Wandering in the Faroes

Its a long bank holiday weekend and I am getting more of a danish fix with a visit to Faroe Islands. The Faroes are a self ruled territory of Denmark, with a bustling population of around 55,000 (the same as Greenland but on a lot less space). Subsidised by Denmark, the Faroese have had self rule since 1948, and they have rigorously preserved their culture and their language. They are apparently pretty conservative, alcohol was only allowed to be imported from the 1990s, and even now you can only buy alcohol in six shops in the whole country.
There are no direct flights from London, so we got a bonus breakfast of herrings and cinnamon rolls in Copenhagen airport after our crack of dawn flight from Gatwick. We boarded a ram-packed flight to the islands, which have apparently had a huge uptick in tourism in recent times. Flying in was stunning with views of vertiginous cliffs, improbably waterfalls and luminescent green hills. It’s only about 8 degrees when we land, and yes it’s August, so I suspect it is pretty chilly here in winter.


The bustling capital of Tórshavn (Thor’s harbour)

Driving to Torshavn we admired the amazing waterfalls on every corner – both for their almost perfect form, like well graded steps, – but also as we couldn’t figure out where the water was coming from…. it wasn’t raining and none of the hills are that high or snow covered….hmmm a mystery to be solved on other days. (So it turns out that the soil retains the rain water for a long time, so the waterfalls will run for several days without new rainfall, albeit less energetically than when it is raining)

Parliament buildings


We found our hotel in town… a run down and pretty shabby affair that had seen better days, but still came with an outrageous price tag. We headed out to investigate town. It’s tiny and lovely and takes about three minutes to walk anywhere. We strolled around parliament Tinganes (some red wooden houses with grass on the roof), checked out the black wooden houses that locals still live in, and the lovely harbour at Vagsboten. By this time it was 4pm and we were hungry so we made a beeline to Emilias fast food for one of our favourite Nordic treats – a hot dog with all the fixings! There is nothing quite like fried crunchy onions.

An excellent hot dog
Torshavn Cathedral
Torshavn Harbour

  
An unsuccessful outing to photograph a road 

I’m travelling with the hubby**, which means we have a tripod and a bunch of camera gear. He had done his homework and had four photos he wants to take in the four days we are here. The first is of a particular piece of winding road (really not kidding). The light was lovely at 5.30 so we hopped in the car and went to see it. Half way there the fog rolled in and the rain started, so we made it to the spot and ended up sitting in the car for half an hour waiting unsuccessfully for the fog to clear…. oh, well better luck tomorrow.

Road attempt 1


The oldest cathedral in the Faroes 

We backtracked down to the south of the island and back at sea level there was some visibility, so we went to Kikjubour, to see the Magnus cathedral, which was apparently never completed as it never had a roof. We also visited the cute Olavskirkjan church which was open and had a lovely altar with a row boat. We gave some Romanian hikers a ride back to Torshavn as they weren’t convinced the bus was coming (and it’s good hiker karma as I hitch often when I come off the mountain, so that’s one in the bank). They did tell us they had been here for a week and it had been bucketing every day, but for 15 minutes every day they normally got some visibility, and in those moments the islands were stunning – I guess we better be ready for that 15 minutes. The rain had been pelting down in Kirkjubour, it was cold and we were jet lagged so we beat a retreat for some dinner (in a hilarious restaurant that didn’t have most of the menu available) and an early night


Trying to see the sea stacks through the sheets of rain 

After a robust Nordic breakfast we were off in the pelting rain to explore the islands.  I had planned a bunch of hikes, which neither of us were super enthused about as the rain was coming down in sheets and visibility was poor.  We optimistically headed up to Eioi to see if we could see the sea stacks at Risin and Kellingin off the north of Esturoy island.  The sea stacks are apparently the remains of a couple of Icelandic giants who had come to drag the island away but got turned to stone when the sun came up.  There’s no risk of that today as I doubt the sun will make an appearance.  Hubby is in full photo mode so we sloshed down through the boggy fields with the tripod for a better view.

All the tourists in Gjogv 

We rolled onto Gjogv, with what seemed like every other tourist on the island, the tiny car park packed with well branded rental cars.   The village is named for the natural gorge which is used for a harbour, and the views from the cliffs are quite lovely, probably even lovelier if there is a bit of sun.  After a gentle stroll up a steep cliff with the wind pushing us sideways…. we retreated sensibly to head down to Funningur to see what I think was one of my favourite churches of the trip

Funningur church


A light snack in Klaksvik

Still bucketing down, so we decided to abandon our plan to walk along the ridge of Vidoy to the sea cliffs at Enniberg, which is apparently a bit sketchy on a good day, so we headed over to Klaksvik for food.  We stopped at Fridas for a ‘light snack’ knowing we had a Michelin dinner to eat that night….but both of us were too cheap to turn down the half price offer on the brunch offer so we ended up having a huge lunch! Oops


Tunnels and villages on Kunoy and Bordoy

Then off to Kunoy, traversing another of the Faroes bonkers tunnels, this one 3km and single lane with passing spots.  The Faroes has 18 onshore and two sub sea tunnels.  A third one is being build to connect Stremoy and Esturoy at a different point than the causeway, and another one is being build to Sandoy.  Apparently these will cost Euro 50,000 per inhabitant.  

Kunoy church


For a few brief moments the sun pierced the clouds and we had brief glimpses of the stunning ridge line on the neighbouring island. It really is improbable landscape….. crazy cliffs plunging into the sea, waterfalls galore and a green so bright it almost hurts your eyes. The grass clings to the tiny bit of soil that is on top of the steep black volcanic rock slopes. It’s like the effort of holding on so tightly to the ground makes the grass glow. And there are no trees, unless lovingly cultivated by tenacious human hands. It is also improbable that people eked out an existence here for so long, and continue to do so….its August and it is cold, rainy and windy, you would have to be pretty hardy to survive the winters here.
Not all the villages survive – Muli is now deserted but it was once home to 30 people. The last two elderly couples in their 80s and 90s survived until the road was built and then they moved away. We went to see it and were rewarded with stunning views over neighbouring Vidoy when the sun came out.

Road to Muli


20 amazing courses of blubber and hearts at Koks 

After a quick change at the hotel we headed up to Koks, a two Michelin starred restaurant in the middle of the island. The directions were a bit cryptic, and we were told to park our car and meet at the fermenting house after which we would be driven to the restaurant. The fermenting house was a lovely sauna smelling room where a friendly young local gave us a Kombucha, and then we were bundled into 4wds and driven across the foreshore of a lake, veering well into the water and then up a lively river bed to a beautiful wooden house with a turf roof where all the staff were waiting outside for us. Dinner was an exceptional 20 courses which ranged from whale blubber and local roots, raw sea urchin, raw clams with herbs, raw langoustine brains accompanied by steamed langoustine tails, tartar of halibut with cavier, fried gills with cod liver mousse, and bacalao with parsley sauce and smoked mussels with a sandwich made with fried cod skin and a terrine of cod brains. Then onto the fermented part of the menu with dried cured lamb, crackers and lamb stomach fat, roasted fermented lamb with onion mousse and pickled onions, chopped pilot whale heart on sheep’s blood cracker (pilot whales are not endangered and are caught in the Faroes in traditional whale drives), and lambs brains and tail with celery. Then we ended with sorbet and rosehip gel, thyme mousse with caramel and frozen blueberries, salad of foraged flowers with compressed rhubarb and charcoal cream, and then waffles with rhubarb jam, whipped cream and chocolates! Yup we will be waddling tomorrow


Seeing the bird cliffs of Vestmanna

I am not a huge fan of group tours, but the only way to get to Vestmanna is on a boat, so we hopped on board and chuntedout into sea.  It’s quite a sedate trip, and the photos don’t do it justice, but watching the birds dive bomb from the 350m seacliffs is fabulous, and it was almost equally amusing to see all the sheep blithely going about their lives on the sides of the improbably slopes.  Some of the farmers come and get them from the top of the cliff sides, others get dropped off by boat and climb up to get them.  It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.


Bour and Gasadalur

We headed back to the island of Vagar (home of the airport) to go check out Mulafossur waterfall, and stopped for an eye wateringly expensive lunch £35 for two coffees out of a thermos, one meat platter and a tiny piece of cake.  And then we meandered around the sweet village of Bour taking photos.  

Mulafossur


Refusing to pay to hike 

We had planned to hike around the lake at Sorvagsvatn to the Bosdalafossur waterfall, but the local farmer had recently started charging people about €25 for the privilege, and neither hubby or I could fathom that, so instead we headed out to see the houses at Saksun. It was obvious too in Saksun that there is some tension between the locals and the tourists. A hike in Saksun which was previously free on the info board has had an €8 charge instituted. Elsewhere, there was an angry note telling tourists not to trespass (It sounds like there is quite a backstory, check it out here). It feels like there should be a happy medium. Charging a reasonable fee for a one hour hike of €5 makes sense to me, but these prices seem exorbitant. I am perhaps biased coming from a country richly endowed with national parks


The road revisited

On our way back to Tórshavn we thought we would give hubby’s road another go. Today was the only day that there was no rain forecast, so of course it was worth a shot. And unsurprisingly the heavens opened up about ten minutes before we got there and it was a total white out. Perhaps third time lucky tomorrow. We headed out for another huge, delicious and eye-waveringly expensive meal at Futastova…., and had an early night

And one more go

We awoke in Tórshavn to yet more rain, and after a final wander around the shops, we optimistically went back to the road for one more look en route to the airport. Still a total white out. For those of you wondering what the fuss was about, here is someone else’s picture of the road. images.app.goo.gl/egZcZAM2zT6UEG9h6. Hubby is still quite keen on the photo so perhaps will come again, but his plan is to wait to book a ticket until he sees a rock solid weather forecast.

Net, the Faroes are quite lovely, but also quite pricey….. I made the foolish error of totting up the bill for a long weekend and I could have bought a very nice new racing bike for the same amount. It just doesn’t seem great value for money, so while I am glad I went, I wouldn’t go back, ironically Greenland was a better deal in terms of joy per £.

Sørvágur, August 26, 2019

Additional notes

  • stayed at the Hotel Torshavn, which was pricey and not super clean. I would try somewhere else
  • booked months in advance to get a table at Koks, which had a Michelin star. Honestly you need to book all your dinners in advance if you want to eat anywhere decent. The day we arrived we were surprised by how few places had a table. We also ate at Futustova. Failing that emilias fast food in Tórshavn makes an exceptional hot dog
  • we rented a car from 62N, it was expensive (£100 a day), but worth it
  • fly to CPH or Edinburgh with any low cost carrier and then buy separate flights with Atlantic Airways – it will work out cheaper
  • book the boat tour here
  • bring lots of warm and wet weather gear (hat and gloves even in August
  • EU roaming plans don’t work in the Faroes (as it isn’t in the EU), but you can buy a SIM card with 2gb of data and 25 mins of calls for 89 kr
  • and an amusing blog here

** for new readers, ‘hubby’ does have a name, and he is pretty lovely, but he has no social media presence and doesn’t want any, so he is always incognito on the blog, but at least he allows the odd photo of him. Also note he takes brilliant photos, but he takes an age to edit them to his perfecting standards, so when he is happy with them, I will post a link (in about 18 months I reckon :-))

Abandoned towers and villages in Ingushetia and Dagestan (Breakaway Russian Republics part 3)

The stunning towers of Ingushetia and the Georgian Military Highway

After an astounding breakfast buffet – astounding both in its profusion of choices, but also in the uniformity of taste of the food (like the detergent the plates were washed in), we headed out for a long back track to Vladikavkaz to visit the Georgian military highway and the famous towers of Ingushetia.   The Caucasus are like the alps and the road was cut in a river valley for much of the way with steep peaks on either side.   Turning off the road to Georgia to run along the side of the mountains we were held for an hour while the FSB quadruple checked our permits.  I understand why people rebel here, it’s suffocating to live under constant intervention.  

In pictures of the region you tend to see the same two groups of towers at egikal, but what I didn’t know in advance is that there were hundreds of towers in various states of repair along the road.  We stopped at all the big ones and they were quite lovely.  A couple, our guide had never seen up close as none of his tourists had wanted to climb up the hill to get to them.   The best was probably Egikal and the two towers at Bashenny near the army base. 

The landscape and towers were really wonderful and I spent a lot of the day dreaming about hiking from tower to tower along the route of the Caucasus mountains, but I suspect that won’t be feasible while putin and the FSB have a hold on the territory.  

A long drive to Kezenoy Am – the highest lake in the Caucas

It was a long drive back through the mountains to get to the border of Dagestan where we spent the night at Kezenoyam- the highest lake in the Caucasus – it used to be where the Russian rowing team trained   A late dinner of shashlik and salad and to bed.  

Waking up to a stunning day, I managed a half hearted 20 minute jog along the lakeside…. stunning.   And then we had a very ottoman breakfast of tomatoes cheese and cucumber before heading to republic no. 5 – Dagestan

Dagestan – the wild west

A quick trip to neighbouring Makazhoy – an abandoned village perched on a river gorge.  The village was emptied when Stalin deported the Chechens in 1944.   15 years later the returnees where not allowed to resettle here.   Now people are allowed to live here but few want to as they worry that the Russians are more likely to commit war crimes in remote places with no witnesses. 

Entering Dagestan the roads became gravel and were winding up and down sheer mountains.  We stopped often, partly because of the FSB checkpoints, but also because of the frequent cow roadblocks.  The whole family would be out herding the cows.  Mums and grandmas in skirts and headscarfs, the men in baseball caps and rip-off Armani t shirts.   The drive was stunning – sheer dusty red cliffs on either side of narrow river valleys which are lush green with fruit trees.  It isn’t all lovely though, environmental issues don’t appear to be front of mind here – the outdoor toilets in riverside villages are effectively long drops perched above the river with human waste going straight into the river.   Rubbish is burnt, but plastic is chucked off the side of the mountain.  The rivers were frequently damned, no doubt for electricity, creating some quite lovely lakes – like at Irganay.  The mountains were phenomenal – a mix of Utah, Arizona, NZ and Morocco – with thick slabs of rock thrust out of the ground with the lines running vertically.   The roads were winding and mad men in ladas would come hurtling around the corner on the wrong side of the road.  Cows used the road for perambulation and more than once we almost hit a mad kid riding a horse on the median strip.  It was a bit like being in the Russian wild west.

The abandoned village and towers of Kakhib

Our goal for the day was Kakhib – an abandoned village about 2 hours from Gunib.    It is a stunning abandoned village that appears to be utterly disguised in the cliffside.  The rock houses and watch towers are well camouflaged and my photos don’t do it justice.  Our guide had never actually walked through the ruins as none of his tourists to this point were willing to do the walk – it was only 15 minutes strolling.  Tourists do make me laugh.  To fly to a country, drive for hours off road to get somewhere and then not be willing to actually walk a few minutes to see it properly.  We saw lower Kakhib, and then the neighbouring higher Kakhib – which was stunning in the afternoon light, though you did have to watch your feet to avoid all the cow poop.

Kakhib lower
Kakhib upper

After weaving our way back down the mountain on a track made for 4wd Ladas, we also stopped by the Karadakhskaya Tesnina – a nice hour round trip walk to see the narrow gorge.   And then to Gunib.  We were invited to Iftar half way to Gunib, but decided to keep going.  We made it 20 minutes after Iftar and went to a restaurant with world class crap service.  We asked for a menu and were told we didn’t need one.  We eventually got one, and we asked for a few dishes, and then the waiters told us we could have pizza or nothing.  Hilarious!  The pizza wasn’t bad, but it did take 40 minutes.  Stephane and I were fine, but poor Abdylla had been fasting since 3am

Karadakhskaya Tesnina

Gamsutl – the Macchu Picchu of Dagestan

Another day, another abandoned village at the top of a mountain.  Gamsutl is probably the most famous of the abandoned vilalges in the region and is a gentle stroll up through the forest.  It was actually pretty popular and we met quite a few Russian tourists hiking up.   I had assumed Russians were not that welcome in this part of the country, but as Abdylla rightly pointed out, he was much happier to see Russian tourists than Russian soldiers.   It was a lovely hike, and I got my morning jog in on the way back down. 

Gamsutl

Local sports competition

When we reached the bottom there were crowds of locals and it turns out they were having a sports competition between local schools.  Things are pretty basic here, so there wasn’t much in the way of equipment!  The long jump was actually a standing jump – the longest about 2.5 metres.  There was no shotput, so they threw a 16kg kettle bell instead, swinging from the legs.  The girls could do the jump but not the weighted throw, so instead they did dancing. And this was all done on a patch of field covered with rocks and cowpats.  We were like local celebraties, and a few of the ladies took photos with us, and the local English teacher came and had a long chat to practice her English – which was remarkably good.

Sports day at Gamsutl
Sports day at Gamsutl

We had a restful afternoon and another huge dinner.  Some locals were eating cake at the next table and I mentioned it looked good, so they gave me some (weirdly they had bought the cake from elsewhere). The next morning, we farewelled the lovely old lady who owned the rest house and headed to Derbent.

Dodgy Derbent – Derbent is an interesting town. On the edge of the Caspian Sea its an absolute no go on the FCO list, avoid visits at all costs, but we had a lovely time. The fortress is amazing and with the old town formed a narrow wedge between the sea and the Caucasus range.

We wandered around the edge of the Fortress, avoiding most of the Russian tourists as none of them were willing to walk around the steep walls. After a stonkingly good lunch we then wandered around the old town and the Shia Mosque. It is the oldest mosque in the country. It was interesting with our guide who was a Sunni, who told us all the differences between Sunni and Shia….., but stopped when I asked if they were sufficient reasons for them wanting to kill each other.

Fortress
Fortress
Lunch
Gateway to the old town
Old town Friday mosque
Headrests for praying

We then went down to the Armenian church, which has bullet holes and shrapnel in the walls. It is no longer a consecrated church, it is now a carpet museum, as the christians were run out of town years ago.

Armenian church

After checking out the Lenin statue, we found the public gym….. and amused the local girls by practising our pull ups and leg lifts. I don’t think most old ladies swing around on the playground equipment.

Next up, the synagogue, which was closed for shabbat. But the cafe next door was a thriving hub of jews and muslims drinking tea (those not fasting) and playing aggressive dominos. We were like local celebrities so were forced to stop for tea!!!  

Friendly chaps who bought us tea
Synagogue

We went to check out the town cemeteries – they were quite extraordinary. We then had a wander to the beach, which ended the journey from sea to sea (black to the Caspian)

Iftar was an amazing half a side of lamb cooked in a tandoor, with exceptional seabuckthorn tea, The food has been surprisingly good. We are heading home from Makhachkala tomorrow, but we are already planning our next trip back

Makhachkhala, May 12, 2019

Additional notes

Books recommended to me on the region – Let our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough; Caucasus – Mountain Men and Holy Wars by Nicholas Griffin; Cry Wolf by Vanora Bennett; The shoemaker and his daughter by Conor o’Clery

We booked through a UK agent, who outsourced to Caucasus Explorer, who outsourced to Caucasus Odyssey for the non Abkhazia portion. I am sure this meant there was a lot of extra margin in there. You can book direct with Abdylla through his Instagram, or with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer


Men visiting the tombs of those who had completed the Haj
the Caspian Sea


Onwards to Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya (Russian breakaway republics part 2)

Leaving Sochi we took an amazing overnight train to Mineralnye Voda.  £55 for first class, comfy bed, nice duvet, free chocolate, free tea, and a well dressed lady who was in charge of the carriage.  Amazingly they also had excellent onboard WiFi with free movies and an amazing app.  I am contemplating travelling across Russia now by train as I enjoyed it so much.  

Deporting an entire population 

Abdylla, our Chechen guide was there to meet us, and we headed off to Nalchik – the capital of Kabardino Balkar.  It was an unremarkable but lovely town with lots of trees.  We visited a  monument commemorating the deportation of the local Balkar population.  It was to be a theme for the next few days.  At the tail end of WW2, the Russians deported the whole Balkar population of 40000, ostensibly for supporting the Germans.  

 At the same time they ‘cleansed’ the entire populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia in operation lentil. (C.500,000 people).  This was to clear the region of Muslims so Russia could attack Muslim Turkey if they wished.  Most of the deportees were women and children whose husbands were conscripts fighting in the Russian army.   60% of the deportees didn’t survive the transit and the first year.  When they were eventually allowed to return 15 years later they had to buy their land back from the Russians and Ossetians  Sobering!

We went for an excellent sour cream laden lunch, though felt somewhat guilty eating in front of Abdylla who was on his  first day of Ramadan fasting.  (We did tell him he could ditch us and come back but he wouldn’t).   Then we strolled around town, saw a few monuments to Lenin and then hit the road. 

Drunk russians, a swift escape and a lot of check points

As we were driving to Ossetia, we made Abdylla stop to take a photo of a mt Rushmore-esque monument.  There was a coach tour of Russian military retirees drinking vodka who forcibly invited us for some shots.  We chatted for a while and then had to scarper as we made the mistake of answering one of the Russians who spoke to us in Pashto.  Purely because we knew the words ‘thank you’ and ‘how are you’, meant we must of been spies.   

Escape made, we still had to endure regular check points, as the FSB have a strong presence in these ethnic republics.   We also had to endure endless billboards of Putin in various glamorous poses.  

Horrifying Beslan – 400 deaths in a high school hostage siege

We stopped at Beslan to see the memorial of the school siege in 2004.   More than 1000 people were held hostage by Chechen terrorists for three days in a high school gymnasium, Russian ended the siege by firing rocket launchers into the building.  400 people were killed.

The memorial was beautiful but harrowing with all the faces of those killed.  We went after to the town cemetery which had a section for the graves, the saddest was a block of six graves of children all from the same family.   I always find it shameful to think about these conflicts happening in our lifetime….., and it reminded me that even today there are 1.5 million Uighur Muslims being forceably detained and ‘cleansed’ in China right now.   

Vladikavkaz – capital of Ossetia today but once the capital of Ingushetia

We rolled into Vladikavkaz, a peaceful soviet town watched over by Fatima and the mountains in the distance, with a lovely mosque.  We had iftar with Abdylla, waiting until 7.03 to eat – excellent khinkhali, chebusara, and fish and then headed to bed.

After a wonderful breakfast of cottage cheese pie, sausages, beetroot, cottage cheese pancakes and cherries (they like cheese here), we left the pretty town of Vladikavkaz and drove from Ossetia to Ingushetia.  

Visiting Magas – the artificial capital of Ingushetia, and waiting for the FSB

The border shifted 50 years ago.  When the entire Ingushetian population was deported in 1944, the ossetians extended their territory.  When the Ingushetians came back the Russians reset the historical borders.  Its not a dumb idea from Moscow, as the more the regions infight amongst each other, the less they fight with the Russian government.   Today Ingushetia is an autonomous region with its own government.  The border shift though, left Ingushetia without a capital, so the new town of Magas was created.  It’s a bit like Milton Keynes or Canberra.    

We visited the Magas museum which is a faithful reconstruction of an Ingushetia tower.   Abdylla said it would take 40 minutes to climb to the top so we decided to jog the sloping ramps around the castle walls to see how long it would take.  Abdylla stopped half way, wisely recognising that trying to race while fasting probably wasn’t that sensible….. it took me 8 minutes.  Hubby did a creditable effort only walking and made it in 13.  At the top is a glass balcony with a glass floor showing the 100m drop which was a bit vomit inducing.  

We then had to go see the FSB (formerly named the KGB).  We needed permission to visit the famous ingushetian towers on the Georgian military highway.  After a frustrating hour for Abdylla, permits were secured but only for tomorrow so we would have to make an extra four hour round trip – oh well, at the mercy of the FSB. 

Monument to deportation, whitewashed by the Russian government

Before leaving Magas, we visited a monument to the Ingushetian deportations.   First built by the locals, the Russians intervened with a re-characterisation of the monument, by making it also about when the ingushetians ‘ceded’ their territory, and a monument to the wars in Germany and Afghanistan.   The Ingushetians haven’t fully accepted the whitewash and there is a harrowing museum under part of the memorial showing the Russian deportations.  

The most shocking thing were gravestones that were purposefully pillaged from Ingushetian cemeteries and used to build roads and farm sheds, a collection of these had been recovered and installed in the museum.  It’s amazing to me that I hadn’t ever heard of this before, but I guess I hadn’t studied Russian history and the victor normally writes the history in any case.  (Again, my normal caveats apply, I don’t profess to have an actual clue on the history and who was right or wrong).  We also managed to find some food, not always straightforward during Ramadan. Lunch was an excellent Chechen pasta (like spätzle) with broth, onions, and chicken.  

We meandered our way to Grozny in the secondary roads.  Abdylla was playing Crowded house in the car and with the endless flat fertile fields it felt like being home in the Waikato. Well, except for the women in their traditional clothing and the streams of tanks going by.  We were not sure if they are mobilising troops or preparing for victory day on the 9th of May, either was possible. My favourite stop was the Achkhoy Martan mosque, which was incredible.

Grozny – capital of Chechnya, about which I had only heard bad things….

We arrived in Grozny, with its obligatory ‘I love Grozny’ sign (every Russian town has one).   Grozny can feel like a monument to Kadyrov – the Russian appointed leader who is wildly unpopular with Chechens.  His house, visible from the observation deck of the tallest building in town is ridiculous!   We couldn’t take photos though, as you are banned – apparently too many people were posting photos and the comments were vicious about how hopeless he is.

Wandering around was lovely, checking out the archangel Michael church, the flower park with the AstroTurf animals and of course ‘the heart of Chechnya mosque’.  Strolling for an hour before dinner, the locals here are extremely traditional – most of the women have their heads covered and are in long dresses.  Beards and hats are de riguer for men.   We bumped into lots of Abdylla’s friends in the street and of course none of the men would shake my hand. Its an interesting town, and a thriving recruitment ground for ISIS after years of Muslims being mistreated by the Russian government .   

Iftar was at a very traditional Chechen restaurant – haggis, dumplings, broth, pumpkin pancakes and sea buckthorn tea.  The pumpkin pancakes were amazing…. I was less thrilled by the haggis.    

Strolling home we popped into the mosque.  Clearly my long skirt and headscarf weren’t sufficiently Islamic, so I was loaned a stunning tablecloth ensemble and directed to the women’s prayer area.  The mosque was lovely by night, and amusingly set against the ‘high rises’ of Grozny with their neon signs.  Off to bed, tomorrow to Ingushetia 

Grozny, May 8, 2019

Bus stops and abandoned stations in Abkhazia (Breakaway Russian Republics part 1)

A complicated history, and now a breakaway state

Abkhazia (population 240,000) is wedged between the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains, and neighboured by Georgia and Russia.  Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in a bloody war between 1992-93, shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart. In 2008, after a five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia, Moscow officially recognised the republic as independent.  It is a complicated conflict, and I won’t profess to have a clue about who is right or wrong (in all of these situations there tends to be right and wrong on both sides in any case). Georgians represented more than 50% of the population prior to independence and abkhazians less than 30%.  The population is now 40% of what it was. Today the UN still consider Abkhazia to be part of Georgia. Abhkazia is only officially recognised by Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela.   The economy is largely held up by the million or so Russian tourists who come every summer for a cheap Black Sea experience (it feels like the British equivalent of going to Benidorm).   

Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre


The lottery of life 

Many Abkhazians only have Abkhazian passports (unless they are lucky enough to have a Russian parent). Technically they can get a Georgian passport, but apparently that isn’t really allowed as ‘the security services will come after you’.  I had never really contemplated what life was like as a ‘citizen’ of a largely unrecognised state.  Officially this means that they can only go to the countries that recognise them.  Practically this means they can only go to Russia, as there are no direct flights from Russia to any of the other places that recognise them, and it isn’t obvious that airlines would even recognise an Abkhazian passport as an official ID.    I have always felt grateful for having passport(s) that allow me relative freedom of movement, but even with passports from less popular countries it is still feasible to get a visa to go to many places.  I can’t imagine not being free to travel – such is the lottery of birth!  I am grateful every time I travel that I was born when and where I was. 


Sochi,Gagra and Russian tourists 

We arrived in Abkhazia via Sochi – a Black Sea resort for working class Russians, now famous for the Winter Olympics.   It took an hour to get through Russian passport control, we were apparently the fifth (non Russian) tourists the border chief had seen that year, so he had to ask us a few questions.   On the Abkhazian side, they waved us through but I made our guide stop so I could get a passport stamp.  They tried to talk me out of it, as they were worried I would have problems in Georgia, but we eventually persuaded them. 

Abandoned house
Abandoned house


Our first stop was Gagra, a soviet beach resort, starting with a visit to the Tsereteli playground.   Zurab Tsereteli is a famous Georgian artist, still alive today and with a whole museum in Tbilisi dedicated to his work.  He is famous for his use of mosaics and curves and as well as the playground he was responsible for some of the finest bus stops in Abkhazia.  We had a stroll along the beach, stopping for an excellent Turkish coffee.  We visited the abandoned cinema and an excellent abandoned villa (formerly home to the princes masseuse).

Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground


Ritsa national park

We headed up the gagra valley to the Ritsa national park.  The valley becomes a stunning gorge carved out over centuries by a fast flowing snow fed river.   The road culminates at Stalin’s dacha, a place he only visited five times, on the banks of crystal blue lake Ritsa.  It was nice but was somewhat marred by the presence of a road (I am a kiwi and prefer to walk in the mountains than go by road), and somewhat marred by the presence of a lot of Russian tourists, but probably mostly marred by the animals tied up on the side of the road for tourists to take photos with.  Eagles, peacocks and monkeys on leashes less than 20cm long.   It was awful, and the practice would die out pretty quickly if the Russian tourists weren’t paying 100 rubles to have a photo taken with the peacock.

Ritsa
Ritsa
Ritsa

 
Dinner and finding a husband

On the way back we stopped at the abandoned train station in Gagra – the architecture is amazing.   And we checked out the old abandoned soviet market and the beach.  

Gagra train station
Gagra train station

Black Sea in Gagra

Dinner was shashlik and kachapuri (excellent Georgian cheese bread), followed by strudel.   Service wasn’t brilliant, but was typically Russian, with the food taking an hour to arrive and it was delivered by a grumpy looking waitress.  They drove us out of the restaurant eventually by pumping up the volume on bad Russian pop. 
Dinner conversation was amusing.  Our guide, Diana, is fiercely proud of being Abkhazian, with every sight being introduced with ‘isn’t it amazing?  Isn’t it the best thing you have ever seen?’.   The sights weren’t normally that amazing, but her enthusiasm was commendable.    Somewhat incongruently, she wasn’t a great cultural fit with the locals.  By her account, abkhazians are still very conservative, especially in villages.    Women are apparently not allowed to work outside the home, date any man they aren’t going to marry, speak too much to their husbands in public, divorce or generally bring shame to their husbands or fathers.   And as a thank you, the men do nothing to contribute to the house.  It sounds fantastic.   But Diana is stuck here and can’t travel as she doesn’t have a Russian passport.  We did spend some of our time figuring out how she could get one, marrying one of her more trustworthy cousins who already has a Russian passport is apparently the best idea. 


Donuts and bus stops

The next morning, we had an excellent Russian breakfast, eggs, bread, and cottage cheese donut things which were amazing and a few Turkish coffees each and then headed out for a meandering journey to Sukhumi. Sergei our driver had gone home last night and had bought his lovely daughter Katia back with him, she was trying to improve her English, but was as shy as you would expect a 12 year old to be.
The morning started with some incredible bus stops by Tsereveli – the Whale/dolphin, the Spaceship, the Fish, the Cock, and the Creature of the sea.

For more bus stop photos see here and here

Pitsunda and soviet beach resorts 

We then strolled along the coast at Pitsunda, it was like being transported back to how I imagine 70s Russia might have been.  Incredible architecture!  

Pitsunda architecture
Black Sea in Pitsunda
Pitsunda playground
Pitsunda playground


We also visited an incredibly cool cathedral with a mildly interesting exterior but a very groovy interior with an incredible Art Deco organ and seats that looked like they were stolen from a 1950s cinema. 

Pitsunda cathedral
Pitsunda cathedral


We passed by the ruined church in Miusera, which was a bustling picnic spot.  The church was surrounded by platforms of Georgian houses that had been destroyed during the war, it was eerie.  The area has now been turned into a national park.

Miusera church
Miusera church


Lunch cooked over the fire with the hunters 

Our lunch stop was with a family in the village of Achandara.  We couldn’t find their house so the matriarch despatched her son in a battered Lada to come and find us.   We ate in a wooden cabin adorned with bear and wolf skins shot by her sons, and she cooked us a kind of polenta above a wood fire which we ate with spicy beans, pork knuckle and homemade cheese.   We finished it off with feijoa jam and bread (she made everything herself).

Homecooked lunch


Stuffed to the gills, Sergei took us to the cosmopolitan Sukhumi.  We visited two abandoned railway station (Sukhumi and Baratashvali) and the botanical gardens.  

Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Baratashvali station
Baratashvali station

We also saw the main square which is famous for the abandoned Georgian government building which the Abkhazians burnt from the inside and have vowed to leave as a monument.  It was been covered with hoardings commemorating 25 years of independence.

Georgian government building (hoarding celebrating 25 years of independence)
Georgian government building

Glitterati in Sukhumi

Dinner was a surreal experience in the ‘top’ hotel in Abkhazia.  We had borscht, kebab and local honey cake.  Everyone around us was ordering off the extensive sushi menu.  I have never quite seen sushi like it – oversized, elaborately decorated with mayonnaise and lurid sprinkles…. I am not sure what the Japanese would have made of it.  Our fellow diners were clearly the glitterati of Abkhazia with Chanel bags and very high heels!  


Morning run along the seafront

I woke up early enough for a run and headed out along the seafront.  In the distance I spied what looked like several men in black shell suits loitering around a kids playground…. it all looked quite dodgy and I was contemplating turning back.   As I got closer I realised it was an outdoor gym area and the blokes were all doing press ups!  The promenade was busy with (mostly) men strolling and a few more doing squats and push ups.  A great way to start the day.  

Black Sea cafe in Sukhumi
Sukhumi market


The benefit of the run was quickly destroyed by breakfast, a ridiculously large spread with porridge, sausages, eggs, vegetables and more of the incredible cottage cheese pancakes with a couple of cups of coffee.   Fortified we headed to the bazaar for a wander around.  Apparently the opening of a big supermarket nearby is ruining trade, and the bazaar is largely run by Armenians.  There was a spectacular array of merchandise, my favourites being the camouflage gumboot shoe and the nut sugar strings. 


Setting an FKT on Anakopia

The tourist highlight of Abkhazia (for those who are less obsessed with soviet bus stops) is the Anakopia fortress and the new Athos monastery.  Diana, our 25 year old guide assured me it was a 40 minute hike to the fortress, I took the challenge and made it in 12 (somewhat miffed as I had taken one wrong turn and lost a minute or so, I was even more miffed on the way down as I found all the shortcuts so reckon I could do it in 8 now).   The view over the Black Sea is stunning, and I lay in the sun like a lizard on a rock for 20 minutes waiting for Diana :-).  

Anakopia fortress
Anakopia chapel

We climbed the tower, took a photo with the Abkhazian flag that Diana had carried up for the purpose – it is the hand of peace, seven stars for seven districts and green and white stripes to demonstrate Christian and Muslim harmony.   We also visited the tiny and mostly ruined Orthodox Church along with a few smartly dressed elderly local ladies who had made the climb.  The downhill took 7 minutes (and I still missed a few shortcuts).

Anakopia chapel

Soviet tourism in the cave of New Athos


After that we went to see the ‘famous amazing cave of new athos’.  It was large!  Sadly, it was a tourist production where the tourists are put on a train, and then we had to walk very slowly for an hour and a half through the caves, in a big crowd.  I put a podcast on and stayed at the back…. waiting until the lady who was responsible for turning out the lights came behind me to move to the next spot.  On the bright side it was an anthropological exercise in Russian tourist watching.

We also had the pleasure of visiting another abandoned station – Psirtskha – beautifully located on the river.

Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station

Lunch followed with more kachapuri, stew, grilled pork and a nut and cabbage dish and more Turkish coffee.   From there we wandered to perhaps my favourite abandoned train station –  Psirtskha station – it was more like a posh gazebo, and was beautifully located on the river.   
Then we headed up to the old Monastery.   It was more stunning  from a distance when you could see all the gold cupolas reflecting the sunlight.   There was an old man painting icons for the tourists.  We had a chat, and he asked where I was from.  I said NZ, and he asked if I was Maori.   I asked him if he knew New Zealander’s, he said I was the first one he had met but was curious about polynesians as he was a fan of Gauguin.   Is a stunning monastery, with incredible paintings inside.

New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery


Back to Russia

After that we meandered back to Russia by way of a bonus palace and church on the way and one final bus stop.   Exiting was slightly tricky as I had to rustle up the guard to get my exit stamp, he was very impressed with my greeting and thanks in Abkhazian. Entering russian took a bit longer, as my passport seem to raise a few red flags!   
I would recommend Abkhazia for 3-4 days purely for the bus stops and the train stations.  The monastery was lovely also.   We didn’t see everything and next time I would quite like to do a lot of hiking in the high mountains.  

Stephs’ photos are here


Gagra, 5 May, 2019

Other notes

  • For the kiwis they have feijoas here – it’s amazing, feijoa juice, jam, it was amazing…. that’s a reason to visit 
  • It’s very cheap here.  Abkhazia is deceptively poor.  The average teachers salary $250 per month, a flat in Sukhumi cost $65k to buy, which means property is very unaffordable.  For foreigners, everything seems cheap.  
  • We booked this as part of a bigger holiday through native eye in the UK, but you could probably book direct with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer.  If you wanted to go off-roading, you could also contact Sergei at off-roading Abkhazia.
  • We stayed at Hotel Abaat in Gagra and Hotel Leon in Sukhum and both were good 
  • I would suggest learning a few words in Abkhazian, the locals were always thrilled when I said thank you very much (itabob idootsana) and very good (dar ibzyo) 

Date night in Oslo

My husband has visited over 80 countries in the world without really trying.  He accompanies me sometimes, when he has time and appetite.  As a result, he has been to Afghanistan, Angola, Sao Tome, Mauritania – some pretty obscure travel destinations.   However, as we met after I had travelled extensively in Europe, he has never been to Scotland, Ireland, Germany or Norway or any number of ‘normal’ countries in Europe..

So, I have decided to take my husband on monthly date nights to European cities that he hasn’t been to before.  I am also secretly trying to get him to visit 100 countries.   This month, its Oslo!

Its not a detailed post, (really its just an excuse to publish our photos), but here are our tips for how to have a date night/weekend in Oslo

After a delayed flight from London, we only got to downtown Oslo at 2pm, so we checked into our hotel (right next to the station) and headed out ….

 

Take the ferry to the Bydog peninsular

The peninsular of bydog reminds me of cape cod – enormous white wooden villas, trees and lots of yachts.  It is also home to a handful of excellent museums.  To get there, take the ferry included in the oslo pass from Aker Brugge

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Ships in the harbour

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Choppy water for sailing

Visit the Norwegian Folk Museum

I mostly went to this museum  to see this for the beautiful old stave church, and it was worth it.  For the more down-home among you, you can see them working the traditional farm on the weekends

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Old stave church

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traditional Deli

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solo sign

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Check out the viking ship museum – just like amazonprime

okay, this was purely for entertainment, inspired by watching vikings on prime.  the ships are quite beautiful

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And then wander over to the Kontiki Museum

I found this museum oddly irritating as it was about six white guys who built a raft to prove you could get from Peru to easter island on a small vessel. Given my ancestors were canoeing around the pacific a millennium ago, i am not sure why we should celebrate that some white guys can do it.

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Kontiki museum

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Kontiki raft

Cross the road to Norways most famous museum – the Fram museum

This was the boat with which the norwegians conquered the south pole before anyone else figured out how to deal with the ice.  It was great to visit, you actually get to wander around the ship interior.

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Prow of the fram

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Wander around the peninsular

The peninsular is lovely, especially on a September day, with the sun shining and the harbour full of yachts

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Wander around downtown

After taking the ferry back to town, we spent a couple of hours meandering around town before dinner.  There were lots of nice buildings, but it was these loos donated from france (with the national motto of Liberte, egalite and fraternity) which caught my eye.  They were donated to celebrate 200 years of the Norwegian constitution, which was to some extent based on the french constitution

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Have dinner date at a Michelin starred restaurant

We went to Galt.  It wasn’t cheap but it was amazing.  The highlights were a cured lamb flat bread snack, and halibut with griddled cabbage.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  10 courses, and then we had to walk back to the hotel to digest.

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Check out the Vigeland installation at Frogner Park

We got up relatively early and had a huge Nordic breakfast (mackerel, eggs, rye bread, bacon, sausage and fruit).  Then we headed up to Frogner park to see the sculptures.  Mr Vigeland was a man before his time, most of his works were completed in the early 1900s.  Frogner park has over 200 of his sculptures and they were extraordinaryIMG_3454.jpgIMG_3457.jpgIMG_3462.jpgIMG_3465.jpgIMG_3468.jpgIMG_3470.jpgIMG_3475-3648655052-1537711245655.jpg

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Don’t pee on the walls

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Check out the Astrup Fearnley Modern art museum

Its a lovely museum on the harbour.  Small but perfectly formed with an excellent cafe.  Also check out the sculpture garden next door

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Wander around grunerlokka

Grunerlokka is a hip and happening neighbourhood with some spectacular graffiti.  There is a small but love sunday market at bla.  And after a wander you can head to mathallen for lunch (its an upmarket foodhall).  From Mathallen it is an easy half hour stroll along a stream back to town

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Walk on the roof of the opera house and check out the interior

The opera house is a lovely structure, but the highlight was walking up the sloping roof to check out the views of the harbour.  We were fortunate that there was performance going on when we visited so we heard some of it

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It was an excellent weekend, where we ended up walking about 15km each day.  Also is delightful, really lovely, wonderful food, and easy to stroll around.  Though bring your wallet, as everything is eye-wateringly expensive (average salaries in Oslo are almost double what they are in London, and so are the prices)

Oslo, September 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Opera Thon – right next to Oslo Central Station (Oslo S).  
  • Definitely use the Oslo Pass – its 400 NOK for 24 hours for free entry to most museums and free public transport.  Given most museums were 120 NOK, it was a good deal, and included the ferry to the bydog peninsular
  • Flights are super cheap with Norwegian
  • Take the NSB/local train to town – its only 23 minutes, a couple minutes slower than the private express train which is double the price

A weekend in Kiev

Kiev – not just famous for the awesome deepfried breadcrumbed chicken with garlic and butter, also a destination to visit for the amazing orthodox architecture and for the more adventurous, the opportunity to visit Chernobyl. I loved Kiev and can’t wait to go again, provided you have a European passport, it is a cheap, lovely and easy place to go for a fabulous long weekend.

Kiev is a wonderfully walkable city which is safe and lovely. The highlights of our weekend were

Walk around town and see the amazing architecture

Wander up Andriivs’kyi Uzviz (Andrew’s descent). This is a lovely old street with nice shops, albeit some of them are a bit touristy. At the top there is the lovely St Andrews church, designed by an Italian architect.

St Andrews
St Andrews

Then head down to the sky blue St Michaels Monastery which is quite lovely, and cross over to see St Sofias – Kiev’s oldest standing church. You can easily see the highlights of Kiev old town in a 30 minute walk, but I would stretch it out to a couple of hours to see everything. Ladies – don’t forget to cover your head when you visit the churches (either a scarf or a hoody works)

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St Michaels

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St Sofias

You can also wander a bit further and see St Volodymyrs cathedral and then walk down to Independence Square through the modern bit of town. Less lovely, but still interesting

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Volodymyrs

Walk/Bus out to Lavra to see the monastery

Kiev Pechersk Lavra is a monastery based on a 900 year old underground cave system which still has mummified remains of the founding monks. Visiting the caves is a pilgrimage for many who walk the tunnels with lighted candles. Behave appropriately. Outside of the tunnels the orthodox church architecture above ground are beautiful

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Lavra

Head up to Chernobyl

I didn’t actually visit Chernobyl as had concussion and wasn’t up for the drive, but my darling hubby did and found it pretty interesting (photo’s are his). There are multiple tour options to head out there, all of which involve a bus, tour guide and a meal of some sorts. Interestingly, darling hubby did think that the Chernobyl experience was somewhat ‘curated’ as there were a few places where oxygen masks were artfully displayed alongside kids tours.

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Eat Chicken Kiev

We had intended to try a couple of different restaurants in Kiev, but after the first meal at Kanapa we just kept going back. It is expensive for Ukraine, but the food was astoundingly good. I would be tempted to go back to Kiev just to eat their Chicken Kiev. In addition to Kanapa, there were plenty of good cafes serving great fruit pie.

Additional Info
  • We were in luxe mode this weekend and we stayed at the Fairmont Grand Hotel Kyiv, which was pricy but cheaper than the Radisson or the Hyatt It was nice enough, but the breakfast was a bit pants. Hotels were expensive here!
  • the town is very easy to walk around, don’t bother with cabs
    • The free in your pocket guides are pretty good and can be downloaded here

 

Visited May 2015

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Off the Beaten Track – Moldova

Honestly I thought that Moldova was a made up country, because I had mistakenly confused it with Molvania – the subject of a spoof guidebook….., so was happy to realise my mistake
Moldova is lovely.  A small and perfectly formed ex Soviet Republic with a few nice things to see, friendly people, and everything is within easy reach of the capital Chisinau (pronounced Kishi -now).
Wander around Chisinau
The town is small, really small, everything is within walking distance.  My favourite building was the bright blue St Tiron Cathedral.  Other things worth wandering past are the small Orthodox cathedral in the cathedral park.  Wander to the other side of the street from the cathedral and stroll through the other park – Stefan cel Mar.   There is also a fine arts museum if you are so inclined and some large and pretty ugly government buildings.  The lonely planet aptly describes Chisinau in lacking any ‘pulse quickening
must-sees’ and that is right, but it is pleasant enough.

St Tiron towers
St Tiron towers

St Tiron Gatehouse
St Tiron Gatehouse

Get a car and driver and head to Orheuil Vecchi
This is definitely the best thing to see in Moldova – a complex of cave monasteries carved into a massive limestone cliff.  Monks still live in the complex today and it is an active monastery so dress appropriately.  There is a lot to see, but my favourite part of this place were the other ‘tourists’, most of whom were local and quite religious.  It was fascinating to see their reverance for the monks and the monastery.
We had lunch in a local restaurant next to the monastery.  The food was astoundingly good – and included a cherry pie thing and some Mamaliga which is a bit like cornbread – delicious with sour cream and meat.  The place didn’t have a name, none of them do…. but if you have a guide am sure they will take you somewhere decent
You can get buses from Chisinau, but they are infrequent.  I rented a car and driver so I could see a bit more of the area

Caves at Orheil Vecchi
Caves at Orheil Vecchi

New Monastery at Orheil Vecchi
New Monastery at Orheil Vecchi

Visit the Monastery at Curchi
I had a lovely wander around Curchi. There wasn’t much going on until we hit one of the back churches and we stumbled on an orthodox christening.  They didn’t seem to mind an audience, I got lots of smiles.   They do take religion very seriously, and that means a serious amount of make up and some seriously high heels. (side note –  I am always feel as if I am letting kiwi girls down as I slob around the world with no make up and my flip flops but I don’t seem to care enough to dress better)

Curchi
Curchi

Additional tips
  • I was working hard and earning money when I went to Moldova so I splashed out and stayed at the Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel.  I even got my hair cut at the salon in the hotel – that is when you know you are living dangerously when your hairdresser doesn’t share any common language with you.
  • I was really surprised at how good looking the monks were in Moldova. Really!
  • I am not much of a drinker but Moldova apparently have very good very cheap wine!  there is an enormous winery at Milestii Mici which has 200km of underground wine storage tunnels if you are thirsty
  • The food is surprisingly good, I particularly liked the Branza – which is local cheese.
  • If you fancy you can head to Transdniestr, but there is a possibility that you will get detained and hit up for bribes.  I wasn’t in the mood that day 😃
  • If you want to make friends, listen to the  Zdob și Zdub and talk about them enthusiastically when you arrive.  They were Moldova’s highest ever entry in Eurovision, and I had my ears blasted in the car with their beats wherever we went

Visited May 2014

Places to Return to – Georgia

Georgia is stunning!  The Caucasus mountains, the black sea and some amazing orthodox architecture.  The people are friendly and relatively modern.  The food is amazing.  I can’t believe more people don’t come to Georgia.  I loved it and can’t wait to go back.  My recommendations for Georgia

Head to the Kazbeg and climb up to Tsminda Sameba

It is a thrilling, albeit rough, ride up the Georgian Military Highway, almost to the border with Russia to reach the Kazbeg, a sleepy mountain village in the shadow of Mt Kazbeg.  On the way, you pass the gorgeous Ananuri fortress, which is worth a visit.

Ananuri Fortress
Ananuri Fortress

Once in Kazbeg, you can climb up to the spectacular orthodox church – Tsminda Sameba at 2200m.  These Georgians take their religion pretty seriously, and none of the 80 year old villagers think anything of walking up 1000 metres to go to a service.  The Russians actually built a cable car up here in the 80s, and the locals promptly destroyed it – you can’t see any evidence that it was ever there.   Don’t expect any respite when you sweatily arrive at the church either.  Like most orthodox churches in this part of the world, there are no seats.  Only lazy people need to sit down to hear a sermon for two hours, good orthodox christians are happy to stand up.

Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg
Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg

The church is spectacular, but the setting more so.  If you have time, I would recommend staying a few days and getting some hiking in, and perhaps climb Mt Kazbeg (5047m)

Tsminda Sameba
Tsminda Sameba

Visit davit gareja

Davit Gareja is a collection of old cave monasteries right on the border with Azerbaijan.  So close to the border in fact, that I decided to go for a walk in Azerbaijan, as I hadn’t technically visited at this point.   Getting there is easy from Tbilisi, though we did run into a very NZ like traffic jam on the way there

Traffic jam en route to Davit Gareja
Traffic jam en route to Davit Gareja

6000 monks were killed here when the monastery was sacked by Shah Abbas in 1615.  The monasteries never fully recovered but there are still monks living there today.

Davit Gareja
Davit Gareja

Its easy hiking around the many caves, and worthwhile going the hiking to check out the frescos (although be on the look out for snakes)

Cave Frescos
Cave Frescos

wander around tblisi and eat a lot

Georgian food is good!  So good in fact, that whenever I travel to a former Soviet Republic I check to see if they have a Georgian restaurant and make a point of going to eat there.  My favourites are Khinkali (meat dumplings), Kachapuri (cheese bread) and Mastnis Supi (yogurt soup).  They sound heavy to eat, and they are, but Georgians are masters at spices and herbs, so the food is delicious!!!!

Old town architecture Tbilisi
Old town architecture Tbilisi

To counter the calorie intake from all the good food, I would suggest taking in the sites of Tbilisi to get your step count up.  I really enjoyed the new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi (yup same name as above, it means Holy Trinity), wandering round the old town to visit the little old orthodox churches, and enjoying the huge stalinist monstrosities in the new town.

 

The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi
The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi

Additional tips
  • I only had 5 days in Georgia and getting public transport was going to be slow!  So, I used a local agent to provide transport and an english speaking guide (a groovy young feminist called Tamuna).  It was about $150 per day just for me, and both the guide and the driver were fab.  They also entertained me with lots of local music.  I booked this through http://www.georgicatravel.ge.  If you were time pressured, you could do everything above in a long weekend.  If you had more time you could go to Svaneti and the black sea
  • I stayed at the Radisson on points.  It was fine.  Being cheap, I made sure I made a packed lunch and snacks to take with me from the very good breakfast buffet
  • Ladies don’t forget a headscarf or a hoody if you want to see the inside of the churches

Visited May 2011