on the Turkish Airlines flight back through to Chicago.

Georgia, what an incredible breadth of nature and history and a bright future ahead. I was so impressed with the hospitality of the locals and how I was able to experience autumn in a familiar, but certainly different way. Georgian food – surprisingly fitting for my diet and palette, and Georgian affordability, also fitting for my palette! Georgia has gone through many turbulent times in its history and still faces separatist movements within its borders, and I will never forget that my birth date means much more to the Georgian people in its move for independence. Overall, an incredible region was the Caucasus, and I recommend being curious enough to explore its gifts.

Full of wine and full of happiness.

-Michael

Etched in Religion and in the Heights Above [Armenia]

Travel

October 16, 2018 – Possibly the Most-Eventful Drive, Ever?

The sun had set on our time in Azerbaijan, or should I say, the “fire had been put out?” The Caucasus region required Robyn and I to research our travel routes in detail, avoiding all obstacles where possible. In my Azerbaijan blog, I referenced the bit of dispute between the region, particularly between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Because of this, we needed to fly through Georgia in order to enter Armenia, as there were no flights between Azerbaijan and Armenia due to dispute. The flight to Tbilisi was quite quick (one hour), and our driver Artak was waiting for us to make the drive to Yerevan. We decided it was economical and convenient to hire a local driver to make the trek from Tbilisi to Yerevan.

After all, it was autumn. Hours in the car on paper sounded potentially gut-wrenching, but quiet time with the windows cracked while we toured the countryside of rural Georgia was quite the opposite. We passed buildings that looked like they’d been vacant, run down from years of harsh weather. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for Midwesterners without a bit of road construction, which littered our trip through the towns of Marneuli and Sadakhlo. From time to time, we’d see cars and trucks alongside the road selling the latest autumn fruits and vegetables. Artak purchased a large box of persimmons and gave Robyn and I some to try. I wasn’t very familiar with persimmons – they weren’t something we had growing up. They were so delicious, almost a mix between a pear and peach. Eventually we reached the border with Armenia, which required us to get out of the car, walk to a building for passport clearance and then jump back into the car on the Armenian side.

Within the first mile of entering Armenia, we encountered a semi-truck flipped on its side – a bit eye-opening for a welcome! The road Artak took on our way to Yerevan contoured the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If you zoom in on a map, you can see the numerous enclaves and exclaves near the border. The tension was certainly felt on this route. We passed many military trucks and personnel, defending the territories and keeping the peace.

Peace was something nature always had. The beautiful mountains turned with fall colors made the trip easy to pass time. I gazed out of the window only to see Artak slow down quickly, and then I noticed an old Soviet car completely flipped upside-down in the middle of the road. A semi-truck, and now a car?! Luckily the driver was okay, and it was right next to a gas station. We pulled over into the gas station to get gas (Artak was also making transactions for bulk toilet paper and paper towels for some reason). While Artak did his business, Robyn and I got out for a quick casual cigarette and watched a group of old men hover over the flipped car. It reminded me of old men from the coffee shop with nothing better to do, having a debate about what actually happened in the accident.

Soon enough, we were on the road again, driving through towns of Berdavan, Koghb, Voskevan, Voskepar and Kirants (look these up on a map and you’ll see the border situation). Not even a mile from the town of Azatamut near the border, we became stalled in traffic. A traffic jam in rural Armenia? We assumed it was just a quick wait, but then noticed a group of Armenian soldiers talking and walking back-and-forth between cars. Artak, our driver, did not speak great English, so he tried to use his phone to translate for us. We were not able to see what was going on ahead because there was a hill. After about 30 minutes, I asked further what was going on. It was a little bit tense knowing that no one was getting out of their cars and with military involved. After a while, Artak got out and asked what was happening – apparently there was a protest going on a mile or so ahead demanding the resignation of the mayor a nearby town. You wouldn’t believe that we sat there for 1.5-2 hours until we were able to move. We also didn’t have any food besides a can of Pringles, a Coke and a couple persimmons.

Once we got moving, sunset was approaching, and I started to doze off after a full day of riding in a car. We passed Lake Sevan on our way to Yerevan, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. We arrived at dark in Armenia’s capital to a great Airbnb and a fabulous bathroom with *water pressure*. Depleted from little food and drink, we searched where to grab a bite to eat and landed on Cafe Central, where we enjoyed some chicken and vegetables, pumpkin soup and local Armenian wine. Night in Yerevan reminded me of the Balkans – dimly lit, the swirl of cigarette smoke and shadows of old buildings and centuries of history.

October 17, 2018 – Yerevan’s Core

We slept so well that night to say the least. We didn’t have too much of an itinerary for Yerevan, so we planned our day after some quick research. That’s one thing that I love about trips with Robyn. We both go-with-the-flow but also know what each other likes and doesn’t like. This day in Yerevan was spent enjoying the city’s iconic monuments:

The Opera Theatre – opened in 1933 and hosts opera and ballet performances. In front is a statue of Aram Khachaturian, a Soviet American composer and conductor.

Yerevan Cascade – under sunny skies, we walked to Yerevan’s most iconic landmark, the Cascade. The Cascade is a giant staircase of five levels made of limestone and contains multiple circular- and semi-circular-shaped fountains. We walked all the way to the top, with breaks of course. A large museum complex is planned at the top but is still unfinished.

Victory Park – Once you get to the top of the Cascade, you can cross a skybridge to the other side on the hill, which led us to Victory Park. Victory Park didn’t quite have the vibe to ladder up to its name, however, it has quite an interesting story. The park was developed and named for the victory of the Soviets over Nazi Germany in World War II. At the opening of the park, a huge statue of Joseph Stalin was implemented. 12 years later in 1962, the statue was dismantled and a statue of Mother Armenia was installed, where it still stands today overlooking Yerevan.

Matenadaran – we went back down the Cascade and over to the Matenadaran, which is a museum and repository of ancient manuscripts.

Can you believe it was just time for lunch? I had a refreshing salad with a “sea buckthorn” lemonade, yet another plant I had not encountered. They are tart berries that grow on a shrub and known as a superfood.

Republic Square – after lunch, we walked south to Republic Square, a beautiful central town square surrounded by pink stone buildings and intersected by a huge fountain. There were quite a bit of people out on Sunday, enjoying the weather and views of the fountain while also grabbing some Armenian flag-colored ice cream. The cornerstone of the town square is the history museum, which we did not browse, but I heard it was really spectacular if you have time. A local mentioned that they just discovered the world’s oldest shoe in one of Armenia’s many caves!

Sharhumyan Park & Children’s Park – a short walk from the city square. It was a nice place for locals to relax and take kids. Many old men with newspapers, just as you see in the movies.

Vernissage market – this is a recommended market in Yerevan for local art, including paintings, carvings and carpets. Right next to it is Garegin Park, where you can enjoy some quiet time with friends or family over a coffee or treat. After a while of people watching, we noticed that men greet other male friends with a peck on one side of the cheek. Lots of old men also hung out together and men in general walked in pairs. We also noticed throughout our day bandages on women’s noses – apparently Armenia is well-known for rhinoplasties (aka “nose jobs”).

In day one in Yerevan, we covered a lot! We saw most of Yerevan’s key sites and capped it off with a dinner at Mamoor, a European-fusion spot with our favorite, local wine.

October 18, 2018 – Monastery “Game Drive”

Many of Yerevan’s treasures are scattered from end to end of the country, so we knew we needed to spend some time exploring the historical markers from the region. The day before we had booked a day tour with a private driver. Our driver Artur and accompanied guide Armena picked us up at 8 a.m., and we set off to explore Armenia’s southern charm.

Mount Ararat – about an hour south of Yerevan lies Mount Ararat, a large, dormant snow-capped volcano across the border into neighboring Turkey. You can actually see Mt. Ararat quite well from the city of Yerevan, however, we were able to see it much clearer as we were at the border of Armenia and Turkey. Mt. Ararat is seen as sacred to many Armenians, as it is considered the resting place of Noah’s Ark. The tale says that Noah’s ark carved the shape of the side of Mt. Ararat and Noah chose to settle there. Mt. Ararat interestingly sits near a quadripoint of Turkey, Armenia, Iran and the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan.

Khor Virap – our actual first destination of the tour was one of Armenia’s most iconic monasteries, Khor Virap. Its name literally means “deep dungeon,” as it was used as a prison for those who were spreading Christianity. The ruler of Armenia in the late 200 A.D. (this is old, people!) followed a pagan religion and didn’t want his advisor, Gregory the Illuminator, to subject him to his Christian beliefs, so he sent him to prison here. Gregory was placed in the dungeon without food or water for 14 years and did not die, as it was said a local Christian widow was feeding him. Everyone assumed he died, but when someone went to check, he answered and was taken to the king. The king declared Christianity the religion of Armenia that year in 301 A.D., making Armenia the first declared Christian nation in the world. Cool stuff! I walked down the ladder to the dungeon myself – it was quite dark, cold and eerie.

Mountains & Terrain – Most of Armenia is mountainous, and we certainly felt that throughout the remainder of the trip. The roads would curve in and out of mountainsides, up and down, back and forth. The roads were paved but in quite poor condition. Robyn and I had a flashback to our time in Africa from the “massage” of the road, and we also made jokes of calling this trip a “game drive” of monasteries. At this point, we were at 7.

Near Areni – Near the town of Areni we stopped alongside the road at a fruit vendor named Ana. She had fresh peaches, apples, pears, grapes and more, which were the most delicious I have tasted! We also noticed she had colored juices in recycled soda bottles. I asked what this was, and she said that they make their own wine and they reuse plastic bottles to sell it. We were lucky enough to try her freshly-made apricot and pomegranate wines, two new drinks I’ve never had before. Both were very yummy, especially the apricot wine. Armenia is well-known for its wines and for pomegranates for both food and drink but also in local culture and symbolism. Before we left, Ana gave us a sack full of peppers she had grown even though we insisted we didn’t need them – the people were so welcoming here.

Noravank – Our next stop turned right off the main road to a path surrounded by caves and steep mountains. The path led us up a hill to the Noravank monastery, a 13th-Century structure sitting within a gorge known for its brick red cliffs. Two churches (Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Karapet) are on the site and look incredible with the backdrop of the cliffs. We spent some time exploring the two churches – there are lots of crosses engraved on the buildings, but none of them include the crucifix because it symbolizes death. At Karapet, I ran into a priest who was doing a prayer while spreading incense. Robyn and I agreed that these monasteries are really striking and a beautiful place to visit for anyone, religious or not.

Tatev – From Noravank, it was a long drive to Tatev Monastery which is on the southern end of Armenia. We passed through golden-colored mountains and occasionally encountered a herd of sheep taking over the main road. Tatev Monastery is near the town of Halidzor in the valley. The monastery sits on a mountain overlooking the valleys below, so it’s very challenging to get there by car. Instead, there is a cableway called the “Wings of Tatev” that takes you over the mountains to the vantage-point where Tatev sits. The site has three churches – St. Peter & Paul, St. Gregory and St. Mary. There are also several functional rooms and buildings such as the library hall, dining hall and mausoleum. Northeast of the complex is an olive press building, which has a nice demonstration of how to produce olive oil. Back on the site, there is an interesting pillar known as “Gavazan” which detects the direction of seismic activity but also was used to signal war. This monastery also holds significance for being host to Tatev University in the 14th- and 15th-century, which contributed a lot to science and philosophy.

The drive back to Yerevan was dark, especially on the rough mountain roads. We stopped near Areni for a quick dinner of lavash bread, vegetables, eggs and green beans. The final stop of our tour included wine tasting at the Areni Winery. We stopped to test several different local wines – cherry, quince, pomegranate, peach and regular grape wines. Peach was probably my favorite since it was so unique, but the regular red wines were just as good. Robyn grabbed a bottle to take back to the U.S., and off we went back to Yerevan. Because we were unable to get any radio stations in the rural parts of Armenia, the guides played the same CD the whole trip – Despacito, Michael Jackson, Dido and Eminem. Repeat.

October 19, 2018 – Armenian Staples: Carpet & Brandy

Back in Yerevan, the weather this time of year was warm in the sun but chilly in the shade, similar to fall in the U.S. This day, we walked back to Republic Square and to the outskirts of the city on the south side to Megerian Carpet Armenia, a carpet factory about an hour from the city center. The Megerian family carpet making has been around since 1917 and has produced carpets for many famous figures including George & Amal Clooney. We took a quick 30-minute tour and first learned how they dye the yarn (using pomegranate rinds, walnuts, oak bark and indigo). We then went into a big room with carpets hanging from the ceiling and local women working from the bottom up, double-knotting the yarn in place. Huge rugs can take up to 1.5 years to complete! The owner of the factory, who actually lives in New York, was coincidentally visiting Armenia, so we got to speak with him during the tour. The most important thing for productivity is matching up women with the same speed so they are consistent. After watching the ladies work to complete the carpets, we went to an area where completed carpets got a brushed and trimmed to get rid of extra hairs.

There’s a gallery of old Armenian carpets that have been discovered over the years. One story that stuck with me was a “parent trap”-like story from the times of the Armenian Genocide. A mother cut her blanket in half for her two babies to be able to find each other after everything they would go through during the hard time. Decades later, the two sisters found each other, both still having their half of the blanket. After the gallery, Robyn and I browsed through a room full of carpets – I was open to buying one but wanted to find the right design and story. I found one that I really liked with navy blue, gold, turquoise and red colors and ended up buying it to put at the foot of my bed back home. The design is called “Artsakh” which comes from the region with the same name. Artsakh is the Armenian-controlled part of western Azerbaijan, and is actually a “breakaway state,” claiming independence in 1991, but does not have any recognition from UN members.

The lovely owner was so surprised that we had walked to the factory and was impressed by our adventure to the country. He insisted he offer a ride back to the city, so we took a ride to our next stop, the Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory (also known as Noy Brandy factory). The factory was founded in 1877(!) and produces brandy, which is distilled wine of heavy alcohol content (35-60%) and typically consumed after dinner. We signed up for a tour and made our way through the dark cellars where the brandy is aged in large barrels. We were lucky enough to taste a 1944 year brandy – a bottle which would cost $3k if purchased today! I don’t think I had brandy before, so this was a new experience for me. Fun fact, if you sit a brandy glass on its side, it should not spill if poured correctly. We heard more stories of how Noah was the first wine producer – here they tie themselves to Christianity and wine and keep the traditions alive to this day.

We were in need of food at this point, as my esophagus was still tingling from the high-proof spirit. Online we found a place called Derian, which is actually Syrian food. Robyn and I had never had Syrian food before, so we were interested to try. This was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had! A table full of olives, shish tawook, lavash, cheap wine – so delicious and everything paired well together. Little did we know we would love Syrian food so much, and the hospitality was so wonderful from the Syrian staff.

October 20, 2018 – Garni & Geghard

Our final day in Armenia came, and what else then to see another monastery? A popular trip for those who visit Yerevan is to visit Geghard and Garni. We joined a tour bus from the Cascade and drove through the city. Fun fact – locals call Armenia “Hayastan,” after the ancient warrior Hayk, the founder of Armenian nation. 97% of Armenia considers themselves Armenian, so it’s a very mono-ethnic country.

Eghishe Charent’s Arch – our first stop was an arch commemorating Eghishe Clarent, an Amernian poet. The arch overlooks a forest park.

Garni Temple – we passed through several small towns before arriving at Garni. Garni is a Greco-Roman pagan temple, which symobilzes pre-Christian Armenia. It’s disputed, but many believe the temple to date back to 77 A.D. It collapsed from a huge earthquake in the 17th-century but was reconstructed from the stone that was found after the devastation. There are 24 columns on the temple to mark the hours of the day. The steps to walk up the temple are particularly steep, symbolising that you must work hard to get to the altar. There are a few buildings next to the temple, including ruins of a Christian church and a building that used steam to heat floors. Many tourists were out enjoying the sights, fresh air and beautiful fall colors surrounding the landmark. Before we left, we watched locals make lavash bread. The cook rolls the dough very thin, lays it over a pillow, and then slaps it against the walls of the tandoor oven pit. After it cooks, they use tongs to remove the bread, then serve it with herbs and cheese (like a burrito).

Geghard Monastery – Our last monastery on the “game drive.” The monastery complex was founded in the 4th-century (again, old!) by our friend Gregory, who escaped from prison at Khor Virap. It was partly carved out of the cave on the side of the mountain. The monastery was famous for housing several relics, one of which is “geghard” or the spear that wounded Christ on the Cross. The UNESCO World Heritage site has many beautiful carvings of the Armenian crosses on its buildings. We entered the main chapel where several were making prayers with candles. There is a choir room and there are small holes in the walls so that other connecting rooms can hear the sounds of worship. On the outside of the church, local officials would write city laws so people would know about them, as it was certain you would get their attention at church! The dome of the building includes features and symbols from other regions so that they would share more in common than different. It’s eerie to think that people walked the same ground just hundreds of years after the death of Christ.

Our tour had ended, and we returned to Yerevan one last time. The city was setting up for its 2800th (yes, two thousand eight hundredth) birthday! What a time to be in Yerevan! Back in Republic Square, I treated myself to one of those Armenian-flag colored ice cream cones but was quite confused of the flavors… possibly banana and bubble gum? We didn’t buy anything during our first visit to Vernissage market, so we browsed again and Robyn bought an interesting set of old Soviet stamps to add to her collection back home. A lot of old Soviet knick-knacks and books were on sale at the market in addition to artwork. That evening, we had a fresh meal and enjoyed the vibrancy of people out celebrating Yerevan’s birthday.

Back to where we started in Yerevan, the Opera Theatre, we joined a crowd enjoying traditional Armenian music. Over our time in Yerevan, we knew that people liked to stay out late. We’d wake up for our early days of sightseeing to only notice barren sidewalks and closed businesses. I can relate, as I am not a morning person. We packed up and prepared for our flight to Tbilisi the next morning (no long road trip with protest delays this time!). Armenia surprised me with its natural beauty and dedication to the stories told from generations before. I just imagine laying on a beautifully-made carpet, sipping a glass of Armenian wine on the grass next to one of Armenia’s storied monasteries – that’s probably the Armenian pinnacle! And, Happy Birthday, Yerevan – 2800 never looked so young!

-Michael