OLD & NEW, EAST & WEST // Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku – this city can only be described as a place of constant contradictions, with different things to see around every corner. It is at once modern, yet still crumbling in places. It is technically European, but feels Asian. Our tour guide challenged us to make up our own mind about Azerbaijan and its place in either the East or West as we spent a few hours exploring this city.

We arrive in Baku in the late morning, after catching a very long overnight train, which featured a rather stressful border crossing (as a consequence of us having Armenian stamps in our passport – but that is a story for another day!).

We unwittingly booked a very bad hotel that was a few kilometres out of the city centre. It was walkable, and we enjoyed walking through the rather grey and Soviet area we found ourselves staying in.

It wasn’t long before the iconic flame towers of Azerbaijan appeared.

Our first stop was lunch. Almost all of the restaurants we ate in were cavernous underground affairs that were decorated quite extensively. Despite looking tacky, all of the food we ate in Azerbaijan was excellent, with a far broader variety of options than anticipated.

We joined a free walking tour, which took us through the ‘old city’ of Baku. Our tour guide was excellent, and offered many insights into the complexity of Azerbaijan’s identity. The above statute represents the competing ideals of European and Asian culture in how Azerbaijan sees itself.

The old city is a walled area within the city centre, with meandering laneways and older, traditional buildings. The former palace of kings past remains, in addition to mosques, sulphur baths, and rather colourful terrace buildings.

The contrast in architecture further exemplifies the cultural clashes of Azerbaijan.

Parts of Baku feel incredibly European, at times giving the feeling that one could be walking down a Parisian street. Our guide told us that once the oil boom brought wealth to Azeris, their children would study abroad in Europe and bring back grand ideas about how the city should look.

After an afternoon of explorations, it was of course time for more Azeri food. One of our favourite dishes was sadj, a kind of hot plate that comes out still sizzling. We typically order the vegetarian one, though meat options were available. Oh, and bread and dolma were obviously mandatory with every meal.

The city centre of Baku was easy to explore in half a day, with extended stops for food. It was amazing to walk around the city and be walking along a modern shopping mall in one moment, the passing by a mosque, before turning down a European street, which ended near a Soviet building. You can sense so much of the history of this nation just from walking around and taking in your surroundings.

– Reanna

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BACK IN THE CITY // Tbilisi, Georgia

Throughout our week in Georgia, we spent three nights in the capital, Tbilisi. However, these were all non-consecutive and broken up between our trips to Sighnaghi and Kazbegi. Each night, we stayed in a completely different area of the city, allowing up to explore more of the local neighbourhoods with our short time frames in the city.

To see what to explore in the Old Town of Tbilisi, please see my first post here.

These photos are a random collection of other sites we saw during our various stays in Tbilisi, and offer a bit of an insight into the diversity of this beautiful city.

During our second stay in Tbilisi, we spent the night in a small Airbnb that was basically on the door step of the beautiful Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. Also known as Sameba, this building is the main cathedral for the Georgian Orthodox Church. It is a relatively recent build, having been constructed between 1995 and 2004, and is filled to the brim with elaborate paintings and gold furnishings. We unwittingly visited on Sunday and found the cathedral quite full.

On our third stay in the city, we stayed right on David Agmashenebeli Avenue, one of the main avenues and stopping strips in the historic area of Tbilisi north of the Old Town, across the river. Part of the street is for pedestrians only, and is lined with cafes and colourful buildings.

Almost every blog I read about visiting Tbilisi raved about Fabrika, a former Soviet factory that has been transformed into a hostel, co-working space, and painfully hipster collection of bars, cafes, and art shops. We did not stay at the hostel as it was quite pricey for a private room, but we did visit the shops for semi-decent coffee. I spent one sunny afternoon drinking ridiculous cheap beers whilst Chris decided to get his hair cut at the resident barber shop.

As with Yerevan, the remains of the Soviet era were constantly visible throughout Tbilsi, with grey buildings, rickety metros, and old cars.

We also returned to the Old Town to visit a sulphur bath in the Abanotubani district. It had taken some convincing to win Chris over to the idea, but after a freezing cold few days in Kazbegi, the thought of a hot bath finally prevailed. After being turned away from a number of bath houses that were either full or overpriced, we eventually stumbled into a shadowy looking place and were able to book a private room for an hour for about 30 lari ($15 AUD).

The room was incredibly… un-glamourous? Reminiscent of Soviet dungeons? Either way, it was an experience and we had a bit of fun floating in the hot sulphur water.

And last, but not least – our ultimate Tbilisi goal had to be fulfilled. Our eyes were set on the Georgian delicacy of khachapuri, and specifically the below variety which is essentially a vessel of bread filled with cheese, baked, and served with a slab of butter and a raw egg. It is safe to say that my arteries will never recover.

Tbilisi, you were grand!

– Reanna

WINE COUNTRY // Sighnaghi, Georgia

Georgia is home to one of the oldest wine regions in the world. Whilst Chris and I are certainly no wine connoisseurs, we do enjoy partaking in the occasional wine tasting.

The Kakheti region in eastern Georgia is the renowned home of Georgian wine, and even the alleged birthplace of the drink (though don’t day that in front of the Armenians). Sighnaghi is the most easily accessible, and the most picturesque, town in the region, and was one of the highlights of our trip to the Caucasus.

A few notes on visiting Sighnaghi:

  • Getting there: Whilst day tours exist, the easiest and cheapest way to get to the region is via marshrutky (local minibus). Marshrutky from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi depart every two hours from Samgori metro station – exit the station and walk 300m west of the station to carparks full of vans. Head to the second carpark. The marshrutky for Sighnaghi are signed in English, though drivers are extremely helpful and will direct you to the awaiting bus. The journey takes under two hours and costs 6 lari (3 AUD), which we paid the driver on arrival. Marshrutky arrive/depart Sighnaghi behind the police station, near a soccer field.
  • Accommodation: There are a few hotels, though the best way to experience the region is to check out a local homestay. We stayed at Zandarashavili’s Guesthouse and it was excellent.
  • Getting around: Everything in the town is withing walking distance. If you want to explore the greater Kakheti region, chat to your homestay hosts! Google maps only showed the two main streets of Sighnaghi whilst we were visiting (March 2018), so taking a photo of the painted street map near the marshrutky stop can be useful.

After surviving our first marshrutky journey, navigating the hilly streets of Sighnaghi, and checking into our homestay to the views above, Chris and I were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves! Faintly in the distance, we could see the Caucasus Mountains, marking the border with Russia.

As mentioned above, we stayed at Zandarashavili’s Guesthouse and I cannot recommend this homestay enough. Within minutes of arrival we were being plied with home made wine, fresh cheese and bread. Georgian hospitality at its finest!

Eventually we ventured out to explore what the little hilltop town of Sighnaghi had to offer. The town is very small, and easy to explore on foot in a couple of hours.

One of the main sights are the old walls, which you can climb and explore on the northwest side of town.

Soon it was time for more wine. We visited Okro’s Natural Wine, which featured a small cellar door and a beautiful deck with stunning views of the town.

Just up the hill from Okro’s was another old watch tower.

Before too long we began our search for food. Being the end of winter, the town was a lot quieter than normal, so a number of restaurants were closed. We checked out Pheasant’s Tears, a winery/restaurant just up from the main square. Whilst a bit more expensive than your typical Georgian fare, it was a delicious meal, offering a slightly more modern take on traditional Georgian cuisine.

Our first afternoon in Sighnaghi was a wonderful introduction to the Kakheti region. I can only imagine how beautiful (and busy!) it must be in the summer months!

– Reanna

 

TOURING TBILISI OLD TOWN // Tbilisi, Georgia

There is something about the excitement of seeing a new country or city that can give you the energy to pull through fatigue. Long haul flights, late nights, and jet lag have pushed me close to the edge whilst traveling, but I think sleeper trains take the cake in terms of sleep deprivation for me. When we arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, after a long, sleepless night on a sleeper train from Yerevan, Armenia, I was sure that I wouldn’t last the day!

Thankfully, through the power of Georgian food and sights, we were able to have an incredible first day in Tbilisi! Due to how we had planned our trip in Georgia, we came and went from Tbilisi a number of times, spending a total of three nights in the city. These photos are from our first two days, which we spent predominately in the Old Town of Tbilisi, the most popular area to visit. As you can see below, the view from our guesthouse set the standard for our time there!

As per usual, I took far too many photos during our stay, so I have organised them into a rough guide of exploring the Old Town of Tbilisi.

1. Walking tour of the Old Town

Taking free walking tours takes me back to exploring Europe whilst on exchange! Whilst Sandemans doesn’t exist in the Caucasus, a number of free tour companies run in Tbilisi. We found it a great way to get a feel of the old town.

The narrow laneways of the Old Town range from heavily overrun by tourists, to crumbling back streets inhabited by locals!

We visited a number of churches on our tour, including the above Orthodox church. Whilst plain on the outside, the churches featured elaborate paintings on the inside.

A peculiar sight in the Old Town is the Clock Tower, or the ‘Leaning Tower of Tbilisi’. Created by the puppet master of a local theatre, the structure looks like something out of a fairy tale!

2. Abanotubani

The famed sulphur baths of Tbilisi can be recognised by the brick domes rising out of the ground near the Meidan Square. Any tour or guide book will be quick to tell you that the name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word for ‘warm’, referring to the location of the city over sulphur hot springs.

In addition to being pretty to look at, the sulphur baths are also quite an experience to visit. The bath houses range from dirt cheap public baths, to private but barren rooms, to ornate guest houses (such a the one decorated as a mosque below). We ended up visiting a bath house in our last stay in the city – but that story is for another day!

It is worth following the path along the creek beside Abanotubani for a view of cliff top houses.

The path ends at the Leghvtakhevi Waterfall, a beautiful slice of nature hidden within a bustling city.

3. Peace Bridge

This intriguing piece of modern architecture is worth visiting more for the views along the Mtkvari River, rather than the bridge itself. When we visited it was swarming with selfie sticks, so we made a quick journey across.

4. Rike Park

For the best views of the Old Town and the old Narikala Fortress, cross over the river at the Peace Bridge to Rike Park. It was a bit grey and cloudy on the morning we were exploring the city, but the views of the colourful buildings of the Old Town were still fantastic.

5. Cable Car

If your legs aren’t up for the climb to Narikala Fortress, a cable car departs from Rike Park for a mere 1 lari (0.5 AUD). The trip takes only a matter of minutes, but if you hate heights like me, that is long enough!

6. Mother Georgia

A short walk from Narikala Fortress is the imposing Kartlis Deda, or ‘Mother Georgia’. Worth a quick visit, plus she has a pretty damn good view of the city.

7. Narikala Fortress

Dominating the hill overlooking the old town is the crumbling Narikala Fortress. Built in the 4th century by the Persians, most of the fortress is in ruins, with the expection of the recently rebuilt interior church.

It is free to enter and explore the fortress, which offers the absolute best views of the Tbilisi. Be warned – the walls are able to be climbed but there is little around in terms of safety railings!

8. Botanical Gardens

Located behind Narikala Fortress, the expansive botanical gardens were well worth a visit. It felt like a completely different world to the city we had spent the morning exploring.

We walked right to the end of the gardens, and found ourselves peering into the back of a very modern, very extravagant house! Further investigation revealed that this is the residence of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and the richest man in Georgia.

9. Eat all the Georgian food

Georgian cuisine is not something we had ever encountered here in Australia, but eating out in this country was undeniably one of the highlights of our trip. Even if some of the food, such as the churchkela (walnuts candied in grape juice) below looked questionable!

Some of our favourites included khinkali (soup filled dumplings, seen above), lobia (beans in a claypot), Georgian salad (tomato and cucumber covered in walnut sauce), and any combination of baked bread available at hole in the wall Georgian bakeries. Everything we ate was fresh, simple, and absolutely delicious.

And yes, extensive walking is required to keep up with this carb heavy Georgian diet!

– Reanna

MONASTERIES & MOUNTAINS // Around Yerevan, Armenia

We only had three days and two nights in Armenia, and we only just scratched the surface of this little country! Even with our short time frame, we managed to squeeze in a quick day trip out into the Armenian countryside.

The easiest way to get out of Yerevan for a day trip is by hiring a driver or joining a tour. If we had a been a bit more organised, we could have joined a preorganised tour, however this limits where you can go. We stayed at Yerevan Hostel and they were able to organise a driver for us to a number of destinations we chose of a list. The price was per car, so this can be a relatively affordable option if you are in a group of 3-4 people. The most popular day trip out of Yerevan is to visit Garni and Geghard monasteries. However, we opted to check out a few destinations to the South of Yerevan.

Our first stop was Khor Virap Monastery, located in a small village about 30km from Yerevan. One of the best features of this monastery was the stunning views of Mt Ararat in the distance, over the border in Turkey. We were treated to a wonderfully clear day, so had great views of the peak.

The monastery itself is a relatively large complex with a variety of buildings to explore. The above is the main church, which dates back to the 17th century.

Whilst exploring one of the smaller chapels, we heard voices coming from below us. After a bit of searching, we discovered there was small entrance in the side of the building (see above), with a ladder leading down to a tiny… dungeon?

After some hesitation on my behalf, we made the terrifying descent into the dungeon. It was a very eerie experience – according to Armenian legend a saint was imprisoned in this dungeon for twelve years by the king of the time.

After exploring the monastery complex, we followed a path up a nearby hill for some further views of the surrounding countryside.

Oh, and more views of Mt Ararat – how could you ever get sick of looking at it?!

A man at the top of the hill attempted to sell Chris and I a pigeon to release for good luck. We declined.

Driving through the Armenian countryside was an experience in itself. Everyone apparently drives like a rally race car driver in the Caucasus, which can make journeys on the road a nail biting experience! The passing landscapes were also beautiful, from dry fields to snow capped peaks. We were in the region in mid-March, which was the end of winter, so the land was quite brown and bare.

Our second stop took us down a narrow road through looming cliffs to Novarank Monastery.

The buildings at the Noravank complex date back to the 13th century, though they were recently renovated. The sun continued to shine for us, so the entire experience of the visiting this complex with the surrounding wild landscape was surreal.

The Armenian alphabet is unique, and incredibly old – dating back to 405 AD and still used today.

Okay, so obviously I went a bit overboard in taking photos at Novarank. But how could I not with these views?!

Our final stop for the day was Areni Winery, located just up the road from Novarank in a small road side village. We were ushered into a tasting room and promptly tasted about twenty wines and a variety of fruit brandy!

The winery we visited is located near the site of Areni-1 Winery, a 6000 year old cave where the remains of wine have been found.

Whilst driving through Armenia, we noticed many road side stalls selling vegetables and reused plastic bottles filled with wine. Chris read that locals often sell their wine in old Coke bottles so Iranian truckers driving through Armenia can take wine across the border. When we were tasting wine at Areni, a group a truckers dropped in and bought a number of such bottles for what we can only imagine was a very cheap price!

The drive back to Yerevan was just as picturesque, and we spent our evening indulging in even more delicious Armenian food (again, no photographic evidence – I was too focused on eating!).

– Reanna

HIDDEN GEMS // Ibra, Oman

After exploring Bahla Fort we hit the road again. When researching places to stop for lunch on the way to our next destination, Ibra seemed like a logical destination. A few more minutes of searching later and I found a few blog posts indicating that the city also featured a few ruined villages that were worth the stop. By the end of our trip Chris and I ended up exploring quite a few village ruins, and Chris commented that it was amazing that such places were so untouched. In more touristic countries such places would surely be fenced in, with tours and an entry ticket! It made being able to explore these hidden places by ourselves all the more special.

We only briefly stopped in the city for lunch and to explore the ruins, but here few notes on visiting in Ibra:

  • Getting there: Ibra is located in central Oman, about 1.5 hours from Muscat, or just under two hours from Nizwa.
  • Al Munisifeh ruins: Difficult to find! We tried to vaguely follow directions from the Lonely Planet, which suggested that the turn off was past the market/souq, and the directions from this blog post. Put ‘Old Mosque of Ibra’ into google maps, drive along the river bed and park near a paved entrance to a group of buildings. Follow this paved path and you will find the ruins.

What road trip would be complete without random road photos?

Once we eventually found the ruins of Al Munisifeh, we parked our car near the entrance and wandered in on foot. Apparently someone had take the initiative to pave a path through the village, which we followed through crumbling buildings and crooked archways.

Parts of the village closer to the dry river bed appeared to still be occupied. For the most part, the village was completely abandoned, and we didn’t encounter anyone. Above, you can see what I assume to be a former market place.

A few buildings offered what looked to be good viewing points, however we tread with caution, occasionally turning back if the path seemed too treacherous. We did manage to climb a couple of walls for views back across the open mud brick ruins.

Even in ruins I still find Omani doors beautiful and so diverse!

We managed to spend about about half an hour exploring the maze of laneways through the ruins, before we had to hit the road in order to reach our destination.

– Reanna

VILLAGES IN THE MOUNTAINS // Al Hamra & Misfat al Abriyeen, Oman

Stopping at these two villages were definitely worth the detour on our way up to Jebel Shams. After having breakfast in Nizwa and buying some food from a hypermarket, we were on the road early to head up to the mountains.

Both the villages have a long history, and offer an opportunity to see traditional buildings, and Omani customs. There are cafes in Al Hamra and accommodation in Misfat al Abriyeen if you wanted to extend your stay.

A few notes on getting to the towns:

  • Getting to Al Hamra: A well signed 45 minutes drive from Nizwa. There are shops on the main street (even a coffee shop with lattes!). To get to the old town, drive toward Misfat al Abriyeen, but pass the turn off. Continue past a watch tower, until you arrive near some shops and mud houses. We parked on the street and walked among the laneways. Putting Bait Al Safah (a museum in the old town) into Google Maps will also get you there.
  • Getting to Misfat al Abriyeen: This is signed from Al Hamra. Follow the main road towards a hill dotted with houses. The road will zig zag up the hill, before descending to village on the other side. You will need to park at the entrance to the village and walk in. Observe the signs when entering, you must wear pants/long skirt.

We stopped at the traditional houses in Al Hamra at first. When we first arrived in the town I was unsure we were in the right place. The coffee shops and supermarkets on the main road looked nothing like the village I had seen online! After some last minute research, we hoped back in our car and drove another five minutes to the edge of town and reached our destination.

The houses in this area are built in a traditional Yemeni style of mud brick. Some of the houses were still occupied, but for the most part they were abandoned and in varying degrees of decay. We hardly encountered anyone whilst wondering along the laneways.

Below is a view of the village from the nearby watch tower, and the mountains in the distance!

From Al Hamra, it was a short drive up and over the hill to Misfat al Abriyeen. This small village is known for its traditional houses, agricultural terraces, and some hiking. As mentioned above, one must enter the village on foot and abide by the rules set out on the signs when entering the town.

Yes, it seems I have a thing for taking photos of Omani door!

We wandered through the village for a short while, following the painted squares that indicated the tourist path. There were a few other tourists about, and a few locals popped their heads out of doors as we passed.

Eventually we ended up walking on a trail above the agricultural terraces, which was dotted by watch towers and provided amazing views down a canyon to further farmland below. I was under the impression that the trail would loop back to the village, but it just kept going!

Our first real taste of what was to come in the mountain regions – stunning!

After about 20 minutes we began to realise that the trail was definitely not going to take us back to the village, we we turned around. However, it was totally worth our accidental wrong turn, as the views along the canyon were spectacular. If we had more time, or we were to do this trip again, I would probably opt to spend a night in Misfat al Abriyeen, and not stay in Nizwa. Then we could have followed this trail on for a bit longer!

After making our way back through the village, we drove back towards Al Hamra, stopping along the descending road to have a picnic lunch (hummus, what else?!) with a view over the town.

– Reanna