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

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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

THE FIRST OF MANY FORTS // Nizwa, Oman

Our first night on the road in Oman was spent in Nizwa, a city located less than two hours away from Muscat. It was easy to get to by the main freeway, even with a short detour.

Nizwa has plenty of restaurants, supermarkets, hypermarkets (a novelty for us), and is a good base for exploring the mountain regions of Oman. You can easily make a day trip to Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun) for some hiking from Nizwa, but as we had a night booked in the mountains we spent our afternoon exploring the city.

The main sites of Nizwa are the fort and the souq. Somehow we managed to completely stuff up the opening hours of the souq and never managed to experience the market in full swing, but we were able to wander the lanes and eat some delicious (and cheap) shwarma and fresh juice for lunch (look for the dodgy plastic tables under a tree near the gate into the souq, I no idea what the cafe was called!).

Within the walls of the souq is the entrance to Nizwa Fort, and dates back to the 1650s.

After reading the Lonely Planet we were under the impression that entry would only be a few dollars. However, apparently the price has since increased and it now costs 5 OMR ($16 AUD) per person to visit. If you are on a budget, I would honestly recommend skipping Nizwa Fort and heading on to the nearby town of Bahla to visit the fort there – it was a tenth of the price and far more beautiful.

Sure, the Nizwa Fort was nice, but it did feel very renovated and was full of tacky souvenirs and outdated museum exhibits.

At least the views from the top of the fort walls were worth it! Those mountains are just the beginning of what was to come.

We ended up having a little bit of time to kill before we could check into our accommodation, so after some frantic googling we drove to another site in Nizwa – the Falaj Daris Park. The park is quite small, but offer the opportunity to see a traditional falaj, which is a UNESCO world heritage listed irrigation system. The park itself was quite small, but it was interesting enough for a short stop.

An afternoon looking around Nizwa was plenty of time, but it would be a good base location for exploring the surrounding region. Our accommodation had information about various day trips and hikes and I left wishing we had more time to explore! But the mountains were calling…

DESERTED VILLAGES & DATE PALMS // Birkat al Mouz, Oman

One of the greatest benefits of hiring our own car for our trip on Omani was having the freedom to detour to smaller sites and explore lesser known areas at our own leisure. This does take some additional planning, it is totally worth the effort. One of our first stops on our road trip was the oasis town of Birkat al Mouz, where we were able to explore a ruined village and walk among some date plantations.

A few notes on finding the ruins:

  • Getting there: Birkat al Mouz is located off the main freeway, between Izki and Nizwa, around 1.5 hours from Muscat. The town is signed (note the variations in spelling – Mouz/Mawz/Mauz), but the ruins are not. We went to Birkat al Mouz Ruin 2 on Google Maps. The back streets are narrow, but we were able to find a side lane to park on.
  • Entry: there is no signage for the ruins, but you are free to explore as you please. We were able to climb to the top tower, however proceed with caution as some buildings are not safe to enter.

I also found this blog to be a great resource for visiting the town.

Admittedly I did no know about the google map location for the ruins when we drove into Birkat al Mouz, but after pulling over and some frantic googling we managed to work out where we had to go. Pro tip – buy an Omani sim card!

If you can see the above, you have come to the right place. This is the view of the ruins from the laneway we parked on. There was a small entrance just to the right.

There was no clear path through the village, but rather a maze of crumbling staircases and narrow walkways. We popped our head into some of the buildings but avoided walking through them – some had second stories that were on the verge of caving in, whilst others had suspicious piles of rubbish in the corner. We figured it was safer to follow our way up towards the top.

Our destination was the crumbling watch tower at the top of the village, which you can see above. From there we were treated to stunning views of the surrounding valley, date plantations, and the village itself.

We only encountered one other person whilst in the village, and they appeared to be living in one of the less run down buildings. Otherwise we had the place completely to ourselves.

There was another watch tower in the distance, which is located near another ruined village. I struggled to find the information about how to visit it, but I think this post has some details.

Another stop worth making in Birkat al Mouz is at the date plantations just before turning off to the village ruins – you can see a large plantation to your right as your enter the town from Izki. We parked on the side of the road and had a short walk under the palms.

From Birkat al Mouz, it is a short drive to Nizwa, a larger city with further attractions, food options and accommodation. It is definitely worth the detour to visit this village!

– Reanna

EXPLORING MUTTRAH CORNICHE // Muscat, Oman

Whilst traveling through Oman we were often asked why we had decided to visit in the first place. Thinking back, I honestly think it was because Chris found an article about driving through Oman in the travel section of the Sunday paper (which we buy, like, twice a year when we want to appear slightly educated). I remember Chris showing me the photos and being blown away by this country that I knew nothing about, let alone how accessible it was for travel. Fast forward six months, and we were flying in Muscat, the capital of Oman!

We spent six days, six nights in this wonderful country and it was a good amount of time. A few more days would have meant we could have packed in a few more things to our itinerary, but there is always next time!

We only really had one day in Muscat, and after some research decided it was best to spend our time in Muttrah, a district of Oman that features a picturesque bay and bustling souq. If you look at a map of Muscat you can see it almost split into distinct ‘cities’, and with the limited public transport options, it can be quite hard to explore the city on foot (our usual preference). Hence, we made the decision to stay in Muttrah and loosely follow the walking tour from the Lonely Planet.

After checking into our hotel, we set out towards to water, stumbling across Muttrah Fort (below) along the way. We climbed up the stairs, only to discover that the entry was blocked for work, but the climb up was worth it for some stunning views back towards the corniche.

As you can tell, there are no high rises in Muscat! All buildings are required to be built in a traditional manner, with domed roofs and curved windows. I even heard that the colour of the buildings is regulated! Either way, it makes for a beautiful looking city, particularly with the rocky hills framing the pale stone buildings.

We followed a (very immaculate) path along the coast through some (very immaculate) gardens.

Eventually, or I should say, after a few kilometres, we reached the Muscat Gates, which mark the beginning of Old Muscat, another district of the wider city. This area houses a number of museums, forts and the Sultan’s Palace.

The Sultan’s Palace. Quite an eclectic combination of buildings, looked out across the water towards an the island fort Al Jalali.

After stopping for some fresh juice we decided to walk back the way we came so as to check out a few places we missed on our walk in. One of them was the below watchtower, one of many such buildings dotted throughout the hills surrounding Muscat. We were able to climb up to this one and take in some views of the surrounding area and the corniche in the fading light.

Eventually we set foot on the Muttrah Corniche, and made our way towards the souq. We had timed our walk to ensure we arrived during opening hours – most shops close for trade between 1:00pm and 4:00pm, so we always had to plan ahead!

The main part of the souq was quite touristy, however if you slip away from the main alley ways into one if the significantly smaller side streets you will find the souq alive with local trade. Many of the stores are full of gold jewellery, whilst others sold frankincense and local spices.

For dinner we went to Bait Al Luban, a restaurant with amazing decor and an interesting menu that service traditional Omani food. Most food in Oman is more Middle Eastern – think kebabs and shwarma, with the odd Indian curry floating around – so finding ‘traditional’ Omani food can be difficult. We were treated to an amazing sunset view over the corniche from the restaurant, and ate some very interesting food – I had what I can only describe as chicken porridge with date sauce!

Whilst I do wish we could have had a bit more time in Muscat, I found Muttrah to be an excellent area to really get a feel for the city and some of its history.

– Reanna

WEDDINGS, WALKS & WATERFALLS // Byron Hinterlands, Australia

Somehow two weeks have slipped by and I am only just finding the time to sit down and upload the remaining photos from our weekend getaway to Byron Bay! It feels like a lifetime ago now, as I have been so swept up in other dramas in everyday life. But I digress…

After a morning walk on the beach (and coffee, always coffee) in Suffolk Park, we packed up our ridiculously pathetic hire car and hit the road. During some quiet periods at work I had taken it upon myself to essentially plan out our entire trip, so Chris was happy to follow my suggestions along to Bangalow, a nearby inland town. To our luck, the local market was on! It was in a beautiful location, and was absolutely pumping. If only we hadn’t been so cheap and stuck with carry on baggage.

After exploring the market, I directed us on to Minyon Falls. Apparently Nissan Micra’s are not designed for narrow, winding, dirt roads, but nevertheless we made it and were treated to some pretty sweet views.

The waterfall itself was fairly nonexistent, despite being the middle of winter. It has been a fairly dry season, but the viewing point itself was worth the drive.

The main motivation for our trip was a friend’s wedding, which was being held just outside of the inland town of Lismore. Whilst Lismore itself was nothing to write home about (like, don’t even stop there), the location for the wedding was picture perfect.

It was such a beautiful day! Admittedly this was the first wedding we had attended of a friend our own age, so Chris and I were beginning to feel a bit old and question where we were with our lives!

The next day we decided to evacuate Lismore as soon as possible, and hit the road again. Of course, I made Chris pull over at the last minute to get the above photo.

We stopped for coffee in Nimbin, a town renowned for its promotion of alternative and sustainable lifestyles… and weed. I had thought the town might be quirky and fun to look around, but it turned out to be slightly less inviting than we anticipated. After downing our coffee, checking out the local bakery, and being offered weed at least three times, we were back on the road.

And finally, our last stop – Mount Warning. I stumbled across this hike during my research, and it was honestly one of the best hikes I have ever down. I would apologise for the barrage of photos here, but I am not even sorry.

Located about an hour north of Lismore in Wollumbin National Park, the hike is a straight up and down summit. It is about 4kms each way, and the signs suggested it would take about five hours return. With a few drink breaks and a 20 minute break at the top, we managed the trip in just over three hours return.

The hike up was beautiful, though quite steep at times. The incline was continual, and occassional you would get views over the hinterlands through breaks in the forest.

The last 400m to the summit was an almost vertical rock scramble, with a chain along the side to assist with the ascent. Chris and I arrived at the base just as another couple went ahead of us, so it ended up taking a long time to get to the top as we waited for them to go ahead, and for other hikers to come down.

The top features 360 degree views all around the surrounding hinterlands – it was absolutely breathtaking! You could see all the way up to the Gold Coast, across the Queensland border, and back down to Byron Bay. We couldn’t have asked for a better day weather-wise either. If you are ever in the area, this hike is a must do!

After scrambling back down to the car (climbing down the rock face was significantly harder than coming up it!) we took our time road tripping back to Ballina Airport.

Now it is back to waiting for sunshine to come back to Melbourne – fingers crossed it comes into force soon!

– Reanna