Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

It ended with a loud dance

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:14 PM 0 comments
One more monastery and a Greek temple ended the tour. The Geghard one was a very interesting monastery built right into the cliff. It comprised of many chambers, a vestry, a mountain spring cave chamber and the Proshians’ sepulchre. This cave chamber was the most interesting. In the center, there are two lions with a chain around the necks and between them there is an eagle with a lamb in its claws. This is the coat-of-arms of the Proshian Princes. The rocks were pitch black and the only light was from the open dome, so the entire chamber was eerie and gave one a mysterious but at the same time quiet feeling. The domes were sculptured but not colored like the ones in the Stans, but the sunlight streaming down from the opening made them looked heavenly. Very beautiful monastery. My favorite so far in Armenia. The Garni Temple was reconstructed and made to look ancient as it was. Seen too many of these so I wasnt too impressed nor interested. We lunched right next to the temple and watched the women make lavash bread which tasted absolutely heavenly, crispy and satisfying. We returned to the capital for an early dinner and then it's time for an Armenian traditional dance show at the spectacular Opera House. The music was very Armenian, with women playing the traditional Kanon,a table-like stringed instrument that sat on the lap and with a pick on the index finger, men playing the ancient Middle Eastern Oud, like a guitar with its head bent backwards, and lots of drums and woodwinds. The dancers did all the numbers that lasted a full hour and half without breaks. The costumes were eye catching. The music was loud and I throughly mesmerized by it. A very nice way to end the trip. Loved Armenia!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Biblical Mtn Ararat but where is the ark?

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:07 PM 0 comments
"It's there on the right" and everyone frantically whipped out their cameras and snapped, snapped, even through the bus dirty windows. Well, it was our first sight of the biblical mountain since yesterday's cloud and mist shrouded it from our view from atop the Haghtanak Park. We had no patience to get to Khor Virap to admire it. Then we stopped at a vintage point where we're warned of snakes because the day was so dry and hot, that offered a clear view of the mountain on the Turkish side. Local farmers looked at us with a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. The view was fantastic but not close enough. When we finally made it to Khor Virap, the snow covered Ararat was in front of us, probably the closest we will ever get without crossing the border to Turkey. It is huge but not quite as majestic as Kazbeki, simply because Kazbeki was surrounded by lower mountains which gave it the feeling of towering over all others. Ararat stood alone, with no others around to compare it with. We did not see the ark anywhere. We are now so close to Turkey that we could literally touch it if we simply stand our arms out. Strange that it was so close and yet it belonged now to someone else. Once upon a time, the mountain range was Armenian, so we were told.

Next we visited Noravank, 2 churches nestled in orange rocky hills that resembled the dry cliffs of Arizona. Same color and texture. The churches were quite interesting. One offered a narrow double staircase that led to the upper chamber. Climbing them was thrilling. Then we had lunch at a restaurant just behind the churches, where it was open to the orange and beige cliffs. Felt like eating in Sedona.

We returned to Yerevan for an afternoon of souvenir shopping. While shopping we came upon the Italian Arezzo day parade with flag acrobatics and complete with a marching band. We had a light dinner of good soup back on the street near the Opera House and returned for the fountain light show at the Republic square. Good way to end another day at Yerevan.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Yerevan energetic and vibrant

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:00 PM 0 comments
There was no old city. Strange for a city that was one of the oldest inhabited cities and the first to adopt Christianity. But the city was quite pretty especially the Republic Square. The buildings with the Armenian Tufa stones were gorgeous! And the water and light show every night in front of the National History Museum was quite attractive, a miniature of the fountain Bellagio at Vegas. And every night, different music, a different singer. The crowd gathered there each evening, old and young, in groups, in pairs and singles. Our hotel was a mere stone throw away and one could hear the fountain music at night. Very soothing! Loved that place!

First stop was the Haghtanak park on top of the hill for great views of the city. The statue of Mother Armenia with a sword, much like the one in Tbilisi, except this one is all black, stood on top of the Military Museum and guarded the city, facing the straight Mashtots Ave with the Opera House on its left. Spectacular sight! Biblical Mtn Ararat loomed in front but veiled in clouds. We hoped to see it tomorrow clear and imposing.

Next we explored the Mashtots Ancient Manuscript Museum and oh, so many illuminated manuscripts! Hippo's heaven! How she loved them!

We had brandy (Armenian cognac) tasting at the Ararat Brandy factory. Three kinds and enough to get the Hip tipsy. The weather was very hot and it thundered and then rained pretty hard on us. But I loved it as it was refreshing. And I even remembered to bring the egg yoke colored umbrella that we bought in Vienna.

During lunch break, Jonathan, Greg and the Hip went to smoke a bit of Shisha with mint and grape flavors, and snacked on olives, hummus, flat bread, and mushrooms. The French Fries never came! She got a bit stoned!

In the afternoon we visited the Armenian Orthodox Holy See at Echmiadzin and what did we know, the Patriarch was at the souvenier shop!

In the evening we dined close to the Republic Square (Hip had grilled rabbit) and on our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the square for the fountain show and mingled with locals. All the surrounding buildings were lite up. Close to the fountain, it was refreshing and Charles Aznavour was singing through the enormous loudspeakers. Great ambiance and lovely early summer eve.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Goodbye Georgia and hello Armenia

Posted by Hippo Bean at 4:34 PM 0 comments
We did our second cave town today in Vardzia, a 7 story structure built into the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. It's more impressive than yesterday's Uplistsikhe. We passed by the Khertvisi Fortress, in Southern Georgia in the Meskheti region, to and from our way to Vardzia and stopped for some photos. A very beautiful fortress. Too bad we didnt have time to explore it. Then it's border crossing to Armenia. The weather suddenly changed to cloudy and rain but still very hot. No hassle whatsoever at the border and there's even an exchange machine on the Armenian side, where you put in any currency and out spits the equivalent of Armenian drams. A wonder of Armenia! And a nice welcome ! We met our local guide and our first stop was the earthquake devastated town of Gyumri, the capital and largest city of the Shirak Province in northwest Armenia. It is located about 120 km from the capital Yerevan. It was almost entirely flatten by a 7.1 earthquake, called the Pitak Earthquake in 1988 but totally rebuilt. Some buildings were still waiting to be rebuilt and showed massive damage. The new constructions used the Armenian tufa stones and they were absolutely gorgeous. Hues of brown, beige and orange blocks interspersed in the building walls offering well designed and eye pleasing houses. I really loved it! We arrived quite late and tired to our Best Western hotel in Yerevan, right in the midst of the Republic square where every night the fountain in front of the History Museum offered a water light show, kinda miniature of the Bellagio in Vegas. It's the evening hangout place. Couldnt wait to paint this vibrant city!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Monday, June 11, 2012

Kazbeki finally

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:54 PM 0 comments
It was 6AM and when I parted the window curtains, Mtn Kazbeki said good morning bathed in orange glow. Didnt know our room window faced the mountain, with a view of the Sameba church, which we put in some hard effort to climb to it yesterday. This morning, its majesty the mountain was clear and the view spectacular. Mtn Kazbeki was enormous, majestic among surrounding mountains, and with the church perched on a lower hill in front of the huge mountain, made it picture perfect. Couldnt get enough of the sight! Was glued to the window to admire it. Later I had my morning coffee in the terrace accompanied by the imposing Kazbeki. Last day in here and had to leave leaving my heart behind.

We left the Greater Caucasus by the same Jvari Pass, saw the same mountains and the Freedom Memorial again, the place with the orange iron rich rocks, the same snow tunnels, and drove southeast to Stalin's hometown Gori. We visited the Stalin museum which had nothing but part of the house he lived in when he was a kid, and photos upon photos of him. Poor museum. And didnt know he was so good looking while young. But in Gori, we had what Georgians called a kebab, which was a very tasty sausage wrapped in thin tortilla. It was outstandingly delicious! Then we came to our first series of cave towns, the Uplistsikhe, an ancient rock-hewn town in Eastern Georgia, about 15 kilometers east of the town of Gori, not very impressive. Our final destination for the night was the resort town of Bakuriani, in the Lesser Caucasus. Our hotel the Didveli was very colorful and the rooms were big with balconies. However the mountain views were now less impressive. I miss the Greater Caucasus! There was a billiards table in the hotel lobby and the bartender and I shot a round of pool and the Hippo lost miserably.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

hiking in the caucasus

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:53 PM 0 comments
'You mean that church up on that hill?' I've asked yesterday and pointed to the tiny looking church up on the mountain facing our hotel. I thought they were kidding but this morning we hiked the 14km to the Sameba church, the Gergeti Holy Trinity church, at 2200m, 500m above the Kazbegi town. The hike wasnt particulary strenuous but the Hippo was out of shape and it took some huffing and puffing to get up there. Along the path, we were greeted by wonderful views of the Greater Caucasus and views of the ever diminishing town below. The reward for the hard work was a church perched on top of a green meadow that immediately gave me the feeling of the Sound of Music. The hills are alive! But Mtn Kazbeki was stubborn, hidden behind fog and clouds and will not proclaim its glory. The day was a bit warmer than yesterday, just a bit cloudy, very ideal for mountain hikes. Later on in the afternoon, we took 4X4's through the Sno Valley to the village of Juta, hidden among hills. The village wasnt particularly interesting, it only had old dilapidated buildings, no cafes or restaurants but they're building a brand new resort hotel. But along the way, we saw waterfalls and views of wondrous mountains in the Sno valley. On our way back, Mtn Kazbeki finally showed its majesty, clear, covered in snow (it's called ice mountain by the locals). It's an enormous mountain, towering above all others. What a sight! In the evening, again I had my tea in the terrace for a quiet communion with the Caucasus, and Greg came to join me, embraced by the surrounding mountains. One of the most beautiful places on earth! I so love mountains!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Caucasus mountains finally

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:52 PM 0 comments
No skirmish about leaving Tbilisi but unwilling to leave the wonderful Holiday Inn. First stop today was the Jvari monastery with breathtaking views of the town of Mtskheta, the capital of eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia, the town of confluence of the Aragvi and Kura rivers. Next we went to the walled cathedral Svetiskhoveli, beautifully nestled among hills. Gorgeous cathedral in a gorgeous setting. The day was bright, sunny and refreshing. Then we saw some wonders. The confluence of a dark and a white river. You can literally see the dark and white waters converging. Then a place with no name, a side of a hill, with orange iron rich rocks with water running down but it's absolutely non slippery. It's beautiful but I dont know what made them non-slippery when water was running on them. Must check with our geologist friend Dr O'Reilly. We followed the winding Georgian Military Highway up hill, past the ski resort town of Gudauri, where in Soviet times must have been bustling but today it's deserted and looked abandoned and unkept, past the Friendship Memorial and came to the Jvari (cross) Pass at 2395m, absolutely freezing, and arrived very cold at Kazbegi (also known as Stepantsminda - town named after saint stephan), a resort town along the Georgian Military Highway, surrounded by majestic Caucasus mountains. Finally, the Caucasus! They are what the Hippo came to Georgia for. We stayed at the Ilia State University Alpine Ecology Institute, with very basic accommodations, and very slow internet, but the homemade food was simple and delicious.

Before dinner we explored town. A local museum, which was the poet Alexandre Kazbegi's house, a gorgeous structure with a garden where he was burried along with his parents, located just a few minutes walk from the town square by the Tergi river, and contained photos and original furniture. A local hotel by the square with the equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali. Some very small grocery stores (one named Google Market with the google ball colors). And a mere 4km to the Russian border. The mountaintops were covered in snow and fog and no views of the Kazbek mountain, one of the 5000+ ft mountains in the Caucasus, the third highest mountain in Georgia (after Mount Shkhara and Janga) and the seventh highest peak in the Greater Caucasus Mountains. In the evening, I had my tea on the university terrace, cold but at awe with the tranquility of the misty Greater Caucasus, veiled in fog and clouds. heaven!

Friday, June 08, 2012

Friday, June 08, 2012

Tbilisi

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:52 PM 0 comments
The city straddled the Kura (Mtkvari)river, brown but flowing with a fierceness. The most eye catching icon was the glass bridge. It was cool to walk on it under the glass cover and at night it's lite in blue. Once could see how the river meandered through the city from the view up in the citadel of Narikala. We wanted to do souvenir shopping but was made to walk from the old city to the non-impressive Freedom Square and then along the Rustaveli Ave, which claimed to be the most beautiful street in Tbilisi, but the buildings flanking it were rundown and old, with very little architecture. The newly open historical museum only offered photographs of people and things. We retired early to the Holiday Inn which for me, was the only impressive thing in Tbilisi. The city name sounded so cute but the city was a let down.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Thursday, June 07, 2012

the caucasus started for us

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:51 PM 0 comments
So finally the last leg of the Silk Road! The georgian flight to Tbilisi was not comfortable. The plane was tiny and the 3.5 hrs felt trapped in a suffocating cave. But we were recompensed by the best hotel of the entire trip, the modern Holiday Inn. We were put on the 7th floor, in a room facing the hill, with a floor to ceiling window. One wall was covered with a wall paper illustrating books and at night, the books came alive! Oh, the bathroom with the rain shower and wooden floor which acted as the drain! The hand held shower was a cylinder! Even the public restrooms in the hotel lobby were modernly designed. The doors of the stalls were 10 feet tall and heavy! We loved our room and the enormous window that offered the fantastic view. It rained in the early evening and the mist made the view very romantic and mysterious. And the smell of summer rain! At night the TV tower antenna and Ferris Wheel were illuminated and the buildings near the hotel offered glimpses of the local living. A McDonald in Georgian alphabets was right across the never ending traffic filled street, where we could get truly cold sodas and american style coffees. Crossing that street took enormous courage! But the prospect of a cold drink was worth the risk, since Tbilisi was hot as an oven compared to the cool of Vienna.

The first impression of the city was a disappointing one. It looked dirty and backwards. And the city, being the biggest in the country, was small.

We met up with the rest of the group later at dinner. ;A nice welcome from Jonathan and a bear hug from Greg. Almost immediately they've told us about what we missed in the youknowwhatcountry and asked how we didnt managed to get the visa. But we got Vienna to show off.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Wolfie's everywhere

Posted by Hippo Bean at 7:21 PM 0 comments
It's wolfie's face everywhere here in Wien (Vienna). A city that was on my list to visit but never had the chance until now. We're flying Austrian and of course it had to stop at Vienna. And since the visa from the youknowhatcountry was never issued to us, we changed plans and had a 4 day stopover in Vienna instead. We arrived in the early evening and went to paint town. Our hotel the Best Western Kaiserhof was a mere 3 blocks from the center and we walked to the Stephanplatz with the enormous striking cathedral, romanesque and gothic, one of the tallest churches in the world. The evening was warm and pleasant. The full moon behind the illuminated Karlskirche (St Charles church) was spectacular. Later I've learned the full moon was even more spectacular in the youknowwhatcountry's capital. Of course I've never got to see it there.

It poured non-stop for an entire day the following day while we visited the Hapsburg's Hofburg Palace. The silver and gold collections in the palace were stunning and the apartments were gorgeous. Comprised of so many wings, this place was enormous. After that we've waited 30 mins in the rain to visit the world renowed Staatsoper, the Vienna Opera House. Sitting there in one of the historic velvety red chairs was a touching experience. The opera hall was smaller that I've imagined, but the stage was very deep, and I kept visualizing Mozart conducting one of his operas in the orchestra. Everywhere in the interior from the not overwhelming Grand Staircase to the walls and ceilings and side halls were lavishly decorated. The most beautiful was of course the Schwind Foyer with the stunning chandeliers. A beautiful place but not as big as I've imagined. Nevertheless, it didnt disappoint me.

The next day we took the u-bahn to Schönbrunn, the Rococo summer residence of the Hapsburgs. The front looked a bit like Versailles but the resemblance stopped there. Behind it, the imperial French garden, the great Parterre, gently sloped uphill to the Sun fountain and on the very top, overlooking the palace itself, stood Maria Theresa's Gloriette. The Parterre had a zoo and several mazes. We walked one but failed miserably and had to retrace our steps back out. Then we found out there's a direct route to its very center and got there to the platform where we video recorded the whole maze. It reminded me of the wizardly maze in harry potter. We've tried several other 'easier' ones which were created for kids. Later when the rain finally stopped, we dined at the famous Plachutta restaurant. We had emperor Franz Joseph's beloved boiled beef, which came in a brass pot steaming with a mouth watering aromatic broth filled with spices, onions, carrots and potatoes. And oh yeah, I had to try the wiener schnitzel, lightly breaded veal accompanied by mild vinaigretted potatoes. We've discovered the restaurant by accident and it's only a block from our hotel, the Hilton. We switched hotels to sample different parts of the city and the Hilton overlooked the Stadtpark and it's within walking distance to everywhere. Vienna is a very walkable city.

On our last day, we crossed the brown danube and went up to the Donauturm with a bungee jumping platform and a rotating restaurant on top, to admire the 360 view of the city. Later in the evening, we attended a wolfie's concert in the Brams Hall. The music hall was small, intimate and very grandly ornamented. The orchestra all dressed up in 18C attire and wore wigs. I admit it was the highlight of the visit, even though I'm not much of a Wolfie's fan. The music was heavenly recognizable. They even played Strauss' blue danube, which the audience enthusiastically applauded, even though it wasnt even a Mozart's piece.

The Hippo absolutely loved Vienna (who wouldnt). The visa fiasco has turned into a blessing in disguise. Even tho later we found from the group that the youknowwhatcountry offered great sightseeing, an ultra modern capital with a state of the art shopping mall, Zoroastrian Fire Temples, view of southern Caucasus, a hotel facing the Caspian Sea and evening promenade strolls by the Caspian, Vienna had trumped it several times over. The food was fantastic, the music heavenly, the city was safe and easy to walk, and the culture, well, nothing can beat the art. Definitely a city the Hippo will visit again and again.

See Wien photos
 

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