Friday, May 23, 2014

Armenia: New Friends and High Places



Starbucks Not. The Cafe Flagman near our hotel is our new hangout. It's all outdoors, with tables and comfortable sofas shaded from the sun by awnings made to look like sails. This is an interesting theme given that Armenia is landlocked, but I guess it's OK to get by with visions of the sea to go with these sunny skies.

We stopped here for dessert one evening, again for coffee one morning, and today to use the Wi-Fi, and catch up on writing. The hostess in the pink blouse was shy about using her English. At first we thought she didn't want to bother with us, but today when we walked in, she smiled and asked, "How are you?'' I think that makes us regulars.

We continue to enjoy meeting the people here in Armenia, thanks to some helpful connections made locally and through friends in Seattle.



A day trip into the countryside with Envoy Hostels led us to Kolya Torosyan, above, a musical instrument maker in his 80s. He lives in the village of Byurakan on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the highest mountain in Armenia. He carved this traditional flute, called a duduk-doodook, from apricot wood in a closet-size workshop in back of his house. The flute has a warm, low-pitched saxophone sound. Soon it will be hanging



on our wall at home as the latest addition to Tom's musical instrument collection! The weather in Yerevan has been in the mid-70s and sunny most of the time, but at 10,500 feet, Mt. Aragats still has snow. It took our van quite a while to negotiate a rocky, uphill road to the top where we stopped briefly for a short walk and



photos before heading back down for a stop at the Amberd Fortress and a three and half mile hike to Byurakan. What remains of the fortress was finished in the 12th century after it was captured from the Turks. It's good we were here in May because the area is usually inaccessible because of snow. We were also able to walk to a church built sometime in the 11th century by Armenians. Armenia claims to be the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD. The official church is the Armenian Apostolic Church. It has a spiritual leader, similar to the Catholic pope, who lives outside of Yerevan in Etchmiadzin, the "Vatican City'' of Armenia.

Our hiking guides, two sharp young women in their 20s, lead the way along a steep path through fields of wild poppies to a river and waterfalls. It was tough-going in some places, at least for us. The others in our group were in their 20s and 30s. But we managed to keep up, with stops along the way to smell the wild oregono and fennel.





Thanks to a co-worker at The Seattle Times with a friend living in Yerevan, we visited the Maran Winery, below, for one of the most enjoyable wine-tastings I've ever experienced. Anna Israelyan, the online editor of a newspaper here, organized the whole evening for us and another journalist friend.



We began with a walk through the vineyards, then it was down into the cellars for snacks and a relaxed evening of tasting and talking. The owner and his son spent two hours with us, opening bottle after bottle, as they explained the history of wine-making in Armenia. According to Biblical legend, it dates back to grapes planted by Noah on the slopes of Mount Ararat.


Anna, on the right, did a two-week internship at The Seattle Times a few years ago. I regret that I didn't get to know her then, but was glad to have the opportunity to meet her here in Yerevan. Sadly, the print media isn't doing any better here than in the U.S. Just for fun, here's a photo showing how to spell "newspaper" in Armenian.



We took the minibus back to Tbilisi before catching a flight to Istanbul, and it was a much better ride than we had coming to Yerevan. There were just nine people on the bus and little baggage compared to 18 people on the way in with suitcases stuffed everywhere. The rest stops were vastly improved. "Five minutes,'' our driver said when he pulled into this bakery. It was barely enough, given the crowds. Women were holding their arms out for stacks of these big rounds of bread fresh from the oven. We managed to squeeze in line and come away with a warm chocolate muffin and four cookies for a total cost of of $1.



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A warm welcome in Armenia

"On your first day in Armenia, you are a guest. The second day, you are a friend. The third day you are a relative." Old Armenian adage.


So much to say about Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia in the South Caucasus. The feeling here is young, hip and energetic, with a hint of the Middle East (Iran is about 200 miles away), in a former Soviet republic coming of age. As usual, one of the best parts about being here, apart from the food, is the



friendliness of the people. Armenia's shared border with Iran plus its history of being ruled over the years by Persia (present-day Iran), the Ottoman Turks and Soviet Russia, makes for an interesting mix of people and cultures.



The woman above, who asked Tom to take her picture, is the second Iranian tourist with whom we've had a chance to chat. She came to Yerevan to apply at the U.S. embassy for a visa to visit the United States, but said she was turned down because she was single. She was disappointed, but all was not lost: She was enjoying her time in Yerevan where she didn't have to worry about wearing a head scarf or covering her arms.



Unlike Tbilisi, which had more of a village feel, at least in the old town, Yerevan is more spread out, with wide boulevards, parks and public squares filled with larger-than-life statues. Architect Alexander Tamanyan developed a grid plan for the city in the 1920s when the Soviets we're flush with cash.The main avenues point in the direction of Mt. Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have landed after the floods. Armenians claim the mountain as their own and treasure the views from here, even though Ararat lies in what now is Turkey. Surrounding elegant rose-colored museums and government buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century, are lighted fountains and sidewalk cafes decorated like outdoor living roooms.




No MacDonald's or Starbucks yet, but I did spot a Cinnabon on National Street, a new pedestrian promenade, linking Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square) to the Opera House, and onto a development called the Cascades, filled with parks, gardens and hundreds of steps with fountains, galleries and sculptures donated by an Armenian-American philantropist and art collector.








I expected more of a language barrier, but nearly everything is written out in both Armenian script and Roman letters, and most young people speak fluent English. We arrived at the bus station after a five-hour minivan ride from Tbilisi (18 people plus luggage, but not as uncomfortable as it sounds), realizing we had no Dram, the Armenian currency. There was no exchange office or ATM nearby, so we knocked on the half-opened door of a dusty office that said "Tours,'' and woke the office manager who was napping on the couch. She opened her wallet and exchanged $20 U.S. dollars for us, shaving a few cents off the official rate for her trouble; then offered us candy, coffee and water before calling us a taxi.

First impressions: Everything is inexpensive here, even less than in Georgia. A taxi ride most anywhere in town is no more than $2. Most museum entrances are around $2.50. A beer or glass of wine is about $2, or slightly more on a cafe "VIP" couch. Our dinners are ranging between $12 and $20, including drinks. Tickets for a ballet performance at the Opera House were $15 for the best seats.



Hotels tend to be higher priced. Still, ours, the Hotel Town Palace, opened a few months ago by Lebanese owners in a little residential area near the university, is a reasonable $87 per night, including a breakfast buffet. The decor is a little strange - big leather sofas in the hallways that look as if they were imported from the Middle East - and no artwork or decoration anywhere on the walls. But the two young women who staff the front desk aim to please, jumping at the smallest request with offers to make phone calls or find out about anything we need.



The State Museum of Armenian History and National Art Gallery, dominate the former Lenin Square, above, along with government buildings and a Marriott Hotel. We were surprised to find most of the museum explanations in English. Like visitors to the Louvre in Paris who head directly to the Mona Lisa, we were most interested in seeing the world's oldest leather shoe, on display in a lighted glass case. The 5,500-year-old shoe was discovered in a cave by a team of archaeologists a few years ago. The shoe, made of a single piece of cowhide leather was shaped to fit the wearer's right foot. No pictures allowed unfortunatley.


Of course we've been enjoying the food, more Middle-Eastern than Georgian, with lots of grilled vegetables, and dishes incorporating walnuts, apricots and pomegranate. This meal included cracked olives


with lemon, walnuts and pomegranate juice; grilled red bell peppers, eggplant mixed with tahini; stuffed grape leaves and flat bread. Barbecued lamb, beef or chicken are on every menu, but we're staying away



from meat mostly and enjoying the vegetables, nuts, cheeses, and of course, wine and Armenia's specialty, Cognac. Travelers can call tours and tastings at the Yerevan Ararat Brandy-Wine-Vodka Factory, celebrating its 137th anniversary this year. The factory is on the grounds of a former Persian fortress that once housed a mosque, gardens and underground tunnels used to get in and out of the city safely. Privately-owned until it was nationalized by the Russians, the factory was abandoned after the collapes of the Soviet Union in 1991. It reopened again in 2002 under the ownership of a local politician and arm wrestling champion, and now produces fine Cognacs sold all over the world, but mainly in Russia.


We signed on for an $8 tour and tasting with the delightful Monika Khachatryan, above, who spent more than an hour with just the two of us, walking us through the barrel rooms and explaining that the French were so impressed with the brandy produced here long ago that they agreed to allow the Armenians to call their brandy Cognac, a term reserved for brandy made only in the Cognac region of France. Notice her scarf. It's a "Pucci'' scarf which she wore when she noticed my name on the reservation list.


The best part of the tour, of course was the tasting. We first sipped a fortified wine made in 1924 that the factory donates to charity auctions where it sells for up to $6000 a bottle. At 19% alcohol, it was once considered "Cognac for women.'' Real Cognac is 40%. Since it was just afternoon, we limited oursevelves to small sips from 10 and 20-year old bottles, paired with slices of grapefruit and oranges and a square of chocolate. The only thing missing was the cigars!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hey Sarah, We can see Russia from here


Eat your heart out Sarah Palin. If your kitchen window in Alaska is the best you can do, maybe you should come to the Republic of Georgia. We can see Russia from the mountain village of Kazbegi, about 10 miles from the Russian border. To get here, we drove about two and a half hours from Tbilisi with Envoy Hostels on



a day trip that took us along the scenic Georgian Military Highway, an ancient passage across the Caucasus mountains, engineered in the 19th century with the Russian occupation of Georgia. The road skirts a reservoir and passes a fortress and chuches before approaching ski areas and the Jarvi Pass, at 7,800 feet, before descending into the town of Kazbegi near the border. It was our first look at the Georgian countryside. Our driver had to stop several times to negotiate his way around flocks of sheep on their way into the mountains for the summer. Cows slept lazily on the road in a few places. The picture above appears on the cover of the Lonely Planet Guide.



Most people come to this area to go hiking and walking in the mountains. It's been in the 80s and sunny most days, with no rain, unusually warm for this time of year. Our plan was to have lunch in the home of one of the villagers, then hike to Gergeti Sameba, a mountaintop monastery overlooking the Russian border. Those plans changed when we met a police roadblock at the entrance to the village. All but local traffic was being restricted due to falling rock from a glacer that cracked, apparently due to the warm temperatures. The rock damaged the gas pipeline that runs from Russia through Georgia and into Armenia, and hiking up the mountain was off limits. So...onto Plan B. Ketino Sujashvili, our village hostess, walked out and met us at the roadblock. Instead of driving to her house in the village, we would walk.



"Small accident,'' she said. "You will go small hiking instead.'' We followed her down a dirt road, past more sheep and along a creek until we reached her house, where she had the table set for lunch. Everything was ready except the dumplings. These little volcano-shaped treats are a staple in Georgia, usually served in restaurants five to a plate, and filled with mushrooms or cheese or ground meet. We were invited to help. Ketino, left in the photo below, demonstrates how to fold the dough around the meat and seal it by pinching the top.



Tom, of course, was a natural at folding the corners just right to create a sealed dumpling so, as our hostess put it, "soup no fall out'' during cooking.



Ketino runs a guest house for hikers, and likes to use English phrases she picks up from her guests such as "My love," and "Not nice situation," referring to the road block. She prepared a huge lunch for us with all regional specialities. There was vegetable soup, a platter of fresh fish, rolled eggplants with walnut stuffing, carrot salad, chicken, cauliflower salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, slabs of white cheese, bread, homemade wine and juice squeezed from a local fruit. Last came the dumplings, a bit mishapen, but intact and juicy. Lastly came ice cream, tea, coffee and small glasses of the local vodka called cha cha.



We would have been happy to settle in for a nap afterwards, but with our hike to the monastery foiled by the cracked glacier, Marine made a few calls, and put together a plan for a climb to a waterfall. We switched to a new driver with a car sturdy enough to make its way through a rocky pasture to get to the trailhead. We got out of the van, and he lifted a piece of barbed wire fence, motioning for us to jump across a rushing stream. It looked too risky, so a Swiss woman in our group used to finding solutions to hiking challenges, went exploring and discovered a work-around path. We avoided the jump across the water, but had to zig-zag our way straight up hilly pasture land to the top of the mountain.

My thighs were burning by now, so I decided to stop here, sit on a rock, relax, and play around with taking my first-ever selfie with my iPhone. Just another beautiful day in Georgia. I'm sure the views were better than whatever Sarah Palin thought she could see from her kitchen window!



Next: Taking the minibus to Yerevan, Armenia


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tbilisi: Art, Architecture and the Georgian Kitchen


Tbilisi is a nearly 2,000-year-old city with a 21st century vibe. Built on two sides of the Mtkvari River, surrounded by mountains on three sides, it has almost a village-like feel, with people living and working in the narrow alleys and crumbling houses in the old town, and in elegant 19th century and Communist-era buildings in the newer areas. Looking down on it all is the "Mother Georgia,'' offering protection and a national welcome, symbolized by a generous bowl of wine.


The architectural contrasts are amazing. Pictured above is the glass and steel pedestrian Peace Bridge, designed by an Italian architect. It faces a controversial new theater complex called "Two Tubes,'' still under construction. Above the tubes is the home of the former president, its future use undecided. The building that resembles white mushroom caps is a government administration building. Mixed in are historic Eastern Orthodox churches with pleated umbrella -shaped domes, some plated in gold, and all topped with a cross.
All the monuments are lighted at night, making the city feel safe and alive. Restaurants and cafes stay open until 2 a.m. A cable car ride, built in 2012, connects the river with the Nariqala hilltop fortress. Lighted fountains "dance'' to piped-in music at night on Europe Square, a paved park-like prominade that houses a giant, white piano, a gift from former French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
This is a city best enjoyed by walking around to see the various sites, and taking the time to bump into the unexpected. We stopped to talk to an Orthodox priest, Father Michael, dean of the Kashevit Church, on what turned out to be "Family Values'' day in Tbilisi, a day apparently declared to counter a gay pride celebration that took place last year on the same date. Hundreds of police were out on the streets this year, but things seemed quiet when we stopped to ask Father Michael what was going on. "This is a very tradtional country," he explained. When it comes to Gay marriage, adoption etc. "Think opposite of yours.'' As we talked, several people came up to him for a blessing. Behind him is the Marx, Engles, Lenin building, built on the site of a former church that was demolished by the Communist government.
We've been enjoying all the cultural activities Tbilisi has to offer. Below is a "clock tower'' built by Rezo Gabriadze, an arts patron and the artistic director of the Gabriadze Theatre. The theatre

specializes in marionette performances that take place in a small theater that feels like it could be somewhere in Paris in the 1920s. For about $8, we saw a play titlted "The Autumn of My Spring." The protagonist was a little bird who stole money to help an elderly woman, and was "sentenced'' by a court to spend the rest of his life in window of a pet store. Hilarious.

Tbilisi translates to "warm'' in Georgian, a name said to have come from hot springs flowing under the city. Above are sulfar bath houses, recently restored, in a district called Abanotubani. The small domes are at ground level. The baths are below. We're still investigating the ins and outs of going for a soak. Some have private rooms where men and women or families can go in together; others are public and separated.
We first saw these with a guide from Envoy Hostel which offers 2.5-hour walking tours for the bargain price of $5. We were the only two people to sign up that day, so we had what amounted to a private tour by 21-year-old college Ia, short for Violet, pictured above. Like many Georgians, she has a long last name, about to get longer. Her last name has been Davitishvili, she explained, but is about to become Bagration-Davitishvili, reflecting two families, both descended from a 9th century royal dynasty that split apart long ago and are coming together once again.
The old town's main streets are tree-lined, and the whole city feels very green. Sidewalk wine tasting is common on street corners. Kitchy restaurants, like the "KGB Is Still Watching You,'' attract crowds into the late evening.

While much has been restored, the majority of old buildings are crumbling, or at least that's how it looks from the outside. Inside, it's often a different story.



The Pur Pur restaurant, below, is a good example. To find it, you wander down a street past rows of what look like abandoned buildings with peeling paint and broken out windows. Across the street is a park where kids kick soccer balls, and men play backgammon in the afternoons. To find the restaurant, you enter a tall open doorway and climb of flight of slanted wooden steps. Walk past a broken mirror and through another


set of wooden doors into an elegant dining room that could be someone's finely-decorated home. Notice the vintage lamp shades and missmatched table coverings. We had a memorable $30 (expensive by Georgian standards) lunch here while listening to backround music by Leonard Cohen CD. Straying from the usual Georgian kitchen, we ordered a salad of fresh greens with a side of soft cheese flecked with sun dried tomatoes. Next came a delicate ravioli filled with fresh spinach. Tom had a slice of a caramel cake and we shared a half-carafe of white wine. A long, relaxing lunch it was, a reward for walking about seven miles that day.


Many of the old town shops are underground - literal holes in the walls! This is a bakery where goods are passed to customers through a little window. Other shops - small grocery stores etc. - are entered down a flight of steps.



Speaking of the "Georgian Kitchen," this dish has become one of our favorites. It's called Khacapuri Acharuli, a boat-shaped piece of bread, filled with melted cheese and butter and toped with an egg which you "scramble'' with your fork, then eat by breaking off chunks of bread and dipping. Since we hardly ever eat bread or butter at home, we're giving ourselves permission to induge!



We spent several hours wandering around a flea market that takes place daily in a park near the Dry Bridge. Tom was searching for a tradtional silver-rimmed wine cup made from a bull's horn. He and this vendor had a good time hagging over the price which turned out be about $8.50.


Next: Into the countryside for lunch and dumping-making with a Georgian family.