Tag Archives: Tbilisi

Places You Should Visit

Champa and I have taken several interesting trips to neighboring countries while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Now that we’re nearly finished, which places would we recommend the most?

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I’ve written previously about our impressions of Transylvania; Armenia and Georgia; Bulgaria and Bucharest; Odessa; Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava; and the Romanian city of Iași. In Moldova, our visits included Soroca, Comrat and several famous monasteries. 

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We enjoyed all of these places. But if you have limited time and resources, here’s our Top Three for your consideration:

  • The Transylvania region of Romania
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Bratislava, Slovakia

We also recommend a visit to Moldova!

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Transylvania was our favorite spot. Many Americans associate it mainly with Dracula, the  fictional vampire inspired by the real-life Vlad Țepeș. But Transylvania is one of Europe’s most beautiful and undiscovered tourist spots. It offers majestic castles (including one named for Dracula), beautiful churches and picturesque cities such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara. It has nice hotels and restaurants, with architecture reminiscent of Germany and Hungary, whose people settled here. You’re also near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which is worth a visit, too. Prices are lower than in most other parts of Europe, people are friendly, the weather is mild and the wine is delicious. What’s not to like?

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Tbilisi was called “one of the hottest tourist destinations” last year by The Independent, and for good reason. The Georgian capital, located on the eastern side of the Black Sea, offers distinctive cuisine, interesting sites and rich opportunities for nearby hiking and other outdoor activities. Vogue included it among its “10 Hottest Travel Destinations” and Anthony Bourdain devoted a program to its emerging food scene, including “hangover soup” to recover from a night in the city’s clubs. Don’t miss a visit to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the gorgeous church overlooking the city, or the nearby monastery in Mtskheta.

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Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, surprised us with its beauty and charm. Like many tourists, we visited it mainly because it was near Vienna and Budapest, which are better known. We loved those cities, too, but Bratislava was where we’d live if we had to choose among them. It has a friendly vibe, lovely places to visit, fun places to eat, a castle atop the city, even a bridge with a restaurant shaped like a UFO. Bratislava is cozier than its better-known neighbor, Prague, but you can happily spend hours or days enjoying its restaurants and shops, or strolling along the Danube. If you prefer a day trip, it’s just one hour by train from Vienna.

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We’ve come to love Moldova the most of all. Its travel infrastructure is far behind these other places, but you can spend several enjoyable days or more exploring its wineries, monasteries, countryside and attractions. Moldova offers a variety of adventure sports and outdoor activities, great meals, music and cultural festivals and nightlife that ranges from dance clubs to opera, all for a fraction of what you’d pay in most other European cities. This website provides a nice overview of Moldova’s travel possibilities.

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If you prefer to explore the fascinating culture of Armenia, the glorious Rila Monastery of Bulgaria or the famous steps of Odessa instead of our Top Three, well, those are great choices, too, and you can’t go wrong visiting Vienna or Budapest. My main suggestion is simply to give this part of the world a try. As I’ve written previously, too many Americans are missing out on great places here because they never even consider them. We found all of them to be interesting, safe, inexpensive and fun. Maybe you will, too.

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Tbilisi in 30 Seconds (x2)

During our recent trip to Armenia and Georgia, I captured two of Tbilisi’s highlights with 30-second videos: one featuring whimsy, the other faith.

At the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater, whimsical characters circled a clock tower at the stroke of noon. This video is also available on YouTube.

At the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, near Tbilisi, we saw a wedding and people praying in a stunning setting. This video is also on YouTube.

The Surprise of Travel

The modest roadside cafe we saw outside the Armenian village of Sevkar lacked a sign in English, much less a website. It was hardly the place you’d expect two older Americans to stop for lunch. But we did, unexpectedly, while traveling last week and it turned out to be a highlight of our trip. It also provided a reminder about how we all need to look beyond our plans and checklists to embrace life’s surprises.

It was before noon and we were the only customers there. The owner led us into his kitchen, pointed to some bowls of meat and asked what we’d like him to barbecue over his charcoal fire. IMG_8603Then, as the meat sizzled, he sliced bread, tomatoes, onions and cheese onto a plate and took them outside to a wooden table, where he invited us to sit.

The barbecue was beyond delicious, as was everything else. Here along a small road in northern Armenia, we enjoyed one of the best meals of our lives.

This happened only because we asked our driver to find somewhere to stop early for lunch so we could spend our remaining Armenian money before crossing the border into Georgia.

This is one of the things I love most about traveling. No itinerary can anticipate many of the experiences that end up making a trip memorable.

Here’s another example: While in Armenia we also came across an area filled with small stone cairns, which reminded us of the mani stones people in Nepal pile along trekking paths. Beside them were hundreds of cloth and plastic ribbons wrapped around trees and bushes, which people placed for good wishes and luck. They, too, fascinated us, even though we’d actually come to see the adjacent Geghard monastery, partially carved out of a mountain.

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We were surprised at a Jewish synagogue, too. Its caretaker in Tbilisi, Georgia, gave Champa and me a private tour, even opening the ark to show us some of their Torah scrolls. He told us about Tbilisi’s small Jewish community and took the photo you see here.

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While near Tbilisi, we also discovered wine ice cream, from this woman at Mtskheta. We thought it was a gimmick but I bought a cone and it was wine ice cream, and pretty tasty, too.

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We also were surprised by people like this New Zealand woman, Lesley, who we met at an Armenian restaurant that provided a demonstration of traditional lavash baking. We discovered she lived previously in Turkmenistan, where she was friends with a young American woman who is now in our Peace Corps group in Moldova.

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Then there was the woman with the red jacket you see talking with Champa. She is a physical therapist from the Philippines who works in Dubai. She and her husband came to Armenia for a brief vacation while renewing their visas. They were among several foreign nationals we met in Armenia who work in the Gulf. Who knew? The two Chinese women in the foreground, who took selfies and texted nonstop during our tour, are air hostesses for a Gulf airline.

It’s humbling for a planner like me to acknowledge that my detailed trip itineraries often fail to anticipate what Champa and I will remember most about a trip. As I wrote when I started this blog, one of my goals in being “not exacty retired” is to recognize the richness of life’s surprises and make the most of them, especially when traveling. “After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years,” I wrote then, “I wanted to embrace the unknown.”

Now, two and half years later, and especially after returning from a great trip, I feel that way even more. Spreadsheets are great but, in both the dictionary and on the road, serendipity will always come first.

Armenia and Georgia

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Moldova wasn’t the only country I barely knew before joining the Peace Corps. I also was unfamiliar with Armenia and Georgia, which Champa and I visited this past week during her school’s fall break.

Guess what: They’re beautiful, fascinating, filled with surprises and much easier to visit than you might expect, especially if you’re an American whose idea of “foreign travel” is limited to typical (and expensive) destinations such as Paris or London. Many of us who grew up during the Cold War tended to equate the Soviet Union with Russia, but it included so much more than that.

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As you can see on the map, Armenia and Georgia are located on the other side of the Black Sea from Moldova. All three countries are small former Soviet states that declared their independence in 1991. They share many traditions, from Orthodox Christianity to cheese pastries, but Armenia and Georgia each have their own distinct identity. Both are more prosperous than Moldova, especially in their capitals, Yerevan and Tbilisi. IMG_8386Their histories range from Armenia’s genocide to Georgia’s famous son, Joseph Stalin. They are Caucasian in the original sense of that word, with the Caucasus Mountains and striking landscapes.

We flew from Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, via Kiev to Yerevan, where we spent our first full day visiting three friends serving in Peace Corps Amernia: Brent and Dee Beardsley and Karen Jean Hunt, all seen here with us. We then toured some of Armenia’s most famous sites, including the temples at Garni and Geghard, shown above, the cathedral and other treasures of Echmiadzin and the ruins at Zvartnots. We drove past countryside like you see below.

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Next we hired a car to drive us north across the Georgian border to Tbilisi, a trip of about six hours including stops at Lake Sevan, Dilijan and a nondescript roadside cafe that served some of the best barbecue we’ve ever eaten. We checked into an Airbnb, shown below, and immediately tried some of Georgia’s cuisine, including its khinkali dumplings that reminded us of Nepal’s momos. The next day we toured Tbilisi and the nearby sites of Jvari and Mtskheta, enjoying still more churches, a synagogue, outdoor markets and a cable car ride.

We loved Yerevan and Tbilisi. Both offer amazing sights, rich history, good hotels and restaurants, lively nightlife, friendly people and reasonable prices. We felt completely safe and had little trouble communicating; many people in both capitals speak at least some English.

During our tours, we met more tourists from Dubai and Abu Dhabi than the United States. That’s a shame. Americans are missing out on a great travel experience: two welcoming countries that are relatively easy to reach and require no visas. As I wrote previously about Transylvania in Romania, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking beyond the beaten path, consider visiting Armenia and Georgia — and Moldova! — before they are “discovered.”

I won’t tell anyone if you need to peek again at the map to be sure where they are.