In June 2017 Luca and I went backpacking in Georgia.
It was a guy I met in Gjrokaster, Albania, who made me want to visit Georgia and Armenia. He said that these were his favorite countries (he visited plenty), but he decided to open and manage a hostel in Albania because he thought it had much potential. And I believe he was right.
Anyway, one year after Albania I was in Georgia.
Tbilisi, the capital, was the first stop. I was immediately fascinated by the elegant decadence of the Old Town.
We stayed in Tbilisi for a few days, I didn’t want to leave. The town is charming, food is delicious and guesthouse very welcoming.
Some pictures of the guesthouse, Skadaveli, that from outside seems to be falling down, but inside it’s all renovated and very warm and welcoming. In the historic centre of Tbilisi. So welcoming that I want to go back and just stay there for one month.
Breakfast was not included, but there was a small shop not far from the house selling fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes and eggs. The best breakfast.
There’s an antiques market in Tbilisi with many russian and Orthodox relics that I really liked. Sort of an open-air museum.
For a couple of days we walked around the Old Town, the markets, the castle, the Baths…
Public transport is quite efficient in Georgia, and moving from one part of the country to the other is pretty easy. But not to Davit Gareja, a monastery in a semi-deserted area at about 2 hours drive from Tbilisi, near the border with Azerbaijan.
To go there we took a tourist minibus leaving at 11am from the center of the town. You get there that it’s very hot, you can visit the monastery and in a couple of hours you can walk around the hill where you can see some caves with frescoes that are part of another monastery.
All very interesting. And amazing panorama.
Going back from Davit Gareja we stopped in a hostel-campsite for lunch/coffee/snacks. An amazing place, seems out of the world, with grazing pigs, horses, hammocks, good food, a lot of books. A place to go back to and stay for a few days, even though sleeping and eating there is slightly more expensive than in the city.
Other than Davit Gareja, we did another day trip while staying in Tbilisi.
The spiritual capital of Georgia, Mtskheta isn’t very far from Tbilisi and can be reached by Marshrutky, the public buses of Georgia.
One early morning we left to go to Armenia, about which I will write in another post…
Below continues the trip in Georgia.
Akhaltsikhe & Vardzia
We went back to Tbilisi on a minibus from Armenia. After a short wait we got on another bus to Akhaltsikhe.
Along the road we passed through Borjomi, a quiet resort with thermal waters, surrounded by nature. Having more time, it would have been nice to stop there for a bit.
While backpacking it’s nice to stop in a quiet place to rest from time to time.
In Akhaltsikhe there’s a castle that has been recently refurbished, pretty but seems fake, but the town is famous for Vardzia, a caves village. Born as a monastery, Vardzia grew into a small town that could host up to 2,000 monks. A very special place, a Unesco Heritage Site.
Unfortunately with public transport you are not free to travel at the time you want, I would have liked to be there for sunset, but we had to take the bus back to Akhaltsikhe (I am traveling on a budget, I can’t afford a taxi for 60 km).
Pretty and comfortable. Guesthouse brand new, very clean and very welcoming.
I must say that guesthouses in Georgia are very good.
Vardzia. Hot hot hot. It’s recommended to bring a lot of water from the town, as there are no villages near Vardzia, just a small restaurant with a nice terrace, but to visit the site you need a couple of hours and there’s no water on the hill.
After Vardzia e Akhaltsikhe we went North.
We hadn’t booked any place for the night because we weren’t sure where we would stop.
The fist minibus took us to Kutaisi. I was thinking of stopping there, but it was very hot and the city seemed so big, I thought it would be difficult to find a place to stay.
So we took another bus to Zugdidi. We were also thinking of Batumi, a holiday resort by the Black Sea, but we didn’t have the time during this trip. We preferred to focus on other parts of Georgia.
Zugdidi seemed a bit anonymous. The interesting side of this town is that it’s near the border with Abkhazia, and in the last decades Zugdidi has hosted many refugees from this part of the world.
There’s a nice museum/palace with a beautiful park.
For many it’s the departure point for Mestia and the Svaneti mountains.
This is just a small preview of Svaneti, because I want to write a whole post about the trekking here. It was the best part of our trip in Georgia.
Mestia, Ushguli e Svaneti
Svaneti belongs to the Caucasus and it is the highest inhabited area in Europe.
From Mestia we hiked for three days up to Ushguli, three days in the nature, among fields in bloom, glaciers and old villages with the traditional medieval towers.
I didn’t really want to leave the little paradise that is Svaneti, but the trip must go on.
There was a minivan going directly to Tbilisi, fortunately, but the journey was quite long anyway, we arrived in Tbilisi at 7pm.
The Skadaveli guesthouse was fully booked, so we decided to rent a room in the new part of the town.
Very nice there too.
Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue is a walking street completely renovated, with pretty pastel houses, small restaurants and many clubs. Very touristic, but pretty nonetheless.
Tbilisi New Town
The following day we left for Kazbegi, about three hours away, on a marhrutky.
Kazbegi is in the mountains (near the border with Russia), famous for a church on a hill overlooking the town.
Tsminda Sameba Church (not easy at all Georgian names) can be reached on a easy hike, the path is steep but short.
Unfortunately we couldn’t stop for too long here neither, there are some nice hiking trails to be tested.
The following day we left.
Marshrutky to Tbilisi (basically you need to go back to Tbilisi almost any time you move from one part to the other of Georgia) then another to Sighnaghi.
Kakheti is the main region for the production of wine in Georgia.
We stayed a couple of nights in Sighnaghi, a pretty little town, and we stayed in a guesthouse overlooking the valley.
On the way to Telavi
From Sighnaghi we took part to a tour organized by our guesthouse to take us to Telavi. We took advantage of this tour, so that on the way to Telavi we could stop at a monastery, at the house-museum of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, at a winery with a museum and the qvevri, large terracotta pots buried in the ground, the way wine is traditionally made in Georgia.
Telavi is a bit too modern maybe, with some picturesque corner, very welcoming indeed.
Once we put foot out of the guesthouse to visit the town, we met a guy on a bench who invited to his house to drink Georgian wine and eat some snacks (probably I don’t have big memories of Telavi because we spent most of our time with our new friend).
At dinner we decided to eat at the guesthouse. The host cooked so much for us! And everything was delicious, another proof of the quality of Georgian cuisine.
Last days in Tbilisi
And here we are, at the end of the trip. Last couple of days in Tbilisi before we go back to Italy.
We walked around the old town again, always charming, we also went back to the new town to take some pictures in the night, and one early morning we flew back home.
The smell, the decay, the jineteros: my experience in La Havana
La Havana is a very interesting and curious town. It has a special charme, but it is also suffocating, with collapsing buildings and a population constantly trying to trick you.
The first aspect of La Havana that comes to mind is its smell. Of Gasoline. Pollution. Asphyxiation. You can smell gasoline everywhere: on the streets, in the form of the black smoke puffed out from the vintage American cars – that have become the symbol of Cuba and made its fortune, but that also suffocate you. On the buses, it’s the gas that comes in from the holes in the floor. In your bedroom, when even on the 5th floor you are awaken in the middle of the night by a terrible smell of gasoline and you have to shut the window and turn the air-con on even if you don’t like it.
The decay. It looks like the town might break into pieces at any time. There’s an area around the four squares of Old Havana that has been restored and is really pretty. One block away everything is falling down. From the rooftop terraces of the “case particular” (the accommodation in private families typical of Cuba) and some hotels you can see everything, and the decadence is even more visible. The walls facing the streets sometimes have been fixed and painted, but at the back everything is grey and you can see the holes in the walls, the missing walls, the collapsed walls.
On our first morning we went to the rooftop terrace of our casa particular. We were jet-lagged, so despite the tiredness at 6 am we were awake. It was lovely though, because we witnessed the sun rise on the roofs of La Havana. And slowly the town also woke up. The air is stuff even in winter (we were there in the month of December, 2015), so most doors and windows are always open and life happens mostly on the terraces or in the streets. And you can look at it while it happens. One man looking out of the window while brushing his teeth; a lady taking some water from the tank to do the laundry on her terrace; a girl sitting in front of her entrance door on a rocking chair with her baby, she turns the TV on and starts breastfeeding her baby. On the lower floor a mum combs her daughter’s hair; once she’s done, the girl watches tv with her siblings until mum says it’s time to go to school.
Jineteros are expert in tricking the tourists; they are very good in convincing the naive foreigners to buy rubbish or to stay in a casa particular or eat in a restaurant where they get a good commission (5 or 10 USD over a 20 USD price).
During our first day in La Havana we completely fell for it. Well, they are real experts like I haven’t found anywhere else and they are very good at recognizing the new arrivals. Just a few minutes after we got into the street, we had already bought some cigars. “Today it’s the only day of the month when families are allowed to sell cigars, and they are cheaper than in the factories”. Ok. Done, Thank you. I’m not easily fooled around normally, but this guy was particularly skillful, with his smiles, his jokes, the positive presence. Of course the next day was “the only day” too. I don’t know of what quality these cigars are, because who understands anything about cigars? I don’t even smoke!
In the afternoon an apparently nice girl approaches us, asks where we come from, smiles, laughs, invites us to Che Guevara’s favorite café (by chance just next to her house) to drink a mojito that will cost us 4 CUC (about 4 euro – 4,50 USD, when at the cafeteria of a 4 star hotel it costs 3 – probably its price for Cubans in a place like this one is less than one CUC), so 12 euro gone (because of course you don’t even need to mention it, but we had to pay for her mojito too; which we didn’t mind, but didn’t like to pay more too). Then to the shop to buy powder milk for the baby (first she asked for 5 packets for about 12 CUC, fortunately at the end she was happy with 2 packets only) because she doesn’t work, the State gives her something every month, but it’s not enough, in two weeks it’s all gone.
And you don’t mind buying the milk because it’s better than giving her money that she might use to buy 10 mojitos more (but actually Cubans’ favorite drink is Cuba Libre, mojito is for tourists). No, the milk for the baby is a good and useful thing. But as soon as we waved good bye I remembered I had read somewhere that they ask for powder milk (because it’s easier to convince people to give that then money), and then they resell it. Mmm…
The following day we “casually” met another couple along the Malecon (the seaside promenade) in La Havana, very nice as usual; the guy talks to Luca in a mix of Spanish and Italian; the girl tells me how great Cuba is with its free education (everyone is graduated, but no one can speak English properly…??), free health system (but if you go to a pharmacy you might not find anything to cure your fever), free security (but everyone lives like in a cage, with grating at doors and windows even on the fifth floor). They took us to a place where an artist sells his work to raise money for a school for autistic children (thanks but I’m not interested) – where you can drink the “negron”, an amazing cocktail that you can find only here (sorry but I’m not thirsty) – and here everything is so expensive, could you buy some powder milk for my baby? (sorry but you’re late for this).
The first time you’re approached you’re happy, you think “how nice these Cuban people are” (and the guy you’re talking to repeats it himself, as to confirm it). Then you realize that the only Cubans that approach you are those that want to trick you. So even if you don’t want to, your attitude changes, you become defensive and your holiday takes a different hue.
Despite the disappointment, I decided to spend three more nights in La Havana at the end of our stay in Cuba. Because, despite its faults, I have never seen a town as fascinating as La Havana.
In these days of big changes, my thoughts go back to Cuba.
It’s been a peculiar place to visit, full of surprises, bad and good, of disappointments, but surely it is a place like no others and incredibly photogenic.
In 2016 the first cruise from Florida disembarked in Havana after many years. Americans can now get individual visa to visit Cuba (before they could only visit on a tour). This of course will increase the tourist flow to Cuba and will bring some changes.
When I visited in December 2015 it felt a bit fake, as if there were 2 levels of life in Cuba: there’s the Cuban life and the touristic life; these two levels are separated and very rarely overlap. Cubans have their restaurants, their cafes, their taxis, their buses, even their hotels, and quite often (like the Casas Particular) tourists can not enjoy them.
While I was traveling in Cuba I was a bit disappointed because of the cheating and the sense of “falseness” I felt looking at the beautiful areas of La Havana with the charming cafes and the amazing buildings, well restored for tourists to admire, when the rest of the town is falling apart (I have talked about it in my post about La Havana).
But now I can only remember the beauty I have seen. A walk on the Malecon in the evening is alone worth the flight: the view of the sun setting behind the skyline is breathtaking; locals and tourists meet here to chat and to flirt, and between one kiss and the other they try to avoid the big waves flooding the sidewalk; meanwhile the old american cars drive on the avenue that runs along the sea. It’s a postcard that I will bring with me for a long time.
Of course the rest of Cuba also has some spectacular sights. I remember fondly the lush vegetation of Vinales and the ox-pulled plows. The kid dancing in a garden in Trinidad, oblivious of the public she has attracted. The fishermen life and laid-back atmosphere of Baracoa. The welcoming attitude of our Cuban-Italian hosts in Cienfuegos.The charm and the colors of Sancti Spiritu, like Trinidad, but much more authentic. The young Cubans working at the resorts in Guardalavaca, relaxing and dancing on the beach before their shift starts. The Cubans skyping with their family abroad in the few spots where there is wifi.
I don’t know how this opening will affect the other world feeling you have traveling on this island. I hope Cuba won’t change much, otherwise it will lose all its allure.
Maybe it was better if we took a private car from Yazd to Shiraz, with a stop to visit Pesargade and Persepolis, that would have cost 110 USD, but would have saved us a day of travel. If we had met someone else to share the car with, we would have done it; but we didn’t, so we are here waiting for the bus.
This morning we took a bus from Fahraj to Yazd, where we had to ask to two bus drivers how to get to the main bus station; one of the drivers got off the bus under the rain to stop another one that was leaving and explained the other driver where we needed to go. In any other country, we would probably have been told “Get a taxi if you don’t know how to get there”.
Breakfast, bus Fahraj-Yazd, two buses to the Terminal (the long-run bus station), half an hour wait, and at 10.40am we leave. VIP bus with wide seats and a TV just in front of us. Nice to watch a super-romantic movie where you can imagine kisses and hugs (just imagine, in Iran public display of affection is not allowed, not even on TV). Finally in Shiraz, at about 5pm.
I have seen few smartphones here in Iran, less than in the Dominican Republic or Tanzania. Probably because it’s not easy to find an Internet connection. Anyway, I’ve found out that a sim card with no Internet costs about 3 dollars, with internet 10; maybe it’s a bit expensive for the local wages, but the service is available.
9.20 pm Niayesh Boutique Hotel. We got the last available room at the Niayesh, so maybe if we came by car and arrived at 7 pm (because you need at least 2 hours to visit Persepolis, plus Pesargade and the necropolis) we would have to look for another place. And it would have been a shame because the Niayesh is the only hotel in a traditional house here in Shiraz, a house with an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms. It’s a meeting point for tourists, so hopefully we’ll meet someone to go to Persepolis with, otherwise we’ll have to take the bus and it’s not easy, especially for Pesargade.
We had dinner at the restaurant of the hotel and it was delicious.
So we arrived in Shiraz at about 5 pm; the last hour on the bus from Yazd was cherished by the only person of mixed race seen so far, a 7 year old boy. When we arrived in Shiraz, we took bus 79 from the Terminal to the hotel. And the people on the bus started talking to us; they wanted to know where we come from and if we like Iran. It felt very different from other towns, you can tell this town is more open-minded, metropolitan. They suggested we went to hotel Shiraz, 5 stars. Maybe when we’ll be rich. An elder man got off the bus with us, payed for our fares and walked us to the hotel, stopping every 5 minutes to ask the direction to passers-by to make sure we were on the right way. Even when we saw the first signs of the hotel, he didn’t let us alone until we found the entrance. Crazy. Never witnessed a welcome like this.
As soon as we put our bags in the room and went to the toilet, we went to see the AMRAGH-E SHAH-E CHERAGH, a shrine where two brothers of Mir Ahmad are buried (or maybe it was the Boghe-ye Sanyed Mir Mohammad… never mind the name). It was a bit complicated to wear the chador, but the ladies at the entrance were very kind. We were taken to the “international relations” office, where we were offered tea. Then we were accompanied to the two tombs. Walls and ceilings were covered with mosaics of mirrors. Separate entries for man and women, so Luca went in with his escort. Inside people were praying and crying to get rid of the pain caused by illnesses and concerns. Very touching. Other people were looking at their phone and making balls with their chewing gum. I had to leave my camera at the entrance, while Luca could take pictures with his phone. The girl that was my escort is a student at the Sociology University that once a week volunteers here. She explained that to pray you should take a small stone that you can find along the walls and put it on the floor; you should then try to touch it with your forehead, so the negative energies can exit your body and flow into the floor, while the positive ones go in. Allah has 1,000 and one name, all written in the Koran. Green is the color of Islam because Mohammed dressed in green, plus heaven will be all green, full of trees; gold is the other color of Islam, can’t remember why; blue is also its color because it links don’t know what. A lady asked my young escort if she was married; she answered that no. She wants to finish uni first, but she is often asked that question; probably they’ve got a son of marriage age and she looks like she is a very good girl.
This morning we visited the Zoroastrian temple Ateshkadeh here in Yazd, one of the most important in Iran. A part from the garden and a room with a fire continuously on since 460 AD, there’s not much to see.
On a bench of the garden we took a couple of pictures with some local ladies… or so we thought! The husband in reality was able to zoom the mobile phone camera and only captured Luca and me, leaving out the two ladies. Shame. I thought he wouldn’t mind because he was the one who asked to take pictures of the four of us. But he kept the good ones for himself.
Amir Chakmaq Square
Later we went to Amir Chakmaq Square and its complex: a mosque, the Hosseinieh (so are called the buildings that commemorate an Imam), a small swimming pool with no water and a qanat (a well of the particular Iranian water system) that is now a gym (there are also some shows with bodybuilders from time to time).
Below the Hosseinieh there are some small shops. Among them a kebab restaurant, specialized in sheep heart and liver. Here we had lunch with the above mentioned skewers and dazi (but the one we had in Kashan was much better), later on a stop at a pastry shop and then quickly to the hotel because I needed the toilet.
This morning I bought a hejab, that scarf that covers your forehead and goes below the chin, covering the ears too,because the scarf that I was using to cover my hair keeps falling down and I have to check it all the time. Because I don’t know how people could react if my scarf fell in the middle of the crowd. Probably they wouldn’t be shocked, but annoyed yes. Better not to run the risk.
Yazd Old Town
After a coffee we walked around the old town of Yazd, made of clay and straw. The base of the walls is clay bricks, that are covered with a mixture of clay and straw instead of mortar.
Walking around these little alleys is magical. They are very narrow and still you can find a car sometimes; I don’t know how they can drive here, I would rather walk all the time.
All houses are surrounded by walls about 2-3 meters high, so you walk this alleys between walls.
We visited a traditional house (pretty, but after what we saw in Kashan, we weren’t really impressed), Alexander prisons (and we drank a tea in the well where worst prisoners were kept), we got lost, we paid one euro to go up to a roof where there’s a small café and an art gallery selling two cups and a bowl, just to take two (horrible) pictures. Then a tour of the bazaar and dinner at the Hosseinieh again, with chicken and more skewers because Luca didn’t want to have dinner again at the guesthouse (here many hotels are also good restaurants with local cuisine).
I have always loved traveling, since I was in my mother's womb. I love to see new places, meet new cultures, eat the food of the world. Recently I discovered that pictures can sometimes show more than I can do in words.
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