If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I am now in the United Kingdom playing blogging catch up having just traveled through Georgia, Armenia and the cities of Istanbul and Rome, U have some time now write about the experience.
Over the last few years Id heard about the country of Georgia and what a fantastic place it was to travel to, other than that apart from their occasional recent appearances in the Rugby Union World Cup my knowledge of the place was virtually, much like when I booked by trip to Kazakhstan. Something else it has in common with Kazakhstan is Georgia was part of the former USSR and is still now finding its way economically since the break up of the former Soviet State. Whilst Kazakhstan is rich in oil and gas, Georgia has mainly focusing on tourism, English is now the second national language instead of Russian and the majority of younger people speak it fluently, it is essentially an English-speaking country though some of the older generation speak both Georgian or Russian only.
Tbilisi is the capital city and is medieval in appearance or at least in the old area which is where most tourists like to locate themselves. The city was built in the 5th century and has a population of 1.5 million, the Old Town is a great place to locate yourself to discover the city and also the other regions in and around the country. The hostel owner picked me up from the airport and checked me in, I was immediately a drink called cha-cha and a lot of it, it’s a shot of brandy/vodka made from grapes and I believe the percentage is anywhere between 40 and 65 percent, this was home brew and especially strong. I immediately discovered that Georgians are very generous people and also like to drink alcohol, very much the same in Australia, a lot of my time in Georgia was experiencing this type of hospitality.
The nightlife was excellent fun, I’d arrived on St Patrick’s Day so after a few rounds of cha-cha I headed to one of the local Irish bars. In typical Irish fashion it was in full swing with lots of singing and drinking, the crowd was made up of both expats and locals. After a few rounds of beer and cha-cha I headed to one of the local Georgian night clubs, this involved a lot more drinking, talking about rugby, Georgia, singing and dancing. It was all very friendly and this kind of atmosphere was available any night of the week, Tbilisi being a tourist city definitely makes for a great night life seen Tip I do caution you though, like many cities there are a few bars around that will attempt to lure customers in and and have jacked up prices to rip of unknowing people, its not common but a little common sense is necessary. If you go into a bar with a that has a few attractive women to talk with, some large bouncers and there is nobody about, ask the price and if they don’t confirm, exit the place. After all there is a lot of active friendly bars about the area.
I experienced more than a few heavy hangovers whilst in Tbilisi after all drinking is a past time and its relatively cheap compared to Western Europe, however the cold crisp air and the amazing beauty of the city meant that this was all quickly forgotten the following morning. The Old Town is nestled in a valley with a river running through it and like a fairy tale it has cobbled roads, churches, plenty of art and craft shopping as well as hiking up the hills that surround the city, its really spectacular. The first site I headed to is the Narikala Fort that overlooks the city and is about a 10 minute walk from where I was staying, established in the 4th century, its in a ruinous state which can be climbed all over by tourists and has spectacular views of the city below, its also the location of the Botanical Gardens and one of many churches in the city. Georgia is a Christian country the majority of which follow Georgian Orthodox Church and there are thousands of churches all scattered all around the country. So my next visit was the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi construction completed in 2004. It is the third tallest Orthodox building in the world and by area one of the largest and is made up of nine chapels, it also overlooks the city and makes for a spectacular setting.
On another day to walk off a cha-cha hangover I headed up Mount Mtatsminda which was about an 1.5 hour walk away to the top of the mountain. Passing another church on the way up the hike took about an hour and was quite steep. At the top I had some wonderful goulash and berry cake at the restaurant and then wandered around the fun park, a large Ferris wheel and yet again fantastic views of the city and the snow capped mountain range beyond that surround the city. After a few more days of historic churches, walking the cobbled streets, eating Georgian food at some super affordable restaurants and plenty of cha-cha of course, I decided that I would leave Georgia for a few days and head over the border to Armenia which is close by,
The cheapest way to Armenia is by bus, otherwise known as a Marshrutka, it’s a bus service mainly used by locals to travel around Georgia, Armenia and other countries in the area. Relatively cheap in comparison to a regular bus service, taxi or plane, what is involved is heading to the central bus station, paying for a ticket and then waiting around to fill an 8-seat capacity van prior to leaving the station. After a 1.5 hour wait it was approximately an hour ride to the border which was easy to negotiate through, after exiting Georgia and a drive of 500 metres though no mans the Armenian border patrol appeared and again very easy to cross. Once crossing the border the road condition drastically changed from smooth to very bumpy, also the Azerbaijan border as only a few kilometres away which Armenia is currently at war with so imagining snipers in the hill overlooking the road made the ride a little more interesting,, that and the excessive speeding along pot holed windy roads.. The landscape progressively changed first open fields with mountains in the distance then old abandoned Soviet style buildings started appearing by the road and a lot of them, very interesting and kind of sad really. Soviet style towns started appearing and we then steadily ascending for four 4 hours. After going through a tunnel on a steep ascent for about 2km it was then wow, a mountain landscape appeared with snow covered fields, amazing to look at and very different to what I saw prior to entering the tunnel, it was onto Yerevan.
Id decided to check into a moderately priced luxury hotel in the centre of town, Armenia is a cheaper destination than Georgia and is not as frequented, I then headed out for the evening. The first bar I headed to included smoking indoors, not necessarily a surprise but what was is that restaurants also allow smoking indoors whilst eating. I am a social smoker so was not upset in anyway by this but then again, I do enjoy a meal without the next table puffing away on a cigarette. I had a few beers and a kebab, the food is similar to Georgia then decided to walk the streets, downtown Yerevan with a population of 1 million or so is modern and the shopping arcade where I was staying was very new and had all the conveniences of a modern city with American / European chain stores and luxury shopping. The hotel was in the town centre and most of the tourist sites were easily accessible for me, it was getting late so I headed back to the hotel for an early start.
The first place I headed to was the Armenian Genocide Museum, this documents the genocide of reportedly 1.5 million Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 to 1923. The museum is very informative and contains graphic detail of the atrocities that were committed during the period and the dramatic effect that it has had on the country, it was a very humbling and sad experience. Armenia has a long history of conflict with various people over the centuries, as indicated earlier its currently at war with its neighbour and also has a long history of Soviet rule, conflict with Turkey and other neighbouring countries for many reasons going back to the conquest by the Mongolian empire, there is signs of conflict in and around the city and nothing describes it better than this particular museum. Armenia is not a rich country but in saying that its actually really safe and the people are very hospitable.
There are a few of the other tourism sites, this included a statue of Mother Armenia, symbolising peace through strength, it stands tall overlooking the city of Yerevan and on a perfect day you can see all the way to Mt Ararat which stands at an elevation of around 5200m. This mountain stands out among all others and is the quadrant point between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia. I then wandered through the adjoining semi derelict fun to another Soviet monument and found something truly beautiful and unique, the Yerevan Cascade. Built in two stages between Soviet era 1971 to 1980 and independent 2002 to 2009, it’s a limestone structure internally a series of escalators and modern art museums and externally sculptures, staircases and gardens. It descends the downtown area and is another viewing spot for Mt Ararat and the city below. After walking down I headed to the town square, Republic Square, a series of fountains surrounded by five major buildings and at night the area lights up and music comes from the fountains, a great place to spend some time.
The following day Id booked myself on a tour to see some of the epic snow-capped countryside, my first top Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Eurasia and again surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Overlooking it is the Sevanvank Monastery, constructed in 874 AD, it is part of the Armenian Church. Armenia changed from being Pagan to Christian in 301 AD making it the oldest Christian country in the world, the second oldest being neighbouring Georgia. Just like Georgia the country is deeply religious and there are churches scattered all around the countryside. After that we went into the mountain range and visited the town of Tsaghkadzor which includes another ancient Armenian Abbey, but also a ski resort acceding to 2800m it makes for quite a spectacular view of the snow-capped scenery.
After a couple of nights, I headed back to Georgia, first stop back to Tbilisi for a few more nights of cha-cha, quality food and I even managed to attend Euro Qualifier football game, Georgia vs. Switzerland. Switzerland won 2 0 which was expected it was my first time Id been to such a qualifier and I love football so was well worth the bustling crowd, crammed underground transport system to and from the ground and funny banter with Georgians and Swiss during and after the game. Please note Rugby Union is the national sport of Georgia, also very popular in Australia, something else we have in common along with the love of drinking. After a few more nights I was then headed on a train ride to the Black Sea coast and the city of Batumi for a few days. The train ride through the Georgian countryside was surrounded by small towns, yet more churches, fields and snow-capped mountains, a pleasant way to spend five hours and much less hectic than taking the bus service.
Batumi wow I was amazed by the place, Tbilisi and Yerevan I had certain expectations and it was easy to find out information about those places on Google. A few days earlier Id read that Batumi has an international airport and to go somewhere different I bought an airline ticket and really didn’t think much about the place until Id arrived. Batumi is quite a small city with a population of 200,000 and I now know is made up of clock tours, high rise hotels and skyscrapers, its very beautiful. Later I found out that it’s the gambling capital for Central Asia and as casinos are banned in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and “Stan” countries gamblers come here. It was quiet season so there were not so many people about, however the impressive coastline, the foreshore park adjoining the port and the mountain range in the background made for some wonderful scenery and walking around. Batumi’s classic 19th century architecture of the Old Town is a great way to spend the day walking around and at night if not into gambling there is a friendly Irish bar to have a few pints, pleasant conversation and some Georgian food. I only had two nights and wish to head back one day and have a few more.
So that was my time in Georgia and Armenia, both very friendly and beautiful places to explore, quality food especially if you like meat dishes and the people are very generous if you like a drink or three. I am sure over time as more people become more aware of the area tourism can only increase, at this stage is predominantly Russian and other tourists from the region however both countries are making strides to attract more tourists from the West. The area is very safe to travel despite ongoing regional conflicts and dodgy roads however if you are looking for something different yet very European and affordable you cant beat this area. Tip Georgia has an unrestricted 1 year visa that can be triggered over and over again if you exit and reenter the country and Armenia 6 months. For those adventurers looking for overseas work with virtually no visa restriction there is plenty of English speaking jobs and apartments are cheap rent. So if looking for an extended break from wherever you are, I’d Georgia especially and I am currently debating doing a spot of English teaching myself……. but for now for Istanbul its off to Istanbul.